Decisions At Cayos Cochinos

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January 8, 2020

“Are you okay staying here?”

It was Joel, the park ranger for Cayos Cochinos, who had just pulled up alongside Exit in his twenty foot wooden skiff.  Thankfully, his English was better than our Spanish.  Accompanying him on the boat were two Honduran soldiers, in full combat gear with automatic weapons.  Just how they roll around here.

“There are no other moorings.  Where else can we go?”  I yelled back across the thirty foot gap between our boats, trying to be heard above the boat engines, the building swell, and the twenty knot winds.

“I think there is a better place.  You can anchor there.  Just follow me.”  Joel looked at us expectantly.

Kris and I looked at each other.  This decision had been made with hesitation and uncertainty already, over and over again.  But, that was before the option of anchoring came into play.  And before the winds had actually clocked to the west.

And the choice had never been solid, anyway.

Fuck it… we go.

*****

After arriving in Utila on New Year’s Day, disheartened that we had been forced to motor nearly the entire way from Guatemala, we vowed that our stay would be brief.  A return to see our friend Reiner at Rhino’s Bar, a bit of diesel in the jerry cans, some provisions at Bush’s Supermarket, as well as a visit to Skid Row, the local bar with killer pizza and Kris’ hands-down winner of the best Long Island Ice Tea in the Caribbean.

We only noticed at Rhino’s during our second trip to Utila that there were faces in the trees at the edge of the bar.  When we asked the owner Reiner wtf, he told us a story of an artist (whose name now eludes us) on Utila who was one of maybe three people on the planet capable of creating full face masks stretched and hammered from a single piece of leather.  The faces in the trees were actually forms the artist had made utilising the faces of locals on Utila as models to make molds which, in turn, became the template for the full-face leather masks… pretty damn crazy.

Knowing that Utila was likely to be party central on New Years Eve, we were quite keen to be gone before the 31st.  On the other hand, ringing in the new year at a remote island in the middle of nowhere sounded like a much more appetising option, and it appeared we would have favourable winds to sail the twenty five or thirty nautical miles to Cayos Cochinos on the 31st as well… sweet.

Wrong.

Another off forecast… shit.

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Leaving Utila New Years Eve

Once again, it was an hour or two after we were underway that it became very obvious our consistency was in our seeming ability to shift the oncoming wind into the face of wherever we were headed.

Overall, forecasts had been inconsistent and volatile, at best.  We typically access a handful of different independent sources for weather information —- Predict Wind; Windy; NOAA; The Weather Channel; Chris Parker on SSB; local information; and, ultimately, the testimony of our on-the-scene reporters… us.

What we had been seeing was a mishmash of contradictions.  Nothing agreed.

Welcome to sailing, I guess.  Clearly, one of the many factors that helped twentieth century technologies to obliterate sailing vessels from mainstream thought regarding global travel.  Oh, the transitioning mindset of an industrial society towards considering sailing as a great way to waste a Saturday afternoon rather than as a transportation necessity.

It had been frustrating enough trying to plan passages.  Predicted wind directions, wind speed, rain, and sea states that would have made favourable conditions to make progress in any direction either never materialised, were completely wrong in intensity, or were exactly the opposite of what we were expecting.

Delays in time or increased use of the engine were both annoying.  However, when it crossed over into the realm of safety, things could quickly get a bit more dicey.

The tiny islands of Cayos Cochinos, or Hog Cays, are nestled twenty miles south of Roatan and an equal distance northeast of La Ceiba, located on the Honduran mainland.  They consist of thirteen or so separate small islands —- the two major islands Cochino Grande (with a handful of inhabitants) and Cochino Pequeno (with a research facility as well as the ranger station), tiny Lower Monitor Cay with a small Garifuna community called Chachauate, plus a handful of other surrounding uninhabited or private small cays.  Despite the small size of the two largest cays, Cochino Grande not more than a mile across at its widest points and Cochino Pequeno even less, they rise an impressive five hundred feet above the ocean and are absolutely carpeted in jungle.

Having declared an area extending five miles outward from the perimeter of Cayos Cochinos to be a biological preserve and national marine park, the Honduran government has entered into a hundred year agreement with the Smithsonian Institute to work in cooperation for both the study and preservation of the area.  Long term coral studies are being done, all fishing is prohibited inside the park, and visiting boats can only use moorings – all anchoring is forbidden.

Visiting boats must also pay a mooring fee.  The daily rate of US$31 seems rather exorbitant. However, the monthly rate of US$93 makes it a pretty sweet deal as long as you’re staying more than just a few days.

We headed directly for Cochino Grande, as that was supposed to be the only location with mooring balls.  One pretty dated source had indicated there could be a half dozen or so moorings, identified with anything from a proper mooring ball to a plastic water bottle or oil jug.   

As we entered the bay, it looked like a couple of houses with private docks at the shore, but no other transiting boats in sight.  One big orange ball and three white jugs floated on the surface, all randomly spaced apart.  We approached the big orange ball… bigger float, maybe a heavier mooring for larger boats.

Suddenly, the depth gauge started dropping and there was coral everywhere under us.  Five feet… four feet… full reverse!  Eeek!

At the same time, a guy appeared on the shore near the closest dock and yelled at us.  That’s not a mooring!

Ahh… an obstruction marker.  Good to know.  Thanks for that!  Crisis narrowly averted.

Option number two – white floating jug to the south.  No painter attached to the mooring line… crap.

Option number three – white floating jug to the north had a painter.  Except the three strand line on the painter was beginning to part right at the loop… damn.

Option number four – the only other marker to be found.  Just right.  And not only did it seem to have everything intact, but after tying off and diving down to check everything more closely, we found it to have the heaviest tackle of all the moorings… sweet.

Quiet New Year’s celebration.  That’s okay.

The first couple of days of the new year were spent chilling out, exploring around a bit in the dinghy, and doing some snorkelling.  Not crazy coral, but nice.  Not great viz, but not horrible.

The pelicans — chilling out on nearby posts and trees, flying past, and performing what appeared to be, at best, semi-controlled crash-landings into the water hunting fish — provided continual entertainment.

A group of Americans staying in the house closest to where we were moored turned out to be quite friendly (one of them was part owner of the house and had been coming to Cayos Cochinos for twenty years).  We introduced ourselves after bringing to them a random refrigerator door (?!) which had come floating past us in the hopes they could dispose of it more easily than we could.  It turned out much better suited for a repurposed floating bar table than a pile of garbage.  Then, after a bit of a happy hour with Exit in the foreground of another incredible sunset scene, we ended up invited for a lobster dinner at their house.

Each day small boats would continually bring people to Cochino Grande for day trips.  There was a trail just down from us on the beach they would land at and spend thirty minutes or an hour before heading off to snorkel at another location.  We had heard that they were being shown a very rare pink boa indigenous to the islands.  However, we also heard that it was very emaciated, less than two feet long, and possibly being kept in captivity; so we opted to not go and see.

All of the tour boats would leave well before sunset, so we found ourselves with the bay pretty much to ourselves each evening.  And, though there were crazy eddies and currents, both in the air and water, which had us constantly dancing around on the mooring line, we had very good overall weather protection from the northwest all the way to the southeast.

When a motor yacht arrived and tied up on the mooring near to us, we joked that the bay had just gotten crowded.  It looked like two locals aboard, probably from La Ceiba or Roatan.  When they immediately started their generator, closed all the hatches and curtains, and disappeared for the day, it seemed rather strange.

When a local lancha pulled up to the boat for a couple of minutes in the early afternoon and then again in the late afternoon, each time exchanging small plastic bags, it seemed rather suspicious.

After the same thing happened the next day, it seemed even more suspicious.

Then they left.  Sweet.  Then they returned a day later.  Strange.  The whole process happened again.

On the third day, the same lancha returned, with a group of people this time, who climbed aboard the moored yacht.  The boat left.  A day later it returned and the same thing happened.  After this, we didn’t see the motor yacht again.  Weird.  We half-joked that the meth production must supplement the yacht charter business when things got quiet.

When we started seeing forecasts a couple of days away that threatened to potentially throw west and southwest winds (ya… the fucking winds we had been looking for all the way from Livingston) at us in the 25-35 knot range, we began to get a bit nervous.  Though no winds from this direction had actually come to fruition recently, we knew if they did, this bay would become untenable even in fifteen or twenty knot winds.  And we certainly didn’t trust the mooring we were currently on enough to ride out 25+ knot winds, especially less than a hundred meters off of a lee shore.

Three different weather models looking forward twenty four hours.  One forecasting NW winds at less than 5 knots; the second indicating NE winds at around 15 knots; the third said WSW at over twenty knots.  The models at Windy were forecasting SW with gusts in the low thirties… take your pick.

We decided against heading for Roatan, five hours away.  We knew it would be crowded already, and everybody would already heading for protected bays making things even more crowded.  Plus the wind was forecasted to be even stronger there.  We were certain we didn’t want to be one of the last boats trying to find a spot to squeeze in an already tight space just before the shit potentially hit the fan.

We decided to sit tight, hoping the forecast was wrong yet again.  If things kicked up enough, we’d just have to be prepared to leave the mooring and head for open water.  We were on the best mooring in the bay, there were no other moorings anywhere else, and anchoring here wasn’t an option.

Limited options.  Not ideal, but not a deal breaker… yet.

When the first sailboat that we had seen since departing Utila arrived and tied up to a mooring on the other side of the bay, we didn’t have a chance to speak to them, but we took it as a slightly good sign that at least one other boat felt this was a good place to be, given the mixed forecasts.

However, a day later as the winds proceeded to clock around definitively to the west and began to exceed fifteen knots, the waves quickly built up.  As the wind reached twenty knots sustained we knew things were going to get interesting.

Hoping for something to go away seemed much less prudent than hoping for something to not materialise.  We were going to have to make a decision.  This was not promising at all.  But what to do?

As we were discussing our quickly deteriorating situation and distinct lack of options, we watched the boat for the park service arrive and pull up alongside the other sailboat on the opposite side of the bay.  Moments later the sailboat detached from its mooring line, and began slowly making way across the bay, its bow surging up and down as it struggled through the breaking waves which were stacking up more and more.

What the hell?  Had they been told they had to leave?  Obviously, they were headed elsewhere.

Slowly, the park boat escorted the sailboat towards Cayos Pequeno, about a mile to the west, and then sped over towards us.

“Are you okay staying here?”

It was Joel, the park ranger for Cayos Cochinos, who had just pulled up alongside Exit in his twenty foot wooden skiff.  Thankfully, his English was better than our Spanish.  Accompanying him on the boat were two Honduran soldiers, in full combat gear with automatic weapons.  Just how they roll around here.

“There are no other moorings.  Where else can we go?”  I yelled back across the thirty foot gap between our boats, trying to be heard above the boat engines, the building swell, and the twenty knot winds.

“I think there is a better place.  You can anchor there.  Just follow me.”  Joel looked at us expectantly.

Kris and I looked at each other.  This decision had been made with hesitation and uncertainty already, over and over again.  But, that was before the option of anchoring came into play.  And before the winds had actually clocked to the west.

And the choice had never been solid, anyway.

Fuck it… we go.

The wind speed was now climbing into the low twenties and the waves were pushing straight into the bay.  After struggling free of our own mooring, we too found ourselves hobby horsing through the swell as we inched along, Exit impossibly trying to keep up with the dual two hundred horsepower Yamaha engines on the stern of the park boat, which was now speeding forward towards the first sailboat.

As Cayos Pequeno grew closer, I could see through the binoculars that the sailboat had dropped anchor in a smaller bay on the southeastern tip of the island.  In stark contrast to the bay we had just left and the channel we were currently in, the water around them appeared nearly tranquil.

The overcast skies and choppy conditions made for an unnerving approach.  A rock or reef could be sitting just under the surface of the water in front of us that we would never see until we were on top of it.

We had to trust that the area Joel was pointing at was clear of obstructions.

Creeping forward, we watched the depth gauge hold steady at seventy feet.  Kris struggled to maintain our steering as our speed slowed and the winds gusted to twenty five.  The depth gauge slowly dropped to sixty and then fifty feet.   

At least this wasn’t a lee shore.  Had the mooring we had just left in the other bay failed, we would have had only had seconds to react before running aground.  Now the winds were pushing us offshore.

However, we were also getting to be less than a hundred meters away from the other sailboat tucked farther in the bay to port, and not much more than that from the rocks we could see barely breaking the surface just off our starboard bow a bit offshore.  Still over forty feet deep underneath us.  Shit.

As we slowed, Kris began to lose steering control.  The bow started bearing away as the twenty two knot winds shoved us sideways.  Decision time.

Kris called out from the cockpit, “Drop the anchor or we’re getting out of here!”

I started releasing chain.  It was feeding through the windlass gypsy only barely faster than we were pulling sideways.  When a hundred feet of chain had been paid out I stopped and quickly hooked on the snubber – just before the anchor caught hard and snapped us around (in twenty knot winds there’s always a moment of truth between either successfully snubbing the chain before the load hits, or potentially twisting off your windlass spindle or saying goodbye to a finger).

We slowly paid out the remainder of our chain.  One hundred forty five feet.  Our depth was between forty and fifty feet.  Not better than a three to one scope – not text book for a blow.

Putting out the 5/8″ line which comprised the remainder of our rode seemed risky.  If there was rock or coral on the bottom, it would chafe right through.

We knew we were dug in hard.  We had felt that.  We’d just take our chances with the Rocna and 1/2″ chain for now.  If we could eventually dive the anchor, great.  If not, we’d have to trust the gear.

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Though we were still exposed to a lot of wind, both wrapping around the island as well as rolling over the top of it, we had nearly one hundred percent protection from any waves coming anywhere from the southwest all the way to the north.

We were never able to see the anchor on the bottom.

As sundown neared, it seemed as though Mother Nature might even give us a bit of a break.  The wind, still from the southwest, appeared to be stabilising at closer to fifteen knots.

Then, as the dark settled in around us, the only light references that we had — the lights aboard the other sailboat and the lights on the nearby beach from the research station — which had been directly in front of us, began to swing to the side.

The wind was shifting and beginning to increase again.

By midnight, the wind had clocked all the way around to the north, putting us back on a lee shore with more than twenty knot winds.  At first, our position seemed so skewed we thought we had begun dragging.  Now we were nearly alongside the other sailboat.

However, after checking the anchor alarm it became clear that, while we had swung clear around, the anchor was holding fast.  We must have had a lot more scope out than they did.  Still, our proximity to both the shore and the other sailboat was disconcerting enough to that we decided to maintain live anchor watch from the cockpit with the engine running… just in case.  There was no margin on this now.

And they were well closer to the shore than we were.  It looked like they were nearly aground.

We couldn’t see much more than a light on deck occasionally on the other boat.  We tried to hail them on the VHF but they never responded.

Then, at four a.m. as our nerves were beginning to fray, the lights on the sailboat began moving… or was it us?  There is a moment of uncertainty when you can’t tell if it’s your point of reference that’s moving or it’s you.  It was them.

It wasn’t clear whether they had started to drag or simply felt too boxed in.  All we could see was a lot more lights and movement on their deck, as their boat started moving.  For a bit it appeared that they were trying to reset their anchor but they were far too close to us.  After passing both in front and behind of us a couple of times, they veered away and headed towards the channel between the two islands.

Within a couple of minutes we could see nothing more than a dim light in the distance, either their steaming or masthead light.

Though the winds didn’t settle down, we both found ourselves able to rest  more — while simultaneously feeling more than a bit guilty for being so grateful that we didn’t have another boat right next to us.

Later that morning we watched the sailboat that had been next to us the night before, now back on a mooring in the Cochino Grande bay, pick up and head out.  They had had enough.  It looked as though they were headed for Roatan.

By noon, the northeast wind had tapered off, clocked around one hundred eighty degrees and was starting to pick up again from the southwest.  Thankfully, we slowly begin to swing around away from the shore.

The afternoon provided quite a surreal show as we watched the winds swirl around Cochino Pequeno.  The rain closest to us was moving definitively from south to north; the rain directly in front of the island was moving distinctly from north to south; and the low clouds reaching the upper elevations of the island were unmistakably being pushed upwards and over the top of the peak… crazy.

At five o’clock, the wind speed was running steady in the upper twenties.  By midnight, we were seeing low thirties, still from the southwest.  And by three a.m., gusts in the mid-thirties from a west wind were testing our ground tackle further than we ever had in water deeper than we had ever anchored on a scope less than we would normally set for no wind at all.

 

For the next twenty four hours we had more of the same non-stop shitty weather.  Winds constantly in the twenties gusting low thirties.  Relentless barrages of rain.  At least the wind direction held, allowing the thin stretch of land jutting out from the end of Cochino Pequeno to provide us with just enough protection to spare us from most of the brutal waves that seemed to be everywhere else around us.

And even more importantly, the anchor held as well.

The morning after was brilliant.  Blue sky and tranquil water.  Like we were alone on the planet.

Finally, after days of watching the tiny little island in the distance get pounded by weather…

…we were actually able to dinghy out and visit the island.

Snorkelling with eagle rays, toad fish, strange rays, little turtles as well as picnics in the dinghy…

After a day enjoying the beautiful weather just off of Cochino Pequeno, it was time to head back to the mooring ball on Cochino Grande.  The wind was expected to shift back to the northeast again which would, once again, place us in the wrong spot.

There was an uncertain moment while we watched a new sailboat enter the Cochino Grande bay that we thought it had picked up “our” mooring, which would have put us in a quandary.  But all turned out good, as it was on the mooring next to the one we were returning to.

Back just in time too see the sun setting over Cochino Pequeno.  A calm night… tonight.

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Jan. 8th sunset

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