Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   April 2011

After A Downwind Run to the Venezuelan Offshore Islands:
Isla Tortuga, Los Roques and Las Aves

by Devi Sharp

The Venezuelan offshore islands and Bonaire had been on our “must see” list for a few years and 2010 was our year. This article covers the month-long trip aboard our Island Packet 45, Arctic Tern, from the Eastern Caribbean to Bonaire. My husband, Hunter, and I chose to make the trip west during the summer because the winds are lighter and the anchorages in the offshore islands are reported to be much more comfortable in summer. We also wanted to spend the hurricane season in Bonaire and Curaçao.

There are several ways you can approach the trip west. You can just sail directly from some point in the Lesser Antilles to Bonaire. For example the distance between Grenada and Bonaire is 390 nautical miles. If you are sailing from Grenada directly to Bonaire, your rhumb line might take you near Isla Orchilla, which is a military installation where visitors are not welcome.
To break up the trip you can stop at Blanquilla for a few days to rest from the passage from Grenada (170 nautical miles) or wait for better weather. It is a beautiful island and worthy of exploration. You may get checked by the Guardacostas. From there, you can either go directly to Bonaire (223 nautical miles) or stop in Los Roques and Las Aves.

Safety and security is an important consideration since there has been an increase in piracy in coastal Venezuela, especially off the north side of the Paria Peninsula (which does involve these passages), as well as at Isla Margarita and off Los Testigos. In the past few years, however, there have been very few security issues related to Blanquilla, Los Roques and Las Aves. I urge you to do research on current security concerns through your chosen route.
I will tell you about our route and experiences and you can choose what suits you and your crew. We really wanted to explore Isla Tortuga, so our route took us south of the rhumb line between Union Island, in the Grenadines, and Bonaire. Be prepared to be self-sufficient for the duration of your trip in the offshore islands.
Along with our friends Chuck and Barbara Shipley aboard Tusen Takk II, Hunter and I on Arctic Tern checked out of St. Vincent & the Grenadines for Bonaire and left Union Island in mid-June and sailed directly to Isla Margarita (210 nautical miles). For security reasons we sailed ten miles west of Los Testigos under the cover of night. In the past few years, pirates have made an organized effort to stop and rob solo boats as they left Los Testigos on the way to Isla Margarita. This has been done in the daylight in the unpopulated area between Los Testigos and Isla Margarita. In this stretch we and Tusen Takk II stayed in visual contact with each other. For most of the passages we were not in visual contact because it is difficult for a trawler like Tusen Takk II and a sailboat to match speeds and courses.
We spent two nights in Margarita where we used a taxi to get a quick shopping trip in for last-minute fresh food, plus some some rum and cigarettes for trade with fishermen. We were advised by Juan Baro, the local check-in agent and long-time friend and advisor to cruisers, not to check in because the new check-in process required your paperwork to go to Caracas and the process could take weeks.

We were shocked to see fewer than a dozen boats in the Porlamar anchorage. In June 2008 there were between 70 and 80 cruiser boats here; cruisers have almost abandoned this once very popular cruiser hangout due to crime and political unrest. We were uneasy and took all precautions to avoid robbery.
The distance between Porlamar and Playa Caldera (the western end of Isla Tortuga) is 86 nautical miles, and you need to plan for a daytime arrival into Isla Tortuga so you can safely negotiate the entrances around the reefs and into the anchorages. We shortened that trip to 64 nautical miles by spending the night anchored at Isla Cubagua.

Isla Tortuga is a low dry island that has beautiful beaches and good snorkeling. We spent a week at anchor in Cayo Herradura (Horseshoe Cay), which is a well-protected cay with a nice beach and fishing camps on shore. The fishermen live in shacks on shore and use tenders to fish. The catch is stored on a larger boat with refrigeration and ultimately taken to mainland Venezuela. In Los Roques and Aves the catch is taken to Curaçao for sale. The fisherman came by asking for some kind of pegamento (glue) for their tender and maybe some cigarettes, too. In return for some caulk they gave us some fish. We spent our days snorkeling, exploring the little islands, burning our burnable trash and doing boat chores.

Our visit to Isla Tortuga coincided with the holiday celebrating the birthday of Venezuela’s national hero, Simon Bolivar, and many Venezuelan families took the opportunity of a long weekend to come to the “Isla”. On the Tuesday there were about six non-fishing boats at anchor and by Thursday night there were 125 boats crammed into the anchorage. Most of the Venezuelan boats were tied stern to the beach with a bow anchor. It was a big party; barbecue odors and music filled the air and skimpy swimsuits filled the view. We could be annoyed by a few hundred folks ruining our visit to their island, or just enjoy the event. We enjoyed witnessing a traditional Venezuelan holiday and felt very safe among the families.

We made a night passage from Cayo Herradura to Cayo de Agua on the western side of Los Roques (110 nautical miles). We sailed downwind wing-and-wing under the full moon with the Southern Cross for company. We arrived at Cayo de Agua with the morning sun behind us, which helped us see the reef as we entered the shelter of the cay.

The problem with visiting Los Roques and spending time there is that you need to get a permit from the National Park office, and in order to get a permit you need to be checked into Venezuela. Once you are checked in, the only way to check out is to either return to Margarita or go to one of the coastal towns of mainland Venezuela, such as Puerto Cabello. We explored the western end of the Roques archipelago and were not visited by the Guardacostas during our eight-day stay. If the Park Rangers or Guardacostas pay you a visit they will give you from one to three days before you must leave. Keep an eye on the weather and stay flexible in your plans.

Los Roques Archipelago National Park was created in 1972 to protect a marine ecosystem of ecological value made up of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds. It is not legal to use a speargun, collect conch, or fish with rod and reel, but you can use a handline. We saw several Venezuelan pleasure boats hauling aboard loads of fish with fishing rods.

Cayo de Agua was an important place for Amerindians (1300-1500 AD) and fisherman because of the fresh water they could find or access by digging holes in the ground. As we explored the cay we dodged nesting bridled terns that chased us away from their ground nests. We walked to the lighthouse, which was not operating during our visit but is very picturesque. The lighthouses in Los Roques are red-and-white striped, constructed of fiberglass and are built in sections and assembled on site. The snorkeling was very good and was part of our daily routine. One day Barb and I were out snorkeling and we saw rainbow parrotfish that seemed huge — as large as our fins. We each took off a fin and slowly swam up to the fish and indeed they were fin-sized! Nearby Coral Island, just a small bit of rock poking out of the water, provided a flock of flamingos with foraging habitat and we were able to take a short dinghy trip and get great views and photos of the flamingos. The lone coconut tree on Cayo de Agua provided us with a few fresh coconuts.

We spent a few days at Isla Carenero, which is popular with yachts from the mainland. It was a bit buggy and crowded for our taste so we moved onto Dos Mosquises which are two lovely islands with a bit of high ground and white beaches. Amerindians came from the mainland of Venezuela and settled on these islands where they subsisted on fish, conch, lobster and turtles and travelled to Cayo de Agua for their fresh water. The southernmost island has a turtle hatchery and an exhibit of archeological remains. The exhibit was in Spanish and English and very interesting. After ten days we decided to move west to Las Aves.
Islas de las Aves (Bird Islands) comprises two separate archipelagos: Aves de Barlovento (windward) and to the west, Aves de Sotovento (leeward). The passage from the western Roques to Las Aves de Barlovento is 30 nautical miles — a nice daysail.

There is a good reason they are called the bird islands. We were mobbed by boobies and frigate birds as we approached Isla Sur. A young brown booby chased and caught our fishing lure and we had to bring the booby aboard with a net and drape a towel over its head to remove the fishing hook lodged in its wing. Note to self: haul in your lines when you see birds following your boat. Isla Sur is home to nesting red-footed and brown boobies, brown pelicans, a variety of terns, laughing gulls and magnificent frigate birds. It is a noisy place day and night.

Commercial fishing is allowed in Las Aves and there were many fishing boats and fishing camps ashore. We had several offers to trade for fish and lobster; the most requested item was cigarettes. My best trade was a pack of cigarettes for four lobsters. Chuck grilled the lobsters and we had a four-star dinner in the Aves. Our anchorage was protected by a reef with inner concentric rings of reef and the coral was in good shape. On a distressing note we did see a pair of lionfish, which are non-native and invasive. After six days we made the 15-nautical-mile sail to the Aves de Sotovento.

After three days a fishing boat approached us and one of the guys in the boat said that he worked for the Guardacostas and admonished us for not checking in. The Guardacostas has a station on Isla Larga, but at that time they lacked a boat adequate to reach the more remote parts of the Aves de Sotovento, so they ask you to anchor in front of their station and they will come out to “check you”. We promised to move the next day and we anchored in front of their station while they mobilized a small boat with seven men. They were a bit wet from the boat launch, but they were all wearing uniform polo shirts and were very professional and polite about the safety inspection. They asked to see our boat papers and exit papers from our last port of call as well as life jackets, flares and the first aid kit. We offered them a drink of juice and they declined until all business completed and then inquired about that drink we offered them. We asked what kind of food items they might need and the cook replied that they could use vinegar. I was curious and he replied that it was for making ceviche (picked fish). Since I was the best Spanish speaker in the group I hopped in their boat so I could translate for them during their safety inspection of Tusen Takk II. We learned that the best thing to do is to hail the Guardacostas on VHF 16 and let them know you are planning to pay them a visit in front of their station. You might find someone who speaks English, but I have been told they are pretty good at getting through the whole process without a common language.

We were 30 days out from Chatham Bay and suddenly we were all eager to get to Bonaire. We still had some fresh food — okay, the food was not really that fresh and there was not much of it, but we could have gone another week or so without eating exclusively out of cans, jars and dried food. We also knew we our g-mail inbox was full of messages. Using our satellite phones we were able to get weather and keep in touch with our families.

As we sailed the 33 nautical to Bonaire, Hunter and I talked about pizza and scuba diving. We arrived late in the afternoon and checked in with Customs and Immigration, which are co-located at the Customs office. After dumping 27 days’ worth of non-burnable trash we found our pizza and settled into our new home for another six weeks.

Next month I’ll tell you about our experiences in Bonaire and Curaçao and the passage back to the Eastern Caribbean.

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