Thursday, June 18, 2015

Belizean breezes

30 MAY 2015

It has been a very, very busy two months in Belize. We have done things with anchors we didn't know could be done, made many new friends, met up with old friends, seen some amazing reef systems, de-spined and ate lionfish of our own spearing, had a very nice dry Riesling for an elegant lunch in the treetops, I don't really know where to start or how to tell it all. So I will start at the beginning.

When I left you, we had just cleared into Belize at San Pedro on Ambergris Cay (Am behr griss Kee). San Pedro is the second largest community in Belize with a total population of about 25,000 Belizeans. The capital Belmopan is only 13,000 people. The whole country is 350,000, fewer people than in the city of Nassau, Bahamas. We stayed for a few nights, but the obnoxious tour-boat wakes and the exposure to wind and swell make it a place we will never go back to except to clear in/out. We headed south as soon as we could, but not before encountering two wonderful local restaurants and the cruising catamaran s/v Yachtsman's Dream. We hit it off with John and Lela of Yachtsman's Dream and snorkeled the barrier reef cut with them. Amazing stag-horn coral but also an awesome surge and a lot of silt and sargassum weed. The sargassum invasion this year all along the Yucatan coast has been off the charts and it's nasty stuff as it piles up on the shores and beaches to form mats 50 ft out. It decomposes into sulfurous stink and makes beach walks or anything near the beach very unpleasant. This just motivated us to get out of Ambergris and to an anchorage on the lee side of a weed-blocking island. So we headed to Cay Caulker. And so did Yachtsman's Dream.

The run was over 8-12 ft of clear turquoise water that reminded us of the Exumas. A few shallow spots but nothing problematic. Those spots were marked with tree branches stuck in the sand, our first experience with this form of green and economic markers. PVC pipe stuck in the ground is also popular. These are of course not painted red or green and planted in seemingly random locations so you have to really think about how to interpret the sticks out in the middle of otherwise open water.

Cay Caulker is an uber funky place, with lots of backpacker hostels, a few nice beaches, an awesome reef preserve system, and an anchorage on the west side protected from all directions except westerlies. The streets are dirt, the internet cafes popular, and a total relief from the noise and craziness of San Pedro. As a very popular stop along the “Gringo Highway” there are lots of hostels and hostel-goers.

Underway to Cay Caulker

Sunset over the laguna  from the Iguana Reef Inn

On our way to snorkel the barrier reef preserve at Cay Caulker

Cow Fish on the reef

From Cay Caulker we pushed on through the infamous Porto Stuck inside pass to St. George's Cay. Porto Stuck is only about 6 ft deep at the low spots and forces most monohulls around the outside of the barrier reef. Hence the name since they get stuck. But we made it through fine and found St. George's Cay to be a fascinating classic old British-feeling island of vacation homes for the upper-crust Belizeans. The island is the original British colonial capital of Belize, where the British colonists finally fought off the Spanish for good and all. One of the cannons has been recovered and mounted to commemorate that 1794 battle. The St. George's Cay Lodge dates from the 1950's and is built from all Belizean hardwoods. The effect is very old British Caribbean, you sort of expect to see an off-duty Bond, James Bond, to drift in to join the cottage guests for family-style drinks and dinner. Fishing off the cottages' landing deck is quiet and relaxing. There is a small private aquarium on the island, and some very long beach walks (not quite so much weed as Ambergris when we were there). So if you want a civilized and very quiet getaway, consider St. George's Cay Lodge.

Fishing at sunset from the deck at St. George's Cay Lodge

View from a sea-facing vacation home on St. George's Cay

We then continues south through the narrow Ships Bogue and out into the big basin outside of Belize City. We found four enormous cruise ships anchored there, sending their passengers out on lighters to various activities ashore and on the reef. Wherever they were going, we didn't encounter them during our whole cruise. We spent the night in a weird anchorage at Robinson's Point Cay, an old boat-building site with a couple of wrecked hulls still out in the water, where we anchored in a breeze that put us parallel to shore at the edge of a deep basin. Anchoring in deep water is unnerving due to inability to see what you have dropped the hook into and the amount of chain you have to put out to ensure the anchor holds but which then allows a lot of swinging around. So we try to anchor in shallow water. But here, with the wind parallel to shore, going in close put us at risk of being swung into the mangroves if the wind were to shift. So we tried to split the difference and ended up with our hook in the steep slope dropping into the deeps. Also not a happy place. It turns out that many of the anchorages south of Belize City are like this. We got a lot better at dealing with them, but this first shot at it did not make for a good night's sleep.

En route to Robinson's' Cays.

Sunset over the interior mountains of Belize

We didn't hang around the Robinsons, we set off for a small cay that got good reviews in the cruising guide, Rendezvous Cay. This was our next “learning moment”, requiring us to thread our way through “no man's land” waters between the coastal channel and the barrier Reef. The waters all up and down the southern half of Belize are spotted with reef patches and sand bars that are typically badly charted. These hazards move around, so the chart-makers don't bother to get super accurate with them, and just provide the warning to proceed only with good light. This means "only during the hours of 10:00 to about 14:00 and preferably with the sun behind you". It also means you have to know what reef and bar water color looks like at various depths. Which we mostly had learned in the Bahamas, but there it's nearly all just nice soft easy sand. Here it's a lot crunchier when you touch bottom.

We made it through using the fair-to-middling' guidance in the cruising guide and hawk-eyed watchers on the bow and bimini top. Once through, we found an amazingly beautiful mini-atoll surrounded by very deep water running right up to impressive coral reefs. We anchored in 50 ft of cobalt-blue deep water, let out 150 ft of chain to get some kind of grip, and let the wind back us down to within less than 25 ft of the coral and only a boat length away from a second boat off our starboard side. First time for that trick, deep anchoring in very close proximity to a coral lee shore and other boats, too. Everyone immediately dove off to snorkel the reef.  Except me, I stayed aboard to keep an eye on the precarious anchor situation. Plan was to snorkel the reefs and then scoot off back towards the mainland to a range of cays nearby that would allow us to hang out through the coming cold front. Turns out that there was a set of very nice palapas and a small resort-like structure with a dock on the cay. Jennifer learned that the island is in fact privately owned and set aside for the cruise ship visitors, who, fortunately for us, were not coming that day. So they let us stay for our hour or so and then we got everyone back aboard and headed in to the Bluefield Range as planned, with the pre-frontal clouds visible to the north and the wind picking up.

Snorkeling the reef from the beach at Rendezvous Cay

We picked our way back across the “no man's land” water to the Bluefield range with the now-obvious cold front approaching. The weather models weren't very helpful in telling us where the wind was going to go once the front arrived, so we picked a reasonable spot inside the basin formed by the set of cays and started to settled in. Mid-beer we heard a gentle knock and quiet voice from our stern and found an older guy barefoot and in old shorts in a paddled cayoga. Wayne was asking, very diplomatically, if we planned to stay and did we know the wind was going to go strongly west? If so, then he suggested we move up behind his cay where he was building a fish camp. And perhaps we had some extra coking oil and coffee since he was completely out. We did, but were also a tetch wary of his intentions. We thanked him for his sage advice and promptly up-anchored to move to where he had instructed us. And a good thing we did. When the front hit that night, it did indeed blow really hard from the west but we were snug as bugs thanks to Wayne's advice. He came back out after we re-hooked, and we had a grand old time, shared some beers, a little rum, and some of our pizza we had just made.

Wayne Stevens is a fascinating old fisherman who had grown up in a fishing family. Not a lot of teeth left, but wise to the sea, and how to build fish camps, and jig for lobsters. He took us trolling for barracuda, we each got one and had a nice supper. His so-called assistant in building the fish camp was a 20-ish guy who was obviously unhinged, leaving us wondering how Wayne was able to sleep at night with the unstable island-mate yelling at non-existent people and generally acting out in a violent way. So Wayne tended to hang out a lot with us. Outside of lobstering season, his other profession is building and repairing lobster traps. He offered to make us a miniature one, a sort of model, if we ever came back to the Bluefield Range. He and his whacko assistant were the only inhabitants of the range. 15 miles from Belize City and a century from modern life. In the end, we didn't go back, so I have to wonder what has become of Wayne.

Panorama of the Bluefield Range from our second anchoring location.

Local fishing smack, about 25 ft with 6-8 guys aboard, taking shelter from the front with us.

Kayaking around the range

Between squalls

On our way back to Cerca Trova after barracuda fishing

Finally, after three days, the weather settled to where we could head on down to Placencia with an overnight stop at Coco Plum, aka Thatch, Cay. IT was all one cay until a hurricane in the '90's split it into three clumps. The northern one is Thatch, then Cocoplum then a little one improbably called Paradise Island. Each one has a little “eco resort” by the same names as the cays. There are lots of “eco” resorts around Belize. They are mostly “eco” because they don't have mainland-supplied electricity or water, so there is little of each of these. But they are very pretty places. Cocoplum had a lot of honeymooners staying there. And an attractive bar that we kayaked over to see, but we only stayed for one drink and headed back to the boat.

Thatch Cay (Cocoplum to the right) on approach to the anchorage

Kayaking in the lee of Thatch/Cocoplum, CT in the background

Kayak and hermit crab visiting on Cocoplum Cay

Abandoned dock at Thatch Cay, the whole resort is unoccupied and undergoing renovation

Sunset over the mountains of Belize as seen from Thatch Cay

After our overnight at Cocoplum/Thatch, we did the final leg on our way to the “big” town of Placencia.

Arriving at the anchorage in Placencia, lo-and-behold, there's Yachtsman's Dream!

Squally afternoon scene from the deck at the charming cruiser hang-out called Tranquilo

Yup, there's the squalls

We really weren't sure what we would find in Placencia. Each time we go into a place for the first time, what we find is never quite like what people have described it to be. We were told that Placencia was really tiny, don't expect much, the harbor's OK but not very protected, town is kinda ratty, provisioning is better than elsewhere but still pretty sparse, etc. What we found was a small and prosperous town, with busy but relaxed locals, the town was much cleaner and in better repair than most towns in Belize, a paved main street!, three grocery stores and lots of produce stands, two charming waterfront bar-restaurants, one of very few large beaches in Belize (stinky sargassum weed was dissipating but still pretty bad), and the famous mile-long side-walk with charming cottage inns and the Anglican church. We arrived the week before Easter and the harbor was busy and getting busier. It seems Easter is the big party weekend, and sure enough, on Good Friday, at 0700 a large tour boat started ear-splitting thumping party music and by 0730 was loaded to the gunnels with guests and headed off to the reefs, phew! Peace reigned again. We later learned that was the entire Placencia police force and families, and the party had been organized by the new police chief, much to the delight of the townsfolk. They really liked their local policemen, had to bring in a few officers from nearby towns to cover the town while the local force was out on R&R, and weren't overly happy about the unknown patrolmen, but put up with it so their own guys could have some fun. And then the weekend partying really began. By Saturday night the harbor was jammed with boats, the beach was rocking until 3am with revelers, but there was no sense of out-of-control, dog-the-hatches, yelling drunk craziness. Just a big happy party.

It was that kind of place. A mix of civilized locals, backpacking gringo-trail tourists, quite a few ex-pat residents, and cruisers. Oh the ladies in their hats at the Anglican church for Easter Sunday! We got the time wrong for the service, sadly, but caught the congregation on their way out to stroll the mile-long sidewalk.

We stayed through Easter, found the provisioning hot-spots, made friends with the guy running the dock-and-bar cruiser hangout called Tranquilo (and it is), and met up with our sister boat s/v Sunny Ray with the cruising family Dan, Marty, Ray, and Dale aboard. We invited them over for Easter egg decorating, used the very fine Ukrainian egg dye kit which my mother had sent us as a fun take-along, and had a great (but slow) time doing some fancy eggs while the adults hung out and did the cruiser social thing.

Making (Ukrainian) Easter eggs with the Ray and Dale from s/v Sunny Ray

Easter Day non-regatta, s/v Sunny Ray has just turned the first mark under one reef

The Monday after Easter we had booked what we hoped would be the highlight of Marty and Sue's cruise with us, a pro-led boat trip outside the reef to find whale sharks. The whale sharks turn up along the outside of the reef to feed on the fish-spawn which blooms on the nights of full moons in the spring. And Easter is the said to be the best full moon for seeing them. The park system in Belize is confusingly regulated, but where the whale sharks most often hang out was clearly very tightly controlled to exclude amateur sight-seers and protect the difficult-to-navigate reef passes. They control the number of tour boats allowed on the site and even given them time windows to be on-site. Since we knew we had no idea how to actually find the sharks, much less manage all the regulatory stuff, we signed up. When we asked about the likelihood of seeing a whale shark and got a sort of sage nod and demurred “we'll do our best.”

So morning came, we trucked all our gear to the snorkelers' boat (diving would have been twice the cost and four times the effort with about the same reward), and set off on top of the huge diesels. It was nearly two hours at top speed to the outer reef, check-in with a ranger boat anchored out at the site, and then out through the pass into the open ocean. The dive master explained the game – once the skipper spots fish on his fish-finder, everyone does a Navy-seal get-in-the-water mad dash, the divers take the low station about 50ft, the snorkelers take the surface station, and everyone swims as hard as they can in a search pattern to try to spot a whale shark. For an hour. Then they fish us out for a rest and we do it again.

First pass in the water turned up nothing. We swam like mad things until it was apparent that there were no whale sharks. So we used up our time blowing air-bubble rings and taking silly selfies using the air bubbles as mirrors. The rest break was also lunch, and was back inside the pass on a gorgeous reef where we let the divers blow off their retained nitrogen and we got a rare chance to snorkel a protected reef. And then my underwater camera broke :O ^%&$@! ! Oh well, back out the pass and over the side we went for pass #2. And this time we spotted a large pod of dolphins, the old male circled me several times and made eye-contact enough for me to wonder what he was thinking about. It was super cool. And then the cry went up “SHARK!!” and the horde took off through the water. We, the snorkelers, had spotted a whale shark, and so had the dolphins. It was the largest animal I have ever been in the wild with, it dwarfed the dolphins who dove down to check it out too. One of the group had a working Go-Pro and did get some seriously awesome footage which he promised to share, but sadly never did. So we saw one, we really did, but no photos, but we did. And  we will remember it for the rest of our lives.

Whale shark trip, Marty scanning the horizon

Jennifer looking for a whale shark

Reflected selfies in the air bubbles

All phases of life must come to an end and so, with lots of hugs and excited chatter about our adventures, many thanks for their cheery company, their vital help in the offshore passages and key skills in some tricky repairs, we put Marty and Sue on their chosen mode of transport to the airport at Belize City, the local bus. 

With Marty and Sue off the boat, on our own for the first time in nearly two months, we didn't know if we should be lonely or go cut up the town. We did a little of each.

We trolled through town, we hit a nice rest for a nice lunch with a great dry Riesling and parrots in a hutch in their courtyard, we hung at the cruisers' hangs, we sat tight through some sopping weather and watched the bareboat charterers dutifully driving out into he rain to do their week's charter in Belize. But we had lots more places to go and people to see. So we arranged with Yachtsman's Dream to buddy cruise to some cays they wanted to scope out and then proceed up the Sittee River to see our friends Tim ad Karen who have retired there with their own cruising boat on a dock on the river. One last sunset evening in the Placencia Harbor and off we went again. 

Marty and Sue have to go home, after six weeks of cruising with us, so they chose the slow bus

Sign-post in the middle of town to remind you of where you aren't

Back courtyard of Rumyfish with year-round parrot dorm

Rumyfish, the nicest restaurant on the coast, has the right attitude
and a decent wine list that they struggle to keep stocked in this 3rd-world country.

A gray afternoon at the beach watching the charter boats stream out

Sunset over Placencia Harbor

Buddy cruising with s/v Yachtsman's Dream was really fun. We had met them on our first night in Belize and ran into them many times during our stay. Yachtsman's Dream is a 43ft catamaran, we are a 42ft catamaran, so we sail similarly and can go to similar places. They have a lot more experience and were happy to teach us as we went, and happy to let us take point when we wanted to. They had already been in to the very tricky anchorage at the Pelican Cays and knew how to help us when we had failed four times in a row to get our anchor to bite. And Lela has two underwater cameras (ours had dies on the whale shark trip) so supplied us with lots of images fro our snorkeling adventures.

Belizean beach scene in the outer cays

Cerca Trova and Yachtsman's Dream at anchor off North Long Coco Cay

Snorkeling at North Long Coco Cay

Remote cay scene near the barrier reef

Rare blue tunicates. They are about the size of pencil erasers.

Reef life off of North Long Coco Cay

Sunset over the Belizean mountains as seen from North Long Coco Cay

After a week of checking out cays, we peeled off and crossed the bar to go up the Sittee River. The bar is very shallow, at about 5ft of depth, and we draw 4ft. We went in a near high tide so we had an extra 6 inches of water under the keels. But still, it's pretty spooky driving in to water that's is murky and getting shallower and shallower in a twisty route marked only with pieces of PVC piles stuck in the sea bad. So we called for help from the marina, who very kindly sent out two guys in a launch to show us the route in. With their help, we had no problems at all and got our first experience driving our large ocean-going boat up a narrow river.

We found at least 10ft of water in the river and very little current. The trees were all in bloom and dropping blossoms on the water. We had been told there were alligators but we didn't see any. Nor did we see Dr. Livingston. But we kept our eyes peeled for both. We took baths! And had air conditioning! It turns out that April is the hottest month of the year in Belize because the weather stays dry and the sun is mounting higher towards the start of summer. So we really appreciated the A/C. But after a week of civilized living we got antsy to get back to sea.

Up the Sittee River after crossing the bar, mayflower trees in full bloom

On a mooring in the Sittee River Marina

The back canal route from Tim and Karen's house to the marina –
Dr. Livingston was nowhere to be found

Our friends have a house with its' back to the canal and its'front to the beach. We spent a wonderful week with them in their guest apartment. We rented a car, drove up into the jaguar preserve and hiked to the waterfalls there. We drove all the way back down to Placencia. We drove up to see the capital city of Belmopan via the Hummingbird Highway, where we didn't see any hummingbirds but we did see a coatomundi, lots of school kids, amazing mountain vistas, and seven one-lane bridges that carry all the south-bound traffic of the country.

Dinghy tour of the Sittee

So we loaded up Cerca Trova and headed once more back to Placencia. We were looking forward to meeting up again with s/v Yachtsman's Dream and compared plans for cruising onward. They were setting up to head for Panama for hurricane season whereas we planed to head to Guatemala. But they were stuck for at least three weeks waiting for parts for their water maker and we really wanted to get moving. In the end, we left them there, using the Hockey Pokey Water Taxi to take us inland to the town of Mango/Big Creek where the local immigration and customs offices are, and cleared out for Guatemala.
One more stop at Placencia
In all the rest of the world except the US you have to clear out as well as clear in with the officials. They issue a document called a zarpe that shows you left the country in good standing and the country declared as your next destination. That keeps boats from just wandering around willy nilly and a keeps a lid on illicit smuggling of drugs in particular. So we paid our fees, filled in the crew list forms, and got our zarpe. We were cleared out of Belize with the destination of Guatemala.

The Hockey Pockey Water Taxi to get our clearing out papers, aka zarpe

From Placencia we ran south to the Sapodillo Range. But Yachtsman's Dream came with us! They decided that their chances to buddy-cruise were few and far between, so they filled their water tanks and ran down with us. We found a difficult cay, Lime Cay, which was our best choice to avid the larger Hunting Cay and its Belizean Coast Guard base, behind the main barrier reef but exposed to the wind with very marginal anchoring in a few inches of sand on top of hard smooth coral rock (imagine trying to get an anchor to set in half inch of mashed potatoes spread on a cookie sheet). We did find really nice snorkeling, much less visited than the more northerly cays. And we found lionfish. Lionfish are an invasive pest species, very showy but with poisonous spines, which you are allowed to spear with no limits and no season. Jennifer and Lela went on a lionfish spearing spree and then had a great time figuring out how to clean them. The end result were some yummy lionfish-in-bacon appetizers for our last dinner together that night. The next morning we were up early and so were they. They turned north to wait for their watermaker part. We ran out the cut through the barrier reef into the open water of the Gulf of Honduras and west to a staging anchorage that would allow us to cross the river bar on the next morning's high tide into the Rio Dulce of Guatemala at Livingston

Approaching the mouth of the Rio Dulce at Livingston, Guatemala