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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Los Roques to Las Aves
02/12/2008, Las Aves

We didn't leave the anchorage until 10:30 today. It was nice to have good light on the way out. As soon as we cleared the entrance to the island group we had a straight shot to Las Aves Barlovento (the eastern group). We were sad to leave the Los Roques and it is certainly on the list of places we'd like to return to and spend more time.

Winter is the windy season in this neck of the woods and it was certainly living up to its reputation. Chris Parker's forecast for this area (the ABCs) is typically "plus 3 knots and plus 1 foot" over the already brisk Venezuela forecast. We had good sized waves and winds in the twenties on the way over.

Half way across Hideko hooked a nice 12 pound Mahi Mahi. We eased the sheets but didn't stop the boat. I was worried that he would get off but we landed him and converted him into fillets shortly there after. A fish this size can feed a family of four for three nights.

We headed for the south side of the Aves reef complex and once running along the south shore the seas die off behind the reef. Much of the Las Aves are simply reef just under the surface of the sea. It is a beautiful place to marvel at. The largest islands are on the southern extent of the large arching reef complex and form the most settled anchorages.

As we cleared the western end of the southern islands we button hooked back around into the shelter of the reefs bay. This is another area where good visibility is a must on you first visit. We entered at 15:00 and were glad to have the good light not only to navigate by but to enjoy the amazing scenery.

There were two yachts in the deepest anchorage back toward the reef and a couple fishing boats at the entrance to the island anchorages but we were all alone when we dropped the hook in the largest of the three bays nestled into the mangroves.

Ave is bird in Spanish and the islands live up to their names. In particular the red footed boobie is here in force. My Aunt Hanna is a big birder and I wished she was with us to see the spectacle. Sea birds of all kinds fill the trees and the air. You can hear them squawking and cooing all day but surprisingly it is a very peaceful anchorage by night.

We barbequed Mahi Mahi for dinner and enjoyed the crystal clear water as the sun set. Someone set a fire on one of the western islands just before sunset and it seemed to be raging out of control by night fall. Perhaps they were clear brush around the little airstrip. Perhaps not. It burned for several hours providing us fireworks to go with the incredibly starry sky.

02/11/2008, Los Roques

I woke up in the pre-dawn grey to the sound of two boats getting underway this morning. The sports fisher closer to the reef and the large motor yacht, Valkyrie, were both getting ready to exit the reef at the south entrance. Today was our day to explore Los Roques but a lazy breakfast was in order first.

Once underway we motored into the wind along the middle reef. The water is often 80 feet or deeper in the dark blue channel just feet away from where the reef breaks the surface. There are channels between the middle reef and the mangroves as well but they are more intricate and some don't run all the way through.

We saw some fly fishermen out in the flats, perhaps bonefishing. I wondered if my old friend and fishing buff Andrew Bassett was out there. It looked like a relaxing way to spend the day.

There are a couple of good sized wrecks on the outer reef that are good warnings for those who would consider approaching in restricted visibility. We wouldn't have time to dive on the reefs here but I imagine it would be fantastic.

Once we cleared the outer reef we killed the motor and sailed over to Grand Roque. It was a wonderful if short 9-10 knot sail. There are lots of boats in the anchorage, many of which are the traditional Venezuelan fishing boats. There are also some dive boats and motor yachts along with an interesting mix of cruisers.

We went ashore to try to pay the park fees but it was Sunday and we had no luck finding anyone to pay. We did however find a lovely little beach front café that served a perfect lunch. Grand Roque was certainly the quaintest island town we had run across in Venezuela. There are many small shops, basic services, like a bank and store, lots of restaurants, a dive shop, and several cute little hotels.

After a relaxing lunch we dinghied back to the big boat for a run to the far west side of the Los Roques. Like many areas in South and Central America you should probably only traverse these areas in good light the first time out because the charts are not perfect by any means. We were moving quickly so that we would have good enough light to get safely tucked into our selected anchorage.

We selected the anchorage between Ebert and Bequeve mostly because it looked fairly straight forward to get into and out of and because it was on the far west side giving us a good jump off to the Aves. I would not recommend this anchorage. It is beautiful like the rest of the Los Roques but it is also tricky to pick your way into the anchorage. There are many reefy areas inside the water delineated by the surrounding islands. Once in the general anchoring area it is hard to find enough water to get to the sandy areas. The area is pretty exposed to the wind, and it was honking on this particular evening. Once set it was a pleasurable spot with some nice white sand beach areas and a lovely sunset.

Buchiyaco, Los Roques
02/10/2008, Los Roques

We made a fairly early start of it this morning in order to reach the southeast reef entrance at Los Roques in decent light, a trip of about 85 nautical miles. Exiting the anchorage at Cayo Herradura and heading west puts you almost immediately into deep water. The wind was nice, up in the high teens, but the sky was a little gloomy with stratus and scattered cumulus all around. No rain though so the crew was happy.

Shortly after getting into the open water we were joined by a large pack of Tucuxi dolphins. These guys are smaller but very athletic. They inhabit the waters along the northern edge of South America but also have a fresh water flavor that can be found well up the rivers of Venezuela. Very entertaining as mammals go.

We continued on with about 80% cloud cover running an engine to keep the speed over 10 knots. The seas were up in the 8-10 foot zone and fairly steep but sailing down wind made the conditions reasonable. We have greatly enjoyed the down wind sailing since Grenada. Having beat to windward on nearly every passage since we left Fort Lauderdale has made us all that more appreciative.

The passage was fairly event free. As we neared Los Roques we noticed a continuous stream of cumulus clouds marching like a train south west from what seemed to be La Orchilla. It was unbroken and clear on both sides. Certainly the most distinctive cloud formation I've ever seen.

We were approaching the reef by four in the afternoon. El Gran Roque is the only island you can really make out from any distance as the entirety of Los Roques is otherwise right on the water (or just under it!). We came in on a waypoint I had set but we very cautious with this because our electronic charts don't match reality in this part of the world. Everything on the Navionics charts seems to be plotted a bit north of its actual position with some other noise in the equation to boot.

This entrance is a little exciting your first time in. The light is also not optimal in the afternoon as the sun is in front of you and not overhead. The entrance is fairly wide however so if you can make out the limit of one side you are in good shape. There is a wreck on the northern part of the reef but it is too far north to be of navigational assistance in entering the reef complex. The south extent of the reef has a lighthouse and you can follow the rocks and breaking waves north from there. By making the northern most extent of the southern reef and then adding half of the width of the entrance you can fairly safely make you way into the channel. It is rugged getting in with big seas but you get the benefit of seeing the seas breaking on the submerged rocks.

After zig zagging on our way in a bit we had a good enough picture of the entrance zone to clear the reef safely. Once in we turned north around the back of the outer reef but close in to the middle reef where the deeper water is. We dropped sail and motored a ways up behind the outer reef.

The entire area is spectacular. Los Roques was quickly becoming one of the most impressive places we'd been in the Caribbean. The water is electric blue with reefs everywhere, but thankfully clearly visible in good light. The central area of Los Roques is low and covered in mangroves. We saw a lone fisherman wrestling with Bonefish in the flats. You could have quite a time exploring the channels through the mangroves with a dinghy or kayak.

There is a solitary small mangrove island on the outer reef called Buchiyaco. The southwest side of the island is a popular anchorage for new arrivals or those looking to head east early the next day. The charts report various rocks and shoals but we found the main anchorage to be fairly open with the exception of a 7 foot area smack dab in the middle of the main anchoring area.

The Rocna set quickly and the holding seemed to be good. Everyone stretched out on deck to relax from the rigors of the crossing. The view out onto the breaking reef was fantastic. We could all tell that this is one of those places you'd like to spend a couple of weeks exploring. Hideko made a wonderful dinner and we all settled down to a lovely nights sleep with the surf lulling us to sleep.

Wind Surfing Cayo Herradura
02/09/2008, Cayo Herradura

The nice thing about cruising is that you can always change your plans. The little anchorage at Cayo Herradura was telling us to stay one more day. So we did.

Hideko and I set about rigging our new windsurfer for the first time. It was a pleasant surprise to find that everything we needed was there and that the whole rig assembled easily. We purchased a setup that would be reasonable to practice with for a beginner but still fun for someone who had solid skills. Hideko and I spent a good part of the afternoon falling, or sometimes being flung, into the ocean. We both got a lot better through out the day though and got some good rides in.

A couple of guys from a French yacht were ripping around on Kite Boards having a great time. This anchorage is a great spot for water-sports.

02/08/2008, Horseshoe Cay

We woke up this morning in Playa Caldera with a light 10 knots or so of wind and blue skies scattered with patches of clouds. There looked to be some trouble far to the east but we would have the morning anyway. Hideko and I slept in to recoup from the boisterous passage the day before. Everyone was up and about by 8 AM, giving the French Press coffee maker lots of business.

The large motor yacht had left the anchorage early (before I got up) and a new yacht, a Spanish registered sloop, had appeared. The French registered Amel was still in the same spot. The anchorage is lovely with great holding in sand all around. You need to enter nearer the mainland to avoid the shoal reefy stuff off of the north point but if you watch the sounder it is all pretty straight forward even in failing light. The north component of the swell does make its way into the anchorage but it wasn't bad last night. I noticed the Amel setting up a swell bridle though. If you had a north swell event this might not be a good spot, in fact it would probably be dangerous to get in and out of.

Chris Parker informed us that we could expect 20 knots and 7 foot seas for the next week, as well as squalls today and Sunday. Fortunately we planned to stay around Tortuga today and Los Roques on Sunday making a passage on Saturday. The wind sounded great but the seas were less than perfect. Seven seconds is a shorter than desirable interval for 7 footers. At least they would be on the quarter.

After enjoying a lazy morning we decided to take a trip ashore to see a little of Tortuga. We piled both of my parents, Roq and Hideko and I in Little Star and puttered over to the beach. Playa Caldera has a few fishing huts on the north shore but the main pueblo (if you can call it that) is on the lagoon on the other side of the sand spit. There is an airport here as well though I think it is dirt. The little village consists of a Guardacosta shack, a number of fishing shacks, a lovely looking little beach restaurant and bar with a sand volley ball court out front, and a few other nondescript shacks. I would imaging 50 people could live there. I saw 6: three fishermen, two ladies in a building near the restaurant and one coast guard officer. There were two dogs roaming about, but no one at the restaurant (clients or staff) and no sign of any real activity. It was just as you might imagine a sleepy Venezuelan village located on a remote island.

As we crossed the dunes from the anchorage side to the lagoon side Roq and I discovered that the area was rife with prickly balls. You know the little tiny balls covered with spines that are sharp as needles? We had to tread very carefully to get across without blood shed much as we did in Los Testigos.

The lagoon here is really nice. The entrance looks a little tricky but would be fine with good light. A few local boats were anchored inside but I didn't see any cruising boats.

After a brisk walk around the anchorage beach, the lagoon and the little town, we headed back to the big boat so that we could move anchorages. We brought up the anchor and made our way out of the harbor. As we moved into the open it became clear that the seas were still up and steep. The island seemed to accentuate the northerly component of the swell so it was almost on the beam. The wind was still pretty light at one in the afternoon but the swell was giving us quite a ride.

We motor sailed west up the coast staying in 40 to 50 feet of water. I typically like to sail along the 10 fathom line in poorly charted areas. This usually (not always) gives you plenty of time to head off shore in shoaling conditions and gives you enough water to keep the seas from acting up too much.

After rounding the reef at the center of the north coast we made way for the south end of Cayo Herradura. In retrospect I might take the north route around the island in these conditions if it were my first time making the entrance. The bottom comes up to 10 to 15 feet between Tortuga and Cayo Herradura on the south side and gets a little hairy with a big short swell. Not dangerous but less relaxed than the deep water entrance from the north. We made a slow arcing turn from our west heading until we were heading northeast into the anchorage. We crept in due to the numerous rocks shown on the chart and the large shoal patch. We found none of these. We just headed straight in NE until we got to 6 feet of water where we dropped the hook in clean sand. There are lots of patches of grass in the anchorage but I didn't see any rocks or shoals. I didn't look that hard but the chart painted a very different picture of the area.

Cayo Herradura is beautiful. The beaches on the leeward side are nice sand with calm water. A few yards away the windward side has crashing surf and big swaths of white sand. There were 5 sail boats, one motor yacht (not huge though like the one in Playa Caldera) and six or so fishing boats.

Like Playa Caldera there is a fishing camp here. More like three or four small camps with two to four shacks each. The fishermen are quick to come by offering lobster for sale. They open with a pretty high price so make sure you negotiate. We purchased two good sized lobster for dinner and they were delivered live and weighed in front of us. Very tasty!

Roq was done for the day but the rest of us spent the afternoon walking around the island. Cayo Herradura means horseshoe if I read the cruising guide correctly, and the island is shaped as such. There is a fun sandy point to the south east where the water from off shore and the water wrapping around the island meet in a calamity of crashing, confused turbulence. There is a light house on the other end of the island and it actually works (one flash every 15 seconds by my watch). Just past the light house there is a little cemetery with three or four crosses right next to each other. It made me wonder who was buried there and how they died.

Hideko drove Mom and Dad back to Swingin' on a Star in the dinghy while I snorkeled. I wanted to check the anchor due to the high winds we've been getting at night and the squally weather predicted. The Rocna was well buried as always and the chain looked good with plenty of scope. We had a little over 100 feet out and we were anchored in about 7 feet of water. Add five feet for our freeboard and you end up with about a 9:1. More than enough but the chain doesn't do any good in the box and the windlass doesn't mind the extra few feet.

Back at the boat I gave the bottom a good once over. Our log has been gunked up since Grenada so I tried to clean that up. I also wanted to keep an eye on the props. I have had a lot of friends and acquaintances lose props, blades or just have problems. That and the fact that I pulled them and reinstalled them for the first time in Grenada has me a little paranoid. Everything looked fine though.

We wrapped up the day prepping the boat for the longish trip tomorrow and enjoying the yummy lobster.

02/07/2008, Playa Caldera

We had over 80 nautical miles to cover today on the way to Tortuga from Margarita so we headed out early. We listened to the Margarita Cruiser net for the last time on the way out. There's an expat who lives in an apartment building over looking the harbor who does the weather in the mornings and he is fantastic. It is by far the best weather report I have heard on a cruisers net.

We had moderate winds in the 15-20 range during the morning. Unfortunately we were headed dead down wind. Swept spreaders, and in larger seas, the potential for ramming the bows into the wave ahead make it sensible to avoid sailing directly down wind in the ocean on cruising catamarans. In order to make 9 knots we motor sailed with one engine and jibed down our rhumb line on the way to Tortuga. Our VMG stayed over 8 knots giving us an ETA in the good light zone.

Hideko fished on the way across. As the bottom was coming up to the 300 foot zone approaching Tortuga Hideko's reel began to run. We had time to get into Tortuga without problems but not a lot of time. I couldn't see stopping the boat so we just shut the engine down and slowed her down to 5 knots or so. No one could reel this fish in. In fact when you tried it just ran, overriding the brake. When we finally began to reel it in it was pretty obvious that whatever it was it had gotten off. It was certainly the strongest thing we've ever had on the line.

Dejected we returned to 9 knots and continued on our way to Tortuga. The wind had come around a bit and we wee now laying a mark just outside of Playa Caldera. As we closed on the mark the wind and seas continued to freshen. We came into the anchorage with 25 knots or so of breeze honkin' and big seas breaking on the reef entrance and the beach. The anchorage is pretty easy to get into using the sounder but you need to stay closer to the beach side as you come in without getting involved with the breakers.

The anchorage is beautiful, enclosed by a 270 degree arc of clean white sand. We joined a large motor yacht (which looked a little out of place) and a couple of cruising boats for a wonderful night with a good breeze and only a little sidewise chop.

The Rack
02/06/2008, Isla Margarita

Today was our prep for departure day. We had Juan working on our clearance out with my Parents being added to the crew list. The women went off shopping. Dad and I were left onboard to get the rack installed and pick up the water sports gear from El Yaque.

The rack was designed to mount up under our hard bimini. The backing plates that go on the roof were designed to match the existing SF50 plates which have captive nuts. This is where the nuts are welded to the backing plate bottom so that only the shiny polished plate shows on deck.

If I were to do this again I would not go this route. Having the captive nuts forces you to carve out a lot more of you strong fiberglass upper skin so that the nuts can sit down in the laminate leaving the plate flush. Also welding the nuts on can mess up the threads requiring you to re-cut them and it is hard to get everything lined up perfectly. The harshest bit is the fact that the bolts then need to be the exact right length to come up from below and seat into the nuts tightly without bottoming out. This inevitably means you need to cut the bolts.

You can not file bolts down. At least I can't. I mean you can but it ruins the threads and the bolts need to be hand repaired with a sharp triangular file. If you need to take a lot off you have to cut them. A grinder with a cutting blade works great for this but it is fairly dangerous unless you are very careful.

After a gallant effort, Hideko, my Dad and I got the rack up but it was a ways from complete. We could only find 302 stainless bolts in Margarita so those would all need to be replaced with 316. Until that was done we couldn't finalize the install and caulk everything with 5200. I was nice to see the rack up there and have it out of the way. It was going to be perfect when it was finally done.

In the mean time we tied the wind surfer up in the dink and put the rest of the gear in the garage (the Starboard aft cabin). We were set to sail for Tortuga on the morn.


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