Like A Greyhound On The Run

March 18, 2020

Part Four in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

Fast forward six hours…

Kris had been sporadically corresponding with a number of cruisers and marinas in Panama.  Information was valid for literally only the moment it was passed on, as policies and procedures were as fluid and volatile as the seas we were sailing on.  The satellite connection was in and out.  Reports we were getting about Panama were mixed and conflicting —- breakwaters into some harbors like Colon were being patrolled by armed navy boats that were turning people away… no, some were being let through; the Panama Canal had stopped allowing small private vessels to transit… no, some small vessels were still being allowed to transit.  

It was very possible that all the information was correct when it was posted.  However, things were changing at a dizzying and breakneck speed.

It was now sundown and we still had at least one hundred seventy five nautical miles to go before reaching the entrance channel to Bocas del Toro (even if we could keep an “as the crow flies” line).  Our best distance covered in twenty four hours to date so far had been abut one fifty nautical miles, and that was with the Gulf Stream currents in our favor.

We had never sailed this far south so, obviously, we had never been in the harbour of Bocas del Toro.  We had always abided by the rule that we would never enter an unfamiliar harbour for the first time after dark.  

Despite the fact that our electronic Navionics charts had never failed us… missing or changing navigational markers, confusion generated from shore lights, unseen boats either underway or at anchor, shifts in shoaling areas, and a host of other possible hazards had always been too daunting to risk a nighttime approach.

Previously, we had always waited until sunlight could provide a safer approach.  But suddenly everything was not so clear cut.  Things were changing not only from day to day, but from hour to hour.  At this moment, time was not on our side.

Fast forward another eight hours…

4:20am… exactly twenty four hours after we had been turned away from Providencia.  Exit had been like a greyhound on the run.  During that time we had been flying along at between six and eight knots of speed… thirteen to fifteen knot winds on a beam reach… five to six foot seas… pitch blackness all around us… no other boats.  

In some uncanny way, it’s almost as though Exit understood what was at stake, and she was giving everything she had.

Kris had a different theory.  During her watch, between 11pm and 3am, she had watched our depth gauge flash momentary depth readings of between fifty and sixty feet consistently.  The water we were sailing in was three to ten thousand feet deep.  She had heard a big thump against the hull at one point.  Possibly we were being tracked and stalked by a Kraken and Exit is running for her life!!!!

At 4:30, I heard a thump also.  But it was a large flying fish that had, in a moment of stupidity or bad luck, leaped out of the water at the very moment we were passing by.  Bouncing off the inside pontoon of our dinghy, which hung against the stern arch, the flying fish landed on the deck and flopped about desperately, tying to return to the relative safety of the water, thereby avoiding having committed an unintended suicide.  

Or… it too, was trying to escape the savage jaws of the Kraken that potentially hunted us.

I grabbed the wet, slippery fish and quickly tossed it back into the sea.  We’ll never know whether I saved it’s life, or condemned it to death as an appetizer for a black eyed Kraken…

As the dawn arrived, though I can’t speak as to the outcome for the flying fish, we were still sailing like a hellhound (or a Kraken) was hot on our trail.

Though the wind had picked up to a steady sixteen knots and the seas were reaching six to eight feet, our sailing angle was very forgiving of the conditions, and we were comfortably hauling ass at seven to eight knots of speed.  We had actually made good on one hundred seventy nautical miles of distance… a new record for us, and the exact pace we needed to get to Bocas del Toro before sundown.

Two hours later, the seas had actually built up to the point we were seeing waves of between eight and ten feet —- tall, but with a fair interval between them.  At least we were still sailing on an angle of about one hundred twenty degrees, with the waves at just about the same angle.  We were surfing a bit, and had lowered the daggerboard (a fin set just in front of the rudder, liftable from the cockpit —-  not unlike the fin on a surfboard) completely.

As long as there was adequate (but not too much) wind, things remained… uhm… sporty.

And then…

…the damn wind begin to die.  

Fourteeen… then steady at twelve…

It was at about this same time that we received the only boat to boat communications we had experienced thus far during our five day passage.

They identified themselves as Sprezzatura.  During a back and forth radio conversation, we learned that they were one of the boats sharing Governor’s Harbour with us during the last week or so of our stay at Grand Cayman.  They had actually departed a day after us, but had apparently passed us when we diverted towards Providencia. 

Eric, owner and captain of his motor trawler Sprezzatura, with crew mate Katy aboard, indicated he had seen us twenty miles back last night but we had closed the gap to a few miles.

Though we both had AIS, it seemed to cut in and out (possibly the result of AIS being dependent upon close enough proximity of the transponders found on large ships, something that had been strangely far and few in between…blah…blah…blah).

We did remember them from Governor’s Harbour, though we had never met or talked to them.  They were headed for Bocas del Toro as well.  Basically the exact same situation.  It was good to have comrades in arms… mates in the same boat… partners in crime… fellow floating refugees… 

Only time would tell.

By 10am, the winds had dropped below double digits.  At that point I became a firm believer that, as a rule —-and if the rule doesn’t exist, it should —- it is generally a bad thing to be in situations where wave heights exceed wind speeds.

… let me think about that for a moment… Okay, yes… I do stand by that statement.

After running the math, as best we could calculate considering the infinite number of variables, our only chance of reaching the entrance channel to Bocas del Toro (still sixty miles away) before dark was in motoring.  Nothing less than six knots of speed; and that would get us only to the entrance of the channel.

We met a guy on a sailboat during our first time in the Bahamas who… ya… boasted that he always fired up his engine if he couldn’t maintain a minimum six knots of speed.  We thought the guy was a complete and utter  dickhead.

If a Higher Power exists, whom was actually paying attention, there had to be a smile on at least one of the three faces at the very moment we fired up the Perkins and put it into gear.  Ironic… I know.

It’s Okay To Live Like A Refugee

March 15 – 17, 2020

Part Three in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

The Tom Petty lyrics haven’t resonated so much since playing the song with my band mates forty years ago.

*****

After our near miss incident with potential pirates… or, more optimistically, after we saw an innocuous fishing boat in the same area as us that scared the shit out of us, we remained at DEFCON1 alert for quite some time.  That night we maintained our running “dark” status, though we saw no other vessels until the following  day, and those were big cargo ships.

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Offshore Post-Pirate Sunrise – Caymans to Panama

The following morning, after motor sailing in nearly non-existent winds for over twelve hours, simply trying to get the hell out of the “danger zone”, once again we began to see an uptick in the numbers on our wind speed indicator.  We were grateful to be far enough south of the shoals that comprise the Nicaraguan Rise that we could begin to breathe easily regarding security matters.  As well, we were ecstatic that we now had enough breeze to shut off the engine and enjoy the more natural and hypnotic sounds of Exit under sail rather than the industrial (not to mention expensive) sounds of our infernal combustion engine (as two of our best sailing compatriots would describe their diesel engine).

We chose, shortly after departing Grand Cayman, to change our initial destination to Providencia – the first of three small groups of islands about one hundred seventy five nautical miles southwest of our current location but still one hundred twenty five miles off the coast.  Though physically closest to Nicaragua, the islands (Providencia, San Andreas, and Albuquerque Cay) are under the control of Columbia.

We had heard that those passing by who opted to make the small detour, diverting from a direct line to Panama, would be rewarded with beautiful scenery, fabulous scuba diving, and a completely chilled and relaxing atmosphere.  Quite an easy sell.

Fourteen to sixteen knot winds and very comfortable seas allowed us to coax seven to eight and a half knots of speed from Exit.  Once again… sailing bliss.  Every minute of latitude further to the south that we passed was a minute further south than we had ever sailed.   

Another twenty four hours later, we were still making great progress under sails alone.  We had completed three days at sea, and all three of us (myself, Kris, and Exit) had found our rhythm.  The only exception came when, during the middle of the afternoon, we motorsailed for a few hours, repositioning ourselves to avoid upcoming shoals as well as setting up our angle of approach which would hopefully allow us to sail overnight and straight to Providencia itself.

Passing squalls that night made for some sporty conditions and challenging sailing when the winds seemed to constantly shift.  Once again, we were grateful for our self-induced policy to keep our mainsail reefed every night, preventing the unpleasant waking of the person off watch when whoever was in the cockpit had to go on deck at night.  Furthermore, keeping the staysail flying constantly helped us to make stellar time.  We could reduce the amount of genoa sail when winds picked up without compromising our speed, instead of hesitating until after it should have already been done.

Everything seemed to be falling into place… not quite five hundred fifty nautical miles travelled…

… and then, at 4:20am of course, came the hail on the VHF radio.

It was the Providencia Port Authorities.  Presumably, they had picked us up on AIS (Automatic Identification System), which we had turned back on after concluding we were well out of any area potentially dangerous for pirate encounters (see previous post).  After all, we were entering one of the highest traffic shipping areas in the world, the area in proximity to the Panama Canal; now we wanted to be seen.

Currently, we were about ten miles outside Providencia and making straight for the island.  We answered the hail and were asked in very broken English what our intentions were.  

We replied that, with their permission, we were hoping to enter Providencia and clear in.

The voice returned over the airwaves.  “We are so, so sorry.  By order of the Colombian Authorities, no boat will be allowed to enter Providencia.  Please continue to your next port of call.”

Shit.  This was not good at all.

We asked, “Is it possible for us to enter the harbour and anchor overnight without coming ashore, just to rest?”

“No.  I’m very sorry.  You cannot enter.  You must continue on,” was the reply.

Our next question was a stupid one.  “Is this because of the coronavirus?”

“Yes.”

The follow up question was less stupid, but we thought we already knew the answer.  “Can we clear in at San Andreas?”

A few moments later he replied.  “I don’t know.”

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Sunrise just off Providencia – denied entry.

San Andreas was approximately fifty nautical miles further to the south.  Regardless of what they would say, it  was the direction we were heading, anyway.

Eight hours later we were ten miles outside of San Andreas, just beginning day five of our passage when we  received the hail from the San Andreas Port Authorities…

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17MAR20… As close as we would get to San Andreas

Deja vu.

Same conversation.  Same outcome.

Effectively… We’re closed.  Keep going.  Be someone else’s problem.

We could see the trend.  It wasn’t promising.  In fact, it was getting downright scary.

Bocas del Toro was the nearest Panamanian port that we could even potentially clear into, and that was still over two hundred miles away. 

Could we make it before Panama closed their borders as well?

The race was on…

Close Call… Or Nothing At All

March 14, 2020

Part Two in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

Offshore passage from Cayman Islands to Panama.  Seventeen hours underway.

Position:  17º 1.320’ N, 80º 0.246’W (approximately 225nm off shore from Nicaragua, east of the Nicaraguan Rise)

Time: 16:45

The only boat traffic that we had observed since departing Grand Cayman thirty hours prior had been a few cargo ships which had all been between two to five miles closer towards the coast than we were.  We were aware of previous piracy incidents by fishing boats in the area and were maintaining a course outside of waypoints we had been given as well outside the coordinates of any earlier problems.  We had already made the difficult decision to run completely dark – AIS  (Automatic Identification System, which allows us to send and receive vessel position and information for ourselves and other vessels equipped with the technology) turned off and no navigation lights at night, knowing full well that this actually made us a risk to all other vessels in the area.  

The due diligence of uninterrupted watches from the cockpit round the clock was our responsibility entirely.  It certainly was not lost on us how ironic it would be to collide with another sailboat also running dark while trying to avoid pirates that may or may not even be in the vicinity.

At the time, most of my focus was split between monitoring a 200 meter container ship which had just overtaken and passed us about two miles off our starboard side, as well as trying to maintain even a mere three knots of speed under sails alone, in less than six knots of wind.

It should have been visible earlier, but I first noticed the vessel no more than a couple miles away (approximately forty five degrees abaft of our port beam – right in my most blind spot).  It looked to be a fishing boat traveling on a course that would both overtake and converge with us.  Apart from the cargo ship, it was the only vessel that could be seen from horizon to horizon for 360 degrees.

Monitoring the boat, it appeared to maintain course and speed, eventually coming to a position forward of us while still closing the distance between us.

We fired up our engine (normally I feel guilty about burning fossil fuels every time we run the engine, but immediate personal survival always trumps long term species survival) and made an immediate sixty degree turn to port, placing us on a course that took us directly behind the boat.  We were now moving at more than twice our earlier speed.  As we passed behind the boat, maybe a quarter of a mile back, we could see no one on deck and the boat seemed oblivious to us.

For the next half hour, we watched the fishing boat as well as tracked it on our radar.  It never appeared to alter course or speed, just disappeared over the horizon, headed towards the Nicaraguan coast.  Eventually, we lost radar contact and never saw it again.

Slowly, our heart rates began returning to normal.

Optimistically, we may have just been on a random crossing course with a vessel minding its own business, no different from the cargo ship that had passed us just prior.  However… unless this boat was fishing the open ocean in three to six thousand feet of water, it had to be coming from either Pedro Bank 60nm farther out, or it was actually from Jamaica (which at 120nm away, was well closer than Nicaragua).  

It seems impossible that we were being tracked by anyone.  Our AIS had been off since departing Grand Cayman; we had been running without navigation lights at night where we could have been seen from much further away; and, even during the day, the boat would have had to have been within a few miles to possibly see us.  Even radar would have difficulty seeing a target a small as us at any substantial distance.

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Night sailing off the Nicaraguan Banks

The alternative is that we barely dodged a bullet… we may have been seen at some point and followed discreetly.  We had turned on our AIS a handful of times to check for shipping traffic and/or to identify our presence to the few cargo ships that we had seen up to that point, as they approached us.  If we had been noticed then, our course could have been projected with a fair degree of accuracy.

Or possibly it was a combination of both —- a random encounter on the open ocean with a fishing vessel that was there to catch fish but smelled an easier alternative.  The fact that we were able to start our engine and motor away quickly established that we were not a disabled vessel ripe for the picking by potential pirates of opportunity.

No harm, no foul.  We’ll remain cautiously realistic optimists at this point… as long as we’re still… on a boat, mother fucker.  No, not just any boat.  Only S/V Exit.

No Corona Here… Only Caybrew Beer

February 20 – March 13, 2020

Part One in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

Much like Guanaja, Grand Cayman provided both a temporary stopping point and a chance to visit friends we hadn’t seen since July.  

For the better part of three weeks, we worked on boat projects prepping for our next departure; topped up our provisions (another Mecca of just about anything you want if you can swallow Cayman prices); visited friends; learned that our oh so important laptop, even in the capable hands of a Mac repair person, was now able to do nothing more than billow smoke (RIP); and endured relentless bouts of wind – causing us to both move continuously as well as delay any long-range departure.

Budget traveler’s tip:  Try to time visits to expensive restaurants to coincide just prior with wedding party reservations, thereby maximizing your chances of being asked to move to the bar, when it turns out the table you have been occupying for three hours is now needed for the wedding party.  A managerial request of this magnitude should always be accompanied with an invitation for a round of drinks, on the house, of course.

Behold — the US$22.00 Gin & Tonic… mint with pink peppercorns… absolutely free of charge.

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Seriously…

We were damned if we were going to get smashed on the high seas again or do another meandering wander through the Caribbean. 

But…

Even with our limited exposure to the daily overload of monotonous, relentless, repetitious, and manipulative information permeating the air waves, television screens, Internet sites, and media outlets, it was impossible to ignore the growing maelstrom surrounding the coronavirus.  

For over a month, the topic of Covid-19 had evolved from brief passing mentions to dominating the attention, policies, and actions of an entire globe.  We first began hearing whispers —- the tracking of emerging cases, China limiting travel, a woman on a sailboat in the Rio Dulce who had researched the virus over fifty years ago.

Then the whispers melted into discussions… which began to permeate every conversation… which allowed a creeping fear and sense of real danger to spread even faster than the virus itself.

And suddenly, confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths were no longer isolated incidents.  They were showing up all over the planet.

Discussions of flight restrictions… cruise ships not being allowed into harbors… quarantined travelers… 

…and then borders began to close.

Our own one month visa in the Cayman Islands was down to one week remaining (starting to sound familiar?).

Panama had not yet begun implementing any restrictions on travel or incoming sailboats.  It was where we needed to be to make an eventual crossing over to the Pacific.  Even if that didn’t happen this year, there were plenty of places (San Blas, Bocas del Toro) that would be easy to spend months and months exploring.  Panama granted six month immigration visas (and one year clearance for the vessel) which meant we wouldn’t have to keep moving from country to country.  And it was potentially a safe hideaway during hurricane season.  Furthermore, we knew we would be flying to SE Asia and the U.S. for a bit between September and November.  It seemed to make sense as a destination.

So ideas quickly evolved into plans.  We would catch the next reasonable opportune weather window and sail (hopefully more than motor sailing or, even worse, motoring) the six hundred or so nautical miles south to Panama.  We expected the passage to take about five days, with our course taking us over two hundred nautical miles off the coast of Nicaragua (far enough to, in theory, avoid the piracy issues which have begin cropping up in the area).  Hell, we would actually be closer to Jamaica than we would to the coast of Central America at that time.

And then the announcement was made that San Blas was going into lockdown.

The San Blas Islands, an archipelago of more than 340 islands on Panama’s Caribbean coast, also called Guna Yala by the indigenous and autonomous Guna Indians who effectively control this area of Panama, contain some of the most untouched stretches of virgin rainforest in the world.  The landscape has remained virtually unchanged in 500 years since the Spanish invaded.

It is said that the Guna Indians have best preserved their traditions and culture out of all of the tribes in the Americas (Panama Cruising Guide, 2015).  Land is effectively a resource to be used by the public rather than owned by individuals or possessed by industrial development.

Typically, though the Gunas prohibit any outsiders from permanently settling or inter-marrying and foreigners are not allowed to buy land or invest in Guna Yala, they are very accepting of visitors.

However, given their delicate situation in the modern world, it was completely understandable when the word came down that they were closing their borders to all outsiders.

…which concerned us greatly.  

We had no idea whether or not there was any hope of getting an extension on our visa in the Cayman Islands, given the current volatility of policies, procedures, and protocols from country to country which seemed to be changing on a daily, or sometimes even hourly, basis. 

There was talk of the Caymans shutting down cruise ship traffic and even air traffic in and out for weeks, so we held out little hope of being allowed to stay longer.

Furthermore, we worried that if we waited too long, we may not be able to get into Panama.

When our weather window appeared on the near horizon, it was a small one.  Good wind direction, wind speed, as well as sea state… a trifecta.  Far and few in between on those.  

It would be a Friday departure… considered back luck by superstitious sailors.  But, what the fuck… women and bananas on your boat are considered bad luck as well.  Another trifecta.  Not only that, it would be Friday the 13th…

We’d either emerge on the other side with an uptick of confidence or we’d become a couple of exceptionally superstitious saps.

We were anchored in Governor’s Harbour, on the north side of the island.  It had proven to be the only place we could sit tight in just about any weather that was thrown our way, but still allowed access to civilization.  Clearing out of Grand Cayman was going to require a bit of a dance.

We needed to get diesel, which was available in Governor’s Harbour, plus we could get some supplies at the nearby Cost U Less (kind of like a Costco).  However, the Immigration and Customs offices were on the other side of the island, in West Bay where all the cruise ships arrived.

Once we cleared out, we had a maximum of twenty four hours to depart.  

If we waited to get the diesel after we had completed the clearing out process, it would cost us $3.00 per gallon instead of $4.50.  Plus this was Cayman currency which meant we were paying about twenty five percent more than the US dollar… not an insignificant amount of money.  Over a hundred dollars difference.

We couldn’t pick up our spear guns (which had to be surrendered when we first cleared into Grand Cayman) until we were moments from leaving, as they were contraband items for us here.

It also turned out that duty-free liquor here was actually a HUGE savings, but was only available after we had our clearing out documents signed and stamped.  We’re talking 50% off, plus a number of them that had an additional “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” promotions.  Too good to pass up, especially for us!  The duty-free liquor store was conveniently located right next to the Immigration and Customs office.  However, any liquor purchased duty-free would be delivered to Customs where, it too, would only be released just before we departed.

We were informed that the spear guns could be delivered to Governor’s Harbour by Customs but they would not do the same for the liquor.  We’d have to come and pick that up.

Damn, this was getting complicated.

So…

On the morning of Thursday the 12th, we took the cheaper option of a public bus to the Customs and Immigration office and completed the paperwork process of clearing out, after which we went straight to the liquor store and placed our order for a shit-ton of booze. Then we returned to Exit, transferred sixty gallons of diesel via our dinghy with jerry cans (no docking for us), and sailed the three hours back around to West Bay where we picked up a mooring and made a last run to the grocery store.

To our dismay, Crazy Guy was on a nearby mooring again (he had swam over to us from his tiny sailboat a couple of weeks earlier pushing a surf board with a waterproof Pelican case on it, claiming to be Jesus visiting his third universe where he was now tasked both with freeing all the rivers in the world of dams, as well as running for President of the United States this November once he found his twelve female Apostlettes and sailed to Florida…).  WTF?  At least he stayed on his boat this time… but I digress.

Eerily, there were no cruise ships looming near us.  Only an overwhelming stench remaining from a massive tire fire that had ignited at the rubbish dump upwind nearby, which had taken days to put out… but, again, I digress.

Stay on target Red Leader…

So, we’ve cleared out, sorted our duty-free liquor, gotten our diesel, purchased our supplies and provisions, returned to West Bay, and avoided another encounter with Crazy Guy… whew.

The following morning, we took the dinghy to the Port Authority dock, picked up our spear guns and eleven bottles (a great deal is a great deal!) of liquor, returned to Exit, released our line from the mooring, and departed Grand Cayman, setting out on what would become another epic journey.

An hour later, we were sliding smoothly through the water, under power of sails alone.  Running our mainsail, genoa, and staysail, we were averaging a respectable six to eight knots in fifteen knot winds just aft of a perfect beam reach. The four to six foot seas were lumpy; but the fact that we were not smashing straight into those conditions made it a night and day difference from the previous pounding we received struggling to get to Grand Cayman.

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Friday the 13th departure for Panama – sunset

For nearly the next thirty hours, during which we celebrated surpassing the nine thousand nautical miles travelled marker (five thousand of those offshore), we sailed in as good sailing conditions as we’d seen in way too long of a time.   Not perfect… but a lot better than we been getting used to. 

Backtracking

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Return to Guanaja

January 21 – February 20, 2020

After bagging (provisions) and dragging (our anchor) we were well ready to depart Roatan.

While our longer term destination was still in question —- Panama seemed the most likely at this particular moment —- working our way back through the Cayman Islands appeared logical from a general direction sense.  Even though this was a roundabout navigation to Panama, it allowed us to circumvent the entire coast of Nicaragua, which we definitely wanted to avoid.

Thus far, we have tried to maintain a reasonable blend of both caution and optimism regarding security concerns.  Oftentimes, simple common sense precautions are all that are required to avoid any problems at all.  However, the stretch of shallows and shoals, known as the Nicaraguan Rise, reaching well off the coast of eastern Nicaragua, is no place to take lightly.

Poor fortune among the fishing boats in this area has given rise to the desperation of what can only be described as opportunistic piracy.  These fishermen have not changed occupations in a full time sense; yet, they cannot survive catching nothing.  Cargo ships are far too ambitious a target for anyone but the most hardened and well equipped pirates (as would be the case in Somalia, for instance).   But there have been increasing incidents involving passing sailboats being attacked —- armed boardings, robberies, even rapes and murder.  

What was once considered a safe buffer, say, at least one hundred nautical miles offshore, has proven inadequate in more and more cases.  Though some banks and shoals can be found more than 200 nautical miles offshore, this is far too distant for most fishing boats to venture and no problems have been reported by sailboats passing through these waters.  

If Panama is the destination, it’s gonna have to be via a roundabout navigation… fair enough.

Which meant passing by Guanaja… which, of course, required a stop.

We thought we had picked a good day for sailing.  By wind speed and direction, it was.  By the sea state… not so much.  Once we cleared the northern tip of Roatan, we were met with eight to ten foot seas.  It turned out to be a complete slog; and, in the end, we had to motorsail just to pound through the mess.

Still, we were happy to be back.  The old spots… Michael Rock, El Bight, Graham’s Cay, Bonacca.  Certainly back to Thirsty Thursday at the Cay Cafe and a reunion with our friends Don and Anette, who introduced us to their feisty ten year old daughter Asalin.

A trip to the falls:

Sure Feels Good… 

As always, boat projects and explorations to be done.

Side note:  When using shackles with threaded pins, always seize the pin in place with wire – especially on load-bearing and/or critical hardware.  Upon lowering the  halyard to patch the U/V protection cover on our genoa, we discovered the threaded pin had backed itself completely out of the shackle, and was literally just hanging there… this was all that was holding up our genoa.

But, even with the good times and maintenance progress, this was just a pit stop.  After three weeks, we needed to get moving.  It hadn’t been been all drinking and smoking.  Mostly… but we did get a lot of boat tasks done as well.  And to be fair, up to that point, it had been pretty shit weather opportunities to sail onward to Grand Cayman.  We had passed on a number of chances; but it was because, although the wind was right, we had opted to not subject ourselves to three days of six to ten foot seas… ick.

Nevertheless, we now only had one week left on our visa.  The options were diminishing.

Plus, Kris had accidentally drowned our laptop with a glass of wine and Grand Cayman was the most likely place we could possibly have it resuscitated… ouch.  Partly the reason for a temporary reduction in photos.

In the end, we chose what we deemed the lesser of potential evils – more favorable sea state and wind speed with less preferable wind direction.  Opposite of what we had experienced coming from Roatan to Guanaja.  We justified it as preferring to sail a longer distance to our destination in a roundabout manner than to get the shit beat out of us for a shorter duration or having to motor in too little wind.

We knew that, regardless of our choice, there was a high likelihood that we would see completely different conditions than we expected anyway… simply the nature of the beast.

Extra credit for consistency – the one thing we are consistently right about when we’re underway is that we won’t be right about the wind, weather, and conditions when we’re underway.

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Departing Guanaja in the rain…

We hoped that when a pod of dozens of dolphins joined us for a spell to play, riding our bow wake and darting back and forth just in front of us, that it was a good omen.

We even had gotten our stay sail sorted before departing which been residing in a locker for the better part of a year.  It’s on a self-tacking rail system that’s ingeniously integrated into the deck of the boat, which makes for easy handling and a perfect alternative to the massive genoa when the winds really kick up.

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Rail for self tacking stay sail

However, the three hundred twenty nautical miles that we expected to take just over two and half days stretched out to four hundred fifty miles and four days.  Stacked and confused seas right out of the starting gate took an immediate toll on Kris and she was still feeling like shit three days later.  

The wind, coming directly from Grand Cayman, forced us to do a massive loop around to the west.  An observer looking at our navigation track would have initially thought we were making for Belize and then Mexico instead of the Caymans.  Two and a half days later (the time a straight navigation should have taken) we had travelled one hundred ninety five nautical miles and were only halfway through our passage.  We were actually closer to Cuba than we were to Grand Cayman. 

Twelve hours later, as we found ourselves having to motorsail, smashing through three to six foot waves directly on our nose in fifteen to twenty knot winds trying to set up an angle to sail, we were seriously considering Cuba or México as an actual alternative destination.  At one point, a wave breaking across the bow hurled so much water against the isinglass window of our dodger, the resulting crash sounded as though the entire dodger was going to collapse.  It was fifteen hours before we were able to finally shut off the engine… damn. 

For your entertainment:  Señor Pingüinos Magical Submarine Viewing Adventure… or looking out Exit’s galley hatch in a bit of swell…

Discovering a pint of transmission fluid in the engine compartment bilge, once the engine was shut down, only contributed to the mental exhaustion.  And Kris still looked green and felt utterly like shit. 

Finally, nearly at our wits’ end – frazzled, bleary eyed, and salt encrusted – as the sun began to rise over the horizon heralding a new day, we actually saw the island of Grand Cayman in front of us.  We had made it, though a good portion of our staysail sheet was scattered upon the deck.

Oh, the glorious life aboard a sailboat.

Developing Allergies

January 19 – 20, 2020

Some people are allergic to cats… but, is it possible to develop an allergy to cat owners?

*****

The twenty five or so miles to Roatan was a brilliant sail.  Why was it brilliant?  Well, because we were actually sailing.  

Sometimes you’ve purposely gotta keep the bar a bit low.  

Trying to thread the needle between no wind and too much wind, at the time we left Cayos Cochinos it looked as though we had erred on the side of no wind.  

But when we managed to coax six and a half knots of speed from Exit in winds of less than eight knots, it allowed us to smile and feel like we were doing something right.

As an unexpected bonus, we noticed that the wind indicator now seemed to be fully functional.  

Spraying it with WD40 after climbing the mast outside Livingston had proven ineffective at freeing it before.  And yet, getting the crap beaten out of it by twenty to thirty five knot winds for a day and a half had proven to be just what was needed.  Sometimes things just have to sort their own shit out.

Arriving at Roatan proved to be uneventful, and we were surprised to only find one other transiting boat at anchor in French Harbor.  West End held no interest for us.  Our timing ended up perfect as three other sailboats arrived not long after we had set anchor.  At least they gave us plenty of space.

Chris and Laura, managers of the nearby marina, could provide hours of entertaining conversation and endless hospitality.  

However, an ulterior motive for our Roatan visit was also a trip to Eldon’s grocery store.  One of those provisioning opportunities of rare occurrence… the sound of an imaginary harp chord seems to magically radiate out as the doors open inward, inviting you to spend the afternoon in an air conditioned wonderland of food and decadent consumables.  

It had been nearly four months since we had done a major provisioning.  Oh ya… here.  

So this is where the law of averages comes back on us for having spent only $100 during the first third of the month.

Sour cream… foot scraper… shiitake mushrooms… gin… boneless pork chops… sour cream… Swiss cheese… wine… bagels… cream cheese… Johnsonville cheese sausages… . sour cream… Jack Daniels.

You are finished when nothing more will fit in the cart.  Enough to warrant the taxi we were opting for.

After returning to the marina at which our dinghy was tied up at, and then having to wait for another impeccably timed deluge of rain to subside, we loaded everything we had purchased into the dinghy and headed out.

As we approached Exit it became immediately evident that, during our absence, two catamarans had arrived and decided to snuggle right up next to us – one on either side of us… for fuck sake.

The first one we passed was too close.  The second, twice closer… for fuck sake.

We groaned and hoped they would recognize their obvious proximity offense with a bit more time. As it turned out, instead of them recognizing the obvious, it was us recognizing that they were oblivious… close, but a very different word.

Our closest live aboard friends and kindred spirits have very different reactions to similar situations.  One couple would simply pick up anchor and move; no words, just a middle finger held up high on the way past.  Another would stand at the bow and blister the fiberglass of the offending boat with the heat emitted from a furious stare.

Before I had time to research proper Parliamentary Procedures, Kris had both nominated and seconded me as Ambassador of Neighborly Relations… damn.

I hopped in the dinghy, reached across, and grab their transom without even untying.  Okay, that’s an exaggeration. 

The woman who was on deck called out to her husband inside that the neighbors were here and wanted to talk to him… nice.

When I politely explained that I didn’t want to be a jerk, and realized that they had already gotten settled in, but would really appreciate them giving us a bit more room, especially considering the forecasted winds, the first thing out of his mouth was – are we any closer to you than the cat right on the other side?

Okay…um…fuck you.  

The cat on the other side, the second one to land right on top of us besides this guy, which is also way too close, is still twice as far away from us… does that mean this guy is fine? 

Hell no!  At best, I’d say the other cat which is twice as far away, has owners which are maybe half as big of assholes as this guy.

In the end, after a lot of sighing and thinking, he said simply, okay.

Conversation done.

Then we watched him, multiple attempts for over a half hour, trying to crab walk the cat around at the end of its anchor chain using the engines.  Each time, he’d maneuver the cat as far away as possible, shut down the engine, and drift right back to the same spot… what a moron.

He finally seemed to realize that it was not gaining him anything and he gave up that strategy.

For the next two hours, he struggled to reset his anchor in different locations.  Not a very happy guy. No help from the other two people aboard.  Not much sympathy from us.

The next morning the wind had shifted and everyone was spun around.  The cat that had moved was closer but still at a reasonable distance.  

Now the other cat was right on top of our bow… arrrrrrrrgh!

As I focused all my energy on trying to emit devastating beams of fiberglass melting fury from my eyes, a woman walked out on deck and nonchalantly said – we’re pretty close to you, huh?

Perceptive, at least.

Really close.  Too close… was my equally perceptive response.

I’m worried about moving.  I dragged last time here and I’m concerned about getting a good holding.

Which makes me think to myself, even more reason to not be on top of us…

However, it comes out as – when the wind shifts, we’ll be right on top of you.  Doesn’t seem good.

I followed up with – if you’re gonna make us move, there’s not much we can do about it, but…

That appeared to be enough.

As the cat prepared to raise anchor, a second person appeared on deck and asked us, what’s with the exit sign on the side of your boat?

Kris and I looked at each other, shrugged, and said we had no idea.  It was there when we bought the boat.  We assumed it just showed us where to get on and off… 

We asked her what was with the weird Spanish words, Vida Libre, on the side of their catamaran.  She indignantly replied – well that’s the name of our boat, of course.

We looked at each other, then back at her with surprised looks on our faces and just watched as they motored over to the marina.  I’m not sure if she figured it out by the time they reached the dock. 

In the end, the two stupid cats should have been happy as Larry, as we were the poor bastards who ended up dragging our anchor the next day when the wind kicked up.  Had either of them still been on top of us, it would have been a complete cluster-fuck.  It turned out to be just a major pain in our ass, alone.

I don’t know.  I suspect some resistance from the medical community on the cat owner allergy theory, but it certainly seems worthy of additional study…

Author’s note:  In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, we do have a number of dear friends who live aboard catamarans and I have never experienced anything more than a sniffle while in the honor of their presence.

Well, It’s Paid For

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Fire over the sleeping dinosaur (Cochino Pequeno)

January 18, 2020

Moving back to Cochino Grande on the 7th provided the opportunity for us to be a bit more social than we had for the previous ten days.

A couple of days later, while we were sitting in the cockpit, we got to witness the craziest rainbow we’ve ever seen.  It appeared to originate just outside the bay and came down less than a hundred meters away from us, making a tight arc just over S/V Agape V, which sat on the mooring next to us.  The rainbow looked unbelievable.

It was the same sailboat we had watched arrive moments before returning from Cochino Pequeno after the storm.  We learned over the next ten days, while we were neighbours, that Paul was single-handing after purchasing the boat in Rio Dulce.  It was his first boat and he had no prior experience… sounded familiar.

As of January 9th, we were quite ecstatic that our expenses were yet to exceed US$100 for the year.  There was the $93 park fee we had paid on the first day of 2020, and that was it.

But we also hadn’t been ashore anywhere other than a tiny island with nothing more than sand, coconut trees, and some rubbish.

One day, while taking the dinghy out and about for some exploring, we were waved at by somebody on the same beach that the person who warned us about the navigation marker we mistook for a mooring ball the day we had arrived had been on.

We met Roger and Tin (pronounced Teen), two American ex-pats who ran Eagle Bay Resort located there.  Over the course of the next week, we spent a number of days getting to know these really cool guys while drinking lots of beer and using the WiFi at their bar.

Kris even got the opportunity to take them on a refresher dive, allowing her to wipe nearly six years of dust off her instructor credentials… woohoo!

And we finally were able to see one of the rare pink boas, as one frequently hung out on a tree on the resort property.

Our stay at Cayos Cochinos was now nearing three weeks.  Much longer than we had originally anticipated.

Well, it’s paid for.  Why not?  Beautiful and relaxing… what more could you want?

Still, a window for forward progress seemed to beckon to us.  A sideways move to Roatan for some provisions, followed by an immediate jump to Guanaja.

It looked as though Panama may be emerging as the victor in our constant struggle with the never-ending question… where next?

We picked a tentative day, more likely to be better than the days that were less likely to be better, based upon all of the still ambiguous forecasts we were seeing for this area.  Maybe throwing chicken bones in the sand would be the more definitive source of guidance here.

As we spent our last day undertaking some final preparations, we were visited by Fausto, who lives in Chachauate, a Garifuna fishing village on nearby Lower Monitor Cay.  While Domino’s Pizza is not an option here, fresh coconuts delivered to your boat always are.

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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

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.

IMG_3579

We were back.

Not so bad.