Bonaire (10-31 January 2003)
After a fast downwind passage from Islas las Aves de Sotavento, we arrived in Bonaire. For more than a month we had been anchored off uninhabited tropical islands and the hustle-bustle of "civilisation" came as a bit of a culture shock. There we were on a mooring in front of the boulevard. A hundred meter from the boat there were the bright lights and loud music of café’s and restaurants. Motorcycles were trying to set a new record for the 100-meter sprint with screaming engines and burning rubber. We took our dinghy to shore, and soon we felt a lot more positive about Bonaire. Checking in with customs and immigration was quick and easy. Behind the boulevard the capital Kralendijk is a sleepy town. The people are friendly, and lots of them speak Dutch. We had dinner in restaurant / internet café "de Tuin", in a lovely informal outdoor setting. They sold Dutch dishes such as "broodje kroket", Indonesian saté with French fries and "poffertjes". We felt at home straight away.
The next few days we had work to do. After so much time away from civilisation, we took a monster load of laundry to the laundromat. The "cultimara" supermarket was a real treat. They had many delicious varieties of whole wheat bread, like you can only find in Holland, and the shelves were full of familiar brand names from Holland. Time to stock up! And then there was the never-ending story of boat maintenance. This time the watermaker and the outboard motor for the dinghy needed attention. We also needed a sail maker to replace the UV protective strip on the genoa, but unfortunately did not succeed in getting this done.
Together with our friends Robert and Jeanette from the "Nassau" we rented a car to explore the island. Our main objective was the Washington - Slagbaai national park in the north of the island. We saw pink flamingos and could film them up close. Close to a water well, we saw the bright orange and black "troupial". The "yellow warbler" got a bit too close to the camera. It sat right on top of the lens! A large iguana ran across my foot. During our picnic lunch we were entertained by some fifty small lizards. We had to scare them away to stop them eating our lunch. The snorkelling was nice, but it must have been spectacular a few years back before hurricane Lenny. Lenny passed to the north of Bonaire, but the heavy swell destroyed most of the shallow reef. Ever since this hurricane you need diving equipment to really enjoy the beauty of Bonaire’s coral reef.
We made an excursion by dinghy to "Klein Bonaire", a small island off the coast opposite Kralendijk. On the west coast of this island the shallow reef is still in tact, and we enjoyed the snorkelling. We had a picnic lunch on the beach. The wind was quite strong, and we had to seek shelter behind some bushes to avoid getting sand all over our sandwiches.
Our friends Arjan and Andrea came back to Bonaire. We had first met them in Sweden. They were taking delivery of their HR42 "Aquadraat" when we were taking delivery of "Alegría". They have a house in Bonaire, and were just coming back from a trip to Holland. Arjan and Andrea took us on a trip to the south side of the island. Robert and Jeannette from the "Nassau" had guests aboard, and the four of them came along in a second car. We saw the mountains of salt, which is produced in Bonaire by solar evaporation of seawater, and the tiny huts where slaves used to live. Again we could see flamingos up close and in flight. At "Jibe City", a wind surfing resort, we rented some kayaks for a trip on the very shallow "Lac Bay".
Andrea, Jeanette and Tania went out together to see various art galleries on the island. In one of these places Tania met Janice, an artist from de USA. They arranged to go up into the countryside, called "Kunuku" to paint together. And so they did.
Arjan and Andrea have a beautiful house on the waterfront in Bonaire. Their backyard ends in a small beach. Snorkelling from the beach used to be fantastic before Lenny destroyed is all. Tania fell in love with the place, and it inspired her to start inquiring about real estate in Bonaire. Whilst I am quite content living on a boat, Tania has been longing for a house for some time. Bonaire has a nice central location in the Caribbean, so it would be an ideal starting point for various sailing excursions. In a house Tania could start working on her art again, something she finds difficult to do on a boat. The housing market in Bonaire had been quite slow in recent years. There are a few indications that the economy of the island might be on its way up. A house or a plot of land might be a good investment now. From a tax point of view, Bonaire is an attractive place to live if you move there after the age of fifty. So why not buy some real estate now, and be prepared when that day comes? Nevertheless, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea. Don’t you need money in order to invest? Were we going to sell the boat in order to buy a house? And what if we found some other place where we would rather live? Bonaire is nice. We like the relaxed holiday atmosphere. There are many things that remind us of Holland, and somehow this made us feel at home. But at the same time, is it not a bit too sleepy? Wouldn’t we miss culture, and adequate shopping facilities? We contacted some real estate agents, and looked at some houses and plots of land to get a feel for prices. I thought that land prices were quite high. Cheaper land was available too, but this was in very remote locations without a view of the sea, and without hook-ups for power and water. There were a few examples of people who bought a prime plot of land, built a nice house on it, and sold it at a handsome profit. But other houses were for sale for little more than the value of the land. This did not spell good fortune for our potential investment. We decided we needed some more time to think it over and left it at that.
Twice we went diving with Arjan and his regular dive buddy Ton. We have two complete sets of diving equipment on board Alegría. Tania and I used to dive almost every other weekend when we were living in Venezuela. But since we started sailing, I only used it to change the zinc anodes on the propeller. Now we were diving again, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. Bonaire has some of the most spectacular diving in the world. The water is crystal clear and the seabed has a wonderful variety of soft and hard coral and colourful sponges. Tropical reef fish are in abundance and we also saw turtles, moray eels and big Tarpon fish near a shipwreck.
When we finally sailed from Bonaire to Curaçao, Ton and his wife Gerda came along for the ride.
Curaçao (1-28 February 2003)
In Curaçao we went straight to the Seru Boca marina in Spanish Water. I had been using this marina as a mailing address. A new Kiss wind generator and several big envelopes with mail from Holland were waiting for us as we arrived. We did not stay too long in the marina because its location is rather remote from everything else. We moved to an anchorage where we also found the Nassau, the Carély and the Domicil. Curaçao can be very windy this time of year, and in the main anchorage the wind was howling at 25 knots. Our anchorage however, was in the lee of a mountain. It was wonderfully quiet, and the mountain formed a scenic backdrop with mangrove trees, and an abundance of bird life, including the local green and yellow parrot, the "Prikitchi".
In order to check in with customs and immigration we had to travel by bus to the capital Willemstad. Although not a big city by any standards, Willemstad is certainly a lot more metropolitan then Kralendijk. Willemstad used to be a prosperous trading post in the Caribbean, and the colonial houses along the main entry canal (the "handelskade"), are reminiscent of the canal houses in Amsterdam. The entry canal divides the city in two parts: Punda and Otrabanda. The parts are joined by the famous "Emmabrug", a floating pontoon bridge. Nowadays the bridge is in a poor state of repair and only accessible for pedestrians. It was fun to stay on the bridge as it floated away to let the boats pass. We could imagine that some people might get seasick on a rough day.
We visited the Kurá Hulanda hotel and museum in Otrabanda. The owner, businessman Jacob Gelt Dekker had bought a whole block of old houses, restored them and converted the entire block into a luxury hotel, retaining the original charm of the old cobblestone streets. It was all very tastefully done. A museum was also part of the development. Part of the museum depicted the horrors of the slave trade. Another part had art and handicrafts from the ancient African tribes. We also visited several art galleries, the maritime museum and a bronze foundry.
I installed the new wind generator, and indeed it is a lot less noisy then the one we had before and it generates a lot of electrical power. It is not quite as quiet as we had hoped though. After I fixed the leak on the water maker in Bonaire, I found another leak somewhere else. I ordered new spares from the US, and installed these when they arrived. We took the genoa down, and took it to the sailmaker to have her replace the UV protective strip. She said it would be ready by the end of the week. But when we were ready to leave Curaçao she had not even started yet. The sail is now stored under the V-berth, and we are using the working jib until the genoa has been repaired.
Together with Robert and Jeanette we toured the island in a rental car. One of the attractions of Curaçao are the "Landhuizen", old plantation houses. Unfortunately we found that many of them are in disrepair, and no longer open to the public. Landhuis "Knip" was open to the public, but we felt it was a bit of a tourist trap. We did enjoy "siete bocas", a stretch of coastline on the windward side of Curaçao. The "bocas" are tiny bays where the sea surges in and then crashes onto the rocks with a burst of spray.
We arranged to meet Kees and Caroline. The first time we met them was in Oman. Kees was visiting his sister Bea, who is a good friend of ours. Bea’s husband Paul came with us when we crossed the Atlantic. Now Kees and Caroline are living in Curaçao for a few years. Caroline is working for customs in Curaçao, and Kees is houseman for the duration of their posting. This was very fortunate for us, because it meant Kees had time to show us around the island. He also showed us their home on a hill at Cas Abou overlooking the sea. A very nice place indeed. A week later Kees, Caroline and their two kids Bob and Brit came to visit us on board, and we made a short sailing trip, which they enjoyed very much. After the sailing we went out for dinner together in Landhuis "Brakke put mei mei". This old plantation house is nicely restored and now used as a restaurant and party centre.
We also met up with Bob and Ingrid. Bob is a medical doctor. He was working as a GP for Shell in Gabon when Tania was working there as a geologist. They settled down in Curaçao and Bob works for the Isla refinery, which used to be Shell but is now owned by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA. Tania had not seen them for ten years. We had a nice time together, seeing more of the island. Their home with beautiful tropical garden is in the former Shell compound Julianadorp. They also visited us on board Alegría, but we did not go out to sea with them. We talked about the idea of buying some property in Bonaire or Curaçao. Bob and Ingrid thought that Bonaire is a nice island for a holiday, but you would soon get bored if you were living there. Curaçao has a livelier social scene. Crime rate in Curaçao is a lot worse, but they felt that one would quickly learn to live with that. Together we drove through some of the more desirable neighbourhoods, and looked at houses for sale. Curaçao certainly has some attractive properties for sale, but again at quite high prices.
One night we went out to dinner with Bob and Ingrid. Hook’s Hut is a wonderful beach restaurant under a palm leaf roof and with rough wooden tables. The food is good. After dinner we went to see a movie, and then went for drinks in Tu Tu Tango, a trendy bar – restaurant, who’s clientele was mostly in their mid twenties. This kind of social scene you wouldn’t find in Bonaire. The place was so crowded that we decided to move elsewhere.
Our plan had been to continue west to Cartagena (Colombia), then to the San Blas Islands (Panama), and go north along the coast of central America from there. However, we felt it was getting late in the season. We decided to go to Cuba before the onset of the hurricane season. Colombia and Panama are outside the hurricane belt, so we could leave that for later. Curaçao turned out to be a bit of a crossroads. Our friends Robert and Jeanette on Nassau turned back to Trinidad. Marc and Celine on Caréli continued to Cartagena and Panama, and we were heading for Cuba. Domicil was thinking about staying in Curaçao for a while.
So on the first of March we set sail for a 5-day passage to Grand Cayman. From there we would continue to Cienfuegos, Cuba. The first 24 hours of our trip were very rough. We were passing north of Colombia, and these waters are notorious. Some call it the Cape Horn in the tropics. Sailors say you should add some 10-15 knots to the forecast wind speed. This rule of thumb turned out to be accurate for us as well. We had 30 knots of wind (force 7), gusting 35 the entire night. From time to time a 5-meter high wave came up behind us, as if it was going to crash on top of the aft deck. But then Alegría’s stern lifted, and we were surfing down the slope of the wave at 10 knots or more. The autopilot was coping admirably in these heavy downwind sailing conditions. The second and third day were pleasant sailing, and we were making fast progress. Then the fourth night we were again confronted with steep and uncomfortable seas southwest of Jamaica. This time the wind was only moderate (20-25 knots), but there was a one-knot current setting to the east! According to all the charts we should have had a one-knot current to the west. We will never forget how even a weak current against the wind can create a nasty sea. In the morning of the fifth day, we reached Grand Cayman. We had logged 855 miles in 5 days, an average of 7.1 knots.
Grand Cayman (5-14 March 2003)
As we approached Georgetown, the capital of Grand Cayman, we could see the cruise ships from afar. They looked like huge floating apartment blocks. We called the port authorities on the radio. They directed us to a mooring buoy. Here we had to wait until mid afternoon. Customs and immigration were busy with the cruise ships. Customs wanted us to come alongside a concrete dock for inspection. This was no easy task. The dock was much higher than our deck. A swell was running into the docks, and to make things worse, the water taxis serving the cruise ships were driving like maniacs, creating a nasty wake. Unfortunately we bent one of the stanchions coming alongside. Once customs and immigration were on board, the formalities were quick and easy. They explained that we were welcome to use one of free mooring buoys provided by the port authority. Anchoring was also allowed, but only if we dropped the hook in sand. If we anchored on coral, the authorities had the right to confiscate the boat! The Cayman Islands are among the worlds top diving destinations, and they intend to keep it that way.
Back on the mooring buoy, I managed to repair the stanchion. From our location in the anchorage we had a good view of the tourist trade. Every morning between 4 and 6 cruise ships would anchor off Georgetown. Their passengers were quickly unloaded and taken to the dock. All were wearing a sticker on their T-shirt, so you could tell which cruise ship they belonged to, and which tour they were booked on. Most tourists went for the duty free shopping. Others went for a ride on the rather tacky looking "pirate ship", and some went snorkelling or jet skiing. Around 5 o’clock all cruise ships left, the shops closed, and Georgetown felt like a ghost town.
We took the dinghy ashore to explore Georgetown. We put out a stern anchor to stop the dinghy from floating underneath the jetty. Our best discovery was the Italian restaurant Casanova. It was frequented by locals, which is always a good sign. The locals were obviously office workers. Presumably, they worked for some of the many banks in Georgetown. Grand Cayman has a big offshore banking industry and a bit of a reputation for tax evasion and money laundering. The service in the restaurant was quick, American style, and the food was delicious, Italian style. Coming back to the dinghy we discovered that the stern anchor had dragged. The dinghy was stuck underneath the jetty, and one paddle was broken. Again, the wake from the water taxis was probably to blame. I added the paddle to my "things to do" list. A few days later I bought a length of aluminium pipe, which I would use later to mend the paddle.
We had heard that manta rays can still be found in the Caymans. We would really love to dive with these huge and elegant creatures. Unfortunately, we were told that nowadays they are rarely seen around the islands. So we settled for a dive with the stingrays. "Stingray city" is rather touristy, but still it was fun to do. The rays are not in captivity but they like to hang around the stingray city area, because the tourists are feeding them daily. You don your diving equipment and some extra lead weight, and sit down on the sandy bottom in about 4 meters of water. Then the dive master hands you some squid, which the stingrays love to eat. Now you can play with the rays. As long as you have squid in your hand, the rays will follow your hand, and you can direct them wherever you want them to go. Their belly feels really soft. Then, when you release the squid, the rays suck it up fast. They like to sit on top of your head too. Maybe they like the feeling of the air bubbles running along their bodies. Tania was rather nervous about the dive. In Oman she had once accidentally stepped on a stingray. The sting had been extremely painful, and the wound took forever to heal. But we were told that the rays don’t sting unless provoked. Despite the hundreds of tourists that visit the site, this hardly ever happened.
We anchored in front of the famous "seven mile beach". This really is seven miles of beautiful, clean white sand and turquoise blue water. The green Casuarina trees formed a scenic backdrop to the beach. There are hotels and condominium complexes almost along the entire length of the beach. Despite this, it was strangely quiet on the beach. The Cayman Islands depend heavily on American tourists, and many of them are staying at home after September 11th, and now even more so with the threat of war in Iraq.
On the 14th of March we set sail for Cienfuegos, Cuba. This is about 200 miles north of Grand Cayman. The forecast was for light winds, but they were forecasting light winds for the entire week, so we decided to go anyway. The start wasn’t bad. Sailing close-hauled in a flat sea we could make 6 knots of boat speed in only 12 knots of wind. Then we had a heavy squall, which lasted for more than an hour. The sky darkened and the wind veered to a broad reach. For a while we were doing 7.5-8 knots in 25 knots of wind. Then the wind dropped completely and we had to motor the rest of the way.