The More Things Change...
April 7, 2005
The other day, David was flipping through our fourteen-year-old copy of Nigel Calder's cruising guide to the Northwest Caribbean. Some of the information it contains is obsolete, there are some glaring omissions, and it's bereft of any GPS waypoints -- but of the few guides that cover the Bay Islands of Honduras, it's still probably the best that's available. A folded piece of paper fell out from where it had been tucked inside the back cover. David opened it up. "Hey, you'll never guess what I just found!" he said.
It was the regatta fleet list from the 1997 Bay Islands Regatta and Music Festival, replete with scratch-outs, pencilled additions, and notes scribbled in the margin. There were a total of 30 boats on the list -- including Little Gidding -- arranged into four classes according to size. The regatta had been a two-day affair: we sailed 22-odd miles from French Harbour, Roatan, to Cochino Grande on the first day and back to French Harbour on the next.
The Bay Islands regatta was Little Gidding's first race; it will probably remain Little Gidding's last and only race. It was a unique set of circumstances eight years ago that convinced us to enter the regatta. Although David loves racing on OTHER people's boats, we normally wouldn't risk damaging our home out on the race course, especially when our chances of victory depend on the rest of the fleet either scratching or sinking. But the Bay Islands regatta was different. With only a few exceptions, the boats entered were overloaded cruising slugs just like ours; the music festival component of the event was an opportunity for Eileen to perform; the entry fee was nominal; and there were lots of freebies -- numerous hats and tee shirts, a champagne breakfast at the beginning, and a big dinner banquet at the end. Everyone won at least one prize. The clincher, however, was the fact that there was no way to get to the Regatta dance at Cochino Grande except by sailing with the fleet. Our love of parties overcame our fear of humiliation. As it turned out, nothing broke, no one fell overboard, and we finished smack dab in the middle of our class. We vowed to quit while we were ahead and haven't raced Little Gidding since.
The creased souvenir from the 1997 regatta got us thinking about other aspects of our initial visit to the Bay Islands. We recall that when we first arrived we were surprised at the relative lack of tourist development. Compared to the island chain in the eastern Caribbean, where we had spent the previous two years, the Central American coast and offshore islands were pristine territory. There were plenty of protected anchorages, stunning scenery and clear water -- but hardly any cruising boats. Of course, the lack of pleasure craft also meant there were few services for yachts. There were only a handful of small marinas; what boatyards and chandleries existed catered to the commercial fishing fleet. In the late 70's, Caribbean Sailing Yachts (CSY) had established a charter base at Brick Bay, Roatan, but this had long folded by the time we visited the islands.
Calder, writing in 1990, felt the Bay Islands were ripe for development. The airport near Coxen Hole had been expanded to accommodate jets and direct flights from the States, the main road on Roatan was about to be paved, and electrification was on the way. With their intrinsic natural beauty and the necessary infrastructure soon to be in place, he thought the islands would inevitably experience an explosion of tourist facilities. But when we arrived in 1997, aside from a few exclusive dive resorts, Calder's predictions appeared to have been premature. Most everyone agreed, however, that the anticipated changes were just around the corner.
So it was with a certain sense of trepidation that we returned to the Bay Islands this winter. Would we find the hillsides covered with tacky developments and the harbours choked with yachts?
Having now spent several weeks visiting our old haunts we can report that, while much has changed, a lot remains the same. The most obvious indicator of change is the proliferation of real estate signs. It seems that every other islander is a realtor and virtually all of Roatan is up for sale. The steep slopes on the south side of the island are sprinkled with new homes that were clearly built for foreigners: they tend to be much larger than the traditional island homes; they sport columns, turrets and other architectural embellishments that are alien to this part of the world; and they're not located on the water.
Our American friends Dave and Donna are members of the growing ex-pat community on Roatan. Like us, they first visited the Bay Islands during the 1997 regatta, but they decided to stay. They bought an acre of land overlooking Calabash Bight in Roatan, anchored their Tayana 37 sailboat Victoria out front, and started building a modest hilltop home. They did much of the construction themselves, building in stages when they could afford to buy a new shipment of materials. "It took us a while to finish the plumbing, so for the first couple of years, we showered on the front porch with the sun shower from Victoria," Dave told us when we visited them a few weeks ago. Now they keep in shape by climbing the steep concrete stairs leading to and from their dock. Donna said, "Ironically, we didn't complete the stairs until after most of the house was built. Believe me, it was a struggle scrambling up and down that hill with all the building supplies in tow!"
Their decision to settle in Roatan was influenced by the island's physical beauty, favourable climate, reasonable land prices, and minimal taxes -- combined with their desire to escape the cramped confines of Victoria. Recently, they bought themselves a new work project named Belladonna, a CSY 44 pilothouse motorsailor, and put their house up for sale. "We're ready to get back into cruising," Dave explained. "Belladonna is going to need some work before she's a comfortable liveaboard, but with the sale of the property, we figure we should be able to realize at least twice what we spent on the land and house."
The other big change to affect Roatan is the arrival of cruise ships. On a busy day, there might be two or three bloated behemoths stationed off Coxen Hole, the main port. A couple of months ago, we rounded the southwest tip of the island on our first trip back to our favourite anchorage at West End and just about ploughed into a multi-storey hotel masquerading as a five-masted sailing ship. But the impact of swarms of cruise ship passengers on island life appears to be surprisingly minimal. The island's only decent large beach at West Bay is inundated with pale bodies for a few hours when a cruise ship is in port and the main highway (now paved) is choked with taxis, but in the other bays and inlets along the coast there's barely a stir. Our friend Susan, another former cruiser now living in Brick Bay, advised, "Just don't try to do your errands in Coxen Hole on a cruise ship day; wait until they've cleared out."
There's more construction activity and cruise ship related facilities, but the number of cruisers visiting Roatan on private yachts doesn't seem to have changed since we were last here. Significantly, there are no new marinas and no charter boat operations. The other day, we dropped by to chat with Peter Schmitt and his partner Barbara on Crazy Horse, their North Sea steel sailing trawler docked in Port Royal. Crazy Horse had been the committee boat for the 1997 regatta. Peter had worked for CSY when it had an active charter operation on the island and is the designer of the venerable CSY 44 sailboat. He and Barbara stayed on after CSY went out of business. Peter opined, "The waters around here are not very amenable for bareboat chartering and the winter weather can be tricky when cold fronts pass through. Twenty-five years ago, we had too many inexperienced charterers driving our boats up on the reefs, and the conditions today are pretty much the same."
The other islands have not experienced as much development activity as Roatan. In fact, Guanaja has fewer resorts now than when we last visited, due at least in part to the destruction wrought by hurricane Mitch in 1998. When we were in the El Bight anchorage on the south coast of Guanaja a while ago, we went ashore to look up Hans and Hansito, who used to operate the popular Maniti bar and restaurant. Eileen has fond memories of performing for fellow cruisers there eight years ago. We found the Maniti still standing amidst a tangle of undergrowth, looking somewhat worse for the wear. Its shingled roof had been replaced with sheets of rusted corrugated iron. Hansito greeted us enthusiastically. He continues to live in a spartan room on the second level, although the rest of the place has been vacant since it was hammered by Mitch.
Hansito recalled, "We were huddled under the bar for the duration of the hurricane. The building is supported by massive timbers and despite the incredible winds, it looked like we might survive reasonably unscathed. Then on the third and final day of the storm, a tornado-like gust ripped the roof off. We had the VHF radio turned on and were monitoring the calls from the fishing fleet anchored out in the bight. Suddenly we heard a lot of swearing on the air and someone cried, 'Those crazy Germans, their roof just landed in my rigging!'"
The island of Utila hasn't change that much either. It's claim to fame is that it offers the world's cheapest scuba diving courses. For this reason, it's a major waypoint for twenty-something backpackers following the gringo trail through Central America. Eileen learned to dive there in 1997 for $99, which included four nights of accommodation if desired. You didn't get to keep the instruction book, however. When we visited her alma mater last week, we found that the price was now $185, including accommodation. We didn't ask about the instruction book. Other than an invasion of Internet cafes, the main town of Puerto Este looks pretty much the same as we remembered. Lots of kids, loud music, and 50 cent cuba libres at the rickety seaside bar. Glass in hand, David said, "I still really like this place."
Even less has changed at Cayos Cochinos, a cluster of smaller islands lying halfway between Roatan and the Honduran mainland. The waters surrounding the islands are an underwater park and anchoring is prohibited. Visiting boats must tie up at one of the dozen free moorings located on the leeside of Cochino Grande. On our first visit to the Cochinos this winter, we were concerned we might arrive to find no vacant moorings available. Not to worry. There was only one other cruising boat there when we pulled in, and it left the next day.
As we reminisced about our first visit to the Bay Islands, Eileen picked up the regatta list and remarked, "You know what's changed? Us. Sure, the islands are more developed here and there, but it's the cruising community that's really changed." We went through the list. There was an entire class of boats smaller than Little Gidding. Of the 30 boats in the overall fleet, 16 were 40 feet or less in length. Forty feet is on the small side of today's cruising fleet. At 36 feet, Little Gidding is downright puny.
"And look at the names," Eileen continued. "I still remember most of these people, but where are they now?" Several of the participants with whom we've kept in touch have sold their boats and have moved on to other pursuits; we receive regular e-mail updates from friends now settled in Texas, Louisiana, California, Florida, and North Carolina. Others have changed boats. One left his boat in storage in Florida to roam the seven seas as the professional captain of a luxury mega-yacht. Another jumped ship, published two cruising language guides, and is currently cruising the eastern Caribbean with a new partner. A third couple sold their sailboat, lost their Florida home in last year's hurricanes, and have now moved aboard a trawler. Sadly, at least one of the old gang we won't see again. He died a couple of years ago in Guatemala from an brain aneurysm.
Then we started citing the cruising friends we've made this winter: Todd and Susan on Snow Day, Don and Alice on Alley's Cat, Greg and Marilyn on Insatiable 1, the families on Snow Cat and Tall Tales -- the list went on. It's a new crowd, but that's just fine. Will they remember us eight years from now?