Goodbye Nicaragua, Hello El Salvador!

Barillas Marina, El Salvador

After an early morning visit by the Nicaraguan authorities, we took off at about 9:00 April 1 for a six-hour run to the Golfo de Fonseca, a large sound shared by El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. This was a must-visit place, as Ole ordered and had hand-delivered a chart for the area. The chart made it look interesting, as there were many islands and bays, and we envisioned gunkholing, swimming off the back, and poking around the beach. We arrived at an anchorage on the northeast corner of Isla Manguera, recommended by Roberto as a good anchorage, and not 15 minutes after we dropped the hook, the winds came howling off the island from the west, gusting up to 25 knots, and making it impossible to contemplate dropping the dinghy. The winds lasted until about 9:00 p.m., when it mysteriously calmed down.

Boy, we were never so glad to be up at 4:00 a.m. and leave an anchorage (except maybe from Vivorillos, three years ago). After two days of sitting through calm mornings, with jellyfish-laden water, and being treated to afternoon winds of 25-30 knots that lasted well past dinner time, we opted to just leave and head for Barillas Marina in El Salvador, where we arrived at about 1:45 p.m. We arrived at the ocean waypoint at 11:00, jogging in place for about an hour while we waited for their panga to come out and meet us to guide us over the sandbar and up the estuary to the marina.

The ride in was interesting, as we passed between shoals in water no more than 12-15 feet deep while huge breakers crashed on either side of us. There were a few moments of being sideways to the swells which made for some great rolls, but once the water flattened out, we enjoyed the calm ride past the beaches and villages, about nine miles up the mangroves to the Barillas Marina Club. Once we were secure at the mooring ball, the authorities and marina owner, Heriberto, came out to clear us in – a feat that was accomplished in less than 20 minutes at a cost of $20. Once we cleared in, we accompanied Heriberto for a tour of the facility and a short walk to Immigration, where we were welcomed to El Salvador and told how proud the country was of its democracy. Lovely, warm welcome. But we suffered a casualty on the way in – our HP printer, veteran of nearly 4500 miles, dropped dead in the night and despite our best efforts, died. Now the challenge – to find a good wireless printer in Central America!

Fun With Wind and Weather

Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Two weeks later, and we’re still in Costa Rica. We’re in just about the northernmost protected anchorage, just an hour and a half run to Nicaraguan waters, nailed down by the winds.

From Islas Tortugas two weeks ago, we did a short run to Bahia Ballena for a couple of nights. There isn’t much there, just a small village with a wicked (for us) surf landing, and a community pier where the fishing boats tie up. The tide range is a pretty wide 9 feet (from our Florida and Caribbean experience of inches), and tying up the dinghy required setting a stern anchor to prevent being sucked under the concrete pier during the incoming tide. The pier was worn, slimy with marine growth and pelican poo, but the fishermen were friendly. We managed to score a kilo of fresh shrimp right off a shrimper who sold to the fishermen at the pier, and enjoyed peel ‘n eats and a beautiful salad.

The water wasn’t the clearest, but we installed a new zinc under the swimstep, and had a few cooling dips when the heat overtook us. A highlight of our stay in Bahia Ballena was the chance to watch Holland America’s Maasdam pass by on March 12 on its way to Huatulco, and contact them on the radio to relay a greeting to the DeFever Cruisers Association group onboard. We don’t know if they saw us or not, but it allowed us an excuse to raise a glass in their honor.

On March 13, we hoisted anchor about 11:00 pm for the 116-mile, 16-hour run to Bahia Culebra. We had a beautiful run with next to no wind and long slow swells of 3-5 feet. When we arrived on the 14th, there was quite a stiff breeze blowing out from the east, so we tucked into a little bay on the northwest side, and protected by a little point, enjoyed a quiet two days punctuated by a couple of troops of howler monkeys calling back and forth. What struck us the most about this bay was how dry the landscape is. After two years in the wettest part of Panama, it was odd to see California-like hills of golden color, dry trees, with very little in the way of green except right along the shore.

On March 17, we moved over to the head of the bay to anchor off the new Marina Papagayo, to run in and check email. The marina is beautiful – state of the art slips, electricity, uniformed staff, shops, bar and restaurant, and stunning internet facilities inside an air conditioned lobby. We had planned to stay for lunch, but after just 90 minutes the wind kicked up, raising whitecaps between us and Emma Jo, so we opted to run back and spare the computer more spray than it could take. We sat there overnight, watching wind gusting to 25 knots, and thought about moving the next morning to where we could get some lee. The annoying thing about the wind, after about 12 hours of it, was realizing how dry it was – coming right out of the east, off the parched hills. Reminded us of the Santa Anas in Southern California – and the Foehn in Germany (during which murderers receive lighter sentences on account of being driven mad by the winds – just sayin’). On the 18th, after Ole ran ashore to check emails at the marina, we opted to move to the south side of the bay and look for some lee.

Our first choice was crowded with a resort and wave runners, so we rounded a point and ended up in a wide bay called Playa Panama, mistakenly choosing the southwest corner for an anchorage. We ran ashore in the dinghy to one of the cutest little beach bars we’ve found so far – the Playa Panama Beach Club, to check emails and make a few Skype calls. When we returned to Emma Jo, there came the wind again, and in the evening we opted to move back to the southeast corner, where we got some lee. When the wind blows 20-25, it makes jumping off the stern a bit chancy for a swim. We’d hate to end up in Hawaii.

On the 19th, we left Bahia Culebra to pursue checkout formalities with the Port Captain in Playa del Coco. I had to dinghy Ole ashore with the boat papers, and as I dropped him off into a 3-4 foot surf, the wind kicked up, and I had to battle 20-25 knots alone in the dinghy, find the boat, get aboard, and tie up by myself. I did fine, but being alone for 4 hours while Emma Jo was buffeted around in a crowded anchorage was not my idea of a great time. I set the anchor alarm and watched the anemometer – couldn’t bear to be in the salon listening to the wind howl through the screens. Ole had to go from the Port Captain to the Bank and Immigration, then take a taxi to Liberia (about 30 minutes away) to Customs at the airport. Once we got him back aboard, dried out, and fed, we picked up the anchor and moved back to Playa Panama to wait for calmer conditions to turn north.

On the 20th, we picked up anchor early, hoping to get a head start on the wind, which seems to pick up any time between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. Heading north, we needed to round the last cape in Costa Rica – Cabo Santa Elena, to find a protected bay on its north side. We had a fine enough ride until we reached the extreme west end of the cape, turned north, then east, took a look at the army of whitecaps marching toward us, then changed our mind, anchoring off a little place called Key Point, behind the Islas Murcielagos (Bat Islands) back on the south side of the cape. The water was clean and clear, and the wind continued to blow 20-25, so we sat. At dinner, we decided that if Ole woke up at 4:00 a.m. and it was calm, we’d just get up and round the cape before the wind woke up, which we did. We arrived in Bahia Santa Elena, a beautiful, almost landlocked bay, to find one sailboat leaving, two at anchor, and two local fishing boats enjoying the glassy surface of the bay. A spotted dolphin played with us as we came in, crossing our bow wake and rolling over to look at us. We figured on a night or two here to rest up before our 130 mile run northwest to Puesta del Sol in Nicaragua.

We ran over to introduce ourselves to the sailboaters – a nice couple, Danny and Paula on Paula Jean and a great family, Troy, Brady, and their three daughters on Seaparents. We all got together and took an exploratory trip up the estuaries at the head of the bay, finding big green parrots, hearing oropendola, and the most amazing black-red crabs with neon yellow claws clicking over the exposed mangrove roots. Pretty trip!

Last night Ole and I went on a “date.” We had martinis as the sun went down, accompanied with the very last of Dale and Linda’s home-canned salmon. After a brief radio confab about the weather, we changed clothes – Ole in clean shorts and a parrot shirt, me with mascara AND lipstick and a Mexican sundress, had a nice dinner with wine, then put on Neil Diamond and went dancing on the back deck while the wind howled around us. Hey – you have to gather rosebuds while you can! And if there’s no beach club in sight, we make our own.

And now it’s the 24th of March. For two straight days, the wind has just been howling through here, making dinghy excursions kind of wet and uncomfortable. Ole set the wind alarm for 30 knots yesterday, and the beeping was so constant, he just turned the darned thing to 40. The one thing good that has come of this experience is that we now trust our ground tackle and can sleep through 20 knots of wind while we’re on the hook.

Adventures in Belize…

November 14, 2007
Tobacco Range, Belize

So there we were …

On Monday morning over the Northwest Caribbean Radio Net, we heard our friends from s/v Litbe check in. We met them last March during the great rescue-the-other-trawler-off-the-reef incident at Spruce Cay, and they also opted to spend hurricane season on the Rio Dulce, departing in October.

They told us they were on their way out to the atolls – Lighthouse and Glovers Reefs – and we thought it might be a good idea to have some company for the trip. We agreed to meet up at the south side of a teeny tiny little place called Rendezvous Cay, where we would meet the folks from Sea Biscuit and Come Monday. The day was stern and grey, with northerly winds from 15-20 knots that we had to head into. The fur princess was unhappy again, but only for a few short hours.

When we got up to Rendezvous Cay, Torrey of Litbe was poised in his wetsuit, in his dinghy, with a handheld depth sounder, motioning us in like we were a 737 coming to gate E-11 – in this case to the port of all three sailboats, toward the western corner of the cay. We dropped the anchor, backed down, and didn’t hold. So we tried again. And again. Then read in the cruising guide that the anchorage is “poor holding, with sand over hard coral.” Hmmm. So we moved over to the east side of the Cay – starboard of the sailboats, and had no luck there either. Now when we say a “teeny tiny little cay,” we’re talking yards long by feet wide, with a few scraggly pines and palms and a bit of a fringe reef running from either end.

Because it was 4:00 in the afternoon, edging toward twilight, Ole opted to dive into the line locker to dig out the spare anchor – a 65-lb CQR – to exchange with the Bruce that wasn’t setting. Now I’m not saying anything untoward about my captain, but it did make me laugh to see him on his hands and knees throwing things out of the locker, muttering to himself. I don’t know, it just seemed badger-like. When the anchor was finally uncovered, the question at hand was, “how did I ever get this thing IN here???”

By about 4:45, we found a place to drop the hook on the port side of the sailboats in 11 feet of water, and it stuck. Barbara over on Litbe told us not to cook – she had hors d’oeuvres and dinner all ready for us. We enjoyed homemade bread, great sloppy joes and beans –

Then it all went horribly wrong.

The wind suddenly kicked up to about 30, and within seconds, Torrey was up and out the door shouting something about dragging anchor. The folks from Come Monday were out the door and onto their dinghy in a blinding flash to check on their anchorage, leaving Ole and me and the folks from Sea Biscuit to help Torrey try to secure Litbe again, in 30-knot northerly winds, with a hand-operated anchor windlass and a 65-horesepower diesel that sounded like it had got up in a bad mood. Torrey and Mike were on the bow, which was pitching 6-7 feet straight up and down as they tried to haul up the anchor, and dousing them with green water on every down pitch. Ole manned the engine, Sue watched the depth sounder, and Barb and I manned the electrical panel and the ashtray from inside the warm, dry cabin. All I kept thinking through all of it was what could possibly be happening to Emma Jo.

I couldn’t begin to remember how many times they tried and failed, but after about an hour and a half, they were stuck enough to run us back to the boat in their dinghy. The good old CQR did a fine job, but we opted to stand an anchor watch throughout the night. We set the anchoring alarm on the gps, and over the course of the night watched the wind turn a complete 180° by 4:30 a.m., pointing our stern toward the shallow(er) end of the island. By about 5:00, we decided we’d sweat enough, so hauled up to find a secure place to get some sleep.

We headed for Sapodilla Lagoon, got there, anchored, and fell over at about 9:30 am, sleeping until about 2:00 in the afternoon. It was the perfect place – flat calm and quiet. On the net the next morning, Litbe called us again, inviting us to join him further north in the Tobacco Range, just spitting distance from Southwater Cay and Pass, making it possible for a direct jump out to Glovers Reef if the weather permitted.

So off we went, deciding to run the watermaker while underway, and discovering a cheap-ass plastic elbow fitting had broken, rendering the watermaker caput, and us with less than half a tank with no supply in sight. We arrived at Tobacco Range, a couple of mangrove cays shaped like offset parentheses, just about lunchtime, finding Litbe anchored in the windiest part of the lagoon. We shared our watermaker troubles, and Litbe and Sea Biscuit dinghied over with an assortment of fittings to Rube Goldberg a repair together. Back in bidness.

Late in the afternoon, a family of dolphin cruised into the lagoon for a feed, but didn’t get close enough to us to photograph. Cameron and Jenny, a young couple of marine biologists aboard their sailboat Velela, were out kayaking and within 10 yards of the dolphin, just as the sun was getting lower in the sky.

For the kindness of watermaker help, we hosted spaghetti dinner with homemade focaccia for everybody in the anchorage – YUMMM. So far a record of 8 for dinner aboard – there were Torrey and Barbara from Litbe; Mike and Sue from Sea Biscuit; Cameron and Jenny from Velela; and us.

We hoped that the weather would improve enough to get out to Glovers Reef atoll – the sun came out, but the wind was cruising along at 20-25 knots. Upon reflection, looking ahead to getting to Panama by Christmas, we may have to curtail the Glovers Reef trip and head straight for the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Lessons Learned (Part 2 of Many…)

March 19, 2007
Placencia, Belize

So after another wonderful day, we heard on the radio that there was a norther coming on Saturday morning, with expected winds from the northwest at 10-15. As we sat Friday night over the rum and oj, we remarked to ourselves that heck, 10-15 was nothing, we were on the south side of the cay, and we could handle it. We snorkeled the anchorage, and found we were set in sand on top of a hill in about 30 feet of water. The anchor chain lay across the top of the hill and gently circled down to the bottom at 50 feet before tracking back up to the boat. We thought we’d be fine, as we had out 175 feet of chain.

About two miles away, in an area the chart calls Bread and Butter Cays (but the cruising guide calls Stewart Cay), we spotted another trawler, tried to hail them on the radio, but they must have been otherwise occupied.

At 11:00 p.m. on Friday night, Jan was up on the computer and Ole had just gone to bed, when, out of nowhere, the wind started blowing 25 with gusts to 30, out of the northwest. So much for weather forecasting.

Ole shot out of bed, looked at the plotter, and found we had slipped anchor and our adrenaline kicked in.

This area is another of those where the plotter, the chart, and the cruising guide differ as to precise positions, so Ole started up the engines, and wisely watched the radar and the plotter for about an hour. When he saw that the anchor had dug in and we were holding ground, he decided to stay up until the worst was over. Jan cat-napped on the watch berth, periodically rising to confirm we were still okay.

At 6:00 in the morning, the light showed we had indeed traveled what we thought was sickeningly close to the reef, but were still holding. The winds had abated during the night, but picked up again with daylight, producing quite a chop in our anchorage. As we considered our options, we heard a call for “any vessel” from the boat we had spotted the night before. They, too, had slipped anchor, but were not so fortunate, as they had been shoved up onto a sand bar and were hard aground. They confirmed their boat was fine, the people were fine, and requested some help in the form of a tow.

We were not at all sure we could help. Our dinghy was still in the water, the wind was blowing a steady 20 knots, and we were unsure about how to get out of the zigzag entrance to our lagoon.

Once we decided to give it a shot, we raised the dinghy, started the engines, and Jan went forward to heave up the anchor. The switch for the anchor windlass chose that precise moment to become non-functional. Ole ran down to the chain locker to examine the switch, and tried to jump-start it, to no avail. After about 10 minutes, we found that by pressing on the switch with a thumb and wiggling as we pressed, we could get some response, and the chain crept up in fits and starts, allowing Ole to position the boat on the track line we left coming in, and get us safely out of Spruce Cay lagoon.

Once underway, we headed toward the vessel in distress, and formulated a plan.

We took out our 300-foot, 1-inch hurricane line, looped it through our two aft hawse cleats, and made a makeshift bridle with a trusty bowline, allowing the distressed vessel to send a party over by dinghy to pick it up. He returned it to his boat, tied off to his two aft deck cleats, and we started pulling, thinking we could “back” him out of the sand bar. Even though we revved up to a mighty 2000 rpm, we made no progress other than to rip out one of his cleats and a chunk of railing.

That having failed, he opted to shift the tow line forward, and asked us to maintain just a constant low-rpm pull, with us headed into the wind, hoping at best that the wave action would work his boat loose – at least that we could keep him from being washed further toward the mangrove until another boat en route could help with the tow.

We found that each time we fell off the wind and had to reposition the boat , we were creeping into shallower and shallower water, until, when the depth sounder crept below 4 feet and quit returning a signal, we decided to add another 200 feet of line. Just as we requested adding a third line, the other vessel showed up to help.

About 11:45, other boat added its heft to the effort. Since the distressed vessel was losing cleats left and right, they were advised to wrap one of the tow lines around their house and send it to the other assisting vessel. Once all lines were in place, we and the assisting vessel coordinated a mighty pull, which snapped the tow line attached around the house. We decided that there was nothing more we could do, and to head for Placencia.

Once our decision was made, we agreed to lend the vessel our lines, and decided to let him haul them in from his end. Trying to untie the bowline in our towing bridle proved impossible – given the strain of pulling a 10-ton boat with a 24-ton boat with saltwater-drenched line. Out came the trusty knife.

Once the line was cut, Emma Jo drifted backward, and in spite of furious pulling on the line by the distressed vessel, we ended up with tow line wrapped around both our propellers – in 20 knot wind, in 7 feet of water, in 2 foot chop. Jan rushed up to drop the anchor, which did not set. Using the less-than-effective thumb-wiggling anchor retrieval technique, once the anchor came up we saw it had a huge rock wedged into it.

Since we had no other choice, we dropped the anchor yet again, and fortunately, the anchor hitting the bottom knocked the rock loose, and it held. The distressed vessel helped cut the line off our shafts, Jan thumb-wiggled the anchor windlass switch and we were off. The assisting vessel remained nearby in case they could be of service.

Once we got safely anchored in Placencia, we had a nap and a meal, and turned in early.

Sunday lunchtime we decided to meet some of the people who had been hovering on-site or coordinating radio communication from Placencia during Saturday’s efforts. We took the dinghy over and met some wonderful people for lunch – and debriefed the situation. When Ole heard that there was to be a commercial tugboat dispatched to help the distressed vessel, there was no question but that he would ride along with them.

There was quite the vicarious sense of adventure listening in on the radio, which for some reason, was louder and clearer than it had been the previous couple of days. When it was announced just after high tide that the vessel was floating, had intact running gear, and could motor on her own, in spite of snapping a 2-inch tow line in the process of getting free, you could almost hear the cheers from 20 miles away.

So this adventure raises a few moral questions:

Should we put our own vessel at risk to help another? When is it time to abandon an assistance effort? When, in a third-world country whose Coast Guard doesn’t have any ships, is it appropriate to alert the authorities? How much detail about another’s predicament should one provide on a public website?

In the first case, each boater must assess his own abilities, equipment, and resources. There is, of course, a long tradition of Samaritanship at sea – and an international treaty which requires commercial ships to render assistance when possible – Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS. While we seriously contemplated denying the request because of the conditions in which we found ourselves, each decision and consequence allowed us to rethink the situation and choose anew. Several times during the 5 hours we stood by the distressed vessel, we thought to end the effort, but found that we could do more, take more than our fears would have us. After all – it could just as easily have happened to us – and very nearly did. The key seemed to be to stay present, stay rational, and adjust as necessary, avoiding the temptation to let panic or adrenaline decide. Another factor is, of course, Ole’s profession and training, allowing him to take the emotional lead on our boat.

We felt thoroughly terrible saying goodbye and turning our back on the distressed vessel. But we had tried for nearly 5 hours, through high and approaching low tide. The addition of a second vessel with a similar power plant to ours seemed to make no difference to the result. We had been up all night, and maneuvering in bad conditions for 6 hours from the time we left our anchorage to the time we left the site — and fatigue was setting in. It sounds harsh to me – but taking care of oneself needs to be the prime directive when taking on helping another.

The third consideration is interesting. As decent, law-abiding cruisers, we should make every effort to deal honestly with the governments of the waters we cruise. We do not want to be ugly Americans (or otherwise) while guests in foreign waters. But in a part of the world where a vessel blown aground onto a reef was recently faced with a fine of $30,000 and a jail term of 3 years, one has to determine individually whether honesty is in the best interest of captain, crew and vessel.

And finally, because of the previous moral consideration as well as the last, as the webmaster and diarist of this website, it falls to me to make the decision about how much detail to make publicly available. I have attempted to include as much detail as is pertinent to us, the crew of Emma Jo, while eliminating any detail that would positively identify the vessel in distress or other parties who might have assisted in her rescue.

Moral questions aside, it has been an interesting few days, and has not only added to our cruising repertoire but also to our sense of community within the cruising world.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Thursday, March 08, 2007
Radisson Fort George Marina
Belize City, Belize

It is good to be sitting here at a dock where the only movement is from the unprotected passage of the trade winds and dive boat traffic with its resulting 2-foot chop and occasional bonk into the dock.


Because getting here was such a challenge, both physically and emotionally. And after the conditions we endured getting here, there is now no such thing as a bad anchorage or sloppy dock.

We left Bahia del Espiritu Santo at about 9:00 pm as planned, looking forward (?) to a 90-mile trip south toward a little hole-in-the-reef called Xcalac (pronounced shkah-LAK) to clear out of Mexico.

Ignorance is bliss.

Unfortunately, due to a loose nut on the chart plotter dial, our entry track from the previous day had somehow vanished, so we had to negotiate our way out of a very shallow lagoon in the dark. Not recommended, though Ole did a fabulous job. Once we got out into the briny blue, the wind picked up and the sea conditions deteriorated over the night, starting at 10 to 15 knots with 4-to-6 foot seas, and escalating to the point where the autopilot again went on strike. We had both the wind and the seas coming from the south, straight at us. In the middle of the night, feeling like we were in a washing machine. we opted to change course from south to southeast, to see if we could get any lee from the Chinchorro Banks east of Mexico. That turned out to be a good decision, as we got about 4 hours of relief until we had to turn due west and take the slop on the port side. Ole got a nap during the relative calm of our passage past the Banks, and Jan decided to once again resume the starfish position and try to snooze through the rolls as we headed west.

As we approached Xcalak, we rummaged furiously through our trusty Cruising Guide, to re-read the author’s instructions for getting inside. The cruising guide called it “quaint,” and warned us that the opening in the reef is just 50 to 75 yards wide – roughly three times the length of Emma Jo, and if you miss, you end up shredded fiberglass. She warned not to attempt the pass during “raging sea conditions,” and “only in the morning, with the sun behind you.” At just after noon, looking out the side window, we were taking, I kid you not, 12-15-foot swells off the port quarter, and trying to figure out how to thread the needle while being virtually washed into the lagoon like the flotsam we are.

We could see the huge line of surf breaking all along the shoreline, and the 12-15-footers curling through the tiniest width with no foam – as we looked frantically for the two lights that would line up to carry us safely over a submerged coral head just inside the north side of the pass.

I asked Ole, “are these ‘raging sea conditions?’” But before he could answer me, a huge swell came up from under us and shoved us through the pass.

During the frantic machinations of trying to line ourselves up, we tried calling the port captain, whom the guide book said “spoke excellent English,” and who was not there – we got the non-English speaking assistant. Fortunately for us, a Canadian resident who has a house just opposite the pass, got on the radio and helped us through, as did a 34-foot sailboat who had surfed in the afternoon before.

Once we washed through, we hung a right, circled once, and dropped anchor in 20-25 knot winds and 3-foot chop in between two sailboats. It took an hour or two to stop shaking. When Ole went to clear out of Mexico, he met the nice Canadian man (still don’t know his name, but he goes by “Casa Verde” on the radio) who told us we actually passed right over the submerged coral head when the wave shoved us through. He congratulated our courage, then told us that the Swiss guy in the sailboat just north of us had come in at 4 a.m., while it was still dark! Don’t know – stainless steel or brass.

While we sat there the first afternoon, we watched a conch fisherman enter the pass, taking green water all over his stern. He hung the same right turn we did, and anchored not far away, and began shuttling his catch via small boat virtually 24/7 for the next two days..

We had planned to stay only one night, then make a short passage of 26 miles to San Pedro to clear into Belize – but, like the cat who climbs the tree – once in, we couldn’t work up to courage to go out. Casa Verde told us it would be blowing like it was for several days. So our planned one-day stop turned out to be three days.

We went for a walk through Xcalak one afternoon, and found it to be verrrrry sleepy. Dirt streets, a grocery store and a “Loncheria” where we stopped for some good home cooking in what seemed to be a nice grandmother’s home. Great fresh shrimp ceviche and a fish stew. Interestingly, she didn’t serve beer, but told us to go next door to the market to get our beer, which we were welcome to drink in her restaurant. How civilized. Unfortunately, we hadn’t brought the camera, so no pictures.

On the morning of the third day, March 3rd, we got up at dawn to take a look at the pass. Time was running out, as Ole had to be in Atlanta for the chief engineer’s meeting that began on the 5th of March. We pretty much figured that he wouldn’t make the flight that left Belize on Sunday morning, and would at best, be a day late for the meeting. Although the wind had died down, we decided it was still too intimidating to try to get out the pass. As we made the coffee, committed to yet another day of waiting for weather, we watched the Swiss sailor attack the pass on the way out to head north. Yikes – it looked like his boat was climbing a mountain that was trying to push him back in – and we watched his mast wobble fore and aft as he climbed straight up steep 12-foot rollers to get out, then turn to take them on the side as he headed north. Nope – not for us.

By late afternoon, the wind had dropped back to 10-15 knots, and the seas seemed, at least through the binoculars, to have flattened out a bit. In a burst of bravado, we thought it best to make a try for it, leaving at about 6:00 in the evening for another overnight 75-mile run to Belize City, avoiding San Pedro altogether.

Now, non boaters, here’s what has to happen: Imagine yourself trying to get your Lincoln Navigator up the steep hill from the street into your single-car garage, steering while looking in your rear view mirror at the garbage can lined up with the tree across the street to determine the heading of your SUV. Now imagine the uphill driveway is undulating toward you – a foot to either left or right shreds you.

Suffice it to say, that the pucker factor is the biggest we’ve experienced so far. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anxiety sweat like we did that evening. But once through, and turning south, the ride through the 8-10 foot swells actually became, well, not exactly comfortable, but smoother than we’d experienced since we entered Mexico. It allowed us the discovery that sea swells are not bad. Emma Jo just goes up one side and down the other, and when the swells have a period of 5 or 6 seconds, there’s a rhythm to it that our bodies can adjust to. It’s when the wind whips up a chop on top of the swells that throws the whole rhythm off and the sea beats the crap out of us.

The ride down to Belize wasn’t that bad. For the first several hours, we were in open swell, but as we headed south, we were sheltered in the lee of Turneffe Island, one of only three actual atolls in the western hemisphere. And once we turned up English Channel to ride into Belize City, the ride actually became what we had expected cruising to be – flat calm, full moon, and warm temperatures.

We anchored just across “the flats” from Fort George at about 4:30 a.m. and slept for a few hours, then moved over to the Radisson dock to begin the “clearing into the country” parade of officials and fees. The staff at the Radisson was extremely helpful in calling the officials for us, the officials were kind and efficient, and all was taken care of by about 11:00 a.m.

But – because we needed a spot for shore power, and the only working 220-amp outlet was being occupied by a charter catamaran, we had to leave the dock and anchor in the open roadstead off the point until all of the charter guests had arrived. We were told they’d be gone and we could have their space by 12:30 – it ended up being 4:30, and in spite of a sweet nature and willingness to help, the young security guard at the dock was pretty useless at helping us back into the slip and tie up. We must have been a sight – Jan was throwing lines, the young guard was watching the lines hit the dock and slip into the water, asking Jan to throw them higher, and not doing much to break a sweat. But in we got, setting several additional lines against the cold front expected that evening.

Once we were tied up, we asked each other, “when does this start to get fun?”

While there isn’t any protection from the easterly trades or the passing boat traffic, we figured the space was just fine given what we’d been through so far, and after a good night’s sleep, Ole was off at 6:00 a.m. Monday morning to fly up to Atlanta, leaving Jan and the cats at the dock until Friday.

Lessons Learned (Part 1 of Many…)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007
At anchor, Bahia del Espiritu Santo
Quintana Roo, Mexico

It’s clear that every day contains lessons learned.

On Sunday evening, at 9:00, we weighed anchor from San Miguel in Cozumel, headed just about due south for Bahia del Espiritu Santo some 86 nautical miles down the coast. The first three hours we were in the lee of Cozumel, had light winds, and gentle swell from the south southeast, and we said to ourselves, hey – this won’t be too bad. Had some tunes on the I-pod, homemade oatmeal cookies, a pot of French Roast sitting in the thermos in the sink, and everything secured for sea. The swells, though 4 to 6 feet, were long and slow enough for us to actually enjoy them.

Then we discovered that the boat can take way more than either the autopilot or the crew.

About half an hour south of the tip of Cozumel, we were in the deep blue of the ocean, and the winds steadily increased to between 18 and 25 miles per hour, and the size of the swell began to overwhelm the autopilot. By about 2:45 a.m., with Jan on watch and Ole trying to catch some rest down below, the autopilot screamed that it had had enough, what with trying to maintain 6.5 knots while fighting off a steady east wind, a strong north setting current, swells increasing to 8-10 feet, and an annoying wind chop on top.

When the autopilot started screaming, Jan had had enough, and luckily Ole decided that a screaming autopilot and nervous wife warranted some adjustment. We dropped speed to about 5.5 knots, and Ole began what ended up to be about 6 hours of hand steering in increasingly turbulent conditions. The hard part was that we couldn’t see the big ones approaching, and once in awhile caught some big swells on the port bow that caused some great sliding and rolling. As we watched the miles and the clock gradually ticking down, we took comfort in the fact that we would be entering the reef at Bahia del Espiritu Santo some time around 9:00 in the morning.

So there we were…and this is no poop…looking at the lighthouse on the south end of the entrance to Bahia del Espiritu Santo, the British Admiralty chart of the area (latest datum 1999), the Raymarine chart plotter (new), and Captain Freya Raucher’s Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast (1986) … and all three of them said something different about where the entrance to the reef was!

Captain Trevor had told us about “eyeball navigation” which was great in theory. In the heavy chop it was difficult eyeball exactly where the reef began and ended, and where the safe passage lay.

Confronted with three disparate views about where we were supposed to enter the reef without becoming kindling, we had to cruise back and forth for about an hour, perform some calculations on the paper chart, express our separate viewpoints, read the Cruising Guide over and over, and make a decision. A cruiser we had met at el Milagro in Isla Mujeres who had just returned from this area told us that the positions listed in the Cruising Guide were “right on,” so we decided to trust them, even though the chart plotter and the paper chart showed us that her waypoint was smack on the reef.

So, clenching our sphincters firmly, we steered toward a point that the chart plotter and the chart told us were on the reef, but in actuality was the safe opening that Captain Raucher had documented, and Jeff from el Milagro had told us.

Lesson learned: Charts and plotters are called AIDS to navigation.—they are not God’s law. Local knowledge is called local knowledge for a reason. Trust local knowledge — recent local knowledge.

About a mile inside the reef, we sat for a few minutes and realized we had not made a decision about where we were going to anchor. So we cruised south toward the lighthouse (as the sun moved steadily south, creating glare on the water and making the dark shapes hard to read – were they grass? Coral? Shadow from the clouds?). When the depth sounder registered 4.2 feet in an area charted as 10 feet, we turned around and cruised back toward the north side of the bay, hoping for deeper and calmer water.

Finally, about 11:00 a.m., realizing we were not going to find a flat, calm place to anchor in 20-knot winds, we picked a spot between the reef and a beach, in about 9 feet of water – put out 75 feet of chain, cracked open a cold Miller, and went to bed. 14 hours of overnight cruising in less than ideal conditions, plus the need to make a gut decision in unfamiliar waters made for more stress than any of our previous cruises have produced.

Lessons learned:

  1. Any anchorage that lies in enough water with enough chain and doesn’t lie in 8-10 foot swells is a great anchorage when you’re exhausted.
  2. The first cold beer after a night passage like that one is the best beer you’ve ever tasted.
  3. It is good to nap.

After the nap, we treated ourselves to a swim and some naked pina coladas on the aft deck as the sun went down, a simple dinner, and an unheard-of bedtime of 9:00 pm.

Now for a report on the 4-legged crew:

Barclay is amazing. She insisted on staying in the pilothouse with us without complaint throughout the crossing, and when I wouldn’t let her out the salon door for the “outside” water dish, she decided to sneak out the pilothouse doors and drink from it anyway instead of from the “inside” dish in the galley. As she stuck her head out the door, the wind flattened her ears against her head, she hunkered down, and shouldered her way down the side deck before we even registered that she had done it, and was back a few minutes later, taking up her usual cruising position at the base of the fly bridge steps

Maggie has earned many points on this crossing toward her Junior Sea Scout badge. There was only one barfing incident, she thoughtfully aimed it at her own scratching pad, then stayed the night under the aft wicker chair in the salon instead of down below as usual. As soon as the engines were cut, she demanded breakfast, then sacked out on the back deck for a nap, even though the boat was moving at this anchorage more than during any of our past cruises.

Lesson Learned: The cats are fine, and can stubbornly take care of their own needs pretty damn well.

Now comes the interesting part. Tomorrow evening we have to intentionally head out of here and do this again for another 66 miles in order enter Xcalac, our official “exit port” from Mexico, so that we can officially enter Belize in San Pedro on Thursday morning and get tied up in Belize City by Friday.

Lesson Learned:

  1. Do not, if you can help it, commit to a schedule if you are going to do this.
  2. If you must go out in seas beyond your present comfort zone because you have been stupid enough to commit to a schedule, stock up on brown shorts.