Have to tell the story of Lighthouse Reef. Before arriving there we were in Cucumber Beach Marina south of Belize City. Left there headed to Water Caye. Got to Water Caye then the starter motor decided to catch fire. Never fun, but we dealt with it. A tow from a great guy we’d met in Cucumber got us back to their docks. Miracles of miracles, we got the starter rebuilt and were back to Water Cay within 24 hours.
Met s/v Kaija’s Song at Goffs Caye about noon. Dinghied to the Caye, had a thunderstorm or two, dinner aboard, said our farewells and were off to Lighthouse Re nef at first light. Great Sail – hello, sail only- to Tureneffe. Then had to motor sail east, slightly north east to get to Lighthouse.
If I knew then what I know now I would have been too chicken to have attempted to get into Lighthouse Reef atoll. But others had done it successfully, so what the hey, so could we. The entrance was not even close to what the guide books said. All we had were way points we had been given several years ago by a sailor we didn’t really know who had been there before us. And just as we were about to make the commitment to enter, we started getting faulty readings from our depth sounder. Right, just what you need….wrong! We pulled out the hand held depth sounder and by then the on board depth sounder had settled down so we “sailed on,” with only a few white knuckles.
To get in you line up the outside wreck with the inside wreck (what does this tell you…there’s a clue here) then you head east and a little south, then at some magical way point you turn left for about a quarter of a mile then turn right for about a quarter of a mile then proceed south till you get to the far east side of Half Moon Caye. Right, you got it…east, a little north, a little east, and then a soft curve toward the south. Well, whatever, we made it past the affectionately named “coral garden" where there is only 3 ft. of water and trust me you could see the coral heads quite clearly. What you couldn’t see was where the deep water was.
We made it past all the really bad stuff and were slowly, very slowly moving toward the beach; I am calling out the depths, 7 ft. & holding, 7 ft. & holding, 6 feet & holding, 6 feet & holding, 5 ft.! – time to stop! Which it was, cause that’s when we went “crunch”. Oh @#!*, we’re on a coral head! Not on the dangerous reef, just not a soft bottom like the Chesapeake. I have only heard that crunch once in over 2000 nautical miles, but I just knew I’d hate that sound when it came…So, Don is going to kedge us off, is lowering the dink when the Ranger for Half Moon Caye comes on the VHF. “Sail boat off Half Moon Caye, what are your intensions.” I pick up the hand held and say, “what did you say?” He asks me to identify the vessel, which I did. Again he asks our intension and he points out that we’re in a protected Belize marine reserve. “Yes sir” I reply “please stand by” at which time I hand the radio to “Captain Don." Don tells him: “our intensions are to anchor here as soon as I get free of the bottom, we are aground sir." No big whoop from the Ranger, he just says, “ok, sorry I wasn’t at the station when you were coming in, would have told you you were in shallow waters." Great, now you tell us! We had tried to hail them for info. earlier.
Don rows the dinghy to the bow and I have to let the big anchor down slowly into the dink. Don reminds me that he wants the anchor in the dinghy, not through the bottom of the dinghy! She’s a heavy sucker but I did manage to lower her gently and Don rows it out a few yards and plants it to port. Back on the boat he attempts to kedge us off, no luck. He could have tried again but must have thought it would not work. He calls the Ranger and asks for assistance. The very cordial Ranger says, “no problem I’ll launch a boat right away.” And so they came, the Ranger, his young son, and 4 other able bodied sea men. Their first attempt was a no go. Their second attempt broke their thin hawser. By now Don had secured a heavy tow line just where he wanted it on the bow and tells them to head to port, told me to turn the wheel hard to port as far as possible and to gun it! Hard!...which I did and in seconds, we are off the coral head. By now it is after 5 pm. The Ranger yells over, “please check in in the morning" (no overtime for this crew, I am thinking). We anchor happily in 7 ft, where we should have been in the first place and pour a stiff one or two. One for the Captain and one for me! Though rations were low this was no time to save the reserves.
“Well damn it," I said, “you just had to go a little further” – now I must explain this remark was not made in a nasty way, I did say it with a smile, “you just couldn’t anchor in 7 ft. like the guide book said, just had to go a little further.” With a fat scotch and a happy smile Don replied “well you know me, just had to go a little further to see what was there.” Like I don’t know him. If it weren’t for his curiosity, courage and tenacity, we’d never have made it as far as we had. It was so awesomely beautiful, what’s a little crunch?
After a quick dinner, we enjoyed the crystal clear water full of bioluminescence, the velvet black sky full of stars and the sound of the surf crashing on the reef. We were at anchor simply enjoying the fact that we were where few people ever get to be. At 10 am the next morning Don announces, “it’s time to go to shore and see what is here and to find the 4000 red footed Bobbies (birds).” I figured when we got to shore we would have to pay Sylvester the Ranger for the tow and I had expected a fine for destroying some coral, but not so. Met the ranger, paid our modest fee of $10 US per person, gave him a $10 dollar donation for his tow efforts, which was appreciated but not expected and presented his son with a 2 liter bottle of orange soda.
Sylvester’s son Isaac was our guide. He took us along all the nature trails leading to the observation deck. Once we’d climbed the 20 steps we were above the tree tops and then let out a gasp. There they were, hundreds of brown and red footed boobies and frigates hanging on branch after branch in the tree tops. Just under the canopy we saw the iguanas. Grey and green ones, just lounging on branches with their heads into the wind. Our favorite being the Wild Willie Iguana which are green. (Oh how we have missed Bill, but no more so than seeing the Wild Willie Iguanas of Half Moon Caye.)
Along the paths were hundreds of hermit crabs, not the little guys you see in ocean city cages, but big ones, the size of your fist and larger. They could obviously sense our foot falls because as we approached their hustling walk would stop short and in a second the once moving shell was still.
So much to see on this little Caye, beside the Gumbo Limbo (healing trees), there is the Ziecote tree, unique to Belize. It has a profusion of orange blossoms that filled the air with a sweet powerful fragrance. You can’t export the wood, but can buy products made from this exotic tree. In 1997 we bought a bowl made from the Ziecote tree and still consider it one of our prize positions. The trees are quite spindly though they have an abundance of blossoms. The tree our bowl came from must have been massive compared to the ones we saw on Half Moon Caye. They just don’t seem to grow with much girth. I appreciate the bowl even more now that I’ve seen the tree growing in the wild.
Half Moon is a world treasure we got to enjoy on a morning where we were the only boat at anchor. It was a bear getting in there, and no fun getting out, but glad we’d made the stop. We pulled anchor at 4:30 pm traveling into the setting sun, headed to Roatan. Our last stop…for awhile anyway. We did manage to get out the south reef cut with out a problem.
We sailed all night, a long one, with constant lightening all around us in confused seas. Had the sails up for awhile but heading into the ESE winds caused us to bring in the head sail and travel with the mizzen alone.
At 3 am after my watch, asleep in our bunk, I heard Don curse! “What now I wondered?” He said “I have no helm.” Up I go and am standing at the helm, half asleep thinking, “we’re not even half way there…it could be a long night drifting to nowhere.” Don checks the rudder, nothing afoul, checks the hydraulic pressure in the engine room, all fine. Sitting in the cockpit shaking his head in wonder. He goes below to check the motor unit. I am half asleep trying to steer, knowing that if we have no helm I can’t do that…(thought processes) …the compass is telling me we’re on the correct heading of 120 degrees, more or less, so I start to steer. Don asks, “is that you turning the wheel?” “Yes”, I reply. “Ok, go to the port, ok go to the starboard. He’s seeing the rudder moving as I am steering….just then I realize that the GPS heading is 180 degrees opposed to the compass heading so I give the ships compass a whack, and low and behold the compass spins all the way around! "Don get up here we have not lost the helm the compass was stuck.” With a sigh of disbelief and relief he joins me at the helm and says, “If you think you’ve got it, gun it!" Which I did. We were back on track. I went back to my bunk with a some what self satisfied smile thinking I had managed to solve a problem. It was a small self satisfied smile, cause who knew what might come next.
We had to whack that compass all the rest of the night, but she held till we got into port. It was still a rough ride even with the sail reduction and a bear to keep Usquaebach on a heading within 20 degrees of our mark. Some how we managed to sail out of the path of the many lightening strikes all around us. Our guiding lights on a very black night, where you couldn’t see the horizon, were the million stars we could see directly overhead and so we kept “sailing on.”
I left the helm about 5am, and was just beginning to cuddle down, when Don asks “do you want to see Roatan?” Up to the bridge I came. There she was, long, high and ghostly grey in the early morning light. Home within sight, at long last. Back to my bunk with a feeling of contentment knowing that from here we could get someone to tow us into port! Happily, not needed. By 8 am I was back on deck watching our beautiful island coming in to clear focus with tears of joy streaming down my face.
We hailed Russell, Manana’s Captain who helped guide us thru yet another reef to a safe anchorage at West End, Roatan. We dropped the hook and via VHF decided to meet him for lunch. We owed Russell big time. For many many days, he was the only relay we had with the NW Caribbean Net. The Net and Manama were our life line out there in the big Caribbean Blue and we were delighted to be able to thank him with a few cold ones.
We left West End around 10 am the next morning and headed to the South side of Roatan. It was a beautiful day, winds out of the east but not too strong, high cirrus clouds and gentle seas. What a thrill to sail past so many ports and harbors we’d see from the land side. Talked to Dave, known as Weather Dave on the Net, except this times it was via VHF, not SSB, we were so close now. He assured us our slip in Oak Ridge Marina was waiting for us. We took a left between the markers guiding us thru the reef in to Oak Ridge, tied up at the marina, and our long trek was over.