Pictures/Journal - page 15

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Charming main town - brightly painted, clean

 

 

Shallow Lac Bay: The place for windsurfing

 

 

  

Group dinner: our one order of mixed grill  (8 diff. meats) fed us for days on our passage

 

BONAIRE, NETHERLANDS ANTILLES - APRIL 26 - MAY 4, 2005:  A day passage from Las Aves, Venezuela takes us into this renowned diver's paradise.  Bonaire is part of the ABC Islands and is Dutch (as is Sint Maarten, Saba and Statia), although English and US$ are widely used here.

Bonaire (20 x 5 miles) is another dry, desert-like island: cactus- and scrub-covered hills on the north side and vast salt ponds on the flat south side.  Bonaire's economy is dependent primarily on salt and tourism, especially diving.  The island is surrounded almost entirely by a narrow 15-30 ft. deep shelf, that drops off suddenly to greater depths.  To the eye, the island is perfectly outlined in light turquoise.  Bonaire is extremely environmentally conscience and as a result no anchoring is allowed.  Well-maintained moorings are available off the main town of Kralendijk, for a small fee, which we pick up.  The town is a contrast to Venezuelan towns: it is very clean, safe, neat, and definitely a tourist/resort area.  We are impressed with this diving mecca, as there are about 80 well-marked dive sites surrounding the west coast with mooring buoys (for dinghys or small boats) and road access.  One can literally dive off the back of your boat on the reef wall.   The area has lots of fish and the coral reefs are in good shape.

We rent a jeep and check out the island.  We marvel at the thousands of pink flamingos living in the 2 large lagoons on either end of the island.  We visit  Lac Bay, about a 6 sq. n.mi. sand-bottom bay on the windy east side with an average depth of only 2 or 3 feet, which is used almost exclusively for windsurfing, an ideal spot to learn the sport.   With a bunch of other cruisers, we venture into a nearby town for the holiday celebration of the Queen's Birthday, with cheap, cold beer and street food.  (During our one week here, Bonaire celebrated 3 separate holidays.)

The south end of the island is dominated by salt: Salt pens (ponds) stretch for miles laid out on giant squares, varying in color from pastel blue-green to pink depending on the drying stage.  The areas where the salt has dried look like huge sparkling ice skating rinks, bulldozers at work scooping up.  Giant mounds of salt stand ready for transportation by ship back to the Netherlands. 

We top off with US$3.20/gal diesel (had been US$4.00/gal the day before).  This, of course, is in stark contrast to the 10 cents/gal we bought in Venezuela.  Let's hope for good wind so we don't have to motor!

-     -     -

PASSAGE:  The time has come to turn northwest for the rest of the journey back to Texas, with only 3 island stops available in between for rest and fueling: Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Mexico (Isla Mujeres).  All in all, this is not a well-traveled route and traffic is at a minimum, seeing no other sail boats and only a few freighters, usually at night and many miles away on the radar.   

We have friends, still in Bonaire, who now start sending us internet weather information via email to fill in what we are able to get ourselves (from email and SSB weather nets).  We check in on the Caribbean Maritime Net in the a.m. and to the Cocktail Weather Net in the p.m., although as we get further north the propagation has become weaker.  We also send Position Reports each day to report our lat/long position (links on our website).  We also are in daily email contact with friends in Venezuela, Bonaire and Houston who are closely following our progress.  These are all resources we  routinely use, but with such a long passage(s) we are more diligent with it.  That's a nice thing about the cruising community, everybody watches out for each other. 

 

 

North side: Hilly desert  . . .

South side: Flat; salt pens for evaporation; dried salt flats; salt ready for shipping;

 and old slave huts - notice how small they are

 

 

Austin guiding our "banana" raft down river

 

 

 

 

Tonkie (standing) making Deb's ankle bracelet;                "Yah mon, it's definitely 'you'".

 

JAMAICA, MAY 8 - 14:   A surprisingly fast passage with good winds, although rolly seas, had us averaging 150 n.mi./day and put us in Port Antonio, northeast corner of island, after 4 days/nights.  Jamaica is a large mountainous island, reminiscent of such islands as Dominica, Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, Trinidad, etc..  Clouds hang over the island, producing the first rain fall we have seen in almost 5 months, and a free boat wash which excited us - it's the little things!  As it turns out, rainy season has just begun here and we experience some rain most days - a welcomed relief from the hot, cloudless skies we have been accustomed to for the last many months.  Locals couldn't understand why we were so thrilled to see the rain clouds.

Port Antonio is a charming and picturesque area.  We treat ourselves and get a slip at the Port Antonio Marina to help us rest up for what lies ahead.  This is probably the nicest marina we have seen on our travels and liken it to Waterford Marina in Houston/Kemah.  Nice secured grounds and park area, and the town just a couple minute walk away.  For a brief glimpse of the island's interior, we take a river raft trip.  These rafts are very long and narrow, made of bamboo, and were originally used for transporting banana crops.  Our guide, Austin, enthusiastically explains their use, and the training program the guides must go through, starting with an apprenticeship of bringing rafts back up the river after use. 

As Jamaica is 140 miles in length from east to west, we do an overnight trip from Port Antonio (east) to Montego Bay, located on the western part of the north coast, to stage for our next passage.  Not sure what all the hubbub is about Montego Bay - it's a huge bay, with the town and resorts scattered on the high hills bordering the bay, water light blue only near shore.  We anchor at the only feasible anchorage which is at the Montego Bay Yacht Club.  A $15 taxi ride is the only way to the town of Montego Bay (or a very long, wet dinghy ride).  In all fairness, it was rainy the day we went to town, so did not get to look around much.  We wanted to visit the Bob Marley Experience (no, not what you're thinking) with video presentations but a mudslide had closed the road. 

We also wanted to make one more stop before leaving Jamaica, one that would have put us even further west for jumping off.  However, due [again] to myopic government regulations, we would have to return back to Montego Bay to clear out.  That would have defeated the purpose of staging further west, so had to forego the additional stopover. 

(That is one of the more frustrating aspects of cruising we have encountered.  The frequent bureaucratic, labor-intensive paper-shuffle, runaround and unreasonable restrictions, give locals "power" over you which many relish.   Even when they collect no fees (e.g., customs, immigration, and less often port captain, agriculture, health/sanitation, etc.....) it still can be a big hassle.  The French islands are the best, as they don't collect fees and really don't care where you've been or where you're going.  In all fairness, the officials are usually very nice, just doing their job.)

-     -     -

PASSAGE:  In Jamaica, we have seen only 3 other cruising sailboats here, all headed to the Bay Islands of Honduras.  After several nights in Jamaica, we make a 2-day/night passage, a mixture of sailing and motoring, to Grand Cayman Island.  We're suppose to be picking up the helping current along this route, but seemed like we encountered adverse current, up to 1 3/4 knots, most of the way.  We were able to reactivate our XM radio via email, which now helps to keep us entertained on passage-making.

 

 

 

 

Port Antonio:  pretty little beach area

 

 

Steve discovers another new beer: Jamaican Red Stripe

 

GRAND CAYMAN ISLAND - MAY 16 - 21:  We arrive at George Town, Grand Cayman Island, a flat, dry place on a holiday, Discovery Day.  (It's incredible all the holidays Caribbeans have, any excuse for a day off - this impacts our clearing in/out of countries, not to mention everyday stuff.)  With their permission, we stayed quarantined on ARGO for the day avoiding hefty overtime/holiday charges for customs and immigration.  We have a heck of a time anchoring off the town, trying to hit a spot of sand among the low coral reefs.  A nearby cruiser tells us they will fine you big time if your anchor is on coral so we re-anchor several times 'til we get it right. 

Grand Cayman is known for being an international financial center (there's something like 600 financial institutions on this small island, popular because they protect identity of bank account holder), a tax-free haven, and for tourism, especially diving.  Frankly, it wasn't anything like we were expecting - meaning it's pretty non-descript.  Many of the mega-yachts we have seen in the Caribbean are flagged/documented here, but have probably never been here even for a day!  We only saw one such yacht in person here.  This is, however, a popular day stop for the large cruise ships, seeing up to 5 in one day.  The shopping area is quite nice, lots of jewelry stores, but overpriced as expected.  Many affluent own condo property, exorbitantly priced.    

Grand Cayman was hit directly by hurricane Ivan last September and it is still quite evident:  Lots of large trees and vegetation piled up all over, many hotels and condos have not reopened.  Being a flat island, water covered much of it.  Sightseeing onshore, we saw the turtle farm (for both the preservation of the species and for the tasty soup bowl) with a few thousand large green turtles.  A visit to the town of Hell consisted of a weird volcanic-like rock swamp, named from some former political figure who when bird hunting here missed a bird and said "Oh hell".  Hmmm. 

Planning a morning departure after a couple of nights here, we download weather to find out about tropical storm Adrian, escalating to a hurricane in the Pacific.  It's forecasted to come right over the top of Grand Cayman, quite possibly affecting the area en route to our next and final intermediate stop, Isla Mujeres, Mexico.  Quite concerned, we delay departure and follow it closely.  Anchored on the west side with no protection, we would incur the full brunt of the storm should it come this way.  We, and the 2 only other cruising boats here, decide to move into the North Sound, a huge 25 x 25 mile shallow bay, bordered by reefs on the north side.  The one boat had been in there before and showed us the way.  Lesson learned, always follow your own navigation, we know better.  He took us in the "wrong" cut and we ended up in shallow-than-expected depths, down to 6  ft. - we draw 6  ft. - but sand bottom, thank heavens.  We sit behind the reef in this vast area with no clue where to go.  (The chart for Grand Cayman is VERY outdated and of very little use).  We flag down a fisherman who leads us into a very nice development and marina area (marina partially destroyed by Ivan) where we anchor.  This is when we learn that we had come in the "wrong" cut.  We are given guidance for our return trip out the next day through the "main" channel (a whopping 8 ft.), as Adrian fizzled out over Central America. 

-     -     -

PASSAGE:  We take off on this leg to Mexico, not sure if we will arrive in 2 or 3 days.  Once again, there is a current that flows westerly that should assist us, but we never really find it, fighting a current up to 2+ knots much of the way.  As winds are again light, we have to motor the whole way, fighting the current. 

During the first night we pick up a hitch-hiker.  A pigeon keeps circling our boat and finally lands.  In the morning, we see that his legs are banded for "navigation" - left leg with a red tag and right leg with a green tag!  Steve tries to shoo him away (he's already pooped on the deck) but Deborah intervenes as he apparently is pooped himself.  After he rests a bit, Deborah uses the hose to give him water which he drinks, and then takes a shower.  He stretches his legs occasionally by flying around but returns.  The next night he takes off, apparently smelling land close enough.  Not sure if he was headed to Cayman, Cuba or Mexico.     

 

  Making new friends

Turtle farm; they really pack them in

Bar art work in Hell

Lively restaurant/ bar street  

A beach/ restaurant/ bar area

ISLA MUJERES, MEXICO - MAY 23 - 25: This is a long, thin flat island just offshore Cancun and north of Cozumel.  Here we find lots of cruisers, many staging to go back to Florida before hurricane season, and others heading down to Belize and Honduras.  This is an active cruising community and we would have liked to stay longer.   We met a cruiser from Port Aransas, Texas who knows several cruisers that we know.  It is a small world!

We had planned on stopping here only to refuel (we'll need full fuel tanks if we have to motor across the Gulf of Mexico), and perhaps avoid clearing in, but that wasn't to happen as customs was there to greet us when we pulled up to the fuel dock.  Of all places we've been, this has probably been the worse with respect to clearing in/out procedures:  It is required that we use an agent (US$150) to clear in/out; a US$50 fee is paid to the port captain; it took 22 hours for us to clear in/out; AND, in spite of using an agent, we had to go in person twice to the immigration office.  Above, I mentioned the bureaucratic paper-shuffle: Here, we had to supply 12 copies of the Crew List and 6 copies of the Zarpe (clearing out) forms that we had to generate on our computer - what they do with all those forms I'm sure no one knows.  So, our 1-day turn-around didn't happen.  We did check out the town and get a feel for this nice but laid back place.  We also got some really good Mexican food!  Cruisers tend to really like it here.

PASSAGE:  We continue northwest through the Yucatan Strait, where again helping currents up to 2 knots are suppose to flow (this is where all the water from the Caribbean "squirts" through the narrow Straits up into the Gulf of Mexico, part of it heading east to the Florida Straits).  Well, all we saw was a 1-knot current for a short ways, then, you guessed it, it turned against us.  So, we are currently having to motor.  As we depart, a full moon keeps us company.   Our passage across the Gulf of Mexico is close to 700 miles.

On day 3, in the middle of the Gulf, the seas are smooth as glass (no wind).  We hear splashing and look out to see dozens of dolphins racing towards us, jumping wildly.  They obviously had found a source of entertainment as they took their place at the front of ARGO to ride our bow wake, a customary practice for dolphins.  The water is so clear and calm we can easily see them swimming, some on their sides.  Eventually they left, only to return later for more fun (for us).

Day 4, conditions are still light and we continue to motor.  Deborah is in the cockpit with her computer working on this website update.  The breeze is variable today and we have switched the sails from side to side more than we can count.  More dolphins greet us, several jumping out of the water belly-flopping.  One in particular, jumped at least 3 feet, curved his body into a "C" and cannon-balled with a huge splash directly in front of the boat.        (Picture above:  Sargasso? "fields" floating way out.)

Still a couple of hundred miles from land, and still in deep water, during the night we see our first drilling platform.  It is a monstrously huge Eiffel Tower-like structure, whose multitude of bright white lights we see glowing above the horizon 30 miles off.  Within 8 hours, as we get into shallower waters (200 ft.), we'll be in the rig field:  Lots and lots of drilling rigs, production platforms, crew/supply boats, freighters, tankers, etc. so we'll have to be alert.  People are always amazed at how colonized these waters are, even this far out.  (I had planned on taking pictures of this, especially at night when they are lit up like cities, but as you'll see below, we were rather busy with other things.)  At night, depth perception is not good, so radar is essential for determining where each lays and what direction, if any, it is moving.  We've done this many times before, so this is familiar to us.        (Picture above:  Radar screen showing "targets" - each yellow line is a target - either a stationary rig/platform, or moving freighter/tanker/boat.  Each ring is 3 miles wide.  As we get closer to land, the screen fills up with even more targets.)

Day 5 seas become lumpy as we enter the outer-lying Safety Fairway, still about 100 miles from land.  The Safety Fairways are essentially designated thoroughfares that run through the middle of the rig field:  No fixed structure can lie in this area so it is a safe passage for freighters/tankers coming or going from Galveston/Houston.  Although we can go any direction we want, we use the Fairway in lieu of dodging rigs/platforms.

Our last night out before returning to Texas turns out to be the worst weather we have experienced since leaving over 2 years ago.  Late evening, as we enter the inner-lying divided Safety Fairway, we hear a Coast Guard announcement on the VHF that a huge and dangerous thunderstorm will be passing over our area around midnight, expect 50 knot winds and possible hail.  Oh great.  We have a couple of hours to take sails down, secure lines and whisker pole, add diesel to our fuel tanks (from gerry cans), get additional safety gear out and ready, etc.  Meanwhile, we are having to keep a sharp eye out for freighter/tanker traffic:  These vessels are huge and fast moving, sometimes seemingly appearing out of nowhere, and they cannot easily maneuver - it's up to us to get out of their way.  As midnight approaches, so does a long line of hyper-active thunderstorms, with giant vertical bolts of lightning going all the way to the ground/water.  The lightning storm passes over us - and sits literally on top of us for almost an hour.  We are below (no sense in getting fried topside) watching radar (we can make out most rigs to our starboard side) and our chart plotter (we can see our position in the Fairway, hugging the right side).  Not only do we fear getting struck by lightning, which we thought was inevitable, but we are also fearful of being run over by a freighter/tanker, as they may not be able to see our little blip on radar in the midst of the lightning storm.  We will make no bones about it, lightning is a very scary thing to a boater - there is nowhere to hide from it, and if struck damage can be catastrophic.  The storm eventually passed miraculously without any damage -  saw 30 knot winds, rain but no hail.

We continue up the Fairway towards the jetties at Galveston.  This now becomes quite stressful (in a different way) because there are so many lights out here that it is very confusing at night.  But with radar, chart plotter and GPS waypoints, we confidently make our way into the jetties and up the Houston Ship Channel, past several "interchanges" avoiding long lines of towed barges and other big traffic.  Sunrise greets us just before we reach the Galveston Bay cut.  We enter Watergate Marina and tie up to a slip at 8:30 Monday morning, after dredging their muddy channel at low tide.  What a finale the last 12 hours of our trip has been!!!

 

 

HOUSTON, TEXAS - MAY 30, 2005:  We are now at Watergate Marina in Kemah (Clear Lake / Houston).  We have 5 days to unload all our personal items before ARGO is decommissioned and trucked back to the Valiant factory (north of Dallas) on June 5-8.  We also have to arrange for rental car, phone, packing boxes, etc., etc.  A really big job lays ahead of us.  It's unbelievable how much stuff we have managed to put on ARGO - her waterline has risen as we take things off.  Hopefully we'll remember this when it's time to reload her!   

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