Thursday, August 30, 2012

Back to New Orleans

Photos show what we like best about sailing!

Favorites are Colorful fishies and
With Isaac becoming a realty and Roy put on "Standby" we realized our plans had to change. Instead of hauling Wahoo out of the water and securing her "on the hard" at Abel's Boat Yard in Rio Dulce, we decided to leave her at Mario's Marina where we were staying. Marco, the manager will have her checked weekly, run the various systems, keep her aired out and cleaned. This relieved a lot of scheduling problems and allowed us to change our flight reservations from 9/11 to 8/29 (what's going on with those dates!!). Actually the most difficult (read expensive) part of this was arranging for Galnoir, our cat, to fly with us. Got it all done and flew out of Guatemala City on August 29, which as everyone knows is now as famous a date to New Orleanians as Mardi Gras or Super Sunday. We were booked to Houston then on to New Orleans. Naturally, that last portion of our trip was canceled. So here we are in Houston visiting with John Edward and Laura. Nice!
Tropical Islands and

Outdoor Markets and
Dinner Aboard and
We've spent the morning getting in touch with friends and family. Seems for New Orleans the big problem is no electricity. Much, much better then 7 years ago. Everyone there is a little sick of the advice "to hunker down" but prefer it to "run for your life". Mostly the new levees and pumps worked as planned though the one at the 17th St canal needed to be started manually. The real story was outside of the city.

Overtopping of the levee in lower Plaquemines near Braithwaithe offers a little too much déjà vu with about 25 folks in attics and stranded on levees. But this was an isolated incident and lots of resources were available to help. The northshore is in danger of seriously rising waters from the plethora of rivers swollen from all the rain.

Havana street scenes and
Family and

Old Friends coming to visit and
New Friends along the way and
Saddest of all is our old hometown of Lafitte, once again inundated by floods. Why should something called the "cost-benefit ratio" doom an area nearly as old as New Orleans. The people here epitomize what America is supposed to be and the values being enshrined over in Tampa right this minute. The bayou people have a history of family, morals and hard work. They have risen from the flood waters over and over since 1985 when Hurricane Juan flooded them For the FIRST TIME!  And don't get me started on the "why don't those people evacuate" dribble that's on TV. I hear "if they would just leave I wouldn't have to hear this and allow the human part of me to worry". How's about - once you leave you can't act to preserve your home when dangers you didn't envision arise, once out they won't let you back in, plus how far and how soon must you go!! Let me stop as this rant can go on and on.

Sunsets. But most of all

Tomorrow we're renting a car and driving to New Orleans. We'll be as happy to return to our home in New Orleans as we were to leave and go wandering.

we love Wahoo, she takes us safely to all the best places

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Lovely Rio Dulce

Raising the Guatemala flag on Wahoo

Since the 16th century people who go to sea have been finding safe harbor up this "sweet river". Our plans always called for us to do the same. Rio Dulce is a river in Guatemala, less then 20 miles from the Belize-Guatemala Border. When you arrive at the mouth of the river on the Caribbean Sea you must cross a shallow bar to enter. Wahoo draws 5ft and the bar is charted at 5.5 at mean low water. Even so we timed our entrance for high tide and crossed around noon with never less then 1.5ft under the keel. After crossing the 200 ft bar you arrive at the town of Livingston where you check into Guatemala using an agent named Raul.

Manual laundromat in Livingston
Everyone knows Raul, his name is in all the guidebooks and on all the forums. Somehow he IS Guatemala Customs and Immigration for cruisers entering Rio Dulce. We called him using our VHF, while crossing the bar, to let him know we were coming in. By 1pm we were anchored in front of Livingston's concrete town dock and Raul arranged to bring all officials to the boat for 2pm. Once they arrived he had all paperwork filled out in a matter of minutes. We were introduced to the officials but after the "Buenos Dias" they never said another word. Raul arranged for us to meet him back at his office where we would pay him and get our passports back. He also helped us with marinas and gave out maps with directions. Before meeting back in his office he gave us us time to wander around Livingston and go to a bank for quetzales or "q's" as they are called. The approximate rate of exchange is 7.50 Q to $1.US. All of a sudden we were brushing up on our 7.5 times tables. Livingston is a perfect little border town. Tiendas (shops) offered money exchange for nearly every possible currency at reasonable rates. We were able to change US dollars, Belize dollars and even some Euros that we'd been holding since Sebastien left us in San Pedro. Checking in cost us 1350 Q's ($174). Raul also arranged for a cruising extension as Wahoo would be staying in Guatemala longer then 90 days. This extension was about $264 for a year. There were no shorter extensions. There was no problem or added cost for having Galnoir aboard.

Sailing up the Rio Dulce
By 4pm we were back aboard pulling up the anchor and ready to head up the river. The beauty of the river as you glide past the high limestone cliffs dressed head to foot in tropical greens is breathtaking. Once you make the first turn in the river you are surrounded by these walls of living tropical greenery. After having spent the last 4 months on the sea with blue water below and blue sky above it was a wonderful moment, calm - tranquil - awesome. The beauty made us forget that this moment meant our 2012 trip was nearing its end. 

Because it was getting late we decided to follow the advice of other cruisers and, after the 7 mile trip through the canyon, we stopped for the night at La Laguna Marina. Jungles and mountains surrounded us. La Laguna was a perfect first stop! Following the wooden walkways lit only by torchlight through the tropical foliage we could just make out the flicker of lanterns and murmur of voices from the little bar and restaurant that was the heart of the marina. We met other cruisers, some we'd hung out with in Placencia, others we would get to know later. The talk was cruisers' talk - what was broken, what was fixed, how you got there, what the weather had been like, where you were headed. We listened as we were the newbies, most everyone else always spent hurricane season in Rio Dulce.

Fishing from a dugout
Traditional Mayan Family compound with dugout  - Waterlilies!

The next morning we decided to get in the dingy and do a little
Hot Spring
exploring. Being on the river in the dinghy was another experience. We passed Mayan indian men in dugouts fishing the river. We got a closer look at the thatched roof Mayan homesteads that we'd seen in little jungle clearings as we came upriver.  One very beautiful thing was the waterlilies we saw in nearly each little cove. Soon we found the hot springs and caves we'd been told to look for. A guide took us into the caves then led us to the springs. The cave we entered was narrow, damp and deep but filled with wonders. Our young guide showed us around with flashlights and told us about his family who owned this land and had discovered the caves 3 generations back. After being in the cave, the springs were most welcome. Hot water came out of the limestone and depending where in the spring you swam the water went from hot to cold.

Fort protecting Lake Izabel - did I mention the mountains!
Early afternoon found us back aboard Wahoo. We motored as Rio Dulce broadened out to El Gulfete before narrowing again at our destination - the river towns of Fronteras and Rellano, connected by the highest bridge in Cental America. The river ends a little ways past the bridge flowing into large Lake Izabel.  At this narrow point a fort stands watch, built to protect the Spanish galleons that would gather in Lake Izabel waiting for the right time to join a flotilla heading up the coast to Mexico, then Cuba before making the journey back across the Atlantic. We've been making that journey in reverse and all along our passage we coud see the danger that awaited ships from pirates, reefs and weather.  (Well, we didn't see any pirates)

Market Day - Fronteras
Of the two towns Fronteras is the larger market town. This whole area near the bridge is home to  12 - 15 marinas with slips and moorings for  over 500 boats. Two boatyards can handle haulout, storage and marine work. We hope to get a little interior work done prior to heading out next year. In addition to the cruising community, there's a vibrant local population that seem to be into cattle (lots of brahmins being hauled through town) and farming (the fruits and vegetables, wow! Nearly everything we see in the supermarkets under wrap is here in the market in bins.) Dozens and dozens of tiendas line the streets of Fronteras. I do believe you can find nearly anything you want. Roy found beautiful shrimp! I found tomatoes that look like roma tomatoes but taste like creole. There's lettuce, strawberries, mirltons, plus all the tropical fruits. We even found mushrooms! Nice to know there won't be a problem provisioning for next year's trip.

Someone has to work! - Roy repairing the forward hatch

Mario's Pool
Like cruisers heliconia just hang around
After trying one marina and looking at several more we settled on Mario's, where Andy Galliano and Jim Hebert stayed when buying Jim's catamaran a few years back. It's a little far from Fronteras but has a great community of liveaboard cruisers, a nice bar and restaurant and a pool!! Rio Dulce is HOT! and HUMID!. You do one little chore and need to spend an hour cooling off in the pool. We run the AC to sleep but there's no way that baby will keep up during the day and at .48 a kw we don't want to try. The marinas here are inexpensive compared to the US . We will pay about 1,875 Q ($250 US) for the month plus electricity. Now that we're here, Fronteras seems exactly the right distance away. Really, its only a 10 minute dinghy ride and once we got the phone and internet aircard working, once or twice a week for market days is just perfect.

Sailboat in the Jungle

Friday, August 10, 2012

Placencia and Good Friends

This was the sunset at Blueground Range. We found the camera!

We sailed from Blueground Range to Placencia on July 28th so we would have a few days to get ready for Sammye and Grouper's arrival on the 31st. It was windy and choppy on our way in but once we turned into the anchorage all was well. Placencia has two good anchorages. We opted for the one in front of Yuli's, a thatched roof bar out over the water. We were also close to the City dock and the famous mile long sidewalk. We had to refuel and fill the water tanks plus there were bills to pay, a boat to clean and marketing to do (Placencia is a good place to provision, several grocery stores with good selections and prices plus great fruit & veggie stands).

Placencia is not an island, its on a long peninsula in Southern Belize. There's a lovely long curving beach which fronts the sea. The reef here is miles away. There are two safe anchorages. One is in the lagoon on the backside of the peninsular. The one we choose is at its southern tip but with a nice little island to tuck behind so that you are out of the wind. (closer to the bars and charms of Placencia)

Dolphins swimming with Wahoo
Taking on fuel and water is always an event. This time it basically took us a whole day. We had to sail over a shallow bar in order to get into the lagoon which leads to Mango Creek and the commercial port of Big Creek. We aimed for high tide and only touched bottom once. It was slow going as the lagoon is not charted very well. After more then enough hours we made it to Robert's Grove Marina at the other end of the lagoon. This is also where the Moorings keeps its large charter fleet of catamarans.

Each day we got a few more chores done and Roy was in 7th heaven when he found a guy that made meat pies like he remembered growing up. He ended up with a standing order of a dozen, the man LOVES his meat pies!

St Pauli Girl surprise
The big day came and we went to meet Sammye and Grouper at the airport. It was so much fun to have friends with us again! Sammye did not disappoint as she arrived in a Hu-Dat?! T shirt with an image of  a Hubig Pie on the back. For those of you who haven't heard, the Hubig Pie factory in the Maringy burned down at the end of July. It was Sammye's birthday and we had a surprise for her back at the boat - and it wasn't the lobster dinner we'd cooked.

Famous Placencia sidewalk - that's Roy & Grouper peeping out  behind Sammye

Swimming off Wahoo
Beach Bar

Their first full day we spent swimming off of the back deck, hanging out, visiting all the Mayan gift shops plus several of the bars along the sidewalk.

Ball Court at Nim Li Punit ruin

Howler Monkeys
Belize is so much more than beautiful waters and pleasant sailing among pristine cayes. So the next day we headed inland hoping to see the sights and maybe hear some monkeys. We drove south towards Punta Gorda(PG), a small Mayan town nearly to the Guatemalan border. We stopped and visited a Mayan ruin, had street food in PG and visited a chocolate factory before heading to Hicattee Cottages where we would have dinner and spend the night.

Trying to get to the cave at Blue Creek
Pool at Hicattee Cottages
A lovely place, and the area around Hicattee is home to 12 troops of Howler Monkeys!

Howlers, are native to Belize. They are the largest New World monkey and the noise they make sounds more like a lion than a monkey. The next day after a lazy morning and a lovely breakfast we set off to visit Blue Creek and its Cave. Little did we know it would be an endurance trek through the rainforest. Roy was the only one to finish and brought us back some lovely photos. The trip inland led us through the Toledo District of Belize into parts of the Maya Mountains. All along we saw Mayan villages with a few thatched roof houses, laundry on the line and a much more primitive existence then we know of.

Waterfalls at Blue Creek

A celebration at Roy's Cool Spot once we had completed the cave trek.

Worrying about Ernesto takes many Belikins

We were aware that Ernesto had Belize in its sight and were being careful to keep up on its course. Thank you to everyone who emailed their concern. As we didn't have good internet service Lindy Brown and John Edward kept an eye on the storm and texted or emailed important updates. Once back in Placencia we decided to cut our visit to the cayes down to 1 overnight, getting us back on Sunday instead of Monday.

Laughing Bird Caye - Wahoo between the palms
On Saturday morning we motor sailed out to Laughing Bird Caye to snorkel and spend the night. Laughing Bird Caye is a sand and palm tree caye and is part of Belize's National Park. Our first snorkel spot was right off the caye in shallow water. We also found a lovely and healthy coral garden in 12 ft of water on the back side of the caye. A great snorkel adventure!
Grouper even found some lobsters but this is a Park island and so a "No Take" zone. :((

The caye is small and doesn't offer very good protection, so we had a rolly night. The next day we motored 5 miles keeping a bow lookout as Roy maneuvered Wahoo between shallows and coral to Long Coco Caye. We took the dingy and visited a construction site on this caye to let Grouper and Roy apply for jobs. No luck, but fortunately we didn't need a paycheck to have conch ceviche for lunch. We found some shallow water snorkeling over beautiful soft corals, starfish and sand dollars before heading back to Placencia.

Grouper getting a closer look at the lobsters

It was a tough call but Roy and I decided we needed to move the boat to Rio Dulce. Hoping it would survive them, we reluctantly left Placencia to the mercy of Sammye and Grouper for a night. They were heading back to New Orleans on Tuesday and we would be on the Rio Dulce by then. All of us are safe from anything Ernesto might throw at Belize.

Of course, as it turned out the storm went more north then expected.

10 NM Placencia Anchorage to Laughing Bird Caye
Placencia Anchorage  16 30.66N   88 21.92W
Laughing Bird Caye Approach to anchorages   16 26.67N    88 12.02W
Long Coco Caye anchorage   16 29.93N   88 12.68W

Monday, July 30, 2012

Exploring the Barrier Reef

Belize - home of the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and second longest in the world. Lets go see!
Tobacco Caye - all of it!

We had been anchored right off the reef while visiting San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, but now we wanted to sail along the reef and visit some of the smaller cayes. Knowing our penchant to stay and stay we limited our adventure to three cayes. Two were sand and palm tree cayes right on the reef, the other was a mangrove group of cayes off of the inner channel. 

Belize is different from sailing in the Bahamas. There's some deep water channels that you can use to get around. So you can sail in 50 - 60 ft depths until you approach the various lines of corals and cayes. Another nice thing is that there can be wind with hardly any waves. So the "rages" you can encounter as you sail through reefs in the Bahamas don't happen in Belize, as you are always behind the barrier reef (unless you are sailing to the atolls, but that's a different story). Like the Explorer charts in the Bahamas, Freya Rauscher's Cruising Guide is your bible here. Her waypoints are spot on and she gives approaches, anchorages and descriptions of each caye. Of course, once out of the channel you need to keep a bow lookout and depend on your visual navigation skills. Until you are on the reef, the water is not as "gin clear" as the Bahamas. There's a lot of turtle grass bottoms which make the waters a dark green. The rules of this game are: No moving around at night, move when the sun is high in the sky and never sail west after about 3pm as the sun shinning down makes it impossible to see the coral heads. Watch out for the "brown bars", these indicate coral heads very near the surface.

$40 a night and a room over the water
We left Belize City on a cloudy day with a good chance of hitting at least one squall line. Our destination was Tobacco Caye out on the reef, about 28nm away. We could stay in the deep water of the Inner Channel for most of the trip. Then we rounded Garbutt Caye and worked our way through the middle cayes until we reached the heading that brought us right behind the island into a good anchorage with 10 - 12ft depths. Tobacco Caye is about the size of a football field. Tiny yet it has 3 small lodges where you can stay for $40 a night including 3 meals each day! Not any luxuries but the snorkeling, diving and fishing is superb. One of the reasons we choose this  caye was because 3 miles west is Tobacco Range, a much larger mangrove caye that if the weather turned nasty could be our hidey hole. Tobacco Caye and South Water Caye are part of the large Belize Marine Reserve. The charge to stay in the Reserve overnight is $2.50US per person per night or $15US for 10 days. Belizean citizens, like Roy, are not charged. 
How did we know the small boat pulling up beside us were park rangers coming to collect?
They wore no uniforms but they had on life jackets

Creative bar ceiling 
We anchored in grass to be close to the island for protection. (a problem waiting to happen). Can't see into the future so we went ashore to find a cold Belikin and get acquainted. Right off we fell into conversation with George who offered to take us snorkeling on the reef. Said he knew all the good spots. It took us about an hour to wander around and circumnavigate the island, that included about 45 minutes talking to others staying on the island. We arranged to eat with the residents at one of the lodges one night while we were there and, of course, we took George up on his offer. 

George and I 
The next day was a day to stay aboard as it rained and the wind blew like crazy all day. Seems one of those pesky tropical waves was moving across the Western Caribbean. Our restful day was disturbed when about 3 pm we realized we were adrift! Our anchor had dragged and the drag alarm had NOT sounded. Luckily it was daylight and we were drifting into deeper, not shallower waters. Roy was reluctant to start the engines as he didn't want the anchor chain or line fouling the prop so we just watched and waited. Finally the wind calmed enough and he started the engine and carefully motored to a sandy spot. Not as close to the island but the anchor would hold better.

(George said he was watching us and would have come to help if he thought we needed him.) 

Our last day at Tobacco Caye was perfect. Blue skies and clear waters all around. We met up with George at the bar and left immediately for a morning of shallow water snorkeling right on the reef while George rounded up 5 nice size lobsters for us to take back to the boat. The afternoon and evening proved a delight as it turned out Bob and Kevin, who we had met at the Belize Zoo, were staying at the same lodge where we had arranged to dine. So several rum punches later we went in to dinner (rice and beans, chicken and potato salad). There we met some grad students who were doing marine research and one of the girls had attended Loyola New Orleans for her under-graduate degree and, of course, studied under our old friend, Dr Bob Thomas.

Looking out to the reef at South Water Caye
The next morning started out lovely but as we motored the 5.5 miles south on the reef a squall blew up. It would have been a short hop over to South Water Caye, our next anchorage, except for the ever present squalls. We ended up spending another hour or so motoring slowly around and around as we waited for the wind and rain to die down so we could anchor. This time we made sure to find a sandy spot. South Water Caye is also on the reef but is a bigger caye then Tobacco Caye.The caye was named for the 3 fresh water wells found naturally on the island. I'm sure those olden day pirates knew about this spot. It also has 3 lodges but here you add a "0" to that $40. to spend the night at either Marlin Lodge or Pelican Point.

One of the fresh water wells
Cabin at IZE 
The third and most interesting of the lodges is IZE, International Zoological Expedition. While anyone can stay as part of their adventure packages, IZE mainly caters to student groups learning or doing research on the reef. Dr. Bob Thomas, from Loyola, was one of the originators. Students from high school to grad school come for programs that include Mayan and Garifuna Culture inland and Marine Research on the reef. We quickly found the bar at IZE (predictable aren't we). Marlin, the bartender not the lodge, became our "goto girl" for all sorts of information and even made arrangements for us to eat fried shrimp at IZE one night. We enjoyed meeting the teachers from Green Bay and their high school students and even got invited to a lecture on sponges. Next morning we woke up to bright blue skies and we found, all on our own, two lovely spots to snorkel.

You may know of our fishing issues but during our stay we finally perfected a method for catching fish and lobster. Any one is welcome to use this method. First keep a sharp lookout for a Belizean fishing boat, once spotted wait as they get closer, lastly hop in  your dingy and give chase. So far this method has netted us 3 snappers and about 4 lbs of lobster tails at a very reasonable price!


Pictures from the Reef

Our last anchorage was Bluefield Range, a grouping of mangrove covered islands. After carefully threading our way between some coral heads and 2 brown bars we anchored in the lagoon in the middle of the islands. Truly felt we were the only people on earth while we were here. Quiet, dark, lovely yet we still managed to lose our camera - overboard?? Can't understand it. Last thing we remember was taking a picture of a lovely sunset. Next morning wanted to video some dolphin playing nearby - no camera!
On that note we raised anchor and set sail for an 18 nm run to Placencia.

Can't give you that beautiful sunset - but here's a cute picture of Roy

Tobacco Caye Anchorage  16 53.90N   88 03.00W
South Water Caye Anchorage 16 49.11N  88 05.10W
Bluefield Range Approach 1 17 12.55N  88 06.22W
Bluefield Range Approach 2  17 12.64N  88 05.27W
Bluefield Range Anchorage 17 13.37N  88 05.46W