‘Every now and then we run out of steam. At the beginning of 2019 we both needed a break, we had not spent a summer in England for over ten years, meaning that English summertime gradually began to appeal. It was the marvellous sport of cricket, the English style music festivals, beer not chilled, trekking the hills of Derbyshire, real cheddar cheese, good pork-pie and quality time with my grandkids. You know, all those things you think about when the adrenaline for long-distance sailing finally begins to wear thin.’
Dave – December 2019
A Year in El Salvador
We had crossed the sandbar into the Bahiá Del Sol, El Salvador in mid-October 2018. We intended to stay only a few days for rest, then refuel to continue our voyage southwards towards Panama. Of course, it never worked out like that, but when do plans ever work out like you plan?
From Chiapas in southern Mexico we finally sailed over the border into Guatemala in early October 2018 – as already described in blogs we published last year. There’s no real safe provision for a sailboat in Guatemala, so we planned to head south until we could find somewhere in Costa Rica or Panama to leave Sänna – then we could return to England for Christmas. The second night out from Chiapas we got hit by a bad lightening storm but knew it would be possible to rest temporarily in the Bahiá Del Sol in El Salvador – that is if we could contact the local pilot boat to lead us safely over the hazardous sandbar that protects the estuary. Well, all of that worked out okay, then we discovered that we could leave Sänna safely in the Bahiá Del Sol for a temptingly low monthly rate. So there it was – a few days rest turned into a long break back in England for Christmas. A short and restful recovery in the Bahiá Del Sol turned into a welcomed winter break, which then turned into something else entirely..
Christmas in England was okay but not that good, you know how it is, family issues kicked in like they generally do, which meant that it wasn’t possible for us to return to El Salvador until early February 2019. I had sudden problems with my house rental tenants who are vital to the viability of what we do. Marie too had niggling problems with her own property, so we found ourselves with more than a lot to do. Then Marie decided that she would prefer to stay with Henry during his end-of-school examinations. So, I travelled back to the Bahiá Del Sol alone, to check-up on Sänna and make sure everything was ok. Everything was fine.
Sänna had been left in the care of Bill & Jean, the resident American couple there who make the Bahiá Del Sol their home. They run the El Salvador Rally to tempt the more intrepid sailboats over the sandbar into the Bahiá Del Sol. They really do know their stuff, meaning that Sänna was in good shape. But I had until April or so kicking my heals in El Salvador, I desperately needed to kill some time – wintertime back in England definitely did not appeal.
So my reliable step-brother Gary made his way out to the Bahiá Del Sol in early March. Frequent readers of our website will know that Gary, as an experience sailor, is a regular visitor to Sänna and our exceptionally good friend. This was a fine way to spend a month or so the two of us together, but the problem in trying to day-sail around El Salvador was the sandbar barrier that protects the entrance to the Bahiá Del Sol. Crossing it is no mean feat, it is almost impossible without the aid of the local pilot boat. In any event, it was nice for the both of us to just chill out locally in a spectacular location. Eventually, we rented a wreck of a hire car to travel around El Salvador, then into Guatemala.
El Salvador is not a pristine holiday destination. The country has a reputation for violent crime but we ourselves never encountered any problems, the people are exceptionally friendly and always willing to help. We never locked up our boat. It is easy to travel around on local buses or in the back of pickup trucks, often we accepted lifts from strangers at bus stops who were eager to listen to foreigners, especially with us being English. We’ve read lots of published advice about travelling in El Salvador… being safely ensconced in your hotel after sunset, how to liaise with your local kidnappers – most of this stuff is outright rubbish. The country is no more dangerous than many other countries we have sailed into… the US for example – the astonishing gun crime there caused us much more unease, we ourselves consider the US a more unsafe country than El Salvador. But there is not an awful lot to see or visit in El Salvador – Guatemala, on the other hand, is an absolute jewel.
Gary and I travelled through Guatemala, ending up in the magnificent historic town of Antigua. This is a real gem – although a little too much tourist ridden, the numerous earthquake-shattered monasteries and ruins make this location easily one of world’s must-visit destinations… and then there are the surrounding volcanoes belching smoke and lava into the atmosphere as a reminder that here is real danger that has destroyed this landscape on numerous occasions, but for now it is a tourists’ haven. Then there is the brown gold of Guatemala… coffee! We spent time touring the local coffee growers, peasant farmers who grow their beans on the slopes of the Antigua volcanoes. It’s the real stuff… they themselves roast the beans in pans over open fires, hand-grind the beans with wooden rolling pins then chuck the ground up coffee into pans of boiling water. It’s then sieved through muslin cloth to produce their coffee ‘cowboy’ style… it really is the best coffee drinking in the world. Remember folks – the only way to really support coffee growing farmers anywhere is to buy direct… first off, try De La Genta Coffee – grown on smallholder farms on the volcanic slopes of Guatemala. Forget those fancy poster messages pinned to the walls in every Starbucks, the ones that show happy smiling farmer families picking coffee for the worlds largest coffee retailer… it just doesn’t happen like that.
My step-brother left the Bahiá Del Sol in early April and I talked things over with Marie, who was still back in England with Henry. Marie could get a bargain flight to Havana in Cuba, could I likewise find a flight from San Salvador to Havana so that we could meet up? AeroMexico flew direct – although it turned out there was an ‘unplanned’ stopover in Mexico City. In any event, we both arrived in Havana, then travelled around this amazing country under our own steam. We also visited the Ernest Hemingway marina, to check out a potential mooring base for when we finally transited the Panama Canal into the Caribbean.
So we left Sänna in the Bahiá Del Sol for the whole summer. There is no joy in being in Pacific Central America during the wet rainy season, the humidity is horrendously high, the relentless rainfall is torrential and the lightening storms spectacular. Although we were now south of the recognised hurricane zone, the danger for sailboats during the tropical storm season is immense, which was compounded by the problems we were beginning to experience with our insurance company Allianz. It therefore made sense to leave Sänna tied to one of Bill & Jeans mooring buoys to enjoy a relaxing summer back in England. This El Salvador Rally base is a real bonus.
And we had a grand time. We caught the Cricket World Cup tournament, also the Ashes cricket test series between England & Australia, a real testosterone driven five-game encounter that has been played every two years or so since Australia was populated by transported prisoners from England. We also rediscovered the joy of traditional English music festivals… the Black Deer Americana festival being particularly good. But nothing matched the almost single-handed victory by Englishman Ben Stokes in the cricket World Cup final against New Zealand. This was the fantastic sport of cricket at its very best… we wouldn’t have missed this wonderful occasion for anything. We love cricket, cricket is easily the world’s best sport.
I was also able to spend a whole number of warm summer days renovating my house, ending most of these treasure days in the pub, drinking good English beer downed with a tasty cheddar cheese & onion cob or a Melton Mowbray pork-pie… sometimes with a delicious ploughman’s lunch – absolute bliss in its most basic male form. I also got lots of quality time with my two young grandkids, even more so when Marie travelled around Russia on a budget with Henry… a celebration ‘mum & son’ trip before Henry left for Exeter University in the coming October. On really good weekends, I trekked the hills and dales of rural Derbyshire. But I have to say, given all the incredible times and scenic places we have voyaged to with Sänna, my most treasured memory in many years is the two or three hours I spent with my five year old grandson and six month old granddaughter, playing on the swings and roundabouts of their local play-park. It’s the simple things that count.
It’s bizarre to admit, but we were sad to leave England in October, when we needed to return to El Salvador. The wet season in El Salvador starts to change, the hurricanes abate around the end of November with sailboats in the Bahiá Del Sol beginning to make their leave to head north or south… it’s the only real safe time to go, when the dry season finally descends. We ourselves flew into Toronto, spent a few nice days both there and around Niagara Falls, then flew south to San Salvador. By this time Sänna had been in the Bahiá Del Sol for nearly a year… so much for crossing the sandbar for only a few days twelve months before.
When we finally made it back to the Bahiá Del Sol, we were extremely dismayed to find that Sänna had been struck by lightening whilst tied to the mooring buoy in the river. We climbed onboard to find everything completely dead – no power, no batteries, no engine. This was a disasterous situation. We arranged with Bill for a local panga boat to tow us onto the somewhat ramshackle work-dock in the local hotel marina, there we could assess the damage to see what could be done. Also on that dock was Madeleine, a Dutch catamaran that had also been struck during the same lightening storm at the back end of August. Their damage was far worse than ours. Then began our relentless, long drawn out saga with our insurers Allianz, who despairingly tried to absolve themselves of their responsibility by using every dirty trick in the book. This bitter battle is still ongoing.
Fortunately, we are the intrepid types, we set to to see what could be done. It became clear almost straightaway that we would never be able to complete repairs in such a remote location as the Bahiá Del Sol. We could get basic repairs done ourselves, then find a boatyard somewhere to haul us out of the water to get things completed – except there are no boatyards in El Salvador, nor are there any south both in Nicaragua or Honduras. We could either return north to Chiapas in Mexico, or make our way much further south to Costa Rica or Panama. Mexico was a bad option, we just didn’t fancy that. We never enjoyed our time in Chiapas.
Patched up, we finally got Bill and the pilot boat to lead us over the bar in early November, we had decided to head south. First, we made for the Golfo De Fonseca and Honduras. Three days later, we anchored in a really nice location on the north-west side of Isle Del Tigre, the Honduran officials there were incredibly helpful, they were friendly and efficient… the island village of Ampala is wonderfully colourful, the fishermen curious in a nice way and we were able to restock with basic supplied before leaving for Nicaragua.
Honduras to Costa Rica
Leaving Isle Del Tigre, in the company of the US catamaran Ankyrios and their young family of seven, we headed for Puesta Del Sol in the south of Nicaragua. Ankyrios continued southwards but we pulled into Puesta Del Sol. This is a stunningly attractive location, a once thriving exclusive resort that’s now deserted because of the civil unrest that decimated the country a year earlier. We had the whole place, the pool and facilities, all to ourselves – we also had the inconvenience of the electricity power being turned off, sometimes twice a day. We loved it, we stayed much too long and thoroughly chilled out. Once more we rented a wreck of a car to spend a week or so driving ourselves around beautiful Nicaragua. This is another Central American jewel, probably our most favourite country in the region so far. We visited the old colonial capital of Granada, a spectacular location not unlike Antigua in Guatemala, but not quite so nice. Somehow, we managed to stay nearly two weeks or so ensconced in Puesta Del Sol.
Next, we had to brave the notorious Papagayo winds that generally blow from Nicaragua southwards to Costa Rica. These winds begin over in the Caribbean, increase in strength as they blow overland from the east coast to the Pacific, then hammer any sailboat that happens to be following the coast either north or south. These north-easterly winds are infamous, every sailboat we met discusses them endlessly, tactics, best advice, when to go, what to do. The Papagayo’s gust up to sixty or so knots, then suddenly decrease before blowing up again without warning. We ourselves decided to tackle these winds by making the voyage south over two days and nights to San Juan Del Sur in the south of Nicaragua, close to the border with Costa Rica. San Juan Del Sur turned out to be another real gem. The Papagayo’s though, they were tough but not insurmountable.
We managed to sail these good sailing winds without any undue stress, our vessel hull design with fin keel and spade rudder enables us to keep close to the wind, plus our extensive experience of sailing into wind with our eastbound circumnavigation (we much prefer upwind sailing to downwind) meant that we were able make fast progress – our reefed mainsail and inner forestay staysail, our much loved storm sail, made a relatively easy meal of these notorious winds. We were able to complete the passage comfortably, this sailing was both enjoyable and a refreshing change from endless hours on the engine.
We anchored in the San Juan Del Sur bay next to the catamaran Ankyrios, they themselves had damaged their port-side engine and had lost power during their own passage south through the Papagayo’s. They were now safely anchored trying to complete repairs – it was good to see them again. But time was getting tight, we wanted to be back in England for Christmas – it was already early December. We could not safely leave Sänna in Nicaragua, therefore we needed to be somewhere in Costa Rica.
The first port of entry into Costa Rica was Playa Del Coco, a difficult location to go through horrendously complex immigration & customs procedures, but there is no alternative unless prepared to pay over four hundred US bucks in the one near marina for their agency service. These costs were our first introduction to the eye-watering high cost-of-living in Costa Rica, this is a first-world developed country – unlike the subsistence economies of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, who’s economies have been ravaged by endless unrest, civil wars, revolutions, corruption and military coups. Costa Rica is remarkably stable and wealthy in comparison. And so we found Playa Del Coco – a difficult beach and surf dinghy landing just to visit officials in their air-conditioned offices…. but it’s free if you complete these immigration procedures yourself under your own steam, there are no costs. This long drawn-out check-in process required a fist visit to the harbourmaster, who refuses to make the five required photocopies each of the ships registration document, previous port-of-call Zarpe, crew list and customs declaration… even though the harbourmaster there sits next to a copier machine. So we found a local copy shop, made numerous copies, then visited immigration who also required copies of everything… so it was back once more to copy shop and it’s frustratingly long queue. After immigration it’s back to the harbourmaster once more with yet more copies, the harbourmaster then provides a document to be taken to Costa Rican Customs & Quarantine… who are twenty-five miles away in the Liberia international airport – a nearly two hour rickety bus ride away. But, we got it done, taking nearly one whole day and it cost us nothing at all… except for endless photocopy fees and the price of four bus tickets. We had legally entered Costa Rica!
Marie then arranged to fly out back to the UK to prepare her much-relished Christmas. I stayed to complete more repairs, then sail Sänna solo the seven or eight miles or so to try and enter Marina Papagayo, where we had provisionally arranged to leave Sänna for one month in this incredibly clean and modern marina… at nearly two dollars a foot per night. But, as expected, we had ‘insurance’ problems…
We plan to return by mid-January, we really can’t afford an extended stay in Marina Papagayo and, anyway, they require all vessels to be insured.
Dave – Costa Rica, December 2019
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