We’re no experts on global sailing conditions but when we were planning our trip from Panama to the Caribbean via the ABC islands and came across an article in Caribbean Compass magazine that said, “the 400 miles between Aruba and Cartagena are known for the worst conditions in the Caribbean and among the top five worst passages around the world”, we wondered if we should reassess our plans. After all, this was not first time we had been cautioned about our plans to go “the wrong way” to the Caribbean.
In fact, almost every boater we met from Mexico to Panama told us we were going the wrong way, i.e. against the prevailing winds, waves and currents, and that we should spend an extra year to go clockwise around the Gulf of Mexico to Florida then the Caribbean. Great plan for those that are retired however not so good for us “pre-tired” cruisers (thanks for the term CB and Tawn) who plan to end our journey in Florida as we would still have to bash our way back up the island chain. To put this in perspective, we never met a single boater – NOT ONE – who had done this passage.
Still, we had read other articles that said if you are patient, wait for the right weather window, and seek shelter in the few harbors that are along the coast – if necessary – it could be done. So, with this optimistic view in mind, we set off from Panama to Cartagena then, after a bit of a rough passage, arrived in Santa Marta, Colombia — 270 miles (as the crow flies) from Aruba and a third of the way through the dreaded “400 miles” referred to by Caribbean Compass.
Per our previous post, we were enjoying Santa Marta and patiently waiting for a weather window. Then, after six weeks of 25-30 knot winds, including a couple of 40+ knots gusts in the marina, we started to see a break in the forecasts showing a few days of 15 – 25 knot winds from the east (the direction we were headed) with 7-10 foot seas, which based on the past 6 weeks was as good as it was going to get!
So we, along with our friends Holly and Mike on Wanuskewin, got our boats ready, got our international Zarpe’s and departed Santa Marta Marina at 5:30 am on Sunday, July 12. It was a beautiful start with sunshine and good winds that enabled us to sail 20-30 degrees off course (which was good all things considered) for the first 16 hours or so.
Around 9 pm that night the winds started to pick up and, as we were still sailing off course, we decided to motor sail to get back on track and not end up 50+ miles offshore if the conditions got worse. In hindsight, this turned out to be a good call since the winds did pick up and next thing you know we were motor sailing into 20+ knots with bigger waves and a 2-knot current that slowed our speed to 4 knots an hour. For you non boaters, this is very slow for a 47-foot sailboat that is motoring. Still, it was rough but not uncomfortable and we motor sailed safely through the night.
The next morning, the wind was still blowing hard so we decided to keep motor sailing in order to make as many direct miles as we could. The mission was to just get past Punta Gallinas, which is essentially a cape on the northern coast of Colombia where the land mass, wind, waves and currents converge to create the conditions that make this area one of the “top 5 worst passages in the world”.
Again, the conditions were rough but not uncomfortable. However it was definitely no fun and, to make matters worse, soon after daybreak we were approached by a suspicious looking black motor boat that didn’t have any coast guard, police, or official markings of any kind. It was a little scary but at that point there was nothing we could do but maintain our course and hope for the best. It pulled up to our starboard side about 100 feet from us then one of crew started yelling for us to talk to them on our VHF radio. Again, a little scary but we hoped for the best.
Turns out it was a local research boat that had been assigned the duty of monitoring foreign vessels in the area. I guess they don’t get a lot of traffic as they seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see them. In the end, they just took our boat info and a few pictures then went back to their safe harbor. Needless to say, we were just as relieved to see them go as they were to be going.
With the “suspected pirates” behind us, we turned our attention back to getting to Aruba and it’s a good thing we did because not long after they left, the winds picked up to 20-25 knots (still from the direction in which we were heading), the waves got bigger and more confused (i.e coming from many different directions), and the current increased to 2-3 knots against us. All to say, our speed was down to 3+ knots, our sails were slapping all over the place, and we couldn’t seem to make any headway. It appeared that we were close enough to Punta Gallinas that we were experiencing the convergence of elements.
We tend not to push our engine very hard. We set it at a comfortable, fuel efficient RPM and live with whatever speed it gives us. But, when shit hits the fan we don’t mind pushing it and this seemed like it was about to hit the fan so we pushed it hard and were able to power through this “Punta Gallinas triangle” in an hour or two.
The rest of the day (Monday) and all through Tuesday night the conditions remained about the same and we slowly motor sailed our way toward Aruba. Surprisingly, there were a few moments when the winds eased and we thought about actually sailing. We even thought about going the additional 75 miles to Curacao. But, these moments were short lived as no sooner did we start talking about it then the wind picked back up to 20+ knots. So, we tucked our sailing tails between our legs and motor sailed the rest of the way.
We figured since we couldn’t sail we should at least make better time and, according to our calculations at the time, be in Aruba just after dark on Tuesday night. Talk about wishful thinking. Turns out this was sheer dreaming because there were some weird 3-knot currents around Aruba that made the last 35 miles the longest and most frustrating segment of the entire trip. Those last 35 miles took over 12 hours. And, the last 10 miles, where we could see the lights in the hotel rooms of Aruba, took almost 4 hours. We ended up dropping the anchor in a small harbor near Oranjestad just after 3:00 am on Wednesday, July 15. But, it wasn’t over yet.
Just before we left Santa Marta we discovered that the windlass we had rebuilt in Cartagena wasn’t working again. There wasn’t much we could do about it at the time and since we thought we were going directly into a marina in Aruba/Curacao we figured we’d get it fixed (or buy a new one) there. Well, at 3:00 am in Aruba there was nowhere to go so we had to drop the anchor knowing that we would just have to haul it up by hand ONCE before we go to the marina, right?
WRONG!!!! First of all, we discovered that with the rough conditions our secondary anchor had fallen off its bow roller and had been jammed up against the bow of the boat, severely scraping the hull, for an unknown period of time. It didn’t put a hole in the boat but there was definite fiberglass damage and it was still jammed against the hull. Luckily, its safety line held or it could have been a real disaster. The immediate problem was I had to un-jam it from the hull and reset it onto the bow roller to use it, which was a real challenge, but we finally got the anchor down and set.
Then, not two minutes after we set the anchor a dark colored, navy seal-like pontoon boat with armed coast guard officials came up and told us we were anchored too close to the channel and that we had to move. We didn’t get the impression it was up for discussion so we went to work getting the anchor up. Suffice it to say, the dark night, shallow water close to a reef, 25 knots of wind, strong current, raising an anchor by hand, and being closely watched by armed coast guard made for stressful re-anchoring.
We eventually got the anchor reset further from the channel and thought we were good to go but The Neverending Story continued as the coast guard officials decided they had to board our boat to check our papers and for any contraband. Of course, our papers were in order and we didn’t have anything illegal but it was close to 4:30 am by the time they departed and we were truly anchored in beautiful Aruba.
As a side-note, our decision to start motor sailing relatively early in the passage turned out to be the right call as Holly and Mike on Wanuskewin had some challenges rounding Punta Gallenas. Then, as they are more dedicated sailors than us, they took 24 hours to sail the last 15 miles and didn’t arrive in Aruba until later that day.
In the end, though it wasn’t the Southern Ocean or the north Atlantic, we made it through one of the so-called “top five worst passages in the world”, and another major milestone on our journey. Throughout our passage, which as I said was rough and frustrating but not too uncomfortable or dangerous, I kept thinking about my old boss Maureen Kempston Darkes, President of GM Canada and later GM’s Latin America, Africa and Middle East Unit, who used to say, “the only thing you can do when you are going through the fires of hell is keep going”. Well, we kept going and are now very happy to be sipping cocktails at Renaissance Marina in Aruba…