Pirates & Persecutions, Bights & Bites

Isla Barbareta, Honduras, CA 16o 26.031 North 86o 08.836 West

For the past two weeks, since Ithaka‘s happy exit from the shipyard, we’ve been exploring the Bay Islands; diving in the Cayo Cochinos, off Calabash and Oak Ridge; returning to home base (and Eldon’s, an excellent grocery store) in French Harbor; setting out for historic Port Royale; and then pushing on to Barbareta, a tiny island east of Roatan, where we are now.

| | One of the beautiful hidden harbors along Roatan’s south shore* * *| A few days ago we sailed into Port Royale on the south shore of Roatan, a stunning bight protected on the southeast by Fort Morgan Cay (named after the pirate Captain Henry Morgan, who used to hide there), and a reef all along the southwest.

Sailing upwind from French Harbour, only 10 miles to the west, we beat out in a mild east wind that freshened mightily as we went along. Bernadette hand steered, to see how close she could keep Ithaka to the wind—her idea of great fun. We honked at 40 degrees off the wind, but began to run out of steam at 30—not up to race-boat standards but pretty decent.


Then we made the tack back toward land and came screaming in at 7.5 knots. To clear the sand and coral shoal that creeps on the western edge of the cut, and enter on a bearing of 336 degrees, we sailed a little east of the actual entrance to Port Royale and entered leaving the island to starboard. The entrance is less than a tenth of a mile, but with the sun at our backs, we could easily see the submerged brown reef to port. We dropped the sails, scooted in, turned to 50 degrees, and took shelter behind an island where muskets and cannons once prevailed.

I’d been reading historical accounts of the islands for the past month, and as we sailed in, I felt I’d been there before. This kidney-shaped harbor, a half-mile deep and one-and-a-half miles across, could hold an enormous number of boats and often did. As Thomas Geoffreys, Royale Geographer to the King of England, wrote in 1672, Port Royale is “naturally fortified with rocks and shoals, and the entrance is so narrow that only a single ship can pass at a time.”

I imagined myself among the British buccaneers who holed up there. Even the word “buccaneer” captured me. It’s from the French, meaning one who dries and smokes flesh over a boucan, which pirates did often, keeping themselves stocked with the meat of turtles, fish, and small deer.


| | From the air it’s so easy to see the reef dramatically clawing out into deeper water. From boat level, however, it’s not always so apparent, and the same reef would appear as a subtly different shades in the water.* * *| In my reveries, made more vivid by being perched on the first set of spreaders—my usual vantage point when crossing through reefs—I also conjured images from 1797. Then, the white Englishmen of St. Vincent, worried they were being outnumbered by the free Black Caribs (a mix of West Indians and Africans who’d escaped from wrecked slave ships during the 17th century), rounded up between 3,000 and 5,000 of them, herded them into more ships, and marooned them in Port Royale.

The Spanish (a colonial competitor with Britain in these parts), who had their own hands full, pillaging and slaving on mainland Honduras, were miffed to be interfered with and dragged most of these men and women over to an area near Trujillo. But a substantial group stayed behind in Port Royale, crossed over the little mountain to the north shore, and founded Punta Gorda (Fat Point), where a Garifuna settlement remains today.

In the 1830s, yet another group of British white guys were getting antsy about being outnumbered by the recently freed Commonwealth slaves with whom they were now sharing the Cayman Islands, to the north of us. This time, though, the Brits moved themselves. Some of them settled in Port Royale, as well as in Utilla and Guanaja, the two other major Bay Islands.


My reveries were interrupted when it was time to climb down and anchor, which we did in about 20 feet in good sand. I dove the CQR and saw only the shank, which I’d painted with white two-part epoxy when we were in the boatyard. The fluke was in deep, the ears were buried, and I couldn’t budge it—always a good feeling. We snubbed the chain, backed down, and Bernadette and I wasted no time returning the dink to the water; we always stow it on deck when we’re under way in any kind of breeze.

| | Our newly painted anchor. Of course, the paint wore off the flukes on the first drop and pull, but the white shank is what’s important, making it so much easier to see it when we snorkel down to check.* * *| After launch and lunch, we climbed into wet suits, loaded up our snorkeling gear and my spear gun, and made tracks for the reef. Generally in these bights, we go back outside the reef and anchor the dink in a patch of sand, or if there’s no wind and mild waves, I drag it along, the painter tied loosely around my waist, so that we can store fresh kill and keep moving without having to return to the boat. But this day, the breeze was up, so we anchored inside the reef, swam toward it and, as it shallowed out, we floated over the top of the coral, where we found only about 18 inches of water for the last 100 feet. Then the ocean deepened into crevasses, through which we could swim freely.

Within minutes, we found ourselves hovering over a deep wall of fan coral, sponges, pillar coral, smooth flower coral, boulder star, and a series of greater canyons similar to one I dived last week at a site known as “Mary’s Place,” just west of French Harbour. It was a cleft in the reef that opened at about 80 feet. You enter there and swim your way slowly back to the shallower depths, worming through crevices, some of which are only a few feet wide and bristling with sea fans and sponges. In one giant sponge I stumbled upon a family of four-inch longsnout seahorses (Hippocampus reidi) and happily spent most of my air just hanging out with them.


This afternoon Bernadette and I were treated to our first-ever sighting of a group of magnificent—and enormous—rainbow parrot fish (Scarus guacamaia). Most parrot fish are between six and 20 inches long, but the mature rainbow can grow to more than five and a half feet and weigh 45 pounds, making it a sousaphone among piccolos. I know that guys exaggerate the length of everything, but the Commodore was with me, and she confirms “they were at least three feet each, and one was more than four.”

Scarus guacamaia have a blunt, rounded head with doelike eyes, a gentle curve to their cheeks, and their lips—yes, fish have lips!—look like seductively painted concentric rings of light blue, dark blue, green, and tan. Their chins are tan, and their bodies a mottled green and bronze. Their tails—wow, what tails!—are squared off but end with the flourish of matched 1957 Cadillac fins in Day-Glo cumquat.

Even if this were a good fish to eat, which it isn’t, it would’ve taken a hardened soul to shoot it. In fact, out on the reef, a standard rule of thumb is, “If it’s colorful, its probably not edible.” Such is the wisdom of Ma Nature as protective aesthete. This rainbow must have known we were no threat because he let us tag along as much as we wanted. We did return to the dink with three small fish—not much to brag about—and, with my filleting skills, produced two hors d’oeuvres and some trolling bait.

| | Edgar comes by in his cayuco after free diving outside the reef to sell us freshly caught lobster and snapper.* * *| Fortunately, local hunters were more successful than I was, and within an hour of our returning, a small cayuco paddled by a young black man approached _Ithaka_ to sell us fish, crab, and lobster. A couple of pounds of grouper fillets, one lobster, and one crab cost six dollars, two cigarettes, and one cold lemonade. He spoke with a thick eastern Caribbean patois.

Bernadette started getting dinner together. I hung the anchor light on the radar pole, fit the screens in, and put on a CD by Guillermo Anderson, the contemporary Honduran singer-songwriter-guitarist-philosopher who’s one of our new favorites. We’d met Guillermo on the mainland when Ithaka was hauled out in La Ceiba. Bernadette and I spent two days with him chatting about boats, music, and life, and walking in the mountains and listening to his music. Thirty-nine years old, and a proud third-generation Honduran, he’s the great-grandson of a Honduran woman who married an American who’d come to Honduras to work for United Fruit. Guillermo is the prototypical picture of his country.

“You’ve already seen it, here and out in the islands,” he explained, “Honduras is a nation of mixed bloodlines. The mainland population is mostly Latino—Mayan and Spanish—and they’re Spanish speaking, and have white or caramel-color skin and Spanish names. But the skin colors of people out on the islands range from alabaster-white to ebony, because those people are a mix of English, pirate, and slave. Most of the islanders speak English first, then Spanish, and many have English names, and they’re proud of this. Think about it. You’re a sailor; if you look at the Bay Islands on the map, this is where everyone’s going to end up because of the trade winds and currents.” He’s right. The islands are a polyglot place; close your eyes and you hear in the voices St. Vincent, Jamaica, and England more than you hear Spain.

| | Guillermo Anderson on Ithaka* * *| Guillermo is a successful artist. He tours in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, and his work falls into that eclectic category called World Music. “You know, I see myself as a teacher in a way,” he smiled. “I dare to be independent. I don’t play the latest salsa hits and won’t do dances. I’m at the point now where all the local musicians are happy to play with me. I get to do my show and my work. I’m lucky, because what I really want to do is tell the story of Honduras—both to my people and to the world at large. On tour, I travel with five musicians and one dancer: a bass, two guitars, and Garifuna percussions.” The latter, he explained, are traditional wooden drums covered with female goat skin, “which is known to be finer than the male skin.”

Many Hondurans speak of Guillermo as a national conscience, and one recent review of his tour in the States called him “the Honduran Jimmy Buffet.” He laughs at this comparison, but, in fact, he’s a sailor and bard, and he’s produced a wonderful album called Pobre Marinero—Poor Sailor. To me, though, Guillermo is much more than Buffet. His music is rich with Central American rhythms, and he combines the droll, aware ballads of Harry Chapin with the ecological bent of Pete Seeger and the international, ethnic inclusiveness on which Paul Simon drew in Graceland. His voice and guitar are gentle but strong, his lyrics, poetic.

| | Bernadette dives in and sets out for the reef.* * *| A year and a half ago, the director of Latin American Affairs at the Smithsonian heard about Guillermo’s children’s concerts and invited him to perform shows at the Natural History Museum in Washington, based on his album _Para Los Chiquitos_. All the characters in these songs are animals in danger of extinction in the Honduran tropical rain forests. “It’s a party in the forest and the animals have stories to tell. It’s very participative. I have the kids singing, too. In the States, I do the story in English and I teach them to sing in Spanish.”

In his adult concerts, Guillermo sings of his pride in Honduras, about “how wonderful and complicated it is. I tell about the Honduran Caribbean I know. Like the enormous ancient Ceiba trees in La Ceiba, a landmark for sailors here for centuries. It was a sacred tree for the Mayans, so tall it was in touch with the cosmos and so deep it knew the secrets of the earth. And I sing about keeping our people here.”

Honduras has a massive emigration problem. Many of the younger men and women seek employment in the States, often illegally. “So many are going to L.A. and New York and ending up in poor neighborhoods,” Guillermo said. “They get deported and come back as trained gang members, complete with tattoos and colors, and now we have gangs here! I wrote a song about this that’s very popular here, called “Chago,” which is the short name for Santiago. About a man leaving the country. He was doing okay here, going to night school and had a good job, but his aunt and mother pushed him to go north. Soon he’s running from immigration authorities and living with 15 other immigrants.

“The song ends with me writing to him and entreating him to come home—that his country needs him here. It’s a true story based on a man I know. He never comes back. We have another problem, too. While we didn’t have the civil-war horrors of Salvador and Guatemala and Nicaragua, the contras and CIA trained here, and today, many of the Central America’s out-of-work soldiers with nothing but killing skills are pouring across our borders. It’s horrible.”

| | Guillermo’s CDs can be ordered directly on the web. Log onto* * *| Guillermo is particularly concerned about the Garifunas, that they’re still getting the short end of the stick, their culture ignored, absorbed, and forgotten. “I really love our Garifuna music. I’ve been interviewing old Garifuna women in little villages all over the country. They’re the ones who remember the forgotten songs. I’m collecting them, and my next album will be these songs with a local Garifuna choir and instruments.”

Hurricane Mitch attacked Honduras in October 1998. It devastated much of the island of Guanaja, 20 miles to the east of us, and moved deep into the mainland. In the capitol city of Tegucigalpa, river water rose more than 40 feet, washed away bridges, and stole 1,000 lives. In the rest of the nation, 6,000 more died, and the government estimated 600,000 people lost their homes. In the aftermath, Guillermo, through UNESCO, produced a CD called All Together. “It’s what we learned about ourselves, reflections on the tragedy, songs about rebuilding,” said Guillermo. “It got played a lot, especially in schools and among the people in community projects. It became very popular here. I think it was helpful in a dreadful time.”

Spending time with Guillermo and listening to his music was a gift that opened our eyes to the forces that created the Honduras we see today. Ithaka now has a few of his CDs, and we’ve listened to them time and again over the past two weeks. In Port Royale, the history he sings about came to life in all its glory and pain. We could imagine it from his songs and see it in the faces of local people we met here.

| | The sunsets at Port Royale were some of the most dramatic we’d ever seen, as were the no-see-ums.* * *|

In the end, though, it was pain of a different sort that made us flee from Port Royale. By dinnertime, we were sweating hopelessly and uselessly, swaddled in long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and socks, because this bay, despite being beautiful, has more sandflies (what our friend Pieter on Baerne calls “flying teeth”) than any place on earth, and the toxic chemicals we slathered all over our bodies served only as appetizers through which they happily ate. After only a few days in this historic anchorage, we had hundreds of bites between us. These little bastards leave a red welt almost the size of a dime, and both of us scratched so much in our sleep that some of our bites were bleeding by morning.

Throughout the Bay Islands, the ubiquity of the no-see-ums and sandflies is a curse and common complaint, and we’d been warned about this bay in particular, but I pooh-poohed it, despite having read an 1835 report by a Spanish sea captain to which I should have paid attention. He wrote of Port Royale: “It will be found that the smallest of the tribe of torments, called the sandfly, stands prominent in its power of inflicting punishment with impunity. It is no larger than the head of an ordinary sized pin. It gives no warning and it makes no noise, and when a severe bite is felt, the sufferer looks in vain for the assailant.” This is rather an understatement.

| | courtesy Dave Waltz| | Most Bay Islanders live in stilt houses, some built out over the water in the bights. This arrangement helps (somewhat) to keep people elevated a little farther away the dreaded sandflies. * * *| When we couldn’t stand the itching another day, despite a 25-knot easterly trade wind and gray, squally skies, the moment we could see the reef, we got the hell through it and beat 10 miles farther east to the little island of Barbareta, where, at the time of this writing—now our third day here—we seem to be in a blissful bug-free zone where I can write to you, read my histories, and listen to Guillermo in peace.

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BEST FISH BOOKS & HONDURAS HISTORIESThe brilliant three-book series by Paul Humann (great name for a fish guy) has good-size, mouthwatering color photos, terrific identification data, and good scientific background for us laymen. The books, which have practical plastic covers and tough paper for a boat environment, are Reef Coral Identification Florida, Caribbean, and Bahamas; Reef Creatures Identification Florida, Caribbean and Bahamas; Reef Fish Identification Florida, Caribbean and Bahamas. You can order from New World Publications Inc., 1861 Cornell Road, Jacksonville, FL 32207 or by calling (800) 737-6558. They’re on the web at

| Another good resource, although it uses artwork instead of real photos, is Coral Reef Fishes: Caribbean, Indian and Pacific Ocean Including the Red Sea by Ewald Lieske and Robert Myers (ISBN number 0-691-00481-1), which you can order from Princeton University Press, 41 William St., Princeton NJ 08540-5237 or by calling (609) 258-4900.

For a good history of the Bay Islands, William V. Davidson’s doctoral dissertation, Historical Geography of the Bay Islands, Honduras: Anglo Hispanic Conflict in the Western Caribbean, is a dry but often fascinating discussion of the interplay of geography, race, economics and historical destinies. It’s the best history we’ve found of the Bay Islands. (Published by Southern University Press (1974, 1999), Library of Congress Number 74-81225.)