There was a particularly shippy little sailboat tucked in amongst the larger lighters. A hand-crafted beauty with the name "Natty Dread" on the bow. Built by Edward, friend of Natalie of Backpacker's Paradise, the boat was not to race as it had no competitors in its class. But she was a prize in her own right and Edward had earned the right to strut the pier with the best of the skippers.
The individual races were organized into groups as now, some 60 years since the first races for cases of beer, the number of competitors was larger and the prizes as well. Unfortunately, sponsorship has lagged so the increase in competitors and races have caused the eventual purses to fall. What was once a quest for significant prize money is now, more simply, a quest for bragging rights as even the largest purse cannot cover the expense of racing sails and fresh paint.
As an annual tourist attraction it is probably the most attended sailing race in Belize. The Baron Bliss Races in Belize City have been overshadowed in recent years by the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge, a canoe race that had its inauguration in 1998. An internationally attended event, the race starts at the historic Hawksworth Bridge out west in San Ignacio and follows the Belize River for 175 miles to the Belcan Bridge in Belize City. Nonetheless there has been a resurgence of interest in sailing throughout Belize and the Belize Sailing Association is doing very well supporting clubs throughout the country. Children of all ages are learning to sail Optimist Class boats and volunteers in Belize City, Corozal, San Pedro, Placencia and more are doing yeoman's work organizing clubs, teaching the kids to sail, and racing boats from north to south.
As I wandered the length of the one cement pier in Sarteneja I admired the many boats, the squared-away rigging, and the often artistic names inscribed on each of the boats. Every boat in Belize has a different name and a name check is necessary for boat registration. My boat was named "CALLISTE" and the story of that name can be found here. My tender is named "LELA", a contraction of my (then) two grand-daughters names. With more progeny coming along at rapid rate, I'll soon need another boat to name.
The lighters were tied bow-to the pier. The process is easy enough: as the boat approaches the pier an anchor is let go aft and line let out enough to approach the pier then held to slow the approach as the sail(s) are lowered. A sailor will jump off the bow and tie off the bow line. That easy...or so it looks. Leaving is a bit of the reverse of the process: the bow line is loosed, a sailor aft hauls on the anchor line pulling the boat away, sails are raised, and if all goes well the breeze will take the boat into the channel. The anchor is hauled aboard and the boat is now riding the seas where boats belong. When two or more boats are attempting the maneuver concurrently, it takes a bit of fine seamanship, and sometimes a fair amount of sailor-like cussing, to avoid the long overhanging booms from fouling.
The race markers had been set the night before in expectation of an easterly breeze. They were not disappointed and the boats had a good way on before getting too far from shore. With a captain and crew of about 5 or 6, the boats were light enough that some hiking out was necessary. Hiking out is simply using human ballast, the sailors themselves, to lean out over the side whilst holding on to the rigging. A few bodies was all it took to move the center of effort and keep the boats as close to upright and their best sailing position as possible. Unlike the lighters, CALLISTE is a rather tender boat. That is, she rocks easily when upright. But put some wind in her sails and let her heel over to about 15 degrees and she's steady as a rock. These lighters looked steady as a rock in any position as they rounded the markers.
Sailboat racing is a time-consuming affair. As the boats vied for position along the course I took the opportunity to enjoy some of the land-based fare. Every available spot of shade - next to buildings, under trees, or simply an opened umbrella, was crammed with vendors of all sorts. Food and drink, of course, were the staples but there were some crafts available as well. It's, after all, only once a year that the sleepy town of Sarteneja sees so many people at one time and entrepreneurs are there in force to make the best of it. Sampling the ceviches, shrimp dishes, and empenadas my friends and I made our way along the waterfront. It's during this walk we met Carlos, the former shipwright who gave us the history of this race. We found a comfortable spot in the shade of a beached lighter and he, one leg extended the other folded under him, regaled us with stories from times past and present.
Sarteneja has a lot to offer the visitor and an otherwise relatively quiet place for the residents. On the east side of town one can follow a rutty dirt road to the end where Wildtracks, the Manatee Rescue Center is located. Operated by Paul and Zoe, the center has extended to rescuing Spider and Howler monkeys and the work they do is well deserving a read (and perhaps a donation!). To the south of town is the Shipstern Nature Reserve - 80 square kilometers of protected land and swamp that is home to an incredible variety of plants, birds, animals, and butterflies. A guided tour is well worth your time and it may take several trips to see all it has to offer.
I wasn't the only sailboat owner come to visit, not race, as I saw a couple of catamaran's and a MacGregor 27 in the bay that day. Was nice to see so much activity in the area. Normally the bay is rather quiet with but an occasional sailor or canoeist enjoying the waters. Once in a while a small boat will make it's way from once side to the other such as Gwyn's boat from The Sea Breeze Hotel ferrying guests to Bill and Jeannie's at Cerros Beach for a great lunch. Small fishing boats will sometimes head up the New River looking for Snook in the mangrove roots and, during the season, the tug boats hauling molasses barges to and from the refinery in Orange Walk will pass. But normally, it's a quiet bay.
The festivities done I took leave of my friends, let slip my line to the mooring, and headed back toward Corozal. The breeze was still good and on the right angle I could go wing and wing toward the setting sun. And so I did.
Postscript - This is a recounting of the 2012 Easter Day Regatta in Sarteneja a significant cultural icon of life in Belize. I missed the last two but hope to catch the next one and maybe see you there! Papi)