San Pedro, Belize to Utila Honduras
Even though staying in Belize was not an option for us, the coming nights’ sailing conditions were promising. It seemed we should have no problem arriving in Utila during daylight hours the following day. So off we went, clearing San Pedros’ reef at 1600, in beautiful weather, great wind and nearly smooth seas at 1ft. Postcard sailing weather with winds on the beam out of the NE at 10 to 15 knots giving us a speed of 6 knots plus. We were so shook up after the incident with the Port Captain, but so happy to have great sailing weather, we had a token rum punch - as we like to keep our wits about us while sailing, imbibing too much is not an option. We set a course that would take us east over the north end of Belizes’ Turneffe Islands and further east on past the north end of Lighthouse Reef. All was going well and we settled into our routine of rotating watches. Auto had the helm.
On our previous overnight sail, from Bahia to Belize we had some rainy weather and got wet, and consequently, cold. Yes, we have full foul weather gear but did not wear our bibs, so we got wet. We know you’re thinking, “Heck, they’re in the tropics and it shouldn’t be cold.” But wet, at night, makes for cold. So, to be on the safe and dry side we had at the ready, our cockpit enclosure, so that should it rain, we could drop the curtains and zip up and stay dry. And yes, we had our bibs close at hand this time. Note to remember for later: we have a full enclosure but only readied the front and sides.
At 0100 on Thursday 11/7 we made a course change - as in - hung a right and headed down towards Utila and sailed right out of wind. At night it is sometimes hard to read cloud formations or see storms but something was sucking up all the wind. We tried motor sailing for awhile but the sails were flogging violently and we could not manage to calm them down. The waves were coming from multiple directions, which exacerbated the problem, so down came the sails and we motored on until dawn.
At 0645 we were able to raise the sails and make some headway toward Roatan with the plan of jibing back and forth to avoid a down wind course to Utila. Winds were mostly dead astern. The storm oscillated between annoying and a full blown gale. We passed from - doldrums, sails down, motor on, to - moderate wind , sails up, motor off, to - roiling seas, high winds, sails down, motor on, and then a few nautical miles further it started all over again. This storm totally surrounded us and unbeknownst to us, would be a serious threat for the next 24 hours.
We kept commenting on the various storm clouds; “What the heck?” - “Is that one going to hit us?” - “What’s with these storms all around us?” - “What’s going on now!?” - “ That one missed us.” - “ Could stand for a freshwater rinse, ya’ think the next one will hit us?” and so on.
But the real clincher to the all the foul weather downwind sailing was……..the wind and rain blew in over the stern!
Soooooo, we said on several occasions, back and forth to each other, “Ya’ know we have a full enclosure but, did we get it out from storage under the V-berth? Noooooooo…. Are we going to go up there now and stand on our heads and try to wrench the rest of the parts out of there while Leap is bucking and rolling around like a puppy rolling in dead fish? Noooooo! Damn good thing we had our bibs on.
We had 65 miles to go but were barely making 4 knots and we had 12 hours of daylight and we were going to be stuck ----- UGH ---- entering another harbor at night - and we really don’t like that. Since crossing the Gulf we have managed to have 3 of the last 6 harbor entries at night, and it looked like we were going for 4 out of 7.
The thing about anchoring in harbors you don’t know, is that you can’t necessarily believe what the cruising guides or charts say. Not necessarily because they are wrong, but because things may have changed since the guide or chart was published ( or the GPS places us in the middle of the island instead of the middle of the bay). Things like: the lighthouse is old and no longer operable, or the white building with the red roof is no longer that color, or perhaps no longer stands. Or, enter between the breaking reefs - which are gone now due to hurricanes or did they just die? And then there is this little nugget; There may be a white stick ya know, and ya turn by that, but not so far as to run into the coral head which is supposed to have a white stick too.
Now during the day one can see most things that you do not want to hit, but night has a way of distorting everything from depth perception to analyzing lights. Locating the flashing lights you need to stay away from is difficult, especially when the lights are backed by a town full of lights that have nothing to do with the light you are searching for. Or, trying to search out the red and green buoy lights you are supposed to follow - if they even have them - except the islands roadway is right on the beach and they have stop lights. That bit of green flash here, then red flash there, is just a bit confusing for a few brief minutes until your brain kicks in and starts sorting out the sensory overload. And who knows what color any of the buildings are, and those white sticks? - of course they’re not lit!
We have computer navigation with GPS so we can see on screen where the GPS thinks Leap is and we are very fortunate to have this system, especially at night in unknown harbors. This night in Utilas’ harbor will build a strong case for GPS navigation.
It is now 1930 and we are sailing down the eastern shore of Utila and can see the lights of Roatan off to our port. The winds have moderated but the seas have not settled. In the distance ahead we can see lights on the water, fishing boats. Hard to believe they are out in this weather. We do not want to sail through them, not knowing if they are hook and line fishing or net fishing, so we will circle around outside of them then head west along the southern shore in search of the harbor entrance.
The Mesoamerica barrier reef runs along the Bay Islands and we proceed with caution to make sure we clear the reefs’end that juts out into the harbor entrance. The flashing light marking the reef is nearly impossible to see against the back drop of the town. We use our computer GPS tracking to steer around the reefs’ end, dodging the charted coral heads, heading for the anchorage. We start the process of lining ourselves up with the red cell tower lights and the church steeple, just like the book says …….except…. there are two church steeples. But by now we can make out enough of the harbor and see the other sailboats, so we set anchor, it is now 2105. The anchorage is calm as it is protected by the island from all points except southwest. But that’s ok - because the storm is out on the northeast side. So we settle in for some much needed sleep.
Well …….. that didn’t last long.
0230 on 11/8 we were awakened and at 0300 ……
The storm that had been dogging us for the last 20 hours just kept on a comin’. The winds clocked around to the southwest at near gale force, the rain pounded down in a blinding torrent, the lightning was fierce, the anchorage churned and spewed, tossing us and the other boats every which way. We were right in the gullet as the storm marched into the bay, twisted us and ripped out the anchor and proceeded to try and set us on shore! We had a heck of lot going on but we turned on the navigation computer with the GPS, damn good thing. Charlie was hoisting and securing the anchor, I was at the helm holding us into the wind and off shore. Once Charlie had the anchor secured on deck he raced back to the helm to hold our position and I checked our location on the computer. We were holding ground, staying clear of the coral heads and staying off the shore, following the navigation track we had made when coming in. After about 30 minutes things took on that edgy kinda feeling when you’re hoping the storm is over but ya' know it isn’t.
We were watching the cell phone tower, the church steeples, then - KABOOM!!!!!
The sound was deafening and the air shook with electrical charge as the biggest lightning strike we had ever seen blasted the island and shook the anchorage knocking out the town’s power.
We were pitched into blackness.
No steeples or cell tower to be seen.
The storm still raged.
I watched Leap on the screen and Charlie held us into the wind until the storm passed.
At 0500 we were able to reset our anchor. We were cold and wet because no, we did not put our bibs on, because as I said we had a heck of a lot goin’ on! We dried off and tried to settle in but we were just a tad skittish, but ever so thankful that Leap didn't meet up with lightning again.
The next day Charlie went into Immigration to clear us in and the news around town claimed a tropical cyclone was responsible for all the foul weather. There were no injuries but the towns internet suffered damage from the lightning strike and there were mudslides caused by the deluge.
But despite all of that, clearing in here was a breeze (pun intended). The officials and townspeople are very nice and welcoming and the cost was $13.
Oh and by the way, in the daylight we can see the white sticks bobbing out at the harbor entrance and no, you cannot seem them at night.
The following pictures are a 360 of the anchorage on Friday 11/8. The gray and gloomy skies stayed with us until Sunday 11/10. Fortunately the winds dissipated and we had occasional rain showers - nice for rinsing the salt off craft and creatures.