Authors: Jr. William F. Buckley
Negative. And so we slipped out of Key West, and up the northwest channel toward the departure point for Dry Tortugas, the air conditioner in perfect working order, the crew flaunting its sea legs, the sky turned prussian blue. We dropped the anchor and cooked dinner, the stars coming out, a profusion of diamonds on a jeweler’s velvet, and a fresh wind came down from the northeast. At ten we set out for Dry Tortugas, due west sixty miles, the spinnaker up, coming in at dawn to the gloomy, isolated fort, most famous for having infamously detained the wretched Doctor Mudd to whose house, craving medical attention, the crippled, anonymous assassin hobbled haphazardly a few hours after firing a bullet into the head of Abraham Lincoln.
From Dry Tortugas to Mujeres Island on the northeast of the Yucatan Peninsula the distance is, as I say, only 290 miles, the course 226 degrees. But in order to pursue this route, it would be required that you head directly into the Gulf Stream, which races up the Yucatan Channel and eases northeast, swirling around Cape San Antonio at the western tip of Cuba. Accordingly, it is advisable to cut your losses and sail south, say toward Bahía Honda, 100 miles away. From there to Mujeres Island it is about 220 miles, so that you have gone thirty miles out of your way but you avoid (at seven knots) a set (that is, a geographical slide) of as much as 100 miles. It is unfortunate that the winds are characteristically from the northeast so that you can’t even count, as a reward, on gliding home after working your way there; indeed, on the return passage
had miserable northeasterlies, with squalls and winds up to fifty miles an hour, heavy rains, and entirely too much togetherness with supertankers coming down in the opposite direction.
Twenty-three hours after sailing our leisurely way from Tortugas, we descried the mountain tops of the western Sierra range. During the day we groped against the current in a windless overcast, straining by a radar that worked only intermittently to define the Cuban coastline. That night, still without wind, the radar suddenly elected to work brilliantly, and I put
on autopilot and, with my son, went forward into the huge, sybaritic cockpit and lay back on the settee that sprawls over half the area when the dining table is down, the autopilot controls in my hand.
Outside it continued to drizzle. Inside it was dry, the radar blip-ping the little clusters of rain squalls, and with the autopilot we did what we could to maneuver around them, like a jet pilot operating in extreme slow motion, at 1/100th a jet’s speed. Occasionally, responding to the pressure of my thumb, the boat would turn left provocatively toward Cuba, and we would watch the radiais studiously; just before hitting twelve miles, with a switch of pressure the boat would turn east, even as the jaws of Castro’s radar, in our fantasy and perhaps in fact, were readying to close down on us. A few hours of that and we slipped away from the dreary Cuban coast and trudged in lifeless water across the Yucatan Channel. Whenever gloom began to set in, I would console myself by reflecting how acutely unhappy I’d have been if it had been a race and we were forced to wallow in such a current during that long, dull, windless day.
Just after midnight Reggie came up triumphantly from his solitary confinement next to the Loran, at whose side he had imposed on himself a sentence to sit until the Loran yielded one coherent reading. (A Loran is designed to tell you, by radio triangulation, where you are.) This reading was quickly validated when we discerned lights, first the flashing white off Contoy, then the Cancún light. Between them lies Mujeres Island, where we docked at eight in the morning after one of those endless approaches to which this sailor will never become accustomed (you see the light, and expect within an hour to arrive at its source—which may be four hours away, given wind and current). The delay presaged the world of
. We were definitely in Mexico.
Mujeres is a Mexican version of one of the Greek islands. There is a combination of bustle and indolence. We were perfectly introduced to the bureaucracy when the customs officer asked for a form apparently procurable from U.S. Customs, notifying foreign governments that a U.S. vessel is leaving home waters without stigma. In the absence of this form, Immigration announced, we would be fined eighty dollars. This elicited a gasp of indignation—which, one gathers, is a typical reaction because the official retreat was instantaneous. In lieu of paying eighty dollars we might type out, in
, the name and document number of the vessel, the names and home addresses of everyone on board, and a flight plan of sorts—where in Mexican waters we intended to sail. A half hour later I had done this on my little portable, and Danny, age twenty-five, had taken it to Immigration and in due course returned to say that I would need to re-execute the form, in a specified format—the surnames of the crew must appear in CAPITAL LETTERS. So I fished back out the three sheets of carbon paper and began again, painstakingly. I sent Danny with the freshly typed forms, and in twenty minutes he was back again. I would need to type them yet again, this time omitting the names of any Mexican ports save the port immediately after Mujeres.
A year earlier, at an aerie in Switzerland, I had been introduced to the Honorable Miguel Alemán, former President of Mexico. We conversed in Spanish, and he asked how was it I knew the language. I replied that among other things I had once lived in Mexico. “When?” he asked. Why, while he was president.
“You don’t mean it!”
“What were you doing in Mexico?”
Well, I was in the CIA, and my boss was Howard Hunt…. I have had
experiences in Mexico, and have learned that the moment comes when you have to call a halt. So I accompanied Dan to Customs, and said that rather than complete their forms in quadruplicate one more time I would simply leave Mexico there and then, return to the United States, and perhaps write about my experiences. An urbane native, sitting on a chair to one side of the inspector, commented that Americans were hardly in a position to complain about immigration and customs formalities, given that he had once spent seven hours in detention in Miami pending the validation of
papers. I told him I thought that regrettable, and refrained from suggesting that there is more contraband traveling into the United States from Mexico than in the other direction, and the tension broke when the inspector said, Well, he would probably be fined for his permissiveness, but I was free to go my way; he would accept my forms, but of course I now had to present my clearance to Immigration. Where was that? At the airport. Thither we went, the rest of the crew having gone off to a restaurant for lunch.
At Immigration we reported to the designated window, at one side of which hung a large government poster with the words
En Mexico creemos en el valor de una sonrisa. Séamos amables con los turistas
. (In Mexico we believe in the value of a smile. Let’s be pleasant to the tourists.) The problem was that no one was there to be pleasant to us. But, in due course, someone arrived, stamped one copy of our form for us, one for himself—forms no one would ever again consult—and we went off to a prettily situated but pretentious French beach restaurant, where we ate a hugely expensive, utterly forgettable lunch under a thatched roof on the beach, looking out over the Yucatan Channel.
The waters around Mujeres Island are brilliantly blue. To the south, the new resort of Cancún is opening up, with its Atlantic City-sized beach. We spent most of the day trying to diagnose our generator’s problems: It had blown a head gasket. We resolved, rather than expose ourselves to the vagaries of local labor, to persuade our mechanic in Miami to take the hour-and-a-half flight to Cozumel. When he arrived he told us we were lucky indeed he was a friend of
, otherwise he would charge us what
would charge us for making the trip. His continence was revealed in his bill, in which he charged
per hour for three twelve-hour days. He arrived late in the afternoon of day one, and left in the morning of day three. Subsequently the generator needed overhauling. But we were hanging in there—just barely—as far as our air conditioner was concerned.
The night before leaving for Cozumel, we pulled out of the commercial dock at Mujeres and followed the shoreline to the north, searching out the lee, to drop anchor and have dinner. This we did opposite the Zazil Ha Hotel, and I do believe I never saw, anywhere—not in the Bahamas, not in the Antilles, not in Greece-such a feast of blues. As the sun went down the sky turned white, then mother-of-pearl. Off to one side was a shipwrecked shrimp boat. It caught the sun, and the rusty hull turned golden.
We ate the fish Reggie had caught late that afternoon, and then, with the cassette player beginning with Mozart and regressing to rock as the younger generation quietly asserted itself, we played poker. After our game Christopher and Danny took the dinghy into town, a diversion which, begun at
., seemed barbarous enough. But when at
they returned and, instead of going to sleep, began a fresh game of cards, the captain, owner, and father of one of the delinquents announced huffily that if they were not wide awake at
. we would eschew a visit to Cancún, where I knew they wanted to go. What sanctions does one have left, attempting to govern a twenty-three-year-old boy? Deprive him of a visit to Cancún! Pass the word along.
Cancún is not easily visited by boats drawing six feet. It has the air of an island not
ready to receive the hordes of pleasure-seekers. Two days later, while we were on the island of Cozumel fifty miles to the south, Henry Kissinger, decompressing from a state visit with President Echeverría, stopped over at Cancún for the weekend, and apparently recovered quite nicely. It is a pity, after five years of Echeverría, that all of Mexico couldn’t have had a weekend at Cancún.
The passage to Cozumel was downwind, and we hoisted the gollywobbler for the occasion. The younger generation groans when the seizure comes on me and I order the gollywobbler hoisted. This is because raising that sail requires slightly more coordination than is easily accomplished by young men who suddenly find their hands unoccupied by a) a cigarette, and b) a bottle of beer: destroying their equilibrium.
In any event, the sail was splendid, and it was nice to reflect that we were gliding down the gold coast of the Mayans. We tacked downwind, carefree and gay, and a couple of hours after dark we approached Puerto Abrigo. This is done with trepidation, because so far as I know there is no proper chart of the island of Cozumel. And so, over a period of one hour, we glided north, and then south, attempting to find the telltale harbor channel lights. Finally we radioed the local coast guard and asked for instructions. These came in in very rapid Spanish (one assumes they had heard the request before), and the distances were given in terms of hotels. “Proceed four and a half hotels south, approach the shore, and you will see a green and red light.” There is ambiguity as to whether a particular building is a hotel or merely a brummagem profile of one. So, finally, we dispatched the whaler with the younger generation, with instructions please to find the channel entrance. They were equipped with the newest of
accessories, a walkie-talkie; and,
, it worked. In due course they beckoned us to the dimly advertised passage, which requires you to enter, and then quickly U-turn into the docking area. This, once found, was entirely satisfactory, equipped with power, water and fuel—and our impatient diesel mechanic, in from Miami, waiting to fix our generator so that we could face the tropics with equanimity.
Cozumel would be the end of the line for most of us. I admire those who can combine cruising with sight-seeing. This requires not only a flexible schedule, but skill in adapting to two kinds of living simultaneously. I am, on land, a Stakhanovite sightseer, but I do this listlessly off a sailing boat, preferring perfunctory visits in the lands and islands I visit. We did poke about in Cozumel, but the archaeology is not particularly interesting. To visit Yucatan properly you would need to recross the strait and go inland, which Christopher and the return crew went on to do. We were satisfied to cruise about the island on motorbikes. If you do this, do not fail to stop for lunch at the Faro (the lighthouse) on the southwestern tip. There is an old couple with two or three little grandchildren. Their kitchen is inside a withered old tent where charcoal burns, and when the mood is upon them (at first they declined to prepare lunch for us), they will come up with fresh fish, and with the best tortillas and tacos I ever ate. The Faro is situated close to the Palancar reef, to which we sailed the next day, giving Danny and Christopher a couple of hours in what is reputedly as splendid a diving area as you can find in the Caribbean. I hadn’t yet experienced scuba diving. Unhappily, the day was sunless, so that the colors were gone, and when this happens underwater it is as if the sunset were rendered in black and white. In Cozumel there is nightlife (C and D reported); but, truth to tell, sailing to Cozumel is more interesting than visiting in Cozumel. The passage is the thing, surely, and the passage to Yucatan is worth making—indeed, it can be exhilarating. But be careful that you do not run into Cuba, or succumb to the heat. And come armed with the archaic form from Customs, U.S.A., and listen to the old sailors describe, from their wheelchairs, the difficulty in making out the harbor entrance of Cozumel.
got back to Miami, I put my plan into effect. Widely did I advertise my beautiful schooner’s availability for ninety-day charters. To this day I am stumped as to why I was unsuccessful. In Florida, in the wealthier ports of the inland waterway, primarily those that stretch north from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach, there must be a hundred thousand waterfront homes occupied by people who could have handled the tariff and would have got in return a perfect inland pleasure boat, for retired grandfather and grandmother to cruise (an experience unduplicatable, as far as I know) in the late afternoon and early evening during the Christmas season up and down the waterway, at rpm about 1
you cannot even hear the motor, and you are sitting in your wide, open, shaded, tranquil cockpit, parading like an electric canoe past forty miles of Macy’s windows. The gentry in those parts have an unadvertised convention of celebrating the spirit of Christmas with competitively ingenious lighting on their lawns, porches, chimneys. A million colored lights, in ten thousand configurations. It is enough to make children, and non-children, wild with delight. And then (my
brochures advertised) when the gamy generations came to visit, sons and grandchildren on vacation, the boat was ready to go. Go where? Well, actually, go anywhere. Certainly fifty miles across the Gulf Stream to Bimini, or to the enchanting Cat Cay. And east from there, a day and one half to Nassau, and down the Exuma chain; then back again, returning the vessel to the old folks, until they migrated in April, or whenever, back to Long Island, or Lake Forest, returning the boat to the owner.