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Forty Miles And a World Away August 1, 2003

By The Ithaka - Published August 01, 2003 - Viewed 678 times

August 1, 2003
Lighthouse Atoll, Belize
17° 12.505 North
087° 35.875 West

Forty Miles And a World Away

By Douglas Bernon

- It's mighty difficult to leave Glover's Atoll, where nature's so immodest. The fish are big and brazen - a bunch of fearless hussies. But, the word has it among cruisers that Lighthouse Atoll, to the north, another underwater mountain also ringed by coral, is as seductive. It's just a matter of escaping the sweet embrace of Glovers.


Giant eagle rays, many with wing spans of six feet, soar around Ithaka, and near us as we dive and snorkel.

In all things, the acceleration of motion requires a whole lot more energy than sustaining it, and for us there's never a smooth rhythm to leaving a place. The urge to move on, and the force of gravity, are forever opposed. We're always curious to see what's next. But there are gentle comforts in staying put, especially the pleasures in letting our eyes wander repeatedly over familiar underwater seascapes, unraveling a few threads of local mystery, accepting the fabric as too great to know it all. Time grants the privilege of stumbling across subtle beauties that are hidden at first glance, and Bernadette and I both delight in recognizing the same eagle ray who circles Ithaka late every afternoon, and the large, wily, long-lived, black grouper who lives under the ledge by the coral head just east of us. He actually smirks when he sees me with my spear gun, knowing his time at Glovers will extend long beyond mine. I wonder, does he consider himself lucky, too?


Some grouper make it to the dinner table; others, too big and impressive to shoot, just give us the eye.
Cruising makes conscious the great task we all face - having to chose how and where we spend our finite existence -- because every day out here, while there's inevitably a certain degree of routine, without the scaffolding of scheduled events that are the heart of the work world, the vastness of our choices is highlighted. Always one of them is this: Shall we stay here today or shall we move on?

To exit Glovers there are only a couple of channels through the reef. The largest and deepest is at the south end of the atoll. But even there, coral heads jut up like an obstacle course - many are keel-bashing shallow. Good light is a needed ally to weave out to open sea. On our way in, we had the tracking function of our GPS on, which gave us an electronic trail of bread crumbs we could, theoretically, follow out. But our path in was a series of sudden zigzags as we dodged heads, making it a sorry road map.


Douglas is happiest when he can spend part of every day in the water.

None of this would be a big deal if we were leaving with bright sun above and behind us illuminating the heads, generally after 10:00 a.m. and before 1:00 p.m.. After all, the distance from the pass at Glovers to the channel at Lighthouse is only 43 miles --an easy day sail for Ithaka. But for the past few weeks we've had no wind or consistent 20- to 25-knot winds from the north-northeast, which is about 45 degrees. Our heading to Lighthouse is 37 degrees, putting the wind pretty much on our nose, which would make progress slow. If we wait for good light to leave, there's no way we'd arrive on the other end with enough light to see our way in. The entrance to Lighthouse Atoll has no markers and is about 200 yards wide. You need to pass directly over the reef itself to get inside, in no more than 10 feet of water, and you'd best be accurate. After several years of this drill, it even now gives me the creeps. Our standard procedure is for me to climb up the mast a ways for better visibility into the water ahead, or to be at the bow pulpit - keeping a vigil - while Bernadette drives and lines up landmarks with the guidebook. It's an effective division of labor, and our distance from each other minimizes the contagion of anxiety. Or so we pretend.


Close-up of a dramatic purple fan coral, plentiful throughout the atolls of Belize.
For several days I've been studying the NOAA weather faxes, GRIB (gridded binary data) files, and "virtual buoy" reports, all of which we receive as e-mails through our single-sideband radio. Putting together these sometimes conflicting weather perspectives, it seems we just might have a perfect weather window of rare southeast winds on Wednesday morning and afternoon before a return to the usual northeasterlies that night, although the truth is, all weather windows are "maybe" events. Prediction is as much art as science, but we prepare the boat to bolt early, in case we get lucky, figuring we'd rather have limited light on the way out of a recognizable situation, and try for good light heading into the unknown - a reasonable life-philosophy in most things.

Early Tuesday afternoon, in bright sun, Bernadette and I motor Ithaka to the mouth of the atoll and anchor in a small patch clear of heads. We're far enough out into the pass to aid in a pre-dawn escape, but also far enough out into the ocean swell that we fear we'll be tossed around all night. Still, it gives us a straight path out. Next, we rev up the inflatable dinghy, and with our hand-held GPS and hand-held depth sounder, make a series of runs from the boat out to sea to ensure we have an unobstructed track we can trust in the dark. It takes a number of false starts to establish a clear line with more than six feet of depth, but when we find it, we turn the dinghy around, head straight back to Ithaka with the GPS on, and capture a path, double-checking the depth as we go along.


We plan our course, and schedule our departure, but ultimately the weather makes the call.

The only glitch is that the spot in which we've anchored to pull this off is smack dab in the middle of the break in the reef -- the rolliest, least-protected spot in all of Glovers. Sleep is fitful. With two miles of open fetch, Ithaka rolls and bucks most of the night, straining hard on her snubber against the northeast winds. All we can do is wish the wind would miraculously change direction. It's like putting a tooth under your pillow; you hope there will be a payoff by morning. At 3:00 a.m., something feels different, and I awaken with a start. We were facing southeast. The winds are with us.

The kettle is boiling by 4:30 a.m. The anchor was on deck by 5:00. We slowly follow our new track-line the rest of the way through the reef, and once the depth sounder shows us off soundings, we raise the sails, and turn west outside the reef. For about three miles we keep that course, tracing the reef line, then made our turn to the northeast. Pushed by 15 knots out of the southeast, we tuck a reef in the main, trim the big Genoa in just a bit, set our Monitor self-steering vane, and instead of getting hammered, we grab a strand of the Gulf Stream (it starts down in these parts), and start clocking 7 knots, then 8, then 9 knots, with leaping dolphins accompanying us much of the way. Instead of making Lighthouse with marginal light late in the day, we slam on the brakes and pull in before high noon. Life is rarely that smooth, and between good speed and dolphins, we take it all as good omens about Lighthouse.


For hours, a huge school of dolphin romp and leap alongside Ithaka, playing in our bow wake as we fly toward Lighthouse.
There simply are no good, published charts for any of the Atlantic's four offshore atolls (Chinchoro Bank off Mexico, and Turneff, Lighthouse and Glovers off Belize). The best guidebook for this region, Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast Including Guatemala's Rio Dulce, an impressive volume put together by Captain Freya Rauscher, was written pre-GPS. You can trust your life and boat to her meticulous, hand-drawn bearing lines, but the author layered the latitude and longitude on years later and some are a mile or more off. We just white out those lines on our pages to avoid seeing them altogether. Nigel Calder's Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean, is older still, and while Calder has super-imposed latitude and longitude grids on some of his drawings, he's the first to warn that they shouldn't be trusted! So, cruisers in these parts use these books as great background material. For real precision, whenever we can, we all rely on waypoints passed from boat to boat and, when we're really lucky, on hand-drawn charts put together by fellow cruisers.

The hand-drawn chart of Lighthouse, from Simba.

The popular chart for entering Lighthouse was drawn by Frank and Lynda Cassidy on Simba in May of 2001. Their waypoints are spot on for entering this cut, for going north of Long Caye to the nature preserve, the booby rookery at Half Moon Caye, and for wiggling up to the infamous Blue Hole, the hundreds-of-feet-deep Mecca for scuba divers who crave their adrenalin well-chilled. There's also an excellent chart with waypoints put in by Julie and Tom Bennett on Kiwi, when they were here in 2002. It's particularly useful in the winter months, for Kiwi laid out a deep-water route around the south of Long Caye to a lagoon


The hand-drawn chart of Long Caye, from Kiwi.
offering ideal protection from the powerful northers that howl here from January through March. When we sailed north this year from Panama and told some friends we were planning to stop at Glover's Atoll, the man rushed below to get me a copy of a cruiser-drawn chart for the entrance there. He returned with a Xerox of the chart I'd put together three years ago with Harold Clapp from Sea Camp - it was still making the rounds. Traced, copied, and passed from yacht to yacht, these tried-and-true cruisers' charts are like gold.

The path into the anchorage on the west side of Long Caye at Lighthouse is one of three narrow alleys over marginally deeper sections of the ring reef that surrounds the whole island. Approaching from the south you proceed to a waypoint that requires a fundamental leap of faith, because


The revised entry path for Glovers Atoll.
you're about to cross over dark brown rocks that appear uniformly deep - solid coral! -- and you're hoping that the numbers on that little sheet of paper are right. At 17°12.689 north latitude and 087° 36.888 west longitude you take a hard right turn to a heading of 75 degrees and go .3 nautical miles to 17°12.760 N and 087°36.582 W, inching your home over a reef that you know is within arms reach of the keel. Least water is reputed to be 9 feet. Ithaka draws six, but we've yet to hear of anyone losing their boat on this entrance-so we proceed, with me up the mast. We see the water go from deepest blue to lighter green and finally brown which, according to Bernadette at the wheel, corresponds on the depth sounder to steadily decreasing numbers: from off soundings at a charted 3,000 feet to an abrupt 40 and then to three feet under our keel as we cross the bar, enter the lagoon, and breathe easier. Once inside, the water turns a slightly darker green, reflecting the eel grass beneath us.

At the natural rookeries throughout Belize and Honduras, mother boobies and their fluffy babies nestle and thrive.

Within the hour the anchor's in, and Bernadette's backed down on it a couple times to make sure we're set. The snubber's attached to the chain, and I've dove the anchor to see first hand that it's in the way we like it. Finally satisfied, it's time to climb back aboard, and split a beer. We never drink under way, but it's become one of our rituals, when we make a landfall, to crack out one of our very coldest the minute we're set, no matter the hour. For reasons neither of us can recall, we also always make a veggie-and-cheese frittata the morning of any landfall, but never at any other time.

Regardless of the distance traveled, it's always a thrill to be safely anchored somewhere completely new, a blank slate of


Sunset -- every day a moment to stop, reflect, and wonder…
experiences awaiting. But at the same moment there's also the tension of the unfamiliar. You can't know yet the local winds and currents, or the quality of the holding in a major blow. You don't know what on your boat will break next, or how you'll repair it. You don't know how the fishing will be, or what new people you'll meet. You can harbor all the dreams and wishes in the world, but you can't know the future, only take a hopeful step into it.

As the sun sets, I look ahead at the island protecting us, the changing colors of the reef behind us, and I wonder… Where will this new place take us, and how long will we get to stay?

Hand-Held Depth Sounders

This was one of the last things we bought for the boat before we left the States in 2000, and it's paid for itself many times over. Made by Speedtech Instruments in Great Falls, Virginia (800-760-0004), this bright yellow, plastic-encased, hand-held depth sounder measures 7.5 inches long and about an inch diameter, about the size of a small flashlight. It's a terrific invention, the electronic version of the lead line, but much easier to use. Running on a small 9-volt battery, you just hold this puppy under water, pointing down, press the button on the side, and a second later get a depth read out. We rely on it in the dinghy all the time.





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