(originally published on the SetSail website)

Encounters in Belize

After 250 yachts in one anchorage in the Exumas (a slow year, we were told), we are startled by the open anchorages in Belize. Our first port, Placencia, had an anchorage crowded with unhired Moorings catamarans and a half a dozen long term cruising yachts. A local fishing boat, one of many gorgeous sloops with a heavy rake to the mast and a tremendous boom, pulled in, music playing and men crowded on board. In town, under hot and heavy air, the girls talked their father into two new dresses and looked at parrots, while I took care of business at an internet cafe run by a Canadian ex-Pat who'd once been a salmon fisherman off British Columbia. The locals said hello, well, the men did; most of the women said, "would you like to buy a basket?" In the flurry of all we had to do in Placencia, I never did buy a basket, and I'm sorry; perhaps we'll have the chance again as we head back down the coast. The other tourists and backpackers, for the most part, did not say hello.

We feel very incompetent at tropical cruising. The first thing you need, it appears, is an SSB. Everyone is on the net, and is incredulous that we don't have one. We feel very out of the loop. If we'd had an SSB, we'd have known about clearing in at Big Creek. If we'd had an SSB, we'd be able to find out about the anchorage fees.

Our attempts at keeping cockroaches from joining the crew had all our vegetables ripening fast and rotting inside of a week. My first batch of yougurt in 15 years didn't set. The children don't want to learn to swim. I was almost ready to set sail for the ice again.

Our first anchorage off the mainland was Twin Cayes, two mangrove covered cayes that form a perfect hurricane hole. Jason had been dreaming of snorkelling in crystal clear blue water like the brochure, and Helen and Anna were quite precise in exactly what sort of sheltered, warm, gradually sloping sandy beach they required. The wind was blowing and we hadn't yet fully adapted to Belize style - with the barrier reef outside, in mild winds there isn't much need to look for shelter, since the reef keeps the water flat.

We spent a morning working on the boat. Hamish went aloft with a hacksaw and took three inches off the roller furling extrusion (a chafe point on our spinnaker halyard, which we use as a pole topping lift and general dinghy crane, since we don't have a spinnaker.) Several boats came by with silent white tourists and enthusiastic and friendly local crew. The fisheries officer swung by to see why we were hacksawing off the forestay; he didn't say anything more than hey mon, but when we met him on the beach some days later he inquired about Hamish and his hacksaw.

In the afternoon, we saw four people anchor and disappear into the mangroves on innertubes. An hour went by. What were they doing? We kept an informal watch on the gap they'd disappeared into. Now, this seemed interesting. After a while, we could hear laughter.

When they emerged, Hamish waved them over. They proved to be four scientists from American Universities, researching the mangroves (we'd seen some of their flourescent markers and pvc pipes earlier in the day on a dinghy tour.) "Would you like a cup of tea?" Hamish said. They clambered aboard and said they'd been working this site for five years, and not once had they been invited aboard a yacht for tea; it had become a running joke over the years. One, a British ex-Pat, was particularly pleased to taste PG Tips again. (We get it from Hamish's parents; Hamish, of course, can't do without at least two decent cups of tea a day, and I, a reformed five cup coffee drinker, have been nearly entirely converted.)

Cores they'd taken on the mangroves we were sheltering in showed parts of the island to be at least 8000 years old, though the shape is slowly changing as the trees expand. Listening to them talk about the mangroves made me eager to go into the lagoon and see them with new eyes - thoughts of crystal blue snorkelling and the girls' sandy beach didn't seem nearly so important. The next morning, we dinghied into the cut they'd taken - a twisty creek into a shallow, peaty lake, and looked again at the mangroves, marvelling at how they put out new roots from branches and created their own soil around the roots. Oysters grew in clumps on some of the branches, and a green heron watched us calmly. The scientists said there were crocodiles in the creek, but we didn't see any. Below the surface, pink sponges and brown anenomes clung to the branches, and lizards and crabs scurried along the roots above.

Later that day, we did find our sandy beach and snorkelling. It wasn't azure - we had a long swim out over grass, and the water was a bit murky, but the fish were extraordinary. I have free dived all through the South Pacific and in Australia, but I have never seen so many fish in a stand of coral. Even in Australia, where the population was plumped by dive boat lunches, there weren't so many, so shallow. An enormous Moray Eel did a poor job of hiding - he was entirely in a cave, his head hidden, but long portions of his body were visible though gaps in his coral shell. Helen and Anna, whose job it was to run around in their first real shore time in the 10 days since we had left the Bahamas, sat down in the water next the dinghy and played mummy turtle and her eggs for several hours, choosing to leave running for when we returned to the boat.

We are very grateful for the lifting keel down here. Down, we draw 9.5 feet - too much for Belize, really. But with the keel lifted up, we can go down to 3.5 feet. We don't like to - running aground with all flaps up is really aground - so we tend to move about with the keel either all the way down, or lashed at about a six foot draft. When the sun is behind you, the coral reefs are an open book, but with the sun in front of you, it's depth sounder and hope. Some of the charts are based on surveys from the 1800s, and the best guide book was written in 1990: pre GPS coordinates. When we bump, the keel pivots on its pin into the centerboard trunk; there isn't any paint on the leading corner, but otherwise it hasn't suffered from its encounters.

Even so, last night we chose to anchor right off the main inner channel and dinghy around to the island we wanted to visit. Lifting keel or not, the dinghy is faster than poking through gingerly with Seal. We were bound for Rendez Vous Caye, the one from the tourist board brochure. On cruise ship days, there is barely standing room, but we were lucky enough to arrive with just one other yacht in the bay.

It's a tiny caye, a fifth of the size of what shows on the chart. Flat sand, eleven palm trees, a tiny outpost of mangroves, and a handful of Pelicans fishing a few feet off the beach. This is the island in all the cartoons, except Helen and Anna were clad in lycra wetsuits not ragged trousers and beards.

And on the cartoon islands, there isn't the Amber Tiki tied up with two lines ashore and two stern anchors (our kind of anchoring!) Julius, a 22 year old with a scar over his eye, spent a year in the military before being seconded to the police, is now "out" and working as mate on this thatched cottage with twin 115 HP 4 stroke Yamahas. His captain, Ernesto, was off fishing with a man from the other boat in the harbor. "Is this a bar?" Hamish asked. "No bar, man," said Julius, "but you want some rum punch?" Hamish accepted and brought it over to share with me; I was propped against a palm tree, working on provisioning lists for Greenland.

As the afternoon wore on and Ernesto came back from fishing, they cast loose their shore lines and drifted back onto a single anchor. We watched the pelicans, and the girls turned a bleached tree stump into a house complete with a kitchen and baby's bedroom, and then it came time for us to head back to Seal. As we prepared to launch the dinghy, the men shouted to us from the Amber Tiki's veranda, pointing at a black bag of drying seaweed. We delivered it. "What do you do with the seaweed?" we asked. "You got half an hour?" said Ernesto. "I'll make you some porridge."

We climbed aboard the Amber Tiki, and Ernesto began boiling a handful of seaweed with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon. When the seaweed disolved, he added condensed and evaporated milk and a healthy dollop of rum "to kill the marine scent." The end result was a seaweed lassi - delicious. Even Helen, a reluctant eater, gulped hers down (marine scent and all, since we didn't put rum in hers). "Don't drink this more than four times a week if you don't have a partner," Ernesto warned.

The Amber Tiki is stocked with lie-lows and Yak boards and his and her restrooms (with holding tanks!) for the cruise ship passengers, who come out here from Belize City aboard two motor catamarans. We drank our seaweed and Ernesto and Julius told us about Belize. They're from the south - and proud of it. They counted out languages - English, Spanish, Creole, Guarfuna, and added in several other Indian languages, Chinese, and Mennenites for a total of eight languages. Maybe nine, they said, since not all the Mennenites can understand each other. I had thought English might fade now that the UK no longer has a colonial presence here, but Ernesto shook his head. Everyone learns English at school; it's the one common language that lets Belezians speak to one another.

We motored back into a red ball of sun, through a short cut Ernesto had pointed out.

Kate Laird, 2005

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