Written 29 March 1994
Grenada - Venezuela
Well, we knew one day it would finally happen. We kept hoping and people promising that it would and we kept hearing and reading about it. But we wondered if it would really happen to us. And then suddenly one day on the trip from Grenada to Venezuela, it did happen: we were finally sailing downwind with both sail full in front of us, dry decks and a gentle breeze pushing us along.
We last left you in Grenada having just arrived there in July 1993. Grenada was one of those wonderful, tender traps into which cruisers tend to get caught. The island was in full bloom when we arrived with flaming red flowering trees, frangipani, and hibiscus flowers everywhere. We anchored in Mt. Hartman Bay on the sound end of the island which is wonderfully picturesque and protected by a reef which keeps out the ocean swell and was surrounded on 3 sides by pasture land. Many mornings we would awaken to soft mooing of cows. This area is home to a fabulous resort called Secret Harbor owned and run the The Moorings charter co. The resort allowed the cruisers to use the pool and tennis courts and they served terrific rum punches at happy hour when all the cruisers gather to socialize, exchange rumors and weather information.
The town of St. Georges is a very pretty capital city with steep hills and beautiful houses perched on the hillsides. The steepness of the streets was reminiscent of San Francisco. People were generally friendly and food, laundry, mail services and marine supplies (all things important to cruisers) were accessible and reasonable priced.
Many cruisers had amassed in Grenada as the hurricane season was well underway. Although most were going to continue southward to Trinidad or Venezuela, some were planning to spend the season here and because of this, they were a pretty organized group. A "cruisers VHF net" was established and every morning at 0845 all would tune in and share info, welcome newcomers and say goodbye to those leaving. Every Sunday afternoon, a picnic BBQ was held on the beach at Hog Island (a small island in Mt. Hartman Bay). This beach was called "Sesame Street Beach" because of the cruisers with children anchored here. We again took a tour of the island and visited a rum factory, nutmeg plantation and more beautiful waterfalls. Life became very peaceful and lazy. Many of our friends with whom we had sailed down-island were also here and we really hated to leave this perfect spot. But Venezuela beckoned and there was boat maintenance to be, so at the end of July we got ready to sail to Los Testigos islands off the coast of Venezuela.
The trip to Los Testigos was about 86 miles (too long for a day sail), so we left at about 5pm on 27 July and planned to make landfall at approximately 6-7 am the next morning. The equatorial current is reputed to be very strong in this area and normally sets to the NW at a speed of 1.5 - 2 knots. We experienced about a 1 knot current most of the trip. OASIS with Ed and Kioko aboard left with us and we established a VHF radio scheduled to check in every so often. As mentioned earlier, we were finally sailing off the wind on a course of approximately 250 degrees, which put us on a broad read with a 10-15 knot easterly wind. Sometime around sunset we noticed a 3rd boat travelling with us. Shortly after seeing them, a very French-sounding voice contacted us on the VHF and asked if we had a GPS. The affirmative answer resulted in them asking if we would give them reports on the current set and speed since they had no GPS. So throughout the night we checked in with them and helped. Except for a VERRRRY close encounter with a ship, the whole trip was uneventful, if not a bit rolly with a 4-5 ft ocean swell rocking the boat.
Upon anchoring near a small fishing village on Gran Testigo, we finally met our French cruising companions. Turns out they were a family who had chartered a 38 ft. Beneteau for a 3-week charter from Martinique!! In 1 week they had sailed from Martinique to St. Lucia, Bequia, Tobago Cays and several islands in the Grenadines, Grenada and now Los Testigos. What took us approximately 2 months to do, they sailed in 1 week. Their plan was to use the remaining 2 weeks to sail to Margarita, VZ, Trinidad and then back to Martinique. It makes me dizzy just thinking about it. We never really saw them after meeting again after that, so don't know if they were able to do all that they had planned to do.
Los Testigo islands are a group of dry, rocky islands in the middle of the Caribbean. The people who live here are fisherman and one evening they came by and gave us a beautiful 6-8 lb. Dorado they had caught. In return, we gave them some cookies, about 1/4 bottle of rum and some cold sodas. We stayed for 2 nights, snorkeled, visited onshore and then left for Margarita, VZ. This island looked just like Miami beach with high-rise hotels and lots of shops. Customs fees were reputed to be abnormally high here so we just spent the night and motored onto Puerto La Cruz on the mainland. We anchored off the beach where wonderful Spanish music came wafting out to us and the lights of a beautiful resort town illuminated the beach and walkways. The next day we moved to a marina where we were to spend the next 4 months working on the boat.
Puerto La Cruz is a wonderful place, where the people are very friendly and tried very hard to help me with very limited Spanish. (Bob speaks fluent Spanish.) With the money exchange being 100 Bolivars to 1 US dollar, things were very inexpensive. Food was especially cheap with a sumptuous filet mignon (lomito) dinner for 2 costing $15, including drinks. Cerveza was about $0.30 and por puesto taxis (shared) were about $0.10 each way into town.
By now our boat to-do-list was very long and we spent the first 2 months working on the boat and varnishing. Around the end of Sept. we rented a 4-wheel drive truck with another couple and toured southern Venezuela down to the Brazil border. This area is called the Gran Sabana and is about 1 mile high with huge mesas (tepuis) rising up from the surface. There are many beautiful rivers and waterfalls, but the area is desert-like, not junglely. To get there we drove through many gold and diamond mining towns and met several miners (mostly Canadians, curiously enough). The trip took about 1 week and is one I will never forget. The area was so very beautiful and the people friendly, hard working and so resourceful. One night we camped in an Indian campground where we met the Indian caretaker and his family. We pitched our tents inside a thatched-roof hut because it was raining. The next day we hiked to a small but unique waterfalls called Jasper Falls. The whole falls and riverbed is made up of a semi-precious stone called Jasper, which was reddish gold. Therefore the river and falls were reddish-gold - just lovely. On our return - we drove to Cuidad Bolivar, a moderate size city on the Orinoco River. This is one of the major rivers in the world and on a par with the Amazon. It is navigable but very fast flowing and is heavily used by commercial shipping companies. The people were some of the nicest we had encountered and while attending an outdoor calypso concert they had us and dancing and sharing their rum.
When we returned to Puerto La Cruz, it was time to haul the boat to paint the bottom, as this would probably be the last opportunity to do so until we get to New Zealand or Australia. We took this opportunity to travel back to Annapolis for about 3 weeks. This coincided nicely with the Annapolis Boat Show. Our friends, Allen and Betsy graciously allowed us to stay with them and we enjoyed every minute of our visit. Bob visited every marine store within about 100-mile radius and I visited every shopping mall. When we finally left Annapolis, we had 4 huge duffel bags jammed packed with goodies, including a weatherfax, self tailing winch, books, cassette tapes and a groaning Visa card.
The next month was spent installing all the new toys on the boat. Thanksgiving came and along with all the other cruisers, we attended a traditional Thanksgiving feast for cruisers at the luxury resort of Mare Mare. This is the premier resort in the area and has a 3 million-gallon pool with a wave machine.
Venezuela - ABC Islands
Finally, on the 2nd of December, with a clean boat bottom, we checked out of Venezuela and headed westward again. Our first stop was the small VZ island of La Tortuga. From there we sailed to Los Roques, a group of islands protected by a large, barrier reef. This was an overnight sail and we arrived at about 8am and anchored between 2 islands behind the reef in beautiful clean water. These islands and the water were spectacular and we spent about 5 days sailing from island to island all within the protection of the large reef. It was great sailing with strong winds and flat seas.
On 11 December, we left Los Roques and sailed to the Dutch island of Bonaire. What a delightful place, albeit very expensive. Food, especially was high after having come from Venezuela. The island is steep-to with depths of about 100 ft. very close to shore. There is a shelf upon which you can anchor in about 10 ft. of water. When you let out the proper scope for the anchor, the boat is then floating over about 60-100 ft of exceptionally clear, beautiful water filled with magnificent coral and tropical fish. Bonaire's slogan is "Diver's Paradise" so SCUBA dive shops abound. We took this opportunity to do 6 dives in depths ranging from 40-70 ft. The island itself is rather plan with lots of scrub brush and cactus, salt ponds and flamingos. The beauty of Bonaire is underwater. We spent about 1 1/2 weeks here. Bonaire was where we caught up with some cruising friends - Bob & Ginny on AZTEC and Don and Donna on SOLITAIRE. We toured the Gran Sabana with Bob and Ginny. Don and Donna are a wonderful couple who are on their way through the canal toward Australia to complete their 10 yr. circumnavigation. We are planning to travel with them at least as far as the South Pacific. They are very interesting couple and with Don being an amateur magician, things are never dull around him.
SOLITAIRE left for Curacao and we left a few days later for Aruba. This was another dead down-wind run with twin headsails (1 poled out to windward). We've been averaging 5.5 knots with this setup. The wind range from 15-25 knots, seas 6-10 ft and our windvane, Betsy, does a fine job steering in the conditions, but it can be a rolly trip. The swells come up from behind and push the stern one way of the other, so, basically you just sit in the cockpit and hang on. An occasional wave will spill over and try to come onboard once in a while, but it is mostly a dry trip where you can keep the center hatch open and sit up on deck if you wish.
We arrived in Aruba before Christmas and Donna on SOLITAIRE fixed a traditional Christmas dinner of turkey and all the trimmings. What a treat. Aruba is a delightful island - not what cruisers typically seek out though. It has no good anchorages, lots of hotels, casinos, cruise ships and traffic. What makes it so pleasant is the courtesy and enthusiasm of the people. Aruba declared their independence from the Dutch in 1986 and they are trying very hard to develop a major tourist industry. Therefore, they treat tourists very well. Everything is new and glitzy and the people are prospering and so they are very happy. As a matter of fact, their slogan is "One Happy Island." We enjoyed all the wonderful shops and even got lucky at the blackjack table - winning $150. We stayed through New Year's and experienced the wildest and noisiest New Year's Eve celebration we've ever seen. The fireworks and firecrackers start at 10am and continued on past midnight. Almost all businesses had strings of firecrackers, which ranged from 25 ft. to 1 1/2 miles!!!! The latter contained 2.5 million firecrackers and took 39 minutes to finish exploding. That event took place on the main highway in front of the Sonesta Hotel and caused all traffic to be halted. The people of Aruba believe the fireworks will frighten away all the bad spirits for the coming year.
Aruba - Cartagena
We left Aruba reluctantly for our 3-day trip to Cartagena Columbia. This are of the Caribbean has a very nasty reputation for both piracy, due to drug trafficking and bad seas. So, LONG PASSAGES and SOLITAIRE traveled together and made frequent contacts via the SSB radio. Fortunately, we had no incidents and all but the last day of sailing was very pleasant. In the last 24 hours, we had 30-35 knots of wind and 13-15 ft. seas. The seas were unusually steep and high, but all was fine until we heeled over while running the engine and got a jib sheet wrapped around the propeller. That killed the engine - no damage. The seas and winds were so bad that we had to hand-steer for the next 13 hours.
Cartagena is a very old city with an illustrious history as a major port along the Spanish Main. It was well fortified by the Spaniards and the beautiful inviting entrance into Bahia de Cartagena is protected by a stone wall that rises to 5-6 ft. below the surface of the water, forcing all ships to go to the heavily fortressed and narrow entrance at Boca Chica 10 miles to the south and then sail back up. This fact caused us a dilemma in that we could only sail and were running out of daylight. Of course by this time the wind had dropped to 8-10 knots. So we called some cruisers that we knew were anchored in Cartagena and they arranged for the marina owner to meet us and show us the passage over the wall and to then tow us the rest of the way in. He supposedly had "local knowledge" of the passes but on the way over we hit the 250-year-old wall. It was just a glancing blow and other than a scratch on the keel and further blow to our pride no other damage was done. We were towed to a mooring, had a diver remove the sheet and spent the next 5 weeks enjoying this beautiful city.
The old city of Cartagena has a wall completely around it and inside there are gorgeous old homes, churches and government buildings. The streets are very narrow and many of the buildings have wonderful balconies and lush green courtyards in the interiors. Several of these buildings were open to the public and it was wonderful to be able to tour these 200+ year old structures. As you can imagine the churches/cathedrals were incredibly huge and ornate.
After spending some time in Cartagena, we decided to see more of Columbia, so, despite the reputation as a drug capital, we took a 3-day trip to Medellin. It was a 14-hour bus ride in a luxurious, air-conditioned bus and only the last 4 hours were tiring. The scenery along the way was wonderful. Medellin is a very modern and beautiful city with clean parks and streets, great museums and spectacular modern sculptures. We loved the city and the people that we met. We were very cautious, though, and did not draw attention to ourselves by wearing the typical cruiser clothing of shorts, t-shirts and sandals. We left our passports and most of our money in the hotel safe, took taxis most places (cheap) and when we did walk, we did so only during the day. Our trip back to Cartagena was by air and this too was very nice. The taxi trip to the airport was a 1-hour scenic drive over the mountains surrounding the city. We decided the best way to get around in South America is by luxury buses which are inexpensive, fast and go everywhere.
Cartagena - Panama
February in the SW Caribbean is a very windy time of year, so we waited for what we hoped was a good weather window for the 2-day trip to the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama. The first night was the pits. Again, high winds and seas and we were hit by what I called the "monster" cross-sea on the beam. The wave heeled the boat way over, bent 3 stanchions and the dodger then came down the companionway and got the weatherfax, Ham radio and nav. Station wet. (We now have canvas covers for all these items.) The next day everything calmed down and we had a lovely sail to Hollandayes Cays in the San Blas.
These islands are inhabited by a tribe of Kuna Indians who are trying very hard to maintain their culture and way of life in the midst of 20th century Panama. They are small, shy people who sew beautiful handicrafts called molas. These are reverse applique artwork sewn into blouses worn by the women and rectangular pieces that sort of look like placemats. They are very intricate and the good ones are layered with 4-5+ pieces of fabric and have many colors in very tiny designs. These designs are highly stylized creations and represent Kuna history, animals, and culture. We both got "Mola fever" and purchased many of these wonderful items. It was so hard to say no when the whole family rowed out to your boat to show you their molas.
The Hollandes Cays were my idea of South Sea islands without the mountains. They are covered with palm trees, protected by a large barrier reef, have white sand beaches and small thatched huts where the Kunas live. We dropped anchor and spent 10 days exploring the islands and reefs. We speared lobster and saw many, many beautiful sea rays and nurse sharks. The water was wonderfully clear and the reefs were so very colorful and unspoiled. Most of these islands are uninhabited and so there are not hotels or towns to pollute the water and very few cruise ships sail in this area, although the numbers are increasing. I could have spent 6 months exploring these islands and we met several cruisers doing just that. But, our agenda called for us to be in the Pacific, so we had to move on.
On 2 March, we reluctantly left the tranquil San Blas islands for our trip to Colon, Panama. We made an overnight stop in the lovely port of Portobello and then continued on for the 15-mile trip to the Panama Canal. We entered the breakwater at Cristobal on the afternoon of March 3rd and were treated just like one of the many ships coming and going in that area. Cristobal Signal Station is sort of like an air-traffic controller. They monitor all vessels in the area and let you know when can enter the breakwater. We were directed to enter and proceed to an anchorage are for small yachts called "the flats" and are located just off the channel for ships entering and leaving he Canal and, although, you can't see the Canal, it is exciting to see ships of all sizes coming and going. We checked in with immigration and customs and then proceeded to do the necessary paperwork required to transit the Canal including having the boat measured.
Colon is a very poor, dirty city and therefore has a lot of crime and thievery. We just took normal, commonsense precautions and had no trouble. We were in Colon for approximately 10 days and found it a good place to provision and obtain other things. One area that Bob discovered is the "Free Zone" where you can buy electronics and other items duty-free. We went wild and purchased, among other things, a spare multi-band radio, TV, watch, slide projector and a Casio electronic keyboard for all of those long passages. Since then he has purchased books on how to pay the piano.
After cramming every available space with stuff, we made preparations for our trip through the Canal. In order to transit, each boat needs four 125-ft. heavy lines, 4 line handlers, 1 skipper, and 1 Panama Canal advisor. We supplied all but the advisor. Our friends on Solitaire were to be 2 or our line handlers along with me and we obtained the help of Bryan, a young GI with medical and SCUBA training stationed in Panama. Of course, Bob was the skipper. When we first arrived in Colon, we got in touch with a Panama Canal Pilot who has a Shannon here in Panama in order to get advice and assistance from him. Nat and his wife, Glynda, were wonderful to us and lent us 2 long lines and additional fenders, took us sightseeing, entertained us in their home and helped us with provisioning for the long trip to the Marquesas. We were so fortunate to have met them. Nat also interceded on our behalf to insure that we would have a safe transit through the canal by re-organizing our time so that we would transit with a smaller ship instead of the "Pana-max" ship with which we were originally scheduled.
On the 19th of March with everyone on board, including our Advisor, Rick (his 2nd solo transit), we headed to Gatun Locks in the Panama Canal. These are a series of 3 locks where you move from 1 to the other and lifted a total of 84 ft. into Gatun Lake. This is how our transit worked. Small vessels almost never lock up or down alone. Because of the costs, they are usually locked up/down with a large ship. In our case, we had a car carrier from Japan that was 105 ft. wide and 700 ft. long (the lock is 110 ft. wide and 1,050 ft. long). The ship moves into the lock first by the use of "mules" or small train locomotive, which move in tracks along the top of the lock and which are attached to the ship by long cables. The small yachts move in the ship. At this point we were nested (tied together) with a 59 ft. Swan sailboat (not shabby company). The Swan being so much bigger drove both of us into he lock, with Bob using our engine to assist, if needed. Once in the lock 2 men on top of the lock throw us small lightweight lines with a "monkeys fist" on the end. We used this line to tie to our long heavy lines which they then hauled the top of the lock and placed over large bollards. The gates to the lock are then closed behind us and fresh water from Gatun Lake is drained into the lock raising both the ships and the nested sailboats. While this is happening, the line handlers on both sailboats start taking in the slack as we begin to rise. The ship is attached by cables, which are automatically taken in by the mules, as the ship rises. This little process seems easy, but if the people on 1 side of the sailboat are not taking in the slack fast enough, the boats start to drift over to the other side of the slimy, rough concrete wall of the lock chamber. Additionally, if the bow and stern lines are out of sync, the bow/stern moves to the wall of the chamber. The objective here is to keep the small nested boats in the center of the chamber. The ship has no problem because everything for it is handled automatically by the mules. The first lock was the most difficult because there is both fresh and saltwater mixing. This caused some turbulence and made line handling a lot of work. Once the lock is filled, everyone has moved up about 27 ft. the front gates are opened so that both ship and sailboats can move to the next lock. It was really odd to be able to look behind and look down to see the sea. The mules move the ship out of the lock into the next lock but the sailboats motor. After the ship is moved out, the men on the wall cast off our lines, but kept the light lines attached. They then walked along while we motored into the next chamber. All of this must be highly coordinated so that while the ship is moving out, our small boats are still securely tied up, because the ships do use their engine to assist the mules. Their prop wash is very strong and would push our little boats back against the lock. The same process is repeated for the next 2 locks.
Then, suddenly there we were in a lovely freshwater lake, where we motor-sailed for the next 21 miles. The are is tropical rainforest and has been left in its natural state to insure that the watershed is undisturbed. The water from this lake is filled by a long rainy season and is critical to the operation of the Canal. Small vessels are not allowed to transit the Canal after sunset, so depending on the start time, it may not be possible to get through to the Pacific in 1 day. Our start time was very late so we had to anchor in the lake for the night with all of our extra crew. Rick, our advisor, was taken off the boat and returned the next morning. We had a great time swimming in the lake and enjoying the scenery.
The next day we were all anticipating "locking down" to Balboa on the Pacific side of the Canal. In this process everything is reversed - the sailboats move into the locks first and the ship is moved in behind you. Instead of going up 27 ft. you move down through at series of 3 locks back to sea level. We had a bit of luck, and instead of a big ship, we were able to lock down with 2 small US Army vessels, which had priority and wanted to get to the Balboa side. The whole transit was very exciting and uneventful, and, although there is a lot of stress associated with it, everyone had a wonderful time. I could hardly contain my emotions when I knew that we were in the Pacific Ocean. We left the boat on a mooring buoy at the Balboa Yacht Club and traveled by to Colon to do this all over again with Don & Donna on Solitaire. Again, it was an easy transit and all had a good time.
We are now preparing for the 800-mile trip to the Galapagos where we hear it is relatively easy to ask for a 1-week stay in Academy Bay, Santa Cruz Island. We are really looking forward to our new adventures in the Pacific.
Bob and Judi