Sailors Who Never Left-Part 2

A South African sailor embraces a life of adventure above and below the water.

Renee Leach

Most mornings you can find Renee Leach enjoying the lush yard that surrounds her modest Hato home.  “My garden looks like a jungle,” boasts Renee proudly. “I’ve planted sunflowers and other plants that offer food for the birds.  I get about 50 parakeets here every morning between 5am and 6am.  They love the neem tree.”

This bucolic, terrestrial lifestyle belies much of what this adventurous woman has accomplished during her many years on the sea.  These days Leach spends most of her time under the water.  She began Renee’s Snorkel Tours seven years ago, a service specializing in shore snorkeling at sites that are not necessarily on the ‘yellow rock’ circuit along Bonaire’s west coast.  Her hours in the water have delivered some lifetime memories.

“We were at Tori’s Reef following a manta ray one day,” explains Renee. “I had two Italian children with me, 5 and 8, and their parents.  Suddenly I heard dolphins whistling. I just grabbed those two children, one under each arm, and swam right through the pod of dolphins. Their mother was just horrified, but those children will never forget that experience for the rest of their lives.  Dolphins are so special.”

It was decades ago that Renee first learned to snorkel at her university’s swimming pool in South Africa. She participated there in the unheralded sport of underwater hockey. Its objective is to maneuver a hockey-style puck across the pool bottom and into a goal.  It was around this time that Renee met her husband-to-be, Stephan Leach.

“I was born in the high South African mountains,” tells Renee. “My father’s family came in 1652 with the original Dutch settlers.  My mother’s people came with the French Huguenots who were driven out of France at the end of the 17th century due to religious persecution.  Stephan, however, hails from the Kalahari Desert so I always just called him Kalahari.  It was always his dream to go to sea before he was 40. When he asked me to marry him, he said, ‘You are going to marry me and my boat or you are not going to marry me’.”

There was one problem with Kalahari’s marital demand.  He had no boat, only a dream.  Later, the couple operated a pharmacy that helped finance the ten-year construction of a 44-foot wooden ketch (two-mast sailboat) that they built from the ground up.  “We didn’t have a lot of money back then,” recalls Renee.  “One of my birthday presents during the construction was a marine toilet.  The boat was named Renee. She was the mistress and I was the wife. She got all the money.”

Off the Cape of Good Hope

That kind of humor served Renee well when they left South Africa on their world voyage in 1985.  It was a blustery start around the Cape of Good Hope, which she refers to as “the Cape of Storms”.  They started their trans Atlantic passage from Saint Helena, an isolated volcanic island off the coast of Africa best known for being the last residence of Napoleon Bonaparte who died there in 1821.  By the time the couple made landfall in Rio de Janeiro weeks later, their 90-day tourist visas were about to expire.  They were promptly thrown in jail.  The South African consulate secured their release, but Brazilian authorities insisted that the sailors leave the country within 24 hours.

That thrust Renee back to a sea with Force 11 winds and waves peaking fifty feet.  “That was the height of our mast, but you just have to trust your boat.  She was fine.”  The ferocious storm and unfavorable winter currents made for a circuitous 10,000-mile journey to Argentina.  When the couple finally sailed into the Río de la Plata on their way to Buenos Aires, they were greeted to a joyful sight of a 1500-boat regatta.

On the hook in Sint Maarten

Renee and Kalahari enjoyed a six-month stay in hospitable Argentina. But the world voyage beckoned and they pointed Renee north, sailing the entire eastern coastline of South America.  Landfall was finally made on the Dutch island of Sint Maarten in the northeast Caribbean.  The couple dropped anchor in the Simpson Bay Lagoon joining hundreds of other transient sailors.  They lived aboard their ketch for three years and worked various odd jobs on the island.  Later, they sailed to Aruba for a year’s stay.  It was there that the South Africans met Marcus Wiggins.

Renee on the dock near the 'Woodwind'.

Wiggins’s family owned the Divi Resort on Bonaire and Marcus was looking for someone to operate his trimaran charter boat, the Woodwind, anchored in front of the hotel.  “We flew over to see the boat at 8 AM,” recalls Renee. “I was only on Bonaire for four hours that morning, but I fell in love. The island was clean, the people were friendly and the moment I looked in the water, I knew there was nothing better than this.”

That was 1990.  “There were no high rises then,” continues Renee, “only gorgeous, gorgeous, old Antillean houses.  The architecture was so similar to what I was used to in South Africa that I felt at home.  Both architectural styles go back to Holland. Every time they break down one of those old houses today, it breaks my heart.”

Renee & Woodwind at anchor in Bonaire

Renee moved to Bonaire and immediately started working on the Woodwind. Kalahari followed six months later after completing a charter captain job in Aruba. They anchored Renee next to the Woodwind, and within two years, bought the charter business from Wiggins. “We thought we would run the Woodwind for five years,” explains Renee, “but it didn’t work out that way. We fell in love with the island and we never left.”

The couple lived on Renee for the next fifteen years enjoying their new life on Bonaire.  Then quite suddenly, Kalahari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  He died 14 months later.  That tragic event drastically changed Renee’s life.

Stephan "Kalahari" Leach

She moved to land during her husband’s illness, but continued the charter business by hiring several captains.  “I had a German captain working for me after my husband’s death.  He had a family living on a 32-foot boat with two children. So I sold Renee to him, but eventually he left Bonaire and sailed the boat back to Germany.  I had tears in my eyes when I saw Renee sail away.  But then again, how many people can say they live a life like this?  I always say my husband died with his dream and few people can say that they reached their dreams by the time they die.”

Renee also has few regrets.  She eventually sold the Woodwind and started her snorkel business.  She never had any intention of leaving Bonaire.  “I don’t do cold anymore!”

Her life at sea has given this sailor a lifetime of experiences that few ever witness.  Renee tells about one more right before departing for another snorkel tour.

“When Kalahari and I were operating Woodwind, we always cooked a Wednesday barbeque at No Name Beach for our customers.  He and I built the original huts there on Klein Bonaire.  We were barbequing on the beach when suddenly I saw a large rippling in the water right next to the boat.  A huge form rose up out of the sea.  It was a whale’s tail that reached higher than the Woodwind’s mast.  Now THAT was a big whale.

Big whale.  Big voyage. Big life.  Renee Leach has embraced them all.

Sailors Who Never Left-Part 1

When I first moved to Bonaire, I was amazed at the number of sailors I met who had sailed to the island and chose to remain.  These are people who had visited dozens of islands, numerous exotic ports and were vagabond in spirit.  What was it about this tiny place that had made them stay?  What had grabbed onto their soul?

Starting year four here, my list of sailors that chose to remain had grown.  So had my curiosity.  I needed to answer this pressing question, to get some answers.  With audio recorder in hand and the encouragement of the island’s English newspaper, The Bonaire Reporter, I began my personal voyage of discovery.  Here is the first episode of the Sailors Who Never Left.

Lelle Davidsson

There are thousands of nautical miles between dushi Bonaire and Lennart ‘Lelle’ Davidsson’s homeland of Sweden. Lelle spent his childhood learning to sail in cold Scandinavian waters and by the time he reached his mid 20s, the lure of the sea was calling.  On October 2, 1992, Davidsson left as part of the crew on Royal Eagle, a 64-foot racer/cruiser that was Caribbean bound.

His plan was to cruise the islands, bail out in Central America, travel north to San Francisco, perhaps work for a boatyard there, and then return to Sweden in about a year.  Unknown to Lelle, that plan began to unravel before the Royal Eagle had even left coastal Europe.  In La Palma, Spain, Davidsson met the crew from another Swedish boat, Örnen. Built in 1933, the wooden, 50-foot, two-mast fishing trawler was also headed to the West Indies, albeit at a sea turtle’s pace.  The two crews discovered their hometowns were in close proximity and most had mutual friends back home.  It was also here that Lelle met Örnen crewmember, Per Magnusson.  The two would soon cross paths again.

Royal Eagle’s first Caribbean port of call was the French island of Martinique.  The boat’s owner took on charters so Lelle and his mates got to see much of the Windward and Leeward islands.  Months later in Barbados, they once again ran into the crew from the Örnen.  For Davidsson it was like meeting old friends, and he decided to join them on their world voyage.  The crew of six sailed south to Grenada-the island of the spices, reveled in the wild Carnival of Trinidad for days where they signed on two more Swedish sailors, and then journeyed westward to the Venezuelan islands of Testigos, Isla de Margarita and Los Roques.  It was in March of 1993 when Örnen dropped anchor in Bonaire.

“The water was amazing,” recalls Lelle. “We had seen nice water on the other islands, but when I came to Bonaire it was stunning.  I remember thinking, ‘Wow!  This is clear!’.  After four hours in Bonaire though, I said, ‘Let’s go.’  The place was too clean and too expensive.  The islands before were much different. By then, I only had $500 in my pocket and couldn’t afford Bonaire for long.  But the rest of the crew wanted to stay.”

Days later, two of the Swedes met a local construction boss. He was in desperate need of workers to build a house in Belnem.  The news was brought back to Örnen and the crew voted unanimously to do the 6-month job.  Work permits were arranged for over the weekend with Frits Goedgedrag, later to become governor of the Netherlands Antilles, signing the documents.

“Our group had an interesting set of skills. The crew consisted of a former Volvo test driver (Per Magnusson), a mechanic, an explosives expert, a postman, a bus driver and a chef.  The chef and I were the only ones with actual construction experience.  Let’s just say that the first months, making the foundation of the house, was our ‘school’ for the team.  We went on from there.”

The sailors-turned-construction workers resided on Örnen during the project and frequented the bars at Karl’s and Mona Lisa Restaurant on their time off.  They also played football (soccer) and arranged for a match in the Kralendijk stadium against a group of Dutch electricians with whom they had worked.  It was Holland vs. Sweden.  Lelle does not recall who won that game, only that both teams had plenty to drink before and after the competition.

The house was completed in eight months and the crew then waited for a weather window for passage to the Panama Canal.  It was time to continue their world journey.  When Örnen finally departed, only five Swedes were aboard.  One sailor had met a Dutch girl on Bonaire.  They later wed and moved to Sweden.  Another met an Ecuadorian girl.  They were wed aboard the Örnen in a ceremony complete with a priest.  The couple later left Bonaire and joined the crew in Panama.  The third Swede to remain on island was Lelle.  He too had also met a Dutch lady, Inge Berben, who had peaked his interest.  Plus, the young seaman was not finished sailing the Caribbean.

“I joined the local Sunfish sailors club on Bonaire.  It was much more active back then.  I also windsurfed and was crew for some big races in Puerto Rico and the Trinidad-Tobago Race Week. One year we won our class in the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta.”

Davidsson continued to do small construction jobs specializing in window installations and traveled to work sites by bicycle.  For nearly two years, he lived aboard a 28-foot sailboat that he had purchased from a Frenchman who had given up the cruising life.  And then serendipity struck.

“There was a 46-foot teak sailboat that went aground on the south point of Bonaire.  Both masts were damaged and there was a 1.5 square meter hole in the side.  I went there to give advice on how to get the boat shipped to Curacao for repair.  But after looking at it, I decided I could fix it myself.  I had changed planks in oak boats when I was 12 years old together with my uncle.  So why not repair the boat myself?  No one was doing yacht repair on Bonaire at that time.”

Marine repair became Lelle’s expertise and in 1997 he began Navegante, a boat repair and service company that still exists today.  “That’s the nice thing about life,” reflects Lelle. “Everything offers opportunities.”

One of those opportunities was meeting Inge Berben.  They are married now and have an eight year old daughter, Sanne and a five year old son, Luca.

And what was the fate of the Örnen, the boat that delivered Lelle to Bonaire?  The old ketch completed its world voyage, but by the time it entered Swedish waters only two of the original crew were on board. Per Magnusson had sailed as far as Australia when his money ran out.  He had enough left to fly home to Sweden.  Per returned to work at Volvo as an engineer, but he longed for the island life.  Eventually, he returned to Bonaire in 2008 and became partners with Lelle in Navegante.

“I still miss the sailing life,” explains Lelle. “Once you start a business, vacation time is very limited.  When I see a sailor swinging in a hammock on his boat in the bay, I’m jealous.  But I’m a long term thinker and one day it will be my turn again to have my time on the water.”

Hammock Contemplations

Island Notes 78

The breeze is light.  The sun is low, pleasantly warm.  My view out the hammock is of blue sky and cotton-puffy clouds framed by slatted, bamboo shades. I’m just back from solo sail and my arms feel the workout of pulling the mainsheet for most of the afternoon.  This hurts so good.  It is time for hammock contemplations…

Aqua velvet on acid.

There is a stretch of sand that runs north from the salt loading dock to the backside of Punt Vierkant on the west coast.  Pearly white silica stretches from shoreline to nearly a half mile out on this part of the island.  Mix that with ample portions of blue sky and abundant sun and you have an aqua velvet, cosmic cocktail that flows for nearly three miles.  The island is flat here, no obstruction to interfere with constant 17 knot winds.  That translates to a sailor’s dream of a long, beam reach while I scoot Kontentu over three-feet of water.  I’m surrounded by other worldly color.  It’s a delicious elixir for the mind and eyes.

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The seaside restaurant, Zee Zicht, put up a sign to plug its nighttime entertainment, “Life Music”.  The famous Rose Inn in the historic village of Rincon did the same to promote its libations, “The Coldiest Beer.”

Follow the Leading

A monster of a dirt-filled dump truck leads the charge down Kaya Pos Di Amor (Well of Love Street).  Sitting precariously on top of the load is a man with a long forked stick.  The truck suddenly lurches to a stop to avoid a low slung power line crossing the street.  The man, who was nearly catapulted to Kralendijk during the abrupt halt, now moves forward with stick in hand.  He places the power line in the fork of the pole and raises the menacing line high in the sky.  The truck driver slowly drives under.  Pole man releases the cable once the dump truck clears and they are on their way.New Misnomer

A new restaurant just opened.  It is quite a coup for the island for it is our only Thai food eatery.  I am, however, skeptical simply because it is operated by two Dutch people.   Their names are Anton and Piek.  I would have preferred Annan and Phan.  I also have a problem with the name, The Blue Mekong.  The building is painted in screaming flamingo pink.

Lost In Translation

My friend, Nathalie, was in search of dental floss—an item sometimes not easily obtained on Bonaire if the cargo boats are delayed.  After searching in four stores, she headed to the always-reliable Tong Fung, a Chinese cornucopia of an establishment staffed by Bonaireans.  Nathalie asked one of the clerks for dental floss, but English was not the language of this day. My determined friend then resorted to sign language, communicating with her hands that she needed something extremely thin, long and then motioned that the item would be run through the teeth.  This wordless exhibition now grabbed the attention of two clerks who looked at each other in puzzlement. One finally got it saying, “Ah!” and retreated quickly into the back room.  A minute later the woman strutted out proudly holding a red, sequenced thong.