First Cruise/First passage

Ellen Sanpere: My first real cruise

S/V Cayenne IIIIn 1998, we purchased our first real cruising boat, sailed quickly from Tortola to Venezuela, and began converting her to a floating palace.

We figured it would take just the four months left in the hurricane season to make the boat perfect, then we’d cruise back to St.Croix for the winter.

Tony and I each had over 30 years sailing experience, mostly racing, but planned this boat to be a live-aboard cruiser, not a racer.

We were fearless about sailing, clueless about cruising.

Ellen SanpereTwo days south of St. Croix, we sailed through a squall with a steady 40-knot breeze.

Playing the waves, I reached off, not caring as much about the course as avoiding pounding the hull.  The knotmeter read 11.

Tony woke up and said my grin was from ear to ear.  We reefed and got through the storms unscathed, happy with our new boat’s seaworthiness.

As the sky cleared, Tony spotted two men adrift in a 24’ open boat, 200nm and 10 days from land. With a broken down outboard, no food, water or fishing gear aboard, the pirogue would have drifted to Haiti in two weeks time.

We brought the men aboard and towed their boat to Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela.  They lived in our home-under-construction for 3 weeks while endless paperwork got sorted out.

As Tony took them to the airport for their flight to Trinidad, I severed my fingertip while cleaning the icebox, now emptied of three month’s provisions by the two survivors.  Neighboring cruisers drove me to a private hospital; a surgeon reattached my fingertip and gave excellent care for our remaining months in Puerto La Cruz.

This is cruising?

In Puerto La Cruz, Tony installed the systems and equipment we had brought with us.  A carpenter converted two forward staterooms into one.  Our budget broken, it was time to head north.  The boat was provisioned, charts readied, computer programmed with waypoints and route.  The weather was fair, and we did day-sails at first, to keep from getting too far from help should we need it.

Now, we’ll cruise!

Ensenada TigrilloSailing through Ensenada Tigrillo, we counted over 90 dolphin, the most we’d ever seen in one afternoon.  The area has few signs of human habitation; just the occasional small fishing camp tucked into the red mountains, black rocks and green mangroves.

The beauty and serenity struck me as perfect justification for selling everything we owned in the U.S. to go cruising.

We’d arrived at a goal: seeing beauty no other could find without a similar sacrifice.

Could it get any better?

Anchored in a sunken valley, within sight of a small village, we stayed only one night.  We wanted to sail as much of this area as possible without missing the holidays in St. Croix.  We had much to learn about cruising.

Isla Cubagua (Venezuela) - Photo: Devi SharpOur next stop was Isla Cubagua, where we dropped anchor off the white sandy beach of a real island, at last.

Snorkeling over the sunken ferry wreck, I’d never seen so many silvery fish, 1½-2” long, traveling in superhighways, crisscrossing the hulk, and making a loosely woven silver basket.  The beach was littered with shells.  We debated spending another night, but the surge from the passing Margarita ferries was reason enough to leave.

Doing so allowed an extra night in Isla Coche, another small island south of Margarita. Coche is not as deserted as Cubagua, with two villages and a hotel.  Four brilliantly colored macaws flew around the tall palms noisily with outstretched wings, untethered.  In the anchorage was a Spanish family, who invited us for a cerveza fria, then a tapas dinner and an invitation to visit when we get to Spain.  Our host summed up Coche, saying it is a perfect place to do “nothing.”  They planned to stay another week.

Another day of “nothing” would have been fine with me, but the call of the north would not go unanswered.

Porlamar, the main cruising anchorage of Margarita, returned us to the mainstream cruiser scene.  Through the morning radio network, several couples we knew helped us find our way around.  They suggested we lunch at the fisherman’s beachside restaurant, where calamare and cold beer were fantastic under the palm trees, and the price was outrageously low.

The second night brought a fierce rainstorm, making the normally roly-poly anchorage VERY uncomfortable.

Dolphins - Photo: Devi SharpWe left the next morning despite the threatening sky.  Tony predicted the weather would improve and we’d be happier underway.  It did, we were, and Cayenne III gave us a wonderful sail past some beautiful beaches to Juangriego, a fishing port named for a shipwrecked pirate, John the Greek.  The waterfront restaurants didn’t serve dinner until 2100, forcing us to relax and enjoy the evening.

Saying our final good-by to the still-visible mainland, we joined 70-80 dolphins and reached to our last Venezuelan stop, Isla La Blanquilla.  Fishing boats and oil tankers were the only traffic on the 9-hour sail north.

Some say Isla La Blanquilla, a small island of fishing camps, has the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches and best snorkeling.

It’s true: a near-empty anchorage, minimal surge, and clear water filled with life.  Scrubbing the boat bottom, tiny silvery fish surrounding me, I’d entered a glitter-filled paperweight.  We snorkeled forever among the granite rocks, marveling at the variety and colors of swimming creatures.  We hated to stop, but the alternative was drowning from fatigue.

That night, the sky was filled with stars.  Being so far from streetlights made for a sparkling carpet above.

Relaxed and ready to sail the remaining 362nm to St.Croix, we promised to return to La Blanquilla some day.

It’s good we planned to sail – the alternator gave up as we left the anchorage.  Fortunately, the new generator did its job keeping the batteries charged and refrigeration running. The wind was fresh, the seas not-too-bad, thousands of flying fish glinted as they crossed the bow.  Cayenne III gave us a good ride, picking up lace petticoats to step gracefully over each swell.

The first night out was very special.

SunsetMiles from the lights on land (moonrise at 0400), I saw the heavens again sparkling, even more so than at La Blanquilla.  Meteors streaked by every minute, some large and long lasting.

The sea’s bioluminescence sparkled brightly as though Tinkerbelle had scattered fairy dust from our transom.  My theory: when falling stars land in the ocean, they become lights in the water at night and diamonds in the wavelets during the day.

It gets better. I was at the helm playing the waves, counting the billions of stars overhead.  I looked for the moon.  Over my shoulder was a silver sliver 15o above the horizon. Just then, off the starboard quarter, a dolphin rose out of the sea, meeting the moon’s crescent back-to-back.  Transfixed, I will never forget that sight.

No camera could capture the symmetry and beauty of that moment.  The animal swam – a bioluminescent ghost alongside Cayenne III.

The cat

“So this is cruising,” I said to our sleeping cockpit cat.


By 1100, the third day out, we rounded Pt.Udall, easternmost point of St.Croix and of the United States.

Thousands of yellow butterflies and seven dolphins welcomed us home.

Some breeze for the short downwind leg would also have been nice; we were again forced to take our time sailing.  We anchored in Gallows Bay at 1300, home at last.

Perhaps someday we’ll be “real” cruisers, free from the calendar’s tyranny.

Ellen an TonyIf the anchorage is better than the weather, we’ll stay – if not, we’ll leave.

We might have autopilot, radar, single side-band radio, and folding bicycles.

However, to me, that single moment with the moon and dolphin was worth more than condos, cars and careers left behind.

Later, I learned our location was only 46nm from where we’d found the survivors adrift, four months previous.  The distance between St.Croix and Puerto La Cruz is over 460nm.

The prospect of another singular cruising experience has kept me going through four years of carpentry, re-configuring, re-upholstering, rebuilding an engine and getting caught at ground zero by Hurricane Lenny.

To experience the sparkling water and sky away from land, the beauty of the shores we pass and the friendships made – surely, that will keep me sailing through many a squall to come.

s/v Cayenne III

About Ellen Sanpere

Free lance writer, photographer and life-long racer, Ellen Sanpere has lived on Cayenne III, mostly in St. Croix, USVI, with husband, Tony, since 1998, with annual visits to Chicago, IL where she sails Lake Michigan.

Her articles have appeared in the Caribbean Compass, Latitudes & Attitudes, All At Sea, Cruising World, The Boca, SpinSheet. She is also a contributor to Gwen Hamlin’s “Admiral’s Angle” column (Latitudes and Attitudes Magazine.)

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2 comments to Ellen Sanpere: My first real cruise

  • As you have probably noticed, we love photos on Women and Cruising. Ellen had some great ones, but we also wanted a photo of Isla Cubagua and of dolphins. So, I put out a request on Women and Cruising’s Facebook page, and several Women and Cruising contributors quickly responded. So, as you see, we got our Cubagua and dolphin photos above – thanks to Devi Sharp who quickly mailed us several to choose from. Thanks, Devi!

  • Hi, i enjoy the women cruising sitevery much. Being Portuguese mother tongue speaker bit difficult here and there to understand. I feel i ,could cointribute to women crusing as I live 50% of my time, with my partner, on our sail catamaran a Catalac 10m customized to our needs for East African cruising. We are anchored in Pemba, Mozambique for, now and use that as our base to explore rest of this magnificent cruising area, the Mozambican coast, Tanzania, Comores, Mayotte, Madagascar. In the light of the pirate panic for this area I would like to sound a different tune that pirates we have never met or seen on our cruising, rather the amazing coastal communties with people only curious about our way of life and respectfull for us as they also are people of the sea.

    I am a Mozambican women, descendant of a Mozambican Monarchy form the Namaroi area, and after the independence war my family lost everything. I now educate myself to be able to assist efficient in rebuilding the country after all its problems of development impeded by war, natural disaters and sheer poverty. I believe that as I live on yacht I have unique access to the coastal communties of Kimauni that reside on the Quirimba Archipelago islands and coast, with very poor road access.

    You women cruisers and partners out there imagine uncluttered anchorages with canoe fishermen coming to offer their produce, fresh fish, sea fruit, obtained from unpoluted blue reef waters at ridiculous low price. A never ending feast of healthy food and haute cuisine quality. The Quirimbas Archipelago alone has 40+ such hideway safe spots for yachts.

    I also am very annoyed with deep sea oil exploration and its threat to this unpoluted paradise. The oil explorator Anadarko, of great reputation for being responsible and refusing to pay for its liability in the Mexican Gulf oil drilling debacle of last year, is here drilling at 5 sites. They are so afraid of pirates that they have armed guard ships protecting them and drawing attention of pirates and terrorists am sure.

    The Quirimbas National Park, a WWF run project, has 100.000 people living in it who are left to their own resources to survive a situation often creating clashes between wildlife and people, like elephants destroying crops and killing people.

    Then there is the slave trade history of this coast visible on Islands like Ilha de Mozambique (World Heritage status) and Ibo Island, other small islands where explorers like Vasco da Gama build forts.

    Lots of writing subjects.

    Maybe the women crusing writers can help me produce quality articles that can help me” also financially in sustaining my cruising life while contributing to the development of the area and its people.



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