As we were pulling up to the pier at Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, it began to rain very hard, not any wind or waves but just heavy rain which impeded our visibility. We noticed once we got close that the pier was unlike any we had seen so far. It was first of all very large, clearly old, and much higher off the water than most Caribbean piers. It looked more like a giant California fishing pier in size, minus the hot dog carts and tourists. There were a number of boats med-moored to the south side and there didn’t seem to be any place to tie up our boat, which looked quite small in comparison to the local fishing boats. We anchored just south of the pier and I paddled the kayak in to have a look. As I paddled up to a small platform under the dock for pangas a crowd of interested fishermen and locals formed to see the bearded gringo with a neon green kayak and yellow foul weather pants, a sight which was apparently pretty alien.
I climbed up to the pier and asked where I could get diesel. One gentleman responded in english and told me that my kayak would be okay and to leave it and follow him. The man’s name was Juan, and seeing as how I didn’t have much of a choice I decided to leave my kayak tied up and follow him. I told him that I wanted to get diesel quickly and then leave, but he brought me straight to the Port Captain who I was trying to avoid… Doh! I actually did not have much of a chance to avoid the Port Captain as his office was at the base of the pier and his window looked out directly on it.
The Port Captain was a small guy in uniform who definitely acted the part. He was a commanding presence, and I had to wait nearly 40 minutes just to talk to him. I finally walked back into his office and told him that I was there as an emergency stop on my way to Providencia, because I had run out of fuel and my sail was torn. I politely requested to be able to quickly purchase the necessary fuel and then be on my way. He explained that because I had landed in Nicaragua I was required to be checked in. I would have to: pay the port captain check-in fees, pay to med moor (a relatively difficult way to tie to a dock in rough seas) my boat, be searched by the customs officers, take a taxi to the immigration office, and pay for my immigration stamps. He knew that his fee was $25 USD, but he did not know what the other fee amounts were. I explained that I did not have the money for all of these procedures and that even more importantly I did not have the time, as their was a storm coming and I needed to get to Providencia as soon as possible. The port captain said that he was sorry but there was no way to avoid this.
I asked him if I could just pay him his fee and an additional fee for the “convenience” then leave quietly after refueling. Under international maritime law I am supposed to be given 48 hours to refuel and re-provision in any country before having to officially check-in, but in this corner of the world, on this night, I had a hunch that quoting international maritime law was not going to help me much. He also told me that the storm was already upon us and while it was raining and the wind was blowing moderately hard I did not think that the actual storm I was racing with was there yet. He advised against leaving that night, but I insisted so he told me he would call immigration and have someone come over for an after hours processing (after hours sounded expensive but I had no choice). I called Shannon on my handheld VHF, and she told me that the anchorage was “very, very rolly” but that she was okay. I waited for the immigration officers to arrive for over 90 minutes, and when I asked the port captain their status he impatiently brushed me off. This was close to 11 pm at this point, and I was exhausted. I was waiting outside on a porch overlooking the water, and I overheard some other people in the office saying that the winds were expected to be 30 knots that night. I started to get the feeling that the immigration officer was not coming, and I started to think that maybe I should just wait until morning. I asked the port captain what time he gets in in the morning, and he told me 8 a.m. I told him I would return then.
I kayaked back to the boat exhausted and starving, and as I approached I could tell that “very very rolly” was an understatement. The wind held the boat at such an angle that when a swell came in, which it did every 2 minutes or so, the boat would take the swell right on the side and it would rock so hard that the rails (top edge of the sides) would dip in the water. While I had thought I was having a miserable time in a third world port captain’s office in the rain, Shannon was dealing with dishes and books and everything else not tied down being flung from one side of the boat to the other. Unbelievably, during this chaos she managed to make a pot of coconut rice for us, as we had not eaten anything for hours and hours. She basically had to hold the pot by its handle during the whole process. I explained the situation and while the wind was nowhere near 30 knots, she agreed that we should get some rest and try again to get everything in the morning. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but we could definitely not sleep in such a rolly anchorage. Even lying on our bed was difficult, as the rolling boat either slid us into each other or almost flipped us over and over.
I took a melatonin. I really needed to rest at this point and knew that the next day was going to be very important. After about an hour of misery, I got out of bed and put my clothes on. I figured that if I couldn’t sleep anyway I might as well get the fuel and be all filled up so that I could leave after I get checked in the next morning. I paddled my kayak back in with my 3 jerry cans and hailed a cab to the gas station. The gas station was a few miles away, and I had to pay the cab extra to allow him on the pier, but it was still rather inexpensive for the ride. We arrived at the gas station at around 1 a.m. and luckily they sold diesel fuel. I needed 40 gallons for my tank and then wanted to have the 15 gallons of jerry cans full when I left, but they did not sell additional jerry cans. I spoke with the gas station manager and convinced him to lend me 2 large jugs he had behind his station so that I could fill my tanks. We drove back, and I paddled the jugs to my boat one by one. I still don’t know how, but Shannon and I managed to fill our tanks from up on deck without not only spilling very much but without allowing salt water into the deck fill cap when the boat rocked into the water. Reason #6472 that I couldn’t have done this trip without my first mate.
I took the taxi back to the gas station and returned the jerry cans. I then paddled back out to the boat where Shannon and I agreed that we would just leave under cover of darkness and rain and head straight for Providencia without officially checking in. It was quite dark and I was pretty confident that we would make it out undetected. Shannon started the engine and I pulled up the anchor. We had not gone 100 feet from where we anchored when the engine suddenly conked out. We dropped the anchor back down and I went below to see what the problem was. I tried all the usual tricks and finally figured that, while I it had not been long since I replaced it, that the filter it must be a clogged. It was now probably 3 a.m. and I changed the filter but still could not get the engine started. I was exhausted, delirious, frustrated, and covered with diesel fuel while I did everything from bleeding the fuel line to cleaning the air filter. It was definitely one of those low points in life where it didn’t feel like things could get much worse. I couldn’t think of anything else, so I basically fell asleep on the floor next to the engine room until Shannon helped clean me up and coaxed me into bed. It was still terribly rolly, but at this point I could’ve slept through a car crash in the condition I was in.
We awoke at about 6:30 a.m. and decided that we would get a mechanic and pay whatever it cost to get this engine working. As a last minute “just in case” I tried once more to start her up and of course she started on the first try. I went back to the engine room again to make sure everything looked alright and everything did. We had the engine running and we were full of fuel. The sun had just come up and some fishing boats were already making their way out to open water. I still had and hour and a half until my prescribed time to meet the port captain. I asked Shannon what she thought about just leaving and hoping that no one would notice in order to avoid the time and fees necessary to check out. We wanted to leave in order to beat the storm, which was getting closer and closer and we both knew it. I explained that we could get in a lot of trouble with the Nicaraguan authorities, but that I didn’t think they would come all the way out to chase us. I also made it clear that we both needed to be in agreement if we were going to try. We decided to go for it.
We headed directly out and I even tried to angle our departure so as to block the port captain’s view of us from his office behind the pier. We made it about a mile and a half out and both of us had our stomachs in our throat. We were pretty sure we were okay and were glad to finally be leaving when I looked back with the binoculars and saw a panga boat headed right at us with the port captain and three men armed with machine guns. I told Shannon to make a 90 degree turn to starboard, and she did so with haste. I decided that we were going to tell him that we had been experience engine problems and were just testing her out before our 8 a.m. meeting. I went down below and laid out all my wrenches and rags and proceeded to wipe grease all over my forearms. The panga came up on us quickly, and I explained to our heavily armed pursuers about our engine issues and that I was making a big square, hence the 90 degree turn.
He yelled back to return to the anchorage immediately, and I did my best to act nonchalantly and asked him if he remembered that we were meeting at 8 a.m. I did my best to not act guilty while on the inside I pictured what the inside of a Nicaraguan jail cell must look like. Shannon and I motored back with our escort no more than 30 feet from us at all times, and I told her that we need to stick to our story no matter how unbelievable, although I did not know exactly what was going to happen now. We returned to where we had been the night before, and the port captain had his men drive him up to our boat where he proceeded to board us. I invited him down below to show him my dirty wrenches and acted as if there was problem and that I was glad to see him. We offered him coffee and I could not have been nicer. He requested our documents and one of his men boarded and began searching the boat. He filled out some paperwork, which I understood to be the normal check-in documentation and nothing more. I couldn’t believe that he was not acknowledging the fact that we were just trying to skip out on him. He filled out the documents and then told me to meet him in his office in 30 minutes to pay the check-in fees and get the immigration stamp. When he left, Shannon and I looked at each other in disbelief. Did he buy the “testing our engine” story? We were part relieved, but at the same time weary of what might still happen.
I paddled in once again and met Juan, who was on the dock waiting to meet me so that he could act as translator for our planned 8 a.m. meeting. We walked back to the end of the pier ,which was obviously much more lively in the morning, as fishermen were bringing their catch in. I saw one man with a beheaded and “de-finned” shark over his shoulder that must’ve been 9 feet long. At the base of the pier right in the middle of the main street there were about a dozen fully mature sea turtles on their backs, which I am assuming were for sale or at least being prepared to be transported for future sale. That was quite a strange and sad sight for someone from a country that goes so far to educate people about the importance of sea turtle conservation. As I had no cash left after all the diesel I bought, I asked Juan to take me to the bank to pay the check-in fees. He walked me through the town, which I had only driven through in a taxi the night before. He led me down small muddy roads and through residential areas with small children playing and women selling bananas and other fruit. It was apparent that this was a quite a poor town but maybe all the rain and mud didn’t help my impression.
I withdrew some money and stopped to get some groceries, including a big bag of “cheer up Shannon” candy, on my way back to the port captain. I waited for over an hour for the port captain to meet with me again and when he did he did not even seem perturbed let alone angry about our escape attempt. He told me that I would need to pay him $25 for check-in fees and then take a taxi to Immigration and then pay them their fees which he estimated at over $100. I opened my wallet and showed him that I only had $75, so that between his fees and the taxi I would not be able to afford everything (I had put the other few hundred that I withdrew in my pocket while still in the bank). After going back in forth directly with him as well as through Juan, the translator, I sat there and asked him what we could do. After maybe 40 minutes of this he said he could charge me the $25 for the check-in fee plus a $50 fine for “pulling up anchor and leaving early” even though he specifically told me he believed me that we were just testing the engine. I couldn’t understand how and why we went back and forth for so long, and he finally told me exactly what I wanted to hear. I paid the money and told him I would be leaving immediately. I still don’t know if he actually believed my story or not, but I most definitely do not care. I gave my translator and guide Juan some money for his help and hurried back to my boat and crew.
We pulled up anchor while I told Shannon the crazy story of my morning, and we were so glad to be finally leaving and headed towards Providencia. Shannon had still not stepped foot on land. We had XX miles to go almost directly east. It was raining as we left, so I stripped down to enjoy a fresh water shower which felt fantastic. We were motoring straight into the wind and waves, but neither were very strong and we hoped these conditions would hold up. It did remain pretty calm for about 6 hours before both the wind and waves picked up. This would have been acceptable, but the scariest part of the trip was that every 10 minutes or so the engine would lose RPM’s, sometimes it would just rev down a little and then return but sometimes it would rev way down so much that it seemed like it was about to conk out. We were headed directly into the wind and had to continue in this direction to get to Providencia or return to back to Nicaragua but our Jib was still ripped so we only had our mainsail and our engine. It was impossible to not literally hold our breaths every time the engine lost RPM’s. We were sure that every time would be the time that the engine would stop.
I was pretty certain that the problem from the previous night was air in the line that I could just not get out, but I couldn’t explain why it started the first time the next morning. I was still pretty sure that their was either air in the line or that I had purchased dirty fuel. I did not want to risk stopping the engine to test anything, so I just kept thinking positive thoughts and picturing how good it was going to feel to finally be dropping anchor in Providencia. Not only had that been the goal for the past 11 days since we left Guanaja, but it was also the rendezvous point we had with the Gualby. We had no idea where the Gualby was at this point, but we could only hope and assume that they had made it because it did no good to think otherwise. This motoring up and down huge waves continued all night. I kept thinking that the engine was going to stop on us, so I altered my course about 20 degrees north so that in the event it did die I would be in a better spot to tack towards Providencia. Late that night we hit a few squalls, and while I was motoring I raised the mainsail in order to keep the boat more stable.
At one point I was heading directly into the strong squall winds and the mainsail was luffing horribly. Shannon was down below trying to get some rest, and I did not want to go up to the foredeck to lower the main in this kind of seas so I just let it luff (this is a rookie mistake and not good for the sail at all). I altered my course a little and pulled the main in tight in order to reduce the luffing but it was still quite strong.
I looked up at one point and noticed to my horror that the main halyard, the line that raises the sail, had come unattached and had run itself up the mast. The sail had luffed so bad that the bolt on the shackle unthreaded itself and came unattached from the sail. I still had maybe 5 hours of motoring into these waves and wind with an engine that sounded like it was going to go at any moment. At this point, with a torn jib and now an unattached mainsail, if the engine died I would have no choice but to basically drift back powerlessly the 100 or so miles to Nicaragua in the middle of the stormy Caribbean sea . We had plenty of water and food, so I wasn’t necessarily in fear for our lives, but it still seemed like a terrible terrible situation to be in. I made a direct heading for Providencia and thought about anything I could to keep my mind occupied. I literally tried to see if I could keep breathing through one of the engine RPM looses, and I physically could not do it, my breathing stopped every time. This went on for hours and even when I could see Providencia I still had more than 2 hours to go.
I noticed on the chart that about a half a mile on the west side of the island there was a point where the depths went from about a thousand feet to just over 100 feet. This became my goal to reach, because between my chain and some spare line I had down below I had enough anchor rode to anchor, albeit poorly, in these depths. If I could just get to this depth, even if the engine died, I could drop my anchor and paddle to the island to get a tow-in. Before this point, if the engine died and no one either sees me or hears us on the radio, we will drift slowly back west.
We miraculously not only made it to this goal point, but we soon found ourselves passing the first set of channel markers and then the next and then the next. For the first time in 11 days we exhaled, we had made it and we were in Providencia, Colombia. I think under normal circumstances we would still think that the island was beautiful, but Providencia looked like the paradise rising out of the sea. As we putted into the channel and were coming around Morgan’s Head into the main anchorage we had but one last worry that was not resolved. We began hailing the Gualby on the VHF, hoping that they had made it ahead of us and were waiting for us. There was no response. According to the charts, there was a cove around the corner that we could not yet see. We turned the corner a bit and still could not see them and they were not responding on the VHF. Finally, we turned a little more and saw the Gualby sitting calmly at anchor waiting for us. The feeling of elation that we were feeling at this point can not easily be expressed in mere words. We had last seen each other 3 days previously, but it seemed like months of some bad times. We pulled up along side her and yelled. Conor and Meghan came outside and we pretty much hooted and hollered and pumped our fists at each other for a few minutes. We dropped anchor, very briefly exchanged our storm stories and then quickly proceeded to pass out cold.