Letter Home

This letter home from Trinidad – written by Les and Rene – contains an insight into life on board Sunseeker as she cruised the tropical Caribbean.

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P.O. BOX 3163



4th Feb 1998

Dear Mum & Dad

How are you both keeping? Did you enjoy Christmas and New Year and did Jean get to see you?

We have just received a letter and your Christmas card which was forwarded to us here in Trinidad from Sarifundy’s in Curacao. We were amazed to learn that our letters since June have not reached you. Maybe you have them now, but have you heard from us from Venezuala?

We did, indeed, leave Curacao to head for Trinidad in company with the yacht called First Light because the owner, Jeff, promised us about three months work. But I’ll come to that later.

For the first three months there we did almost nothing except read books (there is a book swap at Sarifundy’s) and on Saturdays go to the supermarket. Then Rene decided to paint the inside of the boat from front to back (stem to stern?). After clearing everything out of the front cabin ready to paint we had a good idea. We thought we would be cooler in bed if we could sleep in the front cabin, where we have a big hatch to let in fresh air, instead of in the back cabin which is very stuffy.

So, using all the spare wood onboard, including a wardrobe door, we converted the front cabin into a large double bed with storage underneath and bookshelves and bedside cabinets along the walls. Rene painted the walls and ceiling a very pale pink and the crossbeams she painted a deep, rich cherry red (the same colour she used in the toilet, if you can remember it). Then she painted lots of flowers on the walls and I painted blades of grass and some poppies to make it an English country meadow. No the sun hasn’t sent us mad – well maybe just a little!

Of course, to be able to build the bed we had to remove the big, old dressing table. So now Rene was complaining that we didn’t have the drawer space which we had before! So the back bedroom which was, is now a store room. I dismantled the dressing table and re-assembled all the drawers into a tower of drawers and shelves aft of the toilet compartment. The net result is that we have turned the boat around. Where we slept in the back cabin we now sleep in the front and where we stored all the junk in the front cabin we now store it in the back. The saloon is still as it was but with a new coat of paint and varnish.

All that activity brought us into November when we were offered the work on our friend Jeff’s boat First Light. So on the thirteenth of November we left Curacao in company with First Light with clearance papers for Trinidad. If dad has a chart or map of the Caribbean you should be able to follow our track. Nearly all the passage to Trinidad was made using the engine as we were going against both the Trade winds and ocean currents.

First stop after a thirty hour passage was the group of islands, deserted, called Aves de Sotoventa. We arrived in the anchorage there in the dark and left again early next morning, so we didn’t see much of them. But there were lots of mosquitoes so we didn’t mind so much.

Next stage was to the Aves de Barloventa. (in Spanish Sotoventa means leeward and Barloventa means windward). About an hour out we were hit by a particularly vicious squall which laid us almost over on our side with the initial blast of wind which was probably about a sixty mile per hour gust which didn’t last long but really chopped up the seas. For about an hour, which is a long time for one of these squalls, we were pushed northwards. Behind us through the rain and haze we could see the wreck of a freighter high on the windward barrier reef of the island we had just left.

Eventually the black monster of a squall passed over us and the sun returned. We reset our course for our next landfall and reached the sun-drenched tropical lagoon of the main island of the Barloventa group in early afternoon. After meeting up again with First Light, Jeff led us through a zig-zag maze of reefs out towards the outer barrier reef. With Rene perched on the end of the bowsprit with hand raised or pointing to right or left we threaded our way slowly between the coral reefs into a deep lagoon which we two boats had to ourselves for the rest of the day and night. Late next morning we threaded our way back through the reefs to a more open anchorage, ready for an early start the following day. Working through the coral reefs you need to have the sun behind you to let you see down into the water. The reefs appear brown, deep water is a deep blue and shallow water is turquoise. The deeper the water the deeper the blue. During the early afternoon we walked on shore after landing in Jeff’s dinghy on a small, golden beach. The islands seem to be made up of piled up, dead coral with vegetation, apart from the mangroves, struggling to keep a hold. In the sandy soil all over the island are hundreds of holes, dug not by rabbits, but land crabs. I don’t remember seeing the actual crabs, maybe the sun was too hot and they were enjoying a siesta! As we walked eastwards along the seaward, south side of the island the seas rushed in against the piled up coral, throwing vivid white spray high, in contrast to the deep, deep blue.

In the late afternoon Jeff took us on a dinghy trip through the channels in the mangroves. The smell was overpowering as every branch was covered in guano and the water was a thick soup of the same stuff. But to see the thousands of birds was a great experience. The long, blue beaks of the red-footed booby, one to every branch. The incredible wing span of the frigate birds. Herons, pelicans. one or two scarlet ibis and the fluffy, white bundles of fur that are the baby boobies. Do you remember Orville, the green, ventriloquist’s dummy – he must have been a punk version of a baby booby!

Next morning we left early and after rounding the west end of our island we motor-sailed diagonally south-east away from the Barloventas heading for a port on the Venezuelan mainland about ninety miles away. As the morning wore on First Light gradually pulled away from us and throughout the night we lost radio contact as we were not able to sail the course we wanted but had to make do with south towards a point further west on the Venezuelan coast. After about thirty hours of motor-sailing we could vaguely see the huge mountains of Venezuela rising above the coastal clouds and haze. Half an hour after siphoning our last five gallons of diesel into the main tank, the engine, which had not missed a beat so far, coughed and spluttered to a standstill. We had some dirt in the diesel pipes! But when I opened up the engine compartment we also had lots of dirty brown water sloshing from side to side in the tray under the engine.

After getting rid of the water and clearing a blockage in the fuel line, with Rene steering as best she could with no floor in the cockpit, I tried to restart the engine. The starter motor tried to turn but it made some strange noises and couldn’t turn the engine over. I tried a few times but it was hopeless and I didn’t know if I was causing more damage. So we got the cockpit floor back in place and resigned ourselves to relying on the sails. We are a sailing boat after all!

We took stock of our situation.

Darkness was about two hours away. We were about seven or eight miles offshore near a busy, commercial harbour. We had no engine and found it impossible to make any easting. On port tack we could go south – directly for the coast. Or on the other, starboard tack we could sail north – directly away from the coast. We also both felt that this breakdown was going to take the last of our meagre funds. It seemed to be one thing after another. We had never sailed Sunseeker into a harbour under sail alone, and certainly never into a strange harbour in the dark.

I quickly checked what charts we had of Venezuela. We decided that we must sail with the wind and the current about eighty miles westwards along the coast to a major harbour with the Venezuelan Navy dockyard called Puerto Cabello. This was, of course, taking us directly away from Trinidad and would lose nearly all the easting we had made since leaving Curacao. But we didn’t really care any more. If the sea spared us and we were able to step ashore at Puerto Cabello we would leave Sunseeker there and just fly away and leave her!

As we turned west and set the sails to run before the wind, the shore from sea level to halfway up the mountains was lit by millions of lights. The coastal strip of the Caracas suburbs became like a fairyland. Somewheere among all the lights must have been the international airport because throughout the night we watched the lights of aircraft making their approach parallel with the coast, their wing tips seeming to touch the mountain side.

Throughout the next day we ghosted along in a light breeze about twelve miles offshore, the mountains lost in the coastal haze, taking advantage now of the west-going current. As the sun set into the sea ahead of us we were about thirty miles from our port with the wind strengthening. It was likely that we were going to arrive in the dark – just what we didn’t want.. So we hove-to to delay our arrival. Rene had three hours sleep while I kept a lookout for ships and then I had three hours while Rene kept a lookout. When I went below the wind was howling through the rigging, the wind generator sounded like an airplane and the waves were rocking and rolling Sunseeker. But when Rene woke me at about three o’clock the boat was steady and the wind was whispering through the rigging.

A quarter of an hour after getting underway again the wind had died to nothing and the sea was almost flat calm. Charming, from looking as though we were going to arrive during this night it now seemed that we may not arrive during this day but we would, after all, need to put in during the following night. The weather was playing games with us.

It didn’t happen like that. By late morning the wind returned and pushed us quickly on our way. During this time we talked through the procedure we would need to follow to enter the harbour under sail alone and drop anchor between the marina and the public beach, hoping that the anchor would hold first time. In the event everything happened just as we planned. Rene steered us past the end of the fuel dock and rounded up into the bay as I got first the headsail down and let the mainsail swing free to spill the wind. Then it was up to the bows to let the anchor go and pay out the chain. Then drop the mainsail as the anchor was biting into the sandy bottom.

Despite the trauma of the anticipation everything went just according to plan. No ropes snagged and the anchor chain ran freely – and held first time. What a sigh of relief. I looked around awaiting the applause, but, of course, when you get it right, no one is watching!

Just time to draw breath before a small boat appeared to tow us into a berth in the marina. They put us side-on to a dock, saying it would be easier for us to carry out the work on our engine.

About ten o’clock that evening, as we were sitting atop the cabin, under the arc lights, watching the cockroaches chasing Gizzie along the dock, savouring a welcome rum and coke, we felt Sunseeker bump something. It didn’t seem right but we quickly realised that we were bouncing on the bottom as a very small surge worked its way along the dock wall. When we jumped off the boat and looked into the water – very clear under the arc lights – sure enough we were sitting on top of a group of massive boulders, fishes of all colours swimming between and around them. It made a fantastic aquarium, but Sunseeker was going to loosen her planks if we didn’t move her quickly. Well, anyhow, we got moved and the next day they found us another berth.

The story of getting the starter motor fixed would be another story. But after two weeks it was again capable of turning and starting the engine. Throughout that time we managed to fix a number of other things as well. We seemed to make no end of trips to the bank machine, withdrawing cash at the rate of 100,000 bolivars at a time. We could have used a wheelbarrow to cart it away (780 bolivars = £1)!

One final, amusing little story before we were on our way again. The day before we planned to leave we paid all our debts apart from the marina fees. For the thirteen nights the bill was 97,000 bolivars. So off to the bank for another barrow load of cash. The bank had run out of money! Worse still, all the banks in Puerto Cabello had run out of money! Their assets were fine, only the printers couldn’t print it fast enough! We queued for hours – along with everyone else in town, but it was the following morning before we could get any cash. And then it was in denominations of 500 bolivars. It made a big bulge in my trouser pockets and I felt a bit conspicuous walking back through town. Every moustachioed hombre looked like a bandido!

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