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by Dan and Jan Ahart
We left Isla La Blanquilla on 13 Dec 02 at 0600 and motor sailed to the small fishing village of Robledal on the west coast of Isla Margarita, a distance of about 60 miles, arriving at 1615. Not bad time considering the winds and currents were not favorable. We did not go ashore and left the next morning at 0615 motoring around the south side of Margarita, arriving at Porlamar at 1415. Considering the winds and currents are against eastbound vessels, we made good time and actually had better sea conditions than usual. This was by design as we had waited for light winds and low seas before leaving La Blanquilla. If we have learned anything in our three years of sailing it is that waiting for favorable "weather windows" is a highly desirable thing to do. If one has the time to wait, we feel there is no justification in subjecting crew and boat to unnecessary strain.
We found Porlamar in a strange situation. The unpopular President, Hugo Chavez had irritated the populace to the point of a nation-wide strike. Without going into all the politics of the situation, one example of a very unpopular Presidential decree was to bring in Cuban "advisors" to monitor what was being taught at both public and private schools. Mr. Chavez has made no secret of his admiration for Fidel Castro. Because of the general strike, we figured it was only a matter of time before supplies of all types would begin to run dangerously low. Fortunately, all of the stores on Margarita had stocked up for the Christmas holidays, so for the immediate future there was plenty of food and fuel available. Nevertheless, we immediately filled our fuel tanks and made two trips to the supermarkets to stock up on food. Some stores were closed indefinitely and others, like food and fuel outlets were open only a few hours a day. Margarita is a popular vacation site for the Venezuelans. For this reason, we did not feel any real tension around town, but we were told that the holiday crowds were much smaller than in previous years. The ferry services from the mainland that usually bring tourists several times a day were now operating only once a day and rumor was that all ferry service could be discontinued at any time.
We decided the best option for us was to depart Venezuelan waters until the political situation settled down. So, on 18 Dec 02 at 0600, we departed Porlamar in the company of two other boats. We first sailed southeast toward the mainland making as much "easting" as possible. When we were about two miles off the coast, we took down the sails and motored non-stop to Trinidad. By staying within two miles of the coast and motoring overnight, we were able to take advantage of a dramatic drop in the velocity of the trade winds. The north coast of Venezuela is very mountainous, with peaks rising well over 4,000 feet. When the sun goes down, the cool air around the mountaintops begins to flow down the mountainsides. This cool air encounters the trade winds and effectively pushes them off shore to a distance of over two miles. The result is very calm conditions, which are very favorable to motoring. The only problem is the proximity to the mainland, where local pirates may be lurking.
By traveling with other boats, we felt much safer as the local pirates usually use small outboard powered boats, that although faster than sailboats, carry only a few men, who we figured could be fended off if other cruisers were close enough to help. It must be a fairly good strategy because there has never been an incident of three or more cruisers being attacked while underway. Being anchored is another story. We have heard of pirates attacking boats that are anchored at night in known dangerous places even though other cruisers were anchored nearby. The best strategy to follow if cruisers feel compelled to anchor in questionable areas is to raft up at night, so if a boarding does occur, maximum manpower may be available to fend off the intruders. However, even this sounds very risky as local pirates sometimes have firearms with them. We did hear of a recent encounter however, where the crewmembers of a sailboat locked themselves inside the cabin and as the pirates attempted to break-in the crew sprayed them with pepper spray, which caused much discomfort among the pirates precipitating their immediate departure. Now and then we would hear about the government having caught pirates, which they dealt with severely via long prison terms, but Venezuela has a huge coastline with lots of small coves and patrolling it constantly is apparently not and option for the government. That fact, plus the abject poverty of many of the coastal residents, drives some of them to attempt robbing cruisers, who must appear to be very easy targets.
Our overnight trip to Trinidad was uneventful although we did encounter dozens of fishermen, who also take advantage of the nightly calms and go out fishing in their open boats, lit only with small kerosene lanterns. We spotted them easily on radar and steered around them. The most exciting part of the trip occurred at about 0800 as we were in the straight between Venezuela and Trinidad. We saw a school of at least 50 porpoise swimming in a huge circle obviously surrounding a large school of fish. Several of the porpoise left the circle and came over to inspect us. They swam along side, within inches of the hull for several minutes and then returned to the circle.
We arrived at the immigration and customs pier at 1000 and checked in
without incident. Trinidad is an incredible experience after six months
in Venezuela. First, we can communicate very easily again - well most of the
time. The Trini accent can be trying unless the speaker slows down and
pronounces each word a little closer to what we are accustomed to hearing.
Second, major refit work can be accomplished. While we are here, we will
probably have our standing rigging replaced. That includes all the
permanent wires and connections that support the mast. We have no idea
how old our rigging is, but it is showing signs of corrosion around the
fittings, so now is the time to take care of it before something breaks
under stress when we are least able to cope with it. We must also repair
our refrigerator and replace the insulation around it, which got wet due
to a leak in the bottom of fridge. Condensation that collects inside the
fridge found its way into, under and around the insulation. Naturally
everything under and around the insulation got wet, which reduces the
effectiveness of the insulation, plus the moisture encourages mildew and
odors. Those projects, plus a few dozen minor ones will keep us busy for
a few weeks. If we are lucky we will get all or most of them done before
the real serious carnival activity starts in February. But, we won't spend
all of our time working. We have many cruising friends, with which to spend
time and many activities to tempt us while in Trinidad. Stay tuned.