Monday, February 27, 2006

Guest entry from Heather

I have just returned home from a wonderful holiday in Bonaire (SW Caribbean) together with Clare (Ellen's middle sister), her husband Mike, and their two little boys Henry(10) and James (7), where we met up with Ellen and Nick.

After a 10 hour flight (I now know the meaning of long haul!) we arrived safely, and on leaving the aeroplane walked into a wall of heat which turned out to be a constant on the island but fortunately was always accompanied by soft breezes and the occasional soft rain shower. We very soon became accustomed to the weather and there was also plenty of shade from towering palm trees. It is important to note that when we left England, it had been snowing and our aeroplane had to be de-iced at Humberside Airport.

Our apartment was ideal,with cool tiled floors, air conditioning, spacious bedrooms and bathrooms. The whole being kept beautifully clean by "Housekeeping" on a daily basis. We also had wonderful sea and sky views. Nearby we had access to two or three pools, all of which sported its own bar and restaurant.

The architecture seemed to me to be a mixture of Dutch colonial with highly coloured gables, and gaily coloured bungalows inevitably surrounded by verandas where one suspects most of family life was conducted. The islanders were unfailingly kind and helpful, waving and calling out cheery greetings as we passed by.

Our days quickly took on a routine, with Ellen meeting us for a swim and lunch whilst Nick carried on with "work in progress" on Kika. He then met us usually arriving by dinghy and ferried us in two trips either to snorkel on the edge of a quiet little beach, or to go to a dive site. Karel's bar was a hot spot on the island and because it was within waving/shouting distance of Kika, Nick was able to watch out for us. Sadly, I never got the hang of clambering out of the dinghy, so I had to be hauled up like a beached whale. Must do better next time! We had two terrific days sailing, on one occasion going out to a really good dive site and the next visiting Klein Bonaire which is a tiny barren island sheltering in the lee of the larger Bonaire. Nick took on the aura of a deity with Henry and James because he really encouraged them to "have a go", steering, navigating, trimming sails and they were in heaven. Ellie provided tasty lunches but made a mental note not to do a hot meal in the middle of the day in temperatures of 100 plus! Sadly I don't swim (that's my next challenge) but the family saw a wonderful assortment of tropical fish including an octopus, and one morning Ellie and Nick went for a quick dive and came across a turtle.

The islanders are very strict about the conservation of their natural resources, namely the coastline, the coral reefs and the turtles to name but a few, and it is paying off because the island is almost totally unspoiled and the fish do not seem to be afraid of divers.

The whole adventure was a huge success, with Ellen and Nick pulling out all the stops as they always do for visitors, making our holiday even more fun. When we left from Flamingo International at 3.30 am leaving Ellie and Nick behind, we came down to earth with a bang but it was well worthwhile.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Los Roques to Bonaire

Enthused by our first taste of reef navigation we wasted no time exploring other anchorages in Los Roques.Perhaps our first experience made us over confident as on the approach to our second anchorage we briefly ran aground on a sandy bottom. With no harm done, we bid a hasty retreat and found an easier anchorage just before sunset. Close to the shore the water appeared to be boiling, instead we found a large school of reasonably sized tasty looking fish on a feeding frenzy. Unfortunately we'd left our fishing gear on Kika, so the evening meal was, as ever, from our recently replenished can supply.

It would easily be possible to spend a month in Los Roques moving to a new anchorage every day, but our brief stay gave us an enticing sample of the kind of navigation and remoteness we're hoping to experience in the Pacific and en route to Panama.

After Los Roques we arrived at the stunning Aves de Barlavento - the island of the birds. An uninhabited, coral atoll with clear water, a huge quantity of bird-life living in the dense mangrove, and stunning sea-life. We'd arrived in paradise which we shared with half a dozen other yachts spread between five anchorages. Above water we inhabited an aviary with pelicans, red-footed and other varieties of boobies filling the air.
Underwater we entered a world full of a huge variety and quantity of the most stunning and vividly coloured fish and coral we'd seen. On our first snorkelling expedition we found ourselves face to face with a large stingray in a narrow coral passage. It remained on the bottom eyeing us suspiciously before stetting off in our direction through the break in the coral. We hastily retreated, marvelling at its effortless motion. Other delights included the poe-faced trunk fish and the huge groupers. After two days in paradise, we departed in the evening for Bonaire. The channel we'd easily picked between the reefs on our entry proved difficult to navigate with the sun in our eyes as we left just before sunset. We were fortunate not to run aground again with the depth under Kika suddenly vanishing to less than 2m as we crossed a shoal patch we'd failed to spot. It was clearly visible when we turned round, but nearly impossible to see with the sun in our eyes. Around the Venezuelan islands we've relied on eye-ball navigation; the positions of the GPS and charts appear to differ, sometimes by as much as 1/4 of mile. Thus with some relief we identified the unlit island to the west of us before sunset, and confirmed our course to Bonaire.
An overnight sail brought us to Bonaire for the long planned rendezvous with Ellen's family. All went according to plan apart from some confusion over flight times meant we missed them at the airport, but found them in their apartment with James and Henry already excited about their first sighting of an iguana.

Spent a great 10 days in their company with snorkelling, a couple of sailing trips to some dive sights, general relaxing and Ellen's first bath since leaving the UK. I've been working on Kika between visits to the family. Bonaire has proved a great place to spend some time with a laid back hassle free atmosphere combined with just enough infrastructure to meet our needs ie a chandlery, bars, supermarkets and for the first time since Lanzarote we're connected to the Internet in the boat via Wifi - no need for perilous dinghy rides with laptop to hang around outside Wifi enabled offices here! The sea-life has been spectacular. Between us we've seen a turtle, an octopus, moray eels, stunning parrot fish, much coral and many other vividly colour reef fish.

The conservation policy of the Bonaire has meant our fishing tackle has been forced to remain idle, but it hasn't stopped us from studying our fishing books and replacing our lost lure. We're confident that we'll be reporting more success soon.

There's a definite sense of purpose about the boats we're meeting now - the destination is Panama and excitement, mixed with some trepidation about the canal passage, is growing.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Cruising Gringos

We were greeted into the bay of Porlamar in Margarita by hundreds of pelicans whose appearance and behaviour are fascinating to watch. They look like a mistake with their giant bills and scraggy plumage but their appearance belies their agility and grace. They skim across the water, almost but never touching the surface, and they are expert divers, always coming up with a meal. They are also quite haughty and ignored us rudely the whole time we were watching them showing no fear or interest in us at all. The bay was busy but we anchored that evening without a problem and went ashore to explore. It quickly became clear that not much English is spoken in Venezuela and Nick's Spench and my Spanglish were soon put to good use. No cashpoint around but we managed to buy a beer with some US dollars.

The next morning we went to see 'Juan' who owns a small shop in the bay and is recommended in our pilot guide as someone who will organise the checking in process with the authorities as it can be a bit of a palaver. He knows everything there is to know about his town and is more than happy to share it, punctuating his statements with lengthy drags on his fags for dramatic effect. It worked: us gringos were mesmerised. His office was full of towers - towers of cds, towers of books, towers of newspapers and journals, towers of fag ends and towers of laundry! Classical music blared out of inside and outside speakers so that it was difficult to hear all the gems of advice he was giving us about our stay in Venezuela, but basically it amounted to: don't trust anyone when it comes to money, change your dollars for bolivars on the black market as you'll get much more, and stock up with fags and booze for bartering, because; 'you can't eatid, drinkid or smokid de dollars my friends'.

Armed with our new knowledge, and feeling considerably less green than we had when we stepped out the dinghy, we headed off into town to check out the shops for some serious provisioning and maybe some sightseeing. Down at the local market, sure enough we got a good rate for our dollars and we found a cheap place to spend them.
The town was difficult to fathom - sometimes it's hard when you don't spend long in a place - but we both found it a bit soulless. No real heart, no old town, perhaps like many holiday resorts around the world. It was a strange mixture of modern highrises and slums, and security appeared an obvious priority. Most of the vehicles are fantastic, big, dirty old Fords with throbbing engines. Deisel here is incredibly cheap (it's duty free) 25p a litre! We really wished we'd not stocked up in Martinique!

Everyone we met was polite and welcoming, and curiously uncurious about us, which was quite nice really as though naturally we would come here on holiday from England. We decided to take advantage of the shops, stock up and head out west as soon as we could. We filled up Kika's empty lockers and lifted anchor at about 5pm on Friday. We were motoring out of the anchorage when 'Alliage' called on the VHF to say they had just arrived from Los Testigos. We were on a mission though and decided to carry on with our plan, just pulling alongside long enough to swap news and catch a fillet of the big Dorado that Brendan had caught on passage.

We had a good passage to Los Rochas where we are now anchored. We had fairly good winds and arrived so early this morning that we had to 'heave to' to wait for light. We have been enjoying the delights of our replenished stores and happily, even though it was pretty rolly at times, I was able to cook some delicious meals without a twinge of 'you know what!' Los Rochas consists of a few small islands amidst coral reefs. It's possible to go and find an anchorage to yourself here if you have the energy but we settled for sharing ours with one other boat. I had to stand on the pulpit in order to get a better perspective on the coral reefs and safely direct Nick through to the anchorage. It was pretty scary as the water is like glass and every rock looks like it will pierce the hull, but it was fine and guess's really beautiful here! We've seen a huge variety of fish while snorkelling near the boat this afternoon and we're looking forward to finding a lobster tomorrow. There's one out there with Kika's name on it!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Grenada to Venezuela

Apologies again for the sporadic nature of the recent entries. Crossing the Atlantic, blog writing was a welcome distraction and fitted in well with our watch keeping. Now we're in the Caribbean the distractions are numerous and days unstructured; we'll do our best to find time to write.

The last entry left us in Bequia heading for Grenada for a rendezvous with my parents. En route to Grenada we called into Union Island, anchoring securely (after a few attempts) in the shelter of a reef. It was impressive seeing the full fury of the Atlantic crashing onto the reef while laying in calm waters on the other side. Union Island is an official port of entry/exit for St Vincent and the Grenadines and I duly arrived at the customs office half an hour before closing time to check-out. The office closes at 6pm and despite arriving at 5.30pm was stung for an overtime payment. A little frustrating, but all good humoured and they included a ride to immigration (1 mile away) as part of the payment. From Union Island we could see the enticing Tobago Cays - confusingly situated between St Vincent and Grenada - not even close to Tobago. They come highly recommended by the pilot guides and we planned to visit them with my parents.

Friday we had a beautiful sail down to Grenada, marred only by a soaking received in the torrential rain which started just as we prepared to anchor in Prickly Bay.
The following day we waited anxiously outside Arrivals as the last of the passengers emerged, but no Jenny and Brian. They eventually appeared full of tales of Grenadan customs bureaucracy - Brian had been a little over-honest and declared they were carrying spare parts for Kika and had been hit with import duties. On previous visits we've kept my parents busy helping with boat maintenance. For this trip we were determined to spend our time sailing. Unfortunately the forecast predicted huge swells and high winds for the first few days so island exploration was the order of the day. The first few days we explored the local beaches and St Georges, the capital, on the fabulous reggae buses.

Grenada is mountainous and covered in vibrant rainforest. A trip through the forest to a waterfall was decided upon and Jenny, Brian and Nick set off - sadly Ellen was recovering from stomach upset and remained on Kika. Jenny requested a level walk, "without too many hills" so inevitably the waterfall we headed for turned out to be at the end of a steep descent along an occasionally treacherous path. We all made it, partly thanks to the help of David, a Grenadian, who supported Jenny as she wobbled across a log over the river.
David turned out to make part of his living from diving off the top of the waterfall and duly impressed us - I don't remember this being mentioned as an option in my careers lessons.

He stayed with us on the trip back, pointing out mango, nutmeg, cinnamon trees and helping us past the more perilous sections. We supported further entrepreneurship with a stop at the "Keep Taxi clean shoe wash" bench and enjoyed a hair-raising high-speed bus ride back down the mountains.
Unfortunately the weather continued to be unfavourable, so we sailed 10 miles from Prickly bay round to St Georges, then back a couple of days later. Brian was reluctantly dragged to the local beach away from essential maintenance on a blocked toilet.

Most of the day was spent disassembling and reassembling the pump, finally passing Jenny and Brian heading back from their day enjoying the sun as we headed to the beach to clean off. Jenny and Brian seemed satisfied with the brief sail and hopefully we've wetted their appetites for further Kika sailing trips.

The following day we headed off for Los Testigos. There's always too much to do and see, so although our time in the Windward Islands has been brief, we've been so enthused by other sailors with the treasures that await us off the Venezuelan, Columbian and Panamanian coasts never mind the Pacific, that we're excited to be heading west again. We've also arranged a rendezvous with Ellen's sister and family in Bonaire on the 10th Feb so we need to keep moving.

We sailed overnight from Grenada to Los Testigos in the company of Brendan and Amanda on Alliage who we met in St Georges (Alliage is a a Rival 34, a smaller version of Kika).We've spent three days at anchor in a bay with a low sandly spit protecting us from the Atlantic swell. Our first taste of Venezuela. The air is full of Frigate birds, brown Bobbies and the occasional pelican. The islands are practically deserted, and only frequented by passing yachts and fishermen.
A highlight of the visit was bartering some sugar and coffee for a Barracuda and three unidentified red spiky fish, which we were assured were safe to eat. We cooked them on a drift wood beach fire, under a clear starry sky exchanging sailing stories with Brendan and Amanda.

Today our time at Los Testigos is over - its not an official port of entry, but we were granted a temporary stay of three days. We're currently sailing on a slight sea to Margarita - the official port, which the guide describes as having ".. a carefree holiday atmosphere and is the most popular holiday destination for Venezulans". Time to dust down our Spanish and practice the Salsa - should be fun.