I wasn't just along for the ride

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A light rain had begun falling. From our anchorage in the bay, I could sit on the deck of the sailboat and watch the activity on the island just a few hundred yards away. A town with brightly painted buildings spread lazily across the small island, looking gauzy and dream-like through the rain, a tropical paradise from a Hemingway novel. Separate from the hubbub of the mainland, the island hummed with a life of its own. I could hear the drone of traffic and an occasional car honking. Sleek yellow tourist ferries took turns alighting at the main dock, like bees stealing nectar from a flower. A police car’s flashing lights raced urgently across the island, stopping every few minutes, then racing on again to another place. And there, something jarring: a trash truck lumbered off the ferry, belching black smoke as the driver gunned it into town. Even paradise has to deal with its trash, I mused.

The sound of a small engine going at full throttle reached me across the water, and, squinting my eyes against the rain, I finally picked out a two-person dinghy working its way out from the shore. As it got closer, I could see that the two occupants were soaked, undergarments showing through their light summer clothes and hair pasted to their heads. Even experienced cruisers can be caught unprepared for the weather sometimes. They motored their way through the rain to a sailboat anchored near us, clambered aboard, and disappeared inside, glad to be home.

The rain wasn’t bothering me, though. I had swim shorts on and was excited about going for my first swim since I’d arrived here. Pulling my snorkel mask over my head, I dropped off backwards into the water. Immediately I came up spluttering, shocked, but my astonishment wasn’t from the coldness of the water; what had momentarily confused me was the taste of saltwater in my mouth, as if I expected it to be fresh water like an East Texas lake. But this wasn’t East Texas. We were anchored off the shore of Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

I had flown into Cancun airport the day before, and after an alarming taxi ride, a ferry crossing to the island, and another unnerving taxi ride, had met my friend at the marina where he’d wintered his sailboat. That afternoon, we’d gone into town, walked to the Atlantic side of the island to assess wind direction and weather conditions, and eaten well at a restaurant on the beach. Then we’d gone back to the sailboat to make preparations to sail. First, we motored the boat from its winter berth, up the boat-channel to the bay. There, we set the anchor a ways out from the shore, and my friend began his last inspection of the boat, confirming its seaworthiness. We would spend the night there so we could make an early start the next day.

After my swim, I sat cross-legged on the deck of the sailboat, contented. Even if I had to go home tomorrow, I would be satisfied; the hours of peace I had already experienced were worth the last minute rush to renew my passport, schedule vacation time, and bid my family goodbye. There’s something about getting out of the deluge of busyness and persistent distractions in the States, even for a little while, that gives the soul the peace that it longs for.

The date was Sunday, May 18, 2014, and the next day I would embark on a 600-mile sailboat cruise from Cancun, Mexico to Galveston, Texas with my friend Casey Williams. This would be my first trip in a sailboat, and Casey had already warned me that I wasn’t just along for the ride as a passenger; I was first mate, and would be helping sail the boat. Just thinking about it gave me butterflies.

I didn’t know it yet, but this was going to be one of the best experiences of my life. I was going to feel the raw pleasure that possesses a man when he turns his back on the shore and heads into the vast blue ocean. And I was going to know first-hand the power of the sea. But more about that next time.

– Mike Simpson was born in Spain to missionary parents, and subsequently lived in Ecuador, England, California and finally East Texas. His early travels abroad blessed him with fluent Spanish, a certain restlessness and a strong aversion to guinea pigs. He is a married father with five children, a dog, some cats and a chicken.

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