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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Private Lagoon
03/15/2008, Aridup

Swingin' on a Star is bound for the South Pacific and it is getting to be time to cross the canal. Both Em and Margaret are looking forward to crossing the canal with us and we'd like to be out in the Pacific by April if possible. All of this added up to us needing to do some larger hops.

We decided to shoot for Aridup today. Aridup is the last island along the coast before you get to the central San Blas. We were underway at first light, slowly backtracking out of the anchorage. Chart Plotter Track Lines aren't a guaranteed safe route but they are certainly reassuring.

Once out of the anchorage we headed for deep water and motor sailed up the coast, leaving all of the islands and most of the shoals to port. We saw many Kuna out in their canoes fishing and traveling about. They seem to get up very early in the twilight hours to head out.

We picked up the Bauhaus waypoints at 09 17.029N, 078 06.160W and headed back inland to cruise through the islands off of Playon Chico. As we came up to the waypoint at 09 18.019N, 078 10.620W we noticed an amazing little harbor back in the Achudup area. We couldn't resist pausing to explore it.

We came in from the southwest around the small islet and reef system south of the harbor. Then we headed east and tried to get in from the south. You can make it most of the way but just before you get into the lagoon there is a reef across the entire entrance. Maybe you could row through in a 105 with the motor up but we had to turn back.

We refused to be beaten however and proceeded with the entire crew spotting on the bow. We followed our track back but broke off and followed the island around to the north staying inside Tacherdup. Coming around from the northwest we found a nice break in the reef and glided into the lagoon.

This is a fantastic anchorage located at 09 18.410N, 078 10.410W. You can drop your anchor in sand 10-15 feet deep in the northwest corner of the lagoon and lay back on good scope. There's just enough room for one 50 foot cat. A perfect lunch spot but fine for overnight as well with very good protection. You might not get out if the seas come up from the north though. After enjoying the fantastic little lagoon for a brief bit we headed back out to Aridup.

Aridup is a beautiful island with a couple of small satellites to the southwest. Just as you might picture the perfect desert island, wonderful beaches sprouting with coconut palm trees. The anchorage shown in the Bauhaus guide is south of the island in 20-30 feet. We decided to see if we could get lucky again and pressed on toward the cove farther up the southwest coast.

It is important to explore this area in good light as there are reefs just below the surface all over the place. Usually they break but in the dark calm of a new moon you can't even tell they're there. There are also some isolated coral heads but these are typically deep enough that you wouldn't need to worry unless you had a fairly deep draft.

After carefully working our way back toward the beach and surveying the bottom we decided that we had found paradise. The bottom was perfect sand with some eel grass patches here and there (easy to mistake for reef if you don't have good light). The edges of the lagoon consist of a beautiful palm lined beach with a view through to the Caribbean Sea, and surrounding reefs teaming with fish and other creatures. We came to rest at 09 22.18'N, 078 15.55'W.

There's probably room for only one boat, maybe two good friends, but that was fine with us. Just like the Carreto anchorage we saw no more than two or three other boats all day (not counting Kuna canoes) and anchored alone.

Once setup we contemplated bringing a coconut tree line ashore. We were about 400 feet off of the beach though and after a snorkel around it seemed that we had plenty of swinging room for the conditions.

There are a couple of Kuna shelters on the island but I didn't see any people when I explored. The girls decided to take Roq for a hike while I looked around for Lobster.

As I snorkeled about I noticed a canoe approaching. I popped my head up and three Kuna men came to speak to me. We had the typical friendly greeting followed by lots of chatting with neither party understanding what the other was saying. In the end I successfully communicated that I was trying to spear lobster. They seemed more interested in fish but after a bit more discussion one of them jumped in to hunt with me.

After about 20 minutes of joint searching, fruitless I might add, my Kuna friend decided he'd had enough. The three of them said goodbye and went ashore for the night. Shortly thereafter I speared my first one. I looked around on the outside for another hour but the cold I'd been battling was starting to make it hard for me to equalize and I could get past 10 feet. I saw a couple of nurse sharks on the prowl, known for eating lobster, and decided to leave them to it.

Em, Hideko and Margaret were all enjoying some great snorkeling as well. Margaret is very industrious and cleaned the water line for a while as well. I turned in early but the girls enjoyed one of Hideko's wonderful Mahi Mahi creations with a lobster appetizer.

Sailing northwest
03/14/2008, Suledup (aka Isla de Oro)

We had a relaxing breakfast aboard today and enjoyed the tranquility of Carreto bay. Some Kuna came by to get a look at us and say Bueno Dias. We have not seen any women out on the canoes, only men and boys. An older man and a boy came by offering Avocados for sale. They were huge. Hideko purchased four, each of which made some tasty guacamole.

We ultimately invited them aboard for a glass of water. They ate some grapes we offered with quite a bit of interest, as if they had not seen such fruit before. They pocketed the seeds indicating that they would try to plant them. They were also interested in acquiring some magazines so we gave them a few older sailing mags. I wondered if the chief would be ok with westerners spreading propaganda in such a way, but they wanted our Panama Cruising Guide originally which I just couldn't part with. They were both very polite and courteous.

Margaret had noticed that our port jack line running under the bridge deck was loose. I jumped in to check it out and it seemed to have been rotted away in the middle with the aft section completely missing. These lines are great for pulling yourself along the boat as you scrub the waterline or what have you. The port line was always a little longer than the starboard line and would get wet unless the water was flat. I can only assume that it just gave in to the sea as it didn't look to be cut. Definitely on my list of things to fix.

We decided to get going around 1 in the afternoon. It was a nice day to sail but our sailing was upwind. We slowly tacked up the coast at 6 or so knots in 10 to 12 knots of apparent wind.

I was struck by the amount of plastic trash floating about. I don't think I have ever seen a coastline with so much junk in the water. This whole area is amazingly beautiful in all other ways. I suppose if you make everything from natural objects like trees, plants and rocks you're used to being able throw anything into the ocean without recourse. I worry about what it will be like in ten years though and wish I had made it here ten years ago, before the trash and anchoring fees.

The Kuna people are rich in culture and there is no real concept of poverty. That only comes in when people begin to want things. I have seen people with much more than the Kuna who are certainly in the poverty bin. The Kuna we have met all seem happy, content and rich in the most important ways.

Many Kuna villages in the southeast are traditional blending in with the environment. There are many on islands as well. Some (as pictured) seem to overflow the shores. The great thing is that they denude and build out to the waterline on one island but leave those around them (as pictured) completely pristine.

We didn't get far today in our trip up the coast but it was a relaxing sail. We decided to put in at Suledup after consulting the navigational aids. Our charts of the area are medium scale and good for planning but not close in to shore. The Navionics electronic charts are in the same bucket. Both have huge areas that simply say "unsurveyed". The BauhausGuide is the indisposable gem here.

The Panama Coast is very rocky and reefy and there are lots of hazards about. The detail, accuracy and coverage Bauhaus provides makes getting around a lot safer. The Guide also sets out many anchorages not found in other references.

We crept up around the reefs and islets to the south of Suledup, Isla de Oro on the DMA chart. We saw 7 feet idling through some of the reef breaks but once inside it was a really nicely protected harbor with about 20 feet of water. An American trawler was already anchored inside. You could have probably squeezed another two boats in but it was nice with two.

We had sailed all day with overcast skies so the batteries needed a little boost. We ran the genset and played dominoes for an hour or two after sunset and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings.

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).


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