miércoles, 3 de junio de 2009

San Juan del Sur—A Rainy Season Initiation

On the morning of May 22 I fired up Avventura’s engine and pulled away from Marina Puesta del Sol. The current in the lagoon was less fierce this time around, but did help scoot us back into open water where a 10 knot southeast breeze was blowing—nearly the exact direction we needed to head. The wind remained on the nose for a full twenty-four hours, bouncing around from southeast to south-southwest and back again and hovering around ten knots. Unable to make much headway motoring into it we motorsailed around the wind, tacking back and forth until the sun came out the following day and the wind disappeared.
No wind—no problem. As the clock struck noon lunch arrived right on cue. Ryan reeled in a small dorado and within an hour it was cooked and eaten—fresh fish at its finest. As the day wore on I became concerned that we might not make San Juan del Sur by nightfall. I worked the engine a bit harder than usual and was happy to see the seas lay down before us. By three o’clock the side-effects of a beautiful sunny day were visible on the horizon as massive cumulonimbus clouds towered overhead dousing the sea below with rain and rumbling with thunder. An hour later I turned the radar on and watched as the thunderstorm bore down on us. Watching a squall approach on radar is like walking through the ghetto with shiny jewelry, waving a wad of cash—you know something bad is coming, but it’s hard to know just how bad it’ll be. Just after 1600 I was given an idea of the extent of the squall. We were still five miles from our destination, and all five would be spent in the midst of this ferocious beast.
The rain began in big heavy drops, and as it approached on the water I was reminded of the “rainsticks” I’d played with in my youth. Gradually the drops increased and I ducked below to put on a light jacket. (One common mistake people make is to assume that it is never cold in the tropics. Quite the contrary. Tropic rain is just as cold as rain elsewhere, and spending even a short amount of time exposed to it can leave you shivering.) As I returned to the cockpit the deluge had begun. The big drops seemed to merge into an endless stream of water, and Avventura’s scuppers were flowing with fresh water.
The deluge cleansed me in body and spirit and I transformed into a sort of primal beast. I began screaming and hooting like a wild Injun, inventing my own little rain dance, modified to fit the tight confines of the cockpit. My cousin sat below in the dry comforts of the cabin, looking up at me like I was crazy. Meanwhile my spirit exulted in what was perhaps the heaviest rain I’d ever seen, and my instincts cried out in jubilation.
But as the squall persisted with no end in sight on the radar screen a decision had to be made—enter port with very limited visibility, or risk spending another night at sea. Having passed one sleepless night already, I opted for the former and abbreviated my jig as I took Avventura’s wheel. By comparing the contours of the land on my chart with what I was seeing on my radar screen I was able to inch closer to land. Once I was within a half mile of solid ground I forced Ryan up onto the foredeck to be my eyes. Now unfortunately San Juan del Sur is not a deep gouge in the Nicaraguan coastline, but rather a gentle half-moon bay, and I first mistook an indent to the north for its entrance. When land was just a couple hundred yards away a black hulk emerged from the rain—“Land Ho!” My first reaction was to turn a full 180, but instinct gave way to reason and I followed the cliff south, found the entrance to the bay, and inched slowly in. Ryan called out the location of the various anchored and moored vessels, and with visibility under 100 yards we crawled in to an empty area and dropped the hook. As the chain rattled out its rumble mingled with the smacking of rain on the surface of the sea to form a riotous melody. When 150 feet of chain were down I backed down, set the anchor, and gave a massive hoot of relief. We had arrived!
The rain persisted for another thirty minutes before blue skies formed over the land and made their way out to sea. By sunset the squall was a distant memory, barely visible on the western horizon, leaving windless, unstable air behind. The squall had brought heavier rain than I’ve ever experienced and created the lowest visibility I’ve ever had at sea; but strangely there was no wind associated with it unlike most of its tropical brethren, and as I would soon learn, it lacked the scary punch of the beast that is lightning.

The storm’s arrival was heralded by sudden gusts of wind exceeding twenty-five knots, and in minutes the rain arrived with a vengeance. In the temperate latitudes rain usually builds up its strength, starting off as a drizzle and gathering strength till it is a steady downpour; but such is not always the case in the tropics. This thunderstorm hit of a sudden, and I went from dry to drenched in a matter of minutes. Big drops fell in steady streaks washing the decks clean and soaking through my jacket in no time. Though land was less than a mile away the squall hid it from sight, and I feared making a blind arrival. The miles ticked away and the fury of the squall continued. With the arrival of the rain the wind had disappeared, and by the looks of the radar screen the squall was hardly moving. Luckily it didn’t pack much of an electrical charge, and but few rumbles of thunder were heard; but it packed plenty of rain, and the downpour was unlike any I’d witnessed.
As Avventura crept ever closer to her destination I stood at the helm, guiding her in towards San Juan del Sur with the radar as my eyes. Visibility was little more than a hundred yards, and the anchorage made but a slight indentation in the coastline. I mistook a tiny gouge north of it to be the bay, and all of a sudden a thick black hulk loomed above through the rain. The cliff was less than a quarter mile away when I turned hard to starboard. I questioned whether or not I should put to sea and wait for the squall to pass, but the radar screen showed no signs of the end and doing so would risk making landfall at night—an even worse proposition. Knowing the bay was clear of obstructions if approached from the southwest, I ran south across its entrance till the south point came into view before turning and heading in. Ryan stood on the bow peering into the whiteout, and pointing out mooring buoys and anchored vessels. I led Avventura to a clearing behind a sailboat in the northern end of the bay, and when the depth-sounder registered thirty feet ordered Ryan to drop the hook. The sound of the chain rumbling out was a sweet relief, and when I felt Avventura swing to the anchor I breathed a sigh of relief. Just then a gust of wind struck, the rain began to ease, and blue skies formed inland. The squall was over; but we were safely anchored in our final Nicaraguan port-of-call.

A childhood friend of mine, Eric Ludwig, who I hadn’t seen in a handful of years had moved to San Juan del Sur with his family, and told me to look him up when I arrived. Before I could even think of doing so a man in a dinghy rowed over from the sailboat anchored nearby. He introduced himself as Bob and asked if I were friends with the Ludwigs. When I said I was he said he was also friends with the family and had been keeping an eye out for me the past few days. He pointed out the Ludwig’s house to me perched on a hill above the southeast corner of the bay, warned me of the dominant hard offshore winds, and we talked for a while before the rain started anew and he rowed back to his sloop.
Hearing of the offshore winds (the locals say it blows over twenty knots offshore 300 days a year), I let out an additional fifty feet of chain giving me seven-to-one scope, and as I was putting on the cover of the mainsail a small open boat with wording on the side declaring it to be the Nicaragua Navy pulled up beside me. There were a handful of men aboard but no guns in sight. One man held the boat off while another asked to come aboard for an inspection. I obliged. Two men climbed aboard and the boat shoved off and began circling in the bay.
While I showed one official my documentation the other called the port captain for me on the radio and checked us in with him. I was asked if I had any guns on board and when I said I did not they seemed to relax a bit. While one obtained copies of my ship’s document and both our passports the other looked through a few drawers before declaring himself satisfied. The left less than fifteen minutes after they’d arrived and declared us checked into the port. I thanked the navy for their help, and saw them off Avventura. Night was descending and it was high time I get some sleep.

San Juan del Sur is not the place to go to get a good idea of life in Central America. The town is filled with expatriates from all over the world, and some half the population aren’t Nicaraguans by birth. This gives the town a touristy look and feel far different from the undeveloped north, and makes it difficult to taste the flavor of the country. The region has become a bustling hub of surf travel boasting numerous good breaks within driving (or boating) distance, and this only adds to the foreign feel. As soon as I set foot ashore I new the place was different.
Ryan and I ran into Eric while walking towards his house, and it was immediately obvious he was prepared to serve as our hosts and tour guides. Ryan and I spent the next five days sleeping ashore at the Ludwig’s beautiful home overlooking the bay and exploring the region with Eric. We surfed a couple different spots, saw troops of monkeys, visited Lake Nicaragua, and went to the Costa Rican border to check out of the country. We ate delicious home-cooked meals, took daily hot showers, and went out on the town at night. I tried to learn some Latin dance steps, but despite ample assistance from the local girls they never turned out right.
The highlight of our stay for me was the trip to Playa Yankee. A rough drive over dirt roads and through two dry riverbeds brought us down to the beach. Here fun head high waves rolled through, and a nice left formed off a pile of rocks at the south end of the beach. Backwash off the rocks caused the sets to jump up a couple extra feet, and there were many fun rides to be had with just a handful of people in the water. Then, on the drive back to town, we were cruising along on the road cut through a tunnel of trees when I spotted a monkey dangling from a branch above. Eric stopped the car and we watched a troop of 15 howler monkeys play and move about above our heads. When the monkeys grew complacent and dull and we moved on.
All things considered San Juan del Sur was a nice stop that very few cruisers pay a visit to. For the surfing sailor it is a must, and the anchorage provides good holding in perennial offshore winds. The cuisine is delicious and there is a strange, but in the end nice, blend of Nicaraguan culture with those of the many expatriates in the town. After being spoiled by the Ludwigs and four nights sleeping ashore it was hard to leave Nicaragua, but Costa Rica loomed on the horizon. In little more than a week our families would be flying in to join us in Guanacaste and I had two more stops in mind before we arrived there. Thus with the arrival of daylight on May 29th we picked up anchor and sailed the short trip from San Juan del Sur to the isolated Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica.

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