CURAÇAO, BONAIRE, VENEZUELA JULY TO SEPTEMBER 2007
 

Curaçao
In early July Nick and Josie (Dutch) invited us on board their boat Jedi for a twelve dish Indonesian meal. Jedi is a sixty four foot Sundeer, a radical fast cruising boat with a big ketch rig, fully battened sails, narrow beam, flat bottom and water ballast - top speed when planing, 23 knots!! An awesome boat and an awesome meal in great company, you couldn't ask for more. If you are wondering how somebody can afford such an amazing boat Nick started the first (and largest) Internet Service Provider in Holland - he sold it.

A few days later Nienke and Brian (Dutch flagged Tamata) invited us to a 'baby shower'. "Err, what's that then" we asked, since washing babies didn't sound like much fun. "Oh, a party, right on". Apparently it's American tradition to hold a party for a soon-to-be-born baby and Nienke had about two weeks to go. It seemed an odd thing to do (for fairly obvious reasons) but, hey, any excuse for a party is a good excuse. About 20 people were invited Brits, Dutch, Americans and Mavis (runs the bar) and her family. Everybody cooked and brought along a dish, it was organised so there was no doubling up, plus a pork and chicken barbecue. The food was fantastic. I made Tzatziki (I think the non-Brits didn't know what it was) and a Spanish omelette that disappeared in minutes. It was a great night.

One thing Mike had to contend with was our VHF radio that decided it would trip it's fuse if we used it for more than a few minutes. Initially we thought it was a fractured wire in the microphone cable (a previous problem) but much wiggling of the wire proved that not to be the case. He then opened the switch panel and found corrosion on the positive busbar (a strip of metal that has multipe connections and distributes electricity to navigation lights, stereo, water pump etc). He cleaned the corrosion and it had no effect. We then got out the manual and noticed that the radio uses 6 amps but the breaker was 5 amps, but we couldn't understand why the cutting-out hadn't happened before. We checked the amps through the switch and found 5.1 amps on transmit (within the switch tolerance) but if we had the new battery charger on it went up to 5.7 amps which would trip the switch. Problem solved, put in a higher rated trip switch. Wrong. The radio stopped working at all. This was actually good news because it's very difficult to trouble-shoot an intermittent fault, but if something is broken you can usually find the fault. What Mike found was the radio was not getting any power. He jury rigged a new piece of wire from the switch to the radio and it worked fine - the old wire must have had a partial fracture and then fractured completely when he was fitting the new switch. That little saga took the best part of two days to sort out and an honourable mention must go to Nick, from Jedi, who came over to help figure out what was going on.

One salutary lesson from that saga is that the moronic marine industry can put you at risk. We have sixteen switches on our control panel and the busbar has sixteen small screws holding it to the switches - the screws are easy to get out but a nightmare to get back in. To change one switch means taking out all sixteen screws. Suppose (say) you needed to change the navigation lights switch, at night, in a seaway. It would be impossible and you would have to sail on with no lights. Thus the Marine Industry Plonkers award this quarter goes to Newmar, Newport Beach, CA for a total lack of understanding of what is required in design terms. If the morons are reading this - design the panel so that each switch can be pulled out and a new one pushed in.

Bonaire
We left Curaçao at 06.45 on Wednesday July 18th, having gone into Wlliemstad and cleared out the day before. We had been waiting for suitable weather (the wind had been howling) and the forecst was for easterly wind around fifteen knots and seas five to six feet. The reason for wanting relatively mild conditions was Bonaire is up-current and up-wind of Curaçao i.e. a serious pain in the bottom. Rounding the southern point of Curaçao we encountered counter-current of one and half to two knots while heading roughly south east. To get out of it we tacked to the north east and sailed up to around seven miles off the north west coast of Bonaire, where we ran out of wind. Even though the conditions were fairly mild we had swell from the north east and wind waves from the south east. When the three of us met in the same place we had three inches of water in the scuppers and a lot more flying over the boat. For once we weren't rolling but the pitching was seriously impressive, with the bows nearly burying in the water. We arrived at 17.15 having sailed forty seven miles to make a straight line distance of thirty three miles. Not bad for that type of passage.

The following day we cleared in and got a lecture from immigration that we had been illegal immigrants in Curaçao for a week. This goes back to Bonaire and Curaçao interpreting their common immigration rules differently. We were polite but thinking "what the hell has it got to do with you". For anybody following us, wait until immigration is shut and clear in/out at the police station which is always hassle free.

Once we had settled in we booked a dive course and spent the next three days studying the PADI Open Water Dive Manual - it's two hundred and sixty pages(!!) but very well written - probably the best training manual we have ever seen. The dive course ran from July 23rd the 26th, with notionally five sessions/lessons in a swimming pool and four lessons in the sea. In fact we did two underwater pool sessions (one of two hours), covering the whole pool syllabus, and four open water dives. Needless to say the theme was safety, safety, safety. Oh and did I mention safety.

Things we were taught and had to demonstrate we could do included: flooding a mask underwater and clearing it plus total removal of mask; throwing the regulator (that you breathe air through) over you shoulder and then recovering it; giving the signal for "out of air" and breathing from your buddy's spare regulator; blowing up the Buoyancy Control Device under water by taking air from the regulator, taking the regulator out of your mouth and blowing into the BCD inflation tube; finding out what it's like to run out of air, the instructor turns your tank off!!; dealing with cramp; a controlled emergency (no air supply) swimming ascent from a depth of ten metres; how to avoid and treat Nitrogen Narcosis; how to handle a panicked diver; the effects of contaminated air; and much much more.

Needless to say many of those things were pretty scary first time around and if you made a mistake you certainly knew it - Mike nearly choked himself in the pool with one of the mask removals. But repetition was the name of the game and with it came ever incresasing confidence. In between the dive lessons we had five written tests and then a major test at the end. Mike got five one hundred per cents and one ninety, I got a clean sweep all one hundreds, so we did quite well.

We were also taught about buoyancy control. What is interesting about this is that you primarily control your descent and ascent by your breathing - the more air in the lungs up you go and vice versa. To learn this we started by lying on the bottom and using our breathing to raise and lower the forward part of the body off the bottom. The next step was hovering three or four feet off the bottom and it is the most amazing experience since you are effectively weighless. The key to it is to remember that water is very dense and there is a delayed reaction, so you have to start breathing out before you want to stop going up and vice versa.

A number of amusing things happened. On the first open water dive they look at your body make-up and weight and decide how much lead weight you need to achieve neutral buoyancy at the surface. Mike couldn't descend much initially and the instructor kept giving him more weights (under water) until he carried sixteen pounds of lead, at least double what everyone else had! The following day he told the instructors about his lungs...wait for it. He learned from being recalled for an X-Ray that he has significantly larger lungs than the very great majority of people, the X-Ray screen they used was too small for him!! The instructors had only come across this once before. The corollary to that is, of course, that he breathes huge amounts of air and was the only person to get his tank pressure gauge into the red danger zone (he watched it coming and hand signalled the instructor under water, so it wasn't a problem).

On the other hand I had a slighly different problem, I could get to the bottom but had difficulty staying there. On one occasion (the last dive) we were sitting in a line on the bottom practising emergency procedures. But I kept "taking off". Mike was next to me and he kept having to reach up and grab me to pull me down. He would then look at me and ask with a hand signal if I was OK, while laughing. I have to say it was very funny.

Not so funny though was the problem of equalizing air pressure in your ears and sinuses - at ten metres the pressure is double that on the surface (treble at twenty metres). There are various techniques to equalize: hold your nose, close your mouth and 'push' your breath; swallow (difficult because tank air is totally dry); wiggle your jaws about; rub beneath your ears; combinations of all of those. Mike has always had a problem equalising and was worried whether he could do the full course as the dives got deeper. On the first dive he got to ten metres and had to go back up a bit and spend time equalising, then he came down again. By the second and third dives he had worked out what technique was best for him (wiggle jaw) but it meant using one hand to hold the regulator in his mouth. Fortunately the only significant problem he had was when we did the emergency controlled ascent when you have to have both hands in the air so he couldn't hold the regulator to equalise - it hurt quite a lot apparently. But he's a tough kiddie and got on with the rest of the dive whilst doing his best to equalise.

The first rule of safety is "always look cool". Actually it isn't, it's "never ever hold your breath when diving". Of course this goes against everything you normally do under water so you have to unlearn it. The reason is the air you are breathing is at the same pressure as the water (as I mentioned 10 metre depth equates to two atmospheres). Thus if you go up holding your breath the air in your lungs will expand as the water pressure decreases and your lungs will rupture making it a messy end to the day, if not your life. Initially it seems a bit scary because if you don't have the regulator in your mouth (i.e. you are not breathing) you have to blow little bubbles. When you first throw the regulator over your back you are wondering if you will have run out of air before getting the regulator back. In fact if you follow the regulator recovery procedure you get it back within seconds. But there is also a significant advantage to the pressure. If you start to run out of air (drawing air through the regulator gets harder) then the first port of call is your buddy's alternate air source. If that isn't possible then you can make the controlled emergency ascent we practised. Because the air in your lungs is twice atmospheric pressure at 10 metres, it is the equivalent compressed volume of two large breaths on the surface. Thus you have quite a lot of air to ascend even though you are blowing bubbles. When we did it it was amazing. There is no need to rush the ascent and you arrive at the surface with air still in your lungs. Knowing you can get back up if something went wrong is a great confidence booster.

Much of the time we spent diving we were doing safety excercises but we did have a chance to swim around for fifteen minutes on two of the dives. When snorkeling the fish tend to swim away when you approach. But when diving they take no notice of you and many of them are inquisitive and actually come over to take a look at the enormous bubbling monster that has just arrived. Also, and this might sound a bit silly, it's quite amazing to see fish above you.

I'm pleased to say that we passed the course and now have our PADI Open Water certificates. These enable us to fill tanks and dive together unaccompanied, anywhere in the world. Being practical however what we've done is pass the driving test, what we need is experience. If we do continue diving we will keep to ten metres depth until we get totally comfortable (the deepest we dived on the course was 17.3 metres/58 feet). Finally our thanks go to Wannadive, Bonaire whose instructors were brilliant.

It was around this time that we decided not to head back to Venezuela in early August and part of the reason was diving. Initially we were thinking of hiring kit and doing a few dives on our own to see if we wanted to continue. But hiring kit is expensive and the more we talked about it the more it became apparent we were hooked. So we went around all the dive shops looking at what kit was available, seeking advice and checking prices. Then we bought two sets of dive gear and started diving off the boat. Literally feet behind the boat was a reef that started about twelve feet deep and angled down at forty five degrees to a depth of one hundred feet and it was covered with fish. I won't bore with the details but suffice to say we had to adjust our weights because we were now wearing wet suits that add initial buoyancy and on our first dive to ten metres we saw our first snake eel. We also saw a Green turtle feeding on the reef and it swam slowly to the surface (for air) right in front of us!

On August 14th we left Bonaire at 07.00 and headed back to Curaçao. We had the odd shower and not much wind, arriving around 14.30.

Odds and ends
Games and books. Since we don't normally have television we amuse ourselves with the odd DVD, books, music and games. The games are highly competitive and on Sunday July 19th the Scrabble score was ninety nine games all, we were also even at seventy two and seventy five games. The first time I got level with Mike was on May 31st and I have been ahead of Mike twice. I'm not saying he cheats but you wouldn't believe some of the slang words he claims would be in the dictionary (if we had one). I am of course ahead in Mexican Train Dominoes, twenty to nineteen, the game doesn't need a dictionary.

Made us laugh. Can't remember where we read this but the SR72 spy plane flies higher and faster than any other plane, by a substantial margin. The SR72 base in the Philippines has the following sign outside: "Though we fly through the valley of death we are at sixty thousand feet and still climbing". Brilliant.

How to tell a Parrot from a Parakeet in flight. Parakeets seem to have their vocal chords attached to their wing muscles and generally squawk in flight, parrots generally don't. You always wanted to know that.