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