Lobstering in Belize

Getting ready to set traps.

Getting ready to set traps.

Maine without a doubt is the lobstering capital of the world. Do epicureans find Thai lobster on the menus of the finest restaurants? Of course not. Maine lobster is the standard for the best, juiciest, most succulent lobster.

Lobsters may be found also throughout the Caribbean, and Belizean lobsters, while not in the same class as Mainers, are quite delicious. The season runs from June through the end of February. A break of four months occurs before the lobstermen set  their traps again on June 15th.

During the off season the lobstermen remove their traps from the sea and store them. Before resetting them they scrub the traps in saltwater until they’re free of barnacles, algae and other growth and soak them until they swell and turn brown.

When lobster season rolls around again, the lobstermen stack the scrubbed traps onto their lanchas and spread them out in the aqua waters, often marking their location with a stick. The shallow waters around Caye Caulker, for example, are dotted with sticks that appear to be in the middle of nowhere. The odd GPS waypoints have a purpose though. The lobstermen line up the sticks with a point on land, say a house or a tower, to locate their traps.

A lobsterman knows a trap is full by its color. Lobsters enter the brown traps and cling to a stick inside. They use their tails to clean house, swishing the sand around this way and that to make it homey. When the lobsterman sees a white trap, he knows that his lobsters will appear on a local menu.

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Boat Karma

The library and post office sit side by side.

The library and post office sit side by side.

Two days ago our starboard engine, sometimes known as the Evil Twin, refused to start. Mike and I moved ahead with plans to head to Caye Caulker on the Good Engine, the port. (We love the redundancy of a catamaran.)

Soon after anchoring we started searching for a diesel mechanic and came up with nothing. Our best bet was to head to Belize City on one engine to repair the starboard engine and polish the fuel which had collected algae and debris after sitting for eight months in the Rio Dulce. We weren’t happy about that option, especially since it could affect plans to buddy boat to Isla Mujeres with Bob and Karen on Gypsea, a beautiful 46’ Broadblue catamaran. We looked forward to their company but understood that they were eager to reach Key West and points beyond.

Mike and I soaked our worries with several rum and lime drinks at Tropical Paradise Restaurant where we used the wifi and warned family and friends of our dilemma. We were still kicking around our options as we strolled the dirt streets of the Caye Caulker settlement when suddenly we heard, “Hey, guys! Guys!” Who in the world knew us here and was calling us?

She's a beauty.

She’s a beauty.

The voice belonged to Keith who gave us each a big hug. We had met him and his boss Jimmy of Raggamuffin Tours while stationed at Abel’s Boatyard in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. While we were getting new bottom paint on Happy Times, Keith and Jimmy were turning an ugly duckling into a swan. For years Jimmy tried to buy a dismasted Fontaine Pajot catamaran from a friend in Caye Caulker who used the boat for a weekend getaway while it was anchored upriver. The boat was in sorry shape but Jimmy desperately wanted to add the catamaran to his fleet of touring sailboats. When he finally got his hands on it, he sailed the boat to Abel’s and began a six-week update and renovation, resulting in a nearly new boat. We became friends with Jimmy and Keith during our projects, especially when I shared the cake and brownies I prepared to keep my workers happy.

Running into Keith was a blessing. He immediately offered the services of Jimmy’s mechanic, Pancho, who came aboard Happy Times and worked with Mike on two problems: a bad glowplug relay and a couple of bad wires as well as air in the line that prevented any diesel reaching the engine. In about an hour’s time I started the starboard engine and heard its familiar throb.

Mike and I celebrated the rest of the day. We shared our good news with Keith when he came by in a lancha, thanking him profusely. We also shared our good news with Bob and Karen and toasted the good karma of bumping into Keith.

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Invaders of a Different Kind

Even worse than cockroaches on a boat.

Even worse than cockroaches on a boat.

The Northwest Caribbean Net operates daily at 8 a.m. on Channel 6209 on Single Sideband Radio (SSB). A volunteer hosts the controlled net that serves as a news channel for cruisers. The volunteer initially polls the audience for emergency broadcasts and then proceeds to the local weather forecast and an opportunity for cruisers to check in from their current location. Sometimes cruisers merely announce their presence. Sometimes they have a story to share.

On yesterday’s net the couple cruising aboard S/V Matador announced that they had found a stowaway on board. It was a boa constrictor. Evidently the invader had traveled to their boat from Placencia, Belize, after a recent squall. (This offers a new twist on the old saying, Any port in a storm.) The captain and first mate didn’t know what to do and requested help from Placencia. Luckily for them, a local teenager volunteered his services, swam to Matador and tossed the snake overboard. No word on whether the teen swam back with it.

Yesterday’s net controller, without missing a beat, pronounced the end of the daily broadcast by saying it was now the Northwest Caribbean Snake Net.

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Ghost Resort

Abandoned except for crabs and iguanas.

Abandoned except for crabs and iguanas.

If Hollywood needs a set for a movie that takes place in an abandoned resort by the sea, Lighthouse Beach Resort is the place. It has a beautiful white sand beach, aquamarine water, extensive reefs and native wildlife — menacing iguanas and eight-inch land crabs. It even has an airstrip, making it the perfect location for a drug smuggling operation or a short story by Jimmy Buffett.

At one time the Belizean resort on Northern Cay, Lighthouse Reef, must have had some life in it. About ten pastel cottages line the beach, facing the northwest to capture spectacular sunsets.  A two-story lodge built of cinder blocks sits opposite a ramshackle wooden building. A couple of satellite dishes stand at the feet of palm trees whose tops have been sheared off. In the third edition of her cruising guide, printed in 2007, Captain Freya Rauscher, the author of To Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast, indicates that Lighthouse Beach Resort housed a thriving diving center where people the world over gathered to explore Belize’s famous reefs and the nearby Blue Hole.

Was it a hurricane that drove away the guests and the owners? All that remains is the caretaker, Lloyd Phillips, who spends 30 days at a stretch at the ghost resort to ward off thieves. Not only is there very little to steal, a desperate robber would have to travel 20 or 30 miles by boat from the nearest port to do the dirty work.

Lloyd says that someone recently bought the resort. Good luck with that. An investor would have to recoup her money in ten years or kiss it good-bye with the first hurricane for surely the cost of insurance would exceed the value of the property itself.

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Waiting for Weather

Low clouds hang over Long Cay.

Low clouds hang over Long Cay.

Suddenly we’re in no hurry at all. Overnight the voyage of Happy Times from the Rio Dulce to Isla Mujeres transformed from “Let’s get going!” to “Let’s stay here a while.”

This morning Mike talked to Chris Parker, the weather guru of the Caribbean region, who broadcasts daily over Single-Side Band (SSB) radio, standard equipment for many cruisers. The meteorologist alerted us to a trough, written as TROF on forecasts, hanging over the Yucatan peninsula that could produce squalls and high winds from the south. While winds flowing from that direction could push Happy Times significantly along the route north to Isla Mujeres, they could reach 30 knots and carry heavy rain. Chris advised us to hole up in Lighthouse Reef, Belize, for three days until the activity settles down.

The TROF results from the cyclone Barbara which formed in the Pacific Ocean, headed east and landed off the western coast of Mexico. The lingering effects of that hurricane produced the TROF where two similar air masses converge and produce a large, persistent area of thunderstorms. It has stalled over the Yucatan for a few days now, delaying the departure of boats from Isla Mujeres to Key West. There’s an uneasy possibility that this TROF could gather steam and produce the first Atlantic hurricane of the 2013 season, which definitely would prolong our stay at Lighthouse Reef.

In the meantime, Mike and I are using the time to make some minor fixes on Happy Times. The life of a cruiser in a nutshell: doing boat repairs in exotic places.

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