CURAÇAO TO Puerto Rico

It was mind numbingly hot (and humid) in Curaçao. Daily temperatures were often 33 to 35C but the most memorable thing was the temperature of the sea. On one dive the water temperature at forty feet depth(!) was 29C. (Later, in Bonaire, it was 28C at sixty feet).

Then we had a rogue storm coming our way. A low pressure area formed in the centre of the Caribbean Sea, it was pottering slowly west and suddenly developed into a tropical depression, then a tropical storm. Normally storms/hurricanes move west then west north west due to the Coreolis effect. This one didn't, it turned south east heading directly to Curaçao. The forecast said it would turn north east after a few hours and run up a trough. It didn't, it kept coming and we prepared for storm conditions. Luckily it did finally turn before reaching us but we had two days of heavy rain, westerly winds, thunder storms, gusts and squalls, the worst squall had wind of forty four knots. The storm went on to be Hurricane Omar (category 3) which hit the north east Caribbean, destroying forty boats in St Croix and damaging many more.

One thing you learn in the low latitudes is just how unpredictable weather can be, and thus how difficult it is to forecast. In the UK, for example, you can see the depressions coming off the Canadian Maritimes heading over the Atlantic and you know precisely what is coming. Down here things can spring up out of nowhere and can't be forecast. I suppose it makes life more interesting (well, that's what Mike says). Funnily enough we got lucky with the storm. At the time it arrived we should have been in Bonaire but we were waiting for our new dinghy to arrive. The whole of the southern Caribbean had a wind reversal (winds from the west) and all the shore-side docks in Bonaire were destroyed by huge waves. In Curaçao most of the beaches on the west side were washed away and at least one dive shop damaged.

On the second day of the bad weather we decided to drive to the supermarket. Because there is normally little rain in Curaçao the storm drains you see in the eastern islands don't exist, thus the roads flood. While we were in the supermarket there was a monster thunderstorm with torrential rain. When we left the roads were even worse to the extent that the water running down the inclines had standing waves where the potholes were. We've seen standing waves at sea, in current against tide situations, but never on roads before!

Curaçao to Bonaire
We left for Bonaire at 07.50 on the 25th of October with a forecast of twelve to fifteen knots from the east backing north northeast, upwind and up-current all the way. We did the same trip last year, this time it took over three hours longer with flukey winds and squalls. When a squall went to the south of us the wind veered and we could aim straight at Bonaire. If the squall went over the top of us the wind backed until we were sailing north west away from Bonaire. It was scrappy sailing at it's worst with heavy rain in the squalls and confused seas because of the wind direction changes. At one point we thought we would arrive in Bonaire in the dark. In fact we made it about half an hour after sunset and there was just enough light to see the mooring buoys.

Bonaire was showing signs of the passing of Tropical Storm Omar. The main waterfront roadway still had sand over it in places, the dock we tie the dinghy to had still to be repaired. The reefs had a lot of sand over the coral in places and also debris from shore. We spent much of our time diving, snorkelling, going to happy hours and shopping for food. The rest of the time was spent on the never ending boat maintenance - cleaning all the filters, fitting a replacement twelve volt socket, fixing a navigation light again... Speaking of diving, when we first qualified to dive on our own we said we viewed it as like getting a driving licence - you only really learn to drive after you get a licence. One dive skill you have to develop is perfect buoyancy control e.g. be able to hover (say) three feet above a reef. Part of the skill equation is how much weight you carry which in turn partly dictates your breathing and how much air you use. The aim is to reduce the lead weight you carry, so you breathe less and thus have better buoyancy control. When we started diving (without wetsuits which add buoyancy) I was carrying fourteen pounds and Mike sixteen. With improved skills and now wearing wetsuits we have both reduced our weights to ten pounds. Our control has improved considerably and the net result is our typical dive time has increased from forty to sixty minutes. We are targetting to get the weights down even further but you have to take it in stages (e.g. Mike went sixteen, fourteen, twelve, eleven, ten). Overall we are really pleased by what we have achieved and we are at the transition from being qualified divers to reasonable divers. It's been great fun doing it.

One social event was rather unusual. A couple of years ago we got to know Chris and Gunilla on the Swedish flagged Elvina. We've kept in touch over the years and they emailed us to say they were coming to Bonaire. Many Brits and Scandivanians have relatively small boats, so when Chris and Gunilla were offered the skipper and first mate jobs on an Oyster 62, for a round the world trip, they jumped at it. Now, most yachts have CD/DVD players to listen to music. Not Chris and Grunilla though, when they arrived in Bonaire they had a rock band on board! I'm not kidding. The band went around town offering to play and did a gig one night in a local bar. Obviously we went along and the band was fantastic. Apparently the boat's owner normally plays in the band and it was a jolly for the band even though the owner wasn't on board.

One morning we saw an Osprey fishing, unfortunately it didn't catch anything. Early one evening we saw a Spotted Eagle Ray when snorkelling, we followed it as it pushed it's nose into the sand searching for molluscs. The next day it swam past us when we were diving. It's a beautiful creature, white underneath and black on top with lots of white spots and a tail about as long as the body. They grow to an eight feet wing span but this one was about four to five feet across. They are the most graceful of swimmers, an occasional flap of the wings followed by a long glide - quite amazing to watch. We also had Pink Flamingoes flying past the boat and a waterspout at the north end of the island. Never a dull moment!

On Saturday November 15th the weather did an amazing change. The Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ/Doldrums) was dragged off Venezuela and sat over us and most of the southern Caribbean. Thus we got doldrums weather - flat calm, occasional light winds, total overcast, monster clouds, light rain, torrential rain and squalls to thirty knots. We are not aware that the ITCZ has ever been as far north before at that time of year. The bad weather lasted for nearly two weeks but was followed by periods of rain and strong winds, naturally this delayed us leaving Bonaire. We were also delayed by the need to replace the main engine belt that drives the alternator. To get the belt off you need to take the starter motor off, the bolts are very difficult to reach - brilliant marine design again. I won't bore you with the details but in the end Mike needed the help of a mechanic and a new part made. However, the delays did allow us to see the birthday celebrations for St Nicholas' birthday (a tradition in Holland) and the Queen Mary 2. We also saw one of the cruising boats destroyed by fire. It was scary how quickly it burnt, how fast the mast fell down and what little anyone could do to stop it. I must confess I made us treble check all our electrical stuff before we left the boat the next day.

On a more pleasant note at the end of November the three brightest objects in the night sky were in close proximity in a triangle shape. At the apex was a crescent moon, bottom left was Venus, bottom right Jupiter - a spectular sight because they were all within six degrees of each other. Note: If you want to estimate distances in the sky a full moon is one degree.

After stocking the boat and clearing out we eventually got away on Friday December 5th.

Bonaire to ?
On all passages we keep a log that we update every two hours, or more if close to land. It contains information such as position, weather, speed, any notable events and barometric pressure. Superstition says that you may put your departure point in the log but must never put in the destination. I say superstition but in practical terms you can understand that sailboats are totally beholden to the weather gods - and they must have had it in for us because we were intending to sail to the British Virgin Islands...

We left with a reasonable forecast of medium strength winds increasing as we moved north. We had a fantastic sail down the side of Bonaire and at 13.30 we tacked to the north when about eight miles south east of Bonaire. Then the wind dropped and it was slow, slow, slow. However as we moved slowly north the wind would pick up for a while then drop off. We sailed for a few hours at five and a half knots then a few hours at three and a half knots. Really frustrating and it continued until about 15.30 on the 6th. After that the fun began. It wasn't really the wind that was the problem, we didn't see much more than twenty knots, it was the seas. The wave height was about five to seven feet but with it was a four to five foot swell, giving a maximum wave height of nine to twelve feet. We've sailed in bigger seas but not upwind, so this was a bit of unwanted education.

As always it's difficult to describe what it's like - the amount of water coming over the boat was incredible, it tore off one of our navigation lights (funnily enough, the one we keep having to fix) and washed a non-skid mat from under a five gallon diesel container. We even had seaweed come aboard and the spray was reaching above the mizzen mast boom at the back of the boat. The motion of the boat and noise of the crashing and banging as the waves hit us was dreadful. Eventually we had to reef and slow the boat down to stop the boat being hammered (well, us really, the boat can take it). This went on for about two days and is punishing sailing. Thus we had a decision to make, do we carry on to our planned destination (another three or four days, knowing the forecast said winds and waves would increase) or divert to another country (about one day away). A no brainer of course. Instead of tacking to make easting to reach the Virgin Islands we kept heading to Puerto Rico on a northerly tack.

As we got within fifteen to twenty miles of the Puerto Rico coast the wind did a major shift and the boat tacked herself and we thought we would keep sailing east off the coast to Ponce, a port of entry. However, by this time we really had had enough and the pilot book says that the wind dies close to the Puerto Rico coast at night. So we tacked back towards the coast. Eventually, bliss at last, light winds, calm seas and we motored the last thirty miles slowly to make Ponce at dawn. I even got some sleep.

We didn't see much on the trip. We did see a few big tankers, a tropicbird and two cruise ships one of whom I spoke to (near Puerto Rico) to check he could see us. In fact we had a friendly chat, we'd seen the ship in Bonaire the previous week so we told them this and got asked where we were off to and were wished well for the trip. They were headed for Tortola in the BVI's so I told them we had been headed that way but not any more! It was also cold, we set off in shorts and long sleeve shirts and ended up at night with the shirts, long trousers and fleece jackets. On one occasion I was so cold I also put on a wet weather jacket.

Puerto Rico - Ponce
We arrived in Ponce around 07.15 and tied to the fuel dock, we were shattered and desperately wanted to sleep but we had to contact Customs and Immigration to come to the boat. Little were we to know that the formalities would take all day. They arrived and partially cleared us in (they didn't clear in the boat). They said thay would come back clear the boat and give us a US cruising permit. They didn't show. We called them and they denied they said they would come back, I had to go to them. When I got there they didn't know why I was there and some of them were acting like pathetic thugs swaggering around with guns trying to intimidate people. For example there was a Belgian yachtie there and he didn't realise he had to have an American visa if you arrive by non-scheduled carrier. Having established this fact the immigration folks could have accepted it and moved on. Oh no, it wasn't the good cop bad cop routine it was a bad cop even worse cop brutal interrogation. Eventually he was fined but it was awful to listen to. Note 'listen to' - this was done in a public area, presumably to intimidate the rest of us,and after every interrogation session they would retire behind a closed door, presumably to rehearse the next round. They would reappear after five or ten minutes and start again. It was like watching some very bad actors playing cops from their favourite TV show. I have to say that experiences we have with so many American authorities is dreadful - they are often arrogant, rude and unhelpful. No wonder much of the world hates them. To cap it all, yet again we were told we couldn't throw out any garbage because our food was bought abroad - this included (and we paricularly pointed this out) American apples bought in Bonaire. What do they think Bonaireians do to US apples to make them a threat to Homeland Security. I can't tell you how mad I was by the end of the day!

Even the next day there was no rest. On passage an intermittent generator fault occurred - when the glow plug switch was pressed a nine amp fuse blew. Intermittent faults are almost impossible to find and it last happened over a year ago. Bob from the British flagged Passat (a professional engineer) kindly came to have a look. He couldn't find anything wrong but at least we now fully understand what circuits the switch powers up and should be able to cure the problem if it becomes terminal. Bob also gave Mike a lot of good advice about fault diagnosis. That took most of the day and I also had to go into town (by taxi) to get fresh bread (all ours was mouldy) and a Simcard for the phone.

The next day was also taken up with boat jobs, tighten the main engine belt that had stretched after only ten hours use and saw a small slice off the end of a cabin sole board that had inexplicably expanded (it wasn't damp). Naturally nothing is simple on the boat and to get the board up Mike had to dismantle the front and side of the diesel heater. Then we went and did a big restock at the local supermarket. Having been in the southern Caribbean for so long, to walk into an American supermarket was jawdropping. Mike said "wow" as we walked in. They don't carry much of each product on the shelf but the range of products was amazing. We had spent a few days in the marina in Ponce because we needed shore power to keep the fridge cold and save a lot of food, while sorting out the generator. When I went to pay the bill there was a fixed charge for electricity. The stunning thing was that 220 volt connections were twice the price of 110 volt connections. Mike says if they are so dumb that they don't know that volts x amps = watts and that power is measured in watts not volts how on earth did they manage to get a man on the moon? (With apologies to all our American friends!)

One thing we thought might be a windup in Ponce were the signs saying "no wake zone, 5 mph maximum, Manatee zone". Manatees in the Caribbean...err, they are in Florida aren't they? We were to find out how wrong we were.

We left Ponce on Saturday 13th of December at 07.15 to sail thirty odd miles to Salinas where we anchored. On the trip Mike caught two fish, a Red Snapper and a Spanish Mackerel. Unfortunately a bigger fish ate most of the Snapper while it was on the line and all we got was the head. The Mackerel was delicious though. Salinas is a magical place, an enclosed mangrove lagoon with a small marina and small town at the north end. Overlooking the lagoon are beautiful hills. One of the travel guides says that Salinas 'has nothing of interest' to tourists. Perfect because it means the place remains unspoiled and the people are still very friendly and helpful. The marina had a laundry that the boats anchored out could use and a good book swap (very important!). There was a baker up the road, open every day including Christmas Day, which sold really good bread and cakes and there was a marine store nearby that was very helpful and stocked all sorts of useful things. We took the only cab in Salinas to the large supermarket. The cab was driven and owned by Erik, who had served in the US Army and met his English (Essex) wife in Germany when he was posted there. He'd lived for some years in Essex and then moved the whole family back to his home in Puerto Rico. He was great.

Also there are Manatees in the bay and some surfaced for air by the boat!! On one occasion a female and her calf, on another (we think) a lone male. Manatees are an endangered species and are fascinating creatures. Their closest relative is the elephant and they are believed to be the only mammal that moved from land into the sea. Their gestation period is a year, the mother feeds the calf for another year and then looks after the calf for yet another year. Thus they only breed around every fourth year, not good for building the population. As a mammal that has no blubber, they can easily die of cold and they eat one hundred pounds of vegetable matter every day to keep warm. Unfortunately they are very slow, swimming at only three to five miles per hour (bit like us!). This makes them highly vulnerable to the idiots driving motor boats at high speed and forty per cent of Manatee fatalities are caused by propellor wounds. They really are extraordinary animals and it was wonderful to see them, sadly (many also die in fishing nets) they may not be around for long.

On December 19th there was a parade of boats lit with Christmas lights. The winner had white lights strung from the stern over the mast to the bows, all the guard rails were solid light and on deck (lit up) were two pink flamingoes, a red christmas tree and a snowman. We all blew boat horns as they went by. Of course there was a party at a local bar afterwards. At the party we met some of the local cruisers and a charming Puerto Rican lady, Cely, who was taking a sailing course at the marina including astro navigation. On the Saturday she went sailing with Bob on the US flagged Callisto and on Sunday she came to visit us. In addition to Astro she was particularly interested in wind vanes and autopilots. We were particularly interested in Puerto Rico, it's people, places, food and relationship with America. She was with us for about five hours and it's unusual to get so much time with a local person. We really appreciated her visit (thanks Cely!). We really liked Puerto Rico and although it is a US territory (not a State) it is very Spanish. As Spain only reliquished control just over 100 years ago I suppose that's not so surprising.

On Tuesday the 23rd of December the weather forecast was for twenty five to thirty knot winds with forty knot squalls and we set a second anchor. Then a minor disaster happened. A monster gust came through lifted the dinghy and turned it upside down - with the engine in the water. If this happens you have a few hours to sort the problem out before terminal corrosion sets in. Mike did the following (having read the RYA outboard book): wash the outside of the engine with fresh water and dry it; remove the air intake cover from the carburetor, the starting mechanism and the spark plug; pour fresh water into the carburetor, gearbox under the flywheel and engine cylinder - turn the fly wheel to pump water through. Refit the the starting mechanism and keep pulling the cord until water stops coming out of the spark plug hole; spray WD40 into the carburetor, and engine cylinder while pulling the start cord; spray all electricasl connections with WD40; reassemble parts taken off; start the engine and run for one hour under load to make sure everything dries out and the cylinder is well oiled. At the time of writing the engine is still working but it may be some time before we know if we have corrosion issues.

Over two weeks after we arrived in Puerto Rico we were still trying to adjust to how cold it was. Everybody will probably laugh but a temperature of 27C was not uncommon and we were freezing, having been in (as I mentioned earlier) temperatures of 33 to 35C for well over six months. It's amazing how much different the temperature can be over a south to north distance of only four hundred miles. On reflection I suppose it's much the same for (say) London to Glasgow.

Salinas to St John, the US Virgin Islands
We left Salinas at 09.40 on New Year's Eve (one method of ensuring at least one of us sees the New Year in!) using a shortcut that passes between two reefs. As we were approaching the reefs we were joined by three dolphins - dad, mum and junior. The male was one of the biggest dolphins we have seen and the locals call him Buster. Junior was about a quarter his size and a real sweetie. We could see breaking water on the reefs but with the water cloudy we couldn't see how far the slightly deeper parts of the reefs stretched. Dolphins don't swim into reefs so we knew that as long as they stayed with us we would be in deep water. There are reports of dolphins guiding boats into harbour or away from remote reefs and islands. They were very funny to watch because junior wasn't allowed to swim alongside the bows, mum or dad would get between the bows and junior (we've seen this behaviour before). However a new one was that junior was allowed to swim directly in front of the bows provided mum and dad were on either side. Interestingly they left after we cleared the reefs, we said "thankyou".

The trip took just under two days to sail one hundred and eighty miles for a straight line distance of ninety miles - upwind upcurrent again. It was very difficult to make easting and on one tack we sailed about twenty five miles mile south to make just eight miles east (what joy). Then the wind died and we motored for a few hours. When the wind came back we made better progress but we had expected to arrive in St John in the afternoon of New Year's day. As we got closer it became obvious that we would arrive in the dark which we weren't prepared to do given the rocks, small islands and reefs at the entry. So we had to keep sailing but since we were only twenty miles out we needed to go slowly. The wind backed and we sailed east along the northern coast of St Croix. When it was time to tack (about midnight) the wind veered and picked up - suddenly we were sailing off wind doing nearly six knots. This always seems to happen to us when we want to go slowly. Mike reefed the genoa, we were still doing over five knots, he reefed it again and we were doing over four knots. Eventually we furled the genoa completely and sailed with the mainsail spilling air. That gave us two knots which was perfect because we arrived off all the hazards about 06.30 on January 2nd. I called Customs to see if we needed to check in (they said no since we had cleared in in Puerto Rico) and we went up the west side of the island to park in Frances Bay.

Odds and ends
Dinghies. If anyone is thinking of buying a new dinghy take a look at the aluminium floored AB dinghies. They are lighter and stronger than the GRP floored dinghies and extremely well made.

Dive and snorkelling fins. If anybody is thinking of buying these look for the brand Mares. The fins are softer than some, they are very comfortable to wear and their flexibility gives amazing power for relatively little effort. A great product.

Power production. We see many cruise ships and day and night they are lit up like Christmas trees. We've always wondered how much power these ships generate and we've finally found out. To put things into context our boat has roughly thirty Kilowatts of power production (engine and generator) plus another (guesswork based on how fast we go under sail versus engine) 70 Kilowatts from the sails. Total one hundred Kilowatts. Now sit down before reading this. The Queen Mary 2's engines are diesel/electric and she has four of them each delivering twenty seven thousand horsepower. Her total power output is a staggering one hundred and eighteen Megawatts that can power 23.6 million 50 watt light bulbs. Which explains it all.

Where next
When we leave the Virgins we're intending to head towards Antigua. We may stop at St Martin, Saba, Statia, Kitts and Nevis or go to those isands from Antigua. We wanted to visit Monserrat as well but given how active the volcano is it's prudent to stay away. It will all depend on the weather and wind direction - it's more upwind, upcurrent sailing (so much to look forward to!).