A Memory of Belize

For the past couple of weeks there’s been some construction going on at a house a couple of doors up the street towards the main road. They’ve been building a big fence and front wall/gate and doing repairs to the drainage ditch in front of the house. About mid morning, today, a rather large dump truck showed up and left left several cubic yards of dirt in the middle of the road.

Almost immediately three young men started shoveling the dirt into a wheel barrow and spreading it around for re-landscaping. Watching them working away under the hot sun took me back to an afternoon in Caye Caulker, Belize, when I was sailing the reef in my beloved Nancy Dawson on my way down to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.

Twenty years ago there was still a tradition of working sailboats in Belize. Most of the boats the lobster fishermen used to get to and from the off-lying atolls were powered by sail. A good deal of the non-perishable goods consumed on the inhabited islands north of Belize City were brought there on sailing craft like this one:

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I was anchored a little bit off the city dock on the leeward side of the island and getting ready to prepare my lunch. At that time I hadn’t discovered the little house nearby where a woman set up three card tables on her front porch at lunch time and served the most mouth-watering lobster tostadas you could ever imagine. They were a made with a crispy, flat tortilla shell slathered with a coating of refried black beans and then a generous serving of lobster salad topped with lettuce, tomatoes and shredded cheese. They only cost a buck U.S., two dollars Belize. But I digress…and salivate a little at the memory.

Anyway, down in the cabin of my boat I heard a couple of commands being issued in a lilting Belize accent and when I looked up I saw a boat like one of those pictured above piled high with a load of shells gliding towards the dock. The large gaff mainsail came down on the run leaving a tiny handkerchief-sized jib to provide steerage way for the final approach. The boat, about 40 foot long, slipped silently towards the dock. At the last minute the jib was back-winded and with a deft touch of the tiller the boat lay alongside the dock so softly it wouldn’t have cracked an egg between it and the pilings. The docking was a thing of beauty bespeaking years of experience and the accumulation of seamanship lost to most of today’s sailors.

Almost immediately after a couple of lines were run around the pilings the four men in the crew broke out shovels and started to pile the shells up onto the dock. I expected the appearance of a front-end loader to show up at any minute to start moving the growing pile of shell off the dock, but I was mistaken. When the mound on the dock reached some predetermined height one of the men got off the boat with his shovel and started working away at that pile and making another pile behind him while the three remaining on the boat kept toiling away. When the second pile had grown  to another predetermined height a second man joined the first man onshore and started shoveling away at the second pile, making a third pile.

Eventually all the shell was out of the boat and there were a series of shell piles leading away from the dock. All afternoon, and without a break, the men shoveled away creating piles that leapfrogged away from the water’s edge to eventually come to rest at a spot a good fifty yards away. Knowing what I know now, from having ordered dumpsters for my friend’s construction company, I’d say that there was a good 10 cubic yards of shell that had been moved by the four men.

When the work was over they retired back aboard the boat and reclined in the shade provided by a tarp rigged over the main boom and there they passed the rest of the afternoon drinking bottles of Belikan beer. As the sun set they lit up a fire in a sand-filled box on deck and cooked their supper.

A couple of hours later the land breeze began to pick up. They slipped the lines from the dock, raised the jib and deftly turned the bow off the dock. As soon as they gathered steerage they hoisted the large gaff mainsail to the sounds of some “Punta Rock” from a boom box. As they slid past me and Nancy the fragrance of some of Belize’s finest illicit agricultural produce drifted across the water and they were soon swallowed up in the dark.

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3 responses to “A Memory of Belize

  1. What wonderful memories! And great videos. (I pulled the URL out and searched using that. From what I understand WordPress doesn’t allow iframes. Mine weren’t embedding properly, either, until I went back and checked the box that says “use old embed code”).

    I love the old working boats. There was a style used here on the Texas coast that’s disappeared now, although one example is in a museum in Rockport. And don’t you admire those guys who were shell-shoveling. If people work together it’s amazing how much can be accomplished.

    You may not know the answer to these questions but… where were they going? And did they just leave the shell piles there? Had they actually delivered them to someone and been paid? Were they for the souvenir trade? All those shells down in Galveston souvenir shops have to come from somewhere!

    Now I’m hungry for lobster.

    Thanks for the tip on the videos. That’s TWO things I learned today. I also learned that a wheelbarrow is called a carretilla in Spanish. I try to learn a new Spanish word every day and that’s today’s.

    The shells were used for the building trades. To cover drive or walkways. These old sailing craft hauled shell, rock, cinder blocks, bricks, etc. Anything that wasn’t perishable or didn’t need to be delivered on a strict time schedule.

  2. Curtis

    Oh yes, the memories of these old wooden boats from from 25 to 30 years ago.

    The Continental crews used to lay over in San Pedro and the party was on.
    ‘Punta Rock” , Beliken beer and “Punta Butts” dancing.

    A local had one of these boats “tony’s Rum Punch”. We would sail to Caye Caulker or wherever with stops along the way to snorkle the boneyard, catch a few lobster for the evening meal and enjoying his lethal rum punch.

    Thanks for the memories.

    I’ve always liked working watercraft whether power or sail.

  3. You know, I hadn’t really paid any attention, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen green sails before. Beautiful! So’s carretilla, as a matter of fact.