Subj: Nanjo Chronicals 2001 ... El Salvador


Travels from April 1 to May 2, 2001:




Entering a new, different harbor is never without a certain level of anxiety. However, the entrance to Bahia de Jiquilisco, where Barillas Marina Club is located, is one that every crew will remember.


It was Sunday morning. The marina office answered our VHF call around 0700, surprising since we were used to Sunday being a day off for locals. Another boat was speeding to arrive at the "wait point" so that they could enter with us. There was no wind but occasionally a set of three substantial swells would pass. We knew that once we had begun our dash for the entrance there would be no time to have breakfast. It was Sunday and that meant sourdough pancakes! As luck would go, the lanchero (they aren't called pangas in El Salvador, they are lanchas) arrived just as Nancy finished cooking them. She took the helm and opened up the throttle, to keep close to the quicker lancha as he raced toward the entrance.


I finished my breakfast and took over the helm as we approached the first part of the unmarked entrance. The instructions are to follow right in the wake of the lancha . . . he knows all. Our guide, Luis, is the most experienced guide. Only in his 20's, he is recognized as the best. In contrast to the reports that we would be encouraged to go, "Faster, faster . . .", Luis adjusted his speed to Nanjo's 5.5 knots. This was taken as a good sign - apparently we weren't in danger of breaking swells. Little did we know that these were some of the biggest swells Luis had to guide through.


As the water became shallower, the occasional sets of large swells grew in size. We would lose sight of Luis's lancha momentarily and then Nanjo would rise up as the next swell came up behind us. Nanjo would pick up speed and shorten the gap between the two of us. My eyes stayed glued to Luis, while I adjusted the helm to counteract Nanjo's tendency to go sideways to the swell. Soon the swells were 10 to 12 feet. Nancy says that the tops were breaking not too far away from us. Actually this portion of the entrance was not worrisome for me. Our entrance planning was paying off.


We had judged that a morning entrance was best because: a) The winds come up in the afternoon, adding additional dynamics; b) The tide would be high, providing maximum depth; c) The tide would be near the end of "flood", eliminating the dynamics of an ebb which would slow down Nanjo's speed as well as cause the swells to grow and break.


I soon became used to the maneuvering requirements and began to scan beyond Luis. All I could see was a continuous line of breakers. Neither Nancy nor I could see even the slightest break to indicate a passage. I tried to use my old white-water skills to find the "vee", indicating deeper water, the passage . . . nada! Luis kept leading me toward the sailor's nightmare. Even if I had had the waypoints to aid my navigation, I would have reversed course. But we trusted Luis, Nancy using the motivational guide that provided me with faith during my submarine training, "We're not the first ones to do this. Many have done it before." Soon the channel became recognizable to the left.


After passing behind the exposed rocks marking the beginning of the "breakwater", waves crashing with great force upon them, we entered the Washing Machine. Here the channel travels for almost a mile in the troughs of the seas, which are reduced by the reef that is to seaward. However, that morning the chop was 4 to 5 feet high and very confused. It was difficult to steer a straight course. Just as we got into the middle of the Washing Machine, Nanjo being tossed every which way, we were informed that we had to wait while Luis went back out to get the other boat.


There was no way that I could stop; the waves and chop would have washed us ashore. So for about 20 minutes I maneuvered Nanjo back and forth on the track that the GPS automatically stored of our initial entrance track. In that time I discovered that it was more effective to always turn away from the swells when reversing course. I also found that the channel was deeper (more than 18 feet) closer to the reef than it was on the opposite side of the channel.


After I pulled in behind the other boat being led in, we soon left the chop and continued the remainder of the 10-mile trip to the far eastern side of Bahia de Jiquilisco to Barillas Marina Club. The bay is a huge mangrove marsh. We passed fishing camps on islands. The average person is very poor in El Salvador, these villages were examples of minimalist living. However, as we passed dugout canoes, the men would wave and smile, at peace with their reality.


At the last bend we entered the buoy lined entrance channel to the mooring area at Barillas. Here was the contrast to the villages we had seen earlier - the "haves" and the "have-nots". Barillas with its landscaped grounds, fuel dock, its open-air club house with satellite TV, the multiple swimming pools and pool-sized Jacuzzi, poolside Internet hookups, free lancha service from moorings to shore, free bus rides to town for provisions, and the most impressive wood-lined showers we have ever seen.


That list of amenities is self-explanatory, so I will jump to describing the local area. Usulutan, the town where the van took us Tuesdays and Thursdays is a bustling center for the state of Usulutan. The damage from the earthquakes was very evident from the rebuilding efforts the townspeople were hard at work effecting and the piles of rubble where they hadn't begun. Everything was being done by hand.


Banking is not as easy as in Mexico: we were warned that the ATMs frequently "eat" (won't return) your card and won't accept bankcards like Versatel. Visa credit cards are frequently the only card accepted (with a cash-advance premium) by banks, ATMs or special service booths. While you can use Visa or Master Charge cards to buy groceries, you can't get extra cash back. El Salvador has begun to use the US dollar as their currency, so that makes it a bit easier if you have a stash of Greenbacks. The exchange is fixed at 8.75 colons to the dollar. All the grocery labels very conveniently had both prices on them ( and $). However, once you get into the open market it is advised to have colons available for purchases. I got the impression that math education is minimal for the average resident and trying to pay with US currency or coins was beyond the small vendor's capabilities.


The open market is what we had expected an open market to be like. In Usulutan the market spreads out over an area approximately 8 square blocks; a thriving mash of stalls, vendors and patrons; vendors squeezing through with hand pulled trailer-sized carts and pickups with tons of bananas, corn, melons, etc.; vendors encouraging Nancy to try their El Salvador-unique fruit; better baked goods than in the three US-like supermarkets; chicken with head and feet; everyone calling out what they are selling, especially when they catch you giving their items even the slightest glance. Trash was inches deep under your feet, the odor of spoilage was in the air. I took a few pictures, but they don't come close to providing the feeling of the market.


One day, when I had to spend the allotted time (we only had 3 hours before the return van departed for Barillas) to find and purchase wire and connectors for the lightning modifications I was installing on Nanjo, Nancy had a new adventure (although not unexpected or unprepared for). While shopping in the market by herself, a man growled at her, "Give me one dollar US." Nancy tried to ignore him. When he repeated his demand, Nancy turned and saw that two other men accompanied him. Prepared, she smiled and merely said, "No, gracias." He looked at her for a short while before saying, "OK. But you be careful."


I had several instances where people yelled something at me. Usually it seemed to be entertainment for them, many of their neighbors chuckling. Other times the message was anger. Once, as I was entering a hardware store to get more lightning-stuff, a man growled something at me as he passed . . . I growled back. El Salvador is no Mexico. Here people have just recently relaxed from a violent civil war. The most common item seen is a sheathed machete in a man's hands or on his belt, a formidable weapon (or tool). Children (boys) have their own mini-machetes. It is their manly identity.


Nancy and I volunteered to help with the work of rebuilding houses for people who had theirs destroyed in the mountains above Usulutan. High up the slope of a dead volcano (there are live ones here too), in a vast coffee plantation, I helped put on a roof. Nancy helped put up drywall in the morning, had lunch with the women in the old, destroyed village, and met with all the families; quickly becoming Tia Nancita after giving all the kids balloons and the women colorful ribbons for their hair, before spending the rest of the afternoon sewing (repairing) for the ladies. Another cruiser had loaned a sewing machine but the women were overwhelmed by it and begged Nancy to help them with zippers and general mending. It was a fulfilling day, but tiring.


On another day we took a hike into a section of jungle close to Barillas to see the family of howler monkeys living there. It is required that we be escorted by a guard. However, last year the guard was reported as armed with an assault rifle. Our guide (guard), Juan Ramon was a tall, muscular young man in his 20's armed with a machete. Before we had gone more than a 100 yards from the marina gated-compound, Nancy had him climbing trees for mangos, papayas and limes. He told us how he could cut and stack a mile long double-row of sugar cane with his machete in less than 30 minutes. He cut a stalk of cane for everyone to sample with a mere flick of his machete. Then he neatly trimmed the outsides off as if the machete was a potato peeler. He pointed out edible and inedible plants and fruit and told us about his family and how he had received his Army training at a US base. After a display of swordsmanship with his machete, I likened him to Arnold Schwartzenegger. It was a good call - he swelled with pride. Although he only spoke Spanish, some things (names) are understood worldwide.


We arrived at a section of the rain forest where we could see a wooden, earth-floored hut of a family. In the trees above their home 6 or 8 monkeys began approaching to see if we had something for them, young and old. It was like being on the other side of the fence in San Diego Zoo only in a dense forest - monkeys swinging, hanging by hands and/or tails, talking, and acting excited and happy. One of the adults was the center of our attention because he came down to the ground and up to us. I apparently bonded with him (No comments, Raymond!) because soon we were looking each other in the eyes as I kneeled in front of him, with my arm around his shoulders; I patted him on the back. He quickly reciprocated; with his arm on my shoulder he patted me back. Our eyes never looked away from each other. The rest of our short stay, he tended to have his tail wrapped around my leg, holding my hand with one of his, while the other held onto the tree. Maybe some of the pictures the others took of that memory will turn out to be good. Unfortunately, since I didn't use the flash in the shadowy forest, my pictures didn't have good exposure.


During the month we stayed at Barillas, we only toured into Guatemala. But that was a "forever" memory, to be Chronicaled separately.


A favorable weather window for crossing the Gulfo de Papagayo, known for its winds, stronger than in Gulfo de Tehuantepec, finally opened - the winds had finally lain down after blowing incessantly for weeks. After picking up our international zarpe the day before, the customs official and a Navy representative (Port Captain) gave us our final stamps before they witnessed our lines being released from the buoy on Wednesday morning, May 2. Nanjo departed by itself on the 230-mile leg to Costa Rica, past Honduras and Nicaragua. Nine other boats had left the day before and we expected to see some of them before long.


Crew of Nanjo