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