Ithaka

Aiming For The Corner

By Bernadette Bernon
April 12, 2002
Cayo Grande Vivorillo, Honduras, Central America
15° 50.068' N 83° 18.106' W

Sunday, 5 p.m.: As I write, Douglas is on watch, and Ithaka is beating into 20 to 25 knots of easterly trades, as we slowly gain ground toward "The Corner," where the coast of Honduras takes its sharp turn to the south just north of the infamous Cabo Gracias a Dios. Cruisers all talk about this as a short but somewhat tricky voyage, one to get behind you with dispatch, as it's notoriously fraught with contrary strong winds and currents, and a treacherous lee shore of reefs.

Photo of anchorage at Sandy Bay, Guanaja
The anchorage at Sandy Bay, Guanaja.

We left Guanaja yesterday at 4 p.m., with a rare favorable forecast of north-north-easterlies expected to continue for two days — plenty of time, we thought — to make a 150-mile rhumb line of 105 degrees to the Vivorillos Cays, a possible first stop from which to turn south. We set off, in company with three other boats — Rotuma, Sand Dollar, and Filia — and our hopes high for an efficient passage. Unfortunately, the strong trades have returned a day earlier than expected, and we've had to harden everything up and point as high as we can. We'd all like to make the Vivorillos before dark tomorrow, but with this wind direction and the one-knot current against us, it's not the shoe-in it was when we set out yesterday.

Photo of Beryl and Derek Conner Beryl and Derek Conner sail Rotuma half the year, and return to their home in the Lake District of England for the other half. This season, they plan to leave the boat in a marina in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Over the past 24 hours, the four boats have split naturally into pairs. Filia (a Hallberg-Rassey 41) and Sand Dollar (a 43-foot Bob Perry design) sail at about the same speed and can stay together, remarkably within a couple of miles of one another. Rotuma (a Contest 43) and Ithaka (a Shearwater 39) are more similar in speed as well, and we've pulled ahead of the other two boats. That said, Rotuma with her wing keel and racy profile points like nobody's business, and we've been seeing a lot more of her transom than we do her bow light! Still, we're holding our own. Every six hours we all check in with one another, as this is a coast that's had its share of trouble — mostly cruisers stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time, interrupting drug transactions, sometimes resulting in missing boats and missing people. It's generally considered a good idea to make this passage in company with another boat.

The miles are ticking by as Ithaka is steered by our Monitor self-steering vane. We still haven't settled on the right name for him, but we're working on it. He has the steadiest hand on this boat! Since we removed the attachment lines from the wheel, and hooked the Monitor up to a 31-inch stub tiller that fits into the top of our rudder, it's been dead simple to engage and adjust, and on this jaunt, he's been clawing his way upwind far better than Douglas and I could have managed. Show me a group of cruisers, and I'll show you a crowd that after the first hour at sea hates driving!

Photo of moonrise lighting Ithaka's path eastward The moonrise lights Ithaka's path eastward.

Sunday, 10 p.m.: We have a full moon, which, for me, takes all the pressure off passagemaking at night. You can see ahead of you, and muse, and enjoy the beautiful panorama and peacefulness. There are fewer things to hit or get hit by, lots of safe, deep water for miles and miles; it's a wonderful feeling. I like to tuck in the corner of the cockpit for my watch, with an egg timer, in case I fall asleep. I set the timer for 10 minutes, and read my book — I'm into Tolkien's The Hobbit at the moment — the timer goes off, I check the horizon, see nothing, check the wind speed and direction — still accursed east at 21 knots and, worse news, it's tending now toward the southeast — reset the timer, and resettle into the doings of Bilbo Baggins. "Adventures are nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!" he's saying. "Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them."

Photo of teddy bear guarding veggies Percival guards the veggies, and hangs on for dear life as Ithaka beats to windward.

Monday, 9 a.m.: During our morning chat with the other boats on the SSB, we learn that Filia has blown out their 13-year old headsail, is sailing under main and staysail, but still making good progress, with Sand Dollar slowing down a bit so both boats can stay together. Rotuma and Ithaka are out of VHF range of the other two boats now, and we've both fired up our iron gennies to point as high as we can and keep our speed up; otherwise, it looks like we'll just miss making a daylight landfall today. For Filia and Sand Dollar, there's no longer any chance of making it today, even if they motorsail. For them, it's going to be one more night of beating — but they can anticipate the pleasure of another moonrise, which I hope we'll be sleeping through.

On the morning Northwest Caribbean Net at 8 a.m., we got a call from Jack at Lighthouse on Guanaja. He wanted to know how it's going and where we are. He told us he'll miss us. Ages ago, it seems now, we'd heard from cruising friends in the Río Dulce all about Jack, a Honduran educated in the United States, and his wife Elizabeth, from Florida. They'd made their home in Guanaja with their three children after Jack had worked on a development project there, and after they'd fallen in love with the island. They'd started a school in Guanaja, which is Elizabeth's focus, and were helping to build a hospital on the north coast, among other things.

Photo of Jack and Elizabeth Jack and Elizabeth had us up to the house for dinner a few times, and they opened their beautiful home and put on a potluck dinner for all the cruisers in the anchorage.

Before we got to know them ourselves, we'd heard "Jack at Lighthouse" check in on the morning SSB cruisers' net many times as he offered assistance or advice to sailors seeking his local knowledge, or when he checked the weather with Dave before taking his plane up. "Y'know, out here," he'd told us, with the sparkle of a little boy, "I really get to fly!" He navigates that Cessna all over creation, whipping over to the mainland for supplies, rushing out to the remote Mosquite on his frequent emergency medical evacuation trips, larking off for the occasional high adventure, working on his humanitarian projects, landing in open patches of jungle, or on beaches or just about anywhere where there's no airstrip.

When we'd first anchored in Sandy Bay, Guanaja, we saw Jack in action. Every few days he took his skiff around the harbor, stopped by any new cruising boats to check on things, shoot the breeze, let them know where they could get drinking water, dispose of garbage, provision, check in; he's a self-appointed ambassador of Guanaja to the cruising community. Also visiting Jack and Elizabeth were Yoav and Pnina and their daughter Netta, on Summer Wind, from Israel, whom we'd gotten to know in the Río; and Al and Teresa Jacobs, our teacher friends from La Ceiba, who'd flown over to Guanaja to visit us for a week to celebrate Teresa's doctorate, and who were now staying as houseguests at, you guessed it, Lighthouse. We had hilarious times with these generous friends.

Photo of Pnina and Yoav Greenstein Pnina and Yoav Greenstein came to Lighthouse where Elizabeth and Jack put together an interdenominational group to celebrate the Passover Seder.

For quite some time during our last days on Guanaja, we'd been on the alert for a weather window so that we could head east again. But at the same time, Guanaja had exerted a pull on us that the dramatic landscape alone didn't explain. It had been hard to leave. Although the tops of the mountains may have been bald-headed from the beating they'd taken from Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the island is still a major beauty: rolling green hills clawing down to brilliant turquoise waters, a north rampart of pristine beaches, and a south coast of bays well protected from northers and the eastern trades. From our anchorage at Sandy Bay, we could dinghy the mile or so into bustling Bonacca Cay (jokingly referred to as the Venice Of The Bay Islands!) when we needed provisions — the supply boat kept the island's little tiendas well stocked with great-looking produce — or we could dinghy in to Lighthouse, near where Giovanni and Laura have their restaurant, and above which Jack and Elizabeth live in the beautiful house they built overlooking the anchored boats. As always, it was the friends we made that had held us fast.

"We'll miss you, too, Jack!" I said over the radio. "Come and visit us in Panama at the San Blas!"

"I'll do that!" he said. "I'll fly down!" We have no doubt he will.

Photo of deserted white beach on Honduras The deserted white beaches of Honduras.

Monday, 12 p.m.: We calculate and recalculate our ETA, and it's going to be a close one — maybe too close. The Vivorillos are reefy little cays atop a shallow bank, out in the middle of the ocean, and we need good light to make a safe landfall. It's clear now that Rotuma, with her 100-horsepower diesel — what Derek calls his Jolly Green Giant — can make it if they put the pedal to the metal. Ithaka is moving well, but making slower progress. For us, it's more touch and go. Douglas and I discuss alternatives. We can just ease up, crack off, and head out to sea for another night, and make landfall tomorrow morning at the Vivorillos. Or we could head on to Media Luna, another small cay 65 miles further south. The latter, we both admit, would be a bit of a bummer, as we really wanted to make the Vivorillos, and Media Luna has a spotty reputation. Local fishermen who know the area told us there's some dangerous drug activity there. The wind is picking up even more, promising a very bumpy night, so we decide to give it all we've got to make the Vivorillos. At worst, if we can't beat in by dusk, we can just turn back downwind and retrace our own track to the safety of the open ocean.

Monday, 2 p.m.: Rotuma calls on the VHF to say they're inside the Vivorillo archipelago, beating toward the far cay that on the chart, at least, appears to offer the most protection from the still-strengthening southeasterly wind. They expect to anchor by 5:00, 6:00 at the latest. They offer us waypoints so that we can follow them in, even if we arrive after dark. Douglas and I agree that the idea of sailing upwind onto this bank and into the reefs after the sun goes down gives us the willies, even with waypoints. We decide to try to make it instead to a small feather of a cay that we can see through the binoculars, and which isn't so directly upwind — Cayo Caratasca, at the northernmost point on the Vivorillo bank.

"OK, good luck," we tell Beryl.

"Good luck," she radios back. "Call when you're settled in."

Photo of a beautiful beach Every cay offers up its version of paradise.

Monday, 7 p.m.: We're anchored, safe and sound in 15 feet, as close as we can get to Cayo Caratasca, a teensy cay offering scant protection from the easterlies now blowing 23 knots. It's rolly, but we're not complaining. It's fabulous to be hooked.

After we set the anchor, around 5, Douglas jumped in with his mask and fins, and dove down to check it. He came up shaking his head. "It's all rock!" he called.

Damn, I thought. The light's running out, and we have to make this place work. He climbed aboard, brought the anchor up with the windlass, and we tried again. After the anchor and about 50 feet of chain were down again, Douglas jumped back in, dived down, and looked around for better ground. There wasn't any, but he found a natural hole in the concrete-like bottom, lugged the anchor over to it, set the point in the hole, surfaced and signaled. I went forward, let out more chain, wrapped it around the forward cleat, went back to the cockpit, and slipped Ithaka into a slow reverse. Douglas watched the chain pull gently against the anchor below. It seemed secure in its hole. He surfaced and signaled again, I went forward, let out more chain, recleated it, went back to the cockpit, backed down slowly, felt it strain, and put it in neutral. Douglas swam back, climbed aboard, we put on the snubber, and then backed her down hard. We didn't budge. He dove it again, watched, and was satisfied, and exhausted. You can't be too careful when you're dealing with a hard coral bottom, and we'd done all we could. We knew the set was less than ideal, but in this case would have to do.

Photo of an orchid
Photo: Dave Waltz
The climate of Honduras is perfect for orchids, which grow wild in all the jungle thickets.

After we'd taken hot showers and organized ourselves a bit, we called Rotuma. They said they hadn't been able to anchor in the cay to which they'd originally headed. Uncharted coral heads and a nasty reef had blocked their path. They'd had to carry on a couple more miles to the next cay, and finally found a decent anchorage around the same time we were anchoring. Thank God we hadn't tried to push on down there, or we'd be in a fine mess right about now.

"Well, hell, we all made it to The Corner anyway," said Douglas.

"That's right," said Derek. "The worst's behind us" — and they chatted about the day, about our both moving on to greater protection of Grand Cayo Vivorillo in the morning, and how Sand Dollar and Filia were coping with yet another unpleasant night of heavy headwinds and choppy seas. We hoped the hours would pass quickly for them. As for us, we set the anchor alarm on our GPS, planned to devour a magnificent dinner of stir-fried chicken and fresh vegetables from the tiendas in Guanaja, and get rocked soundly asleep by 8. Douglas set his alarm for 11:45 and would get up to do a midnight radio check in with our friends still under way.

The 150 miles from Guanaja to the Vivorillos had taken Rotuma and Ithaka 225 long miles of tacking; Filia and Sand Dollar would do about 290 miles before they get in tomorrow morning.

Photo of a carved head at Copan Ruinas Carved head at Copan Ruinas.

Making it to The Corner is a bittersweet sensation. It means we're heading farther away from Honduras, and all the people we'd come to know there, and we're on the threshold of a whole new country. As exciting as it always is to pick up stakes and move on, when you've worked and played hard and made friends in a place, it's impossible not to leave a little of yourself behind when you go, and you wonder if you'll ever return.

We'd seen such beauty in Honduras. The incredible Mayan ruins of Copan had transported us back 1,000 years in history, bringing to life one of the glorious ancient civilizations. The awesome vistas in the interior of the country — the spiky velvet-green mountains, mighty whitewater rivers, and spewing waterfalls — revealed an unspoiled country relatively unexplored by tourists. Out among the islands, Douglas and I had spent part of almost every day face down in the clear water, exploring the reefs and coral beds, spear fishing, playing among the beautiful shapes, admiring the fabulous kaleidoscopic colors of the fish, which are more prolific in Honduras than anywhere we've yet been.

We'd also built relationships in Honduras, with people we hope we'll see again and again — especially Al and Teresa, and Jack and Elizabeth — friends we'd never have known without taking a deep breadth and, like Bilbo Baggins, setting out into the unknown.

Photo of reflection in water
Vistas from the cruising life.

Going cruising has given us another gift as well, and I think of it today especially, as I write to you. This Log Of Ithaka entry is number 100, which marks a milestone for Douglas and me. After almost two years of cruising and writing our Logs, we've shared almost everything about our voyage with you, the good and the not so good, the sublime and the terrifying — a risky thing to do, if you think about it, as you open yourself up for a lot of criticism when you talk about how things really are, versus an occasional glorified version of the highlights. But the rewards we've received from that intimacy have been substantial. We've heard from people who are following our path, people who think we're crazy and irresponsible, people who offered us dinners and beds and showers, people who ask us to answer questions, people who offer us fantastic advice, people who write to us to share private and moving pieces of their lives. We're thrilled to receive these messages, and we're fortunate that we have this opportunity to tell you our story. We're turning the corner now, saying good-bye to Honduras, and after some time here in the Vivorillos we'll likely be heading south to the Colombian islands of Providencia and San Andres, and then south to visit the Kuna Indians in the San Blas. We look ahead with great excitement, and we're so glad you're with us for the ride. Thanks for everything!

Notes On The Bay Islands Of Honduras

Photo of a colorful macaw
The bird life in Honduras is rich and colorful.

Inland Excursions: For cruisers exploring the Bay Islands, it's worth stressing that the Honduran mainland is not to be missed. The easiest and safest way to see it is to bring your boat to La Ceiba, to Lagoon Marina, located up an extremely protected river system and managed by Tony and Rita Vorleiter (504-991-5401). Lagoon Marina is beautiful, reasonably priced, and has terrific amenities: a large new swimming pool, 110- and 220-volt power, 24-hour security, a pet monkey, a project room, and luxurious bathrooms and showers. If you bring your boat to Lagoon Marina for do-it-yourself projects, or to have Tony do mechanical work (he's excellent, extremely professional, and he's a Simrad dealer in case you need electrical work), don't miss the opportunity to take excursions inland. Copan is only a few hours away. Amazing whitewater rafting trips, and hiking excursions into the interior are easily arranged from La Ceiba, which is located perfectly near the dramatic Pico Bonito national park system. Honduras is a natural and unspoiled wonderland, and there are few tourists. If you sail down to this part of the world, don't miss it.

Photo of Ithaka's new blue bottom paint
Ithaka's new blue bottom paint.

Boat Work: If you need to haul your boat for a paint job, or any major project, La Ceiba Shipyard (504-991-6175), next door to Lagoon Marina, is a terrific facility with a 100-ton Travelift. The work they do is first class, and very reasonable. Professional marine surveys can be arranged by the manager. We had Ithaka surveyed here for our insurance company, by a British surveyor who'd worked full time for Lloyd's before moving to Honduras. For boat work not requiring haulout, Tony at Lagoon Marina is your man.

Flying Home: If you need to fly to the United States, there's a direct flight from the Bay Island of Roatán to Miami and back once a week, and you can leave your boat at French Harbor Yacht Club. From the mainland there are even more choices, daily direct flights to Miami from the cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Any of these flights are easily accessed by the efficient network of smaller airlines flying several times a day to these two cities from La Ceiba, and from each of the Bay Islands. Flying to the United States is easy.

Photo of nightfall on Honduras Bay
Night falls on Honduras's Bay of Islands.

Hurricane Season: Cruisers spending hurricane season in Honduras have several choices. The best and safest place to leave your boat in the water would be upriver at Lagoon Marina in La Ceiba. However, there are other options out on the islands as well, including French Harbor Yacht Club and Oak Ridge Yacht Club, both on Roatán (although neither offers the protection of Lagoon Marina.) If you want to leave your boat safely on the hard, or for long-term storage, the best choice is La Ceiba Shipyard. We've inspected all these facilities.

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