The Tempest of Baranquilla
09 March 2008 | Cartagena
To quote myself, "It all peaks around Baranquilla were the massive Rio Magdalena dumps out into the Caribbean. The mixing of fresh water, salt water, currents, wind and the occasional log swept out from the delta makes for some interesting and steep waves."
I pulled down detailed weather for the area early this morning. It looked like, if we could clear Baranquilla by noon that we would be in the mid twenties missing the 30 something stuff that starts honking in the afternoon. Winter is just tough here no matter how you slice it.
The other choice was staying in the Santa Marta/Five Bays area until Wednesday. The problem with that plan is that forecasts always come true, you just may need to wait a few months for the results to match up. I'm not getting down on the forecasters, it's just that local affects are really hard for someone thousands of miles away to predict and macro weather is not useful in an area like this where local effects predominate. That and the fact that the farther out a forecast is, the less reliable it is, caused us to take the bad conditions early today in lieu of the really bad conditions this afternoon or the possibly moderate, possibly no change, conditions in a few days.
As we sailed out across the bay the wind quickly built into the high twenties. My best guess is that the waves built into the 10 foot range and we frequently saw bigger. This kind of seaway can be tiring for the helmsman because you feel the need to keep an eye on the waves coming at you most of the time. You could probably just put the boat on auto pilot and go to sleep but you feel the need to keep an eye on things, taking a shallower course down the wave faces when the big ones come along. It was a blue sky day which made things nicer.
As we approached Baranquilla the wind and waves intensified getting into the force 8 zone. We spotted the distinct line of brown water spilling out from the Rio Magdalena. The effluent covers a huge area this time of year. I can't imagine what it must look like during the rainy season. The Sailing Directions say not to worry about the brown water. Again I picture how substantial the floating debris and seas would need to be before a 700 foot steel hull cargo ship cares. Long after we are caring a great deal I would imagine.
The problem is that unless you are going to sail to Cartagena via Panama you simply can't avoid the area, it's too big. So off we surfed into the brown. I've never gotten wet on our boat before but twice the tops of big blue waves had broken on the quarter and sent a splash my way. No solid water but still a good soaking. I was hoping that the brown stuff wouldn't make it aboard.
As nasty as conditions were the brown water seemed to hold together a little better. Perhaps there was more surface tension, I'm not sure, but it seemed the brown stuff broke less at the crests. All the same my third and final drubbing was nice and brown.
We had also never had things fly about inside the boat before. These seas were so sharp though that when you surf down at an angle every once in a while a wave would pass you and lift one hull then the other quickly. It was this fast side to side motion that knocked our coffee grinder over and spilled my favorite coffee beans all over the counter. The nerve.
As we worked our way south the water began to lose its brownness very gradually. We were pretty far off shore in order to stay in fairly deep water. Also because as we jibbed (which required artful timing) back into shore it seemed the waves got steeper. We were sailing under double reefed main and a scrap of jib yet we often ran very fast down the waves. No one wave would get us much over 12 knots, but every now and then you would get three in a row synchronized just right. We hit 15 knots speed over ground often and actually saw 20 and change at one point. I liked 15 but not 20.
I looked over at Em from time to time to make sure that she was comfortable. Often folks without a lot of sailing experience get a little nervous in big seas. She was reading a Charlie Houston novel or sleeping the whole day. I had to smile as I imagined some of my guy friends crying like little girls between heaving over the rail.
As we progressed toward Cartagena we began to jibe into the shallower water closer to shore. The points north of Cartagena started knocking the seas down considerably and the winds began to come down from their peak in the high 30s and gusty zone to the low twenties. We were hoping to make it into Cartagena before sunset yet sailing all the way down to Boca Chica and back up to the small boat anchorage would certainly put us in the dark.
We decided to try to hail some folks in the anchorage to see if we could get some pointers after we tried to raise the Nautico Marina. Nautico answered and told us that they still had no space. We couldn't raise our friends Seeyamana but another boat, Panacea answered us. We told them that we were making the entrance for the first time and coming from the north and they asked if were coming in Boca Grande.
Again the shortfall of the sailing directions and our medium scale paper charts bit me. On the chart is shows a submerged wall across Boca Grande and the Sailing directions say nothing of it (because tankers can't go in there). There is, of course, a tight, but reasonable cut in the wall for small boats. This entrance takes a good 10 miles out of the equation. We were ecstatic.
We approached beautiful Cartagena with wind surfers jibing in front of us as the sun sank low. The Boca Chica cut is narrow and it can be tricky with big seas and high wind. After Baranquilla we didn't think twice about it though. It was very exciting to be motoring through historic Catagena, I could imagine Drake and other famous scallywags sailing through in their tall ships.
Some kind folks on a Kynsia 44 (the Saint Francis 44 molds) guided us to a safe anchoring spot amidst the other boats. Hideko and Em cleaned Swingin' on a Star up as I put the dink in the water. Our friend Margaret didn't get our email saying we'd be late but we found her via the VHF all the same.
I dinghied over to the Nautico dinghy dock, which is a trick the first time in the dark. The dock is in the middle of all of the big boat docks and everything is stern to so there are bow lines and stern lines out all over the place. It was great to see Margaret. We hadn't seen her since our sailing trip in Marina Del Rey (incidentally one of our first blogs) almost two years ago. We piled all of Margaret's stuff into Little Star and headed back to the big boat to settle in with a crew of 4 (plus one dog).