Sailing to Belize

Scrawled File Fish
Scrawled File Fish

Leaving Utila in the dark was scary as hell. Bill was up at the bow, with his ever trusty head lamp, cleaning off the thick mud from the anchor while I headed out through the anchorage, hoping not to collide with any boats. Many boats have no lights on at night, and I had to go by where I remembered them to be. The lighting from my instruments destroyed my night vision, but I needed them to know the depth and direction, or I could really end up in trouble. And Bill’s headlamp gave me flashes of lightning as he moved about on the bow. Once I cleared the harbor, and passed through the entrance reef, I breathed a sigh of relief. Clearly, I am more scared in a harbor than out at sea. The large waves that welcomed us, along with the steady breeze, were simple to navigate compared to all the hazards of the shore.

We were again sailing with Ocean Rainbow and Arkouda, and I looked forward to their company in the night. I get bored on my night watches, so chats on the VHF always perk me up. This night was no exception. Just before midnight, we could see a large freighter heading on a perpendicular course, and possibly a collision course, about seven miles away. First, we picked it up on our AIS, where a little green triangle shows up. Clicking on this symbol reveals all sorts of information about the vessel. We learned its name was Jan, its length width, depth, exact location, heading, speed, destination, and my favorite: TCPA. TCPA, or time to closest point of approach, is really a nice way of saying time till collision. It does also give CPA, closest point of approach, which will give you the closest distance the vessel and your boat will be. Being a former Geometry teacher, I love to calculate these things, using vectors, but time isn’t always one of your available resources, so this gadget helps anyone do their Geometry quickly. It takes your speed and direction, the other boat’s speed and direction, and figures out how close you’ll get if you continue. You usually want a mile for your CPA when it comes to large freighters. This allows for drift, minor course changes, leeway, wakes, and other surprises.

His CPA was about 0.02 miles. Not good. I actually look forward to these situations. Weird. It gives me a reason to call the ship, chat about course changes, and make some more calculations in my head. James beat me to the VHF. “Jan, Jan, this is sailing vessel Ocean Rainbow on channel 16”. “To the vessel calling, this is Jan, please switch and answer channel 10” We all switch to 10. “Jan, Jan, this is Ocean Rainbow. We are on a collision course. Can I have your assurance that you will not hit me??” “Ocean Rainbow, this is Jan. I cannot see you on AIS (neither of us transmit AIS signals) but I see you on radar. I will not hit you” Five minutes later… more VHF calls from Ocean Rainbow to Jan. This struck Bill and I as ironic. James was a General in the UK Army. We’ve seen pictures, James standing in full uniform, next to the Queen of England. He was important, and often in danger. How different this must be, a little boat on a big sea.

I finally got a word in edgewise on the VHF. After the formalities of introduction and moving channels, I said “Hello Jan, I see you on AIS and one or both of us needs to alter course. I will turn on my mast head strobe so you can see me, and I can turn ten degrees north and go to your stern. Are you comfortable with a passing at 0.5 miles?” “Yes, Alembic, I can also speed up three knots and alter course ten degrees” “Thank you, Jan, Alembic standing by on 16”. Twenty minutes later, Jan passed safely by both sailboats. I again got on the radio: “Jan, this is Alembic. Thank you for a safe crossing. Have a good night.” These conversations with other ships are common for me; I always suggest a plan, they usually say they can’t alter speed or direction, so I make the changes, and I always thank them and say good bye after. They can’t see us well, so I like to assure them that we are finally out of the way.

Another ship approached and we repeated this round of communications, and again, the ship passed us safely. More concerning to me, was the third vessel that came toward us with lights on, but no AIS signal. Without AIS, I didn’t know the name of the boat, so I didn’t call it on the VHF. Ocean Rainbow and Alembic sailed close together so that any possible pirate would go elsewhere. And elsewhere they went. It was probably just one of the many fishing boats off Honduras.

After a rough night with almost no sleep (well Bill slept most of the night, but I couldn’t, as usual) the sun began to rise and we could see the faint outline of Glover Reef, our destination. We were a bit ahead of schedule and didn’t want to pass through the reef strewn entrance without good light, so we slowed down. Finally, at 7:30, we decided that the light was high enough to see the coral heads that rose up to five feet from the surface from thirty foot depths. We came through the pass, and dropped anchor at the deserted small island.

Ahh, there’s nothing like the feeling of your anchor digging in and your boat coming to a quiet stop. Bill had felt gross all night, so he was feeling tired, despite his many hours of dozing, and I was exhausted from my hyper alert state that plagues me at sea. “What’s that sound?” “and that?”… while the boat crashes around in the mixed up seas. Little things like spice jars rattling, tea cups knocking, the ladder squeaking, the bilge pump coming on (this is perfectly normal), the sails slatting, a loose line plinking the mast or deck, the water gurgling down the scuppers, the genoa sheet creaking in the winch, whatever, I hear it. I’m never nervous, but I can’t seem to turn off the volume. Each new sound has to be heard, evaluated, placed in the “that’s fine” category just in time for the next one…

Torn reinforcement fabric
Torn reinforcement fabric

Another broken slide
Another broken slide

I'll redo that stitching.
I’ll redo that stitching.

Some of the sounds that I missed were those of the main sail chaffing and failing. We discovered that we had broken a slide (plastic piece that slides up the mast and carries the sail up), worn through the webbing stitching holding another slide to the sail, and chaffed through an area of actual sail. This is frustrating because this sail was new in October. It shouldn’t be failing so soon. Luckily, I have spare slides and can sew the webbing back on and patch the sail.
Beautiful soft coral
Beautiful soft coral

Blue School
Blue School
Sergeant Majors parading through a coral tunnel
Sergeant Majors parading through a coral tunnel

Glover Reef was much too beautiful to delay explorations. We tidied the boat, launched the dinghy off the bow and the outboard motor off the back deck, donned our bathing suits, and headed out for some snorkeling. Napping and sail repair could wait. What a spectacular spot! We would have stayed at Glover Reef another night, with our Q flag flying, but Chris Parker, our faithful weatherman, foretold of a norther blowing through the second night. Our anchorage offered no protection from the north or west. We sailed toward the mainland, and anchored at Tobacco Range which has excellent protection from north winds.
Our first Belizean friend, George, has a sweet place
Our first Belizean friend, George, has a sweet place

Tucked into the mangroves, we didn’t even take our dinghy off the boat, so we explored by swimming. A local guy, George, was on his dock and invited us to see his place, the only bit of man made structure in sight. Great set up: home with a few bedrooms set back on land, while the kitchen and porch, built on the water’s edge, is just a short walk away. George came over to Alembic for breakfast in exchange for oodles of local knowledge about where we’re allowed to fish, how these Belizean fisherman operate, where to find Manatees, and other important details.
One canoe per fisherman is carried aboard the sailboat.  We see these everywhere.
One canoe per fisherman is carried aboard the sailboat. We see these everywhere.

We sailed away, to get a bit closer to the mainland. We had to check in to Customs, but not just yet. Our Q flag was still flying, and nobody seemed to care. Technically, we hadn’t gone to shore, only swimming on reefs and stepping on George’s docks. Almost twenty miles south, at Lagoon Cays, we were reveling in the fact that we were completely alone for a second night, no boats to be seen. Just as we said this, a Charter boat pulled in and dropped anchor right beside us. A captain with four women in their fifties; made me think of the Winn Dixies, The Winn Dixies are ten women, myself included, who have traveled together every fall for decades, to beautiful natural places. I think we should charter a sailboat in Belize one of these years! I’ll have to find one that sleeps ten!

this King provided a bunch of nice dinners
this King provided a bunch of nice dinners

Early the next morning, we saw a manatee lazily swimming in the lagoon. Quickly, Bill launched the paddle board, and I grabbed my snorkel gear. We tried to find him again, Bill looking at the water’s surface, and me looking below. No luck, but the early morning exercise was energizing.
Bill coming back to the dinghy after being scolded for landing in Big Creek
Bill coming back to the dinghy after being scolded for landing in Big Creek

Today was check in day, so we sailed ten miles southwest to Big Creek, just south of Placencia. Following the Cruising Guide, we motored up the Creek, dropped anchor. I dropped Bill off at the shore, but he was quickly shooed away by a guard. Another guard, farther down the pier, said he could come ashore if we paid $100 to land at this pier! No way! Back to Alembic, motoring down the Creek, we marveled at how many changes have already taken place since the Guide Book was written in 2007 (and updated 2013).
Placencia Harbor: Big, bustling, and beautiful
Placencia Harbor: Big, bustling, and beautiful

Once anchored in Placencia, I dropped Bill off at the dinghy dock, he took the Hokey Pokey water taxi and a land taxi to the exact location we were at up Big Creek! What a hassle! During the time Bill spent to check us in, I shopped for food and for a Belize Simm card. Now we were set for our guests.
Our wonderful friends, Cay and George
Our wonderful friends, Cay and George

Cay and George arrived the next day, just after a heavy but brief rainstorm. Seeing them was wonderful. It seemed to make this journey real. Lindsay visited us for Thanksgiving, but the Bahamas were blowing a hoolie for her four days so we never sailed. Since her visit, we have traveled to unknown places with unknown people. With so many new experiences, it has almost been like reading someone else’s fairy tale. Now we were anchored in our own true life, not someone else’s. We quickly set to planning our ten days of adventure together….It felt perfect.

Utila, We Will Return to You

Utila is a tiny island, the third and last of the Honduran Islands as we headed west, after Guanaja and Roatan. We left Roatan in the morning, ready for a bouncy ride. Sailing alongside Ocean Rainbow,Ocean Rainbowwith Claire and James aboard, brought us great comfort, and knowing Cynthia and Sean were sailing nearby on Arkouda, was icing on the cake. Many people say you shouldn’t travel in these waters, so close to the Honduran mainland, without buddy boats. But I love the company for other reasons. It’s fun to take pictures, chat on the VHF, and get excited for new landfalls with others.

Arriving in Utila was easy. Coming around the reef was obvious with the crystal clear water. Many dive boats, tied to mooring buoys or anchored, revealed to us where the best spots to snorkel were. We made our plans to drop anchor and dinghy over for our own adventure. We were not disappointed.

Hippyville was my name for this town. Everyone looked young, happy, relaxed, and ready for adventure. Tourism was nonexistent here except for the typical backpackers. Most of the islands and mainlands we have visited on this journey have many backpackers. This term in New England is usually reserved for those on the Appalachian Trail or some other mountain climbing adventure. Here, in the Western Caribbean, it is used for folks who arrive with heavy backpacks, find super simple living arrangements on boats, in tents, or in hostels, and float through streets looking dreamy and happy. Many are looking for kite surfing and scuba diving. Here, the many dive boats would be their day homes. And the hammocks near the docked boats would be their siesta sites.

Somehow, Bill and I just melted here. We glided down into a rooted calm. Maybe it was the fact that the anchorage was quiet. No 40 knot winds, no reef right on our bow, no fast ferry boats buzzing within ten feet of Alembic every fifteen minutes. Whatever it was, we liked it. Getting water was simple and cheap; just 4 cents per gallon at the dinghy dock (or drive up in your big boat). Restaurants were plentiful and catered to the backpackers who have only pennies to their name.

Simple dining
Simple dining

Our favorite restaurant was this tiny shop where a French guy has been making crepes for nineteen years. You can choose sweet, savory, eggs, meat, or veggies to top them. We had eggs, tomatoes and avocados and were sold on this being our favorite stop.

Tranquil Sunset
Tranquil Sunset

Sunsets were idyllic, taxis were hilarious,

Three wheeled taxi
Three wheeled taxi

the grocery store was simple and well stocked,

Simple Grocery Store
Simple Grocery Store

and the other shops were tiny buildings with goods flowing out onto the streets.

Classy display of important stuff
Classy display of important stuff

People, bikes, dogs, and three wheeled golf carts shared the streets with no particular pattern. No cars, no rules, no “stay to the right”, just a bunch of wanderers meandering in swerving paths. Nothing posh, anywhere. Just the way we like it! It made me realize that Bill and I are truly happier with simple surroundings and relaxed rules. Getting dressed up and doing anything fancy only adds stress.

Five inches gone
Five inches gone

Wandering down a street, Bill said “let’s get haircuts!” so we headed into the shop with a Barber Shop pole. Unfortunately, the guy who cuts men’s hair never showed up, so Bill had to rely on my trimming his hair on Alembic later. Looking around the shop, I was comforted by the simplicity. No products, just water in a spray bottle, no magazines, no fancy hairstyle pictures anywhere, just family photos on the wall, no blow dryers. Not even good communication, because she only spoke Spanish and I haven’t gotten to the “haircutting” chapter of my Spanish learning. But, I was thrilled with my new short cut!

Reluctant to leave, we set out at 8pm to weave through a few boats and prepared for an overnight crossing to Belize. Cay and George would be arriving in a few days and we had to get there ahead of them. As much as we looked forward to Belize and their visit, we also longed for more time on this sweet island. Another year…

Roatan for Easter

This was our path up from a dinghy dock at a Yacht Club.  The caretaker was in charge as the owner sorts out his money laundering charges!
This was our path up from a dinghy dock at a Yacht Club. The caretaker was in charge as the owner sorts out his money laundering charges!
While the owner is away, sorting out his legal troubles, Hayman likes to hang out at the Yacht Club to help cruisers find what they need.
While the owner is away, sorting out his legal troubles, Hayman likes to hang out at the Yacht Club to help cruisers find what they need.

Roatan was one island we were so looking forward to visiting. Guanaja to the east and Utila to the west are much smaller islands with less people, and less to do, so we thought that Roatan would be our paradise in Honduras. Unfortunately, we arrived at a challenging time and didn’t have the opportunity to fully explore or appreciate this gem of the Caribbean. Challenges revolved around wild weather, a lack of rally cohesiveness, and the need to move on to Belize to pick up guests.

Back in Maine, we met Elvert, a young man who grew up on Roatan and now works in New England. He graciously informed us about places to anchor, scuba dive, eat, fix boats, and find transportation. We shared his emails with all of the rally members and we tried to coordinate dive trips and excursions with Elvert’s many relatives and acquaintances.

Winds howled every night and sometimes throughout the day as well, which made scuba diving and other adventures less appealing, and also caused us to be nervous about leaving Alembic at anchor. Several boats dragged their anchors, one causing a collision with their neighbor.

Twenty-six rally boats were becoming scattered about many islands at this point, as weather, guest arrivals, and boat repairs were creating different needs and interests. We ranged from Providencia, Guanaja, Utila, Guatemala, and Belize, and three boats have already left us to transit the Panama Canal for the Pacific.

Bill and I had begun to feel pressed for time, as we have guests arriving in Belize next week, so we had to sail away before we could follow through on our hopes for Roatan.

James, our British stow away, for our sail to Roatan
James, our British stow away, for our sail to Roatan

While weather and scattered rally boats limited our activities, we certainly enjoyed what we could see and do. To start off, our sail from Guanaja to Roatan was glorious. James, a British gentleman who has lived on these two islands for a few years, was flying home to the UK and needed a lift to Roatan. He had never sailed before, and was lucky enough to transit on a perfect weather window; the calm before the storm!
This is the ferry landing right beside Alembic at anchor
This is the ferry landing right beside Alembic at anchor

Looking from our anchor spot to the marina where some rally members tied up and filled it to capacity.
Looking from our anchor spot to the marina where some rally members tied up and filled it to capacity.
Ocean Front in Honduras isn't always the glamorous homes
Ocean Front in Honduras isn’t always the glamorous homes

Howling incessant wind
Howling incessant wind

Anchoring in French Cay Harbor was like being in Grand Central Station! Mini ferry boats zoomed back and forth every ten minutes, carrying people and horses!!
horses going by Alembic on a small ferry
horses going by Alembic on a small ferry
to Fantasy Island. During our five day stay, three boats were towed into the anchorage in distress as they lost steering or engines in the waves just outside the entrance reefs. One morning we tried to assist a sailboat on the reef, but even with the four dinghies, we could not begin to help. The seas were huge and our dinghies were almost flipping just trying to get near them. Luckily, their anchor held until a tow boat came to haul them in.

Nature abounds on this island near French Cay Harbor. There is an Iguana Farm where Iguanas are free to roam and have thrived on the visitors’ offerings of fruit and vegetables.

Iguanas come running to dine on compost scraps
Iguanas come running to dine on compost scraps
Bill and I brought our compost bucket and shared papaya, banana, carrot, and pumpkin peels. Friendly monkeys jump around in the trees just above your head at the beach area.
This monkey is waiting for you to turn on the outdoor shower
This monkey is waiting for you to turn on the outdoor shower
They love to bang on the outdoor shower nozzle, telling you to turn it on, so they can drink or play in the clear water. Interesting rodents, which look like huge shiny rats with no tails, wander about everywhere, hoping you’ll toss them food. And bird life is prolific; I wish I knew the names of half of them.
Easter service aboard Ocean Rainbow
Easter service aboard Ocean Rainbow

Easter was a special day on Roatan. Our best laid plans to attend a service didn’t work out as we had intended. Getting to shore by dinghy in the wild winds, redressing on the dock into dry clothes, climbing up the hill, and sitting down in the church, all went smoothly with a lot of laughs with fellow cruisers. Then we found out that the 9 o’clock service was a children’s bible study, and the service wouldn’t start until 10:30. We had a mini bus to catch at 11 with the rally members to spend the rest of the day celebrating at the West End. Bummer; the service didn’t fit into our plans. “No worries,” said Claire and James, “we will have our own service aboard Ocean Rainbow!” And that we did. Prayers for all of our loved ones, bible readings, and plenty of hymns, filled my heart with Easter love. Claire is excellent with the guitar and James, being a retired British General, is perfect for all things formal.
This is a night club!  I think they lost a letter
This is a night club! I think they lost a letter

A different kind of mall
A different kind of mall
A women is hanging her wares on a clothes line
A women is hanging her wares on a clothes line
Shady stop
Shady stop
Locals are getting their handiwork ready for the cruise ship crowds
Locals are getting their handiwork ready for the cruise ship crowds

Tiny house
Tiny house
One of the many fancy resorts
One of the many fancy resorts
Bill and Jeff riding in the back to go get their scooters
Bill and Jeff riding in the back to go get their scooters
Our scooter for the day
Our scooter for the day

When the winds calmed enough for us to leave Alembic for a longer period, we rented scooters with friends and drove around the island. We found such a variety of sights.
A beautiful church
A beautiful church

Typical fancy little stop
Typical fancy little stop

A well armed guard, getting ready to protect the swarm of toursists to come off the cruise ship.  Crime is way down, partly due to the guards
A well armed guard, getting ready to protect the swarm of toursists to come off the cruise ship. Crime is way down, partly due to the guards
Extremely poor neighborhoods mixed in with gorgeous high end resorts.
The pig enjoys this lunch spot as much as we did!
The pig enjoys this lunch spot as much as we did!
We stopped for lunch at a sweet spot, with a tiki hut dangling over the ocean off a small pier. The huge pig lounged in the sand beneath the only table on shore. This was a perfect last day on Roatan. We will have to come back to more fully explore this beautiful island.
Our "wayward children" on Ocean Rainbow sailed nearby for a change
Our “wayward children” on Ocean Rainbow sailed nearby for a change

Cay and George will be arriving in a week, so we need to take advantage of the weather window to sail on to Utila, then Belize.

Guanaja, a Magical Place

Bill, James, and Pierre figuring out  our VHF  stealthy communications
Bill, James, and Pierre figuring out our VHF stealthy communications
Sailing to Guanaja took some planning. There have been incidents of pirates off the coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. People are so poor there; they resort to boarding passing boats to steal stuff. We have heard theft reports of many items, even toilet paper. While we would love to help some of these struggling fellow humans, we don’t feel safe having them come aboard Alembic while we are sailing. Precautions we took were to sail at least twenty miles off the coast, sail in the company of others, and limit our communications on the VHF.

Claudio, on Makani, showed us how to plot the exact locations of the other boats using MMSI numbers on our VHF. If you don’t transmit an AIS signal (we don’t), or you turn this function off to be invisible to pirates, you can still see where your buddy boats are without voicing your latitude and longitude positions on VHF. We kept pinging them in the night to see where they were. Luckily, this pinging was inaudible to them.

Used our Drifter for the first time ever.  Perfect downwind, light air sail.
Used our Drifter for the first time ever. Perfect downwind, light air sail.

Most of the 370 miles was blissfully calm, too calm, as we drifted at about 3 knots for two days. Two of the boats were purists and rarely use their motors, and the wind could barely move us. Our Swiss friends’ position was always exactly on our course line, while our British friends were all over the place. We called them our wayward children, as they let Humphrey, their wind vane, steer the boat. When the wind shifted, so did Ocean Rainbow. Funniest of all, our friends from Belgium sailed in circles because they had trouble slowing down to stay with the rest of us!
Lounging Bill.  Our lifejackets and harnesses are ready, but there's not much wind or much to do for sail changes.
Lounging Bill. Our lifejackets and harnesses are ready, but there’s not much wind or much to do for sail changes.

Finally, the winds picked up about seventy miles from our destination. Be careful what you wish for: we were wishing for more wind and we were given a gale. Luckily, the winds were from astern. We had sustained 35 knots, 40 in gusts, with huge seas that sometimes crested and broke right over our heads, into the cockpit. Sleeping in the night was not very successful, but we were happy to be moving along quickly. Alembic arrived at Guanaja before daylight, so we had to heave to (a maneuver to slow the boat down) and await the sunrise in order to make it through the reefs. The Caribbean has almost zero navigation buoys, so you rely on your eyes to weave through shallow spots.
Tiny village with most homes built on stilts.  We checked in through Customs here.
Tiny village with most homes built on stilts. We checked in through Customs here.

Glorious arrival! Perhaps it was the relief to get out of the seas; perhaps it was the scenery; perhaps it was the anticipation of exploring a new spot. We were energized. Dropping anchor right off the tiny island which was home to 85 percent of all inhabitants of Guanaja, Bill went ashore to clear customs while I stayed aboard and tidied up Alembic.

Alembic in her peaceful anchorage
Alembic in her peaceful anchorage
Hiking up behind Manati
Hiking up behind Manati
The busy tiny island in the distance
The busy tiny island in the distance
Dunbar Rock is a high end dive resort.  Anchored beside this, we enjoyed the fantastic snorkeling
Dunbar Rock is a high end dive resort. Anchored beside this, we enjoyed the fantastic snorkeling
Manati Restaurant
Manati Restaurant
Mi Casa Too Restaurant up the hill
Mi Casa Too Restaurant up the hill
Reservoir at the top of the mountain
Reservoir at the top of the mountain

USAID helped create the water system here.
USAID helped create the water system here.
Guanaja, Honduras, was one of our favorite places so far. Snorkeling was excellent right beside the anchorage, hiking was spectacular, and the people were delightful. Locals spoke so many languages. Creole, a mixture of Spanish, English, and Jamaican Patois, was the most common. We met many expats here. A German couple ran Manati, an excellent restaurant at the shore of the anchorage, and another German, Hans, ran another restaurant which specialized in pizza from his outdoor wood fire and his homemade wine. An American owned a huge island with a luxury home. Several more restaurants were sprinkled around the hills surrounding the harbor. There are no cars anywhere in Guanaja, so foot paths led us to many special spots.

Our anchorage was mercifully sheltered from the huge seas and winds that piped up every night. We slept beautifully every night, and enjoyed the mild weather days. Even the day of rain was welcomed; we finally washed the salt from the boat and filled our water tanks with its bounty. We could have stayed here for a month and called it home, but we had to move on. Guests are arriving in Belize soon. So off we go to Roatan, another island of Honduras.