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, June 20, 2007

Bahia de Caráquez, Ecuador, 20 June 2007

During all my searching and travelling, I have been carrying on a lively exchange with Joe May by email. He once years ago came across “Vilisar” on the internet and sent me a nice message. I tried repeatedly to return an email but found it always coming back to me as “undeliverable”. This time my efforts worked. Unfortunately, all the many questions I had for him were on the laptop that was stolen in Venezuela.

Joe and his wife Sandra bought the Vilisar from Bill Taylor of Duncan, B.C., back in the early 1980s who in turn had bought it from George Friend, the builder in Sidney, B.C. After a life in BC waters, Vilisar moved her address to Juneau, AK. But, after building the new mast and installing traditional galvanised iron rope rigging while in Port Townsend, WA, the Mays trucked the boat over to Lake Michigan and eventually motored down the Mississippi to Mobile, AL. The whole trip took them along the Gulf Coast to Florida and the Keys, up the east coast to the Chesapeake and eventually to the Erie Canal and back into the Great Lakes. I am not sure how long the whole voyage lasted.

I hope to get more info from Joe on his history with Vilisar. I like to know the “personal history” of the boat, the people who sailed her and lived aboard her and worked on her.

Now, of course, Joe and Sandra live north of Willow, Alaska. Joe was always interested in dog sledding and became a musher, winning indeed the Iditarod in the 1980’s. While we were still in Victoria, we heard Joe interviewed as an Iditarod judge on a CBC sports broadcast. I am not sure how much racing he does any more, but he likes to travel in the Arctic.

Joe sent me the picture above of a recent trip into the wilderness of Alaska. Looks spectacular!

Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, Wednesday, 20 June 2007

If anything is likely to put me off cruising and boating in general it will be another overnight trip to Quito!

I arrived back in Bahia last night with a colossal headache. Leaving here on the 0900 “Ejecutivo” bus from the Reina del Camino bus line, I travelled in the luxurious vehicle as far as Santa Domingo de los Colorados. This translates directly as “Saint Sunday of the Colours Red”, but the red is in reference to the Colorado indigenous people and Saint Domingo to the guy who converted them, I think. The native people paint their faces and hair red. Not that you are likely to see any red-skins (in the cosmetic sense) in the town. I got off the bus and jumped into a taxi. Rafaelo, a young driver, whisked me around to various lumber yards and other outlets on the search for “pino”.

The object of my journey was to find “pino” to repair my mast. It doesn’t exist on the coast and every carpentero and every lumber merchant said to go to Sta. Domingo or Quito and I would find it. I don’t remember seeing that much timber on the bare hills around Quito, but you never know. And although Sta. Domingo is much higher than Bahia on the coast, how high is it really?

And, you would think “pino” means “pine” in Spanish. And maybe it does. But you have to be very careful about this word. For most people here it seems to mean anything from real knotty pitch-pine to spruce or fir or cypress or whatever conifer you have in mind. “Pino”, in fact seems to be a synonym for “conifer”. Not maybe with carpenters and knowledgeable people. But you have to know who you are dealing with.

In the whole trip, the only actual “pine” I found was at Ace Hardware at the big El Paseo shopping centre in Sta. Domingo d. l. Colorado! Go figure! But, although it looked very clean. There were knots in the wood (approx. 5 x 20 x 2500 cm) but we could probably get enough cut out to suit our purposes. The problem was that the grain was exceptionally wide by comparison with the current mast wood. The clerk said it was from Brazil and therefore tropical. He did have some pitchy pine in smaller sizes and tighter grains. You can kind get an idea if the wood is really pine if the seller refuses to cut it because the resin will gum up his saw. This was the case for this smaller, more yellow lumber. I decided to keep going to Quito where I had seen lots of lumber yards on the way into town.

This bus rated as a semi-local bus. The driver was aggressive going up the mountain pass, risking all on blind curves (from where I sat). People were throwing up into the plastic bags the conductor had ready to hand, and babies were crying from the nopise and the rocking nad the change in air pressure. We climbed through the clouds to over 3,500, where we came into the exceptionally clear Andean mountain air. In most directions we could clearly see the glaciers on mountains including Chimborazo down near Riobamba and a few of the Hausberg volcanoes nearer Quito.

Sure enough, there were plenty of yards lining the highway into Quitumba, a barrio (suburb) twenty minutes short of the Terminal Terrestre (Central Bus Station downtown). I decided to jump out at the traffic circle near the big plywood plant (Plywood Ecuadorianos), found a cab as the dusk was rapidly descending and had him take me to a small and clean hotel. I arranged for him to pick me up the next morning at 0830 and, after depositing my stuff headed out to find a meal.

The next morning there is Patricio, a displaced fifty-year-old from Loja in the south. He has been in Quito for 28 years and knows his way around. A good choice. We check into about four yards only to hear the same plaint that we had heard in Bahia and Manta, “¿Pino? No hay! No existá aquí!” Or words to that effect. Finally we were directed to one lumber yard along the main road with a huge sign outside saying “PINO”. Now, this is promising!

Inside it turns out to be basically a recycling centre for all the wooden pallets and metal used to pack machinery or transport other products. Most of the materials come from Japan, says Frederico, the indigenous boss, who comes originally from near Otavalo and has grown up in the forestry business. This business is the closest thing to a modern enterprise I have witnessed in Ecuador: all the men wear safety helmets, goggles, gloves and kidney belts as well as heavy shoes. Most of the work, however, is still “handwerk”, i.e. pulling pallets apart using crowbars, driving the nails out with hammers, stacking the wood by hand and fabricating new pallets and other items for sale locally.

Frederico listened with native impassivity to my tale of a need for pino to repair the mast of my valero (sailboat). My SPanish seems tobe getting better, I thinkm until, without a word, Frederico walks out of his office and off around a corner into the interior of the plant. Patricio and I stand looking at each other. Frederico returns seconds later and beckons us impatiently to follow him. Off we toddle off in his wake. We come to a corner where two indigenas are pulling pallets and other constructions apart with crowbars, working from the top of the pile down and throwing the individual pieces into a pile near them. This second pile is now higher than the pile they are standing on. Frederico marches up the loose pile of 2 x 2 wood staves and starts turning them over in his hands. Then he starts throwing pieces down at us. I gather he is selecting good straight and tight-grained pieces with few knotholes in them for inspection.

After twenty minutes I reckon we have enough for an initial selection and tell him to stop. He leaves without comment and Patricio and I start examining. Sure enough, this stuff is fairly close-grained and straight. There are a few knotholes but they can be cut out. True, the pieces are not in the exact widths we need. But we can laminate to get what we want and by varying the grains in the lay-up, we can actually gain strength.

The big problem is that this wood is not “pine”. White pine was the classic wood for masts until the settlers reached the West Coast. There they also used fir and spruce. Since beginning this saga, I was able to make contact with Joe May in Alaska, the previous owner of Vilisar and the builder of this particular mast. He told me that Vilisar’s mast was made from original growth Douglas Fir that had been air-dried (i.e., not in a drying furnace). Virtually any wood with similar grain and similar hard or softness would do to make a “Dutchman”, i.e., a repair.

For $10 and a $2 contribution to the plant’s coffee fund, we walk out of there with two bundles of staves, more than enough, I hope, to make to repairs.

By noon I am back on a bus to Santa Domingo. No luxury bus this time; another long-distance local bus. It takes four hours to get to its destination and then I wait an hour on the station paltform withmy bundles of wood for the next Chicken Bus to Bahia leaving at 1400. The bus is hot and packed with families and schoolboys and girls from the countryside when we pull out of the station. The brakes are running hot and we are over the engine. My seat is also right over the axle of the Hino buss. Hino is basically a Chinese truck chassis cum engine with a locally fabricated bus body bolted on. Unlike the Ejecutivo, it is sprung like a truck and Ecuador’s roads are for the most part very bad. The country has been financially broke for years despite its oil millions. The road through the passes from Quito was a toll road so has its own source of financing. It is therefore in good shape. The rest of the country, however, lives with very curvy, frequently very neglected “highways”. The bus shakes and rattles and rolls for six hours to Chone and on to Bahia. I started the day with a bit of a headache and nausea from the high altitude in Quito. By the time we hit Chone I have a splitting headache am was ready to throw up and throw up boating with the contents of my stomach. Fortunately, I find my aspirin and swill down a few bottles of water. By the time we are back in Bahia I am feeling pretty grotty but at least most of the headache is gone and I am looking forward to a good nights sleep aboard Vilisar.
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, 10 June 2007

There was an excellent article by Richard Gott in a recent GUARDIAN. It ties back to my article on "Chavez, Venezuela and the Pink Tide" (see below).,,2097076,00.html

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bahia de Caraquéz, Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Carl has been addressing the rotten wood at the top of our mast as it is laid out in the yard at the Club de Yate in Bahia. It has definitely been a good idea to get the mast off the yacht and into the yard. The metal corona at the masthead (i.e., where all the shrouds and stays come together and where the masthead light, antennas, and various other marine doo-dahs are located) was removed. The wood underneath was soft as putty. Carl started sawing off sections of wood until he got down far enough along the mast to have healthy hard wood all round. The mast is therefore about a foot or more shorter than it was last week.

His plan is to build up a masthead with wooden slats epoxy-glued into place with the same grain alignment as in the original mast. This should not be difficult except for one or two supply problems. First, nobody in Bahia carries epoxy in amounts or quality suitable for the work. Second, nobody carries the right kind of wood. The mast appears to be fir or spruce with a tight and straight grain, from the sort of trees you get at medium or higher altitudes along the Pacific Coast of British Columbia or Alaska. Everywhere we asked, we heard from the same observation from every lumber yard and carpentero: what we need is pino (pine?) or maybe teko (teak). Nobody has a call to stock these woods along the coast. But, without exception, they all say it is quite commonly forested and used in the sierras. We could get close-grained wood up there for sure. “Go up to Quito and get it!” Thanks. Quito itself lies at 3,500 metres. But, it’s nine hours away by bus. The last resort is to ask around in Manta when we go there to renew our visas on Wednesday.

Dash to Manta

Kathleen and I need to visit the Migración in Manta. When we arrived at Guayaquil after seven months away in Venezuela the officials there did not give us 90 days as we had confidently expected: we only got 24 days. This was exactly the number of days left under the old visa year. In Ecuador as in most countries you can only stay in the country for a total of six months in any one rolling year. That’s why we left last November 2nd and did not come back in until May 24. The immigration guys at the airport underlined that we should report to Manta before the 24 days ran out or risk a $200 fine each. So, off we went today, three days before our 24 days expired.

The upshot is that the uniformed immigration lady in Manta was only going to give us a further 30 days (y nada mas). Had we come on this Saturday we could have had 90 days. Go figure! We protest mildly but there seems to be no recourse but to accept the 30 days and try to work something out later. We shuffle dejectedly off to get photocopies made of our passports. When we get back, the same lady gave us a big conspiratorial smile and a wink and says soto voce that we have been granted 90 days. Smiles all round! One less problem and now we can work on the boat in peace.

We had hired Manuel’s taxi for the day ($30 + tip and a light lunch). He knows Manta well fro taking cruisers like us to Migración so often. So can chauffeur us around quite efficiently. We make a dash to the main marine paint shop to get bottom paint (Hempel Olympic 89600, up in price from $48 last year to $73 this year) and Sika two-part epoxy (about $15 a litre). Also bought plastic gloves, mixers, silica filler, putty knives, etc. We got some tips on at the paint store about lumber yards that are sure to have pino. After some shopping at a super market, we stop at the lumber yards on the way out of town. A lot of head shaking. “No call for pino or teko hereabouts. Go up to Quito! They grow lots of it in the sierras!”

Well, I guess being able to check off a few of the To-Do’s on our list for the Manta trip makes the trip a success. We got a 90-day visa, we got a charger for William’s I-pod and we picked up bottom paint and epoxy. Also did a little provisioning at a big supermarket.

But we still have no wood. Our only recourse now seems to be Carl’s parents who headed up to the sierras today. They have a copy of the diagram Carl made up for the pieces he needs and they told us before they left that they would be glad to find the wood for us up there if we needed it still and send it down to Bahia on the long-distance bus. Well, they didn’t actually say they would be “happy” to spend part of their vacation visiting lumber yards. But, properly seen, a vacation trip should be an adventure, don’t you think?
Bahia de Caráquez, Ecuador, 10 June 2007

Yesterday was the big day. Avid readers will recall that, just before we had to clear out of Ecuador on our old visa, I discovered a spot of rot at the top of our wooden mast. There was no time to do much except dig out the powdery “wood” that I could get at from the discomfort of a bosuns chair, treat the wound with a wood preservative and hope that things would not get much worse while we were away for six weeks.

The whole time we were in Venezuela I was turning the problem over in my mind and trying to think out how to deal with the problem. Provided the rot was only a local problem, the critical issue was whether the repair work could be done from the bosuns chair, or whether the mast had to be unstepped and the work done on board with the mast stretched out longer than the length of the boat. The alternative was somehow to get the mast ashore. But, unstepping a sailboat mast in a harbour with no crane or haul-out facilities was going to be a challenge.

Fortunately, there are enough experienced cruisers around the anchorage so I could exchange ideas with them and get some help with my repair problems. Chris and Lynn live aboard the South African S/V Malaika. Chris, in fact, is a rigger by trade and recently spent three or four years working in Panama. “No problem!” he says, “we can pull the stick using two sailboats!” Another experienced sailor is Carl, a German living with his wife Alexandra and his two pre-schoolers, Jan and Noah, aboard S/V Muk Tuk (an Innuit word meaning, I think, “Pull-your-mast-at-any-time”). After examining the top of the mast he was insistent that we pull the mast and work on it after it was laid out. “I can do it from a bosun’s chair but the work is not going to be as good and will take longer. Let’s just pull it out. I don’t believe in thinking about things too long. Just do it!

So yesterday was the big day. Vilisar’s crew has a rather sleepless night in expectation. Carl arrives soon after breakfast and we start last-minute preparations. The upper shrouds are already off the boat because I had been dressing the galvanised standing rigging at the time I found the rot. So only the four lower shrouds, attached to the mast at spreader height, are still in place as well as the two forestays and the back stay. We decide to disconnect the VHF antenna wire (running up the outside of the mast) and the 12-volt power line leading to the masthead lights right away and knock out the wedges holding the mast steady in the mast collar at deck level just shortly before we move the boats into position. We clear the deck of various unnecessary jerry jugs, swim ladders, etc.

At the appointed hour, about 1030, when the ebb tide is now running quickly at about 3 or 4 knots and the current is holding everyone pointing steadily upstream, we start the Lister diesel and pull up the anchor. Fortunately I had the anchor chain cleaned a day or so earlier by Carlos and Raimundo, the boat boys at Puerto Amistad: after eight months at anchor the clusters of mussels were as big as a softball and seaweed at made the chain almost too slippery for pulling. The Rio Chone is a very nutrient rich river. The plastic bag protecting marine growth on the propeller was also removed.

We motor slowly forward, Kathleen at the helm. As we come even with Malaika, we pass mooring lines back and forth, securing the two boats from moving with the masts roughly at the same level. We do not put out an anchor. Every fender we can muster on our three boats has been fitted on one side or the other. Then Muk Tuk moves ahead of us, puts out an anchor and drops back so his mast is also even with ours. We secure all the boats with mooring and spring lines.

By 1100 we are all in position. Chris quickly slips heavy-duty web straps around our mast and attaches the mainsail halyards from Muk Tuk and his Malaika. As Lynn and Alexandra take up the tension, the straps slide up the mast until they catch on the spreader plates (the spreaders were removed for repair last year). Once steady, we quickly loosen the shroud and stay turnbuckles at deck level, and Chris orders the ladies on their respective boats to start winching away. The mast starts to lift out through the hole in the deck while it gently touches the side of the mast hole. My son William is holding the loose galvanised rigging bits hanging from the mast so that they do not flail around and hurt someone. While Chris supervises, Carl and his father-in-law, Erik, guide the loose base of the mast. Once the mast is clear of the hole, the winchers slacken off and as the mast starts to lower again. The masthead is now pointing to the bowsprit and the base is being guided carefully back towards the boom gallows just aft of the cockpit. By 1140 the mast is stretched out on the deck and secured by various lines from falling overboard.

At this point, we start our engine again, loosen off all lines and permit Vilisar to drift back on the current until free of the other boats. Feeling quite smug, we motor off downstream through the anchorage. Those yachties out in their dinghies or on deck give us a wave. A few minutes later we are approaching the low floating dock at the Bahia Yacht Club. It is here that we plan to take the mast ashore, stretch it out and do the repairs. Even after more than eight months without practice, Kathleen makes a perfect landing and William and I scramble ashore to secure Vilisar to the dock.

A quick look around finds Victor and Geovanny, the bosuns at the Club de Yate. Victor scoots over to the town square just opposite and comes back with six guys, mostly older fishermen who spend a lot of time these days drinking aguacaliente (literally “hot water”, i.e., homemade, clear schnapps distilled from sugar cane (caña). Schnapps or no schnapps, they have the mast off the boat in a flash, up the ramp and laid out on burros (saw horses) in the yard. They start right in helping to strip off halyards, VHF wires, mast boot, etc. (Victor suggests giving them $20 so they can celebrate. Although, for Ecuador this seems pretty steep, I do it. They guys are so happy they keep pouring shots of aguacaliente for us all! After four or five I have fortunately have enough fortitude to refuse politely any more. The camaraderie is intense. Now we are even greeted on the streets by these fishermen.) I must find out where they make that stuff. It’s probably “contrabando” but it tastes better than the cheapo rum I’ve been drinking.

William shows me the Canadian silver dollar that he found at the bottom of the mast. Sailors are superstitious: a silver dollar under the mast is supposed to bring good luck. This one is a 1973 commemorative issue for the centenary of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (see Since Vilisar was completed in 1973 or 1974, I guess it was the original builder, George Friend of Sidney, B.C., who placed the silver dollar under the original mast, and that Joe May, who rebuilt the rig in the 1980’s when he owned the yacht, placed the same Canadian silver dollar back under his new mast. It will go back again when we re-step Vilisar’s mast.

Soon the yacht-club yard empties. I am exhausted even though I have by no means done most of the heavy work. That honour goes to Carl, Erik and Chris as well as the guys at the yacht club. I drift back to Vilisar, still tied to the dock, and start clearing up the deck. The shrouds and stays are all higgledy-piggledy and I lay them out in a long arch from the cockpit to the bow. Dozens of ropes and lines need recoiling and laying out. Bits and pieces of rigging, VHF radio mast, masthead lights, etc. are everywhere and need to be gathered up so we can refit them when it comes time in a few weeks to re-step the mast in the same process. By that time, we devoutly hope, the repairs will have been completed and the mast coated with lots of layers of Cetol.

Back up in the yard, Carl and Erik have been getting the metal corona off the mast head and digging away at the wood to assess how much rot is actually there. The good news is that the corona, made from a water pipe with various tangs, and a top, etc. welded on is in excellent condition. Erik is a metallurgist. He says, that even if we made a new one, it would not be any better than this one and the galvanising on the surface is still in good nick. This is indeed good news since, after the metal failure of the spreader plates coming from The Gelapagos last year, I was certain I would have to have the masthead corona re-fabricated locally too.

The moderately bad news is that the rot is quite extensive right at the top of the mast, the part that was covered by the corona. It might in fact be rather more extensive than that. But Carl, who is going to do the work, is going to start probing on Monday. The remainder of the mast looks pretty good but, as the old adage goes, where there is rot, there is usually a lot more than meets the eye. We are lucky we found it now! If in a storm at sea the corona had ripped off a rotten masthead, we would have been a devil of a situation with the whole rig itself down around our ears followed shortly by the mast itself as it broke off. Stay tuned to get the full extent of the good and bad news.

We spent the night at the dock, bouncing rather more than usual without the counterweight of the mast to slow the rolling. Still, it was rather nice to be able to step off the boat and be right in the centre of the town. We all took a dip in the club’s swimming pool and then headed out to find the Mexican restaurant that Steve Sawchyn and Anna Bird had told us about. Great tip! It was not as good as in Mexico. But it was definitely Mexican and more interesting than the normally bland Ecuadorian fare.
Bahia de Caráquez, Ecuador, 10 June 2007

Many thanks to readers who, after the robbery, sent us a little emotional support via the blogsite or directly by email. We were of course a little shaken at the time and jumpy at every loud noise or unexpected touch for several weeks thereafter. But, with time, this has faded. Of course, we are now back in Ecuador so perhaps the change of venue is helpful. The locals and the ex-pats here all remind us that Bahia is very “seguro”, very safe. Thanks again to everyone.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Bahia de Caráquez, Ecuador, Domingo, 03 de junio de 2007

The following is the text of an email I sent a few weeks ago to the landlady of the house we were caring for in Venezuela over the past six months:


La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, 08May07

Dear ….:

Well, first the bad news. This morning Kathleen and I were taken by surprise by two masked and armed robbers, trussed up naked on the hall floor while they rifled through everything in the house, stealing the computer laptop, the digital camera, I pods and cash.
I was awake from about 0430 and was working in the hallway at my computer. The doors and gates were still locked. About 0615, i.e., after it was already quite light but before the sun was actually shining into the patio, I opened the front wooden doors and then the gate from the house proper to the patio. Dropping the house key on the garden table, I went to the patio shower. I noticed some strange papers and one white sport sock lying there. Before I could check it further or even turn on the water two men, young and athletic, I would estimate about twenty-something, came swiftly from behind the Daewoo Tico car parked in the patio. They had T-shirts wrapped around their faces. Each held a silvery pistol and they were aimed right at my face. They were not noisy but were insistent that I get down on the shower floor on my knees while one held my arms behind me and the other held a gun pressed to the back of my head. From that point I never actually saw them except occasionally for the sneaker of one of them. They were asking me something about “Plata” but I kept saying "No intiendo! No habla Espagnol". It is amazing how my Spanish deserted me as I was looking down the barrel of a gun or having it pressed to the back of my skull.

After a very short time they got me to my feet and pushed me in front of them toward the open back gate to the house and down the hall into the house itself. They pushed me down on the floor opposite the doors to the apricot bedroom, tied my hands behind my back using the rope for the hammock and threw a cloth over my head. Then I could hear them rifling through the desk and the books and the mattresses. They whispered the whole time quietly.

At some point they went in to the apricot bedroom where Kathy was still sleeping and woke her. She looked up to see a pistol touching her forehead. From the hallway I could see nothing but I heard her scream about three or four times till they told her to be quiet. Then she was brought out into the hallway, also naked, told to lie down on her back next to me (I am lying on my face the whole time). She asks them for her "ropa" and they throw a bedsheet over the two of us while they continue to search the house. Eventually they had looked through all the rooms including the kitchen, bedrooms and library and then they left. They took my red backpack - probably to carry the loot-, my laptop and charging cord, our new digital camera, three small I-pods, your cellphone from the house (they might be stupid enough to telephone on it and then the police might be able to trace them by going to the recipient of the call) and our money (US$100 & Bs 350,000) and the Bs 200,000 destined for Paola. They rifled through your armoire but did not find your Bs 168,000. I cannot tell with absolute certainty but I don't think they took anything else of yours either. They did not damage things and were, surprisingly, not brutal to us. They probably figured we couldn't tell them in Spanish anything that would help them. But even when they were tying us up they were not in any way rough. But, having a gun stuck in your face and then being tied up for half hour causes you to live in uncertainty about whether they are actually going to get tough with you. A little unnerving, in case you ever wondered.

We kind of heard them leave. They had closed the front wooden door when they started searching and they left with their booty through the patio. (Clearly, we realise now, they had been waiting there for some time for me to open the patio house-gate. Who knows how long really. But while they were waiting they needed to take a crap or two and did the job(s) in the outside shower using a roll of paper towelling that they found in the patio plus one of our towels to clean themselves). Once we were sure that they were gone (how/where did they get over the wall?), we could shake off the sheet they had thrown over us. We were both bound hand and foot before they left (I had been tied with my hands behind my back the whole time; Kathy was tied with her hands in front. Before leaving they tied our feet as well with t-shirts and underwear. So Kathy could untie my hands and then we could free ourselves. We hoped they were not lowering around the patio. Within a few minutes we were free. I checked the clock: it was 0650 so the whole thing was going on for about 35-45 minutes. The rope marks on my wrist were still visible several hours later.

We left everything as was – they had strewn content of drawers etc all over the floor- and walked over to get Jens to go with us to the police. Trying to speak Spanish in the detail required and in our state was more than we could handle. The local station was however unmanned and we drove to Sanjuan. There were lots of policemen and women around but they took no interest in us. The desk constable told us to wait for the secretary to arrive so we could make statement. She arrived at about 0800, we gave a statement and we were back home by 1030. I used Jens's camera to take some pictures and then we began tidying up.

As you can imagine, we are a little shaken by the hospitality in La Guardia. At the moment Kathy does not want to sleep in the house any more. Paola's sister and family will be staying with us from tomorrow night for a while from Caracas so the house will be fuller (or does that make it more attractive). Fortunately, the “ladrones” did not take our plane tickets for Guayaquil: Kathy wanted to change them to fly tomorrow. We are still trying to deal with all this.

The good news is that we were not hurt, although we were clearly in a very dangerous situation. No weapons or pepper spray or anything else in the house could have prevented this since the bad guys waited in the garden, quietly completing their ablutions as it turns out, until I opened the locked gate. Even if I had been packing a weapon (on my naked body?) I would have had no time to get to it since I was being threatened by two men with guns and would have been disarmed immediately or even plugged, a term that takes on new meaning when you are in the shower and pistols are being held to your forehead. They had the advantages of surprise, superior numbers and weapons. If they had found a gun in the house while I was tied up, who knows how they might have reacted. At best the gun would have been stolen too. But a watchdog like Kira would have been useful and so probably would have been electric wire around the wall.

Jens was a terrific help with the lackadaisical police and offered to put us up at the B&B if we need it. I suspect the bad guys are not coming back since they got everything they wanted anyway and we will now be more on the qui vive.

Thought I would let you know and tell you that we are trying to decide what we should do and what we can cope with. Wondering however if your house insurance covers robberies and break-ins. Taken altogether the new value of the stuff and money we lost was about $2,500 to $3,000.

A little shaken but still alive and kicking



Our landladies were very supportive in the aftermath of the incident. We had been having smaller security breaches over the half year we were there, and we should doubtless have done something more aggressive like get a dog. But one is always smarter after the event. As it turned out there is a small burglary wave in La Guardia and several other houses have also been burgled or invaded. Also, a local bakery was invaded by two masked men a few weeks earlier and the baker and his apprentice shot dead. Had they resisted? Was there some other issue at stake like a drug related incident? Also, Jens, our German friend, had his motorboat stolen one night with both new outboards. They were found the next morning, the boat on a deserted beach near Juangriego and the motors mounted on a completely different peñero miles away near the Restinga beach. The Guardacosta (Venezuelan Coast Guard) put it down to narco-trafficking and reckoned it the case was unsolvable.

After spending one sleepless night after the burglary in the house, we decided to move over to Jens’s house. He was planning to make a quick trip to Germany anyway and we could stay at his house with Kira, his Rottweiler/Dobermann dog. His house also has rather more passive security so we felt much better. Having the dog also got us out on the beach ach morning to take her for a run.

Crime wave

Venezuela is in the midst of a crime wave that has lasted nearly a decade. The murder rate doubled in ten years, cresting in 2003 with 12,000 murders or a murder rate of 0.316 per 1,000. That ranks Venezuela No. 4 worldwide after Columbia (0.61 per 1,000!), South Africa (0.496) and Jamaica (0.324). By comparison, for example: the USA ranks 24th while Australia, Canada and the UK are 43rd, 44th and 45th respectively.) Other violent crimes are also well up over the mid-90’s.

The Venezuelan opposition and the ex-pat community on Margarita are uno sono the opinion that it is all the fault of left-wing President Hugo Chavez. The crime wave has, of course, happened on his watch. But this finger-pointing seems a little simplistic especially in view of the fact that Columbia’s murder rate is twice that of Venezuela’s and neither Columbia nor Jamaica are governed by Hugo Chavez. If you blame every deteriorated crime statistic solely on the head of state, then you would have to blame Prime Minster Stephen Harper for the fact that Canada has the world’s fifth highest rape statistics.

I have no understanding of why there is a crime wave in countries like Columbia, Jamaica and Venezuela. I now know what it feels like. I remember when every New Yorker had at least one mugged tale to tell and advised newcomers how to behave on the streets. Nearly every visitor to Quito or Caracas has a mugging story too. It is hard to believe that rampant street crime, burglaries and violence does not have at least something to do with widespread poverty and economic class differences. But how they related directly is more difficult to assess reliably. The opposition tried to raise crime as an issue in the presidential election campaign last fall in Venezuela. Chavez never responded to the issue. Some say he is hesitant about cleaning up the police as he might need them to resist violent attempts to remove from office as have already occurred.

I read once that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged and a liberal is a conservative who has been thrown into jail overnight. I was pretty angry at first and, since the police had done nothing to prevent the crime and nothing at all to follow up on it, I was hot for vigilante justice for a few days, especially after we heard through the village grapevine that the robbers were local guys and the cell phone had already been sold! (The police had shrugged their shoulders when we reported the crime and said only that there were a lot of riffraff coming over to the island from the mainland and they were undoubtedly responsible.) But I cooled off. We were leaving for Ecuador within a week or so and we had learned to expect nothing of the police.

In cases like these the police always advise reacting totally passively. The robbers are usually armed with firearms or knives and what amount of your property is worth serious injury or death? Researching armed violence against boaters in the Caribbean (there is a lot), we noted that injuries to the boaters occurred when they put up a fight. Kathleen and I had discussed in advance that we would take strong passive measures (locks, shutters, etc.) but that we would react passively of someone attempted to rob us. This stood us in good stead in this case.

The only thing I regret losing really is my work and photos on the laptop and camera and I have even been able to replace many of them. Let this be a lesson to back everything up off the computer. I do so now more avidly on my Hotmail account and have opened a Flickr account for storing photographs. We have also become much more careful about what we carry with us on the streets (i.e., how much money, passports, etc.) While we were at the B&B, we never left our bedroom without checking to make sure the dog was alive and present in the patio.

Surprisingly, and I must admit a little irritatingly, many men have either said or implied that I should have put up resistance. Aside from the fact that, as noted, the robbers had the advantage of numbers, surprise and weapons (I was naked and about to take a shower so was, shall I say, only lightly armed at the time), I was quite aware that even being coshed by a pistol on the skull could provide years of pain, that there had been violent deaths in the village only recently and that the police always advise cooperating. Anyway, I think most men seem to have watched too many Bruce Lee films. But, who knows? Maybe they could have got out of this one without injury, death and loss of property.

You can check out the statistics by visiting

Other interesting articles:
(Human Rights and Police Reform in Venezuela: A Venezuelan Perspective)
(Crime in Venezuela: Opposition Weapon or Serious Problem?)