Belizean Shipwrights

The Rio Dulce in Guatemala is a popular destination for sailboats and therefore there are lots of services available for any kind of boat repairs needed. Unfortunately, as in most places in the world, wooden boats are a species moving towards extinction, together with their shipwrights. There was no one, in the Rio Dulce, who had the skills and whom I trusted to take on the structural repairs that Alani needed. 

I was lucky, however, to meet Ed and Bryan on their unique boats Zayann and Brujula, who had come to anchor in our bay. Their traditional wooden sloops had been built in the north of Belize, a village called Sarteneja, where wooden boat building was still alive. Commercial fishing in Belize is still done mostly from shallow keeled, short masted and long boomed wooden sloops that are perfect for sailing the shallow waters close to the Belizean Barrier Reef.

It seems like I had found a solution! Through Ed, I got in touch with master shipwright Juan Guerrero. He had built Ed´s beautiful Zayann together with around 40 other boats. After a quick trip with boats and busses all through Belize to Sarteneja, to look at my boat plans and talk about the repairs needed, Juan Guerrero confirmed that he would indeed be able to get the job done. 

Boatbuilding village Sarteneja Belize
The public pier of Sarteneja

So Tom and I sailed Alani north to Sarteneja. By now, the leak had become so bad, that the bilge would be completely filled with water and the floor boards floating after about 6 hours. We were still impressed by Alanis performance under sail.

Arriving in Sarteneja, the planning for the haul out immediately started. The Belizean boats with their shallow keels were traditionally just pulled up on the public beach by the united power of the village men and the gravel truck, if needed. This would not be possible for Alani, with her 5.5ft keel, long mast and rotten parts.

Boatbuilding village Sarteneja Belize
Sarteneja men building the cradle for Alani

That is why we decided to build a cradle for her. The sturdy cradle, so the idea, would be moved all the way into the deeper water, Alani would be driven onto it and then pulled out of the water inside the cradle, sitting upright. There were many questionable factors, however. Would she fit in the cradle perfectly and how would fasten her to it? Would we be able to pull the boat in the cradle the long distance through the shallow water up to the beach? What if it would get stuck on a rock? Would it slide easily on the mud?

Shipwright Juan Guerrero Sarteneja
Shipwright Juan Guerrero with the finished cradle

No one in Sarteneja had ever done what we attempted to do.

So the cradle was built, the gravel truck organised, and the haul out date set. Traditionally, the owner of the vessel to be hauled out calls for the crowd of the village, everyone comes to help and is rewarded with a case of beer and a little snack afterwards.

Wooden boat restoration Sarteneja
The cradle is going in! The truck is ready on the pier.

The haul out day came. By now, I was well known in the village together with the uncommon project I had brought. The crowd of people on the beach and on the public pier was large. The heavy cradle was moved into the water, where, with the help of large blue water barrels, it was floated out to Alani. Driving her onto the cradle proved difficult, but with the united forces of all kinds of helpers in the water and on board, we got her in and fastened down. By then, I had given up all my German hopes for a structured and organised operation. Helpers were climbing up my boat, jumping in the water, moving and tying ropes, while advisers from the pier were shouting different orders, trying to be the loudest yeller. Juan Guerrero was trying his best, but no one really knew what we were doing. Still, things worked fairly smooth. Especially since the beer crate had already been broken in… 

Once on the cradle, we started the pulling trials. I had tied all my strong lines together to bridge the ??ft gap between the end of the pier and the truck on the beach. The truck started pulling and one after another the lines snapped. Helpers were quick to retie, and repair, but after a while we understood, that something heavier was needed. So we connected my 200ft of 5/16 chain to the cradle. The boat moved! In a very unchecked way however, but little by little, with the trucks power, she chaotically moved towards the beach. The operation was slow and far away from smooth, with the cradle getting stuck and the boat swaying wildly inside it.

Finally, there was no more movement, even with the truck pulling with full gas. It was 4.30PM by now and there was no way, we would succeed getting her all the way to the beach before dark. Extensive beer drinking had long been started and we decided to proceed the next day.

Female captain wooden boat restoration
Alani stuck in her cradle next to the pier after a long day

I spent the night on my halfway hauled out boat. It was awful. Stuck in the crate, and not floating anymore, Alanis side got smashed hard by the waves. Trying to sleep, I was held awake by the horrible sound  of the slapping that felt like the planks could give in any minute. 

In the morning, Ed and I, who had grown close friends by now, dove in the shallow water to find the chain had all wrapped up underneath the cradle. We freed it, the truck rolled on the beach again and we kept going. Traumatised from the night and the slow and chaotic progress made on the previous day, I had grown doubts about the whole undertaking. After several hours of work, the boat had still not moved more than a few feet further out. Doubts were uttered all around, and when, finally, my chain busted under the pressure of the load, I called the operation off. It just wouldn’t work.

I wanted my boat back in the water, where it belonged. That was easier said than done and we spent all afternoon breaking apart the cradle, heeling Alani over with the help of Zayann and slowly pulling her back in deeper water.

When finally, in the evening, Alani was swaying again on her anchor, I could almost hear her thanking me for having her float again, in her element, doing what she was built for. 

Even though my problem was not solved, my time in Sarteneja was a very special period. The village is big enough to have all important services, the sense of community is great. The people are hard working, helpful and warm hearted and know how to enjoy life. The boatbuilding culture is amazing and alive. What a unique place!


Read the next chapter The Stripping and the Sternpost

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