Kevin and Julie's Big Adventure

(A lesson in boating safety)

Kevin and Julie were visitors from northeastern England and spent over a year on the Rio Dulce. They got around in a Mayan Indian-made wooden canoe, locally called a "cayuco" . Cayucos are very common on the river and come in sizes ranging from tiny 6 footers up to 50 foot monsters used for hauling tons of cement, or fill-dirt. They are exceedingly tough and strong and handle surprisingly well. Kevin's boat is a 20 footer and a 7.5 Hp outboard engine propels the boat at about 10 knots even when loaded with hundreds of pounds of cargo.

One day at the Holly Mar, in August of 1996, a tourist approached Kevin and Julie and requested to be taken downriver to Livingston and back on the same day. Kevin agreed to do it. Another tourist, overhearing the conversation asked if he could come along as well. A price was agreed upon and they set off down the river. It is generally considered wise to start a trip across El Golfete only in the morning because the conditions on El Golfete can turn nasty in the afternoon. The time was 1 PM.

In the words of Kevin, transcribed from a tape recording, "When we started out the weather was calm. Normally, the best way to cross El Golfete in a small boat is to go up the left hand side [along the north shore] behind the cayes. Right after you enter the Golfete, you turn left and go behind the little caye there and then just keep going up past the Manatee Reserve and behind Cayo Grande and come out on the other side. In a big, powerful boat like a tibonurera, you just tear straight down the middle but in a small boat or cayuco its better to go behind the cayes because you get some protection from the swells.

This day, because it was so late, we decided we'd go straight down the middle because we thought we'd do it quick. We got about a third of the way across when the weather just suddenly changed. There was very little swell and we saw it coming as this big dark line across the sky but we said it was just rain and just kept on going.

We drove into this and it went absolutely crazy. The swell went from a 6 inch swell to a three foot swell in about ten minutes. There was very strong wind and driving rain in our faces. There was a guy in a sailboat behind us and he turned back. He said the wind got up to 40 mph and he turned round and went back but we kept going. The people at Los Palafitos said the wind went up to 55 mph. It was real crazy, we weren't getting anywhere in the cayuco. We were making no headway at all and it was getting worse. We lost sight of Los Palafitos. The cayuco was just jumping on the waves and we were taking on water. We couldn't see anything after a while. The rain got so heavy we even lost sight of the end of the Golfete. I said to the tourists that we're going to have to try and get in to shore whichever way we can. So I turned the boat and, as I was turning, it was really bad because we were taking on, maybe, 20 gallons at a time from the swells and the rain was just pouring in. We were getting a lot of sideways motion. Even to try and go back the way we came, it was too much. The swell was so strong it was pushing us faster than the motor could cope with. It was fine at the top of a swell until one would come up behind and push the front of the boat down and the motor would just go fast. We basically lost control. The waves seemed to be coming from everywhere. We didn't have much control at all. The swell was going off to the right and we just got driven along through a bank of reeds, maybe 20 or 30 feet of it and then into the mangroves; And the swell was still so high coming up behind us there was no way I could slow it down. Reverse didn't work, nothing was happening at all. We got driven right up into the mangroves up onto the roots. There was no land, just the tree roots.

We had no flashlight, no compass, no paddles, no water, no dry clothes, no plastic bag, just what we all had on. If you tried to stand you'd freeze. It was really cold with the heavy wind. So we had to wait about 3 hours until it got dark at about 6 PM and then the wind dropped so we could leave but there was still a heavy swell.

We still weren't sure about setting off but it was better than staying there the night because it would have been really cold. There was a lot of mosquitos starting to come. By this time all we could see was lights where we thought everything kind of was. We were not even sure where we had been driven in. Where we were, there was a little point of land and we couldn't see Palafitos but we could see a couple of lights before it. We just set off there and then because it was late. The guys said, "Well, that's it. We've got to go now". So we just jumped in the cayuco and went off. It was about six o'clock when we set off and the swell wasn't as bad because there wasn't any wind to whip the top off. The cayuco handles the swell really well as long as the top's not getting whipped off and you're constantly taking in water. You can't get sideways to it no matter which boat you're in because it'll swamp. The sideways motion is not so bad but if you have the tops coming in its hard to keep control and you're constantly taking in water.

We set off in what we thought was the right direction but it was so dark we obviously got disoriented and we ended up on the opposite side. We were on the side [of El Golfete] with Cayo Grande [the north side] and somehow we ended up on the opposite side. We thought we were going for Palafitos but we were actually going for the entrance of El Golfete.

Just before the entrance is a small bay with a little island in front of it and, somehow, we got in that bay behind the little island. I sensed something and I turned the throttle down so we could hear and everybody looked to the left at the same time and here was this enormous cayuco without any flashlights either. It came out of nowhere. There must have been about 20 Indians in it and everybody was drunk. They didn't even realize we were there until we all started screaming. They tried to turn at the last minute and hit us at an angle but they still hit us hard enough to knock me out of the boat. The engine was still running and Julie and the two tourists were still in the boat going away. The tourists didn't know how to shut off the engine and Julie was up in the front of the boat. The guys in the big cayuco didn't know whether to go for the boat which was going off into the darkness or to get me out of the water. I had gotten hit by the propeller as I got knocked out of the boat. The prop hit me in the hip and I didn't know how bad it was so I was in the water screaming my head off. The guys in the back of the big cayuco grabbed me and the guys in the front were trying to grab the back of our cayuco and switch the motor off. They were getting dragged along by our motor. They were looking for a kill switch but, at the time, it had no kill switch on it. Since then I've had a kill switch put on it.

The guys in the big cayuco managed to get the motor switched off and they dragged me into their cayuco. They asked us where we were going and we told them we were headed for Los Palafitos. We were miles off course. They thought we were crazy and thought it was really funny, four gringos in a cayuco out in the middle of the night. They pointed us in the right direction but we were so disoriented we were asking them where the caye was and where the mouth of the river was. It was pitch black. We were looking about trying to orient ourselves. We ended up paying them to tow us. They towed us with us just holding our boat up to the side of theirs.

When we arrived there it was still torrential rain. Julie treated my wound. Fortunately it was not too bad and I didn't need stitches. It was bruised real bad and there was a lot of pain so it must have hit the bone but it wasn't very deep. So we put our clothes out to dry and stayed the night at Los Palafitos. As luck would have it, there was no food because the owner, his wife and his whole family were in Fronteras, shopping and they decided to stay the night there because of the bad weather. There was an old guy there who eventually made us a little something. He thought we were crazy also. After that we got a flashlight and other things in the boat."

Transcribed from an audio recording and printed with the permission of Kevin and Julie.

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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier