RILEY DUNN SLAPS his soggy straw cowboy hat against The Nasty Knot’s starboard pontoon, gives me the evil eye, and then spits with disgust into the blue Caribbean water. With the tricky easterly breeze, it has taken me a full fifteen minutes to maneuver my catamaran sailboat alongside his, and it’s clear that Riley is none too pleased about the wait. “When I wave my hat, I want ya to raise yer daggerboards, pronto,” he admonishes. “This coral will tear up these fiberglass hulls faster than a jaguar in heat.”
I’ve been with Riley for 24 hours now, and not once has he blinked, smiled, or offered me a compliment. Even though he’s ten feet downwind, I’m sure I can smell in his sweaty cargo shorts and unbuttoned short-sleeved shirt the cattle he’s wrangled off and on for the past thirty years. Riley’s gravelly baritone makes it clear he doesn’t suffer fools gladly—especially those who might damage his four beloved twin-hulled sailboats. He has dragged them behind his ancient Dodge van down to Central America all the way from Denver, where he spends six months of the year working as a forest management consultant and guiding city slickers into the mountains to hunt elk.
Earlier this morning, on our first day of sailing one of his Hobie Cat Magnums along the coast of Belize, I accidentally “teabagged” my sailing companion by digging a pontoon into a wave and, while reeling her in from the water, gasping, almost flipped the boat. A quarter mile away, Riley stood on his cat’s trampoline, the canvas seat stretched between the two pontoons, wildly waving his cowboy hat. Riley, who is 47—and is missing his right index finger (black bear? barracuda?) and perhaps even his eyelids—is an excellent sailor, but his communication skills leave much to the imagination. Semi-convinced that this particular hat-waving meant for us to jibe and head north, we hummed along at a good eighteen knots toward the port town of Dangriga before realizing that Riley’s blue-sailed catamaran hadn’t moved and was now just a dot on the horizon behind us. The tongue-lashing we got once he caught up pales in comparison to the one we are currently receiving for endangering our daggerboards, the three-foot planks inserted into each pontoon to help stabilize the boat.
I remove my sunglasses, pinch the bridge of my nose, and turn in exasperation to my friend (self-dubbed “Jib Girl”), an editor from Madison, Wisconsin, who used to race single-hull JY15’s with a former beau but who, like me, has never before sailed one of these ultra-fast, fairly temperamental eighteen-foot Hobie Cats. We have come to Belize for the promise of “unspoiled adventure travel” (and—truth be told—because I have a crush on my new friend and hope to woo her with some manly outdoorsmanship). But now, clenching my fists like a scolded child, I wonder if this week-long Caribbean-island-hopping package with Riley’s outfitting company, Under the Sun, was such a hot idea. “Perhaps this is why we had to pay up front,” I whisper.
At 26, Jib Girl is twelve years my junior. Delicate and slender, she listens to Chopin, reads Victorian poetry for fun, and has the pale, praying-mantis beauty of someone who has spent much of her life in museums. Plunging into the wilds of Central America with a guy she’s known for two months is a big deal for her. Yesterday we flew on Costa Rica—based Taca Airlines from Houston to Belize City (Continental and American also fly there). The country’s largest town, Belize City has a population of 50,000 and a reputation for harboring the most dangerous thieves in the Caribbean. A bumpy three-hour bus ride took us through the capital city of Belmopan and then along the northern rim of the Maya Mountains to Hopkins, an isolated and slow-moving but friendly fishing village on Belize’s central coast. With unpaved roads and ramshackle houses built on creaky wooden stilts (electricity became available in 1994), Hopkins has fewer than 1,300 inhabitants, most of whom are Garifuna, descendants of Nigerian slaves who were shipwrecked on the island of St. Vincent in 1635 and intermarried with Carib Indians who had migrated from South America. Though poor, the tiny town overflows with reggae and laughter. A recently arrived Canadian minister, his dazed-looking wife, and their half-dozen children, along with Riley and one or two bleary-eyed, Belikin-beer-swigging expats from Miami, seem to be the only foreigners living in Hopkins.
Before our first morning of sailing, we ate breakfast at Iris’ Cafe—little more than a wooden table in the kitchen of an unmarked, two-room seaside shack owned by a middle-aged Garifuna woman. The chalkboard menu offered us a choice of “fried eggs and fried jacks,” which we ordered, and “gibnut” (a short-haired swamp rat), which we did not. “Yah, yah, mon,” Iris said to Riley, directing a noisy fan right into our faces, “I have Coke but no coffee. The mon from Dangriga, he brought me no coffee. Tomorrow maybe.” Barefoot and dressed in a faded red cotton frock, Iris moved so slowly across the concrete floor from stove to table she seemed almost a parody of slowness; it was unclear whether she was exhausted from a morning of preparing swamp rat or just profoundly mellow from a lifetime spent under palm trees and perfectly blue skies.
Under the Sun operates in Hopkins from November through May. Its three-room “base” lodge, decorated with plastic furniture, hammocks, fishing nets, and Japanese World War II buoys, sits among coconut trees fifty feet from the water. Under the Sun’s Web site ( www.underthesunbelize.com) extols Belize’s year-round warm weather, the delightful and inexpensive Rasta lifestyle, and the chance to man one of the world’s most exciting sailboats in some of the world’s most pristine waters. Riley claims to have the only four Hobie Cat Magnums in all of Belize (you certainly won’t see any others in Hopkins), and for $1,480 a head he’ll loan you one and provide a clean bed, a mosquito net, and running water