The story last left off from the island of Vivarillo, which lies near the eastern edge of Honduras, just north of Nicaragua, and about 40 miles NE from mainland. Only sailors seeking refuge or drug smugglers would have any reason to stop by, and that makes it unique and special to us. I tried to search for it on Google maps, but they didn’t even bother to mark its outline. I assure you, it exists. I will think of this miniscule, sand flea infested, barren spot of nowhere fondly.
From Vivarillo, we made a Southeast heading towards Providencia, Colombia. Providencia is one of three Colombian owned islands that lie 145 miles east of the Nicaraguan mainland. The 220 mile passage was pretty smooth with the wind off our port beam. We made good time, finishing the trip in about 48 hours. We entered Providencia through a well-marked channel, and found anchorage next to 8 other sailboats. The center of town was well protected within the large bay, with steep hills surrounding it. We had heard and read that we needed to check in with a man named Sr. Bush, so we hailed him over the VHF radio. He responded, telling us to relax and rest for a while, since the Colombian soccer game was on television and everyone on the island would be busy watching that until after 5pm. We put the outboard on the dinghy and motored to shore to stretch our legs and see the town. Providencia is a small island community, where most of the locals probably know each other by name. In places like these, the stores and bars often don’t have obvious names or hours, since the locals just seem to know who runs it, and at what times they are usually around. We were curious why an island so far away from civilization would be populated, and owned by Colombia, over 400 miles away. The history was dictated by religious missionaries, privateers and pirate havens (a home base for the famous Capt. Morgan), Spanish and English expansion, slave trade, drug smuggling, and so on, due to its important location. The islands are now similar to Colombia, as Hawaii is to the United States. Many Colombians enjoy vacations on this group of islands, but almost all of them travel to the most developed island of San Andres. Providencia is very quiet, with peaceful bays, empty beaches, modest hotels along one side of the island, and a slow pace. It is connected by a small, floating wooden bridge to Santa Catalina Island, which can be walked around in a couple of hours. Pablo Escobar apparently had a house there during his reign. We did some hiking, snorkeling, and wandering about as usual. One day, the Colombian Armada was on shore leave, and they played games of futsol (soccer on pavement) all day at the public court. Our last night in Providencia, we met up with a handful of the other cruisers in the bay, and we all went out for a meal. We have already ran into Steve and Vicki aboard “Tango” in Bocas del Toro, Panama, and will be following Dani and Tate on their blog www.sundownersailsagain.com until we cross paths in person again.
With a good forecast for a few days, but predicted to get worse, we made the decision to keep moving and make the short passage further south to San Andres. We had about a 30 hour passage of large but smooth swells and a stiff breeze off our beam. As we made our approach to the windward or eastern side of San Andres, we felt confident. We immediately spotted the yellow channel buoy and steered Winnie to the proper course. Looking ahead all we could see were breaking waves and a distant coastline. We knew the charted channel made several turns to navigate us through the reefs, but the red and green buoys were ambiguous through the onslaught of crashing sea. With each wave, we watched the depth sounder read 30’ as we rose to the crest of each wave and then 15’ as we fell to the bottom of the trough. As the waves became steeper, 30’ and 10’. The charts showed a channel less than 10’ most of the way to the safe anchorage behind the reef. A large steel hulled cargo ship layed abandoned on its side in the distance, a reminder not to stray from the channel! We were worried that the large waves would allow Winnie to drop low enough at the bottom of a trough to hit her keel on the bottom, which would likely leave her with catastrophic damage. We confirmed we were in the correct position, but were unwilling to risk continuing any closer to the reef and shallower channel. I waited until we were in the trough of a wave, floored the engine and turned the boat 180 degrees, abandoning our approach and pointing towards open water. Kassie took the helm and steered the boat directly up and over the sets of waves, using all 25hp that our little diesel engine had. We held tight for the first couple waves, making sure that we would be able to make forward progress, and escape the power of the sea. Our bow rose high against a wall of water, just topping the crest of the first wave, and as we dropped down the back side, our prop came out of the water and gave us a good scare (the prop is about 3 feet under our waterline). After only 15 minutes of nervousness, and glancing once or twice at our life raft, we were back in open water, with a long smooth swell passing under us again. This was one of the scariest moments on the entire trip thus far.
All sailboats anchor out or stay at the only two marinas on the eastern side of the island, which we were attempting to reach, therefore I went below to consult the paper charts and plan for an alternative anchorage. It took us an additional 5 hours to motor around the island to the leeward (west) side where we were found a safe place to drop anchor just before sunset. We could see the bottom at 35 feet, and had plenty of space since we were the only boat there. Beautiful rocky bluffs were 100 yards in front of us, and there was a shallow inlet, which we were able to row our dinghy into and tie up next to some local fisherman. It turned out to be a perfect, peaceful spot to stay during our ~7 day visit to San Andres. Checking our boat in and out was made simple, yet expensive, by using the required agent who met us in the main town, at a marina to do the paperwork.
One main road encircles the island, making it easy to navigate the buses into “El Centro”, the commercial and tourist center of the island on the Northeastern side. We visited El Centro multiple times, sometimes riding the bus but often times hitching a ride from a passerby. Within the city, we ate at a local place serving delicious broth soup, pork or steak, with rice, beans, and plantains. The city had several good grocery stores, many choices for food, and even a movie theatre. We watched Jurassic Park 3, in English! We felt like sleeping in a bed, and even more so needed a shower, but we were unable to find any rooms available on the whole island due to peak tourist season. We resorted to sneaking into the beach shower at a hostel, and getting some wifi from a ritzy hotel lobby. The town was busy with Colombian tourists, enjoying the beaches, nightlife, shopping, and a Colombian soccer game.
Back at the boat, we took it easy, cooking meals and relaxing. Dylan continued to swim and free dive, now able to dive 35 feet to touch our anchor. Our meals consisted of grilled cheese with spaghetti, vegetable lentil soup and bean tostadas with guacamole.
Needing to top off our gas, Kassie and I walked about mile and a half each with 5 gallon cans. On the way back to our dinghy, we were able to catch a ride with the Columbian Armada. An older man was fluent in English and able to translate for us and the other three men. They were very excited to hear about three young adults like themselves living on a sailboat. Kassie enthusiastically invited them aboard, but they didn’t have time to come see Winnie up close.
We departed San Andres pleased to have met so many friendly people, filled up on our favorite foods and ready for our passage to Bocas Del Toro, Panama. Once again we had a smooth passage, covering approximately 230 miles in less than 48 hours under sail alone.