By the time the clock ticked 7 o’clock on the morning of March 19th, we had already craned our anchor from the sandy bottom of Bahia Huevos. The sky was clear and the waters of the Golfo de Papagayo were glassy. We rarely crave such calm conditions at the outset of a passage, but the 50-knot lashings Mother Nature had doled out just weeks before, during the final hours of our trek into Costa Rica, were still fresh in our minds. We’d happily round Punta Santa Elena in peace if the option was ours!
Where to go and what to do
Our southbound push had been exhausting. During the month of February, we were at sea for 15 out of 18 days (Manzanillo to Chiapas, MX; and Chiapas, MX to Playa del Coco, CR), as we raced south to meet friends whose flights had been booked several months earlier. Our final night had brought with it the highest winds we’d ever experienced. Fifty knots.
The combination of our rapid pace and a series of unrelenting breakages led us to choose to adjust our plans and to delay our Pacific crossing until 2016. The modification meant we had several months to explore Central America before the onset of the rainy season. We needed to figure out what we to do and where to invest our time. I had my eyes on the Central American-4 (CA-4; Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua), nations we’d skipped during our hurry to get to Costa Rica. Neil was more ambivalent and posed the possibility of continuing south toward Panama. Commentary from those dialogues included statements, such as…
“If we don’t turn around now, we won’t be able to visit the Pacific coasts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua on this voyage…and we may never see them by boat at all.”
“If we go back north, we will have no choice but to risk facing again the Nicaraguan gap winds and Papagayos that bamboozled us on our return passage south.”
“We’ve heard amazing things about the islands in northern Panama, near Boca Chica.”
“Maybe we just really dig into Costa Rica. No, that won’t work, it’s simply too expensive to stay here.”
Neil knew that visiting the CA-4 meant a lot to me, and his willingness to sail back north had hinged in large part on my desire to do so. Not that he didn’t want to visit those countries; he really did. I couldn’t figure out why he was hesitant to sail back north.
Memory serves each of us differently, and Neil and I experienced incongruent emotional recollections about the final stretch of our passage south. While I, too, remembered the anxiety and fear associated with the violent gusts of wind, the more salient aspect for me was the sense of elation and accomplishment I felt after the winds subsided. The three of us—Neil, The Red Thread, and I—had performed very well in aggressive conditions. The hours of foreboding remained most striking in Neil’s mind. He hadn’t shared the depth of his trepidation about the prospect of sailing that stretch of coast again, and it wasn’t until we were midway across the Golfo de Papagayo that our divergent recollections became clear. I felt apologetic that I hadn’t been more perceptive.That Elena, she’s a feisty one!
We navigated toward Islas Murciélagos (i.e., Bat Islands) dragging two handlines from our aft cleats, as has become our practice. Craving tuna, dorado, or sierra, we caught and released six black skipjack and four bonito in less than two hours. We agreed that we’d have to be hungrier to settle for the likes of a dark-fleshed fish! The sun climbed higher into the sky, and a pod of pantropical spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins chased our wake in harmony, pirouetting to-and-fro, dancing before our bow.As we neared the southern point of Punta Santa Elena, the fluttering breeze that could’ve barely lifted a spinnaker morphed into 20- to 25-knot winds. Like a dragon awakening from its nightly slumber in a cave, the Papagayo winds were beginning to stir. We rounded the point, meeting winds directly on our nose. Ten to 15 miles of open water allows fetch to build rapidly across Bahia Salinas and Golfo de Santa Elena, and we bashed through waves that sprayed our decks with salt. We were the small valley of villagers that the crotchety dragon began to torment.Bashing is unpleasant. It’s tough on the crew and hard on a boat. We felt a wave of relief as we motored into the waters of Bahia Santa Elena and dropped our hook at the foot of lofty green mountains. At the same time, the only account of piracy we had heard during our travels had occurred nearby just weeks prior. A sailboat in an otherwise empty anchorage some 30 miles north had been boarded by three men who held the five crew members at gunpoint while all the valuables (e.g., electronics, cameras, laptops), were stripped from the vessel. No one was harmed, but we felt more wary than usual. In the late afternoon, a southbound Aussie boat joined us in the anchorage. We hailed them to say hello and felt grateful to have company. Evening fell as 20- to 25-knot winds that had howled through the anchorage all afternoon began to subside, and an army of no-seek-ums swarmed from the mangroves. Nonetheless, we slept in peace.
Highlights from Mexico to Costa Rica…and our major decision to sail back north.
Northbound or bust
By the time we awoke, the Aussies had already departed. We debated about whether to spend an afternoon hiking but opted instead to continue north. Under a sunny sky, we hoisted our mainsail and got underway. The time was right; northbound or bust. We close-reached in 20 knots of wind from the northeast and sharp, 4-foot waves for the next 20 miles, before falling off into a comfortable beam reach. Sixteen hours later, at 1:30 am, I fired up the engine when the winds died and swell didn’t. Within a couple hours, the winds returned and peace was ours once more.
We had a beautiful sail, hugging the Nicaraguan coast to avoid the risk of being besieged by nasty wind waves, should the Papagayos begin to rage again. We caught and released two crevally jack and one skipjack and enjoyed a tranquil day with consistent winds in the mid- to upper-teens. We maintained good speed, and it looked increasingly as if a passage we projected would last into the next morning might end at dusk. As the late afternoon heat beat down upon us, one of our strangest most horrific experienced ensued.
The great “bee-pocalypse”
Neil was down below, while I stood watch, a book in hand. A bee landed on my page. I brushed it away. Nothing too noteworthy about that, as even out at sea winged creatures routinely appear. Then another buzzed my ear. And then another. I hollered down at Neil to notify him how annoyed I was to be swatting bees away from my pages. I was enjoying my book. The buzzing grew louder.
I called for Neil to come up. And then I hollered again; frantically. He appeared in the companionway with a look that said, “Seriously woman, get a grip.” His face changed, melting into an expression of confusion. There weren’t 3 or 4 or 10 or 20 bees. There were dozens upon dozens of bees. We rushed down below, slammed the companionway door, and secured the hatches. We then proceeded to whack bee after bee, while pulling on long pants and jackets with hoods. We tugged hairbands around our ankles to prevent the little buggers from flying up our pants and continued to swat. The already-scorching tropical heat now felt like a baker’s oven! For the love of God, what in the world was a massive swarm of bees doing five miles out to sea?! What kind of bees were they? Honey bees? Killer bees?!
I continued swatting feverishly in the cabin, all the while feeling remorseful about being involved in a bee massacre. Bees play a role on our planet that belies their small size, after all. Neil charged the cockpit to combat the brunt of the army. He tied a line to the handle of a 5-gallon bucket, filled it quickly from the sea, and repeatedly doused the top of our bimini and our wind generator, where the colony of bees was most densely abuzz. Minutes later, the aggressive drone had given way to oceanic silence, and the only evidence that remained of the onslaught was several dozen limp bee bodies that we gingerly swept overboard.
The only clue to explain the great bee-pocalypse was found in the plumes of smoke wafting from the shore. Sugarcane is burned before it is harvested to remove the leaves from the stalks, as they contain very little sugar and only add to the burden of hauling and processing the crop. Perhaps a hive had been threatened or destroyed by the fire, and the bees had escaped in the direction of the wind, finally ceasing their evacuation when they’d come across a potential new home? It was not to be.
Peace and feast
As if to console us after the frightening invasion, King Neptune offered us a gift not long after bee-pocalyse came to an end. We hauled in our first sierra, a 26-incher! Sierra, also known as Spanish mackerel, are beautiful fish, with narrow silver bodies and yellow polka dots that splay across their breast and belly.
Our fish book claimed that sierra are delicious. The book was spot on! That evening, I sweated a concoction of garlic, onions, and peppers in olive oil; added a few spices and chicken stock and brought the pot to a simmer; and poached one of the long flanks in the hearty broth. I laid the fish over a bed of quinoa that I had simmered in garlic and tossed with parmesan. Yum.
Dark skies and a damned starter
Our plan for a morning arrival in the Golfo de Fonseca had evolved into a hope we’d reach our destination by dusk. The reality, as it turned out, was that we would arrive in the middle of the night. Winds mellowed considerably, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to start the engine. The last vestiges of light departed the sky as we neared the entrance to the bay, with nearly 17 miles still to go.
We do our best to plan our voyages for daytime arrivals, really we do. However, we clearly have not mastered the skill, as evidenced by nighttime arrivals in Santa Barbara (USA), Santa Catalina Island (USA), Turtle Bay (MX), and now Isla Meanguera (ES). I guess we should be glad that at the very least, we pack walkie-talkies when it’s too dark to use our standard hand signals and have had the light of the moon on several occasions!
With a couple of hours to go, Neil went below for some bunk time, while I tended our sails and watched the mountainous shadows of El Salvadoran and Honduran islands creep closer. Sometime after midnight, I awoke the Captain. It was time to drop our anchor upon the sea bed of a new nation. My eyes were heavy, but my spirits were high. Until the engine didn’t start.
The engine had turned over without incident just hours earlier, when we had attempted to outrun the wrath of bee-pocalypse. Now, here we were, bobbing in light wind under dark skies in an unfamiliar bay. Brilliant. Fucking brilliant. Neil flung obscenities vehemently into the blackness. I tried to play the “don’t worry, we’ll figure out something” card, which is useless in moments of perceived crisis. All’s well that ends well, however, and with a couple love taps, the starter eventually kicked over the engine. The four tries it then took to set our anchor at 1:30 am (a record for us; we usually set on the first or second attempt) did nothing to ameliorate our aggravation. Still, I can’t help but remember the beautiful moon that hung above the small island community ashore, a town that would steal my heart like none other during our journey thus far.
Bahia Santa Elena is a beautiful anchorage, with good holding and towering mountains. The mountains may offer false hope of calm protection, however. We met sailors in Bahia Culebra who had been holed up there for a week in December due to ferocious Papagayo winds. It’s hard to imagine how brutal the coast must have been given that they described being walloped by 60 knot winds, while in the anchorage. That said, it is gorgeous, and tucking deep into the bay will prevent fetch from developing. Had we not been so eager and had a good weather window to march north, we would have taken time to explore ashore. Several lovely hikes that look well-deserving of at least a day are described in the Sarana guides.
Bahia Santa Elena anchorage waypoint: 10°55’.05 N 085°47’.31 W
*More detail on anchoring Isla Meanguera will be provided in a coming post.Passage perks
Point of departure: Bahia Huevos, Costa Rica — 03/19/15
Point of arrival: Isla Meanguera, Golfo de Fonseca, El Salvador — 03/21/15
Distance traveled: 225 nautical miles
Total time: 46.5 hours (total time underway; excludes overnight stop in Bahia Santa Elena)
Engine roaring: 13 hours
Sails soaring: 33.5 hours
Average speed: 4.8 knots
Jessie’s musings: After spending a much-needed month cruising in a lower gear, I was ready to return to the sea and feel The Red Thread race. I’ve come to crave passages. For me, the highlight of this leg was the sense of elation I felt when we snagged our first sierra! I was thrilled. Whenever I look aft and see tension in one of our handlines, my heart immediately starts to palpitate with anticipation. Either Neil or I yank on our pair of stinky ole “fish gloves” and get to work hauling it aboard. Fish are beautiful creatures, and being self-sufficient is incredibly rewarding. The most dismal moments were during bee-pocalypse. The experience was creepy, like a bee version of the 1990s horror flick Arachnophobia. If you’ve seen that film, I bet you just got chills. I was glad I knew where the epi-pens were located had one of us been stung and had a reaction! Yiiiiiiiiiiiiikes.
Neil’s reflections: Though we made the decision to head back North and visit the countries we passed by, it wasn’t without trepidation. On our trip down we got walloped by the Papagayo winds and neither of us wanted to experience that again. Going north meant we’d have to pass by that area two more times, and it had my anxiety running amok with “what-ifs.” Though we set out and our day started out nicely, we did run into head winds and heavier seas on the way to Bahia Santa Elena that made the trip a little uncomfortable. The mosquitoes in Bahia Santa Elena that night were a particular nuisance. However, we had one of our best sails in recent memory as we sailed north from Santa Elena to the Golf of Fonseca. We caught a sierra mackerel, pushed ourselves to not just kick on the motor by hand steering and leveraging our racing skills to get around a reef, and experienced an Alfred Hitchcock nightmare when “bee-pocalypse” struck. We made incredible time and ended up arriving before we expected, though that had us anchoring off Isla Meanguera in the pitch black (never fun). Regardless, it was the right decision to head north again, and my anxieties quickly faded after we left the troublesome areas of “Nicaraguan Gap Winds.”