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

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Belize City

Lighthouse at English Caye
We finally managed to leave San Pedro. Getting through the reef was a breeze on our second time around. Of course, to be on the safe side, we had saved the track of our arrival on the Imac's chart plotter. This is a pretty nifty feature when you are sailing in a tricky area. Once outside we set our sights on the Belize City ship channel which is wide and deep. But rather than do the trip in one long day we stopped for awhile behind English Caye and talked to the old, retired lighthouse keeper who was a friend of Walter's (who in Belize wasn't!). Then we stopped one of the Belizean fishing sailboats to buy lobsters and snapper for supper. We anchored for the night behind Middle Long Caye. Over and over we are grateful for  Freya Rauscher's cruising guide for Belize, Mexico and Rio Dulce. Even our new charts are not as comprehensive as the hand drawn charts in her guide.

The Fishing Sailboat
The Fish
Now we are moored at Cucumber Beach Marina or, Old Belize. It seems to have two names. Our first day here we just chilled after the hectic pace of San Pedro and cleaned up the boat. So nice having all the water we need! Then on Saturday we couldn't stay away so grabbed a cab for the 4 miles into the City. Started at "The Fort" and had a nostalgic lunch at Fort George Hotel (now the Radisson Fort George) prior to walking around the city. 

I've read Belize City is built on mahogany chips and broken rum bottles. Settled by "out of work pirates" who came ashore to chop logwood when there was no Spanish ships to plunder. Somehow I can't help but look at the city with "loving eyes". I see the old colonial architecture which is slowly decaying, the hand turned swing bridge, the sights and sounds mingling with the refrain of long ago stories that we've all heard Walter tell a dozen times. I love hearing the sing song of Creole spoken on the streets. 

Roy on the old 1930s Swing Bridge looking into Belize City Harbor

Miss Jane
 Its fun meeting back up with old friends and hearing them talk about who's who with the constant reference of Belizean surnames filtering through their speech. We spent a couple of days with Mario and Soli Arguelles. Had dinner with Johnny Valdes, Roy's old school friend and Rebekah's grandfather. Turns out Rebekah's in New Orleans for the summer. :(( Best of all we met with (drum rolls from the relatives, please) Miss Jane Usher. This lady, who was in school with Roy's Aunt Marie and a best friend of his mom and dad is quite the institution. She's the sister of George Price, who's considered the father of modern Belize and PM for more years then we can count. She also started the Holy Redeemer Credit Union and not only is it still going stronger and stronger; she, at 95, is still working away at it every day.

Used to be our favorite hotel - 4 Fort St 
Craig St - the house where Roy grew up

The roofs of Belize City from the top of the 5-story Matalon Building built by Soli and Mario's sons!

The church where John Edward was baptized

We spent a day at the Belize Zoo which was such a treat!

Our plan is to slowly sail down the coast to Placencia, stopping at as many palm fringed sandy cayes as we can. We will be sailing along the reef where "eyeball" navigation is called for. Once again we will be depending on the cruising guide for waypoints, approaches and anchoring hints. Once in Placencia we are looking forward to Sammye and Grouper's visit.

Entrance Belize Channel  17 19.60N  88 01.10W
Channel Turn (to Middle Long Caye, Enlish Caye) 17 20.30N  88 02.81W
Middle Long Caye Anchorage  17 19.35N  88 03.31W

Cucumber Beach Marina Approach 17 27.91N  88 14.67W - be careful in summer of 2012 approach channel only carried 5ft 2in at mid-tide. Its a mud bottom so that helps.

Monday, July 9, 2012

San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize


Thought we’d start this post off with a view of some things the family misses from Belize. 

Cashew and Plantain Chips, Avocados, Craboo. Those girls are also selling Tamales, Dukunu, Supa, Tableta AND Rice and Beans!

Wharves, Dive Boats and the Reef
San Pedro has exploded! Can’t say we didn't recognize it (6 years since we've been to Belize), but it sure is much more of itself. Many, many more dive shops. Little restaurants are  everywhere. All the little hotels have gotten bigger or better and so many more! The streets are now paved to accommodate the gulf carts which are EVERYWHERE. There’s more gift shops than just Salty Dog, though it's still there. Even the Conch Shell Hotel, where we always stayed, has more firmly attached that back section with the bathrooms. Its now pink instead of blue and has a new owner. A gazillion docks accommodate the bizillion dive boats and EVERYONE on the island seems to be a dive boat operator. Both North and South of San Pedro are developed, with a bridge to the North part of the Island. We do see several operations standing empty, but understand its because they hired gringos to run them. The island looks prosperous and that’s a good thing.

Hey John Edward, here's the Conch Shell Hotel

We do miss our old friend Richie Woods, a boyhood friend of Roy's, who always had something interesting to show us. He would have us snorkeling a wreck on the reef or investigating a Mayan ruin on the island or giving me my first taste of conch cooked only in lime juice (pre-ceviche). 

Josh at Hurricanes - see the bottle in the air?

Checking into Belize in San Pedro was a little long but no real problem. Everyone was really nice and friendly. We went to the office, filled out some papers and a man from Customs came back with us to the boat. He looked around a little and we took him back. Later, after lunch Roy picked up the health officier and took him to the boat. Galnoir understood to be nice to the health inspector when he came aboard to check her out. Sebastian and I just hung out at Hurricane's Bar & Grill.

We paid $20 each for Immigration and Customs. Port Authority for cruising was $100 plus $2.50/ day for the maximum of 30 days. Added up that's $225 for the 30 days. Extensions are available. Having our cat was another $75. it would have been $25 less if we had gotten permission ahead of time (but suppose they had said no!). We do have a current health certificate for her from our vet in the states. When you compare this year's cruising permits with last year its more, but only because we pay for each country. You get all of the Bahamas for $350 for 90 days (no cat). Mexico and Belize charge to stay in any marine preserve. Belize is $5 a night. Haven't been yet so don't know how that will work. Supposedly someone will come out and collect. In the Bahamas it was $10 per night. Some places there was a box to put the money in; other places someone collected. I'm talking US dollars, not Belize, for those keeping score. ($1US=$2BZ)

Seabastien left us on June 28th. Great having him aboard. We're hoping he and Lily meet up with us later.

Gulf Carts - Everywhere!
In case you've remembered the fiasco with the Raymarine Chart Plotter, I should let you know we were able to fix the problem. Seems there's a problem in the design - hope they fix that real soon. Sometimes the bezel (the finish frame around the face) moves a little and causes the "Back" Button to stick in the ON position. This results in the chart plotter not working next time you turn it on. While sailing, with no internet or phone connection, we couldn't get in touch with Raymarine to discover that the fix is easy. Just take off the bezel and put it back on. This releases the button and you are set to go. Seems to me that this could have been an email alert to everyone who had bought the e7D. Its their new Hybrid Touch Chart Plotter. A little care given to customers should have been in order!! But we're good to go and just chalk it up to experience. As Captain Ron says "if its gonna happen its gonna happen out there."

Watermelon Juice, lots of tranquil scenes

Our anchorage is a little rocky as the ferrys, dive and tour boats go right past us. We swim off the boat but are careful to stay away from all that boat traffic. Everyone smiles and waves. San Pedro is a friendly town. Snorkeling the reef is so great – we just dinghy over. it’s only about 600 ft off the beach. We are a little disappointed in the condition of the reef. I guess you can’t have all this development without some deterioration. When we talk to the locals they refer to the warming of the oceans. I think that’s part of it but not all. We saw coral bleaching all through the Bahamas but nothing like this. We hear that its much better about 20 ft down. There's also a chance that us humans CAN grow coral. Click here for the link. We’re still seeing some amazing stuff and the most favorite is my first time sighting of a turtle while snorkeling.

Saturday was Lobster Fest on Caye Caulker, about 12 miles south of Ambergris Caye.
We took the ferry over and enjoyed Caye Caulker's more laid back atmosphere. Its streets are still sand and everything is ...
well different, smaller,  more back-pack then suitcase. The family never stayed on Caye Caulker so it was my first real visit there. Not so quiet on festival day; met loads of new folks; ate lots of lobsters and the Tourism Police were there to keep us all in order.

But don't get any funny ideas!

That's Wahoo anchored right in front of Hurricane’s where Josh and his dad, Daniel run a great little bar, restaurant and dive operation. Both food and company are outstanding. It's their WiFi that keeps us connected. Always new folks to meet and somehow there’s always one more thing to do so we just can’t seem to find a compelling reason to  leave.

Fried whole fish with coconut rice. Look at the presentation!
The food here on the island is another amazing thing. In the back streets you'll still find tamales, garnaches, panades and of course, rice and beans. But, in addition, so many restaurants have menus that even fancy New Orleans' restaurants would envy. It's the easy friendships we love. On Tuesday, Charles, owner of Estelle's Restaurant on the beach, brought these to our boat!! We'd asked for Johnny Cakes but didn't want to seem ungrateful.

Anchor flukes aren't supposed bend like this, right?
Our only bad moment was a few nights ago when a squall line came through and the anchor slipped! Yikes, that hasn’t happened since we’ve been anchoring with the Fortress anchor that was on this boat when we bought it. It was out with 90 ft of scope (chain) and we heard the anchor alarm go off. Roy went topside and it did indeed look like we had moved a little. What worried him was TMM Charter's 3 catamarans moored behind us. Didn't want to drift into them. With me at the helm and Roy at the bow we tried to lift the anchor, motor forward and anchor again. Simple right? We’ve done this a a hundred times but this night, the wind was really blowing and we just couldn’t seem to get away from those catamarans! At first the anchor wouldn’t budge, then it got stuck on the keel, then we almost ran aground. Finally Roy was able to get our spare anchor, a Plow, in place and it held fast. Didn’t sleep much for the rest of that night. But no problem since that night and we’ve had several squall lines come through as there’s been several Tropical Waves. The strongest so far is supposed to be over today.

Maybe next week we’ll sail to Belize City with a stop-over at English Caye. Got to eventually get to Placencia, Samme and Grouper are meeting us there.

Sunset in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye - Belize