Sharing Sailors’ Tales

Gunter and I hosted sailing friends Rolf and Daniela during the past two weeks. They entered the Port of San Diego after being stuck on a dock in Crescent City, CA—enduring nine “atmospheric river” storms before they could resume their passage. We four world sailors have a lot in common: They sail a 431 Catana catamaran, the same model as our yacht, Pacific Bliss. Ours has a blue-and-teal color scheme. Their yacht, aptly named YELO, sports a yellow-and-white scheme. We first met YELO in French Polynesia. Later, we buddy-boated with them from Port Vila, Vanuatu to Uriparapara in the Northern Banks Islands. We’ve kept in contact over the years; buddy-boaters tend to become best friends forever. Gunter and I completed our circumnavigation in 2008, but Rolf and Daniela have continued to sail the world for the past 22 years. The four of us had a wonderful time going out for dinner, buying boat parts at West Marine, a computer at Best Buy, and provisioning at Costco, and just hanging out—all the while, telling sailors’ tales. 

A Pan-Pan Call in Los Roques

At our condo one afternoon, we traded tales about one country in particular: Venezuela. 

“We didn’t sail to the mainland but the Venezuelan National Park of Los Roques was one of my favorite places,” Gunter began. “Gorgeous sandy, sun-bleached beaches. Great snorkeling. And an abundance of fish and lobster. But what I remember most was the day we had to make a Pan-Pan call. Not a Mayday. This wasn’t a life-or-death situation.” 

Seated on our sofa, Rolf leaned forward. Gunter—in his usual chair by the window—had his attention. “That’s fortunate.” 

Gunter continued. “We waded through Venezuela’s complex customs and immigration process, picked up a few provisions and headed for Pirate’s Cove. We planned to purchase lobster from fishermen there. We could taste them already! So, we hurriedly pulled anchor and motored across the bay, surprised to face a 20-knot wind right on the nose…”

I refreshed our drinks and sat next to Daniela while Gunter paused. 

“Anchoring at the little cove was difficult and of course, there were reefs on either side. Lois dropped the hook and I reversed the engine, pulling back to set the anchor. It refused to hold. I revved up both Yamahas to gain control through the swells, and dragged the anchor back away from the island to deeper waters, all the while staying clear of the reefs.”

Rolf nodded. He’s probably been there, done that.

“Now the anchor line was hanging straight down. I cut the engines. Lois was up front at the windlass control, frantically pressing the control buttons up and down. But the windlass skipped every time. It could not lift the anchor! It felt like the anchor was hooked onto something. An underground cable? Lois said our chart didn’t show a cable, but as you know, much of Los Roques is not charted at all.” 

“All of a sudden, Pacific Bliss started moving! We began to drift toward the main island of El Roque, with the anchor hanging straight down…”

“What then?” Rolf interrupted.

I jumped into the conversation. “Gunter said to forget the cable idea. He thought there must be a very heavy weight that attached itself to the anchor—or maybe a huge hunk of coral.”

“So I sorted through the options,” Gunter responded. “We could have cut the anchor chain and attach it to some kind of float…”

“But there was no time,” I said. “The wind was pushing us toward the reefs. So we decided to make a Pan-Pan call to the Coast Guard. They had seemed friendly enough when we checked in. I headed for the nav station and made that call. Within ten minutes, an inflatable arrived with a half-dozen young men in tight tees and short swim trunks.” Daniela and I giggled until the guys give us the look.

“A few of the men had diving gear. They dove in and swam to the anchor line. Three of them boarded Pacific Bliss and headed for the bow. After a whole lot of shaking (more giggles) the heavy object dislodged and sets the anchor free.” I paused for effect. “But there is more to come. The anchor was free, but still, I could not hoist it. So one of those gorgeous hunks dislodged the anchor chain from the windlass.”

Gunter turned toward Rolf to explain. “The anchor chain had dropped all the way to the bitter end, a section of rope that was still fortunately fastened to the windlass. All 280 feet of chain and rope! Now Pacific Bliss had solidly anchored herself in 120 feet of water and we could not free the anchor from the ocean floor.”

Rolf laughed. “That’s a long way to dive,” Gunter said. “Fortunately, our Venezuelan friends were real pros. One diver worked his way all the way down. He lifted that heavy chain, hand over hand, to his team in the dinghy, who in turn, brought it up to those on the bow.”

“Strenuous work,” I added. “But those young Venezuelans were young, strong, and fit.” I glanced at Daniela who was also laughing. “With the anchor and its chain all the way up, I wound the chain around the windlass using the control, until the last 25 feet arrived, which had to be done by hand. Then I asked for help again. As I recall, a few of the men rode back with us and the rest took the dinghy back to Puerto El Roque. After we anchored close to the Coast Guard station, we thanked them and gave them a well-deserved tip. Gunter asked their leader whether he could dinghy them back to shore. He declined. Then we watched as one after the other dove into the sea and swam toward the beach with powerful breast strokes, muscles rippling. 

Daniela giggled again. 

“Come on!” Gunter frowned and offered to top off our drinks. Now it was Rolf’s turn to tell a sailor’s tale.

Help from the Venezuelan Coast Guard
Help from the Venezuelan Coast Guard

Los Roques Under Socialist Rule

“We also stopped in Los Roques in 2001 and found it to be a beautiful country and a nice cruising experience. But the Los Roques we found when we came around again in 2018 was totally different under socialist rule. This is the first time I had sailed into a bankrupt country. Daniela and I were shocked to find the shelves bare! Nothing could be sold in dollars because that was now the devil’s money. Generators broke down many times every day. Cellphones didn’t work most of the time. The stores suffered about 20,000% inflation per year. The bolivar was worthless. You’d see a price posted beneath a few items left on the shelves in the morning that were twice that amount by evening! Prices changed by the minute, but each hour, clerks would post the new number.” 

We fell silent. What could we say?

Rolf continued. “Two fishing boats arrived with groceries and produce twice a week. A line formed at the store and wound around down to the beach. Only six customers were allowed into the store at a time. Daniela had to stand in line for hours. Hung on the wall at every office and business was a framed portrait of Nicolas Madero and Hugo Chavez. Men in uniform swarmed everywhere—army, navy, coast guard, military police—as well the National Park rangers we’d seen the first time around. Everybody looked around to make sure there were no uniforms around before they dared to complain.” 

Rolf explained that corruption was rampant. For example, the governor of Los Roques commandeered a local home and declared that it was her home now. But eventually, she had enough of blackouts and lack of cell phone coverage. She boarded her private plane and left her post! But the locals were as nice as they were on their first visit. They would beg visitors: “Please take us with you.”

On Monday, our Presidents Day, we wished Rolf and Daniela Bon Voyage. They sailed south to Ensenada, Mexico and plan to spend some time relaxing in the Sea of Cortez before heading off to parts unknown. Who knows where their next adventure will be? Meanwhile, my head is still swimming with sailors’ tales!

Los Roques Today

In 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that Venezuela was facing a severe humanitarian emergency, with millions unable to access basic healthcare and adequate nutrition. Persistent concerns include brutal policing practices, abject prison conditions, impunity for human rights violations, and harassment of human rights defenders and independent media. The exodus of Venezuelans fleeing repression represent the largest migration crisis in recent Latin American history. In 2023, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 Do Not Travel advisory. Mainland Venezuela is not safe for travelers and cruisers. The safety of  Los Roques, a National Park, can change quickly. The best advice for sailors is to rely on the network of cruisers who are there at any given time. 

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogyRead more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon and on her website.