Monday, November 7, 2011

STUCK in Belize

November 7, 2011

Ambergis Divers, San Pedro, Domino at anchor
San Pedro
Ambergis Cay
17°55.032N - 087°57.595W

First, the good news.  It’s 0600 and the sun is peeking over the horizon, a salmon sky welcoming the new day.  The strong northerly winds that blew all night have died just before dawn and it’s a balmy 80°F in the cabin.  JP is getting ready to run the genset because, ditzy me, I forgot to flip the alternator switch to “ON” when we were running 2 days ago, which means our batteries did not charge under way.  Oh, well, our big 12KW NorthernLight will have to work a bit and add one hour to its puny 208 hours accumulated in the last 660 days.  This genset has it easy.  But this post is not about the genset.

Then, the good news.  We were just running the numbers to see how DOMINO did, fuel-wise, since we gave her that big 2,606 gal. gulp in Myrtle Beach.  So, take your pencils and calculators and double-check our figures.  We ran the engines for 132 hours, covered 1,327 NM, and burned 900 gallons.  In my book, that looks like averaging 1.47 mpg, at an average speed of 10 knots.  That means, all conditions confounded:  running across the Gulf Stream at 20 knots (2000 rpm), running against it at 8 knots (1200 rpm), running with the Cuban counter-current at 12 knots (1100 rpm), trolling at 7 knots on one engine (900 rpm on trolling mode burns 1.7 gph), and even running at Zero knots and looking for deep water for a couple of hours when we got stuck.

Yes, we got stuck (euphemism for “running aground.”)  As they say, there are only 2 kinds of people who never run aground: those who don’t leave the marina slip, and those who lie.  But since we travel (15,350 NM in 20 months) and I try to be candid with our experiences, well, there, you have it, we ran aground… in Porto Stuck, no less!

The inside passage from Belize City to Guatemala is deep and wide and easy, SOUTH of Belize City.  But running the inside passage to Ambergis Cay by going NORTH of Belize city is another story.  Narrow passages, unmarked and shoaled up are a recipe for running aground.

Red squiggle: where we ran aground.  Black/red dots: deep water channel.
The channel is actually 300 yards east of what the Navnet Chart showed.

We were well armed with charts and guides, though: the latest version of Navnet3D and appropriate Navionics charts of Central America; the i-Pad, loaded with the latest upgrade of Navionics charts for the region: Freya Rauscher’s Cruising Guide to Belize (2007 edition) and its hand-drawn sketches.  We had even talked to a local fisherman to ask him how to clear the North Drowned Cay to go to Cay Caulker.  He said: west of the cay.   JP fired up the engines and off we went.  But we didn’t go far.  As we approached the 2 stakes making North Drowned Cay shoal, we registered 3” under the hull.  West of the cay was an impossible route to the North.  The Fisherman had given us the route to Moho Cay, not to Cay Caulker.  Where to go, then? East of the Between Sallow Cay and N.Drwoned cay?  But on which side of the stakes?  We zig-zagged for a while, looking for deep water, none to be found.  Finally, we called the port captain.  “Go starboard of the stakes…” Confusing to us: we leave a mark to port or starboard, but we go east or west of a mark.  Confirmation?  “Yes, leave the stakes to port.”  Finally, we find the channel, with 3” under our hulls.  “DOMINO, alter your course 5 degrees to starboard,” calls the port captain, and we do… only to run aground one more time.  Poking around to the west, we found the channel again.  By that time, the Navnet and the iPad had us navigating on dry land for some time. 

Inaacurate electronic chart can be very dangerous.

The ride through the mangrove-lined waters was eerie, flat, the sky metallic gray, the shallow, murky waters filled with dinner-plate size jelly fish and ready-to-sting men-of –war.  Don’t you get stuck in there and have to walk through the shallows to set a kedging anchor!  The Airmar depth sounder registers 20cm under the hull, 10 cm (3”), ZERO!  We’re stuck again!  PORTO STUCK bears its name well.  We kept studying Freya Rauscher’s sketch, looking for the steel pipe and stakes:  not around us!  We could see the tripod but even lined up properly, could not make our approach between Hicks and Montejo Cays.  We zigzagged for an hour, by now disoriented a bit, when we spotted, way to the east of us, the Belize Shuttle that runs from Belize City to San Pedro.  At last, we had found our track!  One steel pipe and one stake is all that’s left to mark the 10-foot deep, narrow channel.  It took us 3 hours to cover the 18 miles to Cay Chapel where we dropped anchor for the night, short of our intended destination.

Dropped the hook in front of Cay Chapel Marina and Golf

In the morning, we got very shallow again, clearing the north end of Cay Caulker with only 3 inches under our hulls (we draw 4.5 feet), and that’s not even at low tide!

San Pedro, Ambergis Cay

At last, we arrived San Pedro in Ambergis Cay, following Freya Rauschers detailed instructions, and dropped the hook in front of the Tackle Box, with 50cm under our hulls.  We’ve been here 3 days, the fringe of the reef a thin white line on our starboard, the vibrant settlement of San Pedro on our port, and dozens of local boats shuttling tourists at high speed at all hours of the day, throwing their wakes along our sides.  Busy place! 

The Tackle Box, Ambergis Cay, San Pedro

So, what did we learn?  Never trust your electronics charts fully; sketches in cruising guides are just sketches, not intended for navigation; be wary of the advice of local mariners; even the port authority may lead you astray; travel the shallows slowly and at high tide;  pray to the Almighty to hold that high tide for a few hours!

Now, let’s go diving!

Until then…

1 comment:

David Rodecker said...

OMG. That must have been a scary incident. Was there any hull damage?