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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Waterlogged in Bonaire


Bonaire had been on our horizons for some time.  Youngest son Ryan spent a summer here five years ago and raved about the diving he did as have so many others we’d met.  As it was on our route west….we came.   Part of the Netherlands Antilles, Bonaire lies 100kms north of Venezuela and has a population of 10,000.  Bonaire is one of the ABC islands….Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao and we hope to visit all three.

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Have to say, the desertlike flat interior of the island is not startling. We hired a car with Mark and Amanda from Balvenie and went to the Washington-Slagbaii National Park in the north and were less than impressed. If you’re into cactus, aloe, lizards and dust then you’d love it.  It just didn’t do it for us – but maybe that’s because we prefer the rolling green English countryside dotted with oaks or the lush New Zealand native bush. The south is dotted with huge salt flats and a lagoon, Lac Bay – ideal for swimming, snorkelling and windsurfing.

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                  Watch out for lizards!                        Historic lighthouse


But we didn’t come here for the countryside – we came for the pristine and protected waters Bonaire is famous for.  One of the richest reef communities in the West Indies, Bonaire has plunging reef walls that drop to a sandy bottom at 60m or more.  The corals are quite magnificent including elkhorn, staghorn, brain and gorgonians.  There are huge areas of soft coral – like underwater gardens.  Best of all – you can simply walk in off the beach.

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Anchoring is forbidden anywhere (to protect the coral) so we hooked onto a mooring in 5m of  water 50m off the beach and jumped overboard for a look.  Wow – not only was the water some of the clearest we’d seen – but there was a tropical aquarium right under Bandit’s keel. 


Checking out our mooring block we were entranced by a beautiful moray eel peering out from underneath and the brightly coloured parrotfish nibbling at the mooring lines.  Lovely black and yellow angel fish came up to see what we were doing in their watery wonderland and a turtle swam on by!  And all this off the back of Bandit!!  Our morning swim, which is usually reasonably energetic,became a doddle as we stopped to check out our underwater friends.

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Bonaire is completely surrounded by pristine reefs – all protected with strict regulations in place.  You can’t fish here or even take a dead shell or piece of coral.  Sealife rules and it’s to the benefit of those enlightened tourists who come to this sustainable environment.  It is a diver’s and snorkeller’s paradise and we found ourselves becoming ever so slightly waterlogged as we did at least two snorkels each day… our morning swim!  The water was 27degrees but you needed a suit not only to stay warm but to stop tiny jellyfish stinging.


Mooring buoys are dotted around the sheltered west coast of Bonaire and Klein Bonaire – a small island a few hundred metres offshore.  We found the snorkelling here fantastic with some lovely coral and plenty of sealife including turtles, all manner of brightly coloured reef fish plus some bigger grouper and the odd barracuda.  The reef drops steeply and it was scary looking into the deep blue wondering what bigger fish were lurking.  One day as we were heading out snorkelling a huge school of dolphins surrounded us and David leapt overboard and swam with them for a while.  Another day we saw a lovely manta ray gliding beneath the tender….stunning.

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David was delighted when Blenheim friends Willie and Harriet Oswald arrived in Bonaire with Henry Willis.  All keen divers, they had a fantastic day diving including a night dive from Bandit which they all described as amazing.  Willie did say he’d had to hold Harriet down when two huge tarpoon fish, attracted by the torchlight, began hunting fish around them.   For a while Harriet thought she might be on the menu!


Willie, Harriet and Henry are sailing on Kiwi boat Haereroa, owned by Brian and Penny Hutchins from Queenstown.  Harriet jumps off in Panama and Willie and Henry go through to Tahiti.  We’d met Brian and Penny in Gibraltar and it was great to catch up again and enjoy a great meal on Haereroa one night and on Bandit another.


After 10 days in Bonaire it was time to move on.  The town of Bonaire didn’t offer much – the sole internet cafe was often crowded and internet slow….such things are important to cruisers.  And…we were paying US$10 a day for the mooring.  So reluctantly, we headed away to neighbouring Curacao.

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Bonaire certainly exceeded our expectations as far as the underwater life was concerned………just stunning.  We will miss our morning swim with so many friendly fish to check up on!  But we need to keep heading west… Curacao here we come.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Astonishing Aves


We didn’t really think anything could compare, beauty-wise, to Los Roques.   So, we arrived in the neighbouring Venezuelan islands of Las Aves prepared to be underwhelmed…and initially we were.  Maybe this was because we were on a mission to visit Kiwi boat Chinook Wind.  Sadly, Chinook Wind ran aground here in late February and anchoring within sight of her made us feel rather sombre and no doubt clouded our initial view of Ave de Barlovento. 


Chinook Wind crossed the Atlantic behind us in January and was part of our daily SSB sked, the Magellan (Mag) Net.  We were in Prickly Bay, Grenada together and had some fun social times. The day Dick came on the net to say they had struck a reef was devastating news.


As we were only two weeks behind Chinook Wind, we decided to visit in the (naive) hope we could salvage something for Dick and Anne.  It was tricky navigating our way through the reef strewn waters and wonderful to be with fellow Kiwis Mark and Amanda on Balvenie.  We anchored Bandit and Balvenie about a mile from the reef on which Chinook Wind sat and took the tenders as close as we could, swimming/wading the final 100m.  She was a very sad sight, having been completely stripped of anything of value.  We couldn’t feel anger at the local fishermen responsible - they live a pretty meagre existence and for them it would have been a gigantic windfall.


Later that night we sat in Bandit’s cockpit feeling absolutely desperate for Dick and Anne.  Nothing for it but a game of 500 to lift the spirits and, wouldn’t you know it, the girls once again thrashed the boys!!  (Will someone explain the subtleties of the game to Mark?  On second thoughts…let’s just leave him to figure it out himself!)


We didn’t need to linger in Ave de Barlovento any longer… off to the next island, Ave de Sotovento. Our moods brightened considerably as we caught two good tuna en route – dinner taken care of. As Ave de Sotovento came into sight we could see it was a far nicer than Barlovento with those familiar turquoise waters and unbelievably white sandy beaches.  We dropped the anchor in five metres of crystal clear water and immediately launched the tender to go exploring.


What a stunning island….and it was just us and Balvenie there.  The snorkelling was wonderful – not as many fish as on Los Roques but some lovely coral……most of it alive…..and some fantastic conch. 

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We’ve been in remote anchorages for nearly two weeks now and so getting low on fresh fruit and vegetables.  Just as well we caught tuna as the freezer supplies are zero.  Time to head to civilisation. ….rather reluctantly of course.  Spending time in these amazing Venezuelan islands has been a revelation.  We never knew they were so beautiful and so uncrowded… fact we didn’t even know they existed!  We’ll certainly never forget them.


Roll on Bonaire!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lost in Los Roques


Just when we thought it couldn’t get better……..that the deserted and remote island of Blanquilla was astonishingly beautiful……we discovered the awesome coral reefs and islands that are Los Roques. 


       Wow…..they truly do rock!  One of the nicest places we’ve been.


Los Roques is an archipelago – much of which is deemed national park -   sitting in pristine turquoise water about 100km from the Venezuelan mainland…..and 180km east of Bonaire. 

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Now….this is where it gets tricky.  Officially, we have to check in to Venezuela to be here but you can only do so in either Isla Margarita or the mainland.  For the past few years Margarita has been considered a no go area due to pirate attacks and the Venezuelan coast is also not a recommended place.  We were a bit disappointed as the diesel in Margarita is cheap as chips….but so is life there apparently..…..and we quite like ours!


So we had two options; avoid Los Roques or slip in illegally with fingers crossed.  For years friends had been telling us we had to visit.  Ryan was here in 2006 and loved it and fellow cruisers have raved about it.  So it was a no brainer….we were coming.

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Scouring the internet and sailing magazines we read many conflicting stories.  Some said yachts could stop here without checking in provided they paid the national park fee, others who stayed illegally had to bribe coastguard with cash, cigarettes and booze if found.  Hmmm…not so sure we like the idea of that. Others stayed undetected for days.  We did stock up on rice, cooking oil and soap as we’d heard coastguard need such basics.


With all these conflicting stories floating in our heads we anchored off the gorgeous main town of El Grand Roque, pleased to be out of the swell  - boy, it’s been windy and rolly out there lately! The plan was to play it safe – go into the national park office, pay our fee (around US$120) and enjoy the five days we would hopefully be given.

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 A Swedish cruising boat was anchored nearby so, before we headed ashore, we popped over to say hello and see what their experience was. Like us, they’d decided to go the official route as they’d been here before illegally and found it too stressful. So this time they went into park headquarters but were told the fee (for 15 days) was US$900!  Gulp…….!!


The high fee was due to their “illegal” status. When they tried to negotiate the fee down they were given 48 hours to leave. Their advice to us was to skip the park headquarters and just try and stay under the radar. We didn’t need encouragement……$900 doesn’t figure in the Bandit cruising budget.  So we upped anchor and left….fast!


We headed to Crasqui – one of the many stunning islands in Los Roques with an unbelievably white sandy beach stretching for miles, that amazing turquoise water and only a handful of other boats. The reef snorkelling was wonderful…..some lovely fish and good coral.  Sundowners on the beach with Balvenie were magic as the sun set over the amazing sea.

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Wanting to keep on the move (and hopefully avoid detection) the next day we headed to nearby Agustin which was also beautiful then Sarqui. All were absolutely magnificent anchorages but navigating to and from them between coral reefs caused a little anxiety.


We sent Balvenie first – figuring they’d done far more coral navigation than we had and drew a little more too! David rigged up a step for me on the pullpit so I could get high and spot the reefs and coral bombs. Much of this area is uncharted and the electronic charts are wildly inaccurate so it’s a case of only moving in the middle of the day, doing so slowly, wearing polaroids and using eyeball navigation.

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On our fourth day in Los Roques we found, what we all voted, the best anchorage ever – Cayo Carenero.  It was calm, sheltered, crystal clear water with white sandy beaches and heavenly snorkelling within a stone’s throw.  Best of all – we were the only boats in the anchorage apart from one motor boat.


We stayed two nights here before moving to Cala de Agua. Before coming here our American friends told us we’d see lobster crawling on the sea bed.  “Yeah right” we thought.  But in Cala de Agua it happened – as David was swimming back to Bandit he spotted a lobster out for a morning stroll.  Naturally, by the time he came and got a glove the lobster had gone!

The days just seemed to melt into the next.  We’d snorkel, walk on the gorgeous beaches, do a few jobs on Bandit, have sundowners on the beach and thrash Balvenie at cards at night (actually…..the only time we played it was skippers vs cooks and the girls won convincingly).


It wasn’t an easy decision to move on….but we figured we’d already had six fantastic free days here and we really didn’t want to risk the wrath of authorities.  Bandit was also getting dangerously low on fresh fruit and veges!  So reluctantly, we upped anchor and headed to the Aves….leaving behind one of the most beautiful spots in the world.  We’re just sad Venezuela seems so reluctant to share it with the rest of the world.

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At least we got to experience it...and we slipped under the radar, never seeing a coastguard or park official our entire time.  Now what do we do with all this cheap cooking oil, bulk buy rice and foul smelling soap?  

Thank you Los Roques for a magic time!


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Blissful Blanquilla


The remote Venezuelan island of Blanquilla is exactly how all deserted Caribbean islands should be.  Pristine white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, only one other boat in the bay, fantastic snorkelling and friendly fishermen happily giving away their catch…in exchange for a half full container of engine oil and a few batteries.  Ah, bliss.


Blanquilla is 170 nautical mls south west of Grenada (and roughly 100kms north of the Venezuelan mainland) and so a 24 hour sail.  Against my better judgement we left port on a Friday…but as David pointed out, if we were really serious about nautical superstition we wouldn’t have changed Bandit’s name (from Rinsewind), we’d never carry bananas and, most tragically, I’d have to biff out my gorgeous green Zara top!  It seems there are endless superstitions when it comes to boats and so you just have to get over them.  We left on a Friday and arrived safely…  point taken.

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The trip was not without drama for our sailing companions Mark and Amanda on Balvenie…as they were coming into the anchorage Mark called on VHF to say they’d lost their engine.  Scary at any time let alone coming into a strange anchorage with coral reefs and 30knots of wind.  Luckily a local fisherman noticed their plight and happily towed them in……and went away the very pleased recipient of a bottle of Mt Gay rum.


Snorkelling on the reefs around the anchorage was really special – the most abundant fishlife we’ve seen for ages, possibly ever, and some stunning coral.  The water clarity was magnificent.  The only thing I was disappointed about was not seeing those lobster crawling on the seabed we’d been told about – oh well, maybe Los Rocques.


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We had two wonderful nights on Blanquilla, enjoying drinks on the beach one night.  It would have been easy to stay, but we’ve still got a lot of miles to go to Guatemala, so another overnight to Los Roques…this time in almost full moonlight with Balvenie alongside all the way.

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