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It's Just You, Me and the Sea: A Charter in Belize

On our fifth afternoon on charter we anchored at Caye Caulker, and then immediately re-anchored after realizing the generator on shore was much too loud for our liking. We dinghied to the dock of a small resort, tied up and walked into town...

On our fifth afternoon on charter we anchored at Caye Caulker, and then immediately re-anchored after realizing the generator on shore was much too loud for our liking. We dinghied to the dock of a small resort, tied up and walked into town, where tourists and locals were strolling the dusty roads and sipping neon blue cocktails from the Lazy Lizard. My crew of six looked and felt thoroughly out of place. We were walking funny—still rolling to the rhythm of the waves—and shocked at the site of all these people. Up to now we had interacted with just four other human beings all week, including a conch fisherman, a snapper fisherman and a park ranger who oversaw a small cove of palm trees on a teeny tiny caye. After about 10 minutes trying to fit in on Caye Caulker, we were overwhelmed and booked it back to our boat.

There, the breeze blew a steady 20 knots, as it had all week. The water was flat, shallow and teeming with life. The stars were bright, and the anchorage was nearly empty. Ah, this was more like it. The isolation from people and the connection with the ocean—this was what we had grown accustomed to in Belize.

I knew this would be a different sort of trip from the moment three of my crew and I first met in Belize City and boarded a small puddle-jumper to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. We landed on a hilariously small airstrip, gathered our bags directly from the pilot and walked less than five minutes to the TMM Yacht Charters base and our boat, Hope, a 2007 Leopard 46.

Local law prohibits sleeping aboard at the charter docks, so we checked into the nearby Holiday Hotel and looked forward to our boat briefing the next morning. Our friends Matt and Katie, who had arrived earlier to provision the boat (nice friends, right?), reported that the “provisioning briefing” they received from TMM was a must. For one thing, provisioning on Ambergris is expensive—twice what you’ll spend on charter elsewhere. For another, it requires flexible menu planning based on what happens to be available. It also pays to listen to the base’s advice on which stores and stands are best for which foods and goods that day.

Having a day to explore San Pedro made for a welcome transition. There was plenty to keep us busy—live music, good food and great snorkeling in the nearby Hol Chan Marine Reserve. We shared a nice dinner at Fresh Mangos followed by some rocking good live music at Fido’s.

Next morning we sat down with base manager Simon and received a thorough chart briefing complete with a pre-marked cruising guide, a suggested itinerary and a Navionics SD card preloaded with useful waypoints. The last thing Simon said before sending us on our way was: “If you blow just 10 feet off this dock, you will be aground. So point toward your first waypoint, and give this island a wide berth, but not so wide that you hit the shoals on the other side. And have fun!”

With that, we were off.

Perhaps the only thing more complicated than grocery shopping in Belize is navigating in Belize. After departing Ambergris Caye the general idea was to sail on beam reaches and stay inside the barrier reef. Sounds simple, except that the average water depth is less than 5 feet, and the average breeze blows around 20 knots. The “channel markers” are just tall sticks, and the cruising guide is seven years old. “Have fun!” is right.

It took us a full day to stop panicking every time we saw the depthsounder read 0.2, 0.1 or even 0. Eventually, though, we learned to rely on both our bow lookout and our ability to navigate by reading the color of the water.

That first day we carried a pleasant beam reach past Caye Caulker, Caye Chapel and Long Caye—the latter two seemingly untouched by humankind—and anchored, per Simon’s advice, on the windward side of St. George’s. Although this seemed counter-intuitive, especially with the 20-knot breeze and 3-knot current pushing us toward shore, he assured us the holding and water depth were better there. So we set two anchors (a tactic we vigilantly employed every night), and stayed firmly dug in.

For some reason a haze hovered over the cayes throughout our trip, which the locals assured us they’d never experienced before (isn’t that always the case?) and made for limited visibility and dark, starless nights. Although St. George’s was the informal capital of Belize from 1650 to 1784, it is now sparsely populated. Once the sun set, the island went completely dark, and we slept in murky blackness, the sound of 35-knot gusts lulling us to sleep.

The next day we sailed south until we reached the cut at Farls Bogue, where we turned directly east (the 90-degree turn was a must in order to avoid the shoals) and dropped anchor for a snorkel. This was our first time experiencing the reef, which is the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef. It is because of this reef that these cayes have such flat water and such renowned snorkeling. Under water, we were not disappointed: despite the current, visibility was good, and we saw plenty of angelfish, lobster and conch before taking off for Water Caye.

That’s where we had Human Encounter #1: Wayne.

Wayne, 50, is a fisherman born of a fisher family. He lives in a tiny fish camp on stilts about 100 yards off Water Caye, where he and his dog subside on the fruits of the sea plus whatever his boss brings over from Belize City. His leathery skin is pulled taught around his muscly frame, and he wears a mischievous grin. When Wayne invited us to follow him on a conch fishing expedition, we happily accepted.

Wayne took off in his bright teal dugout canoe, propelling it with a single wooden paddle and even with our dinghy’s outboard running full tilt, we could barely keep up. Once he reached a spot he deemed worthy, he tied the canoe’s painter around his narrow waist, strapped on goggles and dove in. An hour later, we were all back at the boat, huddled around the transom where Wayne was breaking open the 20-plus conch he had scored for us. He asked only for a few cups of rum in exchange, and that evening, we enjoyed savory conch ceviche and fritters. The breeze blew through the night, but we remained secure on our two anchors.

Human Encounters #2 and #3 both occurred on Goff’s Caye, one of the most picture perfect islands I’ve ever seen. It’s about 100 yards long and 25 yards wide, with a bright white sand beach. On shore a “park ranger” greeted us (if you can give such an officious name to a shirtless man who was smoking a joint, lounging under a palm tree, and deposited our $5 entry fees straight into his pocket). I’ve been told this is a cruise ship hot spot, though it makes me claustrophobic to imagine 200 bodies covering every inch of it. After lunch, kitesurfing, and some excellent snorkeling just off the beach, we met a local fisherman with a cooler-full of freshly caught snapper. Twenty-five dollars and two fish later, we went back to the boat for dinner.

Middle Long Caye was next, although by this point they were starting to look the same. We took the dinghy inland to explore the wandering mangrove waterways, where manatees are rumored to hang out. Though we didn’t spot any “sea cows,” we were astounded by the birdlife. By now we were really beginning to get into the groove of chartering in Belize: beam-reaching for two or three hours, no other boats in sight, two anchors to withstand the ceaseless breeze through the night, lots of nature, lots of wildlife, and lots and lots of face-time with the crew. Truly, it was just them, me and the sea. It was a good thing we liked each other so much.

Having reached the southernmost point in our journey, we set the sails on the port side for the first time and journeyed northbound, the breeze (still blowing!) steady on our starboard beam. At Spanish Lookout Caye, we stumbled upon a miniature resort, complete with one bartender, one dockhand and a chef/owner. I have a feeling this, too, is a cruise ship destination because though there was seating for hordes of rum-punch drinkers, we had it to ourselves.

We walked along a boardwalk that meandered through the mangroves and ended up at a series of huts: bungalows, a restaurant, a cheesy souvenir shop and a manatee museum, where we learned that “manatees are vegetarians who eat plants, turtles and other manatees.” Sometimes you can’t believe everything you read.

The next morning I padded my way sleepily out of my cabin only to find the saloon buried knee-deep in birthday balloons, streamers hanging from corner to corner. My crewmates had brought birthday decorations all the way from the States, and I was happy to ring in another year of existence with them in such a beautiful place. If you’ve never celebrated a special event on charter, let this be your recommendation to do so. You won’t soon forget it.

It seemed impossible, but this was already our last night among the cayes. We spent it on Caye Caulker, that lovely island whose bustling humanity had forced us to about-face, though we did enjoy one amazing snorkel on its front side, which we accessed by dinghy. The sealife there was some of the best we saw all week (and that’s saying something), and included a ray with a wingspan that must have exceeded seven feet. Just when we’d all gathered to check out a puffer fish with a seriously huge face, a loud propeller jolted us back to the surface. An angry park ranger informed us that this was a protected marine sanctuary, only accessible with a certified guide, and that if we didn’t get back to the dinghy, we’d be getting back to the police station. You’ve never seen twelve flippers kick so quickly.

We felt suitably guilty for our mistake, especially because the protected area had been so spectacular, so if you go, be sure to hire one of the guides from Caye Caulker—it’s well worth it.

It rained during our final evening on anchor, and for the first time the haze lifted. Finally, we could see a blanket of stars at night, followed by a clear blue sky in the morning. After a bit of leftover birthday cake for breakfast, we sailed back to the charter base, back to San Pedro, back to reality.

All photos by Meredith Dungar

CRUISE NOTES

Charter company: TMM Yacht Charters, sailtmm.com, 800-633-0155

If you go, book at least ten days. Between the travel days and the no-sleepaboard rule, you’ll want more than a week to properly explore the area

Provision carefully. Believe the charter company when they tell you there are no grocery stores beyond San Pedro. Believe them, too, when they tell you not to drink the water or eat any produce washed in that water. Two of our crew suffered three days of discomfort after eating an innocent-looking mango from a roadside fruit stand

Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast, Third Edition, by Captain Freya Rauscher, is the best resource available for this area. It’s thorough and entertaining, but keep in mind it is also seven years old, so cross-reference with locals and with TMM

You’ll always be sailing in shallow water, so be sure you’re clear on how to calibrate your depthsounder. Offsetting with 4 to 5 feet of “mercy” room is a good idea

Set two anchors and dive on them both. Also, make sure your boat has a big, heavy anchor. Holding is adequate, but the wind tends to blow hard all through the night, so be vigilant

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