Night ride through pirate territory

After four and a half months at the shipyard in Guatemala, we leave. We are relieved and sad at the same time. Relieved that we can leave the heat, the endless boat problems, all the work and the shipyard behind us; sad because we are leaving our friends Riki and Martin and their daughters Naia and Kira, as well as single-handed sailor Thomas, behind and probably won’t see them again for a long time. Again and again we have to say goodbye, but then we actually are sailing from Guatemala to Providencia.

Farewell to Thomas, who is still waving at the jetty.

The weather matches our mood: it is cloudy and rainy and only clears up once we have crossed the lake and turned into the river. Enchanted by the jungle, the sounds of birds and monkeys, we glide slowly down the Rio Dulce to Livingston.

View of Livingston from the anchorage

While Alex clears out with the help of our agent Raul and completes the boat formalities, I keep Mabul at anchor. Livingston, as we were told on arrival, is a place where the fenders can be stolen from the boat if you’re not careful, so we want to move on as quickly as possible. But there is this low sandbank… We had planned our arrival so that we would cross the sandbank at the highest tide of the month. This time it won’t even be the highest tide of the day, as we don’t want to start our journey in the dark because of the fishing nets, but we still hope to make it. As a precaution, we have informed Hector. Hector is a local fisherman who grabs sailing boats that don’t make it over the sandbank by the mast, lays them across and then tows them over the sandbank. We have a draft of 1 meter 65 – the problem is: Nobody knows exactly how deep the sandbank is.

Sandbank ahead in the fog…

We set off just before sunset. We follow our old waypoints and the depth gauge drops and drops: 40, 30, 20, 10 centimetres and then to zero. It stays there for minutes while we slowly chug forward, meter by meter, always careful to stop immediately if we run aground. It’s a nerve-wracking half hour. A few hundred meters away we see Hector’s fishing boat. But then all of a sudden: 10, 20, 30, 40 centimetres….we’ve made it. “Have a safe journey,” Hector writes to us on WhatsApp and then he’s gone. We cross the large bay where we drop anchor for the night.

We follow our old track, depth gauge at 0

Unusual westerly winds set in, good for us who want to head east, but the anchorage is now unprotected, Mabul rocks wildly back and forth all night, so we hardly turn a blind eye. The next morning I prepare several days’ worth of food: Spaghetti and lentil stew, which turned out to be a good meal on longer passages, is quick to warm up and nutritious. Then we lift anchor and begin our journey. Our destination is 600 nautical miles away and is a small Colombian island called Providencia, closer to Nicaragua than to Colombia. Here we will meet our friends Jeroen, Aagje and Rajesh from SV My Motu again. We haven’t seen each other for a year and the anticipation is huge.

The sea is rougher than it looks

Like a horse that has been in the stable for too long, Mabul races off. She has never been this fast before, but the ride is rough and the waves are high. After more than four months on land, this is not good for us. Alex and I both get seasick and stay that way for two days. We don’t see another boat in the rough sea, so we crawl into our bunk to settle our stomachs. Thanks to our iPad, on which we have installed Navionics, we can see the course and other ships. So we can sail on with peace of mind under the protection of Mabul’s belly. Mabul, delighted to finally be back in the water, jumps and jumps and races across the sea.

We sail along the coast of Guatemala, then Honduras, leaving the islands of Roatan and Guanaja to starboard and slowly approaching Nicaragua.

Things are getting a little better again

Nicaragua, marked by poverty, corruption and political instability, is no place to drop anchor. We have been advised to give it a wide berth, similar to Haiti. Sailing boats have repeatedly been attacked and robbed by fishermen. Off the coast of Nicaragua there is a shallow sea plate stretching for almost 100 miles. We plan to sail around it, but the waves and winds are so uncomfortable and the sea so rough that we decide to take a short cut. We keep eighty miles away from Nicaragua’s coast, enough to be safe from pirate fishermen – or so we think.

It is already evening when we sail into the waters off the Nicaraguan coast. To be on the safe side, we have switched off our AIS and navigation lights. Not a fisherman, not a boat, not an island to be seen. We are slowly getting used to the rough sea and are even able to eat something. But wave after wave sloshes over the bow, rolls across the deck and then into the cockpit, so we eat in the cabin. By the time we’ve finished, it’s completely dark. I stick my head out of the hatch, take a good look across the sea and that’s when I see it: a bright light, a spotlight! Is it fishermen? Pirates? Are they getting closer? What should I do? “Alex, turn off all the lights in the cabin,” I shout quickly. And so we turn into a black blur.

Other sailors – especially Americans – have weapons on board for a case like this. We don’t. We have a pepper spray, flares and a couple of knives. So what do we do if the light gets closer, if it’s fishermen looking for an easy catch? I hide our dollars, our cell phones and our laptops, but it’s clear to both of us: if pirates climb aboard with weapons, we don’t stand a chance, we’ll give them whatever they want.

Mabul races invisibly through the night

We feverishly consider what to do next. Alex tapes off the light on the dinghy, then we sit down together in the companionway and make a radical course change. If anyone follows us, we want them to lose us. We watch the light and are relieved to see that it is getting smaller and weaker. Good luck. Alex lies down. It’s enough for someone to keep watch.

I watch the night and curse the moon, which has emerged from behind the clouds, stands brightly in the sky and makes our white sails shine. It only disappears behind the horizon around midnight. Now nothing but black envelops us. But there! Another light! And another one! More and more lights appear, but they are further away than the first, these are mere shadows of light. I let Mabul circle back and forth, always keeping enough distance from the lights, always hoping that they won’t come any closer. But it is an oppressive feeling that creeps over me, we alone on the Black Sea.

I wake Alex at three in the morning. Changing of the guard. He takes over, I go to sleep. When I take over the watch again at 6 a.m., there are no more fishing boats far and wide. We are now over 120 nautical miles from the coast and instead of fishing boats, I see cargo ships crossing our course. Rarely have I felt so much relief at the sight of them.

Alex tells me how he saw a red light in the distance, how he thought it might be the port light of another boat, thought he knew it was far away, but then, poof, it sped past Mabul and was gone. We still don’t know what it was, but one thing is clear: it’s almost impossible to estimate distances at night.

The day slowly passes and a new night begins. Then we see a bright light in the distance, red and green buoys. The entrance to the bay of Providencia! We are there! At midnight we drop anchor, happy, relieved and exhausted.

Mabul is safely anchored off Providencia

In the morning we see the lovely bay, which seems to surround and protect us with its hills. No wonder Providencia used to be popular with pirates and sailors! The famous English pirate Henry Morgan lived on the island in the 17th century – or so the legend goes. Today, a rock right at the entrance to the bay is named after Morgan, Morgan’s Head.

Lizards instead of bullets, very appealing

Old cannons are still aimed at the entrance to the bay. Today, it is not bullets that are fired from them, but large lizards sticking their heads out of the barrels into the sun. Only a few boats are moored in the bay, including two French boats. We say hello, have a coffee and swap stories. The French have sailed the same route as us, but during the day and even closer to Nicaragua’s coast than us. The crew from one of the boats says they were followed by a fishing boat for half an hour. The others say that a fishing boat came straight towards them, but then, shortly before they met, the fishermen turned off, waving. Both crews were terrified, just like us.

The first shore excursion together with SV My Motu

Twelve hours after dropping anchor in Providencia, our friends from SV My Motu turn around the reef. It’s raining cats and dogs, but Jeroen is standing at the anchor locker waving cheerfully. They set sail from the US Virgin Islands and had been underway for ten days. But as soon as they drop anchor, we sail over. The reunion after a year is wonderful! There is so much to tell, so much to share and so many new things to experience together. We plan to spend the next two weeks, Christmas and New Year, in Providencia, then we want to go to Panama together.

Alex is staying with Mabul, which is comforting. When I get back, there will still be plenty of work to do on the boat, but we will already be closer to our next adventure: we want to cross the Pacific next year. Crazy really.


Distance covered: 608 nm
Travel time: 3 days 13.5 hours
Average speed: 7,0 kt
Engine hours: 1 hour

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