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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Venezuela Diesel
02/01/2008, Porlamar

We asked Juan where we could get diesel around here and he gave us the low down. There is a fuel dock but it is in very shallow water so you need to go at high tide to be safe. It also doesn't always have fuel and sometimes when it does it wont sell to foreign yachts and if it does you will pay much more than the locals (they hit you up for the 2:1 exchange rate). Fuel dock out.

Then there's Diesel Man. Diesel Man doesn't come around anymore but his son does. They have a standard Venezuelan issue open boat with huge tanks on board and a hand pump. The trick to getting them to come by is to find someone else who is on their list and have them send Diesel Man you way when they are done.

Son of Diesel Man starts his day early and we heard them yelling as they came along side at about 7AM. I quickly jumped up and threw on a tee shirt and tried to act like I had been awake and waiting.

The Son of Diesel Man and his crew of two were cheerful fellows. We discussed price up front. It worked out to a whopping $0.39 per gallon at the 4.5:1 exchange rate I was getting. Delivered to the boat! We filled up everything we had. SDM filled our tanks and happily used our Baja Filter without getting crabby (which is usually the response). I inspected the fuel before we started pumping into the tanks and it looked great. (P.S. we had no problem with this fuel anywhere down the line.)

Clearing into Margarita
01/31/2008, Porlamar

We were informed that we needed to get out paperwork to Juan by 9AM in order to get cleared in. Hideko and I made a trip ashore at what we though was 9 but it turned out to be 9:30. The Caracas area uses a half hour time zone in between the East coast time and the Atlantic time. Fortunately Juan called the car back for us so that we could make the cut.

Juan is a charming fellow who runs the cruisers outpost for all of Margarita. If you are a cruiser and need something in Margarita, you should ask Juan. Juan can change currency for you, get you cleared in or out and explain the extrme idiosyncrasies of said process to you, set up an island tour for you, advise you on tours to the mainland and orient you in any number of other ways. Juan also is one of the rare locals who speaks perfect English, not to mention French, Italian, German and lord knows what else.

His marina is a little pier in one to three feet of water, depending on the tides and where you tie up (I'd recommend the end near the steps). The swell can break all in front of the pier so while there's usually enough water for a dinghy you're better of swinging out way west of the pier on your approach.

Pedro is a large guy who watches over everything on the pier. Juan suggests a $1 US or so a day tip for Pedro when using the pier as this is his only income. Whether you pay him or not Pedro will always help you carry things out to your dinghy and make sure that nothing is ever stolen while he's on watch. Pedro is a fine gentleman and I can't imagine anyone not contributing to keep him on duty.

Veronica runs a small store in the building with Juan's office. You can get drinks and beer here as well as ice cream on occasion. Tulio works with Juan handling all of the clearance chores and also acts as a local tour guide and taxi. Trying to clear in yourself does not seem to be a fruitful use of time in this particular country, especially if you don't speak fluent Spanish. If you let Juan handle it, Tulio takes your stuff over in the morning while you do whatever you like, and by 4PM your docks are back, you sign things and your paperwork is ready by 5PM.

After dropping off all of our paperwork, Hideko and I dodged the mud puddles in the dirt road on the way out to the large shade tree in front of Juan's where the Taxi's wait. The local taxis can be anything from a beat 1984 Toyota to a fairly late model four door economy car or micro van. We rode in the Toyota into town. This cost us 8 Boulivares Fuertes. The new Boulivares are worth 1,000 of the old Boulivares. The old ones will be out of circulation by June and it is just as well. It is complicated paying for things in millions of Boulivares when you can barely count to ten in the language.

The official exchange rate is a little over 2 BF to the dollar. The actual international exchange rate is about 6BF to the dollar. Thus while Chaves wants everyone to buy Bolivares at 2:1 no one in their right mind would actually pay this rate unless forced to by circumstance. Most places will exchange cash at 4.5:1, giving you considerably more buying power and making the changer a nice profit in the process. At 4.5:1 Margarita is pretty inexpensive, at 6:1 it is very reasonable. Several of the cruisers in the harbor were basically retired here.

After a nice walk around town and a bite at one of the many Chinese restaurants (weird trying to communicate with the Chinese folks in Spanish) we returned to the harbor. The first cab we hailed wanted 25BF for the ride so we passed. The second guy had a little more beat up car but only charged us 10BF. Cab drivers seem to be the same the world over, except London of course.

We picked up our docs and joined Denali Rose and Wind Quest for dinner and Rancho de Pablo. We had a very nice Chateau Briand for two with wine, a shrimp appetizer and what have you for about $40US. It was an interesting first day exploring Porlomar.

Los Testigos to Margarita
01/30/2008, 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.

4AM Canvas work & Los Testigos
01/29/2008, Los Testigos

We waited up for Johnny Sails until about 11PM last night but he did not come out to the boat. I called him at the end of the day and told him to drop off what he had because we were leaving at 5AM for Venezuela.

At 4AM we heard a knock on the hull. We could hardly believe our ears. Yet, sure enough, there was Johnny and his crew on the dock. It is not that I don't appreciate the valiant effort to complete the work before we left. Not at all. It is just that you don't take measurements for this type of work, show up and install it and walk away. You have to do things incrementally if you want to get it right and make everyone happy. Johnny knows this of course.

We allowed them to work on the boat and delay us an hour in our departure. In the end we had to cut them off. The work was perhaps half complete but to start up a new shop on the project would require a lot of effort due to the fact that the tricky bits were still remaining. I think Johnny is a capable canvas worker but I would recommend that you pay as you go to ensure the proper incentive.

We were looking forward to a long downwind sail to Los Testigos. We motored out of the Saint Georges lagoon and were surprised to see fog as we looked back! I had never seen fog in the Lesser Antilles before. The wind was light and sailing downwind made it lighter still.

Once we were clear of the port we raised the main sail, from the cockpit, on the power winch. It was so hassle free we both were thrilled with our new rig setup. We motor sailed along with one engine running at between 9 and 10 knots making up for our late departure. We wanted to be sure to arrive in Los Testigos before sunset.

On our way out a large pod of high jumping dolphins kept us company for several minutes. We saw a couple of sailboats far off to port about mid passage, going to Trinidad as best we could tell but otherwise had no contacts.

We sighted Los Testigos off in the distance a little before 14:00. They are a rocky group of islands with sandy beaches and coral crusted coves. Many birds ply the air in the vicinity. By 16:00 we were coming around the northern point of Testigo Pequeno.

Testigo Pequeno and Testigo Grande are almost connected by a sandy spit that turns into a sand bar in the middle of a shallow pass. The best anchorage we saw in the area is right between the two islands. The seas are completely broken down by the bar between the Pequeno and Grande but a little chop comes through if the waves are large. There is a fishing village on cove over to the north and we found several fishing boats anchored in the area and three or four cruisers as well.

Once settled into the anchorage I dingied over to the main pueblo on Isla Iguana Grande. You have to be careful in failing light here because the docks at Isla Iguana all have boats with lines ashore and nets and whatnot running to the dock and through the water. I ended up tying Little Star up on the windward side of the southern most dock and wading ashore.

The Guard Costa office was manned by a young man who spoke no English. I had my trusty Spanish for Cruisers book with me (which has been a life saver) but made a fairly poor showing. I did manage to get us checked in though. We were given three days before we would need to proceed to Margarita or a port of entry on the mainland for proper clearance. All they do here is write you into a big book.

The young guard of the coast wrapped matters up with a request for booze. Not what you like to see in the officials of a foreign country but not surprising given the remoteness of the location. I said "no comprendo" a lot, which seemed to get me out of most difficulties.

I dashed back across the sound as the sun set. Hideko, Roq and I enjoyed a quiet dinner and a beautiful sunset as we marveled at the picturesque islands of our anchorage. It was nice to be back out there.

One more race
01/28/2008, South Grenada

We were in pretty good shape for an early departure tomorrow. Johnny Sails was still saying he would come by and get things finished. This was virtually impossible but we decided to let him try.

In the mean time I took the opportunity to help out Helen Mary Gee again for the morning race. It was fun to race again with Paul and Helen and things went fairly well during the race. I needed to get back to Swingin' on a Star by noon though so that Hideko and I could wrap up things at the marina and clear out. Paul dropped me off at the Prickly Bay fuel dock between races and I grabbed a cab back to Port Louis. The cab driver ripped me off charging double what I would normally pay, but I forgot to ask him the rate up front. I was so used to dealing with the good folks of Grenada I had forgotten that there are still jerks out there.

Hideko and I finalized all of our business and got ready to sail at first light. Johnny Sails was still a no show. I called him and told him to just bring the materials over so that we could get the work completed somewhere else.

We had a nice dinner at Port Louis later that evening with Paul and Helen after they finished the races. We bid them farewell at the end of a wonderful evening and went home for our last night in Grenada.

Project wrap ups
01/27/2008, Port Louis

It is two days before we travel to Venezuela. We have been looking forward to this trip for several months and hoping that we would have all of the boat updates and project complete before leaving the islands that we have come to know so well. It was becoming clear that this was not to be.

Our board rack was ordered so late in the game that it was amazing Technick could produce it in time at all. We certainly would not have time to install it. Nick brought it by today and it is perfect. Johnny Sails has been a no show, which is getting concerning since we gave him a fairly large deposit.

Hideko had worked very hard yesterday cleaning up the boat. Bret and Ian did a great job cleaning up after all of the glass work but with so much stuff going on in the boat you just end up with a lot of things un-stowed and a lot of stuff that needs to be cleaned up. I was of course off sailing in the regatta (a slight imbalance in spousal fun factor).

We spent the day today cleaning the boat some more and wrapping up projects. All of the rope clutches got labeled and all of the lines got hot knifed and whipped. All of the decks got swabbed and all of the tools got put away. We also got out logs ready for the trip to Los Testigos, set up our routes and all of that.

At the end of the day I felt like we were finally going into the next phase of our travels. Phase I had been moving aboard and sailing around in Florida. Just getting used to living on the boat was a big adjustment. Phase II had been the Bahamas and TCI. Close to the US and filled with American and Canadian yachts but still out in the world of beautiful islands. Phase III was the Dominican Republic, our fist time sailing in the third world with immersion in a foreign language. Phase IV was the eastern Caribbean. While each is unique, the Virgins through Grenada are all fairly similar in the big picture; small island nations with basic services and close proximity through Coast Guard, Airlines and tourism with the western world. Sailing through Venezuela with a US flagged vessel would be a new experience.

The Grenada Regatta
01/26/2008, Grenada

We had met the folks on Helen Mary Gee a few days back when they helped us get the cross beam bolted back down on Swingin' on a Star. Paul and Helen are a wonderful couple from the south of England who have sailed to the Caribbean on their Sovereign 470. When they asked me to help out aboard Helen Mary Gee as they raced in the Grenada regatta I happily agreed. I'm not a big racing talent but I always enjoy helping out. We were in the cruising class so things would be focused on the fun side of competition, but competition all the same!

There were two other crew members aboard Helen Mary Gee, Matt who had crossed the Atlantic in the ARC with them and Georgy, the Mate on a charter racing Beneteau 40.4. Matt is about seven feet tall and knows the boat backwards and forwards. Georgy normally races on her Beneteau, Combat, but it was fully crewed for the Regatta with the Captain and the charter guests. This was fortunate for us because Georgy has considerable racing talents which were very valuable to the Helen Mary Gee team.

Paul came by at about 8AM, swung the port beam of HMG close enough to Swingin' on a Star for me to jump aboard and we were off. Most of the races take place on the south side of the island so we had to motor for a ways to get into the start zone. There were several Beneteau 40.4s in the racing class. They seem to have almost a one design popularity. The obligatory J Boats were involved, an open 60 was there for fun, many local boats were participating in their own races and there were several cruising boats.

The races were a lot of fun. We had three to run today. The crew was pretty motley and though our skipper tried hard to whip us into shape it took most of the day for us to get into a groove. We had some pretty clean tacks working by the last race and finished in decent standing. I don't think anyone aboard really cared how we did, it was all about the joy of racing just to race.

Paul brought HMG back to the Port Louis dock as the sun sunk low. Everyone was tired and ready for a cold drink. Within moments after we tied Helen Mary Gee up in her berth Paul and Helen produce some icey cold beers, the end of a perfect day.


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