At Sea, No-one Can Hear You Scream

Disaster at sea, kinda.

Aqui estoy mis amigos.  Here I am: http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=02OMbJyQzLrxlajbnC79YlbiTI0uDqtG3  This links to a site where you can see a map showing exactly where I am, or where I was last time I sent a message from my SPOT satellite tracking device. I always send a message from offshore just as I am setting sail, then another when I arrive somewhere, but don’t necessarily send one every day; if there has been no message for days it means I am still at the last location shown.

I finally left Utila loaded with supplies for the coast of Honduras ahead including a couple of books from my friends John and Amanda who were more than hospitable to me during my stay. I’d used their sensory deprivation tank the day before so I was relaxed and ready for anything. Perhaps this was my downfall. Overconfidence is not something I suffer from much.

It was blowing pretty fresh outside of the reef that morning, nothing serious but stronger than I like. The forecast predicted no serious worsening of the weather so I beat into it towards Cayos Cochinos  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cayos_cochinos) which is a group of tiny islands between Utila and Trujillo on the mainland. When the wind continued to freshen I considered turning back but I’d said my goodbyes and Desesperado was still making good progress so onwards I went. I could see the Cayos now, a small dark hump about twenty miles off.

The wind got worse, now blowing about twenty knots. It got so that I was having trouble keeping the boat upright. Even with the sail let completely free, flogging brutally, its drag in the wind would try to heel the boat. Upon sheeting in I’d get a little forward power and a lot more heeling force, and the ama (outrigger float) would leave the waves frequently. This is the big problem with the traditionally-rigged Pacific flying proa – the sail really cannot be reefed effectively. In making this new sail a month ago in Guatemala I had added a line of grommets radiating out from the tack enabling one third or two thirds of the sail to be laced down to the boom or up to the yard but that still leaves the working part of the sail way up high where its heeling moment does the most to turn me over.  And on this day my problem was exacerbated because in Utila I’d refiled the teeth of my camcleats which were worn and slipping and this had weakened one; a piece chipped off which would cause the rope to jam in the cleat leaving me unable to release the sail when I needed to most. I had one chance and one chance only to jerk the sheet out of the cleat – no time for a second pull, I’d be capsized by then.

The wind grew tiresome with its constant attempts to make off with my hat and its roaring in my ears. The waves mounted to a maximum of about 2 meters peak-to-trough which is not dramatic, it is easy enough to handle though they were becoming choppy and there was plenty of spray. I was making slow progress – though beating through the water at about four knots I was being pushed backwards by each wave reducing my speed over the ground to just two or three knots.

Suddenly I was heeling at 45 degrees, pulling madly to release the sheet but it wouldn’t come free and I was almost instantly upside down in the open ocean, land almost out of sight behind and not much better in front. I pulled myself onto the upturned platform and dragged the laundry bucket and ballast bag of water jugs from under the inverted trampoline and tied them to the main hull, crawled back to the outrigger and detached the anchor and likewise ferried this back to the main hull, these actions to lessen the weight on the ama so that I might pull it into the air and back over the main hull, righting the boat. I swam under and released the halyard so the sail would be left in the water as the ama rose and its weight would not interfere with the operation. The water was not cold but there was plenty of it around. The wind howled and waves sloshed over the the main hull which was upwind. I detached the capsize recovery stick and got it into position and began to lever the boat over, sitting on the stick as far out as I could, my feet on the keel, pulling hard on a rope out to the ama. Slowly, very slowly it came up and over then I was back in the water with the ama coming down on my head but I’d been here plenty of times before and submerged myself to avoid being conked. I’d been capsized for over twenty minutes and it was a huge relief to be the right way up again.

The boat was now upright but dismasted, the sail all messed up under water, lines running tangled everywhere, the ballast bag, anchor, and bucket also hanging below or floating around. There was no damage at all. I restepped the mast, sorted the mess out, checked the holds for flooding: not too bad. I filled the laundry bucket and lashed it back on over the ama and reefed one third of the sail before raising it then sheeted in and continued onwards towards Cayos Cochinos; I was about halfway there. I hoped that the wind would not get any worse.

The aftermath.

But it did get worse. Soon it was really howling horribly, there were whitecaps everywhere and the swells were starting to break. Occasionally one would crash clean over the boat and try to wash me off my platform. Some of the swells were three meters peak-to-trough, steep-faced and black. I am sure that reefing the sail helped some but I was still barely staving off capsize at every moment. I experienced a twinge of fear. I did not know if I could make it to Cayos Cochinos through this and if I did not there was nowhere else to go.

Suddenly I capsized again. This time I was pinned between the inverted trampoline and the sail but extricated myself quickly. I had a long struggle to right the boat, not helped by the waves breaking over us at intervals. But I got him upright. My hat was gone, there was a big hole in the sail, the mast support bungee stick was broken into four pieces, one of the mast cleats had snapped, the mast base coconut cup was all busted up, the holds were partly flooded and I’d gashed open my foot somehow. I am so sick of these foot injuries; being wet all the time they take forever to heal. I have taken to sewing them up myself, Rambo style.

After again sorting out the mess and setting forth once more on a pretty wild seascape with my heart in my mouth I found I was still a long way off the islands and progressing very slowly. I’d drifted downwind a mile or two whilst capsized and that increased the angle I had to sail against the wind. I was cold and tired with blistered hands. Worse, the sun was descending and I knew that if I did not make the islands before dusk I would have to spend the night adrift in this craziness because it would be foolhardy to approach the unfamiliar reefs without good visibility. I bashed onwards. The sun sank. I could not believe how slowly the islands approached. They tantalized me, I ached for them. I loaded everything impervious to water from my holds onto the trampoline as ballast to keep the boat upright, then climbed out there myself and steered in an awkward position, soaked to the bone. Now I was five miles off and could see a pair of masts in what might be a bay. A long time later I could see the calm water in the lee of one of the islands… ooh, I wanted that. Desesperado and I bashed onwards full of hope and fear in equal measure. We would rise and rise to the crest of a big wave, then our nose would be hanging air, then over we’d go diving down into the deep trench beyond, plunge into the steep face of the next wave, spray everywhere, deck awash, then climb climb again, over and over. How much more of this could we take? I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as much as I wanted to get behind that island.

Just as the sun touched the horizon I limped in. In the circular winds of the bay I was repeatedly backwinded and my mast support stick having been destroyed I was dismasted four times on the way into the bay. Christian puttered out from his yacht Chantauvent and offered to tow me the rest of the way but Desesperado and I may have been sorely battered but we were not beaten, and I made it to a mooring ball alone, the last fifty meters by paddle after a final dismasting. I tied on, laid down on the platform and gasped with relief.

Christian and Marie-Anne invited me to a lobster dinner aboard Chantauvent and it was just wonderful, the food was delicious and they were terrific company so very soon I was forgetting the horrors of the day. What lovely people. The bay was beautiful though still being hammered by random gusts which flattened the water in spreading matt patches, spinning our vessels around on their lines.

This crummy picture does not do the place justice at all. I think it is called Pelican Bay, Cayos Cochinos.

In the morning I had not been up long when I had visitors. Guillermo, Dava and Jim swam a long way out from the beach to offer me all assistance and also breakfast at their place on the stunning beach, one of only a handful of dwellings on the little hilly island. Within a few hours I had fashioned a new bungee stick and repaired the sail.

Guillermo and Dava had their own yacht moored in the bay, the deadly efficent-looking Galatea, pushing forty years old but appearing as though it had just this day rolled off the line. Dava lectures in aerospace engineering at MIT, Guillermo is an architect with involvement in the International Space Station, together they have been working for ten years on a radical new space suit design for NASA. Highly intelligent, likeable, friendly, generous, amazing people. They fed me and gave me a new hat and all was right with the world in this astonishingly idyllic place. The hilly, lush tropical island rose above, the crystal bay stretched out before the beach bursting with fish and turtles. Another island rose from the sea a couple of miles to the west and there were numerous outlying low cays. There was no horrible bass. Life appears very pleasant indeed for all here including the locals from the two small villages who fish and make a little from the few tourists who get out this far; these people (largely Garifuna http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garifuna_people, some Latins) seem well aware that though they may not be rich their lives would be envied by most of the rest of the world. They use sail a little here – tiny crabclaws like mine on their single-hulled dugout cayocos which help with reaching and running but cannot be used effectively upwind. I took Roger and Gerson of the absolutely charming family Rolbel, Falsa, Gerson, Roger and Jairo from Nueva Armenia on the mainland coast who caretake for Guillermo and Dava out for spins to show them what they might do by joining two of their cayucos together – I’d love to try this myself; one could build a fabulous rustic craft for next to nothing, the big hull could be one of the big thirty-footers like the one on Lighthouse Reef pictured on my last post.

Local boat with sail (not a dugout cayuco). This one has an engine too. Fancy.

Cayos Cochinos fading behind

My plan had been to continue to Truhillo on the mainland coast, but now it was imperative to replace the damaged camcleat and that meant doubling back to Roatan where there are yachts. I made this 23 mile run with ease the next day. The anchorage at French Harbor was well protected but I cannot say I am much endeared to the 50km-long island of Roatan; it seems pretty enough but quite charmless; French Harbor is split between a poverty-stricken total dump or American-style shopping centers and bar restaurants with names like “Frenchy’s” and “Bojangles”, all owned by ex-pats. The rich can afford to stay and the rest can’t afford to leave. “I’m on Roatan” goes a song I heard “It’s a sunny place for shady people”. I spent some time with Scotsman Jim on his tiny 21-foot cruiser Little Ben anchored nearby, he had gone transatlantic in this wee bubble which had a bed in it which would shame a mega-yacht. Though the cruisers on the big expensive yachts are friendly I don’t have so much to do with them, the bigger their budgets the less interesting they seem. The most expensive boats of all are the big catamarans, white and characterless, the trailer homes of the sea, brilliantly designed and fabulously comfortable but lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. In some ways I envy them (oh it would be so nice just to get out of the sun which has now fried me almost black) but I would never travel this way.

Typical encounter with a cargo vessel, off Roatan.

I up-anchored and had a tedious and roasting slow day of nearly windless sailing down to Roatan’s West End where I found my friends on Samphire. I have been tied to their stern the last few days in this pleasant but fishless bay, waiting for the now very fresh winds to ease off a bit, wearing earplugs at night against the music from the bars and clubs ashore whilst we scrub and sand and entirely repaint Samphire’s decks so that the boat may be smarter for getting some charter work. She is a fine vessel geared towards expeditions, exceeded in quality only by her captain and first mate; Paul and Twyla are first class shipmates and friends who can take you anywhere. They do not pussyfoot around being a booze-cruising go-nowhere party boat. They are able to offer a full-sized well-equipped and unique expedition vessel for a fraction of the cost one could find anywhere else. Get some friends together, look at some maps, find some tiny archipelago of amazing paradise islands that almost nobody has ever been to (there are a surprising number of these, charter Samphire and have a real adventure that will put a sparkle in your eyes for the rest of your life. (Samphire.ca)

Since I arrived here at the West End it has “Caulkered” (so called by me because I am reminded of all the howling weeks at Cay Caulker) most of the time. The frenzied wailing of Samphire‘s wind turbine is the soundtrack of our lives. I am more nervous than ever about setting sail in high winds, hence I am biding my time. I’ve been playing with the little storm sail that I made in Veracruz but never tested: to use it I must remove and disassemble the rubrail into two parts to use as spars which must be inserted into the sail’s sleeves and attached to the boat with a jury-rigged halyard, sheet and attachment for the tack, plus the mast must have jury stays fixed to it, so the whole thing is a pain in the arse. In the next window (tomorrow I believe) I intend to sail up the north coast of reefy Roatan, hopefully stopping at the independent Garifuna town of Punta Gorda before moving on to the mountainous island of Guanaja. From there I must make a 60-mile open sea crossing to La Mosquitia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Mosquitia) , the mainland coast of Honduras, and then I must continue eastwards against the trade winds until I reach Cabo Gracias a Dios (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabo_Gracias_a_Dios) where I can turn south and run down the Miskito Coast (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miskito_coast) of Nicaragua. Both La Mosquitia and the Miskito Coast are almost unbelievably remote, sparsely populated and unvisited by outsiders. Looking at my map it all appears quite intimidating – Mexico was nothing compared to this.

I’ve been on Desesperado for 11 months but feel like the voyage is about to start all over again.

I have loaded up 37 liters of water and a lot of dried and canned goods, will be catching fish on the way and cooking on the beach if I can reach it through the surf (my propane stove has corroded beyond use). Desesperado is horribly overloaded. I hope I have the courage not to hurry along this next bit. I am a little nervous but I am ready. I guess.

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10 thoughts on “At Sea, No-one Can Hear You Scream

  1. HOLY SHIT, Son!

    Been there — no fun at ALL!!!!

    Here I pictured you coasting along in balmy breezes in perfect comfort, not battling for your life. My fingers (and all other dual extremities) are crossed for you in hopes that the next leg gives you better weather.

  2. Holy Shit Chris!
    I am on the edge of my seat reading your posts.
    If I didn’t know you and understand that you made these decisions on your own, I would be worried about you, however, i know you will succeed with flying colors.
    Stand tallin the faceof danger!
    Safe travels,
    Flaco

  3. HOLY what he said above! Hell story mate and so glad you came through to a lobster dinner and could tell us all about it.

    Just loving your wild adventures and stoicism through it all. Keep us posted, keep safe, happy travels and best regards from Groover

  4. Thank you for sharing your adventure. It looks like a lot of fun.
    Sitting here thinking that I should have been your ballast to Cayos. Oh well…
    Perhaps I should build a proa and follow your track!

  5. I know it’s not quit June yet, but your belongings you left behind near Corpus Christi TX have been found…..and I can tell you that everything is intact except for the tarp.

  6. Chris,
    I have been enjoying your blog and following your SPOT since Mexico, I marvel that you have created your beautiful Desperado and maintained it so well, and sailed it so ably, ventured into the world of the sea and the lands of people with a humble heart and open mind. At this point, your wonderful writing brings adventure close enough to ground my own ideas in your experience. At age 60, I have a bit of some type of place in the world, perhaps something to do for a vocation that is of service, and a heart for adventure, even if it’s only getting lost in the wood 10 minutes from home, and having a back yard full of boats. I try to live amongst my limitations, which feel smaller when reading your inspired accounts. Thank you keep us posted!

  7. Any chance I can find the beginning of this epic story ? I`ve followed from early days but can`t seem to re-read it from the beginning, and would also like to let my sailing friends know about it.

    Steve, Cape Town, South Africa

    • I think the only way to access the early days is to track backwards from the earliest post shown (“older entries” at bottom of page I think).

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