CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Honduras > Tela to La Ceiba


Tela to La Ceiba (8/15-8/19/99),
Electrical Storm and Armed Encounter

8/25/99 by Jean-Philippe Soule

On our second morning out from Tela the alarm rang at 4:00 A.M. Lightening lit up the sky and thunder boomed in our ears and we decided to stay put until dawn. We got up at six and saw a very low, thick layer of black clouds. We saw the fishermen hurrying back home against a strong wind picking up from the north and knew a big storm was coming.

Most seafarers find such conditions forbidding, but for us it meant a free ride south. We quickly ate some breakfast and packed. As we finished loading our kayaks, the frequency of the lightening increased. The wind turned into a constant gale and it began to rain thick drops of water that hurt my head until I could find my hat.

The sea was rough but nothing we couldn’t handle. We punched through the surf and started paddling. By the time we were on the water, the wind changed directions. A strong easterly gale hit us from the side. It created large breaking swell even outside the surf zone. We had to paddle with the waves breaking on us broadside and brace constantly into them to avoid capsizing. With such powerful forces pushing against us, our kayaks were pushed off-course and it took a lot of energy to cover a short distance.

After an hour the wind changed again, this time coming at us straight on. The large swell that had been washing over us broadside diminished. Instead, the sea became a mess of chop. Small waves in short intervals from all directions bounced us around. Combined with the strong headwind, they hindered our progress even more. And if all that wasn’t enough, we also realized that we were fighting a mild current.

Although the conditions were exhausting, they didn’t scare us. Baja had prepared us well. We’d been on worse seas with gale force winds. What really intimidated me was the frequency and intensity of the lightening. I thought to myself that it would be such a shame to die in such an inglorious way, by being struck by lightening. But I remembered what our friend Richard had told us: "When in the trough with a kayak, the waves are so much higher than you that the risk is minimal." Despite his soothing reminder of his assuring words, the conditions made me flashback to terrifying electrical storms I experienced in the mountains.

I have seen many, but the one that marked me the most occurred when I was sixteen. It was my first big mountain trek. I was with two friends and we were scrambling the walls of the famous Cirque de Gavarnie in the French Pyrenees (A natural amphitheater of cliffs with over 2000 foot walls). We had scrambled halfway up when the rain made the rock too slippery to continue. In seconds the storm settled above the cirque and the clouds became trapped between the mountain walls. We found refuge on a small rock ledge twenty feet long and three or four feet wide. We put our backpacks with crampons and ice axes on one end, and the three of us sat on the opposite edge as far away as possible. We feared all the metal would attract lightening. The sky all around us crackled with electricity. The amphitheater amplified the thunder into a deafening roar. One bolt struck less than a hundred feet from us. The electrical charge in the air produced a sound we will never forget. It was like millions of bees buzzing at a maddening volume. I know now that it is a phenomenon that only happens in the mountains. People have been known to lose their minds to that sound before losing their lives. There are no words to describe the fear that gripped us. We sat there against each other on a tiny ledge of a cliff overlooking a thousand-foot drop, shivering as much from the cold rain as from fear. Pride hid the tears that wanted to burst. We thought our death was just a matter of minutes away and we sat there helplessly in front of the most impressive show of nature’s force. I was only sixteen but I remember it as if it was yesterday. I never understood how our metallic equipment was never struck and how we survived the experience.

Logic told me that the possibility the lightning would strike us was low. Logic doesn’t always calm the nerves. I was very intimidated. Another hour passed, the storm subsided and the wind turned again. We worried that it would bring the storm right back on us, but mercifully the sky soon cleared. We were left with a tough headwind. Eventually the swell decreased and then disappeared all together along with the wind. After four hours we were drained, hot and dehydrated. Our muscles were sore from our sustained efforts to combat the elements. All we wanted was a nice beach on which to camp. A thick margin of coconut trees lining the shore looked promising. We landed with great relief and quickly moved on to other pressing concerns, , eating and sleeping. Barely out of our kayaks, we were greeted by two armed cowboys on horses. One was proudly holding a big shotgun and brandished a big knife and a bandolier full of bullets. The other one had a 45 automatic handgun and a long ammunition belt. I remembered hearing that forty-five caliber guns are illegal in Honduras. Only the military is allowed to use them. These two men didn’t look like they fit the description. We got the sense that we had stumbled onto a drug plantation. Luke innocently asked them if we had landed on a ”farm.” They replied brusquely that indeed we had and that we should leave as quickly as we had come. We were exhausted and we informed them of our intent to rest and camp on the beach and asked them where would be a good place. They made it clear to us that such place wouldn’t be found close by. Would you have argued with rough-looking armed patrollers when they tote around illegal guns as if they were toys? We didn’t and quickly retreated onto the ocean. I almost even lost my hat which one of them requested as we left. Who knows what else we might have lost had we pushed our luck?

Ignoring the protests of our muscles, we left the "plantation beach" with no regrets and kept paddling under the heat. Finally, after more than twenty nautical miles (36 K) we landed exhausted on a deserted beach. We jumped in the water to cool off and floated there for twenty minutes without moving.

Amazingly the beach turned out to be our best campsite in Honduras. In the evening we could see the lights of La Ceiba, another eighteen miles away. One more day and our ocean paddling would be over for the year. From La Ceiba, the jungle-rivers of La Moskitia awaited us. Our last day to La Ceiba was on perfectly flat seas without a puff of wind. It meant a grueling paddle under the heat. Luke suffered most from it. Upon arriving in town, we carried all the gear to a backpacker hostel, rinsed it, ate and slept. La Ceiba welcomed us with good food, cheap accommodations, friendly people and amazing ethnic diversity.

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