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#422669 - 11/20/11 08:55 AM Sailing in Belize
Marty Offline

Wavin’ Belize

Saturday, November 5, 2011

San Pedro, Ambergis Cay Belize

WOW! What a trip the last 5 days of navigation! From Marathon Key to Belize City and Ambergis Cay, we’ve experienced a diversity of crossings, seas and chart accuracy. Another big lesson for us (well, maybe not JP, but for me at least.)

Learning to set the AP on No-Drift setting helps!

We left Marathon with a good weather forecast: mild winds (5-15kts) and we expected a fairly easy passage. Our plan was to coast along the Keys until the latitude of Key Largo or until we found a strong current against, then cross perpendicular to the Gulf Stream in the direction of the North Coast of Cuba, with the intention of finding the counter-current that run westerly on that coast, round Cabo San Antonio and again find the counter-current close to shore, and cross the Yucatan Basin (and the Equatorial Current) at an angle to the south point of Banco Chinchorro (Mexico). From there, we were supposed to find a southern current that would help us along, between Turneffe Islands and the coast of Belize, to Belize City. That’s a 650-mile crossing, and there was a good chance that we would arrive before dawn: easy to do in Belize City Harbor. Good, we had a plan.

Forgot to set the AP on No-Drift mode; result: XTE of a.8 miles

DOMINO’s SPEED – Once we committed to crossing the Gulf Stream, JP got tired of our “economical” speed of 10-11 kt, with the current knocking down 2 knots and we were getting bored, DOMINO just crying to strut her stuff. And we let her. JP opened the throttles at 75%, and DOMINO rose up a full foot, cutting the waves and gliding at 19.6 knots, flawlessly. The ride was so comfortable that I just had to shoot a (very poor quality) video… you’ll get the idea from the clip. As expected, we only had 2 to 4’ waves on our beam and 10kt winds across. See link below:

2000 rpm, 19.6 kts, 26gph

WAVES – The forecast had called for 4 to 6’ waves. As usual, I had read Steve Dashew’s blog, the latest on—precicesly—wave forecast, and I was just sitting in the aft deck, counting: 1-2-3: 4 feet; 1-2-3-: 6 feet; 1-2-3: 5 feet…. JP, perplexed, was wondering what I was doing. “Counting the third wave,” I answered. Of course, he knew I was trying to verify the posting by Dashew. But this is the difference between us: JP is mathematical, I’m…well…blonde. I understood the word THIRD as sequential, not as fractional, like 33%. So, I’m not going to bore you with the explanation, go to www.setsail.com and read Steve’s column. But, bottom line, even though the forecast was for 4-6’ waves, sure enough we had a few 8-footers with the occasional 12-footers. And, when a twelve-foot following wave starts snarling an icy-blue smile at her crest and is looking at you straight in the eye, well, that’s pretty awesome!

Small waves, big waves and bigger ones too

The first 48 hours of our trip were pretty rocky, between the current and the waves, but nothing to it. On the third day, those short, big waves finally gave up, perhaps tired of trying to scare DOMINO, and turned into a lovely train of long, following seas. We dropped 2 lines astern, killed one of the engines, and enjoyed the ride. From my station by the port sliding door, I could not hear the engine. For a moment, there, I swore we were sailing, the swish-swish of the waves under our hulls, the lazy motion of the boat gliding forward. Just lovely!

This gull spent a couple of hours with us, picking at this flying fish

BELIZE CLEARANCE – If you want to get thoroughly confused, call the Belize Port Authority on arrival, which is what you’re supposed to do. Three agents will answer, each one giving you a different anchorage waypoint. Pick one, anyone will do. After 30 minutes of back-and-forth with the authorities, we anchored off of the Radisson Hotel where the authorities eventually showed up (port, health, customs and immigration) and cleared us in. By 2PM we were ready to move on.

STUCK – I must keep some writing for tomorrow. But for today, I’ll say that we were extremely disappointed with our Furuno/Navnet 3D charts of the area (Navionics version). Even the i-Pad version (Navionics too) was wrong. The closest to reality was Frieda Rausher’s guide, but not her big chart: only the small drawings in the guide itself. We ran aground umpteen times, navigated with 3” under the hulls plenty of times, and it was a most nerve-wracking passage. But more on that later. I’m leaving you for now…

Till next time


#422670 - 11/20/11 09:03 AM Re: Sailing in Belize [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

STUCK in Belize

November 7, 2011

San Pedro, Ambergis Cay, Belize
17°55.032N - 087°57.595W

Ambergis Divers, San Pedro, Domino at anchor

First, the good news. It’s 0600 and the sun is peeking over the horizon, a salmon sky welcoming the new day. The strong northerly winds that blew all night have died just before dawn and it’s a balmy 80°F in the cabin. JP is getting ready to run the genset because, ditzy me, I forgot to flip the alternator switch to “ON” when we were running 2 days ago, which means our batteries did not charge under way. Oh, well, our big 12KW NorthernLight will have to work a bit and add one hour to its puny 208 hours accumulated in the last 660 days. This genset has it easy. But this post is not about the genset.

Then, the good news. We were just running the numbers to see how DOMINO did, fuel-wise, since we gave her that big 2,606 gal. gulp in Myrtle Beach. So, take your pencils and calculators and double-check our figures. We ran the engines for 132 hours, covered 1,327 NM, and burned 900 gallons. In my book, that looks like averaging 1.47 mpg, at an average speed of 10 knots. That means, all conditions confounded: running across the Gulf Stream at 20 knots (2000 rpm), running against it at 8 knots (1200 rpm), running with the Cuban counter-current at 12 knots (1100 rpm), trolling at 7 knots on one engine (900 rpm on trolling mode burns 1.7 gph), and even running at Zero knots and looking for deep water for a couple of hours when we got stuck.

Yes, we got stuck (euphemism for “running aground.”) As they say, there are only 2 kinds of people who never run aground: those who don’t leave the marina slip, and those who lie. But since we travel (15,350 NM in 20 months) and I try to be candid with our experiences, well, there, you have it, we ran aground… in Porto Stuck, no less!

The inside passage from Belize City to Guatemala is deep and wide and easy, SOUTH of Belize City. But running the inside passage to Ambergis Cay by going NORTH of Belize city is another story. Narrow passages, unmarked and shoaled up are a recipe for running aground.

Red squiggle: where we ran aground. Black/red dots: deep water channel.
The channel is actually 300 yards east of what the Navnet Chart showed.

We were well armed with charts and guides, though: the latest version of Navnet3D and appropriate Navionics charts of Central America; the i-Pad, loaded with the latest upgrade of Navionics charts for the region: Freya Rauscher’s Cruising Guide to Belize (2007 edition) and its hand-drawn sketches. We had even talked to a local fisherman to ask him how to clear the North Drowned Cay to go to Cay Caulker. He said: west of the cay. JP fired up the engines and off we went. But we didn’t go far. As we approached the 2 stakes making North Drowned Cay shoal, we registered 3” under the hull. West of the cay was an impossible route to the North. The Fisherman had given us the route to Moho Cay, not to Cay Caulker. Where to go, then? East of the Between Sallow Cay and N.Drwoned cay? But on which side of the stakes? We zig-zagged for a while, looking for deep water, none to be found. Finally, we called the port captain. “Go starboard of the stakes…” Confusing to us: we leave a mark to port or starboard, but we go east or west of a mark. Confirmation? “Yes, leave the stakes to port.” Finally, we find the channel, with 3” under our hulls. “DOMINO, alter your course 5 degrees to starboard,” calls the port captain, and we do… only to run aground one more time. Poking around to the west, we found the channel again. By that time, the Navnet and the iPad had us navigating on dry land for some time.

Inaacurate electronic chart can be very dangerous.

The ride through the mangrove-lined waters was eerie, flat, the sky metallic gray, the shallow, murky waters filled with dinner-plate size jelly fish and ready-to-sting men-of –war. Don’t you get stuck in there and have to walk through the shallows to set a kedging anchor! The Airmar depth sounder registers 20cm under the hull, 10 cm (3”), ZERO! We’re stuck again! PORTO STUCK bears its name well. We kept studying Freya Rauscher’s sketch, looking for the steel pipe and stakes: not around us! We could see the tripod but even lined up properly, could not make our approach between Hicks and Montejo Cays. We zigzagged for an hour, by now disoriented a bit, when we spotted, way to the east of us, the Belize Shuttle that runs from Belize City to San Pedro. At last, we had found our track! One steel pipe and one stake is all that’s left to mark the 10-foot deep, narrow channel. It took us 3 hours to cover the 18 miles to Cay Chapel where we dropped anchor for the night, short of our intended destination.

Dropped the hook in front of Cay Chapel Marina and Golf

In the morning, we got very shallow again, clearing the north end of Cay Caulker with only 3 inches under our hulls (we draw 4.5 feet), and that’s not even at low tide!

San Pedro, Ambergis Cay

At last, we arrived San Pedro in Ambergis Cay, following Freya Rauschers detailed instructions, and dropped the hook in front of the Tackle Box, with 50cm under our hulls. We’ve been here 3 days, the fringe of the reef a thin white line on our starboard, the vibrant settlement of San Pedro on our port, and dozens of local boats shuttling tourists at high speed at all hours of the day, throwing their wakes along our sides. Busy place!

The Tackle Box, Ambergis Cay, San Pedro

So, what did we learn? Never trust your electronics charts fully; sketches in cruising guides are just sketches, not intended for navigation; be wary of the advice of local mariners; even the port authority may lead you astray; travel the shallows slowly and at high tide; pray to the Almighty to hold that high tide for a few hours!

Now, let’s go diving!

Until then…


#422672 - 11/20/11 09:15 AM Re: Sailing in Belize [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Cool Cay Caulker

November 8, 2011

Different Cays
(From Ambergis to Caulker)
17°55.032N - 087°57.595W

Cay Caulker, Belize
17°44.74 N
081°01.65 W

Three days in San Pedro (Ambergis Cay) were enough to cure us from civilization. True, the dive with Ambergis Divers was fantastic, cruising 70 feet below the surface, up and down and along the spur-and-groove canyons, coming face to face with nurse sharks, giant black groupers, eagle rays, hawksbill turtles and a healthy population of gorgonians and corals… AND an enormous population of divers, air bubbles, kicked sand and fins. Even though JP and I got our own private guide who let us explore at our will, I felt cramped with this underwater crowd and longed for a more secluded dive. A snorkeling trip, maybe, on our own? The Hol Chan marine park is extensively visited by tourists, and we were in no mood to pay $10 each to snorkel with dozens fins splashing around us… call us spoiled, I admit.

We explored up and down the inside of the reef at Ambergis Cay, all the way north to Mata cut, and got disappointed with the poor condition of the inside reef. Outside the reef, we made it in the direction of the popular Mexico Rocks and found the reef healthier, but still, we were hungry for more. We tried to book a dive to The Blue Hole but balked at the $250/person price tag to dive with bull sharks, just to check this dive off our bucket list. We had experienced Dean's blue hole in Long Island (Bahamas) and were satisfied with that sight.

At the anchorage, tour boats and ferries kept zipping along us at high speed, throwing their wakes around and making our stay not too enjoyable. Too risky to dive off the boat, you might get run over. Karaoke was going full blast all afternoon, night club till dawn, not our crowd. Watching the sunset from The Tackle Box bar (great place to park the dink) enters American expat, John Kennedy. “Come to Cay Caulker, you’ll love it.”

But going back to Cay Caulker was yet another challenge. As you probably understood from our previous posts, aids to navigation (ATONs) are practically inexistent in this area. We had passed the “deep water” point in Rauscher’s guide with 0.0 water under our hulls. So, we resorted to new means of navigation, thanks to our electronics.

1) We added a radar overlay to our chartplotter. Now, we could see the discrepancy between what was charted and what was real.

2) We spotted the ferries visually and on the radar, saved them as marks and tracked their progress: now we knew were the deep water was.

3) We spotted the fishermen planting their sticks: crab pot markers, not to be mistaken for channel markers.

4) Weaving right and left and observing the depth sounder, we marked a waypoint anytime we found deeper water.

We soon had a track, a bit weavy on the way south, but to be adjusted for our backtrack north when we exit tomorrow. All told, our track is 300 yards west of Rauscher’s track, with the Cay Caulker North waypoint’s long. at 88.01.71 (same lat.)

Cay Caulker is our kind of place: laid back, bare-feet, a heaven for back-packers and low-budget travelers. Not another boat at the western anchorage. We tied the dink at the fuel dock by the fisherman’s co-op (where, paradoxally, no fish was for sale) and crossed the 3 sand-packed streets that lead to the eastern side of the island. There, at the Sports Bar, John Kennedy was waiting for us, his white Stetson firmly perched on his head. In no time, John had given us a tour of the settlement he called home: the bakery on Avenida Langosta (love that name) and, 2 doors down, the tortilla stand. But don’t expect to get tortilla at any hour of the day.

The family bakes them fresh only twice a day: at lunchtime and at dinnertime. We got our dozen of fresh corn tortillas for a buck and went exploring the dinner scene, munching on the said tortillas, compromising our appetite for dinner… oh well…

With 34 restaurants to choose from and more beachside stands like John’s (another American expat) BBQ shrimp, our search for the quintessential Belizian restaurant was a task.

Don Corleone is a favorite, but definitely Italian; Habanero’s is a pricey popular choice, with a palpable Indian flavor;

Rose’s Grill and Bar on Calle del Sol displays a tantalizing arrays of seafood right on the street, very hard to resist; but ask any local and they’ll send you to Syd’s.

There we sat at a plastic table in the small garden, sipping an obligatory Belikin beer right off the bottle (after removing the folded paper napkin on the top) and ordered an all-conch dinner: fried (oops) conch fingers and oven-steamed conch. Delightful, in spite of the wait while Syd’s kitchen was packing 2 dozens take-out meals for the local lodges.

No visit to Cay Caulker is complete without landing the dink at the Lazy Lizard lounge at “The Split.” The split is a cut created by hurricane Hattie in 1961, when the water rushed across the island and just split it in two.

It’s a gathering place for all international travelers to watch the sunset while others brave the swift currents that run through the cut. We just loved the relaxed atmosphere there.

As for snorkeling, we were not so lucky. We were just spotting a lobster inside the reef, in an area we thought outside the marine park limits when the park ranger was on us: Pay $10 each or move away… way away… south of the island, at least past the cut between Cay Caulker and Cay Chapel. And so we did, moved the dink another mile south and enjoyed a pretty snorkel, no big fish, no lobster, no conch (only a conch graveyard), but a pretty healthy reef. At least, this was free. Yet, we were wondering where, oh where, would we find good snorkeling and free diving (in both senses of the term.)

We kissed John Kennedy goodbye (you’ll find him at the Sports Bar just about any day) and are leaving for another destination: Turneffe Atoll.

Until then…


#422676 - 11/20/11 09:52 AM Re: Sailing in Belize [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Old Belize

November 19, 2011

Cucumber Beach Marina

Cucumber Beach, rebuilt last year after Hurricane Richard destroyed the lagoon

17. 28.32N - 088. 14.92W

Let me put away my navigation notes, charts, and allow me to not tell you a word (yet) about Turneffe Attoll where we just spent 8 idyllic days of snorkeling and free-diving. I’ll keep it secret for a little bit longer.

Instead, let me tell you about the cute Cucumber Beach marina in Old Belize. Who knew this was here?Sure, it was in the Rauscher guide book and I just added it to the Active Captain website. Just south of Belize city, this small marina only had 4 transient berths, so you’d better make advanced reservation if you want a spot.

Don’t expect fancy-schmancy facilities.

DOMINO settled in and attracting her usual crowd of admirers

Let me put away my navigation notes, charts, and allow me to not tell you a word (yet) about Turneffe Attoll where we just spent 8 idyllic days of snorkeling and free-diving. I’ll keep it secret for a little bit longer.

The Crazy Gringo bar and restaurant, right off the dock
Ready to weigh in

Instead, let me tell you about the cute Cucumber Beach marina in Old Belize. Who knew this was here? Sure, it was in the Rauscher guide book and I just added it to the Active Captain website. Just south of Belize city, this small marina only had 4 transient berths, so you’d better make advanced reservation if you want a spot.

Don’t expect fancy-schmancy facilities. What you find here is a friendly staff and Francisco, the marina’s owner, who does absolutely anything in his power to make Belize a cruiser-friendly place.

As you’ve picked up from our previous blogs, Belize lacks aids to navigation. As such, negotiating the reef, the shallows and the narrow cuts is difficult. Frequent hurricanes wipe out the few marks and shift the bottom and shoals. Yet, for all its deficiency in marking the reef, the Belizian navy holds any yachtie who hits a reef entirely responsible for damage to the reef. Just recently, a yachtie who destroyed his small Lagoon catamaran was fined over 1 million Belize dollars. The case is still fought in court.

The northern part of Belize also lacks marinas and facilities for transients. Cucumber Beach marina has plans to expand and upgrade, but this can hardly meet the needs of the high cruising season (Easter time.)

Yet, Francisco Woods keeps plugging away at it. He has built a little heaven here. A restaurant and bar, of course, but also a lagoon, artificial beach and waterslide since there is no beach to speak of in this area. But what I admire Francisco most is for creating the Old Belize Museum, a Disneyland-like time-travel through the different periods of Belize. I can’t wait to take our grandsons there next week.

One boat's catch... what Belize is all about!

Yes, our family is arriving tomorrow, and I’m keeping this blog short. Time for laundry (rustic but working Laundromat here), provisioning (taxicab Marlon has become our official guide) and boat cleaning.

I’m getting off this blog to go take photos of the sportfishers coming in with their catch, competing in the BlueWater tournament this weekend. Meanwhile, JP finishes splicing the new bridle for the 3/8” chain… and that’s that!

Tomorrow, the kids!

Until then…



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