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Close Call With Death on the Costa Maya

The calm before the storm...

Tulum, Mexico

Tulum, Mexico

Captain Papo and his launch of death

We were ready to go. What would normally cost us ten bucks a piece was going to be free. Captain Papo's face was a mixture of exhilaration and pride. He was a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, but came to Tulum to raise his family. He bought a derelict vessel and spent weeks on the hot beach, 100 feet from the sea, tearing, banging, sanding, and painting. Always drinking rum from a bottle that he took no effort to put in the shade.

On the bow, laid out like a Norse Goddess was the Swede, Ula. She rested her back on the wall of the boat and let her head dip back. The months in the sun had bathed her skin in a warm brown glow, contrasting so vividly against her blonde hair. The captain and I stood nearby, stricken by her beauty and the moment.

Papo struggled with the throttle for a while, unable to get the engine started. The two of us took turns, one of us pulling the cord, the other praying for it to start, while Ula used the delay to dive back into the ocean. Her swim was brief and signaled by the sudden firing of the combustion chambers. The engine hummed steadily and Papo adjusted the throttle. I helped draw Ula from the sea and El Capitano Papo released the anchor bouy. With a yelp of excitement and some waving onlookers, we punched it in a semi circle and headed north along the Riviera Maya.

Left is south and right is north. We would have gone north right in view of this aerial picture, waving and yelling to the crowds.

Left is south and right is north. We would have gone north right in view of this aerial picture, waving and yelling to the crowds.

The Mayan ruins almost became our final resting place

We were really cruising for a while, the boat shot easily across the waves. It was only a couple of minutes until the temple got close. The waves were choppy here, throwing the bow up every time. The captain couldn't resist turning the vessel into the waves just to get some action and have some fun. I stood on the bow holding the line like I was in some kind of aquatic rodeo, trying in vain (to everyone's amusement) not to slip on the spray dashing me every time we slapped back down.

To our left the cliffs broke up and the lower beaches of the ruins were visible for the first time. Hordes of tourists flocked the small strip of sand directly below the temple. Papo was the first to shout and wave, the rest of us followed suit. I raised my beer and the crowded beach erupted into reciprocal salutes and raised cups.

We were soon past the open area of the cliff and out of sight of our new friends. The rock walls rose up instead and towered over us. We all rode silent for a few minutes, enjoying the serenity of the locale and the ride. The combination of nature and our individual places in the world seemed to remind us of how small we were in this big place.

Caribbean Question?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

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    • Blood
    • Shiny bracelet/necklace
    • Playing dead
    • Struggling in the water

Answer Key

  1. Shiny bracelet/necklace

When to abandon ship and swim for our life

We decided to turn around when we saw nothing of value ahead. We were promised a short ride, to the ruins and back to celebrate the new engine. Our quest fulfilled and our appetites for adventure satiated for the afternoon, Papo turned the rudder hard to one side and cranked back on the throttle stick. The boat stalled.

I saw Ula's head turn towards the rear of the boat as mine did. Papo stared at us blankly for a fraction of a second before turning to the crank cord. He tugged on it a dozen times, each time the response was deafeningly silent. I asked if we had gas, thinking that to be the obvious first place to check. Yes, there was gas. He checked to verify.The spark plugs were dry, and the throttle was in the right position. After another dozen cranks I took over. Nothing.

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The boat was bobbing all this time while Papo and I were wrapped up in the mystery of the motor. Ula said something and we both looked up at her. She looked scared and pointed behind us. Papo and I turned to see the cliffs looming up menacingly only several hundred feet away. At the base the rocks were rough and jagged and the waves crashed hard, stirring up a broiling foam.

I returned to the crank cord, pulling with more purpose this time. Each wave seemed to lift us up and lay us back down, lulling us with a deceptively smooth motion. But always we inched closer to the cliffs. Papo, feeling helpless standing by watching, wanted to pull. I walked up to the bow and joined Ula. I could already see the fear in her stone grey eyes as she asked me what we were going to do. I shrugged, I really didn't know what to tell her at the moment. Seeing that my lack of confidence didn't ease her fears at all, I laughed if off with a comment about swimming back to the ruins. What about our stuff, she asked. Well, it would have to get wet right? What choice did we have?

Praying to the Mayan God's for safe passage

Papo was cursing now. He had taken the cover off of the back, giving him access to some of the wiring and hoping to improve airflow. Everything checked out. He couldn't understand what the problem was and I was no marine mechanic. I asked if he wanted me to crank on it for a minute, he blew it off with a shrug and quick toss of the hands. It was a helpless gesture, a man at his wit's end. I was kind of struck stupid at the moment that he didn't want to crank. What option did we have?

The cliffs were a hundred feet away, maybe less. Papo was so reluctant to abandon his new boat and motor. After the sweat, blood, and money it cost him to get it here. The sea was abandoned for miles in every direction, the one time a catamaran full of tourists wasn't going by in either direction on their regular cruises from Cozumel and back. Ula expressed her concern, wondering what the choice was going to be. It was a lot of pressure on Papo to decide now: Try cranking more and risk getting too close to get away from the pull towards the rocks, or jump off now and start swimming with the hope that there is nothing large and hungry below us.

The despairing captain went back to the crank and throttle selector. He made some adjustments and tried cranking several times. Nothing. He seemed to remember something and a light of hope flashed in my mind, thinking he knew what was wrong. He craned around the motor and fiddled with something before snapping back around. He seemed to stand taller now, like he knew the matter was solved. I smiled involuntarily and got ready for the escape from the rocks. He cranked hard on the cord, the motor sputtered as it had before. He cranked harder, several times with no luck. I think my disappointment was as great as his. I had been completely sold on his body language.

I looked at Ula and asked if she was ready to swim. She looked panicked but replied in the affirmative. I took the bag she had and put it around my shoulders. Papo looked entirely desperate when it sunk in that the two of us were making preparations to abandon his boat. Our attention was jerked back to the boat as Papo screamed at the top of his lungs. We were frozen in wonder, curiosity. We knew what this meant for him. His new business of taking tourists snorkeling and diving on the reef was indefinitely postponed. He couldn't afford to replace the boat for some time, making life hard for him and his family. For Ula and I, we risked the waters of the cliff wall, a quarter of a mile away from the nearest break.

Papo yelled in Spanish to the temple rising over the rock wall to our left. He bowed his head and prayed something unintelligible. He looked at us, we were ready to jump and start swimming. The rocks were already closer than ever and the waves were getting bigger as we inched in. Papo told us to pray, with everything we had, to whoever we called our God. We saw his sadness and desperation and we gave him that one more second before jumping. We said prayers in our native languages, half out loud, Spanish, Swedish, and English. As we looked up Papo ran to the cord and cranked hard one more time. The motor burst to life in a symphony of man made splendor.

We all yelled in joy, then immediately quieted, wondering of the motor would die again. Papo gently gave it some gas. The motor coughed sickly and we all sucked in our breath in unison, then he pushed harder and the motor responded, lurching the craft forward and closer to the rocks momentarily before Papo guided us into a gentle turn away from shore and back along the coastline towards the ruins of Tourist Beach.

Chalk it up to Mexico, baby!

Only once we were cruising fast towards the beach at Zazil Kin, which we had never appreciated more than at that point, did we start to feel the post-adrenaline jitters. We laughed it off heartily, mocking our fear in the face of death on the rocks. Our attempts to put humor to the subject and make it an adventure story only adds a further layer of depth to the mask we wore over our fear of dying that day. As much as we kid ourselves, we probably would not have been able to pull away from the swells that propelled us towards the rocks. Swimming may have been just as fatal as staying on the boat.

There was more beer and tequila that night for Ula and I. It was an experience that neither of us will ever forget. Papo was more than apologetic for the scare, insisting that he warned us it was a maiden voyage, a sea-trial. He kept telling us to chalk it up to Mexico, baby. That we did. Viva la Mexico, Viva la Tulum!

S.P. Kelly


Steven P Kelly (author) from Tampa, FL on March 27, 2012:

Thank you! I was able to see Tulum of course, Coba, Chichen Itza It was definitely a trip I will not soon forget...

summerberrie on March 26, 2012:


I studied the Aztec/Mayan ruins while getting my art history degree. Glad you made it back safely to shore. What a story to tell.

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