The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, Sunday, 11 February 2007

Let the Trade Winds blow

Several factors have made the past week interesting for me in La Guardia. At first I was a little at loose ends following the departure of my younger brother and his wife back to snowy Canada. I was well provisioned with lots of leftovers in the fridge. But the house seems more than a little empty again. But then, Klaus is still stopping over at the posada and he and I take off occasionally around the island to visit a new beach, have a swim and then lunch in one of the beach restaurants. We are getting to be specialists on Sopa de Mariscos, seafood soup. Klaus will be heading back home to Hamburg mid week. I shall be sorry to see him go.

The weather is also just about perfect right now. The Northeast Trades blow steadily all day and often well into the evening. During the night we frequently get a light shower, enough to make the patio tiles look like a mirror when I get up in the predawn light. Breezes and showers keep things reasonably cool, and the sighing sound of the wind in the palm trees is wonderful. The sunlight playing on the leaves of the trees as you look at them against a backdrop of azure blue with just the occasional puffy cloud in the sky is enchanting. This is springtime, I guess, for many local trees and shrubs. Many have very small flowers on them and the humming birds and huge bumble bees are everywhere.

Friend Jens has returned to his posada from Germany. He has a lot of heart troubles at present – and I don’t mean the physical kind. His marriage has broken up and he has to decide whether to move back to Germany to be near his children. That means going back to the deadly world of regular work not to mention that he will be starting at the bottom of the career heap. Or should he stick to the free-and-easy Caribbean life-style that he has been living for fifteen years now, first on a sailboat and, for the last three or four years, on Isla de Margarita where he has built his posada (inn) and built a wooden peñero (motorboat) for fishing.

He drops by frequently to verbalise his thinking, to try to make some sense out of his life. Anyone who has been divorced will recognise all the symptoms. If you are used to being decisive you soon find out that you can be as decisive as you like but it does very little to hasten the end of the pain. Only time heals wounds. If you are lucky it also provides a little perspective.


On a practical level having Jens back means for me also that perhaps we can move forward with the security measures for the house. One project is the electrification of the roofline and the walls of the patio. I personally think the electric fence-wiring looks terrible on all the other “casas” that I see around here. It’s bad enough having broken bottles stuck up all around the top of the brick walls. Some houses have even gone in for stainless-steel razor wire. Makes things look even more like a prison!

I can understand, of course, why the electrical fencing and the razor-wire are there. But nobody can claim it makes for a friendly impression. Clearly there are historical reasons for it. The poor envy and resent the well-to-do (any normal middle-class American would be considered very well-off down here). Theft and burglary is endemic especially since most of Latin America has just been through decades of economic slump. Those with property are certainly not inclined to give it up and therefore must take steps to protect it, not to mention attend to their bodily safety as well. Results: high walls crowned by broken bottles; electrified fencing; razor wire around the rooves; guard dogs. Understanding all this does not change much on a practical level, I guess, and a private revolution is not going to get one very far either. Maybe, long-term, Mr. Chávez will change the economic balance.

Rather than electric fences, razor wire, bottles and the like, my idea is to plant the whole perimeter wall with bougainvillea. After two years there would be a fantastically beautiful “blumenmeer”, a sea of flowers, all along those long walls. It grows like a weed and, since bougainvillea is very thorny and the branches rather weak, nobody is likely to push his way through the thicket to climb the wall. Even if one still decided to go for wire and electricity, the high bougainvillea would help take some of the harshness off it at least visually. Where there is a will, of course, there is a way. I suppose one could lean a ladder over the bushes against the top wall and then scale it. But, how many burglars carry a ladder around with them? At least it will have become more difficult and ladrones (thieves) could not simply hop over the wall without leaving the ladder as evidence behind them.

There may be some difficulty with the owner of the vacant lot next door. But a wall of pink, mauve and white flowers would be a benefit to both the owner and “Mr. Chicken Man” who has his blue shack on that vacant lot. I think the village would benefit from the beauty of the wall of flowers too. I secretly think that even the beer drinkers at the Chicken Shack might also stop pissing on our wall if they have to deal with thorns. I shall have to ask Luiz, the Chicken Man, if he objects before I start buying plants. Of course, I could just start shoving plants into the ground one at a time and hope nobody notices for a while.


Life in the tropics is nearly always outdoors. The patio to the rear of the house is where everybody lives when they are not actually sleeping, or at least not actually sleeping in the hammocks. The patio itself is, as I have mentioned, totally walled though there is a sliding garage door at one corner to get the little car in and out. The space offers lots of potential for “decorating”. Not only is there a need to get some plants into the space for visual relief from the glare; but the reddish-brown tiled floor and the white masonry walls also store heat until long into the evening. (Of course the house itself does so even more. But cooling down the house without using air conditioners is another project.)

So I have taken to gardening. Or at least, gardening as practised in a large tiled patio! There are two palm trees, one with very long fronds that hang down almost to the ground, there is a guayacam growing against the far south wall, there is some sort of out-of-control but shady deciduous tree trying to choke out one of the palms and, finally, there is a wild bougainvillea growing out of a crack in the tiles. I am training it to grow over the gazebo.

Everything else has to be put into pots. Many of the plants and not a few of the pots have seen better days and I have been sorting, discarding, re-potting and re-positioning around the patio. I did buy two shrubs with wonderful dark green and gold leaves. They should cast a certain amount of shade. I also bought some jasmine parfumado: I hope they will perfume the night air once they have taken. I already have lots of oregano (it grows like weed) and basil plants in several of the pots, and when you stroke the leaves in passing you get a wonderful Mediterranean smell.

Surprisingly, it is hard to get big flowers to grow here in this climate; with exceptions, most shrubs have only rather small blossoms. All excepting bougainvillea, of course. Maybe Frangi panni too. I am looking for easy-care plants with bright-coloured leaves to make up for the lack of actual flowers. The plants also have to be able to take the summertime heat and glare. Their main jobs are to shade the tiles, provide a variety of colours for the eye and give some structure to the patio which otherwise might remind one of Tienemen Square in Beijing.

Jens and I shall be going to the garden centre over in Asunción soon. I emptied one of the pot-bound aloe verde plants, broke up the whole into about thirty smaller plants and gave them to Jens who needs them at the posada. We still have lots here. I shall set them outside around the old guayacams in front of the house. And I still have lots of plants that need potting. For the moment they are in buckets of water. I hope they last till I can get them potted again.

This afternoon we drove over together to visit Jake and Virginia. Jake has a couple of building projects in mind that Jens might take on. I now scout everybody’s garden for anything I might use for the patio. Jake gave me two coconuts that had fallen from his immensely tall palm. One of them already has a little root coming out. I intend to pot them for the patio.

New article on Latin America

My article on political and economic trends in Latin America has been finished in draft for weeks. The more I work it, though, the longer it seems to get. I really need to get it shortened. But there are so many factors that need to be observed and commented on. In essence:

1. bourgeois democracy has taken root in most of Latin America (good news);
at first, members of the privileged middle-class took the reins of government;

2. in addition to promoting democracy (for themselves, at least), they advanced the neo-liberal agenda (“the so-called “Washington Consensus”), i.e. less government involvement; totally free markets at home; removal of trade barriers and entry into the global market; no government social security networks; etc., etc.

3. In essence, the Washington Consensus has failed miserably leaving both Latin American countries and their citizens worse off than they were twenty-five years ago;

4. Democratic leadership has now passed to the impoverished masses;

5. New democratically-elected leaders (call them populist, progressive, leftist or whatever) have come to power promising to eradicate poverty, ignorance and hunger in their lands;

6. To achieve this they aim to take tighter control of natural resources (especially hydrocarbons), which have largely been plundered free of charge until now, and to renegotiate the punishing load of international debt;

7. It is uncertain what exactly their new socialism consists of; the old Stalinist, East German model is not well thought of; most likely the move will be to a mixed economy (government and private) of some sort; the details are not yet clear even, probably, to the new leadership;

8. Developing a Latin version of the New Deal (also called “Socialism for the 21st Century”) includes openly declaring itself independent of American hegemony (anti-imperialism);

9. Latin American governments are able to strike off in new directions because the lending/aid cartel (IMF, World Bank, etc.), so long dominated by the U.S. and E.U, has now been broken;

10. It has been cracked because oil-rich Venezuela ($30 billion in reserves) is ready, willing and able to function as a lender of last resort (four other Latin American countries are also hydrocarbon producers);

11. In place of American hegemony, Latin American leadership is now actively promoting some form of Latin America integration (Chávez’ Bolivarian concept, for example); the move will commence with regional-free trade and more political cooperation but will likely move to even greater political integration as well (E.U as example);

12.. The old ruling classes and oligarchies are terrified; they run as always to Washington for succour while calling the new leaders dictators and communists, always a sure-fire way to get D.C.’s attention, and trying to force them from their elected offices;

11. Distracted by failed military adventurism in the Middle East it is currently unclear, however, how Washington can or will react; it may soon need to face up to the fact that most of Central and South America has joined the “Pink Tide” (only Paraguay and Columbia remain clearly outside still; Mexico came within a hair breadth in its last federal election).

You can see why the article has become rather large. Maybe I should try to convince the editor to let me split it into two pieces and serialise it.

Isla Margarita, Venezuela, Friday, February 02, 2007

I was caught on the horns of a dilemma last night. I blamed the full moon for my fitful sleep and then the late dinner I had eaten. After falling asleep, it was 0230 when I put on a light again and checked my bedside-alarm clock. A silvery Caribbean full moon was shining through the screened and barred but unglazed window high up in the wall of the space where I had been sleeping. I pulled up an armchair to the light and started to read. I frequently wake up in the night; I make sure beforehand that I have a light and something to read nearby. I don’t like tossing and turning. But tonight my mind kept coming back to events of the past twenty-four hours or so.

I had retired about 2230 last night, Thursday. Kenneth and Maryanne were already in their bedroom asleep. Later, when I was beginning to wake up, I heard jabbering voices outside and, looking back, I recall hearing some metallic sounds. Voices in the street outside or the alleyway under my window are not uncommon. The Piragua Bar, a barn-sized dive conducive mainly to drunkenness and where the waitresses also, shall we say, dance with the customers – Piragua can get pretty noisy at times.

This morning, when Kenneth went to put out garbage he called me to the front door. The metal security gate was standing slightly ajar and the wooden door was pushed open. The bolts for the locks were standing proud so, technically in a sense, the gate was still locked. We immediately came to the realisation that someone had gotten the gate open during the night. A brief reconnaissance around the house revealed that the portable radio/CD player was gone from the kitchen window shelf.

Clearly someone had been inside the house!

Nothing else seems to have gone missing. My laptop is still there on the hall sideboard and so are the various cellphones and telephones. I play back the events and sounds of the night before and realise that I probably woke up just while the burglars were about their business. As I said, I recall hearing some low metallic sounds at the front door and excited voices under the window and, earlier, near the front of the house. Suspicious, I had put on a light and gone to examine the front door area suspecting there were some noisy drunks from the Piragua Bar down the street. Turfed out of the bar, they sometimes sit after last call on the curb in front of the house to continue their drinking. Nothing seemed amiss at the time, however, although I did not examine the door closely. Now I wonder if perhaps the burglar was even still in the house while I was awake, a pretty scary thought. I could have been coshed. On the other hand, he/they may have skidaddled around the corner and those were the excited voices I heard under the window.

Kenneth and I did not want to talk about it in front of Maryanne thinking she would be alarmed. They at least can bolt the door to their bedroom from the inside, which would stop a cat burglar perhaps if not a determined house invader. I, on the other hand, have been sleeping in an open space near the front entrance where the burglar must have been able to see me while he moved through the darkened but not totally black house. Maryanne soon had it figured out, however. She was alarmed but not panicky.

Looking at the front door it seems they were able to push back the inside wooden door and then open the grate door without a key. That can be fixed by making sure the wooden door is closed tight and that the locks have caught. Internal passive safety measures can be upgraded so that each bedroom has an iron bar that can drop into place at night. The same for the inside of the front door. No amounts of money should be kept in the house and valuable items should be kept in the barred bedrooms at night. These are the cheapest passive defences. The electrification of the roof and the provision of alarms and flood lights are bigger steps but will dealt with when friend Jens gets back from Europe next week.

My personal dilemma has to do with more aggressive defensive measures. I was offered the use of a pistol. The very night of the break-in Brian, an ex-pat American visited us. Brian is pretty opinionated and fancies himself an expert on quite a lot of things. Since he had been a corporal in the US Marine Corps in Viet Nam he reckons he is also an expert on “deadly force”, as he likes to call killing other people. We had discussed the hazards of living in La Guardia, indeed of Venezuela and other Third World countries (I personally would include many America cities in that category) or of travelling alone on a sailboat. “In my opinion,” he stated in one of his more tactful moments, “Anyone who travels in a boat without a gun is a fool!”

He may be right. But in some ways, guns also present as many problems as they solve. Sure, if somebody is climbing onto your boat at sea some dark night and has a shotgun in his hand, “He ain’t there because he thinks you are a hotel!” But situations are almost never that clear-cut. If he were climbing onto your boat, you are probably not sitting there with your double-barrelled Purdy shotgun across your knees waiting for him. If you are going to use the gun, you have to decide much earlier in the stream of events, i.e. when the situation is frequently not clear-cut at all. And then the chances of getting it wrong go way up. Even bad guys might go for their guns if they see you waving one around.

We met an English yachty with his wife and 6-year-old son while in The Galapagos.
“Did you hear what happened to us on the way here?” he asks on the way to shore in the water taxi. “We were swarmed at night by fast pangas (open, outboard-powered, 22-foot fibreglass motorboats used by fishermen all up and down the Pacific coast). “It was on a moonless night on the way from Panama. We were in that bit of international water between Ecuador and the Ecuadorian-owned Galapagos Islands. We were under sail. They didn’t show up on radar so we were taken completely by surprise. Suddenly we heard them coming towards us full speed and then they flashed us with big floodlights!”
“What did you do?
“I dropped the sails (of the catamaran), turned off the running lights, turned on the engines, turned to starboard and motored away. Then I called the UK Coast Guard on our Iridium satellite phone. They put me in touch with the US Coast Guard who said they had a vessel somewhere in the area (sic). They were diverting it to assist is. ‘Stay in touch!’”
“Did the pangas follow you?” (the actual number of pangas was a little unclear in his story: he said a “swarm” but the rest of the story sounded like just one).
“But they could surely have caught you with their big outboards, couldn’t they have?”
He gave no real answer and we had arrived at the dock by then so I had no more opportunity to question him.

But the event was on everyone’s lips. Nearly everyone was convinced that there were probably driftnets set out in front of the sailing vessel, and that the pangas were fishermen trying to warn him off. Witness the flashing lights, etc. By turning away under power he did exactly what the pangas intended to prevent the sailboat becoming fouled in the nets or drift lines.

My point is that the situation was very open to subjective interpretation. As many American cruisers argue when the subject of guns aboard comes up, you could also I suppose argue that anybody who comes near me in unclear circumstances should realise he is at risk of being shot dead by me. Of course, Americans, I have noticed, realistically or unrealistically, seem to think they are at risk all the time and therefore they have conditioned themselves to have lots of firepower around: next to the bed, in the car, etc. I wonder if there one could actually reach a gun in time in many situations. Canadians and Western Europeans don’t go around with this background fear. The question is, who is right? If that Englishman had been an American and he had had a gun aboard, at what point would he have opened fire? Assuming for the moment it was indeed a fisherman, how was he going to explain a dead or seriously wounded man who by daylight turns out to have been on an innocuous mission?

Now, back to my dilemma. I argued with Brian against keeping firearms, but I was now seriously alarmed. I was offered a handgun by somebody and I actually went to pick it up, had it in my hand even. I know how to use a gun and I reckon, given the right circumstances, I would use it. And, I regret to say that is gave me a very comforting feeling. At last nobody could threaten me. Bring it on!

Americans are always telling you how they have to defend their families and property. But I was torn. We have had lots of events at the house of late. I mentioned the burglary last night. Two nights last week there were people actually inside the patio area; they rifled around but nothing was taken and they could not and apparently did not try to get inside the house itself. A few weeks ago, too, we had four guys with bad reputations up on the roof of the house in the early evening while I sat outside on the patio all unaware of it with my visitors. The neighbours called the police when they spotted the guys, who climbed down somehow and blended into the night again. Much earlier there had been Peeping Toms who had climbed up high on the outside wall when the Swedish kids were staying with us.

In the end, however, I decided not to keep a gun under my pillow. I do not want to be responsible for killing somebody and especially somebody under vague circumstances. Imagine also the situation if I, a gringo, shoot and kill a Venezuelan. Wounding him might be even worse. I know that they are modnerinising the prisons in this country. That might not mitigate my fear of spending any time whatsoever in a Venezuelan jail while they sort things out? I reckoned my chances as an outsider in front of a local magistrate when the trial eventually comes up? In the end I give the pistol back and go home to check the locks on the front door. A gun would not have stopped the burglars or the roof guys from entering anyway unless I plan to sit up all night with the weapon in my hand.

But I decided I would do everything I could to tighten up the defences, make sure I didn’t have large amounts of money around and keep documents hidden. Maybe I would even get a baseball bat or big stick for defence and maybe pepper spray. But I am not going to use a gun. Others said I should shoot into the air to scare them off. Might work but not certain. If I’m just going to make noises a starting pistol with blanks would do as well. If they saw that betimes, burglars might think it real and shoot me first.

As far as I am concerned, if they break through all the passive defences, any burglars can just take whatever they want. Just take it and hope they don’t mess me up. The gun made me feel strong for a minute. But I think it was a false confidence. Maybe I am indeed a “fool”, as Gringo Brian says, but that’s where I come down on the issue.

And, by the way, a handgun on a boat can cause a lot of hassle for cruisers. In addition to all the situational ambiguities and dangers, you are legally required to declare concealed weapons when you enter most countries and the police keep the handgun until just before you leave. Getting caught with an unlicensed weapon can lead to your boat being confiscated and you perhaps landing up in the jug. The most dangerous time is anyway in harbour, and in remote anchorages, exactly the time when you would not have your gun aboard. At sea you hardly even see other vessels for days on end so you are a great sight safer than you are on the streets of any American big city or in countries like Venezuela.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Casa Venamor, La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, New Years Day 2006

Although perhaps frustrating at times, when I look back over 2006 from the quiet of Isla de Margarita in Venezuela, it now looks to have been a rather satisfying, interesting and sometimes adventurous year for the permanent crew of the Vilisar. It included a major coastal cruise and our longest offshore voyage to date (as well as crossing the equator for the first time). It also included two new countries, a new continent, a famous archipelago, rare species of flora and fauna, volcanic eruptions and trips to the high Andes. At this time last year we were still near Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, some 2,000 Nm north of where Vilisar now lies to her anchor in the estuary of the Rio Chone as that river cascades out of the Andes, down to the coast of mainland Ecuador and, silt-laden but swift, out into the Pacific.

There in Bahia de Caráquez it is only about 50 miles south of the equator. But the weather is cool in the northern summers thanks to the Humboldt Current running north along the coast from Antarctica. There are never any tropical storms there either, and Ecuador is also very inexpensive. From all aspects therefore, the country is much more attractive for shoestring sailors like ourselves than, say, Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama. Parts of the first and all of the latter two countries are out of the hurricane belt. But we already know how hot Mexico can get! By all reports, Costa Rica and Panama are also intolerably hot and humid to boot during the summer and they are not at all cheap compared to Ecuador. Moreover, leaving aside all other considerations, Ecuador is also a fascinating country and well worth a visit at any time.

So, by the end of last year, we had already more or less made up our minds to sail the 1,500 Nm southeast to The Galapagos Islands. After that the mere 600 Nm add-on to Bahia de Caráquez on continental Ecuador would seem like nothing. Other yachties we met who were considering heading south from Mexico were planning to harbour hop through Central America at least as far as Costa Rica and then put their boats in storage for the summer while they flew back to the States or Canada. Our plan, on the other hand, was to take the unusual step of sailing directly to Ecuador from Mexico.

Our eldest son Andrew, recently turned 19 and a first-year psychology and philosophy student at William Carrie College in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, agreed to take a tri-semester off to crew with us. Although Vilisar has sailed altogether perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 Nm since we moved aboard her at Port Townsend, Washington, five and one-half years ago, Andrew has never actually sailed alone with us and has never done a longer bluewater voyage either. In fact, since he has always had summer jobs since turning 16, he has not even been aboard Vilisar since 2002. We were still in British Columbia then. Of the three children, Andrew so far has always been the most “sail-struck”. Needless to say, he was eager to go to sea. He asked his tutor whether taking a semester off would endanger his scholarship. “Let me put it this way,” the tutor apparently said, “If you don’t go, then I’m going.” For our part, we were really pleased to have him to ourselves for a few weeks and, of course, to have an extra watch-keeper on board.

Kathleen flew to Germany for about six weeks just after Christmas to gig for a musical in Frankfurt. I stayed aboard the boat, did some painting and puttering and generally led the Life of Riley in Mexico’s delightful coastal communities of Barre de Navidad, San Patricio Malakey and Tenacatita. With Kathleen’s return, we set off for Acapulco in a very leisurely trip down the somewhat windless Pacific coast leaving behind our various new-found boating acquaintances and friends from Canada and the U.S.A. Most cruisers to Mexico are in fact not heading for Central or South America: they start meandering northwards again sometime after Christmas.

By Easter we had reached Acapulco. After happily entertaining Kathleen’s mother and sister aboard for a few days in Acapulco, we eventually set sail for Wreck Bay on Isla San Cristóbal in The Galapagos. This was no more than timely since all our cruising permits, visas, fishing licences, etc. for Mexico had already expired, leaving me in the interesting position of being a wetback in Mexico by a couple of weeks. We left without a “Zarpe”, the international clearance certificate that a vessel needs to convince the next port-of-entry that all bills and outstandings have been dealt with before leaving. We needed to wait for Andrew to join the vessel. But I was apprehensive about having to pay fines and get new paperwork done just because we were overdue by a couple of weeks. An experienced Belgian yachty told us that Canada does not issue such Zarpes and we should simply tell them in Ecuador that we had sailed direct from Vancouver.

Just after clearing Acapulco’s harbour entrance we hooked and landed a nice bonita: a good omen for the voyage, surely. The next fish, a máhi máhi or Dorado, was a couple of weeks later and it jumped the hook! We sailed meatless and nearly fishless.

This was to be our longest non-stop voyage to date. Leaving at the beginning of April, it took us 17 days to sail the 1,500 Nm to Wreck Bay on San Cristóbal Island. Our perception was that we did the voyage at jogging speed. The daily averages picked up when we later had to motorsail. Certainly for the first couple of weeks, however, we recall that we sailed under the big red drifter only, and even it tended to flap around while we played cards under the cockpit (y)awning. After the tension and activity of preparations for putting to sea, the actual trip tended to be somewhat uneventful and anti-climactic even.

The first few days are very slow indeed: our skills at three-handed cut-throat canasta improve. We do a lot of reading. We scan the five miles of water in each direction by day, contemplate the infinite blue-black firmament and bright stars after dark. One night we are surprised to see a parade of freighters and reefers (refrigerated ships) following each other northwest towards the U.S.A. on a rhomb-line from Panama or Ecuador. We pray for a little wind. At night we “sit” our watches and after a couple of days at sea we are no longer feeling quite so sleep-deprived. Late afternoon usually finds all three of us under the awning in a stupor from the heat. Somebody rustles up something interesting to eat before sunset (the days are now neatly divided into 12 hours of light and dark) or does the washing up in sea water. We watch the sun plop into the ocean to the west. Another day; another 65 nautical miles!

We are in no hurry. But at our present speed, Kathleen calculates we shall run out of drinking water before we make landfall in The Galapagos. She monitors fresh-water usage like a desert hermit! In the interest of water conservation I stick to beer and have calculated my daily ration. The three of us use about a gallon of water a day each even though we wash the dishes and take our showers in sea water.

So reluctantly, about halfway there (in nautical miles), we start our noisy but trusty air-cooled Lister engine, and motorsail. For the information of all those people who worry about storms at sea, for only about four days in the middle part do we get any real sailing wind at all. Then of course we make in excess of 80 Nm daily and one day we actually fly along so fast that we exceed 130 Nm noon to noon. This is some sort of record for Vilisar. Once into the Doldrums, however, the winds die out again except for the line-squalls that we dodge. At times it gets a little bouncy, and once while steering at night a largish wave rears up to port and slops right over into the cockpit to give me a good soaking! Fortunately, our cockpit scuppers deal with the water rapidly and the air is tropically warm. At another point, our decrepit old mainsail is shredded by a gust of wind. We wind up using our storm tri-sail for the remainder of the trip. As it is, the winds stay steadily on the nose and, south of the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ or Doldrums), we are pushing straight into light winds. In the afternoon, when the wind and the waves are the strongest and our 19½ -horsepower diesel can hardly make any headway through the chop, we simply practise heaving to. We snooze, read or play cards until the wind dies down again around sunset and the sea flattens. Then it it’s off again, off again jiggedy jig!

Safely arrived, we have a month in The Galapagos and visit the three main islands. I suppose I have seen enough giant tortoises now to last me a lifetime. The archipelago is perhaps not the most beautiful place you will ever visit as a sailor. But, provided you prepare yourself with a little reading about Darwin, the various species to be found there, and what it all means in terms of evolutionary development, the islands can be fascinating. Even fundamentalist “creationists” can still admire the blue-footed boobies, the mini-penguins, the giant tortoises, the playful local sea lions (you can even swim with them), the marine iguanas (they are probably harmless but I should not like to meet one underwater) and the smoking volcanoes. We also meet many cruisers on the outward leg of their circumnavigation that started perhaps in Norway or Denmark, Russia or England; other sailors are also on their homeward leg to Australia and New Zealand after years of travelling around the world. That will be us in a few more years. Compared to Mexico, the anchorages here are very cosmopolitan and full of “world cruisers”. Talk over “sundowners” is about hilarious mishaps in the Red Sea, how serious is the threat of ‘piracy’ off Yemen, how beautiful Papua New Guinea or The Marshall Islands are or how difficult officials can be in this, that or the other port-of-call. Just the term “port-of-call” gets our blood going. We are constantly digging out our Admiralty Sailing Directions or Jimmy Cornell’s “World Sailing Routes”.

Andrew eventually flies home from the islands via Guayaquil and Kathleen and I set out for Bahia de Caráquez on our own. This is to be our first long bluewater voyage without extra crew. It takes five days and is not totally without some “challenges”. Once away from the very strong contrary currents close to the islands, we set all canvas and have a wonderful sail close-hauled in light southerly winds with relatively long swells for days on end. Our Cap Horn windvane steering does the work. We “stand” watch whilst sitting in the cabin or the cockpit, reading and writing and checking the horizon at ten-minute intervals for that special freighter or tanker that has our number on it. More than storms or pirates the risk of being run down represents the real danger of cruising in a small sailboat.

One night we hear a “clack” on the deck but do not see anything in the dark. At dawn we discover that a lower shroud has parted and fallen to the deck. Upon examination of the whole rig, we also find that the windvane-steering’s tab has somehow quietly gone AWOL over the past few days, and, to add to the interest, the bobstay has also parted and is hanging vertically into the water from the end of the bowsprit (I had noted that the chain was getting corroded near the waterline and had planned to replace them as part of our maintenance programme in Ecuador). I think it is a tribute to the strength of the boat and perhaps to the fact that we had balanced the helm so well in order to use the windvane steering that nothing serious happened. We might very well have sailed all the way to the mainland like this if the shroud had not come down. And, in fact, the mast and its supports are still very, very strong, we now realise. Everything could probably have survived even the absence of one lower shroud in these light winds. “Real sailors” would have jury rigged and kept sailing. But we are uncertain and cautious and therefore decide to motorsail the remaining couple of days.

Arriving off the mouth of the Rio Chone, we are met by a pilot and guided in over the dangerous sandbar at high tide to find anchorage in a five-knot current at “Puerto Amistad”, a “virtual marina” where eventually some forty boats arrive to “summer”. Most of them are American but there were also some other Canadians and Europeans. Some are real veterans and have actually come round the Horn. Like The Galapagos, these are more cosmopolitan “world cruisers” than the yachties we met north of, say, Acapulco.

Since it costs US$ 30 for the pilot each time, Vilisar does not do much day-sailing from Bahia de Caráquez. But we do at one point put her up on a makeshift-tidal grid in the estuary to paint her bottom and topsides. And then we make use of the local carpentero to manufacture new 8-foot dinghy oars, and to make new wooden spreaders and a tab for the windvane steering out of tropical hardwoods. The local metalworking shop is called upon to fabricate new spreader plates (they are sent all the way to Guayaquil to be galvanised), and the bosun at the local Club de Yate is hired to dress all the galvanised stays and shrouds as well as to paint our “Chameleon” dinghy and add fenders.

Vilisar is now approaching her mid-thirties and although the basic boat is still very sound, some of the “systems” are getting on in years. I sympathise. Constant sailing to windward is a stress test of a sailboat’s systems. We accept the small rigging failures as a warning to start replacing things. When we come to undertake our next long voyage we shall have strengthened our rig by replacing the spreaders, the spreader plates as well as the metal corona atop the mast. Some bronze fittings will also be replaced and all the galvanised shackles in the rig. The bobstay and boomkin shrouds are new as well. The windvane steering will have been set up anew and we shall have some spares. Finally, we intend to procure a new suit of cruising sails before setting out for our long Pacific crossing.

All of this means that we shall not be heading for French Polynesia and New Zealand in Spring 2007: we shall wait one more year to have everything shipshape and Bristol fashion. Of course we can use the time to carry on with our internet-based work activities so we can actually pay for these things. Kathleen is putting aside money each month to pay for the tanbark sails she visualises Vilisar to be wearing when we pull into Fiji, Samoa, Tonga or Whangerei.

In addition to our efforts to keep Vilisar shipshape, we are both actively engaged in work that we get via the internet. I am hardly a techno-fan, but thank goodness for laptops and the worldwide web! It not only allows us to keep in touch with family and friends, it also permits us to keep earning while we travel (I won’t even mention that virtual work allows us to skip the grind of mortgages, commuting, and the frustration of high-maintenance lifestyles back home).

Kathleen has developed a regular income from proofreading for verbatim-court reporters in the U.S.A. while I still get the occasional German business or legal texts to translate into English. Since I now get a small retirement pension from Germany what we earn by working goes to paying off the boat, buying new sails and equipment and topping up the cruising kitty. We are not overwhelmed by work and have the freedom to turn it down if we are otherwise engaged. Certainly we do not allow work to spoil our lives. We can actually now enjoy the change of pace of some paid work if the pressure does not get excessive. “Work”, as some cruisers say, “is a four-letter word.” And anyway, I’ve paid my dues and I am more than happy for somebody else to run the world. Certainly, the working world does not miss me: if you take your finger out of a glass of water, after all, it doesn’t leave a hole.

During 2006 I was asked to submit articles for a small progressive monthly in Canada and have so far had three articles published. These have focussed mainly on topics like Ecuador’s recent presidential elections and an analysis of why the country has lost 20 percent of its population in recent years. Another article dealt with free trade and trade liberalisation and the next article will focus on longer-term trends in Latin America. Venezuela is a good vantage point for this. You can read the articles at or at

As much as we loved Mexico we realised that we had not really “met” the country at all and our Spanish had hardly improved. This comes from the yachties’ nomadic lifestyle: simply dropping into coastal towns from time to time is interesting but you are still only a tourist. As we headed for Ecuador we decided to do things differently. To this end Kathleen contacted Cesar Santos again, the head of the Association of Ecuadorian Choirs, to see if he was still in need of a workshop leader for choral conductors. As a result we spent quite a few weeks of our six months in Ecuador in the Central Sierras. Kathleen led workshops for both experienced and starting conductors as well as working up choirs and motivating potential childrens and adult-choir conductors and organisers.

The best part of all this for us was meeting musicians and enthusiastic music-makers in cities like Quito, Riobamba (central Sierras) and Cotacachi (near Otavalo in the northern Sierras). In addition to the people we met, our meetings with Ecuadorians made us realise what a rich musical tradition that country has and how many really good musicians there are there. The workshops gave us contacts to both professional musicians and normal music-oriented Ecuadorians. None of this took place in a touristy setting. At times we were of course terribly frustrated that our Spanish was so “modesto”. But the people were wonderful. And how much we learned about them, their country and their music by spending a week or two with a group, or living in someone’s house with them!

In addition to the workshops, we also travelled with Antonia (then 16) and William (14) to various places of interest in Ecuador. We even witnessed the eruption of the Tungurahua Volcano near Riobamba and cheered for Ecuador’s team televised games at the World Soccer Championships in Germany last summer: David amongst the Goliaths. “Si, se puede!” and “Ecu, Ecuador!” we shouted along with everybody else before and during the games and then again, after a victory, when the streets filled with cheering and dancing fans.

William and Antonia never actually made it down to Vilisar this summer at all. Bahia de Caráquez is nine hours by bus from Quito, and we had just too many other interesting things to do in the sierras. Normally we stopped at backpacker hostals and kept our costs down by making our own breakfasts. William’s stay with us was a little shorter since he returned to Mississippi to attend drum and band camps. He is a high-school freshman now. He talks bass but plays drums and is really into his high-school music programme in Picayune, Mississippi. He has a real social life now too as he travels with the band to “away games” and even to Disneyland in Florida. He seems to do very well in his studies too. In January of 2007 they moved house into the town centre so his social life ought to improve even more.

Antonia, always a top student, stayed on for a few weeks more with us, took individual Spanish lessons at a school in Quito and attended the choir workshops too. This latter has paid off since she now has a role in her senior-year musical. She is an honour-society student, works on the school newspaper, is active in student government and has generally become very politically aware. Her international upbringing and strong sense of justice makes her want to do something to help people. Meanwhile, before starting to college later in 2007, she is planning a trip back to Europe to visit in Germany and Spain.

I guess we are not the only ones to be proud of our children though of course ours are pretty outstanding.

As our six-month Ecuadorian tourist visas were about to expire, we began to look for alternatives. As we had had such an interesting experience living and working on a remote cattle ranch in the Mexican sierras in the autumn of 2004, we decided to look for something interesting on the internet again. There were lots of opportunities in the U.S.A. But, I have decided to express my total opposition to the illegal and cynical militaristic adventures in the Middle East by not setting foot in the U.S.A. or the U.K. until those countries have cleared out of Iraq. Of course, this resolve is a bit difficult given my family ties to the U.S.A. and my friends in England. But at least there has to be a serious emergency for me to break my rule. Thank goodness my Mother, Velma, is doing so well. She is over 91 now and still bright as a new penny. Wheelchair bound and her eyesight now nearly totally gone, she tells us that, “Getting old is not for wimps”. Her own children are now beginning to understand what she means. She lives in a seniors residence in Richardson, Texas, After breaking up with her husband, Mike, my sister Lois lives in her own place nearby.

To fill in the six months until we can return to Ecuador, we were very fortunate to find a house-sitting occasion on Isla de Margarita, which is situated off the Venezuela coast. The island is perhaps not totally typical for the country: we don’t really know since we are tied to the house as caretakers for the moment. But the house is in a small fishing town quite a bit away from the tourist beaches. We are only a few yards from a local beach and fishermen actually land their catch there in the mornings. We have settled into village life and are trying to improve our Spanish. We have made acquaintances and I have even been helping to run a small posada or inn serving Europeans.

Unfortunately for me, Kathleen has gone to Germany to gig in a musical again. She will be gone for two months. Meanwhile, my younger brother Kenneth and his wife Maryanne and my cousin John and his wife Margie have come down from Ontario to keep me company for a while. That’s one of the nice things about being “retired’: you have a bit more time and you can pick up on the friends and relatives you have seen only sporadically since your childhood. I think we shall have more visitors here before we leave in May.

Except for the occasional creak in the bones when I stand up suddenly and the necessity for extensions to one’s arms in order to read without glasses, we are both in good health. We have enough work – boat maintenance and projects and internet jobs - to keep us from going brain dead. As usual we don’t have much money but, since you don’t really need much for our lifestyle, we are content.

We hope this Christmas Letter finds all our friends and family also in good health. And we send our fondest wishes for health and contentment in 2007.

Kathleen and Ronald Bird

Friday, February 02, 2007

La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, Monday, January 08, 2007

The Christmas/New Years/Epiphany season has come to end. After nearly a month the streets this morning are full of children, scrubbed and turned out in their blue or khaki uniforms, on the way to one of the schools scattered around the town. The weeklong barrage of fireworks was still going on last night. But there are no longer as many rockets going off and there are increasingly longer periods between explosions. Things may be getting back to normal. As on person said here, we need a break between Epiphany (Three Kings) and Carnival at mid-February.

With my brother and my cousin visiting with their wives we have been undertaking little tours around the island: la Restinga (a boat trip through the mangroves to the west of us here in La Guardia; a tour of the Museo del Mar, the small but comprehensive marine museum at Boca del Rio; a trip up into the eastern hills that included the island’s capital, Asunción; the pilgrimage town of La Valle de Espiritu Santu; lunch at a mountain restaurant with a view down to Porlamar; a jaunt to “Pueblos de Margarita”, an open-air historical museum depicting many aspects of earlier life on the island. Since my cousin and his wife are leaving at mid-week, we shall also attempt to see Juangriego, visit a couple of beaches and one or two other spots of interest. Nearly every day when the sun has dropped a bit from its zenith, we troop down to our local beach like dicks for a late afternoon swim before coming back for drinks and an evening meal.

Since I have my laptop back again, my daily walks over to the cyber-cafe have declined. I find I am getting less exercise and am perhaps becoming less “visible” in the village. Our strategy since arriving here as the new “gringos” in town has been to make ourselves as well-known and visible as possible and to introduce ourselves to the local people. Since the house we live in is one of those Latin-American, middle-class, walled-in mini-fortresses designed to keep threats to person and property out but which in fact also tends to keep one isolated, we made a compensating effort to get out, to shop locally and to greet all and sundry as we went along. This also gives us some contact in the village. Our logic is that, quite aside form the chance to meet people, from a security point-of-view we are less likely to be thought of as “them”, and perhaps people will also help keep an eye on the house and on us.

This has definitely paid off. Kitty-corner from us lives Seńora P. and Seńor S. S. looks after the housekeeping aspects of Jens’ posada (B&B) where I am also helping out while Jens is in Europe. P&S are delightful people and they have quite a number of family visitors at present from their native Columbia. Since life in most houses here in La Guardia is conducted basically in the open air, and since their house opens towards ours, they see a lot of things from the outside that we cannot see from behind the walls. When the car would not start the other day, for example, S. and his friends were over in a flash: Miguel, a visiting friend and an auto mechanic, and A., their son from Columbia who is a truck driver, played around with the carburettor until everything was running smoothly again.

S. and family have also been trying to educate me about being aware and alert. The passive security of our mini-fortress is quite good. The actual living quarters can be closed off at night or in our absence using iron gates and, in best Latin-American fashion, all the windows are secured with sets of bars. The patio, too, is surrounded with twelve-foot concrete walls topped by spikes (thank goodness not that offensive-looking broken-bottle motif one sees so often). So, passively, I guess, we are well off.

In terms of security procedures, however, we are perhaps not so careful. True, since our front door gives access straight into the house rather than into a forecourt, we keep it locked at all times even when we are at home. At night when we retire we also lock the iron-grate gate giving on to the patio. I try to remember not to carry much money with me when I go out and not to have much in the house either. S. saw me once at the Chinese grocery store across the street when, by chance, I had a couple of hundred-thousand Bolivars in my pocket for a later shopping expedition to SIGO. I innocently pulled out the whole wad and peeled off a small bill to pay for my purchase. “Don’t do that,” S. came over to the house to warn me, constantly swivelling his head around the while like in a prison movie. “Always have just the proper change ready.” H was making graphic demonstrations of people putting a knife to my throat. I have been more careful since then.

My strategy of keeping contact with the neighbourhood, however, is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, P. and S. and their large family keep an eye on us and the house. Visitors who are trying to find us are directed by neighbours and shopkeepers in a friendly manner to the house; we are the only gringos around so it’s not too difficult. The house is occupied day and night, i.e. it is not one of those abandoned or unoccupied beach houses, which are now closed up and barred following the end of the Christmas holidays. Lights are on inside every night and we now have external lighting both in the dirt alleyway next to the house and at the front. The patio is also lit all night.

But, several times now we have been the object of the attention of …… well, somebody. When we had the Swedish kids staying with us, we had Peeping Toms on two consecutive nights. They pulled themselves up on the iron grate around the air conditioner outside and were peering through the tiny window high up in one of the bedrooms. They could never have been able to climb through there because the windows are just three-inch little glass circles. To spoil the view I subsequently painted over the windows with some thinned white paint whilst still letting in light.

In another instance, S. pointed out to me that someone had set up a makeshift step-up made of a plastic beer crate and a tree branch to allow themselves onto the roof. It was still there in the daylight. Strangely, it was on the side towards the main street.

Then, last night, Sunday, while we are all sitting out in the patio after dinner around 2000, enjoying conversation and the night breezes, the cellphone rings. It is a neighbour telling me sotto voce in Spanish that there are some hombres on our techo and that she has called the policia. All this takes a while to get across since I do not know what the Spanish word “techo” means (roof). When I finally figure it out, I go outside to have a look. YYY, her son, a robust guy in early middle age, is sitting nonchalantly on the wall in front of the Chinese shop and watching the house. I walk over to talk to him. It appears the hombres have already climbed down. A few minutes later, two young bucks, I should guess to be around 16 to 20 years of age, come strutting casually up from the direction of the beach past the corner where we were sitting. “That’s two of them. Don’t look at them directly”, he warns. “San muy malo!”

The policia show up – thirty minutes later (the police station is about 300 yards away so they were either busy elsewhere or drove here via Polamar!) Three young constables arrive in a Land Rover but my Spanish is strained. I go with them to my neighbour to let her explain. But, when she arrives at the door (perhaps she has been woken from sleep), she seems fearful of even being seen talking to the police. They don’t press her so I do not know what she said. After telling me to call 171 on the cellphone if there is any more trouble, the policemen eventually leave. (The next morning a young policewomen in mufti also comes by as a sort of follow up. I make sure she shows me her police ID. Maybe I am getting smarter.)

In all this I think I may have reacted almost completely in the wrong way. First, perhaps I should not have left the house at all but waited for the police to arrive and possibly nab the culprits in flagrante. By going out I probably tip our hand and scare them off. On the other hand, they probably heard me talking with my neighbour on the phone and perhaps figured it out themselves. Anyway they are already off the roof and down when I go out. Then, considering my neighbour’s later reaction when talking to the police –she seemed actually frightened-, I may have compromised her and her family. Maybe they are afraid of reprisals by the punks and the cops will not be able to protect them. They have to live in this neighbourhood, after all. On the other hand, when I think of it, so do I!

It makes me somewhat nervous to think that up to four guys are up on our roof early in the evening when there are still lots of people around and we are sitting quietly outside on the patio. If they were just dumb kids trying to have a peep, that is bad enough. But, if they had more serious things in mind, - an armed robbery, perhaps while the house and we are vulnerable – we would have been wide open. Pretty damned cheeky when you think of it. I am also not sure that they can be kept off the roof altogether without stepping up the passive security measures to include barrier electrical wires around the roof. These are really ugly and tend of course to increase the fortress-isolation aspects of the place. Of course, more lighting around and over the house, possibly with movement sensors and alarm lights and bells, might help. Given the Peeping Toms and one or two other signs, somebody maybe keeping an eye on us as targets and that is even more worrisome.

Friday, 12 January 2007

A day or so later our little incident has been nearly forgotten though perhaps I am a little more alert and aware. I drop my cousin John and his wife Margie off at the airport on Wednesday noon and we are now down to three of us in the house.

It was so great to have them. John and I are the same age and were great friends when we were children. But, of course, our lives go separate ways, we have a lot of work and family claims on our time as the years go by not to mention that he and I have lived on separate continents for nearly all of our adult lives. Now we have more time and can sit and chat. We easily solved several major world problems while we were together; what’s the big deal?. Of course, nobody is interested in the opinions of old farts like us so the world will have to suffer along on its own.

The weather has turned a little muggy and windless and we have started getting night-time showers again. This is the “rainy season” though it is not much to brag about. Last night it rained off and on hard during the night and gave our new patio drains a real workout. They functioned perfectly and cleared the water away as fast as it could come down. But the workers will have to come back and patch a leak in the tile roof over the “library” and add something to stop water rising through a water stanchion in the dining room. These are both fixable problems.

I need now to get my articles finished and get farther along with the other writing projects I have started. Maybe I shall get my Christmas Letter 2006 finished. Christmas Letters are useful for keeping up with widely-dispersed family and friends. But they are difficult to write if you want them to be interesting: you have to give the newsy bits about family, relate one’s activities over the past year while avoiding sounding like a, well, a Christmas Letter. You know, things like, “Little Johnny is rising to his educational challenges and big things are expected of him in the coming school year.” This is Christmas-Letter-Greek to report that Johnny was booted out of high school as a discipline problem, was on parole and has only been admitted back after pleadings from his parents and threats by the school administration that he will be incarcerated if he disturbs the peace again. “Cousin Jill is settling in to life as a single,” means Jill broke up with her boyfriend who caught her sleeping with her brother-in-law while her hubby was out at work. But you cannot actually say these things! If I had actually got around to writing one, there might have been times in the past when my Christmas Letter would have sounded like Peyton Place. At least it would have been interesting reading. Maybe I could invent a fictitious family and write about them. No more school teachers, bank employees and company executives. Actually, I could create a figure out of my older brother who has become a colourful, tobacco-chewing, Gulf-Coast fishing-guide type. A few loose women would be needed to make it really fictional. So few of them around and so much time!

Maybe I could add a few off-colour jokes. A man, for example, comes in for his regular therapy session. He is naked except that he is completely swaddled in Saran Wrap. The psychiatrist studies him for a moment and says, “I can clearly see you’re nuts!”