The Good, the Bad, and the Cranky
Courtesy of Andrew Hughes
|When pushed to the edge, the navigator blew off steam with a few cool Belikins-and tunes.|
On any journey to any destination anywhere in the world, there are precisely two types of travelers involved. One kind is intrepid and outgoing, eager to grasp and savor new experiences and to leap headlong into the deep end of mysterious pools. These bold souls are called adventurers, explorers, and lovers of life.
People like me.
Then there are those who find that the very best parts of an action-packed escapade are the long naps between those tense, avoidable moments when something is actually happening. These timid, inward-peering individuals might also be referred to as wimps, wussies, and bores.
People like my old pal Angus Phillips.
OK, admittedly, that's putting way too sharp a point on it. Ango is actually a very fine sailor and perhaps an even better hunter and fisherman. As the long-time outdoors writer for The Washington Post, he's plied those various pastimes all over creation with the likes of presidents, poets, and paupers.
But at the outset of our wanderings in Belize, when "cruise director" and this rag's deputy editor, Elaine Lembo, suggested an inaugural inland journey to take in a traditional Mayan ceremony set within the remains of a stirring ancient temple, a side trip she believed would present us all with a rare opportunity to drink in the rich, cultural heritage of this endlessly fascinating Central American nation, Angus (and his Chesapeake Bay cohort, Andy Hughes) basically said, "Pass." He'd had, like, you know, a long flight down. (He did, however, volunteer to put plenty of beer on ice while we were gone, and so it was that I wasn't completely opposed to his intransigence.)
So Elaine and I took off on a daylong jaunt through mangrove waterways and rugged overland terrain by skiff, four-wheel-drive, and foot to the annual Deer Dance at the Lubaantun Archaeological Reserve, in the nation's remote cacao-bean region, an exercise that in itself turned out to be colorful and entertaining. But it ended up that a side trip to the main event proved to be the thing that I'll always remember about the day. (And really, that's the true reward of travel, when you take a chance and happen upon something unexpected and unreal that you'll savor forever. Are you listening, Angus?)
It wasn't the tarantula our guide coaxed with a stick from a hole in a tree trunk on the hike up the banks of the Blue Creek River that was unforgettable, but the dark, forbidden-looking cave at the end of the trail. Truthfully, caves have always given me the claustrophobic creeps, but when our escort peeled down to his swim trunks, handed me a flashlight, and suggested I follow him into the watery tomb, for some strange reason, I immediately jumped in and followed his command.
We swam and waded forth, in turns, up around a bend and then deeper into the oh-so-dark cavern. Finally, looking back from a few hundred yards in, there wasn't the slightest trace of natural light visible. "On the count of three," said the guide, "flashlights off." He paused. "One. Two. Three."
The world was a complete and total blank: It was impossible to tell if your eyes were open or shut, a sensation that was both terrifying and exhilarating. And for me, it set the absolute tone for everything that followed, starting the very next day, when we set sail from Placencia on our Moorings 4000 catamaran, Lisa Michelle. We were out of the darkness and into the light.
There's an old saying that the Inuit have 16 different words for "snow." In Belize, the locals must have at least as many for "blue," for in the clear, clean waters-and with a fresh appreciation for the play of light upon them all-it seemed like there were multiple, even endless, takes on the theme: azure, indigo, turquoise, sapphire, cobalt, lazuline, cerulean, navy. It was a veritable feast of blueness, and I couldn't swallow enough of it.
Of course, the primary reason for those countless shades of blue is that the waters in Belize can rapidly trend from very deep to very shallow to nothing at all. Somehow, I drew the short straw and earned the dubious job of navigating, at least on the inshore part of the trip before we picked up our mandatory guide for charterers exploring outside the long barrier reef, a natural wonder that makes cruising in Belize such a singular experience. Actually-and ironically-in some ways it's easier to navigate outside, in the deep-blue sea, where the passes are better defined and the cays and spoils less random and ubiquitous.
Heading north, we had a decent sail up the Inner Channel before picking our way through the hazards to Southwater Cay. (Image: Angus, up forward on lookout, shouting incomprehensibly into the breeze while gesticulating madly like an aircraft-carrier signalman bringing home an F-18.) But the lad can cook, among his many other talents, and he soon had a spicy pot of rice and beans going that would become an onboard staple all week long.
All of our party had traveled to Belize to enjoy the sail and one another's company, but we'd also each come with an individual wish list to customize the occasion. Andy and Angus were after fish; Elaine, the solitude of a sunset paddle. For me, the reef was calling, and I was longing to don the scuba gear and have a big look around.
Jimmy Westby, the Belizean guide we picked up on Tobacco Cay, reckoned the ideal spot to satisfy all our desires was Glover Reef, an 18-mile-long enclosure a couple of hours offshore that once served as a lair for pirates. As we approached the reef's southern flank to the sight of a score of frigate birds wheeling overhead, Westby, his two index fingers some two feet apart, said, "Yellowfin tuna. You see those birds, there's tuna here. We'll troll this bank tomorrow."
At almost the same instant, there was a strike on the rod that Andy was trolling astern, and he yelled to me, "Grab that and start reeling!" I did as instructed, for about four spins, before the light tackle parted and that was that. "How does it feel getting schooled by a 20-pound kingfish?" he laughed. Well, crummy. An indifferent angler on the best of days, I was happy to check "fishing in Belize" off my bucket list.
Once the hook was down and the boys loaded up the dinghy with enough gear to bag Moby Dick-you need all that stuff for bonefish?-I commandeered the kayak in search of a dive shop at the Isla Marisol Resort. One tip for sailors looking to dive on a Belize charter: Bring your mask and snorkel and forget lugging anything else with you; there's a dive operation on practically every isle, cay, and spit of sand that will be more than happy to rent you equipment.
In a windswept open-air bar at the end of a long pier, I met one of the resident dive masters, a fetching young lady by the name of-I'm not making this up-Kitty Kat. Kitty and her husband, Chad, would be running three dives the next day for a boatload of resort divers, and I was more than welcome to join the party.
Though I love diving, I'm an infrequent practitioner, and it generally takes me a dive or two before I begin to get comfortable with my surroundings and cease sucking air like a bellows. And so it was off Glover. The first dive, in a fair bit of current on a site called Grouper Gulch, was practically over before it started. On the second, along a stretch named Spanish Bay, I started to relax and enjoy the scenery. By the third, hovering over a seemingly endless drop-off, Middle Cay Wall, I finally felt as one with the elements, and at last I was able to truly drink in and appreciate the remarkable undersea world to which I'd descended.
There were squirrelfish and white-spotted files, big sea turtles, and loads of grouper. But the unparalleled stars of the show were the brilliant, crystalline waters and the sensational coral, rich and abundant and in every shape and description. On one hand, my sole day of diving in Belize barely scratched the itch; indeed, on Glover alone, the dive sites within easy access from Isla Marisol number over 20-and that's not even counting the famous Blue Hole, offshore at Lighthouse Reef, and the Turneffe Islands. But on the other, it made a memorable trip much more so and stoked the fire to again get back below the surface, into that quiet, glimmering, unparalleled place, as soon as possible.
From Glover, we headed south toward Queen Cays Pass, where we'd cut back inside the reef and deposit our guide before continuing farther on to tiny Ranguana Cay, once again in full bareboat mode. It'd been good having Jimmy Westby aboard, a true local waterman whose stories and insights about life on the reef added texture to the journey.
But to be honest, having a guide aboard also subtracted something from the equation, an unexpected revelation that I wasn't at all aware of until we dropped him ashore. His presence made me, well, lazy, and that's not at all why I go to sea.
As much as I kid my amigo Angus, in lots of ways he and I are cut from the same cloth. In fact, we set sail for many of the same reasons: to be engaged with and challenged by the sea and the elements, and to share those moments, under way and at anchor, with good friends and shipmates. When you bring a stranger into the mix, even as fun and capable a soul as Jimmy Westby, it alters the dynamic of the entire enterprise. Specifically, it makes me want to take a long nap. And I guess you know how I feel about naps.
So when we settled in behind the low-slung scrap of coral otherwise known as Ranguana on our last night out, and the sky grew gray and the wind started to hoot, it was all just fine. For once again, for better or worse, we were masters of our domain-there was no one to turn to besides one another. And when the rain started to slash in sideways and the breeze continued to build, as strange as it may sound, I couldn't have been happier. Only later would we find out we'd been lashed by the tendrils of the season's first named tropical disturbance, a feisty, precocious little devil that blew into the western Caribbean as Pacific Tropical Storm Alma, intensified as it met local anomalies, and became Atlantic Tropical Storm Arthur.
Along with the darkness and the light, that's the other thing I'll always remember about our adventure in Belize: the night of the big storm, and the folks I cherish, with whom I shared it.
Herb McCormick is a CW editor at large.