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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Traveling to the San Blas
03/13/2008, Carreto Bay

The boat was in passage-making mode so we were ready to make way after a half hour of prep in the predawn. We motored out of the anchorage favoring the east side of the harbor in the moonless dark. By 06:30 we had rounded the island and the southwest shoal, making way for the southern end of Panama. We saw a couple of well lit fishing boats out and about.

It was a cloudy day but we had a nice close reach with the wind in the low teens and the seas just aft of the beam the whole way.

As we closed on the Panama coast we noticed the clouds thickening over the mainland. A friend we met in Cartagena had told us that often the outlying islands will be sunny while the mainland is getting drizzled on. We were certainly finding this to be true. The whole area seems a bit cloudy this time of year but the mainland is always a few notches more cloudy and rainy on the scale.

The crew had selected Carreto Bay as our first landfall. I have still not gotten used to picking anchorages that I have never seen before from the chart with total exposure to the east. I guess a year and a half of anchoring in the lee on the west side of islands will do that to you. Here everything comes from the north. Maybe north east or north west, but north just the same.

Carreto Bay is a large bay with an easy in and out fairly close to the southeastern most extent of the Caribbean coast of Panama. A very traditional Kuna Indian village sits at the back of the bay with some huts lining the hill above. They have no TV, radio, motors, cameras, video or power here.

We anchored at about 18:00 in the anchorage described by the Eric Bauhaus Panama Cruising Guide. The guide had been very useful in planning our travels through the San Blas. It will be interesting to see how well it matched up to the actual.

Our first encounter with the Kuna folk took place as we were setting the anchor. There were several dugout canoes in the bay fishing and what have you and as we arrived a couple made there way over to get a look at us. It was strange and wonderful to be in such a foreign environment.

We exchanged waves and hellos/holas with the people in the canoes as they glided by with their hand carved paddles. Once we were settled a new canoe arrived and seemed to have business to do. I greeted them, it was a friendly group. They spoke Kuna and a very small bit of Spanish. I of course spoke English and a very small bit of Spanish.

When it became obvious that we were not going to get far verbally they handed me a receipt. It was for anchorage fees of $10US. I must admit that this first interaction with the Kuna did burst my bubble a little. Margaret counseled me to look at it as a park fee which made it a little easier to swallow.

As the sun set I wondered if electric lights would come up in the village. Nope, a few fires here and there but otherwise nothing but darkness, just as it would have been many years ago.

Cartagena to Isla Fuerte
03/12/2008, Isla Fuerte

We got up at 05:30 to get the boat ready for an 80 something mile run to Isla Fuerte off of the south coast of Colombia. We wanted to go out the south Cartagena entrance, Boca Chica, so that we could see all of the forts built throughout the harbor.

I have never seen more forts built around a single area. The Boca Chica pass has a good sized fort on both the north and south point. Many of the forts and walls have been painfully restored making them that much more impressive.

We were told to check in with the Coast Guard and the harbor master on the way out. We hailed the Coast Guard a few times but received no response. The harbor master answered right away and was very friendly. After being cleared to exit we passed several cargo ships and left a large cruise ship to starboard at the sea buoy on the way out.

The sail to Fuerte was fairly eventless. It was great having Margaret and Em aboard to help crew the boat. Em was in good practice and Margaret is just a great sailor. Unfortunately I made everyone lattes on the way through the harbor and somehow all of the girls (and Roq as well) went to sleep shortly after finishing them. Maybe I shouldn't be using the Venezuelan beans in Colombian waters, I don't know.

We got in to Isla Fuerte just before 17:00. The approach was easy. A boat boy tried to intercept us but he didn't speak English and we ended up trying to ignore him although it was almost impossible. I was having unpleasant flash backs of Saint Lucia. I gave him a beer anyway but he didn't seem thankful.

Fuerte is fairly well populated and is a tourist destination of sorts. The anchorage is a small bay on the south side of the island protected from the west through the north, north being the direction the wind generally blows from in this neck of the woods. There are exposed rocks on the west side. The east side seems to provide a clear passage into and out of the anchorage and we saw no hazards clear of the rocks and shoal to the west.

There were three other boats in the anchorage enjoying themselves ashore, where we hear there are restaurants and bars. We had another long day tomorrow with nearly 90 miles still to go to the San Blas, so we enjoyed dinner on the boat and hit the sack early.

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.


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