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.

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We were back.

Not so bad.

It’s Not That We Have To Leave…

December 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Added drink choices to the menu…

Michelada vs. Chelda
Michelada vs. Chelada

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

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

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

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

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

Which gives us an immediate game plan.

 

Over The Line

RioDulceLakeIsabel

December 2 – 11, 2019

Lago Izabal.

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

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

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

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

Maybe not surprising, really…

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

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

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

Some places deserve their reputation.

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

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

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

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

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

The Thin Red Line

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

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

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

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

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

Lago Izabal - Denny's Beach

Lago Izabal - Denny's Beach

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

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4122.JPG
Approaching El Refugio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4205.JPG

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

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

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

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

 

 

Guatemala Gets It

November 30, 2019

For all its endearing qualities, Guatemala certainly has its share of some pretty weird shit going on.

There is no postal system in the whole country, for fuck sake.  Really?

Be that as it may, one thing can be said with absolute certainty:  Guatemalans recognise a shady and corrupt politician when they see one, and they have seen plenty.

That having been said…

Guatemala gets it… AND THEY DON’T EVEN GET MAIL!

Still On The Dirt

November 10 – 24, 2019

**PART TWO OF OUR OVERLAND ADVENTURE BETWEEN GUATEMALA AND MEXICO**

Mexico or BUST

We felt confident, as did most of the locals who WERE certain we’d been screwed by Enrique, that Tikal was probably not a concern.  It was getting to the Mexican border, and then onward to Palenque, that was seriously in doubt.  As for the Palenque to Playa del Carmen connection?  Ha… just getting as far as Palenque was highly unlikely.

A number of other tourist companies had indicated to other people that they had completely discontinued that run.

Ya… ya.  We now knew about Enrique.  Ya…ya.  We shouldn’t have given him money.  Ya… ya.  We had subsequently read all the posted shit.

That morning, as we waited to be picked up outside our hostel , yet another tour operator stopped and asked what we were waiting for.

A transfer to Playa through Palenque?  From the guy with a scar?  Why do you guys keep giving him money?  There’s not gonna be any bus…

Ya… ya.  We’ve heard.

A taxi rolled up and stopped.

That’s your ride.  Good luck.

We got in.  The taxi stopped at the shuttle drop off.  But instead of us getting out, two more passengers got in.  A high strung, nervous Filipino woman we had met the day before; and a backpacker from Spain, who (of course) spoke Spanish fluently.

They had paid to get to Palenque as well.  The high strung, nervous Filipino woman had given her money to a guy with a scar on his face.  People had told her she’d been screwed.  She spoke almost no Spanish and was already arguing with the taxi driver, who spoke almost no English.  The other woman didn’t seem too concerned.

There’s not gonna be any bus…

Apparently, there was no bus… but, there was a taxi.

Across the street, Enrique pulled a handful of bills from the stack in his fist, and handed them to the same taxi driver.

Four passengers paid instead of two… make sure they get to Palenque.  Easier to get them there than refund them all here.  

As we pulled away, the “thumbs up” Enrique gave us was downright creepy.

Eventually, thanks in large part to the Spanish woman, the taxi driver seemed to warm up.  It seemed less and less likely with each passing mile into the isolated countryside that the driver was going to pull over and shoot us.

Twice, the taxi had to stop for military road blocks.  Once, I’m pretty sure I saw a one hundred Quetzal note pass from the driver’s hand into the hand of the guy with the automatic weapon during a handshake.

 

Four passengers paid instead of two… make sure they get to Palenque.

As morning became afternoon, we arrived at the Mexican border.  The taxi couldn’t cross.  We had to walk across, get our stamps from both the Guatemalan and Mexican authorities, and then wait on the other side of the fence.

Someone will pick you up.  The taxi driver was waiting on the other side of the fence.  In Guatemala.

After an hour, no one had shown shown up.  One driver on the Mexican side of the fence had asked if we already paid for our transport.  When we said yes, he informed us someone else will come.

Still no one.

Eventually, we saw the original taxi driver on the Guatemalan side of the fence.   He was on the phone.

There’s not gonna be any bus…

A short time later, he was passing part of the stack of bills Enrique had given him to another driver on the Mexican side of the fence.

Someone will pick you up.

He signalled that this was the shuttle that would get us to Palenque.  Yes… it was paid for.

Four passengers paid instead of two… make sure they get to Palenque.

We piled into the car.  Four hours later, we were dropped off at the bus station in Palenque.   Inside, we stepped up to the ticket booth.  The woman didn’t speak English at all.

She looked at the “voucher” and smiled.  No… we definitely did not have tickets already reserved in the system.  Yes… it would cost us about one hundred US dollars to buy tickets from Palenque to Playa del Carmen.  No… she probably didn’t know Enrique.

Four passengers paid instead of two… make sure they get to Palenque.  Only two paid for the final connection… and they’ll be in Palenque when they find out the truth.

Paying too much for tickets, that was one thing.  But we had been sold tickets that didn’t actually exist… a whole different level of asshole.

But, hey as far as getting screwed, it could have been a lot more painful screwing.

Enrique is a weasely, dishonest, and unethical fat bag of shit.  Although returning to Flores to confront him could be potentially very satisfying, the Cartel connections (he more than likely has) make that prospect almost certainly a much more foolish venture.

Dumb mistake already made.  Best not to make an even dumber one.

Playa del Carmen

Some reunions can be orchestrated, some are the perfect fortune of unscheduled converging orbits, some are completely random and unforeseen.  Sometimes you get all of the above.

Such was the case for us in Mexico.

A planned reunion with Shannan and Vicki, our oldest and dearest friends from Pullman, who would be in Playa del Carmen for nearly two weeks.

Mostly eating and drinking, with an occasional wander around town or even out to Cozumel for the day.

It is when you get to see the people most dear to you that you can truly appreciate how special those moments really are.

Also, to our delight, three additional people would emerge from our Scuba Junkie past during that same time.

After almost three years, it was incredible to see Nic and Gavin again.  Not only catching up with them over food and lots of drinks; but also a day diving the two ridiculous cenotes, The Pit and Dreamgate.  It’s cool enough to go diving with SJ family, even better that we are returning to Dreamgate, a magical cenote we had the fortune of diving over fifteen years prior.  At that time, it had only been discovered a few months earlier and we were among the first two dozen people that had even been inside.  It was special to be able to share that with two old SJ friends from the other side of the world.

At The Pit, while we were changing over tanks, a woman in the pickup parked next to us recognised Gavin’s Scuba Junkie shirt.  An American who worked for another dive shop on Mabul nearly ten years ago remembered me from the MBR bar… fucking crazy.

And, at Dreamgate, our first tarantula in the wild.  Anyone who knows Kris, knows this was not a highlight of her day.

And later that day another SJ face from the past, a Canadian named Shane along with his girlfriend Sheena, caught up with us for the food and beverage part of the reunion.  The fact that he, too, was in the same location made the statistics seem impossible.

Sometimes the scale of everything seems vast and endless; impossibly unlikely in its particulars.  Other times, it seems like Jerry Falwell or Rod Serling are the only people who can offer plausible answers to impossible realities.

Fucking weird… must be the converging energy vortex.

Oh ya… and more random jams in bars.  This one with a smoking’ blues band one night while wandering in Playa del Carmen.

Have to go through Flores, eh?

Turns out, you pretty much have to pass through Flores in order to get back to the Rio Dulce, whether through Palenque (which we had no desire to pass back through), or Belize City (which might cost us just to cross the border).

Turns out, once you get back to back to Flores, it’s really hard not to walk past Enrique’s tourist office.  Just a matter of principle.  Just to have a chat.

Turns out once he screws you, you pretty much won’t see Enrique if you arrive at the office looking for Enrique.

Maybe… it’s for the better.

Maybe… one of those pivotal moments you never realise.  You don’t realise it because Enrique wasn’t actually there to make everything suddenly turn out potentially very differently… potentially very badly.

Survival… as a rule, a higher priority than revenge or justice.

Maybe… it’s for the better; part of that converging energy vortex.

Less than twenty four hours in Belize

If you’re in Belize for less than twenty four hours… you only pay US$32.50 instead of $40 to clear out… sweet?  Ok.  Fuck… really?  What’s it gonna take to get back to Exit?

At least we scored on two litres of coveted Belize One Barrel Rum during our stopover at the Belize City bus station… yes!

It was literally off the bus at the Mexico/Belize border, walk across the border after clearing past authorities on either side, then back on the bus.  Off the bus again at Belize City to purchase a ticket onward directly to Rio Dulce, wait four hours at the bus station (during which I had a wander into the nearby market and secured the two bottles of One Barrel), then back on a bus to the Belize/Guatemala border… less than twelve hours total inside Belize and a savings of fifteen dollars with Immigration.

Back to the Rio Dulce

A lot of shit needed to be done aboard Exit.  Nothing that required a haul-out;  but a handful of things that would certainly be easier with marina access.

Plus we definitely could use the free water.  We had filled tanks using the watermaker once since entering the Rio Dulce, but had heard mixed advice and were trying to avoid it, if possible.

So…

  • Re-galvanise Rocna anchor
  • Replace Perkins oil and filter
  • Replace Racor and Perkins fuel filters
  • Replace the fuel hoses we had made in Roatan
  • Clean and waterproof dodger cover
  • Clean and waterproof bimini
  • Clean and oil interior wood
  • Sort out dinghy chaps
  • Sort out deck sun shades
  • Sort out bimini side sun shades
  • Replace the propane hose we had made in Roatan
  • Refill the near empty propane tank
  • Add spray insulation around fridge and freezer shells
  • Update our Navionics software (and set up our new iPad)
  • Fill the water and fuel tanks

A serious list.  Certainly not everything.  But an admirable dent for one stop.  Everything but the Sunbrella work and the anchor re-galvanising we were able to do ourselves.

We were ecstatic with our dinghy chaps and deck sun shades (which included an outboard cover), made by a local canvas guy named Nery.  His work was top quality, and he had everything done by the time we had returned.

But we were ready to cast Exit’s lines off the dock pilings and get back at anchor, damnit!

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving Day in a marina… ewww.

Yes.  The food was fabulous.

Yes.  Both the hospitality and kindness were limitless.

Yes.  The mean age of those in the marina had to be in the seventies.

Yes.  We were uber-thankful to be getting back at anchor in two days.

We had promised the marina managers we’d be out of the slip by the end of the month.  There were still a handful of things on the to-do short list, but they could wait days or weeks, and certainly didn’t require being tied up at a marina.

The three-country-road-trip was well worth all the effort.  However, neither of us could deny, we were both eagerly anticipating the chance to let Exit, once again, swing with the wind at the end of her anchor chain…

…where she belongs.  That, or underway.

Back On The Dirt

October 15 – November 10, 2019

Ten days in Fronteras gave us just enough time to acclimate to the area, get some logistics sorted for our land journey to Mexico, start the process on a couple of boat projects which would be undertaken while we were away (re-galvanising our Rocna anchor as well as having dinghy chaps and sun covers made).

The town of Fronteras, in many ways, reminded us of a much nicer smelling Semporna (from our Scuba Junkie days in Borneo).

The Shack, one of the bars on the waterfront, quickly became a favourite place to hang out.  Gin and Tonics for less than a dollar fifty were the initial draw.  The owner, Marvin, is a great guy who offers open mic night every week, which opened the door to meeting a really talented musician named Jerome.

Every now and then, our paths place us in an orbit with some really fascinating people… and Jerome is certainly one of those people.  Not only did he have some great stories as well as a lot of insight for us as sailors, but he was also an awesome front man on guitar, harmonica, and vocals for me to jam with during two different open mic nights and even a late night jam in the cockpit.

I couldn’t understand some of the scientific vocabulary used by the hyperbaric physicist, and some of the things I could understand just seemed downright bat-shit mental.  But, one thing for sure, I always enjoyed Jerome’s company.  And he has damn fine taste in guitars… long live Guild!

But now it was time to leave Exit tied to the dock at Monkey Bay Marina, and head further inland to do some land-based traveling by bus.

We had figured out a route through Guatemala and Mexico, that would get us to Playa del Carmen in time to see old friends while still making a number of stops along the way to see more friends and take in the sights.

On paper, our route roughly resembled what could have been a child’s drawing of a sailboat… ironic.  In actuality, there was no mistaking it… we were definitely back on the dirt.

… and back on the bus.  For Kris’ birthday, no less.

Antigua

Described in one guide book as:  a fantasyland that would never be included in a list of authentically Guatemalan experiences.  Building codes are adhered to, garbage in the streets is picked up, and stray dogs mysteriously disappear during the night… more like what a Guatemalan town would be if Scandinavians had taken over for a couple of years.

We liked it.

Less aggressive hawking.  Very chilled environment.  Amazingly vibrant colours covered the walls of century old buildings with the most striking and eclectic display of front doors we have ever encountered.  Timeless (and horribly difficult to navigate) stone streets remain untouched as part of the agreement securing Antigua’s UNESCO Heritage status.

A brief reunion with Craig’s daughter Zoe, who now lived in Antigua, put us on the inside track to a couple of memorable bars.

Cafe No Se, a bar opened by an American expat twenty years prior, had an incredible story behind it, as relayed to us by its fascinating owner John.  Dark and mood lit with surreal towering wax candle sculptures, it had all the vibe I would imagine of a Prohibition-Era Speak Easy.

Complete with a small book store hidden behind an antique refrigerator door attached to the wall — the location where illegal bootleg mescal had been sold in the early days of the bar — the now legal, but still fittingly named Illegal Mescal, had recently placed second in international tequila competitions.

The Irish bar Snug also turned out to be a great source of pub food and happy hour specials, with the exception of a near heart attack inducing hour when Kris thought she had lost her iPhone one night… eek!

The Earth Lodge

An eco-lodge on the side of the mountains with a perfect view of Antigua down in the valley surrounded by volcanos.  On a clear enough night, we could just see the red glow of actual lava spewing out of the active volcano Fuego.

We decided to move each day from one to another uniquely designed bungalow, just to have a different view of the valley.   Quiet and tranquil would be an understatement.  More than easy to do absolutely nothing for a few days.

Kite Festival of Sumpango – Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead.  Though it sounds more like an episode from the Zombie Apocalypse series, it is actually more of a family oriented celebration tying the the living to the dead.  Families gather in cemeteries for picnics, offerings are made to the deceased, and attempts to communicate with the dead are initiated.

For nearly twenty years, the tiny town of Sumpango hosts thousands of people attending the Gigantic Kite Festival every November first, celebrating the Day of the Dead.  The elaborate kites, ranging in size from a couple of meters to six meters in diameter, are displayed on a football field.  Eventually, all but the largest will make an attempt at flight amongst a field of onlookers.

The kites, constructed and flown by families commemorating the deceased, are considered conduits through which communication between the living and dead can be enhanced.

It’s a county fair vibe, with the added flare of potential risk of injury or death from a gigantic flying toy.

Lake Atitilan

Apparently one of a handful of places on Earth located in the midst of an energy vortex of some cosmic significance well beyond my comprehension… which essentially seemed to mean a universal convergence point for a lot of pot smokers and yoga instructors.

Before taking a water taxi to the town of Santa Cruz, we stopped at a restaurant/bar at the edge of the lake for drinks, where I befriended one of the local musicians.  Later we learned that a man who owed the Cartel money was executed outside this very restaurant one morning, just a day or two after these photos were taken… fucking hell.

The area… picturesque, without a doubt.  A huge lake surrounded by dormant volcanoes covered in lush jungle.

Even better, another Scuba Junkie reunion.  This time with Ollie and Flo, two old SJ friends.  Ollie, one of our dive master trainees from ten years back, with Flo, now manage Isla Verde, a beautiful resort located right at the edge of the lake.

It was the first time we had the pleasure of meeting their 3 year old son, Henry — obviously a sailor in the making who, when shown a photo we took in Antarctica of a penguin which occupied eighty percent of the photo’s field of view, Henry managed to point out the tiny, out-of-focus boat in the background.  Good skills swab!

We can’t thank Ollie and Flo enough for all their hospitality, as well as thanks to Isla Verde’s owner Riley.  Its alway amazing to see Junkies in strange places.

And… traditional American blues guitar artists playing during the nightly happy hour on a REAL record player?  In the jungle of Guatemala?  Really? Holy shit!  Now that is righteous.

Though we didn’t quite achieve that performance level at open mic night, to be fair… everyone was pretty trashed.  Good times.

On a bit of a side note… I must admit that, once again, I was the individual responsible (or irresponsible should be the term) for the bar’s gin stock running dry.  One of the dangers of having Gin & Tonic specials!

Flores (Suckers making a rookie mistake)

We had just taken an overnight bus from Lake Atitlan, requiring a bus transfer in Guatemala City that ultimately dropped us off just outside the island town of Flores.

Buses, in Central and South America, are a remarkably comfortable and affordable travel option.  The “executive first class” option lands you in a seat comparable to a Lazy-Boy recliner in comfort, usually for well less than a hundred dollars.

However, the temperature inside the bus’ lower deck can be that of a meat freezer.  The only possible justification we could conjure up was an attempt at maximum air ventilation, without which could result in sleeping inhabitants fatally succumbing to either diesel or latrine fumes.

When we stumbled off the bus just after sunrise, our brains may have actually been mildly hypothermic.  We waded through the first wave of taxi drivers and asked a small old man toward the back of the group to take us to the hostel Kris had reserved before we left Isla Verde.

Over the course of the next hour we made a number of what can only be described as inexcusable rookie mistakes that left us scratching our heads at our own stupidity and complacency a short time later.

Inexplicably, by seven a.m., we had made and paid for reservations not only to the ruins of Tikal, but also for bus tickets to the Mexican border and onward to Playa del Carmen.

By nine a.m., we had realised there was a high probability we had been suckered.

The battery in Kris’ iPhone, which had died on the overnight bus trip twelve hours earlier, preventing any online research while we were underway, was now sufficiently charged.  Enough so for Kris to start finding all kinds of TripAdvisor and other online warnings regarding the dishonest and unethical business practices of Enrique – the same fucker who had just sold us the tickets.

If we had paid too much for tickets, that was one thing.  But if we had been sold tickets that didn’t actually exist… that would be a whole different level of asshole.

We decided a visit to the tourist police INGUAT was worth the time.  However, in a very broken conversation we were able to ascertain that, while yes, they were well familiar with the shady business practices of Enrique the scar-faced Cartel thug, they couldn’t do anything in this instance until after he had actually ripped us off… fuck.

They made copies of everything we had and sent us on our way, inviting us to contact  them if it all went to shit.

Tikal

Test question number one from the “Did Enrique really screw us?” inquiry was whether we would even be picked up for the day trip to the Tikal ruins.

We were… and to be fair with full disclosure, it was a great day trip.  The guide Ruben, a Mayan descendent who was living on part of the land converted to national park when Tikal gained UNESCO Heritage status, was incredibly knowledgable and had a personal stake in passing on the history as well as carrying on the legacy of Tikal.

The Maya were aware that the earth was round and orbited the Sun.  Maya hieroglyphic script is one of only five basic writing systems ever developed in the history of mankind. The Maya calendar, over five thousand years in its cycle, is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar currently in use.  They were the people from which the Aztec and Inca civilisations emerged.

For over a thousand years, Tikal represented the heart of the Maya civilisation.  The city’s structures, built between 600 B.C. and 900 A.D., pre-date both Machu Picchu and Chichen Itza.  And yet, ultimately, Tikal was mysteriously abandoned within one hundred years time.

The already excavated structures number only a fraction of the thousands of earthen mounds scattered throughout the area.  Mounds that hide additional currently undisturbed Mayan ruins, have remained swallowed by the thick Guatemalan jungle for over a millennium.

Wandering around the remnants of what had once been a gleaming central hub for tens of thousands of people was surreal. Massive limestone temples and structures silently emerged from their still partially buried states, peaking out above the upper canopy of the surrounding trees.  Even with their staggering scale, they struggle to remain free, as the jungle relentlessly seeks to reclaim them.

Later, it was amazing to learn that, fifty years before, my Mom’s sister had cooked breakfast on a Sterno stove atop one of the same Tikal ruins we were currently standing on… crazy.

To be continued…

Better Late Than Never

October 15, 2019

With the 2019 Caribbean hurricane season nearing its end, we finally made it to Guatemala.  Despite our intentions of a July arrival to the Rio Dulce — a location with a long established history of protection from Caribbean storms — it was now October.  Had we waited any longer, the boat traffic we would have encountered on our way in would have mostly been departing in the opposite direction to start their sailing season.  Ya… we were a solid three months behind most everyone else… but hey, what’s new?

The hundred fifteen mile overnight sail from Utila covered the entire spectrum ranging from sublime downwind sailing, to frustrated motoring with zero wind, to a twenty five knot squall smashing us from dead upwind.

Strangely, earlier in the day, all three boats had been visited repeatedly by a roving group of very curious and seemingly unseaworthy birds.

Later, with the sun touching down on the horizon almost directly in front of us, we were treated to the privilege of being escorting into the sunset by a pod of dolphins riding Exit’s bow wake.

Exit, Samba Pa Ti, and Off The Grid had all picked up anchor and set out from Utila within an hour of each other; however, any semblance of unity (often loosely defined as three specks stretched across the horizon) instantly disintegrated when the evening squall hit.  All three boats scattered in different directions and it would be twelve hours later, outside Livingston, Guatemala, before we saw either boat again.  Fortunately, the only casualty was a flying fish discovered later on deck (not so fortunate for the fish…)

The following morning, having just concluded our overnight watches pounding through the sloppy conditions left behind by the squall, we patted each other on the back in recognition of surpassing eight thousand nautical miles travelled aboard Exit.

After anchoring in the bay of Cabo Tres Puntas, directly opposite the mouth of the Rio Dulce for a short rest time, we experienced a rather painless clearing in at Livingston.  Thanks to an early enough start, were fortunate to be able to head immediately up the river, saving us from having to anchor overnight in Livingston, which had a sketchy reputation.

Conversely, Samba Pa Ti spent the night there, hoping to sort out ongoing fuel line problems.  Apparently the streak of Honduran bad luck had gone international and crossed over to Guatemala with them, as Craig promptly had the fenders stolen off the side of his boat that night!

We had heard endless stories about how stunning the journey up the Rio Dulce was… it had been anticipated as our hurricane season hideaway for months and months.

Now, after sitting in the middle of what was predicted by both history and our insurance company to be a hurricane risk hotspot — and subsequently having watched storm after storm pass up the U.S. East Coast, through the very area our insurance company had recommended we be at — we were finally here!

Traveling up the Rio Dulce, Guatemala:

Nearly ten miles of tranquil river, winding its way through the Guatemalan jungle.  Incredibly dense foliage stretching outward in all directions, sometimes looming atop limestone cliffs carved out three hundred or more feet directly above.

We’re motoring instead of sailing, unfortunately; but it’s still magical.

 

Every now and then, a small group of buildings emerge along the shoreline ahead.

The chances are almost equal that the occupant of the small dugout style cayuca fishing near the shore is an over forty year old woman or a twelve year old boy.

After two hours of snaking our way back and forth, mostly in solitude, the Rio Dulce expands out into a lake called El Golfete.  On one side, a number of small community bays; on the other side, largely no development whatsoever.

After a few days at anchor in Texas Bay, we ventured out to explore other anchorages.

Oftentimes, our dinghy proved to be the absolutely invaluable resource, especially when it came to exploration.

Following a dinghy reconnaissance up a small unsounded and inaccurately charted river, we became confident enough to return with the Mothership and feel our way along, eventually dropping anchor in a spot that seemed like complete jungle isolation (with the exception of a few local boats occasionally passing by with wave and a smile.

Eventually, it was time to move a bit further upriver to the town of Fronteras where we had a date with Monkey Bay Marina.  Exit, once again, being placed under house arrest.

At US$220 per month to tie up in a slip, it was too cheap to pass up.

It provided us the opportunity to get our anchor re-galvanised (a two week prospect), complete projects like clean and waterproof our bimini and dodger covers, as well as perform oil and fuel filter changes with a means of disposal.

Plus, if everything went according to plan, we would also be able to sort out an inexpensive source for Sunbrella dinghy chaps and sun shades for Exit’s deck.  The dinghy was beginning to show signs of wear and tear from both constant use as well as  sun exposure; we couldn’t afford not to protect it.  Furthermore, a recent check with our infra-red temperature gun confirmed surface temperatures on our aluminium deck in excess of one hundred twenty five degrees Fahrenheit during the day!  That makes Exit literally an aluminium frying pan on bare feet.  It has become obvious that some kind of removable sun shade for the deck would make a huge difference in our comfort, both above and below deck.

Lastly, Exit safely tucked in a marina gave us the peace of mind to set out on a four week land exploration through Guatemala and Mexico.  The chance to experience completely new locations, revisit destinations we hadn’t seen in ten to twenty years, and rendezvous with old friends in the least likely of places.

So, Monkey Bay Marina it was.

And yep… there were monkeys.