The following update will include our passages from Livingston, Guatemala, back north through the Belize Barrier Reef, then east into open ocean, making landfalls in the Bay Islands of Honduras. At the moment, all three of us are back in the U.S., visiting friends and family, enjoying Lotawana Day, eating barbecue, making some repairs, and planning. Winnie is safely moored at a marina in Bocas del Toro, Panama, waiting out hurricane season and awaiting our return.
After filling our water tanks in Rio Dulce, we packed away our things and prepared Winnie to head back into saltwater and sail again. We motored across the glassy lake, and got pulled into the river, which directed us through the jungle hallway that divides the sea from the lake. I admired the steep jungle walls one last time, and we were soon back in Livingston, where we would check out through customs and depart Guatemala the following morning. The checkout went smoothly, and we spent the remainder of our Quetzals on cold beers and empanadas before rowing back to Winnie for the night. Our stop in Guatemala wasn’t part of the original plan, but it became one of our favorite places, and one we will surely return to one day.
We woke up just before sunrise, with plans to sail a decent distance back north to Placencia, Belize. There were heavy rains during the night, and the river pushed debris onto our anchor line, which we had to clear away before moving out. We had to cross the shoal in front of Livingston to make it out to deeper water, but we were departing at high tide, so I wasn’t concerned since we had previously entered Livingston at near low tide. We still bumped the soft mud bottom as we were heading out, but with momentum and the engine running, we pushed through the mud and were soon released into Bahia de Amatique. We navigated alongside a couple tankers that were coming to/from Puerto Barrios, and had good weather most of the day. The only hiccup was a clogged fuel filter due to poor fuel quality, which was quickly diagnosed and changed while underway. Retracing our steps to Placencia and further north to South Water Cay was surprisingly easy. It was familiar water and the navigating was simple since I could reference our previous waypoints. Our Garmin GPS had failed to turn on for a second time, so we were back to plotting our course on the paper charts. Sometimes it is just easier to keep it simple.
Our reasoning for heading north through Placencia, was due to the threat of pirate attacks off the coast of mainland Honduras. We had heard reports of a couple of sailboats being robbed, marooned, and their boats completely lost just 20 miles off the coast of Honduras, namely Punta Sal. Both stories involved a small launcha fishing boat approaching the sailboats requesting fuel or needing assistance, then boarding the boats and turning on the crew with machetes and a gun drawn once alongside. Most of these boats were attempting to make the passage from Rio Dulce to Roatan, Honduras (which is what we would like to do). By heading north 60-70 miles within the Barrier Reef, we can hop out into open water well north of mainland Honduras, and hopefully have a better point of sail towards Roatan against the east winds. Another bonus would be that we could visit the offshore atoll named Glover’s Reef, which we had passed up when we were heading south inside the Barrier Reef.
We sailed through the pass at South Water Cay, and soon felt the ocean swell that we had been away from while transiting in the protected Belizean and Guatemalan waters. We were making 7 knots, and soon lost sight of land without much care or concern. Before nightfall we were making our approach inside the offshore atoll, which is an oval shaped coral reef that has deep enough water inside for us to navigate and anchor for the evening. We set our anchor and began rowing to one of the little islands nearby. Little did we know, the island we were attempting to row to was guarded by a very serious guard dog. We landed our dinghy on the beach, stretched our legs a bit, and then we heard fast footsteps running towards us. The dog was the color of the sand, and ran extremely fast up to us, bearing its teeth and snapping at us. Dylan and Kassie took cover in the water, but the dog acted like he was going to swim right out to them. With the dog mostly focusing on those two, I launched the dinghy and made my way out into waist deep water where Kassie and Dylan had retreated. Luckily, none of us got bit, and only I had cameras and electronics in my backpack, so nothing got ruined aside from some wet clothes. As we rowed back to the boat, we saw the dog running hot laps up and down the beach, proud that he defended his island from intruders, and warning others to stay away. We learned our lesson, and stayed well away from the beach from then on. The following morning was spent snorkeling and free diving off of the dinghy. The coral was some of the best we had seen. Just outside the atoll, the water depth would go from 20 feet to over 1,000 feet. It felt like the edge of a cliff, and the water would change from a bright turquoise to a deep cobalt blue. Dylan had been practicing diving deeper, and holding his breath longer. He can easily make it down to 40 feet, probably a lot deeper by now.
After swimming around for the day, we hoisted the anchor and set off, bound for Roatan, Honduras. By around 5:30pm, we had lost sight of the atoll, and were steadily moving along at 5 knots. In the distance, I spotted a small fishing boat coming toward us from the south. It came within a couple miles of us at a good speed, and then stopped dead in the water. We were purposefully off of the Honduran mainland by about 50-60 miles, which is a long ways for a little fishing boat to wander out to sea. My thoughts were that it was a possible piracy threat, and he may be scoping us out….or just a fisherman. To be on the safe side, I woke up Dylan and had Kassie put a big hat on to stand up in the cockpit with me. We were standing there staring through binoculars, just able to make out the outline of the small boat and maybe 2 people. We assumed they were staring right back at us. We made sure that they would see that there were at least three people on board, holding machetes and big sticks in our hands. The boat remained stopped for the next hour. At dusk, we dropped the sails, turned all of our lights off, and turned 90 degrees north for the next couple of hours. We didn’t see anything of them for the rest of the night, which means we either successfully evaded them, or went 15 miles off course to avoid a small fishing boat. Either way, we made it safely through the dangerous waters to Roatan, which is a safe tourist island.
We approached the West End of Roatan, and tied to a mooring ball just south of Halfmoon Bay. It was raining pretty good, but we still loaded our dinghy up with empty fuel canisters and made our way to shore. We asked around for a gas station, and the response seemed to be that we would have to get a taxi. Despite the advice, we walked down the road for a mile or less and we came upon the gas station. Fresh sandwiches, cold drinks, and diesel fuel, then back to the boat with our 4, 5 gallons cans. Roatan was a nice place, but it was tarnished by the fact that I had visited the same island previously on a cruise ship. Cruise ships seem like the ultimate bastardization of maritime life, and American culture. Many sailors seem to scoff at cruise ships, talking of how toxic they are and how much excess it is to have 1,000 people embarking on a tiny little island, only to return to their ship for all you can eat buffets and entertainment. It is true that it is much more rewarding to make landfall in a destination that you worked so hard to get to, but we are no more environmentally friendly than any other ship. We have sails, but we motor a lot. Our food is often pre-packaged and preserved, except when in port. Our anchors dig and drag through the sometimes fragile sea grass, and hopefully can avoid coral damage, although it is sure to occur. If those 1,000 people on the cruise ship would get their own boats and do exactly as I, then there would be a lot of fiberglass floating out in the ocean, and the environment would have a hard time accommodating. End rant, no conclusion.
The next morning at sunrise we untied and drifted off again, this time headed towards Guanaja, another Honduran Bay Island. We were able to sail there in daylight hours, just 55 miles or so to the east. We had a downpour of rain, and I could barely see the end of our bow in the white out. It only lasted a couple of hours, and I was able to get out some soap and take a really nice cold freshwater shower. Water supply got topped off so it wasn’t so bad. The approach to Guanaja was easy enough, and we passed by many houses and the main town, built partially on stilts over the water. We went to sleep early and explored the following day. The town was an interesting little place. Just ¼ mile long by a tenth mile wide, with winding sidewalks that passed over numerous canals throughout the town. There was soil and real ground, but it was hard to tell whether a building was on stilts over the water or on solid ground. Boats came and went all the time, and everyone clearly recognized that we were new in town. The main industry is fishing, although they were once a very large banana exporter on the mainland, which was just a few hundred meters across the protected bay from their little city. We heard from a local that they built their homes out over the water so that the stiff trade wind breezes would drive away mosquitoes, and also serve as a natural way to wash away their sewage. Since we were trying to avoid officially checking in to Honduras, we didn’t stay long and took our dinghy to a less populated area. A man made canal cut the island in half, allowing us to take our dinghy through it to the north side of the island. Here we found a gorgeous bay, mostly undeveloped with almost no homes. There was a nice looking lighthouse up on the cliff, so we decided to beach the dinghy and hike to it. We met the lighthouse keeper, Carlos. He explained how it didn’t actually have a light, and that an American was building it to turn into a hotel one day. Carlos had been working on the lighthouse for quite a few years, and seemed lonely all by himself out there. He invited us to stay for the night for free, but we had to get back to Winnie to get going in the morning, as the weather was predicted to get worse in the coming days.
We departed Guanaja on June 7th, meaning we were officially in hurricane season! For us newbies, it made us nervous, but we had diligently checked the weather for tropical storms forming hundreds of miles east, and hurricanes are rarely on time for their first day of the hurricane season. The wind was coming straight out of the east, as we were trying to make the 180 miles east, against the wind. We were still a little nervous about Honduran waters, so we tried to make the best time we could. This involved motoring hard, beating into the wind and waves most of the trip. Around ¾ of the way to Vivarillo (the easternmost bay island), our mainsail came apart, tearing from the leech of the sail about 6 feet inward. We scrambled to grab hold of the flogging boom and drop the sail down to the 3rd reef point. Luckily, we could still sail using just the top ½ of the sail, but we knew it would be an expensive fix, and we were a long way from any sail maker that could repair such a large rip. The weather calmed down and the seas became smaller as we approached Vivarillo, which is a speck of an island 40 miles off the coast of the Honduran/Nicaraguan border. At this point, we would be able to head SE, and eventually south to Panama.
Unfortunately for us, the weather was not cooperating, and the winds picked up quite strongly and we had to wait out the weather, hiding behind the little island of Vivarillo. There wasn’t much on the island; no inhabitants, houses, shelter, or drinking water. Nonetheless, we took the opportunity to walk on solid ground, walk around the island, which took about half an hour, and climb on top of some abandoned crab pots. The Honduran coastguard showed up and anchored a couple hundred meters behind us, which was comforting since they were a fairly large, official ship, and we were in potential pirate or drug smuggling waters. They told us that the weather was bad where we were trying to go, and that we need to wait around for 3-6 days until it cleared up. They didn’t speak much English, so discussing weather over the VHF was tough. 12 of the Honduran coastguard men also came by in a small launcha to check on us, fully armed with assault rifles and black military outfits of course. I asked them if it would be possible for us to buy 10 gallons of fuel from them since we had burned more than we had hoped on the passage east. They took the 5-gallon jerry cans and returned them to us full, refusing to accept any money. They said it was their responsibility to keep us safe. I asked if they would mind me taking a photo, but a couple of them seemed uneasy, so you will have to use your imaginations. They were also doing various training exercises, or inspecting the reef and island, but we usually couldn’t figure out what they were doing. When we rowed to the island a day or two later, we discovered that they had moved nearly 30 crab pots to get to the bottom, where it was obvious that something had been removed. Our guess would be they found a drug drop off, but who knows. They sang a Spanish song over the VHF one morning, which we got a kick out of. I wish we could have all hung out more, but they were working and our Spanish isn’t that great anyway. Finally, they came over the radio one morning and told us “Go time! Go time! Go time!” We were more than ready to pull anchor and head out, so we departed SE, clearing Cabo Gracias a Dios named by Christopher Columbus. It was supposedly named such due to their difficult struggle to make eastward progress against the same trade winds that we had been battling, then finally able to turn south and have the wind abeam. The difference of him being in a square rigged ship with no engine meant that what took us a few days took him a few weeks. It still felt nice to have the wind off our beam and be able to sail SE towards the Colombian owned islands of Providencia and San Andres, which lie 145 miles east of the coastline of Nicaragua. The islands were an interesting destination, which not many people know about, and are rarely even marked as a dot on world maps.
Another post about those islands coming soon, but that sums up our trip from Guatemala back through Belize, and east through the Honduran Bay Islands.
Thanks for the documentary. My wife and I live in Lees Summit and plan to sail in the gulf one day. Be safe! Bajabum and Ozark Fish.