“Colombia isn’t as people say it is.”
This was Romero, our genial immigration officer. Lovely man. Smiling gratefully at him in our post-passage stupor, I let the excitement of yet more discovery bubble away inside me.
We are in Santa Marta, a welcoming, vibrant city of half a million on the northern tip of Colombia which, so far, is proving Romero right. Colombia seems to be shrugging off its unsavoury reputation (mother: “it’s worse than that London”) and becoming a rather hot travel destination. The last few weeks of adventuring has taken us off the beaten track and lavishly rewarded us for it, yet once again the sea, that wily temptress, has demanded much of us. I’ve got that vertiginous feeling I experienced post-Atlantic (see http://wp.me/p3VI2L-75) as the journey takes on a mind of its own; a feeling articulated perfectly by John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley:
We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognised can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away.
For those of you whose knowledge of Central American geography is as deficient as mine was until recently, here is a lovely hand-drawn map.
Warning: I am a bit more “saily” than usual in this article, as it’s good to provide information on relatively unknown passages for fellow sailors. I’ve put this information in italics so you can either a) skip it or b) read it with your local seadog over a quart of rum.
BONAIRE, CURAÇAO, LOS MONJES DEL SUR
Leaving Bonaire and our coral-reef mooring which had started to feel like home, we headed for Spanish Water in Curaçao, as a weird anxiety set in on board Bloodshot. The fact that the passage we were about to embark upon has a bad reputation for strong winds and big seas only compounded this feeling. The self-propagating nature of fear is exacerbated in the sailing community, with its huge range of experience and personality (Why is everybody leaving the marina today? Do they know something we don’t?) and it can whip the most relaxed crew members into a nervous, nail-biting, storm procedure-comparing, wind-chart-obsessed frenzy.
Nevertheless, after a few days crab and pelican watching in stunning Santa Krus in the north of Curaçao, we departed for Los Monjes del Sur in high spirits. The Los Monjes archipelago is a small collection of rocks in the middle of the sea, with a lighthouse maintained by the Venezuelan coastguard.
We departed at sunset with good conditions but weathered a night full of lightning which made Skipper understandably nervous, especially when the cabin lights starting blinking on their own in a menacing way. The current as we passed Aruba added 3 knots to our speed and we arrived at Los Monjes del Sur the following afternoon. The mooring rope we had heard mention of in previous blogs isn’t there anymore, so we ended up tying to a smaller line for fishing boats on the opposite side of the bay to the marina wall, for which we used a stern anchor to stop us drifting towards the rocks. It is worth mentioning that the location of the archipelago is off by about a third of mile on Navionics; they are actually further north the stated on the charts, so a night entry is not recommended!
We were humbled by the welcome we received at Los Monjes. A group of about ten military personnel reside there for two months at a time; the sergeant told us it was a lonely existence. We watched as the supplies boat arrived and the younger, more eager recruits humped bags of onions, potatoes and rice up the hill to the barracks. We even received gifts:
LOS MONJES TO CABO DE LA VELA: 83 NAUTICAL MILES
Unfortunately it was a soul-destroying 4 a.m. departure from Los Monjes the next morning for us, so there was no chance to get further acquainted with either the military personnel or their large family of loveable dogs. We were about to pass the appropriately named Chicken Point, where the notorious dodgy weather conditions are supposed to be at their worst. Despite this, we left with a good forecast, and the sailing was wonderful. We saw dolphins, dipping and diving, their silhouettes adorned with phosphorescence, and skipper caught this monster:
The forecast on departure at Punta Gallinas was for 15 knots of wind; 15 until the point and then 25 after. To avoid big seas we made sure to depart from Los Monjes with swell forecast of 1.5 metres rather than the usual 2-3 metres, so conditions were very comfortable. We arrived in darkness to Cabo de la Vela, which should be avoided as the corner of the bay closest to Punta Gallinas has several fishing nets rigged up to coke bottle buoys which are impossible to see at night (we ended up paying for repairs to a net we damaged). The whole bay area is exceptionally flat apart from scattered rocks and coral heads to watch out for; we anchored at a depth of 2.5 metres and we were still a way out from the shore. Just a note: the locals in Cabo de la Vela recommended against anchoring in the nearby Bahia Honda for security reasons.
We were boarded by coastguards on the third or fourth day, but they were exceptionally friendly and seemed more interested in discussing football than checking our papers. It’s good to know the coastguard have a reliable presence here.
Cabo de la Vela is windswept and boiling hot; the native Guajira people and the wonderful folk at the kitesurf centre we spent most of our time lounging around at made enough of an impression to warrant their own article (check out http://kiteaddictcolombia.blogspot.com for a taster). The wind howling relentlessly through from the desert covered the boat with a fine layer of sand. We had bouncy dinghy rides, barbecued fish, and a visit from a forthright pelican. She tried to get in the cabin and I had to defend myself with a pillow. It was actually quite scary.
Which brings us to where we are now. I know I’m trying to live a simpler lifestyle and all that, but the first hot shower I’d had since leaving Lisbon was an experience approaching ecstasy. I couldn’t help myself; I kept groaning in bliss and laughing to myself like a mad hyena. I didn’t realise how ready I was for a hit of civilisation; washing machines, abusing free wifi in cafés, and stalking ex-boyfriends on Facebook. Lovely.
On the passage down to Santa Marta we passed through the channel on the inside of the oil refinery, two miles out. This time the forecast direction was accurate but the wind really picked up after midday and stayed strong all afternoon. The swell increased a lot rounding the point just before arriving in Santa Marta; even in over 100m of water the waves doubled in size, but only for about a mile before rounding the point. As a final note, this coastal route towards Panama as an alternative to going offshore is well worth taking, as long as you have light conditions, which seem to arise rarely (two small weather windows in five weeks), so it’s well worth keeping an eye on the forecast and taking any chances that come up.
As always, thoughts turn towards the next leg. When to go? Do we need protection from lightning? Can you get dengue fever in Panama? Do we even want to go to Panama any more? It’s exhilarating arriving on a whole new continent, looking up at the looming Sierra Nevada and imagining all that lies beyond. Shall we leave the boat here and hang around in South America for a few months? Years? Choice can be a curse as well as a blessing, albeit one that I will never resent bearing.
It’s dawning on me after writing this that my greatest struggle is not with the sea but with my own emotions. Fear, anxiety, exhilaration, exhaustion all overwhelm me despite efforts to let it all just flow through me. A bewildering aspect of emotions is that you must live through their effects to understand them. And so, on the other side of another challenging passage, one set of emotions and distractions is replaced by another, and still the days, the weeks, the years pass by.
It was hard to feel the remotest sympathy for any of the different fools she had been. As opposed to the fool she was probably being now. People hang on for dear life to that one, she thought; the fool they are right now ~ Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behaviour