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. Or dead.
Again, I have little time. Desesperado sits at the public dock in one of the dodgiest towns I have ever visited, Bluefields Nicaragua, and I hate to leave him for long. I only came here because I ran off the end of my map and my piece-of-shit Garmin GPS that claimed to be waterproof but wasn’t finally wheezed its last, taking with it the entire record of my journey. It is not good to not know where one is.
I last left you dear reader in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. Port Captain Moreno wouldn’t give me an exit zarpe without a stamp in my passport and immigration wouldn’t give me a stamp without an exit zarpe but after a few beers and a long strange motorcycle ride in the dark and mud (into which we crashed) visiting his favorite bars, or were they brothels – I wasn’t sure, Moreno lightened up and my way was clear. Still, it was insisted that I leave at the time the zarpe dictated so I committed to 5pm and hauled up the anchor through all two feet of muddy lagoon water and before a crowd of 200 on the pier shot off rather dramatically into a nasty wind and blasted through the chop, I mean really blasted, the boat under water as much as above and myself freezing wet, across that lagoon to the naval station at the mouth in only 40 minutes, where I cleared out with those friendly guys. I find navies consistantly gentlemanly in Central America. A night anchored in a cove in the lagoon mouth, then out across the wavy bar early in the morning which I filmed but it was disappointingly easy. Out at sea it was pretty windy and rough and after only two or three miles beating to the east I was forced to shore. I was a mile or two from the nearest village (Kaski) but had an endless stream of lingering visitors all day. They are nice and generous people mostly, bringing me coconuts, yuca (cassava, a tuber something like a delicious waxy potato), beans and rice, fried plantains. Likeable though they are they just don’t go away and I find it extremely wearing trying to entertain guests long after my well of conversation has run dry, and to have many people watching my every move all day becomes a little distressing. I can’t even take a piss, not in front of all those people. I’m English for Christ’s sake. It rained a lot, and they left me alone to read in my shack but were soon back during the lulls.
Many warnings about saltantes (bad guys), but nobody bothered me in the night. At dawn, desperate to escape my already growing audience and the ravaging sandflies I attempted to break through the surf with no wind, under paddle power alone, but a series of freaky breakers washed me and the deck bag overboard and smashed the boat back to the beach. I had neglected to secure or zip the deck bag and lost my entire supply of cordage, anchor rope and all, which was a serious blow. My carbon fiber yard was snappped, and the broken end driven through the sail. Damn. I must expect setbacks but they are harder to take when they occur through one’s own stupidity.
Another day on the beach making repairs. Endless tedious visitors. Had I time I would tell you much about them and the Miskito. Next day I broke through the surf and fought the strong easterly all day, tacking and bashing along working hard not to capsize. I spotted the Harmac III, a big steel fishing boat anchored off the coast and I boarded, scrounged enough nylon fishing line from them to be able to reef my sail ( for I had lost all my cordage), and carried on loaded with the coconuts they also gave me. This is weather I would prefer not to sail in but I saw no choice. It was this,rough and tough, or no progress at all. I advanced only 20 miles and came ashore at dusk, worked the boat up the beach, made a little fire and cooked rice and the fish I’d caught. It is now my tactic to land on the beach at dusk and to leave at dawn, hoping for enough rain to deter the turtle and bale hunters (I do not have to hope very hard for rain). Alone on the beach I am at the mercy of saltantes.
I was here for four days on the beach near Usibila. The Miskito were charming and brought me many meals (always some combination of rice, red beans, yuca, plantains, fried chicken and maybe a river fish from inland. They could no more venture into the sea to fish than I could as the easterlies raged and the surf, muddy brown from the rivers, roared and gnashed. I was glad to leave finally, into an unreasonably rough ocean but with the wind a little more favorable enabling me to make twenty fast miles and at last round Cabo Gracias a Dios (Cape Thank God, so named by Columbus himself apparently as he too took weeks to round it in the face of these fierce easterlies) and to start my way down the coast of Nicaragua. I got backwinded and broke the mast-support bungee stick but must have done about 70 miles that day, landing again at dusk, fire, rice with a fish steamed on top, and to bed in the rain. In the morning, I awoke surrounded by saltantes.
There were four of them, out combing the beach for lost bales of cocaine, They’d found me instead. Youngish men, their leader (with the longest machete) a scary fellow with a lopsided psychopathic leer permanently on his face. He demanded money, I refused. ¨I owe you something?¨ ¨Yes, for landing on our beach¨. They started going over the boat, opening things, spreading my garbage bag about, more interested in the contents of the boat than the boat itself. I kept my cool, pushed them aside, restored order to the garbage. ¨You are my first Nicaraguans I said¨Is this my welcome to your land? Is this your hospitality?¨Give us money¨. No. I would not. ¨Why don’t you give me money?”
Give me money, says the leader. Give me money, I imitated. I offered them some extra rice I had, which they accepted, but soon it was ¨give me money ¨again. It was getting pretty scary. I cannot fight four guys. I didn’t like the way things were going.
This could all have ended very badly but just then a lancha appeared, though it was full of paying passengers running from Sandy Bay to Puerto Cabezas it was skirting the shore because it is always worth looking for bales. They stopped and the captain waded ashore for a look at my boat. Now there were witnesses and the four guys were robbed of their opportunity to fuck me. Whew. I got a chance to thank the captain later in Puerto Cabezas. I pushed off, ran the surf, did not look back at my persecutors.
I found a very pleasant surprise – the sea was alive with sailboats.
Five were tacking north, two south. I heaved-to and waited for one to catch up. An open wooden double-ender, engineless, around 34 feet in length, three crew, a big crabclaw mainsail with a boomed jib. Very elegant and as I was to find out, pretty fast too. These boats are known as “catboats” here and are used to carry goods and passengers up and down the coast as well as to go lobstering and fishing on the offshore banks and reefs. I saw many displays of great skill on the part of their crews during the next few days.
¨Anira ow ma?¨ I asked in Miskito, where are you going? (Pretty fancy eh?)
¨Puerto!¨(Cabezas, where I was heading to check in to the country)
¨Pein!¨ (Good) ¨Letsgo!” (The Miskito people were a British protectorate for 200 years and many such phrases entered their language, as well as corrupted words such as “Tinki” – thankyou)
We raced downwind all twenty miles to Peurto Cabezas at between 8 and 11 knots, neck and neck the whole way, neither of us able to gain an advantage. It was thrilling. We roared into Cabezas side by side.
The problem with Puerto Cabezas is that there is no Puerto. Nothing but a great oily wooden pier sticking out into the open ocean. No shelter at all. This pier was once three quarters of a mile long and used to load bananas and lumber but revolution fighting put an end to that trade and a hurricane gnawed the pier down to 300 yards. A soldier waved me over to tie to this pier, they have the rustiest machine guns here. Port Captain Calderon was most civil and likeable but immigration was another matter; I was grilled for a long long time by a rather scary individual who did not believe that anybody would do what I am doing without some kind of ulterior motive. Perhaps I was an agent of the US government of some kind? I get this a lot. People think I am DE and the craziness of my boat and voyage are just a bluff. I suspect that this impression may be working to my advantage, for one thing people assume I must have a gun. I am careful not to disillusion people. On the beach when they tell me that the saltantes are likely to come to rob me I laugh and say “Let them come! I am ready. Maybe they should be afraid of me.”
At length Mr. Plainclothes Immigration jefe asked me. “Are you looking for bales?”
“It is not what I am here for but I do sail with my eyes open”
“What would you do if you found a load of drugs?
” I do not know anyone to trust here. It probably spells death for me to touch them. I wold have to leave them I expect”
“And if you found a bale of cash?”
” I am not an angel”
This cracked his first smile, he knew I was not lying then. He lightened up and then it only remained for me to pay about US$200 for the privilege of entering Nicaragua. Sigh.
It was too late now to leave. I needed new cordage, to fix the mast support stick, to get food. I could remain tied to the pier on the open sea, bouncing up and down all night, or I could run in to the beach and take my chances with the drunks and thieves in the night. It was a difficult choice. Lobster season has been closed for three and a half months, it reopens in two weeks but this is really the only industry and people are really desperate at this time of year. I chose the ocean, and regretted it.
To cut a long story short it was the worst night of my trip,, no sleep, violently shaken around all night, the platform flexing alarmingly under my back, soaked by rain and sea. I thought the boat would come apart. It got so bad I had to cast off from the pier, paddle out in the rain against the wind and anchor using the rope loaned by Captain Calderon, in the lee of an ancient bunker ship moored to the pier, which helped a bit for a short while. By morning 1.5 meter wavers were rolling through; one broke clear over the boat completing the process of soaking my bed. When daylight finally came I ran the surf to the beach, a great crowd appeared and hauled me out, many dodgy guys but many nice ones too, and Lino appeared, stored my things in his shed, watched over my boat parked amongst the ones he was repairing on the beach. I spent the day taking care of business and drying my things, big audience, further interviews with dour plainclothes cops. Nicaragua is uptight!
In the morning out to sea, south, a long run in the rain and many squalls, a night on the beach alone. A man appeared in the morning but Roberto turned out to be harmless but hungry and I fed him. People are fighting over food, he said. He was walking the 50 or so beach miles to Cabezas in the hope of finding work on a lobster boat. I got out through the surf diagonally for the wind was dead against me, tricky work, another long day running south, hit by 9 squalls, much rain and thunder but I did not have to take the sail down even though it was not reefed. I hoped to land at an island but on arrival I found it to be a waveswept rock, beachless and barren except for birds, so I turned for land and got there through bad surf at sunset, hauled out on the steep beach with great difficulty. A lovely beach, white sand, palms, but a bad mosquito problem and awful rain, all night. I had not managed to get much dry at P. Cabezas so now everything was in a bit of a state, rotting clothes, wet bed, wet food even. I struggled to get a fire going long enough to make a double ramen extravaganza then the rain put it out and I went wetly to my hovel.
A buggy escape in the morning, no people, a successful bash through bad surf. In a few miles I saw a town and rounded a headland to enter a lagoon. I did not know where I was, the GPS having croaked, but fishermen informed me that yonder was Bluefields and even though I had checked out of the country at Cabezas I had planned to visit here on the pretext of some maritime emergency. The fishermen tell me they work twelve hours a day, seven days a week because the fishing is too irregular to sustain them otherwise.
So here I am, looking for stuff, talking endlessly with my audiences, fending off people who pretend to be my friend but then ask for cash, trying to get moving again. I am having to be hard and aggressive sometimes. This is a Garifuna town and pretty tough around the docks. I do not like it much, everyone is hustling and I am the only whitey I’ve seen, which spells money to most. Some folks heve been great, especially the lobster fishing boat crews. These steel boats go out and drop up to a two thousand big traps on the banks, ferrying them out in relays. The traps are wire and wood and measure around four feet square and 16 inches deep, and are baited with cowhide so that they can be left down for up to a month. They are laid out in strings and no bouys are used – other boats would just steal them if they were marked so obviously – GPS is used to find the traps, a hook is dragged along the bottom to pick up the line. I’ve had two nights at the dock and will leave today as I have managed to procure a new GPS at great expense, and an old chart of the coast. The next run is to the Costa Rican border, then likely I will check in at Limon. The coast is a bit worrying, known for its bad surf (it is deep all the way up to the edge of the beach, unlike most of Nicaragua which had extensive shoals which break the waves and keep the surf low). If I cannot land I must sail all night. Me no likey sail all night. Also, I am told that the coast guard is patrolling pirate alley off the coast, the main route to Panama, so all the pirates are closer to shore where I will be. Too many bad stories. I plan to sail about eight miles offshore so I cannot be seen from land, from whence the pirates would come.
To be honest, I am tired. Tired of the squalls, the rain, the bugs, the heat, the food, the many needs of the boat and its limitations which I have to ignore at my peril, the dangers of the people, the sleepless nights, the squalor of every place I visit. I did not expect that this trip would be “fun” exactly, but I did hope that it would be more than a gruelling ordeal. I take a huge risk with every landing I make; I am a target here, I feel this acutely, and it is up to the saltantes whether or not I live or die. If I keep doing this sooner or later the laws of probablity dictate the worst. I will continue onwards to Panama but I do not think I will go any further, that is far enough. Desesperado will have to be sold or maybe shipped back to the States on some ship coming through the canal, but that will take a big favor from a friendly captain.
I have a friend at Boca del Toros in Panama, I will write from there. I sail in an hour.