Going to Hell (or, Paradise) With Hand Basket

Read the  “other” account of our first crossing, Dry Tortugas to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.   Jim on sv Hand Basket is much funnier than I am, so it’s well worth reading this entire narrative.

Hand Basket: We sailed from Ft. Myers, Fla. to Isla Mujeres, Mexico in just under 5 days.  It was a good fast passage with fine wind and little threatening weather.

The Gulf Stream was a bit of a discomfit, though. Between Florida and Mexico you have to cross it twice, once heading south toward Cuba, then again heading west between Cuba and Mexico.  Winds averaged 15 knots and where almost almost always on the beam.  We sailed from the Dry Tortugas all the way to Mexico on port tack.  We stopped at the Dry Tortugas after leaving Ft Myers because Uncle Grant had been sea sick for the previous 18 hours.  I took pity. I know, I know.  I’m getting soft.

We sailed on port tack all the way from Ft Myers to within ten miles of the Dry Tortugas.  I almost took pity too late. We had almost passed the island and so we had to beat those last ten miles and tack twice. Uncle Grant was thankful.  We arrived at the anchorage amidst several other boats heading for Mexico.

The wind had piped to near 20 knots from the NE, in direct opposition to the Gulfstream current.  This could create steep, uncomfortable, dangerous seas.  The boat to our starboard said that this was the forecast for at least 3 more days. I wasn’t happy. But if we had to wait it out, we would.

After a time, the boat to port hailed us on the radio.  We chatted a bit.  They were headed for the same place as we were, Isla Mujeres. Their boat looked well equipped with a lot of gear and equipment on the stern. They had heard from their weather service that it was about to lay down a touch and the next 5 days would be the best window in the near future. Hmmm.

By the next morning the wind had certainly eased a bit. The flag over Fort Jefferson was showing  12 knots or so.  We spoke with the port side boat, Winterlude, again. They said the forecast hadn’t changed.

My crew looked to me. I needed to make a command decision. I weighed all the important factors carefully. Such difficult decisions, those that may effect the safety of the crew, always weigh heavily . But in the manner of our President,”often wrong, never in doubt”, I made a decision.

Winterlude had a woman aboard. What are we? Girlie Men?! If they go, we go!

Winterlude Under Full Sail

Winterlude under full sail.

An hour later we motored out of the harbor a half mile behind Winterlude.  “We all went to Mexico, buenos dias, got to go”. Oh, the burden of command.

Uncle Grant has virtually no nautical sense.  I offer as evidence the fact that he spent 18 hours vomiting to windward!

Danny, my other crew, is Canadian.  A quiet and pleasant fellow, as compatible a shipmate as you could find.  When my original crew cancelled due to business reasons, Uncle Grant asked me if I would like Danny to come.  Hey, one more makes the trip that much easier.

Two more different people may never have shared the same ship.  Danny has nautical sense.  If he takes things out, he puts things back.  He would chat when appropriate and remain quiet for long stretches. He loved to stand behind the wheel, life harness in place, wind pilot steering. He would stand there and scan the horizon, check the sail trim, drink in the fabulous scene of frigate birds and dolphin in the bow wave. He reminded me of a dog with his head out the car window.  At 70 years old, Danny was living.

Danny did have some advantages.  When he turned in after his watch, those hearing aides came out and he slept like the dead.  Three hours later he was as fresh as can be, taking his customary spot behind the helm, loving it.

“Drag City” – the Isla Mujeres Anchorage – be sure your anchor is well dug in!

We motored up to Winterlude outside Fort Jefferson harbor. I thought it would be nice to pass by and introduce ourselves.  We had generally agreed on the radio to stay in occasional radio contact during the passage. We didn’t know them nor they us, so I figured we would trade info a bit and take what we felt useful.  I also didn’t want to get too close together. Nothing is more irritating than having an additional light you have to watch out for.  The best is when the horizon is black. Then, any light is cause for attention.

Jan and David, sailors aboard Winterlude, were making their first passage.  We didn’t know that.  And  they didn’t know we had a few years behind the mast. And this was good.  Sailors are sailing the ocean for a feeling of independence and the last thing you want to do is get or give too much information.  We didn’t talk often.  Not all night.  And during the day, 6 or 8 hours would pass between contacts. When we talked, they would offer waypoints and weather and I would tell them what our strategy would be. (You can’t tell people what you think they should do, only what you are going to do.)

Hand Basket with Jim, Dan and Grant Aboard for the Crossing to Isla

Hand Basket with Jim, Dan and Grant Aboard for the Crossing to Isla

As we crossed the Yucatan Straight between Cuba and Isla Mujeres, David asked me which side of the Rebecca Shoal I was going to pass. My voiced remained calm. I quietly asked David what the coordinates were. My mind said,”  SHOAL!! What (many expletives) shoal?!! I didn’t see any shoal when I checked the chart on the wall of the bar the night before we left.

I’m not proud of this. You should always have the right charts. But, I couldn’t find this one anywhere. Well, it wasn’t a shoal that came to the surface.  The shoal was 120 feet below the surface, rising from a depth of maybe 3000 feet. There might have been a bit of confused sea, and a tad of current!  Maybe four knots! Maybe. I was thankful he mentioned it.

Jan, David’s lively partner, kept the boys on Hand Basket entertained at times. Despite the three day voyage with plenty of wind, she never once sounded tired. What was her problem. Always chipper. The afternoon we were in the Yucatan Channel, Jan called on the radio.  The seas were large, maybe 8 feet at times, and the current foul for a time. This being their first open ocean passage, Jan was invigorated.  At one point the radio crackled, “Hand Basket! These elephants (the large waves) are kissing us on the ass!”

Oh yeah, that helped the boys on Hand Basket pass an hour.

Beside not having the chart, we stretched the guide lines of ocean sailing another time.  One “rule” is to never enter an unfamiliar port at night.  We approached Isla Mujeres at 10 pm.  I had read the cruising guide carefully and studied the chart. (Yes !  I had the harbor chart.)  This looked easy.  A green light marked the end of a shoal that was just north of a large hotel with 3 red lights. Nothing was to the north of the green light for 3 miles. The guide says to stay at least 100 yards north of the light. Once abeam of the light, make a slow turn in 16 feet of water to the south. I decided we would go in and anchor out of the wind behind the hotel. Grant steered, Danny called out the depth and I watched for the green light.  For 15 minutes I kept hoping it wasn’t as bad as the Bahamas. They are still waiting for their light bulb shipment.  The light finally showed in the right spot when we were less than a mile out and the rest was easy. Grant held a good course and the depth rose gradually to 20 feet. Anchor down at midnight. Gin and Tonic.  Strong.


Sailing wing on wing off the Cuba coast between Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula

Winterlude opted to enter the south end of the island.  I didn’t understand that. That approach had following seas and no definite signal lights. The single green light at the north end looked like an easy path to me.  I radioed back that we were in and anchored. Still, they liked the south end.

And that’s the beauty of it.  The next morning we saw them anchored safely out to the south.

Upon reflection, we did some things right, some not right. (Is there really a “right” and “wr, wr, wr, inappropriate way”?)

Our first foreign check in - Mexican courtesy flag over yellow quarantine flag.

Our first foreign check in – Mexican courtesy flag over yellow quarantine flag.

Questionable calls:

1. Not having the chart for the Yucatan Channel,

2. Entering an unfamiliar harbor at night,

3. Running aground outside Ft Myers Beach! What? I haven’t mentioned that? Must have slipped my mind. Well, you’re not getting it out of me now.  I’ve told enough runaground stories.  Ill tell you when I see you. And it’ll cost you a beer.

Good calls:

1.  Stopping at the Dry Tortugas  to wait for weather.  Waiting a day made our crossing of the Gulf Stream pleasant. And Grant started to take his medication. (He said it was for seasickness!)

2.Going the right way. Sounds funny, but I think I’m getting the hang of this.  The gps and computer nav aides sailors have make some skippers obsessed with hitting virtual mid journey waypoints.  We didn’t do that. We sailed on a comfortable point of sail, and when the Gulf Stream got grumpy, we altered course to get across as quickly as possible, even though it took us further from our goal.  When  we exited the Stream, the sky cleared, the stars came out and the wind shifted so that our new course was a beam reach!  We took what we had when it was available and the situation changed in our favor.

Things also went well for the next Stream crossing. We dug south comfortably as we approached the Yucatan Stream, well south of the rhumb line.  When the current got foul and our speed dropped to two knots,, we changed course and put it on the beam. Back to five knots.

In all, we sailed more than 500 miles and we motored only to enter or leave a harbor, 5 hours. That’s impressive.

3.  The boat to boat exchange with Winterlude was, although I’m not a big “buddy boat” guy, very good.  It’s nice to know someone is there, and neither of us abused the communication.

All in all, a fine passage.  After a nice dinner in town, Danny took us to the islands topless bar, which, go figure, is right next to the marina. The next day I paid for a months rent at the marina.  I also learned  about those quiet Canadians.  Ah, they are a lusty bunch.

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano


Epilogue (That’s the part after the last commercial) Danny stayed aboard for a day of snorkeling at the reef. He flew home the next day. He offered his services for the trip to the Med.

Uncle Grant vacationed with his wife, who flew in the same day we arrived.  After a 10 day “honeymoon”, he returned to the boat for a day or two and quickly headed out to Fort Myers and his boat. He was then sailing to the Bahamas. He, too, was willing to crew across the Atlantic.

Jan and David have become fine friends. Berthed in the slip next to Hand Basket, we have shared some sundowners, dinners in town and a bull rumble.(You couldnt call these things “fights”.) They are a fun couple.  Just after sunset one night, Jan insisted I see her broccoli, and she used a flash light so I could get a good look.  On another occasion, while we were in the galley, she exclaimed “yours is bigger and harder than Davids”.  Although I was pleased as punch, I think she was referring to the block of ice in my frig. Pity.

As they say, you can’t make this stuff up. And considering the state of the American press, we need (almost) full disclosure.

You meet some great people cruising.

EDITORIAL COMMENT:  this is now Jan — yes, you do meet some great people cruising.  And Jim on Hand Basket was one of our favorites!  Wherever you are now Jim — we’re raising a drink to you and Hand Basket!!!


  1. Candy Ann Williams via Facebook says:

    I enjoyed both entries. Thanks for sharing.

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