Sunday, 29 November 2009

To Cuba. Travel report no. 52.

For corresponding photos see Picture Gallery no.52
By Diana, 29th November, 2009.

From Rio Dulce via Belize and Mexico to Havana, Cuba.

Back in Guatemala

Our plane back to Guatemala City arrived late afternoon 28th September. Instead of our usual cheap hotel we felt like more comfort and had a night in the Holiday Inn, which turned out not to be much more expensive as it included transport from the air-port, and a big breakfast. The next morning we made the 5 hour bus trip to Rio Dulce, as always a bit excited to see White Admiral again. She was in fine shape, straining at the ropes, ready for a new adventure. It doesn’t take long to get her ready when she is in the water, so two days later with everything in place, and a big load of shopping aboard we were ready to go. It was a bit nostalgic leaving Monkey Bay Marina which has been a good home for White Admiral since April 2008, but now we are heading slowly back home to Norway.

After shuffling the boats around, we drove out of the marina, waving goodbye to the American manager John, who had looked after us well, and headed off down to the El Golfete lake, motoring into a light head-wind, then through the spectacular gorge as Rio Dulce winds its way out to the port of Livingston.
In Livingston the check- out procedures are straight-forward, although this time it involved a fine, which we knew about beforehand as it was a cheaper way of doing things than paying for an extension!

Departure problems.

After lunch, Stein discovered a diesel leak in the starboard engine. He couldn’t fix it on the spot, but having two engines, we decided to stick to our plan of leaving the same night for Placencia in Belize. We do not often enter or leave harbours in the dark, but we did so this time, as it only involved taking a course to a buoy which is easily seen in the dark. We found ourselves motoring into a headwind at 2 knots with our one engine, then thunder and lightning erupted around us, and to top things off we suddenly heard a scraping noise under us, and found that we had a fishing net in the propeller! No choice but for poor Stein to jump into the water with torch and knife and cut us free with the boat heaving up and down in the swell. I watched him with heart in mouth, and was very glad to see him get the net off, without bumping his head into the propeller. I was now ready to turn back to port, get the engine repaired and wait for better weather, but Stein is always the optimist, and persuaded me that things would get better, which they did. It was a squally night, with some torrential rain showers, but we managed to motor-sail most of the night, and arrived at Big Creek the next morning as planned. This is the port of entry for Placencia, one of the places where yachts can check in. We know the routine here, and managed to check in efficiently, despite the alcoholic port captain trying to make us cheat by giving him a tip instead of paying the exit fee in advance! We like to have our papers in order, so we don’t take any chances with that.

Visitors from Scotland.

Now we were free to enjoy Belize again and motored to the anchorage south of Placencia, the pleasant, colourful village which we have visited earlier. We had a good long walk to find the two geocaches hidden here, and Stein made a temporary repair to get both engines going again. Then it was early to bed after a night of little sleep. We now had only two days to get to Belize City, as our good old friends, Anne and Alistair Balfour, and their 16-year old son Adam, would be arriving to join us for a couple of weeks. The weather had improved, and the first day we sailed close-hauled into a light north-easterly, with a little help from the engines, but made the disappointing discovery en route that Stein’s repair was not strong enough and diesel was leaking again. Then as we approached the anchorage at Garbutt Cay, a mangrove island, the echo sounder stopped working and we had to get out the reserve. Sometime it feels like something always needs repairing, but that is part of life on a sailboat...
The next day was at last lovely sailing towards Belize City in a light easterly breeze. Early in the day, we got a text message from the Balfours that they had boarded the plane in Scotland. We could not get any more messages to or from them, and thinking we might have made a mistake in their arrival date, headed right to Cucumber marina near Belize City instead of another island stop, in time to meet the afternoon plane from Houston. Of course, no Balfours appeared, they were spending the night in USA! They arrived as planned on the 4th, and were dully installed in White Admiral. Our itinerary was first to go north to Caye Caulker with its laid-back, holiday community, then out to the atolls of Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef, outside the main barrier reef.


The next morning began with a fresh easterly breeze, which we had to motor straight into. After a couple of hours, we had a stop at Swallow Caye, which is a reserve for manatees, the plant-eating mammals which have been nearly eradicated in many countries. Belize has protected these animals since 1937, amazing foresight! We rowed about in the dinghy for an hour or so, and had a couple of sightings, a dark shadow under the surface, or a snout appearing for a moment, but once back on White Admiral, one did pop up so that we got a good look at him, and we declared the expedition a success!
The rest of the afternoon was a pleasant sail up to the western anchorage at Caye Caulker. This proved to be poor holding, we woke up in the middle of the night a long way off-shore, fortunately there were no reefs behind us. We re-anchored at that spot, then at 7 a.m. drove back into the bay where the anchor took hold on the fourth attempt! (The problem was caused by short, dense turtle grass.) A pleasant day was had in Caye Caulker, walking, shopping and a great meal at Rosie’s, a simple restaurant where one can choose fresh fish, lobster or conch from the grill in the street. With a rum punch or Belize’s Belikin beer, life could have been worse!

Turneffe Atoll

We were off to the atolls the next morning, again close-hauled sailing in a fresh breeze. Our delight at catching a small tuna fish, was soon overshadowed, when our whole new fishing reel was pulled off the deck and disappeared into the deep! A case of the really big one that got away… So out with the old one again. At Turneffe atoll, we revisited our old fisherman friend Milo, who had taken us through the north part of the atoll earlier in the year. He provided us with fresh conch meat in exchange for a pair of pink croc shoes! We had hoped he would guide us through the shallow atoll again (depth mostly 2-3 m), but his canoe had been stolen recently, so this time we had to do it on our own. Fortunately, I had taken a few way-points (GPS readings) en route; we follow these plus kept a good look-out with the sun just behind us, and avoided the many coral heads. A lunch stop behind a coral patch was very popular with our guests, not only because of the pretty coral reef, but we were able to swim with some friendly dolphins!

Lighthouse Reef

Once through to the east side of Turneffe atoll, we had a squally sail with gusts of up to 30 knots, had to tack a couple of times, so didn’t make our destination before nightfall. Fortunately, there are some buoys put out for diving boats in the lee of Long Caye, one of the islands on the west of Lighthouse Reef. With our flashlight we were lucky to find a buoy immediately and get tied on for the night. We noticed that schools of quite large fish were attracted to the light, and when we threw in a lure, a horse-eyed jack was hooked and tomorrows dinner secured!
Next morning we cast off and motored through the passage in the reef to a less exposed anchorage in 2 m depth not far from the island. Long Caye is a flat, forested island with mostly mangroves along the shore, lots of iguanas and hermit land-crabs, a couple of deserted resorts which seem to have gone bankrupt, and the Huracan Diving resort, which was closed for most of the hurricane season (so why the name, we wondered!), hence no rum punches or cold beer to be bought there, either... Tourism seems to be in a decline in Belize, hopefully a temporary situation due to the financial crisis. Anyway, the island is criss-crossed by paths which allowed Anne to get her weekly jog, while the rest of us wandered about.
Leaving Long Caye, a large dive boat was now tied to the buoy we had made use of, luckily for Stein who got his diving bottle filled, a good exchange for some cheap wine bought in Guatemala. After a couple of hours motoring across the south end of the lagoon, we anchored at Half Moon Caye, the pearl of Lighthouse Reef and a protected nature park. (It has the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site.) Even though we have been here three times before, it is a lovely place to revisit, with its curving beaches, palm trees and colonies of frigate birds and blue-footed boobies.

The Great Blue Hole; beautiful and expensive

From Half Moon Caye, it is possible to sail up inside the eastern side of the reef right up to the north of the island, which we did, stopping overnight at the famous Blue Hole for a second time. Here Stein and Adam did a buddy dive together while the rest of us enjoyed the great snorkeling; every kind of reef fish can be seen here, including many Queen Angelfish, a beautiful fish that justly deserves its name. We didn’t leave early enough the next morning and were spotted by a rangers’ patrol boat who wanted a park fee of 30 US dollars from each of us, which seems like a ridiculously high visitor’s fee!
At the north end of Lighthouse Reef, the waters are really full of coral heads, so we had to leave by a rather scary, north passage through the reef nearby, sail around Sandborne Caye and the North Point lighthouse before reentering from the north-west into the anchorage off Northern Caye. This has another lovely beach, and yet another deserted resort we also have lamented about in the past... A bit like a ghost village with empty cottages, all the furniture in place, and beach chairs fading on the verandas.
We decided to sail back to Caye Caulker the next day to give us some time for visiting Mayan ruins, before the Balfours return to Scotland.
This turned out to be a lovely day, but only with a very light easterly breeze, perfect for gennaker sailing. Not often we get out this huge, light sail, but it looks great once the ropes are all sorted out and it billows out in the breeze showing its colours. But by lunch-time the wind had definitely faded, and we had to give up and motor the rest of the way. First we stopped the boat for a swim; lovely in the intense heat. In fact these two weeks were about the hottest we have experienced in the Caribbean, with at least 30 centigrade during the day, and only a couple of degrees lower at night. This made sleeping difficult for guests coming straight from autumn in Scotland. Different sleeping arrangements were tried out in the cock-pit and the bow trampoline, but the most successful was for Anne, who spent the last week sleeping in the rubber dinghy on the front deck!

Lamanai’s Mennonites and Mayan ruins.

Safely anchored back at Caye Caulker, this time on the east coast inside the barrier reef, we could leave White Admiral for a day to take a mainland trip to the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. An early morning water-taxi took us to Belize City. With two huge 300 horsepower outboard engines, we arrived a bit wind-swept. We had arranged to hire a car, which duly arrived with a lovely Belizean young lady at the wheel. To get to Lamanai is about a 2 hour drive through flat, rather dry landscape, but the last part we noticed was much more cultivated, horses and carts began to appear in the roads, and we felt we had stepped back in time as we saw men in blue overalls and straw hats, and ladies in long skirts and brimmed hats. One of the men hitched a lift with us, and could tell us a bit more about this Mennonite community, originally from Germany, who live and work here in an old-fashioned pious way, inter-marrying and keeping the German language.
We heard later from other Belizeans that the Mennonites are very hard-working and are responsible for a large part of Belize’s agricultural exports.
Lamanai was as expected an amazing sight, a huge area full of Mayan buildings and temples, most still hidden in the dense jungle. A few have been excavated, and stand as memorials to an advanced culture, long before the time of Columbus, with the remains of homes, meeting places, play-fields and religious temples. Particularly the temples make one wonder at what can be built without modern equipment, but with huge amounts of physical labour. The Mayans obviously had a great sense of esthetics and symmetry.

The last day of the Balfours’ holiday, Anne and Adam spent enjoying some of the facilities of Caye Caulker, which consists of some small restaurants and souvenir shops. Shopping is not Alistair’s thing, and he and I went off for another day on the mainland visiting Belize Zoo. We managed to find a bus from the rather insalubrious bus station in town, which took us for next to nothing the 20 miles to the zoo. This is an absolutely delightful natural area, with big enclosures for the native animals of the country. The highlights were the big cats, particularly the beautiful jaguars, and the Harpy Eagle, one of the biggest eagles in the World, and the one with the biggest claws!

Xcalak and Tulum, Mexico

After waving our friends off on the early morning water-taxi to Belize City, Stein and I were back to our original crew, and ready to set off for Mexico and Cuba; new and exciting destinations! First we had to clear out of San Pedro, the biggest tourist town in the north of Belize. This was only a few miles away, but took us three hours, motoring into a blustery 25 knot wind from the north. Here we did a little more geocaching; we now have two “Travel Bugs” as new crew, and spent our last Belize dollars. Checking out was uneventful, except that we had one of the most unpleasant officials ever, a lady with long, patterned finger nails, who was making life embarrassingly tough for her junior colleague who was trying to learn how to do the paperwork.
On 20th October, we were off to Mexico, despite the still unpleasant and unstable weather. It was only 25 miles along the coast to the nearest port of entry, but with the wind still against us, it took most of the day to sail. We did one long tack out to sea, and another tack back to the coast, before heading through a well marked passage through the reef just outside the small town of Xcalak in southern Quintana Roo district. This coast is also known as La Costa Maya.
The barrier reef continues from Belize along the southern part of the Mexican coast, and provided good protection also in the Xcalak anchorage. This was the first time we have met a female port captain, a pleasant change from the last official we had met, Susie was smiling and cheerful and made us feel welcome. Apart from her, Xcalak had little to offer, an out-of-the way, broken-down little town, with one restaurant open, where we had a beer. The little tourism the place used to have, has almost disappeared with the financial crisis and the ongoing fear of swine influenza! So off we went again the next afternoon, for an overnight sail along the coast, now with the wind more easterly, giving us a good sail until the early morning, when the wind died away, and we motored the last few hours to Tulum. Here we only stayed a few hours, as the anchorage is known to be poor holding and just off the beach. But we took time to visit another famous Mayan ruin, one of the few built on the coast, and one of Mexico’s big tourist attractions; another impressive collection of ancient stone buildings standing on a high cliff overlooking the blue Caribbean. The wind had now picked up again and gone more southerly; perfect for an overnight sail to Isla Mujeres, an island off the north-east point of the Yucatan Peninsula, and a good place to set off for Cuba.

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is a cheerful, bustling, Caribbean style island, no high rise buildings or American food chains allowed. This gives it a Mexican feel, and we enjoyed local food, and a drive around the island in a rented golf-buggy. Mexicans obviously don’t worry about the warning from the American manufacturer that these should never be used on ordinary roads! The Mexicans seem friendly, but have an awful lot of bureaucracy as regards sailing yachts. We spent a whole morning trotting from port captain’s office to photocopy shop to bank to immigration to get our papers for leaving the country, and were supplied with six ‘Zarpas’ (the clearance paper) and six crew-lists! By an amazing coincidence we met Australian Jeremy, a solo-sailor who had just arrived from Cuba in the port-captain’s office. The coincidence was that his yacht “Southern Hemisphere” was the only one in the place who had been in Cuba! We were keen to get information about Cuba, so invited him for dinner, and this proved to be a win-win for us all as he gave us charts for Cuba, and we gave him a guide for Mexico and Belize. He gave us the good advice to stock up with almost everything, as supplies are so hard to get in Cuba, so we did a new round at the supermarkets the next day, and we did indeed have good use for most of this stuff later. Jeremy is a 28 year old bachelor, and could also tell us about the pretty Cuban girls in a country where Western men have no trouble in finding new partners! (Stein assures me he is happy with his 65 year-old wife!)
We left Mexico on 25th October, after only a week in the country; as we were expecting Stein’s mother Eli, and cousin Stein “Buster”, due to arrive in Havana on 4th November. We were a bit unsure how long it would take us to sail along the north coast of Cuba against the prevailing wind.

Across the Yucatan Channel to Cuba

The Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba has a bad reputation. There is a strong north-going current up to 3 knots (the start of the Golf Current), and with the prevailing north-easterly wind, this creates a lumpy sea, which becomes much worse if there is a strong northerner. We had the usual wind as we headed off on a northerly tack, and soon changed to make a long tack south of our course, a slow, uncomfortable sail. In the middle of the night we changed tack again, the wind having fortunately gone a bit more east, so now we managed to make a better course, and the next day as the wind went south of east, we had a day of lumpy, but fast sailing. We realized that we were going to arrive after dark in Cuba, something that we try not to do, but we could see from our chart that there were no reefs in this area, and our digital chart seemed to be very accurate, so we motored round Cape San Antonio into the bay in front of Los Morres. Not only was it now pitch dark, but black clouds had covered the moon, and the rain was pouring down as Stein let down our anchor. But it was lovely to be still again and to be in Cuba!
The next morning we drove over to the jetty to check in. We were a little apprehensive, having been told about the Cuban bureaucracy, but in fact clearing in turned out to be less problematic than in Mexico, and the officials were very friendly. When they appeared we were surprised to find them dressed with masks and rubber gloves, which they apparently always do until a yacht has been declared healthy by the official doctor. I suspect they themselves thought this was stupid, because when we took a picture of them, one of them asked us not to show anybody in case they think that Cubans are crazy!

Double money and strict regulations

The area around the west point of Cuba is a national park, with very little population. We took a long walk to the lighthouse, partly along a lovely beach, and partly on a road through forest with hundreds of yellow and blue land crabs hiding in the bushes on each side, the most we have ever seen. We also saw a deer and many birds. There was no village, but we had a drink and changed some money at a small hotel. We became aware that there is a strange double economy and even a double monetary system here; Pesos Nacionales (CUP) which are used by Cubans, and Pesos Convertibles (CUC) used by tourists, the latter 24 times the value of the former. Restaurants and the few supermarkets (not very super!) use the tourist pesos. Almost all the population earns the equivalent of 15 – 20 US dollars a month, but are also given free housing and a certain amount of food per month. In addition, there is the good education system and health service, so poverty is not desperate, but with Western eyes everybody seems poor... One of the bad side effects is that women prostitute themselves for the tourists in return for a nice dinner and a few dollars, so a male tourist can very easily pick up a girl.
Our first day of sailing along the north coast of Cuba was the best of this period, sunshine, light SE breeze, and lovely scenery. It seemed strangely deserted though, the reason being that no Cubans own a boat! Foreign yachts are few and far between, and regulations demand that we check in and out of every port of call. Our first stop after Los Morres was the small fishing village of Los Arroyos. We anchored at sunset, well off-shore to avoid insects, and planned to check in in the next morning. However, after half an hour we heard a shout, and saw a rowing boat with two officials approaching. Two young men from the local Guardia came aboard, took off their shoes, and proceeded to check our papers. They were very polite and enjoyed a Coca Cola and biscuits, and arranged that we could come for a walk ashore the next morning. So at 8 a.m. we dinghied in, past the small fleet of simple, very rusty fishing boats, and started to walk up the main street. We only got as far as the Guardia’s office, when we were called in to talk to a senior official with the news that there had come “new regulations” and Los Arroyos was no longer a permitted stopping place for foreign yachts, so we could not go for our walk! Our next planned stop was also prohibited, there was in fact only one populated place we could now visit en route to Havana!
Now the wind was less favourable and we motor-sailed along the coast, inside another barrier reef, with nice smooth seas. We found ourselves a night anchorage at Caya Justias, where we rowed ashore (supposedly illegally) to a deserted beach, one of the most beautiful imagineable, with soft, white sand, lots of shells and backed by whispering pines. Another day’s drive took us to Caya Levisa, where we could check in and have our papers stamped. This is a pretty tourist resort, with cabins along the beach, and a nice restaurant and bar. We had a drink and a swim, saw only a few foreigners from Europe, but no Cubans except those who work here.

Marina Hemingway

Another night’s sailing took us along the coast to Havana (Habana), mostly tacking against the NE breeze, the last few hours motoring along the coast. The entrance to Hemingway Marina is narrow and well- buoyed, with breakers on each side even on a calm day. Again we were received by polite and friendly officials, and paperwork which took about two hours, before we could tie up in Channel 2.

We have never seen such a big marina, with four long channels, each at least a kilometer long, edged by solid concrete walls with room for boats on each side. It was built by American Mafia money in the 1950’s when Havana was heading to become the biggest gambling centre in the Western Hemisphere. (Fidel Castro and the Revolution in 1959 stopped all that.) Now the marina is mostly deserted. We heard that there used to be quite a lot of visiting yachts from USA; 10-15 daily was usual in 2004 (Florida lies only 100 n.miles straight north), but after the last Bush Government tightened the embargo with threats of fines and confiscating boats, sailors have been frightened off.
There were only two other foreign boats with people aboard; “Star”, a three-masted vintage sailing yacht from St.Kitts & Nevis in the West Indies and “Caroline”, a large motor yacht registered in George Town, Cayman Islands. Steve and Irene on Star are an American/English couple and old hands at sailing. They had come to visit their daughter Pearl, who was studying anthropology at the University of Havana for one year. We enjoyed some drinks and cups of tea together, and exchanged sailing yarns, before they left three days later.

Norman on Caroline is a 70 year old Canadian, a retired ship builder, who freely admits that the reason he is in Cuba is the women! He has lived part of the year here since the early nineties, and could tell us unending tales of life and politics in Cuba. He is also the only person we have seen with a car on his rear-deck! This was not in use at present, as he only gets half a year permission to use it at a time, and has to leave the country for at least 24 hours before this can be renewed. He now had a hired car instead, and took me on several trips to buy food. This involves quite a long drive round different road-side vegetable stalls to see what is available. We returned his favours with lunches in our cockpit, something he obviously enjoyed.

Visitors from Norway

Eli and Cousin Stein (“Buster”) arrived as planned on 4th November. This time we would not be sailing, as it is just too much hassle in this country, but instead use Hemingway Marina as our base and see a bit of Cuba. Havana is a wonderful and fascinating city; lots of old, grand Spanish architecture, some of which is ready to collapse, but other buildings have been restored and look magnificent. Around the city are broad boulevards, often with double rows of large trees down the middle; it must have been one of the most beautiful cities in the World when it was built. Eli at 93 is no longer up to much walking, so she had to see it mostly by taxi, but the two Steins and I spent some time just strolling through the old streets and plazas, with groups of musicians playing at numerous corners, and pretty girls in colourful Latin costumes trying to get a peso or two being photographed with tourists.
We also hired a car for two days and drove inland, off the beaten track to see what ordinary towns look like. On the whole, they are very simple, most people seem to live in small blocks of flats, there are few shops and petrol stations, lots of revolutionary slogans, but hardly any ordinary advertisements. On the positive side; we so no shanty towns of ramshackle shacks like one sees in poor communities of other Latin-American countries. There are areas of ugly industry with belching chimneys and the quality of the main roads vary considerably, from broad motorways to narrow roads full of pot-holes.
Eli found the roads too hard on her back, so the second day she preferred to stay on the boat while the boys and I explored the coast east of Havana. At one stop for a swim, we were approached by a local guy who had spotted Cousin Stein’s Adidas T-shirt. He asked if he could exchange it for a couple of large shells, but we had to explain that Buster could not have lunch in a restaurant without his shirt! However, he was kind and gave the guy his Adidas swimming shorts after the swim, which were received with enormous gratitude. Just an example of how difficult it is for ordinary Cubans to get any decent clothes.

Lifted ashore

One might think that in this country of cheap labour, it would also be cheap to leave a boat in the marina, but not at all! It is in fact much more expensive than the other Caribbean countries. All the money goes straight to the government; the employees get the same small wage no matter how much work there is. So those who work in the marina try to make a private contract to look after your boat for an extra price, making it even more expensive. Much as we understand their need for extra money, we also have to be careful with ours, so we didn’t rush into making contracts. We had seen that there was a small boatyard in the marina, where we wondered if it was possible to be put up on land. The very helpful boss, René, had to consult with the chief of the marina, as this was not usual, but we finally got permission to leave it in the yard, for less than the cost of leaving it in the water. We have also arranged to have her anti-fouled before we get back.
It is always a slightly anxious moment to see White Admiral hanging from the hook of a mobile crane, and this one was smaller than we are used to, but the lifting went with no problems; she is now safely stored in the securely guarded yard, and we don’t need to worry about salt water, wind and waves.

Hotel Acuarius

Due to an important business deal, Cousin Stein got increasingly busy on his mobile phone and decided he had to fly back to Norway after only one week. Stein and I had already arranged to return on the same plane as Eli, so that was no problem to us, although we missed his cheerful company.
For the last four days we were more or less forced into some unusual luxury, as it is not permitted to live aboard once the boat is on land. We moved into, a lovely hotel in the marina grounds. For the daily price of 78 Pesos (about 50 Pounds or 500 Kroner) per night, all three of us could stay in the one big room, with all meals included, even alcoholic drinks! So it was very good value, with a big swimming-pool, lots of food and red wine. During the day, Stein and I spent most of the time doing jobs on the boat, with breaks at lunch to join Eli at the hotel. I painted the cockpit benches white, and Stein repaired and painted some areas of minor damage on the hull, as well as the usual engine maintenance, flushing fridge and engines with fresh-water and other jobs to keep our boat in good shape. Norman kindly drove us to the José Marti International Airport for the evening plane to Schiphol, Amsterdam on 20th November.

Now it is home to work, see family and celebrate Christmas.

That is our sailing and travelling over for 2009. It has been a great decade!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Summer 2009: Travel report no. 51.

Summer 2009: New jobs. Life in Lier. Finn’s Christening. Visit to Træna. Geocaching.
Travel report no. 51.
For corresponding pictures see Picture Gallery no. 51.

Written by Stein in Havana, Cuba. November 8th, 2009.

Diana and I sailed White Admiral safely into Hemingway Marina, Santa Fe, just east of Havana one week ago. We had left Rio Dulce, Guatemala, 30th September, and journeyed along the coast of Belize and Mexico and across the treacherous Yucatan Channel to anchor near Capo San Antonio, Cuba. It happened to be after sunset, in pouring rain, not our usual practice, but the full moon was of intermittent help and for once we had excellent charts, few reefs to avoid and an off-shore wind. After the bucking and the beating across the Yucatan and one very uncomfortable night, it was true bliss to lie still and feel safe again… That was on October 26th. Our tempo up the Central American coast was a lot faster than normal. We encountered some minor problems en route, but we did avoid the dreaded hurricanes. Good friends from Scotland, Anne Johnstone and Alastair Balfour and their son Adam, sailed with us for two weeks in Belize when we re-visited two of the outer atolls, but more about that in our next report.

New jobs and new routines.

Summer 2009 in Norway involved a major change of routine as we now live in a flat in Lier near Drammen, conveniently situated between our son and two grandchildren in Oslo and my mother in Veierland. Our living area is a lot less than we were used to during our 27 years in Kristiansand, but is much more compact and practical and beautifully located on the east coast of the Drammen Fjord; we never get enough of the sea! Diana and I both started work in new hospitals. I had my baptism of fire in the Drammen Cardiology Section on April 27th. In February I had been for interviews and met some of the staff, but could not get proper access to their data system for security reasons, so as I was plunged into full-time work on the morning of 27th , I had to get an office, ID-card, keys, clothes, passwords and in a 20 minute tutorial from a busy colleague learn a new data system relating to case-notes and to X-rays (two separate systems!) while doing a working ward round - on my own. (Apart from a nurse, who in Drammen does not have access to the same systems and could not help when I repeatedly got stuck...) The last straw was that for the first 2-3 days I could not dictate, but had to type or hand-write every note, letter and summary. So during these first crazy days I spent a lot more time in the hospital than at home. The reason for this unintended rough start was apparently staff shortage, but I suspect they just wanted to test an old dog?!
At any rate, both my patients and I survived, and I soon became very fond of my new work-place and a number of skilled and friendly colleagues, and with 10 km to cycle each way there was the added bonus of exercise just getting to and fro work!
When Diana started one week later in the Eye Dept, Tønsberg, they had set aside three days for her to be tutored into gradually acquiring new skills. Even so, she also found a new data system tough going. Strangely enough, Drammen and Tønsberg belong to the same, large health administration as Kristiansand, but a lot of local routines and technical solutions vary tremendously.

Finn’s Christening and Jude Law as Hamlet.

Torp Airport near Sandefjord (known internationally as” Oslo Torp” although 110 km south of Oslo!) and the affordable services of Ryan Air is also quite near us now, and we had two memorable week-ends in London during the summer. First in early May for Finn’s Christening, a day of sunshine and many friends and relations gathering to celebrate a happy boy now duly named Finn Theodor Hoff Chambers. As Elisabeth & Co were busy moving house, Diana and I stayed with our good friends, Yvonne and Jonathan in Greenwich. Apart from providing several excellent meals, they also treated us to an opera experience.
In July we were across again spending more time both with Elisabeth, Hugh and Finn, now settled in a family-style house in Chiswick, and with our youngest son Robert, presently also living and working in London.
But the main occasion this time was taking Hugh and Elisabeth to see “Hamlet”. One of our favorite actors, Jude Law, did a brilliant interpretation of Shakespeare’s famous drama. This actor is not just good-looking - we were impressed! These popular theatre seats were booked by Diana on Internet one year earlier, and at that time we did not know that Robert also would be in London, otherwise we would of course have secured an additional ticket.

Family and friends.

My mother moved out to her cottage at Veierland this summer a little later than usual; at 93 her legs are not so strong, and Diana and I, mostly I, went there quite regularly to help with maintenance and shopping. Fortunately, she also has some obliging cottage neighbors that provide both help and security.
Our grandchildren, Hedda and Johan joined us regularly both in Lier and at Veierland. They are like me fascinated by nature and living things and can now name a few new flowers and butterflies, including the rare Swallowtail, and they never seem to tire from just pottering on a shore looking for pretty shells.
The sad aspect of moving is losing regular contact with good friends, but we had a belated gathering of some of them as a sort of house-warming party in the middle of July. Fortunately we also have very good, old friends, Dagmar and Christian living in the same house. Christian and I share a passion for kayaking and regularly go for before-breakfast paddles together; another bonus of a sea-side flat.

To the Træna islands of Lovund, Husøy and Sanna.

Like last year, Diana had arranged time off from hospital to work in an eye practice in Mo I Rana in Nordland County. Halfway through her four weeks I flew up to join her for a long week-end around August 1st. Like last year we travelled out to some of the thousands of islands in the Helgoland archipelago that are still inhabited. This time we went to a cluster of islands known as Træna, a couple of hours by ferry out from the coast. The first boat took us via two other stops to the island of Lovund, an old fishing community with about 200 inhabitants. Here we did some hiking in light drizzle. We also climbed a mountain-side littered with large boulders, a protected breeding site where puffins gather in huge numbers every summer. These sea-birds are expert fishers and can be seen returning to their chicks at top speed carrying a cluster of sardines in broad, colourful beaks; beaks that have given them the nick-name of the Parrots of the Arctic. They often have to zig-zag their way back to their burrows due to attacks from gulls and skuas; hawk-like sea-birds that have specialized in stealing their catch and any chicks that are unprotected.
We left the car at Lovund and took a fast catamaran to Husøy further north, and as the sky cleared we walked through the charming village to the only guest-house open all year. After dinner of whale beef (I normally do not eat red meat, but there was no menu alternative, and I have to admit that it was very tasty!) we had a walk in the clear and still evening. As we now were virtually on the Polar Circle just south of N 67°30’, the sun was still shining from the north as we went to bed at 11.30 pm.
North of Husøy, and separated by a narrow channel with several fish farms, lie the spectacular island of Senna. For the 15 min trip there we joined three other visitors and hired a small boat to taxi us across. Senna is a small island with three impressive peaks where nesting sea-eagles, Norway’s largest bird, have made a come-back in recent years. We saw several of these majestic birds hovering beside the cliffs. At the foot of the two easterly peaks and behind the small bay on the south side is a cluster of idyllic houses. Most of these houses are now only used in the summer, but a couple of hardy, elderly folks still tolerate the isolation and the tough winters. The bonus is a closeness to untamed nature and wild-life that city-dwellers cannot imagine. But when they are gone, so is an unbroken habitation that goes back 6000 years: When most of main-land Norway was still covered in ice, stone age humans were living in a big cave on western Sanna called Kirkehelleren. Archeologists are of course fascinated by all the finds in Kirkehelleren, but in recent years also musicians have discovered that this natural gothic cathedral is a unique theatre. In July each year Husøy hosts a music festival, and for one of the concerts the audience gets into boats, go across to Senna, hike on a rugged path from the beach to the cave to sit on stone benches and listen to music in a breathtaking setting. And with typical Nordland attitude, concerts are never cancelled, but boots, oil-skins and hot drinks may be required!

Birkebeinerrittet 2009.

Keeping fit is a bit of an obsession I have, according to my nearest, and I try to do something that is physically a bit challenging every day, whenever possible. And I enjoy it – most of the time! Jogging is no longer a good idea, unfortunately, I suppose all the asphalt-running Diana and used to do wore out our knees prematurely, but I can still enjoy rowing and kayaking, biking and skiing. Every year I try to take part in a couple of rowing regattas and one off-road bike race, the 90 km long Birkerbeinerrittet. It was Martin who first introduced us to “Birken”, as it is known, and everybody else in the near family has taken part at least once, apart from Diana. She has in the past done several triathlons, which includes cycling, but only on even surface, her balance is not good enough for this rally which includes surface of rocks, roots, mud and water. With all this cycling just back and forth to work I was getting good basic fitness. But in early August, on the way home from work I was run down by a car and suffered a set-back. The bike was a complete write-off, I had lots of abrasions and bruises and a very sore left knee. (And that was my good knee!) That knee problem did not stop my daily activities, rowing was still no problem, but cycling was painful and my final preparations for Birken were not like I had hoped. Still, on 29th August (my birthday) Martin and I started with 16.000 others in groups of 2-300. I took me nearly 5 hours; over an hour more than last year! Mind you, most people who completed took half an hour more than usual as it was the wettest, coldest, windiest and muddiest ever! (Excellent stuff for masochists; I’m already looking forward to next year!)

Vienna Rowing Masters 2009.

Like I was used to in Kristiansand, Drammen Roklubb is also conveniently located close to my work-place on the east side of the town river. And Drammen is also where my main double- sculls (2x) partner since 1993 lives. - Hans Petter Rasmussen is probably an even more keep-fit fanatic than I am, and does about as much rowing as it is possible to fit in. Having a daughter in California he rows a lot over there too, and when competing in Masters (veteran) events rows for the American Occoquan International. So when we took part in World Masters in Vienna in early September I also I had to row for Occoquan. We were hoping for a replay of 1993 when we on the same venue won our heat in 2x, but this time we had to settle for a 2nd place out of eight boats. Annoyingly, in 1x (single sculls) I had the same result both in my own age group (60-65; F) and the younger group (E). But lack of a victory does not stop me enjoying this annual event of more than 3000 rowers from more than 40 countries. Among the large group of Norwegians were also people I have rowed with back in the 70’s and even in Glasgow in the late 60’s. (Helge Refsum started studying medicine at Glasgow although he finished his degree in Oslo.) And Vienna is a city with lots of wonderful sights. The final banquet in the City Hall was worth the meal for just seeing the venue!

Friends, relations and reunions.

We have already had a number of visitors in Lier. Some old friends we enjoyed seeing again were Sandra Cairns and Fiona Roberts, Diana’s old school friends, with Sandra’s husband Robin from Glasgow, Andrew Fraser from Switzerland with his Norwegian mother-in-law Bjørg Guttormsen, and Kari Boye Young all the way from Pitcairn with her daughter Anette, now living in Oslo where she works in a hotel. Kari had visited us 10 years ago, but we had not seen Anette since on Pitcairn in 1986 when she was four!
Elisabeth, Hugh and Finn had a long week-end partly with us, partly with Eli in Veierland. And Robert came and stayed with us the last week before we left for Guatemala, drove us to Torp and was quite happy to have the car and the flat for himself when we left!

We have also been pleased this summer that our son Martin has developed a new serious relationship. It was at a 20 year school reunion in Kristiansand in the summer that he met Tonje Horntvedt and discovered what a delightful person she is. After a holiday in Sicily they decided to join up more formally, and by now Martin’s flat in Oslo has a much more feminine touch! Tonje’s parents we have known for many years, especially her father, Bjørn. Apart from being a delightful person, Bjørn was also a computer expert responsible for the data systems when we were in private practice, and was always willing to help when we had PC-problems at home or on the boat. (Sadly, he died in 2006 of ALS, an awful illness.) Among Tonje’s many good features we happily notice how well she gets on with Hedda and Johan.

Having Fiona, Sandra and Robin visiting us and being interested in some sight-seeing made us have a closer look both at our own Drammen and at Oslo. Thanks to them we have now finally visited the new Oslo Opera, and are duly impressed, have also had a fresh look at the naked granite people of the Vigeland Park, and have admired the three Viking ships at Bygdøy. Historian Fiona knew more about the Vikings than I did! These big ships and their fascinating funeral cargo were excavated from different burial sites in south Norway; the Gogstad ship was found in a big mound close to my childhood town of Sandefjord.

2009 was the year for school reunions not just for Martin. Diana met with classmates from Hutchesons Grammar School from 47 years ago in Glasgow, Sandra and Fiona among them.
And I had a 50 year reunion in Sandefjord with 22 of the original 27 who graduated from class 7b, Sande Skole in 1959. At that time Norway had only 7 years of compulsive schooling at the “Folkeskole”. Most of us carried on with more education, but two of the boys took jobs at sea as soon as they finished at the age of 14!
Our reunion started at the school, still standing and in good condition, and with our class photo still on the wall. We then visited the grave of our dear teacher, Georg Buøen, before walking in beautiful weather down town to the Whalers’ Room of Hotel Atlantic. Here we had a genuinely nostalgic evening in a maritime, indeed nostalgic setting. Whaling, especially in the Arctic, was an activity we are now happy to see abandoned, but for more than 60 years it was the main reason why towns like Sandefjord and Tønsberg prospered and became major shipping centres.


Andrew Fraser may live in Switzerland, but is still very much a Scot at heart. He is my oldest friend from Glasgow University, we met at Auchendennan Freshers’ Camp on the banks of Loch Lomond in October 1964, a couple of days after I first arrived to get prepared for the medical studies. Since then we have had some good times together. Diana and I may have seen a lot of the World, but Andrew is a true globetrotter and has seen even more. And he loves travelling to really remote, often uncomfortable places, usually involving lots of walking. A small Indonesian island, the Himalayas or a geothermal area in the interior of Kamchatka, to name a few. With his wife Anne (a Norwegian!) he is also an enthusiastic Geocacher. We had heard from them of this activity briefly a year or two ago, but when he came to see us with Bjørg in Lier he gave us detailed information and introduced us to the excellent Internet site. Briefly, Geocaching is a non-profit hobby of finding hidden items (caches) using a GPS. The finds are of varying size, but all have a log for signing in addition to registering them on Internet. The caches are often located in places of beauty or historical interest, and may involve a lot of hiking and searching. Sometimes riddles are thrown in for an extra challenge. The activity originated in USA and of the nearly 1 million caches hidden in the world, most are found in the States. But it has spread a long way and when Diana found out that there are a few hidden caches in Mo I Rana, and as walking the Rottweiler Charlie daily is part of the deal when she takes over both eye practice, house and dog, she thought geocaching would give her an extra incentive. This proved to be an interesting hobby, and by now we (mostly Diana) have made more than 40 finds in different places including Træna, Lier, Veierland and Belize.
Hand-held GPS’s are forbidden in Cuba, so this is unfortunately not the place for Geocaching, but wait till we get to Florida in March next year! Meanwhile if you check you may get hooked, too!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Back to Belize; Family and Friends, Blue Hole and Whale Shar

Report no. 50 by Diana, May 2009. For accompanying photos see Pictures: Gallery no. 50.

Return to Monkey Bay Marina. Ilse signs on again.

We had been in our new flat in Lier just under three weeks when it was time to go back to White Admiral, waiting for us in Guatemala. So off we flew on March 7th, leaving our environmental footprints in London and Atlanta. Our stop in London gave us the pleasure of seeing our grand-son Finn who at eight months was quickly turning into a handsome, smiling little fellow, and was already standing!

The journey to Monkey Bay Marina is the longest we have had to the boat, thanks to a six-hour bus ride from Guatemala City at the end of the long flights. So it was good to see White Admiral washed and ready for us with no big repairs needed. When the boat is lying in the water, it doesn’t take long to get her ready for sailing and we were ready to leave two days later. We were joined for the first few days by Ilse from Toronto, Canada, who has sailed with us earlier in Panama and who we first met in Colombia. She is a remarkable woman originally from Germany, now a widow aged 70, who travels by herself for several weeks every year in different parts of the world. We motored along the tortuous Rio Dulce, through the steep gorge and anchored off the port of Livingston. After checking out, efficiently done by the agent Raul, we decided to do a night sail to get us quickly to Belize. In a light breeze, White Admiral shook the creases out of her sails and we had a gentle sail about 60 nautical miles north to Placencia, an attractive coastal village which we had visited earlier.

It was Sunday morning, no authorities would be open, so we had a day to relax, walking around the pretty village with its colourful little hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops along the white beach, and having our first swim of this trip in the 27 degree blue water.

The next morning we motored around to Big Creek, which is the commercial harbour for exporting mainly bananas, and the local place to check in. This was a bigger job than checking out in Guatemala: First a visit to Customs, then to the Port Captain, then Health Authorities, and last a long walk to the police station for Immigration. As the Immigration Officer was away at the airport and we had to wait over an hour for his return, the whole process took all morning, and made us feel that there is a bit of hassle having a yacht in a foreign country…

The Port Captain, however, did us the favour of checking us in and out at the same time (!), a practical but rather odd procedure which has never happened to us before.

At last we could be off to the islands. We decided to get out quickly to the barrier reef, where the islands are more often sand and palm trees, rather than the insect-ridden mangrove ones nearer the mainland. We were now in the trade-wind season, which should provide mainly north-east winds, but this first week the winds were fickle and variable, so we did use the engines part of the time. During these days we stopped on three different islands, enjoying walking on sandy beaches, snorkelling and swimming. The prettiest of these was Rendezvous Caye right in a small gap in the reef. This is a little patch of white sand with a few palm trees, which unfortunately a politician is now making into a restaurant for tourists and has already built a jetty as big as the island. It was being looked after a single man in a small shack. He who was obviously a bit bored and was happy to have us come ashore for a chat and a walk around the place. At a mooring near us we were surprised to see a yacht with the name ‘Eventyr’(Norwegian for fairytale or adventure). There was an American couple aboard, but sure enough the young skipper was of Norwegian heritage; one of his parents had emigrated to USA. He told us of childhood visits to his beloved grandmother; still alive and well in Horten, not far from our flat in Lier.

Anne and Knut and English Caye

Then we headed west again for Cucumber Marina outside Belize City to change crew. One night was enough here, thanks to our old friends the ‘No-see-ums’, a type of sand-fly which can hardly be seen, but can certainly be felt. Here another old acquaintance, chatty taxi-driver Errol took us to the bus-station where we said goodbye to Ilse. She went back to La Antigua in Guatemala to continue her Spanish classes, while we went on to the airport to meet our new crew Anne and Knut; our enthusiastic friends from near Arendal, who had loved sailing with us in the islands of San Blas and now came to see some more with us in Belize. Unfortunately a misunderstanding made us miss them at the airport, but we got our shopping done and soon met up at the boat. We got them installed and almost immediately sailed off to the nearest island devoid of insects. Our plan for the two weeks they would be with us was to get outside the barrier reef and visit the off-shore atolls, where we knew they would love the beaches and the snorkelling on the pristine reefs. On the way we stopped at English Caye, which has a lighthouse and is right at the entrance to the main shipping channel through the reef. The 83 year old lighthouse keeper Carl let us climb to the top for a fantastic view over islands and reefs, and told us the dramatic story of the time he and his family huddled together for five days beside the lamp at the top of the tower, while a hurricane raged around them!

Blackbird Caye – Resorts new and old.

From English Caye a few hours’ sail took us to Turneffe Atoll, where we drove into the large, shallow atoll through a long creek lined by dense mangroves. Thanks to Mike, the lobster fisherman we had met on our earlier trip, we knew the way through the mangrove islets to get to the east side of the atoll. It was a bit scary though when the depth went down to about one meter and we were brushing the turtle grass! This is certainly the place to have a catamaran.

We dropped anchor near Blackbird Resort, a friendly diving resort which welcomes yachties. Stein had had a great dive with them in November, and wanted to repeat the experience. He went off the next morning with James, the Dive Master and a few other divers, while Anne, Knut and I went with the snorkellers. It turned out to be a lovely trip to a reef which was like an aquarium, with colourful corals and all the reef-fish we could hope to see. Then we were taken to see a new development on the east coast of the atoll, where we were horrified by the vast area of mangrove swamp which had been cleared away for houses, a marina and an airstrip. We met the owner, who was very friendly, a swarthy Syrian who had made his fortune with a string of Opticians shops in Canada. He was an optician himself as is Anne, but on rather a different scale! He was a bit of a caricature with his heavy, gold necklace and huge gold watch. I asked him what the ecologists would think of his project, but he defended it strongly saying it was good to get rid of the mosquitoes! I wasn’t convinced; just hope the government doesn’t give too many more entrepreneurs such a free hand. I doubt his chances of a lasting success as most of the resorts didn’t seem to have many guests, and many have been abandoned and are for sale.

Long Caye and Conchs.

From Blackbird Caye we went out to sea through a passage in the east side of the atoll. It is always a bit exciting going through these passages, as the charts for this area are not detailed; the area has never been accurately surveyed. We do have a good guide book written by sailors, but the information is not always quite correct, and this passage was not described, so our information was from locals. When we go through a pass, I usually steer with one eye on the depth finder, while Stein stands in the bow or up the mast looking for the deepest way through. For difficult passages and best visibility it is also important to have the sun shining from above or just behind.

From Turneffe we had a good sail to the most distant and most interesting of the atolls, Lighthouse Reef, a couple of hours sailing away. After another shallow entrance, we dropped anchor on the west coast of Long Caye; a large island with a mixture of palms and mangroves. There was a little jetty where we tied our dinghy, not knowing what the path would lead to. We were surprised to find a network of well looked-after paths leading to the north coast where we found three diving resorts and a pretty beach. Only one of the resorts, Huracan Diving, was open, and we had a chat to the owner, a charming Dutch girl Ruth who had bought the place with her husband a year ago and were running a diving business. It seemed a brave thing to do, but they had managed to make a profit, getting mostly Belgian customers through Internet.

At their jetty there was a small fishing boat, a typical sailing craft with several Belizeans aboard. They sail and fish for 7-10 days at a time, then take the catch stored on ice back to Belize City. Unfortunately it was not the lobster season, which the fishermen here seem to respect, in contrast to Panama where we were offered lobster many times out of season (we said no!). We did buy some conchs (the big snails) from them, which are still plentiful and popular here. Stein has now got the hang of making conchs tender, wrapping them in a kitchen towel and hammering them until they are soft. They can be prepared and served in different ways. We had them lightly fried with toast, mayonnaise and sour cream, or served with tomatoes and onions with rice as a meal for dinner. Excellent!

The Blue Hole of Lighhouse Reef

Our next trip was with engines, against quite a strong east breeze into the main lagoon and over to the beautiful Half Moon Caye at the south-east corner of Lighthouse Reef. This is a nature reserve, which we had visited last year to see the nesting of the thousands of Red-footed boobies and Magnificent frigate birds. This time the birds were not courting, so there were not so many male frigate birds with their puffed-up red breasts, but there were young, fluffy chicks to be seen instead, sitting in the nests or learning to fly.

Here too the lighthouse could be climbed for a breath-taking view. The osprey nest next to the big light that we had noticed previously had been removed, and the big birds had settled on the ruins of the old light-house instead.

From here we planned to visit Belize’s most famous marine attraction, the Blue Hole, which is at the centre of the atoll. Again, the charting is inaccurate, so this means driving slowly with bow look-out, but the coral heads and patches of reefs are quite easy to spot and we drove up inside the main reef, through the hole and anchored on the west side behind a rim of brown reef. This place is a spectacular sight, but to see it properly we had to climb up the mast. It is a deep blue pool, caused by the collapsed roof of a pre-historic lime-stone cave, which has left a cylindrical hole about 400 metres in diameter and 110 m deep. Its dark, marine blue is in contrast to the light blue and brown of the shallow water and small reefs around it. It was first investigated by the French explorer Jacques Cousteau, who found deep down in the vertical walls caves with stalactites and stalagmites; proof that the cave was originally above sea-level before the seas rose and caused the roof to crumble. This must have happened with the global warming after the last ice-age about 10.000 years ago. The hole itself does not contain a lot of animals; in fact only few compared to the teeming reefs around, but it does sustain a population of Hammer-head sharks and Bull sharks and other large fish. Daily this famous site is visited by several dive boats, but we saw no other yachts here and had the Blue Hole of Belize to ourselves. We had also heard that it was expensive to visit the place, as the National Park demands a stiff fee, but nobody came to ask us for money... So Stein did a dive by himself down to 39 metres, not really advisable, but he is an experienced diver. He got down to the first level of caves, saw the impressive drip-stone formations, some big groupers and a large lobster, but to his disappointment no sharks. He had brought an under-water camera and was hoping for some good pictures....

The rest of us snorkelled around the rim of the hole. It was one of the best snorkelling trips I have ever had, with all the usual reef-fish, and being a protected site, many fish were bigger than usual. Also there were lots of beautiful angel fish. And I surprised a sea-turtle who scooted off when he saw me.

Sandborne Caye and Northern Caye

We continued up to the north end of the atoll, still inside the reef. There are two islands at the north end, surrounded by a lot of smaller reefs which are difficult to negotiate. We anchored off the north-easterly one, Sandborne Caye, a rather rolly anchorage in the now very fresh trade-wind. We took a bumpy ride in the dinghy to the island the next morning, where a friendly group of fishermen were relaxing in their camp, the trees decorated with shoes which they had collected from beaches near and far! We bought a large supply of conchs and snapper fillets for a reasonable price, climbed the lighthouse, and then arranged that one of the locals, who was going over to the other island Northern Caye, would guide us through the reefs. Here we got a much more protected anchorage; a good place to relax for a couple of days. This island has an air-strip, a lovely long white beach and a large resort. But unfortunately for the owner, or fortunately for us, the place had closed down about 3 years earlier, and only had a couple of care-takers living there while waiting for new owners. Apparently there is some disagreement about the price, and a court case is coming up. Anyway, the care-takers were relaxed and friendly, and we enjoyed the lovely surroundings undisturbed, Stein even used one of their resort kayaks for a long paddle around the island.

Anne and Knut’s last sea voyage was a gentle one, the wind having died down, so we partly sailed and partly motored to Caye Caulker, in the more touristy part of the country. The passage through the reef here is very narrow and not much used by yachts, but today we could see the deep pass easily and motored through and round to the west anchorage. Here were several yachts, while we had hardly seen any for nearly two weeks - looks like most don’t dare to go out to the atolls.

Caye Caulker is a cheerful back-packers hang-out with sand streets, cheap hotels and restaurants. Anne and Knut took us out to Don Corlione’s, one of the better restaurants, where we enjoyed their great vegetable lasagne.

Family Visiting.

In Caye Caulker we were going to have another change of crew as our son Martin and his kids, Hedda (age 7) and Johan (age 4), were arriving on 1st April in Belize City. I took the water-taxi to go and meet them at the airport, but had no sooner arrived in Belize City when a mobile message ticked in saying they were stuck in Houston, Texas, thanks to long immigration queues, and would not be coming till the day after. So I did some stocking -up of food and took the last water-taxi home.

The next day I was off again, and this time came back with the family. White Admiral was now pretty crowded for two nights, but with Stein sleeping in the cock-pit, and I on the sofa and the weather perfect, that went fine.

Anne and Knut had one last day aboard, so we all took a trip to the neighbouring island Caye Chapel, with its luxury golf resort that we had visited last year. We found now that also this resort was in the process of being sold, and had no other guests than the same elderly man in a wheel-chair we had also seen in November. When we arrived in our dinghy, having anchored off the west coast, we were met by a guard who was obviously preparing to tell us the island was closed, but fortunately I remembered the name of the manageress, and when I asked to see her, he told me she was on holiday, but maybe thinking I was her friend, he let us come ashore. After consulting the guy in charge, we were free to enjoy the island, spent some time on the beach and walked round the golf-course looking for the famous crocodiles inhabiting the many lakes, but didn’t see one this time.

The next morning we waved to Anne and Knut as they disappeared in a water-taxi to Belize City, very happy with their latest island experiences, and we were ready for a new trip to the atolls. The weather had become fresher again, so we took a shorter route to Turneffe Atoll. We entered through the passage at the north end, this time with a way-point from last year which made it easier. We dropped the anchor just off a fishing camp and were immediately visited by two friendly dolphins, which made us jump into the water to swim with them. The kids thought this was great, Hedda had already learned to use her mask and was able to get close to them under water, while Johan raced around the deck yelling whenever they surfaced.

After this excitement we rowed our dinghy ashore, and met a friendly old fisherman called Milo, who was keen to show us his conch traps. So we rowed along the coast, with some broken-looking trees after the last hurricane, and he took up his traps and took out a few living conch shells. We all watched fascinated as he showed us how he got the conchs out and cleaned them. We bought these few conchs, and were given the most beautiful shells as well.

Later in the evening Milo took everyone except me (I decided to make dinner) on a crocodile expedition, great excitement for the kids, using torches to see the orange reflections from the crocodile eyes. They did see two crocodiles, although not the biggest, but got very close to one which was temporarily blinded by the torch-light, so the expedition was declared a big success.

Lighthouse Reef Revisited

The north end of Turneffe atoll is also shallow and full of small reefs, so our new friend agreed to come with us the next morning in White Admiral to guide us across the lagoon to a passage out on the north-east side. We trailed his canoe after us and meandered through the shallows, very glad to have this local knowledge. We asked him what he wanted for his help, and he was very pleased to get a pair of shorts, two old T-shirts and a few dollars.

From here, we took the same route as with Anne and Knut to Long Caye, Half Moon Caye and Northern Caye , all in the Lighthouse Reef atoll.

The kids loved the beaches and the swimming, and Hedda quickly become an accomplished snorkeller. Unfortunately, Johan refused to use his mask, so didn’t get all the under-water excitement in Belize, but on returning home to Oslo, quickly learned to use it in the swimming-pool. So next time!

Martin proved to be a patient and skilled fisherman, using a rod off the stern while sailing. He caught four big barracudas this way, with great excitement each time - the largest weighing in at 6kg.

This time as we approached the Blue Hole, hoping to just snorkel for an hour or two before moving on, a boat with park rangers approached and asked us if we were going to stop, in which case it would be 30 US dollars each, please! After a quick discussion, we decided we could snorkel elsewhere and sailed on.

We met a 32’ Swedish yacht named Bella in Half Moon Caye with parents and three children aboard, the two oldest were almost the same age as our two. They had a monohull, needing deeper water than we in our catamaran, so they sailed up to Northern Caye outside the atoll while we repeated the inside trip. The fresh trades and the still water behind the reef meant fast sailing even with only the genoa up.

In Northern Caye the children had a good time together on the white beach, running in and out of the water, building houses of sand and stones, collecting pretty shells, and fooling around with Stein in our inflatable kayak. In the evening we all had a big fish meal on board White Admiral. Martin had caught the fish and the Swedes brought two cakes!

This time the sail back to Cay Caulker was a fresh sail, with a stiff easterly trade-wind off our stern. Good fast sailing, occasionally some impressive waves roaring up from behind, but when we arrived at the reef it looked pretty terrifying. Here the waves were breaking right across the passage. However we had our GPS way-point from earlier, and we were sure we could make out the deep entrance, so despite guests (and crew!) with high levels of adrenaline and hearts pounding, we raced with the waves through the opening. Boy, was it a good feeling to be on sheltered inside!

We had two last days together back in civilisation at Caye Caulker and for us all to have a last meal together at Don Corleone’s. After waving goodbye to the water-taxi the next morning, we were on our own again for the first time in five weeks.

Whale Sharks!

But now time was running out. It was 14th April, and our plane home was on the 23rd. In that time we had to get back to Guatemala, get the boat ready for leaving, and also hoped to visit the old town of Antigua before flying out from Guatemala City. So we left the same day, partly motoring as the winds close to the main-land had again become light and variable, back to Placencia. Despite the Port Captain having checked us out, we still had to visit Customs and Immigration to have our passports stamped.

The area around the barrier reef outside Placencia is where whale-sharks can be seen, the biggest fish in the world. They are plankton-eaters who come for an annual orgy of eating enormous quantities of roe from groupers and snappers when they spawn. In spite of their impressive size these big fish are not of any danger to humans.

They can only be seen here in March-April, and only around full moon, and we were there just at the right time. Stein had dreamed of seeing these enormous sharks, and went on an organised snorkelling trip. I decided to have a quiet day for myself, didn’t fancy the long drive in a little boat to the outer reef with no guarantee of seeing them, and it was quite expensive at 90 US dollars just to snorkel. I slightly regretted that decision though, when Stein came home and told me in glowing terms of swimming with two whale-sharks of 10 and 7 m length and in addition close-up encounters of dolphins, sea-turtles and lots of big fish!

The same evening we went off on another night sail to Guatemala, started off with good sailing, but had to motor towards morning. We anchored shortly after dawn in front of Livingston’s busy port with a huge amount of gulls and pelicans accompanying the fishing boats returning from the night’s haul. Raul and several local bureaucrats came aboard as usual, all very polite and friendly. They didn’t look at anything on board; perhaps we don’t look very suspicious. An hour later we got our papers and were ready to drive back up the spectacular gorge into the Rio Dulce.

We stopped shortly after the gorge at what had been a nature reserve for manatees and other wild life, but which we found shut up and deserted, with political graffiti all over the signs. It was still pleasant to stroll along the trails through the original forest. We heard later that there had been a lot of protests from the local Indian population that this was their territory, not to be made into a reserve. The ancestors of these Mayans had been displaced to this area from other parts of the country when the Spanish ruled it with an iron fist, and understandably feel that they are not going to be replaced by gringos keen on manatees and monkeys…

By the time we got to Monkey Bay, the wind had risen as it always does in the afternoons here, and we anchored off, ready to go in the next day. The boats have often to be rearranged to get everybody in place, and this has to be done in calm morning conditions. John, the manager, came out to welcome us back and arranged a time for coming in. The next day after tying up, we got quickly to work, getting all the sails and equipment inside, patching and washing the dinghy, and so on. There was a little time for socialising, with a friendly Canadian couple on a Prout Snow-goose catamaran, and with Hal, a kindly Texan who has sold his boat Griffin and is about to retire from his sailing days.

Antigua; Past Capital of Central America

Antigua is the old capital city of Guatemala, built by the Spanish. The correct name is La Antigua Guatemala – the old city of Guatemala. It has retained its characteristic architecture, cobble-stoned streets and colourful one- and two-storey buildings with red and brown tiled roofs, and large, often flower-filled, inside court-yards. When walking about, there are constant surprises on looking through arches and doorways to these beautiful gardens inside the houses. Also this town of about 30.000 inhabitants is attractively clean and organized, a Unesco World Heritage Site and quite a Guatemalan treasure.

Ilse had stayed here a month recently while attending a language school (of which there are lots in Antigua) and gave us the name of a private house which takes guests. David did indeed have a vacant room, so we got our own keys and very reasonable accommodation.

Antigua was both the capital and a religious centre, and there are an amazing amount of old churches and monasteries. Some were completely or partly destroyed by earthquakes in 1773, some are restored, most are very beautiful and worth a visit. The biggest monastery is Casa Santa Domingo from 1547, now a five star hotel of spectacular beauty.

This colonial town was founded in 1543, less than 50 years after Columbus first found the New World. It reached its peak importance 2-300 years ago when 70.000 people lived here and it was the main city of all the Central Americas. It is mind-boggling how the Spanish could create such a jewel of a Spanish town up there in the Central American highlands, a long, long way from Europe; even a long way from the ships off the Atlantic coast. But looted Mayan gold, silver and precious stones made good exchange for priests, monks and bibles, and ordinary labour was plentiful and almost free.

Antigua is surrounded by several volcanoes. It was earthquakes and eruptions from these hot-headed, restless neighbours that in 1770’s made the authorities move the capital and most of its inhabitants to Guatemala City, about 40 km to the north.

Stein and I decided we would like to both get some exercise and see one of the volcanoes, and so the next day we chose to visit Volcan de Pacaya. It is one of the easiest to climb, can be done in half a day, so we arranged to go on a guided tour.

After driving north and east through the slummy urban outskirts of Guatemala City, there was a couple of hours’ climbing first through forest with scattered litter, then through open, steep hillside with ugly radio-masts and loose volcanic rubble. I was wearing sandals which I had to keep emptying, and was starting to regret the whole trip. But I changed my mind when we came to a ridge near the top; suddenly we were only a few feet from red-hot lava flows, and a huge hole which looked like the entrance to hell! It looked decidedly scary, but the guide assured us that as long as lava flowed freely there was no build-up of pressure and no danger of explosions…

Now the ground under our feet was hot. In fact we were standing on rock that Mother Earth had delivered in molten form only days ago! After taking photographs, it was time to turn and start the descent, but now I wasn’t so worried about the stones in my shoes...

An early taxi the next morning took us to the international airport, and back we flew via Atlanta and London. Here Elisabeth and Finn were waiting for us at Heathrow, as I was going straight on to Glasgow and I wanted to see Finn first. We had a pleasant hour together before I got my plane to Glasgow to go to an old school reunion. This was the first time I had set foot in my old school since 1962, and I met many of my old class-mates from Hutchesons’ Girls Grammar School; just as well we had on name-labels!

Oddly, Stein had a 50th reunion the next day in Sandefjord with his old school class from Sande folkeskole. He also had a great time reminiscing – in spite of no name-labels.

Now we are back in Lier, enjoying our new flat, and both working again. Stein got a job at the local hospital in Drammen in cardiology. Unfortunately the Eye department didn’t need anybody right away, but the department in Tønsberg (50 minutes’ drive south) did, so I am now established there, have got used to their complicated data system, and am quite enjoying being useful again.

It’s a lovely time of year here, all the spring flowers are out, and we are looking forward to summer in our flat at the water’s edge.

Our next trip south is not until the end of September. After a third visit to the amazing reefs and atolls of Belize, the plan is to sail for shores new to us; Mexico and Cuba. And with the hurricane season not officially over until November, we are hoping for no extra excitement!

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Return to Guatemala after another Norwegian winter

Here we are yet again aboard White Admiral and anchored in Placencia, Belize. We only left deep snow in Norway eight days ago, while here the trades are blowing their tepid breeze, the bougainvilleas are in magnificent bloom and I’ve had two swims today – so far. The speed at which we can go from one continent in Nordic winter to another continent in Tropical summer is part of the fascination of this life.
Our latest winter interlude in Norway meant a major change in our lives as we sold our three storey house with garden in Kristiansand and moved to a ground apartment in Lier near Drammen. The main reason was to get near our son Martin and the two grand-children; Hedda and Johan in Oslo and my mother Eli in Sandefjord. The added bonus is a more practical way of living with old age in mind, and the fact that two of our best friends, Dagmar and Christian, are next-door neighbours. That we also have a fantastic view over Drammen Fjord with a small beach only 20m from the front window, a large hospital and a good rowing club less than 10 km away and excellent conditions for outdoor activities are all an extra bonus.
The physical challenge and the paper work involved in clearing out and selling a house we have lived in since 1983 was done mainly by Diana, so no medical work for her during this period home, while I had my last two months at the Department of Medicine, Sørlandets sykehus. I still enjoy my work very much and was truly sad to leave after my 10th period there since 2004. The department organized a touching farewell dinner complete with speeches, song and gift. I will indeed miss a lot of those nurses and doctors and other colleagues. And of course we have many more good friends in Kristiansand that we will miss, but we will make an effort to stay in touch. The rowing club is another place where especially I have spent a lot of time. Our daughter Elisabeth rowed here for several years, I’ve taught a number of other youngsters to row here, too, and our trans-Atlantic rowing expeditions were prepared here .
So Christmas 2008 was the last one in Kristiansand and we were glad all our children, grand-children and partners could make it. Like 2007 it was a split or rather double celebration as Martin’s ex-wife Camilla and the children were with her family on 24th and with us 25th December. Finn, our now 6 months’ old grand-child from London seemed very happy at receiving gifts for two days running, although he seemed equally excited by the wrappings as with the contents! The final big family g get-together round the table on 25th December counted 12 persons, and included Olga, Robert’s Russian girl-friend and my mother Eli.
It was snowing on the day of the main move to Lier, Monday 16th January. It was stressful and hard physical work, but all went surprisingly smoothly. Two days later we were back to clean the house and see the new owner and unscrew the sign Elisabeth made for the door so many years ago. Rigmor made us dinner and gave us a bed for the night and on 19th we made the four hour drive to Lier with our final bits and pieces.
The next two weeks before heading this way were also busy, but it is very enjoyable setting up a new home. In between rearranging furniture, hanging up pictures and lamps and building new shelves we had time for skiing and training in the rowing club. The last week-end we had our three “kids” and two grand-kids Hedda and Johan for a house-warming party. Elisabeth and Robert came over from London, while Martin now only has a half-hour drive from Oslo. (Robert works as a computer programmer for a firm that make robotic arms.) The gathering also included skiing on the frozen fjord to inspect the hardy men that do ice-fishing as a hobby. One of them gave us a nice sea-trout that Diana and I had for dinner after everybody had left!
There is no doubt that we will enjoy our new abode, but we bought the apartment before the World financial crises set in, and sold afterwards, an arrangement as badly timed as it could possibly be. We may therefore have to work more than the usual 2 plus 4 months per year (since 2004) until we get our pension at 67. So our present sailing trip is only till end of April; I’ve already arranged to work with the cardiologists of Buskerud Sykehus, Drammen starting April 27th. Diana is also hoping for ophthalmology work in early May. Meanwhile we push financial worries to the back of our minds and have enjoyed the journey out via London and our family there. We also stopped overnight in Atlanta, USA, before the three-hour flight to Guatemala City and the rather tedious six-hour bus drive to Rio Dulce. A water taxi took us from Bruno’s restaurant by the river to Monkey Bay Marina by 8 pm. Efrain had moored White Admiral along the jetty, had cleaned the outside, and soon we had electricity and water connected, the fridge working and could enjoy dinner at candle light in the cockpit. The full moon and the night sounds from the jungle next to us completed the feeling of magic…