Having read many blogs and reports about this dreaded passage, said to be one of the top 5 worst in the world, we were both excited and concerned about what lay ahead. All we could do was hope that we had read the weather correctly and gone at a good time. We had waited over a month for better conditions and were really keen to get going. The seas and winds had dropped but the forecast still promised enough wind to actually sail rather than motor the 366 miles.
Our last evening in Curaçao was spent swimming, putting a couple of reefs in the mainsail and tying the dinghy up securely. We tried flipping it up on its side but it rubbed against the outboard and snap davits and I worried it would burst, so we had to go back to our usual method of suspending it from the davits, only this time with the bow to port to accommodate the outboard. We normally carry the outboard on the dinghy but didn’t want so much weight on it, especially should a rogue wave fill the dinghy. Paranoid about it coming loose in rough weather, it had no less than 11 separate straps and lines to hold it every conceivable direction. It didn’t budge an inch.
We left the pretty anchorage of Westpunt at 0630 on Monday 4 January and headed north of Aruba. Jeff and Di on ‘Horizons’ (pictured in front of us) left at midnight. We had a couple of knots current with us until about 15 miles west of Aruba when it disappeared but with 22 knots of wind we were doing 7-8 knots over the ground under just a poled out genoa. The pole worked really well, keeping the sail full downwind and allowing us to furl it without removing the pole. The only time we had to go on deck was to gybe the sail from one side to the other once we sailed past Aruba but it didn’t take too long. Rob naturally wore his lifejacket and clipped onto the lifelines just in case. We will definitely use the pole more often from now on.
Dolphins came along to play for a few hours showing off in the bow waves, the sky was completely blue without a single cloud and we were bowling along comfortably all day. Perfect! Near Aruba we still had a WiFi signal and saw on Facebook that 4 other Rally boats had left Aruba at 0930 after an unplanned forced stop there. They had gone into a bay to overnight but the coastguard was patrolling and requested they cleared in, so they had to go through the laborious process of going alongside the commercial dock with big black tyres to streak your hull and then clear out again. Despite Suzie’s (Rally organiser) best efforts, Aruba didn’t deliver the pontoon or process to make it easier for all the yachts stopping there. They seem to be more interested in making money from casinos and cruise ships, so glad we didn’t bother!
With 7 OCC Rally boats heading for Cabo de la Velo in Colombia we should have had company but given we decided on a more northerly route, we didn’t see the other boats until much later in the passage, 6 of them in the anchorage. Our choice turned out to be a good one, as ‘Horizons’ didn’t get the wind and stable seas we had, so we would recommend going north of Aruba and 10-15 miles north of the Monjes. This way you stay in deeper water, so if the wind does kick up it is safer.
Our night passed without incident, just slightly slower as the wind dropped down at dusk but it was very comfortable and we took 2 hour watches with the other dozing in the cockpit. It did get cold though and dewy, something we haven’t experienced in a while. Had to get the long trousers out and a duvet cover.
The next day we saw ‘Horizons’ for a short while and chatted on the radio. Jeff said that the waters around the Monjes were very confused, like a washing machine and he had made slow progress. We also let the OCC Caribbean Net know our status via SSB radio. All day we sailed along happily and stayed well off the coast in deeper water. Eventually we saw Puntas Gallinas about 5 miles away and were grateful the wind and seas remained favourable for us as we passed that point and headed towards the final headland into the anchorage of Ensenada Huaritcheru staying 3 miles off the headland.
Clare on ‘Ocean Rainbow’ had radioed us to say not to go between the small island and the mainland, as there were fishing nets there and later on to say they had had 30 knot gusts by the island, so we reefed but we only saw 24 knots in the end and were furling the sail away by that stage. There were a few well marked fishing pots between Puntas Gallinas and Cabo de la Vela but just at the NW of the bay there were loads of pots marked by clear plastic bottles which were hard to pick out. In 24 knots of wind we anchored in 5 metres of sticky sand and mud near the rest of the boats and congratulated ourselves on arriving in South America after a great 199 mile passage. The boat dug in fast, despite the wind, so we were happy to have the rest of the day to relax and a full night’s sleep before the next leg. Some local boats came by to take a look at us all and everybody waved enthusiastically. Fishermen dropped more pots and nets near the boats and we hoped they would retrieve them by the time we left. A father and son spent the night sleeping in their tiny open fishing boat on some old mattresses. Hard life for many here.
Up on the hill hundreds of people climbed to see the sunset but it wasn’t particularly special that evening unfortunately. The bay is protected from the swell but not the wind that continued to howl into the evening. The landscape is arid and barren with nothing green on the hills at all. Further into the bay there were kitesurfers and buildings but the headland above the anchorage is just a rock with a light on top and we didn’t have time to explore ashore this trip.
The wind died down overnight and we had a restful sleep in calm water. Nice not to be up at daybreak for a change. We had a leisurely breakfast, got the boat ready and watched the other 6 boats leaving. In the morning we saw people riding dune buggies on the hills and the anchorage was very calm. A fisherman got his nets tangled in the chain ‘Moody Mistress’ had out cut it off for them. The nets weren’t there when they anchored but the $20 dollars and chocolate bar they gave him didn’t seem too high a price.
The 7 boats spoke on the radio the night before to discuss weather, routing and times for departing for the next leg of 150 miles to Santa Marta. There is a huge mountain range about 45 miles from Santa Marta and if you are lucky and time it right, you can see snow on the top, a very rare sight in the Caribbean. It also creates gusts and steep seas so we needed to be careful passing by that stretch of coast.
Given we were told to stay within 20 miles of the coast for calmer conditions and to transit the area from 73-45W to Santa Marta in daylight, again to avoid much higher wind strengths at night, we decided the best time to leave would be around 11am. The winds were very light though and in the end we left an hour earlier due to reports from the other boats that left from 0800. They encountered areas with no wind at all, so we thought it best to get going otherwise we would have been motoring a lot. We got our mainsail ready so we could have it out on the port side, with the genoa poled out on the other, going wing on wing downwind. We were the last boat to leave the anchorage and the rest of the fleet arrive tomorrow, about 10 of them we think, so it will be busy again. The wind did pick up by mid morning though, as it usually does around the Caribbean, so we didn’t experience any calms during the day.
The first day was idyllic, with high speeds under the wing on wing combination and flattish seas. Numerous dolphins came to play once again and we had lovely sunrises and sunsets, millions of starts and magical phosphorescence. We were going too fast in the end and dropped the main completely and reefed the genoa to reduce speed to under 4 knots. Later that night the winds died anyway and we had to motor when our speed dropped to under 3 knots. Typical!
We saw the amazing mountains along the coast of Colombia but no snow at all. They were only visible through a haze, even at sunrise and later on more cloud rolled down the mountains and they were only visible again nearer Santa Marta. The winds and seas picked up around the final headland, Cabo de Aguja at around 1000 and we saw gusts of over 30 knots and were bowling along with just a shred of genoa up. I was just glad not to be in higher winds and seas on the headland as I’m sure it would be very nasty. We were only 4 miles off the headland and kept within 15 miles of the coast from Cabo de la Vela to Santa Marta apart from avoiding the exclusion area around the oil platform half way.
Entering the bay at Santa Marta is easy in deep water with no fishing pots or any obstructions. We radioed Port Control on VHF 14 first and gave them our details and then contacted the marina. A rib was sent out to meet us and guide us to our berth but they confused sides and we had all our lines and fenders on port when they needed to be on starboard so a rather tricky manoeuvre in high winds was not what I needed after 150 miles at sea and broken sleep. We went back out into the bay to swop the lines over and came back in. All well and we were happy to have arrived safely in Colombia after almost 4 idyllic days of sailing.
In all the passage was 365 miles and took 32 hours for the first leg and 26 hours for the second but this included slowing down to reach the mountains at dawn. Our top speed was 10.5 knots. We also moved our clocks back an hour to be on Colombian time. There are 6 other Rally boats in the marina today but we expect the rest tomorrow for a welcome party and planning our week in Santa Marta. We found the ATM and got millions of pesos out which amounted to a couple of hundred pounds. We had to pay the Immigration charge in cash, hence the urgent visit to the ATM. Everything was handled at the marina, by very friendly and helpful staff, so couldn’t have been easier and they seem more than happy for us to explore the town before all the paperwork is complete. Looking forward to our week in Santa Marta.