CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Nicaragua > Surviving Nicaragua - Part 7


Surviving Nicaragua, A Kayaker's Battlefield - Part 7

7/20/2000 by Jean-Philippe Soule

If you haven't ready Surviving Nicaragua - Part 1 to 6, I recommend you do:

5/05 - "Masochism on the Nicaraguan Coast" (Part 1)

5/07 - "AK 47 Sub-machinegun Armed Robbery" (Part 2)
5/11 - "Forced Paddling with a Sick Stomach" (Part 3)
5/14 - Tasbapounie - "Missing out on the Sea Turtle Feast" (Part 4)
5/17 - "And the Rain Began" (Part 5)
5/21 - "Bluefields to Managua - Do we Have to Portage?" (Part 6)

5/27/2000 - Nicaragua to Costa Rica - 
"Dancing with Death to the Rhythm of the Ocean"

San Juan del Norte is the southernmost town on the Nicaraguan coast. We had heard from many people that the immigration office there might refuse to stamp out our passports without a significant payoff. Because of border problems with Costa Rica and high incidents of narcotic trafficking, they didn’t like to let foreigners cross from San Juan. In the morning under the pouring rain we knocked on the door of the immigration officer’s house. A big man called William ran out under the rain with a smile to open his office. We told him about our expedition and our desire to paddle to Costa Rica. The man was friendly and interested in our tales. He confirmed all the stories we had heard about the coast from San Juan to Bluefields and said that each time the navy or the police land on that coast the bandits retreat into the bush and officials only meet poor fishermen and farmers. Because most armed bandits come from their village, nobody would ever dare to denounce the terrorists.

The immigration officer had a hard time believing we had safely paddled the entire north coast, which he described as the most dangerous region of the country. He changed the subject by telling us it was going to be a very long day for us to paddle the full network of canals and rivers up to the Costa Rican border town of Colorado. He was shocked when I replied we intended to take the short route and paddle the ocean. Like all the locals, he warned us that the mouth of the San Juan River was very dangerous, even for small motorboats. We were advised that the waves would be too big for us to handle and that the mouth of the Colorado River was even worse. We had heard all of this so many times before that it had just become routine. We knew people could not believe that we paddled heavy seas in our kayaks. Another warning we had come to ignore was about sharks, but this time we knew it wasn’t a fairy tale and that the threat was real. The mouth of the Rio San Juan is famous for the large number of Tiger and Bull sharks. Bull sharks even make their way upriver to Lake Nicaragua where marine biologists from around the world come to study the only species of shark that has adapted to fresh water.

I first read about the sharks of the San Juan River four years ago while planning the expedition. Most sharks are not a threat to kayakers but Bull and Tiger sharks grow to impressive size. They feed on other sharks and large fish, but their favorite prey are marine mammals which they attack from underneath while the unsuspecting victim is breathing at the surface. Sharks don’t have good vision. They may attack any long oval shape mistaking it for a marine mammal. This explains why surfers are the most common unintended victims as they float on the surface of the water on their boards. Before arriving in Bluefields, we met some shark fisherman who told us about many accidents and of the incredible number of large sharks patrolling the coast between Bluefields and Tortuguero, the highest concentration of which could be found at the mouth of the Rio San Juan.

Too many people from various backgrounds and countries had told us to be cautious of sharks here for us to be ignorant of the threat. We knew we had to be cautious and that it was better to paddle side by side rather than isolate ourselves like a weak animal. We planned no swimming break on this stretch. I enjoy diving with smaller shark species like Nurse, Black Tip, Lemon, and even Hammerhead sharks. But who would deliberately go swimming in waters infested with dangerous Bull and Tiger sharks? My only encounter with a Bull shark while spearfishing in Belize had taught me better. Paddling this stretch with kayaks made of fabric was intimidating enough.

The immigration officer stamped our passports, and shook our hands to wish us luck after telling us it had been a privilege to meet us. By 11 AM we were on the canal leading to the Rio San Juan. The river swollen by the strong tropical rain of the last eight days was rushing toward the mouth. We stopped on the sandbar to observe the sea. It didn’t look bad, but the waves were separated into three zones. The first one was a mess of clapotis chop and small surf countered by the current from the river. The second set, much further away, looked bigger and the third was barely distinguishable. We thought the waves looked manageable, but the current was very strong and with all the sharks in the water, it wasn’t a place to swim. We had no reason to worry; we had launched through bigger seas before.

Back in our kayaks I took the lead and easily went through the first breakers. In no time I found myself in the second breaking zone and was surprised to be facing much bigger waves than I had anticipated. To pass large breaking surf everything is about timing so I didn’t worry as I was used to it. When I saw an eight-foot wave about to break, I stopped paddling and waited for it to collapse ahead of my kayak. What I had not counted on was the strong current flowing out from the river, which instantly pushed me into the curl of the wave. It was too late to try to back paddle. The curl had already taken the front half of my kayak to an almost vertical position. I paddled hard and when I thought I was through, the stern of my kayak pitched down and sideways and projected me backward to the left. It happened so quickly that I had no time to react until I was upside down. The left side is my weak side to roll on and I failed on my first try. Before I could make a second attempt, the next wave ejected me from my cockpit. Still underwater, my kayak was dragging me, my left foot entangled in the poorly designed seasock. I drank a lot of water and instead of thinking that I was going to drown or get attacked by sharks, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Damn, it’s fresh murky water, I’m going to get sick.” When the third wave kept me under, still being dragged by my foot, I began to worry that it was too long and knew I had to seriously think about getting my act together to free my ankle and pull my head back to the surface.

With one hand I managed to unwrap the seasock while holding the paddle in the other hand. When I surfaced, I barely had the time to grab my kayak before the next wave ripped it out of my hands. I think this is when Luke paddled by and I screamed for help. But he was about to punch through the surf and there was nothing he could do to help me. With the paddle in my left hand, I tried to swim toward my kayak but the rip current was too strong. Each time I came inches from it, the next wave pushed it farther. I wasn’t wearing my life jacket, and I wasn’t buoyant enough to be carried as much as my kayak. Then both the kayak and I drifted back into the next breaking surf. Encumbered by my paddle, which I could not let go of, I swallowed more water. After that second wave where I again failed to catch my kayak, I realized that if I couldn’t get to my kayak, not only would I lose it with all its contents, but I might also die. All the time I was in the water I never even once thought of the sharks. The only thought running through my mind was that I was helpless. Both the current and the waves were so strong they trapped me in that dangerous zone.

Still, my survival instinct remained strong. After more than half dozen waves, I was able to ride one well enough to grab the side lines on the deck of my kayak before the next wave pushed the craft away again yanking hard on my right shoulder. My body was acting like an anchor, and as wave after wave continued to thrust me underwater I kept swallowing more water. I was exhausted but I knew I had to hold on to the kayak. I held on so hard that even if the waves had dislocated my shoulder, I wouldn’t have let go. I knew I was holding my life in my hands. It is hard to say how long I grasped the ropes, helpless and desperately fighting to stay afloat.

Finally I saw Luke paddling toward me. The relief to see him only lasted a couple of seconds until I realized he was aiming right at me and would probably be carried right over my head by the next surf. What a rotten end, to survive drowning only to be decapitated by my friend. I screamed to him, but by this time he had a better view to assess the situation and paddled off to the side. The strong current had just pulled me through the second set of breakers into the calmer zone of swell before the third set. Waves were still breaking sometimes but not as powerfully. I flipped my kayak back up. It was so full of water the cockpit was barely clearing the surface. I had no time to pump and Luke couldn’t safely come close because of the size of the swell. I jumped in hoping the boat would stay afloat with all the drybags it contained. I quickly fitted my legs into the full cockpit and frantically pumped the water out with my back facing the third surf zone. Before I could remove half of the water, Luke warned me, ”Put your sprayskirt on, we’re entering the third surf zone.”

The current was still pushing us quickly out and north. I stowed my bilge pump under the deck straps and stretched my neoprene skirt around the cockpit rim. Still facing the surf backward, I could barely move the boat with strong, wide, side paddle strokes. It was too heavy and I feared I would not be able to reorient it before the next surf broke on me. With so much water trapped inside, my boat was still very unstable and I didn’t feel I could brace strongly enough to maintain it upright if hit sideways. The fear of capsizing a second time motivated me. When the first surf broke on me I was well positioned. Although I lacked speed, I was helped by the current and heavy weight, and punched through like a big log. When we cleared the last surf, we had drifted much to the north of the river mouth. I was dehydrated and exhausted. Still shaky from fear and a little disoriented I stopped to pump out the rest of the water and asked Luke to help and take turn. My arms and shoulders were full of lactic acid and felt very heavy. I had been in the water over 10 long minutes and it had been more than half an hour from the time I launched to the time we were ready to start paddling south to recover some of the distance we had lost.

In spite of fatigue and heavy muscles, the adrenaline that was still rushing in my body helped me paddle against the current. Behind me Luke had a hard time keeping up. We progressed just over two miles the first hour. I still wanted to paddle faster and put Nicaragua behind us. I pushed harder and got into a zone. Still under the shock of having almost drowned, I reviewed the events in my mind and remembered a quote from the Talmud that a friend sent me a week ago when we had arrived in Bluefields. "Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers grow, grow." Then she wrote, “It is clear that you have gotten lucky on many of these occasions, and that there has been more than one time when things certainly could have taken a turn for the worse. I guess there is really nothing that you can do about it, however, and I trust that you are not taking any unnecessary or undue risks.” The truth is that today again my guardian angel was there for me. Who knows how far the sharks were when I was struggling to stay afloat like an injured animal? One day my guardian angel might be tired and let me down.

I seriously questioned the value of having paddled the Nicaraguan coast. Was it really worth the risks to get attacked by armed and dangerous thieves, to paddle skin kayaks through shark-infested waters, to expose ourselves to malaria? Was it worth the struggle to paddle long distances, to camp at night, to deal with the permanent menace from sandflies and mosquitoes, to combat the strong tropical rain and fight against powerful winds and currents? Was paddling the Nicaraguan coast really worth all the pain and effort?

I was pulled out of my thoughts by lightning and thunder. The full sky turned so black it looked like the sun had just set. The thunder was deafening and kept me on edge. The day was not over yet; we still had to paddle ten miles to reach the mouth of the Colorado River. I wasn’t intimidated by the dark mass of clouds enveloping us, what preoccupied me most was the speed at which they cleared toward land after an hour-long orchestra of lightning and thunder. A strong side-wind picked up and in minutes the sea became very choppy and the swell grew to enormous proportions. I waited for Luke to let him know that I was concerned it might get worse. We thought about paddling back to the beach, but it was too late, already the surf was more than we could safely handle. Luke was lucky to be nearsighted because he could not see the huge swell curling up into a gigantic shore break. I could see the water vaporizing over the curl. I knew that this was caused by the air pressure increasing inside the rapidly collapsing tube. It was not the type of long tube running sideways that pro-surfers dream of. Here there was nowhere to escape. The waves exploded on the steep black beach with sounds competing with the thunder. The water and the beach were littered with countless logs and debris, and the shore break projected spray of water fifteen feet up in the air. I was afraid we would be forced to land in these conditions.

Luke who couldn’t see the surf was judging our landing by the size of the swell. It was about 10 feet and still coming in regular sets of three, so he thought we could make it and should not risk the more chaotic sea we knew we would encounter by the river mouth. “Blessed are the innocent for they know not what they do,” I thought to myself. But in addition to the deadly steep shore break, I worried we could get killed by one of the tree-sized logs bouncing up and down all around us. We put on our lifejackets, which we rarely use, and chose to keep paddling until we could assess the conditions at the river mouth or find a better beach to land on.

Minute by minute, the sea became choppier and more irregular and the swell kept growing bigger. That entirely ruled out the possibility of landing safely on the beach. I wondered why I had left a good job and an easy life. What was I doing here anyway? I felt insignificant on the mad sea with my little kayak bouncing up and down. I was dancing with death and had no control over the music. Luke and I were at the mercy of the ocean and if the river mouth was even worse than the beach, we would have no choice but wait away from shore for the storm to end. It could take hours or days. We didn’t even have an operational marine radio to call for help. Ours, although rated waterproof, had melted with repeated exposure to salt.

For the first time since we had left Honduras, I was happy when I saw a speedboat changing its course to rush toward us. The man in the front stood up, a rifle in his hands. I was relieved when I saw a Costa Rican flag flying and that the three men were in uniform. It was the Coast Guard, and they asked us where we were from and where we were paddling to and then they asked us to stop and report at their base inside the river mouth. When I asked them about the entrance they replied that it was bad and with the storm the waves were huge. So I asked if it would be better to land on the beach, but they replied we should take the river mouth. They first drove their boat slowly alongside our kayaks, which made us feel better. Although we had no problems handling 12-foot swell at sea, we feared the arrival in the river mouth. After a few minutes they must have thought we were doing all right as they sped up and left us alone.

When we arrived at the river mouth, the sight didn’t ease my fear. The waves were breaking in irregular sets and oddly-spaced zones. The last set north of the entrance was exploding on a steep rocky beach. On the south side in front of the sandy point was the longest surf zone with powerful waves that started breaking nearly a mile away. In the middle were three distinct surf zones, the outermost being the largest. Coming from the north, we had to fight the current and enter the center zone from the side after clearing the outer breakers, then surf into the mouth. When I started in, I realized that I was drifting north too quickly and that I was going to miss the entrance. I quickly turned around and paddled out to sea again to avoid waves that would have pulverized me on the rocks. Luke paddled at a distance behind and understood my move correcting his angle. Finally, when I was certain I could make the mouth, I turned in and started surfing big rollers. They were not technically difficult but were made much more complex to handle by the huge logs, which were being pushed out to sea on the river current against the surf. It was then that I realized that the current was much stronger than it was in San Juan.

A large wave pushed me sideways and forced me into a brace. As the foam covered my deck and I leaned with all my weight into the wave, I had flashback of my morning capsize. I was terrified; I didn’t want to fall again, not here. A minute later I looked back thinking of Luke. I had cleared the most dangerous zone, but what if Luke capsized? What could I really do? We both knew that we were on our own for this landing and we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. There was only one way to enter the mouth and we had to do it right on the first try. On the occasions I looked back and couldn’t see Luke, I feared for the worst. I was reassured when I saw him well positioned as he surfed down the first waves. After a few minutes I was surprised not to have progressed much in spite of constant paddling. It took me great effort and the use of each wave to reach the last breakers. I started to worry that if the current was that strong outside of the river mouth, we might not have the paddling power to get in. After clearing the last zone it took me 15 minutes of intense paddling to cover the few hundred feet separating me from the sandy south point of the river mouth. Without the push of the waves I would have never made it, and for a few minutes, I had some doubts. The secret was to gauge the effort just short of maximum paddling power so as not to reach total exhaustion. Finally I pulled my kayak up on to the beach worn out and dehydrated. I looked back at Luke who was struggling to join me. In spite of his powerful strokes, he looked idle on the water. Five minutes later he landed with a torrent of expletives, verbally spilling out his frustration.

From the river mouth we could see the navy post as well as the village of Colorado, but the current was over five knots and without the help from waves, it was more than we could paddle against. We were stuck on the sand bar and resolved to try to walk on the shore while pulling our kayaks when two deep-sea fishing boats arrived and offered to tow us to the Navy base. “Did you go down the river?” asked the captains. “No, we paddled the sea from Nicaragua,” we replied. The captain of the boat towing my kayak looked at me incredulously and said, “That sea, today? I don’t believe you!” Then he looked at me and understood I was not joking and said “Really? You guys are crazy!” I couldn’t deny he had a point. What we had done was insane. They dropped us half a mile further up the river where the friendly coast guards checked our passports and a few bags. While their narcotic trained dog sniffed all our equipment, the guards offered us some lemonade and listened with surprise to our stories. Then they told us to present ourselves at the immigration office in San Jose upon our arrival in the capital. They then gave us a ride another half a mile further to the village. By that time I was ready to jump on the first plane to San Jose and store our kayaks for two months, but we were too close to our goal, the National Park of Tortuguero to quit now. We had less than 20 miles via canal to get to the national park and only tropical rain stood in our way.

Paddling Nicaragua had not been fun. Despite the bandits, insects, diseases, sharks, storms and tropical rain, we made it to Costa Rica, but at what cost? Up to our last day we had to fight to leave hell behind us, hoping that Costa Rica would turn out to be the paradise we heard it was. As prepared as we were, we couldn’t really know what paddling Nicaragua would be like. If we had known, we probably would have reconsidered. On the other hand, if we always knew what the future held, there wouldn’t be much to life. And if we only tried what we were sure not to fail, our accomplishments would be small. It is by pushing myself that I feel alive. Many times fear has kept me alive. Hardship and doubt is what contributes to make us who we are, people who gain a better understanding and appreciation of life. So was Nicaragua really worth it? Yes and no, but I can say without hesitation that it was an experience I never care to repeat. Luckily what we could expect in Costa Rica was very different, no more bandits, no more malaria, less rain, less bugs, and a completely different ocean. All we need are a few weeks of rest to let the adventure begin again with the crossing of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Panama has never been closer and with Nicaragua behind us, we feel confident we will reach our goal.

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