Apologies that there has been a long time between blogs but we have been busy getting the boat sorted and then in my case spent 2 months in the UK and Gill spent an extra month in Thailand visiting her daughter. So this post brings us up the Rio Dulce to Fronteras and the place we left the boat to go back home.
“During the hurricane season from June to November we needed a safe spot to leave the boat and have some work carried out to prepare the boat for the next phase of our circumnavigation. Our choices were; going north to the eastern seaboard of the US; going south out of the hurricane zone to Panama or Colombia or; to tuck in up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, although technically speaking it’s still within the hurricane zone and also suffers from occasional earthquakes. We decided on the Rio Dulce, however, for four reasons; it’s a beautiful place; it’s very cheap to live there; the boat yard labour cost is very low and the skill base high and; although in the “zone”, it’s a very sheltered hurricane hole. I checked it out with the boat insurers and they agreed provided we had the boat lifted out and chained down while we were back in the UK.
To get into the river you first have to cross a mud bar at the entrance outside the town of Livingston and the maximum tide height in May was 6ft 6” and we draw at least 7ft maybe more fully laden. We were advised by other cruisers while in Belize to use a clearing agent called Raul Morales who would also arrange a fishing boat tow through the mud. I contacted Raul by email while we were still in Belize and agreed to be off Livingston on the 27th May at 6.15am (high water was at 7.00am) to meet up with the fishing boat and then hoped for the best.
On the 26th we sailed from Moho Cay in Belize and anchored overnight at a sheltered anchorage called Tres Puntas. From there we set off at 4.00am in the pitch dark over shoaling water and by following the previous day’s incoming track on the plotter we arrived safely at the Livingston buoy ahead of schedule. There waiting for us was a rather decrepit old fishing boat with two crew. The crewman threw us a line which we hitched to our bow cleat and off we went at speed, both of us on full throttle to cross the bar which was around 2 to 3 miles wide. We had only gone 200 yards when the fishing boat ahead of us suddenly stopped and I pulled the boat up behind him to discover that he had blown a seawater cooling hose on the engine. Undaunted and in true Guatemalan style he shot below to fix the problem while we drifted around on the end of the tow line, gradually both boats being pushed back out to sea by the river flow.
After half an hour and a few failed attempts he got going again and just on high water. As we re-approached the bar we could see the depth dropping on the echo sounder and soon we slowed from 7 knots to 2 as the keel sliced through the mud, all was well for 100 yards and then we stopped altogether, stuck fast. I had been warned there was a chance the tow wouldn’t work so as advised by other experienced cruisers I had rigged a line to our mast which the fishing boat skipper now took and drove to the side of us until Romano was at 45 degrees. I powered up our engine, the fishing boat skipper (who we later found out was called Hector) put his crew on our boat and with Romano’s draft reduced by the heel we continued trouble free over the bar. His crewman made sure I steered an exact course and with the boat on a steady heading the fishing boat was able to maintain a precise angle of heel. It was a very strange experience and quite exhilarating and cost us $60 but we had made it and were in the Rio Dulce which then continued at depth for at least twenty miles inland.
By 9.00am on the 27th we were anchored off Livingston town to be met and boarded by our agent Raul Morales and five officials from various authorities. We welcomed them on board and they inspected the boat, asked questions about our health, wanted to know how long we would be staying (the normal visa is 3 months duration) and as we were staying until November we requested a one year visa which was granted at a cost of 3000 quetzals (£250.00). We then went ashore in the dinghy to find a cash machine only to discover we were limited to 1000 quetzals (approx. £80) per day. On production of our passports the bank allowed us to cash the balance.
We passed through steep sided ravines and forested banks with fisherman in dugouts under the overhanging branches, we passed their thatched homes on stilts with children playing in the water and tiny villages tucked away up creeks. The noises of the jungle were all around us and we could only guess at the sources. A flock of swifts took up residence in our rigging swooping off to catch flies and back to roost chasing each other off the prime spots. It was an idyllic journey and everything we had hoped for.
Texan Bay was a small lagoon and village just off the main river and we dropped anchor with another four or five boats about 20ft from the shore in a perfectly still spot. We launched the dinghy and went exploring off the beaten track up narrow waterways, overhung with trees and lianas, hitting an underwater log at one point which fortunately didn’t damage the outboard. Back on board it was time for a welcome sun-downer and a meal in the cockpit, suitably protected with insect repellent. Gill had made some mosquito screens for the companion way and portholes so we could get air through the boat at night and these were about to get a rigorous testing (as I write this several weeks later they’ve performed well).
The following day we set off after a leisurely breakfast and passed through a large lake about 10 miles long called El Golfete. Here we came across some shallows we had to skirt around and our forward looking sonar came in useful again. It was quite different sailing up a river after months at sea and something I had never done before in a yacht. It was then on to the town of Fronteras where we anchored on the other side of the river, off Ram Marina, where we were due to leave the boat while back in the UK.
Well we had made it, it was the end of our first leg and quite strange not to be going on. I have sailed nearly 8,000 miles since leaving Cowes, 5,000 of those with Gill and about 2,500 with just the two of us. We have enjoyed the company of Sim and Stefan helping crew the boat, visited many countries en route and met hundreds of people nearly all of whom have been welcoming and helpful. We have a long list of jobs to do here including; the addition of a proper bimini; building a gantry and adding solar panels to increase our electrical generation without having to run the engine; converting the gas system to US configuration; adding a long range SSB radio; all this and more to prepare the boat for the next leg.
After a few days of trying to contact various specialists to undertake the work we were starting to find our way around. The town of Fronteras on the opposite bank of the river and at the end of a huge bridge built by engineers of the US Marine Corps, is an amazing place. A narrow two way road passes through the middle of town, coming off the bridge and this carries the main traffic for miles around. The result is chaos with huge trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, taxis, bicycles, motor bikes and people all competing for road space; there is no pavement and the shops and stalls encroach on the road. The huge trucks very patiently nudge their way through the melee and come to a halt if another is coming the other way, amazingly nobody gets squished and we have yet to see an accident. This is our main shopping place so we have to play dodgems while shopping but somehow it all works.
We decided to check in to Nanajuana Marina rather than RAM for the period up until we hauled out at the end of June as it was a hotel and marina and had much better facilities – bar, restaurant, great pool (one of Gill’s favourite places) and lovely tropical gardens. The mooring fees are a fraction of the European marinas, at £5.00 per day you couldn’t park your dinghy for that in the UK. Here also in these lovely surroundings we have made many friends of fellow Australian and French cruisers, this has been our first opportunity to develop a real social life with the opportunity for entertainment on board and parties on the dock. It’s not all milk and honey, most of the boats, us included have cockroach infestations and there are lots of biting things that come out at night and dawn to feast; insect repellent is an essential. We caught two scorpions in a house some German friends were renting and it’s not safe to walk through the grass back to the boat at night, we have to stick to the concrete paths. Gill also spent a morning trying to sieve weevils from the flour and gave up with the comment “well it’s only added protein” and perhaps scariest of all was the story that a French woman found a 4ft (growing by the day) snake on their boat and her screams could be heard for miles. The temperature varies from 32 to 38C and the humidity level means that you sweat all day and most of the night.
For an outback town Fronteras provides most of what we need and what they don’t supply we can ship in from the US. There are some unusual shops however like the local gun shop where you can walk in with your wad and come out with a colt 45, which many carry in side holsters to match the Stetson, jeans and cowboy boots and hats, amusingly the coffin shop is just opposite. Getting cash from one of the three banks is also a challenge; they limit you to 2000 quetzales (about £150 per day) which doesn’t go very far when you take living expenses and paying tradesmen into account. Often the banks run out of cash (Q100 notes are their largest denomination so you end up with a fistful of monopoly money, which you have to stash away before coming out of the banks) or there is a power cut or they station an armed guard to prevent you using the machine, or the machine eats your card. When this happened to me it was at a machine in the Marina store, the staff were great and repeatedly phoned the bank over a couple of days. When they did arrive to open the machine it was with a photographer to take pictures of the process and a guard armed with a sawn off shotgun, not the sort of response you would get from Barclays. But on presenting my passport I did get my card back. You get the idea this is a fairly lawless society where even the supermarkets have armed guards on patrol. To be fair however although they do seem to kill each other in numbers we have had no trouble at all and the local people have been welcoming and very friendly.
On one occasion we needed more cash than the machine would give us so we tried to use our passports and cards to increase the amount we could draw but the banks refused; something that has never happened to us before, so it was back to the ATM each day to draw our daily allowance. About a week later when I went to get our passports to complete an online application for a US visa for our return trip I discovered both our passports were missing and we then spent two panic stricken days retracing our steps trying to find them. The loss would mean a 6 hour bus journey to our consulate in Guatemala City, an overnight stay and hopefully the issue of temporary passports to return to the UK in a fortnight’s time. We also learned from Gill’s daughter Sarah that the passport office in the UK had a huge backlog and were taking months to process applications. This had been caused by the closure of many UK consulate passport offices around the world and a failure to deal with the increased load back home – nightmare! We had checked everywhere without success, only one bank to go – Gill went in while I waited outside. She rushed out kissed a rather stunned guard and produced the passports – which I had left on the bank counter a week before! The sheer sense of relief was overwhelming but I did get quite a severe and well deserved bollocking from Gill.
We are now just a few days off returning to the UK via Miami and have lined up some good deals for work on the boat while we are away. I also have a list of things we need to import from the US and have set that up with an import agent. I return to Guatemala on the 20th August to supervise the work and complete various jobs. Gill will return on the 10th September and hopefully we should be on our way again by the end of October.