The Good, the Bad, and the Cranky
Courtesy of Andrew Hughes
|What saved the trip for Angus (left), the well-traveled outdoorsman? A ride to the shallows with Jimmy Westby and the chance to bag the so easily spooked bonefish.|
Cranky? No Way!
You have to be kidding! I cooked, I sang, and I
By Angus Phillips
All right, I'm not going to sugarcoat this. Belize is a fine place, warm and breezy in Northern Hemisphere winter and dotted with picturesque cays where the natives speak lovely, lyrical English. Rice and red beans and fresh fruit and veggies are cheap and plentiful. Belikin and Lighthouse, the local beers, go down smoothly, and even the beleaguered U.S. dollar is worth a gratifying, government-guaranteed two of theirs.
Fishing and diving are good to fantastic, depending on how hard you're willing to push it, and if you like kayaking, there are cuts and backwaters and marshes to poke around in. But this is a sailing magazine, right? Well, caveat emptor and all that, and I'm giving you the caveat right up front.
Belize has a lot of rocks and reefs and shallow water, which isn't what this particular Popeye considers the makings of ideal sailing conditions. Call me crazy, but when I put the sails up and the rail down, I like to think that we're going to keep going and not come to a cataclysmic cropper on some crash-tested coral outcrop. Capiche?
When four of us took a busman's holiday last spring in Belize on a Moorings charter out of Placencia, I didn't know quite what to expect. My previous Central America experiences were along the Pacific coastline of Costa Rica, where the depth falls from sandy beach to mile-deep blue water a mile or so offshore. No worries there, mate, beyond the possibility of bumping into a whale.
Belize? The contrast could hardly be starker. The entire 150-mile length of this small nation just south of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula is protected by a slender coral reef that meanders along from one to 25 miles offshore. This reef, the largest living one in North America, shields the waters inside from the Caribbean and its storms, and the protected patch is as pretty as a picture, dotted with mangroves and coconut palms, beaches, and gin-clear bonefish flats.
But the downside of all that was evident even before we set out on one of the two dozen charter boats that The Moorings keeps in Placencia. The base manager, co-owner Renee Brown, ran down a litany of potential perils at the pre-charter briefing that was so extensive that I found myself at one point muttering out loud, "I'm not going!"
It wasn't just rocks and reefs-it was mosquitoes, boa constrictors, stinging anemones, Portuguese men-of-war, bad holding ground, outboard-stealing Hondurans, crocodiles, no-see-ums, tropical storms, barracudas, dragging anchors, and on and on.
One thing she was adamant about was The Moorings' ban on going outside the big reef without a local skipper, which meant no unsupervised visits to the three coral atolls that lurk in deeper water: Lighthouse Reef, the Turneffe Islands, and Glover Reef. The concern, she said, wasn't about charterers getting out there but about them getting back in through unmarked cuts that could easily be misread by the uneducated.
Well, there's a tool for every problem. We managed to get to the islands by unleashing the might of the credit card and hiring a skipper for two days, who met us en route. But that's getting ahead of the story.
First, we needed to get our own sea legs, which seemed fairly unchallenging, given the relative experience of the crew. I'm an old offshore hand, and so is Cruising World editor at large Herb McCormick, who was just back from delivering a big sloop from Baja, Mexico, to California. Elaine Lembo is the current CW deputy editor, and she'd worked seven years in the charter trade, so she should know a thing or two. Andy Hughes, our fourth, is a hard-charging racing skipper from Annapolis, Maryland, and my frequent fishing and bird-hunting partner.
The big question in a crowd like that is who's the boss? I had the age, Herbie had the experience, Andy had the skills, and Elaine had the American Express card. Case closed. I got to cook, Herb got to navigate, Andy got to drive, and Elaine, well, Elaine called the shots.
Which was no small assignment. All of us had agendas. Herb wanted to spend some quality time sucking compressed air 80 feet down while staring at the bug-eyed creatures that dwell there. Andy and I were armed to the teeth with fly rods and saltwater flies to do battle with the wily, wary Belizean bonefish. Elaine had some weird fixation with a little red sit-upon kayak she'd had strapped to the bow rail.
With all those recreational baubles dancing in our dreams, we set forth from the harbor at Placencia into brisk headwinds that would dog us from embarkation to debarkation, which is to say the whole bloody time. "Northeast wind!" said Herb the navigator, eyeing the masthead fly on our 40-foot catamaran. It was pointing straight at our waypoint, Southwater Cay, 20 miles away. "With our luck," he continued, "it'll be southwest and right on the nose when we get ready to come back." Oooh, I wish he hadn't said that. . . .
So we motorsailed most of the day in relatively open water, managing an hour or two of genuine sailing with the jib rolled out when the breeze shifted to an acceptable slant. But the big excitement came with all sails down and furled, as we picked our way through a minefield of reefs in the Blue Ground Range to get the last few miles into Southwater Cay, where a mooring ball lay waiting.
"Nervous navigator," Herb said of himself as he dashed in and out of the cabin, checking bearings and compass courses against the GPS. I was posted up on the bow to scan for obstacles, and I began flapping my arms and gibbering incomprehensibly anytime the bottom surged up to six feet or less in dicey spots. "Turn around!" Herb shrieked at me from the cockpit. "I can't hear you!" But if I turned around, of course, I couldn't see the bottom.
Little moments of tension like that only ensure that the Belikins taste sweeter once the hook is down (or the mooring ball picked up). Anyway, by cocktail time I had a pot of red beans bubbling, white rice ready to cook, a chicken cut up, and the evening's barbecue to organize for everyone.
Such moments of homey bliss bring out the best in The Moorings' cruising catamarans, with their roomy saloons and cockpits, spotless galleys, CD players, sofas, awnings, and expansive private staterooms for all. Really, where else in all yachting can you find a 40-footer with a big ol' double bed and a fan, a reading light, and a pile of pillows to escape to when the conversation starts to falter? And where can you sleep better than on a big, square boat that's safely moored while the trade winds wash over you and your belly is full of beans?
Two other Moorings cats spent the night on the hook there, but the most interesting craft by far swooped in under full sail just before dusk. The shapely wooden native vessel of about 25 feet with a great long boom and short mast was handled expertly by a staggeringly excessive crew of a dozen or so young men who tossed twin anchors out and settled down for the night. Where would they all sleep?
It wasn't till the next day, when we picked up our local skipper, Jimmy Westby, at neighboring Tobacco Cay that we learned what the little yellow sloop was all about. "Those guys catch fish and conch," he said. "They always sail, if they can, to save gas."
We were to see several more such craft on our travels, each peopled by the same amazing array of strong guys who spent their days handlining for grouper and snapper or diving for conch from tiny one-man canoes, then paddled back to the mother ship at day's end to clean the catch, eat, and sleep. Jimmy said they stayed out as long as two weeks and packed 1,200 pounds of ice aboard to keep the catch fresh.
And you think you have a hard life?
None of us was used to having a professional skipper aboard, but Westby was a welcome addition: a good boat handler, excellent company, and a fine storyteller with a wealth of local knowledge, having lived in Belize all his life. He poked the bow of our Moorings 4000 catamaran, Lisa Michelle, out the cut at Tobacco and made tracks upwind (motoring, of course) for Glover Reef. It felt nice to have somebody else in charge. Even the navigator put his feet up.
Our crew's multiple agendas would come to an amicable head the next day at Isla Marisol, when Herb went off diving with the world's cutest instructor; Andy and I went looking for bonefish on the flats with Jimmy in the inflatable dinghy, and Elaine attempted a circumnavigation of the tiny islet by kayak.
Everyone was down below hugging their pillows, resting up for the big day, when the twin diesels roared to life at 5:20 a.m. Whaaaa?
"Gotta catch dinner," said Jimmy, who was already picking up the anchor. As the sun's first rays broke in the east, he piloted us around coral heads to the place called The Wall, where Glover Reef falls into the deep abyss. He set out a single, plastic squid lure on a trolling line and tracked along the edge of the drop-off. Bang! The first fish was a barracuda, 15 pounds. Next came a king mackerel, same size, which flopped on deck to be hacked into steaks for the charcoal grill. Andy and Elaine grabbed poles, too. Three more barracuda rounded out the outing, and we were back on the mooring ball at 7 a.m., when Herb finally appeared, wiping sleep from his eyes. "My kind of fishing," said he.
Herbie needed his beauty rest, as he'd spend the rest of the day trying to catch up with the aforementioned cute dive instructor. Meantime, Andy and I, with an assist from Jimmy's sharp eyes, managed to find a big school of bonefish in shallow water at low tide and even caught one on a fly. Elaine disappeared in her red kayak and found her way back home all by herself.
Thus we completed our many agendas in one swell foop, which is good because the next day, after we dropped Jimmy off back inside the reef, bad weather came in. We battled sheets of rain and strong headwinds from the first Atlantic tropical depression of the season, Arthur, before getting back to The Moorings base.
In the end, out of six days I'd say we spent two or three hours actually sailing. The diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and fishing were great. The food was excellent, the scenery to die for. People were friendly, the wind was warm on your cheek. Our catamaran was roomy and comfortable, safe and strong, the perfect platform on which to eat, drink, and be merry. Which left me pondering just one question as I stared up at the towering, bare rig on the way back: Why do they bother putting sails on these boats?
Cranky? No way.
Angus Phillips is an outdoors columnist for The Washington Post.