The north wind, although not strong, was blowing across the bay and the three mile fetch allowed the waves to increase in size by the time they hit the opposite shore. As the bay waves and wind fought the outgoing river current, a set of standing waves had developed along the bamboo poles that marked the channel. Pointing the boat due south to make the river entrance, the boat’s sharp bow cut through the water with a perceptible rise and fall but soon I was in the river’s calm, motoring against a 3 or 4 knot current.
The mangroves rise high along the banks masking the fields, occasional house, and small villages behind. Few of these trees are especially old as hurricanes and powerful tropical storms sweep this part of the world regularly. Although everyone points to Hurricane Janet in 1955 that reduced Corozal town to rubble other storms have had almost equally devastating impact on the vegetation. With nothing but the quiet thrumming of 4-stroke outboard, I was enjoying the change of pace from the choppy bay to the silent river.
Notable along the river banks are the sheared mangroves in the outer edges of turns. The sugar barges, usually 4, filled each with about 125 tons of molasses syrup from the refinery in Orange Walk, are towed downstream by tug then across the bay and south again to Belize City - a 122-mile trip. Laden or empty, the barges, with as much as 12 feet of draft, meander behind the tug in slow-motion whipsaw fashion, raking against the banks on the outside of the turns keeping those mangroves well trimmed. Knowing such a floating train could neither stop quickly nor maneuver well in the narrow river, I had to stay to the inside of any curve or hope I was in a wider part of a straight section to avoid disaster. The downside to this is the mangroves on the inside of the turns, unfettered and free to grow, are overhanging the water and dropping their tendril roots into the river. I had to watch my mast - the wind vane on top now 32 feet above the waterline - and make sure I didn’t get hung-up in the trees.
After several winding turns in the river, I was soon at the first ferry crossing. There are two ferry crossings on the road between Corozal and Sarteneja Peninsula: this, the New River Crossing, and the Nuevo Pueblo Ferry at the entrance to Progresso Lagoon, near the small village of Copper Bank.
The ferry, itself a retired sugar barge, was in the process of crossing so I idled the outboard engine and watched as the two laborers hand-cranked the mechanism that pulled the ferry along a wire cable strung between each bank. Despite the early hour, the ferry was full with several trucks and a bus as well as a good crowd of people on board. I could also see a short line of cars and motorcycles on the right bank waiting their turn to get to Corozal. Exchanging a few waves with some children and a Mennonite family, I passed over the now submerged cable and continued my way up river.
The current, although slowing my forward speed, was otherwise hardly noticeable except by the occasional floating leaf and the way it pulled the mangrove roots along. These roots, some of which provide additional support, also absorb air through special cells. With the current running at 3 or 4 knots speed, a river width of about 75 feet and depth of about 28 feet, there was, well, a whole lot of water moving past my hull.
At a rather sharp turn in the river I had the option of navigating to the north around a large island where it’s rumoured many a marijuana plantation exists, or continue to the shorter route to the old sugar mill town of Libertad. Knowing the round-island route was generally narrower and occasionally used by the tugs pulling barges, I chose the safer route which also gave me the chance to visit Ranchito Lagoon.
As I made my way through the narrow channel from river to lagoon, I recalled my first foray into this large lagoon. I was in my 12 foot folding boat and didn’t know there was a channel with deeper water around the side of the lagoon. It wasn’t long before I was rowing in just a few inches of water over several feet of muck. Now in my larger boat, I stayed to my left once in the lagoon, the sticks and poles that before looked only like favorite fishing spots neatly outlined the meandering channel were I was assured 3-5 feet of depth - enough for Calliste with raised centerboard.
The hyacinths and water lilies were in full bloom and, although all mostly yellow flowers, with their green leaves gave a nice contrast to the bluish-tan water of the lagoon. The marker sticks and early morning light helped me pick out the darker blue channel. At about the halfway point in the lagoon, marked by a mangrove covered promontory, I stopped the engine, dropped the small “lunch” anchor and enjoyed the view while making another pot of coffee. Though not a bird watcher I enjoy getting a peak at wildlife anywhere outside the zoo. After spotting several herons and other wading birds I was thrilled to see a large Jabiru, a now-endangered stork that stands over 5 feet tall and has a wingspan of 9 feet. I didn’t see this one fly as it was already down from its tree-top nest and walking around in the shallow water near mid-lagoon looking for food. Assured there was no chance of seeing something more remarkable, I weighed anchor, threaded my way out of the lagoon and back into the New River.
The river’s tortuous path lent to the “tyranny of the tiller” where I had to hand-steer the boat whilst maintaining constant attention to the course and avoiding the overhead mangrove branches. Not satisfied with just cruising, I played at cutting corners to shorten the route and see how close I could get the mast to the branches and, if I did well, could knock off a leaf without touching the branch itself. Just a little game to sharpen the senses.
Along the way I passed the occasional dugout canoe carrying one or two fishermen. Twice I spotted spear fishermen working the mangroves where river snook, a very tasty fish, liked to hide. One such person caught my attention with a scare as I thought I had come upon a dead body. Laying motionless in a tangle of mangrove roots with his head below the waterline, the shadows and tendrils masked his snorkel. The sigh of relief I let out made me realize I’d been holding my breath in anticipation of a gruesome discovery. With a wave I backed off and continued to Libertad.
The sugar mill in Libertad has long since been abandoned but the rusting steel skeleton remains as a ghostly reminder of a once active business. Next door the ship repair facility is still active and barges in various states of disrepair line the left bank waiting their turn for attention. There is no drydock but instead, a long ramp is used to haul the barges up to dry ground for welding and painting.
Despite the many thousands of acres of cane fields in the Corozal District, all of the refining is done at one plant in Orange Walk, yet many more miles upriver. Large cane trucks haul the hand-cut stalks by road to the refinery where it is washed and processed.
The current had pushed me closer during my moments of reverie and I put the tiller over hard and gunned the outboard to make the middle of the river and continue my voyage.
In less than an hour I made the small village of Caledonia. The rock and cement wharf was a convenient place to stop for lunch as I could hop off the boat and buy a few chicken tacos without being gone so long or so far that the security of the boat was in peril.
Returning from the short walk with my provisions, I realized it hadn’t taken long before some of the braver of the young crowd were already scrambling on the boat and using it as a dive platform into the river. I could see at a distance one was inquisitively peaking into the cabin but making no attempt to enter. Arriving at the boat they inquired if the boat was mine and if I would take them on a cruise. Answering yes and no, I realized my small lunch wasn’t going to feed this hungry bunch. So I singled out one of the younger as less corrupted, checked the pier for any adults who might be ready to relieve him of his load, and sent him with a few dollar coins to get enough for everyone to enjoy. With that, the other 5 kids continued their dives into the river and swimming to land to reboard the boat and start again.
Soon little Carlos, whom I now called the friendly diminutive “Carlito”, returned with tacos for all. In seconds the small feast was consumed, washed down by ample fresh water from my stock, and it was time to figure out how to get them off the boat so I could resume my trip. I reached into the cabin for a small box of five cent coins and tossed those onto the wharf. We all scrambled in our respective directions and waved to each other as I headed upriver.
I hoped to make Orange Walk before nightfall and get to one side of town or the other away from prying eyes and inquisitive tieves. But I still had a mast to take down before then.