Thursday, March 3, 2016

Leaving El Salvador – February 16 – 19, 2016

Back On The Bicycle – A Few Words Of Experience

For sailors who have to be tied to the dock for some reason, here’s our word of advice: Get back "on the bike” (or “in the saddle” if you prefer that metaphor) a lot sooner than we did if you can! The 21+ months we went without sailing Abracadabra made for a steep learning curve. It’s not that we had forgotten how to ride the bicycle, necessarily -- we just didn’t enjoy the feeling that at any moment we might skin our knee! 

And if you haven’t been away from the dock for a long time, here’s some advice about "re-entry": Be kind to yourself when you find that you are undergoing an unexpected Exercise in Re-learning. It’s to be expected. To minimize the unexpected, here are a couple of preparatory baby steps we found invaluable:

  • We not only ran our newly rebuilt engine at the dock and while on the mooring ball, we drove Abracadabra up and down the estero for several hours. Putting the engine under a real load brought to light a couple of problems we were able to address before finding out about them . . . out there. (Even better would have been a couple of day sails/motors -- if we hadn’t been in an estuary guarded by a formidable sandbar entrance.)
  • We also put ourselves under a modified "real load” situation by spending two weeks on a mooring before making that first long trip. That helped us acclimatize to the swing and sway of Abracadabra’s “at anchor” movements – which isn’t the same as sailing, but is closer than being at the dock. It also forced us to rely on our dinghy for several weeks which brought to light a problem with our outboard engine that we were able to get repaired in a familiar environment. (And of course even better would have been a couple of overnight anchoring trips near to “home” – if we hadn’t been an overnight sail away from the nearest calm anchorage.)

In summary – don’t just untie from the dock and go. Dock neighbors of ours tried that and had to be towed back in a day later . . .

The rest of this post is about our first few days at sea and at anchor. Enjoy hearing about our re-entry process -- but please be kind enough to laugh with and not at us!

Departing Estero Jaltepeque (aka Bahia del Sol), El Salvador – February 16, 2016

Captain Bryce - Motoring Out
Still Wearing His Port Captain Meeting Clothes

Departure began around 08.00 when Bill Yeargen and his trusty assistant Hiram cast Abracadabra off from her mooring. We motored to the dock at Bahia del Sol Hotel, quickly tied up and Bryce dashed off to finalize our governmental obligations: paying the $40 for our international zarpe (zarpe = the document that authorizes a boat’s transit) and getting departure stamps on our passports. All went smoothly in large part because the day before Bryce had provided the Port Captain a crew list and paid the fee for our stay in El Salvador (temporary importation privileges cost $30 for every month or part thereof). 

Molly handled our one planning snafu – laundry the hotel had returned to us the day before departure . . . unwashed. (Ugh. Nothing like starting a two week trip with an already large pile of dirty laundry festering in the basket under the bed.) Happily, on departure morning she was given clean clothes and sheets. She also paid our hotel tab: $46 = $16 for 16 pounds of laundry, the rest for three meals and about ten sodas/beers. The “cruisers club” at this hotel is a bargain.

At 09.15 we followed our compatriots on Attitude to the mouth of the estuary. As we talked through what we had lashed down and stowed away we realized that the auxiliary anchor was missing from its bracket on Abracadabra’s port side. We don’t know exactly when it went walkabout but believe it was while we were moored. An upsetting reminder to stow removable equipment whenever we leave the boat: if we don’t put it away, someone may take it away. Even, apparently in quiet and safe Estero Jaltepeque.

Following Attitude

We motored slowly behind and watched as Attitude was guided across the sandbar entrance which had been living large in our memories since our accident there some 21 months before. 

Surfin Safari -
We Didn't Have To Go Through This Surf,
We Were Guided Through The Calm Spot, Off Stage Left

At 09.40 Abracadabra crossed over the bar without incident, the newly rebuilt engine purring solidly.

To The Golfo de Fonseca – February 16 – 17, 2016

We motored out to pick up a SSE wind and took a deep breath, happy to have faced a personal demon.

And then we realized that we had lost a fender. Ack - that means we had gone across the bar, fenders flying!  [Non-sailor note: A fender is the inflated bumper guard tied to the side of a boat to prevent dock scratches. It’s very basic seamanship to stow fenders upon departure (e.g., San Francisco Bay sailors refer to Sailing With Fenders Out as Showing Off Your Marina Del Rey Racing Stripes).]  We don’t think anyone got pictures of our clownish departure but we can’t just cover the whole sordid story up because . . . someone already knows. Attitude radioed later in the morning to tell us they had picked up our floating fender! It’s nice to know it has found a good home. Clearly we were really distracted by the discovery that our secondary anchor had gone walkabout. That’s our story and we’re sticking with it.

Our overnight passage was mostly uneventful. We were happy to sail slowly because we didn’t want to arrive at our destination - the Gulfo de Fonseca, some 100 miles east - in the dark. [Non-sailor reminder: Abracadabra’s average speed is some 3 – 5 knots an hour; 7 knots an hour is racing!] We had a particularly lovely, gentle sail during Molly’s 22.00 to 01.00 watch.

At times we luxuriated in being able to rely on that amazing piece of 19th century technology: the diesel engine. Having a reliable engine came in handy particularly when, near 03.30 Bryce found himself passing through an area in which five large fishing trawlers were operating. They were clearly more interested in fishing than in accommodating a sailboat’s need to sail off the wind (sometimes we wonder if they even understand a sailboat’s directional limits). Bryce was happy to be able to start the engine and . . . get out of their way. 

[Side Note: If we seem somewhat vague about wind speed in this and future posts, it’s because the wind speed indicator stopped working a couple of months ago. Before this trip we didn’t think being without a wind speed indicator would be a problem. After all, sailors should be able to read the wind and know when to shorten sail (reef). What we didn’t think about was how difficult it is to read the wind when motoring – so by times we weren’t sure whether we could turn off the motor and sail. At times that made us rely on the engine longer than we wanted. At other times, we turned the engine off . . . only to find ourselves flailing about in winds too light to move Abracadabra along. Bryce thinks we will get better at making observational readings of wind speed over time. Or - we can just get the damned wind indicator fixed.] 

Golfo de Fonseca

Introductory Note: The Golfo de Fonseca is a large bay shared by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. It forms part of El Salvador’s eastern border, is Honduras’ only access to the Pacific and is part of Nicaragua’s north-western border. We wanted to visit this gulf, rather than shoot by on our way from El Salvador to Nicaragua, because it might be our one chance to visit Honduras by sea.

Sunrise Over Nicaragua

We reached Punta Amapala, the western border of the gulf, near dawn. No trawlers this time, just dozens and dozens of unlit fishing pangas. Later, as we began to turn into the gulf we were reminded that several sailors had told us they had passed on the gulf because it was just “too hard to get in". By 08.00 the wind was on our nose. As we pushed on into the gulf the wind began to build and there was quite a bit of chop. It became so rough we didn’t like the looks of our planned first-night anchorage – the southern anchorage at Isla Meanguera, El Salvador which was reported to have good protection from north winds. It didn’t look all that protected to our re-training eyes.

We decided to try for Isla El Tigre, Honduras which is supposed to have calmer anchorages, but as we rounded the western shore of Meanguera the passage was completely blocked by nets strung by the local small-boat fishing fleet. Completely. Blocked. We decided that approaching the nets and waiving our arms to see if we could get someone to move them wouldn’t do much to make the world a better place, so we turned around and decided to give Isla Meanguera another try.

Isla Meanguera, El Salvador – February 17 – 19, 2016

We anchored at 13.15 in what felt to us like very bumpy seas and some rather unnerving northerly gusts. We decided to forgo our usual celebratory anchoring beer because it looked like we would be sitting an anchor watch. We have since decided that this anchorage is actually fairly well protected – it is just plagued by some unsettling sound effects. As the wind sweeps down the protective hills it builds and sounds a bit like the soundtrack of a “dark and stormy night” movie. A real testament to the psychological power of sound.

These unsettling sounds made us less than confident in our long un-tested anchoring skills, so we sat anchor watch; one of us dozing in the cockpit and checking some bearings every time the gusts rattled us. And in the morning – there we were, right where we had anchored. But tired. Very tired. [Another thing to re-learn: what it feels like to sail all night long . . . ]

Lookin' A Little Tired There, Hon . . .
Try Some Lipstick, Maybe

After a calming pancake breakfast we decided we were unwilling to battle the northerly gusts to get to El Tigre on that particular day. Internet weather forecasts (yes, our new Iridium satphone worked!) showed promisingly light winds on Friday. We stayed and did a few boat projects and took naps. We didn’t sit anchor watch on the second night; we were beginning to get used to the howling sounds.

Betsy Ross --
Mending Our Discourteous Looking Courtesy Flag

The anchorage wasn’t without its compensations. It is home to a small fishing fleet and we got to watch their comings and goings and mysterious shore lights in the night. On the morning we left the anchorage a panga with five polite fishermen approached to ask who we were and where we were from. Two of them spoke some English. They expressed amazement that there were only two people aboard (one of them a woman, no less!). Another line of questioning was how much we had paid for Abracadabra (this seems to be a theme with fishermen). Bryce side-stepped giving a figure, knowing it would be staggering to an El Salvadorian fisherman (even if totally underwhelming to any North American in the process of purchasing a sailboat). Bryce asked them if they had worked in El Norte and the two partial English speakers said they had been roofers “up there”; one had children there. They welcomed us to El Salvador and departed for work, leaving us to laugh about irrepressible human curiosity.

We also wondered about our little one-panga survey and whether in any random group of five Salvadoreño fishermen, two would have worked in the United States. We were saddened to think of the little children growing up “up there” with far away fathers.

Next post: On to Honduras and yet more re-learning!

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