Wandering through Belize

From our nice, protected anchorage behind the Drowned Cays about 10 miles east of Belize City, we called to see if the marina had any room.
“Cucumber Beach Marina, Cucumber Beach Marina, this is Sea Trek on Channel 16, over.”
Carlos, the marina manager, indicated they did and we could arrive any time that day. We decided to go into a marina — something we normally do very seldom when cruising — for several reasons. First, very strong winds were expected to develop over the next few days. Second, our outboard was cutting out at inconvenient times, such as heading downwind in a strong current. Good thing Chuck is a strong rower or he might have been blown to Belize City in a good easterly. Since we were in no hurry, we got the anchor up, motored out of our little “bogue” and headed just south of west across Belize Harbor. Once on course, we popped the jib and cut the engine. What started as flat-water sailing got progressively more boisterous as we left the lee of the Drowned Cays. By the time we approached Cucumber Beach, we were surfing down 4-footers. I thought it was supposed to be flat sailing behind the reefs in Belize, but this is a wide area with a 10-mile fetch in waters of only 25 feet or so.

From a few miles out, Cucumber Beach is very apparent with its red-and-white roofs, which stand in stark contrast to miles and miles of nothing but mangrove trees. The marina entrance coordinates had been provided to us by Carlos and we rolled up the jib about a half-mile from the waypoint. A jetty running diagonally to shore has been built at the marina entrance to reduce the amount of surge that is allowed to enter. We were guided in on VHF channel 68 to our slip, having cleared ahead of time which side we would be tied to and had fenders and dock lines ready. Smiling, friendly dockhands were on hand to assist us, and within minutes we were secure.

Repairs and provisions
Cucumber Beach Marina is truly an oasis along the mainland coast of northern Belize. Once a commercial port for the exportation of, you guessed it, cucumbers, the property has been converted to a marina, yard, restaurant and museum. Just five miles from Belize City on the Southern Highway, this is the perfect place to reprovision, do inland trips or get those repairs done that have plagued you since you left the United States.
Our first order of business was the outboard. Carlos and Paul know every mechanic, taxi driver, service provider, etc., in the area and within hours, had a mechanic respond to our boat. There are no services on the grounds, but someone can drive out from the city very quickly. The mechanic took our outboard back to his shop and delivered it the same afternoon in much better working order. We also needed propane and were concerned about riding the bus with our tank. No problem. The gas company came to the marina, picked up our tank, refilled it and also had it back in the same day for around $5 (U.S.). (Note: Belizean currency is $2 to 1 U.S. dollar, which gives you the illusion of getting everything half price.)

Now that the critical issues were resolved, we could move on to the more mundane concerns of laundry and groceries. With only one washer and one dryer, laundry took a while, but it was a short walk from the boat. Shopping was another issue with town being five miles away.

We happened to strike up a conversation with a Canadian woman whose cousin lives in Belize, and had lent her a car to use during her stay. I was able to hitch a ride to the store with her and top off Sea Trek’s stores with items from the Save-U and the wonderful produce markets directly across the street. We found local meats and produce to be fairly reasonably priced and of good quality. U.S. products could also be purchased, but for substantially more than at home.

Taking in the sights
Back at the marina we had finished all of our projects so decided to explore the grounds. From our vantage point on the northern side of the marina basin next to the office, we had to walk west and around the Travelift pit to get to the restaurant. Very noticeable are all of the very large ferry catamarans parked in the basin. They service the cruise ships that anchor out in the middle of the harbor, just south of the city. They begin early in the morning on days when ships are in port and take passengers to the ferry terminal in the city. (Should you make it into the city, there are wonderful duty-free shops and arts galleries near the terminal.) Also on the property is Old Belize, a museum with artifacts and historical background on this tiny country. On the waterfront is Sibun Bite restaurant.

The entire complex is owned and operated by Francis Cisco. A nicer and friendlier proprietor you will not find. He personally greets all boaters and is very open to suggestions. We should also mention that we found the food at Sibun Bite reasonably priced and delicious. Free wireless Internet is available in the marina and restaurant.
Francis has taken the area in front of the restaurant on the harbor’s edge and transformed it into a beach complete with tiki huts, kayaks and palm trees. It makes one feel like they are in Polynesia.

We got weathered in Cucumber Beach with very strong trades so decided to go inland. If your cruising kitty is well-stocked, you can hire a private taxi to take you virtually anywhere in the country, even to neighboring Guatemala to Tikal. (It’s closer from here than from the Rio Dulce.) The Belize Zoo is only 20 miles away from the marina and is an inexpensive, fun-filled day. With limited funds, we braved the country’s bus system and rode to San Ignacio. It was hot and crowded and lots of water is recommended. We had the small ruins of Cahal Pech, a Mayan city, to ourselves one bright morning. Hotels and restaurants are plentiful and reasonably priced. We spent three great days in this rustic small town that is loaded with tourist attractions.

Island hopping
We knew we needed to press on so continued south after saying goodbye to the friendliest, most helpful marina staff we had ever met anywhere. We broke the days up into short hops of 15 or 20 miles as the weather forecast looked quite good for the week. The first night was Bluefield Range near Rendezvous Cay close to the reef.
This defunct fishing camp is distinguishable from a distance with its light blue tiny stilt cabins. One can anchor in its lee, in between the cays for all around protection or on the Caribbean side in a westerly, with good holding. It is a short two-mile dinghy ride to the outlying reef for snorkeling, fishing or diving.

The next night we had chosen Coco Plum Cay near the Tobacco Cay reef pass. Although a beautiful little cay, broken up into three after numerous storms, the holding was terrible and we spent two hours trying to get either a CQR or Danforth to hold. The bottom was just too hard and grassy for anything to penetrate so we let out the 45-pound anchor and 150 feet of chain to hold us in place. We prayed for no squalls overnight and fortunately there were none.

Ordinarily we would have moved to a better anchorage, but the afternoon was wearing on and we didn’t want to get stuck in reef-strewn waters in the dark.
We moved on to Placencia the next day. I was very excited to see so many anchored boats through the binoculars as we approached from the north, but quickly realized the majority of them were charter boats. We did become reunited with some recent friends that had left us back in Cay Caulker.

Placencia is an interesting town at the end of a very long road. (See accompanying story, Page 11.) We cleared out of Belize in Big Creek, just south of Placencia. Chuck and the captain of the other boat dinghied the three or so miles there from the anchorage in Placencia. (It’s only three miles by water, but 45 miles by road.) They were chastised for not bringing the big boats to Big Creek as well as fined an additional $20 by the customs official. Live and learn.

A quiet anchorage
Our last stop before the Rio Dulce was New Haven Bight. This secure, protected anchorage on the mainland side of Belize is also part of the National Park system. We decided to spend two nights there to wait a weather window to cross the Gulf of Honduras to Livingston, Guatemala. Once the home of Hard Luck Charlie’s Boat Yard, this quiet anchorage is all but deserted. Hard Luck Charlie died some years back, as rumor has it, by getting drunk and driving his boat into the mangroves. You can’t get your boat hauled here, but there is a lovely mango tree next to Charlie’s old house that was spilling delicious fruit onto the ground.

A catamaran anchored in the little bay was occupied by an American couple looking to buy property in the cove and spend their retirement here. We found this to be true in many places in Belize and Guatemala.

Like much of Belize, this area is now designated as part of a park system. On our second morning there we were hailed on VHF 16 by the Port of Honduras. Two gentlemen in a panga approached our stern and advised us that we would need to pay $10 (U.S.) per day per person for our stay there. Chuck politely discussed this with them. We could not understand why this would be part of the park as it was mainland area and not reefs, and there were no moorings or services.

They couldn’t have been more courteous and accepted payment for one day instead of two. They told Chuck that some people refuse to come out of their boats to speak to them and others don’t let them touch their boats to hang on to talk.

Belize is a wonderful, beautiful country with friendly people. However, one should note before traveling through Belize by boat that much of the country, mainland and cays, is part of the park system and as such is subject to a per-person charge to anchor. Tropicat, a cruising boat out of San Francisco, reported to us in December 2005 that at Lighthouse Reef the charge is $30 (U.S.) per person per day.

For those of us on tight budgets these costs can become prohibitive so, unfortunately, we did not see as much of Belize as we would have liked. Hopefully, the government there will reconsider some of these charges and the effect they might have on future tourism.
Having said that, we loved the time we spent in Belize and the new friends we made. But it was time to move on and experience Guatemala.

Arriving in "The River"

The weather was still holding for us but rain and thunderstorms were forecast for the Bay of Honduras for the next few days. We were also timing our arrival at the entrance to the Rio Dulce to coincide with an astronomical high tide to give us as much water as possible when we crossed the famous “bar” at the mouth of the river. Leaving New Haven Bight early in the morning meant the next high tide would not be until the next day.
There are a couple of choices when waiting to enter the river as to where you might want to anchor for the night. Most folks, it seems, anchor behind Cabo Tres Puntas, which is due east of the river entrance by about 10 miles. The prevailing winds in this area generally switch to the west at night and hold there until about late morning. This means the anchorage behind Cabo Tres Puntas is exposed to swells with a 10-mile fetch, which puts you on a lee shore if things get exciting. Not a situation we prefer, especially since the afternoon and evening thunderstorms can produce winds to 50 knots and some pretty uncomfortable seas.

The second option, and the one we chose, was to continue in along the coastline of Cabo Tres Puntas in a southeast direction into a well-protected bay called Bahia La Graciosa. By avoiding the uncharted shoal on your portside that extends off the tip in toward the bay at the entrance, coming in is easy and the entrance is otherwise very straight forward.

Local sights and sounds
We had arrived at about 4 p.m. along with our friends on the sailing vessel Nueva Vida. This is a couple from Alaska with three children aboard whom we had met in Tulum and had traveled with again for much of Belize. We positioned ourselves in the northern end of the bay for protection from the forecast winds. This bay is beautiful and affords 360-degree protection in just about any weather condition. We found ourselves anchored just off a native fishing village. As we sat in the cockpit enjoying the afternoon, we watched as they strung their nets between trees, and cleaned and repaired them. We also saw a group of natives fishing from a panga just off our stern. They tied the boat to shore and extended their nets out at right angles, then walked them in an arc to the stern of their boat. They were corralling the fish back toward the shoreline and the boat. Once the circle was completed and the nets were right along side their panga they simply reached down, grabbed the fish and threw them into the boat.

These were no small fish since some seemed to be almost as large as the fisherman. And, no, this is not a fish tale. We were totally fascinated and this was our first look at how the Guatemalan natives lived and worked. This area is very remote, with access only by boat. The closest town is Livingston, 10 miles across the bay. Near sunset the fisherman hauled in their nets and headed home. Just as the sun was going down we were treated to another first.

From the jungle we could hear the very distinctive calls of howler monkeys. Many cruisers that had come here before us had told us to listen for them just after sunset and as soon as the sun comes up. This is the time they are most active and vocal.
It was quite an experience the first time and Susan was really excited. She soon had the imitation of their call down, and could even get them to call back to her.

A weather window decision
Our plans were to leave around 5 a.m. the next day to be across the bar on the rising tide. During the night we had become surrounded by thunderstorms, but none drifted over our small bay. By the time we were ready to pull up our anchor they had positioned themselves directly between us and Livingston. The light show was pretty impressive. We talked on the radio with Nueva Vida. They had anchored about a quarter-mile from us and we told them we really did not feel comfortable with the storms out in the bay, and were concerned that one might sit on top of us as we tried to cross the bar.

We waited a couple of more hours, but the storms were holding and the clock was ticking for us. Finally we knew we could not make it to the bar with a good tide so we sat out the rest of the day right where we were. This was not a bad thing since the high tide was a little later and a little higher the next morning.

Other than a few sprinkles in the morning, the storms stayed outside the bay, so we enjoyed this beautiful place surrounded by jungle and flat calm water. We took some time to take the dinghy and get a little closer to the fishing village. The villagers watched us with curiosity and waved enthusiastically when we came by. Later that night they had some kind of celebration and turned on their generator and ran electric lights. They spent several hours playing guitars and singing until about 9 p.m., when the lights went out and all was quiet again in our world.

You really have to experience these kinds of moments to appreciate the feeling that one gets. These are the reasons we worked hard and planned hard to get out here to travel the watery part of our planet on a small boat. But even on this evening we could not imagine that the best was yet to come.

Cutting it close
That night and early the next morning we once again had thunderstorms in the vicinity and you have to see the lightning displays to truly appreciate them. We had encountered this off and on down the entire coast from about Tulum south, but it was obvious that from now on this was to be a nightly occurrence. The plus side in the morning was that the storms were over inland Honduras to the east and were not blocking our path.
So at 6 a.m. we hauled up the anchor along with our friends and headed across the bay to the bar and Livingston. We were making a little better time than we had planned so we slowed down a bit, but even then knew we would arrive well before high tide. If we did ground at the bar we would simply wait a bit for the tide to come up. Nueva Vida draws 6-1/2 feet and Sea Trek draws 6 feet. The bar is reported to be 5 feet at mean low water.
The tidal range here is not very much and is dictated by the depths of the river further upstream. This is determined by the amount of rainfall inland as well as over the river and the two lakes that make up most of the system.

Since our draft is a little less than Nueva Vida, we crossed first and stayed in radio contact to provide them with depth reports. Sea Trek crossed the bar at about 7:45 a.m. with no problems. We were in the Rio Dulce and had met one of our greatest goals for the trip so far.

I can’t describe the excitement we felt at that moment, but just crossing the bar is not all we needed to worry about. The river entrance is very shallow in many places in the Livingston Harbor so our excitement was short-lived. Once again we had a good set of waypoints provided by our friends on the sailing vessel Filia and followed them carefully to the commercial dock at Livingston. Filia has been in and out of the river every year for the last 10 years and their draft is also 6 feet. We have used their waypoints several times in the past and found them always to be extremely accurate. We are well aware that using anyone else’s waypoints should be done with caution, and with careful examination of charts and any other navigational references available. Situations and conditions can obviously change rapidly in the marine environment.

Nautical gymnastics
A sailboat with a deeper draft trying to enter the river system creates an interesting challenge that calls for a technique that can be a bit unnerving. It entails the assistance of two local pangas working in tandem with each other. One panga will attach halyards from the mast head to their vessel and pull straight out from your beam. This heals the boat over far enough to reduce the draft sufficiently to get you over the bar.
At the same time the second panga is attached to the bow with a tow line, and pulls the boat forward until it’s in deeper water. It sounds scarier than it actually is because these fellows do this all the time and are quite good at it. The cost to get you over is usually $100 to $125 (U.S.) for the assistance of both boats.

Once over the bar, the deeper water doglegs straight up river for about a quarter-mile and then makes a turn to starboard toward the concrete municipal dock, the area where you must anchor. We found the holding here to be poor for anchoring, so this should not be attempted in bad weather. It’s also a good idea to leave someone on the boat at all times while at Livingston, unless the conditions are totally calm. Luckily calm conditions were our experience as we finally dropped the hook.

A sincere welcoming
We found the check-in process here to be one of the most pleasant and easy we’ve experienced almost anywhere. The first step is to call the Port Captain on VHF Channel 16. He speaks only Spanish so if no one on the boats has a grasp of the language a call to the Customs agent, Raul, might help smooth thing along. Raul is extremely helpful and speaks English. We are fortunate that Susan speaks pretty fluent Spanish, which has made our travels along Central America much smoother.

Once contact has been made you need to wait on the boat and all of the appropriate officials will come to you. You will be visited by the Port Captain, Customs, Immigrations and Health. Of the four, only Raul from Customs speaks English. Their visit was short and very pleasant. No search or inspection was done. They sat in our cockpit and chatted a bit, collected our passports, gave us a map of the town showing where all of their offices where and told us exactly what the charge would be at each office. This was amazing since it eliminates the possibility of unexpected or unofficial charges coming up at any time during check-in. They welcomed us to Guatemala and expressed a hope that we enjoy our stay. We were instructed to go to shore to begin the process, and told our passports would be in Immigration. The whole process, including a stop at the bank to change our U.S. dollars to local currency, took 40 to 50 minutes.

Once officially cleared in, we were free to enjoy these fantastic cruising grounds. We made a few stops in town to purchase some supplies and returned to the boat. Because of the strong current, poor holding and wakes from the local fishing boats it was decided that we would immediately move up river.

Our first stop was to be a small bay only about 12 miles away and it was still early morning. So, without hesitation, we pulled up the anchor and headed toward one of our greatest adventures to date.

Life on the Rio Dulce

Cruising is not really a fitting description of what most boaters do once they reach this beautiful country of Guatemala. The area near the mouth of the Rio Dulce is one of the most popular and safest areas in the Western Caribbean during the hurricane season.
In our research, we had heard some disturbing accounts of security problems on the river. There were tales of theft, intrigue, drugs and even murder in the idyllic setting. Later, we would uncover the true nature of those reports. Most boaters arriving here immediately head for the Marina District. By doing so, they bypass some great opportunities to enjoy the lower part of the river and experience some of the native settlements. 
We did an unscientific survey of the marinas when we arrived, and found to our surprise that around 80 percent of the boats were unattended and basically in storage for the upcoming hurricane season. Their owners had returned home or gone off for extended traveling elsewhere; as cruising sailors, we found this sad. Even the owners that stay aboard during the “season” rarely went anywhere on the boat. Yes, many did the typical inland exploration — as did we — since there is much to see in this beautiful country and we could have spent a lot more time doing just that if we in fact had the time.
Inland travel is fairly easy since there is a bus terminal in Fronteras, the main town here, to anywhere in the country you choose to go. We visited Guatemala City several times, the Lake Atitlan area, Antigua and the black sand beaches of the Pacific coast.

But we have always enjoyed exploring new places on Sea Trek and that is why we have lived aboard and cruised her for almost 14 years. So coming to a perfect and protected cruising grounds such as this and just parking the boat seemed almost sacrilegious.

Caution and common sense
When traveling inland for extended periods of time cruisers should leave the boat in one of the dozen or so marinas for security reasons. Petty theft can be a problem. Some marinas are not as secure as others, so be sure to ask around and get some first-hand advice; we found that unsubstantiated rumors do move up and down the river. It is, in part, those rumors that keep many from exploring any farther on their own. When we first arrived, we were warned not to go anywhere outside the marina area unless we buddy boated.

Even our outdated guidebook, which everyone uses, warns that anchoring in the Gorge or anywhere on the lower river can result in midnight boardings — banditos swinging from the trees down onto your boat from the jungle. In retrospect, we think they saw too many Tarzan movies as children. (Some of the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller were actually filmed here.) Over and over again we heard about the security issues of traveling alone here. We had to wonder then why so many cruisers came here after all.

From what we determined, no serious crimes have been reported here for years. However, incidents from years back are still retold as if they happened last week. The murder we had heard about was more than eight years ago. Even our embassy warned us about a “non-resident” being killed and a woman being raped. When we pressed, they admitted that it happened five years ago and in Guatemala City, far from the river. We were also told of boats being boarded and things stolen in the middle of the night when anchored off alone.
But then we discovered — after being here for four months — that there was not one incident of a boat being boarded or anything being stolen off any of the few boats that did cruise the river, including ourselves. 
The people that live here seem basically happy and hard-working, but they are very poor. Simply put: you need to use a certain amount of common sense and caution. Lock the boat when you leave and don’t leave things just lying about, especially at night. Boat traffic is heavy on the river day and night and the locals are curious about us, so they often come right alongside the boat as they travel up and down the river. Once we determined that things were pretty safe we began to spend more time exploring and cruising.

Exploring the beauty
Every anchorage on the river — as well as El Golfete and Lago Izabal — is spectacular. Lago Izabal is 15 miles wide and 30 miles long. The average depth is about 20 feet but as deep as 59 feet. El Golfete is a 10-mile-long beautiful bay surrounded by mountains that are covered with jungle. The waters are deep almost right up to the shoreline and you are surrounded by breathtaking vistas. If you are anchored in the right places the jungle sounds at night are fascinating.

This whole area is unlike any cruising grounds we have visited. And because most other boaters don’t leave the marinas we had the entire river system to ourselves, with peaceful anchorages wherever we went. There is one village on the Lago Izabal called El Estor that should not be used as an overnight anchorage. This is a former mining town that has fallen to hard times. Here we suspect you might experience some theft problems, so a daytime visit only is recommended.

There are rivers running in to the entire watershed from the mountains almost everywhere. These are wonderful for dinghy exploration, but be sure and use lots of bug repellent and always keep in mind that you are in the jungle.
Of course there is much to do if you hang around the main marina area. Each morning the day starts off with the local VHF net on channel 68. New arrivals introduce themselves and folks leaving on their boats say goodbye. It is an opportunity to locate hard-to-find parts or sell something you want to get rid of. The local restaurants announce their daily specials and any upcoming social events. Every Saturday morning The Cayuco Club sponsors a swap meet on the grounds of Mario’s Marina – just in case you didn’t sell your stuff over the VHF. Even local handicrafts are sold by local indigenous people.

This is a good opportunity to catch up on river gossip as well as socialize. On almost every holiday some event is going on at one of the marinas, including Fourth of July celebrations and huge Thanksgiving dinners, plus everything from pot luck dinners with everyone invited, including the locals, to Hawaiian Luaus.

Guatemala City is a five-hour bus ride and at some time everyone makes the trip at least once. We made the trip two times and can’t tell you how much we enjoyed ourselves. A private van with a driver can be arranged that will take you to the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras or Tikal in Northern Guatemala. Trips to any of the country’s fabulous tourist destinations can be arranged in Fronteras. It does not surprise us that some boaters came here for a visit and have stayed, in a few cases for more than 10 years. Many more come back here year after year and say they never do the same things twice.

We are not sure if or when we might return, but we know that if there is a next time we will spend a great deal more time on the water than tied to a dock. If your plans bring you to Guatemala in the future, consider a long, slow cruise along the Rio Dulce.

The Jungle Medic

Cruising does not always mean boisterous passages or cocktails on the aft deck at sunset. To the contrary, much of our time is spent exploring the country side and getting to know the local people. This approach for my wife Susan and I has enriched the experience far beyond what we expected when we moved aboard Sea Trek and started the cruising life almost 14 years ago. Beginning in mid April of 2005 the passage from the Florida Keys, down the coast of Mexico, and wandering through the many Cays in Belize has been wonderful. But that did not compare to our fantastic experience upon arriving on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. We had heard from many sources, of the wonderful work done here by Bryan Buchanan and his wife Riechelle. Bryan is a certified paramedic and has done a residency here with a family practitioner and he has also done some dental training. Both he and Riechelle have been Missionaries in third world countries for several years, the last few here in Guatemala. They primarily travel to remote villages that do not have access to medical care and set up their clinic for the day, but they will offer care and medication to anyone that might need it, including the local cruising community. Bryan and Riechelle are known locally here on the river as The Jungle Medic.

Each morning here on the river at 07:30 there is a cruisers net on VHF channel 69. So when the call went out for volunteers for one of Bryan’s clinics we jumped at the chance, and so did several others. Crew from Nueva Vida, Dragonet, Island Time, Anon, T.O. Sea, Morenga, Balance, Rose of Sharon, Bold Venture, Pegasus and of course our own Sea Trek answered the call. Arrangements were made by Bryan to pick up the individuals at the various Marinas in his van on Wednesday and we all met at Bryan's home just outside of town. The turnout was great and we had 25 volunteers for our "team". Bryan instructed us as to what to expect and how to set up for the clinic. We were all also issued scrubs for the purpose of showing the villagers that we were part of the team and there to help them as opposed to just a group of Gringos. Bryan also noted that this was a very large village by comparison to others he regularly visits and it was also a very sick village. Because he had needed to assemble a large enough group, but until now had been unable, the village had not been visited for almost a year. He generally tries to return every few months to the areas he has covered.
 
The next morning at 08:00 we set out in two vehicles. Bryan's van with a trailer in tow, carrying all the medical supplies, and a Jeep loaned to us by one of the local Marinas. The village was approximately 45 miles away. Once we had left the main paved road the going was considerably slower. After about an hour we reached the village and began to set up tables and the supplies on the front "porch" of two buildings of the school. Immediately after our arrival the villagers began to line up for what proved to be a long day. It had rained that morning and all of the grounds were muddy and it continued to rain off and on several times that day. We all received thorough instructions on just what our assignments were and exactly how to perform them. Once everything was ready and we were sure of what to do the first villagers started down the line.
 
This is not a true Medical Clinic in the sense that most might normally consider. There are no Doctors here most of the time. We had one other certified paramedic and two experienced nurses as part of the group. No one tries to diagnose serious illnesses or treat those that should see a doctor or be treated in a hospital. Those people are told they must go to one of the larger cities for appropriate treatment and Bryan frequently assists them by providing transportation. Our purpose there was to treat the most common problems related to the lifestyles and environment in which these people live. The most significant issues are infections that needed antibiotics, treatment of various types of worms that affected most of the children, and getting everyone some type of nutritional supplement since the local diets are very poor and lacking even the basics. This is indeed simply putting a band aid on a wound but as we saw it does make a difference in their lives and they do respond to it. 
This was a local village of the Kek'chi Mayan Indians. That does present somewhat of a language barrier since none speak any English and most do not even speak Spanish. And add to this the fact that there are over 20 different dialects. The few that spoke Spanish served as interpreters including the village Chief who helped in translating and keeping order as the day progressed. We could usually get the message across using some crude sign language. This village was very near a local tourist attraction so they were somewhat used to interacting with outsiders.
 

Each family was seen as group and at least one parent had to accompany any children. One thing that struck us right off was the lack of men waiting in line. We later found out that they usually won't come because it is not macho to stand in line with the women and children or to admit that you are sick. Many are also out working during the day. The line was very long and there were many children including some very young girls, only teens themselves, with three, four, and five children. These were the ones we were especially there to help. Riechelle kept control of the line and assigned numbers to each individual, but as a family group. The number was written on the back their hands so we could keep track.

Their first stop was at the table of either Bryan or the other paramedic, Mark. They determined the specific needs and wrote that down on a piece of paper with the number that coordinated to the one on their hand. They then moved to the next table, or station, and we would check their paper to see if they needed anything from our station. The paper needed to match the number on their hand since many mothers carried the papers for all their children. Most of the children required worm medicine which was liquid given orally. Next the children and adults were given vitamin supplements. They had been given instructions at the paramedic’s station by the interpreter as to when and how to take the pills or capsules. Next stop was for skin problems as well as eyes, and ears. Any needed antibiotics were applied by the team members. Their last stop was the pharmacy station. Each of the two pharmacy stations were manned by one of the two nurses on the team along with one helper that could at least speak Spanish. Since Susan speaks pretty good Spanish she was assigned to one of the pharmacy stations. Most of the items passed out there were some form of oral antibiotics to treat the infections diagnosed by the paramedics. There was a station set up in the middle of the school grounds at the town water pump. This station was to wash and treat the hair of the children infected with lice. We saw women and children from infants to ages I did not even want to guess.

We had started early in the morning and except for a quick lunch break finished up by mid afternoon. We saw, in all, almost 500 people. Several of us had brought along our digital cameras to photograph our experiences. The children were delighted to have us take their picture and then show them the results on the cameras LCD screen. Except for reflections in the water most had never seen an image of themselves. It was indeed a moving experience and we will jump at the chance to go again. At the end of the day we all had a good feeling inside and knew that we had made a difference in these peoples lives however small it might be. It also showed them that there were people out there that cared about their welfare. This was an experience that we will never forget. And the small space here really can not give it proper understanding.
 
At the end of the day we were all pretty tired but Bryan's offer to take us to the local tourist attraction, which happened to be a nearby waterfall, was too good to resist. We packed up everything in the vans and headed out. The waterfall is just across the river and a little up stream from the village. It originates from a hot spring on a cliff above that has a constant temperature of about 120 degrees. Pools at the top are better than any hot tub. The water fall tumbles into the very cool river below and the temperature difference leaves a mist on the water. You can swim from the very cool water in the river to the heated water as it runs down the waterfall. It is a great experience and we know why the tourists like to come here. This was the perfect end to an unforgettable day. As we were leaving the falls it rained again and we had a very cool drive back to our Marinas. We went to bed that night exhausted but satisfied that we had been able to give something back to these people that allowed us to share some of their beautiful country.

Bryan's clinics are not always conducted by layman. He has a group of Doctors from outside the country that participates on a regular basis and it is not unusual for him to have medical teams booked for a year in advance. He spends some time each year in the US speaking at various venues and is constantly finding medical folks willing to donate their time to this great cause. His funding comes from many private donations from folks that know of the good work he and Riechelle do, as well as a few churches that regularly donate to the cause. But funds are always needed and appreciated. Also many individuals as well as drug companies in the US regularly send donated medicines and vitamins. At the writing of this article Bryan is in the field with a full medical team for ten days.
Bryan and Riechelle also have a completely converted and fitted medical bus outfitted in the US and brought to Guatemala by the US Air Force. It has complete diagnostic, treatment and lab equipment as well as examining rooms. The bus will greatly improve the quality of care that Bryan and his teams will be able to provide these wonderful people. The United States Air Force graciously agreed to fly the bus down on a military transport. You can find out more about the work that Bryan and Riechelle do and see some wonderful photos from some of the villages they have visited. 

The website is http://www.junglemedicmissions.org and should not be missed. If anyone ever has the opportunity to come and visit here and participate in Bryan's clinic we highly recommend you do so. It might just be the experience of a lifetime. And you can sure bank a bunch of good karma. Chuck and Susan

Guatemala

Beginning at the river’s mouth at the semi-sheltered Bay of Amatique, off the southern tip of Belize, the gorge offers lush green vegetation of teak, mahogany and palm trees covering the high, shear cliffs and extending right down to the water’s edge. Along the riverbanks can be found howler monkeys, toucans, black cormorants and blue egrets. Watching the natives, including young children, paddling their hand-made log canoes called Cayucos up the river against the currents made us imagine a time long ago. The water depths can reach from 20 feet to 80 feet all along this area except for a hairpin turn about three miles into the gorge; it is deep but you must hug the turn so close in that you can almost reach out and grab the tree branches. 

Once you are out of the gorge you find some very large and expensive homes alongside some modest, almost primitive local native dwellings. This can be quite a contrast for first-time visitors. Like any other main highway, there are also several restaurants along this stretch of the river, and about six miles in you can find a hot sulfur spring at the river’s edge. Actually, you will smell it before you see it. There are no signs marking the spot, but you might find a local panga or two tied to the trees with tourists enjoying a soak. An ever-present mist on the water also gives you a hint as to its location. The GPS position is 15.46.44N and 088.48.69W. You can anchor nearby if you decide to make a stop and two good restaurants can also be found right on the water’s edge nearby.

Just as you are leaving the lower stretch of the river and just before you enter El Golfete, you will find Cayo Grande to starboard. Behind the cay is a lovely and well-protected anchorage, which you may have yourself, and there is a restaurant there for dinner (reservations recommended). The local businesses — and most everyone else along the river — monitors VHF Ch. 68.

As soon as you enter El Golfete a series of small bays stretch out to port. The last bay is affectionately known as Gringo Bay because it had been settled early on by a few hearty Americans who built modest homes on the bay accessible only by boat. Cruisers familiar with the area will tell you to stop in Gringo Bay and visit with a local fixture known simply as Jennifer.

Always welcome
Jennifer and her husband came here several years ago and ran their charter boat in and out of the river. They bought a piece of property from a native family who wanted to move inland, so they built a house on the bay that sits out over the river. The husband sought another lifestyle and moved on, and the charter boat is gone, but Jennifer is still there. She makes her living selling her artwork as well as coconut oil and bee honey from her own hives. There are several moorings in the bay just off her house where she baby-sits boats for owners who go away for extended periods of time. She has some tropical gardens behind the house and large ponds, where she raises freshwater Australian Lobsters. She also sells both fresh and smoked roballo, which is a close relative to the snook, whenever it is available. To us, Jennifer is the embodiment of the original frontier woman. Most cruisers make a stop here coming into and going out of the river. Gringo Bay is about seven miles up river from Livingston. Close friends of ours in the United States had asked us to stop in and visit Jennifer since they knew her well and had not seen her for several years. We only stopped for an overnight and left the following day around noon with a promise to Jennifer to return and spend more time.

Fitting in
El Golfete is 10 miles long with water depths of 10 to 18 feet, depending on rainfall — almost up to its shores in most areas. There are many beautiful anchorages and the scenery in almost any direction is stunning. This is the home of Biotopo Chocon Machacas, which is a manatee reserve that covers the entire bay. The reserve also encompasses some 18,000 acres of land on the north side of the bay. Their purpose is to preserve the mangrove swamps and wildlife in the area. You may land your dinghy and visit anytime. The self-guided nature trails are a great way to spend a day. Expect to be asked to make a small donation of about five quetzals, or about 25 cents. The visit is well worth the price. You can virtually pull off to any side of the bay and drop anchor or settle in behind a few small cays along the northwestern shores depending on wind conditions. We rushed through here initially but returned later to spend some quality time.

Continuing across El Golfete you soon enter what is known as the Marina District. The river narrows and marinas are along both sides of the river. Unfortunately, this is about as far as most boats get after they arrive. If you arrive after mid-August, space at the marinas becomes hard to find.

Don’t expect to find U.S.-style marinas here. Almost all are set up for a Mediterranean mooring, or Med-moor, type of a tie up and not conducive to coming and going frequently. They are designed to cram as many boats as possible side by side. The process of getting in and out usually involves a day or two notice, a small boat or two to assist, and retying all your neighbors once you are out. There are no finger piers or pilings, with few exceptions, and the outer tie consists of lines run to something under the water. We could not find anyone to clarify for us just what that something is. Then you are tied in a crisscross fashion to your neighbors on both sides. Plenty of fenders are also required since, depending on where you are, the boat traffic and wakes can be constant and at times excessive. Since we had not been in a marina since Belize City we decided to stop and do some boat cleaning, laundry and a few other projects that are better done at the dock with electricity and water available.
We soon found out that the rates at the marinas here are so cheap we would spend almost as much for fuel, charging batteries and heating water than we would to stay at the marina. So we took the plunge and paid for a month even though our plans were to only be here for a few weeks. But as every day went by it became more and more obvious that a few weeks were not going to be enough, and our stay would most assuredly be longer. We chose a marina that was recommended to us by our friends who were already there. There are several marinas in different locations along this stretch of the river to choose from, and the prices and amenities can vary quite a bit.

A walkabout ashore
After we settled in and became familiar with our new locations, we set out to do some investigating of the area. Our marina sits directly under the large bridge that crosses the Rio Dulce between Fronteras and the small settlement of El Relleno. This bridge was built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and completed in 1980. It stands 90 feet over the river. The mailing address for our marina literally translates from Spanish to “under the bridge.” An Internet cafĂ© is directly across the street as well as the popular Reeds Tienda, a small grocery store that also stocks paint, boat parts and a variety of other products. If they don’t carry it, chances are good they will be able to get it for you in a short period of time. Chici has been the owner and operator for many years and most of the employees are family members.

The walk over the bridge to Fronteras on the other side of the river is a good workout and we learned early on not to do it in the middle of the day when the temperature can be brutal. You can also dinghy across the river and tie up at Bruno’s Marina or the town dock. Bruno’s is the preferred place to leave the dinghy since security can be an issue at the town dock, and the traffic from local boats coming and going can be damaging to small dinghies. This river is a main thoroughfare, and most facilities and homes are only accessible by water. At times of the day the boat traffic can remind you of being on a liquid freeway.

Pistols and livestock
Fronteras is small backwater town that at times reminded us of the Wild West. At first we were a little unnerved to see many locals packing pistols in holsters on their belts. But it soon became the norm and we accepted it. The town is on one of the main roads through Guatemala and there is often a lot of traffic on its two narrow lanes. This includes large 18-wheelers, cars and the ever-present cattle trucks. We were warned early on not to stand behind the cattle trucks or the baptism you might receive could be extremely unpleasant. Many times we were witness to that, and it became obvious whenever these trucks passed through town.

Along the main street there are a number of tiendas or small grocery stores, restaurants, open-air produce markets and variety stores selling toys, pots and pans, and a number of different items. Except for the middle of the day, the town is bustling with people, and every shop and market is crowded. On certain days of the week the produce is brought in fresh and on those days the town becomes even more crowded. You can also find a couple of hardware stores as well as pharmacies and repair facilities in the town, but most are very basic.

They also have a few banks in town complete with armed guards standing inside and outside the front door, and a small room where you can check your gun before entering. After you complete your business your gun is then returned to you on the way out. This is a different world and lifestyle than we have been exposed to for most of our lives but we found it more fascinating than fearful.

In addition, there is a bus station that is a central hub for travel throughout the interior of Guatemala, and to Mexico and Honduras. Later we would use the bus system to explore and further sample what this wonderful country has to offer.

All of this and we have only been in the country for two days. Our heads were spinning, and with the endless possibilities before us it wasn’t long until we wondered out loud just how long we were really going to stay here. By the end of this day we were exhausted and happy and looking forward to what tomorrow would bring.

Changing Plans

We have often said our cruising plans were written in the sand at low tide. I can’t recall when we last left on a “planned” cruise and it actually ended as planned. This time has turned out to be no exception. To help understand why, you need to know that we are not cruising on a retirement income nor did we make big bucks in the stock market. Each of the extended cruises means years of planning, saving and working toward that goal. We settle in for as long as it takes, find the best employment we can in our fields and work on the boat while we are stashing everything we can save in the bank. We try to determine what the trip will cost and how long we will be able to stay out there before the bank account hits the magic number, telling us it is time to go back to work to begin the cycle all over again. That means each cruise must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Our average timeframe for each is 18 to 24 months. This strategy has allowed us to have some wonderful experiences for many years without fear that our plans might never come to fruition because of health or family issues. Unfortunately, we have seen many of our friends whose dreams were quashed for these same reasons, just when their goals were in sight.

Waylaid along the way
Sea Trek and her crew left Marathon, Fla., on April 9, 2005, for a long planned extended cruise through the western Caribbean to include Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, a Panama Canal transit and a trip up the Pacific Coast to Southern California.
A two-week stop in the Rio Dulce in Guatemala turned into a five-month visit — not only because it turned out to be a wonderful cruising ground, but because once we entered the river the hurricane season began with a vengeance. During that time we soaked up all that Guatemala had to offer. Inland trips to see the volcanoes at Lake Atitlan, several trips to visit Guatemala City, walks on the black sand beaches on the Pacific side and visits to the Mayan ruins in Copan Honduras. On two occasions we volunteered with other cruisers to do medical clinics in some of the remote Indian villages with “Jungle Medic” Bryan Buchanan and his wife Riechelle (www.junglemedicmissions.org). We watched as the months progressed and the storms marched across the Caribbean and took aim on the coastline of the United States. We actually left the river in October and only traveled 50 miles north into Belize when another storm chased us back.

The brute force of nature
The Gulf Coast seemed to become the primary target area for these ferocious storms. As we watched from the safety of the Rio Dulce, we also realized that time was going to run out on us and we would have to backtrack to the United States instead of pressing on south through the Panama Canal. As we watched the destruction along the U.S. coast on CNN through the local satellites, we began to wonder what we could expect once we returned. Our first glimpse came as we arrived in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to make the final jump back to the United States. As we approached the island we noticed that something was different, but we could not immediately put our finger on it. As we sailed closer it became apparent that it was the strange, almost reddish color coming from the shorelines. Finally we came to realize that this was the color of the mangrove trees that cover most of the western shore. They had been stripped of all green vegetation. Sunken boats and wreckage were everywhere and some facilities were still not operating as they had when we passed through eight months earlier.
Our stay in Isla during the Christmas holidays was still a pleasant one, albeit a little shorter than when we passed through the previous April. An excellent weather window opened for us to cross the Gulf Stream the next three days, so off we went on an extremely calm motor back to the Florida Keys.






An altered landscape
On New Year’s Eve 2006, we crossed the reef off Marathon and dropped anchor just outside Boot Key Harbor Channel at about 9 p.m. As we approached in the dark using known GPS coordinates and our radar, we noted what at first appeared to be an island showing up on the radar screen. We knew that was not possible so we approached carefully and realized as we got closer that it was a large group of boats anchored outside of the main harbor. This was the first indication that things had changed since we left — and not for the better. Hurricane Cindy crossed the Gulf and made landfall near Grande Isle, La., around July 6. Hurricane Dennis had passed just west of Key West around July 9 and made landfall near Gulf Breeze, Fla., on July 10. The now infamous Katrina made landfall Aug. 25 in the Miami/Dade area and passed just a few miles north of the Keys. Katrina re-entered the Gulf and we have all seen the devastation in the New Orleans area. On Sept. 20 Hurricane Rita intensified about 100 nautical miles east southeast of Key West and then increased in strength and passed within 40 miles of Key West. Rita marched across the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall Sept. 24 at Johnson’s Bayou, La., just east of Sabine Pass. And it still wasn’t over. On Oct. 24 Wilma made landfall near Cape Romano, Fla., just north of the Keys. These were all areas we were about to cover since we had decided to relocate our base of operations to Kemah, Texas, on Clear Lake, just south of Houston rather than the Keys — our base for 10 years.

Closed for business
We decided to make our transit via the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway instead of a direct crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. These decisions were made after a great deal of research regarding the condition of the waterways and what facilities would or would not be available along our route.
The most damage to the boating infrastructure in the Keys appeared to be on the gulf or “bay” side. The downtown waterfront of Key West also took quite a beating. The reason we found so many boats anchored outside Boot Key Harbor was the harbor had become extremely crowded, even more than normal for this time of year. Many marinas in the middle Keys on the bayside had been destroyed. To add insult to injury, one of the more popular marinas in Boot Key Harbor had survived but had been converted into private condo slips, selling for $225,000 and not available to transients. Two other marinas in the harbor have been taken over by a large corporation and have doubled their transient slip fees. Many boats had been damaged in the storms and repair facilities were stretched to the limit. The three marinas in Marathon with haulout capabilities were fully operational. An added problem for these facilities is that many of their former employees left to avoid the storms and did not return, leaving them shorthanded. We found this problem was not confined to Florida, but is a problem all along the Gulf Coast. Some marinas will only take transients for a day or two and another large marina with slips in Boot Key Harbor and on bayside closed completely this past June. Plans to renovate and reopen are up in the air, but we’re told this facility will be closed for quite some time.

Settle in and regroup
Our stay in Boot Key Harbor stretched on to six weeks. During that time we had strong fronts coming down from the mainland, bringing heavy rain and winds of 30 to 40 knots, sometimes for days. We took an unscientific count and estimated there were well over 400 boats in the harbor, anchored on top of one another. Each front brought boats swinging and dragging into each other and some interesting conversations on the VHF. Sea Trek was fortunate enough to find a small corner of the harbor that avoided the potential for disaster that seemed to arrive about every three days like clockwork. Having multiple anchors out and well- set was a matter of survival. We did use this time to relax as best we could, visit friends and take care of business that we could only do in the States. Things like renewing our communications source (a cell phone), restocking on good old American groceries and making a few minor repairs on the boat, since the marine supply store was a short dinghy ride from where we were anchored. It began to feel like we would be trapped in this harbor for months. Twice we had received weather reports of a break in the fronts, only to have those reports change significantly the day before we planned to leave. Anyone who has been following our adventure is well aware of our feelings about the ability of the NWS to accurately predict the weather anywhere near a watery portion of the planet. If sailing has taught us nothing else, it is patience and after what seemed like a long time, the front began to get lighter and soon began to dissipate north of our position. It was a good sign, and eventually our opportunity to escape arrived and we jumped on it. Once again we would be sailing into new territory and with all of the destruction we had seen from the media we were a bit apprehensive. But then that is the case any time we strike out for parts unknown. The entire Gulf Coast lay ahead of us with well over a thousand miles to go.

Welcome Home

After being in the Western Caribbean for well over 12 months, we expected some changes when we returned to the United States, but were totally unprepared for the extent of those changes in such a short time. This was especially true of what had been our home base for the past 10 years, Boot Key Harbor in the Florida Keys. Replacement and rebuilding of marinas and resorts are still in progress from the 2005 storm season and with the closing of a major transient resort in Marathon as well as conversion of several facilities to expensive condo slips, most anchorages that offer decent protection have become crowded. In the major boating centers of Marathon and Key West access to shoreside resources and attractions from anchored boats is also growing more scarce. 

The situation in Boot Key Harbor will only continue to worsen for those traveling to the Keys looking for open anchorages for the winter months when the current plans to expand the present mooring field to more than twice the present size is implemented. On the plus side, it will bring some organization to the Harbor and the dangers of your boat being damaged from anchor draggers should lessen. The moorings will help alleviate the pressures left from the loss of slip space and the doubling of transient rates of marinas still open to the public. Another issue that compounds the crowding in these harbors is the weather patterns that prevail during most of the winter months. Even though the crossing from the mainland United States to the Bahamas is much shorter from West Palm Beach or the Key Biscayne/Miami area, many boaters come to the Keys for a period of time and then make a direct run from either Marathon or Key Largo to South Riding Rock on the Florida Straights of the Bahamas Banks. 

Typically the winter fronts extending from low-pressure systems moving from west to east across the United States will come off the southwest Texas coast and move southeast until they pass through the Keys. In the height of the winter boating season those fronts can push through every three days for weeks and weeks. They can pack lots of rain and winds up to 40 knots that might blow continuously for three to five days. As they blow out a new front comes through and the whole thing begins anew. Making the 48-hour run to a sheltered harbor in the Bahamas is difficult for many sailboats, so you begin to feel “trapped” after several weeks go by with no breaks in site. This was the case for us after an incredibly calm, quiet motor from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, across the Gulf Stream to return to the Keys.

Across the Gulf
After six weeks in Marathon, we began our slow transit along the Gulf Coast. From this point on we were entering new territory for us. Our first stop was Little Shark River on the west coast of Florida. From our anchorage in Boot Key Harbor to our planned anchorage near the entrance to the river we would cover 44 miles across the open Gulf. That meant we would prepare ourselves and the boat the same as if we were heading out into the open ocean. Even though it looked like we would have a good solid five-day weather window to move north, we had been fooled before.

As we headed out of the harbor and motored under the Seven Mile Bridge for the trek north, we found the forecast east wind coming out of the northeast at about 15 knots and the day was cloudy and cool considering how far south we were. That means motorsailing and that’s what we did for all but two hours of the transit. At around 3 in the afternoon the easterlies finally kicked in and we actually sailed for a couple of hours. The Shark River is a hurricane hole for boaters in the Keys and south west Florida so we know the river is deep enough for Sea Trek’s 6-foot draft, but we also know the entrance can be tricky since nearby shoals do shift around after storms.

As we approached the outer markers we were having a case of deja vu all over again. The same reddish hue over the landscape that greeted us in Isla Mujeres was clearly present all along the coast here. The damage to the plant life was quite stark since all of the trees were virtually stripped of leaves and other vegetation was dead from the intrusion of salt water from last year’s hurricanes. As we got closer to our planned anchoring spot, however, there was a hint of returning growth.

We were amazed since so much time had passed since the hurricane season of ’05. By our estimates, it may take another year or more for the area to return to normal, assuming no more major storms make landfall here. Facilities in Flamingo and Everglades City near Cape Sable were beginning to rebuild and recover but are still limited. One of our concerns was the availability of fuel since we knew this would be a motoring trip more than a sailing one. Prior to leaving Marathon, we collected the phone numbers of as many marinas and facilities as we could find along our route. The plan was to call ahead by cell phone to keep track of what was open and how far we might need to travel before food, fuel and whatever else we might need would be available.

From Little Shark we moved on to Indian Key just west of Everglade City and found the landscape to be the same. This was the area where Wilma made landfall and it took on a bleak appearance.

We dropped anchor just inside Indian Key Pass near our friends on the trawler Diamond Girl that we had met in Marathon. We had dinner together and did a little dinghy exploration.
The boat traffic from commercial fisherman and shrimp trawlers was pretty heavy and they ran all hours of the day and night. And they ran past us at full speed, some throwing up very large wakes.

In addition to Sea Trek and Diamond Girl, there were another three boats at anchor. It is a lovely anchorage, but unless you can find a spot well off the main channel we would not do it again. Care must be taken outside the main channel since shifting shoal areas will put you hard aground. The bottom is sandy so this can be no more than an inconvenience, but anytime you are anchoring you need to consider the boat’s draft, the current state of the tide and the tidal range for the geographic area you are in.

Feeling our way
From Indian Key our next stop was Marco Island and we already had received reports of the problems there from the storms and from proposed restriction of anchoring vessels. Many channel markers along this route had been damaged, destroyed or relocated and could not be relied upon. As we entered the channel into Marco Island, we paid close attention to our depth sounder and used our GPS with our electronic charts to try and maintain the channel and stay out of the new shoal areas that had shifted due to wind and seas from the storms. Just as you enter the main channel to Marco Island a very popular anchoring stop known as Coconut Island no longer exists and is now only a very shallow area that is completely submerged. The island was actually destroyed by a storm two years prior. Once inside the main anchorages of Factory Bay or Smokehouse Bay, you are completely protected from weather in almost any direction. In Factory Bay you can access shoreside facilities from the large marina at the north end of the bay.

In Smokehouse Bay access is via docks at a new and very large shopping and restaurant complex, and is completely free. We were anchored in Factory Bay with several other boats but only saw two boats anchored in Smokehouse Bay. Marinas are open, and fuel and groceries are readily available. Many restaurants, shopping centers theaters and marine supply stores are within easy walking distance from either bay. There has been a move to restrict anchoring here, but the local government has seen the light and for the time being that is not an issue, but as with all else in Florida that can change tomorrow. Boat traffic is very heavy here during the day but they all seem to go home after sunset. The currents run very strong in the channels but both bays are relatively free except for tidal changes. Our three days here were pleasant and relaxing and we highly recommend Marco Island as a must-stop if cruising this coast. 

After three days at Marco we moved on to Fort Myers Beach but found that the entire anchorage had been converted to moorings and unless we planned to stay at one of the marinas or pay for a mooring buoy we were not welcome. Basically when we asked where we might anchor, we were told to either pay for dockage or leave — so we left. It did appear that most facilities were functioning here, but we know very little about service or availability. We anchored in San Carlos Bay for the night and headed north in the morning. From this point on we would be traveling on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway instead of in the open Gulf as we had been up until now. Mile Zero begins at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River where you can continue on along the GIWW or head across Florida on the Okeechobee Waterway. The stretch from Mile Zero to the southern tip of Pine Island Sound is known as the Miserable Mile because of the strong currents that sweep across the marked channel at a sharp angle and can put a slow-moving vessel in shallow water if the skipper is not paying attention.

We must have hit the “mile” at just the right time around slack water since we had no current and actually found it to be a picturesque section of the waterway. The only negative was the enormous amount of small boat traffic the skippers of which seemed to have no clue as to how to safely pass another vessel. Our mileage for this day would be a short 21 miles to a beautiful anchorage across from Useppa Island that we shared with six other boats. Useppa is a private island with restored cottages and a mansion built around 1912 complete with a museum, tennis courts and a 16-foot-by-16-foot chessboard with 3-foot-tall pieces. Our anchorage was just outside the waterway channel markers so once again we had the wakes from passing boat traffic to contend with. From Useppa we worked our way to Manasota Key, and anchored just behind the highway bridge. Anchorages here are few and are just outside the waterway channel. As the tide went out over night we found ourselves aground but by midmorning the next day the tide came back in and we were on our way.

Along the GIWW
This stretch of the Florida west coast seemed to be untouched from the storms of the previous years compared to what we had seen previously. All of the marinas were open for business except those being converted into condos and there were several of those. Fuel and grocery stops were plentiful and we enjoyed some great weather for the next couple of weeks. All of the cruising guides for this stretch warn about shallow water and with Sea Trek’s 6-foot draft we were a bit concerned. But as long as we did not stray outside of the marked channels, we found plenty of water and indeed only saw water below 7 feet in one area near an inlet. Most of the rest of the waterway averaged 10 to 12 feet. But keep in mind that depths and bottom configurations are constantly changing so finding and using local knowledge is important. We subscribe to one of the commercial towing services and armed with their telephone numbers all along our route, we only had to make a call to one of their captains and we could get up to date details on channel changes, shoals and missing markers. Our travels along the GIWW, through Tampa Bay, and on to Tarpon Springs and beyond were a very pleasant transit with great anchorages in charted deeper waters and beautiful scenery. Except for occasional fog, which is not uncommon in the spring and fall, it was a very relaxing cruise. But more about that later.