June 14-18, 2010 -- More Heading South & West

Click on the above thumbnail for a map during this time period

More Heading South

As we depart our mooring between the Pitons on the morning of June 14, we very shortly notice a remnant of the sinking of the container ship that occurred in February, 2010.  For there, lodged on the shore at the SW foot of Gros Piton, is another container of the type we had written about earlier.  (See first photo, below.)

Our destination is Bequia, a small island just south of and belonging to St. Vincent.  Anticipating a slow sail, Arctic Tern and Daniell Storey have left the Pitons considerably ahead of us, and are comfortably anchored when we arrive.  As is often the case at that island, we have trouble finding a spot where the anchor will hold.  We drop the anchor in a sandy spot, let out an appropriate amount of chain, and s-l-o-w-l-y pull back to set and test the set.  At a measly 1000 RPM the ground tackle begins to skip.  We raise the anchor and move a bit to another spot and try again, only to have the same result.  We ALWAYS have this problem at Bequia, and only at Bequia.  Especially frustrating on this occasion, because Hunter had radioed us as we arrived and had offered to have us join him on his dinghy for the ride in to check in with customs and immigration.  And 4 o'clock is rapidly approaching: the magic hour at which "overtime" penalties will be attached to the check-in fees.  The anchor finally sticks in slightly deeper water behind the Terns, and Hunter and I dash off to customs, leaving the ladies behind on their respective boats as a precaution against any additional dragging.  We list on the entry forms our next destination as Hillsborough, Carriacou. 

Next morning, Hunter and I motor in with our propane tanks.  Neither tank is empty, but it seems prudent to top them up before getting into the "wilderness" of the long stretch between Margarita, Venezuela and Bonaire.  Alas, we learn that tank filling on the island is a slow affair that always takes a day or more, and we want to be able to leave before the tanks would be ready.  I also cool my heels in front of Wallace's, waiting for an extra half hour past the nominal 8:30 opening, hoping to find 3/8" braided line to replace the strong-but-too-thin-and-slippery-and-too-short line that was recently installed as support for the flopper stopper poles.  No joy.

Shortly before lunch, we all pile into the Tern's dinghy and go ashore again.  The ladies do some major re-provisioning, and Hunter and I visit the premier tackle shop of the island:  Tulley's.  While enhancing my lure collection, I ask about 3/8 line, and am directed to a little marine supply store called "Piper Marine".  Piper has the right size line!  I buy all he has:  273'.  When we re-join the ladies, I feel like a true beast of burden as Barb leads me from grocery to fruit-and-vegetable stand to grocery to yet another stand.  Barb's back is much better, thank you, but we want to keep it improving, so she is forbidden to lift or carry anything yet.  She has had a number of setbacks in the past, probably because she ignored that prohibition, but she is now fully with the program.  The Rastas on the street give me strange looks when I bray:  "Eee Aaaw".

Later, back on the boat, I use a hot knife to cut two nice lengths of the new line, and Barb sets about to use her recently-acquired knowledge (thanks to a lesson on braided line from Renee of Gypsy Blues and a lesson on twisted from Hunter) of splicing to create loops on one end.  Tricky business, splicing braided line.  She is still at it when Hunter shows up to help me rig the new line and install nylon washers on the pins that attach the flopper stopper poles to the brackets on the side of the boat.  The hope is that the nylon washers will diminish the noise the poles make when they are engaged.  When the washers are installed, Barb is still working on the splicing.  Hunter joins that project, and provides a refresher course on the technique.  When the loops are finished, we have just enough time to send me up the mast to rig the new lines.  For it is nearly 4 o'clock again, and we wish to check out for an early-morning departure.  We list on the exit forms that our next destination is Porlamar, Margarita in Venezuela.  The immigration officer remarks on the switch, and we reply that our ultimate destination is Bonaire, and we have decided to go more directly in that direction.  He signs and stamps the form.

A point of explanation here:  although our ultimate destination is indeed Bonaire, the outer islands of Venezuela are by all accounts lovely places to lolly-gag.  We have to go through them anyway to get to Bonaire, but we want to take our time.  There are no ports of entry (other than at Margarita) in the outer islands.  So it is not possible to check in to Venezuela at Margarita and then check out at the other end just before reaching Bonaire.  However, conventional wisdom is that by checking in and out at Margarita, possession of the exit papers from Venezuela garners extra time in places like Tortuga and Los Roques and the Aves, even though we would still be flying the yellow flag at those locations.

We don't go directly to Porlamar (Margarita) from Bequia, and never intend to.  Instead, we intend to go to and stage at a small island immediately to the south of Bequia:  St. Vincent's Union Island.  We will spend the night there in Chatham Bay, and then each of us will leave for Porlamar at a carefully calculated time that will take us both past a set of islands called Los Testigos at about 4 am.  More about that plan later, but for now I must tell about a complication.

Shortly before we depart Bequia (and well after the Tern's have left) we check our email one last time and discover a note from Devi.  She had similarly checked her email, and had found a note from a friend in Bonaire.  The friend warned her to NOT check in at Porlamar.  It seems that Chavez is on an anti-corruption campaign, and has replaced the notoriously corrupt port captain at Porlamar with one of his own "goons".  Checking in at Porlarmar, as a consequence, takes many days and involves travelling by land to Pampatar (where the goon has conveniently relocated) in order to visit a bank in order to make a deposit for the check-in fees and in order to otherwise complete the paperwork.  Except "complete" is the wrong word, since papers and passports are apparently now sent to Caracas for approval before being returned to the vessel owner.  The result of all of this nonsense is that some vessels, intending on checking in and out in a day or two, and then moving on toward Bonaire, have been delayed by as much as two weeks!  So we were advised to simply fly a yellow flag at Porlamar (meaning, for you landlubbers, that we would not check in and officially should not leave the boat), and to only stay a day or two. 

What to do?  If we show up in Bonaire with exit papers from St. Vincent that say our next destination was Porlamar, but we have no exit papers from Venezuela, the Bonaire officials are likely to be VERY unhappy with us and possibly send us back to Venezuela.  Hunter proposes to anchor briefly off of Clifton at Union Island, St. Vincent's southern-most port of entry, and to check back in and then when checking out list Bonaire as the next destination.  I make a counter-proposal:  let's go to Chatham Bay, climb up over the hill and down to Ashton, catch a bus there to Clifton, since the anchorage at Clifton is a nasty place with very poor holding and suspect mooring balls.  Hunter agrees, and we leave the ladies on board and make our way to Clifton via foot and bus.  Along the way, we decide to be frank with the customs and immigration officials and to see if we can get our exit papers redone without incurring the fees involved with checking in and out.  Customs turns out to be a breeze, and in fact says that checking in and out is not an option.  She modifies our form and validates her changes with a stamp.  The lady at immigration is totally understanding and sympathetic -- of course we don't want to spend two weeks sitting in Porlamar waiting for paperwork -- but says that the location can only be changed by the director of immigration, whose office is at the airport.  So we walk to the airport, and once again give a frank description of our problem and our desire for new exit papers.  The director disappears into his office, and confers with an assistant, and consults his computer, and comes back out to demand to know why we just didn't return to Bequia to straighten out the problem.  I am still stumbling with an answer when Hunter, the sailor among us, gives the perfect answer:  because the winds were wrong.  The director returns to the office, and can be heard on the telephone, apparently talking to Bequia immigration.  Shortly, the assistant brings us modified and duly stamped immigration exit papers.  Yes!

The Terns and Takks celebrate that night by having dinner on the beach at the "Sun, Beach and Eat" restaurant, run by Vanessa and Cletus (whose boat shares his nickname:  Seckie).  They are a pleasant couple, and Vanessa provides the best of the meals available along the beach, in our opinion.  They know us and our boat, and Vanessa asks about our friends on Receta.  Ann has obviously been talking food with Vanessa, who proudly tells us about being interviewed by a travel/food host of a TV program on a food channel:  Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential; Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.  Vanessa and Seckie will soon be on international TV!

We were awakened at about 5 am the next morning by the sound of loud cursing.  A sailboat had arrived after dark the night before;  Barb thought she heard him talking to other occupants of the boat.  Next morning, only one person was in evidence, and he was greatly disturbed.  He was struggling with rigging lines, and cursing at the top of his lungs.  It went on for hours; when he finally finished with the lines he began on his dinghy, shouting at it as if it were alive but stupid as he attempted to get it up on the foredeck and turned upside down.  I am sure we were all relieved when he left the anchorage.  The man was clearly deranged.  We wonder if that is what happens if one attempts to sail on one's own.  The lesson seems clear:  sailing is not safe; get a trawler.  :-)

Heading West

There have been a number of instances of piracy on the run between Los Testigos and Margarita.  The supposition is that someone on Los Testigos is tipping off the would-be pirates when a solitary vessel leaves Los Testigos heading toward Margarita.  So we decided to not stop at Los Testigos, although we had a marvelous short visit there in 2008, and instead skirt to the north of it by at least 20 miles, and to do that in the middle of the night, and to time our passage past that island so that we were reasonably close to one another.  With light winds directly on the stern, our speed would be quite dissimilar to a sailboat, but we each took our best guess as to our probable speeds and timed our separate departures accordingly.  We gave the Terns a massive lead, and then had trouble catching up.  They had given up sailing and were motoring, and arrived at the turn point north of Los Testigos about an hour early:  at 3 am instead of 4 am.  We had made good time in the strong west-flowing current, and were only about 15 minutes behind them, despite having had to stop earlier in the day to pull in two beautiful fat black fin tunas.  All told, the passage from Union Island to Margarita took Tusen Takk II about 22 hours, and took Arctic Tern about 26.

When we arrived at Margarita, we were shocked to discover how few boats were in the Porlamar anchorage.  Barb joined the Terns and went in to visit with Marina Juan and to do a little shopping, while I stayed on board.  There, conversations with Juan and disgruntled cruisers confirmed the bad news about the new port captain.  There were cruisers who had intended on staying only a day or two, and who had been "captured" by the system.  Worse, there was a boat from Germany who had repeated our mistake of 2008 and had listed Trinidad as their next destination.  While underway to Trinidad they discovered very favorable winds to get them west to Margarita, but poor winds to take them south to Trinidad.  They decided to skip Trinidad and just head to Margarita.  Of course their exit paper listed Trinidad as their next destination, just as ours did in 2008, and they were in deep doo-doo, made all the worse by the new port captain.  It turns out that one should never arrive and say that one has "changed one's mind".  That automatically puts one into a troublesome category of being a "security risk".  Mechanical difficulties, extremely severe weather, or health emergencies seem to be the only possible excuses.  And even those will not eliminate the hassles, but merely minimize them.  The German boat has been here for three weeks trying to clear in.  They are spending a lot of money hiring translators, paying transportation for many visits to the port captain's office in Pompatar, and greasing all the wheels that are necessary to move things forward.  We understand that the officials working with the new port captain are afraid of making a mistake so everything is checked and double checked, and ultimately all decisions are referred to him.  Yesterday (three weeks after they arrived) the captain of the German vessel was interviewed on his boat by a policeman who will file a formal report to the port captain next week.  Of course Monday is a holiday, so Tuesday is the earliest the report can be written.  For some reason Wednesday is a holiday also, so it will be late next week before anything happens.  Barb also met two French men who have been trying to clear in for nine days.  They didn't make any progress yesterday (Friday), so their next hope is this coming Tuesday, but more likely Thursday.  That will make their stay here well over two weeks.  Yike!  We are sure glad we changed our destination to Bonaire.

It seemed prudent to refuel in Margarita.  We were down 250 gallons after having refueled in Antigua near the start of our southern journey.  Marina Juan said that it was unlikely that we would be able to get any fuel on a Friday.  Weekends were out.  Monday was a holiday.  So was Wednesday.  In any case, we were strongly advised by Juan to be gone by Monday morning if we were not checking in. 

Then, late afternoon, a pirogue approached and asked if we needed fuel.  Yes! 

"How long would we be here?" 

"Leaving Sat. afternoon."

"How much do you need?"

"About 200 gallons."

"I'll be back at 8 o'clock tonight."

He showed up at 8:30 pm, with his pirogue filled with four large plastic containers holding, he said, 900 liters.  He and his crew of two hand-pumped the fuel into my tanks, thanked us for the business and the soft drinks, collected the requested number of Bolivars, and slipped quietly into the night.  Total cost:  900 liters at 1.5 Bolivars per liter.  Bolivars are currently trading on the black market at about 9 B's per dollar.  Alas, we were using up the last of B's we had gathered on our last visit to Venezuela at a rate of about half that:  4.5 B's per dollar.  So we had just purchased 237 gallons of fuel for $300:  $1.26/gal.  Cheap, but not as cheap as the diesel Hunter bought at a gas station yesterday.  He bought 18 gallons of diesel for 3.36 B's.

By the way, he was not late when he showed up at 8:30 pm.  Chavez didn't want to divide his country into two different time zones, so he decreed that the country would split the difference.  Thus, the entire country is off from the rest of the world by 30 minutes.  We had forgotten to change our clocks to reflect Chavez-time.

Container from the Feb. wreck -- now lodged at the extended base of Gros Piton

The "Sun, Beach and EatSun" restaurant in Chatham Bay, Union Island

Vanessa, hostess at the restaurant

Cletis (Seckie), host at the restaurant

One of the two fat black fin tunas we caught on the run from Union Island to Margarita

In very light winds, Arctic Tern arrives at Margarita

Surprisingly deserted anchorage at Porlamar



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