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by Dan and Jan Ahart
We have been anchored off the coast of Isla La Blanquilla, Venezuela for 25 days. This is certainly not unusual, as we have talked to cruisers who have spent six weeks here. The question inevitably is asked though, what do we do sitting on a boat off an essentially uninhabited island for such a long period? The usual answers come to mind, that it is obviously quiet, beautiful, the water is clean and the snorkeling is great. But there are other reasons. First, this is a very popular island for cruisers in the area to visit and therefore many old and new friends come by. We have never been alone here. When we arrived on this, our third visit, there were 15 boats. At one time we were down to two of us and today there are five. Some days more boats arrive than leave and on other days the opposite occurs. Second, it is very safe. With a Guarda Costa station on the island and being 60 miles from the nearest other island, there are no thieves. By contrast, outboard dinghy motors are frequently stolen in Porlamar on the island of Margarita. No one around here is interested in a 10 horsepower dinghy motor. The outboards used out here are all 50 horsepower and up. It is not unusual for a fishing boat to sport two 75 horsepower outboards. Then there are the excursions ashore. There is a herd of about 50 wild donkeys on the island and they are fun to watch, but they are very cautious. They are obviously afraid of humans and probably for good reason. Although the island is a park, I suspect the donkeys have been hunted from time to time. There are also huge land crabs that rival the Gulf Coast blue crab in size. And there are lots of colorful parrots. Even hummingbirds are to be seen from time to time. Twice we have had fruit bats inside our boat at night sneaking a bite or two from our bananas.
There is also the sea-life to watch. Although not overly abundant due to heavy fishing in the area, there is an interesting mix of fish, turtles, octopus, lobster and even small sea snakes. One day we were sitting in the cockpit reading when we heard what sounding like heavy rainfall on the water even though the sky was clear. It was a huge school of small fish, we suspect sardines, that were jumping out of the water by the hundreds, forming a huge frothing circle on the water about 50 feet in diameter. The small fish that were obviously in a panic would move one direction and then the other. This went on for about five minutes and then stopped as abruptly as it started. We figured some barracuda were feeding.
Two boats left one day to sail directly to the Virgin Islands, which is over 300 nautical miles north. We heard the next morning that there was an emergency on one of the boats that occurred just after dark on the first day out. Each morning a Cruiser who has been in the Caribbean for years conducts a "Safety and Security Net" on short wave radio. The net is designed to keep cruisers in the Caribbean aware of any problems and also to serve as an opportunity for cruisers to exchange information that might be of general interest. The net is well organized and most all cruisers in the Caribbean listen in. On that particular morning, the wife on one of the boats that left from here related that they began taking on water just after dark. Her husband, and only other crewmember, contacted the other boat they were sailing with. Both boats stopped while the leak was investigated. It was then that her husband became ill and could not help her. Using the short wave radio, she wisely alerted a friend in the Virgin Islands, who alerted the U.S. Coast Guard, who in turn alerted the Dutch Coast Guard, who sent a rescue vessel. The Dutch vessel arrived about four hours later and a knowledgeable sailor and medic were put on board the sailboat. The husband's problem was not critical or life threatening, so the medic returned to the Dutch vessel. The Dutch sailor soon found the problem. A new (non-functioning) bilge pump and through hull had recently been installed, but without a check-valve. When the boat was sailed on the starboard tack, seawater was siphoning into the boat. The best solution was for the boat to turn around so it would be sailing on the port tack, putting the through hull above the surface of the water, and head for Margarita, where a check-valve could be installed. The Dutch sailor stayed with them until they reached Margarita. It is wonderful to know that there are resources available in such emergencies. It is also interesting that no fewer than six other cruisers heard the emergency call that night and either altered course to render direct assistance or assisted in radio communications.
We had a small problem of our own a few days ago that turned out OK. Our water maker started producing water that was odd tasting. I checked it for salinity, and it was within tolerances, but it tasted bad. We changed filters, which did no good and were perplexed. But sometimes problems have to get worse before they can be diagnosed. A day later, we filled the starboard tank with 72 gallons only to discover that it was very brackish. I finally traced the problem to a bad solenoid valve whose purpose it is to direct all water overboard until fresh water is generated and then it is supposed to send the fresh water to the tank and the brine overboard. It evidently had begun to stick part way and was letting more and more brine into the tanks. Fortunately we had a replacement valve on board that I had purchased three years ago. The only reason I didn't install it at that time was that while we were waiting for the valve to arrive by mail, I boiled the old valve in oil and voila, it started working and worked for three more years. Hopefully this new valve will last more than three years.
Normally the swells on this side of the island are very small, but a few
days ago some fairly large swells came in from the west that caused some
very impressive waves on the beach. The swells lasted for about four
hours and then everything was back to normal. But during that period no one
went ashore as the waves were too dangerous. That afternoon during an
afternoon weather net run by a man in the Virgin Islands, I asked if he had heard
about the swells from any other location or did he know the cause? His
answer was negative to both questions. I suppose it could have been an
isolated squall of sufficient intensity or perhaps and underwater quake of
some sort. After all, parts of the Caribbean are still volcanically
active. We heard just a couple of months ago that "kick-em Jenny," which is an
underwater volcano just northwest of Grenada was belching smoke and steam
again. The top of the volcano is reported to be within 500 feet of the
surface of the water and is expected to form a new island sometime during
the next 25 to 50 years. And then of course there is Montserrat, an
island southeast of the Virgin Islands, which spews ash almost daily rendering
two-thirds of the island is uninhabitable. Stay tuned.