Slow boat to Utila, Honduras

Sunday we had a lazy day pre-departure and we had an early night.  The planning for this passage had been quite complicated – we have adverse current against us for most of the way and are expecting to be carried east as well during the latter part of the trip.   This makes boat speed difficult to predict as the Gulf Stream current runs at differing strengths in places along our route – so we have modelled for 3 knots, 3.5 knots, 4 knots, 4.5 knots and 5 knots.   On that basis we have decided to leave at 10am as we have a good chance of making landfall in daylight hours on the slower speeds and, if we are going too fast, we can always slow down.   We are also aware that the weather window closes down on Thursday as a front comes through so we need to be in by then if we can. 

Monday morning we were up early, did final checks, and listened to Chris Parker the weather guru on the SSB.    The forecast remains the same so we’re definitely off.    At 9.45am on a grey miserable day we picked up and motored out of the anchorage.   We said goodbye to the Cozumel waterfront, Mickey’s cruise ship, two other cruise ships and motor sailed along the coast for a while – dodging parasailers on the way – as the wind was being bent by the island.   

Goodbye Cozumel Goodbye cruise ships Goodbye Mickey Dodging parasails

By 10.30 we had 18 knots of breeze from the SE and we had all three sails up and were sailing along brilliantly.  A shame about our speed over ground though – at only 3.6 knots – slowed as expected by the current.

All three sails up

The seas built during the day and the wind moved more easterly so we continued to sail along nicely.   At 6pm we put away the staysail and reefed the genoa in preparation for the night passage.   And just in time as squalls started to hit by 7pm just after a first stormy sunset at sea. 

Sunset at sea 1

By 8pm the wind climbed above 20 knots sustained, we had Carnival Magic cruise ship to starboard, and the sea action was making this a pretty rolly passage…. But we’d picked up speed and were now averaging four knots.

Suddenly about 11 pm we popped out like a cork from the adverse current and started to hit five+ knots – woo hoo! – but now we were being pushed east instead.  To our east lay Banco Chinchorro, a huge reef system off the coast of Mexico, so we adjusted our course to remain high of our rhumb line.   Then suddenly – without any change in the sail pattern, wind direction or strength – our speed dropped to 3.2 knots.   Seems like the Gulf Stream was just playing with us.

During the night there were constant squalls with some rain but Morphie loved it and was ploughing through the waves…..and our speed fluctuated between 3 knots and 4 knots all night.   

Tuesday morning – sunrise – and we hoisted the staysail again but the wind direction and east pushing current forced us to drop down towards our rhumb line.  

Sunrise at sea

The wind became very light and we put the engine on to charge our batteries so we motor sailed and climbed back up above the rhumb line.   By noon the seas had flattened, the wind reduced even further, and the sun came out.  By 2pm the engine was off again and we were sailing again, slowly, towards Utila.    Suddenly, although the wind was only 12 knots, we were making five knots of boat speed.  

Going along nicely

Have we finally escaped the Gulf Stream?   Woo hoo…looking good for a Wednesday afternoon arrival….   We were having a great time and finally at 6pm having eaten dinner we reefed down for the night – just before dark a yacht and a ship crossed our bow a few miles ahead of us, the only other vessels we had seen all day.

Sunset at sea 2

During the night the seas and the wind built – which is the diurnal weather pattern in this area – even with double reefs in the main and the genoa we were still doing more than five knots so making good time.   However, come midnight, and we were being headed and the current started pushing us east over the rhumb line.  Here we go again!  So we tacked and made very slow progress directly into the waves – which was horrible – averaging only two knots for a while.   But we managed to climb back up before tacking back to a better course.  

We were then passed by the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship to port at 2am on Wednesday morning but otherwise we were the only boat out there in the very dark night.    At 5am the moon had just risen and we had crossed into Belizean waters.   Again we were being pushed east towards Belize’s offshore reefs so we tacked back – got above the rhumb line – and then reverted to our original course.   By 9am the clouds were breaking up and the wind dropped…and continued to drop….until we had just 4 knots on our nose.  But at least the sun was out and we had a lovely sunny day.   Downside was that the wind was so light even the whisker pole wouldn’t work so we put the sails away and motored into the now flat calm seas.  

Flat calm and no wind

Sadly this meant that making landfall on Wednesday was no longer an option – so we recalculated for a Thursday morning arrival instead and reduced our engine speed to average 4 knots boat speed.   As it was so benign we made water and both of us enjoyed leisurely showers during the day – even taking time out for a selfie and Richard tried his hand at fishing, but didn’t catch anything.  Oh yes and we took down the shredded Mexican courtesy flag.  Later on large swells arrived making it very rolly and the temperature soared – incredibly hot and steamy making it very difficult to sleep when off watch. 

Motoring along selfie

All that's left of our Mexican flag

At 4pm the winds starting building again and we saw 10 knots but were not sustained.  However at 6pm the night winds started kicking in and were now coming from behind us – so we decided to run on reefed genoa alone.   The winds built to 14 knots and above and suddenly we were sprinting along but going way too fast – so we had to, frustratingly, reduce the genoa to a hanky size to keep our speed at 4 knots.   

Sunset at sea 4 Sunset at sea 3 Sailing with a scrap of sail only

By 9pm lightning storms were flashing ahead and then they were constant – Belize mainland was really getting hit!!!   They were impressive but incredibly frightening – especially as we knew that they were potentially heading our way.  But the wind switched again, thankfully, and they remained off to our starboard side and did not pose any immediate threat.    In the meantime we were entertained by a little swift trying to land on Morphie to get shelter although he never managed it and left us after about three hours.     

At 4am on Thursday morning the storms had started to dissipate, the wind had switched to the NW, and a flashing light on Pumpkin Hill, Utila, was spotted in the distance.   Lightning was still flashing around us though…..    Come 6am we had “land ho” and by 7.50am Mexican time (6.50am local time) we had anchor down in Porte Este on a very grey gloomy morning.  

Land ahoy Utila

Total passage was 276 miles taking 70 hours which means an average speed of 3.94 knots – which, bearing in mind the adverse current, probably wasn’t too bad overall.  We were very pleased that our intensive passage planning came good.

Utila waterfront Utila waterfront 2 Utila waterfront 3

We had a couple of hours sleep and laid in bed listening to the heavy rain landing on the coach roof – so Morphie was salt free within an hour of arriving thanks to Mother Nature. 

Morphie in the anchorage

We went ashore – it was not obvious where to land dink – but a dive shop said we could use their dock.  We walked down the high street avoiding the massive puddles from the recent rain storm and found the official government buildings – and went to the port captain first.  

Government building

He took loads of scans of different papers before sending us to immigration. This took a while…..including photos and fingerprints…..but eventually we were given visas for 90 days.   Back to the port captain but he said, as it was now nearly noon he probably would not receive the authority from the mainland until after lunch so could we come back in three hours?   Yes, of course, we said.  So we found a bank and got some local currency, which is Lempiras at a rate of 33 to the pound.   We found a bar that had free wifi so we could tell people we had arrived safely.  Had an OK fish lunch and then watched Liverpool in the Europa Cup on the TV LOL.   We returned later to the Port Captain and he gave us our clearance for 90 days.   And the whole process cost us US$6 – result! 

Utila has a history of petty theft in this anchorage and it is not recommended to leave boats unattended after dark – so we returned to Morphie for a quiet evening on board and enjoyed the most spectacular sunset with the sun looking more like Mars than itself.  Amazing…..

Goodnight Utila 2 Goodnight Utila

Friday morning and we were up early and went ashore after breakfast planning to explore the town a bit.   Utila has an interesting history as it was discovered by Columbus but early Spanish settlers did not prosper.  Later on British settlers used the islands as a base for wood-cutting operations and brought with them a mixture of African slaves and Black Caribs.   Although the islands have been part of Honduras for more than a century a large proportion of the population are white and English speaking with many of them allegedly being descendants of British pirates who preyed on the Spanish treasure fleets.   The official language of the island is Spanish but most of the people that we have encountered so far are native English speakers – the notable exception being the immigration official who obviously had been imported from the mainland.

We had found a Mares dive equipment shop on our wanders the previous day so we came ashore carrying Richard’s regulators – his pressure gauge had failed in Isla Mujeres.    These are sealed units and not fixable so we are on the hunt for a new one that will fit into his instrument console.   We were very lucky that they had the exact same unit (although in PSI rather than Bar) and swapped it out for us there and then.    That’s a relief…..   Coming out of the shop having learnt from the German guy that works there that they all call this Burglary Bay!  Cheerful soul – thanks a lot….

The heavens now opened and we took shelter outside another shop for a while watching the locals driving along in their buggies or motorbikes, some with brollys up.   We spotted Marios – an above-the-water eatery – so popped in for a couple of cold ones.  Well….we were in there for about two  hours…..enjoying both the local beer and great food.    The rain was torrential….

Utila town 4 Utila town 5

Marios Local brew View from Marios

Finally it stopped and just drizzled a bit so we carried on wandering the town enjoying the sights of the breadfruit growing by the side of the road; the beautiful flowers; the island dogs lying around;  chickens wandering everywhere;  traditional houses built on stilts and the old churches.  

Utila town 1 Utila town 2 Utila town 3 Breadfruit Chickens like bikes Utila town 6 Utila town 7 Utila town 8

Utila is a quaint quirky place with buggies, tricycle taxis and motorbikes everywhere and a hint of the security issues that mar the Honduran mainland with four gun-laden security guards outside the bank.  Combined with loads of young backpacker tourists and divers….and lots of hostelries, bars, restaurants and little shops….gives the place a certain charm.  Richard was particularly taken by the Bimbo bread delivery van!  

Flowers Utila town 9 Utila town 10 Utila town 11 Utila town 12 Utila town 13 Utila town 14 Utila town 15 Utila town 16 Richard and Bimbo

Later in the afternoon we returned to Morphie for another quiet night on board. 

This morning, Saturday, and we’ve awoken to a no-wind day, the sun came up briefly,  and we can even just see the mountains of Honduras mainland for the first time.  

Mountains of Honduras

We’re going to continue exploring today but, sadly, we are moving out on Sunday to do a day sail to Roatan, another of the Bay Islands of Honduras.   The weather forecast is forcing us on as very high winds are expected to return overnight Monday / Tuesday for a period of up to five days – and this anchorage will be uncomfortable to say the least.  So we’ve booked into a marina in Roatan for one week to sit it out and will take it from there.   If the weather permits we’d like to return here before heading off to Belize in a month or so.

Bye for now