“Only” four hundred and twenty six nautical miles ahead of us our next destination, Roatan, is sitting pretty among her sisters, forming part of the Bay Islands of Honduras.
Mostly renowned for the spectacular diving, and boasting access to the second biggest reef in the world, Roatan has been on my wish list for the past 12 years. I’m extra-eager to get there, even if I’m not one bit thrilled about the long, non-stop trip.
No matter: we’re happily under way by 6 in the morning, leaving Isla Providencia behind, more beautiful than ever enveloped in the golden-rose light of dawn. I say my silent farewell with a furtive wave of the hand and a nod of the head in grateful thanks for the blessed time we spent here, before turning my face in the wind.
We’re grinning like maniacs. The wind is coming from a favorable direction and at the perfect strength; the sea, though not quite as flat as I’d like, is tolerable and the current is with us. The sails are set; Camelot glides happily at a more than respectable speed while we review our chosen course.
About half of the way to Roatan there’s a small cay –Cayo Vivarillo- with a protected anchorage. It would be ideal to break the trip and enjoy a restful night of sleep, but… Sadly, in terms of personal safety Honduras has a very poor reputation among sailors.
Cruisers have been targeted, and quite a few violent occurrences happened in the recent past: armed robbery, kidnapping, rape and murder.
These thugs employ deception to gain access, often boarding boats at anchor in the middle of the night yelling “Police”, or posing as a boat in distress, or even in one instance pretending to offer help to a sailor in trouble. Honduras is terribly poor, and desperate people do desperate things…
So scrap the idea of a “restful” night of sleep, we decide to go for a straight shot, in true “Island Hopper” style.
Keeping in sporadic contact with a couple of sailboats about an hour behind us, we enjoy some of the best sailing conditions until sunset. After dinner, however, the wind dies down and the current turns against us. Bummer, but it was great while it lasted…
At about four in the morning, under my watch, Camelot takes a sudden 90 degree turn to the left. Startled and alarmed I jump behind the wheel and steer her back to course, all the while trying to reset the autopilot. Merlin, however, remains unresponsive. Tom soon pops up in the cockpit, having been thrown off the bed by the unexpected maneuver – if not by my screaming.
And so begins the long hand-steering marathon… We start with 90 minutes shifts, soon reducing to an hour when we realize how exhausting it is to keep this boat straight with following seas.
Needless to say, it sucks, big time. For the next thirty-one-hours we experience levels of fatigue I never thought possible. Tom eventually discovers the cause of Merlin’s failure to be simply a sheared bolt. And of course we don’t have a spare aboard. Oh well, at least we know it’s not a multiple-thousand dollars fix… That knowledge considerably brightens the general mood aboard.
We are greatly helped by our fellow cruisers Lynn and Howard on the vessel Swift Current, who volunteer to move in front of us and slow down to guide us all night long. It’s much easier to keep a (somewhat) straight course following their stern light than fighting the wheel while checking position on the compass…
By now we have a strong two-knot current against us and quartering seas. The waves are coming from a particular angle behind the boat, causing poor Camelot to behave like a cork in turbulent waters, with me desperately trying to minimize this drunken-sailboat syndrome…
I have to recognize Tom’s superior boat handling skills: it’s a much smoother ride when he drives!
Ok, I’ll openly admit it: without the autopilot I probably wouldn’t have made it out past the Golden Gate Bridge.
There, I said it! If that makes me a fair-weather, sissy-la-la sailor, so be it…
Mercifully, the night goes by quickly and the brand new, sunny day finds both Tom and I in pretty high spirits, all considered. Knowing we are only a little over four hours from destination probably helps, too…
It’s about seven o’clock when Tom points to what looks like a small, derelict fishing boat trailing behind us.
“Hey”, he says “isn’t that the same fishing boat we crossed last night at sunset, going the opposite way?” Damn, it sure looks like it… So why is it following us, twelve hours later?
We both immediately get on high alert and start talking about evasive maneuvers, our max speed versus theirs, how to quietly raise the alarm with our buddy boat, where is the flare gun, etc… Then we hear a voice over the VHF radio, first in English, then in Spanish, hailing… us?
“Good morning, sailboat! Hey, sailboat! Sailboat! Wake up, wake up, good morning!”
Tom instinctively grabs the microphone to answer while I yell at him “Don’t even think about responding, dude! It’s a trap! Let’s ignore them and keep an eye on their boat”. Tom nods and we remain silent for a while, listening to more of the friendly hailing… It goes on for a while.
I go down below to make coffee and by the time I get back in the cockpit, Tom is yakking away on the radio. I want to smack him, I’m so scared… “What the hell are you doing?” I cry. But he ignores me and carries on… Here’s the conversation taking place in a mixture of broken English and Spanglish:
Them: “What’s your position, sailboat?”
Tom: “I’m right in front of you”
Them: “Yeah, I see you, but… What’s your position?”
Tom: “Dude, I’m right in front of you, look at your coordinates”
Them: “That’s the problem, amigo. We’re fishermen from Colombia and our GPS quit working last night, we don’t know where we are…”
We look at each other. I blurt “What if it’s a ruse? What if we give them the coordinates and their buddies come out to assault us…”
But Tom just shrugs and proceeds to rattle off our current position reading, even handling me the mike to translate in Spanish when the Colombians have troubles understanding. My turn to rattle off numbers…
The fishermen thank us profusely, but still keep their course right on our tail. They never said where they were going… So we start planning for contingencies: Tom calls Howard on the radio, relaying the exchange; they chat for a little while, casually letting the word “gun” slip in a couple of times (just in case “they” are eavesdropping), and leave it as that.
I HATE to be this suspicious and untrusting: it’s not my nature, but it can’t be helped, not after the horror stories I read and heard… And I certainly do not enjoy being scared, but I am…
About forty minutes later the fishing boat slowly falls off, heading for the island of Guanaja – the first of the Bay Islands of Honduras. We breathe a sigh of relief, but still half expect to see some vessel loaded with armed people coming to get us. That’s how psyched out we are about all the information we read on Honduras…
We complete what’s left of the trip on pure adrenaline. Thankfully the water is as smooth as a lake, making it finally easier to steer.
And finally, oh joy, we’re there!
“There” is Barefoot Cay Marina, our safe haven for the next two weeks or so, depending on how fast we can get the replacement bolt for the autopilot shipped down here. But we’re in no hurry…
It looks very beautiful and safe here, a welcome sight after the tension of the last thirty-plus hours. We’re completely exhausted after this fifty-four hour trek, but exhilarated and happy to be in such a gorgeous place.
Oh, wait… I see a sparkling POOL right behind us, just a few feet away from our dock! Those comfy-looking beach chairs are beckoning…
I’ll leave you with this parting image, just so you know we’re not suffering here… More on Roatan later!