Features February 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log: Downwind to Bonaire

Sneaking out of Venezuela following a nastily contested national election, Nick and Maryann put their Robertson autopilot to the test en route to their first stop—Los Roques.

Calypso slunk out of Venezuela on Pearl Harbor Day, 1998. This was the day after that country’s presidential elections, the day after a self-styled populist former military officer was elected by a huge majority on a messianic platform promising redistribution of wealth and the end of the exploitation of the masses by the wealthy upper class and their overseas gringo supporters. This was the same man who led a bloody attempt to overthrow the government just six years ago, a man who was at the time of his election ineligible for a US visa as a convicted felon, a man who was in prison not long ago.

Needless to say, the exact mechanism of this redistribution of wealth has yet to be determined. Looking at the current distribution of wealth in that country, we probably would have voted for him, too, if we were part of the 80% of the Venezuelan population that lives near to or below the poverty level.

To us, it seemed like a good day to get out of Dodge. We may not be rich, but we are definitely gringos.

Before heading out, we pulled up to the fuel dock to take on 200 liters of diesel—about 55 gallons—which would have cost of $17 or 30¢ per gal.

Unfortunately, we were waved away. There was no fuel for gringos that day. We hope there was no fuel for anybody—a real possibility since the big power yachts of wealthy Venezuelans had tied up the fuel dock the entire day before the election, much the way New Englanders strip the shelves of grocery stores of bread and milk the day before a predicted blizzard.

Did they know something we didn’t?

We high-tailed it offshore, out of Venezuela, and on towards Bonaire, a Dutch Island some 250 miles west of Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela.

The Checklist
Our time in Venezuela had been well-spent. The fairly dry climate allowed us to get a lot of varnishing done. With patience and persistence, we finally succeeded in getting our outboard lifting crane fabricated and installed. We overhauled hardware, checked the rigging, installed mast steps. We rewired the autopilot, bought a new rigid bottom inflatable dinghy, and did the primary fabrication of the mounting tower for the mini-M satellite telephone that we hope to install in Bonaire.

Sending such an item into Venezuela was simply too risky. Customs regulations in that country are so murky that a mistake in the paperwork could send an expensive toy like a satellite phone into a costly limbo from which it might never emerge.

This is not idle speculation. We followed the two-week saga of one cruiser in Puerto La Cruz whose satellite phone—sent back to the US for repairs—was seized and a $1300 duty demanded. This apparently happened after the local Federal Express agent filled out a form incorrectly. The phone could neither be shipped back to the US nor imported into Venezuela without paying the duty. The cruiser screamed collusion. The Venezuelans shrugged their shoulders. The truth is a mystery.

The cruiser finally got his phone, but only after FedEx in the US put pressure on its Venezuelan affiliate, and only after the cruiser had spent hundreds of dollars on phone calls that he should never have had to make.

Offshore Again
Our trip from Venezuela to Bonaire was not exactly a tropical idyll. Heavy convection activity offshore linked two nearly stationary low-pressure troughs some 500 miles apart, creating a huge U-shaped area of bad weather. True to form, we sailed along the entire base of the U.

Our first night back offshore was one of those that makes you seriously doubt the wisdom of offshore sailing. Deeply reefed, we tore along on a beam reach in 20 to 30 knots of wind in pitch black, the stars and moon totally obscured by cloud and driving rain.

Then it got bad. From midnight until dawn we were engulfed in ferocious thunderstorms, the sea sizzling from lightning strikes all around us. All alone on the ocean, we were keenly aware of being the tallest object for 50 miles. It was one of those times when you have absolutely no control over the larger aspects of your destiny, so you concentrate on the small ones: Don’t touch metal if you can avoid it, look and listen for chafe, monitor the state of all the systems, drink lots of water, pee when you can. Look after the boat and let God decide what to do about the big picture.

Thirty hours after leaving Puerto La Cruz, we threaded our way through the reefs into the westernmost anchorage of Los Roques—The Rocks—barren islands off the Venezuelan coast. Normally, a high sun makes reef navigation a fairly simple process, similar to driving down a nicely marked highway. Take away the sun, however, and it’s like trying to drive down the same highway at night with no lights, with a blindfold on. Needless to say, the sun didn’t come out until we were safely anchored.

We made a 30-mile jump the next day to another remote reef anchorage, spending the night surrounded by the cacophony of thousands of sea birds. That anchorage was Las Aves—the birds.

The next day, we departed at the crack of dawn, having taken bearings while coming in that would allow us to avoid the reefs even without good light. Fifty-five miles later, Calypso sailed into the brilliant, clear waters of Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles.

We will stay in Bonaire until just after Christmas, continuing preparations for our Pacific crossing. At this point, we are 400 miles dead downwind from Trinidad. We are 650 miles from the Panama Canal.

Every place we have been in the last two years is now impossibly upwind. There’s no turning back. The GPS says that Auckland, New Zealand is 7,136 nautical miles from here on a course of 245° as the crow flies. Unfortunately, no crow can make that flight. We hope Calypso can.

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