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Voyages - Belize

Belize islands beg for exploration

Cruising Cay Caulker means braving shoal waters, but the destination is worth the effort

Belize islands beg for exploration

Cruising Cay Caulker means braving shoal waters, but the destination is worth the effort

Chuck Baier and Susan Landry are a cruising couple from Marathon, Fla. They sailed out of U.S. waters aboard their 40-foot ketch, Sea Trek, bound for ports in Guatemala, the Caribbean, Mexico, Belize, and eventually through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean. Their dispatches from Internet cafes along the way will appear in Soundings. This is the sixth dispatch, written by Chuck:

The spring trade winds have been very kind to us along the entire Mexican coast, sometimes too kind since we have spent more time motoring than sailing. The upside is that we haven’t spent a lot of time waiting for weather windows. So far we have pretty much been able to move to our next destination whenever we were ready.

By now our routine was well developed and at 9 o’clock Sunday morning we hauled up anchor and headed back out through the reef at Bahia Ascension, Mexico. We used the GPS track that we came in on to also leave. We always go out the same way we came in. If we get in OK then, logically, we should get out with no problem. This time was no different and we had very light northeast winds at about 5 knots.

The run out of the bay to cross the reef was more than 5 miles. For the next 26 hours we would sail a while, then motorsail a while, off and on for the 128 miles to our next port in San Pedro, Belize.

Around noon we hooked another tuna on the fishing line and shortly after that a barracuda. With that we hauled in the line for the rest of the day.

All along the Mexican coast we had played the currents to our advantage. By staying less than a mile off the reefs during the day and keeping a careful watch on our position, we were able to avoid the strong north-setting current that can run 2 to 3 knots at times. But in this area we were not able to avoid it and had to deal with a 1- to 1-1/2-knot counter-current. Even with that, we found ourselves just outside the reef break at San Pedro on Ambergris Cay Belize at 10 a.m. Monday morning.

Once again we had good waypoints outside the reef and through to the inside anchorage, but we arrived to find the area busy with boat traffic and dive boats anchored all along the reef. The entrance was still easy as long as we avoided the partially submerged portion of the reef that extends inside the break and required us to make a sharp turn to the north just after we entered. This cut would be treacherous in strong easterly winds.

The entire area shallows quickly, so we did not have much choice in where to anchor. With our 6-foot draft it was strange to have to anchor in 6-1/2 feet of water. The occasional wakes from the boats coming and going actually caused us to bump on the bottom. As we anchored we discovered that two other boats we had briefly met along the way were also anchored and had been there for several days.

Settling in

Ambergris Cay was once attached to the mainland. About a thousand years ago the Mayans dug a canal and cut the cay off from the mainland. The north side of this ancient cut is actually Mexico. This is a major tourist destination and is the largest and most developed island in Belize. Diving the reef is the biggest draw, but boats carrying tourists on snorkel and fishing trips are constantly in and out all day; and dive boats even run at night.

San Pedro has its own airport and crewmembers can be flown in and out. We had timed our arrival for Monday morning to avoid any overtime charges by officials. The check-in is simple and only takes a visit to the immigration office, and then to customs, which are next door to each other. Occasionally, we’re told, the agricultural department folks will come out to inspect your foodstuffs and look for infestations.

To our surprise we learned that we had entered on a national holiday and had to pay the extra fees to clear in anyway — so much for careful planning. Because of the holiday, we had to wait for about a half-hour for the customs worker to come from her house. No matter, we just went and had ice cream while we waited.

We enjoyed our visit, but because of the heavy boat traffic and wakes, we decided to move on after only spending one night.

Playing the tides

Heading south into Belize there are two options. One is to go back outside the reef and head for the Belize City ship channel 30 miles to the south. This option is especially appealing if the sea state is too rough to allow safe entrance through the reef at San Pedro.

The other option is to run south on the inside. Because of the outlying reef that runs almost the entire distance of Belize, a boat will encounter small seas while sailing on the inside. The problem for us — with our 6-foot draft — is shallow channels in several areas along the inside route, but only as far South as Belize City.

We choose this course anyway and decide to play the tides to get to Cay Caulker, about 15 miles south of San Pedro.

Almost as soon as the anchor was up we bumped bottom, but were able to continue on our way. We had timed this to keep us about an hour ahead of high tide just in case we ran aground. With the exception of touching bottom at the anchorage, the average depths along our route were around 7 feet.

We arrived at Cay Caulker three hours later.

Island life at its best

Cay Caulker is actually two cays — after being cut in half by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Today its primary source of income is tourism as are most of the outer settlements of Belize. The lobster industry that was once its mainstay is still present, but not as predominant as it used to be.

The best word we could think of to describe Cay Caulker is “funky.” Its few streets and roads in the settlement are sand and the primary means of transportation is golf cart. The carts are so quiet that you don’t hear them come up behind you as you walk down the streets.

Restaurants line most of the streets as do the dive and fishing charters. The most famous eatery is the SandBox Bar and Grill, which serves great meals, sandwiches and even vegetarian food. We also found a post office, hardware and grocery stores, a bank, gift shops, a soda-and-beer distributor that sells to the public and one of the best bakeries we have found so far. Susan often bakes bread and other goodies on board, but we still found ourselves visiting the bakery almost every day. We also found a coin laundry — a rarity in our travels.

There is a large commercial dock where the supply ferries come in on a regular basis. Cruisers can tie their dinghies here on a side dock built especially for that purpose.

After a couple of days we regretfully started our leisurely cruise south through the cays. Our next destination, Cay Chape, was a short 7 miles south. The cay has been bought by private developers and converted to a high-end resort and golf course. Landing here is discouraged, although we did explore the resort by dinghy. The marina area is sadly unused and would make a nice secure overnight stop. Instead, we anchored near the marina entrance in the lee of the island. From this point on cruisers can move from anchorage to anchorage in minutes or an hour or so. There is no shortage of cays to visit and enjoy. Most are close enough to dinghy to the reef for diving or snorkeling, and the fishing is some of the finest we have found. Anchoring here can be a challenge because of the heavy growth of sea grass around the cays so looking for sandy patches is essential.

In search of deeper water

To get to the Belize City area we would have to pass through the infamous half-mile-wide Porto Stuck channel between Montejo Cay and Hicks Cay. It is called Porto Stuck for a good reason. This is a winding, shallow channel with little in the way of markers (actually tree branches with plastic bottles hanging on them) and a 5-1/2-foot depth at mean low water. That meant we must pass through just at high tide.

We left Cay Chapel at 8 a.m. and passed through Porto Stuck at 9:30 a.m., just about 20 minutes before the scheduled high tide. Some of the shallow depths were nail-biters, but we navigated through without parking Sea Trek. We only touched bottom in the trough of a wave just north of Porto Stuck.

There are also narrow, shallow channels that we needed to clear just south of there before we found ourselves in the deeper waters east of Belize City. One must use Ships Cay Bogue and not Swallow Cay Bogue unless you want to spend time waiting for high tide to lift you off the shoals. We settled on a great anchorage at the Drowned Cays behind Gallows Point.

We picked our way carefully in until we had protection from all direction but west. These are mostly mangrove cays with many channels called bogues that can be explored by dinghy. We found several rusting wrecked barges in one of the bogues near our anchorage. These channels can be deep and, if careful, can be navigated and offer good all-around protection if bad weather threatens. We stayed here for two days.

In just six days we had traveled about a third of the way through the outer cays. All of the reports we had gotten before we arrived in Belize were all accurate. This is truly a wonderful tropical cruising ground that could take months of exploration.