, Kelly's Eye
 
ABC's APRIL TO JUNE 2007
 

Curaçao
We left Bonaire on April 1st at 07.30 heading to Curaçao with cloudy skies and the odd spot of rain. The wind was around twenty knots gusting twenty five and we had the normal big seas and a cross swell - we rolled. As we approached Klein Curaçao (a small island just south east of Curaçao) we could see a coaster and two yachts up on the windward reef. We've seen a number of wrecked yachts now and it gives us a bit of a creepy feeling when you see them. We later found out that the wreck of a big ketch was a single-hander who fell asleep and hit the reef about 05.00, many months ago. However the other yacht was wrecked earlier on in the day we passed by!!

Fortunately we managed not to hit anything, sailed up the west coast of Curaçao and entered the narrow, winding channel that leads into Spanish Water, a big, well sheltered lagoon area. We had just got the sails down and were preparing the anchor when we got hit by a nasty squall - 30 knot winds and torrential rain that turned the water white. We thought it prudent to stay away from other boats while this was going on so we circled for a while until the wind began to drop. Although it wasn't pleasant we did welcome the rain because we hadn't had any for many weeks - although we can wash the decks and coach roof only rain can clean the masts, standing and running rigging and they were coated with brown dust that was blown over Bonaire.

The following day we caught the bus into Willemstad, Curaçao's extemely pretty capital, to clear in. The nonsense that followed was a good example of how not to welcome visitors to your country - from leaving the boat to arriving back took seven hours! First we had to get the bus into town, even though all yachts go into Spanish Water there are no Customs or Immigration facilities there. Then we had to walk from the bus station to Customs, who were charming. Then a long walk to Immigration, only to find out that we had to walk back to the dock gate to get a pass. The immigration people had obviously had personality bypasses and were incompetent. Having cleared us in I noticed they hadn't stamped our passports. We went back and they stamped them. Then we went to the Port Authority office, to get our cruising permit, which due to the faffing about was shut for lunch - at 11.45am! So we found a small restaurant to have lunch and waste time and it was then that I discovered Immigration had stamped me into the country and Mike out. So it was back to Immigration, then on to the Port Authority. At the Port Authority we asked for a permit allowing us to visit all the anchorages on the island. This was refused and we were told we have to visit the PA to get permission for specific dates for specific anchorages (we even had to specify where in Spanish Water we were anchored). Mike said he thought the Nazi Party had been kicked out of Holland - obviously they made it this far. What really got up our noses was that if they don't want cruising yachts in Curaçao then ban them, giving us the runaround just gives them bad press. Apparently the reason they are so strict about where we go and when is due to the possibility of yachts smuggling drugs from the South American coast, which isn't far away. However in all our subsequent time in Spanish Water we never once saw any boat being checked.

To get to Immigration we had to cross the most amazing swing bridge we have ever seen. The bridge (built in 1886) spans the river that runs through Willemstad and opens to allow big ships in. The extraordinary thing is that it is one hundred and eighty metres long, pivoted at one end, with two engines and propellers at the other end. They swing the whole bridge over to one side where it lays parallel to the bank. We were so impressed we stopped to chat with the bridge operator who is a lovely man and has been driving the Queen Emma bridge for seventeen years.

Spanish Water is a rather pretty place albeit somewhat remote. However the big supermarkets run a free bus service every day and the shopping is very good, we even found Marmite, new potatoes, fresh strawberries and rasberries! The downside is that to the east of the lagoon is a range of hills and whatever the wind is doing outside it accelerates round the hills.

The main reason we went to Curaçao was to fit a new autopilot. Although Curaçao doesn't have extensive yacht facilities it does have more than anywhere we have been for the last year. Nothing moves fast out here and it took nearly three weeks to get an engineer to the boat, make a decision what to buy and order it.

One day we fired up the generator to run the watermaker and fridge intending to head off later to Happy Hour at the local bar. We quickly realised there was no water being pumped to the appliances. We checked the filters, no blockages. We checked the through hull fitting and it was blocked. Mike dived under the boat to see what was blocking it and found...wait for it...a teabag. We never did make Happy Hour.

For a few days around 16th May the mean wind speed was twenty five knots, with sustained gusts of over thirty knots, near gale speeds. Two boats dragged their anchors but were brought under control before they hit anything. Normally we would have let out more chain but we had shallows behind us so for the first time, in Kelly's Eye, we laid a second anchor using the dinghy. We had a problem setting it and finally got it to set after dark around 20.30. Mike got soaked in the dinghy with waves breaking over the side. By the time we got ourselves organised it was too late to cook the planned meal and we opened some tinned pasta. What a fantastic life we lead....

Also at that time we heard that our autopilot had arrived at Customs. This triggered a move to Seru Boca marina at the south western end of Spanish Water, to give the engineer easy access to the boat. Because the wind was slightly less in the early morning, we got up at 05.00 and Mike lifted the second anchor in the dark. We reached the Marina at 06.30, then cruising community values came into play. The berth we had been allotted was at the end of a long dock where it joined another at right angles, there was a large catamaran partly blocking the way in, so an angled entry, downwind - in a heavy long keel boat it was impossible (and the marina manager should have known that). However as we had checked the berth beforehand and we had Brad and Gloria (US flagged, Kindred Spirit) and John (Dutch flagged, Queen of Hearts) waiting for us. We went bows to the big catamaran, let the wind swing the boat round and then warped the boat into her berth. For people to get up so early to help us out was appreciated greatly but is not considered abnormal - everybody helps everybody else and what goes around comes around. It's a shame so much of the rest of the world doesn't work like that.

It was bliss in the sheltered marina. Although there were some strong gusts the wind was mainly light, for the first time in three months the rigging wasn't howling. Mike had a surprise in the shower one day though. The shower doors are a couple of feet off the ground and one evening he felt sharp claws on his left foot, it really made him jump. He looked down and there was a two foot long iguana that he tried shooing away. The iguana just looked at him, then started drinking the water. The iguana stayed with him throughout, continuing to lap, and was still there when I went for a shower about five minutes later. A more attractive aspect of the marina was the bird life, including Troupials, Yellow Orioles, Bare Eyed Pigeons, Banaquits, Brown-throated Parakeets and Rufus-collared sparrows. Often circling overhead were a pair of White-tailed Hawks that were a joy to watch as they used the air currents to spiral upwards, gaining altitude.

The autopilot parts were released by Customs and Jim (local engineer) came to the boat to fit it on May 23rd. Normally we would do this sort of thing ourselves but we knew we needed help because there was nowhere to mount the various parts. Jim made up two aluminium plates (to hold the rudder sensor and electric motor) and a shaped hardwood block to hold the instrument display. While Jim was fitting the parts Mike did all the cable runs which meant tearing the boat apart. At one point we had the mattress from our bed out on deck, the memory foam and rest of the bedding strewn around the saloon and other items from the aft cabin in the fore cabin. Jim is about 6 foot five and what with his tools and Mike and I it was pretty crowded! We then had a problem that the splined shaft on the steering gear wasn't compatible with the drive shaft on the electric motor (they are linked by a chain). We then got further held up when Jim went to Europe for two weeks. However, this gave us a chance to sort out our visas.

Bonaire and Curaçao have a very strange visa arrangement given that they are both part of the Netherlands Antilles. When you arrive in either country you are given a ninety day visa. If you spend (say) thirty days in Bonaire then when you clear into Curaçao you are given the full ninety days and your time in Bonaire doesn't count. The reverse is not true, any time spent in Curacao is taken off your Bonaire visa when you arrive there. Since we intended to head back to Bonaire it meant we had to renew our Curaçao visa (perverse or what). To renew you have to leave the country for twenty four hours but it gets even more perverse because you don't need to take the boat which has a six month customs entry.

The quickest way to renew the visa is to fly to Aruba, which we did on Tuesday June 12th. The flight is about thirty minutes and when we arrived there was no sign of our luggage. It was eventually located in the luggage hall where it had arrived on an earlier flight and just been dumped. Then we headed off to a beachside hotel which was brilliant. Three meals a day and no cooking or washing up, a bed about four times the size of the one on the boat and a bath!!

A few hours after we arrived at the hotel Mike said "you know this is a whole different environment. We've come from the cruising environment where everybody talks to everybody else, to this environment where nobody talks to each other unless they've been introduced". Since he hasn't really been in the 'no talking' environment for over three years it came as quite a shock to him. He soon got used to it though and was politely saying "good morning" to people and then ignoring them, although he was never comfortable about it.

We spent two days in Aruba generally lazing about, going swimming and getting sand-blasted on the beach, it was even windier than where we'd come from. The island is flat and developed and we wouldn't recommend it unless you are into windsurfing. We flew back on the 14th and were picked up by Mavis, a local lady who runs the marina bar and barbecue. Taxis in Curaçao are hugely expensive but Mavis runs people to and from the airport at a reasonable price, via of course Immigration in town to sign ourselves off and on the boat.

Just because the boat is sitting doing nothing doesn't mean things don't break. Our 220 volt battery charger packed up and we had to order one from St Martin, it took the best part of a day to fit including making a wooden mounting for the controls. Mike had a classic start to one day when he went to the loo early in the morning and noticed the pump barrel was leaking. Then when he opened the loo door to come out the wooden box that holds the binoculars, and is screwed to the door, fell apart - all before his first cup of tea! There was a crack in the pump barrel that he fixed with epoxy filler and he glued the box back together and added a couple of screws. Then the engine start battery failed, since it was the oldest battery on the boat Mike didn't shout too much. I won't bore you all the other jobs we did.

One thing that kept us occupied was trying to get sense out of AXA-PPP after I made an insurance claim for my operation in Venezuela. After a several month wait for payment it became apparent my claim had been 'lost' in the system. Once they had resumed dealing with it the issue became exchange rates, they paid my claim at a rate that bore no relation to the official rate (about 64% difference in rates) - needless to say their rate was to their advantage. When we queried it they simply said they use the Financial Times rate. We queried that but got the runaround. Since it was clearly nonsense we emailed a request for them to give us documentary proof of the FT rate, we listed the exchange rates that we believed to be correct and gave our source, we added some legalese to concentrate their minds, plus we mentioned the Ombudsman. This got an immediate response that they would look into it. They came back to us and admitted they had used a Bolivar to US Dollar rate then converted Dollars to UK Pounds (still didn't make sense knowing what we know about the different rates since last year, however...) Since they had been caught out they apologised, promised to change the way they handle Bolivar claims and paid the difference. We've generally found AXA-PPP to be a reliable company but you have to wonder about the management when it seems that a number of their staff told what amounted to bare-faced lies, probably in innocence.

We finally got the parts (sprocket wheels) we needed for the new autopilot and they were fitted on the 25th and 26th of June. The only dockside test you can do is to check the rudder angle display. It didn't work. Jim went and got a spare rudder sensor, we tried again, it didn't work. He then replaced the computer and bingo. The autopilot is top of the range made by Raymarine and costs thousands of dollars. It didn't work straight out of the box so obviously the idiots don't test them in the factory. Thus Raymarine gets our Marine Industry Plonkers Of The Quarter award.

On Friday 29th June we took the boat out to calibrate the autpilot (set up the fluxgate compass and the rudder gain). As ever it was blowing a hooley and we wasted about half an hour trying to set up a feature that (as we discovered) isn't on our autopilot but is in the Raymarine manual. Why? Did I mention idiots.

Seru Boca marina is not huge and most of the boats here are empty, but we have got to know some very nice people since we arrived. I haven't really mentioned the social life in the marina. It revolved around Mavis, who I mentioned earlier, who runs a bar and 'restaurant'. She only opens four evenings a week and there is no menu just what she cooks, which is very good. Normally there are about a dozen people there so it is small enough to get to know people well but big enough for a lot of fun. On Friday nghts a local guitarist would come along and sing, with Mavis, songs in Papiamento and Spanish. One night Mavis asked us and three other cruisers to her house for dinner. To visit a local person's house is really special and her mother, sister and neighbour all dropped in to say hello. Two of her daughters were also there.

Odds and ends
The sky at night. We wanted to identify stars, we bought books about stars, we bought the little telescopes you can set to see stars and they are all fairly useless when it comes to identifying stars. Then we came across a program called Stellarium, it's like a home planetarium and it's brilliant. You can download it free from www.stellarium.org then play with it for an hour or so to see what it can do (tip, you can drag the screen left, right, up and down).

Stars. There is a band north of the equator (roughly from southern Florida to the equator) where you can see both the Pole Star and the Southern Cross. We're in that band and it is amazing to see them both. Sailing in these waters must have been a dream for the early navigators, particularly with a third reference point in the west, Venus (that follows the sun).

Sextant tip. Adrian (who crossed the Atlantic with us) gave us this tip. When taking a sight turn the sextant upside down and find the sun first. Then bring the horizon up to the sun. Then turn the sextant the right way up and fine tune the angle. The only thing to remember is to change the shade settings or you will have a nice little burn on the back of your eyeball. You won't believe how much easier it makes taking a sight.

Kids sailing. One of the occasional pleasures of life afloat is to watch kids sailing. In Curacao there are a couple of fleets of Optimists, the kids' basic training dinghy. Some of the really little ones can't be more than seven or eight years old and they go charging about in winds up to twenty five knots!!! It's amazing to watch them and we often wondered whether we were seeing a future Olympic champion.

Papiamento. We mentioned that Papiamento is a mix of seven languages. Some phrases are easy to understand e.g. "Bon dia" is pure Portuguese for "good day". It is possible to work out some things that are quite funny. For example we saw a door sign that said "No ta un entrada". Pidgin English for "no thankyou" and Spanish for "an entry". "No thankyou an entry" - in English "Exit only".

Blair. We heard that Blair said in his 'leaving' speech "I did what I thought was best". Since Blair has never said anything original in his life, and that's the classic don't-blame-me line, we wondered where he got it from. Given Blair's politics Mike reckoned maybe Lenin but we decided to look it up. The earliest use of the line we could find was in the Bible - Judges. If he had given the full Bible quotation it goes as follows: "Oh, I don't know what went wrong. I meant to do right. I did what I thought was best. But everything seemed to go wrong." We guess he just forgot to mention the rest of it, a spinning liar to the very end. Now there's Comrade Brown to look forward to - it's all too exciting.

Where next?
Well...we were due to head back to Venezuela by July 1st. We obviously got delayed with the autopilot and liked Curaçao so much we decided to stay a bit longer. We did discuss going west to Columbia and Panama but have decided to keep to the original Venezuela via Bonaire plan. As I write this it's hurricane season so we need to take care but there are places we can run to if threatened. That's the plan, we shall see.