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April 11 - May 13, 2009

Bay Islands of Honduras

Guanaja
April 11 -14

After a rough night anchored off Cayo Caratasca in the northern Vivirillos, we gladly removed our swell bridle and weighed anchor on a sunny Saturday morning. We sailed a pleasant broad reach due west in the lee of Honduras' northern coast, hoping to avoid the bigger seas and stronger winds farther offshore on the direct route to our destination, Guanaja in the Bay Islands of Honduras.

As the sun began slipping into the western horizon, a large pod of dolphin joined our downwind jaunt. I took my seat on the bow pulpit, laughing, clapping, and shouting encouragement to the acrobatic performers surfing on our bow wake. Four or five or six at a time would line up on the crest of the bow wake, some playfully swimming upside down exposing their white underbellies. After a few moments, they would peal off and another group would assume their position. They stayed with us for about half an hour and then, as dolphins always do, disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.

As nightfall approached, the earthy smell of burning wood reminded us of our proximity to civilization on the mainland. Midnight brought a mild offshore breeze that allowed us to start turning north on a gentle beam reach. This was just in time, as the radar scanned an unlit fishing vessel in our path.

By midmorning on Sunday, 20 miles south of Guanaja, our pleasant journey became an endurance test. The wind howled 20-25 knots with 8-foot breaking waves off our stern. One wave caught our stern and tossed us precariously down its slippery slope, splashing the crew. This was the first time we'd been splashed from a following sea in our center cockpit. (We later found this wave had made its way into an open portlight and soaked items in our medicine cabinet.)

Despite the rough conditions, we had no problem entering the wide reef opening at Pond Channel. We found a calm anchorage in the protection of El Bight, where a friendly dolphin swam out to greet us. Where else but in the Caribbean is the welcome wagon a curious marine mammal.

The next day, with the wind still howling and whitecaps breaking inside the reef, we launched the dinghy and bashed our way to Bonnaca to check in with Honduran immigration and the port captain. Bonnaca is an interesting town, built on a small cay just off the main island. Narrow paved sidewalks and waterways wind among crowded two-three story buildings. There are no cars.

When the wind finally eased on Tuesday, we dinghied through a shallow channel to the west side of the island to snorkel and explore. On Wednesday, with the wind predicted to crank up again soon, we decided to make the day-trip to Roatan, the next Bay Island. Our windlass had been acting up, and this was its last hooray. Nick had to pull the anchor up by hand with only the occasional gasping assistance from the windlass.

 

Sometimes life imitates a Corona commercial.

This friendly dolphin welcomes new arrivals to El Bight in Guanaja.

Dinghy tied to an abandoned dock on the west side of the island

Sunset on our passage to Guanaja

Guanaja's shrimp boat fleet

Many homes are built on stilts over the water. Guanaja took a severe
blow from Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and most of Guanaja's buildings were destroyed.

The main settlement is on the crowded cay of Bonnaca. This cay is sometimes called the "Venice of Honduras" due to its waterways.

Big wave sneaking up from astern as we approach Guanaja. Hold on Dakota!

Compare this to the picture on the left. Dakota and the Captain
relax while I make a pizza underway from Guanaja to Roatan.

Roatan
April 15 - May 13

Parrot Tree Plantation

Light winds and calm seas pushed us the short 33 miles from Guanaja to Roatan. The boat motion was so smooth that I made pizza from scratch while underway. Although we typically shun marinas (expensive and we don't like the view), we decided to pull into Parrot Tree Plantation Marina on the south coast to investigate a fix for the windlass. Unfortunately, after opening it up, we discovered that the windlass motor was toast. The calm weather ended our first night in Parrot Tree, with the wind howling 20+ knots and white caps breaking just outside our protected cove. Since we were enjoying the comfort, security, and continuous Internet at this beautiful resort, we decided to stay put until the weather improved.

The cruising world is a small one, as we once again learned while at Parrot Tree. We had no sooner read an e-mail from friends in Texas telling us to look up their friends Ken and Kelly Hutchinson who had bought a house in Roatan, when Ken appeared on the dock to introduce himself. Ken and Kelly have a boat in the marina and a home in Parrot Tree with a breathtaking view of the south shore. In typical Texas fashion, they took us under their wing and included us on several shopping expeditions and a memorable night of off-key karaoke.

After five days of being pinned down by howling winds and rough seas, the weather finally calmed down enough to do what we had come to Roatan for: to go scuba diving! We had three days of calm seas on the south shore that allowed us to get out on the reef in our dinghy. (We only dive when we can do so independently. Like most cruisers we can't afford to pay tourist rates for chartered boat dives, and, besides, we like having the reef all to ourselves.)

West End: Diving Paradise

But of course the calm weather was short-lived. After 10 days at Parrot Tree, we bashed our way out of the narrow cut in the reef into choppy seas early on Saturday morning. With a squall on our tail, we headed for West End, located as one might expect on the west end of the island. Here we found a comfortable anchorage and calm water but, alas, no available mooring balls. Sigh. This meant we had to deploy the anchor, which Nick would eventually have to pull up by hand thanks to our kaput windlass.

West End was a terrific place, and we could have stayed there several months. There was no fetch in the anchorage even when the wind screamed over 30 knots on many nights. The reef behind us was lined with mooring balls, so we could easily dive from our dinghy. We met a nice group of cruisers in the anchorage with whom we enjoyed diving and socializing. At West End Divers, we pulled our dinghy right up in front of their compressor and dropped off our tanks for air refills. The laid-back town offered a variety of shops and restaurants along the main dirt road. We discovered Cream of the Trop, a shop owned by a Texas couple offering handmade gelato and free wifi with a purchase (delicious!). Basic staples were available in a few small grocery stores, while local producers sold a good variety of fruits and vegetables from the back of their pickup trucks. For cruiser/divers, West End is comparable to Bonaire for easy and fabulous scuba diving. We loved it!

Gringo Gouging

It's tough being a cruiser in a popular tourist destination. When hoards of vacationing gringos regularly descend on an island by plane or cruise ship, the locals seem to develop a resentful, predatory attitude toward anyone with pale skin. I suppose if you look at the masses of American and European tourists casually spending in an afternoon more than most local people earn in a month, you can understand their attitude. Unfortunately for cruisers, who are typically frugal, retired people living on a pension, they too are seen by the locals as rich turistas ripe for the picking.

In Roatan, the taxi drivers have brought gringo gouging to a new height. When our friends Todd and Shelli arrived on a cruise ship, they found themselves standing in line with hundreds of other passengers waiting for taxis. They were shocked when the taxi driver quoted them $30 US for the short trip to West End to meet us, but with plenty of other gringos waving dollars behind them, they paid up and got in. The local rate for the one-way trip for two people is $3 in a collectiva (shared) taxi or van. They were gouged to the tune of 10 times the normal rate. Ouch!

Despite our experience with taxi drivers and gringo pricing, we too were "taken for a ride" in Roatan. The day before our departure, we had to travel from West End to French Harbor in the central part of Roatan. We had asked around and knew the collectiva van was 30 lempiras (about $1.50) per person to Coxen Hole. When the van driver hesitated to quote us a price, we told him what we would pay and he agreed. In Coxen Hole, we tried unsuccessfully to find a bus to French Harbor, but a man sitting on some steps told us we could get there for 30 lempiras each. A taxi pulled up and we told him we wanted to go to French Harbor. He told us in English the price was 30. Lempiras, we asked? He nodded. We got in with two other local passengers, whom he dropped off in town before heading to French Harbor. We were having a friendly chat with the driver when he informed us the price was really $30 US. An argument ensued during which we told him to stop right now and let us out. He backed off and agreed to 100 lempiras each ($11 total). We still felt he was cheating us but remembered being warned by some Americans that the taxi ride to French Harbor might cost $20 or more. So we paid.

After being dropped off in French Harbor, we told our story to the clerk at the mail center, who laughed at us after he pulled his chin off the floor from the shock of hearing how much we had paid. The trip should not have cost more than 30 lempiras each ($3 total), so there had not been a misunderstanding. The cashier at the burger joint confirmed that any taxi ride should be 20 - 30 lempiras each. Armed with this information, when the taxi driver at the grocery store quoted me 100 lempiras each to return to Coxen Hole, I told him we wanted a "collectiva" and his price was too high. He then agreed to 30 each and offered to take us all the way to West End for the same price as a van. As it turns out, taxis in Roatan are affordable if you know the going rate and are willing to travel in a collectiva.

Life on a Chain

Lest you landlubbers think cruising is just one extended vacation with no worries or stress, let me remind you that our lives literally dangle on the end of a chain, our anchor chain that is. In squally weather, and there's a lot of squally weather in the Caribbean, this is a precarious existence.

The marine park at West End, Roatan, has installed a number of boat moorings. However, an underwater inspection of these moorings does not inspire confidence. Nor does the fact that during one week in April, three of these moorings broke loose sending their boats adrift onto the reef. If you anchor, which the park discourages, you must set your hook in one of the few sandy places amid the thick turtle grass.

Around midnight one night while at West End, we heard someone calling another boat on the VHF radio. The boat being called was anchored just off our starboard side, but when we poked our heads outside we saw it wasn't there. When we looked back toward the reef we saw an anchor light where no boat should be. Nick joined two other captains who dinghied out to the distressed boat and helped it kedge off the reef. Luckily there was no wave action in the lee of the island, which in another location might have pinned the vessel against the reef and pounded it to shreds. The boat sustained only minimal damage to its underside and left a few days later, a happy ending to what could have been disaster.

The couple caught on the reef that night had been cruising for several years without ever dragging their anchor, and then, without warning on this particular windy night, they found themselves stuck on the reef with their home in jeopardy. So the next time the wind picks up at night and you pull the covers up to your chin and doze blissfully off to dreamland, remember that somewhere out there in "paradise" there's a cruiser hanging on to his home by a mere chain.

A New Jello Plan

Cruisers always call their future intentions a "jello plan," since they tend to be a bit wobbly and likely to take a new shape at any time without notice. This may be due to weather, boat issues, or simply the crew's indecision. I guess that's the beauty of our gypsy lifestyle. We can change our minds at any time, pick up the anchor, and set a new course.

Last year, Caribbean Soul's Jello Plan A was to spend the 2009 hurricane season in the Rio Dulce and return to Texas in 2010. After the Worldwide Financial Crisis and stock market tumble last year, Jello Plan B was to return home a year early in June 2009. While in Roatan, we devised Jello Plan C: spend hurricane season in the Rio Dulce and put Caribbean Soul up for sale. This was a tough decision as you might imagine. Our cruise has always been just a sabbatical, and we'll be working for at least another decade before we can retire. A fully equipped 42-foot cruising yacht is overkill for weekend daysailing, and we can't predict whether we'll go cruising again after retirement. Caribbean Soul is better suited to remain in her namesake waters than to be a dockside condo in Texas. We hope her proceeds will help us launch a new life and a new dream as yet undefined. So that's the plan for now, set in jello and subject to change as always.

Sunset in Roatan

Dirt street along the shore in West End, Roatan

"Did you see that enormous grouper?!!!" Hanging out after a dive
with Jan and Rich of Slip Away (rear) and Ann and John of
Livin' the Dream
(front).

Back in Corpus Christi, Todd and Shelli Braynard docked Sasanoa
next to Caribbean Soul. Sasanoa is now in Florida, so we were
thrilled to see Todd and Shelli when they came though Roatan
on the Carnival Legend.

Cruisers enjoy wifi and gelato at Cream of the Trop in West End.
Standing are Serena Zindler, the owner and a fellow Texan,
with her daughter Lauren and employee Marta.

Roatan Island agouti at Fantasy Island Resort

Capuchin monkey at Fantasy Island Resort on the south side of Roatan

We were surprised to discover that Nick and Ann on Livin' the Dream
have the same birthday. This year Nick hit the half-century mark!
Here Ann and Nick pose with the yummy Texas sheet cake baked by
Jan on Slip Away and served up during sundowners on their boat.

The birthday celebration continued a few days later at Mavis & Dixie's restaurant.

Everything on a boat is high maintenance, including the four-legged crew.

"If only I was captain there'd be better grub and more ear rubs."

   
We had a blast scuba diving in Roatan. Nick is still without an underwater flash, but he got some nice shots anyway.

The turtles in Roatan are accustomed to divers and will let you swim right up to them.

Yellowhead Jawfish

 

Deanna hovering in Roatan's underwater paradise.

The underwater topography includes many crevices and
channels that are fun to swim through.

Arrow Crab inside an Azure Vase Sponge

Roatan has a nice variety of healthy coral.

Looking down at a Tube Sponge

Giant Barrel Sponges are common.

Can you spot the upside-down Slender Filefish? (center, near bottom)

Can you find the Scorpionfish? (center--look for the eyes)

Banded Coral Shrimp inside a Tube Sponge

Nassau Grouper peeking out of a Barrel Sponge.

Interesting composition

Turtle chowing down on a sponge with an Angelfish hovering below
for the scraps

Turtle portrait

Huge fish are common in Roatan.

Rare image of the photographer...

...and his goofy looking dive buddy

Green Moray Eel

Close-up of Encrusting Gorgonian

Nassau Grouper

Tiger Grouper

Scrawled Filefish

Whitespotted Filefish

Nick and Deanna observing a turtle (photo by Slip Away).

Indigo Hamlets are common in Roatan.

View through a Sea Fan

Peculiar arrangement

Spotted Moray Eel

Smooth Trunkfish

Black Grouper. This one was about four feet long. Notice the gobies cleaning him.

Nick taking a picture of Black Grouper (photo by Slip Away).

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