Aruban Interlude


By Liz Tosoni

Latitude 11deg 14 N, Long 74 deg 13 W
Santa Marta, Colombia

Hurricane Tomas lost energy 100 miles north of us and then moved away. Perfect. Now we can get on with the program and set sail for Cartagena, Right? Wrong! All set and ready to go, we looked at the weather picture on the internet only to realize that a low pressure system had formed over Colombia and had the potential to develop into yet another hurricane.

We wanted to be cautious about this particular leg of our journey. The 400 mile stretch between Aruba and Cartagena is well known for the worst weather conditions in the Caribbean, and ranks among the top five worst passages around the world. I clearly recall one circumnavigator friend wryly stating “That’s one passage I’m glad I don’t have to repeat.”


  Our hearts went out to Australian friends, a feisty young family new to cruising, “Skipper JD, Bosun Boy Jesse, Zodiac Zoe, Captain Tykes, First Mate Hels” aboard Nika when we read their email about their “torrid” passage.

“We were thinking ourselves fortunate to have lucked on to a kind and gentle weather window in which to transit the Colombian coast when the wind began to increase to 25 knots about 5:00PM. By 8:00PM after a bright red sunset (sailors delight??) and as the kids were going to bed, we were getting a few indications that we weren't quite off the hook yet.

Firstly the high wind alarm, which I'd set at 30 knots, started beeping - at first sporadically and then continually. The remedy: reef the poled-out jib and main and raise the alarm level to 35 knots, and then to 38 knots.

We fully reefed away the mainsail, further reduced jib and removed the whisker pole. We also tied back the bimini for the first time as we noticed it was beginning to tear. At a reduced speed of only 7 knots, Nika was handling very well but was getting pummelled by the rogue waves which were coming about every 5 minutes in groups of three. George, our autopilot, was coping well until at 10:00PM, every sailor’s worst fears were realised when there was a tremendous BANG!! emanating from the rudder region.

Naturally, I jumped to the wheel and switched off the autopilot, believing that the rudder had broken off yet hoping/praying that I could somehow salvage the situation by hand-steering. In my haste, I must have pushed the wrong button for I couldn't turn the autopilot off to 'Standby' mode; so ensued a battle between JD and George as to who was actually steering the hapless Nika. There was no winner until Hels arrived, somewhat bleary-eye and took the wheel while I eventually figured out that George needed some serious button-pushing to get him out of "Calibration Mode" and into "Standby Mode". All the while we were at risk of being ‘pooped’ by a rogue wave from behind

Another ghastly BANG!! caused me to dive down into the lazarette with torch in hand to determine how much damage, torn metal, shattered fibreglass, we'd wreaked on Nika. As I lay curled up like a contortionist in this dark, loud, godforsaken place, I was surprised/baffled/relieved to find that everything appeared to be normal

At one stage I looked back at Helen on the wheel as three really HUGE and breaking waves smashed us in succession. I think Hels was OK until she saw the look of terror on my face - I was the one looking backwards and could see the waves just before they hit us; Helen's coping strategy was to look straight ahead and deal only with what was in front - not a bad strategy I think. I'm sure none of you would be surprised as I confirm that Hels did marvellously well - I continue to be amazed at her steeliness and tenacity in the face of challenge.

 With the high wind alarm continuing to go off every couple of minutes and the rogue waves every other few minutes, we thought we were going OK, until at 0200 this morning we heard the BANG!! a couple more times. ‘What IS that noise and where is it coming from?’ The answer was revealed when I removed the rear seat to expose the top rudder bearing and could see that it was moving some 5-10mm side-to-side due to a sheared screw. I tightened the 4 friction nuts a bit and hoped/prayed that it would hold until morning which it did.

The long and short of it is that this part of the Colombian coastline is a well-known black spot at this time of the year, notorious amongst the sailors we've met. But you have to pass through it if you wish to get to Cartegena or, indeed the San Blas Islands and henceforth, the Panama Canal. These were the worst conditions we've had in the five months we've been cruising and I guess we're better for the experience and fortunately suffered no damage. In the safety and tranquillity of this marina in Cartegena, it doesn't seem so bad and we're even happier than usual to be safely tucked away for the night.

 What about the kids in all this? They awoke this morning in their usual good spirits and said ‘Storm? What storm?’”

So, one is advised to plan ahead and wait for calm predictions, and that’s exactly what we did, making ourselves right at home in pleasant, friendly Aruba, known as “one happy island”, where people always seem to have a smile for you. We lay at anchor off the main town of Oranjestad, for 19 days as it turned out, settling into a daily routine of early morning coffee and reading, listening to Chris Parker’s weather summary and forecasting on SSB 8137 at 0700 or SS B8104 at 0830, swimming laps around the boat in what we call our own private swimming pool, breakfast, and then boat work.


Tom tackled his long list of regular maintenance jobs like a beaver, ploddingly, diligently, thoroughly checking the engine, alternators, inverters, batteries, battery charger, genset, outboard, fan belts, hoses, through hull fittings, pumps, rigging, spreaders, turnbuckles. He was on a binge of inspecting, fixing and adjusting.

Together we examined sails for signs of wear, repairing where repairs were needed. I reorganized and restocked the ‘abandon ship’ kit and medical kit, my least favourite jobs. My main projects were in the cleaning and beautification department, scrubbing, sanitizing, scouring and reorganizing lockers, taking inventory of food stores, cleaning cabin soles and decks, sanding and varnishing tired teak, painting what needed painting.

Domestic duties on board a boat are a big deal, ever present, ever demanding. You can’t underestimate their importance. A single hander we met in Malta came to that revelation after finally realizing his lifelong dream of cruising and living aboard his own boat. He’d just retired after a lifetime of working on freighters around the world, all the while staring longingly at small cruising boats happily at anchor in every port of call. Having realized his dream though, he was forlornly disillusioned. His long face said it all. “But why, what’s the problem?” I asked, full of curiosity and sympathy. “I detest the domestics!” he moaned repeatedly, “the cleaning, the cooking, the laundry. I didn’t think about that part. It has to be done, but I hate it. I like everything else, but household chores suck.” Try as he might, he couldn’t find a mate to share his newfound lifestyle aboard his boat, so continued into his depression, drowning his lamentations in drink every evening.

Skies were slate grey and cloudscapes ever changing, bringing almost daily thunderstorms and deluges of rain. We said “bring it on” as all that rain meant Feel Free was in ‘water maker mode’. Decks were washed thoroughly, plumbing connecting the deck drains first to buckets for showers and laundry, and then to the main tanks, was put in place. By the time we left Aruba, our water tanks were full of beautiful, clean, free water and our clothes, freshly laundered on board.




Afternoons found us walking miles wandering the streets of Aruba, visiting internet cafes, shopping in Aruba’s many megastores and mom and pop shops, visiting art shops, iguana watching, even caught the “Sinter Klaus” parade.


“I can’t arrive in Colombia looking like a druggie” announced my long haired hubby one morning. Yes, it was true, he was beginning to appear a little hippie like and we would soon be entering the cocaine capital of the world. That was enough for me to brandish my hair cutting scissors and set up the Feel Free barber shop. Tom sits comfortably on his perch at the hair cutting station, the bench of the wind vane bracket at the stern, sipping coffee, while I snip away.

I decided I was also due for a trim................


So by the end of the day we were both sporting fresh cuts, looking rather more preppy than planned, but, definitely not suspicious looking for our Colombian landfall.

The night before our departure was heralded with no fewer than six squalls, with accompanying thunder, lightning and torrential downpour. Tom and I were up and down like jacks-in-boxes, closing hatches, opening hatches, checking that our anchor wasn’t dragging as well as and those of nearby boats. Early morning revealed brilliant blue skies, sunshine and glorious easterly winds. “The trades are back Lizzy. Let’s get ‘outta here” piped my ever exuberant Captain. After a quick and easy check-out, Feel Free took off like a bird in flight, eager to find South America.


Artwork by Hendrik, Aruba