Features May 15, 2003 Issue

The Moorings in Belize

This company is a powerhouse, but can any charter operation keep everything nailed down on a complex boat in a remote part of the world? Even if they can, is it worth it?

by Tim Cole

A good soufflé is a delicate matter that begins with the correct ingredients, proper cooking tools, thoughtful preparation, and the right amount of heat—even before it gets going. So too, the successful bareboat charter cruise needs a good blend of location, climate, provisioning, and, of course, the platform itself, as preconditions. While no charter company can control the weather and the acts of the sea gods, they should certainly be able to manage the elements you have to pay for. 

The Moorings 4500 is a model of design cleverness and comfort, with a huge, multipurpose cockpit and saloon area, easy access via the walk-up transoms, hair- and hand-snagging main traveler out of the way on the cockpit arch, and stowage room for the multitudes.

Practical Sailor recognizes that charter cruising can be a significant portion of a serious sailor's budget. And while we focus most of our attention on boats, gear, and services, we also like to offer our opinion on line items external to that core mission. Chartering sailboats in sunny places falls into this category, and we endeavor occasionally to guide readers in the essential matter of where best to take a sailing vacation.

We don't take freebie charters— we pay hard-earned cash on the barrel for our fun, just as you do. We like to think that fact renders our opinions a bit more valuable than those found in the glossier sailing magazines.

Our plan was to load up a Moorings 4500 out of the Moorings' new Belizean base, located in the sleepy coastal town of Placencia, and set out for parts extant. There were eight of us onboard: three teens or pre-teens, a college freshman, and two couples. The captain (your correspondent) had cruised in Europe, the Caribbean, and North America after nearly a quarter century in the field of marine publishing (to his continual astonishment). This of course did not mitigate the nervous twitch upon reading the words "numerous patch reefs" printed liberally on what passes for charts in these parts.

Our next couple were one-design sailors who offered excellent companionship, astute insight, timely doses of brawn when called upon, and cheerful leadership in the galley for our week in the sun.

Did we say sun? Weather in Central America in January defies prediction. Our week turned cloudy on day two with the onset of a steady norther that made us grateful for any morsels of sunlight cast our way.

The antidote for coping with situations like this is to find your bliss in other ways: romping good sails under double-reefed main and blade headsail, shooting the moon in our roving Hearts game, rapturous meals taken amidst the otherworldly blackness out in the mangrove cays, the 75 (we counted them) fish and animal species that crossed our bows during our brief week. Fun is what you make it, and sometimes it's necessary to find alternative ways to boost your spirits when the weather doesn't cooperate.

First, Some Nits
Let's get some criticisms up front and out of the way. There aren't many. We thought our chart briefing was a bit perfunctory, given the challenges presented by the barrier reef. The Grenadines, the BVI, certainly the Dalmatian Coast, where we've sailed or power cruised, offer mighty deep water, comparatively. And while there will always be some consternation when it comes time to lowering the hook at day's end, the aforementioned patch reefs and coral mounts require the entire crew to sit up straight and pay close attention.

In our last charter segment, in the June 2002 issue, we weren't complimentary about the boat provided for us by Barefoot Yacht Charters in St. Vincent. However, we can say here that Narendra (Seth) Sethia of Barefoot offers the kind of chart briefing the Moorings staff in Belize could learn from, with acute observations on bearings, ranges, distances, and depths.

As one Moorings staffer pointed out at cruise end, cruising the barrier islands of Belize is "ticklish." Any change on the depth gauge deserves immediate action, as the depth can turn from 100 feet to five feet within four boat lengths.

We found it hard to rely on the guidebook provided, where hand-drawn charts (stamped "not for navigation") offer only notional bearings and distances in and out of anchorages and around the numerous cays that dot the inside of the reef. There are some discrepancies between what the authors call a suitable anchorage and what turned out to be the reality.

Nit Two: Our Raymarine RC530 color chartplotter failed to work during our boat checkout and worked only intermittently thereafter—a data transfer glitch we traced to a bad antennae wire. It would have been helpful to back up our handheld compass bearing with bearing and distance information from a GPS.

On our next cruise we're going to bring along a handheld GPS. While it won't preclude the need for dead-reckoning, particularly in areas where even official charts may be in error, at least we'll be able to use it to enter waypoints and compare what's on the chart to what we actually see.

Nit Three: Our gleaming Moorings 4500 carried a Raytheon ST7000 autopilot, which also failed to function. I'm sure Raymarine would be chagrined to learn their device did little more than proclaim "SeaTalk Failure" throughout our week aboard. On some long motorsailing legs an autopilot would have been welcome.

Note that two out of three of these nits are about electronic devices that we probably wouldn't even have missed if they hadn't been aboard. Since they were aboard, however, they should have worked.

It Gets Better
As we wrote in last June's issue, you pays your money and takes your chances. The electronics shortcomings were offset by The Moorings' considerable strengths as exemplified by the company's stalwart Belizean crew. Base manager Rory MacDougal runs a well-equipped, knowledgeable, attentive, and eager team.

Placencia is a tad rustic, but The Moorings base is located on a wonderful beach with a well-built L-dock that handles stern-to yachts in transit taking on water, fuel, and consumables. The dock team couldn't be more helpful, and the office staff wants nothing more than to expedite your progress through checkout so the games can begin.

The base delivers a weather briefing at 0900 each morning via VHF, and it is well-attended. Base staff is glad to confirm reservations and call taxis or organize a dinner. Rory also talked us through a jump-start off the house battery when our starboard engine cranking battery petered out.

Our boat briefing was pin-sharp and conformed to the chartering checklist Practical Sailor devised and published in the February 2003 issue: water paths; steering system; ground tackle; rigging and sails; safety gear; dinghy; auxiliary engine; battery location and health; thorough DC/AC panel checkout; heads; freshwater quantity, quality and delivery; refrigeration, etc.

The Platform
The Moorings 4500 (a private-label derivative of the South African-designed and built Leopard 45) is a miracle of form and function. A floating Swiss Army Knife, the boat is so thoughtfully designed that you swear designer Alex Simonis and builders Robertson and Caine are whispering in your ear when you reach for something and it falls conveniently to hand. We will start aft and move forward before venturing belowdecks.

Some might say the nav station and the electrical panel is the boat's nerve center, but the cockpit aboard the Moorings 4500 is HQ, command post, cocktail lounge, dining room, snorkel gear stowage area, snooze center, card table, flight deck, and overall hot spot. Transom steps on each ama lead to the stern platform, and thence directly into the bimini-covered seating area.

What makes this single-level platform function so well is the "targa" wing over the after portion of the cockpit—a "radar arch" in Yankee parlance, where the mainsheet traveler resides out of the way of fingers and long hair. Placing the traveler overhead on the wing opens up these spaces superbly.

You can seat 10 people around this cat's cockpit dining table, which runs longitudinally on the port side. Bench seats double as handy lazarettes for PFDs or snorkel gear. An L-shaped bench seat graces the cockpit to starboard to expand the boat's seating area under way, and the helm station is an easy step up just forward. Sight lines from the helm fore and aft are more than adequate, helpful during stern-to docking sequences. There's also an eyebrow window in the bimini so you can easily watch the sails after you cage the power from the twin Yanmar diesels.

It's easy to move around deck on this boat, particularly as you egress the coach roof forward, where steps cover the forward opening ports. Lewmar 54 primaries port and starboard for headsail and mainsail sheeting, and Lewmar 44 secondaries at the mast base, ease sail handling. But of course you don't get off scott free: It takes a fair bit of muscle to hoist the fully battened mainsail on a 2:1 halyard. And there are reefing, furling and sheeting loads that deserve respect.

While we were enchanted by this boat's cockpit, we also reserved ample affection for the Moorings 4500's ground tackle arrangement, which utilizes the workhorse Lofrans Tigres on a rope/chain gypsy to get the boat's 60-pound CQR up and down. The designers sensibly positioned the anchor roller well aft of the forward crossbeam to keep weight amidships, and further moved the windlass aft of that, sending the 200-foot all-chain rode through a six-foot hawsepipe between two bow locker hatches. It's an excellent arrangement, the only criticism being the iffy performance offered by the rope winch when it comes time to recover the 50-pound Bruce secondary that deploys over the roller on the forward crossbeam.

Belowdecks
Our Moorings 4500, Panache IV, was immaculate when we stepped aboard. Chalk another one up for The Moorings Belize team. Drinks and other provisions (we ordered a "starter" provisioning option, of which more later) were conveniently stowed and ready to go. To port as you enter the double saloon doors is the top-opening Sea Frost freezer/reefer, which performed brilliantly during our week. It's large, it's easy to get items in and out, and it only takes a couple of hours a day of port-side engine operation (where the compressor resides) to keep items super-chilled. There's also a side-opening refrigerator below the countertop in the boat's U-shaped galley just forward, where you also find the gimballed galley stove, double sink, and sunken dish-drying rack, a stupendous invention.

Panache's saloon was large enough to sport a huge U-shaped dining table and settee just to starboard of the galley, which soon became covered with children's art projects, paperbacks, and guide books.

Four comfortable double staterooms are nestled into the ends of each hull, with four heads back to back amidships, sharing a common machinery space for the holding tanks, bilge pumps, and through-hulls. There is no end to this boat's storage capacity, and convenient storage solutions kept materializing throughout our week.

A Word on Provisioning
We've chartered in the past with full provisioning and regretted it. You feel guilty about all that food left back in the larder if you often happen to eat ashore and lots of food remains aboard at week's end. Belize isn't the Windward Islands, where instantaneous cell phone reception and easy access to the Piggly-Wiggly add a sense of civilization. Nonetheless, we decided to opt for the starter provisioning package only—sugar, coffee, tea, some juices, etc. We then brought in some food in the form of pasta, rice, and tunafish, and resolved to shop locally for meat and perishables. (Best meal of the week was the five pounds of freshly caught snook procured by Winsley, our Monkey River guide.)

The strategy worked well, but we didn't realize just how remote Belize can be. There aren't many restaurants or shops out here, folks. So we factored in a return to base around midweek to take on more provisions and to forage in Placencia's meager markets for the balance of our food needs.

Good news: the truck from Belize City had just come in with some fresh vegetables. Bad news: the vegetables were stowed well forward in the tractor trailer behind some furniture which had to be offloaded first, and the stevedores engaged to make that happen were nowhere to be found. Hey… it's the Caribbean. We figured it out and moved on, but the point remains: Consider your provisioning strategy carefully. You can probably get by on a lot less, particularly in better-traveled locales.

Wrapping Up
The 180-mile-long barrier reef off the east coast of Belize, second largest in the world, is an untouched underwater marvel. Son Andrew and your correspondent took the opportunity to finish up our PADI scuba diving certification while we were there, and the descent to 50 feet off the western ledge of Laughing Bird Cay was memorable if not miraculous. Untouched coral life abounds, along with lobsters as big as your leg. (We invited the park rangers on Laughing Bird, Carlos and Alex, aboard Panache for dinner; getting in touch with the wonderful Belizeans is part of what makes this place great).

But Belize, for all its eco-wonders and Mayan culture, is pretty rough and tumble. St. Barth's or Mustique it's not. You have to come for the remoteness and the untrammeled beauty of it. It's an eye-opening sensation to be safely on the hook, quaffing your evening wine and eating heartily—and looking beyond the confines of your own well-lit cockpit into a black, starless void. There's no resort band pumping "Hot, Hot, Hot" over the transom. You're way out in the bush, folks. That can be fun, and also a little daunting.

Cruising cats aren't for everybody. Their motion in a seaway is a kind of waddle. But sailing is only part of what we're trying to achieve here. You also want to get in and out of the dink, or get in and out of the water. You want a spacious cockpit for dining or other more lackadaisical pursuits. You want easy movement around the boat and to see around the anchorage instead of descending into the gloom to peer out the portlights, as you do on a monohull. You want solid systems and the space to use them. The Moorings 4500 performs all these tasks nobly. And yes, we think the Moorings staff in Belize, like Moorings staffs we've encountered in other locales, is top-notch professional.

A Moorings charter in Belize on a boat this size is no giveaway. The boat charter is $8,000 a week. Add $702 for an "evening start," meaning the ability to settle in on the boat the night before departure, $90 for a cruising tax, $764 for optional but good-to-have trip insurance, and $272 for vessel insurance, and the tab runs to $9,828. Split that between two families and it's still pretty expensive at $4,914 per family. Let's keep breaking it down— to $175 per person per day. Somehow that figure begins to look more manageable, considering the allures of the locale.

Would we do it again? Definitely. For that matter, we'd gladly sample more Moorings delights elsewhere. In anticipation of the bills, however, we'll be putting our noses back to the grindstone for some time to come.

Contact - The Moorings, 800/535-7289, www.moorings.com

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