Vixen made through the Panama Canal last Friday. We spent Thursday night on Lake Gatun at about 90 feet above sea level and then descended the next day to the Pacific. Now we are at anchor in front of Panama City.
With the threat of another depression headed to the Caribbean – this one with the nondescript name of 96L – VIXEN took advantage of a five day weather window and headed south, away from S.t Thomas and the US Virgin Islands, and out of the hurricane zone. Our destination was the Venezuelan atoll of Los Roques 402 NM due south of St. Thomas. We had steady trades of 15 to 20 knots the whole way and reached the SE pass of Los Roques three days later – almost to the minute: an average of 134 NM per day.
I was surprised how nervous I was to enter the pass but I guess it has been a while since we explored coral atolls and their often treacherous passes. Fortunately, by shaking out a reef and putting up VIXEN's big jib we made it to the pass with plenty of overhead light. The pass itself proved to be wide and deep even if it was charted about a third of a nautical mile south of its actual position.
We were also on edge because we planned to visit this remote outpost of Venezuela and not officially enter the country. In recent years Venezuela has been abandoned by cruising sailboats because of piracy in the offshore islands but I had heard that Los Roques and Las Aves were far enough from the mainland to be safe. We hoped this would be the case.
Once through the pass we sailed up the inside of the reef navigating by eye among the coral heads and came to anchor behind a small mangrove covered island. So far it seemed like paradise – clear warm water, a protected anchorage over 20 feet of fine white sand.
The next day we explored the reef to windward. Occasionally a motorboat came through the pass and headed to Grand Roque, 10 miles to the north where I understood there was some kind of a resort. We planned to avoid that whole north eastern area and stay under the radar of the authorities. Luckily nobody paid any attention to us.
On our third day we decided to sail 25 miles through the center of the archipelago west to Cayo de Agua another small atoll. This was all to be through uncharted waters between the reefs just with eyeball navigation and a copy of a small sketchchart someone had given us in Virgin Gorda. It was blowing 20 to 25 knots so we raised just the staysail and headed off downwind. It reminded us of Fiji: running down between uncharted coral heads and climbing the ratlines so as not to enter a deadend channel. It was pristine Caribbean sailing with turtles, pelicans and lots of blue-footed boobies and terns. In my opinion, having only spent two seasons in the Caribbean, this sail through the heart of Los Roques is the crown jewel of the whole Caribbean. Someone told me it was like the Tobago Cays 50 years ago but I would say it is much better than that partly because Los Roques covers such a large area compared to the Tobago Cays.
At the end of the day we anchored in the lee of Cayo de Agua. Soli and I went ashore to explore this deserted island. Our best find was a pile of bleached pelican bones which we examined carefully and took back to show Tiffany and Seffa.
There were a couple of speedboats that came down from Grand Roque but they left by the end of the day and we were all alone. I read in a guide book that there actually was a hurricane in Bonaire in 1831. As I went to sleep – anchored in the lee of this windy remote island -- I couldn't help thinking that we hadn't had any weather information for the last few days. In fact, the wind picked up that night and I worried about our anchor and a sandbar just to leeward. Maybe that 96L took a turn south and was the once-in-200-year hurricane to reach Bonaire? Well, no one would ever know what had happened to us if it was. With that discomforting thought and a look out into the pitch black night I went back to sleep. In the morning everything looked better. The wind had gone down and as a testament to our 45 pound CQR and 125 feet of 3/8 inch chain we hadn't moved at all.
After breakfast we had another expedition ashore with a picnic under a lone palm tree. We could see pits where fishermen had dug for fresh water which gave the island its name. In the afternoon a chartered catamaran anchored next to us and we rowed over to say “Hello” and get the weather. There was a captain aboard who was taking some guests around the islands. He asked if there was anything we needed, slipped Solianna a bottle of cold water, gave me the weather (which promised to be stable) and after an hour they had pulled up the anchor and were gone.
We planned to carry on to Las Aves, 30 miles to leeward the next day but this was not to be; Seffa had a skin condition that had started as a heat rash but was growing each day. Bonaire was just 80 miles downwind so we decided to skip Las Aves and take Seffa into Bonaire to have a doctor look at her skin.
The wind and swell had gone down and VIXEN had a beautiful downwind run. At 4am Tiffany spotted the lighthouse off Bonaire's southern point and by 7am we were on a mooring off of the main town of Kralendijk.
Just as we were rowing ashore, our friend Patrick, the only person we knew on Bonaire, swam by the boat and offered to take Seffa to his doctor. By the afternoon we had a prescription and Seffa's skin now seems to be on the mend.
Bonaire is world known for its diving. There is great snorkeling right off of VIXEN's mooring. It does seem to be some of the best visibility I have seen anywhere in the world. We plan to be here for about ten days and then look for a weather window to sail down to Columbia as we make our way towards the Panama Canal.
Vixen has been sailing around Antigua for about two months now. We just had a great visit from Daniel and Raya who flew down from Maine and slept on the cabin floor for a week.
As you can see in the photos Daniel made all the girls palm frond hats.
Antigua is not a big island but it has a good mix of reef anchorages, deep inlets and some of the nicest people in the Caribbean. We are looking forward to the upcoming Classic Boat racing out of English Harbour with our friends on Grayhound -- a 65-foot three masted lugger from England.
I have also included a short video of Vixen running down the coast of Mauritania last November. Timbuktu is only 800 miles east across the Sahara!
Last November Vixen spent a month in Senegal, West Africa -- one week in Dakar and three weeks on the Casamance River. I keep thinking of that time on the river even now a few months later. This map is the best available of the area -- just a handmade sketch from some French cruising notes. Our electronic charts showed nothing but an angular indentation of the African coast. Here is the delta where the river meets the Atlantic but it continues fifty miles up stream to the town of Ziguanchor. We spent a couple of weeks in that Octopus-shaped maze in the middle of the sketch.
On the whole river -- probably hundreds of miles of backwaters -- there was only one other yacht.
Once you wind yourself back up into the mangroves the river is always calm no matter how much wind blows. At about five in the morning as first light could be discerned in the east the sounds of animals would rise from the jungle. Mostly birds but also frogs, crickets and other strange howls.
Here is a recording that gives a faint idea of the beautiful cacophony that greeted us every morning on the river.
Vixen arrived in Barbados after a voyage of 18 days from the Cape Verde islands. This was our third Atlantic crossing and the boat's fourth. Before leaving we checked out of Cape Verde but then sailed to the next island down the chain – Brava – which is much less visited by yachts. We sailed overnight from the city of Praia and arrived the next day in a beautiful deep bay with a fishing camp on the beach and a village atop the surrounding cliffs.
A young fisherman, Jose was our guide. He took us up to the poor little village which contained just the minimum to call it a village– a couple bars and a store that seemed to sell not much more than raman noodles and biscuits. It was Christmas day and Jose insisted I try the various rums made from the sugarcane in the fields around the village. In the Cape Verdian creole they call it “grog” which I guess must be a hold over from visiting sailors of another era. To return to Vixen we walked back through the cane fields. Soli requested some sugarcane for our trip and Jose hacked off a bundle of cane which we nibbled on all the way to Barbados. Deep in a valley below the village we came apon a grog still and an old cast iron sugar press. Here the grog sampling continued while I yammered away in Portuguese with the distillers. For me it was interesting to make comparisons between Cape Verde and the Azores: Similar food and Portuguese heritage but Cape Verde has a fascinating Brazilian and African influence. Both the Azores and Cape Verde have strong connections to the USA with emigrants sending back money to the poor island communities.
At the bottom of the valley we could see Vixen but we couldn't get past the sheer cliffs to our dingy. No matter, Jose dove in and arrived a few minutes later with the dingy which he then jumped out of so we could get in and go back to Vixen.
On the 26th we spent the day preparing Vixen and left in the evening for the 2,034 mile trip to Barbados. We had plenty of wind, from 10 to 30 knots the whole way. We hardly saw any other ships. It always amazes me how crowded we are on land but at sea we can sail for week after week without any sign of humans.
The fishing was good: I landed several mahi mahi which bolstered our somewhat meager provisioning in Cape Verde and Senegal. The most exciting catch was a big mahi that vomited an eight inch flying fish down Vixen's companionway and onto Solianna's head as we brought it on board. Every morning I would clear the decks of flying fish which had flown aboard during the night. Sometimes I would eat one for breakfast.
Tiffany and I settled into a new watch system of five hours on and five off during the night. I would have the 9pm to 2am watch and then Tiffany would take it to 7am. We both managed to read Dumas' 1,500 page Count of Monte Cristo on the night watches. I listened to my favorite podcast – The Thomas Jefferson Hour and perhaps a few too many Fresh Air radio programs -- I started to dream that the host, Terry Gross, was one of Vixen's crew.
When we finally sighted land on the 18th day Tiffany and I were ready to be ashore. We dreamed up increasingly fantastical mirages of what we would do – large salads and cold beers and toes in the white sand. The two girls, however, seemed happy to just carry on. Seffa really had little interest if we ever got to land. Until I mentioned ice cream – that got them going.
The biggest problem on the voyage was that it appears we are ready for a new mainsail. It ripped during a jibe and we had to lower it for a couple of hours while I stitched and patched it. We were hoping it would get us home to the northwest but I think it has just seen one two many oceans.
I feel lucky to be in Barbados because it is so hard to get here from the US and the rest of the Caribbean islands which lie downwind. This weekend is the Mount Gay Rum round the island race. First prize is the skipper's weight in rum. Gotta love the Caribbean!
Bruce Halabisky is a wooden boat builder and sailor. He and Tiffany Loney are the owners of Vixen.