Unfortunately, itís true that the 165-foot M/Y Azteca dropped anchor a few meters from the coral reef outside San Pedro off Ambergris Cay in Belize.
After that, though, much of the story that has made its way around chat rooms and Internet reports has gotten distorted, according to Azteca Capt. Salvador Villerias-Eckart.
About 0530 on April 7, the yacht was approaching San Pedro, intending to clear in for a cruise in Belize.
"We were coming from Cozumel to Belize, and we were told the best place to clear in is San Pedro," Capt. Villerias-Eckart said. "Even our agent told us that."
While turning toward the pass, the tow line for the yachtís 33-foot tender fouled the starboard propeller, causing the engines to stop. Winds were blowing from the north at 20-25 knots with seas of 5-7 feet.
Initially, Capt. Villerias-Eckart didnít realize the yacht was in a restricted area. None of his charts, maps or books indicated the area outside San Pedro as protected. And while they show the reef, none prohibit anchoring near it.
"We saw some buoys, like fishermanís buoys, so I dropped an anchor 100m off one of the buoys," he said. From there, he intended to wait until daylight to dive and free the prop.
With daylight, though, the swell continued and Capt. Villerias-Eckart took the tender ashore to clear in. While in the customs office, Azteca First Officer David Botton hailed him on the radio that locals had approached to say they had anchored in a restricted area.
By the time Villerias-Eckart was finished clearing in, officials from several agencies came to meet him and accompany him back to the yacht.
Once aboard, the authorities searched the vessel thoroughly and insisted that every guest, including the owner, awaken to prove they were who their documents said they were.
"They were just not nice," Capt. Villerias-Eckart said. "They are rude with crew, too, and they get seasick.
"I offered to move the yacht to another location, even to Belize City, so we would stop causing damage but it was refused, saying that the yacht was detained until further orders, even if we continued to damage the reef."
Throughout the morning, local boaters approached the vessel, shouting at anyone in earshot with foul and disparaging language, Capt. Villerias-Eckart said. At some point, two men tried to cut the anchor loose, but failed.
"Two guys went diving with saws, trying to cut loose our chain," Capt. Villerias-Eckart said. "Then there would have certainly been huge damage to coral reefs once the yacht reached the reef, endangering private property, natural resources and human lives, also."
Environmental officials dove the area and reported "extensive damage" because the chain dragged across the reef.
"They reported extensive damage because it has a metal chain and the metal chain is dragging on the bottom of the coral reef," Miguel Alamilla said in an online forum about Ambergris Cay. Alamilla is manager of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which begins about 3 miles southwest of where Azteca was. "There is a strong north wind and the boat is swaying back and forth and the anchor keeps dragging on the reef."
By mid-afternoon, Capt. Villerias-Eckart returned with authorities to the police station while the owners and lawyers worked through the matter with Belize officials.
"I was not arrested," he said. "I was just asked to go to the police station and stay there."
After about three hours, Capt. Villerias-Eckart was allowed to return to Azteca, pull up anchor and leave.
Details of the settlement were not disclosed, but the skipper said the owner has committed to paying a "reasonable amount" to repair damage Azteca caused the reef.
"Our first officer is a marine photographer, and he took photos of the reef from the bow to the anchor," he said. "We did not do the damage they said we did. They said we dropped two anchors and dragged them 150 meters across the reef. Thatís just not true. I dropped two-and-a-half shackles of chain [about 225 feet], and there were no signs of dragging."
Other skippers had sympathy for Azteca and her crew.
"The captain did what we are all trained to do in that event: Get the anchor down before you run aground," said a megayacht captains who talked with the Azteca crew in Mexico after the incident. He is cruising the area now and asked to remain anonymous.
"Stuff like this happens to all of us, and if a country allows us to travel in their waters, they have to expect it to happen from time to time," he said. "It sounds to me like the captain did the right thing. If he didnít anchor, he could have done a lot more damage by running aground."
Two freighters ran aground on the reefs in the fall, neither of which had been tried as of press time.
"They were originally asking for $800,000," Capt. Villerias-Eckart said. "Suddenly, they see a nice big yacht and think, maybe thatís where we can get some money."
After leaving San Pedro, Azteca took her guests for a cruise around the Turneffe Islands just south of Ambergris Cay, and to Lighthouse Reef to the east of it.
"If someone goes to Lighthouse Reef, to the Blue Hole, do not use the buoys at the southwest tip; they are for the live-aboard vessels operating there, at least the first three or four are," Capt. Villerias-Eckart said.
"If your yacht is not big, say up to 100 feet, you may use the other buoys," he said. "If your draft is about 7 feet, you may be lucky enough to go all the way in and get closer to the Blue Hole. If you are not an experienced diver, the trip is useless."
He also offered some advice for yachts visiting San Pedro.
"If you intend to enter Belize in San Pedro but your draft is more than 10 feet, do not stop there as you cannot enter inside the reefs, and now we know that you canít anchor outside either, so itís better go to Belize City," he said. "And if you have crew from Jamaica or South America, they have to get visas prior to going there. "
What bothers Capt. Villerias-Eckart most about the incident, even more than the half-truths printed about it, is the way he, the owner, the guests and crew were treated by the Belize authorittes.
"Personally, I have found after 27 years of sea time and more than 300,000nm on my back, the poorer the country you are traveling in, the harder the authorities are, as if you were trying to sneak in." source