It’s not every day you’re lucky enough to be on a sinking boat. I pulled a four-leaf clover last week when I signed up for three-day sailing, snorkelling and island hopping adventure in Belize, travelling from Caye Caulker down to Placencia. And, for once, I got a bloody adventure.
We set off from the picturesque coral island on Tuesday morning with high spirits and an air of promise that is hard to avoid when the only tasks you have scheduled are snorkelling, swimming, eating and drinking.
The fancy catamaran fit 21 tourists and four rasta-accented crew members with ease, although it was always a battle to find shade. Our sunscreen use in one day was more than an entire Canadian city will need in a year.
The first great exertion was setting the trawling rods from the back of the boat. Ben and I took turns with the rod, mostly because the sun was fiercer than a grizzly separated from her cubs. We even began a competition against some other Australians. First catch had to shout dinner in Placencia. When they saw how serious we were and ultimately gave up a German couple took their spot, for at least three minutes. However, it became obvious the fishing would not be prolific, apparently the water was too hot. Captain Jerry chimed in with his favourite tip for catching a big one. “All you need to do is pass the rod to the person next to you and then the fish will jump right on the line.”
We cooled down with a colourful snorkel before the crew showed their talent making rum punch, the ultimate social lubricant. a few moments of careless frivolity before the left hull of the catamaran got rather intimate with the Belize Barrier Reef. A bang, a bump and the look of pure fright in the eyes of the crew told the passengers that this was not likely to be a drill. The lads began shouting about in Creole and one of the guys took a look under the hull with a snorkel. The passengers gossiped rather noisily and swapped thoughts on what might be wrong with the boat.
We continued sailing toward Rendezvous Caye, our stop for the evening, and it wasn’t until the Captain asked everyone to stand on the right side of the boat and began moving things around with a speed that is completely incongruent with the Belizean go-slow nature, that I guessed we were in a trifle more trouble than a slow leak. Indeed, the bags were soon hauled from the hull and piled on to the roof. I could see my pack and, assured the passports were safe, asked if the rum punch was still available. Of course, the crew replied. Anything to keep us out of the way.
It was here that our Captain made an expert choice that saved everyone’s ass. We had a good distance to go before we would reach the Caye and help was a few hours away, if the cell phones ever connected to base. So, we steered away from our destination and headed back to the reef that had wreaked the havoc. Captain found a nice sandy spot to sit our majestic catamaran upon and we sat there safely.
The entire left hull was underwater. The motor had been pushed up when we went over the reef, ripping the boat apart. The water had gushed in and filled all spare cavities, as water does. It might have taken about 5 minutes from bump to park, although that is pure conjecture. We had no idea of time.
Despite the sinking nature of the afternoon, you would be hard pressed to find a happier bunch of tourists anywhere in the world, than we were on that boat once we had stopped moving. The crew served ceviche and rum punch was applied liberally to everyone’s nerves. We couldn’t think of a more interesting segue in the trip. It’s rare that you sign up for an adventure and actually get something extraordinary.
In fact, we were having such a splendid time watching the sun set into the sea that when the rescue boat arrived the Captain had to order us off the sunken vessel. “This is an emergency evacuation, in case you didn’t realise it,” he said in the deep rasta voice and I noticed two 2.5L bottles of rum being secreted into the life boat.
I must point out here that our amazing crew were not having the time of their lives at this time. They were professional and efficient through the entire process and we cannot commend them enough.
Later that evening, after they had cooked us the catch of the day and the catamaran was lifted off the reef and set sail for repairs in Belize City, the crew told us a new boat would arrive later that evening. We all wanted to sail on, wanted our trusty crew with us and we put our hands together, the Captain shouted “are we men or are we mice” and we all screamed unintelligible rum-punch fuelled screams to indicate we wanted to continue. Incredible how close you can become with strangers in just a day.
We sailed off into the heat on our new boat the next day with many comments that one boat for a three-day trip would not have been good enough anyway.
The group bonding continued over snorkelling and the full-time quest for shade. Ben and I enjoyed the diverse group with a crew of Europeans, Americans, a guy from Hong Kong, an interesting Israeli dude and, of course, a smattering of Aussies. Finally, people who understood our accent and our jokes. It hit me afresh how much I miss Australia.
We snorkelled, swam and applied sunscreen with the vigour I usually reserve for eating guacamole, but then decided all of that was too hard in the heat so donned lifejackets and floated around the ocean discussing bowel movements and other travel-related stories. We talked hobbies and a pretty German girl described how she and her boyfriend enjoy rock climbing and also parasailing. I joked that they probably climb up large cliffs then fly off into the alps together. She agreed that they were indeed that intrepid. Not to be out-done I told her that occasionally Ben and I go to the liquor store early in the morning and get a carton of beer, take it home, put it in the esky, empty the ice maker into the esky and drink the whole thing. It’s no wonder the Aussies have a name for being drinkers.
Anyway, it was rum punch time as we headed towards Tobacco Caye, the coral outcrop where we would pitch our saunas for the second night of enclosed humidity torture they call camping in Belize. We passed the afternoon with a few hours of life jacket floating as the sun set. The Belize Fisheries Department directed their small fishing boat towards the dock and the main man stepped onto the island trading cheeky Creole jokes with our crew and casually toting an M-16. A wee overstatement, I thought, then remembered the nation has a deep-seated piracy history.
It as a quiet night after the knock-out combination of sun and rum. I doubt I made it to 8pm. We woke very early to the sound of deadly coconuts dropping metres from our tents. The fruit is known for killing more people than shark attacks. Alas it felt like the humidity would take us first and no-one had any sparkle in their sleep-deprived eyes as they were driven from their tents to watch the sun rise.
We set sail towards Placencia and put the engineer to use building a bed sheet shade fort at the back of the boat that looked like a happier version of a refugee camp. After the burst of energy, it was another blissful day of snorkelling, floating and, for me, a cat-and-mouse game with my book that seemed to grow legs at times.
We pulled into the harbour later that afternoon with mixed feelings, you’re keen for a shower and desperate for air con but don’t want the bubble of new friendships and a shared adventure to burst. Then again, it’s a sweet feeling to know you’ve made new friends and even sweeter to know you have a shipwreck story you can dine out on for the next few years.
Please note, if you’re on Caye Caulker heading south, do not miss out on the Raggamuffin trip, even without a sinking boat you will have an amazing time.