Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bonaire, Curacao, and Aruba (2013)

On Friday, June 21st, we woke in the darkness, hoping to get an early start on the 400 mile sail from Grenada to Bonaire.  There is a superstition among sailors that you should never begin a voyage on a Friday.  We’re not superstitious, but after a rough beginning to this passage, we began to reconsider. 

It started when Andrew realized that he hadn’t checked the fuel filter the night before.  He went down to inspect it and found it was half full of water.  This happens occasionally because the fuel tank vent hose runs into the cockpit in a less than ideal spot.  If a wave fills the cockpit while we are heeled over hard to port, seawater can flow down the hose and into the tank.   We drained the water, topped it up with clean fuel, and started the engine.    

We were running later than planned when Andrew hoisted the main sail and untied the mooring lines.  Careful not to foul the prop, we drifted for a while, waiting to get clear of the mooring ball and lines before putting the engine in gear.  About thirty seconds later, there was no sign of the mooring float, and we started looking around the boat.  It was nowhere to be seen, meaning that it either disappeared in the middle of the night (we weren’t tied directly to the mooring ball, but to the same line it was tied to) or it was caught on something under the boat.  The only way to know for sure was to put on the mask and snorkel and get in the water. 

Di took a quick swim around the boat and found no signs of the mooring float or any other lines, so we were finally able to motor-sail out of the harbor.  The course out of Phare Bleu Bay was directly into the seas that morning, so we pounded our way out.  Once clear of the reefs, we fell off onto a slightly more comfortable course just as a small wave jumped over Saviah’s quarter and drenched us in the cockpit. 

A few miles later, Di noticed the engine RPM’s had declined with no adjustments to the throttle.  This seemed strange, and ten minutes later, the engine died altogether.  Thankfully, we were clear of all hazards and had enough wind to sail slowly.  We surmised that the fuel filter was probably clogged, so Andrew set about replacing it, but quickly realized that he forgot to open the fuel supply lines after draining and filling up the filter earlier that day.  Should we just turn back, we wondered.

This was a frustrating way to start a passage, but a few miles off the coast of Grenada, the wind filled in at 12 knots out of the NNE, and we sailed along with the main and genoa.  The winds remained light for the first two days, but we had a little boost from the current that helped us average 5.5 knots.  Rather than steer a direct course to Bonaire, we headed a bit further to the north.  Over the last 20+ years there have been countless attacks on cruisers and even local fishing boats by Venezuelan pirates, so we decided to play it safe and put a few extra miles between us and the coast of Venezuela.  

Late on day three, the winds picked up to 18 knots, gusting to 25.  They were right behind us, and we doused the main to sail with just the poled out genoa.  Around 11 pm that night, we got the gust that finally finished off our favorite sail.  The genoa ripped twice horizontally in the middle of the sail all the way from luff to leach.  Andrew was on watch and started pulling it down, as Di rushed up on deck, still groggy from sleep.  While it was flogging, it wrapped around the spinnaker halyard and ended up in a tangled mess aloft.  We had to let the spinnaker halyard fly to get it off the furler.  This worked to get the genoa down, but then spinnaker halyard wrapped around something on the top of the mast that we couldn’t see in the darkness of night.  Until we sorted that out, we couldn’t hoist our smaller jib, so we sailed with just a reefed main for the rest of the evening. 

This was the third sail we lost in the last four months and the last of our big headsails that get Saviah moving downwind in light to moderate winds.  We bought the sail second hand before leaving Seattle, and it got us most of the way around the world, although we had to patch it countless times and re-stitch most of the seams.  Our only other jib is small, heavy and flat, which is going to make for some slow passages the rest of the way home.   

Once the sun rose, we sorted out the halyard and hoisted our small jib.  A few hours later, the low lying island of Bonaire was in our sights.  We sailed around the south end of the island and into the calm seas on the leeward east side.  All of the waters around Bonaire are part of a marine park, and no anchoring is permitted.  The park has installed forty mooring buoys along the main town and capital of Kralendijk, where visiting yachts can overnight for a daily fee of $10.  We tied off to one of the mooring buoys and jumped in the water to inspect it. 

The water was incredibly clear, and we were pleasantly surprised to find what appeared to be a very good mooring system.  There were three two-ton concrete blocks held together with steel cables, and two independent nylon lines connected to them.  The concrete blocks sit near the edge of a shallow shelf that stretches 50 yards from the island and then drops off abruptly.  When we were swinging on the mooring, our bow was over water 20 feet deep and the stern was over water 50 to 80 feet deep.   This steep wall was a haven for fish, and it was all right under the boat.    

Bonaire is one of six islands in what was previously the country of the Netherlands Antilles.  Three of these islands are just south of the Virgin Islands, in the Windward group, and the other three, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao (ABC’s), are in the Leeward group, just north of Venezuela.  Our plan was to visit all three of the Leeward Islands on our way west. 

These islands were colonized in the 17th century and later united into an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands about 60 years ago.  That country was officially dissolved in 2010, but the islands remain part of the kingdom under varying legal status.  Aruba and Curacao are their own countries within the kingdom, and Bonaire is a special municipality of the Netherlands.    

After securing Saviah, we lowered the dinghy and rowed into town to complete the clearance formalities.  The customs/immigration office was nearby, charged no fees and the process only took about ten minutes.  We thought we needed to find an ATM to pull out some Netherlands Antillean guilders, but learned that Bonaire switched to the US Dollar in 2010. 

After a short walk around, we knew it would be a good stay in Bonaire.  There are only 16,000 people living on the island, which is 24 miles long and seven miles wide.  Small Dutch cottages in a variety of pastel colors lined the long waterfront where the moorings are located.  It is probably a different place when the cruise ships arrive, but when we were, there it was very quiet.  We would often look from the boat into the main city of Kralendijk and not see a single person walking around.    

capital city of Kralendijk near the mooring field
We could have stayed in Bonaire for a long time, not only because it was a lovely island, but it was a convenient place to cruise.  There is a marina close by where we could pull alongside to take on fresh water periodically.  We had free wi-fi at the boat from one of the shore side restaurants.  We could get cheap fresh produce from the Venezuelan vendors, who have an outdoor market on the waterfront.  There was also a very large Dutch grocery store a 20 minute walk away.  It was the best grocery store we had been to in a while, although it was a bit of a guessing game at times since the labels were mostly in Dutch. 

Although Dutch is the official language here, most of the people in the ABC’s speak Papiamento, which is a creole language that comes from Portuguese and West African languages as well as some Dutch and Spanish.  The people on the island were generally multilingual, and could also get by in Spanish, English and Dutch.  

During our stay, we spent a couple of days exploring the island via scooter.  It was a really nice ride on the narrow, often single lane roads with very little traffic.  We made a few trips around the island, following the coastal roads and stopping along the way to see some of the sites.  The island is very flat and arid with lots of cactus. 

cactus fence, Willemstoren Lighthouse, Seru Largu lookout
We wanted to get some exercise and see some wildlife, so our first stop was the Washington Slagbaai National Park at the north end of the island.  Off-road vehicles are required to drive the park road, but several hiking trails start at the park entrance.  We did two of them, including the short hike up to the highest point on the island, Mount Brandaris, at only 784 ft.  There are many lizards and iguanas, as well as several hundred bird species in the park.  We saw quite a few parrots feeding atop the cacti, as well as pink flamingos in the shallow brackish water, where they feed on the shrimp. 

That afternoon, we rode southeast to see Lac Bay, a windsurfer’s paradise.  The lagoon is protected by a reef, so it has no swell, but still has the full benefit of the trade winds.  At only a few feet deep, it is the ideal place to learn.  There were probably fifty windsurfers flying about the lagoon on the windy day we visited.  We had never windsurfed before, so we talked to the instructors at Jibe City and came back a few days later for lessons.  It was a lot of fun, and they gave us big boards and small sails, which made it easier.  By the end of the hour, we got the hang of tacking and were ready for some slightly bigger sails. 

From Lac Bay, we continued south along the windward coast and down to the salt ponds.  These huge salt pans were vivid colors of blue, pink and green, depending on the level of evaporation.  There were tractors loading the salt onto trucks, which take it over to a conveyer belt, which then loads it onto the freighters in the bay. 

The salt pans are an important industry on the island that has been active for hundreds of years.  As we made our way to the south side of the island, you could see the obelisks on the shore, which were used to guide the ships into the proper loading stations.  Salt production was also the reason for bringing slaves to the island, and they still have the old slave quarters on the beach.  It is hard to imagine, but each of these tiny shelters housed four people.  The doors were small enough that you would have to crawl in, and I’m not sure it was possible to even stand up inside one of them. 

slave quarters and obelisk used for guiding ships in
The highlight of our stay in Bonaire was definitely the snorkeling, all of which was done right from the boat.  The complete coastline and the surrounding waters out to the 200ft depth contour are a marine park.  They have done a great job of preserving their reefs, and the island is known as one of the best diving locations in the world, with nearly 100 dive sites.  The marine park has installed buoys at these sites that are free to use for up to two hours at a time.  They are located up and down the west coast of the island, as well as around the small nearby island called Klein Bonaire, just one mile from the mainland.  We visited ten of these sites and found incredible snorkeling.  The locations around Klein Bonaire were our favorite, and we saw eels, barracuda, turtles, squid, rays, sharks and many colorful fish dwelling among the healthy coral. 

During our stay in Bonaire, we continued to be diligent about checking the weather.  A direct hit from a hurricane was unlikely, since the ABC’s are outside the hurricane belt and have been hit only four times in the last 150 years.  But, it’s still possible and who knows when the next rare hurricane will stray south or come close enough to affect the local weather and sea state.  The moorings on the west side of Bonaire are protected from the typical NE to SE trade winds, but any westerly quadrant winds would make it untenable. 

Two weeks into our stay, tropical storm Chantal formed east of the Windward Islands.  These storm tracks are difficult to forecast, and we were not out of reach.  We kept a close eye on it, weighing our options if the unexpected were to happen.  There is a well-protected marina in Bonaire, which would be better than staying on one of the moorings, or we would have to make the sail to Curacao to a hurricane hole there.  Fortunately, Chantal stayed far north of us, and we started to breathe a little easier a few days later. 

After three weeks on the island, it was time to keep moving.  Bonaire was one of our favorite islands in the Caribbean, and we could have easily stayed for months.  But, there are other places we wanted to see, so early on July 14th we slipped the mooring lines and made the 35 mile sail to Curacao.

The wind was ESE at 15 knots, and Saviah made good time on a broad reach at 6 knots.  After rounding the south end of Curacao, we sailed wing-on-wing toward the Spanish Water harbor entrance.  This well-protected bay has a very narrow entrance, only 50 feet wide.  On our approach, we furled the jib and proceeded to sail through the channel under single-reefed main. 

We threaded our way through the twists and turns of the waterways until reaching the designated anchorages.  It was crowded as other cruisers had warned us it would be, but we managed to find a spot in 18 feet with good protection from the easterly winds.  Unfortunately, this was not close to any of the marinas or other places to land the dinghy, and we really wished our outboard was working.

Spanish Water
Clearance formalities must be completed in the capital of Willemstad, further north on the west coast of Curacao.  The process is quite an ordeal here, so we decided to just hang out for the night and get an early start the next day.   Our first stop the next morning was at a nearby marina, where they said it was no problem to leave the dinghy, but busses didn’t run to that part of the island, and we would have to walk a long way to find one.  So, back in the dinghy, we rowed in the other direction and found a windsurfing school that said we could leave the dinghy on their beach.  From there it was only a ten minute walk to the bus stop, which had busses that run every hour into the city. 

It was a thirty minute bus ride to the main bus terminal in Willemstad, the capital of Curacao.  There are around 145,000 people on the island, which felt congested after Bonaire, and it had a somewhat industrial feel, with an oil refinery belching smoke near downtown.  Right off the bus on our way to the customs office, we passed by the outdoor produce market.  For centuries, the Venezuelan fisherman and produce vendors have been coming to Curacao to sell their goods.  They dock their colorful boats right at the market.  This made it easy to stock up on fruits and veggies anytime we came to town.

Venezuelan boats docked at the outdoor produce market
The customs office on the waterfront was our first stop for paperwork before heading over to immigration.  The immigration office is on the other side of the Santa Anna Baai, which is a wide channel running through the city, where the freighters come in and enter the main commercial harbor to the north.  To get to the other side, you walk across the 220 feet long Queen Emma Bridge, which is a floating pontoon built in 1888.  This bridge swings open to allow ships to enter or exit the harbor, so it is occasionally closed to foot traffic for short periods of time.  When it is unavailable for longer periods of time, they have a free water taxi that shuttles people back and forth. 

The immigration office was a mile walk from the floating bridge, and we stopped in to complete that part of the process.  The last stop was at the harbor master’s office, which was right by the immigration office, but by this time was closed for a few hours for lunch.  We headed back into town and came back later for the last part of the paperwork.  The officials were all very pleasant, and it wasn’t very expensive, but this was definitely an all-day event.  We left the boat before 8 am and got back after 5 pm that night.  Of course, we would have to repeat all of this again in a week when it was time to go.   

Generally speaking, we weren’t crazy about Curacao, which was mostly because of the anchorage.  Although it was well protected, the water was murky and not appealing for swimming, a real bummer after growing accustomed to swimming all the time in Bonaire.   It was also such a hassle to get around from our anchorage, which was removed from everything.  Blustery winds are the norm there, which made the row to shore and back a wet endeavor.  It took over 30 minutes to get back to the boat in the afternoon, usually soaked by the time we arrived. 

The next few days brought unusually strong easterly winds, and we decided to just hang out on the boat.  This gave us time to do some cleaning and work on a few boat projects.  After a few days of this, the winds calmed down a little and we were getting cabin fever, so we took the bus back to town to do some sight-seeing. 

The city of Willemstad is a colorful and well-preserved city that is a UNESCO world heritage site.  It is built around the entrance to the harbor, which was once the center of the Caribbean slave trade.  This business was lucrative during colonial times, and the island became quite wealthy because of it.  There are some very colorful mansions and other buildings in the Dutch and Spanish colonial styles, as well as several forts that once protected the harbor.  They have spent a lot of money restoring these building over the last 30 years, and construction was still underway during our visit.

On one of our excursions into town, we stopped at a dive shop and found that the costs of guided dives on the island were about half the cost as in Bonaire, so we signed up for one.  It had been two years since our last dive, so after a quick refresher of the basics, we were in the water.  Unlike the murky anchorage of Spanish Water, the coastal waters of the island are crystal clear. 

We did a drift dive, letting the current take us north along the beautiful coral wall.  After about thirty minutes we reached a small tugboat, which had sunk in about 20 feet of water and has been overtaken by coral and fish.  The last stop was under a pier where a large ferry has been docked for years, and many kinds of sponges and other coral thrive in the low light environment.  Not one of the most spectacular sites and there weren’t many fish, but it was nice to be diving again.

After a week in Curacao, we were ready to go and had a good window to make the sail to Aruba.  We spent a day retracing our steps in Willemstad for our exit papers, stocked up on produce at the floating market and headed back to the boat.  A direct trip from Spanish Water to Aruba is too long for us to make during daylight hours, which we preferred since it is only 35 miles off the coast of Venezuela.  In order to avoid spending a night at sea, we made the 26 mile sail to another anchorage in Santa Cruz Bay on the northwest end of the island.  This would set us up to make the remaining 53 miles to Aruba the following day, which we could do during the light of day, as long as we left really early.  Santa Cruz Bay turned out to be a really beautiful, quiet bay and a complete contrast from Spanish Water.  Technically we shouldn’t have stopped there, since we had already checked out of the country, but it seems to be a fairly common strategy.  At one point, the Dutch Coast Guard came into the bay and circled us, but they didn’t stop and check our papers. 

The next morning we set sail from Santa Cruz at 4:45 am and had E winds at 15-18 knots.  It was a fairly pleasant sail, doing wing-on-wing with our little jib and a single reef in the main.  Saviah averaged six knots, and we made the sail in just under nine hours.  The course took us around the south side of Aruba, a long narrow island about 20 miles long and six miles wide.  Given the strict clearance requirements in Aruba, we needed to arrive during business hours to avoid overtime charges.  We made our way halfway up the west coast to Barcadera Harbor, an unpleasant commercial harbor but the only port of clearance for visiting yachts. 

As is generally the case, Venezuelan fishing boats occupied most of the dock.  The only space available was in the shallow end, with a reef running parallel to it about 50 feet away.  This didn’t give us much room to make a turn in water only six feet deep, a few inches more than what we draw.  We debated anchoring out and rowing in, but since it wasn’t low tide, we figured we had a few extra inches of water under us and decided to go for it.  As we approached and made our turn, Saviah didn’t come around like she usually does, probably because we were bumping the sandy bottom, but fortunately one of the Venezuelans ran over and helped us out.  We tied off to the tall concrete dock, and Andrew fended off as Di ran in and completed the clearance formalities. 

Thirty minutes later, we had our clearance papers in hand and made our way to Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba.  We had considered anchoring out, but the trade winds blow very strong in Aruba, and other cruisers had told us about very unpleasant stays in the anchorage.  Since we were planning on staying for only a few days, we decided to make it easy and just stay in the marina.  We contacted port control and got permission to enter the harbor and pulled into the marina late that afternoon.   

The marina is in the heart of Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba and where a third of the total population of 100,000 live.  The city is like a mini Las Vegas and definitely the most touristy place we’ve been.  The vast majority of the economy is based on tourism and almost 2 million people visit the island every year.  The city seemed like one shopping mall after another, and Andrew was ready to leave as soon as the weather was right. 

Actually, the stop in Aruba was more of a strategic one for us, breaking up the trip from Curacao to Colombia, which is known to be one of the roughest passages in the world.  The trade winds typically blow very strong, and the seas can be big and steep due to the shallow depths that extend off the Colombian coast.  We checked the weather every day, and rarely did the gribs show less than 25 knots of wind.   

The weather was not cooperating for a few days, so we decided to spend some time sightseeing.  We hopped on one of the busses going north along the west coast to see the California Lighthouse.  Aruba is known for their pristine beaches and on the way up we passed high-rise hotels lining the beach, one after another for miles.   Unfortunately, the lighthouse was not too exciting, and it was crowded with at least twenty tour busses. 

Renaissance Marina, California Lighthouse
The marina is owned by the Renaissance Aruba Resort and Casino, which has three hotels in close proximity.  While there, we had access to all of the resort amenities.  We soon decided that hanging out in Oranjestad and using these amenities was where it’s at.  We took full advantage of this, making it part of our daily routine to take a dip in the pool and get some exercise in the gym.  One of the hotels is located on an island with a free ferry service that runs every 20 minutes for hotel guests.  So we spent the afternoon out there too, where they had some nice beaches and photogenic flamingos. 

After a week in Aruba, the forecast showed slightly lighter winds at 20-25 knots and decreasing to 20 knots after the first day, and it seemed this was as good as it gets this time of year.  The marina manager told us if we wanted lighter winds, we would need to wait another five months.  The 300 mile passage would probably be rough, so we strapped everything down well.  On the morning of July 29th, we made our way back to Barcadera Harbor to clear out and set sail for Santa Marta, Colombia.