Cancun, Mexico —
The photo at left, taken yesterday, is remarkable for what it shows — bathers in the ocean some distance from the water's edge — and what it does not: pounding surf.
Ordinarily the beach is held siege by 20 knots or more of easterly wind. The breakers explode onto the sand and over the course of the day your sunglasses acquire a misty film even if you're 50 yards or more from the surf, reading under the palapa.
The beach here is renowned for its undertow, and most days red flags fly the length of it. Yesterday a few yellow flags were mixed in. I can't recall ever seeing a green flag here, but at some point I may have. I have been vacationing here, on and off, since 1988.
As calm as it was in the afternoon, if you stood in the surf very long you noticed that every few waves it felt as though someone had you by each leg and pulling you to sea. On rougher days you look up and down the beach and as far as you can see no one is in the water beyond their calves.
Nonetheless, the beach beckons. The water temperature is 80 degrees or more, which feels pretty warm to a Mainer, and the sand is cool even on the hottest days. I have heard a number of explanations for this over the years — the sand contains lime, it consists of fossilized plankton — but in any case, your feet will like it.
In 2007, Hurricane Dean destroyed most of the east-facing beaches at Cancun. (Topographically there is one beach, but there are a dozen or more sections, each named "playa" this or that. We stay along Playa Marlin.)
In 2009, the Mexican government mined two undersea banks for sand, loaded it onto barges and pumped it ashore at Cancun and at Playa del Carmen to the south. Voila! Beach!
One can only imagine the hue and cry in the United States if someone proposed undersea excavation of sand banks in the furtherance of economic interests.
We used to hear that there is a drowning a week along this 14-mile beach. I am skeptical. On many stretches lifeguard stands are no more than 100 yards apart. The lifeguards here are a vigilant and dedicated crew. If you wander out a little too far they whistle you back in. If a rip develops they whistle at you to move. Over the years I've seen a couple of rescues.
For all of that, prudence dictates a healthy respect for the power of the surf. Folk wisdom holds that if you're born to hang you'll never drown, but I wouldn't push my luck in Cancun.