In Belize the rainy season stops on Christmas Day. When I discovered this I thought, "How quaint. Mother Nature gives a wonderful Christmas present to Belize." Well...apparently we were naughty that year, because we spent a soggy week there in late January. We chartered two catamarans from The Moorings http://www.moorings.com.
Friday, January 20, 2006
The flight down was uneventful. As Kim and I jumped from Green Bay to Chicago to Dallas to Belize City we gradually met up with others from the trip. We had converging paths that originated in Green Bay, Madison, Dallas, Chicago, Charlotte, and San Diego. The trip from Belize City to Placencia was really cool, with 11 of us on board the 16-seater and Veronica sitting next to the pilot. The Placencia runway looked disturbingly small from the air...
Our hotel room, however, was NOT small! We had a penthouse suite at Laru Beya. It had a kitchen, two bedrooms, and TWO rooftop hot tubs! And this was just for Kim, Kelly, and myself! Prices were strangely low, and this may be because the rainy season really doesn't end on Christmas day?? We had a few drinks out of the stocked 'fridge then met everyone at the Crow's Nest. Then we all (13 people) piled into a taxi van and went to the Turtle Inn for dinner. Dinner was fun with pre-trip excitement and toasts. After dinner the group split up.
Connie, Lori, Brent, Jason, and Erin went into town, and everyone else went back to our room. It was a crazy night. We drank everything in the mini bar, danced, crammed nine people in a hot tub built for four, and generally had a rowdy time. Kim had had a long week, so she fell asleep in the hot tub a few times before climbing the ladder down to bed. Sam, Veronica, and Hatcher crashed in our room despite having paid for their own room.
Tired and hung over! After four-hours sleep I walked down the beach to the Inn at Robert's Grove for coffee.
We packed up and cabbed to the Moorings base for the chart talk at 9:00 Shannon gave us the talk. He is a cool guy with dreadlocks and a TON of local knowledge. People trickled in and out doing provisioning (shopping) for the trip, and I did a 12:00 boat check with Shannon. At this Moorings base they don't want you to operate the boat near the dock, so Moorings employees took Jamu out and anchored her. Later that night I was extremely happy they did the anchoring!
Kate and Brian showed up not long after the anchoring, and we hung out on the boat waiting for the last two trip participants, Lester and Nicole. It rained so hard we assumed their plane was delayed, but we finally heard it come in. Jason and I picked them up in dinghies with clouds, rain, and lightning threatening. Our group of 15 was finally together! After a bit of gussying-up we dinghied back in for drinks at the Crow's Nest.
The Crow's Nest has a great Caribbean vibe. It has a pretty thatched roof and no walls. We still hadn't decided where to eat until the Crow's Nest cook came out and sold our group on eating there. During dinner the squall hit us with 40 kt winds and torrential rain going horizontally through the restaurant! The lightning was constant!
Not long after it calmed down Kim took a dinghy load out to Jamu, but a boatload of Moorings employees with flashlights turned them back. Jamu was on the beach! We all waited under an awning in the darkness and pouring rain while the staff re-anchored Jamu, then we dinghied back out and went to bed. Interestingly, even though I rarely sleep well at anchor and this anchorage had already proved to be imperfect, I slept well at anchor because I didn't do the anchoring! And we were in a well-protected spot. I slept with my GPS with the anchor alarm set, however.
A crew of Moorings employees came out to the boat that morning to check out the engines and cooling system. They had worked the boat hard the night before to get it off the beach. Another crew came out to work on Triple 7, the other boat in our group. One of their engines wouldn't start, but they narrowed it down to a battery problem and fixed it.
The forecast called for showers and scattered thunderstorms.
On the advice of Moorings staff, we set sail for Pelican Island, which promised to be a well-protected anchorage. We raised the main and motorsailed. When the sky grew dark I uncoiled the main halyard, uncleated it, and, nothing. The main was stuck up. We experimented with a homemade bosun's chair, but after my wife brought us to our senses we gave up and called the base. Unfortunately they couldn't send anyone out because their boats were open and the seas had kicked up a bit. So...both boats turned back.
We motorsailed back while I watched the horizon with my heart in my throat. The rain poured, the wind hit 42 kt, and I spilled air off the back of the huge fully-battened mainsail. I anchored back at the base with the main still up, and they sent out two technicians with a bosuns chair. We were stuck another night in Placencia.
That night we ate on the boats and partied on Triple Seven. It got a little crazy and a lot of fun, but it was also really crowded so Kate, Brian, Kim, and I went back to Jamu, where we had mellow conversation and wine - until the rest of the Jamu crew came back and partied while I tried to sleep. I was a little more rattled about the boat, so I didn't sleep much and continuously checked the anchor. The occasional giggles emanating from a dark cabin were also a little distracting. The boat was just too packed...
Robert's Cay, Pelican Cays
We got up and listened to the forecast. More rain squalls...And again, the Moorings staff asked us not too leave too early so they could work on Triple Seven's engines and batteries. I had a second chart talk with Local Knowledge Shannon in an attempt to salvage the vacation given the constant rain and squalls. Then I sat down with Kim, Jason, and Erin to plan the day. Our plan: to visit Robert's Cay at the Slasher Sand Bore, tie up to moorings for a drink, and spend the night if the moorings looked like a safe spot. If not, we would continue to the Pelican Cays for the night.
It was a grey, rainy, and windy sail. From a distance Robert's Cay looked more like a freighter because it was a tiny island with lots of buildings and no trees. It looked abandoned, but Kelly and I dinghied in to investigate. A husband and wife couple were there alone. The five guest cottages were empty, but they had beer and could feed us. Perfect!
I was excited to stay, but Jason thought the moorings looked unsafe. Moreover, he and Erin had forgotten our plan to stop at Robert's Cay. They thought we were headed right for the Pelican Cays and they didn't know why we stopped.
We took the lead, and we almost ran aground on the way in to the Pelican Cays anchorage. I called the base for advice, but in reality I had just overreacted a bit. In the clouds and rain it was impossible to see the bottom, so it was necessary to crawl in and watch the depth gage closely while following verbal advice from the base. The charts weren't very complete here. Jason took the lead on Triple Seven, and we made it to the anchorage where we had to anchor in 60 feet of water. By some miracle Kim saw that the anchor rode wasn't attached to the boat before it all went to the bottom. That would have been a problem...
People swam, snorkeled, kayaked, etc. But Kim and I just hung out and napped.
That night we had a great dinner. Nicole grilled steaks for everyone, Amanda brought over homemade coleslaw from Triple Seven, and Kim made potatoes and onions. Everyone was a little tired, so it was a more mellow evening.
A few of the crew volunteered to do dishes, but after just a couple the water pressure died. I found the pressure pump switch and turned it on, but it was too late. The cleanup crew had "moved on." Just before I went to bed I saw a cockroach in a cabinet under the galley sink, and as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep I realized I would wake up the next day with all those dishes still in the sink and knowing full well that the boat had roaches. Kim and I got back up and washed the dishes, and was cranky enough about it to snap at someone about how sometimes work needed to be done, too. Ugh...
We got up and listened to the forecast again. More rain squalls, but it sounded like it MAY clear up a bit by Thursday.
We headed out, again with Jason in the lead. In the shallower water Sam caught and released three Mackerel. It was a little sunny as we motored out the channel, but it soon clouded up again. Fortunately it didn't look very threatening so we both motorsailed with the genoa.
At one point we noticed our "chart," essentially a cruising guide publication, had several 18' depths with large unmarked spaces between them. Our chart plotter showed these as reefs. I called Moorings for advice and got the very helpful response, "Be advised that Moorings advises against navigating outside deep channels in cloudy weather. Duh! All I wanted was advice on the safest route to Ranguana given the poor visibility. The whole point was to avoid unsafe water, but information was contradictory and limited.
Fortunately Shannon had overheard the conversation. He came on and said we should continue on to a point just south of Laughingbird Cay then head directly to Ranguana. It worked fine, but occasionally the depth was less than 20' so we took it slow and put people on the bow. We tied up to our mooring in 6' of water and dinghied ashore.
During the day Ranguana was the highlight of our trip. But that night was the low point. More later.
Jason dove on our mooring and discovered an anchor roller still tied to it. Nice. So an earlier boat had broken before it could pull the mooring out. Now THAT is a secure mooring! I lied on a hammock all afternoon while people kept bringing me beer. I caught up on sleep and probably almost caught up with everyone else on drinking. I shared the hammock with my empties. After a rowdy singalong interrupted by another rain squall, we had dinner.
That night Brent decided to spend the night ashore in a hammock, and the rest of us dinghied back in the darkness. The earlier squall had come out of the north, which meant we were well-protected, but later that night they started coming from the northwest...
Ranguana, No Name Point
A loud beeping alarm, right out of a science fiction movie, was sounding, and Chris was yelling in my ear, "The anchor is slipping!" But I couldn't wake up, and I couldn't move. I sat up in bed moaning, and it was quiet. Chris was over on Triple Seven where he belonged, we were at a mooring (not an anchor), and there was no alarm. There were, however, signs of another approaching squall. From our cabin I could hear the wind picking up, and flashes of lightning were visible through the portholes. It was 3 AM.
I reached under my pillow and pulled out my trusty handheld GPS. Before dark I had set it to record the boat's track through the water. If the mooring was holding then that track would be a little squiggle within our swing radius. If it slipped then we would be laying a track straight downwind. Our squiggle looked good, but I walked aft to the cockpit to have a look around.
It was blowing 30 with light rain and occasional lightning. The handheld GPS made me a little nervous because the squiggly track moved downwind a bit. It was a small enough change that could have been explained away by the increasing wind and the mooring line stretching out. But I knew there was a shallow reef just four boat-lengths downwind from us, so I decided to spend the rest of the night awake in the cockpit, ready to start the engines if necessary.
I saw the anchor light from a boat far downwind. Was someone anchored way out there? Then I saw their steaming light was on as well. Were they motoring through these unmarked reefs in the dark? (more on that later)
The wind built to 42 knots and the rain REALLY came. The wind moved from the North to the Northwest which meant we were no longer sheltered by the island but by a shallow reef. The waves built a bit more. I took a quick trip forward to talk to Kim and relaxed a bit. The GPS track moved back to the center of the squiggly blob, and I felt better. I was too tired/anxious/disoriented to realize the GPS was actually tracking my movements inside the boat! I walked aft and it looked like the mooring was slipping. I walked forward and things looked better.
I never went back to sleep, but FINALLY the sky lightened. The boat was still rocking uncomfortably, and I was pretty sure no one else had slept, but I was suddenly in a great mood. Being able to see where you are and where you're going is so comforting. Just before people started trickling into the salon I filled the cabin with the smell of coffee. We rocked and rolled through breakfast and listened to the heartbreaking weather forecast.
The weather report called for more of the same for the rest of our trip. The expected Thursday clear-up wasn't going to happen. Everything I owned was wet from days of rain and no opportunities for line-drying. There were actually a few spots of mildew on my shorts. I called the charter base to ask for more advice. We were all tired and we needed a calm anchorage to rest up in. We didn't care about snorkeling or scenery, we just wanted stability and sleep. We settled on a well-protected anchorage just north of the village of Monkey River.
We left for Monkey River with a dark rain cloud bearing down on us. It rained. It blew 40. There were more uncharted shallow spots. We didn't bother to raise the sails. Sam slipped on the wet deck and almost slid overboard. We were happy to get to Monkey River.
A local entrepreneur in a small brightly-colored boat guided us through some shallows to a well-protected cove then offered to return the next day for a tour of the Monkey River. Moorings had given us the name of a different local contact and we didn't know this guy from Adam, so I tipped him for guiding us and he left.
The sheltered cove had four Moorings charter boats in it, all similarly chagrined with the weather. One boat radioed Moorings for more rum and ice (it took some arm-twisting since they don't normally do that) and we added an order for more ice. Our delivery order arrived from Monkey River. It was another guy in a brightly-colored boat. He was also our "official" Moorings Monkey River guide, so a few of us arranged a tour for the next day.
It rained and rained. I went for a short kayak around the anchorage, but I stayed close by. It was hard to tell the clouds with torrential rain apart from the clouds with torrential rain and 40-knot winds. I think we had spaghetti that night, but I was so tired I don't remember eating.
No Name Point, Monkey River, Placencia
At 7:30 the tour guide showed up to take everyone up the Monkey River. Kim and I had already taken that trip on our honeymoon, so we stayed behind. We had a quiet and relaxing three hours alone.
It rained and rained, and when the boat came back everyone looked miserable. The expressions on everyone's faces were so uniformly miserable that we couldn't help laughing!
We returned to the base one day early because the trip was getting a little ridiculous and because we wanted to go back to the Turtle Inn for Kate's birthday. On the way back I saw a ray jump completely out of the water. We anchored in Placencia with some extra time for shopping, and we all had dinner at the Turtle Inn.
The weather actually cleared a little. We laid out in the brief sun. Connie and Lori went ashore with well-stocked backpacks, clearly ready to get off the boat. They had a good idea that could beat the weather. They hung out at a beach bar all day. When the sun was out, they laid out on the beach. When it rained, they hung out in the bar. Kim and I did some shopping and I studied for a while at the Purple Space Monkey cafe. A lot of our group hung out on the boats all day, relaxing.
We all went to the typical thatched-roof bar on stilts for pre-dinner drinks. After sunset we walked in the POURING rain to the Pickled Parrot for pizza. Connie and Lori were there talking to a local dive operator. We ate, drank, and talked to the other patrons.
The engine on Jason's dinghy had quit, so I had to tow everyone back out to the boats.
Saturday went by quickly. We woke up, cleaned the boat, called for Moorings to take the boat to the dock, took a farewell photo, and cabbed to the air strip. I threw out a couple moldy pairs of shorts.
On the way to Belize City I sat in the copilot's seat. I joked with the pilot, asking if he needed any help from me, and without laughing he said, "We need all the help we can get." and we took off.
We had some final drinks in the Belize City airport, flew to Dallas, and spent the night at Connie's place.
Dallas, Green Bay
We flew nonstop to Green Bay, cabbed home, and took a long nap...