Friday, December 23, 2011

December 24, 2011 - Puerto Cabello Venezuela, Mass email

Dear friends and family,

Happy Holidays!  Our gift to you is an email so long you can spend all year reading it, plus over 100 photos in the following albums:

We last wrote to you from Sapzurro, a coastal village on the Panama/Colombia border, on the flank of the road-less, rainforest spine that joins Central and South America. Since then we have traveled hard to get as far east as possible before the stronger dry season winds arrive in December or January. According to the pilot charts, Colombia has the biggest waves in the Caribbean. And according to sailor legend the 400 miles between Cartagena and Aruba is one of the worst passages in the world. Refuges are few and the wind would be contrary. Needless to say we approached this coast somberly.

From Sapzurro we motored east across the entrance to the Gulf of Uraba. We lacked a mental picture of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The land was low, rising to assorted hills, relatively dry. Roads and buildings were few, but the vegetation looked to have been modified by ancient clearings and cattle husbandry. 

The first night we sheltered in a huge mangrove lagoon, a maze of little islands and a haven for one of the largest populations of noseeums we have ever encountered. Our second refuge was behind a man-made breakwater in the town of Arboletes. The beach was crowded with kids playing soccer and men drinking beer under thatched roofs. The town on top of the bluff provided produce, bread, and internet service. No one paid us any attention. In each of the following days we arrived at a different set of low offshore islets. Rainstorms engulfed us: squalls of wind, then lightning and torrential rain, then clear sky again as we emerged on the other side. We learned quickly that our new raingear is as useless as the old. After six intense days we entered Cartagena’s vast outer harbor, a place of shipping and industry. From there we passed into the inner, historic harbor. 

In colonial times Cartagena was the principal port for ships arriving from Spain. To protect it the Spaniards built fortifications like what we had seen in Portobelo, but much more extensive. The Walled City retains hundreds of blocks of picturesquely dilapidated architecture, well appreciated by tourists. We anchored among the sailboats in the Inner Harbor, but there were too many wakes, so we moved to a place where local passenger boats were parked. For six bucks a day we got calmer water, security, and the convenience of being able to (sort of) wade to shore. We were sometimes woken in the dead of night by men paddling past in canoes while vigorously flailing the water with long poles, presumably scaring fish into nets.

Affluent neighborhoods abut the Walled City, but the bulk of modern Cartagena lays further inland. Here dust and vehicles choked the streets. Chaotic markets stretched block upon block. Music and hawking spiels blared from speakers. The days were the hottest yet. We walked the shady side of streets and detained our breathing to avoid fumes and stink. Garbage lay in heaps. From one pile Ginny selected a hefty stick forty inches long. When new it had been lathed to achieve a decorative shape, perhaps as a spindle in a staircase. When the staircase was demolished the spindle was discarded. It fit Ginny’s hand nicely, so she carried it as a club. In good neighborhoods she tucked it unobtrusively behind her backpack. In bad ones she spun it like a baton. Steve did not discourage her, having been mugged in Cartagena before. On the contrary, while Ginny menaced with her cudgel Steve’s right hand was likely to be toying with his folding knife. We’re hard-asses!

One day, while we were walking in a wealthy neighborhood adjoining the yacht anchorage, we passed a beggarly man carrying a big duffle bag full of junk. As he passed he grumbled, “Eso es mi palo!” (That’s my stick!”) He made no attempt to retake it. As he receded down the sidewalk we harkened back to the pile from which Ginny had picked up the stick. In retrospect it did seem to have been tended, as if articles of not-quite-zero value were placed there intentionally. We surmised that the junk man lacks a junk yard, so he leaves articles here and there, lets people know they are his, and receives a few coins through the honor system. Sorry junk man! We didn’t know! 


Our stay in Cartagena coincided with the city’s 200th Independence Day anniversary. For several days there were Marti Gras-like parades: tiger women, men in white tuxedos with pink hairdos. Boys covered with paint or grease threatened to smear themselves on passersby unless they donated a small coin. Change in hand we enjoyed the costumes and marching bands but mostly stuck to our errands and went to bed early. For much of cruising’s hard work occurs in ports, figuring things out, tramping from place to place.

We wished we could get transport to the Putumayo River, which flows into the Amazon. But it was way off on the Ecuadorian border, where guerrilla warfare persists. Then we noticed that Puerto Cabello, Venezuela is only seventy miles from a tributary of the Rio Apure, which flows into the Orinoco. If we could get to the confluence of the Apure and the Orinoco we could either turn left and come out the mouth of the Orinoco, as Steve did in 1991, or turn right, ascend the Orinoco, and take the Brazo Casiquiares to the Rio Negro, thence the Amazon. It is one of few places in the world where, due to a freak connection in their respective headwaters, one can navigate up one river and down another without portaging. Puerto Cabello was still 750 nautical miles away, but it was closer than Trinidad, which would otherwise be the end to our windward beat. 

Paperwork was a worry. Colombia requires that each time a boat, however small, enters a port having a Port Captain it must retain a shipping agent. The agent obtains entry and clearance documents for a substantial fee. As our friends say, “It´s a racket!” So we decided to bypass Barranquilla and Santa Marta, though they were on our way. And Venezuela has no ports of entry along our route until Puerto Cabello. So we got a clearance for Puerto Cabello, though it would take us weeks to get there. In the meantime we would have legally left Colombia and not yet arrived in Venezuela. Whenever we went ashore we could be violating immigration laws.

We left on November 12th, our 4th Escapiversary! The trade winds soon kicked in. We rarely sailed anymore. We motored past the gargantuan, hyacinth-choked mouth of the Rio Magdalena to a small town near Santa Marta. Here we got out and pulled the boat by hand into a knee-deep stream. A huge rain had just passed, so the current was swift. We had pulled Thurston a hundred yards up the right bank when suddenly the water level shot up and roller-coaster waves formed in the middle of the stream! We dug our anchors in to bank to avoid being swept away in the flash flood. The waves reared up tall and closely spaced, debris floating by at eye-blink speed. Suddenly the waves collapsed into a roaring brown foam. The process repeated itself over and over: waves growing to five feet in height, collapsing, and reforming. This furious rhythm slowly died during the night, until cricket chirps dominated. In the morning the flood was over. Egrets fished at the stream mouth. Thurston lay high and dry on the sand. Some fishermen woke us asking if we were still alive.  When we responded in the affirmative they helped us push Thurston back into the water. 

After Santa Marta the winds became stronger, the waves bigger. Sometimes even at full throttle we made only three knots. The propeller kept lifting out of the water, the motor stopping, but always restarting.  It made us nervous, especially since the strong winds make putting up the masts difficult and the shoreline was often rocky. So, we lowered the motor mount four inches. That stopped the cavitation, but it may have contributed to a close call when, after a hard day, we investigated a river mouth to see if we could enter it. While motoring back and forth studying the breakers Steve strayed too close. A wave broke over the lowered motor, drowning it! We quickly threw out the anchor, but in the minute or two it took for it to catch Thurston drifted further in. Waves kept filling the cockpit. The motor wouldn’t start. Deep shit. Steve quickly donned his swimming gear and swam in through the surf, maybe two hundred yards. 


Inside the river mouth fishermen were tinkering with nets and motors. A dirt road led into the town of Dibulla. Steve bluntly offered fifteen dollars to whoever would tow Thurston in. A skipper gathered up gas and crew while Steve nervously peered seaward. From where he stood Thurston and his wife were invisible much of the time, hidden in wave troughs. Meanwhile Ginny held on tight, but had prepared to abandon ship. The tall swells were breaking right on her. Some of them caught Thurston on her side, tipping one gunwale underwater while foam burst over the raised gunwale. Finally the skipper motored to Thurston, pulled her anchor aboard, and used the anchor line to tow Thurston. Coming through the mouth the towboat broached (turned sideways to a wave striking from astern) but apparently this was normal. Thurston was soon safe on a tranquil river. The sun set, the wind died. The mouth was calm when we left at sunrise.

As we traveled northeast around the Guajira Peninsula the dominant plant became a tall, scraggly cactus. The dominant insect was a green grasshopper with red legs, so big that on first sight Steve thought it was a green bird with dangling red tailfeathers! In stick-and-mud houses ashore or in wooden fishing smacks at sea the Guajiro Indians were quiet, undemonstrative. Wrecked ships dotted desert coasts on which boats cannot land, therefore there are no people: orange-tan cliffs and beaches with booming surf.

Our final night in Colombia we spent in Puerto Estrella, a bay sufficiently protected from the northeast swell to anchor safely but not comfortably. We bought gas from a woman who sold it in soft-drink containers from her house. Local gas comes illegally from Venezuela by mule. Following local practice we anchored Thurston bow-on to the swells and ran a stern line to a dead tree on shore. The surge caused a constant jerking forward and backward. The best defense was to lay flat on our backs in bed and wait for sunrise.

When it finally came we motored twenty-five miles out to Los Monjes, an archipelago belonging to Venezuela. The islands are little more than scattered pinnacles of rock except for the largest two, which are side-by-side. To create a base the Venezuelan Navy had leveled some pads and dumped the spoils between the two islands until they became one. No naval vessels were present but the barracks were full of sailors. We tied to a mooring rope. An ensign searched Thurston, chiding us for not carrying certain safety items for which we had no room. They even wanted to know if we had semaphore flags! Released, we hiked to the lighthouse and swam in the deep, crystalline water.

Again the wind decreased at night, so we left early for the Paraguana Peninsula, forty-eight miles away. The paired peninsulas, Guajira and Paraguana, were our principle obstacle on the way to Puerto Cabello. Much of the day no land was visible. Then we saw a faint blue mountain, then low hills. In the early afternoon we located Punta Macolla, where a half-dozen wooden boats huddled behind a small point, jostling in the swells. On the beach was a crude fishing camp. Beyond stretched flat desert.

To get around this second cape we left at 3:00 AM again. Our luck didn’t hold. An hour into the passage we hit a storm. The east wind picked up until salt spray blinded us and Thurston’s bow kept turning to one side or the other. We cowered over the compass, bracing against the belly-flops, hoping to break through to the other side of the storm. Then the fuel ran out. We refilled the tank, then Steve pulled the starter cord. Nothing! Water had gotten into the tank or the air intake. We deployed the sea anchor to control drift while troubleshooting the engine. Nothing worked. We needed to sail back to Punta Macolla. Working together we raised the masts, Steve lifting, Ginny wrestling the base of the mast into its hole. We unfurled a bit of sail and were soon back at the fishing camp with the sun rising.

Steve unbolted the motor and carried it into the camp, which consisted of a few plywood shacks and some tables made of broken-down appliances. The fishermen, swarthy men in their thirties and forties, drained the carburetor and changed the gas in the tank. They soon had it running like new, no charge. They encouraged us to wait a few days before trying the cape again, so we decided to sail south into the Gulf of Venezuela, where there are bays and towns.

Thirty miles south we found a small city. We were directed to the Club Nautico Cardon, a yacht club with a dock and dry storage for power cruisers. We moored among several tall, white sport-fishing boats. This being our formal entry, government officers searched Thurston again. The water was like a mill pond until a series of vertical waves suddenly rolled in, pounding Thurston against a steel piling! Two naval officers, caught while performing their search, fled in panic. Search over! We couldn’t bring ourselves to look at the damage.

A weekend-long fishing tournament was getting underway. More boats arrived. Excited crews prepped their engines and hauled beer and ice aboard. Merry-makers thronged the beach at the base of the dock. We relocated Thurston, bow to waves, stern to beach. She was safe now, but she jerked violently with each surge. Electronic Latin rap music blasted at all hours from multiple sources. We were depressed and uncomfortable. 

When the tournament ended the club members helped us. They hauled Thurston out, set her on a concrete slab among other boats, and gave us a power yacht to live in while we conducted repairs. After two weeks of sun, salt, and motion we craved the comfort. We had a hose, a power outlet, and we even found a weird, but functional shower stall in an otherwise broken back bathroom. We ate well and regained weight. The Venezuelans, respectful of our nautical spirit, were eager to lend a hand, a tool, or supplies. A shopping mall was a 25-minute walk away. Downtown Punto Fijo was a little further. There, on the black market, we exchanged dollars and Colombian pesos for Venezuelan bolivares. Venezuelan society seemed to be a boisterous free economy weighted down by an egalitarian but inefficient layer of Hugo Chavez socialism. Many of the Club Nautico members were critical of the government, but discreet. They talked politics with us just enough to reveal bitterness, fatalism.


The repairs took ten days. The port gunwale was badly broken at the leeboard pivot. The side deck had a split two feet long. We rolled Thurston over, gouged out disintegrated fiberglass, applied new glass and epoxy in a series of lay-ups, and replaced broken wooden parts. We restored her integrity and water-tightness and reduced her cosmetic scars to an acceptable level. 


The following day, as we finally rounded the Paraguana Peninsula, Steve sang the following song, the tune of which should be obvious:
Venezuela here we come, right back where we started from
You’re friendly, but deadly, we like it that way
Charged us too much money, but we‘re gonna stay, I tell ya
Venezuela here we come, because Aruba can’t be done
We are sailing into the sun
Venezuela here we come!

Ginny showed no pleasure in this, but she was equally glad to reach Adicora, a town with lovely old Spanish-Dutch buildings and calm water thanks to a protective reef. We next attained La Vela, on the mainland.  Since leaving Punto Fijo we had mostly sailed because our course was northeast, then southeast. From La Vela, however, we had to motor straight into the easterlies again.
Starting in the pre-dawn we droned through long days. The coast was endless, empty of people, covered with low shrubbery, green because the rainy season wasn’t over yet. We overnighted in Aguide and Chichiriviche, then crossed the still and seemingly endless Gulfo Triste to Puerto Cabello. We had problems - a broken lazarette hatch, a broken shear pin, ignition problems, etc. - but on December 14 we limped into Puerto Cabello, our goal for so long.


Since leaving Bocas del Toro we had travelled 1,500 nautical miles, far more per day than in previous phases. It was into the wind, but we had the motor, and the motivation. We had learned the importance of avoiding winds over twenty knots and waves capable of drowning the motor. Within these constraints, the motorized Sea Pearl is efficient, reliable, and fun. We love the challenge of doing much with little means.
We are now getting a certain extremely difficult permit. Then we hope to transport Thurston to the Rio Portuguesa, which connects with the Apure, Orinoco, Casiquiare, Negro, and Amazon rivers. If possible, our next country will be Brazil.  

Take care - we love you all.
Steve and Ginny

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sapzurro, Colombia Mass Email

 Dear friends and family,

We last wrote to you from Bocas del Toro, Panama, where we rejoined Thurston after four months in the States.

For the first couple days we stayed inside the muggy inland sea we had briefly explored in our shakedown cruise. Then we sailed offshore to a big, rocky island called Escudo de Veraguas. A scattering of shy or merely disinterested indigenous families live there. As we anchored at dusk the wind picked up from the south and rocked us around all night.

The coastline after that offered little protection other than small river mouths. Fortunately, the swells were small so we could enter anything with a foot of depth. The Isthmus of Panama is narrow, tall, and heavily forested. Most of the villages have no communication with the outside world except by coastal boat. We stayed at a place called Calovebora a couple days. It had two stores and a school. From the village various small trails radiated out to coastal landholdings where the people had erected fences to keep cattle from falling off the seaside cliffs.

Our next stop was the Rio Belen, where Columbus had to abandon a ship on one of his voyages. We rowed upstream two miles before settling for the night. We came to native community consisting of six primitive houses spread over some cleared hills. They had cattle, pigs, chickens, and dogs. They kept their dugouts in a little tributary ravine. With their permission we parked there also. The many curious children took advantage of the ravine’s steep banks and climbing trees to perch themselves overhead and comment upon our every move. They gave us plantains to eat, and a strange wild fruit that is like a large bean with a woody husk. The edible part is a sugary white fur around the hard black “peas”. We shared our cookies, and that’s a big deal for us!

We also explored the Rio Chagres, a wild river with no sign of man along the banks. Six miles up we reached Gatun Dam, where the river’s flow is impounded to power the locks in the Panama Canal. From the foot of the dam we walked up to the edge of man-made Lake Gatun. To our left were the upper Gatun locks. The lake was full of Atlantic-bound ships waiting to go through. The sea on the Caribbean side was full of anchored ships waiting to transit to the Pacific.

We sailed past the Panama Canal entrance to Portobelo, a day’s travel away. Portobelo is the harbor in which the Spaniards used to load their treasure fleets with silver and gold. The ancient forts still stand, their cupola-capped sentry booths intact, cannons still protruding from the embrasures. The town is small but boasts the cathedral in which stands the statue of the Black Christ, which many worship. Thirty-odd sailboats from all over the world lay at anchor.

We stayed for six days getting things done, including a trip to Panama City. There it took us hours to find a certain upholsterer to repair our awning. The buses were crowded and slow due to traffic congestion. Hating taxis we got off in the general area and looked on foot, but there were no street signs or address numbers. When we finally found the place indicated on the web site it turned out that they had moved six years before! A good Samaritan phoned the upholsterer, who came and picked us up. We three drove all over gathering the correct cloth, thread, and needle. His shop was a converted house, very messy, in a residential area. At 9:00 PM he finished the repair, cleared off a couple of couches for us sleep on, showed us how to lock the door, and left. In the morning, before anyone showed up for work, we walked to a nearby bus stop and started the grueling return to our boat.

Panama is 400 nautical miles west-to-east. Portobelo was the halfway point. From there to Colombia we passed through the San Blas Islands, land of the Kuna Indians. The coastline remained mountainous and roadless. Some of the islands were hilly, others mangrove-y. The sonorous howling of monkeys was never far distant. Birds made many strange cries. The Kunas maintain a traditional lifestyle. Many of the women still dress in their colorful traditional garb. Their homes are of stick and thatch, their boats are motorless dugouts. They live in dense villages, not in scattered homes. In one bay we passed six small, low isles, all entirely urbanized, like a Kuna Venice.

We mostly slept undetected in out-of-the-way places, but one evening we pulled into a small river mouth a half mile from a village. All the males of the village immediately ran over to us. They spoke excitedly in Kuna among themselves, Spanish with us. One said we had violated their law by entering the mouth. If we didn’t pay a fine of $50 the policia nacional would be called. (Panama uses U.S. currency.) “No, a hundred dollars!” cried another. Finally the Autoridad Maxima arrived, the oldest man in the village. He was a small, slender man with smooth, honey-colored skin and cataract-covered eyes. He wore faded brown slacks and an old Tyrolean hat with a little feather. Perhaps due to near blindness it took him a while to get his bearings. Finally he rendered his verdict. “One hundred fifty dollars!” Everyone laughed, for the people were jolly as well as mildly hostile.

Steve, after various defenses, hit on a proposal. “Okay, we will leave at once and sleep in front of your village. Whoever wants to can come with us so you know we won’t escape. In the morning the policia nacional can come and sort it out.”

This suggestion seemed to disappoint them, perhaps because they were more interested in money than getting the police involved. However, a ride in this strange and wonderful boat was not to be scoffed at, so five, including the Autoridad Maxima, climbed aboard. The latter sat on a side deck tapping this and that to see what it was made of. The others laughed and chattered. Steve rowed to the village where we anchored bow to shore, stern to sea. Fortunately there was only a mild surge. Steve waded ashore and interacted with the massed villagers. Fines were no longer mentioned. The schoolteacher taught Steve the Kuna word for “alright:” “Neuti.”

 “Neuti?” Steve asked the people to his left. “Neuti?” he asked to his right. “Neuti,” they said, the women smiling shyly. They wore bright, hand-crafted clothing with leggings like stacked beads. We retired and left early in the morning before many were up, at the advice of a village elder.

The wind was from the south. It came over the mountains in eddies and gusts, always too much wind or not enough. We now saw a new species of coastal freighter: clunky wooden double-enders that come from Colombia. A friendly mass of porpoises led us to a towering green mountain which tapered to a point called Cabo Tiburon. We had reached Colombia! Just past the cape was a steep-sided cove with a village called Sapzurro catering to Colombian tourists.

The civil war is over; Colombia is safer now. The snorkeling and hiking are great! When walking the path from the anchorage to the village we have to be careful not to step on crabs or huge frogs. The stars are bright at night. We have been here three days. Soon we will sail across the opening to the Gulf of Uraba and continue to Cartagena.

The new outboard motor is working well. We are glad we didn’t get one at first because it allowed us to develop our sailing skills and work out bugs in the rowing station. But starting in Honduras we had felt the lack, because we increasingly encountered headwinds and a lack of harbors. Thurston rocks a lot in waves, so you can’t just stop in the ocean and go to sleep! From here we face about 1500 miles of upwind sailing, so in Bocas del Toro we installed the Honda 2HP. It has been a challenge to find places to stow the gas tank, oil, funnel, etc. Ginny is averse to the smell of gas so we have to wash with soap and wipe with vinegar everything that come into contact with gas.

We always sail on fair winds (3/4 of the time so far). We row if there is no wind (1/8 of the time). We motor straight into headwinds (1/8 of the time). When we get to where we can sail to our destination without tacking we kill the engine. We also have the option of motoring up rivers, which is fascinating. The motor has boosted our confidence. We choose destinations that are further away, knowing that headwinds won’t thwart us. We feel like we are cheating, but it is fun to cover more ground.

When Steve was promoting Three Years in a 12-Foot Boat he was once guest in a radio talk show in which the other guest had just written a book about extreme outdoor challenges. His thesis was that due to modern technology the only remaining challenges are those in which the adventurer purposely makes it harder on himself, such as by climbing without oxygen or sailing in a ridiculously small boat. Steve protested that his situation was different. In his home life he is a minimalist and an ecologist. He doesn’t burn fossil fuels very much or live in a big house. He just carried that philosophy over into his adventuring. The motive for doing something “the hard way” may be environmental or spiritual, not vanity.

We both honor the nature we are sailing through. We’re sorry we have to start the motor now and then, and we feel like “wussies.” But we are having a great time!

Enjoy some new pictures at
Take care - we love you all.
Steve and Ginny

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Bocas del Toro, Panama - mass email

Dear friends and family,

We last wrote to you from Stone Mountain, Georgia at the end of our summer sojourn in the States. On September 7 we flew from Atlanta to Miami, then Panama City. For two days we rode buses, taxis, and boats getting ourselves and our seven items of luggage back to Bocas del Toro, where Thurston awaited us. She lay on land in a marina and was in good shape. We installed the new motor mount, 2 HP outboard motor, gas tank, sails, and scuppers to drain the side decks. We also painted and fixed various components.

It’s hot and buggy here, but we defend ourselves with an array of creams, cloths, and coils. To get to town we either paddle our inflatable kayak, take a water taxi, or walk around an intervening bay along the mangroves. There the smell of briny ammonia is powerful, a product of decomposing vegetation.

For four days we cruised the nearby islands while trying the new installations. The winds were light so we quickly got in the ten hours of motor time specified prior to performing break-in maintenance. We navigated a complex pattern of low islands and hilly peninsulas, narrow passages and open sounds. Our favorite nocturnal tie-up was in a small river with a forest to one side and a field populated by Brahman cattle on the other. It rained all night, and the freshwater streaming over and under us smelled clean after so much salt.

We circumnavigated Isla Cristobal, and on Isla Bastimentos finally saw sloths! One, presumably the mother, was 50 feet away in a tree. The baby was only six feet away with its back to us. They have long, coarse fur (an entire ecosystem within it!) and don’t move much. Ginny says they must be hyper-intelligent because they have so much time to think. An acquaintance here who once picked up a baby (they “walk” on land sometimes!) and looked into its eyes felt otherwise. Steve isn’t taking sides, even though the sloth is Ginny’s totem.  He thinks the connection is that they both excel at leisure, but he’s missing the point completely!

We have now debriefed from our shakedown cruise and are leaving in the morning. Our sailing permit says our next port of call is Portobelo, on the far side of the Panama Canal, but we will stop in small bays and rivers along the way. Further east still lie the San Blas Islands and the coasts of Colombia and Venezuela. After a five-month intermission we are ready to resume our voyage.

Enjoy some new pictures at

Take care - we love you all.

Steve and Ginny

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

September 6, 2011 Mass email - Stone Mtn, GA

Dear friends and family,

We last wrote to you from Bremerton, having returned to Washington for the summer. Since then we’ve done a lot of driving and a lot of boring errands to get ready for the remainder of our voyage. We stayed at Steve’s parent’s house, worked on our properties in Pacific and Snohomish, visited, and gathered equipment needed to continue the voyage. After attending Steve’s high school reunion we drove south to Ginny’s mom’s and grandma’s house in Los Angeles and spent a week with them. On the way we also visited a half-sister and aunt of Ginny, whom she hadn‘t seen since she was little.

We then drove swiftly across southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas (it took three scorching days to cross this giant!), Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. What a hot trip! We took a week instead of our usual month, camping each night. Our favorite spot was a national wildlife area just east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. We parked among cactus on a high desert in the foothills of the Organ Mountains. The air was hot and still, the stars bright and close.

At the Sea Pearl factory near Tampa we picked up our boat trailer, new sails, and boat parts. Then we returned to Larry and Karen’s place in Stone Mountain, near Atlanta. From Washington to Georgia our Isuzu pickup averaged 32 miles per gallon! We will leave the P’up and boat trailer here. Tomorrow we fly from Atlanta to Miami, then to Panama City. There we will pick up our new 2hp outboard motor and take buses and boats back to Bocas del Toro, where Thurston awaits.

Once we have installed various new equipment we plan to sail east along the coasts of Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela. From Trinidad we will sail north through the Antilles and Bahamas to Georgia, completing our circumnavigation of the Caribbean.

Take care - we love you all.

Steve and Ginny

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

July 6, 2011 Mass Email - Bremerton, WA

Dear friends and family,

When we last wrote we had just returned to the U.S. for the summer. You may not find these domestic travels as interesting as our foreign ones, but at least you’ll know we’re still alive.

We had bought return-trip tickets for a four-month sojourn in the U.S. It seems like a long time, but we have a lot of ground to cover. After picking up our Isuzu pickup truck with a canopy over the back we spent a few days with fellow small-boat enthusiasts at Cedar Key, Florida, then with Larry and Karen at their home in Stone Mountain, Georgia. That’s where we had modified Thurston in preparation for the voyage. We next drove to St. Louis, where we stayed with Lena, Jesse and Ginny’s adopted niece Violet for a few days.

We drove west through Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska, dropping our canoe into a lake here, a stream there. (We had left it at Larry’s and were returning it home.) In Livingston County, Missouri, we went for a walk in the woods and came back with our legs covered in ticks. At a mental institution in St. Joseph we toured the Museum of Psychiatry! Near Denver we visited Ginny’s friends Stephen & Stephanie and their very snuggly pitbulls. Then we drove through range after range of forgotten mountains in Wyoming and Montana. At dusk we would follow a dusty road off the highway into the sage brush or pines until we found a nice place to camp. Sometimes we made fires. We followed the route of Lewis and Clark through the Bitterroots and across Lolo Pass. Near Orofino, Idaho, we visited fellow-sailor Steve P., whom we had met in Honduras. In Spokane Steve’s Uncle Dean put us up for a night. Then we were home!

What is home, however? Steve’s house in Pacific is occupied by renters. We have performed a lot of deferred maintenance there and stowed or retrieved various possessions. But we have been sleeping either in our truck or in spare rooms with various friends and relatives, mainly Mom and Dad Ladd in Bremerton, in the house Steve grew up in. George’s heart isn’t very good anymore but he enjoys life as much as ever. You should hear some of his WWII war stories! We are getting little things done, like renewing our drivers licenses and going to the dentist, and gathering equipment we will need back at the boat. But we also are hanging out a lot with our loved ones.

We are now half-way through our mid-voyage interlude. In August we will drive back to Georgia. In September we will fly back to our boat. We now plan to proceed east along the coasts of Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Trinidad, then north through the Antilles and Bahamas to Georgia. We will probably return home in 2013, having completed a counter-clockwise circumnavigation of the Caribbean Sea. Maybe then we will be ready to settle down!

That’s it for now!

There are new photos in the album at

Steve and Ginny

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cedar Key... Florida?


Dear friends and family,

When we last wrote we were up a creek in Bluefields, Nicaragua. Mandingo and Skinny Man were squabbling over the $5 per day we were paying to stay there. Steve talked to them about sharing, and harmony was restored. We caught up on the articles we are writing for Small Craft Advisor magazine, and on March 31 got a permit from the Port Captain to continue south.

We sailed down a coast sprinkled with tall, rocky islands to Monkey Bay, a calm cove with a sandy beach. Here we found twenty or so rustic, elevated dwellings interspersed with trees from which hung nests like long, droopy sacks. Black birds with bright yellow tails inhabited these nests, in a bird community parallel to the human community. At one of the houses we found 27-year-old heavyweight boxer Evans Quinn, whom we had met in Bluefields. Evans was on a break between fights in such locales as Germany, Australia, and the U:S. He was hospitable to the point of inviting Steve to become his manager. “We’ll make millions when I become world champion,” he said. Steve declined, but graciously taught Evans a few moves (ha!). See the picture of Steve and Evans sparring.

Our next stop was Rio Maiz, which issues from a vast jungle wilderness. Its mouth contained a village and army post. The soldiers, being from the interior, spoke only Spanish. The locals spoke Creole English and subsisted by fishing and by cultivating small plots in the forest. When the local kids weren’t splashing in the river they were standing around Thurston with their torsos poking under our awning, watching us like we were their television set. Like many towns there was no electricity or running water. There were also no streets, but the palm-lined beach provided an endless promenade. The sand was dark grey and soft as powder.

The wind picked up overnight, so we stayed a second day. Our next refuge would be the Rio San Juan at the border with Costa Rica. We would need to stop there to get Nicaraguan exit stamps in our passports. Our chart showed a complicated pattern of mouths, channels, and lagoons in that delta. Google Earth’s satellite image, which we had saved onto our laptop in Bluefields, showed a different layout. Our acquaintances in Rio Maiz could only tell us that the San Juan mouth was more dangerous than the Rio Maiz, and that after entering we should turn right to reach the town.

Thus informed we accepted a tow out the mouth, which was much rougher now. We sailed to where the Rio San Juan’s mouth should have been per the GPS but saw no opening. We found a mouth a half mile further south and anchored outside the surf. Steve swam in. He found a small river which, upon reaching the shore, turned left, parallel to the beach. A sand spit separated the river from the ocean for 200 yards, then tapered to nothing as fresh water mixed with salt. The breakers were six feet tall. A squall came. Ginny, thrashing at anchor, waited anxiously. When Steve returned we decided to proceed to Costa Rica without exit stamps. We weighed anchor and sailed to a Nicaraguan military boat anchored a mile offshore to ask them about the bar of the Rio Colorado, ten miles south. Steve contacted them with our handheld VHF. A rough translation follows.

“Small sailboat to military boat.”

“Wait, let me connect you.”

Another voice: “Did you want to enter the mouth?”

“Yes, but it looks too dangerous.”

“A boat can tow you. It won’t be dangerous.”

“How much will it cost?”

“Nothing. It will be free.”

Steve conferred with Ginny. “Okay, we will take a tow.”

“A white launch will arrive soon.”

Ten minutes later a panga with two men arrived. We passed them our longest, heaviest line. They towed us not to the river mouth we had found, but to where the mouth was supposed to have been. There was no indication of an opening, just a steady line of surf and beach. Yet they were still towing us at high speed! At the last instant they cut throttle, veered left, and shot up over a breaker. The man in the bow flew six feet into the air then land heavily in the bottom of the boat. The motorman, throttling back up, swerved right then left again. We followed 200 feet behind. Suddenly a river mouth appeared! It was like the one Steve had swum to in that the river at its end ran parallel to the coast, separated from the ocean by a sand spit. The sand spit had blended in with the beach behind.

The river turned inland, widened, and teed into a linear lagoon. We turned right and stopped on the left bank at a facility with a dock. A short, white-skinned, grey-haired man stood smiling on the sandy bank.

“Was it you I talked to on the VHF?” asked Steve.

“Yes, welcome. My name is Gustavo.”

“Is this a military installation? Do you want to see our papers?”

“Oh no. This business belongs to Eden Pastora. We keep the river dredged.”

“I’ve heard that name . . .”

“Eden Pastora was Comandante Uno on the Sandinista side when Somoza was overthrown in 1970s. He then became a Contra leader against the Sandinistas in the 1980s. But now he is back in the Sandinista government.”

“Did you fight too?” asked Steve.

“Yes, I was a Somozista during the insurgency, then a Contra. I trained in Texas and Georgia. The CIA gave me weapons. In fact, I led the attack on this town, or the previous town, actually. After we burned Greytown the residents fled to Costa Rica, and when they returned they rebuilt here, four miles away.”

Eden Pastora’s installation lay at the entrance to San Juan del Norte, which we now explored. It consisted of an extensive grid of concrete walkways, often elevated due to the marshy terrain. The walkways accessed tidy new homes and government buildings. In the center was a cobble-paved street without cars (there being no roads into the town.) A baseball tournament was beginning. Rival teams were arriving by boat from surrounding communities. Each team wore a distinctive, colorful uniform.

At the tourist office we studied documents and maps regarding the Rio San Juan’s strange history. It drains Lago Nicaragua, the huge lake that occupies the center of this country. The river has always been key to the country’s trade and development. The Spanish founded San Juan del Norte in 1539 in a natural harbor at the river’s mouth and built forts along the river. In the 1700s various pirates, British soldiers, and Miskito Indians invaded. In the 1800s it was part of the Miskito Kingdom. In 1848 the British re-named San Juan del Norte “Greytown” for the governor of Jamaica. In 1849 it became the eastern terminus of a transport company owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt that carried travelers from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of Central America on their way to the California Gold Rush. They started building a trans-isthmus canal parallel to the river but the Panama Canal ended up getting built instead. In 1854 the U.S. Navy sloop Cyane bombarded and burned the town, supposedly in retaliation against actions against American citizens. In 1855 American soldier-of-fortune William Walker declared himself President of Nicaragua. After a series of wars in which Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica helped repel the invader, Walker died before a firing squad.

Around 1855 the river shifted most of its flow to a secondary mouth, the Rio Colorado, in Costa Rica. The San Juan mouth silted in. Greytown Harbor became a lake. Nicaragua no longer controlled a navigable route to the Atlantic. The mouth Steve had investigated by swimming was that of the Rio San Juan. It connects with the Rio Indio, whose mouth we had entered and on whose lagoon the new town sits. This whole issue is a source of a lot of bitterness for Nicaraguans. They blame Costa Rica for silting the river and stealing land on the border.

We went with Gustavo to see what remains of Greytown. A launch took us though narrow, hyacinth-clogged channels to a landing where men were unloading sand from a boat with shovels and buckets. Sentries allowed into the camp of an army battalion which had chosen to locate on the old town site. They were building a new airstrip. Next to the area being leveled for the runway were four cemeteries: British, Catholic, Masonic (Italians, Germans, and Eastern Europeans), and American. Most had died in the 1800s. Antique bottles and iron artifacts had been piled in heaps.

Gustavo was nostalgic yet secretive. “This is my first time back since the battle,” he whispered. “I don’t tell the people here about my involvement. We killed a hundred of them. We attacked from that direction,” he said pointing east.

We stopped beside a set of brick foundation posts. A sign said this had been the Catholic church. “That’s funny, we didn’t burn the church,” he said. But it too was now gone.

After three days we got our exit papers and arranged for a tow back out the mouth. The panga skipper towed us to the point of no return. He circled twice while studying the breakers. They were six feet tall. After a moment’s contemplation he powered seaward. Thurston slammed into the first breaker. Foam cascaded over the bow, drenching us. We crested another and another until we reached open sea, then we retrieved our line. We were alone again.

The swell was so high we decided not to try any of the mouths on the way to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, seventy nautical miles away. We used a light, contrary wind to gain sea room. Rain hit. The wind picked up, ultimately requiring eight rotations of the main mast and six of the mizzen. Each reefing was a battle with flailing sails. The waves became precarious. Then the wind died. We rolled the sails back out in reverse sequence. We were becalmed yet the sea remained too disturbed to row. We sat for hours wishing we had stayed in port. After dark another squall hit. Clipped in now, we passed through the same stages of reef, de-reef, and doldrums in an endless cold downpour. Our worn-out rain gear no longer kept us dry. At 10:00 PM we deployed the sea anchor and went to bed.

We rowed most of the following day. The sea became glassy smooth but for the swells which lifted and dropped us ever few seconds. We took turns rowing to prevent blisters, broke for lunch, greased the oarlocks. A second night arrived. The sky was overcast but the lights of Limon were now visible. They slowly became distinguishable as ships, docks, and buildings. At 10:00 PM we rounded a point and tied to a buoy, exhausted and grateful. We were in Costa Rica! It was April 8.

In the morning we combed the waterfront until we found the port captain and the immigration and customs officials. A Holland America cruise ship was in port. Spanish and Creole English intermingled in the busy streets. The currency was called colones, of which 500 equaled a dollar!

We searched a small river at the head of the harbor for a more permanent mooring. Everyone told us to stay away from Cienegitas, the barrio on the banks of this mangrove estuary, but it was the only protected water near downtown. The houses on the banks were rotting and crooked. Techno-reggae blared from speakers. Vultures thrust their scaly heads into piles of garbage. We found a compound containing a house and boat yard. The owner agreed to let us stay for $5 per day. It took us three days to dry our gear. To get downtown we had to walk through dangerous slums, but the fruit and vegetable stands were well-stocked, allowing Steve to gorge on mangos!

On our forth day in Limon we took a bus to a place called Moin. There were no houses about, just a school and some docks. We had just crossed a bridge over a canal when we felt people tugging at our daypacks. Three teenage boys were robbing us! One held a long knife, the others held rocks. They toppled Steve and took his wallet and pack. Ginny fought back, screaming in rage, but her pack was soon wrested away also. They fled into the woods. We picked up makeshift weapons and foolishly followed, yelling. The brush emitted sounds of their escape then we heard splashes and saw them swimming across the river. Twenty yards in we found our gear. They had taken the $150 from Steve’s wallet and the digital camera and cell phone from our packs, but had left our passports and Ginny’s precious glasses. She had blood trickling down her face from a fingernail scratch received in the scuffle. We remembered that they were wet and barefoot, and that while walking over the bridge we had seen boys swimming in the canal. They must have promptly climbed the bank and snuck up behind us, their bare feet helping to muffle their footsteps.

Unwilling to let this ruin our stay in Costa Rica, we left Thurston at a safer boat yard next door to the Port Captain’s house and took a bus to San Jose. We relaxed in an air-conditioned room and explored this cosmopolitan capital which bursted with pastry shops. We stayed five days in San Jose and two days in nearby Cartago, a smaller town from which we took hikes in the mountains. Here, evidently, we were nearly robbed again. We were walking down a country road when a taxi cab stopped. Pointing to a car that had pulled over a hundred yards ahead, he said, “Those men are going to assault you! Get in, I won’t charge you anything. I saw one of them getting a gun ready, like this.” He made the motion of the slide being pulled back on a semi-auto pistol. We accepted a ride to our hotel, amazed at our vulnerability to robbery in this country. We decided we stood out too much, so we dyed Steve’s hair black and bought Ginny a tighter pair of pants to better blend in with the sexy styling of Costa Rican women. Being crime victims has made us younger!

We returned to Limon, spent a full day clearing out of Costa Rica, and on April 26 sailed the sixty miles to Bocas del Toro, Panama, a tourist town set within a vast archipelago. The sheltered waters were a treat after months of scanty refuge. The islands are a mix of mangrove and low hills resonant with howler monkeys. The town is a yacht haven. Many American boats had come via the Panama Canal or were going there. We saw people we’d met in Rio Dulce and the Bay Islands.

We had been considering returning to the States for the summer. Now Steve’s dad developed a heart problem. That clinched it. We pulled Thurston out of the water at a Bocas del Toro marina and bought round-trip tickets for a four-month stay in the U.S.

It took two days to travel by boat and bus to Panama City. On May 3 we flew to Miami. We drove a rental car to the Fort Meyers area, where we had stored our Isuzu truck, then drove north to the annual Cedar Key Small Boat Meet. Here we have met up with Larry Whited, Karen Prescott, and other friends from when we were working on Thurston. Next we drive back to Washington, with stops along the way.

It’s fun to be on the road again in our little truck. How nice America is! Clean, free bathrooms with hot water, soap, paper towels! Water fountains with refrigerated water! And Steve is enamored by the fact that one is always near a Wal-Mart, with its overwhelming selection of things we haven’t been able to find for so long and don’t really need anyway. Ginny still hates Wal-Mart, though she’s perfectly content to sleep in their parking lot when necessary.

That’s it for now!

There are more photos in the Nicaragua album:

And a new album with the rest:


Steve and Ginny

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dear friends and family,

You will recall that a little over a month ago we sailed from the Bay Islands back to the Honduras mainland. The passage was difficult. From Palacios, on the Rio Sico, we traveled by four-wheeler back to La Ceiba for a week, where we had our sails repaired, had a new sea anchor made, and gathered supplies. Our last email was from that time.

Our 120 days worth of visa was nearly expired and we had another 140 windward miles to go to get around Cabo Gracias a Dios. On February 28, 2011 we sailed out the mouth and east along the flat, uninhabited coast to Brus Lagoon. We crossed the mouth on a tailwind, surfing small waves, and landed on a beach next to a fishing camp made of tarps. The next day was harder, the wind being on the nose. Palm trees lined the low beach. We reached the mouth of the Rio Patuca at sunset. In the dimming light we saw sand bars and breaking waves. Fortunately several pangas (small motor launches) were working their nets nearby. One towed us across for five dollars worth of lempiras.

The river was brown, the foliage dark green. On the right bank was a town of wooden shacks. The people don’t seem to paint often, but when they do they use bright colors! Boardwalks spanned a couple of creeks bisecting the town. We pulled up in front of an open plot with a big cross in the middle. Many of the townspeople were gathered there, staring. A middle-aged man introduced himself as their elected leader. “We are indigenous people here,” he said, though he and many others appeared to have more African blood. “We speak Miskito language and Spanish too.” The man warned us that the town has no police or navy, the implication was clear as we were on a major river coming out of notorious drug trafficking territory. He ordered three men to watch over us during the night then left.

The lead watchman asked if we would give them a little something in the morning since they had to watch our boat. When Steve asked how much, the man replied “Whatever you feel is right,” There’s a phrase that always sends warning bells! Fevered discussion must have ensued during the night because at dawn he waded out to the boat. He cleared his throat and took a nervous yet respectful stance, “That will be one hundred dollars, please.” Steve gave him 200 lempiras and a lecture clearing up the common Central American misconception that $100 is not a lot of money to a gringo. Steve paid some more for a tow out the mouth, and we happily parted the dubious town of Patuca.

It was forty-five miles to the next refuge, the Barra de la Caratasca, inside which opening is the district capital, Puerto Lempira. Assuming we wouldn’t make it before dark we angled away from the coast to have adequate offing while we drifted until morning. But the wind had a favorable northern component. We became optimistic and angled for the opening. We arrived at dusk. It was a wide mouth with shipwrecks on both sides. We sailed to the back side of sandbar, still a quarter mile from land, and dropped the anchor. A campfire kindled on the other side of the mouth. We waded to the sand and scampered about a while, delighted to have found a spot so fresh and open, like being in open sea but with a magic circle of stillness around us. During the night the tide covered the sand, and hundreds of terns sang and whirled about, unmindful of the water that was ankle-deep to them.

In the morning we entered the lagoon. We passed by the Naval post for their inspection as a crowd of spotlessly dressed sailors were carrying two of their fellows on their shoulders to the end of the dock. They threw them in with many laughs. “Initiates,” the lieutenant said.

Puerto Lempira was eight miles away. The Laguna de Caratasca opened up on our right, no land visible on that horizon. The town had a long, broken dock and an extensive grid of dirt streets. Small freighters were unloading barrels of fuel into the water where they were rafted and pulled to shore. We anchored within wading distance and began our chores. We got laundry done, bought drinking water, and secured a clearance. Our next port would be Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.

That night, while we lay at anchor in a lagoon behind the town, shooting started. Ginny looked out the window and saw red sparks flying through the air. For hours a battle raged somewhere nearby: machine guns, semi-auto fire, shotguns and grenades. “Must be army exercises,” said Steve as he fell back asleep. Ginny laid awake hoping our bodies were close enough to the water line not to be hit by stray bullets. In the morning shop-keepers complained that rival drug mafias had fought during the night, leaving three dead. The army and police had stayed out of it. This underscored what we had heard so often: that La Mosquitia is a major drug transshipment zone.

We had planned to follow the coast, but the Navy guys said to stay far offshore. Fortunately an intermittent arc of reefs and cayes wraps around Cabo Gracias a Dios, 140 miles long, forty miles offshore on average. We would follow it. The northwestern-most were the Cayos Vivorillos, thirty-five miles northeast of Barra de la Caratasca.

We spent a second night behind the beautiful sand spit. An hour before light we started sailing out the mouth, following our GPS route to avoid breakers. The wind died. Before we could deploy the oars a current carried us into the breakers on the northwest side of the bar. The bow shot up with each wave, foam splashed over the bow. Adrenalin gave Steve assistance as he pulled us out of danger.

The sun came up as Honduras receded behind us. For seven hours we rowed, sometimes with a little help from the sails. We traded off. The rower quickly became hot and tired. The person steering had to tug the awkward steering lines from an uncomfortable position just forward of the mizzen mast. Finally the breeze shifted and gathered force. We put the oars down and trimmed the sheets. Maybe we would make it.

“There, trees, eight miles away!” A current pulled us west, obliging us to pinch further right, into the wind. A ruined cement block building lay on the west corner of the island. We rounded that corner. Our tiny island and several others formed a crescent-shaped chain. Each was a low pile of coral cobbles overgrown with broad-leaf plants. Around the old building were huge stacks of wooden lobster traps. Two yachts lay at anchor in the calm water within the crescent. We anchored in rocks and welcomed the flies buzzing over from the traps. A deep sleep after the first of many exhausting days to come.

On March 7 we continued to the next island, called Cocorocuma on the chart, Kashikumy by the fishermen we found there. It would have been a peaceful spot if not for the noise of a generator they ran for the sole purpose of watching porno movies! It was only twenty miles from Vivorillos, but the wind and current were opposed, so it took eleven hours. The next day we reached Logwood Caye, which must have been washed away in a hurricane because only a drying coral reef remained. We anchored in ten feet beside the reef and were fortunate that the wind and waves were light that night.

March 9 was similar: a long crossing in hopes of an island to hide behind. Alas, Ă‹dinburgh Caye has also sunk beneath the waves. But enough daylight remained that we might reach Cayo Muerto. By this time we had followed the islands far enough that the bearings between them were southward, a fast beam reach. But the sun was sinking. We saw no land at eight miles away, nor at four. A sail off the port bow distracted us, then another, and another. What were other sailboats doing here? We forced ourselves to ignore them. Cayo Muerto, if it existed, might have coral around it.

Ginny spied a couple of stranded trees. We circled them. There was no island, no coral, just a shoal of eel grass several acres in extent. We didn’t mind that Cayo Muerto is dead, as its name implies, because it would be excellent for anchoring behind it.

In the morning a fleet of sailboats approached, the same we had seen the evening before. One drew up onto the shoal. It was a wooden double-ender, about thirty-six feet long, with a crew of fourteen young men and a couple boys. It had a short gnarly tree trunk mast, a gaffed mainsail, and a jib on a long boom. There was no deck or floor, just wooden thwarts and sloshing bilges. “Water, please,” they said, holding up a half empty gallon jug. We gave them two liters. Others came and likewise begged but our generosity had run out. They were nice but they made us nervous. We didn’t know anything about Nicaragua yet except the vague warnings we had been hearing for months.

We continued south between large mangrove islands. The weather was mild we decided to continue into the night then sleep adrift off Puerto Cabezas. At 10:00 PM, when ten miles from the mainland, we dropped the sails and paid out our new sea anchor, a large truncated cone made of canvas. It worked fine, but the weather deteriorated. Heavy rain came, twenty knots of wind, horrible motion. A norther had arrived. Sleep was impossible. A wave crashed through a side window, soaking the blanket. The GPS showed us to be drifting one way then another, indicating erratic currents.

After an endless night we sailed the final stretch to Puerto Cabezas. It was March 11. The town sat on a bluff. It had no harbor, just a long, exposed dock. A dozen boats were moored to its lee side with anchors astern to hold them steady. We followed suit. We climbed onto the dock. Steve had walked on a couple of the islands, but it was Ginny’s first step on land since Puerto Lempira. Naval personnel half heartedly searched Thurston, then a taxi took us to the immigration offices on the other end of town.

A serious official in a crisp white shirt with blue shoulder boards sat us down and perused our passports. “We have a problem,” he said. “You have already exceeded your ninety days allowance in the four countries of Central America. We can’t allow you into Nicaragua.” We had heard that Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador had agreed to limit tourist stays to ninety days within the four countries as a whole, but that it wasn’t being enforced. The Honduran officials had never mentioned it. We were legal as far as they were concerned, but this official discoursed on the seriousness of our situation for over an hour. We were violation! We could be arrested!

“But you can’t just send us back out to sea!” Steve protested. “We need food and water, and places to anchor at night until we reach Costa Rica!”. Finally he broached an alternative. They could allow us one month, but we would have to pay a fine of twenty cordobas each (about a dollar) for every day we had spent or would spend within the four countries minus the ninety days that should have been our maximum. The total, together with other papers, would cost $330. We had no choice, so we paid.

We couldn’t stand the thought of sleeping aboard tied to the dock because of the waves. Just getting on and off the boat was harrowing. It was hard to keep the bow from smashing into the dock when you pulled it close, and jumping aboard was like leaping off a fence onto a bucking bronco. So we found a ridiculously cheap hotel. Nothing worked and there was no lock on the door. There seemed to be no real restaurant in town, just bathroom-less comedores. But there were internet places and markets. We stayed two days. Late each night Steve took a taxi to check on Thurston. In walking down the dock he passed a long line of black plastic bundles. They proved to be crewmembers for the fishing smacks tied to the dock, the same kind of sailboat we had seen at Cayo Muerto. They had to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, so they camped there in the open until the captain should order them aboard. When it rained they rolled up in a sheet of plastic. These wiry mestizo and Miskito fishermen were friendly to us as we loaded our provisions aboard on the morning of March 13.

We had researched the upcoming hideouts. Our zarpe was for Bluefields, the only other city on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. We easily made it that first day to the mouth of the Huahua. The water was brown, salty, tidal. The following day we reached Prinzapolka, where two small rivers join before flowing into the sea. The village was full of inquisitive Miskito-speaking children. All the wooden houses were accessed by a single U-shaped concrete walkway. The next town, La Barra del Rio Grande, also consisted of a single walkway, in this case straight, more open and spread out. The surrounding land was swamp. The residents strode the walkway in the evenings to socialize with their neighbors. They spoke Creole English, like in Belize, and listened to Country Western music. Brahma cattle wandered contentedly. The current and wind defied our exit in the morning so we treated ourselves to another day

The current was still contrary in the morning, so we paid for a tow out the mouth. We sailed that day to the Cayos Perlas, a cluster of islands ten miles offshore. We anchored in a lagoon behind Cayo Tungawarra, called Sandfly Cay in Creole. The island seemed uninhabited except for a young couple who were caretaking a fishing camp, the shark and lobster seasons being currently closed. They visited us in their canoe to beg food. Their employers had left them without adequate provisions, and they weren’t used to being away from Bluefields.

We knew from the book we’d read that Bluefields doesn’t have blue fields. It was named for Blauvelts, a Dutch settler in the time of English dominance. It was forty-four miles away. We covered it in eight hours. How wonderful to sail off the wind again! The first sign was a bleep on the horizon that grew to become a tall promontory at the end of a peninsula. This was El Bluff (silly name!). The city itself, we knew, is inside the lagoon, but we thought there might be a naval post we should report to. El Bluff housed a decrepit shipyard, a fleet of mothballed shrimp boats, a barge, and a couple of military craft. We pulled up to a passenger dock. Steve asked where he might find the naval post and was led to a building full of sailors in blue camouflage.

“I have a zarpe for Bluefields and am stopping to report in,” he said.

A short, officious man took charge. “This is El Bluff,” he said. “This capitania de puerto is separate. I’ll have to make you a new zarpe for Bluefields.”

Steve knew what that meant. “No way,” he protested. “I’ve already paid $25 for a zarpe to Bluefields. I just stopped to inquire.”

“You’ve come ashore. You’re under my jurisdiction now. You need a new zarpe.”

Steve snatched his zarpe from his hand and turned back toward the dock. “Give me an armed guard and search the boat if you want, but I’m not buying a new zarpe.

The port captain was aghast. “Calm down,” he said. “Show me some respect!” But he called someone on his cell phone and ended up doing as Steve had suggested. He documented the search, had Steve sign this new waste of paper, and grumpily withdrew. We likewise departed as quickly as possible, unimpressed by El Bluff.

Bluefields was four miles away on the mainland side of a lagoon. The shore was studded with wrecks and pilings. The docks were busy and dangerous due to chop. We followed the shore to a small bay at the south end of town, where a maze of shacks on stilts extended out into the water. Garbage floated about. Large wooden canoes plied the chocolaty water. We delved deeper and found a creek. We laid the masts on deck and crouched to get under a bridge. The creek narrowed and meandered. Steve paddled, Ginny steered. Soon we were in hilly countryside. We came to a grassy bend where fiberglass launches had been pulled up for repair and painting. A house of corrugated steel sat on a nearby knoll.

We arranged to pay a little to the property owner, tied to a couple of trees and set up the awning. The bridge we had squeezed under was only fifteen minutes away on foot. Beyond that lay a small city with dirty paved streets sloping down to a waterfront from which the pedestrian is walled off by buildings. One of these was the public market, a smoke-smeared cavern full of ghastly yet sometimes intriguing sights and smells. Dogs and filthy children ran under foot, flies obscured the air. The cooks were grizzled women with headwraps, long dresses, and tired grins. Stall-keepers minded piles of yucca, pineapples, and shrimps. We ate lunch at a crude bench in the market and started doing research at an internet place.

Each day Steve gave the owner, Mandingo another 100-cordova ($5) bill. On day four another inhabitant of the boat yard, a skinny mestizo often seen whacking the grass with a machete approached. “I’m the caretaker here, not Mandingo,” he said. “Why is he getting the money, not me?”

“I thought Mandingo was the owner.” said Steve.

“Mandingo doesn’t even live here! My brother is the owner. I live in that shack! I’m the caretaker!”

“Can’t you work it out among yourselves?” Steve asked, but the guy seemed loath to approach Mandingo.

After lurking around the boat all the next day Skinny Man hurried up to Steve when we emerged, in obvious anguish. “I watch this place! You should pay me!”

“How should I know who to pay? I need to talk to your brother!”

“That’s him right there.” Skinny Man timidly indicated a chubby fellow sitting under a tree next to Mandingo.

Steve walked over. “Hello, I understand you own this place?”

“Welcome my friend! No, I don’t actually own this place, but I represent the owner. Can I help you?”

“There seems to be some confusion as to who I should pay the hundred cordovas per day to,” said Steve. “I don’t want to cause any trouble.”

“Tranquilo, that is not your problem. Let them work it out!”

“Yes, don’t worry. I will share it with him,” Mandingo assured, in the manner of a deviant school boy.

“Okay, great. But if you guys don’t mind, today I’ll give the money to the other guy.” Steve walked over and gave Skinny Man the bill. He smiled feebly.

If more transpires in this exciting drama we will inform you. In the meantime we have been asking ourselves some long-deferred questions. We’re not too worried about making it to Costa Rica or Panama. Those places are pretty close now. But where do we go after that? We’ve sailed ourselves into the leeward corner of the Caribbean Sea. We can’t very easily go east to Venezuela. Thurston is too small to sail west across the Pacific. Winds and currents don’t allow sailing north along the Pacific coast of Central America. It’s too soon to return the way we’ve come.

That leaves continuing south. Steve descended the Orinoco River during his three-year voyage. How about the Amazon this time? But to reach the headwaters we would have to transport Thurston across the Andes via Colombia, Ecuador, or Peru. After researching this we have concluded that a Colombian transit wouldn’t work at this time because the Colombian portion of the Amazon basin, which lies along their border with Ecuador, is the scene of a complex armed conflict involving narco-trafficking guerrillas, the government forces of the two countries, and 100,000 refugees. But Ecuador or Peru might work.

The next question is when? As Steve found in 1991, it’s foolish to sail south along the Pacific coast of Panama and Colombia during the rainy season, which will start in May. That region has the highest rainfall in the world, thirteen times as much as Seattle! The wind and current would be against us too. If we wait six months it will be the dry season again and the winds will be better. With all this time to kill maybe we should go home for the summer? But nothing is sure yet.

That’s it for now!

Steve and Ginny

New Photos in Honduras and Nicaragua albums:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

2/23/11 Mass Email: Palacios, Rio Sico, Honduras

Dear friends and family,

We last wrote you January 7, 2011 as we were about to leave La Ceiba. It was thirty miles from there to Roatan, largest of the Bay Islands. We had fine weather and a near-reaching wind. Our destination appeared and grew as we so like them to appear and grow on a wide crossing. By 2:00 P.M we were off the southwest tip of the island: ample green hills snug within an all-encompassing reef which forms a vertical wall only a hundred yards from the beach. We soon found a pass to a small cove where we tied to a piling. Steve donned mask and flippers. Sure enough, it sloped down through the cut into clear blue depths. The fish and corals were similar to those in Belize. Perfect wave protection and great snorkeling in the same spot!

We walked into Coxen Hole, the largest town. Continuous sidewalks! No litter! The people spoke English and Spanish equally. Traffic was light on the single coast-wise road, which in town was supplemented by a street running inland up a valley. The next town up was French Harbor, where we stayed several days in one of the many coves that serrate the coast, so different from the mainland’s smooth shoreline.

As we continued along Roatan’s forty-mile length the wind was on our nose. For once it didn’t matter because we could stop in any cove we chose. Curious as to the angle to the wind that Thurston was averaging, we analyzed our GPS track. The tacking angle made good was 120 degrees: sixty degrees to either side of windward. What this means is that when we want to go somewhere in the direction the wind is coming from, we have to travel twice as far to get there! We rowed part of the way via a canal paralleling the coast. It had been dug through mangrove, and was so narrow the tree canopy was closed overhead.

On January 15, 2011 we sailed from Roatan’s eastern tip through a ten-mile gap to the next major island, Guanaja. Two patterns of swells were running, one from the north, the other from southwest. Whenever the crests of the two patterns coincided the result was a strangely tall wave. To ride one of these up was to feel a quick acceleration and enjoy a brief good view. Coinciding troughs produced a momentary descent into a watery hole. The north breeze we’d been using died. Heavy rain clouds to the south indicated a cold front. A fierce southwest wind sprung up. We donned our safety harnesses and rotated the main mast eight times, the mizzen mast five times, reducing sail area by two thirds. Still we flew over that grotesquely uneven plain the color of polished steel, steel wool, and dirty wool. It was scary and unexpected, but we soon reached the shelter of Guanaja. Later we learned the area we passed is called “The Bogue” and is notorious for tumultuous seas.

The island of Guanaja is mountainous and undeveloped with the exception of a low off-lying caye covered with buildings, the outermost ones on pilings. This is the central oddity of Guanaja: that the tall main island is relatively untouched while six thousand people crowd into what they call “the Caye” or “el Cayo” in a population density equal to that of Hong Kong.

We continued a mile further to a small bight where half a dozen sailboats lay at anchor. We had heard much about Guanaja and looked forward to seeing familiar faces. Sure enough, as we sailed past a tall, stately bar-restaurant at the foot of the bight a cheer went up. We entered a small boat basin and were greeted by Texans Carl and Iris, friends from Isla Mujeres, and Karl (German) and Mary (Peruvian), whom we knew from the La Ceiba Shipyard. Owner Hansito also welcomed us, as did managers Claus and Annette, a fun-loving, hard-working couple who uprooted their family from Germany 15 years ago. They invited us to stay in the boat basin and use the covered barbecue area and water faucet. They, and Hans Pico, who owned an adjoining farm and waterfront bar, were from Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. “The only tourists in Guanaja are the people on sailboats,” said Gar, an amiable Alaskan with a ring in his ear and a bandanna tied tightly around his head. “So the locals treat us great!” Gar had anchored there eleven years ago and never left. At one time or another all the expatriates unburdened themselves to us regarding their traumas during Hurricane Mitch, in 1998, when 180-knot winds plastered the island for two days, killing the forests and ripping up many of the houses. For years afterward everyone worked together to rebuild, forming deep bonds among themselves and with the locals. It was a tranquil island. The sunsets from Hansito’s bar were exquisite, with a light screen of tropical landscaping in the foreground, the island’s lush hills to the right, and the Caye in the middle, beside the sun.

Our new awning needed more work, so we rowed to the Caye to see a seamster. We tied up in a bedlam of broken boats and collapsed piers. There were no streets, only a maze of crooked concrete walkways accessing the dilapidated two-story homes that occupied every square foot of available space. The radial walkways tapered as they neared their dead ends at the island’s edge. Another house entry would appear as we turned, and turned again, until we found ourselves at the weather-stained entry to some final building on stilts. A network of narrow canals provided drainage and canoe parking. Private scenes presented themselves in doorways and tiny courts but the people didn’t seem to mind us. It was Thursday, the day the weekly supply ship comes. The public dock was piled with building supplies and consumer goods. Exuberant young men were carting boxes to the many dark shops, and shoppers were carrying bags of purchases to their homes, or to their boats, for many were from outlying communities.

One scorching day we tipped Thurston over on purpose, fully loaded this time, and found that she won’t turn all the way upside down and is easily righted by removing a mast or two. While in Guanaja we made more repairs and improvements to Thurston, went on hikes, and went sailing and picnicking with new friends.. Boats came and went. The days passed. The wind was generally from the ESE, no good for us. We summed up our financial records. Traveling aboard Thurston throughout calendar year 2010 had cost us $17,000. Affordable, but still too much, maybe we shouldn’t spend so much on cookies!

There was a birthday party for Annette. A fellow German played the accordion, Claus played bass, an islander played drums. They played American rock classics well into the night. We drank dark hefeweisen at the bar and listened to impassioned stories from Hans Pico. A former professional motorcycle racer and fisherman, now a farmer, father, and restaurateur, Hans has long tangles of straw-colored hair and a booming bass voice that seems to clash with his nurturing spirit. He tends horses, cattle, parrots, pigeons, chickens, ducks, dogs, and extensive gardens. His eighteen-year-old son, Hannes, cooks the world’s best pizzas for the customers in an outdoor, wood-fired oven. Having spent time on the Moskito Coast Hans advised us to follow certain interconnecting canals, to ask for certain people he knew, and to have the Indians make us bows and arrows from certain woods. In his shop he drilled holes in stainless steel for us and helped with a new aluminum GPS holder.

We liked Guanaja best of all the places we’d been. If we had found it later in our travels we may have settled down for good. A new cold front was forecast with north and northeast winds which would allow us to sail east so on February 14 we decided to leave at midnight for the mouth of the Rio Sico, sixty-five nautical miles ESE, on the far side of Cabo Camaron. We nervously slept a few hours. Then our alarm went off. Annette, still up, gave us loaf of home-made bread and a bottle of wine as a parting gift. Hans and Hannes brought a basket of oranges and dried mangoes from their farm. Hans’ dog Bobby whined and jumped around; even he didn’t want us to go! As we sailed off they blasted “Wish you were here” as a final goodbye. It was the friends we made in Guanaja which made us fall in love with it.

It was calm in the lee of the island’s mountains. We rowed into the harbor. The wind slowly began to reach us. We sailed around the reef and out to sea, steering 110 degrees, close-hauled. The moon shone for a couple hours, then set. Patches of stars shone here and there. The sea built as we left the island’s protection. Rain squalls hit. We reefed once, twice, a third time. It was a rougher, wetter passage than we had anticipated. Ginny couldn’t keep her eyes open, nor could she sleep. She curled on deck, cold, wet, nauseous.

By daybreak no land was visible. We had left at midnight hoping to arrive off the Rio Sico at noon. But the wind veered to east, then southeast, then died for two hours. It sprung up from the north again, only to repeat the sequence. We realized we could not make it before dark. We sat shivering in the pouring rain, wet through. Other fronts during our time in Guanaja had merely backed the wind to northeast. This was a full-fledged cold front more typical of early winter. Distant mountains were occasionally distinguishable from the heavy cloud banks.

When the sun went down the full moon was already at its zenith. It alternately shone and was hidden by black, fast-moving clouds. The sky was a fearful drama. A fifteen-knot north wind was blowing. By 8:30 PM we were twelve miles off the mouth of the Rio Sico.. Considering this adequate sea room we dropped sails and deployed the sea anchor. This checked our drift to .75 knots. We stripped off our wet raingear, put it in a plastic bag, and climbed into the cabin. Things were getting wet from condensation and a mysterious leak. We cuddled and warmed up as best we could, rocking with the waves.

Steve slept but Ginny kept her eye on the GPS. Around midnight our drift speed had increased to two knots. Steve got up to investigate. Our sea anchor had split open, so we dropped the regular anchor and fifty feet of rode to reduce our drift again. By the time the sun came up we were five miles off shore in a current with confused seas. An unpleasant sail brought us to the mouths of the Rio Sico, all of which were blocked by breaking waves.

A lobster dive boat was anchored a half mile outside one of the middle mouths. It was of a type familiar on this coast: about sixty feet long with canoes and bunks for a score of scuba-divers whose job is to find lobsters. The skipper said all the river mouths along the Moskito Coast were likely the same due to the norther. The owner lived in Palacios, the town inside this mouth. He would be coming and going because he was readying the Miss Kaidy, as she was named, for another trip out to the reefs around Cabo Gracias a Dios. We anchored nearby and slept until the wind and waves picked up too much. A wave washed over the boat. Steve stayed in the cockpit after that because Thurston is only capsize-proof if the hatch and all windows are shut tight and someone is outside ready to help her right.

At 1:30 Miss Kaidy ‘s owner came in a twenty-five-foot launch with twin 200-horse Yamaha outboards and five people aboard. With such power they could navigate the bar. They picked us up, their boat bouncing like crazy next to ours. Steve fell in the water trying to get in and Ginny smashed her knee. But we were relieved nonetheless. The launch collected some red snappers and lobster tails from the Miss Kaidy, then returned to the bar, riding in fast between breaking waves, overtaking some of them, picking an S-shaped course to stay in deep water. It was so easy for them. Once inside the bar they took us to a hotel where we were treated to many flea bites.

The village of Palacios is a single dirt track with docks on one side and houses and small shops on the other. Inland lay small fields and forests. We ate dinner on the covered porch of a house while it stormed. We worried about Thurston. We were afraid she’d end up on a beach smashed to bits and ransacked for all our meager possessions.

The next morning the launch took us back out to Thurston. She was still there! The tie on the mizzen sail had broken loose and the sail had flogged all night, ripping it and causing the battens to be lost. It was still too rough to tow her in so they took us back to town. Throughout the day Spanish- and Mosquito-speaking crew members assembled by the dock pertaining to Miss Kaidy. Some got so drunk they had to be lowered onto the launch like sacks of potatoes. One wanted to fight another, claiming he had said something improper to his woman. The others held them apart and laughed. That night the Miss Kaidy left. Thurston was out there by herself.

We made a deal with the owner and the following morning two of his employees took Steve out to tow Thurston in through the greatly lessened breakers. We moored bow-on-land at the naval post and spent the day restoring order. A gallon of fresh water had gathered in Thurston’s bilge, which is a lot for us. We haven’t yet figured out from where it all came. Things in the bins had stayed dry but slosh had reached various books, bedding, and clothing. We removed and dried out everything. Fortunately the navy guys didn’t seem to mind us taking over their base. Reasons were accumulating for us to return to La Ceiba: we needed a sea anchor, sail repairs, cash, etc. So we removed the sails, packed up, and arranged for someone to pick us up in the morning at our hotel.

The latter bears description. It is built of crudely assembled planks in a U-shape. The base of the U is over the river bank and the arms of the U are over the water. The whole building sits on pilings that shake whenever a wake hits them. It has ten small rooms opening onto a covered porch, also U-shaped, on the river side. An opening through the base of the U gives access to the porch. It has one semi-functional bathroom, no electricity, no sign, no office or reception. Nobody much cares what happens to it. The owner, who lives across the street, charged us the equivalent of $5 per night. Our room, on the left arm of the U, had a door that couldn’t be closed all the way on the porch side and a big window on the other. Late in our second night there someone tried to enter our room. Ginny yelled, “Hey!” and sat up. The person mumbled apologetically and walked away. He was probably just looking for a place to sleep.

It was starting to get light at 5:30 when someone called out to us from a boat below our room. We dropped from the porch into the boat. They picked up other passengers then crossed the estuary to a site where people and gear were being loaded into Japanese four-wheel-drive pickup trucks. We were placed in back of a Toyota Hilux along with three other adults, a child, a baby and much luggage. This is apparently the only way to get to civilization.

We proceeded along a track beside the beach. The sand was like brown sugar. The sea was brown close-by, blue-green further out. Where the track had been washed away we drove on the beach itself in spurts timed to avoid being hit by waves. The sea was broad and peaceful, the norther was finished. The land was level with hills behind, the vegetation was palms, sea grapes, and such.

We soon came to a minor river mouth. Via a pair of planks we drove up onto a ferry consisting of plastic drums with a plank frame around them. A launch with an outboard motor moved the ferry to the other side. This was the first of five river crossings. The ferries were all alike except that two required no motor, those estuaries having no current. In these cases the ferrymen pulled us across with a rope. The half dozen or so cars kept the ferries busy pulling to and fro. At one river we saw two young men herd four long-horned cattle across. The first man starting swimming while pulling the lead cow with a rope. The second man swam behind yelling and trying to hit the cow with a stick. The other beasts wandered off. Halfway across the lead cow turned around. The lead man was now towed back to where he had started. They cursed their cattle and whipped them some more, then tried again. The cattle milled in the water and wanted to return but the men, only their bobbing heads visible to us, splashed and slapped them in the right direction until they found land under their hooves and hauled themselves stupidly onto shore.

We changed cars twice for reasons unclear to us, we passengers being as little in control as were the cows. To avoid pain we kept shifting positions to the limited extent allowed us. When it started raining they pulled a tarp over us. The wind caused it to mold to our torsos and faces as we faced forward above the level of the cab. We rued not being able to see where we were going until Ginny noticed that there were tiny holes in the tarp. By placing the hole exactly over a pupil we could see ahead as if through a tiny tube! When a water drop plugged the hole we would tap the tarp to clear it.

In La Ceiba we took a cheap hotel room and started our chores. Sail and sea anchor repair, dentist, miscellaneous purchases and a visit to the hospital. A cut on Steve’s right index finger had became badly infected, but is healing nicely now. We took the weekend to visit Berti, the accordionist we met at Annette’s party, at his beautiful farm/bar/restaurant/hostel outside La Ceiba, then returned to the city for completion of our boring tasks. Thursday morning we plan to take the long trip back to Palacios and hopefully we’ll be exploring the lagoons by the weekend. Our Honduras visa will expire on the 5th and by then we’ll have to be on the way to Nicaragua.

That’s it for now.

Love always,
Steve and Ginny

See the new pictures in our current photo album:

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