21. September 2023

Against the current

When a year comes to an end, we celebrate with fireworks and champagne. If a sailing season comes to an end, that’s also a reason to celebrate. After all, our boat is still afloat and neither Alex threw me nor I him overboard, even if we sometimes came close. We want to spend the rest of the hurricane season in the Rio Dulce, and so we are sailing from Mexico to Guatemala. However, we don’t feel like celebrating during the last days of our first sailing season. The blame lies with a sandbar, a tiny creature called Cyclospora cayetan, and our drone. In other words, our season is coming to an end with a crisis in several acts. To anticipate: We survived, so did Mabul, only the drone, it’s dead.

When a year comes to an end, we celebrate with fireworks and champagne. If a sailing season comes to an end, that’s also a reason to celebrate. After all, our boat is still afloat and neither Alex threw me nor I him overboard, even if we sometimes came close. We want to spend the rest of the hurricane season in the Rio Dulce, and so we are sailing from Mexico to Guatemala. However, we don’t feel like celebrating during the last days of our first sailing season. The blame lies with a sandbar, a tiny creature called Cyclospora cayetan, and our drone. In other words, our season is coming to an end with a crisis in several acts. To anticipate: We survived, so did Mabul, only the drone, it’s dead.

The last leg in our first sailing season begins harmlessly

When we finally lift anchor one day in mid-July, we initially have only one goal: to sail as quickly as possible across the Gulf Stream toward the coast so that we can then slowly work our way south in the current shadow of the coast. The Gulf Stream pushes us northward at one and a half knots, but is then no longer noticeable one and a half miles off the coast. Through the binoculars we see the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Actually we had the romantic idea to anchor between reef and ruins and to climb the ruins as the only visitors at the first morning light. Other sailors advised us against this for two reasons: 1) the gap in the reef is so small that the danger of getting stuck on the reef is greater 2) one is never alone at the ruins in Tulum. So we forget the romance, wave to Tulum once briefly and leave the ruins behind us.

In the afternoon I throw out the bait. A tuna or mahi mahi would be a welcome culinary change in our menu of pasta and lentil stew for the coming days, even if I would have to eat the fish alone, as usual. Alex sticks to his vegetarian diet even after a year at sea and despite getting thinner and thinner. It doesn’t take long and a fish pulls the line from the reel with such force that it breaks. This must be a tuna, as powerful as he fights! With difficulty I pull the fish closer and see – oh no! – the black stripes on its silver body. A barracuda! Again. The problem with barracudas is not only that you shouldn’t eat them above a certain latitude if you don’t want to catch fish poisoning, but that they have a mouth full of sharp teeth.

But if I’m not going to eat the fish, I don’t want to kill it either, but rather get the hook out of its mouth as gently as possible and then throw it back into the sea. This time, as is so often the case with barracudas, which seem to bite particularly greedily at the bait, the hook-removal operation turns out to be a major operation again, as the hook gets caught in the fish’s lower jaw. When I finally throw the barracuda back into the sea, it floats on the surface for a few seconds, then dives and disappears. He’ll survive, but I’ve lost the desire to fish and pack away the rod and bait, the reel is broken anyway. May Poseidon send me a more stable reel in the next sailing season and finally some fish I can eat!

Our destination: Guatemala

As we doze on deck, beaten by the afternoon heat, while Mabul moves forward at a walking pace, we suddenly see the gray dorsal fins of dolphins diving out of the water next to Mabul. There are only three animals, two adults and one juvenile. They swim directly to the bow, where they dive in front of and under the boat.

It is amazing how some encounters, no matter how often we make them, can always amaze us anew and fill us with joy. A smiling child that makes us smile ourselves. The sun disappearing as a red ball of fire in the blue of the sea. Or gray dolphins seemingly appearing out of nowhere next to the boat. It is as if a touch of the magic, a spark of playfulness in these moments jumps over to us. We forget everything, we don’t think about the past, we don’t think about the future, we don’t wish for more or less wind, we just watch the dolphins, we marvel at the ease with which they swim through the sea and life, we are in the flow, in the vastness of the ocean.

These are the greatest gifts we have received on the sea this year: Encounters with nature and its inhabitants. Moments when time stands still and the here and now begins. Pausing. Observing. Marvel. Learning. Nature and its creatures have been great teachers for us, uncovering what has been buried by civilization. The play instinct and sense of community, for example, which we could observe so often in the dolphins. The drifting in the wind, as the pelicans showed us. Or taking a nap when we are tired, as the nurse sharks do in the cozy sand.

Three dolphins accompany us

Of course, when animals aren’t sleeping or playing, a lot of it revolves around eating. Others eat or watch out not to be eaten. But none of the animals seem to live in a cerebral and busy reality where schedules are so full that you have to plan a dinner together months in advance. None seem to slave away for five days, then plop down on the sofa for two days on the weekend, worn out from the week’s stress, only to be fit again for a new, stress-laden week. Why do we do this? To earn more money, so we can buy more stuff we don’t really need? To impress others? Because we don’t feel ourselves anymore? Wouldn’t we do better to learn from the animals: to create a balance moment by moment, day by day, to really feel what we really need to be happy.

With each day at sea, more balance seemed to come into our lives. We began to rely again on our intuition, our body sensations, instead of using our heads to determine what our bodies needed. We began to smell land before we saw it. Used our skin to feel where the wind was coming from. Felt the increased pulse when a mishap happened, but also noticed when the mishap was over and we could relax again. We argued, but also quickly learned to let go and reconcile. We were almost never sick.

Our first year at sea was not a year in which things were always rosy and we watched the sunset every evening drinking gin and tonic. We suffered from the burning sun. We – at least I – wished more than once to sink the boat with all its problems. We enjoyed the moments of silence and the cooling sea. We experienced all the fullness of life and this life became simpler, the basic needs came to the fore. Perhaps we became a little more like animals again. Sleeping, eating, playing, reproducing.

Our life was also a bit more boring than on land. But boredom is not a bad thing, neither is simplicity, and nature proved to be our best teacher on the way to happiness. And another thing: sailing is not a matter of lonely men discovering the world as adventurers, at least not only. At sea, we found a community of like-minded, freedom-loving people, some of whom were even willing to tow us in their dinghy for many miles to the safety of the bay when our engine stopped working. Solidarity and helpfulness is lived in this community across all political, ethnic and cultural boundaries. I hope we will remember all of this if we ever live on land again.

Evening atmosphere in the Bahia de Ascension, Mexico

I think of this as we see the Bahia de Ascension lighthouse in the distance at dusk. 12 hours have passed since we left Cozumel. Now we want to spend the night here. The depth sounder shows only two to three meters of water under the keel. The color of the water has changed from crystal clear blue to sandy brown. Then something unexpected happens: three dolphin fins appear next to the bow. Two adult dolphins and a juvenile swim with us into the bay. Are they the same ones that said hello to us in the afternoon? Did they swim all the way with us and we didn’t notice them? Do they just want to play with us or communicate with us? As quickly as they showed up and showed themselves to us, they left. We take it as a good omen in these last days of the first sailing season on the sea. We drop anchor and fall into a deep sleep under the black overcast sky.

Before we set sail for the final three-day beat, we give ourselves a day’s rest. Alex checks the various on-board systems, I prepare the food for the days ahead, cooking pasta and a large portion of lentil stew and making hummus. In the afternoon a small baby shark comes by the boat, otherwise we are alone. We go to bed early to be rested and fit the next day to start sailing from our last anchorage in Mexico to Guatemala.

Rest day before the last big blow

The crossing, on which we circumnavigate Belize and the Barrier Reef to starboard, is exhausting. The wind is light and the 300 nautical miles we have to cover are torture. Should we start the engine or not? is the constant question. The last 24 hours we have to cover continuously under motor. However, I already feel unwell from day two. I feel sick all the time, even though we have almost no waves. On the third day after my last night shift, my body goes on general strike and then throws out everything I had taken shortly before. The fish are happy, me less so.

Again and again the wind leaves us on our last beat

For the next few days, my range was limited to the bed, the toilet and the railing. What I don’t know at the time and only find out weeks later after a stool sample and a visit to the doctor: it’s not the sea but a germ called Cyclospora cayetan that causes lasting upset in my gastrointestinal tract – and soon Alex’s, too. The germ must have stuck to a lettuce leaf or a vegetable. Diarrhea with nausea are the result. For two weeks, my course of illness resembles a wildly up-and-down roller coaster, then I see a doctor. By this time I am already in Switzerland and the doctor prescribes me Bactrim for ten days, one tablet in the morning and one in the evening. Things get better in no time. In addition to cheese and salami, I plan to bring several packs of Bactrim back to the boat. The next bug is surely waiting for us somewhere.

Mabul lies lonely off the Guatemalan coast…

Finally we have made the 300 nautical miles. Only a few miles and a sandbank separate us from Livingston, but it is treacherous. Therefore, and because we have to wait for the full moon, we have two buffer days in which we can recover. We spend these in a wide bay in front of a small village, where on the first evening a church service takes place with a badly out of tune but loudly amplified piano. When it is finally over, a silence spreads that is only interrupted by the scattered chirping of crickets. I spend the next two days in a twilight state, intent only on taking and retaining small sips of bouillon. On deck a light breeze blows, but below deck it is sticky hot. Swimming is out of the question. The water is brown-black and full of branches and dirt. The jungle on the shore is dense and impenetrable and seems to drop its branches and leaves directly into the bay.

…where we wait until the water rises above the sandbar.

Then the time comes. It is July 31, 2023, full moon. At 6:30 a.m. sharp, we have to be in front of the sandbar that lies between us and Livingston. Only then, at the highest tide, do we have a small chance of slipping over the sandbar without getting our keel stuck in the sand. It takes two hours from our anchorage to the sandbar, which means we set the alarm for 4:15 a.m..

In pouring rain we lift the anchor and start the engine. In the distance, thunder rumbles and lightning illuminates the night sky. Later, our friends tell us that the thunderstorm raged directly over the Rio Dulce and the lightning struck a catamaran. It is the same catamaran that was moored behind us in Puerto Aventuras Marina. After the lightning strike, all the onboard electronics are fried.

Slowly we chug across the bay, toward the sandbar and the morning. Exactly at 6:30 a.m. the number on the depth sounder starts to drop. We have arrived at the sandbar! Alex throttles back to a slow walking pace so we don’t do any major damage should we pull the keel through the sand after all. No one knows exactly what depth the sandbar is at and exactly where it is shifting. Our draft is 1.68 meters and that might be enough to get to Livingston unharmed at high tide now. Our friends Riki and Martin have a significantly deeper keel so they didn’t even try. They called Hector directly, Hector the fisherman who tows sailors across the sandbank for a fee. For this he ties a line to the mast, lays the boat 45 degrees across and then tows it with his fishing barge over the sandbank. We hope that we and Mabul will be spared this, but Hector’s number is ready in case of emergency.

At 6:30 a.m. sharp, at the highest water level, we cross the sandbank.

While we chug along at walking pace, always keeping an eye on the depth sounder, which now shows only 80 centimeters, fishing boats pass us on the left and right. They wave cheerfully and point to spots that they think are passable. The display on the depth sounder continues to sink: 60 centimeters, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10, and then 0. 0. 0. Nothing jerks, nothing falters, still Mabul rocks gently on the waves. For several minutes we watch the zero on the display. Then the display changes from zero to 10 centimeters. With every meter we advance, more water pushes between our keel and the sandy bottom. Then the sandbank is behind us. We’ve made it!

“In Livingston they will steal the fenders from your boat,” we are warned.

At seven o’clock in the morning we drop anchor in front of the small Guatemalan town of Livingston. Fishing boats moor and cast off, motorcycles rattle across the pier and the town has many colorful houses whose paint is peeling off everywhere. Here even the fenders would be stolen from the boats, other sailors told us, and so Alex stays on deck while I make coffee. In memory of Mexico and in order to clear in as unbureaucratically as possible and to leave Livingston quickly, we hired Raul, an agent. But he is still asleep at 7 a.m. and only drives up at 8:30 a.m. in a barge in which two officials sit with entry forms and which is steered by an old Rastafarian with dreadlocks. After an hour and a short shore leave, which Alex does alone while I take care of the boat and the fenders, the paperwork is done and we are officially cleared into Guatemala.

The Rio Dulce is embedded in the jungle

Slowly we chug into the mouth of the Rio Dulce, the Sweet River, and head upstream. Our destination is about four hours away, four hours surrounded by spectacular scenery. For the first time we sniff fresh water coming towards us at almost two knots, and Alex wonders if the water maker is working here. The brown river is embedded in deep green jungle. The trees stretch their crowns far into the sky and stand densely packed on the steep banks. The air is filled with the cawing of colorful birds and the chugging of a few boats. Every now and then a fisherman in a canoe glides silently past us, only to cast his net near the shore. On the shores there are small huts with palm roofs, in front of which lanchas, as the local boats are called here, are tied to poles. The whole scenery reminds me of the movie “Fitzcarraldo” by Werner Herzog, especially the scene when the eccentric adventurer and opera lover Brian Sweeney Fitgerald tries to pull his boat over a forested ridge, because the river is full of rapids and therefore impassable. I can still see the indigenous people sweating and panting as they try to drag the ship, which they believe to be a divine promise, over the mountain.

Crossing El Golfete on the way to the shipyard

The Rio Dulce is lovely and easy to pass throughout, but the jungle gives off that smell of adventure and wilderness. I wonder how far it stretches? And what our blue boat might look like from the air in the middle of this green wilderness? To find out, Alex lets the drone climb while I steer Mabul further up the river. A drone flight from a moving boat, we’ve never done that before, but after hundreds of drone flights, that will work too, we think. Tiny, like a toy, Mabul appears in the green of the jungle, whose end is not visible. Even though we can no longer see the drone, we can still see its perspective on the display. We can hardly tear ourselves away from these fantastic images. Then Alex retrieves the drone, it hovers over Mabul, already he touches it, just has to grab it, it swerves, bangs against the bimini and falls into the water. Swallowed by the Rio Dulce in a few seconds. The drone is dead, on the last day, in the last hour we sunk it….

The moment when our drone developed a life of its own and died

It’s always amazing how quickly the mood on board can tip. A line that breaks loose. A sail that gets tangled. Or a drone that dies. The beauty of the river remains the same, but we no longer have a view of it. Silently we cover the next hours through the river and silently we cross the lake, behind which is the marina and our jungle house. Only when our friend Martin and the three year old Kira drive towards us on their dinghy, our mood brightens up again. Riki, Martin and their daughters Kira and Naia have already arrived two months ago, at the beginning of the hurricane season, with their boat Arancanga in the Rio Dulce and have already moved into a jungle house at the river and lifted their boat out of the water.

In the small settlement at the river there are four such houses, one is still free and into that we move. Martin guides us to the small collection of jungle houses that will be our home for the next three months and helps us to moor Mabul at the jetty. A welcome beer and the warm embrace of our friends, whom we haven’t seen since St. Martin, don’t make us forget the loss of the drone, but they make us forget it. In the end, it’s just a fender bender, albeit an expensive one.

Arrived! Mabul lies on the jetty of our jungle settlement

Hardly arrived in Guatemala, however, I am already preparing for departure. While Alex has decided not to return to Europe, but to push ahead with countless repair and reconstruction works, I still have four days until my departure to Switzerland. In these days we move all our provisions from the boat into the small jungle house and realize that we probably won’t have to buy cans of corn, cucumbers or olives for the coming year. Our provisions, which we had bought in such large quantities on the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, will last us for months to come.

Our wooden cottage has two rooms, a kitchen with a rusted-through stove so that the flames shoot up as if the stove were a flamethrower, and some cracks through which the rainwater seeps in, which we catch with buckets – so the boat feeling remains on land. The bed, however, is heavenly and so big that we don’t keep getting in each other’s way. The cottage also has an open veranda where dog Canelo visits us on the first and almost every following day, while giant bear Bastard is usually too lazy to step out the wooden stairs. Every evening the two of them join in a howling concert, and every evening our neighbor Tim, who turns out to be a Trump admirer and Qanon supporter, yells a loud, “Canelo! Bastard! Shut the fuck up!”

Sometimes one of the excited chickens jumps onto the railing of our veranda and every day the turkey, which can change its head color from red to blue depending on whether it wants to eat or fuck, struts around on the section overgrown with palms and trees between the house and the river, tail feathers and head raised high. Soon we realize that even here on land we can simply throw food scraps over the railing or railing, just like on the boat. It’s not the fish that swim up to us, but the flock of chickens that come clucking to pick up the leftover lettuce or rice.

The jungle cottage is our home as long as Mabul is on dry land in the shipyard.

So the first two days we are busy unpacking and putting away. On the third day, we drive Mabul to the shipyard located across the river. The river is our only connection between the shipyard and the jungle cottage and so the dinghy remains our main means of transportation. With the dinghy we also go to the supermarket or to the restaurant. Life on the Rio Dulce takes place on the water. We meet the same people again and again: The fishermen who cast the nets from their canoes, the old Guatemalan woman who races across the river on a jet ski of the 80s and often accompanied by a dog and of course other cruisers who are on their way to the shipyard or the next bar with the dinghy.

Mabul is hauled out of the water

Then, on the third day, Mabul is hauled out of the water. There are two boatyards here. One is where Riki and Martin do their boat work and the other one is where we go. Phil and Hatty, the previous owners of our boat, overhauled Mabul when she was called Pepper of Nihau here and were pleased with the work. At that time, the vessel was sitting on dry land for a year and a half. We are also planning a series of works, but hope to be back in the water by November.

We slowly drive Mabul to the ramp of the boatyard, above which the boat lift is already in place. After a few minutes Mabul is lying in the big loops of the lift. With a lot of cawing the lift haules Mabul out of the water, drives her ashore and sets her down, supported by wooden blocks and supports.

Now all we can do is climb up on deck via a wooden ladder at the stern.

Ready for the big refit!

We discuss the work that needs to be done on Mabul: The teak deck, which consists only of a thin layer of wood that is tearing everywhere, has to go. Inside, various carpentry work needs to be done. We need a new sail bag and sun protection for the headsail, plus the whole stern needs to be repainted. The keel, which already has layers coming off, needs to be sandblasted and painted with new coppercoat. Some work also needs to be done on the drive train and diesel generator. First, however, Alex takes off the propeller. We carry it back to the jungle cabin, clean and pack it. Since we bought the boat, the propeller was making strange noises, now I am to take it in my luggage to Switzerland and send it from there to the manufacturer in England, where it will be reworked on precision machines.

After four days the jungle house is set up, the propeller in the luggage, Mabul on land. That’s it! At least for me. I am now traveling to Switzerland for five weeks. Five weeks in which I want to climb mountains, breathe forest air, laugh with friends and family. I’ve missed them all, am perhaps more of a land creature than a water rat after all.

Happy and feral after a year at sea

Alex is staying with Mabul, which is comforting. When I’m back, there will still be plenty of work to do on the boat, but we’ll already be closer to our next adventure: next year we want to cross the Pacific. Crazy, actually.


Distance covered: 308 nm
Travel time: 2 days 13 hours
Average speed: 4.6 kn
Engine hours: 6 hours

You can find more photos from Guatemala in these galleries:

Refit part I
Refit part II
Upstream to Rio Dulce

Related Boatcast episodes:

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