Then To Bonaire

7/15/2010

By Liz Tosoni

With no tourists or civilization, only a handful of boats, scores of seabirds for company, fish aplenty for dining and for underwater viewing, our interlude in the remote Los Roques and Las Aves islands of Venezuela was really like “getting away from it all”, in stark contrast to the crowded and fast paced lifestyle of the eastern Caribbean we’d come from. Blissful solitude it was. Alas, our final morning loomed grey and sombre and the big swell that came up in the night, running from the north, was telling us something: time to move on kids.

Morning skies and seas maintained a leaden hue, lumpy and uncomfortable, the northerly roll slamming into a wind driven easterly chop, but a slight boost from the current and favourable winds provided good speed.

At 0700 the hook was up. Main and jib were immediately hoisted, one on either side, and with 15 knots of easterly breeze, Feel Free took off like a bird in flight on a westerly course for the island of Bonaire, the “B” and easternmost of the “ABC Islands” of the Dutch Antilles, some 40 miles distant.

Feel Free barrelled along, the day passed quickly. By the time we were in the lee of Bonaire, a small, low lying, boomerang shaped island, the seas cleared and the dull, metallic skies transformed into the glorious Caribbean blue we’d become accustomed to.


 

 

   

“This island is perfectly oriented for the prevailing winds” remarked Tom as we made our way for the mooring area. The long and low north-south land mass that barely peeps above sea level, provides a barrier from the easterly seas created by the winds, and the westerly bend of the higher land to the north prevents a northerly swell from rolling in. Sailing along the coast from the south is very pleasant with lots of wind and no seas.

Bonaire is surrounded by an almost continuous fringing reef. Close to shore, there is a narrow and shallow terrace, a ribbon of clear turquoise water, over a thin layer of sand and coral, before it slopes down gently at a 45 degree angle to depths of 130 feet and more. Not surprisingly, the holding is not good and anchoring is not permitted, but very sturdy moorings are provided by the Bonaire National Marine Park at a nominal fee, so that you can lie peacefully off the main town, Kralendijk. Well, sort of peacefully. The colourful, shoebox shaped buildings that line the shore looking like so many toy houses, include several bars and clubs, and holidaymakers here definitely know how to revel into the wee hours, we soon found out!

Once secured to our mooring, we tidied up, covered the mainsail, then lowered the dinghy into the water to make our visit to the beautiful old Dutch Colonial Customs Building for clearance into the country. “Welcome to Bonaire” said the beaming official as he took our ship’s papers and passports. Then, much to our surprise, he launched into a deep, baritone symphonic humming. At once, Tom and I glanced at each other with big, not easy to disguise, question marks written all over our faces, wondering what on earth this man was up to. Then, the cheery officer started into an enthusiastic rendition of “Happy Birthday to you”! While examining Tom’s passport, he had noticed that it was his birthday and couldn’t help but sing out his best wishes. Now that’s a welcome we won’t soon forget.

Later, I read that “Real Antilleans greet each other every time they walk into an office, a hotel lobby, or pass someone on the street. They greet people they don’t know because it is friendly and polite...” How true that is we were to find out time and again. The native Creole language of Bonaire and the Dutch Caribbean is Papiamentu which derives from the Portuguese verb “papear” (to chatter). It’s intriguing to listen to, has a musical cadence and is an eclectic blend of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, African dialects, Arawak Indian, French and English. Historians believe that present day Papiamentu was both spoken and written by the early 1700s.

Then came another nice surprise.

“Liz, do you recognize that boat that just pulled in?”

“Hey, you know, it does look kind of familiar.”

“Do you think it’s Gryphon? Remember them? Raine and Jeff, right?”

“I think you might be right. Could it really be them?”

The more I looked at the boat, the more I was sure it was Gryphon, a J 40. I scurried down below in search of a bag of paintings I had done years ago. Sure enough, out of the bag I pulled the unfinished one, a sketch really, of Gryphon I remembered doing. I had painted it when they were anchored beside us in Asanvari Bay in Vanuatu in 2001, but left before I managed to finish it. That was the boat alright. But was it the same people?

As it turned out, it was Raine and Jeff, and catching up with them was great fun. Here they were, moored beside us again, some nine years and 15,000 nautical miles later. Same boat, same people, nine years older, but looking exactly the same! It is a small world.

This rather fortuitous reunion was also rather fortunate, especially for Tom. Bonaire is like one giant aquarium: gin clear waters teeming with tropical fish as tame as pets, from years of enjoying a fish’s version of “the easy life”, fully protected in a Marine Park. It’s a world renowned dive location, license plates actually proclaim “Diver’s Paradise” and there are countless official dive sites, spectacular coral formations and more than 300 species of fish to see so Tom had diving on his mind. Recent studies by Dr. Callum Roberts and the volunteer group REEF have shown that Bonaire's fish population is the most diverse in the Caribbean and ranks among the best in the world. Raine and Jeff and their friend and crew member, Julia, all being lovers of the deep as well as Dive Instructors, came to Bonaire to dive and so Tom had diving buddies.

“You get 21 air fills for $99. Let’s do it.” For the next five days, Tom and the crew of Gryphon (that’s Jeff and Raine in the picture) were off exploring Bonaire’s amazing underwater world. Although I too love to dive, years ago, I experienced a collapsed lung (unknown cause) and though the lung was repaired surgically, the other one is considered susceptible, and so I limit my underwater life to snorkelling. Their first dive site, called “Something Special” was right off the stern of Gryphon.

While they were below sea level, staying cool, viewing an incredible variety of sponges, countless colourful parrotfish, rays, turtles, groupers, tangs, tarpon, barracuda, moray eels, walls of coral, and a wreck, I was exploring the Bonaire world at sea level by bicycle, seeing what there is to see in that arid, parched place. I learned that this particular dry season is particularly dry following “the scantiest rainy season in memory” (local newspaper). The previous year had been very wet and vegetation flourished so that the islands’ wild donkeys (yes, wild donkeys!) and goats flourished as they gorged on the lush plant growth. What I saw though, were lots of emaciated animals, searching for those normal sources of water like puddles, dams and caves that had dried up. There was an increase in birds and animals in the town neighbourhoods and people were encouraged to place buckets of water out for them. Speaking of water, the ABC islands enjoy distilled water made from sea water by reverse osmosis. So the water is good and plentiful, but it does cost.

I also saw numerous iguanas roaming freely on beaches and roads. They are actually used in stews and soups on the island and according to locals, they taste “just like chicken”. A recent environmental group formed called the Iguana Preservation Society (IPS) to protect the iguanas. They even plan to install “Iguana Crossing” signs to make motorists aware of their existence. Something like the camel crossing signs in Oman, kangaroo crossings in Oz, and bear and moose, and Canadian Goose crossings in Canada. The fact that iguanas are a major food source could become an issue at some point.
Other attractions were the pink flamingos that are actually a stunning orangey pink or tangerine colour, vibrant tropical birds including wild parrots, and large kadushi cactus trees, some of which are a hundred years old and stand upwards of20 feet tall. Fun sights also include the colourful murals done by local artists and a new island sport- land sailing .
Just sitting in the cockpit was good sightseeing too. To starboard of Gryphon was the Aquaspace for example, more like a space ship than a trimaran. It’s made of aluminum and was designed and built in 1982 by Jacques Rougerie, a co-worker of Jacques Cousteau. Although it once served as a marine biology research vessel, it now offers a unique snorkelling adventure with its glass underwater observation deck.
Then there were the regular cruise ships that came surprisingly close to Feel Free before docking at the town pier, disembarking thousands of souvenir seeking tourists, as well as the other day sail charter boats including an old junk rigged vessel.

Tourist filled Bonaire was really the antithesis to the secluded cruising in the remote Venezuelan islands we’d visited just prior, but hey, as they say, variety is the spice of life. Come to think of it, ‘aint that what cruising is all about?