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Website of sailing yacht Tokomaru2's circumnavigation of the world

Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru in Curacao (still!)  November 2002  -  March 2003 


We’ve been a long long time in the Netherlands Antilles, mostly on Curacao, which lies between Bonaire and Aruba off the Venezuelan coast.  The cosy civilisation of these charming  Dutch islands is very appealing after living amongst the boobies in the wilds of Las Aves, - neat houses with red tiled roofs  and gardens full of frangipani and bougainvilla.  The people speak Papiamentu, a creole evolved mainly from Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and English.  It’s the language of parliament and the media, making it one of the few Creole languages used at all levels of society.  Most people speak Spanish and/or Dutch, and/or English as well, and most people, of course, are helpful and friendly, so communication is easy.  The islands seem comfortably  prosperous, with no great gulf between rich and poor.   We’ve seen no beggars or shanty towns.  The smallest one-room shack is more like a trim little house with a tidy compound.   There are a lot of jobs in the oil refinery (oil coming in from nearby Maracaibo Lake in Venezuela), and also numerous industries;  so while tourism is important, people are not so dependent on it.  For example, while in many Caribbean islands you can’t walk 10 yards without being pressed to take a taxi, here tourists wait for the bus like everyone else.


On Curacao the historic port of Willemstad is remarkable, built on either side of a narrow inlet from the sea which opens out into a huge natural harbour.  In 1654, seeing the advantage of such a strategic haven, the Dutch took the island from the Spanish (who had taken it from the Caiquetios Indians).  Impressive forts overlook the sea on either side of the entrance and a floating pedestrian bridge opens to let shipping pass in and out.  Old merchant houses line the streets with their fine facades and dormer windows.  There are elegant mansions with curved staircases and elaborate gables. The tall, flat waterfront buildings are reminiscent of Amsterdam, and many have been beautifully restored.  Less trim, but very colourful, a long line of Venezuelan fishing boats forms a lively floating market.  They come from the mainland to sell bananas, papayas, mangoes, watermelons etc and fish.


Away from the town, further down the coast is another land-locked harbour, a great wide lagoon called Spanish Water, where ‘Tokomaru’ is anchored along with many other yachts from all over the world.  This is a staging post for people heading west towards Columbia and Panama, so it’s a great place for socialising, exchanging information and for getting the boat fixed up and ready.  Which is what we’ve been doing. 


To have the boat taken ashore, we sailed out of Spanish Water and along the coast to Willemstad, where we had to radio the port authority to ask for the bridge to be opened.  The bridge is in operation all the time, but the drama of it never ceases to amaze.  Up goes a red flag, an alarm bell rings, and people crossing the bridge start hurrying.  At one end there is an engine and by this means one end of the bridge is actually driven through the water (like a boat) until the whole length of the bridge (168 metres) lies parallel to the opposite side, taking with it the unfortunate souls who didn’t make it across!  The more daring will race and leap the gap at the last minute.  If the bridge is to remain open for a while, to let in a great oil tanker or cruise ship, a free ferry service goes into action, so people are not stranded for long.  For small fry like us, the bridge moves just enough to give us room.  In we went, waving our thanks to the bridge man in his yellow hut and the waiting pedestrians,  and on into the industrial zone of this busy port.


We found the boatyard, tucked away in a sheltered corner, and awaited instructions.   Lars, an energetic and cheerful young man, came to explain that we must drive (very carefully!) onto a submerged trailer.  His role was to make sure that our ship was exactly in position and firm as a rock before being winched out.  In and out of the water he went, measuring, tightening and checking, his blond head coming up for air.  Finally satisfied, he gave the signal to the winch man, and slowly Tokomaru emerged from the water, revealing… (this moment gleefully anticipated by all spectators) the accumulation of barnacles and weed flourishing on our keel!

And so for the next week we worked: cleaning, repairing, sanding, painting and polishing.  It was a pleasant place to work, warm, breezy and shaded.  Perched high in our cockpit, (12 feet off the ground)  we could see into the trees where bright orange troupials called to each other and iguanas slept, stretched along the branches.  Also in the yard was Tom, an American single hander from Poland, and an entertaining German called Wolf, who loved to express his opinions, dismissing anything or anyone he didn’t approve of as ‘crazy’!  The people who worked in the yard were good fun and ready with advice and useful tips.  When they went home, the four of us had the place to ourselves, with two guard dogs to watch over us as we sipped our rum in the cool, quiet evening.  Then into this scene came the ‘Indiana’, a 53 foot, 37 ton steel ketch, (Tokomaru is 7 tons!)  Too big to haul out, they tied to the jetty while sorting out numerous problems.  The Swiss family on board ‘Indiana’ was reminiscent of Theroux’s ‘Mosquito Coast’ –  Jules, the enthusiastic happy-go-lucky father, in charge of this vessel; his gentle and resourceful Colombian wife, Elisabeta; his mixed-up teenage daughter, Andrea; and his handsome, charming eleven-year-old son, Julian (charming, that is, if you weren’t his mother or his sister!).  In Wolf’s opinion, the yacht was falling to pieces, and whole enterprise was ‘crazy’.  But warm-hearted as he is, he was very helpful towards them, and gave them lifts in his hire car to the shops.


One evening, we were all invited to a barbecue on the spacious decks of the ‘Indiana’.  Elisabeta had made arepas which she cooked on a large grill, along with piles of chicken, pork ribs and meatballs.  It was a feast.  Good food, good wine and good company, - Wolf was in his element, and since the Swiss family speak German, he could take a break from struggling with his ‘crazy’ English.  The dogs lay hopefully on the jetty and were not disappointed. 


Our week was soon up and the whole trailer business was repeated in reverse as back we went into the water.  Sadly we said goodbye to our new friends, pulled up the sails and radioed our request for the bridge to open.  As we passed a line of moored fishing boats, a guy called out:  “English boat!  have a good passage – come back and see us again!”  Then, as we swept through the gap in the bridge we got a cheer from  people in a waterfront bar.  Thus encouraged, we sailed out of the entrance into the rough sea.  The trade winds blow strongly in these ‘winter’ months and though it was only a three hour beat to windward back to Spanish Water, one big gust carried away the wind indicator from the masthead, (again!). 


Now we wait for various parts to come from UK and USA, (dependent upon the vagaries of post and customs), a chance to enjoy the scenery and wildlife.   At first glance, the islands are dry and featureless, - flat apart from a few barren hills, and covered in thorn trees and cactus.  Yet the islands are surprisingly green and pretty.   On our walks we find that the cactus are sprouting pale yellow flowers and there are leafy trees amongst the prickles.   These trees have small blue or white flowers and colourful seed pods which attract hummingbirds and yellow warblers.  There is much twittering and singing in the branches, and all kinds of lizards rustle about in the undergrowth.  The afternoon sun brings out the parakeets, flashes of brilliant green as they whiz out of the bushes to perch, briefly, on the cactus.  Ospreys hover above the rocky cliffs, pigeons coo softly at dusk.  Altogether charming!


We were two weeks on Bonaire before coming to Curacao.  There, we hired a car (well, a sort of clapped-out truck) and spent several evenings watching flamingos gather on the salt pans at sunset.  Honking like geese and startlingly salmon pink, hundreds of them fly in to feed on these vast wetlands.  We never saw anyone else as we watched the spectacle for an hour or more, staying until the bright pink faded to silhouettes – a pattern of criss-crossing legs and necks moving against the darkening water.  (We have hours of this on video!) 


Here on Curacao we’ve just had carnival.  This was a delight.  The parade wound through the narrow main street of old Willemstad and down to the waterfront.   Each group was a dazzling surprise as they danced past in their gorgeous costumes, sometimes up to a hundred people identically dressed in fantastic colours  Thousands of happy spectators filled the town.  This carnival had an intimate, community feel compared to scale of Trinidad.  (But we missed those incredible steel bands.) 


No anti-war demos here, but the BBC World Service covers events else-where.  There is much discussion by yachties,  entirely in terms of reinforcing each others arguments as to why this war is mind-blowingly stupid, illogical, arrogant etc.  We say ‘is’,  for most people fear it will surely happen.


On which depressing note we close this letter.  Our plans seem irrelevant in such a context,  but they are to head next towards Colombia and Panama, after a stop maybe in Aruba.  Then on to the Panama Canal, winds, waves and weather permitting, of course.


Yours in solidarity against the war, Liz and Nick

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008