TIGER LILLY - RIO ORINOCO DELTA PILOT - Part 1 of 3
09 April 2013 | Eastern Venezuela
Tom & Lilly Service
RIO ORINOCO DELTA PILOT - Part 1
8 55.96'N:60 11.25W
Tom and Lilly Service
date - 03/05/2013
In April 2013 S/V Tiger Lilly, with crew Tom and Lilly Service, cruised over 350 miles through the Rio Orinoco Delta. Exploring the Delta was part of our larger plan to reach northeastern South America from Trinidad, cruise the Guianas, sail to Brazil, and then head for points south. Although this windward route southeast is a bit unusual, the Delta and the three Guianas (Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana) could be a refreshing Hurricane Season alternative to sitting in Trinidad for five months growing barnacles in one of the world's most polluted harbors. The Delta, and the Guianas offer an easy return to the Eastern Caribbean on the strong northwest flowing Guiana Current. Boats crossing from Africa could use this route in reverse as their opening season in the Caribbean.
We spent three weeks in the Delta, cruising the Reo Macareo, the Rio Grande, the Reo Amacuro, and the Reo Barima. Along the way we explored many small canos (creeks) with our dinghy. We departed the Rio Orinoco Delta from the Punta Barima Pilot Station, sailed out into the Tropical North Atlantic and tacked down the Venezuelan coast to Guyana's Essequibo River.
For us, the Delta was much more than just a shortcut to Brazil; we were eager to see the sights of the eighth largest river in the world, explore this remote and circuitous waterway, and to observe the shy Waro Amerindian people. The bird life in the Delta is absolutely magnificent. In the span of three weeks we saw: Anhinga, Blue and Gold Macaw, Blue-Winged Parrotlet, Yellow Oriole, Brown and White Pelicans, Crested Guan, Wattled Jacana (pictured at the top of this posting), Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Grey Heron, Green Night Heron, White Egret, Frigate Bird, Kiskadee, Green King Fisher, Harpy Eagle (rare), Hoatzin, Toco Toucan, Vulture, Osprey, Red Tailed Hawk, Savannah Hawk, Roseate Spoonbill, Scarlet Ibis, Yellow Oriole, Yellow Headed Caracara, Pied Water Tyrant, and many more small species we could not identify. We are not at all skilled bird watchers, but it was such a thrill to see so many colorful and interesting birds in their natural jungle habitat. The river at night is dark and quiet with no lights, no cars, no buses, no horns, and no damn thug music - in short, it is NOT Trinidad. When we are close to a Waro camp their roosters announce the coming day. As dawn breaks, and the day starts, the chirping birds call us to get up and out of bed, and the fierce growling of the howler monkeys let us know that they are already about their business. Often we hear a faint knocking of wood-on-wood as a Waro dugout canoe quietly paddles past Tiger Lilly, out with the dawn to check his nets. Waking up early in the Delta is easy to do - life is quite pleasing and tranquil here. The timing of our Delta cruise found us here at the end of the Dry Season and we were pleasantly surprised to see how few mosquitoes were about. A half hour before sunset, and an hour after sunset was the only time we had to take precautions - and even then it certainly was not a big deal. We bought a lot of mosquito stuff before we left Trinidad, and left the Delta with most of it unused. Lilly showed up one day after a shopping trip to Port of Spain with a HUGE mosquito net that one of Chaguaramas' marina dwellers (who had never been to the Delta) professed we needed - it is still in the bag. We transformed killing horseflies in the cockpit during the day to the sport of big game hunting, with more than a few world records achieved. (Can you tell that Tom-Tom has been reading a story about Bwana Theodore Roosevelt exploring South America?) In the month of April there was always a light breeze on the river to keep the heat off. Unspoiled nature at its best, few pests, cool restful nights, gorgeous birds, and every bend of the River offering a new vista - what's not to like about cruising the Rio Orinoco Delta?
Point of view is very important when evaluating information gained from the crews of other cruising boats - we are very discriminating when we gather cruising information, and vet it carefully based on who we are talking to. Here is some basic information about our crew, our boat, and our gear which may possibly help you decide what you need, and how you want to prepare your boat for this off-the-beaten-track destination:
The Crew: Tom is a retired US Navy Deep Sea Diving and Salvage Officer, has owned the boat for 26 years, and cruised her for some 57,000 miles - including a Milk Run circumnavigation from 1987 to 1991. Lilly is a retired businesswoman; as a former professional tri-athlete, and professional mountain-bike racer she was a pioneer in women's sports - which is why Tom calls her Tough Chick. They have been married since 2011. Tom and Lilly are Mack Sails Cruising Representatives, supplying, specifying, and measuring sails and rigging for the international sailing community at large.
The Boat: Tiger Lilly is a 1977 CSY44 center cockpit walkover, has a draft of 6 foot 10 inches, and a displacement of approximately 40,000 pounds. The underwater hull has a long fin keel, with a cut away fore-foot, and a skeg-hung rudder - she is a strong bluewater cruising boat. Her liquid load is 160 gallons of diesel fuel and 400 gallons of potable water - with a deck rain water catching system. She is rigged as a true cutter with a full battened high roach mains'l, miter-cut stays'l, and a miter-cut high-clewed yankee - all high quality sails crafted by MACK Sails in Stuart, Florida. Both head sails are on PROFURL roller furling gear and are miter cut. The Perkins Prima 60 horse power auxiliary diesel is naturally aspirated.
Electrical System: Tiger Lilly has two completely separate 12VDC electrical systems, with an emergency parallel switch between the independent systems. The AGM engine start battery is charged by a 70 amp alternator with external regulator, with the capability to shift to internal regulation. The 840 amp hour flooded cell house battery bank is charged by a 210 amp externally regulated alternator. There are two 130 watt solar panels and a 350 watt wind generator for alternative energy sources. Under our usual sailing and anchoring circumstances (not running the diesel almost every day for motoring the rivers as we did on this cruise), the batteries require charging every 3 days in temperate latitudes, and about every 4-5 days in tropical latitudes.
Equippage: The primary bow anchor is a 66 pound Bruce with 200 feet of 3/8 HT chain on a Lofrans Falkon 1500 watt windlass. Typically, in the Delta the holding was good in mud and clay; usually we anchored in 20 to 60 feet of water - two knots of current was common, and three knots not unusual. The secondary bow anchor is a 45 pound CQR with a chain and nylon rode. We carry two additional anchors - a 40 pound Danforth mounted on the utility arch and a 75 pound fisherman disassembled in the bilge.
Navigation Equipment: Furuno radar / GPS / chart plotter with C-Map NT+ charts; a PC with Open CPN / CM93 charting software and a hockey puck GPS; and an ipad2 with the NAVIONICS Caribbean and South America chart application (the iPad2 is equipped with a splash / shock proof case). The NAVIONICS charts had much more complete coverage of the Delta and the Venezuela coast then did the C-MAP NT+ charts, and the additional NAVIONICS tidal information was especially helpful for crossing the river bars.
Our primary tender is a 10.5 foot Cape Dory fiberglass rowing / sailing dinghy which worked well for cano exploration. We have a 2.5 HP Suzuki O/B engine, but after a single outing chose not to use it in the Delta. We have a back-up inflatable Achilles 6 person dink in a cockpit locker.
A strong rigid boat hook (handled by Lilly on deck), and Tom in the dinghy with a sharp machete and very fine toothed wood saw worked well for clearing water hyacinth from the anchor chain.
We have screens fitted for all the weather deck openings, and we brought along quite a stock of bug spray, and coils - which we used only occasionally.
Fenders are a must if one wants to protect the boat's topsides from the many visitors a yacht attracts in the Delta. The Waro dugout canoes are soft wood with a natural creosote preservative, so should one mar the hull, the mark is easily cleaned off.
We have a SSB / HAM radio, and it served us well in the Delta. At 0700 we checked-in with the Caribbean Maritime Weather Net 7.250MHZ LSB (HAM net but anyone can listen to George give his comprehensive weather report). In the evenings (around 2000 local) we checked-in with the Maritime Mobile Service Net 14.300MHZ USB (HAM net, file position reports, make phone-patches, and probably the best contact point for anyone - HAM or not - in an emergency). At night we would post a SITREP (Situation Report) to our friends and family on the Tiger Lilly Sailblogs site via WINLINK (HAM email system), and send and receive email from our kids. We also received our weather information via the WINLINK system; synoptic charts, forecasts, and GRIB files. If this sounds like an unpaid political announcement for HAM Radio - it certainly is. HAM Radio significantly enhances our cruising lifestyle, especially while we are cruising off the beaten track. We made out just fine without the Internet for a month or so.
We have a high capacity 12VDC Glacier Bay holding plate refrigeration system which takes advantage of the extra available energy when the engine is running to pull-down the 8 cubic foot reefer box, and the 4 cubic foot freeze box.
We have a Bird Identification application on our iPad2, and it was quite handy. If we had it to do over, and we do, we will buy a first class field book (like a Peterson Field manual) instead of the free application we downloaded.
Faith, the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen, is the opposite of fear. Our Creator has granted each of us certain unalienable rights, and freedom of choice is at the heart of His gifts to us. One of the most important life-choices we get to make is which concept will govern our lives - faith or fear? We have chosen faith, and this model is at the very heart of our philosophy of cruising. If this seems to you like a strange way to start a section on cruising security, consider the practical ineffectiveness of weapons, or not stepping out in faith - neither of those ideas has proven themselves to be practical tools in achieving the goals of, or satisfaction in, the cruising lifestyle. We are talking about PRACTICAL solutions here. Often, when we listen to other cruisers discuss their cruising plans we hear an over-riding concern regarding piracy and criminal attacks - which very few of them have personally experienced, or know anything about. As you can imagine, our personal security is very important to us, but we like to sail and explore in some pretty out of the way places. There had been an armed robbery committed against two visiting yachts on the western side of the Delta, on the Reo Manamo, in June of 2012, and to our knowledge there have been no other yachts cruising the region since. On multiple occasions we have seen how a single isolated incident can get blown way out of proportion, and take on a life of its own. Make no mistake about it, these folks lost their property to bandits - and a policeman was caught trying to sell some of the stolen goods in Tucupita. Venezuela has a reputation as a lawless, violent country, and deservedly so; in many areas - like the large cities, and poorly policed regions such as the Paria Peninsula, violence is rampant. Far more Venezuelan's are victim to this lawlessness than are yachties - the good people of Venezuela want the situation to change. Perhaps the country's security situation will improve now that the Chavez regime has come to an end - only time will tell. There are illegal-drug related activities here in the remote Rio Orinoco Delta, but then there are also illegal-drug related activities in the Mississippi River Delta. For both practical and social reasons we really did not want to explore such an isolated area alone. There have never been many of the Caribbean cruisers who have ventured forth into the Delta - apparently they prefer the security of what they know; the same islands year after year, benign weather (though to listen to them carry on with Chris Parker one cannot tell they are usually sailing in boy's weather), familiar and easy anchorages, and hanging with like-minded people. Many cruisers want the reward of exploring new places and meeting new people, but somehow they just cannot extend themselves to the idea (and a certain level of risk) of going forth in faith. This is not at all an esoteric concept, but rather a guide to PRACTICAL living. (Like faith, we cannot see, and many of us cannot understand, electricity - yet we do not hesitate to use electricity to make our lives better and easier.) Way too many cruisers have been unable to shed the false concept of insuring every aspect of their lives as they did in Suburbia: home, auto, education, health, wealth, and even - they think - their very lives. These ideas do not translate well to the freedom of the cruising lifestyle - and in fact can become debilitating to the very freedom we seek. When we asked other cruisers in Trinidad (the murder capital of the world) if they wanted to seek some new horizons and accompany us to the Delta, their responses ran from apprehensive to terrified - principally because of that single robbery incident. In making our decision to go we started with the premise that the Reo Manamo and the Reo Macareo are two different places, separated by some 50 miles, and that the incident with the catamarans took place some months ago. Of course we prayed about it, and we thought long and hard before we made the decision to sail south for the Reo Macareo. At the end of the day, there were two concepts that told us to go - faith and freedom. We do not want to be held prisoner by our stuff. When we read the Truth of the 91st Psalm we KNOW that when we call on the name of our Heavenly Father, He will take care of us, no matter where we are. We also had to decide who will govern our lives and our activities - the evil ones, or our God - and we choose God. We believe that our God wants His children to be happy, joyous, and free. The concept of freedom is at the heart of our philosophy of the cruising lifestyle, and we choose not to sacrifice our freedom to those who stand in the darkness to terrorize. When we got to the Mouth of the Reo Macareo we were immediately approached by two men in a speed boat, they came alongside us in a flash - and we did not know what to think. (Were all the Chaguaramas nay-sayers about to be proven right?) One fellow was a short stern looking Venezuelan, and the other a very tall, very muscular, and very black man - with a mouth full of gleaming gold teeth. The big fellow had an engaging presence to go along with that huge, bright smile. His name was Brian; he was a Guyanese fisherman and "businessman" (smuggler?) who spoke the King's English. Brian did most of the talking, and he told us that we were safe anywhere on the Reo Macareo. Somehow Brian's manner reassured us, and we slept better that night, and every night in the Delta, then we had in a very long time. Was that big fellow our Amazon Angel, or just a friendly fisherman? We choose to believe that he brought us a message of faith, and this is not the first time we have seen an answer to our prayers. After reading these ideas about our faith, some folks will have written us off as religious nut-jobs, but that could not be further from the truth. We are talking about spirituality as YOU understand it, not someone else's religious dogma. We try to use as much common sense as possible when dealing with the issue of security, but when all is said and done, we know who has us in the palm of His hand - and we recognize Truth when we see it. We also know that our faith has been a principal reason why we can enjoy our lives, whatever the circumstances.
Our Tiger Lilly motto is:
Rig heavy, reef early, and pray often; for God does not promise us an easy passage, but rather a safe anchorage.
We are not about peddling theology, we are simply asking you to consider spiritual principles which actually work - but don't forget to rig heavy and reef early.
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is a proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation." Herbert Spencer.
Think about it.
The only places to officially clear-in to Venezuela in the Rio Orinoco Delta are in Puerto Ordaz in Ciudad Guayana at Rio Grande Mile 180, and the town of Tucupita in the western Delta on the Reo Manamo - neither of which were on our planned route. There are two problems with checking-in at Puerto Ordaz: first, the Port Captain at Puerto Ordaz (who is in charge of the deep draft part of the Rio Grande) has said that he does not want yachts on "his" river; and second, Puerto Ordaz is 180 miles up-river from where we wanted to depart at the mouth of the Rio Grande at Punta Barima. The Brazos Macareo meets the Rio Grande at Mile 138, so if you want to clear-in, and find out that the Port Captain does not want you on "his" river, you have over 40 miles to motor against the current to do so (and then 40 miles back). In the past, some yachts which have called at Barrancas at Mile 142 (to buy diesel fuel) have had their passports taken and sent to Puerto Ordaz, and were then directed to proceed straight to the Port Captain's Office. On the other hand, vessels which have entered the Rio Grande, turned east, and proceeded down the Rio Grande have had no problems - as was our experience. A friend and experienced Delta hand, Richard from the S/V Mr. Hopper, advised us to go to the Venezuelan Embassy in Port of Spain and get a letter from them granting permission to cruise the Delta, which is exactly what we did. It took three trips to the Embassy, but Senior Manuel Garcia (at the front desk in the reception area) eventually sent us an email (in both Spanish and English) that gave us permission to cruise the Delta until we had an opportunity to check-in with the District Port Captain. Since we turned east when we got to the Rio Grande that "opportunity" never presented itself. When we arrived at the mouth of the Reo Amacuro and checked-in with the Armada (Venezuelan Navy), the Station Chief (the equivalent of a Lieutenant Junior grade - and a very cordial fellow) absolutely loved our email from the Embassy. We presented him with our US Coast Guard vessel document, our clearance papers from Trinidad, our passports, and a printed copy of the Embassy letter - he noted that all of the names and numbers matched-up, and he said we were welcome to cruise the Delta for up to 180 days. There were no fees and no paperwork from the Armada, just verbal permission from the only government official in the area - good enough as far as we were concerned. When we had checked out of Trinidad Customs, in the area of the departure form that specified our destination, we wrote "Bartica, Guyana via the Rio Orinoco Delta." The Venezuelan Navy honored that, and so did the Customs folks in Guyana. Sailing under the QUEBEC quarantine flag, papers in-hand and in-order, we were completely legal. There seems to be little or no coordination of officialdom in the Delta, so we simply went to someone who would say yes (the Armada), rather than ask someone who would say no (the Port Captain) - and at the end of the day, it all worked out within the Venezuelan regulations - and to our benefit.
Jesse James at the Members Only Maxi-Taxi Service in Chaguaramas (and the Trinidad Seven Seas Cruising Association - SSCA - Cruising Station), keeps an ongoing file of information on cruising the Rio Orinoco Delta in his office at Tropical Marine. Successive generations of Delta cruisers have added to it, and this Pilot is our second Internet contribution. Jesse lets cruisers copy the file for the cost of using the duplicating machine. We copied the entire package, and studied it from cover to cover. The cruising notes compiled by Alastair Buchan of S/V Margo's June 1999 cruise on the Reo Macareo proved to be well done - his work was comprehensive, thorough, and accurate. In particular, the sketch charts of the Reo Macareo with positions, and distances upstream from Punta Bombeador was the only way we could establish where we were at on the rivers. Neither the electronic versions nor the official paper charts cover the Delta rivers or canos, with the exception of the deep draft (dredged and buoyed) section of the Rio Grande. S/V Margo's guide, along with Tiger Lilly's Pilot Notes will cover just about anything you need to know to get started on a cruise of the Delta. Once you get there, you will see that with the correct preparations to vessel and crew, it really is not at all difficult. We strongly recommend S/V Arctic Tern's Blog which describes their November 2007 expedition to the Reo Macareo (http://www.sailblogs.com/member/arctictern/?xjMsgID=42136). Devi and Hunter are trained, educated, and experienced biologists who have cruised the region extensively; we are sure that you will find their Blog most helpful and interesting. We have tried not to duplicate here what S/V Margo or S/V Arctic Tern has already done with their excellent cruising notes.
TRADING WITH THE WARO INDIANS
Before we left Trinidad, Lilly collected a lot of used clothes and household items from yachties and we purchased some of the inexpensive personal items listed in the cruising notes for the Waro Indians. Lilly made up several give-away packages and bagged them up in grocery bags. For the most part we did not trade with the Waro - we simply gave them these inexpensive packages as gifts when they came alongside. If we were anchored when they came around, they often came back later with fish or native produce as gifts in return - at their choosing. For the kids we handed out a single piece of hard candy, an inflated balloon, and small coloring books with a few Crayons - which produced heart-warming smiles every single time. We had heard all the reasons why not to give items away, and why we must trade with the Waro for their meager stuff; supposedly, so they will not become dependent on yachtie hand-outs. However, most of this logic was presented by people who had never been here, and were afraid to cruise the Delta - so we went with our own opinion. We found the Waro Indians to be happy people, but living a subsistence lifestyle in abject poverty and squalor - and we did not want to take anything from them. They had no goods that we wanted; we were principally interested in the natural beauty and diverse animal and bird population of THEIR homeland. We gave to them, and they allowed us to visit their river - that was the deal as far as we are concerned. We don't think that the handful of boats which visit the Delta each year are going to make these people dependent. The Venezuelan government swapping stuff for their votes, handing out solar panels, portable electric generators, refrigerators, TV's, Yamaha Enduro 40 outboards, and Direct TV antennas (all of which we saw in their meager dwellings), have already drastically changed their lives. If you give a man a free outboard motor, he still has to have fuel for it - and that costs money. This is what has changed the structure of the Waro culture from barter to cash - not our balloons. The image of the noble Amerindian hunter-gatherer is just not what we usually saw. What did repeatedly stand out to us is what wonderful loving relationships the Waro have. We watched fathers come home from working hard all day in the forest, sit down with an infant child, and hold it and talk with it for over an hour. Mothers seemed to be firm but fair, and the ring of laughter was common in their homes. When Lilly handed a young girl in the bow of a dugout several pieces of candy, she immediately started distributing it to the other children, without having to be told. Very small Waro children were routinely entrusted with the family canoe, and they handled them expertly - the Waro children were given genuine responsibility. Anchored next to their shelters on the river we were privileged to closely observe these gentle, loving, and wise people interacting - and hopefully we learned something from them. We were glad to give these poor folks a few inexpensive items to bring some small measure of luxury into their Spartan lives - and especially so with the Waro children, who receive so very little in the way of material things.
We actually had no Venezuelan currency with us to make a purchase, but did have a limited amount of US dollars, which we only used once to reward a crew of young Waro men (volunteers actually) $5.00 for helping us free Tiger Lilly from the clutches of a particularly thick patch of water hyacinth. We were fully capable of freeing the boat from the water hyacinth, and were in fact in the process of doing so, when these guys showed up and wanted to help. Gasoline can be bought on the river from passing fuel boats, but diesel was not available - and we asked. Moving a yacht in the Delta is all about motoring, and we found that by just reducing our cruising speed by 200 engine RPM's (about one-half knot for Tiger Lilly), our fuel efficiency was significantly improved. On some days we could time our movements with a favorable ebb or flood current to further stretch our fuel. We had sufficient diesel fuel aboard Tiger Lilly (160 gallons in two tanks) for our cruise, but we would have liked to taken advantage of the cheap Venezuelan fuel prices to top-off. Perhaps diesel fuel could be bought in the Village of Cochino (at the junction of Cano Tucupita and Brazos Macareo, 97 miles up-river from Punta Bombeador), or on the Rio Grande at the Village of Sacupana (Mile 108 on the Rio Grande), or at the Town of Curiapo (Mile 60 on the Rio Grande). We did not stop at any of these places, but as we passed them they did look like possible places to stop and ask about diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is available at Barrancas by jerry jug (Rio Grande Mile 142), but you may end up playing Twenty Questions with the Port Captain in his office at Puerto Ordaz (see the CLEARANCE section above). Before we departed Trinidad we took a maxi-taxi to Carenage, and got yellow fever vaccinations at the Free Clinic - for which we made a donation of $20 USD to their less-fortunate mothers program. They give this free immunization service on Wednesday afternoons, and Jesse James can make arrangements for your International Shot Card to be updated and stamped afterwards at the Ministry of Health in Port of Spain. None of the areas we visited in the Delta had malaria problems, and since the preventative medication is quite disagreeable, we did not take it.
LILLY SEZ - When you cruise the Rio Orinoco Delta you must come with all the provisions and supplies that you think you are going to need while you are there, because resupplying in the Delta is very limited - and what you bring is likely all that you will have. Our fresh provisions ran out within a couple of weeks, and then we had to improvise. This was my first cruise to an area where we had very limited resupply, so I tended to buy more than we actually needed - but nothing spoiled and we will use it all in the next few months in Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. It's a win-win since all of these places are more expensive to resupply than was Trinidad. Reflecting our particular eating habits, Tiger Lilly came south with lots of Jello, custard pudding, powdered milk, fresh eggs (5 dozen), Tang drink mix, coffee, brown sugar, several packages of various types of flour for bread. (Yes! I did it! I actually learned how to make bread. My Mother would be so proud - and shocked!) We made lots of popcorn for watching movies in the evening (we have an external hard-drive with several hundred flicks), we ate lots of pancakes for breakfast, and one time I even did crepes filled with canned cherries and topped with Dream Whip from a box (Tom-Tom was sure surprised and pleased that morning). Who-da-thunk that Cream-of-Wheat would taste so good in a tropical rain forest, but it certainly does, and it added some needed variety to our breakfast menu. I enjoy a nice cappuccino while Tom-Tom takes his cup of Earl Grey tea in the afternoon (but I wish I would have remembered to buy a bag of those little marsh-mellows). With all the motoring we did in the rivers of the Delta we had plenty of battery power, and the freezer was always really COLD, so we used the extra refrigeration to make homemade ice cream. When we left Trinidad we had a freezer full of frozen vegetables and meat (mostly chicken and peas and the other boring things HE buys, while I am making sure we have plenty of staples like Cheetos and Dream Whip). The few frozen/thawed/frozen foods we have seen in the Delta stores are obviously the victim of repeated power outages and long trips in unrefrigerated river supply boats. I came up with a quick and easy way of preparing a pizza-like meal using store-bought Pita bread or Burrito sized Flour Tortillas as the base, with doctored-up canned spaghetti sauce, and whatever is in the reefer box. These ingredients travel and store well, and we have another meal that is easy to make - which doesn't take a lot of oven time (propane) to prepare. Our barbeque on the stern rail has its own propane source, and using it to cook our supper saves the stove propane and gets the heat out of the galley - a good thing this close to the Equator. We stocked up on spices in Trinidad for enhancing the food, and many of the other cruising ladies had given me their time and ideas on how to use them. Only a couple of years ago, I was a very busy business woman, usually feeding myself and my son from restaurants and take-out - and cooking was just NOT my forte. I would have rather taken my bicycle out for a 30 mile ride then be chained to a stove. (And my son liked to eat out - so we were both happy.) When Julia Childs heard my name she absolutely CRINGED! Now I find myself in the middle of a river, in the middle of a rain forest, in the middle of a place I had never even heard of, with a bag of whole-wheat flour in one hand, a strange unrecognizable vegetable whose name I am unable to pronounce in the other, and a hungry husband looking at me. (Tough Guy actually keeps track of the last time he ate!) HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? Well, I guess I chose it, and I have grown a lot in many ways since. Remember, I am Tiger Lilly - the gal who gets sea sick when she just LOOKS at the flippin dinghy tied to the dock. (I must admit though, even the sea sick part is getting a lot better - don't you just HATE it when he is right?) Hey Ladies - If I can do this tropical river exploration thingy, and enjoy it, than YOU can do it TOO!
Our dinghy was our principal means of exploration in the Rio Orinoco Delta, so we always tried to prepare ourselves and our dinghy before we departed the safe haven of Spaceship Tiger Lilly. The boat was completely locked when we were away from her on one of our cano exploration expeditions, but we didn't remove the usual deck gear stowed topside. We developed a "Bucket List" and kept a white 2.5 gallon paint bucket filled with our dinghy supplies. (The same bucket Lilly used to throw-up in, but happily it hasn't been used in that capacity for some time now.) By having the dinghy gear pre-staged in the bucket, we did not have to go searching for what we needed each time we set out. Here is our dinghy Bucket List: an outboard motor repair kit including needed tools (although a rowing dinghy often works better in the close confines and underwater hazards of a cano), extra fuel, binoculars, sun glasses, rain ponchos, OFF! or DET based bug spray or Skin-So-Soft with added citronella oil, fly swatter, rag, pad and pencil, mosquito/horsefly head net, drinking water, snacks, good bird book, camera, sun screen, sun / rain umbrella, hats, flash light, knife, machete, and whatever else you think you might need. Since we were not travelling in company, there was no reason to carry a VHF radio (none of the locals have them), but if you are with other cruising boats a hand held VHF would be a good idea. We never intend to spend the night in the jungle, but we are always equipped to. Even though we were in a warm tropical environment, we usually wore long sleeve shirts, long pants, and shoes with high socks to protect ourselves from insects. We found that spraying our items of clothing with bug spray helped keep the critters at bay. When we went into a cano we were always cognizant of the state of the tide - some of these creeks dry out at low water, and walking back to the boat was not a good option. Although we did not depend on an outboard motor to propel the dinghy, we could certainly break an oar - and be up a creek without a paddle! (Sorry - we could not help ourselves!)
1. In river navigation the bends usually have the deepest water. So, if you are looking for more water, try the outside of the bend first.
2. The wider the river was, the shallower it was likely to be. When the river narrows down it has to carry the same volume of water, so it tends to be deeper. We slowed down and paid a lot more attention when the river was wide. (Except for the time when we did not, and then we ran hard aground in the middle of the Reo Macareo.)
3. In a straight section of river, deeper water is likely to be towards the side with the steeper bank.
4. We set the galley timer to ring every 30 minutes, and we hit the waypoint button on the chart plotter when it rang to keep a record of our track. These electronic breadcrumbs - which the birds cannot eat - made returning back up our track easier if it became necessary to do so. (They also came in handy when writing this Pilot.)
5. Running fast with the current to get a few free miles and save fuel seems like a good idea until one goes aground. A sailboat's auxiliary diesel probably will not have the power to back the boat off with 2 knots of current pushing her up on the shoal, and she would likely be quickly pushed to a position broadside-to by the current. Once you are broadside-to on a current scoured bar, you are STUCK! Be careful when taking that free ride. Having another boat in company can pay off in this situation. If you and your mate keep a 100 foot tow line made up to a bow cleat and ready to deploy, and a light 100 foot messenger with a small fender on the stern, you can quickly render mutual assistance. Quickly is the operative word here, and it is all about forehandedness. The rescue vessel stems the current just upstream of the stranded vessel, floats down the messenger line from safe water on a fender, takes the stranded vessel's tow line, and snatches her bow around - this can be done quickly and safely before the stranded vessel works its way too far up the shoal. Once the stranded vessel's bow is back in the current, she is much more likely to be able to power off the bar in tandem with the rescue vessel. The Number One Rule is, keep the slack out of any line in the water, and WATCH IT LIKE A SNAKE - to keep it out of your prop, or you will BOTH end up stranded. (Lilly sez - Can you tell that my Tom-Tom used to be the Captain of a Salvage and Rescue ship? He is a prime example that you can take the boy out of the Navy, but you will never take the Navy out of this boy!)
6. Be prepared to anchor in 30 to 50 foot of water, with plenty of current. If you are a "dragger" in the relatively easy-to-anchor Caribbean islands, then it is likely that cruising the Delta will not be an enjoyable experience - both you and your neighbors will be better off if your boat is in a Chaguaramas marina. Typically, we anchored out in the river in 30 to 40 feet of water; away from the banks and bushes there are fewer bugs. Wind and waves were never a problem; and even in 60 feet of water, if we deployed 180 of our 200 feet of chain (less than 5 to 1) she still stayed-put nicely. Remember: chain in the locker cannot help hold the boat - more is better. We found that our 66 pound Bruce did a great job of anchoring the boat in the thick mud and heavy marl bottoms that are prevalent in the Delta. The Bruce has a good reputation for resetting itself - and in the Delta the current reversed direction every 6 hours or so. Bring good ground tackle to Delta cruising; that way you can explore away from the boat during the day without worrying, and sleep through the night when you are aboard.
7. We always showed an anchor light at night since there is often boat traffic on the river during the hours of darkness - and they don't seem to slow down even though they can't see where they are going. (Power boaters are exactly the same in Florida too.) All the local folks already know that a yacht is on their river, so we figured there was no point in trying to keep a low visual profile at night.
8. We don't usually get involved in "buddy boating". However, in the Delta we think it would be quite worthwhile to have another boat in company. We recommend a pairing of boats. Any more than two boats at a time would likely overwhelm the relatively shy Waro people. This is a really big area and there is plenty of room for several boats to cruise at the same time, and not be crowded. Although we did not experience any security problems while we were in the Delta, we were warned by the local authorities that there was drug trafficking in the region, and that was the greatest potential threat security wise. But these criminals want to make their transactions in secrecy, and yachties are not their target. It seems to us that a yacht could be a target of opportunity for the bad guys, but a pirate could starve waiting for a nice plump white yachtie to come along in this remote area. Another problem is bandits who prey on the Venezuelan fuel smugglers returning to Venezuela with the cash they have received for their contraband fuel - but these routes are obvious, and cruisers should avoid them.
We departed Chaguaramas, sailed across the Gulf of Paria, through Trinidad's Oil Patch, and anchored the first night at Columbus Bay on the southwest corner of Trinidad. We sailed right through the Point Fortin oil fields, and nobody seemed to care that we were there. However, because of the un-lit abandoned well-heads, this is not a good place to be moving about during the hours of darkness. Columbus Bay is a marginal anchorage with shallow water, and lots of swirling currents; but it is secure in the lee of Icacos Point, and good enough for an overnight stop. At first-light on the following day we motor-sailed around Punta Del Arenal and along the south coast of Trinidad to Erin Bay - just across the Serpents Mouth from the entrance to the Reo Macareo. We left Columbus Bay early while the wind was calm so that we could get our easting in before the easterly Trades got up in the afternoon, and the seas got rough. There was a lot of interesting early morning fishing activity along Trinidad's south shore, and we motor-sailed in 20 feet, running right along the beach to stay out of the strong westerly setting current. We used Erin Bay as a staging anchorage and lunch stop before crossing the Serpents Mouth at the right time to catch the afternoon high on the entrance bar to the Reo Macareo at Punta Bombeador. Erin Bay does not offer much shelter, but sitting there with a riding sail set is better than slugging into the heavy chop kicked-up by the afternoon Trades. The sail across the Serpents Mouth from Erin Bay is a brisk close reach in the Easterly Trades. We used the same waypoints to clear Punta Bombeador that are published in S/V Margo's 1999 Cruising Notes (as revised by S/V Arctic Tern), but we think that they probably need to be resurveyed. RM1 seemed to be a good approach point, however the leg from RM2 to RM3 proved to have several areas with only about 6.5 feet of water (and we estimate 6 feet of that was from the high tide). We were very careful to stay right on the track between the waypoints, and we were at RM-2 about 30 minutes before the high at Erin Bay, but we still ended up motoring through the mud between waypoints RM2 and RM3 with our nearly 7 foot of draft. It was no big deal, and we did not even see an appreciable reduction in speed; so either the bottom is very soft (likely), or the fathometer was being fooled by the current / soft bottom and the water is actually a bit deeper (possible). These waypoints worked for us, but they are probably due for additional work:
RMA1 (9-57.1N 061-39.0W)
RMA2 (9-54.9N 061-38.8W) - S/V Arctic Tern (updated 9-55.048N 061-38.830W)
RMA3 (9-54.2N 061-40.7W) - S/V Arctic Tern (updated 9-54.148N 061-40.770W)
Once clear of RM-3 and headed southeast towards the mouth of the Reo Macareo, the channel has plenty of water and is easy to navigate. We found that by heading towards the mangroves on our port hand until the depth began to lessen, and then coming back out a bit to 15 to 20 feet, we were able to easily work our way past the undefined submerged sandbanks / shallows on our starboard hand (to the southwest). The tide will be up when you pass along this well defined mangrove-lined shore to the north, but the shallow sandbanks to the south will be submerged. The Pelican Island anchorage was a welcome sight, and we were excited to put the hook down in the Rio Orinoco Delta again. Perhaps a future cruiser with a fast RIB and a hand-held fathometer could re-survey Punta Bombeador and try to find a bit more water. Another area that needs some clarification is the actual time of high tide at Punta Bombeador in relation to the published tide-tables for Erin Bay, just across the Serpents Mouth on Trinidad's south shore. Depending on who we asked, experienced Delta cruisers or the local fishermen, or which set of cruising notes we consulted, we got a range of answers regarding the time of high tide at Punta Bombeador. These estimates varied from one hour before, to just after, high tide at Erin Bay. It would be very helpful if someone would take the time to make a direct and accurate observation of the high tide at Pelican Island, and compare it to the time of high tide at Erin Bay, and definitively establish the time difference. This work would be another important addition to the cruiser's corporate knowledge of the Reo Macareo. A deeper channel, and a time closer to the actual high at Punta Bombeador would certainly be helpful in getting in on tides with less than 6 feet of range.
Ready For Cruising - When we woke up that first morning at the Pelican Island anchorage we were really excited about cruising the Delta - and it had been awhile since we had felt that sense of adventure. Our conversation with Brian the fisherman the previous afternoon, and a wonderfully peaceful night's rest, seemed to erase all of our fears and misgivings about coming here. The nay-sayers of Chaguaramas were in their marinas and in our wake, and we were ready for an adventure. We transformed Tiger Lilly from a bluewater sailing vessel to the "African Queen" ready for river operations by launching "Grace" the dinghy, rigging screens on all the companionways, ports and hatches, deploying the cockpit sun fly, and rigging fenders for the anticipated visits of the Waro Indians in their dugout canoes. We were ready to explore!
Brian's Fish Camp - We had anchored just southeast of Pelican Island (9-51.833N 061-38.658W) so that the guano smell and bugs which are a natural part of any large bird community were downwind of Tiger Lilly. Just a few hundred meters southeast of this anchorage, at the entrance to a cano on the north shore, is Brian's fish camp. Brian speaks the King's English and he told us that cruisers were welcome to stop here and talk with him about the Delta. He proved to be a reliable source of information, and we recommend a talk with Brian on the way in.
Macareo Village - Just inside the mouth of the Reo Macareo on the southwest bank of the river is the large Waro settlement of Macareo Village. Stay to the opposite (northeast) side of the river until just abeam of the village, as there is shallow water just to the northwest of the village. As with all of our navigation in the Delta, the fathometer showed us how to proceed. In the middle of the village, just past a cano which bisects it, is the home of the Guyanese fellow Collins (married to a Waro woman - a common family mix in the Delta). Collins is referred to extensively in S/V Margo's cruising notes (and confirmed by S/V Arctic Tern more recently) as a good source of tours and trading with the Waro. We did not stop and talk with Collins, as neither tours nor trading with the Waro were what we were interested in. Venezuela disputes their common boundary with Guyana, and in fact the Venezuelan government considers the Guyanese citizens in the northern region of Guyana to be their own - so the boarder and citizenship is somewhat undefined. Lots of relationships, social, commercial, and otherwise, take place freely between the two regions. We did not see much in the way of law enforcement patrols on the waterways of either country.
River Island Anchorage - This was our first anchorage (9-36.02N 061-33.27W) on the Reo Macareo proper, just 20 miles upstream of Pelican Island, and what a delight. We were tucked in on the east bank (left ascending bank to you Mississippi River pilots) at the head of an island with a cano tucked in just behind. We woke to the fierce calls of howler monkeys, apparently communicating with another troupe just across the river, and a toucan bidding us a good morning from an adjacent tree top. We put our folding deck chairs on the cabin top to take our morning coffee - and felt like we were as richly endowed as the Rockefellers! The cano proved to be a great place to explore - each bend revealed a new species of bird, and a colorful Green Kingfisher escorted us for the entire time we were on HIS cano. It was here that we found rowing the dink to be much preferred over the outboard for shallow-water close-quarters exploring. The noisy outboard really detracted from the otherwise peaceful environment on the cano, and the snags in the cano were more easily navigated over and around with the oars. For the remainder of our time in the Delta, our 2.5 HP outboard motor remained on deck chained to the stern rail (push-pit for our British cousins). If you find yourself here with a rubber ducky of some variation for a tender (which row like a jelly doughnut) a possible tactic for cano exploration could be to slowly and carefully (pay attention Lilly, watch for those snags) motor up the cano on the ebb, and then drift back down using one of the pathetic little aluminium and plastic oars to steer.
Cano Guapoa - This was our favorite place on the Reo Macareo; it was so very picturesque with huge brilliant green water hyacinth islands floating by, pink river dolphin actively feeding in the deep cano, maroon howler monkeys lounging on their backs in the tree-tops, and birds everywhere. We had it in mind to go to the end of the Cano Guapoa, turn right at the junction, and hopefully run northwest to the Reo Macareo. But that did not happen. We worked our way through THICK water hyacinth, got to the tee junction (vicinity 9-13.06N 061-42.05W), turned right, and as far as we could see was a complete blanket of water hyacinth from bank to bank. We were skunked! After a considerable amount of backing and filling we got Tiger Lilly turned around and returned from whence we came. So, we leave it to a future explorer to tell us if this cano does in fact go back to the Reo Macareo. Our Cano Guapoa anchorage (9-14.90N 061-42.07W) was at a smaller side cano; and a family of pink river dolphin were using the mouth of the side cano as a nursery. We enjoyed watching Momma feed and care for her baby while Papa aggressively patrolled the entrance.
Lau Lau Lagoon - We gained access to the Lau Lau Lagoon via the Cano Lau Lau which meets the Reo Macareo at 9-18.30N 061-45.16W. There is a small Waro camp at the narrow junction, and we hove-to and stemmed the ebb while Lilly visited with the Waro mother and her children at Tiger Lilly's deck edge. The Lau Lau Lagoon is a shallow oxbow-shaped lake formed years ago when the river jumped its banks, making a cut-off and shortening itself. One never knows how much water will be available on a given stretch of cano in the Delta, and although the Region is tidal throughout, our only indication of the height of the tide at any given place were the water marks on the bank. But sometimes that is not so obvious. The lesser semidiurnal tidal variation is superimposed with the greater Wet Season - Dry Season marks on the banks / bushes / trees. As we proceeded up the cano Lau Lau we found a 6 foot shallow spot (9-17.82N 061-46.16W) and had to do a bit of mud-slugging on the way in. Two days later, on the way out (when we could better pick our time of transit since it was at the beginning of the cruising day rather than at the end) we had no problem and saw closer to 8 feet at this shallow section of Cano Lau Lau. Our anchorage in the Lau Lau Lagoon (9-14.85N 061-47.86W) was in the east half of the lagoon since smoke from a burning field between the two sections completely covered the usually more desirable western side. There was no longer any evidence of the floating ecotourist hotel previously seen on the western side of the lagoon. This region of the Delta begins cattle country (well, really water buffalo country - cattle do not do well in this wet environment) and we were interested to see a water buffalo ranch on the bank of the Cano Lau Lau just as it opened into the lagoon. We rowed over in the dinghy and had a grand time with two young men tending the camp while the other cowboys (buffalo-boys?) were out with most of the herd in the wetlands. This vast plain, some 600 miles long by 200 miles wide, of savannah and scrub woodland lying between the Rio Orinoco and the Andes Mountains is named the Llanos. Cruising is full of unexpected treats; we came to the Lau Lau Lagoon to see birds, and we ended up having a very enjoyable day with two young Venezuelan lianeros on a buffalo ranch!
Cano Tirital - It only gets better on the Reo Macareo, and now we had a NEW favorite cano! At Cano Tirital (9-04.55N 061-50.30W), some 67 miles upstream from Pelican Island, we saw the Waro in the very best natural setting; they fished and hunted in their native way, accompanied by absolutely gorgeous birdlife (the Wattled Jacana at the top of this post is a Cano Tirital resident), and paddled their dugout canoes on a circuitous tropical creek right out of the National Geographic Magazine. In two outings just 10 hours apart we saw the birds of Cano Tirital come in to roost on the cool evening breeze, and then fly back out to feed early the next morning through the forest's mist glowing with the soft magenta hues of the coming dawn. The concentric ripples of hundreds of fish feeding on insects were reflected in the bronzed reflective surface of the cano. In just two dinghy trips we saw Blue-Winged Parrotlet, Yellow Oriole, Crested Guan, Wattled Jacana, Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Grey Heron, Green Night Heron, White Egret, Kiskadee, Green King Fisher, Harpy Eagle, King Vulture, Red Tailed Hawk, and Yellow Oriole. We loved it!
BUMP! - We were happily motoring down the center of the Reo Macareo in 20 feet of water, checking out the cattle ranches along the banks and taking our morning coffee, with not a care in the world - and before a fellow could say "SON OF A BITCH!" we were hard aground. (Lilly sez - Why do you sailors have to say such things? Why could you not just say "OOPS" or "OH MY GOSH LILLY - WE'RE AGROUND"? Is THAT how you learned to talk in your precious NAVY?) At any rate, when you come to a really interesting looking cattle operation on your port hand in the vicinity of 9-02.121N 061-49.411W (hereafter known as Tiger Lilly Bar) perhaps you might consider swinging wide right to the west and avoid the humiliating prospect of being hard aground in the center of the river.
Boca Macareo - The sketch-charts in the S/V Margo cruising notes we inherited (which were very well done) seemed to indicate the deep water track through this widening of the Reo Macareo at the junction with the Reo Manamo to be towards the north (off Isla Caporito). We made multiple attempts to find a way through the north side of the Boca (the concave side of the bend - where river logic has the deep water) to no avail. In a blinding rainstorm we anchored in the middle of the Boca, licked our wounded psychic, and reconsidered our course of action. On Lilly's insistence, we tried the OTHER side of the passage, along the steep banks of the convex side of the bend (completely illogical), and damned if it didn't work. (Don't you just hate it when that happens?) We followed the left bank close aboard on our port hand and had water in or above the teens all the way through (pretty much on a straight line from 8-50.339N 062-00.876W to 8-50.174N 062-01.967W, just follow your fathometer). Boca Macareo is a large body of water with complex currents, lots of fast boat traffic, and the Village of Cochino on the eastern end - it is a major crossroads in the Delta. The Reo Manamo leads to Tucupita, the major city in the Delta Region, but Brian told us that it is not navigable by a deep-draft sailing yacht because of a tidal weir (underwater dam) in the river. However, if one wished to visit Tucupita, this would be a good place to leave a yacht (hopefully attended), and take a fast boat up the Reo Manamo. Perhaps diesel fuel (by the 50 gallon barrel) can be arranged at the Village of Cochino here at Boca Macareo.
Bar at Brazos Macareo - Perhaps our greatest pre-concern when planning this cruise of the Delta - which is just part of a greater voyage from Trinidad to the Guianas and Brazil - was, "Could we transit from the Reo Macareo to the Reo Grande at the end of the Dry Season when the river was at its lowest stage?" If we got to the bar between the rivers, and could not make it over (or worse, got stuck on the bar with six feet of falling tide), we had over 110 miles of river to motor BACK down, and then BEAT out the Serpents Mouth and around Punta Bombeador to the southeast - not an inviting prospect. When we arrived at the mouth of the Reo Macareo, Brian had assured us that if we stayed on the north side of the pass, we would find plenty of water, even at the current Dry Season stage of the river. On the afternoon before we planned to run the bar we made our approach to the bar from upstream at 8-45.13N 062-03.84W and put Tiger Lilly in a staging anchorage at 8-44.28N 062.06.17W. That night we could see the ship-channel buoys blinking out on the Rio Grande, and hoped that we would be running down them towards the sea tomorrow. The next morning we were underway an hour before high water (we made our best-guess based on watching the water on the bank), and ran that sucker as slick as you please - with water in the teens and twenties all the way - just like Brian told us we would. Oftentimes, worrying about something is a lot more difficult than actually doing it! We ran pretty much a straight line from our anchorage to safe water at the edge of the channel in the Rio Grande at 8-42.82N 062-07.99W. At that point, (Rio Grande Mile 139.1 - the river buoys are named for their distance from the sea buoy) we gave a cheer and turned downstream, where Tiger Lilly would once more become a bluewater sailing vessel. Alternatively, one could turn upstream in the Rio Grande and proceed to the town of Barrancas at Mile 143, and then on to Puerto Ordaz at Mile 184 to get your passport back.
PHOTO GALLERY: Main / Ports of Call / South America / Venezuela / Rio Orinoco Delta Pilot
CONTINUED ON THE PREVIOUS BLOG