Crossing to Honduras
One minute, were at anchor in Bahia Gracioso, off Punta Monabique, Guatemala, planning to poke our way up to the Sapodilla islands, loll about for a few days, snorkel, shoot fish, collect our Christmas conch, and bask in our regained freedom from the Río. The next minute, literally, were sailing into the teeth of 25 knots and squalls, hoping to outrun the arrival of an impending cold front and pounding toward Roatán. Such are the ironies of weather and how they shape the cruising life.
We didnt know we were coming to Honduras today, and surely not to Roatán. After the Sapodillas we wanted to mosey southeast to the island of Utila, riding the easterly trades for a comfortable broad reach, but the weather gods are no different than other authoritiesto them, whatever you want to do is irrelevant. Besides, the Sapodillas have no good protection from the anticipated, growing cold front that was supposed to sweep over us in two days. Early yesterday I pulled down the 24-, 48- and 72-hour wind and sea faxes, which forecast 21 to 33 knots and waves you dont want to play in if you dont have to. The fax pictures revealed a series of four lows lined up across North America, plus one off the Texas coast that was clipping along at a get-outta-my-way-bubba speed of 20 knots. Thats fast. With a pack of hop-to winds coming our way, we knew we had to scramble somewhere protected by Sunday morning and hide for a bit. Christmas northers are pretty much an annual synoptic tradition, and we remembered last year when we were socked in No Name Harbor in Key Biscayne, Florida, for 10 days until they passed.
Our options, we figured, were to crawl back over the shallow bar into the Río Dulce (which seemed like a step backwards), head up the coast a ways and tuck into a hidey hole in Monkey River, Belize (the wrong direction for where we wanted to be a week later), or scurry eastward to El Diamante, a well-protected bay at Punta Sal on the Honduran coast. We decided on El Diamante, 70 miles from where we were, figuring to set off before sunset, sail through the night, and arrive in good light the following day to negotiate the entrance. We took out the charts, laid a course, put some waypoints in the GPS, and told friends on the morning Northwest Caribbean net our plans. Everyone on the net, it seemed, was scrambling to get somewhere before the weather hit. Later that morning, another cruiser called us on the VHF to tell us hed overheard us, and that we should forget about El Diamante. Hed discovered that the last hurricane had filled most of the lagoon to less than six feet, not enough for us. Bernadette and I looked at each other; it was already 10:00 a.m., and we were running low on time. Its not as if a hurricane were coming, but the ambiguity of the future and likelihood of having to get someplace by the end of the next day and hole up quickened our collective pulse. Options are few and far between on the Honduran coast. We pulled out more charts and rethought the plan.
There was another harbor near El Diamante (Puerto Escondidosecret or hidden harbor, in Spanish) that appeared inviting at first, but when we looked at it more critically we could see that the entrance was too exposed to the northwest. Okay, we said, what if we headed directly for Utila, 35 miles farther than Diamante? We wanted to go there at some point anyway for the famed scuba diving, and the harbors offer good shelter from the strong northwest winds predicted to follow the passage of the front. We went through the same drill for Utila, plotting a course, even started putting in the waypoints when the realization dawned on us. Why just go to Utila? Were getting a rare west-northwest windthe opposite of what the pilot charts and common sense predict, but terrific for going east. So we hatched plan four. We decided the best move was to head even further east and make for Roatán, Honduras, roughly 145 miles (without any tacking) from our present location. We plotted the course, ran the numbers and found there was only one problem. In order to make Roatán in good light, we should have left two hours ago. Now, wed have to maintain at least five knots for the duration of the sail; there would be no time for inconveniences such as flat tires or their maritime equivalent. But, if we could add a knot and average six, then we could make Roatán easily by the next afternoon. We literally sprang into action. Within a half hour, wed rigged the on-deck jacklines to which we connect our harnesses, and were underway.
Immediately, the wind freshened to 25 knots, we suited up, and tucked in a reef. The first three hours were a nasty beat up Cabo Tres Puntas, but then we turned east and howled throughout the day. Six, six and half, seven, seven a half, eight knots! Flying along, no sooner had we congratulated ourselves on our clever decision-making, than the winds clocked back to their usual easterly source, and we began to get creamed. During the course of 28 hours we saw winds up to 30 knots, a variety of strengths from every direction of the compassbut mostly east -- did more tacking than we hoped to, and sailed around and through half a dozen squalls. I calculated and recalculated our ETA. Finally, I allowed myself to believe that our terrific speeds had given us a great leap toward making Roatán on time, and I began to enjoy the night.
One of the pleasures of solo watches on overnight passages is you have the time to think about a lot of stuff. Youve also got time to do a thorough job flossing your teeth, not just the usual perfunctory scrub, but a leisurely deep clean with a good gargle and a couple of rinses afterwards. A bit after 3:30 am, as I sat in the cockpit flossing, I watched a crescent moonrise and thanked my stars. I also thanked our new Raytheon radar unit. This was its maiden voyage since Bernadette and I had installed it a few weeks back. On this short passage we crossed three shipping lanes: for Puerto Barrios, Puerto Cortez and La Ceiba. I dont know how many ships we saw during the night, but easily a score. I was dazzled by our little unit. We had gone cheap and bought the bottom of the line monochrome SL70 which doesnt have all the colorful bells and whistles, but it proved to be a marvel. We monitored squalls and maneuvered to skirt several of them completely, something not previously possibleplus, we were seeing ships more than 20 miles away. Even I, who like Calvin, egged on by Hobbes, figures there are monsters under every bed, even I, who knows there are radar-avoiding, stealth ships out there, just standing by, waiting to swoop down and attack at any momenteven I felt safer! By dawn the wind had petered to zephyrs on a pond.
At 1200 Zulu, 6:00 am local time, with the island of Utila backlit by the sunrise ahead of us, as planned, I tuned the SSB to 8137 and checked in with Harold on Seacamp, who was anchored somewhere in Belize, letting him know wed passed the night safely. Then, at 1400 Zulu on the Northwest Caribbean Net, Ithaka checked in as a vessel under way. Guy from Street Legal was that days net controller, which was great, as we hadnt talked since hanging out together last spring. Right after emergency and medical announcements, the first segment of each days net, those boats on the move have priority check in and priority traffic to and from other vessels. Guy and Annika are heading from Belize to Honduras next week, so I placed a take-out order for six bottles of Belizean lime squash, a concentrate drink to which I had become addicted last year. Guy claimed hed levy a stiff international delivery tariff but would bring the goods. Then, suddenly, we were called for traffic by our friends Karen and Horst on Flow, somewhere in the Pacific off the west coast of Salvador. Theyd transited the canal last month, but for old times sake happened to turn on the NWC net on this particular morning, got a good ionispheric skip, heard us, and sent their love. These contacts with our cruising friends made our morning. After the net Bernadette put together one of her grand vegetable, tomato, cheese frittatas and we savored it and memories of our friends over the next eight hours as we closed in on Roatán. Motor-sailing through glassy calms, we watched our once-again-functioning depth sounder (a techno-mystery-tale for another log) reflect the irregular contours of the sea floor change beneath us.
We sailed over a terrain sometimes 3,300 feet under us but with mountains, plateaus and pillars that shot up to within 45 feet of the surface. I kept thinking of them as tectonic bruisesthe bumps and scars in the ocean floor that recount the shifting wills of the earth: collisions, eruptions and whole segments of the planet that boiled up, crashed against each other or just got pushed around. I wondered: dont we all bear those marks toothose strange rendings and protrusions in our soul which shape us with different levels of aggression, understanding and love.
The island of Roatán, which lies pretty much on a WSW to ENE axis, shelters us well from NE to NW. Where weve parked Ithaka, theres a long reef to the east, and another small island guarding us from the south and west. This is a terrific anchorage, now that were safely hooked, although wiggling in here was tense. Our guide for this neighborhood is Calders and pre-GPSwritten a dozen years back. That was many hurricanes, shifting bottoms and disappearing navigational buoys ago. Our more recent Rick Rhodes guide gives an offshore waypoint and a bearing but little else in the way of approach information, and the charts show no shoreline depths. Thats both why we like it here, and why we get antsy! Approaching Roatán on the southern coast, we remained off soundings until we were less than 300 yards from the island. Then the water got thin fast: from 70 feet to 20 feet and finally to 7 at the point where we crept on cats paws over a foul coral shelf where we had to turn a hard right into the anchorage lagoon. From my perch on the first set of spreaders, I could see the brown bar under us and the soft green water ahead, where depths were 20-30 feet again. It was so clear I could see fish. Its been several months since wed marked a reef with our bottom paint, and I was hoping to extend that run at least 20 minutes longer. With a little luck we squeaked over the hard stuff without so much as a bump, and then, like a hound looking for just the right place to curl up, circled the little bay, found a warm spot, dropped the anchor, snubbed her up, hauled back, and felt a good grip in the sand. We spent an hour cleaning up the boat, poured ourselves a couple of drinks, and a little more than a day after busting out of Guatemala, we tucked in below and laid claim to some sleep.
If youre reading this log on the day its posted on the Cruising World website, today is the winter solstice, one of the two times of the year when the sun is farthest from the equator. Both sol and time teeter quietly, as if standing still. Its the shortest day and the longest night, the fulcrum which signals the march of winter toward spring. This is the time of year when the halcyon breed. This fabled bird is believed, around the solstice, to build a floating nest in which her brood is safe, because she can charm the sea and make it calm. As we approach Christmas and the New Year, Bernadette and I are grateful to all of you whove taken the time to read our logs and sail with us. We wish all of you good holidays, a happy new year, safe harbors, and halcyon days. Oh, one last thing, the cold front we and so many other cruisers tried to so ardently outrun, stalled and dissipated in the Gulf of Mexico, never reaching Guatemala and Honduras.