Getting Taken To A Prison Island
About 80 miles NNW of Punta Mita on the rhumbline between Banderas Bay and La Paz is a group of four islands that are collectively about 50 miles long and five miles wide. Why four islands are called the Tres Marias is a mystery to me. What is well known is that there is a prison on one of these islands, and the sailing directions and cruising guides warn all vessels to stay clear of them. If you don't, the guides say you'll be subject to interception and detention.
I've hated detention ever since grade school, so we've always passed to the south side of the islands. We've never seen any sign of life ashore, but the sea life in the area — probably because even commercial fishing boats are prohibited — seems abundant. Since nobody seems to know how far off the islands you're supposed to stay, or even which one is home to the prison, and since we've never been inclined to follow the rules, we've gotten closer and closer every time we've passed by. And we've still never seen anyone. That is until the end of March, when we left Banderas Bay after the Banderas Bay Regatta, and headed to La Paz for Sea of Cortez Sailing Week.
My crew consisted of me, Allison Cary, and her 20-year-old daughter Mercedes. Yes, we were an all-women crew. Anyway, the wind took us north of the islands, so as we closed on them, we plotted a course that would take us three miles off the north side of the islands. When I came on watch just after midnight, Allison had us on a course five miles to the north of the islands. We could see lights on one of them.
Ten minutes after Allison went below, a white light approached the port side of Talion. Not wanting any trouble, I smiled at it and waved in an attempt to be friendly. As the light got closer, I could see that it was coming from a panga with about eight men aboard. Three of the men were dressed in camo with big black boots, and they carried automatic weapons.
Before long, the panga was so close that she was slamming into the side of Talion. I wasn't very happy about that. The men started screaming in Spanish, and the ones holding the automatic weapons looked to be about 17 years old and their eyes seemed to twitch. Given the narco violence in certain non-tourist areas of Mexico, members of the Mexican police and armed forces have reason to be twitchy. Since I only know enough Spanish to order a taco and find a bathroom, I called out for Allison. She didn't have much success communicating with them, so she yelled for Mercedes, who grew up in La Paz living aboard the boat Free Run. She knows her Spanish.
After a few minutes, two men, one of them with a gun, jumped onto Talion. Things seemed to be getting worse! One guy crouched down near Mercedes and started talking to her. After short time, Mercedes reported that we'd passed too close to the prison island for their liking. They wanted us to turn around and follow them to the island for an inspection. At the time, we were motoring away from the islands as quickly as Talion could go. "Tell them we apologize, we'll leave right away, and we won't do it again," I told her. I suggested they could inspect the boat right where we were.
Alas, the man told Mercedes that the guy who needed to do the inspection was on the island. Deciding that the men were just following orders and couldn't free us, we felt our only choice was to go to the island. So we turned Talion around.
The island did not have the best yacht facilities. In fact, we were instructed to tie to a massive ship dock, with truck tires for fenders that were larger than Talion. After I said, "No way!", they offered a crumbling concrete pier with rebar sticking out as an alternative. Right. Finally, they agreed that we could anchor. Naturally, the first time we tried to set the anchor, we dragged. We held on the second attempt, but as we were setting it good, the panga came along our starboard side, slammed into Talion, and a bunch of men screaming in Spanish jumped aboard. Letting go of the wheel, I stood up on the cockpit seat and screamed at them to back off. They might not have understood my words, but they picked up on my mood. They let us finish anchoring, at which time we opened the lifeline gate and motioned for them to come aboard.
So there we were, three beautiful women having be taken to not just a prison, but a prison on an island in Mexico. It seemed like the beginning of a plot for a movie a lot of guys might enjoy watching. In any event, we were told that the Director could not inspect our boat until morning. Until that time, we would not be allowed to remain on the boat. Let's see, they wanted us three women to leave the safety of our boat to spend the rest of the night at a Mexican penal colony. No way! We argued. We pleaded. We begged. “Señor, por favor, deja al compromiso, por favor."
They told Mercedes that if we did not cooperate, they had the right to confiscate Talion. "Okay then, give us a minute to pack. Martha Stewart wasn't around, so we had no idea what to pack to spend a night in a Mexican prison. Let's see, jammies, change of clothes, toothbrush, jewelry and cash. What about the flare gun? Hair-dryer? Sheets, for god's sake. Would we need our own food. Let's see, camera, boat papers, computers, cell phone . . . should we set off the EPIRB while we're at it? We were tossing suitcases, duffel bags, backpacks, groceries, and anything else we could think of in the cockpit. The pile was huge. It was 3 a.m. before we decided that we had all the necessities, so we went up into the cockpit.
As we got topsides, the men looked at the pile, waved their arms, and said something to Mercedes. Apparently the big pile had changed their minds. They'd decided we could stay on the boat! Before they left, they did a short inspection, took down some information and kept our passports.
We were awakened the next morning at 8 a.m. Seeming to be in a big hurry, they gave us our passport and said we needed to leave right away because another boat was coming. As we left, we took the opportunity to pass as close as possible to the remaining island. We saw whales breaching, schools of dolphins, birds, and the beautiful topography of these remote islands. There has been talk of making the islands a maritime park or even a resort with casinos. We hope they leave it the way it is.
Before we left, we were told that all vessels are required to stay at least 12 miles from the Tres Marias — but that it's possible to obtain a permit to visit the islands and the little village near the prison.