Arriving in "The River"

The weather was still holding for us but rain and thunderstorms were forecast for the Bay of Honduras for the next few days. We were also timing our arrival at the entrance to the Rio Dulce to coincide with an astronomical high tide to give us as much water as possible when we crossed the famous “bar” at the mouth of the river. Leaving New Haven Bight early in the morning meant the next high tide would not be until the next day.
There are a couple of choices when waiting to enter the river as to where you might want to anchor for the night. Most folks, it seems, anchor behind Cabo Tres Puntas, which is due east of the river entrance by about 10 miles. The prevailing winds in this area generally switch to the west at night and hold there until about late morning. This means the anchorage behind Cabo Tres Puntas is exposed to swells with a 10-mile fetch, which puts you on a lee shore if things get exciting. Not a situation we prefer, especially since the afternoon and evening thunderstorms can produce winds to 50 knots and some pretty uncomfortable seas.

The second option, and the one we chose, was to continue in along the coastline of Cabo Tres Puntas in a southeast direction into a well-protected bay called Bahia La Graciosa. By avoiding the uncharted shoal on your portside that extends off the tip in toward the bay at the entrance, coming in is easy and the entrance is otherwise very straight forward.

Local sights and sounds
We had arrived at about 4 p.m. along with our friends on the sailing vessel Nueva Vida. This is a couple from Alaska with three children aboard whom we had met in Tulum and had traveled with again for much of Belize. We positioned ourselves in the northern end of the bay for protection from the forecast winds. This bay is beautiful and affords 360-degree protection in just about any weather condition. We found ourselves anchored just off a native fishing village. As we sat in the cockpit enjoying the afternoon, we watched as they strung their nets between trees, and cleaned and repaired them. We also saw a group of natives fishing from a panga just off our stern. They tied the boat to shore and extended their nets out at right angles, then walked them in an arc to the stern of their boat. They were corralling the fish back toward the shoreline and the boat. Once the circle was completed and the nets were right along side their panga they simply reached down, grabbed the fish and threw them into the boat.

These were no small fish since some seemed to be almost as large as the fisherman. And, no, this is not a fish tale. We were totally fascinated and this was our first look at how the Guatemalan natives lived and worked. This area is very remote, with access only by boat. The closest town is Livingston, 10 miles across the bay. Near sunset the fisherman hauled in their nets and headed home. Just as the sun was going down we were treated to another first.

From the jungle we could hear the very distinctive calls of howler monkeys. Many cruisers that had come here before us had told us to listen for them just after sunset and as soon as the sun comes up. This is the time they are most active and vocal.
It was quite an experience the first time and Susan was really excited. She soon had the imitation of their call down, and could even get them to call back to her.

A weather window decision
Our plans were to leave around 5 a.m. the next day to be across the bar on the rising tide. During the night we had become surrounded by thunderstorms, but none drifted over our small bay. By the time we were ready to pull up our anchor they had positioned themselves directly between us and Livingston. The light show was pretty impressive. We talked on the radio with Nueva Vida. They had anchored about a quarter-mile from us and we told them we really did not feel comfortable with the storms out in the bay, and were concerned that one might sit on top of us as we tried to cross the bar.

We waited a couple of more hours, but the storms were holding and the clock was ticking for us. Finally we knew we could not make it to the bar with a good tide so we sat out the rest of the day right where we were. This was not a bad thing since the high tide was a little later and a little higher the next morning.

Other than a few sprinkles in the morning, the storms stayed outside the bay, so we enjoyed this beautiful place surrounded by jungle and flat calm water. We took some time to take the dinghy and get a little closer to the fishing village. The villagers watched us with curiosity and waved enthusiastically when we came by. Later that night they had some kind of celebration and turned on their generator and ran electric lights. They spent several hours playing guitars and singing until about 9 p.m., when the lights went out and all was quiet again in our world.

You really have to experience these kinds of moments to appreciate the feeling that one gets. These are the reasons we worked hard and planned hard to get out here to travel the watery part of our planet on a small boat. But even on this evening we could not imagine that the best was yet to come.

Cutting it close
That night and early the next morning we once again had thunderstorms in the vicinity and you have to see the lightning displays to truly appreciate them. We had encountered this off and on down the entire coast from about Tulum south, but it was obvious that from now on this was to be a nightly occurrence. The plus side in the morning was that the storms were over inland Honduras to the east and were not blocking our path.
So at 6 a.m. we hauled up the anchor along with our friends and headed across the bay to the bar and Livingston. We were making a little better time than we had planned so we slowed down a bit, but even then knew we would arrive well before high tide. If we did ground at the bar we would simply wait a bit for the tide to come up. Nueva Vida draws 6-1/2 feet and Sea Trek draws 6 feet. The bar is reported to be 5 feet at mean low water.
The tidal range here is not very much and is dictated by the depths of the river further upstream. This is determined by the amount of rainfall inland as well as over the river and the two lakes that make up most of the system.

Since our draft is a little less than Nueva Vida, we crossed first and stayed in radio contact to provide them with depth reports. Sea Trek crossed the bar at about 7:45 a.m. with no problems. We were in the Rio Dulce and had met one of our greatest goals for the trip so far.

I can’t describe the excitement we felt at that moment, but just crossing the bar is not all we needed to worry about. The river entrance is very shallow in many places in the Livingston Harbor so our excitement was short-lived. Once again we had a good set of waypoints provided by our friends on the sailing vessel Filia and followed them carefully to the commercial dock at Livingston. Filia has been in and out of the river every year for the last 10 years and their draft is also 6 feet. We have used their waypoints several times in the past and found them always to be extremely accurate. We are well aware that using anyone else’s waypoints should be done with caution, and with careful examination of charts and any other navigational references available. Situations and conditions can obviously change rapidly in the marine environment.

Nautical gymnastics
A sailboat with a deeper draft trying to enter the river system creates an interesting challenge that calls for a technique that can be a bit unnerving. It entails the assistance of two local pangas working in tandem with each other. One panga will attach halyards from the mast head to their vessel and pull straight out from your beam. This heals the boat over far enough to reduce the draft sufficiently to get you over the bar.
At the same time the second panga is attached to the bow with a tow line, and pulls the boat forward until it’s in deeper water. It sounds scarier than it actually is because these fellows do this all the time and are quite good at it. The cost to get you over is usually $100 to $125 (U.S.) for the assistance of both boats.

Once over the bar, the deeper water doglegs straight up river for about a quarter-mile and then makes a turn to starboard toward the concrete municipal dock, the area where you must anchor. We found the holding here to be poor for anchoring, so this should not be attempted in bad weather. It’s also a good idea to leave someone on the boat at all times while at Livingston, unless the conditions are totally calm. Luckily calm conditions were our experience as we finally dropped the hook.

A sincere welcoming
We found the check-in process here to be one of the most pleasant and easy we’ve experienced almost anywhere. The first step is to call the Port Captain on VHF Channel 16. He speaks only Spanish so if no one on the boats has a grasp of the language a call to the Customs agent, Raul, might help smooth thing along. Raul is extremely helpful and speaks English. We are fortunate that Susan speaks pretty fluent Spanish, which has made our travels along Central America much smoother.

Once contact has been made you need to wait on the boat and all of the appropriate officials will come to you. You will be visited by the Port Captain, Customs, Immigrations and Health. Of the four, only Raul from Customs speaks English. Their visit was short and very pleasant. No search or inspection was done. They sat in our cockpit and chatted a bit, collected our passports, gave us a map of the town showing where all of their offices where and told us exactly what the charge would be at each office. This was amazing since it eliminates the possibility of unexpected or unofficial charges coming up at any time during check-in. They welcomed us to Guatemala and expressed a hope that we enjoy our stay. We were instructed to go to shore to begin the process, and told our passports would be in Immigration. The whole process, including a stop at the bank to change our U.S. dollars to local currency, took 40 to 50 minutes.

Once officially cleared in, we were free to enjoy these fantastic cruising grounds. We made a few stops in town to purchase some supplies and returned to the boat. Because of the strong current, poor holding and wakes from the local fishing boats it was decided that we would immediately move up river.

Our first stop was to be a small bay only about 12 miles away and it was still early morning. So, without hesitation, we pulled up the anchor and headed toward one of our greatest adventures to date.

2 comments:

  1. Well written and informative article.
    A quick question, did the other boat with the 6.5' draft make it over the bar (with or w/o the help of the pangas)? We have a 6.5' draft vessel and question if we can make it on all but extreme tides.

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  2. From Chuck: yes the other boat made it with no problems. Boats with up to seven foot drafts come and go all of the time but you must play the tides and pay close attention. Over seven feet and you probably will need help. Good luck and have a great trip

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