Close-Hauled South

A month of barrels and flat estuary water was hard to leave, but we were ready for the freedom and space of being at sea again.  We headed out into the infamous Papagayo section of the Nicaraguan coast with Costa Rica on the mind. Weather forecasts showed little to no offshore wind event when we planned to take-off for an over-nighter to Pie del Gigante, about 120nm South.

We had a beautiful day of easy light-wind sailing with dolphins riding the bow nearly all day. We saw for the first time pods of Pacific Spotted dolphin that have a long milky-way-type stripe coming off the eye and running down their side. The aerial maneuvers were all time and there were even babies. Baby dolpins! According to some random internet source the Pacific Spotted dolphin are known for their aerials, can travel in pods of 100 or more and live approximately 45 years.

Pacific spotted dolphins off the Nicaraguan coast

We pulled up the weather in the evening and not to our surprise, offshore winds were predicted through-out the lake region in the night so we decided to make the safe call and head in to anchor for the night. We were 4 miles out from El Transito, a little road-stead anchorage, and made the turn in. We arrived in the pitch black and laid the hook down in about 50 feet for the night. We saw gusts to 20+ knots in the night and were happy we made the call.

We pulled the hook early the next morning and decided to head only 18 miles to the next safe anchorage, Masachapa. Within 30 minutes we had put 1 reef in the main and were experiencing strong gusts from the ESE. Within an hour we had 2 reefs in the main and the jib half furled in and were making about 4 knots upwind into approximately 30 knot winds + gusts. We stayed very close to shore – a sandy stretch of beach – which reduced wave height dramatically and sailed on to Masachapa in about 35 feet of water. Despite the nuking offshores, we were under control and in good spirits experiencing our first real strong offshore wind event at sea… this was just the beginning. After a sleepless night at the poorly protected anchorage of masachapa we prepared the boat to enter the infamous lake-zone for what we called war-mode at dawn.

Weather forecasts indicated a windy day – an offshore gap wind event day. Let’s just say, if we had been in a decent anchorage, that we wouldn’t have left. To prepare for the 26 mile journey to Astillero – the next promising anchorage – we rigged our storm-jib and left the two reefs in main from the day before. We lashed all the crap on deck nice and tight and fired up the engine.

Within an hour of rounding of the point we were taking gusts to 30, we guess. Within a couple hours we were guessing more like 40 plus. Sustained winds were in the 30’s with gusts into the 40’s or more… When a violent gust would come tearing at us, we would dump the main when heeling became excessive. We both perched ourselves on the windward rail and stayed close to shore while trying to hold the tightest course possible down the coast. Although the winds were offshore, it was more like a SE event – wrapping up at us, for an upwind beat while being blown little by little out to sea. Once sufficiently blown out to sea, which was determined by the severity of smashing we were doing into on-coming waves, we would tack back towards shore, and as close as possible, before setting course again for the South.

Here’s a vid Andrew took with the iphone to try and capture the ruckus…

This went on all day. We averaged only 3 knots due to currents and our angle of sail. We also had the engine running the whole time. It was the only hope in making any reasonable head-way. We were often only getting readings of making 1 knot. It was pretty heartbreaking considering this coast is littered with rocks and other uncharted and un-mentioned hazards and arriving to Astillero before sundown was critical. Burying the bow into waves and taking spray on deck like a fire-hose into the cockpit was exciting but also a little scary at times.

After 10 hours of bashing, covered in salt and exhausted, having only some fraying and a small tear to the main sail we arrived to Astillero. Without even a close second… it was our most intense and challenging day of sailing yet.

Takin’ some bow spray… and a pic our friends took of us arriving with Arcturus in war-mode: reefed down main sail and storm jib

To our delight, two sailing boats were anchored in the bay – one of them was our friends on Dream Weaver who we had met at the last anchorage, also hailing from the famous Ventura County. Within moments of getting the anchor set we were boarded by two Nicaraguan Navy officials, carted out in a borrowed fishing boat that banged and scrapped against our hull, leaving plenty of unsightly blue paint marks.  It wasn’t an ideal scenario despite the un-describable relief of being in the bay. Exhausted and grateful we cleaned up the boat, which was seriously trashed from the passage, and hit the berth hard happy for a full night of sleep.

Another shot Dream Weaver got of us sailing into the anchorage

After having talked it out and calmed down, the experience – although a bit frustrating and scary – overall was a good one to test ourselves and our gear and the outcome is more confidence in our sailing ability, which is at least very satisfying.

We spent three nights waiting out the gale. The first two days the protected anchorage was filled with whitecaps and all three boats were tacking in the gusting winds. The swell had picked up dramatically and the sets rolling through the bay were breaking heavily to the South far out into the bay. Fortunately, rolling on the hook was not an issue because the winds kept the stern pointed into the swell.

This 50ft ketch was heeling like a small boat in the wind while at anchor…

Dream Weaver holding tight on the hook

The days passed quickly despite the howling rig and severe heeling in gusts. The winds finally calmed and we made it out of Astillero. It was a mass exodus. Dream Weaver, huge French Ketch, and us all pulled up the hooks and headed out before the sun came up. A nice light offshore was blowing and Arcturus was making 6 knots, slicing through the water, dolphins working the bow… it felt good to be back at sea! After a short day of sailing we entered the dramatic cliff-lined horse-shoe bay at San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua.

San Juan del Sur

4 Responses to “Close-Hauled South”
  1. Joaquin Corssen says:

    gnarly winds!!!!! gnarly Arcturus!! for holding tight into the hard smashing conditions… Thanks for sharing this amazing story and photos. Respect to these sailors!
    Stay safe and have fun!

  2. dude! We are going to be in San Juan Del Sur tomorrow, Ill scope the bay for you guys!

  3. Marie says:

    What an amazing adventure! Love to hear about your travels!

  4. steve reiss says:

    Andrew and Julie
    Bill gave me your website address today. Read about your adventures. Glad that you are living the dream. Send me an email. I will be flying to Panama in June. Take care…Steve Reiss

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