Resting on the Rio Dulce

Sometimes it's hard to stop sailing, even for hurricane season, but fellow cruisers can make it a whole lot easier.

December 28, 2010

Passage Notes

Tom and Doris Nurenberg joined fellow cruisers at Mario’s Marina, on Guatemala’s Río Dulce, to wait out hurricane season. Wendy Mitman Clarke

You might think that because we’re cruising sailors, we’d be used to transitions since we’re always in some kind of transit—geographical, psychological, metaphysical, what have you. Still, when we on Osprey sailed up Guatemala’s Río Dulce in May to spend the hurricane season, it was like slamming into the mud with all the sails up and drawing. “Do you realize,” I said, after we’d finished our nine-day passage from the Dominican Republic, “that we won’t be setting these sails again for six months?” Two days later, Osprey was tied up in a slip at Mario’s Marina, 17 miles inland, and covered with more tarps than you’d see at a Boy Scout jamboree. The electrical umbilical was attached, the watermaker was pickled, the toaster was out of storage and cluttering up my galley counter. We’d landed, for the first time in a year and a half. How had this happened?

As with many things in this cruising life, we found it easier to adjust to our new situation with the help of other sailors in the same boat. As the marina started filling up in late May and into June, we recognized among the new arrivals symptoms similar to our own, particularly that rather shell-shocked look that gets worn on the first couple of days, when you can’t quite believe that you’ve stopped moving. Like us, most of these cruisers had been out for many months and needed, for various reasons, to hole up for a while.

While some left to travel to visit friends and family in Europe or North America and some to explore inland Guatemala, the community that quickly developed in the marina made it easier for all of us to endure being land-bound. At Monday-night potlucks, over jigsaw puzzles in the palapa, while watching the World Cup, during the post-volleyball happy hours, and at coffee in the morning, we’d talk about where we’d been, how we’d gotten there, the adventures we’d had along the way, and where we hoped to go. For us on Osprey, it was an introduction to a whole new group of sailors—many of them from the Pacific side—who’d been to places that we hoped to visit, and talking with them was like finding a mother lode of firsthand information. All of these shared experiences formed the basis for friendships that will undoubtedly last many more miles, and they made Mario’s feel like a home.


That kind of community is what drew Donna and Jimmy Peters on their Lagoon 38, Bluewater Cat, to spend the season here. Donna, a nurse practitioner, and Jimmy, a retired chemical engineer, cruised on the Río Dulce for two months last winter, anchoring out in various places. “We’d just go wherever something was going on,” Jimmy says. One of their most memorable experiences was participating in a Christmas toy drive that Mario’s owner, Jim Ellis, helped organize for children at Casa Guatemala, an orphanage on the river. “The kids were ecstatic, and it was just great watching them all,” Jimmy says. Their brief wintertime visit convinced them that Mario’s would be a good place to spend hurricane season. After nearly three years of traveling all over the Caribbean—from the British Virgin Islands, where they bought their boat, through the eastern Caribbean to Venezuela, up to Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, then back down to Jamaica, Colombia, Panama, Honduras, and Belize—Donna said she was ready to stop for a while. “I wanted my comforts,” she says. “But more than that, I wanted to be part of a community. Jimmy has zipped me all around, and I guess I felt like I didn’t have a real home. I wanted to have friends and to be part of the activities. I wanted to slow down.” Until they arrived on the Río Dulce in May, the longest they’d been in a marina was two weeks, when they first bought their boat, and then one or two days elsewhere. This will be their longest layup so far.

Same for Doris and Tom Nurenberg, who arrived on their Caliber 40 LRC, Footloose; they bought the boat two years ago in Beaufort, North Carolina, and they’ve been cruising aboard ever since. Doris, a former trade-association manager, and Tom, who owned a homebuilding business, had done a shorter cruise on their honeymoon in 1984, but they returned home to raise their son and pursue their careers. This time, their plan after sailing to Maine last summer was to head for the Panama Canal, then straight for the South Pacific. Except they stopped in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and fell in love with the place. That slowed them down enough to explore some of Belize, then Isla de Roatán and Honduras, where they swooned so hard for the snorkeling and diving that they hit the brakes until it was time to find a hurricane hole. “The Río Dulce wasn’t even on our list,” Doris says. “We were going from Isla Mujeres to Panama. And I’m glad we didn’t, because we would’ve missed a whole lot of what we love about cruising, which is the community. It’s just wonderful here.” The couple took two weeks in June to visit family in the States and said they couldn’t wait to get back to the marina, where they jumped right back into the action. Still, they admit it’s been an adjustment. “I love being at anchor, and I miss being at anchor. We’ve never really stayed at a marina, maybe just for a week,” Doris says. “So this will be weird. We’ll let you know at the end of the season how we do!” Their long-term plans from now on are wide open. “We’re just planning for tomorrow,” Tom says. “We’re going to keep cruising as long as it’s fun.”

Unlike the Nurenbergs, Tim and Paula Pastushin, and their border collie mix, Nigel, who’s chief of security, had always intended to come to the Río Dulce for the season. The three have been cruising on their Beneteau Idylle 13.5, Hooligan, since 2006, working their way down the Mexican and Central American Pacific coasts, going eastbound through the Canal, then exploring the San Blas islands. Serious scuba divers, they spent much of early 2010 underwater at Roatán, then headed into the Río Dulce for a long break. “After four years of being on the hook, we had a lot of stuff we needed to replace,” Tim says. “It’s nice to be able to sit at a comfy dock and do this work.” Tim, a former quality-control manager for an aerospace company, and Paula, a former high-school history teacher, had heard that unlike some of the marinas on the Río Dulce, cruisers at Mario’s often stayed all summer rather than just tying up their boats and leaving for six months. “A lot of people recommended Mario’s if we were in search of a social life,” Paula says. “And we have enough people here who can watch Nigel so we can do some inland travel too.” As for what’s next, it’s up in the air. They left California with an open-ended plan from the start and would like to keep it more or less that way. “We’ll probably spend the next two to three years in the Caribbean, then reassess,” Tim says. “I’d like to do one of those 28-year circumnavigations.”


After a short bout of Stateside R and R, the Clarkes are under way aboard Osprey_ once again._


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