The license plates here say Diver's Paradise. I must agree. The entire island is surrounded by a spectacular reef. The government seems well aware that this is perhaps the islands number one stock in trade.
Bonaire is a very environmentally conscious principality. No anchoring is allowed anywhere and they encourage environmentally friendly practices at every turn.
While you could probably jump in the water anywhere and go for a great dive they have established named dive sites all up and down the western coast of the island. They have also ensured that you have beach access to almost all of them.
The standard Bonaire dive trip involves renting a pickup with a tank rack in the back and diving your heart out. Any of the dive shops will swap your tanks out as fast as you can use them. You really don't need a boat unless your headed for Klien Bonaire or the rough east side.
On the down side if you like to dive off of your yacht you can only do so in the overnight yacht mooring field between town and the Harbor Village Marina. This is nothing to scoff at but there are a lot of great dive sites out of reach. You can only tie up boats under 36 feet in length on the dive mooring while diving.
We still had our beater van and the crew was ready to go diving. After checking over the free dive site guide we received at check in we decided to dive Windsock. Mom had been studying for her first dive and was ready to give it a try as well.
Once on the beach Pops watched the gear and the rest of us got the dive equipment ready. It was a nice little beach dive with easy access as the book said. Unfortunately for Mom is was not as flat as I had hoped when we got in to practice her basic SCUBA skills. Mom was a trouper though and completed all of the discover SCUBA skills and then went for a tour of the area.
It was a nice first dive but the last Mom would be able to get in due to her flight home coming up. We had a nice ride back to the marina talking about our first Bonaire dive and a good meal at the Argentinean restaurant next to the marina office.
We rented a Van today to drive around the island. It was a clunker and the key didn't work on any door except the back hatch. Sort of funny climbing in the back to open the thing every time we stopped.
Bonaire is a neat island and gave us our first taste of the fairly desert like ABCs. Lots of dry earth and catctus. They make fences out of cactus for heaven's sake (very effective that).
Our tour took us around the entire island. We saw flamingos in the north where park lands cover most of the area. The ruggad windward coast had beautiful rocky beaches and breakers along with cave paintings from the original pre colombian inhabitants. The south has Lac Baai, the famous wind surfing destination, and the lighthouse. The West coast has the slave huts and the main town of Kralendyke. A full and enjoyable day.
We checked into the Harbor Village Marina today to make it easy for the crew to get ashore and see the island. The staff at the marina, and Bonaire at large, are wonderful and as friendly as any place you will find. It is a pretty nice marina and will make a good jumping off point for an island tour tomorrow.
We had a six hour run to Bonaire in front of us today. Hideko's cousin Em was flying into Bonaire to meet us so we wanted to get there at a reasonable time. As wonderful as the Los Roques were I was completely taken by the Las Aves. Perhaps it was the simple fact that there are fewer people there. I always love the remote places that you can only really get to with a boat. I could easily spend a month here.
Hideko and I went for a short snorkel to look for Lobster but there were not any reefs close enough to the boat to go hunting in. The water is amazingly clear though and we were greeted by a turtle early in the morning and many fish swim about over the white sand bottom. At 79 degrees, the water in this neck of the woods is a bit chilly for us. Thin skin, I know, but we always like at least 80 and like 85 even better. It was refreshing regardless.
We left the anchorage at 10:30 Curacas time, which is a half hour in between AST and EST. The forecast was for big wind and seas even relative to the usual. Nothing dangerous of course but certainly a day where Hideko and I would have stayed put if we weren't meeting family on the next island. We also wanted to make sure that Mom and Pops got to see as much as possible on their trip to the southern Caribbean.
The wind was over 20 knots true all day but we were heading down wind so it was nice on the boat. We sailed along at 9-10 most of the day. It was the first day where I had to keep an eye on the waves coming from behind. Some were up to the bimini but fortunately they were not too steep. We were running off at a nice angle and generally stayed under 12 knots coming down the waves, with a few 15s in there once in a while.
A stream of squally cumulus was running in a continuous line out toward Bonaire much like it had on our way to Los Roques. This was my second time witnessing this phenomenon but this time it was threatening to get me wet. We stayed high on track waiting for a break in the frequently rainy dark spots. When we could wait no longer we jibed, cutting across for the southern tip of Bonaire.
We almost made it. The wind kicked up and the rain came down just as soon as we got under the clouds. It was over quickly though and before long we were rounding the flat southern coast of Bonaire. As we began to turn up wind it became apparent that things were getting more exciting in the afternoon. The wind was in the high 20s. Fortunately the seas flattened out quickly as we came in behind the island. We put in reef two with our wonderful new reefing setup as the wind climbed over 30. We rolled the jib in until just a scrap was left. Then I started to see 40s. Next gusts up to 50! Even our Margarita encrusted log was starting to spin. I was beginning to wonder how far this was going to go. It was just then that the Sea Princess decided to leave the dock.
Normally I try to stay well out of the way of anything approaching the size of a cruise ship. Even more so when I'm in conditions gusting to 50 knots. The problem was we had limited options with the sail trim, Hideko and I had things eased off so that the boat was only doing 10 something with a scrap of jib and a double reefed main. The Sea Princess also gave me no indication of where she was heading. She was turning, speeding up and always increasing our concern. I hailed her on 16 twice but received no reply. My only real goal was to find out where she was going so that I could make sure to not be there. We fell off a bit heading for Klien Bonaire, the little island that makes the entire inner bend of Bonaire a fairly protected harbor, and the Sea Princess kept coming at us. Just before I had to take more action the big hotel trundled off on a southerly course. It sure would have been nice if they'd simply let us know what they were planning so we didn't have to guess at how to avoid them.
As we reached deeper into the bay the wind calmed to the high 20s. This felt like a gentle summer breeze by comparison.
We tried to get a slot at the Nautico Marina where we had told Em we would meet her but they were full up. Nautico is basically a small dock out in the ocean. They have a couple of Manta charter cats on the two ends so don't look there for space if you are a cat. In fact I wouldn't recommend it regardless. Our next shot was the Village Harbor Marina. In retrospect this is the only real marina in Bonaire for non local yachts. They close up promptly though and we had no reply from them.
All of Bonaire is a no anchor zone so we went for the final option which was picking up a park mooring. In the end this would turn out to be our favorite place to be while in Bonaire. A pleasant neighbor in a dinghy from the yacht Willow helped us tie up to the unique Bonaire twin loops.
It was 17:30 by the time we were secure and I had told Em that we would meet her around six. So we quickly cleaned up and put the dink in the water to deliver the shore party. Roq stayed aboard while Mom, Pops, Hideko and I went to find the bar at Nautico Marina where Em would hopefully be waiting.
When we got to Nautico we realized that it really was just a dock. There was no bar (I had just assumed that all marina's have a bar, right?!). Fortunately there was a restaurant across the street with a bar. It Rains Fish is a fantastic restaurant with a nice bar and the hostess informed us that our relative had been waiting for us but that she was gone presently. However, her luggage was in the bar. After some recon down by the Nautico dock we found Em and our mission, short of eating dinner at one of Bonaire's famous restaurants, was complete.
It Rains Fish was booked for the night but we had a tremendous meal at the Tapas place just down the waterfront. As I sat there enjoying the food and the company of family, watching the people walk by on the strand of the busy little town of Kralendyke, I marveled at the fact that just hours ago we were snorkeling in a private anchorage in the middle of no where. Cruising is fun.
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.
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.