Pirates of Providencia

After two months of frustrating delay caused by my broken ankles we finally left Roatan in the Bay Islands with Jocelyn our new French Canadian crew member on board and headed south about 30 miles to the islands of Cayos Cochinos for our first sail for a while. It was a glorious day with 15 knots of wind on the beam and we covered the distance quickly at 6.5 to 7 knots, a great introduction for Joce, or so we thought. We arrived at the islands and sought out an anchorage in the lee of Cochinos Grande, but couldn’t get our anchor to hold in the turtle grass bottom, so we tried around another point only to be met by a local in his canoe who told us that would be fined if we anchored there. It turned out that the military controlled the islands and only permitted mooring on their designated buoys at a cost of $30.00. We returned to the earlier bay but found it too shallow for us to reach some buoys inshore. At that point the military turned up and told us to anchor in the bay at a spot indicated by them, apparently the buoys had been destroyed in a storm.

We anchored as instructed and only found out later when we snorkelled out to check that the anchor had set that we were over a coral bed – not good. The soldiers wanted $30 per day of stay so we decided to leave the following morning and head for the island of Guanaja, about 45 miles to the North East. We intended to check out of Honduras here before going on to Providencia, a Colombian island some 400 miles away. The wind was right on our nose so unfortunately we had to motor the whole way, Joce was very subdued and kept himself apart.

Arriving at Guanaja we crept over the reef with only a couple of inches to spare and anchored in Sandy Bay. That night we went ashore to Manati, a restaurant which had been recommended to us, run by Annette and Claus, a German couple. Monday was their “kitchen closed night” but Annette took pity on us and we had a typical German dinner finished off with chocolate made by her son.

 

One of Guanaja’s stilted houses

 
 

Typical canal between the houses

 
The island has no roads so everyone travels around by boat and the only town is built on stilts on an off lying reef with canals between the houses like a Little Venice. In the morning we all went there by launch to check out and to add Joce to our crew list, however, this was the moment he chose to tell us he wasn’t coming with us but wanted to return home. We had hints before hand that he wasn’t a happy cruiser but we were disappointed in the way he broke the news in the immigration office and that we wouldn’t have his support to get us to Panama, especially with my freshly mended ankles.

Finding crew who fit into the boat’s routine, who are competent and trustworthy sailors and have personalities compatible with the existing crew is a notoriously tricky business. With Jocelyn we exchanged many emails, went through his and our expectations, talked on Skype and I thought from this that he would fit the bill. How wrong I was, he hadn’t been on the boat a day when he insisted on checking all our stores for “use by” dates, he wanted Gill to throw out the flour because it had weevils in it (standard on cruising boats in the tropics and we just sift them out), was fussy about what he would eat despite telling us he would eat anything, had no concept of sailing at sea, was nervous about doing night watches and proved to be a loner with poor social skills. It was as well he left the boat at that time but he did teach us a lesson in crew selection and interviewing, his expectations of cruising were completely unrealistic and I hadn’t realised, despite our extensive communications prior to his arrival. Many people think it’s a life of gin and tonics at sundown, swimming and snorkelling and visiting desert islands but in practice it’s mostly hard work with some time off for play.

Gill and I left the following morning in flat calm for the part of the trip we were least looking forward to, 180 miles straight into the trade winds. The forecast however was for light winds and that’s how it proved to be. We still had to motor for a day and a half but it wasn’t uncomfortable and our fears weren’t realised. Our friends Gordon and Gillian on “N-aimless” went a day ahead of us and said they would wait for us at a group of cays on the reef some sixty miles off the eastern most point of Honduras, “the corner”. After this we hoped to be able to sail with the easterly trade winds on our beam.

We radioed ahead and they gave us directions through the reef to where they were anchored, in the middle of the sea, just behind a small coral mound you could hardly call an island. We were well protected by the reef around us from waves but not wind. That afternoon we went ashore in Gordon and Gillian’s dinghy to find the island covered in hundreds of stacked lobster pots and the main inhabitants, nesting brown Boobies. Mum watched the chick while Dad went fishing and made the run back through marauding Frigate birds who can’t catch their own fish so steal it from other birds. They will also attack unprotected chicks and we even saw them trying to steal fish during the beak to beak transfer from parent to chick. It was back to our boat for sundowners and to watch a beautiful sunset in this bizarre anchorage in the middle of nowhere.  

 

Lots of boobies nesting

 
 

Mother and chick on the Hobby Cays

  

Where’s my lunch, I hope its not fish again!

 After another days resting we set off for the Colombian island of Providencia, 100 miles off the coast of Nigaragua and a 190 mile journey with 2 overnight sails, something we hadn’t tried before with only Gill and I, preferring to limit our sailing to one night only at sea, when we are able. The seas were kind to us although the wind taunted us until we cleared the large reef area off the east coast of Honduras, by playing just off the nose, not enough to sail, so we had to motor/sail for another 70 miles until we were clear of the reef and could turn 90 degrees south. Gordon and Gillian wanted to motor/ sail all the way to Providencia so they left at noon, 5 hours behind us. Around 2pm the following day we could see them catching us up and it was good to have someone as company.

We then had a good sail in variable winds but just right to make landfall at 9.00am on Providencia. We reefed sail when the wind increased to keep the speed right for this arrival. Suddenly, just after we had reefed around 11pm the radio burst into life, it was Gordon, they had moved ahead of us under power and he warned us that they had been hit by 30 knot winds from nowhere and that the squall was headed our way. Fortunately, we already had our sails reefed but even then our speed kicked up from 3 knots to 7 knots in a matter of seconds however we were well balanced to ride it out.

We arrived off Providencia at around 9am as planned and as we came in to the anchorage radioed to Gordon to let him know we were coming in, the local checking in agent (Mr Bush) picked up our transmission and we were instructed to come to his offices straight away to clear in to this Colombian Island. So we dropped the anchor in the lovely bay there and jumped into Gordon’s dinghy and were whisked off to check in with immigration and the port captain. Mr Bush ran the general hardware store in which he also had a desk and a few chairs for those checking in, so we sat among the shop hardware for the lengthy check in process. The other officials came to his store to check our passports and issue our cruising certificate. These check ins are always slightly weird when you have been up all night, slightly spaced out and you launch into formal immigration procedures with officials in a strange country and every country has its own process and forms and charges. Here we had to pay $150, whereas Honduras cost us nothing to check in and out and you always wonder how much is official and how much is for the back pocket when charges are high. Some countries insist you use agents (always more expensive) and some you don’t, Mr Bush was an agent so we guessed he took his cut from our fees. We will probably be the last generation who can do this sort of trip. It gets more and more expensive year on year and the game is on to see how much money the various countries can extract from cruising boats which is a shame because cruisers bring financial benefit especially to island communities and it will eventually prove a killing of the golden goose through greed by a few.

 

The lovely bay in Providencia

 
I called this chapter Pirates of Providencia because the island sits just off the Spanish Main and has a perfect horseshoe anchorage, safe for marauding pirates. It was home to Cap’n Morgan and his moll and many other Buccaneers and the family names in the local cemetery here show names on the graves like Hawkins (Jim lad!) Robinson, Hooker (lots of them), Archibold, Bryan and Black. The Island was also a main slave trading centre, they grew tobacco and traded this for slaves. The island is protected by a tricky reef and there are high points around the anchorage to mount canon, it was perfect for their purpose!

 

Harbour at Providencia

 
The island is very pretty with proper hills, trees and beaches and we hired a beach buggy for a day with Gordon and Gillian to tour the island. It takes 3 hours to drive all the way round but we spent a day exploring all the nooks and stopped off at South West Bay, a spectacularly beautiful bay and beach for a swim and a lovely lunch of lobster and fish at a restaurant where our table was set out under the palms, digging our toes into the soft sand we dined well.

 

The beach in Southwest Bay

  

Gordon and Gillian tucking into lunch

 
We continued travelling round the island to the east side which was protected by a long reef with an extraordinary array of colours in the water from the palest turquoise to the deepest blue. Gillian (as opposed to Gill) had a liking for visiting cemeteries and we visited yet another one behind a quaint old church, equally interesting, with plaques commemorating more British settlers from the 18th century. Before our return to the “city” with a little time still to spare on our rental, we decided to utilise our rented mini-moke to collect fuel in 5 gall jerry cans from the local petrol station. This was a lot of easier than previous trips where we had had to lug the cans 100 yards from the petrol station to the dinghy and ferry them over to the boat anchored half a mile away. It was too shallow to get the Romano any nearer

 

one of the old cemetries

 .

Upon recommendation from Gillian, Gill and I then visited a shoreside restaurant to sample their famed homemade corn ice cream, an unusual flavour but very rich and creamy.

 

Colombian navy patrolling at sunset

 
The following day after checking the weather and getting a favourable forecast we cleared out with Mr Bush and left at the crack of dawn the following morning for a two and half day sail to Porvenir in the San Blas islands of Panama a journey of around 250 miles.
The weather forecast proved accurate and we had fair winds to carry us down to Panama which was a relief considering we were shorthanded and I was still very wobbly on my ankles.
As we left Providencia we were escorted from the island by a large school (fifty or more) dolphins who stayed with us for the best part of an hour, jumping and performing alongside the boat, each competing for attention. It was interesting to see their communication with each other and instructions being given by one of the larger members of the school with a slap of the tail. Each time this happened some of the smaller dolphins turned for home until we were left with ten and then finally one (who waved his flipper and wished us bon voyage!!!)

 

Our lovely send off with the dolphins

 
Mid-way we picked up an unusual radar target moving very slowly (3 knots), which as it came into view, it turned out to be a large ocean-going tug towing an old and partly dismantled aircraft carrier and heading for Houston, as indicated by the AIS, we guessed for scrapping.

 

Aircraft carrier under tow off Nicaragua

 
During the night we crossed the main shipping lanes into Panama and the Canal, which was a busy time watching the tracks of numerous ships crossing in front and behind us. This kept us awake playing dodgems until we had cleared the area.
Because of the many reefs around Porvenir, which alone sported two wrecks of recently grounded yachts, we had timed it to arrive in daylight hours and this worked to plan arriving off Porvenir at around 10.00 am.  

  
We dinghied ashore to check in on this tiny sandy island where we discovered a 400 yard concrete airstrip which runs its entire length, together with a couple of shacks and a scruffy little hotel. There are regular flights coming in each day with charter crews. One of the shacks housed the Immigration, Customs and Port Captain’s offices where “piracy” was the name of the game. The fees demanded by the various offices amounted to almost $US400 which didn’t include an additional tax payable to the Kuna National Congresso of $US60 for one month’s cruising in the islands. This was the most expensive place we have yet visited and we were soon to discover that further charges were yet to be levied by the Kuna chiefs on each of their islands we visited.

After 800 miles of sailing from Guatemala we had finally arrived at our next cruising ground with the intention of staying here for a couple of months to explore the 300 or so desert islands that make up the San Blas archipelago.

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