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Cruising the Cape Horn of the Caribbean Part 2

By Feel Free - Published February 15, 2011 - Viewed 990 times


By Tom Morkin

 

Cartagena, Colombia

Dawn broke on our second morning at sea on our so far delightful trip from Aruba to Cartagena. Our delight was immediately transformed to despair while listening to the morning weather forecast on our long distance radio. Chris Parker of the Caribbean Weather Center broke the bad news. The expected developing low pressure system over Colombia was developing faster than expected. Our hopes of reaching Cartagena before the affects of the system kicked in died a fast death.
About the time we would reach the notorious area around the mouth of the Rio Magdalena (affectionately known as the Cape Horn of the Caribbean) we could expect winds to 40 knots and violent thunderstorms with lots of rain.
Ironically, within an hour of getting this high wind warning, for the next day the wind which had driven us effortlessly for the past 20 hours, just disappeared. Worse still, just as we were warned, a contrary current of more than one knot appeared. Even after starting the motor, our speed over the bottom dropped to less than five knots. Cartagena seemed to be getting further away.

Then the light went on! At an average speed of five knots, we could make Santa Marta Colombia in 30 hours just before the s h_ _ would hit the fan. Within an hour of hearing the forecast we altered our heading 15 degrees to port and for the next 20 hours Feel Free was a power boat.

The delightful small cotton ball shaped trade wind clouds morphed into much larger, angry looking towering cumulous clouds which were backed by higher and thickening cirrus clouds. Our blue skies turned grey and our moods also darkened as the motor droned on hour after hour. The monotony of motoring gave way to unwished for excitement of the thunder and lightning show that started promptly at 1600 hours.

Although lightning flashes were seen throughout the day over the mountains, the 4:00 show was a special marine display that appeared to be our own personal showing.

The main act featured a massive thunder bumper off our stern which cranked out enough electricity to run a number of U.S. cities for a good long time and even the smallest of the bolts of volts could fry every electrical device on board and melt the fibreglass hull itself.
For me, the spookiest part of the show was the fact that the lightning approached us from the stern. One after another, cloud to water strikes got closer and closer, most of them directly in our wake. The time from the lightning strike to the thunder decreased from 10 seconds to a couple of seconds. That cloud seemed to be on a mission and that was to put a serious crimp in our cruising plans.
Happily, it was only a two hour performance and the evening shows weren’t as up close and personal.

 Dawn arrived bearing gifts- quite a bit of blue sky, sunshine, 15 knots of downright cool southeast wind, and most amazing of all, the sight of the 15,000 foot snow capped Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, the northernmost peaks of the Andes. We were gobsmacked. We were quite unprepared for such a scene in the Caribbean. It looked more like Alaska than the Caribbean, even the temperature was very untropical as the south southeast breeze was cooled by the snow.

 

The next four hours of sailing in the shadow of those mountains under ideal sailing conditions approaching another new landfall will not be easily deleted from this guy’s memory bank.

Security was our main concern about stopping in Santa Marta and those concerns were amplified when the dockmaster of the new and almost empty marina reported that they could not allow us to tie up in their secure marina as they didn’t yet have the necessary license. He then went on to say that he would request permission for us to tie up which would take time, that we could anchor off the town but if we did so, “be sure to always leave someone on the boat to prevent theft, and close the boat at night”. Well, isn’t that reassuring. Welcome to Colombia.

 Although theft was not a problem for us during our five day layover in Santa Marta, in fact, we did enjoy the sights of the area, we later met a sailing couple who were boarded by thieves no fewer than four times during the month they were there, each time, when they were onshore. They lost fishing gear, knives, rods and reels. We were glad we hadn’t heard about it while we were there.

Just before the bad weather arrived, we were permitted to enter the marina. A single hander was not so lucky. He was more than a day behind us and caught the brunt of the blow. When he limped into the harbour engine-less, it was blowing 30 knots with gusts to 35 knots. His attempt to anchor failed resulting in the boat dragging onto the rock wall jetty of the marina.

Several small boats tried unsuccessfully to pull the yacht off the rocks. Finally, a tug boat succeeded. The resultant damage was not so bad that the boat couldn’t sail on to Cartagena for repairs.

From Santa Marta it was only 110 miles to Cartagena, but it is the most dreaded passage in the Caribbean. The route takes one across the mouth of the Rio Magdalena. The immense current from the river creates freakishly dangerous waves mixed with the wind driven swell of the Caribbean. As well, the chocolate brown waters of the river often carry debris, logs, trees and islands of plant matter well out to sea.
We were advised to cross the river mouth early in the morning when the winds were lightest and the visibility was good with a good lookout being mandatory; so we planned to leave Santa Marta at midnight to make the river mouth around 0600 hours. Our plan to sleep from 8 p.m. to midnight was thwarted by the sound of the rising wind. As much as I dislike using our motor, I would have been delighted to motor the 60 miles to get us past the Rio Magdalena. It wasn’t to be.
Shortly after leaving the protection of the harbour we had 20 to 25 knots of wind accompanied by very steep nine foot waves coming on our beam every five seconds and we were still 45 miles from the river. Our plan to stay eight miles off the river quickly changed to 13 miles off, well out into deep water where the waves would be bigger but with a long wave length, less steep and with a longer interval.
Just as the prophets of doom forecasted, as we approached the river at dawn, after an uncomfortable but not dangerous night with 10-12 foot seas, the winds were over 30 knots but the good news was we could alter our course to port and take the seas on the stern, minimizing the likelihood of a breaking wave sweeping across our deck.

We entered the area where the blue sea became a brown sea and debris appeared all around the boat.

Racing along at seven- eight knots we quickly left the Rio Magdalena in our wake. After two hours we were back in the blue water and our course became more southerly. The further we got from the river, the lighter the winds became. The dreaded Rio Magdalena was behind us. We had rounded our ‘Cape Horn of the Caribbean’.
We anchored at Punta Canoas, about a mile offshore and nine miles north of Cartagena that night, because our entry into the city was to be through the Boca Grande. In the 17th Century the Spanish had forts all around Cartagena. To prevent the would-be invaders from entering the harbour, a rock and wood wall was constructed across the channel just below the water. That wall is still there but a section of the wall has been removed to allow small vessels to enter the harbour. Our charts showed a minimum depth of 11 feet which should be enough for our eight foot draft until you factor in the three or four foot swell that was running at the time.
Slowly we approached the shallow water, going slowly enough to be able to steer properly. Ultimately we said ‘the hell with it’ and sped up to reduce the amount of time in the shallow water and to have some momentum if we were to briefly touch bottom. Truthfully though, I think we just wanted the suspense over with. We just wanted to get in. We never did see less than three feet under our keel.

Once past the wall it was clear sailing or motoring to the anchorage off the famed Club Nautico. Amen, we’d arrived in famed, protected waters of Cartagena Bay!

 





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