Colon, Panama,-10 February 1996
I am going to call my second newsletter “The Wind is Free- It’s the Sails That Cost Money!” This summarizes much of the period since my last newsletter, which has been devoted to repairing the damage incurred off the cost of Brazil. We left Guyana in mid October, bound for Tobago. The romance of having a mainsail with the hand stitched repairs faded somewhat when we set the main for the first time. The old man’s sail loft was the street outside his hovel and the sail was criss crossed with black oily streaks. Not only that, the stitches gave way in a few hours. Still we got to Tobago OK only to run into a typical bureaucratic problem Russians need an entry visa and we didn’t have one for Evgueni. The immigration official said I could buy him a ticket to Moscow or leave immediately. After a reasoned discussion we compromised-Evgueni was confined to the boat during our stay and a note to this effect was written on our documents. This leads to a catch 22 situation as Evgueni could not now visit the consulates in Trinidad in order to get visas for other islands. When we got to Trinidad we did get him a French visa, which covered the French islands and will be good for French Polynesia. Tobago is one of the last unspoiled Caribbean islands. In the north there is an original rain forest. Anchored off the coast in this area I was fascinated by the flocks of green parrots that fluttered to the forest each evening to nest, chattering loudly as they flew. From Tobago we sailed to Chaguaramus Bay in Trinidad, a few miles from Port of Spain. In the past few years there has been intensive development of yacht maintenance facilities and many boats now summer over there so as to avoid the hurricane season in the Caribbean. Trinidad is too far south to experience many hurricanes. My friend Red, the ship’s wife (old nautical term), sent down many spare parts and we repaired much of the damage and the mainsail was patched again. There were close to a thousand yachts at Chaguaramus, more than half on land, being stored or repaired. There is an active social life, centered around the bars at the three major boat yards. Food and the necessities of life are very cheap in Trinidad. A bus ride to Port of Spain costs 30 cents. Three dollars got you a fish and chip supper with a beer at the yacht club bar/restaurant. Walter found himself a nice girl friend, originally from Venezuela, who ate supper with us many nights. When the devastation caused by hurricane Luis in St Martin became known the yachties had a collection and organized a rescue mission. They dispatched a trawler loaded with supplies to the island. While we were there some of the participants gave a talk and video show, including footage taken on yachts during the height of the hurricane. The devastation was heartrending; over a thousand yachts sunk or driven ashore, with many deaths. Before we left Trinidad in late November we spent a couple of nights anchored at Chacachacare Island, a deserted island which was formerly a leper colony during British rule. After independence, in the 1960’s it was abandoned. Most of the buildings are still in fairly good shape the church had a curious chute like structure to the ground, we figured it was to facilitate getting bodies down to ground level as the church was on the second floor of the hospital building.
We sailed the 90 miles to Grenada overnight. Prices immediately doubled. In the Grenadines I had an interesting experience at Mayreau, a small island about 4 miles from the beautiful Tobago Cays. I first visited Mayreau in the late 1960’s when Edith and I cruised the Caribbean on “IONA”, with Colin, then aged 3. He used to play on the beach there with a small black kid who was deaf. Edith found out from his old Auntie (no parents lived on the island due to the absence of work) that he had never seen a doctor about his deafness. We gave her some money so she could take the child to Barbados on the next schooner going there. Anyway, Mayreau has developed to some extent and now there are several bars, restaurants and small hotels. A cruise ship even calls there more on cruise ships later. So we were all sitting at this bar sipping on a beer and I asked the bartender if he had always lived here. “Oh, yes” he said. So I told him the story of the little boy on the beach and he immediately said, “that was Phil, the brother of the fellow who owns his bar!” Later on I spoke to Dennis, his brother and he said Phil did go to Barbados and was fitted with a hearing aid. This enabled him to get an education- he is now an accountant and lives in the States, married to an American. Mayreau is now visited by a cruise ship, which has rented a section of beach and fenced it off. These ships now cause a great deal of resentment in many islands as the vacationers buy virtually nothing ashore and can rapidly destroy the local ecosystem. Mayreau has about 100 residents the cruise ship lands a 1000! In a Grenada newspaper I read an analysis that said 90% of the islands’ visitors came on cruise ships and spent 10% of the incoming tourist dollar.
This part of the Caribbean, as far north as St Thomas, is infested with charter boats. They are crewed by folks who just want to have a good time for a couple of weeks. If they see a cruising boat they always anchor very close as you must know something and, they don’t use much rope when they anchor. In St Barts we literally had to fend them off. Of course everyone on the other boat had gone ashore to tuck into an expensive meal, the price of which goes up in proportion to the number of charter boats in the harbor.
Back in St Martin we completed the repairs and got the bad news from an expert sail maker that the mainsail had had it. So we ordered a new one from England in early December and it was promised to be shipped by air before Christmas. We spent the intervening time visiting Anguilla, St Barts and Statia.
We had Christmas dinner with our old friends Kay and Dudley Pope and his daughter, Jane, who used to play with Colin when we all lived on boats. They now live in a condo which was badly damaged by hurricane Luis. The local newspaper reported only 40% of the hotels will be open for the winter season due to storm damage.
We left St Martin in early January with a new mainsail and a somewhat depleted cruising account. We also put on board another 30 gallons of Mount Gay rum to replace our depleted stock. We had sailed just under 6000 miles since we left St Martin in July, or 200 miles/gal. Of course, we had spent a lot of time in port.
After a brief stop in Martinique we made a direct sail of about 4 days to Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles. It is famous for its flock of red flamingoes and a few dozen of these birds flew over the boat as we approached the island on the evening of January 16th. The island also has other kinds of birds, and one of them whispered to Walter, who is very tall and handsome, in a seductive Spanish voice what her address was. The next afternoon he dressed up in his cleanest white ducks and ventured into the town of Kralendijk to find her. He returned, chastened, a couple of hours later. The address turned out to be a professional establishment, to put it delicately, complete with price lists and medical certificates. Poor Walter! Nothing seems to have changed for hundreds of years in terms of the dangers awaiting the innocent seafaring man when he sets his feet on land. From Bonaire we sailed 700 miles to the San Blas Island, which lie off the Darien coast of Panama. There must be over a hundred islands covering an area of about 20 by 100 miles. The islands have lovely beaches and clear water. The Kuna indians live here and have a large degree of autonomy, so they have prevented any large scale development, such as tourist hotels. They still paddle and sail dug out canoes and the women make a unique embroidered cloth called Mola. Their villages consist of bamboo huts with palm thatch roofs all crowded close together. When we anchored on the lee of the village we could smell the wood fires they use for cooking.
After ten days we sailed overnight to Colon, the Caribbean entrance point for the Panama Canal. Colon is a very violent town, due I suppose, to the high unemployment rate. All large shops and businesses have guards armed with shotguns at the doors. Visitors are warned to go everywhere by taxi but that didn’t prevent me from being attacked a few days ago inside a shop selling electrical parts. Walter and I had gone there to get some bits for the boat. As I stood against the counter I was suddenly seized from behind, an arm went around my neck and I was being choked. Two confederates darted into the store, one to rifle my pockets and one to prevent anyone from aiding me Walter engaged in fisticuffs with him. I had my hand on my wallet which tore in half in the struggle but my half had the money in it! And then they were gone rushing away down the crowded street, it was all over in 20 seconds. On reflection I had to admire the precision of this team, for the attack was impeccably choreographed. I never saw the faces of any of them. Fortunately nobody was seriously hurt my throat was sore for a couple of days and I sounded a little scratchy. As the old square rig sailors used to say there are more sharks on land than there are in the sea. I lost my original wallet when it was picked out of my pocket in Georgetown, Guyana. This trip is proving to be hard on my wallet(s)!
We have stocked up with fuel, water and food for the long days coming up in the Pacific. We are scheduled to transit the Canal on 13th February the start of a new phase in the cruise. All being well I’ll write again from Tahiti. For the moment best wishes to everyone- winter up there is almost over.