I had been to the Gulf of Honduras about 30 years ago aboard the Mermaid and had visited most of the Bay Islands except for Utila. I still had a chart of that area and so decided that I should put it to use! After 17 days at sea on passage from Bocas del Toro, Panama, including eight days on which we were becalmed and adrift catching dorado and bonito on spinning tackle, and a spectacular 35lb yellowfin tuna, we sighted the hills of Guanaja. Reaching along the south coast of Roatan, we spotted the small nubbin of Pumpkin Hill ahead, Utilas’ highest point … all 290-feet of it!
Entrance to the anchorage is via a lovely wide bay. Just try not to get run over by a speeding dive boat and remember to bring earplugs as the disco on the waterfront plays the loudest most irritating techno music till about 4am.
Music aside, this was a new spot for Mermaid and it was a pleasure to have a nice breakfast on an open terrace along the small main road, which is totally filled with mopeds and small motorcycles.
Snorkeling along the drop-off is spectacular and a perfect escape from just lying in a hammock looking at the clouds in a vast sky.
A big tourist attraction here is the annual migration of hundreds of whale sharks. From where they come and to where they go no one knows but they congregate near Utila every year.
Utila is a beautiful spot but no place to be anchored in a west or southwest wind as the bottom offers poor holding in hard coral and broken shell. I found a 10ft wide bulldozer blade in the SE corner of the bay, while swimming near the bridge by the ferry dock, and attached a length of chain to this. But the noise and traffic was too much, so I sailed to Roatan to seek quietude in Port Royal.
I had not visited Port Royal since before Hurricane Mitch and, as I sailed eastward, the damage to the shoreline and forested hills became more apparent. Approaching Guanaja, the hills looked naked and half the pine forest was gone. These aromatic forests of Pinuscaribaea are the same wood that most of my boat is planked with. Until recently there were no roads and no cars on Guanaja, and all movement was by foot or by boat along the foreshore where most of the hotels, guesthouses and dive resorts had stood, now most were gone—literally swept away.
Back on the island I discovered that most of the infrastructure had been moved further inland and a new town established for those made homeless by the storm. A town named Mitch.
Guanaja has some of the best hiking in the Caribbean and reminds me of Bequia or Carriacou. Not so tall as to be unreachable but high enough to give an almost New England crispness to the air. Most of the plants have neither spines nor poison and there are streams and waterfalls all along the main ridge. Bug spray is required as the sandflies on the beaches can be intense; however, other than some ticks, where cattle have been known to graze, the hills are remarkably bug and pest free. The forests are tropical enough to shelter indigenous parrots and some small mammals and lush enough to produce a bounteous crop of mangos twice a year.
Guanaja is simply not to be missed. For a great afternoon and a bit of historical reflection hike from Soldado Beach up the small river to the very spring, marked by a small monument, where Admiral of the Ocean Sea Christopher Columbus filled his water casks in 1502. It was here he first met mainland coastal Maya, so much more sophisticated than the Paya (indigenous people), and where for the first time the western world became acquainted with Cocoa, soon to become known as Theobroma – Food of the Gods.
Leaving Columbus behind, it was time to seek out a shipyard. Sailing along this coast and especially among these islands is not for the novice. The islands stretch east and west and consequently most anchorages are entered close or hard on the wind, and the ironbound shore is unforgiving and confusingly similar. I entered the wrong channel at Bodden Bight after piloting a very narrow coral reef and almost immediately ran aground ripping off my worm shoe and cracking a deck beam. With the help of a few launches and several fishermen we got her off and I arranged a tow into Jonesville Bight, which is where I wanted to go in the first place. I do miss the old English charts that gave a pilot a profile of the island from different approaches.
Jonesville Bight is the home of the famous Hole in the Wall bar and some incredible hurricane tie up spots. Be careful of the overhead wires, however, as recently a tall catamaran tore them down, thankfully without frying anyone but leaving the community without power.
The most frightening thing along this coast is the hundreds of either out of work, derelict or sunk steel fishing vessels in almost every port. French Harbor in Roatan is gorgeous though a tad windy and often a bit rolly behind the reef, but again worth the visit. There is a small game preserve on French Cay, free buses to go shopping, a yacht club, marinas and even several free ‘sand screw’ type moorings. The entire bay is a marine preserve, so do not be surprised to see hundreds of conch and lobster everywhere. Look but do not touch, the authorities take the fishery protection laws very seriously.
My next stop was the port city of La Ceiba, home to one of only two boatyards in all of Honduras with a 13 acre yard and 120 ton travel lift …