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Day 397 - Placencia, Belize (N 16° 30.5 W 88° 21.7)
13:42 hrs - June 29th, 2008
No hurry

We've been anchored off the little village of Placencia for five days now. Nestled away on the tip of a small peninsula in southern Belize, Placencia is a sleepy fishing town but has recently, like many coastal areas in Belize, grown rapidly due to the increase in tourism. For the first time in months, Dream Time is surrounded by dozens of sail boats also at anchor. Only three are cruising boats, however, the rest are Mooring charters. Customers fly in from around the world to cruise the barrier reef and explore the tropical islands on spacious catamarans for a "once-in-a-lifetime" dream vacation. We watch them come and go from our anchorage, the decks full with bikini and speedo-clad Europeans and Americans, stereo blasting, happy girls jumping up and down on the net stretched between the hulls, drinks flowing, all the ingredients of a memorable vacation. They seem excited to be here, so much so that just the other day as another charter catamaran steamed past at full throttle, a large group of cheering tourists lined-up and enthusiastically mooned us as they drew along side.

Placencia has grown so rapidly that the local council is currently installing uniquely-named street signs. The increase in new roads and the difficulties of giving directions to lost tourists, "turn left at the palm tree" prompted the village to identify the streets with names that "embody the personality and character of the town". Although, it's impossible to get lost here. There's one paved main road that leads through the center of town and ends at the fishing dock and a popular mile-long sidewalk that winds it's way parallel to the beach, that reportedly took 30 years to complete. There's a relaxed pace here, no one is in a hurry. In fact, a recent article in the local newspaper regarding the new street signs read, "after years of debates, proposals and meetings, the Placencia street signs are finally being installed." Years!

We were lucky to be in Placencia to celebrate their 10th annual Lobsterfest this weekend. Even though Southern Highway, the only road leading to Placencia from Belize City is still impassable as large portions were swept away during tropical storm Arthur, the locals celebrated the beginning of lobster season with great enthusiasm. They had all the usual Lobsterfest events, karaoke competitions, a steel drum band, a fishing tournament, tug-of-war and even a traditional tuna toss (picture an Olympic discus throwing event only with a giant wooden fish). Saturday night ended with a very long firework display. Not because there were lots of fireworks, but rather because of the long delay between each explosion. More than once the crowd turned to walk away, only to be startled by another delayed detonation. I can only guess that the fireworks were ignited the old fashioned way, with a match, which apparently is no easy task in 20-knot trade winds! Either that, or like everything else here, they just weren't in a hurry.

We're only a day sail away from Punta Gorda, our last port-of-call in Belize, and then just a short three hours sail across the Bay of Honduras to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. We're not sure how long we'll stay here, but we're in no hurry to leave.




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Day 391 - South Water Cay, Belize (N 16° 49.1 W 88° 04.8)
10:38 hrs - June 23rd, 2008
It's a jungle out there

We've spent the last week exploring the idyllic, isolated islands along the barrier reef of southern Belize. Each island is a little paradise, framed with white sand, shaded by 80' palm trees and surrounded by crystal clear waters. But even here, in paradise, we have our little problems.

Anyone who knows me understands that I like things to be organized. Catherine and I go to great lengths to keep Dream Time, our home, clean, neat and in perfect working order. So when we saw a giant cockroach scuttle across the cabin floor one evening during movie night, we had to take immediate action. After the usual flurry of frantic activity you would expect upon seeing one of these vile insects, I sprung into action to kill the little bastard. With a sheet of kitchen paper in hand, I quickly pinned him to the ground and crushed the life out of him, with great relish I might add. When I removed the paper to view the slaughtered bug, it jumped up, shook itself as if to say, "you'll have to be better than that gringo" and ran, faster than any insect I've ever seen before, and seemed to disappear through a solid wall of teak. I'm ashamed to say we have a bug problem!

Now, these aren't the kind of bugs we're used to in New York, these are a whole different breed of giant super bugs that would eat our bugs back home for snacks. These are Belizean bugs, to be exact we think they are Cucumber Beach Marina bugs. How do we know? Let me explain. As I mentioned, Dream Time is a tightly run little ship, nothing comes on board without first going through a full inspection. Groceries are washed outside, cardboard is never allowed on the boat (bugs lay eggs in cardboard), all food, even unopened tins are in zip lock bags, all hatches and companionways are screened and the cabin is immaculate - swept, polished and scrubbed routinely. As we usually anchor a few hundred yards from shore, and as Cucumber Beach was the last marina we were tied-up to a dock, and shortly thereafter sighted our first bug, it seems they boarded us using our docklines.

We've had two more incidents since, both I'm happy to report have ended unfavorably for our little stowaways. But now we're on edge. Our eyes dart around nervously at night at the slightest movement or shadow. We fantasize that perhaps we got them all, but we both know better. Where there's one, there's more. A fellow cruiser we recently met , also Rio Dulce bound, explained how upon returning to his boat last year after exploring Guatemala for a few weeks, found his cabin to be overrun with creepy-crawlies. "You're in the jungle, man" he shrugged, "Trust me, it's going to get a lot worse."

He may be right, but not wanting to resign ourselves to losing this battle quite yet, we have purchased an arsenal of sprays, coils, traps and as a last resort, when all else fails, bombs. Cup size canisters that explode in a little mushroom cloud of noxious gas and chemicals that the packaging claims will "fumigate the whole room, flushing bugs out and killing them on contact." This is war!




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Day 385 - Belize City, Belize (N 17° 28.3 W 88° 14.9)
10:15 hrs - June 17th, 2008
Believe in Belize

Our first experiences of Belize in San Pedro and Caye Caulker were idyllic tropical reef islands with all the exquisite beauty of one of the world’s most beautiful secrets (well that, and tropical storm Arthur, Yikes!) but I was surprised that I had heard so little about this clearly lovely place? I knew almost nothing about Belize other than its reputation for spectacular diving and snorkeling.  So I was looking forward to sailing south along the coast to find out what else there was to discover. 

Next on our itinerary was Belize City. We had been advised by other cruisers to avoid Belize City completely because of the reported crime rates, but having lived in New York with all its idiosyncrasies, for over 10 years and clearly much the better for it, we weren’t going to be put off, and so off we went.
We pulled into Cucumber Beach Marina just south of the city and got ready to find out what all the
talk was about. The marina was busy and we quickly met a bunch of other cruisers to get the
scoop on things to do. 

We made our way into the city and wandered around the small but busy streets stopping along the way for cake and fruit and ended up sitting on the quay side for the rest of the afternoon chatting to a very animated 7 year old, who was the son of one of the fisherman and watching boats coming and going or getting ready to go out for a night of fishing, everyone we met was friendly and welcoming, and although there is clearly an issue with poverty in parts of the city, it is a city busy growing and improving itself day by day.  Also a couple of unexpected treats for us were 1; the primary language here is English, yippee, a brief respite from our Spanish lessons! and 2; the Queen of England is on the money here! So we felt right at home. 

Our next outing was to go “cave tubing”, so we drove inland for an hour to a place where you go for a long walk through mosquito infested forest and jungle with an inner tube, a headlamp and a guide who helpfully points out all the poisonous trees, and their corresponding antidote plants, he also picks bananas right off the trees when you get hungry and then when you get to the river, he shows you how to safely navigate and maneuver yourself, and your tube, through the mini rapids and crystal encrusted caves. It was great fun and the caves were really spectacular. And the best part, we had the place to ourselves, we managed to pick the perfect day, just the guide and us.  On days when the cruise ships come in, usually once a week, there can be hundreds of people in there all at once, probably more than a little noisy with everyone yelling for an echo! 

And then we came to today. Now almost the entire trip so far has been a surprise on some level or other and so today I guess was really no exception, but to tell you that today on our little boat we had the reigning Miss Universe Belize (Tanisha Vernon) , the reigning Miss Lobserfest (Elizabeth Canul) and 5 Caye Caulker beauty pageant contestants (Candy Badillo, Shehady Chan, Mari-Carmen Chi, Marcely Magana, Nikita Marin), plus Belize newspaper, radio and TV reporters, is undoubtedly a first even for us.  This all came about through an American friend we met in Caye Caulker, Nick Maznek, one of the most upbeat and positive people we have met, who intrigued by our trip and adventures, saw an opportunity to gather like minded people together to share stories and dreams, and to encourage and inspire young Belizean people to follow their dreams. There were photo shoots, discussions and interviews and the girls were all a wonderful representation of what Belize really is, young beautiful and full of hope.

Believe in Belize!


     

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Day 377 - Caye Caulker, Belize (N 17° 45.1 W 88° 01.8)
11:06 hrs - June 8th, 2008
It's a small world

"Hey Mon!" I thought it was just another friendly local welcoming us to the little island of Caye Caulker, but after a four-stage handshake (regular shake followed by a thumb grab, a finger grip and ending with a forward knuckle punch) I realized it was our buddy Lewis from San Pedro, which promoted a second round of loud cheers and an energetic, sloppy man-hug with lots of hard back slapping. Lewis is the crazy kayaker who I helped salvage his cushions, and as Catherine would have you believe, his life, during a lull in tropical storm Arthur. He's having a few days R&R while his boat is being repaired.

It's easy to see why he would come here. Caye Caulker is a small island about 12 miles south of Ambergris Cay. It's only 5 miles long and a mile wide and unlike San Pedro, which is a bustling city in comparison, Caye Caulker has a population of only 1,800 and is relaxed, mellow and just a little funky. Tourism is steadily increasing here, but the streets are still white sand, hardly anyone wears shoes and as the island council reportedly restricts buildings over 37', it seems the island will hopefully remain a little paradise. Backpackers come here for its laid back vibe, cheap accommodation and local charm. Days are spent lounging in hammocks reading, strolling up and down Front or Back Street, drinking Belikin beer or bobbing around in the crystal clear water that surrounds the island.

We've been here for four days, enjoying a roll-free anchorage in a cove on the western side of the island, catching-up on some lost sleep. We don't know how long we'll stay, probably just a few more days before heading south to Belize City. However, it's not difficult to imagine happily spending a few months here. Caye Caulker feels so remote, cut off from the rest of the world, and I think that's just the way they like it.



   

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Day 368 - San Pedro, Belize (N 17° 54.8 W 87° 57.7)
11:38 hrs - June 2nd, 2008
Tropical storm Arthur

Neville and I have just experienced (and are still experiencing) Tropical Storm Arthur.  Formerly a Pacific storm, taking forecasters by surprise, Tropical Storm Alma moved across Mexico into the Atlantic becoming the Atlantic's first storm of the season Tropical Storm Arthur our first significant storm since leaving New York.  For 3 or 4 days we had been having heavy rain and 20–25 knot winds which had been forecasted, and we were safely and securely anchored for it, but as days went by things were gradually getting worse, and by last night we reached a storm level that was new to both of us.  

We get weather forecasts every day by SSB and or satellite but the GRIB 7 day forecast that we got the day before predicted a few days of 20-25 knot SE wind from an expected tropical wave so when the wind intensified and shifted to the north we were surprised and tried to get another forecast to help us understand what was happening, but the rapidly deteriorating conditions made it impossible to get a clear signal from either our SSB or satellite and as we couldn’t leave the boat, we had to sit tight and wait.  We managed to catch a local guy speeding past in his skiff and asked if he knew what was happening and he told us that our weather was actually now a tropical storm! and he was helping
boats relocate from beach docks as the coming weather would probably tear them off or destroy
the docks or both. 

We had two anchors set (a 45lb. and a 60lb.) and were ready for the weather but our new concern was now the boats around us and how well they were anchored, and whether they could come loose and drag into us.  The thought of an impact in that kind of weather, or the chance that they could snag our anchors on their way by and set us loose, or get tangled in our anchor lines didn’t help.  The center of the storm actually passed us about 10 miles away. Of the 8 boats anchored here last night 1 boat came loose and was washed ashore, 4 dragged anchor and had to re anchor in impossible conditions, and the 3 left, of which we were one, somehow managed to stay put in the 45-50 knot winds, driving rain, deafening thunder and explosive lighting that went on all night.  The whole island (Ambergris Caye) lost all power from the many lighting strikes that hit it, and on the mainland there was massive flooding that the local news confirmed cost 7 lives. 

Our night was spent in the cockpit in our wet weather gear and life vests watching the storm unfold in front of us.  We watched helplessly as we saw different boats begin to drag and felt powerless as we watched them frantically re anchor over and over again till they got a secure holding, some for hours.
As the wind increased so did the rain and then the lightning started. 

I have never seen lightning that extreme or continuous, it struck all around the boat and the closest came within 50 ft. of us, that’s the closest I ever want to come to lightning again.  It struck the island so many times, at least 3 times hitting somewhere that created explosions of green and yellow sparks, the island lost power entirely by morning.  Even when the storm finally moved away the huge crashes of relentless thunder carried on for hours. 

By daylight the wind had settled down to 30-35 knots but was still very uncomfortable, so we were both astonished when we saw a man on a kayak way offshore with only a stick for a paddle trying to make his way out to pick up floating cushions! Neville immediately got in the dinghy and motored out to him, and towed him ashore.  It turned out his boat had sunk and he was desperately trying to salvage anything he could as it was all he had! I’m certain that if Neville hadn’t gone to get him, the wind and weather would have taken him away for sure. 

As the morning progressed we started to notice all the effects of the storm around us like the broken beach docks, the 48 ft. ketch washed ashore on the beach, the boats that dragged now all in new positions and an island with no electricity.  But now we needed to get a new forecast, and we were still unable to get an adequate SSB or satellite signal so we were extremely relieved when we got a cell phone signal and were able to call Hart, a friend (and pilot) in Florida who was able (fabulously) to give us an up to the minute report on the storm and an accurate forecast for the next few days.  Three cheers Hart, we owe you! 

Now we are past the worst of the storm, are happy to report that Dream Time and her crew have weathered their first big storm brilliantly and without incident, and additionally with new and valuable storm experience which I hope we don’t need to call on any of it any time soon!  Wish us luck!

Dream Time: Replaced portion of lazy jacks due to chaffing against main halyard. Replaced flogged-out Belizean courtesy flag!



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Day 367 - San Pedro, Belize (N 17° 54.8 W 87° 57.7)
11:31 hrs - June 1st, 2008
Happy anniversary!

I have good news and bad news; The good news is, we haven't moved. The bad news is... we haven't moved! (See yesterday's blog) Today's GRIB forecast calls for another full week of rain, gusty 25 - 40 knot winds and severe thunderstorms. Both anchors are still gripping the limestone bottom and Dream Time is battened down against the persistent rain, but we're beginning to get cabin fever - literally! This is now our fourth day onboard. The strong winds and driving rain from tropical storm Arthur, passing just a stones throw away to our north, have forced us to remain below in the cabin where the temperature
is a clammy 84 degrees.

Today is our one year anniversary, it seems a little ironic that it's also the first day of hurricane season and we're being blown around by a tropical storm. At any rate, we've sailed a long way since we left New York - 2918 nautical miles to be exact (3,355 statute miles). Our progress, however, has been slow, even by cruising standards. So slow in fact that I was forced to change the scale of our home page radar map and even had to reduce the size of the 'location dots' because, as one reader so delicately put it, "it doesn't even look like you're moving!" Still, even with our leisurely progress, Dream Time is now anchored in Belize!

The thing is, now hurricane season has begun we may have to speed things up just a little. Although the threat of hurricanes in June is low, and based on past occurrences Belize can expect a hurricane only once every 10 years, erring on the side of caution, as always, Dream Time will make a little more progress south. The sanctuary of the Rio Dulce is 130 nautical miles away, only two days if we need to find shelter quickly. But before we head into the jungles of eastern Guatemala to wait-out the season, we'd like to spend as much time in Belize as we can.

We've learned a lot since we left our "old lives" behind. A year ago, for example, the thought of dropping two anchors, diving to set them by hand into a limestone seabed to wait-out a tropical storm would have been the stuff of adventure articles I'd read in my monthly Cruising World magazines, certainly not something that I could ever imagine doing. Yet here we are, anchored off Ambergris Cay, behind a barrier reef during a tropical storm and casually going about our day-to-day chores. So, while we haven't traveled quite as far as we thought we would have by now, we've come an awful long way.