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by Dan and Jan Ahart

Chapter Sixty

Jan has been working the past five days sewing a new sunshade for Sojourner. She is using a material new to us called Griffylon which is made in Texas and is marketed as an alternative to Sunbrella, which is a more traditional material used by boaters. Fabrics continually exposed to bright sunlight, wind and salt spray, must be specially fabricated in order to survive very long. Ultraviolet rays from the sun are especially effective in breaking down most fabrics. We have an older shade that is in three parts and covers the entire boat. It is made of Sunbrella, which is like a light canvas but like canvas it is rather heavy. Griffylon is supposed to be as or more durable than Sunbrella but only half the weight. The new shade will cover the rear half of Sojourner, which includes the cockpit, which is where we spend most of our time. Our old shade is blue, which really blocks the bright sun, but also leaves the interior of the boat rather dark. The Griffylon is white. We are hoping the new shade will reflect sunlight and therefore heat, but at the same time allow more sunlight inside the boat. Time will tell if it works as advertised.

We are currently anchored off the beach on the west side of La Blanquilla Island, on the north coast of Venezuela. The beach is about a mile long and gently curves to create a very nice anchorage. The trade winds blow almost constantly at 15 to 20 knots from the east, so the wind comes off the island. Anything dropped in the water quickly floats westward across the Caribbean. We are anchored on the south end of the beach. A few days ago there were two French flagged vessels anchored off the center of the beach and another U.S. flagged boat at the north end. I was sitting in the cockpit reading when I noticed a small sailing dinghy just west of the French boats. The lone occupant of the dinghy was slowly moving westward while constantly fiddling with the sail. I thought it was one of the French cruisers, who wasn't particularly adept at sailing a small dinghy. As I watched, the dinghy continued to move out to sea. The French seemed unconcerned however, so I thought maybe the sailor in the dinghy was just having some fun and would soon begin tacking in toward the shore. I finally got curious enough to get my binoculars and see what was going on. It was obvious immediately that the dinghy was in trouble. Through the binoculars, I could its lone occupant waving frantically.

I called to Jan to keep an eye on me, then jumped in our dinghy and motored to the sailing dinghy. The dinghy's rudder had broken and there was no way it could have been tacked against the wind to the shore. The occupant turned out to be the skipper of the U.S. flagged vessel at the north end of the beach. The rudder had broken as he sailed south past the French flagged boats. He said he yelled Mayday repeatedly as loud as he could, which is supposed to be an international distress call. According to him, one occupant of one of the French boats came on deck, watched for a minute or two and then went below again. We hopefully surmised that the Frenchman was a guest on the boat and simply didn't recognize what was going on. I towed the stricken dinghy and its occupant back to his boat, where his family and friends were all below and had no idea what was going on. The dinghy had a small flotation cushion under the seat, but no oars, no PFD (life jacket), no radio and no flares. I can't imagine an experienced skipper setting out in a tiny sailing dinghy in 15 knots of wind without any safety equipment and no arrangements for anyone to watch him. The waves were running about two feet at the time and I figure he would have been out of sight within the hour moving steadily west on his way to Panama. I asked him what he would have done if no one had seen him? He said he would have jumped overboard and swum to shore, walked along the beach to his boat and swum out to it, weighed anchor and gone searching for the dinghy. He appeared to be a man about 45 years old and in good physical condition, so he probably could have done it. But it would have been a quarter of a mile swim to shore against wind and current. It all ended well however and I was happy to help. But it surely reminded us how quickly a simple fun activity can turn to into a serious problem on the water, especially a body of water the size of the Caribbean Sea.

We had no luck fishing on the way to La Blanquilla and none while here, so a couple of times we waved for local fishermen to come by and purchased fish from them. La Blanquilla is officially a state park and no fishing with spear guns is allowed. However, the rule is blatantly violated by locals and visitors alike, with the expectant result of few large fish left in the immediate area. Although Venezuela is rich in natural resources, and should be a wealthy country, the government does not seem inclined to enforce its laws uniformly or support its Guarda Costa as one would expect. This is our third visit to the island and we have been here two weeks this time, with no sign of the Guarda Costa patrol boats. Another cruiser told us that the Guarda Costa did not have fuel for their boats and therefore could not patrol. And Venezuela is a founding member of OPEC (Organization of Oil Exporting Countries). Strange.

We have gotten a lot of chores done while here in addition to Jan's work on the new sunshade. I have replaced one bilge pump float switch, which failed in the "on" position. We were alerted to the failure by the humming of a bilge pump, even though there was no water in that bilge. We were lucky it failed in the "on" position and not the "off" position. I also rewired two other bilge pump switches, painted the dinghy motor lock, relocated our radar detector antenna and replaced about a dozen hatch hinge screws that had gotten rusty. Even though the hinges and the screws are made of stainless steel, the screws tend to rust where they come in contact with the hinge. This is no doubt due to the fact that although both metals are stainless, they are not metalurgically identical. Where non-identical metals touch, there will eventually be corrosion. I have learned the hard way that the screws must be replaced at the first sign of rust. If they are allowed to deteriorate beyond that point, the heads will break off when removal is attempted. This means a much more involved repair with a difficult removal of a broken screw, and in all likelihood some fiberglass repair, which I might add, we are getting pretty good at. Jan has even been able to concoct some gelcoat coloring that actually matches the deck and cabin. So now if we have to make a modification or repair, we can eventually match the gelcoat and almost totally camouflage the site. Gelcoat is the hard outer surface given to fiberglass boats. And although very durable, it also succumbs to the ravages of ultraviolet and will eventually fade and sometimes develop tiny cracks at stress points like corners. Cruising is a work in progress. Stay tuned.

Dates: ,
Locations: La Blanquilla Island, Venezuela

The Ahart Odyssey 1999-2004 Dan and Jan Ahart. All rights reserved.