The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
Given our chosen route (see our discussion of route choices in this area), our next stopping point on the way from Isla Providencia of Colombia to the Bay Islands of Honduras would be the Hobbies Cays, an overnight passage north and west from Quita Sueño. The passage would be 150 miles, and ought to take about 30 hours.
<Larry: On the leg from Quita Sueño Bank to the Hobbies Cays, the direction and altitude of the sun determined our plans both on departing Quita Sueño and on arriving at the Hobbies.> Where there are coral reefs, the cruiser must be very careful of timing, which is driven by having good visibility from the boat and is affected directly by the position of the sun. If the sun is high and behind you, it is easier to see any obstacles. If the sun is in your face, nothing much below the water is visible. <Larry: So if your reef-infested initial departure or final approach is eastbound, it is best to cover that segment in the mid-afternoon, and if westbound, in the mid-morning.> We had to dodge a mile or so of coral heads when leaving our initial anchorage at Quita Sueño on our way westward to deeper water, clear of coral heads. Our choice was, when to do it? If we stayed in the anchorage a second night, then we figured that we would have to delay our departure until mid-morning on the 3rd day in order to allow the sun to rise sufficiently to allow good visibility: earlier, the sun would be behind us, but too low. We were not prepared to rely solely on retracing the electronic track of how we came in, without the ability to see well what was close to the boat. If we had delayed our departure until mid-morning, and depending on our sailing speed, we might not have good light upon arrival at the Hobbies to get into the anchorage safely. We wanted to arrive at the Hobbies by midday, with the sun overhead for good visibility of the underwater reefs surrounding the area. To make that arrival window at the Hobbies end we chose to position ourselves outside of the inner reef area of Quita Sueño, on the long sandy plateau to the west of the coral heads. So after one night in the inner anchorage at Quita Sueño, we moved about a mile westward about mid-day, to the western edge of the area of coral heads, and re-anchored there for the second night, so that we could leave westbound just after sunrise. <Larry: The location was more exposed, and could have been rolly, but in the very placid conditions we had, we were fine.>
While we were leaving the area of the Quita Sueño Banks the third morning we were chased by a large squall. It got larger and larger, big and black, but we were on divergent courses. As we moved away and the squall started to dissipate a long column fell out of the black squall and touched the water. I pointed it out to Larry and said I believed that it was a waterspout. As we watched it develop we both agreed that we were seeing a waterspout, our very first. What a sight! I was so very glad that it did not follow us! After this inauspicious beginning to our passage north, we had a good sail overnight, arriving at the Hobbies in bright sunlight by mid-morning. <Larry: That night on passage, we had a gorgeous meteor shower. So the skies were full of auspices, but we did not have an augur aboard to interpret them for us. With good, downwind sailing conditions and a favorable current, we were early on our schedule, and hove to for a few hours to await sunrise. A measure of the favorable current is that, while we were hove to, we actually drifted upwind at 0.8 knots! The depths in the area between Media Luna Cays and the Gorda Bank were in the range of 70’ or so. We saw no fishing lines or nets, which may have been in part due to the time of year.>
When we arrived at the Hobbies the sun was high and behind us, allowing us to see the reefs surrounding the entry to the anchorage. The Hobbies were set in beautiful turquoise, clear water in which we anchored at a depth of about 25 feet. The Hobbies were lovely and provided us with a good anchorage in settled weather.
The Hobbies or Cajones (“boxes” or “coffins” in Spanish) are a group of small islands and reefs about 160 miles east of the Bay Islands, which were our next destination. <Larry: As we approached the Hobbies, it appeared as though the islands had several houses and a church on them. Closer up, we realized that the “houses” and “church” were actually huge stacks of lobster traps, stored for the off-season. It appeared that the arrangement of the traps in the form of a church steeple was deliberate: at the opposite end of the island, the island’s caretaker had also erected a crucifix on the top of the mountain of traps.>
A local lobster boat was anchored close by. We surmised that his role was somehow to support the caretaker who lived on the island, whose job was to look after the tens of thousands of lobster traps stacked on the nearby islands. The lobster season in this area begins July 1st and lasts for six months.
On the daily weather faxes we could see that tropical waves were becoming a regular feature of the weather picture. Tropical or easterly waves are an indication of the arriving rainy season, and can be precursors to tropical depressions, tropical storms (greater than 34 knots of wind), and hurricanes (greater than 64 knots). Their appearance provided one more spur to proceed to the relative security of the Bay Islands of Honduras. None of the Bay Islands offers adequate protection from hurricanes but can provide adequate shelter in most tropical storms. <Larry: Perhaps more importantly, once one is in the Bay Islands, one can reach the greater shelter of the Río Dulce of Guatemala with an overnight sail.> We really did not expect hurricanes in May. In fact, hurricanes are rare in the Bay Islands and not generally seen in the area until the fall. But it was time to move on to Guanaja, the first of the Bay Islands.
Historically, the Bay Islands were occupied by various waves of settlers, buccaneers, and ruffians, mostly English. Today they are ruled by Honduras, with local governors on each island. Two of the three islands, Guanaja and Roatan, have large expat colonies of Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, all of which spur development on the islands. The islands have pleasant weather year-round, with hilly contours supporting a wide variety of plant life including beautiful pine forests, which are recovering from considerable damage inflicted by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. <Larry: There’s a bit of a geographic inconsistency in the naming of the islands. They’re called the Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahía) but they’re situated in the Gulf (Golfo), not “Bay,” of Honduras.>
After tiptoeing around the windward barrier reef, we anchored off of Bonacca, the government center and main town of Guanaja. <Larry: Bonacca was actually built on a pair of islets just off the shore of the main island of Guanaja, built there, we were told, to escape the no-see-‘ums of the main island. The two islets have long since been joined together with landfill. Bonacca was, until very recently, the only significant settlement on Guanaja.> Checking in at Guanaja was swift and painless. We were met at the dinghy dock by a nice-looking local fellow who offered to show us around. We gladly took him up on the offer. Our guide took us to the port captain and immigration. Both were friendly and helpful and very interested in working on their English. Check in cost us $6 for immigration. <Larry: The hardest part of the check-in process was finding change for the $10 bill I had!> Bonacca is cut through with open, water-filled gutters or channels which, though they looked clean, obviously were the sewers for the town. Some of these channels were being repaired, so some sidewalks <Larry: there are no roads on Bonacca, only sidewalks> were cut off. Our guide was helpful in finding an alternate way. On the way back to the boat, we stopped at a couple of local tiendas for fresh veggies, beautiful homemade bread, and eggs.
After checking in we pulled anchor and motored to Graham’s Place on Josh’s Key, about 3 miles eastward on the coast of Guanaja. We were inside of the barrier reef and the trades were tooting. We motored into 25 to 30 knots of wind for the 3 miles. For that short of a passage it was exhilarating! At Graham’s Place we anchored in water sheltered by the protection of the reef, and the wind kept the bugs at bay. Graham's Place is a pleasant, small resort open to cruisers. Graham Thompson, himself once a cruiser, bought the Cay after the last hurricane in 1998, rebuilt the small resort, and let it be known that cruisers were welcome. He provided laundry at a small charge, free trash disposal and ice, and internet access. The food at the restaurant was good, the beer was cold, and the bar provided a nice area with the shade and shelter from the wind for talking, laughing, and reading. <Larry: Graham keeps a seawater pen of conch, turtles, sharks, and miscellaneous fish for the entertainment of his visitors. I saw no evidence that it was used as a pantry for the restaurant.> We enjoyed catching up with old friends from the San Blas Islands. We felt welcome at Graham’s Place, and had a good time resting for several days and getting ready for the short passage to Roatan.
The only real problem with Guanaja is the bugs, which do not seem to bother the locals. The beaches have no-see-‘ums (small bugs which get through screens and the ports of boats and can bite and bite and bite) and sand flies. They like me a great deal but leave Larry pretty much alone. If we were anchored well off of the shore and there was a good wind blowing we were left alone while aboard, but after a shore visit I usually came back to the boat with many bites. I have an allergic reaction to theses monsters which Benadryl and cortisone treat well enough, but this is not the way I would want to live. <Larry: For the record, I get bitten, too. I just don’t have the same violent reaction she does.> We planned to stay in the Bay Islands about two weeks before heading to the Río Dulce. The snorkeling was wonderful, the coral was gorgeous, and divers love the islands, though there is not much by way of conventional tourist highlights on the islands. We have cruiser friends who have given up sailing and built a house on the islands, planning on staying forever. I didn't see the attraction, but then I spend most of my time in a Benadryl fog. If it were not for the bugs I would have stayed longer.
We had a delightful sail to Roatan from Guanaja. When we were about 30 minutes out of French Harbor, our VHF came alive with an offer from another cruiser to escort us into the anchorage in his dinghy. He had heard us on the net, stating our intention to sail from Graham’s Place to French Harbor that morning. We were glad to accept the offer of help. The cruiser had heard Larry’s weather reports on the morning nets further south, and wanted to offer his help as a “thank you.” This is cruising at its finest. The passage into French Harbor is a bit tricky in that one has the opportunity to turn too soon and therefore get into trouble, so we were appreciative of the assistance. He was also a fount of good information about French Harbor and activities on the land side. <Larry: The photo is of a ketch that sank just inside the entrance to the French Harbor anchorage. We never got the story, but perhaps he turned too soon. You can see wavelets breaking over the interior reef at the right center of the photo.>
Roatan is well known in the diving world as a world-class diving venue, and dive tourism is one of the main economic engines for these islands. French Harbor, in the center of the south side of the island, is reputed to be the gathering point, and for many years the French Harbor Yacht Club (now called the Roatan Yacht Club) was the place to go. FHYC looked deserted, but the locals said that it still operated though with uncertain hours. We headed for an anchorage closer to the large dive resort called “Fantasy Island.”
The Fantasy Island resort allowed cruisers to leave dinghies, eat at the very expensive, mostly buffet restaurant, and drop off trash. Their lobby has a very nice veranda which was breezy and provided a pleasant place to read after enjoying the small book exchange.
The anchorage at French Harbor is a large and protected lagoon that could easily accommodate far more than the 10 boats that were there when we arrived. Cruisers tended to stay for a week or more, so turnover was minimal. The boats that were with us in Guanaja slowly trickled in to French Harbor after us. Trade winds blew through the anchorage, averaging about 20 knots, which was fine with us as it kept the bugs away and the boat cool and pleasant belowdecks. At night several times the wind went to 30 knots but we were securely anchored, and protected by the barrier reef, so we slept well in this windy harbor.
<Larry: Several boats were waiting for more favorable conditions to head south and east, down the track whence we had come. With the trade winds coming out of the east, they waited a long time. It is strategically infelicitous to go eastward from the Bay Islands, as Columbus found out. He named Cabo Gracias a Dios (“Thank God Cape”) at the east end of Nicaragua for his relief at rounding that point after 30 days of largely futile tacking against the trades. It would appear that those coming south from the US would do better to go Great Inagua – Windward Passage – Panama.>
French Harbor was home to the shrimp fleet for the Bay Islands. We saw dozens of large shrimp boats in the harbor, and more in Guanaja. It appeared that they were being prepared for the beginning of the shrimp season on July 1st. We went out to lunch in French Harbor a day after we arrived, and we noticed the presence of many men in the “back room.” They were listening to the leaders of the local shrimp boat association, there to stir the troops as the new season approached, and awaiting the arrival of government officials, presumably there to explain the year’s regulations. Shrimping is a lucrative business for the captains and owners of these boats; if all goes well and the weather is good the crew does well too, but shrimping is also a dangerous business, with hard work as the norm for the crew. We were able to buy frozen tuna and halibut from a local pescaderia called “Flying Fish” in Coxen Hole, but no fresh shrimp was available. In season, we were told, most the catch is exported to the States.
Provisioning here was easy once we got to the town of French Harbor from Fantasy Island. When we inquired about taking a taxi from the resort we were told that the charge would be $20 each way. We told them to forget it. We had heard on the cruisers' grapevine that taxis boarded at the resort were expensive, but that if you walked up the driveway about one-half mile from the resort to the main road, the ride into town would be closer to $5. We found this to be the case. The supermarket in town was a member of the same chain as on Guanaja, filled with American food brands. Fresh veggies and fruits arrived on Wednesday by sea from mainland Honduras, so selection and quality were best then. The grocery store even had a good French brie cheese. I was amazed at this, until we traveled by taxi around the island and saw the substantial development going on. The taxi driver assured us that the development was the result of the expat American and European communities on the island.
On Guanaja we had been unable to find an ATM we could use. It was reassuring to find ATMs in French Harbor, and they allowed us to proceed without using credit cards in the stores. We try to use cash when we can and hold our credit cards close to the vest. In most places (the San Blas Islands being a noteworthy exception) we have been able to find ATMs to provide cash in the local currency <Larry: one ATM in French Harbor offered the option of lempiras or dollars!> but when we change countries our credit/ATM cards frequently stop working. We often have problems because foreign transactions set off all kinds of alarms with our banks, and they put holds on the cards to protect themselves (not us) from fraud. So we have to call them to get the fraud alert released until the next country, where it happens all over again. They just can not understand how two Americans can be traveling to all these countries! We have revised American Express’s motto of “Don’t leave home without it.” We think MasterCard’s motto is “Don’t leave home.” Yes, we have told them at length of our plans, and refresh this information every time we change countries. They just don’t get it! I have never had problems with American Express, once I could find an ATM that takes Amex or a local Amex office, both which are few and far between in this part of the world.
The islands look and feel prosperous. Most of the development looks like it supports the interests of expats, though the island’s people benefit from the employment and investment. Little poverty is evident on the main routes, and the locals we spoke to feel good about the island and their life.
The locals do resent the corruption in the politics of the island. The most obvious evidence of corruption is the unreliable electrical supply. We talked with several cabbies about this. The consensus seems to be that the local government sold the operation of the electrical system (many large, diesel generators) to a private company, who deferred maintenance of and investment in the system leading to unreliability of the operation. We saw that most businesses of any size had their own generators as a necessary back-up. To their credit the local government is building a sewage system for French Harbor, and the potable water system appeared to be in good shape and reliable.
<Larry: The English influence was again strong in the Bay Islands. Our cabbie told us that English, or a Creole variant of it, is the preferred language of 80% of the population.>
After a week in French Harbor, May was winding down, and we were ready to move on. Tropical waves were getting more frequent, as were the squalls around the Bay Islands.
The town of Livingston, at the mouth of the Rio Dulce of Guatemala, was an overnight passage away. We looked for winds under 20 knots and seas under 6 feet. I preferred winds under 15 knots so when the forecast and my personal weather man said it would be 15 to 20 knots and under 6 feet I was ready to go. And one more night at sea and then the Rio Dulce was a strong motivator. So off we went. A nice current pushed us along but the winds were a constant 20 knots and higher until we closed with the coast about three-fourth of the way there. The seas were sometimes confused <Larry: coming from multiple directions> because of changing wind directions, and kept us on our toes. <Larry: We also had a really impressive thunderstorm to keep us company through the night. We could see the lightning for several hours before the skies opened up and it poured. Fortunately, the rain was warm. Unfortunately, the wind from the thunderstorm was a “noserly,” coming right from the direction we wanted to go. The RADAR was largely blanked out by the rain, which was doubly unfortunate, because there was a lot of freighter traffic in the immediate area, coming out of Puerto Barrios.> Sleep was difficult, but as morning approached we could see the Guatemalan coastline awaiting us.
The challenge of this leg is really the entrance into the Rio Dulce itself. The entrance to the river has a wide bar or shallow area with depths at low water of just over 5’. At high tide <Larry: in this part of the world, the tides are a foot or two at most> this depth provides for passage of a sailboat with a 6 foot keel like ours, but not much more. We passed over the bar seeing depths of 6.8 and 7 and 7.5 feet. We went over the bar just before high tide, watching closely all the way. This is not the time for the depth indicator to die! <Larry: A conventional depth sounder, of course, only confirms that you’re already aground. Maybe one of those fancy forward-looking depth sounders could find a channel of 7’ depth in between areas of 5’ depth, but I’m skeptical.>
Once we were over the bar we relaxed a bit and anchored off of the town of Livingston, waiting for the customs/immigration/port captain/health team to arrive. They arrived after lunch, checked the boat (and us) briefly, took our papers and passports, and assured us that we could pick the stamped papers up at the agent’s office in town in an hour. <Larry: Once again, one is required to use an agent here.> The timing of the process allowed us to leave Livingston behind as we started our trip up this lovely, fascinating river of 36 miles. <Larry: In Livingston we were also introduced to one of the distasteful institutions of the Caribbean, the “boat boy.” In this incarnation, they operate a kind of protection racket: “Watch your dinghy, mister?”>
<Larry: Our timing was fortunate in another way. We arrived in Livingston on May 26th. On May 29th, a tropical depression designated “TD-1E” struck the Pacific coast of Nicaragua and headed northward. It was promoted to Tropical Storm “Alma” one day later, and briefly attained hurricane strength one day before the official hurricane season was due to open. By then we were snugly tied up in Tortugal Marina.
Dark comes early to the river canyon. We stopped about 4 miles out of Livingston and anchored in the river canyon. <Larry: As dusk descended, we could see local fishermen in cayucos stringing nets across the river. After dodging two or three nets, we decided upon the better part of valor, and anchored in mid-river for the night. Because of the high-speed cayuco traffic on the river after dark, we were very glad for our bright deck-level anchor light.> The canyon walls were covered by tropical plants hanging down, covering the limestone face. Many bromeliads hung from the cliffs. The bird life was especially evident, with many herons or egrets standing sedately in the flowering trees and plants, and pairs of parrots flying overhead. We anchored in the river opposite a small Mayan settlement. The Mayans of course have long been residents of this area, and are proud of their heritage. The Mayans are physically very small, but somehow have preserved their cultural identity and are determined to survive and prosper along this amazing river. <Larry: One token of the vitality of the Mayan culture is that Guatemalan currency carries its denomination both in Arabic numerals and Mayan symbols.>
<Larry: The next morning we pulled up the anchor and motored up the Río toward the marina district. None of the charts we could find covered the area upriver of Livingston, though the cruising guides warned us of shoals in the river. They missed one mud bank at the entrance to El Golfete, the first lake upstream. Fortunately, the mud was soft, and we got off the bank easily.>
Wealthy Guatemalans have discovered this river paradise and have started to build substantial houses along the river. When a small plane or helicopter comes through the area, it most likely is a wealthy Guatemalan coming to enjoy his home along the river. The roads in Guatemala are notoriously unsafe, so much travel is done by air by those that can afford it. <Larry: The intermixture of thatched Mayan huts with upscale luxury homes was striking.>
The river takes the boater far inland where the river broadens out into a series of lakes.
<Larry: The area between the lakes of El Golfete and Izabal is known as the “marina district.” More than a dozen marinas line the shores of this segment.> The Río Dulce (“the “Río”) is widely considered a “hurricane hole” that has for many years safely protected cruisers who choose to have their boats in the western Caribbean during hurricane season. The reason for the good record is partly the length of the river, 36 miles, and the high limestone cliffs that protect the first 10 miles. <Larry: While Guatemala and Belize regularly get hammered by hurricanes, the long river reduces the effect of storm surge, abnormally high tides that can lift boats up and over docks and break mooring lines.>
Marinas have been developed on the shores of the lakes to sustain over 300 boats through the hurricane season. I might point our that our insurance company does not accept that this area of the world is a safe harbor for the boats that it insures, unless one is prepared to pay $2000 above the regular premium. We decided to forgo that coverage, instead carefully choosing our location, and a quality marina, as preventive insurance.
There is no road access to most marinas <Larry: the ground along the river is too swampy to support roads> so movement from the marina to the town of Fronteras or to another marina is dependent on the river: launches ply the river much like cars on a freeway, and cruisers of course have their own dinghies. <Larry: Fronteras is a kind of boomtown. Until 1980, there was no bridge across the Río. Travelers would come by bus or cart to one shore, be ferried across by cayuco, and continue their journey on the other side. As is typical for transport terminals in Mexico and Central America, locals set up the equivalent of “fast food” kiosks, selling tamales or fried chicken or such under an umbrella to the travelers. When the bridge was built, the water-taxi drivers were hurt, but traffic through the town soared, and with it demand for goods and services to travelers. The region has a lot of cattle-farming, and trucks laden with cattle on their way to market are a frequent, and fragrant, presence. If there is a typical garb for men in the area, it’s “old west.”>
Most of the marinas offer similar amenities, including internet access, but many of the amenities are a function of the public infrastructure in the area. Shortly before we arrived, a tornado-like storm had come through, knocking out the electricity in the area for a week. That of course included the internet as well as any air conditioner or dehumidifer one might have on the boat. Most marinas have generators for basic electrical needs <Larry: as we saw in the Bay Islands, electricity is unreliable in Central America> but they usually do not have generating capacity to support the air conditioners on the boats. <Larry: Shortly after we arrived, someone stole 5 kilometers of telephone cable from along one of the roads leading into Fronteras, knocking out almost all internet access in the area for a week or so.>
We chose Tortugal Marina based upon word-of-mouth recommendations from other cruisers. It didn’t hurt that they had answered our telephone call and agreed to make a reservation. Tortugal has a good restaurant (something that cannot be said for all the marinas), and showers and toilets for its guests. About a dozen small cabins are available for use by visitors, and several large public spaces are shaded and cooled by the breezes that are common on this river. Because Tortugal is west (upriver) of the town, swimming is safe and pleasant in the river. <Larry: When we tied up at Tortugal Marina, we had to dig deep in the lazarette lockers for our docklines. We had been at anchor or underway for four months, since Cartagena.>
We did not have much time for exploring as I wanted to go to New York City to see our son, John. We got Moira settled into the marina and started to prepare her to sit out the hurricane season for the next six months. <Larry: After Susan left for New York, I stayed in Guatemala for a month to put Moira to bed. The process of putting a boat into mothballs is extensive. It is perhaps surprising, but one of the most damaging things you can do to a boat is to not use her. Putting the boat to bed involved:
1. Remove sails/canvas and find a place to store them (they would have filled the cabin)
2. Patch sails/canvas where necessary
3. Fill the fuel tanks to lessen condensation (in covering roughly 1,300 miles over 4 months, we had burned 55 gallons of diesel fuel)
4. Empty the holding tank to lessen fallout if it should leak (shudder)
5. Change engine oil and filters, to remove the acid-laden used oil that could eat away at bearings
6. “Pickle” the watermaker to prevent stuff growing on the membranes (filter surfaces)
7. Clean out the refrigerator and turn off
8. Initiate orders for replacements for broken parts
9. Wash salt out of the bilge, clean out the bilge pump
10. Purchase and install a window air conditioner (an all-day trip to the nearest big town) to keep the interior dry and cool in our absence
11. Plug ventilators
12. Wipe down all interior surfaces with white vinegar to arrest mildew
13. Clean the galley
14. Wax the fiberglass on the exterior to protect it from the sun, and the stainless to protect it from rust
15. Prepare the outboard for storage, and put it in a secure location (thieves love to go for outboards)
16. Turn off the propane that supplies the stove
17. Leave instructions for the marina staff on running the engine weekly and other periodic checks
18. Disconnect all antennas from their respective electronics (a probably futile precaution against damage from lightning strikes)
19. Lay out insect traps and mildewcide
20. Get the dinghy on deck and secure (almost the last thing; remember, that’s the only way I had to get in to town)
Close all seacocks
Twice I took a day off to teach my weather class.>
We hope to travel throughout Guatemala and neighboring areas in the late fall and early winter. Sailing will begin again in January or February.
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