January 15, 2006
Feliz Ano Nuevo, Cartegena!
By Douglas Bernon
Once you decide to go somewhere, the psychological departure begins, and you’re already no longer heart-and-soul wherever your body is. That’s us. For a week, with our bodies here in the Cocos Banderos, and our heads in the excitement of Cartegena for New Year’s, we’ve been looking at weather faxes, GRIB files and, for a dose of close-up reality, directly out the portholes. It’s not that the voyage is that long, or that there are many perils between the San Blas and Cartagena – it’s only an overnight of about 160 miles. It’s just that it’s upwind against the prevailing easterlies, and so why get beat up? Better to wait for that crack in the pattern.
The inevitable finally occurs, and now, as I write, it’s 4:30 a.m., and I’m jazzed and nervous. Bernadette is sound asleep. She’s getting another 15 minutes, and then I’m blowing the trumpet.
Our course from the anchorage here to the sea buoy at Cartagena is 73 degrees — more east than north. This morning the wind is directly out of the north. We’d like a little more West in it, but I can live with this if it only agrees to stay there. In case the weather gets snarly, and goes back on our nose, we’ve come up with four possible destinations: an entrance through the sea wall at the north end of Cartagena’s harbor; the sea buoy at the south end, which is the large-ship entrance; the Rosario islands — about 20 miles before reaching Cartagena; and a protected point at San Bernardo on the Colombian coast — roughly 40 miles from Cartagena. Even a few years ago, San Bernardo wouldn’t have been on the list of safe anchorages. Colombia’s guerillas/narco-traffikers controlled the region, issued no invitations to visiting yachtsmen, and made clear to those who stumbled in that they weren’t on the guest list. We’d been warned by knowledgeable Cartagenaros that we should give their coast a wide arc, but now, since Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe has been cleaning up the country, pleasure boats go there sometimes and have encountered no big problems.
On the way out of the anchorage in the San Blas, we thread our way between two reefs. More courageous cruisers manage to clear these reefs at 0300 hours in total darkness, and I’ve never heard of anyone losing their vessel there, but that kind of maneuver gives me the heebie-jeebies, so we wait until dawn. My courage has very real boundaries.
Our friends Lisa and Cade on Sand Dollar left the Cocos Banderos several days ago, also headed to Cartagena, planning to dayhop along the coast. Cade has a deep-seated loathing for using his diesel and wants to sail the whole way. The breezes come up a bit in the afternoon, so he figures he can chase fish all morning, wait until lunchtime every day to get rolling and make it in about two weeks. His patience exceeds ours. Bernadette and I will meet them in Colombia. Lisa and Bernadette set up a radio schedule to talk on the single side band every evening. Leaving today, with us, are Linda and Doug on Que Linda . He’s the morning weather guy on the Panama Connection Net, and every night for several days we’ve been comparing our takes on the weather faxes. We both figure today looks pretty sweet.
As we sail along, the San Blas recede until all we can see are giant green shadows of the vast Panamanian Mountain range, the sacred sleeping place of Kuna spirits. Soon even that is obscured under the horizon as Ithaka sets farther out to sea. As we watch behind us, a whale sounds before our eyes, and we are dazzled by the size. The wind stays strong all day, but squirrelly, continuing to shift farther to the east. By sunset, we’re beating, just as we’d feared, but moving more or less on course, which is something.
It’s a boisterous and constantly changing passage. We face nothing dramatic, though that might have been more fun. It’s more a constellation of little niggling, awkward, uncomfortable things that in aggregation make it seem interminable. Our distance is short, but all to the northeast, which is exactly, it turns out, where the seas are coming from. Not big seas, just four-to-six-feet with an occasional larger one snuck in for good measure. They’re coming every 7 or 8 seconds, so it’s a pretty steady pounding. The wind varies from 8 to 22 knots. Sometimes, with great gusto, it comes from the north with just a hint of west – perfect, and Ithaka flies along at 7-plus knots. Mostly though it comes from the north with a little east, so we beat, beat, beat. Genoa, staysail and main, all sheeted tight and nothing standing straight up below decks. Some people don’t mind beating. I think it’s a lousy way to spend time.
By the middle of the night, I don’t want meals, I only want cheese and peanut butter: the former in broken off hunks, and the latter with a spoon. Sometimes, if Bernadette is asleep and can’t catch me doing this, I drip honey or chocolate syrup right into the peanut butter bottle so I can mix them on the spot. Using something as pedestrian as bread or crackers just slows my intake.
Are We There Yet?
This is one of those trips when I never for a second felt like extending my watch so that my beloved could enjoy an extra few minutes sleep. As the second hand approaches the end of my watch, I’m hustling down those companionway steps to get out of my harness and onto the settee.
At least we don’t have to drive. Homer, our Monitor wind vane, takes care of that. All we have to do is keep track of where the wind is coming from, tweak Homer now and then, and avoid hitting anything. We see only half a dozen ships on radar all night, all running parallel with us, either coming or going from Cartagena to Panama. The only other vessel is a poorly-lit fishing boat. We glide past it, less than a quarter mile away, after detouring to avoid a collision. A few seconds later, they shine a spotlight on our mainsail, probably wondering what just flew past. Off Colombia one always hopes to avoid stumbling into a situation with the wrong people. Bales of illicit drugs that wash about in these parts are referred to as square groupers, and smart people avoid them completely, scurrying in the opposite direction. One never knows whose grouper one might be stumbling upon, how much the owner might cherish it, and to what lengths he’d go to make sure no one else reaps its bounty.
A Series of Decisions
Within hours of departing, we knew we didn’t have such a hot weather window after all, and figured it was unlikely we could make it all the way to Cartagena before a second night out. One can enter the wide Cartagena shipping entrance anytime of day or night, but we’re not too keen to do so after dark, with all the confusing lights on shore, too many buoys, too many 1,000-foot monsters plowing in and out. By the end of the first night it becomes clear we cannot make it to Cartagena in daylight, and we’re far enough along to remove the Bernardos from the options list. It makes most sense now to go for the Rosarios because we can roll in at mid-day. We talk with Que Linda on schedule, at midnight. Their Alajuela 32 is a little slower than Ithaka and they’ve come to the same conclusion -- make way for the Rosarios. Both boats alter course.
Good decisions aren’t always rewarded with good results, but this time fortune is kind. Just after daybreak on our second morning a nasty squall comes through but in its aftermath the wind shifts out of the southeast and ends up from the west-northwest. Now we’re seriously trucking. Sand Dollar , about 25 miles south of us, gets the same shift and kicks into gear as well, forgetting the dayhop program and making for the Rosarios. We make landfall, and drop the anchor mid-afternoon.
Much to our pleasure, Cade commits to the unthinkable. He fires up the diesel engine, closes the final distance to the Rosarios, and Sand Dollar puts into the anchorage just south of Isla Grande, no more than 50 yards from Ithaka . One mile behind Sand Dollar comes Que Linda . As they putter into the anchorage we blow our conch horn. Before the hour is out, all three crews are sharing cold beers.
Cartagena, Here We Come!
The Rosarios, 20 miles from the city, are a wonderful place to hang out, but we want our city fix. So after a good night’s sleep, Que Linda and Ithaka follow Sand Dollar through a narrow, uncharted channel they’d used the previous year, saving us a half-dozen miles on our trip into Cartagena, the most beautiful city in North and South America.
As we enter through the southern, large ship channel, to starboard is the Port Captain’s office. As is the rule, we hail him immediately. I make my best effort in Spanish, “Estamos el valero Ithaka …” -- we are the sailing vessel Ithaka … -- but before I can get further, a kindly voice responds in English, “Ithaka , where you going?” Relieved of the bi-lingual burden, I say we’ll be anchoring south of Club Nautico.
“What eees your name, Capitan?”
“Bernon,” I reply. “Bravo, Echo Romeo, November, Oscar, November.”
“Okay, Ithaka ,” -- pronounced EEE-taka – “welcome to Cartagena.”
We motor up the bay to the anchorage, passing parked freighters, fishing boats and even submarines. To our surprise the anchorage is crowded. There must be 40 cruising sailboats here, but we find a good spot with plenty of swing and wiggle room, and on our second try get the hook to hold in this notoriously awful bottom. We back down with major throttle. When we feel the bow tuck down and the boat jerk a little to the side, we know we’re hooked. To our east is the Old Town, church spires and clocks towers. Just off our bow is Club Nautico, where we know we we’ll meet up with old friends. It feels so good to be back.
Happy New Year
It is a week of celebrations and lights and decorations in the city. Inside the walls of the Old Town, people stroll along the narrow streets, window shopping, taking carriage rides, sipping strong coffee in little cafes, and watching the world go by. We join friends for dinner, and start the process of doing some long-needed boat projects. We pull nice clothes out of the bottom of our closet and go out for evening concerts, and wonderful meals, and drinks, and music and dancing. On New Year’s Eve, we celebrate with Cade and Lisa, with other cruising friends, and we watch the fireworks over the spires of the Old Town. Kuna Yala, still so close really, suddenly seems a million miles away.