We have explored Bonaire in just about every way possible. We have swum its long shores, hiked its highest point, Mount Brandaris, and have gone into the deep by diving its reefs and scrambling down into its caverns. But when Ola from Sweden asked me if I would like to sail around the island, I knew this would be an experience that would deliver a new dimension, perhaps new understanding of where we live.
Ola and Caroline Svensson are on a world cruise on their 35-foot sailboat, ReLax. The couple departed their native Sweden three years ago. They worked in Norway for a couple of years, sailed south to the Canary Islands and then headed west with the trade winds to explore the Caribbean. Hettie met them at a dive course where all three earned their open water scuba diving certificates. Now it was time for the next adventure and I was invited along too.
We depart Kralendijk at just after eight in the morning. Ola asks me to take the helm, which I gladly do and sail down to the south tip of the island. This stretch of coast is one that I know well since I often sail my boat, Kontentu, here. But once we reach the southern spot called Red Slave a strong current and wind join forces. ReLax has to head about three miles south of the island to get around the point. Once we are past the Willemstoren Lighthouse we head on a beam reach along the treacherous Wild Side of Bonaire. Ola is smart to stay a couple of miles offshore.
This is the windward side of the island and a graveyard for ships that have succumbed to its fury. These tragedies at sea have been going on for centuries. Head out through the rough surf at Baby Beach for a dive and you can see cannons and anchors from a ship lost hundreds of years ago. The latest victim was a Dutch boat that last year sailed from Venezuela to Bonaire ended up on the reef outside Lac Bay. The sailboat was stranded for days until a tug arrived. The crew strapped inflated floats around the hull and started towing it to Kralendijk. They got as far as Willemstoren where the rough seas ripped away the inflatables. The boat sank in 200 feet of water.
Even the venernable Captain Don Stewart, who popularized diving on Bonaire in the 1970s, knows the rage of the Wild Side. Years ago, Don was on a dive to salvage a sailboat that had sunk off the east coast near Boca Lagoen. During the operation the boat collapsed on Capt’ Don’s leg, severely injuring him. The leg never truly healed and Stewart walked on it for decades. Several years ago, Stewart had to have it amputated and in true rogue form, had it replaced by a peg leg. After the operation, Don had his leg buried on the island. To this day, the old captain says, “I’ll never leave Bonaire. I already have one foot in the grave!”
We are now just north of where Don injured his leg. We pass by Lighthouse Spelunk built on a desolate outcrop over 100 years ago. Further north we see the Seru Bentana Lighthouse and the now defunct, Malmok Lighthouse. Malmok sits high on a cliff above the sea. However, it was devastated by a huge storm that sent towering waves over the cliff. Malmok had to be abandoned and Seru Bentana was built to take its place. Malmok is the very northern point of the island and an important roosting place for brown boobies, large sleek seabirds. As if on cue, a flock of four speed over the bow of ReLax as we cruise by Malmok.
By the time we reach the old plantation of Slagbaai, we are past the turbulent waters of the Wild Side. Our sloop speeds by the yellow Dutch colonial buildings of the 19th century outpost. Slagbaai means “Slaughter Bay”. Thousands of goats were slaughtered here in the 1800s, so many in fact that the bay’s turquoise waters would turn red. The workers would then skin the goats and send the hides to neighboring Curaçao. Today, Slagbaai is a chilled out stop in Bonaire’s national park. Flamingos frequent the lake behind the buildings, tourists stop here for lunch and the adventurous ones take a leap off the cliffs into the sea. That is next on my bucket list.
As we press on it is late afternoon. We are now heading south and spot the fishermen’s hangout called Playa Frans. Soon after we see a tanker loading up with oil at BOPEC. Neighboring Venezuela has no deep harbors that can accommodate super tankers. Thus they ship their oil in small ships to places like BOPEC where the oil is transferred to large storage tanks onshore. Super tankers then dock at BOPEC to fill up. This two-step tango makes the facility the third largest employer on the island.
The day now grows old. The sun does not show much promise as it sinks down into a mustard yellow muck of thick clouds. I’m stretched out along the cockpit’s stern seat and continue to gaze west. The rest of the crew looks elsewhere. Minutes later a brushstroke of scarlet breaks through the yellow maze near the horizon. Above the low clouds two green flashes zap the sky. This is unusual for the Flash, that fleeting optical mirage, usually demands a clear horizon. I yell out to my mates, but of course, it is way too late. The green flash most always happens in a split second. It is a lot like a shooting star. Ah, the serendipity of time and space.
Darkness takes over now, but the muted hues of the sun reflect down with the remaining light. The water takes on a steely shimmer. Blue water turns midnight black with slashes of pink, lavender and gold from above. We are all mesmerized. The trade winds remain strong and constant as we glide over the sea at 7-plus knots. The only sound is the gurgling of water passing swiftly by the stern. Nobody aboard wants this moment to end.
The stars pop out one by one. The lights of Kralendijk loom ahead and soon we will be on the mooring. We have traveled 71 nautical miles in 12 hours today. It has been an amazing voyage of discovery that has changed the way we look at where we live. No fancy-dancy GPS needed here. We now know a bit more about Bonaire and where it lays on the big blue marble. That is the cosmic geographical payoff of this voyage, one that is only achieved by sailing round de island.