Exam Questions.

Over she goes.

5th June 2023

Utila Town, Utila, Honduras – Cayo Quamodo, Rio Dulce, Guatemala via Tres Puntas, Graciosa and Tres Puntas, Guatemala

When sitting an RYA Yachtmaster exam there is always a question about planning a voyage to get under a bridge and over a sandbar; and inevitably the tide around the bridge and sandbar will involve 2 different secondary ports. On the bright-side at least the depths will be well charted and the tides accurate. Nowhere in the Yachtmaster syllabus does it cover getting over a bar that is always too shallow, with charts that have scant detail and tide stations that resemble fiction. Entering the Rio Dulce we could have done with that missing chapter.

With the little information we had, we were looking for weather to blow us from Honduras to Guatemala in time to catch the highest of high tides at the Rio Dulce. As usual the weather gods played ball and we were gently blown downwind for mile upon mile with the lightening remaining on land allowing Ruffian’s mast to remain upright.

Inside the river we knew that we’d find safety and services, but we also knew that the water would be green, the banks crawling with crocs* and full of chop kicked up by the constant boat traffic. We therefore had to made the most of our new home before attempting the Yachtmaster question.

The anchor was a constant draw as it sat in perfect sand and we could see as easily from the deck as we could the seabed. Our bay was perfectly flat and sheltered and as the days passed more and more boats followed our lead.

With the high tide approaching our once deserted bay was now home to 12 boats and as the morning of the high tide dawned we all made a beeline for the river entrance. There was a full blown race on not be last, but no boat wanted to be first as there were no markers showing deep water and no definitive time to tell us when the highest of high tides would occur.

As we sat and waited first all the shallow draft catamarans made their entrance, generously calling out on the VHF the depth seen as they went. Not once did they find water deep enough for Ruffian to pass. These catamarans were followed by either the brave or shallow drafted monohulls who bumped and pushed their way over and through the mud leaving 3 of us with deep keels wondering how we were to get to sanctuary; and then came Hector and Hector’s daughter.

Using his 6th sense Hector steamed out just as high tide was at its highest and in his wake powered his daughter (she looked about 12) on an equally powerful boat. Hector tossed a line from his stern to one of the waiting boats , his daughter then took a halyard from the top of the yacht’s mast and tied an even longer line to it. Under tow the yacht started to gain speed and just as they approached the shallow spot, Hector’s daughter put tension on the halyard and pulled. Slowly the boat tilted over to an alarming angle, its true draft reducing and within no time they were over the bar, into deep water and safety and sanctuary awaited them.

Now knowing the answer to the exam question we put ourselves in the capable hands of Hector’s skilled daughter. We watched the depth sounder like hawks as as the number reduced to never before seen lows and as they reached a critical level she once again gently applied the power and Ruffian leant over. Fiona gripped the wheel and braced herself against the lean and kept a dye straight course while Iain passed worrying glances up the mast and wished this final stress over. Expertly mapping the contours of the seabed Ruffian’s keel was kept just inches from the bottom and under this infants (we’re sure she’s not as young as she looks) watchful eye we successfully got over the bar and safety and sanctuary were within touching distance.

In the Rio Dulce the flat horizons, blue water and howling winds of the Caribbean sea were replaced by walls of green that stretch high above us and water that was as flat as a billiard table. Freshwater birds flew around us and butterflies flitted on the scant wind. The only disturbance to this natural idyll were the sploshing of oars from dug out canoes and the occasional roar of 200 horses of the back of faster transportation.

Now that we are in the Rio Dulce not only can we spent time seeing riggers, getting Ruffian fixed and ticking off the 207 lines of jobs we have in a spreadsheet, we can also rewrite the RYA yachtmaster syllabus and include a question about crossing a too shallow bar.

* In Fiona’s mind anyway. Along with thoughts of sharks, bears and snakes.

** We opted to just ’tilt’ and not ’tilt and tow’.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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