Thursday, June 26, 2008


Guanaja-Island of Charm

Las Islas de la Bahia, Honduras, the bay islands are comprised of three major islands and numerous cays. Guanaja, Roatan and Utila lie just 20-30 miles off the northern shore of Honduras are much more Caribbean than Central American, so much so that the locals are quite adamant about the fact that they are "Islanders not Spaniards". When approached from the east, Guanaja is the first island encountered in the chain.

Guanaja is clearly the island visited least by tourists and even many yachtsmen choose to bypass the island in favor of the more developed Roatan. Isla Guanaja was discovered by Christopher Columbus on July 30, 1502, on his fourth and final voyage of discovery. Columbus was met by large dugout canoes carrying 25 Paya Indians in each and was quickly welcomed ashore. Columbus found excellent water and he noted that he had, "never tasted water of better quality." Guanaja was so covered in pine trees that Columbus initially named the island, Pine Island.

Sadly most of the pine trees that covered Guanaja were destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Guanaja has recovered well but evidence of Mitch still exists over much of the land, most notably trees with the bark completely blown off them. Mitch sat over the island for nearly two days with sustained winds in excess of 200 m.p.h. In spite of Mitch the island is doing well has regained much of its beauty and was a great deal of fun for us to explore.

The only real city on the island is Bonacca which is actually located on a small cay a half mile off the main island of Guanaja. Perhaps best described as the Venice of the Caribbean, Bonacca is home to over 6,000 people all living on less than 100 acres. There are no streets and certainly no cars or scooters. In fact, even bicycles are prohibited. Everyone walks along sidewalks and paths with many of the homes and businesses being on stilts out over the water and 3 stories high. Just about everything you might need can be found in Bonacca if you are willing to look or ask. The locals all speak English so it was easy to interact. Remember they are "islanders not Spaniards."

We spent a few days anchored off a little island with a resort on it called Graham's Place. Graham's island paradise is a haven for anyone wanting to just hang out and enjoy the sun, beach and snorkeling away from the hustle and bustle of more developed island resorts. One of the highlights is his animals. Amy wrote in her journal, "Graham's place rocked, we got to swim with two nurse sharks, twenty sea turtles, twelve groupers (including a two hundred pound goliath grouper), bone fish and, many more exciting creatures. The turtles would swim right up to you and look at you with their adorable eyes while you pet them on the head, and the way the 5 ft barracuda looks at you makes you want to faint. The grouper was so big you could feel the water being pushed by his tail when he swam." If you are looking for a little getaway next winter check out

The island is also home to several small waterfalls. The most beautiful of which is most easily accessed from the north side of the island. After a blustery sail we anchored in the lee of Michael's Rock on the north shore and enjoyed 4 days of solitude in this beautiful anchorage. The snorkeling and diving is great and the hike to the waterfall was great fun. We had forgotten how tired you can get walking up a trail. Apparently we have found our sea legs but I am afraid we have lost our land legs in the process.

In total we spent twelve wonderful days enjoying Guanaja, what a groovy/funky/beautiful little island Guanaja is. The islanders were welcoming and very enjoyable to interact with and made us feel right at home. The expat community redefined the word "diversity" and is a constant source of good laughs, information, and stimulating conversation. If you are sailing by or looking for a secluded getaway check out Guanaja.

Fair Winds and Caribbean Rhythms, the 4Wheelers

Monday, June 9, 2008

Stranded on a Deserted Island.

Life Lesson Learned Stranded on a Deserted Island

After a fast and furious sail we arrived in a group of Islands known as Banco Vivorillo. Located off the northeast coast of Honduras, this small group of islands and surrounding coral reefs are home to thousands of birds and visited only occasionally by people. We had heard much about these islands and the wonderful abundance of sea life and we were glad to be here and anchored.

The following morning after our arrival, once finished with her school work, Amy asked if I would take her to the islands to photograph some of the birds and check out our new island home. I was glad to oblige her and off we went. For the next two hours we photographed and explored two of the three islands. It was a thrill to watch Amy get excited about the birds and photograph them. We compared the size, composition and location of the various nests as well as the size, color and number of eggs per nest. We just had a great time the two of us marveling at God's creation.

With two islands down there was just one left to explore. Off we went to check out the western most island. As we approached this mound of coral rubble with a few low lying bushes masquerading as an island I knew we were in for a treat. We were greeted by 4 Masked Boobies all lined up waiting to be photographed. We hurriedly pulled the dingy up on shore and for the next hour took literally hundreds of photographs of Brown and Masked Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds.

All my life I have read of explorers and adventurers that upon discovering new lands also discovered local fauna with no fear of man. I have dreamed of being in a place just like this for decades. We walked freely among adults and young and seemed to be nothing more than a curiosity to them. As Amy and I walked around the bottom end of the island I was keenly aware that a lifetime dream had just been realized. As I raised my head from the birds and looked out to sea my dream in a moment was turned into a nightmare. Two hundred yards off the shore I could see our dingy floating out into the ocean. In our haste to see the birds we had not tied off the dinghy and as the tide rose it carried our dinghy away.

I immediately made for the water and began to swim. As I began to swim I consciously told myself to settle down, breath smoothly and settle into a groove. Having done a few distance swims and run a couple of marathons I knew this would be a marathon swim but continued to crawl toward the dinghy. As the minutes went by and I continued to swim I felt that I was not making any progress toward the dinghy as it was moving too. I began to realize that I had a choice, return to shore or go for the dinghy. If I swam much further I was afraid I would not be able to make it back. I was tired and I knew from our charts and could feel in the water a strong current. I finally decided that today was not a good day to drown and return to shore, exhausted.

As Amy and I stood watching the dingy on the horizon we placed three sticks in line pointing to our last sighting of the dinghy and worked our way around the island. Once on the other side we were still about two miles away from Susan and Marshall onboard Mima. We found the remnants of an old tarp and made a flag and began to wave it hoping they would see and come investigate. Two hours later and still waving the reality of nightfall was settling in and I decided I needed to act. I gave Amy a kiss and promised her that I would return and made her promise me that she would not try to leave the island herself under any circumstance. I set off walking across the barrier reef to try and get as close as possible before I began to swim. I should point out here that I had no shoes and although I have swam a mile twice before this was a lot further. To my surprise I was able to walk well over a mile on the reef before I began my swim. I should also mention that it was Amy's idea to walk on the reef to get closer to the boat and end up more down current. What a smart girl she is.

As I got closer Susan realized something was wrong and heard me yelling help. I was hoping she would pull anchor and close the distance to reduce my length of swim and then we would go get Amy. As I swam and swam and Sue stood there watching I was furious. Why aren't people helping? She got in the water and began to swim toward me with my fins. Upon reaching me I asked why she had not come to get me and she informed me that once again the engine would not start. Let me tell you it was like someone stuck a knife in me. My little girl is all alone on the island and I am so tired of fixing this boat. I put on the fins and got to the boat as quick as possible.

Still no luck starting the motor and we were busy talking about what we should do. There were no other boats around to help and we tried the VHF radio to see if we could contact a boat we knew was on their way towards us earlier that day, all to no avail. So Susan packed a dry bag with water, granola bars, portable VHF radio, flashlight, snorkel gear and some clothes and got in the water with a boogie board to swim back to towards the reef to walk to Amy. Our plan was for her to get to Amy and then walk together across the reef again and swim to the boat. I did not think I could do it again and I had to figure out the motor.

I was able to get the motor running by the time Sue got to the reef to begin her walk across, with shoes, to Amy. She assured me via the portable VHF radio she was alright so I said I was going to run and see if we could find the dinghy and then get back to her and Amy. This entire time I could see Amy through the binoculars waving our flag just as she had been told. Quite the girl. I wondered what she must have been thinking seeing Mima motor away from her since she probably couldn't see Sue on the reef walking towards her yet.

Marshall and I made a beeline for the far side of the island and with the three sticks lined up (the ones Amy and I had set up) off our stern we were pointing due West, 270 degrees. We put the hammer down on Mima with Marshall at the helm manning the autopilot and monitoring the engine. I grabbed my binoculars and climbed the mast to the first spreader. I knew that at 8 knots we would close the distance fairly fast, but would we be able to see the dinghy? We had less than an hour of light left. We stayed on course and as the minutes passed I began to doubt we would find it. As I was beginning to calculate how many more minutes we would continue before turning back to get the girls before dark something on the horizon caught my eye. It couldn't be, but as I watched through the binoculars I was able to get a compass heading of, you guessed it, 270 degrees.

Within a couple of minutes I confirmed that what I thought was a just an abnormality in the water's surface was our dinghy. We came alongside 10 minutes later and retrieved the dry bag from the dinghy and tied her up and we were off, back to get the girls. The dry bag contained my Zeiss binoculars, digital telephoto equipment and Amy's camera gear, which along with a new dinghy and motor would have not been fun to replace. We easily made our way back, anchored, and retrieved the girls while watching a spectacular sunset. There were lots of hugs and kisses that evening and only energy enough to have PBJs for dinner.

Wow, what a day. The rest of our time in the Vivorillos was spent snorkeling, getting to know a couple of local fishermen and enjoying a really beautiful place. The silver lining to all these events are the lessons learned in the process. As I sat with Amy waving our homemade flag I asked her what the worst case scenario was. She correctly identified the uncomfortable prospect of spending the night on the island and the loss of our dinghy, motor and dry bag gear. Being at sea is teaching us to ask what the worst that can happen is. If the answer to that question is acceptable then we proceed, if the answer is not acceptable we make whatever change is necessary to get to an acceptable solution. I have also been trying to model and teach myself and my family the concept that if money fixes it, it is not a problem. Perhaps an inconvenience but not a problem, this was a perfect example. Sure, spending the night on the island would have been uncomfortable and we did not want to repurchase all that could have been lost, but we were all safe. "You are right Dad, a terminal illness is a problem not a lost dinghy" said Amy.

Then there was Sailing Life Lesson #78; don't take short cuts. If there is ever a master who will make you pay for taking short cuts it is the sea. I knew better, but in my haste I took a short cut, and it nearly cost me dearly. This gave me the opportunity to apologize as Dad and Captain to my crew. Then there was Sailing Life Lesson #79; if you screw up, recognize it and move on to a solution. I was just sick about my poor decision to not tie off the dinghy, and yet when I had to act to resolve the situation I did, not to be a hero, but to do the right thing and be active in solving the problem. In hind sight, my decision to walk the reef and swim to the boat not only meant we did not have to spend the night on a pile of coral, but also that we got our dinghy back. Once again our family discussion revolved around the reality that we all make mistakes but do not let them immobilize you. Maybe when this is all done I will write a book, "What the Sea Taught a Dummy".

The next day I did what any self respecting captain does, slept in, cancelled school and we all went snorkeling and spearfishing.

Until next time, fair winds and following seas, 4Wheelers

Friday, June 6, 2008

San Andres and Dos Milfords

Dos Milfords to the Rescue

Continued from last time…. With one anchor on board and safely stowed the second anchor was coming tight as we noticed a squall approaching. The unsettling reality of squalls at sea is that the energy contained within them is always an unknown and with the severity of some of the squalls that had been reported I simply hoped for the best. Milford senior and I let out some anchor rode and held on. The wind blew the rain horizontal to the sea and stung any exposed skin like needles. Visibility was reduced to 20 feet and I could only pray the anchor held. Suddenly, as quickly as it had arrived it disappeared. Dos Milfords and I went back to work freeing the anchor while Susan manned the helm.

It turns out that our first anchor was so well set that even with the help of Miss Gabriela we could not free the anchor. Milford junior promptly jumped in the water and dove to the bottom and manually freed the anchor and chain from the coral. Once we were free we slowly made our way, with the help of Miss Gabriela, through 4 miles of coral into the open ocean. Deep water never looked so good and the squall that hit while pulling the anchor was followed by a lovely calm making our navigation out of the reef easy. We said goodbye to dos Milfords, gave them a propina, and thanked them for their time and assistance. We realized that their help made the challenge of getting out of Albuquerque possible. For me to free the anchor would have required scuba gear and a great deal more work.

No sooner had we cleared the reef than we were met with a steady 10-15 knot breeze. We tacked and with the wind on our starboard beam and 3-5 foot seas we set the Genoa and with a reefed main we easily made 6 knots/hour and arrived at the channel markers for San Andres harbor in about 4 hours. Even if we had been able to start the motor we would not have used it. This was the kind of day sailor's dream of. The sun was out, Amy landed a big barracuda that we threw back, then we put on some good music and worked on our tans and enjoyed the scenery.

Now we just needed the wind to ease again to use our dinghy to power us into the San Andres anchorage. We thought it would be wise to at least notify the Columbian Coast Guard on the radio that we were coming in with no engine. Soon we had a Columbian navy boat come by asking if we wanted to be towed in, but we declined. When a captain allows his boat to be towed he ultimately gives up control of his boat and is not the ultimate authority on where the vessel will anchor, etc…and we were still doing fine. Then they notified us that we could not enter the channel under sail and we needed to drop our sail…time to use our dinghy as we had used Miss Gabriela early in the day to power Mima. With Susan at the throttle of the dinghy and Mark at the helm of Mima and Amy and Marshall on deck to look out for hazards we powered just fine to the anchorage with only a small detour, barely missing a grizzly old fishing boat (Miss Roxy) when a gust of wind caught Mima broadside and we had to "full throttle" a tight circle to our desired anchoring site. Considering all that could have gone wrong on the day we couldn't have had things work out better…except for maybe when Susan suggested to just try and start the motor…"just for fun"…still nothing.

After tidying up the boat we eagerly headed to shore and began exploring. We dined at a great Italian restaurant and got some gelato for the kids. Then we headed back to Mima, glad to have arrived in San Andres and ready for a good night's sleep. In the days that followed our starter was fixed and we took advantage of our time to sample local food, ride bikes, explore and discover this great island and its people.

Dos Milfords optimized the friendliness of all the San Andreans we have had the pleasure of meeting. They seem to possess a happy and cheerful outlook on life that matches well their island home. Milford senior is a warm and sincere man in his mid40's. He has a quiet demeanor and is a joy to be around. Milford junior is lively and full of energy. He shows great maturity for a 19 year old. We are indebted to dos Milfords and are blessed to have them as friends. Little did we know that 3 days after helping us out of the reef we would be their guests, in their home, for a traditional Columbian dish of Sancocho. As we left their home Milford senior turned to me quietly and said, "I will miss you Mark, please come visit again." We will miss dos Milfords and San Andres and we would be pleased to come back here again.

Until next time fair winds and following seas,

Mark, Susan, Amy and Marshall Wheeler aboard S/V Mima

P.S. Milford senior would like to go to work in Alaskafishing, so if anyone has a connection to a fishing boat let me know and I will forward the information to Milford senior.

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