Monday, November 24, 2014

Bonaire: Diving Paradise

Feeling much better after a 12-hour sleep, we headed to the dingy dock to clear in with Bonaire Customs in Kralendijk. Bonaire is a “municipality” of Holland, so you are in Holland for all practical purposes. It was originally part of what was called the Lesser Antilles, made up of Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten in the northern Caribbean, and Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire off the coast of Venezuela.

Flying Cloud with Songbird on the right.
Clearing in Customs was a breeze, with the exception of crazed (this is an accurate description) cruise ship passengers interrupting during our check-in wanting to get a customs stamp on their passports. We noticed that sometimes the Customs official would say there was a stamp and and sometimes there wasn’t a stamp, depending on his mood.

This is typical of the shopping malls catering to the cruise ship trade.
Van den Tweel, a large Dutch supermarket, has an incredible selection of fresh product in refrigerated cases.
You can imagine what it's like for us to see this type of selection. This was a small selection of their pates, dips and sauces.
The first thing you notice is that Bonaire is not a third world country like many of the islands we’ve visited. There are good roads, modern stores, great restaurants, and a shoreline lined with resort hotels. Since Bonaire is recognized, rightly so, as one of the top diving destinations in the world, most of these hotels are “diver’s hotels.”

When a cruise ship is in port (about four times a week) the streets are mobbed with Bermuda short, walking-shoe wearing men and women who look uncomfortable in their tourist garb. A local told us its easy to spot the cruisers from the cruise ship crowd; he said the cruisers look more grungy.

Kralendijk is essentially a waterfront street with restaurants backed up by a main street with tourist shops. Further back are the grocery stores, hardware stores and industrial suppliers. I had a long talk with an Austrian woman who lives here and paints pithy sayings on pieces of driftwood. She said she used to be a watchmaker back in Austria, but makes a good living selling to the cruise ship passengers. The near perfect weather (82 degrees everyday with a cooling wind) also helps.

We walked north along the main street and ran into a neat diving shop where I bought a new set of fins (my old ones were giving me serious blisters on the top of my toes). We ogled the great selection of dive gear and debated buying our own BCs (buoyancy compensator jackets, basically an air-filled jacket you wear to keep your weight neutral in the water) and regulators, but decided to wait. Wandering back along the waterfront we popped into Julia’s for a nice lunch of Mahi Mahi. Julia is a very friendly lady and makes everyone feel right at home. With all the competition for the tourist dollar, prices are very reasonable here.

Our new friends off Songbird, Carol and Pat.
That night we dingied down to the Harbor Lights Marina to the Bistro de Paris where cruisers gather every Wednesday for Hamburger Night. This was timely since we got to met six other cruising yachts and got info on all the local events.  We met a nice couple from Florida, Pat and Carol, who are moored next to us on Songbird, a Hunter 40.  They have a condo in Beaver Creek, CO and shuttle between diving in Bonaire and winter skiing.  They have visited Bonaire for four years in a row and know the island intimately. We learned that they are also avid divers and they offered to take us diving the next day.
This is a picture off the Internet, but typical of the underwater scene in Bonaire.
On Thursday morning Pat and Carol took us to the a dive shop, Wanna Dive, where we rented BCs, regulators, and air tanks for $28 a day. We then headed back to our boats and dove right off the swim step into the clearest water we’ve seen since The Bahamas. The Sargent Majors (who must be used to being fed) met us the minute we jumped in with hopeful looks on their faces.  It had been about 15 years since Meryl and I have dove together (with the exception of me cleaning the boat bottom every other month) and we both had apprehension about our skills and ability to clear our ears (always an issue with both of us). Pat was very patient and helped coach Meryl and I on the basics. Eventually we descended to 30 ft. on the white sand bottom and got ourselves oriented. Pat then lead us westward to an incredible wall where the bottom dramatically dropped away to 130 ft). This drop off runs parallel to the shore for the length of the island. This is what makes Bonaire so desirable as a dive location, you can essentially walk into the water from your hotel, swim out about 200 yards, and descend into fantastic diving.
You tied up to mooring buoys right off the main town with great diving under your boat.
We slowly worked our way down the coral- and sponge-encrusted wall marveling at the diversity of fish and other reef creatures. Pat always dives with a spotlight and he would get us to look up under ledges to see the fish hiding inside. We managed to see a highly poisonous lion fish and even a rare scorpionfish.  It is difficult to adequately describe the beauty of all the underwater life, with vibrant colors that would make even Andy Warhol marvel. There were huge red barrel sponges, long purple stove-pipe sponges, yellow bowl sponges, crimson volcano sponges, and green rope sponges. I won’t even attempt to list the corals we saw, or the hundreds of fish and other creatures. One dive site has recorded over 390 species of fish in one location.  If you only dive one location in your life, make it Bonaire.

This shows some of the over 150 dive sites on Bonaire, most of them within close proximity to our boat.
There are over 150 dive sites on Bonaire and over the next week we dove at 18 Palms, Buddy’s Reef, The Cliff, The Lake, and the wreck of the Hilma Hooker. After the first dive we decided to take a two-hour refresher course with the owner of Wanna Dive, a brusk Englishman named Andy. He was actually a very good instructor and took us into the pool to go over basics of mask clearing, mask off, purging, buddy breathing, and hand signals. We then went out in front of the resort in about 10 feet of water and worked on buoyancy control and then just did a nice dive along Buddy’s Reef so he could watch us in action. He must of decided we weren’t going to kill ourselves since we got the OK to go diving on our own.

There are a number of great wrecks close to the beach.

Large sponges of every type, color and description are ubiquitous while diving in Bonaire.
Diving at The Cliff I got some incredible photos of lion fish and other creatures, but then somehow lost my underwater camera when the strap broke. I don’t miss the camera that much but I really miss the pictures. We have a new one on order but until that arrives we’ll use some public domain photos in the blog so you can enjoy some the incredible underwater scenery Bonaire has to offer.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Our Longest Crossing

Since we stayed so long in Trinidad working on the boat, we didn’t plan on spending a lot of time in Grenada. Plan is always the operative word since we ended up spending about two weeks there. We did manage to squeeze in two Tai Chi classes, some yoga, and a couple of trips on the ubiquitous “shopping buses.” These mini cabs, filled to the gunnels with cruisers, make the rounds of the ATM machine, ACE Hardware, Budget Marine, IGA supermarket, the fresh vegetable market and the frozen yogurt shop. Everything a cruiser could ever hope for. It’s always difficult to explain to non-cruisers how time-consuming  everyday things like shopping and laundry are when you are in a foreign country and living on a sailboat.  You can’t just hop in your car and drive to the QFC. What takes one-half hour at home could take us all day, but I guess that’s part of the allure of this exotic lifestyle.
After three consecutive nights rolling in the Prickly Bay swells, we moved over to quiet Hog Island to finish our varnishing.
Outside of provisioning, our routine in Grenada was centered around getting our cap rails varnished (we need to do this every five months). I would get up early in the morning, go to the foredeck and genuflect towards the East, praying to the Rain Gods to give me a three-hour window to varnish, all the while staring at huge cumulonimbus clouds covering the horizon. I would then hop in the dingy and wet sand the teak cap rail, followed by Meryl who would wipe down the sanding dust with turps. I then followed her with my foam brushes and a can of faithful Dutch Eipfanes varnish trying to put on a smooth coat while the dingy was bouncing up and down in the waves and a 20-knot wind blowing the varnish off the brush. Got seven coats on and will finish the remaining five coats in Bonaire.

We did get a welcome break to celebrate Meryl’s birthday with a dinner at the spectacular Caves Restaurant at the Mount Hartman Bay Estate (  It was designed by an architect with a flair for the exotic, sitting on top a bluff overlooking Mount Harman Bay with curved white-washed walls sweeping down the hillside.  We’d seen it many times from the boat and simply thought it was some rich guy's house (which it used to be), but is now a very exclusive boutique hotel and resort.  While it was still somewhat offseason, The Caves offered excellent food and ambiance in the less than crowded dining room.

Originally a private residence for a wealthy Brit, the Mount Hartman Bay Estates is now a pricy boutique hotel.
Beach at Mount Hartman Bay Bay Resorts. Hog Island is just around the point on the far right.
Meryl enjoying her birthday dinner at The Caves.
View of Mount Hartman Bay from The Caves.
Our next port of call was Bonaire and we needed a four-day weather window for what would be our longest passage to date, 440-mile nautical miles,  Chris Parker, our weather guru, gave us two options: leave on Monday, Nov 10th or the following Friday. If we left on Monday, the winds would be light. If we waited until Friday or Saturday we should have stronger winds. We opted to depart on Saturday when the winds were predicted to be 10 to 20 knots, enough to move our heavy bluewater boat. Having an extra week to get ready was also appealing.

Our new downwind sailing rig with the Code Zero winged out on the left using the boom as a whisker pole, and the 150% genoa on the right with our new Selden whisker pole. The boat is incredibly stable sailing dead downwind with this setup.
On Saturday (Nov 15th) we cleared out of Customs at Prickly Bay and headed northwest with tears in our eyes knowing we’d probably never see Grenada again. We had some great times there and met a lot of interesting people. Most cruisers headed for the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) depart from higher up the island chain, from  Martinique all the way up to the BVIs, because it gives them a better sailing angle (typically a broad reach) across the easterly trades.  We opted to depart directly from Grenada and sail on a northwesterly heading to: 1) avoid the very dangerous Venezuela coast and the pirates who frequent those waters, and 2) to get a slightly better sailing angle than dead downwind for the trip to Bonaire. Ironically there was a southeasterly component in the wind that day so we ended up sailing directly downwind wing-on-wing with our new Code Zero poled out to port (using our main boom as the whisker pole) and our big genoa poled our to starboard with our new whisker pole. With the large lightweight Code Zero we were sailing at 5 knots in about 9 to 10 knots of wind, excellent performance for such a heavy boat as Flying Cloud.

All of our previous passages were overnighters, tedious trips where we never felt that great after being up all night. Our more experienced sailing friends told us that longer passages were much easier as you fell into your circadian rhythm after a few days.  At their suggestion we tried four hour-watches instead of our normal three-hours, hoping the the extra hour of sleep would help us adapt better. As nightfall approached we took the pole down and switched to a single-reefed main and genoa, much easier to deal with if squalls hit us during the night.

Night passages are interesting, some people love the solitude and peacefulness a night time passage offers, for others it is complete boredom. For me, I’m basically just waiting until it gets light again at sunrise.  It’s difficult to read at night in our cockpit so we typically listen to podcasts on our iPhones.  NRP’s Fresh Air, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, and Car Talk are my favorites. I also like to listen to Audible Books. I’m currently listening to Caribbean by James Michener. It’s a well written book and very appropriate since it tells the history of the Caribbean and focuses on islands/ports we’ve already visited.

You do have to very vigilant during night watches; it’s difficult enough to spot large ships no less logs and debris in the water. I set the timer on my iPhone to ring every twenty minutes, and then stand up and scan the pure black horizon for a glimmer of a white light denoting a ship. We’ve learned that we can physically spot a ship when it’s about 10 miles from us. At normal speeds it will take the ship about 20 minutes to reach our horizon, so that why we have the 20-minute timer on our iPhones. We usually get lots of advance warning with our new Vesper AIS, which puts out a WiFi signal that shows up on the iPhone screen showing any vessels within 48 miles of our location.  We also look at our radar, more to see if any squalls are coming from behind and to verify AIS vessel locations as some ships don't use AIS. (eg. fishing boats)  When squalls hit you literally have minutes to roll in the genoa and then hand steer the boat downwind to ride out the heavier wind gusts. That’s difficult enough during the daytime and extra exciting at night. Night watches are really lots of boredom punctuated by periods of terror as the boat rushes down the waves.  You can actually hear the larger waves coming from behind like hissing freight trains, a little unnerving in the pure black of the night.

Those first two days we were hit by squalls off and on all day and night, and in between we had only 9 to 10 knot winds that make it very difficult to sail the boat. We also had the typical short period, confused seas that bounced the boat around a lot and spilled what little wind we had out of the sails. Not the best of conditions.

The last two days, however, made up for it with beautiful blue skies and consistent 16-knot trade winds. That is what we signed up for. We sailed for almost a whole day with the new whisker pole supporting the genoa out on the left and the main winged out on the right. The boat was super stable; we were sailing a rhumb line directly to our destination; and we didn’t have to adjust the sails for hours on end.  This is a rarity for most passages.

As the sun rose on the easterly horizon on the 18th we kept looking for Bonaire but couldn’t see it until we almost hit it. The south end of Bonaire sits very low to the water while the  other end was shrouded in clouds.  The flat end is famous for its huge salt fields with mountains of pure white salt piled up. A series of colored obelisks roughly every 2 -3 miles on the shoreline mark where ships could anchor to load up on  different grades of salt.  You can still see those obelisks today, along with the slave quarters that housed thousands of African slaves who worked the salt pans. Very sad to think about how these poor people had to suffer in such torturous working conditions.

The salt pans on the southern point of Bonaire.
We sailed around the southern point of Bonaire and then along the leeward side for about 10 miles in beautiful sapphire blue water. Anchoring was as simple as motoring up to a series of mooring buoys (all of Bonaire is a National Park and anchoring is prohibited) and tying up.  We’re moored in about 40 ft of water about 200 yards off the main waterfront street of Bonaire. It was about 4:30 pm and we were too tired to go into Customs so we had a leisurely dinner and crashed at about 7:30 pm trying to get caught up on our sleep.  All in all it was definitely one of our best passages and our friends are right about getting into a rhythm as the days go on.  We managed to get better rest with the four hour watches and with some more fine tuning we should be even better prepared for our next long passage.

A happy Meryl after our longest passage yet.
Every night we are blessed with a million variations of this glorious sunset.