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Liza Copeland
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Cruising the Bay Islands

On Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands, water taxis abound, ferrying passengers from one idyllic spot to another.
Often overlooked by cruising sailors, the Central American country of Honduras borders the Caribbean Sea between Guatemala and Nicaragua. Although its mainland coast is not particularly hospitable to sailors, the Bay Islands off the northern shore are a cruiser’s paradise. Located some 20 to 30 miles offshore and ranging for 75 miles, the group has three main islands, Guanaja, Roatán and Utila, and several small cays, notably the Cayos Cochinos. Utila, to the west, is low-lying and perched on the edge of the 100-fathom line, while Roatán and Guanaja are hilly, both rising straight out of the ocean depths and ringed by a fringing reef. Blessed with a climate cooled by the trades, a variety of excellent anchorages and an English and Spanish speaking populace unspoiled by tourism, the islands exude an old-world charm.

Rising to 1,300 feet, Guanaja can be sighted several miles off and as the many offshore cays came into focus Andy found the quick-flashing green light at Pond Cay that marks the entrance to the channel. It had been difficult to spot with the town, called The Settlement, behind.

“It seems strange that the main town is on a small cay, with the island itself so deserted,” I commented.

“It must be because the terrain is so steep,” he replied. “But I agree, and the houses are so crammed together many seem to be toppling into the water.” Later we learned that many of the original waterfront properties had been completely washed away during the 1998 Hurricane Mitch. Several cayuco-sized waterways crisscross the town, which lies on two cays named Hog and Shin, giving homes access by water as well as by the narrow walkways. As we made our way to the Port Captain’s office the town exuded character with its busy shops and wooden homes often perched on stilts.

The Port Captain was looking at his watch as we entered. It was 3:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon! After studying our documents carefully, his face lit up. “Your exit papers from San Andreas say your landfall is Roatán,” he commented. “Yes,” we replied. “The officials insisted on putting Roatán. Does it matter? We’re leaving for Roatán on Sunday, but understood this was also a Port of Entry.” He was beaming now. “Leaving on Sunday, no problem. Enjoy Guanaja and clear in at Roatán next week.”

Located off the northern coast of Honduras, the Islas de Bahia (Bay Islands) remain one of the lesser known gems in the western Caribbean.
As we waited in line at the bank, a couple who we had met some years before rushed up. They had just finished building on the northeast coast, they told us, when Mitch hit, so they had watched from a ditch while the 180-knot winds flattened their home, flinging the debris over the hill.

The hurricane’s path was quite extraordinary,” they told us. “It was originally forecast to hit Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, but it deflected south and the eye tracked backwards and forwards off Guanaja for three days. Unbelievably, while we were being devastated the west end of Roatán was barely affected.”

They suggested we go round to El Bight, as it is a sheltered anchorage with good holding, pleasant beaches and an interesting community of former cruisers now living ashore.

Touring around the bay on arrival we found the many wrecks quite eerie. A German sailboat was up on the beach with no keel but there was a power cable to it. Did someone still live aboard, we wondered? Derelict fishing and transportation boats had been run up the beach and were rusting away. There was a wooden sailing vessel for sale with an extreme bend in its mast, and a fiberglass boat on its side; although the mast and fittings were intact the Aries windvane had been stripped.

There were just two other yachts at anchor, one German and the other Canadian, also from Vancouver. That evening we were all warmly welcomed at the Hotel Manatee, where many of the settlers, mostly German, British, and Canadian, were gathered. Several had sheltered here during the hurricane and they joked, “Although the roof on the top floor was blown off our biggest concern was running out of rum!”

Despite several days of punishing winds courtesy of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the beaches that rim the Bay Islands appear much as they did when Columbus anchored here 500 years earlier.
The barometer was still at 1020. The northerly front we had been watching had supposedly passed to the east and the forecast was for 25 to 30 knots of wind. We decided to leave as it was only a short trip of about 20 miles to Roatán and it was deceivingly calm in the anchorage! Transiting through the reef was tricky and the passage between the islands in the big, sloppy waves extraordinarily uncomfortable, but soon we were in the lee of, Roatán, the largest of the Bay Islands at 28 miles long and between two and four miles wide. Its north coast is surrounded by reefs that rise from the deep ocean bed, and the few passages that give access to protected anchorages are not accessible in a northerly. In contrast the south coast has several fine inlets that cut back into the steep hills. Protected by a shallow reef, they offer a choice of many secure anchorages.

We decided on Port Royal, a two-and-a-half-mile bay backed by lush vegetation, and headed to the west side where there were several other yachts. We’d barely anchored ourselves when a powerboat came alongside.

“Hi, fellow Canadians. Would you like to go down the coast for lunch?”

“Sounds great,” we chorused. A quick batten-down and lock-up and we roared off to Jonesville, coming alongside the Hole in the Wall pub. Standing on stilts, perched over the water, the bar and restaurant were humming. During a huge buffet-style late lunch we met several other yachties and ex-pats. One of the group was the owner of a small marina in Oak Ridge, where we hoped to do a good scrub-down and laundry before our next guest arrived, so arrangements were easily made.

The Hole in the Wall pub in Jonesville on Roatan is a popular watering hole for locals and cruisers alike.
The following day the owners of the powerboat took us ashore to their attractive home. Doors, frames and much of their furniture had been fashioned by Honduran carvers from the mainland, and the woodwork, artistry and subtle coloring were stunning. Each guestroom portrayed a different theme with fishes, lizards and gorgonians all depicted in real-life scenes.

The port of Oak Ridge is just five miles along the coast and after entering the channel at right angles, as instructed, we continued into the bay for the night. Not only was Bagheera soon hard aground in the mud, we were immediately surrounded by dugout canoes and while some kids frantically bailed their boats others were chanting, “Give us a dollar.”

As we backed off the gooey bottom I had a flashback of the wonderful welcome and gifts of fruit or fish that we had been given on previous travels and was saddened. Finally I told them. “I’m happy to pay you for a service, but you shouldn’t expect me to give you money for nothing.” One of the boys clinging to our topsides turned to his friends, “I told you so. That’s what my mum said!”

"When we left there was a cluster of canoes astern with each kid holding out a hand for their ration, their faces alight with engaging smiles. We were fascinated that these children spoke English, albeit a patois, when Spanish is the Honduran language."
There was instant laughter, then many suggestions for work and services poured forth. I gave them some lampiras (the local currency) and a huge box of Corn Flakes, left over from the Christmas invasion by our boys, after they did some chores for us the next day. When we left there was a cluster of canoes astern with each kid holding out a hand for their ration, their faces alight with engaging smiles. We were fascinated that these children spoke English, albeit a patois, when Spanish is the Honduran language. The reason was easily explained. Although Columbus visited Guanaja on his fourth visit to the New World in 1502, the Spanish settlements never prospered and the area became a refuge for the many British explorers, as well as some French and Dutch pirates who preyed on the treasure fleets of the Spanish Main. Henry Morgan made his base in Port Royal in the mid-seventeenth century and at that time it is estimated that there were 5,000 pirates in residence. Later more British arrived to work the mainland forests, contributing to a further white English-speaking population.

The Spanish shipped the indigenous Maya and Aztec islanders to work in the plantations of Cuba and mines of Mexico, so the British introduced black Caribs, a racial mix of Carib Indians, Africans, and Europeans, from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Many of their descendents now live in picturesque fishing villages here, in clapboard houses perched on piles. Wandering down the main pathway later we realized that the steep hills were indeed the reason that these communities are right at the water’s edge.

The sea was glassy calm as we motored to French Harbour, the second largest town in Roatán after Coxen Hole, and the center for a large, modern fishing, shrimp, and lobster fleet. After anchoring, we jumped in to snorkel around and get some relief from the intense heat. Down below all the fans were on, and the windscoops rigged on deck to catch any breeze we could.

We had been planning to go to the well-known French Harbour Yacht Club. Although we were beckoned to the dock, the club was closed as it was changing hands, so we took a cab to Coxen Hole to complete the required formalities. The officials were pleasant and efficient and we could clear in and out simultaneously, although having been told the clearance fee was $30.00 it was somewhat of a shock when Immigration, Customs and the Municipal fees totaled $91.00.

The author and her family enjoy the waters off the western end of Roatan, a diver's paradise.
The west end of Roatán is a cruiser’s and diver’s paradise—a turquoise bay bordered by white sands laced with palms—it became our favorite part of the island, although not a sheltered anchorage for a northerly. To add to the charm as we approached the entrance, Bagheera was surrounded by dolphins. Large and light in color, as always they were an exhilarating sight as they leapt in unison at the bow.

As we closed on the entrance, a dinghy came rushing out of the pass. “You must pass the entrance stake very close to port,” said Bruce, who we had ‘met’ on the Northwest Caribbean Radio Net. “Then immediately turn hard port to avoid a coral head.” The water was exceptionally clear and it seemed we’d go aground at any moment, but all was well and Andy was truly relieved when we finally anchored in 10 feet, even if it did look like two!

Such clear water demanded an immediate snorkel and it was an amazing sight with the beautiful coral gardens, fish, and acres of queen conch that were over 25 feet down, appearing as though they were just in front of one’s eyes. After that it was time to get going, but after several perfect days it was hard to leave this idyllic setting. A change in weather made the decision for us. Sadly the dark skies and rain squalls did not bode well for a visit to the recommended Cayos Cochinos, especially as we had heard that one was not permitted anchor, but had to tie to mooring buoys that are quite suspect. Instead, we pointed Bagheera westward to visit Utila. Here the large Bay of Puerto Este gave good shelter although we had to search hard for the channel markers. As we walked along the concrete path lined with old homes and colorful gardens, strains of conversation came from the many groups crowding the dive shops, all eagerly discussing the day’s activities and plans for tomorrow.

An early start took us to the popular diving areas to the west past Suck-suck and Pigeon Cays, more simply known as ‘Up’ and ‘Down’, that are picturesquely crowded with more clapboard houses on stilts. It took a while to find a sandy spot to anchor, but we were amply rewarded with dramatic coral drop-offs teeming fish, a true representation of the extension of the Belize barrier reef to the north. This has the reputation of being the cheapest place in the world to get a diving certificate, and what a great place to do it!

Paradise Found

For additional information on Central American cruising destinations, have a look a Liza Copeland's earlier articles, Cruising Beautiful Belize and The Rio Dulce Beckons. She's also written about these destinations in her latest book, Comfortable Cruising, Around North and Central America. 

Additional information can be found in Honduras and the Bay Islands, a Mariner’s Guide by Rick Rhodes, or The Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean by Nigel Calder.

Suggested Reading:

The Rio Dulce Beckons by Liza Copeland

Cruising Beautiful Belize by Liza Copeland

An Island in the Stream by John Kretschmer

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