The sun is setting off our starboard stern quarter, the sky exploding into an array of pastel colors. The small island of Isle Santanille (aka Swan island) is in front of us and the white beaches are reflecting the setting sun. Max is cooking lentil stew for dinner which is causing the boat to fill with a warm aroma of garlic and various vegetables. We are all feeling satisfyingly exhausted after a long day full of activity. Getting to this small island that seems to be in the middle of nowhere was quite the journey and I am feeling grateful for the 2.5 nights of rest we are enjoying at the anchorage in the lee of the island.
After a couple days of exploring Isla Mujeres and a fantastic dinner at a small, romantic restaurant called Limon (Thank you again Todd!! It was absolutely fantastic), we decided to go explore the mainland. Originally we had planned to visit Tulum to see the Mayan ruins. This was going to be about 3 hours of travel via ferry, cab, and bus. A lot of travel, but we felt it was worth it since we’d get to spend the entire day there. Well on the ferry ride to Cancun to catch the bus, the group decided that they would rather visit Chichen Itza to see the largest Mayan pyramid. I was hesitant at changing plans at the last moment, but a 3 to 1 vote and we bought tickets to Chichen Itza. It wasn’t until we were on the bus that we found out that even though it was only supposed to be a 2 hour bus ride, because we got the second class bus, it would be a 4.5 hour bus ride. Long story short, the day did not go as planned haha- we spent, quite literally, 12 hour traveling between the bus, ferry, and cab rides. Fortunately it all ended up being worth it as the ruins were a once in a life time experience and absolutely amazing. The scale just blew my mind. The bus ride, while incredibly long, was actually quite interesting as it took us right through the middle of inland Mexico where I was able to sit at the window and observe how people live in that area. It seemed to be rather impoverish, many run-down huts, completely open aired buildings, and a lot of people in small spaces. But at the same time, the people seemed to be happy and enjoying life. Kids ran around freely, and many people lounged in hammocks. We arrived back at High Climber around midnight and sleep came fast.
The following day, after learning we couldn’t leave the country due to Good Friday we took advantage of the day off and ran some errands and lounged around the marina. Saturday morning around 2pm we motored away from the fuel dock and headed south towards Isle Santanille. The passage took us almost 3 days and it was not the easiest passage. The wind was in a decent direction and we were going fast the entire time, but we were on the same tack for the entire passage and the boat was wet, salty, and just pounded into the waves. Again, the first 30 hours are a bit of a blur to me- a combination of fear and not feeling well put me in a sleepy daze, waking only to move from the cockpit to the bunk down below- eating when I could. While no one really got ill, crew moral wasn’t extremely high during this passage. Salt water covered everything, it was hot and humid, and the movement was extreme. Of course there were good moments, especially towards the end, but we were all so thrilled when we were within 40 miles of Isle Santanille. A major highlight for me was on the last day when this small, sparrow like bird, started flying near the boat. We were so surprised to see him so far from any land and he was just so small for how high the wind was. Eventually he started getting really close to the boat and tried landing a couple times. Within 30 minutes of endless attempts of landing and taking off he finally settled on the stern pulpit about 3 feet from the person the helm. The little bird stayed with us for over 4 hours- it wasn’t until we anchored and a moth flew by that the bird left us. We feel as though he probably wouldn’t have made it as he was getting pushed out to sea due to the strong winds.
Around 1:30am on Tuesday I heard Max yell “land ho!!” Kyle and I were on off watch down below and headed up to the cockpit to take down sail and prepare for the motor into the reef surrounded anchorage. Thank goodness the moon graced us with its presence which made coming into a foreign anchorage in the middle of the night a little less intimidating. What a strange thing it was to arrive at this completely unlit island that seemed to be in the middle of the nowhere in the dark. While the guys cleaned the deck and stowed our various gear I came below and did a quick run through with wipes, the mop, and paper towels attempting to de-salt the wet muggy boat. Sleep came fast as we were all extremely exhausted from the passage.
The following morning I poked my head out into the drizzly rain and saw the island in daylight for the first time. White beaches with small rock cliffs overhanding, dense green growth on top of the cliffs. The sun shining behind a rain cloud, rays piercing the small island coming to life in vivid colors and textures. I happily enjoyed the view for a few moments before hearing a whistle and a strange yell. Grabbing the binoculars I started to see shapes on the shoreline, as I focused the binoculars they crystallized into the shapes of men. Over 10 men stood spread along the half mile stretch of land in front of High Climber. Upon closer look I realized they all had guns and were dressed in full military uniforms. As more men came from the trees the yelling and whistling increased in sound and one particular man kept pointing at the boat, then to the other end of the island. I began feeling rather nervous- I knew ahead of time that this island was protected by the Honduras Navy, but 15 men all with guns, some pointing them around in various directions, made my heart begin to beat a bit fast. Waking Max and having Kyle and Mark come and look at what was going on, we decided Max needed to row ashore to “check-in”. Loading Max, our documents, a handheld VHF radio, and some chips, cookies, and candy for the military men into the dinghy- Mark, Kyle, and I stood in the cockpit, monitoring the onboard radio while peering through binoculars, a tad nervous by all the gunned men making their way to the beach Max was heading for. As soon as the dinghy hit the sand a couple men ran down to the water and helped Max pull up the dinghy. We took turns looking through the binoculars at Max, surrounded by 10 men. Breathing a sigh of relief when Max handed over the goodie bag and they helped him re-launch the dinghy, we waited eagerly to hear how things went. Tying the dingy to High Climber Max informed us that we were checked in, although all they did was write our names on a piece of notebook paper, and that we could snorkel the reefs but weren’t allowed on land as it is “prohibito”. All of us were rather bummed about this news, but grateful that we had a place to rest for a few days and that we could snorkel the untouched and beautiful reefs. The next day and a half were spent snorkeling, diving the anchor, reading, lounging, watching movies on my ipad, and cooking meals. On Wednesday afternoon we took a rather long snorkeling excursion, one person rowing the dinghy, and others swimming, taking turns when the swimmers got tired. The reefs we snorkeled were spectacular. Healthy, colorful, and full of fish the day got away from us as we exhaustedly made our way back to the boat.
Around 4pm I heard hollering and whistling again from the shoreline. “Max, I think they want you to go back over there and talk to them..” Hesitantly he got in the dinghy and rowed over. Again, we stood in the cockpit anxiously waiting to hear what they had to say. This time Max rowed back smiling. “Well he says, if we give them some cooking oil, they will take us on a tour of the island!” Laughing we quickly poured a half bottle of olive oil and grabbed a few garlic gloves to go with it. Getting dressed and carefully loading all 4 of us into the tiny dinghy Max rowed us back to the beach where 6 men were standing, this time only 1 had a gun- a lot less intimidating! As we speak very little Spanish between the 4 of us and none of them spoke any English, it was a bit funny doing introductions and trying to communicate. They were all very nice and thankful for the olive oil. Guiding the way we followed the men up the small cliff to the wooded area above the beach. We walked together for a while, attempting to ask questions- using our Spanish English dictionary as much as possible. All the men were under the age of 40, most seemed to be in their 20’s. A few minutes later we arrived at their living quarters. I asked if I could take some photos, but they said not until we got back to the beach, so I was unable to capture their living quarters which were positioned around a small soccer field. “Danielle”, Kyle pointed to me, “muy bien en futbol” he said in broken Spanish. This made the men smile and one ran around the corner, coming back with a soccer ball in his hand. Kicking off our shoes, Max said “Gringos against Honduras Navy?” They laughed and within minutes we were playing a rather heated game of soccer. Mark the goalie, Max Kyle, and I barefoot and dressed like salty sailors played the field against the navy men dressed in full uniform and combat boots. It was an absolutely wonderful game of soccer- the language barrier fell away as we all giggled and played the game. Kyle, Max, and I found ourselves exhausted after running for just a few minutes- steering a sailboat sure doesn’t keep us in shape! Soon after the Navy scored a goal I tied up the game by scoring one myself, before collapsing in the shade, out of breath and smiling. The men laughed at how tired we were- “smokers??” They kept asking. No! Haha just out of shape from living in a 40ft space for the last few weeks. The guy who seemed to be in charge of the group that was leading us around brought out bagged water for each of us, and we sat in the shade with the men, talking as much as possible. Their living quarters looked new- wooden buildings with opened windows and doors. A radio tower stood on the other side of the soccer field, with a small building that seemed to be where the cooking took place. Walking us over to a trail in the woods one of the men began climbing a tree and brought down small green fruits, telling us to bite into them. A bit sour, but rather good we enjoyed the fruits of which I can’t remember the name anymore. We slowly made our way back to the beach where the dinghy was, stopping at the only dock on the island on the way. A large, exposed cement dock, where the men get dropped off. Through broken Spanish and some gestures here is what I gathered: About 20 men live on the island for 45 days at a time. Then a big boat comes and picks them up, dropping off a different crew of men. It takes them 2 days by boat to get to the mainland, where they spend a couple months before doing another 45 day stretch on the island. There is no electricity and sometimes they run out of food, in which case they eat the fruit and hunt the large iguanas that are all over the island. They do not have a boat, and have no way to communicate with the outside world except for a radio. The man I spoke with was 30 years old, had 3 kids and had been in the Navy for 6 years. He seemed happy and enjoyed the time on the island.
Once back at the dinghy they allowed us to take some pictures together, happily giving thumbs up and taking some of us as well. Before we were about to hop in the dinghy they asked if we had any more cookies or chocolate. Max and Mark rowed back to the boat to get some Easter candy we had left over from my parents and home-made fudge our neighbor at Blind Pass made us. While Max went to get to get more goodies I spent time trying to communicate with some of the guys. They were curious about Florida, where we were heading, if we had kids, and if we would get a hotel in Providencia Columbia. Max arrived with their chocolate and they helped us launch the boat again. Smiling, waving, and laughing we said our goodbyes before heading back to High Climber. I felt so incredibly thankful that they approached us for the olive oil so that we could get to know them and explore the island. Funny to think how scared I was when I saw them lining the shore with guns, and then ended up playing a friendly game of soccer with the same men.
The island, while small, was beautiful and untouched other than the small living area the Navy had developed. The reefs were clean, healthy, and alive. The beaches white, with no garbage or evidence of humans. It was refreshing and I am thankful that this island has stayed mostly unvisited and that there are still places like this out there. Thanks to the Honduras Navy for protecting this gem in what felt like the middle of the Caribbean sea!
The following morning around 10am we secured everything in the boat, lifted the anchor and headed towards our next stop- Providencia, Columbia- 280 miles Southeast of Swan Island.
**We are currently in Providencia, Columbia after a safe and comfortable passage from Swan Island. It will take a while due to lack of internet for a week-ish but stay tuned for photos of this beautiful mountainous island!**