Monday 25 November 2019

Ten Days at Sea: Guatemala to Panama

Day 1 (Sunday 24th November) - River Cruising

Our departure from Rio Dulce was more sudden than is usual for us. There was an unusual combination of a high spring tide (which was essential to enable us to cross the sand bar at the River estuary) and favourable winds to enable us to head East. Both winds and currents conspire to make it generally a challenge to depart from Guatemala, with prevailing winds being usually easterly.

So when the opportunity arose and given we were almost ready to sail, we took it. There was a massive last-minute scramble to get provisions on board. In his haste, Andy fell out of our dinghy. No harm was done, he even managed to keep his phone out of the water. We needed to finish rigging the boat, pay our bills, make Tintamarre sea-secure and say goodbye to all our very good friends in the yard.

At 11 am on Sunday 24th November we slipped out of our berth and set off in company with our friends Alison and Andy on Venture Lady. The first several hours were a cruise downriver. The river empties into the Golfete Lake, which in turn becomes the River Dulce again, cutting an impressive gorge, and with banks clad in rain forest. 

We look somewhat out of place passing by lilies and white egrets, standing on one leg, watched us pass. The traffic of small dugout fishing boats and larger fast pangas passed us.

Through the gorge to the dreaded sand bar, to be tipped and dragged back into the sea.
With modest bumping and sanding of the bottom we reached open sea as it got dark and set off motoring due East to the bay Islands, making as far east as we could before the wind got up.

The toilet seat was the first casualty of the journey

Day 2 (Monday 25/11) - North to Panama?

We continued motoring in very light winds, Eastwards towards the Honduran Bay Islands. As day turned to evening we finally arrived off Roatan and were able to turn North North East, on a two hundred and fifty mile fetch to allow us to turn South East and still avoid the risk of a pirate attack off the coast of Nicaragua.   Two days sailing in the opposite direction to Panama. The calm weather allowed for proper cooking onboard - coq au vin for dinner!.

The ceiling liner in our cabin came down.

Day 3 (Tuesday 26/11) - Calm Before the Storm

Andy was on the early shift and watched the sunrise - to beautiful line bows (a close relative to the rainbow but different in shape and form). 

We sailed close to the wind, heeled over all day. We discovered new sailing skills, maintaining a course and matching speed with a very different sailing boat.  For us this meant continuous adjustments as we were the faster boat and therefore could always slow down to keep the two boats together.   Sailing in close proximity by day and night in waters with reef systems doesn't seem to be included in the yacht master syllabus, maybe it should be.

We didn't record any breakages, calm before the storm......

Day 4 (Wednesday 27/11) - The Storm

This morning brought an unpleasant squall and much more challenging conditions.  We reduced sail further to a 3rd reef in the mainsail

Two sail cars (which hold the sail to the mast) broke, and our plate cupboard suffered a malfunction after being dismantled in Guatemala. The internal shelf and door failed, all our bowls and plates cascaded to the floor.   Bad enough once, but we only realised after the second unceremonious dumping of the plates that the catch was no longer holding.  3 broken bowls and 2 broken plates.

The wind and waves increased as forecast, with 3-metre waves coming from the East.  Mostly it was just noisy as we fell off the waves, still beating into the wind.  A few waves though broke high over the boat, one filling our sail bag with water.

Day 5 (Thursday 28/11) - Avoiding Pirates

An easier day with more moderate seas.  We were able to take showers, call home, clear up the boat.

Our turning point kept slipping away from us, but as night fell we decided we could shortcut over a small reef system we turned South East, finally we were sailing towards our destination.   With a little anxiety, we passed over the reef system with no noticeable change in sea conditions despite the undersea wall rising from 3000 metres to 20 metres in less than 100 metres.

A number of yachts have been attacked by pirates in this area this year.  Pirates in this instance refer not to peg-legged, eye-patched old tars in search of bullion in their olde worlde brigantines, but impoverished fishermen, usually from Nicaragua, who may find a haul of electronic gadgets plucked from a passing yacht easier pickings.  Our strategy to avoid them was to sail over 150 miles from the shore and in company with another yacht, but we still had to pass over some prime fishing banks.

We scanned anxiously for pirates. But only our friends on Venture Lady and another sailing vessel travelling westbound were seen.

A Dutch cruise ship was set to pass uncomfortably close to us. A quick chat encouraged their bridge to make our encounter less close, though they clearly had not been maintaining a watch as it took some effort to raise them on the radio.

The 12 volt sockets went off.

Day 6 (Friday 29/11) - Robbie drops his Rudder

Still sailing close to the wind we had a more relaxing day as the wind backed north.  Fixing the 12 volt sockets, only a fuse that had blown, we found ourselves going round in circles. 

I had been discussing how long the pin that holds the hydrovane (named Robbie) rudder would last only that morning with Andy on Venture Lady and had decided to replace it in Shelter Bay when we arrived.  We would not have to wait that long.  The pin failed and the hydrovane rudder had fallen off and was trailing behind the boat on its safety rope, occasionally swinging back to bang the transom.  Whilst recovering the rudder was relatively easy, re-fitting it in a significant swell would prove an interesting challenge.  The rudder exerts forces strong enough to turn the boat so simply holding it into position was not going to work even with the boat heaved too. I learned how to fly the rudder in the current and waves, so wrapped around the hydrovane itself and leaning down into the waves I flew the rudder so that it went vertical under the shaft - and relied on Clare to pull a second rope and catch the rudder on the shaft.   It took many attempts but it was on, now we only had to insert the new pin that holds the rudder to the shaft.  Imagine trying to locate the hole in the rudder shaft through a rudder that moves vertically and twists in the seas as the rear of the boat lifts a metre out of the water and sinks below the waves before rearing up again.  Adrenaline though is a wonderful drug and after a lot of cursing the rudder was secure again.

Thank you to Venture Lady for turning round and standing by to help us. Fortunately, all was well.  All seemed calm and we were, we thought, through the worst.

Night Watches.

We have found that a night time rota of 4 hours on, 4 hours off followed by 2 hours on, 2 hours off gives us the best sleep and manageable watches. A rest during the day is allowed too.  Night watches can be wonderful; starry night skies have a magical quality out at sea.
Tonight we sailed down an "ocean river" a deep channel with shallower water on either side. Cargo vessels seemed to favour this route, and it was comforting to see them on our AIS system, not far away. We needed to speak to a couple of them to ensure they had noted our presence and unlike the cruise ship, all gave prompt replies and could see us on their AIS systems.

Day 7 (Saturday 30/11) - Dolphins and Disaster

This was our calmest day yet....we were able to spring clean the boat, get our washing done and pegged out to dry. The highlight of the day was a visit from a large pod of dolphins. Several dozen dolphins, including some mother and baby pairs, spent half an hour playing alongside our port side, leaping out of the water in unison just like you see on tv (but incredibly hard to catch on your own camera). They clearly enjoyed running up alongside the boat and then circling back to do it again and again. 

Our friends on Venture Lady were not visited by dolphins, but caught a Mahi Mahi for a fish dinner.

That night I woke to the sounds of squalls and Andy working the sails but it calmed to a steady but fresh wind.  We were making good progress. I relaxed into my night watch. 


Just after 1 am I received an urgent radio call from our friends on Venture Lady. They had lost their forestay. (This is the rigging line that holds the mast to the bow of the boat - its loss is a serious situation and often results in losing the whole rig). 

I assured them that we would stand by and assist in any way possible, and hurried to wake Andy.  We turned back upwind and held station for the next three hours.  As they were still making some headway, we had to sail slowly with them, which is fortunate as we were only twenty miles upwind of a major reef system.   Had they been drifting we would have had serious problems keeping clear of the reef.

It was frustrating not to be able to do more than just be there, in the dark, but important for security and safety. We watched a little anxiously as we moved slowly, still keeping away from the reef but not knowing what would happen next.  By 04.30 Venture Lady had secured their mast and cut away enough of their genoa and rig to be able to proceed slowly, although the tattered remains of their genoa flapped horribly like a giant flag.   Venture Lady limped through the night.

Day 8 (Sunday 1/12) - Recovery

And so we continued onwards. Fortunately, it was calm. We sailed, and Venture Lady, with their reduced sail area, motor-sailed, having calculated they had sufficient fuel to take them to our destination in Panama. We took turns to catch up on lost sleep

Day 9 (Monday 2/12) - "Calm" motoring

Another calm day, with little wind. We switched on the engine. The down side was the constant noise. The up side was hot water for showering. The highlight of the day was a wonderful cooked breakfast;- bacon, tomato, tortilla and scrambled eggs - all served up on a plate. After a week of only eating out of a bowl (necessary for keeping your food safe on what Clare described as calm seas, as 2 - 3 metre waves run under us from the stern)  This was luxury indeed!

Day 10 (Tuesday 3/12) - A final storm

With eight miles to go we hailed the Port Authorities for clearance through the Anchorage and into the Canal zone.  The storm that had been tracking East of us moved closer, expanded and engulfed us.  Visibility went to 20 metres or so, as we steered through the anchorage and our new chart plotter crashed and we lost sight of Venture Lady and the cargo ships.  

A few minutes of running blind reminded us how hard it would be to make a passage like this without modern navigation aids but we were soon lined up on the breakwater entrance with a final run into the marina.

We had arrived completing over 1100 miles or over 1300 sea miles.

A shake down or maybe shaken up cruise to prepare us for the Pacific.   Time to start the repairs to those things that we knew had broken and the many more we were to discover as we start preparations for the hull.


Alison and Randall SV Tregoning said...

My, you do have some adventurous passages! It just goes to show how important safety lines are to keep equipment like Robbie's rudder tied to the boat. Looking forward to reading about your Canal transit. Best wishes, Alison and Randall

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