October 14, 1996

Puerto La Cruz


Dear Friends,

Tonight is rather hot and humid, there is no breeze at all in the Bahia Redonda Marina. The boat is perfectly still in her mooring and the only sound is the snap, crackle and pop of the barnacles trying to build a condominium on my hull. We have been sitting here in the marina for almost a month now (far too long). Back home the leaves will have changed, the nights will be rather cool, time to turn the clock back and settle in for another winter. This will be our first 'endless summer'. I'm certain I will not miss the snow and cold but it is a strange feeling and on nights like this a cool breeze would be welcome. Speaking of turning the clock back, it's been quite a while since I last wrote so let me go back to the end of August and Puerto Cabello.

With provisioning completed, tanks filled and zarpe's (port clearance papers) in order, Pirate Jenny and Syncronicity headed out of the harbour to continue our journey east. In order to avoid the strong easterly trade winds we took advantage of the effects of sun and land have on wind. During the day the hot sun warms the air over land faster than over water this causes the air to rise and creates a sea breeze. This breeze increases throughout the day and by afternoon combines with the easterly trade winds to creates a very strong north east wind. During the night the process is reversed resulting an area of much diminished winds for some 20 miles offshore.

Syncronicity off the coast of Venezuela

The Caribbean coast of Venezuela is very mountainous with spectacular cliffs plunging into the sea. We did not want to miss seeing this beautiful coastline so planned short hops along the coast that would enable us to take advantage of the wind patterns by leaving early in the morning, at or just before sunrise and anchoring by noon. Our first day out of Puerto Cabello was a very short hop of about 10 miles to a small, well protected bay called Cienage de Ocumare. We left the marina much later than planned and had a very bumpy ride through the building afternoon seas but, even banging through four foot waves could not loosen the tenacious hold of the marine life on the knotmeter impeller. Sitting in a marina with very little water flow even the best of antifouling paints can not keep a carpet of marine life from coating the bottom of the boat. When leaving I try to find a nearby anchorage where I can dive down and clean the bottom before continuing on. After anchoring we declared happy hour and watched the sunset, cold beer in hand, from the deck of 'Syncronicity'.

The next day was a rather rare cloudy, rainy day. We had decided the night before to stay at Ocumare to clean boat bottoms and do a little spearfishing on the reef. All in all it was a quiet day and a welcome contrast to the hustle and bustle of the preceding two weeks in port. With the cleaning done, a working knotmeter and after a BBQ hamburger dinner (the fishing wasn't too successful) we headed off to sleep early with the alarm set for 5:00 am.

At first light we had anchors lifted and motored slowly through the channel leading past the reefs to open water. We had about 30 miles to travel to our next anchorage at Bahia Puerto Cruz (a small bay along the coast, not the town of Puerto La Cruz). It is hard to describe the coastline. My thesaurus has lots of good alternatives for beautiful, spectacular and wonderful but to travel slowly about a half mile offshore, beneath the towering lush green mountains is an experience to which words can not do justice. Behind each headland hides a small bay, village or river outlet. The mountains are covered with a variety of plant life from towering mango trees, palm and banana in the bays to various deciduous plants interspersed with cactus plants higher on the hillside. The coastline is so covered with vegetation that it is difficult to identify features normally used to aid navigation. I had not expected to use the GPS along this coastline but it was indispensable. At times the GPS insisted we travel directly into what appeared a solid mountainside which at the last minute opened up to allow us passage to the calm anchorage within.

Pirate Jenny anchored in bay at Puerto Cruz

We arrived at Bahia Puerto Cruz about 11:30 am, it is a small but very deep bay and presents a bit of a challenge anchoring. The center of the bay is over 200 feet deep and remains deep to within a boat length or two from a very rocky shore. We dropped a bow anchor in 70 to 80 feet then backed cautiously towards the rocks taking another anchor to within a few feet of shore by dingy. By the time we were settled we had over 200 feet of chain out at the bow and another 100 feet of chain and rode on the stern! Once I was convinced that the anchors would hold and could pull my eyes from the jagged rock wall so close to my stern I was able to look around me to see the reason this small bay was worth all the difficulty of anchoring. The bay is round with steep hills on the east and west sides. Two rocky pillars guard the entrance to the bay and to the south a mountain stream empties it's cool fresh water into the bay beside a small sand beach. The small valley was at one time a coffee plantation and though the coffee plants and buildings are long gone a road way lined by tall majestic mahogany trees hints of one time grandeur. We walked along the road a mile or so to a point where the stream crossed over it. The cool fresh water invited us to return along the stream bed through the overhanging foliage back to the beach.

At 3:30 AM of the fourth day in Bahia Puerto Cruz with eyes not quite open we lifted anchor to begin the 35 mile trek to Carabelleda. The sun rose that morning through a deep haze. As we passed the commercial port of La Guaira beneath the almost constant traffic of jet aircraft we realized that the haze was actually the smog from Venezuela's largest city and capital Caracas. Carabelleda is in fact a suburb of Caracus. For our purposes it was a good jumping off point for our passage out to Los Roques. We stayed in the marina for two days while we topped off tanks, bought canned goods and fresh meats and vegetables. We left about 5:00 PM in order to arrive at Cayo de Agua early the following morning. We expected light winds due to a hurricane well north of the island chain. By midnight we were motoring in flat calm under a full moon so bright you could read in the cockpit! During the night we were joined on several occasions by pods of dauphins playing in the moonlight. As the sun peeked over the horizon the low islands of Los Roques were just visible directly ahead.

Los Roques are a well protected group of reefs, sand and mangrove islands covering an area 14 by 25 miles a little more than 70 miles off the coast. Similar to Las Aves only much larger, Los Roques is an incredible area of calm in the usually active Caribbean Sea. Sailing amongst the small, low sand islands in flat water and 15 knots of trade wind is a rare treat enjoyed by all who visit. Our first anchorage in the island group was at the far south-west end, just off the sand spit that connects Cayo de Agua and the island of West Cay. This incredible anchorage is far enough from the main island of El Gran Roque that seldom would more than one or two pinairas stop by to drop a few hardy sunbathers for an afternoon on the pristine beach. At night the anchorage was all ours! I realize that including a picture of this anchorage in a letter home to Canada in mid-October could be considered torture but you have to see it or you would never believe just how perfectly beautiful it is. We spent several days here basking in the sun, swimming in clean, clear waters, cooled by the consistent breeze, awed by the absolute tranquillity and humbled by the unobstructed canopy of countless stars that illuminated the night sky.

Cayo de Agua, Los Roques

Though it was hard to imagine that anywhere else on earth could be a more perfect anchorage, we were anxious to see what else Los Roques had to offer. We sailed the short distance from Cayo de Agua to two small islands called Dos Mosquises. The islands are surrounded by a reef with one narrow entrance with nine feet of depth. You enter the anchorage by taking a bearing on the palm trees on Tres Palmeras Island and proceeding slowly with one on the helm and another on the bow watching for coral heads. It sounds more difficult than it is but it did make me a little tense when the depth sounder bounced up from fifty feet to nine feet and the water colour one that I always avoid. The entrance was worth tackling for once inside the water dropped to 20 feet and we anchored alongside three other sailboats in calm clear water in the lee of the small fisheries and research station on Isla Sur.

Research facility on Isla Sur, Los Roques

Anchorage in Dos Mosquises, Los Roques

The research station is like a tiny Club Med for scientists. A few one story cottages built on stilts on the sand beach. The residents, mostly students, spent their day snorkeling and scuba diving on the surrounding reefs or assisting in the major work of the Fisheries component; that of locating, marking and protecting Sea Turtle nests. When they hatch, the baby turtles are collected and raised in tanks and when they are old enough to better fend for themselves they are released into the sea. We very much enjoyed our tour of the "nursery". Our student guide explained the life cycle of the three different species of sea turtle indigenous to the islands and at the end of the tour took us out to the pen on the other side of the island where we could snorkel to see the larger turtles about to be released. Though slow and awkward on land the sea turtle is capable of quite amazing speed and grace in the water.

Prior to becoming a national park Los Roques were very heavily fished. As a result the population of fish, conch and lobster have been badly depleted and the reef has suffered a great deal of damage. Large areas of the park are off limits to all vessels and many of the out island anchorages require a special permit. Fishing is limited to rod or hand line and taking lobster and conch is prohibited. Hopefully these restrictions will in time help to restore the reefs and marine life in the islands.

Anchorage off Tres Palmeras, Los Roques

After a few days at Dos Mosquises we continued on our way to El Gran Roque, the main island in the group. We stopped at Sarqui and Noronsquis along the way. We traveled only eight or ten miles each day to allow us time to explore a few of the many beautiful anchorages. Each day we came closer to the very conspicuous hills of El Gran Roque. The hills are solid rock and rise over 350 feet from the water. Quite a contrast to the other islands in the chain which are sand and rise only a few feet above sea level. The hills were a very impressive seen through the light haze from our anchorage on the reef in Noronsqui.

The anchorage at El Gran Roque is alongside the small town of the same name. This is the only populated island in the group. There is a small airstrip at one end of town where a surprising number of planes arrive each day. The sand streets are lined with brightly coloured posadas and each day boat loads for visitors leave the island for day trips to the surrounding islands and reefs. Our first day at El Gran Roque was spent checking in. First a trip to the Guarda Coastas office, zarpe checked and stamped, then walk to the other end of town to the Guardia National office, papers checked and zarpe stamped. We then walked back to the park office. Here we were told we had to go to the other park office (at the other end of town, of course) to pay the park fee first then return to this park office. So, off we went, found the other park office, paid the park fee (about $40.), papers checked and zarpe stamped. Then back to the first park office (which by now we knew was really the second park office) to get our anchoring permit and of course, papers checked and zarpe stamped. After the check in process we returned to the boats for a cold drink (there was no longer any need to explore the town).

View of the El Gran Roque anchorage from the top of El Gran Roque

Over the next few days we climbed the hill to the old lighthouse which, like most other navigational aids in Venezuela, no longer works but offers a spectacular view of the town, anchorage and some of the surrounding islands. Though the cruising guide says there are only private clubs and cottages in the town we found two small stores where we could buy some supplies and several nice restaurants offering everything from a fresh fish dinner to pizza.

We spent two days at the incredible beach on nearby Crasqui island where white sand stretches over a mile along the shore and out several hundred yards in seven to ten feet of crystal clear water. I anchored with just a foot of water under the keel and spent the first afternoon with snorkel and mask scraping the marine life from the bottom of the boat while small fish swam around me enjoying the buffet lunch. Later in the day we met on the beach for happy hour, a backgammon tournament and then a BBQ dinner at sunset. The soft sand of the beach was so inviting that Tom and Judy decided to sleep on the beach, under the stars until about 3:00am when the sand flees chased them back to their boat.

Francisquis Island group from El Gran Roque

We had thoroughly enjoyed our 10 days in the islands but decided to head back into the mainland and continue on our way to Puerto La Cruz. First, of course, we had to go back to El Gran Roque to check out and get a new zarpe from the Guarda Coastas. Fortunately this process was much less complicated and including a quick visit to the store for some fresh food we were back on the boat and on our way by noon. We headed south east from El Gran Roque within the protection of the 14 mile long Bajo de la Cabecera (head shaped shoal). At first the path through the shoals and reefs is narrow and complex with twists and juts everywhere. Slow and careful travel in good light is a must. Then the shoals open to an area of completely protected water running north south about a mile wide and ten miles long, 50 to 60 feet deep with only occasional, easily identified small shoals dotting the open water. With the prevailing winds from the east it is a perfect sailboat slalom course! After a very enjoyable sail we anchored at Cayo Buchiyaco at the far south eastern end of the reef to wait for a weather window to cross back to the mainland some 70 miles to the south.

Our intended course to Carenero was 165 degrees (m). For the next five days the wind blew from the south south east (150 degrees m) at 20 to 25 knots! (For my non-sailing friends, you can not sail a boat that close to the wind direction). The waves breaking in the narrow entrance to the reef were horrifying. So we waited and waited …..and waited. Finally on Thursday September 12th the winds began to ease a bit and the backed to about 120 degrees. Still a bit close but manageable. We decided to give it one more day and if conditions held to travel overnight the next day….Friday the 13th!

Old sailor tales predict disaster for vessels starting a voyage on a Friday, any Friday, let alone the 13th. Well, that's all just superstition right? The weather during the day had moderated considerably from the previous days and the wind direction held at 120 degrees with the odd gust coming from closer to 100 degrees. Weather for the whole eastern Caribbean was predicted as good with shallow pressure gradients, lower than usual wind and wave heights. We left the anchorage about 4:00pm with the intention to head to Puerto Frances an easily accessed anchorage just a few miles west of Carenero. As the sun set conditions were good, a bit bumpy with some confused seas from the previous day's wind. By 9:00pm the wind was picking up to 18 to 20 knots from 150 degrees again! I altered course to keep the wind at 60 degrees off the bow. By 11:00pm we were in a maelstrom, wind gusting to 30 knots, 8 to 10 foot seas breaking over us with spray flying everywhere. I had again altered course to try to make our passage more comfortable. I had only the staysail and reefed main up and we were often hit over 8.5 knots! By 2:00am we were about 25 miles off the coast and the land effect was starting to moderate conditions, by 3:00am we were in almost flat water with a 3 to 5 knot breeze from the south. We had been knocked back to the west about 20 miles from our intended course. So in came the staysail and on went the diesel engine and we motored the last 30 miles into Carenero arriving around 9:00am.

We had not seen Syncronicity nor could we raise them on the radio since about 9:00pm the previous evening so we were relieved to see them the next day around noon when they motored into Carenero. Tom and Judy in their C&C29 had chosen to hold their course and beat into the wind and waves it had taken them over 20 hours to reach Puerto Frances where they had anchored for the night before proceeding on to Carenero. We spent a day in Carenero to top up water and fuel tanks and then with a good weather forecast left early the next morning to motor the final 75 miles to Puerto La Cruz. A wonderful day of calm breezes, flat water and the sun awning to keep us comfortable. Until about 3:00pm when a very distinct squall line passed over us, winds picked up from the north east at 20 to 25 knots and the waves built to 6 feet and smacked us to a standstill at every opportunity! By 10:00pm things had moderated and just after midnight we anchored at Islas de Piritu to rest for the night. At 4:30 am Judy radioed that they were just passing the island and had decided to continue the last 18 miles to Puerto La Cruz. We lifted anchor at 6:00am and motored into Puerto La Cruz arriving just ahead of Syncronicity. I learned two lessons on this passage; NEVER again will I start a passage on a Friday and that sailboats need a good strong engine to go cruising.

Sunrise approaching Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela

Since that morning almost a month ago Pirate Jenny has been tied firmly in her slip with water hose and electric cord holding her ever tighter to the land. Hot showers and a cool freshwater swimming pool just steps from our bow. After being at anchor for several weeks it is wonderful to stop in a marina to have that constant flow of fresh water to rinse and clean the boat, to soak in a warm freshwater shower, to send all the damp salty laundry to be cleaned, dried and folded. Ah, what luxuries. After a week at the dock I can hardly wait to leave. After 4 weeks I'm more than a little stir crazy. But, let me tell you about Puerto La Cruz and why we've been here so long.

Pirate Jenny in Bahia Redonda Marina, Puerto La Cruz

Puerto La Cruz is Venezuela's boatyard. There are at least six large marinas in the area. Two of these marinas offer very extensive boat yards and dry storage. There are several marine stores and hundreds of foreign yachts of every flag and size. Many boats choose Puerto La Cruz to have hulls painted and bottoms redone. A good choice due to the dry air, minimal rain and inexpensive labour along with good quality and inexpensive Venezuelan made brand name paints. Venezuela is also well known for it's Caribe and AB Dinghies. After six months of cruising I needed some parts and repairs to my wind generator (which I would not do without), disintegrated nav lights (which I can not do without) and replacement of a mast step that seems to have blown away on the trip from Los Roques (which I will have to do without because I can't buy one here). I had also planned to buy a new dingy to replace my seven year old Avon and to have some stainless steel work done in preparation for having a new bimini top and dodger made in Trinidad. Everything takes just a little longer here, a week can very easily become two or three or as in my case a month.

We have had a good opportunity to get to know Puerto La Cruz, have explored the El Morro complex by brand new hard bottom inflatable Caribe dingy. This 'suburb' is built in what was once a mangrove bay. Now the area has canals laced through blocks of condominium town houses and multi-million dollar mansions. All the homes face the water and many have everything from runabouts to yachts tied to the dock in front of each home. Much of the area can be traversed by sailboat as the road ways are somehow hidden and very few bridges cross the waterways. We have visited all the local markets and found the very best of fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables. I, of course, have had to inspect each of the marine stores and have found that remarkably they carry absolutely everything, except the parts I need. We have renewed our friendship with many cruisers that we have met along the way and even finally met up with old friends from Ottawa who have been sailing in the Caribbean for six years now; Guy and Anita Comeau on their Corbin 39 "Mallard" have spent the last several months in Trinidad and are now in Bahia Redonda Marina for a few weeks before heading off to explore the western Caribbean. During hurricane season everyone eventually stops by Puerto La Cruz. As much as we're anxious to get on our way I expect that we will stop by here again next hurricane season.

Condos in the El Morro development, Puerto La Cruz

El Morro development - a little more up scale

While waiting on the stainless steel man I have helped a friend paint his 50 foot, 40 year old wooden boat, helped a good number of other cruisers with their computer problems, organized the first (maybe annual) Canadian Thanksgiving dinner and even managed to do a few of the jobs I had planned to do on Pirate Jenny. SS Man now tells me he will be finished by Friday for sure, Saturday at the latest, but sure, sure, sure Monday. Well, it's hot and sunny and even when it does rain it comes down pre-heated. We had hoped to go to the Amazon region but delays in the SS work will probably push that trip till next year. If SS man is not done by Friday I think we'll go out to Isla Tortuga for a week for a change of scenery and some good spearfishing. Then we'll head back here to visit SS man, fill tanks and re-provision and then head to Margarita Island and plan to be in Trinidad about mid November.

A special note to my friends on the Ottawa river with whom Thanksgiving dinner up river has become a tradition; In honor of our tradition I arranged a dinner at the Restaurant here in the marina. I announced it over the net for the two weeks before and we shared a traditional turkey dinner with almost 60 other Canadians and their friends. The boat names "Mischief", "Daring Adventure", "Chinook" and "Trendsetter" were symbolically added to the list.

Hope you are enjoying a beautiful Indian summer.

Best wishes to all