A Voyage to Belize: Family Style

by Adam Jenkins

Our offshore home, "Saint Brendan", a 27-foot Tartan sloop.
Saint Brendan, a 27-foot Tartan sloop has been my home for the last seven years. She has taken me to many wonderful places in the world. She kept me safe in the rough seas of the Caribbean and always performed when I needed to fetch that little off the beaten path port. But she and I had always been alone in our voyages. Just the two of us facing the good and the bad that can accompany the solo sailor. For me Saint Brendan was always more than a bunch of fiberglass and lead, she was a living and breathing soulmate. I loved the freedom she gave me. Never complaining, always waiting patiently at anchor for the next day of setting sail.

But life can change and while living in the Rio Dulce of Guatemala (see 48° North March issue 1996) she and I, acquired a special crew. My Honduran girlfriend Gladys and her two adopted Guatemalan daughters, Nadia, seven years of age and Sarah, a very energetic four, came to live aboard Saint Brendan. Making her an international yacht. Saint Brendan would now fly the flags of three nations. The readers of this story will, I have no doubt, be saying to themselves how do you all fit? Well, we are certainly not the first to under take such an endeavor on a small ocean going sailing vessel.
A small sailing yacht can be just as safe and in some ways safer for cruising than a larger yacht. I had already rigged Saint Brendan for single handed sailing years before arriving in the Rio Dulce. But with kids onboard knew I would have to add a few extra safety items. First off Gladys, a seamstress by trade, made a lovely set of weather clothes for the cockpit and I placed netting along the life lines. Gladys also made safety harnesses for the girls to wear when they were on deck.
Below, I rearranged the galley and made extra book shelves to house the girls school books. The starboard quarter berth was to be for the girls. To keep them in the bunk, no matter what the weather I fashioned a Pullman style leeboard. Gladys was a wonder at stowing gear. I saw the piles of clothing and all the provisions and said "It will never fit!" but when she finished, the interior of Saint Brendan looked much better than when I sailed alone. Everything had a home and she was the only person who knew where things were, which was for the best. I would have never been able to remember where I stowed something with so much stuff aboard.
The talk among the Rio Dulce expatriates and locals, was why would we go cruising with two small kids, and two crazy kittens, Jib and Gybe, on such a small boat. My answer to their criticism was "It's an adventure, what more reason does one need!" I think Gladys was nervous, as was I. But we had sailed on the weekends on Lago Izabal in the Rio Dulce, with the whole family. Gladys liked the isolation and the special time spent with the girls. She was new to the sailing world; but picked up the basics quickly and never looked back. We both were looking forward to the life adrift. The Rio Dulce had grown tiresome. We needed to spread our wings, our first cruising ground would be the unspoiled turquoise colored waters of Belize. Belize is sandwiched between the Central American nations of Guatemala to the south and the Yucatan of Mexico to the north. Her 120 miles of coastline is home to many small coastal towns and villages. English is the native language, but Spanish is spoken as well. Most of the towns or villages have little in the way of facilities, but you can find the basics and fresh water can be jerry jugged.
But the real jewels of the Belizean waters are the many enchanting Cays which lay protected behind the barrier reef. The barrier reef is second only to the great barrier reef off Australia. Standing 10 to 23 miles off the mainland it provides protection from the large ocean swell which come rolling in from the Caribbean Sea. Belize sits at the end of the Caribbean trade wind belt and has some off the best sailing found anywhere in the world. You fly along on a close reach in twenty knots of breeze and not a drop of water on the deck.
With a little fan fair we headed down river to settle aboard and get away from all the questioning from friends and family. The next morning we cleared Guatemala customs in Livingston, the small departure port of Guatemala's Rio Dulce. Then headed north into Belizean waters. The first morning out we had a nice easterly breeze letting the crew adjust. As always Saint Brendan was patient and gave us a smooth steady ride. We always have a fishing line trailing and only an hour out of Livingston Nadia had a nice Amber jack on the spinner. We fetched the Moho Cays by mid afternoon and once the hook was down we all went ashore to have a fish fry on the little coconut palm tree covered island.
Gladys and I had decided we would sail to a different cay every other day and spend a day or two at the cays we like the best. We still had to clear into Belize and for this we needed to sail to the entry port of Placencia. A days sail to the north, behind the barrier reef.
The next day found us up early and underway after a breakfast of pancakes and fried banana's. The weather had turned to rain and mist, the girls were down in their bunk playing, Gladys was also down below stowing gear and clothing. I put up our rain awning and Saint Brendan headed north on a pleasant close reach. The breeze began to kick up a bit, on the horizon a dark rain squall was bearing down on us. The rain began to fall as if you were standing in a shower. I told Gladys to grab the soap and we all came on deck for a big family shower. Little Sarah laughed and squirmed as Gladys scrubbed her down with a sponge, finding the affair quite humorous. Nadia tried to give the kittens a bath. They were not going to have any of this family fun and ran for cover in the forepeak.
After seven hours we began to make out the small village of Placencia which sits out on a little peninsula. We approached from the south and anchored in the lee of Placencia Cay, off the southern end of the peninsula. We hung up our wet clothes and linen and the sun came out from behind the clouds to dry out our little ocean going home. I made my way to the customs and immigration offices with the girls in tow and all went smooth and easy, our crew was now legal. Placencia has a small town pier and offers the traveling sailor the basics in food stuffs. We enjoyed a good meal ashore at a small eatery. After dinner we pulled the charts from the locker and decided we would work our way out to the barrier reef in search of some sea food for our cooking pot.
Departing Placencia the trade winds were in full force, so I took a reef in the main and replaced the genoa with a small lapper to keep things comfortable. We had charted a course to Cary Cay, the going was bumpy and straight to weather. But the barrier reef kept the sea down and I enjoyed the beat having a chance to let Saint Brendan lift her skirt a bit.
Cary Cay offered excellent snorkeling and we all spent most of the two days there in the crystal clear waters. Nadia and I would search for fish and conch, on our second day we found a big conch bed and Gladys made some of the best fritters for dinner, the left over conch we used for ceviche. On Cary Cay there was a dive camp for young adults. The divers were all from Europe and the diving on Cary Cay was part of a three week expedition. They each raised their own funds back home to participate. They were a great group and at night they would give us a light show as they headed off on their night dives. Sarah and Nadia watched from Saint Brendan as the divers glowing underwater lights shined, like big luminating space ships. On our last night we joined in on the camps end of the trip festivities ashore. Gladys and one of the divers won the hermit crab race.
The days began to run into each other, as we cruised north, living in our own world free from the many pressures others face in their daily lives. We worked together as a team each carrying their own weight; all pitching in to do the chores needed to keep a small voyaging yacht ship shape. The girls would study their school books in the mornings. Gladys even took to the books making an effort to learn French. She said "You should give it a try as well." I quipped back "Spanish still has to be dealt with my dear!" In the afternoons while at anchor or underway the learning continued for the whole crew as we learned first hand the ways and the rhythms of the waters, seashore and the sealife of Belize. Gladys and I spent many wonderful evenings on the foredeck talking of future voyages to other parts of the world. "Hopefully in a bigger boat" she would hint. "I will follow you anywhere, but we have to have ice and lots of fresh water!" she added. That night while lying in our bunk I pulled out an old West Marine catalogue to see how much a watermaker was going for these days.
The many cays we visited each had their own adventures. The Sapodilla Cays had some of the best snorkeling I had ever seen in my travels. On one snorkeling venture Nadia, Gladys and I came upon a group of sleeping nurse sharks. Nadia shot to the surface and shouted "Tiburons!". I explained, "As long as we didn't bother them we had little to fear from them or any of the other sea creatures which lived along the reef." Gladys didn't heed my advice and she headed back to the dinghy where little Sarah was watching from under an umbrella.
Some of the cays like Pelican Cays offered little more than protection from the trades consisting mainly of mangroves, which we anchored in the lee of. But we still found something to keep us and the children occupied. We had a ship board story time when one of the crew would tell a story or at least make one up. Sweet little four-year-old Sarah would start her story shyly, "Un dia..." and from there she would talk of the mermaids, the dolphins and the watery world around her. It was wonderful to see a young child effected in such a positive way with her surroundings. I always told of my days as tortilla salesman on the streets of Lima, Peru. For some reason I don't think they believed me.
One of our favorite ports of call was Cay Caulker. Here we found a little bit of civilization and a chance to reprovision fresh fruits, vegetables and ice. I played a little basketball and we treated ourselves to a few meals ashore. Also at Cay Caulker, the girls made friends with a young North American girl who was sailing with her family on a trimaran. Nadia had been learning English and Sarah only knew a few words, mainly my slang. Her favorite saying was, " Ooh Doggie!". Yet despite the language barrier the children played together with an ease which only children possess, each benefiting from their different backgrounds. Few children in the western world would ever have the chance to see the world through the eyes of children like Sarah and Nadia, who live and travel on the sea.
All through Belize we met wonderful people, all quick to lend a hand and always greeting you with a smile. The local folks all had interesting ways of making a living whether it be a lobster diver or a skipper of a Belizean smack. Watching the sailors of these engineless gaff-rigged sloops was one of the most entertaining activities for me in the afternoons. In Belize, fuel for an auxiliary engine is quite expensive and the sailors work these boats like the sailors of a lost age. In today's world of high performance cruising yachts it is still nice to see sail power alive and well. The smack and its crew would come barreling in from the sea with full way on and loaded to the gunwales with sand or some other cargo and then just in time luff up and bring her to the dock smooth and effortlessly. The crew just had to step ashore and make fast the mooring lines.
From a sailors stand point, Belize truly offered it all for family cruising. Turquoise blue water, bathwater warm, clear as a glass of drinking water and teeming with sealife to view and to sample. A steady trade wind greeted you in the morning to push you to your next destination. The hundreds of unspoiled, uninhabited Cays to beachcomb and let the kids work off some energy. For this wayward sailing family life is a simple existence and each day never like the one before and we are never bored. We have each other and the protection of Saint Brendan, little else matters and across the sea and wind lay many new adventures and experiences. One night as we all turned into our bunks, Nadia asked, "How long would it take to sail around the world?" Putting my head on the pillow next to Gladys, I said to myself "That's my girl."

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