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Resurgent Bonaire Sailing

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Bonaire is an island with a rich maritime past. For generations, its sailors left for jobs in the merchant marine, first on sailing schooners and then on conventional freighters. The Bonaire International Regatta came later and is now in its 45th year. Plus, the island has long been a favorite destination for those cruising the Dutch Caribbean. Even the country’s colorful flag sports a compass rose rising above a symbolic slash of Caribbean blue.

In the past year Bonaire has experienced a resurgence in sailing. Beyond the small dinghies from the local sailing school, other sailboats are now dotting the waters along the island’s calm leeward shore. One reason for that is Sailing Point Bonaire, the creation of Dutchman Mark Dieperink.

“Look at the water here,” says Dieperink. “We always have good winds, small waves, and minimal current. It’s perfect. And Klein Bonaire (the offshore islet) has such clear, dark blue water. I always say it is like cruising in Spa Blue (a Belgian bottled water). It is so beautiful here.”

Dieperink currently keeps three boats on moorings off Kralendijk, Bonaire’s port town. They include a UFO, a Centaur, and a Yngling, the speedy Norwegian racer. All three sloops are around 20ft long and can be rented for day sailing. Also, there are two catamarans onshore from which to choose. In addition, Dieperink gives hands-on sailing lessons and serves as captain for those customers who just want a ride. But perhaps his biggest contribution is his volunteer work for the Bonaire Sailing School Association located at Kas Di Regatta, the regatta house.

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“I’ve volunteered there for two years now. I like it because the local kids really want to learn to sail. I get a lot of enjoyment from them, and they are busy with sailing instead of hanging out on the street. I teach them on my Optimist, Laser or Sunfish dinghies and occasionally I take them out on my other boats.”

But Sailing Point Bonaire is not the only game in town. South Caribbean Sailing, located at the Plaza Resort Marina, rents out the classic Valk (‘falcon’ in English). These Dutch-made 21ft, gaff-rigged, keel boats fly like the wind. I had the chance to find out first hand aboard Tera Korá, one of three Valks available for rent. Two friends and I glided silently out of the marina powered by the sloop’s Torqeedo electric motor. We set both main and roller furling jib and headed south to Bonaire’s saltpans. The Valk handled the 18-knot winds with ease, and by island’s end we tacked back north. Later, an enthusiastic pod of dolphins raced off Tera Korá’s bow in two meters of gin-clear water. It was a fine day at sea.

But South Caribbean Sailing also offers a bigger sailboat for those who want to wander from Bonaire’s shores. Nawati is a spacious 46ft Beneteau owned by Werner Haan. He can arrange either bare boat or captained charters to Venezuela’s uninhabited Aves Islands or neighboring Curaçao. Or one can choose the 49ft skippered Hallberg Rassy ketch, Full Circle, which often departs from Kralendijk.

“Sailing Bonaire is very nice with good winds and no waves along the coast,” explains Captain Paul van der Linden. “Because of this we offer day trips sailing around Klein Bonaire and cruises to the north or south. Plus, we enjoy the excellent diving and snorkelling of Bonaire. But the island is also a very good place to welcome guests from Europe, and we often make trips to either Los Roques (Venezuela) or Curaçao.”

With this resurgent interest in sailing, Bonaire is now a destination for tourists and yachties alike. Visitors can learn to sail small boats along the sheltered leeward coast or take an adventurous passage to nearby islands. Visiting sailors can take a break from their large yachts and enjoy the simple pleasures of a daysailer. And for those of us who live here, we get to enjoy the pleasing view of white sails on the endless horizon.

When not writing for All At Sea, Wooden Boat and Sailing magazines, Patrick Holian can be found at the helm of his 14-foot catboat, Kontentu, cruising the shores of Bonaire.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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