Saturday, August 15, 2015


First Half of May

Our Guanaja chapter felt like more of an adventure than any other part of the trip. We scooted out of an anchorage in the face of bad weather and instead of slogging against it, we took a favorable tack and sailed to a place we hadn't planned to visit and knew next to nothing about. That same weather brought cool temperatures and allowed us to really enjoy the serendipitous paradise we'd stumbled into. Most importantly, we met a number of friendly sailors and locals who were both generous and great company. If we'd clung to our plans and fought through the weather, we'd have completely missed out on Guanaja and the whole reason we were sailing in the first place.

A cold front came down from the States and knocked JUMBLE's crew from our Vivorillo idyl. We'd been watching the weatherfax and were waiting for northerly winds to pass before attempting passage to Isla Mujeres. The Gulf Stream runs swiftly North in the Yucatan Channel at speeds of 2-4 knots. Whenever wind blows against current, waves are steepened and, especially in strong winds, conditions can get nasty. Even without the current, northerly winds wouldn't help our NNE course.

To put to sea in a tired old boat on a meager budget requires one to be an optimist. I was sure we could ride out the cold front in an open anchorage if we tucked JUMBLE close to the reef and set a stern anchor to keep things comfortable. These preparations were made in the afternoon. My plan might have worked with a N wind, but I honestly doubt it. When the wind finally came it was WNW. Some small swell came in from the W about an hour before the wind, so we had some clue that the situation would deteriorate. We were anchored in 15' of water off a lee shore and things would get worse.

At 2100, we hastily put to sea, wrenching the outboard off the dinghy in the chop. We always deflate and stow our dinghy before offshore passages, but there wasn't any time. 2 footers were breaking on Boga Key as we pulled away into deeper water. We were aware of the isolated, uncharted coral around us, but there wasn't much we could do in the moonlight. This was one of the few times when we were glad for JUMBLE's shallow draft and long keel. The first evening was mild, winds in the 10-15 knot range and waves becoming more north at 3-4' as we left the shelter of the cays. We tried to motor our course towards Isla Mujeres, hoping that the winds would shift back to the east, but they held NW or N through the night with little rain.

Hey There Buddy!

At daybreak, Anna jumped into the dingy to bail it out, then we hoisted it aboard with the main halyard and mizzen staysail halyard. The waves were a little larger and still north, with clouds on the horizon. We felt a lot more comfortable once the dinghy was deflated and wrestled into its locker. We gave up on Mujeres and turned W towards the island of Guanaja, around 120 miles away and the closest reliable harbor.

Fun in the Rain

Happy Anna

Along the way we had several rain squalls and steady winds from 15-20 knots with +/-10 knots in the squalls. The Sailomat was happy to steer and we stayed dry inside. There was no visible traffic. It blew harder the second night, but more steady. JUMBLE would let us know when it was time to reef. She'd slew around and yaw more then usual when overpowered; roll and wallow when underpowered. We ran the 85% jib, double reefed main and mizzen, dropping the main in the squalls. Things cooled down, even with the cabin closed up. The waves probably maxed at 6' and it was a comfortable ride.

Third Coffee

The next morning, approaching Guanaja, heavy rain limited visibility to a few hundred feet. Guanaja itself is steep, but it is surrounded by low reefs and cays, protecting nearly the entire island. The eastern entrance channel is a few hundred yards wide and it shoals rapidly on the reef, so your depth sounder won't save you if you stray too close. There are no buoys or horns. We trusted our charts, but weren't about to enter blindly by GPS. I circled around in heavy rain for about two hours. There were a few false starts, where I could see a few cays and the heights of the island, then the rain would beat down again. Morale was high, but it got frustrating. When the clouds finally parted, it was a heavenly scene. The air was fresh and cool and clouds rolled down the verdant hills of the island. I put the throttle down and JUMBLE raced through the channel as fishermen paddled out their cayucas with plastic snow shovels.

Finally Clearing

Bonnaca Town

Soggy Sailor

Across from Bonnaca

More Bonnaca

Heading towards El Bight

Satellite Image Showing Reefs

JUMBLE stayed in El Bight anchorage in Guanaja for almost two weeks. Eventually, we forced ourselves to leave in strong NE trades (and slightly hungover) because we were afraid we'd stay too long and have to ride out hurricane season in the Rio Dulce. With our dinghy, we were able to access the entire island from the water, which is what the locals do. There are few vehicles or roads. The barrier reef keeps the shoreline protected, making landing easy and grocery trips comfortable. There's a little tourist development, but of the adventurous type. The diving is superb and there are several nice hotel/dive boat places; however, access is by small boat or flying into the tiny airport via La Ceiba. Services are basic, but the islanders are friendly and there is a community of eccentric expatriates from the US and Europe.

Dinghies at Manati

The Hangout

We spent most evenings at the Manati: an open, tropical kind of place run by a German couple. Officially it was a restaurant & bar, but it was a bit more than that. More like an inn without lodging, although the proprietors' son runs a small hotel nearby. Long nights of conversations over food and booze were the norm and we had a great time. During the day, we hung out on JUMBLE and read or dinghied around for some hiking or diving. I was still recovering from the sand fly plague and there were plenty of them in Guanaja, along with the usual mosquitos. Some of the expatriates liked to joke about malaria, yellow fever or other tropical depredations. One of the downsides of living in a tropical paradise is catching one of these bugs at least once. The good news? "It's not that bad!" Food for thought. Perhaps because of the bugs on the main island, most of the locals live on crowded Bonnaca Cay, the "Venice of the Caribbean".

Streets of Bonnaca Cay
There's a lot I could say about this place, but this post has gone on long enough, so I'll let a few more pictures do the talking.

Jurassic Park-Esque Villa on West Side

Green Flash Bar on West Side

Failed Hotel Development

Into the Jungle

First Stage of Waterfall

Bathing Beauty

Good Water Pressure for a Shower

Nice Cove North of Anchorage

Around Michael's Rock, Good Visibility

I Messed with Contrast, More Colorful in Person

Mix of Pines in Drier Areas, Jungle Elsewhere

Canal Thru Island

We really liked this place and were tempted to stay and really get into the area. Maybe in another life with more money saved and a larger, more comfortable boat. If we return to the Caribbean, we'll be coming back to Guanaja.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Cabo Gracias a Dios and Vivorillo Banks

End of April, beginning of May

The passage around Cabo Gracias a Dios was probably the most discussed aspect of our Caribbean route. The continental shelf off Honduras and Nicaragua extends hundreds of miles offshore and sprouts various cays, banks, ledges and reefs. Sailing vessels are particularly vulnerable, as the strong easterly trades and a mild current set you directly onto a lee (downwind) shore. The entire area is littered with shipwrecks, ancient and modern. Historically, shipping has avoided the region, if possible, and these natural obstacles kept the Spanish from ever establishing full control over the region in colonial times. Heading north from Colón in spring, it's quite difficult to manage the deepwater route in a small sailboat due to the Trades, so most cruising boats choose one of several paths through this treacherous area.

Armed with GPS, fairly accurate charts and diesel engines, modern sailboats are in significantly less danger than their predecessors. Still, if the weather is bad or you have a mechanical failure, this is a lousy place to be. We crowd-sourced three basic routes:

Miskito Channel - Shortest Route
- Protected From Waves
- Inundated Shoreline
- Coral Heads
- Unlit Cayuca Traffic
- “Pirates”
Edinburgh/Main Cape Channel - More Downwind
- Some Wave Protection
- More Obstacles than Gorda
- Longer than Miskito
- Some Traffic
Gorda Bank/Cay Gorda - Fewest Obstacles
- Very Little Traffic
- Longest Route
- Exposed to Waves
- Hardest on the Wind

Click, then "View Image" for Hi-res

We do not have a chart plotter and were relying on large scale paper charts, passed on to JUMBLE by the crew of ALKIRA. As a backup/sanity check in tight areas, we have CM93 vector charts, viewed with OpenCPN. The Miskito Channel is very popular with powerboats because they are able to run the entire channel in daylight, spotting coral and other hazards by eye. Very few sailboats are fast enough to do this and JUMBLE is no exception. While we met two crews who had run the Miskito Channel northbound in sailboats, the consensus was that the Gorda Bank was a safer route. The Edinburgh Channel seemed to offer few advantages except as a sort of compromise route. Some very cautious rumor-mill types also mentioned sporadic piracy along the Miskito Coast by local fishermen. Most documented incidents have involved boats already aground or anchored.

I could devote a whole post to the SSB (Single-Sideband Radio) addicted "klatcher" sailors. These are generally older, slow-moving crews on very well equipped boats with a plethora of gadgets to stay in contact with everyone and everything. JUMBLE is positively primitive by comparison. One such sailor expressed disbelief at our lack of an SSB radio, as if not having one was irresponsible. For those of us on a budget, new rigging is a better investment.

Back to the matter at hand. Given our navigational capabilities and my chickenshit attitude towards shallow water, we elected to deal with an upwind sail and waves, rather than risk the reefs and fishing/narcotics traffic. JUMBLE would be running in 30-60' water over the Gorda Banks, so it was important to have a good weather window. Even relatively small waves can 'feel' the bottom in water that shallow and become steeper. When sailing upwind, choppy waves kill boatspeed and increase leeway (downwind drift).

JUMBLE experienced two days of 15-20 knots NE and ENE, becoming less than 12 knots E when we reached the banks. The weather was much more pleasant than our trip to San Andres. The first day, we clawed upwind for a clean angle to Cay Gorda. It was pitch dark at 0200 when we turned west 2 NM from Cay Gorda, trusting in our charts and GPS. JUMBLE cleared the Pigeon Cays and the south end of Vivorillo in daylight and anchored in 20' of sand off Boga Cay.

Tiny JUMBLE viewed from the abandoned fish plant

Vivorillo might have been our most enjoyable stop. For most sailors, this is a roadstead on the way to Roatan or Guanaja, but it was a refreshing idyll for us. For about ten days, we swam, fished and read in almost complete solitude. Two fishing trawlers came through and one fisherman in a panga stopped by on his way to Cayo Caratasca. We were alone every night and most days. The bank is situated about 40 NM from the mainland and has very little dry land, but extensive reefs. Unfortunately, I failed to get any underwater photos. The first few days, we were getting the lay of the reef, spotting nurse sharks, barracuda, rays, turtles, cuttlefish and all kinds of fish. By the time we were ready to take some photos, I'd been eaten alive by sand flies on Boga Cay. The bites itch worse than mosquito bites ever could and I had a few hundred on my legs. I swam around with several shallow, open sores for a couple days and things started to look pretty bad, so I was confined to the boat thereafter.

Anna Standing on the barrier reef

Wide Angle of the anchorage

I've discovered an excellent drink combination for tropical weather. It's more than a drink, it's a way of life:

Step 1: Rise at 9am or whenever the heat forces you from the cabin
Step 2: Shamble under the cockpit shade and recline. Remain still for awhile
Step 3: Brew sour, stove-top espresso, drink full strength
Step 4: Immediately wash down espresso with ice-cold MGD (substitute any weak, fizzy beer)
Step 5: Continue the brewing-drinking cycle until about noon
Step 6: You are now prepared for your day

Seriously, it tastes amazing and gets your mind right. I haven't thought of a good name, any ideas? "Caribbean Coffee"? Any name with "Bomb" is no good: this is a mellow beverage.

The Fauna

The Flora

The Birds

Very Stinky

The morning of our arrival, a Honduran trawler stopped by, said hello and clearly checked our boat name. A few hours later a large panga with half a dozen armed men came blasting into the anchorage and circled around us. I say "armed men" because their uniforms, while obviously military, were very piecemeal. Most of them wore ski masks or bandanas. The officer stood out as he was alone in having a complete, tidy uniform. Ballasted by the aforementioned beverage, we watched their approach with curiosity, greeted them and showed our papers. All was well, it was the Honduran Navy. The officer told us that they'd spend the night on the larger cay and to let them know if we needed any help. We asked if they had any weather information, but no dice. They kicked around the island for a couple hours and left before nightfall. I don't know if it was the sand flies or boredom. Most likely, they were looking out for us, at least halfheartedly.

Vivorillo and the surrounding cays have a problem with squatters and smugglers. Many are poor fisherman harvesting conk and fish from little cayucas (canoes, traditionally dugout) and waiting for larger 'mothership' trawlers to pick them up. Sometimes, these trawlers don't pick the fishermen up and they have to forage until another boat comes by. We gave three of these guys a ride back to their mothership in exchange for a few ponds of conk.  Above all, the islands are plagued with drug smuggling, you might stumble into something or someone.

"As in Panama, the Honduras' islands of Cayos Vivorillo, with little police or military oversight, are a regular Caribbean drug transit point. The area has more than ten little islands and sandbanks, which form part of the province Gracias a Dios on the border with Nicaragua.

According to the United States government, up to 80 percent of the cocaine that transits Mexico goes through Honduras first. Over the last few months, drug traffickers have changed their routes in order to bring drugs into Honduras and then to the United States. This is part of what the United States labels the drug triangle: from Colombia to Honduras to Mexico."

Article on Narco-Islands

Squat on Boga Cay

Small Forest on Boga Key, tons of bugs

Conk and Coral

Floating trash washes up on the windward side

After a week and a half, we were running low on food and anxious to make it to Isla Mujeres. The weather had other plans and we got slammed with a Norther, making the anchorage untenable. We quickly threw our shit together and got JUMBLE away from the reef. Within an hour, 2-3' waves were breaking a few hundred feet away and the wind was building. It turned into a fun sail and forced us to visit Guanaja. More on the Norther and Guanaja in the next post.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

San Andrés

Sometime in April

Our first real taste of the Caribbean was a sour one. JUMBLE had been moored or in flat water for over a month. We weren't prepared for the short, steep seas that the Western Caribbean is famous for. This was a lesson in picking the right weather window.

For 44 hours we had wind just forward of the beam, seas from 6' to 10' and sustained winds from 12 to 25 knots, some gusts in squalls. We left the Chagres around noon and had milder conditions the first day. By midnight, the wind picked up and the waves became unpleasant. JUMBLE ran an 85% jib, mizzen and double-reefed or furled main. It's hard to describe the difference between the mild, long period 8-footers we've seen in the Pacific and the short, square waves of the Caribbean. The wind never died, but blew from NE and ENE all day and night. There was some lightning, but no rain. The moon made no appearance.

I took few pictures in between chucking

I discovered that you can easily poison yourself with dimenhydrinate (original Dramamine). Seasickness wasn't much of a problem in the Pacific, but I've had good results with meclazine (Less-Drowsy Dramamine) in the past. All we were able to find in Central America was dimenhydrinate. We didn't look hard enough, I think.

Anyway, I felt wretched by the first night watch and went through the puke-recover-puke cycle for the rest of the trip. This sucked, so I tried dosing with dimenhydrinate to get things under control. The pills were poor quality and would dissolve, with a godawful taste, quickly, so I had a hard time swallowing them without another bought of retching. A quick, stomach-settling, dose of Jello right after a vomit session was glorious and I would recommend having some on hand if you have a refrigerator on board. Not only does Jello provide a little hydration, but it helps avoid that lousy empty-stomach feeling that goes along with not eating or sleeping. Eventually, I lost track of how much dimenhydrate I was taking due to of lack of sleep and uncertainty over how much actually made it down.

By the second night, I was hearing the occasional voice out in the cockpit. The squeaking of the self-steering would turn into an insistent nonsensical phrase or greeting: "Hello, Susan! Hello, Susan!" or something like that. These mini-hallucinations matched my usual 10-15 minute cockpit check, so they weren't very distressing. Anna was feeling better and offered to take longer watches. I didn't want to do this. It was better to keep at least one of us reasonably fit and I wasn't sleeping anyway. Between leeway and the wind veering north occasionally, we were getting pushed inside our rhumb line to Providencia, our intended destination, and I was becoming concerned that we wouldn't make San Andres. We toyed with the sails and self-steering, navigated through Cayo Albuquerque and Cayo Bolivar and raised San Andres in the early morning of the third day, with dolphins swimming us in and lighter winds. Anna noted my big pupils and was concerned, but I was already feeling better.

Not much left of this one

One of the more intact wrecks

The entrance to San Andres harbor is extremely well buoyed, with half a dozen visible wrecks to keep you alert of the barrier reef. There were a few cruising sailboats and many fishing trawlers in the shallow (5'-10') anchorage. The water was crystal clear. We watched JUMBLE's anchor dig into the bottom. Our preferred stop was Providencia, a less-populated island 50 miles further north and east, but San Andres was good enough. We made 220 miles in 44 hours, close reaching: good time for JUMBLE. We swapped tales with an English crew on a Beneteau 50. Their instruments recorded gusts in the mid-30 knot range. Half the crew jumped ship and the owners abandoned their plan of making it to Grand Cayman. So, all in all, we didn't feel too bad about getting our asses kicked.

San Andres is an cool place. It's a good rest stop if you're northbound in the Western Caribbean, but its real popularity is as a tourist party/duty-free shopping destination. The vast majority of the tourists are mainland Columbian, with a fair number of Europeans. The facilities and entertainment are not up to first world standards. For broke sailors, this is awesome. The islanders are friendly, there aren't a bunch of posh megayacht or cruise ship saps and it's all very casual. If you wander around the residential areas, things look as run-down as anywhere in Central America, but without the vaguely threatening vibe you sometimes get. Cocaine and weed are supposed to be a major draw for tourists. San Andres is an intermediate point for cocaine on its way to the USA and there's a local Rasta culture with close ties to Jamaica. Apparently, both drugs are dirt cheap and the discotheques run all night, but we didn't indulge, nor were we propositioned.

Hotels and shops on North End

We rented an ATV one day and had a blast

Most of the traffic is scooters, golf-carts or motorcycles

Wading in-between watering holes, paddleboats for the timid

Nice platforms over the sharp coral on the west side

Tranquil west side of the island

We played pool most nights at Club Nautico

San Andres islanders were mostly Raizal (English-speaking, Protestant Afro-Caribbeans) until the last few decades. They're now a minority due to immigration from the Columbian mainland, which began with the building of an airport in the 1950s and the promotion of the island as a tourist destination. We only dove the eastern reefs, which are damaged from constant anchoring and very picked-over; however, the western side of the island is much less busy and sheltered from the 24/7 trade winds. Supposedly, the diving there is world-class. On either side the visibility is amazing and the water warm. A wetsuit is entirely optional, but a thin wetsuit beats sunscreen.

Glamor Shot

Your shirt's on backwards

Trawler Wreck

Reef stuff

Anna being cool

Tiny Lobster

After several days R&R, we headed for the Vivorillo Banks, over the treacherous shoals, banks and currents of the Miskito Coast.