Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I'm back in San Carlos, just after a grazing by Tropical Storm Henriette. we got some wind, much rain, and very little damage.

I recently got a request for more desert photos, so i am dedicating this post to the beautiful Sonoran Desert. Those among you who are more interested in the marine stuff, skip this one but don't give up on me. Soon I will begin construction on the new amas (outriggers)for the Manatee.

San Carlos is in the southern Sonoran desert, in a region of the desert known as the Central Gulf Coast region. Rains here come mostly in the summer. The winter rains which are fairly reliable in the north, particularly around Tucson, Arizona, may not fall here for several years. Despite this, the desert is surprisingly shrubby.

Surprising too, is how dry it can be a few feet from the sea. All that moisture, and it hardly falls on land. This is typical of deserts found in the "Horse Latitudes". The horse latitudes (roughly 30 degrees, north and south of the equator)are a region of descending air, which as it falls, warms and dries. The result is very stable air, with few clouds, little wind, and very little precipitation. And the ability to tie your boat to a cactus.

Much of the Sonoran Desert is in the Basin and Range Province of southwestern North America. Small ranges of moderate to low volcanic mountains rise through a flat basin of volcanic dust and ash. San Carlos is on the seaward edge of the Sierra el Aguaje, a mountain range split with canyons and pushed right up to the sea. The canyons are shady and often have water seeping in from the surrounding porous rock. As a result these canyons often harbour a variety of tropical deciduous forest species, normally found hundreds of kilometres to the south. On the slopes are more typical desert species, such as cacti and agave plants.

Even talk. The pictures were chosen to show the variety of landforms and vegetation. I hope you enjoy them.


Monday, September 17, 2007

I’ve been asked to post more frequently and more regularly, lest my readers lose interest. My philosophy has been to post when I think I have something interesting to say, however rare and random that may be. Please let me know what you think.
Lorena and I are at the cottage, on the shore of Lake Talon; a lake in Northern Ontario. The water is a light tea colour, tinted by the water from the bogs in its catchment area. By mid-August it is already chilly for swimming, and so our daily bath is quick and bracing, but necessary, as there is no indoor plumbing this year.
I awoke last night, for the usual reasons, and peering out through the big front windows, I was struck by a rare and beautiful sight. In the bright moonlight a shroud of silver mist swirled slowly over the still, dark water in little peaks, like ghosts figure-skating in slow-motion over black ice. The nocturnal world seemed filled with magic, and I could only stand and stare in wonder. At such moments, you forget about the cold, and the flies, and all the inconveniences of living in such a place, and are only grateful for the brief moments of awe and wonder. Like the lonely call of a loon, drifting in through the fog, or when a bright green dragonfly with crimson eyes comes to rest on your shoulder as you paddle among the reeds and water-lilies, and you know no deerfly will dare approach to bite your neck. Or the sudden slap of a beaver’s tail, warning his neighbours of your approach as you round a bend in the river. Or the immense silence of a windless day, occasionally broken by the chattering of a red squirrel, or the distant drumming of a grouse. These are the moments that, put together, make life in the bush so rewarding in a way that is difficult to describe to one who has not experienced it for himself. And they are the moments that come back to you in sudden flashes, when you are thousands of miles away, and make you suddenly long for home, for the smell of pine and woodsmoke, for the soft rustle of leaves underfoot, for the immense silence of new-fallen snow.
Meanwhile, hurricane Henriette has hit San Carlos, and we have to wait to assess the damages. First reports are good; it was brief and not too intense. So we are expecting minimal damage. I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Desert Thirst

I had a writer here for a few days. His name is Roland Pelletier, and he is writing a book that takes place in Guaymas in the 1850’s and wanted someone to take him around the city and into the desert. It seemed an easy assignment.

I took him for a hike in the desert. Ordinarily we don’t hike in the desert at this time of year; it was 107F or 42C today (the day I am writing this), at noon. But this was when he came, so off we went. It was a typical summer day; a cloudless sky of rich blue, like looking up at the Caribbean. We walked over some rolling hills and open country at first. The desert is very dry; months without rain have taken every leaf from the shrubs and trees, leaving a brown and grey landscape. The only green is the odd organpipe cactus, scattered along the hillsides, and the dense thornscrub in the deeper washes, where water is available year-round. Two deer bounded into a draw as we crossed over a hill. I wondered what they found to eat. We crossed a wash and strolled over the open ground beyond. Then we descended back into the wash, at first struggling through the dense bush. Eventually the wash narrowed into a boulder-strewn canyon, with palm trees that rustle in the breeze like flowing water, high walls of worn tuff, riddled with caves. After reaching a blind end at a 20 ft waterfall (dry of course), we decided to back out a bit and then climb the side, to get around the barrier. That’s when the trouble started.

The rock here is rotten, soft and easily broken; a perfect handhold may crumble with a light tug. We ascended the near-vertical sides without incident, but there was no going back the way we came up. The rest was a safer slope, but much of it was loose scree and treacherous enough with good hikers underfoot. And my friend Roland was wearing boots with smooth soles. At least they were rubber, not leather, so they held well onto hard rock. But it was treacherous going. We got to the top, and the other side was a long, vertical drop. We tried to find another way into the canyon we left, but it ended in the same, vertical formations. So the only way was to move laterally, and get ahead of the dry waterfall. This choice was the safer one, but we were already almost out of water. And to carry on meant heading a long, roundabout route through desert wash and dense thornscrub bush.

So we headed on. The sun was hot, the air hot, heavy, and still. Walking under the sun was like carrying a hot stone on your back and shoulders. My water was long gone, (I had only brought 3 litres for the two of us, planning on an hour or two on easy ground), and the thirst was intense. Saliva becomes thick, like glue, or a MacDonald’s shake, and the eyes become dry and uncomfortable. On we trudged, over boulders, through brush, out into the open where the mountains dip down to make a notch. Through this notch we descended into another wash, thick with scratchy, thorny and prickly brush. By this time we walked in silence, automatically moving forward, pushing through thickets, crunching over loose gravel, moving onward, forward, towards water, life and relief from the awful thirst. By the time we reached the last section of our hike, a dirt road over even ground, Roland turned to me and said “My hands are swollen.” I looked at mine and realized the same thing was happening to me. He also asked me if I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Fortunately I couldn’t, and we knew we would be okay soon, so we became more relaxed, and began to talk again.

Roland wanted an experience of the desert and he got one. It is important to realize that the desert is not malevolently waiting for you to make a mistake so it can punish you. It is merciless, not because it is evil, but because it is indifferent. Man does not struggle against nature; he struggles against his own fragility, his own limitations, with nature not as his opponent, but as an impartial and disinterested judge. To survive here, you need to know what you need and how to get it. And if you don’t have what you need to survive here, you had better stay on the cilivised side of the edge.

People rarely die way out in the wilderness, far from help, out of communication range. The only people who get that far are those who know what they are doing. People more often die on the edges, near to civilization. Unprepared, unequipped, and caught off guard, they wander lost, or simply get themselves stuck somewhere and perish before they can get back out. We won that particular race, but it could have gone the other way if we were forced, say, to spend the night, or if an accident or injury befell one of us and slowed us down too much. And remember, long before you die from environmental exposure, your judgment becomes impaired, and you make foolish decisions which make your situation worse. So to survive you need enough to keep from getting that far, to the point of no return.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Well I don't have much to say about the "Voyage". I am in San Carlos, Sonora, a long way from the new Manatee. I haven't even started on the new outriggers, though I have picked up a sail and mast along with a cute little sailboat called a Sabot. I have a new digital camera; the old one suffered an accident with a yoghurt container full of salad in my backpack on a hike in the desert. The resultant leak of oil and vinegar has resulted in the gradual loss of function.

While uploading the last of my photos onto my laptop, I discovered a pair of pictures of the new Manatee.

The first is the boat at the boatyard before I bought her.

The second is the builder: Mr. Bradley of Bradley's Boatyard, Belize City. He was surprised I wanted to take his picture, but was very gracious.

The last picture is of the new boat in Dangriga. I have cut out the plywood moulds for the bulkheads and the decking is screwed on but not yet trimmed. With any imagination you can picture the basic form she will take.


The dogs hear it before we do. The first sign of the approaching storm is the banging at the door by Tequis, who is so afraid of thunder that she tries to get inside. That brings our attention to the flashes of lightning. The thunder soon follows as the storm gets within 15 miles of us.

The monsoon is a wind pattern, not a rainfall. It begins in the summer, when the air over the desert heats up enough to drag the trade winds from the tropics up this way. This brings us moist, tropical air, and eventually, rain. Hence it is called the monsoon rain.

After several months, almost a year in fact, of no rain, the desert is dry, brown, burnt-looking. The sun has baked it until it releases a scorched smell. The cacti are lean, deeply pleated, and the only green things in the landscape, as not a leaf remains over most of the desert. And a walk in the desert raises only dust. But every day since the monsoon began, the air has become a little more humid. At night, flashes of light are seen over the horizon .These flashes, called heat lightning, are the result of static electricity, released as the cooling night air descends. But the lightning I see tonight is the real thing, and the dogs are not at ease tonight.

I have been hoping the rains would come before we head north to Canada. I miss the seasons up there. Here there are only two seasons: wet and dry. Dry is most of the time, but the wet season brings a transformation to the desert that must be seen and heard, felt and smelt to be appreciated. Before the first shower is even finished, the air is filled with the resinous odour of the creosote bush, what is universally known here as the smell of rain. And at the same time arrives the shrill chorus of the spadefoot toad. Lying dormant in the ground since last summer, they begin to emerge in response to the rumbling of the thunder. By the time the rain has soaked the earth, they are crawling out and filling every puddle. Tonight they call out for a mate. Tomorrow they will be silent. The puddles in which they breed do not last long: there is no time for prolonged courtship so by the end of tonight they will have selected a mate and begun to lay and fertilise the eggs. Within days the tadpoles have hatched and started to feed on each other in the mad race to emerge as fully developed toads before the Sonoran sun dries the puddle to a cracked bed of clay.

As soon as the adult toads have mated, they begin to feed and fatten on the sudden emergence of winged termites. These insects are easily desiccated and so they also must mate and seek a place to lay their eggs and start a new colony while the humidity is high. Hopefully they won’t choose the window and door frames of our house.

After the rain ends, the transformation of the landscape begins. Leaves begin to emerge, the desert floor becomes carpeted in flowers. In two weeks, what was bare brown earth and dry grey branches, is green, yellow, orange and blue: a riot of colour and profusion of life. Summer is here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Waiting in Can Cun

Finally I got lucky. The Customs officer, whose father I know in Dangriga, arranged it so I could pick up the radio at the Belize International Airport, and carry it myself to the border. He just made a note in my passport, which they checked at the border. Very easy. And then I caught a bus, leaving immediately, which took me all the way to Chetumal in Mexico. Last year we took the bus to Corozal, which is the last Belizian town before - not at - the border. From there we took a Belizian taxi to the exit point, another taxi to the Mexican point of entry, and another taxi to Chetumal. This time one bus did it all.

I bought a ticket to Cancun, leaving at 6:00 pm. I didn´t realise I had crossed into a different Time Zone. Pity there is no big clock in the bus terminal. And of course the public address system sounds like an abductee with duct tape on his mouth in the trunk of a car. So I ignored the garbled message at 5:00. At one minute to six there was no bus at the departure gate, and no passengers waiting around. So I went to the ticket booth and showed the guy my ticket and my watch. He wasn´t particularly sympathetic. Said they were on Mexican time. Hehe, I never thought that would be faster!

So I left the bus station in Chetumal at 10:00 on a second class bus (picture seats about 14" wide) seated (ie squished up against the window) next to a big gal. Didn´t get any sleep. The bus got progressively colder too, so by the middle of the ride I had gone from sticky-sweaty to freezing cold. I reached Cancun at about 4:30 and slept there until it was light out. Then, a few blocks away, I found the Hotel Coloniál. A nice, two storey building with a central courtyard. A room with private bathroom, TV, two beds and a ceiling fan for 350 pesos a night. Perfect.

The Coloniál is on a side alley; quiet, closed to vehicles and lined with trees and restaurant patios. After half a year of rice and beans, it is nice to see some international cuisine and a variety of beers. Modelo makes one here called Leon. It is a dark, bavarian-style lager: very refreshing with a light body and a long finish. But I digress.

The end of the alley opens into a big public park with a stage. It was full of people, food- and crafts-vendors, and some kind of entertainment on stage. The big attraction though was the large screen showing a live broadcast of the National Championship futbol soccer game between Pachuca and America, two big Mexican teams. I sat behind the screens and watched through the back of the screen. The image was reversed, naturally, so I watched a lot of left-footed action, but it was a good game.

I spent the morning at the beach, a 20 minute bus ride away. The beach here is gorgeous, with fine, white sand, firmly packed by the surf, and clear blue, Carribean water. There were a few places where you could rent or use a sailing dinghy, or a wave runner or a sit-on-top kayak, but most people were content to sit and burn their skin. Some had an impressive tan, I must say. Had a little lunch at Señor Frogs, where they make a desperate and vain attempt to animate the lunch crowd and make everything sexy and funny. I´m sure the place is very different at night. Ridiculously expensive and the food is overhyped.

So now I wander and wait for my flights. Meanwhile I am drawing some sketches for the new outriggers and akas. And looking forward to going home again.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Heading home

This is my progress so far: I have built the frames for the decking and the bulkheads, out of thin plywood, and put a layer of fibreglass over the decks. I don't think I can get away with just one layer of FG though, but I have run out of time for this year. The worst thing is that when I return, termites will have eaten the wooden decking and I'll have to start over. C'est la vie. At least the canoe itself will be undamaged.

I have a flight booked from Can Cun on Tuesday, 29 May. I would stay and do more work on the boat, but I want to get my VHF marine radio back. The Customs agent at the Belize Airport seized my radio when I arrived, back in December. Apparently I needed a permit to import it. They gave me a receipt and told me I could pick it up on my way out. Well I didn't fly out, and now I am going to be taking the bus north, to the Yucatan. To take it with me, I have to pay a Customs guard to come with me to the airport, pick up the radio, and then go back to the city to take the bus north to the border. If I do it on a weekend day, it costs double. So my only chance is to do it tomorrow, Friday, 24 May. Happy Victoria Day to all my Canadian friends and family by the way.

I asked if they couldn't just hand it over to me and phone the Customs office at the Northern Border, and warn them I am coming, and ask them to make sure I have the radio on me. But they won't do that, because there is a chance I might use it while in the country. Who am I: Osama Bin Laden? Anyway the law is the law. Fortunately I know someone who has a family member in the Customs Department, so I have been given his number to call him and see if we can't work out some reasonable compromise.

The only other option is for me to get a permit for the damned thing. The Communications Department is in Belmopan, right near the bus station, so I could go over there and see if they will issue me a permit. But knowing the bureaucracy here, it will probably take seven different departments to stamp it, and radio will be outmoded technology before a permit is issued. Oh, and the streets of Belmopan are full of rioters these days, due to a corruption scandal involving the prime Minister. So the gov't offices might not even be open. So wish me luck.

This means of course, that I will be spending the better part of three days in CanCun. That will be nice: some beer to drink other than Belikin! I should get a good, off-season rate too, so I may be able to stay near the beach instead of downtown. I'll keep you posted.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007


In my last post, I mentioned thinking of buying a 20 ft. canoe in Belize City. I decided to go for it, so, on Sunday I sailed Manadi north in light head winds. I saw not a single boat, but had the momentary company of a dolphin and one manatee. Needless to say, progress was not great, but I got about halfway there, pulling into the mouth of the Manatee River at dusk. I chuckled at the coincidence. I had just enough time to set up my jungle hammock and start supper before dark. I made a rice dish in my brand new Trangia alcohol stove, which was sent to my by my good pal Bruce Swanton. Thanks Bruce: it works great.

The next morning I was underway again. This was going to be a long day. And it was. With more light headwinds, it seemed to take forever. For a while I seemed to be tacking back and forth in place, unable to get to the city. Finally I caught a favourable wind and landed in a shallow bay right in town. There I met a fisherman named Michael, who promised to watch over my boat for me. I locked my stuff in the aft locker and took a taxi to Bradley's Boatyard. I bought the canoe from old Mr. Bradley himself. He got his boys to leave it on the dock behind the boatyard while I went and got a bite to eat.

So after a meal of... what else? fried chicken, rice and beans, I was on my way, paddling through the heart of the city on my way to find the Manatee. The way to see the beating heart of Belize City is by water. The city is laced with canals: the whole city is right at sea level. The river is a garbage-strewn sewer of black water; abandoned boatyards; old hulks lying in the water or thrust up onshore by the last hurricane; squalid, unpainted waterfront shacks with rusted out screens and a boat tied out front; a cantina for fishermen - no parking lot but a pier. Down a little further is a row of brightly painted upscale tourist shops; a big, fancy hotel and casino. Right off the dock you can buy groceries, ice, gas, marine hardware, booze. There is an ancient swing bridge, separating the north from the (poorer) southside. And then the sea.

Around the point from the entrance is the little bay where I left my boat, anchored in the shallows. It wsn't there, but I figured Micheal probably moved it to the canal entrance. And there it sat, part of a motley fleet of fishermen's boats. After a quick phone call I tied the new canoe atop the akas and was underway. I was a little concerned they might not bear the weight, so I kept an eye on them as I sailed out in a freshening North breeze.

It was blowing pretty well out there, so I untied the canoe, slid it off the akas and tied it up to ride behind me. We were running right before the wind, an awkward point of sail. The sail is so big that when it swings out wide, it tends to turn the boat. The new tiller wasn't working great. I really had to lean out to reposition it. It is extremely stiff, and once I get it set I can leave it. But in a following wind the boat is constantly yawing left and right and the rudder neede constant correcting. Add the fact that I was towing. As one boat is slowed climbing the next wave, the other is accelerating down the face of the last one. I had to hold the canoe on a short leash with one hand while steering with the other. I remember thinking that if I ran into trouble, at least I had a liferaft.


I could feel a strong drag from the canoe, so I decided to roll it back up onto the akas. By now we were rolling into 2 ft to 3 ft waves. You don't hear or see the moment it happens. Suddenly you are in the water, the boat is gone over and you are trying to hang on and find your hat and paddle. The canoe was tied on. That was a good thing. The outrigger's posts snapped off right at the base, and it was blowing away fast. I bolted after it, caught it and threw it in the canoe, which was half full of water. Did I mention it was a racing canoe design? They are not built for stability. It rolled over when the next wave hit it, and the outrigger was going fast. I said goodbye and focussed on getting the canoe empty of water and stable so I could start throwing stuff in it. Keep in mind now that it is dark, and there are waves smashing against Manadi. I can't bail out the canoe: the bailer was the first thing to blow away. So I did a t-rescue, hauling myself onto the pitching Manatee, and pulling the canoe up perpendicular. This works well, because the overturned boat turns sideways to the wind, and the canoe, once held up, turns downwind. I flipped it over, holding the bucking boat beneath me with my legs. Once it was drained, I flipped it back upright and threw it on the water. Now it was ready to take on whatever I could salvage.

I started to roll the Manatee over. Immediately a hatch cover floated off and stuff was starting to extrude out through the hatch. I grabbed two buckets and my dry bag, and heaved them and the paddle, which I was still clutching, into the canoe. I rooted around in the hatch, but it was dark, the boat was tossing around, and I already had the most important stuff. So I climbed into the canoe, to rest and collect my thoughts. Hanging below the Manatee was a tangled mess of anchor rope and broken spars. I tried to pull the sail up but it was too difficult and risky in the tossing seas. I hauled up the anchor,and got as much rope as I could safely handle, then cut it off and tossed it in the canoe with me. I pulled the rudder pin out and tossed rudder and pin in the canoe. Then I cut the rope that held the two boats together. It was amazing how quickly I was blown away from that heaving boat. And I never saw it again.

The wind was blowing from the NE, and if I didn't paddle I would find myself a few miles south of town on a beach, if I was lucky, or in the mangroves if I wasn't. Belize City is surrounded by miles of impenetrable mangroves. It would be no place to spend the night. Across the wind - for I had no hope of paddling a 20 ft. canoe into that wind by myself - was a set of bright lights. I started paddling. For a paddle, since it was only for emergency purposes, I had a half a kayak paddle with a broken shaft. I could use it by placing my bailing sponge over the end, and use it I did, paddling furiously to keep from being swept downwind. It took a couple of hours before I got to where I could see the lights up close. Of all things it was a marina!

I paddled in, aware that I was trespassing, but there was no one about. I tied up at the first slip. At the base of the dock was a bar. I asked to see the manager and for a glass of water. I got the two owners, a Mr. Francis Woods and Mr. Rigoberto Blanco. I explained my situation, and why I was trespassing in their marina. Their response was to ask the waitress to get me a "very nice" plate of chicken, rice and beans and a glass of fruit juice. I asked if there was a budget hotel nearby, or even two trees where I could sling my hammock. At first they offered me the beach, where I could use a shower and sling the hammock. Then they came back and gave me the use of a staff cabin for the night. It was very nice, with a loft, kitchen, bathroom. I had a shower, rinsed my wet clothes and even watched a little TV while my stuff dried around me. Then I tried to sleep. It didn't come for quite a while: I kept reliving the experience of being in the water. I made a mental inventory of what I lost: my headlamp, sunglasses, all three canoe seats, Finally I slept.

In the morning I hitched a ride into town to buy a decent canoe paddle, a flashlight and some food and water. I would go look for my boat, and for anything that had drifted ashore from it. Then I would carry on down the coast to Dangriga. I never found the Manatee, but miles down the coast I found the rubber fenders that I would use as rollers to haul the boat ashore. Another mile further down and I found the outrigger. I don't know why, but I threw that in the canoe. I found no other piece of flotsam from the Manatee.

I was most excited to find the fenders, for now I had something to sit on. It is very uncomfortable to paddle sitting on the bottom of a canoe with your legs straight out in front of you and no backrest. And I had 35 sea miles of paddling ahead of me. It was still hard on my back, but manageable. The other challenges were a lack of sunscreen and sunglasses. I was still in a salty wet shirt, and developed painful salt rashes below the armpits.

By 3:30 the sun was getting too much for me so I pulled into the beach, cooked up dinner and was asleep in my hammock before the sun set. This, by the way, is a good way to avoid the mosquitoes. Before going to bed, I packed up the canoe for a quick getaway.

I awoke at 1:30, and tried to fall back to sleep until 2:30. It wasn't happening, so I got up, packed up the hammock and sleeping bag, and shoved off the beach. It was a moonless night, with scattered thin clouds. The Milky Way led me straight along the coast. The sea was smooth, with just the slightest hint of a swell. The water was dark and scary. Who knows what lurks in the shallows in the night? Every stroke of the paddle stirred a bioluminescent plume and even the wake of the bow was aglow. Occasionally a fish would dart away underwater, leaving a puff of pale green light where its tail had flicked it away. At one point a needlefish lunged clear of the surface and collided with my hull. I hoped he didn't break his thin beak.

As time went on I relaxed and became more comfortable paddling in the dark, and in a couple of hours, a thin glow began to emerge from the eastern horizon. For the first time I could remember, I was not happy to see the sun rise, as I knew it would bring heat and more burns to my skin. But it also brought a freshening breeze, which was not only cooling, but also nudged me lightly in the direction I wanted to go. The day stretched on and I paddled, rested and paddled some more, until after what felt like an eternity, I reached home and hauled my stuff into the house.

I have learned a few things in the last two days, and have had ample time to rethink the project. I still plan to sail/paddle home to San Carlos, but I need a new sail and new outriggers. After my experience with the original Manadi, I have decided to go with smaller sails of a more conventional shape - maybe even a commercially made set - use a daggerboard or maybe a centreboard instead of a fixed keel, install a kayak rudder and design a lighter, more manageable outrigger (perhaps two?). I will redesign the whole craft to be lighter, stronger and easier to handle. This next week or so I will install the decking, lockers and mast step and partner, but I will have to wait til next fall for the installation of sails, daggerboard trunk and rudder. And over the summer I will design and build a better outrigger system. So don't give up on me yet. I'm not quitting. Just going back to the drawing board.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Manadi II

I went to Belize City yesterday to look at a 20 ft. fibreglass racing canoe. It is strongly built and a good length, but sits low on the water (ie not much freeboard). Norman the Fibreglasser tells me I should buy it, as we can always modify it. So tomorrow I plan to sail Manadi up to Belize City. I will spend the night somewhere along the coast and sail into the city on Monday morning, buy a few items, including the canoe, and then tow it back to Dangriga. Tuesday we begin the modifications.

Meanwhile, I am living in the ground floor of a house, rented by Island Expeditions, for the owners to live in when they are down here. Denver, the last to leave, is letting me use it. I have got nothing but support and help from the owners of IEC, and am forever grateful and indebted to them. Denver even went to the offices of the water board and the electrical utility, to ask them not to shut off supply yet. I can pay the final bill when I am ready to leave. Didn't work. Yesterday, while I was in Belize City, they came and shut off both my water and my electricity, despite the assurances of the landlord that the planned shutoff dates had been changed. So now Dave, the landlord who lives upstairs, has plugged me into his electrical system with a male-male extension chord, and I am getting water from an outside tap at the side of the house.
So now I have light, refrigeration and TV. More soon.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Last week together...

Lorena and I took a jarring and dusty bus-ride down to Placencia, at the end of a long, sandy, north-south running peninsula, south of Dangriga. In places the peninsula is very narrow, with the sea on one side and a large mangrove lagoon on the other. Along this road is the airstrip, which has to face the prevailing trade winds. Which means that the runway runs across the peninsula. The "highway" takes a jog around the airstrip, right out onto the beach, but people on foot or bicycle ride straight across. So they have to watch for a flag that tells them a plane is scheduled to land soon, in which case they had better wait or go around.

Placencia is a little town at the end of the peninsula. The beach is white sand here, the best on the mainland, but the swimming area is grassier than what you find at the cayes. Placencia has lots of little bars, and good restaurants, and certainly a more international atmosphere then say Dangriga or Hopkins. A tourist town is not what I usually look for when travelling, but when you spend so much time in a town that offers rice and beans or chinese food as the only food choices, it is nice to go where the tourists go once in a while.

We were also there to hunt for Norman, a Jamaican guy who is known to be an expert fibreglasser. We asked around in the bars and hangouts, but people either said they never heard of him or that he moved. I always figure local people are going to be protective of their own, and if they think a local guy is being searched for, they might want to put me off the scent, in case I am a bounty hunter or debt collector. So finally we learned of a baker who matched the description. We found Norman the Baker an hour before we were planning to catch the bus to Hopkins, a village we rode through on the way south. So we made plans to meet at the Manatee on the following Tuesday, and we parted company.

The bus doesn't go into Hopkins, so we got off at the entrance to the 4 mile long Hopkins Rd. After that little accident we had a couple of years ago, Lorena was determined not to hitchhike again, but we agreed we could wait for the bus to Hopkins, that comes in from Dangriga. At the junction there is a bus shelter. Behind the bus shelter there was a small brush fire, which at one point spread and completely engulfed the bus shelter in heavy black smoke. We waited on the road and watched it burn itself out. At one point, two basilisk lizards came charging out onto the road, driven out of the bush by smoke and heat. These speedy reptiles run on their hind legs like little dinosaurs, and can run right over ponds and streams, thus earning the nickname Jesus Christ lizards.

We weren't the only ones waiting at the junction, so when a pickup arrived and took everyone else onboard, we decided to jump in too. The narrow dirt road runs over a broad, flat savannah, with regularly spaced culverts to handle the annual floodwaters. These culverts elevate the road, with a flat concrete slab on top. As we crossed each culvert, we would fly into the air and come crashing back down onto the truck bed. After a couple of these flights, Lorena asked me if we shouldn't ask to be let out. This is precisely what we should have done two years ago when we got a ride with some young soldiers who were driving so fast we ended up in a rollover accident. I replied that we were almost there. The truck had made the four miles in less than five minutes!

We stayed at a nice little place called Tipple Tree Beya. Beya is the Garifuna word for beach, and the Tipple Tree was a Sea Grape tree that had fallen over in the front yard. The locals make a kind of wine from the fruits of this bush, thus the name.

Our room faced the sea and had a steady breeze blowing in through the front door and hurricane-shuttered windows. On the front verandah were two hammocks for each room. Lying in a hammock, in the shade and the breeze, was a very restful way to spend three days, including Lorena's birthday. We swam in the sea, spotting manatees right off the beach and sampled some of the local fare, which ranged from mediocre to excellent.

Monday, 7 May, we returned to Dangriga on the 7:00 am bus, and spent our last night together (for a while), at Pal's Guest House. It was an emotional time, as Lorena is pretty frightened of this voyage I have planned. The main concern is that the boat is too heavy. It is a challenge to wrestle it up onto the beach, and it would be a bear to handle in surf. So concerned was she, and I admit to my apprehensions about such a heavy craft, that I have made a major concession. I won't be sailing the Manatee home this year, or ever. Instead, Norman and I will be building Manadi II, a 20 - 22 ft. fibreglass canoe. Norm has a mould for a 14-footer, and we will stretch that out with inserts amidships. The result will be boat that is longer, swifter, more seaworthy, and much lighter. It will also have more load capacity.

The construction of the new Manadi will delay my departure by a couple of weeks, but I hope to make up that time with greater daily progress. It has always been a race against the tropical cyclones but with this boat I will have more options for going ashore if a cyclone gets too close, and can either come home 'til the season ends, or resume when the weather clears.

Sorry there are no photos this time: I don't have my camera with me at the moment. But I will be posting lots of photos of the new boat as it is constructed, for those who care to see it. Until then take care.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

End of Season

Well, Folks, thanks for another great season. This year I saw more turtles than ever before, had better weather, and as always some great guests, with interesting stories of their own to tell. I also have had a lot of support from guests, the people of Island Expeditions, and the people of Dangriga, in my efforts to get the Manatee on the water and sailing home.

Backing up a bit....

After a few weeks of working, I finally got some time off to repair and restore the Manatee. Loose patches of fibreglass were torn off and painted over with epoxy. Broken akas (cross-beams connecting the hull to the outrigger) were replaced. Finally she was ready to put in the water again. Not pretty, with black patches all over a blue and white boat, but functional nonetheless.

I had made a couple of crucial modifications. The first was to reverse the boat, installing a new mast step in what was previously the stern. This was done at the end of season last year, but never tested. The reason for my choice of bow last year was due to the shape of the boat, as seen from the side. One end has a sharp turn from the keel to the stem, the other more rounded. It was plain to see that the rounder end would be more suitable to rolling up onto a beach. The rudder would be an extension of the straight line stern of the boat. But seen from above, one end of the canoe is wider than the other: this was the trunk of a tree after all. And with so much weight of mast, sail and spars so near the bow of the boat, it tended to dive into each wave. With a low bow and a deep keel in the stern, it was also very difficult to steer. I hoped that turning it around would make the bow more bouyant and make the stern easier to turn.

The second modification was to install a new rudder. I had salvaged a rudder from the wreck of a hobie cat sailboat found at Lighthouse Reef. For a fitting, I salvaged a piece of galvanised steel from a telephone pole washed up on the beach at Half Moon Caye, and took it to a welding shop where they bent it into a shallow U, drilled some holes in it, and ground off all the galvanising(!). Oh well. I bolted it into the Manatee and it made a fine rudder, which sits deep in the water and will even ride up when I hit the beach.

This done it was time for a sea trial, number three. I had lost the boom, but brought along a couple of light poles and decided to try to sail it loose-footed, like a lateen sail. Didn't work. As soon as I got out there (light NE breeze), I realised the sail would only allow me to run downwind. So I threw out the anchor and began to string on the two poles, lashed together in their middle. I want to say right now, how difficult it is to find a straight pole, 17 ft long, which is strong enough, yet reasonably light, to act as a boom or yard.

After a half hour of strugggling to get the boom tied on, I noticed, as the canoe pitched and rolled in half-metre seas, that I was feeling oddly queasy. Finally it dawned on me: I was getting seasick. Never in my life have I felt seasick while sober, until that moment. I could only quiet my stomach by staring at the horizon, but this merely slowed things down. Suddenly it became a race to tie the sail on before I get properly sick. I would tie as fast as I could, stringing the black twine around the wood and through the little holes in the sail. Then I would have to stop and stare at the horizon. As soon as I felt a little better I would string away again, back and forth until finally I had it done. And none too soon, I must say.

As soon as it was done, I hauled the halyard and the sail raised up, caught the wind, and we picked up speed. I hauled up the anchor as we sailed over it, and the boat began to push throught the waves, in control, once again of its motion, its destiny, and the queasiness vanished without a lingering trace.

The yard holds up the leading edge of the sail. It is built of pine, with a joint in the middle I never liked. The yard used to be the boom, until the first yard, identically constructed, broke while I was testing the sail on shore. In anticipation of another similar rupture, I reinforced the joint with a metal strap on one side. Well, shortly after we got underway, that joint ended up on the underside (the spar rolled a bit in place) and SNAP! went the yard, turning a fine, flat sail into a tent, folded at the mast (see photo, below).

I turned the Manatee around with a few strokes of a paddle, and the remaining sail caught the wind, and pushed us into shore a couple of miles south of Dangriga at a pace of about 1.5 knots. "Not bad for a broken boat", I remember thinking.

The shore south of town is mostly bush and swamp, with a road running parallel, and the occasional house along its length. As I reached shore at an empty lot, I was greeted by a couple of kids from a nearby house. They were curious and friendly. I told them my problem and they assured me it would be fine with the owners if I cut myself a new yard here out of the mangroves. So I took my big knife and walked into the bush. In 20 minutes I was back at the boat with a fairly straight pole of black mangrove. The kids returned and told me of a bar along the beach, just to the south, so as soon as the sail was restrung, I set out down the beach. A cold beer and a cold coke went down in as much time as it takes to read this sentence, and I was underway again. The bar is called the triple W (despite lacking internet)and a coke and a beer were $5 bz. The beach is well-groomed and has a volleyball net, and the music is very loud. I sat outside.

I sailed SE nine miles across the Inner Channel, to a line of islands called the Blueground Range. From there I sailed south, along the chain, to Billyhawk Caye, where an Island Expeditions group on a Coral Islands trip was camped. I joined them for dinner, and stayed overnight. The owner of this camp is Alex Sabal, a long time guide and boat captain with IE, and their most skilled and respected guide. Alex has been working hard to develop the site into a simple and rustic resort, and I was impressed with all he had done to it. Alex wasn't there, but guides Kris and Domasco were and it was a treat for me to play the role of guest for a change.

The next morning I sailed back to Dangriga; 11 miles in 3.5 hours ESE in a NE wind. On the way, I noticed the sail was not lying very flat so I cut some of the strings and she stretched out better. Gradually, however, the lack of support for the boom caused it to flex excessively, and I wondered that it didn't break before I got ashore.

So here I am a month later. Lorena is here and we have closed the season with the last three trips. I bought (promised to anyway) two aluminum poles from IEC and will be stringing them on the spars today. I also built a tiller to steer by. Before, I was using light chord with stirrups, and steering like a kayak is steered. This works in a kayak, because you are always in a fixed location, but you like to move around in a sailboat, so a tiller is more practical. And today she goes out on the water again, to test it out. If it works well, Lorena and I will take a couple of days and sail down to Placencia.

I want to take Lorena to Placencia because it is a funky little tourist beach town, with a sidewalk as the main thoroughfare. I have also learned of a Jamaican guy who lives there, who is an expert fibreglasser. The Manatee remains a very heavy boat, and I want to talk to him about making a cast of the Manatee in fibreglass. Such a boat would be lighter, with more interior space and be much easier to handle, particularly in surf. It would also respond better in light winds, and ride over heavy seas, keeping me drier and more comfortable. Such a project would mean leaving the original Manadi behind, but that's ok, it was a all an amazing experience, and I am coming home by sea one way or another.

Thanks for tuning in, more to come soon about our travels in Cayo District and Placencia.


ps here is a picture of the Manatee with the broken yard. She lies on the beach where I went ashore to cut another one.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Dangriga, 4 March 2007

I'm back from a couple of weeks at Half Moon Caye. What a beautiful place! I am still blown away by the colours of the sea. We had a great trip: the people were fun, the weather was warm and sunny, though a bit windy at times, and the fish were most cooperative. We saw many sharks and rays and even a couple of turtles. In fact, this year I have seen more turtles than the previous three years combined.

Lighthouse Reef has two protected areas, guarded by the Belize Audubon Society. This NGO has some very hard-working and dedicated people. This last trip there was only one BAS staff on the island and some commercial fishermen took advantage of that fact. One form of commercial fishing common in Belize is a homemade wooden sailboat, up to about 30 feet in length. On board the boat is a stack of dories; small boats, either of fibreglass or dugouts. When the boat gets to a good location, it is anchored and each fisherman takes a dory. They will paddle to a patch reef or turtlegrass bed and jump overboard with mask, snorkel and fins. As they swim along, they will spear fish, pick up conch, and hook lobsters from under the corals.

The fishermen are allowed to fish in the unprotected areas, but will often sneak in to the protected areas if no one is patrolling. Our BAS Park Ranger asked us for a little help to go out and chase them away, so we sent two guides to ride shotgun (figuratively speaking) and warn the fishers away. They got nothing but scorn from the fishermen, so they came back and called the Coast Guard. Before dark, the Coast Guard was there and had rounded up four boats, each with as many as eight fishermen and boys aboard. The following photos show the boats at the dock at Half Moon Caye, along with a large motor skiff belonging to the Belize Coast Guard.

As a follow-up to my botfly entry, I finally managed to remove my little pet. I tried using duct tape to seal off its air supply, but the location so close to my knee resulted in a fold or crease forming some time during the night. I must have killed it the second time I tried, but it wasn't sticking out the hole at all, and the snake venom extractor I was using didn't convince it to come out. Finally, when I tried it one evening last week, it started to protrude from the hole. A few guests were still up and were quite intrigued at the sight of an insect larva (technically a maggot) emerging from my leg.

I took a few photos. The first is the extractor. The suction on that thing is intense! It left quite a dimple on my leg as you can see. In the next photo, you can see it emerging. Then once it was partway out, I used a (borrowed) pair of tweezers (thank you Carole and the makers of Tweezerman) to pull it out. The last picture is of the larva lying beside the hole from which it was removed. Note the rows of hooks around the thickest part of the body. The hooks are what held it inside me and it was their squirming around at night that I could feel. But it is out now.

Jack and Squirmy

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Just keeping up my parasite load….

Dangriga, 13 Feb 2007

Scientists speculate that the reason we have so many autoimmune diseases, is because our immune system is set to be at constant war with germs and parasites. In our hygienic modern world, the lack of parasite load leaves the immune system without an enemy and it misdirects its energies towards its own tissues, like bored soldiers brawling with each other. Life in the tropics gives one plenty of opportunity to keep the immune system sharp and well occupied. In the spirit of a healthy immune system I would like to announce I am the proud host of a bouncing baby (read squirming larval) botfly.

Somewhere in my travels, I picked up a botfly egg on my skin. It could have been left on a leaf or even deposited on a mosquito. Once it felt my body heat, the egg hatched and the tiny larva burrowed into my skin. Once there it makes a small sore, just like a fly bite. At the centre of the sore is a tiny hole which it needs to breathe through a thin snorkel. It barely itches, except sometimes at night, when the growing larva repositions itself, and takes a nutritious meal of my ‘surplus’ body fluids.

Getting rid of it is a matter of waiting a few days until it is big enough, and then suffocating it by blocking the air hole. Duct tape works if you can get it to lie flat. The area around the opening has to be shaved first, to get a good seal and make removal of the tape less painful. This is usually done before bed and removed in the morning. You know you have a good seal when you feel him squirm like crazy! As he struggles to get air, he will stretch as far as he can and eventually he will come out, still reaching for air. At this point, ideally, he will stick to the tape and will come out in one piece. Ideally. Sometimes you have to squeeze and pull with forceps or tweezers until he comes out.

My little guest will stay with me awhile. I am thinking of letting him grow to maturity before taking him out. I want to know how big they get.

Next entry will have some photos of the process of removal……