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.