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Gloom in Cartagena

By Shangri-La - Published February 15, 2008 - Viewed 1031 times

Land ho! We made it to Cartagena! Four solid days and nights of westward progress from Curacao and we’re here, tied up at a dock at the Club de Pesca. It’s a marina populated by mostly locally owned boats, and so we’re apart from the hustle and bustle of the cruising community anchored off and tied up to the docks next door, and a place called Club Nautico.

There isn’t a lot happening at the Club de Pesca, and we like it that way. It has a bar with an upstairs loft aerie furnished with teak tables, chairs, and wireless service. The kids and I have been coming up here with the whole place to ourselves to write, do school work, connect with home on the internet. There are public phones ashore, but nobody knows how to use them, how to make an international call, so I just figured out how to use Skype – which all the cruisers have been raving about. I opened a Skype account online, put $10 in it, and we’ve been calling everyone everywhere since, and it’s costing less than town-to-town calls do in Vermont.

Once safely ensconced in Cartagena, we can relax ashore at the Club de Pesca, play cards, the kids can study, and I can take a breath

Just before leaving Curacao, to get Sailmail up and running, I solicited some help from a computer-savvy local sailor who verified all my SSB-to-modem-to-PC connections, then helped navigate all the cryptic PC configurations that had me stymied. I’m a Mac person and the Windows new Vista operating system turned out to be hard not just for me, but for PC types as well. But, we finally got it going, and yesterday I successfully sent and received my first emails via the SSB, and even downloaded my first GRIB file, basically a weather forecasting service that I’m sure will be handy as we cross the Pacific. By then, I hope to better understand the PC, how to find things in the system in case any configurations need to be changed when we’re really on our own and in the middle of nowhere. For now, between Skype and Sailmail, I’ve never been so connected to the world from a boat, nor have I felt so technologically savvy.

Technically, things couldn’t be better. I hesitate to say that because crowing about how well everything has been working could be tantamount to jinxing us, setting us up for something to go wrong. But, facts are facts, and perhaps, acknowledging and being grateful for good fortune might be what the fates need to hear as well. Still, I want to make sure they know I’m not taking the future for granted just because the past weeks have been so accommodating.

Sam has turned out to be our fisherman, often catching dinner.

All the work in Curacao seems to have paid off, for the time being. The leak coming from the inlet pipes for the swim scoop shower that could only be accessed by reaching all the hoses and hose clamps with my left hand over the hot water tank at the back of the engine compartment was finally stopped after hours of the hottest and most frustrating labor ever. The new fridge, after days spent with patient Louis trying to revive the older unit with acetylene torches and solder and bent copper tubing in tight quarters to no avail, is working beautifully and economically. The newly installed Monitor self-steering and the electric autopilot couldn’t be better. The fishing pole caught Sam a yellowtail within an hour of letting out the line. The new mainsail cut looks great and all the rigging, reef lines, and spinnaker pole are set up perfectly.

On the way here, after about 12 hours of motoring, the engine did overheat, but when I turned it off, let it cool down enough to check the water and oil levels, then found that the strainer was gummed up with easily washed off silt, it worked beautifully for the next nine hours, right up to the dock. I would love to be able to completely rely on an engine, and I’m not quite there yet, but this was a good start at bridge building.

In between fixing, sailing, cooking, teaching, writing, and sleeping, I’ve also been reading up on South Pacific weather trends. I knew my five months with the kids wouldn’t be happening at an optimal time of the year in the Caribbean or the Pacific. Olivier was taking over in Tahiti at the end of February and hurricane season in the South Pacific hangs around until the end of March. However, the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Society Islands, I’d always believed, lay out of the range of most cyclonic activity. Reading up on the subject revealed that, in fact, during recent El Nino years, French Polynesia has been hit by up to seven hurricanes per season. So, the pressing question until this morning has been: are we heading into another El Nino year here? According to the internet, thankfully no, and I hesitate again to say I feel lucky. Instead, I’ll just settle with saying it was a huge relief to read that we’re actually entering a La Nina period, when the waters are cooler and cyclonic activity isn’t so fiery. Between that and the GRIB files, and an engine that could help us to power north and out of harm’s way if necessary, we should be okay.

Despite his mixed feelings about cruising, Sam keeps up with his home schooling duties.

No, all the details of the big picture are looking rosy and because I know it won’t last forever, I’ll bask in the pleasure today and hope the fates won’t make me pay for my presumptuousness tomorrow. And, if it’ll make the fates any more indulgent to know, I do have one small problem that can’t be fixed with a tool, or reading a manual or a book, or changing a course. It’s Sam, the younger, 13 going on 14 and in the throes of emotional adolescence. He’s the one to watch.

Just before we left Curacao, on a scale of 1-10, Sam had finally upped his rating of the island and the trip so far from a 0 to a 3, thanks to the pool belonging to family friends who lived two doors up from where we’d been docked at the Curacao Yacht Club. During our stay, the friends were off island, but their housekeeper and her husband, Lucero and Angel, gladly had the kids over every day for a swim, her arepas (fried corn meal and cheese patties) and ice-cold Pepsi. Homesick Colombians, they gladly told us all about their country and invited us for dinner, gladly visited Shangri La for teas and dinner and, full of questions, gladly made Sam like Curacao.

Friends Angel and Lucero (left and middle) with Ernst.

Then, on our first evening at sea, he said he missed them, but was glad to be out there, didn’t care if we never saw land again until we got back to Vermont. He must have been a little giddy with the novelty of it all. It was a gloomy day, drizzly and calm, but the clouds were also a blessing because our first day wasn’t a scorcher. Dinner was spaghetti with a red sauce and corned beef when the fish Sam caught almost immediately after he put out the line took off with the line—the reel’s brake wasn’t set well enough. And, the next morning, the blues settled in.

I was sitting on the stern pulpit seat while each boy occupied a cockpit bench. Nicholas was reading, having succumbed to the horizontal position. For some inexplicable reason, World Geography and the Ramayama made him woozy, but not Wilbur Smith. Sam, who’d been just saying he felt fine, looked at me, jaw quivering. “Don’t tell me I’m going to get used to this,” he said. “Because I won’t. And, I won’t be happy until we’re home again. This sucks.”

Nicholas with his nose in his Wilber Smith book

Yikes! Even though I’d suspected this moment would come, it was a downer. My own lower lip started trembling. I recognized what he was talking about, -- that two- or three-day long period of unsettled adjustment we go through before accepting this radically different world at sea. I was feeling a variation of it myself. But, Sam didn’t need to hear that, and wouldn’t care anyway. We did the math instead: 286 days left to go, if we didn’t count the rest of October, because he was thinking they might go home a couple of weeks early with Olivier in July.

Sam’s misery was catching. When the swishing sea sounds replaced the conversation, I got carried off by my own thoughts. Here we were, living an alleged dream. And, what was that exactly? A boat pitching and yawing downwind? Ticking off the miles and days that lay ahead before we’d be home again? What, after all, was so much fun about careening down those waves, getting stifling hot around midday, always feeling a little discombobulated and dizzy, just to visit some countries and see other cultures that were all becoming more and more homogeneous anyway?

I try to coax Sam into a better mood, knowing that as time goes by he’ll appreciate this voyage and what we’re doing more and more.

Screeech! With that thought, I put the brakes on the downward spiral because I’ve learned how to do so over time. It was a familiar sensation of withdrawal and I knew what was happening, knew how to be more in control of my emotions, or at least their effect. Understanding what my two boys were going through was more important than feeling sorry for myself.

But, wait. It wasn’t two boys. What about Nicholas? Laying there, looking kind of green and listening, he hadn’t said a word. What was he thinking? “Where would you rather be right now?” I asked, dreading a double whammy. “Here or Vermont?”

He looked up from his book and without hesitating, as if there were no other possible answer, replied, “Here.”

If I hadn’t been afraid of sinking Sam even further into his moroseness, I’d have hugged Nicholas. No, Sam just needed some patience, some extra special dispensation, some trust that he’d come around. If I didn’t have to put time into repairs, the engine, some sort of troubled system aboard, I could put it into him. Maybe that’s why the fates had been cutting me some slack.

Once we got ashore, Sam perked up with the nice showers, lots of good food, and our visit to a volcano that spews mud for a mud bath, but his positive attitude waxes and wanes. Cartagena is a city and Sam has never liked cities. Crowds and sightseeing make him grouchy. Next stop will be the San Blas Islands. Maybe snorkeling off white sand beaches in turquoise waters will lift his spirits and outlook on what the next 280, 279, 278 . . . days will bring. So, we’ll head out of here a week early and spend the extra time in a place where, hopefully, his humors will become good. But please, dear fates, not at the expense of something breaking on the boat.

Nicholas cools off on Shangri La’s stern scoop
We got a smile out of Sam at the mud baths.




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