Are We Having Fun Yet?

Thursday, March 08, 2007
Radisson Fort George Marina
Belize City, Belize

It is good to be sitting here at a dock where the only movement is from the unprotected passage of the trade winds and dive boat traffic with its resulting 2-foot chop and occasional bonk into the dock.

Why?

Because getting here was such a challenge, both physically and emotionally. And after the conditions we endured getting here, there is now no such thing as a bad anchorage or sloppy dock.

We left Bahia del Espiritu Santo at about 9:00 pm as planned, looking forward (?) to a 90-mile trip south toward a little hole-in-the-reef called Xcalac (pronounced shkah-LAK) to clear out of Mexico.

Ignorance is bliss.

Unfortunately, due to a loose nut on the chart plotter dial, our entry track from the previous day had somehow vanished, so we had to negotiate our way out of a very shallow lagoon in the dark. Not recommended, though Ole did a fabulous job. Once we got out into the briny blue, the wind picked up and the sea conditions deteriorated over the night, starting at 10 to 15 knots with 4-to-6 foot seas, and escalating to the point where the autopilot again went on strike. We had both the wind and the seas coming from the south, straight at us. In the middle of the night, feeling like we were in a washing machine. we opted to change course from south to southeast, to see if we could get any lee from the Chinchorro Banks east of Mexico. That turned out to be a good decision, as we got about 4 hours of relief until we had to turn due west and take the slop on the port side. Ole got a nap during the relative calm of our passage past the Banks, and Jan decided to once again resume the starfish position and try to snooze through the rolls as we headed west.

As we approached Xcalak, we rummaged furiously through our trusty Cruising Guide, to re-read the author’s instructions for getting inside. The cruising guide called it “quaint,” and warned us that the opening in the reef is just 50 to 75 yards wide – roughly three times the length of Emma Jo, and if you miss, you end up shredded fiberglass. She warned not to attempt the pass during “raging sea conditions,” and “only in the morning, with the sun behind you.” At just after noon, looking out the side window, we were taking, I kid you not, 12-15-foot swells off the port quarter, and trying to figure out how to thread the needle while being virtually washed into the lagoon like the flotsam we are.

We could see the huge line of surf breaking all along the shoreline, and the 12-15-footers curling through the tiniest width with no foam – as we looked frantically for the two lights that would line up to carry us safely over a submerged coral head just inside the north side of the pass.

I asked Ole, “are these ‘raging sea conditions?’” But before he could answer me, a huge swell came up from under us and shoved us through the pass.

During the frantic machinations of trying to line ourselves up, we tried calling the port captain, whom the guide book said “spoke excellent English,” and who was not there – we got the non-English speaking assistant. Fortunately for us, a Canadian resident who has a house just opposite the pass, got on the radio and helped us through, as did a 34-foot sailboat who had surfed in the afternoon before.

Once we washed through, we hung a right, circled once, and dropped anchor in 20-25 knot winds and 3-foot chop in between two sailboats. It took an hour or two to stop shaking. When Ole went to clear out of Mexico, he met the nice Canadian man (still don’t know his name, but he goes by “Casa Verde” on the radio) who told us we actually passed right over the submerged coral head when the wave shoved us through. He congratulated our courage, then told us that the Swiss guy in the sailboat just north of us had come in at 4 a.m., while it was still dark! Don’t know – stainless steel or brass.

While we sat there the first afternoon, we watched a conch fisherman enter the pass, taking green water all over his stern. He hung the same right turn we did, and anchored not far away, and began shuttling his catch via small boat virtually 24/7 for the next two days..

We had planned to stay only one night, then make a short passage of 26 miles to San Pedro to clear into Belize – but, like the cat who climbs the tree – once in, we couldn’t work up to courage to go out. Casa Verde told us it would be blowing like it was for several days. So our planned one-day stop turned out to be three days.

We went for a walk through Xcalak one afternoon, and found it to be verrrrry sleepy. Dirt streets, a grocery store and a “Loncheria” where we stopped for some good home cooking in what seemed to be a nice grandmother’s home. Great fresh shrimp ceviche and a fish stew. Interestingly, she didn’t serve beer, but told us to go next door to the market to get our beer, which we were welcome to drink in her restaurant. How civilized. Unfortunately, we hadn’t brought the camera, so no pictures.

On the morning of the third day, March 3rd, we got up at dawn to take a look at the pass. Time was running out, as Ole had to be in Atlanta for the chief engineer’s meeting that began on the 5th of March. We pretty much figured that he wouldn’t make the flight that left Belize on Sunday morning, and would at best, be a day late for the meeting. Although the wind had died down, we decided it was still too intimidating to try to get out the pass. As we made the coffee, committed to yet another day of waiting for weather, we watched the Swiss sailor attack the pass on the way out to head north. Yikes – it looked like his boat was climbing a mountain that was trying to push him back in – and we watched his mast wobble fore and aft as he climbed straight up steep 12-foot rollers to get out, then turn to take them on the side as he headed north. Nope – not for us.

By late afternoon, the wind had dropped back to 10-15 knots, and the seas seemed, at least through the binoculars, to have flattened out a bit. In a burst of bravado, we thought it best to make a try for it, leaving at about 6:00 in the evening for another overnight 75-mile run to Belize City, avoiding San Pedro altogether.

Now, non boaters, here’s what has to happen: Imagine yourself trying to get your Lincoln Navigator up the steep hill from the street into your single-car garage, steering while looking in your rear view mirror at the garbage can lined up with the tree across the street to determine the heading of your SUV. Now imagine the uphill driveway is undulating toward you – a foot to either left or right shreds you.

Suffice it to say, that the pucker factor is the biggest we’ve experienced so far. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anxiety sweat like we did that evening. But once through, and turning south, the ride through the 8-10 foot swells actually became, well, not exactly comfortable, but smoother than we’d experienced since we entered Mexico. It allowed us the discovery that sea swells are not bad. Emma Jo just goes up one side and down the other, and when the swells have a period of 5 or 6 seconds, there’s a rhythm to it that our bodies can adjust to. It’s when the wind whips up a chop on top of the swells that throws the whole rhythm off and the sea beats the crap out of us.

The ride down to Belize wasn’t that bad. For the first several hours, we were in open swell, but as we headed south, we were sheltered in the lee of Turneffe Island, one of only three actual atolls in the western hemisphere. And once we turned up English Channel to ride into Belize City, the ride actually became what we had expected cruising to be – flat calm, full moon, and warm temperatures.

We anchored just across “the flats” from Fort George at about 4:30 a.m. and slept for a few hours, then moved over to the Radisson dock to begin the “clearing into the country” parade of officials and fees. The staff at the Radisson was extremely helpful in calling the officials for us, the officials were kind and efficient, and all was taken care of by about 11:00 a.m.

But – because we needed a spot for shore power, and the only working 220-amp outlet was being occupied by a charter catamaran, we had to leave the dock and anchor in the open roadstead off the point until all of the charter guests had arrived. We were told they’d be gone and we could have their space by 12:30 – it ended up being 4:30, and in spite of a sweet nature and willingness to help, the young security guard at the dock was pretty useless at helping us back into the slip and tie up. We must have been a sight – Jan was throwing lines, the young guard was watching the lines hit the dock and slip into the water, asking Jan to throw them higher, and not doing much to break a sweat. But in we got, setting several additional lines against the cold front expected that evening.

Once we were tied up, we asked each other, “when does this start to get fun?”

While there isn’t any protection from the easterly trades or the passing boat traffic, we figured the space was just fine given what we’d been through so far, and after a good night’s sleep, Ole was off at 6:00 a.m. Monday morning to fly up to Atlanta, leaving Jan and the cats at the dock until Friday.