Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cruiser-unfriendly Curaçao – Checking in Procedures

When arriving in Bonaire, you take the dinghy ashore, walk to Customs and Immigration (open “25/8”), fill out some paperwork and after about 15 minutes, you are checked into the country and good to go, free of charge. In Curaçao, not so much. After four years of cruising, mainly in the Caribbean, it proves to be the most time-consuming and inconvenient country of all the places we have stopped at.  First and for all, you are anchored in Spanish Waters (more about that later) and the check-in procedures have to happen in the capital Willemstad, about 30 minutes away.  You are dependent on bus schedules and opening hours and you have to walk all over town and get back to your boat when finally done; this is how it works…

Mark and I arrived on a Friday, late afternoon and you are supposed to check in the country within 24 hours. So, first thing Saturday morning, around 8:30 am, we take the dinghy to a cramped and small dinghy dock, walk to the bus stop to catch the 9am bus, wait for an extra 20 minutes until it arrives and takes us to the bus station in town. From there, we walk to Customs (Douane) in Punda and wait until someone opens the door. The formalities take about 30 minutes and we are off to Immigration in Otrabanda, on the other side of the river, supposedly under the big Queen Juliana Bridge. The floating pedestrian Queen Emma Bridge is broken, so we hop on the free ferry, shelter during a massive rainstorm, and walk along the shore. We pass a gated rundown area and wonder where to go. There are no signs anywhere; when we ask a local, she sends us back to the other side of town. We persevere, following a dirt track until we find ourselves under the massive bridge, up high, in the middle of nowhere. Not good.

We backtrack, return to a main road and ask a bus driver where Immigration is located. He points us to the rundown area where the gate is now open. No signs! We have to check in at a little booth, receive a permission card and look around the dilapidated buildings. Where to go? Back to the booth, where we ask for directions. We are pointed towards one side of the long dock and try again. This is an unattractive cruise ship dock area, but we cannot imagine that it is actually still in use (it is).  After another 5 minute walk, we reach two buildings, of which one is set back and says in small letters “Immigratie” above the door. Ha! Inside, we fill out the paperwork, call for the officer and get our stamps. We mention that we are anchored in zone A in Spanish Waters. Now, there is one step left: Port Authority to buy our anchor permit. But… it is Saturday and the office is closed. We walk all the way back to Punda, explore a bit over there (which doesn’t count), wait 30 minutes for the bus and arrive back home after 5 hours of total time spent on checking in. And, we are not done yet!

On Monday, I go back to Willemstad. Wait, ride the bus, and run (this time over the Queen Emma Bridge) to the Port Office, about 1.5 miles away, because it is approaching 11:30 am and the office closes at 11:45 am, until 1:30pm… Sweating profusely, I open the door, right in time. I wait in line, buy an anchoring permit for US$10 and we’re done! In Curaçao, you are only allowed to anchor long term in Spanish Waters, where there are four zones to do so, restricting sailors to a relatively small area in this massive bay. You pick your zone and have to stay there, unless you go back to the office (and purchase another permit ?). There are a few other – more attractive – bays to anchor, but you need a separate permit for each one of them, pay US$ 10 every time and leave that area after a maximum of three days. 

Permit in hand, I make my way back home, after another 3 hours. That brings the total check-in time to 8 hours, before we feel comfortable and settled. Now, we are ready to battle a few boat projects and see what Curaçao has to offer. More about that in a next blog!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Beautiful Bonaire

A nice thing about being on the move is reaching new places and exploring them in every which way. When we left Los Aves, a slow downwind sail with the jib brought us to the south side of Bonaire. Once we pulled up the mainsail and rounded the corner to sail north for the last stretch, the wind came soaring over the salt flats, pushing us forward at 7-8 knots. We were flying and thoroughly enjoyed the last hour’s sail (now that was a sail!) to Kralendijk, Bonaire’s capital and only place to moor. Anchoring is prohibited in this eco-friendly island, so boats are obliged to pick up two (!) mooring lines - which was a bit confusing and unfitting for our size cat - and pay US$10 a night.

Together with Curaçao and Aruba, Bonaire is part of the ABC-islands, just north of Venezuela. It belonged to the Netherlands Antilles until recently, but became an integral part of the Dutch Kingdom (Queendom?)  on 10-10-10. The official currency now is the US Dollar and things have changed a lot for the residents, who speak Dutch, Papiamento, English and/or Spanish. Bonaire is most famous for its excellent diving, but there is much more to this little island than meets the eye or the fame. Almost every day during the high season at least one cruise ship docks at the big pier in the crystal clear water. When wanting to do some inland exploring, it’s better to wait for a day that dock is empty!

Mark and I don’t dive, but we like to snorkel and Bonaire is wonderful for that.You can just jump off your boat and swim to the sea wall ashore, while gazing at many colorful fish and the pretty coral head here and there.  Along the west coast, a multitude of dive sites are marked and parking is provided. Some of these sites are also suitable to snorkel and a free brochure explains what there is to see. For US$10 a year, you are free to explore Bonaire’s underwater world. Divers pay US$25.

One afternoon, Mark and I took the dinghy to Klein Bonaire, the small, scrubby island ½ mile west of the “mainland”, where the best beach is located. The pretty sandy stretch is called No Name Beach and the coral reef with the same name is worth checking out. It gets very busy on the weekends, but other days you are apt to find a free mooring ball to tie up your dinghy and swim to shore. More than one dinghy fits these floats. There’s also a “big” mooring for bigger boats. I was looking forward to taking a whole bunch of underwater pictures at this site, but unfortunately, my relatively new camera broke.

The highlight of our weeklong stay in Bonaire was the day we rented a scooter and drove around the island. Following the coastal road north, we passed a plethora of dive sites and meandered through low laying brush, cacti and rock formations. At the eye sore of the oil terminal, we turned inland to reach Gotomeer (Goto Lake), which looks very picturesque from the viewpoint above. We didn’t see any flamingos, but there were a few more chances later. The road brought us past Rincon, the second biggest town on the island and along many properties surrounded by cactus fences, a pretty and interesting concept.

Then we arrived at Washington-Slagbaai National Park. Cars and motorcycles are allowed to drive around the northern part of the island encompassed by the park, but scooters are not. Instead, we parked our little vehicle and walked the trail closest to the entrance. The desert-like scenery, very barren with prickly cacti, sharp black coral and rocky cliffs has a beauty of its own. The colors were provided by the wild green canaries, pink flamingos, blue sky and endless ocean. The walk was a bit tough with flipflops and the sun was extremely hot, but we both enjoyed to be “in the wild” for a bit, all by ourselves.

In the afternoon, we continued our tour, back through Rincon and the capital Kralendijk, southeast to Lac Bay, which is popular with windsurfers. We drove by wild donkeys and marches with more flamingos. After Lac Bay, we followed the rough east coast with the extensive salt flats to our left. More pink dots were visible and a short stop at the reconstructed slave huts made us realize that our living space on the boat is much bigger and luxurious than during those terrible days. At Pink Beach, which consists of old coral, we decided to go for a snorkel. We had to cut it very short, since we were running out of time. A short stop at the colorful salt pans and bright white salt mountains concluded our whirlwind tour of the island.

The mooring field in Bonaire is not very protected in anything else than wind with an eastern component and the coast of Columbia is getting more treacherous the later in the year we get there, so we decided to move on. And, that’s the bad thing about being on the move… you have to keep moving and leave the places you like before you actually want to! 

 Sailing from Los Aves to Bonaire at dawn. The moon is still up!

Gotomeer seen from the viewpoint

The "famous" Bonaire cactus fence

The barren landscape at Washington-Slagbaai National Park

A little bay in the national park

Blowhole in the national park

Wild donkeys along the road to Lac Bay

Wild flamingos along the road to Lac Bay

Pink salt flats and bright white salt mounts waiting to be transported

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Vacationing in the Out Islands of Venezuela

I can’t remember the last time Mark and I had a vacation. Seriously! I know it sounds weird hearing a statement like that from somebody who lives full time on a sailboat in the tropics, but that somebody is relatively young, needs to make money to survive and happens to run a business with her husband as well. For the last three years, we never took more than two days off and most of the time, that was used to reach other islands or because we happened to be in a place without internet. Even our trips “home” were busy and intertwined with work.

This time, at the end of October, we left Grenada and civilization behind for over two weeks, a personal record for both of us. It meant time for the boat, for each other, for sailing and for exploration. It also meant no internet connection, which in turn meant giving the business a break and throwing stress and frustration overboard. We found ourselves filling the days with the occasional chore (a lot of cooking and dishes), a project here or there (sewing, cleaning, fixing some boat issues lower on the list), a lot of relaxing and staring at the beautiful surroundings from our cockpit, snorkeling the reefs, walking powdery beaches and barren land, a lot of reading for Mark (he finished four books!) and some writing for me (I can’t resist).

Soon enough the realization sank in that this is what most cruisers do every day and that this is more how the boat life should be! How we would wish it could last forever. But, the real life continues and in there we really do need groceries, a washing machine and internet… Before reaching all that in Bonaire again, we stopped at the islands of La Blanquilla, Los Roques, and Los Aves, a safe distance away from Isla Margarita (robberies) and mainland Venezuela (pirate attacks).

La Blanquilla

This flat island offers relatively rolly anchorages and the best way to deal with those – other than rigging a bridle – is to go ashore. We rowed our dilapidated dinghy to the beach and took off exploring, not sure what to expect. Along the way we stopped by two other cruising boats, offering them our freshly caught barracuda (we had too much fish with the massive king fish we had caught later), but they both declined (!) and we – unfortunately – had to toss the fish to the birds. Mark and I decided to follow the sandy and rocky coastline in order to find Americano Bay, written up to be a nice place. After half a mile or so, we were forced inland, with only low brush and cacti around. Then we discovered a multitude of tiny trails through the inhospitable area: donkey trails! We followed some in the general direction of where we wanted to go and enjoyed being explorers, dodging prickly things and being hissed at by wild donkeys.

After a while in the beating sun, we found our bay and stumbled upon a hole in the rocks first. Underneath were a cave and the deep blue ocean. Reaching the pretty bay with sandy shores from here proved a bit tricky and I got stabbed by many a sharp cactus. Pulling out the thorns was no easy feat. The reward was a shady area underneath the rocks, from where we could gaze at the blue water and a natural arch and where we went for a refreshing swim and choppy snorkel. The walk back was very hot, but quick now that we had figured out the maze of narrow trails. During the afternoon, back on Irie, the coast guard swung by all the boats present, to collect goodies for offering their services as friendly keepers of safety…

Los Roques

Los Roques covers a pretty big area with different islands surrounded by sandy beaches, reefs and mangrove trees. The first two places we stopped didn’t impress us. Francisquis was busy with Venezuelan tourists, speeding pirogues, anchored yachts and passing planes and Isla Carenero housed dense forests of mangroves that came with uncountable attacking mosquitoes. The water wasn’t very attractive to swim or snorkel in. When we moved to Sarqui, beauty and relaxation greeted us: shallow, clear water, interesting reef patches to snorkel and a couple of islands to walk the shoreline.

The highlight was Cayo de Agua. Anchoring proved a bit tricky, because the chart in our guidebook was not very obvious (oh, did I mention that all our electronic charts were off, so we really could only trust our eyes?), but we succeeded in dodging all the reefs and weedy areas to find a shallow sandy spot to anchor, clear of all underwater obstacles. “Eye ball” or “reef navigation” this is called. Good light (sun behind or above you) is required! A walk to the pretty lighthouse revealed a few amazing beaches with a narrow spit of sand connecting the island with West Cay. Turquoise water beckoned on both sides; where to jump in and cool off? Even here, tourists get dropped off every day from El Gran Roque, so we were glad to have done our explorations in the morning. Around noon that day, the coast guard of Los Roques entered our boat for a “safety inspection”, involving a lot of paperwork and a bribe of hard cash to “replace” our unpaid national park fees. Rum and coke did not work here, but they took them as a bonus anyway.

Los Aves

This group of islands consists of two groups of islands with ten miles of open water in between: Aves de Borlavento and Aves de Sotavento. We stopped at the first set for two nights of peace. No beaches in the bay we picked to anchor, but a lot of birds and tall trees ashore. A walk brought us through some thick brush and past a site full of homemade signs, created by other visitors over the years. The last days of our vacation were spent in Aves the Sotavento, where we anchored off Isla Palmeras for a few nights. The scenery was beautiful, rowing to shore against wind and current provided some needed exercise and the snorkeling on the south side of Isla Ramon was great. We hoped to meet some fishermen to trade cigarettes and rum for lobster, but … no such luck. When the wind picked up some and the area became uncomfortable at anchor, we sailed the 45 miles to Bonaire, which concluded our vacation.

Americano Bay, La Blanquilla

 Natural Arch, La Blanquilla

Cayo de Agua, Los Roques

Dinghy landing in the mangroves, Aves de Borlavento

 Isla Palmeras anchorage, Aves de Sotavento

Great snorkeling in Aves de Sotavento

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A New Chapter

Mark and I had been talking about it for a little while, but now we are actually doing it! After three years of sailing up and down “the island chain”, spending months at the time at each “end” and focusing on work, projects and errands, we have broken the routine and opted for something new and different. We left the popular and easy Eastern Caribbean. Oh, to be traveling again… and to be sailing without knowing what to expect. Doing longer trips, including night sails. It sure is a whole other world and concept and we did leave comforts and friends behind, but we are both ready for new territories, adventures and priorities. And, with every move comes a new experience…

October 27th, 2011 (happy birthday, dad) was the day we left our beloved Grenada behind. From the moment we lifted anchor at 5am, the clouds emptied themselves and we got drenched in a massive squall. Just like when I said farewell to my best friend Rosie the day before, Mother Nature didn’t seem quite happy to see us go. For hours we were surrounded by massive clouds and the sun came up with a few more downpours. Mark and I estimated an average speed of 5 knots when planning our first trip, but, not being used to downwind sailing and expecting a bit too much from our little cat – of which only the jib was useful (wish we managed to find a used spinnaker, but all our attempts failed) – we only did about 4 knots the first 24 hours.

The seas were calm and we both managed to do our night watches, but the following morning, the engines had to come on. We were adamant to make our first stop before nightfall on day two. Unfortunately that meant running the engines for 8 hours. We learned our lesson, so we thought. The last two hours before arrival, the wind picked up and we had a wonderful and quite sail towards flat Blanquilla. Our speed picked up as well, we hooked a small barracuda, passed a drop-off, and … caught a big one next! A heavy and meaty creature – we think it was a king fish – turned into 7 wonderful fish meals! This way, our stocked up meat (luckily frozen) lasted forever…

The anchorage at Blanquilla was pretty rolly, but we both enjoyed a great day of exploration ashore and some rest during the afternoon. A visit from the Coast Guard ended our first full day in the out islands of Venezuela. The wind was predicted to die even more over the next days, so we decided to head to Los Roques sooner than later. This time, we counted on an average speed of 4 knots. The first day out, we barely did 3 knots, because the wind was dead behind us at a velocity of less than 10 knots! With our small jib, we barely moved. Irie did manage to catch a fish trap and I had to dive into the ocean to cut the tangled line loose from the prop. Other than that, the trip was very relaxing and the seas almost flat to say the least, but … we had 120 miles to go and hoped to reach reef strewn land before 4pm (when the sun is still high enough for optimal visibility) on the second day out. The way this was going, we were looking at a whole day of motoring again.

Then, at night, we lucked out with northeast winds. We pulled our mainsail up and managed to sail all night on a broad reach, doing 4.5 knots in about 10-12 knots of wind. It was a happy ride, with clear skies and millions of bright stars. More traffic in this area as well, but all the ships were lit. We caught up some of the “lost” distance and reached Los Roques under sail (during the day back to only jib and slow speeds), apart from the last hour. Now we were ready for a few days of fun and relaxation in these beautiful and out-of-the-way cruising grounds!

Pretty big fish caught at the drop-off to Blanquilla. King fish?

One of the many meals we made with the fresh fish: steak with spinach and plantains

Not long after leaving Blanquilla for the 120 miles to Los Roques, we caught a fish trap. I "went in" to cut the line off the propeller.

View of El Gran Roque from our first anchorage in Los Roques.

Slow sail through Los Roques to explore different islands.