Chilling Out in Cholon


Cholon Bay, Colombia
09.73 N, Long 75 39.63 W

Tom Morkin

Cartagena Colombia is fantastic but it does have its downsides. The biggest for us was the polluted waters of the harbour where barnacles proliferated and propagated with such ferocity I swear I could hear them making ‘woopie woopie’ through the hull at night. They didn’t seem to care that they were building their homes on bottom paint that was only two months old. Why did we spend $600 on anti-fouling? In Cartagena it was like health food to them.

This, coupled with the fact that my beloved ship mate and I, highly hydrophilic, have a need to immerse ourselves thrice daily in the ocean to cool off, bathe and get our exercise. It was time to ‘get ‘outta Dodge.’

Getting out of Dodge meant checking out of Colombia and getting our passports stamped. Panama was to be our next country but amazingly, the Colombian officials are very lenient about how soon one must depart Colombia after check-out. They seemed perfectly at ease granting us a full month to visit Colombian islands and bays en route to Panama.

Our first stop was only 18 miles south, to the sanctuary of Cienaga de Cholon. This little piece of paradise is a totally landlocked waterway surrounded by mangrove clad islands and islets. The depths are uniformly 18- 22 feet with lovely anchor grabbing and holding mud.

If that were not enough, it is also home to the famed Robert Winter and his Colombian wife Carmen Helena Castro, arguably the most giving and hospitable land based folks in the Caribbean. It has become their tradition to throw open their incredible hill top home to host Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for all anchorees in the bay. We couldn’t get there fast enough.

It was a windless morning when we exited the Boca Chica of Cartagena, putting one of the half dozen forts surrounding the harbour to starboard.

Within two hours we were nervously standing off the reef strewn entrance preparing to follow the GPS waypoints that would hopefully take us through the maze. Like a voice from heaven, Robert hailed us on VHF from his hill top home appropriately named “Crow’s Nest.”

Feel Free, this is Crow’s Nest. I got ‘ya, you’re doing just fine. Stay 75 yards off those flat rocks on your port side, then line up the antenna and keep it on your bow. If I see you straying off course I’ll let you know.

It was like having a ship’s pilot piloting us from shore. I could get used to that.

Once inside the bay, which seemed more like a lake, we were surrounded by exquisitely appointed homes that discretely and tastefully dot lush tropical rainforest.

Allegedly, a handful of these multi-million dollar getaways are owned by some of Colombia’s finest drug barons from the country’s interior.

The next day, after a 60 minute bicycle ride there and back into the nearby town of Baru with my buddy Steve of Music, Steve took me to Crow’s Nest to meet Robert. Steve first met Robert ten years ago when they were both solo sailors so they had a lot of catching up to do. I was more than happy to be a fly on the wall as Robert told his story. After serving 28 years as a motorcycle cop with the LAPD, he was to set sail on his 41 foot Formosa sloop Gaea’s Way (Greek for Mother Nature’s Way). That is, not until his wife decided the sailing life wasn’t for her and left him a solo sailor. He headed south, got as far as Colombia and hasn’t left.

He lost Gaea’s Way and almost lost the lives of his Colombian crew and his own in 2000 when they set sail from Cartagena to Aruba. The boat took on water and sank off the Colombian coast. They were rescued by a passing freighter. He wasn’t boat-less for long when he bought Fresh Air, a 43 ft. Roberts designed sloop.

In 1999 he met Carmen, a lovely young Colombian gal who continues to be his life mate.

After a series of run-ins with the management of Club Nautico in Cartagena, Robert and Carmen sailed to Cholon Bay where they lay on the anchor for one year. He liked it so much he rented a waterfront house with a dock, tied his boat to the dock and put down roots.

After scouting out the area, which meant sometimes bush whacking through some rugged terrain, he found a hill top property for sale, 2 ½ acres of it. Machete in hand, he whacked his way up the hill.

On top of the hill, the vegetation was so thick he needed to climb a tree to see what kind of view his prospective cabin would have. He was flabbergasted. The view was and is a stunner. He had to buy it.

Problem was, money- half a cop’s pension (the other half going to his ex) and minimal savings, and don’t forget he was supporting a sailboat. “Under protest” his son, also a cop, loaned Robert the $10,000 he needed to close the deal in 2004.

To raise cash he sold Fresh Air and delivered her to the new owner in New Orleans. Six days later, Katrina struck. Miraculously, Fresh Air survived Katrina, in fact, the new owner moved aboard the boat following the destruction of his New Orleans home.

Construction of what was to be a 7,000 sq. ft. house began immediately. Robert thought he was getting a 2,500 sq. ft. house. The dimensions he gave were in feet. The architect took them to be in meters. So Robert ended up with a house three times bigger than expected. The bad news is, it will take three times longer to be able to afford to finish it. But hey, that’s okay because even unfinished he has an amazing place.

It appeared that in 2009 he figured he didn’t have enough on his plate because he headed to Florida and came back with a 75 foot shrimp boat, the Manatee.

The plan was to use Manatee to get into the Colombia-Panama backpacker trade. Let me explain. There is no road connecting Colombia with its western neighbour Panama, so travellers must either fly or take a boat from one place to the other. Furthermore, there is no large ferry service. There are however, about 40 vessels of varying sizes, sail and power, all privately owned, that will transport this mostly backpacker crowd from one country to another. (The going rate is about U.S.$380.)

Unfortunately, after a couple of months in Colombia, the engineer bailed out, leaving Robert alone with a boat too big to operate alone.

So at present Manatee lies anchored in Cholon Bay, the social focal point and party central for cruisers in the bay- not such a bad fate. Wednesdays and Fridays are ‘Happy Hour’ nights. The open air after deck provides a great way to get acquainted with the folks in the ever changing neighbourhood.

Stan and Lynne Homer of the Canadian vessel Homers’ Odyssey were two such newly made friends. When they heard we were heading for the San Blas islands in a few days time, (and this was within 30 minutes of meeting us), they pointed out that we would not be able to withdraw money once we got there. Oh dear, and we were counting on that as we had very little U.S. cash on hand. They immediately offered a loan of three hundred dollars in cash. How often do you find that kind of trust in the regular world? Needless to say, we took them up on their kind generosity.

Word of Robert and Carmen throwing their home open to all the cruisers in Cholon for a gala Xmas party brought no fewer than 25 boats to the bay. The event included live music in the form of electric guitar, mouth organ and keyboard provided by talented cruisers in the group, as well as a gift exchange with a difference- gifts had to be items from the boat but not used or purchased recently.

The ‘piece de resistance’ was the potluck dinner consisting of 2 ½ large turkeys with stuffing, a large ham, mashed potatoes with gravy and cranberry sauce, and a minimum of 25 side dishes, requiring a buffet table fifty feet long.

We spent ten peaceful days in the Bay of Cholon. It was all good- swimming, cycling, hiking, socializing. Best of all though, was meeting Robert and Carmen and seeing how Robert made the transition from the life of cruising to the life of living on land. Maybe in the back of my mind, after so many years of wandering about the oceans of the world, I couldn’t help imagining what it would be like for Liz and me to emulate in a small way perhaps, what they have done. A little piece of undeveloped land somewhere, hopefully near a body of water, in an area of natural beauty. Yeah, sounds good- someday but not yet. Too many places to see still, new friends still to make.