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The Saga of Ursa Minor
Just added pictures of San Blas Islands and Curacao and Bonaire
03/30/2007

Check out the photo gallery and see my pictures of San Blas and Curacao and Bonaire. If you click on the picture labeled San Blas (or Bonaire & Curacao) it will open up the subalbum which contains lots more pictures. For some reason the San Blas album is on page 2 of the photo gallery, and Bonaire and Curacao are at the end of the last page.

We're in Panama, awaiting transit through the Canal.
bright, sunny & warm
03/28/2007, Colon, Panama

We arrived Monday afternoon in Colon, Panama, where we're anchored off the Panama Yacht Club. We did most of our paperwork yesterday, should get measured tomorrow so we can pay the big bill, and get a date to transit the Canal. We had a great time in the San Blas Islands, I'll add a separate entry about those lovely islands soon.

Margarita to Curacao, with lots of lovely little islands in between!
03/13/2007, Seru Boca Marina, Curacao


We left Margarita on February 21, sailing overnight for Tortuga, another Venezuelan island, and it's outlying islands. We'd hoped to get off in time to navigate the channel south of Margarita with good light, but unfortunately our clearance papers didn't arrive back to us until late afternoon. In Margarita, one generally clears in and out using an agent, and we were stuck there for a few days of national holiday, so of course the day they reopened, things didn't happen as quickly as promised. It was dusk as we set off, but we did just fine navigating along the south coast of Margarita and through the sometimes narrow channel between it and a few islands just to the south. Our winds were fairly light, so we ended up motoring all the way to Tortuga, with quite a bit of roll which our staysail helped settle. We arrived at Tortuga just after dawn, hoping to anchor at Playa Caldera, an anchorage on the northeastern corner. When we got there, two sailboats were just leaving, and it was apparent why - it was a very rolly anchorage as a northeasterly swell was coming in, so we continued on along the northern coast to a gorgeous little island just off the northwest coast, Cayo Heradura, which had been highly and rightfully so recommended by Gwen of Tackless II, where we anchored in less than 10 feet of water in great holding sand. This island was basically just a long curving beach with some reef and a few fishermen's camps and a lighthouse - just enchanting. We traded some rum and cigarettes for 4 small lobsters from some passing fishermen, and lazed aboard the first day, then snorkeled ashore and took a long walk on the beach the next. We never even had to wrestle the dinghy off the deck, we were able to explore just fine by swimming in.

Lovely as it was, we had places to go and things to do, so left at 5 pm on the 23rd for an overnight sail to the Los Roques islands, with a big school of dolphins seeing us off just before dusk as we sailed out. You gotta love those dolphins!
We had strong winds through the night, but a mostly delightful sail, except for the big ship that seemed never to see us. We had him in our sites for an hour or more, he was approaching us from several miles off our starboard quarter, and although we definitely had the right of way we made repeated futile attempts to contact him on the radio to make sure he saw us. We don't think he answered us, unless he was the one doing silly stuff on the radio - playing music and saying silly stuff over the VHF which one normally only hears when someone's let their kids get at the radio, and occasionally from what we assume are Venezuelan fishermen. We definitely did not receive an appropriate or helpful response. When he was about a mile away and instead of just seeing his red light we were now seeing his red and green alternating, we knew he was headed straight for us. After begging him to respond on the radio without luck, we altered course and avoided him, and watched as a fairly large ship passed behind us. It was a good reminder of the importance of keeping watch carefully.

We made such good speed, even after reducing our sail considerably, that we arrived before dawn off of the SE entrance to Las Roques, so had to sail off for a few hours so as not to enter the tricky entrance before 9am. The Los Roques islands, lying 90 miles northwest of Tortuga, consist of several small islands, lots and lots of reefs and shallows and narrow channels. There is one larger inhabited island, the home of a resort that caters to Italians, but we didn't visit it. The SE entrance requires good light to come in, as one passes between a very low rocky finger of land and a long nasty reef. Once through the entrance, one turns and goes up a narrow channel between two sets of reefs about a half a mile to the first good anchorage behind a small mangrove island growing out of the fringing reef. We arrived safely, and anchored behind a mega yacht which was fortunately getting ready to weigh anchor, so for two days we had the anchorage to ourselves, other than a few sportfishing boats that came in late in the day and left first thing in the morning. Snorkelling was rather dull, lots of empty conch shells and nothing too exciting in the fish department, but the setting was lovely and very comfortable.

On 2/25 we sailed north and west through a series of reefs in Los Roques to the anchorage at Sarqui, another uninhabited island, which had several other cruising boats already at anchor. We had a lovely snorkel here, some very nice coral and some huge parrot fish as well as several other fish. There was evidence that much of the coral here has suffered from the high water temps in recent years, but there was quite a bit still looking healthy. While in some ways the fish didn't seem to come in quite as many varieties as we're used to, the big parrot fish were a treat. We used to see some of them in the Virgins, but hadn't for a few years. We see lots of parrot fish everywhere, but only very occasionally see the really big ones - and in the off islands of Venezuela we've seen them now several times
.
On 2/26 we sailed downwind to Cayo Agua, an island in the southwestern corner of Los Roques. The outside anchorage on the southern side that we'd hoped for looked too rolly, so we continued on inside what amounted to a big U of island and reef, on the northern side of Cayo Agua, where we had to navigate carefully between reefs and shoals to get to the anchorage. Once there we were delighted to find good holding and protection from the seas, and a great view all around of sand and reef and a few palm trees. While there were several French boats there our first night, they all left and we had the place to ourselves the next night under a bright clear moonlit sky. The snorkeling was very nice (more humongous parrot fish) and on the beach I found a lovely big square of tortoise shell
.
Next we had a beautiful daysail to Aves de Sotovento, belonging, like Los Roques , Tortuga and Margarita, to Venezuela. This was another uninhabited island, although again there were a few fishing camps. We anchored in behind a big mangrove grove, and again never put the dinghy in the water, as we could snorkel and explore without it. The coral here looked better than any we'd seen a quite awhile. There were many birds, primarily various varieties of boobies - so many that the cruising guide recommends not anchoring too close to the mangroves if you don't want to be bombed with bird waste. Several of the cruisers got together on the beach for sunset cocktails, and a neighbor graciously offered us a ride in since our dinghy was perched on the deck.

A fifty mile day sail under genoa only in 15-25 knots of wind behind us brought us to Bonaire late in the day on March 2. Finally the dinghy went in the water and we went in to clear before having a delightful dinner in an Italian restaurant with table cloths and line napkins - quite a treat after our more normal casual style. We rented a car for 24 hours and toured the island. Bonaire is part of the Netherlands Antilles, and the people have fabulous language skills - they all seem to speak English very well, plus Dutch of course, and the local dialect known as Papiamento, and Spanish too. It is a mostly low-lying flat island, quite dry especially this time of year. Traditionally it made money by producing salt from the salt ponds and aloe extract and charcoal. The lives of the slaves here must have been very rough - it was a hard scrabble existence for anyone, but the slaves working the salt ponds lived in tiny houses that you had to bend in half to enter, and couldn't stand up in. Several of these houses have been preserved to remind us. We also visited the museum at the national park on the northern end of the island where there were exhibits about life on the old plantations, where an existence was found from making charcoal from cactus, and extracting juice from aloe for export. The slaves who worked the salt mines in the south, would walk for 7 hours each weekend to their homes on the north end to see their families. The slave houses in the south were only for "camping out" in while working the salt. The salt ponds are still in operation, and quite lovely to look at - first we passed the condensing ponds, with fairly normal looking ocean water in them, and then came to the crystallizing ponds which were an amazing shade of raspberry. How salt water and salt can be pink I'll never know. Bonaire's big tourist draw is the spectacular diving offered all along the coast where the water quickly drops off with walls of reef. I snorkelled one spot on the map, and discovered it was quite tricky getting into the water over the rocks and through the coral while waves were breaking on the shore. Bryan thought I was nuts for trying, but I managed to get back out with nary a scrape, although I wasn't at all sure that was going to be the case. The coral was nice, and there were some great fish, but all in all, I still haven't seen a place down here that offers the variety of snorkeling that the Virgin Islands do. The next day we did a few snorkels further along the coast where entry was much simpler over sand, and then a few from the dinghy, the best being over at Klein Bonaire, a very flat island lying just off the West coast. Lots of great coral, and an abundance of fish.

Another fast downwind day sail brought us to Curacao, another Dutch island, but much bigger and far more diversified. Nice diving and snorkeling here too, but there's also a big oil refinery, a big duty-free zone, and lots and lots of snowbirds from Europe who have retired here. Downtown Willemstad is very quaint and colorful, with old-style European architecture and a moveable bridge for tourists to get across from one side of town to the other. It moves when a ship needs to come in the main channel, at which point the tourists can take a free ferry across.
We've been in the Seru Bocu marina in Spanish Water (a huge, many-fingered and very well-protected body of water reached after entering through a half-mile winding channel). We had to do some work on the fuel tanks (the senders for the gauges needed replacing) and some other odd jobs, so we did the marina instead of anchoring. It's also been handy for laundry and provisioning. The marina is miles from town, embedded in a large gated development area. To get to town you have to get the staff to drive you over a mile to the main gate where you can eventually get a bus. But there are some nice activities in the marina, (including a free bus to a big grocery store) and the dinghy gives us access to other marinas and bars in Spanish Water.

Bryan lost a filling in a tooth. Bryan visited Dr. Hageman-Hoo, who with her husband Dr. Hageman runs Centro Dental Mahai. Bryan says she did a great job, even though she wasn't able to refill his tooth but had to pull it because there wasn't enough left to refill. He grumped about for a few days, but seems to be on the mend now.
We rented a car for a few days and saw quite a bit of the island. There are lovely beaches all along the west coast, especially in the north. A national park on the east coast has a major "bubbly pool" with huge breakers sending spray sky-high. There's a Cost-U-Less (one of our favorite stores from St. Thomas, sort of a Sam's Club with no membership required) and lots of other huge stores with a great selection of stateside and European products. We provisioned quite a bit in Trinidad and Margarita, so didn't have room for much more, and but for the prices wish we could have bought a whole lot more here
.
On Sunday we went to the nearby marina and played Mexican Train dominoes, then hiked on Monday for three hours with some new friends we'd made here, Cathy and Brian from the boat Tundra. A three hour hike over a few hills, by some charming residential areas, then across the salt flats where we saw flamingoes. Today Bryan got his stitches out, so tomorrow we leave for the San Blas Islands off of Panama, a three or four day trip which we may break up with a stop in Aruba, but more likely will do straight. This patch of the ocean is known for high winds and nasty seas (my brother John and his wife said it was the worst they saw all the way around the world), but the weatherman says we have a nice window to do it, so we need to get moving. The warm weather up in the States is apparently a good sign that there won't be any nasty influence on the area from the north. We've had many days of 20-25 knots of wind so far, and this next stretch frequently has 30-40 this time of year, so we're really happy that the prediction is for much milder winds and seas this week.

I've taken scads of pictures, but don't have time to get them into the blog now, so check back in a few weeks for views of these latest places.




We shouldn't run out of rum for awhile!
sunny, slightly chilly
02/21/2007, Margarita

We're hoping to leave Margarita, a duty-free off-shore island of Venezuela, today, and head for Tortuga, the Roques and the Aves, more off-shore Venezeulan islands. This one is big and touristy, lots of high-rise condos, garbage everywhere, ancient US cars chugging along as taxis, and the cheapest booze and diesel we're ever likely to see.
We've only been here a few days, having stopped mainly to clear in and out of Venezuela, and to stock up on cheap rum and diesel. We just about filled two 10 liter water bottles with rum - one with cheap stuff (about $1 US /fifth, and by no means the cheapest available) and one with some classier stuff (about $2/fifth). We also stocked up on boxed wines - haven't tried it yet, but hopefully it'll be OK for wine coolers if nothing else. Topped up our jerry jugs of diesel for 50 Bolivars/liter (about $.25/gallon!) and I'm still angry with Bryan for not topping up the main tanks.
On our way here from Trinidad, we spent 3 days in the Los Testigo islands, a little group of islands populated by a few hundred people who support themselves fishing. As usual, we didn't catch any fish, but did have a delightful overnight sail getting there in 15-20 knots of breeze off our quarter, and 2 or 3 knots of current helping us along. Our biggest problem was slowing down enough to not arrive before daybreak. A huge group of dolphins saw us off as we departed Trinidad, frolicking around our bow for several minutes. While in Los Testigos we climbed the largest sand dunes I've seen in the Caribbean, about 200', bringing to mind the shores of Lake Michigan. We mainly just lazed in the Los Testigos (and no, it doesn't mean testicles, but "witnesses"), didn't get done all the paperwork sorting and organizing I've been putting off for ages, but I'll get to it sometime. While here, we did sit down and organize all our tax info for the accountant, which was a big load off the collective mind.
The wifi here has been sporadic, sometimes I think it's my computer acting up again, and then it's great again. We'll be without internet access for the next week or two while we go through the next batch of uninhabited and sparsely inhabited isles where hopefully we'll keep busy with lots of snorkelling, fishing, bread making, and not too much rum drinking. This rum is supposed to last for a very long time!

almost underway
Judy
02/13/2007, Trinidad

We're hoping to head west tomorrow toward Los Testigos islands off of Venezuela then on toward Margarita Island a few days later. I had a major disaster today, which thanks to the good heart of a fellow cruiser has been pretty much corrected, but not without leaving a few lingering hassles. My computer totally crashed first thing this morning, and would not open Windows no matter what we tried. A call for help on the local radio net brought Dalton of the yacht Quietly to my aid, and after several patient hours he was able to recover my data (which for awhile looked hopeless, much to my horror), back it up to an external hard drive, install a new operating system, and put it all back together, so I am once again on-line. There are some changes in the system which hopefully will keep my computer happier, but which mean a few hiccups in my ability to do what I used to do with the computer and a few things I'll need to learn. Not exactly a hassle I needed as we're preparing to leave, but in the end hopefully a well-appreciated improvement to my computer. Because of all this, I probably will not be able to do daily updates by email through the Singlesideband radio for awhile, but will only be able to add posts when I have internet access on the larger islands.
Hopefully, though, we'll be able to send frequent position updates to Yotreps (see post below entitled "To see where we are") so you can follow our trail.

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Ursa Minor's Crew
Who: Captains Bryan Lane (callsign NP2NH) and Judy Knape
Port: St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
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