"Running the reef"
by Josh Adams, SAIL Magazine
Inside Belize's barrier reef, the cayes are small, flat, and tricky to explore under sail. Perfect conditions for two people on a beach cat.
Riley Dunn of Under the Sun Belize, who leads adventure charters on Hobie 18s inside Belize's barrier reef, is a former fire jumper from Colorado and a self-taught sailor. His eyes have an intense look, and his stories about the Western Caribbean, told in his country accent, are constant reminders that you shouldn't go on his trips with any expectations, because anything could happen.
The night before my wife, Sarah, and I sailed into the trade winds on one of his Hobies, Riley set the tone for the week: "What happens this week at the reef depends on how ballsy we get and what kind of adventure you have in mind." Gulp.
The next morning I felt like I was trying to swallow figure-eight knot. Staring directly into the teeth of an 18-knot easterly which appeared to be building, I wondered what I'd gotten us into. The trades off the Belize coast, though a draw for sailors, are relentless. Our boat, an aging
Hobie 18 Magnum, had logged many miles, as evidenced by the fiberglass patch jobs, dinged-up boards, tired rigging, and faded hull paint. Our destination, Tobacco Caye on Belize's barrier reef, was 15 miles upwind from Hopkins, on the mainland coast. This beach cat better get us there, I mumbled. Sarah, reserving judgment, just smiled.
Launching the cat off the beach was like a scene out of the Worrell 1000 endurance race, minus the crashing waves. We were taught the proper technique by Riley: launch the boat off the sand, trim the jib, put one crewmember on board, shove the boat onto starboard tack, jump on the windward hull, drop a daggerboard, crank in the mainsheet, lower the rudders, and go like mad. It wasn't pretty, but we got the job done, narrowly missing a piling after slipping to leeward several boatlengths. Within minutes both Sarah and I were hanging from trapeze wires, watching mainland Belize fade into the west. A few tacks later we were blasting along and flying the windward hull. Warm water sprayed our faces; the morning sun was hot. I relaxed as I realized that this was the adventure we had signed up for.
We stayed only two nights in Hopkins-one on each end of our 7-day adventure, enough time to get the boats and our gear sorted and enjoy some of the local food. The rest of our time we explored the cayes near the reef. We poked into thin-water coves, took the boats outside the reef to sail in the waves, beached the boats for lunch breaks, and snorkeled in Belize's fish-rich waters. Each evening we retired to Tobacco Caye to eat a fresh-caught dinner, recount the day's events, and rest in a simple cabana.
In the area we sailed, in the southern part of Belize's Inner Channel, the cayes are very small and numerous. Major weather dramatically rearranges the sand and coral beaches, but healthy Caribbean vegetation-thanks to minimal development-keeps the cayes in good shape; the shade is also key for surviving the hot sun. The water around most cayes is very shallow, making it difficult for large cruisers to get in close; for this reason catamarans are the standard charterboats. The beach cat allowed us to sail along the shoreline without worrying about hazards; the ease of handling the boat encouraged us to stop and explore often. We navigated by eye, without compasses, and only Sarah and I carried a chart. Riley, sailing with his wife, Dorothy, on a Hobie 18, was our guide each day, and his intimate knowledge of this area relieved us of the challenge of navigation.
Sailing to Tobacco, a small island located at one of many passes through the barrier reef, took us 3 1/2 hours. Sarah and I spent most of that time hanging from the wires, yawping and yeehahing as we jetted over turquoise water. We were protected from the sun by lightweight shirts, wide-brim hats, and sunblock and had spare gear and water stowed in a drybag lashed to the base of the mast. Our fleet of three Hobies-including Riley and Dorothy's 18 and a Hobie 16 sailed by local sailor/ex-pat Steve and a jovial 34-year-old Honduran named Jovani- zigzagged through the uninhabited Twin Cayes, following simple rules of eyeball navigation: steer toward green water and away from brown. Riley's route included a final leg from South Water Caye to Tobacco-3 miles of blast-reaching over flat water in the lee of the barrier reef. "Run the reef," he instructed.
Sea swells crashed along the windward side of the reef. We set up on starboard tack less than 100 feet to leeward, where coral (white) meets sand (tan). The tan/white line, we were told, was our path to Tobacco; stay on the dark side of the line. Off we went.
The Hobie 18 Magnum has aluminum wings attached to the rail of each hull. You can sit on the main tramp, the wings' small tramps, or, as we did, use the wings to hike farther outboard when hooked on the trapezes. The tiller extended to a total length of roughly 10 feet, and we needed very bit of it while sailing in
the strong winds. We raced down the reef on a beam reach, our bodies stretched as far aft and outboard as we could on the wing and occasionally submerged the leeward hull at speed. The buzz of this ride came from sailing so close to one of Belize's most prominent geographical features, knowing how easy it would be to wipe out in the next puff to blow over the reef.
We tucked into the lee of Tobacco, then beached the boats alongside a thatch-roofed bar. How convenient-our group of six celebrated our hard work on the water with a round of Belikin, the local beer. The caye's 5 acres of land harbors six hotels-clusters of small cabanas, with a main bar/restaurant at each establishment-a dive base, and 21 year-round residents. There are no fences separating homes and hotels; property lines are marked by barely visible cement
posts. In Belize electricity is a luxury and is never a sure thing. The power comes from Mexico, and off and on during the dry season, which runs from November to April, Mexico conserves energy by shutting Belize down at night. Generators provide power on the cayes. Water is easy to come by in the wet season; clever drainage systems catch and store it. In the dry season it gets expensive. When the well runs dry, boats deliver nonpotable water at $1 a gallon.
Life on Tobacco is a team effort. "We have our disputes," explained Raymond Stephen, who runs Ocean's Edge Lodge, where we stayed. "We deal with them and move on." Residents cope on their own with broken generators, disabled boat engines, failed water pumps, and even injuries. Stephen is the only electrician on the island, and he often lends out his services. Many of the islanders fish outside the reef and sell their catch to the hotels on Tobacco and neighboring cayes. Others move about at a leisurely pace and relax alone or in groups; often kids and adults huddle around the TV-equipped cabanas to watch movies.
They work together to prevent storm damage, and when big storms do hit, sometimes destroying the thin-walled buildings, they rebuild. A graphic of 1998's Hurricane Mitch hangs on a wall at Ocean's Edge as an eerie reminder of how vulnerable the cayes are to such powerful storms. Mitch was the last major storm to hit Tobacco, after which only Ocean's Edge had buildings that were still standing.
Each day at breakfast we mapped out a trip on the chart. At South Water Caye we found the area's best snorkeling and swam with barracuda, ballyhoo, and parrotfish. We sailed the cats to South Water, located at the next pass in the reef south of Tobacco, via the "deep blue," as Riley liked to describe the water outside the reef. The offshore swell added a new dimension to the mostly flat-water sailing we had been experiencing. Surfing waves was a gas, even though we knew we were always just one false step from flipping or, worse, parking the boat on the reef.
We explored Man-O'-War Caye, a few miles west of Tobacco, where hundreds of man-o'-war birds hover above the trees for hours on end. Lesson learned there: Watch the birds from the windward side of the island, away from their pungent smell. The following day I sailed the Hobie solo just for kicks to Sandfly Caye and back-a 10-mile high-speed dash that taught me why two crew
are ideal on the 18.
We hooked a few snapper during our final night on Tobacco and ate another delicious meal; during the week Brendalee Stephen's home-cooked meals included barracuda, rockfish, snapper, watermelon, coconut desserts, and papaya.
Our last sail was the best. It was a hot, hot Caribbean day, and the trades lacked their usual muscle. The boat was easy to handle on the long run home. In a flash we passed an American ketch cruising in the same direction at about half our speed. We spotted a flying ballyhoo and gazed at the Maya Mountains far off to the west; ground fires dotted the landscape. Sarah and I co-steered, and then she retired to the windward (sunny) rack to soak in the sun one last time.
At peace on her perch, Sarah was following a bit of advice we received while departing Tobacco. A local man helped us launch our boat. We thanked him, and he replied, "No problem. Don't worry about nothing."
UNDER THE SUN BELIZE - No application required; some small-boat experience recommended.
Trip duration: 8 days; customized trips available. Price: $2200 p.p.
www.underthesunbelize.com, tel. 970-270-3556