Home / Blog / Understanding The Ubiquitous Wooden Sailboats of Northern Belize

March 20, 2024

Understanding The Ubiquitous Wooden Sailboats of Northern Belize


Hand-carved wooden sailboats are ubiquitous in Belize’s northern villages of Chunox, Sarteneja, and Copper Bank, where up to seven fishers per boat will spend an average of two weeks at sea in their wooden sailboats or 30-foot lighters. However, you’ll also find the very same moored in Haulover Creek next to Swing Bridge in Belize City, a stopover point to both grab supplies and sell their catch of the week. Odds are, they were likely all made in Sarteneja, the largest fishing community and the second-largest village in Belize—best known for its boat builders and free-diving lobster and conch fishers. Although the village is slowly carving a space in tourism as a quiet, off-the-beaten-path experience today, its history remains rooted in reliance on the resources of the Belize Barrier Reef and providing artisan skills from local shipwrights. 

To appreciate the effects of fishing on the marine environment, it’s also important to understand the methods used by local fishing communities—including both the traditional sailboat and its accompanying dories onboard. 

However, Sarteneja wasn’t always synonymous with fishing but rather, farming. When the village was first settled in, the surrounding area held good, fertile farming land, with agriculture forming the main income-earning occupation, mainly from milpa farming. Pigs, poultry, sugar, and fruit produce were regularly transported by sea into Belize City until Hurricane Janet—a Category 5 Hurricane—in 1955 practically flattened, the village of Sarteneja, save for all but two buildings swept away by the tidal surge. 

During recovery, the community had to seek non-agriculture-based incomes, including wood. As a village accessible only by sea, the shift into fishing followed the decline of wood cutting, though fishers needed a vessel to venture out. During the 1960s and 1970s, each boat builder averaged two boats a year in the traditional craft passed from father to son—still practiced today in the workshops of ​​master boat builders, albeit less than a handful. 

With dories stacked high, fisherfolk set out from the northern villages of Sarteneja, Copper Bank, and Chunox to spend up to ten days out at sea in pursuit of their livelihood: conch and lobster. It’s a year-round affair, considering the two seasons overlap: fishers tether and paddle out in a dory each—small 15-20 feet wooden, non-motorized boats—to skin dive patch reefs in a single breath, gaffing individual Spiny Lobsters or harvest Queen Conch by hand. Thanks to a wooden boat-building tradition unique in Belize and all of Central America, artisanal fisherfolk of Northern Belize can always have access to a thriving, abundant sea—the traditional way. 

NB: This time of year, you can see these vessels in action at Sarteneja’s annual Easter Regatta in the Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, which doubles as a protected area for manatees and bird-nesting colonies. Dozens of newly painted sailboats are christened in the Caribbean Sea by racing other local anglers in a local tradition that dates back to the 1950s.