What It Was Like to Sail the Belize Reef for Two Weeks (Without Knowing How to Sail)

I’d spent two weeks in Rio Dulce, the yachting capital of Guatemala, and all I wanted to do was get out.

Masha, the Russian-Canadian kiteboarder, agreed. "I feel so claustrophobic there," she said. Decked out in mesh anti-mosquito pants, she helped her boyfriend, Jim, strike sail on his 28-foot Beneteau named Chakra. "And I think I’m coming down with Zika."

For the cost of a bottle of Zacapa, they'd invited me for a day sail up to the Garifuna town of Livingston. Now, as we neared the coast, the open Caribbean glittered before us -- so different from the murky, effluvial waters of the Dulce. There, the only way to get around was by dinghy and panga, and I felt like a sucker for hoofing it along dirt roads from one marina to the next, over the bridge and back again, trying to find someone -- anyone -- to take me away.

I’d come to Rio Dulce to write about Salt Assault, a biannual conference that aims to teach a ragtag bunch of backpackers, hippies, and gutter punks how to sail. But after a week of yacht parties and reefing workshops, punctuated by too many street pupusas and bottles of Gallo, my weak sailing skills -- not to mention, my weak stomach -- hadn’t impressed anyone enough to bring me on board long-term. It was almost Easter and rich, rowdy Guatemalans were starting to pour in from the city. All the hippies had hitchhiked down to Costa Rica for their Rainbow Gathering, and every day, catamarans were heading north to Belize and south to Honduras. It was time to move on -- I just had to figure out how.

"We’re heading to the reef," said Masha, as she tidied the mainsail line. She was fresh out of a sailing school in Toronto -- one that had taught her enough to impress Jim, an amiable, slightly paranoid Alabamian with a bleach-blond ponytail, a shotgun in his cabin, and a fondness for Cuban cigars. Sapodilla Cayes, Ranguana Caye, Tobacco Caye, Ambergris Caye -- she closed her eyes rhapsodically and ticked them off on her fingers one by one. "It’s about 200 private islands. There’s so much conch that you can have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And no mangroves." Tangled mangrove roots meant mosquitoes, and Masha was as paranoid about getting some horrific tropical disease as Jim was about small-time pirates stealing the outboard off his dinghy. Rio Dulce, some of the oldsters confided, was where boats (and sailors) go to die. 

It was enough to convince me to get out while I could. As we motored into the dock at Livingston, entrepreneurial young men offered to watch our boat for a price. The idea of having to take a panga back to dusty Rio Dulce, with its bad coffee and cars zooming over the bridge all night, made me want to sob. It was now or never.

"Masha, I’ve got a proposition for you," I said.

I’d left all my gear back at my hotel, but I was delighted to take a panga back to Rio Dulce if it meant I wouldn’t have to ever again. Two hours later, I was ensconced under an Alabama Crimson Tide blanket in my own private cabin on the Beneteau, all for the cost of a small monetary contribution that Jim hadn’t even asked for yet. I was officially going to Belize. I slathered coconut oil over my already-baked skin as Jim and Masha pored over Freya Rauscher's "Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast."

"Next stop? Sapodilla Cayes," he announced. "No mangroves," he said before Masha could even open her mouth.

He lied. As it turned out, Belize has plenty of mangroves. But also boasts lots of other things, including coral islands scattered like a bag of tiny gems. The Sapodillas, which took about a day's worth of sailing north of Rio Dulce, are part of a marine preserve. Nearby, Lime Caye is privately owned by the Garbutts, Belize’s answer to the royal family (besides the actual royal family, who head up the nation).

But our destination was still ahead of us. The Chakra was small enough that Masha and Jim could sail it just fine without my help, so they sent me to the bow to keep a lookout as we snaked north. We navigated our way through masses of coral so huge that we could hear them scraping the hull of the boat. In fact, the depths changed so suddenly that Jim’s electronic navigation system proved useless. I practically saw the sweat running down his face as he watched his depth finders, certain we were about to run aground. But our panic dissipated as we approached Ranguana Caye.

When we arrived, a guide was herding the last handful of tourists into a panga for the trip back to Placencia, and pelicans, sooty shearwaters, and noddies congregated noisily, waiting for fish scraps. And in case you ever wondered where frigatebirds nest, the answer is Ranguana Caye. Their bodies drooped on the palms like low-hanging fruit. 

Brand-new kayaks and paddle boards were stacked in front of a bar, and $10 BZ (per person) got us full use of them for as long as we were anchored. Another $20 got us an authentic Belize breakfast -- eggs, beans, and deep-fried masterpieces known as fry jacks -- cooked up by Britney and Ronald, two of the friendliest employees I’d ever met. 

On the reef, Masha, the self-proclaimed paddle board queen, screamed at me to use my abs, while Jim took Britney and Ronald out in the dinghy to fish crevalle jack and yellowtail, which Britney later fried up in the island’s tiny kitchen. That night, we had our first taste of Belizean lager -- Belikin for Jim and Masha and Lighthouse for me. 

"Lighthouse? That’s for lightweights!" scoffed Britney. 

By 10 p.m., Ranguana was deserted -- no one in the cabanas, no noddies circling overhead. The Chakra's green anchor light blinked at us as the sun sank low. Out on the beach, feet and beers buried in the cool sand, we watched the stars of the Andromeda Galaxy turn purple.

The next day, Jim lent me his little brother’s comically undersized snorkeling gear. While I swam with stingrays and barracuda, he went on the hunt for conch. Although I had eaten the legendary sea snail, I hadn’t witnessed it being extracted from its spiral shell. "I almost hate catching these guys," Jim lamented as we feasted on deep-fried conch as well as Masha’s conch ceviche, which was marinated in lime juice. "They always look so alarmed."

Throughout many parts of the Caribbean, the glossy pink conch shell is polished and hawked to tourists as a rarity. In fact, the conch is overfished in much of the Caribbean. And yet, in Belize, entire islands are built up over great garbage dumps formed from desiccated remnants of past cookouts. 

We spent Easter on Tobacco Caye, drinking panty rippers (the local cocktail that's made with coconut rum and pineapple juice) and using the Wi-Fi at Reef’s End Lodge. This was after we stopped by a nearby mangrove caye to rake in a bushel of coconuts for later (Masha stayed in the boat). With six permanent homes, a cluster of holiday cabanas, and a scientific research station all huddled together on an island smaller than a city block, Tobacco Caye was just like Ranguana, but more crowded. A queenly osprey glowered down at us from her giant stick nest that sat atop the remains of a hurricane-damaged stilt house. Two local kids came on a rowboat to help Masha cook the chicken that she’d bought from them. What they really wanted, however, was a ride back to shore in the dinghy. It was no joke -- motors were hard to come by around here.

It was then that we realized that Jim’s refrigerator had busted overnight and was leaking water all over the cabin. The vegetables were spoiled and none of us were excited about the idea of having to live on Cheerios and Top Ramen for the next week. On top of that, Masha was starting to miss her kiteboard. We had to find a place to live for a while. Enter: Caye Caulker. 

It’s crowded, dusty, and utterly beach-free, but with daily ferries running from Ambergris Caye and Belize City for around $20 USD, every backpacker on the Gringo Trail ends up here eventually. Some never leave. As Masha used her kiteboard to launch off the narrow split cleaving the island in two, Jim zoomed me and some new friends beyond the horizon. 

We weren’t allowed to snorkel where the local guides plied their trade, so we went further, to what seemed almost like the end of Belize and its massive blue reef wall. Here, the taunting lionfish and snout of a moray eel stared at me from the murk, unblinking. 

Gradually, while waiting for Jim's special delivery, we became caught in a kind of "Groundhog Day" time warp. First, we went to the post office. Then, we followed the crowds from the Lazy Lizard (the designated day bar) to the Barrier Reef Sports Bar to the I&I Reggae Bar. Each day, we saw the same dogs licking their flea-bitten haunches on sawdust floors, the same folks playing poker and singing along to Jimmy Buffett covers, the same kitesurfers and windsurfers, the same guys trying to sell cocaine, and the same hawkers on the main drag, offering a three-course meal and drink for $15 BZ. 

Our new crew included Canadian kitesurfers, a New England yachtie moonlighting as a jewelry designer, a Panamanian would-be ballplayer, and a D.C. filmmaker who let us adopt his Wi-Fi for the week. 

"What did we do to deserve this?" Jim asked while relaxing on an inflatable raft behind the Chakra. The waters were as clear, shallow, and turquoise as a backyard pool.

"Don't ask me," I replied, since I didn't think I'd done anything.

The next morning, I left Masha and Jim and boarded the ferry to Chetumal, Mexico. Jim had fixed the boat, so they were headed back to Ranguana. My welcome was worn out, but they sent me off in style. Just before I got on, I handed him my contribution for the trip, which added up to less than $100 USD. It felt like highway robbery compared to rescuing me from Rio Dulce, which, in retrospect, hadn't been so awful as I'd made it out to be. It had just been my restlessness talking. I thought the Chakra was my escape. But it wasn't -- not really. I didn't have to escape. I already had.

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