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Website of sailing yacht Tokomaru2's circumnavigation of the world

Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru in Venezuela   August/September/October 2002

We’re writing this from a group of islands called Las Aves, the last of the Venezuelan islands before Bonaire.  It is the most deserted, remote place we have ever been.  We are the only souls on the edge of the world.   The shoreline is primeval mangrove, ancient trees towering above the swamp. The sea stretches away in a kaleidoscope of sparkling green and blue towards the reef.  This is the breeding site of a thousand red-footed boobies so the whole place is alive with birds at every stage of development.  That’s all there is here, - us and birds.  We have rowed the dinghy cautiously into the bushes between the fingering roots of the mangroves and the confusion of collapsed trees, the dead fallen against the living, to watch ‘life with the boobies’.   The white fluffy chicks sit patiently in their nests and the juveniles perch and jostle in the trees, with their bright red feet glowing in the sun.  Hundreds of mature birds fill the skies above, flying in from their fishing trips across the ocean.  Amazing! 


When we say ‘Venezuela’, in fact we have only visited the Venezuelan islands, which stretch between Grenada and Bonaire.  Security is a problem along the coast and the political situation seems increasingly unstable.  We have been surprised at the strength of anti-Chavez feeling amongst people we would have expected to be ardent supporters.  There’s a strike planned for October.   We decided to head for Bonaire and Curacao instead of Puerto La Cruz on the mainland.


Sailing from Grenada, (1 August), we stopped briefly in the first islands, Los Testigos.  The sea here is a fresh green, fed by the waters of the Orinoco swept up by ocean currents.  Apart from a small fishing community, the islands are occupied by  frigate birds, brilliant green lizards and iguanas.  Yachts can’t stay here as they are not yet checked in officially to Venezuela.  So, on to the next island, the big holiday island of Margarita, and where we anchored off the fishing village of Pampatar.


 Checking in to a new country has so far been a straightforward business, often involving only one official who deals with customs, immigration and harbour dues all together.  But not in Venezuela, where corruption makes for complicated bureaucracy.   So when a local guy, Emmanuel, offered to help us, we negotiated a price and met him on the beach next morning.  He introduced us to his fishermen friends, who were happy to guard the dinghy,  then we walked through the town, enjoying the feel of Latin American culture, past the church of Cristo del Buen Viaje, past the 17th century fort, and across the shady Plaza Bolivar to customs building.  But in spite of the big official sign, ‘Aduanas’, it seems they have recently closed this office.  So we jump on a bus to the capital, Porlamar, a huge sprawling mass of high-rise apartment blocks, hotels and chic shopping malls which has developed around the tourist industry.  Emmanuel leads the way, past all the classy air-conditioned shops to the ‘Aduanas’ building where we are told that, sorry, yachts must go to the office down by the lighthouse.  Nothing daunted, our enthusiastic guide leads on, introducing us on the way to the attractive older part of town.  Once more we enter under the ‘Aduanas’ sign and this time someone is prepared to deal with us.  Nick sits down and gets out the ship’s papers, but Emmanuel is getting worried about the time; we have to buy duty stamps worth 30,000 bolivars (£15) at a post office, and they will soon close.  (We had tried to get them in Pampatar, but the post office there didn’t have any.)  


Emmanuel and I speed off into the heat of the day to find the nearest ‘Ipostel’.  It’s not far, but unfortunately, they haven’t any either.  Now my cheerful companion is beginning to look stressed.  He looks around for a taxi.  I decide he’s better off without me, hand over the cash, and return to the cool of the customs.  It’s very quiet.  No one seems to have anything to do except the man who is busy at a typewriter on our behalf.  There are no phones on the empty desks.  Eventually Emmanuel returns, sweating and triumphant, with the stamps.  The Ipostel only had units of 300, so we have sheets and sheets. These will be needed later.  Meanwhile, we have cleared customs!  Time for a beer.  Emmanuel wants to show us where all the other yachts are anchored, so we set off back across town.  By now flagging somewhat, I am mightily pleased when he suddenly whistles at a passing jeep, a friend, and we are whisked off to the beach.  And there, to our astonishment, are about 100 yachts, and a bar where yachties are drinking.  The beer is cold and very cheap (50p a pint!).  But it is not an attractive place; scrubby wasteland with a backdrop of ugly concrete blocks.  We feel very smug to be tucked up in friendly Pampatar under the watchful eye of the fisherman, Ramon.


And back to Pampatar we now must go to do paper work with the Port Captain.  This time we cruise comfortably in an old Chevrolet taxi.  Emmanuel knows people at the Capitaneria and we joke our way through security and down the corridors to a big cool office.  Then, for the fifth time, I see the face of our cheery guide cloud over in despair.  He’s trying so hard, but today, unfortunately, the immigration officer is not here.  We can go to the airport if we like, but the Port Captain cannot accept our harbour fee until we are cleared by immigration.  He cannot, of course, take money from us anyway.  He gives us a form which we must take to a bank, er… back in Porlamar.  Emmanuel is on his mobile to another mate, Ignatio (Nacho).  Nacho arrives in a beat-up 4x4 with no doors and we rattle off back to Porlamar and pay the harbour dues to the bank.  We then agree we’ve had enough for today.  Immigration can wait.  It’s 20 kilometres to the airport.  So we rattle back to Pampatar, collapse into a bar (where Nacho and ‘Manuel’ are clearly valued clients) and settle down to more cold beers.  Weary as I am, I submit to half an hour of Spanish conversation with our tireless companions.  I do ok and they set me homework, for we must all meet again in the morning.


We’re on the beach again at 9.00am.  Manuel, Nacho and Ramon are waiting. Back we go to the harbour office, with our receipt from the bank and our pages of stamps.  Our passports are checked and a cruising permit is prepared, onto which we must affix one hundred stamps.   This is very perplexing for everyone. (Usually, you get just one large stamp to the value of 30,000 Bs.)   A bright lad suggests we overlap them.  This is agreed, and we all help to tear them off while Manuel does some careful sticking.   Everyone is very good humoured and relaxed.  There are no phones to answer, a radio plays pop music.  The immigration man tidies his desk  Now we are waiting for the final signature from the Port Captain who is somewhere else in the building. At last, the bright lad returns with the signature, and, we’re done;  after one whole day and a half we have cleared in.  We celebrate in the bar.


After a week, we joined the other yachts in Porlamar, where a Chilean entrepreneur has set up every convenience a yacht could wish for:  water, fuel, ice, internet, laundry, phone, a secure jetty for the dinghy and of course, he is an agent for checking in.  But we wouldn’t have missed the fun with Manuel for anything, and after a day with him we knew about buses, taxis, bars, banks, post offices, the price of fish, and something of the workings of bureaucracy.   We explored the island by bus, visiting La Asuncion, the old capital, with its spacious cathedral, pretty castle and elegant Plaza Bolivar.  Every town has a Plaza Bolivar, beautifully planted and paved, and very clean, with a bust or a statue of himself at the centre.


Porlamar is very lively as it is a popular destination for mainland Venezuelans looking for a fun time.  Liz’s son Nick came to Margarita with friend Danny for 2 weeks, so easy access to nightlife was desirable:  dinghy ashore, taxi to club.  They sailed with us to the small islands of Coche and Cubagua to get the wild nature experience.   Cubagua is deserted except for fishermen’s huts.  We walked across the island over dry, sun-baked salt pans, a featureless place with no shade at all.  But we wanted to see the ruins of Nueva Cadiz, said to be the first European settlement in the Caribbean, founded in 1498 in connection with pearl fishing.  Local Indians were taken as slaves and hundreds died as they were forced to dive.  The supply of pearls quickly decreased, and then in 1541 an earthquake and tidal wave destroyed the town.  All that’s left is the stone foundations, bleak and desolate;  but the ground glints with oyster shell fragments.  Back on the beach, a woman persuaded us to take some fresh fish.  In exchange the children wanted chocolate and the grandmother asked for vitamin pills.  We later returned with the goodies, plus some coffee and tinned milk, (at which I was invited inside the earth-floored hut to admire the new baby!).   Coche was more sophisticated, and Nick and Danny tracked down some nightlife here.  Dinghy security is a problem  There is much theft, especially of outboards.  Chaining and locking are inadequate as the thieves cut through anything.  The only solution is to hoist the dinghy out of the water at night and have it hanging off the side of the yacht.  Poor Nick and Danny had to complete this complicated manoeuvre every time they returned at two or three in the morning!  We had a peaceful sail back to Margarita and all too soon they had to get their flight home.   (Later we heard that a yacht anchored off Coche was boarded by 5 men, masked and armed.  Items of value were stolen, the boat trashed and the skipper shot in the leg.  It’s one thing to have an outboard stolen; quite another to be boarded.  There have been several incidents of armed boardings off the mainland coast, which is why we have stayed in the islands.)


The cost of living in Venezuela is very low.  Nacho told us he feeds his family for 40,000 bolivars a week that’s £20.  A bottle of gin is £1.50, cigs are 75p a packet and you can eat out very well for £2.50.  So we trekked back and forth to the supermarkets, filled our food lockers (and our drinks locker!) to the brim, and sailed north to the island of Blanquilla, away from shops, bars, traffic and the fear of theft to spend five weeks in beautiful islands surrounded by coral reefs and clear clean seas, bartering for fish with friendly, honest fishermen. 


From Blanquilla we sailed overnight to the archipelego of Los Roques.  A full moon rose over the sea in a perfect orange disc, but it turned into one of those wild windy night sails, lurching along reefed right down on a big rolling sea.  At Los Roques there were more yachts, and we had to pay an entry fee as it is a protected marine park.  On the main island there is a tiny hamlet of fisher folk, some ‘pasados’ (guest houses) for tourists, and a few bars and restaurants serving succulent fish.  It is a magical place of many little islands with powdery white sand beaches and great stretches of calm turquoise sea protected by miles and miles of reef.  White terns and gulls, and even the clouds reflect the colour of the water.


The further west we went the wilder it got.   Birds were our companions, and we became fascinated by the ‘black noddy’ and a cute little tern called the ‘least tern’.  They are in perpetual motion, hundreds together, making a kind of rasping twittering as they swoop and dive over the surface in a frenzy of feeding.  In contrast, big splendid pelicans are everywhere, cruising in groups, preening on the rocks, or hurling themselves into the sea when they spy the gleam of a fish.  This dance of survival goes on all around,  endlessly watchable, especially at dawn when the light catches the  silver arc of leaping fish and picks out the white heads of the noddies.    Under the sea  the coral is healthy and  plentiful.  While it was often quite rough for snorkelling, we did find  places  calm enough to swim in these pristine waters.  Beneath the waves we gazed on quiet and wonderful gardens of corals, sponges and plants, with all the strange and colourful fish gliding between.


We have had two minor brushes with hurricanes.  The first was on the island of Blanquilla, when ‘Tropical Depression 10’ passed over.  At dusk, we had just arrived off the tiny inlet where we planned to anchor, when the front of the depression hit.  It went suddenly cold, the wind blew up to 30 knots, and the rain poured down.  Not the best anchoring conditions!    After an hour of this, it all went very quiet.  The sky was awesome, - dark clouds and a strange yellow glow.   Then it was night, and every hour over the radio the Guarda Costa repeated the weather warning  We were alone in this remote spot, in the eye of a storm, waiting.  All was unnaturally quiet until 4.00am.  Then the wind blew up quickly and the boat swung through 90 degrees.  Through the driving rain we could see nothing but we knew that the change in wind direction brought the danger of being blown onto the rocks.  But the anchor held, and daylight at 5.30am showed we were all right.  Tropical depression 10 developed some days later into hurricane ‘Isador’ but by then had tracked well to the north where it unleashed itself on Cuba and then the Missisipi delta. 


Hurricane Lily, although 200 miles to the north, affected us with a spectacular thunderstorm in the middle of the night.  We were anchored in the most sheltered spot we could find amongst the reefs and islands of Los Roques, having been forewarned by weather forecasts.   Flashes of lightening revealed our surroundings clear as day with thunder like canon- fire immediately overhead.  The wind went into the west, once more putting us on a lea shore.  By 2.00am it was moving away, and all was well.  Hurricane 'Lily' caused serious flooding in Jamaica.  Well to the south of the hurricane belt, we knew we were safe, but it is nevertheless quite scary!


After five and a half weeks in the islands, it is time to move on.  This place, Las Aves is spooky at night.  There’s a bit of moon again, casting a lonely light over the primeval forest.  The wind moans in the rigging and there are strange cackles from the shore.  It’s only the boobies squawking, but you can have enough of raw nature after a while.  Bonaire lies ahead, the first of the Dutch Antilles.  We look forward to bright lights, restaurants, shops and most of all, people!  and hopefully an internet place to send you this.  The plan is to spend a couple of weeks in Bonaire, then sail to Curacao where we will put the boat ashore, and Liz will return to UK for two months.


If you have been, thank you for reading this far.   Best wishes from Liz and Nick.

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008