It would be hard to imagine a more secure spot than the Sunsail base on the outskirts of the beachside community of Placencia, Belize. The entire marina is protected by a robust seawall with a channel scarcely a few boatlengths across. It’s also located far enough up Placencia Lagoon that it takes the better part of a half hour before you get out into open water (and can stop playing connect-the-dots with your chartplotter waypoints to avoid plowing into the muddy shallows to either side).
Once you come around the southern end of the Placencia waterfront, though…well, that’s a different story.
Not that the aspect that greeted my wife, Shelly, and our daughter, Bridget, and me was in any way a terrible one. On the contrary, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that, in stark contrast to so many of the world’s other popular charter destination, once you cast off lines in Belize, you’re very much on your own.
Coming out from behind the narrow, sandy peninsula that is Placencia, we promptly hardened up onto a close reach to stay well clear of Potts Shoal to the south. A short while after that, we came about and started heading north along the Inner Channel—an area of relatively deep water between the mainland and the islands offshore, leaving Placencia to port and the Bugles Cays to starboard. It was then, as Hamako, our Sunsail 404 catamaran, was powering through the chop on a close reach with 15 or so knots of breeze on the beam that I realized just how empty the prospect before us truly was.
First and foremost we were the only sailboat around. Making their way from the mainland toward the outer reef and back may have been the occasional dive boat or fishing panga. But that was it, and so it would remain for the duration of our charter.
Then there’s the reef for which this area is so renowned—a UNESCO World Heritage site, no less—and the area’s many small islands. In contrast to the fringe reefs, Shelly and I are familiar with from our days in the South Pacific, the barrier reef protecting this part of the Belizean coast is much less prominent, scarcely breaking the surface in many places. It is also surprisingly far offshore, around 20 miles from Placencia, so that while it serves to block the larger oceanic swells coming in off the open Caribbean, there is still plenty of fetch when the eastern trades kick in.
As for those many small islands, the operative term here “small.” In contrast to those Caribbean islands most charterers are accustomed to, Belize’s islands—islets, really, in many cases—barely rise above sea level, being mere protuberances of the surrounding coral. Not only that, much of the square footage of these islands scarcely even counts as “land” in the proper sense of the word as it is mere mangrove swamp.
Bottom line, Belize is arguably the “wateriest” place I’ve ever sailed. It is also among the least well protected, so much so that those more accustomed to the safely enclosed waters of the BVIs or the Sea of Abaco in the Bahamas, may be in for a bit of a shock.
Not that any of this posed a problem for the crew of the good ship Hamako as we hurried north toward Pelican Cays where we planned to spend the night. Reaching along with the mainland a mile or so to leeward, we enjoyed a steady 15 knots of breeze out of the east while a slight haze far overhead took some of the sting out of the tropical sun. Around noon we saw another cat far away on the horizon heading directly offshore. A short while later it was followed by a solitary monohull sailing south. That was it.
Eventually, arriving in another stretch of open water known as the Victoria Channel, we fired up our diesel auxiliaries and prepared for our next revelatory experience vis. Belizean chartering—navigating a twisting, turning channel with shoals to either side and a complete absence of navigational aids. Fortunately, while we had Captain Freya Rauscher’s Cruising guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast we also had a chartplotter fully loaded up with waypoints courtesy of the folks as Sunsail, which allowed us to once again play connect-the-dots: all the while keeping a wary eye on the yellowish, greenish smudges denoting coral reefs to either side. I confess, a part of me would have loved to have been able to pick my way around “old school,” following the wonderful charts and bearings in Captain Rauscher’s guide, but only aboard my own boat—and preferably a nice sturdy one with a full keel and attached rudder at that!
As it was, thanks to the modern miracle that is GPS we made it into the anchorage at Pelican Cays unscathed and promptly grabbed one of the three available moorings there; after which we dinghied ashore to pay a visit to Kim Ingersoll, co-owner along with her husband, Dustin, of the Hideaway Cay Resort (hideawaycaye.com), which they run with the help of their daughter, Ama, and their dogs, Caye and Maya.
Remember when I said Belize is one of the wateriest places I’ve ever sailed? Well, even in Belize it would be hard to find a waterier—or cooler—place than the Hideaway, which Kim and Dustin have created among the mangroves of the small island that is also their home. The micro-resort’s bar, restaurant and one lodge, for example, are all built up on stilts, same as the series of walkways connecting them to a small dock, all with an eye toward minimizing the impact on the area’s sea life. Similarly, if you ever want to swing by for dinner or lunch, be sure to call ahead so Dustin can don his snorkeling gear and catch you your meal—conch, spiny lobster, you name it—from the surrounding waters.
While we were there, Dustin, Ama and Caye were all leading a kayak tour of Pelican Cay. Later when we were back at the boat enjoying the sunset we saw them paddling back home—well, all of them except Caye, who was swimming alongside. Apparently, he likes it that way. Bottom line: it would be hard to imagine a family more in tune with the ocean, that or living in a way that is truer to their principles.
Alas, having just left the mainland, we very much wanted to eat aboard that night and had to decline Kim’s invitation to dinner. However, there was also a certain navigational method to our madness. And the following morning found us enjoying a nice long port-tack board toward our next destination: Hatchet Cay, just east of Queen Cays Pass, which leads from the relatively shallow, sheltered waters inside the barrier reef to the open Caribbean.
Indeed, I confess I felt more than a little vain at how well our plan had worked out, given the otherwise daunting windward slog we would have faced had we tried to go straight there from Placencia. As is the case in the Virgin Islands, taking the trades into account is vital when route-planning, especially aboard a cruising cat with less than optimal point ability—assuming you don’t want to burn an inordinate amount of fuel, which we most definitely don’t. That said, we could have also just sailed on a beam reach directly to the north of Placencia, where there are any number of other nice spots. Although in our case we’d really wanted to get out toward the open Caribbean.
As it was, everything went swimmingly as we sailed back toward the Victoria Channel on an easy beam reach. After that, it simply hardened up onto a close reach and the next thing we knew we were revving up the auxiliaries again a mile or so to leeward of Hatchet Cay, at the same time contemplating our next Belizean reality check—iffy moorings and a lack of protection.
Back at the Sunsail base, we’d been warned not to trust even the most robust-looking moorings in this part of the world. And yet now here we were, with nothing but a float and a length of yellow polyproline line between us and the reef a half mile or to leeward. After tying on I went over the side for a closer a look. But because of the murk and the depth (in Belize the bottom will sometimes drop precipitously) I couldn’t see a thing, so it didn’t do much good.
Then there was the steadily growing breeze coming in off the Caribbean. As it had the day before, the easterly had built over the course of the day at the same time oscillating between east and southeast. This, in turn, meant that, given the small size and rounded shape of the nearby island, it was almost impossible to entirely escape the swell despite there being more than a dozen empty bouys to choose from. It wasn’t a terrible swell, mind you. Still, given my lack of confidence in our mooring, it was more enough to give one pause for thoughts.
Fortunately, it was at this same time that cooler heads (Shelly’s actually) prevailed, and she rather prosaically suggested we simply kick a hook over the side along with sufficient slack for it to set in the event of a failure. Hmmm… And so it was. I slept like a baby, even after the wind kicked up to a good 20 knots, and despite my fears early on that I wouldn’t sleep a wink.
In fact, so well did we all sleep that night that the following morning we immediately decided to stay for a second night as well, both to make things a little easier on ourselves and to take full advantage of all that Hatchet Cay has to offer—which is a lot, being one of the larger, better-developed spots in the area.
First we went for a brief snorkel in the small lagoon to leeward of the island—not quite as nice as the spectacular snorkeling we found in the Pelican Cays, but still nice and completely effortless being well sheltered. After that, we had a great lunch out on the porch of the Lionfish restaurant, where I had my first lionfish, after which we had another swim. As an added benefit, at the time of our visit the resort, which has since been renamed Ray Caye, was undergoing some major renovations, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
Later, we also went on a brief snorkeling excursion to the barrier reef where we swam with sea turtles, rays and a dozen or so surprisingly large nurse sharks. Motoring to and from the reef, our guide regaled us with stories from his days as a commercial conch diver and various bits of marine wisdom he’d acquired over the years. (Apparently, the law in Belize is you can harvest all the conch you want, but you have to do it by free-diving—a heck of a way to make a living if you ask me.) In addition to reef snorkeling excursions, the PADI and DAN-certified dive shop on Hatchet Cay also offers SCUBA lessons and whale-shark viewing excursions in the late spring. Earlier that winter, as we were planning our trip, we’d actually contemplated trying the latter, but had decided against it, since a whale-shark excursion can mean a long time out on the open water waiting for the behemoths to appear—a good call, as events ultimately proved, since there’s at least one member of the crew who still hasn’t entirely forgiven her parents just for making her swim with a few nurse sharks. Kids!
Near mutinies aside, after our nurse-shark mixer, it was back to Hamako for another good night’s sleep, after which we cast off our mooring (which had proved to be rock-solid) for a casual light-air sail directly downwind to Wippari Cay just north of a fun little spot named “Viper Rocks.” Once again, the mooring proved to be a pretty dicey-looking one (the line had apparently been pretty seriously mangled by a powerboat as some point), but once again it held. Once again, a slight swell came curving round the mangroves comprising a good half of the tiny island (which is nonetheless home to a small restaurant and fishing lodge), but once again I slept like a baby.
End result: the entire crew was feeling both well rested and well pleased with itself as it came time for us to retrieve our backup anchor and then settle in for a leisurely broad reach back toward Placencia Harbor.
Speaking of Placencia Harbor, a final word of warning: while it offers great holding and is wonderfully protected to the north, it is wide open to the south. Not only that but as we were told by cruisers Larry and Tracy Cost who were making their way down the coast aboard their Beneteau TraSea, there can be a nasty swell at the western side of the anchorage just off the town of Placencia. For our part, we dropped the hook close in along the edge of Placencia Cay, and Hamako scarcely budged an inch as we went ashore to enjoy the wonderful beach community that is Placencia and then once again slept like the dead—not a bad way to end the wild and wooly experience that is chartering in the watery wonderland that is Belize.
The key to a successful charter in Belize is paying attention to your chart briefing back at base. No matter what company you charter with, the staff will undoubtedly know the area like the back of their hands and can not only alert you as to what to look out for but where you might want to go. Note that in addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage site, any number of Belizian reefs are also set aside as parks, with admission only permitted on certain circumstances. A word to the wise, you do NOT want to mess with the Belizean government when it comes to natural resources! Beyond that, Belize is very much a four-season destination (we sailed there in early July) though it is subject to the occasional hurricane. When on charter, it is also important to pay attention to the weather—as noted many anchorages are simply off small islands, often with poor holding, and an unexpected shift could put you on a lee shore with miles of fetch to windward. Beyond that, anyone with a decent chartplotter onboard should have no problem. Again, Belize can be a challenge, and first-time charterers, in particular, would be well served to earn their bones elsewhere. But if you are an experienced sailor, Belize offers you an opportunity to not only explore a truly magnificent part of the world but to put your seamanship to the test without a whole lot of charter traffic cluttering up the horizon. You won’t be disappointed.
For more on chartering in Belize, visit sunsail.com; for details on the dive options on Hatchet Cay, visit raycaye.com/belize-dive-center
Photos by Adam Cort