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