By Andrew Gunson
We departed Ladysmith Harbour on Vancouver Island in the fall of 2012, bound south on our 53-foot sailing vessel, Maiatla. My wife, Janet, and I, along with an assortment of friends, spent the following winter months exploring Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands to eventually arrive in Panama in the spring of 2016. Colón, on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, became home for Maiatla for another three seasons.
Despite the heat and humidity, I loved Panama, and in particular, the unspoiled San Blas Islands, ruled by the Kuna people. After almost seven years of sailing the sweltering tropics and driving the boat hard, it was time for a climate change and a much-needed refit for Maiatla. We laid out a course for the Rio Dulce area of Guatemala where the weather was milder and there were inexpensive boat yards abound. Our journey would take us north over 850 miles, which would entail skirting the notorious pirate hotspot of the Gorda Bank, on the border of Nicaragua and Honduras. A new adventure was afoot, but we would get far more than we bargained for.
On November 26, with my older sister, Jackie, as my crew, we departed Colón, Panama, bound for our first stop on Isla San Andrés, an island belonging to Columbia. The 250-mile run proved difficult, as squalls were tearing up the Eastern Caribbean, sending a large and confused sea our way. Eighteen- to 30-knot winds lashed the boat while thunderstorms lit the sky. It was a wet bash to windward, which proved hard on the boat. The first day, an alternator bracket sheared off the engine, and on the second, we sustained rig damage, as our inner forestay and staysail was carried away.
With the gale still blowing fresh, we entered San Andrés Harbour on the Island of Providencia, Columbia, where we spent three fine days making repairs and playing tourist. We departed on December 2, my 60th birthday, and were greeted by high winds and big seas forward of the beam, a rough slog up wind, but the boat was sailing well. I intended to sail due north before turning to the northeast so we could swing wide of Gorda Bank.
Aside from being a prolific fishing zone, Gorda Bank has been the site of many recent pirate attacks launched against small yachts. The plan was to pass the bank a good 90 miles to the east, in hopes of avoiding any ugly encounters. It was a plan previous cruisers employed with success. A full day and a half out of San Andrés, we altered course to the northeast, but the big seas slammed into our bow, the force of which nearly brought the boat to a stop. To maintain our speed, we started the engine and continued on our course motorsailing.
It was a wet and rough ride, but all was going well until the engine quit. We laid the boat off the wind to keep up our speed. Jackie kept the boat moving while I crawled into the hot engine room in an attempt to restart the engine. But after several hours of troubleshooting, I failed. The engine was dead; I suspected the fuel injector pump was the culprit.
Under normal circumstances, I would not have been too concerned, as we were a sailboat after all, and I had no doubt we would reach Roatán, Honduras, in another three days. But the problem was the course we were now forced to sail would take us across the eastern extremity of Gorda Bank.
Jackie and I discussed our options, then decided to carry on. Our timing was such we would spend two full days and three nights in pirate waters, and I was thankful for the mostly moonless nights. We would run dark with no lights, maintain radio silence and use the radar sparingly, as it, like voice radio transmissions, can be traced back to its source. So it was stealth mode for Maiatla.
Our first day off the bank was uneventful — minus the thunder squalls hounding us. When a fishing vessel was sighted, we tacked back to the east to beat our way around the vessel before resuming our course while praying we had not been spotted.
We sighted a total of 13 fishing vessels in the first two days, and if any had seen us, they gave us no mind. It would be the longest three days of my life, as I seldom left the cockpit, choosing fitful catnaps curled up in the corner as Jackie took the helm, standing watch.
A little after noon on our second day off the bank, a large fishing boat suddenly appeared three miles off our port bow. It was moving fast as it crossed our path, and I was relieved to see it holding its course. I watched intently through my binoculars, and just when I thought we were in the clear, the fishing boat turned tightly, pointing its bow our way before coming to a stop.
We were hoping he was simply fishing, but after a closer look, that was not likely, as the deck was devoid of fishing gear — no nets, traps nor crew on the aft deck. I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. The fishing boat drifted down to us, falling in line astern a mile back. We altered course several times, and each time, he matched our heading and speed. This went on for almost an hour. I was sure he had his sites on us, but he did not approach. I said to Jackie, “I bet he is waiting for another boat to arrive before he boards us.”
I was so convinced we were targeted that I radioed a “Mayday” with our position, stating we were about to be boarded by pirates. Surprisingly, I received no radio response. (Later I was told the pirates were probably jamming my radio call by broadcasting music at the same time. We did hear music several times that day.)
Ninety minutes after first being intercepted, I spotted a second vessel, again about three miles out and running flat out and on an intercept course with Maiatla.
“Well it looks like his buddy has finally arrived, Jackie, and I think we are about to get boarded!”
It was looking like one boat would attack from behind while the other cut us off. There were two 45-foot to 60-foot steel fishing boats closing in on us.
In preparation for what appeared to be the inevitable, I dropped below to hide some of my valuables. Monies were split up and my good navigational computer was hidden. If the boat was stripped and they let us be, I would need a means of navigation as we were still 180 miles from anywhere. That done, I returned to the cockpit to find both boats were closing in and fast. There was little to do other than wait, as without an engine, attempting to run was out of the question.
While peering forward and past the second fishing boat, I sighted a dark shadow on the horizon. It was another vessel, a large containership. A flood of relief filled me as I snatched up the radio’s microphone. The officer of the watch answered right away, and I quickly told him our situation and described the pirate ships and their relative positions.
Upon sighting the ship, the two fishing vessels turned back to the south and headed off at full throttle. It was such a relief to see them go that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Within 15 minutes, the great ship passed between Maiatla and the pirates. I made a full report to the ship’s officer who informed me he would notify the authorities.
Our relief was short lived, because as fast as the ship had arrived, it had disappeared over the horizon, leaving us again engineless and alone in pirate waters. Thankfully the wind was still blowing strong over our stern.
It was a long three hours until sunset, time I spent with eyes glued to the horizon, fearing the pirates would return. I was never so happy to see a sunset as I was on this night. It was another mostly sleepless night in the cockpit for Jackie and I, but when dawn broke, a land mass appeared directly ahead. It was Isla Guanaja, the eastern most isle of Honduras’s “Bay Islands.”
During the night, we departed the pirate waters, but we had a new problem: the wind was failing and we still needed to maneuver through the numerous reefs of Roatán and into French Cay where a dock awaited. We would spend another night at sea, sailing, drifting at half a knot on a glass smooth sea. By 2 p.m. on our fifth day at sea, we found ourselves being towed the last two miles into the harbour where we took a dock at the Fantasy Island Beach Resort and out came the rum!
Over the many years and the nearly 30,000 miles we have sailed Maiatla, I have often been asked (usually jokingly), “Have you ever seen any pirates?” Until now, it has always been an emphatic, “No!”
I guess I can’t say that anymore!
Andrew Gunson and his wife Janet live in Cedar when not sailing to exotic places aboard their sailboat. Andrew is the author of A Slow Boat to Panamá: México to the Galápagos Islands and Panamá, The Tahiti Syndrome-Hawaiian Style, and Voyage of the Maiatla with the Naked Canadian available on Amazon and local bookstores.