Aiming For The Corner
Sunday, 5 p.m.: As I write, Douglas is on watch, and Ithaka is beating into 20 to 25 knots of easterly trades, as we slowly gain ground toward "The Corner," where the coast of Honduras takes its sharp turn to the south just north of the infamous Cabo Gracias a Dios. Cruisers all talk about this as a short but somewhat tricky voyage, one to get behind you with dispatch, as its notoriously fraught with contrary strong winds and currents, and a treacherous lee shore of reefs.
The anchorage at Sandy Bay, Guanaja
We left Guanaja yesterday at 4 p.m., with a rare favorable forecast of north-north-easterlies expected to continue for two daysplenty of time, we thoughtto make a 150-mile rhumb line of 105 degrees to the Vivorillos Cays, a possible first stop from which to turn south. We set off, in company with three other boatsRotuma, Sand Dollar, and Filiaand our hopes high for an efficient passage. Unfortunately, the strong trades have returned a day earlier than expected, and weve had to harden everything up and point as high as we can. Wed all like to make the Vivorillos before dark tomorrow, but with this wind direction and the one-knot current against us, its not the shoe-in it was when we set out yesterday.
|Beryl and Derek Conner sail Rotuma half the year, and return to their home in the Lake District of England for the other half. This season, they plan to leave the boat in a marina in Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Over the past 24 hours, the four boats have split naturally into pairs. Filia (a Hallberg-Rassey 41) and Sand Dollar (a 43-foot Bob Perry design) sail at about the same speed and can stay together, remarkably within a couple of miles of one another. Rotuma (a Contest 43) and Ithaka (a Shearwater 39) are more similar in speed as well, and weve pulled ahead of the other two boats. That said, Rotuma with her wing keel and racy profile points like nobodys business, and weve been seeing a lot more of her transom than we do her bow light! Still, were holding our own. Every six hours we all check in with one another, as this is a coast thats had its share of troublemostly cruisers stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time, interrupting drug transactions, sometimes resulting in missing boats and missing people. Its generally considered a good idea to make this passage in company with another boat.
The miles are ticking by as Ithaka is steered by our Monitor self-steering vane. We still havent settled on the right name for him, but were working on it. He has the steadiest hand on this boat! Since we removed the attachment lines from the wheel, and hooked the Monitor up to a 31-inch stub tiller that fits into the top of our rudder, its been dead simple to engage and adjust, and on this jaunt, hes been clawing his way upwind far better than Douglas and I could have managed. Show me a group of cruisers, and Ill show you a crowd that after the first hour at sea hates driving!
|The moonrise lights Ithakas path eastward.
Sunday, 10 p.m.: We have a full moon, which, for me, takes all the pressure off passagemaking at night. You can see ahead of you, and muse, and enjoy the beautiful panorama and peacefulness. There are fewer things to hit or get hit by, lots of safe, deep water for miles and miles; its a wonderful feeling. I like to tuck in the corner of the cockpit for my watch, with an egg timer, in case I fall asleep. I set the timer for 10 minutes, and read my bookIm into Tolkiens The Hobbit at the momentthe timer goes off, I check the horizon, see nothing, check the wind speed and directionstill accursed east at 21 knots and, worse news, its tending now toward the southeastreset the timer, and resettle into the doings of Bilbo Baggins. "Adventures are nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!" hes saying. "Make you late for dinner! I cant think what anybody sees in them."
|Percival guards the veggies, and hangs on for dear life as Ithaka beats to windward.
Monday, 9 a.m.: During our morning chat with the other boats on the SSB, we learn that Filia has blown out their 13-year old headsail, is sailing under main and staysail, but still making good progress, with Sand Dollar slowing down a bit so both boats can stay together. Rotuma and Ithaka are out of VHF range of the other two boats now, and weve both fired up our iron gennies to point as high as we can and keep our speed up; otherwise, it looks like well just miss making a daylight landfall today. For Filia and Sand Dollar, theres no longer any chance of making it today, even if they motorsail. For them, its going to be one more night of beatingbut they can anticipate the pleasure of another moonrise, which I hope well be sleeping through.
On the morning Northwest Caribbean Net at 8 a.m., we got a call from Jack at Lighthouse on Guanaja. He wanted to know how its going and where we are. He told us hell miss us. Ages ago, it seems now, wed heard from cruising friends in the Río Dulce all about Jack, a Honduran educated in the United States, and his wife Elizabeth, from Florida. Theyd made their home in Guanaja with their three children after Jack had worked on a development project there, and after theyd fallen in love with the island. Theyd started a school in Guanaja, which is Elizabeths focus, and were helping to build a hospital on the north coast, among other things.
|Jack and Elizabeth had us up to the house for dinner a few times, and they opened their beautiful home and put on a potluck dinner for all the cruisers in the anchorage.
Before we got to know them ourselves, wed heard "Jack at Lighthouse" check in on the morning SSB cruisers net many times as he offered assistance or advice to sailors seeking his local knowledge, or when he checked the weather with Dave before taking his plane up. "Yknow, out here," hed told us, with the sparkle of a little boy, "I really get to fly!" He navigates that Cessna all over creation, whipping over to the mainland for supplies, rushing out to the remote Mosquite on his frequent emergency medical evacuation trips, larking off for the occasional high adventure, working on his humanitarian projects, landing in open patches of jungle, or on beaches or just about anywhere where theres no airstrip.
When wed first anchored in Sandy Bay, Guanaja, we saw Jack in action. Every few days he took his skiff around the harbor, stopped by any new cruising boats to check on things, shoot the breeze, let them know where they could get drinking water, dispose of garbage, provision, check in; hes a self-appointed ambassador of Guanaja to the cruising community. Also visiting Jack and Elizabeth were Yoav and Pnina and their daughter Netta, on Summer Wind, from Israel, whom wed gotten to know in the Río; and Al and Teresa Jacobs, our teacher friends from La Ceiba, whod flown over to Guanaja to visit us for a week to celebrate Teresas doctorate, and who were now staying as houseguests at, you guessed it, Lighthouse. We had hilarious times with these generous friends.
|Pnina and Yoav Greenstein came to Lighthouse where Elizabeth and Jack put together an interdenominational group to celebrate the Passover Seder.
For quite some time during our last days on Guanaja, wed been on the alert for a weather window so that we could head east again. But at the same time, Guanaja had exerted a pull on us that the dramatic landscape alone didnt explain. It had been hard to leave. Although the tops of the mountains may have been bald-headed from the beating theyd taken from Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the island is still a major beauty: rolling green hills clawing down to brilliant turquoise waters, a north rampart of pristine beaches, and a south coast of bays well protected from northers and the eastern trades. From our anchorage at Sandy Bay, we could dinghy the mile or so into bustling Bonacca Cay (jokingly referred to as the Venice Of The Bay Islands!) when we needed provisionsthe supply boat kept the islands little tiendas well stocked with great-looking produceor we could dinghy in to Lighthouse, near where Giovanni and Laura have their restaurant, and above which Jack and Elizabeth live in the beautiful house they built overlooking the anchored boats. As always, it was the friends we made that had held us fast.
"Well miss you, too, Jack!" I said over the radio. "Come and visit us in Panama at the San Blas!"
"Ill do that!" he said. "Ill fly down!" We have no doubt he will.
The deserted white beaches of Honduras
Monday, 12 p.m.: We calculate and recalculate our ETA, and its going to be a close onemaybe too close. The Vivorillos are reefy little cays atop a shallow bank, out in the middle of the ocean, and we need good light to make a safe landfall. Its clear now that Rotuma, with her 100-horsepower dieselwhat Derek calls his Jolly Green Giantcan make it if they put the pedal to the metal. Ithaka is moving well, but making slower progress. For us, its more touch and go. Douglas and I discuss alternatives. We can just ease up, crack off, and head out to sea for another night, and make landfall tomorrow morning at the Vivorillos. Or we could head on to Media Luna, another small cay 65 miles further south. The latter, we both admit, would be a bit of a bummer, as we really wanted to make the Vivorillos, and Media Luna has a spotty reputation. Local fishermen who know the area told us theres some dangerous drug activity there. The wind is picking up even more, promising a very bumpy night, so we decide to give it all weve got to make the Vivorillos. At worst, if we cant beat in by dusk, we can just turn back downwind and retrace our own track to the safety of the open ocean.
Monday, 2 p.m.: Rotuma calls on the VHF to say theyre inside the Vivorillo archipelago, beating toward the far cay that on the chart, at least, appears to offer the most protection from the still-strengthening southeasterly wind. They expect to anchor by 5:00, 6:00 at the latest. They offer us waypoints so that we can follow them in, even if we arrive after dark. Douglas and I agree that the idea of sailing upwind onto this bank and into the reefs after the sun goes down gives us the willies, even with waypoints. We decide to try to make it instead to a small feather of a cay that we can see through the binoculars, and which isnt so directly upwindCayo Caratasca, at the northernmost point on the Vivorillo bank.
"OK, good luck," we tell Beryl.
"Good luck," she radios back. "Call when youre settled in."
|Every cay offers up its version of paradise.
Monday, 7 p.m.: Were anchored, safe and sound in 15 feet, as close as we can get to Cayo Caratasca, a teensy cay offering scant protection from the easterlies now blowing 23 knots. Its rolly, but were not complaining. Its fabulous to be hooked.
After we set the anchor, around 5, Douglas jumped in with his mask and fins, and dove down to check it. He came up shaking his head. "Its all rock!" he called.
Damn, I thought. The lights running out, and we have to make this place work. He climbed aboard, brought the anchor up with the windlass, and we tried again. After the anchor and about 50 feet of chain were down again, Douglas jumped back in, dived down, and looked around for better ground. There wasnt any, but he found a natural hole in the concrete-like bottom, lugged the anchor over to it, set the point in the hole, surfaced and signaled. I went forward, let out more chain, wrapped it around the forward cleat, went back to the cockpit, and slipped Ithaka into a slow reverse. Douglas watched the chain pull gently against the anchor below. It seemed secure in its hole. He surfaced and signaled again, I went forward, let out more chain, recleated it, went back to the cockpit, backed down slowly, felt it strain, and put it in neutral. Douglas swam back, climbed aboard, we put on the snubber, and then backed her down hard. We didnt budge. He dove it again, watched, and was satisfied, and exhausted. You cant be too careful when youre dealing with a hard coral bottom, and wed done all we could. We knew the set was less than ideal, but in this case would have to do.
|The climate of Honduras is perfect for orchids, which grow wild in all the jungle thickets.
After wed taken hot showers and organized ourselves a bit, we called Rotuma. They said they hadnt been able to anchor in the cay to which theyd originally headed. Uncharted coral heads and a nasty reef had blocked their path. Theyd had to carry on a couple more miles to the next cay, and finally found a decent anchorage around the same time we were anchoring. Thank God we hadnt tried to push on down there, or wed be in a fine mess right about now.
"Well, hell, we all made it to The Corner anyway," said Douglas.
"Thats right," said Derek. "The worsts behind us"and they chatted about the day, about our both moving on to greater protection of Grand Cayo Vivorillo in the morning, and how Sand Dollar and Filia were coping with yet another unpleasant night of heavy headwinds and choppy seas. We hoped the hours would pass quickly for them. As for us, we set the anchor alarm on our GPS, planned to devour a magnificent dinner of stir-fried chicken and fresh vegetables from the tiendas in Guanaja, and get rocked soundly asleep by 8. Douglas set his alarm for 11:45 and would get up to do a midnight radio check in with our friends still under way.
The 150 miles from Guanaja to the Vivorillos had taken Rotuma and Ithaka 225 long miles of tacking; Filia and Sand Dollar would do about 290 miles before they get in tomorrow morning.
|Carved head at Copan Ruinas
Making it to The Corner is a bittersweet sensation. It means were heading farther away from Honduras, and all the people wed come to know there, and were on the threshold of a whole new country. As exciting as it always is to pick up stakes and move on, when youve worked and played hard and made friends in a place, its impossible not to leave a little of yourself behind when you go, and you wonder if youll ever return.
Wed seen such beauty in Honduras. The incredible Mayan ruins of Copan had transported us back 1,000 years in history, bringing to life one of the glorious ancient civilizations. The awesome vistas in the interior of the countrythe spiky velvet-green mountains, mighty whitewater rivers, and spewing waterfallsrevealed an unspoiled country relatively unexplored by tourists. Out among the islands, Douglas and I had spent part of almost every day face down in the clear water, exploring the reefs and coral beds, spear fishing, playing among the beautiful shapes, admiring the fabulous kaleidoscopic colors of the fish, which are more prolific in Honduras than anywhere weve yet been.
Wed also built relationships in Honduras, with people we hope well see again and againespecially Al and Teresa, and Jack and Elizabethfriends wed never have known without taking a deep breadth and, like Bilbo Baggins, setting out into the unknown.
Vistas from the cruising life
Going cruising has given us another gift as well, and I think of it today especially, as I write to you. This Log Of Ithaka entry is number 100, which marks a milestone for Douglas and me. After almost two years of cruising and writing our Logs, weve shared almost everything about our voyage with you, the good and the not so good, the sublime and the terrifyinga risky thing to do, if you think about it, as you open yourself up for a lot of criticism when you talk about how things really are, versus an occasional glorified version of the highlights. But the rewards weve received from that intimacy have been substantial. Weve heard from people who are following our path, people who think were crazy and irresponsible, people who offered us dinners and beds and showers, people who ask us to answer questions, people who offer us fantastic advice, people who write to us to share private and moving pieces of their lives. Were thrilled to receive these messages, and were fortunate that we have this opportunity to tell you our story. Were turning the corner now, saying good-bye to Honduras, and after some time here in the Vivorillos well likely be heading south to the Colombian islands of Providencia and San Andres, and then south to visit the Kuna Indians in the San Blas. We look ahead with great excitement, and were so glad youre with us for the ride. Thanks for everything!
Inland Excursions: For cruisers exploring the Bay Islands, its worth stressing that the Honduran mainland is not to be missed. The easiest and safest way to see it is to bring your boat to La Ceiba, to Lagoon Marina, located up an extremely protected river system and managed by Tony and Rita Vorleiter (504-991-5401) (firstname.lastname@example.org). Lagoon Marina is beautiful, reasonably priced, and has terrific amenities: a large new swimming pool, 110- and 220-volt power, 24-hour security, a pet monkey, a project room, and luxurious bathrooms and showers. If you bring your boat to Lagoon Marina for do-it-yourself projects, or to have Tony do mechanical work (hes excellent, extremely professional, and hes a Simrad dealer in case you need electrical work), dont miss the opportunity to take excursions inland. Copan is only a few hours away. Amazing whitewater rafting trips, and hiking excursions into the interior are easily arranged from La Ceiba, which is located perfectly near the dramatic Pico Bonito national park system. Honduras is a natural and unspoiled wonderland, and there are few tourists. If you sail down to this part of the world, dont miss it.
Boat Work: If you need to haul your boat for a paint job, or any major project, La Ceiba Shipyard (504-991-6175), next door to Lagoon Marina, is a terrific facility with a 100-ton Travelift. The work they do is first class, and very reasonable. Professional marine surveys can be arranged by the manager. We had Ithaka surveyed here for our insurance company, by a British surveyor whod worked full time for Lloyds before moving to Honduras. For boat work not requiring haulout, Tony at Lagoon Marina is your man.
Flying Home: If you need to fly to the United States, theres a direct flight from the Bay Island of Roatán to Miami and back once a week, and you can leave your boat at French Harbor Yacht Club. From the mainland there are even more choices, daily direct flights to Miami from the cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Any of these flights are easily accessed by the efficient network of smaller airlines flying several times a day to these two cities from La Ceiba, and from each of the Bay Islands. Flying to the United States is easy.
Hurricane Season: Cruisers spending hurricane season in Honduras have several choices. The best and safest place to leave your boat in the water would be upriver at Lagoon Marina in La Ceiba. However, there are other options out on the islands as well, including French Harbor Yacht Club and Oak Ridge Yacht Club, both on Roatán (although neither offers the protection of Lagoon Marina.) If you want to leave your boat safely on the hard, or for long-term storage, the best choice is La Ceiba Shipyard. Weve inspected all these facilities. BB