W.Indies To Panama

12/18/09

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Between the oceans

Crossing between the Atlantic/Caribbean and the Pacific is a lot easier now than it was a hundred years ago as, courtesy of the French (who had the idea and started the work) and the Americans (who finished the job) we have the convenience of the Panama Canal saving yachts the distance, time and danger of passing round "The Horn".

However as with all things official there are mounds of paperwork to handle, the boat has to be measured, fumigated (at least the rubbish does - this is a complete joke as we had thrown our "imported" rubbish away and they fumigated the rubbish we had generated locally) and various immigration and departure visas obtained before we are given a date for transit.

So we sit and wait and Shelter Bay Marina, a bizarre almost surreal enclave on the edge of the jungle on the north western side of Cristobal Harbour. The marina has recently been completed in what was he ld US Base of Fort Sherman part of which is still being used by the Panamanian armed forces so security is high which we understand is a blessing as many parts of Panama are still not safe with sadly high crime levels - even so it seems odd to return to the marina late in the evening and to be waved through the checkpoint by a rather scruffy soldier holding an AK47 assault rifle.

The marina itself is really only partially completed and whilst the staff try hard they seem hampered by senior management's inability to stick to a plan and as such we sweat (literally and figuratively) on a date to be hauled out of the water to get the saildrive checked out as it is leaking and water getting in again.

The kids have a ball at Shelter Bay as there are over twenty kids amongst those waiting to transit the Canal including many old friends from Hullabaloo, Silver Girls, Wakelele, Bauvier, Legaris etc - net result we hardly see them at all.

    

Finally we are hauled out of the water allowing us to both get the repairs done and also to re-antifoul Mary Constance's "bottom" scrapping off the barnacles and once again changing her colour, this time from faded red to a tasteful light blue which seems fitting for her new life in the Pacific Ocean. As usual we have cut it fine as we drop her back in to the water the day before we are due to transit.

             

                Yet another haul out...                                                                     Canal Ready!

As so the Transit Day arrives, the pushpit is stripped of anything that may get fouled on lines in the canal, tyres tied to the sides to augment our fenders, fur 120 feet long ropes attached to help us be guided through and we say our farewells and leave the calm of Shelter bay in company with Wakelele. On board we have added crew in the form of Karl and Sandi from Fantasy One as we motor across Cristobal Harbour towards the "Flats", the anchorage where we will collect our ACP Advisor (due to our size we don't warrant a full pilot on board).

                    

                                     Waiting at the "Flats"                                                                    Karl and Sandi

On arrival at the flats we pick up our final crew member/line handler, Brian who has been crewing on Paul's yacht D'Artagnion and wait for the advisor. Just as he arrives we hear on the radio that Wakelele will not be transiting with us which is a major blow as Jos and Anne-Mie have shared the catering. Instead of rafting up in the locks with a Benneteau 57 we now are to be accompanied by a very small yacht - none other than the "Mad Hungarian" we had last seen on Cartegena on his 19 feet long yacht.

The transit of the Canal now takes two days for a yacht to complete due to a change in policy by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), whereas previously they rushed yachts through in a day you now start in the evening to navigate through the Gatan Lock, stay the night in Gatan Lake and then proceed the following morning on to Milaflores Locks.

 

Advisor No 1: "Marine"

So we start our transit. We motor gently towards the first locks at Gatan allowing the merchant ship Amalia to pass us as we will be sharing the lock with her. We raft up with our fellow "transitees" and wait for the ACP advisor to give us our instructions. The scale of everything is huge and Mary Constance is dwarfed as we gently move into the first lock chamber, the ACP rope handlers on the sides of the lock throw their "Monkey's Paw" throwing lines across narrowly missing both the crew and importantly our well padded out solar panels and we quickly tie on our ropes and feed them backup the sides of the locks to be tied on.

                                

                                       Our fellow "Transitee"                                                           The first croc seen!!

Mary Constance is the centre boat of three and as such responsible for steering and providing the forward motion for all three yachts - this makes us very nervous as it will prove to be a major test for our newly completed saildrive repairs. In addition, because the Hungarian boat is so small we have to handle lines as well. This is probably just as well as the Hungarian's boat is very overloaded is the skipper, ACP advisor and four line handlers on board to meet regulations - this is quite frankly madness and a clear case of bureaucracy triumphing over common sense as the tiny yacht is almost foundering under the weight!!

We are all nervous despite having been through the locks before with Nancy and Ted and it is a relief to feel the water rising as the locks gates closed behind us. Tee water rises quickly creating large forces on the yachts and ropes and the four line handlers have to work hard to keep the yachts centred in the lock. Fortunately the ACP is highly professional and gives excellent instructions and we safely complete the first of the three Gatan lock chambers before motoring forwards in to the next chamber where the process is repeated and so on into the third chamber that leads in to Gatan Lake where we will stay the night.

A few facts we learn along the way......

   *  The locks are about 1000 feet long and 110 feet wide

   *  The widest boat to transit leaves about 2 feet clear either side

   *  The largest boat to go through pays a huge US$380,000 toll

   *  The lowest toll ever paid was 25 cents by some guy who swam through

As we leave the final lock chamber we quickly unraft and start to head off to the mooring buoy, as we do so disaster strikes for the "Mad Hungarian". Firstly he almost crashes in to us and then his motor dies in a huge puff of white smoke - potentially a very expensive problem and despite his general attitude (which is not good) we feel sorry for him as the ACP advisor moves us off towards the mooring.

We arrive at the mooring in pitch darkness as there is no moon that night, fortunately  the buoy is almost as wide as Mary Constance so we find it and tie up easily and settle down to diner. The ACP launch arrives and takes off the advisor just about the same time as the Hungarian and his crew paddle in to sight.

Shortly after we are radioed by the Hungarian seeking assistance and advice on his engine problem. Shortly after one of his line handlers, another solo sailor called Lars (who we met in the San Blas) calls to explore whether we would consider towing them the next day. Whilst we want to help as much as possible it is unlikely that the ACP will allow this as it would slow everyone down too much so we hope they manage to repair the problems overnight!!

"MH" and crew

The next morning dawns and we have an early swim in the lake keeping an eye out for hungry crocs. Lars swims over with the good news that the engine is running and asks if we will just "stand by" in case they need help during the day which we are happy to agree to.

            

                               Small night time mooring buoy                                                      New advisors arrive

The day's ACP advisors arrive by launch and we set off across the lake needing to cover about 30 miles before we get to the next lock. This will probably be the only time Mary Constance will ever sail in fresh water so is another first, the scenery and wildlife on the lake is superb and as the wind comes up slightly we motor sail towards the Gallard Cut occasionally being passed by huge tankers, liners and other commercial shipping - quite a surreal experience in many ways.

    

                            US nuke sub                                                                                            Morning in Lake Gatun

 

As we started the ACP advisor asked us if we would assist the Hungarian by taking on some of his crew to lighten his yacht firstly to make it go faster and secondly to make it safer so we now have an additional three on board Mary Constance; Helmut from Switzerland, Reynaldo from France and a Dutch back packer called Natasha making us look like the League of Nations!! Poor Jos has to go in to overtime feeding everyone while Nike has the easy job of steering......

                    

                                                                                   Crossing Lake Gatun

                      

                                "Croc food time"

Advisor's Conference

Just before the Gallard Cut we see our first croc for the day just about the same time as the advisor says there are very few about.....

         

The old German Sub Crane - war reparations

   

We motor gently on fortunately not having to strain the repairs too much although as we reach the Gallard Cut the advisor asks if we can increase speed to 6 knots to make up some time - all a bit nerve racking! As we reach the Centennial Bridge, which is a clone of Sydney's ANZAC Bridge we wait for the Hungarian to catch up before rafting up for the downward journey, a reverse of the previous night's locks and we drop swiftly down through the Milaflores Locks and finally enter the waters of the Pacific without incident leaving the locks behind us and passing under the Bridge of the Americas.

          

                                                                                       We're through!!!!

Hello Pacific - another first for Mary Constance and the start of our homeward passage!

 

 

Onwards towards the San Blas Islands via Isla Rosarios

Our views on leaving Cartegena were mixed as whilst it was a beautiful city it was also extremely polluted leaving Mary Constance looking  grey all over, even the standing rigging was covered in grim leaving a dark stain of filth on your hand if we touch the steel. As such it was really time to leave with the promise of heading towards the San Blas island chain off the Panamanian coast giving us something to look forwards to.

However before we headed towards San Blas we decided to overnight in Isla Rosarios, or more accurately Isla Grande as Rosarios itself is a nature reserve and anchoring prohibited to yachts.

The sail to Isla Grande was uneventful although we had made the cardinal sin of leaving a little late resulting in us having to negotiate a very tricky reef entrance a bit late in the day - one of the basic rules for approaching an new anchorage is to make sure that the sun is still high in the sky so you can see the reef itself, the GPS and electronic maps are good but often they do not match exactly with what is on the ground. Isla Grande's entrance was no exception however we arrived with enough light to safely get in and drop the anchor in time to join the crews of Wakalele, Bauvier and Legaris for a BBQ on the beach. Fortunately this time Mike did not have to resort to pyrotechnics to get the fire going and the evening was a great success as evidenced by a number of sore heads and late sleeping kids the next day.

    

                                                                                    The BBQ at Ilsa Grande (Rosarios Islands)

As the anchorage was exposed we moved the next day to the southern side of the island which was also an excellent jumping off spot for  day/night sail down to the San Blas islands. Again the weather was ideal and we made excellent time for the first 24 hours with a brisk sail on near flat seas. Sadly the wind died off the next day and to avoid the chance of arriving in yet another reef surrounded island chain too late in the day we were forced to motor sail for about six hours.

A gentle passage

And so we arrived in the San Blas late in the afternoon and dropped anchor in the Eastern Holandes Cays which looked as close to paradise as we had found so far - even if it took about five attempts to get the anchor to hold!

San Blas - an unspoilt paradise?

Having dropped anchor in the "Swimming Pool" anchorage which nestles between several coconut palm covered islands and the protective reef Mike prepared to swim over the anchor, in crystal clear water, to check that it had dug in properly. Having donned mask and flippers Mike jumped off the back of the boat and almost landed on top of a shark - not entirely happy with this new friendship Mike quickly looked at the anchorage and decided we had to move slightly despite Pippa's reassuring words of "Dad its only  nurse shark - they don't bite people" - all well an good unless you happen to be close to two of the beauties especially when that night at a beach drinks another cruiser says "yes well they're as good as brain dead and eat anything if they are really hungry"!

                       

Tropical paradise - San Blas style

The immediate surroundings were truly beautiful and as close to an unspoiled tropical paradise as we had seen, virtually deserted islands covered in palm trees and surrounded by shallow reefs with huge brain corals and stunning tropical fish. The islands and the associated mainland area of Panama are the home of the Kuna Indians who, whilst a peaceful and placid tribe, have fiercely protected their identity from external influence to the extent that they are not allowed to marry outsiders and outsiders are very limited as to there ability to come to the Kuna Yala. Indeed in the early 20th century the Kuna rose up against the Panamanians who were trying to change them to "modern ways" and it was only the intervention of the USA at the time that saved the Kuna from probable decimation!

As such it seems that only cruising yachtsmen are welcomed by the Kuna and whilst treated well by the Kuna are seen as a very good source of income with a local "tax" being levied in the form of a local cruising permit (a massive US$5 per island group) and the Kuna selling "molas" which are decorative fabric squares used by the Kuna to make clothes and individually hand stitched by the Kuna women (and a few men). These molas are truly irresistible as they are unique and adaptable as decorations or the basis of clothes, bags and so forth. On a regular basis the Kuna women are paddled out to the yachts in dugout canoes or slus (some with outboards) covering huge distances to sell their workmanship.

                                      

                                           Mola Buyers!!                                                     Master Mola maker - Lisa

The Kuna people re unusual in that the tribes are all Matriarchs and from talking to some of the men the girls really run the show with the poor old blokes running round after them - some may say not that different to our lives....... In addition transvestites are common and tolerated in the community, one of the best mola makers is Lisa and his work  (and salesmanship!) is excellent.

                                    

                                                                                     Visiting Kuna Girls

After a couple of idyllic days of snorkeling and playing around the "Swimming Pool" we re joined by two other Aussie boats, Fantasy 1 and Chatti with Karl and Sandi, and Peter and Chris respectively. For some time we had been talking to both boats on the evening radio skeds and it was great to meet them face to face over a few beers on Mary Constance.

                         

                               Karl and Sandi on Fantasy 1                                                                    Chatti

The next day we head off to another anchorage intending to stay for a night before moving on to another island closer to the shore with the intention of finding one of the islands best known for its molas. As with many of the best laid plans it turned out quite different once we met up with Jennifer and Gene from the American yacht Emelia........

It turned out that Jennifer had organised a day trip the following day from the anchorage at Lemon Cays and so we joined in taking our places in a leaky dug out canoe for a six mile trip towards the mainland with a tiny 9hp outboard. With around twenty yachties on board plus the two Kuna guides we sat very low in the water and Gene needed to bail madly at one stage as water flowed in to the canoe leading to some careful restacking of the "human cargo" by the Kuna helmsman.

We did however arrive safely even if Justine was not too keen on being "cuddled" most of the way by one of the Kuna women and were duly off loaded at the island of Karti Yandup which is one of three densely populated Kuna Islands close to the main land.

                     

                             Justine and Friends                                                       Approaching Karti Yandup

Karti Yandup is a maze of small houses most of which are constructed out of bamboo brought from the nearby mainland along with the island's water supply (carried from the river in jerry cans by canoe) and most of the islands food supplies which are also grown on the mainland. The island boasted several small shops, a thriving school teaching the Kuna language and traditions, a small museum and a number of bars including the "Hard Rock".

     

                        School Time!!!                                                               You can't take the teacher out of Jos!!!

     

                                                                                           Kuna Village Life

The Hard Rock Cafe - San Blas

After visiting the museum and learning about the Kuna culture and religion (it seems very similar to Christianity in many ways with 12 apostles and their god coming down in a UFO - where in Von Danikan when you need him..) we have lunch supplied by the Kuna before heading off across to the mainland to go up the river which winds its way through a mix of jungle and cultivated areas to the large Kuna cemetery where the Kuna are laid to rest buried under large "houses".

 

The Kuna Grave Village

The river seems to be the centre of the Kuna life providing water, food and a link to the outside world which is carefully controlled with only a few Kuna being allowed out to study or get medical attention.

                             

                                      Sponsorship in sailing?                                                               Lunch in Karti Yandup

At the start of this log we referred to the Kuna as being "unspoilt?" and while in many ways they are gone are the days when you could trade with them and offer useful items in return for molas - the only trade they are interested in now is  trade for "pictures of dead US Presidents" as one guide book calls US Dollars! Not that we should judge but it does seem that they are very focused on this and even the kids are primed to ask for a dollar if you take a picture of them (that's a dollar each and one for the pet they may be holding!) and despite not being able to get some things easily (clothes, needles etc) they do  not seem too interested.

Progress.....perhaps we have just seen the slow beginnings of another paradise spoilt, hopefully the Kuna can keep their culture alive, they do recognise that a people without culture has no heart......................................

We leave the island in a larger "dug out" very wet after an intense tropical shower and pound our way back to Lemon Cays through a growing sea and get progressively wetter although the kids love the ride as we slam in to each wave with the tour guide clowning away in the prow as several Kuna girls huddle under plastic to keep dry!

                   

                                                                              The rainy passage back home

The next day we move anchorage one more time to a delightful anchorage in the Eastern Lemon Cays ready the next day to head down the coast in three day sails towards Colon and the start of the Panama Canal.

On to Panama Canal by way of Isla Grande and Portobelo

Leaving early the next day we head off towards Isla Grande intending to take the passage to the Panama Canal in three easy stages stopping in Isla Grande, a popular Panamanian weekend resort and then the historic Portobelo which saw frequent battles between the Spanish and the likes of Drake and Morgan.

The sail to Isla Grande is fairly uneventful with the exception of entering the passage between the mainland and the island which has a series of rocky outcrops just at the entrance leading to a strong swell and breaking waves. Isla Grande is not what we expected from "a popular resort" with only a small beach, a run down hotel and a dusty main street where Clint Eastwood would have been at home "Fist Full of Dollars" style.

Isla Grande Anchorage

The bay is whipped up by a constant stream of water taxis, ferrying Panamians to and from the mainland, and jet skis with their constant high revving whine. The beach itself is small and covered in rubbish (as we later discover the whole of Panama is) and it takes the intervention of a visiting Columbian to grab a black bag and tidy up - notwithstanding this the kids had a good time in the water - perhaps we were just spoilt by the crystal waters of the San Blas.

In the evening Wakalele join us and we set out o find a restaurant in the village and after walking the entire length of the village find all but one restaurant is closed. We take pot luck and the owner pulls out two tables and promptly seats us in the middle of the street where fortunately we only had to be dodged by the odd bicycle, dog and young girl skipping! The meal was "interesting" and fortunately not expensive but as ever the evening was fun with good company and the kids reduced to playing "Two Up" in the street to the amusement of all who passed by.

              

                                                                                      Diner in the main street at Isla Grande

Pippa explains "Two Up"

The next day we sail on past Isla Linten, which probably would have been a better anchorage with semi tame monkeys on the shore, for  short sail down to Portobelo entering the bay past the rocky point of Isla Drake where Sir Francis Drake was reputedly dropped over the edge in a lead coffin following one of his raiding trips to the Spanish Gold and Silver "export centre" for the area.

Portobelo is a wonderful example of untamed history where four forts still stand guarding the town with canon lying exactly where they were aimed at oncoming ships, only the wood of the gun carriages has disappeared over the ages and roofs fallen in on the soldiers accommodation.

             

                              

                              The Portobelo Forts                                                                   In search of Sir Francis Drake??

In the centre of the town and two significant buildings, the bullion warehouse where all the gold and silver was stored, supposedly so much came through the town that often it was piled in the streets until the ships came, and the church of the Black Christ which still draws many pilgrims.

                     

                                      The Bullion Warehouse                                                         Church of the Black Christ

Shrine of the Black Christ

The town itself is fairly grubby but still colourful with many brightly painted buses waiting for passengers in the main square, surprisingly all the shops are owned by Chinese and stock the most wonderful selection of junk imaginable, Mike finds a paraffin lamp for the boat for 75 cents only to be told that it is not for sail as it has a hole in it!!

           

                                           The  Portobelo Bus                                                                                    ... and friend!

As it is late afternoon we have an early supper in the town square with all of us and the "Wakalele's" splashing out a massive US$15 for all eight of us for chicken, chips and a soft drink each! (And hot sauce so hot it burned Mike's skin)

"Fast Food" Portobelo style!!

That night we get ready to leave early the next day for the final hop down to the Canal and wake to torrents of rain, the first we have seen for several months and it proves to be a sign of things to come as it appears the rainy season is starting early this year!

........and the rains came

 

Farwell to the Atlantic and Caribbean

For the first time in ages we find we have virtually no wind for the final leg down to the Canal and end up motor sailing most of the way to Colon and Port Cristobal which form the entrance to one of the wonders of the modern world - The Panama Canal.

As we pass through the breakwater in to the calm of the bay it is farewell to the first art of our voyage and we are filled with anticipation of the transit through the Canal in to the Pacific.

               

The approaches to Panama and a very dull end to the Caribbean and Atlantic legs

We sail in to Shelter Bay Marina, a weird enclave in the centre of the deserted American Army base of Fort Sherman, which nestles in to the edge of unspoilt rain forest with Howler Monkeys,  Slothes, Pythons and Crocodiles all within coee of the boats, and are greeted by Ted and Nancy from Blackwattle, the crew of Hullabaloo and many other boats we either know well or have crossed paths with over the past six months.

The Panama Canal is one of the great bottle necks for cruisers around the world and it is wonderful to catch up with good friends, especially Ted and Nancy who we haven't seen since St Lucia.

The kids are instantly in heaven, over 20 other kids to ply with and for days we hardly see them at all!!

As soon as we settle down and get the transit process underway, papers, papers, papers and more papers we need to get ready to help Ted and Nancy to through the Canal as "line handlers" the next day - line handlers are a key part of any yachts transit and all yachts are required to have at least four people of board in addition to the skipper to guide the boat through the six locks.

                       

                           Nancy and Jos on Blackwattle                                                 Ted en-route to the Pacific

 

Underway on Blackwattle

 

The Passage to Cartegena in Columbia

We don't often write about individual passages but this one does deserve mention for many reasons.

Firstly the waters between Curacao and Cartegena are well known to cruising yachts as one of the worst in the world with regular winds of over 45 knots and high waves caused by the clash of a low pressure system over Columbia and high pressure over the USA.

Secondly, and very much a preconception, is that the Columbian coast is held to be dangerous because of "bandits" - even as a preconception it makes you nervous of what may be waiting out there.

Finally it is our first passage of more than 24 hours since we left the Atlantic back in December and the prospect of three of four days at sea takes some getting used to.

We leave Spaanse Waters in the early afternoon and weave our way out of the entrance in to open water and navigate our way around increasing shipping traffic which behoves us to be vigilant during our night watches to avoid fishing boats, tankers and large cruise liners. At one stage Mike calls up  a cruise liner on the radio to check its course to see if we need to change our course, "steam gives way to sail" is the rule but with the size differential between Mary Constance and the steamers it is often not realistic and discretion is the better part of valour! The radio officer is delightful and happy to talk giving Mike a clear note of their course, speed and so forth so all is well.

At around 1.00 in the morning Mike yells out that a ship is approaching us at speed with lights blazing and klaxons blaring and we are forced to gybe quickly and messily to  get out of his way. Once we are under control again we get on the radio asking the unidentified vessel off our starboard bow what their intentions are and we get a very terse reply that they are a survey protection vessel shepherding a ship carrying out seismic surveys for oil in the area. The ship is towing cables 4 miles long behind it and we are on a collision course with the cables - no wonder he was keen for us to change course. After a deviation of about 3 miles we get on course again with a few more grey hairs!  Quite a frightening experience.

The next day we sail past the Islas Los Monjes, two rocks to the south of Aruba which are home to a small Venezuelan navy post - as we pass about 8 miles to the north we are hailed on the radio and it is our turn to be the "unidentified vessel at such and such position". A vaguely comical exchange follows with our minimal Spanish and the navy personnel's minimal English to provide full details of our boat, crew, destination etc - Mike's radio course comes in useful as most of the dialogue  is reduced to phonics "Mike Alpha Romeo Yankee - Charlie Oscar November Sierra Tango Alpha November Charlie Echo" etc. We feel sorry for the naval guys sitting on this barren rock with little to do apparently apart from play ping pong, X-box and soccer and interrogate the odd passing ship!

Surely the rest of the passage will be uneventful - fortunately the much predicted bad weather does not appear and if anything we are lacking in wind and on occasions are forced to motor. The days pass on with fewer and fewer boats sighted and it only when we are off the Columbian town of Barranquilla that we begin to see any vessels again.  At this stage we have passed the bullet (windy) area and the mouth of the river and we have been warned about checking for fast floating logs. All is well.......

At about 5.00 in the afternoon Mike has just finished cooking supper when we see a dark powerboat approaching at speed from the shore, naturally we are concerned and we get the girls up in to the cockpit to emphasise the family nature of Mary Constance. As the power boat approaches we see that it is a very basic vessel crewed by six of eight guys in flack jackets holding a mixture of assault rifles and other guns and we start to get really quite nervous until they get closer and we see they are the Columbian Coast Guard! Holding up a VHF radio they signal they want to talk to us and request that they come along side us and board Mary Constance - their commanding officer comes on board and proceeds to sit with us for about 20 minutes chatting in excellent English telling us that they are here to make sure we are safe and did we have any concerns and how they would monitor us during the night to see us safely to Cartegena. Finally Alberto, as we now have been introduced, whips out his mobile phone and asks for a picture of himself and the girls while his colleagues on board their powerboat are snapping away taking pictures of Mary Constance! Coincidently we learn later from another yacht that 20 minutes later he was showing them the pictures saying "do you know Mary Constance?" - we have just met them and they will be in Cartagena at the same time and we are very pleased to have met them! All in all it is very reassuring that the Columbian government is taking security so seriously yet we are reminded of the issues - security is only needed if there is a problem!

           

The Columbian Coast Guard

Alberto

After that the rest of the night passed slowly as we had to slow down to reach Cartegena in the daylight, a feat that became harder as the wind built up and we were making about 5 knots with hardly any sail up at all so we still had to navigate in to Cartegena with a combination of maps and radar to check the entrance in to Boca Grande and on to the anchorage which lies between the container/cruise liner terminal with its towering cranes and the Columbian Navy base with an impressive range of frigates, patrol boats, heavily armed river gunboats and submarines.

 

Entrance to Cartegena - Boca Grande

The backdrop to the anchorage is fabulous with the old walled town with its cathedral and churches dominating the skyline and offering a promise of civilization....

We are very pleased to arrive safe and sound having passed "uneventfully" through one of our major hurdles!

 

Cartegena

The city of Cartegena is the largest mass of population that we have seen since leaving Sydney with a shade over 1 million living within the sprawling city and, we are told, there are nearly as many taxis as there are people which is born out by the constant flow of bright yellow cabs which range in size from minute Daiwoo cars to large old American classics like the one we squeeze 9 people in to (including the driver) for a tour one day!

Yet for all its hustle and bustle the central area is beautiful being a perfectly preserved Spanish walled city of the 1500's with very little modern building at all in evidence. The streets are a mass of colour with all the buildings seeming to have delightful timber balconies covered in bougainvillea of varying colours.

            

 

        

Our first trip in to the centre of town is with our friends from the yacht Wakalele who we have finally caught up with having last seen them in St Lucia - the kids on both sides are delighted to see each other and the energy levels shoot up appropriately as they charge around together.

As we drive in to the city by taxi (we are told frequently not to walk in many areas for security) it is apparent that we are in a very heavily police controlled country with armed police on most corners and frequent road blocks - this we discover is not quite as per normal as the usually high police presence has been beefed up because Bill Gates is in town!!

We walk through the narrow streets, many of which are closed off and almost deserted as it is both a public holiday and siesta time and enjoy the scenery, even the kids seem to enjoy the trip although this was probably because they could play happily with Cedric and Innes!

    

                                                     

 

 

The Club Nautico yacht club where we are anchored off is a totally new experience and it seems we have now firmly passed through a  boundary leaving the "rich man's toy" type of yachting and the many charter boats and are now firmly in cruising yachtsman's territory. Sleek shiny yachts are replaced by working yachts all of which are adorned with jerry cans and other vital deck cargo, most are being worked on (including Mary Constance which needs a replacement high pressure pipe for the watermaker) and the variation in design and size is staggering. The smallest yacht we have seen is sailed by a young single hander from Hungary and is about 19 feet long with no mod cons and virtually no "freeboard" above the water level - amazingly this bearded sailor has crossed the Atlantic in this tiny boat!

 

For once there are several boats with kids and not surprisingly al re heading in the same direction to Panama with roughly the same timetable to cross the Pacific to Australia which means we and the kids will have company on and off most of the way - a real bonus when added to other friends we have made who are also following the same route.

The kids are truly in heaven - not because of the ambience, nor the architecture, nor the widely diverse population but because the yacht cub has cable TV. Foolishly we both thought they had lost interest in TV as it has been unavailable for 6 months, but no as son as they saw it they were off like starters in the Melbourne Cup and have been glued to the TV at every free moment.

Kid's Heaven!

 

 

Cartegena Fun - Mary Constance style!

To be fair they have changed and can now be prized away from the TV fairly easily to play with other kids or to join us on visits around the area and today we took a taxi together with Wakalele to visit the botanic gardens with the promise of visiting an Indian village for lunch.  The trip to the garden was fascinating as we saw areas of the city that probably few tourists visit on the way, as the main road wanders up in to the hills the scenery changes and what was a scrupulously clean city turns into a rather grubby hinterland.

As we approach the gardens down a gravel road we find the way blocked by a four wheel drive of uncertain age which two skinny Columbians are trying to push start so Mike and Stephen from Wakalele hop out to give them a hand and get the beast going again!

The gardens are huge covering many hectares with a rich variety of trees and shrubs ranging from cactus to the source of cocaine and palms of all hue to huge trees over 500 years old! Amongst the trees we also firstly hear and then see monkeys high in the canopy.

Jos on the botany trail - move over Attenborough!!

         

                                     The garden monkeys                                                                            The other monkeys

The Indian village never materializes and we head back in to town in our large American "sardine can" passing brightly coloured buses and trucks along the way.

 

That evening we head back in to town as we have heard there are street dancers and true enough we find them dancing to an amazingly fast tempo in Pl. Simon Bolivar - the lead dancers move so fast that it is difficult to capture them on the camera but the colours and the energy are amazing to watch and the kids are spellbound!

                              

 

Our tour guide Mike (AKA Walter Matheau)

After supper we treat the kids (and indulge ourselves) to a horse drawn carriage tour around the town which everyone loves, life is quite luxurious for a short while as we gently move around the cobbled streets!

Over to Curacao

After a short time in Bonaire we make sail again and are off to Spaanse Waters (Spanish Waters) on the island of Curacao, a relatively short sail of about 35 miles. The entrance to Spaanse Waters is via a most amazing "creek" weaving from the ocean in to the anchorage, at times the entrance seems to be only a little wider than Mary Constance yet surprisingly deep, the entrance passage opens in to a vast area of natural harbour dominated by an open cast mine to the south which blows dust and grime all over the collection of anchored yachts.

Spaanse Waters Anchorage

Curacao is a major centre with an even more massive natural commercial harbour sitting behind the capital of Willemstad, itself a very Dutch outpost with architecture that would be more at home in the heart of Amsterdam. One of the most striking sights in Willemstad is the pontoon footbridge across the river mouth which swings gracefully out of the way when shipping approaches whether this is a small yacht or major oil tanker taking fuel from the island's refinery.

 

Willemstad

The Swinging Pontoon Bridge

Unlike many of our recent stops the island seems to be fundamentally wealthy with large houses, new cars and very expensive taxis and we decide not to stay long as there is a good weather "window" approaching to take us down through one of the worst areas of seas we expect to experience.

As with most things it is almost a case of the "best laid plans" as Mike finds that the water leak from the engine cooling pump is indeed not a hose but a more fundamental problem that sets him off on a chase around the island seeking parts and repairs. In this highly disposable age it is good to be in a region where people mend rather than throw away worn parts and we are soon ready to head off again or Columbia.

More from Bonaire

As we explore Bonaire further the island unfolds in to a highly diverse place, the coast is a diver's paradise with the clearest waters in the world and a huge variety of marine life, the foreshore ranges from peaceful lapping water on coral rock beaches to a maelstrom of dashing waves on the East side of the island which apparently takes it annual toll on passing vessels, the inner areas of the island range from low lying salt ponds producing brilliant white salt with associated historical with slave huts (about the size of a good kennel for a Newfoundland), then on to a landscape covered with tall cactus forests fringed with impressive limestone cliffs from which the seas have receded long ago where goats, donkeys and large iguanas seem to be the main inhabitants! To the North of the island there is a large salt water lake which has been designated as one of many marine sanctuaries and this one is home to many brilliant pink flamingos which remind us of Alice in Wonderland.

                   

                                         Bonaire Slave Huts                                                                  .......complete with slaves?

 

                    

                                                 The salt pans                                                            The East Coast - resting place of many vessels

Our travels around the island in a hire car are not free from trouble however. We hired possibly the most dodgy looking Suzuki Jeep, full of rust, lacking windows and with very suspect suspension - as we drive along with the fuel gauge showing half full we splutter to a halt, fortunately our friends from Silver Girl are close by and ferry Jos and the kids to get a jerry can of fuel (which cost half the price as the boat load offule did in Venezuela) while Mike stays with the "heap". Later in the day, at the Northern end of the island we discover that the road we want to take along the scenic coast is in fact one way and needless to say it ain't the way we want to go - on the basis that Mike can't read Dutch the signs are studiously ignored and we carefully drive the wrong way down the road for several kilometers fortunately only seeing a few divers on the beaches and lizards on the road!

                   

                                          Cactus Fencing                                                                              An original Kralendjikhome

Bonaire is a remarkably dry island with the entire potable water supply coming from desalination, it is difficult to imagine how people survived before this technology was introduced and indeed how the slaves lived in such a dry environment whilst working in the salt pans!

Kralendjik, the capital, is a veneer of civilisation with a narrow strip of development along the coast boasting colourful villas, shops, cafes and restaurants whilst a couple of hundred meters behind the town "relaxes" in to the usual regional mix of poorer housing, half completed development and pot holed roads.

                

                                      The old fruit market                                                                                           Local kids

 

                

                                         Hello from Me, and........                                                                         Hello from Me.........

After a day's delay caused by high winds and rough seas we hope to move on to Spaanse Water (Spanish Waters) on Curacao, a short sail of about 35 miles where we will prepare for the next major stage of the voyage down the Columbian coast, an area that is generally not travelled by many yachts and as such lacks in charts and cruising guides - by all accounts it is not to be missed - and then on to Cartegena which is steeped in history (sacked by Sir Francis Drake - with three ships against a full Spanish Squadron) and afterwards on to the peaceful San Blas Islands.

More to come soon!!

Isla La Tortuga

We were not overly sad to leave Margarita although we did have to bid farewell to more friends, Olivier and Benedict with their three children from the French yacht Marie Gallant with whom we had spent time on the beach, the children playing and us relaxing...

               

                                The Margarita Gang                                                                                     Mere spectators........

We left Margarita for an overnight passage to the islands of Tortuga and with moderate winds we navigated through the narrow straits of the "Margarita Canal" and had a relaxed passage. In the middle of the night Mike spotted a brilliant phosphorescence in the water and suddenly we were surrounded by a pod of dolphins creating ghost like images around Mary Constance with the occasional sound of them blowing air and squeaking to each other - one of those truly magical moments that drove any idea of sleep away...

We anchor off Playa Caldera with only four or five other yachts and a number of local fishing boats, whilst pretty the anchorage is not ideal and we spend a rocky night so the next day we move on to a smaller island in the group , Cayo Herradura which proves to be totally unspoilt.

    

Caya Herradura

             

                       

Local Art?

     

The Monster of Herradura??

The islands prove to be a bizarre place in many ways with a wide diversity driven by a great economic divide that exists in Venezuela. The poor earn an average of US$2 a week and eke an existence whilst the rich literally jet around from island to island almost on a whim with the cheap fuel prices.

The local fishermen live in shacks on the beach and seek help from passing yachties for some additional supplies, chocolate, batteries and coke being the favorites - we were asked for (and supplied) a needle and thread along with bars of breakfast cereals and soft drinks to a15 year old fisherman and later were given fish in return. In the evening we asked a passing fishing boat for a small fish for our supper and were given, for a small trade a huge dorado, neatly filleted whilst Mike and the girls were given a tour of the fishing boat by the proud owner - he was particularly proud of his shiny new Caterpillar Diesel engine , new cooker, shrine and the centre of the boat held live sardines in an ocean tank in the centre!!

By contrast the next day a huge blue helicopter landed on the beach and disgorged a bunch of "Touristos", as the fishermen disparagingly called them, for a 40 minute swim - sadly they had no interaction with the local fishermen ignoring them totally. As good "Sticky beaks" we landed on the beach close to the helicopter for a closer look and were given a tour of what turned out to be an ex-Russian helicopter of dubious age, quite fascinating and an additional slant to the mix of cultures in the area!

Just to prove what a small world it is again Mike met an English couple on the beach who have been cruising the Venezuelan coast for 6 years, the couple came from Salisbury where Mike had worked for a number of years in the 1980's.

Tortuga was the sort of place you could stay for weeks but sadly we had to move on as the weather threatened to blow up and we set off for another night passage to Islas Los Roques which we had been told was a huge marine national park.

Islas Las Roques

The passage was rough and at daybreak we were close to the entrance when we saw another yacht close behind apparently lowering its sails so Mike hopped on the radio and called them up. It turned out to be a Kiwi boat, Silver Girl with Terry and Yvonne on board with their 8 year old son and we arranged to meet up later.

The entrance to the archipeligo was at least interesting, at worst quite scary, having to firstly find a narrow passage between land a reef and then carefully navigate in, whilst being pushed by large waves, amazingly the water flattened as we entered and after following the narrow channel for a few hundred metres we were in beautiful sailing territory again. Slightly sobering was watching a charter yacht being towed through the passage behind us and seeing the wrecks of both a fishing trawler and a navy supply ship on the outer reef...

We arrive at lunchtime at Gran Roques where we need to check in, a long process involving visiting the Coast Guard, Parks Department, National Guard and airport only to be told we were only allowed to transit and were not officially welcome to stay.

Welcome to Los Roques

What the heck, we were here anyway and all the books we read said not to take too much notice so after exploring the small town (by far the most cosmopolitan we have seen so far) we move on the next morning to a beautiful secluded bay on Isla Carenero to meet up with Silver Girl.

                

              

Scenes from Gran Roques

 

Today's Catch

Our friend the "Peli" - shame about the "calling card"

Isla Carenero proves to be a delightfully sheltered anchorage with crystal clear waters bounded by dense mangrove and whilst still windy is wonderfully peaceful after a very rocky night the night before.

We meet Silver Girl who are one of three other yachts in the anchorage and the girls get to meet a new friend; James an eight year old who has been cruising since he was four and is clearly very much at home on board swinging from the davits, climbing on the boom and so forth. The girls are happy!!

       

The snorkeling on the fringe of the mangrove is beautiful with a wide variety of small reef fish and huge starfish swimming round you. As you snorkel with no fear, there are shoals of small bait fish creating silvery clouds in the water and huge sea urchins with spines about 20cms long!  A Colombian off a neighbouring boat is the only one brave enough off their boat to swim, they are more interested in trolling for fish behind their dinghy. There is limited conversation but we manage to find out that they have three children and are here for only one day before going to another island in the group.

The second day in the anchorage and we have the bay to ourselves, quite amazing and we are rapidly getting the impression that we are now on "the road less traveled"....

On to Bonaire via Isla Aves

The following day we set off for Bonaire with a planned overnight stop at one of the Isla Aves, so named for the mass of bird life that congregates there. On the way out of Los Roques we sail past a newly wrecked yacht high on a small island. Looking at our "SeaMap" on the computer we see that we are sailing right through the island proving yet again that our GPS is actually more accurate than the charts which were drawn over a hundred years ago - a real lesson in how we must rely on visual pilotage and never approach unknown waters in the dark!

We arrive at Isla Aves in the late afternoon and carefully pick our way around reefs and shoals to a small bay protected to the East by mangroves and open to the seas to the West - hopefully the wind will not change as it is blowing 20-25 knots and we are anchored in 3 metres of water so hopefully will not be blown close to the shallows of the mangroves should the wind change..

The trees are full of roosting sea birds that occasionally fly out and plunge in to the sea for a quick snack, several fly slowly by the boat within arms length seemingly with no great fear of us.

           

On the way across Silver Girl had caught a 60cms Barracuda and we are invited to eat with them, quite delicious,  before heading back to our boat in darkness. It was  so dark we need a light shined across from Silver Girl to guide us.

We start early the next day as we have about 65 miles to cover and want to arrive before nightfall in Bonaire, as it happens we have a great sail and romp across to Bonaire in record time with a great following wind.

 

 

                                                     

School Caribbean Style

The approach to Bonaire is bizarre, the land is low lying and the southern tip dominated by a huge salt lake and salt extraction works. Massive pyramids of pure white sand stand out for miles dominated by a robot like machine that seems to be hugging the piles of salt.

Small kennel like buildings are on the shore and we learn that these are slave huts, a grim reminder of the Caribbean's past! As we move along the coast towards the island capital of  Kralendijk the sense of civilization becomes apparent with brightly coloured houses very much in the Dutch style lining the beach.

We arrive in Kralendjik too late to clear Customs but early enough to fulfill a promise to the kids - double scoops of ice cream, YIPPEE!! Despite being warned we moor close to the dingy dock at Karel's Bar and suffer accordingly with the loudest music played until the early hours -not much sleep. It seems that there were no takers in the bar either, perhaps they too were frightened off by the loud music.  Fortunately the next morning a mooring comes free further down the bay and both Mary Constance and Silver Girl move to a quieter position before motoring ashore to explore.

As we arrive in to the dock so does a huge cruise liner, a magnificent ship full of happy Brit and American tourists who are rapidly deposited and the town suddenly is full so we limit our exploring and return to the boat after checking in at Customs and Immigration.

After school we snorkel over a small patch of reef between Marty Constance and the shore, about 15metres from the shore. The water is so clear you can see perfectly, Bonaire is renowned for the clearest water in the world, the small patch of wonderful brain and filligree coral is literally teaming with reef fish, coral trout, angel fish the size of plates in blues and brilliant stripes, clown fish and tiny electric blue fish with amazing light blue dots on. It is amazing that they live happily so close to the shore and this is a testament to the efforts of Bonaire to protect their reef assets.

Before leaving for Curacao, our kick off point for the next major portion of our voyage down the Columbian coast we will spend a little time here in Bonaire to resupply having run our food right down over the last few weeks - we will sign off for now and update the site again soon!!

On to South America (Or heck we don't speak any Spanish!!)

Following an uneventful night passage from Prickly Bay we came in to a small bay off Isla Iguana, part of the Los Tesigos group of islands approximately two thirds of the way to Isla Margarita. We had intended our stop here to be a short one purely to rest from the night passage but as with many things it didn't work out that way.......

Los Tortugas

As we had to check in with the Guardacosta we moored off Isla Iguana and then intended to move across the "sound" to a more yachtie favoured anchorage off Testigo Grande. Mike got off to a really bad start by dropping the anchor windlass handle over the side in 5 metres of water - whilst we could see the offending item neither Mike with his perforated eardrum nor Jos could dive down to get it. After checking in with the Guardacosta (a very civilised affair) Mike ventured in to the small fishing village in search of help. With a combination of very fractured Spanish and mime Mike managed to enlist the aid of two fishermen who came back to the boat with one of their daughters.

Aided by the biggest fins we had ever seen they retrieved the handle in no time at all as well as a small steel pin that had fallen out of the swim ladder (about 3 cms long). Over a celebratory beer one of the fishermen (the girls father) asked us to come to his house at 6pm - we were not sure whether this was to sell us fish or to give us diner - it is amazing how inadequate you feel when you have no language skills on either side of a conversation!!

                                     

It turned out that we had been invited to diner, a diner like no other where we were treated to fresh lobster grilled to perfection, steamed lobster, grilled fish, iguana eggs (a little different but what do you expect on Isla Iguana) and various other wonderful dishes. Despite that fact it was prepared by the matriarch "Grandmother" non of the women of the family joined us and we ate only with our new amigo, Agustin the fisherman. Despite the language barriers the meal and conversation was wonderful and the girls were thrilled to see that Alejandria who was the same age as Pippa was a fan on the "Bratz" and all three girls rapidly disappeared to watch DVD's and to listen and dance to music.

Out hosts and new found Amigos the Riveras

As a thank you, the next day we went back to the village with some freshly baked muffins, copies of pictures and various Aussie mementos for the family expecting to drop these off and then move anchorage. Not a bit of it, the kids were far too happy playing, we were happy "chatting" to the Riveras and as such we ended up stopping another day anchored off Isla Iguana...

      

                                   Isla Iguana Beach                                                                                                   Its a pigs life.......

             

                                    Beach fun with Alejandra                                                                   Los Testigos Mermaids?

              

                              Fresh Fish for Dinner                                                          Isla Iguana Bay

The generosity of the islanders seemed un-ending, for example we were standing on the beach when a fishing boat came in and when we were admiring the catch of still flapping fish we were immediately given half a dozen fish for diner, even little Alejandria, the girls new friend was amazing - in return for a few Aussie mementos she presented each of our girls with a Barbie doll.  Even now we are staggered by the islanders generosity, people who have so little but are willing to take in total strangers from overseas and feed them, give them amazing hospitality and expect nothing in return..if only more of the world was like this!!

With genuine sadness we left Isla Iguana the next morning having said farewell to the Riveras; Agustin, his wife Thainys and mother Evangeista. We could easily have spent a week or two there but we needed to keep cracking on if we are to reach Panama by late Marh. Next stop Isla Margarita a bustling duty free island off the Venezuelan mainland.

Isla Margarita

How different can a place be - Los Testgos with a population of c.200 and Isla Margarita with  population of over 300,000 topped up at weekends by mainlanders seeking duty free bargains. Now we had more of a South American feel - blaring music and car horns, beaches with "G-String" glad "lovelies" of all age ranges (many who did not present the best of sights), street vendors and a strong blackmarket currency trade offering exchange rates often 75% higher than the banks.

In a country where the average wage is still only US$2 per day and the price of diesel a mere US$0.05 per litre it seems odd to see the diversity.

Again we find the people very friendly and highly courteous - the lengthy process of clearing customs and immigration made more pleasant by proffered cups of strong Venezuelan coffee and rare chilli peppers to eat.

We anchor off Polomar, the largest town on the island (100,000+) as the best bay at Pampatar has been placed off limits to visiting yachts by the port captain for some reason. Polomar is large noisy and dirty but quite fun and we ventured to the beach and saw kids enjoying themselves on what has to be a unique aquatic playground....

Some swing.....

On the Saturday after checking in with Immigration we catch a cab to Pampatar which whilst being swallowed in to the conurbation of Polomar still retains its fishing village atmosphere which belies its place as originally Venezuela's largest port. Pampatar was fortified against pirates with a small but impressive fortress overlooking the bay that, fortunately the Spanish failed to blow up when Simon Bolivar's troops took the island in the struggle for independence. This coupled with the local church made for a good "tourist trip" after a great lunch on the beach.

      

                                      Pampatar Beach                                                                                    Pampatar Fortress

                  

                                     Pampatar Bay                                                                                    Polomar Cruise Terminal

Polomar Sunset

 

It's all a bit much for me really........

Well tomorrow we refuel (at US 5 cents a litre!!), check out and move on to Isla Tortuga - apparently a coral island paradise......

More From Grenada

We left St David's Bay on one of our shortest passages to Prickly Bay which was to be our "jumping off point" from the West Indies for the less yacht populated South American coast. We intended only to stay in Prickly Bay for a short time primarily to check out from Customs and also to recharge Mary Constance's batteries by spending a night in a small marina attached to shore power.

Prickly bay Customs Office - Welcome to Grenada

The Customs office said a lot about Grenada, a country that had been subject to a communist led coup in the 70's, armed conflict between communist factions in the 80's with international (USA led) military intervention and when the country was trying to get back on its feet again two devastating hurricanes in the last 4 years.

The people we met were however wonderful and very resilient although the country seems to be moving away from its heritage as a sugar cane and nutmeg producer  to aim its sights on the tourist dollar.

Although we did not have much time on the island we feel that we learned a lot primarily from our guide, the vivacious "Yellow Man" who took us on a day long tour in his "Yellow Taxi" allowing us to see various aspects of the island both rich and poor, the famous Grenada Chocolate Factory (which was so small Jos swears they must have a hidden production plant), the house and goat belonging to the opposition leader (and De Yellow Man says - the next PM!!) and the Annadale Falls where we swam in slightly cooler water than we had been used to of late!

      

 Remains of Communist links (Russian & Cuban Planes)   Hurricane Damage                                        The next PM's Goat

    

                  Local kids back from school                                                                The famous Grenada Chocolate Factory

One of the surprising things about Grenada was the lack of desire to rebuild anything damaged by the hurricanes and throughout the countryside we saw examples of houses, shops and factories that have just been left to rot away - in many cases where insurance was paid out the money was used to buy new cars and other consumer goods whilst the house was not repaired.

De yellow Man and Friends!

Action at Annadale Falls

We also met up with another set of ARC Friends; Caylie and David from Steamy Windows who are staying in Grenada pending the arrival of the new crew member, Caylie's baby in a few months time. It was great to see them again following the Atlantic crossing and our joint Aussie flag carrying efforts at the opening ceremony of the ARC way back in November - seems an age ago!!

And so it was time to bid farewell to the West Indies, to good friends we have met and to head off in to a new region with the promise of very different experiences - added to this was our first night passage since crossing the Atlantic in 2006!

Welcome to Grenada

We` arrived in Grenada, St David's Bay to be exact after one of the longest passages we have had since the Atlantic, a massive six hours.... the entrance to the bay we so non descript we almost sailed past but when we motored in, the Atlantic swell disappeared as did the wind and we found ourselves in an unspoilt bay with a small boat yard and a tiny resort hotel, a bar where there were no menus, no prices and a bar man who was happy to make any cocktail you knew or could vaguely describe - not  a bad start to our Grenada experience.....

     

St David's Harbour

 

Petit St Vincent, Union Island and on to Carriacou

Leaving Mayreau was hard as it was a high point in our cruise so far but happily we were to move on to new islands and a new country that also was to hold equal "highs".

After Mayreau we had to check out of St Vincent which required us to sail to Union Island and moor in Clifton Bay, a small town come fishing/commercial port with crystal clear waters and an interesting reef in the middle of the harbour known as Roundabout Reef, checking out of a country for cruising yachtsmen is always an interesting procedure that can involve many steps and varying degrees of bureaucracy, in the  case of St Vincent it required us to firstly find the Customs office and fill out forms (any pay EC$50) and then trek to the airport to clear immigration with another plethora of forms to be filled out by the "skipper" whilst Jos and the kids cooled their collective heels (on this occasion watching planes fly into the airport - a five min. walk from immigration!) Notwithstanding this Clifton was a lovely community where our kids happily played frisbee with the local children while we ate salt fish buns in the town square and bought our fruit from cute freshly painted little huts. We have still been on the quest for fish and have not been able to buy some at any of the ports unless you get to the fish markets exactly when the fishing boats arrive!

          

                      Clifton Frisbi Champions?                                                                  Clifton Harbour, Union Island

After checking out from Union we sail into an unofficial state of limbo, having officially left St Vincent en-route for Grenada but being allowed to sty a while longer to visit a small group of islands, Petit St Vincent (part of St Vincent) and Petit Martinique (part of Grenada). As with the best laid plans we had decided to visit Petit St Martinique but instead are seduced by the pristine white sands and coral of Petit St Vincent, known to many as PSV.

PSV has been taken over by an upmarket private hotel group who are relaxed enough to allow cruisers to land and enjoy the island, as long as you don't disturb the guests, and we anchor off this paradise and enjoy the view, the beach and a large fish purchased from the local boat boys (after some major negotiations - we still paid too much!!) accompanied by a steel band laid on for the hotel guests - paradise or what!! Needless to say we watched the hotel staff laying out tables along the beach for the evening meal and each one was just for two, not exactly condusive to families, but very romantic.

     

Petit St Vincent

 

Captain Justine

 

For some time we had been trying to arrange to meet up with our friends from Port Napoleon, a young Brit couple, Dave and Jules from "Northern Breeze" who had helped us out so much in the Canaries - for some reason we had kept missing them but we were now closing in on them as they had been in the next island; Carriacou for the Grenada independence day celebrations, a few days before. As wed had not been able to raise them on the radio we assumed we had missed them and were thrilled to hear "Mary Constance is that you" come over channel 16 as we came close to the island the next day. As is often the case we changed our plans, diverted to Hillsborough and spent three relaxed days in the company of friends - Hillsborough turned out to be quite a find!

Within minutes of arriving Dave and Jules had rowed over to us eager to catch up and swap experiences of the Atlantic passage, the kids were trilled to see them again as were we and we also were introduced to Pat and Sinaed from "Foxglove", a beautiful Halverson designed yacht, the sister ship of Freya who was an early Hobart winner.)

    

                                           Dave and Jules                                                           Sinaed and the kids on board Foxglove

For the next three days we basically chilled out and did the usual yachtie things.... Jos, the kids, Dave, Jules and Sinaed explored Sandy Island, a pin prick of coral and sand while Mike and Pat worked on a battery charging problem on Mary C, we then had to be towed back to the anchorage as we could not start the engine!!

Day two Mike and Dave slaved away taking off the starter motor only to find the fault was with a new solenoid only installed three weeks before..... Who said cruising was only about mending things in exotic places.....

We then had a wonderful beach barbeque (in the rain) where Mike was so enthralled by the Pitton Fire Dancers he thought it would be good to use a quart of petrol to light the fire, the wind changed and Mike was slightly roasted (children don't try this one at home!!!!!). 

  

The Hillsborough beach BBQ

By coincidence our friends from Moondance also knew Pat and Sinaed and they joined us to complete the party much to the joy of the girls who were reunited with Maddie and all were entertained by Sinaed who turned out to be part of the "Blue Peter" team a BBC children's program well known and loved by anyone with  UK heritage.

Main Street, Hillsborough

So it was with great sadness we left Carriacou and our friends for the passage down to Grenada, a passage that gave us a renewed taste of the Atlantic as we sailed down the Atlantic coast of the island with strong winds, swells and spectacular scenery on route for our next destination, St David's Bay recommended to us by Dave and Jules.

On passage to Grenada

More from Bequia and on to the Tobago Cays

As you will have seen from the home page of our site Bequia was possibly not the best experience we have had and we were lucky that more mayhem was not caused by our anchor dragging - at times like this we feel it would have been good to have picked up a spare anchor in Spain.....

Not that Bequia is all bad, just not entirely in tune with what we wanted to experience - the more we see the more we yearn the unspoilt, the uncrowded and the unsophisticated experiences - sadly these are few and fair between in the West Indies as it has become the playground for flocks of migrating Americans, Brits and French. There were glimpses of local life if you wandered a short distance from the bright lights - an open air church service providing local colour in front of the internet cafe and the island ferries ploughing through the densely packed yachts and buffeting the variety of tenders tied up to the jetty.

                       

Again it was an area of marked contrasts with huge wealth in the form of some of the world's great superyachts such as the Maltese Falcon (yours to charter for a mere 350,000 euro or just under $600,000 aussie for a week plus costs), modest yachts, charter boats "driven" by maniac French who seem to insist on coming in across your anchor lines at about 8 knots whilst partying with the obligatory bikini glad lovely on the foredeck and local boat boys rushing round selling bread, ice and fuel at hugely marked up prices!

The Maltese Falcon arriving in Bequia - how the other half live!

Anyway enough of Bequia - on to the Tobago Cays and other points south.....

Tobago Cays and Mayreau

About 25 miles t the south of Bequia lies the famous Tobago Cays, a marine park formed around a variety of reefs and and three small islands. After an exhilarating sail with excellent winds we arrive off Mayreau Island which stands sentinel over the Cays, lower our sails and approach with great caution as there are extensive reefs on the entrance passage. The Cays themselves are beautiful, although a little crowded (in fact like a parking lot), with clear blue waters of various colours.

As we sail in to the inner anchorage, surrounded by coral reefs, we see another ARC boat, Nutcracker - much to the joy of both Pippa and Justine, Nutcracker has on board Georgia who was a "kids net" friend across much of the Atlantic. The kids are soon off snorkeling with Georgia and her family in search of turtles which breed in the Cays.

As we motor in to join them later in the tender a turtle pops up his/her head and look quizzically at us before paddling off - sadly before Mike could grab the camera!

Tobago Cays from Mayreau

                 

                                           Tobago Cays                                                                                    Snorkelers!                                

Sadly the wind blew up strongly and with limited protection from the wind and the fact that Justine had caught Pippa's bug which she had in Bequia (so many sheet washings later!) we decided to move to the lee of Mayreau firstly poking our heads in to Saltwhistle Bay, supposedly a great spot which resembled another parking lot and then in to Saline Bay which was more our type of place. A lovely sandy beach with classic palm trees, few yachts and a local village behind on the hill (Pop 300 - and declining).

After obligatory school work for the kids, a swim and a brief explore we wandered up the hill (quite a feat for the girls) and discovered a very different kind of local life to Bequia. Shops in houses, a few bright cafes bringing in tourist dollars and in the prime real estate spot at the top of the village, a delightful church complete with very closed gift shop - here we continued our quest to buy some fish to BBQ, again to no avail - lobster yes (at a price) but no fish  it all seems to be snapped up by the cafes. Like Wallilabou on St Vincent we were far more at home here.

       

                              Mayreau Restaurant Style!                                                                        Mayreau Catholic Church

           

                  Local Mayreau Boys                                                              The Church "Honour & Glory Gift Shop"

Even the yachts in the by were different with  selection of older more "real" yachts, mainly serious cruisers on a budget with a local ferry coming and going during the day delivering everything the villagers needed.

                  

                                    Cruisers ..................................................................................... Tourists?

We decide to keep moving as time is beginning to be against us and the next day pull up the anchor and sail the huge distance of 3.5 miles to Union Island where we must check out of St Vincent & The Grenadines before heading in to Grenada's waters.

Union Island

As we write we are safely on a mooring in Clifton bay, Union Island having anchored well but had to move due to the growing number of boats close by - we are not having much luck of late anchoring!!

We have been ashore to check out which involved going to Customs in the fishing port and them to Immigration at the airport - why it can not be co-ordinated we don't know.

Again we see old friends, yachts we have seen in many moorings both large and small - the world is a very small place.

Clifton Bay is delightful in a seedy sort of way, the people of friendly and the kids enjoy playing frisbee with local children in the town centre whilst we buy some fruit and an excellent coconut bun with saltfish filling - yummy! The town is a lend of working port and tourist centre with a busy airport almost in the middle of the main street!

         

Union Island - Clifton Bay Kids at Play

    

 Clifton Bay

Despite its working status the bay is crystal clear with water like glass that highlights the reef that circles the bay and the "round about" reef right in the middle of the anchorage.

More exploring tomorrow....

Farewell St Lucia and on to St Vincent and the Grenadines.....

At long last we are underway having completed repairs and had a number of false starts which led to more repairs.  Despite the problems we had in Rodney Bay we have some special memories, particularly of meeting new yachting friends like Gunther and Ute who like us have been languishing in the repair yard at Rodney Bay whilst the mechanics of replacing the broken rudder stock on their Contest 48 are decided - sadly for them it looks like their cruising plans will be delayed for several more weeks whilst parts are fabricated and sent to them from Europe.

On leaving Rodney bay we cruise a short distance to the old capital of St Lucia, Soufriere which sits on the edge of a marine park bounded by the famous "Pittons" extinct volcanic cores that tower above the town and the crystal clear waters of the bays. We are now sailing in company with "Moondance" with Sally and Chris and importantly for the girls they have a daughter, Maddy, who is 8 and our two get along famously with her. Moondance too have taken time off from their "real life" and are cruising extensively in the Caribbean before heading back to the UK later this year.

In many ways the architecture in the West Indies is very familiar having been born in British colonial days around the same time that Australia was being opened up, the only difference being that the West Indies seems to have been locked in a time warp ever since....

       

Soufriere town centre and home of the guillotine during French rule!

          

                                                   The Pittons                                                                                    The other Soufriere

The area is one of amazing contrast from the poverty of Soufriere to the opulence of the Jalousie Hilton in the next bay where we moored the following night and, for the price of a round of drinks, were treated to a show at "Bang" with fire dancing and a local and very enthusiastic dance troupe from the "Jalousie Plantation". Mike and the girls got in on the act with Mike eating fire and the girls grooving away late in to the night...

              

And then we said farewell to St Lucia and sail a short distance to St Vincent, an island we have been warned is poor and many people suggested we sailed past due to hassles with boat boys and thefts from boats. How wrong can people be......

St Vincent

We moor in Wallilabou Bay which has been made famous by being the set for "Pirates of The Caribbean", the islanders have been wily enough to make a deal with the film company whereby the set had to be made sufficiently robust to remain and offer some hope of tourism for the area.

What we find is a virtually unspoilt paradise, a sheltered mooring with clear, deep water and charming locals who were not at all pushy and genuinely helpful. We enjoyed two days in this paradise swimming and relaxing - this is what cruising is all about!!

   

Wallilabou Bay - complete with Pirates set

                     

                                                   "Walli Boys"                                                                 Boat Boys - John and Julian

Life is livened up somewhat in the morning when a neighbouring yacht, left unattended by it's French family started to firstly litter the bay with washing as the wind picked up - Mike dived in to retrieve various articles and in the process managed to perforate his eardrum (ouch!!) and shortly after the yacht started to drag its anchor and started to move very close to Mary Constance - a salutary lesson bout checking anchors in difficult moorings - again we had to leap around tying on fenders and ropes to prevent damage to us and the French yacht flying away in the wind. Fortunatley as we worked the owners arrived back and managed to re-anchor safely! Our turn we were sure would come!!

 

"Walli Girls"

It was with great sadness we left Wallilabou after two days and set sail to Bequia, well known for being a "yachtie haven", after a slow start we had one of the most exhilarating sails we have had to date covering the short distance between the two islands with 20 - 25 knot winds and for most of the passage Mary Constance flying along under full sail.

Bequia

We already had mixed views about Bequia and had a preconceived idea that we would not like it to much. As with many anchorages it is the people rather than the location that make the impressions and in this case we met good friends of  the Moondance crew, Dick and Leslie who had completed a circumnavigation in their yacht Aragorn who were a source of extremely useful information about the areas we will be sailing through on our passage back to Sydney.

Our first night moored in Admiralty Bay, Bequia, proved to be exciting with winds of 25-30 knots gusting at times to 40 knots! Having declined a rather expensive mooring in favour of the trusty Mary C anchor we started to drag at around 23.30 needless to say in the pouring rain and had to lift the anchor and reset it - the EC$40 looks cheap now especially after we sent most of the night on anchor watch!! SWe didn't think our turn would come so soon!!

As we write we intend to stay a few days in Bequia to snorkel and resupply for our trip down through the rest of the Grenadine islands to Grenada so we will update the web further over the next few days whilst we have god wireless access on shore!

 

St Lucia - Christmas , New Year and forever?

We have now been in St. Lucia for the best part of of a month. Most of the ARC boats have left only a few remaining ie those with problems and this obviously includes us.

Rodney Bay sunset

Christmas has come and gone, New Year too and so have most of the ARC yachts with a few notable exceptions.

Christmas was spent in a little restaurant on the waters edge with a Swedish chef, a few yachties and the children eating Sushi - a truly cosmopolitan feeling with a predominance of Aussies around the table.

                                

                       The master trickster........                                                    .......and the apprentice

 We had decorated the boat prior to Christmas with a selection of homemade decorations, a tree given by a passing yacht and some wonderful decorations and lights given to us by Paddy one of the crew of the yacht Messenger, who came to our aid and showed Blackwattle exactly where we were.

Christmas decorations Mary Constance style

Santa duly arrived having been sent his letters in wine bottles along our Atlantic route and so the girls were happy,  thank goodness for Jos' spot of Christmas shopping in September before leaving as there is a dearth of Barbie and Bratz in St. Lucia.  Right up to Christmas eve we had workmen on the boat fixing the hot water cylinder which died leaving us with no water at all for a few days and a rusty mess in the bowls of the yacht.  This was just designed to add to Mike's stress levels whilst trying to organise for the rigging to be changed and also the electrical system on Mary Constance to be upgraded - comments came in thick and fast about ten year upgrades that are needed on yachts - not that these made us feel better.

                   

                                Santa arrives                                                                           Christmas morning

Richard and Emma and Zara arrived on the 27th amidst the workmen and have bravely sat in port for the last 10days  before heading off down south to a couple of local hotels with aircon which is far more preferable to MC with all the floor up and every cupboard unpacked in the hopes that the watermaker will be fitted while we await the rigging being made up in Martinique. 

Richard, Zara and Pippa

Rowing Practice

The mast is off the boat waiting for the rigging wire so we now have the pleasure of looking like a large power boat and it has certainly changed the movement of the boat - if nothing reinforcing Mike's dislike of power boats. A lot of people have asked questions as to where our mast is but we have now learnt that we just say it is invisible rather than have to dwell on the story of the passage and the problems experienced - although we seem to be reminded at every turn - Mike was leafing through a  local yachting paper and there we are again in black and white . 

Mast out time for Mary C

For New Year we left and headed out into Rodney Bay.  It was much cooler and we had an early dinner on Pigeon Island at the "Jamb du Bois" with a wonderful jazz band accompanying us but ordinary food. We then celebrated the turn of the New year, rather later than friends and family back home for whom 2006 had passed away some 13 hours before, quietly on board until a fairly drunk St Lucian called Dave decided to climb on board and join us, harmless but slightly unnerving for all although he departed when we told him all the grog had been drunk earlier!

       

                          Rodney bay from the fort                                                            We're the stylish motor yacht!!!!!!

                 

Sadly we have not had the opportunity of seeing much of St Lucia although we have gone down to Marigot Bay having "commandeered" a local bus (cheaper to take over a bus than take a cab) in the capital, Castries. Marigot is meant to be a haven for yachts and one of the few truly hurricane safe anchorages on St Lucia, whilst very pretty it is however full and not the gorgeous bay everyone made out being an overdeveloped version of "Cottage Point" so we may miss this one and head on out to St. Vincent and then the Grenadines.

Marigot Bay

Castries Market

Last Friday we sample a little of the local entertainment going to the Gross Islet "Jump" - the Friday night let your hair down event in the local village, an eclectic mix of booming music, food and dancing patronised by both locals and tourist alike - each side taking a strong interest in the other - we were not sure who was on display but it was fun anyway!

                     

As we stand tonight we think it may be third time lucky for our departure, we are checked out with Customs, bills paid, works completed and friends not said goodbye to (merely adieu) as we feel to say goodbye three times may not be lucky. Tomorrow we hope to raise sail fully or the first time since mid Atlantic and start to move south towards St Vincent which we understand is one of the poorest of the west Indian Islands - an interesting contrast to St Lucia which is trying hard to meet the demands of the 21st century and, more importantly for many local the 207 Cricket World Cup final!

The Atlantic Crossing

Well this is what it is all about, or at least this leg, and the preparations were frantic and stressful to put it mildly with some serious last minute equipment failures almost leading to Mike deciding to cross the start line and return to the pontoon to finish work. In essence we had no power generation ability and in the modern power hungry world of sailing (steering, radios, fridge etc) it was vital.

Fortunately our friends Dave and Jules came to the rescue with their newly arrived crew member, Alf, being an electrician and literally 30 minutes before the starting gun we head off trailing our faithful rubber ducky behind the boat much to the amusement of many.

The start of the ARC was a spectacle and the culmination of several days activities; skippers briefings, weather updates, last minute provisioning and deliveries and a firework display at midnight. The start itself saw 225 yachts of all sizes and designs congregate for two starting "guns"; firstly the racing division (the big, serious boys) and then the more sedate, if equally (don't tell Jos) competitive in a relaxed sort of way, Cruising Division of which we were part.

The Cruising Division gun went off at 13.00 with the committee boat being a "small ferry" - certainly the biggest committee boat both Mike and Jos will ever be involved in and we set off in light winds and high spirits. It is amazing but within hours the 225 boats that started are spread from horizon to horizon as each skipper takes a slightly different course and over the days to follow we rapidly lose visual contact with all the yachts relying only on the daily radio "sked" for contact and position updates with other boats and we rapidly get to know the voices, if not the faces, of many of the other skippers.

              

                                   The rousing send off!!                                                                            The committee boat

Life takes on a different routine based on a variety of factors, food, radio skeds, sail changes and the regular watch keeping system which is honed to give maximum coverage and a limited sleep deprivation for the grown up crew!

Fishing becomes a big part of everyone's lives not only aboard Mary Constance but across the cruising fleet and from the radio chatter it seems that the Mary Constance team start the bug landing an 87 cms Dorado or "Dolphin Fish" early in the passage - great sashimi followed by an excellent fish curry! The euphoria of being the fleet fish catcher soon disappears as other, more professional fishermen take over and the daily "sked"  has talk of larger, more colourful fish - the crowning glory seems to go to Pat on board Yacht 123 with their landing of a marlin, a supreme feat from the back of a "sail boat" as our American friends are wont to call yachts.

The children adapt quickly to life away from land and it is interesting to see how their play develops with Barbie and Bratz becoming a focal point in their lives with seemingly intricate games developing. Rapidly too both Pippa and Justine become dab hands on the SSB radio taking an active role in the "Kids' Net", a daily radio sked run by the ARC Kids where news is swapped and wit abounds with the "silliest thing Dad did today" being important. Mike wins this hands down one day when he decides to accede to the girls' request for scrambled eggs and promptly mistimes his lurch towards the stove and both he and half a dozen eggs become airborne and then crash to the floor  with predictable results.

A few days out and the weather is idyllic (unless you want to sail), perfect blue skies, a little rolling swell and NO WIND!! What else to do but go for a swim which was a wonderful break from the growing heat albeit a little un-nerving for some knowing that there was about 2 km of water below the boat. A rope was pulled behind the boat which was moving very slowly at this stage and the kids joined us for a swim with lifejackets on - quite wonderful.

  

Living in a "washing machine" is not always the fun filled experience that is painted in the ARC web site, lack of sleep, contrasting daily routines and poor weather take their toll from time to time and the limit on personal space occasionally leads to, fortunately minor  and short lived blow ups between the crew although it seems that our differences are minor and insignificant compared to those on some yachts. We hear a report of a Mayday from one yacht where he crew have totally lost faith in their skipper and believe that his breakdown is a threat to their continued safety - a really nasty thought when you think through the consequences a thousand nautical miles from the nearest land.

The daily reports of equipment failure now become more common, rudder failures, rigging failures , autopilot failures lead the Skeds and the ARC organisers seem to send out more and more alerts and requests for help. So far Mary Constance seems to be coping with her new role as a deep water cruising yacht well and we receive emails from friends who are following our progress on the ARC Web Site - it appears that we are advancing through the fleet despite our limited experience. The learning curve has been massive as we start to experiment with new sailing techniques to optimise our performance "downwind", the pleasure of sailing with two headsails poled out to their maximum extent  is wonderful as it both increases our speed and, importantly, limits our sideways rolling. Our daily logged position reports continue to show good progress and Mike is optimistic that we will have a fast crossing and is keen to ensure that we are one of the few yachts that continue to report "zero engine hours" each day!

Little did we know at this stage that our luck was about to change and we would become one of the news items on the daily ARC Skeds and Web Site. Slowly we start to encounter small equipment failures, chaffed lines are replaced before they fail and continued wear monitored. The first irritating failure is the snapping of the outhaul line for the headsail furling gear. Fortunately we have spare rope and with some innovative maneuvering the line is replaced with limited delay.

Disaster strikes!

Taking over watch early one morning Mike looks up and sees that one of the lower shrouds leading from the deck to the mast spreaders has started to unravel, as these hold up the mast this is a major problem. Each shroud is made up of 10 - 12 mm thick braided wire each with 12 strands - an inner core and an outer section. The outer section has completely failed under the relentless pressure.

Mike quickly is set to go up the mast to rig a second stay made of rope with a block and tackle system to tension it and whilst hairy and very bruising the whole operation goes successfully and a sigh of relief goes around.

The secure situation does not last for long and on Jos' watch the following night the shroud breaks with a huge bang, the boat is shuddering like a mad thing and the mast is flexing about half a metre in the middle - really scary. Mike sends out a PAN PAN message, one short of a MAYDAY and gets no response and the situation looks grim. Thank God for email is all we can say as Mike sends out an email to a few yachts we know and Ted and Nancy on Blackwattle (a Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club boat from Sydney) answers us and we arrange a rendezvous the next day as Ted has spare wire and fittings for us. More temporary and "Heath Robinson" repairs are undertaken for the night to keep the mast upright - ropes everywhere!

The next day we undertake what is to the the first of two yacht to yacht transfers by throwing a line to Ted's yacht and pulling gear back across under the careful eye of another yacht, "Messenger" which had come to keep an eye on things and did excellent service by guiding Blackwattle to Mary Constance in the late afternoon sun. Life takes many strange turns and it was Henny and Lieke's gift of the "monkey's paw" throwing line that was to make this and subsequent transfers as smooth as they were.

 

As the last of the gear was passed to Mary Constance light began to fail and we agreed to hold off starting the work on the rig until the following morning. A nervous night ensued while Blackwattle kept close to us. At sunrise Mike went up the mast again to start the process of threading a 10mm wire rope through the spreader (from the top) back down to the deck. As he started the job the temporary shroud failed with a loud bang and the mast started its crazy flexing again - not at all pleasant for Mike who was convinced the mast was about to break and plunge in to the sea nor for Jos who was trying to keep the boat level in rough seas whilst listening to Mike's pained yells from half way up the mast. After what seemed an age the new shroud was threaded through and Mike returned to the deck to work with David cutting the 10mm cable to length and then fitting the staylock which would link it to the deck plate - another disaster - the first attempt was not good and a second cut was needed making the wire too short!!!!! Again "Heath Robinson" engineering came in to ply and the shroud is now connected to the bottle screw by two massive shackles - not pretty but it works!!

A collective sigh of relief as we got underway again being shepherded by Blackwattle. All well until we noticed that the port side shroud had also started to fail, no real surprise after the pounding it took. Up the mast again to secure the broken strand of wire before further failure and a second temporary shroud was rigged "just in case". If this one was to break we would be well and truly in a mess as Blackwattle had no more spares and we were still about 600 miles from land and now only able to sail on one tack.

A request was made to all the rally boats for fuel and water as both were running low and a Swiss yacht Meitli came to our aid with an offer of both. Time for another yacht to yacht transfer, this time in higher seas and involving some 10 transfers with the boats no more than 10 metres apart with masts swinging in to each other. Helmed unbelievably well by Jos on Mary Constance and Krystal on Meitli the job was completed slowly and carefully including a final transfer of water with associated gifts (wine from Mary C and Swiss chocolate from Meitli).

Refueled we bid farewell to Meitli and they raced off to St Lucia leaving Blackwattle and Mary Constance to slowly make our way - now almost the last boats in the fleet, albeit one that had seen various yachts dismasted, abandoned, diverted etc and for 5 days we slowly sail and motor on with great caution until land is finally in sight, firstly the lights of Martinique and then the increasing glow from St Lucia!

Arrival

Twenty-five and  half days after leaving Las Palmas we finally rounded the northern point of St Lucia and made a turn around Pigeon Island to the finish line at Rodney Bay and managed to sail across the line after several very careful tacks still shepherded by the wonderful Ted and Nancy on Blackwattle.  As we came in to the marina the welcome was amazing with horns blaring and all the yachts turning out and clapping - it seems that we had become heroes for having sailed nearly a thousand nautical miles with a compromised rig and for not having lost the mast.  The welcome epitomized the general spirit of the ARC but still managed to leave a lump in the throat and a tear in the collective eye of the crew!!

Mary C crosses the finishing line - almost last and looking very small against the super yacht Kokomo!

Now we plan to chill out for a while and enjoy a St Lucian Christmas before getting the work underway rerigging Mary Constance before we start to head towards Panama!!

24 November 2006

Only a few more days to go until the adventure of crossing the Atlantic, the only drama being that we could do with another week to get things sorted out - blue water cruising seems to be a constant repair circuit as various pieces of equipment fail - oh for a workshop the like of some found on the larger boats!!

Anyway, as promised there are a few gaps that need to be filled in since we left Pte Cristo, a period that has given us some high points and quite a lot of low points along the way. On leaving Pte Cristo with a sad farewell to Henny and Lieke we set sail for Cartegena which promised to be one of the high points of an otherwise over commercialized   Spanish coast line.

Again the weather played tricks on us giving us little wind as we headed south from the islands and as such we ended up motoring for many hours, which was no one's idea of fun, the saving grace was for the first part the weather although this changed as we approached the Spanish mainland and the wind grew and the rains came so we were happy to approach Cartegena in the day albeit to a very grey, damp city. Arriving on a wet Friday is not necessarily a good thing particularly when the city comes to life late at night and there are two night clubs pounding out the beat late in to the night about 20 meters from the side of the  boat which we have moored to the city jetty. Oh to be young again!

Almost as we arrive the kids leap off the boat and start fishing catching  a multitude of small fish that are bent on suicide allowing Pippa to catch quite a few  - quite the little Rex Hunt much to the enjoyment of the local Spanish kids who promenade along the quayside until lunchtime......

      

Cartegena Harbour                                                                 Reusing Roman Facilities!

                   

Our friend "Sailor Sam"                           David, Pippa & Justine

 

Cartegena is steeped in history dating back to Roman times and before, however it has turned in to a cosmopolitan city and we are most impressed with the general style of the Spanish who all dress impeccably making us feel like poor relatives!

Due to the poor weather we stay in Cartegena 3 days and plan to sail on toe Malaga to try and catch up on time - by now we are beginning to worry that we will not make the start of the ARC and a degree of philosophical depression start to set in. So we leave port mid morning after taking on fuel and head off in to the Western hemisphere making an unplanned stop at Almerimar which, whilst a purpose built marina development has the advantage of a sensational supermarket allowing Jos to stock upon provisions - a God send to Jos and the kids.

However the clock is ticking and we need to press on for one of the big challenges - the Gibraltar Straits - the weather starts good enough, if anything a little more wind would be good, as we approach the "Rock" the weather shifts again as the various Gibraltar Straits factors come in to play - tide (something Mary Constance hadn't seen for years in the Med), high winds and an interesting swell behind us not to mention the shipping lanes.

The last few hours of the passage were fun if your Mike and yucky if you are Jos with  strong swell , as we approach the Rok it becomes clear that is has its own weather pattern with a dense "blob" of cloud hugging the Rock.

 

   

Approaching Gibraltar

As we round the headland with Africa tantalizingly close to the south we are buffeted by strong gusts, we learn later of 45 plus knots and we are keen to anchor in Marina Bay which sits rights up against the airport. Sadly Gib does not live up to expectations reminding us of a small English town transported south and then turned in to a commercialized tourist trap and the Franklins are glad to move on again after two days with the best view being Gib behind us!

  

Big fenders!                                                           Leaving Gibraltar

On the advice of our friends Henny and Lieke we decide to take a day out before we tackle the longest passage so far to the Canaries and after shooting though the Straits pushed by tide and wind we head north to Barbate in Spain which is a delightful Spanish fishing port and "seaside" town, totally off the tourist route and totally unpretentious - definitely one to remember for  return visit.

                     

Barbate beach                                                                                    The strange Barbate Anchors

After an all too short stay in Barbate we batten down the hatches and head off for the Canaries and the start of the real adventure with the promise of a different kind of sailing head of us. As with the route so far we are not quite aware of what awaits us!

Setting off in a dead calm we motor for several hours and approach the shipping lanes out of Gibraltar in the dark, the shipping lanes are a stretch of water some 20 nautical miles wide which are akin to a nautical freeway with freighters charging along taking little notice of a small (and my word we feel small) yacht. For the first time the radio is use din anger trying to alert a tanker that we re under his bows and later in the night we are comforted by the fact that a sizable tanker is keeping watch and changes to course to avoid us!

Despite a good forecaste (NW force 4 -5) we sail right in t the middle of a tightly packed low pressure system and all hell breaks loose, we should have known better as the only yachts we saw were heading the other way running before the storm. For 36 hours we battle forwards  through high seas and winds on the nose, the worst point of sail for Mary Constance who is convinced she should be a submarine. No major damage occurs apart from our cabin turning in to an indoor pool and one of the navigation lights being swept off the boat.

Just as quickly as the storm hit the skies clear, the lightening goes way and the wind swings through 180 degrees allowing us to run down wind for the remaining two days of the passage to Las Palmas which is to be our home for a week before the push across the Atlantic!

    

Our arrival in Las Palmas coincides with two  major events for Pippa, the loss of her first front tooth (the tooth fairy found us offshore!) and her seventh birthday. Fortunately the parties start with the ARC2006 social calendar, firstly a kids beech party the afternoon we arrived somewhat bedraggled allowing Mum and Dad some time off, the opening ceremony the next day where we lead the Aussie contingent and then a major fancy dress party later in the week!

The LP Aussies!

 

The opening ceremony band!!                                           Local LP support

Bobo (AKA David W-F)

So who is good with heights then!!

As time is against us, we head off in 13 hours, we'll leave it there and fill in more of the Las Palmas section whilst we are at sea for the next 16 - 20 days (there is abet on the passage time!!).

Next stop St Lucia!!!!!!!

 

 

12 November 2006

As you can see we have been fairly busy since leaving Peurto Cristo and bidding farewell to our friends Henny and Lieke. As we write we have passed out of the Mediterranean in to the wider world of the Atlantic en route for our serious "kick off" point of the Canaries.

At the moment we are in a pleasant port on the Spanish Atlantic coast called Barbate rushing to get ready for a four day passage so this is a very quick update which will be edited and improved on later.

Our journey from Peurto Cristo has taken us to Cartegena steeped with Roman history, to Almermar where we did a major shop for the boat (3 trolleys worth), onwards to Gibraltar which apart from the scenery and the thrill of the "Straights" (and some very rough weather and high winds) did little to enthuse the crew of the Mary Constance and we were pleased to leave. By good fortune the wind and tide were perfect for us to get through the straights, a strong easterly wind and tide pushed us through - Mary Constance recorded her fasted speed so far 11.3 knots under a reefed in genoa!!

Anyway in lieu of many words we have put in some pictures and promise to give a more detailed update once we arrive safely in Gran Canaria!

        

                                                                                                                Cartegena        

                                   

            The First Catch (By Jos!!)                                         Woolly Mammouth?                               David the sea dog!   

 

Approaching Gibraltar

Jos - ever thankful for Sue Campbell Ross' foulies!

                

                                         Leaving Gib                                                                           First Atlantic Sunset

 

  

30 October 2006

The sail started off uneventfully to Peurto Cristo, a beautiful day for sailing; blue skies, light winds and a gentle swell - how things change...

About half way to our destination Jos spotted a small problem, the main sail had come out of its track and was blowing backwards doing a good impression of being a spinnaker! Once pulled down and lashed to the boom a new problem seemed to appear with a nasty knocking sound coming from the inside of the mast furling gear - add it to the list!!

Notwithstanding this we continue on to Peurto Cristo arriving after dark in to a pretty but very tight harbour with no navigation mark lights. We motor slowly in to the marina and tie up one boat away from Onyx, Mary Constance's sister ship - talk about coincidences!

Onyx and Mary Constance (originally named Esmerelda) both started life together in a yard in Holland at the same time having been commissioned by two good friends at the same time, after two years Esmerelda was sold to Jos' parents and renamed Mary Constance - quite a reunion after 23 years.

Over the next two days we developed a strong friendship with Onyx's owners; Henny and Lieke both of them passionate about their "ship"  and Trintellas generally being members of the Trintella Vrienenkring (Trintella "Frienshipring or association) - hopefully the Franklins will the Aussie branch soon!

                        

                                Trintella 42's sisterships                                                             Aboard Onyx with              

 

Henny & Lieke

Peurto Cristo is a charming and non pretentious harbour seemingly very different from many of the other  towns in the Balearics which, like much of Spain generally have become a mecca for English and German tourists with an explosion of building on every shoreline. The town is still a working local fishing port with fishermen plying their trade from distinctive fishing boats. Under the town is an extensive cave system known as the Dragons Cave which we all explored late in the afternoon, the final cavern played host to an floating quartet playing music in small fishing boats in almost total darkness.

                         

All good things must come to an end and the next day we sadly said our goodbyes to Henny and Lieke before heading off for a two day passage to Cartagena.

29 October 2006

After some 40 hours at sea we finally make landfall at Mahon and it indeed a truly lovely spot, one of the most sheltered anchorages you could hope for with a modern (1850's) castle on one side and a quarantine station on the other, the bay then led through via a small canal to the main anchorage and town of Mahon - again a charming Minorcan town with streets winding up the side of the hill and huge cruise liners tied to the quayside. We motored in to town in our inflatable to explore, restock and have a celebration diner!

All too soon we need to move on and set course for our next destination at Pte Cristo where we are due to meet with our "email friends" Henny and Lieke who own Onyx, the sister ship to Mary Constance, built at the same time - soon to be a special reunion!

 

27 October 2006

Finally after nearly a week of high winds and rough seas in the Golfe de Lion the weather hopefully gives us a window to depart and frantic preparations are made to get underway. Farewells made to friends and bills paid!

Just after lunch on what appears to be a prefect day we motor out of Port Napoleon - what a joy, spirits are up the Odyssey has finally started. On the advice of Harry and Liz we are heading for the northern most island in the Balearics, Minorca to a safe anchorage at Mahon.

     

                Farewell Port Napoleon                                                                     Happiness is starting out!                        

 

And the biggest smile goes to.....

All was well until the weather rapidly deteriorated to high winds and a really nasty short chop leading to inevitable seasickness and a wonder as to whether we should be doing this at all! Late night equipment failures added to our woes and general exhaustion started to set in t6o all of us. Jos' Uncle David, who had joined us just before we left Port Napoleon (after hasty changes to his travel plans) held us all together being the only non seasick one on board!

 

David - the voyage's savior!

 

23 October 2006

Life goes on at Port Napoleon, the weather worsens and the mozzies get larger and more aggressive - beginning to hate the place which is a reflection more on the mozzies than the port and the local people.

Slowly but surely we are getting Mary Constance ready for here new life although everything seems to take longer to do than we anticipated. The upside is that we have been meeting great people who are either passing through laying their boats up for the winter or are themselves enroute for warmer climes.

Sitting in the bar one evening a familiar face enters, Harry who we had met briefly at Easter in Port Napoleon. Harry and Liz, to the children known as Ziggy's Daddy helped cure both the girls of their fear of dogs. Ziggy adopted Harry and Liz in Spain some seven years ago and has become an integral part of their life which is spent equally between cruising on their Moody and traveling around the continent in their mobile home - a perfect retirement.

Both Harry and Liz (and Ziggy) soon became good friends and a source of advice to both Mike and Jos taking us all under their wing so to speak.

           

                               Harry, Liz and Friends                                                                                 The amazing Ziggy

The girls fell passionately in love with Ziggy with his many tricks, one of the best being his ability to count, when either Harry or Liz asked him to count to three, four or five he barked cheerfully the right number of times.

We also met the first of many fellow Atlantic travellers, Dave and Jules who are following the ARC as "NARCS" - not on the ARC on their 34' yacht Northern Breeze that they had recently purchased and picked up at Port Napoleon.

17 October 2006

As you can see from the time between entries it has been  busy time in Port Napoleon, probably best described as the PN shuffle (one step forwards, two steps back work wise and fifty steps around trying to avoid the hordes of mozzies that have now firmly claimed dusk as their own!!).

Just in the nick of time before Jos arrived the work on Mary Constance's hull was completed and Mike discovered the "joys" of antifouling allowing Mary Constance with her bright new red "bottom" to be pulled around the hard one last time and deposited gracefully back in to her natural element - back in the drink at last!!

                                   

                                     The final "run around"                                                                    Craning back in

Dawn's Early Light at Port Napoleon

Much to Mike's relief Jos and the girls arrived on the 6th October and even with a healthy dose of jet lag Jos got stuck in to cleaning up the mess that Mike had made of the boat in the month he had been on his own (no more organised chaos here please!!). Pippa seemed the most affected by jet lag religiously waking at between 03.00 and 04.00 for the first few days but soon both she and Justine settled in to life at Port Napoleon riding at full tilt around the port on their scooters and quickly making friends with all and any children they could find.

In many ways the last few weeks has been a time of welcome and, in some cases un-welcome friends on board; the welcome ones being  Jos' Mum and brother Chris helping enormously with the repairs and organization, the kids making new friends and meeting old ones again when Steve and Stevie Killick and their kids Abigail and Tom sailed back in to port, and the many kind and helpful people throughout the port (some like David testing Mike's ability to speech French to the highest degree). More on the unwelcome ones shortly....

                              

                           The irrepressible David from M-Marine                               The girls with Dutch friends Qwenty & Manon

In addition to the unwelcome mozzies we found some interesting stowaways on board in the water tanks (thankfully Jos made Mike open the inspection hatches). After several years of careful cultivation Mary Constance was on the way to producing a new species that probably would have grown, like a 50's horror movie, to rise and take over life as we know it......

(Hopefully Mike's sister, Sue, as the marine biologist can identify the stowaways!

 

Stowaways!

Despite the alarming similarity of "our new chums" the to some French cuisine it has not put the children off food and they are in their element scoffing down plates full of Moules et Frits and the new find of Tellines, a small shell fish dish very similar to vongoles served cool in  cream sauce (Justine's idea of heaven).

The uncrowned Queens of Moules!

As we write the boat is rocking on her mooring as the wind blasts through Port Napoleon, thunder and lightening echoes round the Camargue and the rain pelts down effectively scuppering our plans to leave for warmer climes for another few days. The good news is the delay allows us to finalize a few more things around the boat but sadly it now has soaked up most of the leeway we had on our timetable meaning we will be not able to spend as long in Spain and Gibraltar as we had hoped on the way down to the Canaries and the start of the ARC 2006 - anyway that's sailing!!

Hopefully this weather will clear up on Friday allowing us to leave the varied attributes of Port Napoleon firmly over our shoulder - next stop the Balearics and, hopefully, a long overdue meeting with our email friends Henny and Lieke who are cruising on Mary Constance's sister ship Onyx.

 

30 September 2006

Well until now I have not known the meaning of mosquitoes...

For some reason they are out in force making life a battle at ground level - even liberal doses of anti-mozzie spray does not seem to keep them at bay for more than an hour at a time. Result - mozzies about 150 (bites on Mike) - Mike 20 (confirmed mozzie kills!). Even the locals are commenting on how many are about......

Anyway life goes on as does the work on Mary Constance - two new pairs of hands with Jos' Mum; Jean, and brother; Chris, arriving to help. Chris is an excellent addition with great skills in carpentry allowing Mike to get on with the less killed jobs around the boat and Jean helping enormously with her years of expertise previously on Mary Constance as well as making a splendid job of the wheel cover as well as much much more. Slowly things are starting to take shape with promises from M-Marine that the hull work will be completed  shortly and we should be back in the water before Jos and the girls arrive on Thursday.....

                 

         "Home" at Port Napoleon- jammed in....                      Jean at work                                       Chris - master carpenter......                                        

27 September 2006

And what of Port Napoleon (the current home of Mary Constance) and the local town Port Saint Louis du Rhone........

Port Napoleon (www.port-napoleon.com) is the ideal cruising yachtsman's home, a 13 hectare marina which is basic but has most trades to hand and, importantly for the budget, where they do not mind you working on your own yacht and even actively encourage it - many a conversation with the guys at "M-Marine" end in "but you can do that yourself you don't need us.

The downside is the port's relative isolation - no flash facilities here; a cafe, shower block and Capitainerie fortunately with friendly staff and wireless internet, and a big negative the mosquitoes which are definite man eaters - fortunately Mike seems to have missed the worst of them however there is n ever present "buzzing" above the bunk during the night and a few bites by morning.

The local town, a five minute bus ride or twenty minute bike ride away is an unprepossessing French port town blessed by few tourist located on the edge of the famous Camarge, at some stage development will take place and there are signs of an impending "improvement" in the town's fortunes. Whilst the casual observer sees a town in decline we are reliably informed that Port Saint Louis du Rhone has always had an air of decline for as long as people can remember. For all that the town has a charm and on market days (Wednesday) has a buzz with French and (we assume) Moroccan dialogue, and an aroma of every kind of olives possible, freshly cooked paella, roasting chickens and pork, fresh fish and not for the squeamish a sand selling horse meat (really no different from Aussies eating kangaroos and emus!!).

                        

                    Market day in Port Saint du Rhone Louis                                       The citadel guarding the Rhone

Why does Port Saint Louis exist? Importantly Port Saint Louis is the link between the mighty Rhone river, still carving its way as a major trade route through France, and the Mediterranean with a lock joining the two, in more recent times it is now also the home of a major container port serving the Marseilles area - progress.....

The Rhone at Port Saint Louis du Rhone

21 September 2006

Work continues relatively unabated although everything takes longer than expected to achieve and for every item ticked off the list another thing is found that needs attention. Finding spares is proving a little challenging at times as several of the original manufacturers seem to have disappeared over the years or equipment does not have any manufactures details on - still makes life interesting.

              

Organised chaos?

14 - 15 September 2006

Mike is now at Port Napoleon starting what seems to be a never ending task of getting Mary Constance ready for her new life as a serious "blue water" cruiser. Thank God for the web - sails from Cape Town, radios from the good people at Sonset in the USA, a multitude of parts from the UK via mail order - the only issue is now getting the time and energy to do all the work, deal with the French Customs service (Very efficient but they don't take credit cards which makes paying huge import duties interesting - a note to others considering importing anything to France Les Duanes ignore "yacht in transit" and import duty and Tax is over 32% combined).

Progress however as Mike's newest "best friends" at M Marine start to get stuck in to their work covering some of the more interesting /exotic maintenance and installation items and great excitement as Mary Constance is moved effortlessly from one part of the yard to another.

                                                                

The inside of Mary Constance begins to resemble a bomb site with Mike camping in the middle of it - roll on the completion of works!

Weather revolting - strong Mistral winds for the past five days solid and 24 hours of heavy rain to slow progress down, just when I thought we were moving ahead.....

August 2006

The countdown is well and truly on with Mike due to leave his position at CB Richard Ellis in Sydney on a year's sabbatical - much to be done getting both things organised for Mary Constance (a constant challenge from the other side of the world) as well as under taking various repairs to the house in Sydney. Jos is flat out packing the house in between working what seems 26 hours a day with her business and charging round after the girls.

 

 

     

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