After our arrival before Christmas'04 at Bequia Is in the middle of the Windward Islands (see map), the first half of January was spent at Bequia Is, adjacent Tobago Cays and Union Island (all part of the St Vincent - Grenadine Group). Weather was marked by squally unsettled weather and rolly anchorages. Winds blew between 15-30 knots from the ENE-NE but the trade winds were far from settled. Hatches were opened for ventilation and closed so many times for passing rain squalls that hinges were in danger of wearing out.
We stayed at Bequia until 8th January having intended to cruise and snorkel the Tobago Cays reef areas earlier, but the unsettled weather and secure holding for the anchor, Admiralty Bay in Bequia was the sounder option. We enjoyed the clean little village atmosphere, replenished water from Daffodil Yacht Services mobile water barge, filling up with their clean desalinated supply, and utilized Sand'n'Surf's wireless (wifi) internet at the Gingerbread Hotel on the beach, making long distance phone calls via the computer to family and friends on the other side of the world. Daniel enjoyed the beach and sea off the Gingerbread and made friends with all the staff. Roti conch, chicken wings or pizza was the lunch time menu enjoyed at the Roti shop next to the dinghy dock and shared with Barry & Judy "Theta" or Tony "Cariad". We got into the routine of securing our dinghy and outboard motor with wire and padlock to docks whilst in town and onto our stern at nights. Bequia was a trouble free spot although reports coming from further North at Rodney Bay on St Lucia and at Wallilabou Bay on St Vincent where dinghy theft was prevalent kept us on our guard. We had the luxury of good TV reception onboard and the local TV station had CNN news coverage in the mornings which was dominated by the Indian Ocean tsunami tragedies, constantly reminding us of our fragile existence.
The 26 mile sail south to Tobago Cays passed Canuoan Island and we shared the waters with a number of yachts moving north or south in the lee of the Islands, enjoying relatively flat seas though squally weather still persisted. The anchorage at the western end of the channel between Petit Rameau and Petit Bateau was filled with boats and the Antipodes were well represented with ourselves joining "Infinity", "Blown Away Too", "Candidus", "Theta" and "Jarokinbah". The six craft shared a Pot Luck dinner on "Jarokinbah" on the evening of 8th Jan and collectively averted a potential tragedy during the early hours of the morning of the 9th Jan. A 25knot squall just after midnight caused an adjacent French yacht to drag her anchor down onto smaller "Candidus" putting them both locked bow to stern together onto the reef. All Antipodeans were out of bed and a combined effort with a great Danforth anchor from "Blown Away Too" and good chain and rope from "Infinity" extracted "Candidus" at 0300hrs stern first from below the French yacht with only minor damage to the keel. Attempts to kedge off the French yacht failed until 0900hours, when the same ground tackle used for "Candidus" plus a long rope attached to her mast and genoa winch on adjacent anchored British yacht "True Brew", she was sufficiently heeled over. In the weakly rising tide she bumped off, badly shaken, scratched and bruised but very grateful. The channel anchorage was prone to strong current which held boats against wind with risk of contact but was also a main thoroughfare through to the outer Horseshoe reef anchorage. After several near misses from poorly controlled charter yachts charging through we moved to the wider spaces out behind Baradel Island. This was a much more pleasant spot but with the high tide, ocean swell came over the fringing reef making the waters resemble a washing machine. Eventually the squally weather and high tide animation drove us out on the 12th Jan and we motor-sailed in squally 30 knot winds and rain south past the lee of Mayreau and Union Islands to the southern part of Union Island where we found beautifully flat anchorage adjacent to Frigate Island. It was a long dinghy ride to adjacent Ashton township but the anchorage was otherwise perfect in these weather conditions, with only one other yacht. It was the first truly flat water since Mindelo town anchorage in the Cape Verdes on the other side of the Atlantic! We couldn't believe that this spot was so deserted and we were quickly joined by some of the other Antipodeans in need of a quiet night sleep. We remained at the tranquil Frigate Is anchorage for five nights and moved to the adjacent anchorage at Clifton town for a few hours on 17th January to obtain Customs and Immigration Clearance from the St Vincent - Union Is Authorities.
Before heading further south into the jurisdiction of Grenada Authorities (whose mini "Country" stretched only 40 miles from Carriacou Is to Grenada Is), we spent a night a few miles south of Union Is at PSV (Petit St Vincent). PSV was a very pretty Island and anchorage with clear water and nice sandy beach but rain and squalls again during the night was making a mockery of the Caribbean this season. The night of 17th January was a typical sleep interrupted night, with squally rain at 0130hrs when hatches were hurriedly closed. At 0200hrs the rainwater catching tent was erected under the boom and the rain promptly stopped. We opened the main hatch for air circulation down below and the rain started again. The number of full nights sleep which weren't disturbed by either rain, wind, current, neighbouring boats etc could be counted on one hand! Radio reports from boats as far as Tobago in the south say its been the pits down there as well with some unable to get ashore in their dinghies.
On the morning of 18th January when wind-tide conditions started everyone rolling at anchor, the kiwi flotilla made a dive south from PSV for Hillsborough town on Carriacou Is to complete Customs and Immigration entry formalities where we found conditions were worse. We quickly checked into the Grenada Group at Hiilsborough facilities all conveniently located at the end of the town pier with "Jarokinbah" and "Infinity", enjoying a "taxi ride" in "Infinity's" dinghy. "Theta" decided to head onto Grenada with "Candidus" to find some flat water. After clearance we moved a few miles south, anchoring in Tyrell Bay reported to be one of the best sheltered anchorages in the Caribbean but there was still a roll from the NNW swell. We went ashore in the afternoon and whilst I was in an adjacent Internet Cafe, Ratna & Daniel were on the beach and found a large lobster backing it's way out of the water. When I appeared and picked it up to put it into our dinghy for an evening gourmet treat, a local lad sauntered across from an adjacent beach shelter with half consumed beer bottle in hand and claimed it as his. He said it had escaped from his nearby holding pot which may have been true but its difficult staying ahead of the locals!! We got "done" in Ashton on Union Island paying double the normal price for a 20 litre tank of fuel for the outboard motor. I hadn't established the price first, before the cannabis smoking, rum drinking Rasta boatboy had emptied his tank into ours!! At adjacent Clifton on Union Island we bought a case of Venezuelan beer cans for the usual 45EC$. When we took them out of the plastic bag after departure we found that they were small 250ml cans not the usual 330ml ones!!
On 20th January we motored 38 miles south in quiet conditions to Prickly Bay on the south coast of Grenada. On passing the leeward side of Grenada with its luxurious growth on hills and valleys Ratna remarked on how little cultivation was evident. The Caribbean had been the first region we had encountered since leaving Asia with true tropical vegetation similar to her native Java in Indonesia. The high price of veges and fruit in the Caribbean had prompted her statement where in Java almost all available land was terraced for cultivation. I commented that perhaps the locals here weren't as industrious as Javanese as here a large proportion of the male population (excluding those rubber stamping in Customs and Immigration Offices, or driving taxis or buses) were seen lolling around in grog shops or ripping off yachties. Only the women appeared to enjoy employment, running small shops and businesses from any available dwelling. At Prickly Bay we spent a week amongst dismasted yachts, beached wrecks and roofless houses which had suffered at the hand of hurricane "Ivan" in September 2004. A sad and depressing sight and a lot of the locals and cruisers were still twitchy when the wind increased. The south coast of Grenada has a number of nice deep fiord-like indentations which offer a variety of secure anchorages touted by local marina's as being below the hurricane belt, but few escaped the venom of "Ivan". Most visiting cruisers stay put in Prickly Bay which has Customs and Immigration facilities, small marina bars and restaurants, a large branch of Budget Marine Chandlery and easy bus access to nearby town of St Georges. We stayed a few nights there but the swell had everyone rolling so we headed a few miles east to almost uninhabited Clarkes Court Bay where we found very flat water. A night was spent in the little marina which was being rebuilt after being demolished by "Ivan" and we filled water tanks, did laundry and had internet connection before spending other nights in the bay at a tranquil anchorage off the private Calivigny Island. Only now, towards the end of January, we finally had almost ideal cruising conditions. The squally nights had abated for the first time since arriving in the Caribbean and the weather had fined up enough to start tackling some overdue varnishing tasks.
Daniel earlier had made a marvelous transition from pampers to underpants from the town of Grenville after an interesting sardine-like packed local bus ride across Grenada in company with "Theta" and "Candidus". After visiting the Grenville market and tarpaulin covered nutmeg factory (factory and industry another victim of "Ivan") we bought some nice sets of children's underpants. He immediately wore them with pride and has joy in keeping dry with "accidents" very rare, growing up alarmingly fast. We could have stayed longer in the southern part of Grenada, the people were friendly, security threats rare, climate kindly and relaxing but we had an appointment south in Trinidad. We had some maintenance and equipment installations to be done and a rendezvous with Joleen Cronin. Joleen, an Irish girl was on "Mustang Sally" and having completed the Atlantic crossing she was to join us for the trip west to New Zealand. Before the Pacific Ocean leg (approx 7,000 nautical miles or 13,000 km's) across lots of water with few stops, we planned to have a watermaker and satellite phone installed. Also sails and GPS repairs amongst other jobs able to be done in the the large Chaguaramas congregation of boat service companies. The annual Trinidad carnival was also being staged so it was an opportunity to combine leisure with maintenance work. We returned briefly to Prickly Bay to clear Customs and Immigration on 27th Jan and departed Grenada waters at twilight for the 80 mile overnight sail south to Trinidad.
A month in one spot for a change, dominated by equipment installation and repair issues, meeting new and old friends and carnival festivities. Then relieved departure west to the ABC Is' (Dutch Antilles) at the end of February.
A quick broad reach from Prickly Bay (Grenada) overnight had us tied up alongside the Customs/Immigration jetty at Chaguaramas Trinidad shortly after 0800hrs on Friday 28th January. We certainly had been enjoying the sailing in the Atlantic since leaving Gibraltar where previously in the Mediterranean Sea, motoring with no wind or into head winds was the norm! We were the first of the daily flow of yachts checking in or out and at Immigration were efficiently cleared in by the usual friendly officials (we had undergone this procedure six times since arriving in the dissected West Indies). Next however, the Head Customs Officer of Indian extraction deemed that the 1.5hrs taken from first entering the western channel to Trinidad (where he implied he had "watchers") to arrival at Customs Jetty was too long and what had we been up to, citing drug running as a problem in this part of the world. I suffered his early morning outburst, not mentioning the others who had either anchored in Scotland Bay or who were dawdling to avoid overtime fees for pre 0800hr check-ins and when he felt he had sufficiently impressed his staff he advised them to complete our entry formalities. Hmm, an ominous start and when we moved from the jetty and anchored in the crowded bay outside the moorings we encountered more acrimony when wind and current fought each other and had boats tugging in opposite directions and rolling with wash from fast passing local boats. We had current Cruising Guides for the Windward Islands and Trinidad Tobago and these gave valuable information for preferred anchorages and services all throughout the relevant region but often tended to favour glowing rather than balanced reports. The local marine VHF radio net in the mornings run by local cruisers often tended the opposite way, focusing on the negative with numerous security alerts, and complaints about service shortcomings. Somewhere between the two sources of information perhaps lay the reality.
Chaguaramas had lots of yachts either in marinas, on the hard, on moorings or at anchor amongst a number of larger oil industry ships and supply boats that were being serviced. Full of expectation, we quickly went ashore to the electronics supplier of Satellite phones who we had ordered a phone via the internet last month. A quick zipzap and a huge amount of money was extracted from our credit card account for the unit, a data link and 500 hours of prepaid time, with the estimation of equipment arrival by Tuesday (4 days time). We then dinghied along to Power Boats marina where we located a frazzled Trish from "Mustang Sally" who had been supervising a number of repair jobs which after a month were at various stages of completion. We headed together to the Bank then the watermaker supplier but the location at the western end of Chaguaramas and the heat of the day proved too much. After walking half the distance we returned to the dinghy and anchorage. The next day, (Saturday) an early morning start to initiate GPS and sail repairs and complete the watermaker purchase was foiled by nothing being open except the Chandleries and local supermarket. Seemingly the vast service facility only worked a five day week!? So the weekend was spent adding a couple of coats of varnish to the teak on the hull not an easy task in the dinghy with the wind/current conditions and wake from the weekenders boats rushing to offshore anchorages and pursuits.
Monday (31st January) was a big day! The watermaker was ordered (75litres/hour) and paid for (another huge sum extracted from our credit card account) with promise of installation commencement in 3 days. The unit selected was engine driven so mountings were required to be fabricated with completion promised after 5 working days (actually 12 calendar days later as weekends and carnival Monday and Tuesday were to occur mid-installation). Sail repairs were negotiated with a sailmaker, GPS was dropped off at electronic agents, fridge/freezer filter/dryer was purchased and TTSA (Trinidad Tobago Sailing Association) office was visited to confirm bookings for a mooring previously made for us by Trish. This all entailed lots of walking to and fro and exhausted legs were rested in the evening when we hosted Trish, "Theta" (who had arrived from Grenada with fallen boom lashed to the deck) and "Candidus" for dinner and drinks.
On the morning of 1st February we raised anchor and moved east around the corner to TTSA which had moorings in a little bay separated from Chaguaramas anchorage by a narrow strip of land. We moored fore and aft, stern towards the shore and enjoyed the tranquility after the hustle and bustle of the previous anchorage. TTSA had a secure dinghy dock, nice restaurant, bar and swimming pool with quite a family atmosphere. Late afternoon there was lots of activity behind us adjacent to the Chaguaramas- Port of Spain road, with loud speaker testing and sure enough one of the pre-carnival events was being staged as music blasted through into our cockpit until well after 0300hrs the following morning. All participants dressed in white resembled a religious gathering (music was far from religious) white apparently being the dress requirement throughout Trinidad for this particular pre-Carnival day. The road was lined with parked cars and milling people and prior to dawn loud speaker emanations changed from musical to more serious as car number plates were announced requesting owners to return to tend to break-ins. Fortunately the event was a one off as activities moved to different venues and following evenings were quiet but unfortunately HOT as the little breeze that wafted down from the surrounding hills wasn't directed into our forward opening hatches. We would have been better served by anchoring in the bay and swinging into the breeze and using the TTSA facilities (for a small fee) as a number of other cruisers did.
One evening the assembled kiwi flotilla ("Jarokinbah", "Infinity", "Candidus", "Theta" and ourselves) shared an excursion firstly to the Signal Station overlooking Port of Spain for a magnificent panaramic view of the city, bay and sunset over adjacent Venezuela in the west. The hosts Trump Tours, magnificently fed and watered us (nice homemade rum punch for some) and then took us through Port of Spain to watch the pre-Carnival activities of costume making/ selling and Pan Band rehearsals (large groups with steel 200 litre drums whose concave shaped tops emitted an amazing range of notes when beaten with drum sticks in skilled hands). A fantastic night which eased the frustrations of the slow commencement of the watermaker installation.
Commencement on 2nd February of watermaker installation had been a debacle! At TTSA we relied on radio communication from the local technician assigned to the project to announce his arrival at TTSA requiring a dinghy lift to the boat. We had eagerly awaited his call having earlier opened up the aft cabin for easy access to the underlying engine room. The port side engine mount bolts were removed, fridge/freezer fan belt disconnected and the boat had bunk cushions ply bulkheads etc perched everywhere. This was the norm for the ensuing 3 days as we waited for appearance of our tardy technician, not able to move far from the radio to not miss his call and as a consequence were unable to do other things we required. He made a brief showing on the first day with a piece of steel to be measured and cut to fit the engine mounts and a brief showing the morning of the next with two holes drilled and the promise he would rendezvous again after lunch, which didn't happen. Visions of a month of this when he didn't show on the morning of day three, required a visit to the supplier demanding another technician and some action!! I was dealt, "this was unusual behaviour for him, he is normally very reliable", and a number of other excuses' but there weren't any other technicians available. Not wanting to cancel the installation as we had already had our mind set on copious running fresh water, I dubiously accepted the promises that all would be remedied. At the electronics supplier, to collect the Satellite telephone, oops, I should have expected the response. "Sorry, your unit was sent to someone else by the supplier and we are trying to locate another one for you". I left to search for a marina berth mumbling that the unit was required in no more than two weeks as we were departing west!
We had only stayed 3 nights at TTSA as the heat and frustrations with watermaker installation drove us back to Chaguaramas anchorage for a night to enable an early morning entry on Saturday 5th February to Sweetwater marina where we had been extremely lucky to secure a rare available berth. The marina was situated in a narrow creek and as such wasn't subjected to weather and wash disturbances experienced by most of the other marinas which faced directly into the Bay. At Sweetwater, mooring rates were inexpensive (unlimited water and electricity included) and we turned on the air-conditioning and enjoyed the COOL helping reduce our simmering moods.
With easy access of our nice marina berth and comfort of our airconditioning we waited the 5 day recommencement of work, mixing social activities on board and at adjacent marina restaurants and visited Port of Spain to view Carnival activities. On Sunday 6th February, "Theta", "Candidus", "Cariad", "Karminda" crews congregated at our dock where Judy from "Theta" undertook a mass haircutting exercise. All then adjourned, cleanly shorn, to Sails Restaurant at Power Boats marina where the regular excellent Sunday evening barbeque was held.
Long time friend Warren Batt arrived over the weekend from his trip back to Australia and NZ and he and his "Mustang Sally" crew of Trish and Joleen with Bill and Jackie from "Pukka Belle" arrived in our cockpit early on the morning of 7th February. Carnival Monday being the day of J'Ouvert, a pre-dawn body painting and mudslinging rampage. The five of them left later in the morning to catch up on sleep having deposited lots of dried mud and paint all over the cockpit and returned later in the evening for dinner onboard. On the last day of Carnival (Tuesday 8th February) we ventured into Port of Spain to watch the final street parades. The Carnival, touted as being the "Greatest show on earth", tended towards monotony as similar sounding pan bands and groups of scantily dressed overweight bodies sweated their way past the streetside crowds. It was certainly a great show of cellulite and at the end of the day we eagerly headed back to the quiet and cool of our little cocoon to await the recommencement next day of our watermaker installation.
Surprise surprise, morning of 9th February, the watermaker technician arrived almost on time and over the next three days prior to the weekend made acceptable progress in advancing the installation to a point that completion could be expected the following week (provided there were no more no-shows). Listening to other cruisers tales of a variety of installations from engines, electrical, rigging and refrigeration jobs, no-shows were the norm and only through constant hassling could projects be ushered closer to completion. Skepticism replaced enthusiasm as unreliable labour issues dogged this otherwise complete maintenance facility. Whilst the watermaker installation progressed between weekends, the satellite telephone people were hounded into establishing whether we would have a unit before departure and the sailmaker was left to his own devices as he had overrun his completion date but it appeared that we would still be in Chaguaramas for another week at least.
The weekend of 12-13th February was put to good use. On Saturday, Daniel and I accompanied the Antipodean boats feminine crew to nearby modern Westmall shopping complex where they all competed in a shopping frenzy. I ordered a new set of spectacles after a very thorough eye inspection by the local optician (an efficient local lady of Indian descent). D and I returned early via local maxi-taxi to Sweetwater for a siesta to recharge our internal batteries. On Sunday we took the dinghy to nearby Tropical Marina to use their wireless link to connect to the internet and spoke to family in Indonesia and the UK and caught up with their news. At the Sunday evening barbeque at Sails restaurant we met Han, Cicik and their two sons, 6 year old Kevin and 2 year old Fritz. Han a Dutch engineer commencing a project in the vast Trinidad gas-petroleum industry and Cicik, his Indonesian wife, had similar sailing interests (they had a yacht in Greece) and East-West family ethnic combination to us. We spent many pleasant times together onboard or at their condominium the remaining time in Trinidad.
A satisfactory completion of the watermaker installation finally happened and the internal partitions of "Star of the West" could be returned to normal on the afternoon of 15th February, 14 days after commencement. A short test run was done to check for leaks but the real trial run would be done the following weekend when we would anchor in nearby Scotland Bay away from the polluted green-brown Chaguaramas water. Sails were checked but repairs found to be well below promised workmanship had to be tidied up before delivery and with the satellite telephone whereabouts still uncertain, the order was cancelled and the money refunded. A new GPS unit was supplied to replace the faulty one which could only be repaired in the US.
On 16th February, an Irish dentist in Port of Spain repaired two front teeth damaged by biting lobster legs and chicken bones. Ratna and Daniel accompanied Cicik on her shopping expeditions for new furniture etc for the house they were to move into. In the evening we adjourned to Tropical marina for an Antipodean barbeque to farewell Barry and Judy ("Theta") who were heading back to NZ for a family wedding, and a hi to Warren's guests Buzz March, his wife Ali and Heather who had flown in from NZ to spend a few weeks holiday on "Mustang Sally". Joleen had "jumped" ship from "Mustang Sally" with their arrival and was now comfortably accommodated in "Star of the West's" aft cabin ready for our forthcoming departure.
We spent a pleasant evening meal with Han and family on Thursday 17th February and the night in their condo, the first sleep on land for five months, the last being during our overland Europe expedition. The week concluded with visits to the various chandleries scattered around Chaguaramas which had a good selection of items at reasonable prices. We rushed to complete R&M tasks, were pleased with the workmanship of firstly, the fridge man who helped trace a gas leak in the system, changed the filter/dryer and regassed the unit, and also the woodworker who provided some lengths of good teak decking for a later deck repair job. All labour was not unreliable!!
The weekend of 19-20th February had arrived for our test of the watermaker and Han, Cicik and boys arrived early morning and we reversed down the narrow alley between Sweetwater and Tardieaux marinas out into the Bay. We fuelled up at Power Boats fuel dock and headed off to the cleaner waters of Scotland Bay around at the western end of Trinidad. We successfully made our first fresh water then enjoyed a barbeque with our guests before returning to Chaguaramas on dusk to drop them off and anchored for the night. We returned to Scotland Bay to make more water and with dive gear cleaned our hull and propeller from the barnacles and weed which had our underbody looking like a floating coral reef. The long period of little movement and the ageing antifouling paint applied 11 months earlier in Turkey contributed to the blossoming growth.
Back at Chaguaramas on the 21st, Ratna and Joleen completed shopping for our forthcoming trip westwards and I completed formalities with the watermaker suppliers, purchasing spare parts and filters and having a small leak remedied. We shared a final evening meal with Han, Cicik and family before clearing customs and immigration on the 22nd February together with "Mustang Sally" to share a nights anchorage at Scotland Bay before they headed north to Grenada and we headed northwest to the ABC Islands. Unfortunately "Mustang Sally's" maintenance woes were not over, as on their way to Scotland Bay they burst a hose for the second time on their newly renovated fridge/freezer system and had to return to Chaguaramas to await the fridge man who was out of the Country!!
"Candidus" and "Cariad" were already at anchor in Scotland Bay, they were to sail with us the 420 miles to Bonaire one of the ABC Islands and probably places beyond. The 23rd February was spent getting things shipshape having briefly "lent" Joleen to Tony on "Cariad". Tony was single-handing his way around the world (www.meakinalonearoundtheworld.com) and needed help with "Cariad" whilst he completed last minute issues and clearance formalities back at Chaguaramas. "Pukka Belle" (Bill and Jackie) arrived also with their new Yanmar engine finally installed and sea trialled successfully and they also were looking forward to new "pastures" as they prepared to head west via Venezuela's offshore islands.
We left Scotland Bay on the morning of 24th February in company with "Candidus" and "Cariad" after a pleasant relaxing time amongst the thick jungle and high hills with their howler monkeys. The setting was vaguely reminiscent of a favourite anchorage of ours at Gaya Island off Kota Kinabalu Sabah Borneo. As we cleared the coast heading northwest a nice NE breeze had our sails nicely set and we slowly settled into cruise mode.
Our course to the ABC's (see map) was to take us north of Isla Los Testigos and the other Venezuelan islands stretching west from there. The islands were popular cruising destinations but there were also constant security issues with some craft being boarded, some shootings, some lives lost and numerous reports of equipment and dinghy theft. Some of this may have been over-reported but nevertheless we didn't wish to be at the wrong place at the wrong time so settled along with our two companion yachts for the ABC's as our first destination. These three islands were still under Dutch governance and glowing reports from others with minimal crime held our appetites as we sailed quickly westwards aided by 1-2knots of west setting current. As with much of our sailing in the Atlantic we were wing and wing with genoa poled out to one side and main out the other and the east wind directly up our stern. Sometimes where shallow water (<2,000m contour) interrupted the steady westward flow of current the ride became wild and uncomfortable but generally it was pleasant sailing and we arrived in Bonaire picking up a mooring adjacent to the town at 2200hrs on the evening of 27th February. We had covered the 420 miles from Trinidad to Bonaire in a remarkable 2 and a half days, an average of 168 miles/day thanks to the great wind and a large assist from the current.
In the dark we noticed "Mulloka II" on the mooring next to us and when "Candidus" arrived a few hours later she picked up an adjacent mooring and found "BlownAway Too" also moored. The four Antipodeans moored next to each other amongst a myriad of yachts of other nations was quite unplanned as the others had arrived in Bonaire a few days earlier via Grenada and the Venezuelan Islands not having ventured south to Trinidad. We had last shared an anchorage with Tony & Val on "Mulloka II" in the Cape Verde Islands before our respective Atlantic crossings and Kel, Barbara and the girls (Heidi and Renee) on "BlownAway Too" had been together with "Candidus" and ourselves in Bequia and Tobago Cays before we headed south. We shared a nice pot luck dinner on the shore with them before they headed westwards to Cartagena in Columbia. Two other Australian yachts "Libelle" (Tim) and "Inti" (Rob) had also briefly added to the Antipodean neighbourhood before they also departed, early starters in the annual yacht migration west to the Panama canal to catch the favourable winds after the cyclone season in the south Pacific.
Bonaire was a breath of fresh air with its holiday atmosphere. Small craft moorings stretched along the shore in brilliant clear blue water (only two rows as the depths dropped off quickly to >100 metres), a stones throw from the small tidy town with all facilities close at hand, a joy to any yachties heart. After tying up our dinghy at the nearby dinghy dock we walked a short distance for Customs & Immigration clearance, drew out money from a Bank ATM (local currency or US Dollar options) then sat at a seaside cafe and absorbed the colourful parade of attractive and handsome locals (a mix of Central American and European) with occasional tourists sauntering by. We spent 4 days in Bonaire enjoying the excellent restaurants, swimming/snorkeling in the crystal clear waters and exploring the arid interior with its cactus plants, lizards, donkeys, salt pans with selegant pink flamingoes or suspicious pelicans. The sleepy town of Rincon in the interior with wind driven water bore pumps were reminiscent of the hot dry shimmering Afrikaaner towns of Namaqualand in South Africa also of Dutch heritage.
On 3rd March, after topping up supplies earlier in a big Hypermarket, we daysailed west 36 miles to sister island Curacao in quiet conditions along with "Candidus" and "Cariad". In late afternoon, we entered a long narrow channel and anchored in Spanish Waters, an inland waterway with mangroves, houses and mini-marinas scattered along its indented shores, seemingly miles from the sea.
Curacao, like Bonaire, was nice but in a different way. Spanish Waters offered tranquility and pleasant eating in the marina restaurants but a short bus ride north to Willemstad had us in the Capital with big city atmosphere and facilities. Colourful Dutch buildings lined another narrow channel, bisecting the town and allowing huge ships to pass into a vast natural harbour with petroleum, shipbuilding and other maintenance facilities. Fruit and vegetable vendors in coastal boats from nearby Venezuela sold their produce on the dockside and added to a great cosmopolitan atmosphere. We cleared out from the Immigration and Customs in town on the 7th March and reluctantly left the haven of Spanish Waters the following morning. Willem, a proprietor of Sari Fundys marina and restaurant in Spanish Waters, provided lots of assistance and facilities for yachtspeople, advised us to day hop to Aruba instead of doing a +70 mile overnight trip and we followed his advice. We enjoyed a brisk sail 28 miles to Westpunt just south of the northern tip of Curacao and anchored outside a number of small fishing boats that made this their base. The next morning our sailing buddies "Candidus" shot off early and we followed along with "Cariad" (Tony) in a fresh 15-20 knot easterly wind to Aruba 57 miles to the west.
Aruba had less to offer yachts as we were to find out but shortened the next leg to the San Blas Islands to 560 miles which we anticipated would take four days. We anchored at Aruba, first in a shallow 2-3 metres off the hotel strip extending north from the Port, then moved further north along the west coast closer to the fishermans jetty to allow easy access for dinghies. We reanchored after gingerly moving through areas of 2 metres deep, alarmingly close to our keel but largely sand and weed with minor coral heads. Hoping to take a bus to town to clear Customs & Immigration we belatedly called Port Authorities on VHF radio announcing our presence, and all three yachts were instructed to come south again and tie alongside in the Port to be processed!! This was done reasonably quickly and efficiently between two huge cruise ships and a container ship and then after unsuccessfully attempting to secure a berth in the marina (the marina manager was AWOL) we moved to an anchorage near the airport south of the town. Aruba was a major holiday destination for US citizens and procession after procession of US airliners roared down near us to land, much to Daniel's joy. (Another tookatooka coming!!!) The town was a myriad of tourist shops and casinos catering for the hoards being disgorged off cruise ships and airplanes. We stayed a minimum time, enabling provisioning in the large supermarkets for the next leg, anticipating perhaps 30 days before stocking up again.
We departed Aruba with our 2 cruising buddy yachts on 12th March (after tie up again in the Port for the clearance formalities) and headed northwest to give the Peninsula between Venezuela/Columbia a wide berth. This stretch of water was reported to have the worst weather/seas in the equatorial Atlantic/Caribbean. The Easterly sector Trade winds develop a strong westerly current flow, which on meeting the shallow waters and counter current along the north coast of South America can create a confusion of forces. The day progressed with enjoyable sailing, reaching then wing and wing. We caught two nice mahi mahi, part of one fed us for lunch and the other went into the freezer which was later joined by a huge Wahoo just before dusk. That was enough, Wahoo for dinner and the trailing lures were brought in, we had enough fish for weeks! The next 24 hours were a joy as we rushed headlong across the top of Columbia outside the 2000 metre ocean floor contour with 15-20 knot easterlies and 1-2 knots of current pushing us. Then as usual, (never in daylight hours), just before midnight on 13th March, bedlam!! The wind had been building and was blowing now a steady +25kts, so mainsail was reefed and genoa partly furled as we shot down the front of seas at speeds up to 13kts according to the GPS. 25-35 knot winds continued for 24 hours with a strange phenomenon of short bursts of stronger gusts arriving just before a set of 4 to 6 big steep breaking waves that occasionally dowsed our cockpit and had us surrounded by foaming white water. Extra lashings were put on dinghy and other equipment stowed on deck then late on 14th March the wind and seas simultaneously decreased and we could raise full sails again. Our progress had been too good which meant that unless we maintained nearly 7 knots in lightening winds we would arrive at the San Blas Islands after sunset on 15th March. This was less than desirable in reef strewn areas, however the East Holandes Cays offered a large deep water entrance on the leeward side between the Islands. With the assistance of electronic charts and radar we anchored at 2115 hrs in the dark in 15 metres of flat water. The tranquility of the flat water and surrounding dark shapes of islands in the moonless night was mana from heaven. We marvelled at our speedy trip, having averaged 160miles/day for the 3.5 day 560 nautical miles from Aruba to the San Blas Islands. Very good for our over laden, traditional little long keel cruiser and as with the Trinidad to Bonaire leg, our sails and 30 foot waterline had extracted maximum from the wind and current.
We awoke on the morning of 16th March to a fantastic new vista, (postcard stuff), as coconut palm clad islands (very similar to our Thousand Islands playground north of Jakarta in Indonesia) with sparkling white fringed sandy beaches surrounding us and we swam in brilliant blue clear water. Canoes with families of local Kuna Indians politely came by offering us lobster / crab (US$1-5 depending on size) or traditional hand sewn molas. "Candidus" and "Cariad" arrived in the morning and anchored closer to shore north of tiny Tiadup Island. We moved to the same anchorage on the 17th March and all three boat crews assembled on "Star of the West" for St Patricks Day dinner and festivities ala Joleen. Tony "Cariad" departed next day for Colon to commence Panama Canal transit processing but Glen and Judy ("Candidus") and ourselves remained enjoying our own private beaches, the sunset pot luck dinners and visits to the Kuna homes.
The Kunas (with their nose rings and beads) have remained remarkably remote from integration with other races and still maintain primitive living and cooking habits in palm huts. They are polite and friendly and thrive on their simple fish diets and make considerable income from selling their traditional molas to the passing yachts (or occasional cruise ship) for US$5-25 depending on size and detail. The Kunas are one of the shortest races on the globe and Ratna enjoyed being tall for a change with Joleen towering over them. Daniel made friends with a shy lad from Tiadup and when we moved a few miles west to Central Holandes Cays he found a pal who enjoyed the water as much as he does. The Holandes group of islands in the San Blas are one of yachties favourites, as it is far from the coast and subsequently the water is clearest and the islands generally are either uninhabited or have only one or two families. There are over 350 islands in the San Blas and consequently an infinite number of safe secure, flat anchorages to choose. The only drawback was the no-see-ums (small almost invisible sandflies / midges) which required care in not anchoring too close downwind of mangrove areas, and lots of lotion on bare skin at dusk or after dark when on shore. On Miriadiadup, Glen ("Candidus") and I accompanied Roberto for a snorkel and were taught the finer points of lobster catching with pole and wire snare, whilst the girls bought more molas. We wandered around tiny Miriadiadup leaving footprints in the sand, absorbing the atmosphere and hospitality (Roberto's mum and wife prepared a nice fish/rice and vege lunch). At Western Holandes and Chichime Cays, Joleen and I enjoyed several dives in clear water, with great fan coral, lots of fish varieties (including a shark) and returned from one excursion with a crab that dwarfed Daniel.
All in all, paradise had been found, two weeks were too short but we had dallied too long further east in January and February and now needed to commence our Panama canal transit processing (two to three weeks at present). A pleasant potluck gathering at a tiny islet at Chichime was shared with "Woodwind" who had arrived from Cartagena in Columbia then "Candidus" and ourselves moved westwards on 28th March. It was 68 miles to Puerto Cristobal (The Panama Canal entrance) and we passed close to the mainland Panama coast where the Spanish Armada had previously loaded the gold and silver hoards bound for Europe at Nombre de Dios and Portobello (named by Columbus). We spent a pleasant night at an anchorage behind Isla Linton, then passing Isla Drake (where Sir Francis Drake was buried) and arrived in Cristobal harbour at midday on 29th March.