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Travel Story - Escape from paradise

Exploring the reefs and atolls of Belize

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We found the rest of our crew, Rick and Betty from Ottawa, Ecosummer guides George and Sarah, and spent the evening waterproofing our gear for 10 days of open-cockpit sailing. Walter, local skipper, navigator, and all-around resource person, was busy with last minute rigging on his 12-metre, two-masted Sandliter. A tall dignified gentleman in his 70s, Walter had spent his life fishing among the Cayes and was the only one among us who had a clue how to pull off this junket.

Delayed by unexpected motor problems it was already dark when Walter docked the sand lighter at a rickety wharf on English Caye, about 15 km south of Belize City. Not much more than a plot of sand with a few palm trees, the tiny island is where large ships stop to pick up pilots before entering the harbour. The old cabin used by the sea pilots was empty so the seven of us piled inside and spread out our sleeping bags on the floor.

Next morning we got an early start on the 80-km, open ocean crossing to Sandbore Caye at the northern tip of Lighthouse Reef. Boosted by a strong following wind the old sand lighter pitched and plowed through heavy seas leaving everyone but Walter in a nauseous state of denial. It was a relief to finally step out onto solid ground but the illusion of motion lasted for several hours – tricking our senses into feeling the whole island heave and sway.

Sandbore Caye has a battered old lighthouse and a small collection of shacks that are home to the light keepers. The industrial base of the island is coconut oil. But the supply of coconuts vastly exceeds the capacity of the plant – a hand-fed, gas-powered grater and a tub of water over a coconut husk fire. The operator dumped a pail of grated coconut pulp into the tub and proudly skimmed off a bottle of clear oil, which Sarah added to her kitchen supplies.

Lighthouse Reef surrounds an elliptical, island-studded lagoon about 50 km long and 12 km wide. Water inside the lagoon is shallow, in places less than a metre deep, and this is where Walter's old flat-bottomed, Sandliter came into her own. The keel-less, shallow-draft boat, her two sails filled by a light breeze, skimmed silently over the sandy bottom while Walter, sitting on an overturned bucket at the stern, one hand on the tiller and the other on a fishing line, calmly avoided coral heads and sandbars as we headed south from Sandbore Caye. By the time we dropped anchor on the rim of the Blue Hole he had snagged a one metre barracuda and busied himself cleaning it while the rest of us went snorkeling.

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