The passage from Providencia to Guanaja passes close to the Nicaraguan and mainland Honduran coast. Nicaragua was the country that our college union was always trying to send funds to, to support the Sandinistas, the freedom fighters, guerrillas or terrorists, depending on your political persuasion.
Inevitably the political activists won the votes because most of us were too busy enjoying ourselves drinking our grant money to attend the meetings. But winning these votes was always short lived as such donations were strictly banned by the rules on Ultra Vires expenditure. Ultra Vires Definition
At least, therefore, when we started to plan the passage I knew of Nicaragua and some of its history. Oh, and I knew that its coastline is notorious for piracy and drug running along with much of the Central American coast. Guanaja, our destination was somewhere I had not yet learned to spell and Vivario Cays didn't seem to be on the map (it isn't on Google maps, though you can show its position as on the map above). You have to zoom in a very long way on the Nautical Charts to find it and when you do they show lots of coral reefs and shallows for this passage, the most difficult part to be navigated at night according to our passage plan.
Our plans were made more complex by the need for the safety of the Rally. It was feared that a large group of yachts might attract unwelcome attention, though like a convoy, a large group also provides protection. The Colombian Navy had been called in to provide additional protection, but they could not sail into Nicaraguan waters. Honduras would provide coverage from land; Nicaragua would do nothing and we would be in their waters at the most critical times when we passed close to their shoreline.
The timing of our passage was determined by the availability of naval (Colombia) and coast guard (Honduras) support but even this was overruled by the weather and the inability of the authorities to issue the required papers. We waited with an increasingly restless group while the winds died or turned in the wrong direction for nearly two weeks.
Polar Diagrams and Weather Planning
But not these Polars
To take advantage of the protection we had been offered we needed a weather window that would allow 30 disparate boats to sail at roughly the same speed with the group sub-divided into 5 groups of 6 boats that were meant to stay within a few miles of each other.
In planning for this passage polar diagrams become my speciality. These diagrams allow one to compare or predict performance of the different yachts in the group, showing a yachts speed for any given wind angle and speed.
Quickly one learns that Catamarans and Monohulls are not designed to sail together, nor are heavy long keel boats and lighter boats and those with fin keels, or 57ft boats and 36ft boats. Inevitably some would have to resort to motoring to stay with the group, but we had to sail as our total engine hours were restricted by the need for a 50 hour service to maintain the warranty.
I had most of the polar diagrams we needed included in the navigation software I use. This also gave me access to synoptic charts and all the main weather models such as the GFS and ECMWF, all freely provided and often it seemed more up to date than the paid services most others were using.
Waving a finger in the air and with some good guess- work a departure date was agreed. Despite Customs being late issuing our papers we finally managed to depart, with a weather window to suit all and our departure aligned with a nearly full moon and clear skies.
The passage to Vivario Cays was uneventful but as always the fun starts after dark. On this first night a mystery boat nearly collided with several of the yachts in the group. (It passed us a few metres from our starboard side). Bright lights and random movements, though, had some wondering if this was an attempted pirate attack. We now think this was the Nicaraguan coast guard as they boarded some of the Rally boats in group 2 that sailed the passage two weeks later. I was blissfully asleep for this little encounter.
A tiny Cay, the reefs known for their shrimp and lobster. But these were out of season, so the islands were deserted, or should have been, until we arrived. But arriving on the islands we noticed fast boats approaching. It was, we discovered later, the "white lobster" (cocaine) fishermen rushing in to protect their stock as this was their season. We think they were alarmed by the sight of thirty boats approaching and anchoring off the coral reefed island.
This article provides some interesting background on white lobster, much of which goes astray when released from boats or let to drift at the wrong time. Guardian Article on White Lobster
We have seen close-up photos taken from a drone, thankfully one not seen by the "fishermen", that no one dares to publish. These pictures show a football field size area covered in bagged "white lobster", all ready to drop at sea and be taken by the current up to Mexico or the USA. An operation on this scale could not go unobserved without many law enforcement organisations turning a blind eye, an operation large enough to be seen by any self respecting satellite or spy plane. These few days must have proved difficult for those that were meant to be watching us whilst somehow not seeing anything else.
..and then our Windlass failed
We were, though, blissfully unaware of the scale of the operation at the time. However, we had been warned not to go ashore. We were still able to enjoy the snorkelling, which was excellent. The weather for the rest of the passage was thought to be best if we stayed here two nights. Two nights though was longer than the "white lobster fishermen" wanted as we discovered when they approached us advising us to leave because of the approaching strong winds not shown on any forecasts we were studying.
"Time to leave, "fishermen" approaching our friends on Wild Iris advising them to leave after checking we were also on our way.."
We assured them we were on our way and immediately were struck with a non-functioning windlass. Our Anchor would not come up. The windlass joining the growing list of systems starting with "wind" that were not working on Tintamarre, notably the wind generator, Windexand the wind instruments.
With assistance from the last three boats in the anchorage, we hauled the anchor up by hand and set sail for a very pleasant day's sailing, no sign of the promised scattered squalls. The windlass to be fixed another day and arranging for a dockside mooring on our arrival was added to the work to be done while on passage.
Not Under Command
After a beautiful day darkness fell even more rapidly than the usual tropical sunset. We turned north to try to avoid the small squall building ahead of us. This seemed harmless enough on the radar, then the rain started, and the radar showed the squall was now all around us extending to the limit of the radar's range. The winds blew strong and weak from all directions. We had tried to sail but with 30 boats weaving around in pitch dark and poor visibility, or rather us weaving and others going straight on the engine we felt it too dangerous to follow the wind and resorted to the iron donkey for an hour. It was 10pm before the winds stabilised and the rain stopped. I thought I could go below to get some rest but with other boats sailing close by and the conditions still quite difficult I would have to remain on watch and not get my promised sleep. Then to add to the workload we heard there was a cargo ship drifting just north of our planned track. It had declared its own one-mile exclusion zone and according to our AIS we would pass within a few metres of it. We had to make further North into wind or be driven South towards the all too dangerous coastline and have to make up the ground to windward later. We opted to go North, with only one other boat, and eventually passed the cargo ship safely around 2 am but not before contending with a number of other cargo ships also avoiding the drifting ship only to find a somewhat scattered group of thirty sailing boats on their track.
It may not have been crossing an Ocean but sailing with 30 other boats in coastal waters with reefs, the threat of pirate activity, "white lobster" fishing, drifting cargo ships and a storm worthy of being called a tempest, this passage was one of the most challenging we have faced. We would never attempt it on our own and as others have found, it is really too dangerous to do so.
We arrived in Guanaja, just over 24 hours after leaving Vivario Cays. It was like arriving in another world, with houses on stilts and a real fishing fleet laid up until the start of the lobster and prawn fishing season in July.
Was it really dangerous? We were in a large group, with some oversight from the authorities, we had a safe passage and were never threatened. However, two boats traveling alone have been attacked since we passed through these waters. One is written up in some detail here. Noonsite report of the pirate attack