Wednesday, 9 March 2005

Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela, Sunday March 6th, 2005

Diana and I arrived back at Puerto la Cruz this morning. We have just finished lunch of home baked, brown bread eaten with a selection of fruit and salad bought from a street stall close to the marina entrance. Today being - domingo – Sunday – does not seem to prevent these small businesses from operating. After a sailing trip of two weeks we had run out of just about everything fresh, so bananas, tomatoes and lettuce were real luxuries!
The island we visited was Isla la Tortuga, about 60 n.miles (110 km) NW of here. It is a low, flat, barren island of jagged, coral rocks. Bush and cacti dominate the dry landscape inland, while the coast is blessed with miles of white beaches, suitably interrupted here and there by green mangroves and black cliffs. The main part of the island is large, about 25 x 10 km. Off the NW coast there are also three small groups of islets and reefs popular with yachts and fishermen. There are no permanent inhabitants on the island, but several collection of shacks where fishermen from Margarita or Cumaná live for periods of 3-4 months at a time. Occasionally boys join their fathers during school holidays, but we never met any of their mothers. Without stores, schools or medical service these islands are very much a man’s world – the Coral Outbacks of Venezuela! Having said that, in the biggest fishing community off Punta Delgada in the NE there are some very nicely kept concrete houses, including a small posada (guest house) with a diesel generator and a desalination unit (making drinking water from the sea). Their main customers are rich owners of large motor yachts or small aeroplanes from Caracas, most of them visiting at week-ends. The airstrip is a naturally flat area behind the beach.
We first arrived in Tortuga on Sunday morning, 20th February. The close-hauled, overnight sail up was a lot harder than the return this morning; the trade winds were brisk and the Caribbean Sea quite rough. As we approached the shallow entrance to Laguna el Carenero on the SE coast at first light, we also discovered that the echo sounder had stopped working! We depend a lot on this navigational aid for safe sailing, but outside the entrance the water was wonderfully clear and calm so we eye-balled our way in slowly and dropped anchor - in what turned out to be only 1½ m! Still, it is ½ m more than we need, and the bottom was flat sand with patches of sea-grass, so we still had a margin of safety… Shortly after the anchor was down six men in a small boat approached us. They were coming in from a night of fishing with lights and had developed a leak in the wooden transom – did we have glue? So a couple of useful items changed hands, and we ended up with fresh fish and small calamares (squid) – a favourite. Also they indicated the best passage into the large lagoon. But to be on the safe side we got out an unused lead and line - the time-honoured way of measuring the depth manually. So with Diana at the wheel I swung the lead repeatedly in the bows, calling out the depths and imagining what it must have been like for the ancient explorers...
Well inside we had 3 – 4 m below the keel and were tucked into the most beautiful and safest hurricane-hole imaginable. During the two days spent here we started our Sahara training in earnest.

Return to White Admiral

But first a quick re-cap on events since Atlanta, USA, where we got stuck for a day due to flight problems. We eventually landed in Caracas on Wednesday, 16th, too late for a local plane to Barcelona, the nearest airport to our marina. So we spent the night at Posada Hidalgo, a small hotel we have stayed at twice before. The taxi that took us from the airport wanted double the usual fare due to “mud-slides and road problems”, he said. Fortunately, this was a great exaggeration, the torrential rains and muddy floods had happened two weeks earlier without any local casualties and by now most of the mud was cleared away. But for residents in the area it was a frightening reminder of the huge land slides in the same area in 1999 when 50.000 people died. Most of these were residents of shanty towns clustering the hillsides east of Caracas.
Before going to bed Diana and I enjoyed a short walk in the warm and starry night. The Caribbean sea was hitting the shore only a few meters from the road, a new moon was lying like a small boat above the silhouettes of the coconut trees. What a contrast to Norway and the skiing at Haglebu only a few days ago. We may have had a delay en route, a slight nuisance, but we were safely back in Venezuela, we were healthy and privileged in countless ways; not the unfortunate residents of an impoverished shanty settlement on steep and unstable ground…
Finally, Thursday, in the early afternoon we arrived at PMO Marina and could give White Admiral a friendly pat. She was covered in a thin layer of brown dust, but otherwise fine, the storage here being a lot kinder to the boat than the humid, rain-drenched Chaguaramas in Trinidad. No scrubbing mould and algae this time. Robert’s friend Nathalia joined us for dinner the same evening, good for her English and our Spanish, otherwise it was hard work till we were safely afloat Friday afternoon. Sails and lose rigging were then quickly put back in place. Diana made several taxi-trips to the supermarkets at Exito and Plaza Major, we filled up with fresh water, and off we went at sunset on Saturday.

Tortuga Walks – Sahara Preparations

It was John Peck, one of the rowers in last year’s Atlantic Rowing Regatta, who first told us of the Sahara Marathon - also known as Marathon des Sables. It is held yearly in April and described as one of the toughest foot races in the World. 240 km is covered in 6 races of 25-80 km length over one week. The terrain varies from hard stones to soft sand dunes, afternoon temperatures in the 40’s is the rule while the nights are cold. Fatigue, dehydration, sunburns, blisters and other and foot problems are common, and dreaded sand storms always a possibility. Apart from 9 daily litres of water for each competitor and a tarpaulin to sleep under, you must carry your own bedding, clothes, food and everything else needed for the week. Amazingly enough this self-punishing event, now in its 20th year, is very popular and the numbers participating are limited to 600. Of these about 10% give up or are disqualified for various reasons. There are international athletes who run the entire race, but Diana and I are among the majority who will be very happy just to walk (or crawl!) as long as we complete. The start is in SW Morocco, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, 10th April.
Tropical Tortuga island with its almost endless miles of sandy beaches was a perfect spot to start our final 6 weeks of preparation, and by the time we left Caya Heradura yesterday, the last of four anchorages, we had reached sessions of 10 hours walking and learned a lot about foot care and sun protection, water and food requirements. And I suppose, also that we are slightly crazy! Especially when we spent the day on little Heradura walking from dawn to dusk with the local fishermen and a few beach tourists encouraging us or shaking their heads in bemused wonder. Each round took 1¼ hour, so we did 8 rounds with 3 short stops, 10 ½ hours altogether.
There are other yachts that visit Tortuga and on the NE quite a few private planes come during weekends, but never once in all our walks on the island did we meet other wanderers, only the occasional fisherman. Instead we saw a lot of lizards and birds such as pelicans, gannets, terns, gulls, sand pipers and frigate birds, and in the mangroves also colourful finches and parakeets, herons and the occasional osprey (fishing eagle). And we saw a lot of cacti! Including some of the dreaded, bulbar type we know from Isla Coche, with thorns tough enough to penetrate thick soles. And we saw a lot of sand and surf, and – unfortunately - a lot of garbage. Especially on the windward side of Tortuga are heaps of plastic rubbish that has travelled across the sea, presumably from the South American mainland and the other islands further east. The fishermen do clear this away close to their shacks, but in addition the military do rounds of cleaning the worst affected islands. According to our friend Moncho at Punta Delgada in the NE a cleaning operation is planned this spring.
Punta Delgada is where we spent the longest time; 8 days. “Moncho”s real name is José Ramon, he is from Margarita, but works as a very laid back and relaxed tour operator for an Italian Company. He has a very simple posada of 6 beds and a large table for eating outside. He also has a radio telephone and a TV powered by battery and solar cells, both being popular with the local fishermen. During our stay he never had any overnight visitors, but he had the occasional dinner guests from visiting yachts like us. He prepares lobster or fish over open fire at sunset, will provide plates and cutlery, but you have to bring anything else you want for the dinner yourself. Twice we were his guests, the lobsters we were allowed to pay for, but the fish eaten at his table and twice aboard from fish he gave us, we exchanged for items he needed instead.

Drama at Punta Delgada

The last day of February was as beautiful as usual. I was up at dawn at 6.30 stretching in the cockpit when I discovered to my horror a yacht on the reef on the other side of the sand spit. The surf was pounding the rocking boat and the situation looked grim. When we rowed out to them shortly afterwards, others had already arrived to help. It was a large Spanish yacht, a modern ketch with a family of three aboard. They had sailed from Puerto la Cruz the day before and had tried to enter the anchorage in the dark of a moonless night, made a serious misjudgement and hit the reef at midnight. Possibly their electronic charts can be blamed, they are often wrong by 100 m or more. As we all know in theory, it is bad seaman ship to trust only one navigational aid…
A large fishing boat and a Coast Guard boat from the main land repeatedly tried to pull the yacht free during the day, but it has a modern, winged steel keel that got thoroughly stuck in the rocks even when the boat was heeled well over. Finally the hull was damaged and leaking and further rescue had to be abandoned. At least they were insured and nobody was injured. So from quiet, sleepy days of fishing and feeding his pet doves and entertaining the occasional yachtie, Moncho had a flurry of activities with catering and operating his radio telephone. After we left for our next anchorages at Los Palanquinos and Cayo Herradura we heard that agents had been flown in from Caracas to verify the total loss and rescue any valuables aboard, now officially the belongings of the insurance company.

20 years ago the islands were teeming with fish, lobsters, turtles and giant conchs (sea snails), not so any more. These islands are not part of the nature reserves, but hopefully some degree of regulation will be in place soon, before the islands end up like the over-fished Gulfo de Cariaco further east. But at the reef of Los Palanquinos, the fish are still abundant among the corals and spear fishing is still permitted, and I still mastered the way we usually secured dinner on Red Admiral.

After stocking up and collecting our friend Jessica Knight at Barcelona airport tomorrow we return to Tortuga for another two weeks. Moncho has recently acquired a DVD player, so on the shopping list is a few action films for him to entertain his amigos with in the evenings. That is, unless more yachts hit the reef and provide more live action – but we shall make doubly sure that White Admiral is not among them!

09 Mar 2005 by Stein & Diana

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