The dictates of weather

We were on deck of our Hardin 45 ketch Carricklee at first light, eager to get an early start on our passage from Cartagena, Colombia, to Aruba, one of the islands of the Netherlands Antilles. The passage we were about to undertake was well known as a challenging upwind passage. Although we had secured everything aboard Carricklee the night before, we had learned from past experience that getting the seemingly endless accumulation of the gray mud of Bahía de Cartagena off the anchor chain as it came aboard would inevitably slow our departure. After only 15 minutes of work with the washdown hose and brush, however, we had the freshly-washed chain in the locker and the anchor secured on the bow.

By the time we had motored the half-mile to round the Virgen del Carmen, a statue erected atop a reef in the middle of the harbor, the sprinkling of rain on the decks as we had weighed anchor had steadily increased to a deluge. Yet, remaining confident the weather gurus had it right with their predictions of light southwest winds and partly cloudy skies for the day, we continued another half-mile farther to Punta Castillo Grande, the point at the southwest end of Península de Boca Grande.

We had been patiently waiting for another favorable weather prediction since we’d attempted this voyage exactly a week earlier, getting only 15 miles from Bahía de Cartagena before steadily building easterly winds and seas had forced us to turn back. During the several weeks we had been planning, we had learned one axiom for making this voyage against prevailing winds and seas: Take advantage of every forecast calling for anything other than east-northeast winds.

Based on our experience of squalls in this region, we also had every reason to anticipate this one would be brief in passing over the bay and coastline. However, we couldn’t afford the time to return to the anchorage and wait the storm out if we were to arrive before dark at the first anchorage, and we also couldn’t be confident that the favorable weather, if it indeed came, would last even until the next day.

At Punta Castillo Grande in torrential rain, we saw the point and the lighthouse atop it a scant 100 yards off to starboard only on the radar screen. A few minutes later, when the radar and the electronic charts indicated we were clear of Castillo Grande, we turned to starboard and into the wide channel between the peninsula and Isla de Tierra Bomba.

While the clear image of the shoreline on the radar reassured us of our safe position vis-à-vis the point, we had no such reassurance about the exact location of the two small buoys marking the narrow passage through the artificial reef 1.6 miles seaward from Punta Castillo Grande. These two buoys, recently set by the Colombia Navy, mark the only sufficiently deep water where small vessels can cross this reef that otherwise has depths of only 0 to 1.2 meters. Though we had waypoints from our paper charts locating these buoys, we had learned from our sailing in this part of the world that the charts are not always spot on.

However, despite the low visibility, we were relatively certain we would see the buoys in plenty of time to pass safely between them. We were less certain about the extent of the “rock barrier” indicated on our charts — a kilometer-long barrier of rocks stacked across the Boca Grande channel in the mid-1700s by the Spanish to protect Cartagena from sea attacks.

About a half-mile from the buoys, according to the paper charts, our confidence ebbed. No matter how hard we strained and squinted, we could see nothing beyond the bow pulpit of our boat. Slowing to idle ahead, we continued to stare into the sheets of water surrounding us, looking for the buoys as well as any other traffic on the water.

We were especially concerned as we approached the channel through the reef because other mariners had reported seeing as little as nine feet of water in the channel. In calm water that depth could easily accommodate the six-foot draft of our ketch. However, we were now near the waters of the open Caribbean, and a large swell could reduce the three-foot margin enough to cause us to bounce on the bottom.

Relying primarily on our electronic charts to keep us in the middle of the channel, through the slackening rain we finally spotted the buoys when they were 100 feet off our bow. As we passed slowly over the barrier, the depth sounder registered a minimum of 11 feet of water despite the three-foot swell as we had lined up Carricklee with the channel. And then we breathed freely again.

Minutes after we had crossed over the reef, the rain decreased enough for us to observe the sea conditions ahead — and they were not a pretty sight. The passing squall that had blanketed us in the bay had transformed the seas into a confusion of five-foot seas on three-second intervals, conditions we knew could worsen as we neared Punta Canoas (“Canoes Point”), 13 miles ahead. Nevertheless, we decided to continue on as long as the conditions were merely uncomfortable rather than threatening, as they had become only the week before on our first attempt at this voyage.

After having spent two years cruising the Caribbean coast and islands of Panamá and Colombia as far as Cartagena, we had been eager to move on to new environs and had settled on the ABC islands in the Netherlands Antilles as our next destination.

On paper the passage from Cartagena to Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba, appears to be a typical 400-mile bluewater voyage. However, other sailors, as well as the literature we had read, warned us to think seriously about the sea and weather conditions before undertaking this upwind passage. Again and again we had heard author and voyager Jimmy Cornell cited as labeling this passage along the northeastern coastline of Colombia as one of the five worst passages of his voyages around the world.

All the evidence had served to alert us to the possibility of some special challenges on this voyage. In order to minimize the risks, we studied the wind patterns for each month, the typical currents in that region of the Caribbean, and the advantages of the possible routes between Cartagena and Aruba.

Routes of choice
Generally, other voyaging sailors recommend two routes between Cartagena and Aruba: an offshore route taking more or less a straight line between the Bahía de Cartagena to the island or a coastal route for 249 miles to Cabo de la Vela, the easternmost point in Colombia, then heading offshore to cross the 146 miles of the open Caribbean to Aruba.

Personal safety
Some of those who recommend an offshore route are primarily concerned with possible criminal activity along the Colombia coast. When we began discussing the possibility of voyaging from Cartagena to the ABC islands, the safety advice we heard repeatedly was to stay at least 100 miles offshore to avoid encounters with thieves and pirates that prey on boats along that coast.

Our further research revealed this advice to be based on out-of-date information. Nowhere did we learn of boats recently having been boarded or of cruisers personally threatened in any of the Colombian anchorages recommended by the Guardacostas de Colombia. (We had, however, already written off any of the otherwise appealing destinations along the increasingly troubled Venezuela coast near the border with Colombia.)

In our conversations with sailors who recently had voyaged along this coast east of Cartagena and with personnel of the Guardacostas de Colombia, we were convinced the local coast guard is committed to keeping the waters along the northern coastline safe for sailors. In fact, as we had explored the coast between the Panamá border and Cartagena the previous two years, we had seen crews on coast guard boats patrolling virtually every anchorage, taking down the names of boats anchored there. In addition to keeping track of boats in Colombia waters, the consistent presence of the Guardacostas clearly serves as a warning to those who might have intentions of boarding visiting boats as well as an assurance to voyaging sailors of their safety.

As we prepared for the voyage to the ABCs, we attended a briefing at Club Naútico in Cartagena to listen to two members of the Guardacostas discuss and answer questions about the safety of visiting sailors. Their answer to a question about whether or not visitors could safely cruise along the coastline between Cartagena and the ABCs was a qualified affirmative, followed by their recommendations about those anchorages they did not consider completely safe for one reason or another.

They advised voyagers not to enter the Río Magdalena at Barranquilla because of the extreme currents in the convergence of the outflow and the sea and the often treacherous amount of debris in the water. These Guardacostas members also recommended visitors avoid the anchorage at Rodadero in Santa Marta because of reported petty thefts of boats there. Although no boats had been boarded nor had those aboard been threatened, unsecured items abovedecks had gone missing overnight. At the time the Guardacostas was attempting to rid the anchorage of this theft, but these members weren’t sure it had been completely successful yet.

Similarly, they asked those at the seminar with plans to sail east along the coast to anchor at only one of the Five Bays near Santa Marta, Guayraca. They recommended visiting sailors not anchor in any of the other four bays for various reasons: indifferent protection from the prevailing winds, poor holding, environmental concerns, or petty theft.

Despite our eliminating these potential anchorages — Barranquilla, Rodadero, and four of the Five Bays — on the recommendations of the Guardacostas de Colombia, we could nevertheless explore four anchorages (or five if we counted the southern island of the Archipiélago de los Monjes en route 50 miles offshore of Aruba).

Current considerations
As we continued our research, we could clearly see one good reason to choose a route closer to shore. While the charts show a 1- to 2-knot westerly current flowing along the Colombian coastline, voyagers who had followed the coastal route westward from Aruba to Cartagena complained of their frequent encounters with a noticeable adverse — that is, easterly flowing — current. Although not noted on the pilot charts, a significant counter current seems to flow along the Colombia coastline much of the time. This counter current could give us a push as we sailed eastward.

Wind and sea considerations
More than any other factor, the winds and accompanying seas give the voyage along the Colombia coastline its wretched reputation. Though these weather conditions change from season to season, they are only rarely ideal for an easterly voyage anywhere in the southern Caribbean. For much of the year fresh or strong east and northeast winds blow regularly, and weather forecasters for the southeast Caribbean routinely note the predicted winds and seas will be the greatest along the north coast of Colombia.

A typical weather prediction for the southwestern Caribbean for a day in May 2009 reads, “Fresh trades continue over the Caribbean Sea with strongest winds along the coast of N Colombia…” Perhaps this NOAA prediction suggests reasonable sailing conditions for sailors making passages downwind or in protected waters. On the same day the report on “,” the local weather service for the ABC islands, is more specific: “… northeast to east winds 20 to 25 knots. Seas five to seven feet on five second intervals.” And, of course, this forecaster, too, noted these winds and seas would be greater along the north coast of Colombia.

The variable most intimidating for those making upwind voyages in the Caribbean is neither the velocity of the wind nor the height of the seas but it is that height coupled with short intervals between waves. A few of our cruising friends do have boats that handle conditions like these somewhat gracefully. One such boat, Jedi, a 64-foot Dashew, has an extremely long waterline and a very fine bow for cutting into short, steep five- to seven-foot waves with a five second interval. But our boat, a beamy, 45-foot Hardin ketch, meets these seas with little or no grace.

Those intermittent periods when the winds are southerly or westerly along the route between Cartagena and Aruba occur primarily in the tropical hurricane season, from June to December. These hurricanes pose a significant risk for most of the Caribbean, but such is not the case in Colombia and the ABCs, though these months do bring an increased chance of strong winds associated with passing hurricanes. Nevertheless, as we examined the records of hurricanes in recent years, we noted almost no damages reported to Colombia or to the islands of Aruba and Curaçao. In addition, this region of the Caribbean experiences frequent light and variable weather windows during October and November.

After considering the weather patterns for this region, we scheduled our passage from Cartagena to Aruba for early November.

Voyage to Aruba
While we had heard compelling arguments for both favored routes, we concluded we could follow the inshore route along the coast of Colombia to the anchorage immediately west of Cabo de la Vela and the Venezuela border without subjecting ourselves to intolerable risks if we followed the safety advice of the Guardacostas de Colombia and if we monitored the weather closely.

To us, the appeal of this route from the outset had been the opportunity we’d have to explore the Colombia coastline between Cartagena and Venezuela. The likelihood of gaining from an inshore counter current and from a heading slightly off the wind rather than straight into it added immensely to that initial appeal.

As Carricklee slogged and rolled, with sails slatting, through those short, steep waves seaward of the old barrier reef at Cartagena, we wondered if all our research had been wasted. The conditions were clearly not what we had been expecting, based on the forecasts. Nevertheless, we persevered. Within two hours the seas smoothed out, and a light and variable wind filled in, so light we had a pleasant motorsail on to Punta Morro Hermoso, our first projected anchorage.

Well before night we dropped anchor at Morro Hermoso, an anchorage well protected from the prevailing winds by the point extending westward for about half of a mile. That evening we checked the weather prediction for the following day: light and variable southwest winds with one- to two-foot seas. Although we had planned to stay a few days to explore Hermoso, we heeded the advice of Mauricio LeMaitre, a Cartagena sailor, for making the passage to Aruba: “Whenever good weather is predicted along this coastline, keep going.”

We hoisted anchor early the following day for the passage to the Five Bays near Santa Marta.

Between Hermoso and Santa Marta lies the most challenging stretch of water along the entire coast — the outflow of the Río Magdalena at Barranquilla. All the sailors with whom we spoke or who spoke to us through their writings warned of the dangers from the debris spewed out by the often roiling river, from clumps of weeds to huge trees. For the navigator of a small pleasure craft, even more challenging than this debris is the convergence of the river outflow with the ocean. One source warned that the turbidity currents on the ocean bed offshore of the mouth of the Río Magdalena have on 17 occasions been strong enough to break the seabed communication cable about 15 miles out to sea and two miles below the surface of the water.

If the currents and turbulence so far out to sea and below the surface can do that much damage, we could only image how our small 45-foot sailboat could be bounced around on the surface.

Our course had taken us to the western edge of the Magdalena outflow about 1.5 miles from the breakwater where the river enters the Caribbean. Here, a woven green and brown rope of debris marked the boundary between the brilliant sapphire of the Caribbean and the tranquil milk chocolate water of the Magdalena. This rope between the two colors of water extended as far off the bow as we could see in either direction.

As amazing as this distinct line and contrast in water colors, were the large pieces of debris intertwined in the rope: clumps of water hyacinths, tree limbs and palm fronds, entire uprooted trees, and household trash including the usual plastic bags and containers as well as chairs and toys. This floating rope appeared to be impassably dense and thick.

Altering course toward the open water of the Caribbean, we searched for a safe path through the debris, knowing our alternative would be to continue out to sea, perhaps as much as 10 miles, to circumvent the outflow. Within 20 minutes, however, we found a stretch of only small and loosely woven debris that appeared passable. Trusting this appearance wasn’t as misleading as the tip of an iceberg, we slowed the boat down to idle ahead and crossed without incident into the muddy water of the Río Magdalena outflow.

As we proceeded across the outflow of the river, the conditions were quite different from those our imaginations had conjured. Still no more than two miles offshore, we motorsailed smoothly over flat water interrupted only by scattered debris — dislodged water hyacinth with accompanying small bushes and even trees — all easy for us to avoid. Two hours later we crossed easily back into the blue Caribbean, relieved at the contrast between the benign conditions we’d seen in the outflow and those figuring in other sailors’ nightmarish tales.

Late that afternoon we anchored in Guayraca, the center of the Five Bays near Santa Marta and enjoyed a night marked by neither waves nor strong winds. Again the next morning, we downloaded weather reports before going ashore. The forecasters unanimously called for light south winds and seas, dictating once again we should forego the opportunity to explore the bay and leave early that afternoon to take advantage of another good weather window. So far, we were getting to enjoy the coastline only in passing, which, under the circumstances, we thought better than not enjoying it all.

The overnight passage from Guayraca to Cabo de la Vela was pleasurable for the most part. We did encounter a few squalls during the night — one lasting well over 30 minutes and including strong winds and heavy rain — the weather predictions had been essentially accurate. Thus, for these first three legs of the voyage from Cartagena to Aruba, we had avoided the dreaded headwinds for which this area is infamous.

Arriving early in the morning at Cabo de la Vela, we anchored off the village and turned in for a rest. When we were up and about that afternoon, we checked the weather again and learned strong east winds were predicted for the following day. While the east winds blew consistently for the next three days, we remained comfortably at anchor here, snorkeling on the reefs, walking on the beaches, meeting colombianos, and sampling the local cuisine.

On our fourth day in the anchorage at Cabo de la Vela, with a forecast for lighter east winds, we set out on the last leg of the voyage to Aruba. Despite the east and northeast head winds, we motorsailed the final 142 miles in 25 hours. We did have occasional winds as high as 18 knots and intermittent squalls, one lasting an hour with winds gusting up to 30 knots; but we had small seas for the entire passage. Those small seas and a counter current contributed to an average well above 5 knots.

Our safe and comfortable voyage was far different from what we had anticipated. The sea conditions had been remarkably favorable, primarily, we think, the result of our making the voyage in November, by all accounts one of the two best months for sailing east in the southern Caribbean. Perhaps equally fortunate was the fact that our voyage was relatively rain-free, this lack of consistent rain no doubt contributing to the benign conditions we encountered at the outflow of the Río Magdalena.

The only real disappointment was the weather dictated when we needed to keep moving so that we missed tantalizing explorations ashore. Because we’d chosen to stay along the coast, however, we remained in harbor in adverse weather and got to know the village and environs of Cabo de la Vela. Ultimately, the greatest joy resulted from our successful upwind voyage, with harm to neither boat nor crew, through this reputedly “one of the five worst passages in the world.”

By Ocean Navigator