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: