Friday, 30 March 2012

Bonaire – the B in the ABC’s ….. March 2012

 2012 ABC's-1
15 – 24 March 2012P3210003
Time to leave the Venezuelan Islands and head ever westward once again, next stop Bonaire.  Another brisk downwind sail in 25 knots of wind and seas around 2 metres, these conditions seem to be the norm these days.  Once we came around the bottom of Bonaire we were into flat water, hard on the wind with just the head sail up, heeled over and doing over 8 knots, Skipper was having so much fun and I was remembering how much I disliked being heeled over, and this was without the main!!  The heavens opened for free Caribbean boat wash on our final approach, we rolled in the headsail and headed for the mooring buoys off Kralendijk,  Bonaire’s main town.

You can not anchor in any of Bonaire’s waters, it is all a marine park.  Diving holidays are the main source of income on the island and the preservation of the underwater life is taken very seriously.  We had 9 nights tied up on the mooring buoy ($10US a night), tropical fish both big and small lived under the boat and in the coral patches just metres from shore.P3210009  It is a snorkelers and divers paradise, just being able to walk out from shore into waters teaming with fish and coral is wonderful.  

We found the best snorkelling on the small island of Klein Bonaire, we did dinghy excursions over there and explored the shallow waters close to shore where we could see all the fish up close, then out to the deeper waters by the drop offs where land fell away into dark depths.  The fish life was exceptional, never before have we seen so many big fat parrotfish.  The water still wasn’t that warm if you wanted to stay in for any length of time so our wetsuits came out of retirement, they also protected us from a few little biteys, which we think were tiny jellyfish. 

P3180001The stronger winds we had experienced in the Venezuelan Islands eased while we were in Bonaire, so pleasant to have around 15 knots and peaceful nights, (except for an invasion of flying fish one night which sure got our attention)  the seasons should start to change soon bring the beginning of more favourable conditions.  There was quite a  lot of cloud cover around so we tried to time our snorkelling excursions for when the skies were clear, it makes such a difference to the underwater colours if the sun is out and shining through, it wasn’t always possible but we did our best and were rewarded with more vivid colours. 

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We hired a car with David and Brenda on Bandit  for a day and explored the rest of the island. First we followed the coast up to the northern part which is all National Park, inland was dry scrubland interspersed with cacti, home to many lizards, some of which were too busy lying in the sun to take any notice of approaching cars,P3210017 its a good thing there is not much traffic!  The National Park had a small interesting museum showing the history of Bonaire, and a reconstructed skeleton of a whale that was recently impaled on the bow of a cruise ship!  There are some hiking trails through the park but the temperature is heating up and there wasn’t much shade so we gave hiking a miss. 

We moved on down to Rincon, the first area to be settled on the island as it was inland and away from the pirates.   It seems once the threat of being attacked by pirates passed its inhabitants moved onto greener pastures, there is not much in Rincon these days, not even a cafe for our much needed caffeine hit.  So it was a detour back through Kralendijk before exploring the bottom of the island.  I should add that Bonaire is a small island.  P3210008
The south is very flat and we found where all the tourists go when they are not diving or snorkelling – they are enjoying the waters in and around Lac Bay, a world famous windsurfing destination.  The sandy beach and lagoon area are protected by an outer reef, the water is shallow and flat and the wind whistles through.  Lining the beach were a few shacky bars,  windsurfing schools and hire shops.  Everyone seemed to be chilling out and having a good time. P3210016

There are salt flats down the east coast, the salt is still collected and exported.  The colours were great, pastel pink flats, hazy blue skies and snow white pointy piles of salt.  Pink flamingos wade nearby, not as many as we had hoped but great to see them standing proudly.

The last “attraction” were the freshly painted Slave Huts.  They look rather cute painted in bright white or terracotta, the grey sea and stormy sky as a backdrop, but they show a dark side of Bonaire’s past when slaves were kept here to work in the salt flats.  Up to 26 slaves were housed in these tiny structures, if you look at the photo at the top with us standing next to one you will see that they are not very big.  

Bonaire was a great stop, the moorings handy to the small town, most things within walking distance.  It had a touch of Holland to it, but not a very pronounced one yet it didn’t really feel Caribbean either, it is a unique destination.  It was time to move ever westward, the forecast promised under 2 metre seas and 15 knots of wind for our next day sail to Curacao, now wouldn’t that be nice.

For our Cruising and Tourist info on Bonaire on our Balvenies Cruising Info blog click here 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Las Aves – Another stunner ….. March 2012

12 – 15 March 2012is it a baby panda, monkey or booby bird?

More downwind sailing in stiff winds saw us cover the 30 miles from Los Roques to Ave de Barlovento in Las Aves in no time at all, and how nice for it to be a day sail instead of an overnighter.  Once we came around the bottom of the island, skipper climbed aloft to identify the shallow and reefy areas before we could weave our way into an almost wind free anchorage tucked behind mangroves.  Now the cruising guide warns of getting too close to the mangroves as thousands of red footed booby birds live here…..and they are not wrong. There were indeed thousands of these noisy birds everywhere!, and yes, the little ball of fluffy white with the big black eyes in the photo is a baby booby bird…. isn’t it just so cute.  

We dropped the dinghy, organised our happy hour drinks and went off for a dinghy drift into a mangrove lined lagoon just by the anchorage. P3120051 The bird life was quite outstanding, thousands and thousands of booby birds, hundreds of pelicans, and many more species which we are unfamiliar with.  It was a tweeters paradise and never before have we seen trees so laden with nesting birds.  It appeared to be quite territorial as there was a fair amount of squabbling and squawking going on from time to time if someone happened to land on the wrong perch. 

Some mangrove trees were much more popular than others looking very much like apartment blocks with birds perched on every level.  The cacophony of “birdsong” was quite something else, it may well have been karaoke night and we hadn’t been told!!Bird spotting at Las Aves  Every now and then we saw smaller birds darting in and out of the trees, or were they the infamous “vampire bats” that Venezuela is known for that sneak aboard while you are sleeping and draw blood from between your toes!!!  These bats, along with the impossible check in regulations put so many people off stopping in these islands, such a shame.

Next morning, again in company with Bandit we made our way up through the inside of the reef, most of the water was a clear dark blue, but as we reached the northeast corner it was time for more reef spotting, this time we went for the easier option and followed Bandit in and we both managed to find sandy spots to anchor in under 10 metres.  The Caribbean Sea rolled by around 150 metres to the north of us, but we sat in calm water behind 100 metres of reef which gave us great protection from the ocean swell but no respite from the 20 to 25 knot trade winds we had become accustomed to over recent weeks. I have to say we felt very exposed in this anchorage but we were now within one mile of the location of Chinook Wind, a fellow kiwi yacht that was now abandoned and sitting high and dry on the outer reef.    Bandit with Chinook Wind in the distance

We dropped our dinghies and went together to visit her,  she sat alone on the reef, looking like she had been there 2 years, not just 2 weeks.  It was a very sombre excursion, our previous blog update tells much more about it.

The wind eased early afternoon to around 18 knots, it’s surprising how your threshold changes.  Once I would have thought 18 knots was a howling gale if we had to endure it at anchor, now it almost seems calm.  Lulled into this false feeling of calmness we decided  to make the most of our reef anchorage and took to the water.  The snorkelling was excellent, the clearest water we had experienced,Ave de Sotovento the coral was good but still lacking bright colours and there was a reasonable selection of fish. 

We ended the day with dinner on Bandit and a round of 500, pink against blue.  That blue team just does not have what it takes, its 2 – 0 to the pinks!!

We left Ave de Barlovento quite early next morning, it felt rather spooky anchored out there with the nearest land about 4 miles away.  Another sporty downwind sail took us westward 18 miles to the other Aves island group, Aves de Sotovento. We gave the northern tip of the reef a very wide clearance before turning south into the lee.  Flat water once again, wind in front of the beam and water colours so beautiful you really find it hard to believe they are real.     We headed towards Isla Curricai iced with a long sandy beach, the island no more than 5 feet above sea level, a few small coconut palms and the skeleton of a fishermen's hut  were the backdrop,  just another stunner.  P3140016

We snorkelled the lagoon side of  the island.  For the first time since probably Turkey the water was so warm I could have stayed in for hours, it was just magic.  The snorkelling was ok, but as that was the windward side it was quite churned up and visibility was poor, but the warm water was just great, can’t have everything.  This was to be our last deserted island paradise for a while, we enjoyed another sundowners ashore but the clouds on the horizon spoilt the sunset, we are desperately trying for the perfect sunset silhouette photo!!.  The jury was out on whether we would stay another day, we had “sailed under the radar” now in Venezuela for 12 nights and we knew there was a coastguard station on a small island south of us, maybe it was time to be very grateful for what we had experienced and move on.
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Our decision was made easier next morning, it was a gloomy day, the last of the fresh produce had been eaten for dinner, the remains of the fruit consumed at breakfast, Bonaire and civilisation were just 43 miles away.  It was anchors up and we pointed our bows westward yet again.

Venezuela had been great and we were very pleased we had explored what we could.
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Monday, 19 March 2012

Pilgrimage to Chinook Wind ….. March 2012

13 March 2012Celebrating the Rugby World Cup victory with Chinook Wind

A little over two weeks ago we waved a cheery farewell to fellow kiwi cruisers Dick and Ann Oliver on Chinook Wind as they set sail from Prickly Bay, Grenada – heading west towards Panama, the Pacific and finally to New Zealand. They had just spent a few weeks on the hardstand in Grenada, working long days on their boat. Chinook Wind was looking great and ready for her journey to New Zealand.

We first met Dick and Ann this season in Rabat, Morocco.  We learnt they had bought Chinook Wind in America, sailed across the Northern Atlantic to the Azores, onto Portugal then Spain, where they had turned around to start heading for home.  We have crossed paths with them many times this season, including a great time in Graciosa in the Canary Islands.  We left Las Palmas on the same day starting our Atlantic Crossing and shared some rather nasty seas and weather with them down to the Cape Verde Islands.  We didn’t catch up with them again until Grenada.

Joy, Daphne, Mark, Ann, Dick, Chris, Irene, Tony and Jack at Graciosa

It was with much horror and disbelief when we listened to our morning cruisers net a fortnight ago at 9am and heard Dick call in under “Priority Traffic”.  We have a few sections on our Single Side Band Radio net - Priority Traffic, Boats Under Way, Boats Anywhere then Info.   We have around 20 yachts that participate on a regular basis, it’s a great way for us all to keep in touch and to know who is where.  For those of us that have volunteered as ‘net controllers’ and run the net one day a week, it is always a huge relief when nothing is heard under that section. 

Alan on fellow kiwi boat Tuatara takes Tuesdays net and received Dicks distress call.  Dick reported quite calmly that they had hit a reef around 60 miles east of Bonaire at 11pm Monday night, the boat was high and dry and intact, they were uninjured and for the time being reasonably safe.  They had put out Mayday Calls but had received no response so then had deployed their EPRIB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon).  This distress beacon was registered and the rescue process was finally put into place.  Venezuelan Coastguard made radio contact with Chinook Wind  early morning and advised help was on its way to them at Ave de Barloventa, within Las Aves Island Group, part of Venezuela. P3130119

Another one of our net controllers, Rob off Ventana who speaks fluent Spanish offered to call Venezuelan Coastguard via satphone for an update on the rescue and quickly confirmed that it was underway and help should be there by 11am.  We later heard a Swedish yacht assisted in the rescue,  Dick and Ann could basically only take with them what they could swim to safety with.  They were taken to mainland Venezuela by Coastguard.  (A side note to this is that this was the same Swedish yacht that was then refused a park permit in Los Roques!)

Today, two weeks after that fateful day, Balvenie in company with fellow kiwis David and Brenda on Bandit slowly made our way up the inside of Ave de Barlovento reef and found a sandy spot in which to anchor.  We covered the final distance to Chinook Wind by dinghy but still could not get right to the boat.  We anchored the dinghies and swam the remainding 100 metres across the shallow reef through the coral heads to the wreck.  P3130121 She is a very sad sight, lying on her side, stripped of almost everything, inside and out.  I imagine that during the next lull in the winds all remaining hardware will also be removed. It was an emotional few minutes we spent with her alone in this isolated location. The hull will lie there at the mercy of the seas, a very sobering sight to all long distance cruisers and especially to those of us that pass this way.

Dick and Ann had flights arranged by the British Embassy to San Francisco and have been staying with their daughter there. They are both well, we are thinking of them and we send our love to them both.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Under the Radar in Los Roques ….. March 2012

P3140023 06 - 12 March 20122012 Venezuelan Islands-2
Our second overnight sail saw us move on another 130 miles westward from Blanquilla to Los Roques.  Still in company with Bandit and both flying the same sail plan for the journey, our speeds were very evenly matched and we were within close sight of each other all night long.  The winds were still up around 20 – 25 knots but the seas slightly calmer until we closed in on “The Rocks”. Big chunks of land in the middle of all this ocean always stir things up somewhat.  We opted out of attempting either of the two narrow reef passage entrances into the lagoon, definitely not a game to play going downwind with big following seas. We settled for the slightly further but much more sensible option of going around the top of the main island of Gran Roque. Once we were in the lee of the island the seas flattened but the winds accelerated….. 30 knots plus in front of the beam – time for more salt water over the boat.  But it was a short sail to the main township where we found a sandy spot in very shallow water and dropped the hook. Phew !!.Waterfront at Gran Roque, Los Roques

We had heard and read of several versions of just how to deal with visiting Venezuela’s offshore islands.  Unfortunately they do not offer check in facilities at any of the island groups we were planning to visit so legally we could only stay one night to rest, fly our quarantine flag, then leave.  The other option was to sail the extra 80 odd miles to the Venezuelan mainland to check in and then sail back to check out, not such an appealing option as mainland Venezuelan waters have a reputation for being somewhat lawless and unsafe.P3080001

However we wanted to explore this reef and island paradise for as long as we could and had heard that we may be able to get a park permit for around US$120.00 for 5 nights or 14 nights depending on what mood they were in,  even if we hadn’t checked into Venezuela.  We were prepared to give it a go and see what they gave us.  Then Bandit swung by a Swedish yacht anchored next to them who had just been ashore and were quoted US$900 for a 5 night pass, when they tried to negotiate they were then told they couldn’t have a pass at all, could stay two nights maximum and could not move from where they were anchored – mmm, time to rethink our plan of action.    A speedy decision was reached and our anchors were up in a jiffy and we were out of there – we were going to risk it and “sail Conch Shells at Crasqui, Los Roques under the radar” for as long as we could.

Our first island stop was Crasqui, the light was good and it was back to eyeball navigation in reefy waters, last done coming up the Red Sea.  The charts were slightly out although gave a fair indication of where we were but there is no substitute for having someone on the bow or better still up the mast to spot the best passage in. The deep blue water clearly identifies the path to follow. The lighter shades indicate shallower water and once these shades become familiar, eyeball navigation is not so daunting.

We stayed only a night in each anchorage in our quest to remain undetected, we moved on to Augustin Island, then up to the wonderful long sandy beach on Sarqui.  Then we found escape from the wind and stayed a couple of nights at what quite possibly was the best anchorage we have ever been to.  Tucked in close to shore and nestled behind the mangroves on Cayo Remanso we had the totally sheltered lagoon of Isla Carenero at our back door, the all round shelter was first rate and the view was awesome, especially for the moments when the sun came out and showed off every colour of blue imaginable for the miles across the lagoon, just priceless.P3110025  The snorkelling was very good also, just off the back of the boat – so easy.  It was certainly a spot you could while away days and days – another time!

We had one more stop at Elbert Cay the furthermost west in the Los Roques Group, we were joined by an American yacht at sunset then they left at dawn, we only saw 5 other yachts in the group during our stay and amazingly they were all headed east.  Just why you would sail to windward in these seas at this time of year totally mystifies me!  The Venezuelans seem to be doing well at keeping foreign yachts away, we are baffled at why.  It would never become over run as it is difficult to get to, why not welcome the few boats that get out and venture this way?  Maybe their policies will change, one day.  Carenero National Park, magic spot

The islands we visited were beautiful, the sands some of the softest and whitest, the water some of the clearest and the colours were just magical, oh and I mustn’t forget the pelicans - marvellous.  Unfortunately we had more than our share of cloudy days and the winds were constant at around 20 knots, day and night.  No matter how stunning paradise is, when the wind just never lets up and the land is only about 5 feet high you do start to feel somewhat windswept and long for peace!   

We managed to stay 6 nights in Los Roques, it was a wonderful place to explore but we were always looking over our shoulder,P3120001 was that boat in the distance a fishing boat or coastguard?  We never felt at ease and would have been much happier had we been able to legally check into the country, purchase our park permit, relax and enjoy this outstanding group of islands and reefs.

Next up we were heading for the reef chain of Las Aves, we were on a pilgrimage to visit our friends Dick and Ann’s yacht Chinook Wind, laying high and dry having been abandoned just a couple of weeks earlier when they struck the reef in the middle of the night. 

We would be proceeding with extra caution.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Heading West to the Venezuelan Islands ….. March 2012

03 – 06 March 2012Getting towed into Blanquilla
First stop the island paradise of Blanquilla.

It was a fast 173 mile overnight sail running before the strong trade winds from Prickly Bay in Grenada. The night watch was busy with ships getting in our way and the occasional rain squalls.  We sailed in company with fellow kiwis Brenda and David on Bandit, they are a Moody 46ft and our boats are quite evenly matched, after all those miles and different sail plans we arrived within minutes of each other.   They however, had a far more normal arrival than us, e.g.  sails down, motor on, into the bay, anchor down and relax.  We went for the slightly more challenging option when Olive the Volvo cut out as I was engaging gear, just after we had rolled in our sails, and she just couldn’t be convinced into starting again.  P3050008  

Well we are a sail boat and although we have never sailed in to anchor before it is a reasonably straightforward manoeuvre – on a good day!  Things didn’t go quite our way, we were restricted to using only the staysail as the headsail pole was still deployed, the designated anchoring area between the coral bommies was directly to windward, it was gusting 30 knots, we had a daisy chain of anchored fishing boats in our way and then the staysail sheet jammed in the block and had to be cut free rendering the staysail unusable too.  David had dropped their dinghy and come to assist but there was just too much wind for him to tow us into shallow enough water.  Eventually one of the fishing boats came to our rescue (after we had sailed by his stern very closely yelling apologises in Spanish!), they took our line, towed us in and went away very happy with a bottle of Mark’s most treasured Mount Gay Rum for their troubles.  
Take only photos, leave only footprints, Blanquilla

Of course our troubles hadn’t gone away, we were safely anchored but Olive still refused to fire.  These symptoms were very reminiscent of last year back in Spain when we needed our only other tow, that time into a marina, the Volvo men arrived, went through everything and eventually the injector pump was removed, sent away and repaired.  Here we were now in the middle of nowhere, a little island north of Venezuela, having just spent two weeks in Grenada where anything could have been fixed – the engine had run every day there for the refrigeration without a hiccup, c’est la vie!!  And so began another chapter in Skippers book of “Maintenance in Exotic Places”.   The engine was bled, filters were changed, injectors were tested, the lift pump changed – the list of checks went on until he had exhausted his repertoire, Olive kept on sounding like she really wanted to start for us but just couldn’t. Happy Hour on Blanquilla

Worked stopped for a wonderful stroll along the beach, the sand some of the softest and finest we have ever squished between our toes.  The water clear, the bay was now empty as the fishing boats had gone to enjoy their rum – just Balvenie, Bandit and the local pelicans dive bombing to catch their supper.  We cracked open the bar, dug holes in the sand and nestled in to watch the sun dip in the west. 

Despite our misfortune it was a wonderful place.  We did however go to bed and discuss our options - try to sail into the anchorages between here and Bonaire but many were reef anchorages - just try the easy ones - sail straight to Bonaire for repairs timing our arrival for when Cuttyhunk and Awaroa had arrived so they could help us in – stay put and apply for Venezuelan residency!!!  friendly fishermen at Blanquilla

Next morning reinforcements arrived, David joined Mark and they went through everything yet again.  David was adamant that Olive was only a machine and him and Mark humans therefore much smarter than an engine, thereby it was just a matter of solving the problem.  An excellent line of thinking and his persistence paid off.  After bypassing much of the fuel line with a direct feed into a fuel container held higher than the engine she kicked over and the sweet sound of Olive purring away filled the air.  Very hesitantly she was turned off, pipes all reconnected and started again, presto – more purring, and long may it continue!!!  A huge thanks to David for his support , expertise and help.P3050015

So we ended up with some time to enjoy the island, the shoreline was magical, a selection of interesting shells littered the northern end -  the sandy beach was up there with the best.  The snorkelling was good, it was probably the best we have seen so far in the Caribbean.although the water is still not that warm and 10 minutes is about my maximum,   We have been previously spoilt with snorkelling in Papua New Guinea which will take a lot to beat and also parts of the Red Sea;  our expectations are high but we will keep looking!  

We enjoyed fresh fish for dinner, our fishermen friends had brought us a fish, we declined the one in the photo and went for a smaller option which just did two nights dinner and one lunch, let’s not be to greedy! 
Life was good again.