After two aborted attempts to get out of the Bay of FunSucka (Fonseca), all three of our very different sailboats and crews agreed on an upcoming weather window through the winds, swells and currents of the infamous Papagayo. While not Cape Horn or the like, Central America has three well known areas for strong weather that can crush spirits and wreck well found boats. The Papagayo winds that rip across Nicaragua from east to west are one such area, the others being the Tehuatepec (Mexico) and Punta Mala (Panama). I think everyone who takes on the Papagayo passage probably tries to cross the higher wind area (along the west Nicaraguan coast adjacent to Lake Nicaragua) as fast as possible and with the least predicted wind as possible, but not all might use time tested mitigation strategies that have seemingly been passed through the cruising community like dogma. Right after Bahia Fonseca (30 miles) there is now a marina (Puesta del Sol- Nicaragua) with no bar at the entrance that would seem to be a good jumping off point to get right into the long trip through the Papagayo area and toward the end of the trip we saw a very nice harbor (San Juan del Sur-Nicaragua) that would be easy to get into during cruddy weather. We passed Corinto and Puerto Sandino (both in Nicaragua) but didn’t see charted safe anchoring areas inside these harbors for cruisers, so we passed both commercial harbors. The strategy I had heard and we know others used successfully to get through this high wind area safely is simply called One Foot On The Beach. This means that you move your boat very close to the beach/surf line so that while you might have a crap ton of wind hitting you, there’s nearly no wind waves (swell) at all.
After 12 days in the Bay of Fonseca battling high winds and mediocre anchorages, it was time to leave our familiar semi-sheltered anchorage. Slowly sallying out from between Isla Manguera and Isla Manguerita, our tiny 3-boat posse headed out through the Bay of Fonseca to seek our fortunes…runnin’ the Papagayo route to finally get to Costa Rica. Fonseca takes at least two hours to get out of (at sailboat speed) from Isla Manguera, if you don’t have to alter course repeatedly to avoid long lines and nets. At the southern end of the Bay sits Punta Consiguina, creating a cape effect as you round it to head south…confused seas and the possibility of fluky winds. Of course all of us scan and had pulled multiple weather models several times prior to raising our hooks but as usual, there was more wind than anticipated and there was a lot more upwind and up swell than I had imagined. So Tulum turned into a hobby horse for 12-15 hours of slogging upwind. But at least the wind and swells would die off between 1800 – 2000, right? The wind did start to die, but swells take longer to die than wind. By the time I got off my watch (an hour late due to long line mitigation strategies) Tulum was cruising nicely, but would start to push upwind again by 0600 that next morning. By 11am I was purposefully driving Tulum hard at the coastline, as the wind had noticeably shifted from on my nose to coming from onshore (Papagayo), but the swells were still on my nose. This was semi-expected, as we were just starting to get near the first portion of Lake Nicaragua and this is usually where the higher winds of the Papagayo started. Neither us or our buddy boat were brave enough to go as close to shore as Dietmar’s tracks (Dietmar runs the Panama Posse) so we ran the coast at about two miles offshore the rest of the way toward Costa Rica. The strategy was effective as the winds went from 10 to 22 knots in less than a minute multiple times along this coast line, often blowing hard for long periods of time. 22 knots is the most we saw on this run, and we motor sailed so that we would get to Bahia Santa Elena (Costa Rica) in the day light AND so we would have more consistent speed during the super gusts anticipated on the passage. Just after San Juan Del Sur we made the starboard turn toward Bahia Santa Elena and Costa Rica. Motorsailing with the least RPM’s possible, Tulum decided she wanted to run. With Jib and Jigger set, we smoothly crossed the last miles at 7-8 knots, setting the hook in Costa Rica for the first time. It’s a huge milestone for us because it seemed at times that we were in slow motion, but we finally made it.
Sitting around a pool at a nice resort visiting with friends, my perspective on our experience in the Bay of Fonseca hasn’t become more rosy, but it has become broader. I’ve realized that we just have to own the experience and file it away under something that we can’t change, but we have learned from. We’ll be better cruisers as we continue our jouney. I hope you can take my writing and OUR experience in the Bay of Fonseca with a grain of salt, as we have good friends who had a much better time there, illustrating the fact that weather makes a huge difference.
The author and his family live on a cruising sailboat with a Great Dane and a cruising kitty. Tulum-5 is currently in Costa Rica and we’re slowly making our way to Panama where we’ll spend hurricane season….unless we decide to find a great weather window to get around to Colombia.
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