1st – 7th April
The new month started with some uncomfortable sailing from Utila towards Belize, and then some motoring! Not a good start but we were rewarded with the stunning sight of Glover’s Reef mid-morning. We entered via the southern pass following waypoints that Alembic had radioed to us. This didn’t stop us mounting our own ‘coral head’ watch from the bow as one can never be too safe. Glover’s Reef is one of 3 atolls in Belize’s Barrier Reef, which is second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef so we were looking forward to the snorkelling. At the first opportunity, we took the dinghy off to the south of the island to snorkel but we were slightly ‘underwhelmed’. The coral heads were pretty but nothing particularly special. Nor did we see any unusual fish. We went along to the adventure holiday camp a little to our north to ask about snorkelling and, had we had the opportunity, we would have explored further north. However, the latest weather report – particularly from the locals – made us revise our plans and our visit to Glover’s Reef was cut short as we decided to head for better shelter from the anticipated northerlies. We stayed just the one night, had sundowners on Ocean Rainbow with Arkouda and Alembic and then mid-morning on 2nd April we headed towards Tobacco Range (now known on OR as the Smoking Range). This is where we all parted company. Arkouda went to Garbutt Cay, Alembic to Tobacco Range and we anchored in Twin Cays. And that is where we stayed for the next 4 nights! There is a fishing camp off the southern tip of the easternmost island but where we anchored they couldn’t be seen so, as far as we were concerned, we were on our own!
Belize means ‘muddy waters’ and that is what you get around the mangroves so snorkelling isn’t really on the cards. However, the first night we spotted a Manatee in the water. Claire jumped in with snorkel and, with James on the bow to guide her towards the Manatee, she managed to swim along with it. What an extraordinary creature. Huge. However, by the time James jumped into the water the Manatee had decided to get a wiggle on and Claire lost it before James had a chance to swim with it …. we are now determined to find some more and this time we will have the camera to hand as well.
On our second night a fishing boat came in to anchor nearby for the night. They sold us a red snapper that, once BBQ’d, was totally delicious. We went for a dinghy investigation along the edge of the islands and through the cut between the two islands but no more manatees to be seen. On our third and fourth days (and nights) we were totally on our own – unless you count the visit of a jumping ray and some dolphins! Absolute bliss. We didn’t even launch the dinghy! If we are totally truthful, there was a slight negative to our bliss – the ‘no see ums’ feasted quite well off us and we were bitten by sand flies while on our dinghy patrol but that’s a small price to pay!
On our fifth day we decided we had better stir ourselves and start to head south to meet up with the rest of the Rally. We weighed anchor at 9am and gingerly made our way out of Twin Cays and across to Blue Ground Range. Navigating is quite a challenge as the charts that we are using are sketch charts produced by Freya and Tom Rauscher and they have ‘not for navigation’ clearly written across them! But, they are the only charts available! Our chart plotter and Navionics don’t have the necessary detail we really need as everything is marked as rocks/shoal – if we followed them we wouldn’t have been able to get inside the reef at all! With Claire on the bow and James calling depths from the helm we motored around the various reefs and sand bars, successfully avoiding a couple of nasty coral heads, into Blue Ground Range where we anchored for the night. It was a rather rolly day with squalls coming through and the boat swinging 180˚ which, at one stage, put us on a lee shore! Not comfortable. We did take the dinghy and explore the islands. The local fishermen have a very precarious life. They build their homes on top of the mangrove roots and set up camp. Some of the islands have had sand/coral from the seabed dredged up to backfill the gaps between the roots to make a base and the huts and homes seem more permanent but the majority just have rickety boardwalks. The winds abated in the early evening and we slept well.
For the last day of the Rally we moved to Pelican Cays. We had a very nerve wracking 10 minutes as we ran the western approach pass. We avoided all the coral heads but with only 40cm below the keel and coral heads all around us we had our hearts in our mouths as we made our way through. It was good to find Arkouda in the anchorage and we enjoyed a delicious steak BBQ supper on board with them. We snorkelled the reef and saw some lovely soft corals but the visibility was a little cloudy because of the recent squalls.
8th – 14th April
On Friday morning we weighed anchor and sailed 9nm across to mainland Belize and the new marina of Placencia to join up with everyone for a final party. The party, held in Palencia Hotel’s newly opened Palapa was a ‘welcome to Belize party’ hosted by the Belize Tourist Board but it was also our final Rally party. Definitely saving the best venue for last! There were a few speeches including a presentation to Suzanne to say thank you for all her amazing organisation and hard work and to David for his unstinting support and ever cheerful VHF radio reports each morning.
It’s been an amazing 4 months from our arrival in Curacao in December last year to our final Rally destination in Belize. We have travelled 1750nm, visited 7 countries, enjoyed 10 ‘welcome’ parties, anchored in 28 different places and stayed in 3 marinas. Santa Marta, Columbia was the only marina where we stayed for security reasons the other two (Shelter Bay and Placencia) we used as secure ‘parking lots’ so that we could tour inland and know that Ocean Rainbow was safe. We have paid a fair amount in fees – San Blas and Belize were the most expensive, Columbia the most restrictive as we were only allowed to anchor in certain bays and we had to declare where we were going and when and Utila was the easiest and it was free! The Rally has been a brilliant way to visit new places with the minimum of anxiety – all the long distance passages were sailed in company, we all exchanged information on different locations so we spent minimal time seeking out customs/hardware stores/internet providers etc and when trying to slip into a shallow anchorage the catamarans led the way! We shall miss our morning ‘nets’ with David giving us a weather update and a run down on the location of the ‘fleet’ – or ‘family’ as he used to call us towards the end. We shall miss the ‘Suzie Too’ organised events and we shall miss having our route pre-planned for us! We have made some wonderful friends and we have some amazing memories and the photographs to go with them (useful prompt as we get older!). The wonderful thing about this type of life is that we have only bid everyone ‘adieu’ …. Who knows where we will meet again but there is almost a guarantee that we will ‘bump’ into someone from the group wherever we sail.
So now it’s Saturday 9th April and we are on our own! Well, not strictly true as Suzanne organised a final trip for us all to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves in the San Ignacio region of western Belize. We stayed at the Cahal Pech Resort which was a 5 minute walk from the archaeological site of ‘Cahal Pech’. We left Ocean Rainbow securely tied up at the marina and set off in air conditioned buses for the 3 hour drive to San Ignacio. We learnt masses about the country, its national flag with the motto – ‘under the tree we flourish’ –the flora and fauna, the Mennenite and Amish communities and the Mayan tribes.
Arriving in San Ignacio we made a quick stop at the local market to view all the handicrafts as well as check out a variety of fruit and vegetables that were new to us – Jicama is one that has been added to the shopping list (delicious sliced with a touch of lime and ground black pepper and nibbled with a sundowner, or chopped and added to a salad). Then it was on to our hotel and our little cabana called ‘Boiling Pot’. What a lovely location and so convenient. The staff were very helpful and friendly and the food was great – although we did have a problem with the quantities served. The first night we went to bed a trifle hungry but that was soon sorted out with a great breakfast. Sunday night’s supper was very tasty with enough for us all and Monday’s lunch was extremely good and plentiful! However, our packed lunch at the caves was deemed by the majority to be ‘revolting’!! Can’t win them all and we did have a good group rate for the whole visit so we aren’t complaining.
Our trip to the ATM caves was fabulous. You can only visit the caves with a guide and you can’t take anything with you into the caves – cameras have been banned since 2012 when a tourist managed to drop a camera onto a skull and cause irreparable damage. After a 30 minute walk we reached the entrance to the cave and our swim began. Although it was possible to wade through the water most of the time there were two sections where you had to swim. We crawled through narrow openings, went down chutes and generally wriggled our way from one cavern to the next. We really hadn’t known what to expect but never had we imagined (being novice ‘cavers’) that we would have had to negotiate quite so many tricky openings. It was really very exciting as we viewed ‘columns’, ‘curtains’, ‘pillars’ and ‘ribbons’ of sparkling crystal stalactites and mites. Our guide managed to add to the mystical aura with his tales of hallucinogenic drugs, blood letting and human sacrifice. We all had to wear socks to walk through the ‘cathedral’ and upper caves to prevent too much damage to the site but even so there was evidence of pottery shards showing through on the ‘official’ path. We were amazed that we were allowed so much freedom of movement in such an extraordinary archaeological site. The tour took 5 hours and we were really quite tired after all our exertions and ready to spend the rest of the afternoon lazing by the pool back at the hotel.
On Monday we were collected from the hotel by our guide and walked the 5 minutes down to the archaeological site of Cahal Pech (City of Ticks). The settlement dates from 1200BC and started as a solitary forest farmstead surrounded by pastures (full of ticks!), then grew to a hamlet and on to an imposing royal citadel. The site is one of the oldest recognizable Mayan cities in western Belize and was abandoned around 900AD for unknown reasons – although speculation suggests that it was internal feuding and lack of water that brought about the downfall. The settlement is a collection of 34 structures, the tallest of which is a 25m high temple situated around a central acropolis. When we visited the museum we found a painting of what the citadel would have looked like. Below you can see the comparison.
After a substantial lunch it was time for the return trip home. We travelled with a different driver and had another fact filled 3 hour trip with a stop at the market to buy vegetables, a chocolate stall to try locally made chocolate ice cream, a farm where young men are taught farming skills and make delicious ice cream (this time we had caramel!) and a stop on ‘gravity hill’ where we watched our bus roll ‘up the hill’ without its engine on. An amazing optical illusion!
Once home, unpacked and sorted out we sat down to a light supper and then had a bit of a ‘sing-song’ before retiring to bed for a very sound sleep! A great finale trip for us on the Suzie Too OCC Rally.
As always we have our boat chores. We decided to make the most of our week’s special rate at the marina and stay to clean Ocean Rainbow. After a few days ashore with fresh water we returned to find the boat really sticky with salt so Claire set to with a water/vinegar solution and wiped down all the surfaces while James tackled to job of removing broken bits of impeller from the bottom of the engine heat exchanger! This should have been a relatively straight forward job but ….. the long and short of it is, we found that the heat exchanger was suffering from an accumulation of rust. It is possible we need a new one but for the time being, after a very long time scraping rust out of the pipes, it was reassembled and seems to be working very well but we shall now be keeping an eagle eye on the engine temperature for any sign of overheating! In the meantime, we are ordering spare parts! And, have we mentioned that our auto pilot has died on us? On the last passage when we had to motor for 4 hours the auto pilot decided to stop holding its course – Rudder Drive Error. We had the same error when we were in Martinique and were able to get the auto pilot repaired but we were warned that the repair might not hold. So we are now on the hunt for replacement parts and hope we don’t find ourselves having to motor long distances – although we do have the Rio Dulce to navigate before we lay up for the hurricane season so that won’t be much fun hand steering for 4 or 5 hours!
Our final night in the marina also coincided with Jeff on Echo’s 58th birthday. We spent the day in Placencia village, lunching with Makani at Tipsy Tuna, stocking up on vegetables and replenishing our bug spray (we are being eaten alive here!!) and then returned to have ‘pontoon’ sundowners with all the OCC boats in the marina followed by an excellent dinner in the Palapa restaurant. Afterwards we went to the Casino! The Casino has only just opened and is still in its trial stages so a few of the machines are free to play – not much fun though just standing there pulling an arm and watching pictures flash around! On our wanderings we met up with one of the investing partners who chatted to us and then offered to buy a round of drinks for us all in honour of Jeff’s birthday and, on discovering that Claire had never been to a casino before, he opened a Blackjack table for us to play for free. It was such fun. The experts (Echo and Moondancer) then moved on to the proper table and played for money – we watched for a while and then called it quits and walked back along the beach, home to Ocean Rainbow.
Thursday 14th April and we are about to leave the marina heading off on our own to explore the reef and maybe find migrating whale sharks off Gladden Spit.
15th – 24th April
We spent two nights at Lark Cays surrounded by mangroves with nothing but pelicans diving for fish to spoil the tranquility. On the second night Makani joined us and we have been travelling together since then. We have some wonderful sailing inside the Reef using the Main, Inner and Victoria Channels to route us around the Cays. The actual entry into the Cays has been made a lot easier by using Satellite maps and with her shallower draft, we have been able to follow Makani. The Guide Book to the islands is very imprecise and in some cases (Pelican Cays, for example) inaccurate, which has been alarming as we are used to having accurate Guide Books that we can trust.
We stopped off at South Long Cocoa Cay for a night and had some wonderful snorkelling off the south end of the island. There was a lovely sandy beach at the north end but we didn’t go ashore. It’s sandfly season at the moment and the pesky things are invisible but their bites remain for a week at least with some of them going quite nasty. We’ve been working on the theory that in the middle of the day we should be safe but that hasn’t always been the case. This part of the world isn’t known as the ‘mosquito coast’ for nothing!
We then moved on to Hatchet Cay which is a tiny resort island with 8 Cabanas each with a little private beach, a restaurant with WiFi and a dive shop where all manner of water sports can be arranged. Although we had a great sail across to Hatchet we found that the anchorage was extremely bumpy in the strong north easterlies that had built up and very uncomfortable during the night so we moved on without making use of any of the facilities – including WiFi!! Our next stop was going to be Rendezous Cay but side of the island that was protected from the NE was too shallow for us so we made our way to North Long Cocoa Cay through some very shallow waters, following Makani’s track. What a pretty little island, all equipped for tourist picnic parties, immaculately tended with 3 ‘guardians’who were most welcoming and happy to answer questions. The island is privately owned, the visitors are mainly American and tend to come at the weekend. At quiet times the ‘guardians’ sweep the island to clear leaves and debris, fell and log damaged palms, dredge sand to replenish the ‘tourist sandy beach’ and fill ‘dips’ that have developed on the island (bit like filling potholes in the road!) and they monitor the termite nests and destroy any that are getting too close to their ‘home’. They work on a 3 week rotation.
We found some beautiful coloured coral at the south end of the island and spent ages snorkelling around looking at the corals and fish and searching for lobsters and sharks. We were rewarded with a great video of a nurse shark leaving its hideaway under some coral. We are still hoping to find whale sharks but the weather has been very unsettled so we haven’t gone outside the protected waters of the inner reef on the principle that the waters outside are even more disturbed so we wouldn’t be able to jump off the boats and swim with them even if we saw signs that they might be in the area.
We had a good sail to Pelican Cays despite the rainy squall that passed through – always nice to get the decks and rigging washed off with ‘sweet’ water. We had our full main up too so that got a good wash. We entered Pelican Cays from the East side this time through an area marked as ‘drying shoal’ on the Guide Book that we have! Claire was not at all keen on this route but satellite photos are extremely accurate and there was a very definite break in the reef so, with Makani in the lead, we gently motored through the channel. It transpires that the Guide Book charts for Pelican Cays are really inaccurate and it was no wonder we found so little water under our keel when we entered from the West! This time we picked up a mooring buoy which was very nice as it is really deep everywhere and anchoring takes a bit of time as one tries to find a suitable spot. We went ashore to Hideaway Cay and had a beer in the restaurant. It’s an amazing little island complete with rooster, chickens and ducks. The restaurant, house and a holiday cabana are built amongst the mangroves and barely visible from the water. Dustin and his wife have lived on the island for 7 years (having arrived from Florida 14 years ago in their yacht), their daughter was born there (now aged 3) and they appear to make their living through tourists – although we didn’t go into too much detail. The snorkelling here is quite disappointing with none of the bright colours of the Long Cocoas and much of the coral lying dead on the sea bed so we only stayed one night before moving on to Dangriga where we had to visit the authorities in order to extend our permission to stay in Belize.
We had a lovely sail up the Main Channel to Dangriga (means standing water in Garifuna), had no trouble anchoring and, after a suitable time just checking all was well, we launched the dinghy and went into town. What a great place. Everyone was really friendly. Mac from the Fishermen’s Cooperative told us where to find customs and advised us to tie up the dinghy at the fishermen’s dock for security. In the town, anyone we spoke to was really helpful and the prices of fruit and veg were half those in Placencia! The supermarket shelves were well stocked and the freezers were full of beef and chicken. We’ll definitely try and go back to Dangriga if we need to stock up for our trip south. It is a poor town though with ramshackle buildings, dusty tracks and a lot of people standing around doing nothing. Many of the schoolchildren were bare foot although they were all wearing uniforms so perhaps they were shoeless through choice? Not a question we thought a random stranger could ask but perhaps next time.
After a fairly noisy night – while Dangriga celebrated the full moon! – together with Makani we weighed anchor and headed off to Garbutt Cays. The wind has died and is not due to reappear for a few days so we are anchored off the Cays and just enjoying the peace and tranquillity with nothing to disturb us other than the splashing of rays, dolphins and fish.
We have snorkelled but found nothing really remarkable – keeps us fit though! We’ve chatted to a local fisherman and waved at a couple of passing boats, investigated the fishing camps – what a very simple life they lead – and returned to Ocean Rainbow to complete a few chores (polishing, removing rust etc). Most evenings we have met up with Makani, played games (a great Swiss game called Dog! and backgammon) and shared supper including a delicious fish (we think it might have been shark – whoops!) provided by the local fisherman in exchange for a tot of rum. The last week has not been stressful!!
25th – 30th April
New experience: we agreed with Makani to have a wife swap for the trip from Garbutt Cays to Colson Cays. Claudio & Janine came across to Ocean Rainbow at 9am, dropped off Janine and collected Claire (Makani’s dinghy is on davits and much easier to launch and stow than Puddle). After a briefing the girls took on their different roles. On Makani, Janine does the anchoring while Claudio drives whereas on Ocean Rainbow, James does the anchoring and Claire drives. Janine thoroughly enjoyed ‘driving’ OR and said it was much easier than on Makani. She successfully helmed all the way to Colson Cays and was very happy holding OR into wind while the main was raised and lowered and while the anchor was set; the only time she released the helm was to hand over to Humphrey as we had caught a fish (small tuna) on OR. Claire had equally as much fun on Makani and enjoyed the easy routine and the amazing amount of space. However, neither of the girls would change their homes permanently though it was a truly lovely morning’s sail.
Colson Cays is an amazing place. Not because of the mass of fish and corals but because of the seabed. It would appear that over the years caves under the seabed have collapsed and created large sink holes with troughs, trenches and crevasses. The fish do congregate in the bottom – and some of them were really rather large! – but it was the holes that fascinated us. James found an entrance that he could dive down to, swim along a little tunnel and then reappear a few yards later – up the sink hole! It was too deep for Claire to manage the dive and swim with any degree of comfort so she was left to take the photo! We haven’t seen this ‘collapsed’ seabed anywhere else so far but there a lot of islands in Belize so we doubt that this is a unique phenomenon. We also went on a dinghy drive through the mangroves with Shamal, Harmonie and Makani. It was an amazing experience to just push our way through the tunnels and explore the mangrove waterways – although, on this occasion, not very much to report in the way of wildlife! Colson Cays was also where we learnt to play Mexican Train Dominoes! We all met on Makani – because they have the biggest cockpit table and we all shared brunch (Shamal with tortilla, Makani with Pfannkuchen and OR with pancakes)! What a fun game of dominoes we all had and what a great way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon – the only trouble was, it was sunny and it was Tuesday!
The photo of 'Mother' fishing boat shows 4 canoes loaded on the starboard side. These canoes are sent out each day to catch fish and only return in the evening to join the 'mother' ship. While snorkelling to search for lobsters the fishermen tow the canoes along. A tough life and it appears that the all male crew live on the 'mother' ship for long periods before returning to the mainland and their families. Our next stop was Bluefield Range where we hoped to see Manatees; though we were disappointed on that score, we did see ospreys at close quarters, rays jumping, dolphins swimming past our boat and a snake! We had expected to see many more snakes in the water around the mangroves but so far nothing and the one we did spot was in a water barrel!! Not sure that really counts. The second day at Bluefield Range we went for a day trip on Makani to see Rendezvous Cay. We motored out there (directly into the wind) but we had a magnificent sail back and loved the opportunity to sail together on a catamaran. Once at the Cay we were rather taken aback by the number of snorkelling tourists in what was supposed to have been an idyllic island paradise – guess we should have bought a more up to date guide book! However, by 2pm everyone had left and we had the island to ourselves. We snorkelled the north end of the island in the morning and thought the colours were fabulous, we then snorkelled the south in the afternoon (where all the tourists were gathered) and thought it was exceedingly poor! We really do appreciate how immensely spoiling it is to have our own transport and access to the more remote islands and Cays along our route.
From Bluefield Range we sailed on to Water Cays where we stayed to see in the new month! We have had a really wonderfully self-indulgent month with afternoons and evenings spent with Makani playing Backgammon, Dog!, Rummikub, Mexican Train Dominoes and Yahtzee. We have shared suppers, enjoyed sundowners together, snorkelled when we could and explored loads of mangroves.
In Water Cays we travelled miles by dinghy, found a resort in the process of refurbishment, fishing huts that looked so ramshackle we couldn’t believe they were in use (but they were!) and shady mangrove tunnels through which we paddled gently to emerge the other side into still and stunningly beautiful lagoons. Then we went underwater to see the life amongst the mangrove roots – it was like a scene from Lord of the Rings. A magical way to end the month.