Monday, January 02, 2006

This is the story of the Manatee, a dugout canoe, built in Belize, and converted to a Polynesian outrigger sailing canoe, of the type known as a tacking proa. I am her owner, a Canadian, living in Mexico and working in Belize. So I guess we are a mongrel pair.

A bit of history....

I have been canoeing since I was a kid growing up in Northern Ontario, and have been interested in any kinds of canoes used by peoples of the world. So it was natural that I would want an outrigger canoe to sail and paddle. As I get older and more worn out, I have come to like sailing more and more.

Three years ago I got an opportunity to work as a sae kayak guide for Island Expeditions, a Canadian company that operates adventure travel excursions in Belize. This company is well-known as among the best in the industry, so I jumped at the chance. When I arrived in Belize I found myself in Dangriga, a Garifuna town on the southern coast. The Garifuna, once known as Black Caribs, are the last remnants of the Carib Indians who once paddled all over the Caribbean. They have managed to maintain much of their culture, including a lifestyle based on fishing. Many of them still fish from small dugout canoes which they call dories. These dories are about twice the length of a man, and barely wider than a human torso. Round-bottomed and tippy, they are swiftly paddled and often towed by a swimming fisherman, who spears fish, and picks up lobster and conch from the bottom.

As soon as I saw these canoes, I thought how perfect they would be for an outrigger canoe. Most were too short for my purposes. And then one day I found one that was about 18 feet (a little over five metres) long. This was more to my purpose, because once I decided to get myself a dory and make it into an outrigger canoe, I knew I would want to sail it home to the Pacific side of Mexico. And for that I would need one big enough to carry me and the required supplies and equipment along nearly 3,000 sea miles of coastline, yet be light enough to paddle ashore if the wind died, and drag it up on a beach by myself.

The Arrangement....

There it was, lying on the beach, upright, with one end half full of wet sand. It was bleached grey by the sun, and both ends had deep fissures, where the heartwood had separated from the sapwood. The gunwales were built up with square strips of wood, nailed crudely in place. Each end had a triangular piece of wood nailed in to bring the two halves together; otherwise it was a carved log. The marks from the adze or machete or whatever tool had been used were plainly visible. The owner said that it was too big for general use: it took three men to paddle it. He was glad to part with it, and curious to see the result of my planned modification, and its potential usefulness to the local fishermen.

At the time I was staying in an old-style Belizian house: a wooden structure perched eight feet over the ground on wooden posts. From my bedroom window I looked over the wall separating the property from the workshop of a carpenter and furniture-maker, named Dinsdale Samson. I approached him to see if he could help me with my project. I needed his skills, his tools and his space. He was a little reluctant at first, having no boat-building experience, but, when I assured him that I would come up with the design, he agreed.

The Manatee so Far....

The first thing was to build the outrigger, (little manatee) which was done with 1X2 stringers and thin plywood planking. It has a nice lean look, but I fear it lacks the required bouyancy. I also fibreglassed it, so it is nice and waterproof, but even heavier. That was as far as I got the first season I was here. I had to postpone the trip as my wife's son suddenly got sick, and so I went home.

The next season (2004/5) found me in Belize again, guiding kayak trips, and working on the Manatee on my days off. It had dried out nicely during the summer off-season, and was much lighter, but when I picked it up from the storeroom, I found little piles of fine sawdust: powder-post beetles had gotten into the wood.

This time I got some more help, from Dinsdale's nephew Timothy. He sanded the hull to a smooth, round finish. I then installed a full-length keel, about 6" deep. That was a job, making sure it was perfectly straight. After that, the boat was fibreglassed inside and out. I wanted to seal the wood to keep out insects and moisture during the rainy season.

So I still have to install the rudder, put on some decking and hatches fore and aft, set in the mast steps, make the masts and spars, and find some way to connect the crossbars to the hull. I also suspect the keel is insufficient, so I may have to make and install a leeboard (a keel on the outside of the hull).

The Voyage Home....

My voyage home will take me from the cayes and atolls of Belize, along the Mosquito (Miskito) Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua, then up the Rio San Juan to Lake Nicaragua. From there I will hire a local to truck me over to the Pacific coastal town of San Juan del Sur. And then I will sail northwest, along the coasts of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, to my home of San Carlos, Sonora, halfway up the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez).

The Mosquito coast is an isolated stretch of the Caribbean, cut off from the rest of the country by 50 to 100 miles of swamp and lowland plains. There is only one town with road access and it is a very bad road. The rest are nominally connected by river, but are designated autonomous zones, and essentially ignored. Should be some wild and interesting places and people.

The Rio San Juan is 180 km of jungle river, with one settlement and a few farms along its shores. Otherwise I expect to find a true Central American wilderness, and lots of wildlife. I expect to see signs of tapir and jaguar, crocodiles and caimans, anteaters, sloths and birds beyond count or description. The down side of this portion is that I will have to paddle the whole distance. On the positive side though, is that in 180 km, the river only drops 34m.

The Pacific Coast is the longest stretch, and will alternate many times between settled and touristy beaches and bays, and long sections of wild coast. My main challenge here will be surf. The Manatee is not realy designed to liveaboard, and although I will be able to sleep on it, I hope to go ashore most nights. But landing such a heavy boat in surf will be tricky at best, and so I have to be prepared to go offshore and drift with the sea anchor out nights when I can find no sheltered water to make landfall.

The Schedule....

I plan to leave Dangriga about the end of the first week of April. I expect the trip will take about four months to cover 2,750 sea miles. Hurricane season begins in June, but they don't usually really get going until August, and don't head onto land on the Pacific side until nearer September. I'll be off the water, I hope, by early August. I will be travelling during the rainy season, so I hope to use my sails to catch rainwater, and rely as little as possible on river water or municipal supplies.

Ok, so this is a work in progress, as weblogs are meant to be. As I get photos I will download them, and add files and links of interest.

Jack Wilde


  1. Anonymous5:54 p.m.

    Hiya Dean/Jack/Loco!
    We are reading your blog with some trepidation, a touch of anxiety and all the best wishes we can muster.
    Vaya con Dios (and a compass!)
    All the best...

  2. Anonymous10:59 p.m.

    r u going on that tiny thing?? I mean compared to the OCEAN... My dear Robinson, I didn't think it was such a small mean of transportation. O well, it may just make it a little more insteresting and praiseworthy, and I trust you pretty much know how to handle that thing anyway, u built it!

    Have fun and may the force (of nature) be with u (and not the sharks.


  3. Hi Jack,
    thank you so much for being our guide. You truly are a master and as one with the sea. We wish you "Godspeed" on your fantastic
    Norm, Anita, Kristine, Erik
    and little Richard
    Ontario, Canada