Friday, December 23, 2011

December 24, 2011 - Puerto Cabello Venezuela, Mass email

Dear friends and family,

Happy Holidays!  Our gift to you is an email so long you can spend all year reading it, plus over 100 photos in the following albums:

We last wrote to you from Sapzurro, a coastal village on the Panama/Colombia border, on the flank of the road-less, rainforest spine that joins Central and South America. Since then we have traveled hard to get as far east as possible before the stronger dry season winds arrive in December or January. According to the pilot charts, Colombia has the biggest waves in the Caribbean. And according to sailor legend the 400 miles between Cartagena and Aruba is one of the worst passages in the world. Refuges are few and the wind would be contrary. Needless to say we approached this coast somberly.

From Sapzurro we motored east across the entrance to the Gulf of Uraba. We lacked a mental picture of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The land was low, rising to assorted hills, relatively dry. Roads and buildings were few, but the vegetation looked to have been modified by ancient clearings and cattle husbandry. 

The first night we sheltered in a huge mangrove lagoon, a maze of little islands and a haven for one of the largest populations of noseeums we have ever encountered. Our second refuge was behind a man-made breakwater in the town of Arboletes. The beach was crowded with kids playing soccer and men drinking beer under thatched roofs. The town on top of the bluff provided produce, bread, and internet service. No one paid us any attention. In each of the following days we arrived at a different set of low offshore islets. Rainstorms engulfed us: squalls of wind, then lightning and torrential rain, then clear sky again as we emerged on the other side. We learned quickly that our new raingear is as useless as the old. After six intense days we entered Cartagena’s vast outer harbor, a place of shipping and industry. From there we passed into the inner, historic harbor. 

In colonial times Cartagena was the principal port for ships arriving from Spain. To protect it the Spaniards built fortifications like what we had seen in Portobelo, but much more extensive. The Walled City retains hundreds of blocks of picturesquely dilapidated architecture, well appreciated by tourists. We anchored among the sailboats in the Inner Harbor, but there were too many wakes, so we moved to a place where local passenger boats were parked. For six bucks a day we got calmer water, security, and the convenience of being able to (sort of) wade to shore. We were sometimes woken in the dead of night by men paddling past in canoes while vigorously flailing the water with long poles, presumably scaring fish into nets.

Affluent neighborhoods abut the Walled City, but the bulk of modern Cartagena lays further inland. Here dust and vehicles choked the streets. Chaotic markets stretched block upon block. Music and hawking spiels blared from speakers. The days were the hottest yet. We walked the shady side of streets and detained our breathing to avoid fumes and stink. Garbage lay in heaps. From one pile Ginny selected a hefty stick forty inches long. When new it had been lathed to achieve a decorative shape, perhaps as a spindle in a staircase. When the staircase was demolished the spindle was discarded. It fit Ginny’s hand nicely, so she carried it as a club. In good neighborhoods she tucked it unobtrusively behind her backpack. In bad ones she spun it like a baton. Steve did not discourage her, having been mugged in Cartagena before. On the contrary, while Ginny menaced with her cudgel Steve’s right hand was likely to be toying with his folding knife. We’re hard-asses!

One day, while we were walking in a wealthy neighborhood adjoining the yacht anchorage, we passed a beggarly man carrying a big duffle bag full of junk. As he passed he grumbled, “Eso es mi palo!” (That’s my stick!”) He made no attempt to retake it. As he receded down the sidewalk we harkened back to the pile from which Ginny had picked up the stick. In retrospect it did seem to have been tended, as if articles of not-quite-zero value were placed there intentionally. We surmised that the junk man lacks a junk yard, so he leaves articles here and there, lets people know they are his, and receives a few coins through the honor system. Sorry junk man! We didn’t know! 


Our stay in Cartagena coincided with the city’s 200th Independence Day anniversary. For several days there were Marti Gras-like parades: tiger women, men in white tuxedos with pink hairdos. Boys covered with paint or grease threatened to smear themselves on passersby unless they donated a small coin. Change in hand we enjoyed the costumes and marching bands but mostly stuck to our errands and went to bed early. For much of cruising’s hard work occurs in ports, figuring things out, tramping from place to place.

We wished we could get transport to the Putumayo River, which flows into the Amazon. But it was way off on the Ecuadorian border, where guerrilla warfare persists. Then we noticed that Puerto Cabello, Venezuela is only seventy miles from a tributary of the Rio Apure, which flows into the Orinoco. If we could get to the confluence of the Apure and the Orinoco we could either turn left and come out the mouth of the Orinoco, as Steve did in 1991, or turn right, ascend the Orinoco, and take the Brazo Casiquiares to the Rio Negro, thence the Amazon. It is one of few places in the world where, due to a freak connection in their respective headwaters, one can navigate up one river and down another without portaging. Puerto Cabello was still 750 nautical miles away, but it was closer than Trinidad, which would otherwise be the end to our windward beat. 

Paperwork was a worry. Colombia requires that each time a boat, however small, enters a port having a Port Captain it must retain a shipping agent. The agent obtains entry and clearance documents for a substantial fee. As our friends say, “It´s a racket!” So we decided to bypass Barranquilla and Santa Marta, though they were on our way. And Venezuela has no ports of entry along our route until Puerto Cabello. So we got a clearance for Puerto Cabello, though it would take us weeks to get there. In the meantime we would have legally left Colombia and not yet arrived in Venezuela. Whenever we went ashore we could be violating immigration laws.

We left on November 12th, our 4th Escapiversary! The trade winds soon kicked in. We rarely sailed anymore. We motored past the gargantuan, hyacinth-choked mouth of the Rio Magdalena to a small town near Santa Marta. Here we got out and pulled the boat by hand into a knee-deep stream. A huge rain had just passed, so the current was swift. We had pulled Thurston a hundred yards up the right bank when suddenly the water level shot up and roller-coaster waves formed in the middle of the stream! We dug our anchors in to bank to avoid being swept away in the flash flood. The waves reared up tall and closely spaced, debris floating by at eye-blink speed. Suddenly the waves collapsed into a roaring brown foam. The process repeated itself over and over: waves growing to five feet in height, collapsing, and reforming. This furious rhythm slowly died during the night, until cricket chirps dominated. In the morning the flood was over. Egrets fished at the stream mouth. Thurston lay high and dry on the sand. Some fishermen woke us asking if we were still alive.  When we responded in the affirmative they helped us push Thurston back into the water. 

After Santa Marta the winds became stronger, the waves bigger. Sometimes even at full throttle we made only three knots. The propeller kept lifting out of the water, the motor stopping, but always restarting.  It made us nervous, especially since the strong winds make putting up the masts difficult and the shoreline was often rocky. So, we lowered the motor mount four inches. That stopped the cavitation, but it may have contributed to a close call when, after a hard day, we investigated a river mouth to see if we could enter it. While motoring back and forth studying the breakers Steve strayed too close. A wave broke over the lowered motor, drowning it! We quickly threw out the anchor, but in the minute or two it took for it to catch Thurston drifted further in. Waves kept filling the cockpit. The motor wouldn’t start. Deep shit. Steve quickly donned his swimming gear and swam in through the surf, maybe two hundred yards. 


Inside the river mouth fishermen were tinkering with nets and motors. A dirt road led into the town of Dibulla. Steve bluntly offered fifteen dollars to whoever would tow Thurston in. A skipper gathered up gas and crew while Steve nervously peered seaward. From where he stood Thurston and his wife were invisible much of the time, hidden in wave troughs. Meanwhile Ginny held on tight, but had prepared to abandon ship. The tall swells were breaking right on her. Some of them caught Thurston on her side, tipping one gunwale underwater while foam burst over the raised gunwale. Finally the skipper motored to Thurston, pulled her anchor aboard, and used the anchor line to tow Thurston. Coming through the mouth the towboat broached (turned sideways to a wave striking from astern) but apparently this was normal. Thurston was soon safe on a tranquil river. The sun set, the wind died. The mouth was calm when we left at sunrise.

As we traveled northeast around the Guajira Peninsula the dominant plant became a tall, scraggly cactus. The dominant insect was a green grasshopper with red legs, so big that on first sight Steve thought it was a green bird with dangling red tailfeathers! In stick-and-mud houses ashore or in wooden fishing smacks at sea the Guajiro Indians were quiet, undemonstrative. Wrecked ships dotted desert coasts on which boats cannot land, therefore there are no people: orange-tan cliffs and beaches with booming surf.

Our final night in Colombia we spent in Puerto Estrella, a bay sufficiently protected from the northeast swell to anchor safely but not comfortably. We bought gas from a woman who sold it in soft-drink containers from her house. Local gas comes illegally from Venezuela by mule. Following local practice we anchored Thurston bow-on to the swells and ran a stern line to a dead tree on shore. The surge caused a constant jerking forward and backward. The best defense was to lay flat on our backs in bed and wait for sunrise.

When it finally came we motored twenty-five miles out to Los Monjes, an archipelago belonging to Venezuela. The islands are little more than scattered pinnacles of rock except for the largest two, which are side-by-side. To create a base the Venezuelan Navy had leveled some pads and dumped the spoils between the two islands until they became one. No naval vessels were present but the barracks were full of sailors. We tied to a mooring rope. An ensign searched Thurston, chiding us for not carrying certain safety items for which we had no room. They even wanted to know if we had semaphore flags! Released, we hiked to the lighthouse and swam in the deep, crystalline water.

Again the wind decreased at night, so we left early for the Paraguana Peninsula, forty-eight miles away. The paired peninsulas, Guajira and Paraguana, were our principle obstacle on the way to Puerto Cabello. Much of the day no land was visible. Then we saw a faint blue mountain, then low hills. In the early afternoon we located Punta Macolla, where a half-dozen wooden boats huddled behind a small point, jostling in the swells. On the beach was a crude fishing camp. Beyond stretched flat desert.

To get around this second cape we left at 3:00 AM again. Our luck didn’t hold. An hour into the passage we hit a storm. The east wind picked up until salt spray blinded us and Thurston’s bow kept turning to one side or the other. We cowered over the compass, bracing against the belly-flops, hoping to break through to the other side of the storm. Then the fuel ran out. We refilled the tank, then Steve pulled the starter cord. Nothing! Water had gotten into the tank or the air intake. We deployed the sea anchor to control drift while troubleshooting the engine. Nothing worked. We needed to sail back to Punta Macolla. Working together we raised the masts, Steve lifting, Ginny wrestling the base of the mast into its hole. We unfurled a bit of sail and were soon back at the fishing camp with the sun rising.

Steve unbolted the motor and carried it into the camp, which consisted of a few plywood shacks and some tables made of broken-down appliances. The fishermen, swarthy men in their thirties and forties, drained the carburetor and changed the gas in the tank. They soon had it running like new, no charge. They encouraged us to wait a few days before trying the cape again, so we decided to sail south into the Gulf of Venezuela, where there are bays and towns.

Thirty miles south we found a small city. We were directed to the Club Nautico Cardon, a yacht club with a dock and dry storage for power cruisers. We moored among several tall, white sport-fishing boats. This being our formal entry, government officers searched Thurston again. The water was like a mill pond until a series of vertical waves suddenly rolled in, pounding Thurston against a steel piling! Two naval officers, caught while performing their search, fled in panic. Search over! We couldn’t bring ourselves to look at the damage.

A weekend-long fishing tournament was getting underway. More boats arrived. Excited crews prepped their engines and hauled beer and ice aboard. Merry-makers thronged the beach at the base of the dock. We relocated Thurston, bow to waves, stern to beach. She was safe now, but she jerked violently with each surge. Electronic Latin rap music blasted at all hours from multiple sources. We were depressed and uncomfortable. 

When the tournament ended the club members helped us. They hauled Thurston out, set her on a concrete slab among other boats, and gave us a power yacht to live in while we conducted repairs. After two weeks of sun, salt, and motion we craved the comfort. We had a hose, a power outlet, and we even found a weird, but functional shower stall in an otherwise broken back bathroom. We ate well and regained weight. The Venezuelans, respectful of our nautical spirit, were eager to lend a hand, a tool, or supplies. A shopping mall was a 25-minute walk away. Downtown Punto Fijo was a little further. There, on the black market, we exchanged dollars and Colombian pesos for Venezuelan bolivares. Venezuelan society seemed to be a boisterous free economy weighted down by an egalitarian but inefficient layer of Hugo Chavez socialism. Many of the Club Nautico members were critical of the government, but discreet. They talked politics with us just enough to reveal bitterness, fatalism.


The repairs took ten days. The port gunwale was badly broken at the leeboard pivot. The side deck had a split two feet long. We rolled Thurston over, gouged out disintegrated fiberglass, applied new glass and epoxy in a series of lay-ups, and replaced broken wooden parts. We restored her integrity and water-tightness and reduced her cosmetic scars to an acceptable level. 


The following day, as we finally rounded the Paraguana Peninsula, Steve sang the following song, the tune of which should be obvious:
Venezuela here we come, right back where we started from
You’re friendly, but deadly, we like it that way
Charged us too much money, but we‘re gonna stay, I tell ya
Venezuela here we come, because Aruba can’t be done
We are sailing into the sun
Venezuela here we come!

Ginny showed no pleasure in this, but she was equally glad to reach Adicora, a town with lovely old Spanish-Dutch buildings and calm water thanks to a protective reef. We next attained La Vela, on the mainland.  Since leaving Punto Fijo we had mostly sailed because our course was northeast, then southeast. From La Vela, however, we had to motor straight into the easterlies again.
Starting in the pre-dawn we droned through long days. The coast was endless, empty of people, covered with low shrubbery, green because the rainy season wasn’t over yet. We overnighted in Aguide and Chichiriviche, then crossed the still and seemingly endless Gulfo Triste to Puerto Cabello. We had problems - a broken lazarette hatch, a broken shear pin, ignition problems, etc. - but on December 14 we limped into Puerto Cabello, our goal for so long.


Since leaving Bocas del Toro we had travelled 1,500 nautical miles, far more per day than in previous phases. It was into the wind, but we had the motor, and the motivation. We had learned the importance of avoiding winds over twenty knots and waves capable of drowning the motor. Within these constraints, the motorized Sea Pearl is efficient, reliable, and fun. We love the challenge of doing much with little means.
We are now getting a certain extremely difficult permit. Then we hope to transport Thurston to the Rio Portuguesa, which connects with the Apure, Orinoco, Casiquiare, Negro, and Amazon rivers. If possible, our next country will be Brazil.  

Take care - we love you all.
Steve and Ginny