The inner workings of a woman

Bob is a very interesting boat with a very complex personality. In fact, from what I have seen so far I would say she is more sensitive and irritable than any woman I know! There seem to be only a finite number of her components that can be fully functional at any given time. As soon as something is repaired or installed, she retaliates and something else breaks. This morning before our departure to San Blas, this happened a number of times. First the electric pump to the cock pit shower stopped working, which is very unfortunate not just because it’s less than one month old and cost Alex quite a lot of money, but mainly because I really really like showers. After some time exploring various reasons and solutions, we then discovered that the volt meter was also broken – so that’s another thing that needed to be replaced.

As we were leaving the harbour Alex asked me to steer the boat under motor around the bay whilst he dealt with the anchor at the bow. I am very unfamiliar with driving Bob under motor so I wanted to test the throttle and gears to get used to them first. Of course in any other boat, to go forward you would push the throttle lever, well, forward. Not so in Bob! In Bob, to go forwards you push the throttle lever backwards – naturally. Like I said, she’s a complex lady. I of course didn’t pull it backwards, instead I pushed the lever forwards with not a whole lot of force and broke the whole thing. This was not the best start to my first sail of this round-the-world trip and it was yet another thing to add to the list of repairs. My theory is that all the things that went wrong did so because we installed a nice new working freezer in the galley. Luckily, all these problems ended up being easily fixed and without too much extra time or expense and we set off to San Blas – this of course meant that something else was bound to go wrong imminently. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before something else stopped working and Alan was the next victim. Alan is the electric autopilot which Alex named after his dad for being reliable and getting him out of sticky situations when he really needed it. I guess he’s now just a bit old and tired (not saying anything about Alex’s dad here – but if you will name something after a Lanky…..) but hopefully we can find him a new working motor in Panama and give him a new lease of life ready for the crossing to Galapagos.

When at sea, there’s a tradition that the captain should eat the first flying fish to land on deck. It’s supposed to bring good luck but this tradition is one that Alex has never fulfilled in the past (perhaps another reason for Bobs irritability?). The most tiny and pathetic flying fish was discovered lying on the port side in the morning and was still lovely and fresh. Alex thought it was too small to be worth bothering about, but if eating that tiny fish brings us good luck in the future then I thought it was worth a try – especially given all the little breakages we’d experienced over the past day. So it was de-scaled, gutted and fried up for the captains breakfast. It was about two bites worth of food including the head. Still, Alex seemed to enjoy it. The good luck kicked in almost immediately because just a few hours later we caught ourselves a perfectly sized tuna (first catch of the trip). Most was frozen for later but some was made into ceviche and fried tuna sandwiches for lunch – very tasty.

Alex eating the first flying fish of the journey to bring good luck. It may have been small but it seemed to do the job!

Alex eating the first flying fish of the journey to bring good luck. It may have been small but it seemed to do the job!

The tuna we caught...

The tuna we caught…

...and the ceviche it was turned into

…and the ceviche it was turned into

The sail to San Blas was wonderful. The seas were relatively calm and although I felt sea sick at times, it was nothing major and all my food stayed firmly in my stomach. If anything, I noticed an overall increase in my apatite during the sail over. Perhaps I was finally getting used to the hot climate and got my appetite back. I was reacquainted with Stugeron anti-sickness tablets and the drowsy feeling that comes with them, but it knocked me out for 12 hours on the first night so I woke up feeling wonderfully reenergised. This sail was the polar opposite from my first major sail on Bob from Bermuda to Grenada in 2008. Back then we had no wind vane, appalling weather conditions and were doing 3-hour-on, 3-hour-off watches. In fact, at one point we were doing 1-hour-on, 1-hour-off watches when the weather was at its worst. With our wind vane (David) at the helm, this trip was absolute luxury in comparison. I think David is my new best friend.

 

A view of Bob around sunset on our sail from Cartagena to San Blas

A view of Bob around sunset on our sail from Cartagena to San Blas

After about 40 hours of sailing we arrived in Porvenir; the only island in San Blas where cruisers check in. San Blas (or ‘Kuna Yala’ as it is known by the locals) is one of the most idyllic places I have ever seen. There are over 340 islands that make up the archipelago and most are uninhibited with only palm trees, deserted white sandy beaches and turquoise water. It’s a very tranquil area with only a few permanent inhabitants. The local Kuna tribe live very basic lives, making a living from selling coconuts, hand-made textiles (called molas) or hand caught lobsters, conch and other fish. From the little contact I’ve had with them they seem very friendly and attempt to make conversation even though Alex and I speak next-to-no Spanish. They paddle round in these wonderful little wooden canoes called ulu’s calved out of a single tree trunk and beautifully painted. It takes five men to trek for half a day into the mainland forests to find a tree suitable for one of these boats. They lug it back to San Blas and then spend months calving out the hull to make the main body of their boats. It’s really great craftsmanship, and they are justifiably proud of their craft.

One of the many deserted islands around San Blas

One of the many deserted islands around San Blas

One of the inhabited islands of San Blas

One of the inhabited islands of San Blas

Just a picture of one of the boats we were anchored near

Just a picture of one of the boats we were anchored near

San Blas sunset

San Blas sunset

San Blas sunset again

San Blas sunset again

The wildlife is surprising sparse but I never had the opportunity to venture into some of the more developed reefs further offshore. I had a great time snorkelling in the sea grass and low coral areas near one of the islands we were anchored off. The habitat in these areas is very shallow and I expect much of the marine life that lives here is small and easily hidden amongst it. I tried to do a coral bleaching survey on the small amount of low coral that was around. It was my first survey of this type so I’m still getting used to the technique and the marine environment in general. My natural habitat and where most of my experience lies is in terrestrial ecology, but I wanted to use this trip as an opportunity to branch out into marine ecology. I’ve got a lot to learn and my ID skills are terrible but I still saw an abundance of small fish, crabs and cushion star fish. Cushion star fish are dominant in this area and are very impressive; they are brightly orange-coloured with touches of yellow and red and reach up to 20cm in diameter. There were also many bird species to be seen including the common brown pelican – another impressive looking creature which performs remarkable dives into the water in an attempt to catch a fish or two.

Brown pelican

Brown pelican

Colourful cushion starfish

Colourful cushion starfish

4-legged cushion star fish. Their asexual method of reproduction is to loose a leg which then turns into another starfish, cool eh?

4-legged cushion star fish. Their asexual method of reproduction is to loose a leg which then turns into another starfish, cool eh?

Some of Alex’s friends (Cathy and Maria) operate a charter boat here, a beautiful 72 foot ketch which we managed to find anchored off Green Island on our first night. Cathy and Maria are really great people and were incredibly welcoming. We’ve spent many of our evenings with them and their friends enjoying good food, drink and the tranquil scenery.  They are both natural born hosts and it’s very easy to see why they do what they do. What a wonderful way to make a living chartering out a fabulous yacht in such a beautiful area of the world. Unfortunately we forgot to take any photos of their boat, but you can see it here if you’re interested. It really is a stunning boat both inside and out which has been beautifully built and maintained. Having spoken to them about our various breakages on Bob, I found out that they also find themselves doing never-ending repairs and maintenance work – it’s nice to know that we’re not alone.

Alex and I on Cathy and Maria's boat, 'Joana'.

Alex and I on Cathy and Maria’s boat, ‘Joana’.

The source of our initial breakages I mentioned earlier – the new freezer – worked perfectly to start with. As everything else slowly got repaired the efficiency of the freezer became less and less so that by the time we’d spent some time in San Blas, it didn’t seem to be working at all. I guess Bob was still upset about something. Fortunately, the good luck we gained from eating the flying fish was still with us; it turns out that we were anchored right next to a refrigeration specialist who had on board sundry equipment for refrigeration tests and repairs. What amazing luck to be so close to exactly the person we needed even though we were in the middle of one of the most secluded places on the planet! He’s called Mike, he’s from South Africa and is one of the funniest men I have ever met! After 20 minutes or so of checking the freezer, he came to the conclusion that the problem was most likely caused by a small amount of moisture getting into the system and the very act of defrosting it removed the moisture and solved the problem. Again, what luck! I’m happy to say the freezer has worked ever since. Hopefully Bob is now a happy boat and her various components will stay fully functional for a little while longer.

 

Ice from our new freezer, what a treat!

Ice from our new freezer, what a treat!

Hopefully we can enjoy a few more nights here before heading to Panama to sort out the canal transit. This will require us to sail to a city called Colon, which I’ve been told lives up to its name. It’s going to be a shame to leave San Blas, especially when the next destination is supposed to be the arm pit of the world, but I’m very much looking forward to going through the Panama Canal and I’m also very keen to make sure we leave plenty of time to get to Galapagos for my mum’s arrival at the end of March.

Cartagena

Bob is in Cartagena! I have to say, we were not immediately impressed. After a long night of large waves, Cartagena emerged out of the hazy gloom at 8am, February 17th. First the water turned a muddy brown colour and then the distinctive silhouettes of sky scrapers materialised. Not what we were expecting!

The approach to Cartagena was rough but not too-much-so. The wind was moderate – about 20 to 25 knots with gusts up to 30 or 35. Waves were about 3.5 meters (10 feet) on average but not steep enough to be too much of a problem………… with one exception. At about 4am we were down below and heard the ominous sound of a wave larger than any we had thus far encountered breaking and bearing down on us. When it hit, it did so with a resounding crash and Bob was heeled over abruptly 60 or 70 degrees. Stuff went flying everywhere. Isabelle was sleeping at the time and had the unfortunate experience of having the entire contents of the book shelf deposited onto her bunk on top of her. Pots and pans in the galley cupboards could be heard crashing into the cabinet doors, and somehow the portable generator (which had been wedged in very tightly among a load of other stuff) ended up upside-down and leaking petrol onto the fridge. No real harm done though – we righted the generator, wedged it in again, put the books back and added an extra piece of string to keep them in place should we experience another such wave. Fortunately, we didn’t.

There was a strong current against us – 2 to 3 knots I’d say. Even with Bob well powered-up we were only making 4 knots ‘SOG’ (speed over ground). A large number of ships were using this current to their advantage as they steamed North on their way, presumably, from the Panama Canal. These typically approached from ahead of us doing 16 to 20 knots, sometimes more. Added to our 4, that meant a very rapid closing speed and little time to make them aware of our presence and adjust course to avoid us. To compound the issue, visibility was down to 4 or 5 miles at best. It was a busy night. The closest call came not from a ship but from a fellow sailing vessel. Like us, they didn’t have an AIS transponder which meant they could only be detected visually (since we don’t have radar). The poor visibility (if anyone knows the reason for this I’d love to hear it – I’m guessing it is dust in the atmosphere from the desert to the East of us?) meant that i didn’t spot his tri-colour navigation light until he was about 2 miles from us and it was apparent fairly quickly that it was going to be a close call as his compass bearing from us was unwavering. I estimated his position and tried raising him on the radio twice but received no response. He passed about 100 yards astern of us on a course perpendicular to ours, and presumably remains oblivious to this day how near he came to meeting us on very close terms indeed!

Having arrived in Cartagena Isabelle and I anchored Bob in 4 fathoms, made everthing ship-shape and went ashore. Sarah was waiting on the dock. Needless to say that made me very, very happy indeed.

Cartagena is not as it first appeared. The old town, from the little we have seen of it so far, is beautiful. The prices are very, very reasonable, the seafood is fantastic and the bread is possibly the best I have ever had (sorry France, Colombia has it!). I had the ‘opportunity’ to walk through some less-touristy areas today when I got lost on my way back from the immigration office and that was quite educational. Tomorrow I think we’ll head to the old town again; I’d like to visit the ‘Museum of the Spanish Inquisition’ and then I suspect Sarah will drag me to a beach that is supposed to be incredible. I’ve been grossly spoiled by Bermudian beaches and don’t therefore have much time for them in other places as they are invariably inferiour. I suppose I could probably endure it if forced.

Isabelle is still on board with us so we are currently three. She’s itching to get back to the Eastern Caribbean. Unfortunately, doing so by sailboat is tricky at the moment on account of the strength of the trade winds so she may have to get on one of those unnatural metal flying things. It’s been really wonderful having her on board – she’s saved me from myself on many occasions, has been fantastic company and always eager to help with everything. Sarah and I will set sail from here soon – perhaps Tuesday next week – and stop in the San Blas Islands briefly before heading in to Colon, Panama, to arrange our canal transit. We’re hoping we can arrange a transit date and then double back to San Blas for a week or so to wait for our slot there instead of staying in Colon. I’ve been to Colon before, briefly, in 2002 with the Picton Castle. By all accounts it is a very appropriately-named city – the arse of the world, and I have no desire to stay there any longer than is absolutely necessary to arrange the transit.

View looking Astern about 2 days out from St. Martin. Sailing under genoa alone. The red thing is the wind vane, which performed absolutely superbly throughout - better than any other model i have ever had experience with.

View looking Astern about 2 days out from St. Martin. Sailing under genoa alone. The red thing is the wind vane, which performed absolutely superbly throughout – better than any other model i have ever had experience with.

Our first view of Cartagena..........

Our first view of Cartagena……….

 

Goodbye grey skies

Well I arrived in Cartagena with no issues at all. I said goodbye to my family in Bradford and my dad dropped me off at Brighouse station where I caught a train to London. I met up with my lovely friend Laura and her boyfriend, Ewan, in Kings Cross which was a wonderful last-minute surprise, not only to have a friendly face to see me off before heading to Heathrow, but also because I had someone to help me with my bags (thanks Ewan). It’s not easy packing the next 3 years of your life into a small space whilst trying to make it as light as possible.

Right now it’s the morning of the 17th February and Alex is due to arrive in Cartagena any time now. I’m just sat on my bed in the hostel writing this post before heading out to grab some breakfast and then seeing if I can find the marina where Alex will be arriving, I can’t wait to see him.

Cartagena is a wonderful bustling city, full of colourful buildings, friendly locals and a historic Spanish colonial feel, at least in the Old Town. Other parts of the city appear to be very modern with lots of high rise buildings, shopping malls and sky scrapers. The hostel I’m staying in is small but perfectly formed and seems very reasonable for the price. I’m ashamed to say that this is my first time ever staying in a youth hostel, but I thought at the ripe young age of 31 I would give it a go. It’s proved to be a fantastic place to meet new and interesting people and I’ve already made some fabulous friends. I was here for less than 5 minutes before I was invited to join a couple of girls on a free walking tour of the city, which of course I accepted. Cartagena is one of the oldest settlements in Colombia and has some beautiful buildings with some very interesting history. The tour was run by a local guy called Edger and because the tour is free, he relies heavily on tips to make an income – so he’s got to be good.

After the tour, we got some lunch and then had an afternoon trip to a small beach on the edge of the city. The beach isn’t exactly the tropical paradise you might imagine when you think of the picturesque images of beaches often associated with South America. Instead the sand is quite dark and grey (a bit like the sand you might find in Blackpool), the sea is therefore a bit of a muggy colour and there are a lot of locals trying to sell you things every 5 minutes. Still, the weather has been glorious and the sea is nice and warm to swim in. I’ve been told about a lovely beach called Playa Blanca which is a 2 hour journey from Cartagena and is supposed to be beautiful white sandy beaches, turquoise waters with restaurants serving freshly caught fish dishes. I thought I would wait for Alex to arrive before visiting there. After the beach, we all went out for a lovely dinner where I had sea bass civiche for 20,000 pesos – this might sound extortionate, but it’s actually less than £4.50. I love checking my bank balance at the ATMs in this country, I can pretend that I’m a millionaire!

Yesterday morning I met two lovely Argentinean ladies at breakfast who invited me along to another beach in a different part of the city, a place called Castillo Grande. This was a much nicer beach, the sand was a similar colour but it was much beach itself was much bigger, there were fewer tourists and less people hassling us to buy stuff. If you find yourself in Cartagena looking for a good beach that is within a 10 minute drive, the ones at Castillo Grande are the place to go. Having spent months and months in the grey, wet, cold climate of Yorkshire, I was more than happy to spend another day at the beach. The girls introduced me to a local Argentinean drink called terere; it’s made from a herb called yerba which is mixed with fruit juice and drank cold. It’s a lovely refreshing drink which tastes a little bit like green tea which I thought my mum would really like, absolutely perfect to have whilst lying on the beach soaking up the sun. I’ve also tried ‘arepa’ which is a local Colombian dish made from cornmeal dough and stuffed with cheese and meat, then deep fried to a tender, flaky perfection. It’s often served as street food, so really handy when you’re feeling a bit peckish walking around the town.

Anyway, it’s getting close to 9.30am and I’m keen to finish packing, have breakfast then find Alex.  We’ll check in with you again soon.

A few pictures of Old Town…

Old Town6 Old Town4

Old Town5

The main square and the Clock Tower

Main square by clock tower

Clock tower

The beach with Luli and Maria at Casillo Grande

Me, Maria and Luli Castillo Grande beach Castillo Grande beach2

Me drinking terere…

Drinking terere

Eating the local street food (arepa)

Eating Arepa

Club Nautico Marina where Alex is headed

Club Nautico Marina Club Nautico Marina sunset

Beginning of day 4 at Sea, St. Martin (French Leeward Islands) to Cartagena (Colombia)

Thus far Bob has had a lovely time of it. With the exception of day two, when winds were very light and we were forced to head straight South towards Venezuela, we’re enjoyed very favourable winds and kind seas. At least, I say they’re kind and Isabelle believes me, but in her book they’re pretty big! Bob is running along under poled-out genoa and currently averaging a touch over 6 knots. Winds are 20 knots from the East and promise to remain about the same (15 to 25) for the next couple of days at least. We could be doing 7 knots but alas, the only size of aluminium tubing that the metalworking place in St. Martin didn’t have in stock was the size I needed, so my spinnaker pole is looking very sad and bent where it had an unfortunate encounter with the shrouds back in 2009. Until I figure out a permanent solution (hopefully in Cartagena) it’s managing remarkably well under the circumstances, though I expect at any moment to hear a bang and a crash and go up on deck to see one end dangling from the genoa sheet and the other lying on the lifelines with one end still attached to the mast. Fingers crossed it won’t be necessary to clean up that mess!

Other maintenance – we had been using the brand-new 110% working jib but it was getting beaten up by the light winds and the boat rolling back and forth, alternately filling and then backing it. I decided to switch it out for the big old rotten genoa. Unfortunately some of the stitching didn’t like the brief flogging it received when we were shortening sail before a squall yesterday. It’ll have to come down and be replaced with another old, beaten-up one at some point – no small task in 20 knots of breeze, and it only promises to build from here. A job for after lunch methinks.

We’ve been working hard to empty the fridge to make way for potential fish. Last night (after another hearty beef stew) I declared that our efforts have been sufficient, so this morning I have put out a fishing line for the first time on this voyage. Thus far the only catch has been Sargassum Weed, but I have faith. A mahi mahi would be very very nice indeed.

I have a terrible confession to make. Our first flying fish was discovered on deck yesterday and I didn’t eat it. The thing is, it was very dead and dried-up by the time I found it so I doubted it’s the quality of its offerings as a culinary delight. I figured Neptune would understand my reasoning and not look too harshly on me for not following tradition – the first flying fish to come aboard must be eaten (usually for breakfast) by the Captain. I hope my decision wasn’t folly……………

There’s not a whole lot more to report really. I’m still pretty nervous about rounding the headland on approach to Cartagena but I’m not worried that it will endanger Bob even if it’s really nasty. At around the time I send this I’ll also attempt to extract a weather forecast from the ether, and at that point I can get a good idea of whether we should go for it, slow down and wait for a window or, if it looks really nasty, pull in to Santa Marta and wait it out.

Hope all’s well with everyone!

Until next time, cheers!

Bob is On the Move! (finally…..)

Bob is finally on the move. 2 weeks has turned into 7……..ish and St. Maarten has been invaluable as a resource of both bits of boat and excellent company. The time has come to leave, however, and not a moment too soon! I am very much looking forward to Sarah joining me in Cartagena; in fact, she flies into these in a mere 6 days but I fear I will not be there to meet her as my departure has been delayed by one thing after another, most notably the weather.

The passage from St. Martin to Cartagena should be mostly an easy one. Between 15 and 25 knots of breeze from astern or on the quarter makes for a very happy Bob and a very happy crew. I say ‘mostly’ because there is one rather large (though hopefully short-lived) bit that promises to be anything but easy. The approach to Cartagena itself is notoriously horrendous. There is a mountain range near a town called ‘Barranquila’ (a notorious drug-smuggling port) and to the East of the range is a large desert. These topographical features produce a diurnal low pressure which, in periods of strong trade winds (like now………) produce winds of 30 to 40 knots and very large seas. Exacerbating the situation is a current which runs North East up the coast of Colombia, opposing these strong winds and making the waves very steep. Further adding to this is the effect of the South American continental plate, which cause the sea to shallow and makes everything even worse, plus a large river which flows into the Caribbean Sea at this point and mixes things up even more! I’ve spent the last 3 days looking at the long-range forecast and trying to figure out when the trade winds might abate and make life easier. Unfortunately, they still show no signs of doing so we’re just going to have to bite the bullet, head to sea and hope the forecast changes.

On the plus side, unlike North Atlantic weather systems these conditions off the Colombian coast are very predictable and localised. There is also a bail-out option – a town about 150 miles East along the coast from Cartagena called ‘Santa Marta’. This is another hot-spot for cruisers, many of whom work their way along the Venezuelan coast, through the ‘ABCs’ (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) and then wait in Santa Marta for a good window in which to make that last hop to Cartagena along the coast. Alas, we don’t have the option of taking our time at the moment – we need to be getting through the Panama Canal by mid-March at the latest.

Also on the plus side – I have found an excellent crew member for this leg of the Voyage – Isabelle from Sweden – who has absolutely no time restraints whatsoever and who has so far proven to be excellent company and a very willing helping hand over these last few days leading up to our departure. She also likes cheesy pop music so I think we’ll get along fine.

We’re provisioned, full of fuel, water and lots and lots of stuff and I have cleared out French customs and immigration (while sitting in a marine chandlery drinking a beer – these French really are very civilised). I don’t like leaving port to go to sea in the evening so we’re going to get a couple of odd jobs done, have a beer, pull the dinghy out of the water, lash it on deck and be ready to catch the first bridge opening tomorrow morning at 0830. I’ve arranged an agent for entry into Colombia in Cartagena – a very characterful German gentleman who has requested that I bring him some Gouda, sour-pickled herring fillets and some kind of sweet liquorice. His most valuable advice was to ‘stock up on cheese and wine as they are very expensive here’. Alas I could only manage to carry 7 bottles (purchased for an average of $3.50 each) in addition to the rest of the groceries. Ah well, I’m sure we’ll manage.

Cheers!