Monday 26th June
We are now sitting off San Pedro on Ambergris Cay. This is the most northern Cay and the most visited destination in Belize. It is 24 miles long and cut off from the Mexican Yucatan mainland by an age old canal first dug by the Mayan people, and, more recently, dredged by Mexico to give access for small boats into and out of Bahia Chetumal. It forms part of the border between Mexico and Belize. Belize, formally known as British Honduras, with its Anglo-Caribbean culture sets it apart from its Spanish speaking Central American neighbours. English is the official language, but English, Creole and Spanish are widely spoken. As our Spanish is limited, it was nice to be able to converse with the locals again.
The Yucatan Peninsula, including Belize, has a fascinating history, starting with the Maya people who it is believed first lived in this area around 2600 B.C. in what is now present-day southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and western Honduras. They rose to prominence around 250 A.D. Then around 900A.D. their empire started to decline for reasons which are still a great mystery today. They abandoned their city leaving the jungle to consume and hide what was an elaborate and well organised way of life. At some point we will do some inland travel to visit one of these ancient sites.
The first European settlement was established by shipwrecked English seamen in 1638. Over the next 150 years more English settlements were established. By 1862 the country was named a Colony of British Honduras. In 1973 the country was officially given its original name back again – Belize – then in 1981 it was granted independence.
Its population is approximately 350,000 people, and the country covers an area of 8,867 square miles. Its Caribbean coast has the longest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, and only second to Australia’s barrier reef. It is almost 200 miles long and made up of more than 200 cays, so we have much to explore. The country’s interior is made up of rain forests, waterfalls, mountains, and the famous ancient Mayan temples. Belize exports sugar, bananas, citrus, fish products, wood and crude oil. What helped to establish the farming industry was the introduction of the Mennonites. Approximately 10,000 now live in Belize. Their ancestors originated from Europe. They first moved to parts of British Columbia in Canada, then headed south to Mexico. During the 1950’s a group moved across the border into Belize. They were industrious and knowledgeable farmers who made it possible for the local community to buy home grown produce including eggs and poultry which up till that stage had been imported. They still use horse-drawn ploughs. As well as farming they make solid wooden homes and furniture.
It is here in Belize that my cousin Simon and his wife Kay from New Zealand will join us as they are currently visiting Nicaragua, Costa Rica and finishing up in Panama. They will then fly to Belize City and catch a ferry to Cay Caulker where they will join us. Charlie on his catamaran “Milagro”, whom we first met in Isla Mujeres in Mexico, is now anchored in the lagoon with us. We have been cruising these waters to date with some photo-copied charts we received from another yachting friend while in the Cayman Islands. Here in one of the marine shops I find the Cruising Guide covering this coast from Mexico down to Guatemala, and up the Rio Dulce, which I purchase at great expense, but it is an invaluable tool as we will be sailing in and out of the main reef and around the cays. We decide to spend a few days here as over the weekend it is the Annual Lobster Festival. The anchorage is good, but plenty of boats buzz by. I swim, Alec listens to the Americas cup races, we go ashore to look around, pick up fresh fruit and vegetables and find a great little coffee house. The Lobster Festival is fun and we get to try these delicies served up in many delicious different ways. Our favourite was it rolled in coconut, deep fried and served with a spicy mango sauce, and, washed down for Alec with a local beer, and I tried the coconut rum punch. Hard life !!
Then it was time to start Cay hopping. Cay Caulker lies only 12nm away so with the light winds we motored sailed making water as we go. We have really heavy rain just after we drop anchor on the western side of the Cay. Later we take the tender ashore to explore. Cay Caulker is really quaint. Yes the tourists are there, but not as many as San Pedro. There are three main streets on the Cay. Front – which faces the outer reef, middle and back, with smaller ones joining them. The locals are so friendly and stop you just to chat. One such local woman and her Rastafarian husband who have a T-shirt stand, want to know where we have come from and how did we get here. When they had learnt we had come by catamaran they were so excited telling us they were building one to do just what we were doing – sail the world. I am lost for words to explain what they were building, so see the enclosed photo. They live on it while working their T-shirt stand, and just pull a tarpaulin over it at night in case it rains !!!!! As they saying goes “A picture paints a thousand words”.
Simon and Kay arrive. We walk the Cay, swim off the back of Shamal in the bay where we have been told a Bull Shark lives hanging around one of the fish cleaning stations. Thank goodness not close to where we anchor. Plus we are there for their Islands Lobster Festival. We also end up buying lobster from the local fishermen. Alec and Simon set off in the tender one morning to rescue a couple of unfit Londoners who had tried to kayak off the beach resort they were staying at, but had got themselves into a little difficulty. Then it was time to move on again. We spent a night at Long Cay exploring that area, then headed for Cucumber Marina just south of Belize City, stopping on the way at an un-named cay, for a swim and lunch. We drop anchor just outside the marina. Kay and I take the tender in to get information regarding an inland trip while the boys refuel Shamal from our jerry cans. We later decide that as the while we are having settled weather we will head outside the reef tomorrow to visit the famous “ Blue Hole” on Lighthouse Reef, then come back and visit Belize City and maybe do our inland travel to a Mayan Ruin from here.
The next morning we up anchor and motor out to the main shipping channel. It is a three hour run before we are outside the reef again, and another three hours before we reach the Turneffe Islands which lie between the main reef and Lighthouse Reef. The winds have now come around making it impossible for us to sail or motor without a lot of discomfort, on out to Lighthouse Reef, so we drop anchor at the S.W. end of the Turneffe Islands just outside the lagoon, but sheltered from the winds and seas by yet another reef system. It is now dull and overcast and the weather report does not look like improving in the next few days. That afternoon we have a visit from a couple of guys who swim out from the Rangers Station, a good half mile from the shore. We take the tender over to the reef where kay and the boys spot lobster scurrying around, but they are too fast for them to catch !!!! The next day the weather is no better. Winds are gusting 28kts, and that would be on the nose if we head out to Lighthouse Reef, so we decide we will stay here and explore the area. We take the tender into the lagoon and chat with a couple who are staying at the Lodge there. Then it is back to check out the mangroves before the squadrons of bugs attack at dusk.
Next day it is still blowing and overcast with passing squalls. We decide to give Lighthouse reef a miss. We are disappointed not to see the Blue Hole, but later learn one really needs to visit it on a sunny day to get the full benefits of its brilliance. We return to Cucumber Marina and this time go in and spend a couple of nights so we can explore the city. Fires, floods and hurricanes had caused havoc in Belize City over the years, and after hurricane Hattie almost entirely destroyed the city in late October 1961, the government finally decided to move the capital inland to the city of Belmopan. Haulover Creek divides the city, which is fill of the small local fishing boats. Today it is visited by cruise ships which have to anchor miles off-shore as the waters in this area are very shallow. We also decide to visit Tikal – a Mayan ruin in Guatemala – once we arrive in Guatemala.
|Simon & Kay - Fruit & Vege Market, Belize City|
So it is time to move on again. We spend a couple of nights at the Colson Cays. We take the tender in to swim over a number of small blue holes. They are not very deep and there are not many fish here, but the water is warm, clear and clean. We have reached the stage where our two membranes for the water maker need to be replaced. We can still make water to use for showers and washing, but not for drinking, so I am now collecting rain water. Thank goodness we are having enough rain. We have four buckets out and it has become a bit of a completion to see who’s collects the most.
Our next leg has us motor sailing inside the reef but heading to one of the outer reef cays. Simon pulls in what we think is a Caribbean Reef Shark. We have not had much luck fishing of late, but we are not that desperate, so it goes back. We drop anchor at the SW end of Tobacco Cay. It is one of the Cays that is part of the outer reef system where the waters drop off from the beautiful turquoise colours to the sapphire blue of the deep ocean. We are inside the reef in the shallows, and totally sheltered from the winds and seas. The Cay is covered in coconut palms with houses dotted underneath. We take the tender to the north end of the cay to snorkel. Again the waters are beautiful, and this time we get to see plenty of different fish. The following morning we go ashore a wander through the coconut palms and the cabins and houses. We stopped at the “local” shop to have a cool drink. Some kind of local soft drink that was disgusting. We also buy coconuts for our rum punch. By midmorning we decided to up anchor and pass out through a reef entrance and motor the five miles to the next entrance. This was so we could TRY to catch dinner. I was getting a little desperate by this stage having told my guests that the fishing was great around here !! – to date nothing apart from Simons shark, and our outer reef run also drew a blank. Oh help I would just have to get some Lobsters out of the freezer !! We come back through the reef and drop anchor off South Water Cay. It is a beautiful sunny day and this cay is post card perfect with its sandy beach and coconut palms.
As I said the cay sits right on the main reef, and, about 15nm off the mainland. There is also an International Zoological station here which teaches tropical biology and coral reef ecology. Later Alec and I met another New Zealander who is working as an instructor here.
Wednesday 12th July: We had dropped the anchor less than a hundred metres from shore beside two charter catamarans, and like the people on the other cats had snorkelled ashore to the shallows to look around. We spent a good hour there and were returning to Shamal. It was around 5.00p.m. Alec and I arrived back first with Simon and Kay following not far behind. Kay was using one of our noodles as a floatation, so the ends of that were sticking well out of the water. Simon was about 2mts away from her. A local fishing boat about 24ft long left the dock at full speed. He saw Kay in the water so should have slowed down, but did not see Simon. Next thing we hear a horrid thud followed by Simon calling for help. We just felt sick to the stomach not knowing how bad his injuries were. We saw no blood in the water, but still realised things were serious. Thank goodness the fisherman cut his engine immediately, so Simon was not hit by his prop. Alec and I threw the tender in the water and went straight over. By the time we reached him there were other boats there offering help. The fisherman was not a big guy, but the adrenalin kicked in and he hauled Simon out of the water and into his boat and took him back to the dock. We hauled Kay out of the water and took her over. Things moved very quickly. A Canadian woman who manages the Zoological station was on her phone to a hospital on the mainland saying they would be bringing in an elderly man in who had had an accident. Simon was not impressed with that comment. They had a fast speed boat which Simon was transferred to. I took Kay back to Shamal and within five minutes we had a bag packed with clothes etc. Off they set. Alec and I stayed behind on Shamal as it would soon be dark and we could not negotiate the reefs at night. We said we would wait till they made contact with us. Just after they left a good rain squall pass through and they got drenched as it was an open boat. They were taken to the coastal town of Dangriga where a guy was waiting to drive then to the local hospital. Simon had internal bleeding and broken ribs. He was so so lucky as it could has been so much worse.
I have to say the locals were incredible. Alec and I were informed on his progress at the hospital during the night which meant people coming out in a boat to tell us. They let us use their phones to contact Kay for reports.
Simon was released from the hospital the following morning. They went to stay at the Pelican Beach Resort in Dangriga. We moved Shamal and anchored just off the Resort. None of us felt happy with the said results that the local hospital gave Simon, so on the Saturday morning Kay Alec and I set off for the hospital to try and obtain the x-rays they had taken plus a written report. That was not to be. The Doctor was not on duty, the x-rays were now lost in the system, and a written report could only, if really necessary, be obtained from the duty Doctor. We left an email address for the report to be sent to but did not feel we would ever see one. Next step. With the help of Simon and Kays new friend who had driven them to the Dangriga Hospital, an appointment was made for Monday morning for Simon to have a MRI scan in the capital – Belmopan – a drive of about one hour thirty minutes inland (approx. 88ks) We all felt he should have this before he returns home. It is a good thing their holiday is not over till the end of the month as it will give time for him to heal a bit more. At this stage we were still hoping, if he is given the all clear, to join us again and we will move slowly south and into Guatemala and up the Rio Dulce - about 24nm inland – where we plan to leave Shamal for the hurricane season.
Monday arrives, and so have the winds again. We are sitting on a very open coast with no shelter. Alec and I make the decision to stay with the boat and let them go through to Belmopan on their own. Around mid-morning we get a call from Kay. They are now on their way through to the hospital in Belize City. He had the scan and the surgeon whom he saw was not happy, and was sending him on for a more expert opinion. This time he saw two Doctors. The end result was the damage had been much more severe than first diagnosed. He was to find a hotel and have complete rest with regular visits back to see the specialists to see how he was improving. Finding somewhere to stay also turned into a problem for them as the hotels were all full, it was still the tourist season. They did find a place but had to move after a few nights to another. We brought Shamal back up to Cucumber Marina just south of Belize City so we could hand back all their belongings. It was a sad day when we had to part company. Simon needed complete rest - no bumping around in choppy seas. The bruising was now coming out. He was black from his chest to nearly his knees and was in a lot of discomfort. Shamal and our time in Belize was nearly over. We could have extended, but we are now at the beginning of hurricane season and we needed to reach Guatemala. We have been watching as a second tropical storm is heading our way, it was later down-graded thank goodness.
On Wednesday 19th July we slip out of Cucumber Marina at 0630. It is a dull grey morning with squalls about. My mood was also very grey as I felt so bad leaving at a time like this, but Kay was wonderful. Being world travellers nothing seems to faze her and she can cope with all situations. We drop anchor that evening just off Placencia on the main land after a 61nm run. We spend the following day here. Taking the tender ashore we visit the pretty town which is clean and tidy with a mile long raised board-walk passing craft/gift shops, homes, cottages and newly built guest houses, plus a beautiful white sandy beach. It has just become a stop for the cruise ships, so we imagen over time it will lose some of its old world charm. We get back to Shamal just before the thunder storms start again, which last all night.
The next day we have a 40nm run to the town of Punta Gorda, also situated on the main land. Again an open rolly anchorage as we are having winds from the ENE., but it is here we check out of Belize. Next morning – Saturday 22nd July – we take the tender ashore to check out. Opps it is Saturday and we are charged overtime !!!! By the time we are ready to return to Shamal with all the paper work complete, the winds are now gusting to 20kts plus. Thank goodness we were expecting this and had come prepared by wearing our swim wear under our clothes for the wet ride back in the tender to Shamal. It did cause some rather strange looks from the locals as we striped off our clothes. The next interesting bit was actually boarding Shamal from the tender in those seas. No-one fell in, but, we did get thoroughly wet.
With anchor up, then sails up, we used the winds for the 15nm run into Bahia de Amatique, then dropped anchor in the shelter of Punta Manabique. We are now in Guatemalan waters. The town of Livingston lies 10nm to our W. across Bahia de Amatique, but it is Saturday afternoon and we don’t want to be caught with more overtime fees, so, we will stay anchored here till Monday morning. Also we want to pass in over the bar at Livingston and the entrance to the Rio Dulce at high tide, not that it should be a problem with our draft. We spend the rest of the day and Sunday doing small jobs and relaxing in the sunshine – when it was out. Evenings again saw the usual run of thunderstorms with plenty of rain to collect. Lightening bounced around the bay, still something NOT top of my favourite list !!!! Another yacht has joined us in the bay and radioed to see if they can follow us across the bar.
By 0830 on the Monday we managed to motor over the sand bar at high tide with our 4 foot draught. At times only 1-2 feet clearance under our keel. Yachts with a greater draught such as the yacht behind us at 7 feet need assistance from a local fishing boat. The local boat will tow these yachts across the sand bar, kind of bouncing over the sand waves as displayed on our sonar fish finder. Also the tow boat will attach a long line to a fully extended spinnaker halyard which comes out at the top of the mast. Once this line is taut the yacht is now on its side with water not quite lapping the deck. A good technique to temporarily reduce ones draught. A good income earner for the local fishermen, and fair enough too.
Our check in procedures here took a little longer than expected, but it gave us a chance to explore the town of Livingston. It I so remote that it is only accessible by water. The mountainous landscape behind the town has meant no road access has ever been attempted. It has grown and developed around the tourist industry. Early afternoon we up anchor along with the mono who then followed us into the gorge and up the Rio Dulce. It was quite spectacular with high cliffs rising on each side of us dripping in thick lush jungle. After seven miles of twists and turns with something new to draw your attention at each bend, the Rio Dulce opens up into El Golfete, the first lake up the Rio. We drop anchor for the night just outside Texan Bay and sit and watch the local boats returning home at dusk. It is a surreal feeling to be sitting in this body of fresh water without wind or waves and an evening chorus from the rainforest birds.
The following morning we up anchor and motor up the lake, back into the Rio Ducle and drop anchor in Ensenada Nana Juana, a bay on the S. side of the town of Fronteras. We are sitting in front of the RAM marina. We have come a total of about 24nm inland. We spend 9 days at anchor here finding our way around the area, meeting up with new and old friends, and making arrangements for our “lift out” on the 3rd August. Shamal is lifted and placed in a nice sheltered corner of the yard. There are about 160 other boats on the hard here. There is another marina next door with its share of boats lifted, plus many more sitting in the water in different marinas around this area. It truly is a safe haven for boats during the hurricane season. We met a number of people who have arrived in their boats and enjoy the life here so much, they have stayed and now call this place home.
After working hard for four days we have Shamal all shut down and make plans to head inland to Tikal to visit the ancient Mayan ruins. We took a bus to visit these ruins. A fascinating visit leaving many questions still unanswered. After two nights there we took the bus back to Belize City and from there flew out to New York where we went to visit our daughter and her family who now live in New Jersey. We spent two months with them as a new grandchild arrived - another grandson, total three boys. The twins were delighted with their new brother. They took us on trips around their area which is so pretty. We were taken to an air show at Atlantic City. We were flown up to the Niagara Falls in the King Air 350 that our son-in-law instructs in and flies part time, then on to Mystic in Connecticut to visit the old historic Seaport. After saying goodbye to the family we flew to Kelowna in British Columbia – Canada - to visit friends from our Middle East days. That was a wonderful catch-up time and it is a beautiful part of Canada. We took a Greyhound Bus to Vancouver where we caught a flight back to New Zealand.
So, here we are back home till January when we will return to Shamal and continue on with our Adventures.
We wish all of you who are continuing on with your adventures safe sailing and fare winds. I am sure we will cross wakes again soon.
Once again this is the Commander and the Admiral signing out from another post.