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Reverso Air 2021 LEADERBOARD

Memories of a Circumnavigation: Venezuela to Panama

by Hugh & Heather Bacon 17 Feb 18:33 UTC
Bahia Redonda Marina © Hugh & Heather Bacon

In their previous article, Hugh and Heather with Nephew David departed the Canary Islands, sailed south to the Cape Verdes then crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.

Entering the Caribbean, they crossed their 1997 outbound track from Grenada to Tobago thus completing a circumnavigation. David departed the yacht at St Vincent and they proceeded on to Venezuela. There in June 2006 they secured Argonauta I and made plans to reenter the Pacific Ocean eventually to arrive on Canada=s West Coast.

We now continue with the adventures of Argonauta I. This is an account of their passages in 2007 from Venezuela to the Western Caribbean which brought them once again to Panama.

Upon completion of a circumnavigation, the immediate question after the accomplishment begins to fade: what next? In our case, we had started and completed the adventure in the Caribbean. Now we thought we might relocate the yacht to Canada's west coast near Victoria.

Leaving Argonauta I safely in dry storage in Venezuela, June 5, 2006 we had returned to Canada. That summer on the west coast, we leased a slip for a 40 foot plus vessel at a marina near the town of Sidney a few miles up the Saanich Peninsula from Victoria. Canoe Cove is a large facility with excellent maintenance capabilities. We signed up and immediately sublet the slip.

While still in Canada, we pondered the various possibilities of bringing the yacht to the Canadian Pacific Coast. There were of course several options: trucking the yacht from the US Gulf Coast as some friends had done, shipping the vessel via specialized freighter, sailing there via the Pacific Ocean and/or coast crawling up the North American coast. We decided that first we would sail to Panama. March 7, 2007 we arrived in Caracas, Venezuela.

A marina driver picked us up at Simon Bolivar airport to take us some 220 miles east to Puerto La Cruz or PLC where we had left the boat. Multiple breakdowns with lots of garage and tow truck time turned the drive into a ten hour marathon. Oh well, we were back in country! PLC has some nice features beyond the squalor of the many barrios. There were several upscale residential areas bordering yacht navigable canals, a golf course, and a dinghy accessible shopping mall. With a couple of posh marinas and good maintenance facilities, PLC had become a mecca for yachts spending hurricane season. That was a few years back but now things were deteriorating. We moved into a suite at Bahia Redonda Marina, our favorite go to yacht facility in the Caribbean and began pre splash work.

Proyectos Marinos Orientales, PMO, is a large boat yard next to the marina, where we had completed outfitting Argonauta I as a bluewater cruiser back in 1998. It was then that we discovered our boat had developed almost terminal hull osmosis. Contracted by Beneteau, PMO practically rebuilt the hull. I ended up as the yard onsite coordinator for what became a six month project from haul out to splash. We still had a lot of contacts there and we knew we could get some decent work done.

As a country though, Venezuela was going downhill fast. Crime was more prevalent. Indeed murder was a daily occurrence. The boatyard manager and his wife had been fatally shot at the roadway entrance while we were away. Inflation was rampant and there were shortages in the shops. Only the national currency was acceptable for payment but the merchants were desperate for US dollars in order to restock stores with goods from the US. Most yachties carried USD cash but there were money changers who would take personal cheques either USD or CAD for instant cash in Bolivars. They would then transport the cheques personally to South Florida to get the cash to buy goods to sell back in Venezuela.

Everywhere there were gigantic posters showing the then President, Hugo Chavez, clearly determined to be a permanent fixture. Slogans promised wondrous plans to replace decaying roadways, and other infrastructure. Many local people were outspoken in criticism. Those opposed were punished with job loss. A television station had been closed down despite public protests and an ambitious entrepreneur Heather met had received death threats! There were a series of rotating shortages: sugar, black beans, chicken... Merchants had been ordered to lower prices on basics; they responded that they could not function at a lower rate, so they withheld products. With my earlier involvement at PMO together with an English teaching job Heather acquired, both of us had learned a lot about Venezuela. To the many Chavistas, the President was looked upon as a saviour of the country. That did not transpire. Sadly, Venezuela has gone from bad to worse in recent years. We often wonder what happened to the many fine people we came to know there.

Once our yacht work was complete, we did not hang about. It was time to get out of Dodge. Back in the Caribbean, we were in familiar waters for the first time since departing Grenada post circumnavigation. It only struck us after we crossed our 1997 outbound track. Hey, we've done this before! We were in no rush to reach Panama. While the north continental coast of Venezuela was unsafe, the outer islands offered a benign cruising area all the way to the Leeward Antilles, the Dutch ABC Islands. We had a guest couple from Australia join us for the passage to Curacao.

We left the marina and anchored at nearby Isle Chimana Segunda to allow an early start for the Outer Island of Tortuga. We stayed a couple of extra days in the Tortuga area as we were seduced by the beauty and isolation of Las Tortuguillas, a couple of Cayos beyond the main island of Tortuga. We shared the area with our South African friends on DIGNITY. The coral gardens and tropical fish in a lagoon on the eastern cayo were the best we had seen since the Pacific and the Red Sea.

May 7 we arrived at Los Roques after an overnight passage. The full 95 NM distance was on a beam/broad reach in easterly winds to 20K; fast but a bit rough. Then we "gunkholed" through Los Roques and the more westerly Las Aves, semi deserted islands with an abundance of bird life.

Our last anchorage in Las Aves was the island of Palmeras. There we had the expected visit from the Guardia station. Three cordial young men came aboard and checked our papers and took no issue with our state of in transito. They were delighted with our gift of Canadian pins. Later, two men in a pinero came by seeking medication for a child at the adjacent fish camp who had suffered a bad cut to his foot. We were able to provide some serious antibiotic cream and large bandages. In return we were given nine lobsters and some crayfish. The bottle of champagne hidden for Heather's birthday accompanied a special lobster feed that evening. It was a very pleasant way to end our travels in Venezuela.

The Dutch island of Bonaire was our next destination. Once on course we ran the 40 NM transit mostly wing on wing with the genoa polled out to starboard. We tied up to an unprotected slip at Nautico Marina. Had the wind shifted to the west it would have become untenable but our forecast from both Inmarsat and Sailmail indicated no problem. Bonaire is a diver's Mecca. We found an aquarium beneath the boat! Huge tarpon whizzed about and there were so many fish, they ate all the growth off the hull. One could hear fish munching away at night. Snorkeling everywhere was incredible!

We were tempted to extend our stay but the guests were flying out of Curacao and needed to get there soon. May 27, we continued on to Curacao to anchor at the southern end of the island at Spanish Waters. We checked in and then moved to Curacao Marine located in the picturesque Schottegat Harbour of Willemstad. This excellent facility offers secure dry storage as well as full spectrum yacht maintenance. There we left Argonauta 1 from June 5, 2007 until our return October 5 that year.

The Canadian summer in Ontario was an opportunity to catch up with friends two of whom opted to join us in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia to sail on to Panama. October 3 we flew back to Curacao and by October 20, we had the yacht in the water ready to go. We had managed to get some needed woodwork done to replace water damaged paneling in the galley area. Then October 20, we sailed to Santa Marta on Curacao's north east coast to spend a night before setting off non-stop for Cartagena.

This we had done last in November 1998. The passage is classed as one of the more demanding to be undertaken by cruisers. Principally this is because the 400 NM route is in a Trade Wind acceleration zone especially off Venezuela's Guajira Peninsula. Oracles say October is the best month to do the trip as it is a period of lighter winds. What the gurus fail to say is that it is also the rainy season. This we found is characterized by intense thunderstorm activity along with a wind reversal from the prevailing east to west. We got it all but fortunately not before we had been blessed by two excellent sailing days at hull speed mostly wing on wing. Day three brought a wind reversal and heavy squalls. Motoring into 15K winds in five foot seas is very wet and uncomfortable. Speed over the ground is greatly reduced. We were forced to continue in worsening conditions throughout the night but fortunately, by morning we were close to a recommended anchorage on the Colombian coast. Ensenada Trebal, is a protected bay some 50 NM short of Cartagena. By noon we were at anchor.

Early next day, we continued to Cartagena. The conditions were unpleasant due to the ongoing wind reversal but the wind speed was less than 10K. Upon arrival, we used the Bocagrande entrance and passed over the sunken wall with about six feet of clearance under our keel. We motored across the vast, protected harbor leaving the statue of the Virgin Mary to starboard and anchored off Club Nautico. The hook was down by 1730 hours October 26. Cartagena lived up to its name: Pearl of the Caribbean. It is a marvelous city, a World Heritage Site replete with Spanish colonial architecture and a great place to purchase an emerald. Club Nautico was much the same as in 1998. We found no problem getting technical things done. That was important as our instruments had ceased to function. A good technician and a little corrosion removal from the main sender was all it took to recover things.

Our guests experienced life in the rainy season: thunderstorms and a continuing westerly wind encouraged us to stay at anchor. Guest, Bill, was helpful in dealing with a couple of planned maintenance items as well as a hatch hinge failure. I had Lewmar supplied modified hinges to replace defective ones but had been awaiting the original to fail. They finally did, fortunately at a convenient time and place! We loaded 150L of diesel and Heather with guest Nancy did extensive provisioning. Wine was expensive in Colombia, but we had found a windfall in Curacao and had loaded a supply of South African wine at about $2/bottle. Halloween featured a truly exceptional party put on by the marina owner, Candeleria, and staff.

A week enjoying the city and it was time to move on. With an easterly wind forecast, we departed Cartagena November 4. Day one I had planned a short passage to the nearby Rosario Islands. Access is difficult and with misleading guidance, we found ourselves dicing with coral heads. To our relief, locals came out to guide us in.

Next day, we departed for the San Blas some 180 NM to the west. No sooner had we poked our bow out of the anchorage it became obvious that the westerly wind was still with us. Fortunately it remained light but the major part of the two night passage was spent motoring. The San Blas archipelago stretches from the Colombian border to Punta San Blas which is about 50 miles before Colon, Panama. It is an autonomous province of Panama and is home to about 50,000 Kuna Indians. The Kunas fought hard to gain their autonomy. They rebelled in 1925 and killed many Panamanian police and other authorities. The US prevented major retribution and the Kunas surrendered after receiving guarantees of independence.

The reef strewn approach to Holandes Cays allows little room for error. One needs good light to navigate safely. Midday November 7, we anchored in virtually the same spot we had occupied in January 1999. Kuna Indians came by, not only with the famous textile art called molas but shellfish as well. We bought four good size lobsters and a humungous crab for fifteen dollars and presented them with a real novelty: ice cream bars.

Eyeball navigation among reefs was extremely challenging because of the flat light. We experienced frequent tropical downpours associated with sometimes intense thunderstorms. Unlike two vessels, we did not get struck by lightning. Between deluges, we visited a couple of Kuna villages for the cultural experience and to top up supplies. From Nargana Village we dinghied up the Rio Diablo and back; beautiful deep jungle on the mainland. On one occasion, we made ourselves useful when a British yacht went aground by helping in the kedging process. Later, with the dinghy we towed a disabled tourist filled boat back to its dock. At one point, we managed to go gently aground in sand but it was an easy kedge off. Two weeks of cruising among the many uninhabited islands in this tropical paradise remains one of our most memorable of the Caribbean.

Unlike many who are seduced into staying on, November 23 we motored 53 NM from Chichime Cay to Portobelo. No wind but lots of rain. We anchored next to one of the forts across the bay from town. Sir Francis Drake was buried at sea near the harbour entrance. It was the main port for the Spanish Galleons loading Inca spoils after they had been portered across the isthmus from the Pacific. Ruins of the several Spanish fortifications are well preserved.

Tuesday November 27, 2007 in continuous torrential rain we motored 20 NM to the canal and by late morning secured in Shelter Bay Marina. Enroute, visibility did not get much better than perhaps two miles. This continued until we passed through the breakwater leading to the canal when the rain stopped. Friday, November 30, we had the boat hauled and secured on the hard stand and after a few days in a resort hotel, we returned to Canada.

Next, Hugh and Heather make their second transit of the Panama Canal to enter the Pacific Ocean; destination Sidney, British Columbia, Canada.

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