As the 2007 Hurricane Season officially began in June, we found ourselves still in the U.S. Virgin Islands and smack dab in the middle of the hurricane zone.
We had planned to head south to Bonaire prior to the onset of Hurricane Season, but the unexpected twists and turns of life had delayed our departure. Nonetheless, we were steadfast in our plan to sail straight back across the Caribbean Sea to Bonaire (one of the "ABC" islands off South America), and pick up where we left off on our journey westward in the Southern Caribbean last year.
We had fallen under Bonaire's spell when we visited for three weeks in November 2006 and were eager to return. We had made it as far west along the northern coast of South America as the island of Bonaire, but found ourselves at the end of Hurricane Season and faced with the decision of where we wanted to spend the next Prime Time Cruising Season. If we were to head east or north at all from Bonaire, we needed to beat the fierce “Christmas Winds” that kick up by the end of November and last well into January without a lull. After much deliberation we decided on a respite from the Third World and knew there is no better place for that than the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thus, due to the timing of a good weather window and a desire to head to the U.S.V.I., we only got to spend three weeks in Bonaire in 2006 before heading northeast to St. John. We vowed to go back to Bonaire for the duration of Hurricane Season where we could SCUBA dive for months on end.
ST. JOHN, USVI TO ST. CROIX, USVI
By mid-June Melissa was back from a quick trip to Baton Rouge and we were ready to set sail. Weather windows were getting harder to come by, though. We decided to head south to St. Croix to wait for a weather window there. By so doing we would be 40 miles closer to Bonaire and that knocks about six to seven hours off a 2.5 day trip – nothing to “sneeze at” if you are getting hammered in rough seas.
So, we set out from St. John headed to St. Croix; a tiny little six-hour day-hop of just under 40 miles. Well, it was uncharacteristically ROUGH at first. The currents were running north into Pillsbury Sound (between St. John and St. Thomas) and kicking up closely-spaced seven footers and we were motoring directly into them. The conditions greatly exceeding the 2 to 3 foot seas and 15 knot wind forecasts.
For about five miles, and with every wave, water shot up through the trampoline like a geyser and soaked the lower half of the jib. Waves slapped, slammed and rumbled fore and aft under the bridgedeck (underbelly between the hulls) as if Indigo Moon were a Chevy Truck off-roading over boulders.
Indigo Moon dug her bows into a rogue fourteen-footer and popped right up, prying up a solid wall of green water that came at me all the way over the coach roof, soaking me at the helm and creating a wide waterfall into the cockpit and onto Melissa as she shrieked in surprise.
Considering the little trip to St. Croix was “nothing” and the forecast was tame, I really didn’t do anything to prepare for heavy seas. We even had two, bright-yellow closed-cell foam swimming-pool floats tied to the forward trampoline. That was a huge mistake. The floats got bashed around in the seas and their tether lines pulled hard on the lacings of the trampoline. After five miles of rough stuff, the tethers ripped the lacing and all the grommets out of the entire port edge of the trampoline.
At about six miles out we escaped the currents and the seas calmed down. The drama was over and the seas were easy. I went forward to check things out and immediately saw that I had just “shot myself in the foot” and cost myself two solid days of the hardest kind of sewing machine work, not to mention the task of unlacing and re-lacing the whole trampoline!
We quickly called St. Croix Marine on our cell phone and made marina reservations. I had already predicted that the trampoline would not last much longer. The grommet holes were elongating here and there, and “by design” the edging of the trampoline simply didn’t have enough mass to support the load of the grommets.
In anticipation of future work on the trampoline, I had already bought a roll of new nylon webbing flat-strap material, new grommets and new waterproof material for the boarder of the trampoline and had it all “in stock” on The Moon. But that didn’t cheer me up much; it was a tough job that I wanted to put off until Bonaire and preferably after bashing across the Caribbean Sea one more time with the old trampoline job taking the abuse. I spent two solid days rebuilding new, super-strong boarders around the trampoline. It is now reinforced greatly to the point that lacing lines are probably now the weakest link, as they should be.
In the end, we spent a little over a week in St. Croix, mostly sewing and provisioning.
And so, in between sewing, watching the weather like a hawk and hoping for a window to cross 380 miles of the open Caribbean Sea to Bonaire, and provisioning at some of the supermarkets, we had very little time to truly explore St. Croix. We only managed to see the boardwalk area at Christiansted and the areas we passed through in the taxis to reach supermarkets for provisioning.
Although we obviously didn’t have time to really get to know St. Croix, it left us with the impression that it is immensely different than its general reputation. Mention “ St. Croix” and you will immediately hear adjectives like: high-crime; crowded; dangerous; industrial; ugly; and, unfriendly, etc. That St. Croix reputation has been perpetuated for decades it seems. It was even the case in the early 1970's when I visited there as an enlisted man in the Navy when our ship docked for a few days.
After getting to know a few West Indian St. Croix locals (taxi drivers and cashiers basically) and seeing the island, however, I have to say that St. Croix’s bad reputation is undeserved from what little bit I can see.
First off, the island offers huge expanses of undeveloped acreage, unlike the “elbow to elbow” overcrowding of St. Thomas where every square foot of dirt is already being squatted on. In St. Croix, land is available for purchase at a reasonable price.
One cab driver excitedly explained that he was the general contractor on his own house and that it cost him about seventy thousand dollars to build a two hundred fifty thousand dollar home. He “knows everybody and how to get things done,” the whole gist being that he felt Melissa and I should consider buying land and building a house there when we quit cruising one day. I replied: “But we don’t know anybody nor do we know how to get things done on St. Croix! And I am not a local West Indian; are you blind, Man?! He laughed loud and said “you know me, Brother!” He invited us to go see his house, lest we doubt the top quality home he has built, etc.
Also, the cabbie told us that crime on St. Croix for the most part is between rival drug smugglers and that Melissa and I would never be affected by any of that.
The point of my bringing this up, however, is not about a house deal at all. It’s about St. Croix people being friendly.
In St. Croix the taxi drivers, check out cashiers, boatyard workers, street people, cops, Customs and Immigration Officers -- ALL of them were genuinely friendly to us. At the Golden Rail Bar and Grill at St. Croix Marine, we witnessed locals, both black and white, hugging and exchanging greetings, eating dinner together, discussing current events, and interacting as close friends.
How cool is that!?!
As we pondered all these wonderful St. Croix attributes, we continued to go about completing tasks and checking things off “The List.” Before long, Indigo Moon would be ready for yet another offshore passage.
ST. CROIX TO BONAIRE, OR WILL IT BE TO THE LOS ROQUES?
We were ready to go and waiting for good weather. A weather window of sorts finally opened: far from perfect but “doable.”
I met a new friend before leaving Maho Bay in St. John the week before: Roberto Dugarte on a Beneteau monohull named Vento. He is a Caracas-born Venezuelan now living in Italy and taking time to sail in between various business deals. He wanted to cross with us, ultimately planning on sailing his new boat for the first time to Caracas to see his family, etc. So, a few days before our departure, Roberto and his girlfriend Zhavinta Kalvinskaite (a real New York City model from Lithuania), sailed from St. John to St. Croix and we united as a fleet of two boats, ready to go.
We made our way west along the north shore of St. Croix and then turned south down the western shores past Fredericksted and out into the open sea with a waypoint of Bonaire as the “Go To” GPS destination. The trip was uneventful but uncomfortably rough. The wind was ahead of the beam! How can this be! Heading south southwest in the Caribbean, where the east trade winds should be on the beam or more-likely behind us. Nonetheless, we had solid eight to ten foot wind-driven seas and winds of up to 22 knots: manageable but far from comfortable.
As “Day One” came and went, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, Roberto started “lobbying” for heading more south, to the Venezuelan islands of Los Roques, instead of Bonaire: “It will be less time and we can get there and rest; we are going upwind anyway; my friends will fly their private plane to Gran Roque and take us here and there; we can fish and hunt lobsters. . . .”
The wind angle was just so that we could pinch up eight degrees more and make it to Los Roques, so I agreed. If I paid the price now, we would be rewarded with a guaranteed downwind passage from Los Roques to Bonaire. Plus, we loved the Los Roques last year.
So, after some soul searching, we made the turn and headed toward Gran Roque, the main island of the Los Roques archipelago.
Day Two: The weather thankfully moderated. By early-afternoon we were finally enjoying a comfortable ride and watching movies in the salon while standing watch. We had about twenty miles left to go, doing seven knots. Perfect.
We would be at Grand Roque at about five o’clock p.m. and have just enough light to navigate the tricky entrance to the bay at its neighboring island, Francisqui: a narrow reef-bordered inlet to a protected bay that also requires rounding a large patch of shallow reef located just inside the inlet. Daylight is mandatory.
All was well until we hit a two knot head-current and went from seven knots to five knots. Light winds, full sails and full cruise speed on the engines, but five to five-and-a-half knots was all we could make. It seemed to take forever to make those last few miles and we were really getting inpatient with darkness coming soon.
As we neared Gran Roque, though, we were treated with a surprise visitor who took our minds off of the pitiful headway we were making. A Carrier Pigeon, with identifying bands on his/her ankles, took a rest on our dinghy engine crane that is mounted on the aft railing.
The sun sets very quickly down south. There is no twilight to speak of. The path of the sun is more perpendicular to the horizon here and within fifteen minutes after the sun disappears below the horizon it is DARK.
Roberto was about two miles ahead and he had made it to the entrance of Francisqui, but stood off because the light was bad. It was already too dark to see well. I finally made it in too, but it was nighttime. We were contemplating anchoring on the outside, or heading back out to sea overnight.
All of sudden a dinghy appeared. A rapid-fire colloquy of Spanish ensued between Roberto and the guy in the dinghy and we were saved! With flashlight in-hand, the guy led us into the narrow inlet of the bay and around the inner reef. Once past the reef, I was able to use my “Q-beam” spotlight to easily get my bearings and drop anchor in exactly the same perfect spot we were in last year.
Whew! Another passage completed! I went forward and dove into the darkness with snorkel and mask. Using a dive light, I checked the anchor and it was set perfectly in the beautiful clean sand bottom. All was well for a great night’s sleep.
Later, as I stood on the foredeck before turning in, I marveled at how amazing it was to be back in the Los Roques and remarked to Melissa about how I had forgotten the unmistakable smell of the Los Roques: a very strong, pungent aroma associated with salt pools and mangroves – almost as strong as the smell of sulfur.
VENEZUELA’S LOS ROQUES ISLANDS,
The next morning we again marveled at the beauty of the Los Roques:
Then, Mother Nature decided to help us out. Indigo Moon was quite salty from the passage and a nice, heavy downpour moved through the area and gave us a wonderful freshwater wash down!
Having Roberto along was a real advantage. He speaks perfect Venezuelan Spanish, including any local accent with perfection.
He “took care of things” by speaking with the head of the Guardia Costa on Gran Roque and we did not have to check into Venezuela. We were welcome to stay and spend several days before heading out to Bonaire.
We also enjoyed going in to Gran Roque for an afternoon walkabout. We did not visit Gran Roque last year and instead opted to spend our time in the remote islands of the Los Roques. We were delighted to see Gran Roque for ourselves on this go around. Plus, I needed to make a phone call to check on a family member's health, so Roberto arranged for a “panga” boat taxi to take us all in for the afternoon.
We got wet in the open seas between Francisqui and Gran Roque, and poor Zhavinta got absolutely soaked – I think she would have felt drier had she dove in head-first and gone swimming! But it was "all part of the adventure" as they say and once in Grand Roque we all dried out soon enough under the scorching South American sun.
Here is a look at Gran Roque:
Expecting nothing much in the way of anything, we were very delighted to see such a nice village where dirt streets and pleasing architecture create a nice atmosphere.
After spending a few nights at Francisqui and seeing Gran Roque, we were all rested up and ready to move on to the more remote islands of the Park. We decided to move a very short distance to Crasqui, a very popular spot about five miles west of Gran Roque.
Although the anchorage was relatively empty when we visited this time, during weekends in the high season there might be fifty BIG power yachts and a few megayachts too. Crasqui is famous for its very long, beautiful sand beach, as well as for its tremendous flat of clean sand bottom at eight to fifteen feet deep. It is a perfect anchorage.
There was once a hotel of sorts here, but it is reported that is was closed and abandoned because the increased traffic it produced was putting too much pressure on the natural beauty of the island.
Here is a look:
After Crasqui, it was off to Cayo De Aqua, one of our all time favorite stops last year. They say “what a difference a day makes” and if so then surely nine months makes a huge difference. And so it did.
This time the trade winds were kicking, making snorkeling on the outside reef a “death defying feat.” The wind blew from an odd angle, making the anchorage much less comfortable. Our paradise of last year turned untenable and inhospitable this year.
It was really depressing because we had so anticipated and hoped for a wonderful repeat of last year’s pristine experiences.
It just goes to show that cruisers’ impressions about places and people are often based on random circumstances during brief visits at scattered locations. Although it is human nature to do so, it is ludicrous to think we “know” a place or its people after spending a short time there, any more than we know what a particular patch of ocean looks like by having sailed across it once or twice.
And so, we had a very disheartening second helping of Cayo De Aqua, but the experience was not without utility in that it did serve to reinforce the precious nature of our memories of the time we spent there with the crews of catamaran Serendipity and monohull Respite last year.
After a couple of nights at Cayo de Agua, we were ready to get to Bonaire and get on with our plans of SCUBA diving! Roberto decided to stay in Cayo De Agua a few nights more and then head to Caracas. So, we said our goodbyes and Indigo Moon sailed solo again and non-stop for the eighty-six miles from Cayo De Agua to Bonaire.
FINALLY BACK TO BONAIRE
Oh what a wonderful sight! Unlike the randomness of our experiences at Cayo De Aqua, we actually knew what we were in for in Bonaire and it was all good: world-class SCUBA diving in the fellowship of friends. Also, an amazingly convenient community for cruisers: groceries; Budget Marine chandlery; hardware stores; pharmacy; hospital; restaurants; ice cream and dive shops are all within an easy stroll from dinghy docks . . . and those strolls are on flat ground in a sleepy little town!
Moorings are only ten dollars a night (no anchoring is allowed anywhere – the whole island is a Marine Park). Except for the small island of Klein Bonaire (maybe a mile wide), the bay is very deep and open to the west and the sea, and the water quality is pristine. As such, running the water maker is no problem even though you are literally moored a stone’s throw from “downtown” Kralendijk. Because we dove almost everyday, we needed lots of water to rinse the gear.
Being in Bonaire for three months, we were afforded the opportunity to fit a decade of annual SCUBA diving vacations into ninety days. The diving is fabulous and tank fills are only two dollars when you buy a volume discount card.
All you divers will appreciate this: a couple with their own gear and transportation can make one hundred world-class dives in Bonaire for four hundred dollars. Yep, only four bucks per couple per dive. Go on a chartered dive boat anywhere and prices are forty to one hundred bucks, per person per dive! So, for cruisers who have their own gear and love to dive, Bonaire is as close to “free diving in Heaven” as anyone will ever get here on Earth.
Of the 12,000 miles we have sailed so far, no other destination has come close to rivaling Bonaire as far as serving our overall tastes and needs.
And Bonaire’s Government apparently knows that. Cruisers’ are limited to a stay of 90 days; otherwise, most folks would probably never leave! Much Cruiser effort and industry has been focused on methods to bend and defeat the 90 day rule so as to get to stay longer and longer.
It gets slightly complicated. Most Caribbean islands have a “double standard” reflected by the differences in Customs and Immigration laws. For example, a foreign flagged vessel will often receive a year or eighteen months visa from Customs, but Immigrations might only give the people aboard a three month visa.
In Bonaire these inconsistencies resulted in people leaving their boat in Harbor Village Marina, or even out on a mooring, and then flying to Aruba to spend the night and fly back the next day. Having departed Bonaire, with passports stamped in and out of Aruba, they were able to return to Bonaire, check in, and Voila! A new 90 days for the people!
Or, some cruisers would spend a long day sailing down to Venezuela where they would check in and out during one visit to Customs and Immigration. After spending only one night, they would sail right back to Bonaire.
The biggest ingredient of “skinning that cat” was AVOIDING the Immigrations Office in Bonaire. The guys at the Bonaire Customs Office were pretty cool and there were no problems there. However, you do have to bring in all weapons, spear guns, pole spears, flare guns and even flares – they don’t want any trouble on Bonaire.
The Immigrations Office is a different story. The Officer who runs it is reported to be a consummate jerk and apparently lives to inflict pain upon all those who darken his doorstep. For example, the local language of Bonaire is Papiemento. One couple related to us that after they obtained their residency, the Immigrations guy refused to speak English to them and belligerently “peppered” them with a barrage of Papiemento that they did not understand. He then announced that if they are residents of Bonaire, now they have to speak Papiemento only in the Immigrations Office.
I can’t personally tell you what the Immigration guy looks like, nor can I describe what the inside of the Immigrations Office looks like, because we avoided that alleged jerk by always checking in on Saturday or Sunday. During the weekend, the Immigrations Office is closed and the Police Station handles Immigrations matters. They don’t ask any questions and they are cool. No problem.
On staying longer than 90 days, all was well for a while and the “tricks” were working. But, the 90 day rule and the expense of flying to Aruba and back, or sailing to Venezuela and back, became so despised with some Cruisers that one guy finally “cracked” and tried to “take on” the Immigrations Office.
Not a good idea! More on that topic later; let’s get back to the real story.
Our decision to return to Bonaire and stay a long while was a great plan and we enjoyed quite a wide range of memorable experiences, ranging from overwhelming joy regarding the many wonders of diving at such an amazing place, to making fabulous friends, to enduring gut-wrenching anxiety as Hurricane Felix passed just north of Bonaire.
So, let’s get at this very special edition of our second tour of Bonaire!
One of the things we planned from the outset on this visit to Bonaire was volunteering for the REEF organization. Volunteers conduct surveys around the world so as to build and add to REEF's master database of the seas' populations of tropical fishes and various species.
This information is invaluable in helping scientists determine the health of the world's oceans and we wanted to get involved.
Our friends Todd and Lynn Fulks, on Lagoon 410 Blue Marine were already in Bonaire and have been high-ranking REEF volunteers for quite some time. Also, friends Grant and Candace Grove on Manta 42 “Reality” are very accomplished REEF participants as well. Further, Walt and Honoree Cooper aboard monohull Will-o’-the-Wisp are also REEF volunteers.
Many cruisers were participating in efforts to survey the various reefs of Bonaire and document the tropical fish population.
And while many distinguished REEF volunteers offered their time and effort, the undisputed figureheads of REEF on Bonaire are Linda and Chile Ridley. They are avid divers and cruisers who tied up in Bonaire over six years ago (prior to the more-stringent residency requirements now in place). As residents, they are able to work and live in Bonaire and they reside aboard their sailboat, Natural Selection.
The Ridleys are “good Texas folk.” Chile was a cattle rancher. Linda managed a family-owned bank. They both grew up in West Texas. In fact, the movie GIANT was filmed just outside their home town and they regaled us with tales of what it was like for Hollywood’s then biggest stars to blow in and out of west Texas, tinseltown tumbleweeds in the dust.
Linda and Chile are fellow southerners of the finest kind and they are prime examples of unpretentious-down-to-earth-Texas-delightful. It is no mystery that we became fast friends. Let’s face it – this ain’t the first time that Cajuns and Cowboys hit it off.
But, I digress. Let’s get back to the business of REEF. Linda heads up REEF's field station in Bonaire. She is the preeminent Level Five expert in fish identification and teaches classes on the subject at local dive shops. The training includes administering written tests to students who must peruse photos and correctly identify the species and family of various fish to become certified as REEF fish surveyors.
The basic REEF certification level requires proficiency in fifty species. The highest certification is Level Five and to qualify you must master nearly five hundred species, basically identifying every tropical species in the “Bible” on reef fish identification: Ned DeLoach and Paul Humann's co-authored work: “Tropical Reef Fishes.”
Chile is also a Level Five fish I.D. expert, but spends his dive time with camera in hand and also manages Capture Photo, the underwater photography center at the Divi Dive Resort.
Cruisers all became the same style of dive couple, with the girls carrying slates and grease pencils to conduct fish counts and the guys carrying both still and video cameras of all shapes and sizes. It’s natural: the girls “gather” information and the guys “hunt” photo subjects. As evolved and self-actualized as we think we are, when left to our own devices in Bonaire, without exception, the girls were gatherers and the guys were hunters.
I studied for and became certified as a basic REEF fish surveyor and did a few surveys. But soon I took to camera work exclusively, considering the ladies had such a stellar team of surveyors handling the survey tasks.
Melissa performed a requisite number of basic level surveys and continued to study so as to become qualified to sit for the tough Level Five exam. She passed it on the first try, joining the ranks of Bonaire’s “Level Five Ladies.” Melissa performed fifty-five surveys during our stay in Bonaire. To put things in contrast, Linda Ridley just recently completed her one-thousandth survey and now belongs to REEF's 'Golden Hamlet Club'. That is an astounding accomplishment.
Going diving with a group of surveyors is interesting to say the least. All the girls have their marking slates and “shakers” that are cigar-shaped metal tubes with BB’s inside that can be rattled underwater to get another diver’s attention when an unusual species is found. So, you’ll hear a shaker go off, and before you know it, all the girls will be crowded around a coral head using magnifying glasses to look at a tiny, overwhelmed sea creature who surely must think the end of the world is at hand!
During one particular week, the STINAPA organization performed a study of various shoreline areas that included the collection of water samples and algae, and Linda recruited all of the REEF volunteers to add extensive fish surveys to the data too. We worked as teams.
It was fun. Our friend Susan Porter was part of the STINAPA team collecting water samples and algae. Susan is full of life and she can always be counted on to make mischief and merriment spring to the forefront at all times.
We introduced Susan to you in our prior report on Bonaire. She is yet another avid SCUBA diver turned Bonaire transplant and she is an authority on shore diving. In fact, she wrote the book on it. See her website: Bonaire Shore Diving Made Easy
In addition to assisting STINAPA, there were various other group activities such as clean-up drives to clear the reef of new trash (old trash must be left unmolested and is considered habitat).
Also, there was a fish identification contest sponsored by the Yellow Submarine Dive Shop. The surveyors identifying the greatest number of species won prizes like T-shirts, etc.
, with underwater video camera in pursuit of a Rainbow Parrot fish near the twin reefs at the dive site Angel City. Grant has become exceptional at underwater videography and has created wonderful DVD's that showcase his efforts. His wife Candace has also captured exceptional underwater images with her underwater digital still camera. They rock!
And of course, I took up where I left off last year in my beginner’s efforts at underwater photography. It is more challenging than one would ever imagine: spot a subject; approach it from the best angle; exercise perfect buoyancy control; be cognizant of the reef and stay off it; frame the subject in the viewfinder; wait for the constantly moving subject to “cooperate” in a pose that is desirable; push the button; wait the one second lag-time between firing the camera and it actually taking the picture and hope that the subject has not turned tail in the one second delay time.
Take the fish known as the “spotted drum.” They have an utterly magical ability to sense when the camera button is depressed and then turn tail in that one second lag-time before the shutter clicks. It can be quite maddening and I might take ten pictures and still get nothing but “tail shots.”
Other times, the subject might be swimming full speed along the reef and I have to do the same and take shots “on the fly” while upside down or sideways, and kicking my fins at full throttle (and burning up my tank of air like a madman).
Every dive presented a new challenge.
Rather than “swamp” the trip report with scores of underwater photos, here are a half dozen I like.
For a look at a more extensive catalogue of my favorite underwater shots from Bonaire, see our new addition to the photo gallery web page: Under the Sea slide show
And while my photo skills got slightly better, as did Tony Gray's and Walt Cooper's, I was still a stumbling toddler compared to my friends Grant Grove and Todd Fulks.
Grant has a top-of-the-line underwater video camera that is amazing. Todd has a great still camera. Both of them have been conducting underwater photography efforts for several seasons in Bonaire and their results are really something to see. Both Grant and Todd would spend hours and hours at their respective computers creating and editing videos and slide shows of underwater images.
Bonaire is an underwater photographer’s dream and all of us SCUBA diving cruisers took advantage of the opportunity to try our hands at it.
And while the collective photography efforts of the cruisers were doggone impressive at first blush, we were all put well into our places when THE MAN himself, world-renowned underwater photographer, Ned DeLoach, and his wife Anna came to visit Bonaire.
A “musicianship skills” analogy might serve me well to explain the situation. It was as if we Bonaire cruisers were all twelve-year-old electric guitarists playing Smoke on the Water and patting ourselves on the back for being such Rock Star material.
And then, all of a sudden, Ned strolled into our “garage band” and just happened to be the equivalent of Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Paige, Hendrix, or Stevie Ray Vaughn . . . take your pick. You get the idea.
We attended a book signing and happy hour at the “Buddy Dive” dive shop and got to meet Ned and Anna. Melissa got her copy of Ned's book signed and we had fun.
As REEF volunteers, we were also invited a few days later to a private showing of Ned's most recent photos. He had just pulled off amazing shots in Bonaire. Spectacular pictures of not merely fish, but fish behavior too. For example, two peacock flounders spawning at night in open water. The guy is a wizard.
And more: Ned and Anna had just returned from an extensive expedition in Indonesia and his photographs quite literally stunned us. Such underwater beauty exceeded our wildest imaginations: creatures with brilliant colorings and markings that were astoundingly complex and symmetrical, and purely oriental in design. One glance at these photos and it leaves little doubt that much oriental art has been inspired by sea creatures indigenous to that part of the world.
Yes, the quality of Ned's works is drastically superior to anything we cruisers are doing. It was a “don’t quit you day job” moment, if you know what I mean!
Both Ned and Anna are wholly unpretentious and completely approachable, making an evening with them even that much more enjoyable. Ned's laid-back nature and love for his work afford him the luxury of being at ease and he exudes a pure child-like excitement that rings true.
Ned's slide show left me with that same sensation I get after a Broadway play, killer concert, or just having visited a fine art museum: wonder and a deep appreciation of human talents that are so rare as to fall into the “gifted” category – that which simply cannot be accomplished by hard work alone but rather requires being born with the “magic eye.”
DIVING ON THE MOON IN BONAIRE
There are many options regarding not only where to dive in Bonaire but also on how to get to a dive site.
The quickest method is to jump right off the back of the boat, considering the mooring field is rimmed with reefs that drop straight down to 100 feet and then a sand bottom that slopes further to over 200. Easy: suit up, jump off the back of the boat, complete your dive, climb back up the swim ladder and rinse off and relax. And all of that without ever starting an engine or touching a line. Ride one minute in the dinghy to the dive shop pier and get the tanks refilled and you're ready to go again.
We did several dives like that in the mooring field, but the best coral reefs were farther away. Most dives were accomplished by riding to various dive sites in the dinghy.
But, it just so happens we had a third option: we were able to take the “big boat” out too sometimes. The dive moorings are designed for, and limited to use by, boats under 38 feet. It turns out that Indigo Moon is officially 37 feet 11 inches per her U.S Coast Guard documentation.
Even though the option was open to use the big boat, it was, however, a production to take Indigo Moon to a dive site: sun shades had to be taken down, bicycles stowed, etc. But, it was worth the hassle to do it a couple of times to reach really distant dive sites that were beyond dinghy range. Once we went all the way to the north end of the island, and on another trip we went all the way to the south. It was nice to be away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown mooring field and enjoy a quiet day of remote location diving on The Moon.
Plus, it is obscenely luxurious to surface from a morning dive at a remote location and find all the comforts of home waiting – with a surface interval, lunch, and a nap instantly available before the afternoon dive!
Here are some pics:
One more thing about our diving escapades: we have been accumulating various stickers from here and there and thought it would be fun to plaster our dive tanks with an array of decals. It was a morning’s project to adorn four tanks with stickers and we took on the focus and energy of 10 year olds decorating their bedrooms.
Our friend Lynn Fulks, on Lagoon 410 Blue Marine, called our tanks "NASCAR" tanks thereafter, because of all the decals. Shake and Bake!
Here is the finished product:
Of course, every time I took the tanks to the dive shop to get them filled, I would get some comment from dive trip tourists about the stickers, especially college football rivals making jibes about LSU. Hey, they ain’t laughing now! In case you forgot, LSU is Number One in College Football, having whipped number-one ranked Ohio State on January7 th, 2008. Geaux Tigers!
Aside from sports conversation, I also got a few comments from musicians who noticed the Ludwig drum decal. I still have my huge, double-bass 1972 vintage Ludwig drum set in storage, and I am still a drummer at heart even though I have not taken a whack at a drum for years now.
Drummers belong to a close-knit fraternity that sticks together (pun intended). It’s a tough gig: no respect and the hardest job in the band by far in terms of physical energy and equipment management. And if all that is not enough, drummers are the butt of cruel jokes, all while receiving scant recognition for accomplishments and indispensable contributions to the band’s sound.
Luckily for me, I don’t take anything too seriously anymore. I’m blessed with a good sense of humor and, more important, perspective. So I am well-suited to shoulder all the burdens of being a drummer, lawyer, and an American who is cruising in the sometimes caustic society of the opinionated "international fleet" out here.
In fact, I enjoy good drummer jokes as much as the next guy.
Here are some good old drummer jokes that I found in an American Airlines magazine article about Ringo Starr, written by Jim Shahin:
Q: What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?
Q: What’s the difference between a drummer and government bonds?
A: Government Bonds eventually mature and earn money.
Q: What do you say to a drummer in a three-piece suit?
A: Will the defendant please rise.
Q: What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians?
A: A drummer.
Q: How do you know a drummer is at the door?
A: His knocking speeds up and he doesn’t know when to come in.
Q: What does a cheap cup of black coffee have in common with Ginger Baker?
A: They are both awful without Cream.
Q: What’s the easiest way to confuse a drummer?
A: Put a sheet of music in front of him.
Q: What’s black and blue and lying in a ditch?
A: A guitarist who told too many drummer jokes!
I guess, in retrospect, being a drummer was the perfect training for entering the legal profession where insanely hard and honest work often garners being the butt of jokes these days.
Anyway, we had a lot of fun with the dive tanks and it turned out that it made it real easy to spot one another when diving in a group.
Although Bonaire’s claim to fame is SCUBA diving, there’s more to Bonaire than just that. Melissa and I love to ride bikes, but the islands of the Eastern Caribbean provided little opportunity for anything else besides suicide missions on impossibly steep switchbacks and narrow roads with fast moving traffic.
Bonaire, however, is a perfect place for long-range cycling. The lower half of the island is absolutely flat and a trip around the southern shoreline provides a twenty four mile workout, with a significant portion upwind into the unimpeded trades. That will get your heart pumping!
We enjoyed a really nice southern shoreline bike ride one morning.
And that’s not all. There is a nice bike ride to the north, out of Kralendijk, that climbs a few hundred feet up the inland hills and then affords a nice ride down to the northern shore back to Kralendijk along the seaside.
Here’s a look at that ride around the south end of Bonaire:
In all, the ride around the south end of Bonaire totaled twenty four miles and it was quite a workout. The salt ponds and flatlands of south Bonaire are a stark contrast to the hilly and mountainous, green slopes of northern Bonaire.
So, let's take a look at sights from another bike ride when we went north:
And while we tried to ride often and take advantage of Bonaire’s perfect cycling opportunities, we did not ride nearly as much as we planned to. The spectacular reefs and “free world-class SCUBA diving” were too powerful a magnet and diving always rose to the top of the day’s “to do” list.
We had lots of fun with our dive friends in between all the diving expeditions. Lynn and Todd Fulks had friends Paulette and Joy fly in from Southern California, both of whom are avid divers.
Paulette and Joy rented a spectacular second-floor condominium overlooking the mooring field. The condo’s accoutrements included use of a very nice swimming pool area where all the “REEF people” were invited for several pizza and swimming pool parties, including one that was a Birthday Bash for Paulette.
We swam, we ate, and we watched underwater videos and slide shows by Grant Grove and Todd Fulks and saw the sun set over the calm waters to the west of Bonaire.
What a life!
Here are some shots:
ISLAND LIFE ON BONAIRE
Well, we’ve talked about diving and cycling. What about the Bonaire lifestyle, you ask? Well, the pace in Bonaire is slow. The grocery stores don’t worry about inventory – you simply go see what they have on any given day (rather frustrating at first and it took some getting used to). Also, the selection of groceries is rather narrow even when fully stocked.
A local reported to us that on one occasion they noticed that new inventory was often held back in the warehouse at the supermarket and not placed on the shelves immediately when it arrived by ship. The answer to why this is done: “If we put it all out right away, everyone will buy it all and we won’t have anything left to sell.” Well, so much for supply and demand economics, inflection and equilibrium points on charts and graphs, and maximizing the “bottom line.”
Also, speaking of “lines”, you must get used to the fact that locals have “the right of way” in grocery lines, etc. They barge right in, push your basket back, and check out in front of you. They really don’t see anything wrong with it. After all, it’s their island. Basically, the locals don’t seem to care all that much about what it is precisely that they get to buy just as long as they are first in line to pay for it!
What else are the locals interested in, you ask? Well, windsurfing for one thing. Local youths hold World Championship titles and there is a big windsurfing society here in Bonaire.
Also, motorcycles are very popular: Harleys, powerful road-racing “bullet bikes” and even tiny little hot-rod scooters, all burning rubber like tires are free. And tires are almost free, according to hearsay. Allegedly, the strict vehicle inspection laws of Holland require that tires be replaced long before they are worn out, and all those good used tires get shipped to the Netherlands Antilles and places like Bonaire where they are sold for a few pennies on the dollar. So, burnout marks are plentiful on the streets and roads of Bonaire.
There was a motorcycle “poker run” of sorts during our stay and an amazing number of bikes showed up on the island. The event included scores of local motorcyclists and at least a hundred from off-island, all ferried in from Curacao and Aruba, etc. It was really something to see and so unexpected and counter-intuitive to see large numbers of huge motorcycles roaring around on such a small island. Set so close to the sea, however, the mind conjures up images of Lemmings more so than Hell’s Angels.
Aside from that one big motorcycle event, on any given day or night, while sitting on the boat in the mooring field and fifty yards from the shore of downtown, it was not uncommon to see very powerful bikes doing burnouts, wheelie's, and often reaching extremely high speeds, all on the waterfront downtown street.
The funniest thing was to see tiny little scooters pulling wheelie's and buzzing by, with kids revving the engines to what sounded like 10,000 rpm! These little “mosquitoes” only hit 40 mph max, despite all the drama.
So, windsurfing and motorcycling are very popular on Bonaire.
But there is one more thing that locals love. Kentucky Fried Chicken! If there was ever a “hit” on the island, it’s got to be the KFC! They don’t run out of inventory there! Also, there is a Subway sandwich shop that does well too.
We cruisers often ate with the “dive-trip tourist-crowd” at places like City Café, Pasa Bon Pizza, The Lion’s Den, Chibi Chibi, Paris Bistro, and Casa Blanca Steakhouse and the like.
There are plenty of really good restaurants on Bonaire, so it became easy to eat out often, instead of frustrating ourselves by playing the grocery game of “find the hidden inventory.”
And, of course, our almost daily trip to the Ice Cream kiosk always followed our adventures eating out.
CAJUN NIGHT ON THE MOON
We still did a fair amount of cooking, however, and enjoyed entertaining guests for dinner aboard Indigo Moon, as well as visiting many other boats for great meals and fabulous fellowship.
One evening we got “brave” and decided to really push the envelope. We cooked dinner for 16. Yes, that was a new record for Indigo Moon. Melissa and I cooked a big pot of Shrimp Ettouffe, another big pot of rice, stuffed the oven with butter and garlic French bread, and tossed a huge salad. Guests brought scrumptious homemade pies and cobblers.
It worked out great and it was a party we won’t soon forget. There was plenty enough room for all those guests. Also, it was very easy to serve plates of food in all directions from the centrally-located galley. The layout of the Lagoon 380 lived up to its great reputation of the salon and the cockpit creating one huge party space.
After dinner we all spread out in the salon, cockpit and also laid around on pillows out on the front trampoline under the big sun shades and visited for a couple of hours.
With huge expanses of deck space and large trampoline areas, catamarans are super for entertaining large groups of guests and Indigo Moon was quite the hostess.
SCIENTOLOGY IN THE CARIBBEAN
There was one other “boat” we got to party on: the cruise ship Freewinds. On a repeating route of short-range cruising through the ABC islands, the Freewinds is old and smallish, about half the size of the average cruise ships you see scattered around the Caribbean these days.
It is not your everyday cruise ship, though. It is owned by the Scientologists and it serves as an exclusive retreat for members of the Scientology flock. Despite being a private ship and not open to the public, the Captain occasionally allowed public access to certain common areas of the ship for philanthropic efforts to help Bonaire.
Also, Bonaire’s locals were allowed to go to the cinema (the only theater in Bonaire that is twenty feet below the water, several flights of stairs deep into the hull of the ship).
Considering we were quasi-locals, we got to participate in various Freewinds events such as concerts, an art show and a movie. Of course, we let a few other cruisers try it first, just to make sure the invitation to the ship (either religious or cultist or space aliens depending on who you talk to) was not a ruse to trap new prospects and proselytize.
All went well and we made four different trips to the ship for two concerts, a movie, and an art show. None of our bodily fluids were stolen, nor was our “essence” depleted that we know of. No religious discussions ensued at all and it was thankfully not a “bait and switch” program by the Scientologists.
But, it was still a little strange because we never saw any of the passengers. During our visits, the passengers remained in their private quarters. Also, if you needed to go to the restroom, a crew member shadowed you the whole way.
And then there was just one more thing that had nothing to do with religion or cultism: asbestos. The ship is apparently loaded with it, so we had to agree to assume the risks of asbestos poisoning in order to go aboard the ship.
Here’s a look:
It was fun, and the ship’s crew was very friendly. The only vicious gossip we gleaned about Scientology is that it is allegedly “a money-scam thing” requiring that you “donate” more and more money in order to be promoted to higher levels of prestige within the organization. “When your money runs out, so do the advancements.”
Who knows? I sure don’t. I’m a simple, occasional Episcopalian. As comedian Robin Williams put it:
Yeah . . . the Episcopal Religion– it’s 'Catholic Light’ – all the ceremony but with only half the guilt.
Anyway, being totally ignorant about Scientology, I took a quick peek on the internet at Wikipedia’s description of both Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard, but it was far from truly illuminating. So, I still don’t know precisely what their “whole trip” is really about and dare not judge them.
Let’s just say that if Scientology is just a high-powered money-scam cult perpetrated by aliens, they were very well-behaved about it.
I was disappointed, though, in one aspect of the Freewinds’ efforts and it had nothing to do with them. It was a lack of participation by Bonairian's! That’s right. In an effort to raise money for the poor, or buy costumes for underprivileged children to wear in local parades, or whatever the mission of the Freewinds’ concert or art show on any given evening was, you might see a dozen cruisers (a big turnout) and comparatively no locals to speak of.
After such evenings aboard the Freewinds, we’d walk back to the dinghy dock past the KFC where the locals were out in force there for sure. Sadly, by outward appearances fried chicken trumped philanthropy every time.
Free movies were a different matter, however. A few dozen locals did show up for the free movies (and free popcorn and drinks too). We went one time and saw the movie “Wild Hogs.”
Wild Hogs is a comedy starring who else but Scientologist John Travolta! Yes, the movie centers upon John Travolta and fellow actors Bill Macy, Martin Lawrence, and Tim Allen who are all midlife-crisis-stricken professionals. They decide to take off on Harleys (Hogs) for a road trip, calling their “gang’ the Wild Hogs, thus the movie title.
The movie was funny enough, but watching the locals watch the movie was the real entertainment of the night; it was hilarious. Seeing what they thought was funny was interesting and, as the movie progressed, the locals got more and more animated.
There was a young, teenage couple seated in front of us. At one point in the movie, the Wild Hogs wind up taking turns taunting a bull in a corral (long story), and they get chased. Bill Macy eventually gets caught by the bull and is butted high in the air.
I swear to you, the young man seated in front of us went absolutely wild, yelling, hooting, laughing and flailing about: he jumped up and down shaking his fist in the air and screamed at the bull. Then, he leaned forward upon and wrestled the empty (thank God) seatback in front of him. It seemed at one point he would break wild and jump right into the movie screen!
I laughed until I almost peed on myself, and all that free Coca Cola and popcorn I ingested was about to spew out of my nose!
We enjoyed the visits aboard the Freewinds and wish them well.
LOCAL ART AND FOOD FAIRS
In addition to mixing with the locals aboard the Freewinds, we enjoyed functions such as little arts and crafts festivals ashore.
As described in our prior report on Bonaire, the local artist Henk Roozendaal's works are far and away the most striking we’ve seen in a while. He had a booth at one of the art shows and had his book and several works for sale and on display amidst food and other artists’ booths, musical presentations and other festivities.
SWALLOWING THE ANCHOR
That’s what it is called when cruisers finally end their seafaring journeys, put their boat up for sale, and “buy dirt” again. In Bonaire, Lourae and Randy Kenofell were doing just that. Their Beneteau 500 (fifty-foot sailboat) Pizazz is up for sale and they are in the process of building a spectacular home high on a hill overlooking the western shores of Bonaire.
They have cruised for many, many years and have been back and forth to the Western Caribbean so many times that they collected a plethora of first-hand knowledge and thereafter prepared a wonderful cruising guide that they have given away for free to fellow cruisers.
Their guide has also been published in the Caribbean Compass newspaper and has helped hundreds of cruisers “break through” the mental and specialized seamanship barriers that previously kept them away from spectacularly fabulous destinations like Cartagena, Colombia, and Panama, etc.
In short, the Kenofells are daring trailblazers who cut a path west across notoriously rough seas and into taboo regions, clearing the way for the rest of us to enjoy these previously hidden treasures of the Caribbean. The Cruising Community owes them a big debt of gratitude for so doing.
They terrific folks had a “roof raising” party and invited all the cruisers!
WORKING ON BOATS IN EXOTIC LOCATIONS
And while we had fun SCUBA diving, exploring the island’s topography by bicycle, eating ice cream and experiencing the culture of the island of Bonaire, there was still a cruiser’s work to be done as well.
Cruisers are always tackling items on their “to do” list – a list that can never be fully completed. There is always something new that pops up and needs to be done. The best it ever gets is when the list is comprised of merely tasks should be done, rather than jobs that MUST be done, and done immediately.
Linda Ridley on Natural Selection had some sewing projects underway. She was having a little trouble with her Sailrite sewing machine, though, and I went to see about it.
Considering I went to the all-day sewing class at the Sailrite Store in Ft. Lauderdale when I bought my machine, I am often able to help sort out any mechanical and adjustment problems that Sailrite owners are experiencing.
Melissa and I visited Linda aboard Natural Selection (a beautiful, well-built and ocean cruiser made by Valiant), to see if I could help get her machine tuned up.
Also on hand to supervise was the Ridley’s cat "Chavez" who hails from Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela. Chavez was quickly bored by the whole affair.
With only a few simple “tweaks” of the machine here and there, I had Linda back in business.
The most epic “boat battle” in Bonaire during the season was fought out by Todd Fulks on Lagoon 410 Blue Marine. His generator kept overheating and shutting down and it gave him fits for a couple of months!
Todd’s a Warrior though! If he was not in the generator locker getting hosed with antifreeze and skinning his poor knuckles to the bone, he was on the internet seeking help and advice from anyone and everyone on the planet as to what might cure the overheating problem.
Several of us cruisers took turns “helping” by making visits to the generator locker with Todd to help conduct tests and brainstorm. Early on, my vote was a cracked head or bad head gasket – but that is not the kind of news that somebody wants to hear!
After a few days of no headway on the troubleshooting, Todd and Lynn had to head into the Harbor Village Marina. No generator meant no 110 volts and no watermaker, nor fast battery-charging, etc.
Todd kept working the problem with no headway and finally employed the help of a local mechanic, mainly because none of us cruisers had a coolant system pressure testing pump and gauge, a tool that is useful for detecting head gasket and other fresh water cooling system leaks.
The tool is really just a heavy-duty bicycle tire pump that can be connected to the cooling system and pumped up so as to overpressure the cooling system and force leaks to “show themselves.” Once the pressure is pumped-up, you watch the pressure gauge to see if the system holds that pressure or leaks down. If the pressure decreases there must be a leak somewhere and you then look for “green stuff” oozing out of the engine and/or hoses and then figure out how to stop the oozing. Sounds simple, right?
Also, to help detect internal cooling system leaks, after the cooling system is pumped up, the engine can also be run to see if the pressure gauge fluctuates, a situation that would indicate that combustion from a cylinder is seeping through a defect in the head or head gasket, or through a crack in the cylinder head, thus allowing super-hot combustion gases to enter the cooling system and over-pressurize it, etc.
So, what happened? Even though it was made clear to the mechanic at the outset that the collective mechanical “brain trust” of the entire anchorage required a pressure testing tool to further diagnose the problem, the mechanic showed up the first time sans equipment for a mere “head scratching” session instead!
Welcome to third world cruising.
Several days later, the mechanic finally brought the required tool and, even then, tests revealed no smoking gun at all, raising Todd’s frustration level to the tenth power!
Finally, after several rounds of exhausting every possible overheating theory, including the wildest imaginable such as the possible misalignment of the planets in our solar system, or perhaps a warp in the density of the fabric of the atmosphere that surrounds Blue Marine, there was no other choice: the cylinder head had to come off.
The mechanic pulled the head and with a little light sanding on the mounting face a crack became visible! The cracked head had defied every imaginable test short of actually pulling the engine apart and “laying eyes” on the problem. Tricky, tricky!
In the end, a new cylinder head had to be shipped into Bonaire. When things were all back together the generator ran and didn’t overheat, but it “sounded funny” to Todd.
He was right. It turned out that there was an unrelated problem; a bad bearing on the electrical generator end of the main shaft. It took several more days to get a bearing and then it required the fight of Todd’s life for a couple of weeks to get that damned old bearing off the shaft!
It was finally in the Renaissance Marina in Aruba, one hot sunny afternoon, that Todd and I spent a few hours in his generator locker, taking turns and having to take apart a gear puller and slip its fingers into a no-clearance recessed area past a bell-housing and then reassemble it to grab the bearing’s edges. The bearing just would not budge past a certain point.
We finally discovered that the end of the shaft was slightly “shouldered” and that was preventing the bearing from slipping smartly off the shaft. Out came the Dremel tool and I dressed the end of the shaft. Then, it was time to take turns assembling the puller around the recessed bearing again, a painfully tedious task while upside down and turned around in a hot locker.
Astronaut training in the tropics comes to mind.
Anyway, we were finally set-up and ready for another go at it. I began cranking down on the center bolt of the gear puller and the bearing began to move as it did before, approaching the point where it always stuck on previous attempts. It reached that point and kept coming!
Like most shade-tree mechanics I grew up with, when a hard-fought mechanical victory is at hand, I let out a flurry of super-high-octane Joe Pesci, Martin Scorsese gangster-type profanity in perfect cadence with my cranking on the ratchet with more and more fury: “ “That’s . . . your . . . %&#$%@* . . . ass . . . now . . . you . . . no . . . good . . . *&%^$#&%$#*&^! Your . . . *&^%$#@. . . ass . . . is . . . mine! You . . . hear. . . me!?! Your. . . ASS . . . IS . . . MINE!
A few seconds later the old shaft bearing was in-hand and the path was cleared to a speedy installation of a new bearing by Todd.
Later, when all “the guys” were standing around and Todd was relating this episode to Grant Grove on catamaran Reality, he said: “Wow, you should have been there! Buddy cussed that bearing right off of that shaft! He let out a string of profanity that would make a convict blush!”
Todd had no idea that there are some very effective verbal tools available to mechanics. You won’t find those tools listed in the Snap On tool catalogue, however. Instead, such methods are learned by teenagers under the hoods of Hot Rods while in the company of somewhat “earthy'’ mechanics.
Hey, what can I say? I'm a sailor! Everybody has shortcomings. Many artists work with oils or clay, but sometimes profanity is admittedly my art form and especially when tools and skinned knuckles are involved.
Todd’s “generator wars” lasted several months and spanned three islands before finally coming to a hard-fought triumph in the end. Lest I jinx things I’ll say no more.
Both Lynn and Todd retired from high-end careers with Microsoft. Todd used to merely be a computer genius, but right about now he is a professional generator mechanic who also happens to know a lot about computers.
The point of relating all of this to you is that those of you who have yet to experience it cannot imagine the emotions one goes through with boat maintenance in the third world. From doctors to ditch diggers, we are all literally in the same boat and all of us find grease under our fingernails.
Lest you go mad while cruising, there is no choice but to use these damnable episodes as a tool to hone patience and acceptance against the rough stone of frustration, resulting in said virtues being sharpened beyond your wildest dreams.
You have to try and “forget” that a boat problem is beating you senseless and you must “have fun” anyway and take a break to go SCUBA diving or snorkeling. It’s not easy to separate those worlds sometimes.
Boats are extremely jealous mistresses and they won’t leave you alone for long. And no matter how hard you work on your Zen, there will be a “sell the boat day" every once in a while; days when you would snatch any reasonable cashier’s check out of a buyer’s hand and RUN inland as fast as your feet could carry you! All boats are like that.
I was lucky not to have a major job to do in Bonaire. But, it was not all play and no work for me either.
One problem that had become chronic was an air leak in the nose of our inflatable dinghy. Way back at Union Island, in the Grenadines of the Eastern Caribbean, a “considerate” fellow cruiser shoved my dinghy up under the ragged pier and a nail ripped and punctured the top of the dinghy’s inflatable tube.
I had tried to fix it FOUR times in the past, but those efforts never bore fruit. The leak would slowly return and increase to the point that the dinghy would have to be pumped up with a foot pump every morning.
I was determined to get the repair job done once and for all. The hardest part was the fact that is required 48 hours of no rain and deflated drying time for the glue to set really well. So, that meant no getting off the boat for two days.
I bought some two-part dinghy glue that you mix and it is very strong. I already had patch material. One thing that made the repair more complicated was that the puncture was adjacent to a raised seam where the inflatable’s tubes were constructed. So, it was going to be tricky to get pressure on the patch while laying it over such an uneven surface.
In the end, I used two big C-clamps to compress two pieces of plywood on either side of the repair. The “trick” was to fold a terry cloth wash towel in half and place it over the patch before sandwiching it all down with the plywood. The cloth provided “filler” that compressed the patch perfectly, even in the uneven seam areas. Finally, a dependable repair resulted.
Other than the dinghy patch, our "work days" in Bonaire were limited to routine maintenance (and that's plenty enough to keep you busy in between dives).
SURPRISE, SURPRISE, SURPRISE! IT’S HURRICANE FELIX!!!
In Bonaire the “living was easy” for sure. We were south of the true “hurricane belt” per se, but not far enough south for our boat insurance to be effective against a loss caused by a “Named Storm.”
After hurricane Ivan ravaged Grenada in 2005, insurance companies moved “the line” much farther south, from 12 degrees latitude to 10 degrees 50 minutes. By so doing, all the ABC islands and Grenada were excluded from coverage, requiring cruisers to go farther south to Trinidad, or head to the South American mainland or Panama.
As you know, in 2006 we opted for Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, as a “Hurricane Hole” and spent much of the hurricane season in the Bahia Redonda Marina. Despite being a very intriguing “one time” experience, we were not interested in a repeat trip to Venezuela's mainland.
In the year since we have been there, ladies were robbed just outside the Bahia Redonda Marina's gates while walking to the Saturday Market. Also, cruisers were attacked inside Bahia Redonda Marina. And, under President Chavez’s wild reign, the exchange rate for Bolivars (Venezuelan dollars) had skyrocketed from 2,500 per U.S. Dollar in 2006 to 5,000 Bolivars in 2007!
As of the writing of this report, more crime is happening against cruisers in Venezuela. Our friend Dwight, whom we met in Grenada aboard Stephanie Lynn, just reported that the Porlamar anchorage at the resort island of Margarita has now become irrefutably dangerous. There have been a couple of recent boat-boardings by armed robbers who have demanded money while holding shotguns to crews' heads. One of the pirates is allegedly an off-duty police officer.
Moreover, Dwight related that Chavez has indicated clearly that he has no sympathy for "Gringo" victims because they are so "rich" compared to the Venezuelan people. So, it sounds like it is “open season” and that Venezuela is definitely OFF THE LIST.
Sadly, it looks like Venezuela will in fact finally live up to my terrifying first-impressions of it two years ago, impressions we eventually thought erroneous after having no trouble during our stay.
As such, we already knew that Venezuela was in “melt-down” mode, and we were determined to avoid the current ills of Venezuelan politics and crime. We decided to stay in the ABC’s despite the risk of having no hurricane insurance in those areas. Thus, the plan was to “run” about 80 miles south the Venezuela mainland, but only if necessary so as to be covered by insurance in the event that a hurricane approached us.
That plan worked well in Bonaire for a while.
I glanced at NOAA’s Tropical Analysis and Forecast (TAFB) weather page now and then. It provides detailed weather discussions, warnings, wind and wave charts and everything needed to make a truly learned weather-related decision.
Here is a link to the NOAA TAFB page (it’s a great source):
But overconfidence and complacency got us into trouble with Hurricane Felix.
Week after week the weather was stable and the same features presented: three to five tropical waves were always spread from Africa across the Atlantic, into the Caribbean Sea and on to northern Central America.
The waves were predictable and spread out with 500 miles or more between them. They traveled as if fixed on the conveyor belt of a manufacturing plant; the tropical waves kept tracking across this part of the hemisphere and always passed well north of us, sometimes just barely affecting the local weather for 24 hours while zipping by.
And as the days wore on, we felt safe and confident weather-wise. In the fullness of time we would learn that in truth we were not safe at all, like fat and lazy security guards watching t.v. and/or napping on the job instead of staying sharp and making keen-eyed rounds.
LET THE LESSON BEGIN: HURRICANE FELIX
I awoke the morning of September 1, 2007, with no particular thoughts other than a morning SCUBA dive with Chuck and Terri on Maker's Match who had just recently arrived in Bonaire. It was just another day in paradise as far as we were concerned. It was a little cloudy at dawn, but nothing too ominous-looking.
I knew that yet another “cookie cutter” tropical wave was located hundreds of miles away from us near Grenada. It was forecasted to pass well north of us as a weak tropical storm. I thought no more of it and went diving.
The previous evening, August 31, I had merely glanced at NOAA’s site and was not concerned. The next morning, September 1, I looked again and NOAA showed that Bonaire was just barely within the graphic known as the Mariner’s 1-2-3 warning cone for a mere tropical storm. But nothing looked serious at all. After a very cursory look, I ignored the forecast.
In case you aren't familiar with the “Mariner’s 1-2-3” warning area, here is NOAA’s definition:
"The Mariners' 1-2-3 Rule, or "Danger area", is indicated by shading. The 1-2-3 Rule, commonly taught to mariners, refers to the rounded long-term NHC/TPC forecast errors of 100-200-300 nautical miles at 24-48-72 hours, respectively. The contour defining the shaded area is constructed by accounting for those errors and then broadened further to reflect the maximum 34-kt wind radii forecast at each of those times by the NHC/TPC. The NHC/TPC does not warrant that avoiding these danger areas will eliminate the risk of harm from tropical cyclones. Users operating in the vicinity of these systems are advised to continually monitor the latest Forecast/Advisories from the NHC/TPC and proceed at their own risk. This product also includes areas of possible tropical cyclone formation within the next 36 hours."
In addition to graphs and charts, written synopses and discussions are also provided by NOAA.
With all that in mind, here is what happened:
36 hours of Cruising with Felix
Late in the afternoon, of August 31, 2007, I learned about Felix (actually not even a named storm yet) for the first time by reading the 5:00 pm written NOAA weather discussion update; relevant excerpts as follows:
TROPICAL DEPRESSION SIX DISCUSSION NUMBER 1 NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL AL062007 500 PM EDT FRI AUG 31 2007 AN AIR FORCE RESERVE HURRICANE HUNTER INVESTIGATING A TROPICAL WAVE EAST OF THE WINDWARD ISLANDS. . . WINDS UP TO 36 KT. . . SLOW INTENSIFICATION (expected). . . LARGE-SCALE MODELS DO NOT STRENGTHEN THE DEPRESSION. . . TRACK GUIDANCE IS IN VERY GOOD AGREEMENT... . . . A WEAK SYSTEM. (WINDS FORCASTED TO BE A MAXIMUM OF 45 KNOTS IN 36 HOURS AS THE SYSTEM PASSES SIXTY MILES NORTH OF BONAIRE)
There was nothing to worry about in that report.
The Mariner’s 1-2-3 cone, and shaded 4-5 day cone graphics concurred with the written forecast discussion, showing the depression passing well north with the ABC’s only on notice of a storm watch, not a warning.
I went to sleep without a worry in the world, and we had already planned tomorrow’s morning SCUBA dive.
The next morning, I poured my coffee and logged onto the internet and perused the Tropical Depression Six September 1, 2007, 5:00 a.m. update. Here are relevant excerpts:
ZCZC MIATCDAT1 ALL TTAA00 KNHC DDHHMM TROPICAL STORM FELIX DISCUSSION NUMBER 3 NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL AL062007 500 AM EDT SAT SEP 01 2007 THE DEPRESSION IS UPGRADED TO TROPICAL STORM FELIX. . . JUST RECENTLY PASSED OVER GRENADA. . . RELATIVELY SMALL STORM. . . CALLING FOR FELIX TO REACH HURRICANE STATUS IN 48 HOURS BUT [VARIOUS] FORECASTS COULD NOT BE MUCH MORE IN DISAGREEMENT, [ONE] FORECASTING A HURRICANE IN 3-4 DAYS AND [ANOTHER] BARELY CALLING FOR FELIX TO MAINTAIN TROPICAL STORM STATUS. . . THE OFFICIAL INTENSITY IS SLIGHTLY MORE AGGRESSIVE THAN THE PREVIOUS ADVISORY. . . (STORM WINDS FORECASTED TO BE 50 KNOTS WITHIN THE STORM AS IT PASSES SIXTY MILES NORTH OF BONAIRE IN 24 HOURS).
Again, the graphics agreed with the forecast:
It appeared we were very safe and the worst case scenario was a few squalls and more likely than not, no effects at all. There was no change in the forecast that the storm would pass sixty miles north of Bonaire. So, I blew off the weather and didn't give it another thought.
We decided to go SCUBA diving with friends. Just as we took off to head to the dive site in the dinghy, a rather nasty looking rainstorm moved in over the north half of the island.
While underwater on the dive, I experienced my first underwater heavy rainstorm and was intrigued by the sub-sea sound of the heavy rain on the water and swam up from fifty feet to twenty feet to see what the rain-pelted surface looked like from twenty feet below, taking pictures as well. The fish could not have cared less about the rain.
The squall passed without incident and after the dive we returned to the mooring field. When we returned, we found that while we were diving many boats had vacated the area and arranged for space in the one and only marina. By way of hearing conversations of others on the VHF radio we also learned that the marina was full, accepting no more boats.
Grant Grove, from Manta 42 catamaran Reality came by in his dinghy and said “Wow, you guys are wild! Everybody else is watching the weather and running for cover and you guys are out diving! Hey, by the way, the marina is full, but I am tied to a 'T dock' and there is plenty of room for you to raft up to us if you want to.”
I had checked the weather again and it looked like we would get a few squalls, nothing to worry about and we said “thanks but no thanks.”
There were still about a dozen boats in the mooring field and we all planned to drop the moorings and motor around the small island of Klein Bonaire during the storm, staying in the lee of the small island (much like the squirrel going around and around the tree to elude the hunter). With a forecast of fifteen to twenty knot winds and a few squalls with gusts to 30, it was very, very doable.
Besides, we had another problem to worry about: considering we are too far north and will have no insurance for "named storm" damage, if our boat blew into or damaged another vessel in a crowded marina, we would be liable and have no insurance to offset the cost of any damage we might cause. Thus, we felt it best to stay out of a packed marina and stay away from other boats.
Skies were increasingly angry while we readied the boat all afternoon. The decks were stripped. The jib and mainsail covers were seriously lashed down. Though hoping it would all be deemed paranoia and over-preparation in the end, no detail was glossed-over and we were as ready as we could possibly be to motor right through the Gates of Hell.
Friends and neighbors on the mooring right next to us, Walt and Honoree Cooper aboard Will-o’-the-Wisp, were ready too. Chuck and Terri on Lagoon 410 Maker’s Match had already moved to a mooring behind the little island of Klein Bonaire to “launch” from that location.
VHF radio discussions ensued about the possibility of forming a single-file convoy so that we would reduce the risk of collisions when visibility was reduced to zero by heavy rains, etc.
The forecast was increasingly bad and Felix was already a hurricane. Even more alarming, Felix started tracking due west, right at Bonaire! And it was rapidly gaining strength. Our visions of a couple of hours of routine squalls were changing into nightmares of sustained gale force conditions for several hours.
A quick look at the latest Mariner’s 1-2-3 graphic, however, still showed that the odds were very good that Felix would pass well the north of Bonaire.
We decided to go ashore with Walt and Honoree Cooper and eat BBQ ribs at Bobbie Jan's where we all nervously joked about it being our “last supper.” Dinner conversation was choppy: weird silences interrupted by nervous spurts of small talk, the kind that comes to the minds of people wholly pre-occupied. We all anxiously gulped down our food and hurried back to the boats.
Back aboard the boat, it was “all over but the waiting” as they say. The sun was setting and the skies were very, very angry.
Grant Grove aboard catamaran Reality informed everyone over the VHF radio that he would be talking to professional weatherman Chris Parker via Single Sideband (SSB) radio later on in the early evening, and Grant announced he would "simulcast" the SSB broadcast over the VHF by holding his VHF mike up to the SSB radio’s speaker.
The Bonaire Marine Park Officers came by in a small skiff, stopping by all the boats still in the mooring field and informed their crews that the moorings are not safe in a storm and that we were remaining on the moorings at our own risk. It was a legal disclaimer on the Marine Park’s behalf more than anything else.
As the sunset finally waned, we were becoming more and more concerned. It was obvious we were in for a long and tiresome night. However, we still believed we would be fine according to the forecasts.
Darkness had fallen. The mooring field was relatively empty. Just yesterday, the mooring field was a bustling vacation scene full of boats. Dinghies full of cruisers and dive gear zipped around like bees at a hive. Traffic bustled along the shoreline streets.
Now, the whole place was eerie, ghostlike, and Bonaire seemed as deserted as Chernobyl after the meltdown. Still, we were optimistic and hopeful. We patiently but nervously awaited the weather update from Chris Parker via SSB Radio.
And then the time came: Chris’s voice was barely audible and came and went, sometimes wholly buried under layer upon layer of the crackle and buzz of static and atmospheric interference.
As the transmission began, its garbled faintness visited upon me an unbearable sensation of profound isolation, as if Melissa and I were all alone on the North Pole.
And then the forecast: The storm is now Hurricane Felix. It is tracking due west. It has not turned northwest to the extent previously expected. It will pass much closer to Bonaire than predicted earlier in the day and will in fact HIT BONAIRE if it does not turn very soon.
Earlier in the morning the forecast called for wind gusts up to 30 to 40 knots momentarily in isolated squalls. Considering the storm’s more westerly track and surprise intensification to hurricane strength, Chris now sees the Bonaire forecast calling for several hours of solid 50 knot winds with much higher gusts in extremely heavy squalls.
And more: in the event Felix tracks right over Bonaire, a real possibility now with just an off-track “eye wobble” needed, we should be ready for sustained hurricane-force winds of up to 100 knots. That concluded the “meat” of the forecast update.
My conclusions were instant: We are in REAL DANGER!
The snap-crackle-pop of interference on the VHF continued, as did Chris Parker with his final remarks. I could still hear him but nothing else he said registered. I was flung furiously into a “this is Major Tom to Ground Control” zone of mental isolation. I was on a mooring physically 150 feet from shore, but I was emotionally far off in outer space “floating in my tin can . . . far, far away.”
My mind instantaneously submerged into a very dark abyss and then frantically resurfaced a few seconds later with my thoughts screaming: “How in God’s name could you have let this happen?! How could you be so stupid?! How could you break all your own rules about weather-first and take-no-chances?! How could a guy like you from south Louisiana, who’s experienced many hurricanes first-hand, have made such an utterly stupid, risky hurricane call?! Yes, you’ve done some really stupid shit in your life, Buddy, but this is utterly, Spectacularly Stupid!”
I mounted a vicious flurry of self-deprecating internal assaults that drowned out Chris Parker’s final remarks.
The radio went quiet. We were in shock. My breath went shallow and my mind shifted gears– a computer now processing various doomsday scenarios: what are the sea conditions between here and Venezuela if we run now? If we try motoring in the lee of the small island of Klein Bonaire, what is the highest wind speed we can motor into before all headway is lost and we are swept to the open sea? What wind speed would make it impossible to swim to shore if we began to get swept away and abandoned ship? How about beaching Indigo Moon on the small island of Klein Bonaire if need be? If we capsize, where should the life raft be for the best deployment options? Each single question begged at least a dozen more, spinning me out of focus over and over again.
As my metal circuitry popped and crackled with a dangerous overload of amps, Melissa sat silent at the salon table, ashen-faced.
A minute later she began to speak. Her face was extremely stiff, so much so I was not sure at first that words could even escape her mouth. But she began to speak slowly and deliberately in a very unnatural cadence, as if she might scream in the absence of deliberate restraint: “What is going to be The Plan? I need to know exactly what The Plan is, Buddy.”
I could not answer except to look down at my feet and say “We’ll just do the best we can as conditions change. All we can do is drop the mooring lines when it gets too rough here and then go from there, adjusting our tactics as conditions change.”
Melissa did NOT like that answer and said “Look at me. LOOK AT ME!”
I raised my head and looked her squarely in the eyes as she continued in a more-aggravated tone “I need a real Plan, Buddy! None of this we’ll see shit, Mister! I know you! You’ll come up with some last-second plan and start speaking in tongues and I won’t know what you are asking me to do or what the hell you are even trying to do. I need to know EXACTLY what The Plan is and what we are going to do!”
Clearly, there was no way to make exact plans and there was no way to formulate an answer. At that moment, Melissa required the comfort of certainty in a situation that was about as uncertain as things ever get in Life.
All I could do was steal a line from the movie Armageddon. It’s a line delivered by actor Owen Wilson after hearing about an asteroid’s atmospheric and surface conditions soon to be experienced by his team of oil rig drillers about to be sent into space to land on and destroy the “global killer” asteroid threatening to smash into Earth.
Wilson, shocked by the wild description of the conditions on the asteroid, began chanting to himself with dazed eyes “Ok, I get it. It’s the scariest environment imaginable, the scariest environment imaginable. . .”
I delivered the line to Melissa (a favorite of hers in that movie) and did so in perfect Owen Wilson accent. She laughed for a nanosecond.
Then it was back to business. I tried my best to explain that there were only two real choices that were certain and controllable and absolute in outcomes as I saw it. Either we can be certain of our personal safety by abandoning our home and going ashore, or we can stay aboard and risk our lives to protect our home.
If we stay on the boat, I can not articulate solid, clear plans. It will be a steep, perhaps even deadly learning-curve contingency-exercise situated squarely upon the utterly unpredictable. It will be literally “do or die” as unpredictable events unfold.
Melissa was not at all happy. I don’t blame her. Happy or not, serious decisions had to render irreversible actions quickly in that the situation had changed drastically. Our personal safety was clearly at issue. And the salon of Indigo Moon fell silent again.
In hindsight Melissa and I both agree that particular “moment of silence” was the most terrifying few seconds we have spent aboard Indigo Moon.
Within a minute or so, the shock wore off, reality sunk in, and we began to discuss ominous options calmly and in earnest.
Clearly we can’t hide behind a small island and motor into extremely high winds for long: the lee of the island would be lost as we’d be swept out to sea. And it was very possible under the scenario that we would find ourselves in a hurricane at sea.
Another option was to unlash the sails, put up full sail and throttle up full engines and head due south for Venezuela immediately and with all possible dispatch. The storm was not due to arrive for four hours and we could put thirty miles between us and Bonaire and perhaps avoid the worst of it, but thirty miles is not much of a safety margin in “hurricane language” and if our luck was bad, or we if had an injury or breakdown, we would then be at sea in survival storm conditions, fighting a losing battle.
Yet another option was to simply abandon the boat. We could leave it on the mooring and step on shore. With no insurance, it would be tantamount to putting $275,000.00 in suitcase and leaving it on a park bench overnight and then returning the next morning to see if it’s still there.
We spent about five minutes hyperventilating and “chasing our tails” and realizing there was no "good" plan.
I collected my thoughts further and called my fellow “storm riders” Maker’s Match and Will-o’-the-Wisp on the VHF to post-mortem the ominous forecast and get a feel for what their plans were.
Just about that time, Randy Kenofell from Pizazz broke in on the VHF: “Hey Guys! Look! I know that the marina says they are full, but there is plenty of room in here to raft up and the marina can’t stop you from coming in during an emergency. I would just come on in. JUST COME ON IN GUYS!”
Hmmm . . . let me think . . . DUH!!!!!
After a one-second internal deliberation, I keyed the VHF microphone and hailed Grant Grove on Reality “Hey Grant! Is your invitation earlier today still good? Can we come and raft-up to you?” His answer: “Sure!”
Indigo Moon was moving, literally, in twenty seconds after I put the VHF mic down! I had already set the lines for quick release and I had just checked the engines and warmed them up ten minutes before the weather report.
And that set off a VHF flurry of action wherein Maker’s Match, Will-o’-the-Wisp, and others dropped mooring lines, fired-up their engines, and headed into the marina.
We put out every fender we had and tied fast to Reality. Then, we ran anchors out at 45 degrees off the stern and bow of Indigo Moon, with lots of scope (length of chain/line) and winched them tight to help keep both Indigo Moon and Reality off the dock should the winds come beam-to Indigo Moon.
As boats piled into the marina and found spaces to raft up, folks on already docked boats came out to tend lines and help secure boats while groups of others merely “supervised.” The social scene on the docks was that of pure hurricane preparation – an event that, since childhood, is all too familiar from my hurricane experiences in Louisiana. Such get-togethers are an "emotional gumbo" of adrenaline, courage, fear, jocularity and camaraderie.
I found myself curiously homesick for Louisiana while getting ready for Hurricane Felix because the marina scene was such a familiar dance to me.
Within an hour the flurry of activity was over, the docks were clear, and everybody was aboard their boats, hunkered down. With internet access, I kept NOAA’s Hurricane site up, waiting for new updates. I ran the generator and the air conditioning and the battery charger to keep everything running at 100% readiness: computer, internet, radar, B&G instruments for wind speed and direction. All systems were on and functional and ready for whatever.
And while we were “secure” in the marina about a half dozen boats did not go into the marina and decided to stick to the plan of motoring around the small island of Klein Bonaire. Many of those were European boats from countries like France, Belgium, and Holland to name a few.
Melissa went below and got a few hours of sleep, but I stayed up the entire night.
September 2nd - 2:00 am
As Felix came closer, the rain bands moved in and we got light rain and wind gusts to 25 knots, with a one-second puff of 30 knots at about 2:00 a.m.
The 2 a.m. Mariners 1-2-3 graph showed that the eye was passing extremely close to Bonaire and that we had not only a tropical storm warning but a hurricane watch for the northern tip of the ABC islands.
At about 2:30 a.m. a local fishing boat came in, passing very close to us and then rounding the end of the dock to go deeper into the marina toward the shore. They had quite a time tying up.
As the squalls set in, now and then I could see a masthead light swinging wildly as one of the "storm rider" boats motored by the outside of the marina entrance.
As far as I could tell from the 2 a.m. forecast, by dawn Felix would be done with us and on his way to Curacao and Aruba. Luckily, as the wee hours of the morning wore on, our conditions did not worsen. That one little 30 knot puff was the extent of it. All we had were a few bands of light rain and 20 to 25 knot winds – nothing that exceeded what might be endured on any given normal weather day in the tropics.
As first light broke, conditions were not bad as we rode out the remaining winds and light rains, all while rafted up to Manta 42 catamaran Reality.
(R) rafted to : dawn breaks and it is a miracle; there is nothing broken! We are very, very, very, very lucky!
The seas told the tale, however. By 7:30 a.m. large storm swells were coming in, and at one point the seas tore a large power boat (along with the section of dock it was tied to), from the wall at the Marina’s entrance. Clearly, there was a monster out there. The only question now was “how close” did it come to us?
By 9:00 a.m. it was all over. We had escaped wholly unscathed. In fact, I have gone outside in a bathing suit with a bucket, brush, and boat soap in much tougher squalls just to get a free freshwater wash down at anchor. Felix was nothing notable wind-wise and rain-wise from where we sat.
It was not until later in the morning that we obtained a wind graphic to see that Felix passed unbelievably close to us with 90 to 97 knot winds near his eye. But for Felix being an extremely compact system at that point, we would have gotten hammered. And had the storm not moved ever so slightly to the north, the marina would have become a “tossed salad” of upended and capsized vessels, rendering Melissa and me homeless.
Here is the graphic of Felix’s eye and associated winds that passed just thirty miles north of us:
As the seas calmed by mid-morning, the reports came in. The boats that motored around had no trouble. A couple of large, local sailboats in disrepair were left on moorings and they broke loose and were driven on shore.
One of them, Oscarina, was quickly rescued and was still afloat despite shattering its rudder on the seawall. Another boat simply washed up on the beach and stayed there for several days.
having rescued it from the seawall after it broke from its mooring and shattered its rudder in the shallows.
By mid-afternoon, we departed the marina and picked up the same mooring we had dropped less than 24 hours earlier. The swells were still pretty big but spread out, and the mooring field was habitable again.
We watched local children playing in the huge surf and settled back into our daily routine as the seas quickly calmed.
As more and more boats came back out to the mooring field, I ran up and down in the dinghy assisting with the mooring lines.
At one point, a man on an already moored Belgian boat (who had motored around all night) flagged me down. He was angry because during the mass exodus into the marina the night before, one of the other boats with engine trouble (not me) allegedly came too close to him. Fearing a collision, he dropped his mooring “a few hours early” requiring him to motor more than he should have had to.
And while he was not mad at me per se, he had no qualms about expressing his opinion that we were all a bunch of sissies for running into the marina. He didn’t know what the big deal was – “everybody was so worried and the storm was nothing . . . blah, blah, blah . . .”
I kept my mouth shut, zoned-out and tried to imagine what the water looked like just thirty miles north of us when 90-plus knot winds whipped the Caribbean Sea. I left the Belgian with genuine assurances that no one tried to inconvenience him on purpose. I think he felt a little better having gotten his complaints off his chest to somebody.
As I motored away, I felt a deep appreciation for the fact that we were all safe in the mooring field despite all of us, to a person, being “Felix stupid” in our own individual ways, whether we all realized it or not. The only obvious difference between me and the Belgian guy is that I actually knew just how amazingly lucky we were.
By the next morning Felix was a distant memory and we were “back in business” SCUBA diving and enjoying the best Bonaire has to offer, as if nothing ever happened.
So how can I wrap up our lessons from Felix? Plainly put, the very instant Bonaire was included in any NOAA warning cone of any kind, we should have been underway immediately, headed for the mainland of Venezuela, south to an area where we were out of danger or at least to a latitude where our insurance was effective against named storms.
More important, we will never again view the NOAA warning cone as something that can itself be dissected into sub categories of risk. That was my true failing. Bonaire was just barely in the warning zone, ever so close to being outside the warning cone. So, I equated that to very low risk – therefore, I decided it was something I could rationally choose to ignore.
It’s been said that no human being is so absolutely useless that they cannot at least serve their fellow man as a bad example. In that vein, let me share the best advice I can give now in retrospect as a bad example: never let your guard down regarding weather vigilance and set sail immediately if at any time the edge of the warning cone touches your location.
Now back to happier topics.
In fact, let's talk Turtles!
EVERYBODY LOVES. . . . SEA TURTLES!
You probably saw this mini-update on sea turtles in prior reports. But, we had so much fun witnessing a turtle hatching on Bonaire that we are “reprinting” the article here as well. Enjoy!
Hawksbill Turtle Hatching
Sweet Dreams Beach
Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles
August 23, 2007
You must understand that Melissa adores sea turtles. It was thus an unexpected treat that we had the pleasure of witnessing Hawksbill turtle hatchlings erupt from deep within the sand in order to make their way to the sea. This is not something you get to see everyday, folks.
On the southwestern shore of Bonaire, the endangered Hawksbill turtles have long established a nesting ground where eggs are laid every year. Scientists and volunteers have become skilled at observing the nesting grounds and protecting the turtle eggs and hatchlings. As part of that program, the public is invited to come and witness the final event when hatchlings boil up and out of the sand and make their way to the surf where they swim away quickly to the open sea.
Along with our friends Walt and Honoree on Will-o'-the-Wisp, we walked to the Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire (STCB), office where we caught a ride to the hatchling site at the southern end of the island with the STCB director, Mabel. You can visit the STCB web site at http://www.bonairenature.com/turtles/
As we drove up to the site, we saw that many spectators had already arrived. Even dolphins showed up for the event and a pod swam by close to shore as the crowd gathered. The beach area had already been marked off to keep people from walking on the underground nest (which is wholly undetectable by the untrained naked eye).
Funchi, having successfully served as "midwife" for many of these events, explained the anticipated sequence of events. First, he knew the hatchlings were ready to surface. He also knew they were about 10 inches under the sand (the length of the mother's fin). The small turtles already hatched from their eggs. If left to their own devices, they would ultimately dig to the surface, but he would give them a little help.
Also, Funchi explained that once the hatchlings were ever so slightly exposed to air and light, they would become "activated" and would soon be climbing out of the nest and quickly on the move toward the sea.
Finally, he explained that it is paramount that the crowd leave the fairway to the sea open and not block the light of the setting Sun -- it is the light from the setting Sun that calibrates the turtles' navigation senses, much like the Sun being the satellite to activate the turtles' GPS systems. How cool is that?!
And so, when everybody was ready, Funchi brushed away sand until just a few turtles were just barely visible -- he did not uncover them, but just brushed away enough sand to reveal that something was under the surface.
Within a few minutes, the turtles activated and in no time approximately 120 hatchlings kept coming and coming and coming out of this small but relatively deep hole. And then, it was "off to the races." Had the turtles only had numbers on their backs, a "bookie" could have made a fortune as the crowd cheered these baby turtles in their race for life. One turtle would take the lead only to fall in a rut or hole as the audience groaned and gasped. He would have to dig out while other turtles passed him by.
It took a good ten minutes for the first hatchling to reach the shore. The first wave pushed him back and left him high and dry. The turtle tried again, only to be flipped and deposited back upon the shore. The third try was the charm and he was waterborne and flipping hard. In no time, he was out of sight!
The mission: the hatchlings will swim steadily out to sea, without resting, for up to 48 hours while trying to put distance between them and the shore where thousands of predators live, both in the sky and in the sea. They will find ocean currents and travel long distances, feeding on plankton. We were told that, if lucky, probably only ONE of the hatchlings will survive by making it to an offshore patch of flotsam where the small turtle can hide and feed and grow in relative safety from predators.
RANDOM REMEBERANCES FROM A CRUISER’S LIFE IN BONAIRE
As you all know, one’s overall impression of any given place is a final compilation of many different sights and experiences. Here are a few more “tiles” in my “mental mosaic” of Bonaire.
One thing that was really cool to see was all the small, local fishing boats. Wooden hulled, heavy, and kept on moorings, there were a few dozen scattered along the shores of Kralendijk.
The mooring floats are attached to pulleys with long lines threaded through them so that the small boats can be run in and out to the mooring from the shore, likes flags up and down a pole, etc.
You had to keep an eye out for these small fishing boats, often at anchor on the reef in and around the yacht mooring field. To anchor, they use a rock tied to a string. They fished all hours of the day and night and have no running or anchor lights.
We often ran our dinghy at night, returning from the ice cream stand or a fish identification class for example, and it’s easy to run up on a fishing boat and have a near miss. It will scare you and may cause you to drop your ice cream cone! So, we had to be careful and keep a sharp lookout when cruising in the dinghy at night.
There were a few larger, inboard-engine fishing boats of wood too, often launched with the local crane.
One of my favorite small boats was the
, seen fishing almost daily right by our boat. Her owner was quite into aesthetics in that he had carefully painted both his boat and old Johnson outboard with bright orange accents to match his perfectly orange hat!
Also, part of Bonarian life is the arrival of goods by ship. It’s a big deal. There might actually be mustard in the grocery store, or perhaps nice sliced ham or turkey (we saw it hit the grocery store cooler only once in three months, though).
I ordered some things at the local Budget Marine Chandlery and it took six weeks to come in by ship.
If you buy a new car, you don’t drive it home off the dealer’s lot. Instead you watch the horizon where the sea meets the sky and wait and wait and wait. . . .
Island life means a lesson in patience, especially for us Norte Americanos who expect everything to be available in a minute or less from a drive through window.
Back, to the topic of restaurants, Pasa Bon Pizza is still our favorite place on Bonaire. The owner, Joe, and his crew use homemade sauce and homemade sausage to create the best pizza in the world.
Also a winner, Casa Blanca Steakhouse serves Argentinean beef and has an interesting decor.
Our least favorite restaurant, which I won’t name, was supposedly a “TexMex” restaurant. It had great ambience, but the food was not good and there was very little of it on the plate for a big price. True: when our food was served, the waiter said “Good luck!” That’s a first, and it was our last visit there.
And then there was the Shang Hai Snack Bar. We never ate there, but it was right across the street from the grocery store and a constant, depressing reminder that the Lucia family was in Shang Hai and far, far away from us!
While on our mooring, just hanging around on the boat, many cool sights could be seen while looking toward the sea.
Melissa captured an awesome photo of dolphins jumping at the bow of a local dive boat. The dive boats will stop and let the patrons jump in and try to swim with the wild dolphins.
Also, every few weeks, the newest Netherlands Antilles warship would cruise through the area and sometimes dock. It’s the latest in technology and even has a resident U.S. Coast Guard team as part of its permanent crew, all as part of the War on Drugs.
During our stay, our neighbors Walt and Honoree Cooper were aboard Will-o’-the-Wisp, a Dutch-built 1970 Banjer Motorsailor that was hands down the coolest vessel in the fleet character-wise. Here’s what the neighborhood looked like:
Just so happens, “our” mooring was located right in front of the “Bar” that serves the venerable Bonaire Yacht Club. There are no linen table cloths to be seen. No people in blue blazers or fancy, white deck shoes ever come around. Most certainly, there are no stupid-looking Captains’ hats donned.
There is not even a trophy case or “fancy room”, nor any wall upon which to hang photos of the Club’s self-aggrandized famous and infamous. Nope, there is none of that “yacht club stuff.” There’s not even a real building. Just an open lot for boat storage and a simple kiosk Bar next door set back under a palm-frond lean-to with old cable spools for tables.
That pretty much makes it the best damn yacht club I’ve ever seen.
Although different in many great ways, the Bonaire Yacht Club is just the same as all others when it comes to what’s important: teaching youngsters to sail like the pros. “Optimist” Dinghy races were routine, with the kids often engaging in “tacking battles” around our moored boat!
It’s always thrilling to watch kids sailing dinghies. If you ever need a crystal clear reminder of what it used to be like to be young, super-agile, and perfectly coordinated, just watch little kids race sailing dinghies! It’s utterly amazing.
brand dinghies being raced by yacht club youths.
As stated earlier, windsurfing is the national sport of Bonaire, so it was a common sight to see windsurfers too; however, they were more congregated on the east side of the island in Lac Bay where the best windsurfing bay in the world is located. It is a huge, waist-deep protected bay with a clean sand bottom, making it easy to get going again on a windsurfer after a fall. It is calm and protected, yet it is also open to the steady trade winds.
Looking shore-side on any given day in Bonaire, you’ll see various sights while on walkabout or shopping, whether it’s a fellow cruiser running errands, or local kids swimming, it’s all just more of the overall personality of Bonaire.
As if all that were not enough, we went on two different sunset cruises, one aboard the “Moo Cruise” boat that is painted like a white and black spotted cow. The other aboard Tony and Heidi Gray’s beautiful 54 foot Amel World Citizen.
Here are a few pics:
BONAIRE – FINAL REFLECTIONS:
As always with cruising, our time in Bonaire provided us many new experiences and the opportunity to learn and experience new things. We both got certified as REEF fish identification volunteers and Melissa took her efforts all the way to the top! I became more proficient at underwater photography. Overall, we reached a significantly higher lever of underwater skill in every way, from breath control, to buoyancy control, to handling equipment, to increasing our understanding and appreciation for the sea creatures and the underwater world.
By remaining in Bonaire for 90 days, we fit six years of two week dive vacations into three months. When we first arrived, I was lucky to get fifty minutes out of a 3,200 p.s.i. tank of air. By the time we left, I was able to dive to 130 feet for a few minutes, come up slowly after that to about 50 feet for twenty minutes and then work my way up from there, getting up to 80 minutes total from one tank of air. It was a drastic improvement in dive skills.
Cruisers collectively got other lessons too, some in Immigrations. We were reminded that we are merely guests in the countries we visit. Ninety days is the “end of the line” in Bonaire. The way things have been in the past, there was “a wink and a nod” attitude that allowed cruisers to go to Aruba or Venezuela (on their boat or by airplane), check in for twenty four hours, and come right back to Bonaire for another new ninety day permit.
But, things have now changed. Cruisers are pretty spoiled and sometimes it comes back to bite us. After being in a paradise like Bonaire for three months, it’s easy to start feeling like you have a “right” to be there. Some cruisers were getting pretty indignant about the ninety day rule and felt that they should not be inconvenienced and put through the expensive sham of having to go to Aruba or Venezuela to reset the ninety days.
Well, guess what. The true rule is ninety days TOTAL per year in the Netherlands Antilles. It was only through self-perceived generosity on the Bonarian government’s part that a “blind eye” was turned toward the rule and the “reset” was allowed to happen under any circumstances at all.
Well, sure enough, things came to a head. One cruiser allegedly decided to “go straighten out” the Bonaire officials, especially the jerk in the Immigrations Office. Hearsay contends that he marched into the Immigration Office and gave them un-shirted hell about all the inconvenience being visited upon the cruisers by having to go to Aruba every ninety days, etc., and how ludicrous that whole damn sham was.
That resulted in “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and the Immigrations Office response was swift and certain: “Your ninety days are up! Get Out! And STAY OUT, for a year!
Word is that the “vigilante cruiser” has caused the government to enforce the ninety-day-per-year rule to the hilt and the government surely feels like its hand has been bitten by those whom it fed.
It’s been said that if you want to engage in brinkmanship, Rule Number One is that you MUST know where the brink is!
A few cruisers get into a lot of trouble that way, because they forget that we don’t have a right to be in any of these foreign countries. The U.S. Constitution does not follow us around the world. It is not uncommon for one angry self-righteous cruiser to “let the locals have it” and blow things for the entire fleet.
We all make mistakes, however, and I sure can't claim higher ground. Hurricane Felix brought me to my knees and gave me a weather lesson I’ll never forget!
But more important than any of that, though, we made wonderful friends in Bonaire and it was a magical time where the fabulous diving, wonderful camaraderie, and a real sense of community sprung forth on a level not often found while cruising and living on a boat.
Cruising is like that, though. Just when we thought nothing could rival our experiences in St. John, along came Bonaire!
We’ll never forget Bonaire. Like St. John in the U.S.V.I., it is one of the rarest of destinations where cruising and sailing dreams actually unite with cruising reality.
Accordingly, Bonaire goes into our “drawstring leather pouch of precious jewels” that we have been collecting for the last three years, all treasured experiences of life to be spread out on the table and recalled in the future and remembered as some of the most fabulous experiences of our lives. We left a piece of our hearts with the reefs and spectacular sea creatures of Bonaire.
In closing, there is one, final and absolutely heartbreaking postscript to this report. Our new friends in Bonaire suffered a horrific loss soon after we departed. Melissa and I were in Cartagena, Colombia, when we received word that Bonaire’s Chile Ridley took his own life on December 16, 2007. We cannot, in words, express the depth of our sorrows.
I was asked by friends and family to write an obituary for Chile and to submit it for publication in the Caribbean Compass. Here is what I prepared and tendered:
Eight Bells for Chile Ridley
On December 16, 2007 , the Cruising Community, the Island of Bonaire , and Mother Earth all lost one of their most wonderful, talented, and trusted friends. Edward Alton Ridley, known to all as “ Chile ” Ridley, took his own life at the age of 58. Chile was born in Valentine, Texas , and had battled the disease of depression all of his life. He is survived by his wife, Linda Ridley of Marfa , Texas . The Ridley’s began their Cruising life aboard their Valiant 42 “Natural Selection” by departing Galveston in 1998 and sailing to St. Petersburg , Florida , where their new Valiant was part of the 1998 boat show. Thereafter, they cruised down the Eastern Caribbean , finally arriving in Bonaire five years later on Valentine’s Day of 2003. As avid SCUBA divers, both Chile and Linda instantly fell in love with Bonaire and remained there as residents living aboard “Natural Selection.” Chile was Manager of Bonaire’s Capture Photo and also worked as a Dive Master. Most important, he was an indispensable volunteer for environmental organizations such as REEF, STINAPA and the Bonaire Sea Turtle Conservation Project. Chile completed 300 Level 5 surveys for REEF, collected hundreds of amazing underwater images on film, and completed almost 2,000 dives. Chile ’s “True Grit” Texas spirit, fine character, and exceptional skills combined to make him an unflagging Champion of the environment like no other. Loved by all, Chile was not just a gentleman but a gentle man, always willing to lend a hand and always the first to volunteer. He will be missed by all who knew him, including all of the beautiful sea creatures of Bonaire that he loved so well and fought so hard to protect. The family asks that in lieu of cards or flowers, donations should be made in his name to support the Sea Turtle Conservation Project by visiting https://www.supportbonaire.org
We miss Chile. We were lucky to have known him. He will always be part of our best Bonaire memories.
Many people, including me, were initially very angry at Chile for taking his life. But, in the fullness of time there is only one valid emotion and that is love.
Love for a fallen friend. Love for a husband lost. Love for the loss of a Champion who stood for all that is good. Chile left this world better than he found it. His terrible life-ending decision on a quiet Bonaire Sunday afternoon, and his surrender to the disease of depression, cannot and will not eclipse all the wonderful things he accomplished, nor even slightly diminish the fact that he was a fabulous and gifted person.
But for the Grace of God go any one of us.
In the end, we can only pray that the most beautiful ocean reefs actually lay in Heaven and that Chile has not only been reunited with loved ones and family members lost, but that he has also been rejoined with scores of all the beautiful sea creatures that he protected and loved so well in earthly life.
That is our solemn prayer for Chile today.
In closing, it seems only fitting to share some of the best sunsets we captured in Bonaire. The island and its people will always live in our hearts.
Until next time,
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