Mosquito Coast Adventure click here to read or make an observation about this  article
By Bob Means - Remlik, Virginia - USA

Sailing past Wawa Village going out the mouth of the Wawa River, when looking out over the Wawa River bar the breaking waves didn’t look so bad. Our newest boat to our fleet was scooting along with 18 knot winds and with the receding tidal current of the river we would soon be beyond the point of no return. Heading due East with young Gilly at the helm, winds out of the Northeast we were on a hard beat as we approached the breaking waves. Plowing through the white water slowed us a bit but with plenty of rocker in our new hull we managed O.K. It wasn’t until we got to the break that I realized our new 21 foot, open, gaffed rigged sail boat was going to meet its first real challenge, there were 6 to 8 foot faces on the breaking outside waves and we had to sail through them. To try and come about in this confused sea would be disastrous and with the Nicaraguan Bull Shark just below the surface, maybe even fatal.

After returning from Vietnam 1991, where we were building medical clinics, I was asked to go down to Nicaragua to do a boat building/fisheries development. We had converted a rowing river sampan on the Dong Nai River to a dynamic performing sail boat. Some thought that would be a transferable technology to help the returning Contras from their refugee centers in Honduras as they resettled in their home towns and villages.

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These were the type boats we built but open decked

(click images for larger views)

We set up operations in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua and I built our first prototype. Introducing this boat to the local artesianal fisherman, these type boats were an instant success. I began working with one of the “Beach People”, Gilly, trying out the boat and adjusting the sail design for the local waters. Gilly then asked me if I could help out his son, Young Gilly. Young Gilly was a Contra Fighter who used to smuggle arms and ammunition to the Mosquito Contra’s in their struggle against the Sandanista’s. Young Gilly knew the local waters like the back of his hand for his method of smuggling was by boat.

Young Gilly and I hit it off pretty good and spent a lot of time sailing and fishing trying this new boat out. We even had one adventure sailing down the coast about 35 miles to Princa Polka. We heard the fishing was really good there and the people would like to see one of our boats. Young Gilly stayed there and fished the waters for a couple of weeks. On his return he said he made good money but felt we needed a bigger boat with higher freeboard for when the weather got rough. I agreed and set out building our second boat making it three feet longer and added another garboard strake.

On completion we launched the new boat at a place called Lamlaya. Lamlaya was at the end of an estuary that feed into the Wawa and Karata lagoons. There was a fish plant there and outlaying villages would come and sell their shrimp and fish to this plant rather than have to go out around to the pier in front of Puerto Cabazas. Puerto Cabazes beach had no safe haven and to try and get on the pier during rough weather was very difficult. It was a 15 mile sail from Lamlaya to the Wawa bar but we didn’t mind because we wanted to check things out in quiet waters. Once we got out through the bar we had a nine mile beat to Puerto Cabazes in open ocean. It was with this boat I was now staring down these eight foot faces.

My hand drawn map of the area

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You’ve all seen pictures of wind surfers getting air as they take on breaking waves; well that’s what we were doing with a 21 foot wooden sailboat. We were sailing at least 5-6 knots as we shot up through the curl of the first eight foot face. Punching through, we were totally airborne six foot in the air. We crashed down so hard I was sure the mast would smash through the bottom, holing the boat; I was amazed everything held together. We recovered just in time to take on the next wave. Airborne again, another hard crash, still sailing, everything held together. We beat the third wave of the set before she broke; all of a sudden we were outside the break, we survived.

Gilly and I continued sailing due East for a mile or so until we tacked North toward Puerto. It was getting late in the afternoon and the wind had freshened to 20 knots with the seas getting rougher than hell. Taking on water we were over powered so I dropped the head sail. A strong current from the North to South meant that we weren’t going anywhere, what we gained sailing was taken from us by the current. To add to our dilemma, I was getting sea sick and realized we were going to be out here all night. We were the only boat for as far as I could see so if something happened, no body to help. I then began to think that this wasn’t such a good idea. The only real option was to head back in and wait for a better day but that had its dangers as well because surfing eight foot waves is more risky than sailing through them and those Bull Sharks were still just below the surface.

It was decision time. Between bailing out the water we were taking, I looked back a Gilly, he didn’t look so good either. I then pointed back toward the shore through the bar and he nodded yes. There was no way I was going to sail back through those waves with the full main up. We would be sailing on a broad reach with 20 knots of wind going like a bat out of hell, we were sure to broach on the first wave, so I dropped the main and put back up the head sail. Gilly turned the helm and back again we went, through the 8 foot waves, sharks with nightfall coming on. Was I scared! Hell yes I was scared knowing our chances were far less than good.

Approaching the break all I could do was hang on, it was live or die. I looked behind just as a big one on was upon us. We gained speed as we began to surf this monster, if we buried our nose in the trough it was all over. To my amazement we just kept surfing as the wave broke behind us, this was quite a ride. It was all Gilly could do to handle the helm to keep us going straight but keep us going straight is what he did. We were now surfing the white water and we kept surfing it all the way past the break into calmer waters. Not that I wanted to do that again but now that it was over it was awfully exhilarating. But our troubles were far from over.

We now had to sail through the flats past Wawa village and get back into the Wawa River. The wind was still howling but the head sail was pushing us along. I was quite happy with the arrangement but Gilly wanted to raise the main again so we could make better time. Against my better judgment I agreed and started hauling the main and peak halyards. No sooner had we got the main up than we took a mighty blow which knocked us down. The boat swamped and now we were awash, filled with water, soaking wet. I had to get the sails back down before we turned turtle with no way of righting the boat. What a pickle we were in now! I adjusted my weight to get the sails down, no easy task. Released the halyards, mainsheet out, thank God the sails came down with no mishap. Now it was time to bail and bail with a vengeance to keep the water from coming back in. It took us about twenty minutes to bail out all the while the current of the river was pushing us back into the break. When the boat was about half full I raised the head sail again to keep us going towards land. The sun had set just as we passed by Wawa Village into the river. It was going to be a dark night with heavy overcast.

Once we got back into the river we were protected from the wind a bit and raised the main as we made our way toward the lights of Karata Village. We rounded the point into Wawa Lagoon and it was dead reckoning from then on. We had to find the mouth to the creek that lead us back to Lamlaya as the wind subsided to the slightest breeze. By pure luck we barely sliced along as we entered the creek where the wind died all together. I then got out our hand made oars, placed them in the forward thwarts and began to row for the last three miles as Gilly steered us home.

We reached Lamlaya at two in the morning, secured the boat and began to walk the two miles back into Puerto Cabazes and my decaying home. If the wild Dogs who packed up at night didn’t get us I would soon climb under my mosquito netting and get some well deserved sleep.

Bob Means

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