IT'S 1400 HOURS with wind out of the northeast at 30 knots, and we're two miles west of the barrier reef off the coast of Belize. I stand at the starboard rail, peering through the driving rain, watching for coral heads as our catamaran slices through the water at nine knots. "Seven feet, six feet, five, four..." Neil calls out readings from the depth sounder.
The boat draws four feet. I watch white sand, eel grass, and soft coral speed by below and imagine the keel just inches from the bottom. I search the water ahead for a clue, but the mottled gray sky reflects on the silvery surface of the ocean, making it nearly impossible to read the water. The hand-drawn charts of the Belize coast from the pages of Freya Rauscher's Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast are the best we could find—undeveloped countries typically don't have the resources to publish charts of their own—and show only one obstacle: a shallow sandbar that we should be able to clear. Even so, I tighten my grip on the metal shroud; it's a roll of the dice, since our mast is the highest point in sight and thus a perfect lightning rod in this squall. Goff's Caye, a dark green mangrove island a quarter-mile to our south, is only a low mound rising up from the water. We're trailing jumper cables over the side as grounding wires, just in case.
These kinds of navigational challenges are precisely what's exhilarating about sailing in Belize. Formerly a British colony (English is the official language) and once ruled by the Maya, the Massachusetts-size country is located just south of Mexico and east of Guatemala on Central America's Caribbean coast. Most of the country's 250,000 permanent residents live in a few cities and towns along the coast and work as fishermen, loggers, farmers, and in the tourism industry. Tourism has been the mainstay of the economy since the early 1980s; last year 107,000 peoplecame to Belize to dive, fish, and visit the Mayan ruins of the inland jungles.
The six of us—Neil, a wilderness EMT from Steamboat Springs, Colorado; Connie and Scott, a couple from Boston; Belinda, my wife; James, our photographer; and I—are one of the first groups to charter a bareboat catamaran along the Belize Barrier Reef, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, 12 nautical miles offshore, and to the outer atolls, another 30 miles beyond. The waters off Belize were once the domain of pirates in search of Spanish galleon gold and are now home to some of the finest scuba sites in the world, including the famous Blue Hole, a cavernous sinkhole that measures 1,000 feet across and 480 feet deep. But until now, diving Belize meant spending a week aboard a dive boat with 20 to 30 other people or staying at a land-based resort and shuttling back and forth to dive sites hours away. So when I learned last spring that Belize's first bareboat charter company, TMM, with a head office based on the British Virgin Island of Tortola, had recently begun renting catamarans outfitted with dive compressors, I felt compelled to investigate.
Big cruising cats with sleeping cabins like Katkandu, the 42-foot catamaran we chartered, built by the French company Fountaine Pajot, are a new phenomenon in the sailing world. They've been available as bareboats—sailboats chartered sans crews—only in the last few years. Hence, like most people, we'd never sailed one. Our group's sailing experience ranged from saltwater-in-the-veins (I'm a former private yacht captain) to landlubber. But with these boats you need less expertise than you do for a monohull: They're relatively easy to handle, don't heel, and—as we would discover—can skim through amazingly shallow water
Erring on the side of caution, TMM restricts bareboaters to sailing within the reef; if a client damages a boat on an offshore atoll, it could be months before the weather allows a salvage vessel to recover it. But if you bring one of TMM's local captains as a pilot, you've got free rein to explore all of Belize's cruising grounds. Because this was precisely the point of our trip, we enlisted the services of Freddy Waight, a Belizean captain and dive master who's been sailing these waters for the last 30 years. Our tentative route left from Ambergris Caye, where TMM's Belize office is located, in the far northeastern corner of the country, some 16 nautical miles south of the Mexican border and 25 nautical miles offshore from Belize City. From there we planned to sail in a wide circle east to the outer coral atolls (which range in size from tiny spits of land that disappear during a storm to bigger islands with dive resorts); southwest to tiny Carrie Bow Caye, about 70 nautical miles south of Ambergris on the Belize Reef; and then north again to Ambergris—about 200 nautical miles in all.
DAY ONE, 1000 hours. Wind NE 10–15 knots. Sky a brilliant blue with occasional silky white cumulus. Katkandu sits tied to the dock at Ambergris Caye.
By 1030 hours we're under way, motoring through a gap in the reef a half-mile offshore. We round up into the wind, hoist the sails, and set a course of 130 degrees for Lighthouse Reef, an atoll 40 nautical miles away. The seas are three to four feet, but Katkandu doesn't pitch or roll as a monohull would.
1510 hours. We sight Northern Caye, our anchorage for the night, on the horizon and tack to starboard. The turquoise waters inside the atoll are separated from the deep blue of the open ocean by an unbroken line of white waves crashing on the reef. We haven't seen another boat since we left Ambergris Caye.
1630 hours. We pass into the protected anchorage between two postcard-perfect islands, all white sand and breezy palms. On our port side, tiny Sandbore Caye is no more than an eighth of a mile long, with a lighthouse and a few wooden outbuildings. To starboard, Northern Caye is much larger, a few square miles of dense green mangroves, palms, and zericote trees. Once we've moored, we snorkel off the stern among purple sea fans; brain, stag, and elkhorn corals; hundreds of neon angelfish, damselfish, parrot fish; and a long, fat moray eel watching us from his hole.
Day two, 0800 hours. Wind 10-15 knots. Calm water in the anchorage. By noon we're 80 feet underwater on our first wall dive outside the reef (these distant atolls see so little scuba traffic that most of the dive sites have not been named). This is one of the most vital, pristine reefs I've ever been on, with rare black coral, still intact thanks to the dearth of divers, swaying in the current.
Day four, 1030 hours. Wind E 10 knots. Seas calm. Katkandu motors through a gap in the barrier reef between South Water Caye and Carrie Bow Caye as we pull on shortie wetsuits, weight belts, tanks, fins. As soon as we're over the dive spot we descend the wide steps built into the transom and jump scissor-legged into the 80-degree water. A moment later we're hovering weightlessly. On our right the sheer reef wall drops 1,000 feet; on our left is the seemingly bottomless open sea.
From the boat we've already seen amazing sealife: red-footed boobies, frigate birds, iguanas, crocodiles, mahimahi, flying fish. But the variety at the different depths on the reef makes the world above seem desertlike by comparison—nurse sharks, rays, spiny lobsters, tarpon, barracuda, hundreds of colorful reef fish, and a variety of corals, fans, and sponges. This is our fourth dive in four days—we've been to two other unnamed sites and to one called The Aquarium—each one better than the last. Here there is no damage from boat anchors or divers' fins.
Day five, 1600 hours. Wind 25 knots. We approach tiny Goffs Caye from the southwest through squalls and somehow avoid running aground. No more than a sand spit, the island sits precariously atop the reef, as though the next storm might wash it into the sea. A pod of a dozen or so dolphins greets us, leaping from the water and swimming under the forward trampoline, so close we could touch them if we leaned down. We anchor alone in the lee of the cay, pile into the inflatable dinghy, don our masks and fins, and spend the next hour swimming with dolphins.
The best time of year to go to Belize—or anywhere in the Caribbean—is January through April. But June–July is the best bargain: It's rainy season (but with an average eight to ten inches per month, not that rainy) and thus less expensive, and the trade winds keep temperatures, in the nineties, bearable.
American (800-433-7300) and Continental (800-523-3273) both fly to Belize City, the country's biggest metropolis with a population of 75,000, as does the South American airline Taca (800-535-8780), for about $840 during the high season, late December through early January and February through April. Fares during the rainy season are about $795 round-trip. From Belize City it's a short puddle-jumper flight to Ambergris Caye on Tropic Air ($84 round-trip; 800-422-3435). TMM (800-633-0155) has connections with a wholesaler who can get good discounts on airfare.
TMM has about 15 boats, all catamarans, ranging from 35 to 46 feet. Our 42-footer had four spacious cabins with doubles and two cabins with single berths. Prices range from $4,190 to $6,650 per week, depending on the season. The 35-footer holds two couples comfortably and costs from $2,200 to $3,650. There was nothing "bare" about these boats: Ours had GPS, radar, autopilot, a water purifier, a generator, refrigeration, and a dive compressor. All other boats in TMM's fleet are similarly equipped.
What to Pack:
You won't need much in the way of clothing: bathing suits, shorts, flip-flops, and T-shirts—and long-sleeve cotton shirts and pants if you're sensitive to the sun. Bring the best polarized sunglasses you can afford, but you can go cheap when it comes to raingear: A lightweight vinyl foul-weather jacket is all you'll need. A handheld VHF radio is handy for communicating with the mother ship when you're exploring by dinghy. Bring your own mask, snorkel, and fins.
If you're more concerned with relaxation than expenses, TMM will stock the boat for you for $22.50 per person per day. We did our own provisioning, which took extra time and legwork on the sand-paved streets of San Pedro, but we got to explore the markets, shopping for indigenous fish and succulent lobster.