Circumnavigating Utila
On a Kayak to the Island’s Little Visited Corners

March 2nd, 2012
by Thomas Tomczyk


A boat picking up metal to be sold as recycling in Blue Lagoon

A boat picking up metal to be sold as recycling in Blue Lagoon

Utila’s North side is one of few continuous stretches of shore in the Bay Islands that is still uninhabited and little visited. I’ve wanted to kayak around the island for several years and the opportunity finally came about in early January.

While the island is only 13 kilometers across and 4.5 kilometers long, there are plenty of places to get lost. There are fresh water lakes that few Utilans have even been to.

Circumnavigation can be done in one day’s hard paddling. I decided to do it in two–stop and see some things that peaked my interest, do some free diving and photography and spend the night at one of the Cays. My main worry was keeping the sand flies at bay.

At 6:30 am I loaded the kayak and stopped at Bushes supermarket to get three gallons of water. I could see the Utila Princess catamaran heading out of the bay on the calm waters. The winds hadn’t started blowing yet, and it was the perfect time to head out for the Utila rounding.

Blue Lagoon

As I head out on the East Harbour bay the water is calm and the wind has not begun to blow yet. As I turn into Blue Lagoon I run up alongside a small wooden boat with two men skewering for scattered, washed up metal–stoves, fridges, anything. They seem to have had a good morning as their boat is filled to the brim with metal loot. “We are recycling,” shouts one of them to me. They wave, smile and are happy to have their picture taken.


First, I lose myself in a “fake” channel just west of the “real” trans-Utila channel. The “fake” channel becomes narrower with every meter and goes on for about 200 meters. It’s a dead end and a great place to run your boat in time of a coming Hurricane. I pull the kayak out backwards grabbing onto the mangrove roots.

The real channel is a bit wider, anywhere between two and six meters wide. It isn’t deeper than four feet, usually as shallow as a foot or two, and has the smell of decomposing leaves. Navigating is quite tricky: Even the bottom of my kayak, barely five inches deep, could get me stuck. An egret rests on a branch just a meter from my kayak. Other than the occasional signs of machete marks, there are few signs of people.

After an initial turn, the channel runs almost in a straight line and almost exactly north-south. Gradually, the mangroves give way to trees and patches of sand with palm trees around them. There are visible places where people cross the channel.

I hear the faint noise of an engine, which grows ever louder for five minutes. Finally, an old Spanish-looking man in a dory appears and passes me in the channel. He smiles as the “tuk-tuk-tuk” beat of his diesel engine motors him past.

After an hour of paddling I am close to reaching the north side. Channel water slowly begins to flow towards the ocean just as I hear the sound of the sea. I am just 200 meters from the mouth of the channel entering Rock Harbour.

Not far off lie the remains of the only house built so far on the north shore-a house which was destroyed because of a property dispute in the 1990s.

Rock Harbour and Turtle Harbour

On the Rock, an iron shore enclave in Rock Harbour, are four concrete pylons marking the place where a structure once stood. Some people say that Tom Jones, a wandering local, had built a shelter on this rocky escarpment known for its absence of sand flies.

As I free dive next to my floating kayak, I see Staghorn Coral patches appear occasionally. There are no more fish than what are usually seen in Roatan’s waters. I see a few mutton snappers, trigger fish, a barracuda, a small grouper. There are dozens of Blue Tang, though. The wind peaks around 2:30 pm as I drift dive along the coast, passing many dive buoys.

I disembark and explore on shore. The most attractive beach on Utila is Don Quickset. Its sand is white, firm. There are pines on one end of the beach, some mangroves and coconut trees. Still holding up are the remnants of a small dock, a place to tie your boat on the West side of this picturesque bay.

The channel, sheltered from all sides by mangroves

The channel, sheltered from all sides by mangroves

Raggedy Cay

Once known as an important nesting site, Raggedy Cay has no birds nesting there currently. In January the 100-foot wide Cay is just a couple of palm trees and grassy patches.

As I head out in a straight line towards Water Cay the first house appears on the horizon, just around Pine Point and Gibson Beach. This is the farthest that anyone has built a habitable structure on the northwest side of the island.
My solitary journey ends. Around 4:30 pm half a dozen boats come back from fishing to the Cays.

Water Cay

I decide to camp on Water Cay, a place for picnickers and Utila’s annual music festival. At night, I see three faint lights in the distance to the north. This is South-West Cay and Pigeon Cay. There are also lights on Morgan Cay and its sister Cay.

La Ceiba’s glow appears in the background as yellow light. I fall asleep on a stack of palm leaves covered by a towel.

When I wake the sunrise begins with the mountain peaks on the coast and clouds around them suddenly receiving a burst of light. They are like the lines of a musical score about to be performed. At 6:20 am the first burst of light arrives on the Utila Cays. East Harbour is just three hours of paddling away. [/private]

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