Notes From Lake Izabal (a.k.a. A Million Ways to Die on A Boat) — part one

“The captain is out to lunch and the sailors have taken over the ship.” (Charles Bukowski)

Day 1: Tom

It sounded too good to be true. In the mornings, we’d be scrubbing decks for two hours and in the afternoons, we’d go sailing and exploring the area. Hiking trails, caves, waterfalls, the possibilities were limitless. Oo, the wonders of WorkAway, the website we’ve been using to find accommodation in exchange for a couple of hours of honest work. And so we embarked on not one, but two boats, both belonging to Daeli, a French adventurer with a beard so scruffy and long it was probably eagerly eyed by birds with nest-making ambitions far and wide.

He had cruised the whole Caribbean by boat and explored the whole Northern American continent by bus, from Canada to the south of Mexico, his own bus. Now, his ships lay anchor in the little lake that marks the transition from Rio Dulce to Lake Izabal. One boat was a 40 feet catamaran called the Friend Ship, the other a beautiful old sailboat with a name that any Fleming would only associate with an old lady, probably somebody’s aunt, with yellow hair and a tendency to pinch your cheek and marvel at ‘how big you’ve become’… Josée! Yes, no wonder Daeli referred to the boat in English as Josy – it does sound a tad younger.

Josée anchored in Lake Izabal.

Josée in full glory.

Daeli had just returned from a visit to Lake Atitlán, on the other side of the country, and needed to land on his feet – not easy when you’re floating on a lake. “They didn’t clean this,” he said, pointing at the deck. He opened a storage locker and grumbled, “They didn’t clean that. And I have no idea what they did with the engine of my motorboat, probably dropped it in the water when they went to get beers in the evening.” ‘They’ were the wretched previous Workawayers, who had minded the boats when Daeli was away.

“And of course they didn’t leave any of the food I bought for them.” And thus our first assignment was going to town for groceries. This included hoisting the yellow ocean kayak into the lake, scooping out the water and peddling the distance to San Felipe de Lara, the closest village. Henceforth I know that a grocery run becomes quite a challenge when you have to keep your balance on the water, ensuring that the veggies reach the boat dry.


Daeli was tired, but still willing to go sailing. He’d promised us he’d show us the, uh, ropes. First realisation of our early sailing career: man, those anchors weigh a ton.

All the while, Daeli shouted instructions:

“Can you open the lazy bag?”

“Get ready, I’m going to tack.”

“Watch out for the boom, it’s gonna swing.”

“Use the winch to tighten that rope.”

“Connect the dinghy to the catamaran with a cleat hitch knot. Here, I’ll show you.”

For all I knew, he was declaring Chinese recipes to prepare cat, that’s how much I understood from the sailing lingo. Luckily, our host was patient with clumsy beginners like ourselves and soon… we were sailing.

Anete on Friend Ship, Lake Izabal


In the evening, we sat on the deck. On the left side, the lights of the castle of San Felipe de Lara deposited their shine on the water, on the right heavy honks indicated monster trucks bulldozering over the bridge of Rio Dulce town. We were tired, but satisfied – beat, but beatific. Our fantasies for days ahead were interrupted by Daeli’s sudden request:

“So, guys, what do you think? Could you house sit my boats? I’d like to visit my girlfriend at Lake Atitlán. She has to drive her van up a steep slope and could use some help. You know, I could score some relationship points. I trust you guys more than these previous people, you’re a bit older, have probably already lived on your own before. You don’t have to answer immediately, think about it and let me know tomorrow evening.”


That night, we move our stuff to Josée, where we would be sleeping. Daeli handed us a bucket. “Here, this will be your toilet. Have a good night.”

No, boarding a sailboat is definitely not an endeavour you should undertake two weeks into a relationship.

Moon over Lake Izabal

The night falls over the lake.

Day 2: Anete

“Can you believe that we are actually doing it?!” Tom said when the night had finally fallen on our new home, Josée. The night sky was covered with stars and everywhere around us was black water. The day hadn’t been easy for first-timers: try to paddle yourself to your bedroom in the darkness, hoping that the waves wouldn’t carry you in the opposite direction. Or worse, that some speedboat wouldn’t notice the little waggling peanut shell in the middle of the vast lake.

But now we were anchored and peace had arrived. We had good feelings that we would survive a week on our own on a sailboat. Tired and happy, we sank into the smelly mattress.


On our second day on the boat, we had to get some practicalities done. First, we needed enough food to survive a week. Second, we needed some kind of internet to be connected to Daeli and the rest of the world. For these things, we had to go to the bigger town, Rio Dulce. Since it was quite far to paddle there with canoe, Daeli decided to sail us with his catamaran.

After a little bit of scrubbing and cleaning in the boat’s kitchen, it was time to go to the city. I decided to wear my pretty purple dress. What a mistake! I still hadn’t learnt that sailing is a messy business. For example- even before you can get going you have to sit all in a row and pull out the damn heavy anchor. My muscles, already sore from yesterday, had to go through another open-air gym session. Uh-puh! That’s how it sounded. And sometimes the anchor got just stuck and didn’t move a millimetre. First, we pulled out metres of rope, then came the chain, covered with mud and seaweed. Soon all that mud was printed on my dress. Great!

Anete on Josée, Lake Izabal

Before the mud stains.

Sailing, as we learned, is all about pulling and releasing ropes. It’s the beauty of seeing how the sail goes up and how it catches the wind. Daeli explained us the theory, but all I remember from the experience is hanging on some rope with all my body weight, hoping to pull it a tiny bit more. Red-faced and covered with sweat, we ran around like lost chickens. Sometimes when it took us too long to understand what Daeli wanted from us, he just took the ropes with both hands, pulling with one, releasing with the other. He didn’t seem to be even a bit tired.


Just when we got the sail up, I went through a really scary experience.

“Take the bucket and throw some water on the anchor to clean it,” Daeli said. That sounded like an easy enough task, I thought and ran to clean the anchor.

Buckets on the boat had ropes. All you had to do to get some water was throwing it into the waves and heaving it up again. What did I do? I lost the grip and looked how the poor bucket sailed into the sunset. Okay, to be truthful- there were still a couple of fruitful hours before sunset, but the fact was that the space between the bucket and our ship increased rapidly.

“I’ll get it!” I shouted without thinking.

The boat was already moving- so I had to be quick. Without thinking twice I jumped head first into the waves. Only one thought drummed in my head- the bucket had to be saved. I swam for my life- so happy when my fingers finally touched the rope again. Then I felt tiredness swarming over me. And I saw how the catamaran slowly moved away from me. They shouted something from afar. But I couldn’t hear what. I had to rest so I swam to Josée instead. Swimming with a bucket was not an easy task- it pulled me back and made moving forward much harder.


Finally, hanging on the ladder of Josée, I panted heavily, knowing that I still had to swim back to the catamaran. Luckily, the catamaran returned to pick me up. All I had to do, was jump in when the boats were at their closest and close the final gap. Easier said than done. The closer I got to the boat, the harder it was to swim. Water pushed me away and I really felt like I was never going to make it.

I’m not very comfortable swimming in rough conditions-I dislike strong currents and water splashing in my face. Swimming behind the boat was all that. I was exhausted and swam as hard as I could, but I was nowhere near the ladder. Swallowing the lake water, I saw Tom’s stretched-out hand. I stretched mine out, but it didn’t reach far enough. Then miraculously our fingers touched and somehow Tom managed to pull me up. I climbed the stairs. Coughing and dying of tiredness, I fell on the boat floor. I was alive!

“It seems easy, but it’s not, isn’t it?” said Daeli.

I barely had the energy to nod.

Anete on Friend Ship, Lake Izabal


Every time the nose of our canoe touched the land I shivered with happiness. Land! Even though the ground was still shaking under my feet- it was land- dry, familiar, safe, trustworthy. Very often we had to celebrate it with two watery beers or sugary cokes.

The land, however, had its own problems. For example the hunt for little luxuries like internet. Since the magical waves of wifi didn’t reach our boat, we needed a stick to let our loved ones know that we hadn’t sunk just yet. We ran around on the main street packed with phone shops, only to reach to the conclusion that the stick cost 300 and not 30 quetzales as we thought. We didn’t have that much with us and none of us was willing to peddle all the way back to the catamaran to get more money. Slowly, we started to realise the frustrations of boat life.


Back on the boat, we faced one more task before we could all gather around the pot of boiling beans and call it a night. We had to move all our stuff back to the catamaran. After all, it was easier to peddle less and live and cook on the same boat.

The easiest way to get our huge backpacks to another boat was to use the inflatable motorboat. When we had all taken a seat on the boat, the captain decided that he was not going. Instead, he started to shout guidelines on how to drive a motorboat. With the engine whirring next to us, we couldn’t hear anything. We could only see how Daeli waved his hands and made some signs- we had no idea what they meant. Tom pushed some buttons which made the boat roar and then he managed to switch the thing off.

“I have never driven a motorboat. I cannot do it!” he shouted the obvious and instead we peddled ourselves to Josée.

Eventually, Daeli helped to move our things back to the catamaran. We went to sleep, counting the hours until the next morning when we could be alone on the boat and the real adventure could finally start.

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3 Replies to “Notes From Lake Izabal (a.k.a. A Million Ways to Die on A Boat) — part one”

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