"I turned off the autopilot to give a clear large turn away with the steering wheel and guess what. Nothing happened...."
After having it pretty easy on the sailing front since we arrived in the Caribbean, we were a little nervous about the journey to Colombia. The passage between Aruba, the western most of the ABC islands and Cartagena is known to be the most difficult of all passages in the Caribbean region and apparently in the top five most difficult passages in the world.
Arriving in Colombia by sea is also extremely bureaucratic compared with the islands. You must secure an agent in advance and each port authority must be separately cleared in and out of, paying for the services of an agent. We therefore decided to head straight to Cartagena.
Luckily for us, the two most settled periods to make the journey are in October and November. We watched the weather anxiously before we left, looking for the lightest forecast possible, which tends to come after a wind reversal. Outside of hurricane season (December-May) the trade winds blow pretty reliably from a north east direction.
During the wet season (this far south it is outside of the hurricane belt), the winds will sometimes reverse and blow from the west. This is when many sailors take the opportunity to head back up to the northern and eastern Caribbean islands. Following the wind reversal, the winds tend to be very light before turning from the northeast again.
We knew we might have to motor in the beginning, but we were most concerned about the headland called Cabo de la Vela, just after passing the Colombian border from Venezuelan waters. Here we have heard terrifying stories of huge confused seas and winds that are double their forecast speed. We had even heard of a story of a catamaran being broken in half.
And that wasn’t the only worry. While we were in Curação, a boat passing south of Aruba close to the Venezuelan border was violently boarded and robbed by Venezuelan pirates.
So we planned to pass really close to the Aruban coast to avoid this potential, if rare threat.
The winds were so light and confused when we left that we had to motor. As we approached Aruba as night fell, the wind stayed light, but at least came from a consistent enough direction that we could turn off the engine. Conscious about fuel consumption, we spent the entire night drifting at a snail’s pace past low lying Aruba.
It was a really magical night. On my first night watch I heard really loud splashing and realised that loads of small rotund dolphins were jumping and playing all around us. They stayed like that for ages. I normally have to play podcasts to keep myself awake, but there was no need this shift, the dolphins kept me fully entertained.
During my next nightshift, the moon set early at two am. It was a huge orange half moon against the black night sky, unlike any moon I had seen before.
The next morning, we had the wind right behind us, so we were having to gybe to each side of the wind. We were heading southwest into the the Maracaibo basin in preparation for gybing back out and past the Cabo de la Vela headland.
We drew closer towards Venezuelan waters and saw a strange fishing vessel, piled high with lobster baskets. The wind was still extremely light and we were getting closer. Before we reached it, we gybed away. We also turned on the engine, suddenly remembering the vessel that had been boarded south of Aruba.
An hour later we heard some men on the radio swearing profusely at ‘ingleses’. We’re not sure if it was aimed at us. If they were offended that we gybed away or if we’d had a near miss. Overnight we passed an oil rig lit up like a Christmas tree as we continued slowly offshore to pass the headland.
On nightshift a rogue boat passed just in front of us, far offshore. It was a huge sailing boat, with no sails up, no lights on and not on the AIS. There were a couple of other large ships not on AIS, that we suspected could be from the Colombian navy although we were in international waters.
The waves were picking up as we passed over the headland and we felt very glad that we had decided to leave on such a light wind forecast. We decided to gybe back towards shore.
It was a fast sail towards shore, consistently of 6-7 knots despite the moderate wind conditions of no more than 15 knots. We’ve heard of people doing 12 or 14 knots of boat speed as they surf the waves with the increased wind speeds over the Cabo de la Vela.
We were concerned about passing the Rio Magdalena near Barranquilla, which gushes out all kinds of debris including large logs that can damage your boat. So we anchored for the night just outside Santa Marta.
Several miles before we reached it we saw the distinct colour change in the water where the river meets the sea. The sea was black, the river brown like milky tea. Then all around us were branches, logs and all kinds of debris. We steered around as best we could, keeping a careful look out.
Then we were past it and on our way to Cartagena. Inwardly I was congratulating us for having chosen a good weather window and having a benign passage with no disasters. But that was before our final night shift.
As we drew closer to Cartagena the waters grew busy with ships. I could see one on the AIS heading straight for us. We were under sail, so in theory we were the boat that should ‘stand on’ or hold your course. In practice, we sometimes have to call on the radio to check that the boats under engine have seen us and will take avoiding action.
This particular boat would not answer its radio for a while. Eventually it did but they only spoke Spanish. Eventually we managed to understand that they were a small fishing boat heading to Santa Marta. But they were still heading straight for us, so I decided I would need to take clear avoiding action.
I turned off the autopilot to give a clear large turn away with the steering wheel and guess what. Nothing happened. Our steering cables had broken again. Two years to the day since the last time it had happened. We’ve been pretty good at checking them and they were fine before we left.
At least we had the experience now to immediately put the autopilot back on to get out of the way of the oncoming boat.
We carried on to Cartagena. Over breakfast we felt two hard jolts. My immediate worry was that we had grounded. Then we realised that we had hit two huge logs. We’d known about the risk when crossing the Rio Magdalena, but not that this was still a risk when approaching Cartagena. We kept a close look out.
Without steering cables, we were worried about going into Cartagena with its huge cargo ships. We anchored outside and Luciano desperately tried to replace the cables. All the while we were being told off on the VHF radio as we hadn’t cleared in yet and were supposed to go into the bay. We were half expecting the Colombian navy to board us. But we had to try. Whether it was the stress or the fact we didn’t want to disconnect the autopilot, the cables couldn’t immediately be fixed.
We decided to enter the bay under autopilot. We needn’t have worried so much. The bay is really huge and we managed to anchor under autopilot at the third anchorage. We were drifting a little close to the channel, but we didn’t want to get too close to other boats without cables.
The next day Luciano fixed the cables.
Cartagena is an amazing place, full of life and very cheap so we are thoroughly enjoying our time here. Find out more next week.
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