Now’s the perfect time to plan a winter adventure.
We’re in Placencia, Belize, in Central America for our one week catamaran charter along the largest barrier reef outside Australia, with a few days either side for exploration ashore. The chain of coral cayes and reefs stretch 350 miles from southern Yucatan to southern Belize. Cousins from Calgary and Toronto and their spouses and partners are joining Diane and I, along with professional sailor Kat, who we’ve brought out for the first few days until we get used to handling the boat. As it turns out the marina staff will drive us on and off the dock, so no risk of banging into other boats here. Apart from that it is open water with little to hit except sand bars and coral reefs.
On departure day, Kat and I attend the skippers’ briefing and draw up our sail plan, while the rest of the gang hit the small local supermarket for provisions. Our boat is a Robertson and Caine built Moorings 4000, which means it is about 40 feet long and nearly 20 feet wide — a pig to sail. It has four cabins and two heads with showers in the pontoons, but the key advantage of a cat is the huge main cabin and galley in the bridge between. The boat allows plenty of room for our group of seven. At the back there is a large deck with seating under a hard Bimini top, critical in the relentless sun, and a raised steering platform. In front, aft of the self furling jib, is a huge net strung between the pontoons and the best place to sunbathe and watch the waves. With Kat’s help, I will be able to overcome its sailing deficiencies and enjoy a good ride.
We chug down the muddy lagoon on the mainland side of the peninsular and are in crystal clear open water in minutes. Our first overnight stop is Lark Caye (spelled key in Florida, cay in The Bahamas and quay in Toronto, another of those quaint English language spelling anomalies). It is a mangrove covered island. After dinner I distributed our custom designed team T-shirts, decorated with signal flags reading O and P, with the legend “Kat’s Katamaran Kruise” in a logo on the sleeve. The signal flags indicate “officially pissed,” the normal state for sailors off-duty, and a good excuse for being silly. We have several excellent cooks on board so I’m excused galley duties to concentrate on taking over as skipper when Kat leaves after a couple of days. Exiting Lark Caye, the water is so clear it looks dangerously shallow. Individual coral heads seem determined to rip our hull open as we pass overhead. But the depth sounder shows a good 12 feet below the keel and we are quite safe.
Over the next few days we sail up the protected inland channel visiting coral atoll jewels such as Cocoa Plum Caye (an indifferent dinner ashore), South Caye, Quamino Caye, North West Caye, Cat Caye, North East Caye and No Name Caye. Unlike the crowded sailing spots in the British Virgin Islands and the Grenadines, these cayes are almost deserted. We see perhaps half a dozen other yachts the whole week. We return to base to drop Kat off, as she is skippering another charter in the Windward Islands, and effect some repairs. We have been hit by a really big following wave, which broke one of the dinghy davits. Repairs will take more than a day. No problem, they give us another boat. We swap over our gear and head back out, this time to Ranguana Caye.
This turns out to be the highlight of our trip. The caye is a private two acre island, managed by Robert’s Grove Beach Resort. Cook Pat is reputed to be the best in southern Belize, and her husband Ernest, a fine bartender. The dining area is sandy floored under a palapa. The cook shack has a generator, where Pat whips up food for the three guest cabin occupants and visiting sailors on a beat up electric stove. We sample two types of chicken, conch fritters, fried green bananas, coconut rice and shrimp and drink lots of rum punch at the bar.
Our first night on two anchors is lumpy, and when the wind swings around they get tangled up, so after all the other boats leave, we decide to move into more sheltered waters and pick up a mooring buoy. As I’m now officially skipper, the tricky manoeuvre is my responsibility with two guys and three ladies to offer advice. The cat, which normally handles well with an engine in each pontoon, is acting up. Only one propeller is functioning and getting a 20 foot by 40 foot bathtub to go where I want it in a 23 knot cross wind, between some very close coral heads, takes all my patience and then some more. Eventually we pick up the buoy and make fast. The weather is deteriorating so that makes the decision to stay an easy one.
We have a dinghy and the barrier reef is less than half a mile away. We can hear the surf. One of the party has brought Scuba gear and checks the anchors and mooring buoys as well as swimming with friendly dolphins. Their presence means there are no sharks around, so swimming is safe. Just in case, I wear a shark’s tooth given to me in the British Virgin Islands more than 40 years ago. The good luck talisman clearly works and I have bought another one in Placencia village for Diane.
The caye is perhaps 200 yards long, with a population of several dogs. Diane feeds one, named Goldie, and I scratch her tummy, so we’re her new best friends. When Diane gets attacked by a greedy pelican, Goldie sees her off. Good dog. We spend our extra day lazing in the hammocks along the beach and looking for shells. Ernest collects coconuts from the trees and cores the meat out with a peculiar machine. As soon as he’s done hermit crabs come scurrying out of the shadows to scrounge the left overs. Pat shows Diane her secret recipe for conch fritters and makes us fresh bread and coconut cream pie to take back to the boat. It’s an idyllic couple of days at the edge of the reef and a paradise to wait out the stormy weather, which quickly passes.
Our final visit is to the Queen Cayes, a popular tourist spot, with two large toilets on one tiny coral atoll. A smart idea when parties of 50 or more snorkellers come for a BBQ. We are blessed by being one of only two boats in the sheltered lagoon. The park rangers lift $10US each for an overnight stay. The snorkelling and diving are perfect with clouds of coloured fish in the water. Pelicans, boobies and frigate birds perch in the palm trees and a small pod of dolphins play in the water. After the weather of the past few days, it was a pleasant change to have a flat calm overnight, but that means no wind for sailing on our last day. So we motor home on a peculiar course determined by our one engine. When we return to base, it appears one of the propellers has snapped it’s retaining pin and spun off. No problem, they say. The insurance covers it, fortunately.
We head ashore for a few days to get our land legs back and then home to the cold, another great cruising experience over — until the next one.