Sailing northern Costa Rica and Nicargua
By Tom Morkin
We savored our last night at anchor in the nearly landlocked Bahia Santa Elena, our last bay in Costa Rica, because we knew that beginning the next day we’d be dealing with strong Papagayo winds along the Nicaragua coast.
Papagayos, more aptly “Gap winds,” are basically the accelerated trade winds that funnel through the narrow and low-lying areas of Central America from December to April. Although much of Central America is mountainous, gaps exist in places like the Bay of Panama, northern Costa Rica, the entire 150 miles of Nicaragua’s west coast and the southern part of El Salvador. The biggest and most treacherous gap area though, lies in southern Mexico’s Gulf of Tehuantepec, home of the infamous Tehuantepec winds, unlovingly referred to as “T Peckers” in the boating world. We’re still four countries and a few hundred miles from the Gulf, so we’ll deal with that later.
We had already been introduced to the Papagayo winds of northern Costa Rica, bashing into 20-25 knots going from Playa del Cocos to Bahia Santa Elena, a distance of 33 miles, much of it directly into the wind. The good news was our course from then on — and all the way to Mexico — was to be more westerly, and the Papagayos blow predominantly from northeast to east, a much better wind angle.
As we were readying to weigh anchor from Bahia Santa Elena, our last anchorage in Costa Rica for Nicaragua, both Feel Free and our buddies on Bag End were visited by a small fishing boat. It turned out to be the same fishermen we met the previous night who requested and received from us a couple of spark plugs to get their 40 year old outboard motor started.
They were successful not only with the motor but with the night’s fishing. Their boat was loaded with fish. With a big smile, one of the three men handed both me and Don on Bag End a five to six pound mackerel- a fine going away present from Costa Rica.
Out of Bahia Santa Elena and into the Gulf of Santa Elena, the winds went from five knots from the northwest to 20 knots from the northeast like someone flicked a switch. The wind was 70 degrees off the starboard bow and with just a single-reefed in main and the staysail, we were looking at six and seven knots and best of all, flat seas.
The sixes and sevens soon morphed into eight and nine knots (that’s 9.9 knots on the meter) and the boat got decidedly tippy and the conditions gusty. By the time we were within five miles of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, and within one mile of shore, the occasional gust hit 40 knots.
Feel Free responded by heeling over and rounding up into the gusts. Initially, I mistakenly assumed that the autopilot couldn’t respond fast enough to keep the boat on course. This was when I disconnected “Benny,” our autopilot, to hand steer. I tried to turn the wheel hard to port- away from the wind only to find the wheel was already at the stop. It was already turned to port, but the boat insisted on going to starboard. For 90 seconds with the wind blowing 40 knots the boat refused to respond to the helm. My first thought was the steering system had failed and visions of various levels of unhappiness invaded my consciousness.
Mercifully, these unwelcome visions disappeared when gusts abated and the boat responded by turning away from the wind. The steering system was okay, the boat just experienced extreme weather helm. The solution: just ease the mainsheet to let the boom and mainsail out. Gee, you would think that with all the miles we put on this boat, we’d know better.
We soon rounded the bold headland on the southeast side of the beautiful, crescent-shaped bay of San Juan del Sur Nicaragua. To the northwest were even higher bluffs complete with a Rio de Janeiro-like statue of the Christ figure overlooking the seaside town.
It was only a 21 mile passage, and a fast one at that, but we were beat. We were happy, though, to be in the gorgeous bay, as windy as it was, our anchor securely attached to the sandy bottom. It could only have been better if someone had turned the fan off.
Two hours and a couple of drinks after our arrival, while still at the dinner table happily eating the mackerel kindly donated by the Costa Rican fishermen, we see a 26 foot panga (an open boat powered by a 60 hp outboard engine) with no less than six uniformed men heading to our boat. This was our Nicaraguan welcoming committee. This committee consisted of three representatives from the navy, two from the Port Captain’s office and one from the Immigration Department. Despite this arrival in the middle of our dinner, the little voice inside my head told me not to tell them to come back after our dinner. Oh no, in fact, we responded the same way we always do when we are approached by officious looking folks carrying guns. We put on our happy faces, look like we’ve been waiting for them forever and extend a most cordial but insincere welcome aboard.
This boarding party responded in the same cordial (and possibly insincere) way. Within 20 seconds, five of these officials were on board, jack boots and all. While the representatives from the Port Captain and Immigration offices brought out their stack of forms to be completed, the Navy boys pored through the boat opening lockers, drawers and cupboards searching for guns and drugs. After finding nothing incriminating, their dispositions improved markedly.
They were aboard for about 30 minutes in total, very polite the entire time, even borderline jovial. They extracted about $50 from us, some for the Port Captain, some for Immigration. Only the navy went away none the richer. I didn’t offer a tip!
The good part of this event was that when they finished with us, we were checked into the country with our passports stamped. No spending half a day or more running from one office to another as is so often the case, especially in Latin American countries.
Our four days in lovely San Juan del Sur were punctuated by the incessant 25 to 30 knot Papagayo winds. One day, the wind was so strong we were afraid to leave the boat unattended, for fear of dragging, so we stayed on board. The other days, though, we went ashore to hike the surrounding hills, always with our new good buddies, Don and Nancy of Bag End, to shop and to eat tacos. We often found ourselves heading to some vantage point where we could look out on the anchorage to reassure ourselves that our homes weren’t floating off to the Philippines.
When it became apparent that the wind just wasn’t going away, we decided we would. So at the crack of dawn on the fifth day in San Juan we single reefed the main and rode the Papagayo express all the way along the remainder of the Nicarguan coast to the Gulf of Fonseca and the border with Honduras and El Salvador. What a ride it was- fast and flat- the wind on the starboard beam, only one or two miles offshore with guaranteed minimal fetch and small waves. The Papagayos lasted almost to the border.
Those Papagayo winds that were once our adversary in northern Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua had morphed into a welcome force of nature after their direction shifted from north northeast to east. As we approached the Gulf of Fonseca and the Honduran coast, the land mass separating the Caribbean from the Pacific increased, causing the Papagayos to decrease to the point that we were disappointed to consider the effects were soon to be finished and soon therefore, Feel Free would have to transform from sailboat to power boat.
We learned from a local that this Rio de Janeiro-like statue of Christ, overlooking the San Juan del Sur harbor, was erected by a Sandanista General in thanks to God for having allowed him to survive a prostate cancer ordeal.
Our last souvenir from Nicaragua.