One-time Isla ferry Sultana del Mar. One-time Isla ferry Sultana del Mar.

Retired captain recalls old Isla Mujeres ferry

Javier Velázque was skipper of the Sultana del Mar for 22 years

How do you load six or seven head of cattle onto a passenger boat? You grab the bull by the horns!

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In a fascinating three-way conversation, Javier Velázque Euan recounted his experiences as the captain, for 22 years, of the old Isla Mujeres ferry Sultana del Mar. He and I chatted at our kitchen table while his son-in-law Freddy Medina translated.

Born 69 years ago on Holbox Island, Javier Velázque grew up in Campeche and moved to Isla Mujeres when he was a strapping 17-year-old, a young bull. His first position on Sultana del Mar was in the engine room, and then as a mate, finally taking over as captain of the ship from his uncle Captain Titio sometime in the mid to late-1960s.

Javier’s eyes twinkled with mischief when he recounted loading live animals onto the boat. Each res (cow, bull, steer) took three strong men to drag and push on board; one man on each horn, and a third man pushing the terrified animal from the back.

Javier grinned, adding that as the captain he assigned the unpleasant task of back-end pusher to his deckhands.

In the early days Sultana del Mar did not have the second level, it had an open deck in the back. In the years before the car ferry service started a small car and sometimes a truck would be loaded on that back deck.

The island streets were mere ruts in the sand, and there were not a lot of vehicles, so once or twice a week handled the vehicle traffic.

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Cargo included live pigs, crates of chickens, fruits, vegetables and stacks of glass bottles containing beer, water or soda pop – anything the islanders needed came across on the boat. Pet monkeys bounced around in the rafters, tormenting and teasing the passengers.

Javier worked from two o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock in the evening seven days a week for the sum of 180 pesos per week.  (That’s about US $10 a week at today’s exchange rate.)

During the summertime, when students were out of school and families ventured on day trips to the island, Javier and the crew worked almost 24 hours per day for six to eight weeks. Their bonus was an additional 150 pesos for the entire summer.

The 45-minute crossing was done without a radio or navigational equipment, other than a compass. The city of Cancún had not been built. It was only a small fishing village and the main port was Puerto Juárez where buses from the cities of Valladolid or Mérida would discharge their passengers.

The buses would drive to the docks and flash their headlights three times, in the direction of Isla Mujeres, to signal the boat captains that there were passengers waiting for them at the port.

In the fleet of passenger boats owned by Ausencio Magaña the first boat was Carmita, a banana-shaped boat that rolled and wallowed in the seas, creating havoc with the tender stomachs of landlubbers and tourists.

The next ship was Novia del Mar and then Sultana del Mar.  A fourth boat, Dama Elegante, was equipped with a two-meter by 60-centimeter glass insert for viewing the sea life.

Formerly a sunken shrimp boat, the Blanca Beatriz was rescued from near Isla Contoy and refurbished. That boat was primarily reserved for circumnavigating the island with sightseers.

Other island friends, Abby and Neil Fox, told us about a stray dog that rode Sultana del Mar by itself. It crossed to Puerto Juárez and disembarked, presumably to visit a girlfriend or two.

Later in the day the dog would reappear and board the boat to return to Isla Mujeres. It was completely at ease with the boat, the boarding routine and the workers. On one of these trips an islander was crossing to Isla with a large sack of pig knuckles to sell in his store.

While the man was chatting with another passenger the dog took a pig knuckle and settled down to enjoy his treat. After a few minutes the man noticed the dog and retrieved the pig knuckle, placing it back in the sack with the others!  No worries, a little dog saliva won’t hurt anyone.

But the best mental image Javier Velázque painted with his stories of old Isla was of loading cattle onto Sultana del Mar. That was really taking the bull by the horns!

The writers are Canadians who have been full-time residents of Isla Mujeres for eight years. You can read their blog here.

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  • Happygirl

    Love your stories…this one reminds me of the ferry that came into Little Corn Island (Columbia) to pick up passengers and to load and unload cargo…it even looks like your old photo but it was never so clean or empty. Everything is shipped and shares space on board. We never took a ride on it, deeming it totally unsafe, but rather watched in awe as brave backpackers boarded and took their spot along side crates of chickens stacked along the packed railing….ah happy memories. Thanks

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