Friday, December 24, 2010

January 7, 2011 Mass Email - La Ceiba, Honduras

Dear friends and family,

We last wrote you from Lago Izabal, Guatemala. We haven’t gone far, but two months have lapsed. So here’s an update.

We sailed back to Livingston, where we cleared out of Guatemala. Then we began coasting along Honduras, which has very few harbors. The distance to the next is often too great to reach in a day and there is much uncertainty due to fickle winds and heavy swells which may or may not block entry into the various river mouths. On November 4, 2010 we entered the Rio Motagua, wilderness boundary between Guatemala and Honduras. Surf was breaking on the sand bars at the river mouth, but we found a channel deep enough for the swells to pass without toppling. Halfway in we jumped out to walk the boat through, the waves knocked us around trying to release Thurston from our grasp. Once inside we hid in a swampy side channel and slept among tall grasses growing in the water, near a tree in which white storks were roosting. Crabs, crickets, and cockroaches climbed aboard from the surrounding vegetation, requiring many minor evictions.

The next day we cut across a large bight toward Puerto Cortes. The wind slowly built up to 38 knots, as we later learned from the port authority. We had never experienced this much wind, and were a bit frightened. We rolled our sails until each was the smallest possible triangle, and still we shot through the bounding seas at over six knots. When we reached Puerto Cortes our worries weren’t over because it is unprotected in a west wind. We anchored near shore while deciding what to do. We decided an inlet visible to us was passable, but we were now unable to pull the anchor in against the wind. Waves were breaking over the bow and we were quite uncomfortable;. Finally Steve strained at the oars while Ginny pulled the line. Inch by inch we moved forward until the line was almost vertical, then Ginny tied off. The anchor had buried itself firmly into the bottom, but after ten minutes the lifting waves broke it loose. We sailed into the inlet, removed our masts, and rowed into a tiny creek within the naval base that occupies a portion of the harbor. We were so happy to be safe and comfortable! The naval personnel allowed us to leave our boat there for two days while we cleared into Honduras and waited for the storm to blow over. But they wouldn’t let us sleep aboard, so we sojourned at a $10-a-night hotel while the corrugated steel of nearby roofs rattled in the gale.

The next harbor was Laguna Diamante, in a remote national park thirty miles east of Puerto Cortes. The coast is generally low but here a sharp spur of mountain juts out into the ocean. Midway along this knife-like ridge was a fifty-yard-wide gap with seas breaking heavily on both sides. We shot through this opening and found ourselves in a large, calm lagoon bounded by the reverse slope of the ridge on one side and by flat mangrove on the other sides. There was no sign of people except an unoccupied thatched hut. We rested tranquilly and hiked the trails and beaches.

The next day the wind was still blowing hard through the opening, the seas still crashing heavily on the rocks to either side. This is one case where a motor would be nice! We sailed gingerly back out through the opening, straight into the wind, in series of short, nerve-wracking tacks. Then sailed around that mountainous cape to the town of Tela. A heavy swell was still running so it wasn’t possible to enter the little creek that debouches there. To get a good night’s sleep we anchored outside the surf and swam into town with a waterproof duffle bag containing clothes and necessities. Then we wandered the streets in our swimsuits, snorkels still wagging on the sides of our heads, and found a cheap hotel and an internet café. At the latter we studied again, via Google Earth, the many stream mouths which may or may not be safe to enter, depending on the swell.

Unfortunately there would be no sure thing before La Ceiba, forty miles away. The island of Utila was closer so we decided to go there first. The wind died yet the sea remained rough, a difficult condition in which to row. Then a favorable though constantly shifting wind sprang up. Night and heavy rain squalls closed around us before we could see the island. We sailed blind, watching our compass with our headlamps, studying the GPS. The rain found its way past our foul weather gear, and Ginny became cold. Finally we started seeing lights. They grew and clarified until around 10 PM we entered Utila’s harbor, turned right, and found protected shallow water within wading distance of land.

Utila is the westernmost of the Bay Islands, famous for their coral reef diving and unique social blend. Like Belize, the islands were settled by Englishmen. Their descendants still speak English, as do most of the tourists. The accents range from lilting Caribbean to flat American. Many Spanish and Garifuna-speaking Hondurans have also moved here, attracted by the tourism and fishing industries. The island has one town, occupying the foreshore of the half-moon bay in which we were anchored. The town is shaped like a new moon, slender and curved, because beyond a narrow strip of land the interior consists of mangrove swamps and steep hills. We stayed here five days, resting from our travails at sea. The weather remained cool and rainy. We explored the island’s rough dirt roads on foot, and snorkeled a coral wall with Captain John, a retired Bostonian sea captain who reminded us of a serious Mr. Bean.

Several problems with Thurston having come up, we asked Captain John where we might conduct some boat work. He recommended the La Ceiba Shipyard. So there we went, an easy twenty mile crossing. The mainland was a wall of steep, lushly forested mountains with a narrow plain facing the sea. The town sits at the mouth of a small river, but the harbor is a mile further to the east. We entered through a pair of jetties. Inside was a small anchorage and a complex of docks thronged by steel fishing boats. From this central body of water radiate several quickly-tapering mangrove creeks. The La Ceiba Shipyard occupies a peninsula between two such channels. We moored to one of their docks for a week, then had the shipyard workers move Thurston into their yard with their Travelift.

La Ceiba, population 130,000, grew up as headquarters for the Standard Fruit Company, and is the gateway via ferry to the Bay Islands. We went into town every two or three days by walking a mile-long dirt road then catching a bus which costs only 5 ½ lempiras, about $.30. The downtown is a large grid of busy streets with unremarkable architecture, a neglected central plaza with trees and the busts of heroes, and a crowded market district. In the coming seven weeks we walked all over it in search of things needed to advance our voyage. Here the pedestrian must take care because the sidewalks are discontinuous and encumbered with vendor stands and hazards such as utility vaults with missing lids. There are far too many taxis and they all honk at you far too much in hope that you will want a ride! Being stubborn penny-pinchers we cut a wide swath of crestfallen taxi drivers. We got to know the local hardware stores, supermarkets, and ATMs. After some disappointments we settled on a favorite restaurant, the Cobel, which efficiently serves the typical fare of meat, rice, beans, and fried plantains.

The shipyard has an office, chandlery, restrooms, and repair shops. On its flat gravel surface sit perhaps thirty commercial and recreational boats. Some are under repair, some in storage, some abandoned. Most activity centers around the big steel shrimpers and lobster boats. Welding torches are forever sparking and crackling, and much bottom paint is applied with rollers on long handles, for the boats are quite tall up on their blocks. The sailboats and power yachts sit further in back, where less work occurs. During our stay several American and Europe crews came and went, or returned from abroad to retrieve their problematic investments. For a shipyard is but a concentration of boating woes: Each vessel is a unique expression of its past and current owners’ dreams, all frustrated or at least postponed by dry rot, collision damage, mechanical failures, and defunct electrical systems. We made some friends, particularly Hal, who had bought a beautiful wooden pilot cutter from its distressed owner and lives aboard at the dock, and Mark, whose large, powerful catamaran was undergoing maintenance.

For us it was the usual story. We’d thought our last stint of boat work had earned us much uninterrupted sailing time. Alas, more deficiencies had surfaced. And the haul-out, by making Thurston easier to work on, induced us to undertake more jobs than we would have otherwise. Materials availability and shipping connections were good here, too.

Some debugging of the work we’d done in Georgia still remained and Thurston’s bottom required maintenance. Hundreds of tiny gel coat blisters had appeared, indicating water penetration. There were gashes from hitting rocks, and the bottom paint was worn off where we had grounded on beaches. We replaced our cushions and our awning too.

Finally, with help from Ginny’s mom we acquired new equipment. We bought things over the internet and had them shipped to Lois’ house in Los Angeles. She consolidated them and had them shipped to us in La Ceiba. Thus we obtained an inflatable kayak (our inflatable dinghy was too bulky), a single-sideband radio receiver for weather forecasts, charts of the coast from Honduras to Colombia, headlamps, shoes, and a backup handheld GPS. Mom Lois also included little gifts and decorations to enliven our Christmas, for we spent that holiday, as well as Thanksgiving and New Year’s, in our camp at the shipyard.

We called it Camp Drip. The bottom work required that we turn Thurston over, so we had to sleep in our tent, and the frequent rains necessitated shelter. So we moved Thurston under a huge, dilapidated catamaran. Here, on the gravel between the twin hulls, we had room for boat, tent, one makeshift table for cooking, another for chemicals, a pair of saw-horses, chunks of wood for sitting, and buckets for catching drips, the structure overhead being perforated with drain holes. (It was also so low that Steve had to walk around with his head cocked to one side.) Puddles formed during the rains and dissipated afterward. We learned where we could set things and where we couldn’t, where to walk and sit without getting showered. The roof dripped even when it wasn’t raining because the central portion of the catamaran had filled with water, the drains having partly clogged. We had a leaky swimming pool over our heads! One day Steve climbed up and poked the holes clear. It took a day for all the water to drain!

We gave an old radio to our daytime security guard. He reciprocated by bringing us fruit from a nearby tree. The size of large radishes and similarly colored but with a pit inside, they taste a bit like sour apples. José was an open and innocent young man, reverently friendly, with a cherubic face and bright eyes: Though the radio we’d given him can tune in stations from all around the world he was interested only in the local evangelist channel. He sang along to the Christian songs.

On Christmas Eve a small, white, long-haired dog showed up at Camp Drip. At first he was leery, but soon he adopted us. Initially depressed-seeming, under our care and feeding he flowered. Now rather than cowering he cheerfully trotted to and fro, following us everywhere and was eager to play, for he was quite young. Not wanting to name him, exactly, we called him Little Dawg. He slept outside our tent and barked at approaching strangers. It was hard to leave him, but we found him a good home with a fenced yard where he can run and play, free of the usual Honduran dog’s three foot leash.

Our work was done. On the night of January 6, 2011, five of us from the shipyard dinghyed across the channel to the more populous west side of the harbor. Here, among a cluster of shacks, was a sort of tiki bar / restaurant. Our friend Hal had provided the only decoration to date, a collection of country and signal flags that had come with his boat. Mark contributed a string of lights in the form of colorful little palm trees. Julio, the owner and often the only worker, was jubilant. We had come here many times. We had seen him wrestle a dead-beat into the street when he refused to leave, and cook fine meals with little means. He was a small, lithe man with bronze skin, a dramatic manner, and tousled graying hair. This night he played ballenato and meringue music on his stereo, and showed us how they dance such styles, simpering and grinning his funny V-shaped grin, lips slightly pursed. Three of us didn’t get what we had ordered, but the food and Salva Vida beer was all great and we didn’t care. Tomorrow we leave.

See the rest of our new pictures in our current photo album: and a few new ones in the prior Guatemala album:!#

Also, check out the Jan/Feb issue of Small Craft Advisor for the second in our series of articles! You can subscribe here: or view the electronic issue.

Hope you all have the most amazing Uncle Bill/Lena Fantastic/David Bowie birthday weekend ever, celebrate it like you never have before!

Ginny & Steve