Lake El Golfete

February 28, 2003. Lake El Golfete, Guatemala.

N 15 deg. 46′ 56″
W 88 deg. 47′ 56″

Wednesday we left Utila, Honduras for the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. To arrive at the entrance of the river on a rising tide, we needed to leave in the middle of the afternoon. So we planned one last snorkeling on the outer reef of Utila in the morning to get another chance at catching the whale shark. We took Temptress outside the reef and tied her to one of the diving mooring provided by the island. The dive was not nearly as interesting as the previous day. The reef was deeper (so there was less light to see the fish) and less varied. Although the day was very calm, with no wind, a slight swell was making Temptress rock too much for comfort. So after the dive, we got underway even though it was barely noon. We would just have to anchor near the river entrance until the tide was high enough to pass the shallow bar.

As Clark was below, scooping chili into bowls for our lunch, I spotted a circle of fish jumping out off the water as if they were being chased by a larger predator. Then I saw what I thought was a black fin cutting the water near the fish. I yelled whale and Clark put down the chili and rushed on deck. Temptress passed within 3 feet of a 20-foot whale shark! The fin was actually its tail which it uses as a rudder to turn. As we drifted pass, it sat a couple of feet under water, slowly starting to turn away. We had a very good look at it. Then, Clark grabbed the wheel to turn the boat so we could follow it and maybe even dive with it. Whale shark are slow and not aggressive. But turning broadside to the swell got Temptress rocking again, so much so that one bowl of chili waltzed on the floor, chili first, as Clark watched in dismay. We stopped the chase before we lost another bowl. We are not sure we could have caught up with it anyway. But we were happy to have seen the elusive creature, which one hotel owner in Copan said did not exist in the Bay islands (my guidebook said it was often seen near Utila).

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The trip to Guatemala was uneventful, about 20 hours equally divided between sailing, motor-sailing and motoring. The wind was pretty light and the seas calm so I did not get sick. In the morning, we anchored about 10 miles from the Rio Dulce entrance, in the protection of Cabo Tres Puntas, and went to sleep. At noon, we motored toward the entrance and inched our way over the bar. We saw as little as 6.1 feet of water and Temptress is about 5.5 feet deep! We anchored off Livingston, a small bustling town with a mixed population of Mayans in traditional dress and Caribbean Blacks. The Port captain was supposed to come to the boat but we gathered on the radio that he was in a long meeting and we finally decided to follow the crew of the two other boats which had arrived and went into town to start the entry procedures with immigration and customs.

The immigration office did not seem very organized but the official was actually quite efficient, checking the paperwork of one person while another filled the form and a third one came back to pay the fee. We then went to customs where the official apologized, in english!, for not coming to the boat. He explained that it was a very busy day and started filling several forms while talking on the phone. It was not a fast process but it turned out he was filling in the forms for the Port Captain as well as customs. The Port captain then came in his office, apologized himself profusely for not coming to the boat, welcomed us to Guatemala, and explained that his meeting was with Honduran and Belizean officials to revise fishing boundaries between the three countries (a very thorny problem). He then translated courteously in English the Spanish text of the form (a first in Central America) and claimed his fee. This is the friendliest welcome we have had in Central America. It was a bit expensive at $92 for check-in and out (more expensive than Costa Rica and Honduras which annoyed Clark since we will not spend much time here, about the same cost as Panama and cheaper than Mexico). We managed to finish the paperwork by five, did a little grocery shopping and went back to the boat to move to another anchorage, as the spot in front of the city dock was rolly.

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In the morning, we entered the Rio Dulce canyon, motoring between walls as tall as 300 feet and covered with jungle vegetation. The air was full of a rich green earthy perfume, which I wish I could bottle, and the water, reflecting the vegetation, was also deep emerald. Egrets were fishing here and there, as were Mayans in their shallow dugout canoes. Some fog still floated over the river adding mystery to the beautiful scenery. It was very impressive and offered quite a contrast with the deep Caribbean blue water and sky of the Utila reefs. Living on a boat, we are not used to be surrounded by green.

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After a few miles, the tall walls disappeared. We stopped first at the entrance of a smaller river, and went to explore with the dinghy. There were quite a few houses on the shore, all with thatched roof and with families doing laundry or feeding turkeys and chickens outside. One fork of the river ended up in rocky pools in the shade of the jungle, a nice cool spot with crystal clear water. The next stop was by a scalding-hot spring right on the shore of Rio Dulce. Steam was rising near a few small holes in the rocks and some boulders formed a little pool in front of the source, with vegetation hanging overhead. We went into the pool but had to keep stirring the water to mix in cool water and avoid being burned! We wanted to try to cook eggs in the source but the thermometer registered only 132 F (55C) not quite enough. Too bad, we had imagined soft-cooked eggs for lunch! It was a fun stop anyway. I swam back to the boat, which was very pleasant in the fresh water. No need for a shower to rinse off the salt.

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The river is the road, so the school is right on the shore.

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After lunch, we continued on to the first lake on the Rio Dulce, called El Golfete, and anchored Temptress next to an island with a great view over the lake for tonight’s sunset. The calm is almost eerie, with no wind in the early afternoon, flat water, no inhabitants with noisy fowls or dogs, just the sounds of birds and frogs. It is very peaceful.

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Ragged Cay

February 25, 2003. Ragged Cay, Utila, Honduras.

You will not find Ragged cay in your atlas. It is a tiny island with a few coconut trees near the east tip of Utila. We moved near it this morning to get closer to the outer reef where we heard that some divers saw the famous whale shark. The whale shark is a filter feeder shark which can reach 60 feet. Even though the chance of seeing it while snorkeling around the reef was pretty slim, I was excited to at least try it. I will tell you right away that we did not see it but we had some of the best snorkeling ever in the vicinity of Ragged Cay.

In the morning we went east of the cay, around the tip of Utila and snorkeled over a flat and thin forest of purple fans (a soft coral) and sea rods. The reef was very shallow so that sunlight penetrated the water all the way to the bottom which was white, helping to brighten the underwater world. Because of the abundant light, we could see the bright colors of the fish better than ever. The numerous fat parrot fish, wearing turquoise, pink and yellow colors were almost shocking in their brightness and the large queen angelfish with its elegant coat of shimmering yellow and royal blue and striking blue marks on a yellow face was an advertisement for Kodak color film!

In the afternoon, we snorkeled west of the cay in a beautiful and undamaged coral forest full of nooks and crannies where the fish seemed to have great fun playing hide and seek, or defending a favorite spot. The coral was very diverse, growing on mounds between which narrow alleyways were inviting us to explore. The fish was colorful, plentiful, and still quite bright as the coral forest was shallow. We assume that this spot is seldom visited by snorkelers as it is too far from the main town of Utila. Scuba divers do go longer distance to find a good diving spot, using speedboats, but our spot was too shallow and crowded with coral for them. This likely explains the fact that the coral was pristine. We exhausted ourselves following fishes we wanted to identify. They were so many beautiful, colorful, gaudy, sparkly fish that we wanted to remember! And the landscape of coral was very interesting in itself. The place was so bewitching that I was willing to dive below the surface repeatedly to seek fish hiding below a ledge, or to get a closer look at a particular fish. When we returned to the boat, we nearly filled all the blanks in our fish identification book.

So far my favorite snorkeling spots include Isla Isabella in Pacific Mexico, Lemon Cays in the San Blas and Ragged Cay in Honduras. But Belize and the Caribbean side of Mexico still await. Finding good snorkeling spots is also a game of chance. Our favorite location in Utila was the fourth we tried and nobody recommended it to us. We found it by chance. The other three were fine but not nearly as exciting. There are a dozen more around here.

We plan to sail to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala tomorrow. The trip will take about 20 hours (one overnight). The Caribbean coast of Guatemala is very short but it gives access to a river (Rio Dulce) and two interior lakes in a tropical jungle setting. So it will be a fresh water vacation for the boat.

We told you in our previous email that we had finally got our tuner back. Clark installed it yesterday and surprise…it worked! The Panamanian technician had told us he could not fix it but Clark assumes that he simply had bad testing equipment. After all, he had replaced nearly all the integrated circuits in the tuner. So now we can check in the cruisers net and keep track of new friends as we move north.

Water cays

 

February 22, 2003. Water cays, Utila, Honduras.

N 16 deg. 03′ 55″
W 86 deg. 58′ 32″

 

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You know you are in the Caribbean when a cruise ship crosses your path.

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Last Thursday, we finally left Roatan and motor-sailed to Utila, the western-most island in the Bay Islands group. It was an easy 5 hours trip with calm seas and light wind. We anchored between several small cays in deep Caribbean blue water with wavy turquoise strips showing where the reefs are. It is just like on postcards from the Caribbean! Some of the smaller cays have just one house on them, some for rent. So if you dream of a vacation on your own deserted island, you can rent the place and you will be dropped there by boat with provisions and cut off from the rest of the world.

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We took a walk on one of the cays

The day we arrived was David’s birthday (from sv Zia Lucia) and, even though we arrived at the last minute, we were invited to join the party hosted by mv Gabrielle. Mv (motor vessel) Gabrielle is a large power boat with an interior more like a condo. We were seated on real chairs around a large table richly decorated for the birthday. Brigitte, the hostess, is an accomplished cook and we had a wonderful meal.

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Happy hour aboard Temptress

We have snorkeled around a couple of the shallow reefs and seen some new fish. It is nice to be able to dive right of the boat without having to take the dingy on a long trip. The water is rather cool but since the weather is very sunny and hot, it is a really nice to jump in the sea to cool off.

Today Clark attacked a few projects: place a new seal in the leaky raw water pump (unfortunately it did not fix the problem), polish the alternator and pump pulleys rusted by the leaking sea water, replace the alternator belt (destroyed by the rusty pulleys), and fix the bilge pump switch float (by gluing cork to compensate for its loss of buoyancy). The engine is also leaking oil but he has not yet found out where. It will be time to replace a few things when we get to Florida!

West End

February 19, 2003. West End, Roatan, Honduras.

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We have spent the last ten days in West End, Roatan, mostly waiting for our radio tuner to catch up with us. Rachel, on sv Ventana, carried it from Panama City (where it was being repaired) up to Guanaja, where another boat took it to bring it to Roatan. We finally got it on Monday. The Panamanian technician was not capable of repairing it so we wasted money paying for his inspection and spare parts but he did say it worked on some frequencies. He didn’t offer a refund of the repair fee he charged (about 1/3 of the cost of a new tuner) but said in his e-mail that he would give us a discount on the next thing we needed fixing in Panama. Like we would ever be in Panama again or would use his services! We will install it, hoping it will tune the radio on the frequency of the morning cruiser’s net. Our other tuner, built in the radio, can only tune a few ham frequencies which, fortunately, work for email, but it will not tune on marine single sideband, where the cruiser’s net takes place.

Clark took out the huka (floating compressor feeding us air through long tubes so we can dive without tanks on our back) from the lazaret, after having decided that I (Birgitta) was ready to go under water. I had gotten a lot more comfortable with snorkeling in the San Blas islands so I promised to give diving a try, although, since I am risk-adverse and scared of Scuba diving, I was not very enthusiastic. Since he had not used the huka since last year, it needed a bit of maintenance, meaning that he had to clean the jets in the carburetor which were plugged with old fuel turned to varnish. Once it was fixed, we went back to the spot called “Blue Channel” in the reef of West End for a trial. The first time, I used the huka without weights on me, just getting used to breathe with the regulator. The second time, I more a weight belt and slowly went down up to 20 feet under the surface. I was scared and had trouble clearing my ears but did enjoy seeing fish above as well as below me. The channel between two walls of coral was interesting enough to distract me from thinking how far the surface was. I did not have quite enough weight on me so I needed to swim continuously downwards to avoid floating up. This meant I could not stop to observe a particular fish or piece of coral. I look forward to be able to do that next time we go out, likely in the next island. I am not an eager diver yet but maybe I will learn to relax and enjoy it.

Other maintenance involved replacing the autopilot computer. Clark had installed our spare in French Harbor because the primary computer seemed to be loosing power (tired transistor he says). The spare had been repaired in Seattle before we left but unfortunately, they did not install the software upgrade we had requested, as we found out on our way from French Harbor to West End. This means that the autopilot makes constant annoying and unnecessary adjustments, wasting power and making a lot of noise. So Clark reinstalled the primary computer which still provides enough power in normal sea conditions. Again shoddy workmanship from those who claim to be technicians. Last time they actually broke it and didn’t bother testing it. We tried it just before leaving and had to send it back. It caught up with us when we were in southern California which was too late to bother testing it again. Never buy Navico or any product owned by Simrad.

We also took advantage of being so close to a resort village with easy shore access, and went out for drinks with friends (two planter’s punch heavy with rum for $3 is a pretty good deal!), saw a couple of movies (just a TV under a thatched roof bar), and bought ice cream and fresh French baguette bread (luxuries for cruisers).

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Yesterday, we took the dinghy to West Bay beach (separate from West End beach), which is supposed to be one of the 10 best beaches in the world, according to a travel magazine. Clark claims the ranking is solely based on the advertisement budget of the beaches but nevertheless I did find the beach pretty, mostly because all the hotels, restaurants and bars were hidden behind a curtain of palm trees and surrounded by tropical vegetation so that the beach looked very natural, a long white crescent backed by a lush green wall. The buildings themselves, if you went behind the palm tree curtains, were of much higher quality than the rickety wooden construction of West End. Of course everything is more expensive in West Bay compared to West End. We have seen prettier beaches during our travel, particularly in Panama, but mostly much smaller and inaccessible without a boat.

On the way back, Clark noticed our 7.5 HP outboard engine releasing a big gob of oil, likely meaning the head gasket needs replacing. The outboard engine had been running poorly lately and since we do not have a spare gasket for it (we bought it used in Mexico and never assembled a complete set of spares for it), Clark retired it and dug our smaller 4 HP backup. Unfortunately, the 4 HP engine also needed work after spending a year in the lazaret. Clark spent a couple of hours disassembling the motor and clearing the cooling system, injecting concentrated vinegar with a syringe to dissolve the salt and calcium deposits. After much groaning and swearing, he got the engine back together and running well. What a relief! We did not look forward to row everywhere.

Today, we went to Coxen’s hole by bus to get our exit zarpe from the Port Captain and get our passports stamped by immigration, so we can leave tomorrow for Utila. Utila is the western-most island in the Bay Islands group and boasts good diving around the little cays near its tip. It is still in Honduras but since the Utila immigration officer is seldom in his office, it is safer (if not 100% according to the rules) to get the exit paperwork done in Roatan so we can go directly to Guatemala from Utila.

While we were there, we bought a bit more liquor which is really inexpensive here: gin, scotch and rum. My current favorite drink is gin and tonic. My taste vary with temperature, below 80F it is hot chocolate, between 80 and 85F, rum and coke or planter’s punch, 85 to 90F, gin and tonic, and above 90F, tequila is needed in the 13 degree north (our own creation of tequila, rum and grapefruit-flavored soda). Clark has started to enjoy scotch on the rocks.

We hope you are all doing well.

West End

 

February 10, 2003. West End, Roatan, Honduras.

N 16 deg. 17′ 51″
W 86 deg. 35′ 46″

The weather has been sunny, warm with steady trade winds for a week now. It looks like winter is over in the Bay Islands and it feels like we are on vacation again.

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A few days ago, we went hiking around the west tip of the island. We started in the resort town called West End, walked along the long beach and hiked up the island ridge to get great views of the slopes on both sides of the island. It was a hot but nice long walk. While in West End, we took a look at the anchorage where the bulk of the cruiser fleet has moved in the last week. It is supposed to have poor holding if the wind blows hard, which is why most boats stayed in French Harbor during “winter”. But it is more protected from the trade winds, has a beautiful beach and good snorkeling. Since the weather appears settled, we moved yesterday from French Harbor to West End.

anchor

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We put a second anchor down for our trip to Copan last week. It turned out to be a really good idea as the wind really came up while we were away as we wrote before. Trying to recover the anchors turned out to be really hard. The anchor chains were twisted and bound together at both of the kellets. The smaller anchor was tied in a mess into the larger anchor chain. After I recovered the gear up to the kellets we brought the dingy on board. So the anchor mess had to be cleared from the yacht. It was really hard to do but about a half of an hour of hard labor later we had both systems up and stowed. I think I will try tandem anchors next time I want more holding power then our main gear. Two chains from the bow pose too much of a recovery problem and they are likely to foul each other. I have only laid 2 from the bow twice on this trip and each time recovery has been a problem.

Today, we went snorkeling along a pass in the reef. There were many fishes, as this is a marine park where fishing is prohibited, and the water visibility was quite good. We were swimming along a straight wall of coral and I felt like I could get fear of heights looking down. We need to get a fish guide book for the Caribbean to start putting names on the new fishes we are seeing here.

Next week we are likely to move to the last of the Bay Islands, called Utila. Then we will move on to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.