Bonaire for cruisers: more than diving


Bonaire: more than a dive destination? For most visitors, diving is THE reason to go, and it was certainly the lure for us to select Bonaire among the Dutch Antilles. But our planned “about a week” turned into nearly three: partly thanks to a circle of friends, but also because the island offered more than we anticipated: easy living for cruisers and non-underwater-based fun, like these beautiful flocks of flamingos. It’s much more than diving: here’s a rundown of how Bonaire hit the mark for our crew.

Welcome to Bonaire!

Clearance was among the easiest anywhere. One office, a three minute walk from the dinghy dock / Karel’s Bar. One clerk’s window. Two forms. 24×7 clearance. NO CHARGE. Although you may have to call officers to show up, as we did – sorry guys! – on Christmas day. This service has nothing to do with cruisers and everything to do with the cruise ships that call in almost every day. Despite the onslaught, Bonaire has avoided turning into a mini-Dutch Caribbean Disneyland (we hear Curacao and Aruba are less unscathed). Dutch style architecture (a few windmills even, in the salt pans) in a walkable town where you only have to go a block from the waterfront for souvenir shops to fade.


Live music outside storefronts on a “Christmas Shopping Night,” a skip away from a spectacular little gelateria. Get the dark dark chocolate. You’re welcome.


Moored off the primary settlement we felt very safe on Bonaire, something that can’t be said about population centers in many Caribbean islands. It’s imperfect (there are reports of some vandalism in town, petty theft) but we walked through the outskirts after dark without concern. We didn’t feel like we HAD to haul the dinghy every night. We still did, much of the time, but it’s good not to feel like a target.

Sunset view to Klein Bonaire off the transom

Sunset view to Klein Bonaire off the transom


Well stocked markets are about a 20-minute walk from the bar / dinghy dock. Too hot to walk? One market arranges a weekly pickup/dropoff shuttling cruisers from waterfont. I’d walk up, then hitchhike back.

We’d provisioned deeply in Martinique (brie! Bordeaux! saucisson!), but could have done very well here. Aside from having a wider, nicer selection of fresh produce, all the usual staples plus tasty Dutch specialties (gouda! stroopwafel! droge worst!) and good value were available between Van den Tweels (upscale) and the Warehouse (great prices).

Everyday life

Everyday practicalities of cruising life were straightforward: most are not inexpensive, but little is cheap in most Caribbean islands. Restaurants? We didn’t even consider them, honestly. Prices weren’t bad, but they weren’t inexpensive, so per our norm we simply opted out. Laundromats on shore ran about $15 per load (we walked, but they’ll give you a ride from the waterfront); fine for catching up, then back to bucket laundry on Totem.

We DID indulge in a night at the movies, thanks to a “do something fun” mad-money gift from my auntie, and it was unforgettable! Will we ever again be in a seated, open-air movie theater? Will we ever again have to pause halfway through the movie while a squall blows through soaking our seats and clothes? Have you ever been in a theater where a live mango tree stood at the end of a row of seats? The Last Jedi was meant to be watched under a sky full of stars.

Bonaire movies


Jamie and I have been busy with coaching clients the last few months, and we need a good internet connection for video calls. Digicel in Bonaire was 4G for the cheapest per-gigabyte rate yet in the Caribbean: under $2/GB! Very handy, and perfect time for some holiday Skyping with family.


Boat business

There’s a finite number of boats here, limited by the restrictions on anchoring (you can’t. end of story). A fixed number of moorings off Kralendijk and a very few transient marina berths are the only options. I’m told right now there’s no room for boats hoping to visit. During our stay in December the mooring field was busy, but seemed to have near daily turnover, and there were always at least a few moorings available. It’s the busy season now: but hurricane season in an island like Bonaire, safely south of the hurricane belt, would be another busy season and demand for a spot probably peaks. I don’t know how many moorings there are on Bonaire, but the crowd control enforced by limited space was nice.

GoogleEarth view of the Kralendijk waterfront,boats on moorings at the dropoff

Google’s satellite view of the Kralendijk waterfront, boats on moorings at the dropoff

On shore, boat specific equipment is a little harder to come by: just one lonely chandlery, the Caribbean Budget Marine chain, but they’d order things in if needed. Hardware stores covered the rest, big-box style.

Pausing to look at flamingoes at the north end of hte island, this little cutie

Pausing to look at flamingos at the north end of the island, this cute little visitor had something to say

Surprising values

Islands that have to import pretty much everything typically don’t offer good value for money; the cost of transportation and taxes/duties hike prices. An unexpected deal was quality gear for snorkeling and diving. As one shop put it: “we’re competing with Amazon.”  Our buddies on Utopia II had a BCD that needed repair; it was about the same price to replace it with a nice new equipment as to shore up of aging gear.


In 10 minutes at an undisclosed location on Bonaire, Jamie found SIXTEEN colors of beach glass. Normal looking beach, not piles of glass, just… remarkable, and unprecedented in our experience.


On the other hand, the plastic bane of our oceans and beaches was sadly omnipresent. The sad reality of our world right now.


For the kids: just lots of fun being with friends, beach glass or plastic or whatever.

Island life

Our perch off town was imbued with a feeling that we were a part of this little community. The small-boat fishing fleet’s dock nearby kept things lively. A sailing school was off the bow.  Totem was used as one end of the starting line for a triathlon; she was a turning mark for a Sunfish race (we have the gelcoat dings to prove it!).

_DSC2825 _DSC2789

We were in Bonaire for the weeks leading up to Christmas, but never really felt the commercial onslaught that happens at home. Homes and businesses put up decorations, I heard a couple of carols; most of the festivity was back on Totem. Except, notably, for the night of he holiday parade. Nothing to make you smile more than what’s basically a small-town parade. Bonaire’s spanned the generations, featured senior home residents and costumed kids  following the truck with Santa’s helpers bearing treats for curbside children.

Island exploring

Not such a good value: rental cars! Prices seemed hiked by the season, and the demand from cruise ships. We rented a truck with Utopia one day, threw (gently invited) the teenagers in the back, and drove a loop around the island.

Loading up for a day of touring

Loading up for a day of touring

Many of Bonaire's feral donkeys, former beasts of burden, are in a large sanctuary

Many of Bonaire’s feral donkeys, former beasts of burden, are in a large sanctuary

They were very keen to introduce themselves through the truck window, asking for carrots

They were very keen to introduce themselves through the truck window, asking for carrots

Most of the island is arid scrub, the home of strikingly colorful lizards

Most of the island is arid scrub, the home of strikingly colorful lizards

...and a few prickly things. Shoes on kids! (they still resist)

…and a few prickly things. Shoes on kids! (they still resist)

Ancient paintings on limestone in a "star watchers" cave

Ancient paintings on limestone in a “star watchers” cave

Learning about Bonaire's biomes, and environmental challenges, from a conservation organization for indigenous parrots

Learning about Bonaire’s biomes, and environmental challenges, from a conservation organization for indigenous parrots. Note, Niall is barefoot. The guide was concerned that we didn’t have “appropriate footwear” but allowed Niall to hike barefoot anyway. No problem for him.

Purple tones to the salt pans at the south end of Bonaire: part of food chain that tints flamingo feathers

Purple tones to the salt pans at the south end of Bonaire: part of food chain that tints flamingo feathers


The water

Right, this was about everything else, and I wrote about the striking underwater world of Bonaire here, but the access as a cruiser is incredible.

Sarah, SV Rhapsody, checks out the mini-reef on a mooring block

Sarah, SV Rhapsody, checks out the mini-reef on a mooring block

Want to swim off the boat? OK. Want to dive daily? OK. Want to do nothing but watch the sunset? OK. It may be particularly missed as we sit at the Marina Santa Marta, where the color and smell deter any interest in swimming. But Bonaire was particularly special this way, even if we were only watching the watery horizon as the sun set.

Cruiser Community

After the crush of boats in the lesser Antilles, the smaller fleet in Bonaire was refreshing. Enough for community and fun, not so much it felt like an overplayed grownup summer camp. Sharing stories with new cruisers and circumnavigators and hopeful future sailors and happy landlubbers alike.

Good times with good humans

Good times with good humans

Gathering for a white elephant Christmas party with fellow sailors: organized by Sail Ho‘s Brita with Rhapsody, Totem, Windancer IV, Chapter Two (their lovely Island Packet 420 is for sale, I’ll happily put anyone interested in contact with them).

With hindsight on Bonaire and Grenada, I’m not sure why the latter is such a gathering point in hurricane season– except to think that people just haven’t gotten to the Dutch Antilles yet, or are intimidated by the bit of distance and never will, or are discouraged by the possible scarcity of mooring. Given the choice as destinations to avoid the worst of seasonal risk, I’d pick Bonaire in a heartbeat.

[update: If we were going back and planned to spend more time in Bonaire, my first stop would be the awesome Addo’s bookstore on Kaya Industria, a short walk from the waterfront. They’ve got a nice selection of English-language books of interest to hte visitor: everything from field guides, to diving references, to local history. Books for children in two or three languages (Papiamento, Dutch, and English) would be fun for adults and kids alike to learn more about Bonaire and better appreciate their stay.

Coloring books, field guides, and more - specific to Bonaire and neighboring Dutch Antilles, at Addo's books in Kralendijk.

Coloring books, field guides, and more – specific to Bonaire and neighboring Dutch Antilles, at Addo’s books in Kralendijk.

Totem is preparing to depart Colombia this week, bound at least for Panama! By next month we’ll be splashing in the Pacific again.

Bonaire’s underwater wonderland

Mairen freediving

Tucked low in the Caribbean sea, a skip above Venezuela but hundreds of miles from the popular cruising grounds of the lesser Antilles, the ABC islands are a touch out of the way for the broader fleet. ABC stands for Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao. If you’re like me, all you have to do is hear “Aruba” to start humming the tune to Kokomo: “Aruba, Jamaica, oooo I want to take ya!” – amiright?!

We stopped at Bonaire for one of the two reasons most people do: because they’re on the way to somewhere else. Namely, they’re a great way to break up the distance from the Antilles to Panama.

Bonaire location

Not a great selling point, but the other reason most people go to Bonaire makes it a lock: it is reputed to have among the best diving in the Caribbean. If diving was a top priority for Totem, we’d have routed differently in the Caribbean (namely, getting into the Western Carib). But it’s certainly why we prioritized a stop in B over A (“Las Vegas of the Caribbean”) and C (touristy + poor swimming), and it delivered.

Check out the number of dive sites on this map: Bonaire is basically one massive dive site.

Bonaire dive site Map

Pinterest underwater wonderlandAlthough it’s just a few miles long, there are more than EIGHTY named, shore-accessible dive sites. They are marked by yellow buoys in the water, and yellow rocks on shore. This entire shoreline, out to 200’ (61m) depth is a national marine park! Smart move: Bonaire’s economy rests on tourism, much of it destination diving.

How does this impact us as cruisers? The first sign is upon arrival, because your only option is 1) mooring or 2) marina. There is no anchoring allowed, which protects coral that might otherwise be destroyed by chain/anchors. Moorings are a reasonable $10/day. Visitors are required to purchase permits for snorkeling or diving: the tag is affixed to your gear. They’re also reasonable (I think it was $10 for snorkeling, $25 to dive), valid for a year, and support funding the funding marine park.

Diving and swimming was far and away our number one activity, and our planned stay of “a week or so” slipped into nearly three. The weather wasn’t right to move on, but even if our window opened the unanimous vote was to extend our stay for more swimming in the beautiful water of Bonaire.

Totem nestled between Utopia II and Rhapsody; kids swam daily between Totem and Utopia, and I enjoyed an extended swim each morning with Bob & Sarah from Rhapsody. Totem’s aft deck was frequently scattered with gear awaiting use or drying off after a freshwater rinse, a pileup of masks and fins and tanks and snorkels and more. At least there wasn’t much laundry, we spent to much time in swimsuits!


This aft deck taken over by gear

The water was clear and beautiful for nearly the duration of our stay. Totem floats in about 20 feet of water; a coral heads dot the sand below, and tumble in increasing density down the dropoff just behind the transom. It’s startling to see such vibrant coral in an anchorage.

Totem floats over the reef

Totem floats over the reef

anchorage- corals


The kids had a blast. Sometimes they cared about what was down there to scope out (an eel! a ray!), a lot of the time they were just “hanging out,” enjoying each others company in the bathwater ocean.

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Just hanging out

Just hanging out

Swimming every morning with the Rhapsody crew was a great way to start the day. Good exercise, good company, good marine life spotting. We’d alternate between stroking to make some distance and get heart rates up and OH LOOK SOMETHING SHINY! There is always something to see: most days included a lot of flounder, some eels, and colorful schools of fish (the reef in front of the Venezuelan embassy never disappointed). Octopuses stick with a den for a while, so I could revisit one repeatedly, like a comforting resident neighbor. One morning we saw three different spotted eagle rays, cruising the waterfront and looking for a snack in the sand.

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

Another well-disguised critter... can you see it?

Another well-disguised critter… can you see it?

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

Always lots of fish at the turnaround point under Karel's waterfront bar

Always lots of fish at the turnaround point under Karel’s waterfront bar


Stopping at Windancer IV for a chat on the way back to our boats

Did we dive? You bet! Niall had a mega-big Christmas gift early: for as long as we’ve lived on Totem, he wanted dive certification. With help from a cruiser friend, Brita, who was getting her dive master training in Bonaire — arrangements were made ahead of our arrival with an excellent instructor at Dive Friends Bonaire, and he started PADI classes on our first full day. Big thank you to Brita (who, small world, worked at the same law firm as my cousin in NYC?!) and fair winds as she chases more sailing adventures! Jamie and I love diving too: Utopia II is generous with us, letting us join their expeditions and use their gear as they have everywhere from Malaysia to Maldives. I lost count of the number of dives we did, and it was glorious. Totem’s underwater cameras are only suitable up to about 30′, so I don’t have any photos from our dives — but these images from Rhapsody capture the vibe of the reef.

forest of soft corals fans Black Durgon in the deep blue

Pretty corals and critters under Totem presented a great opportunity to work on dive lessons and experience with Niall’s sisters. Our Mantus tanks are perfect for this.

Jamie (barely visible hand!) helps Siobhan check her gear, somewhere not far under Totem

Jamie (barely visible hand!) helps Siobhan check her gear, somewhere not far under Totem

Does Bonaire’s diving earn the reputation? Mostly. Zillions of colorful little fish? Yes! Healthy corals, in a diversity of forms and a spectrum of hues? Yes! But it is clear that this area is over-fished. There were no top level predators save man. No sharks ghosting over a sandy bottom. No big groupers lurking in the nook of a coral head. It was beautiful, it’s just not as awesome and healthy a reef as it could be. It’s still probably among the best in the Caribbean. I fear for the future, since the marine park status hasn’t staved off overfishing. There were guys fishing a couple of boat lengths behind Totem’s mooring most mornings. Maybe that was about the 200’ depth mark where the park starts, but it seemed shy. On the edge at least, for fish we couldn’t even buy from the fisherman’s dock because they pre-sold their catch to the massive cruise ships that visited nearly every day we were there.

It was still incredible. It still pulled us in. I’d happily go back. I’d choose it over Grenada for hurricane season in a heartbeat. Why? More of what’s to love about Bonaire in the next post.

Totem is in Colombia now, reveling in the sights and sounds and tastes of this spirited country.

Planning a passage: Bonaire to Colombia

sailing trimming the main

There is a good chance our upcoming passage will suck. Yay…

How do we know it’s not a simple downwind run in the trades? Enough friends, cruisers with miles, have told us how uncomfortable the stretch across the top of South America to give credence to the oft-repeated quote that this is one of the “five worst passages.” That quote is never sourced (if anyone knows a legit data source, please add in comments or contact me!) but experiences show there’s more to it than hyperbole.

How are we going to mitigate the misery? Jamie’s outlined our planning process as an exercise for the people working with us as cruising coaches. A summary of planning factors are and shared via email and our coaching Facebook group. We’ve helped as coaches with information on identifying tools to use, sources to check, questions to ask for developing a plan, as well as fleshed out details that make up the dynamics of this route. The exercise is broken into parts over a few days to facilitate discussion on different aspects in the safe space of the closed group, where there are no dumb questions or tridents thrown by Salty McSaltypants. What follows is pared back version of this exercise-turned-teaching-tool.

Passage Planning Basics

Totem lies in Bonaire over a pretty coral reef, safely secured to a mooring. Next stop: Santa Marta, Colombia! This is the planned route:

The route: Bonaire to Santa Marta, Colombia

The route: Bonaire to Santa Marta, Colombia


  1. Assess passage for risks
  2. Learn historical conditions AND track current conditions
  3. Develop a safe, efficient route
  4. Identify the weather window to depart in
  5. identify BAILOUT options, should an issue require getting into port sooner
  6. Know destination clearance processes
  7. Prepare a float plan, if passage complexity necessitates it

At this point, coaching clients are asked to think about what they’d do: to pretend it’s their own passage. Identify tools, research conditions, create a plan, and especially: ask questions! They can document for feedback, discuss on our coaching Facebook group, or just let it sink in as future fodder. Below are the top notes of information shared back with them.

1 – Assess risks

Every passage has them; these are particular to our transit from Bonaire and Colombia. The purpose is to break them down and think about how they impact planning.

Dangerous waves: Comfort underway is all about the sea state. Three factors set up risk here: 1) a long fetch creating bigger waves, 2) deep water bunching at the continental shelf, and 3) strong katabatic winds.

Shipping: This is the highway to/from Panama Canal. The radar and AIS will get a lot of use watching out for traffic!

Debris in Water: River outflows send floating mats of weed and large deadheads; it’s also the leeward end of Caribbean Sea. Risk of hitting debris is higher, especially closer to the coast.

Security: Colombia and Venezuela present security risks of different dynamics, with aggressive incidents at sea and coastally.

2 – Historical weather and current conditions

Historical weather first! It trends in three-month periods, alternating between rough and calm conditions. December to February has rough conditions – lucky us! (It’s a choice. It’s always a choice.) Key dynamics are the prevailing trade winds, from the east (speeds increase in the western part of the sea), and strong katabatic winds off mountains on the continent. These katabatic winds can create sever conditions, including rough/confused seas. Helping Totem along: there should be a positive current, up to 2 knots at times, for the first 12-24 hours. It may not help the sea state, though.

Now current weather conditions: this is a complex 2 to 3 day passage. Begin watching weather well in advance to look for patterns. Look for systems that disrupt/ease prevailing trade winds/waves. The katabatic winds aren’t well integrated to GRIB models. PredictWind has more detail along the coastline, but may understate their effect.

Watch the currents for flow pattern – is it linear or disjointed? Will you have to navigate eddies and meanders? Now that we’re in countdown mode, weather and current are closely tracked to make a go, no-go decision.

pilot chart weather routing opencpn

OpenCPN with Climatology plugin overlay


Historical weather trend data:

  • Pilot Charts, like Cornell’s Cruising Ocean Atlas
  • Climatology plugin for OpenCPN (shown above),
  • Communication / blog posts by cruisers that have done this trip

Current weather conditions and forecast: note these are what we’re referencing on this passage. Other passages may add regional-specific sources!

  • PredictWind (various models and tools)
  • GMDSS (text) forecasts
  • local marine forecasts
  • observations for cruisers (when possible- thanks Itchy Foot!)

3 – Develop a safe, efficient route

We use PredictWind routing for an efficient path based on wind, waves, and current from four different GRIB models. The results show generally good grouping between the models, suggesting they agree on conditions. This still requires interpretation, however. Wave GRIBs are not good at representing real conditions when waves are affected by some land features; there are also the katabatic wind induced waves to consider.

PredictWind routing models based on different weather algorithms

PredictWind routing models based on different weather algorithms

The first third of the PredictWind route is free of increased risk we’ve noted earlier, and takes advantage of good current. Beyond that, we want to keep to deeper water – giving a wider margin to the continental shelf and mountainous headlands, and avoiding shallow banks. Hopefully this will reduce the katabatic wind affect and the chance of debris in the water. On the other hand, there will probably be more shipping traffic.

The wider route adds distance, making it roughly 400 miles. Estimating our boatspeed in these conditions, we hope to transit in a little over two days: a morning departure for a midday arrival after two nights at sea.  It’s possible we’d need to slow down, as we did sailing to Bonaire from Martinique. At least the moon is waxing again, so there’ll be nice light until midnight.

If seas get sloppy close to the islands, we may go further north. OpenCPN screenshot.

If seas get sloppy close to the islands, we may go further north. OpenCPN screenshot

4 – Weather window

Watching weather for the last week plus observations from cruisers in Santa Marta to helps index what forecasts show. While the forecast is for  a moderate 20 knots, to 25 knots on approach to Santa Marta, local observation is that wind is actually much stronger – up to 40 knots! Long range forecasts showing a possible window on December 26. That’s our ideal departure date, to give us a few days in Santa Marta before Jamie flies up to Puerto Rico for a rigging job. Six days out is just too far to count on at this point, but we’ll keep watching, seek local reports, and shift Totem’s plan as necessary.

5 – Bailout Options

Curacao and Aruba are options for the first part of the passage. Beyond, bailout options wane, but a helpful post on our Facebook page recommended Cabo de la Vela (thanks James!). In general, we have security concerns about stopping along Venezuela or Colombia and will avoid it if at all possible. Most passages should have multiple bailout options: find them by using guide books, charts, Coast Pilot books, and asking other cruisers.

6 – Destination clearance procedures

Outbound clearance in Bonaire is easy: one stop, one window, and they’re even going to be open on Christmas! For inbound to Colombia, the Marina Santa Marta will facilitate the paperwork, a more complicated process if clearing further west at Cartagena.

7 – Float plan

I won’t get on the float plan soap box except to say – it’s important. We’ll update our existing float plan for this specific passage:  download our float plan template from here.

From our crew to yours, our warmest wishes for happy holidays! We have our festive frolic going on here on Bonaire, and hope the weather window holds for a departure on the 26th.