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.


1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't expect any thing less Dean! That's amazing - I enjoyed the read. thank you.