ON THE DOG WATCH
March 2005In March of 2004, I became interested in helping another writer/publisher put together a chart guide for the Pacific coasts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. She wanted to develop a new publication that would contain up-to-date information and I was honored that she had thought of me. To be able to participate in creating a publication that would provide another piece of information for the prudent sailor to use as he or she made their approach to a new port or anchorage—it was very flattering.
In that spirit, I naively went to work taking a month off to gunk hole through the region with friends, Jim and Pam McEntyre, on board their impeccably maintained Ted Brewer designed Morgan 38, AURORA. We actually sailed when the wind was good and anchored when we felt like it—something I never get to do when I’m delivering boats. Since then I have completed four more voyages through the region, exploring, writing and sketching. The task proved to be much more difficult and overwhelming than I ever thought it would be and I now have a much greater appreciation for Charlie Wood’s pioneering efforts and those of John and Pat Rains. The exhausting work that goes into researching and writing such a publication is mind-boggling. And if the truth be known, I think I have yet to discover everything this wonderful region has to offer.
The process also convinced me that I’m not made of the right stuff and don’t have the basic discipline to focus on the details required to create the charts and written information that is necessary. So, I have reluctantly abandoned the project and have begun writing another book--one about my experiences sailing through the region. It will NOT be a chart guide, but it will contain a lot of good information about boating in Latin America. I’ve asked one of my sons to help me with it.
Until the book is finished here is a feature article I wrote, which first appeared in the December 2004 issue of SANTANA the sailor’s magazine.
THE ONCE FORGOTTEN MIDDLE
by So much has changed in Central America since Roy and Carol Roberts sailed through the region on board S/V WANDERLUST II, in the spring of 1995—and yet so much is the same. As a delivery skipper moving vessels between Mexico and Panama, I have to admit their book, The Forgotten Middle, has proven to be a valued part of my library, both as inspiration and useful because of the information they were able to provide at the time. Today, their publication is still a valuable resource for cruisers visiting the region.
Capt. Doug Danielson
My first real introduction to the forgotten middle of Central America was in April of 1994. I had been hired to pick up a vessel at Roatan, an island off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and deliver it through the Panama Canal and up the Pacific side to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. My friends in the Seven Seas Cruising Association were telling me to avoid the coastal waters on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua because of political unrest, and stories were rampant about other captains being approached by unfriendly commercial fishermen or Nicaraguan gunboats and detained or ordered into International Waters. My knowledge about the Pacific coasts of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala was limited to Chart 21026 Puerto Madero to Cabo Velas, Publication 153 Sailing Directions (en route) West Coasts of Mexico and Central America, and just hot off the press Cruising Ports by Captain John E. Rains. At the time, these three publications were the only information available covering the approximately 500-mile stretch between Marina Flamingo, Costa Rica and Puerto Madero, Mexico. With the exception of the Gulf of Fonseca and Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala, Captain Rains did not recommend stopping unless it was a major emergency. I followed his advice and, like so many other boaters at the time, made a bee-line from Costa Rica to Mexico.
In later years I would not make the same mistake. Soon after Barillas Marina Club opened in El Salvador, I had a chance to deliver a sailboat there in January of 2002 for a couple of doctors who wanted a safe place to leave their vessel while they explored the interior of El Salvador and Guatemala. What I found was unlike anything I could have imagined: friendly accommodating officials, highly manicured grounds, good security, moorings, and a fuel dock I could pull right up to—in El Salvador, for only $8.00 US per night! On two more recent trips, I’ve discovered a new marina development in Nicaragua, Puesta Del Sol, with similar amenities. What is happening to this once overlooked forgotten middle is that is becoming boater friendly. This year, on my return to what I have come to call paradise found, and maybe one of the best cruising grounds still left in the world, I was reminded of a fundamental dilemma that haunts anyone who seeks out remote, unspoiled places and then writes about them for profit―a carrion feeder's ethic that has motivated me and others of my ilk to foul our own nests more than once. (I’m paraphrasing here from an article I remember Randy Wayne White wrote a long time ago about Costa Rica in Outside Magazine: Paradise Fouled.)
Now, only a mere ten years after I first had the opportunity to stop in Central America, and chose not to, everything has changed. The general political climate is much improved and governments appear to be more stable and democratic. Decades of poverty and civil unrest is being addressed by newly reformed political parties being watched by the international community. Aggressive economic programs are being instituted, designed to repair damaged and neglected infrastructure by educating people and putting them back to work. Tourism is seen as one of the ways to fuel the recovering economies and development along the waterfront and interior is once again attracting foreign investment. As a boating writer I can invent rationalizations, I can even cling to the truth that sometimes we enlightened tourists also contribute in certain ways to the protection and economic well-being of fragile regions. Even so, the dilemma remains. This might have been the Virgin Islands, or Costa Rica, or it might have been any of the dozens of far-flung places that I've enjoyed privately and helped make public, but it isn't. This is the rediscovered forgotten middle, Central America’s newest cruising destination. During your visit, please remember that you may be sharing in an experience of discovery that can never be recreated, not in this hemisphere. With this in mind, and as my Seven Seas friends often say, please “always leave a clean wake” as you pass through.
For cruisers the good news is that El Salvador, the Gulf of Fonseca, and Nicaragua offer a cruising area that is exciting, varied and now reasonably safe. Although Guatemala's relatively straight unprotected coast has less to offer in the way of comfortable anchorages, unless you are a die-hard surfer, a new sport fishing marina catering to private vessels is being constructed at Puerto Quetzal. Everywhere, the people and officials I met were welcoming and helpful. All of Central America has become more accessible to cruisers because of new marina developments, like Barillas in El Salvador and Puesta del Sol in Nicaragua. Both are simplifying the paperwork, offer fuel, moorage, security, and provide bus or van access to goods and services.
BARILLAS MARINA CLUB, Bahia de Jiquilisco, El Salvador is located approximately nine nautical miles up the estuary from Lempra Shoals. Best to approach from the south, the pilot meeting waypoint is 13º 07.018 N, 88º 25.165 W. They recommend you hail them on VHF Channel-16 one hour before you arrive. From this position you will be guided safely by a panga driver familiar with the entry, sand bars, and shallow water along the route. The first portion, as you transit behind breakers rolling over Lempra Shoal, can sometimes be turbulent, but no more than the Potato Patch in San Francisco Bay. Once inside, imagine you are aboard the African Queen and enjoy the tranquil journey past small fishing villages through mangrove lined waterways with volcanoes in the distance. When you arrive at the marina, you will be assisted in securing to an assigned mooring by the panga driver. In less than a half an hour, he will return with port officials to welcome you and your crew and process your paperwork. As of my last visit, this service was free.
Customs and Immigration is located on site and the charge for a visa is $10.00 US per person. BMC is a peaceful and secure place and offers boaters a Texaco fuel dock (diesel and gasoline), dinghy dock, clean water, laundry facility, ice, club house with cafeteria service bar and satellite TV, convenience store, swimming pool, internet access, pay phones, and showers. Several times a week there is free van transportation to a nearby town for grocery shopping. Moorings cost $8.00 (U.S.D) per day. (December 01, 2004, the rate will increase to $11.30 per day.) The official currency in El Salvador is the US Dollar. Most, if not all, of the staff speak Spanish and English. The marina monitors VHF Channel-16.
Website: www.barillasmarina.com , email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Manager: Heriberto Pineda
Tel: (011 from US) 503-632-1802, (011) 503-263-3650; Fax: (011) 503-263-3652
MARINA PUESTA DEL SOL RESORT, El Estero de Aserradores, Nicaragua is located approximately one and one-half miles from the coast; inside a large shallow lagoon. Due to of-lying rocks and reefs, the marina recommends approaching their large red and white sea buoy from at least seven miles out on a course of 72ºmagnetic. In May 2004, the buoy was located at 12º 36.400 N, 87º 22.417 W. The buoy has been missing or moved several times in my experience and you may want to verify its position with the marina as you approach. The bar crossing is negligible and the approach to the marina is well marked with lighted channel buoys. The driving force behind this new development is personable Robert Membreno, himself a long-time boater who, along with racing sailor Gene Menzie, one of the original organizers of the Banderas Bay Regatta, has designed a marina resort complex that, when completed, is sure to rival anything in the region. At present they have space for thirty-three boats in slips, end ties and side ties, and five more at moorings. Services include: a fuel dock (diesel and gasoline), dinghy dock, clean water, laundry, ice, club house with restaurant, bar, 110/220-volt service, cable TV, swimming pool, internet access, mobile pump-out, and showers. Local bus service is available to nearby local towns for shopping and provisioning. Fees (U.S.D.) for visiting vessels are as follows: Entrance-$15.00, Exit -$15.00, Tourist Card (90 days, per person) $5.00 plus $2.00 per person processing fee, national sailing permit (zarpe) $15.00 and international sailing permit $25.00. (One US Dollar equals approximately sixteen Cordobas.) At the present time, officials are brought to the marina from Corinto as a service, at no cost to the boater. By 2005, the marina tells us officials will be housed permanently on-site. The marina also plans to provide scheduled shuttle service to and from Chinandega twice weekly at no charge. Slip rental is $0.40 per foot per day and moorings are $8.00 per day. The marina monitors VHF Channel-16 and will provide a pilot if requested.
Website: www.marinapuestadelsol.com , email: email@example.com
Developer and host: Robert Membreno
Tel: (011 from U.S.) 505-883-0781; Fax: (011) 505-276-0585
Away from the marinas, clearance procedures in the commercial ports of entry like Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, can still be confusing and sometimes very expensive because officials are still not used to dealing with pleasure craft. In contrast, the Port Captain and Immigration officers we met in Puerto Corinto, Nicaragua, were trying very hard to make us feel welcome, immigration even gave us a bottle of California wine. (Maybe it was because we had already met them at Puesta del Sol, but I prefer to believe it was just good old Latin American hospitality.) All of these countries are highly nationalistic and very concerned about borders, fishing boundaries, and illegal immigration. As a result, having the vessel's paperwork in order is extremely important, if not essential. Be sure you have your passport stamped and an exit zarpe from the previously visited country prior to making port.
Most cruising boaters are familiar with places like Mexico, Costa Rica and the Virgin Islands, where officials are already cruiser friendly and the average population seems to have a basic knowledge about private recreational boats and how they are used. After years of civil war and political unrest many people in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are still very impoverished and have no understanding about why anyone would own pleasure craft or even how they function. Most locals who live or work near the water still do not comprehend the idea of recreational boating and only see visiting sailboats and motor vessels as luxurious yachts filled with rich vacationing foreigners. Opportunists still exist in the populated areas who see tongue-tied gringos as easy targets for theft and other scams. Sometimes even the simplest task, like getting a propane tank filled, becomes a day-long struggle of making oneself understood, negotiating transportation and finding the right vendor. One must be flexible, not in a hurry, and willing to find humor in any situation, or this is not the place for you. On the other hand, if you have prepared your vessel well, have confidence in your own abilities to repair things, speak rudimentary Spanish, and love to discover new places and people, you will enjoy Central America as much as I do. And there is an additional bonus, now you can use the same strategy Captain John Rains has long advocated for crossing the Golfo de Tehuntepec when you transit the Papagayo region, that of keeping one foot on the beach. If your paperwork is correct, and you are careful to avoid the inshore rocks and reefs, hugging the coast of Nicaragua for protection is no longer a problem with the military patrols, and there are lots of neat places to duck into and anchor to wait for the Papagayo winds to die down.
©2004 Doug Danielson
This feature article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of SANTANA Magazine
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- March - Rediscovering The Once Forgotten Middle
- May - Bringing The Boat Back From Mexico
- July - New Regulations for Private Vessels Moving From Port To Port in Mexico
- August - Six Yacht Deliveries
- October - 26 October to 3 November 2005, M/Y HERCULES, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Ventura, California
- September - October - Sailing and Writing
- August - 29 July to 5 August 2008, M/Y ORIANA, Mazatlan, Mexico, to San Diego, California
- January - April - three very different yacht deliveries.
- October - Climbing the Hill: “Rounding the Cape.” and Climbing the Hill: “Up to Mag Bay, then on to San Diego.”
- September - SEFERINA: “Astoria, OR, to Port McNeill, BC.”
- December - BELLALOU: “Tortola to Florida.”
- May - ENSENADA, THE EASIEST PLACE TO CHECK INTO MEXICO
- May-June - WHAT A LIFE: “Newport Beach, CA, to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.”