The idea of sailing in Belize just sounded romantic, and looking at a map I was convinced it was going to be exactly like our prior three experiences in the BVI. Belize had islands in close proximity to one another, wind, ocean, and boats for charter. What could be so different?

Exercising a bare minimum of caution, I posed the question of why the sailing skill set was considered harder in Belize, and was told by our charter specialist that it was because you have to be very careful not to damage the coral reef.

We may not be expert sailors, but my husband is indisputably an expert in being careful.  If avoiding reefs was our only issue, then it was a no-brainer. We’d stay out in the middle of the water and pay extra attention when approaching our moorings. Done. We booked the trip.

Our mid-February 2016 departure arrived right on schedule and we couldn’t wait to get started. With an afternoon departure to Belize City followed by a second flight, it was dark by the time we arrived at our Placencia marina, which was where we encountered:

Capsized Expectation #1: Not all marinas are large bustling hubs of activity

We were used to the Sunsail/Moorings base in Tortola; hundreds of boats and slips along with ample onsite provisioning options and amenities galore. When we arrived at our location in Belize, it was completely dark, the office was closed, and not a soul could be found. There was no one there to help us, there was no one there at all.

A handful of ten to fifteen boats lined the two docks with seeming zero activity aboard. Where were we? No time to contemplate our circumstances. We found a night watchman and his dog Cholo who helped us track down our boat Mango.  We tossed our bags inside, locked the cabin, then headed back out to our worried driver who took us to The Flying Pig, a sports bar about three miles down the road. Important side note: we are from Denver and the Broncos were in the super bowl. We had arrived in time to watch the second half of the game.

After a resounding win – undisputed best start to a vacation ever – we called a cab to take us back to the marina.

We awoke the next morning for our boat check and briefing, something we’d expected might take an hour. Three hours later we emerged with a fishing pole and diminished confidence. During this extensive discussion, we’d been informed of:

Capsized Expectation #2: Just because you are in the middle of a very large section of the ocean does not mean you won’t run aground

Don’t worry, we did not run aground. But, the idea that it was a distinct possibility was pretty unsettling. Apparently that sneaky coral reef we’d heard so much about was looming just under the surface all over the place. The fines for damaging the reef were tens of thousands of dollars and potential loss of your passport. That got our attention.

But again, we are careful. My husband more than myself, but still. We were pretty sure we could manage, so we set out, paying close attention to the pre-programmed way points on our boat’s GPS navigation device intended to keep us from destroying the precious reef as we headed out of the inlet. That worked pretty well, although the stress level was high wondering “how on the mark” we needed to be with those way points.

Once we got out of the causeway and our way points were gone, we checked navigation and headed to our intended destination for the night. It took about 30 minutes for us to learn about:

Capsized Expectation #3: If you are approaching a section you should avoid, your depth finder will progressively alert you  

Our eyes were glued to the navigation screen. We would see the depth go from 40 to 35 to 20 to 10 – Eeeeek. It kept us on our toes, but it jived with what we thought was going on down below. A sloping, developing reef that ultimately would be right underneath us so we’d want to stay out of its way.

Doesn’t work like that. We’d be in 60 feet of water then immediately in 2 feet of water. Just like that. Utterly terrifying not knowing which direction to turn to get back a place of breathing room for your keel. Needless to say I was a screeching, panicking mess. (Editor’s note: To this day I am stunned that my husband did not throw me overboard. It is a testament to his patience and ability to rise above).

That’s when we started really cross-referencing the electronic navigation with the charts and charting book. In the past, I supposed we’d lazily relied on our GPS for all Intel. Not enough in Belize. Use the charts. Use every single scrap of information available to you to understand reef patterns.

Since we had gotten a later start than expected, we opted for our Plan B destination, Wippari Caye. We knew there were three mooring balls and it was a comfortable distance to get settled in for the night. We headed there, which is where we happened upon:

Capsized Expectation #4: You can always find a security blanket mooring ball

I hesitate to share this, but I will. As new sailors we’d finally gotten the hang of catching mooring balls in the BVI and we’d grown to love them, or more truthfully, the security of them. Once tied off, you felt relatively sure that you weren’t going anywhere. I am not going to lie, when we landed on a Plan A and Plan B for our first night in Belize, we’d specifically chosen places with mooring balls.

But, by the time we’d arrived at Wippari Caye, the three mooring balls were taken and it was too late to go anywhere else. We’d have to anchor, which was already pretty intimidating for us newbies, but with all of the reef chatter we were downright nervous.

Fortunately it was relatively shallow and the water is beautiful and clear, so we could see bottom to identify a safe spot. I am not going to say the effort was flawlessly executed, it was not. This anchoring experience was not one we’d had a lot of experience with, and with the impending storm and potential for stormy conditions, we realized we would need to consider:

Capsized Expectation #5: One anchor is plenty

In our 3 hour boat briefing, we were told that the weather could get a bit rough, and if we were going to anchor, we should always use a second anchor placed off to the side of the boat. We made notes on this, but knowing we were going to catch mooring balls, we set the information aside.

Best laid plans.

We reviewed our collective notes, took out the second anchor, loaded it into the dinghy, and my husband set off with it 90 degrees from the bow of the boat and the anchor we had already set. It wasn’t that setting out the extra anchor was difficult, it was the concept that it might be needed that had my husband up the entire night and had me dreaming that we were free-floating out to sea, anchor-less.

We were delighted to find that we were still safely anchored in the morning after our first night.

The next two nights on Hatchet Caye and Pelican Caye we caught mooring balls and, while it was still a bit rough and tumble, we slept a bit better knowing we weren’t accidentally going to be victims of novice anchoring skills.

Capsized Expectation #6: Information about anchorages is always 100% right 

After our two successful – dare I say joyful – nights on mooring balls, we wanted to keep the streak alive. We knew from our boat briefing that our fourth night destination, Coco Plum Caye, had three mooring balls just off the island and that was our goal. It was a long way to get there and we were looking forward to visiting the charming island.

When we arrived, we saw just a single mooring ball and we headed straight for it. This was not without ample angst. When we arrived, we found we were perilously close to the ocean floor. I am pretty sure our depth finder said “grounded”. I was a mess. My husband dove down, checked it out, and while we were close, we weren’t quite touching bottom. Yet.

We took the dinghy into the island to secure some insider information. Apparently that mooring ball was not considered usable and we would need to motor sail 3 nm past the island and 3 nm back to get to the other side and avoid the giant coral reef just under the surface near the island.

This had us to the safe side of the island much, much later than we’d hoped, and a storm was coming in. We quickly anchored and dropped our second anchor, but it was too dark for my husband to dive down and visually inspect the quality of our anchoring. That is when he fashioned a floating empty water container contraption (see picture) that we tied to the second anchor in case our first anchor failed and we needed to abandon the second one in an attempt to fashion a new plan. We figured it would be easier to track down. Fortunately it didn’t come to that.

Our last night in Placencia Harbor we anchored again, also setting out the second anchor. By now, we felt like old pros. We settled in, watched the rain come down, drank the last of our wine, and talked about all we’d accomplished on that trip. The next day we woke up to the most beautiful sunrise.

Beyond the many sailing lessons learned, our biggest takeaway was that we would be back. Maybe not on a boat with a keel, mind you, but the charming islands, clear water for snorkeling and diving, the interesting people and stories we encountered, and the challenges we faced as new sailors resulted in a trip with far more depth and meaning than our wildest expectations.

Belize is not the BVI. It is more difficult in many respects. But it is beautiful and it is worth it.