Saturday, February 26, 2011

Random Thoughts from Cucumber Beach Marina - Belize

XO Checking the Approach to Cucumber Beach
1.  Cucumber Beach Marina is about 5 miles south of Belize City.  In the 1950's it was built to export cucumbers, hence the name.  It didn't work out, as did several other ideas.  Today it is a very nice marina - mostly commerical and government craft.  It is a much better stop for fuel, water, and to visit downtown Belize City than the docks at the city themselves.  The downtown docks are quite exposed to the weather.
2.  The VHF channel 16 traffic included "Warship 44" in a variety of clearly American dialects.  Warship 44 turned out to be the USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) on an exercise and port visit to Belize.  An LSD is a "Landing Ship Dock."  In particular the Gunston Hall is designed to carry four LCAC's (Landing Craft Air Cushion) in its well deck.  One of the LCAC's was ferrying crew to shore and decided to make a close pass of Reboot and Hobo II on our transit from the Drowned Cays.

Belize Port Authority Boat
3.  There has been quite a bit of traffic on the morning  HF cruisers net about the costs for entering Belize.  Until recently it has been very inexpensive.  Recent boaters have been charged several hundred dollars by the Port Captains of the various Belize ports.  There has been some belief that these were really rip offs by the local officials rather than legitimate fees.  When I checked in I did not pay the Port Captain fee.  However when I arrived at Cucumber I was approached for my paperwork including a receipt for the port captain's fee. Since I did not have one I was charged the fee.  However, the local gentleman showed me the memo from the Port Authority.  Apparently these are new fees just instituted a couple of weeks ago hence the confusion.  It is unfortunate that Belize has become yet another Caribbean country that is creating even more disincentives for cruisers to visit.  What is particularly hillarious is that $30 BZ of the fee is for "navigation aids."  The following picture is a standard "Belize Navigation Aid."
Belize Navigation Aid

Note the clever use of old T-shirts to distinguish this mark.  Other versions include bleach bottles, white T-shirts, white sticks, etc.  I have already mentioned in the blog that the charts are totally useless.  The general shapes of things are fine but improperly located and there are no depth soundings.  In North Belize this is a real issue as much of the water is 8 feet or less deep.

4.  When I left Milwaukee soon after the current recession hit (depression?) I commented that with the exception of Lake St. Clair (that was filled with laid off auto workers drawing pay to fish) most of the marinas were quite empty.  The same seems to be true for the "Mayan Riviera."  In both Mexico and now in Belize the resorts, beaches, ferries, etc. are empty.  And this is high season.  The economy is really hurting.

Lifeguard Stand
5.  This is a pretty place and quite inexpensive for a marina.  It has a good restaurant that actually puts alcohol in their drinks.  Actually having alcohol does not seem to be the norm in the various "tourist" watering holes we have seen on our way down.  It is quite hot here and I intend to go swimming in the outdoor pool tomorrow.  I have been swimming off Reboot just about every day but the water in the marina is not particularly clean.

More to follow later ...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cay Caulker (sometimes)

Ah, my kind of place.

We left San Pedro and ran about 10NM south inside the reef to Cay Caulker.  Of course I could not find it on the big chart.  You know, the useless one.  That is because it is called Cay Corker on the printed chart and also the electronic chart.

We are in the eastern trades.  It blows 15 to 20 every day, day in and day out. Unless of course you are struggling with a case of food poisoning and wondering  how well your anchor is set.  Then it gusts to 30 at 4 AM while you are puking over the side.

The good news is that we have found the "secret button" on Jim's M802 marine radio.  Hopefully we will now be able to make it do all the things Jim purchased it to do.  The good part is he always invites his friend Jack (Daniels) when I come to work on his boat.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

San Pedro, Belize

This is a town my brother would love. He is to airplanes what I am to boats. What to do?
1. Build a 2600 foot airstrip in the center of the island (Ambergris Cay - (pronounced Key as in Florida.))
2. Widen one end for a ramp area.
3 Build a couple of hangers and a shed for baggage, mail and cargo (no doors or windows needed.)
4. Put some chain link fence about 100 feet from the runway, etc. Yes, only 100 feet!
5. Build the entire town around the runway. Keep buildings 3 stories and under so as not to interfere with the glide slope.
I know that Ace has flown his plane to Canada but I think he needs to experience Island aviation!
My friend Jim went to Belize City via commuter plane to meet a friend ($80 round trip, about 15 minutes vs 1 1/2 wet hours by ferry.) He asked about a seat for his scheduled departure. "Oh, we have 88 people booked for your flight sir." "How big is the plane?" "13 seats sir. We just keep flying back and forth until everyone gets to their destination."
I am anchored with several other boats behind the reef. I joined up with CARIBBEAN SOUL and WAYWARD SUN in Xcalak for the trip down. HOBO II had departed Xcalak two days earlier so I caught back up to Jim here. This is truly the eastern trades. The wind blows day and night without stopping. Of course it comes from the east which means that the entire coast is a lee shore. Sitting behind the barrier reef there is some relief from the rollers but the wind and some sea action is always present. The water here is shallow, I have been anchoring since Mexico with 2.5 to 4 feet under the keel. The bottom is a shallow layer of sand with limestone underneath. The Delta will not catch at all in the limestone. but with 150 feet of chain it holds in the sand. It does not help that every ferry and resort boat drives through the anchorage at full speed night and day.
I had noticed that the lifelines were a bit slack so I spent an hour yesterday going over them. I found a couple of places where fittings had become unscrewed. So I cleaned up the corrosion, applied locktite, and screwed it all back together. It took me back to the original REBOOT, a Catalina 30 that at the time was in Lake St Claire. Trevor and Spencer were visiting for the weekend (they were both very little) and when Trevor opened the lifeline gate it fell off into the water. He was mortified and I didn't want it to ruin the weekend. I tried to dive down and get it but the bottom was mud and the water opaque. I am sure it is still there. Anything I drop here would be easy to find, the water is crystal clear all the way to the bottom. (Spencer, stand by for the broom story at the appropriate moment!)
I plan to do some more food shopping today and walk around and get some pictures of town. i also need to run up to the fuel dock with the dinghy and refill the diesel jugs. It is the nature of these ports that there is not enough water at the fuel docks for sailboats, usually just a foot or two which the launches with outboards can negotiate.
I am trying to decide if I should stay an extra day and pay for a snorkeling trip ($42 US) or take REBOOT down to Cay Caulker and then dinghy back up to the dive/snorkeling spots. The advantage of the first is to get the lay of the land without having to park an 11 ton sailboat. Also I don't like dropping the hook in these conditions and then immediately getting off the boat. I like having a couple of hours to know that i have a good set and that I will not be watching REBOOT drag from shore.
Speaking of shore - one of course absolutely has to have a dinghy. But it is not advisable to tow it with anything in or on it (like the engine.) as they tend to flip upside down with some regularity while being towed. So each stop requires getting the dinghy set up - about a 1/2 hour task - and then putting it away - another 1/2 hour task. The most difficult part of course is getting the outboard engine on and off without dropping it in the water. Then of course everything that you put in the dinghy gets wet - including yourself. Salt water does dry but the clothing becomes very uncomfortable. I have taken to wearing a bathing suit during the trips and carrying a dry shirt in my "wet bag" (that keeps things dry - go figure) for when I get to shore. Finally, anything you bring (including the dinghy) can be stolen when it is on shore so you have to truck anything of value around with you when you go ashore. You also need to truck back anything you purchase. Your purchases will get soaked on the way back to the boat. Such fun.
On that note - The sun is out, the air temperature is 77 F, the water temperature is 76 F, and I am making French Toast for breakfast while enjoying my morning coffee. Life is tough.

Friday, February 18, 2011


After a fast sail in 20 knot winds and a 7 - 8 foot beam sea Reboot is now in San Pedro, Belize.  It is a very cool town.  Pictures will follow tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Anchoring Nowhere

Hobo II and Reboot have been working our way south down the Yucatan Channel. For the past couple of days we have been in the vicinity of the Chinchorro Bank, apparently one of only four true atolls in the Western Hemisphere. It sits about 20 nm off the coast of Mexico. We waited out high winds at the north end, last night we anchored at the south end.
What is weird is the total lack of references. The reef that surrounds the plateau is under water. All one sees is the breaking seas. I now understand how ships could so easily run aground. If the wave tops are being blown off by the wind the reef is almost impossible to find. And as I pointed out earlier the charts are useless. You need waypoints from someone who has visited and surveyed a safe route.
Last night we anchored in about 20 feet of water. The only thing to the horizon in any direction was ocean. We knew we had some protection from the reef as the waves were much lower than they had been in deeper water. But that was it. We were visited both by the Mexican Navy and caretakers from the Chinchorro (it is a preserve.) Both groups were very pleasant and neither decided to actually come aboard. The Mexican military carries guns in a very obvious way both on shore and on their patrol boats. It is quite a change from the US.
Tonight we hope to finally make Xcalak Mexico to check out. The plan is then to leave tomorrow for Ambergris Cay in Belize.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Out of the Nest

My experience in Mexico must be what it is like to be a fledgling thrown out of the nest! I have rapidly come to appreciate how fortunate I have been to sail in US waters. I am used to very detailed AND ACCURATE charts real time weather downloads from the XM Radio marine weather service, and frequent full service marinas almost everywhere I have gone. (OK, I still hate the coast of New Jersey, but who doesn't!) The marine guides are more focused on the best restaurant or T-shirt shop than navigation details.
My trip to Canada was a harbinger of things to come. The XM weather service became more spotty. The weather on the other hand is much more changeable. Charts were good and as I have pointed out before the people were great. But my comfort level was reduced as the marine services in the Maritimes are almost all focused on commercial shipping interests. Plus a lot more people get in trouble, I heard more calls for help while there than I had in the remainder of my sailing experience.
Mexico is completely different. The charts are based on old surveys. The electronic charts are no better as they are based on the paper charts. I am currently looking at a lighthouse that is charted over my bow. It is a mile off my stern. There are no depth marks. The chart shows a green blob that is the barrier reef. According to the chart I am aground on the reef. The only harbor charts I have are sketch charts from Freya Rauscher's cruising guide. This is not because I am cheap but because they don't exist. The guides outside the US all say - use our waypoints, not the charts. Now I understand why.
I am out from under the XM satellite coverage - no real time weather. Fortunately I spent a lot of my "dreaming" time reading about how the "old cruisers" communicated and got weather data. I also spent the necessary money to duplicate their radio and fax setups. I have been spending the last couple of days trying to learn how it all works and what particular systems are best as primary and what to use for backup.
In the interim Hobo II and Reboot have been waiting out the weather for our next move. With 200' of chain and 50' of rode Reboot held in winds peaking over 40 knots. It was not a pleasant experience. The winds have moderated, we are waiting for the seas to moderate too and then off to Xcalak, my last stop in Mexico.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Off Cozumel

Reboot and Hobo II are headed south to Xcalak along the Mexican coast. We have been fighting adverse currents ever since Key west and today is no exception. Xcalak is at the south end of Mexico's Caribbean coast and where I will check out of Mexico. The current of the day is of course the Yucatan Channel current. Since I am not finding any current arrows on the chart south of Cozumel so hopefully it will moderate. The currents are strong, 2 to 3 knots is not unusual. The good news, I suppose, is that it will all be in my favor as I head back to Key West.
The Mexican coast reminds me a lot of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland which is weird. The similarity is that there are a very few good places to come into port. In NS and NF it was a rocky coast, here in Mexico it is a barrier reef. The coast seems to be almost continuous large resort developments. The major towns are just even larger clusters of big resort complexes.
The charts here (Mostly based on DMA charts) are a far cry from what one gets in the United States. Most nights the anchorage area is just a big blot of green on the chart with no depth markings at all. Without Freya Rauscher's guide I would be totally lost. My expectation is that local knowledge is the more common need as one ventures out of the US.
Jim and I decided to take a long shot and head direct to Xcalak rather than continuing our short jaunts down the coast. I think we both just want to get past the constant fighting with the current. Plus without natural harbors and no real desire to pay for overnight dockage it will be nice to get away from the rolly polly sleeping behind the reef.
XO is happy to have full run of the boat again since I am not at a dock. With the warm nights he does not cuddle for warmth but rather patrols the decks. During the daytime he comes back inside and sleeps with that look of contentment that only cats can have.

Monday, February 7, 2011


The Ferry Terminal in Cancun
The Ferry

Sailboat off the Hotel District
I had planned to go to Cancun today to the Port Authority and get my final Mexican clearance document.  However, the office were closed today for a holiday so I need to go back tomorrow.

Since I had already planned to go Jim and I decided that we would take the day and ferry over to see Cancun.  We arrived after a very pleasant 25 minute ride at the Ferry Terminal with absolutely no idea where to go.  Eventually we hired a cab that took us to Cancun City.  We wandered around for a while not really enjoying it and eventually ended up at Wal-Mart.  Yes, I know, don't remind me.  It actually worked out as we both needed to do some simple shopping.  Downtown Cancun is a big tourist shopping area - something that leaves me cold.  We then got on a bus and headed for the hotel district.  After a bit Jim got impatient and said lets get off and get a drink.  We walked across the street to the nearest hotel only to be told that it was an "adult paradise" and unless we were staying at the hotel we could not go in.  Fortunately we got directions and hopped back on the bus.  We stopped about 2/3 of the way down the hotel district and grabbed a drink and a bite to eat.  We then went and explored the large local and very high end shopping mall.  After a bit we then hopped in a cab and went to the Intercontinental Hotel.  We were told it was close to the alternative ferry dock back to Isla.  We had a couple of drinks on the beach. We also noticed the sailboat that had anchored out just off the hotel.  We talked about sailing over but decided that we really didn't need to anchor out so that we could pay hotel prices for our drinks.
The club scene doesn't really get going until 11 PM.  Not only were we unwilling to kill that much time we could not figure out what two old guys would do in a nightclub so we hopped back on the bus that was supposed to take us to the ferry dock.  Well it didn't, and after an interesting conversation with fully armed Mexican soldiers who told us they didn't speak English we grabbed another cab and were delivered back to the dock.
It started to rain lightly during the crossing and the walk home and then really picked up for the rest of the evening.  I am planning on going back to Cancun tomorrow and Jim is leaving for points South.  I expect that my paperwork trip will go late enough in the day that it will be Wednesday morning before I head South.l

Sunday, February 6, 2011


We took the dinghy out for a snorkeling trip today.  The water here is about 80 degrees and crystal clear.  We spent some time just swimming over groups of hundreds of fish.  Very cool.  The only downside was the current.  We had to make sure that we were not drifting too far from the dinghy.
After a bit of snorkeling we went into a very calm and protected area and just hung out in the water for a while.  Then we discovered that we had anchored above a sunken boat that was slowly rotting away.  So on went the fins and masks again for some more snorkeling.  What a great day.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Marina Paraiso Isla Mujeres

Marina Paraiso Bar
The "Q" flag is finally down.  Reboot, XO and I are finally cleared into Mexico.  The only remaining step it to get the official sticker for Reboot from Customs in Cancun on Monday (The office is only open Monday, Wednesday and Friday.)  Jim (HOBO II) and I made landfall here at Marina Paraiso in Isla Mujeres.  It was a very fortunate decision.  The staff here has been very helpful in getting all of the paperwork filed, the various official visits taken care of, and all those other little things like getting my propane tank refilled that always require "local knowledge" the first time.

Last night I walked to the downtown area of the island.  There is a two by four block area that is clearly where all of the tourist shops and restaurants are located.  It was fun to walk around for a few hours.  It reminded me of my trip to the US Virgin Islands - a lot of stores selling jewelry in addition to the more normal stuff.  So there must be some duty free or discount deal for jewelry.

The weather here threatens rain for the next couple of days so I will use the time to get some of the inside boat projects done.  Since I am still in the marina ($1.00 US per foot per night) I have shore power which makes using the tools a bit more convenient.  It also let the inverter condition charge the new batteries for the first time since they were installed.  That is a good thing.

It looks like I will have pretty good internet for a day or two more so more to come.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Transit to Isla Mujeres Mexico

I had an interesting transit from Key West to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.  HOBO II (Jim) and REBOOT departed Key West just in time to watch the Wreckers Race.  This is an annual event to celebrate (?) the fact that Key West was once a haven for real pirates - the "wreckers" kind.  They would move the lights and marks to lure ships unto the reef and wreck.  The Key Wester's would then go out and salvage the ships that had run aground.

The first day was pleasant as we ran out toward the Dry Tortugas.  I have visited Fort Jefferson a couple of times in the past.  As we approached Jim voted to bypass and continue on to Mexico as the winds were very favorable.  We then set a great circle course direct to the reef buoy at the north end of Isla.  (Even at 300 nm it was interesting to see that the great circle course differed from the rhumb line course by a couple of degrees.) Within a hour we were being set by the Gulf Stream.  We decided to increase our southing toward Cuba to escape the brunt of the Stream  After several hours we realized that the Gulf Stream was running very wide and we were unlikely to escape the brunt of its current.  We reset our course toward Mexico.

The second day and night out were so perfect at one point I woke from a nap forgetting that we were underway.  The wind was abaft the beam about 20 degrees, blowing a very steady 15 knots, the waves were also abaft the beam with a period of about 4 seconds.  With the air temperature at 75 degrees night and day it was just delightful.

The wind freshened until it was blowing 25 gusting 28 and the waves were running 4 to 6 feet.  I put a double reef in the main, furled the jib but even so the ride became uncomfortable.  The wind had shifted more west on to the bow and the waves were confused.  We continued to be set by the currents and as we moved west the coast of Cuba receded giving the waves more fetch.  Then we cleared Cuba and were out in the Yucatan Channel with its currents up to 4 knots.  The ETA for Isla Mujeres would change by serveral hours as we would be set by current and wave and then find ourselves moving along smartly.

We made landfall at Isla Mujeres about 15 minutes before sunset. Since we still had several miles to go before the marina I was concerned that we would lose the light before getting into port for the night.  But it worked out just fine, both boats were tied up just as the light died.

This morning we have been working thru the various agencies necessary for check in.  Hopefully by tonight Jim and I will be able to see a bit of the town.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Off the coast of Cuba

Hobo II and Reboot are currently about 50 miles north of Cayo De La Lena on the northwest coast of Cuba. The last 24 hours have been beautiful sailing, warm, light to moderate winds, fairly gentle following seas. We did motor for about 13 hours last night as the wind died and we were fighting the current of the Gulf Stream. This morning the wind picked back up and we are now sailing along at about 7 knots under clear and sunny skies. We have about 150 miles left to go to Isla Mujeres where we will check into Mexico. More when we arrive, as the radio filed blog entries are by necessity short.