Cruising during hurricane season can be like adultery: fascinating, exciting, fun, and challenging, but woe to him who is caught! This is a first-hand review of the joys and the pitfalls of cruising below the so-called "hurricane belt" in the hurricane season. The southern boundary of the hurricane belt, we'll say, is 12°40'N.by Roger Marshall
Come summer in the Caribbean, many cruisers store their boats in so-called
safe havens and head for home either in the US or Europe. These cruisers
are missing some of the best cruising the Caribbean has to offer. The summer
months are for the most part blessed with idyllic conditions: benign weather,
calm seas and moderate winds.
I must hasten to add, however, that summer is the hurricane season, and an idyllic cruise can change into a living hell if the necessary precautions are not taken in time.
Preparing to Cruise 'Below the Belt'
BE PREPARED. This motto is as good for cruisers as it is for the Boy or Girl Scouts. Our first rule was to keep our yacht in prime cruising condition at all times, so we could run for a hurricane hole in the event that it seemed likely that a named storm was going to pass anywhere near us.
WEATHER WATCH. It is critical to be able to listen to and understand
the importance of weather forecasts. There are many sources of accurate
weather information, and I will mention only those that we used extensively.
The Trinidad Emergency & Weather Net is run by Eric Mackie from Trinidad every day at 1030 hours and 2230 hours GMT on SSB frequency 3855 LSB. Over the years we have learnt to respect Eric's forecasts, and whenever we can we are guided by them.
More recently we have been using the Caribbean Weather Net run by George, who broadcasts his weather at 1115 hours and 2030 hours GMT on SSB frequencies 7241 and 7086 LSB respectively. Like Eric, George gives good reviews of the weather from which one can make a judgment on what to do.
Sailmail offers its subscribers a very good weather reporting service and we learned that their Tropical North Atlantic & Caribbean Sea review AMZ086, obtained from the US National Hurricane Center in Miami, is reliable and accurate. We also made extensive use of their Grib files for wind strength, direction and barometric pressure predictions.
PROVISIONING. It is very important that adequate provisions of every description are on board, as many hurricane holes are in isolated areas. A run to one of them could easily mean one is unable to re-victual for weeks.
ANCHORING AND MOORING GEAR. Prior to departing on a summer cruise it is most important to make sure that one's mooring lines, second (and third and fourth) anchors, and other securing equipment are all in first class condition. It is terrifying to find that a shackle on the second anchor has rusted just when you need it most.
HURRICANE HOLES. Make sure you are familiar with where the nearest and
safest hurricane holes are situated, and have a cruising plan ready to
follow at short notice. Be sure you have charts for adjacent areas that
you may not be planning to visit, in case you have to go there in a hurry
with a hurricane chasing you.
TROPICAL WAVES. The summer season is characterized by the continuous passing of tropical waves every three days or so. Most are mild, but many bring rain and squalls and so movement between locations should ideally be undertaken in the window period between the waves. Of course the more severe of the waves can and do turn into tropical systems.
COMPLACENCY. Until 2004 we had enjoyed three relatively storm-free hurricane seasons and many of us cruisers had become (to a greater or lesser extent) complacent about the risk of having a named storm bear down on us.
We got the fright of our lives last summer when in Los Roques, in transit
to Los Aves, Charley became a tropical storm not 30 miles away. We were
not prepared for this and were indeed fortunate he passed to the north
of us. "Unheard of this far south," everyone said, so we figured it was
a one-off. A week later in the Aves we were again threatened, this time
by Tropical Storm Earl, who headed uncharacteristically far south - and
straight for us. It was here we discovered our second anchor chain was
not in good shape. We weathered the storm, so to speak, though it turned
out to be a non-event.
By the time "Ivan the Terrible" was headed where he wasn't supposed to be going, we were somewhat better prepared. At that time we were in Bonaire. Deciding that this idyllic island was not a suitable place to ride out a hurricane, we headed for Spanish Water in Curaçao where the holding is good and the anchorage protected from the sea. Even so, we were relieved when Ivan decided to move from a course of 280° to 295° only a few hours before we were affected. As it was, he passed a mere 90 miles to our north as a full-blown Category 5 hurricane with reported winds gusting to 195 knots. Being in the southern hemisphere of his winds, we were fortunate that we only got 35 knots of wind.
The moral of this story is "EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED" and be ready for it. I commend all readers to familiarise themselves with the excellent three-part series "Hurricane Survival" by Brad Glidden in the July, August and September 2004 issues of the Compass. We followed his advice in the first article, "Prepare for Pop Ups", in our preparation for Ivan.
The Enjoyment of Cruising "Below the Belt"
Having taken the above into consideration and remaining responsibly aware of these points, excellent cruising is the order of the day. In the past four years we have visited most of the Southern Caribbean's attractions, many of which we have reported on in previous editions of the Compass, so will concentrate on what we did last summer.
MOCHIMA NATIONAL PARK AND GOLFO DE CARIACO. Many have spent entire summers cruising these attractive bays, islands and creeks. This area is protected from severe weather conditions and is probably the safest cruising area one could choose - weather-wise, that is. We saw fit to cruise this area with our grandchildren and were unhindered, notwithstanding the odd report of a boarding. Suffice to remind everyone of the Safety & Security Net's advice "Lock It or Lose It". A permit is needed to visit the Mochima Park area and this can be obtained through your check-in agent in Venezuela.
ISLA LA TORTUGA. This peaceful and tranquil island lies just 60 miles
to the northwest of Puerto la Cruz. Words to describe this exquisite tropical
island are hard to find. Every cruiser's dream of a paradise in heaven
could be this picture-perfect island. Cayo Herradura is blessed with good
holding, pristine white beaches, exquisitely clear water, interesting reefs
on which to snorkel and good protection from the prevailing winds and seas.
One's days start with magnificent sunrises and end with spectacular sunsets.
Local fishermen regularly bring seafood to trade or sell, and we had some
wonderful meals on the freshest of fish. A gourmet's delight, especially
with the settings in the background. Weekends can be somewhat crowded and
noisy, but mid-week one can find oneself alone with only the pelicans and
the odd fisherman for company.
Other anchorages in Tortuga include Playa Caldera, which is noted for its magnificent half-moon beach which goes on for miles. This anchorage can be somewhat rolly. An anchorage with good snorkelling is Los Palanquinos, which lies between Caldera and Herradura, but we didn't stay there. This island in the summer is one of our favourites, but we believe in the November-to-May period it gets very windy and therefore won't be so nice.
LOS ROQUES. Ninety miles to the northwest of Isla la Tortuga lie Los Roques. This is an overnight sail which allows one to enter the southern tip of Los Roques through the Sebastapol entrance. This entry should not be attempted in anything other than good daylight in fair sea conditions. Los Roques is a National Park and formalities have to be done before enjoying what it has to offer. Los Roques is an area of reefs and small islands surrounded by unbelievably clear water. At the time we passed through, there were brisk winds and calm seas which made for most pleasant conditions. This is very evidently a playground for the rich and famous, as is evidenced by the large variety of luxury motor cruisers. We were told a former US president visits this area annually. Watersports include snorkelling, water-skiing, kite-skiing, windsurfing and parasailing. The main centre of this archipelago is El Gran Roque, where the authorities are stationed and formalities have to be attended to. A hill with a lighthouse and an interesting village are the main features of El Gran Roque. We found a good restaurant for lunch in the village, albeit pricey by Venezuelan standards. There are many more interesting areas where one can anchor in the Roques, which we saw but didn't stay at as we were in transit. We look forward to a longer stay this year, when we will plan our visit more efficiently.
AVES DE BARLOVENTO. Thirty miles from the western extremity of Los Roques lie the Aves de Barlovento. This area is characterised by a huge horseshoe reef with an island, Isla Sur, at the southern end. There is a very comfortable anchorage in the centre of Isla Sur which is accessible in daylight by navigating around a series of reefs. The island itself is home to hundreds of birds, and this on its own makes it worth a visit. The surrounding reefs make for very interesting and challenging exploring and snorkelling. The reefs protect one from the seas and the winds keep one cool. The anchorage has good holding and it is here we rode out the passing of Tropical Storm Earl. Remote and unpolluted, this area is a refuge from all the troubles of the world where one bonds with nature.
AVES DE SOTOVENTO. Only 15 miles from Aves Barlovento lie the Aves de Sotovento islands and reefs. Once again, there is a large reef with an island at the south with a Coast Guard station, and there are several small islands in the west. It is necessary to register with the Coast Guard when you arrive, which we did. It would be remiss of me not to mention the courtesy and professionalism of the young men manning this station. They are a credit to their country. Isla Larga in the south is the largest and Mangrove Bay is where we stayed to begin with, until the wind dropped and the mosquitoes came for us. Thereafter we moved into an anchoring area amongst the reefs for an enjoyable few days with nothing but water around us in all directions. Wonderful snorkelling amongst the myriad reefs. The biggest challenge here is to keep your yacht off these reefs as you navigate your way in or out. Both of the Aves archipelagos are food for the soul.
BONAIRE. A further 35 miles to the west lies the Netherlands Antilles'
island of Bonaire. What a transformation from all that we have enjoyed
so far - its Dutch connections are as evident as are Venezuela's Spanish
connections. It is a delightful island, well protected from the prevailing
seas and winds, though the mooring area can be quite rolly and downright
uncomfortable if the winds are from the south or the west. Formalities
are within easy walking distance and are straightforward and uncomplicated,
though we were told it is necessary to renew one's visa after 14 days.
This island is almost all a marine reserve and anchoring anywhere is prohibited.
One therefore has to use one of the available mooring balls or go into
one of the marinas.
Kralendijk is the main town and we found it to be interesting, clean and very accessible. The houses and buildings are colourfully painted and are all in pristine condition. There are an abundance of restaurants from which to choose and we enjoyed several good meals. There are some negatives, as with anywhere, and of note here we must mention the prices. Meals, groceries, phone and internet costs and car rentals, etcetera, are somewhat higher than in Venezuela but no more so than in most of the other Caribbean islands. Fuel is 25 times the price one can get fuel for in Venezuela. Having said that, there are a lot of different products available compared to some of the other islands.
Diving and snorkelling are possible almost everywhere and we did some
of our best underwater exploring right off the back of our yacht. Diving
is the main attraction on this island and there are a number of dive operators
offering their services at reasonable prices. I had intended getting certified
as a scuba diver whilst in Bonaire, but the threat of Hurricane Ivan put
paid to that when we had to run to get to a hurricane hole before his arrival.
On our return a week later, time didn't permit a dive course. I therefore
have that to look forward to this year.
This island is a must for the discerning cruiser. Service and repair facilities are available here. There is much more to Bonaire and a visit to their website on www.bonaire-tourism.com should get you more information.
CURAÇAO. A comfortable 35 miles west of Bonaire lies Curaçao. We hadn't planned on visiting Curaçao, so had no charts or literature on the island and had to follow friends into Spanish Water. I must add we are glad we got there, as we were very pleasantly surprised with what we saw. With a population ten times that of Bonaire, this island has even more to offer. Spanish Water is well protected if somewhat remote. From where we anchored it was a 15-minute dinghy ride to Sarafundy's restaurant and bar, where there is a dinghy dock. They have a very popular happy hour here and provide many services for cruisers. Here we rented a car for US$20 per day and toured the island. There is also a very handy free daily pick up from Sarafundy's to a local supermarket, which is excellent and has a wide choice of produce. The alternative to Sarafundy's is to go to the other side of the bay and catch a bus into town.
Attending to formalities here is somewhat more complicated than Bonaire
in that one has to go into the main town, Willemstad, where Customs can
be found in the harbour area and Immigration under the high bridge where
the cruise ships dock. Willemstad is a modern city bordered by an enormous
oil refinery with tankers coming and going all the time. The town itself
is very picturesque and quaint, and well worth a visit. We lunched at a
very good streetside café and dined that night on the most delicious
spare-ribs we have tasted in ages. There are many good restaurants from
which to choose.
Curaçao is also a dive destination, with numerous operators. Time didn't permit us to sample the diving, but we are told it is excellent. We found a very helpful Tourist Bureau in Willemstad and instead of repeating all they told us, we recommend that you visit their website www.curacao-tourism.com. We rate Curaçao as the next mecca for cruisers as it has it all, and whilst many have been there, many more have yet to open this treasure chest. Like Bonaire, Curaçao is relatively expensive compared to Venezuela, but not so in comparison to many other cruising areas.
Returning to Puerto la Cruz
One can return eastward by either reversing our route to Curaçao, which can be pleasant or can be a beat, or do as we did and follow the Venezuelan coast. We had the most enjoyable return trip from Curaçao, first back to Bonaire, then a comfortable overnight passage to Chichiriviche, followed by day trips to Ensa Carta, Caraballeda and Carenero. An overnight passage from Carenero to Isla Piritu, and then a short hop the following morning took us back to Puerto la Cruz and into Bahia Redonda Marina, our home in Venezuela.
I must stress that when we saw what Chichiriviche and Carenero had to offer, we decided to return to both places for longer visits as there seemed much to see and do. There are also attractive anchorages in between, which I am sure warrant further exploration as this entire coastline is the discerning cruiser's dream with its majestic mountains, pristine beaches and innumerable bays.
While we chose Curaçao's Spanish Water as our hurricane hole, there were many who chose Chichiriviche, which appears equally well protected. One cruiser had no charts of the area and had to approach it in a blinding storm. He had no choice but to use the sketch charts in Doyle's guide and interpolated waypoints to guide him in. Not ideal, but he got in safely. (On this note I have to compliment Chris Doyle and Jeff Fisher for the excellent work they have done in their Cruising Guide to Venezuela and Bonaire, ISBN 0-944428-38-X, which we used extensively. We recommend that they extend it to include Aruba and Curaçao, as we could not find a comprehensive and factual guide on these two islands.)
Finally I would like to thank our cruising companions Karl and Mary
Lou of Starlight Dancer and Tony and Bente of Side by Side for their patience
and dedication showing us this marine wonderland. Also thanks to the many
other friends we encountered in various venues.
Roger Marshall is cruising the Caribbean aboard S/Y Infinity.
Copyright© 2005 Compass Publishing