Saturday 14th April - Westward to Bonaire

Jon & Carol Dutton
Sat 14 Apr 2012 22:00

12:09.43N 68:16.84W

14th April – Initial Impressions of Bonaire

We knew that the 400NM or so passage from Grenada to Bonaire was likely to take us about two and a half days.  That being the case, it made sense to leave in the evening to ensure that we got there in daylight 3 days later.  In the event our enthusiasm overtook us.  We needed to refuel (just in case) and on our intended day of departure, Sunday 9th April, the fuel berth in Prickly Bay closed at 1400.  As soon as we’d refuelled we set off, knowing that we risked arriving too early and that we’d have to sort that out later.  Our departure was delayed for a short time – we didn’t actually leave until about 1530 – because the fuel berth attendant and all of us were monitoring a Mayday call to see what assistance we might provide.  A clearly distressed Swiss woman made the call after her husband had been more than an hour overdue returning from diving (he was diving alone – a no, no) near an island off the south west tip of Grenada.   However, a number of boats in the area homed in and the diver was found alive and well.   The relief in his wife’s voice was palpable and, quite by coincidence, we got talking to a Swedish couple at the fuel berth (immaculate English, of course) who knew them well and were arranging to meet up with them that evening for a group hug.

Westward, ho – after months of heading broadly north or south with westerly winds within and between the Leeward and Windward Islands.  It was an easy passage with the wind pretty well dead aft at between 10 and 15 knots, a slight following sea and a westerly current.  It got a bit rolly at times but nothing compared to the rolls we’d experienced coming across the Atlantic from the Canaries to St Lucia.  We poled out the headsail, fitted a preventer to the main boom (to stop it being a nuisance and gybing on us when it, rather than we, felt like it) and headed off downhill with Orville the autohelm in charge of steering.  

There are a few Venezuelan islands on the straight line between Grenada and Bonaire so we had to gybe twice (that’s a gybe almost every day – eat your hearts out, you Solent racing boys and prepare for the competition on our return).  We had toyed with the idea of visiting a couple of the Venezuelan islands on the way (cruising mainland Venezuela was, sadly, completely off the agenda  - read on) but the formalities are burdensome now and the entry fees not inexpensive.  We had also heard that President Chavez has directed his government to send deserving Venezuelan public employees on holiday to these islands and that, for some related reason or other, visiting yachts are not welcome.  Nah, come on.  We can create all the hassle we need, ourselves, without outside assistance.  Thanks.  Such a shame – such good tales of when Venezuela (mainland and all) was a cruising paradise.  It is not the purpose of this blog to be political.  However, it does occur to us that, in a country with as many natural resources as Venezuela, if the economy has gone to the dogs and you have, reportedly, around 20,000 murders (up 20% over the last year, apparently) and 5,000+ kidnappings a year, there may be a case for a brief review of government policy and departmental operation in one or two areas.  Again, reportedly, the message from the top has been that the populace should make whatever money it can in whatever manner it might.  Sounds like a scheme from Hell.  But, on the upside, as our American cousins might say, we suppose that a number of Swiss bank accounts are in ruder health than ever.  As we were to discover, there are lots of Venezuelans doing responsible jobs in Bonaire – can’t think why.

We settled into a routine of three hours on, three hours off after dark - as ever a bit of a shock to the system to start with.  Keeping awake initially was a challenge, particularly as there was virtually no traffic to be tracked.  Having left Grenada and until we got within spitting distance of Bonaire we saw only 2 vessels.  Carol did get a bit concerned at one point – she spotted the tiny (but, conspic) Los Hermanos Islands but couldn’t see a much larger island called La Blanquilla which was very close by to the west.  Was the chart wrong?  Was the chart plotter not working?  Had her eyesight completely failed?  No, none of these – La Blanquilla, although relatively large in area, is a sand covered coral reef and only about 50 feet high – quite different from all the volcanic islands we’ve been used to (she should have listened more carefully to Don Street’s advice in Las Palmas; “I may not know where the rocks are but I sure know where they ain’t.” – Ed).

Having left too early, we arrived correspondingly early having averaged about 6.5 knots all the way.  Anchoring is streng verboten anywhere off Bonaire and you either go into one of the marinas in and around the capital, Kralendijk (only one of which could accommodate our draught and would have cost us $50US+ a night and is a mile out of town- predictably virtually empty when Jon visited later) or you pick up a mooring off Kralendijk for $10US a night.  Either way, this is not sensible to attempt at night on your first visit (no marina staff after about 1700 and the moorings are merely small pick up buoys attached to big lumps of concrete on the sea bed – no actual mooring buoys at all).  So, in the early hours of Thursday 12th, we dropped the mainsail and proceeded under much reduced foresail, trying hard to trim it sufficiently appallingly that we made around 3 knots.  As dawn broke we picked up an unoccupied mooring and retired to bed until we could go ashore and complete the formalities.

The latter, it has to be said, are something of a pain.  Having rung the marina (which also controls the moorings) in advance we were told to come alongside the fuel berth and sort out payment before going to a mooring.  When we pointed out that we’d be arriving significantly before they opened at 0800, we were told to pick up a mooring temporarily, then take the yacht to the fuel berth to sort out the mooring fees and then go and pick up the mooring again (what are you talking about – that’s what we’ve got a dinghy for).  Anyway, that wouldn’t have worked because the first thing you have to do anywhere around here is clear in through customs and immigration.  And they are located on the sea front but about a mile south of the marina.  So, feeling somewhat bolshie now, we arose when it pleased us and dawdled through breakfast before Jon dinghied ashore to try to find the customs office.  This was apparently easily identified (according to the pilot book) as being the only turquoise building on the seafront.  It isn’t turquoise any more.  Carol is battling for a female description of the colour (sand, ochre, apricot . . .).  It’s dull yellow, believe me.  But, hey, it wasn’t that difficult to find.  The office appeared to be very crowded but it became apparent that only one yacht was being processed.  For some reason the  whole of the yacht’s crew were sitting like dummies watching the fascinating process of a skipper filling in two forms asking for the same information in two different formats.  Jon got hold of the necessary forms and, once the previous crew had cleared out, presented his for inspection together with the passports for Carol and himself.  He was immediately despatched back to the boat to collect Carol because, uniquely in our experience so far, Bonaire immigration requires to see flesh and blood as well as the passport to which it relates – on both check-in and check-out.  Presumably the same would be true in Curacao if you checked in or out there.  A mile hike to the marina followed to sort out the mooring fees.  That was a mistake – really should have taken the dinghy – identifying the marina office from the road is practically impossible – so a lot of wombling around was required.  From the fuel berth it’s dead easy.  Anyway, by now it’s midday.  That means no action until at least 1330 – although, helpfully, the sign on the door (one of those “Sorry we’re closed; back at . . .” whatever time shown on clock face) indicates no action until 0900 the next day.  It’s a lot of effort to move those hands, y’know , twice a day, particularly if you’ve only got a bare hour and a half for lunch.  

Chris Doyle’s guide alludes to the fact that Bonaire is sometimes criticised for not being yottie friendly – much more into cruise ships and the wads of cash their passengers find it burdensome to continue to carry around.  So, he mounts a somewhat philosophical rebuttal of that assertion and assures us that we’re all special in the hearts of the locals.  All I’d say is that if you want yotties to come and you arrange that most of them will have to take a mooring, that is absolutely no problem.  Just provide some dinghy docks so they can get ashore.  It’s not complicated.   There is no beach here so you need a dock to get ashore.  Coral runs out from the shore for a few metres and then down, down, down we go.  The choices for getting ashore by dinghy are:

                The afore-mentioned marina – a mile out of town

Karel’s Bar – around about town centre - a badly set up and small capacity dock which is difficult to clamber up and down and where we wouldn’t dream of leaving a dinghy for long.

The Nautico Marine dock – around about town centre.  This is a small yacht dock equipped with ‘dolphins’ and is capable of taking a few yachts provided your draught isn’t anything very great. Not a starter for Arnamentia.  Entry to the dock is via a locked gate and you need to get ashore at the right time to get hold of the bloke who runs it to pay him $10US for the key needed to let you use it to bring your dinghy in and out for a week or part thereof.  The right time occurs 4 times a day (1000, 1200, 1400 & 1600, just before he drives his water taxi to Klein Bonaire and back again).  Once you’ve done that, you’re home and dry – apart from the fact that you’ll need to remember to reclaim your $20 key deposit before you leave. 

C’mon, guys, sort yourselves out.


The good ship Deutschland – complete with a towel for every deck chair

Bonaire is an autonomous island federated to The Netherlands and one can see that the early Dutch settlers must have felt at home here.  The majority of the island is very flat, though the hills at the north end are probably higher than anything back in Holland.  The southern part floods partially in the rainy season but the inhabitants have resisted the temptation to build dykes – possibly because they’d sussed that that wouldn’t work – what with the problem water being delivered vertically rather than horizontally.  The south is also much taken up with salt pans and their product is a substantial contributor to the island’s economy.   Klein Bonaire, the small uninhabited island opposite Kralendijk, looks just like a section of the Dutch North Sea coast – low lying sand dunes and some scrub.  The diving and snorkelling here is reputed to be world class and we are looking forward to doing both.  More of which anon.


                                Kralendijk waterfront from Arnamentia’s bow

Incidentally, the Dutch regard the Dutch Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao (ABCs)) as the Leeward Islands whilst their other islands, Sint Maarten, Saba and Statia (part of what the British would regard as the Leeward Islands) are, to them, the Windward Islands.  All depends on your point of view.  For the British in the 18th Century or so, getting to the Lesser Antilles islands from their N American possessions (before the Americans decided – unaccountably and perhaps a little presumptuously - that they could manage their own affairs better than the English monarch) involved a beat to windward and the more southerly the destination the longer the beat.  So; Martinique and everything south became the Windward Islands, Dominica and everything north became the Leeward Islands.  For the Dutch, the ABCs were significantly to leeward of their other Caribbean possessions.  So, the logic was reversed.  

A first sight the town of Kralendijk is not lacking in charm.  There is quite a lot of colonial Dutch architecture and things are pretty well organised – if occasionally a bit ponderously so.  Inevitably there is a flashy mall to cater for the demands of the cruise ships for duty free bling.  But, there is little of the vibrant soul, fizz and delightful chaos and colour you encounter in the Windward Islands.  No blaring music, no hustling busses and taxis, no strident calls for your attention in the markets, no hyper-active boat boys vying for your trade in almost anything, few locals either manically grinning, screaming with laughter or singing at the tops of their voices, no dreadlocks.  It’s all rather restrained and such food as we have sampled so far is unremarkable – gasthaus dull.  Moreover, here we are at Saturday lunchtime and most of the restaurants and bars closed at midday.  Sorry; non comprendi. 





An eclectic mix of architecture ……………….


                                Austrian chalet and Dutch Colonial Cruise Ship Mall


                                New England Candy Stripe


                                Dutch East Indies


                                Modernist, but not too brutal

And finally, a fun flourish – flamingos adorn the pavements …..



The official language is Dutch whilst the local language is Papiamento – a Spanish-based Creole which incorporates bits of the language of every country that has been involved in the island’s history.  So, we have a mix of Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, South African and a bit of English thrown in for good measure.  Fortunately, you’ll get by more than adequately in English.  There are a great number of South Americans of all nationalities here – scarcely surprising but one is quite clear that, having sailed away from the Windward Islands in the Caribbean, you are in quite different territory here. 

We’re here for a few days and will, doubtless, find out and experience more yet.