Prior to sailing to Venezuela, I was told countless stories of pirate attacks at sea and of rampant thefts in anchorages. In addition, relations between the United States and Venezuela have grown hostile due to diverging government policies. With all of these concerns, is a trip through the waters of Venezuela worth the risks involved?
The answer to that question depends on the voyager and his or her specific tolerance for the dangers that Venezuela presents. Although there have been reports of crimes affecting voyagers, it is important to remember that only a small number of incidents have occurred, and the likelihood of a negative incident, assuming the appropriate precautions are taken, is very small. Still, it is important to understand the dangers of cruising in Venezuela. Below is a list of the different types of risks with a brief assessment of the likelihood of occurrence and steps voyagers can take to mitigate the risk.
Pirate attacks During the early summer, an increasing number of pirate attacks were reported in eastern Venezuela, along the coast of the Peninsula de Paria. In most cases, the boats were robbed at gunpoint with electronics and easily removable valuables being taken. It is believed that the perpetrators were fishermen with pirogues who identified yachts traveling westward from the shore. As a result of several reported attacks, voyagers were encouraged to head due north when departing Trinidad and travel 50 miles before turning west toward Los Testigos, Margarita or Puerta la Cruz. Previously, the recommended distance to stay offshore was generally accepted as 25 miles.
Aside from sailing farther off the Peninsula de Paria, a number of boats choose to sail in the company of buddy boats. By forming small groups, the boats are better able to keep in touch and come to each other’s aid. Some boats also choose to sail without lights. This option is much more attractive if you can use radar to locate other boats. Another strategy is to remain silent on VHF until well clear of land.
I chose the power-in-numbers approach and traveled in the company of a couple of other boats. Fortunately, the passage through the dangerous area is relatively short, thanks to favorable winds and current between Trinidad and Grenada. Despite the fear of more attacks following the traditional time for moving west after hurricane season, there have thankfully been no reports of armed pirate attacks in the past couple months.
Theft in anchorages The danger of theft in anchorages is much more benign, though much more frequent than armed pirate attacks. Generally, remote anchorages such as Los Testigos, Tortuga and Los Roques are safe. However, any anchorages near cities are prone to rampant theft. Many cruisers choose to stay in a marina to assure a higher degree of safety. This is advisable for the major cities along the mainland, although it is important to select a recommended marina that offers a high level of security.
While in an anchorage, dinghies and outboards should be secured properly at night. This means lifting the dinghy out of the water. Even this precaution is sometimes not sufficient, as a recent wave of thefts in Margarita included the theft of five outboards, all of which were reportedly raised out of the water. Additional locks on the outboard and dinghy can provide extra deterrents.
When going ashore, the normal safety precautions apply. Be aware of your surroundings and use common sense in deciding where to leave your dinghy. An outboard lock and locking the dinghy to the dock are strongly encouraged, even at extremely secure dinghy docks.
Sadly, petty crime and theft are common in Venezuela, and this is one of the risks for which cruisers need to be prepared.
Political instability As tensions between the United States and the government of Hugo Chavez mounted this summer, there were rumors that Americans could be denied visas to visit Venezuela, and a few voyagers even voiced concerns about storing their boat in Venezuela during the hurricane season. Thus far, these concerns have proven unfounded.
While the political relationship remains unpleasant, it is unlikely that either country would risk losing a valuable trading partner. Since Venezuela is currently the third largest provider of oil to the United States, I think it is in the best interest of both countries to restrain from acting aggressively in response to verbal political attacks from the other. Further, in terms of sailing, it is unlikely the Venezuelan government would want to lose the considerable revenue generated by voyagers.
Although relations could take a turn for the worse at any time and the political situation should be monitored by anyone planning on visiting Venezuela, there is little reason to believe the relationship will sour to the point of affecting cruisers in the near future.
After spending a month sailing through the outlying islands of Venezuela, my personal opinion is that the dangers and risks posed by traveling in Venezuela are far outweighed by the beauty of the islands. The strong dollar-to-bolivar conversion makes food, beer and gas extremely inexpensive. The people are among the kindest I have encountered in the Caribbean, and even a poor attempt at speaking Spanish is greatly appreciated by the locals.
After having voyaged throughout the eastern Caribbean over the past year, Venezuela is one of my favorite cruising grounds. The water is some of the clearest I have ever seen, the fishing is so good even an incompetent fisherman can experience some success and the Latin feel is vastly different than any of the other islands in the Caribbean. With the proper precautions and some common sense, Venezuela can be a fun and safe voyaging destination.
-After starting from Cape Cod, Aaron Cook is currently sailing his Valiant 40, Audentes, to the Galapagos.