Monday, March 19, 2007

March 15 - 18, 2007 - Los Roques, Venezuela

Los Roques is magnificent. It is as beautiful as Barbuda or the Tobago Cays, but much more remote. Take the number of boats in the Cays, subtract all of the bareboat charters, almost all of the crewed charters, all of the boat boys, and 75% of the cruising boats, then multiply the number of anchorages 10 fold, and you have a picture of the cruising scene here. Most of the tourists are from mainland Venezuela, but there is a smattering of Italians, and many of the posadas (guest houses) are run by Italians. The streets of Gran Roque are covered in sand, and the buildings are very colorful. This is the first spot in our trip that we've seen a Spanish influence in the architecture. There is a striking old lighthouse that one could hike up to at the top of the hill behind town, but by midafternoon I was suffering from the effects of too little sleep and too much sun and heat, and neither of us could imagine going anywhere but back to the boat.

As it turns out, if one wants to spend more than 48 hours here (legally) one should first stop in a proper port of clearance, such as Isla Margarita. Needless to say, we didn't do that. We were permitted to stay for two days, as a "barco in transito". It was so late when we got back to the boat after clearing in with Guardacosta, Guardia Nacional, Inparques and Autoridad Unica (based on the bureaucracy alone, you would think that Venezuela had been colonized by the French rather than the Spanish) and attempting (and failing) to buy fuel from the weekly supply boat, we spent our first night in the most popular anchorage, Francisquis.

We did a lot of things wrong at Francisquis - (i) the sun was quite low, so our ability to read the water was reduced and we ended up way to the right of the entrance cut with less than 2 feet of water under our keel, (ii) it took us a few minutes to realize that our position as displayed our chart plotter wasn't accurate, so we couldn't rely upon it to navigate our way through the reef, and (iii) we initially tried to anchor in a weedy area, when we know that the CQR won't bite into weed for love nor money - but we ended up anchored in quite a nice little spot in the lagoon. We celebrated our passage from Grenada with one of the bottles of wine that we brought back from France, almost seven years ago.

Sten did a little fishing in the morning. Afterwards, we moved the boat about a mile south to the lee of Namusqui, so that we could dink into the harbor at Cayo Pirata for lunch. The local fishermen harvest a lot of lobster around here. Cayo Pirata features a lobster shack in the middle of a fishing camp. We asked about the price and if they accepted USD. They did but it was not cheap (Sten thinks that the exchange rate we were being quoted was wrong, so if you come, come with the local currency) so we elected to go for two smaller lobsters (approximately 1.5 lbs) instead of a single behemoth.

After we ordered, we sat down with a pair of Polars, the local brew, to wait for our meal. Around us the fisherman were carrying on their work on either side of the small shack that we were seated in. One of them had a gun visible under his shirt, and there was a cockfighting rooster tied up to a stake about 20 feet from where we were seated, which crowed throughout our meal. The whole scene had an undertone of menace, but as soon as the food arrived we were completely distracted. It has apparently been too long since either of us have had garlic mashed potatoes.

The presentation was simple, but lovely (particularly considering our location) and the sides were nice with the garlic mashed and a good cole slaw. The lobster itself was much better than we had last year in Anegada in the BVI but it was still not nearly as sweet and tender as New England lobster. It will be interesting to see if we develop a taste for southern lobster as we head towards the Canal.

After lunch we decided to move out and anchor on the barrier reef that shelters these cays. We anchored on a shallow shelf between Nordisqui and Isla Vapor (you've got to love the Spanglish names for the islands around here) and fell back into deeper water. Sten doesn't believe me, but I swear that when I dropped the anchor it was so shallow under our bow that the shank of the anchor was actually sticking out of the water while the flukes were on the bottom. We were the only ones anchored off of this island all night.

Before sunset we went ashore to explore Nordisqui, which is uninhabited. There are big piles of dead coral "rocks" washed up along the shores of this island, and some interesting shells, including sea urchin shells that are tinted purple and green.

Overnight the wind came up to steady 25 knots and the weather shifted into conditions that we have not seen before down here. The visibility has dropped - something akin to the smoky southwesterlies that we see in Rhode Island. It may be dust blowing west from the Sahara (this is not made up - we recently read about Saharan dust effecting the BVI in the NOAA weather forecast out of Puerto Rico), but we're not sure.

After lunch we headed back to Gran Roque to officially clear out. The process went a lot smoother this time, now that we know the magic words "barco in transito." There isn't a lot of provisioning to be done here, but I did pick up a loaf of bread from a bakery before we headed west.

We had a very anxious sail over to Crasqui, where we were planning to spend the night. With the inaccuracy of our position as displayed on the chart plotter, we had an awful time figuring out which island we were approaching, even cross referencing the cruising guide and a paper chart of the area. As we got closer to the island, a reef became visible between us and the island. We turned the boat away from it, and ran along next to the reef trying to figure out where we were. When the carcass of the burned out wreck of a Venezuelan navy vessel appeared on the shore ahead of us, we figured out that we were skirting along the eastern side of Noronsquis. We rounded the northwestern tip of Noronsquis and approached the anchorage on the western side of Crasqui. Of the half dozen boats anchored behind Crasqui, there were several sport fishing boats and some smaller motoryachts. Crasqui is a great spot to anchor in a strong easterly breeze, and the locals know it.

At my second firm in Boston, we had a tradition among the corporate associates of going to Falefel King for lunch on Fridays - and Falafel Friday was born. Some weeks, when things were particularly bad, Falafel Friday would come early, like on Tuesday. This week on Mata'irea, Falafel Friday came a day late; but we were both in need of some fried goodness to sooth our stomachs after that short but stressful sail. While Sten went off fishing in the dinghy I whipped up a middle eastern feast, and a tribute to the best group of co-workers a girl could ask for. Hummus, tabbouleh, tomato and cucumber salad, tzaziki dressing and falafel. To say the least, I have a well stocked larder and a Cuisinart.

While I worked on dinner, Sten did finally manage to catch a 4 pound bone fish with spinning gear but not on the fly, so that remained his challenge for the morning. Sten has been fascinated with the huge amount of aquatic life here. There are periodically flurries of bait around the boat and invariably some airborne fish or bird in hot pursuit.

In the morning, Sten fished from the beach while I walked, waded, and tried my best to get pictures of the ungainly pelicans feeding on the plethora of minnows that inhabit the shallows around here. Sten pointed out to me that "without the minnows, you wouldn't even know the bone fish are even in the shallows. The sandy bottom here appears white, but when covered in shoals of minnows, it appears slightly off white, almost grey. So when a bonefish crosses in front of you, you see not the fish itself but the moving, white colored spot where the minnows have made way for the predator. As for the flyfishing, it appears to be a case of too much of a good thing. Why would you eat an artificial gummy minnow when the water is loaded with the real deal?"

After lunch we headed southwest to the the archipelago of four islands at the western edge of Los Roques, which will form our jumping off spot for Las Aves in the morning. We're finally getting used to navigating with the misinformation displayed on the plotter, and we had a reasonably relaxed sail over here, navigating between a half dozen islands and reefs. We had thought that we would anchor behind Bequeve, but during our sail the wind shifted a bit to the south, leaving it too exposed. We decided to head over to the anchorage at Cayo de Agua, as it was more protected in an east south east breeze. We had some anxious moments as we crossed the lagoon, trying to decide if we were sailing over coral or grass. With as much wind as we've been having the past few days, the water is quite choppy, and our ability to read the bottom is compromised. But we did okay, and were anchored up with plenty of time to explore the island.

Cayo de Agua is different from the other islands we've seen in Los Roques in that it features tall sand dunes and a fresh water oasis that feeds a few stands of palms on the island. Because of the fresh water, The island was apparently important to the Amerindians when they populated the area. All of the water holes we saw were dry, but that is probably because we're in the midst of the dry season (infact we have not seen rain in over two weeks).

Los Roques has been a great training ground for us. We've learned not to rely upon our chart plotter as much as we had been and to develop our ability to rely on the clues provided by the geography around us. We've also been able to work on our reef navigation. We're glad that we had an introduction to reef navigation in Barbuda and the Tobago Cays before attempting to navigate around Los Roques, but it is the experiences that we've had these past few days that should stand us in good stead when we reach the Tuamotus in French Polynesia.

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