Blue Christmas

December 26, 2019

I’ll have a blue Christmas without… wind.

For us mere mortals, there should be solace in the knowledge that even the best get it wrong sometimes.  

Real time processing of endless streams of data; monitoring charts, radar displays, and barometric readings; analysing wind, wave, and temperature figures; years of meteorological training in school; years of experience in the real world…

… all give added credibility to a best guess.

*****

It was pretty dreary the day that we left Fronteras.  The plan was to anchor in El Golfete for one last night or two before heading to Livingston.  The wind was from a great angle and, had there been more than a half a knot, the sailing would have been phenomenal.  Another day of freshwater motoring…

We took the Mothership on one last trip up the small river past Laguna Salvador, and  anchored in the same spot we had discovered before for a couple of nights.  Chris Parker had said things offshore would be pretty stinky — nine to twelve foot seas — for a couple of days following a cold front that had passed through, but that would still leave time to catch the tail end of the weather window that could take us all the way to the Caymans potentially.

And then, after a couple of days, it was time to leave El Golfete, head back down the Rio Dulce, and clear out of Livingston.

Clearing out at Livingston proved to be a cinch, just like clearing in, since we had used local agent Raul.

We assumed getting back across the shallow sand bar would be no problem.  We would be following the exact track we had laid down on our chartplotter when we came across the other way.  Imagine our surprise when the depth indicator suddenly dropped like a rock and displayed 3.6 feet.

Ahhhh… kissing the Livingston sand bar on the way past…

Crossing Livingdton bar
Draft 3.5′ and Depth 3.6’…  Shallow draft, deep commitment

Obviously the shoaling had shifted over the past two months, and we found ourselves  barely getting over the Livingston bar.  Eeeek!

With this drama resolved, we eventually realised our wind direction/speed indicator, located on top of the mast of course, was not working properly.  The paddle wheels were spinning but the wind vane appeared to be frozen in place.  The wind direction was stuck head on and both the true and apparent wind speed displays were incorrect .

Not the end of the world; but not ideal to start a potentially five day offshore passage.

After a brief discussion, with less than an hour of daylight now remaining, though unprotected from increasing winds and the swell which was building as it crossed the bay, we decided it would be more comfortable to sit out the night here at anchor, rather  than to try to go up the mast before morning.

We bounced around quite a bit that night.  Not bad… but not great.

On the up side, at least the swell had calmed down quite a bit by morning when I went up the mast.  On the down side, going up the mast made no difference, and the indicator was still not working by the time I came back down the mast.  Just have to go old school… finger in the air.

And I’m not gonna lie.  Not a fan of the windy-swelly conditions mast ascension.  

I have heard some pretty scary stories that this doesn’t compare to.  And no, it doesn’t look that wavy; but I watched swells touch the deck on the bow three feet above the waterline.  And yes, the motion was more hobby-horsing forward and backward than rolling from side to side, which would have been far worse.

Don’t matter, me no likey.

Next time, it’ll sure make going up the mast in pond-like conditions a breeze…

And speaking of breeze…

Almost as soon we got around the Cabo Tres Puntas peninsula, the wind seemed to be coming from the east instead of the forecasted north to northwest wind we expected.  And then it started dying.

… the cays of Belize in the distance… no wind.

Instead of bailing out immediately, we hoped that this was a local or temporary situation, and things would improve shortly.

As we motored forward, it slowly became apparent that this was not something that was a bit off in schedule — a little ahead or behind.  It was more than a bit off in overall forecast.

The prediction of sustained northern winds simply never materialised.  The system had collapsed after only a day.

Shit.

Option one:  turn around… which sucked.  Option two:  motor four or five days to Grand Cayman… which sucked.  Option three:  change course, head for Belize, and cough up the US$300 to clear in… better than the first two options.  Option four:  motor overnight, if necessary, to Utila and clear in to Honduras for US$3 each… I think we have a winner.

And so our ambitious endeavour, to sail from the Rio Dulce all the way to Grand Cayman in one swoop, disintegrated.

As an extra lump of coal in our Christmas stockings, we didn’t even get to shut down the engine on the way to Utila for more than two hours.   Any wind over five knots remained right on our nose, from the east.  And any prospect of tacking slowly back and forth under sail through the night was made quite unnerving by the fact that we were in a busy cargo shipping lane.

By coming around the north side of the island, we delayed our arrival to Puerto Este (East Port) until after sunrise.  We knew exactly where we were planning on dropping anchor; still, we weren’t sure how busy the bay would be.

A gloomy Utila arrival Christmas morning (the photo almost looks black and white) revealed to us that there was only one other boat at anchor in Utila… unbelievable.

Gloomy Utila Xmas arrival

A Christmas serenade to Kris after setting anchor seemed in order…

Before a 2019 Utila Christmas sunset and fireworks show…

And, the day after Christmas, sunrise over Utila.

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We were back.

Not so bad.

It’s Not That We Have To Leave…

December 20, 2019

It’s not that we have to leave… it’s more that we have to keep moving.

It seemed like a bit of an epiphany moment, for both of us.

The wooden table was wet from the sweating glasses of gin and tonics as well as Victoria and Gallo beer bottles, all less than a buck fifty during happy hour at The Shack.  The pungent aroma in the air was more reminiscent of an Amsterdam coffee shop than most of the bars in Guatemala, also undoubtedly part of The Shack’s appeal.  The Allman Brothers’ Whippin’ Post was the song currently challenging all of the different bar conversations in volume.

Josh was talking to Craig about the spreader construction on S/V Off The Grid. Sara, unfortunately, was trying to shake a nasty multi-day bug and had opted to sit out the night.  On the other side of the table, Zoe was explaining to Kris the virtues of Swedish genetic heritage.  Next to me was Tad, Craig’s best friend for over forty years who had flown in from the States to help Craig celebrate his sixtieth birthday only three days before.

It had possibly been only hours since we had fully recovered from that event.

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Tad was still trying to wrap his head around Kris’ and my decision to pick up anchor and head for El Golfete and onward the following day.  I guess I was having trouble fully making sense of it as well, certainly having trouble articulating it.

As Whippin’ Post started to fade out, it was replaced by the unmistakeable riff of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Craig stopped Josh in mid-sentence to voice his approval of the song selection to Marvin; Tad looked at Craig and started fist pumping the air.

I continued trying to make sense of everything to Tad… we still had over a month remaining on our visa.  Food, drinks and expenses were dirt cheap here.  We really liked the overall vibe of the place and the people.  We couldn’t always get what we wanted but we could usually get what we needed.

No… we weren’t 100% certain where we were headed.  Backtracking felt like… well, going backwards.  Still, we weren’t keen on Belize as the clear-in costs are quite high; Mexico anchorages are far and few in between; and Cuba just seems too out of the way now.  Which leaves backtracking towards the Bay Islands or even the Cayman Islands.  If we decide to sail to the Dominican Republic, trying to catch the whale season, the Caymans are along the route.  If we decide we are ready to venture through the Panama Canal, we will need to pass two hundred miles offshore from Nicaragua to avoid the current security issues that area faces; an approach from the Caymans or Jamaica would be perfect.

It’s not that we have to leave… it’s more that we have to keep moving.

Sometimes it comes down to needing to get away from a place.  Sometimes it simply comes down to needing to keep one’s forward momentum.

Craig alluded to this when he sent praise in our direction, for exploring areas of El Golfete and Lago Izabal that gringos who spend twenty years here haven’t seen, without actually getting stuck here for twenty years. 

Four weeks of exploring overland; two additional weeks on a dock at Monkey Bay Marina; and two weeks at anchor, split between El Golfete, Fronteras, and Lake Isabel.  Plus we got some stuff done.  It had been a productive two months.

Visiting Guatemala has truly been a stunning experience.  Inconceivably dense green forests filled with a staggering variety of birds, butterflies, and other animals make for both picturesque landscapes as well as surreal backdrops for excavated Mayan temples and ruins.

Vibrant colours stand out boldly without being at all gaudy, literally woven into every aspect of Guatemalan life: in the clothing they wear; the textiles, art, food, and architecture; at the markets.

And, with the exception of that dickhead Enrique, Guatemalans are among some of the most welcoming, sincere, and friendly people we have met.

In addition to seeing some amazing places during that time, we’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with our old friends Shannan and Vicki; facilitate reunions with some of our Scuba Junkie family Ollie and Flo, Nic and Gav, as well as Shane; hang out with kindred spirits Josh and Sara (S/V Off The Grid), Craig (S/V Samba Pa Ti) and his daughter Zoe; and meet incredible new friends — Tad (Go Cougs!), Mike and Anais (S/V La Flaca), and of course, Jerome (S/V Eagle Ray).  

Added drink choices to the menu…

Michelada vs. Chelda
Michelada vs. Chelada

But, still, in the end… eventually, we need to keep moving.  It’s not goodbye; only until next time.

Hell… it’s been ten weeks since we had a sail up!

When Chris Parker, weather guru for sailors, says: those in the Northwest Caribbean  planning on getting east anytime in the next couple of months are unlikely to find a better sailing window than the next four or five days, it’s hard not to take heed.

That… and the fact that when birds gather in large numbers, it’s always a sign something is about to happen… especially if you start hearing dramatically ominous music in the background (cue: Alfred Hitchcock shadow).

Though we haven’t, by any means, determined an extended (beyond a week, or four) destination — Dominican Republic, Bonaire, Panama — we pretty much have to backtrack to the Caymans to get to any of the above.

Which gives us an immediate game plan.

 

Over The Line

RioDulceLakeIsabel

December 2 – 11, 2019

Lago Izabal.

Twenty five miles long and half as wide. The largest body of fresh water in Guatemala.

Despite the fact that the lake is only twenty-five feet above sea level, the looming Sierra de Las Minas range near the southwestern tip of Lake Isabel, dominates the horizon on a clear day.  More typically, low clouds drifting into the valleys obscure the upper peaks, some of which range from one thousand to nearly ten thousand feet in elevation.

The Rio Dulce is fed by Lake Isabel.  Whether at anchor or in marinas, those staying on the Rio Dulce for hurricane season usually hang out around the town of Fronteras, which is less than two miles downriver from the massive lake.

Surprisingly, very few people spend much time exploring Lake Isabel.

Maybe not surprising, really…

Tons of information — websites, forums, chat groups — can be found online.  However, a great deal of information seems to be sourced from second or third hand accounts; or from a couple of cruising guides that are very thorough but potentially dated in their information (in one case, the newest edition is over ten years old).

When it comes to safety and security, everybody has heard something.  But rarely can anyone give you first hand information.  Furthermore, something may have taken place at some time; but that may have been years ago, or even a decade or more.

Just about every place has experienced crime, or violence, or both, at some time. Unless it is a recurring phenomenon, the real question seems to be whether the story has stuck over the years, or has it been forgotten?

Some places deserve their reputation.

Livingston, at the mouth of the Rio Dulce where we cleared in, is not a dangerous place, but it does have chronic theft.  The advice to us was don’t anchor overnight there.  Our friend had fenders that were tied to the side of his boat cut and stolen during the night; and we recently heard of a locked dinghy outboard taken from a dinghy while on its davits overnight.

Some places, like the coastlines of Somalia or Venezuela, can be quite dangerous areas to sail. Violent crimes occur regularly, piracy is an active threat, and one is well advised to steer clear. It sounds like the coast of Nicaragua is quickly becoming that way.

However, some places simply seem unable to shake an event in their history.

During a conversation with another sailor one evening, we were warned against anchoring in a specific area of the Rio Dulce between El Golfete and Livingston.  Apparently people aboard a sailboat had, in fact, been killed… over ten years ago!

And, while we were never able to pinpoint a particular event that had occurred on Lake Isabel, one of the cruisers’ guidebooks actually specified that “all anchorages west of a specific line should be considered as questionable from a security standpoint, and you should only travel here with a buddy boat”.

The Thin Red Line

For us, the whole buddy boat thing never seems to have a lot of appeal.  I understand the allure of the strength in numbers approach; still, we are generally the people trying to get away from the crowd, not join the masses.

Hanging out with people because you enjoy their company and are of like kindred spirits is one thing.  Hanging out because it makes you feel safer is another.  I guess its either the mindset they won’t fuck with us if we outnumber them or, if one is being chased by a bear – I don’t have to be the fastest person, as long as I’m not the slowest.

Honestly, I don’t think I want to bank on someone else being a more appealing victim than myself; especially not the poor bastard right next to me.

Anyway, with the security question still definitively unresolved, we opted to venture into Lago Izabal and have a look instead of heading immediately for El Golfete (which also supposedly has its “questionable” areas).

First stop:  Denny’s Beach.  Right at the theoretical line of demarcation between carefree bliss and dangerous frontier.  We considered going ashore to visit what seemed to be a very uninhabited resort until two local water taxis deposited a couple dozen new check-ins on the dock.

Lago Izabal - Denny's Beach

Lago Izabal - Denny's Beach

After two nights, we picked up anchor and flung ourselves headlong into the unknown.  Our destination, a spacious bay in the southwest corner of the lake called Ensanada Balandra (also known as El Refugio).

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Approaching El Refugio

A mile and a half front to back and half mile wide, it offered unlimited and well-protected space for us to anchor.

We had now travelled almost the entire length of Lake Isabel without seeing one other recreational boat.  Quite a few locals in their tiny cayucas — fishing, gathering plants at the shoreline, moving about — going about their business; offering a smile, or a wave, or more often both.

No moments of concern. The biggest risk had been running over a floating branch or a fishing net. But if the risk of collision with fishing tackle constituted real danger, then Maine would have to be considered one the most dangerous places on the planet.

Instead of peril, we found tranquility; and one of the most pleasant anchorages we’ve ever been in.

A tiny, almost completely hidden, side river that fed into the bay offered a great dinghy excursion. Endless varieties of birds, howler monkeys in the nearby trees, and even a group of manatees that we found constantly hanging out near the entrance of the bay.

Always very shy, the manatees never allowed us get to closer than about a hundred meters to them.  Even when we shut off the dinghy engine and tried to stealthily paddle closer they would disappear underwater, only to surface again after a minute or two, equally distant from us as they had been before.

Only the most discerning observer would have recognised the subtle tells that our        def-con status was elevated.  Dinghy, outboard, and fuel all secured and padlocked on the davit at night; limited time outside the direct view of the mothership; no mast or deck lights on at night (motorised night traffic was non-existent and we wanted to avoid drawing attention after dark).

During the day, our view was the dense jungle tree line around the bay, the entrance of the bay, and the Sierra de Las Minas range which dominated the horizon, the purple silhouette of its nine thousand eight hundred foot peak sometimes emerging from the lower clouds.

At night, only one actual light on a mountainside miles away.  A faint glow of light over the trees in one direction and a brighter glow from the other side of the lake in the other.

Aside from the occasional outboard engine, or airplane miles above, there were almost no human sounds outside our own.  If the wind blew one direction, we could faintly hear what sounded like a heavy machinery in the far distance, from the same direction as the faint glow at night.  We eventually concluded it must be the de-forestation phase for a palm oil plantation… buzzkill moment.

Five days since entering Lake Isabel.  Aside from the small local cayucas, we were yet to see another boat on the water.

We picked up anchor and made our way north along the west end of the lake.

Conflicting information had left us uncertain as to where the best anchorage would be.  All we knew was that there were multiple bays of unknown depth, a nickel mine which may or may not be active, and a town called El Estor (or “the store”, supposedly named from the days pirates sailed Lago Isabel and would visit the town to buy or loot supplies).

Departing Ensanada Balandra, clearing around the peninsula which comprises one side of the bay, we were visited once again by the manatees, who waved us off from a comfortable distance of about a hundred meters… cheeky.

We headed for the barely visible smokestack of the nickel mine ten miles to our north.

And as we grew nearer, through our binoculars, we spotted sailboats.

Not pirate boats… but rather, buddy boats – two monohulls and a cat.

Three. At anchor.  Closer than we’d want to be to the nickel mine and El Estor.

Bocas del Bajajal, the bay we’d hoped to tuck into, was either too shallow for us, or we simply couldn’t find a deep enough channel to give us access.  So we opted to anchor just outside it, a quarter of a mile or so from the three sailboats.

Any question as to whether the sailboats were together was laid to rest when, after about thirty minutes, one after another, each boat picked up anchor and moved an equal distance away on our opposite side.  We could never quite figure that one out.

Also strange was the fact that, at night, two of the boats kept their mast and deck lights off (like we had been doing), but the third boat was lit up. Hmmm.  Perplexing…

Maybe a lack of communication.  Maybe a disagreement in strategy.  Maybe an intentional (or unintentional) allocation to decoy status on the part of the lit boat.  Strange…

After watching a few local boats carefully pick their way amongst a network of, for lack of a better term, navigational sticks near the shore in order to gain access to a small river next to our anchorage, we followed suit and found ourselves exchanging distant looks with dozens of howler monkeys occupying the trees along the shoreline.

The Rio Polochic, very busy in the past when it was used for hauling goods downstream to El Estor, today only had a couple of local fishermen and a few small boats headed to communities upriver. Though it stretches some thirty or more miles, we didn’t get much farther than a couple of miles before turning around.

The nickel mine, a bit more than a mile to the northeast of where we were anchored, was in operation.  Big, gaping wounds in the earth surrounded the mine where the Guatemalan jungle had been peeled back by machinery to expose the dirt and rock underneath.

Especially at night, the endless drone of the conveyer belts and mining equipment, as well as powerful industrial lights which illuminated smoke constantly belching out of the stacks, provided a staggering incongruity with the surroundings.

El Estor, two miles further along the shore to the east, also seemed out of place in the surroundings, with its even brighter glow at night and constant layer of haze over the town during the day.

After two nights, we were ready to return to the unequivocal solitude of Ensanada Balandra (El Refugio) on the other side of the lake… the buddy boats could have their nickel mine.

During our return stay at El Refugio, a cayuca pulled up alongside Exit while we were at anchor, which hadn’t happened yet.  A man named Roberto and his son were out fishing for the day and night.

The boy sat silently at the bow, reluctant to speak even when asked a question. The man, however, was quite chatty… without speaking a word of English.

We were able to put together bits and pieces of conversation — the community just outside the bay where they were from; the fact that the fishing sucked right now.

Curiously, we both got the impression that he seemed rather sad that very few boats came to visit the bay.  He was very adamant to convey to us that the area was not dangerous and that we should not worry about being disturbed.

Eventually, the man wished us an enjoyable stay, started up his outboard, and they set off towards the shore to reset their nets.

He seemed like a genuinely friendly guy; and I remember feeling somewhat guilty afterwards for not having had the presence of mind to offer up a bit of fuel as a goodwill gesture. Paying forward never hurts.

Although this anchorage, for peace and solitude, was certainly top-shelf, we decided only to stay one additional night.  We had already been out here on the lake for a week; and our provisioning prior to departing Fronteras had not been exceptionally long-term in its scope.

We were now out of beer, bread, most of our fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as data for our phone (which gave us our only internet access).

The one thing out here that had been even more sparse than people was wind.  In eight days, there had not been a single time when the wind was over a few knots before mid to late afternoon.  We had a couple of blustery squalls here or there; but even those were generally closer to sundown or at night.

So, there was a lot of motoring done to get from one place to another on Lago Izabal.  Oh well… you can’t have it all.

About halfway back to Fronteras, on the other side of the lake, we stopped to anchor just offshore of a small community called Finca Paraiso. 

This was the only other place we saw another sailboat while we were on the lake.  They anchored quite a reasonable distance away from us, late in the afternoon.  It made the fourth sailboat in a total of eight days… unbelievable.  Including us, not more than five visiting boats on the entire lake.

The following morning, we took the dinghy ashore and walked about an hour along a gravel road, past fields and pastures, until we reached a natural hot springs, appropriately named Aguas Caliente.

Tons of hot, sulphur-springs fed water cascaded down over rocks long covered with surreal looking mineral deposits from the spring water, creating a twenty foot tall waterfall which fed into the cool water of the small river at its base.

Standing at the bottom of the waterfall, the sensation was quite bizarre —- not only the spring water almost, too hot to stand under, and the rather cool water from the river the hot springs fed into — but also from the crazy fish all around that relentlessly chewed and nibbled at our legs and feet.

Even more strange, was seeing our friend Craig, from S/V Samba Pa Ti, who had just happened to come via a collectivo bus to visit Aguas Caliente on the same day.  A mutual WTF moment.

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Later, while we enjoyed a couple of beers at one of the beach bars at Finca Paraiso, watching Exit sit at anchor on water that was nearly perfectly flat, we met Mike and Anais from S/V La Flaca, the small sailboat that had anchored about a thousand feet from us.

Then, after a fabulous day ashore visiting the hot springs, one last sunset on Lake Isabel, just offshore from Finca Paraiso…

The next day, we returned to Fronteras.  Passing under the bridge (one of our favourite pastimes) was the all clear signal that we had returned safely from our adventures on Lago Izabal.

After finding a way to get beyond all the hype and uncertainty, we had once again figured out a way to successfully navigate the unknown…

 

 

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