October 26, 1996

Puerto La Cruz


Dear Friends,

Pirate Jenny and crew returned from a week in the cool fresh breezes of Isla Tortuga this morning to the sweltering heat of Puerto La Cruz. We are tied stern to along the wall of Amerigo Vespucio Marina. This Marina is just across the canal from Bahia Redonda. The marina is not nearly as nice or as secure as the former but Stainless Steel man is not permitted to do any welding at Bahia Redonda so we will have to remain here for the week until he completes his work. What a production this has been! Oh well, let me first tell you about Isla Tortuga.

We left last Saturday with friend Luca, a Swiss captain of an Italian boat and Patricia, the Italian cook on the same boat named RORO IV as guests aboard Pirate Jenny. Luca speaks a little English, very good French and Spanish and excellent Italian, Patricia speaks only Italian but understands a very small amount of English, Evelyn speaks English and French and when I began this trip I spoke English, a little French and a few words of Spanish, now I have everything so mixed up I'm not sure I can even speak English anymore. But, as Luca frequently says in his very best English , "Don't worry, be happy!". We left the marina around noon and after an hour wait at the fuel dock headed to the nearby island of Cayo Borracho (the drunk woman) to clean the bottom and prepare for the 60 mile passage to Isla Tortuga.

The anchorage at Cayo Borracho is about 8 miles from Puerto La Cruz. The Island, visible for twenty some miles, is a large piece of sedimentary rock pushed up on a 45 degree angle. The flat side is sparsely covered with cactus and brambles while the cut-away edge of loose rock plummets several hundred feet to the sea. I remember seeing this type of rock formation in grade school science books but can not remember its proper name, however, Cayo Borracho is the picture perfect example. Hidden away on the north west side of the island is a small almost circular bay. I climbed a hill on one side of the bay to take a picture. The climb was long and hot in the mid day sun amongst the thorny brambles and cactus but on reaching the top I was rewarded with a spectacular view of Pirate Jenny and five or six other sailboats sitting in a pool of azure blue edged with the lighter blue green of the coral reef all almost completely surrounded and dwarfed by the towering white and yellow rock cliffs of the island.

Isla La Borracha anchorage

The water was cool and clean and a fresh breeze found its way through the anchorage. A very welcome change from the marina. We spent the rest of Saturday and all day Sunday swimming and snorkeling in the anchorage and surrounding reef and exploring in the dingy. The island has several caves at water level and is known to be home to various species of bats including some vampire bats. We could hear the high pitched sound of the bats at night but did not see any due no doubt to the very healthy portions of garlic in the cannelloni Patricia had prepared for dinner. After dinner we prepared the boat for passage and were off to bed with the alarm set for midnight.

Our passage to Isla Tortuga was in very light winds on the beam so we motor-sailed most of the distance, sailing the last few hours and arrived at our way point off Playa Caldera at 7:00 AM. Isla Tortuga is a very low, arid island which is barely visible from more than three to five miles. The island is surrounded by numerous coral reefs some of which extend out to sea for more than a mile. We sailed the last few miles in relatively good light and left a wide margin for error. We dropped anchor under sail 50 yards off the beach just in time for breakfast. Over the last six months I have found the GPS and the Autohelm autopilot to be absolutely indispensable. However, even with the incredible accuracy of the GPS approaches to Islands like Tortuga must be made with good light with very close attention to the physical properties of the land and the water itself. The GPS itself has a very small degree of error BUT, if I for example take my current Latitude and Longitude from the GPS and transfer it to a position on the most up-to-date Imray-Iolaire chart for the Puerto La Cruz area I would find myself anchored comfortably in local market a good half mile onshore from the marina! The error on the Tortuga chart is substantially less but I for one will not bet my boat and my life on the accuracy of any chart.

As is usually the case after an overnight passage once the anchor was set, awning and windbugger set up and dingy and motor in the water the rest of the day was pretty quiet. Late afternoon we took the dingy to the beach to walk along the two miles of white powdery sand. There is a small sand airstrip just beyond the beach. On week-ends it is quite common for families to fly out to the island and camp on the beach. There is even a tour company that operates right on the beach with several grass and wood shelters and a pinaria to take campers and divers on day trips to various parts of the island. The anchorage is surrounded on three sides by the beach and is all sand bottom throughout. We shared the anchorage with 15 to 20 other sailboats and 10 or so local fishing boats. It was by far the most crowded island anchorage we have encountered to date.

Typical Venezuelean fishing boat - Isla La Tortuga

Playa Caldera, Isla La Tortuga

On Tuesday morning we lifted anchor and sailed the eight miles to Los Palenquines, a reef protected anchorage about half way along the north coast of the island. Here we anchored with eight to ten other sailboats tucked in behind the reef. It is an odd feeling to be anchored in a calm area with no visible land in front of the boat, only the white line of waves breaking on the semi-submerged coral reef. The anchorage was wonderful though, calm, flat water but with the full force of the trade winds to cool the daytime sun and keep the batteries charged. As soon as we were settled Luca and I headed out to the reef for our long awaited spearfishing expedition.

What we saw was to me startling. This huge reef was dead. Snorkeling, the view from above was like looking at the scattered, sun bleached bones of some enormous dinosaur. Only a few small fish darted in and out of the remaining labyrinth of white and gray skeletons. All the colour and life that I have become accustom to seeing in these underwater gardens was gone. I swam in awe of what must once have been a thriving community which even in death was impressive in its size and complexity. Giant skeletons of elkhorn coral reached silently from the sandy floor 30 to 40 feet below, an endless maze of branches, tunnels and caverns that once was home to the thousands of species that inhabit a healthy active reef now empty and still. I could not even imagine what could have caused this. It seemed impossible that so much life could simply cease to exist. We returned to the boat in silence, both deep in our own thoughts.

We stayed in this anchorage for the next two days returning several times to the reef. Gradually I began to notice where small tenacious pockets of life were emerging. Small patches of sponge growing over the skeleton of a once huge brain coral, bits of orange and white fire coral emerging throughout. Early in the morning thousands of fish would appear seemingly from out of nowhere to forage for food and would quickly seek the refuge of the labyrinth if I approached too closely. The small defiant damsel fish protecting their territory as fiercely as ever. A pair of two foot barracuda on patrol. Our spearfishing expedition quickly became one of observation as the remaining fish were too small and too few to dare deplete their number more (not that my skill with a spear gun was likely to endanger much more than my own foot).

On Wednesday afternoon we dinged to a nearby beach for a walk, swim and some shell hunting. The beach is beyond the protection of the reef and the left-over swells from the hurricane further north were breaking on the beach. We anchored the dingy at the point just before the swells broke and swam the last 30 or so yards to shore. It was not too long before we realized that we could body surf in the waves. Instantly we were all returned to childhood, whooping and hollering, splashing and laughing. For two hours we ran to meet the oncoming waves; slid, rolled and tumbled back on to the beach. The soft sand cushioned the blow as the waves carried us forward and dumped us rather unceremoniously, covered in sand and looking more than a little dazed. I now know how a tee shirt feels in a commercial washing machine. Four days later and I'm still trying to rinse all the sand out of my hair. We returned to the boat exhausted.

Beach at Pta Rancheros, Isla La Tortuga

Body surfing at Playa Rancheros on a crowded weekend

Friday morning we returned to Playa Caldera to prepare for our return to Puerto La Cruz. Luca had been craving fresh fish all week and decided to try just one more time. He left in the dingy with the very best of bait…. a package of cigarettes and a bottle of rum. He returned a few minutes later with two mid sized snapper and a two foot king fish all cleaned and ready to cook. We readied the boat for our planned departure then sat to an exquisite meal of fresh BBQ fish.

We lifted anchor at midnight and motored out past the reef using our inbound track on the GPS (with a little extra margin for error) to guide us. By 1:00AM we were under full sail in 3 to 4 foot seas under a clear full moon lit sky. The wind was constant, on the beam at about 15 knots all night. Luca and I shared the watches and let the girls sleep. We slid silently past two other sailboats headed for Isla Tortuga during the night. By dawn we were about 15 miles out of Puerto La Cruz and with the wind dying motored the rest of the way in.

So here we sit, still hoping to have the stainless steel work completed by the end of the week so we can leave to head east to Margarita Island and Trinidad. We hope to travel with RORO IV to Trinidad as the part of Venezuela we have yet to traverse has been a big problem for cruisers this year. Though only one or two serious robberies have occurred there have been constant reports of thefts from anchored boats. Outboard motors and dingys are the most common items stolen but anything left on deck is in jeopardy, even items locked and chained have been taken. Nuisance thefts like the hose connecting the motor and gas tank and beach shoes, and more expensive items like snorkeling and diving equipment are reported over the radio net daily. The charts and guide books show a beautiful cruising ground filled with islands and cozy little bays that are so inviting to a cruiser but, it seems that the only way to get from Puerto La Cruz to Trinidad with your dingy, motor and other possessions is to travel with other boats and post a watch at night. So we will pass up those beautiful anchorages and hope that things will be different next year.

On a slightly political side note; Theft in Venezuela as a whole is rampant. In many areas like Puerto La Cruz it is common to see windows and doors barred even as high as the sixth and seventh floor of buildings. Stores are shut with steel 'garage doors' covering the entire store front when closed. In some neighbourhoods the convenience stores are like a prison cell with the proprietor and his goods inside and a small opening where money and items purchased can be exchanged. Theft is the nations welfare system. There are no programs to assist the poor and in the end stealing is the only way they can live. The rich do not pay taxes to support the poor and simply expect to be robbed occasionally. The companies selling alarm systems profit as people try to protect their belongings. I guess the system works to some degree as it is the status quo and seems accepted by all. The down side is that eventually those with, protect better, those without get violent and the entire country lives behind bars while the thieves roam the streets. Mike Harris beware!

Ok, the soap box is securely packed back in the bilge. On our return to Puerto La Cruz I was thrilled to find that I had lots of email messages waiting. We are still waiting for an envelope of paper mail that Lisa sent over six weeks ago by priority post. From now on the paper mail will come with family and friends or by courier. However, email and the internet are growing in leaps and bounds even in the smaller islands of the Caribbean so I will continue to find internet providers who will give me a temporary email address to send and receive mail. I finally had the opportunity to see the home page that Bernie has set up for Pirate Jenny. I can not thank him enough for his contribution to this adventure. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters and it certainly makes us feel much closer to home, family and friends to be able to share our experiences and photos as we travel.

As winter approaches 2,177 nautical miles to the north (actually 359 degrees magnetic to my GPS waypoint 001 - Nepean Sail Club harbour entrance), we are looking forward to the visit of several friends and family members. Beautiful places and experiences are always made that much more so when shared with friends.

Best Wishes to all.