Cruising the Cape Horn of the Caribbean Part 1

2/1/2011

 

By Tom Morkin


 
It’s only 400 miles from Aruba in the Netherland Antilles to Cartagena Colombia yet the thought of that passage is guaranteed to increase the pulse and blood pressure of those planning the trip, considered the nastiest passage of those in the Caribbean and said to be among the worst passages of many circumnavigators.

So what’s the deal? What causes such a fuss? Well, a number of factors combine to make the passage maker more than a bit uncomfortable and in a worst case scenario, unnerved.

The basic recipe used by the gods is the following: start with a high pressure system over the Atlantic (around the Azores often), add a low pressure system somewhere in the hot, steamy mountains of Colombia. Now you have your essential pressure gradient established, which alone should give you vigorous trade winds of 20 to 30 knots (strong but definitely doable especially for the downwind sailor).

But the gods ‘aint finished yet. They throw in a handful of big mountains in the form of Sierra Nevadas and put them very close to the coast. Now bear in mind these are real mountains we’re talkin’, snow capped year round even though they are 11 degrees north of the equator. Imagine what happens when the 30 knots of trade winds are deflected off those hills. I think the weather boffins call it an acceleration zone. So, conditions are ripe for considerably stronger winds and much stronger winds in gusts and squalls.

They then maliciously throw in an east setting current to these often gale force winds to establish a little wind against current thing. Finally, the ‘coup de grace’- they discharge the biggest river on the north coast of South America in Colombia, about 70 miles north east of Cartagena, Rio Magdalena. This would be the metaphorical witch’s ladle with which the entire brew is violently stirred.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the thunder and lightning. Sailing from the Venezuela/Colombia coast to the coast of Central America, one gets front row center seats to some of the premier pyrotechnic displays on earth.

To put it mildly, it was one of those passages I looked forward to putting behind us.


 
Sailors have two options for this trip. There is the offshore option: one stays offshore in the deep water the entire trip. This virtually guarantees high winds and bigger seas, but probably a faster passage. The second option is a series of stops, as many as five or more along the Colombian coast. The advocates of this strategy claim lighter winds and smaller seas close to the coast, the opportunity to sit out bad weather at anchor, and one can see some lovely parts of coastal Colombia.

All sounded good to us except for the downside- security or lack thereof. Recently, two yachts were attacked in one of the beautiful Five Bays area, 100 miles from Cartagena. The victims were not only robbed, but beaten by the assailants who boarded the boats while the crew slept.

We opted to deal with the hazards of wind and waves rather than the hazards of man, so offshore we went.

The Caribbean Weather Service run by Chris Parker provides weather information for the Caribbean sailor. Chris is arguably the most listened to person in the Caribbean sailing community. Every day, sailors make plans around Chris’s weather briefings: go or no go decisions, when to go decisions and where to go decisions are made based on Chris’s weather forecast on single sideband radio.


 
Chris Parker provides customized weather forecasts for sponsoring vessels every morning from 0630 EST, covering the entire Atlantic and the Caribbean basin. He usually starts with a 10 minute general synopsis and then answers specific questions of vessels underway followed by questions from cruisers waiting for the right window. He is very patient and always willing to answer all your questions. He also provides an e-mail service sending you a weather report for your area every day. He emphasizes specific relevant matters like wind speed, wind direction, precipitation, squalls, sea state and currents. He prepares each forecast in real time, and often identifies subtleties.

When he reported that the small open weather window for the Aruba to Cartagena route was closing sooner than previously reported because a lower pressure system was expected to develop in central Colombia, we decided to leave a day early hoping to get to Cartagena before the proverbial window slammed shut.

Sailors have been known to wait weeks, even months to do this trip with the right conditions and we’d been in Aruba long enough.

By noon we had checked out with immigration and customs. We double reefed the main, weighed anchor and were gone. As usual, once a mile offshore, the pre trip anxiety began to dissolve. The Aruban sky was bluer than it had been in weeks and the wind out of the north northeast at 20 knots was like a tonic for Feel Free who had been tethered far too long in port. She took the breeze on her starboard quarter and charged west. Hour after hour the wind drove Feel Free along the Venezuelan coast just close enough for us to see the mountains interspersed with the towering cumulous clouds and some rather ominous cumulonimbus clouds. Although the winds held, they eventually veered or ‘clocked’ around to the east northeast. That meant that the wind was now almost astern resulting in the mainsail blanketing the jib, causing it to collapse and lose its drive.

So at 1700 we jibed the jib over to starboard and poled it out and continued to dance along at six knots.

 
The only negative thing that happened that day was the demise of one of our hard working stainless blocks that was being used as a preventer for the main boom. Luckily, there was no accidental jibe. The block must be as old as the boat (40 years) and has provided excellent service during the 16 years we’ve owned her so I really can’t complain.

As is our custom at sea, I did a pre-dark deck inspection checking lines for chaff, shackles, stays, turnbuckles, sails, checked that all items secured on deck like fuel tanks, water containers, outboard motor and dinghy really were secured. I then checked the engine room looking for water in the bilge, any signs of leaks around the engine and transmission, broken hose clamps, split hoses. I checked the tension of the three belts that run off the pulley on the drive shaft. Lastly, I checked the battery voltage to make sure we had enough battery power to operate the myriad of electrical devices on which we are dependant.

 

Once I, as ship’s chief engineer, was convinced we were ready to face 12 hours of darkness at sea, Liz and I had our traditional pre-prandial glass of wine, rum and tonic, or beer (one of the above, not all three!) followed by dinner, in this case, Liz’s sumptuous stew with rice, while watching the sun sink below the horizon. This one was pretty spectacular I have to say.

Once dishes were done, the sun set and the watch system began. Few cruising couples have identical watch systems. Over the years of trying just about every schedule, we’ve settled on a rather flexible routine of two or three hours on and the same off watch. My watch is always first. It’s a three hour watch if Liz can sleep for three hours but usually she can’t so rather than lie awake for her last hour, she comes up after two and then it’s my turn to rack out for two hours. By now we are both tired enough to sleep for an entire three hours so subsequent watches are three hours. In rough or difficult conditions we shorten the watches to ‘two on and two off’. In terrible conditions it’s ‘one on and one off.

Our first night was anything but rough. Magical would be a more appropriate adjective. By 2300 a waning half moon rose to join an already star filled sky. Our 20 knots of wind had dropped to 15 knots, still enough to see occasional white caps. The six foot seas were off the stern to produce a gentle pitching and rolling motion. I lay on my back on the aft coach house listening to music while looking up at the sails, stars and moon. All the major alpha wave generators were in place: the boat was moving well and comfortably, the sail configuration just right- not too much sail area, not too little, no ships on the horizon, an almost clear sky full of stars, Jupiter, the moon, a consistent wind, my favourite music playing, a chocolate bar in my hand, my mate sleeping like a baby down below. I thought- the universe is unfolding as it should, at least mine is, at least for now. Next piece will describe the rest of the passage to Cartagena.