Crunch! The sound was unmistakable. The keel of our heavy ketch, Carricklee, had hit the reef and ground to an abrupt stop.
The grounding on the reef wasn’t a complete surprise, of course. We were approximately one-half mile off the north coast of Isla Tintipán, the largest island in Islas de San Bernardo, a small group of Colombia islands 40 miles south of Cartagena. Navigating between an inner and an outer reef in search of an elusive route through the inner reef to Salsipuedes, a protected lagoon carved out of the center of Tintipán, we had known the passage would be risky.
The impetus for our search had come from conversations with Mauricio Lemaitre, the owner of Manzanillo Marina Club in Cartagena and one of Colombia’s notable yachtsmen. Knowing that we had spent 10 years voyaging in the Pacific Ocean and that we write magazine articles and books, he was adamant: We had to see the Colombian islands he knows and loves. And to appreciate them fully, we had to go where the local yachtsmen go. On Isla Tintipán, that meant anchoring in Salsipuedes, the name a telling one: “Get out if you can,” or in our case, “Get in if you can.”
After our 10 years of voyaging in the Pacific, from as far west as Midway Atoll to as far north as Alaska’s Glacier Bay and as far south as Ecuador in South America, we had thought we knew enough about sailing among reefs to stay out of trouble. But this incident with the reef was yet another in the growing list of examples from our year in the western Caribbean that have illustrated to us we’re now navigating in foreign waters.
We had transited the Canal de Panamá from the Pacific to the Caribbean and had then spent a few months exploring Bocas del Toro, the popular province and islands of western Panamá bordering Costa Rica. At the end of the dry season and the imminent approach of the legendary rains and lightning of the wet season, we left Bocas del Toro for the drier, less electrifying Cartagena, 400 miles east.
An invitation to the Islas Rosarios
One of our earliest lessons in how different navigating along the western coast of Colombia is from that in the Pacific Ocean came also at the instigation of Mauricio Lemaitre, that same good friend who urged us to try Salsipuedes. (After all, what are friends for?)
Our major boat projects completed after we had returned to Cartagena the following fall, one early morning we were preparing to leave Manzanillo Marina for the anchorage off Isla Manga, near the colonial walled city of Cartagena. Mauricio stopped by to tell us he was leaving immediately on his Contessa 33 to sail to his island getaway on Isla Grande in Islas del Rosario. He invited us to follow him aboard Carricklee and tie up on one of his docks at the island for a few days. In addition to promising us a quiet and relaxing excursion, he also said he’d give us a personal tour of the Rosarios, this from one who has had a retreat there for 28 years.
Although we’re not given to making passages to destinations we haven’t thoroughly researched — and we hadn’t yet studied Islas del Rosario — we felt we couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see these popular islands as guests of a long-time resident. So we agreed we’d follow him out as soon as we could, perhaps within two or three hours after his departure.
En route later that morning, we learned making the trip to Mauricio’s Isla Grande home is a little more complicated than simply sailing eight miles through the well-marked channels of Bahía de Cartagena, exiting into the Caribbean through the entrance at Boca Chica, maintaining a course of 243° for 10 miles, to Isla Tesoro, and, finally, picking up a course of 190° for three miles.
This course, Mauricio had assured us, would bring us to and through the channel between the reefs and into the protected waters of Canal Ratón, between Isla Grande and Isla Marina, where we’d see his sailboat on the dock. He did suggest, however, we call him on his cell phone as we approached the reef to get exact waypoints for the channel.
We readily agreed, knowing the charts for this coast, based on decades-old surveys, show little detail for the offshore islands or the ubiquitous reefs around them. We did have one small chart — really, no more than a sketch a visiting sailor had made a few years ago — that provides a view of Isla Grande and the passes through the reef. However, this sketch includes neither waypoints nor, for that matter, lat/long lines.
Our departure that morning was delayed longer than anticipated when we discovered the anchor of the boat Med-tied alongside us was on top of ours, the rode of that anchor intricately entangled in our chain. As a result, we arrived offshore of the passage through the reef at 1600, only two hours before sundown and far later than advisable for making passages through unfamiliar reefs.
Small buoys not visible
While Mauricio had said a green and a red buoy marked the channel through the reef, even with the binoculars we could see neither of these apparently unusually small buoys. Once we’d called him for the waypoints, we knew where to look. We located the buoys designating the break in the reef. Within minutes, we were transiting the narrow pass, all the while nervously watching the water breaking on the reefs only a few feet off either beam. Yet, as Mauricio had promised, we never had less than eight feet of water.
This adventure reinforced for us the importance of our supplementing or in some instances supplanting the information on charts with local knowledge whenever possible. This lesson has been valuable particularly in Latin America, for which the available navigation charts rely on data collected nearly a century ago. But, of course, local information is not always immediately available unless one has the fortune, as we do in Cartagena, of having a local friend who is a sailor.
Because Mauricio has a lifetime of experience in navigating boats along the coasts of Colombia and Panamá, he knows well the inadequacies of the charts. One of the first suggestions he made after we arrived at Isla Grande was that we should take a dinghy ride with him through the canals and around the islands of Islas del Rosario, taking waypoints and depth soundings along the way. The results of this excursion turned out to be extremely helpful on our subsequent visits to these islands — many of which are surrounded by multiple reef systems.
After this brief visit in the Rosarios, we returned to Cartagena and anchored off Club Nautico for a few weeks of exploring the city and further preparing our boat for the season’s cruising.
When we departed Cartagena this time, we wanted to be fully prepared to explore all the islands between there and the Panamá border. On this agenda, our first destination would be a return to Islas del Rosario. Its 27 islands, seven of them large, are all tropical paradises that beckon to both colombianos and international visitors. The Rosarios are close enough to Cartagena so visitors can make the passage in less than an hour in a powerboat and in three or four hours in a sailboat.
Despite the dozens of boats daily bringing visitors from Cartagena to various popular island sites in the Rosarios and the numbers of Colombian families visiting their island homes, we could always find a beautiful reef where we were alone with the tropical fish swimming among the many-hued varieties of healthy corals. After the tour boats had returned to Cartagena in mid-afternoon, we were the lone visitors to the Oceanario and the Aviario, the surprisingly splendid aquarium and aviary owned by a local colombiano.
The wind patterns in the Colombian islands are generally mild and predictable. The entire Colombia coastline, including the offshore islands, lies far enough south so it has never been visited by the hurricanes that yearly threaten devastation to much of the Caribbean in the summer and fall. In these months as well as in the spring — the wet season — the winds are typically light and variable except for the occasional culo de pollo (which can be literally translated to the enigmatic phrase “wind from a chicken’s ass”). This is a sudden, strong south wind sometimes reaching 50 knots.
During the dry months of January, February, and March, when most voyagers visit the islands, the prevailing easterlies of the central Caribbean determine the winds along the Colombian coast. By the time these winds reach the islands, they are more northeasterly and typically in the 10 to 20 knot range during the day with often a 5 to 10 knot increase at night.
Given these conditions, the most popular anchorages in the dry months are on the south sides of the islands, though one must remain alert to the potential for a culo de pollo. However, while the dry months are the favorite voyaging months, we, as well as other voyagers, have found much to enjoy during the wet months. In these months when the stronger northerly winds rarely blow, all the beautiful anchorages along the north shorelines of the islands become tenable. Indeed, as colombianos have known for centuries and voyagers are discovering, the Rosarios offer protection 12 months a year. During one of our visits at the end of the wet season, we simply moved from one side of an island to the other when a contrary wind came up and made the motion aboard the boat uncomfortable.
On to the Islas de San Bernardo
After Islas del Rosario, our next destination along the route between Cartagena and the Panamá border, Islas de San Bernardo, lies 25 miles almost due south. On this passage near the end of the wet season, we encountered another navigational hazard. A few miles south of the Rosarios, on the distant horizon in every direction but behind us, we began to spot one “ship” then another in the misty morning air, some with “masts.” Soon, with the binoculars we identified these apparent vessels heading out to sea on the outgoing tide as islands of vegetation, some as big as many of the islets in the Rosarios and a few topped by small coco palms.
From a distance, these floating islands appeared to leave little water surface for us to pass between them. Yet as we approached each, we handily navigated around it, though we’d not want to play this game of dodge at night. Nighttime coastal passages, no matter where we are, are always a source of some anxiety. Along this Caribbean coast, where in the wet season numerous coastal rivers carry volumes of water and masses of vegetation down to the sea, such passages are downright dangerous.
Isla Tintipán, one of the eight San Bernardo islands, is a common stop ocean voyagers from around the world typically make as they transit Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. Listening to these sailors, we repeatedly heard the anchorage on the south side of the island is the place to go.
But this information contradicted Mauricio’s advice. He recommended we follow the example of colombianos from such cities as Cartagena, Bogotá, and Medellín who have long considered the lagoon in the interior of the island to be the perfect getaway for vacations. When we asked about the extensive reefs along the north and west sides of the island indicated on our charts, he assured us these reefs would not be a problem if we were careful. We asked him for waypoints, but he had never bothered to record any. His advice? Go slowly through the reefs, avoiding places appearing to be too shallow for the six-foot draft of Carricklee. And we’re sure that’s how colombianos long familiar with this entrance do navigate it.
Lacking either a chart or waypoints for entering the lagoon, we had instead plotted a cautious route around the eastern end of Tintipán and dropped anchor where the other visiting sailors typically anchor — off the south shore.
A passage into the lagoon
On the third day, though, we awoke to a bouncing boat in brisk 15-knot south winds. Mauricio and others had warned us to beware of the culo de pollo winds along the entire Colombia coast. Not knowing if this 15-knot wind was the precursor of the dreaded south wind, we decided to go around Tintipán to try to find the passage into the protected waters of the lagoon.
To be ready to move in the event of a south wind, we had gone around the island the day before in our sportboat, taking approximately 40 soundings at regular intervals to locate the route through the reefs.
From the south anchorage, keeping Carricklee between one-half and one mile offshore, we carefully navigated around the reef on the east end of the island and then began the gradual turn to take us westward along the north side of the island. Initially the depths were around 15 feet, but decreased steadily until they were consistently under 10. We backed off on the throttle to idle ahead, giving us about 2 knots of forward motion, intently studying the bottom below the clear water. We began actively dodging coral heads.
Eventually, though, we misjudged the depth of water ahead, and our keel crunched onto a coral head. We were reluctant to engage reverse gear because the turbulence from the prop wash would stir up sand that could, if picked up by the intake water, destroy the engine impeller. The alternative plan was to drop the sportboat into the water and row out a distance to set an anchor for kedging the boat off the reef.
While we were getting the kedge anchor loaded into the sportboat, a local fisherman and his son raced out from shore in their lancha to help us. We kedged Carricklee off the reef in minutes, and the fisherman, José, stayed aboard to guide us through the labyrinth of reefs and on around Frigate Point, and then through the channel into the lagoon.
When José, with his years of experiencing fishing in the San Bernardos, guided us through the channel into Salsipuedes, we followed a zigzag course of three unmarked turns through the reef in a space of about 500 yards. Later, even though we could see the track on our electronic chart, we had no assurance we could safely find our way out again. Consequently, before we exited the lagoon a few days later, we spent three hours out in the sportboat with our portable depth sounder and GPS, developing waypoints for the entrance into the lagoon with only three turns, this route obviously based on the earlier trip through the reef with José.
Since that time, we’ve been through the reef with a Colombian friend, Carlos Londoño, at the helm of his powerboat. Carlos, whose expertise comes from his countless trips between Cartagena and Tintipán during the 16 years since he built his vacation home here, has installed two markers on the reef that allow him — and anyone else who knows about them — to enter the lagoon without making any turns. When we used his route as we exited the reef aboard Carricklee the last time, we saw no depths less than nine feet.
Salsipuedes richly repays the anxiety-ridden passage through the channel. From this lagoon fully protected from the winds and seas by the encircling islands, we made daily exploratory excursions in the sportboat. While we snorkeled on the coral reefs around the island, walked on the lush white sand beach under the mangroves on popular Isla Mucurá, or shopped for provisions in the four tiny tiendas on crowded Islote, we worried about neither a strong norther nor a culo de pollo threatening our boat in the anchorage of Salsipuedes.
Our story of Tintipán reinforces the importance of adequately detailed and up-to-date charts for sailors navigating among coral reefs, and it also reinforces the importance of local knowledge. That local knowledge comes not only in the navigation tips one can obtain from a local fisherman such as José and a local yachtsman such as Mauricio or Carlos Londoño. It also expands the options for destinations. If not for Mauricio, for example, we would not have seen the potential at Islas del Rosario, nor visited Salsipuedes. Nor would we have continued on from Islas de San Bernardo to Isla Fuerte.
Our experiences on the 40-mile passage from the lagoon at Tintipán to Isla Fuerte prove another truth: “The best laid plans . . .”
The 40-mile distance as well as the slow-going we would have threading through reefs for the first eight miles from the anchorage suggested an early morning departure for our arrival at Fuerte before dark. Yet, despite these constraints and our newfound confidence in navigating through the reefs, we waited to leave Salsipuedes until 1000, when the sunlight would give good visibility.
Our tense negotiation of the initial eight miles was blissfully uneventful, and by 1200 the reefs and shallow water were behind us — at least until the approach to Isla Fuerte. With slightly more than 30 miles to go and winds under 5 knots, we made the easy decision to motor sail, calculating that even with the adverse current slowing us down, we should arrive at Fuerte and have the anchor down by 1800, the hour of sunset.
Boarded by the Colombian Coast Guard
But we couldn’t anticipate the unexpected in our passage. As we were motorsailing along, minding the clock, a sudden roar off our starboard side jolted us. Seemingly out of nowhere, a 36-foot boat with three 250-hp Yamaha outboards on the transom was alongside us, four members of the Colombian Guardacosta smiling at us expectantly from the open boat.
The officer aboard the boat motioned for us to slow down and then expressed his intention to come aboard Carricklee. We sighed inwardly, put out fenders, rolled up the Genoa, and slowed the engine to idle ahead. By this time the winds had increased to nearly 10 knots, and the seas were running at about 4 feet, so tying the patrol boat to Carricklee was something of a challenge. Once the officer was aboard, the crew kept busy preventing the two boats from banging into each other in the boisterous seas.
The boarding officer was perfectly polite and professional, examining our papers and asking questions about our voyages in Colombia. Then after asking if he could check the cabins below decks, he examined the engine room and living quarters, peering briefly into lockers. Thirty minutes later, he thanked us for our patience, shook our hands, and rejoined his crew aboard the patrol boat.
Although we regretted the delay caused by this boarding, our experience with the boarding party served to increase our confidence in the safety of ocean voyagers in Colombia. The Colombian Coast Guard clearly takes its patrol duties seriously. Though boarded only this one time, we saw these patrol vessels in every island group and anchorage we visited along coastal Colombia and watched them carefully make note of the name and port of call of each boat. Considering the violence and crime that plagued Colombia as recently as five years ago, and reportedly continue to be a problem in some remote inland regions, the highly visible presence of the well-trained and polite members of the Colombian Coast Guard is most reassuring.
After the Coast Guard boat had disappeared over the horizon, a remarkably short time at the 50-mph speed of their boat, we set about getting Carricklee back on course for Isla Fuerte. As if to make up for the delay, the winds had picked up to a consistent 10 knots, and the adverse current reversed to a 1-knot favorable current, helping to push Carricklee over the bottom at 7 knots. Despite the time lost picking our way carefully through the reefs and the delay from the boarding, we had the anchor down at Isla Fuerte before sunset.
Though we encountered some challenges while voyaging along the Colombia coast, we retain primarily good memories of these cruising grounds. As we recall the several weeks of exquisite anchorages and, everywhere, kind and helpful colombianos, we also recall productive hours spent collecting numbers of waypoints and of soundings. When we collated these numbers and entered them on our previously inadequate charts, we did so with the expectation this “crunching of the numbers” could help us avoid another crunching on the reefs of Colombia.
Frequent contributors to Ocean Navigator, Carolyn and Bob Mehaffy are liveabord voyagers on their Hardin 45 ketch Carricklee.
Wherever we have voyaged in Colombia, we have had numerous experiences underscoring the need for better charts. On our subsequent return to Cartagena, we explored a rumor the Colombian Hydrographic Office had charts of Islas del Rosario that could be made available to the public. We verified the existence of such a useful chart and learned it is bundled together with three or four other charts, one of those for Islas de San Bernardo, another group of islands we had visited and planned to revisit. The price for the bundle was $30, a genuine bargain.
We spent most of a day getting permission to enter the Navy Training Base in Cartagena, the location of the Hydrographic Office, and to examine the chart. We discovered a problem in purchasing the charts, however. We could order copies of the charts only at the Hydrographic Office, but had to pay for them at a specified bank in El Centro, several miles away on streets plugged with traffic. Then we would have to return to the Hydrographic Office with the receipt in order to obtain the charts.
When we arrived at the bank shortly before closing time, the employee with whom we spoke told us the number we had been given by the sailor who showed us the charts was no longer valid. We would need to return to the Hydrographic Office and essentially start the entire process over again. Unfortunately, our chart search had begun on a Friday, and we had already checked out of the country for a passage to Panamá over the weekend. Though we would leave Cartagena without a better chart than we’d had before, we did have the waypoints and soundings for the Rosarios that we’d gathered with Mauricio.
Carolyn and Bob Mehaffy