Island Hopping Time

It’s been over two years of cruising in some very cool and interesting places like Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia but other than a few islands in the Sea of Cortez and off the coast of Panama we have essentially been coastal sailing off North, Central and South America.

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Well, it’s a whole new ball game as we’re in the heart of the Caribbean and will be spending the remainder of our adventure island hopping around the Leeward Islands before heading back to “civilization” ahead the next hurricane season. In a way, the island hopping began when we left Colombia for Aruba but since we were parked there for this year’s hurricane season, in our minds, we didn’t start “hopping” till we left Aruba.

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So, where are we, how did we get here, and where are we going? Yeah, yeah…it’s been a while since we gave a full update so here’s the skinny:

We left Aruba in October after three months in the awesome Renaissance Marina in downtown Oranjestad. We’ve mentioned this in previous posts but the marina was part of the Renaissance Resort complex which includes 2 hotels, 3 swimming pools, 2 casinos, a beach club, fitness center and numerous restaurants and bars. Needless to say, if you have to be somewhere outside the hurricane zone, we can’t think of a better place than Aruba.

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But all good things must come to an end and since we wanted to spend a few weeks (or more) in Bonaire, by mid-October it was time to move on. However, before hitting the high seas, we needed to make sure our boat gear was working after being parked for so long so we left the marina and anchored in the same small bay where we had arrived 3 months earlier. And, it’s a good thing we did. First, we needed to ensure our new windlass was working properly – which thank goodness it did. But, after that, we discovered the outboard engine for the dinghy was not working. Then we ran out of propane. Nothing major but we’re glad we discovered the issues and had them resolved before we left.

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Our first “hop” was a relatively short 120-mile overnight sail from Aruba past Curacao to Bonaire. But, before we talk about Bonaire, I do have to explain why we by-passed Curacao since I have family there and it was definitely on our list of places to stop.

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First, we had already done a quick overnight trip — by plane — to Curacao and had seen some of the highlights. Second, we had been told by a number boaters that it was not that conducive to short stops. Apparently it’s a hassle to check-in and out with Customs and Immigration. Third, even though it is a relatively short distance, due to strong winds and currents, it would be an overnight sail to Curacao then we would still have another long sail to Bonaire. In the end, although we would have loved to spend some time in Curacao and I really feel terrible, it just made more sense to go directly to Bonaire because we could do it in one shot while we had good weather.

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You know those pictures you see of perfect places with crystal clear water that looks too good to be true? Most of the time they’re photoshopped but if you see pictures of Bonaire, let us assure you that they are not. Of all the places we’ve been to (and there have been a lot!!!) we’ve always told people we’d never seen crystal clear water like we did during our previous sabbatical in the Bahamas. Well, we stand corrected because the waters surrounding Bonaire were as clear, if not clearer, than the Bahamas AND we were moored (no anchoring is allowed anywhere in Bonaire) in 30+ feet of water just 100 feet from shore in the main town!!! You can just imagine how clear the waters around the reefs would be. As a matter of fact, we were moored right off one of the many dive centers and the water was so clear the divers just jumped in the water off the dock and we often had them scuba diving under our boat

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Besides the crystal clear waters, abundant marine life and spectacular diving that Bonaire is famous for, the town of Kralendijk had a quaint downtown with lots of waterfront shops, restaurants and bars, and a number of small inns and villas as there are no major hotels on the island.

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Sounds ideal right? Yeah, the plan was the stay for up to a month, take a full PADI diving course, get back to kayaking, snorkeling, swimming and enjoying life on the water again. Sweet…except we still had 400+ tough miles of northeast sailing to do and, along with favorable winds for the next week or so, we had a full moon to guide us through 4 nights of bashing upwind. So, you guessed it, we left beautiful Bonaire after just 5 days to head for the Virgin Islands before the infamous Caribbean Christmas Winds, which start in December, socked us in Bonaire — which may not have been a bad thing except we promised our mothers (plural) we’d be in St. Kitts for Christmas (more on this later).

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Now don’t get us wrong Bonaire was memorable but, in hindsight, we made the right decision to leave when we did. The 4 days and nights of sailing/motor-sailing northeast from Bonaire to St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands were not exactly “island hopping” but they were leaps and bounds better than the beating we took sailing from Colombia to Aruba. We actually sailed about half the time and found the nights calm enough to eat a cooked meal and even sleep for a few hours at a time. Dare I say that it was almost enjoyable — except for the rotating 2-hour night shifts and the scary lightening storm that hit just south of Puerto Rico. The icing on the cake is the Virgin Islands are a measly 120-miles (upwind) from St. Kitts, which means we can take our time and do some real island hopping before we have to be there.

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Our first stop in the USVI was St. Croix, the largest and most “remote” in the chain as it is a whopping 35 miles away from the more popular St. Thomas and St. John, and relatively speaking it does not get a lot of tourists. But, to us, it was an oasis after 4 days and nights at sea. We anchored in Gallow’s Bay, just off the main town of Christiansted, which meant it was close to everything, including US Customs and Immigration (a very easy check-in), all the restaurants and bars on the boardwalk, a great gourmet grocery store, and the marina. Plus, we rented a small car for the day and were able to see most of the attractions the island has to offer, including the Yacht Club and Point Udall, the most eastern point of the United States.

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Our next “hop” was a picturesque 35-mile sail (yes, we sailed the whole way) to Charlotte Amalie, the main city on St. Thomas, as we needed to check-out the marine facilities and do some duty-free shopping, which is what the island is famous for, right? Can you believe that a 1-liter bottle of Stoli Vodka is only $9 at the grocery store? Plus, the other lesser known brands for $3 a liter!!! Damn, we thought we were in danger of becoming alcoholics in Mexico with its cheap beer and tequila but I see we are going to need massive discipline here. Who says the Caribbean is expensive? Oops, seems I went off on a tangent with the vodka. Anyway, since we knew we were returning to St. Thomas, we left after a few days for a quick hop over to St. John, the jewel of the USVI.

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St. John is the jewel of the USVI because most of the island and surrounding water is a national park (donated to the US government by Laurence Rockefeller) and as such there is limited development and, except in a few specific locations, boats are not allowed to anchor – they must use park moorings. In addition, there are only a handful of major hotels as many tourists stay in villas that range from small huts to multi-million dollar mansions.

We headed straight for Coral Bay as it is one of the few places on St. John where you can anchor (i.e. it’s free) and because our cruising and tourist guides described it as a hip, artsy community with a few stores, galleries and some eclectic restaurants. Now, we didn’t expect San Francisco but we think they oversold it. It has tons of boats at anchor, many of which look derelict, a couple of small grocery stores, 3-4 interesting looking restaurants and a cool floating bar. But, it seems to meet its purpose and we were able to grab a bus from there to the main town/village of Cruz Bay, which has significantly more restaurants and shops, and is where the ferries from St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands land. It’s also where the national park HQ is located.

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After a couple of nights in Coral Bay we sailed around the island to gorgeous Francis Bay on the north side of the island. And, after the underwhelming experience of Coral Bay, we have to say that we now understood why people rave about St. John. Francis Bay is a very large, well protected bay with clear water, white sandy beaches, good snorkeling and secure, inexpensive moorings ($15/night). Plus, even though it’s only a few short miles from the crowded anchorages of the BVI’s (the most popular charter boat destination in the world), there were lots of moorings available. Regretfully, since this was just an exploratory visit and we knew we’d be back, we only spent a couple of nights here but we could have stayed for two weeks and been perfectly content.

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But, island hopping was the mission so we sailed 14 miles back to St. Thomas and dropped the hook in Megan’s Bay. We’d seen pictures of this beautiful bay, which has a mile-long white, sandy beach and, though we’d been warned that it gets really busy when cruise ships are in, knew we needed to check it out for ourselves. Well, we’re not sure if it was too early in the season or we were just lucky but it was a great spot as there were no other cruising boats (just a few local boats on private moorings) and even when the cruise ship tourists arrived they tended to cluster around the bar/restaurant leaving the more remote parts of beach free for wandering. And, once 4 pm rolled around they headed back to their ships. In short, Megan’s Bay is definitely on the list of places the revisit but we had one more stop to make before returning to Charlotte Amalie for a while.

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We had met cruising friends from the Netherlands while we were in Panama who told us we have to stop in Christmas Cove on Great St. James Island (yes, very appropriate) and we’re so glad we did. It’s a small bay that is a less than a mile from St. Thomas but it’s got clear water, a good reef for snorkeling, free moorings and, if you didn’t look at all the lights from St. Thomas, you’d never know it was so close. Definitely another stop worth a revisit.

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We’re now back in Charlotte Amalie where we plan to enjoy Thanksgiving and hang out for a while before hopping back to St. John then embarking on our next major “hop” 120 miles south east to St. Kitts for Christmas with our mothers. For those of you who don’t already know it, my family is from St. Kitts and my mother lives on the island. Audrey’s mother, as well as her brother (Jerry), his wife (Mary)and daughter (Carolyn) are all flying to St. Kitts to spend the holidays with us. As you can imagine, we can’t wait to island hop down to St. Kitts and see the family as well as all the development that has apparently happened since my last visit, including a mega-yacht marina that is selling 100-foot + boat slips starting $2 million each!

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Not Always Happy Hour – Year 2

Last year around this time we posted “It’s Not Always Happy Hour”, which outlined some of the issues we had experienced during our first year of cruising. Well, for those of you who are interested in the “Bad and the Ugly”, here’s a summary of what went wrong in year 2.

By far the most distressing (and most expensive) issue was the leak to our “dripless stuffing box” that occurred when we were in Costa Rica. To make matters worse, the only way to repair the seal was to haul the boat completely out of the water and the nearest marina with facilities capable of doing this were over 160 miles away. Fortunately, we were able to nurse our way that 160+ miles by “McGyvering” the seal with a hose clamp then had the boat hauled and repaired at Quepos Marina. Plus, since the boat was out of the water (which is the most expensive part of these types of repairs), we had them put a new coat of anti-fouling paint on the bottom. All told, we were “on the hard” for a week and the haul out, seal repair and paint totaled $2,900 of which the seal was only $90! Funny enough, the Marina manager suggested that we carry a spare but what good would that be if you have to haul the boat to repair it and you can get a new one via FedEx or DHL in two days.

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The second most trying issue we’ve had is with our mainsail. It’s a furling main and we’ve had trouble with it jamming in the mast slot ever since we purchased the boat. And, given the number of miles (over 6,000 miles and counting) and the number of times we have furled and unfurled that sail, sometimes in very rough conditions, the leach (aft) of the sail got progressively worn to the point where it was spotted with holes and we had to have it repaired in Panama City. Unfortunately, the only “sail repair” facility in Panama City was more of a canvas repair person and the $450 repair only lasted until just outside Cartagena, where a squall tore the poor thing to pieces. Fortunately, Cartagena did have a “real” sail repair person and he was able to patch large panels to the leach of the sail, for $600, that have lasted so far – although the sail looks like a quilt, has terrible sail shape, and still jams in the mast slot. Bottom line is we’ve spent almost $1,000 repairing our old mainsail and it’s time for a new one, which is big bucks (we’re talking thousands). I guess we’ll start looking into it in the US Virgin Islands since all the top sailmakers have facilities there.

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We’ve also had a couple of issues with the headsail or genoa. The big one was the loop at the top of the sail that attaches it to the furling system broke while we were under sail with our friends Paul and Jean during a celebration sail after coming through the Panama Canal. It was Audrey’s birthday and since we had spent days on the hook in Panama City then motoring through the canal, we thought we’d go for a quick sail to Isla Naranja before Paul and Jean had to fly back to California. Well, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise since Shelter Bay Marina, where we were staying, actually had a sailmaker that replaced the loop and put a patch on a small hole that we found in the sail. In hindsight, I wish we had him check the mainsail while we were there as he probably would have seen what a poor repair job we had done by the canvas guy in Panama City. Oh well, hindsight is 20/20.

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Besides the stuffing box and the sails, the other major issue we had was with the windlass, which is the electric motor used to raise and lower our oversized anchor and all-chain rode. This may well have been the most trying issue for us if it hadn’t occurred just outside Cartagena (during the same squall that ripped the mainsail) since it would have meant I’d have to continually raise and lower the 65 lb anchor and 150+ feet of chain plus rode by hand. But, since it happened enroute to Cartagena, where we thought we could get it repaired, and we knew our next stops were at marinas in Santa Marta and Aruba, it’s rating is a little lower on this priority scale.

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Still, I did have the raise and lower the anchor by hand a couple of times in Cartagena since the holding was so poor and we nearly got hit by other boats 4 times!!! And, although we had the windlass motor rebuilt in Cartagena, it only worked twice (raising the anchor once to reset then again to leave) before it crapped out completely. Luckily for me, we were on a dock in Santa Marta. But, I did have to anchor the boat by hand in Aruba twice at two in the morning before raising it again to go into the marina where I installed the new one that we had shipped from the US. All told, with the rebuild in Cartagena and the purchase of the new one and ancillary parts (wiring, terminal posts, etc), the windlass replacement cost over $3000. Good thing the labor, by yours truly, was dirt cheap!!! I mean, what’s the cost of a few bottles of rum, vodka, tequila, wine and beer compared to a half-decent marine technician..:-)

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Speaking of being on the dock in Santa Marta and Aruba, all told we’d been on a dock for over 4 months which also meant we hadn’t used our dinghy and outboard in that time. This is fine for the inflatable dinghy but, for those of you who know engines, not so good for an outboard engine that has been operating in salt water for 2 years. In other words, when we tried it in Aruba just before leaving for Bonaire, it was not too happy and just wouldn’t start. I tried all the quick fixes but it was still a no-go so we got a pair of local mechanics to take a look. I swear these guys could have rebuilt that engine blindfolded because in the time it took me to explain the problem to them, they had already taken off the carburetor and had it halfway rebuilt! They cleaned it up and put a couple of new spark plugs in and it was running in less time than it took me to drink a beer while watching them. Man, those guys were awesome.

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Unfortunately, after they left and we were at anchor, I discovered that the engine’s water cooling system was starting to clog (probably with salt that had crystallized from the water) and overheating the engine. We’ve had this issue before and the fix is simply to use a needle or paper clip to clear the blockage when it occurs until all of the debris has cleared. In the past this had only taken a few uses to clear but this time it kept recurring and was still happening when we got to Bonaire so I decided on more drastic measures. I started using a small drill bit to clear the blockage and that worked for a short period but, just my luck, it broke off inside the engine. Well, I’m sure you can imagine the language that came out of my mouth since it happened when we were in town and we had to row back to the mothership. My only thought was now we are really screwed and will need to get a replacement or at least have it rebuilt. However, the gods must have been smiling because after the engine (and I) cooled down, I cleaned out the artery with a smaller needle and gave it a few whacks and “lo and behold” the small piece of drill bit poked it’s head out for the taking. Needless to say, I’ll never do that again. The upside is the stuck drill bit seems to have helped clear the debris because the motor seems to be operating fine — for now — but maybe I’ll get that looked at in the USVI as well.

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OK, so those were the critical and/or big buck items that occurred in year 2. Along with these there have been lots of smaller repairs and replacements that are just a regular part of this cruising life. These include a new starter battery (you may recall that we replaced all of our house bank in Mexico), new freshwater pump, new hydraulic strut and mounting bracket on the freezer, new furling line block, and a new shower box along with all the routine maintenance like oil changes, bottom cleaning and zinc replacements.

If you’ve read our posts on a regular basis (which we hope you do) you know that we try to convey the positive side of our cruising life in almost every post. However, for those of you who are considering this life or just living vicariously through us, with these types of issues we’ve outlined here and the stresses of inclement weather and long passages, it’s definitely not always happy hour…

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The Homecoming

By the time most of you read this we’ll be back to our Caribbean paradise in Aruba after six hectic, wonderful weeks visiting family and friends in the Toronto area and Detroit. Now, before you read this and see that we forgot to mention you OR curse us for not getting a chance to see you, we’d like to apologize in advance. We thought six weeks was a long time and that we’d get to see everyone and do everything on our hit list. We figured we’d see family and friends, hit the marine stores, go camping (yes camping), stay in a hotel for a while, and do a few touristy things. But, as we soon discovered, there just wasn’t enough time. So, what did we do in all that time?

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First, we had the crazy Planes, Trains and Automobiles adventure of getting to Toronto via Curacao, Miami and Philadelphia!!! Huh…WTF??? Yeah, that’s what we say now. But, it seemed reasonable when we were making our travel plans. You see, we had enough points on American to get flights from Curacao to Toronto and, since we booked in March and had lots of time, we didn’t see getting to Curacao as a problem. The hitch was the only flight we could get with our points had an 8-hour stop in Miami and an overnight and full day in Philadelphia. But, we’re on a budget so we made our reservations from Curacao and didn’t think about it for a few months.

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Well, if you’ve been following this blog, you know the story. In short, we got stuck in Santa Marta, Colombia for six weeks waiting for a weather window then got beat up getting to Aruba and decided to park there for a few months. This meant we had to fly from Aruba to Curacao to get our two-stop flight to Toronto, which normally is no problem as they have regular flights almost every hour.

However, it seems like normal no longer applies to us because our flight from Curacao to Miami was the first flight of the day and that meant we had to fly to Curacao the night before and stay in a hotel. All of a sudden, that “cheap” flight to Toronto is no longer cheap as we now have two nights in hotels along with all the taxi fares, meals and alcohol (and you know how that goes…). But, what’s done is done so we made the best of it and had a great time in all three places.

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We finally got to Toronto then had a whirlwind six weeks that we couldn’t possibly summarize in this blog. We will however hit a few highlights since, after being away for so long, seeing our family and friends was such a wonderful experience that we want to share it and let everyone know how much it meant to us.

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Where do we begin? How about with our “newest” family members – Nia, Colton and Roshad. Nia is our 1-year old “great” niece (are we old enough to be great anythings?) and daughter to our nephew Jermaine. We were so happy to meet her for the first time, and be able to attend her Disney-themed birthday party. Yes, just picture Audrey and I at a Minnie Mouse party!!!

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Next is Colton, our “great” nephew, the son of our nephew Ryan. Colton is not really “new” as we met him when he was a newborn but he’s now an energetic 5-year old that we got to see while his military dad hosted guests of the Brantford Air Show on the Canadian Air Force Hercules transport plane where he serves as one of its technicians.

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Finally, we got to meet our nephew Roshad, son to my sister Wendy and her husband Roger. Roshad is an active 14-year old who plays many sports and hopes to take on the football world one day.

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The other VIP’s that we got to see were our mothers. My mother was visiting from St. Kitts and Audrey’s mother lives in Oakville, just outside Toronto and it was really wonderful to spend some quality time with both of them.

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This is not in any particular order and we don’t have pictures of everyone but we were also ecstatic to spend time with all of our immediate family members including brothers and brothers-in-law, sisters and sisters-in-law, as well as nephews, nieces, cousins, etc. Here’s just a sample of the many gatherings we enjoyed.

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Besides visiting and staying with family, we were like gypsies living out of our luggage and staying with or visiting some of our closest friends, who all welcomed us with open arms and, in most cases, open liquor cabinets!!! You know who you are but here’s a few pics…

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Besides seeing family and friends we did manage a few touristy things, including a Lenny Kravitz concert; a visit to the Canadian National Exhibition; a sailing weekend on two of our friends boats; a short stay at a very quaint inn in the Muskokas; a production of the award-winning play Kinky Boots; the Brantford Air Show; and a road trip to Detroit/Birmingham, Michigan where we saw some spectacular street graffiti/murals, visited the Motown Museum (which we highly recommend), and even saw Henry Ford’s house (not bad for a GM guy).

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We even managed a road trip to Kingston to see our California-based, close friends Ken and Sheri who did the Baja-Ha-Ha sailing rally from San Diego to Cabo at the same time as us on their boat Cake.

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Before we sign off, we’d like to say a special thanks to Jerry and Mary for the long-term loan of our special friend Elmo, who’s brand shall go unmentioned. All of our visits and road-trips would have been much more challenging without Elmo.

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Finally, we’d like to say one last thanks to everyone. We have a great life sailing in exotic locations but it’s so much better when you compliment it by spending time with family and friends. You all made us feel like the Homecoming King and Queen and we look forward to seeing you all again soon!

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One Dushi Island

I don’t know if mirages exist (is that an oxymoron?) but after our somewhat harrowing sail from Colombia to Aruba (see our previous post – The Fires of Hell), we know how those adventurers who were stranded in the desert must have felt when they reached that imaginary oasis. Yeah, yeah…I exaggerate but you get the idea. In other words, Aruba is the antidote and we’re not leaving until all memories of that sail have completely disappeared.

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In fact, that’s the reason why this post has taken so long. We decided to splurge and spoil ourselves by docking the boat at Renaissance Marina, which is part of the four-star Renaissance Resort and right in the heart of Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba. The marina is completely integrated into the resort and boat owners get access to all the facilities – including two freshwater pools, a fitness center and a private beach club on the resort’s own island. It’s also “downtown” and walking distance to shops, restaurants, bars, casinos, banks and grocery stores. There’s even a great movie theater in the same complex as the marina.

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Well, if you’ve been following our posts to this point, you can just imagine what we’ve been up to given all these amenities! We started with 3-4 days and nights of celebrating with our friends Mike and Holly from sailing vessel Wanuskewin who sailed with us from Colombia. Unfortunately, they had scheduled flights from  Curacao to Canada in late July so after a few Aruban dinners and happy hours together we said goodbye with a longer-term plan to meet them in Curacao or Bonaire later in the year.

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Then, with the initial kissing the ground and celebrating behind us, we had to get back to our “normal” cruising life, right? Yeah, sorta, kinda! We had a long list of boat projects, including a new windlass, that needed to be done BUT we already made an executive decision to stay in Aruba for an extended period so why rush? With that, we agreed to do one job a day and see what happens.

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As you probably guessed, we knocked off all the quick and easy jobs first, for example bulb changes, then spent time by pool or the beach club followed by happy hour at the swim-up bar, a local pub or on our boat.

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We eventually got past the easy jobs and tackled the big ones, including replacing the anchor windlass that crapped out in Colombia, with a new one that we had shipped to us from Defender Industries in Connecticut. This was a bigger job than expected because we couldn’t get a direct replacement for the old one, which meant I had to cut and drill new holes in the fiberglass deck, install a new breaker, add new terminals to extend the marine grade wiring, and re-wire the switches. Adding to the “normal” installation tasks was the fact that there’s no Home Depot or West Marine close-by so getting those little things that you can grab in 5-10 minutes often take half a day. For example, I needed a 1/2 inch drill bit but the only store that stocked them was a specialty hardware store that took almost an hour to find — on a very small island! At the end of the day, what should have been a one-day job took three days BUT it was totally worth it.

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With the project list getting shorter we set out to see what else was going on — besides the pool and happy hour — and found white, sandy beaches; gourmet food stores; and a vibrant night life that includes night clubs, bars, casinos and some big music festivals. In fact, because we were staying at the Renaissance Marina, we snagged VIP tickets to The Love Festival, one of the biggest electronic music parties in the Caribbean. The tickets included transfers from the hotel in a custom school bus “limousine”, which was a party unto itself, and complimentary champagne in a VIP marquee overlooking the main stage. Needless to say, we had an awesome time and stayed up way past “cruiser’s midnight”.

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We can’t say that we’ll ever forget the sail from Colombia to Aruba and, to be honest, it will likely become one of the most memorable sails of our entire journey (for better or worse…). However, we can say that if ever there was a place to go to help forget a negative experience, Aruba is it.

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We’ve now “parked” the boat there while we visit family and friends in Toronto (via Curacao, Miami and Philadelphia) but we can’t wait to get back to what’s locally known as “One Dushi Island” or “One Happy Island” according to the license plate on the Prime Minister’s Car.

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The Fires of Hell

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.

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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!

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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.

Santa Marta Sunrise

Santa Marta Skyline

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Aruba Harbor

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…

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The Waiting Game

Those of you who work in PR, media, marketing, events or any area where you host clients, guests, etc. have undoubtedly heard the expression “hurry up and wait”.  We’ve probably all experienced it at some point but Audrey and I are currently experiencing the most extreme case that I have ever encountered. In a nutshell, five weeks – yes, 5 WEEKS – and counting!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a hardship as we’re in beautiful Santa Marta, which is in Colombia and technically in the Caribbean. But it was supposed to be a stopping point on our way to Aruba then Curacao. We expected to stay for a week or two while waiting for a weather window to sail the 260+ miles (as a crow flies) to Aruba but the winds have been blowing a steady 20-30 knots (or more) from the east, which is where we are heading. And, unlike most places we have travelled, these winds have blown unabated the entire time we’ve been here and, according to the latest forecasts, we don’t see a window anytime soon.

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So, what do cruisers do when they are “waiting” in a relatively small town for a month or more? First, we check out the basics — grocery stores, markets, malls, banks, etc. and so far so good as Santa Marta seems to have almost everything we need – except a good marine supply store.

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Next, we check out the restaurants, bars, arts and entertainment and, once again, Santa Marta gets a pretty good rating.  We’ve found a number of restaurants that serve a good, inexpensive typical Colombian “almuerzo” (lunch), which includes soup, entrée and a drink, for $4 or so. We’ve also discovered Parque de los Novios (boyfriend/girlfriend park), which is a small park that’s surrounded by “hip” restaurants and bars and a great place to hang out at night. So far, we’ve tried, Ouzo, Hemmingway’s, Radio Burger and nearby Crabs but there are lots more waiting to get our pesos.

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Arts and Entertainment has been a little more challenging as it’s a small town so options are limited. There’s a small gold museum and a hacienda dedicated to Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary credited with independence in Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador and Peru, but we haven’t visited them yet. There’s also Parque Bolivar where they host events on weekends. We were there once for a rock concert but, frankly, the band was so bad we had to leave but we still keep our ears and eyes open in case someone good plays in the park.

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After the basics, restaurants, arts and entertainment we start looking at local tourist attractions and Santa Marta has a few. The main attraction is La Cuidad Perdida, the Lost City. It’s a centuries old city that was discovered in the Colombian jungle in 1977 that is supposedly in impeccable condition. Unfortunately, the only way to get there is a 5-day hiking excursion that involves 2-days of hiking to get there, 1 day of visiting the city (which we have been told is really just a couple of hours), then 2-days of hiking to get back. Now, I like seeing ruins and history as much as the next guy but there’s something about 5-days of hiking in 90-100 degrees, sleeping in hammocks, and eating rice and patacones for breakfast, lunch and dinner that doesn’t really appeal to me. So, unless Audrey forces me to go under the threat of violence, we have no plans of visiting that particular attraction.

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Another local attraction is a small village named Taganga, which is primarily known for dive excursions. We’re not divers but we did go there for a lunch on the waterfront. Let’s just say it was a pretty good lunch but it was obvious that the main attractions are under the water.

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The other major attraction is Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, which we have visited. It’s a 15,000 hectare, protected reserve that is recognized by UNESCO for its preservation of the biosphere. It has hundreds of species of fauna and flora as well as tigers, armadillos, turtles, a variety of reptiles and some near extinct animals. It also has some beautiful beaches.

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Of course, even this list is not long enough to keep anyone busy for five weeks so we enjoying many happy hours and dinners with our friends Mike and Holly, who are also on their sailboat heading to Aruba. We’ve also been “adopted” by Stewart, a local helicopter pilot, and his family and friends who not only love to host Sunday Roast and Thursday Curry but showed us how to get into the Colombian military’s national recreation centre, which is on the beach and has a nice swimming pool – although you are required to wear swim caps.

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We’ve also joined an awesome gym that overlooks the marina and the Caribbean Sea. And, yes we actually go almost every day – when we haven’t had happy hour, Sunday Roast or Thursday Curry the night before!!!STM - Gym

As you can tell, Santa Marta is a beautiful place and we are having a great time “waiting” but we do hope to get to Aruba and Curacao eventually…

Cartagena – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

OK, OK it’s not very original and there’s not a lot of bad or ugly about Cartagena but the title sounded cool and was obviously enough to get your attention.  So, if you’re a morbid person just skip to the bottom now to see the bad and ugly. If not, let’s start with the things we really like about Cartagena.

The Good

First and foremost, it’s a beautiful, historic city that is truly one of the jewels of the Caribbean and, for you history buffs, a UNESCO world heritage site. The short history lesson is it was Spain’s key shipping port for pillaged gold and treasure and, consequently, was a major target for attacks by foreign nations, pirates and buccaneers. As a result, Spain built numerous forts and ringed the city with a protective wall that made the city virtually impregnable.

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Today, the walls and forts are in remarkably good condition and the city has expanded beyond the walls to become a large urban metropolis – with all the amenities of a large city – and a major tourist attraction. Those amenities include not only grocery stores, shops, restaurants and theatres but, from our perspective, a well-protected harbor along with good boating facilities and services.

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The boating facilities that we took advantage of included: Club Nautico, a secure marina/yacht club that is walking distance to the walled city and where we were able to anchor the boat and pay a reasonable fee (approx. $30 week) to dock our dinghy, dispose of garbage, fill our water tanks and use their restrooms; David  Arroyo, the shipping agent we used to check us in with Immigration, Customs and the Port Captain since they do not deal directly with boaters in Colombia; Renzon Herrera, the sailmaker, who repaired our torn mainsail (for the second time); MultiElectricos, the company that rebuilt the electric motor in our windlass that crapped out just as we got to Cartagena; and Sven at Labratario Electronico Aleman, who diagnosed all the other components of the windlass system to determine that the motor needed to be rebuilt; plus the numerous local chandleries for smaller items like courtesy flags for Aruba and Curacao – our next destinations.

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Having the boat in a safe, secure location gave us “piece of mind” (I’ll get to this later) to be able to leave the boat and enjoy some of the amenities. One of our primary objectives was Spanish lessons (finally) so we ended up taking a one-week intensive course at Nueva Lengua that was comprised of 4-hours of lessons each morning followed by Spanish activities in the afternoon. These activities included salsa dancing and cooking lessons, trips to the Botanical Gardens and to Castillo San Filipe, and a barbecue at the home of one of the teachers. Let’s just say Audrey is a much more advanced student than me and leave it at that…

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Once we had the boat safe and repaired, and our Spanish lessons behind us, it was time to enjoy the city. You’d think we’d start with the many tourist attractions, right? Nope. If you’ve been reading our posts to this point, you’d know that we tend to be a little more social and less touristy when we get to these places so we started with a happy hour on Celebration with fellow students from our Spanish school then proceeded to become intimate with an area called Getsemani, which is chock-a-block with bars, clubs, hostels and good, cheap restaurants (e.g. $3 for a lunch that included soup, salad, chicken, rice, beans and plantain plus $1 for a beer) and home to Plaza Trinidad, the local hub for hanging out, live entertainment (not necessarily good entertainment) and cheap shots that they set on fire with no precautions that we could see other than their V for Vendetta masks.  We even got Audrey to stay out really, really late to party at Mister Babilla’s, a Getsemani nightclub where she got up on stage for free drinks from the staff that dresses in a different theme every night.

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Eventually, we did get to some of the tourist attractions including the Botanical Gardens, Castillo San Filipe and the beaches of Boca Grande. But, in our opinion, one of the main attractions to Cartagena is just walking around the beautiful old city and seeing the architecture, churches, shops and the people. In fact, this is one place where the pictures really do speak for themselves and I’m sure we didn’t even see a quarter of the old city.

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Now, before we get to the bad and the ugly, the other good for those who are considering a visit to Cartagena is safety and security. We can’t speak for everyone but our experience has been excellent. We walked everywhere – even at 2 o’clock in the morning –and never felt threatened once. It may seem odd to visitors but there are police everywhere, however it appears that they are more a deterrent than a security issue as we never saw them arrest or detain anyone. Hell, we were anchored right across the bay from the navy base and even had submarines to protect us.

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The Bad  

Contrary to what some might think, this is a short list and most of the items aren’t really Cartagena’s fault. However, we thought we should let you know, especially if you are considering a visit. First, besides the areas within the walled city, which is a major tourist destination, Cartagena is a large South American city that has its fair share of socioeconomic problems e.g. large poor population, dirty streets, inadequate infrastructure, etc.

Donkey on the Street

Second, the water in Cartagena Bay, which is where we had to anchor is dirty, muddy and a foul greenish color. It’s so bad that we got really thick growth on the bottom of our boat within 2 weeks and had to have a diver clean it since I had no intention of jumping in. Consequently, we didn’t do any swimming. Plus, the water on the Caribbean side (outside the bay) is not that great either as it gets the runoff from the Rio Magdalena, one of largest rivers in the country. There are better beaches with cleaner water off the islands, e.g. Isla Rosario, that are about one hour by speed boat from the city but if you are thinking of a blue-water, Caribbean beach vacation, you may want to go elsewhere.

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Third, and this is by no means Cartagena’s problem and very unique to a small percentage of visitors, is the boat services that I mentioned earlier are not up to world-class standards yet. For example, we had the mainsail repaired and it appears that it will do the job but the panels don’t fit well and could end up jamming in our in-mast furling system once we get underway. And, the rebuilt electric motor for the windlass initially didn’t seem strong enough but after using it a couple of times it seems to be getting better (???). Not sure if that’s good or bad but I went back and talked to them (in my poor Spanish) and I think they said there was nothing more they could do. In their defense, you can certainly purchase new sails and new windlasses here – if you are willing pay the duties and wait for a month or so. The fact is they don’t have anywhere near the number of boats that we see in the US or Mexico so the options are limited.

Finally, and this is more humorous than a problem, but you better walk around with a calculator if you plan to visit Colombia as the exchange rate is approximately 2,400 Colombian Pesos (COP) to 1 US dollar. Yes, do the math and you’ll see why an “expensive” lunch we had at La Cervichera in the old city cost 100,000 COP. On the other hand, we felt rich when we went to the ATM and withdrew 1,200,000 COP!!!

The Ugly

Yes, we’re on an extended sabbatical and life is good BUT we did have two events that on any scale were very ugly.

First, the holding for anchors and moorings in Cartagena Bay is terrible and for some reason we became the target for dragging boats and bad anchoring. We “rescued” 2 boats with no owners onboard that broke off their moorings and dragged close to us. Another one actually hit us causing minor damage to our toerail. Then, Audrey had to jump onboard a fourth that nearly hit us when the parents left their 11-year old daughter to look after it while they went shopping. The final incident (we hope as we’re leaving tomorrow) occurred when a boat anchored much too close to us and when we complained they said it was fine but the next day we had to fend them off to prevent them from hitting our boat. In short, if you’re planning to visit by boat and anchor in Cartagena Bay, make sure your anchor is really set, put out as much scope as you can, AND watch out for other boats.

Rescue1 Boat Dragging

The other much more serious “ugly” occurred when I (Richard) nearly choked to death – seriously – at the teacher’s barbecue that I mentioned. It was probably my own fault as they were serving large pieces of steak with plastic knives that couldn’t cut it so I figured I’d just chew it. You can guess what happened next and I can assure you that it’s completely different from what you see in the movies. People tried hitting my back and doing the Heimlich maneuver but it didn’t work so I gasped for air for what seemed like 10 minutes while the hosts called an ambulance. Fortunately, the steak worked its way out after a scary amount of time and the hosts were able to cancel the ambulance. It’s a good thing it did because nobody seemed confident that the ambulance would show up in time and many of the parents and older generation at the BBQ were actually praying. In the end, it was a close call and we are very happy that it worked out but from now on I will be chewing the shit out of my steaks and you should too…

We Love Cartagena

In the end, even with the bad and ugly experiences, we love Cartagena and highly recommend it as a destination for boaters and non-boaters. In fact, it’s the first place that we’ve gone to on this adventure where we’ve said we could actually live here. We’re not sure where we will end up but we’ll always keep Cartagena in mind as we travel through the Caribbean and back to Miami. Who knows, we could end up back here one day.

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