Just a quickie to let people know that I had a wonderful, magical trip to Belize’s outer atolls and then piled down the coast without touching land until Punta Gorda where I checked out of the country. Last night I arrived in Guatemala’s astonishingly beautiful Rio Dulce where I am attending a DIY anarchist sailing convention and also hope to make a new sail. Desesperado continues to amaze me with his performance. Right now I am rushed as usual but I will make a fuller report when the opportunity presents itself: I expect to be here for at least three weeks.
The weather, that is. It’s Unbelizable. (Other local T-shirts slogans include “You’d better Belize it”, “Dive Belize”, “Party Belize” and the rather cumbersome ” I Heart Manatees in Belize at Swallow Caye”).
I know I go on’about the weather a lot but as a sailor – and an Englishman – it is a subject dear to my heart. It is blowing again; in fact it never stopped. Now about five months of these howling winds from the north and east, pinning me in one spot for days and days waiting for the brief lulls in between for a chance to move on, but when the lull actually arrives I tend to think “Oh wouldn’t it be nice just to go for a nice relaxing sail outside the reef and catch a fish and maybe take so-and-so along and have a lovely day in paradise whilst the weather lasts”. So I do that and fail to move on and I am painfully aware that this blog is stagnating as a result.
At least the old fishermen say that this weather is freakish, which makes me hope it will break soon.
I am back in Caye Caulker. As I write it is blowing about 25 knots, raining and cold and there will be no sailing for me today. I took a young couple out to Shallow Caye dodging black stormlets yesterday and though we didn’t see the sun or catch any fish it wasn’t too bad. Having other people along for ballast stops me from capsizing and is much more enjoyable than sailing alone, but for a long time now it has had to be done between squalls or not at all.
All together I spent about a month on Samphire with Paul and Twyla, doing projects at anchor in Caye Caulker then the last ten days or so out at the Turneffe Islands. After deciding to go it took us three days of waiting for the winds to ease a bit before we dared to brave the reef pass, then they died so fully that we had to motorsail out to the islands. We had a marvellous time, scuba diving and snorkeling over fabulous fairy gardens of coral, catching and eating fish, drinking rum and rescuing stranded fishermen. When our lure caught a fish we’d squirt alcohol upon its gills which would kill it within two seconds. We salted and dried some fish. Dolphins played under the bow on the leg between Caye Bokel and Calabash Caye, and at Calabash Caye we met with Eric the head researcher at the marine biology station who was studying dolphin communication though we had no success finding more dolphins with him. Did you know that dolphins have prehensile penises? That two males will separate a female from the pack and by swimming on either side of her keep her prisoner until she mates with them? That each dolphin has a unique identifying call sign that is related to the call signs of the rest of the group, and carries other information about which the researchers are still a bit vague? That they sleep one side of their brains at a time, with the eye opposite the awake side open?
We also gathered and ate conch (pronounced “conk”) and lobsters. Paul’s play on words: “Conch lovers all”. Twyla, a professional environmental filmaker and marine photographer from way back, worked on mastering her big new camera housing and was rewarded when she captured some exquisite world-class footage of three trumpetfish (long thin affairs something like stretched-out seahorses) interacting amongst coral. This underwater filming is not easy; in addition to the rigors of diving there are problems with surging currents, contaminants in the water, light and color, and we are awed by her achievment. We thought better of making any night dives after learning that local crocodiles up to 4 meters hunt on the reef at night, so instead we’d swung at anchor, far from the lights of town, gazing up at the brilliant stars.
Twyla is cool. She washes her hair with dish detergent.
There is hope for this blog now for since writing that last bit I have moved on. Paul and Twyla dropped me in Belize City and I took a water taxi back to Caye Caulker but after a few days the island began to lose its appeal. I had bags under my eyes from chronic insomnia and too many rum punches, and a rotten cold. The place had an apparent influx of idiots and though the Lazy Lizard Bar at the Split is still kind of cool, I started to feel out of place. The final straw came when I overheard a young guy singing a song which to me epitomized the dumb demented jabbering awfulness of Belizean music (even though it is not even a Belizean song nor is it even as bad as the local stuff), a song which aboard Samphire Paul and Twyla and I would sing in mockery and use as a punchbag, only this young guy was singing it in all seriousness. It goes:
Girl I’m gonna make you sweat,
Sweat ’til you can’t sweat no more,
And when you cry out,
I’m gonna push it, push it some more.
This charming tune is right up there with the lyrically complex masterpiece “Let’s Do It Tonight”, the moving “Don’t Let Me Cheat on My Boyfriend”, the artistically subtle “You’ve Got to Know fo’ Fuck” and that haunting classic “I’m Fucking You Tonight”.
Anyway I’d had enough. The weather broke. I repacked Desesperado on a quiet Sunday morning and shoved off, the wind died right away and it took me an hour just to reach the next cay, Caye Chapel, a private golf resort upon which golfies may relax unafraid of any intrusion by myself for I can imagine no greater torment than to share the place with them. At least, I could imagine no such greater torment at the time but since then something has occurred; more about this later. The sea was choked with sargasso weed constantly fouling my rudder and the sun merciless, I passed the idle hours of steering attempting to read P.G. Wodehouse’s “The Mating Season” A hilarious Jeeves and Wooster story given to me by the excellent Nolan. Thanks Nolan. Occasionally I would divert to check out a floating object which would invariably turn out to be a coconut rather than the bale I was hoping for.
The dream of every fisherman here, in fact of most of the many mariners, is to find a “bale”. These are carefully wrapped free-floating packages containing what seems to be a standard unit of 30 kilos of cocaine, lost in mishaps that befall the drug gangs in their efforts to move the stuff up the coast towards the USA. It seems the bales are dropped from planes and sometimes there is no boat to pick it up. Many times along the coast of Mexico and Belize I have heard the tale “Pedro was a poor fisherman. Then he found a bale. That’s his hotel over there”. According to J. two of his friends each found bales at opposite ends of a tiny island, and now they are very happy. Another pair of guys saw garbage on a reef, upon investigation they found seven bales and are now rolling in dough and drive Hummers. So the story is quite common it seems. J. Says that it is pointless to do the right thing and turn the stuff in to the cops because they just sell it themselves. One could always burn it I guess, but come on.
I did not find a bale. I did catch a small barracuda when I turned westward towards the mainland by St Georges Cay, a nest of hoighty-toighties if ever I saw one. I’d been moving very slowly but as the sun sank I made it to a small indent in the mangroves on the west side of Mapps Cay with Swallow Cay of the above-mentioned T-shirt and manatees only a kilometer distant.
With creepy mangroves on three sides, two feet of water under my keel and a profound and lovely silence everywhere I dropped the hook and prepared for a pleasant evening but was instantly set upon by a ravening horde of sandflies. In a frenzy I threw on long trousers and a shirt and splattered repellent on my remaining exposed hands then attempted to light a mosquito coil only to discover to my horror that my only lighter had corroded in storage and would not light. The prospect of the next few minutes without any repelling smoke in what seemed the worst buggage of my life was terrible, and I racked my brains for some way to make smoke. Eventually I discovered that by dismantling the lighter I could scrape the remains of its flint with a knife and get the propane stove, now sadly rusted, to wheeze into life. Thus I cooked barracuda and onions in relative comfort; finding my spoon missing I ate with a chisel, for to eat with one’s hands is uncouth and not the sort of thing Bertie Wooster would stoop to. Then as the bugs further intensified I set up the Asphalt Shack and crawled inside (how I chortled once the bugs were safely excluded from my lair) and continued to read Wodehouse and laugh until I thought the boat would shake apart.
The covering for this crude shelter is a fine gauzy material that the sandflies cannot penetrate but there are always small gaps left unsealed around the frame unless I am extremely careful, in fact even if I am extremely careful. So the blighters still entered in annoying numbers. One percent of infinity is still infinity. It was a grim night. I thrashed about and listened to the mangroves critters shriek, wail, splash, gurgle, grunt and gibber. Sandflies in their thousands coated my bubble, but in the small hours it rained and thinking this would inhibit them I emerged to investigate a loud splashing, maybe a crocodile, somewhere near the boat. If these sandflies were inhibited I would sure hate to meet them when they were carefree – I sustained within 30 seconds or so perhaps 200 stinging bites, the most intense bug attack of my life (and I have long been a top menu item for insects). I dived back into the shelter and scratched for an hour and dawn finally found me exhausted and keen to leave this spot forever. This then is the torment I thought of more awful than being stuck on a golf resort – to be marooned naked in a buggy place like this.
I had hoped to pass much further south to Rendezvous Cay the previous day but the wind had failed me and I found myself within a few miles of Belize City and on the day when Samphire was due in after her charter. Belize City is rather third-world and not terribly inviting but the prospect of seeing Paul and Twyla again was irresistable. I sailed past Swallow Caye without encountering any manatees and edged near enough to the city to see that Samphire was not yet there and as I dithered about wondering what to do a couple of miles out three huge manatees surfaced beside the boat. I was of course delighted and stayed with them for a while – they seemed completely indifferent to my presence – as they fed. Such things as shunting about with manatees have become commonplace in this strange life I am leading. I am a little surprised that there are any of these docile creatures left alive because there are so many fishing boats and water taxis speeding about, plus I am told that manatee used to be a favorite Christmas dish hereabouts. Twenty minutes after I left the manatees I was amongst dolphins and shortly after that in another group of manatees. The waters around Belize City churn with marine mammals.
Samphire came in. We are going to buddy-boat out at that shining jewel in the Caribbean, Lighthouse Reef where we will be diving to film grouper spawning and may get to visit the Great Blue Hole by Pacific flying proa. I dropped my SPOT satellite tracker in the water for only a few seconds and though supposedly waterproof it died, so there will be no tracking me and no way for me to send a distress signal if badness befalls me. I cannot sail with Samphire for safety because the winds will be contrary and she will use her engine. Lighthouse Reef is a ways out there and I plan to skirt the northern edge of the Turneffe Islands or possibly cut through them if I can make it through the bogues (tidal channels) on their western side into the lagoon. I am unlikely to be online again for a couple of weeks. I am looking forward to this trip. If anyone ever had a good excuse to say “This is what it’s all about” it is me, now. This is what it’s all about.