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Entry 9: Muddy waters

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

Guatemala was never originally on the charts for our voyage but we were pulled in like sheep by a shepherd. The past 10 weeks in Guatemala, unexpectedly long as they were, gave us the opportunity to really discover more about the area and the people that live here. We would come to claim the town of Fronteras as home base to drift to and fro as we explored Lago de Izabal, Golfete and the areas around. We navigated drop dead gorgeous river ways through lush jungle, where it became so narrow our mast was amidst the trees and vines and yet we still had 14ft below the keel. We entered our first race with CC and she performed quite well. We even met like minded sailors and together we explored these muddy waters.

Fronteras is a hustling town boasting with character and color. The streets are a mixture of dirt, asphalt, and the scent of the cattle trucks that pass by. There are street vendors lining the main strip. Many of them selling the same thing, fried chicken and papas frítas (french fries). Other vendors are indigenous Mayans that walk from their village to sell the fruits and handmade linens. There are bakeries and tool shops, electrical places and ice cream parlors, fresh tortillas and even baby chicks for sale at the same place. This town has a lot to offer and is fairly inexpensive.

It is known that Rio Dulce is not only a great hurricane hole but a great place to work on a boat because of the marine shops and haul out yards. From our little time spent thus far on our voyage, we knew our wind generator was not going to produce enough power. We took advantage of our time and installed two new solar panels as well as got a new dodger (like our windshield for you landlubbers) and stack pack (stacks the mainsail easier on the boom) made. We even got our auto pilot working again (for a few hours)!

We stayed at Tortugal Marina while getting our work done. We made friends with all our fellow sailors quite fast. Mike and Kim on Ka’imi were docked next to us and gave us tips of the town. Where to go for propane, the best meats, little hole-in-the-wall shops for hoses and special parts, how to ship items to and from here, and where the really inexpensive provisions are sold.

They also told us about the radio net that happens every morning. The net covers just about everything in the Rio that boaters would want to know; weather, items for sale or a way to sell items, and a way for mechanics to advertise themselves. The sailing community in the rio was quite special; there were movie nights almost every night at a different marina and a trivia night on Fridays. We partook in the trivia a few times, even took the cheese one of the nights. We became known as “the kids” behind our backs, an endearing name given to us by our boat neighbors/community. Through the radio net and sailing community, we were able to find a new outboard. Though it was some weeks of paddling around before we found the Johnson. I think it made us appreciate the little 5hp that much more.

Bru had an adventure of his own to seek back home in the states for a couple week. After we dropped him off at the local bus station in town, Brandon and I decided it was time to fulfill another dream of ours: climbing a big ol’ tree and staying overnight. On the walk back, we started our search. Normally, a canopy of sturdy limbs would do, but this was the fulfillment of two goals combined, so we set out looking for the perfect tree.

We wanted one that stood taller than the rest, with some wide spread limbs to sprawl out the hammocks and wouldn’t be too much trouble to climb. We perused our options, weighing the gravity of our choice with each new trunk. It became important to find something truly livable. There were a few trees tall enough but none with the right limb structure. But as we walked through the small cocoa farm, we noticed a spread of leaves and limbs that had all the characteristics we’d been musing over. The perfect tree. It stood tall on top of a little hill near the fruit processing area. We set our sights and made our way through the brush to the trunk of an impressive mahogany tree.. We leaned back to scope it out and then discussed our climb plan before walking back to the boat to pack a generous amount of line. When we were at the base again, we paced a little while contemplating the climb ahead. We determined we could make it to the spot where we wanted to hang the hammocks by climbing it in sections.

After a few attempts, Brandon made the tag line over the first tree limb. He hooked up and started to free climb the line while I handled the tail and Peanut. Once up to the first limb I sent Brandon the rest of our bags with line and Peanut in his safety bag. Now it was my turn. For some reason I decided to tote a full gallon of water and keep my backpack on as I climbed, in it was the camera and a few lenses. At about 35 feet, my arms were giving out and I had to take a break just short of the next limb. But within a few minutes, I mustered up the strength and threw my leg over the branch.

As we tried to rest at our first stop, we felt a sudden sensation like receiving dozens of tiny piercings through our skin. It was the beginning of being eaten alive by 4 different types of ants as we climbed. Some would bite, others would sting. But they would never do it just once. They’re persistent. We brushed them off when we could and made a web of lines through the big mahogany tree as we scaled towards our spot for the night. A perfect “Y” to separate our hammocks and sprawl out was just above us. For a little man with no thumbs, Peanut did quite well throughout. The three of us stayed safely attached to the tree at all times.

Swaying 80 feet above ground made the familiar peace of lying in a hammock feel foreign. That night, dreams came before sleep, albeit not long before. Adding to the surreality, we woke up at one point in the wee hours of the morning to a howler monkey just a few trees over. I think we may have nabbed his bed for the night.

A few mornings later at 0730 the Rio Dulce cruisers net announced on the VHF radio that there was a race and a big BBQ down at Texan Bay (Cayo Quemado) for Easter weekend. We decided to have a change of scenery and headed to the annual regatta and BBQ.

Before we stopped in Texan Bay for the event we rejoined Bru and made a quick stop at a rock wall along the river we had spotted on our way in. We anchored CC close to the wall with the current running in opposite directions on either side of her.

We started our climb from the SUP (stand-up paddle board) and took turns making our way up the wall. We went as high as we wanted before leaping off. Once we had our fill of free-falling, we headed toward Texan Bay for some racing.

Finally, we got to put CC up against others for two days of racing! If you’ve never seen or been involved in a regatta before let me set the scene. The start line is typically set between the committee boat and a buoy, perpendicular to the wind (in other words, an upwind start). In this case a small island was used instead of a buoy, creating about a three hundred yard wide imaginary line.

Before the start horn blows there is time to practice your starts (crossing the start/finish line). The tactic is to place the boat (still sailing for momentum of course) as close to the start line just before the horn is blown. If a boat were to cross the start line 5 minutes before the start, that boat would have to turn around and pass through again or get time added to their results. With so many boats vying to put themselves in the best position, it becomes quite a frenzy. Everyone tacks and jibes around one another as if a group of birds were in a feeding frenzy. Dodging, dipping, and delaying others.

As the committee boat blew the horn to start the race we knew we weren’t really in a great start position. We hauled in our sheets and made way upwind. We decided it was “go time” and set the drifter sail. We made up lots of time on the water with the help of that sail. A few other boats were flying their spinnakers and drifters too. Yet as we came to the upwind mark and readied to jibe, no one but us had their spinnaker or drifter out. Mainly because it’s a bit more work to deal with when jibing. We jibed beautifully with the drifter up and even had a cheering crowd onboard Cosmic Turtle (the power-catamaran used as the upwind mark). It was something to see all of us sailors racing out there on the Golfete.

The second day, we nailed the start and had better wind throughout the race. We couldn’t fly the drifter this day due to a small tear we found from the day prior. We made lots of distance on the upwind sail but as we rounded Cosmic Turtle for the downwind leg, a few boats started to gain on us. That is, until we rounded One Tree Island and started back upwind. As we came closer to the finish line we noticed we were well ahead of the fleet. With so much time on our hands and an open anchorage, we decided to anchor in front of Texan Mikes restaurant, Restaurant Manglar.

The other racers came in one by one as we watched and waved with satisfaction from the days race. The results were announced that evening under the thatched roof of Restaurant Manglar. Turns out we got 2nd place overall!! It was time to celebrate with spreader jumps!!

With all the sailors around that evening, a game of water polo broke out. Bru and Brandon took photos from CC and cheered on. CC was used as part of one goal, so the guys got front row seats. The other goal was a lancha with a cement block as its anchor. We played for an hour or two. Even Texan Mike and his son, Alejandro, joined in. Other spectators were on the deck of Restaurant Manglar cheering on who knows what side.

We took a liking to Mike right away. His laugh was rusty and easily heard throughout the harbor, his Hawaiian shirt was never buttoned up and boasted bright colors. He made you smile and when he spoke, in either English or Spanish, his accent was one of a kind and sometimes tough to decipher. We got to know Mike and his family as we spent some time here exploring the waterways. His wife is a local Guatemalan, she basically runs Mikes restaurant. They have two kids. Alejandro, who is 8 years old and though not of Mike’s blood, Mike has taken him under his wing as if he were. He is always around playing, swimming and getting into mischief. Then there is Little Mike, he’s 2 years old and always has a smile on with a laugh that’ll probably end up like his dad’s one day.

Mike invited us to join him, his family and a few friends to a locals watering hole. The river’s mouth is across from the natural hot water springs down the way. As we meandered up the narrow river, Texan Mike at helm, locals would holler and wave at Mike as though welcoming him back. Mike and his pal Randy told us there used to be another watering hole on this river with a small waterfall but had been washed out during the last big rain. There was farmland on either side of us with cattle roaming the rolling hills. Mike had the hammer down and was zipping around some of the river bends just a few feet from the river bank.

Certain parts got shallow enough and narrow enough that Mike would slow down quite a bit to beware of deadheads (floating or partially floating logs). Captain Peanut and Alejandro got along well, they both like to ride the bow and keep a look out. When we reached the swimming hole, the river widened and the bank had been exposed. Kids were jumping off the small cliff and laughing. The adults were talking and BBQing on the shoreline. They were a welcoming bunch. We jumped in the water and swam in the rivers cool water. It was significantly cooler than the big river of Rio Dulce because it was fed by the nearby mountain spring. Though we didn’t snap many photos, being respectful to the locals, we still managed to get a few.

We met fellow sailors that weekend with many stories. But one sailor spoke of a beautiful lagoon just across the Golfete from Texan Bay. Calm and still waters surrounded by mangroves with fishermen throwing their nets just as they have for centuries past. Access was through a narrow pass about 60 feet wide and looks like only shallow drafted boats should be there, but it still supposedly would be deep enough for us with about a foot to spare.

The sailor had talked it up enough that we had to see for ourselves how gorgeous this lagoon really was. With just about a foot under our keel, we made our way through the narrow pass and into the lagoon.

Still, quiet, and peaceful as it was, we decided to go for a rip on the dinghy and make some noise while we explored. We didn’t see but a few locals paddling their cayucos (dug out canoes) while we wandered around. We couldn’t help but feel like a big crocodile was following us, waiting for Peanut to fall in the water. As we settled back onboard CC, we noticed another sailboat making its way towards us.

It was Shirley and her outgoing German owner Roland, we recognized them from the regatta. Irene, Roland’s Guatemalan beauty, sure knew how to handle a line. Olli, Roland’s childhood friend, didn’t speak much English and was quiet but smiled a lot. They made up the wonderful crew of Shirley.

As Roland would say, in his thick German accent; “Hey guys!! We make party?!” So we made party and turned the lasers on the the mast. The crews of Cool Change and Shirley soon became friends and decided to do some more exploring together.

Roland had knowledge of a river by the name of Chocón Machaca. The entrance laid just a few miles north of where we were. Again, with a narrow and shallow entrance, it meanders past the mangroves of the Golfete and far inland to the fincas.

We motored for hours, admiring the landscape and sounds of wildlife while cautiously watching for any deadheads and keeping an eye on our depth. Luckily we had Shirley ahead of us as our first line of defense (she draws a bit less than us too). There were a few to dodge but nothing too wild.

We made it about 13 miles upriver before having to head back due to our mast being close to the trees and possibly not being able to turn around if we continued on much further. We could see fallen trees along the shoreline just under the water’s surface. We spotted a part of the river that would make for a good tie up for both Cool Change and Shirley.

We secured CC’s stern to a tree protruding from the water, her bow to the bow of Shirley, and Shirley’s stern to trees on both sides of the river bank. It took some finagling and finessing with the lines but we got settled…in the middle of a narrow river miles from the Golfete. Cows and horses grazed just feet from us as we prepared dinner and enjoyed our newfound friends and fellow explorers. The night was still and quiet except for the buzz of the no-see-umms.

There was only one lancha (small local boat) that came by twice. We helped them through our lines that were blocking their normally open river. It seemed the man and his friends were just out to enjoy their evening on the river with a beer in hand and a smile on their face. The next morning we started making our way back to the entrance. Leaving always seem faster and arriving.

Our new friend Roland knew of yet another bay to explore. It came with the prospect of more rivers to discover, howler monkeys, snakes and hundreds of different species of birds. We were hooked right away. We re-provisioned and headed up Lago De Izabal.

We anchored at Finca Paríso for the night and discussed our plans for the following day. While there, we checked out the famous hot spring waterfall we heard so much about.

The scolding hot water from the falls mixes with the passing river to make the perfect natural bath.

We knew the entrance to the bay was going to be shallow with only inches to clear CC’s keel. So again, we decided it be best for Shirley to take lead. The following morning we weighed anchor and headed for the far side. As we approached the mouth of the little bay, we followed Shirley, watching the depth gauge decrease as we trudged along. We were now in the inlet to the bay and the depth sounder was reading -2.8ft under the keel. We began to slow and then finally came to a halt. We were stuck in the mud. With the wind blowing us to the lee shore, we knew we had to act fast. As Brandon hailed for Shirley to assist us, we began rigging up all our dock lines together and secured them to our bow cleat. Shirley came back to us ready to grab the line and pull us off the mud. It took two attempts but we were able to get moving again after only 30 minutes.

We lined up the cut once again, this time a bit more to starboard, and cleared the mud. We dropped anchor in about 7.5 feet of water. We put our fenders out for Shirley to side-tie to us for the evening, kinda like a party barge. That night we slept with the sound of howler monkeys calling out into the night.

The next day we took the dinghy up a small river in search of the howler monkeys. Within minutes we saw howler monkeys in the trees. The river was only about 12-15 feet wide most of the time. It was a dense wild jungle of mangroves and massive trees with vines crawling up their limbs. The howler monkeys were quiet today, maybe because they were up all night long. We had to keep our eyes peeled to spot them in the tree tops. We were out for a few hours before returning to our home on the water for supper

The following day we made our way safely out of the bay on the first try and into the next bay just a mile or so to the North. We kept the same anchoring technique, Shirley side-tied to CC which continued to work well. Peanut had fun making new human friends. It’s no easy task being a canine on the open seas (or up a river). The new anchorage was quite a bit larger than the last. We were farther from the edges because it was just too shallow for CC. Supposedly, some shallower drafted boats have gone up to 60 nautical miles inland from here! Almost to the Pacific! Pushing their way through lily pads and past mangrove trees.

As you probably guessed, more time was spent exploring with the dinghy. More monkeys, more mangroves, more exotic birds. Everywhere we looked was another amazing scene. It never seemed to end. Until finally one part of the river seemed to be paved with a road of lily pads.

We could see the tree and mangrove line along the river but then it was just lily pad after lily pad until the other side of the river. Pretty gorgeous out there. We shut the motor off at times and just listened to the wild; birds singing, insects chirping, fish jumping, frogs croaking and Peanut panting. Peanut thought the lily pads were solid land and tried twice to leap onto the pads, but ended up under water. We made our way back to CC and fired up the BBQ. Once again, we made a delicious dinner. Roland even made some of his yummy wheat bread. The next morning we started making our way back to Fronteras. Again, stopping for the night at Finca Paríso. But before we settled in Fronteras, we anchored for one last BBQ and party with Shirley just outside Castillo de San Philipe.

After nearly 2 months in the Rio, the time had come to prepare and provision food stocks for our next leg. It was exciting to know we were going to set sail on the salty sea once again. Though we will miss our new friends, we were all ready to continue our voyage. This time, with our sights are set on Utila, Honduras.

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