Los Testigos to Margarita
30 January 2008 | Isla Margarita
When I'm in a new anchorage I get a certain "out of place" feeling for the first day or two. It is a combination of not knowing the country, the people, the culture, the prevailing conditions, the holding or the boats around me. It is part of the exhilaration of traveling to far away and remote places. It also guarantees that every unknown noise gets me up to do a lap on deck at night.
This may seem like an unpleasant disturbance. In reality it is part of fully enjoying a new place that you will only be able to witness for a short time. Seeing the stars, the accelerated winds or overnight calm, as the case may be, watching the nocturnal activities of the creatures of the sea and enjoying the solitude are all part of the fulfilling whole.
After a couple of late night, early morning tours on deck, I got up to listen to Chris Parker on the SSB. Venezuela has some funky timezones so I wasn't exactly sure what official local time was but our Oregon Scientific weather station had somehow got a hold of the Colorado atomic clock signal again and was displaying East coast time. I tuned into 8.104 Megahertz at 8AM AST to get the low down. Just as Chris started his broadcast a vessel broke in with a distress call.
The captain was having heart trouble, their engine was down and the only crew (wife I think) didn't know how to sail. The vessel was well off of Martinique and in the end it seemed that getting assistance from the officials (undecided whether that would be US, French or Venezuelan) was going to take some time. The US CG did say that if the vessel set off the EPIRB to indicate need for immediate assistance that they would air evacuate them. Didn't sound like the crew was quite ready to abandon the vessel though. This ended up eliminating the weather and propagation died before we could listen in on another frequency (Chris does several broadcasts each morning). Some vessels more in the area were in contact with the boat in distress when we shut the radio down.
Our next task was to decide whether to stay in Los Testigos for a day to fully enjoy the beach and the stark isolation of the place. SCUBA was supposedly illegal here, per the cruising guide. I was really bummed out by this. Places as out of the way as Los Testigos make for great diving. You really get to explore new territory as few people ever see 100 feet in an area this remote.
We went ashore to explore a little with Roq. The beach right in front of the anchorage was beautiful, with lovely sand and a very short walk to the windward side with its crashing surf. We hiked up to the top of the hill between the anchorage beach and the cove where the fishing huts are. You have to be careful here because the area is rife with prickly balls, really sharp ones. Roq and I were hobbled in short order as we were both bare footed. Hideko with her flip flops attended to us and we walked carefully when away from the beach thereafter.
We met a French family on the beach and shared some information about ports and anchorages. As we continued down the beach an Italian single hander came ashore. We had a nice chat with him as well. He was concerned about security in Margarita and had decided to stay in the out islands during his travels.
Security is a concerning issue in Venezuela. The country has a large population of folks that more or less just get by. Many of them are happy to fish and live in the small villages as they have for several generations. Others choose to take from those that have things they want. This of course happens in New York, London and Tokyo as well. I could see how it could be a little more dangerous for a single hander, especially if folks discover that you are alone. Having a big dog is a very real benefit which I would heartily recommend.
Hideko had an idea in her head about Margarita. She envisioned Miami Beach. My Los Testigos stay was thus vetoed. I didn't have the heart to tell Hideko what I expected at Margarita. Unfortunately I was a little more on target.
We left Los Testigos around noon. We needed to make decent speed to get into Porlomar by nightfall. The cruising guide and charts make the approach look pretty straight forward but I always like to make new landfall during daylight. Unfortunately it was light and variable. We were getting low on diesel but we motor sailed anyway, hoping the fables of diesel flowing for pennies a gallon were true.
You hear lots of stories of folks sailing these waters only after dark and with all of their lights out and their radar turned off. While I think it is fine to be cautious and there are certainly reasons to be extra careful in Venezuela I'm not quite that concerned. In fact the only vessel we saw on the way to Margarita was a Venezuelan Navy cutter.
They came at us pretty fast so we took note early on and checked them out in the binoculars. I heard some Spanish on 16 with the word "velero" in it a few times. I had just read a section in the Spanish for Cruisers book which informed me that velero was sailboat in Spanish and that if you hear it on the radio, perhaps someone was hailing you. Sure enough.
As I was trying to get together enough of a sentence in Spanish to respond they made their third hail. This time in English. Whew. I responded and they asked us some routine questions taking down our vessel information and making sure that we had checked in at Los Testigos. They were very professional and I was not only impressed but reassured that they were out there patrolling. We saw some fishing boats on the distant horizon and some shipping on the AIS from time to time but otherwise had a quiet passage.
When Margarita came into view I had to recheck out position a few times with the paper charts. Our Navionics charts have been very good in the developed islands and those that serve as a playground for the western world. They go south fast in third world countries however. You find yourself anchored on shore in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. So far they have been fine for getting you to the anchorage in these places but you can't use the plotter or the charts to get around inshore. I was concerned here because is looked like we were coming in way south of the island. Our Imray-Iolaire charts have been good in these places however and showed us on course.
After inspecting the above water contours the situation became clear. Margarita has some fairly high peaks but they are fairly far north of the very flat, swampy tongue that forms the southern area of the island where the primary yacht anchorage is.
As the sun sunk lower on the horizon the wind came up. Before long we had the engine off and were making a good 9 knots under sail. It was only for the last our of our six hour trip but is was great to sail around the point into the anchorage.
We tried to hail Juan Barow the cruising guide recommended customs agent to determine if we should try to clear in right away or wait until morning. Juan listens to 72, the local cruisers channel. There were 50 or 60 cruising boats in the anchorage as we arrived. After a few hails Fred from Denali Rose came on. Fred is one of those people who just makes everyone around her feel welcome. We had met her in Chagaramas and she gave us the full low down on Margarita and told us to check in with Juan in the morning. People like Fred making cruising that much more fun.
We played the catamaran card in the anchorage and eked our way into the 5 foot something water as close to Juan's dock as we could get. The rag tag marina to starboard had a few boats sunk in the shallows and you could see the swell breaking in the one foot low tide mud near Juan's dock. The high rise apartments of Margarita dotted the shore line to port with the lone Concorde Hotel under reconstruction at the base of the point of the starboard bow. It wasn't Miami but it was Margarita, with the excitement of a new place to explore and a chance to experience a very different culture and lifestyle.