PASSAGE FROM COZUMEL, MEXICO
TO KEY WEST FLORIDA

The passage to Cozumel was one of the fastest. At first it was a wet sail heading north past Quita Sueno Bank and between Banco Gorda and Thunder Knoll off the coast of Honduras. But when we altered course northwest toward Swan Island, the sail became an exhilarating non-stop broad reach in 20 mph easterly winds. We had thought about stopping at Swan but the low lying island passed unseen in the night as we were carried along with the steady current.

Cozumel is a flat and dry coral island 28 miles long, 9 miles wide and lying about 12 miles off the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mexican province of Quintana Roo. It is Mexico’s largest island and is surrounded by the clearest turquoise water imaginable and miles of beautiful coral sand beaches.

Being the world-class resort that it is, Cozumel has an international airport and boaters can pick up its strong radio beacon broadcasting “CZM” in Morse code far out to sea. And navigation lights which are unreliable in other parts of Mexico are dependable at Cozumel.

San Miguel, about midway along Cozumel’s west coast, is the only town on the island. The anchorage there is usually in calm clear water in which you can easily see the anchor on the bottom. Anchors may need some assistance with a snorkel and fins however, since the bottom is rather hard. In the winter months, anchorage anywhere along the west coast can become untenable when the storm fronts from the north create strong winds and seas from that direction. In fact, storm considerations rule out Cozumel as a good place for yachts to visit for an extended stay because of the scarcity of good shelter. During the winter months of December through April and the hurricane season from June until the end of October, shelter from storms is at a premium on Cozumel. But during May and November, a calm and peaceful anchorage is almost always assured anywhere along the west coast.

We arrived at night and found approaching the anchorage off San Miguel from the southern end of the island safe and easy. To the north of town is the municipal marina and Club Nautico where there is a well protected small harbor with a narrow entrance. There is a guest dock just inside where water, electricity and fuel may be had. This dock may also be used to check in with the port authorities, but beware of extra charges to get officials to travel from town to the marina. Whether coming from another Mexican port or other destination, all foreign yachts must check in with the port captain, customs, health and immigration officials, all of whom will want a cut of the action. And by checking in at the marina, you are putting out a signal that you are able to afford whatever extra charges they may decide upon.

Checking in at the city dock down town is more economical. You can contact the port captain’s office by VHF radio (in Spanish if possible). If your radio is not functioning, it is acceptable for the captain of the vessel to come ashore and walk to the port captain’s office along the waterfront with the ship’s papers and crew’s passports to announce your arrival. Anchoring just south of the city pier and landing a dingy on the beach right in town is no problem. Locking the dingy to something is advisable, but not the problem that it is in other places.

San Miguel is clean and has many shops and restaurants to enjoy. There are also some very nice smaller hotels in the downtown area which probably do not require the advanced booking that the larger beach hotels do. There are well stocked markets in town where the local people buy groceries. Even though Cozumel is a resort island and prices for things are generally higher than they are on the mainland, we found prices for many things were amazingly cheap. Fresh bakery bread, milk, and eggs were only half the prices they were in Panama and the US. Corn tortillas came hot and fresh from the tortillaria every day. Fuel was half the US price.

Sketch: 1. San Miguel 2. El Presidente Hotel & Marina 3. Municipal Marina & Club Nautico 4. La Ceiba Hotel & beach with diving cove 5. Palancar Reef 6. San Francisco Beach 7. Lighthouse 8. Lighthouse

Cozumel has been a resort island since ancient times when Mayan women made pilgrimages there. Ruins on the island include a Mayan “warning tower” on the southern tip of the island and others throughout the island which have been only partially uncovered. The famous Mayan ruins of Tulum on the mainland coast lie just to the south of Cozumel. Other Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula are accessible from Cozumel via specially scheduled day trips on a high speed hydrofoil ferry which shuttles tourists between all the local points of interest.

High rise hotels line the coast of Cozumel for many miles to the north and south of town. The oldest of these is the El Presidente about 8 miles south. Next to the El Presidente is a small yacht basin which is operated by the hotel. A draft of less than five and a half feet and mooring Mediterranean style are required. It is a small but well protected harbor in a lagoon with a narrow entrance obstructed by big unmarked boulders below the surface which are easily seen in the clear water. Some of the dive charter boats which operate around the island are docked there. And right off the beach at the El Presidente there is a large concrete pier where charter boats pick up their daily customers. We were given the okay by the hotel to use the pier to pick up some guests we had met for sailing one day. But the Mexican charter boat captains guard their businesses jealously and if you are thinking about chartering your boat there, doing it illegally more than once might attract some unfriendly retaliation.

Sailing up and down the coast in the lee of the island is an easy beam reach most of the time both ways and taking guests for a day of sailing and diving along the south shore is a real pleasure. If it’s only a day at the beach you want, San Francisco Beach a few miles north of Palancar reef is a favorite stop where lunch and drinks are served. The drop off is fairly steep along this beach and the water is often calm enough that many of the charter boat captains bring their bows right up on the beach!

In a cove near Hotel La Ceiba between the El Presidente and the town of San Miguel, anchorage is possible off a nice swimming beach for hotel guests and a marked diving trail in the adjacent lagoon. At the end of the trail is a sunken World War Two airplane in about 40 feet of depth. The plane has been used in several movies and the clarity of the water gives an eerie effect to the dive which is an easy one for either SCUBA or just snorkeling. Big cruise ships call regularly at a special dock nearby.

Cozumel is a mecca for SCUBA divers because of the legendary clarity of its water and its spectacular dive sites like the coral wall diving at Palancar reef near the southern end of the island. But the diving there is not generally for novices because of the depth of the water and the fact that there is a strong current sometimes in excess of one mile per hour which flows north past the island. It is the speed of the current which keeps the water around the island as clear as it is, giving divers the feeling of actually floating in space. The current is part of the system which is set in motion by the Trade winds. It flows westward along the southern shores of the Caribbean, then turns northward along the coast of Central America, eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico and then merging with the Gulf Stream flowing eastward. It can be a formidable enemy when approaching Cozumel from the north or give a great boost when going the other way.

But the likelihood of a rough passage crossing from Cozumel to Florida is high. During winter, winds are most often in opposition to the current or else blowing like stink out of the north. Since we had no auxiliary engine, we had to plan for making the entire passage under sail, which meant scrutinizing the weather carefully. It was December and cold fronts associated with the extratropical lows that cross North America during winter had already begun. After one passes, there is usually a period of calm and then southerly winds before the wind direction returns to the east. We departed during a period of calm after a mild front had passed and found excellent sailing until rounding the west end of Cuba. But since the front that had gone through was mild, the southerlies soon died out and the wind began to blow out of the east again.

Waves remaining from the north winds days earlier were coming from port. Waves created by the southerlies were coming from starboard. Worst of all, short choppy waves being created by the east wind in opposition to the current going with us, were coming from dead ahead. It was one of the worst sailing experiences ever, but after arriving at Key West, we learned it could have been worse. Conditions had been too much for another boat which had left after us and foundered. Luckily they were able to contact the US Coast Guard and were towed the remaining 100 miles into Key West.

After spending a few months at Key West we sailed up the Keys to Miami where we went to work and refitted before continuing through the Bahamas and south down to the Antilles. Those passages are covered in my book Cove Hopping South to the Virgin Islands. The passages along the Pacific coast and through the Panama Canal are covered in Cove Hopping South to Panama.

El Presidente Hotel and Marina

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