Passage Aruba to San Blas Panama
16 December 2016 | San Blas, Panama
On departure from Aruba (30 Nov), I took a tough line with Aruba Port Control concerning the dangerous situation of berthing at their H-dock imposes towards cruisers and their yachts. APA require that yachts come alongside H-dock to clear in and out, however during Inward clearance when we did this it was blowing 15kts with a good swell and requires one of us jumping from boat to wharf to tie our mooring lines onto (inappropriately) large ships bollards - not even properly spaced for a medium sized yacht. And then the Customs officers will just watch you ... they cant assist as its a stevedore's job (unionised) who are not made available for yachts! We ended up damaging Emerald during this berthing - but fortunately no one was hurt. So I said bollards to that and politely refused to berth for the Outward clearance explaining it was unsafe for yacht and crew. On the day before we left I visited APA and Customs to explain the situation and it was eventually agreed that I could come alongside with my dingy to clear. But as we needed to depart at 5am, I learned that Immigration doesn't work the night shift (Customs do!) and they wouldn't stamp our passports the day before, or some 12hrs beforehand (unlike Bonaire or Curacao - Netherlands?!). So the next day, at 5am we hoist up our anchor and sailed away but were obviously observed on AIS when Port Control demanded that we return and come alongside H-dock to formally clear out. After explaining the situation and telling them Im leaving, they wouldn't have any of that and sent the Coast Guard out to bring us back. Well I was already returning to berth before the CG arrived as, by then, Port Control promised that a stevedore would be available to collect our mooring lines. None the less, CG put 2 officers onboard Emerald, there was lots of chatter, explanations and we eventually berthed at H-dock, completed all clearances and we were good to go. I felt we had made a clear message to all parties that their 'yacht dock' was unsafe and woefully inadequate for yachts and that it was irresponsible of them to expect yachties, many of which have only two persons onboard, to risk serious personal injury and property damage - twice. I also learned that many before me have complain about this. So hopefully all this mornings cadavers wont go to waste and the APA will remedy this. Yeah, I'm a rebel at heart!
Ok, so that's over and now a distant horizon behind us!
For the first few days heading west from Aruba it was 15kts of wind across the aftdeck feeding the genakker and periodically a butterfly arrangement with the genoa and a lovely cooling breeze over our helm station. The deep blue was inviting and light cirrus clouds above provided confidence of excellent sailing conditions. Rose had prepared a delicious casserole dish that lasted two evenings and I volunteered for a few days of cooking until she got her sea legs sorted.
And we thought the above was excitement enough for the first day! Well about an hour out of Aruba we spotted a large hammerhead shark slowly swimming on the surface, dorsal fin out of the water, while we past him quite closely. Later, our fishing luck returned too as we caught a nice sized Bonito which I filleted (Rose said it was my turn!) and we'll eat soon. Then we had many visitors - a large pod of Spotted and Spinner dolphins that danced and played around Emerald for a few hours. We stop everything to play with these guys n gals! Later we past a pod of pilot whales but we kept our distance, as they did too!
We past Punta Gallinas early morning on 1 December with good sailing conditions. This is the most northerly point of South America, an area with a nasty weather reputation if you don't get your forecasts right.
There's a lot of shipping traffic out here, picked up on our AIS, which allows us to monitor their speed, course and closest point of impact. A lot of these are commercial ships heading to or returning from the Canal. All of of them were quite polite as they altered course for us (note that our AIS transmit the same info including that we are a sailing boat and sailing boats at sea, in most instances, have right of way)!
Now the reason I wanted to leave Aruba at 5am was so we would arrive at mouth of the Magdalena River at first daylight - this is some 280Nm from Aruba. Magdalena is one of South America's largest rivers with tentacles well into the Amazon providing local and commercial transport. It' also known to discharge lots of debris into the Caribbean hence I had plans to pass this area during daylight hours. From review of wind and current predictions, I expected any significant debris wont extend beyond some 10-15Nm out so I have rerouted our course to stay 25Nm out and we will now only pass this area with some 6hrs of daylight. We still encountered various form of shite i.e. logs, garbage bags, etc. And a discoloration of the seawater.
The 3-way Watt&Sea hydrogenerator connector failed (broken electrical wire). This so-called marine electrical connector is completely under designed and flimsy (read: useless) for these applications (made by Quick, who are better suited for making windlasses). After a few hours of fault finding I re-rigged it, soldered it up and we are back producing Amps.
Talk about a sudden change in wind direction! During the 2nd night, about 2am, the wind shifted from 50 deg to 160 deg TWD in a matter of seconds getting our attention rather quickly. Fortunately the wind speed remained similar at about 15kts TWS. But we lost sailing ability and speed so we started the engines and rolled up the genoa until we understood what was going on and let it settle. And with hardly a cloud in the sky! We were about 40nm from the Colombian coast so I suspect this was a type of katabatic wind from the shore. Perhaps this what the locals call chocosanos'.
We received daily weather forecasts and current predictions via our SSB radio/Sailmail and got a few emails out to friends and family. My strategy is to receive a big picture weather forecast (North Pacific, Caribbean) in the morning and a more local one in the evening. This way we can see whats developing elsewhere which allows us to prepare appropriately.
The local forecast indicted a large disturbed Low area, with reduced and scattered winds, in the southwestern Caribbean - great ... just the area we were entering on our 3rd day. And my worst nightmare is being hit by lightening. These last few days in this area, particularly at night, we were dodging large cumulonimbus's that crowded the sky with squally thunderstorms sparking up the sky. It seems this area has become a depository for such clouds and without much wind they just hovered around, vertically developing with the cooler night airs. The mornings were a relief as the warm air rose and cleared these monstrosities. I recall that only last week hurricane Otto wreaked its havoc in this region. So at night the vigilance was high, with our radar on doing a great job of highlighting and tracking them, allowing us to find safe routes to weave through. Not a lot of sleep though!
Trivia: catamarans are more likely by a factor of 3 to be hit by lightening than a monohull.
After 4.1 days of sailing (and some motoring), covering 535Nm, we arrived at the outer reef outside of Punta Brava, then made our way in to the island village of Maniputu and anchored south of Achutupu of the Guna Yala people. I had earlier plotted a route through the reef using Eric Bauhaus's routes in his book 'Panama Cruising Guide' noting that commercial charts i.e. Navionics, Garmin or CM are not complete here. From the outer reef waypoint its basically eyeball navigating through the reefs and coral heads (bommies) with the sun high (11:00hrs), clear waters while generally following the plotted route (great work by Eric B here but note that some of the depths are shallower than written along these routes). However, we couldn't ask for better conditions - light airs from shore, minimal swell off the Caribbean, clear blue day, good viz. Let's go discover San Blas!