Expedition cruising in an unusual custom built mini-ship
Each January, Blount Small Ship Cruises take the Grand Caribe down to Belize and Guatemala with an itinerary which includes the mysterious Rio Dulce and an entire list of tiny ports and cays. Many of these islands and the Rio Dulce itself are part of what’s referred to as the “Yachtsman’s Paradise,” and the only other way to visit these locations is on your own sailboat. The main challenge is the shallowness of the cays, and access to the Rio Dulce can only be guaranteed on a vessel with ultra-shallow draft.
Built by an American marine visionary called Luther Blount (1916-2006) in his own shipyard in Rhode Island, the Grand Caribe is unique – one of a fleet of pocket cruise ships he built with typical Yankee ingenuity and graft. The Grand Caribe is 200 feet long and 45 feet on the beam and needs a skinny five feet of water under her keel. The most unusual feature is the “Bow Ramp” neatly tucked out of sight in the pointed end of the ship. The ultra-shallow draft and that bow ramp are typical Luther thinking, enabling the Grand Caribe to approach an island or a beach and gently rest its nose ashore. Once the ship comes to rest, the ingenious ramp is lowered and guests stroll off the ship. The Grand Caribe has other Luther features such as the disappearing wheel house and collapsible upper deck which enable the ship to traverse the canals of North America, with a mere three inches clearance under fixed bridges.
Grand Caribe carries about 90 guests and 25 crew members including the marine crew and hotel staff. The Blount cruise experience is not a five-star deluxe vacation and the food can best be described as family-style cooking which is always wholesome but generally bland. They are pleasantly accommodating of dietary requirements, but there is a limit to how creative they can be, and guests need to be aware of this before signing on. The ship has a decent size lounge that acts as a movie theater, “party central” and general gathering area.
The cruise starts in Belize City, accessible to much of Eastern North America with a same-day connection. Belize is a tiny country with merely 350,000 inhabitants, 70,000 living in the capital and It was formerly called British Honduras before gaining independence in 1977. Belize City is not particularly attractive and we used sea kayaks for a wonderful paddle from the ship’s garage, through the working harbour and into the Belize River. This interesting 240-kilometer long waterway is navigable up to the Guatemala border and runs along the northern edge of the Maya Mountains and this dominant waterway in Central America continues to support a great deal of commerce. While paddling along I experienced one of those “been here before” moments and learned that The Dogs of War starring Christopher Walken and The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford were both filmed here. Returning to the harbour, we found the fishing fleet becoming animated as buyers arrived and bargaining was in full swing. The crews were equally animated and reacted with friendly greetings as our paddling trio pulled alongside and peered into their holds.
Four distinct attractions
The Belize Cays is typical Robinson Crusoe country and the Barrier Reef which embraces most of them offers 290 kilometres of island seclusion in the most picturesque setting imaginable. The reef has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1966 and is the longest natural heritage site in the Western Hemisphere. The 60 cays are divided into regions – the Ambergris Group, the Central Group, the Southern Group, the Turneff islands, Lighthouse Reef, and Glovers Reef. The island names seem to be straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean – Ambergris Caye, Mosquito Cay, Cayo Rosario, Hick’s Cayes, Coffee Cay, North Drowned Cay, Gallows Point Reef (the prefixes Cay, Cayo, Caye and Key are interchangeable). We were able to visit the privately owned Southwater Cay and made several bow landings in Glovers Reef Lagoon and the mainland village of Placentia. We also landed at Lime Cay, the tiny mainland city of Punta Gorda, and Livingston, a pretty water-locked village guarding the entrance to the Rio Dulce. On the journey home we visited West Snake Cay and Goff Cay at the edge of the Belize Barrier Reef.
On a typical bow landing Grand Caribe is made ready by the crew as guests wait excitedly to go ashore. The Captain is in command, while invisible crew members inside the bow prepare for the landing. On the foredeck, first mate Tim manages the anchor winch, doubling as the surface-spotter for the Captain on the bridge 20 feet above. Working as a team, they select the exact location where the ship’s bow will be nosed onto the sand, whereupon assistant Tim will let go the forward anchors. While this is happening, another crew is readying two aft-anchors, which will be lowered 20 seconds before Grand Caribe becomes amphibian. If they get this right, the bow will be resting gently on the white sand beach, while 180 feet will be floating in the lagoon with one anchor each side holding her steady. The ship secured, the magic bow platform can be lowered and Luther’s true genius demonstrated. Almost noiselessly, the bow section of Grand Caribe opens like the famous “gaping mouth” of a Ford Edsel grill, three sections unfolding into the shallows ahead. Guests walk off onto the beach, and another halcyon day in the Belize Cays unfolds.
Kayaking in the Cays
Occasionally we launched off the beach, but using the aft garage on Grand Caribe was a distinct luxury, with the added advantage of eliminating annoying beach sand from under the saddle. Suitably equipped with protective headgear, long-sleeve shirts, plenty of water, and snacks, my camera encased in a Pelican box and the portable VHF in tow, we paddled off into the distance and went exploring. Our headgear, with fabric over the neck to prevent heat stroke, resembled the kepis made famous by the French Foreign Legion. Occasionally we glided through a series of long gentle swells that I would estimate at about eight feet high and perhaps a hundred feet across. This gave the impression of paddling up an incline and surfing gently down the far side.
We made another of those amazing bow landings on the mainland in Placentia, one of the southern resort communities in Belize. Placentia is amazingly colourful and small enough for day visitors to easily feel at home. The low-rise homes and local stores are painted in pastels with tiny gardens surrounded by white picket fences. Visitors to Placentia come for water-related activities including diving, sailing, fishing and river running and a visit to the Cockscomb wildlife sanctuary. The sanctuary is of particular interest because this 128,000 acre reserve hosts all five of the reclusive Belizian wildcats, including Jaguar, Jaguarundi, Puma, Margay and the magnificent Ocelot. This barefoot resort town is populated by an amazing ethnic community which includes Latinos, Gairunas, Creoles, Maya, East Indian, Chinese, and Mennonites – a veritable melting pot.
Mennonites in Belize
Central America has a sizable Mennonite population, and nowhere is this more evident than in Belize, where in 2008 they numbered more than 12,000. This distinct ethnic community emerged in Northern Europe during the latter part of the sixteenth century, and were persecuted for their beliefs. Many migrated to Canada in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in the late 1950s a migration protocol was signed whereupon 3,500 Mennonite families relocated to Belize. The agreement allowed them to pursue their religion, enjoy specific taxation policies, farm within closed boundaries, and be exempt from military service. In return, this highly industrious community has made a significant contribution to the Belize economy, and they are now part of its human landscape. They speak an amalgamated language that has origins in Germany and the Netherlands and besides speaking English and Spanish they keep their mother tongue alive. Mennonites generally preserve their traditional mode of dress and use horse-drawn transportation. Passing a Mennonite farm with their fair-haired workers, one could imagine this is rural southern Germany on a bright summer’s day.
At last – the Rio Dulce
As Grand Caribe crawled down the Guatemala coastline starting the approach to the Rio Dulce, most guests were on deck to absorb the scenery and to experience crossing the infamous sandbar. Many long-distance sailors make a visit to this extraordinary river, but the larger boats with extended keels have difficulty sliding over the bar even at high tide. Grand Caribe has ample power to push herself across the bar even if she bounces a couple of times and it is not unknown for her to tow several marooned sailboats across as a favour to fellow mariners.
We were spending the night at anchor off the town of Livingston, and after the hook went down we were into the tender and off to explore. Livingston which has no road access and must be reached by boat, is the heartland of the Garifuna people, descended from a mixture of escaped slaves and southern Maya. Our tender approached the town dock and was secured between a fleet of gaily painted, canopy-covered river boats which are surrounded by coffee plantations, coconut groves, and jungle. The main street slopes directly upwards from the quay, arrow-straight for 300 meters, slicing the town into two symmetrical halves and this thoroughfare was a hive of activity, teeming with visitors, locals and vendors. The economy of Livingston comes mainly from its fishing fleet and coffee plantations but the town is a riot of colour and there was a definite vibrancy in the air – a mixture of commerce and the music of strolling troubadours.
Without diminishing our rich experiences in the Cays, the highlight of this voyage was the Rio Dulce, so early next morning our Captain was strolling the upper deck while everyone was gazing ahead – but we were staring at a wall of thick white fog. We knew the Rio was directly ahead because we’d left it there the night before, and rivers don’t disappear without a thunderclap from heaven and the blessing of Gandalf!. This was a far less heavenly happening and until the fog burned off the crew would be polishing the brass, we would be fiddling with our cameras, as the Captain remained his patient self.
Impatience pays off and by 07:30 the fog started to burn away our Captain moved his controls to “slow ahead,” and Grand Caribe slid into the main channel. The riverbank just past Livingston was full of small residences and scores of tiny shrimp boats, some taken over by families of pelicans, others partially submerged and some having seen better days – but still working. The shrimpers hunt mostly at night, and the previous evening we were surrounded by the magical sight of the lantern-illuminated fleet as it made its way out to sea. Most shrimpers returned before dawn, and the remnants were tying up as we wove our way into the first gorge. Grand Caribe turned and twisted to navigate tight bends and in no time we were enclosed in this slender tropical corridor, lost to the outside world, walls towered above us well past 300 feet, covered in mahogany, palms, huge stands of wildflowers, and not-so-evident wildlife. The air was quite still and we were able to hear troops of howler monkeys defining the boundary of their territory – or perhaps calling up their mates?
The Rio Dulce has a populous indigenous community in the villages and small towns along its entire length, and the sudden appearance of Grand Caribe around the bend for families paddling tiny five feet long cayucos must have been awe inspiring. We passed many fleets of these family crafts floating gently with the current and occasionally a lone cayuco paddling upstream close to the river bank where the counter flow had less strength. We also passed several tiny guest houses with their own steaming hot spring and a fast boat tied alongside.
Casa Guatemala is an inspiring example how the broader community is caring for orphans who are abandoned or abused, some being casualties of the brutal Guatemalan civil war. It was originally called “Casa Canada” because the founders were a Canadian couple who saw the urgent need for a human sanctuary – the civil war being the original motivation for these protected children’s homes. Their initial focus was to provide a safe refuge where loving staff, good food, clean accommodation and health care become part of the child’s life. However, maturing children and scarce resources have altered their mission and they are now committed to an educational and vocational training system that equips their graduates for life in the outside world. Casa Guatemala is home to 250 children and is run by volunteers from all corners of the globe.
Blount Small Ship Adventures has been supporting Casa Guatemala since Luther first visited the Rio, and we were now heading to the orphanage for the first of two visits. The plan was to make a bow landing on their handkerchief-sized beach and go ashore. While guests were exploring the orphanage and meeting the children, the crew was conferring with staff about delivering supplies on our return journey down river. The dilemma for the cruise line offering support to Casa Guatemala was the issue of banditry, and they advised against leaving a pot of cash with the administration. It was far better to decide what food and medicine supplies were needed and purchase them in town for delivery later in the voyage. Springing ahead in this tale, we made a volunteer collection plus a raffle after which the Ship’s naturalist visited a dispensary and food market, delivering these supplies on our return journey.
Casa Guatemala left a lasting impression with of us and our visit was both joyful and a real tear- jerker. Kids are the same wherever you meet them and seeing the parentless children living in this protected sanctuary was both heart-warming and troubling. We met just about every child during our stay and had an excellent discussion with volunteer nurses from the UK, Australia, Japan, the US, and Canada. From the rear of the compound I looked back through the dormitories towards Grand Caribe, her nose resting on the beach, and every child was somewhere in that frame. What a contrast in life styles for us to contemplate and how inspirational for BSSA to make this visit.
In Lake Izbal we had a chance to launch the kayaks again and explore the shoreline of this remote body of water. The going was a bit tough at times because the wind cascading over the hills caused two-foot beam-swells, and for the first time we were paddling against tropical weather. We passed the tiny Spanish fort of Castillo de San Felipe and headed diagonally downriver into a small tributary. This was one of those shallow slender vine-covered streams with plenty of depth for our kayaks, so we paddled in looking for wildlife. The howler monkeys above projected their voices at a volume worthy of a Gregorian chorus and although I managed to see a troop in the canopy, given the size of these animals, the noise they were making was completely disproportionate.
I needed to move past a slender log and pushed left rudder to minimize the effort, but the log moved with me. I was obliged to dip a paddle and “engage first gear,” but the log moved yet again. Mindful this was not my environment I carefully moved closer and drew alongside a rather small crocodile. Crocs’ are not that common in Central America and this may have been a Morelet’s Crocodile or even a small Caiman. There was not a hint of aggressiveness in the beast but as he would not move aside to let me pass, I gingerly tapped him on the nose with the tip of my paddle, whereupon he slapped his tail against my kayak, slowly sank into the shallows and disappeared.
From my perspective, the fact that Castillo de San Felipe exists at all is extraordinary, because of its location and who built it. I have tried to imagine Conquistadors roaming the Central American coastline in the mid-1500s looking for the elusive Rio Dulce and how they were able to push inland to establish this commanding fort. They clearly possessed a powerful buccaneering spirit, they were obviously superb navigators and were motivated onward by wealth and power.
They chose a highly strategic location for their fort, on the precise point where Lake Izbal narrows and flows into the Rio Dulce. For anyone passing by, either by cayuco or on foot in the 1500s when the Spanish were in residence, it might have been their last journey. Not only was this an excellent defensive location but the Spanish possessed highly technical weaponry for the times. I was struck by the flimsy outer walls of the castillo, which may describe how its defenders viewed their enemies. Against local tribes the walls may have seemed impregnable, but against contemporary enemies from Europe, the walls were like paper and could easily be breached by a canon in period. The fort became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 and is now preserved as a fine example of the Spanish Colonial era.
With so much richness in the Rio Dulce, we took the opportunity to travel 100 kilometres inland to the magnificent Quirigua Maya ruins, another UNESCO World Heritage Site dating from the 7th and 8th century AD. The Quirigua is modest in scale, but the quality of carving on the stelae is exceptional, qualifying this as the most significant city of the southern Mayan. There are 22 such monuments, monoliths 35 feet high with richly carved characters, animals and deities, much like totem poles of the Pacific Northwest – recording significant events in history. The temple and palace are largely in ruins but it is possible to understand the richness by strolling the Avenue of the Stellae and pausing on the stone terraces above the arena. Our resident archaeologist informed us that the winning side in team games was customarily put to death, which left me wondering about team motives and if modern professional sports leagues could learn a thing or two from these Maya.
We were now heading back to Belize with plenty of picturesque cays and bow landings ahead of us. The weather was as good as it gets, and as our Captain was ahead of schedule, we made an alfresco visit to a nearby tributary, once more launched the Glasser. In the highly structured mainstream cruise industry, this type of impromptu visit would be impossible due to tight scheduling and air connections. With Blount it was just another day on the water.
Small ship cruising has exploded over the past fifteen years, largely driven by travelers who dislike the impersonal nature of the larger ships. Fewer guests mean less stress when visiting sites and much faster entry and exit from the ship. With so fewer the atmosphere was convivial and intimate with full credit to a well-trained crew. The shallow draft meant better access to prime locations and Belize and Guatemala are outstanding destinations for small ship cruising.
Let me know what you think about this most unusual cruise?