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Favored Water

Jan 1, 2003

From atop the lighthouse at Hunting Cay, Belize, my brother and I gazed down upon a stand of coconut trees circled by a lovely sand beach and surrounded by the azure waters of the Caribbean. To the north and southwest stretched a line of similar, gorgeous islands, fronted by a magnificent coral reef that broke the trade wind swells sweeping in from the east. Here and there a cobalt-blue line cutting through the foam-drenched coral revealed the presence of a narrow, deep-water channel. It was through one of these that we had felt our way the night before. Our boat Nada lay placidly at anchor in the lee of the reef. My wife Terrie and the children were snorkeling around a nearby coral head, while my sister-in-law was stretched out in the cockpit reading a book and working on her tan. We were back in Belize, one of our favorite cruising grounds.

A fortuitous set of physical and human circumstances have combined to make southern Belize a world-class cruising ground. Of course, there's the balmy Caribbean climate. And then there's the barrier reef, one of the longest in the world. It stretches in an almost unbroken line 100 miles south from the low-key resort town of San Pedro, close to the Mexico/Belize border, all the way to Hunting Cay. Just north of San Pedro, the reef closes the shoreline, but to the south it steadily diverges from the mainland until it is a good 25 miles offshore at Hunting Cay. To seaward, the bottom drops off precipitously into the depths of the Caribbean; to landward, a navigable sound between the reef and the mainland is crowded with a series of inner reefs, sporting their own cays. Fields of coral are broken up by an intricate maze of channels that invite weeks of fascinating gunk-holing and exploring. Much of the reef is still pristine; a snorkeler's delight stocked with an abundance of corals, tropical fish, and some lobster. Although the water behind the northern end of the reef is muddied with runoff from the Belize River, further south it is crystal clear; the bottom is frequently visible at 80 feet.

This reef runs on a north/south axis, while the prevailing trade winds sweep in with constancy from the east, commonly blowing at 20 knots or more for weeks on end, with a fetch of thousands of miles from the eastern Caribbean. Nevertheless, the body of water behind the reef is protected from the seas that pound unceasingly against the wall of coral. Inside the reef, most passages are made with a brisk wind more or less on the beam, gentle seas underfoot, and clear skies overhead. With the boat barreling along at six or seven knots and a fishing line streaming astern, it is generally not long before a mackerel is landed for supper. And when it comes time to anchor for the night, as long as the winds are blowing, the bugs are kept at bay. I suspect there are few places in the world with a more idyllic sailing and cruising environment.Many anchorages

In prevailing conditions just about any reef or cay to windward will provide shelter enough for a calm anchorage. On those occasions when a cold front sweeps down from the Gulf of Mexico, bringing with it strong winds from the north, numerous fully enclosed and superbly well-protected anchorages can be found by tucking in between the reefs and cays. We have sat out five days of winds in excess of 35 knots with barely a ripple on the surface.

Luckily, only one or two of the cays are more than an acre or two in size, and most are much smaller than this. Some, in fact, are little more than specks of sand waiting to be washed away by the next hurricane. Such small size does not lend itself to major tourist developments, and in fact makes it next to impossible to put in place the kind of infrastructure necessary to support any kind of mass tourism. In particular, without a fresh water supply (except for what can be captured off tin roofs in the rainy season) and without space to build even grass-strip airports (with the exception of San Pedro, Cay Chapel, and Cay Caulker, all in the north), commercial growth has been held to a snail's pace. It is true that there are low-key developments on a number of the cays and that every year sees another cabin or two go up on formerly uninhabited cays, but by and large these projects are unobtrusive. For the foreseeable future the cays are likely to remain relatively undisturbed; a glorious havenforfishermen and passing cruisers like ourselves, but few others.The fishermen are a sight for sore eyes. The Belizean fishing fleet is still almost exclusively sail-powered. The boats are gaff-rigged sloops, about 30 feet in length with a small cabin and a large fish hold. They commonly carry a crew of six or seven who camp aboard for two or three weeks at a time, often sharing the limited deck space with half a dozen dug-out canoes (cayucos) that are stacked one upon the other during passages to and from the fishing grounds. It is a wonderful sight to see one of these boats flying along under a full press of canvas, rail down to the water. Unfortunately, the picture is tarnished in that the catch these men are taking is most likely not sustainable. In spite of their low-tech approach to fishing (each fisherman takes a cayuco and snorkels the reef for fish and lobster), six or seven men working a stretch of coral all day long, and free-diving to as much as 30 feet, have the ability to strip the reef of much that moves.Shoreside attractions

Ashore, Belize has other attractions for cruising sailors. This tiny country (population 180,000, of mixed black, Hispanic, white, Garifuna, Chinese and Mayan Indian stock) is a world leader in eco-tourism. Substantial areas of the country have been set aside as wildlife preserves that are home to a number of endangered species, the most spectacular of which is the jaguar. The country, particularly the northern, swampier stretches, is a bird-lover's paradise, home to literally hundreds of species. The coastal mangroves contain remnant populations of American alligators (which we haven't seen) and manatees (which we have).

A network of eco-tourism outfitters caters to the needs of visitors, with accommodations ranging from the best (the Fort George Hotel in Belize City, where we haven't stayed) to the downright squalid (where we have stayed): there's something to fit everybody's budget. And if a visitor gets tired of eco-tourism, there are spectacular Mayan ruins to be seen (particularly Xunantunich), with the most spectacular of them all (Tikal) a short ride away across the Guatemalan border.

When exploring inland the boat can be left at Moho Cay marina, just to the north of Belize City. After years of a somewhat up and down existence, the marina has recently undergone a change of owners and is now very much back in business (phone: 501-235-350; fax: 501-235-466; e-mail: jaguar@btl.net). Access is via a dredged channel (currently at a six- to seven-foot controlling depth, but due to be dredged to eight) into a sheltered lagoon with excellent docks, shoreside hook-ups, and a regular passenger ferry service to the mainland just five minutes away.

This all sounds too good to be true, and of course there are drawbacks. Belize's northern cruising grounds, from San Pedro to south of Belize City, which are the most accessible and have the best-protected anchorages, are nowhere near as attractive as those in the south. The northern cays are mostly mangrove covered, there are few beaches, the water is often muddy, and the coral is less plentiful and often less well-preserved than in the south.

However, it is only a couple of easy day sails from one end of the reef to the other, so there is no reason not to head south. The biggest problem then is the lack of accurate, detailed charts. Although the latest British Admiralty charts (far better than the equivalent U.S. charts) are GPS accurate in terms of the placement of land masses, much of the nautical detail is still based on 150-year-old surveys. Anyone intending to do even minimal gunkholing will need a copy of either my Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean or Freya Rauscher's Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast.

A greater deterrent to cruising Belize is probably the fact that it generally takes some hard sailing to get there. The majority of boats arrive either after transiting the Panama Canal or after working their way south from Florida. Those coming out of Panama frequently get beat up in the early stages of the passage, but once the corner has been turned at Cabo Gracias a Dios it is a downwind romp (albeit a lively and rolly one) with a following current all the way to the Bay Islands of Honduras, Guatemala's fabled Rio Dulce, and southern Belize.

From Belize, the passage northward is generally made with favorable winds and currents, although it should be noted that the Mexican coastline trends to the NE, so that when the trades are in the NE (primarily the early winter months),impatient souls like myself who are unwilling to await a favorable wind shift will find it can be a long hard beat all the way to the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.Avoiding the Gulf StreamThe passage from Florida has its own problems, the most consistent being the Gulf Stream, which is on the nose the entire way. This current sweeps up through the Caribbean toward the Yucatan. It is deflected off the Mexican coastline and then steadily compressed until it squeezes through the Yucatan Straits. In the body of the Caribbean the current flows at just a knot or so, but in northern Belize it often runs at two knots, accelerating to three knots from the Yucatan Straits past Florida and onintotheAtlantic.Nooneintheir right minds wants to fight such a current all the way to Belize!To avoid the current, sailors southbound from Florida are faced with a choice of keeping to the north or south of the Gulf Stream as far as Isla Mujeres, the first port of call in the Yucatan. Staying to the north means dealing with the Gulf Stream Loop Current, which flows northward at up to four knots into the Gulf of Mexico. Heading south requires that the main axis of the stream be crossed twice: once to reach the shelter of Cuba, and then again to cross from the western tip of Cuba to the Yucatan. The southerly route may also run afoul of the legal proscription against U.S. citizens spending money in Cuba.

So what to do if departing from Florida? If it were not for the embargo, I would unhesitatingly recommend crossing to Cuba. The axis of the Gulf Stream is relatively concentrated off both the Florida Cays and Isla Mujeres, and it can be crossed quite rapidly. Once into the lee of Cuba, a favorable countercurrent is often found, running at a knot or more, all the way to Cabo San Antonio. In addition, there are numerous sheltered anchorages along the Cuban coastline, with some interesting cruising and an incredibly hospitable population. The drawbacks are the equally incredibly bureaucratic nature of Cuban officialdom and, of course, the legal problems.

Even after Isla Mujeres is reached there are another 170 potentially hard miles to be won before the shelter of the Belize reef is reached. Once again, there are two choices: to stay offshore and use the generally favorable winds to buck the two-knot current or to creep along the coast in 60-feet or less of waterwith one eye on the reef, which at times will not be much more than 100 yards to starboard. We generally opt for the latter, stopping overnight in a series of protected anchorages along the way.

But, at the end of it all, Belize is more than worth it. Once inside the Belize reef, weeks can slip by working gently from one picture-perfect island or spectacular coral head to another. This tiny corner of the world, hardly more than a speck on most maps, has been drawing us back year after year. And if a time should come when Belize begins to lose its allure, the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, with an equally fabulous but totally different cruising experience, is just a few hours sailing from Hunting Cay. But that, as they say, is another story.

Contributing Editor Nigel Calder's latest book is Cuba: a Cruising Guide, published by Imray, Lauries, Norie & Wilson, Ltd.


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