Aqui estoy mis amigos. Here I am:
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” ― Cesare Pavese
The Story so far: I built the 22-foot Pacific flying proa Desesperado in a fishing village just south of Veracruz Mexico, an adventure in itself. About 9 months ago I set off along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. After 40 or 50 days I reached Isla Mujeres on the northeast corner of the Yucatan where between horrible winds and a worse depression I became mired for three months. Another burst of energy got me to Cay Caulker Belize; more awful winds pinned me there for a couple of pleasant months. Pleasant largely due to making new friends – wonderful Paul Ross and Twyla Roscovich aboard their 52-foot Millenium Falcon of a boat, Samphire (www.samphire.ca). We buddy-boated for a while. I got my mojo back, did a refit in Rio Dulce, Guatemala, and am now on the island of Utila, Honduras with a shiny boat and a new sail, ready for further travels towards Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
Now I must pay for my neglect of this blog by writing a mammoth post to tell you of all that happened between Belize and here. It is very difficult to get caught up to the present day. Things are a bit scatty because I write a bit here, a bit there, when I can get to a computer (I really wish I had one aboard).
From Belize City to Lighthouse Reef. Wonderland. It was the best of times, it was the best of times.
When last I wrote a post of any consequence Samphire and Desesperado were anchored outside of Belize City. We decided to meet up out at Lighthouse Reef, Belize’s furthest outpost. We took separate routes to the atoll which is a reef thirty or forty miles around containing a few small low islands, situated twenty or thirty miles out from Belize’s barrier reef which in turn is ten or fifteen miles out from the mainland. Samphire sailed southeast out through the barrier reef, around the bottom of the Turneffe Islands and then motored directly into the northeasterlies to Northern Cay. I, having no motor and being too stubborn to use it if I had, as well as having the ability to cross shoals, headed due east to cut directly across the Turneffes.
The nasty winds that had plagued us at Cay Caulker had at last subsided to managable levels and Belize which had seemed positively threatening in a 25-knot blaster assumed a much friendlier aspect in ten knots of wind or less. It was magical, a fantasy wonderland of mangroved islands each one its own planet, each group a star system. Bogues, narrow tidal channels are like wormholes in space, the tides sucking one through at great speed and spitting one out into a new lagoon or the other side of a chain of cays into conditions unlike the side one just left, a whole new universe.
A coconut plucked from the sea falls to my blade and is found to be sweet and refreshing, a feather trailed on its magic filament yields a shining fish. Manatees gasp near Swallow Cay and moments later a few dolphins appear and swim alongside a while. The seagrass passes below waving slightly in the crystal water. Then comes the reef, like some magical barrier between worlds that must be passed (In this case between St.Georges Cay and the Turneffes) at risk ( for tales and sightings of wrecked vessels are alarmingly common), but today wind and waves are mild and I find my way through a wide pass with nothing more noteworthy happening than a close miss by a huge lone dolphin. Tiny East St Georges Cay as marked on my chart only a few years old appears to have completely disappeared as so often happens. Now the seagrass is gone, the coral sinks out of sight, the aquamarine becoming darker until it suddenly turns a deep royal blue – the wall of coral dropping off into the abyss. Then the low islands drop behind and the open ocean undulates ahead, I make very slow progress in light winds, crossing great patches of floating sargasso weed entwined with garbage, then I see a dark object afloat in the distance – A bale? One of those fabled prizes that in Wonderland reward the adventurer for his daring? The distance closed, no, the object finally resolves into a big television tube festooned with goose-neck barnacles and weed but that is ok, I am not sure I really want to find a bale anyway. The garbage falls behind and the ocean is unspeakably beautiful again.
St Georges Cay out of sight behind, in the afternoon the Turneffes hove into view. It has been a long slow crossing and there is almost no wind at all now. The current pushes me south of the pass in the Turneffe’s reef, and I must resort to paddling which I almost never do on principle. I do not understand paddlers. Get a sail and save yourselves all that tedious work! A couple of hours of this and I am through the pass and into the Northern Lagoon. The Turneffes are a great mass of swampy mangrove cays, lagoons, shoals and bogues infested with crocodiles and sandflies all ringed by a reef with only a few passes, in all covering 200 square miles. I must cross the Northern Lagoon, thread my way down the western side between the mangroves and the reef and its numerous tiny caylets and then exit the eastern reef to cross 20 miles or so of open ocean to reach my destination, Belize’s outermost reef, Lighthouse. But now the sun is setting and I have trouble avoiding the patch coral almost but not quite breaking the surface and hidden by reflected glare from the low sun. This is not a problem when there are any kind of waves – the coral reveals itself by disturbing the surface – but now it is calm and the coral lurks invisibly. But I get through. A horse-eye jack takes my lure as soon as I drop it and I glide over three more miles of seagrass as the sun sets and turn in to a large mangrove-walled bay. In the dark I drop anchor in three feet of water. I am utterly alone here, it is beautiful. I fry the fish on my decaying stove and put up my shelter but leave the tarp off and from the mangroves the croaks, squawks, hoots, shrieks, gibbers and splashes, by now a familiar and unworrying soundtrack, lull me into one of the deepest sleeps of my life on the flat calm and benign sea of Wonderland. I sleep naked with the stars my ceiling as bright as can be.
I am so deeply relaxed in the morning that it is hard to rise but at dawn I pack up my dewy floating camp and am off; with a good wind behind me I shoot eastwards, curve around the mangroves on the eastern side and head south. It is hugely thrilling and nerve-wracking trying to find one’s way through these new terrritories, over the shoals, shunt here, shunt there, round this point then a very fast reach to the next one, the ama flying, a dugout cayuco with two fisherman open-mouthed at my appearance – oh no coral ahead! – shunt! – backtrack! shunt again, then around Cockroach Cay and out through what may or may not be a pass in the reef. It turns out that it is a pass, after some heart-in-the-mouth creeping along at minimum thrust and peering ahead with the rising sun in my eyes, and as I leave the cays behind and the ocean goes back to royal blue a black squall appears behind me over the islands and the wind rises. I am moving out to sea at nine knots on the edge of the squall and Desesperado shows himself at his finest, slicing along with a rising sea on my rear quarter, surfing a little, very fast but in control. I do not let the sail out to slow down and be more safe on the open ocean; I use this fresh wind to maximum effect because who knows, it may soon die away to nothing. At this speed the cursed sargasso weed which frequently fouls the rudder cannot hang on – it breaks up and falls behind and I do not have to keep raising the blade to clear it. Wow! – probably eleven or twelve knots at times! I look at my GPS, then put it away and steer by the blinding sun rising ahead and Northern Cay, Lighthouse Reef, comes into view right where it should be not long after the Turneffes disappear behind making mercifully short that period when no reassuring land is in sight and I am sailing “on instruments”.
About halfway across I landed a barracuda around 4 kilos. This is unusual, my lure rarely catches anything on the deep ocean, only in the shallows or near reefs. Once or twice I have seen huge marlin or rays leaping, and have caught a few bonito. I am told I don’t really want to catch anything out there because it is mostly too big. I continue to agonize about my fishing but it is too much a part of this bright unreality to quit.
I arrived outside the reef between Northern Cay and little Sandbore Cay to the north. The book I carry, a gift from Paul and Twyla, says that there is a pass here so as best I can I line up the book’s chart with my GPS chart’s highly dubious approximation of it and creep inward towards the reef which I can see breaking on both sides of me. Closer, closer, another barrier between worlds, Here somewhere, should be the pass… looks good… looks good… should be through soon… looks good, ooh a bit shallow OH NO! Coral heads thiry feet ahead and I cannot stop! OH NO!
A sailboat can be sailed pretty much wherever one likes but not always in a straight line and one cannot always stop when one wants to. Given more room I can make a shunt and reverse course but even though I am running with the sail let way out and moving as slowly as I can there is no way I can hope to reverse course in thirty feet in order to avoid the coral. This has happened quite a few times now, usually late in the afternoon when the sun’s glare ruins visibility. Or early in the morning like now.
So I have developed a technique. When collision with the coral is inevitable I sheet in and give the boat full power! The boat accelerates and on impact, due to the shallow draft and sloping keel line, the boat will ride up on the coral, grind across the high spots and down the other side back into deeper water. The noise is horrible! I guess the coral does not like it much either but this is the route of minimum damage to both boat and coral – were I to come to a halt and get stuck there would be a whole bunch of slamming around and nobody would like it much. Obviously this would not work with a very wide reef or patch of coral but so far it has never failed me.
This technique is not to be found in Chapmans Seamanship. I do not recommend it for larger vessels.
I was soon across, a bit rattled but not sinking. I found myself in a maze of patch coral requiring nimble work on sheet and tiller but I made it through without further impacts, dropped anchor over sand and relaxed. Later I explored and found I had missed the pass by 50 meters.
I was anchored over bright aquamarine sand surrounded by patch coral between Sandbore Cay and Northern Cay, the only two specks of land for miles. Leopold the lighthouse keeper puttered over in his panga (a local word for lancha, a fiberglass launch twenty to thirty feet powered by an outboard engine) to ask if I needed anything. A very cool guy, 32, intelligent, friendly, very good-looking, most likeable. I think his work out there is more to do with maintaining some kind of nominal government presence than with actually keeping the lighthouse which is now no more than a small solar-powered box bolted on next to the corroded ruins of the old complex affair atop the rusting 120-foot steel tower left behind by the British; this light needs no keeping. Leopold spends much of his time fishing the rich waters just outside the reef; this catch he “corns”, or salts and carries back to Belize City at the end of his three-week stint. I gave Leopold half my barracuda though he was less than enthusiastic. “Been on fishing boats since I was two”. Later I sailed over to Sandbore Cay and cooked the rest of the fish on the stove in his dwelling by the light tower.
Samphire arrived late the next day. It wasn’t a race but I beat them here by thirty hours so neah neahny neah neah anyway. Leopold guided them in through the reef and there was a misunderstanding which had Samphire briefly stuck on a sandbar. I feel so blessed with my shallow draft and ability to run to shore – it goes a long way to helping me feel safer – though disturbingly upon seeing my boat and being told of my voyage one of the men in a visiting panga was heard to say “Guess he got tired of living.”
In the following days we explored the reef and its passes aboard Desesperado, trailing a lure and loading up barracuda, jacks and grouper with amazing ease, some of which we salted then dried. By snorkel we surged about with multitudes of gorgeous fish in the break over the reef. By scuba we hung before vertical walls of crazy coral, life piled upon life in fantastic profusion, whilst Twyla filmed world-class footage of turtles and other wondrous creatures. We floated between earth and sky on crystal water, the light below as intense as above. I climbed the palms and rafted coconuts across to Samphire aboard Desesperado. We scaled the old lighthouse and looked down on the two cays and the reef stretching far out of sight to the south. We kept our eyes open for bales. I took a Mayan fisherman sailing, visited the Great Engine and the wreck of the Transfer. We had Leopold over for dinner on Samphire and listened enraptured to his stories of life on the reef and his delicate position as an employee of the government in an area where drug traffickers regularly require his help. “The government people canna tell me what to do from no office in Belmopan” he said. “I gotta stay alive”.
When walking the edge of Northern Cay gathering coconuts and taking Bella the dog for walks I would look for footwear, my own having been lost somewhere along the way. It works like this: a significant portion of the garbage washed up along the shore is sandals and flip-flops. Just put on the first shoes one comes across regardless of whether or not they fit; this enables one to continue along the sharp coral stone and sand of the shoreline. Soon enough one comes upon better shoes and trades up one at a time, and after a half-hour or so of this one is really shod in style, although matching footwear is a bit much to hope for.
The bales again. The “square grouper”. Some bear the mark of a scorpion or a dragon. One was found on the day I arrived at the atoll on top of the eastern reef by a small sailing fishing vessel. These boats – the only real sailing vessels used by fishermen that I have seen on my whole journey – usually carry twelve to fifteen guys (incredible for they are only around 27 feet in length) plus a number of small dugout canoes which fan out from the mother ship in search of conch, lobster and spearable fish. They must also carry enough ice to last a week; as it melts the space is replaced with the catch. All those guys have to sleep somewhere; it rains plenty so somehow, they tell me, all the men fit below. It is hard to imagine. Fishermen are tough. They are always friendly and intrigued by my boat; they never fail to try to flag me down as Desesperado flies by at twice their speed. Sometimes I stop and gab. They confirm what I’d heard in Mexico: sharks are not attracted to lobster blood which is “transparent” but when fish are speared and carried around in a bag this can be a problem. “If a shark comes just give it your fish and it will eat it and go away”. Well, this boat found a bale; between twelve men nobody is going to get rich and somebody is bound to talk so they did not even try to keep it a secret. They sailed directly for Belize City and a bit of a party I imagine.
Two men in a cayuco, a dugout canoe, paddle around Northern Cay every morning on bale patrol. People come from the interior and spend their lives looking for bales. I met a man who owns part of a cay in the Turneffes who has found bales “At least eight times”. One time he found two thousand kilos stashed out there. This is cocaine we are talking about. Bales are the Belizean lottery. Typically the money is squandered (?) on booze and women (and not all of the cocaine is sold) and the lucky person finds himself back on the beach in due course.
The bales, equipped with radio transponders, are dropped from planes but things can go wrong and sometimes they are not picked up. Or they are thrown overboard by boats escaping the law (Belize is provided with ridiculously fast patrol boats by the DEA, and a big reconnaisance aircraft patrols extensively). Occasionally bales are planted in order to draw law enforcement resources to a dummy area. It is a huge game, and many of the participants appear as ordinary fishermen, masking sophistcation and lucre that you and I would never suspect. Whole boats are found too – a vessel loaded with all it can carry is simply abandoned when it has used up all its fuel, its load transferred to another.
Here’s a story confirmed true by two separate sources: A security guard at a beach hotel in San Pedro found a bale washed up there one night. An unusually good citizen (and perhaps not too bright for the police are the biggest criminal organization to be found in any Central American country) he called the cops “There’s a bale of drugs here. Come and take it away”. Two policemen arrived and opened the bale on the beach. But it did not contain drugs, it was packed with cash! “Crikey!” was the general reaction, or some such wordage. The two cops humped the bale into their police pickup but they did not return to the station, in fact they have not been seen since. The security guard was left scratching his head, the laughing stock of San Pedro.
Captain Ray Jason of Aventura whom I met later in the Rio Dulce tells this tale of unknown veracity: A small aircraft carrying drugs into Florida developed engines trouble over the Keys and had to ditch in the ocean. Luckily for the pilot and his co-pilot the crash was seen from a distance by a lobster boat which called the coastguard; they soon arrived on the scene to find the pilot and his co-pilot in the dodgiest of legal positions clinging to their cargo of bales, the plane having sunk. “Seems like it ain’t your lucky day” shouted a voice from the cutter”. “Whaddyamean?” shouts back the pilot “Reckon it’s the luckiest day of my life. My plane was going down and we’d have been drowned for sure if I hadn’t spotted all these here bales to hang on to!”
One day Paul and I were exploring the north pass aboard Desesperado when we saw three masts in the far distance. Keen for a closer look at whatever this was we pursued them out to sea. After a chase of twelve miles we caught up with the luxury square-rigger Sea Cloud II (www.seacloud.com) and made a close pass on her downwind side making jokes about not wanting to foul her wind. I don’t know who was more amazed, way out on the open ocean, us looking way up at the most impressive sailing vessel I have ever seen or her passengers looking down on our tiny frail and unusual craft. We both made each other’s day I think.
Sea Cloud II
Paul found her on the beach. Blonde and beautiful, always smiling, a great listener. She has a few barnacles on her skin and seaweed in her hair I fell for her at once and she was easily fixed on above Desesperado’s outrigger with some inner-tube rubber and soon it was hard to imagine I had ever sailed without her. I do not have a photo of her. Imagine the head and shoulders of Barbie, her head the size of an orange but oh so much sweeter. Oh Bianca.
We worked hard for this quality time at Lighthouse Reef. From dawn until dark and beyond we cleaned, repaired, repainted, rebuilt, modified and serviced our two vessels; we had no choice. Desesperado does not need too much care but a big boat like Samphire has so many systems and details necessary to make the operation viable – engine, ac and dc electrics, electronics, plumbing, galley, toilet, sails, rigging, anchoring, hydraulics, winches, communications, bilge pumps, fuel delivery, batteries, lighting, manual steering, automatic steering, refrigeration, wind turbines, solar panels, generator, dinghy, compressor, davits, rainwater collection, outboard engine, onboard storage for diesel, gasoline, propane, tools, materials, chemicals, gear and all the household necessities of life. All this stuff has to be attended to and every tool and material used in the work must be winkled out of some obscure corner of the boat, the work itself perfomed in cramped spaces without the benefit of workbenches. For every minute of leisure the yachtsman works for an hour. It is very difficult to ever leave an anchorage or marina because the work is never done.
Yachtsmen are generally amazingly practical, versatile, skilled people. In addition to needing to be able to repair and maintain their vessels they must also be able to sail them and this requires another long list of skills plus a certain amount of courage. Sailing boats around is not for the faint of heart and I have developed a great respect for most of the yachtsmen I have met.
But I have reservations about the cruising life. In many ways I would seem a natural for it but I keep coming back to the same question – what’s the point? To live in such a tight space, to slave constantly at one’s vessel, to be unable to grow a garden, to make a thousand such sacrifices… just to hang at anchor in some blue-water bay and then up the hook to move to another blue-water bay; to drink vodka with the other yachties… I think I need more of a mission myself. The voyage of Desesperado is not cruising, it is an adventure in the true sense of the word and when it ends I hope I can return to the world and find something useful to do.
After a week or two both Samphire and I moved fifteen miles south to a new anchorage at Long Cay. This is within the same ring of reef but to get there I took an outside route and having left late in the day I arrived outside the reef at Long Cay at night and had to enter the completely unfamiliar pass in pitch darkness “on instruments” only. This was a bit nerve-racking but I did not strike the coral. A couple of days later I parted from Samphire, Bella touchingly having histrionics as I sailed away towards the mainland.
From Lighthouse Reef to Livingston Guatemala.
The twenty mile trip to the barrier reef was slow and pleasant; I made another ten miles to Bikini Cay in the Garbutts where I landed and was greeted by Alex and Emilio on the beach bearing a huge spliff which I could not refuse. They were here on this tiny cay on a conch fishing expedition but their ice was nearly gone and they had not had much luck. Alex had a pet sea turtle, Lupita, tied in the shallows by its leg, a perfect creature which lived on tortillas and fried fish. They were boiling mahoghany bark as a curative for the flu. The island was only a stone’s throw across and had a few pines and palms planted and pilings driven around to slow erosion, for in storms these cays are at risk of washing away. There were many piles of conch shells, ubiquitous on these cays, each one with a small hole chipped in it near the top where a knife had been inserted to cut the retaining tendon.
A bale had been found on the next cay a month previously, 27 kilos.
I shared the little food I had left with my new friends and along with their fish we ate well.
I was very low on supplies, my clothes and sails threadbare, many necessities absent. No food now, no stove, plate, spoon, proper shoes, hat. Desesperado’s cordage was frayed, his hull weedy and his varnish chipped in many places which lets ugly rot into the wood. I needed a place to refit and rest and to make a new sail and by all accounts that place should be the Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Next day after taking Alex for a ride I made it to thirty miles down the coast to Placencia, on the next a mad rough ride down to Punta Gorda where again I ran into Samphire and went through the expensive and annoying bureaucratic process of checking out of the country. Next day I sailed to Livingston Guatemala, an isolated Garifuna settlement at the mouth of the Dulce where I checked in, again a process taking several hours of traipsing around three different offices with different pieces of costly paper. I liked Livingston, it is colorful and has a relaxed feeling all its own. Unlike most of Central America it has municipal garbage cans so you don’t have to walk around for hours with a piece of trash in you hand unable to get rid of it decently. I get a bit tired of people pretending to be my friend then asking for cash. Desesperado drew a crowd and Bianca was a huge hit here. Then on up the Dulce. Oh my the Rio Dulce.
The Rio Dulce (“Sweet River”) is very beautiful. As mariners experience it from the mouth up it starts at Livingston winding narrowly through 8km of canyon walled by cliffs and steep jungle rising quickly up to around 200 meters. Here and there are picturesque mayan dwellings nestled in the greenery on the banks and men paddle about in low swift dugout cayucos. Then the river opens out at the foot of a lake, the Golfete, around 17km long and 10km wide, ringed by hills and mountains with the jungle coming right down to the edge. Then it is back to river a hundred to two hundred meters across bordered by jungly hills for 10km or so before again opening into a much larger lake, Izabal, so grand that one side cannot be seen from another.
About half way between the Golfete and Lake Izabal lies the town of Rio Dulce, also known as Fronteras, a somewhat squalid and noisy place, small but nonetheless this is the big city around here.
I had chosen this river as a good place to refit Desesperado because it is a well-known “hurricane hole”, a place where yachts and other boat whose draft is not too deep to cross the sandbar at Livingston can be safely harbored during hurricanes, and therefore there are many yachts moored and anchored here, and that means that I could probably find an old sail from whih to make a new one. I timed my arrival to coincide with the start of a DIY cruising meetup being organized by friends of Paul and Twyla, but right from my arrival I got sick and did not take much part.
It started with some bad beans eaten in town, then came a long series of mild fevers and aches that was probably Dengue fever but not a serious case. This went on for most of a month; between bouts I was well enough to do projects on Samphire and visit the sqalid, horribly noisy town to eat food which was cheap but grim; Paul described it as “prison food”. In Mexico I was quite happy with rice and beans for the accompanying salsa would make the meal interesting but in Guatemala, or at least in Rio Dulce, there is no salsa to be had and the only accompanying stuff is bacteria; to which many people succomb regularly.
I find the Guatemalans here friendly enough, though not as carefree and boisterous as Mexicans. They seem understandably haunted by their past and present troubles. Mercifully they are not as noisy as Mexicans although there is still plenty of noise in Rio Dulce; most of this comes from businesses such as the despicable Tigo cellphone company that sets up speakers outside its stores hammering out music with men yelling earsplittingly into microphones to hawk their products. Conversation is impossible in the vicinity. The locals deal with this overwhelming pollution by… buying cellphones. The poor till the fields and slave themselves to long hours in grubbly commerce, the rich, inheritors of the world, drive by in Chevy Avalanches and play on their jetskis.
According to a study I saw recently Guatemala is the fourth most dangerous place in the world (Khazakstan, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. Oh dear I was in no. 4 and am now in no. 2 ) and certainly I have never seen so many guns around nor heard so many stories of muggings, murder and violence. There are an alarming number of incidents of boats being boarded by men with machetes and pistols and one must watch one’s back constantly for theft. I do not feel like a target because I am not in a fancy yacht; nonetheless one night Desesperado was stolen from where he was rafted up alongside Samphire and recovered the next morning from a marina across the river, undamaged but minus his paddle and, sadly, Bianca. My biggest worry is that she went willingly with the theives and has been playing me for a fool all this time. She may even have masterminded the theft. A dinghy and two outboards were also stolen that night; everything must be chained up most of the time. I have heard of people leaving containers of sugared gasoline on deck for the thieves. Ha ha!
One night Paul and Twyla emerged on deck to discover a man in a cayuco adrift nearby. They suspected he was there to steal from Samphire but he said he was out fishing and his friend was in the water nearby. In the water? It was the middle of the river in the middle of the night! Later all became clear: the locals fish with waterproof flashlights and spearguns, diving deep down into water through which even in the daylight one cannot see one’s own feet, in search of some kind of bottom fish they tell me can grow up to three meters. I would not do it for all the tea in China.
It is said that in Guatemala there is no debt greater than 1000 Quetzales (about 125 US dollars). Above this amount it is cheaper to have the person to whom the money is owed killed.
My friend Robert Smith of the Winnie Estelle witnessed a murder (actually two in three years). Broad daylight, eight shots to the head. The victim was a scammer running a loan scheme on the poor, taken out by vigilantes so no need to shed any tears. The interesting thing is that according to Robert there was a police pickup carrying four machine-gun armed cops not two hundred meters away at the time. They quickly arrived and watched the car carrying the murderers drive away, made no attempt to give chase or even to make a radio call to set up a roadblock (only one road out of town to the next). Instead they went straight to the deceased’s vehicle and ransacked it for goodies.
Robert Smith again: “Nothing here is done legally. Nothing can be done legally, the bureaucracy is impossible. To move a truckload of lumber a bribe of 2000 dollars is paid to the police who give forged papers to get the truck through the army checkpoints down the road”. The wood itself is cut from the National Forest, the only place left to find it in a land denuded for building materials and firewood.
Another story from Robert, an American now naturalized Belizean after living long in San Pedro where he refloated and rebuilt the Winnie Estelle pictured below. He tells me that a man who helped him with the rebuild, in his youth used to team up with a friend and together get a ride out to the Turneffe Islands, taking with them a big sack of flour, salt, basic tools, canvas and some other materials. They would set up camp on a cay and over a period of six months using planks they hand-sawed of green wood cut on the island, they would build a sail fishing boat in its entirity just like the one pictured above. They would use shark skin for sandpaper and for caulking they would make lime by firing conch shells. Then they would fish, salting the catch with the salt they had with them, and when the hold was full sail back to Belize City to sell the lot, boat and catch. Then they would buy a sack of flour and more salt and…
The DIY sailing summit was held here the week I arrived. It was attended by about 40 young people looking to get into sailing and cruising from the bottom end – not after spending a lifetime of labor within the system culminating with spending a quarter million dollars on a sailboat. The attendees were perhaps the most heavily-tattooed group I have ever met, largely black-clothed anarchists. They were a great bunch, very smart, cheerful and respectful and in turn I have a great deal of respect for them. I wish that I had had the brains to get into boating at their age. They brought with them from the States four small boats in the 25-foot range and at one point we rafted these together at anchor alongside Samphire for a big party. I laid in bed groaning of course. I wanted to get off of Samphire and give Paul and Twyla their space back, but I was too sick. The best I could do was to make myself useful working on projects aboard whenever I had the energy.
I sailed a little in the vacillating and confused winds of the river which is a half-kilometer wide in places and opens out into two great lakes as well. I liked the absence of sea salt on everything including my skin and the slower corrosion that comes with floating on fresh water. Deseperado now looked very ragged – his cordage had suffered in sun and sea and gone hairy. The big polytarp sail was now so thin it was almost transparent and I got hot even in its shade. Some of the woodwork had turned grey where the varnish had worn off, and the trampoline was in shreds. I too was a bit ragged, my clothes had seen better days, zippers and buttons rusted, my straw hat frayed and I needed a haircut. I was missing a lot of gear, my SPOT transmitter had died as well as my VHF radio, I had no spoon, no plate, the stove rusted away as did some of my tools. I lost my paddle in a capsize and a replacement one when Desesperado was stolen in his entirety that bad night.
It was definitely time for a bit of care and attention.
After five weeks in the Dulce I finally got off of Samphire and hauled Desesperado out on the dock at a dilapidated marina (here I was named “The Lion of the Sea” by the security guys, which amused me. The owner, a gringo was something of a whoremongering monster. “I rent ‘em for ten bucks a night”. “You can lead a Guatemalan to water but you cannot make him think”, and “never let a hooker get ahold of your phone number” are amongst his utterances. ). I took Desesperado apart, sanded him down, built new saddles for the crossbeams and a new trampoline, cut new scuppers, rebuilt the chair, reinforced the platform edge, then revarnished and repainted the whole boat before reassembly. Then I sewed a whole new sail from an old one purchased for 60 dollars. This sail, the tenth I have made, has a primitive reefing system (two lines of grommets radiating out from the tack enabling one third or two thirds of the sail to be laced to the boom. Hardly ideal but it is the only way I can think of to reef the sail). I sadly dumped the old polytarp sail that has brought me so far.
All this work took me three weeks of long hours in the heat. I was quite desperate to escape the Rio Dulce, I did not like the place at all, the noise, the humidity, the smoke, the constant problem with thieves, and the gringo culture of yachts in marinas going nowhere, people drinking beer in the mornings content to piss away their lives never setting sail on their precious boats, not learning Spanish and spending their nights with prostitutes. I did meet many good people of course, I generalize, but it is true to say that I ever escaped the feeling that there is something unhealthy in the air in Rio Dulce. As I said in a previous post some Guatemalans call the Rio Dulce “The river That Swallows Gringos” and I was determined not to be one of the swallowed; to that end I worked like a dog. I was now ready. Time to go.
Escape From the Dulce.
In a tiny cove by Fronteras (also known it seems as the town of Rio Dulce) I pulled up my anchor at 5 am on the 14th of April and it being glassy calm and windless proceeded to blast out of there downriver for the sea at a good half a knot. The howler monkeys made their ghastly noise from the banks at frequent intervals, a gutteral yowling something like the sound a gigantic gruff turkey might make. An hour later I could still see my anchorage behind me, I was paddling by now and various launches were zooming past me, even cayucos, the ubiquitous indigenous dugout canoes were zooming past me (not only are dugout canoes still around, there are thousands and thousands of them in daily use on the river. I borrowed one for a few days to get around whilst my boat was hauled out and found them tippy, with hardly any freeboard – you must take the waves side-on – but marvellously easy to paddle swiftly. I soon got the hang of paddling on one side only and got a real “going native” feeling out of the experience). Though Desesperado paddles ok he is not designed for this, too heavy for one thing, and it is slow work.
Two or three miles downriver from Fronteras manatees surfaced around the boat, taking no notice of me as usual. How they survive with all this fast motorized river traffic is beyond me. I finally made it to the Golfete, ten miles of lake which I had to cross, again glassy calm but a wind soon sprang up – dead in my teeth of course – and I tacked (shunted in fact) the distance in a couple of hours. At the downriver end the wind became violent, pouring over the hills ahead and swirling unpredictably so that horrible gusts kept bashing at me from all angles. Again and again the ama (the pontoon float) flew up in the air, my vessel heeled at an alarming 45 degree angle before I could pop the mainsheet (let the sail go) and the ama would slam back down into the drink. Many times I was backwinded and had to drop the sail.
Between the Golfete and Livingston lie 8km of river mostly two or threee hundred feet wide bordered by steep jungly hills and cliffs up to about 600 feet high. Winds were fully against me and highly confused, but at least the tide had just peaked and the current would be in my favor. So I beat my way into this defile, back and forth, shunting with my spars in the trees, getting back-winded, losing ground to the wind on each shunt. Back and forth, back and forth, men in Cayucos and indios on in their picturesque dwellings on the banks amazed and amused at my antics as I leapt about the deck like a monkey, hauling, untangling, deploying and raising rudders and paddling like fury when spun out of control in the swirls. I really got into it. To paraphrase Caine or Connery in The man who would be King I fought my way up the Dulce Pass yard by bloody yard. At one point I passed close to a solitary yacht anchored in mid-river. “Where are you going?” asked the Italians aboard. “Panama”. “Where is your boat?” “This is my boat!”
The river narrowed and contrary to my expectations I found a strong current against me. I cannot understand this – the tide was falling. This current became so strong that after a couple of miles when the wind faded some I was unable to gain further ground. As I struggled an old man in a cayuco approached. Nolberto was carrying a bucket of drinking water aboard from a nearby spring in the cliffs. We talked for a while. He said he lived with his aged parents and son from fishing and grew a litle maize in a clearing nearby. He suggested I give up my Herculean struggle and stop for the night in a little gap in the cliffs where there was a “criki” (a creek). The current would be better in the morning. I did as he suggested, wolfing down some of my staple diet of canned refried beans on crackers at anchor and waiting for dark. The current was crazy. As dusk came Nolberto came back for another chat and then a launch came bearing Chris, a cool Englishman who ran a small jungle hotel (The Roundhouse, what a wonderfully beautiful riverside place for a quiet unwinding, in the care of fine people. email@example.com tel. 42949730. By using mosquito nets they have solved the problem of guests being bitten by vampire bats in the night.) on the bank almost opposite; he invited me to tie up at his dock for the night which would be safer from banditos. I paddled across and would not have made it but for the little bit of slack water at the very edge on his side which allowed me to regain the ground I lost to the current. Chris and his partner Dani made me very welcome… Chris has been on the river for 9 years, the second foreigner there. He said that Nolberto and his parents were amongst the first people to move to this part of the river – they are of latin stock but almot all the later arrivals are Mayans so Nolberto and family are now socially isolated. Sometimes Chris must show people his arse to prove that he does not have a tail because some Guatemalans believe that all Englishmen have tails.
That night it rained, my shelter aboard (known unfondly as the Asphalt Shack due to my having painted it with tar so many times trying to waterproof it) leaked terribly and I lay there in a sodden bed, quite miserable. I can take the wet bedding but the dripping is intolerable.
In the morning over coffee Dani and I talked of the illusion of security in our homelands. If everything went haywire would we rather be here where there is always food in the river or jungle, or in Europe where there are police? ” Here we would need a lot of guns” said Dani. “We will always be outsiders and we will always be targets”.
I rather sadly said my goodbyes – sometimes I really hate to move on – and paddled off with Desesperado well draped with wet bedding.
Paddling some, sailing some, I slipped along this gorgeous canyon as quietly as I could, not wishing to spoil the magic. The current seemed to be going in both directions simultaneously! In the inhabited parts would come from the jungled banks the noises of dogs barking, roosters crowing, machetes and children. No booming stereos because there is no power here (people come for miles to charge things on Chris & Dani’s solar system); in the uninhabited stretches it was just me and the singing jungle, patient herons watching me go by from perches in the lowest trees. A grim sight – a baby manatee probably killed by a propellor, bloated and ridden by vultures, this was the only low point in a fabulous trip of 5km I wished would never end.
I filled my water bottles from a cliff spring, finally rounded a bend and the ocean came into view, about which I had mixed feelings. The ocean is a scary place in comparison to the ease and safety of a river. I landed at Livingston where after nearly two months absence Bianca was not only remembered, she was remembered by name, and within a few hours was checked out at the various offices and in possession of a zarpe, a sort of country-to-country clearance document needed to check in at the next port. I purchased some gasoline and painted it on the Asphalt Shack in the hope it would redissolve the tar and plug the holes, and dried my bedding. A northerly gale came up and I could not leave the pathetic “harbor”, Desesperado bucked and pranced around alarmingly at his moorings and I spent the whole night lying, and then standing in the rain and filth, on the dock at my boat’s side in company of a most mysterious person, a thin attractive Columbian negress, a penniless backpacker afraid of nothing and requiring no sleep or security. I am afraid you will have to wait for a book to learn more of her; I myself may never know if her extraordinary tales are true. Hello Nana, I shall not forget you.
Early in the morning the wind calmed and I rather blearily set off once again to sea, Nana on the dock receding into the distance, small but not sad. I spent the morning moving slowly, then a couple of hours becalmed, then came wind, my favorite, pushing me fast into large smooth oncoming swells, rollercoastering along, quite thrilling. My GPS charts indicated a pair of small islands about 12nm out to sea which I thought might make a good stop for the night, but on arrival at the coordinates I found that they did not exist or were nowhere in sight so I carried on. At dusk I made Omoa on the Honduran coast after about 55nm of travel but I did not try to check into Honduras. Omoa was yet another place that would be charming and pleasant were it not completely poisoned by loud music. I was badly sunburned and slept well after moving anchorage a mile out of town to reduce the noise.
Lord of the Sandflies.
Next day after leaving Omoa in darkness I had an easy run to Punta Sal (also seems to be known as Escondido), scene of a notorious murder of a yachtsman by robbers and a good jumping off place for a 40nm offshore run to Utila. But it was too late in the day to start that passage so I decided to stop. A truly spectacular place: a peninsula that feels like a wild paradise island; high cliffs and big jungle, small beaches, howler monkeys in chorus all around. When I heard a screech and saw a bird winging towards me that looked for all the world like a pterydactyl there was a strong “land that time forgot” illusion which lasted my whole stay here of 2 1/2 days.
I explored two of the three lagoons, loaded up with coconuts on a beach and then settled on the outermost lagoon to anchor for the night. Except for me the place was completely deserted and in view of the murder (the story is that two men in a lancha approached a yacht anchored here, somehow the man aboard was shot but his daughter survived by firing flares at the assailants) I liked having it all to myself. But I was jumpy, and my heart sank when in late afternoon a lancha bearing two men suddenly shot into my lagoon and made to anchor near me. I hailed them but they did not respond, did not even smile. This looked bad. Would my first encounter with Hondurans be my last? I readied my flare pistol, pepper spray, knife and machete.
But I needn’t have worried. Once they had anchored Minor (?) and Edwin were a pair of pussycats, bemused by my presence (I get that a lot) but perfectly friendly. They anchored stern to the beach and said they were going to fry some fish and sleep there the night. “what about the sandflies? I asked. “Oh they don’t bother us” said Minor.
Five minutes later they were back in their lancha reanchoring it out from the beach as I myself had just done and for the same reason – the sandflies here are just horrible. Even anchored out it is pretty bad. We rafted our vessels together and drank my rum and learned about each other. Minor and Edwin are from Puerto Cortes and were here fishing a shallows 5 km out but there was too much current right now; they planned to continue in the morning and stay out in the area as long as the ice in their big chest lasted, about three days. They would sleep in the open on the 4-foot thwart and the ice chest, no cushioning, no covering but their jackets. No stove onboard, only fires on the beach when they could get there. a dog could expect better. I have seen this kind of extraordinary toughness – to them it is ordinary – again and again in the fishermen on my trip. They in turn were awed by my adventure. We agreed that the ricos could never enjoy a good bed as much as we did when we had one and perhaps that went for many of life’s pleasures. Can joy only be experienced through suffering?
As I had heard before Honduran waters are notoriously poor in fish. At rare times one could do well but it made more sense for Minor and Edwin to run when they could all the way to Belize to fish at night with hooks and lines and a lightbulb carefully concealed in a plastic sheath which was only removed underwater for fear of attracting the Belizean fish police. They use short sections of bicycle inner tube to protect their fingers from the monofilament line and 10cm pieces of rebar as weights. If caught by the patrols they would lose everything – boat, motor, gear, catch – everything but their clothing. “Many fish Belize” said Minor who was a veteran of fish campaigns in several countries and spoke a few words of English. About 300 Honduran lanchas run to Belize every night. A lancha can catch up to 2000 pounds of fish per night in Belizean waters but only a tenth of that in Honduran territory so you can see the attraction.
We unrafted and they moved further out into the lagoon to escape the sandflies which don’t bother me so much once I am under my net, although I have problems sealing the net around the legs of the shack so some always get in to bite me, all night. As they were leaving and I was setting up my shelter I asked “Do you think it will rain tonight?” “No!” they said vehemently. “What makes you so sure?” “Forty years experience on the sea.”
The rain came in the small hours, the asphalt shack leaked copiously. I lay on my back padding the ceiling with a shirt to control the drips, a technique first developed behind the Iron Curtain then perfected by NASA in the late 70′s and early 80′s, and the morning found me sodden and bleary but at least I was not Minor and Edwin lying curled up in the open in ragged foul-weather gear in the gusty middle of the lagoon. “Horrible night eh? ” I said to Minor when they came over. “No, why?” said Minor. Real men. They took off a little later. I went to the beach looking for food and found almonds (wild and tiny, much work to get them out of their shells for little reward), coconuts, cocolitos (a kind of palm nut very abundant here, a bit like a brazil nut inside though the meat is like hard coconut. The shells of these things are so tough they tend to break the rocks that I bash them with) and wild bananas (small, pithy, full of seeds). I found that the four cartridges for my flare pistol were badly corroded and decided that a test of one was worthwhile. I had not taken the flare pistol seriously as a weapon but Blimey! The thing went off with a hell of a bang and shot off a glowing red bolt that went a hundred meters or more horizontally before landing in the sea. Anybody hit with that would really be hurting! I feel more confident in my defenses now although I only have three cartridges left and cannot reload quickly.
Monkeys appeared in the trees close above my anchorage and seemed curious about me. By noon Minor and Edwin had reappeared, battered by the weather. I had not set sail myself that morning bcause the wind was pretty high and I did not like the look of it thrashing the treetops on the clifftops around me and it had now beaten these tough fishermen off the ocean. We went to the beach to fry fish and plantains, great mountains of them; each load fried in a lump of lard the size of a grapefruit squeezed from a tube-bag that must have weighed five kilos. Three other lanchas appeared and there were eleven of us on the beach cooking up a storm. I made noodles with onions and garlic. One of the boats had two sharks aboard around seven feet long (well one and a half sharks for one of them had been half-eaten whilst hooked). We ate deep-fried shark and shark ceviche until we were sick of it. The men were all very friendly and I felt very comfortable with them; perhaps this was partly due to having no need to prove mysef to them – I had arrived on Desesperado from Veracruz, no more demonstration of manliness needed. Nonetheless at one point, curious about the jungle I put on long clothing and shouldered my machete and asked the guys to watch over my boat whilst I went to fight with lions and tigers. I had not the slightest fear they would do anything but defend my boat with their lives. “All of us are brothers on the sea” Minor had said earlier. I consider it a huge privilege to be accepted by such fellows.
The jungle was impressive. Vines, 30 meter trees with massive buttressed trunks, shady groves of huge wild banana trees, bugs. Spider web soon streamed from my hat. I dodged and hacked my way up to the heights to see truly stunning vistas of cliffs and vegetation and the wild sea foaming below. All the photos are on the camera with the obscure unopenable files. I returned to the beach to find the guys lying around smoking marijuana and slicing the sharks, and announced that the lions and tigers had been afraid of me and run away but I had managed to kill two elephants with my bare hands but couldn’t be bothered to bring them back because they were heavy. I volunteered to take someone out for a sail but they all chickened out except for Teri who was soon the envy of all the rest as he rode high above the lagoon balanced on a flying ama. The circular gusting winds in the lagoon made for a wild ride.
Suddenly the fishermen packed up and readied to leave. There was a north wind coming and there was no point in waiting for better weather, they said. They showed much concern about me and advised me where I could get water from a spring and left a huge bag of plantains. They advised me to move to the second lagoon, better shelter in a norte. I did so after they were gone, braving a wild and confused sea outside the lagoon, the result of high winds and reflections from the cliffs, Desesperado handled it well and I zoomed into that second lagoon laughing. I anchored under the cliffs because of the possibility of lightning coming with the cold front and set my makeshift shrimp trap on the bottom for the night.
Next day the wind was howling from the north as predicted, also as predicted there was nothing in the shrimp trap but tiny crabs and snails which is all it ever catches. I went to a little beach under the cliffs to fry plantains. There had been much noise from the monkeys ashore and now two of them came out into the branches not five meters away and hooted at me, some kind of a territorial thing. They also pooed copiously and I was glad they were not chimps: chimps throw poo. When howler monkeys poo it seems to carry a message – “Go away or I shall poo some more!” Terrifying. I hooted back which definitely pressed their buttons; a good time was had by all. I played my violin to them which also did not please them.
The following morning after a mercifully dry night things were calmer; At dawn I sailed back to the outermost lagoon and filled my bottles from the spring at the base of the cliffs (you will find it hidden in a cleft on the east side about 60 meters from the north beach, it has a jacuzzi-sized pool of fresh water at its base). Then out to sea for a very slow day of becalmings and beating into light winds towards Utila where I landed at dusk.
I do not have much to say about Utila. It seems an unremarkable sandfly-infested island surrounded by clear fishless waters; the town is music-polluted and stressful to walk around in since as usual no provision whatsoever has been made for pedestrians and one must constantly watch one’s back on the narrow street. Cay Caulker you have it right – noise pollution laws (nightclubs must be soundproofed instead of as here keeping the entire town awake all night) and a ban on cars. Strangely Utila is largely English-speaking, some kind of British interference way back. There are many dive shops and whale-shark watching is big here but the winds have so far been too light to get out there myself. Checking in to the country was mercifully painless and free! Compare this to Belize which cost me about 300 dollars in fees. Utila claims that Robinson Crusoe lived here, which is just silly: he is fictional.
Upon relaunching Desesperado I discovered that water had gotten into his plywood deck and it delaminated enough to put my foot through. I am repairing this and will be applying shoe polish to the asphalt shack in yet another attempt to waterproof it, then I must be sure of good weather for a crossing back to the mainland or perhaps first to Roatan followed by a long reach as far as I can eastwards to the mainland. Ahead lies the real Mosquito Coast, or Miskito Coast, named for its brand of indigenous people, then Nicaragua about which nobody seems to know anything except that there is a big problem with pirates along that coast. They call it Pirate Alley. I have heard that 6 meter swells may be expected off Costa Rica with few refuges. And then Panama, should I get that far; I hear tales of the Cuna Indians of the San Blas Islands and their remarkable seamanship – in outrigger sailing canoes! I am told that they are going to love me and I cannot wait to meet them. I do not expect to see Samphire again but maybe I will get lucky and find them in Panama. Really all other vessels heading in that direction go way out to sea and don’t see land until they get there, whereas I must hop along the coast finding shelter every night. The only thing I know for sure about my future is that it contains a lot more biting insects.
And Hooray! I have caught up to the present day! To do so I have had to leave out a thousand incidents, stories and most regrettably descriptions of a great many wonderful people who have befriended me along the way and this saddens me because they deserve better. I can only say thankyou all and I wish you all the luck that you have wished me.