Spent today pretty lazily -- since everything on land is closed for Easter Monday. We got ashore around noon for a walk around town, and luckily the ice cream shop was open -- the heat and humidity were pretty awful. This is actually normal for the tropics, of course, but up to now we've been spoiled by what locals are thinking of as freakish wintry frigid weather -- ie. temperatures in the 80s. This seems to be breaking at long last, which may be good news on the snorkelling front, if the accompanying strong winds let up.
Anyway, Placencia is a nice little town, built on the end of a long sandy peninsula, and mainly based on tourism. There's a yacht chartering base here, and a nice beach. The town is pretty; the "main road" is a sandy strip with a 4-foot wide concrete walkway running down the middle. Actually, there is a real road now -- a recent addition which means that more supplies are available locally (or will be when the shops open).
After our cooling ice creams, we headed back to the boat, chatting with some other cruisers here on the way. The weather forecast was predicting a "norther" to arrive soon -- a strong wind out of the north, which it is best to be snugged up in port for. The others, who've been here for a while, told us that this harbour offers good protection, which was reassuring.
Still, by this evening, we were a little worried. The sky was darkening, and the air was getting that thundery kind of feel. So we set about making the boat secure, getting the dinghy hoisted up and lashed on deck, stowing the sails, etc.; and not a moment too soon, as the wind started building before we finished. I let all our remaining anchor chain out to help us hold, and we got everything loose off the decks.
When the squall hit, it brought some pretty high winds -- but the lightning was incredible. Before the main part of the squall got here, there was cloud-to-cloud lightning all around, going continuously, with several flashes per second -- you could literally read by it. And some of those flashes were huge. When the main blow got here, it brought a lot of cloud-to-ground lightning, which was also very impressive. Fortunately, it passed mostly to the west of us -- because a sailboat is basically one big lightning rod! We had disconnected the aerials for both radios, to protect them (at least a little) in case of a strike, and we were both avoiding the mast and all the rigging. In any case, we were very relieved when the squall moved on past us.
The main part of the norther should arrive tomorrow, and there may be more squalls meantime, so we're going to be keeping an eye on the weather. Meantime, we need to check in to Belize, which means moving the boat to the nearby banana port of Big Creek for an agricultural inspection; hopefully we'll get all that done tomorrow. Maybe we'll pick up some bananas too.Tue 13 Apr 2004 21:41 America/Belize
Since all the officials are now back to work after Easter, today was check-in day. The nearest place to here to check in is Big Creek, a banana port on a river just to the west of here. We'd been told that we actually have to have Moonrise there to check in -- we couldn't just go by water taxi -- since they might want to inspect the boat. So this morning we got the boat ready, upped anchor, and headed for Big Creek.
Big Creek is a river, fairly wide, that winds off into the mangrove swamps a few miles from here. The entrance to it is well-marked, due to the banana trade, so we got in easily enough; and the upriver journey was straightforward, with a good 20' depth all the way, winding between mangroves on both sides. The banana port is a little man-made cutting off to one side, with a a wharf big enough for one ship, and stacks of containers in a small yard. And that's it; apart from the customs shack, there's nothing here. The town of Independence, mile and a half away, is the nearest settlement.
We anchored upriver from the port, past where the ships go, and rowed into the port. There are absolutely no facilities for yachts here, so we stepped off at a steep sand-and-clay bank at the top end of the cut, and hauled the dinghy out of the water; then hiked across a stretch of industrial wasteland to the customs shack. Of course, they were at lunch! So back to the boat, and try again an hour later.
Our second attempt was more successful; we found the customs chap and gave him our port clearance and crew list from Providencia. Then we had to visit immigration, which is at the police station in Independence; a healthy mile and a half by road. We started walking, which was only possible because the weather was cool and cloudy; and at the first chance, we stuck our thumbs out. With the large number of trucks that move between the port and the town, this is what all the guide books recommend for making the trip; sure enough, we got a lift no problem.
In Independence, we spent a while trying to find the police station, and then discovered that the immigration officer had just left -- for Big Creek! If we'd known, we could have saved ourselves a trip, but he was back pretty quickly, and the formalities took just a minute or so.
A short hitch-hike later we we back at the customs shack, finishing the check-in, and then onto the adjacent agricultural quarantine office in an old, slightly ramshackle wheel-less caravan for the last stage. When the inspector heard that we had a total of three limes and an apple on board from Colombia, he declined to inspect the boat, so with our papers all stamped, we were done -- and in under 2 hours, and for just $10.
We got back to the boat and motored back here to Placencia before dusk -- we didn't fancy a night among the mangroves, with the mosquitos! So we're back in our old spot, almost, and waiting for the ice plant and supermarket to open tomorrow morning -- the last chilled drinks were in Colon!Wed 14 Apr 2004 20:02 America/Belize
We had a rotten night last night, as a wicked swell came into the anchorage from the south-east from around 2 am., making all the boats here roll horribly. So, with not much sleep, we had a late start to town, but we got a little shopping done. At least we got some ice!
So now we're both feeling under the weather, and looking forward to an early night. Hopefully we'll be more energised tomorrow.Thu 15 Apr 2004 22:58 America/Belize
Still not feeling great, although we seem to be on the upswing. Still, all we got done today was picking up my laundry, and buying some conch from the fisher's co-op on shore.
Coconuts may well be the hardest vegetable to get sustenance from, but they're nothing to conch. You've got to crack the shell, cut the muscle that holds it in, pull it out, kill it quick before it makes loads of slime, cut all the bits off you don't want, then pound the remainder within an inch of its life to tenderise it. Then you can start cooking. At least when we bought some, it had been taken out of the shell, so our first experience with fresh-cooked conch was a little easier. The good news is it was delicious; Rachel cooked it with a coconut sauce, which was great.
Tonight we watched Twister on DVD -- Rachel hadn't seen it. Quite fun, but it's strange to think we're sitting in an anchorage in Belize watching all this action happening in Oklahoma.Fri 16 Apr 2004 20:36 America/Belize
Since we got to Placencia, the norther has been dominating the weather; this has meant continual cloud, and pretty low temperatures. The other night we were shivering in our bunks, trying desperately to keep warm... a glance at the thermometer showed that it was 79F! OK, I guess we've got used to the tropical heat.
But now the weather has broken at last, and we're back to the heat we've been expecting here, and clear skies; so we're planning to head out to the reefs. We spent today getting provisioned up, except for fuel and water, which we can get when we take the boat into the dock tomorrow. The only problem is that provisions here are pretty scanty, and horribly expensive; still, we've managed to pick up some stuff to keep us going until we get to Belize City, which should be better.
We also visited the book exchange at the Purple Space Monkey Internet Cafe. This is definitely the best book exchange we've seen yet, with tons of good books, so we gave our bookshelves a good overhaul.Sat 17 Apr 2004 21:14 America/Belize
The boat is now bulging slightly, with all the fuel and water we loaded into her today -- making the most of a drive-up fuel and water dock, the first one we've seen since Balboa, Panama. Getting loaded up took a while, specially as we took the chance to get a load of ice and some ice cream, so by the time we got moving it was 1 pm. This made it too late to go to any of the outlying islands in the reefs and get there in daylight; so we headed out for a nearer island, to anchor for the night.
But re-reading the guide to the area, we saw that the anchorage is 60 feet deep, which is too deep for us -- when anchoring, we put out five times as much chain as the depth, in order to pull horizontally rather than upward on the anchor, so it can hold securely -- so for 60' depth, we would need 300' of chain, which is more than we have. So we turned around and headed back to Placencia to anchor. Now that everything is really really ready, tomorrow we should get off early enough to make the barrier reef with the mid-day sun to allow us to get into an anchorage safely.
We've heard that the weather is good -- we haven't been able to get it directly, since radio conditions have been very bad. This is one of the hazards of shortwave; it allows us to communicate much farther than VHF radio, but it's not very consistent.
VHF works on line-of-sight; the transmitter and receiver have to have a straight, unobstructed path between them. This limits VHF range to about 20 miles, which is the limit of the horizon if the aerial is up high, such as on the top of our mast. But shortwave bounces radio signals between the upper layers of the atmosphere and the ground, so that they can travel beyond the horizon -- 3,000 miles or more on a good day. But this process is very unpredictable; it depends on the state of the atmosphere, which depends on sunspots and solar flares, among other things. So, it's always hard to know if we're going to be able to make contact -- so far, email has been pretty reliable, but who knows how long that will last. Voice communications have been far more chancy -- sometimes we can get stations 1,000 miles away, but not people 50 miles away, due to the bouncing of the signal in the atmosphere. Sometimes we have trouble getting anything at all. Recently, the morning nets have been very hard to read, due to current conditions -- hopefully, things can only improve from here. But in the meantime, if we suddenly drop out of sight, don't worry, blame the sunspots.Sun 18 Apr 2004 22:29 America/Belize
We were ready to get going at last this morning, but hesitated due to pretty strong winds; so we waited for the weather on the net, which said the winds should be abating tonight. So we upped anchor and headed northeast, towards the reefs, and unfortunately right into the wind and a 1.3 knot head current.
After 6 hours of hard motoring, we decided to stop short of our original destination, and pull in at the Blue Ground Range, a set of small islands and reefs a few miles from the main barrier reef. We got here at about 3.30 pm., with the sun just high enough to light up the underwater terrain, and made it over the bar into the anchorage with about 3 feet of water under the keel. The lagoon inside the bar is sheltered in terms of waves, and has a nice depth for anchoring; but it's pretty exposed to the wind, which is now (10.30 pm.) really howling. We're hoping that it really will calm down by daytime, so that we can carry on out to the reefs.
Still, for now we're at least well on our way; our next leg is just 3.5 miles, with an easy, open anchorage at the end. Should be no problem.Mon 19 Apr 2004 18:41 America/Belize
We had a pretty restless night last night. We had anchored inside the small lagoon in the Blue Ground Range, and off to one side, in a gap between two islands, to try to get some shelter. This, unfortunately, didn't leave us much room in case the anchor started dragging, and as the night went on, the wind kept getting more and more wild. By midnight, it was really howling in the rigging, and we had the GPS anchor drag alarm set, the depth alarm set, the radar in use to monitor our position relative to the islands (it was pitch dark, with a new moon), and for a while we had the engine running in case we needed to motor away from the reef.
Still, all was well, as the anchor held -- we had dug it in pretty firmly -- and at about 1 am., the wind suddenly died, as if switched off. This gave us some peace at last, although the GPS anchor drag alarm went off again as the boat swung a little at anchor -- we'd set it to go off if we moved as much as 60 feet.
In the morning, we were still exactly where we'd anchored. We had a relaxed breakfast, then, with the sun high, raised the anchor and made our way out of the reef, and turned east for Southwater Cay, our next stop -- a small island just inside the outer barrier reef. The run to Southwater is shown on the charts and guide books to be clear, but midway across we ran into (not literally) a maze of shoals and reefs, through which we had to pick our way carefully; this would have been extremely difficult on an overcast day. We eventually made our way to Twin Cays, not far from Southwater; these are two islands very close together, with just a narrow, winding channel in between, which makes an excellent shelter in case of bad weather. We made a diversion up the channel, marking our route on the GPS in case a storm comes up and we want to duck in there later on -- we should be able to follow our route in even at night.
While up at the top end of the channel, we had to dodge a light-coloured object on the bottom, which looked like a log or something -- except that it was moving. A few minutes later, it poked its nose up for a breath of air -- a manatee.
Finally we headed back out and across to Southwater Cay, which is open on the west side, and therefore offers an easy approach for anchoring. Getting the anchor to bite into the grassy bottom was tricky, but I dove down and pushed the point in as Rachel motored back, which did the trick. With the anchor firmly set, we launched the dinghy and headed off for a snorkel on the south end of the island. The water wasn't too warm, but we still had a decent swim, and saw quite a few fish.
Southwater Cay is strategically positioned just inside and north of one of the main passes in the barrier reef, so the Caribbean is just a half mile or so away; however, we're well sheltered from the northeast wind and waves by the island and the reef. We're also poised for an early start out to sea...Tue 20 Apr 2004 17:22 America/Belize
We actually got the anchor up and got under way before 8 am. this morning, which is quite a record for us. We headed out southeast, which should have given us a good sailing wind, but as it was the wind was in the east, and we had a close reach to get where we were going. So we ended up motorsailing, into a counter-current with nasty, steep, choppy seas, and having a pretty rough ride -- again. The Caribbean hasn't been too settled for us.
Fortunately, our trip wasn't very long, so by 11 am. we'd got to where we were going -- Glover's Reef. Glover's is a huge atoll, 14 miles by 5, lying 13 miles out in the Caribbean, east of Belize's barrier reef. It consists of a minefield of patch reefs and coral heads, surrounded by an almost unbroken wall of coral. There are only three navigable openings in the outer wall, and we headed for the one at the south end, by a small group of islands called Southwest Cays. Since we already had GPS waypoints for the entrance, it wasn't too difficult, specially as the high sun made the coral heads quite visible through the water. By 12.00 we had anchored, and dove on the anchor to check that it was well dug in to a sand and grass bottom.
So once again we find ourselves anchored in what looks like open sea, but is actually completely protected from the waves by surrounding reefs. We still won't want to be here in a real blow, and we have our route mapped back to Twin Cays as a fallback in case that happens. But in the meantime, we're in what is reckoned to be one of the best snorkelling and diving spots in the world. We had one small dive today, just on some of the little coral patches inside the reef, and it's already looking fantastic.
There's just one small snag -- it's blooming freezing here! The water is down to a chilly 80F (25 Celcius), and the air temperature is a decidedly cool 86F. What happened to the sweltering tropics?Wed 21 Apr 2004 19:06 America/Belize
We were visited this morning by a park ranger, who took our fees (Glovers Reef is a national park) and issued us a fishing license. Given our past performance fishing (before today, we've never eaten anything we've caught), the fishing license seemed optimistic, but Glovers is supposed to be one of the best (ie. easiest) fishing places around. The ranger also gave us some tips on good snorkelling spots, and based on that we decided to up anchor and head up towards Middle Cay.
Middle Cay is just 2 1/2 miles away from where we were anchored, on the south-eastern edge of the reef; but since it's inside the main reef, the only way to get there is by driving up through the maze of coral heads inside Glovers Reef. We set off nice and early, with the sun high, and I stood on the boom, coral-spotting, while Rachel drove; this combination worked well, as we could see the shallow spots some distance ahead. Even so, it was a tricky passage, since there are so many shoals that just finding a way through was difficult.
We got up here without hitting anything, and soon anchored, with the usual dive on the anchor for safety. I then swam off to a nearby reef to check it out, and within a minute of arriving there was engaged in a conch hunt. The thrill of the chase, the life-or-death struggle, the spice of danger -- these are all things that don't apply to conch hunting. Basically you swim down and pick them off the bottom. A conch's most deadly retaliation is to peer at you reproachfully with its stalk-eyes, while safely tucked back into the depths of its shell.
With our conchs keeping in a mesh bag hung under the boat, we had a light lunch, then swam off to another nearby reef, this time taking the spear along. Although the patch reefs here are in shallow water, and don't have the dramatic formations of deep water reefs (such as those on the edge of Glovers), there is a huge amount of sea life here, with an amazing variety of fish. We chased several with the spear, and finally succeeded in spearing a good-sized hogfish.
We got the fish back to the boat, and decided to let our conchs go -- the fish was pretty big, and tasted great. And the conchs won't exactly be hard to find tomorrow.Thu 22 Apr 2004 19:05 America/Belize
A quiet lazing and snorkelling day today -- at last! The weather, and the water, are still cool -- at least compared to what we'd expect here -- but we had a good swim around one of the inside patch reefs. Today's conch weren't so lucky, though... we totally failed to spear any fish, so it was conch for dinner, and very tasty too. We did do a little maintenance today, fixing the vent on the holding tank, and replacing the prop-shaft zinc again -- the last one fell off pretty quickly, so we added a little caulk to the threads on the bolts to try to hold the new one (our last) in place.Fri 23 Apr 2004 21:07 America/Belize
We spent today scouting around for a better place to snorkel... the places we've been have, unfortunately, been very cloudy, and the water is still pretty cold. So we set off from the Middle Cay, across the atoll to the west wall, in search of better conditions.
Motoring around inside the atoll is not as hard as we thought it would be; although there are over 600 coral heads inside the atoll, that's still spread over a huge area, so there are plenty of "deep" (ie. 10-20 feet or so) spaces between the coral. So as long as the light is good, and you keep a sharp lookout, moving around is pretty easy.
So we soon got over to the west side, 3 miles from where we'd started. We motored down looking for a good spot, and when we found an interesting area I dove off for a look around while Rachel motored the boat in circles. This was a good strategy, as it saved us all the hassle of anchoring; unfortunately, the water turned out to be really cloudy over here as well.
We finally decided to head back down to Southwest Cays, to try swimming outside the main reef. This turned out to be a pretty barren area, and also cloudy, so we finally settled for a swim around some of the patch reefs on the inside. At least we captured a few conch for dinner.
We've got a new neighbour here... a large, posh-looking motorboat. To give you an idea of what I mean by that, while were were showering off, the captain returned to the boat from shore... in his helicopter.Sat 24 Apr 2004 23:29 America/Belize
We'd planned to get to some other -- hopefully clearer -- snorkelling spot today, but we had to make a quick repair to the engine first -- the cooling pump was running below par. That dragged on for a good part of the day, due to the inaccessibility of the pump, so we ended up just having a quick swim in very murky water. Tomorrow somewhere better -- we hope.Sun 25 Apr 2004 19:49 America/Belize
After weighing our options, we decided that we'd stay put today, and set off tomorrow for Lighthouse Reef. This was based on some information we got from the morning radio net, where we asked about good snorkelling spots and were told that Lighthouse is the best. It's too far to make it there in good light without an early start, which we missed today, but we have the boat all ready for the off tomorrow morning. We're currently planning to break our journey at Tobacco Cay, on the main barrier reef of Belize, partly to make the legs shorter, and partly to check out Tobacco Reef, which is also nice.
Lighthouse Reef is another offshore atoll, about 35 miles north of here, and 25 miles off the coast of Belize. It's about 20 miles by 4, and like Glovers consists of a few small islands, and a lagoon full of coral heads and surrounded by a barrier reef. The snorkelling and diving there are supposed to be excellent. Here's hoping -- it seems to be getting cloudier here if anything.Mon 26 Apr 2004 18:42 America/Belize
We got going before 9 am. this morning, with a bit of an overcast sky, and the sun still quite low; but since we had anchored just inside the southern entrance to Glovers Reef, we made our way out carefully with no problems. Once out in the open, we steered what seemed to be a strangely roundabout course, first going southwest, then west for a while, before turning northwest; given the flat light, there was no trace at all of the reef just a few hundred yards away, so it looked as if we were carefully avoiding an empty patch of ocean. Thank goodness for GPS.
We had a straightforward motor up to Tobacco Cay; getting in through the pass in Belize's barrier reef was a little more tricky, but by that time it was 12.30, so with the high sun we could easily see the reefs, and a long shallow sandbar that runs north of the cut on the inside. We skirted way around the sandbar and got anchored easily, the only boat in a wide space to the west of Tobacco Cay.
Tobacco Cay is a beautiful little island, with palm trees and nice beaches. Apparently, it got its name when early English settlers tried to grow tobacco here; now it's home to some private homes (holiday cabins for mainlanders) and several lodges.
After an early start and a very rolly crossing, we weren't feeling too energetic, specially as the weather turned overcast and windy; so my usual dive on the anchor was the only swimming we did today. There isn't much life, other than grass, where we're anchored, but I did see a sand tilefish -- a timid fish, about 10" long and narrow and tubular, that builds a long burrow in the bottom into which it retreats if it sees any danger approaching. But we're no longer alone -- five boats pulled in and anchored since we got here.
Depending on the weather, we may stay here and explore tomorrow... we'll see. It's 35 miles to Lighthouse Reef, so that needs an early start.Tue 27 Apr 2004 20:57 America/Belize
The waters in Belize continue to be disappointingly cloudy -- at least where we've been -- but we still had a good swim today. The reefs around the entrance to the Tobbacco Cay pass are pretty nice, but with a good sun (it was overcast for most of the day) and clear water, it would be great. At least the water is still a lot clearer than it was on the Pacific side, so we saw quite a lot of stuff, albeit foggily. The edges of the pass are sloping walls of coral formations; not as rich in sponges and other stationary animals as other places we've seen, but with quite a lot of fish. The centre of the pass has a sandy bottom, about 25 feet deep, a good place for spotting stingrays, and in fact we saw a couple today.
Diving down to that kind of depth is a little challenging; you have to "pop" your ears several times against the pressure on the way down, which takes a little practice, as you're swimming downwards quickly at the same time in order to get as much time down there as possible. Still, it's worth it to get close to a ray, specially the spotted eagle rays we saw in the San Blas -- hopefully we'll see some here soon. And looking up from the bottom, seeing Rachel floating way above, is quite a sight.
It's strange to think that most of the life on the reef consists of animals -- sponges, sea fans, coral, fronds, big wavy tree-like gorgonians, are all animals of one kind or another; all of them are mobile as larvae, then anchor themselves to the bottom and bud into large colony structures as they mature; then live by sifting algae from the water. In fact, 90% of the life on the reef is invisible algae, which takes energy from the sun and passes it on to all those animals. Without the algae, there would be no coral, and no reefs -- all of the bits of Belize we've seen, most of Forida, and many other places, wouldn't even exist.Wed 28 Apr 2004 18:36 America/Belize
Being out here in clear, warm water certainly hones your anchoring skills. Back in cold, murky San Diego, we used to drop the anchor, then pull back reasonably hard with the engine; if it didn't drag, we assumed it was set.
As I lowered the anchor today, I watched it as it hit the bottom and lay down, to make sure that it was lying correctly in exactly the sand patch I wanted it in; then I fed out the chain so it lay in a nice neat line. When we pulled back to dig it in, I was swimming over it, watching how it turned point-down and dug in to the grassy sand bottom -- a perfect set. It also gave me a chance to check the clearance under the boat -- where we're anchored now, there's about 30 inches between the keel and the bottom; a good chance to check the depth sounder calibration with a ruler. Going back to anchoring where it's too cold to swim and too murky to see the bottom is going to be a wrench.
For all the easy anchoring, though, the water here is still cloudier than we'd like for snorkelling. It's odd how we can see the bottom quite clearly from the boat, but once in the water the visibility is noticeably limited. We're heading towards Lighthouse Reef, where it's supposed to be clearer, and had hoped to be there today; but it's a 34-mile slog from Tobacco Cay, so it needed an early start. We were planning this for today to try to get over ahead of a cold front which is on its way south, bringing rougher weather. But when we woke up at 5.30 this morning, the wind was howling and the boat, even tucked in behind the barrier reef, was pitching pretty strongly. We decided this was too rough for the open-sea crossing to Lighthouse reef and went back to sleep -- it looked as if the bad stuff had arrived early.
By the time we finally got moving, hours later, the day had turned calm and beautiful; so we decided to get going after all. It was too late to get to Lighthouse with decent light, so we decided to head for the third offshore atoll of Belize, the Turneffe Islands. This is a large system of reefs and islands outside of the barrier reef of Belize, between it and Lighthouse Reef; the southern end has an anchorage which is outside the reefs, and hence easy to get into, so we didn't have to rush the 20 miles here, and we got here about 4 pm. Anchoring in the shallow water -- just deep enough for the boat -- was a little tense, as we looked out for odd rocks and coral heads, but at least we know the anchor is well dug in.
Tomorrow we'll probably continue to Lighthouse, now 20 miles away; depending on the weather.Fri 30 Apr 2004 08:52 America/Belize
Late log today -- we were totally exhausted after our trip from Turneffe to here, lighthouse reef. The trip was horrible -- five hours ploughing into big, head-on waves. We finally got here after 1, negotiated the pass through the reef, and anchored in the lee of Long Cay, the largest island in Lighthouse Reef.Fri 30 Apr 2004 22:46 America/Belize
We're finally here at Lighthouse Reef, another offshore atoll, north of Glovers Reef and east of Turneffe. The reef is about 23 miles by 4, and like GLovers Reef contains several cays and hundreds of patch reefs inside the main perimeter reef.
Long Cay is a pretty rough, exposed anchorage on the west side, and doesn't have much snorkelling within rowing distance from the boat. So today we crossed Lighthouse Reef to Half Moon Cay, on the east side of the reef, where the snorkelling is reputed to be superb. The trip was 6.5 miles, and involved leaving Lighthouse Reef by the pass we came in through and entering again by a pass slightly to the north, and then negotiating a maze of reefs and coral heads on the way across. The final approach to Half Moon Cay was particularly nerve-wracking, with depths down to 5'11" -- we draw 5'7". Pretty tight! But we made it without a scrape, and anchored in a nice sandy area.
We dove in pretty quickly to check out the snorkelling -- and we're glad we did. Even on the little reefs within swimming distance of the boat, there are lots of fish, and the water is pretty clear. The one snag is that the area around Half Moon Cay is a park, and no hunting is allowed. We may move a little farther up the reef soon, so we can bring in some dinner.Sat 1 May 2004 21:17 America/Belize
We baked bread today, so we have some rare treats ahead -- marmalade sandwiches, toast and marmalade... well, it's not much, but it's a big improvement over our remaining "treat" stores. It turned out great, and is going down nicely.
We had a small disaster after snorkelling today -- the inflatable kayak that we use for getting in and out of the water came adrift, and was lost downwind before we could get to it. Since it was last seen heading straight towards Long Cay, we may head over and look for it tomorrow.Sun 2 May 2004 23:12 America/Belize
We didn't get moving today, since by the time we were ready the tide was getting low -- with the full moon coming, this is a lower-than-normal low. We calculated that the depth over the reefs under the entrance would be 5.5 feet -- which is exactly what we draw. With no margin for error, we decided to stay put.
Since the weather has turned cloudy again -- there's another cold front coming -- we spent the day giving the boat a bit of a spring-clean, airing out the forward berth and its cushions, and scrubbing and lemon-oiling all the woodwork. The boat looks as good as new, and smells very lemony now.Mon 3 May 2004 19:29 America/Belize
The cold front got here last night -- at least we assume that's why it rained as if the sea was falling out of the sky. The downpour was unbelievable; the good news is that the boat got a good washing-down.
Unfortunately the sky was still overcast when we would have liked to pull out this morning. Given that we'll have about 6 inches of clearance under the keel when we leave, we're going to wait for good light before chancing it. So we had a good long snorkel today; saw some nice coral, and lots of fish, including a rare -- and stunning -- juvenile Queen Angelfish. We also spotted a couple of huge lobsters hiding under a coral head; shame that taking seafood isn't allowed here. So it's pasta for dinner tonight.Tue 4 May 2004 19:28 America/Belize
We got an early start this morning, so when the sun peeked out at about 10 am., we got the anchor up and picked our way out of the maze of reefs and shallows around Half Moon Cay. Once in the main part of Lighthouse Reef, which is generally a bit deeper, we had a quick motor down Long Cay looking for our wayward kayak -- no luck, though. Oh well, we hope it finds a good home.
We then tied up to a mooring that the dive boats use -- they don't mind cruisers using the moorings when they're not there -- and snorkelled on a nice reef in the middle of Lighthouse. It turned out to be really beautiful, full of an amazing diversity of tropical fish. We spent a little time there, and managed to spear a hogfish for lunch; then returned to the boat, had delicious fresh hogfish, and did some more spring-cleaning. After making some adjustments to the regulator to improve our battery charging, we were under way again!
So it's been a packed day, and it's not over yet -- we're heading in to Belize City, so right now we've left Lighthouse Reef and are heading back to our familiar anchorage in the Turneffe Islands. Since the anchorage is outside the reefs, and as we have a good GPS waypoint for it, we should be able to anchor there easily after dark -- specially as the full moon is dazzlingly bright overhead.
In fact, we're having a fantastic little crossing, the first time we've been out at night for a while, and it's great. The sea is almost flat -- a big contrast to when we were coming the other way -- and the air is warm; the moon is almost bright enough to read by.Wed 5 May 2004 19:29 America/Belize
We got into our familiar anchorage at Turneffe with no problems last night, in spite of the darkness, and set off again early this morning. We had a big day planned, with a stop at Rendezvous Cay for some snorkelling, and then a trip up to Gallows Point, in the Drowned Cays, close to Belize City.
The entrance to Rendezvous Cay is described as difficult, and it certainly was; both outside and inside the barrier reef are literally mazes of reefs and coral heads. With a good light, and me spotting from the bow, we made it through with no problem. The reason for all this navigation is Rendezvous Cay itself, which is a beautiful gem of a sandy palm-covered island, surrounded by beautiful snorkelling. We had a couple of hours there, and saw some great underwater life, including some of the largest barrel sponges we've yet seen.
About 2 pm. we upped anchor, and attempted to make our way north to the Drowned Cays by following a channel inside the barrier reef. Our guidebook shows this to be shallow -- 7 - 8 feet at the south end -- but a "clear path" to the north. Well, maybe we were off to one side a little, but we couldn't find the clear path, and after a bit the depth dropped to 4.9 feet. Since we draw 5.5 feet, this meant we were ploughing a furrow in the bottom! Luckily it was a soft sand bottom, so we literally ploughed a way back out of it again, and managed to get back afloat.
So we headed back outside the reef, and took the outside route north; then came in through the main shipping channel to Belize City. This is a wide, well-marked channel, so good light isn't so important here. Rather than head straight to the city, we came north to the Drowned Cays, a series of mangrove-covered islands about 5 miles east of the city. We got here after dark and anchored easily; and tomorrow we can get an early start to the city.Thu 6 May 2004 21:28 America/Belize
There were just two things on the agenda for today (well, originally there were more, but by the end of the day it was down to two) -- a big food shop, and extend our stay in Belize. When you check in, you only get one month; after that, both our passports and cruising permit have to be extended month-by-month, for a maximum of three months. Quite why they make it difficult for tourists to stay and spend money, I don't know.
The real difficulty is that the anchorage in front of Belize City is too exposed to be usable overnight, so we had to move twice today. The anchor was up at 8.30, and we got to Belize City around 10; then we had to row over to the pier, just a quarter of a mile away. The anchorage was, indeed, very exposed, so the row was difficult against a strong wind and current, but we made it. Since we needed money, it was bank first, and since the banks are near the shops, on to shopping. We stocked up pretty well, so we went straight back to the pier about 2 pm., and decided to split up -- Rachel rowed back to the boat with the groceries, and I walked off in search of the immigration and port authority offices.
It turned out that the wind and current had increased, so Rachel only just managed to row back to the boat, even without me in the dinghy. As for me, I walked for a few miles before discovering that (a) Immigration could never have been where our guide book showed; (b) it wasn't any longer in the place it used to be; and (c) it was now miles out of town. (Just what is the point of an immigration station miles inland?)
So I broke down and took a taxi to Immigration, then on to the Port Authority, and finally back -- fortunately, the formalities, once I found them, where pretty easy.
Once back at the pier, Rachel rowed out to pick me up -- with difficulty -- and then we set off back to the boat. Rachel rowed, aiming well upwind of Moonrise, and for a while it looked like this was working; but as we got away from land, we started drifting inexorably downwind. The waves were getting big by this time too, so we both got well soaked. Rachel pulled as hard as she could, but we ended up barely holding place; so we swapped over (a tricky maneuver in a very small boat) and I took over. After a lot of exertion, we finally made it home, and immediately grabbed on for dear life.
Even back on Moonrise, the sea was so rough that it was too uncomfortable to stay, so we got things stowed and raised the anchor as quickly as possible. That is certainly the worst anchorage we've seen to date -- hopefully, we won't have to come back this way for a while. But at least we got a look at Belize City, including the very picturesque Haulover Creek, packed with boats, and its swing bridge -- one of the few remaining manually operated swing bridges in the world, built in Liverpool in 1923.
So now we're back at Gallows Point, anchored almost exactly where we spent last night. The shelter is very good here, and in any case the wind has almost died down now. So we should have a good rest before plunging back into the crowds tomorrow.Fri 7 May 2004 22:21 America/Belize
Another busy day today. We motored from Gallows Point to Cucumber Beach, a small marina south of Belize City, arriving there not long after the crack of dawn. The marina was nice but pricey; still, it made a good base for another trip into town for provisions, including loads of ice. We also filled up with fuel and water, and used the marina's laundromat.
But the biggest item of the day was the last pickup we made in town -- Meg! Yes, Meg is back, having loved her time in the San Blas islands. (Chan is staying at home this time, as he never really found his sea legs.) So we've got the boat all ready, and now hopefully we can show Meg some great snorkelling at the outer islands.
As a first step, we cleared out of Cucumber Beach as soon as Meg was on board. The exit was tricky; we were in a dock in a narrow channel, between two big boats, and with a strong wind blowing us into the dock and the boat in front. We made it with the help of some clever rope-work. We finally got out just after three, and motored -- and then sailed -- all the way out to our old spot at Turneffe, getting here just after 9. So we're poised to head straight to Lighthouse Reef tomorrow morning.Sat 8 May 2004 20:00 America/Belize
When we were planning for Meg's visit, we realised that it would be tricky to get the best use of her time; with all the reefs to pass going in and out of the city, all requiring good light, it looked like it would take us three days just to get out to the atolls. But thanks to our late jump out to Turneffe via the easy and well-marked shipping channel last night, and another early start this morning, we got out to Lighthouse Reef and actually did our first snorkelling today, less than 24 hours after Meg arrived.
We're anchored off a small reef in the middle of Lighthouse marked on the charts only as "drys", meaning that it is exposed at low tide -- at which time about 18" of an arm of coral is visible. The rest of the reef, which is about 20' high, is submerged, making a hazard to unwary boats; but a nice, isolated place to swim. We saw a huge number of fish here, as well as several stingrays, so we had a good time. Now, though, we've all been knocked over by extreme tiredness, so it's time to sign off and get some kip.Sun 9 May 2004 22:12 America/Belize
Another busy day today -- we got snorkelling in at two different sites, as we moved from the reef back in to Half Moon Cay in the early afternoon. The morning session at "Drys" wasn't too productive from a hunting point of view, as many shots at hogfish yielded one small fish and a lot of misses -- and a blunt spear tip from hitting the bottom too many times.
In the afternoon, at Half Moon Cay, there were hogfish everywhere, and they were quite happy to swim slowly in front of us -- somehow they know that they're in a park, with fishing prohibited!Mon 10 May 2004 20:52 America/Belize
The wind is really howling now... and there's lightning about. So, as I type this, the radio is actually unplugged from the radio, in case of a lightning strike; so I don't know when we'll actually be able to send this.
Despite the bad weather we've been having at night, the weather today was actually great; so we got some great snorkelling in, and Rachel and Meg explored the frigate bird sanctuary on the island.Tue 11 May 2004 21:35 America/Belize
Still at Half Moon... I rested today, but Rachel and Meg had a great time swimming on the barrier reef. They found a spot which seems to be a favourite nurse shark hangout -- and had several close encounters, after which they decided to head for home, strangely enough
Unfortunately, the wind is still howling here -- particularly at night -- which leads to strong currents and churned-up water. This is unusual for this time of year, which is supposed to be the calm time, but it certainly hasn't been that way since we've been here. Still, the water here is beautifully turquoise, and there are great reefs within swimming distance of the boat. And lots more to see within Lighthouse Reef.Wed 12 May 2004 19:51 America/Belize
We moved today, to one of the most famous dive spots in the world -- the Blue Hole of Belize.
The Blue hole, which is inside Lighthouse Reef about 7 miles north of Half Moon Cay, is a perfectly circular lagoon surrounded by a ring of living coral. It's about 500 yards across, and more than 450 feet deep; which is strange, considering that it's inside an atoll with inside depths averaging 20 feet. The water inside is a deep blue colour, hence the name, and the whole thing is spectacular in aerial photos. It was first explored in depth by Jacques Cousteau and the Calypso in 1972; they found forests of stalactites as deep as 400 feet, indicating that the hole was once a cave, and that water levels were 400 feet lower then.
From the surface, there's not much to see; the reefs are visible only with good light, but the water inside is noticeably darker. On the way in, we actually motored through the hole, via the two gaps in the reef. Once we got in snorkelling, though, the true beauty of the formation could be seen. The reefs leading to the northern entrance are beautiful, lined with masses of hard and soft corals; the entrance channel itself has a sand and grass bottom, sloping gently downwards. Once within the circle of the reef, though, the bottom slopes much more steeply, down to about 40 feet of depth; I was able to dive that low, so I could see the bottom clearly despite the cloudy water. Swimming on, an eerie thing happens -- the bottom suddenly drops vertically out of sight, and you're floating over a black abyss, looking down into a bottomless drop. This is somewhat disconcerting, even though you're no farther from the surface. Still, this was the deepest I've ever dived to.
More exploring tomorrow...Thu 13 May 2004 18:35 America/Belize
Big snorkelling day today; Meg and I swam to the reef, while Rachel rowed the dinghy over and anchored it, and we spent most of the afternoon exploring the Blue Hole.
Although there aren't so many fish in the Blue Hole as in some places we've been, the reef walls around the hole are rich in soft corals and sponges, making a rich and vibrant environment. There are lots of spectacular green and yellow finger sponges, as well as striking purple vase sponges, as well as sea fans, fronds, and gorgonians.
But the star of the show is the hole itself. Even though it's pretty bare of life, it's such a geological marvel that we found ourselves being drawn away from the surrounding sandy lip into the central hole time after time. Meg managed to dive fairly deep, but I set a personal record; I got below the lip 50-60 feet down and saw a large nurse shark snoozing on a ledge cut into the side. Rachel and Meg on the surface lost sight of me completely in the darkness; looking up, I could just see their outlines far above. It was a long swim back up with air running out!
I managed to spear a couple of fish on the way back, so we had a delicious fresh meal; I'm sure we won't be up for much longer after the day's exertions.Fri 14 May 2004 17:40 America/Belize
With Meg's time in Belize limited, it's time to start making our way back west, hopefully hitting a few more nice spots along the way. With that in mind, we decided to leave the Blue Hole this morning, and move to a nice reefy spot just north of Half Moon Cay. The problem was that the weather was cloudy; still, by mid-day it had cleared enough to let us see the reefs, so we upped anchor and left.
It was still rather hazy, so we went slowly and carefully; but the light kept getting worse. Finally we saw a heavy rainstorm coming towards us from the east; we could see a curtain of torrential rain churning the surface of the water into foam. Luckily, we managed to find a clear spot and get the anchor down before it hit, and totally blinded us to the reefs lurking just inches below the surface.
It was just 10 minutes later that we had the anchor up, and were under way again with reasonably bright sunshine; so by 2 pm. we had found the reefy area we'd noted on the way up, and were securely anchored. That left us time for a good swim around the reefs surrounding the boat, or at least 2 of them; lovely coral formations, and quite a few fish, including curious French Angelfish, about 12 inches long, who love to swim up to divers to check them out.Sat 15 May 2004 18:37 America/Belize
We moved again today; this time back towards Half Moon Cay, stopping just outside its tricky entrance channel. This put us by some nice snorkelling on the reefs surrounding Half Moon, and also takes us our of the minefield of reefs to the north. From here, it's a relatively easy channel, which we are pretty familiar with, to leave Lighthouse Reef to the east -- we could even do it by GPS if necessary.
Hopefully we'll be able to hit at least one more nice dive spot on the way to take Meg to the airport -- but the good news is that today she fulfilled a dream, when she had a long encounter with a sea turtle swimming just a couple of feet below her.Mon 17 May 2004 02:51 America/Belize
The weather these last few days has been pretty good during the day -- but terrible overnight. We've been getting horrible squalls coming in between 2 and 4 am., with winds well over 40 knots, enough to create nasty waves even inside the reef. These have been accompanies by torrential rain; so what with having to leap up and close the hatches, and the wind howling in the rigging as the boat surges back and forth, we haven't been getting much sleep.
Today, unfortunately, some of that weather carried over into the day. We upped anchor and moved to a mooring buoy on the outside of Lighthouse Reef, one of the buoys maintained and used by commercial dive boats; they let boaters use these buoys as long as they aren't needed by the dive boats. Once moored, the wind and rain came, so we waited for a while for them to subside. Finally, Rachel and Meg went in for a quick snorkel, only to be practically mugged by an amazing profusion of fish -- we guess that the dive boats feed the fish in order to attract them to these spots. They were literally shooing fish away from themselves in order to have room to swim in.
When it clouded over once more, we decided to leave for the city. It's about 50 miles, or 10 hours, from Lighthouse Reef to our old Gallows Point anchorage in Belize City Harbour, so we planned on arriving about 2 am. We actually sailed off from the mooring, and had a pleasant sail for a while; but after the sun set, we were hit by a wicked squall, with the usual gale force winds. So we chickened out, got the sails down, and motored from there on in.
After an hour or so, the weather abated; but lightning flashes in the east, where the weather was coming from, indicated more bad stuff on the way, so we kept motoring. The rest of the trip was uneventful, though, and we finally got anchored here just after 2; we're set for an easy trip to Belize City tomorrow morning.Mon 17 May 2004 20:40 America/Belize
We dropped Meg off today, after a short motor in to Belize City. I think Meg had a great time here; she certainly got a lot of snorkelling in, as did all of us, getting in the water every day except the days she flew in and out. Pretty good going considering our rate of travel. The boat suddenly seems a lot quieter, but I'm sure we'll get used to it.
We did a little shopping on the way back from the airport. One stop for rum -- we've tried Flor de Canya from Nicaragua, and Ron Cortez from Panama, but the best of the lot is undoubtedly Belize's own "1 Barrel" rum. It's pretty cheap (for Belize) so we got a couple of bottles for the road -- I'm sure you can't get it in the USA. The other stop was for fruit from a roadside vendor -- great fruit, and at rock-bottom prices.
The shopping trip was made easier by our taxi driver, Errol Flowers, an impressively-sized black man, with Scottish slave-owning ancestry, who had served a stint in England, learning small-arms skills while part of the Belizean army. Errol is a really nice guy, very friendly, and gave us plenty of information about the city. He also confirmed what we've heard everywhere we've been since Panama -- that the weather we're seeing is very unusual! The rainy season seems to have started early, but without the high temperatures -- it's been 85 - 90 F as opposed to the 115 F it could be at this time of year!
Now we're anchored at North Drowned Cay, a small island near Belize City, and offering somewhat better shelter than the awful city anchorage. Just as well -- the wind is starting to howl again.Tue 18 May 2004 21:46 America/Belize
Action-packed day today -- loading up with water, of all things. We'd love to just pull up to the dock, plug in the hose, and fill the tanks, but the dock at the Fort George "Marina" in Belize City is particularly unpleasant -- the front of the dock is just a series of pilings, and coupled with the extremely choppy conditions there, would be very bad for the hull if we pulled alongside it.
So, we opted for the hard way -- carrying water over in jugs. This took three trips, but the second one was the worst -- some "helpful" marina employees persuaded us to borrow some more water jugs, so we could carry more water in one go. We both had reservations about loading the dinghy so much, but gave it a go, with me rowing and Rachel staying behind. Well, when I got back to the boat and was getting ready to unload, a big wake came along and swamped the dinghy. Four water jugs slipped over the side, and -- far worse -- both oars!
With no oars, I had no way to get back to shore, and no way to go after the stuff in the dinghy -- so I quickly hauled the anchor up and went chasing the goods. Spotting containers of water and oars floating in a big chop is tricky, but I found them, and managed to rescue all but two of the borrowed water jugs. Rachel, meanwhile, was understandably concerned back on shore, and got some helpful fishermen to rush her to the scene, arriving just as I was heading back to the anchorage.
After that, the day was a lot less eventful -- we finished topping up the tanks, took care of some laundry, and I changed the engine oil -- a horrible messy job, so it's good that it's out of the way.Wed 19 May 2004 22:01 America/Belize
Had a much quieter day today, getting ready to apply for a visa for the USA. This is the only time we've had to apply for a visa in advance, and of course there are incredible forms to fill out, as well as needing to pay and get a passport photo in advance. Those bits are all done now, so it's just a case of visiting the embassy tomorrow. Hope it goes well...Thu 20 May 2004 22:24 America/Belize
The big event today was hopefully getting a visa for the USA. Unfortunately, it's going to mean more delay. Last time I got a US visa, it took about 4 hours; but now they electronically fingerprint everyone who applies for a visa, and it takes 24 hours for the prints to be checked against all of the criminal databases. With tomorrow being a day off at the embassy, and then there's the weekend, and Monday being a holiday, I won't get my passport back until Tuesday. Still, as far as I know, everything else is OK, and as I've never been fingerprinted before, that part can't really be a problem. The annoying thing is that UK citizens don't even need a visa for the US -- unless you arrive by "private carrier", ie. sailboat.
So rather than hang around Belize City for 4 days, we decided to head out and explore some snorkelling possibilities at the Turneffe islands. We're here now, having got here just after 10 pm., so tomorrow maybe we'll get in the water.Fri 21 May 2004 20:01 America/Belize
It has been absolutely pouring rain all day, so we've been huddled inside the boat, playing cards and reading. It's actually a nice rest, specially as we're not stuck in front of Belize City any more. Still, some nice snorkelling weather would be great. It's cleared up now, so hopefully tomorrow will be better.Sat 22 May 2004 22:09 America/Belize
Since the weather was still unsettled, today was a boat projects day -- in between showers. The bronze head on the boathook got broken during our dinghy capsize incident at Belize City -- as it had already been cracked, we had a spare along, so I fitted it today, which involved some re-shaping of the end of the wooden pole. We also got started on some work in the dinghy.
The highlight of the day, though, was making contact with our old friends on Gitane. As they don't have email, we can only contact them by voice on the morning nets, and as they are some way south of here, after spending time in Mexico, that's been tricky. Today, however, we got through clearly, and discovered that they're heading this way, and not far behind. So it may be that they can keep us company as we head north -- we'll see.Mon 24 May 2004 01:01 America/Belize
More boat work today, amid swarms of mosquitos from the nearby islands. Summer weather seems to be arriving, with light winds and higher temperatures -- so a swim would have been good, but we needed to continue with the work we started yesterday. Maybe tomorrow.Mon 24 May 2004 19:09 America/Belize
We finally finished our boat work today -- epoxying some screw holes in the stern of the dinghy -- when I ventured out into the swarms of killer mosquitos, liberally coated with insect repellent, to chisel the excess epoxy off while it was still green. The insect repellent worked somewhat, but I still got pretty badly bitten -- all due to the close proximity of the mangrove-covered Turneffe Islands, coupled with the recent rain.
So without farther ado I raised the anchor and started motoring away, while Rachel hid below behind the big screens. Once safely away from land, we opened up and started tidying up a bit -- bit unfortunately, some mozzies were still with us, hiding under the dodger.
Still, we made it to picturesque little Rendezvous Cay, the little scrap of island we visited on the way up to Belize City, and jumped straight in the water. We were hoping for clearer water, given that the wind has been lighter, but it was actually cloudier than ever -- still, we got a good snorkel in.
Now we're back on the boat, making ready to go and pick up my US visa tomorrow -- hopefully.Tue 25 May 2004 21:29 America/Belize
We got back into Belize City today, for a lightning stop to pick up my US visa -- and it really was a lightning stop, just an hour anchored at the horrible, rolly spot just in front of the Fort George hotel. The good news is that my visa came through, and after all the hassle, at least it's valid for 10 years.
After that, it was a short hop back over to the nearby cay for a reasonably sheltered spot for the night, which we've spent watching a movie -- Tim Burton's "Big Fish", which was pretty good. Specially with fresh popcorn.Wed 26 May 2004 20:39 America/Belize
We spent today checking out, which involved lengthy taxi rides to the widely-spaced offices of immigration, the port authority, and customs; then stocked the boat up with ice, fuel and water -- a full day's work, rowing the dinghy back and forth through the hideously choppy waters of Belize City Harbour.
Belize has been nice, if rather more expensive than I would have believed; the repeated taxis to do paperwork, and the amazingly high fees (eg. $45 US to check out), as well as the high cost of goods here, are all pretty steep. Paying $100 US for my US visa didn't help. Set against this is the amazing snorkelling, which is truly worth all the hassle.
Anyway, we're all ready to head out tomorrow. Depending on the weather, we might stop again at the outer reefs on the way; but if the weather is with us, we may head up north to catch the Gulf Stream.