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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
03/11/2008, Old Town

We spent our last day in Cartagena exploring old town again but we also visited three places that we didn't want to miss. The first was Fort San Felipe. This fort is a huge stone structure just outside of old town. It is the largest defensive complex built by the Spanish in the new world and there are miles of tunnels under the fort, many that you can explore. You get great views of the entire area from the battlements.

We also stopped by the Naval Museum. While interesting I wouldn't shot myself if I missed it next time. The architecture of the building is impressive though. Almost every where you go in Cartagena the building inspire reverie.

Our last stop was the Gold Museum. The Gold Museum was fun and had lots of gold artifacts from pre Colombian Colombia (?). My favorite part was the tangential film they show about the flood plains of the Rio Magdalena and other major rivers in Colombia and how the ancient peoples mastered the swelling rivers during rainy season with complex canals allowing agriculture to go on unhindered.

We ate dinner back at Club Nautico while we waited for Manfred to stop by with our clearance out (zarpe). We now had Margaret and Em on our crew list. I filled out forms while the girls went to the grocery store. My only request was fresh milk so that we could have lattes in the morning. They got it but it came in a bag. I had seen plastic jugs, paper cartons and even boxes but this was my first bag of milk.

After wrapping up with Manfred we made our way back to the big boat and began stowing things for sea.

Clearing in and out
03/10/2008, Cartagena

The officials in Cartagena require an agent for clearance into Colombia. In our case we needed to clear in today and out tomorrow so that we could depart for the San Blas the day after. We used Manfred as our agent (there are two available) and he did a fine job, driving us to immigration so that we could expedite things.

The immigration office is in the old part of town situated in the former governor's mansion. It was a fantastic building and an ad hoc beginning to our tour of old Cartagena. From the mansion we headed out to the heart of the old town for some crepes and ice cream. The store, Crepe and Waffle, was very nicely appointed and had good food and very good deserts. We took a walk along the ramparts that surround almost the entire area on both sides of the bay. It was great to be able to read about the rich history of Cartagena and see the remains of things from hundreds of years ago.

We took a horse drawn carriage ride around town and walked through some of the huge old churches. Some of the hawkers are a little aggressive in the squares but in general the Colombian people are wonderfully courteous and friendly. There is a lot to see in old town Cartagena and as night fell we were just getting started.

Our friend Peter on Seeyamana was having a birthday party tonight so we made our way back to the marina. Cabs between most points of interest are only two US dollars so it is cheap and easy to get around. Back at Peter's we enjoyed some wonderful food and company. It is always a treat to mix and mingle with new cruiser acquaintances and share stories and information.

We dinghied back to Swingin' on a Star after a full day but ready to hit it again tomorrow, our last day in Cartagena.

The Tempest of Baranquilla
03/09/2008, 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).

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.


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