Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Guanaja Ha Ha.

Posted by Scot

There is an annual cruiser’s rally from California to the Baja peninsula in Mexico that is called the “Baja Ha Ha”.  So I am officially calling our trip from the Caymans to Guanaja, Honduras the “Guanaja Ha Ha”.

While it may not seem that far to seasoned sailors, the 300 mile crossing from Grand Cayman to Guanaja is by far the longest we have undertaken to date.  It was surprising, then, that neither Sara or I felt too much trepidation leading up to it.  In fact, it was one of the least stressful crossings we have had.  Maybe we are beginning to get used to this sailing thing.

We started by leaving the Barcadere Marina and heading around to the West Bay side of Grand Cayman, so we could check out with customs.  The Caymans have thoughtfully made a provision for departing sailors, so that they can purchase their fuel duty free.  This saves about 15% on the total cost, which can add up to quite a bit.  Unfortunately, you can’t get duty free fuel without your departure papers, and you can’t get your departure papers without going to the customs office, which was about a 4 hour trip by boat or a $50.00 taxi ride away from the marina, where they sell the fuel.  So, in the end, the duty free fuel turned out to be a nice idea in theory, but difficult to implement in practice.  We filled up before we left the marina, and decided to just pay the duty.

Monashee, back in West Bay on Grand Cayman, hanging out with the cruise ship crowd.
After a big night on the town in Georgetown, taking advantage of all the great things we wouldn’t be seeing for a while (Dairy Queen, Subway, and back to the boat by 6:00 p.m.), we turned in early.  Sara and I set the alarm for 2:30 a.m., and by 0300 we were on our way.  Interestingly, this turned out to be a popular time to set out.  Two freighters left at more or less the same time, and we had to alter course almost right away to avoid getting run down by one of them.  It was a good thing I had overhead them on the VHF telling Port Security that they were leaving.  Otherwise, it would have been easy to confuse their running lights with the lights of the city, and not see them at all.  Although our AIS showed them clearly, so I guess it was not really that close a thing.

One last paddle on Grand Cayman before heading out to sea.
We also went for one last snorkel, on a wreck near our mooring.
After helping me get us underway, Sara went back to bed, and I stayed up to finish out the night and early morning.  We had timed our passage with a mild weather window, and true to the forecast, we had very little wind, which meant we motored through most of the first night.  While it is always nicer to sail, on the longer passages, it is great to have calm seas.  Everyone sleeps and eats better that way, and is generally happier.

Leaving Grand Cayman at 3 in the morning.
The next day, the tradewinds came up, and we were able to move along nicely under sails alone.  In fact, we were making such good time that we started to be concerned about arriving too early, and getting to Gunaja in the dark, although it was still too far away to estimate accurately.  The day was straightforward, with everyone taking turns watching for ships.  At one point we crossed what seemed like a freighter lane.  In the matter of a few hours we saw AIS targets for 4 different ships.  None came closer than 3 miles though.  The rest was just empty ocean, all day.  Katie kept her usual spot on the bow, where she seems happy to while away the hours “imagining”.  The rest of us kept ourselves busy with books, video games, naps and meals when we weren’t taking turns on watch.  The wind remained steady, so we didn’t really have to adjust the sails at all.

Snug as two bugs, on a comfortable passage.
As the second night fell, we decided we were going a bit faster than we wanted.  Instead of slowing our sailing down a bunch, we altered course slightly to head for the Swan Islands, which are two small Honduran islands in the middle of the Caribbean, about 150 miles from any where.  They are really remote, and there is pretty much no way to get there other than by private boat.  Take a minute and look them up on Google Earth.  If you didn’t know to look for them, you wouldn’t really know they were there.

The plan was to pull in there the next day for a few hours, and reset our timing for a better arrival in Guanaja.  As the sun came up, we could see the islands in the distance.  As I took over the watch at 0630, we had our first dolphin visit of the passage, with a pod of about 25 dolphins coming to play in our bow wake and welcome the day.  Sara delayed going back to bed to sit on the bow seats and watch them with me.

A welcome sunrise after our second night on passage.
We pulled into the small, semi-protected anchorage on the west end of the Swan Islands (also known as Isla Santanilla, or Isla Cisne) at around 11:30.  We had read about the small military presence that keeps a watch over this Honduran possession.  Still, it hadn’t occurred to us how it would feel to be in such a remote place with seven twenty-something year olds, all greeting us with very serious looks and automatic weapons hanging at their sides (M-16s?  I’m not sure, but that is what they looked like to me, based on my movie knowledge of guns).

We actually got kind of a weird vibe from these guys.  They really didn’t seem all that welcoming or friendly. After we anchored and brought our dinghy over to their dock, they wrote our details down in their coil bound notebook.  Then, they asked us to bring the big boat over to the concrete dock.  They didn’t really seem to have a reason, and we politely declined, since we didn’t want our boat scraping up and down against the huge dock in the swell.  Maybe we were paranoid from lack of sleep after a couple of nights at sea, but neither of us felt like we really wanted to spend too much time there.

The dock at Isla Cisne.  Not the most welcoming place to tie up our boat, although the beach was nice.
Once again, Sara’s Spanish came in very handy.  Without her, I wouldn’t really have had much idea what was going on.

We were comfortable enough to relax for a nap and a meal, though, before heading out at about 1430.  We had calculated that even with a strong tradewind on a beam reach, that timing would be sure to get us to Guanaja in the daylight.

Of course, after having stopped and killed a few hours, it turned out the wind had stopped as well, so we ended up motoring or motor sailing the rest of the way.  We had two more dolphin visits that day, for a record number of three in one day.  One came about an hour after leaving Isla Cisne.  Then, once again just as the sun was setting, we had more dolphins come to wish us goodnight.

CBC podcasts helped pass the time.  I think Christopher is listening to "Laugh Out Loud."  Note that pajamas are apparently appropriate attire for an entire 3 day passage.
Our last night of the passage was pretty straightforward, with little wind, and again, little waves.  Everyone slept well.  Before he went to bed, Alexander and I turned off our running lights so we could see the bioluminescence in our wake.  It was beautiful.  It looked like we were shooting tiny little green fireworks out behind us as we went.  I have no idea what the adaptive advantage is for sea critters to bioluminescence, but I think it is one of nature’s greatest tricks.  Any biologists out there care to enlighten us? 

The rest of the night was dark, with almost no moon, but lots of stars.  Towards morning, the wind came up, as did the waves, but it clocked around behind us, so we had a nice downwind sleigh ride into Guanaja.  The passage was capped off with the usual frustrating running back and forth between customs and immigration.  “The Settlement”, which is what they call the town on Guanaja, is a remarkable place.  It looks like they started building it on land, but as it grew, instead of building back up the mountainous island, they figured it was easier to build out over the shallow water.  So about half the town is built on stilts.  There are no cars, and no roads, so the whole thing is a warren of alleyways, and all transport to and from town is via little run-about boats.

Land ho!  Guanaja, Honduras.
The Settlement, on Guanaja.
By the time that was all done, and we had gotten money changed, it was 2 p.m.  We headed over to the anchorage at El Bight.  We could tell we were finally in a more common cruising destination at high season, since there were already 12 other boats in the anchorage.  There is plenty of room though, and we are well protected by the fringing reef, so we settled in for a much needed rest.

Glad to be back at anchor, looking out to the reef from our boat on Guanaja.


  1. Cool. We spent a month in Guajana in '97 around Christmas time. Of course we had dengue fever so didn't do too much socializing. Then it got stomped by Hurricane Mitch a few years later. I hope the trees have grown back by now.

    1. The trees have definitely grown back. We have been saying this is probably one of the nicest anchorages we have been in, including the Bahamas. Hope we don't get dengue fever!