Living on a sailing boat in the tropics is all pretty good, an endless trail of islands to visit, all different, and naturally we like some more than others. But even the ones we don’t like so much are still pretty good.
If we were to selfishly list our favourite characteristics in a sailing location it could look like this:
- Uncrowded anchorages
- Uncommercialised islands
- Clear clean water
- Being able to see your anchor dig in to the white sand below.
- Good fishing
- Living reefs to snorkel (sadly getting very rare these days)
- Steady breeze to blow away the mosquitos
- No cruise ships
- No charter boats
- No light pollution
- Head-high waves on a reef-break within easy reach of the boat
- (ideally with a reliable side-off wind direction)
- No kiters
This is the type of sailing that we dream about if we stay on a ‘developed’ island too long. Somewhere remote, off the beaten track. We love that self-sufficient feeling of a boat loaded with supplies and equipped for weeks of exploration. Welcome to Los Roques..
El Gran Roque
The only real settlement in Los Roques is on the island of El Gran Roque. We arrived at first light. After breakfast and a sleep, we sit anchored off the beach and take in our new surroundings, enjoying the peace of a stationary boat after 400 or so miles at sea. Squawking seabirds and pelicans dive-bombing for fish all around us. No other foreign yachts, lots of skiffs and fishing boats all along the beach, and a small village. These islands are about 80 miles north of mainland Venezuela.
The village on El Gran Roque is a few ‘streets’ of sand and simple painted buildings, the homes of fishing families, posadas and some holiday houses, a little Church on the beach, a school and a few stores.
We started with a tour of the official offices. The first stop was the Guarda Costa who informed us that as we were a foreign registered boat in transit and had not cleared in at any of the official ports of entry to Venezuela, we could only shelter here for three days and not go ashore! A further conversation in broken Spanish and an exchange of some US dollars seemed to improve the mood, we were then led to Immigracion, Parques Nacional, Guarda Nacional, all of whom welcomed us with old fashioned uniformed bureaucracy and painstakingly wrote all of our ship’s details in their ledgers. Plenty of carbon paper and rubber stamps until finally we were issued with a 15 day cruising permit and a flag to hoist up our mast to prove it. During this process we needed to acquire some Venezuelan currency…
A local exchange transaction was arranged for us in a tiny grocery store where we converted 200 US Dollars to 140,000 Venezuelan Bolivares. So far so good, but inflation has been pretty fierce over the last few years and the Bolivar has really not kept pace. The largest denomination note is 100 Bolivares, with 20’s and 50’s in common circulation and clearly no longer worth the paper they were printed on. In the grocery store the money was being counted into 10,000 Bolivar wads, our bag was filling up and getting very heavy. Our two US $100 bills were turning into a suitcase full of cash. You can’t use a foreign credit card here, so all the money we spent had to be counted out from these wads of notes. Everything is very reasonably priced. A good caiphirina is about $1.50, a great meal in a restaurant for $10, diesel and gasoline are practically free at few cents per litre. Even so, it is normal for a customer to spend a good few minutes counting out the cash to pay for 4 beers. The cash is received with a weary smile by the bartender who then also has to spend his time counting the notes. One night we tried to buy a few fish from a fisherman cleaning his catch. He gave us a big bag full of silver fishes and would not take any payment (probably not worth his time to count the notes!) we thanked him profusely and bought cold drinks for his children.
Electricity is now reliable since a new solar array was installed, water is desalinated on the island. There are no cars, no tarmac, and a very pleasant, relaxed pace. Fresh supplies arrive on the weekly ship from the mainland and are transported by hand carts around the village. When not in use these carts were being dragged around as make-believe carnival floats by the children. There are now two motorised trucks on the island, one for water and one for gas. We heard these had managed to have a collision! There are three lighthouses, none of which were working when we arrived. We wandered the sandy lanes, dogs everywhere sleeping in the sun, children playing and making Christmas decorations from plastic bottles and cups. By night the posadas look very inviting as the guests sit down to dinner, but they are for residents only, we find there are just three ‘restaurants’ that would feed us. They are all good, visiting yachts are something of a rarity and we are welcomed with great hospitality and home cooking. Fresh fish and octopus served at simple tables on the sand, and all for just a bag full of Bolivares.
After a day and night in the busy metropolis of El Gran Roque, we sail around the corner to the Francisqui islands and anchor in a breezy lagoon with a mind blowing variety of blue water colours. To windward surf is breaking on a reef. This is starting to look like my windsurfer’s paradise.
Charlie and Alessandra
We had arranged to meet Charlie and Alessandra in Los Roques, not an easy place to get to, but they travelled from Ibiza via Madrid, Caracas, a 6 seater plane to LR and a local skiff which found us anchored in Francisqui. What a nice surprise! We weren’t expecting them until the next day!
We lined up outside the carniceria which we heard would have the last shipment of fresh produce before Christmas. We loaded up with fruit and vegetables and sailed away to discover the islands.
Over the next couple of weeks we explored the archipelago under sail. Dozens of low-lying islands, cays, or ‘quis’ around a huge shallow plateau of white sand, mainly uninhabited. The whole plateau covers hundreds of square miles and large areas are designated national parks. We tacked Escapade to windward up narrow blue corridors with live reefs glowing both sides, reached across blues of every shade with someone high up on the cabin roof scanning for coral heads as we slalomed through under sail. Anchored in clear water behind remote cays between reefs, sandbars, and mangroves. We sailed past entrances to deserted lagoons where we imagined dinosaurs could still exist unnoticed.
We sailed over to Crasqui where Juanita and her family cooked a lobster lunch for us on the beach, while we chatted with her talking parrots. Every day and night the trades blew 20kts, we rarely saw another yacht. Just an amazing place to take your boat for a sail.
This place is fishy. Fish jumping all around the boat, fish bouncing off your back as you dinghy ashore at night.
We trolled lures most days and ate so much fresh fish. Bonito, spanish mackerel, snapper, grunts and a few unidentified species.
We also dropped a baited hook off the back of the boat around sundown and even developed a new ‘snorkel assisted’ fishing method. I happened to be snorkelling past Aless’s line on my way back from my nightly anchor check when I noticed several fish taking an interest in the bait, down in the depths of clear water below. I swam over and dangled the hook in front of the largest snapper and he was soon chomping away on the scrap of fresh tuna I had presented to him. Surprised that this had not done the trick, after a while I gave a sharp tug on the line to firmly pull the little hook into the fish, which immediately went wild, swimming off in all directions as Aless wound him in. The whole crew was kept busy scaling, gutting and filleting multiple species.
The galley was turning out sashimi, tartare, ceviche, fried fillets, gougons fried in spiced flour, fish curries, fish spaghettis, fish salads and fish tagines.
We snorkelled reefs teeming with fish and inquisitive barracudas cruising just below the surface. Spearfishing is forbidden.
The Windsurfing (and Kiting)
Non-Windsurfers – Please feel free to skip to the next section…
When my nephew Charlie was a young lad, I taught him and his sister to windsurf. I delivered windsurf gear out to Ibiza, spent happy summers windsurfing with them at our beach house in England.
They loved it and Charlie showed great promise with a natural talent for windsurfing. We have sailed boards together in Ibiza, Egypt, Morocco, England and the Caribbean, while I nurtured his interest in the sport.
Imagine then the shame, frustration and gut-wrenching despair, when he took up kiting.
Of course he is now a very accomplished kiter and still pretty useful on a windsurfer.
Our stay in Los Roques was to be a pretty special opportunity for us both.
Firstly it was windy. Just enough variation to have a chat about sail size everyday, but generally 20kts. Then there is the water. Sorry to bang on about this but I have never sailed a board over such beautiful colours. The channels are dark blue, sloping sandbanks form a gradient of shades of turquoise, then onto white sandy plateaus covered by barely a fin-depth of clear water, coral that can be sailed over in places, judging depths from shades of orange, brown and yellow. Turtles and stingrays surprised by a speeding board, big fish jumping waist-high next to you, and outside the barrier reefs, big blue breaking waves.
That first day at Francisqui I was exploring a narrow pass in the reef which was tricky but sailable, giving access to some fun jumping and onshore riding. I was soon joined by sail number V111 throwing enormous push loops in front of me. Venezuelan windsurf legend Ricardo Campello had been sailing in the lagoon when he saw me find a way through the reef and followed. He had never sailed that spot before and got a bit carried away with his jumps, snapping his board in half before he remembered he was on his freestyle gear. Ricardo told me the best wave riding was on the leeward side of the island. The next day Charlie and I set out to sail around the island. Out to sea through the keyhole in the reef with a set of transits in case we had to find our way back. Then downwind to the end of the reef where the swells were wrapping round the tip of the island and in to a gusty, offshore point. Could be good for surfing. Further down the leeward coast the swell starts to wall up over a shelf of reef with a solid side-off breeze, the wave wraps in with a couple of peaks and occasionally re-forms all the way to a sandbar on the inside. We had found it, this was to be our playground.
We sailed so many sessions on that reef, Charlie kiting with a surfboard, me on windsurf gear, different generations, different tools for the same job. Generally we were alone, the first couple of days Ricardo was putting on a show, he was living on board his boat and is a regular visitor here, great to sail with him and benefit from his local knowledge before he had to return to Margarita. After that it was just us, sometimes a few surfers, sometimes a couple of windsurfers and kites, Elias and his friends, but mainly we had it to ourselves. Every day we felt a little more dialled-in to the place, dropping in deeper, understanding the reef and the sections, getting better turns. Wave after wave, we had a ball, sailing back round the island to the boat at sunset, exhausted.
The wave is pretty safe once you know where you are, avoid the shallow spots and don’t get caught on the inside. The only real hazard is the long island of razor sharp dry coral right in front of the take off. You wouldn’t want to end up there..
Christmas Day Chaos
On Christmas morning I found 3 limes in the sock I had hung up in the cockpit the night before.
The wind was up as usual and we could see spray above the mangroves indicating that our wave was working again.
Charlie decided to take a windsurf board instead of a kite, for a change.
We set off on a pair of boards and rigs from Escapade’s Quatro/Ezzy/Streamlined quiver and arrived to find we had the reef to ourselves.
Charlie sailed a few waves realising how much more satisfying a real top-turn is, before depositing his gear on the aforementioned reef to be pounded by a set or two.
What was salvaged was a mast, an extension and some harness lines. But hey, nobody got hurt!
Time to Move on
We had one last night ashore in the village and sailed again to explore the Western islands of Los Roques, arriving in Cayo de Agua on the last day of 2015. No other boats in sight, we found our way through the reefs to another turquiose pool to anchor in. It was so beautiful we stayed another day, exploring ashore, scrumping coconuts and windsurfing between islands. We welcomed 2016 from the middle of nowhere, then sailed west again.
30 miles or so to the West are two tiny archipelagos of Las Aves.
Even more remote, and even more fishy!
A world of diving birds, jumping fish, reefs, dunes and mangroves.
As we finally sailed away across the Sotovento lagoon we had multiple strikes on the lures and landed a couple of fish we have yet to identify. Each lure was in the water for seconds before getting a bite. At one memorable moment Aless was filleting her catch, Charlie was fighting a big fish on one stern while Dawn was hauling in catch of the day on the other.
Return to Civilisation
We sailed for 6 hours to reach the Dutch island of Bonaire, where Charlie and Aless could get a flight to the next part of their trip. I think we were all a bit reluctant to change gear from our wild world of birds and fish to this other world of cars, bright lights, internet, air-con and international flights. So it was farewell to Charlie and Alessandra, thanks for coming all that way, it was worth it!