Surfing Through the Reef - Not Recommended
07 January 2016 | San Pedro, Belize
Beth / windblown
After much discussion on Thursday about whether or not to, a) take the water taxi to San Pedro to check out, b) take Madcap up through the inside route to San Pedro, or c) go back down to Long Cay Pass, out through it, up to San Pedro on the outside of the reef. Well, we opted for the latter, and Madcap is anchored here in San Pedro, but it didn’t happen without some harried moments.
After an uneventful hour long motor trip back down past Cay Chapel, we made our way out Long Cay Pass through swells created by a stronger than forecast E wind with the mainsail rattling so badly we were sure something would break. We almost always put up the main before we start out anywhere because the boat feels better balanced with a sail up, and it is easier to do it where the water is calm. But we hadn’t reckoned on 15 minutes of bone shaking rattling. Once over the submerged reef and into deep water, we could head North on a really nice course. We passed several empty little skiffs bouncing about on the swells and watched carefully for the fishermen who were diving nearby. These Belizean fishermen are intrepid folks – whether crammed in their sailboats or alone in these tiny skiffs.
The engine went off; the staysail came out and we sailed for the next 2.5 hours. While we were enjoying the sail, those 2 metre swells and an East wind that was steadily 16-18 knots kept niggling at us. San Pedro pass is not a good one in strong winds. The main difficulty is that as you get to the middle of the break in the reef, where there is yellow buoy, you must swing to starboard to avoid a shoal directly in front of you. Not a problem at all on a calm day when visibility is good. But our choices were, go in, or turn around and go back. We couldn’t continue on to the next harbour because this was our Belize check out point.
We would never have attempted it if we didn’t have a track saved on our chart plotter. (That is a visible line on the chart, acting as a backup to the waypoints and showing exactly the course we have travelled before. We often save a track going in or out of tricky places, or where we have to enter or exit in the dark.) It would have been impossible to come out, but we thought we would be OK going in with the wind behind us, and a following sea. We took down both sails and started the engine.
I am usually on the wheel during entries and exits because as Jim says, “You have nerves of steel.” He stands on the bow because he has better eyesight and can spot hazards before I can.
So, I planted my feet, took a firm grip on the wheel and a big deep breath, reved up the engine – and we plowed forward. The surf was breaking all across the 100 yard wide opening and those swells were swinging the boat this way and that way across a 45 degree arc. As one wave took us to starboard too soon, Jim yelled, “to Port! To Port!” and I swung us hard over. We surfed by the end of the reef and around to starboard again, past the inner shoal, and into the relatively calmer 8 feet of crystal clear water.
I have to tell you, my legs were shaking as we circled around to find a sandy spot to anchor. I don’t mind tricky maneuverers, but I like to be in control; here, the sea and I were each battling for control! Jim was full of good cheer at the successful passage, saying that from his viewpoint on the bow, it was all good and we were never in danger – as long as we made the swing back to port. It wasn’t until the next day that he told me he had been gripping the forestay with all his might so that if we hit, he wouldn’t go flying overboard.
I don’t mean to make this overly dramatic – we weren’t risking life and limb. It was just one of the scarier things we’ve done, and I decided to write about it the way it felt. It was certainly one of the most nerve-wracking escapades of this adventure!
Once settled, we high-fived our safe arrival and I poured a healthy tumbler of scotch. We agree that we are not leaving until the wind is under 10 knots and there is not a hint of a wave across that entrance.
This picture shows boats with the reef in the background on a calm overcast day.