Ithaka

Good-Bye Kuna Yala, Hello Cartagena

By Douglas Bernon
November 8, 2002
Cartagena, Colombia
10° 24.677' North 75° 32.621' West

On any passage, I wish I could bottle the hour or so just before sunrise for later moments when again I might drink in those changes in the universe. The clouds lose their cohesiveness; the sun peeks through in glints; colors emerge from blackness. The world is more intimate, and all things seem possible.

On the second morning of our trip from Kuna Yala to Cartagena, dawn broke in zephyrs. The wind, which all night whispered at 10 knots, pushed us along, but without much oomph. Our faithful Monitor self-steering vane — whom after two years we really must bless officially with some appropriately anthropomorphic name — had driven us without so much as a tweak. On such quiet evenings, sitting in the cockpit on watch, burdened with so little to do, whoever is on watch repeatedly sets a kitchen timer for 10 minutes just in case of dozing, which both of us do from time to time. The main tasks consist of keeping an eye out for tankers and making sure we remain on course if the wind shifts. That night, in addition, every three hours we kept radio contact with an Italian boat that was a dozen or so miles behind us and heading in the same direction. No heavy lifting required. But that was night. Morning ushered in the changes.

Photo of Cartagena at night Our destination: the magnificent Cartagena.

At the first glimpse of the sun, on a quiet sea, I ambled forward and shook out the reef we always put in before nightfall. That helped marginally, but plodding along upwind at 4 knots we seemed destined for a two-night trip. The sky was relatively clear now, although there were some gray clouds coming at us off the starboard beam.

By 7, when Bernadette came on watch, gray was turning black on the far horizon, the wind was freshening, Ithaka was tromping along at a steady five knots, and we could feel a colder chill on our cheeks. We'd been warned about sudden and powerful squalls along this route, funneling down from the Colombian mountains, blowing essentially from the southwest.

With Bernadette keeping an eye on the heavens, I went below to fire up the radar to see how big this squall was. It filled the one-mile screen; it filled the six-mile screen; it filled the 12-mile screen; and it filled the 24-mile screen. All of which meant that when it hit us, we were in for some adrenalin. I stuck my head up the companionway to tell Bernadette about the size of it. She already knew.

"Do we have time to get the reef back in?" I asked.

"Negative, mi amigo," she said. The first rain was already hitting the deck. Bernadette unhitched the Monitor, and started to drive as the wind burst from 15 to 20 to 25, and then on to 35 and a consistent 40 knots with higher gusts. The rain stole all visibility, and while Ithaka loves a serious breeze, we were clearly over-canvassed and dipping a rail into the soup — which almost never happens.

I regretted having shaken out the reef and was glad Bernadette was driving, as in any conditions she steers infinitely better than I do, and especially when there's some serious blow going on. As she bore off a bit and eased out the main, I wound in our 135% genoa until it was a hanky, and Ithaka got her legs under her again.

Throughout the night the wind had been essentially out of the northeast and we'd pretty well maintained our rhumb line, even putting a few miles in the bank in case the breeze turned more easterly — which would be on our nose — but now it was out of the southwest, and we got ready for the ride. We were screaming along. For more than two hours our speed was consistently over eight knots, sometimes close to nine — and the miles between us and Cartagena clicked rapidly away beneath us. Somewhere in there, we engaged the Monitor again, and then all was right with our turbulent little world. I was a little worried about the large main, but I do our foredeck work and the prospect of going forward to reef was sufficiently unappealing that we decided to trust our fates for a bit.

At our 9 a.m. rendezvous time, I tried to raise the Italian boat for our radio check, but they didn't answer. A bit behind us, they were in the thick of the squall, and probably with hands very full. For several hours I kept trying them every 15 minutes but always without luck. We hoped for the best. By noon, we could see some blue on the horizon. We were on our way out. And best of all, the heavy winds from the mega-squall had propelled us so well, and for so long, that it looked like we'd be able to make landfall in Cartagena before dark — a thrilling prospect.

Bernadette and I sat in the cockpit all morning, drinking hot tea and musing with each other about what it meant for us to leave the San Blas when we did. There are never perfect times to weigh anchor, because there are always too many projects to get done first, and too many goodbyes, and several folks who you know are on their way toward where you are and whom you really don't want to miss. But then early one morning you pull down the weather faxes and find that there's a window for the next morning. No guarantees, of course, but it's looking better. Large seas are lying down, and the wind will be a tad more out of the direction you've been hoping for. When those things happen, you boogie. That's how it was for us.

So by 10 that morning we saw the fax, we launched our get-ready drill for the next day: scrape the prop; do a quick bottom scrub; check the through-hulls; fasten the jack lines; get out the harnesses; check to see that the lights and radar are working; double-check the waypoints in the GPS; haul the dinghy on deck, tie it down; make some food for underway; then, naturally start getting excited and worrying. Not just a little, either. I really sweat. I get antsy and testy and cranky and downright nutty, even though it's only a couple hundred miles. But I also get psyched. Parked where we were in the Hollandes, we could see beyond the reefs, and by mid-afternoon the seas were looking much flatter — really good news — because our course of 79 degrees is against the northeast swells. Plus, everyone sweats the seas around Cartagena, where waves often build wildly as they march down the shallow coast, sometimes growing quickly to 15 and 20 feet.

This time of year the conventional wisdom is that if you want dead-flat seas, either you wait for a hurricane to blow out up north, which smooths the ocean down here to glass — and motor all the way — or find some light northerlies or northeasterlies and sail close to the wind. We chose the latter.

Photo of monkey design mola by Lisa Harris We're trading the life of palm trees, wildlife, and native crafts for the faster pace of the mainland. (Mola by Lisa Harris)

Ithaka was packed and tied down by late afternoon. We had a good-bye dinner with Ervin on Dutchess and set the morning alarm for 5, figuring we'd tickle out between the reefs at first light an hour later. San Blas is a serenely quiet place, and the diesel at dawn seemed a blasphemy, but neither of us cared. After all, we were actually on our way to Cartagena and excited beyond words. We'd been looking forward to that landfall for more than a year, but because of guerrillas and bombs, more than once we decided not to go. Since then though, we'd met cruisers coming up from Cartagena who'd loved it, stayed for months, and who'd felt welcomed and perfectly safe there. That was good enough for us.

Once around the reef at the southeast corner of the East Hollandes Cays (only 3 miles from where we were anchored) it was a straight shot to our next waypoint: the sea buoy outside Cartagena harbor. In addition to a sailable rhumb line, for the first time in ages there was nothing in-between to hit or run aground on. We planned on a two-night passage but knew if the winds piped up we might be able to be in by dark the following night.

Photo of a Kuna indian woman We're trading gentle encounters with the Kuna Indians for the sophistication of one of the most magnificent colonial cities in the Americas.

With initial winds of 10-15 out of north-northeast, I figured and refigured our arrival time, factoring in every possible speed. While we know people who've entered Cartagena in the dark, they all said the same thing afterwards: "Why bother with that kind of grief? Sure, you can get in there, but it's a city of many confusing lights and, worst of all, it's got a tough anchorage to get a good hold in. Daytime is more your friend."

Late in the afternoon of the first day the winds diminished, and we decided to motor-sail through the night, because we were already plodding against current and knew we'd be slowed even more by our nocturnal reef. Many cruisers would have been perfectly content sailing all night at 1 or 1.5 knots and taking three days to arrive: They're mellower creatures than either of us. That night we had a jet-black sky without moon or stars, but the payoff was beneath and around us: mind-boggling bioluminescence, a glittering trail of twinkling and disappearing lights all night long.

Photo of container ship outside entrance to Cartagena Ithaka takes her place in line with the tankers and container ships making their way toward the sea buoy outside the entrance to Cartagena.

On our second day out, after the squall began to blow out, the winds slackened to a comfy 20 knots, the full main was dong fine, we rolled out the genoa to about 80%, and it was clear to us that if this wind held for a few hours we would see Cartagena in no time. Sure enough, by noon we began to make out the smudge of coast on the horizon. By 3 that afternoon we sailed right by the red and white sea buoy, and along with two freighters, who steamed by us in one blink of an eye, we started the eight-mile drive up the channel to the anchorage. Having been so anxious about coming to a country where kidnapping remains an active industry and terrorist bombings are not uncommon, we were both a little edgy; but mostly we were ecstatic. Sure, the harbor water is polluted, the place is humid, there are high rises, but still we kept pinching ourselves. "We're in Cartagena!" we kept saying as Ithaka motored to the anchorage. As we approached, we were happily stunned by the incredible skyline and agog at the battleships and submarines parked along the way.

Photo of another ontainer ship outside entrance to Cartagena As we passed the sea buoy, there was a tanker coming out of the harbor mouth, and three container ships going in — a busy place indeed.

The anchorage in Cartagena, which is at the very farthest point inside the harbor — only a stone's throw from the old city — has a reputation for lousy holding, and we proved rumor to be fact. This is a 500-year-old city, with 500 years of accumulated human-caused sediment, on top of whatever Mother Nature started with. Today, the anchorage is deeply-furrowed ground with a thick layer of soft mud. Although Bernadette and I generally anchor pretty well, it took five tries to get a hold, and like all cruising couples, these anchoring fiascos draw forth some of our least beatific traits. Since our performance was being conducted during the cocktail hour, we provided the evening's entertainment as we dropped, dragged, hauled, circled, dropped, tried again, dragged, hauled, circled, and dropped over and over and over. Everyone on the eight or nine yachts anchored there offered advice and encouragement as we dumbly did our thing, and you just know they thanked their lucky stars it was us, not them. Eventually we quit sliding through the mud, backed down several times to make sure, declared ourselves officially here, and then hauled out the celebratory cold beers. The Italian boat arrived the next morning.

Photo of a Cartagena sea buoy Photos can't capture the excitement of the sea buoy, but locating the one for which you've been aiming after an offshore sail, then passing by it, is a special moment on any passage. This is the Cartagena sea buoy.

Cartagena is an impressive sight at any hour, but in the dark it's magical. The sunset the night we arrived was orange, and light shimmered on the roofs of the old cathedrals. As night fell, the high rises lit up, and the old city came to life. Sounds and smells were different than we've known the several months in the San Blas. Sunset crept into night, but we were too excited to sleep. We talked about how our days would be different here. In leaving the San Blas, we know we're exchanging quiet natural dramas for the pell-mell of city life, quitting an aerie perch for a ringside seat at a championship fight. We know we're trading the routines of a subsistence-living culture for the hyper-charged clamor of a city on the move. But not just any city: a 500-year-old Spanish jewel of a city that is a de facto demilitarized zone in a country at war with itself.

We know we're trading ulus and cayucos for tugs and tankers. Instead of diving for fresh fish, we're about to cash in on the sizzle and convenience of metropolitan life. No more heavenly Milky Way for now, just the lights of population. No more feeling gloriously isolated, but now we'll relish the pleasures of the modern world: Internet cafes, ice cream stands, restaurants. Even in our first hours here the delicate splash of cayucos paddling alongside us is replaced with the clatter of outboards. No longer leaving Ithaka unlocked, we're padlocking everything on deck that's remotely portable. John Halley, the dock master at Club Naútico assures us that nothing has been stolen in the anchorage this year and "since the bombing of several months ago, no cruise ships will dock here, so the navy patrols the anchorage 24 hours a day. They don't have much else to do."

Photo of the magical light of Cartagena at night
From Ithaka's cockpit, we have a ringside seat to the magical lights of Cartagena at night.

We're thrilled to be making all these temporary trades. One of the great kicks of cruising is being able to take your house from one world to another. The views are different and the people are different and the pace and activities are changed, but at the end of the day, the books and sheets and coffee cups that surround you on your own boat are still the same; the pictures on your bulkheads are unchanged, and the comfort of the familiar, as you begin exploring a magical new place, carries the day.

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