(originally published on the SetSail website)

Seal's first major passage, Bahamas to Belize

George Town, Exumas, has unusually good holding. Time and again, we heard stories of people coming in for a week and staying three months. One couple we met has wintered there every year for the past 12 years. Vollyball games every afternoon, cheap internet in town, free water, good swimming and snorkelling, what more could a cruiser want?

On our last day there, we listened to the weather on the local VHF net and the forecaster had neglected to put his radio on high power. Yachties broke in to complain about the static, and finally one anonymous sailor said, "What do you care anyway? You're not going anywhere!" It's hard to leave George Town, but that firmed our resolve to up anchor and head for Belize. It wasn't a destination that we knew much about, and back in November when I'd been ordering charts for our voyage, I hadn't really believed we'd get there. We'd never even taken Seal out sailing - the mast was still on the ground - and it was snowing. Belize? I felt extravagant when I ordered a packet of 10 chart photocopies from Blue Water Books. I didn't even buy the Belize courtesy flag.

On our route south from New Hampshire to the Bahamas, I found the Belize flag at Fawcett's Chandelry in Annapolis - a 20 minute fuel stop on our route south. Must be a sign. I bought it, and we were one step closer to setting sail for Belize.

The main point of our trip south this winter was to sea-trial Seal before heading north to Greenland next summer, and we hadn't achieved that between New Hampshire and the Bahamas. We'd highlighted a few problems - most significant, chafe on the pole topping lift when we were poled out to starboard - but Seal had never done a real passage. Friends asked, why bother going all that way for such a short time? Why leave the Bahamas? but we had itchy feet. We needed more miles before we were comfortable heading to Greenland.

All in all, the trip was pretty easy, and we settled into watches and enjoyed it. The Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti gave us a night of "weather," and then we came onto a close reach for the next several days. We instituded a "sun-downer" ritual of walking around the deck half an hour before sunset and looking at everything. We didn't find much.

A major problem was averted when Hamish decided to set a cunningham to pull the main down onto the chafe patches (we'd modified the reefing system after marking and patching the spreader lines at each reef.) The boom was easing its way out of the gooseneck - a big nyloc nut had backed off completely, and the pin was climbing farther out of its hole with the scend of the waves. With Jason and I working control lines off two of the winches, and Hamish pounding it with a 5-pound lump hammer, we worked the pin back in and re-fit the bearing and nut, which fortunately had stopped in the inner bulkwarks instead of skittering over the side. Jason drilled the nut, and we slid a cotter pin through it, something we should have done back in New Hampshire. The ironic thing was we had been maniacal about triple checking our pins back in Newburyport - Hamish and Jason had drilled every nut on the mast and put a cotter pin through, and I had gone around the entire rig twice, making sure all the pins were in place and opened. Then Hamish checked every one a few times more. But that, of course, was on the ground -- and we forgot to drill out the last nut, holding the boom to the gooseneck. We were lucky - during the whole operation, with the main scandalized, we never went below eight knots.

(That would puzzle me exceedingly over the next few days as I tried to trim my way back to eight knots with the main fully working, but I suspect there must have been some current helping us along as we did the repair. We don't have a log, as the conventional ones are too prone to ice damage, so we just use SOG off the GPS.)

The next thing that needed working on was the batten splices. One night before sundown, we spotted an apparent broken batten. Jason dug into the "ski locker" for the spare battens while Hamish and I pulled the sail down and removed the old one. Aha. Not broken, but the splice we'd put in back in Newburyport had failed. We'd had our main built in South Africa, and most of the battens had to be shipped in two pieces. We respliced it (a metal joining tube with duct tape) and thanked the very clever method Quantam South Africa had used to secure the battens - no tools, just a lashing and a velcro flap to cover it. By the time we reached Belize, we'd spliced all three long battens in the same way -- 45 minutes for the first, 30 for the second, 15 minutes for the third.

The most satisfying thing about the trip was we all became much better at single handing. On our first night sails off the US coast, we sometimes had three of us on deck to reef - that's no way to get enough sleep. By the time we reached Belize, our two-person reefs took less than three minutes (that's getting the boat sailing again; it doesn't include coiling down!). No one thought to time it solo, but now Hamish, Jason, and I are now comfortable handling a reef (in or out) on our own (with the help of R2D3 the autopilot, of course ... R2D2 was our first one, but he had to be replaced.)

Hamish is the only one who's set up the spinnaker pole single-handed; that's my goal for the next passage.

It still surprises me (it shouldn't) that we are still modifying our systems for how we handle things on board. Hamish sailed for 12 years on a very similar design, and we did all the systems design and deck layout ourselves, so you'd think we'd have it down, but the methods continue to evolve. The spinnaker pole set up is identical to that on Pelagic, but we never figured out a single-handed method of doing that one. Having children on board is a big push to turn us into singlehanders. When you're sailing without children, waking up the off watch person once in a while isn't a big deal, but with the kids needing a lot of entertainment and help from the off watch person, the on watch person had better be self sufficient if the off watch is to get any sleep at all.

We are planning to adjust our watch system for the next passage. In the past, we have always used four hour watches in daylight and three at night when sailing shorthanded (2 or 3 people). Now, I think we'll go to four hours at night, so there is one quiet sleeping watch while the children are asleep. By the time we get it sorted, no doubt they'll be standing watches of their own.

In the end, we were very pleased to be doing our seatrial in tropical waters. Some problems take a few thousand miles to show up (and some take five, so I'm sure there will be more to deal with); it was a fine thing to be reattaching the boom and splicing battens under tropical heat, in shorts and t-shirts instead of full thermals and freezing hands.

We were very lucky with the weather - we left George Town the second the wind shifted in our favor, and we sneaked in to Belize just before a front came through. Proof of that came when we looked at the trip log on the GPS - 1092 miles sailed on our route from Exumas to Belize. Straight line distance was 1077 miles, so we sailed a mere 15 miles extra. No passage I've ever done has come close to sailing so straight down the track. We don't have the autopilot hooked into the GPS (it makes us nervous), and we do a fair amount of handsteering (more when it's rough), but we paid close attention to our track.

It took us six days, six hours to sail from the Bahamas to Belize and another two days to clear in. Our first night, we sailed into the lee of Turneffe Island, one of Belize's three offshore atolls. We'd planned to make landfall farther south, but it looked like our pass might be "in a rage," so we took the easy big ship channel to the north, and then motored south on the inside of the barrier reef to Placencia, where we'd heard we could clear in. (Belize City, though more on our route, is lousy in a northerly and has a reputation for tedious clear-in procedures since it is a major big ship port.)

On arrival in Placencia, however, we were told we needed to go farther on to Big Creek. We had saved an article describing a nightmare of customs and immigration in Big Creek, so we spent a frustrated night on the hook, worried that we should have just stopped in Belize City, norther or no norther.

Our worries were groundless - we lifted the anchor at 7 am, and reached Big Creek by 8. A young man in a hard hat waved us on to a canal, where we were able to haul out our shore lines and secure ourselves in the center, keel in the mud. Eduardo helped tie us up - to a telephone pole, a broken telephone pole and an old grain feeder - and walked Hamish over to the customs office. The agriculture official, Zeberdee, gave Hamish a lift the two miles into the town of Independence and the immigration office,and then back to customs, and finally, Zeberdee himself climbed down the mud bank in his good shoes, and confiscated a half dozen near rotten lemons and a lime. By 9:30, we were alongside a tugboat, loading water, and hearing all about the fruit export business of Big Creek. Eduardo came by with some bananas and oranges, and we were enchanted with Belize.

Kate Laird, 2005

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