Thursday, November 15, 2012

Adventures In Belize - Day Ten

     The rain came and went several times during the night, rattling close overhead loudly enough to wake me. I went out on deck as the warm, damp air was beginning to get light. I could hear the calls of birds in the dense vegetation near the marina, accompanied by a frog chorus. Water dripped from the edges of the Bimini top overhead. It dribbled over the edges of the boat onto the surface of the slip. It splashed in the undergrowth, and water vapor twisted in lazy tendrils from the coral sand and gravel up into the still morning air.

     Off in the distance I could hear the faintest whisper of sound in the back ground. It gradually got louder. Looking in that direction I could see a low hanging dark grey cloud moving slowly in my direction. Beneath the cloud was a veil of dark streamers reaching to the ground, dumping a tropical downpour on the jungle as it swept along. The millions upon millions of large raindrops splattering on leaves, splashing into puddles marked its coming with a whispering roar that got louder and louder as it got closer. 
      Billions of raindrops, rushing toward the ground, pushing the air ahead of them, created a warm humid wind blowing out in all directions, carrying the scent of sweet blossoms and decaying vegetation. So dense that the cascading rain obscured the landscape behind it, the storm swept across the marina with an enveloping roar of falling water that lasted only a few minutes and was gone.
     Soon the sun appeared from behind the tattered clouds, just in time to heat the already steamy air as we packed up and lugged dufflebags to the marina office for checkout and to await the arrival of the van to the tiny Placencia Airport.
     We’ve been here a week or so. Now it’s finally time to go; I can’t believe how quickly time has flown. Packing up the bathing suits…that’s a sign we must be going home. When we get back home, and they ask us what we miss most, we’ll shrug our shoulders and we’ll smile…

If you would like to see a twenty-five minute video of 
these ten days of adventure,click on the hotlink below.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Adventures In Belize - Day Nine

Friday, October 19, 2012
      The wind was blowing out of the northeast when we went to bed. I was a bit worried that it would shift during the night as it had other nights. If that happened, there was not enough room on the other side of the spot where we had dropped anchor, and we would drift into the mangrove roots. It didn't happen.
   Instead, the wind died completely and the night was hot and sticky. To add to the discomfort the still air next to the mangrove swamp on Lark Cay was populated by those tiny little gnats that people call "no-see-'ems". Small enough to squeeze through a regular window screen, they have a hearty appetite, and sleep was frequently interrupted with sharp little pinprick bites. 
   The lagoon where we were anchored behind Lark Cay was mirror-still in the early morning twilight, reflecting tall dark cumulus clouds with bright edges, back lit by the rising sun.
The others on board were still too sleepy to go adventuring, so I took the inflatable dinghy by myself to explore the shoreline. Actually there was very little shore visible. 
     Dense mangrove thickets crowded right down the edge of the lagoon, creating an impenetrable barricade of aerial roots all the way out into water. They plunge down a foot, two feet into the muddy or sandy bottom, holding the land in place against all but the fiercest of hurricane-driven wind and waves, and create a labyrinthine refuge and nursery for all sorts of sea life.
      Beyond the reach of the roots, colonies of coral grow in the clear, sunlit water. Seemingly infinite in variety, composed of uncountable billions of tiny sea-creatures living in symbiosis. These polyps eat microscopic plankton and floating organic debris, but also are nourished by the photosynthesis of specialized cells of plant algae that live inside the coral's tissue. Each individual coral polyp is capable of sharing the nutrition with all of the members of the colony. Their supporting calcium carbonate skeletal material, accumulated over countless generations builds the massive coral reefs of Belize.
    As I skimmed along the surface I was fascinated by the constantly changing contours of the bottom beneath the Zodiac. One moment the water would be that infinite deep cobalt blue of the tropic ocean. As I sped over different depths the color would change to a lighter, shadowy blue, then emerald, then apple-green, dependent on how close the coral heads were to the underside of the dinghy. By the time I got back to the "Lovely Cruise" the rest of the crew was almost ready to haul up the anchor.
    There is a long coral and sand bank that stretches a long distance out from the shore of Lark Cay, and we were not eager to repeat the previous day's tense moments of crossing that shallow water. 

   John set a course south toward Bugle Cay, and I stationed myself on the forward deck to watch for shoaling water. As soon as we were certain that there was deep water to starboard John set a new course directly toward the town of Placencia. We dropped anchor in twenty feet of water a hundred yards or so off the town waterfront, joining several other cruising sailboats already there.
    A shouted conversation with the captain of the closest boat indicated that the new town dock was still under construction, and that we should tie up to that rickety-looking low wooden dock that stretched out a couple of hundred feet from the beach. 
  As we motored in on the dinghy we could see that the outermost section of the dock consisted of nothing more than pilings, the decking having been carried away in some storm. We tied up the dinghy midway on the dock, walked cautiously toward land, stepping over loose planks and missing pieces.
     A long panga fishing boat with a high, rounded bow rested on the beach, and people sitting in the shade just beyond the sand enjoyed the gentle late morning breezes. We were enticed by the delicious odors of cooking food coming from a vendor's hut at the edge of the beach, and stopped to talk with the owner for a few minutes, promising that we would come back to try some of her edible wares after we explored the town a bit.
    Placencia is spread out for several miles along a very thin spit of sandy land with the ocean on one side and a vast salt water lagoon on the other..There is one dirt road that winds from the waterfront up the peninsula toward connections with the other largely unpaved roads that pass for highways in Belize. We strolled past a Shell gas station, and were a bit puzzled that there were no cars getting gas until we read the hand lettered sign taped to the front of the pump!

     The Guiness Book of World Records lists Placencia's Main Street as the world's narrowest main street. It is really nothing more than a cement sidewalk that reaches for over a mile through the long skinny center of the town, raised a few inches above the loose sand. We walked along it for a bit.

    Scattered along the main street are small shops selling clothing, shops selling touristy souvenirs, guest houses and bed-and-breakfast establishments, beach cabanas, an elementary school, brightly painted houses with metal roofs and gutters to catch rainwater in cisterns, well-kept gardens, and sandy vacant lots. No place in town is more than a few blocks from the water. We walked out toward the ocean side and found a beautiful narrow beach where the three-inch-high waves broke in small ripples against golden yellow sand. 
   On a side "street" we found a charming little open air bar, and stopped for some lunch. The couple who own the Pickled Parrot were recent arrivals fro New Jersey. He had been a truck driver, and when his wife retired from a teaching job and suggested that they move to Belize, he eagerly had embraced the idea. He runs the bar and she does the cooking in the kitchen of the adjacent house wherwe they live. They have been in Placencia less than a year, and are loving it. We stopped by the beachside food vendor's spot to buy some home made candy on the way back to the boat.
    By late afternoon we had navigated the thirteen waypoints on the GPS that marked the shallow channel back to the Sunsail Marina. Two marina workers came out to meet us as we approached, pulling alongside to let the pilot come aboard to steer the big catamaran back into the tight quarters between the boat slips. 
     With a practiced flourish, one hand advancing the port engine and the other hand reversing the starboard engine, he pivoted that clumsy square boat with ease, sliding it backwards smoothly in between the pilings into the slip. Someone else tossed the mooring lines. They were cleated in place, and with that final nautical action our voyage was over.
    It did feel wonderful to take a long, hot shower, to put on clean clothes, and to walk with the others down the road to Robert's Grove for a delicious dinner on the deck overlooking the water, but I was already feeling nostalgic for the time we had spent on this Lovely Cruise.

Adventures In Belize - Day Eight

Thursday, October 18, 2012 - Day Eight
This morning the sun rose directly behind Laughing Bird Cay, silhouetting the coconut palms, the figure of a ranger raking the sand, and the thatched palapa. 

     A deep orange sun peeped through the palm fronds, turning the still water near the beach a rippling gold and laying a shimmering colorful path out across the water toward the boat. A flock of gray and pick parrots flapped past, close to the surface of the ocean. A manatee raised its large round head above the surface for a look around and vanished again beneath the surface.

    I thought I saw someone swimming over the reef in the distance, but realized that there was no snorkel sticking up. I had seen an old water soaked log gently bobbing in the swells, appearing and disappearing as if someone were diving.....I guessed. 
I watched the dark spot for at least 15 minutes before seeing an oar-shaped fin lift out of the water and go under again, revealing that I had been watching a sea turtle foraging for its breakfast in the shallow waters over the reef.
    I also observed a tiny finch flutter past and dip into the water a hundred yards away between the boat and shore. It beat its wings with a brief flurry of motion, propelling itself several feet closer to shore, but not breaking free of the water. It rested perhaps fifteen seconds and repeated its fluttering lurch ahead. I expected at any moment that some large fish would suddenly appear and gobble the struggling bird, but it kept on fluttering, resting fluttering, and resting, each time a shorter distance and with obviously fading strength. At last it fluttered no more. All motion stopped, and the small lifeless body floated off slowly on the current.
    An after-breakfast swim was agreeable to everyone, so off in the dinghy again. As we were pulling away a dive-charter launch out of Placencia came roaring into the beach, and a dozen eager visitors clambered ashore. 
     John immediately changed course and headed away from the spot where we had planned to land, in favor of a more isolated bit of shore near the end of the island.
    John, Sheila, and Mary Ann headed for the edge of the reef with their gear, and Jane, Ruth and I opted to swim parallel to the shore down toward the beach where the dive boat had landed. We swam along very slowly mostly over white coral sand, and saw lots of smaller colorful fish and scattered small corals.
    Approaching landing beach I saw a dark cloud of something in the shallows. As I got closer the cloud resolved itself into millions two inch long dark little fish, swimming and darting as one amorphous mass, constantly changing shape and direction first one way and then the opposite, then swirling briefly into a tight vortex before become amoeba-like once again. 

     By the time we came ashore the rest of our party was resting in the shade of the palapa, and eager to start back to the boat. They waited patiently for another twenty minutes while I splashed contentedly in the shallows along the four foot wide beach to the end of the cay and back, taking pictures along the way.
    It was almost lunchtime, but we saw that our next anchorage at South Long Coca Cays was only about an hour's motoring time, and decided to have lunch once we got there. I was at the helm, and several times posted lookouts in the bow to warn of shallow water. We skirted several reefs, swinging wide around the privately owned Mosquito Cay. As we approached the mooring ball at our destination we saw thirty and forty-foot mounds of coral sand and rock piled in huge heaps in several spots on the cay, and a large area that had been excavated and smoothed and leveled to create an artificial harbor. 
      We were told that a large Japanese firm was able to get around the strict environmental laws of Belize (rumor has it that there was a lot of paying off of the right people), and were in the process of building a large resort. In the meantime the whole place is an atrocious eyesore. Large plumes of coral silt drift in the water down the current, totally clouding any view in the water. We opted to cast off from the mooring ball and head for Lark Key instead.
    I set a course almost due west toward Logger Cay, passing between it and the northernmost of the Lark Cays.  Instead of trying to thread our way through this challenging and potentially dangerous area, I took us north of the main Lark Cay, and turning southwest skirted along a very long bank of sand and coral, heading toward Bugle Cays. 
     On reaching the recommended distance to the south and west, and giving it a bit more, I turned due south to cross the bank, and watched with increasing apprehension as the depth gauge went from sixty to forty to twenty to ten in rapid succession. Going forward at a snail's pace, my hand on the throttle in case of a sudden need to rev the engines full astern, the depth reading progressed to eight, then five, then three, then one-point-eight before starting to drop to deeper depths, and I began to breathe again.
    We ran up to the north east again, paralleling a line of small mangrove-covered cays. Reaching the spot indicated as an anchorage on the charts, the depth forty feet from the edge of the mangroves still read fifty-five feet. With John in the bow giving directions, we edged very slowly into a sheltered lagoon, decided that it was too narrow for good anchorage, and backed out again. John dropped the anchor on the muddy bottom as close to shore as we dared, and let out a hundred feet of anchor chain, finally coming to a stop in the deep water again. 
     We will be fine this evening unless the wind changes. In that case the first thing that wakes us may be the scraping of mangrove branches against the side of the boat.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Adventures In Belize - Day Seven

Wednesday, October 17, 2012
            I missed sunrise this morning. The night was very still, and virtually no breeze came through the open ports and hatch. The small fan was on, but provided little comfort from the heat and humidity, and it was hard to sleep. It cooled some before dawn, and I slept soundly until the sunlight shining through the port hole and the rippling reflections of sunlight on the water shining on the ceiling woke me.
       After breakfast John, Sheila, and I took the dinghy to the dock, walked thirty yards across to the other side of the cay, and explored the reef there. In the sea grass shallows there were countless thousands of two inch long golden striped fish in endless schools and layers. Swimming farther, the grass gave way to a strip of white coral sand, and as we reached deeper water we began to see larger fish, sea fans, and colorful coral formations.
    We spent a good hour floating among the coral heads and branches. Swimming around a large mass of coral I came upon a four foot shark resting on the bottom, its head halfway inserted under a ledge. I backed up, got Sheila's attention, and we swam back to take another look, the video camera turned on. This time the shark saw us. It started, jerking back a bit, and then leisurely turned and swam off into the slightly hazy water.
  We prepared to leave sometime after ten o'clock. The electric winch clattered, reeling in the anchor chain, and then suddenly stopped. Kneeling on the trampoline and looking over the front, I could see that the chain disappeared underneath a very large coral head. We were stuck. Snagged!
John put the engines in reverse slowly while I continued to peer over the front. I could see that the chain curved off at a different angle on the other side of the coral, so all we had to do was maneuver the stern while backing to straighten the anchor line, and we'd be free. John expertly did that, we finished anchor-cranking, and we were under way at last.
            There are a couple of different ways of planning a course between the cays. One mind set dictates that since we are on a sailboat, part of the fun would be to actually use the sails, even if it means sailing a zigzag course, tacking into the wind and taking five or maybe six hours to travel the eight and a half miles to the next destination. 
    A different, equally valid mind set evaluates the situation somewhat differently: The wind is blowing almost directly toward us from the direction we need to go. If we put up the sails it might take most of the day to reach our destination. 
   On the other hand if we turned on the diesels and left the sails down, it wouldn't take more than a couple of hours to reach our next anchorage, and we'd have more time to go snorkeling. Option number two prevailed.
  By one o'clock we were picking up the mooring buoy at Laughing Bird Cay. Two launches were resting their bows on the beach, and we could see people from the dive expedition both in the water and gathered in a palapa - a large open sided thatch roofed shelter on the cay. We ate some lunch and waited. A short time later they all roared off toward Placencia, and we had the island to ourselves, except for the two park rangers that soon came out to collect the $10 per head park fee.
   In the afternoon we all jumped off the back of the boat with masks, fins, and snorkels. The water was forty feet deep, so we couldn't see the bottom, but by the time we had swum fifty yards toward shore we began to see sand and coral far below. In twenty feet of water there was abundant sea grass where we could see conchs inching along.
     The main population of coral was in water ten to twelve feet deep, intersected by random slightly deeper sandy bottom channels. The water was deep enough so that no one had to worry about accidentally kicking any of the delicate coral, and deep enough that there were abundant varieties of medium size fish. We saw angelfish and butterfly fish, yellow tangs and funny little cleaner wrasse. 

     We all saw spotted rays and a black ray flapping along slowly near the bottom. We swam watchfully six feet above a four foot long barracuda that was hovering completely motionless a few inches above the sandy bottom watching us. Jane saw a large shark go finning off toward deeper water as we approached.

   The wind had died by five o'clock, and we sat on the aft deck sipping cold beer and watching the sun edge down toward a clear horizon. A distant haze turned the sinking sun deep red, and the clouds higher above the western horizon were arrayed from peach to apricot to tangerine to orange to scarlet to red to dark, dark red. Above all that a two day old thin crescent moon shone against a darkening azure sky.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Adventures In Belize - Day Six

Tuesday, October 16, 2012
      A few sprinkles during the night woke me long enough to close the overhead hatch, but we slept soundly. This morning the wind has picked up to a brisk 16 knots, and the dark blue open water is highlighted with lots of small whitecaps. Today the plan is to sail south to Ranguana Cay.
      John loves the autopilot. It is an amazing piece of electronic wizardry. Coupled with the GPS chart plotter, you can move a cursor on the chart screen to a place on the map, push a button and the automatic steering will keep you exactly on course to that destination. Other buttons at the bottom have easy to understand functions. Push the button on the left side that is labeled one degree, and the rudders will turn a bit, the bow of the boat will come one degree to the left or port side, and then straighten out on its new course. If you push the button labeled ten degrees, the new heading will be ten degrees to port. The same is true for the left. A push on another button lets you take over manual control of the wheel. We stayed on autopilot for most of the eleven miles from South Queens Cay to Ranguana.
      We kept a lookout posted in the bow most of the time to watch for changes in the color of the water ahead from the deep cobalt blue of deep water to the lighter blue that indicates that the bottom is closer to the surface. Correlating the shade of blue to the reading on the depth meter is an easy learning process. Before long I could look ahead, see the color of blue, and realize that I could proceed at our cruising speed of 5 knots, and didn't have to go slowly to avoid running aground. Other areas of lighter blue were indications that we might have to push the autopilot ten-degree button to the left twice, to make a twenty degree deviation from our course to thread our way through a deeper channel between two shallow banks of coral.
      John gave me the helm about halfway to our destination, and I enjoyed playing with the autopilot, although I would have had the wheel on manual had I been making the decisions. Eventually I did take it off auto to pilot the boat manually for the last two miles, swinging wide to the south of the cay to a way-point marked on the navigation map, and then approaching the anchorage slowly to motor close by one of the boats already anchored there. I made a tight 180 degree turn to bring the bow into the wind halfway between the two boats at anchor. Sheila dropped the anchor in ten feet of water, and I put the engines in reverse to back up slowly to a point where all motion stopped, and we were certain that the anchor was holding.
      We went ashore in the dinghy, paid our $10 a head fee for unlimited use of the island and anchorage, and also put in an order for dinner at the small shack that served as kitchen for the restaurant, a coconut frond thatched open sided palapa with picnic tables that served as a dining room. For a few minutes we watched a film crew setting up a shoot about the island for showing on The Wealth Channel.
   Back on the boat, we all donned our diving gear, and slipped over the side into very clear, warm water. the sea floor, only eight feet below was covered with sea grass. We floated lazily along, looking at small fish, conchs, and then a beautiful thirty inch wide spotted ray that flapped its way across the grassy bottom.
     We soon came to a submerged sand bank where very little was growing, although we did see a big gray ray with its wings undulating as it made its way across the empty expanse of rippled sand. At the far edge of the sand bank we began to see bunches of low coral heads, sea fans, and brain coral, about which hundreds of small colorful fish darted in and out of hiding.
Back at the boat again we rinsed off the salt water, dried, changed clothes to shorts and shirts, then motored back to the dock in the dinghy again at six o'clock to return to shore for dinner. The structure may have been crude, but the dinner was elegant...lobster curry, coconut rice, Belikan beer, and then a wonderful coconut pie for dessert.
      At was seven o'clock by the time we finished, and down at the short pier the night was dark as black velvet. John's forehead flashlight came in handy as we scrambled into the dinghy for the trip back to the boat. It's nine p.m. now, and I'm the last one up.
     The wind has died to almost nothing. The surface of the anchorage around us is so smooth it almost seems like the boat is suspended between ocean bottom and the heavens. Small waves chuckle against the bottom of the dinghy and the "Lovely Cruise" pitches gently, bow to stern. Time to sleep!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Adventures In Belize - Day Five

Monday, October 15th, 2012
   After a hearty breakfast of pancakes, we slipped the mooring lines, swung about, and headed due east under engine power for the short trip to Queen's Cays, a national marine preserve. 
     We changed course slightly to avoid a lighter colored patch of shallower water, and then swung around to approach the southernmost cay heading upwind. We dropped the anchor in 25 feet of water, and after a few moments it took hold, bringing us to a stop twenty or thirty yards from two other sailing catamarans already at anchor.
     Queen's Cays, also known as Gladden Spit or Silk Cays is an extended area of very shallow reef where the surf breaks, at times awash at low tide. There are three very tiny islands stretched out in a line over about a half mile. 
     The southernmost where we and the other boats were anchored has exactly ten short coconut trees crowded onto a cay that couldn't be more than two hundred feet long and a quarter that width. It also has one barbeque pit, and a small shack with men's and women's flush toilets. The cay is also manned during the day by park rangers who are supposed to collect ten dollars for each crew member aboard every boat that visits.
     Jane stayed aboard while John, Sheila, Ruth, Mary Anne, and I dinghied in to the pale green shallow water on the east side of the cay to go snorkeling. I talked to one of the rangers who informed me that the next cay, about five hundred yards to the north is a good place to land a small dinghy, and has excellent snorkeling. The third cay, another five or six hundred yards north of the second is a sanctuary where birds are nesting, and that nobody is allowed ashore there.
     The sandy bottom is only about two or three feet below the surface, very gradually sloping out to deeper water. Millions of silvery inch-long fish formed a dense shimmering layer a few inches about the bottom, parting around me and joining again behind as I floated along.
     The transition from sand to dense populations of sea fans and soft corals was rapid as I swam toward deeper water. Although the water was a bit cloudy, I enjoyed a good hour of watching the many kinds of fish, and taking underwater pictures and video.
     Just after noon, a long open boat with a powerful out board motor on the back, and the words "Nature Reserve Ranger" stenciled on the bow approached our boat as it lay at anchor. The two rangers I had seen earlier on the beach cooking about two dozen chickens on a barbeque grill were aboard, and waved to us. They had come to collect the park fee. They said that the quoted price of ten dollars per night, per person was incorrect, and that it was a one-time charge only. We could stay as long as we liked, but that if we left and then came back again the fee would be collected again. After handing one of them the $60 for the six of us on board, the ranger said, "Well, I only have four tickets, but I can bring you the other two tomorrow if you are still here."
            This was not difficult to figure out. If they had collected sixty dollars, but had to show the sale only four tickets when they reported to their office, they could pocket a nice 33% personal profit on the transaction. John was of the opinion that they likely made only a pittance in salary, and said nothing as he handed them the full amount. They handed him the four tickets, gunned the outboard in a sharp turn, and instead of heading back to the cay, raced off straight toward the deep ocean waters to the east, probably to spend the rest of the day fishing. Although the cruising guide book said that the Queens Cays are manned twenty-four hours a day every day, we have not seen a ranger presence since.
     After lunch on board we watched two sailboats pull up anchor and head out, leaving only one more sailboat lying at anchor with us. A solitary dolphin surfaced a few yards away, took a breath and submerged again, coming up one more time farther away before disappearing.

     The wind picked up a bit in the afternoon, and far off to the west a dark bank of clouds appeared. We decided that an afternoon snorkeling trip should be done sooner, rather than later. This time Ruth and Sheila stayed aboard while the rest of us stumbled aboard the pitching dinghy, and headed for Middle Queens Cay. 
     Approaching the shoaling water from the southeast, the foot and a half to two foot high swells looked a bit to intimidating, and John swung us around to head back to the South Queens Cay where we had gone swimming in the morning.
     The choppy waves were washing across the shallows, but we hopped overboard onto the white sandy bottom in three feet of water, taking the tiny anchor out thirty feet from the front of the dink. Its short eight-inch hooks would not hold in the soft sand, so I dropped it behind a small head of dead coral.
     Although there is only a foot and a half difference here between high tide and low tide, this afternoon there was less clearance between the surface of the water and the tops of the sea fans and soft coral. That, combined with the larger choppy waves sweeping across the reef made it feel as if you would be deposited on something unpleasant with each dip into a wave trough.
     John and Mary Ann struck out for deeper water immediately. Jane floated in three to four foot deep water for awhile before deciding that it was just a bit too uncomfortable. As we headed for the tiny beach I saw that the dink anchor had slipped, and was dragging toward the beach, so I retrieved it and reset the anchor behind a larger coral head.
     We ambled out onto the short sand spit at the southwest end of the tiny cay, watching tiny hermit crabs scrabbling their tracks across the damp beach while they avoided the inch-wide holes where ghost crabs appeared every few seconds to toss sand from their excavated burrows.
   The diner of chicken casserole prepared by Sheila, Mary Ann, and Jane was served on deck, and we spent the evening there chatting. The sky was partially clear by eight o'clock, and we spent some time looking at constellations and the gauzy arc of the Milky Way stretching high across the sky.