Flights between Belize City and Placencia cost $140 round-trip on Tropic Air (800-422-3435, www.tropicair.com). The Moorings (888-952-8420, www.moorings.com) has a fleet of boats for bareboat or crewed sailing out of Placencia. Offshore, Ranguana Caye rents three cabanas that sleep four people each ($500 per week; 011-501-523-3227, www.kittysplace.com). For more lodging, and outfitters, contact Destinations Belize (011-501-614-7865, www.destinationsbelize.com).
Read Kerr steered our 38-foot catamaran through a quartering chop off the southern coast of Belize. "Gee, Read," I said, "kind of a rough ride. Can't you smooth it out a little?"
"I'm not in charge of the ocean," replied ten-year-old Read. "I'm only in charge of the boat."
That was the tone for this eight-day sailing sojourn among Belize's southern cays, a smattering of islandssome inhabited, none larger than a square milesprinkled between the coastal village of Placencia and the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The cluster of elkhorn and ivory bush corals, among others, stretches 450 miles from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula to the Bay Islands of Honduras, and is 20 miles offshore here.
A few days earlier, my friend Onne van der Wal (a nautical photographer and seasoned sailor), his wife, their three children, and I had chartered a sailboat without a captain (a.k.a. a bareboat). We left from Placencia, a friendly, quiet village of about 500 residents made even quieter in October 2001 when Hurricane Iris obliterated 80 percent of the structures in town and killed 22 people, including 17 American divers. We headed 20 miles east-southeast to Ranguana Caye, a spit of sand with palm trees and turquoise bungalows. Read and her younger brothers hit the water the moment the anchor did, gamboling like porpoises amid massive leaf corals.
Belize, Central America's only English-speaking country, has 1,000-foot-wide barrier reef atolls to dive, 100-pound tarpon off Ambergris Cay to catch, and Mayan temples to explore. But from the moment Read enlightened us about her responsibility vis-à-vis the sea, we freed ourselves from agendas. We were dinking around the outposts, dropping anchor alongside coral castles, and exploring former pirate haunts. We might cruise Punta Ycacos Lagoon in hopes of spotting manatees. Or we could swim with hawksbill turtles in the marine preserve at Laughing Bird Caye. We'd decide all this later.
Following Ranguana Caye, we ran 15 miles in an afternoon to the Sapodilla Cays, the southernmost islands. That evening Onne puttered the dinghy to a fishing panga and swapped two quarts of pineapple juice and a frozen key-lime pie for just-speared snapper filletsdining out, cays style.
On one of our last nights, everyone retired to the cabins, leaving me on deck to sleep under the full moon. Clouds stole across the sky like great white secrets. Exhausted, I tried to remember how I got so tired: woke at sunrise, kayaked to a broad turtle-grass flat, waded around stalking bonefish and permit, paddled back, snorkeled. Not such a mystery after all. I started to think about the next day and realized that . . . well, I am not in charge of tomorrows.