I was taking advantage of the wind on the back end of a 'norte', those sometimes vicious storms that come with a cold front as the jet stream digs deep into the the Southern United States and Northern Mexico. Through the year the Mexicans simply number those cold fronts though I couldn't remember the number of this last one. We were all happy when clouds blocked the tropical sun and a spot of heavy rain pelted the town of Corozal and surrounding areas. But tonight it was clear with but a few small clouds racing across the bay and the wind at sea level just enough to move me forward. I was in no rush, the races wouldn't start until several hours after sunrise and even at four knots I would arrive with more than enough time for a good night's sleep.
Heading in a more northerly direction to avoid the shoals at the south end of the entrance to Laguna Seca, home of Cerros Sands, Orchid Bay, and other resorts/developments, the wind faded. I was towing Lela, my folding boat, so I could anchor out in Sarteneja and still get to shore without having to hold a bag of dry clothes over my head. With the lesser wind and a harder angle on the waves plus the added drag of the folding boat (at 12 feet, a bit too long to carry on the foredeck) I decided to reef and continue my journey on the iron tiller.
At 9.8 horsepower, the outboard 4-stroke could move Calliste at hull speed no matter the conditions but I opted to keep the RPM's, and hence the noise, to minimum levels. Making good about five, almost six knots now after the turn for a direct passage past Lowrie's Bight and in to Sarteneja I poured another cup of coffee from the thermos and relaxed at the helm. With my arm along the length of the tiller, steering was easy, the gentle rocking of the boat, the hum of the outboard, and the night sky serving as welcome distractions from an alert watch.
I really enjoy being at underway at night. Especially clear nights when you can see all the stars and planets dancing across the sky. The horizon is often indistinguishable lending an air of excitement for what might be ahead, hidden in the shadows of night. It's a dangerous time sailing near a lee shore but the storm had already passed, and the wind had died for now. Whether the easterlies, or Trade Winds as they were known, returned or we had a period of still weather was yet to be seen. Hopefully though, there would be a good breeze from whatever direction tomorrow on the bay. The big boats up there need wind to push them about.
As I slipped quietly into Sarteneja Harbor, weaving between the moored boats on the lookout for an available mooring, there was yet enough moonlight to find the floating buoy. After tying up and shutting down the engine, I relaxed my guard and enjoyed a glass of wine as reward for another, albeit short trip, well done.
There wasn't much to see at that time of the morning. I could faintly make out the area near the cemetery and some houses further north along the shore. The promontory behind me was dark. Darker than the sea and sky around it. The red light from the cell phone tower on the other side of town was not a new sight as it guided for many miles before I ever closed in on the harbor. The few boats around me were but shapes in the long shadows of night.
The sun rose early, early than I. A few people were already stirring on the beach and some of the boats had started to move about as their skippers and crews made quick shakedown cruises and last minute adjustments before the races. Coffee was in order and I took the time to prepare my camera for the day ahead.
The fishing boats, called "lighters" were first made in Caye Caulker. It was easy then to get the mahogany from the jungles of Belize and shipped a short distance from the port in Belize City. As well, the reef from whence the five to fifteen fisherman aboard would get their lobster, conch, and fish of many sorts was but a few hundred yards offshore.
Although Sarteneja (in Maya, the "well between the rocks" that they say will never run dry) had been inhabited first by Maya then Mestizos over many hundreds of years, it was not then the now renowned center of boat building and hence fishing in Belize. Sarteneja was a center of trade getting local coconuts and bananas, gibnut and other meat from the savannah, and salt from Bacalar Chico shipping them to Chetumal, then a town isolated on the mouth of the Rio Hondo from most of the rest of Mexico where they would pick up silver and obsidian as well as limes and other fruit to trade in Belize. In the early days, fishing in the Chetumal Bay was good, but nothing like what was available on the reef.
It was in the mid to late 1940's, I've been told by a former shipwright, that a Belizean, weary of fishing the reef, moved with his boat from Caye Caulker to Sarteneja and got into the local trading route. He became good friends with his counterpart in Chetumal and they would regularly wager a case of beer or bottle or rum as to who had the faster boat. This former fisherman lost enough that he ordered another boat built in Caye Caulker. A faster boat. He started winning. Then losing again. This time, he brought the mahogany and the Caye Caulker shipwright to Sarteneja and redesigned the boat to what we see today. The races became serious business and soon other fisherman and boat owners caught the racing fever. Sometime around 1953 the races involved so many boats, it became the organized event we know today, held every Easter Sunday.
The lighters normally carry working sails and their holds are full of ice to protect their catch. When the ice melts, they return to port to offload their catch at the cooperatives and reload with fresh ice to spend another seven to ten days on the water. The bright tropical sun and reflected light do a job on the fisherman's eyes and that's about as much time as they can handle, and the ice can last, before they must return to port. But for the regatta, the working sails are replaced with large racing sails to capture the often light winds of the bay. The booms are extended to handle the larger sails and will often overhang the stern by a meter or two. They add, remove, or re-stow heavy ballast stones as necessary to stabilize the boat for the higher speeds of racing. Weeks in advance the boats have returned to port for repairs and especially a fresh coat of paint before the new sails are struck.
By now I had rowed my Porta-Bote to the pier and was admiring the agility of one sailor climbing the rigging to the very top of the mast as it rocked to and fro. He slipped a line over and seemed to dangle for a moment by one arm before lowering himself to the deck. No bosun's chair for this man! The larger boats made for a great visual as they lined the pier anxious to be free on the water.
Hundreds of people from all over Belize and parts of Mexico had come to see the races. My friends Brad and Christina were there and their guest, arriving by car from Corozal called to say there was a 2 hour delay at the hand-crank ferry across Laguna Seca that would delay them. Children were playing the shallows along the beach, parents were drinking beer and juices ashore overseeing the games. Everywhere there was an air of excitement. The weather was perfect - blue sky, puffy clouds, and a freshening breeze.
*To be continued...