Still Here: Vivorillos Cays

Vivorillos Cays, Honduras

Vivorillos Cay

Still here, still rolling at anchor, waiting for an opening, which Chris Parker, the weather guru, says we will have tomorrow as the wind slows and shifts more northerly and the seas calm down to 3-5 feet toward Providencia.

We have a feeling that the “incessant begging” that Capt. Raines speaks of in his guidebook may actually be the local fishermen, who boldly paddled up to us yesterday in little fiberglass cayucos and offered to trade us fresh shrimp for gasoline. Three or four pounds of shrimp for about 2-1/2 gallons of gasoline. Not a bad trade. We took the tank out of the dinghy, passed the guys a funnel and a hose, and asked that they leave us about half the tank. You could tell who the captain was by who was sucking on the siphon and who wasn’t.

Fresh Conch

Vivorillos Fishermen

Today they were back – with fresh (like right out of the water) conch and lobster that they cleaned off the back of the boat, and traded for cigarettes and rum. So it was fresh scampi with linguine for dinner.

So here’s the haul: Lobsters – 16. Conch – 4. Shrimp – 4 pounds. Perfect helmet conch shells – 2. Conversation – half an hour/45 minutes. Cost: 4 packs of Marlboros, 1 bottle of Captain Morgan rum, 1 bottle of bad tequila, and the gasoline from yesterday.

Keeping Capt. Raines’ anecdotes in mind, we boldly said our names and shook hands with each of them, asking their names as well, while Ole took a few pictures. We figured if we exchanged names and took pictures, any scheme of robbing/mugging a visiting cruiser might be harder to implement. Plus, taking the time to chat with them about their life and their work and sharing that Ole used to fish in Alaska helped us build a bit of a bridge. It’s that karma thing.

Tonight it was improvised conch ceviche. Neither Ole nor I have ever dealt with a conch – we’ve bought fritters (Alabama Jack’s in Key Largo) and conch chowder (15th street Fisheries in Ft. Lauderdale), but had no clue about how to dispatch a monovalve of such weight. So after consulting the trusty Joy of Cooking and finding the first listing under “the best way to eat fresh conch” was “raw,” we sliced them thin, splashed on the lime juice, and added celery, cucumber, tomatoes, red onion, bell pepper, and a dash of red pepper flakes – and yummed our way through at least a quart of salad.

What incessant begging?

A big however – we traded away a bit too much gasoline to spend a whole lot of time in the dinghy.

Masked Booby Chick

We did make a trip to the bird end of the cay, and walked among nesting boobies, some with young ones just coming out of their downy stage, and fearless enough to let us get within 3 feet. We packed our trusty Pentax in a zip-lock bag, took three pictures, and poof. No batteries. There we were, in a truly National Geographic moment, caught with our batteries down. Here are the only pictures we got. I guess a career as a wildlife photographer is out of the question.

Adult Masked Booby

 

The one flaw in the excursion to the cay was noticing all of the plastic junk piled up on the ocean side of what we considered a wild reef: water and soft-drink bottles, flip-flops, six-pack rings, Styrofoam. More than just a little. Here we are, 30 miles offshore, with the next land somewhere close to the Leeward Islands, and there’s all this junk. Yes, we know that it is illegal to dump plastic of any kind into the ocean. But we are educated people. When we were in Norway this summer, I noticed the same thing on the beach at Ole’s house. As a species, we’re not only fouling our nest, but the nests of these magnificent birds and reef creatures too.

I hear that we’re planning to take off tomorrow morning at a reasonable hour, and Ole’s devised a short cut to shave about 25 miles (4 hours) off the trip. We’ll consult Chris the Guru, and see what develops.

Vivorillos Cays – In the Middle of Nowhere

Vivorillos Cays, Honduras

It’s official. We’re now out in the middle of nowhere in the Vivorillos Cays, a mere freckle on the kneecap of Central America, right where the Honduran/Nicaraguan peninsula turns 90 degrees south.
The cays are actually three islands running more or less north-to-south, two connected by an exposed reef, and the third to the south of the other two, with a fairly deep passage between them. The northernmost cay is a rookery with thousands of magnificent frigate birds and masked and brown boobies. The southern cay has a bit of a beach, and is home to a group of fishermen who come out here for months at a time, diving for conch and lobster, and selling their catch to “mother ships” that come by periodically.

The guidebook we are using, Capt. John Raines “Cruising Ports: The Central American Route” gives this place mention as nothing more than a rest stop, and speaks about “incessant beggars and a murder of a cruiser that took place several years ago.” The incessant beggars part I just don’t get – how would they get here? We’re 30 miles offshore! And the “murder of a cruiser?” Gives me pause to think, but I think karma has something to do with things like that.

We arrived here and dropped anchor at about 8:00 in the morning, after a 26-hour cruise that by all definition was a success. It could have been WAAAAAYYY worse. We had just 5-10 knots of wind for about half the time, and over the night/early morning, the wind picked up to 10-15, making for a bit of rolling, but we had just 4-6 foot seas off port bow with next to no wind chop. It was actually a pleasant enough ride to get some writing done on the computer. As we got closer, Strickly for Fun and Ketel Up bailed (must have been the bad write-up in the cruising guide) and opted to head straight for Providencia, another 200 miles and a sharp turn to the right.

At about 3:00 a.m. we started seeing other boats out here, and quickly realized it was the Honduran fishing fleet. They pretty much stayed out of our way, and a little music on the i-Pod helped pass the time.

The anchorage itself is a bit exposed to anything other than straight north to south, and is quite rolly, but we are snugly anchored in about 11 feet of water. After a hearty breakfast of corned beef hash and poached eggs, it was off to bed for a six-hour nap.

Diving in Roatan — Jan Overcomes Her Fear

Barefoot Cay Marina
Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras

Yesterday we got company in the marina, a 47-foot Nordhavn, that Ole was dying to get aboard. Looking more like a little ship than a pleasure boat, it’s a real ocean-going trawler as opposed to our DeFever, which is billed as a coastal offshore cruiser. They’ve got dogged doors, lexan windows, bolt-down hatches, no loose furniture or knick-knacks, an engine room that looks like an operating theater, and a range of 3000 nautical miles. We’ve got comfortable sliding doors and windows, a real couch and chairs, all kinds of stuff that can fly around our salon and engine room in a real good blow, and maybe a 750-mile range.

Ole discovered that this Nordhavn, “Strickly for Fun”, had been one of the boats involved in a trans-Atlantic rally that Nordhavn sponsored a couple of years ago, written up in Passagemaker Magazine in 2004. She spent three seasons in the Mediterranean, returning trans-Atlantic to their home in Florida. He met the owner, Scott, and invited him, his wife Terri, and their friend Janet over for cocktails and a chat, after they graciously gave us a tour of their boat. So we spent yesterday cleaning and vacuuming, but truthfully, there’s no way this boat compares to theirs. Definitely apples and oranges. They’re also heading south toward Panama, with the end goal of the Galapagos. We discussed the possibility of cruising together toward the Vivorillos Cays when the weather opens up.

After a couple of days of clouds, wind, and passing squalls, today turned out to be one of those Caribbean days we thought about when we first started talking about this trip. A brief chat with Vincenzo next door got me a one-on-one scuba refresher course, and a once-in-a-lifetime dive off the wall on the south side of the island with just one other person.

As a water child by nature, I always thought I’d be a natural for scuba, and last year when I got certified, I was surprised at how uncomfortable it made me. Twice during the pool portion of my class, I inadvertently found out how much water human lungs can hold. The first set of my checkout dives were in a freshwater lake with a mud bottom, on a day when the air temperature was 68°, the water temperature was 63°, it was raining and so murky under water I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The second checkout dives were off Pompano Beach, in 3-5 foot seas and 20 knots of wind, when getting on and off the boat was downright scary with 75 pounds of gear on. And in retrospect, I wasn’t properly weighted: the instructor, a bit flighty for my taste, had to pull on me to get me to descend, and on the ascent I just shot upward and failed to make a safety stop I never dove again after last December, and didn’t know if I wanted to.

I explained to Vincenzo my concerns about lack of confidence and difficulty with descent and buoyancy, and fear about the “remove and replace the mask” exercise. Working one-on-one with me, he was the very soul of focus and patience, and I performed all of the necessary skills just fine – even taking off the mask and putting it back on with my eyes open. (I know you divers reading this will probably think I’m a weenie –just call me Oscar Meyer). For the dive we were joined by a young Honduran doctor named Sunny – all 85 pounds of her – who was also a beginner.

Vince took us just a few hundred yards out from the marina to a place where the shelf drops from 40 to about 2000 feet deep, and in a spectacular 47 minutes of bottom time, Vince led us at an easy glide, showing us three distinct ecological zones. First was a garden of what he called “laminate” coral, which almost reminded me of the basalt flows of the Columbia basin, but in living color, with the coral forming literal waves, one growth upon other. Then we dropped down and drifted along the wall, where fire coral, sea fans, sponges, the odd crab and lobster, parrotfish, damselfish, angelfish, wrasses, snappers, and just about everything else in my “Snorkeler’s Guide to Reef Fishes of the Caribbean” showed up. The visibility wasn’t terrific – maybe just 50 to 60 feet – but just enough to get vertigo looking down at the blackness of 2000 feet then get comfort from the screaming oranges, purples, blues, greens and yellows of the wall. The last part of the dive was through a forest of colorful sea fans close enough to the surface to be affected by the wave action, hundreds of them bowing and rising in rhythm. The sea fan garden also had sponges impossible in size – three feet in diameter at least – many of them sheltering lobsters and crabs.

I declared the dive a success, and my confidence level raised by at least 100%. It just didn’t seem right to be in Roatan, one of the finest dive sites in the world, moored next to a boatload of scuba instructors, and not take advantage. I’m so thankful Ole encouraged me to do it! And if you’re ever in Roatan, look up Barefoot Divers and ask for Vincenzo!

We decided our weather window for the 185-mile crossing to the Vivorillos is tomorrow, so we’ll be taking off, joined by Strickly for Fun and a big Beneteau sailboat called Ketel Up, at 6:00 in the morning.

Exploring Roatan

Barefoot Cay Marina
Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras

What a great day!

Yesterday we took a taxi down to West End, a spot that isn’t mentioned in any of the cruising guides for Roatan. It’s essentially a marine sanctuary, and the town consists of alternating dive shops and bars along a road, of sorts, that’s nothing more than graded beach sand with gigantic potholes every six feet to keep traffic under control.

After meeting up with Bob and Annette from Tempest, we strolled along the street and poked into some of the shops, ending up at Eagle Ray’s for lunch and an unobstructed view of the ocean. We picked up a new snorkel for Ole and a set of dive skins for Jan after the dubious pleasure of being stung repeatedly by jellyfish plankton in Utila. We decided to come back today to rent a scooter and take a little tour.

O’Neal from Captain Van’s scooter rentals gave us maps with the highlights of Roatan, and off we went – first, out to West Bay, where most of the gringo development is going on – and boy oh boy, development there is. You can get a 5,000 square foot villa with beachfront for a cool million, or a 1200 square foot condo for $250,000. Everything is first class – granite, marble, hardwoods, stainless steel, grand architecture. But they forgot they’re on an island in a third-world country, where the electricity is considered reliable if it only goes out once a day. We chatted with a woman from Maui who moved here with her sister to start an espresso shop, who said that starting a business on Maui is prohibitively expensive. She and her sister put together a great little place called Cool Beans in West Bay, and rented a house for a few months, finally tearing their hair out over the lack of infrastructure. The shop owners in the mall got together and built condos above the shops and chipped in on their own generator so at least they have reliable power. Finding groceries is a different challenge, as the one big grocery store is in French Harbor, on the other end of the island – and they get stocked once a week from the mainland.

mad-marvinOnce we left West Bay, we stopped a few places on the crest of the island for the obligatory view shots, and noticed a jungle zip line tour with 20 zip runs through the rain forest canopy. Nope, said Ole. So we worked our way to the first recommended stop – a local artist called “Mad Marvin.” Mad Marvin got his name because he used to sign his work “Mad by Marvin,” leaving out a crucial vowel. A charming, happy man, he greeted us with a grace and formality that seemed really out of place in his rough front yard/studio. He apologized profusely that he didn’t have much small work to show us as the cruise ship passengers buy him out every time they come through.

When we finished with Mad Marvin, we started looking for a place to have lunch, and stopped at Coral Cay – a mega-buffet restaurant with marine park obviously cruise-ship inspired. Sundays feature an all-you-can-eat Caribbean buffet for $10, and we were pleased first of all that there wasn’t a ship in, and second of all, that there were a lot of local families enjoying the place. It was a bit sanitary, but perfect for its intended audience, with a huge beach laid out with rows of identically pristine beach chairs and raked sand, just waiting for the two ships that will call in on Tuesday.

After lunch, we went east just past French Harbor, to Sherman Arch’s “World Famous Iguana Farm and Marine Park.” Sherman and his son, Henry, were having a family Thanksgiving, but welcomed us in and gave us a personal tour of the place. It seems that the native species of black iguana has been hunted nearly to extinction, and nearly 30 years ago, Sherman and his family began feeding and protecting a few iguanas on their property. Their charges now number in the thousands. When we parked the scooters and walked just 25 feet past the sign, we met what must have been 25% of Sherman’s iguana population. The photos can barely do justice to how amazing it is to see so many of them in one place.

Sherman has named many of them, and considers them his friends. He told me that when you stroke their foreheads, they close their eyes in pleasure just like cats. Once we had hypnotized a few, he asked us if we wanted to see an iguana stampede – and tossed a handful of ripe bananas into the pack. It was a science fiction movie come to life!!!

As we headed back toward the west end of the island, we passed through the outskirts of French Harbor, your typically gritty Caribbean settlement. When we passed the power plant we understood why one power outage a day is exceptionally good. The power plant is a series of diesel generators that live in old boxcars, strung together in an almost symmetrical way.

We were really looking forward to the last stop at Anthony’s Cay for a free dolphin show at their marine park. Unfortunately, when we got there, we were told there would be no show (dolphins don’t work on Sundays). Although we were disappointed, we enjoyed a look around the property. It would be a great place to come spend a week. In addition to the “swim with the dolphins” activity that has become very popular, they have a couple of more advanced activities, including working with a dolphin trainer for a day and getting to know your own personal dolphin – which would be an amazing thing to do.

Given it was moving on toward 4:30 when we left Anthony’s Cay, we opted to turn in the scooters and walk to the end of the road to the Barefoot Bar and Grill for pina coladas (best so far on the trip, far surpassing the homemade ones), a sunset, and 8,462,573 mosquitos. Thank god the Barefoot Bar and Grill hospitality included complimentary Off on request.

All in all a wonderful day.

Thanksgiving…and Onward to Roatan!

Barefoot Cay Marina
Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras

Yesterday marked our first “cruiser” Thanksgiving, and as we had the most galley and salon space, we served as the mothership for the flotilla in Utila, hosting folks from four other boats for the potluck: Tempest, Wind Free, BabSea (who was with us at Tijax) and Connie Marie. New Emma Jo guests for dinner record: 12 total.

First, the logistics: plate station on top of the television; beverage service on the back deck table; food spread out on the galley breakfast bar, including turkey, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy; turkey gumbo (50% of the boats in the anchorage are from Louisiana), dirty rice, broccoli rice, garlic mashed potatoes, candied yams, and the obligatory green bean casserole – wonderful how a potluck is an organic thing, containing exactly what is necessary without a whole lot of intervention and control.

The company was fine – no bar fights, political brawls or obnoxious drunks – and our feast lasted from 2 in the afternoon until nearly 9 at night. Lots of laughter, great sea stories, and reassurance that our fellow man isn’t such a bad creature when we get together to share a ritual over food.

Friday morning, we left at a reasonable hour for the 34-mile passage to Roatan. The crossing was mild, though of course just as we made the turn through the coral reef into Brick Bay, a squall came up. We opted to stay a few days at a marina, since we’ve been at anchor for two weeks straight, and picked Barefoot Cay Marina, which is halfway between the two principal towns on Roatan, French Harbor and Coxen Hole. Barefoot Cay sent a lancha to meet us at the pass, and they guided us into our spot at the marina. What a beautiful spot!

Our next-door neighbors are a group of 5 30-something Italians in a 1971 58-foot Hatteras called Liquid Minds. They are the dive outfitters for Barefoot Cay – hopefully I’ll have a chance to do a refresher course, since I haven’t been out since my certification dive last December.

On the next pier over is a 93-foot go-fast yacht owned by some rich guy in Mexico City who has the clout and the cajones to have had a private pier built for him in Acapulco. The sucker burns 200 gallons of fuel per hour – you do the math – and expects his boat to be delivered to Acapulco for him by Christmas. The only thing they didn’t think about is the fact that there is no fuel dock here – it all comes over by fuel-truck-on-a-barge!

Happy Birthday to Ole!

Water Cays, Utila
Bay Islands, Honduras

Today was a whole lot more like what cruising is supposed to be! Sunshine! Light to no wind! Snorkeling! So how the heck did we get here?

Well – we stayed at Tobacco Range until Friday, November 16 – deciding that when we finally got a weather window to get out to the atolls, we’d have to wait there for a window to get back – and as of the 16th, we calculated only five more weeks until our reservation in Panama.

The boats with us in Tobacco Range all swear by the Caribbean weather guru, Chris Parker, who broadcasts three times a day and does weather routing for his subscribers. If some of his subscribers happen to be heading the same direction as we are, so much the better for us! So based on Chris Parker’s advice (to other boaters who are less tight than we are) we opted to make the first jump east on Friday at about noon, making about a 90-mile crossing.

Frankly, we’ve had worse – if this is as bad as we get during our travels to Panama, I’ll thank Neptune or whoever else is in control of such things. We had fair winds of 12-15 knots, and 4-6 foot seas off the port bow. Now compared to Rio Dulce, it was rough – but compared to our little jaunt down the coast of the Yucatán, it was a rocking chair. The only challenge was arriving at 12:30 in the morning, in an unfamiliar harbor, where the prevailing northeasterly winds had suddenly shifted to southwesterly, making our anchorage for the night a bit of a ride.

Daylight found us in a typical Caribbean harbor, with colorful stilt houses, little inter-island transport ships in various stages of repair, and wonder of wonders, blue sky. Ole went ashore to find the Port Captain and announce our presence in Honduras – we lucked out as the immigration official was in town. Total cost to clear in was a whopping $6 apiece for customs and $3 apiece for immigration (what cats???). Ole didn’t have small change in dollars, it was Saturday and the bank was closed, so the official just waved him off and said “Monday is good enough…”

We kept hearing on the radio that several boats were anchored someplace called “the Utila Cays” – which aren’t listed as such on the chart or in any cruising guide. So we called them on the radio and asked for directions, heading over in the late afternoon to a beautiful little lagoon and anchored in 45 feet of water near three sailboats: Tempest, Wind Free, and Attitude. Torrey had given us some parts for Tempest anyhow, so Tempest Bob motored over with the postage – the local beer here is “Salvavida” – means “life saver” in Spanish. Apt.

Shortly after we anchored, a local woman in a kayak paddled up and offered to sell us a side of fresh snapper – must have been at least 5 lbs! Her name is Wendy, and she is apparently the “bad girl” of the island, trading her favors to the fishermen for fish that she sells to boaters to finance a drug habit. She seemed friendly enough, lucid, and pleasant. The more we do this cruising thing, the more willing I am to live and let live – a community as small as Utila Cay needs one of everything.

We spent Sunday on our own, puttering around the boat trying to glue the dinghy back together (that’s another story for another day), and got invited over to Neil and Cathy’s Attitude for cocktail hour and pictures of a dive Neil did with great white sharks for his 60th birthday. I had always suspected that sailboaters had a different mindset than us “trawler trash,” but jeez – to PAY somebody to put you into the water after they’ve chummed it with dead tuna and summoned oh, 10 or 20 great white sharks – sorry, I’m afraid that merits a stronger word than “different.” The oohs and ahs were punctuated by yums and wows, as Neil is a bit of a “foodie,” and had some wonderful snackies including real cheese. All in all it was a great evening.

Monday we sped over to the town on the biggest of the cays. It’s a cute little berg with about 600 people, 3 or 4 tiendas, 3 or 4 churches, and no street – just a wide sidewalk that runs pretty much the length of the cay, about a quarter mile. They just got electricity three years ago, and the infrastructure is primitive at best, but we did pass one house with four satellite dishes. He’s the local media conglomerate. Overall we were impressed by the cleanliness and order of the place. Most of the houses were freshly painted and many had beautiful gardens of croton, hibiscus, trumpet flowers and ginger.

As we were returning to the boat, we met a guy in a speed-dinghy who invited us to his house for cocktails that afternoon at 3:00. Bobby Thompson bought his house about 3 years ago from a missionary who built it as a dream then developed health problems. I don’t know what he paid for it, but given that Bobby was in the offshore oil industry, the missionary business in Central America must be pretty profitable. It’s a hell of a property. The house, at least 5000 square feet, has full suite accommodations on both levels, a full solar panel array on the roof, backup generator, both a rain catchment and reverse osmosis watermaker, a white sand beach he’s built with breakwaters, beautiful grounds patrolled by an exhuberantly retarded Labrador retriever named “Splash” and a watch-toucan who’s meaner than snot.

Part of the property’s charm is a long dock with a palapa bar built as a tower on the end – where all of the boats at anchor assembled as Bobby’s guests. After a bit of Flor de Cana lubrication, the purpose of the invite became clear. Bobby wanted a focus group of boaters about what he could do to provide better service to boaters, as he’s noticed an increase in the number of boats that anchor in front of his property. He doesn’t want a full-on business, but wondered what kinds of low-maintenance, honor system services he could provide. Said his wife would kill him if he ran a business – he’s supposed to be retired! He was a charming, gracious and generous host, and told us we were welcome to come ashore and stroll his property any time. Just at dark, a squall blew up, so we sped back home and hoisted up the dinghy.

Tuesday’s weather was crap. All day. It makes me grumpy. We did not embark on this venture to stay tucked inside while at anchor in the Caribbean!

Wednesday, on the other hand, for Ole’s birthday, Ra was out in full force. I spent the morning making two cakes – one for the birthday boy and one for Thanksgiving dinner. Ole continued to glue the dinghy. After lunch, off we went to find some snorkeling, with Tempest Bob and Annette and Dave from Connie Marie, who joined us in the anchorage Monday night. Had a wonderful time, seeing plenty of damselfish, angelfish, tangs and parrotfish among the coral, sponges and sea-fans. Colors here are good – with some of the sponges being crimson, cobalt, and turquoise. My favorite fish was a juvenile damselfish who was cobalt blue with neon turquoise polka-dots. I can’t help it – snorkeling makes me feel like a little kid – when I see the fish going about their daily lives, my mask leaks from smiling.

The glee factor raged on, when upon return to the mothership, frozen pina coladas appeared. Two tall ones, feet up on the back rail, contemplating the complexities of life.

Utilla Cay Sunset

Utilla Cay Sunset

Then it was time for Ole’s quiet birthday fiesta, with puyaso from the meat lady in Guatemala, garlic mashed potatoes and the last of the fresh broccoli – add red wine and a concocted recipe for chocolate-tia maria cake, and the day was complete!