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The Best Laid Schemes

May 19, 2005

We checked out of Livingston, timing our departure with the state of the tide

While there are some individuals who enjoy living on the edge, never sure of what will happen next, most of us prefer at least some measure of certainty in our lives. We make plans based on the best information available, aiming to avoid unpleasant surprises. Unfortunately, life is rarely as simple or as predictable as we would like it, especially if we're cruising. In fact, there's probably no other activity quite like cruising to shatter any delusions we may have of personal efficacy. We soon learn that, in the bigger picture, we're insignificant specks floating around on an endless expanse of ocean, buffeted by whatever Mother Nature serves up. It can be a humbling experience.

This isn't to say we shouldn't plan ahead. Our point is simply that the best laid schemes of mice, men, and cruisers often go awry and we should be prepared to change direction midcourse if need be. Call it a healthy sense of self-preservation.

We had everything planned perfectly for our departure from Guatemala's Rio Dulce. Our destination was Isla Mujeres, Mexico, roughly 360 miles to the north north east. Two considerations were paramount: the weather and the tides at the mouth of the river. Cruising guides will tell you that at low water you can carry six feet across the bar that extends for about a mile seaward of the river's entrance. Don't believe it. We draw a bit more than five feet fully loaded and our depth sounder flat-lined briefly when we crossed the bar at mid-tide a month ago. This time we scheduled our exit so we'd leave in the morning light on a rising spring tide. David said, "To give ourselves an extra inch or so, we won't top up our water and fuel tanks or take extra gas and diesel in the deck containers. We should be in Isla Mujeres in three days, where the fuel is cheaper anyway."

We compared waypoints for the channel with everyone we could find. We got varying advice. We ignored the guy who vaguely said, "You just hold a course anywhere to the right of the big concrete dock and keep the throttle up." He admitted he had bounced across the bottom on a few occasions. In the end, we decided to stick with the waypoints we had used coming in, reasoning that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

We assembled our usual array of weather information: wind and wave fax charts; National Weather Service offshore text forecasts; and detailed wind and surface pressure GRIB files. Conditions looked pretty good. Our ever helpful friend Joe on the catamaran "Tango" figured we could use additional data. He downloaded 500 millibar charts, infrared satellite images, and several other weather products that made absolutely no sense to us. "I'd say you've got a good window coming up," Joe said. "There's a front approaching the Gulf of Mexico, but the jet stream should stop it from moving any further this way." We nodded sagely in agreement.

The day before our planned crossing of the bar, we motored down the Rio to the port town of Livingston, arriving in plenty of time to clear out with the officials. We had saved enough local currency to cover the clearance fees and buy the chloroquine pills we needed to complete our anti-malarial regimens. The chloroquine was cheaper than we had expected so we had money left over to buy some essential provisions: a bowl of ice cream, a cantaloupe, and a pineapple. "Perfect planning," David said as he handed over our last quetzal to the fruit vendor.

We weighed anchor at the appointed time, motored across the bar with a few inches to spare, and set a course to clear the Sapodilla Cays at the southeastern corner of Belize. "Too bad we don't have more time to cruise Belize," Eileen remarked. "We had a lot of fun the last time we visited here."

"We can't afford the time and expense of clearing in and out of the country, especially if we want to take advantage of this weather window," David replied.

We were heading east and the wind was right on our nose. "Hmm, that's funny," David remarked. "It's supposed to be coming from the southeast. No big deal; we'll be turning northeast in another 20 miles, so we'll motor-sail until then."

Four hours later, we turned more to the north just as the wind backed and increased in strength. "Little Gidding" was bucking straight into steep, five foot waves. "What happened to those light southeast winds?" Eileen asked.

"The latest radio forecast still claims they're out there," David replied. "I guess we'll just have to wait a little while longer."

By sunset, the conditions hadn't improved. We ate a soggy one-bowl dinner in the spray-filled cockpit. "This isn't fun," Eileen said. "It'll get better any minute now," David predicted.

We plodded on in the dark, the engine's roar and the boat's lurching motion pretty well eliminating any possibility of sleep. At dawn, we were approaching Belize's Lighthouse Reef. "We have to make a decision," David said. "Since we didn't fill up with diesel, we don't have enough fuel to motor all the way to Isla Mujeres, even if we were inclined to do so. There's a sheltered anchorage up ahead in the lee of Long Cay, at the south end of Lighthouse Reef."

Eileen wiped the spray off her glasses and squinted at the smudge of land on the horizon. "I'd say that's a no-brainer."

We dropped the anchor just inside the fringing reef at the northwest corner of Long Cay. There were three other sailboats anchored about half a mile further into the shallow bay. "We'll just hang out here," David said, "so we can make an easy exit when the wind comes around like it's supposed to. We'll have a nap and then get underway in a few hours while there's still good light."

By late afternoon there was still no change in the weather. One of our new neighbours turned out to be David, on the catamaran "Expectations", whom we had met in Honduras. He called us on the radio. "Why don't you guys come in from out there and join us for dinner? I'm barbecuing a bunch of chicken. I've invited the other boats over as well."

We re-anchored next to "Expectations". Our friend David introduced us his new crew, Annette, and to Greg and Sue on "Bluejacket" and Jim and Judy on "Lone Star Love". Greg and Sue explained that they had spent most of the winter at Lighthouse Reef because they liked it so much, especially the diving and snorkelling. "We're on our way to Isla Mujeres," David said, "so unfortunately we won't be here for long."

The navigable route around the south end of Long Cay wasn't obvious

The next morning the wind had piped up even more and was coming straight from the north, sending an uncomfortable swell through the anchorage. Greg called us to say they were going to go around to a well protected anchorage on the other side of the cay. According to the sketch chart in our cruising guide, there wasn't enough water to navigate between the island and the fringing reef. "Don't worry," Greg said. "I've done this route many times before and you'll have at least six feet the whole way. Just follow right behind me. But you'll have to decide now, I'm weighing anchor in ten minutes."

Eileen looked at David. "I guess we're not going to Isla Mujeres today," she said.

We joined the parade heading around the end of the cay, Eileen at the helm and David at the bow. True to his word, Greg led us safely through the shallows to a calm bay. Over the next few days, we snorkelled, walked the beach, and socialized with the other boats. We ran out of fresh meat, but David speared a couple of fat snappers that fed us for another two days. A week after we had arrived at Lighthouse Reef, the wind finally shifted to the east. We bid farewell to our new friends and carefully retraced our steps to the deep water beyond the reef. We headed north on an easy reach under sunny skies.

Eileen had time to walk the beach at Lighthouse Reef

"Well, you said you wanted to visit Belize again," David commented as the land disappeared behind us.

"Yeah, it's a good thing we planned it that way," Eileen said.

David & Eileen