(originally published on the SetSail website)

Belize City - West Palm Beach, Florida.

We arrived in Palm Beach yesterday afternoon after an amazingly fast trip from Belize -- 208 mile a day average for just under four days. We don't have any real figures for Seal yet, but we expect a 150 mile a day average, year in, year out, so it was a remarkable voyage - the wind clocked around as we came around the western Cuban Coast, and the Gulf Stream carried us screaming through the Straits of Florida.

We spent most of our time in Belize at Lighthouse Reef Atoll - it's about 35 miles offshore (25 miles off the barrier reef, although a much longer trip from Belize City going around the reefs.) The diving and snorkelling were spectacular. We spent as much time as possible underwater - it was too hot to do much else, and we spent most of the noon hours below with the sunscreens up.

My friend Betsy - we've known each other since we were toddlers - and her 7-year-old son left snowy New Hampshire and came down for a visit. It was marvelous to have another child on board, and we were able to show Nikolas his first dolphins bow riding on our way out to the reef.

No sooner had we anchored than a man dinghied over, saying he thought a front would come through that night (we'd spent the last week watching it, lurking to the north like a dragon's tail), and he was about to take his boat around the uncharted southern end to a more comfortable anchorage: we could follow if we liked. His name was Geoff Shultz, and he and his wife Sue gave us years' worth of local knowledge in a few shared happy hours. See http://www.geoffschultz.org for the underwater photographs he's taken this season alone.

Betsy brought down goggles for Helen and Anna but they declined to put their faces in, so Hamish bought a big grain bucket and 5200'd a sheet of acrylic into the bottom. Betsy winced - the acrylic came from the medical kit she'd so carefully organized for us back in New Hampshire. We'll replace the divider the second we get back, I promise!

We'd hoped Nikolas would inspire Helen and Anna to start swimming as he scooted all around the reefs with mask, fins, and snorkel, but the girls much preferred looking through the bucket. They spent most of their in the water time hitching a ride on our backs.

One of our best sightings was an enormous loggerhead turtle. Jason saw a spotted eagle ray, and the other species numbered in the 100s - we identified the ones we didn't know through Geoff's website, which he kindly gave us on a CD. For the first few days, we concentrated our wows on the fish, and then by the end we learned to see more by hovering in one place, peering into sponges to find spider-like brittle stars and diving down to sandy bottoms to go eye to eye with a conch. We spent part of our time in a preserve, where we found a single log, sunk in a hollow in the midst of a wide sandy bay. We visited it time and again, to see the conchs wandering about, living sand dollars (I'd previously seen them only dead on the beach), delicate fingers of sponges and anenomes, doll-house proportioned fish and lobsters. Stingrays flew about, one followed everywhere by a cow fish. Nurse sharks came to investigate the dinghy - the wind had ruffed up the surface and we thought they were stingrays until we peered through the bucket. We spent just under two weeks at the reef, first with Betsy and Nikolas and then with Kate's parents - a gentle way to begin our chartering! Dan had his first sail on board and Sally her second (the first was a 30 knot NW in November in New Hampshire), so we were pleased to be able to show them that we actually do know what all those bits of string are for.

Seal's lifting keel proved invaluable: we draw 9 feet with the keel down, 3.5 with it up, and we often lash it to a 5-foot position, rudder folded up, for motoring around shallow regions. It was a bit of culture shock to go from the Explorer Charts of the Exumas - gorgeous, GPS accurate, and minutely detailed - to the NIMA charts of Belize, one section based on an 1800s French survey. We had Freya Rauscher's sketches from her "Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast," but they were done pre GPS, and more importantly, pre hurricane Mitch, who had rearranged the soundings all over Belize, piling up sand on the northern sides of cayes, and drilling away new passes on the southern ends. With the lock down pin out, the keel pivots into the boat if we hit, so while we did remove some paint and fairing, the keel is unlikely to be damaged, even in a hard hit.

We brought Kate's parents back to Belize City to catch their flight home; we'd intended to stay a few more days and then look for a weather window, but it was perfect. Time to go. We might have waited for the next day, but of course that was Good Friday, and you can't leave on a Friday! Superstition was rewarded: we'd completely forgotten it was Easter Weekend - all of Belize would be shut down for four days; if we'd waited we would have missed the weather entirely.

We headed off in 108 degree heat at 1430 - the day before the full moon, and with the kindest wind imaginable - it slowly bent around as our route turned around Cuba. This passage, Hamish, Jason and I switched our watch schedule - normally we do 3 hours at night and 4 in the day, but this time we did 4 at night, 3 in the day, which worked a bit better with the girls - we got our long sleeps at night and shorter in the day while the girls were awake. With the excellent weather, too, we were able to sleep during our standby time until the last day when the weather and shipping picked up. Hamish, with all his English Channel experience, was up almost the entire last night skimming around dozens of cruise ships and freighters as we sailed along at 11-14 knots. He was very cool about it, but at one point I'm sure I heard him mutter, "there really is a lot of traffic."

We had planned to clear in at Key West, but the weather was still good, and another great pointed dragon's tail of a cold weather front was hovering by, so we kept pushing through to West Palm Beach. Helen was quite sick on the trip - heat exahaustion we think, rather than seasickness, but she worked really hard to get herself healthy by drinking lots of water and eating when she could bear it. Anna did very well, playing her Leap Pad endlessly because we were too lethargic to play with her (she does better in the tropics than the rest of us). On one page, she found Montana, Jason's homeport, and ran to show him: she is now 100% sure of Montana, but still quite vague about New Hampshire, England, the Bahamas and Belize.

Just at the NE corner of Cuba, we picked up five pigeons - all with leg bands. Two stayed with us right the way through to Palm Beach, but they bailed out half an hour too soon - we were beating in to 35 knots apparent, straight into the cold front, and the pigeons flew off, not liking the constant spray over the deck. I hope they found another ship, because it's a long flight to the Bahamas. The beating was my fault - I waited too long to turn for Palm Beach, not factoring in enough for the Gulf Stream pushing us north - so we were sailing at 35 apparent, much too high for Seal, but she did well. Though I felt silly for not turning, I was actually quite glad to see her in a bit of wind. We haven't had much "weather" at all on this trip, and it was a good part of the seatrial to really push her. Helen peered out the door. "Mummy, why are you all wet?" she said from her ringside seat in the raised saloon. At one point we had the foredeck about a foot under water. Not a drop went into the forehatch - Hamish and I cackled with glee and Jason made a rare rookie slip: "Why are you surprised?" he asked. The designer in him looked dismayed when we answered, "Because ALL forehatches leak!"

In West Palm Beach, we luxuriated in fresh fruit and wi-fi internet. The 70-degree heat felt as if someone had switched our brains back on. We suddenly had energy, and we discussed hanging around a bit and getting started on our preparations for Greenland in this perfect climate. But, we can smell the barn - even if there is still snow on the ground up north - and a weather window opened up. Next step - jump on the Gulf Stream again.


Kate Laird, 2005


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