13 - 18 February 2008 : Curacao
We had a gentle sail between Bonaire and Curacao, and spent most of the passage teaching our new crew, Helena and Charlie, how to sail Rahula. We made another failed attempt to hoist our new drifter, but it was still too windy to get the sail up and furled away. We arrived at the entrance channel to Spanish Water about an hour before sunset and deliberated whether to tackle the tricky entrance at dusk and risk running aground, or anchor outside the entrance and wait for better light the following day. The channel is very narrow at the entrance, and then meanders from bank to bank following the curves of the hills beyond. Either side of the deep-water channel are isolated reefs, which are often unmarked, and difficult to spot under the water in anything but perfect light conditions. We checked our electronic charts with a conveniently placed transit, and James decided that it was worth trying to get into the anchorage before dark (he thrives on a navigational challenge!). So with me at the helm, and James conning we gingerly made our approach. The entrance was about 40ft wide (twice Rahula’s width) and was flanked by a sharp snargly reef protruding through the water on one side and a sand bar on the other. We watched the depth as we motored though the gap and held our breath. There was no crunch sound, and within a few meters we were back in deep water and safely in the main channel (that is why I married a navigator! A). We followed the channel marked on the chart and past the occasional oddly shaped channel marker, pleased that for a change the chart datum was very accurate. Then we approached the final bend in the river and as we turned the huge harbour came into view. Spanish water is a renowned yacht anchorage as it is a hurricane bolthole and a convenient place to stop on the journey west. The anchorage was full of yachts and we weaved our way through them trying to find a spot for Rahula before darkness fell. We dropped our anchor on the edge of a group of yachts, near Eva and Wolfgang on Sleipnir who arrived the day before, and cracked open a beer to celebrate another landfall.
The following day we took the bus into the capital Willemstad for James to clear into the island and to do some sightseeing. Curacao is the largest of the Netherlands Antilles, and has been the administrative centre of the Dutch Caribbean. As a result of its strategic position and centuries serving as a major trading port the island is heavily populated by a huge racial diversity (145,000 people compared with Bonaire’s 11,000 inhabitants) that makes it hard to distinguish the locals from the tourists. The port at Willemstad is one of the largest and busiest harbours in the world, and tourism is the island’s second industry with at least a cruise ship a day visiting the capital. Willemstad is nicknamed “little Amsterdam” and as we walked up to the waterfront we could see the similarities. The banks of the river which slices through the centre of the city and leads to the huge docks beyond were lined with tall pastel coloured buildings with curly gables and orange roof tiles. The pavement cafes and air conditioned shops selling famous brands made us feel like we were back in Europe. Only the heat and the strange language (Papiamento, which is a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, African dialect and more. It is evidence of the island’s significance as a major trading port) reminded us we were still in the Caribbean. It was all very pretty, and a stark contrast to the bland architecture in Bonaire, only 30 miles away.
As the city is divided by a river, which is in constant use by huge container ships heading in and out of the docks further inland, a floating bridge was built to link the two banks. The Queen Emma Bridge stands on 15 pontoons which buck and sway with the swell of the sea and cause the people walking across the bridge to occasionally jerk in unison (it certainly puts the Wobbly Bridge in London to shame! A). There is an engine attached to the end pontoon and when a ship arrives the bridge opens to let the ship pass. While the bridge is closed a ferry transports people across the river. It is a great city landmark, and it was fun to cross on foot or on the ferry dodging the big ships.
Willemstad is home to the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas, and I felt that I ought to visit to commemorate my Jewish roots. The synagogue was built in 1732 by a large community of Jews that had taken refuge in Curacao a century earlier. The only synagogues I had visited before were in Israel, where the architecture is austere and plain, with only a few decorations allowed around the Torah. The Mikve Israel Synagogue was completely different, and very European in style, complete with a heavy wooden altar and large chandeliers. The floor in the synagogue was covered in sand in memory of the journey of the Jews through the desert. Adjacent to the synagogue was a Jewish History museum which was very interesting. In Israel, Jewish history taught in schools consists of the biblical stories from 2000 years ago and the period after Israeli independence in 1948. The intervening years are glossed over as the Dark Ages. This museum was full of artefacts and history from those intervening years, as the Jews scattered far and wide adopting some of the customs and styles of their host country. It was fascinating for me to see familiar Jewish objects in a variety of European styles more often reserved for church altars. Songs and prayers I had learnt in Hebrew as a child were displayed in a variety of languages, and food was adapted to suit what was available locally. It was an interesting example of how people can adapt to new surroundings and still maintain a cultural identity.
From one group of displaced people we moved on the history of another and visited the Kura Holandia Slavery museum. This was an excellent museum, which started with an exhibition of archaeological artefacts from Africa and Asia. The museum then covered the origins and events of the slave trade, from the use of aristocratic European ladies who had fallen from grace to the capture of Africans. The next section covered African history and traditions, and contained an unusual selection of tribal handicraft and musical instruments (none of which we had seen in The Gambia!). Finally the museum dealt with the abolition of the use of slaves in the Caribbean colonies and in America, but closed with a poignant reminder that the practice still takes place in some parts of the world. It was a well laid out and explained museum, which is worth a visit if you are ever in Curacao.
As the island had such close links with the sea we felt a visit to the maritime museum was a must (I needed my ‘Jack’ fix…J). This is another excellent museum, covering the history of the Dutch Navy in the Caribbean and the development of Curacao into a major trading port. The museum contained interesting extracts from letters written during the 17th-19th century battles for control of Caribbean trade, and it was funny to read how the English were referred to initially as “bloodthirsty marauders” and then as Napoleon came to power a letter was finished with “may Nelson crush him”. Our favourite part was the story of a ship’s figurehead which was found rotting in a warehouse in the docks. The figurehead was restored and placed in one of the Dutch Navy’s wardrooms. The Maritime Museum then took possession of it, and put it on display in the museum. The Dutch Navy was unhappy about losing one of its “ladies” so in the cover of darkness a bunch of sailors raided the museum and stole the figurehead. She was then returned to the museum, but a few years later stolen again back into naval hands. There followed a series of clandestine robberies between the two organisations, which reminded us very much of some of the pranks played in the Royal Navy! (Leadership training to all you tax payers…J)
The Runaway Figurehead
We had some time to kill in Curacao waiting for the right weather to head west, so we decided to rent a car with Helen and Charlie for a couple of days and explore the island. According to the guidebook there wasn’t much to do outside Willemstad, but we figured it would be interesting to see the rest of the island. Unlike the other Caribbean islands we had visited there were only a few old plantation houses that were open to the public (phew!…J). Many were privately owned, or had been converted to luxury hotels. The first one we visited, Landhuis Santa Martha, was owned by a foundation which helped handicapped people, and included a farm and various craft centres. The main house was interesting, but meagrely furnished. The farm had a collection of local flora and fauna, but as it was the dry season nothing was in bloom. The highlight of the visit was a bunch of turtles climbing over each other in a pond (the scintillating life we lead…J). The further north we travelled the more sparsely populated the island became. We stopped for lunch at the most northernmost village, which overlooked a beautiful blue bay. At the restaurant James and Charlie thought it would be funny to lock Helen and I in the toilets using the locks on the outside of the doors (comic genius as I’m sure you will agree…J). Helen decided to make her escape over the cubicle wall, but as she got half way over she got stuck and couldn’t get down either side. The boys found it all very funny…
The sun was definitely over the yardarm by the time we drove back down to the south side of the island and we decided to stop at the Curacao Liquor distillery. From previous distillery tours we were expecting a big factory filled with huge vats emitting the sweet smell of fermenting liquor. We found a tiny shop filled with shelves of colourful Curacao liquor and lined with posters explaining the production process. We watched a short video about how the small bitter oranges grown on the island are converted into the liquor used in many cocktails. It was interesting to hear that as a country’s name cannot be trademarked there are many imitation Curacao Liquors made in other countries (unlike Champagne etc.). We tried some of the liquor, which seemed to basically be neat alcohol flavoured with various things to give it colour and taste. In order to help you appreciate how foul this stuff was neat, I’ll add that the same factory made mouthwash from the by-products of the distilling process…
The following day we left the boat very early in the morning as we planned to hike up to the highest peak in Curacao. Mount Christoffel (1,239 ft) is in the national park in the north part of the island, and by the time we arrived at its foot the sun had risen and our stomachs grumbled. Luckily Charlie had come prepared, and pulled out of his huge rucksack a camping stove and all the ingredients for a hearty breakfast. We had egg and sausage sandwiches at a picnic table overlooking the hill we were about to climb. The sausages were called “Hebrew Sausages” and the packet included the slogan “We answer to a higher authority”! It was all very civilised. Suitable refreshed we put on our hiking boots and started up the path to the top of the mountain. As we climbed the vegetation increased and became more like the lush tropical landscape we had seen in the eastern Caribbean. The path meandered at a gentle incline around the mountain, but as we neared the steep rocky peak the walk became a scramble between huge rock boulders or twisted tree roots. I was fine as long as I didn’t look down (I stupidly didn’t consider how I would feel on the way down when I had no choice which way to look…). When we reached the top the view across the island was amazing for about 5 seconds, then a huge black cloud enveloped us and it started to rain really hard. We put up with the torrential rain long enough to take a picture and get our breath back, then headed back down again. The way down was slippery and steep, and we arrived at the bottom tired but pleased to have made the climb.
Back in the car and in flip flops rather than stout climbing boots we drove back down south and met up with Eva and Wolfgang at the Ostrich Farm. None of us had any idea why we were visiting the ostrich farm – we all assumed one of the others wanted to go… There we had a tour around the farm onboard a strange looking converted German army vehicle. We were shown Ostrich from different parts of the world, and told about their mating habits (our guide even demonstrated how they mate with a female ostrich, I kid you not! .J). All the birds we saw were destined for a plate somewhere around the world, and in the farm’s restaurant you could order anything as long as it contained ostrich (and you were willing to pay their inflated prices…). It was a surreal place, but it was fun watching the stupid birds strut around, and stroke a cute little baby ostrich. After the ostrich farm we made one last attempt to visit a plantation house and went to Landhuis Brievengat, which was recommended in the guidebook. Unfortunately (depending on your point of view…J) it was closed for restoration, so we gave up and headed home.
Our social scene in Curacao continued apace as the anchorage was so busy. We met lots of other cruisers, most of which were trying to head West and were waiting for the right weather. The passage west past Columbia’s Caribbean coast is renowned as being one of the worst 5 passages a boat makes during a circumnavigation (up there with Cape Horn and the Bay of Biscay) and we were planning to do it in the wrong season, when the Trade Winds were at their strongest. This horrible weather is caused by the fact that the strong Easterly winds which rage across the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea raise huge seas by the time they arrive at the Western end of the Caribbean. This large swell then travels on to Central America where it is bounced back and reflected back into the Caribbean where it interacts with existing waves and amplifies them. The constant topic of conversation at the Yacht Club bar was the weather and how long people had been waiting for a good window (some had been there 4 months!). Every morning as the wind howled around the anchorage we resigned ourselves to filling another day in Curacao and delaying our passage to Cartagena even more. On our 5th day there the weather talk started to be more buoyant, the wind started calming down, and people started to stir on their boats. Finally the weather was looking good, and we could prepare to sail. We planned to sail early on Monday morning, in order to beat the rush through the narrow harbour entrance. Little did we know what was waiting for us out in the open ocean…