What a great start to the month – after a wonderful day in Water Cays (part of which was spent playing Rummikub on Makani!) we had sundowners on board Harmonie and an evening speaking French! It’s always so much easier to converse in a foreign language after a ‘wee’ drink and it was lovely to catch up with Edith and Denis. Next time we see them will be in Rio Dulce as the next morning we weighed anchor and set off for Caye Caulker. What a sail. Wonderful wind, flat seas but very shallow (scary) waters! We were a little worried on a number of occasions and the ‘sucking in of breath’ could be heard on Ocean Rainbow as we wished ourselves skinnier as the depth gauge kept falling. We saw 20cm below the keel through Swallow Cay passage .. thank goodness we didn’t know that Makani had also seen 20cms, if that had been us we would have been 30cm into the sand!! The next skinny moment was passing through Porto Stuck (appropriately named we think!) but we followed advice from friends who had already sailed through and kept to the east of the channel so never had less than 30cm below the keel. Good job as we found ourselves speeding along at 6 knots in some parts! Suffice to say we arrived safe in Caye Caulker Bay and are now anchored securely ready for any stiff breezes that might pass through.
Actually, we really did test our anchoring. Shortly after settling in we noticed a slapping of a halyard from the foredeck so James went to investigate. A bit of a problem: the yankee halyard shackle at the very top of the sail had failed when we furled the yankee on approaching Caye Caulker and the top of the sail was detached! It would have been a mega disaster if the shackle had given way while under load in the narrow channels and not when we were furling the yankee - thank goodness. So it was James up the mast to find a solution – which then required us to drop the yankee, in more blustery conditions than we would have liked. Then Murphy struck – the lead line James had attached to the yankee uphaul got twisted around the unattached end of the sail and prevented it from dropping. Solution: James up the mast again with a knife to cut the offending line. Claudio from Makani thankfully came over to give Claire some much needed muscle power to control the leech of the sail until it dropped. Now all we need to do is fit a new shackle!!! Never a dull moment on Ocean Rainbow.
Caye Caulker is a great place. It's a backpacker's paradise with lots of cheap and cheerful restaurants, good wifi and cheap accommodation (well relatively cheap!). There are 25 taxis in the town and they are actually beach buggies. There are no cars, transportation is done with bikes and the old fashioned bikes with trolleys attached. Perhaps the highlight of our stay here will be swimming with a manatee. We took the dinghy to a site where all the tourist boats seemed to stop and found that we had hit a lucky day - there was a manatee below. We have some lovely video footage but the water was quite cloudy so our 'stills' are not quite as clear as we would have liked. The memories are clear though! It was a fabulous experience.
Before leaving the area we had a day trip up to the Ho Chan Cut - aka Shark Alley - just off San Pedro. We hadn't realised we needed boat licence and marine park licences to go there so we were almost thwarted in our attempt to swim with the sharks. Luckily one of the tour guides allowed us to tie our dinghy alongside his boat and we managed to have half an hour in the water with his group. Folk around here are very kind indeed. We've never seen so many sharks all in one place and just lazily swimming around humans. A great experience. Almost as good as swimming with a manatee! We'd had a fabulous sail up to San Pedro as well and found ourselves creaming along at more than 7knots at times with only 30cm below the keel and a sand trail being left in our wake from the turbulence caused by the keel! On our way back we took a slightly different route where the satellite photos indicated the water should be deeper .... some hope! We were very gently edging forwards and holding our breath as 0.00 registered below the keel. It seemed to last for ages but in reality it couldn't have been more than 10 minutes. We must have a very clean bottom now!
8th – 18th May
Time has moved on quite a lot since we last had internet, so herewith the update on our activities. We finally moved on from the charm of Caye Caulker to explore other Cays and start our trip south.
The sail to Mapps Cay was another nerve wracking, heart in the mouth experience! Porto Stuck is really appropriately named as it is a narrow channel between two Cays that everyone has to use on the route north or south but we found that our scariest moments were south of that point when we had nothing between our keel and the sandy bottom. On the route north we were in horribly shallow waters for about 20 minutes but on the route south we managed to find slightly deeper water after only 10 minutes. If we do the trip again, who knows, we might actually find a ‘deep’ water channel for the whole route! We anchored off Mapps Cay (one of the named ‘Drowned Cays’) in the hope of spotting some Manatees in the Swallow Cay Manatee Reserve. Apart from finding that the anchorage was really poor holding – all turtle grass – we also found that Swallow Cay Manatee Reserve was no longer! And, that is despite the tour guide in Caye Caulker assuring us that we would find guides there who could track manatees! A bit disappointing to say the least. We did spot a couple of manatees near our boat and some dolphins but, on jumping in the water with snorkels and fins, we found the visibility to be little more than a couple of feet in front of our noses. From the surface the water looks stunning, but once in it, it’s a different kettle of fish! We only stayed a night before sailing on and out to Turneffe Island.
Turneffe Island is an atoll with stunning coloured waters and some wonderful coral. We actually took a very shallow cut, known as Blue Creek, and entered the inner lagoon where we had decided to anchor - rather than anchoring outside the reef in the more exposed waters. Once again we registered 0.00 on the depth gauge as we skimmed across the turtle grass and sand at the entry point. From there the route was marked and we had 30cm at the shallowest points and as much as 90cm across the lagoon to Coco Tree Cay.
Our anchorage was really sheltered but we were bitten! The no-see-ums appeared at dusk and dawn and noshed us quite comprehensively. After two nights we decided to move away from the mangroves and anchored nearer Big Cay Bokle which is the base for Turneffe Island Resort. We did dinghy ashore to see if there was internet and a cold beer to be had but we were thwarted – no cash bar and internet only for guests. They did allow us to use their computer though to download the latest weather so they weren’t totally without ‘heart’! On our third and last day we had a mini Susie Too OCC Rally Coffee Morning! Beyzano and Moody Mistress had just arrived in the outer anchorage and dinghied in to join us – with Makani – for a social morning before everyone went off snorkelling.
On Friday we set off for Lighthouse Reef. The conditions were not ideal for our exit through the southeast pass as there was a good deal of swell. Claire, never one to turn down an exhilarating ride at the funfair, found standing at the bow to spot the coral heads rather similar to being on the world’s scariest roller coaster – lots of adrenalin but too nerve wracking to be any fun! Once through the pass we had an hour of lumpy seas and slow progress before Ocean Rainbow could settle down and we then had a cracking passage overtaking Makani (OR is faster than Makani when we’re tight on the wind, but she leaves us for dead down wind!) and arriving at Long Cay, Lighthouse Reef in good light. We used the satellite photos to negotiate our way in to a sandy patch where we dropped anchor.
We found some wonderful snorkelling just 100m from the boat with rays, sharks, colourful coral and masses of fish and we also took the dinghy to a dive buoy off the northwest corner of Long Cay and saw a green moray eel (very large and very graceful) as well as myriads of jacks, parrot fish, tangs and angel fish. We did go ashore to find out about a trip to the Blue Hole but neither Huracane Diving nor Itze Lodge could help – Itze did let us connect to their WiFi so we downloaded the weather but we didn’t stay long there were just too many mosquitoes!
While at the dock, we watched a Belizean fishing boat coming in to drop its catch of conch off to the resort. The fishermen were all on their way back to Belize for a 4 day rest period after 8 days at sea. The sailboat carries 15 men with 6 canoes stacked on each side. One canoe is towed, as is the skiff (saves fuel) which carries a further 2 canoes. During the day each man goes off with his canoe in search of conch. Once a suitable patch of water is located the fisherman dives into the water with snorkel and fins and attaches the canoe to his waist, pulling it along as he swims. At night they all congregate back with the ‘mother ship’ to stow their catch, eat a meal, sleep and then begin the process all over again the next day. It’s a tough life for them but they do seem to be amazingly cheerful.
Once back at the boat our next question was how to visit the Blue Hole? Luckily Claudio and Janine were happy to take Makani up the shallow channel to the reef surrounding the hole so, after clearing everything with the marine park rangers, the trip was planned for Sunday with Moody Mistress – Carla and Robert, Beyzano – Rhian and Rob, ourselves and guests s/y Eiland – Imca and Ulli (who happened to be in the anchorage, so it would have been mean to exclude them). We had a lovely trip up to the Blue Hole but just as we approached the reef the clouds moved in, the rain poured down and visibility was reduced to a few metres in front of our noses. Not good for spotting coral heads. After a very narrow miss Claudio decided to drop his anchor and wait for the rain to pass. We passed the time sharing a delicious lunch – pitta bread pizzas, quiche, asparagus & cream cheese wraps not to mention all the naughty but nice things like crisps and chocolate!
The sun soon came out and we were able to see that we could swim from Makani to the hole without having to move anchorage. The park rangers arrived in their skiff to take our fees and also took James and Claudio into the Blue Hole to check out the two park mooring buoys. It was decided that the buoys were too close to the reef for comfort so we stayed put. We all donned snorkelling kit and then swam to the reef. Crossing over it was a very ‘think thin’ process and required a lot of winding and turning to find a path through the colourful corals. Some ‘mouldy’, ‘know it all’ cruisers had told us that there was nothing to see at the Blue Hole so our expectations of seeing fish was very low, but we just wanted to have visited this famous site. As it turned out, there was a wide variety of fish and lots of them! Good job we don’t listen to doom and gloom merchants! In the hole itself we found a large school of jacks spiralling up and down – fun to swim amongst them. Diving down into the blue was a very weird experience – the blue draws you down and we both spent far longer diving down than we should have done and came back up very short of air! James needless to say was way deeper than anyone else – he has developed a very large pair of lungs during this sailing adventure. Claire swam across the hole and then it was time to return to Makani for the sail back to Long Cay and our abandoned boats! What an amazing and totally unforgettable day. Huge thanks to Claudio and Janine and the good ship Makani.
On Monday we weighed anchor to head back to the inner reef. There were strong wind warnings with thunder predicted so we wanted to be safely tucked away. We were all going to Southwater Cay but the winds were light (we were all flying our cruising chutes – a very pretty sight) and we wouldn’t have arrived until late afternoon so we headed to Tobacco Cay instead. What a lovely spot it turned out to be. Once again we had very little below the keel but it did mean that we could see all the fish clearly and, once in the water, we had a lot of fun following the rays. On route to Tobacco Cay we caught and landed an amazing Wahu – our first! A full 39 inches long!! A veritable feast but before it could become a feast we had to kill it. Our cockpit looked like World War III had broken out with blood everywhere. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, having cleared up the blood we had fish scales everywhere as Claire tried valiantly to fillet the monster! (Not sure what we would do if we ever did catch a ‘monster’ fish … probably have to put it back!) We sometimes wonder if fishing is worth all the hassle until we get to actually eat the ‘free food’. We BBQ’d the first portions and shared the meal with Makani. The next meal we made goujons and then our third meal we shared with Makani once again and this time we had a ‘Wahu roast’ on Makani after a late afternoon/early evening games session. A truly delicious fish – let’s hope we catch some more.
On Tuesday we sailed across to Southwater Cay where we were told there was excellent snorkelling. Unfortunately the visibility was poor and we think we have been spoilt – there was some nice snorkelling but nothing we hadn’t seen before and nothing worth photographing! The island itself was very nice but it has been taken over by 3 resorts – Blue Marlin (very welcoming, very smart but charging US$3 per hour for internet), IZE resort (equally welcoming, more rustic and allowing us free internet!) and Pelican resort (fenced off and not accessible!).
On Wednesday we moved on again heading towards Placencia. Elbow Cay isn’t shown as an anchorage in our guide book but the satellite photos showed two Cays and an area of coral so we thought we would give it a try. We managed to dig our anchor into the coral/sand on a shelf before dropping back into deeper waters so we stayed for the night. We had a lovely time snorkelling the coral heads – lobsters, all types of fish including a barracuda and some pretty corals and anemones. The visibility wasn’t so good but clearer than Southwater Cay. We spent ages in the water as it was just like lounging in the bath (32˚) and there wasn’t a current to fight either – one of the least strenuous snorkels we have ever had!
19th – 25th May
Placencia Village is a lovely little town with good provisions and facilities – although no chandlery. We found the Swiss Bakery and indulged in the most delicious cinnamon buns, found a hairdresser and both had haircuts, stocked up with fruit and veg, bought a couple of souvenirs, took on some more water and checked out of Belize. This involved taking a water taxi (US$4) from behind the M&M store to Big Creek and from there a taxi (US$10) to customs, immigration and the port authorities with the taxi waiting at each stop and then returning to Big Creek and the water taxi. Our cruising permit for the 6 weeks plus all entry and exit fees amounted to US$208. In comparison, our 5 weeks in the San Blas islands cost US$463 - admittedly that covers a year’s cruising licence, whereas Belize charges by the day but even so we reckon Belize should be added to a cruising yacht’s list of ‘must visit’ places.
The anchorage at Placencia Village is rather rolly and the waters opaque so we sailed out as soon as we could to the clearer waters of Colson Cay (not the same Colson as two weeks ago!) and there we settled down for a relaxed evening. However, that was not to be, the anchorage was really, really rolly – we even spilt a glass of wine! The next morning we weighed anchor without even going for a snorkel and headed for a more sheltered place. This we found in Palmetto Cay. Flat calm waters – despite the breaking waves in the main channel, no bugs, no other boats, no people ….. yet another little bit of paradise. We had hoped to go to Ranguana Cay next but the winds and sea state would have made that another rolly anchorage so we sailed instead to Tom Owen’s Cay where Makani caught us up (they’d spent an extra couple of nights in Placencia). As we approached the cay what an extraordinary sight met us – on a tiny island separate from the main cay stood a pink house built from conch shells! There’s nothing on the island other than a dozen or so nesting Sooty Terns who were most indignant when we came to ‘sightsee’.
On Monday we moved on again, this time to Hunting Cay which used to be a British Army base, which Claire wanted to see as her brother had served some time in Belize, her father had sent soldiers to Belize and James wanted to see just because!
It is now home to the fisheries authority, port authority and coast guard. Not quite the place one would normally land with an exit stamp already in your passport and on your ship’s papers! However the authorities were only interested in collecting a marine conservation fee from us (US$10 per person) and then we were given a conducted tour of the island (such as it is) by the coastguard commander. The place is really quite run down and the only evidence of its previous military role is a plaque on the coastguard bunk house saying it was built by 69 Gurkha Independent Field Squadron in 1987. The snorkelling near the boat was nothing special but we did have a great time on Tuesday morning snorkelling around the sunken steamboat off the southern reef. The swell at this point of the reef means that the wreck can only be visited when the water is calm so we were lucky to have a nice window in which to go out there– even so, we had to be very careful.
Then it was off again and this time to a satellite chart location! We had nothing showing on our paper or electronic charts but Claudio had spotted a reef in the middle of nowhere that looked like a good place to stop if the weather was calm. We’re calling this location ‘Unknown Reef’ as there wasn’t any land! It was a wonderful place to stop - 16˚06.394N 088˚ 19.646W - with great snorkelling. We had a totally relaxed time, calm waters and nothing and no one to disturb us. We played a game of DOG on OR, had blinis for supper and just enjoyed the day (we’d played Mexican Train Dominoes on Makani in Hunting Cay so we’re well back in ‘games mode’).
Our final stop in Belize is South Moho Cay. The island is a private resort – or so our guide book told us – but when we arrived we found it deserted except for two ‘guardians’ who allowed us to walk around. The resort closed 5 or 6 years ago we were told but the beds are still made up ready for visitors! The cabanas are actually tents mounted on a platform with palm frond roofs – they would have been lovely in their day. And so ends our Belize adventure. We can see mainland Belize from the island and if the skies were clearer we would also be able to see the tip of Guatemala. Later today we set off for the final 20 miles to Livingston, Guatemala where we will check in and once again try to speak Spanish!
26th – 31st May
And so to Guatemala ….. we left South Moho relatively early and sailed gently towards Guatemala. We had expected to motorsail but there was sufficient wind and so Ocean Rainbow sailed into yet another country! We spent the first night at Cabos Tres Puntas in Oxtongue Bight where the howler monkeys, cicadas and a tree frogs symphony entertained us. We were also able to watch the locals set their fishing nets as dusk fell (a hazard to sailors as they are not marked and stretch for miles across the entrances to bays along the coast of Guatemala). Then we happened to be awake at 5.30 the next morning for a wonderful sunrise and we were also able to watch the nets being gathered in …. Not a good catch from what we could see. At 7am we weighed anchor and motored (no wind) across to Livingston and the notorious sand bar that blocks the entrance. Any yacht with a draft of more than 1.5m has to be very careful about timing the crossing and yachts with a draft of more than 1.7m need assistance to be dragged through the sand and even, in some cases, have their yacht heeled over as they are pulled across the bar into the deeper pool of water off Livingston. We managed the crossing without mishap but it was certainly shallow.
Livingston is a great little town. There is lots of bustling activity with water taxis coming and going from all different directions. There is a military presence at the dock but nothing threatening and only a few guns visible in the town – unlike Colombia and Guyana. The town itself is a couple of streets filled with colourful stalls – mainly manned by the Chinese. There is a part of the town where some 14,000 people live in real poverty and near apartheid conditions. This is the Garifuna area where Claire and Janine (s/y Makani) were given a tour by Phillip who also happened to be extremely knowledgeable about British politics, the Royal family and the slave trade in Bristol! He had spent his career as an English teacher and returned to his home town to help with the restoration programme after various hurricanes (e.g. they are still scraping together funds to rebuild the boys’ school). There is a central feeding programme for the little township with everyone pitching in to provide meals centrally for the orphans and those in need. Volunteers from ‘black’ communities in other countries come to help out and currently there are two people from Bath helping to build the school – in previous years there have been folk from Bristol helping too.
We stayed overnight in Livingston in order to extend our 3 month visa to a 9 month one – bureaucracy (and money!) says you can’t get a 9 month visa without having a 3 month visa first! At least we are now able to leave Ocean Rainbow for 4 months without worrying and we can stay in the country once we return and do some serious sightseeing. For the time being we are focussed on boat cleaning and preparation for haul out. After our wonderful lazy time in Belize it’s about time we got down to some real hard work!!!
The sail up the Rio Dulce was spectacular. It really is an amazingly beautiful river and we had ideal conditions for the trip.
We stopped off in El Golfete, dropping our anchor just outside Quemodo Bay (also known as TexMex Bay). We stayed for three nights and were once again serenaded at night by tree frogs and cicadas and by day by the birds. Really lovely and a great place for Janine to celebrate her birthday. We were visited on a couple of occasions by local ladies in their canoes selling various wares - basketry, fresh coconut buns and chicken soup. Unable to face buying their chicken soup we ended up donating clothing and biscuits to them instead. They went away very happy, munching biscuits and the eldest lady ‘wearing’ a T shirt on her head! There’s a busy community around this part of the lake with water taxis ferrying people from A to B starting with the school run at daybreak. The noise of children in the playground in the bay behind us was the signal for our coffee break, the children returning home from school meant it was lunch time and full water taxis heralded the end of the working day – time for a rum punch!
Next stop was Fronteras. Once again we were lucky and were able to sail from El Golfete all the way to Fronteras only dropping the cruising chute as we entered the river again. We dropped our anchor in a very pretty little spot, but which also turned out to be a very busy thoroughfare! Ocean Rainbow bobbed about in the wash of the water taxis until nightfall when things calmed down, however the noise of the lorries employing their airbrakes as they descended from the top of the bridge was very, very unwelcome! We went ashore with Makani to get a feel for the town, bought some food from a local stall, had a beer at the local restaurant and caught up with emails and then back to OR to eat our purchases – delicious they were too (chicken drumstick, meat patty, spicy vegetable patties served with rice and tortillas), although not sure the tortillas were the best quality!
Thus ended another month on board Ocean Rainbow. Almost at our destination, only two more weeks before we haul out and head back to the UK.