Venezuelan Islands

….or Grenada to the ABCs

Pipistrelle at anchor en route

And so began one of the highlights of our voyaging so far.  In Prickly Bay, Grenada, we found ourselves anchored next to a French yacht, Altair 2, and its crew, Thierry and Sylvie, who come from Carcasson, and have spent the last 4 years sailing in and around Venezuela and the Caribbean.  They were planning to sail to Islas Los Testigos on the same evening as we were, together with a Swiss yacht, Briganne with Bernard and Renee, and another French charter yacht, crewed by Vincent and Jean Philippe, who have taken 6 months out from their IT careers.  They are also passionate kite-surfers!

Because of the security situation around Trinidad, Grenada and Venezuela, open discussion of departure date and time was strictly hush-hush.  On the VHF radio we used only Christian names, and switched to a separate communication channel after an initial call on 16, but this was never mentioned on air!   Elaine also practised the fine art of French radio etiquette!  We set off as the sun was setting, and our AIS receiver quickly showed about 6 large fishing boats directly in our path, 11 miles away.  As we closed with these boats, we discovered that none had navigation lights, even though they were under way, making avoiding action difficult!

The rest of the passage was a pleasant reach, and Pipistrelle romped away so we found ourselves shortening our genoa to enable the other boats to keep up, eventually dropping anchor in a delightful bay on the north side of one of the islands.  We were joined by a school of dolphins for 30 minutes before arriving at Testigos.

Testigos is a wild and desolate group of islands, inhabited almost totally by humble fishermen, who live a fairly primitive life there.  A coastguard from mainland Venezuela is always present though, working a rota system, and he came alongside to check our papers, but nothing more.

Anchorage at Los Testigos – Frigate birds aplenty!

That evening along with Sylvie & Thierry we joined Jean Philippe and Vincent to enjoy ‘aperos’ and a delicious sashimi of tuna they had caught en route.  We were then shown 4 movies that Jean Philippe had taken, as he was towed along behind their yacht at 6 knots, holding on with one hand to a heavy rope and home-made sling, taking pictures of dolphins with the other, not to mention taking his life in his hands!  We have never heard of anyone doing this – will it catch on as another extreme sport?  But what a photographic result – this is a still taken from the movies.

Supreme elegance

The next day we joined Bernard and Renee on further down the island, and we were all invited to join him at 2100 to hopefully see a turtle laying eggs on a beach on the windward side.  Two dinghies carried us to a narrow beach, and from there we hiked up a huge sand dune and down to a beautiful long sandy beach the far side.  The French were well prepared, and had brought drinks and nibbles for everybody.  After 3 patrols of the beach, we spotted a large black object –  a 2 metre tagged leatherback turtle, weighing about 600 kg, the largest species of all living sea turtles.

Mummy Leatherback choosing her nesting site

Once she thought she was far enough up the beach, she began digging a hole, scooping out the sand using her two back flippers.  The way she uses these was extraordinary, very similar to a human hand, and eventually widening the hole at its base, once it was about 2 feet deep.  Unfortunately her hole began filling with sea water because she had chosen a spot too close to the water’s edge.  As soon as she realised, it took considerable effort to move her bulk at another 6 feet or so and start all over again.

Success!   This time the hole was far enough from the sea, and we then watched as she laid a very large number of eggs, maybe 60 or 80.  What was fascinating was that her back right flipper covered the hole, and almost exactly fitted the opening.  Happily she kept moving it slightly, so we were able to see the egg pile growing.

Laying the eggs

When she had finished, she filled the hole with sand, carefully damping it down with a flipper as she progressed.  Once it was level, she moved forward a little, and used her back flippers to cover her tracks by sweeping sand backwards and sideways.

Finally satisfied, she slowly moved forwards towards the surf, leaving marks in the sand that resemble tractor tyres, and turning a couple of times en route to confuse predators about the exact location of the eggs.  Then at last she disappeared into the sea, and at 0200 we made our way back to the dinghies after a vigil lasting about 5 hours!  A truly remarkable, happy, and unexpected evening!  We felt really privileged to have witnessed one of nature’s miracles.

We spent a few extra days in Testigos, snorkelling and paying a return visit to the turtle beach in daylight.  And we could see from the tracks that more turtles had laid eggs in the meantime.

After some discussion we changed our plans at this point to take advantage of Thierry and Sylvie’s local knowledge.  This was a red-letter day because since we’ve been cruising this is the first time we have chosen to alter plans rather than having them changed for us by weather conditions!  And we weren’t disappointed!

We headed south west to Porlamar on Isla Margarita, a large mountainous island only 13 nm north of the coast of Venezuela.  The island is a holiday resort for the Venezuelan rich, and Porlamar is studded with high rise apartment and hotel blocks.  It is also duty free, and so many more wealthy Venezuelans visit from the mainland to buy electrical goods and groceries that are either unavailable at home or very expensive.  After a quick provisioning stop for fresh fruit and veg in a massive European style supermarket, we had a pleasant afternoon sail to Isla Cubagua, about 25 nm to the SW.

Cubagua – Pipistrelle and Altair 2 in background

It was once the centre of the local pearl fishing industry going back to 1492, and the Spanish built a town on the south of the island, Nueva Cadiz.  There were the usual skirmishes, and eventually the Spanish threw the locals out, apart from Indian slave divers.  However, after a few decades of heavy exploitation a tidal wave arrived on Christmas Day 1541 and washed away the town the Spanish had built, and the Spanish!   Pearl fishing survived until 1962 since when it has been prohibited.

Now the island is inhabited only by fishermen, and Thierry & Sylvie invited us to join them to meet a family they know.  They live in very simple structures, no doors or windows, open to the elements on the lee side.  This couple has 7 well behaved children, they all sleep in hammocks, and have an extremely basic life.  But they are most generous and welcoming and we were invited to sit down to ‘chat’ (Spanish this time!) while the fisherman’s wife, Iris disappeared, returning with a small cup of coffee for everyone!  Thierry and Sylvie had bought them some provisions, and in return they presented us with some beautiful shells.  We also managed to find a mask and snorkel for them.   All in all a very humbling experience.

Typical fishing boat or ‘pirogue’ – fishermen’s faith reflected in boat names.  Small chapels can be found on most islands

And so at this point it was a parting of the ways, with Sylvie and Thierry sailing to Puerto la Cruz, and us 70 nm to Tortuga.  We remained in VHF and SSB contact until they returned home to France 10 days later and we hope we meet up with them again!

We arrived at Punta Delgada late in the afternoon to see a large cruising yacht wrecked on the reef guarding the anchorage.  Once in though it was delightful, a large horseshoe shaped bay, with perfect white sandy beaches, azure water, and nobody else there apart from one fishing boat.  The next day we went ashore to find Muncho, another fisherman friend of Thierry and Sylvie.  In conversation (if you can call elementary Spanish and a lot of gesticulation a dialogue) he told us he had rescued one baby turtle.  Unfortunately the frigate birds had had the rest.  He took us to his fishing boat which was moored in the lagoon, and there in a small vivarium built into the boat, was a baby leatherback turtle!  He told us he will feed and look after it for 100 days, before releasing it into the sea.  A fitting end to this chapter of our turtle story!

Cute Baby Leatherback

We also walked along the windward side of the lagoon, and here witnessed the tragedy of plastic which wrecked the idyll.  Thousands of bottles of every type had been washed up on the beach, all of which appear to have come from the Venezuelan mainland.  An effort has been made to clear these up, but without any incentive, the mountain will grow until the authorities educate people not to dump plastic into the sea.  As we go west, we know that sadly we will see more plastic detritus.

The Idyll …….

… and The Plastic Waste

We also anchored at two other islands of Tortuga, Cayo Herradura which the rich Venezuelans use as their weekend playground, coming 50 nm from the mainland in motor yachts, and Las Tortugillas,  (The Little Turtles), two attractive deserted islands with beautiful white sandy beaches, 3 nm to the SW.  With the price of fuel to locals at literally next-to-nothing, it costs very little to head off to the islands.  Venezuelans are very similar to the Spanish – they anchor their boats stern to the beach so they get the breeze, and then set up a gazebo and chairs on the sand, to listen to music, chat, drink, eat and admire their boats!  Or they moor up next to each other, play even louder music, and party!  But, on Monday morning the bay was deserted, a totally different and tranquil place!

Monday on Herradura – better than being in the office!

Regrettably it was time for us to move on to Los Roques, a Venezuelan National Park, just under 100 nm to the NW, so an overnight sail.  We arrived early in the morning after an uneventful passage, and were permitted to stay for 2 days in return for a bottle of wine!  As the park measures 13 x 25 nm, with a host of islands, it was no problem disappearing for a bit longer!

Los Roques is an amazing place, surrounded by reefs and islands, so the sailing in brisk winds is in calm waters.  We visited four islands, all with fantastic unspoilt beaches, and two had interesting approaches either with reefs on both sides (Caranero), or a pass over a reef (Dos Mosquises).  It’s vital to arrive and depart when the sun is high and in good visibility to be able to spot the reefs and navigate round them.

At Caranero we met Erio, Paolo, Andrea and Debora from Italy, on their Feeling 46, Ovilava.  They are also sailing to Curacao and leaving their boat there.  Erio is an avid snorkeller and hunter of fish, and we were soon invited on board to an excellent dinner with courses created from a 10 kg pargofish he had caught.

Dos Mosquises, our final anchorage in Los Roques, was almost in between the two beautiful islands, one of which has a turtle research station.  They also rear baby turtles there, nurturing them until they are a year old before releasing them into the sea.  Archaeologists have also discovered the existence of Amerindians visiting the main island 5000 years ago, which was a two day voyage by canoe in those days.  They left behind figurines that were made on the mainland, and the purpose of their visits was to collect and salt the Queen Conch, and even today there are thousands of empty shells piled high on both islands.

From the anchorage at Dos Mosquises

A lasting memory was the sunsets, where not only the sky become ablaze after the sun had set, but also the clouds to the east, which we have never seen before.  Also, by day, the clouds above the eastern islands took on a greenish hue, a reflection from the shallow sea, again an unusual sight.

Sunset over Los Roques

From Los Roques we had a shortish sail to Aves de Barlovento, one of two archipelagos that are surrounded by reefs.

This is another remarkable area, only a few feet above sea level, so the first sight is the light tower marking the entrance.  To the south is Isla Sur, a narrow strip of land with mangroves on the leeward side, home to a great number of boobies, as well as other birds.  Boobies come in different varieties, the most common being brown, but also we saw red footed white boobies here, together with their young still in their nests.

The entrance is straightforward, but navigating through the reefs to the various anchorages is “interesting”, and we were quite relieved to be guided into the eastern anchorage by local fishermen. The snorkelling was superb, and Andrea led us out through a channel in the barrier reef into deep water where we saw tropical fish we had not come across before swimming among wonderful undamaged coral.  We also went ashore on Isla Sur and found a quaint yotties’ “garden” where many previous visitors had left painted stones or carved hardwood inscribed with their yacht name and date of visit.

Yotties visit yotties’ garden

Our final stop in the Venezuelan islands was Aves de Sotavento, where we anchored off Isla Palmeras, and snorkelled between the islands.  Regrettably the wind veered to the SE during the night, making the anchorage bouncy and forcing a move to the aft cabin for comfort and some sleep.   Not surprisingly we started early for Bonaire, where we arrived in the late afternoon.

The southern approach to Bonaire is interesting with conical piles of glistening white salt from the salt flats where it is collected, and then as one approaches the typically Dutch buildings.  It is also reputed to be the third best diving site in the world with crystal clear water even off the town of Kralendijk, which is most unusual.  It is part of the Netherlands Antilles, and the streets and buildings echo the Dutch atmosphere, scrupulously clean, the environment being vitally important to them.  Anchoring is not permitted, unless with the harbour master’s permission in 600 ft of water!  So superyachts only, and the Motor Yacht “A” arrived shortly after we did.  We picked up a mooring, his skipper anchored while waiting to go alongside the cruiseship dock.  It is now the fourth time we have seen this extraordinary looking vessel since Gibraltar! See

With our Italian friends we had an excellent meal that evening at It Rains Fishes. The next day was one of admin for us.  Having been out of email / internet contact since the beginning of June, and totally out of fresh groceries there was some catching up to do before sailing to Curacao.   We are planning to return to Bonaire in August or September so will go diving/snorkeling and sightseeing then.

Curacao is some 30 nm west of Bonaire, and we had a pleasant broad reach in 15 knots of breeze.  The approach could not be more different from Bonaire either, rural, flat, and then phosphate mines just before the entrance to Spanish Water, a totally sheltered inland salt water lake.   Spanish Water is about the most sophisticated and organized cruisers’ paradise we have come across, complete with cruisers’ wifi net, free shuttle buses to and from the supermarkets, laundry and other shops.  Public buses run frequently to Willemstad, some 5 miles away where we had to clear in with Customs and Immigration.  A lengthy but friendly process, involving a good hike (and short ferry ride) between the offices!

Willemstad is even more typically Dutch than Bonaire’s Kralendijk, with a major waterway separating the town complete with bridges and canals, fronted by old colonial buildings in pastel shades. Currently World Cup fever reigns here – every match is avidly watched in bars, restaurants, government offices on the thousands of flat TV screens that seem to have been distributed for the event.

When we return to Curacao in August and have more time, we plan to explore the town and island in depth.

Finally, we were remarkably lucky to have met Thierry and Sylvie, and on their recommendation to have experienced and enjoyed the fascinating Venezuelan islands.  Most cruisers we have met since have sailed direct from Grenada to Curacao because of the security situation, and now regret not stopping.  The only places where we were on our guard were Cubagua and Margarita.  Otherwise the rest of the islands and their people were extremely friendly and welcoming.

Red sky at night …….

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