Saturday, December 27, 2014

Life on the Chica Bus

Even as cruisers we still succumb to tourist stuff like seeing the city on the Chica buses. These are crazy painted open-air buses whose operators swear they speak great English, but once the tour started we couldn't understand a word. No worries, just sit back and enjoy the ride. With the music blasting (typical Latin style) you can't hear the tour guide anyway.

Phil and Monica, our friends from Miss Molly, were the perfect couple for a  Chica bus tour. Their wry English sense of humor made the day.
First stop on the tour, Boca Grande, home of the rich and famous. Ever wonder where all that Columbian drug money goes?
The view looking south from the convent on top of the hill. While we were typically in a more affluent areas of Cartagena, Columbia is still a very poverty ridden country.
The Patron Saint of Columbia, La Virgen de la Candelaria, at the Convent de la Popa.
Inside the chapel at Convento de la Popa.
We finally found an English speaking tour guide (off another tour bus).
With waterside forts covering all the sea entrances to Cartagena, the town was still vulnerable to land attack from the north. In the 1536 the Spanish constructed a massive fort, The Castle San Felipe de Barajas, to protect its last vulnerable point.
The Castle is in remarkably good condition with many of the original cannon still in place. Pity the poor pirate who though they could sneak around the back of Cartagena and attack.
The Castle is honeycombed with a series of tunnels leading to gun ports and munitions storage. Would be a great place to play hide and seek.
The angle of the walls was carefully calculated to lessen the impact of incoming cannon fire.
An intrepid group of cruisers: Walter, Meryl, Linda, and Harry.
The huge Columbian flag is a popular place to get your photo taken.
One of the more popular tourist activities is touring the Old Town via horse drawn carriage during the twilight hours.
We couldn't resist.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Tropical Christmas & New Years

Part of the decorations at Club Nautico's Christmas Party.
Just like at home, Christmas in the tropics is a flurry of events and parties.  For Christmas Eve we joined Miss Molly, Bendecita, and Kuhela for a Christmas Party at Club Nautico. It seems just our group and some locals were the only participants, but non-the-less we had a great time.

Presents surrounding our small quilted Xmas tree created by my sis, Durlyn.
On Christmas Day (it somehow just doesn’t seem right to not wake up to the smell of a Noble Fir in the living room) we opened presents, had a nice breakfast, then finished some last minute boat projects before joining Phil and Monica on Miss Molly for Christmas dinner. Meryl roasted a chicken and made butternut soup and Monica made some great roast potatoes and vegetables and a red cabbage side dish favorite of her families.

The beautiful and lively square beneath the El Bacon restaurant.
This is Custom's House Square. Across these bricks passed most of the gold and silver from the New World on its way to Spain. Now its lit up with beautiful Christmas displays.
Columbia, being a primarily Catholic country, goes all out for Christmas celebrations. In town there were festivals, parties, and singing groups almost every night in the squares. The town was lit up with beautiful light displays and frequently fireworks were set off in the Old Town.

Sitting in the cockpit of Miss Molly with good friends, and surrounded by the serene beauty of Cartagena at night, we all felt very blessed and quite special.

From Meryl clockwise:  Molly, Monica, Phil, Harry, Linda, Bob, Cathryn, and John.
With a lot of the major boat projects completed (so we thought), we were able to relax on New Years Eve day. We had debated going into the Old Town for New Years, but decided it would just be too wild and crazy for people at our advanced age. We opted for a more sedate New Years with the crews of Miss Molly, Bendecita, and Kuhlei at Club Nautico. The club provided appetizers and wine and some great Latin music (Columbians are great dancers, we learned. We all also had some chintzy glitter covered hats, the glitter from which covered Meryl’s body and our bed for about a month after. I stupidly thought it was some exotic makeup she had on. We actually lasted until 11:30 pm at the party, which is somewhat of a record for us. We dingied out to the boat and watched the fireworks around the bay from the safety of our cockpit. Another great year behind us.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Little Work, A Little Play

With the 24v alternator working again, we turned our attention to our bow pulpit. We had the base reinforced to take the upward pull of the Code Zero halyard, including welding a piece of tubing from the bottom of the pulpit cross bar to the bow fitting. Should be able to lift a truck with it now. Meryl and I picked up the rather unwieldy pulpit at the Club Nautico dock (it’s always interesting doing business with vendors when we don’t speak a word of Spanish). We struggled at the dock trying to get a messenger wire through the pulpit for the bow lights, but had no luck. Ended up having to drill a new hole and after a lot of effort got a messenger through that. The next problem was getting the pulpit into our small dingy and back to the boat. The pulpit was almost bigger than the dingy so Meryl and I just kind of sat inside of it as we very slowly motored out to the boat.

We had to add another stainless steel plate under the original plate, along with a vertical bar to handle the upward load of the new Code Zero sail that will fly off of the pulpit.
The next problem was getting it from the dingy up to the bow. It can be extremely rocky at the anchorage with the big cigarette type fairy boats going by, but we managed to slowly inch up onboard using a halyard as a safety line. Once we got it on board we began a rather long struggle to get the pulpit to fit down into the female deck fittings that were all set at an angle. I tried pounding with a dead blow hammer on all the cross bars to get it to set, but I was worried about popping a weld. After about an hour we had made some progress, but we still had about ½ “ to go on the aft most stanchions. I was fairly exacerbated at that point when Meryl made a great suggestion:  “It needs to be pulled both back and down (I had just been hammering down). Why don’t we run two big lines back to each genoa winch and slowing crank it back. The angle of the female deck fittings should guide it into place. Sounds like a plan to me since my plan wasn’t working. The winches are very powerful so we decided to put a moderate amount of tension on them and leave them for the night (it was getting dark anyway). Amazingly, when we awoke in the morning the fittings were in exactly the right position to fit the cross screws in. Thank you, Meryl!

While Monica shops for a bag, Meryl explains to Phil why we don't have any room onboard for even a potholder.
As an early Christmas present, Monica buys her musician husband a toy saxophone.
Phil is one of those guys who can play any musical instrument, making even this toy sax sound good.
Columbia is one of the major coffee exporters in the world, and many feel Columbian coffee is the best.
With two big jobs out of the way we decided to go explore the city some more with our friends Monica and Phil off of Miss Molly.  Cabs are very cheap in Cartegena. Every time we get in a cab we tell the driver the destination and then say “Seis mil,” which works out to about $3 US. Such a deal. Wandering around town with them was fun. It’s always good to get another cruiser’s take on things. Phil used to be a bass player in a rock band in England, so Monica got him a great deal on a toy saxophone that actually sounded fairly good.

Dinner at El Bacon was a treat, especially when you can share it with friends.
We found a great restaurant, El Bacon, recommended by friends of Phil and Monica’s that served an incredible steak in a bed garlic mashed potatoes and spinach with a blue cheese sauce. The restaurant features a balcony that overlooks one of the more popular squares in Cartagena, and by that time of night it was rocking.

We wandered back through the myriad of little streets until way and behold, Walter’s nose let us straight to La Paletteria. Well we couldn’t let our friends leave Cartagena without tasting the best ice cream bars in the world, could we?

We ended the night walking all the way back to Club Nautico. Try that in any other city late at night.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Taste of Columbia

Waking up in the inner harbor of Cartagena is like waking up at Miami Beach. You are surrounded by high priced ($1 to 2 million +) condos and high rise buildings.  We have gone from high winds and towering waves to a (somewhat) tranquil harbor and towering condos.
View of the inner harbor at Cartagena. The Club Nautico docks are in the foreground.
Flying Cloud at anchor near Club Nautico.
We are anchored in a highly protected inner harbor surrounded by other cruising and backpacker boats (these transport backpackers from Panama to Cartagena for $500 a head, one way).  Following our somewhat traumatic nighttime adventures off Santa Marta, we had just enough energy to mellow out for awhile.

Once we regained some energy, we dingied over to a beautiful low-slung catamaran named (Good Golly) Miss Molly where we met Phil and Monica whom we had first met in the British Virgin Islands. They were part of the British contingent on the Magellan (Radio) Net,  a large group of British, Aussie, and Kiwi boats that met in the Med and crossed the Atlantic together in 2012. They were kind enough to show us the dingy dock at Club Nautico Yacht Club, which used to be a very run down but has recently been upgraded with very nice facilities.

It was wonderful to have such a good supermarket just a block away from the dingy docks.
We paid our $27 for a week of dingy landings, showers, and laundry room, then walked a short block down to the Carulla supermarket, which with its crisp air conditioning, was like an oasis for us. We were pleasantly surprised by the nice displays of fresh fruit and large selection of grocery items, all labeled in Spanish. (The first Spanish food word I learned was el laro, which is ice cream. I, in turn, taught my friend how to say popsicle in English.)

Columbia is an anachronism: A country once dominated by Pablo Escobar and FARC, a place so dangerous American executives would travel only with an entourage of security men in Toyota Land Cruisers.  A coast so treacherous between drug traffickers and high winds that only the brave fear to tread. With the help of a courageous President things began to slowly change about ten years ago. The Cartagena Police Force was totally replaced by young people doing their national service. The drug money fueled a building boom of high rises and restoration of the old town. Slowly the tourists began to come back, at first only the most adventurous but now huge cruise ships disgorge the hoards every other day. It was now our turn.

A very popular sculpture by the famous Columbia artist Boltero.
How ironic Boltero choose to depict his Columbia subjects as overly rotund. Maybe he just wanted all the beautiful women to himself?
 One of the things we’d heard was that the Columbians are incredibly friendly and helpful, but very few speak passable English. On our first outing to the Carulla store I had to get a new SIM for my iPhone. Naturally the phone kiosk lady didn’t speak any English, so I searched out a store employee who did. We met a handsome young guy named Antonio who dropped everything and came over and got my phone problems straighten out. The other weird thing about Cartagena is there is virtually no WiFi accessible from the harbor. Usually you can find one or two WiFi’s that are unprotected, but not here. That meant going to Carulla’s cafeteria, buying some Diet Cokes and an empanada, and logging in every 20 minutes to the free WiFi, but hey, it worked and the food was good.

We did some grocery shopping and had fun trying to figure out the Spanish labels. Yeast, butter, and sour cream were the toughies. Once again I had to search out Antonio for help. I now know a few more Spanish words.

We arrived in Cartagena without a working alternator. After a through cleaning it was determined there was a loose wire in the regulator connection. Labor in Columbia is very reasonable and the vendors were quick to respond to problems.
The next day we dingied to Club Nautico and hired an agent, David Arroyo, to handle our check-in procedures. Columbia is one of very few countries that requires you to use an agent; it also has some of the most complicated and arduous immigration, customs, and health rules of any country we’ve traveled to.  Bureaucracy is well and alive here. David seems totally connected to everyone and high five’s many of the workers who congregate just outside of Club Nautico. Within an hour he had all our paperwork started and brought the Immigration, Customs, and Health officials down to the dock so we could sign the papers. Then within the next hour he brought an electrician and welder to the dock. I took them out to the boat and the electrician started diagnosing our alternator problem (a loose wire to the regulator) and I took the welder up to the bow where we’re going to reinforce the pulpit to handle the force of the new Code Zero sail (the upward pull was starting to split the stainless tubing). While Meryl headed up to Carulla to use the Internet to order Christmas presents for the grandkids, I hung out at the dock waiting for my welder to come back with a quote for the job.

I mentioned that Columbian women are strikingly beautiful. Here I am conversing with the typical Columbian housewife on her way to the supermarket.
This couple looks like they should be shooting a cover for a fashion magazine.
A set of floor tiles portrays all the Miss Columbia winners, and Miss Columbia won the Miss Universe contest just recently.
One thing that strikes you immediately upon walking around Cartagena is how incredibly good looking the women are (and men according to Meryl). I used to hear the term “a California 10.”  Well here that would be a “Cartagena 5.”  If you have ever seen the TV show Modern Family you’ll know what I mean. They all look like that down here, and they enjoy being looked at. Doesn’t seem that feminism has gotten much of a foothold in the Latin American countries. A famous sailing magazine editor mentioned she had to “tart herself up” just to walk the streets. I believe it.

Our busy day ended with sundowners on Miss Molly’s spacious aft deck surround by the sunset glinting off a million high rise windows. We all reflected on how very lucky we are to be in such an incredible city.
Antonio from Carulla's Supermarket was nice enough to show us around town.
My very own street!
Just inside the town walls is a portico, under which are stall after stall of vendors selling every type of sweet imaginable.
On Dec. 16th we walked up to Carulla’s to ask our friend Antonio how to catch a cab into Centro (The Old City), when he said “I’m off work in 5 minutes, why don’t I just walk down there with you and show you around?”  We had a wonderful twenty minute walk along the Mango waterfront, past some Spanish forts from1560, through the hip Getsemanie area and into the old walled city of Cartagena.  Antonio was a font of information about both historical events and the modern life of a Cartagenian.

For most Americans, Columbia is still associated with narco terrorism, FARC kidnappings, and rampant crime. It’s not a travel destination on the tip of the average Lonely Planet aficionado’s tongue. Even our boat insurance severely limits where we can go down here.  In reality, according to Antonio, the new President severely cracked down on crime and began to limit both the narcos and FARC to the remote mountain areas. You do notice an incredible police presence in Cartagena, with at least two to three police officers on every street corner and a parade of lime-colored 125 cc Kawasaki motorcycles with two police astride patrolling the streets. It’s pretty much impossible to look any direction and not see several police. The President revamped the police department and now it’s part of the National Service for young Columbians. Along with increased safety, Cartagena has some of the most strikingly beautiful female police officers in the world. Must make being arrested somewhat of a pleasurable experience. So the bottom line, it’s probably safer than most large American cities and certainly safer than places we’ve been like St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Trinidad.

Cartagena is a centuries old town full of vibrant, energetic young people.
It is hot in Cartagena, especially when you get out of the sea breeze, so we stopped at one of the many hip and trendy coffee shops for some banana bread and one of the sweetest tropical fruit drinks I’ve ever had. There’s little “diet” anything here and the locals like their drinks and other foods on the sweet side. Antonio then took us over to the Museum de Oro for a tour of the small museum dedicated to gold ornaments from early Columbians.

We posed in front of this house and photographed the beautiful balconies as seen above. Several days later we couldn't get close to it with all the bodyguards around. Turns out it's owned by one of Columbia's wealthiest men (who owns the equivalent of NBC Television).
The craftsmanship and artistry of the Columbians is amazing. I wanted to buy all these, but alas, no room on the boat.
Meryl couldn't resist buying a couple of these wonderful hats.
After a random walk through the intimate streets of the Old Town, with Spanish influenced houses with second story balconies over flowing with colorful bougainvillea, we craved something cold and sweet. We’d seen a number of people walking by holding popsicle sticks with big smiles on their faces. We knew we were getting closer when we saw people with half eaten ice cream bars, then around the corner and eureka, the motherlode!

The only reason we got this close to La Paletteria is because it wasn't open yet.
Wish I had a wide angle lens because this freezer case goes four feet further on both sides. Yum!
I have to admit, if I were a millionaire I’d send my jet down to Cartagena to get some ice cream bars from La Paletteria. Normally you have to fight the crowds to get through the door to the rather smallish interior, shoulder to shoulder with Columbians. In a freezer case with a glass front lays the treasure, over thirty different flavors of ice cream bars, including passion fruit, strawberry (with slices of fresh frozen strawberries), coco, and my favorite, vanilla. Laugh you may but the vanilla was in incredible blend of fresh vanilla extract, cream, sugar and something else I can’t identify. We thought we had died and gone to heaven. As you might image, La Paletteria became a daily visit (although we never figured out how to find it very well in the maze of small streets).

As the sun begins to go down and it cools off a bit, the Old Town comes alive with people.
It was now getting dark and the city was coming alive with street musicians, tourists, locals, vendors and young people flooding to the many trendy bars and clubs. We were fairly wiped out by then, and sauntered into a nice looking restaurant called La Diva where I had one of the better pizzas I’d ever had, a spinach, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, and gorgonzola cheese. Amazing.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Fifth Most Dangerous Passage in the World

We absolutely fell in love with Bonaire. Many boats spend the winter season in the British Virgin Islands and the hurricane season in Bonaire (which is outside the hurricane zone). We seriously considered this option, as Bonaire is as close to Paradise as you can get in the Caribbean. But the Pacific Ocean beckons.

The next passage, from Bonaire to Cartagena, is rated as “one of the five most dangerous passages” in the world, and according to our research, the concern is well founded. During December the “Christmas winds” or reinforced trade winds start to blow and it’s not uncommon to see 30 to 50 knot winds and 10 to 50 ft. seas on this passage.  We were presented with a choice:  stay in Bonaire longer and explore more of the 150 dive sites or sail to Cartagena within the next few days on a relatively good weather forecast.  Our diving friends Pat and Carol were lobbying for us to stay and it was very tempting, but in the end we compromised and delayed our passage a few days to dive at Salt Pier, then set a firm departure date of Dec. 10th to stay within the weather window.

Chris Parker, our weather guru, had predicted light winds (very uncommon for this time of year) for the next week. We needed a four-day window, and were concerned the winds might be too light to sail, so we opted to leave on a forecast of two to three days of 15-knot winds followed by a day of light to variable winds.

Leaving Bonaire was bitter sweet. We sailed pass Wanna Dive, our dive headquarters, with mixed feelings about whether we were doing the right thing and leaving this incredible island.  The passage to Cartagena is roughly 500 nautical miles and you need to time your departure so you will transit certain areas at certain times.  Trying to time this long a passage is very difficult at best. We had estimated our speed at 5.5 knots, but naturally the winds were stronger and we were averaging 6.5 to 7.5 knots, putting us way ahead of schedule. Anticipating lighter winds in the forecast we figured we adjust our speed later in the trip. It’s easier to slow down than speed up in a sailboat.

We weren’t able to fly our new Code Zero sail, which was a bummer since it would be perfect when the lighter winds arrived.  We had finally finished off 12 coats of varnish on the cap rails while in Bonaire, and when taking the masking tape off the stainless steel tubing of the bow pulpit we found the tubing was cracked all along the entire front edge. The rigger who helped us mount the Code Zero didn’t calculate the load properly and when we reinforced the pulpit we put the steel reinforcing plate on the top of the stainless tubing, which meant the tubing was carrying all the load in tension. We should have welded the plate to the bottom of the tubing which would have put the load in compression. (Note to self:  Go to Engineering School in my next life instead of being a History Major.)

We opted to not visit Curacao and Aruba since customs/immigration is a hassle and we’d visited Aruba once before. It would make the passage longer, but give us more time in Cartagena. Our route put us over the top of Curacao and Aruba and then sailing a rhumb line to Cabo de la Vela in Columbia.

While sailing at night we opted not to pole the genoa out and run wing-on-wing. Unfortunately this caused the boat to roll side-to-side in the waves as their was no genoa to contract the pull of the main winged out. The next morning we rigged the whisker pole and the boat settled down on her lines and we enjoyed 6.5 to 7.5 knots in about 15 to 20 knots of wind. It was idyllic downwind trade wind sailing at its best. We could actually go below and fix lunches, work on projects, read, etc. without getting tossed from one side of the boat to the other. We had set up a 9:30 pm SSB radio check with Pat on Song Bird so someone would know where we were. We also checked in with the Coconut Net at 8:00 am and the Magellan Net (mainly British boats) at 9:00 am.

On the morning of the 11th we were off the northern tip of Aruba with 15 to 20 knots of wind and 6-foot seas and by evening we were passing Punta Gallinas in Columbia. Given the fact the boat was extremely stable running wing-on-wing and there was no forecast of higher winds that evening, we opted to keep the a single reef in the main and a double reef in the genoa. Sleep that night was much easier as Meryl and I traded off watches every four hours.

This AIS display shows 33 ships within 12 miles of us. Lots of fun at night.
People have asked us what we do on night watches. Number one is you are supposed to pay attention, but with limited visibility looking forward for logs, etc, about the only thing you can look for are the white lights of ships. And we did have a lot of ships to pay attention to. Luckily we had installed a Vesper Marine AIS system with WiFi. That meant we could us our iPhones in the cockpit to “see” the AIS signatures of ships out to 48 miles. We would set the iPhone timer to every 20 minutes (the time it takes a ship to clear the horizon and hit us) to do a full horizon scan. Seeing small unlit fishing boats is very difficult in the conditions we were sailing and given the lay out of our boat. On a catamaran, where you sit high up in a captain’s chair facing forward and have glass windshield with wipers, you have much better forward-looking visibility. Many times when buddy boating with Field Trip they would spot stuff in the water we could barely see even after they told us exactly were it was.

Back to night watches, everyone has their own routine. I really like to listen to podcasts such as NPRs “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, Car Talk, and my favorite, Fresh Air, along with Books on Tape, BBC Drama, and other shows. It is a challenge, however, to stay awake in the later hours. The best thing about night watch is seeing the stars and watching the bioluminescent sparking in the water. The worst thing is hearing the roar of a large wave approaching from astern and feeling the boat’s stern lift up, not knowing if the wave is going to crash over you or toss you violently to one side. Normally, boredom is the most difficult issue to deal with.

One the "arrivals" you need to time is the crossing of the outfall of the River Magdalena which brings tons of debris from the upland Columbian jungles down to the sea. The water literally turns brown as you approach the outfall.
We did quite of lot of research on other cruiser’s passages along Columbia, including posting queries to the mail group Cruisers Network Online, which offered a lot of advice. The best info was from Harry and Melinda Schell on Sea Schell. They corroborated with Chris Parker and came up with the strategy of staying fairly close in shore to avoid the heavier winds offshore.  Chris’s advice was as follows:

The stretch from Aruba-Cabo De La Vela can be windy, but the underlying gradient winds run under 20k Mon8-Wed10, so you are not likely to see wind much over 20k sustained, gusting 25k, wind-chop 6'.

If you look at a map of Colombia, you can follow this easily:

Wind along a Coast behaves much wind wind across the top of an airplane wing. Where the Coast is uniform/straight, there may be a little more wind than if there were no Coast, but not much more.

Where the Coastline is very CONVEX (where it protrudes into Marine areas), wind tends to be MUCH stronger on the UPWIND side of the convex area.

Where Coastline is CONCAVE (where it recedes from Marine areas), and also on the DOWNWIND side of convex areas...wind tends to be lighter, and you may even see a "rotor", with no wind or variable wind.

So...looking at the Coast of Colombia...after you round Cabo De La Vela (which is CONVEX)...from 72-15W to 73-45W you traverse a CONCAVE area, where winds along the Coast are light. It is in THIS AREA (72-15W to 73-45W) that YOU CAN CONTROL how much wind you see by modulating your distance from the Coast. Typically if you're at-least 30-60mi from the Coast, you'll see the strong offshore Trades which plague this area. If you're within 10-20mi of the Coast you get significantly LESS wind.

During Mon8-Wed10 winds may run 20k (seas 6') sustained Days / 25k (seas 8') sustained Nights (and gusting 5k-or-so higher). If this is too much wind, then just make sure you're within 10-20mi of the Coast...but if wind gets too light you'll want to get 30mi-or-so off the Coast to see more wind.

From 73-45W to 75W you transit the next CONVEX area (Santa Marta / 5-Bays / Rio Magdalena). Here, the strong offshore winds attach to the Coast, and sometimes funnel along the Coast (especially at night with the katabatic winds coming off the mountains).

Not only are winds strong from 73-45W to 75W...but you also transit the mouth of Rio Magdalena, which carries effluent (and flotsam/jetsam) from interior Colombia. It's nice to transit this area in the daytime so not only do you avoid the stronger night-time winds...but you also can see (and maybe avoid hitting) any debris.

There is typically little wind SW of 11N/75W.

The most important things to remember:

1. if you desire less wind/seas, then transit 72-15W to 73-45W within 10-20mi off the Coast.
2. plan to pass 73-45W at Dawn, so you transit the area from 73-45W to 75W in daylight.

Great advice, but our problem was we had sailed too fast and arrived at Cabo de la Aguja (just before 5 Bays and Santa Marta) at night.  Even though we were in 17 to 20 knots running wing-on-wing (again with a single-reefed main and double-reefed genoa) the boat was sailing extremely well and was very stable. These are the type of conditions our boat was designed for and it was handling the seas comfortably.  Not wanting the boat to roll at night, we elected to leave the sails in their current configuration. Meryl took the first night watch and I went down to get some sleep.

While I couldn’t feel it, the wind had picked up to 20 - 25 knots with occasional gusts up to 30. More important was the seas were building to 8 to 10 feet meaning the boat would get up on top of a bigger wave and then surf down the backside. Thank God our commercial grade autopilot could handle steering in these conditions, but the deteriorating conditions were a concern for Meryl. She woke me up and talked about shortening sail, but my concern was the boat roller side-to-side in the larger waves. I took the rest of the night watch allowing Meryl to get some much needed sleep (but she couldn’t sleep and continued to worry). I knew the boat was stable, although we were now clocking a steady 8 to 8.5 knots and it was a little unnerving to be going those speeds in the dark in big waves. I had much more experience in heavy wind sailing from my racing days, however, and I knew the only concern was something breaking on the boat. So naturally, that’s exactly what happened.

Around 3:00 am (Why is it always 3:00 am when these things happen?) a loud alarm went off and we couldn’t figure out what it was. Then I remembered I’d installed a “high water alarm” and sure enough water was raising inside the boat’s bilge. We quickly tore open cabinets looked for a hose or seacock that had broken, but found nothing. I then put the bilge pump on manual and most of the water was sucked out, but more came in. We decided the best course of action was to turn around and try to sail 5 –7 hours back up wind to Santa Marta where there is a marina and more protected waters.

I got on the VHF radio and put out an alert (Pan, Pan, Pan) to other ships and the Columbian Coast Guard that we were taking on water, but no responses came back. Then I tried the short wave radio, but also got no responses (which is kind of unnerving). Ironically, the day before Meryl was trying to learn how to use the sat phone but it didn’t work. Turned out we’d forgotten to renew the minutes so we used our Delorme InReach to send a text message via satellite to our go-to guy, Jim Berry, to see if he could sort out the problem.  True to form Jim got our sat phone back on line that day. I then used it to call the US Coast Guard in New Orleans to see if they could contact the Columbian Coast Guard to alert them of our situation (at this point we don’t know if we are going to sink or what). Thank you Coasties for your help.

After less than an hour trying to sail up wind to Santa Marta we gave up as the big waves were crashing over the top of the boat and we were making zero headway. Worse still, the engine was starting to overheat.  I checked the bilge again and found it to be dry. (I think the big waves where pushing water up the rudder tube in into the engine compartment or maybe through the hatches on our swim step. I also remembered that the bilge pump switch gets stuck sometimes and surmised the water we were getting in just wasn’t getting pumped out so our situation wasn’t as serious as it could have been.

I had to explain to Meryl that this wasn't pirate ship but a freighter sent to check on us.
We shortened even more sail and headed back downwind and all of a sudden life was much (relatively) calmer. I went down below exhausted for an hours nap while Meryl took the helm at dawn. She came down about an hour later and said a big ship had turned around and was following us (she thinks every ship is a pirate ship). Turns out the US Coast Guard had contacted the Barranquilla port control (super dangerous drug smuggling port) about our situation and the port guy had radioed ships to look out for us. I talked with the ship’s Captain on the VHF and told him the situation was under control and thanked him for his assistance, and then followed up with the Barranquilla port control.

After all that drama, ironically the wind got lighter to the point we had to motor into Cartagena in the dark. We would normally never enter a new port in the dark, but Harry and Melinda Schell’s article said it was very well marked and no problem. There are two choices entering Cartagena harbor, 1) the larger shipping entrance about 5 miles south called Boca Chica (the little entrance), or 2) the closer narrow entrance called Boca Grande (the big entrance).  Back in the 17th century Cartagena was a major trans-shipment point for all the gold coming out of South American and going back to Spain. As such, Cartagena was heavily fortified by the Spanish. They even built a five-mile underwater wall so British, Dutch, and French ships couldn’t enter the wider entrance, forced them to Boca Chica where heavy fortified forts with cannons protected the entrance.

The chockstone for us was finding the 100-foot wide opening in the underwater wall that allows smaller ships to enter in modern times.  Luckily two very bright lights mark the entrance, which from a distance looked like it was a football field wide. As we approached, however, we found the opening was quite narrow. It’s amazing how your depth perception worsens at night, just when you need it most.

We made it through the opening and were congratulating each other for still being alive when a fast cigarette boat came along side in the dark and hailed to us in Spanish (which neither of us speak). Turned out it was the Columbian Coast Guard (where were you guys when we needed you?) who boarded us and did a very thorough search of the boat with a video camera rolling all the time. They searched our master berth quite extensively and seemed to spend extra time in Meryl’s underwear drawer. They were actually very professional (mainly looking for guns) and finally left (only to come back 20 minutes later realizing they didn’t take video of our ship’s papers and our passports.  All this after having been up around 48 hours straight. We followed our chart plotter and spotted the navigation buoys that led us to the anchorage.

To visualize Cartagena at night think of the photos of Miami Beach with high-rise condos surrounding the relatively small harbor. Combined with the port operations and container ship loading pier, the place is lit up like the Fourth of July, which made finding the anchorage and anchoring much easier. It was 10:00 pm when we finally got the hook down and never have we been so happy to crawl into bed and get a good night’s sleep. It was been quite a trip.

We’ve found that very few cruisers have an “uneventful trip” during this passage; we’re just glad to get this one under our belt. It certainly lived up to its reputation even though our wind/wave conditions weren’t even in the ballpark of how bad it can get.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Touring Bonaire

You can imagine how elated we were to finally be doing what we had dreamed "cruising" was all about. The pristine clear waters along with Bonaire’s strict protectionist policies of their reefs equals a diver's paradise.  We learned Bonaire has Captain Don to thank for establishing Bonaire’s Marine Park in 1979.  Captain Don arrived in the early 70’s and had the foresight to see the potential from preserving Bonaire’s greatest natural resource right along its shores.

Meryl, Carol, Patrick, Darnell, and Patrick cozying up to the bar.
As Thanksgiving approached it was only fitting to pay a special tribute to Captain Don by attending the annual feast at his original resort.  We were fortunate our friends on s/v Songbird knew about the special Thanksgiving feast and made reservations for us and another cruising couple, Darnelle and Patrick on s/v Island Dream. We had all met at an earlier gathering so it was great to all get together again.
The resort put out a truly impressive buffet, including turkey, a delicious ham, and a variety of salads, soups, and desserts.
Round one of gastronomical delight.
What an idyllic setting for a Thanksgiving feast.
The setting was picture perfect as we sat over-looking the Caribbean Sea. The cornucopia of dishes included turkey, ham, three different stuffings, mashed potatoes & gravy, sweet potatoes, salads galore, soups; truly a smorgasbord of everything imaginable for a Thanksgiving Day.  We were all truly thankful to be with new found friends and partaking in a feast of plenty.

As we started counting down our days before leaving Bonaire (wish we had come three months earlier), we realized we had explored beneath the waters extensively but had yet to see what the island had to offer topside. With numerous errands to complete we rented a car to tour the island and finish up some other tasks made easier with transportation.

These salt pans are filled with sea water and allowed to evaporate leaving the valuable sea salt behind.

When sailing ships from Europe arrived, they'd be directed to a specific colored obelisk where the salt was ready to load.
We headed down toward the south end of the island to see the Salt Ponds. Salt has been Bonaire’s leading export for centuries and according to a workman at the Salt Pier, there are over 175 different uses for salt today. The Dutch had constructed large obelisks colored white, orange, and red to designate anchoring areas for ships to pick up salt.  This way the ships knew where the salt had been hauled by the slaves and was stockpiled ready to be loaded onto the ships.

A large number of African slaves had been brought to Bonaire to work the salt pans. They mostly lived in Rincon, an inland village and walked ten miles each week to the salt pan area. They stayed in these houses during the working week.
While the name seems inappropriate, these yellow rock markers serve to identify SCUBA dives just offshore of the location.
So sad to see the tiny houses the slaves stayed in while they were working at the Salt Ponds.  They had families in Rincon over 10 miles away and could walk home on weekends. The yellow rock markers actually designate offshore diving sites. The reef is so close to the shore that many divers simply rent pick-up trucks and drive to the dive site and swim out a couple hundred yards for the actual dive.

This was a totally cool place on the eastern (windward) shore of Bonaire with an enclosed shallow lagoon that was prefect for wind surfing. No kite surfing allowed.
Oh how I wish I could spend a few weeks here and get back into windsurfing. I can windsurf OK but never mastered the high speed jibe or the deep water start.

What a great place for lunch while watching all the wind surfers zoom by.
We rounded the tip of the island and drove up the windward side of the island strewn with sculptures made from driftwood and flotsam all along the beaches. We ended up at Lac Bay around lunch time and wandered into a funky wind-surfing center called, Jibe City. The decor was colorful artistic driftwood with a very busy hub of sunbathing, wind-surfing, and outside dining.  Perfect timing as lunch was on our minds.  It was run by a youngish crowd of Dutch and we had very friendly service and great food.  We asked why there were no kite surfers and they said it was illegal. We understand the owner has some political pull and doesn't want any competition.

With limited time we headed up north along the coastal road toward Rincon to see the Gotomeer Lake and  Flamingo Sanctuary.  The road along the coast would have been fun on a motor scooter Walter kept mentioning.   A lot of the dive sights along the cliffs were only accessible by boat but, one exception, 1,000 Steps, a famous dive, but didn’t sound like much fun carrying equipment up and down the steps.

We did see a number of flamingos from the road but our point and shoot cameras didn't have enough lens to capture them.  The lake borders the Washington-Slagbaai National Park. The park has bike and walking paths everywhere, as well as ancient Indian inscription sites.  Our rental car company won't let us take the car on the four-wheel drive roads so that will have to be saved till next time.

This dock is know as Salt Pier and is one of the most popular dives on Bonaire. You need to go with a certified guide to dive along the 600 foot pier that is populated with huge schools of fish and some very large and friendly Tarpon.
Many thanks to our friends Carol and Pat on s/v Song Bird. They were great at getting us back into SCUBA diving and showing us around all the great dive sites on Bonaire.
The day before our departure for Cartagena the Salt Pier dive opened up (you can only dive on it when a ship is not at the dock) and we were able to do the “grand dive” as our finale.  It lived up to its reputation and was one of our favorite dives.  We dove from a large dive boat much different than our casual dinghy entries.  Once below the fish were prolific and the plant life on the piers unbelievable colors as we wove in and out of the piers. It was interesting when one of our divers didn't show up at the designated pick-up point. Our dive guide had to go back to the pier to look for her when ironically she had drifted far down current and was holding on to a mooring buoy. All's well that ends well.

If you are a diver, Bonaire is a "must do" for the bucket list. Even if you aren't a diver it's a great island to spend some time exploring.