Update # 20 – Hugging the beach in Nicaragua

[Costa Rica 10 33.648N 85 41.649W]

Greetings all! I just knew our last run was going to be a wild one….

We left Barillas at 6:30am yesterday morning, to start the 225 mile run from El Salvador to Costa Rica. To leave the marina we had to be guided 10 miles out of the river by a panga.

The pilot boat service is free, but tips are warmly received. Coming into the marina, it was easy to tip the panga driver, but leaving the marina I wasn’t sure how I could physically give him his tip. I meant to give it to him before we untied from the mooring buoys, but in all the excitement of getting underway, I forgot. Once we exited the river and were in open ocean, I realized I now had a challenge. The ocean was too rough to try bring the panga alongside. Jeff said “Just put the money in a zip lock bag and toss it in the water. He’ll figure it out.” Thus, I put $20 into a baggie (possibly too high a tip), and blew it up like a balloon, and tossed it in the water. It worked! Within seconds he gave me a big smile and a thumbs up.

We then made the big left turn to the south, and started our journey to Costa Rica.

I have a weather router who has guided us for thousands of miles perfectly (Bob Jones, OMNI). Bob’s recommendation for our run was optimistic, but not without caution. There are two major weather systems one must be aware of as you venture south along central America. The first is the T-peckers in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, and the second is the Papagayo winds. The Papagayo winds, as I understand it, are not quite as violent, but are more frequent.

Bob had warned me that we would be likely to see north-east winds in the 10-15 knot range, with gusts to 25 knots. This sounded pretty good.

The first few hours of our trip were smooth. The wind was from the west, at only 5-10 knots, and behind us. The only major annoyance was that we were bucking a 2-3 knot current. We had predicted that we would have to make the run at 8 knots, but now realized it was going to be a long night running at 6.5 to 7.5 knots.

The first sign of trouble showed itself as giant stripes on the radar. It looked like huge squalls that stretched for miles. As we approached these squalls, the wind started switching around from the west, to the south, and then to the north east. As it moved, it also increased in speed. At first we convinced ourselves it wasn’t a big deal. After all, we have a large Nordhavn, and 25 knots doesn’t seem like a big deal. I’ve been in higher winds a few times without incident. My understanding of wind strength is that it is not a straight line progression. In other words, the force generated by a 20 knot wind is far more than double what a 10 knot wind might generate. I’ve been in 40 knot winds a few times, and was miserable, but never felt unsafe.

As the wind came around to the north east, it’s appearance on the radar switched to a normal squall (storm) pattern, that seemed to surround us for about six miles in every direction. The wind speed was only 15 knots, and about 30 degrees off our port bow (meaning the wind was coming from slightly in front and to the left of us). I wouldn’t think we would feel anything at 15 knots, but we were getting beaten up! The waves were only 4-6 feet tall, but close together and cresting. It seemed to be an awkward wave height and period. As I said, I’ve been in much higher wind, and much higher swells, but for some reason, this particular pattern was not feeling good. The boat was taking significant water over the bow every few minutes, and we were pitching quite a bit. I have a pitch meter on my Airmar weather station, and we were pitching plus and minus 11 degrees. This doesn’t sound like much, but when it is relentless, it really isn’t much fun.

To reach Costa Rica from El Salvador you need to run past Nicaragua. I have heard everything from “Beware the drug runners” to “Beware the military!” to even “You’ll love it!” I didn’t know what to expect, but my gut was telling me that it was a country best bypassed. Our plan had been to run 15-25 miles off the shore of Nicaragua.

For the first twelve hours of our voyage we ran 17 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, inside the “squall” that didn’t really seem to be anything more than a wind storm. We kept expecting heavy rain, but it never came. The wind was rising steadily, and we were pitching non-stop. I’m getting a little sea sick typing this paragraph and remembering!

I had been advised by Bob the weather router that if the swell seemed too rough I should run closer to shore. The Papagayo winds come from the Caribbean, cross the land and then go into the Pacific. By getting closer to shore, the winds are still there, but the “fetch” is lessened. Wind, as it passes over the water creates waves. Closer to shore these waves are tiny, and as you move farther offshore they become increasingly larger. If you are far enough out to sea they become giant “rollers” far enough apart to smoothly ride up and down. We needed to get into shore where the waves would be smaller.

We really didn’t want to do this, as the high winds had whipped the sea into a state where the radar was mostly useless, and I had a deep-rooted fear of being too close to the beach off Nicaragua.

As the winds increased, from 15 to 20 to 25 to 30, my reluctance to run the beach dissolved. I know that 30 knots isn’t really an enormous amount of wind – but, this goes to show that not all 30 knot winds are born equally. This was a 30 knot wind that felt worse than 50 knot winds I’ve experienced (in this same boat!). It only took a few moments at 30 knots before I said “OK … let’s hug the beach.” I think the problem was that we had a strong (2-3 knot) current coming from the east, with a north east wind, and a swell from the south west.

As Bob had predicted, the closer we were to the beach, the smoother our run was. We settled on 5 miles offshore. This gave a good compromise of a much better ride while still maintaining a reasonable distance offshore. My fears of run-ins with fisherman, military, pangas, nets, etc were all unfounded. The Papagayo winds had frightened everyone but us away. For nearly 200 miles we never saw another boat.

The winds close to the shore diminished a bit, but still seemed much higher than my weather station indicated. We ran most of the night at 20-25 knots of wind. Although the pitching had subsided, the seas were still confused enough to throw a never-ending stream of sheets of water over the bow sideways. Usually, when standing watch at night, I like to step outside every half hour or so, to visually look for lights of boats that might not be showing on the radar. We still tried to do this, but now, this ritual was a bit more complicated. We had to open the downwind door, very carefully, as it would slam from the pitching motion, then hang onto the door jam, and the rail, and scan the horizon as best we could.

Roberta and I took turns with Jeff and Kirt, every four hours, throughout the run. It was a VERY long night. Maybe it was that we knew this was our last major passage, or maybe it was the wind – but, the night seemed as though it would never end.

As daylight came, our moods also brightened.

As we entered Costa Rica, the surrounding hills provided a barrier to the wind. We were still seeing 15 knots, but the seas were calm. Here you see our first view of Costa Rica. We dropped anchor in the north of Costa Rica, in Bahia de Calebra, at Coco Beach.

Roberta and I spent the day in town trying to get us cleared into the country, which is a long boring story. That said, there is one thing I should comment on. I have been asked virtually everywhere by the customs and immigration people for a free t-shirt. Today’s guy was a little more creative, in that he said he wanted a t-shirt but would rather have a captain’s hat. Roberta and I goofed and did not load on t-shirts. My advice: If you are travelling internationally, in this part of the word – BRING LOTS OF SHIP’S-LOGO T-SHIRTS! You will use them. To leave El Salvador I had to give the immigration guy my Fubar rally shirt (only slightly worn) and a Magadalena Bay t-shirt. I’m not sure what I will give to the immigration officer tomorrow. I need to think of something.

I’ll close this email with this picture from dinner tonight. Roberta and I dined on the upper aft deck, celebrating our arrival in Costa Rica, and the weather was perfect! As you can tell in this photo, I’m still a bit trashed from running all night. Roberta, on the other hand, seems to recover much faster.

Tomorrow, we start a new phase of the trip: gunk holing. We’re going to slow down, and start working our way slowly down the coast of Costa Rica, from anchorage to anchorage. On Monday we’ll arrive at Los Suenos, where we’ll drop off the crew to fly home, and start a month of cruising alone.

One fun thing for tomorrow: I believe we’ll catch up with another group of Nordhavn’s! There is a group that we’ve been following down the coast; Alanui (Nordhavn 40), Paloma (Nordhavn 43) and some other boats (I’m not sure who). I’m hoping we all have dinner together tomorrow night, and can compare notes. I expect I’ll have some interesting stories to report.

Thank you,

Ken Williams

Responses to your email (send your questions to: kenw @ seanet.com )

Hi Ken,

We were planning on stopping by your boat this morning to say hello and introduce ourselves and low and behold you were pulling out as we woke up this morning – following the panga and waving to us on your way out! We are on the green hulled “homebuilt” trawler a boat or two behind you in Barillas.

We know many of the same “boats” that you do, in particular Joan & Roger from New Paige (55′ Nordhavn) who we are very good friends with. We always thought Roger was the gadget guy but he’s told us that you put him to shame!! He said we needed to stop by your boat if we were ever in the same anchorage and say hello. We traveled with them for a while when we all came to Mexico a few years back when they were on their Nordhavn 40. We (Dreamweaver) went as far as Manzanillo in 2006, then about the time Joan & Roger sold their 40 and ordered their new 55 footer, we turned around and went up the coast to the PNW and Alaska for a year.

We were all hoping New Paige II would be ready and we could all come down the coast together again…. much to their chagrin their boat wasn’t ready:( We came down the coast about the same time as the FUBAR and made many of the same stops you guys did. Our sister and brother-in-law on Wandering Star (a Selene 43′) were on the rally as were many of our other friends, some of who I think you know (Sonjero, Wayward Wind, Voyager, etc.) We’re now in Barillas heading to the Canal.

We would have stopped by to say hello earlier but we were inland for 10 days, touring on our Motorcycle, which we carry on our flybridge. We went all around Guatamala (1,300 miles to be exact!) and agree that Antigua was one of the most special places we visited. Glad you didn’t miss it!!

Well perhaps we will see you and Roberta somewhere in Costa Rica or down the line and get to say hello in person.

Safe travels,
Ken & Dottie

PS – Great pictures on your blog … how do you get them so big and clear yet not take forever to send and/or download them??

+++ Sorry we missed you! During most of our stay in Barillas, we were the only ones there. We saw several boats, but no people. We’ll be based out of Los Suenos for most of the next month, and usually will monitor 16 and 22, so give us a call as you get closer.

+++ As to the pictures, I don’t always do as good a job as I should, but generally, I compress them down to about 30k before including them in the emails. Most photo editing programs have options to resize and compress pictures. I use a program called Ember, from a company that has now gone out of business. Too bad – their program was great!

+++ I’m amazed you can put a motorcycle capable of running you 1,300 miles through Guatemala on the fly bridge of your boat. I need to see that! A very cool idea!


I am glad your trip is going well. I am enjoying the updates as always, but I seem to get them twice. Not a big deal to me, but I thought I would let you know. Continued best wishes Scott

+++ I’m painfully aware that multiple copies of my emails are sometimes being sent. I thought I had it fixed. We’ll see what happens with today’s email. One of the major headaches of the cruising lifestyle is that I go long periods without “real” internet access. I am also hitting lots of firewall issues, where I’ll seem to have a decent internet connection but then discover that some of my programs won’t run. I haven’t noticed a flood of cancellations on the mailing list, so luckily everyone is being good sports about it.

Hi Ken,

I was surprised at your “guilt” about jaunting off to Antigua. OK, if you had guests aboard it would be different but this is what you hired crew for isn’t it? And aren’t you looking for a guy to care take Sans Souci during pauses in your circumnavigation? Seriously though, you do need to harden your heart a bit. It is your boat after all and they make their living as crew so where is the problem?

Mind you, back in the 70’s & 80’s when I ran IT for Mercedes Benz in Australia & New Zealand I worked for the Finance Director & we often shared flights to Stuttgart. However, the german parent company had some pretty strict rules about overseas travel so we would part at Emigration & he’d go off to the 1st Class Lounge & I’d remain in the normal transit lounge. We’d meet up for a beer or two at Singapore & New Delhi en route and again at Frankfurt but it never entered his head to get me upgraded or to down grade himself! Luckily, after a few years, the rules got relaxed a bit though Directors stayed in 1st class, Senior Managers got to go Business but junior managers and workers stayed in Economy.

I’m looking forward to your adventures in Costa Rica.


+++ I said I felt guilty, not that I plan to change anything! I can see how people get spoiled by having crew around. Yesterday when we arrived at the anchorage Roberta wanted me to get the internet running so that she could check her email. Within the few minutes it took to get her going the crew had already dropped the tender, and were well into washing down the boat (which was VERY salty). They then gave me a lift to the beach so that I could go clear customs, and picked me when I called them on the VHF. Karl (the chef) was already well into making dinner when I returned. Roberta and I are looking forward to time alone, but we are definitely going to be sad to see these guys go.

+++ As you mentioned, we were looking for a full-time crew-person, and came very close to hiring someone. At the last minute we met Jeff Sanson (Pacific Yacht Management). Jeff has a few clients like us who usually want to cruise alone, but then need someone who can make about anything happen on short notice. This sounds terrible, but my goal is to “cherry pick” the good bits about cruising, and leave as much of the rest as I can to Jeff. Thus far the relationship has worked very well. Once we start the circumnavigation, things may change, although perhaps not. I need to be able to call and say “The boat is in Malaysia, and Roberta and I want to go home for a week. Can you send someone to watch over the boat?” My guess is Jeff will be able to send someone.


Yours is the best site I have ever seen regarding the issues I am facing in getting to know my new N55. It all seems so very familiar, and your honesty and a bit of self deprecation make it so enjoyable in seeing how things are developing with your quest. I think I have become a bit of a gun at berthing after 4000nm, but the other day my wife and I were attempting to back out after slipping lines from the port tie up into a narrow fairway at the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, and was faced with what I thought was a transmission failure, until I realized the polishers had put on an extra bow line on the stb side. The only person around the time was a friend on a boat behind us and he didn’t see the drama until I told him a week later. Ego restored, but I kicked my butt hard imagining it happened when all YC members were watching how the big shot with the big boat handled it.

Just another pointer re the surprise tidal current you had on the river apart from the SOG vs SOW shown on the log. What revs were you pulling at your 9 kts? My boat does 8.5 kts in benign conditions at 1800 RPM, but getting in the Eastern Australian current one night we hit 13 kts momentarily at 1800 RPM, so we new the speed of the current, and this had us coming into port at 0300 instead of 0730. My B&G log hasn’t worked since day one, and I’m not game to pull it out to inspect until I take my first haul out.

Margaret and I are racking our brains on how to overcome the Shelby issue in Oz, but will hopefully see you in Darwin harbor just prior to the Sailindonesia Rally next year. You could clear customs and leave Shelby on board with a dog sitter roster we could arrange during briefings etc. Keep up the great postings, we love receiving them. Peter

+++ Grin. I should probably not be quite so candid about some of my mistakes, but I figure that if my mistakes can help someone else avoid making the same mistakes, then it is all worthwhile. Plus, it is incredible how many good ideas I’ve received as a result of my blog. It is very rare that I mention a problem in my blog and don’t immediately receive a collection of emails with solutions.

+++ It is suddenly looking good for us to do the Indonesia rally in 2009! That said, there is also momentum towards waiting for 2010 to do the rally. As soon as things slow down here (next week) Roberta and I will start seriously studying a new option we are considering. There’s another Nordhavn (Grey Pearl) who has mentioned running the Aleutians to Japan next summer. This sounds fun, and avoids the long passage to the south pacific. I haven’t really studied the route, and don’t know how serious Grey Pearl is about making the run. I should know more next week, but it looks promising.

+++ We’ll be doing Alaska this summer. I’ve had trouble adjusting to currents on this boat, and Alaska cruising will be a real lesson in currents. As you said, I am starting to get enough of a knowledge base on this boat to be able to mentally correlate rpms to speed. If we aren’t doing the speed I expect for a given rpm, then that tells me the current.

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