In my experience, every charter has a kind of a theme to it, often encapsulated in a single moment. For me, during a recent weeklong charter off the coast of Belize that moment came toward the end of our first day out.
We’d left the Sunsail base (sunsail.com), located part way up the isthmus that is the beachside community of Placencia, around mid-morning. After that, the trip down Placencia Lagoon had taken the better part of an hour, after which we’d tacked round just shy of Potts Shoal and started reaching north along the Inner Channel—an area of relatively deep water between the mainland and the islands offshore, leaving Placencia to port. With around 15 knots apparent coming in over the starboard bows and a light chop, Hamako, our Sunsail 404 catamaran, was in her element, chewing up the miles. The day couldn’t have been a better one—that is until it came time for us to make the final approach to our destination, the Pelican Cays.
Coastal Belize is a funny place. Protected by a magnificent system of islands and barrier reefs (a UNESCO World Heritage site, no less) you can go from nice, wide-open, deep-water sailing to a maze of coral in the blink of an eye. Case in point: the coral heads that separate the Inner Channel down which we were now sailing from our planned anchorage. Oh, and did I mention another hallmark of chartering in Belize, the almost complete lack of nav aids?
Fortunately, our hosts back at the Sunsail base had been kind enough to load up our chartplotter with a series of waypoints to help us find our way. However, the cardinal rule of GPS navigation is to never rely on your GPS alone. So it was all hands on deck as my wife, Shelly, our daughter, Bridget, and I all kept our eyes peeled, checking the water around us for the telltale greenish-yellow smudges indicating shoals.
Not that they were hard to find. Altering course to starboard, our new heading brought us in between Crawl and Quamino cays, where Captain Freya Rauscher’s excellent Cruising guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast showed around 90ft of water. Nice! Extending out between the two, however, were also a pair of reefs to either side, lurking just below the surface. Immediately beyond that were the Lagoon Cays and a pair of large areas labelled “Foul Ground” and “Many Coral Heads” as well. Hmmmm…
Luckily, we had two things going for us. First, the slight haze we’d been sailing under all afternoon chose that same moment to move on, causing the colors in the water to pop in all their tropical splendor. Second, we were aboard a catamaran, a boat that could sail in a mere 4ft of water, barely enough to come up to my chest.
Granted, there are any number of keelboats out there drawing almost as little as our Sunsail 404. I remember once having a fine-old time aboard a monohull sloop in the Sea of Abaco that drew just 5ft and 9in. But then again, when it comes to sailing in shoal water, a few inches can make all the difference in the world, and I was awfully glad to be drawing as little as we did. Belize’s coral reefs aren’t known as one of the great snorkeling grounds of the world for nothing. The fact that we had even just a little bit more of a margin for error was very much appreciated.
It was the same thing the following morning making our way out to Hatchet Cay, just inside the barrier reef. After extricating ourselves from the Pelican Cays we had a fairly straightforward close-reach on a heading of 150 magnetic down Victoria Channel. On our final approach, though, the bottom once again slowly but surely rose up to us until we were making our way through 9ft of water or less, with various different hazards all around.
Same thing another couple of days after that on the run from Hatchet to Wippari Cay, as we began meandering our way back toward where we’d be within striking distance of the charter base. Once again, things started off easily enough as we cast off our mooring and started jibing downwind, making the most of the light breeze At one point we had to keep a lookout for where the bottom rose up from 100ft to just below the surface in the same general area where we planned to throw in a jibe. But with the sun bright overhead, the shoal showed up as an obvious spot of light yellowish water off in the distance.
Then came the channel between Cary Cay and South Long Cocoa Cays, where it was game on again, with the chart showing a 4ft shoal to port and a scattering of X’s to starboard. Immediately to the south of Wippari Cay was also a line of coral heads known as Viper Rocks—yes, “viper” rocks. Then there was Wippari Cay itself, surrounded by yet more coral heads to north and south, with nary a light, buoy or daymark to be found.
By now, though, we’d become used to this sort of thing. We were also, as is so often the case on a bareboat charter, becoming increasingly comfortable with our boat. As a result, watching the water rapidly turning from deep blue to a light turquoise as the bottom reared up at us from 100ft to scarcely a fathom was all just part of the fun.
A short while after that, rolling up the genoa in preparation for motoring up to one of two available mooring balls, I imagined this must have been what it was like for the ancient Polynesians: those same sailors who first perfected this kind of sailing, sneaking their way in and out of anchorages across the South Pacific. Shelly and I first met as Peace Corps volunteers in the island nation of Western Samoa, and we both know all too well what the reefs in that part of the world are truly like. Aboard a multihull like Hamako, though, the world is also your oyster.
Of course, there’s always the old explorer’s method: eyes on the depthsounder (or swinging a lead line!) as you pick your way through a field of unmarked coral heads, occasionally bumping off the one you missed. But this approach can be highly problematic, especially aboard any kind of monohull with a fin keel and spade rudder. It’s also more than a little inconsiderate of the coral itself. Far better to glide blissfully overhead drawing less water than you can easily stand up in—at peace with both yourself and the myriad creatures looking up at your keels.
Cruise on the wild side
For our charter in Belize, we barely scratched the surface in terms of what this wonderful cruising ground has to offer. While in Pelican Cays we paid a visit to Hideaway Cay Resort (hideawaycaye.com) where former Floridians Kim and Dustin and their daughter, Ama, run a wonderfully intimate little eco-lodge tucked away among the mangroves; on Hatchet Cay we beachcombed, dined on lionfish and took an afternoon snorkeling trip out to the nearby barrier reef to visit some local sea turtles and nurse sharks; and Placencia is a funky little destination in and of itself you’re not going to want to miss.
That said, the key to chartering in Belize is paying attention to your chart briefing before setting out. As is the case whenever and wherever you may bareboat charter, the staff knows the area like the back of their hands. They will be able to alert you as to what to look out for and also recommend where it might be best to go given the conditions. Note that in addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage site, many Belizean reefs are set aside as parks, with admission only permitted under certain circumstances. A word to the wise, you do NOT want to mess with the Belizean government when it comes to the country’s maritime natural resources.
The good news is that Belize is very much a four-season destination (we sailed there in early July) with only the occasional hurricane. However, be sure to pay attention to the weather when dropping the hook. 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. Belize can be a challenge, and first-time charterers would be well served to earn their bones elsewhere. But if you’re an experienced sailor, it offers a chance to not only explore a truly magnificent part of the world but put your seamanship to the test in a place where there are few if any other charter boats cluttering things up.