Herman Heads South

By Bernadette Bernon
May 18, 2001
Placencia, Belize
16 30.441 N 88 21.797 W

With Ithaka safely hooked in a deep-water anchorage just off one of the pretty Pelican Cays, still inside the protection of Belize's long barrier reef, we had the paradise-crescent of a bay completely to ourselves — always such a sweet sensation of intimate freedom. Ithaka nodded gently on her anchor rode. Palm trees swayed on the white-sand beach. Comical pelicans dive-bombed around us. Schools of fish jumped near the thickets of mangroves. Douglas and I had just dinghied back from snorkeling over the reef and were about to strip off and take sun showers, when I saw a boat approaching in the distance. Damn, I couldn't help thinking, there goes the neighborhood.

Photo of the northernmost islet of the Pelican Cays The protected northernmost islet of the Pelican Cays, where Ithaka was anchored in 55 feet.

The boat had a British flag, I noticed as it motored closer to Ithaka, and made a wide, slow circle around us. Then the couple onboard looked as though they were planning to drop their hook in a spot that would have them ending up right on top of us. Douglas was developing the exasperated look he gets whenever this is about to happen, and immediately began to take his anti-anchoring, curmudgeon stance on the foredeck — sort of tai chi with an attitude — which means he puts his hands on his hips and stares coldly at the other boat, never taking his eyes off them. I've tried to point out — lovingly, of course — that if our previous experience is any indication, this method usually seems to encourage the other guy to anchor as close to us as possible, and does precious little to foster community spirit.

"Let's try something different this time," I said.

"Be my guest," he answered, and sat in the cockpit, broadcasting go-away vibes.

I waved to the other boat in as friendly and as nonchalant a way as possible. "Hello!" I called to the fellow on deck. "We're in 55 feet of water here, and we have out A LOT of scope. More than 300 feet" — OK, the scope was a bit of an exaggeration, but the depth was real — "so we'll need a lot of swinging room. Wow, that's a pretty boat!"

"Thanks!" he beamed, and they pulled away from us.

My Mr. Mellow harrumphed. About an hour later, three more boats arrived, all with French flags. One of the boats had, by actual count, 12 people aboard, and eight of them were children! I repeated my splendid performance. The result is they all med moored with bow anchors out and tied their sterns off to the mangroves, giving everyone plenty of room. Folks from one of the French boats, Sare, puttered over in their dinghy; we introduced ourselves and chatted for a bit, then they invited us for cake and drinks on the beach to celebrate the birthday of one of the kids.

Photo of mangroves The mangroves grow all the way down to the waterline, and send off strong, deep roots.

"Well we'd love to. Thanks," I purred, looking over at Douglas as the fellow dinghied away.

"So what's your point?" he said.

"No point," I smiled.

Later on the beach, over chocolate banana birthday cake, as we watched a happy 10-year-old and his visiting cousins bash a piñata to smithereens, Gordon and Tessa, the English couple, told us about where they'd been on Makarma. Eight years ago, they sailed from Plymouth, England, cruised the Caribbean for a few years, spent some time in South America, Colombia, the San Blas islands off Panama, the Río Dulce in Guatemala and the cays of Belize. Now they were slowly headed north to Isla Mujeres, then Florida, up the coast and across the Atlantic to the Azores for the summer, and then home to England. "Me? I could stay out indefinitely," said Gordon, "I love it. But, Tess here's telling me it's time she had a bloody garden. So, so be it. We'll go back for a while."

"Don't worry, Gordon," she said. "There'll be life after sailing!"

Over the last few weeks, we'd met many boats on their way back north, and we were surprised to realize how many American cruisers had just circled down here in Central America for one fall/winter season. Marianne Lee and Wyllys Terry on Sunday's Child, who we'd met in Xcalak a few weeks back, had come down from Maine in November, explored the Bahamas, and Central America, and were headed back to Maine for this summer. Our friends Frank and Lynda on Simba were doing the same. After a visit from their daughter Mary and her husband Andy, the Cassidys would turn Simba around next week, jump on the Gulf-Stream highway for a speedy voyage — via Isla and Florida — back to New England for the summer, and the wedding of their son, Peter. And we heard the same story every morning on the Northwest Caribbean Net on the single-sideband radio. I admired the pluck of these people, who thought nothing of a quick 1,000-mile ocean voyage home.

Photo of Sue and Earl Lamar Sue and Earl Lamar.

A few days ago, we shared a stunning anchorage behind isolated Garbutt Cay with Sue and Earl Lamar on My Bonnie, from Sharpes, Florida. They, too, were on the northbound track. After we got our hook down — not too near them — Sue and Earl dinghied over to say hello. We invited them aboard for some lemonade, and Earl told us all about his years as a bridgetender in Florida, "watching all these sailboats going under me every day, and talking to the folks," he said. "I decided, that's for me. So I took a close look at a lot of boats, from overhead, you know, and got a pretty clear idea of what I wanted, then Sue and I built this boat. It took 10 years from start to finish. I knew if I went to the bank I'd never get a boat. Had to do it ourselves with no loans. We did. Then we just quit our jobs and left."

"Earl built every bit of it himself," said Sue. "I was just the cheap labor. We saved every penny and called'm ‘freedom chips.' We just up and quit when we had enough money to stay out five years. I've kept track of every penny we spent and every Coke we ever bought out here. Turns out the money didn't last us the whole five years, but we did almost three. We spent way more on rental cars than we expected, but there was so much to see inland. I don't regret a bit of it. Now it's time to get on home for a while and see those grandkids."

Sue and Earl sailed My Bonnie, a sturdy, 34-foot Glen-L design, from Florida to the Bahamas, then down through the Windwards and Leewards all the way to Tobago, then along the coast of South America to Colombia, where they stayed to explore the colonial walled city of Cartagena. They snaked up through the pristine San Blas islands and lingered there as long as they could. "I left my fingernail marks in the San Blas," said Earl. "I did not want to leave." From Panama, they meandered up to the Río and the islands of Belize, and now they're making miles north to Isla and home.

"When we get back to the States, we know what we'll be doing for work. Earl'll probably be at a checkout saying, ‘paper or plastic?' and I'll be saying, ‘you want fries with that?' but we just don't care. We had ourselves a ball out here."

Photo of sidewalk in Placentia Placentia has a sidewalk running through it instead of a road, and folks just amble along, chat. Life is slow and hot.

Earl told us that awhile back he and Sue had spent a year cruising with a boat named Magdalena, and now they were trying to catch up with their friends for a last hurrah. We'd heard Magdalena check in from Belize, about 60 miles north, on the morning net on the SSB, and told Earl to come on over to Ithaka the next morning, use our radio and go on the net and try to make contact. Bright and early, Sue and Earl returned, bearing freshly baked cinnamon rolls — the best I've ever tasted — and while Earl and Douglas fiddled with the radio and contacted Magdalena, Sue and I talked about great places in the Río, and about the secret ingredient in her rolls.

"Herman," she said. "He's my secret."

"Herman?" I said.

"Herman's a sour-dough starter, and he's been living in my fridge. I got him from Magdalena two years ago, who got him seven or eight years before that from a boat called Carpe Diem. They got him from some old Venezuelan lady, who said he'd been in the family for generations. I even flew him to the States once, and gave a piece of him to my daughter." I sat fascinated by the idea of this frothing, swelling yeastlike thing in a jar in the fridge, being passed along all over the face of the earth. "He's gotta have a glass jar," Sue stressed, "with a plastic lid. I used a plastic jar on him once, and he just busted right out of it."

I knew immediately that, if Sue was willing, I'd be going over to My Bonnie to get a look at Herman, and that I wouldn't be leaving Garbutt Cay without a piece of him for myself.

Photo of Laundry hanging outside colorfully painted homes Laundry hangs outside colorfully painted homes along the sidewalk.

Everyone we'd been meeting — Sue and Earl, Gordon and Tess, Wyllys and Marianne — had been singing the praises of Placentia, the dusty, untouristy little town on the Belize mainland and that's where we are. As everyone had told us, it's a funky, sleepy speck of a place, with a sidewalk running down the middle of it instead of a road — a good sign in my book — and I liked it immediately. Taking Sue's advice, a few times we've stopped by a restaurant on the beach named Cozy Corner for the best fish burritos to be found in Belize. We've done a few loads of laundry. We've shopped for fresh provisions — or at least we've tried. Placentia is having a med-fly problem, and supposedly you can't bring ripe fruit and some veggies from town out to the boats. The thinking behind this ban is to prevent boaters from transporting ripe produce somewhere else, then for some reason taking it ashore there. But in the typical disconnect between officialdom and reality, the med-fly inspectors work on the dinghy dock from nine to five, and the stores selling fruit and vegetables remain open until 7 p.m. As a cruiser on a nearby boat said to us when we arrived, "You do the math."

Photo of taking shade in the mid-day heat The heat of mid-day finds many people in Placentia taking to the shade.

For the past few days though, buying anything fresh has been a challenge. When the stores are open, we've found that the fruit and vegetable bins always seem to be empty, not a mango or a green pepper in sight. "No vegetables a'tall in da whole of Placentia till nex Monday," said the lady at the meager grocery store on the main drag Friday morning. But just after they closed at noon, I walked by the store again, and noticed that the shelves were full of beautiful-looking produce, and no one could get inside to buy it. They were closed till Monday!

Last night, we heard from our friend Karen on Flow, who's anchored nearby, about a rumored open-air fruit and vegetable stand that would open all day today, Saturday right alongside the dinghy dock, starting at 9 a.m. sharp. Apparently this brazen location was selected because the med-fly inspector is off altogether on weekends. We dinghied in at 8:15, and found the whole thing already in chaotic progress, with two cruisers doing a tug-of-war over a head of broccoli. Douglas dove into a bin of variegated greens, emerging with his arms full, as I jumped back in the dinghy to collect Karen.

Photo of Flow sailing along Flow trots along beside us as we both make tracks south.

"It's a zoo!" I called to her. "You better get in there now, or everything will be gone!" She dashed for her shoes and money.

By the time I got back to the melee, Douglas also had secured six ears of corn, a couple of green pineapples, a bag of green tomatoes, three green peppers, a head of broccoli, one hot pepper, and the dude was much pleased with himself. Armed with the bounty — which we rinsed straightaway in a solution of water, bleach, and iodine — and packing Herman and a couple of burritos for the road, Ithaka and Flow are stocked up with healthy food and fresh water and ready to carry on first thing tomorrow toward the south.