Finding Your Limits
Good sports taken to extremes on a Caribbean cay
April 22, 2007
Story and Photographs by David Arnold
LONG CAYE, Belize — The shallow water flies by in an assortment of blurred colors — fruity daiquiris come to mind — as I skim wobbly-kneed across Caribbean waters at perhaps 25 miles per hour.
I am testing the feasibility of a new kitesurf Belize watersports center– yet another adventure sport that someday might be offered on this Central American island.
Long Caye, located 35 miles off the Belize coast, is home to Slickrock Adventures, an outfit that offers sports ranging from the tame — snorkeling and sea kayaking — to the more extreme — surfing, surf kayaking, windsurfing, and scuba diving.
Kiteboarding, an extreme sport still in its infancy, is not on the list. I am at best an advanced novice, having cut my teeth, and occasionally my feet, on the turbid waters and beer bottles of Pleasure Bay in South Boston. Because I had happened to bring equipment, the Slickrock folks said: Try it. And if you don’t get hurt, maybe we’ll find a way to add Belize kiteboarding to the activity roster.
So here I am, scooting over waters seemingly clean enough to drink as I carve graceful, splashy turns to leave Long Caye astern.
Frankly, I must be quite the photograph. I am important, I am a test pilot, and I am about 10 minutes away from realizing the wind is dying and it’s a long way home.
Such are the nuances of adventuring on the edge, metaphorically and literally, on a private island that sits on a flank of the continental shelf. There are release forms to sign and mandatory safety sessions to attend. But the bottom line at Slickrock is delightfully old-fashioned. You are responsible for your own actions. The rewards can be the stuff of dreams.
To reach Long Caye (pronounced key), one must take a giant step backward. The rain provides the drinking water, solar cells and windmills heat the showers and provide the energy. The dining is communal, the toilets are composters, the ocean-side cabanas come with thatch roofs and no locks, and you will probably be brushing your teeth next to the person you met the day before. While the needs are simple, the sporting equipment is not.
The island, just several hundred yards long, has a Belize dive shop and row upon row of assorted kayaks, surfboards, and wind surfers. It also has a clean point-break “wave” just offshore that may make it one of the best surfing secrets of the Caribbean.
Slickrock Adventures is the brainchild of a former Vermont resident. Cully Erdman and Lucy Wallingford, his business partner, wanted to create a rustic facility that offered myriad water sports at no cost to the environment.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to think of what people might want,” says Erdman, 55. “I knew what I wanted, and it turned out that a lot of other people wanted the same thing.” The island opened for business in 1992 and now hosts some 500 visitors annually. The Slickrock owners say they have had one serious injury: a drunk guest who one night pitched headfirst off his porch and had to be airlifted home.
I spent three nights on the island in early February among a dozen guests from two groups. One group had arrived after spending the first part of the week on a Slickrock inland adventure trip; the other had booked a full week here. Segments of my journal follow.
Wednesday, Feb. 7: I swing gently in my porch hammock with the thrum of thesurf. It is sunset; my glass of rum, mixedwith fresh-squeezed orange juice, sits on the cabana porch floor. It is a burden to reach, but I am managing. Cully says the lagoon below is filled with octopus. It is a reminder that here on Glover’s Reef we lie squarely in a marine preserve.
Probably 50 yards beyond the octopus’s garden (yup, it’s in the shade), the ocean color turns abruptly from lime to purple. It is the edge of the continental shelf; the bottom goes from 30 feet to 3,000 feet in a hiccup. Jacques Cousteau once said this place offered one of the best wall dives in the world.
Palm fronds conveniently block all views of neighboring cabanas. Next door are three women celebrating 50th birthdays. They call themselves “The Ya-Yas.” They are compiling a list of every species of everything they see. It’s huge. On the other side is a business consultant from Chicago who is about to earn her scuba certificate. It’s almost suppertime. Now where is that glass . . .
Thursday, Feb. 8: The morning started with mandatory self-rescue practice in the sea kayaks. The afternoon was nothing but surf kayaking.
The waves from trough to crest were only 4 feet high — a fraction of the size I am told I missed the previous day. But what a ride — perhaps 100 yards or more once I figured out weight shifts and turning. Jes [Karper, 29, a Slickrock guide and a citizen of both Belize and the United States] can pull off a dozen “S” turns on a single wave; his maneuvers are a slow-motion study in grace.
He explained this morning that the Mayans millennia ago used to paddle out here to collect stingray barbs. Shamans used them to pierce their tongues and/or penises, mixing the blood with burning resin. The idea was: The more intense the pain, the more powerfully prayers rose in the smoke. This was the civilization that had suddenly, mysteriously disappeared by AD 950. During the crash there must have been a lot of sore people.
Our cooks are Marci Nunez and Laverne Garcia, women descended from shipwrecked slaves called the Garinagu people. The Garinagu never became property, working their way here when Belize was still British Honduras. To us they speak perfect English. To each other they speak their native African tongue.
Tonight’s dinner included hors d’oeuvres of crab dip, then homemade biscuits, potato pancakes, snapper fillets in sour cream and chives, steamed carrots, Polish tomatoes, and carrot cake for dessert. All cooked to perfection on wind power.
Friday, Feb. 9: The locals call it Bev’s Garden, an easy scuba dive to the top of The Wall. Peering over the edge is other worldly, a descent into deep, deep blue. We steered well clear of the precipice, winding through canyons and gawking at a snarling, pea-green moray eel tethered to his home like a fat fire hose. The afternoon sun lighted the orange in the fire corals and turned our plumes of air bubbles resilient silver. Other divers agreed: It was perhaps the best dive to dat
I am now back in the hammock. I write in the late dusk with the help of a headlamp. I have never seen stars reflect in the ocean. Crisscrossing the lagoon like slow comets are a half-dozen clumps of fuzzy phosphorescence. Octopi for sure. Who needs lightbulbs when they interfere with the stars? For that matter, who needs walls? Doors?
Saturday, Feb. 10: Cully had said there had only been one previous guest who had kited here, an expert from Hood River, Ore. Did Cully mind if I gave it a go? He responded that if a neophyte like me could manage, perhaps kiting had a future here. “Give it a try. Let’s see what happens,” Cully had said.
Got to love the power of those liability release forms.
My first thought when underway was: I’m not in Southie anymore.
Yes, there were coral heads. But they came in clumps, easy to see and steer around. So like a kid testing pond ice, I ventured farther offshore with each tack in a clean crosswind cutting over the end of Long Caye. What fun to see the corals and sand whiz by underfoot, so deep yet so clear. An hour passed, maybe more.
Finally I realized that just maybe the 12-knot wind was beginning to fade. Or was I just getting tired? I tacked and started for home.
It was the wind.
I had hoped to step ashore the vision of modest competence, like Chuck Yeager climbing down from his X-1 . Perhaps one of the Ya-Yas would add me to her list of remarkable island specimens.
Instead I came in like a big blue pile of nylon laundry strung out behind a kayaker.
But I was safe.
“We have just added our newest sport to Slickrock, we’ll be offering kitesurfing lessons next season.” Erdman said.
Fine. I hope no one was taking pictures.