Friday, July 31, 2009

Fish Fans Cheer!

The fish are winning in the battle with the spear. Michael hunted again on the reefs in Aves de Barlovento - this time we went to some reefs that were further out. The outer edges of the shallow reefs provided a good ledge for some larger fish - and they were large and wily for a reason. They were quick enough and sly enough to avoid the hunter and refused to become supper. After a few different spots and many attempts - we had to pull something out of the freezer. It was certainly not for lack of trying.

We stopped by to say hello to some folks aboard the boat Gabriel. They are anchored way outside on the outer reef - being protected by the reef from swells - but very exposed to the wind. They've been at the Aves for ten weeks - and their line "four weeks short of being perfect!" This is indeed a beautiful place. They are doing some fish counting for an organization that works to preserve the reefs. Hopefully they didn't see Michael's spear in the dinghy! They later stopped by Astarte with a bagful of books for some book trading. We had lots to trade.

On Thursday, we made our way west about 12 miles to the other side of the Aves - to Aves de Sotavento. After threading our way through the reefs under power, we put the headsail up. We sailed - although slowly - unfortunately not a fish catching speed. We did put a line in the water nonetheless. The wind was light but it's always pleasant to not listen to the engine and save the fuel.

As we came to Isla Larga on the southern side of this island group - we checked in with the Guardacosta via the radio. Barbara had prepared her spiel in Spanish so she was ready. She called in and got through the spiel. It was obviously clear to the Guardacosta that she was not a native speaker - as they switched to English. But she continued to answer the questions in Spanish. All seemed good - though we did expect a visit from them around cocktail hour. But they never came by. Perhaps today.

We found a very secluded place in a bay surrounded by mangrove. Depths were about 10-15 all the way in - avoiding a few obvious coral heads. Though we are just a few miles away from the other Aves - this group has very few birds in comparison. We've seen a very small turtle stick its head up quite a bit - but it's pretty shy. We snorkeled from the big boat all around this bay - there are small reef and rock structures around the edges. Barbara saw a huge turtle underwater - nestled in some rocks. Michael spotted a large eagle ray underwater with the longest tail he'd ever seen. There was a giant lobster in one hole - and we actually thought about how good it would taste for dinner. But they are out of season and we do pride ourselves on not poaching - so we passed. (That was hard to do - lobster sounded soooooo good!)

We had a nice quiet evening in our new location. Today (Friday) we'll either stay in this location another night - or move out to one of the other little islands. The water in this bay is a bit murky for snorkeling and we want to leave early on Saturday to make the run for Bonaire - and getting out of this area is a little tricky in early light.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Hunter Finally Hunts

Michael is happy and the fish are nervous (well sort of!) We're finally in an area where Michael can spearfish with his Hawaiian sling. This is a good thing as the small freezer is quite bare having been away from groceries for a few weeks. Unfortunately - the wind is blowing quite hard, so its not great snorkeling/hunting water. But on Monday, he did manage to put fish on the table for dinner. He got a white grunt and a blue-striped grunt. Both quite large for grunts - so we had plenty of fish for dinner. Both prepared the same and the blue stripe was much tastier.

Yesterday he tried again on some different reefs - and he could have gotten more grunts - but was trying for something different. Perhaps a snapper or grouper - but the fish won on Tuesday. We had tortilla pizzas for dinner.

The reefs here are quite extensive and seem very healthy - lots of fish varieties, lots of coral and all types of small anemones. There are a variety of different ones to explore at the various spots within this island chain. Many are in very shallow water - so it makes things very visible. The water changes from very clear to a bit murky - probably based on the tides and the winds.

The birds still amaze us here. When you get in the water, you have lots of them flying overhead. They make quite a racket at sunset as they start to settle into the trees for the night. They come by the boat and will almost stop midair and stare at you - eye to eye.

We did have some bad news. We lost the memory card on the camera and it lost all our recent (a months worth) of photos. Lesson: back up more often. Luckily, Michael had prepped some for the website so we have at least those. But we'll have to re-take the red-footed boobies and some other shots that we can - but we've lost a lot from the Roques. Bummer.

More snorkeling (aka hunting) today. Maybe we'll dinghy out to some other boats to say hello. And then we'll move on tomorrow - weather permitting. We have to get to Bonaire in a few days.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

The Birds - Hitchcock movie or cruising life?

We hiked Cayo de Agua on Saturday - walking around much of the island. We climbed the sand dunes; walked to the other side of the island which was very rocky (actually a lot of broken bits of coral that are blackened); saw the water holes (there's an aquifer on the island); and got covered in sand spurs on our socks and shoes. And then there were the birds. Lots of birds. Wading birds, small birds, sea birds, etc. Some of the Laughing Gulls were none to happy about us walking the beach and one hit Barbara in the head as she walked by. Not very friendly! After our walk-about, we came back to the boat and went snorkeling. The Astarte exercise program in full swing today!

The snorkeling was interesting. We went to some shallow patch reefs and saw the largest parrot fish we've ever seen. Some hit at least four feet long (even though the book says the max is three feet - maybe these were mutants!) and they were very wide all around. These were the Midnight parrotfish (Scarus coelestinus) which are very dark blue - almost black with the bright neon blue beaks and markings. There were also some large Stoplights and Rainbows and Queen parrots. They were eating the rock and coral - and we could actually see their tooth marks on the ledges.

We tried a few other coral heads and then went back to the boat. Barbara swam under the boat to watch five cuttlefish that were making the propeller and shaft their hiding spot.

On Sunday morning bright and early we headed out to get to the Aves de Barlovento. This is one of a small group of islands Islas de Aves - so named because of the thousands of birds that make these islands their home. We had high hopes of catching some dinner on the 30 mile trip - and we put two lines out. Unfortunately, there were approaching squalls so we shortened sail and didn't have fish catching speed on for much of the trip. It was pretty rolly with five foot beam seas. We did catch something big - unfortunately it was a booby (of the bird variety). It grabbed a spoon and hooked itself. Michael got it to the boat and released it. It was unharmed - though has a new beak piercing to brag about to his friends. These birds forced us to pull in the lines as they continued to dive for the lures (not the brightest species on the planet - after seeing one get hooked!)

The good news about landing a bird was that when we went back to get it unhooked - we discovered that the radar pole had broken its weld that held it to the back rail. Within an hour in these rolls, it would have crashed down - tearing out of the deck. It would have been a major issue - but the bird rescue helped us notice it and Michael has it now "tied" to the rail and we'll get it repaired in Curacao. We were lucky - it was daytime and we saw it in time. Whew.

We arrived into the Aves and wove our way through the coral to anchor off Isla Sur. We're in a little bay with mangroves to the south. Some are 40 feet high and they are filled with birds - mostly boobies of various varieties. The red footed are the most fun to see - as they look like they have red rubber boots on their web feet. These birds are very curious - they approach the boat very closely - almost coming into the cockpit. They stop and look right at you. Michael checked out the anchor and was followed by birds flying just over his head. He continued his swim and went to the reefs around the boat - near the shore than to the north of the boat. He was looking for hunting territory.

It's really windy out - but we had a peaceful nights sleep and today - Michael will get the spear out and try to get dinner!

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Booking" into El Gran Roque

Los Roques is quite remote. This group of Venezuelan Islands has one town - El Gran Roque. The town has no cars and the streets are made of sand. It runs along a beautiful sandy beach and has several blocks of houses, shops, restaurants and even a small school and medical office. El Gran Roque is where you must officially check in. This process itself was quite an adventure. We went into the town by dinghy and tied up to the Guardacosta (Coast Guard) dock (shared by the Policias (police) boat as well. Here we checked in with a young man in uniform who pulled out a big "book" with about 14 columns across the two pages. He proceeded to fill in each column by hand, asking questions (in Spanish/spanglish). We answered in Spanish/Spanglish. Luckily a gent was around who turned into our translator. Michael's Spanish form came in handy again. During the process, people were coming in and out of the office - some in formal uniform (braid on the shoulder etc.) and others in t-shirts, flip-flops and shorts. All looked to be Guardiacosta. One of them tried to sell us a framed piece of art (a chart of Los Roques with nautical knots/braids on it). The price started at 200 Bolivars and went to 50 US by the time it was all over.(though when we returned it was $40).

Once we finished with Guardacosta, we were given this stamped form - and told to go to three other locations - in a specific order. Parque (Park office); Guardia Nacional (National Guard) and Aduana (customs). The offices were in town (customs at the tiny aeropuerto (airport). Luckily, this gentleman was nearby who spoke some English and proceeded to help us understand all this and walk us to the offices. We started at the Parque but it was closed. Luckily, he ran into the head of the park, Jesus Duran, who told us to come back after lunch.and to do him last and get the others out of the way first. "Oh, oh," we thought - that's out of the order that was clearly indicated!! We then went to the National Guard and a uniformed man was sitting at a desk on the porch and we went to him. He spoke little to no English so we laughed a lot and got it done (he was very nice). He kept telling us we needed to check out the next day and come back - which started to confuse us. He also had a big "book," with columns across both pages and he hand-wrote all the information in these tiny columns. He stamped our sheet to make it official and sent us on our way.

Next stop Aduana at the airport. This airport is a small strip (very small) right on the beach. There are a few small wooden shacks along the waterfront selling souvenirs and a water taxi to take folks to other islands. Next to these is the customs office. Inside a young woman in a uniform shirt and jeans was rocking out to some great music. She spoke a bit of English and we communicated pretty well - telling her we liked the music. She filled out "her book" - another one with lots of columns - all handwritten. She stamped the paper and sent us on our way.

We made it back to the park office - nobody was there. We waited. Went to the Supermarcado (Supermarket) and picked up some eggs and beer, went back to the Park office - and nobody there. Went to have a cold drink and came back. Nobody there. We waited and waited. Somebody came by and told us they'd be back at "a la dos" (2 o'clock). It was already that (according to our time). Finally someone gets there and we get checked in. He also tells us we must clear out the next day and come back. He too fills out the big "book" with columns and all handwritten. He stamps our sheet.

We get back to the Coast Guard station and show him our sheet with stamps from all the appropriate offices. We ask our guy if we need to check in the next day to clear out - as this was confusing when we were checking in. He tells us "no" we are all set. We can leave the next morning. The price of the art comes down another ten dollars. We also find out the island is a half hour earlier than the eastern time zone!

We get back to Astarte and change from our "clearing in" clothes to our walking around and climbing hills clothes, and head back to the island. We got permission to keep the dinghy at the Coast Guard dock.

The town is really charming. In fact, if any reader is looking for a remote place to go that has lots of beaches, water sports of the diving, snorkeling, boating, fishing variety (no jet skis), and really nice little posadas and restaurants - this would be a good choice. The town is tidy and colorful. Planes come from the mainland regularly. That would mean having to land in Venezuela however.

Of course there is a hill on this island and you know Michael's rule - if there is a hill, it must be climbed. This is the only Los Roques island with any height. The hill leads to the old lighthouse. It was a nice trail all the way - and great views from the top. We then went cruising around town, found a bakery for some bread and then went for some cold beers on the beach. We had dinner at a lovely restaurant on the beach and had a terrific meal (Barbara had fresh (Pescado) fish and Michael (Camarones) shrimp. A few beers and two glasses of wine and the whole meal cost under $40 US.

Back to the boat after a great day in the town. These were the first out of pocket boat units we spent in 10 days! These remote islands help with the cruising budget.

The next morning (Friday) we left El Gran Roque for Cayo de Agua on the western side of the group. It was a fabulous few hour sail all the way. No joy on the fish front (we were so optimistic). We did catch a small mackerel - but lost it before it got to the boat. Then we ended up losing a lure - probably one of the islands' "el gran barracuda!" Bummer.

We anchored in between some reefs and went snorkeling. It was a bit shallow and surge-ey - and not too clear, so we looked at a few spots and headed back to the boat. We are getting spoiled - if it's not perfect, we quit! We did clean waterline of Astarte which was getting "mermaid hair" (long green, slimey, grassy stuff) growing along the waterline. Michael also did some free diving to scrape some barnacles off below. We got some big rain squalls and heavy wind through the afternoon and evening.

We'll explore the beautiful beach and island on Saturday. There are lots of birds on the island. One laughing gull has decided to make Astarte and our dinghy a new resting spot - she is fearless. You can approach very closely - within a foot. She likes sitting on the windvane, barbeque grill, or dinghy.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Inside the Reef

Los Roques is a group of islands that are surrounded by reefs - and therefore quite protected from swells - but not from the trade winds. It can be a bit disconcerting to see waves crashing just ahead of the boat (and hear them at night), yet the boat seems relatively calm. The holding is good in sand and the anchor (our new Delta) seems to be doing its job. The winds keep the temperature quite comfortable. We had a restful first night - after the long sail to this group of islands. Day two was also very restful. Day three - in a new location, had some squalls come in throughout the night and we had a bit of a roll.

Los Roques is 14 by 25 miles of protected reef and dotted with little islands - not very high. The exception is El Gran Roque with its 380 foot hills…looking very different from all the other low lying mangrove and sand islands. Los Roques is a Venezuelan National Park and protected. No spear fishing, rod and reel fishing or traps are allowed within the park boundaries. No collection of conch or shellfish is allowed. No foreign charter boats. You can only fish with a hand line. They close off entire areas if there is any indication of stress to the resources - meaning no boating, anchoring or any activity is allowed in the restricted area.

The protection of the area is impressive and it shows when you snorkel around - which we've done for the last few days. Near the first spot we anchored - near Buchiyaco we went to three different patch reefs not far from Astarte. The first spot was filled with a large variety of fish and some healthy coral. There are some huge conch - alive! After a good time in the water we spotted a barracuda that seemed quite interested in us (always very stealth, lurking in the shadows just behind you!) - and he was a "formidable" size, so we decided we'd move on.

The second spot was much more shallow and had a different variety of coral and critters. Here, Michael spotted a turtle and Barbara played with some cuttlefish for quite awhile - watching them watch her and line up in flying formations. They are so interesting to watch as they change color and stare you down. The third spot was the best of the day and had some huge snappers and more turtles. It also had a resident "cuda" even larger than the one from the first reef. He "submarined" under Barbara - and she swears he was as long as she is tall!

Day two here - we had another peaceful night and enjoyed the darkness and the stars. The brown boobies are curious birds and approach quite close to the boat to check you out. We think they'll crash into the wind generator causing problems to not just their own well-being - but to our power plant!

Wednesday, we moved about eight miles to another location. We had a great sail between the two reefs - the large outer protecting reef and the interior reef. The interesting thing about this area is that you really are exploring a bit - as there are no real "designated anchorages." You simply find a spot you like and as long as it's not over coral - you drop the hook in sand. We found a tiny mangrove island called Soyoqui - and negotiated our way towards it between reefs and patches of coral. We found a nice 25 foot sandy area and dropped the anchor. We have the little island and the area to ourselves - making it feel quite exotic. The mangrove island has a beautiful sandy beach and lots of birds.

We had an afternoon of snorkeling again - and this time the reefs were very different. The first spot was a forest of stag horn coral. It was a jungle of this coral with lots of schools of fish living within it. The schools ranged in fish size from inch long to three- foot snappers and schoolmasters. Michael wanted to spear something so bad it was driving him crazy. The tame fish seemed to know they were safe from human predators. They calmly swam about - barely paying attention to us. You could approach very closely. Schools of tiny fish would allow you to swim amongst them without scattering.

The second spot was similar - but had a few elk horn corals in the mix. It was also filled with fish. Many larger than the first sight.

The third location was very different. It had a few larger coral/rock formations - but very scattered. There was one large outcropping that was an aquarium. We could have swum around this "rock" for hours. It was filled with lots of varieties of fish - and there were hundreds of fish. It was a complete underwater colony - from tiny to large fish, colorful tube worms, anemones, large clams and beautiful tropicals. Inside the coral were some very large critters. A giant puffer - his eyes were as big as saucers; a giant snapper - easily 4 feet long and a green moray.

It was another great day of underwater exploration. We returned to the boat in time to see a squall heading our way. . We got back in time to get a bit of rain and some wind - but most of the weather seemed to go around us. That changed in the over night hours (of course!) when the wind picked up and we were forced to get up and close the hatches several times for the rain.

Today we'll probably head to El Gran Roque and check in. We also need to check out "Mary" the inflatable (dinghy) and she may be leaking again. One tube seems to be losing air more quickly.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

After a 23 Hour Sail=?ISO-8859-1?Q?=85?=A Real Reward

Our visit to La Blanquilla was very special. This was a new island for us to explore, and though we only stayed a few days - we did explore on land, dinghy and snorkeling. We spent all day Saturday discovering some of Blanquilla's special qualities. We dinghied around the point from Playa Yaque where we were anchored to a place called "Americano Bay." It is named because an American named Mr. Blackenship, built a house on the island, long before anyone else used the island. It was built on a rocky point and he'd fly his plane here and land near the house. The bay is spectacular with its natural stone caves and an enormous natural rock archway. The house is a mere skeleton now - but we climbed up its beautiful stone path and stood on the natural archway. It was a beautiful view. The beach in the bay is fine white sand and we saw several turtle nesting areas. We could see the turtle tracks as mom heads up the beach to lay her eggs and then back to the sea. We also saw a unique bird in the trees - one we'd see again on the island walk. It has to be part of the eagle/hawk/falcon family. A large bird of prey of some type. (We realized our reference library lacks a good bird book - we'll have to find one).

After our dinghy exploring to Americano Bay we went snorkeling around Astarte. There was an enormous variety and collection of fish to be seen in the rock and coral ledges nearby. Barbara finally saw some cuttle fish (a favorite of hers) and we spotted eels, some new tropicals we hadn't seen, some large edible fish (though no spear fishing allowed - bummer), and schools and schools of various fish. It was a healthy ecosystem.

We ended Saturday's exploring with a walk along the white sandy beach.

On Sunday morning, we decided to head inland on the island. The guide book tells you to wear sturdy shoes because of all the cacti. They should have mentioned long pants to Michael - as he attracted many a prickly pear thorn into his leg - shedding some blood on the island. It was a very flat island and we probably made it to its tallest point (57 feet). There were donkey paths to follow through the long grass, cactus and trees. We did see a donkey who was none to happy to see us. He brayed at us for some time. We also spotted a green parrot and that same species of bird of prey we had also spotted in Americano Bay.

After our walk - it was time to get Astarte ready for the next sail. We loaded the dinghy, put everything away, stored things below decks and made up some sandwiches for the trip.

Blanquilla was special because it wasn't a tourist island at all. Every night, we were anchored amongst local fishing boats. They would come in to catch some sleep, eat and then head off again. One night one boat came in pretty late (and maybe had emptied a rum bottle or two) and got pretty close to the boat when they dropped their anchor. Oh well, by morning they were gone.
At 1340 on Sunday, we started the engine - only it wouldn't start. Michael had to get out the tools and found a small spring had sprung out of a hole on the fuel shut off lever. While in the engine room though, he also discovered another problem - so it was a lucky thing that the spring had broken or he wouldn't have spotted an issue with vibration against the fuel lines. All is good for now - but he'll need to get some replacement parts. (Note from Barbara: Michael's ability to fix things really helps reassure me about this trip and adventure. He thinks things through so well and seems to be able to find a solution or a fix. Yes, sometimes the language isn't so pleasant - but I am lucky!)

Anyway - after the fix, the engine started and we were off at 1430. Destination - Los Roques 120 miles away. Michael had rigged a preventer (ignore if you are a sailor, Matt R. take note, a preventer is a bunch of line and pulleys that keeps the boom from swinging across the deck uncontrolled. It attaches to the side of the boat and as the boat rolls, it keeps the boom in place) for the main sail and we sailed downwind with following seas with the main only. We tried both sails for awhile but the main blanketed the headsail. Winds were relatively light and seas were 3-5 feet so quite pleasant. No joy on the fishing front however which was a real disappointment as these are supposed to be great fishing waters.

We did see a green flash and remarkable sunset followed by a sky filled with bright stars - thanks to no light intrusion. Overnight, the wind died some and we slowed quite a bit - which meant the sea state had its way with the boat. But it wasn't so uncomfortable - we both caught some sleep when we were off watch.

As you approach Los Roques - you don't see the islands - but you do see turquoise clouds. The reflection from the beautiful blue waters onto the clouds turn them this lovely pale blue-green. That's how you can see where the islands are. As we approached the islands after almost 22 hours of sailing you are truly rewarded with a beautiful sight. The water color against the white sands and reefs is frankly - indescribable. There are at least 10 different shades of blues and greens in the water. You have to do eyeball navigation here through the reefs as the charts aren't very good (and in fact our chart plotter has us anchored on land - we're not!) There are supposed to be 80 species of birds that live here or migrate through.

We came in through a quarter mile cut in the Bajo de la Cabecere (Head shaped shoal) reef near the Sebastopol Lighthouse - the Boca de Sabastopol entrance. We then turned to travel between two reefs. The water was quite deep between these large reefs - and very calm - as the reef breaks the incoming waves. We followed the reef to a small mangrove island and anchored in 34 feet of water over sand. It's called Buchiyaco. It's very breezy but flat calm - there are a few other sailboats here - but we are all quite separated so it feels very private.

Tomorrow, we'll explore. Tonight, we'll rest from the all day trip.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Clearing in. Clearing out.

One of our loyal, faithful, but geographically impaired readers (he wanted to know how soon we would be in the Erie Canal!) has brought up a question we hear often. How do you go about clearing into foreign countries? The main reason Matt brought this up is because he wanted to know where to apply for a job with the Venezuelan Coast Guard (see the last entry regarding cerveza). We thought we would try and clarify this a bit, but then realized that all countries are different and it becomes a pretty confusing matter. There are a few common threads, but it is sometimes amazing that each country, or island can differ so much.

The one thing that all require is that you make an appearance, on shore, at a designated location, as soon as is reasonably possible upon arrival in a new country. If you arrive out of regular business hours, there is an overtime charge. So we always try and arrive and leave during a regular business day. Some countries are comprised of several islands, so not every island in the Caribbean requires you to check in. If you are in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, there are individual "port districts" that require check in to each and every one you visit.

Some countries want everyone on board to show up. Grenada, because of the swine flu, requires everyone on board to appear at the customs and immigration office so they can see if you are healthy. We won't even get into the myriad issues of traveling with pets! (which we don't have for those very reasons).

Some countries make it easier than others. St. Vincent and the Grenadines have it set up so everything can be done in one office. Grenada as an example on the other hand is more complex. When we checked in at Hillsboro Bay on the island of Carriacou, we had to visit the immigration office, the customs office, and the port captain's office. Sometimes they are easy to find, sometimes not. When we cleared out of (more on that later) The Turks and Caicos, we asked the taxi driver to drop us off at the customs office. He said he knew where it was and dropped us off at the wrong one. So, as directed by the folks in the wrong office, we walked the quarter mile to the unmarked building behind the lot full of shipping containers and asked for George, who cheerfully took our 15 dollars, cleared us out and gave us our "zarpe"(what the clearance out papers are called).

Clearing out is a requirement of some countries. It seems to be a formality more for the next country than the one you are leaving. The new country wants to know you left legally! They also want to make sure you haven't stopped on the way with out clearing in. Most of the countries in the Caribbean chain aren't too concerned with a zarpe. As you get to South America and the islands off its coast, it becomes a bit more of an issue. We have been told that Bonaire doesn't really care about (up to) a 3 week time interval between checking out of Grenada and checking into Bonaire. They are aware of the security issues with mainland Venezuela and are willing to work with cruising boats. We are checking into each Venezuelan island we stop at along the way having gotten a Venezuelan Visa in Grenada. Los Testigos and La Blanquilla will let you stay 3-5 days (depending on their mood and our beer or rum supply) without officially checking into Venezuela. Like all countries you can not officially clear into any port. There are designated clearance ports, and the off shore islands of Venezuela, with the exception of Isla Margarita, are not ports of entry. So. . . we play the game and do our best.

A couple of general notes if you aren't bored to tears yet. The officials vary greatly in both demeanor and friendliness. On Carriacou, the immigration folks were great. We got all sorts of information and tips about Grenada. The ladies in the customs office were quite the opposite. All they wanted was to continue their conversation about some pizza date and get us out of the office. In doing so, they misread our ships papers and charged us less than they could have for the size of Astarte. Whoo-hoo, more left in the cruising kitty!!

We always wear proper attire to do the deed. Michael wears a collared shirt and long pants and Barbara wears slacks or a dress. We feel that they are professionals and are due proper respect. We have been told that in some offices, if you wear a t-shirt, shorts, and flip flops they will make you wait and sometimes not even let you clear in. It's only fair, they have to be well dressed and professional, why can't we make the same effort.

We also try to meet all the requirements. Whether it involves fees, visas or just the act of checking in, it is the law of the country we are visiting and the consequences can be pretty dire. We haven't heard of anyone yet who has had an issue. There are some that don't even check in. As soon as they arrive, they fly the courtesy flag of the new country as if they have done what is required. Not our style.

Last but not least, fees! They are all over the board. The Bahamas are $300US. The French Islands, with the exception of St. Martin are free. Grenada was $50 EC ($19US). It just depends and can change often. We get most of this information from the guide books and almanacs, and also spend a whole bunch of time chatting up other cruisers who have recently visited. They are the best and usually the most up to date source of information.

All in all, it sounds like a real hassle. It is not!!! We love the experience of different countries and interacting with the very different officials. If we wanted to avoid this stuff we could have just stayed home. If you want a hassle, all you have to do is talk to a British citizen about trying to bring a boat into the U.S. and you appreciate how easy it really is to check into these wonderful countries.

Editors note:
You may have noticed a slight change in syntax and timbre of this entry. Michael has written this one!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Adios Los Testigos. Hola Isla Blanquilla

Climbing hills through cacti, brambles, nettle-stinging plants, rocks, goats and boobies, we spent Wednesday exploring Los Testigo Pequena. We were trying to circumnavigate the island - but it seemed every goat path dead-ended in overgrowth. Michael has to get a machete. We did see a booby breeding area and saw a few small baby boobies - bundles of white fur - only a mother could love. It was a fun hike and we came back to the white sand beach to dive in and get rid of nettles, prickles and cactus spikes.

On Thursday, we left Testigos about 1545 and headed to Isla Blanquilla. This is about a 95 mile run. We had hoped to find another boat to "buddy boat" with - but everyone was going to Margarita.except us. So we headed out and sailed the entire way - at one point hitting 8.8 on the GPS with headsail alone. Michael had rigged a whisker pole up for downwind sailing and it worked well - at least until the wind direction changed. We hit a few squalls - but nothing bad - just a few showers and some increased wind. The seas were the bad news. We had beam seas about 5-7 feet. The boat rolled side to side all night long - sometimes as much as 40 degrees. The boat was a mess when we got in as things had fallen off the shelves. It was also impossible to take a nap - without rolling out of the berth. We know have a project to figure out how best to deal with down wind runs and beam seas.

We arrived to a lovely new island for us. Isla Blanquilla is a flat (only 50 feet high) with very clear water, white sand beaches, and reportedly great snorkeling (we'll judge that for ourselves). We're anchored off of Playa Yaque - in front of a clump of beautiful palm trees - we think date palms. It's been squally all morning with some intense rain showers and wind - so we've been just enjoying some relaxing time. Soon after we were anchored, the local Guardacosta (Coast Guard) came by in their open boat and came on board. Daniel and Gordy were terrific. Daniel's English was quite good (thankfully) though we were good about trying our Spanish as well. They cleared us in - asking for just a few papers and not requiring anything we didn't have (thankfully). They told us to stay as long as we'd like. We believe the dos cervezas offered helped with getting the paperwork done in an efficient manner. Plus we gave them a few "to go" beverages.

We'll look forward to doing some dinghy exploring as well as some underwater adventures. Hope the weather clears.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Surrounded by Boobies

. . .of the avian variety! Sitting in the cockpit yesterday, brown boobies were diving very close to the boat - actually splashing us with water, as they came up with fish in their mouths. These are large birds with yellow feet and are very good fishermen. They kept diving under our boat - and when we got in the water - we understood why. There were hundreds and hundreds of fish hiding under the boat. They were in the shadow of the hull and it looked like a mirror image of the boat - only made out of small silvery fish. We waited for something big to come up from the bottom with its mouth open!

The birds are great to watch. The boobies get fish, the frigates chase other birds with fish (thus their reputation as pirates of the sky) and they fight - frigate on frigate - with great flying maneuvers.

When Michael dove to check the anchor - to make sure it was holding - he saw a turtle under the chain. He worried that the turtle was stuck - but as he watched - the critter was just taking a brief snooze and then worked his way from under the chain. Michael's always glad to help anyone take a nap (remember he is President and Founder of "Napping for Peace.")

As we swam around, we also a big black mark on the side of the hull. We realized we had been "inked" by a squid. It probably hit the hull when we were making the crossing and it "graffiti-ed" our hull! There's probably a gang of squid out their tagging boats!

The beach is beautiful that we are anchored near. We went ashore and walked the softest white sand we'd seen to date. On the lee side of the island is this beautiful calm water and white, soft sand. Look over the small crest of land and you see crashing waves against rock. It is quite a study in contrasts in one small strip of land. Calm on the lee side; rocky and wild on the windward side.

There are lots of fishing boats that come into this island group and anchor before they head out again. Last night a group of fishermen went to shore and started shooting at something - luckily not us. Hmmmm..

Yesterday, a couple from a one of the French boats swam over to us and asked if we were heading to Margarita and wanted to join them the next day for the trip. Two boats were heading out and we were welcome to come along. We are not heading to Isla Margarita this time - so we thanked them and passed. The Guardacosta also came by and asked if cleared in and with our borderline Spanish and their borderline English - I think we got across that we did check into the station on "lunes" (Monday) and would be leaving for Blanquilla when the weather was right. He informed us we must clear into Margarita. There is great confusion in these islands - and much argument amongst cruising boats - about what you need to have (Venezuelan Visa or not) and where you can and cannot go. Everyone you ask has a different answer. The men at the station on Monday, told Michael going to Blanquilla was fine and that we could stay here for two days - but if the weather was bad - "no problemo" about staying longer. The Venezuelan embassy in Grenada also was clear in telling us that the Visa we got would allow us to pass through the out islands without having to clear into Margarita. Hard to get clarity - and we always try to do the right thing when it comes to clearing in and out of the countries that we have the privilege of visiting.

Weather has taken a turn - it is really windy and grey out there. We had some rain overnight. We can't stay here to long - but it won't be tonight that we leave. Perhaps tomorrow or Friday.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Venezuelan Waters

A new flag is flying on Astarte - the Venezuelan flag was raised as we entered the waters off Los Testigos. Los Testigos means "The Witnesses" - not testicles as an Aussie boat captain kept calling them. They are a beautiful group of islands that have two small villages where the few residents are fishermen. There's Isla Iguana, Isla Cabra (goat island), Isla Tostigos Pequena and Isla Testigo Grande and few smaller islets.

We left Grenada's Prickly Bay on Monday evening at sunset for the 90 mile run to the west. We flew the full genoa (headsail) and had an easterly wind about 15-18 knots. Seas were about 5 feet from behind - so the following seas made for a bit of a lumpy ride. We slowed down at one point so we wouldn't arrive before good daylight.

As we closed in on the islands (about 0700) we looked back and saw "fish on!" It was a nice blackfin tuna (though when we get pictures up - we'll get a confirmation from our readers who are fisheries experts). It was a nice size, we got it in and Michael filleted it. A special gift for that evening's meal after an all night sail! We also were really treated with a huge school of dolphins playing with Astarte for a long time - they were all sizes and very playful - leaping out of the water, doing back flips, and just swimming in our wake. They were fun to watch. The islands also have a huge collection of sea birds - lots of frigates, boobies, shearwaters, and terns. It was a great end to a good overnight trip - filled with boats crossing, good stars, an almost full moon and one tack!.

We chose to enter through the northern entrance of the islands to check out a few of the anchorages. Arriving into the cut at 0930, we first went to "check in" with the "Guardacosta" station in Isla Iguana. We had to anchor off the station in really rough water and heavy winds - but managed to actually get the dinghy off the deck and Michael to shore to do the clearing in process. It was a wet and lumpy ride to the dock - and a good climb up the hill for him. After a night of little to no sleep - this can often be challenging. This is not an official clearance port for Venezuela - but you are required to check in with the local Coast Guard station. They will "allow" you to stay in the islands for 48 hours. However, a small bottle of rum will often extend your stay! Michael managed to communicate with his limited Spanish and the Guardacosta's limited English. He had prepared papers with crew list, equipment and boat information in Spanish which made the visit much easier. We'll be here a few days - until the next weather window to run up to La Blanquilla.

Several other boats are anchored with us off this picture perfect beach - sandy with palm trees and turquoise water. The beach is "Playa Real" (Royal Beach) and it is between the two Tesigos (Pequena and Grande). There boats from France, Switzerland, St. Vincent's and England here. We are the only US flagged boat.
There are many fishing boats around - anchored off the bays on either side of this beach. There are two varieties of boats - larger boats that are open but covered and look to have crews of about six to nine people. Then there are the open "pangas" that have high narrow bows and are very stable. All are made of wood. The fishermen seem pretty friendly - this is where we wished we were fluent in Spanish. We continue our on-board lessons along with the added value of "immersion."

Today - we'll explore (Michael sees hills that must be conquered!) and perhaps even some snorkeling after hiking.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Honesty. Point Blank. Mr. President.

The Bus Station

In Grenada, they name their busses. The local busses, which are minivans that run up and down routes in a very efficient manner, are named by their owners. The names are everything from virtues like “Honesty” or “Love” to ego-centric names like “Special,” “Just Amazin’”or “Highly Desired;” to the violent/edgy names like “Hollow Point,” “Point Blank,” or “Gun Shot.” The names are scrawled in various “designer” fonts across the top front window. We’ve been collecting names have a list of about 40 names. Here’s a list of a few: “Cutie,” “Mileage,” “Sellout,” “Platinum,” Hypnotic,” “Drama,” “Deportee,” “Emperor,” “Strict Warning,” “Cool as Ice,” “De White Eagle,” “No Fear,” “Extreme,” “Shaggy,” “Play Boyz,” “Assassin,” “Bawl & Beg,” “End Out,” “No Comment,” “Exposed,” “Mad Out,” “BluSteel,” “Tuff,” “Dapper,” “Famous for Life,” “Oil Spill,” and our favorite – “Obama.” We wonder what goes into picking the name. It’s one of our memories from 2001 when we hopped in a bus named “Death” for a wild ride. Haven’t seen “Death” on the streets this time – hope he didn’t meet his namesake. It is fun to start recognizing the busses you’ve been in.
Self Esteem Issues?

The busses have routes, but they’ll also go “off route” on request (for a few extra ECs) – or sometimes “just because.” The other day we asked to be let off near the IGA grocery store – and they drove us right to the front door of the store. They “solicit” riders as they drive up and down the streets. There is the driver who’ll honk a very melodic sounding horn, a conductor who’ll yell out if you want a ride or simply bang on the side of the door. Then they’ll stop anywhere on the street and open the door for you to jump in. It doesn’t matter if there are already 15 people in – there’s always room for one more (see Frank’s guest blog). The conductors can be mellow or aggressive – many are very helpful and friendly with good info (for example – Michael asked the other day: “where’s the cheapest place to buy a case of beer?? “And the conductor took a survey in the bus and offered suggestions.) On slow days, they’ll drive off route and seek out riders. All busses double as cabs – so you have to be careful. Often they’ll ask if you want a cab – and you say “no,” they’ll then ask – “a bus?” and you get in. The price is $2.50 EC for a bus ride (much more for a cab)– so that’s under a buck US for a ride. You never have to wait very long for a bus along the main routes.

Yesterday we rode the bus into town, walked a fair way and then picked up a bus to a local roti stand then walked to Prickly Bay. Today, more projects as we prepare to break away from Grenada.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Whoo-Hoo - We Won!

Last night at Prickly Bay Marina there was an event hosted by the Grenada Marine Association. They asked boaters to fill out a survey (NOT done by Frank N. Magid Associates) and in order to get people to actually fill it out – they bribed us with prizes. The top prize was a $100 gift certificate to Island Water World (a chandlery similar to West Marine). And they drew our boat name as the winner. The good news – we won. The bad news it was in EC dollars not US dollars. But hey- that’s about $37 – we haven’t made that much money since last year. We will spend it wisely (of course we probably spent more than that on beer last night at the event – and feeling it this morning).

It was a fun event- though always dangerous when our new friends (who love to party) are around. Jack, our St. Petersburg friend aboard Anthem also arrived in Prickly Bay – so that always means trouble. He did catch a tuna and invited us for dinner tonight (but then remembered it was burger night on Wednesday – so changed his mind). Hopefully the fish will still be safe to eat by Thursday.

The last few days have been very busy onboard. Michael went up the mast to check things out (meaning Barbara had to get him up there – luckily he’s getting quite thin!). He also installed a new light on the aft deck – for safety as well as ease of getting on and off the boat after dark. We also changed the headsail sheets; cleaned out and reorganized the lazarettes; both headsail and mainsail furlers have been cleaned and checked; and lots of little projects cleaning, checking and organizing.

Now we watch the weather for an opportunity to move on to Venezuela’s out islands. (Though no complaints after hearing what Mark N. is getting in the Bering Sea-he wins the worst weather competition.)

Today – more errands. We need to sweat a lot today!!!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fireworks - Man-Made and Mother Nature's

Here we are on the beautiful island of Grenada – and for the 4th of July holiday– we still got to enjoy fireworks. On July 3, there was a light show by Mother Nature – lightning in the distance lighting up the clouds and night skies. Then about 2100, big bangs and a lovely fireworks display exploded overhead. Boats cheered when they were over. My nephews Chris and Nate remembered that last year they were aboard Astarte in the Manatee River where we saw displays from about 19 locations!

On the fourth, we went into town to hit the big vegetable market. Farmers come from around the countryside to bring in their fruits and veggies to sell along the streets of downtown St. Georges. This, along with the daily vegetable market, which is about two blocks square, offers a great selection. We stocked up.

We then walked and walked and walked (in the heat of the day of course!). We went to the boat store to pick up new sheets (not for your bed- but the lines (ropes) that control the sails). Michael then had to haul 108 feet of line around as we continued our in-town adventures. We also were in search of small screws to fix the lid of the refrigerator - hitting every hardware store in St. Georges. We were getting things accomplished as well as killing time until we met friends Trish and Robert from Bristol Rose for lunch. We even stopped and watched a cricket match for a bit. All dressed in their white outfits, its fun to watch – though the stands were a bit far from the action.

Waiting near the bus terminal, we met our friends whom we hadn’t seen since Culebra (Puerto Rico) and enjoyed catching up on their adventures over a roti lunch. After that, we did a bit more grocery shopping (more juice for the new secret recipe “Astarte Rum Punch”). Then we caught a local bus for the trip home. (Note to Frank: would you believe we were the only ones on the bus for a bit of the time and there were no more than four people at any time on the ride back!)

Today some boat projects, cleaning and cooking. We’ve invited some folks aboard from the neighboring boats for drinks, desserts and dominos (or some other game).

Friday, July 3, 2009

Tropical Waves Hitting Grenada

It’s been a stormy Friday in Prickly Bay and throughout the southeastern Caribbean. A series of tropical waves are coming through providing rain, wind, swells and “excuses” to those outside projects that need to get done. We have a headsail to get back up – but it’s too windy. We have a new light to install to light the back deck – but it’s too wet. We need to get Hawk up the mast – but it’s too rolly. So we’ve stayed below organizing, changing filters, and making lists of provisions and projects.

This morning we did sneak out in the dinghy to visit Maxine and Mark aboard Blue Beyond – a 54 foot Moody. They had us over for coffee and to talk about roller furling the main (they have a ton of experience and the same system we have – albeit it much larger and with electric winches!). What a beautiful boat Similar in many ways to our “little” Moody – just stretched out. The woodwork on their boat is magnificent as are all the little “extras” like window coverings, visibility from the main salon etc. They are great people. Lots of experience (an Atlantic crossing and much more) and funny stories – well told. It was a fun break in the dreary morning weather.

Tomorrow – Saturday (July 4) we’ll head into town for some veggie market shopping and hopefully will meet up with friends from Bristol Rose – Trish and Robert – who we haven’t seen since Culebra! That’s the fun of cruising – you meet new people, run into people you met islands ago and you know you’ll continue to meet other new folks as you move along.

Happy 4th of July weekend to all.

Canada Day Celebration

July 1 was Canada Day and, in honor of all our Canadian friends – we celebrated. (Jim – Hawk even wore his BSI hat!) We bussed over to Clark’s Court Marina for a cool sea birds presentation by some folks who are doing research on sea birds in the islands. After that, we stayed for “hamburger night – with bacon (to celebrate Canada Day). Folks came dressed in red and white and there were some interesting outfits.

Canadian Winners!

Maxi and Michael

One of our new pals, Maxi – won for her outfit – complete with red sparkly shoes. She’s a Brit – so everyone got into the act – Canadians, those whose country touches Canada, any country who likes the queen etc. We were hanging out with a couple of British couples – and they were fun.

After a night of burgers, beers and laughs, we headed back in the bus. It felt like grade school again – as folks started to sing songs (a few randy British songs) and some Beatles. Then, the bus (named King Elvis) put on – Elvis music. Perfect! Got back and had a “final final” at “De Big Fish” and headed back to Astarte. We thought it was midnight – but it was only 2100 (9 pm) – but we started the adventure at 1500 (3 pm). This was followed by the nightly routine of outboard and dinghy being put on deck.

Today (July 2), we had a full schedule of work on Astarte. It started with heading into the Venezuelan embassy to get a visa for visiting the out islands. Only the captain needs one. We took a local bus and actually found the embassy. Michael filled out the paperwork, handed over two passport photos (two from eight years ago that we took to get our Venezuelan visas back then – but Michael hasn’t changed that much and it saved some boat dollars). Then we walked to a bank to deposit the fee for the visa. This was quite a hike (thought it was a lot shorter than it turned out). Did that and caught a bus back to the “lagoon” for some boat parts shopping at Island Water World. Then a “roti” lunch (yum) and back to the embassy.

Then we got back via another bus; picked up the repaired sail; dinghied back to Astarte and started on more projects. Michael emptied out the lazarette so he could check out the steering – tweaked a few things and re-loaded the locker. Then he cleaned out his engine room – which – being a British engine – means lots of leaked oil. It was a mess. Barbara cleaned the waterline on the boat (at least she got to be in the water).

It was a tiring day – but we’re trying to get everything ready for the next islands – where there are little to no resources for repairs. There may be a weather window early next week and we’d like to be prepared to take it.

Tomorrow morning, we’ve been invited aboard a Moody 54 by the Brits Mark and Maxi. Looking forward to seeing this beautiful boat.