Monday, August 30, 2010

August 20, 2010: Dangriga mass email

Hi Everyone,

You last heard from us just after we’d arrived in Belize two months ago. We’re about half way down the Belize coast now. Much has happened.

We visited our Oregonian friends in Corozal, in a big bay on the Mexican border. Then we sailed back out to the cayes (Belizean for islands, pronounced “keys”). We got to Caye Caulker four days in advance of our wedding and started preparing. We parked our boat on a shallow shore at the south end of the island, where our people had reserved small rental houses. We slept aboard except for when Tropical Storm Alex hit. That night we took the precaution of staying in a cheap bungalow. High winds blew all night and the sea level rose. Coconut tree branches broke off and flew around. In the morning all was peaceful again.

Ginny’s friends Lena, Jesse, and baby Violet Fantastic arrived first. They had flown to Belize City the day of Alex and had to hole up there. The next day they came to Caye Caulker by “water taxi.” Then Steve’s cousin Kristy and her husband Dave came and occupied a second house. Ginny’s mom Lois came, then her sister Carley from Seattle. They moved into a cabin. Steve’s mom, dad, and sister (Bonnie, George, and Susan) stayed in a house on the same property with nice gardens around it. Finally Steve’s brother Mike and nephews Brian and Kaare arrived. They slept here and there in hammocks. Everyone was within a block of each other. All had come from the Puget Sound area except the Fantastics came from St. Louis and Lois came from Los Angeles. We had many delicious dinners together. Some explored Mayan ruins, others went snorkeling or sailing.

On July 1 we had the wedding outside in the garden by the main house. The ceremony consisted of short performances on the themes of Exploration, Euphoria, Insanity, Love, and Marriage. Lena and Jesse juggled, Kaare hacky-sacked, Kristy sang, George and Steve played accordion, and Lois was Master of Ceremonies. Carley, an ordained minister, put on an episcopal robe and tied our knot. Ginny and Steve took care of paperwork to make it legal. We’re married! It’s fun and has at least doubled the number of obnoxious nicknames Ginny has for Steve (Hubs, Hubster, Hubasauraus, Hubs-o-rama, etc.)

Everyone stayed about 10 days. With each departure we reluctantly went to the water taxi landing or the airstrip again to see them off. Then it was just Steve and Ginny again.

We stayed at Caye Caulker another couple weeks repairing and modifying the boat (our honeymoon!). For example, we made a sun cover for dinghy, mounted our handheld GPS where we could see when we’re sailing, and painted the cabin top white so it wouldn’t get so hot inside. Then we provisioned for a major side trip: Turneffe Reef and Lighthouse Reef.

We first decided to cruise in the Caribbean when we drove to Belize and found that we needed a boat to get to the outer islands, where the snorkeling is best. The outermost islands are at Turneffe Reef and Lighthouse Reef. They’re hard to get to without a motor because you have to sail into the prevailing east wind.

A hard day’s sail took us beyond the horizon to Turneffe Reef, a thirty-mile-long galaxy of mangrove islands and lagoons encased in an oval-shaped barrier reef. Like Chinchorro, Lighthouse, and Glover Reefs, it is an atoll. We worked our way up to the west side of the atoll, swimming in the clear water over the coral heads and anchoring in protected waters at night. When storms hit we holed up for two days on the northernmost caye, quite alone.

From here we sailed another twenty miles east to Lighthouse Reef. We anchored off an island at the south end and swam along the vertical wall that hems the reef there. It appears to go straight down for hundreds of feet! Then we sailed up to the Blue Hole, a cenote (collapsed limestone cave) in the middle of the reef.which can be seen from outerspace. Unlike cenotes on land, this one is entirely submerged, but its rim is only a couple feet under water. We waited until no other boats were around, then entered through a little cut and tied to a buoy. Without oxygen tanks we couldn’t plumb its stalagmited depths, but we swam the hole’s perfectly round circumference, and dove deep enough to note that its rim, at about forty feet, curls back in a sharp overhang. The hole is an aperture in the roof of a flooded cavern over 400 feet deep!

Most of the people we saw at the reefs were lobster divers. They use gaff-rigged wooden sloops built in the village of Sarteneja, near Corozal. Each Sarteneja boat packs in ten or so young men. Each diver has a tiny dugout canoe. He paddles to a rock under which he thinks lobster might be hiding then ties a line from the canoe around his waist and dives in. Spanish is their first language but most speak English too. We anchored alongside Sarteneja boats for several nights and enjoyed their company. They especially congregate at Sandbore Caye, at the northern tip of Lighthouse Reef. The place had almost no bugs and great reefs around it: massive corals of all kinds piled together, dead and living, in mind-boggling formations. We rated Sandbore Caye among the highest of the places we’ve stayed. It also has a permanent population: two elderly brothers named Young, caretakers for the great lighthouse which gives the reef its name.

Lighthouse Reef is similar to Chinchorro Bank in that it is mostly shallow water with a few small islands. In addition to the barrier reef all around, the enclosed lagoon contains hundreds of “patch reefs.” As at Chinchorro the patch reefs grow from a typical depth of twenty feet. But whereas the Chinchorro patches have plenty of water over them, those inside Lighthouse Reef grow to within inches of the surface. This makes them hazardous. Thurston draws less than a foot, but that’s enough for those rocks to scratch her. Once we sailed up onto a patch reef, got stuck, and had to fend ourselves off. We learned to only navigate such areas when the sun is high and the sky clear, in which case they show up as a chocolate brown surrounded by turquoise.

After a week on Lighthouse Reef we sailed back to Turneffe Reef, appreciating now a major distinction. Turneffe is different from Chinchorro and Lighthouse in that its interior consists mostly of mangrove and soft-bottom, non-coralized lagoons. We got around via these shallow, inter-connected waterways. But all three atolls are alike in that their eastern barriers are broad, shallow reefs with occasional exposed rock. The swimming is best where the barrier is pierced by a cut, allowing one to access the depths within the cut and to seaward. The three are also alike in that their western barriers are usually about ten feet deep, so you can swim or boat over them at will, and, once you reach the edge the bottom drops off steeply! The great wall dives seem to be on the west sides. Visibility was usually a respectable sixty or seventy feet. We saw the usual large rays, turtles, sharks, etc. and many smaller organisms, sometimes strange to us. Imagine, for example, a large, bright orange “caterpillar” (probably a sea slug) that crawls about on the coral looking for things to eat. Or little fishes with clear bodies and yellow heads that pop up out of holes then go back in, tail first! We cruised to the south tip of Turneffe Reef then up its west coast and back across the big water to the nearshore islands and mainland. We needed to provision again.

On August 10 we sailed into the narrow harbor in downtown Belize City. The city is built around Haulover Creek, one of the mouths of the Belize River. Here, just downstream of the famous Swing Bridge, so named because it is designed to swing open horizontally, a hundred or so poles have been driven into the river bottom. The Sartenja boats tie bow and stern to these poles. We tied up where there was a vacancy and pumped up the dinghy. Thus began four days in that much-maligned metropolis of 70,000 souls, by far Belize’s largest city.

There is something Old World about Belize City. The streets are narrow and laid out in conformance with a system of concrete drainage canals. The buildings are faintly Victorian. But Belize City is dilapidated in a way one would associate more with Haiti than with Europe.

We were in its mostly bustling quarter. The sea men and roughest characters congregated by the Swing Bridge. Beggars hit on us. Every few paces another fellow would fall in alongside us with exuberant declarations of brotherhood. We tried to be friendly and firm in the right mixture. But most only wanted money. We didn’t want guides or drugs or people to watch our boat. We just wanted to run around, explore and tick off chores in preparation for our next foray into the islands.

We ran into a fellow sailor named Kirk, from Texas. We’d been bumping into him on and off since Puerto Aventuras. His sailboat and ours seem to be the only cruisers still on this coast now that it’s hurricane season. Unfortunately, he’d run aground outside the city. It took him two weeks and help from a tug to finally get off. Then the Belizean authorities charged him with “not reporting a maritime incident” and similar far-fetched crimes. The potential fines are enormous! We regret to say that Kirk remains hostage to the legal system. He is staying at the Radisson Hotel, so his suffering is more spiritual and financial than physical. If you pray, please pray for Kirk! He’s a good guy.

Our last day at the Swing Bridge was marred by young hoodlums, possibly the same kids who had been sneaking aboard and pawing through our stuff while we were gone. On this occasion they were by the bridge looking for mischief while we sat peacefully on our boat. They said naughty words. Upon getting a reaction from Steve, they started pelting him with fish guts and rocks! We hid inside the cabin until they drifted off. Fleeing the wrath of a ten-year-old boy, how humiliating! But what else could we do? Will somebody please beat them up for us?

From Belize City our pattern will be three loops out to the barrier reef, then south along it from island to island, then back to a mainland town for provisions. The provisioning towns will be Dangriga (where we now are), Placencia, and Punta Gorda. We have less than three weeks of visa left for Belize, so we need to make progress toward Guatemala.

Steve is battling an itchy rash on his back and arms. Ginny suffers from the heat. Belize is a silly place to be in August! But mourn us not. We’re in fine trim from all our swimming, walking, and rowing, and in excellent basic health. Enjoy the pictures, and keep some adventure in your lives.


Steve and Ginny, Dangriga (Stann Creek), Belize, 8/20/10