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.

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