American woman sails south and discovers Bonaire.
It was in 1994 when Caren Eckrich decided that she had enough of sharing a cramped apartment with fellow students while attending the University of Puerto Rico. It was time for a move and a chance to fully live her Caribbean experience. “I wanted to live on a boat,” says Caren. “I figured that if I bought one and lived on it, I could save a year or two of rent. That turned out to be true. It was really nice.”
Her quest for a nautical lifestyle led Caren to a weathered 1965 Sagitta 30 lying in a nearby harbor. About 40 of these sloops were built in Denmark between 1965-1967 at the Royal System Yacht Yard near Copenhagen. The boat was a robust, full keel, double ender (canoe-shaped hull) with a 4-foot 9-inch draft (depth under water) and a 9-foot beam (width). The sloop was designed by Danish naval architect, Aage Utzon, who was known for designing beautiful, double ender sailboats up to 45-feet. Utzon must have passed the “design” gene to his son, Jørn, for he later became the famous architect who designed the Sydney Opera House.
“My boat’s name was the same as the model, Sagitta,” explains Caren. “It’s the name of a constellation and it means ‘arrow’. Sagitta was a strong boat. The fiberglass was one-inch thick. She was built so well, and it could turn on a dime.” As a 12-year old from Texas, Caren had learned to sail one summer at Clear Lake, California. Her uncle had a small sloop there. He offered her the use of the boat in exchange for sanding and varnishing the mast and boom. Both skills—sailing and boat maintenance—would serve Eckrich well when she moved to Puerto Rico nearly a decade later.
“Sagitta was my first boat. I spent $8000 to get it, but it was badly neglected. The boat was just floating there and nobody had sailed it for years and years. It was bare bones.” Caren and her boyfriend lived aboard Sagitta while she earned a masters degree in biological oceanography. The boat was anchored in front of the university at Magueyes, an offshore island directly across from Parguera. The aspiring marine biologist commuted to campus by dingy and used the facilities on shore—bathrooms, ice machine and Laundromat—conveniences lacking on the sloop. Weekends were spent sailing to nearby reefs for snorkeling with friends. It was an ideal life.
But a year before graduation, Caren and her boyfriend began to ready Sagitta for cruising. “He was really good with motors and I was really good with sailing. It was a good partnership. The plan was to either go north or south. I was offered a job at Sea Camp in Florida. My cousin was working at the Curaçao Sea Aquarium. We figured we would first go south and lay low during the hurricane season and then work our way back up to Florida.”
Unlike many cruisers who abandon jobs for a voyage of discovery, Caren’s goal was to cruise to her next job and then live aboard the boat. In July 1998, the young couple began their journey, first sailing along Puerto Rico’s southern coast, and then pointing directly south to Bonaire. Eckrich had heard wonderful things about the island from friends who had worked on Bonaire as marine researchers. Upon landfall three days later, the young sailor was smitten. “I loved it. We had just arrived and I had to go up the mast to do something. When I got to the top, I looked down. The water was amazing, not to mention that the reef was right there. I also loved the island’s laid back attitude.”
The crew sailed Sagitta to Curacao a few days later to visit Caren’s cousin at the Curaçao Sea Aquarium in Willemstad. She soon got a job there and began the live aboard life in the protected harbor of Spanish Water. Then, life suddenly began to change. The boyfriend left to pursue big wave surfing. Later, Caren encountered problems with crime. “In one year, I was robbed six times and found two dead bodies—Colombian drug smugglers. Thieves even stole the windshield from my old van—downtown and in midday!”
Caren felt that she could no longer maintain Sagitta alone. “I loved the boat. It was amazing. But the motor was dying and I finally sold it for a good price to a French guy from Venezuela. That was a sad day. A few years later, I saw him. He had painted Sagitta yellow. The last I heard, it was still in Venezuela.”
Boatless, Caren took a dive instructor job at a resort on Westpunt, the far western tip of Curacao. It was there she met her future husband, Frans. Both wanted to leave the island, and after considering Costa Rica, moved to Bonaire to begin a new life. Caren started her own business, Sea & Discover, a marine education center. For seven years, she gave customers lessons and guided them on snorkeling and diving trips. Frans began to renovate their house. The couple now has two young daughters.
For the past four years, Eckrich has worked as an instructor at CIEE, the marine research station on Bonaire, teaching marine biology to university students. Frans, in the meantime, bought a yacht named Oscarina for his next project. Coincidentally, George and Laura De Salvo of the Bonaire Reporter were former owners of the boat, but that is a story for another time. Oscarina is now beside Caren’s Kralendijk home, waiting for repair. Is it possible that this sailor who never left is contemplating an escape? “If Frans actually learns how to sail or learns more about motors, I actually might go with him,” says Caren with a sparkle in her eye. “It’s a possibility.”