Mexico to Guatamala via a lot of empty ocean

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Fri 17 Jun 2011 22:36
In our efforts to sail from Mexico to Panama which proved futile (again) we sailed something like 600 miles (probably a hundred of those just fighting an adverse current). It's a lonely stretch of the Caribbean - we saw no other yachts and surprisingly little commercial traffic.
On day one, in our efforts to gain some speed in the lee of the island of Cozumel, we deployed the cruising chute - 'Mr Flappy', but for once without it's taming sock which was torn and needing repair. This sock pulls down over the sail using a downhaul line so spilling the wind making retrieval relatively easy. Two big mistakes coming up here, the biggest one from the 'skipper' in suggesting we pull 'Ol' Flappy' down in 17 knots of apparent wind whilst only partially deploying the Genoa to act as a shield to de-power the light sail or at the very least to ease off the controlling sheet. So with Phil on the foredeck, with Flappy's foot in hand (so to speak) and the 'Admiral' poised with the winch and clutch ready to let go in the cockpit we quickly descended to disaster status by the quickest possible route.
Mistake number two - at the command 'let go now' The Admiral in her stubbornness thought she could hold onto the cruising chute halyard. As it whipped through the clutch in the cockpit at considerable speed it immediately removed many layers of skin from two of her left hand digits on its way up into the mast. From the foredeck Phil could hear agonised screams coming from aft.  He found the Admiral sat clutching two very bloody fingers that had little skin left at the tips, a third digit had suffered minor blistering.  Luckily suede rope handling gloves had prevented worse damage.  Such a sight would normally reduce the Skipper to fainting mode but there was no time to do that.  Meanwhile the foredeck was covered in acres of cruising chute blowing around in the breeze waiting to be stowed or blown overboard and under the boat - whichever came first.  Now, we are usually very careful and considered when onboard and even more so at sea but this was a real switch off moment and a wake-up call!
                          Dawn on a calm sea.......                                                                                                                   ....the day remained the same
Putting this episode behind us and with the 'Admiral' sporting a natty pair of finger bandages we sailed on. In the first few days, despite lumpy seas, we made some reasonable progress considering the adverse current. Using the motors judiciously, as there was no more fuel available until Providencia some 500 miles away, we pressed on until the wind gave out completely and we were left motoring on glassy calm water. At such times the ocean shows a very different face. Gone are the waves and the wind driven chop that hide so much from a cursory glance around as you sail onwards. Now every little swirl or break at the surface, perhaps caused by feeding fish, is easily seen and life that is always in existence regardless of sea state makes itself known - its cover blown!
Our day started with a small pod of baby dolphins around the boat - nothing too unusual there but welcome visitors at any time. Then we spotted them in the distance, a pod of whales that could have been mistaken at first glance as oversized dolphins. Maybe 8-10 in number they made a bee-line for the boat then veered away into the distance (thankfully) as whales can be unpredictable and we are fragile! Not long after, another sighting of whales roughly in the same area and distance off the starboard beam. Different this time, looking like long finned pilot whales and these did come over to the boat and swim around us. About half our boat length (20ft) they gracefully swam alongside, with one rolling over to peer up at us. We snapped with the camera but the pictures never quite turn out the way they should. The whales didn't stay long though, moving away as gracefully as they arrived. We saw more whales that day, they seemed to be frequenting that part of the Caribbean and we enjoyed the glimpses we caught as they moved generally northwards.
                                                                                    Whales across our stern 
Our next brush with nature came when the electric fishing reel screamed as it released yards of line off the spool. Music to the ears of any fish-eating yachtie!  We hadn't had a 'nibble' on any of the lures since leaving Puerto Morelos but here was surely enough fish on the line to keep us going for days (perhaps?).
Under considerable strain it took a while for the reel mounted on our pushpit to wind in a very large bull Mahi Mahi to the back steps -  4ft long and a real fighter which had given a great acrobatic display further out when trying to spit the lure shortly after becoming hooked. But it wasn't to be a happy ending to this fishy story yet again and we lost not only a very large fish but at the moment when Phil was trying to gaff the thing it went berserk, flailing with immense strength until something simply had to give and the 120lb breaking strain line finally snapped leaving the fish to swim off with our home made 'killer' lure still in place along with a metre of trace and a very good swivel. (Sorry Geoff) Time to make the Mark 2 version we guess!
By way of compensation for having to eat, yet another meal of noodles, Mother Nature sent a calming influence in the shape of a red-footed Booby bird. We had seen the blue-footed variety in the Galapagos but this species was new to us. Featuring a neat pair of red feet and a powder blue beak that looks painted on this bird has a somewhat comical appearance.
            The red-footed Booby - our guest for one night. One of the most characterful ocean seabirds we have come across
                                                                            Lovely plumage !!!
After a couple of circuits of the boat in the growing twilight on Phil's watch it finally landed on our port pulpit where it promptly stuck its head in its feathers and went to sleep. It stayed all night in fact, preening, sleeping and glancing down into the sea seemingly curious as our bows sliced through the slight swell. As we furled away the Genoa for the night, when the breeze disappeared, it remained completely unfazed just staring intently as the large triangle of white material disappeared into a roll just a few feet away.  The next morning it again stared at the sail as we pulled it back out when the wind started to fill in. It then took off for a test flight around the boat, swooping low over the water before landing comically back on it's perch on the pulpit. Another adjustment to a few feathers that were perhaps not in alignment and it took off again, this time for good, no doubt to fly over thousands of miles of ocean leading its solitary lifestyle on the wing hunting fish - obviously making a better job of it than we do! We enjoyed its visit even if it left a few gifts on our foredeck. Of course had we been Captain Bligh and his men cast adrift by Fletcher Christian we would have - eaten it - delicious!!!
The weather forecast brought gloomy news - not of dangerous conditions to come but a change of wind direction, meaning we would struggle to make the 120 miles to the Vivarillos Cays off the end of Honduras which would have given us a toe hold to use whilst we waited for another change of wind direction. This boat simply doesn't sail or motor into short seas and that is unfortunately what we suddenly had to fight against. In addition there was another tropical wave expected into the Caribbean in a few days which leads to squall and thunderstorm activity that is extremely unpleasant. We decided to give up the hard earned easterly miles we'd gained, admit it wasn't our year for Panama and head instead to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, one of the most hurricane free zones in the tropics. We were just 2 days away from the Rio, now sailing downwind and relaxed, having taken that decision.  We were looking forward to a gentle few days run in to Guatemala..............
Not a brilliant start to the day which steadily became worse with frequent squalls - it gets lonely out there sometimes.
The 'Admiral' woke the Skipper in the early hours as we were surrounded by thunderstorms - one in front, one behind and one to the side. The radar didn't make great viewing but as there was lightening all around us it didn't take a radar to reveal that we were stuck in the middle of a lot of horrible stuff.  Unbelievably Phil had been in dreamland and not noticed the situation. With the Genoa rolled away and a double reefed main up we were sailing at 6-7 knots so we heaved-to, virtually stopping the boat to let the storms pass before getting underway again an hour or so later.
The following day dawned gloomy. We were surrounded by squalls, downpours of rain clearly visible at various distances, off loading tons of water back into the ocean from whence it came. A couple passed over us.  The torrential rain flattened the sea, the cascading water washed the decks clean (including the Booby guano that was left from our visitor) and revealed several leaks into the boat that were hitherto unknown about!  As we approached within 12 miles of Livingstone, our clearing in port for Guatemala, we opted to anchor for the night behind a headland 9 miles away from the entrance to the Rio Dulce.  With the breeze at 10 knots off the beach we settled down for an early night ready to hit the ground the next morning to motor over to Livingstone to clear in to our 14th country since 2008 and our 4th in 6 months, but it was to be a dark and stormy night to remember!