CURAÇAO TO ST LUCIA OCTOBER TO DECEMBER 2007
 

Curaçao to Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela
We spent early October preparing the boat and stocking for a trip away from civilisation. On Thursday 18th we cleared customs and immigration, handed back our hire car and left Curaçao at 11.00 on the 19th, final destination Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, with one stop in Cayo Herradura, Tortuga. Our timing for leaving was partly based on weather but mainly on tha alignment of the sun and moon - a period of least current.

As the crow flies the the distance to Tortuga is two hundred and twenty seven nautical miles, with a further seventy one nautical miles to PLC. The problem is it's upwind, upcurrent all the way. The received wisdom is to either island hop up the Venezuelan out islands or sail down to the Venezuelan coast and motorsail along the coast, stopping most nights. We decided to do it the hard way - direct, offshore and mainly out of sight of land. The reason we wanted to do it was that we had another long upwind trip coming up and we wanted to hone our upwind skills.

A note for non-sailors. Sailing boats can't go directly upwind, in our case we sail about fifty degrees off the wind. To make an upwind destination it is necessary to tack (bring the bows through the wind) and there is generally a making tack (that gets you towards the destination) and a non-making tack that does little more than position the boat for the next making tack. If there is much current running the non-making tack can take you away from your destination. Wind shifts are critical, a twenty degree change in wind direction can turn a making tack into a non-making tack, so you have to be alert and prepared to tack, twenty four hours a day, for days. It's hard, grinding sailing not helped by the fact that the boat heels to the wind and you live life at an angle of twenty degrees, with the boat pitching and water flying everywhere.

Like all long trips there were good times and bad times and luck often has a part to play. We set off in eighteen knot winds and fine weather. The stars at night were beautiful and before the moon came up the phosphorescence in our wake was mesmerising. The only issues we had were tacking away from an area of lightning and then away from some fishing boats, at night, when north west of Caracas. Then, after two days, the weather began to deteriorate. A low pressure area formed to the north of us and it brought solid cloud cover, rain, thunder and lightning and squalls that lasted for the rest of the trip.

There were two memorable squalls. The first was at night when Mike was on watch. The easiest colour to see at night is black and he saw the black clouds and rain coming. In the middle of the squall was lightning and he said "there was a blinding flash, incredible bang and a blast of hot air that smelt of ozone, all in a split second. Fortunately the lightning was across the cloud base which was about six hundred feet. So I guess I was about six hundred feet from getting fried, I'll certainly never forget being so close that I could feel the heat from it".

The strongest squall came the next day when I was on watch and Mike was trying to sleep. I saw it coming and called him up. It really pasted us to the extent that we heeled so far we had our toerail (top of the outside of the hull) in the water, which is really difficult to do and has never happened before. The good news about the squalls though was that after they went through the wind backed to the northeast for a few hours which meant we had a better sailing angle.

Speaking of sleeping, because of the angle of heel you don't sleep on your back or side, you sleep on both in almost a V-shape between the bed and the leecloth. Sleep though is exremely difficult because of the boat's motion, not helped when a certain person decides to tack. One night Mike tacked the boat, the first I knew about it was when I slammed into the leeboard that had been uphill and was now downhill.

Just when things seem bad something comes along to cheer you up and we had three separate visits from Dolphins that played on the bow wave. They are just as magical as when we first saw them many years ago and one pod was twenty to thirty strong. Also we didn't fish initially because we had no room in the fridge. By the last day we had room and within two hours of putting the lines out we caught a Tuna.

On the last day and night before arrival we had mixed luck. The wind made a permanent turn to the east north east and we could make directly for Tortuga. The bad news was we had the radar on (approaching land at night) and I spotted a couple of squalls. We tacked to avoid them but they suddenly built all around us and sat on us until dawn. Mike doesn't scare easily but lightning is not his favourite, nor is it mine. Out at sea with nothing around you you feel like the ultimate sitting duck, it really is scary.

Since we would have made landfall in the dark, and the rain was blacking out the radar, we turned away from Tortuga and then back to pick up the island in pre-dawn light. We arrived in the anchorage at Cayo Herradura at 07.25 on the 23rd of October. Total time at sea was 3 days 20 hours and we sailed three hundred and thirty miles to cover the two hundred and twenty seven straight line distance.

Overall it was a good trip. Uncomfortable yes but nobody got hurt and nothing broke, which is always a good start. Although we've sailed Kelly's Eye many thousands of miles probably less than ten per cent has been upwind. Thus we achived what we set out to find: tacking angles, speeds at different angles and perfect sail trim. We also found out how to best live on a boat that is heeling and pitching rather rolling.

Cayo Herradura
We had been to Herradura before and were really looking forward to swimming and a beach break there. Unfortunately the weather was only clear for a day and it was cloudy with squalls most of the time. It got even worse when the wind veered to the west and the anchorage became a lee shore. It wasn't dangerous so we stayed put but it was like being at sea. As ever though something good comes along and this time it was a Venezuelan fishing pirogue. We traded two packs of local cigarettes (cost fifty UK pence) for two lobsters, yummy. We stayed for about six days and set off for Puerto la Cruz at 15.45 on October 28th for an overnight sail of seventy one nautical miles to Puerto La Cruz.

In the morning of the day we left we had south westerly winds - perfect for the direction we were going. Literally ten minutes before we pulled the anchor up the wind died. Eventually it picked up and we just about had a sailing angle to PLC but had to keep the engine on to keep the speed up. During the night the skies cleared and we had brilliant moonlight. The passage was lumpy and uneventful and we arrived off PLC at dawn, negotiated the entrance and tied up in Bahia Redonda marina at 08.45.

Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela
We spent two weeks in PLC, I did some canvas work and Mike did some boat maintenance including changing a leaking Jabsco raw water pump. This became a bit of a saga when we tried to get spares to rebuild the old pump or, if necessary, to buy a new spare pump. After nearly a day of taxi rides we found somewhere that could rebuild the old one.

Things haven't changed much in Venezuela except that basic foods are increasingly difficult to get. The communist government put price controls on basic foods and the prices haven't been increased for three or four years. The net result is that nobody can make a profit so nobody bothers to produce the food. For example, sugar, rice and white flour are now impossible to get. Fresh meat is very scarce. Milk is extremely difficult to find, but this apparently is not a problem. According to a government minister on TV, "milk is not necessary for the growth or development of babies or children"!! I'm not kidding, that's what he actually said, presumably being a good Socialist baby is sufficient to grow healthily.

The day after I wrote the paragraph above we went to the local supermarket to start restocking the boat for the next offshore passage. The supermarket had just received a delivery of powdered milk and word had obviously spread. There were thirteen checkouts open and each had a queue of over 20 people, the place was heaving with some people running to find the milk powder. We spent one and a half hours in a checkout queue. The mood was quite friendly but it was all rather sad seeing people that are desparate for something that should be readily available - it reminded us of the truism that "any country is only two meals away from anarchy". Apparently the (covert) government objective is to break the food supply chain so that the population has other things to think about (survival) rather than what the communists are doing. President Chavez wants to introduce the Cuban Constitution which enables ration cards, if you oppose Castro your rations are cut. If the Venezzuelans are short of food now they may welcome ration cards and thus vote for keeping the communist regime and implementing the Cuban Constitution. Don't tell Comrade Brown this, he might get ideas. Note: fortunately Chavez lost the referendum to change the Constitution but he remains in power until 2012.

Puerto La Cruz to St Lucia, WI
We left Purto La Cruz at 11.00 on Friday 16th November, destination St Lucia. The forecast was fifteen to twenty knot winds from the east north east, seas six to eight feet, decreasing ten to fifteen, three to five after two days.

We motored out of the windless area around PLC and picked up a good sailing breeze coming down the channel between Margarita and the Venezuelan mainland (we passed to the west of Margarita). About twenty miles offshore Mike spotted a couple of white objects in the water ahead (fishing floats to avoid?). When they took off he followed their line of flight to a group of birds circling and diving into the sea - the birds were feeding on scraps left by big fish feeding on small fish. As we got closer we could see the predators were dolphins. Then we started to see other dolpins coming in from all directions, plus more seagulls and brown boobies. The feeding frenzy was a truly incredible sight.

We passed Margarita at night, going through an area of relative shallows and the associated fishing fleet. The small boats don't carry lights and they don't show on radar but fortunately the fishermen have a sense of self preservation. If you get too close they switch on an immensely bright light that they point straight at you, it doesn't do much for our night vision though. Around dawn, on the 17th, we were abeam the Islas Los Hermanos, a small group of uninhabited islands. Unfortunately the islands are dome shaped with vertical cliffs so there was nowhere to stop and find shelter to explore. Indeed it seems possible that some of the islands may never have been explored, the only way to land would be with climbing equipment. Later that morning I had a visit (Mike was trying to sleep) from some speckled dolphins the like of which I've never seen before.

The forecast on the 17th said a tropical wave (low pressure) was due to come through with thirty to forty knot squalls. Since the the worst squalls would likely be in the southern part of the system we stayed on a north-making tack. At 13.30 we got hit by a minor squall and an enormous amount of rain and for the next thirty six hours we had strong winds and big seas that made life aboard a nightmare. In addition to being heeled and pitching the boat was lurching as it was hit by the big seas. It was impossible to cook or shower and almost impossible to sleep (in the first three days I had five hours sleep and Mike had two). Just moving around the boat was extemely difficult and we had the bruises to prove it and a lot of cold food. The worst thing is that very occasionally a wave comes through that doesn't seem to have the normal shape at the back i.e. it's vertical. The result is that the boat goes through the top of the wave to find...nothing, a big hole. The boat gets half airborne and the noise of the crash when you hit bottom behind the wave is indescribable and something you really don't want to hear.

From the afternoon of 18th onwards we had beautiful weather, fluffy trade wind clouds during the day and clear skies at night. We saw lots of shooting stars and the Milky Way was a staggering sight, at it's finest with no ambient light. We had more visits from dolphins and around 15.30 on the 19th two swallows landed on the aft rail - we were over one hundred miles from any land at the time. One was a juvenile that the mother fed and they had real difficulty holding on to the pitching rail. The mother flew along the boat to shelter on the coach roof but the juvenile didn't follow immediately. When the juvenile finally tried to reach it's mother it appeared to fly into the sea. The mother saw it take off and went after it, returned to the boat and flew away later, not to be seen again. It was all very sad.

At 19.30 that night we had another flying visitor, a Brown Noddy, a relative of the Tern but a surface feeder. Noddy's are pelagic birds, who are only seen on land when nesting. It's the first one we've seen and it rested with us all night, then squawked three times in the dawn prelight and flew off. By this time we had also seen three Tropic birds (another Pelagic species) which are also rarely seen and have two thin, long feathers trailing from their tail that are about the same length as the bird. The weather stayed fine but the wind was dropping to the point we had to use both sails and engine to keep the speed up (otherwise the current would have pushed us back). We motored the last fifty miles in small seas and very little wind.

Over the whole passage we saw one yacht and a few ships. I was on watch when one ship seemed to be on a collision course, Mike was asleep and I called him up in case we needed to take avoiding action. Eventually the ship turned and passed about half a mile from us. The issue with ships is that as a sail boat it is legally our right of way, however arguing the finer points of maritime law from a liferaft is not a good idea. We sighted land about thirty five miles out and arrived in Rodney Bay in the dark at 23.30 on Tuesday 20th November, we got the rum and gin out. Tacking up wind, upcurrent we sailed four hundred and eighty nautical miles (roughly Falmouth to Spain) to cover a "crow flies" distance of three hundred and twenty miles. We were at sea for four and a half days.

St Lucia, WI
We spent the first and second nights anchored off Pigeon Point, Rodney Bay. We needed to rest and to sort the mess out on the boat. Mike fixed the fridge that had packed up on passage and went up the mast to clear a broken flag halyard. I restowed the boat which always gets into a terrible mess on a long passage, it looks like a jumble sale before the items are sorted out. The reasons for the mess are first, however well you stow things the violent motion moves everything around. Second, if you need something on passage it's such an effort to get it out that you tend not to put it back in case you need it again.

On Thursday 22nd we moved into the Marina and cleared Customs and Immigration. The first thing that struck us was the different climate. We had more rain in the first week or so in St Lucia than in months in the southern Caribbean. Also, although St Lucia is only a four degrees (two hundred and forty nautical miles) north of Venezuela the air temperature is lower and the nights seem positively cool. Note: for weeks around the Christmas period there were no eggs available. One of the locals told us that because of the lower (winter) temperature all the eggs are hatched, presumably the chicks have a higher chance of survival. Note: on Christmas eve we were in a supermarket when an egg delivery arrived, it was like Venezuela revisited.

Around 15.15 on the 29th of November we were on the boat and it started to shake. This does happen in strong winds - when no sails are up the masts shake. Once we had established the wind hadn't got up we wondered what on earth was going on. Earthquake, 7.4 on the Richter scale! The epicentre was less than one hundred miles to our north northwest, fairly close. One of our mooring warps was tied to two wooden posts which are driven into the seabed with about six feet sticking up above the water level. Their tops were shaking three to four inches side to side. Apparently the marina buldings were doing the same and the bottles fell off the shelves in the local liquor store. It's the second earthquake we've felt the shocks from but it doesn't get any better, it's still rather scary.

The following day we went diving, in the back of our minds was what it would be like if the earth tremors happened again. Fortunately we still don't know. The first dive was on the Piton Wall, although there was some nice coral it wasn't a 'must do again' dive but we did go to sixty five feet, the deepest we have been. The second dive was spectacular. It was at Rosamund's Trench, a coral canyon complex that you had to swim through in single file with walls above you on both sides. There were good sponges and coral, including the most amazing irridescent purple coral. We saw: lobsters; two Goldentail Moray eels and a Yellow Longlure Frogfish (see pictures). Unlike most places you are not allowed to dive on your own in St Lucia, you must go with a dive operator (keeps them in business I suppose). Thus we went out on a dive boat and a local instructor lead the way. The chief instructor, who did the first dive, got stung by a Portuguese Man of War, the most fearsome of jellyfish - the tentacles stick to the skin like glue and are very difficult to remove.

The reason we came to St Lucia was to do the ARC finish line again. Our first stint was for over twenty four hours and ran from 07.30 on December 7th and finished at 10.00 the following day. This was the first day that boats were due to arrive and we finished only five boats. However they were the monster boats and seeing them power upwind past us was quite spectacular.

The second stint was from 10.00 on the 11th to 10.00 on the 12th. The weather was foul with twenty five knot winds, heavy rain and squalls. On this session we finished forty eight boats which meant almost continuous radio traffic and thus no more than one hour of sleep each. To add to the the excitement we were tied to a fixed mooring and the mooring line parted at around 02.30 (bad things always happen in the dark). However, the most important thing in sailing is to have plan A (and preferrably plan B) for when things go wrong, thus we had discussed what to do in such cirumstances many times. When the line broke the boat did a ninety degree turn and shot off sideways downwind. We hauled the mooring line and buoys aboard (to prevent the prop being fouled) started the engine and motored/drifted to stay in line with the far end of the finish line - a boat was about to cross the line. Then we anchored.

On the third stint (15th November) we finished twenty boats, on the fourth (19th November) we finished two, including the last boat across the line. It was the last boat (Christiana) that summed up how people feel when they cross the Atlantic and hear a friendly voice on the finish line. When I returned their first radio call the skipper said "we've had a very rough passage, thank you for being there". The prize giving was on Saturday 22nd and one of the boats we came to St Lucia to see (John, Sue and Gerry on Swagman) won first place in Cruising Class A. The other boat we came to meet (Cedric and Janet on Trillium Wind) had a slow crossing after tearing their mainsail and genoa.

Many boats that came in had taken a pasting during the crossing, in one report a yacht was sailing in steady forty knot winds gusting fifty nine. Fleet damage included: broken booms; rigging failures; broken spinnaker poles; torn sails; damaged stanchions; safety gear torn off deck; broken goose necks (attaches boom to mast); steering failures and much more. In one dreadful incident a skipper was hit by the boom during an uncontrolled gybe and knocked unconscious. He was taken off the yacht by a cruise ship but subsequently died in hospital in Barbados. I've said this before but it's worth saying again for anyone contemplating the passage, armchair sailors call the Canaries to Caribbean passage "the milk run". It isn't.

Possibly the most amazing incident happened to a boat sailing in twenty foot seas. At that height the seas are some ten feet above your head when sitting in the cockpit. When you look up at them they look really fearsome but provided they are not breaking the boat just lifts and the wave passes underneath. What happened was that four Minke whales started following the yacht and ended up in the wave immediately behind the yacht - the folks on deck were LOOKING UP at the whales!!! The whales then dived under the boat and surfaced in front. As Mike would say "a bit hardcore".

Needless to say we attended as many parties as possible, the highlight being the marina manager's party which is held at his house, a magnificent building with extensive gardens overlooking the lagoon. There was also an Ocean Cruising Club get together attended by seventeen boats, we signed the OCC membership application forms for five people. The night after the prize giving the ARC folks also organised dinner for the four finish line boats at the nearby Sandals hotel.

On Christmas day we listened to Classic FM's top thirty carols, the Queen's speech and then went by dinghy to the beach for a swim. There was a bit of swell running in the bay and it was entertaining watching the new ARC arrivals landing their dinghies in surf for the first time - many of them got soaked. Christmas dinner was the traditional St Lucian dish, roast pig snout. Well actually it wasn't it was roast chicken.