Small Dramas At The Reef

By Douglas Bernon
May 25, 2001
Between Tom Owen's Cays, The Sapodillas, Belize
16 11.269' N 88 13.991 W

Just before sunset last night, while we were anchored at an isolated little speck of an island in Belize's Sapodilla Cays, Scheherazade's veil of cloud cover burnt off, revealing to our southwest and southeast horizons the first gauzy silhouettes of mountains.

"Look," I said to Bernadette. "Over there. Whaddaya see?"

"Mountains," she said, and then gasped. "It's Guatemala. And Honduras ..." Then, just as suddenly as they had been uncovered, darkness and haze demurely pulled a scarf across the tantalizing scene — our first beckoning glimpse of the countries we'll visit as we venture farther south in the months to come. This was one of those rare, sweet moments when the sea was calm, the anchor felt well dug in, the forecast was benign, the day was done, the world was good, the sunset was purple and orange, and we sat quietly in the cockpit, awed by our immense good fortune. Then one of us, I'm not sure who, began the contagion of wordless giggles, because neither of us could quite believe we're really here and really doing this. We've learned that these moments must be savored fully, not only because life is short, but also because, almost invariably, such peaceful glories are the harbinger for some pee-in-your-pants fire drill in the middle of the night.

Photo of an abandoned shack on Tom Owens West An abandoned shack on Tom Owens West, the only structure on this picturesque little cay.

We're parked almost dead center between two cays — Tom Owen's West and Tom Owen's East — in about 14 feet of water. But only a stone's throw away, on the other side of Tom Owen's East, there's an accommodating break in the reef; then, before you can roll out your trolling line, it's 3,000 feet deep. The Owens Cays, part of what are known as the Sapodillas, were named after the British explorer who charted this area in the 1830s. They're located in the crux of the elbow that forms the southwest corner of the western Caribbean, 22 miles off the Belizean coast, 35 miles from Guatemala and fewer than that from Honduras.

Like most of the islands here, the Owens Cays are ringed with shallow coral, so the lagoon entrance can be approached only with the sun as an ally. Any rays before the beam are blinding, but directly overhead or behind you, if you're halfway up the mast or even just perched with your ancestral, simian, prehensile toes curled over the bow pulpit, there's generally no problem making out the lethal brown patches and weaving around them. But without favorable solar conditions, forget it. It's beautiful here but can be hairy getting around. Some of the government charts for this region actually date back to Commander Owens, and the two guidebooks, by Rauscher and Calder, are essentially pre-GPS, making them formidable accomplishments but not always precise. Add to that a bottom contour that's filled with sudden mini-mountains of coral, and the water depths can go from 140 to 40 to 14 to 4 and back to 140 lickety-split. It explains why you don't see any crowded anchorages, which in lots of ways makes this all the nicer. Most days, the moments of terror and constant vigilance are well worth it, and the guide books do have some pretty good bearing lines, just none of those stop-on-the-dime-and-take-a-left, lat/long fixes we all crave.

Entering the little cove between these islands, the hand-drawn chart in Rauscher's guidebook recommends you approach on a bearing of 123 degrees True toward the center of Tom Owen's East (which is drawn as being just southeast of a "conch pile"), proceed through 24-foot water, avoid the coral shoal that extends from the eastern end of Tom Owen's West and take a hard right to 180 degrees True to stay clear of a broad, seven-foot coral patch in the center of your approach. Just beyond that, once you recapture your breath, you're clear to drop in 8-20 feet of crystal water into a good-holding sand bottom. Tom Owens West Cay is stereotypically beautiful: probably 250 yards long and 50 yards wide, with 20 or so coconut palms and an inviting sand beach on the southeast side. No one lives there, and it's a pristine little jewel. We spent six nights there writing, reading, doing boat projects, snorkeling, and just hanging out.

Photo of A book and a snooze make a perfect afternoon A book and a snooze make a perfect afternoon in the Sapodillas.

It was Tom Owen's East that ultimately became the more magnetizing to me. No bigger than 100 by 15 yards, this is a scruffy little patch of hardscrabble coral without so much as a mangrove to soften its edge. Last year's hurricane wiped out the couple of trees that once stood there, and now, when the 9-inch tide comes in high, half the island is submerged. However, there's a cluster of driftwood that's wedged itself in and provides an ethereal roost for a gaggle of loopy-looking pelicans, some of whose repeated, empty-billed dives made me see them as a cross between Elmer Fudd and the Little Engine That Could.

Tom Owen's East supports one structure of sorts. Covered with black tarpaulin and heavy plastic, but not tethered all that well, is a lean-to of about 10 by 12 feet. Inside there's a 6' x 3' x 3' wooden box that's been insulated and fiberglassed, serving as an ice chest. On the ground around the box there's some torn-up foam padding, a rocky campfire pit with an old coffee pot on it, and enough space for three or four men to sleep uncomfortably on the rocks, which is what they do, for spells of 10 days. They free-dive for fish and conch and store it in the ice, so that an open power launch from Mango Creek on the Belizean mainland can come every other day to collect the haul and deliver new ice.

Photo of a view of Sapodilla Cay lagoon A view from Ithaka.

The Sapodilla Cay lagoons are part of the national park system, so I've been well behaved and resisted hunting inside this preserve. But the guys on Tom Owen's East range outside it, and we've been getting fish and conch from them when they return at dusk. We dinghied over to see them and said hello the first day, and I asked if they wanted to sell any fish. The leader, a quiet man in badly torn jeans and a ripped shirt, surprised me by asking if we would trade with them instead. A former colony of Great Britain, Belize is an English-speaking country, but these men are Mayans from Big Creek and speak only Spanish. They said they'd prefer refrescos and something dulce — cold drinks and sweets — but not beer, because, as Juan said, while slapping himself upside the head and sticking out his tongue, it makes him "loco."

We were moved by their conditions and thirst and pluck, so we returned with cinnamon buns and cold lime drinks and cookies, more than they anticipated, and we got back more than we asked, which set the pattern for the week and made the exchange on both sides something more personal than business. They gave us four cleaned conchs and several pounds of my favorite pescado: hogfish. Juan expertly filleted the fish for me with a small, razor-sharp knife he honed with seawater on the coral after every few cuts. On Ithaka, when we catch fish and eat them raw on the spot, it's generally time for wasabi and soy sauce. But that evening Bernadette seared the hogfish lightly in sweet butter and lime juice, with just a touch of salt and pepper. That's all it needed, and dinner was perfect. The conch we pounded for the next day's luncheon fajitas.

When we took the dinghy over to see Juan a couple of days later, no need to talk money. We just brought more cold drinks, canned vegetables, several T-shirts, some fishing hooks, and a replacement sling for their spear gun, which I'd noticed was broken. It was more than was required for a trade but seemed right in our shared lagoon with such a disparity of resources. Juan was astounded and grateful to have, once again, a working gun, and we had to refuse much of the bounty they offered, taking only several fillets of grouper and a couple more conch. Lest I paint us in too magnanimous a portrait, I have to cop to the fact that giving away canned vegetables should not be confused with genuine philanthropy. We've learned that what we didn't eat at home, we won't eat on the boat, and all those cans of peas and carrots that for some inexplicable reason we actually bought and have been toting around, taste about as fresh as the pictures on the cans suggest.

Photo of tiny Tom Owens West, Belize A pleasing sight, tiny Tom Owens West offered little in the way of protection from the fierce northeasterly winds, but holding was good and we rode out the drama.

One night around 3 a.m., a sleep-stealing thunder-and-lightning show reminded us we're very little toads in rather a big pond, and we aren't the ones in charge. Being in control may be a comforting — even necessary — self-seduction that appeals in the noggin, but come the flashes of light, the torrents, and 33-knot winds, it's in the heart that the chaos of nature lodges. We were especially tense in this small lagoon because the wind direction shifted more than 120 degrees in 30 minutes, and we hoped the anchor would hold and prevent us from dragging on a reef that in our rearrangement of position was now not all that terribly far behind us. We prepared to do what you most don't want to do in a storm: motor forward and shorten scope. But the gods were with us this time, and while we kept the engine idling in neutral, we were fine. This thunder-bumper was over by 7 a.m., and we not only held fast but in the deluge managed to rig our water-catchment hoses and collect enough sweet-rain drinking water to top off our tanks and fill six five-gallon jerry jugs as well. At sunup, I could see through the binoculars that Juan and his friends had fared less well. Their icebox had stayed put just fine, and their little boat was well tied off. But their tarp lean-to had taken a beating, leaving them fully exposed in a wet, howling universe. I watched the men collect the scraps and pieces and cobble their shelter together again. I was grateful that Ithaka was fine and glad to see they appeared to be OK, but as exhausted as they must have been, once the lean-to was protecting the icebox again, they got in their skiff and went back to work. All day I wondered about them. How is their health? What are their families like? Do they have wives and girlfriends and children? What's fun for them and funny? What stories did their mothers tell them as little boys? What are the myths they grew up with? What are their dreams? What did their daddies do? Who are their heroes? Could they possibly have any idea of how much I respect their grit? Could I ever find the words or ways to tell them?

We visited the men once more that evening, but my Spanish was inadequate to convey what I would like to have said; the following day, several hours after their workday had begun, when they were about half a mile away, west of us, diving in 30 or 40 feet of water, we raised the main and motor-sailed out of the lagoon with more fish and conch than we knew what to do with. Once clear of the coral shallows, we turned off the engine, raised the genoa, and sailed past them. We waved and they waved, then silence reigned. But in my mind there remained questions I doubt I'll ever answer, most significantly, why on earth should this privilege be ours?