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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Ditching in Santa Marta
03/08/2008, Santa Marta

You never know what to think of your charts until you have been in an area for a while. So just while we were in the susceptible new country zone, coming around Punta Gallinas in Colombia, the sounder started tracking a 30 some foot bottom. Now sometimes you catch a dolphin or something and get an instantaneous bounce but this was tracking, and in a place where we should have had no bottom.

As you would expect we slowed the boat and turned off shore. After carefully consulting the paper and electronic charts, several GPSes and the Sailing Directions we decided that the sounder was having one over on us. My current explanation is that the seas were beginning to kick into gear as we came around the point. I think the turbulence under the bow can cause this, but only in places where there is no other bottom. When there is a pingable bottom this doesn't seem to happen. So after a half hour or so of frittering about to get enough confidence to proceed at speed we headed down the coast.

We were surfing down the waves by midnight at speeds up to 11 knots. Things were still reasonable though and we pressed on with the Em/Hideko team on watch from midnight until 04:00 and me taking over until 08:00. The bioluminescent critters in our wake were putting on quite a show throughout the wee hours and the girls spotted several groups of dolphins at various times of day. We make log entries every half hour when on passage and check off all of the lights on the passage plan as they go by, taking the occasional 2 LOP fix or running fix to check the GPS.

As the day wore on we closed on Santa Marta, the first real big city along the Colombian coast. As advertised things began to heat up. The area between Santa Marta and Cartagena is famous for big wind and big sharp seas. 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.

We had been making good time running around 9 knots but we would not clear Baranquilla by nightfall. The wind continued to build over 20 knots and the seas were progressing in lock step. As the sun approached the horizon I decided to invoke the closest ditch anchorage.

We were enroute to meet a sailing friend from Marina Del Rey in Cartagena. She was expecting us tomorrow morning. We don't like to leave people waiting for us but this was an easy call. We had set our passage to coincide with a moderation event along the Colombian coast that ended up shrinking to almost non existent. The next calm down would not be until Wednesday, five days hence. We made a valiant effort to get around Baraquilla during the calm but seeing as how we either missed it or it didn't materialize, I saw no reason to put my crew through that particular transit at night.

We had a couple of options in the Santa Marta area. Santa Marta itself is a fairly protected harbor but it is home to customs and harbor to some big ships. We wanted nothing to do with either until we reached Cartagena. Further down the coast there was a roadstead for large ships. This is the thing about the US Sailing Directions. They're really motoring directions, and for really big vessels at that. You get depth cautions about areas that are 20 feet deep for instance. A great many small wonderful boat harbors are never given the slightest mention. Still good to know information.

After studying the chart, we decided to get in behind the point to the south of Santa Marta and cruise the coast to see what looked good, ditching at the roadstead in the worst case. From off shore we spotted a sandy beach resort looking area. This is a good thing. Sandy beaches are typically protected if on the lee side of things (otherwise there's no sand) and sandy beaches give you a good shot at a shallow sandy anchorage.

As we dropped the main and motored up to the Yireth Resort I smiled. What a perfect place to anchor. There's a lot of traffic during the day because there are no roads into this little isolated beach at the bottom of the carved out cliff. You also have to be careful to stay out of the beach channel and to avoid the huge fishing net hung out from the beach to an area a good two hundred meters off shore at twilight. Other than that at sunset you have the place to yourself.

Hideko, Em and I put the boat away as the wind came howling down the hills in gusts, blowing from nothing to 20 in seconds. The holding was wonderful and the breeze kept things nice and cool aboard. Flying the Q we didn't drop the dink. Passing boats said hola but no took much notice of us. We had a nice dinner watching the sun set and then settled down for a nice sleep. We would need to get after it early tomorrow to make the Cartagena entrance by sunset.

Ten Hours Out of Aruba
03/07/2008, Approaching Punta Gallinas

This is our first attempt at blogging underway using sailmail. Hope it works out.

We left Aruba at about 10AM today after moving over to the port, with the 800 foot cruise ships, to clear out. The Renaissance Marina folks were great and came out to help. It is a little harsh making yachts dock in that port to enter and exit Aruba; concrete walls with black tires that rub off on your top sides here and there, as well as a handy bollard the size of a VW every 1/4 mile (only a slight exaggeration).

We have had no wind to speak of today seeing mostly 6-8 knots from dead astern with some light and variable thrown in for good measure. We've been doing around 9 knots with one engine at 2400rpm. Sunset was beautiful. We are now in traffic avoidance mode as there seems to be a lot of shipping running up and down the coast here. Lovin' the AIS and radar overlay. Looking forward to more wind as we reel in the Colombian coast.

We planed our crossing to get us by the rocky Monjes islands with some light still in the sky. The Venezuelan Coast Guard was hailing everyone as they passed the Monjes asking vessels to identify themselves. I didn't like the sound of it and fortunately they never hailed our position. I think they were at a land station in the Monjes though because we didn't see any boats.

03/06/2008, Aruba

We were planning to depart on a 48 hour sail to Cartagena tomorrow. So Em and Hideko went to the Renaissance Hotel's private island to hang out and I worked on the boat. ? While this is actually what happened there was no need for all of us to be sticks in the mud. I just needed to swap out another failed RuleMate bilge pump and take care of some other planning items.

Before they left we all went out to breakfast at a great breakfast place. Hideko and I had been helping Wakamizu on the English front as they attempted to get some parts ordered from West Marine so Sugawara San joined us as well.

We didn't see much of Aruba but if you'd like to spend a few days back in the modern world it is a nice stop.

Curacao to Aruba
03/05/2008, Aruba

A scuffle seems to be brewing between Colombia and Ecuador/Venezuela. From what we hear the Colombian government hit the FARC but crossed the border into Ecuador doing it. Ecuador began shouting foul and now Chavez is grandstanding as well. Not what you like to hear just before transiting the waters at the Venezuela Colombia border.

The trip from Curacao to Aruba is a bit further than the hop to Curacao from Bonaire so we began getting the boat ready at 06:30 this morning. It is about 90 nautical miles from hook to hook and we were shooting for an arrival before 17:00. As can happen in a crowded anchorage the boat in front of us was floating on top of our anchor. They were helpful though and when we hailed them the master got up and hauled on his anchor chain in his underwear until we could bring our anchor up.

We motored out of Spanish Water in the quiet of early morning. It made me think how much of a difference one transit of an area makes to your knowledge and confidence when piloting. No matter how much you read about a place it never amounts to more than a sliver of the experience of actually passing through even just once. You still stay all over the sounder and keep a careful watch but you are in a very different place the second pass. The entrance to Spanish Water is particularly beautiful and I appreciated it much more on the way out.

It was a scattered cloud day, as it has been for most of the last month or so. We put up the main and rolled out the jib but didn't have enough wind to kill the starboard engine and still make our arrival target.

As we came up to Willemstad a rather large USCG cutter announced itself. Bush's answer to Chavez threatening Colombia? I know they don't like folks passing close in the homeland so I asked if they minded if we stayed on the same tack passing just off their stern. Not a problem came the courteous reply.

The seas became mixed as we got out from behind Curacao with some south and west in the wave pattern. It had also become pretty overcast with clouds streaming off of Curacao. We just kept motor sailing at 8-10 knots, put in a jibe and after nine hours of fairly eventless sailing we reached Oranjestad well up the industrial coast of Aruba.

The port of Oranjestad is more or less the bit of coast running along behind an extended sandy reef area. You can enter from the north or the south but the big cruise ships seem to come and go to the north. Oranjestad is a working port and has a small container facility and room for about five cruise ships. The bad news is that this is where you are required to tie up your little plastic boat to clear in.

Upon arrival you must announce yourself to the harbor control so that they can tell you where to go and ensure that you don't get creamed by a tanker or the like. After attaching to the 6 foot high concrete dock you await immigration whom the harbor master has already called for you. After immigration you walk over to customs to clear there. Once in you get permission to leave again and make way to the Renissance Marina, which is about the only place to park a yacht in Aruba.

The marina is nice though and the staff are great. There are some skinny spots in the marina area that deeper draft vessels will have to creep around. The swell gets into the marina a bit.

If you like being in the middle of things, this is your marina. It is pretty much the center of Aruba. Restaurants everywhere within walking distance, a casino across the street, and as a Renaissance guest you have access to the private island and the hotel facilities.

Since we started looking into the whole circumnavigation thing, Hideko and I have had a fun time trying to find Asian participants in the cruising world. You don't find too many. About a year ago some Internet friends on a Switch catamaran introduced us, remotely to Wakamizu and crew, a Japanese flagged and crewed Lagoon 470. They are bound for Japan from Spain. Hideko had kept in touch with the skipper and over the last few weeks our courses have been converging. A week or so ago we decided to try to meet up in Aruba.

As we motored into the marina we saw Wakamizu for the first time. They were not only in the best spot in the marina but they had saved up the spot on the end of the T right in front of them. They were waiting on the dock to help us tie up. It was so great to meet them after all of the time chatting over the Internet. We shared a bottle of champagne and stayed up late (for us anyway) sharing sailing stories and talking about the places we'd been and where we were going.

Clearing Out
03/04/2008, Willemstad

We cleared out today and spent our last evening walking around the charming downtown area of Willemstad. The Renaissance hotel on the north side of the harbor entrance has made nice use of the old fort walls in their construction. We enjoyed some tasty crepes and ice cream on the ground of the fortress and spent our last hours in Curacao looking out over the sea as we walked along the fort walls.

Mail Recon
03/03/2008, Willemstad

We had a big list to cover today prior to clearing out tomorrow. We had to get Roq and exam, pick up our mail from the US and do some last minute shopping.

The Vet we called was Dr. Geus. We met him at Sarifundy and he did the full exam and helth cert while we sat around and had colas. It was really wonderful and reasonably priced.

Poor Roq has had so many of these exams. Unfortunately many countries post requirements for a proper health certificate minted within the last 30 or 14 days or even from the last port in some cases. We have been advised that Roq (13) never needs another rabies shot, they simply will do no good anymore. Not that he can get Rabies, the contrary, he has had 13 years of vaccinations and can in no way come down with the disease at this point short of a fluke and the shots are making no difference.

This is all irrelevant to the bureaucrats passing legislation however. Oddly, in practice, no one has ever given Roq a second look or asked for any of our pet papers except Nevis and Kitts (who were maniacal about it). We have always declared him at customs but they just stamp the forms and that's that. We don't look for trouble in this department but we do keep Roq in the highest state of health and inoculation possible regardless. From what I hear Australia and Europe will be Nevis and Kitts all over again and then some.

After visiting with the doc we attempted to secure our mail. As I suspected the free ports of the ABCs are not so free of hassle when receiving one's mail. We always have a DVD or two in our mail and this really seems to confound the customs folks. After quite a go round I convinced them that the invoice Saint Brenden's Isle put on the box was all that we had and informed them that they could go through the packages one by one assessing their taxes as suited as long as we had our mail by tomorrow. They threatened to charge the video game fee on the DVDs if I didn't produce the invoice. I told them again that I had no invoice, that this was simply my mail, like any other American would get in their mail box and that if it meant getting my mail they were more than welcome to charge me the Video Game import rate (11% or something). That seemed to stump them, left with no other threats they agreed to charge me the max rate and have the mail ready by tomorrow afternoon.

In retrospect the only place we have ever been able to forward our mail with a few things from Amazon in tow without hassle has been the BVI. We haven't tried everywhere but the mail in the BVI was delivered right to our boat at Leverick Bay no fees and no questions asked. As crowded as it is the BVI has much to recommend it.

We shopped a bit in the area of the FedEx outlet back behind the main port of Willemstad and discovered a Sushi restaurant. It was alright by Japanese standards but quite a welcome treat for us.

Planning the passage to Cartagena
03/02/2008, Curacao

Hideko and Em went out to explore the beach areas today while I worked on our passage plan. We plan to leave Curacao soon and then hit Aruba. After a short stay in Aruba we will then sail straight through to Cartagena Colombia.

It should take us about 48 hours and I have not been able to find a commercial Colombian Cruising Guide. There are some neat write ups on the net but from a navigational stand point I'm relying on Chris Parker's weather routing, the US Sailing Directions (targeted at big ships) and the paper and electronic charts we have. We have some friends in Cartagena now so they have been a big help also. We have been looking forward to visiting Cartagena for a long time so it is an exciting trip to plan.


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