Bashing our way thru the Papagayos winds to Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica
It's about 140 nm from Puesta Del Sol, Nicaragua, to Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica.
The passage is noted for the Papagayos winds that blow here. These winds, like the
Tehuantepeckers, are caused when high pressure builds up in the Gulf of Mexico and then
streams across the low lying lands to the Pacific. In this case, the huge Lake Nicaragua,
bordered by high mountains to the north and south, provides the low flat lands for the winds' passage.
Because the winds are "offshore", that is, they blow from the land out to sea, they are re-enforced
at nighttime by the diurnal winds caused by the change in temperature as the sun sets. As the sun
sets, the land cools more quickly than the ocean, so the air over the ocean rises to be replaced
by the cool air over the land. Therefore, the winds increase thru the night, peaking at about sunrise.
These stiff winds rapidly create large choppy wind waves that are very close together.
Because of this pattern, we decided to leave Puesta Del Sol at midnight for the 24 hour passage.
That way we would experience the worst of the winds very near Puesta Del Sol, before we got abreast of the
middle of Lake Nicaragua where the Papagayos would reach their peak.
We had already heard horror stories about this passage. The previous day I had received an
email from RENAISSANCE, a boat that we know, in which they said they had experienced 35-45 knot
winds and rough choppy seas on the entire passage. They said they were "never so happy to
get the hook down as when they finally arrived (exhausted) at Bahia Santa Elena".
Another boat we know, DELFIN SOLO, had first passed up Puesta Del Sol, heading south from Barillas
the previous day, but had turned back when the winds started to build and the seas became
They pulled into Puesta Del Sol and told us their story, which caused us
to rapidly re-evaluate our plans. We had been planning to leave on Thursday at 6:00 am,
thus to arrive at Santa Elena the next morning, but after a bit of hard thinking, we decided
to try the midnight to midnight passage instead. From what I'd seen in books and on
Google Earth, the bay would be relatively easy to get into, even at night, and since there
would be plenty of moonlight, we decided to trade the risk of entering an unknown bay
at night for a chance to avoid the worst of the Papagayos winds.
The weather report called for clear skies, so at least we wouldn't have to worry about
So after dinner we took a short nap and set our alarm for 11:30. When we awoke,
we carefully got RHAPSODY ready to go, taking down the canvas, bringing out the
winch handles, starting the motor, and eventually slipping the dock lines and leaving
the marina. It was pretty straightforward getting out of the bay. There are lighted
buoys to follow and we had our incoming GPS track to work with.
Soon we were out of the bay and into the ocean. Although we had wanted to sail this
leg and try to conserve fuel, being leery of what might come, we decided to motor
until at least morning before putting up the sails, even though there was a sail-able
wind at midnight. Sure enough, the wind, which started at about 10 knots, grew through
the night until it reached 15-18 and gusts to 20-22 by sunrise. It doesn't sound like
much, and to a seasoned sailor it probably isn't, but to us 20 knots of wind, especially
when it has been steadily rising, is nothing to scoff at.
Then, as the sun rose and the winds peaked, they also took the worst possible direction,
coming directly on our nose. We could have tacked back and forth, 45 degrees off the
wind, to sail into it, but we didn't want to prolong our passage any more than necessary,
especially since doing so would mean that we would slip into the wee hours the following
night and be exposed to even more of the winds. So we motored at about 6 knots.
As we had predicted, throughout the day the winds eased a bit as the normal diurnal
onshore flow acted to cancel out some of the Papagayos winds. However the seas
were still somewhat uncomfortable, maybe 2-3 feet at 2-3 seconds, very close together,
and also right on our nose, so it was pretty much of a bash all day long.
To top it off, we found ourselves in a counter current of about 1.5 knots
working against us about 5 miles offshore. As our speed fell off to 5 knots,
we increased the motor RPMs to make up for it and tried to keep our speed
closer to 6 knots.
Around 4:00 in the afternoon, we were very surprised to hear someone
call us on the VHF radio. Having a range of only 20 miles or so,
we discovered that another boat we know, GALLIVANT, with Bruce and
Marianne whom we had met in Barillas, was also making the passage and
was about 5-6 miles ahead of us. They said that they too were having
a hard time keeping a decent pace, had given up pure sailing and
were motor sailing to try and slog thru the choppy seas. Since we
were making about 6 knots, and they were making somewhat less than
4 knots, in a couple of hours we had caught up to them. Just as the
sun set, we took some pictures and movies of GALLIVANT as she bravely
We stayed in radio communication the rest of the way as GALLIVANT
fell a bit further behind us. Around 8:00 p.m., after the sun had set,
the winds and seas started building again. But at least now, past
the halfway point of Lake Nicaragua, the counter current had abated
and reversed into a helpful current adding a half knot or so to
our progess. By 9:30, it was pretty much howling, with winds
in the 25+ knot range whistling thru the rigging as RHAPSODY
pounded into one wave after another. The decks were continuously
awash as she would dig her nose in and thrust thru the surf.
Spray would come around the side of the dodger and also get us wet
at the helm in the cockpit.
It was pretty uncomfortable but we knew that we could
handle it. We had a very good boat under us, so
I'd have to say it was actually more exciting than scary. To
top it off, the closer we got to the entrance to Bahia Santa Elena,
the more robust the winds and seas got. There seems to be some
kind of a funnel effect in the last 5-10 miles that channels
the wind with especially vociferous force.
Finally, just before midnight, after 24 hours and 140 nm, we followed
our waypoints into Bahia Santa Elena. Once inside the mouth of the
bay it was like being on a different planet. It was utterly still
and calm, the water smooth as a millpond, you could see the reflection
of the stars and moon clearly in it. And thank goodness for that moon
that shone so brightly that we could clearly see the mountains that
ring this beautiful bay.
Within an hour we had dropped anchor, put away our gear and
had our celebratory shots and beers. A radio call to GALLIVANT
told us that they would be in the bay about 45 minutes
after us. We told them how nice it was and that we would leave
"the porch light on" for them, and retired below for some well