Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Aves, Bonaire & Curacau - Curacao, 9th April 2006.

Stein and I arrived at Caracas airport on 28th February, three hours later than expected, thanks to a plane cancellation from Miami. Would our taxi driver Aries have understood the message that Elisabeth had given to him on the phone from London? He knows not one word of English, neither does Elisabeth know any Spanish, but after a quick lesson from me, had told him we were now arriving at 11 p.m. Anyway, there he was smiling as always, as we shuffled out of the baggage pick-up, and we got on the way to the marina; this time a three hour drive, due to a diversion because of road-works. It turned out the poor man had been waiting for several hours, as he thought Elisabeth had just confirmed what he had already been told!
When we got to the boat in the middle of the night, we could do nothing but get our baggage aboard, see that there was no break-in this time, and crash to bed. White Admiral was looking good the next morning, newly washed and polished at no cost, as part of the compensation for the break-in a few months ago. We felt a bit jet-lagged, but got to work getting her ready for the water, and she was lifted in the next day. We were joined by Robert another day later. He has been working in Venezuela for a few months, doing web-design for tour operators, but had now decided to move on, and we provided a pleasant (and cheap) way of doing so.

Islas de Aves.
As soon as we had stocked up at the reasonably priced Flamingo supermarket in Higuerote, and got a clearance for the Aves islands from the port captain (who couldn’t clear us out of the country as there is no customs at this port), we headed for the most westerly of the Los Roques islands, Cayo de Agua, a favourite from our last sail in October. Before we left, we took a dinghy trip in the dusk to a nearby mangrove lagoon, to introduce Robert to the flocks of herons, green parrots and red ibis flying in for the night in huge numbers, an amazing sight. Then we left at 9 p.m., gliding out into a surprisingly quiet night. This is the height of the trade-wind season, and the winds are usually brisk, but we had to motor-sail the first half of the night, before the breeze picked up and gave us a gentle sail to our destination.
Cayo de Agua is the perfect tropical paradise, with its azure water and white sand, and we had a lovely day walking, snorkelling and swimming. The boys tried the fishing line with no luck (spear-fishing is forbidden in this national park), but a friendly Venezuelan in another yacht saved the day by presenting us with four mackerel type fish just as I was wondering what I would make for dinner!
The Islas de Aves are two large atolls with several smaller islets, lying between Los Roques and Bonaire. The Easterly of the two is about thirty nautical miles from Cayo de Agua, this was a pleasant day sail, running with two genoas before a light breeze. We anchored on the north side of the most southerly island, with dense mangroves, and incredible amounts of birds sitting on the branches. We were so fascinated that we forgot to take in our fishing line as we arrived; it got entwined in one of the propellers, but fortunately no damage done. (Every sailor needs a bit of luck!) At dusk we took the dinghy and quietly rowed along the banks, watching the birds, including red footed boobies, which we have otherwise only seen in Galapagos.
The three days at this lovely anchorage were very sociable ones, first with Danish Anne and Toke on “Rumkath”, a couple about our age who spend three months a year in the Caribbean, and the rest at home in Denmark. We particularly enjoyed the Danish rye bread which Anne kindly baked for us! Then we met Jamie from USA, a friendly, sporty Texan girl sailing on her sister and brother-in-law’s catamaran; “Blue Marlin”. She is a few years older than Robert, but enjoyed chatting and drinking beer with him, and went a long walk on the island with us, including a rather scary climb up the light-house for a great view! The last yacht here was “Iron Bark II”, a steel boat (Nick Skeats Wylo II design) with Australian/English couple Trevor and Annie, aboard. They are impressive sailors who have spent a winter season in Greenland, iced up for ten months, totally without communication to any other living soul! Trevor has also done the same on his own a few years ago in the Antarctic... I told Stein not to get any ideas, I love sailing only in the warm tropics. But one of the great joys of sailing is never knowing who one is going to meet on the boat next door…
Spear-fishing is allowed on these islands, so Stein and Robert were able to catch a few, mainly parrot fish. The local fishermen were also eager to trade with us; we got three lobsters (langouste type) for some litres of diesel and drinking-water, and more fish for Paracetamol tablets (painkillers), skin cream and a few Cokes! Stein found time for some wood-work, finally finishing off a frame for the galley-window which has been waiting for completion for a couple of years since we replaced this large, originally sliding window with a proper hatch. Robert did some wind-surfing and pc-work, and I became a little better at Sudoku and Spanish.
On 10th March it was time to move on from Barlovento (the windward atoll) to Sotavento (the leeward one); a short four hour sail in a moderate easterly breeze. Our first attempt at anchoring between two small islets was not successful; when Stein inspected the anchor it was lying on coarse coral and no proper sand nearby. We moved to another island, Curricai, where we anchored on the sandy shelf on the lee side. Curricai is a beautiful little island with sandy beach right round, one large palm tree, many small recently planted palms and good snorkelling all around. The next day we decided to take a trip out to the easterly reef about two nautical miles across the lagoon, picking our way through the coral heads and anchoring on a sandy ledge just behind the breakers on the outside reef. It felt rather scary to be anchored away from any land, but as there was good holding, we felt we could safely spend the night there. Here the snorkelling was even better, with all kinds of colourful reef fish, and Stein harpooned a large midnight blue parrot fish as soon as he went in with the spear-gun. We motored back the next day to the first anchorage, using the noon sun to pick out the reefs easily.

We left for Bonaire, one of the Dutch Antilles, on 13th March just as dawn was lightening the eastern sky. There was now a more typical fresh, easterly trade wind and we were soon doing 7-8 knots with the two genoas poled out to each side. It was only 11 a.m. when we arrived at the south end of Bonaire, here a huge fish caught the line, probably a marlin, made one enormous leap and took off with hook and most of the line… Disappointing, to say the least, but then we had a fast and pleasant sail the last few miles up the west coast in flat sea to the main town, Kralendijk. Bonaire is very clean and environmentally conscious, as its main industry is tourism and diving, so visiting yachts are not allowed to use anchors, but must use one of the many buoys which are set out for the purpose. We had a stressful last few minutes as our steering wire slipped out of place, and we had to get out an emergency tiller before we picked up one of the buoys. Part of cruising is that there is always something to be repaired, so I am thankful to have a handyman like Stein aboard! At Immigration I was feeling a little nervous, as the paper from our last port in Venezuela was not really for sailing to another country, but just to Aves. As we were waiting, the people in front of us were having an argument with the immigration official because they had not the right papers. Our turn came; the officer looked at our clearance paper, and to my amazement smiled and said this is what the people ahead of us should have had!
Bonaire is a charming island with pastel coloured houses in the main town, the population is only about 11.000, and most people speak four languages, their own patois Papamiento as well as Dutch, English and Spanish!
Stein and Robert were most interested in the diving, and had soon met up with another diving enthusiast on the next boat, Colonel Richard Christiansen, just known as Chris, a Vietnam veteran who had lived dangerously as a helicopter machine gunner and later a pilot during the war, getting shot down seven times! But he seemed a gentle and charming man who happily lent Robert a set of diving equipment and joined Robert and Stein to see part of the fantastic reef which goes all round the island. It was just a matter of diving down behind the boats!
The northern part of the island is a national park with strange, dry scenery, brackish lakes with lots of pink flamingos and the highest point of the island; Subi Brandaris. We decided to hire bikes, along with Jamie, to spend a day cycling north to the park (15 km) and then through its Short Route (24 km). The tracks in the park are very rough, and my bike punctured shortly after arriving there, but first with the help of a Dutch and then an American couple in pick-up trucks I got the bike transported round the park so that I could do the climbing with the others. It was quite a hard climb up to the top, but it was worth it both for the spectacular views and the wild-life, with indigenous yellow-shouldered parrots and big iguanas. The kind Americans took me right back to the bike-hire shop, and we had a pleasant lunch on board with them the next day along with Jamie and Chris (whose boat is named “Colonels Lady”!).
Robert’s good friend Anders Jacob decided to take a couple of weeks off his psychology studies in Oslo, and arrived on 21st March. By this time Robert had just got to know another yacht, “Durabo” from Texas. Aboard were two pretty, extrovert girls; Casey and Sarah, both in their early twenties. So when Anders arrived it was all go! The four of them had a great time together, and were inseparable for the next two weeks. Robert got them all to do the cycle trip in the national park again, including the hike up the mountain, this time with me in a following, hired truck to pick up those who found it too hard going. Robert and Stein managed the whole 34 kilometre trip (the Long Route, this time) on the rough tracks; the others made a brave effort but were glad to be picked up when they were exhausted. Otherwise they went diving, wind-surfing, kayaking and enjoying the night life of the island, and we only saw them for an occasional meal, and for a day-trip to Petit Bonaire; a small island just west of the main one, with a lovely beach for snorkelling and more spectacular diving.
Casey and Sarah were sailing with Casey’s laid back father Doug and his Brazilian girlfriend Gina. Doug was known by everybody, including Robert and Anders, only as “Papa”. This man seemed completely unharassable. Skipping on deck, loud music, crowds at every meal, youngsters coming and going at all hours; no problem! The only situation that could get him slightly perturbed was finding no beer in the fridge… (The Golden Cruisers’ Law in the Tropics: If you remove the final cold beer from the fridge, replace it with a six-pack!)

When the time came to move to Curacao, we were back to being just two aboard, as the boys were invited to do the sail on Durabo, and for some reason preferred the company of pretty girls to Stein and me… We left at 7 a.m. on 27th March, a day after Durabo. This was a nice, gentle sail in the faithful easterly trade wind, and about mid-day we arrived at Petit Curacao, a small, flat and dry island a few miles south of the main island. Here we found Durabo anchored on the lee side, and we dropped our hook beside them. The island boasts a broken down, but spectacular lighthouse and a couple of wrecks on the eastern reef, otherwise it is arid and flat with low, scrubby vegetation, but nice white beaches. After a couple of hours with walking and swimming, we sailed the last 15 nautical miles together to Curacao. We were pleased to see our good down-wind sailing-ability with the poled genoas, while Durabo had to tack downwind to fill their main and jib. We both anchored near Sarifundy’s Marina in Spanish Waters, a deep natural harbour, one of the most sheltered anchorages in the Caribbean.
Curacao is a much bigger island than Bonaire, with a population of about 150.000, and is an industrial society with one of the biggest oil refineries in the western hemisphere, having a lot of business with Venezuela, and the supermarkets even have Castello cheese, balsamic vinegar and pine seeds! Wilhelmstad is a pleasant city, again with multicoloured houses along the water-fronts and the famous Floating Market where small boats from Venezuela sell all sorts of fresh fruit, fish and vegetables.
Curacau turned out to be quite bureaucratic, making us check-in at both Customs and Immigration, then having to also get permission from the Harbour Office for any other anchorage one wants to visit outside Spanish Waters. But everything was totally free, no anchoring charge either, while in Bonaire one has to pay US$ 10 per day (18 Guilders) for the use of a mooring.
My brother Jim, who lives in Oakville near Toronto, Canada arrived the next evening to spend a week with us. I thought it would be busy on board with him and the young boys, but it worked out fine that the boys were occupied with the girls, so we could look after Jim. We hired a car for the first two days, first to meet him at the airport, and have a drive round the island. The island proved to be bigger than we thought, and the road signs totally inadequate, so we gave Jim a fright at the airport, by arriving late after losing our way! Things soon improved though, and the drive round the island the following day was pleasant, finding some charming bays along the west coast to swim and drink fruit punches, feeling like real tourists! A couple of days later we decided to see more of the island by sailing, and we motored first to Fuikbaai, a sheltered inlet with a partly abandoned phosphate mining area just beside it, not very beautiful, but we had an interesting walk around the mining area. It was also a nice peaceful bay apart from a visit from the Coast Guard at 3 a.m. who not too politely told us to put on our anchor light! We sailed 20 n. miles up the coast the following day, to a pretty sandy bay called Porto Marie. Durabo with the boys arrived the day after. This is a good area for walking, as it is in a private plantation, mostly now used for hiking and bird-watching. We managed to see parrots, orioles (the national yellow and black birds), yellow warblers, doves and mocking birds. In Fuikbaai we had also seen a large hawk or small eagle.
The Coast Guard visited us each of the three days we were here, though were a bit friendlier than the first lot. Apparently there is a big problem of drugs and illegal immigrants passing through the ABC-islands from Colombia and Venezuela, which is why the Coast Guard is so active.
Jim was due to get his plane back to Toronto on 3rd April. We had to leave the boat at 5.30 a.m., walk 3 kilometres to the plantation gates where we were met by a taxi. We saw him off at the airport, and then spent some time shopping in town, before getting a bus back to Porto Marie.
It didn’t surprise us when we heard that the boys now wanted to sail to Aruba with Durabo, and we waved goodbye to them the same evening. Anders would be going back to Norway from there a couple of days later, and Robert will be coming home soon too, either from Aruba or from Cartagena in Colombia – we think…
Stein and I are now enjoying the peace of being on our own again these last few days. We motored back to Spanish Water four days go, and are now getting White Admiral ready for storage. There is always time for some socialising though, and we have met a couple from New Zealand, Joan and Sandy Mill aged 70 and 74, who sailed with their children five years before we did in the 1970’s. They are now sailing slowly round the world in “Zeferin”, having left in 1999. So it gives us hope that we are not yet too old for this game! And to illustrate again how small the World is, when I asked if they knew Dr Eric Horne, who was in my medical class at Glasgow and had gone to work in New Zealand, Sandy replied that Eric is his GP in Auckland!
Tomorrow White Admiral is being lifted on land for storage in Wilhelmstad, and two days later we leave for home, visiting Elisabeth and Martin and families en route, then Stein’s mum Eli in Sandefjord, before getting back to Kristiansand. After Easter we will both be back at work for the summer.
So that is all for this time round, we will be back here in the middle of September. These Dutch-Caribbean islands are definitely worth one more visit!
Join us then!

11 Apr 2006 by Stein & Diana

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