Cruising Remote Venezuelan Isles
By Tom Morkin In the cruising world there are places so often talked about and in such reverent terms they become the holy grails for cruisers. These holy places usually have several similar attributes, at least mine do: - They have good, safe anchorages in the right season - They’re uninhabited or very lightly so - They are pristine, heavily endowed with sea life, some of which is easy to catch and even easier to eat - They are always between 20 N and 20 S latitude - It never snows in these places - There is no rush hour traffic, in fact there is no traffic - They are islands, often so many that they are usually archipelagos - They must be ‘knock down dead beautiful’ if not above the waterline, then certainly below water My grail places include Chagos Archipelago (Indian Ocean), Surin Islands (western Thailand), Rinca Island (home of Komodo dragons in Indonesia), Andaman Islands (Andaman Sea), Maldive Islands (Indian Ocean), San Blas Islands (Caribbean), Palau Island (Pacific Ocean) and last but not least are the islands of Los Roques and Las Aves of the Caribbean coast of Venezuela, from which I’m very happy to report I’m writing from now.
By Tom Morkin
In the cruising world there are places so often talked about and in such reverent terms they become the holy grails for cruisers. These holy places usually have several similar attributes, at least mine do:
- They have good, safe anchorages in the right season
- They’re uninhabited or very lightly so
- They are pristine, heavily endowed with sea life, some of which is easy to catch and even easier to eat
- They are always between 20 N and 20 S latitude
- It never snows in these places
- There is no rush hour traffic, in fact there is no traffic
- They are islands, often so many that they are usually archipelagos
- They must be ‘knock down dead beautiful’ if not above the waterline, then certainly below water
My grail places include Chagos Archipelago (Indian Ocean), Surin Islands (western Thailand), Rinca Island (home of Komodo dragons in Indonesia), Andaman Islands (Andaman Sea), Maldive Islands (Indian Ocean), San Blas Islands (Caribbean), Palau Island (Pacific Ocean) and last but not least are the islands of Los Roques and Las Aves of the Caribbean coast of Venezuela, from which I’m very happy to report I’m writing from now.
Los Roques Archipelago National Park was created in 1972 to protect a marine ecosystem of exceptional beauty and ecological value made up of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds. It is considered one of the most beautiful natural areas of Venezuela. The park, located about 80 miles north of the port of "La Guaira" in Venezuela, covers 546 acres, making it the largest marine park in the Caribbean Sea.
The islands are low, coral islands and sand cays. The countless beaches are of the finest white, flour-like sand which, under the light of the full moon, look more like snow.
One of the reasons these islands receive so few cruising sailors is because there are no Customs or Immigration officials stationed here to check them in. There is, however, a shore based Venezuelan Coast Guard station with boats that can register visitors. They may also tell you to go to a Venezuelan port of entry on the mainland, to check in properly. Since Venezuela’s burgeoning crime rate has virtually made it a ‘no go’ zone, the last thing we wanted to do was to visit the mainland twice- once to check in and once to check out. What did we do? We rolled the dice and visited the most remote anchorages and hoped to stay below their radar.
Sarqui Island, where we made landfall, like so many of the islands of Los Roques and Las Aves, is tiny, but with the reef extending northwest 200 meters from its northern tip, a flat anchorage is provided even with 25 to 30 knots of enhanced trade winds. For the first time in the Caribbean, we had an anchorage to ourselves, that is, if you don’t count the hundreds of pelicans, frigates, and booby birds that call it home.
We wasted little time getting out to the reef with our snorkelling gear. Within 100 yards of the boat we entered into what could be described as clouds of tiny, one to two inch long, silver and yellow fish. So thick were these schools that, when immersed in one of them, you couldn’t see outside of it. The entire school shimmered in the beams of sunlight. It was a blizzard of fish.
It didn’t take long to realize that it was this huge fish population that supported the resident pelicans and boobies. Our presence certainly didn’t impact the pelicans’ agenda as they dive bombed their prey often within a few feet of us. It may never rain cats and dogs but in Sarqui it can feel like it’s raining pelicans!
The other threat facing these innocent looking fish looked more than a tad threatening to Liz and me. It came in the form of barracuda that seemingly lurked just outside the cloud of fish.
|Now when I remember the barracuda we caught on the way to these islands while trolling, I remember a long thin fish. These critters under water were big and long, in the five foot range, and the adjective ‘thin’ gets replaced with ‘lean’.|
They are apparently curious and tended to follow us; but now in our paranoia, the verb stalk could be substituted for follow! One hears of spearfishers losing their freshly speared fish to barracuda and divers are advised not to wear or carry shiny or flashing objects that could provoke an attack. I recently heard even diving masks reflecting sunlight can be an attraction.
|Much less intimidating were the multitudes of incredibly colourful parrot fish. These coral-reef-eating machines come in so many sizes and variations in colour that scientists vastly overestimated the number of species. We now know that parrot fish not only change their size with age, but also, their gender. At one point it was thought that 350 species of parrot fish swam the seas. That number has now been reduced to 80 species and many of these are in doubt. It has been the case that one parrot fish throughout its life cycle has morphed so dramatically that it has been mistaken for two or even three species!|
It was four miles to our second Los Roques anchorage called Isla Carenero. It is actually a bay formed by three small islands that provide not only a totally secure anchorage, but a beautiful one as well. The relatively narrow entrance is made more challenging by the five foot shoal that lies roughly in the center of the channel. To be sure we could see it well enough to avoid it, we didn’t enter the channel until the sun was high enough in the sky to give us good visibility, and to be extra careful, I climbed to the lower spreaders about 20 feet above the deck to get a bird’s eye view.
|Once in the turquoise waters of the lagoon, we anchored near a fishing boat where two young men spent a couple of hours pounding what must have been hundreds of conch they had taken from the nearby waters. Amazingly, they wouldn’t sell us any.|
Tiny Cayo de Agua, was our last stop in Los Roques. Its historical importance is vastly disproportionate to its size, for the Amerindian people came from the South American mainland some 80 miles away long before the Europeans arrived.
|The Amerindians came to Los Roques for fish and conch. Here is a present day midden of conch which, unbelievably, despite the pillage, still thrive in these parts.|
Cayo de Agua was their primary settlement, because of the fresh water they were able to find and access by digging holes in the ground. On our hike around the island we encountered scores of these holes which, during the rainy season, or more accurately, the less dry season, may contain water.
After a week in Los Roques, we set sail for Las Aves, 48 miles west and dead downwind of Cayo de Agua.
Oh yeah, then there was something that struck a lure so hard that we just heard the snap of the clothes pin (we clothes pin our trolling line to the boat which makes a very pleasant snapping sound when we get a strike) and looked behind to see our line go taut and then limp within one or two seconds. Bear in mind we fish for food, not sport, and use 100 pound test monofilament line. Fish big enough to break our line that fast we don’t want on the boat!
|Since we weren’t running a freezer, we cut off some sizeable steaks for the barbeque and the rest of the wahoo was cut into strips, marinated in teriyaki sauce and dried on racks, and then on a line, for later consumption.|
It was closing in on 5 p.m. when we arrived at Long Island. The light was low enough that seeing the coral heads was almost impossible so we wanted to get the anchor down behind the island. We could see we’d be sharing the anchorage with another boat but that was ok, a little company might be nice, and tomorrow we could go a couple of miles north or south if we wanted solitude.
As we got closer to the anchored boat though, we saw something that gave us a shock. Side tied to the yacht was a 20 foot open boat. No fewer than five young men were leaving the boat and one of them was carrying a spear gun. Immediately, the pin dropped- although the young men were not in uniform, I knew they were Venezuelan Coast Guard and they had just confiscated the French yachtie’s spear gun. Damn, after successfully avoiding the “Coasties” for two weeks we drive right into them. The jig was surely up!
Within minutes we had the five officials in the cockpit. It was after checking our boat papers and passports that the safety inspection began and this was when things got a tad surreal. The situation was this: we had five guys on our boat that had just left their leaking boat with its antique rust stained outboard motor which required five or six pulls to start. They have no radio, lifejackets, no oars. In fact, aside from fishing tackle and a large, bloody and very dead fish, oh yeah, I mustn’t forget one newly confiscated spear gun, they didn’t have much, and they were doing a safety inspection on our boat! It lasted a full 30 minutes, they looked at our medical kit, life jackets, life raft, 406 Epirb, long distance radio, anchors. They even wanted to see our buckets, bell and axe.
Or was it a ruse- did they just want to watch me open lockers so they could see what other stuff we had on board? These thoughts went through my head.
|After successfully passing the safety inspection, tea was offered and poured and the atmosphere became decidedly more relaxed. They told us how they were basically dropped on one of the islands for 40 days with basic provisions including a long distance radio. When they deplete their supplies, they do without. In fact, they had just run out of cigarettes, eggs and butter. They all viewed their posting on Las Aves more as an ordeal than an opportunity and would be happy to get back to mainland Venezuela. What is a paradise for us was a prison for them.|
Before they left us they informed us that we could remain in Las Aves as long as we liked. As for checking into the country with Customs and Immigration, they couldn’t have cared less.
|Here’s an example of the lobster delivery service in Las Aves. They wanted cigarettes but took canned goods and coffee instead.|