Hi everybody – from Nicaragua! I know, we said we were going to Costa Rica and we wouldn’t post for while, but if there’s one thing that we can say for sure about this experience, it’s that the most carefully constructed plans often change quickly…especially in places where weather is a major factor (and we now know that Nicaragua falls squarely into that category).
So we’re here in Puesta del Sol, not too far south of the Gulf of Fonseca, northern Nicaragua. Before I explain just how we came to be here (it was not exactly a direct route from El Salvador), I have to share a bit of bummer news, which is that our boat was boarded by a thief while we were sleeping and he got away with the beloved digital camera, our binocs, and our jerry cans full of diesel. We’re fine, and they could have walked with a lot more, but we’re really, really bummed about the camera. Damn, we loved that thing. I generally have a pretty good sense of perspective when I encounter bad luck, so I know the important thing is that we weren’t threatened in any way and it could have been so very much worse, but I am more than a little hung up on just exactly what I would do to the guy that took it if I found him. Plus there is the major creep-out factor of having someone board the boat with us on it – we knew that theft was a problem in Central America, but we had heard that it was primarily Costa Rica that would give us problems, and even there your stuff gets stolen when you leave the boat unattended. Not while you’re sleeping, for Christ’s sake.
This happened in Corinto, Nicaragua, about two days ago. Details to follow, but first I’ll try and explain how we ended up there: we left Bahia del Sol, El Salvador last Thursday and crossed the bar there without incident. Since we haven’t taken the time (shame on us) to really write much for the blog lately, I guess we haven’t even told our “crossing the bar” stories. They probably won’t sound like much at this point, but it was a really big deal at the time. There’s a big, long, constantly shifting sandbar that blocks the entrance to Bahia del Sol. Getting over it is a major challenge that requires excellent timing and superb coaching from a local pilot that knows the bar (it is like a living thing, this bar). Luckily, there is this amazing gringo couple that cruised on down to El Salvador awhile back and liked it so much they stuck around for four years and bought a house and started up a boatyard. I pretty much adored them from the start and could go on and on about them, but the point is they come out in a little launch and walk you through the bar crossing over a VHF. (this is a stressful and technically challenging job that they do entirely for free, because they’re just that nice. I attribute this in large part to Colette’s Norwegian-Midwestern upbringing, but I could be biased).
Actually, to tell this story right, I should back up a step to our Gulf of Tehuantepec crossing, because we never really got time to write much about that, and it was pretty major for us too. The upshot of the Tehuantepec leg was we expected the worst, and instead experienced some of the most wonderful sailing of our trip so far. It had a very different “feel” to it than any of the other legs we’ve done, and we decided that part of it was just having that feeling of tiptoeing past a sleeping giant – knowing that it could be an absolutely dreadful sailing ground but never coming close to seeing that side of it. It made the quiet seem even deeper. And we were thrilled to see lots of wildlife – dozens of turtles, doodling along through the water, a mama humpback teaching her baby to dive and breach…right next to the boat! But the other reason it felt so novel is because we hugged the coast the whole time – something we never do. We typically sail anywhere between 7 and 70 miles offshore for a myriad of reasons, all safety related. But in the Tehuantepec, it’s generally agreed to be safest to travel right along the beach – that way, it the wind picks up at the head of the gulf, all you have to deal with is gale force wind – as opposed to further out, where you would also be up against monster waves. So for the entirety of the transit we were looking at the (gorgeous, uninhabited) beach, and seeing land on our radar display. I’m not sure that I can convey just how unnerving this was, but it was seriously freaky, especially for the first day or so. We typically sail in 300-5,000 feet of water, so sailing in 30 feet felt decidedly wrong. But once we got used to it, it was fun, and it proved to be great sailing because we got 10-15 knots of good firm wind but no waves, which is my idea of a perfect sail.
Once we passed Puerto Madero, Mexico, we started to breathe a little easier, and by the time we crossed the Mexico-Guatemala border we were downright giddy. We survived the dreaded Tehuantepec! …and without any stress, at that. With that hurdle astern, we set our sights on El Salvador and started reading up about available anchorages there. (Guatemala is prohibitively expensive to enter, and is rumored to be a hassle bureaucracy-wise, hence the bypass). We considered stopping for fuel, but decided we had more than enough diesel left, especially since the winds seemed auspicious for sailing and we do our best to avoid motoring whenever we can (sailing being better for the budget, the environment, and one’s general well-being).
So we cruised on down to El Salvador and ended up arriving a bit early – that is, in the middle of the night. Hovering just 15 short miles from the entrance to Bahia del Sol, it was just a matter of waiting ‘til sunrise and getting on the radio to find a pilot to bring us in. As I went out into the cockpit to commence my 10 PM – 2 AM watch shift, I turned on my headlamp and grabbed whichever crappy spy thriller I was reading at the time, thinking we had it made in the shade. Well, you’d think we’d have learned some lessons about complacency by now, but….nope, guess not. About half and hour into my shift, a wall of wind kicked up inside of 5 minutes and sent us on a mad dash to reef the sails and reassess our plan. This fierce wind seemed to mean business and, most inconveniently, was blowing directly from our destination. So I pointed the old girl as high as I could (which isn’t terribly high with triple-reefed sails), and proceeded to get blown way off course, leaving a bit of a mess for Allen when he came on shift at 2. After another couple hours of wrestling with the wind and crashing through some nasty chop, we fired up the engine and tried to plow into it. To our chagrin the best speed we could crank out was an anemic 1.2 knots. Just to make things a little more fun we did the math and realized that we had 18 miles to cover to get to the bar and 8 hours to do it (the bar must be crossed at high tide, which is a frustratingly non-negotiable force). Allen pointed out that the winds could be just the beginning of a 3 or 4 day Papagallo system. Oh, and we were down to 6 gallons of fuel. Sailing is fun! and glamorous!
So we decided to wait three hours and see if it let up at all – Plan B was to let ourselves get blown offshore and just skip El Sal and Nicaragua entirely and try to make landfall in Costa Rica. Knowing what we know now, I’m really glad we didn’t try that. But anyway, the wind let up just enough for us to approach the shore and we eked out some forward progress just in the nick of time. We radioed ahead to arrange the pilot service and were thrilled to find out that they were more than happy to come out and lead us in despite the crappy weather (it had let up quite a bit but still was no picnic). We were instructed to approach the beach and wait in 30 feet of water, ¼ mile off the beach until just before high tide, at which time they would join us and lead us across the bar. Now here’s the funny part, the opening to Bahia del Sol (it’s really a tidal estuary, not a bay) does not appear on any chart or nav resource that we own, nor did we have coordinates for it, so this was a major trust exercise. We knew of its existence only through word of mouth. There we were, staring at this long stretch of beach, stressed about hovering so close to it, but most of all wondering how the hell a sailboat just up and jumps right over a sandbar? To us it just looked like a regular coastline like any other. After an hour of scrutinizing the landscape through the binocs we still couldn’t figure out how the hell this was done. To sweeten the deal, the wind direction had shifted and was actually blowing us towards the beach at a healthy 20-30 knots, which is the sort of thing sailors have nightmares about (the wind gods sure do have a sense of humor). And we were checking the fuel level every half hour, just praying we’d have enough to get through (the wind was strong enough that just sailing wasn’t going to keep our keel from kissing the beach – the engine had to be cranked up too).
(Crap, I just realized I am making this a much longer story than I’d intended. You probably just want to hear how the hell we let the camera slip through our hands. But it’s too late to turn back now – sorry. I’ll try and pick up the pace).
So after 3 fun filled hours of clawing our way off the beach, Colette and Murray (the benevolent resident pilots) showed up (first on the handheld VHF, then we had a visual) and confirmed that we were exactly where we were supposed to be. This was fascinating news to us as we were still staring at that same unbroken stretch of beach. “Baby, is this like some Chronicles of Narnia thing where we close our eyes and charge the beach and then we slip through a magic portal or something?” I whispered to Allen. “I don’t know, sweetie, I really don’t know. This is really stressful. But people get in here all the time so I guess we had just better do what the nice lady says”. Gulp. The potent cocktail of lack of sleep, lack of fuel, and lack of understanding was making me so anxious I really could have chewed my own arm off and Allen was pretty much in the same state. So we took a deep breath and started to follow Colette’s sweet voice and their tiny blue panga, taking some pretty big breakers over the side of the boat and careening around like a Weeble Wobble. She had us hang a right and head down the beach – evidently the Magic Portal was a bit further south? We then were told that we were heading the “long way” due to the size of the breakers. Fine, great. The long way. Our tension continued to grow as we anticipated our first maritime teleportal experience (did we need our passports? Would we experience a tingling sensation in our extremities?) Colette picked up on this and talked us down over the radio with a calm and grace that would put an emergency room nurse to shame.
At that point Colette told us (confusingly enough) that we were actually over the bar itself so my job was to keep my eye glued to the depth sounder. I was seeing and reporting some gut-wrenching numbers like 6.1, 5.3, 5.9 (our draft is 5 feet). Meanwhile Allen was busy dodging breakers (our path took us broadside to them but we had to turn and go nose in to each one so as not to be rolled). This was the part that was supposed to be so stressful. In reality it was a bit less stressful than the morning had been because at least we were moving forward at 3 knots and the engine was still running. So we focused all over our energies on getting Ute over the bar without running aground. Allen’s eyes were so glued to the breakers and mine so glued to the depth sounder that we didn’t see….the GIANT RIVER MOUTH just ahead and past the bar. What?! No space portal? No storming the beach? This was what all the hype was about? I swear the thing was as wide as the goddamn Mississippi. I just about fell over laughing with relief. And just like that, we found ourselves passing through this (perfectly decent sized) break in the beach and into a 40-foot-deep, well delineated channel and right into the estuary. It was all so delightfully anticlimactic and we’ve since had a couple good laughs about our misunderstanding. Apparently the mouth of the estuary appears on a chart that most everybody but us has, so we got to turn our misunderstanding into a pretty good happy hour story once we were safely anchored.
Bahia del Sol was absolutely wonderful. I think I already sang its praises in brief in an earlier post, but really I can’t say enough good things about it. El Salvador now ranks as one of my fave stops of the whole trip. I sort of wish we’d had time to go inland and explore more, but I bet we’ll be back there someday. I don’t know what I expected from El Salvador, but I have to admit it’s not the first name that pops up in my head when I think of dreamy vacation destinations. Actually it used to just make me think of machine gun toting guerrillas and torture camps and fun things like that. (You’d think I would know better, given that Honduras is also regarded as something of a dark horse by most Americans and I’ve had nothing but great – and safe – experiences traveling there). I now realize I’d done this tiny republic an enormous disservice with my small-mindedness – it’s been 15 years since the war ended and they have put so much effort into rebuilding and making it a safe and fun place to be. I don’t know if I’ve visited a friendlier country in my life. I know this is such a travel-writer’s cliché, but I think it must be what Mexico was like 30 years ago. Or maybe 40 years. We took the bus inland to get groceries and find an internet connection and everywhere we went, people offered help, talked to us, asked if we liked El Salvador, saved us bus seats, bought us drinks. And it was so beautiful, with a chain of volcanoes towering over everything. We didn’t see one other gringo all day. And I finally got to eat at Pollo Campero! This is not just any fried chicken, it is the stuff of legend. See, when you fly out of El Salvador on a USA bound flight (which we’ve done 3 or 4 times coming home from Honduras), most people on the plane are Salvadorean and they show up for the flight with big, hot, stinky to-go boxes of fried chicken, all from the same joint, with a picture of a chicken in a cowboy hat on the side. Seriously, on a full size jet we could be talking about 50 or 60 family size chicken meals. The whole plane smells like a fryer. It’s actually quite gross and when you get home all your clothes and hair smell like chicken. But I always figured, hey, if it’s worth taking it all the way to California it must be some damn good chicken. So when we finally got to explore El Salvador, a pilgrimage to Pollo Campero was top priority. I’m pleased to say it actually did live up to the hype. It was some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.
The anchorage at Bahia del Sol was a lovely place to spend the week. A hotel there offers cruisers a good deal: for $10 per week per boat you get use of the showers, pool, dinghy dock, and road access, and cold beers are $1 each (key word = cold. Living without refrigeration in the tropics is taking its toll). Another restaurant a little ways downstream offered amazing shrimp pupusas for 70 cents each. They were to die for. I counted 12 different shades of bougainvillea and there were these great lop-eared cows that were always hanging out in the middle of the road. And if you wanted beach, you just crossed the road and walked out to the other side of the bar (this was the same beach we’d feverishly stared at for hours from the water, looking for the secret passage through). There were about 30 other boats in the estuary anchorage when we were there although only about ½ of them had people on them. A handful were boats we’d met at earlier stops, so that was fun – we’re finding that as we had south it is more and more enjoyable to tag team with other boats (especially since our beloved Hebe hasn’t quite caught up with us yet, and Billy is at large inland). In Mexico, everything was so easy and friendly that it seemed like overkill to socialize with other gringos on boats, but as we move into lesser known territory its appeal is steadily growing (especially in light of our recent security concerns).
After a fun filled week in Bahia del Sol (lots more stories there really but I’ll spare you) it was time to face the bar again, this time from the inside. Once again, Colette and Murray were coaching us through it all. It was stressful but nowhere near as stressful as the first time around! We made it out without touching bottom (although I did see more breathtakingly low numbers on the sounder). I was a bit sad to say goodbye to El Salvador but we were really excited to get getting to Costa Rica. As I said in my last post it’s about 220 miles from El Sal to the Costa Rican border and the weather window was open so we were pretty sure it was going to be an easy breezy run. (Where have I heard this before? Geez, we really don’t learn, do we? We’re not in Mexico anymore.)
We worked our way offshore in a healthy wind and were really happy to be underway again – always a good feeling. We seemed to be running up against quite a strong adverse current but we weren’t too worried about it. As night fell the wind continued to pick up but still wasn’t too bad. But when Allen woke me up for my night shift he didn’t look too happy and I could tell the weather was getting kind of crappy. I was dismayed to find that, once again, we were heading right into the wind and barely pulling 2 knots. Yuck. As we went through our changing-of-the-guard routine I glanced at the radar screen and said, “Jesus Christ, what are those huge blob things 4 miles behind us?” and Allen replied, “Rain squalls, hon. That’s rain. Rain and wind combined in a major enough blob to show up on the radar.” “Holy shit,” I said. “That’s sooo cool. We’ve never seen that before. I gotta take a picture of the radar!” (I know it sounds dumb, but I’m really into documenting all these “firsts”). But over the next couple hours as the weather got crappier the novelty wore off and I just wasn’t having that much fun. the wind itself wasn’t so bad but the current and the waves were a bitch. Then I heard this noise that sounded like a train and thought, well now, that’s weird, where would that be coming from? Only to discover its source two minutes later when this howling wall of wind hit us. This was kind of exciting, but not fun per se. This basic trend kept up (and kept us soaking wet, with rivers running over the decks) for the next couple shifts. All of this would have been sustainable if we hadn’t started to get seasick. (By the way, if you are the person who assured us that seasickness goes away after 2 or 3 weeks of full time sailing, I have a bone to pick with you). I was doing okay, but Allen went nearly 24 hours without being able to keep so much as a cracker in his stomach. So miserable! We discussed our options and decided to seek out a protected anchorage in Nicaragua for a night just to catch some sleep and then take off again the next morning. So I did some charting and determined we could probably reach Corinto, Nicaragua by sunrise, and as a bonus it looked like an easy harbor to enter, and seemed like the sort of place we could park the boat without being harassed by the navy or having to go through a check-in process to officially enter Nicaragua (this is a bit of a hassle and costs money but can be avoided if you don’t actually set foot in the country). So we pulled into Corinto without any problems and dropped the anchor around 9 AM. And it seemed like the perfect place to chill for 24 hours or so. There was a big tanker dock, a diesel power plant, a fish camp, and us. It had that same sort of gritty feeling as Oakland so we felt right at home. Allen pretty much slept all day to recover from his pukefest and I napped some and then tackled some problems with our electrical system. After some dinner we tucked in early so we could get up bright and early and be back on the road again.
After a quiet night’s sleep we woke up to a nice sunny morning and got the boat ready to go. We didn’t have any clue at that point our home had been invaded. We bustled around for a couple minutes before Allen yelled out that our diesel tanks were gone. Sure enough, there were just some cut lines hanging where two full 6-gallon cans of fuel had been lashed on the deck. We were shocked as we hadn’t heard a peep in the night and the cans had been sitting about 2 feet from the open window to the V-berth where we sleep. So the thieves were busting their moves about 5 feet from our heads. We were so bummed. We’d heard stories of people getting things stolen in Mexico but it was stuff that was easier to steal, like a dinghy tied to the back of a boat, not stuff sitting right on deck and firmly tied down. But after 20 minutes or so of being pissy about it, we figured, well, at least they stole something that’s easy to replace here in Central America, and as we looked around it didn’t seem like anything else had been messed with. All of our cash and credit cards were safely stowed, and the laptop, GPS and iPod were sitting right where we’d left them in the cabin the night before. All the other stuff we keep outside on deck was still there, like our dinghy outboard and propane tanks and water cans and even the fishing rod. We knew that diesel is running around $3.50 per gallon in Nicaragua so it wasn’t that surprising that people would do some pretty daring things to get their hands on some of it. Still, we were pretty rattled because of all the boat-theft stories we’d heard, none of them involved things getting stolen while people were on their boats.
We still had a half tank of diesel and, figuring that would probably be enough to get us to Costa Rica, we pulled up the anchor and got outta there, not wanting to spend another minute in that place. So we motored on out the channel and just as we passed one of the outer markers, I decided we need a photo of the place where we experienced out first theft of the trip (there I go again with the firsts). So I reached for the camera and – no camera. No camera bag where it is always, always hanging from a grabrail in the cabin (we haven’t moved it in five months). I started to ask Allen if he had moved it but I knew right away it was gone. In an effort to keep this blog family-friendly I can’t actually repeat what I screamed about the good hardworking people of Corinto, Nicaragua, but I think you get the picture. Holy god, was I pissed. I mean, if I can toot my own horn for a sec, I am normally really good at putting setbacks in perspective, but something about that camera being stolen, that camera that was such a thoughtful and amazing gift from so many people in our world, made me so mad and so bitter I was fuming. Plus that meant that the thief had actually entered our cabin while we were sleeping just a few feet away, which is a whole new level of crime in my estimation. I mean that is just downright creepy. We spent the next half an hour fantasizing about all the ways we would have messed the guy up if we had woken up, until we realized that if there was a guy in our cabin, and that guy had a knife (which he did, since he slashed the lines around the jerry cans), it’s probably a damn good thing we slept through it. If we’d caught him in the act, and then he figured out that we were scared of him and his knife, he probably could have threatened us into parting with quite a few of our belongings before he split the scene. As it was, we were actually quite lucky – we’ve no idea why he lifted the camera but left the laptop, GPS, iPod, and all our other boat electronics. Very strange indeed.
So as I read back over what I just wrote I realize that in the grand scheme of things this was really not the worst thing that could happen, not by a long shot. But we’re sorry, really sorry that we lost the camera that so many of you made possible. I feel really bad about that.
There’s a little bit of story left to bring us to where we are now. So there we were, down 12 gallons of diesel and stinking mad about the camera. Oh, and we discovered our binoculars were pinched too. Luckily we had a spare pair. We headed out and hung a left, headed to Costa Rica once again. A couple boats we knew had just left the Gulf of Fonseca and were heading past Corinto right around that time so we had radio buddies, which was great. As we crept south we noticed we were heading right into an adverse current that was coursing northward at at least a knot, probably two. But no matter, we weren’t in any hurry so we didn’t care if we were only going a couple knots ourselves. The wind started to pick up, then died, then picked up again and continued this capricious trend for awhile before it evened out at a pretty good blow. We spent the better part of the first day sailing and made some good headway. But the blow started to generate some nasty wind chop which we were, naturally, headed right into. (We’re really getting a handle on why people handle this stretch of coast with care). So we tacked around and tried some different tricks to make it work for us. Under any other circumstances we would have made progress, but that darn current just wouldn’t let us go. We ended up starting the motor back up (again, this is not our normal M.O.) because if we didn’t motor we actually found ourselves moving backwards. Back towards the den of thieves and farther from Costa Rica! We figured we’d run the motor for a few hours and then see if the wind was any more cooperative in letting us make forward progress. Costa Rica was still 80 miles or so away and the next anchorage in Nicaragua was about 40 miles down the coast. This should have been an easy day’s sail with such big winds, but they shifted around to the southeast which made it uncomfortable, if not impossible, so stay on our SE heading towards C.R. The only way we could possibly head up so far into the wind was to really goose up the motor and use that extra bit of power to point higher (we were in radio contact with the other boats around us, on the same path, and that’s exactly what they were forced to do too, so at least we knew it wasn’t just us).
This would have been fine except, yup, you guessed it, we were running low on fuel again (we are not going to make a habit of this!). If we’d had our spare tanks with us, we would’ve been fine – we’d planned accordingly – but without the jerry cans it wasn’t looking pretty. A pox on those Corinto thieves! We were not happy campers. You’d think in 25- and 30-knot winds we could harness that energy to get where we wanted to go – after all, that is the entire concept behind sailing as I understand it - but we couldn’t turn eastward at all so we were just shooting straight south, and burning up all our precious diesel doing it. We realized at about the same time that we were kind of screwed. Allen asked, “well, let’s say we continue on this course, where’s the next place we’d hit land?” I checked the charts and said, “Um, Ecuador?” Now I do love South America but we simply didn’t have enough ramen on board to set out on that sort of trip. And we were getting down to just a few gallons of diesel, which is the bare minimum we needed to have in reserve just to get in or out of an anchorage safely, wherever the next stop might be. After a couple minutes of hair pulling and nail biting (and cussing out the goon that lifted our diesel tanks and put us in this bind), I realized that turning around and running back (downwind) to Northern Nicaragua was the only option that really made much sense, given the distinct possibility that the wind might stay southeasterly for days before it changed. (it’s still blowing from the SE as I write this, two days later, so there you go). When I proposed that we turn around and undo 80 miles of progress I thought Allen was going to cry. (“No! No more f*@&ing Nicaragua!”) But it seemed like the only safe option. Fortunately, stinky Corinto is not the only decent anchorage in northern Nicaragua, so at least we didn’t have to go back there. Instead we pulled in here, Marina Puesta del Sol. And it’s fantastic.
It’s funny because when we left the States we were just sure we would never hang out in a marina – we were going to keep to ourselves and shun other cruisers and stay in out-of-the-way anchorages that nobody visits, away from all the hoopla. We don’t need no stinking gated community, right? Well, that’s a great idea and all, but you had better bet I wasn’t complaining yesterday evening when I was sitting by the pool, drinking a cold beer, looking out at our safely moored boat against a backdrop of mangroves and volcanoes, and commiserating with a dozen other sailors about crappy weather and petty crime and such. And the guards walking around with machine guns the size of doghouses are just fine with me too, yes sirree. Yeesh, look who turns into Little Miss Whitey the second she’s down one camera! Seriously though, it’s gorgeous here, and very low-key – not at all like marinas back in the U.S., for whatever that’s worth. Migracion and the Navy trekked out here today to get us all checked in (ironic that part of the reason we ended up in Corinto was to avoid this process!).
We’re thinking of doing an inland trip for a day or two before we split again, to check out some volcanoes and explore the cloudforest. I feel like we need to give Nicaragua another chance! No fair to condemn a whole country based on one jerk (or a team of jerks). Plus, who can resist the allure of a country where the guidebook describes local attractions like this: “Once a torture center used by the Somozistas, later by the Sandinistas, it is now a clubhouse for the Boy Scouts.”
Then again, a friend of ours is due to hit Costa Rica next week so we might jam and try and catch up with him. Either way, our priorities are to catch our breath – and buy more jerry cans and diesel – and then wait for a good weather window and make another try at it (I guess this will technically be our third try? yikes).
Anyway… forgive the super-long post….but it was time for some dear-diary action after weeks of brevity. Thanks to all our family and friends for sticking with us. Aside from the Corinto incident we are having the time of our lives and we promise we’ll do our best to lay our hands on another camera so we can share it all in pictures (we’ve already got something in the works to that end). And yes, we're sleeping with the hatches shut these days and everything outside padlocked down!
Love to all. CC
welcome to our blog!
This blog tells the story of our 22-month sailing journey from Oakland, California, to Bristol, Rhode Island, aboard our beloved Bristol 32 sailboat, Ute. Please feel free to browse through the archives (partway down the sidebar to your left) to see pics and read stories of our adventures in North America and Central America . (Sorry the first 3 months of the trip are missing - they vanished somewhere in an internet cafe in Mexico - but all you're missing is CA, Baja and Western Mex).
If you're trying to track us down now that we're landlubbers, try us at uteatlarge at yahoo dot com. Thanks!
If you're trying to track us down now that we're landlubbers, try us at uteatlarge at yahoo dot com. Thanks!