Saturday, October 11, 2014

Port of Spain, Trinidad - Mass Email

 September 30, 2014

Dear friends and family,

I last wrote to you from St. Laurent on the Maroni River, boundary between French Guyana and Suriname. On September 1 and 2 I sailed from there to the Suriname River, a hundred nautical miles west along a low coast. An energy drink kept me awake through the night, and a half-moon boosted my confidence by illuminating the waves and the horizon.

I stopped where the Suriname River and Commewijne rivers join, a few mile inside the mouth, and got permission to tie up at rickety fishermen’s dock. Crossing the mangrove zone via planks set on pilings I entered the village of Nieuw Amsterdam. The land was low and flat, the lanes wide apart and paved with bricks. It looked much like Holland except the people were East Indians, Indonesians, and Africans. It was also far hotter than Holland!

I went to a cyber café and looked at the place in Google Maps. The image showed a perfect five-pointed star where the two rivers join. Curious, I walked there. The star is the moat of a fort built by the Dutch in the 1700’s! It still had cannons of several vintages, including some used to sink a German ship when it tried to enter the river in World War II.

When I got back the tide was out and Thurston was laying in a bed of soft ooze. It didn’t matter because I was going to see Paramaribo, the capital city. I took a ferry across the river, then a bus. The center was of ornate wooden buildings in an old Dutch style. In Cayenne I saw lots of French people, but in Paramaribo I saw no Dutchmen. Now that Suriname is independent its colonial roots seem to lack relevance.

The coast of the Guyanas has no bays, only river mouths. In some cases they are within 65 nautical miles of each other, the distance I can generally cover between sunup and sundown. In other cases they are further apart. It is unsafe to arrive at a new place in the dark, but okay to leave in the dark if you have looked it over in the daytime. The river mouths are deep and north-facing, free of breakers, but they contain hundreds of pilings that the fishermen have sunk into the bottom to hold nets. Even miles from land there may be lines of poles, most no longer in use but still hazardous. I constantly scanned the horizon for them.

There was no high ground, just straight coastlines of salt-tolerant trees. At spring high tides the sea just covers their roots. At low tide the forest is a wilderness of muck and thick vegetation.
In the Coppename River I went up a narrow tidal creek and tied to a mangrove branch. No-see-ums kept getting into the cabin despite my fine-mesh net. Their bites gave me itchy welts. It was hot and stuffy inside, and the mangrove gave off a sour smell. As the tide fell I had to go out and loosen the lines. When the current switched direction I had to re-situate her to stream properly in the center of the creek. As the tide rose I had to clear her of projecting branches that were trapping her downward. Each time no-see-ums got into the cabin.

These days I ate for breakfast what I call “Brazilian Grape Nuts.” In the Guyanas, as in Brazil, manioc flour is popular. Though made from a root,  not wheat, it is similar in taste and texture to Grape Nuts! I ate it with milk from paper cartons and chopped fruit. In the tropics foods containing lots of fluids and sugars are the most appealing.

On September 8 I entered Guyana, formerly known as British Guyana. I entered Georgetown, on the Demerara River, but didn’t fare well. The waterfront was all broken-down wharves. A young man frantically gestured for me to tie up at a dock with sagging, uneven beams. He looked suspicious, but I needed a mooring. He tied my line then promptly requested payment for his services! He also warned that my boat would be stripped unless I hired him to watch it. Just then a police boat pulled alongside. One officer told me to climb up onto the dock. By the time I got there another officer had boarded Thurston and was ordering me to come back aboard. They asked me questions and looked blankly at my papers. Finally they told me to report at “the embassy” and left.

The guy who wanted money didn’t know what the place was called either, but it was only two docks away, so I went there. It was a tall, rambling structure containing the Customs and Harbor-master offices. I hadn’t checked into the country, or into Suriname or French Guyana for that matter. Normally I would have, but my friend Peter, the yachtsman we had met in Manaus, had advised me that clearance procedures aren’t enforced. At the Customs office the word “agent” was mentioned. That is a bad word because an agent is someone you have to pay to do a lot of worthless paperwork. “Hey, I’m leaving in the morning,” I said. “I just stopped here to get some sleep!” The harbourmaster finally allowed me to tie alongside a patrol boat provided I didn’t go ashore. I left at dawn with my money intact.

It wasn’t far to the Essequibo, a larger river with several islands in its delta. The coastline now was lined with buildings, the interior having been drained for cultivating rice and sugar cane. Every few miles I passed a canal opening with a tide gate for letting water out but not in.

A few miles up I found the marina Peter had recommended. The owner was of Madeiran (Portuguese) ancestry, a former seaman interested in my stories, and in telling his own. He had no place to tie up, just a ramp and sheds full of boats, so he pulled me out on a spare trailer. He charged me nothing. I gave him a copy of my book, Three Years in a 12-Foot Boat, which he savored. The town of Parika was two miles away, Georgetown twenty miles away. I visited both by mini-bus during my week there.

In all three Guyanas the closer I looked the more ethnic schisms I perceived. In French Guyana I was told of a town where the leading language is Portuguese, the second is an Amerindian tongue, the third is Creole, and hardly anyone speaks French! In Albina, Suriname some of the people I passed on the street were Maroons, descendents of runaway slaves that still view the outside world as hostile. They in turn are split into several tribes each speaking a different language! Now, as I rode from Georgetown back to Parika one night, my taxi driver told me how in Guyana, unlike in India, Muslims such as himself get along with the Hindus. I had thought of the East Indians as a single group, but they aren’t. Every time I thought I had a handle on the Guyanas new wrinkles appeared. Generalizations were difficult. They contain such diversity yet they are tiny, numbering only a few hundred thousand people each. They are enclaves of variety in a continent otherwise awash with Spanish- and Portuguese-speakers.

On Sept. 19 I sailed to the Pomeroon River, another uninhabited mangrove bay. In the bright green trees were red and white dots which turned out to be scarlet and white ibises. From there I had planned to travel by interior streams into Venezuela, maybe stopping to visit Jonestown, which wasn’t far out of the way. But I was tired of mud, bugs, and tides, so before it got light I went back out to sea.

When I got twenty miles out a huge storm started gaining on me from behind. It was enormous, and full of violent black energy. Anxious to avoid it I steered further seaward, sped by the faster winds that radiated from it, and tousled by the rougher seas it generated. A gust broke loose one of the
fittings that hold my mainsail, causing it to fly up and flap. I jury-rigged it with a shackle and a piece of rope. Finally the storm drifted over land and I resumed course.

When night fell I felt very alone. I’m still not used to the open sea. This time there was no moon. As the hours dragged on I fought the urge to look at my watch. Using a headlamp with a red light to avoid spoiling my night vision I constantly checked my GPS and steered to keep it’s red arrow vertical. (When you tell it to navigate to a waypoint it gives you an arrow which rotates left or right when you go off course.) Fortunately the wind died down to a steady ten knots and the waves became regular. With the wind directly astern I put one sail to starboard and the other to port and positioned the tiller to hold her on course. I buckled into my harness, leaned against the lazarette, and slipped into and out of sleep. Twice I saw a brilliant light, slowly gained on it, and slowly passed it. They were big trawlers travelling slowly in the same direction as me. I had to stay awake while in their vicinity to avoid risk of collision.

When sailing west it is best to make landfall in the morning or early afternoon, before the sun drops low enough to blind you. On the Guyana coast the shoals and high tidal range further restrict the time window, it being undesirable to arrive at low tide. Preferably one arrives in the latter half of a rising tide, with the shoals covered and the current in one’s favour. In the morning the east wind has an off-shore component (comes from the southeast) whereas in the afternoon it has an on-shore component (comes from the northeast). On the complex Guyana coast one must consider all these factors.

In this instance it was unwise to aim for the Waini River, on the Guyana/Venezuela border, but propitious to target Cańo Guiniguina, a mouth halfway around the Orinoco’s fan-shaped delta. By the time I sighted land, thirty hours after leaving the Pomeroon River, the wind had almost disappeared. The surface waves were now only glittery wrinkles on the surface of big, round swells passing underneath me, like house-sized balls rolling under a blanket.

Just inside the opening I passed an Indian hamlet, two or three houses of crude thatch. Further on I stopped at a raft consisting of plastic drums lashed together, covered by a plastic tarp, anchored away from shore to escape bugs. I visited with a dozen men, the crews of three open fishing boats. Then I gave them a big buoy I had found during the passage, probably lost by one of those big trawlers. I also gave them 100 bolivares, worth about five dollars, which I had left over from when we were in Venezuela. I wasn’t going to need them. The gifts were probably unnecessary in terms of good will, but it was reassuring to have friends nearby as I dropped anchor and cooked a much-deferred meal. Thunder rumbled through much of the night but again the storm passed someplace else.

I was out of the Guyanas. The bottom was firmer now. The Orinoco water was a glossy, translucent brown, not the opaque tan of the Amazon and the Essequibo. The following night I took refuge behind Punta Pescador, where I had stopped in 1992 as well, and the next day I rounded the point into the Gulf of Paria. To my right were the beaches, palm trees, and hills of Trinidad. Two days later I was here at Chaguaramas, a yachting center just west of Port of Spain, the capital.

Our friends from the Rio Negro days, Peter and his lovely wife Louise, had arranged a free haulout for Thurston next to their power yacht, the Passagemaker. I spent a few days recuperating in luxury at their beautiful Amazon Lodge and now I am living aboard the Passagemaker as I write this. Thank you Peter and Louise for helping me prepare for the next leg back to my family!

Steve Ladd

For more photos see