REEF HOPPING FROM HONDURAS TO PANAMA, September, 2010
 

We spent July and August in the charming Bay Islands of Honduras, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere and wonderful snorkeling and diving. The highlight was a quick visit from our daughter Lisa, who shares our love for those pleasures. We stayed alert for any hurricanes or tropical storms coming our way, planning to scoot south immediately if that happened. Our only deadline was to arrive in Bocas del Toro, Panama, by the end of September, when Rob was due to fly back to the States for some umpiring gigs.

For a change, we planned to take a month to do a week's sail, so we started from Roatan's West End, beat to windward around the island (stopping at some charming bays), then motored against very light tradewinds about 25 miles to Guanaja, the easternmost, and in our opinion, the most charming, of the Bay Islands. Guanaja has no ferry service to the mainland, and hence almost no tourists. There are no roads, either; all travel and transport is by dugout canoes (cayucas) or by a wide range of lanchas, pangas, dories and other motorized open boats.

Columbus stumbled upon Guanaja during his second voyage. He loved the place, especially its pure clean drinking water, with which we also filled our tanks. Despite this Spanish heritage, the current inhabitants are mainly Garafunas (English-speaking descendents of slaves from Dominica) and Jamaicans. The island's capital and main town is Bonacca, itself a tiny bunch of islets connected by narrow bridges. Some 3,000 Guanajans - about a quarter of the island population - call this crowded little town home. Bicycles and the occasional golf cart are the only wheeled transport, and everyone greets everyone in passing, even us strangers. If you ask where to find something, the person you've asked will drop everything and take you by the arm to help you find what you are looking for

We checked out of Honduras in Guanaja. When we went to Immigration for our exit stamps, we discovered the office was closed. We returned a hundred yards or so to the Port Captain's office to ask what to do about this, and he greeted us with the message that the immigration officers were now back in their office. It seems that people had seen us going to Immigration and when the officers returned, these onlookers reported our visit to them. They, in turn, guessed that we would return to the Port Captain, so they called him with the message for us. We immediately retraced our steps to Immigration and cleared ourselves out.

Akka was anchored at a protected bay variously called Sandy Bay or "El Bight", waiting for a weather window to head ESE against the tradewinds toward Panama. The dinghy ride from El Bight into the stores (and bars) of Bonacca is an easy two-mile trip, but we learned it was important to time our travels. The winds are calm in the mornings, but begin to build around noon and really hoot by mid-afternoon. It's downwind to town in the prevailing easterlies, but can be a very wet dinghy ride back to the anchorage if you don't get your business done before lunch!

After a pleasant wait of a few days, we heard a forecast for moderate easterlies (15-20 knots) with a predicted northerly component, so we took off. Akka beats to windward comfortably in that wind range, but a 2-knot current against us made it quite a slog. We were comforted by the knowledge that Colombus had it much worse - he didn't know where the reefs were, of course, so he only sailed by day, heading for the coast every night to anchor. His ships also didn't go to windward very well, so he only made 5 nautical miles or so each day! When he finally reached the cape marking the end of the Gulf of Honduras, he named it "Cabo de Gracias a Dios" (Thank God Cape). In contrast to his months-long ordeal, we made it to the Vivarillos Cays, just past Cabo de Gracias a Dios, in less than 48 hours.

On our second day out, we were hailed on the VHF by a commercial fishing boat, who asked us if we had any lubricating oil to spare. We're never quite sure what to do in this situation - was this a genuine request, or an excuse to pull alongside us and hijack our boat? In the end, we were swayed by the tradition of the sea, and we offered him the two quarts of oil we had on board. The captain expressed his gratitude and said they'd motor over.

No fear. The "Flamingo" soon chugged toward us, all hands waving and smiling. Their freeboard was much higher and sturdier than ours, so we asked them not to try to come alongside. The captain immediately concurred and launched one of the 2-man cayucas (dugouts) they use for fishing. The cayuca crew paddled up alongside Akka, apologized for interrupting our trip, took the 2 quarts of oil and handed us a large plastic bag of fresh frozen seafood, thanking us profusely as they paddled back. The captain echoed their thanks on the VHF, and away they chugged.

Once underway again, we noticed that "Flamingo" was following us. About 2 miles along our route, we saw why - the captain had left one of his cayucas fishing, while he came for the lubricating oil. Each cayuca is crewed by a diver and a paddler - the diver hunts lobsters in scuba gear, 100 feet or so down, and the paddler brings him back and forth to the mother ship. The paddler we saw was alone, way over the horizon from his mother ship, and, we guessed, hoping they remembered where they'd left him. The diver was hoping, we assume, that the paddler remembered where he'd left him.

A fishing boat captain in Guanaja had told us a story about a time when one of his divers didn't return to his cayuca by dark. The paddler came in and reported the missing diver, then went back out into the night to paddle around and find his diver. When the diver was finally located around 10 p.m., his paddler chewed him out for not keeping better track of his time and location! Tough life, tough men.

Andi took the bag below and found 8 small lobster tails, 6 huge conch (cleaned meat only) and 4 cleaned crabs with claws the size of cell phones. The gift kept us in food for the next three days. We had conch fritters for lunch, broiled lobster for dinner, conch ceviche for snacks (twice), lobster salad for another lunch, steamed crab for dinner, and crab and avocado omelets for breakfast (twice)! With each meal, we felt grateful for their generosity and guilty for having had doubts about their intentions.

As we approached the Vivarillos in darkness, we were flanked by a dozen or so fishing vessels with bright floodlights. They stayed well clear of us, so we felt no danger. Just after dawn, we entered the anchorage behind a small mangrove cay and threaded through coral to a lovely sandy spot. Soon the fishing boats approached, seeming to swoop in like large birds with their outriggers up and out on each side, draped with nets and swarming with gulls and frigate birds. It was a lovely sight, and they were quiet, polite company. Unlike the lobster divers who work by day, these shrimpers fish all night then rest during the day. In the late afternoon, one by one they pulled up their anchors and chugged off, leaving us alone in the middle of nowhere.

After two nights, we made a short 20-mile hop to the Cocorocuma Reef, which we had been told was deserted. As we approached the cay, we were surprised to see two motorized lanchas on its small beach. Soon after we anchored nearby, 3 Miskito Indians came over in one of the lanchas. They welcomed us by handing us 4 coconuts. We were delighted and offered to pay for the coconuts, but the Indians would not accept our money. There are 8 Indians and one dog living and fishing on the little cay, about the size of a baseball field. We never learned how long they stay. The next day, they brought us some cleaned conch, and again, would accept nothing in return. It's so humbling to encounter such generosity from people living so close to the edge of existence.

We stayed for two days of beautiful snorkeling, then decided it was time to make some more distance to the east before the southeast trades filled in again. We'd heard good things about the huge Quita Sueno banks about 130 miles ESE of our position, so we headed there. Quita Sueno means "stop dreaming" and it's easy to see how some dreams ended on those reefs -- at least 3 freighters are rusting away on its windward edges. After a reach/motor of about 26 hours, we arrived at Quita Suena at mid-day. Following a complicated string of waypoints we had obtained from a fellow cruiser, we found a nice sand-bottomed area in the middle of the reef, dropped the anchor, set it well, and went below to nap. At 3 p.m., we were awakened by an awful crunching sound as the boat hit some coral. We rushed up to discover that the wind had come up and turned 180 degrees, tripping and dragging our anchor. We hauled it up and now were faced with the choice of trying to re-set it in a place we didn't trust, or finding another anchorage in poor light. We both reached the same conclusion simultaneously: Let's just get out of here and the heck with Quita Sueno. So we retraced our GPS path and headed 60 miles south for Providencia.

We motored the entire way - 14 hours - to Providencia, adjusting our speed so as to arrive in daylight. Although Providencia is owned by Colombia, it's much closer to Nicaragua (less than 200 miles) than Colombia (over 500 miles). We've been there before and really like it, but we didn't want to check into Colombia (i.e., pay $100 in fees), because we didn't plan to stay. We anchored, rested a bit, then launched our dinghy and headed discreetly into town to visit the internet café to tell friends and family where we were and that we were safe. Mission accomplished, a bit of lunch to duck a rainsquall, then back aboard for a good night's sleep.

Our next stop was the Albuquerque Cays, a reef system about 85 NM south of us. Needing to enter the Albuquerque reef system with good sunlight, we left Providencia in the early afternoon. We were able to sail through sunset and into the night, resorting to the engine from 0100 until almost 0600 but sailing again until 0900 when we doused the sails and began our entry into the Albuquerques. We followed a zigzag path around coral heads in this very extensive reef system, taking about 45 minutes with one person on the bow and the other steering, but it was worth it!

The two Albuquerque Cays are occupied: South Cay is leased to about a dozen commercial fishermen who set out daily in pangas to dive for fish; and North Cay is a Colombian military garrison, manned by about 15 marines and their commandant. When we were there last year, the commandant was a 22-year-old corporal. Their mission is to defend the Albuquerque Cays against invasion by the Nicaraguans. Really!

We were going to leave after two days, but just as we were getting ready to weigh anchor we saw a series of rain squalls approaching. One in particular seemed to be headed right for us. Because we needed good light to maneuver through the coral, we decided to wait out the squalls, and by the time they passed, the sun was too low. So we stayed another day. A pretty easy decision, especially when there was beautiful snorkeling in crystal clear water, resulting in a 7 lb snapper and 3 lb porgy.

On September 21st, we deflated the dinghy and stowed it on deck for the 180-mile passage to Bocas del Toro. Just after noon, we threaded our way out of the reefs and headed slightly west of south, motoring in calm wind and seas. At around 3 p.m., we were startled by the approach of a pod of 100 or so common dolphins, flashing and splashing in the sun. They came racing toward us from as far away as we could see - not just gently breaking the surface but leaping high out of the water. Spectacular! Once at the boat, several of them surfed our bow wave for a long while, in groups of 8, 10, 12, sometimes jostling one another for position. What a treat!

Our final night at sea was another calm one, and as spectacular in its calmness as a white-capped sea in bright sunshine. The moon was full and there was no wind at all. The sea was like a mirror, but slowly undulating. The stars were out in all their glory, and even the Milky Way was visible despite the bright moonlight. The moon, stars, and a few wispy clouds all reflected in the water, glowing as brightly below us as above. It was a magical sight. We took 3-hour watches overnight, almost whispering to each other as we changed places in the awesome stillness.

As first light came, we picked up the red lights of the microwave and airport towers of Bocas del Toro, Panama. We were anchored by 8 a.m., in time to check in with the local VHF morning network and be greeted by friends we'd met last year.

In all, we spent 17 days between Guanaja and Bocas, about 150 hours in travel, of which about 1/3 was purely under sail, and the rest motoring or motor-sailing. Two days after we arrived in Panama, tropical Storm Matthew developed in the SW Caribbean and swept through the Vivarillos Cays and the Bay Islands with 40-knot winds and torrential rains. We had timed our magical passage well.