As I write this we are at position 04 degrees 04 minutes S, 092 degrees 05 minutes west, sailing SSW at approximately 5.5 knots. We’ve slowed down a bit and come off the wind a touch because the wind and seas built last night to the point that Bob was launching off the tops of waves and slamming down hard on the other side. We took 2 reefs into the mainsail and perhaps 1/3 of our large (140%) genoa is unfurled. In conjunction with bearing off the wind a touch (now about 55 degrees apparent) things are much more comfortable.
We are bound vaguely for a point about 20 degrees South, 120 degrees West at which point we will exit the wonderful belt of trade winds and, for the last week of our voyage, pick our way through the variable winds toward our destination of Pitcairn Island, which is located at about 25 degrees South, 130 degrees West. This is our plan, but, in common with the vast majority of plans that rely on the magnanimity of the weather gods, it is subject to change. There’s a very real possibility (50% I’d say) that we will find things a bit nasty as we go further and further South and decide to bail out to one of the other island groups that are more to leeward. The winds should be fine for the most part – 10 to 20 knots are the norm at the moment in the trade wind belt – but there could be much more wind (and potentially head-winds) once we enter that region of variable winds closer to Pitcairn. Furthermore, the dominant swells even as far North as we are currently are approaching us from the South West and do not promise to change in the near future. These swells are generated in the far South, in the Great Southern Ocean by powerful storms – some of the worst storms in the world in fact. At the moment they make for a bit of slamming, but the further South we go (and the closer to their source) the larger they will become, and we may well find it very hard work indeed to continue crashing into them. We shall see!
Assuming we make it to Pitcairn (and I sincerely hope we do!) we will have the pleasure of the company of some of the best people on the planet. The island has a population of about 50, which is an increase over that of 2003 when I last visited. I think then it was about 40. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the lovely couple once again who hosted me at their house back in 2003 and I sincerely hope that some of the things I’ve brought along with me can be useful to the islanders. In 2003 the sorts of things that made good gifts were machetes, cake mix, chocolate and so on. Also liquor. We have all of these on board, but I wonder if they are sought-after commodities any longer. In 2003 the island received two supply ships per year. Now, I suspect this number has risen considerably. I would hate to turn up and impose myself upon their hospitality without having anything to offer in return.
At any rate we have at least 3 weeks before we’ll need to worry about that. At the moment all of my focus is internal to our little world – this small hole in the water made of plastic which we call our home and which is slowly but surely trundling through the miles into one of the most remote places on the planet. There are almost 3000 miles to cover (less the 250 that we’ve done in the last 2 days). That’s about the same as a crossing of the entire Atlantic Ocean in terms of distance, but in all other respects it is vastly different. For a start, we are sailing away from ‘civilisation’ rather than from one civilisation to another. Pitcairn Island (and indeed, all of the island groups ‘nearby’) offers very little in the way of yacht services. In fact, there isn’t even a real anchorage. The closest boat yard that I know of is in Tahiti, some 1200 miles from Pitcairn and 3500 miles from our current location. It is therefore of paramount importance that if we wish Bob to take care of us then we must be particularly diligent in taking care of her.
Update at 1415: as the seas continued to rise we were back to jumping off them. We’re turned off the wind about 20 degrees so as to be going a little more with the wind rather than with it, and it’s much more comfortable.
We’ve been surprised by the amount of wildlife even out here in the middle of nowhere. Flying fish abounded this morning, a number of birds have come to say hello and I even spotted a shark this morning lazily meandering back and forth in the characteristic way that they do. He didn’t seem too interested in us and didn’t hang around for more than 10 seconds or so but it was a pretty cool sight nonetheless.
The shark reminded me of a time when we were sailing down to the Caribbean and encountered the worst weather I have ever seen. The feeling one gets when one is in the middle of such a tempest is difficult to describe, but I would say that awe plays a large part in it. There is something very majestic about a violent sea. So there I was staring out over the mountains of blue and white water, and with every swell Bob was being jettisoned up 30 feet to the crest of a wave before falling down on the other side. At the highest peaks it was possible to see a great distance. Each time felt like a different frame of a surrealistic film, since every glimpse out over the crests was slightly different than the last. In contrast, between these glimpses from on-high the world was contracted into the tiny space between one wave and the next, where seemingly-vertical walls of water hemmed us in on all sides. We were all very tired and our brains weren’t really functioning as they should have been, but nevertheless I remember clearly one such wall that rose up right next to the boat, and within this wall was a huge billfish – a marlin I think. That moment lasted quite a while, and I got the distinct feeling that the marlin was just as surprised to me as I was to see it, for ours eyes were on the same level no more than 20 feet apart and from what I could tell we were both staring at one another as if to say “what on earth are you doing here? Don’t you have somewhere better to be than this?”
As for now, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.
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.
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 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.