Friday, May 22, 2009


So we're in Isla Mujeres now. We left San Pedro, Belize last Friday bound for Key West, but diverted here to avoid a potential tropical storm north of Cuba. You may notice a trend with this - on trips of more than 500 miles we're only 2 for 5 at hitting our intended destination on the first try. We're always at the mercy of weather. Still, this is a pretty nice place to be stuck for a bit - beautiful water and beaches, lots of good cheap food and drink and, miracle of miracles, good internet on the boat.

Previously on...

Lizz's last post left off right after the departure of my friend Scott and my enemy the Dengue Fever. After a couple of rough weeks Lizz and I were ready to get moving north and enjoy some of Belize along the way. With our target US-return date of June 1st looming, we wanted to try to see as much as we could. We had already decided to skip Mexico and focus on Belize, and so after fueling and watering in Placencia we set out for Belize's remote offshore atolls.

Caveat Emptor

For those of you not familiar with cruising, a cruising guide is a book that contains crucial information relevant for anyone traveling the area by boat. Information on anchoring, clearing in/out, chart details for harbors and dangers, etc. This is critical information even in places where general information is easy to come by and chart data is good - like the United States. When you're outside the country and chart data is poor, the cruising guide becomes your lifeline. Cruising guides are almost always written by cruisers who appreciate this fact, and they are generally quite good.

So it was with not a little dismay that we began to note some problems with our cruising guide to Belize. Islands were the wrong shape and size, waypoints weren't quite in the right place. Things were roughly correct, but coupled with the terrible quality of our chart data we were constantly on our toes. Unfortunately, we were about to find out just how bad the cruising guide really was.

We were headed into the Turneffe Islands, a large atoll with a fringing reef and hundreds of islands inside. Much of the atoll is too shallow for most cruising boats, but according to our cruising guide the entire southern section is navigable and can be accessed via two routes - a pass through the reef with minimum depths of 10 ft at low tide, and a channel in from the back with plenty of water for boats that draw up to 5' (Cielo draws 4'8", but we call it 5' to be safe). The text of the guide was specific, and reiterated what the chartlet showed. Conditions were moderate, so we planned to head in the reef pass and then out the back channel if conditions were rougher when we departed in a couple days.

We approached the pass in perfect light and at mid-tide, went right up the middle, yet the depths seemed a little low. The pass is only about 50 yards wide, with waves breaking on the reef on either side, so there was no room for error. Still, the guide is current and the authors claim to have sounded this pass only a year ago. Coral doesn't grow fast, so it's not like things change much during one year in this part of the world. By this point, we're past the point of no return - you can't turn a 40 ft cruising boat around in a 50 yard wide pass with breakers on either side - so we're going in one way or another. In the middle of the pass the depth sounder read 7.5', and at the bottom of the next wave Cielo hit the bottom. Not hard, just kissed it, and then we were through. No harm done to the boat, a lot of harm to my nerves, and it meant one thing for certain - we weren't going to be able to get back out this pass unless conditions were incredibly calm. We were a little shaken (remember, this is our house we're driving around out here), but not overly concerned since we knew we could go out the back channel. Or so we thought.

The next day we started heading toward the back channel. We had to cross a wide bar that our cruising guide authors insisted had 6' of water at low tide, but we couldn't find the 6'. We kept slowly nosing Cielo towards the bar, only to see the depths drop and Cielo kiss the bottom. Time after time we tried, no luck. Finally we called the folks at the lodge on the island over the VHF radio. They said, yes, you should be able to get over that bar. Just go a bit further west and you'll be fine. We tried it, and ran aground. With 25 knots of wind pushing us onto the shoal, we were stuck. The nice folks from the lodge came out with a launch to try to pull us off, no luck. We spent the rest of the day trying to get Cielo free, to no avail. The best we were able to do was punch a hole in our new dinghy while setting an anchor to keep Cielo from being driven further onto the shoal. Tired and exhausted, we finally resigned ourselves to spending the night stuck on the shoal and waiting for the next high tide in the morning.

By morning Cielo was floating free again, and we were ready to get the heck out of there. We called the nice folks at the lodge again, and they generously offered to send a launch out to guide us over the bar at high tide. As we followed the launch along the bar, they indicated we should begin our turn and head over the bar. Cielo's depth sounder strongly disagreed. I figured the folks on the launch knew this water as well as anyone, gritted my teeth, and began the turn. The depth dropped and Cielo came to a full stop, once again aground. Only this time we were even harder aground, and at high tide no less. Not good. This was going to require more drastic measures. The folks on the launch took one of our halyards (the lines that pull the sails up to the top of the mast), tied another long line to it, and then used the 200HP launch to pull Cielo down by the masthead until she was heeled so far over that we were floating and free. Lizz and I drove Cielo off the shoal at a 35 degree angle, heeled so far that the starboard side deck wash awash.

Though we were happy to be free and moving again, we weren't looking forward to spending a week or more sitting in the lagoon waiting for conditions to calm enough for us to get back out the dangerous reef pass we had come in. Fortunately for us, the folks at the lodge had different plans. While we were still heeled over at 35 degrees, they began gesturing wildly that we should turn left - over the shoal again. They proceeded to escort us, line still attached to the masthead, over the shoal and out the back channel - a distance of almost 3 miles. Cielo looked like she hadn't had her V8 in years, but it worked like a charm!

Caye Caulker

Finally free of the Turneffe Islands, we sailed back inside Belize's barrier reef and made a beeline for Caye Caulker. Still a bit gun (or ground) shy from the previous days, we found the shallow water inside the northern reef a bit nerve-wracking. We spent the majority of the 35 mile sail moving at 7 knots in water less than 7 feet deep. The water was so shallow that, at those speeds, Cielo's turbulence kicked up a trail of mud behind us that was miles long. Caye Caulker and San Pedro, a bit further north, were a welcome change after the week's adventures. Calm anchorages, easy access to stores, restaurants, and internet, and all with a relaxing pace and atmosphere. It was a great place to cap off our season before heading home to the US. Or so we thought.

Only 24 hours after leaving San Pedro headed for the US, our weather forecast became quite uncertain due to the potential tropical storm, so it turned out we wouldn't be skipping Mexico after all. After a week in Isla Mujeres and with the low pressure system safely drifting toward the US Gulf Coast, we will be leaving today to head directly to Miami. With any luck, our next post will be from lovely South Beach, our new home for a while.

Posted by: Kevin


Blogger kyle said...


I was getting nervous reading that here at my desk on dry ground... I can't imagine how nerve-wracking that must have been. Can't wait to see Lizz in a few days!

May 28, 2009 at 11:47 AM  

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