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Another exciting and relaxing (yes, it’s possible to have both) sailing vacation with adventurous, fun-loving sailors – blog written by Offshore Sailing School graduate and flotilla participant, Bill Epstein.

Along with my favorite pictures, here’s slightly trimmed down excerpt from my log of our trip…Group arriving in Belize

Fri., Feb 1, 2024

The Belize City airport is pretty small, and it took only a few minutes for us to get through customs. Our Maya Air flight from Belize City had about a dozen people on it, and our 25 min. trip to Placencia included a very short stop in Dangriga for two people to get off. The two young guys from The Placencia resort who picked us up were pretty interesting. They were both Mayan, from two of the three different groups of Mayans in Belize. The driver himself didn’t know of any real differences in the groups. When they asked where we were from, it was apparent that their knowledge of US geography was about as bad as a typical American’s knowledge of Central America.

Our server at dinner, Maria, spoke with us for quite a while (there was only one other couple in the restaurant, and they had the other servers). She also gave us background on the different people that live in Belize. She called herself Mestizo, which is effectively what they call Latinos from Central America. She also mentioned the Garifuna, who are of mixed free African and Amerindian ancestry (she said that in Belize, most people don’t use the term Black), as well as the Creole, who are mixed raced. She said they all get along, though didn’t really intermix much until more recently.

Fri., Feb. 2, 2024flotilla fleet in Belize

We got up at 5:15am because our driver to the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (ATM) would be picking us up at 6:30am sharp for our two-hour drive, and we couldn’t be late. The cave tour was amazing. We started around 9:30am, and first hiked along an easy trail for a mile or so, crossing the Roaring River three times along the way (maybe 120ft across), wading almost as deep as my shoulders on the first crossing (there was a guide rope to help keep balance). The cave itself varied in width and height from very narrow passages (you had to squeeze by, even though the cave was high) to maybe 50ft wide in places. For most of the ¾ mile we went into the cave, we were usually hiking through water, and at times swimming. The water in the cave is all naturally filtered through the limestone, and a very pleasant temperature (the river water was chilly). Our guide, Patrick, (there were seven of us in our group) pointed out the many sandstone and other formations (the stalactites, stalagmites, and other types of drapery-like formations where amazing), pottery shards (some nearly intact), as well as several skeletons, all left by the Mayans over the ages from as far back as 200 A.D. through about 900 A.D. At the deepest part of our hike, we had to take off our sandals to continue. We climbed a staircase, then maneuvered through challenging grounds (my feet did not like some of the rough patches).  Here, our guide pointed out a number of sites where human sacrifices had been made, some willingly (local tribal leaders thought the more painful their death, the more the gods would be pleased) and some unwillingly (prisoners from skirmishes with other tribes). When we finally got back at 2:30pm, they had delicious chicken and rice plates ready for us, along with a pretty good rum punch.

Our driver, Minor, was waiting for us when we finally got back, and we didn’t get back to The Placencia until well after 5:00pm. Minor recommended we try eating at the Maya Beach Bistro. I had an excellent pair of lobster tails, Becki had a delicious soup, and we shared coconut shrimp.

Sat., 2/3/24getting acquainted in Belize

The resort arranged for a taxi to take us to The Moorings, with a stop at Public grocery store where we stocked up mostly on alcoholic beverages and soft drinks that were not included in the provisioning for our boat. We got to The Moorings well before the scheduled captains and navigators meeting, and met our flotilla guides, Nate and Heather, along with a few of the other sailors. It took several hours, between the captains/navigators meeting, boat walk-throughs, detailed instructions on anchoring and mooring, and settling in, before The Moorings staff took our boats out of dock for us and set us on our way.

Our boat, Calif83, was a Leopard ‘45, and our crew included Becki and me (skipper), Brian Fitch (navigator/first mate and construction engineer), and Terence McCormally (semi-retired family physician, and his wife Katherine Cole (fully retired family physician). The other boats were Ceya, CattyShack, and Seventeen (lead boat). Everyone was happy to meet everyone else, and eager to cruise. Becki gave her homemade chocolate chip cookies and brownies to each boat, and they were a huge hit.

We motored for just a couple miles around to Placencia Point, where we worked really well together and had no problem anchoring on our first try. After an hour or so of settling in and having a drink and snacks, we dinghied to Placencia, where we walked around a little, picked up snacks, and went to Rick’s Cafe for an excellent Flotilla group dinner. 

Sun., 2/4/24

It was very calm and clear in the morning, but early on there was a thick fog everywhere that was apparently from burning palm fronds and garbage (fortunately, we just smelled woody smoke). After Nate and Heather came by all the boats to give a briefing, we competently raised our anchor, set out towards the Inner Channel, turned into the wind, and raised sail (Becki saw a large Ray while we were raising sail). We had some difficulty getting our main sail raised because of trouble with a couple pesky lazy jacks and reefing lines that were catching. Eventually, we got everything going well and unfurled our genoa. Unfortunately, winds were weak from the SSE (we could only get 4-4.5 knots from the sails), so we ended up motor sailing much of the way up the Inner Channel, then dropped sails and slowly motored to Saltwater Caye. It took us two tries to set our anchor securely. Becki and I motored over to the southern point of Saltwater Caye and did some snorkeling (very shallow with a lot of see grass). Becki saw a very large hermit crab with a conch shell, I found a live conch, but other than that, we only saw a few interesting fish. Shortly after we returned, we saw a 2.5ft Cobia swimming around the boat, and Becki saw a dolphin.

We had a couple cocktails while Terence and Katherine made us an excellent spaghetti dinner, then Brian played Bananagrams with us before we all turned in.group drinks at Tiki Bar

Mon., 2/5/24

We got a call on the radio at 3:30am from Heather on Seventeen alerting all of us to keep a close watch on our anchors and turn off our generators in case our anchors didn’t hold because theirs had not held. When I got up, they were really close to us, and it took a minute to be sure they were motoring away. The wind was at 18-21 knots (we’d heard we’d get strong winds from the NNW from the evening weather report). A little while later, the wind shifted a lot and Heather called us to say she thought we were dragging and to get prepared to motor up. I’m not positive we were dragging, rather than having just rotated a lot around our anchor, but I trust Heather’s judgement. Brian raised our anchor while I struggled to get us into the wind. I found a few things challenging: 1) it was very dark, other than the other boat lights and shore lights which made it very disorienting; 2) our helm display was way too bright, which hurt my night vision; 3) I had on my trifocals, which can be challenging to use when looking up and down and all around a lot; 4) I was foolish at first to rely just on the engines for maneuvering, rather than use more power and my wheel.

Heather was extremely helpful, guiding us on where to position relative to her boat, and verifying that we were holding after re-dropping our anchor. Just before the wind had shifted, I had turned on the tracking feature on our navigation panel, so it did show our initial drag (which might have been from the wind shift), but really helped confirm that our re-dropped anchor was holding.

Around 7:00am, we all hoisted anchor and set back through the channel(s) we’d used the day before, closely tracking Seventeen (the 50-ft catamaran has a little more draft, so if they got through, we could). Struggling with up to a 29-knot headwind, we crossed a spot as shallow as 1.3 ft below where our depth-finder was set (2ft below our keel). Between going slow out of caution and dealing with the high winds, it was quite challenging to maintain steady control of the ship.

Once we got back to the channel, we only partially unfurled our genoa and still made 5.5 knots.  After an hour or so, when the winds died down a little, we unfurled the genoa all the way. After furling sails and motoring into Pelican Caye, we picked up a mooring ball (excellent teamwork) and set up to relax. We were in a well-protected cove, so only had a pleasant breeze coming through.lobster pots on the beach in Belize

After a leisurely lunch and well-deserved down-time, Becki and I took the dinghy around the mangroves, found a couple of dead ends, then motored around Hideaway Caye and did some snorkeling. Just a few feet past the edges of the mangrove, the coral shelf plummets quickly.  We saw a few interesting fish and two huge (16”) orange starfish, but apparently missed the large brain coral and lobster hiding under it.

The whole flotilla met for dinner at the restaurant on Hideaway Caye.  Dustin, the owner of the island, met us at the dock and tied up our dinghy for us. He bought the island 20 years ago and built the whole amazing structure himself. Dustin’s wife, Kim, wrote a book called So, You Want to Buy an Island, and they have an 11-yr old daughter (she helped serve us) who has lived there her whole life. I didn’t get a chance to talk with her, but Nate said she’s very well-educated (home-schooled) and very sociable. We climbed upstairs to the restaurant platform (room for about 4 large tables, a nice bar, and kitchen behind. He made excellent rum drinks for us, and we’d all pre-ordered our meals. Becki and I each had lobsters. Our table shared many conch fritters, and I had the banana cake for dessert. Really good dinner, sitting and talking with the other crew members. I mostly talked with Ken and Gerry Blum, who retired 2 years ago after selling their Dunkin’ Donuts franchises (he had been a banker prior to getting into the franchises), George Edmonson, the captain of Catty Shack, and Andy Garcia, who is a general contractor near Ft. Myers, Florida.

Tuesday, 2/6/24

We motored back into the Inner Channel and spent most of the day sailing south toward No Name Point. The wind was generally good (10-18 knots), but was coming from the WSW, so we had to do a fair amount of tacking along the way. After several hours (we were covering >30 nm), we motor sailed the last hour to the well-protected, mangrove-surrounded bay, and set anchor about 4-5 ft below our keel in a mud bottom.

Wednesday, 2/7/24Looking for the howler monkeys

At 7:30am, Ralph (our Monkey River tour guide) came by each boat to pick us up in his river tour boat. He is from Monkey River Village (population: <200). Going first thing in the morning was excellent planning, as the animals were active. We quickly saw lots of different birds and a 10-ft crocodile. After maybe 20 min., we set off on a trail and quickly found a troop of very loud howler monkeys. Ralph was amazing at spotting everything – slider turtle, mangrove swallow, great blue heron, little blue heron, juvenile heron (white), ibis, Anhinga (snake bird), Cormorant, Montezuma’s Oropendola, some kind of Oriole (much larger than a Baltimore Oriole), tree swallow, and he was very knowledgeable about all the plants and wildlife. After another short ride, we stopped near a baby croc (~1 ft) and its momma not too far away. Here we saw more Howlers, and some came within 30 ft of us. Ralph gave us multiple samples of leaves along the way to smell, and asked us to identify them (thyme, lime, lemongrass, cilantro, bay, black peppercorns).

We got back to our boats before noon and set off shortly after lunch. Heading for Ray/Hatchet Caye (due east maybe 18-20 nm, then north for 4 nm), sailing started off pretty good, with winds coming from the SSE, but they died off enough that the flotilla started power sailing again. We arrived at Ray Caye around 4:15pm – it’s a really beautiful resort island. I briefly snorkeled around the boat (it was maybe 17’ deep). There were some sea fans, a conch, and just a few fish, but the visibility was not very good. We all met at the bar of the Lionfish Restaurant and had excellent drinks, wandered around a little enjoying the beautiful scenery, and chatted with folks from the other boats. Then we all sat at a long table for a very nice dinner. I had an excellent scrod dish and Becki had a very good duck and risotto dish.

Thursday, 2/8/24

We woke up to cloudy skies and light rain. Becki and I made bacon and egg McMuffins for everyone for breakfast and they were delicious. There were sCatamaran with the setting sun in Belizecattered showers most of the morning, but we all still decided to head to shore to look around. The only item on the agenda was for a turtle and shark snorkeling excursion leaving at 1:30pm for those who were interested.  As we were lowering the dinghy, the line on the davit snapped, and the dinghy slammed into the water with the davit support bar crashing on top of it. We radioed to Seventeen what happened, then quickly figured out that the line had become very worn and frayed. However, we saw that the davit had plenty of extra line, so we re-threaded the good remaining line. By the time Nate and Heather got to our boat, they totally agreed with our solution, which worked well.

Ray Island resembles an idyllic image of a tropical island resort, with a protective reef, palm trees, and elegant, open-air facilities. Becki and I ate a delicious lunch (I had a grilled snapper over rice, with more of the thin spears of cho cho (baby cucumber), and Becki had a citrus salad with grilled shrimp. Meanwhile, just feet away, we saw a baby ray swim by, and pelicans fishing successfully, while we video chatted with Sedona.

Ten of us went on the excursion. We took a fairly large dive boat out about 15 minutes east to a spot where we all got into the water. It was a bit windy and choppy, but only about 8 ft deep, and within two minutes, one of our guides found a leatherback turtle. Unlike in the BVI, where you’re not supposed to touch them, the guide gently grabbed the whole turtle at times to redirect it towards us. We saw at least three different turtles (4-5ft long), and I pet their shells and even felt one’s very leathery neck. We could also see 2-ft long remoras attached to the bottom of one of them. At one point, two of the turtles closely spiraled around each other in what looked like a beautiful dance. For a minute, I was worried we were interrupting a mating dance, but the guide said both were female. We also saw several 4-6 ft nurse sharks swim right under us. After about 30-40 minutes, we all got back onboard, boated a few minutes away and snorkeled around a small island that was surrounded by a healthy reef. We saw plenty of the typical tropical fish and corals.

Friday, 2/9/24Group shot in Belize by Heather

Terence made pancakes and sausage for us for breakfast (we’ve eaten very well). Winds were from the east at about 10-16 knots. Becki took a turn at the helm as we untethered from our mooring ball around 8:30am, and headed first slightly south of west, and then jibed in order to head WNW toward the Inner Channel. When we got to the inner channel, Katherine took another turn at the helm, and we jibed again in order to head SSE toward Placencia. We lowered sail outside of Placencia and I took the helm to motor us in (I don’t think I’d actually taken the helm since the morning after our anchoring issue). The Moorings brought tenders out so they could bring us to dock, then checkout had lots of questions and we let them know of the issues we’d had, but all was good. I was able to take a nice, long (though weak water pressure) shower at The Moorings, chatted with others, and then we all went into town for dinner. We shared a couple of taxis to go a mile or so south to the Brew Barge (brewery and diner), which had a large, open space, and we all shared one long table. Becki tried the sampler flights of beers, and I had a couple during dinner. The food was good, and they had karaoke all evening.  A few from our flotilla gave it a shot, but a couple locals were definitely better singers.

Saturday, 2/10/24

In the morning, we slowly gathered our things together, collected the trash, and set out unopened dry/canned foods on the table, and only left unopened frozen and refrigerated items where they were (Moorings staff basically use it as a free grocery). Diego, The Moorings manager, came boat to boat with a lengthy questionnaire, and we let him know about the issues we’d had. Afterward, we stored our duffle bag and backpacks in The Moorings office, then walked across the road to Lara Baya to join a bunch of the others for breakfast. After breakfast, we took a taxi from The Moorings into “downtown” Placencia with Brian, and meandered up and down the central sidewalk, where lots of local art was being displayed/sold as part of their yearly art festival. Becki and I bought a few souvenirs and gifts. After a while, we stopped for lunch, then excellent gelato at Tutti Fruitti (downstairs from Rick’s Cafe, where we’d eaten the first night of the flotilla). I called The Placencia to ask for a ride to the resort. We had to wait for about 40min, but otherwise it was very convenient (we stopped by The Moorings to pick up our bags, then at the Public to return their plastic drink case).group dinner setting at sunset

Shortly after we checked in, I put on my swimsuit and headed to the pool (Becki enjoyed some downtime). I got a drink from the swim-up bar, then relaxed in one of the lounge chairs. Becki joined me and brought an extra bag of Cheetos we’d rescued from the boat. Russell was also staying at The Placencia, so we met for dinner at the thatch restaurant at the end of the dock.

Sunday, 2/11/24

We got up at 6:00am so that we’d be ready for our 7:00am ride to the airport for our 8:30am flight. The local airlines want people there an hour before the flights, even though I don’t think there’s ever more than a dozen people on any flight. Craig was on our flight to Belize City, so we had breakfast with him in Belize City, and both Craig and Russell were on our flights to Charlotte. When we checked in, our bag weighed 58lbs, but since I’d upgraded our tickets, the first-class bag weight limit is 70lb (whew!). Going through customs in Charlotte was amazingly fast, thanks to Global Entry. We had a 5-hr layover in Charlotte, but because we’d flown internationally first-class, we could get into the American lounge, and that’s where we watched most of the Super Bowl.

Final assessment… This was an awesome trip, and we’d definitely be up for another flotilla in the future! We got everything out of it that we were hoping to. Nate and Heather were awesome flotilla leaders, everyone got along really well, we got to know a bunch of people with at least one common interest, we got in some great sailing and excursions, and we got a great taste of Belize.

View future Colgate Sailing Adventures flotilla trip destinations. 

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