Monday, September 04, 2006

Central American Travelogue

The following is an account of an interesting adventure experienced by ΛΕΟΝΙΔΑΣ and his wife/first officer early in their cruising experience after his early retirement.

On 19 January 1980 at 10:00 hrs. after a week’s stay in the southernmost Mexican Pacific port of Puerto Madero our auxiliary sloop Leonidas was provisioned and fueled for the voyage to Punta Arenas, Costa Rica. We had obtained a despacho omitting stops in Guatemala and El Salvador due to ongoing political upheavals as well as Nicaragua which had during the previous 6 months experienced the installation of a Sandinista communist government after the revolution overthrowing Somoza. The anchor was weighed and mainsail set as Leonidas exited the harbor and headed east southeast in light winds for the expected 3+ day passage.

By sunset the wind was still light from the southeast and we continued motor sailing through the night with the lights of the coastal towns of Guatemala visible off the port rail. By sunrise on the 20th we were approaching the coast of El Salvador and the wind increased to 12 kts from the south enabling us to set the genoa headsail and kill the engine. During the day of 21 January the wind veered more to the southeast and increased to 15 kts forcing a course change closer inshore bringing us off the entrance to the Bay of Fonseca during the early evening. With the wind increasing to over 18 kts and from the southeast on the nose forcing us closer inshore we were 12 miles off the northwestern coast of Nicaragua by sunrise on 22 January.

The wind increased to 25 kts on the nose and headway was very slow. I checked the charts and decided to seek shelter in a shallow bight indicated as Puerto Somoza. We entered the cove and anchored in 15 ft of water about 1/4 mile from the beach at about 09:30 hrs. Ashore was a large construction project which we later learned was a power plant recently completed by Italians.There vas a small village on the beach but no human activity was visible.

I transferred 25 gallons of fuel from the jerry cans on deck to the fuel tank and we ate a light meal. By 14:00 hrs the wind had subsided and we decided to continue on as we had a sense of unease at the lack of activity ashore. We weighed anchor and set the mainsail as while motoring out of the cove. Just before 14:30 hrs we noted a small tug boat overhauling us from astern and as it approached we could see soldiers on deck waving machine guns and signaling for us to stop which we did. The tug came alongside and 2 soldiers jumped aboard Leonidas and ordered us to return to the cove we had exited. We followed the tug up an entrance channel and were ordered to tie up to a dock whereupon the boat was thoroughly searched. We were then conducted ashore to a barracks where the officer in charge interrogated us for several hours.

We were assigned “accommodations” in the barracks and advised we were to be transported to Managua the following morning for further questioning. At around 06:30 hrs the following morning we were placed in a van and began the 2.5 hr drive to the capital of Managua. The “Comandancia” on the outskirts of the city consisted of what had been the residence/office of a medical doctor who had probably been arrested.

The “Comandante “ examined our passports, ships papers and despacho and advised us that we were in Nicaragua “illegally”. I explained the inclement weather and the fact that we had not landed in the country and he was satisfied that we were not “spies for Somoza”. We were then dismissed and “free to go”. There was no transport available in Managua and ALL of the businesses were closed. The Comandante therefore assigned a soldier (about 17 yrs. of age) to drive us back to “Puerto Sandino” in a commandeered Toyoya Land Cruiser with less than 1/2 tank of gas.

The young soldier apparently believed us to be gringo VIPs and wanted to impress his associates with his “important” assignment. He therefore proceeded to take us on a circuitous route via a stop at what he stated was a former “finca” (country estate) of the exiled dictator Somoza which had been converted to a “school”. As we arrived at the “school” he introduced us to two males described as “teachers” who offered us cigarettes which we refused. I noted the strange packs of cigarettes and asked the “teachers” where they were from. They stated that they were Cuban “volunteers” sent to teach at the school. I asked what had happened to the former Nica teachers and they smiled and stated “they left because of bad climate”.

We resumed the drive to Puerto Sandino but the driver halted about 8 km short and pointed to the gas gauge. I argued with him that such an important facility as Puerto Sandino would surely have gas for his return drive and he continued on. We were allowed to board Leonidas and prepare to exit the harbor with a pilot. As I cast off the dock lines I could hear the local comandante shouting at the young soldier that there was no gas for his return to Managua.

We exited the channel and the pilot was taken off by the tug boat. We sailed overnight and arrived with considerable relief at Bahia Elena, Costa Rica at 10:30 hrs. the following morning. We had believed that 22 January 1980 was to be the last day of our lives.

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