Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Sometimes it is difficult to write about my experiences in Belize while I am there. Brief periods of time off require my attention elsewhere, and before you know it, I am on my way home. And when I get home, there are other priorities waiting for me.

But now I have been back in San Carlos for just over a week, and am well-enough rested to recount some of the more interesting (I hope) tales of my travels. Alas, the memory isn't what it used to be...

This season was unique for me in many ways. Island Expeditions is setting up a new trip, for the first time in Mexico, just north of Belize. The fit is good, because travellers can fly in to Cancun, do the
Costa Maya Explorer trip, then carry on south to Belize, to participate in one of our trips there, or just explore the country on their own. When I learned of this new trip idea last year, I talked the bosses into having me and Lorena work on it. They agreed to give it a try, and to fly both of us out there. They were also a little short-staffed early in the season, so they asked me if I could do a few trips in Belize as well. Since Lorena was already coming with me, I told them sure, as long as Lorena can come along with me there too. They agreed.

So that is how Lorena and I spent a wonderful two months in Belize. I would go off with the guests, kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, and when I came back to camp, Lorena
was always there. They even set us up with our own tent, an oldie, but still functional. And I had the best of both worlds.

I had a looser schedule early in the season, which meant I had more time to work on Manadi. I did get a lot done, and she is very close to completion. The next step will be a complete gel-coat cover of all the new fibreglass, and then I can finish the mahogany gunwales, and bolt the cross-poles to the deck.

I was a little disappointed in the amas: the basic principle is good but the shape is too difficult to fit to the boat. So while I am in San Carlos, I plan to build new amas, and ship them to Chetumal before I return to Belize next year. The first ama I built, I shipped to Chetumal and carried it across the border. But even though it was built by me, the Belizian Customs agents charged me an arm and a leg for it. So next time I will paddle or sail the boat to Chetumal, install the amas there, and it will be complete. No need to pay duty. But I am getting ahead of myself.

After a couple of months in Belize I found myself heading north into the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, with Lorena and Tim, the head honcho of IE. Together we took a 3/4-built program, and fleshed it out the best we could before the first group of guests arrived.

Let me describe this trip for you. This is part I.

The trip starts in Cancun, where the guests are put up for the night in a hotel and the next day we start our adventure by driving south in a van. After a couple of hours in the van we stop at a place called Dos Ojos (two eyes). There is a massive complex of flooded caves, with multiple openings, or cenotes. One location with two of these openings is managed by the local Mayan community, in which they run guided dives, and snorkelling tours. So for an hour we floated from one cavern to another in gin-clear water. It felt like floating in space. The bottom is littered with boulders that have fallen from the ceiling, and the roof is a constellation of stalactites and flowstone formations. Small fish float curiously around the swimmers, sometimes taking a tentative peck at our skin. We swim over shallow water mostly, but along the edges of the pool the water deepens, and distant lights and bubbles indicate the presence of divers. When you submerge you can hear a strange mechanical hissing noise: this is the sum of all the exhalations of the divers, carried long distances through the water.

In single file, we glide carefully under a low point in the ceiling, barely above the water level, and enter a dark, circular chamber, about 20m across. A single hole in the ceiling sends a shaft of daylight into the water. From a small island of rubble in the centre of the chamber, a broken and rusty ladder extends towards the hole. In the depths, to the edges of the chamber, the lights of unseen divers peer out of crevices. And everywhere we go we are followed by tiny, curious fish. The effect is eerie, like a scene from a spy thriller. Following the group even in a relatively small chamber, is
difficult. Other people with other tours drift by and it is hard to know who to follow. But we manage to regroup and carry on into the next chamber.

This chamber is open and bright. One entire side of the cave has collapsed, letting in plenty of daylight. We swim through the clear, cool water. We pass a large submarine passage where the bright glow of daylight streams in. This is the passage to the second “Ojo”. One could easily be fooled into thinking that other side is mere metres away, and a deep breath would be enough to allow a snorkeler to pass through. But we are told that the distance is more like fifty metres. Half a football field. Too much for some, so not a good idea.

We emerge from the water at the far end and walk the last bit to the final chamber, and swim to the exit. We don't realise how cold we are until we stand in the warm sunlight, in what is actually a hot, dry day. But the feeling is one of relaxed fatigue after the mild exertion of swimming in cool water. The sun streams through the trees and a motmot, an odd tropical bird with two long skinny tail feathers each ending in a tuft, like darts or arrows with most of the fletching gone, looks down at us mortals and chuckles. Soon we are in dry clothes, and after a delicious lunch at a nearby restaurant, we are headed south to the coastal village of Mahahual.

End of Part I.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

This season in Belize, I have a much looser schedule, and have had plenty of time to work on the Manatee. This is in marked contrast to last year, when I had a total of two weeks in the entire season to get my work done.
The great challenge of making something new from scratch, is that there is a constant stream of problems to overcome. Most of the big problems have been solved, but new ones keep cropping up. For example the edge of the cockpit opening has a coaming to deflect water, that stands about six inches high. This would deflect a lot of water, but it will also break, or at least crack and weaken, if I put too much pressure on it.

So I decided to to strengthen it with gunwales, of mahogany. I bought a ten-foot by two-by-eight-inch board, and got it ripped into quarter-inch by two-inch strips. These strips were then bent around the coaming and clamped in place. After cutting them to the right length, I removed the strips, then laminated them together with FG resin. Once I applied the resin, I wrapped them in waxed paper to catch the drips, and re-clamped them onto the coaming again. This had to be done to each inwale and outwale separately, so it took a bit of time.

Once the gunwales were complete, I had them planed and sanded them smooth. Then I drilled and bolted them to the coaming with stainless steel hardware.

This week I also installed the mast step and laid the base for the deck hatch. All that is left to do is drill the holes in the coaming for the aluminum poles that connect the hull to the amas, and the holes for the threaded rods that will be used to clamp them down. Then the boat will be ready to spray with gel-coat.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Lorena and I just got back from three weeks at Half Moon Caye. We arrived a few days before the first batch of guests arrived, just to put the final touches on camp. That is to say that the tents were up and the beds assembled, but most of the camp still needed to be unpacked and organised. Also there are always repairs to be made, and new things to be built.

The kitchen is stocked with plenty of fresh fruit and veggies. kept in cages to allow airflow and protect our larder from the coconut squirrels.

Lorena is making signs for the showers with permanent marker on coconut flower bracts. We try to use local materials whenever possible, for the aesthetic appeal.

Sylvino and Javier make luggage tables for the tents, out of scrap lumber. Sylvino could make just about anything from scrap materials which makes him a handy camp guy.

Once the camp was put together we could spent some time reaquainting ourselves with the island. Our first reaction on exploring the island was one of shock: I knew that Hurricane Richard had hit the island, and was prepared for the loss of some trees, but the west end of the island, the one covered with littoral forest, looked as if it had been stomped all over by a giant. The trees were smashed down, and lying all over the ground in a thick tangle. Already they had formed new leaves, and new shoots were emerging and filling in the spaces left empty by the hurricane, but the impression was still one of severe destruction.

This is the view from the dining hall. Despite the destruction, the island is a beautiful place.

The observation tower revealed a broader view, and all the more spectacular, as there were more birds and nests visible than ever before. So it appears that the boobies and frigates were not reduced in numbers, though their egg-laying was delayed by several weeks. Normally in December the birds are sitting on fluffy white chicks. This year they were just getting around to laying. Since food is available year-round, the delay isn't expected to hurt this year's recruitment.

This mature red-footed booby is of the grey colour phase. Most of the boobies at this site are white when mature. Note the exaggerated pose, like an Audubon print. This is not booby yoga, but the way one attracts a mate to the nest.

Finally everything was ready, the first batch of guests arrived, and we were off on another adventure. In this series, we are sailing to Long Cay, an island about four miles downwind.
This is a local fishing boat. About eight men and boys are on this boat, and live aboard for a week to ten days. The small boats stacked on deck are called "dories" although they are more like canoes. The fishermen paddle the dories out to a suitable area, then swim, pulling the small craft behind them. In the water they pick up conch, hook lobsters from under reefs, and spear fish. Once they have a good load, they return to the sailboat and stow their catch in an ice chest.
Bye for now
Jack and Lorena