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 "uncomfortable".

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 lightning!

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 pounded on.

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 deserved rest!