Mochilas and memories in Colombia

girl holding a toucan

Posts about why Colombia is a great place to visit and a practical orientation to Colombia for cruisers were written to help others with decisions about Caribbean routing and destinations. But Colombia was more than that for us, and I blog for my family record as much as to help cruisers in our wake. Captured here are a stream of those favorite memories contributing to reasons this warm country left a mark on our family, like the time Mairen held a toucan, with a taste of the rhythm of cruising life.

We met online

When you’re new in an anchorage, it’s normal to dinghy over and introduce yourself to a neighbor. When you’re in a new marina, it’s easy to do a dock walk and go meet other cruisers. OK, so I actually got to meet Dan and Kika back in Grenada – but we first connected online, and had fun trading hangout time on  respective boats while we were in Colombia together. The couple rehabbed a modest “classic plastic” that their background as architects tints with elements of style you don’t often see. We rarely have bandwidth for YouTube, but their channel—Sailing Uma—is one of the few I seek out when the opportunity presents. Not sure what they’ve shared about plans publicly so without tipping their hand, I’ll just say… this crew is one to watch!

Zen garden and artifacts: sometimes it’s better to pick fun over practicality

Kika and I demonstrate the advantage of being… vertically challenged. We can stand on their Japanese-style seating platform without touching the headliner.

Local friendships

We also met Carlos Correa online – he reached out through Instagram. Carlos is a champion Colombian freediver who teaches locally and competes internationally. We invited him for sundowners, discovered mutual friends (the crew behind Evolve Freediving), and had a memorable evening getting his insights into Colombia, the local marine life, and freediving spots. Similarly, a cruising buddy we met in Puerto Rico was back visiting his family in Cartagena: who needs an excuse for drinks at a (we’re not hip enough to be here!) bar near the Old Town? Soaking in the sophisticated vibe with Paulo a couple of cruisers-turned-expats making a life in Cartagena, they apprised us about life today in this historic city.

Back in Santa Marta, it was Colombian/Venezuelan couple Hannah and Luis – fellow regulars enjoying sunset from the patio – who added assistance, information, understanding and enjoyment. They live in town and offer captained charters from their sailboat. You can even have Carlos come along and provide a freediving lesson! Hannah helped us get propane fills (angling hard for a local price), ferried cruisers to the Costco-like Makro shop inland (and loaned her member card) along with other local orientation. Stretching beyond our cruising community in new locales enriches our lives for more than the short term: I hope we’ll keep in touch with these wonderful humans for the long term.

Road tripping

Traveling together can test relationships, bring out their strengths or weaknesses. Road tripping with Aussie cruising friends guarantees more fun. We day-tripped to the highlands in Minca and stretched out to bus to Cartagena for a few days’ stay, backing each other up when needed to make the experience easier and more enjoyable.

Are Andrew and Jamie gazing in each others’ eyes as they’re serenaded by buskers in Cartagena?

kids on the bridge cartagena

Kids getting silly in the old town

Are we there yet? Waiting for the bus from Santa Marta to Minca

Hamster therapy

Our pet hamsters don’t leave the boat. It’s one of the qualities that make them an excellent boat pet. So it says a lot that we took ailing hamster Mochi, her paw swollen, to see a vet in Santa Marta. He diagnosed an inoperable tumor and directed palliative care. Mere hours later we met a cruiser who introduced herself as a zoological veterinarian with experience in everything from hamsters to elephants. Michele proceeded to provide boat-calls and treatment for Mochi from her well supplied medical kit. Siobhan later acted as vet tech for amputation of Mochi’s deeply infected paw.

Mochi has come a long way from the Mamaroneck Village Pet Store and racked up 14 countries so far- about as many as her predecessor from the Phuket night market. Hamsters have a short life span and we know we’re on borrowed time, but cannot believe the good fortune to improve the quality of her remaining days from the chance meeting with Michele. It’s unusual to know the professional background of a cruiser you’ve shared anchorages with for months, although you’ll know more about them as a person than your neighbors at home – we never needed it more than we did in Santa Marta.

Steeped in history

Jamie grew up in the part of the USA where a surprising number of places claim “George Washington slept here.” In Colombia, this is repeated for Simon Bolivar. The Venezuelan rebel played a leading role in the modern statehood of not just Venezuela but Ecuador, Peru and… Colombia. He died in Santa Marta in the 1830s and leaves a widespread legacy; Santa Marta alone includes a museum in his former villa, a memorial, an airport, numerous statues, and many BOLIVAR WAS HERE relics.

He slept here, too.

Lime with that?

I’ve mentioned my love for the Colombian Almuerzo Ejecutivo, the $3-4 set lunch. It starts with soup, delivered to the table with a plate of cut limes. For weeks we squeezed the limes on to the soup (and dribbled on some picante sauce, too). Then we realized the other patrons used limes to wipe their cutlery before using it (disinfectant?). Ahhhh… whoops! So that’s why it sometimes was mixed in the bin of cutlery for the whole table. Well, at least we figured it out eventually.

cut limes with soup course

Lime with that?

Not just for tourists

When a new boat pulls in, there’s a kind of ritual where the ‘seasoned’ (they’ve been there a day/ week/ month) cruiser offers intel. Where do you take your garbage? How’s the shore access? Tips/tricks for getting around? Whatever you need to know. Shortly after arriving in Santa Marta, I met up with Sherrie and Kendall – two “kid boat” moms I’ve been hoping to connect with in person. They were my Santa Marta welcoming committee, and I happily tagged along on their (last day, sadly) errands… learning where to find good cheap eats, the park with free wifi, the overpriced bar to avoid, a source for art supplies, and more. They both sported a mochila, the woven handbags worn by men and women alike in Colombia. Sold in colorful cottons or naturally hued wool, the bucket-shaped bags are distinctively Colombian. First impressions from the beach-front souvenir stalls suggest they’re a tourist item, but you see mochilas worn by rich and poor, old and young, classy and gauche alike. After education on the materials, design, and styles – even a non-handbag-carrier like me was tempted.


Not just for ad campaigns

Remember Juan Valdez ad campaigns on TV? In peasant garb and attended by a donkey, he represented a good cup of coffee (with Colombian beans only, of course). Senor Valdez is not just a figment of American advertising, but the brand image for Colombia’s national coffee federation and the name of an upscale Starbucks-like coffeeshop chain (it even has a few US outlets). Of course, it was necessary to patronize. I didn’t see Juan in his peasant garb raise his coffee to me in salute, but the iconic man and donkey were gazed down from signage.

Totem is well supplied with delicious coffee, now checked out of Panama and northbound for Costa Rica. Find our current location—and speed, if we’re underway—at our PredictWind tracking page.

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!

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.