Features December 1, 1998 Issue

Offshore Log: Tight Security in Venezuela

Following their 36-hour passage from Trinidad, the crew of Calypso settles into a Venezuelan marina where cruisers seek protection from robbers.

It has been two years since the very green but very bright-eyed crew of Calypso set out from Newport to embark on the cruising life. In that two years, we have traveled just about 6,000 miles—not far, really, in the grand scheme of things. If all goes as planned, the next 12 months will see us make our way to Auckland, New Zealand, 7,250 miles southwest of our current position. That’s where we hope to be a year from now.

The first two years have really been little more than a shakedown for the boat and her crew. The boat is doing fine. She has received many expensive presents, and is “oohed” and “aahed” over wherever she goes. She looks a lot more like a real cruising boat than she did two years ago.

Like many of us when we get a little older, she has put on a fair amount of weight. The crew, however, is looking a little gaunt from the effort of keeping the boat looking good.

We now realize how coddled most sailboats are, particularly in our home waters of New England. Boats there rarely go into the water before the end of May. By the first of October, the sailing season is effectively over. Then the boats come out of the water, with the pampered ones going into a shed, and the well-cared-for ones going under covers, with only a few unlucky ones left exposed to the hard, cold winter. A lot of time and a lot of money is expended for just a few months of sailing.

In contrast, the tropical cruising boat spends 12 months in hot sun and salt spray. These two elements wreak havoc on wood, canvas, fiberglass, even stainless steel. Without meticulous, never-ending care, the cruising boat ages far more quickly than her sister in seasonal use.

So, I might add, does her crew.

Two years ago, in Florida, we were moored next to a nondescript center-cockpit 42-footer crewed by a retired 60-ish couple. They had just finished working their way back up to the U.S. from Venezuela. To us, their boat looked a bit like the wreck of the Hesperus. What remained of the varnish hung in strips that blew away in the breeze. The stem was chafed and dinged from the anchor. Streaks of rust stained the topsides. A big hard-bottom dinghy with a good-sized outboard hung slightly askew from the stern in davits that were clearly not intended for that kind of load. Everything on deck was secured with padlocks.

We looked down our noses a bit, us with our pristine Yankee yacht. Now, we realize that among long-term live-aboard cruisers, they’re normal, and we’re the odd ones. They had come to terms with the near-futility of keeping a cruising sailboat pristine.

We still haven’t.

Unlike many cruisers who have been out longer than we have, we have yet to give up the struggle to keep the boat looking good. Granted, keeping a boat looking new while cruising takes a lot of time and energy. It is often hard to find even the most basic maintenance materials. The crew of one boat here in Puerto la Cruz visited six hardware stores in an unsuccessful search for simple mineral spirits, finally emerging with a local thinner with an unearthly smell and the ability, as he put it, to “take the galvanizing off the anchor chain.”

Some cruisers eye us with a certain amount of suspicion, thinking that we are perhaps apostles from a strange religious cult—the Church of the Pristine Yacht. When we arrived in Venezuela from Trinidad, we spent two days cleaning—an intense effort to remove the dirt and mold of 3-1/2 months of living in the middle of a country that seemed to be a perpetual construction site with daily rain. We scrubbed decks and canvas, even went so far as to remove sheets and other running rigging for washing.

Varnish Hell
Then the real work started. Off came the lifelines and stanchions for easier access to the caprail for varnishing. Out came the scrapers, files, sandpaper, masking tape, tack rags, and varnish. Most of the brightwork is scheduled for at least five fresh coats of varnish. Varnish more than four months old is dead as a doornail, brittle and crazed. Yes, we are still varnishing everything, and will not stop until we die or the boat is sold. (One reason is that the caprail is laminated and requires protection.) We’re not taking bets on which will come first.

Varnishing is a lot of work. We peck away at it, however, and it doesn’t seem so bad. Our friends here are off to Angel Falls or the Andean highlands for sightseeing, and we sand and varnish. We know they pity us, shaking heads sadly behind our backs.

That’s okay, we sometimes pity ourselves, too.

One of my last jobs in Trinidad was to build two shelves between the legs of the saloon table, shelves sized just right for cans of varnish and thinner. We’re probably the only boat in town with varnished shelves for cans of varnish for refinishing the shelves.

The shelves are varnished mahogany because the table is varnished mahogany, not just because we’re a little weird. In Trinidad, ironically, mahogany is more expensive than teak, even though both are grown there. The quality of the teak is better than the mahogany, too.

Calypso is in Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela, Med-moored in a marina with 100 other cruising boats, about half of them American. Many of these sit out the hurricane season in Venezuela before heading east to Trinidad, then back up into the eastern Caribbean. Others, like us, head west toward Panama at the beginning of the new year.

Our marina is a bit of a yachtie ghetto, surrounded by barbed wire and lookout posts. At night, the guards carry nasty-looking short-barrel weapons slung over their shoulders. Their guns appear to be pistol-gripped shotguns, weapons that would almost certainly be illegal in the U.S. Here, they’re standard issue for 20-year-old security guards.

In the late afternoon, the cruisers gather at the bathwater-warm swimming pool of the marina, looking for all the world like the sweltering polar bears I remember seeing in a hot southern zoo when I was young. The bears lay panting in the tepid water, seeking out a scrap of shade, dreaming of icebergs, cold Arctic water, fat young seals.

We dream of air conditioning, a cold beer, a hamburger.

Actually, Marina Bahia Redonda is a haven, with friendly staff, Internet access, a good restaurant, laundry service and a swimming pool. At the end of the day, it’s very nice to slip into the pool and yarn with your fellow cruisers, sipping a cold beer and talking about where you’re going, where you’ve been.

Just outside the marina gate is a barrio whose people are achingly poor, many living in fragile plywood shacks.

In the early morning, I take my run down streets whose gutters run with slimy green mud, past fishermen unloading the night’s catch, past Third World dogs who aren’t even interested enough to bark at me.

The arepa stands next to the bus stops are crowded with those buying a cheap breakfast before catching the bus to their day’s work. Breakfast costs a quarter. The bus costs 15¢. If either cost any more, many could not afford to go to work. Those with jobs are the lucky ones.

Next to our marina is a large boatyard, with huge dry-stack storage buildings jammed to the rafters with hundreds of the high-powered Cigarette-style boats favored by wealthy locals. Venezuelans love these fuel-hungry monsters, and they can afford to drive them because fuel is dirt-cheap in this oil-producing country.

There is great poverty here, but there is also astonishing wealth. The El Morro development of Puerto la Cruz, where the marinas are located, is a cross between Ft. Lauderdale, Venice, and Disneyland. The huge vacation houses of wealthy Venezuelans line the canals, some with equally huge motoryachts tied to the docks. On the adjacent construction sites, where marble-floored 3,000-square-foot condos are going up, construction laborers live in squalor under thatched roofs, sleeping in hammocks and using the canals of the wealthy as latrines. You can be sure they’ll be gone as soon as the last nail is driven.

This brings us to the issue of security. This is a country sharply divided between the haves and the have-nots, but here the have-nots have nothing, and the haves…have everything. Unfortunately, some of the have-nots have decided that the only way to have anything is to take it by force or stealth, and cruising boats are a target of convenience.

It would be nice to say that you can enjoy remote Venezuelan anchorages, taking in the quiet of the evening in serenity. You can, but you had better have your wits about you. On a percentage basis, the number of cruising boats hit by thieves is small, but the stories are disturbing.

You know you’re in trouble when one of the “commonly used radio messages” in the English-Spanish translation section of the cruising guide is “me estan robando” —”I am being robbed.”

A few weeks ago, a 60-ish cruising couple in a remote anchorage was approached by two men and two women in a beat-up small boat, requesting help for a dead outboard. As the cruisers leaned out to assist them, a gun went to the throat of the female sailor. The two women from the “disabled” small boat ransacked the sailboat, but at least the two cruisers were left relatively unharmed, although robbed and shaken.

The next day, when the cruisers returned to civilization and went ashore to report the crime to police, they were mugged at knife point in town, resulting in a trip to the hospital for stitches.

About the same time, there was a report by another boat that someone had snuck aboard at night, stealing valuables while the crew slept just a few feet away. Here, it is as important to be able to lock yourself in the boat at night as it is to lock the boat when you leave it.

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