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by Dan and Jan Ahart
We left Isla de Providencia on the morning of 17 March 2004. And a grand St. Patrick's Day it was. Surrounded by green ocean, we listened to many of the celebrations around the U.S. and Europe on short wave. Our course was north by northwest and with the winds out of the east northeast, we had a good angle on the 15 to 20 knot winds, which moved us along at about 6 knots. After the first 24 hours we were 135 miles north by northwest of Isla Providencia and just onto the huge Miskito Bank, which is about half the size of the Grand Bahamas Bank, but not as shallow. The average depths were about 75 feet. Like the Bahamas, the bank is scattered with reefs, small and large islands and other hazards to navigation like wrecks. We studied our planned route very carefully and by using our moving map GPS, our radar and depth finders, we felt confident that we could safely traverse the area at night. It took us just over 36 hours to cross the bank and we were definitely relieved to be in deep water again. After 72 hours and 375 nautical miles we anchored on the west end of Isla Roatan off the north coast of Honduras. We had initially intended to sail non-stop to Guatemala, but the winds were slacking off to the point we felt we may have to motor, so we decided to stop for the night. We did not check-in as we had heard it was a lengthy procedure and after all we intended to stay for less than 24 hours. We have a full set of signal flags, so we broke out the "M" flag, which also is an international signal that we are stopping temporarily to rest, will not leave the boat and will be on our way soon. The flag is dark blue with a white X across it. Just to be safe, in case some officials came by, I got out an old bilge pump and spread the pieces across the work table to demonstrate that I was working on an important piece of equipment, essential to safety on the high seas. No one came by, we had a good day's rest and left early the next morning.
Sunday, 21 March 2004 dawned clear and calm. There was absolutely not a breath of wind. The forecast called for 15 knots out of the east, but they evidently hadn't arrived yet. We should have figured that the forecast was wrong and something was different and stayed at anchor, but we were anxious to leave, so we left. We motored for two hours, before the wind finally arrived. But to our surprise, it was out of the west. At first this was not a problem as we were enjoying three to five foot swells that were arriving from the northeast. But, by noon the west winds grew strong enough to cause white caps as they encountered the swells moving in the opposite direction. In addition, the seas became increasingly confused and choppy, which made for a very uncomfortable ride. Finally, we got the message that this was not going to be comfortable, so we turned southeast and sailed to Isla Utila, which was about 12 miles away. Isla Utila is a nice sized island measuring about seven miles by three miles. The southwest end, where we headed is crowded with small islets and shallow areas, which were perfect for providing respite from the wind. By the time we reached Sandy Cay, which is one of the islets, the winds were up to 20 knots from the west. We anchored in the lee of Sandy Cay in 10 feet of water and settled in. The wind reached a peak of 30 knots that night and blew all the next day from the west. So, we stayed two nights and caught up on our reading. Isla Utila lies less than 20 miles off the Honduran coast and we were somewhat concerned about anchoring there because of the stories of robberies along the coast of Honduras. But, we were pleasantly surprised to see many very nice vacation homes on the main island and on some of the cays. We also saw a few sport fishermen in very nice new fishing boats, so we felt safe, thinking that affluence would mean fewer desperate thieves. Overall, it was a pleasant stay and we again flew our "M" or "I am stopped" flag. No one visited us and we did not leave the boat.
We receive most of our weather information from the NOAA Grib files, which we can receive via our winlink HAM email system. The HAMs who operate the winlink system download the NOAA weather charts from the internet and transmit them to us on request via the winlink email system. The charts come in crystal clear and are far superior to the quality available from our weather fax receiver, which often fades just when it is most needed. Plus, the thermo fax receiver must be on and tuned to the proper frequency when NOAA transmits the signal, which is sometimes at "oh dark 30." And, it uses rolls of thermo fax paper, which has a habit of jamming at a critical time. It was top of the line technology only a few years ago, but is now seldom seen on boats. The winlink system uses a repeating and interrogating digital signal that keeps transmitting until the information is received perfectly and downloaded onto the laptop. With the new high-speed winlink technology, we can download ten files, one for each of the next ten days in about five minutes. That amount of data on the old thermo fax would take close to two hours. Once in the computer, the charts can be enlarged or colored to enhance readability. It is really a fantastic system, especially considering the radios being used are the same short wave that HAMs have been using for years. Which just demonstrates how a mix of short-wave radio and state of the art computer programming can work together to provide worldwide weather information. We deeply appreciate the efforts of HAMs around the world, who give so freely of their time and resources to keep this system working so well.
Finally, on the morning of 23 March 04, we left Isla Utila. This time the winds were as forecast and we sailed away to the west with 10 knots of wind at our backs. We were tempted to put up the spinnaker, but decided that since the weather in this particular area seemed difficult to forecast accurately, that we would fly the jib only. It is a sturdy sail and can be rolled in quickly if need be. We were glad we did, because about midnight, the winds had increased to 30 knots. We kept rolling in the jib to keep our speed down until we had only about 10% of it deployed and we were still moving at 6 knots. It was a wild ride and thank goodness, the wind was behind us. Then, just to keep things interesting, the wind abruptly died at 0300 and we were becalmed. So, we cranked up the engines and began to motor the last 20 miles to Livingston, Guatemala. All was well for two hours when the wind returned almost as strong as it had been before the calm. So, with the engines running just above idle, and with 20 knots at our backs we literally surfed into the harbor at Livingston, which is on the banks of the Rio Dulce. The river is about three miles wide at its mouth and of course there is the typical bar to cross where the river slows and deposits silt as it meets the ocean. Water over the bar was only six feet deep a mile from town. It was still only 8 feet deep when we anchored off the Texaco fuel pier and waited for the officials to pay us a visit. Stay tuned.