Exploring Panama’s Guna Yala

sailboat at sunset

Plumes of spray shoot up where waves strike the rocky spires of a reef off the coast of Guna Yala. Totem is bashing west to our next pocket of protection for anchoring, and none of our charts on board match what our eyeballs tell us. “I guess we won’t sail between those islands” considered Jamie while eyeing breakers that stretched across the gap. One chart showed the area as grayed-out UNSURVEYED territory. Two others with some detail suggested it was passable. Welcome to navigating in the eastern Guna Yala! (This post builds on the prior introduction to Guna Yala).

Tucked into a deep bay a few hours later, the kids jumped in for a swim: sediment meant limited visibility, but the sun broke from behind the dry-season cloud cover and turned it a lovely shade of turquoise. Swimming was short lived… was that the smear of a crocodile’s haulout on shore? Impenetrably green hillsides tumbled down to the water’s edge, and in the distance cried a bird, or maybe a monkey; the call was unfamiliar to our ears.

Visitors arrive paddling a large dugout ulu (which also sports a 9.9 hp outboard) from the cane-and-thatch homes nearby. Three generations of a family come aboard: grandmother, parents, and three young children. Together they comprise the majority of the 11-count human population of this community, a handful of structures built a few yards over the water on piles of coral rubble.

Arsesio speaks reasonable English, a legacy of the time he spent in Panama City before choosing to return to traditional Guna life. A few of our Spanish words come in handy too; his wife and mother are more reserved but listen in and smile at appropriate enough times that I think they understand more than they let on. We share snacks stories of our lives while his adorable toddler stuffs crackers into the top of a winch, just like our own kids found them receptacles perfectly suited as string cheese holders some a few years ago. Gifts were lightly bartered: green coconuts and plantains in thanks for batteries and candles. (I’d love to come back to Guna Yala with cases of solar-powered Luci lights to brighten evenings in settlements like this!)

He later asked a favor: since we were headed west, could we take his family (his mother Selina, wife Obaldina, and their three children) on Totem to their larger island community? We pored over the thin data on our charts, and it looked risky. The shallow draft of their dugout makes it effortlessly through a channel between islands and mainland, but it looked questionable for Totem. In good conditions, with water depths we could visually pilot? Maybe. But whitewater blowing across the reef didn’t give us enough to work with for finding a safe path.

Meanwhile, learning about the reason for the request helped us understand how to help. It was time to fill their canoe with coconuts, plantains, and more to sell at the densely populated 10 miles north. Yet when it was loaded down (this included two additional village members, their gear, and an intact but very much not alive deer-like mammal), the sea state was too rough to safely cross the ocean pass between the islands. Now we knew what to do: it was a matter of getting them across this cut into the lee of the next island, not all the way up to their destination; and that we could do. And so, the following morning, all six family members boarded. It wasn’t until they began loading goods—a chain saw, a portable generator, a shotgun, a plastic tub of clothing, two puppies!—that the need became even more apparent. No way could they get across the rough seas in their dugout with all this! So our girls led their girls in coloring pictures below deck while we nibbled fresh bread in the cockpit with adults. It wasn’t a long journey, but an unforgettable one.

We had all the company we needed already with Utopia II.

The eastern range of Guna Yala (also called Kuna Yala, or San Blas) is virtually devoid of other cruising boats: we encountered only one throughout this stretch. Did the relative isolation foster opportunities like meeting the family in Escoses? On another island, we were shown ambergris worth tens of thousands of dollars sitting out on a coral wall to dry. Near Playon Chico, a frequent Guna visitor would ramble for hours some afternoons on everything from his island’s upcoming chicha festival to bandidos stealing from his garden on the mainland. There’s the time our guide for a hike told us with pride about the role of US military in supporting Guna independence; he offered geologic survey markers from the late 1940s as evidence and told us about the armadas from the US to support the Guna during their struggle for recognition – pointing to his ballcap commemorating the 90th anniversary, 1925-2015. And memorably, the afternoon a weathered man beckoned from his doorway calling “cultura! cultura!”- culture, my kryptonite – to show me rows of nuchu, statues with living spirits important to Guna religion, on a corner hutch inside his drafty bungalow.

In the western San Blas, the dynamic shifted significantly. Here were scores of cruising boats. Not all islands follow the Guna’s traditional ways. There were conveniences again: the ability to buy bread and other groceries from small stores (in the east, fewer options and smaller shops; we might buy coconuts or plantains or fish from an individual with extra). Internet access. And here, at last, were the breathtaking islands: white sand beaches, tall coconut palms leaning gently towards turquoise water.

Empty anchorages of the east were traded for bays holding a dozen or more boats at a time. Many were long-term liveaboards, many were “backpacker boats” ferrying travelers (at surprising cost) for their Kuna Yala Experience… or an alternate mode of transportation to Colombia. A few, like us, were cruisers passing through; the western islands are an accessible overnight sail away from the canal region.

These numbers shift local dynamics. Guna in the western islands have built livelihoods around marketing to visiting boats. Dugouts were more likely to come along side marketing handicrafts, offering tours, selling fish and lobster, and occasionally other provisions. And here in the west, thanks in part to that reach, are renowned mola makers: Venancio Restrepo, from Isla Maquina, and “Mola Lisa,” from Rio Sidra.

Venancio and his brother Idelfonso charmed us with their beautiful textiles, patient explanations, and gentle manner

We saw stunning molas in the east, too, but the combination of volume here, the English proficiency of the artists, and their ability to range to the more distant islands favored by cruising boats contribute to their fame.

Shortly before we departed San Blas, a Guna family from Nusatupu island (just below Rio Sidra; near 9 26.8 N / 78 50.20 W ) sailed their ulu over for an early morning visit. They’d seen our mast over the spit of mangrove-covered land that separated us from their home. Igua and his parents were pleasant company; his mother, Floricelda, more outgoing than any other Guna women I met. They visited in our cockpit for a while—drinking coffee, offering molas for sale. From them we learned about the divide is then between Guna who can afford outboards for their canoes range further from the settlement islands to peddle molas; should we return (I hope we return!), I’d make more of an effort to seek out these islands and the artists who don’t have those means. Igua is an albino; there’s a high incidence of this among Guna. The trait is revered, and has a special place in their culture, but given the hot tropical sun… we sent Igua with a bottle of sunscreen. I wish I could say if I’d though tof it first, but it took his request for an application from the one in our cockpit for me to clue in. Maybe some boat in our wake can stop in at Nusatupu, pass along a bottle of sunscreen for Igua, and tell Floricelda her beautiful mola has a good home.

Floricelda allowed photo of her stunning wini, the beadwork decorating women’s arms and legs

Guna Yala holds so many facets of what makes our life interesting packed into one place. Picture-postcard views when the sun emerges (white sand, turquoise water, islands the size of a baseball field sprinkled with palms). Deserted islands where the kids can swim and play. Low tech local community, where people have time to talk. Cultural experiences far from our norm, with lessons to give. And not least, good company: this is the last sailing we’ll do with Utopia II for a while, and so we made the most of it.

Celebrating a boat-kid-birthday in typical low key style, with a beach picnic and games.

Next: practicalities for cruisers planning to sail for Guna Yala / Kuna Yala / San Blas

Colombian practicalities for cruisers

sailboats boats with dress flags

What should you know before sailing to Colombia? Planning details often clarify with hindsight. What we loved about Colombia is a start for anticipation: for those considering this destination, here are a few additional tips to help with practical planning for cruisers.

Ports

Along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, there are two choices for ports: Santa Marta, and Cartagena. We chose to stay in Santa Marta, and visited Cartagena by bus. I’d do the same thing again if we return to Colombia and believe it’s the best option for a shorter stay.

For a shorter visit, and Santa Marta offered the best convenience and efficiency, with the opportunity to soak up exposure to range Colombian experiences. Within Santa Marta were museums, good food, and a well preserved historical district; logistics at the cruiser-friendly marina were a breeze with the front office support of Kelly Hernandez.

Santa Marta is a good base to explore Colombia, for daytripping or beyond. One-day forays into the Sierra Nevada (it would make a great overnight to sleep in a hammock in some hillside hostel or farm and hike further!) and national parks are easy. Going further? Santa Marta and Baranquilla airports make short hop flights to further exploring in central or south America a snap for those with the time and budget. If you won’t sail much further in South America, jump from here to experience the Amazon or Machu Picchu.

Saddling up to go riding near Rio Buritaca, a couple of hours east of Santa Marta.

In Colombia you must clear in and out of every port, and an agent is required for clearance. This additional bureaucratic layer comes with additional cost. In Santa Marta, the marina arranges the agent covers their fee- handy! In Cartagena, you must hire the agent (fee approx. US$100) to handle your clearance with the Port Captain.

The hassle factor in time and cost of clearing in and out of Cartagena helped confirm our decision to visit overland instead of sailing (because no way were we going to skip Cartagena!). It’s about a four-hour bus ride from Santa Marta, and the inter-city rides are affordable. There are varying grades and speeds; our direct bus had Netflix movies (driver’s choice, thankfully nothing gruesome or crazy loud, all in Spanish), air conditioning, and wifi. For the kids, there’s an added air of adventure to staying in a hotel: a rare occurrence, but affordable here. The cost was probably net zero, but the experience of seeing the countryside, trying food from vendors who came on board to sell wares, and just relaxing for a while were a good trade for wrangling with officialdom.

Spotting sea eagles from our berth in Marina Santa Marta

Had we planned or anticipated a much longer say, we’d have been more likely to skew towards Cartagena. Unlike Santa Marta, it’s safe to stay anchored out and access dinghy facilities for a nominal fee; overall, our cost to stay would have been much lower for a monthlong visit, while marina costs mounted (we stayed more than twice as long as we anticipated). One big downside to the harbor in Cartagena is the reputed rate of fouling: every boater who stopped there bemoaned the speed at which bottoms were covered with barnacles and growth. Santa Marta isn’t exempt, but it’s not quite as bad.

Security

Colombia’s Caribbean coast no longer deserves the frank warnings touted in our 2015 Panama guide, but security still requires attention. Two years previously a cruising boat anchored in Taganga Bay, near Santa Marta, was victim to armed robbery and assault. It wasn’t the first time in that location: in our mind, that made the security of a marina our only option in Santa Marta. It’s hard to swallow the cost, but a no-brainer compared to risking physical harm. Reports on CSSN and Noonsite helped inform our decision.

While we felt secure aboard Totem and in general, petty theft is a problem. Three other cruisers in the we met there were robbed during their stay in Colombia: not from their boats, but ashore. Two were crimes of opportunity (handbag disappeared from the patron in a restaurant; wallet taken from an open tote in a shopping cart at the supermarket), one a deliberate attack (a pedestrian distracted by the smartphone in hand was targeted by motorbike thugs who forcibly took a bag). We’ve heard anecdotal stories about petty theft; having so many hits in our small circle drove home the need to be cautious.

Massive door knockers in Cartagena represent the homeowner’s livelihood, turning an Old Town stroll into a scavenger hunt for 1700s occupations

Timing

We arrived as the trade winds were up. Sometimes called “Christmas winds,” the Caribbean easterlies increase force in December. There’s probably some regional variation: in Colombia, they’re reputed to linger through March. This is really not a great time to be sailing off the coast! Windspeed isn’t a big deal, but seas are, and the wind contributed to an unpleasant state. Timing is taken out of your hands too: at this writing, winds have been in the 40s and clocked over 50 knots at the dock in Santa Marta recently. Boats have been waiting for a couple of weeks for a break in the weather sufficient to depart.

Better timing would be to avoid this period of peak trades. We’d have done well to arrive in early November, and depart in December before the breeze picked up (in fact, the weather window we arrived with in late December saw a rush of departures from Santa Marta as boats took advantage of moderated conditions to make a break… west to Panama, or north towards the Greater Antilles).

dancing at the waterfront

Cruisers dance to a Venezueland bnd on the patio at marina santa marta

Another consideration around seasonal timing: rainy season downpours wash off the sooty dirt that otherwise accumulates on boats in Santa Marta. Our friend Bev left her catamaran for a couple of the wet months and came back to a clean boat. A few weeks later the rain had stopped and the black dust coated everything. Part of this dirt is probably partly from the darker sand beaches nearby, but I suspect much stems from coal transfer stations at the port. That’s caustic stuff you don’t want sitting around on your boat, but water use to rinse it off is metered at the marina – it would have added up to rinse the everyday accumulation.

Other formalities

An agent is needed for port clearance, as mentioned. In addition, Colombia requires a cruising permit for any stay over 5 days (it seemed like the ARC rally passing through made this part of their calculation for duration of stay). Lucky Canadian visitors are charged a reciprocal visa fee; no other nationalities we know of had to pay this. The process takes some time as the TIP doesn’t begin until you’re in-country for the minimum number of days, and includes a personal visit from a friendly customs officer who wants to take a picture of your engine and its serial number. That was a first! It’s a lot of paperwork, another point to the Marina Santa Marta for taking care of details…they also helpfully provided multiple copies of our zarpe (outbound port clearance) and crew list (in Spanish), knowing these would be required when we checked into Panama.

Marine work

Haulout facilities are available in Santa Marta and in Colombia: what’s missing are well stocked marine chandleries. This didn’t stop a few boats we met from tackling projects in Colombia, and based on how much we enjoyed the country in general and how affordable labor rates are in particular, I think it makes a strong alternative to southern Caribbean haulout options (e.g. Grenada, Curacao, T&T). The raw materials and skillsets are here, they’re just not tuned to the marine market. If shipping parts in, it’s important to use a reputable courier (in Colombia, FedEx and DHL have good reputations: once in-country our DHL parts were quickly delivered. The books sent by the US Postal Service are STILL lost on Bogota somewhere).

I don’t know when we’ll get back, but Colombia left a mark…and still I’ve failed to capture the best memories, soon to follow.

 

Colombia for cruisers: a different attraction

sailboat arrival santa marta

It wasn’t many years ago that Colombia was considered dangerous to visit: cruisers lured by pretty Venezuelan islands towards South America rarely made the hop next door. While care must be taken, the story has flipped: improved domestic stability makes Colombia a relatively secure destination and economic collapse had turned Venezuela into a no-go zone.

We arrived in Santa Marta, Colombia with plans to stay not much more than a week: just long enough for Jamie to fly up to Puerto Rico for rigging work on a friends’s boat, a quick overland trip to Cartagena, and then we’d be off. Delays getting watermaker parts threw a wrench in that (what started as an overnight delivery from St Thomas to Puerto Rico took nearly three weeks to reach us in Colombia). That’s just part of cruising, and it turns out it was a gift: there was more to enjoy every day we extended. Here’s what stands out: the landscape, people, food,  culture, and more that made Colombia a vibrant and memorable stop.

Sierras not seas

Cruising gives us many opportunities to experience warm, clear water and sunny clean beaches…neither of which are abundant in the Colombia we saw. Sewage from Santa Marta runs into the bay, and while the beaches were packed with domestic holiday goers in December and January—they didn’t look much more appealing than the water. On the other hand: as a visitor, Colombia’s inland scenery is stunning. Among the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world, the Sierra Nevada present a dramatic horizon upon arrival and beg exploring.

Weaving into the foothills on a two-lane road, bustle of Santa Marta faded with startling rapidity and the quiet rhythm of early morning in the countryside descended. Mairen, Siobhan and I traveled a couple of hours east to Buritaca for horseback riding, fulfilling a Christmas promise. Clearing the limits of town, gaining altitude, the jungle crept closer. Villages sprang up as clusters around the main road and enveloped our senses. Just steps from the narrow motorway were vendors cooking fragrant sausages over charcoal, flipping the ubiquitous arepa (a maize flour patty) on a griddle, and serving hot tinto (Colombian coffee) to wash them down. At one roadstead stop, a Kogi family—an indigenous people to the Sierra Nevada—got in, startlingly different in all-white homespun clothes, small stature and features. Mere days into our stay, it was startling to see indigenous people preserving what appeared to be a strictly traditional way of life despite close access to development.

Photo, Dwayne Reilander; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Rio Buritaca runs from the Sierra Nevadas to the ocean. Our ride was planned for time on the beach and time in the river, but king tides took most of the beach away (temporarily!) and heavy rains overnight made horses balk at the swollen rio. Jungle trail it is, then!

horseback riding in Buritaca

Mairen has always felt perfectly at home on the back of a horse

horses and river

Siobhan’s horse refused to cross one edge of the river until led by the guide

Another morning we headed directly inland to Minca, a village almost directly inland at about 2,000’ elevation. Again, the city quickly fell away: hiking to visit an organic coffee plantation opened spectacular views.

On the trail with the Utopia II crew… and horses carrying firewood

Up into the clouds: at least the elevation kept the temperature down.

Coffee ripening at the organic ‘finca’ (farm) of La Candelaria

In each case, the buses were cheap- just a few dollars to be transported into a new and marvelous landscape. For cruisers with more time and bigger budgets, the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is a four to six-day trek into these mountains to an archaeological site that predates Machu Picchu, more than 20 miles through the mountains and Kogi villages. Probably abandoned during the Spanish conquest, it was once a city of thousands.

Historic and cultural interest

Indigenous tradition layered with Spanish influence create a richer, more nuanced, and vibrantly presented way of life than we’ve seen in a long time. For all their unique qualities, after a while I confess that many of the Caribbean islands blend together as variations on a theme: it seems our traveling spirits thrive on learning from the new. Colombia was a welcome whiplash of streaming language, arts, literature, history… all playing into the experiences awaiting. And then, the Old Town in Cartagena de Indias is simply spectacular. A couple of days there was only enough to tease.

cartagena free tour

Kids listen (mostly) to the Cartagena Free Tours guide in Old Town: more informative than the tour we paid for!

inquisition museum

Cartagenas inquisition museum, the seat of a perfect record for executing 100% of those accused of witchcraft or heresy – 800 over about 250 years

Culinary imprint

Tastes enhance the memory of a place, and Colombia added a few in particular. You cannot go to Colombia without eating arepas (well, you could, but it would be very wrong!). My favorite was con huevo, a fried egg tucked within; con queso a close second. Paired with a sizzling chorizo from a streetside vendor, that’s better fast food than any chain!

Arepas vary regionally: these thicker cheese arepas were sold on the street in Cartagena.

Patacones (twice-fried green plantain slices) are standard accompaniments to a meal. Colombia produces more arabica beans than any country in the world, and coffee is woven into culinary culture: vendors push carts laden with thermoses down the street, paused by Colombianos to buy a caffeine jolt in small cups.

We fell into the habit the Almuerzo Ejecutivo, Executive Lunch. It includes a soup starter, a main course of rice, beans, patacones, and your choice from the chalkboard selection of the days stews and grilled meat, and served with a fresh juice. It costs less than a Starbucks coffee. Perhaps the bandeja paisa, farmer’s plate, a sampler with a range of dishes (below) is more; still less than a latte. Shoehorned in among lively tables in establishments set up in the street front room of a family home (restaurant sign optional), listening to street musicians play for small change while taste buds were treated to a sampler of Colombian cooking.

Colombian lunch of champions, the Bandeja Paisa: SO GOOD

Affordable

After so many months in more expensive Caribbean islands, it was good to be in back in low-cost-of-living territory. Groceries are a big chunk of our monthly budget, and Colombia helped bring the average down again. It also afforded little luxuries we’d forgo elsewhere. Multi-course lunch? Around $3-$4. Why not get a break from cutting my own hair when a fancy salon is just $11, including the coffee? Packed kebabs from a street vendor—marinated beef, chicken, and vegetables—only a dollar? One per person carried steaming back home to Totem made for an easy dinner.

On the other hand: staying in the marina, a security necessity, was not cheap…but could have been worse.

Warm people

At every turn Colombians were engaging and helpful. Our Spanish is basic at best, and in everyday life the Colombians we met rarely spoke English. It wasn’t an obstacle: friendliness and interest saw every interaction through, with a little help from Google translate and a pocket dictionary. When I had my hair cut in a salon, none of the staff spoke English but found another patron who could translate enough to ensure they understood my wishes. Our Spanish skills improved daily.

Arriving between Christmas and New Year’s opened a peek into a vital, family-centered domestic life. Santa Marta is a destination for Colombians on holiday, and they know how to take time out: the beach was packed with families. Vendors pitching tourists weren’t focused on hawking wares to us gringos as much as their fellow sudamericanos. It was hard to tell weekends from weekdays in the busy marina, where local powerboats daily transported multi-generational families with coolers and platters and nightly cranked up the tunes for dockside entertainment.

It’s always about the people, isn’t it?

More to follow on our experiences in Colombia…meanwhile a few more pictures.

Kids displaying classic ABM face – Another Bloody Museum

Third-generation coffee grower sharing his favorite method to prepare the beverage… what do you think?

Resident toucan at La Candelaria.

An education on politics, economics, agriculture learning about the farm.

 

Pictures from the Passage: Colombia to Panama

Photos of sea state never do it justice. It is a truth and occasional lament, as it’s difficult to convey the feeling of being at sea. This passage (Trials at Sea and Ashore) held some of the most unpleasant seas we’ve experienced: flat-fronted walls of water, tossing Totem around. These pictures won’t capture those seas, but to the challenging passage from Colombia to Panama.

A more pleasant start on departure from Santa Marta; ahead of us, the 51’ Utopia II is dwarfed when passing the massive yacht M5.

Bit of a size difference

A few hours later, a chain link of Totem’s steering cable broke: steering was still possible with the autopilot, but not with the helm. In many situations, that wouldn’t be such a big deal. In these seas, which necessitated more human-controlled steering to avoid rounding up, it was a bigger problem. What followed was about eight hours of “hand steering” the waves by pressing autopilot buttons to adjust course. Here, Jamie works on repairs that night as we lay at anchor near Baranquilla. More about the break, and the fix, in a later post.

Headlamp-powered repairs to the steering cable

The next day was relatively uneventful, but exhaustion prompted a stop in Cartagena to rest. Aussie catamaran Aseka entering behind us, in a narrow channel shared with commercial vessels like that in the background.

Kinda snug in the channel…

Fishermen heading out to sea in the early morning, passing the 18th century San Fernando fort which guards one side of Cartagena’s Boca Chica entrance.

Fishermen commute

For the first time in months, a pod of dolphins joined us to play in the wake.

What species?

Feathered hitchhikers are always fun, although boobies like the one that joined us overnight can leave appallingly smelly poo on deck. This one struggled to sit on the furler and eventually settled on the anchor roll bar (an excellent poop scoop). We decided it was practicing for a band album cover with extended stares off into the middle distance.

Clearing in at Puerto Obaldia, Panama, was… “interesting” as swells rolling in made us pitch at anchor. Thankfully we were able to depart the tenuous spot to find serene waters in Puerto Perme before nightfall, and host our first Guna visitors (and their dugout) the following morning.

Trials of this passage are detailed in the prior post, but internet prevented pictures at the time – enjoy a late update!

Bonaire for cruisers: more than diving

flamingos

Bonaire: more than a dive destination? For most visitors, diving is THE reason to go, and it was certainly the lure for us to select Bonaire among the Dutch Antilles. But our planned “about a week” turned into nearly three: partly thanks to a circle of friends, but also because the island offered more than we anticipated: easy living for cruisers and non-underwater-based fun, like these beautiful flocks of flamingos. It’s much more than diving: here’s a rundown of how Bonaire hit the mark for our crew.

Welcome to Bonaire!

Clearance was among the easiest anywhere. One office, a three minute walk from the dinghy dock / Karel’s Bar. One clerk’s window. Two forms. 24×7 clearance. NO CHARGE. Although you may have to call officers to show up, as we did – sorry guys! – on Christmas day. This service has nothing to do with cruisers and everything to do with the cruise ships that call in almost every day. Despite the onslaught, Bonaire has avoided turning into a mini-Dutch Caribbean Disneyland (we hear Curacao and Aruba are less unscathed). Dutch style architecture (a few windmills even, in the salt pans) in a walkable town where you only have to go a block from the waterfront for souvenir shops to fade.

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Live music outside storefronts on a “Christmas Shopping Night,” a skip away from a spectacular little gelateria. Get the dark dark chocolate. You’re welcome.

Security

Moored off the primary settlement we felt very safe on Bonaire, something that can’t be said about population centers in many Caribbean islands. It’s imperfect (there are reports of some vandalism in town, petty theft) but we walked through the outskirts after dark without concern. We didn’t feel like we HAD to haul the dinghy every night. We still did, much of the time, but it’s good not to feel like a target.

Sunset view to Klein Bonaire off the transom

Sunset view to Klein Bonaire off the transom

Provisioning

Well stocked markets are about a 20-minute walk from the bar / dinghy dock. Too hot to walk? One market arranges a weekly pickup/dropoff shuttling cruisers from waterfont. I’d walk up, then hitchhike back.

We’d provisioned deeply in Martinique (brie! Bordeaux! saucisson!), but could have done very well here. Aside from having a wider, nicer selection of fresh produce, all the usual staples plus tasty Dutch specialties (gouda! stroopwafel! droge worst!) and good value were available between Van den Tweels (upscale) and the Warehouse (great prices).

Everyday life

Everyday practicalities of cruising life were straightforward: most are not inexpensive, but little is cheap in most Caribbean islands. Restaurants? We didn’t even consider them, honestly. Prices weren’t bad, but they weren’t inexpensive, so per our norm we simply opted out. Laundromats on shore ran about $15 per load (we walked, but they’ll give you a ride from the waterfront); fine for catching up, then back to bucket laundry on Totem.

We DID indulge in a night at the movies, thanks to a “do something fun” mad-money gift from my auntie, and it was unforgettable! Will we ever again be in a seated, open-air movie theater? Will we ever again have to pause halfway through the movie while a squall blows through soaking our seats and clothes? Have you ever been in a theater where a live mango tree stood at the end of a row of seats? The Last Jedi was meant to be watched under a sky full of stars.

Bonaire movies

Connectivity

Jamie and I have been busy with coaching clients the last few months, and we need a good internet connection for video calls. Digicel in Bonaire was 4G for the cheapest per-gigabyte rate yet in the Caribbean: under $2/GB! Very handy, and perfect time for some holiday Skyping with family.

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Boat business

There’s a finite number of boats here, limited by the restrictions on anchoring (you can’t. end of story). A fixed number of moorings off Kralendijk and a very few transient marina berths are the only options. I’m told right now there’s no room for boats hoping to visit. During our stay in December the mooring field was busy, but seemed to have near daily turnover, and there were always at least a few moorings available. It’s the busy season now: but hurricane season in an island like Bonaire, safely south of the hurricane belt, would be another busy season and demand for a spot probably peaks. I don’t know how many moorings there are on Bonaire, but the crowd control enforced by limited space was nice.

GoogleEarth view of the Kralendijk waterfront,boats on moorings at the dropoff

Google’s satellite view of the Kralendijk waterfront, boats on moorings at the dropoff

On shore, boat specific equipment is a little harder to come by: just one lonely chandlery, the Caribbean Budget Marine chain, but they’d order things in if needed. Hardware stores covered the rest, big-box style.

Pausing to look at flamingoes at the north end of hte island, this little cutie

Pausing to look at flamingos at the north end of the island, this cute little visitor had something to say

Surprising values

Islands that have to import pretty much everything typically don’t offer good value for money; the cost of transportation and taxes/duties hike prices. An unexpected deal was quality gear for snorkeling and diving. As one shop put it: “we’re competing with Amazon.”  Our buddies on Utopia II had a BCD that needed repair; it was about the same price to replace it with a nice new equipment as to shore up of aging gear.

Beachcombing

In 10 minutes at an undisclosed location on Bonaire, Jamie found SIXTEEN colors of beach glass. Normal looking beach, not piles of glass, just… remarkable, and unprecedented in our experience.

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On the other hand, the plastic bane of our oceans and beaches was sadly omnipresent. The sad reality of our world right now.

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For the kids: just lots of fun being with friends, beach glass or plastic or whatever.

Island life

Our perch off town was imbued with a feeling that we were a part of this little community. The small-boat fishing fleet’s dock nearby kept things lively. A sailing school was off the bow.  Totem was used as one end of the starting line for a triathlon; she was a turning mark for a Sunfish race (we have the gelcoat dings to prove it!).

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We were in Bonaire for the weeks leading up to Christmas, but never really felt the commercial onslaught that happens at home. Homes and businesses put up decorations, I heard a couple of carols; most of the festivity was back on Totem. Except, notably, for the night of he holiday parade. Nothing to make you smile more than what’s basically a small-town parade. Bonaire’s spanned the generations, featured senior home residents and costumed kids  following the truck with Santa’s helpers bearing treats for curbside children.

Island exploring

Not such a good value: rental cars! Prices seemed hiked by the season, and the demand from cruise ships. We rented a truck with Utopia one day, threw (gently invited) the teenagers in the back, and drove a loop around the island.

Loading up for a day of touring

Loading up for a day of touring

Many of Bonaire's feral donkeys, former beasts of burden, are in a large sanctuary

Many of Bonaire’s feral donkeys, former beasts of burden, are in a large sanctuary

They were very keen to introduce themselves through the truck window, asking for carrots

They were very keen to introduce themselves through the truck window, asking for carrots

Most of the island is arid scrub, the home of strikingly colorful lizards

Most of the island is arid scrub, the home of strikingly colorful lizards

...and a few prickly things. Shoes on kids! (they still resist)

…and a few prickly things. Shoes on kids! (they still resist)

Ancient paintings on limestone in a "star watchers" cave

Ancient paintings on limestone in a “star watchers” cave

Learning about Bonaire's biomes, and environmental challenges, from a conservation organization for indigenous parrots

Learning about Bonaire’s biomes, and environmental challenges, from a conservation organization for indigenous parrots. Note, Niall is barefoot. The guide was concerned that we didn’t have “appropriate footwear” but allowed Niall to hike barefoot anyway. No problem for him.

Purple tones to the salt pans at the south end of Bonaire: part of food chain that tints flamingo feathers

Purple tones to the salt pans at the south end of Bonaire: part of food chain that tints flamingo feathers

 

The water

Right, this was about everything else, and I wrote about the striking underwater world of Bonaire here, but the access as a cruiser is incredible.

Sarah, SV Rhapsody, checks out the mini-reef on a mooring block

Sarah, SV Rhapsody, checks out the mini-reef on a mooring block

Want to swim off the boat? OK. Want to dive daily? OK. Want to do nothing but watch the sunset? OK. It may be particularly missed as we sit at the Marina Santa Marta, where the color and smell deter any interest in swimming. But Bonaire was particularly special this way, even if we were only watching the watery horizon as the sun set.

Cruiser Community

After the crush of boats in the lesser Antilles, the smaller fleet in Bonaire was refreshing. Enough for community and fun, not so much it felt like an overplayed grownup summer camp. Sharing stories with new cruisers and circumnavigators and hopeful future sailors and happy landlubbers alike.

Good times with good humans

Good times with good humans

Gathering for a white elephant Christmas party with fellow sailors: organized by Sail Ho‘s Brita with Rhapsody, Totem, Windancer IV, Chapter Two (their lovely Island Packet 420 is for sale, I’ll happily put anyone interested in contact with them).

With hindsight on Bonaire and Grenada, I’m not sure why the latter is such a gathering point in hurricane season– except to think that people just haven’t gotten to the Dutch Antilles yet, or are intimidated by the bit of distance and never will, or are discouraged by the possible scarcity of mooring. Given the choice as destinations to avoid the worst of seasonal risk, I’d pick Bonaire in a heartbeat.

[update: If we were going back and planned to spend more time in Bonaire, my first stop would be the awesome Addo’s bookstore on Kaya Industria, a short walk from the waterfront. They’ve got a nice selection of English-language books of interest to hte visitor: everything from field guides, to diving references, to local history. Books for children in two or three languages (Papiamento, Dutch, and English) would be fun for adults and kids alike to learn more about Bonaire and better appreciate their stay.

Coloring books, field guides, and more - specific to Bonaire and neighboring Dutch Antilles, at Addo's books in Kralendijk.

Coloring books, field guides, and more – specific to Bonaire and neighboring Dutch Antilles, at Addo’s books in Kralendijk.

Totem is preparing to depart Colombia this week, bound at least for Panama! By next month we’ll be splashing in the Pacific again.

A cruising year: milestones and introspection from Totem’s 2017

Jamie looks back

Inspiration and gratitude flow from the mundane in an annual review of Totem’s year by the numbers. We’re serious about tracking data on Totem; Jamie can’t resist having fun with analysis (annual cheese consumption, anyone? After all, cheese provisioning data is vital on a boat with three hungry teenagers!). But pondering the data and events of 2017 he turned reflective. Read on for Jamie’s takeaways.

pinterest 2017 annualDistance traveled in 2017: 3,402 nm / 3,915 miles / 6,301 km (since 2008 – 47,095 nm / 54,196 miles / 87,220 km)

Countries/territories visited: 14 – USA, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, USVI, BVI, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, St Lucia, Grenada, St Vincent and Grenadines, Bonaire, Colombia

Best 24-hour run: 208 nm, Bonaire to Colombia

Nights anchored: 249 (68%), Docked – 65 (18%), Moored – 31 (8%), Hauled – 10 (3%), Passage – 10 (3%)

Shallowest anchorage: 6.08Ft / 1.85M (Totem’s draft + 1 inch) for 4 days at Thompson Bay, Long Island, Bahamas

Number of times worked on: Toilets – 8, Watermaker – 11, Outboard – 8, Rigging – 8

Number of flight takeoffs Jamie had during 3 trips away from Totem:  21 (thankfully also an equal number of landings!)

Best new food we’d never heard of: Mofongo con langosta!

Number of field trips: 21

Number of visitors on Totem: 322

Number of audio/video calls with coaching clients: 118

Shark species we swam with most often: nurse shark

Shark species we didn’t know we swam with until getting out of the water: tiger shark!!!

three boat teens

2017: probably the last full year all five of us are together on Totem.

Biggest surprise of the year: This is a tie between a good surprise, and a bad one. The bad one was discovering that underneath Totem’s bottom paint… there is no gelcoat! Apparently, it was peeled by a prior owner and the detail did not get passed in the sale. The good surprise was finding Rita. Behan has a handmade apron from Bequia, a piece of functional art found in a thrift store that she’s owned for about two decades. From the lettering “R WILLIAMS” stitched at the bottom, she set out to find the maker when we arrived in Bequia. Like searching for unicorns, I thought, but, surprise!

Hardest part of 2017: Hurricanes…

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The North Atlantic had 10 hurricanes, 6 of which were major (category 3 or higher). We were having a blast in Nanny Cay, BVI as Harvey rambled across the southern Caribbean, arcing northwest up into Texas. At the same time along the coast of Africa a tropical wave began moving westward. Forecast models had it likely going towards the northern Caribbean, so we got moving south. Martinique, where we were anchored, had potential storm force winds; to avoid them we sailed further south. St Lucia is about 230 miles below where Irma slammed into Barbuda, Sint Maarten, Tortola, and rest of the northern islands. We watched grey, streaky west-flowing clouds shift direction to the northeast. Very ominous! My log entry for that day reads, “Hurricane Irma, now cat 5, to make landfall in Leeward Islands tonight. It’s going to be bad bad…”

If you lived in Irma’s path, your world was turned upside down, lashed and smashed. Hurricane Jose was a threatening post-Irma bully that held everyone one edge but fortunately stayed out to sea. News and pictures trickling out from Irma’s destruction were unimaginably worse than my log notion. The day after Irma died, yet another tropical wave started westward across the Atlantic. This disturbance grew rapidly to tropical storm force, then Hurricane Maria. We hopped further south to Grenada. By no means a hurricane-free island, we watched Maria with intentions of shifting further south should the system stray our way. This cat 5 hurricane smacked Dominica, where we were 3 weeks before; and then Puerto Rico, where we were 6 weeks before.

Hiking near Portsmouth, Dominica, on a hillside denuded a few weeks later

Hiking near Portsmouth, Dominica, on a hillside denuded a few weeks later

We were close enough to see the atmosphere do strange things, while far away enough to feel only light winds and swell. The hard part was feeling for the friends we’d made in these, now, broken islands. A coaching client’s boat on the hard in St Martin was destroyed; another client’s boat in Tortola suffered moderate damage. A third coaching client was in the process of buying a boat called “No Worries;” it was later found sunk. We know new cruisers and very experienced cruisers whose boats were a total loss.

I admit to anger watching ShipTrack.com placing vessel AIS positions in insanely stupid places directly in the broad path of these forecast monsters. I shouted, “why are you there now!” as many boats and some people literally disappeared. People have commented to us, “it must have been so stressful dodging so many hurricanes.” It wasn’t. We had mobility and the benefit of timely decision thanks to the science of meteorology. Forecasts were not perfect, so add a margin for error. I am thankful for the easy mobility that so many people had little or none of.  Some boats weren’t ready to dash, some owners had other obligations. Islanders without means suffered deeply. We remember Sheldon Hamilton in Portsmouth, Dominica who traded his fresh fruit and interesting sea glass for our clothes and canned food. Sheldon lived in a shack on the beach and wore the same rags trading this time as we saw him in the year before.

Our year in review shows a some metrics and silliness. It was a good year for us, despite a few medical maladies. It was a nightmare year for many friends. Sheldon Hamilton didn’t have shit for opportunity before Maria. Now his home, village, and island are in ruin. Hurricane season is coming again… Sounds gloomy, right? But the message is… Get MOBILE! REBUILD better! LEANER! APPRECIATE what you have because even if it doesn’t seem great, it’s better than AFTER Irma, Maria, natural disasters, cancers, accidents, and clumsy dentists. Make a plan (as the South Africans say) to do what YOU dream of. Go _______________ (insert preferred form of transportation) and get out, whatever that means to you. Go to Dominica and to search for Sheldon Hamilton, Bequia to meet Rita, or search for your own unicorn.

Totem + Utopia kid crews - Bonaire

Totem + Utopia kid crews – Bonaire

Bonaire’s underwater wonderland

Mairen freediving

Tucked low in the Caribbean sea, a skip above Venezuela but hundreds of miles from the popular cruising grounds of the lesser Antilles, the ABC islands are a touch out of the way for the broader fleet. ABC stands for Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao. If you’re like me, all you have to do is hear “Aruba” to start humming the tune to Kokomo: “Aruba, Jamaica, oooo I want to take ya!” – amiright?!

We stopped at Bonaire for one of the two reasons most people do: because they’re on the way to somewhere else. Namely, they’re a great way to break up the distance from the Antilles to Panama.

Bonaire location

Not a great selling point, but the other reason most people go to Bonaire makes it a lock: it is reputed to have among the best diving in the Caribbean. If diving was a top priority for Totem, we’d have routed differently in the Caribbean (namely, getting into the Western Carib). But it’s certainly why we prioritized a stop in B over A (“Las Vegas of the Caribbean”) and C (touristy + poor swimming), and it delivered.

Check out the number of dive sites on this map: Bonaire is basically one massive dive site.

Bonaire dive site Map

Pinterest underwater wonderlandAlthough it’s just a few miles long, there are more than EIGHTY named, shore-accessible dive sites. They are marked by yellow buoys in the water, and yellow rocks on shore. This entire shoreline, out to 200’ (61m) depth is a national marine park! Smart move: Bonaire’s economy rests on tourism, much of it destination diving.

How does this impact us as cruisers? The first sign is upon arrival, because your only option is 1) mooring or 2) marina. There is no anchoring allowed, which protects coral that might otherwise be destroyed by chain/anchors. Moorings are a reasonable $10/day. Visitors are required to purchase permits for snorkeling or diving: the tag is affixed to your gear. They’re also reasonable (I think it was $10 for snorkeling, $25 to dive), valid for a year, and support funding the funding marine park.

Diving and swimming was far and away our number one activity, and our planned stay of “a week or so” slipped into nearly three. The weather wasn’t right to move on, but even if our window opened the unanimous vote was to extend our stay for more swimming in the beautiful water of Bonaire.

Totem nestled between Utopia II and Rhapsody; kids swam daily between Totem and Utopia, and I enjoyed an extended swim each morning with Bob & Sarah from Rhapsody. Totem’s aft deck was frequently scattered with gear awaiting use or drying off after a freshwater rinse, a pileup of masks and fins and tanks and snorkels and more. At least there wasn’t much laundry, we spent to much time in swimsuits!

DCIM111GOPROGOPR6242.JPG

This aft deck taken over by gear

The water was clear and beautiful for nearly the duration of our stay. Totem floats in about 20 feet of water; a coral heads dot the sand below, and tumble in increasing density down the dropoff just behind the transom. It’s startling to see such vibrant coral in an anchorage.

Totem floats over the reef

Totem floats over the reef

anchorage- corals

 

The kids had a blast. Sometimes they cared about what was down there to scope out (an eel! a ray!), a lot of the time they were just “hanging out,” enjoying each others company in the bathwater ocean.

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Just hanging out

Just hanging out

Swimming every morning with the Rhapsody crew was a great way to start the day. Good exercise, good company, good marine life spotting. We’d alternate between stroking to make some distance and get heart rates up and OH LOOK SOMETHING SHINY! There is always something to see: most days included a lot of flounder, some eels, and colorful schools of fish (the reef in front of the Venezuelan embassy never disappointed). Octopuses stick with a den for a while, so I could revisit one repeatedly, like a comforting resident neighbor. One morning we saw three different spotted eagle rays, cruising the waterfront and looking for a snack in the sand.

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

Another well-disguised critter... can you see it?

Another well-disguised critter… can you see it?

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

Always lots of fish at the turnaround point under Karel's waterfront bar

Always lots of fish at the turnaround point under Karel’s waterfront bar

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Stopping at Windancer IV for a chat on the way back to our boats

Did we dive? You bet! Niall had a mega-big Christmas gift early: for as long as we’ve lived on Totem, he wanted dive certification. With help from a cruiser friend, Brita, who was getting her dive master training in Bonaire — arrangements were made ahead of our arrival with an excellent instructor at Dive Friends Bonaire, and he started PADI classes on our first full day. Big thank you to Brita (who, small world, worked at the same law firm as my cousin in NYC?!) and fair winds as she chases more sailing adventures! Jamie and I love diving too: Utopia II is generous with us, letting us join their expeditions and use their gear as they have everywhere from Malaysia to Maldives. I lost count of the number of dives we did, and it was glorious. Totem’s underwater cameras are only suitable up to about 30′, so I don’t have any photos from our dives — but these images from Rhapsody capture the vibe of the reef.

forest of soft corals fans Black Durgon in the deep blue

Pretty corals and critters under Totem presented a great opportunity to work on dive lessons and experience with Niall’s sisters. Our Mantus tanks are perfect for this.

Jamie (barely visible hand!) helps Siobhan check her gear, somewhere not far under Totem

Jamie (barely visible hand!) helps Siobhan check her gear, somewhere not far under Totem

Does Bonaire’s diving earn the reputation? Mostly. Zillions of colorful little fish? Yes! Healthy corals, in a diversity of forms and a spectrum of hues? Yes! But it is clear that this area is over-fished. There were no top level predators save man. No sharks ghosting over a sandy bottom. No big groupers lurking in the nook of a coral head. It was beautiful, it’s just not as awesome and healthy a reef as it could be. It’s still probably among the best in the Caribbean. I fear for the future, since the marine park status hasn’t staved off overfishing. There were guys fishing a couple of boat lengths behind Totem’s mooring most mornings. Maybe that was about the 200’ depth mark where the park starts, but it seemed shy. On the edge at least, for fish we couldn’t even buy from the fisherman’s dock because they pre-sold their catch to the massive cruise ships that visited nearly every day we were there.

It was still incredible. It still pulled us in. I’d happily go back. I’d choose it over Grenada for hurricane season in a heartbeat. Why? More of what’s to love about Bonaire in the next post.

Totem is in Colombia now, reveling in the sights and sounds and tastes of this spirited country.

Dissecting a passage: Bonaire to Colombia

sailboat and helicopter

Pinterest passage to ColombiaThis dreaded passage unleashed one true horror. It was not a failure in rigging or other key systems. It was not the feared washing machine sea state. No, it was the ugly reality of unclogging a toilet while sailing at 9+ knots!

That awful job aside, almost everything else on the passage went very smoothly. Weather variance remained on the pleasant side of the forecast, and factors less easily predicted (namely, katabatic winds) were mild. Totem flew along, averaging over 200 miles per day towards landfall in a little over two days. About the most eventful thing that happened was when we were circled a few times by a very curious and official looking helicopter about 7 miles west of Bonaire… as photographed buzzing Utopia, above.

What did we do well?

  1. Careful planning, which included a lot more than just a route plan and the right weather window
  2. Patience to wait for good weather!
  3. Adapting the plan to suit conditions
  4. Anticipating sail handling at night or in rough conditions
  5. Remembering local effects

What could we have done better?

  1. Fish.

OK, so we did the fishing thing exceptionally poorly by not actually putting any lines out (truth be told). We were going kinda fast for mahi, which I’d have guessed our catch, as we have miserable luck with tuna. On the other hand, Utopia DID catch a tuna: and this is all that was left when they reeled it in… ripped out from the gills back. Oh, that would have been some spectacular sashimi!
tuna fish head shark bait

Really though, it was great!

The longer route we planned ran about 416 nautical miles from Bonaire’s mooring field in Kralendijk to the Marina Santa Marta in Colombia. Meals were prepped ahead, just in case… it was nice to just heat & eat. Smooth conditions made a lot of reading time… and time to catch shooting stars on night watch, under clear skies. Shooting stars filled my night watch once the waxing moon set and a carpet overhead shone with a brilliance you can only get from the open ocean’s absence of light pollution. As the tall Sierra Nevada range came into view, a gust of wind brought the rich humus smell of landfall with an intensity I’ve rarely felt after a week at sea, much less a couple of days, a hint of the lushness that awaits.

We have the highly unusual tendency to pace very closely to Utopia II on passages. It’s close enough that we actually have to be kind of careful – when you’re in the ocean, two boatlengths is at least a dozen boatlengths too close for comfort, especially at night! Adjusting course to avoid an unwanted encounter with our buddy boat… that’s a first.

Vessel traffic was minimal, but enough to require a close eye on the radar and AIS. Both proved useful when a ship loomed on a course for direct collision that closed remarkably quickly based on boat speeds and the face we were headed directly at each other. Whatever you want to say about the “rules” of the road, mass wins every time; I appreciate the mate of the 117 meter long tanker who altered course to pad our nearest distance with a comfortable mile of separation.

Hindsight, and changes from the plan

The crew of Rhapsody snapped us departing Bonaire the morning of the 26th. (Turns out that means we missed Second Christmas in Bonaire – which is a THING!).

I am REALLY going to miss my morning swims with Sarah & Bob from Rhapsody!

I am REALLY going to miss my morning swims with Sarah & Bob from Rhapsody!

Jamie wrote this summary below on what shifted from our original plan (see the Passage Planning blog post for details), a follow up to the exercise we posed for coaching clients. Pardon the wobbly mouse illustrations annotating this OpenCPN screenshot to help illustrate.

Routing #3, pic5

1. Route change

Based on anecdotal info about sea state, I tweaked original plans and set the route to 50 miles offshore instead of 40. Note the thin line that more or less parallels the blue portion of the chart. The line marks the 1000 meter (330 feet) depth contour – outside is 2000 – 3000 meters, this is the continental shelf where significant depth change can contribute to further sea state unpleasantness as water piles up.

2. Conditions

a. Wind: consistently ENE. I expected a slight change to E, but didn’t happen.

b. Ocean current: the Caribbean current was strong, as expected, and very much in align with forecast position.

c. Waves: by reputation, waves were going to define this passage. There were six distinct phases:

  1. Bonaire to north end of Curacao waves were normal wind driven waves up to 2 meters.
  2. From north end of Curacao to the northernmost point of continental shelf was SLOPPY! Why? Wind from NNE makes wind waves from the same direction. Strong current is perpendicular to wind waves AND causing bunched up water from islands in the way and huge depth change. This made for 100 miles of confused seas from multiple directions. Fortunately, we were there in good conditions with a full 24 hours since stronger winds and bigger waves – so it was lumpy but manageable.
  3. Once north of the continental shelf, waves became patterned and regular wind waves again. A route over the continental shelf (close to shore) would be miserable!
  4. Because sea state was fine, you can see that we cut the gybe corner a little to reduce sailing distance. Good sea state continued after the gybe, so we continued to shave more distance (remaining inside of the planned route).
  5. We had delightful conditions, wind and waves, all the way to the cape, just 4 miles from destination. I’ll talk about that below.
We use PredictWind to see how weather shifts may impact our route plan along the way. Even on shorter passages like this, conditions change and bear monitoring.

Updating route plan on PredictWind while underway: even on shorter passages like this, forecasts change and bear monitoring.

3. Sailing

a. Leg 1 was 220NM on starboard tack, beam reaching. Very fast sailing and more so with current push. We did 208NM in the first 24 hours.

b. Knowing there was a gybe coming, I tweaked the route some to set timing of gybe to be in daylight. We reached the gybe point at 8AM, furled headsail, eased the preventer, gybed in 20 knots of wind with single reef in the main. Easy.

c. With turn to SW, was clear the sailing angle close to dead-downwind (DDW). So we set up for wind-n-wing. Boom out to starboard with preventer on and single reef; genoa poled out to port.

d. We thought wind would shift to E and we would have to take pole down to be fully on port tack, but the shift didn’t really happen – there was a little change but we managed wind-and-wing just fine with wind angle at 150 degrees (30 degrees from DDW, wind over port side).

e. At about 50 miles to destination, course shifted further S requiring pole down and gybing the genoa to the starboard side. Likely this would happen in the dark, so before sunset, I checked all lines to be sure this would go smoothly (OK, I always check them anyway!). This change happened about 4AM and went easily.

f. At 40 miles out, wind was 20 to 25 so put in second reef.

4. Hello, cape!

Route plan, good weather window forecast, and actual weather was as predicted made this an easy and fast passage. It wasn’t all perfect sailing along at 8.5, surfing to 12 knots sailing–although that describes a lot of the passage! But there was also a cape to go around. Always, always, ALWAYS, expect enhanced conditions at a cape.

Routing #3, pic6

Approaching the cape just after sunrise was perfect timing for visibility. Land here is mountainous–the Sierra Nevada range here, part of the Colombian Andes, is one of the tallest coastal ranges in the world. Conditions were a wall of gray overland, with a pronounced dark gray band extending to the west, with rain below it. No other visible signs of wind or sea state build at the cape, but to repeat, ALWAYS EXPECT ENHANCED CONDITIONS AT A CAPE!! Totem already had two reefs in the main, but I thought it prudent to partially furl the headsail as well. Turns out, this was a good idea!!! How it played out, and what we did:

a. Wind built from low 20s up to 35 – 42 knots. This is not GRIB predicted effect, rather, compression induced wind build because of mountainous land. [If you remember one thing: GRIBs are not Gospel! There can be more dynamics at play in determining wind force.]

b. Wind waves of two meters towards the WSW, also compressed around the cape and bent around to be perpendicular to the land. And they GREW, both confused and bigger, much bigger.

c. From cape to destination was four miles. For two miles, the waves doubled to four meters with four waves of at least five meters, from dead astern. All waves are not created equally. A five meter swell (dying wave) is gentle. These were waves (building, living) and very aggressive. Even though five meters isn’t a huge wave, it’s plenty big enough for catastrophe.

d. Things can happen very quickly when going down the face (front) of waves driven by strong wind such as these. The very real risk is broaching – getting knocked onto your side, beam to the waves. The boat doesn’t want to go straight down the waves; it wants to peel off one way or the other (water friction and balance of sailplan). Steering well is paramount to managing these conditions. Our autopilot was doing OK, but I felt better boosting its turning speed with hands on the wheel. Totem has a big rudder, so bites in nicely. It was a very exciting (hairy) couple of miles before seas eased to three meters and then two meters on approach to Santa Marta.

Hindsight

Once in Santa Marta, several cruisers came by that chat. Common theme: what a great weather window we had! The past several weeks it’s been blowing 35-40 knots, and gusts have reached up to 60 making conditions outside hellish. On one hand, we played it well. But on the other, a lot of what’s felt in the marina we presume to be katabatic winds – not so predictable for anticipating a weather window. Partly lucky, partly smart, glad to be on the other side of this particular stretch of water.

* * *

The first taste of Colombia yesterday is sweet: friendly staff welcoming us into Marina Santa Marta. In town, colonial buildings with faded elegance and colorful street art. Pedestrian malls lined with restaurants spilling out into streetside tables with busy conversations and delicious aromas. But more about that later – I’ll leave you with a few images from passage.

Sailing into the sunset again: this had such great green flash potential!

Sailing into the sunset again: this had such great green flash potential!

Utopia in the distance at dawn, day two

Utopia in the distance at dawn, day two

Jamie at the helm as we get past the cape - seas NEVER look as big on camera...

Jamie tethered in at the helm as we get past the cape, while I hide under the dodger – seas NEVER look as big on camera…

Hello, Santa Marta!

Hello, Santa Marta!

Planning a passage: Bonaire to Colombia

sailing trimming the main

There is a good chance our upcoming passage will suck. Yay…

How do we know it’s not a simple downwind run in the trades? Enough friends, cruisers with miles, have told us how uncomfortable the stretch across the top of South America to give credence to the oft-repeated quote that this is one of the “five worst passages.” That quote is never sourced (if anyone knows a legit data source, please add in comments or contact me!) but experiences show there’s more to it than hyperbole.

How are we going to mitigate the misery? Jamie’s outlined our planning process as an exercise for the people working with us as cruising coaches. A summary of planning factors are and shared via email and our coaching Facebook group. We’ve helped as coaches with information on identifying tools to use, sources to check, questions to ask for developing a plan, as well as fleshed out details that make up the dynamics of this route. The exercise is broken into parts over a few days to facilitate discussion on different aspects in the safe space of the closed group, where there are no dumb questions or tridents thrown by Salty McSaltypants. What follows is pared back version of this exercise-turned-teaching-tool.

Passage Planning Basics

Totem lies in Bonaire over a pretty coral reef, safely secured to a mooring. Next stop: Santa Marta, Colombia! This is the planned route:

The route: Bonaire to Santa Marta, Colombia

The route: Bonaire to Santa Marta, Colombia

YOUR TASK:

  1. Assess passage for risks
  2. Learn historical conditions AND track current conditions
  3. Develop a safe, efficient route
  4. Identify the weather window to depart in
  5. identify BAILOUT options, should an issue require getting into port sooner
  6. Know destination clearance processes
  7. Prepare a float plan, if passage complexity necessitates it

At this point, coaching clients are asked to think about what they’d do: to pretend it’s their own passage. Identify tools, research conditions, create a plan, and especially: ask questions! They can document for feedback, discuss on our coaching Facebook group, or just let it sink in as future fodder. Below are the top notes of information shared back with them.

1 – Assess risks

Every passage has them; these are particular to our transit from Bonaire and Colombia. The purpose is to break them down and think about how they impact planning.

Dangerous waves: Comfort underway is all about the sea state. Three factors set up risk here: 1) a long fetch creating bigger waves, 2) deep water bunching at the continental shelf, and 3) strong katabatic winds.

Shipping: This is the highway to/from Panama Canal. The radar and AIS will get a lot of use watching out for traffic!

Debris in Water: River outflows send floating mats of weed and large deadheads; it’s also the leeward end of Caribbean Sea. Risk of hitting debris is higher, especially closer to the coast.

Security: Colombia and Venezuela present security risks of different dynamics, with aggressive incidents at sea and coastally.

2 – Historical weather and current conditions

Historical weather first! It trends in three-month periods, alternating between rough and calm conditions. December to February has rough conditions – lucky us! (It’s a choice. It’s always a choice.) Key dynamics are the prevailing trade winds, from the east (speeds increase in the western part of the sea), and strong katabatic winds off mountains on the continent. These katabatic winds can create sever conditions, including rough/confused seas. Helping Totem along: there should be a positive current, up to 2 knots at times, for the first 12-24 hours. It may not help the sea state, though.

Now current weather conditions: this is a complex 2 to 3 day passage. Begin watching weather well in advance to look for patterns. Look for systems that disrupt/ease prevailing trade winds/waves. The katabatic winds aren’t well integrated to GRIB models. PredictWind has more detail along the coastline, but may understate their effect.

Watch the currents for flow pattern – is it linear or disjointed? Will you have to navigate eddies and meanders? Now that we’re in countdown mode, weather and current are closely tracked to make a go, no-go decision.

pilot chart weather routing opencpn

OpenCPN with Climatology plugin overlay

Sources

Historical weather trend data:

  • Pilot Charts, like Cornell’s Cruising Ocean Atlas
  • Climatology plugin for OpenCPN (shown above),
  • Communication / blog posts by cruisers that have done this trip

Current weather conditions and forecast: note these are what we’re referencing on this passage. Other passages may add regional-specific sources!

  • PredictWind (various models and tools)
  • GMDSS (text) forecasts
  • local marine forecasts
  • observations for cruisers (when possible- thanks Itchy Foot!)

3 – Develop a safe, efficient route

We use PredictWind routing for an efficient path based on wind, waves, and current from four different GRIB models. The results show generally good grouping between the models, suggesting they agree on conditions. This still requires interpretation, however. Wave GRIBs are not good at representing real conditions when waves are affected by some land features; there are also the katabatic wind induced waves to consider.

PredictWind routing models based on different weather algorithms

PredictWind routing models based on different weather algorithms

The first third of the PredictWind route is free of increased risk we’ve noted earlier, and takes advantage of good current. Beyond that, we want to keep to deeper water – giving a wider margin to the continental shelf and mountainous headlands, and avoiding shallow banks. Hopefully this will reduce the katabatic wind affect and the chance of debris in the water. On the other hand, there will probably be more shipping traffic.

The wider route adds distance, making it roughly 400 miles. Estimating our boatspeed in these conditions, we hope to transit in a little over two days: a morning departure for a midday arrival after two nights at sea.  It’s possible we’d need to slow down, as we did sailing to Bonaire from Martinique. At least the moon is waxing again, so there’ll be nice light until midnight.

If seas get sloppy close to the islands, we may go further north. OpenCPN screenshot.

If seas get sloppy close to the islands, we may go further north. OpenCPN screenshot

4 – Weather window

Watching weather for the last week plus observations from cruisers in Santa Marta to helps index what forecasts show. While the forecast is for  a moderate 20 knots, to 25 knots on approach to Santa Marta, local observation is that wind is actually much stronger – up to 40 knots! Long range forecasts showing a possible window on December 26. That’s our ideal departure date, to give us a few days in Santa Marta before Jamie flies up to Puerto Rico for a rigging job. Six days out is just too far to count on at this point, but we’ll keep watching, seek local reports, and shift Totem’s plan as necessary.

5 – Bailout Options

Curacao and Aruba are options for the first part of the passage. Beyond, bailout options wane, but a helpful post on our Facebook page recommended Cabo de la Vela (thanks James!). In general, we have security concerns about stopping along Venezuela or Colombia and will avoid it if at all possible. Most passages should have multiple bailout options: find them by using guide books, charts, Coast Pilot books, and asking other cruisers.

6 – Destination clearance procedures

Outbound clearance in Bonaire is easy: one stop, one window, and they’re even going to be open on Christmas! For inbound to Colombia, the Marina Santa Marta will facilitate the paperwork, a more complicated process if clearing further west at Cartagena.

7 – Float plan

I won’t get on the float plan soap box except to say – it’s important. We’ll update our existing float plan for this specific passage:  download our float plan template from here.

From our crew to yours, our warmest wishes for happy holidays! We have our festive frolic going on here on Bonaire, and hope the weather window holds for a departure on the 26th.

Passage notes: westbound across the Caribbean

Sailing wing and wing

_DSC2312Totem is sailing toward sunsets again. Turning towards the Dutch Antilles from Martinique was more westbound than south. This passage brought back more than a familiar angle for sunrises and moonsets: it’s also…

  • downwind sailing for the first time in 18 months
  • first passage with more than one night at sea in 18 months
  • a nearly full moon! so nice on a passage, and something we had a knack for mis-timing
  • new destinations, instead of retracing a track

The 470nm distance was slightly awkward. It’s just long enough to necessitate a third night at sea. The benefit is a chance to get back into a passage rhythm that’s been absent for some time, something that seems to happen around the second or third day.

The start was slow; it took time to get out of the wind shadow of Martinique. Once into steady trades, the genoa was poled out and Totem took off. We spent almost the entire passage that way, much of it wing-and-wing. Leaving on a Wednesday, arriving on a Saturday, conditions were such that sometime by Tuesday we found that point on the passage when sea becomes a dreamscape to roll with indefinitely.

Sailing in company were our Australian friends on Utopia II, a boat we first met in Malaysia more than four years ago. Our boats have an uncanny ability to stay in proximity on multi-day passages, a highly unusual situation (normally, one boat horizons another within hours of departure). This proximity proved invaluable the morning after our first night at sea when Utopia lost steerage.

Sailing back to aid Utopia

Sailing back to aid Utopia

They were about three miles from our position, so we headed back to see if it was possible to assist. First speculation was that a net had pinned the rudder, but closer investigation (after Andrew swam to check, tethered to the boat, in 2 meter seas) told otherwise. Real cause: a through bolt securing the rudder post to the quadrant had sheared off. There was no spare for the 12mm diameter, 20cm long bit of steel.

sailboat under bare poles

Utopia drifts under bare poles

Adrift in the Caribbean: Andrew is swimming just behind Utopia II

Adrift in the Caribbean: Andrew is swimming just behind Utopia II

_DSC2317Jamie and Andrew set to rummaging through our caches of various spares on board. We had clevis pins in the right diameter, but they were too short. A steel rod, salvaged from a wreck on Chagos, wasn’t wide enough: only 10mm in diameter. This still proved to be the best alternative to drifting through the Caribbean. Jamie cut it to length with a hacksaw and Andrew swam over to retrieve it, bundled in a net bag with a handle for easier carrying. Meanwhile, they wallowed in the swells while we stayed close by.

Rigging the repair while crammed in a lazarette in a rolly boat was a job, but three hours losing steerage both boats were underway again. It’s a sober reminder for the importance of self sufficiency and friends in contact. There is no Sea Tow to call out here!

Happily the passage was otherwise uneventful. We averaged over 7 knots for the passage, including those three hours of negative VMG while solving Utopia II’s quadrant woes.

Steady trades averaging around 18 knots picked up the last day, with a current push putting our average over 9 knots.

Despite seas growing 2 to 3 meters, the ride was comfortable. Dead downwind can be a rolly point of sail but with the breeze 15 to 20 degrees off, the motion was ameliorated. The angle pushes the limits of wing/wing, but the jib (and not the main) was the side at risk of backing; Jamie adjusted twist to make backing was unlikely, and push us swiftly west. Conditions for good boat speed allowed the autopilot to steer instead of letting Totem get pushed around by seas. Swaths of sargasso weed floated by as our pair of boats flew towards Bonaire.

_DSC2299 _DSC2296

Progress the last day beyond our expectations required slowing down to avoid arriving in the dark. If the mountains of salt from the works at the south end of Bonaire didn’t announce our arrival in this new island, the welcoming flocks of flamingos did– winging right in front of Totem, their long necks making an impossible profile.

_DSC2332 _DSC2323

We couldn’t have asked for a nicer welcome to Bonaire when arrival included having two moorings handed to us by the crew of Rhapsody. Boats here don’t anchor, they’re required to use moorings or take a marina slip; it’s a move to protect the coral, which is truly spectacular. Bonaire’s reputation as a dive destination is something we can’t wait to explore.

_DSC2343

We’re committed to spending part of every day here underwater. This will not be difficult! A garden of corals and fish beckon freediving off the back of Totem.

Boat kids from Utopia II and Totem

Boat kids from Utopia II and Totem

An array of corals and a zillion little fish

An array of corals and a zillion little fish

Blue lines show our track through the Caribbean, from arrival to Barbados last year; the orange dotted line is the anticipated path west. Curacao, Colombia, then along the San Blas coastline in Panama in January… aiming for a canal transit in early 2018.

Caribbean track

And meanwhile, more memories to make.

Totem family crew silliness

Totem family crew silliness