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.
It’s now January 15th and Bob is still in St. Martin. I’m kind of stuck while I await the arrival of the new wind vane from England, which is taking predictably longer than predicted since one of the boxes failed to make it through the airport security check and UPS then lost it and are refusing to take responsibility for anything. Somehow the other three boxes have made it to Florida despite the absence of any paperwork for them (which is all in the lost box) but of course now they can’t be shipped here because they don’t have any paperwork. Meanwhile I’m still trying to source a new part for the engine exhaust but I did at least hear back from one of the people I emailed with a vaguely positive (though decidedly noncommittal) response. Turns out there might be one somewhere in Florida that I could probably purchase in exchange for rights of ownership to both of my kidneys, ten years of forced labour and a unicorn. Still, there is hope that I might get out of here at some point within the next 2 or 3 weeks with some luck and there are much, much worse places to be stuck!
Life in St. Martin is decidedly excellent. I’ve made some really great friends and spent a good bit of time enjoying myself. Last weekend I left Bob anchored in the Lagoon and jumped ship onto Paul and Sylvia’s boat ‘Phoenix’ (the boat was sunken when Paul bought it so he really has raised it from the dead). Paul had asked if I would teach him how to fly spinnakers so I figured it sounded like a fair deal and we headed to St. Barts for the weekend, which is only 12 miles from St. Maarten. We picked up a free mooring in a Bay on the North West corner of the island and Sylvia delighted in turtle-watching while Paul and I discussed engines, or electrics, or some other thing that wasn’t working as it should on one of our boats, interrupted only occasionally by a shriek from Sylvia followed by a rapid stream of Spanish as she spotted one of the reptilian creatures poking it’s head above water for a breath of air.
That evening we decided to head into the main town, which was about 5 miles away around a headland. It was a good adventure with the three of us in Paul’s little dinghy, at night, with a propeller bushing that was decidedly on its last legs, no anchor, one paddle and probably not enough fuel to get back again. This turned out to be the case, but fortunately we were able to elicit the assistance of a teenager on a scooter who drove even more erratically than I ever have (OK, maybe that’s not entirely true……..) and a taxi driver who was kind enough to lend me his credit card when none of mine or Paul’s would work at the petrol pump. All was well, and we decided to allow ourselves a beer (just one!) at the inflated St. Bart’s prices. We wandered around admiring all of the designer shops selling very shiny things and the designer super-mega-uber-yachts that are the playthings of designer people. It was all very pleasant.
The following day was a beautiful down-wind light-air passage back to St. Martin so we popped out Paul’s fancy ‘parasailor’ chute (I’m not a fan personally but don’t tell Paul that!) followed by a go with his asymmetric reaching chute when the angle got a little tighter. The drop could have been better but it was all good in the end and we ended up anchored in Grande Casse on the North Coast of St. Martin after a long stop in a lovely cove in the lee of an uninhabited island off the North East corner.
On Monday we headed back to Marigot Bay and waited nervously for the French bridge to open and let us into the lagoon. I say nervously because at that time we were getting our first taste of the infamous ground swells. These are large swells (3 to 4 meters were forecast according to the friendly gendarmes who came by to warn us of our impending doom) from the North West which are unrelated to the local weather patterns. This set of ground swells were caused by the weather system that you guys in Bermuda experienced first-hand last week and which is currently located near the Azores where it has developed into a full-blown hurricane (called Alex ?)…………. in January!!!!!!!!!! Global weather really is going nuts…………… anyway, this meant breaking waves in the anchorage at Marigot (we snapped our snubber line on the anchor chain from the huge shock loading) and a very, very sketchy entrance into the lagoon, surfing down waves at 7 knots with only one foot of water under the keel in the troughs between the waves. Back inside the lagoon Paul tied Phoenix alongside Bob and we’re still rafted up now.
I haven’t spent too much time being idle. Bob now has a fully functional water maker which has already been invaluable, the sat phone (thanks mum and Aunty Judie!) is physically installed, I have replaced one of the port lights, installed plumbing and a foot pump for the taps in the head, installed a pressurised cockpit shower, done a lot of messing around with various wind vanes, cleaned and rinsed the bilge, fixed a small leak in the port water tank (I hope – it hasn’t been tested yet!) and done a multitude of other smaller jobs. It’ll be time for another break soon I think; it’s Mardi Gras on Tuesday and there will be celebrations in Grande Casse so there are plans afoot to either drive up there in Lindy’s car or maybe sail on a lovely Lagoon catamaran belonging to another cruiser.
Right, I’d best be going. I said I’d give someone a hand moving some anchors around in preparation for the Heineken regatta in a few months time and then I need to see someone about getting a cheap dive tank and someone else who might have an inexpensive (or even free with luck!) but very sound (and only just out of date) life-raft of a make that I can have serviced here. This morning I went to see someone about getting some old 3″ exhaust hose for the blower that I’m installing in the water-maker high-pressure pump compartment, someone else about a piece of 2″ thick mahogany for making some pads for the new wind vane attachments to the transom and bought 15 gallons of diesel on the French side, so it’s busy busy busy! A very astute person once described cruising sailing as ‘fixing your boat in exotic locations’. So far, I have to say, the author of that quote has been bang on!
Edit, January 19th:
Today I have removed the ‘repair’ to the exhaust system which I performed at sea on the way here. As I did so I took some pictures so that you can see how I effected the repair in the first place and the terrible condition of the exhaust once I had removed the insulation tape that was hiding it all.
Bob has been here in St. Martin for a week now and things couldn’t have been nicer. I visited St. Martin on Bob in the winter of 2008/2009 and was generally underwhelmed by it but I’m liking it much more this time around. Christmas was a refreshing change from the usual affair of the consumerist world that we live in, where the shops become more and more lavish year by year in their tacky displays of lights wasting power for the sake of faux-aesthetics, plastic motorised models of Father Christmas wobbling from side to side while blurting out a recorded ‘Ho ho ho!’ through cheap tinny speakers and a plethora of useless things advertised in shop windows that people still buy because, let’s face it, it only happens once a year so why not? Here Christmas has been beautifully well-spirited while skipping over all that peripheral gumpf for the most part. People that have never met shouting ‘Merry Christmas!’ to one another across a busy mooring field, and generally-good cheer expressed and felt by all.
I had the very good fortune to meet a gentleman and his family who are cruising on their 50ish-foot aluminium ketch. I made contact with him because I heard over the daily VHF radio net (channel 10 at 0730, hosted by the one and only ‘Shrimpy’, a wonderful Austrian gentleman who washed up here 15 years ago and never left) that he was selling a hydrovane wind vane. I’m still not entirely sure whether I will actually purchase his vane but in the meantime I’ve enjoyed many pleasant hours aboard his yacht being social, and he and his family were even kind enough to take pity on a lonely sailor and invite me to Christmas dinner with them which was superb.
It turns out that the timing of my arrival here couldn’t have been better and certainly should have been no later. The ‘Christmas winds’ are still strong. Officially they are blowing 20 to 25 knots, but there have been gusts up into the mid-30s inside the lagoon, which is very sheltered, and I spoke with the crew of a yacht yesterday who have just arrived from the Cape Verde Islands. They set out for St. Barts yesterday but turned back when they encountered winds exceeding 45 knots according to their anemometer. Bob is very happy in the lagoon. Having initially struggled to get a good set with the anchor I moved to a different spot and the anchor is now well-buried about a foot beneath the surface of the mud, which makes me very happy indeed 🙂
The lagoon itself has changed a great deal since my last visit. The Dutch side is even more developed with more superyacht marinas. A huge, modern causeway bridge now bisects the lagoon. The French side on the other hand has gone a little the other way. The French bridge is often out of service and the entry from there into the lagoon area is tricky. The last time I was here there was a well-marked channel that one could carry 8-feet through without too much trouble. Now the channel is no longer dredged so I just about made it with Bob’s 5 1/2-foot draught, and there are only two sad-looking markers very far apart that make it very difficult to stay in what’s left of the channel. Hurricane Gonzalo hit here hard last year, to the demise of (according to Shrimpy) about 100 boats on the French side in the lagoon. Their carcasses are dotted around the lagoon, and many many boats at anchor or on moorings appear to be derelict, as though the owners simply gave up and left when the mast came down in the hurricane, or they suffered some other catastrophic damage which left them floating but otherwise unserviceable. It’s a great shame, but I’m sure they will recover in time. Those businesses that were damaged or destroyed by the hurricane have been re-built and life is continuing as it always has in its lovely laid-back Franco-Caribbean way.
Work on Bob is coming along nicely. The wind vane situation, which is my biggest concern, is nearly resolved I think, and I’ve taken the time to install several new systems and improve upon others. The roller-furling system has been upgraded through the addition of some blocks to hopefully eliminate chafe on the line. It turns out that setting the storm jib that night at sea during the passage here was a very good idea, as the roller-furling line was indeed chafed through quite badly and would certainly have let go during the night in 35 knots of wind had I not struck the sail completely. I’ve also installed a cockpit shower, a new blower for the engine compartment, removed the old wind vane, taken the new anchor line on board and done a multitude of other little jobs that needed to be done. Tomorrow I will go to Phillipsburg and pick up the shipment of stuff from Florida, including a water maker (a miniature desalination plant), a new 110% working jib (a headsail), the satellite telephone that will enable me to get weather forecasts at sea and a folding propeller that should greatly improve Bob’s performance under sail. I have heard it said that having a fixed-blade propeller generates the equivalent drag of towing a bucket behind the boat. I believe it too! I’m hoping for an increase in speed of between half a knot and one knot, which is quite considerable for a boat that normally sails at between 3 and 5.5 knots. More importantly than the speed increase, this propeller should allow me to sail in winds that are lighter than those I can currently carry sail in, which will cut down on motoring time, fuel consumption and improve my sanity correspondingly.
Right, I’d best get on and do something constructive with my day! Merry Christmas to all, and a happy new year!
View of the mooring field
The new causeway bridge
The last day has been just as exciting as the last few but all in a good way. First of all, I made it! I didn’t have to abandon the plan of going to St. Maarten either which I’m distinctly pleased about. It was close. I ended up having about 5 miles of space to windward of Anguilla to play with. That’s not a lot when you consider that I started struggling to make it when I was still 200-odd miles away. A difference in course of two degrees would have meant that I missed it altogether (over 200 miles, a course difference of one degree would displace you at the other end by tan of 1 multiplied by 200, or 3.5 miles……. I think).
Last night was pretty rough again to the extent that I ended up setting the storm jib instead of the little bit of genoa that I had. I didn’t really need to as the storm jib was really too small. It was only blowing about 25 knots sustained but gusting 35 in the squalls. It was good practice though. The main thing is that the plan for setting it does work, and I learned a lot of things that can be improved upon when setting it in the future, like that I need to cut the sheets down so that they are only just long enough (I keep them permanently attached to the storm jib) and that the hanks need to be pushed up above the thick bit of dyneema where the splice is in order for it to slide up the stay without jamming. Also that the thick bit of dyneema works very well to keep the hanks down and the sail on deck until the time that I want to set it. For those who are interested, here is a description of the set up (written for sailors) in italics, as it’s the kind of information that I enjoy reading about from other sailors:
When at sea I have an inner-headstay that attaches just aft of the main headstay and about three quarters of the way up the mast. This is opposed by a set of running backstays. There is also another set of runners opposing a baby stay. These are recent additions and work very well indeed to keep the mast in column and prevent pumping in a seaway. This inner headstay is made from dyneema and is set up well in advance. With it up I can’t tack or gybe without rolling the headsail but that’s ok as it’s rare to have to do this at sea (when I’ve had wind on this passage I’ve always been on a port tack). It has a loop in the end and reaches almost to the deck at the attachment point, which is a heavy-duty block. There’s another line that runs forward to this block from the cockpit (the foreguy for the pole, since I would never have my storm jib poled out (the seas would be too great for going directly downwind once a storm jib is necessary and I wouldn’t need the inner headstay if I were flying a symmetric chute or poling out the genoa), runs through it and ties onto the loop in the dyneema with a simple sheet bend. So now I have a dyneema line coming down from the mast, tied on to another line that runs through a block and back to the cockpit. That block has a becket on it.
The storm jib hanks on to the dyneema, the sheets run aft and the tack is tied via a 3-foot pennant made from strong line to the becket in the block. At the head of the sail is a snatch block. This snatches onto the dyneema and then the spinnaker hal’yard clips onto it. So, even though the spin hal’yard is much higher up on the mast that the inner headstay attachment point the block keeps the angle of pull on the sail in line with the dyneema stay. The storm jib is wooled just like you would wool a chute (before they changed the racing rules recently to ban wooling) to stop it filling prematurely. It works really well as far as I’ve found so far. Provided the inner headstay is set up well in advance it’s very easy, and if strong winds are expected you could even set the whole thing up and have the sail just sitting on the foredeck ready to go from the start.
Anyway, I went along like that through the night only making about 3 knots but going the right way and I was able to get some good sleep. The next day was really exciting. Only 60 miles from St. Martin now so I crowded on sail (by ‘crowding on I mean that I still had 2 reefs in the main and at most half the genoa out!) and powered along through a rough but very manageable sea in an attempt to make it to St. Martin that night. I wanted to round the North Eastern tip of Anguilla before nightfall, because Anguilla is very low-lying and St. Martin is very high, so you see St. Martin first over the top of Anguilla and could easily run into Anguilla at night as you wouldn’t see it until you’re right on top of it. I do have a chart plotter but I don’t like to rely on them. I have been very led astray by GPS units in the past so I still like to take bearings on landmarks and generally do things in a very old-fashioned way, but it’s not possible to look at the chart plotter, plot on a paper chart (I still use these primarily as I find it quicker, easier and more reliable than the chart plotters), identify landmarks, take bearings and steer at the same time and by this point the tiller pilot was making some very nasty grinding noises and wandering back and forth through about 40 degrees (that tiller pilot has been absolutely amazing under the circumstances. It’s about 20 years old, uses very little power and was absolutely rock solid until I abused it the other day by trying to get it to power downwind in a heavy squall and thought I’d help it out by turning the wheel myself. Not a good idea it turns out ?).
Anyway, I made it around that tip of Anguilla about half an hour before sunset and was anchored in Marigot Bay surrounded by super yachts by 2130 having managed to retrieve the anchor from the locker (the cause of all my woes at the start of the voyage!) and shackle that onto the bow as I was hove-to briefly just outside the bay. It felt exceptionally good when that anchor hit the bottom, and miraculously the wind stayed with me despite it being from the ESE so I didn’t even have to turn on the motor. I was sure that I would have gusts and lulls at best with the high mountains of St. Martin in the way but fortunately that was not the case. Strange – I’ve experienced almost dead calm here in the Caribbean from blanketing caused by a mountain range (St. Lucia) over 40 miles to windward of me in the past, but this time the wind was beautifully consistent despite the land being in much closer proximity.
Anyway, I’m now sitting in a cafe in Marigot. It’s a Sunday so I can’t be productive and start haemorrhaging all of my money yet, but the Ti Punch is not too bad and the ground has just about stopped moving beneath my feet ?