Through Hell, High Water, and a Hurricane: the story of one couple’s perilous journey from New England to Belize
Eight bells. As one watch ends, another begins,” wrote 51-year old Richard Sugarman as he and wife, Linda, sailed out of Niantic, Connecticut, for Placencia, Belize.
The 2500-mile journey symbolized for the couple the end of 20 years of dreaming and the beginning of a two-year trial run in the charter sailboat business. What they didn’t know was that the biggest storm to hit the Caribbean in 500 years would rearrange their plans — it would kill one of their dearest friends, nearly destroy their catamaran, and cause months-long delays and financial depletion. No one said moving to a third world country would be easy…
The dream was spawned when Linda and Richard and five-year old daughter Casey sailed to Mexico where they camped for three months before returning to New England. The dream was shelved while they focused on raising their daughter and building careers — Linda’s in physical therapy and Richard (ironically) in the field of trauma counseling. Thirteen years later, Casey returned from a Boston University field trip to Belize. “Mom, Dad. You’ve got to quit your jobs and move to Belize!
The Ocean Gypsy sailed under clear blue skies paralleling the Mexican coast, headed for Belize. Linda had gotten off the boat several days earlier to fly ahead to meet Richard in Placencia. As the 32-foot catamaran sailed past Banco Chinchorro, some of the crew trolled for bonito and mackerel. “It was one of the most perfect sailing days of the whole trip,” Richard recalls.
Besides Richard, the crew consisted of Kitty Fox and Ran Villanueva from Placencia, and Robert Gates, Erik Klockars, Michael Marsden, and Duff Chambers — friends of Richard’s from Connecticut; and Cinnamon and Maya, resident boat kittys. As the Ocean Gypsy neared Xcalak, Mexico, six miles north of the Belizean border, the skies grew dark and the winds escalated from 20 to 40 knots. Something didn’t feel right, Marsden says. We’d been through squalls, but this was different. They decided to find anchorage in Xcalak, but 30-foot waves obscured the cut in the reef which they would have to cross to make it to shore. Fifty yards wide, the cut is hard to navigate under the best of circumstances. When the crew was unable to raise anyone on the VHF radio, they turned the boat back out to sea and headed for the Turneffe Islands off the coast of Belize. What the crew didn’t know was that the tropical storm they’d heard about the day before had changed course while they were out of VHF range.
It was now 600 miles wide and a class five hurricane, called Mitch — spiraling directly toward the Mexican coast. Tim Haas was packing up to evacuate Xcalak when he looked out at the Caribbean Sea and spotted the mast of the Ocean Gypsy. The 46-year old owner of the only telephone and fax in town once flew fishermen and divers to the Yucatan Peninsula.
Eight years ago he’d decided to stay in Xcalak, a primitive village of 300 with no electrical power. Over a VHF radio, he called out to the Ocean Gypsy. “What in the hell are you doing out there? Don’t you know you’re sailing straight into a Class Five hurricane?” Tim told the crew that the storm was due to make landfall at Xcalak by noon the next day. They had one choice — they must cross through the fifty foot cut in the reef to make it to shore if they were to escape the storm. The crew donned life jackets and prepared to make the run. With Tim shouting out coordinates over the radio, Richard lined up the lighthouses. On the pier, Tim readied himself. “How many souls on board?”, he asked. “How many women and children?”, Tim recalls. I knew that a boat making it through that cut in those conditions would be nothing short of a miracle. Just a few hours earlier the 282-foot Windjammer Fantome had gone down off the coast of Honduras with 31 aboard. Richard Sugarman punched the V-6 175-horsepower engine during a split-second lull between waves and the Gypsy roared into the cut, riding down a 40-foot breaking wave. The catamaran angled into the passageway, pitched sideways, and threw one pontoon completely into the air. On shore, the half-dozen villagers watching turned and ran to the village church to pray. The port captain grew so frightened he turned his back and walked away. “We knew we were going over”, Marsden says. “But, somehow…by divine intervention, we came back.”
Inside the reef, ecstatic that they’d made it, the crew cheered. “Everyone on board?”, shouted Sugarman. Michael Marsden, eyeballed the aft cockpit and screamed, “Gates is gone!” Erik Klockars, marine mechanic, recalls, “I saw him in between the waves at that moment being sucked out to sea. It was all white water, and he was popping up between the waves flailing his arms as if to say, I’m here. I’m here. Then he disappeared.” They tossed an anchor overboard to search for Gates, but the iron cleats broke off like twigs. Tim Haas watched in horror from the shore and shouted, “Turn back! There is nothing you can do for the man! Let him come to you! You’ll all die if you go after him.”
Richard reluctantly steered the boat toward the pier. He beseeched the armed Navy “Marinos,” who had stood silently by watching the drama, to mount a search for Robert Gates. Instead, the marinos boarded the Ocean Gypsy and spent an hour and a half searching for drugs. It was dark by the time they finished, making a search for Robert that evening impossible. The crew spent the night in an abandoned hotel crying and praying for their friend and wondering if they would live through the night.
The next morning as the storm grew near, the marinos allowed the crew to evacuate inland. Meanwhile the storm whipped along the Caribbean coast taking out every pier, beach, and dock from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to Honduras and Nicaragua. In Placencia, Belize, Linda was also evacuated and spent four days and three nights living in a van in the Mayan Mountains where she helped a woman suffering a miscarriage. She had no way of knowing what had happened to the boat and crew until Richard reached her by phone two days after the accident. The crew returned to Xcalak to find the Ocean Gypsy 250 yards from the concrete pier where they’d left her tied and anchored. She was full of mud and water, and sunk in 2 1/2 feet of water with a gaping hole in her starboard stern and a port bow that was split in two. The insurance company flew out a representative who declared the boat a “constructive total loss.” However, Richard believed that the Ocean Gypsy could be refloated and repaired and set about making plans from a one-room cabana at the Costa de Cocos Resort in Xcalak.
Linda returned to Connecticut to work until they could resume the trip.
Richard wrote family and friends from Xcalak one month after the hurricane, “Robert was my best friend. I’ll always wonder what I could have done differently that terrible day.” (Gates’ body was found several days after the accident on the coast of Belize.) “What now?”, Richard added, “After what we’ve been through, will we still want to run a sail charter business 2500 miles from home? When you do everything you can to breathe life into a dream, and it becomes your worst nightmare, all bets are off for what happens next.” I met Richard two months after the hurricane at the Costa de Cocos where I was escaping my own storm — a nasty divorce. The large, ruddy-faced man with a gray braid snaking down his back rowed me out to see the sad, partially sunk Ocean Gypsy, which he referred to fondly as “she.” The Sugarmans wowed me. They were going for it. No matter what. Class five hurricanes not excepted. And I was worried about a few sharks at home… A few days later, Richard wrote to loved ones in his first Christmas card from Central America, “Remember, life is precious but it can vanish in the wink of an eye. Hold on for all you’re worth. And whenever you can, hold on to each other.” Over a period of six months in the tiny village of Xcalak, with no power and no machinery, Richard, Marcos, Filipe, Silva, and Dave used manpower and creative inspiration to accomplish the near-impossible. They hauled three tons of mud and water out of the boat bucket by bucket, pulled the five-ton catamaran through a foot of water and mud up onto the beach, repaired her bulkhead, replaced her electrical system, gave her a new coat of fiberglass, and more. And they did it with homemade levers and pulleys and palm tree fulcrums, shovel-dug trenches in the mud in which they laid giant metal pipes. Across this, trees cut from the jungle were placed, all of it under a boat the size of a school bus which was tugged 100 feet through the one foot of water up onto the beach inch by inch by several men on the end of a rope. Just your run-of-the-mill pyramid-building engineering feat. Four months later, the canary yellow catamaran was back in the water, ready to continue to Belize. But first Richard flew to America to hold two memorial services. One for his mother who passed away two weeks after they sailed away from New England, and the other for Robert Gates, his best friend who had perished in the storm.
May 25, 1999
Richard wrote, “After six and a half months of healing and rebuilding, we are ON OUR WAY!” With light easterly breezes and three-foot rollers, they sailed out through the cut in the reef and drank a toast to the memory of Robert Gates– and to David, Felipe, Marcos, Silva, Tim and all the others in Xcalak who helped put the Ocean Gypsy back together.
I climbed aboard the Ocean Gypsy in Belize City for the final leg to Placencia. Ran Villanueva, a native Belizean, came along too to help navigate the shallow waters inside the reef. Richard perched on his stool at the helm, wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his free hand and commented, “If it ain’t hard work, it ain’t much of a dream.” With that we floated through a seamless cocoon of aquamarine sky and water for nine hours. While Linda and I chatted and read in the back of the boat, Ran stood on the prow, scanning the waters, one hand a visor against the sun, the other pointing the way for Richard to weave through the maze of barely submerged coral reef. As the sun dropped behind the Mayan Mountains, we sailed around the tip of the peninsula into the lagoon behind Placencia. Ran had every nuance of the labyrinth lagoons written on his genes, so it didn’t matter that the Gypsy’s running lights weren’t working on that moonless night. He quietly directed Richard around vine and mangrove shadows and around inky twists and turns until we glided to a stop at a narrow wooden pier, where we disembarked. “Eight Bells. As one watch ends, another begins.”
The following excerpts are from letters written by Linda and Richard from their new home in Placencia, Belize.
July 1999 ~from Richard
….All the locals are sure our business will make it because NO ONE else offers overnight trips to the reef or cays.
November 1999 ~from Linda
…We’re coming up to the wire on getting the boat ready to make money and we need it bad. We’re down to robbing piggy banks! Except for working on the boat, I haven’t had time to do much but some physical therapy with an 18 month old CP child that I’m seeing a couple of times a week. The parents are superb people…they own a local grocery, so, after five months working gratis, you could say I WILL WORK FOR FOOD! I have! I can’t legally work for money or even volunteer yet because of Belize’s labor laws. Come see us! The following items will get you in the door: Skippy Peanut butter, Caffeine-free Diet Coke, a couple of good videos, and BAGELS! Oh, and Whiskas Bits of Beef Cat Food.
February 2000 ~from Richard
The Ocean Gypsy is ready for charters! Due to the slow pace down here in the tropics we’re getting a much later start than we’d hoped.
March 3, 2000 ~from Richard
Life in Belize is beautiful and wild, but a little ragged around the edges. Sometimes the electricity is out, sometimes the water, and sometimes the phones. The unpaved roads are murder on everyone’s vehicles and nobody cares about being “on time” for anything. It’s still not clear to me whether Belize with its high cost of living will ever be competitive in tourism with Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. There are seven things one needs to live comfortably here: patience, money (milk: $5 a gallon), bug spray, patience, money, more bug spray, and a good sense of humor. For anyone considering quitting their jobs and chasing their dreams, I would say, “Do lots of research, bring lots of money, try to find a strong, smart local partner for any business ventures and try like hell to avoid any and all natural disasters.” As far as our two-year experiment goes, I don’t know — the bottom line is money. We’ve lost 16 months to salvage and rehabilitation. I think it’s clear that the Ocean Gypsy will be a money -maker, but we can’t wait much longer for that to happen.
March 4, 2000 ~from Linda
It’s taking longer and is more difficult than we thought it would be to get the word out about our charters…One of the problems for under-capitalized expats (like us) in a third world country is that you need an umbilical cord to the U.S. There are constant problems “getting things” from home including money (even your own), living conveniences, knowledge and skill about parts and repairs. It’s like trying to import a piece of home to put up down here — sort of like living in an aquarium. I think we’re part of a new breed of expats who keep ties to the country of origin, and more importantly, to the people we left behind. We go home every few months to see family and to stock up on stuff we miss. In reality, we live in two places. Richard and I didn’t leave for Belize out of dissatisfaction with the U.S.. We were simply looking for a place where Richard could sail year round and where we could afford to live on what we imagined would be a limited income. We’ve never been rich, so we had no illusions of striking it rich, or even living in an upgraded manner.
March 5, 2000 ~from Richard
We’re about tapped out financially. We barely had enough money for this venture when we started, and that assumed we’d be earning money in November of ’98. It took too long to rebuild and advertising has been too little, too late. Within a month, we’ll know if we can stay. I’m doing everything I can to keep the faith….
March 7, 2000 ~from Linda and Richard
Our first two charters were a success! Nigel, our Rastafarian guide, caught one fish after another including a 15 lb. red snapper and a big barracuda. Then he cooked them to perfection. The snorkeling was phenomenal and the guests quickly lost track of the hours and the days.We saw manta rays and 50-foot whale sharks! The whale sharks are beautiful, docile creatures longer than our boat! We’re planning 3-5 day charters so that passengers can swim and snorkel with the whale sharks or just sit on the Ocean Gypsy and watch them drift by.
Email the Sugarman’s at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Email comments to author at: RobinSparksD@aol.com
Check out photos of the Ocean Gypsy and read about their tours at http://www.kittysplace.com/ocean_gypsy.htm
Join Robin next month as she explores the Grandfather of expatriate havens, Paris.