REMBRANDT VAN RIJN
SAILING AND DIVING ABOARD THE REMBRANDT VAN RIJN
Text and photography by Dan Auber
It was hot and muggy when we landed in Belize City. It is not unusual for this part of Central America to look spent at the end of the dry season. The rains and foul weather were expected to start in about three weeks (June) and, from the nut-brown appearance of the grass, moisture would be somewhat welcomed. We arrived a day early and checked into the Radisson Hotel in Belize City. A skiff from the Rembrandt Van Rijn (pronounced von rhine) would pick us up at the dock behind the hotel the next afternoon and my first tall ship adventure would begin.
It wasn't quite dawn when I woke up. When I looked out the window, there she was, silhouetted against the slate-colored background of the morning sea. She's a large tall ship, her three masts bare with only a single flag at the top of the tallest one. I watched as the sun began to turn the sky a pinkish-yellow and wondered what stories a ship like this could tell. I didn't know anything about her history yet, so naturally my childhood fantasies took over. I gave her a noble history, having weathered storms, served royalty and commerce alike on every ocean and worthy of her proud look. It all seemed calm and quiet and right.
As I approached the docks, I could see my fellow passengers standing on the dock gazing at the long white-sided schooner anchored about one-quarter mile offshore in deeper water. I counted 18 passengers on this trip; the ship can hold 30. The excitement level was high as we climbed into the small inflatable for the short ride out to the boat. The captain greeted us as we pulled alongside and held out his hand to help us aboard. As with most live-aboard boats, we were shown to our cabins, given a welcoming cocktail and set free to explore the ship. It was certainly different from any of those on prior trips. The Rembrandt Van Rijn is 184 feet long and, because she is a true sailing ship, there is rigging everywhere. The chief engineer, in a boatswain's chair at the top of the foremast, was changing a light fixture. Another crewmember was backsplicing a mooring line and the entire crew seemed to have unending duties designed to make our trip safe and fun. The diving equipment was arranged for easy assembly and safe storage on the back deck, with tanks, weights and belts all ready for a week of diving along the atolls of Lighthouse, Turneffe and Glovers.
As the sun began to set, the captain gave the order to hoist the anchor and head to Caye Bokel, at the southern tip of the Turneffe Islands. After a night of sailing, we stayed there for the next day and night. From a photographic point of view, the ability to make repetitive dives in the same location increases the chances for good pictures. I can become familiar with the area and better plan which camera, lens and strobes to use as well as what subjects to shoot.
I was beginning to see a marked difference in a sailing ship compared to the usual large motorboat I had been on in the past. The pace was much slower and more relaxed. Only three dives were allowed during an entire day and only at scheduled times. Normally I would have made five or more dives in a place like this, so it took some mental adjustment on my part. With all the idle time on my hands, I was able to do things I usually put off until I get home. It turned out to be a welcomed change.
Our first three dives were at Black Forest, an area in the Turneffe Islands known for its large stands of Black Coral at 90 feet. I found the spectacular walls striped with sand grooves that led back to shallow patch reef areas. Massive Barrel Sponges angled upward toward large schools of jacks and baitfish above. This day, the water was the clearest I could ever remember experiencing in Belize without a current and I reveled in the beauty.
The next morning, following a short inflatable ride around the southeast corner of the atoll, we arrived at the Elbow. This popular site is a drift dive because of its currents, which carried us along the eastern wall. It is frequented by many large pelagics that feed on schools of fish. I have been to this site many times before and it never looks the same way twice. The cast of characters changes frequently, making everything seem brand new.
We left Turneffe and headed northeast to Lighthouse Reef, the farthest from the mainland. It hosts several major attractions, including the famed Blue Hole, first explored by the late Jacques Cousteau. The hole, 1,000 feet in diameter and more than 400 feet deep, has large stalactites hanging from the undercuts below 130 feet. I will never forget my first descent into the Blue Hole. It was eerie only because the vertical wall appears endless, disappearing into the ink-blue bottom, which is darker than the rest.
We visited the other popular attraction at Half Moon Caye, which is not underwater but in the trees. The crew prepared our lunch on the beach and, once fortified, we headed to the viewing stand that offers a bird's eye view of nesting booby and frigate birds. Be sure to bring your topside camera, it's quite a unique opportunity to photograph these beautiful birds from a marvelous vantage point.
We stayed around Lighthouse Reef for two and a half days and I had an opportunity to dive places I had never been before. One of the notables was Uno Coco, which may appear as Tres Coco or Dos Coco in dive guides. It is a shallow patch reef that slopes to an abrupt wall that drops into several hundred feet of water. This is a spectacular area for macro and wide angle photography. Bart Stanley, one of the dive guides, was kind enough to point out a crab I had never seen or photographed before.
Rembrandt's Surprise displayed prominent scars from the turtles that had recently fed on its Barrel Sponges and harbored a shallow area of Turtle Grass that protected many Southern Stingrays. After the night dive there, the captain told us we would be sailing to Glover's Reef in the morning and the crew would appreciate our help in hoisting the sails.
The morning couldn't have been better, high wispy clouds feathered the sky and a gentle, yet significant breeze blew out of the northeast, providing perfect sailing conditions. Most everyone wanted to help it wasn't required and some of the smarter ones had brought old gardening gloves to protect their hands from the thick lines. We started with the foremast; it took two groups of people on each side of the ship to hoist the sail up the 75 foot masts. One side lifted the sails and the other trimmed them. It became easier when the singing began. The funny part, however, was the mix of languages from our Dutch, Polish and Belizean crew; when things happened fast the orders became a little confused. It took almost an hour to get all the sails up but what a sight! I don't think I will ever forget how beautiful this ship looked with all that canvas filled with wind, pulling our ship south toward Glover's Reef.
Glover's is farther south and the reefs are less frequented than the two northern archipelagos. Many times the area isn't accessible, being affected by weather and water conditions, but we were very fortunate that day conditions were perfect. The captain suggested taking the opportunity to dive Shark Point. We boarded the inflatables while underway and made the dive as the ship continued on her course. Afterward we would catch up to her in the chase boats. There are so few divers on this side of the archipelago that the fish are more curious than wary.
Our next stop was the Long Caye Wall on Glover's. Incredibly large seafans and sponges were surrounded by a field of vibrant corals and fish. These reefs are the most pristine in Belize.
Diving from an old sailing ship was very different for me. I had to slow down and relax, but I soon enjoyed the pace and began to feel of a very different type of adventure in Belize.