Nasty Seas and Murphy’s Law – Aruba to San Blas Islands passage

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Saturday 8 February 2014

Following on from our leisurely three week stay in Aruba it was time to set sail to the San Blas islands of Panama.

The stretch of water we were to cross contains what are considered the fifth worst seas in the world and for many completing an around the world yacht cruise the worst seas they encounter. The reason attributed to this is that all the trade winds and seas that have travelled across the Atlantic Ocean pile up into the corner where Panama connects North and South America. Added to that a low pressure system that sits over Colombia and coastline mountains which accelerate these winds.

As a result, beach reading in Aruba for Tom involved a lot of researching routes and studying the weather. Asking Sanders, the marina manager, for his advice he put it quite simply “Americans hug the Colombian coast and do it in short hops. Europeans sail straight across it and well…they encounter big winds, big waves. The most sensible is to wait until after April when the winds calm down.” Waiting until after April was not an option. Didn’t take much thought – why not combine the two? Hug the Colombian coastline but do it in one hit. And make sure the coastal currents are behind you. “Genius” you are entitled to say!

Our route was plotted and with the strong winds Aruba enjoys we shot off at a good pace. You never sail with full sails here as you never know what’s going to hit you. Half way across to the Colombian headland of Punta Gallinas the winds died a little, we ticked along. Past first headland no problems. Perhaps the headlines screamed more than the story?

The most notorious parts are the headland at Santa Marta and the following bay which leads to Baranquilla where the Magdalena River flows out. Providing 66% of Colombia’s water, this river exits into the sea at a whopping 6 knots and reputedly throws out logs, dead cows, dead dogs etc. It’s wise to give it a safe berth.

But first the Santa Marta headland which, bless Murphy’s Law, we would be tackling at night – a no, no in the American sailing blogs we had read. Well, you could be positive as dark meant ‘see no evil’ waves (although you would definitely hear the evil!) As we sailed towards the headland it was 22knots, sea state moderate. I tell you what, this inshore coast hugging is working, those Americans know a thing or two. Was this true, were we going to get away with it? When you tempt fate, especially at sea, fate bites you – hard! In the space of fifteen minutes the wind went from 22 knots to 32 knots. And bless its cotton socks it would stay like that for the next 16 odd hours ranging from 30 to 38 knots. The worst was the big bully seas. Steep, short, fat. It wasn’t that much fun and even yes, a little scary. Our friends had been ‘pooped’ (a sailing term to describe a wave crashing onto you and flooding your cockpit) in this area so we locked the companionway and hoped for the best. It required steel determination and some brave smiling to get through it.

Eventually we got to Baranquilla and things eased to around 28 knots. We stayed 5 nautical miles away from the Magdalena river exit, sailed through its outer reaches, had no problems, and saw no dead cows, ducks or giraffes.

After that we stayed close to the coast until Cartegena. Only fly in the ointment was that until now every single ship had altered course if we were in its path (for non-sailing folks, that’s the law of the sea); every single one since we left Hamble, be it cargo, 300m tanker, cruise liner. Crossing Cartegena we had to call one up when our AIS (automatic identification system) told us a 200m cargo ship was within ten minutes of obliterating us. A few calls on the VHF radio, we finally got his attention and he passed safely behind us and yes folks these blogs will unfortunately continue.

Past the worst, we then enjoyed some lovely upwind sailing (Adina loves upwind!) all the way to the San Blas islands. But Murphy and his wretched law was back, the sun was setting, we would miss daylight by an hour for our arrival. But Tom to the rescue had picked a landfall of an island with no outlying reefs to avoid doing what the cargo ship had earlier tried to do. It’s still heart-stopping stuff coming into an unknown area in the dark. But we did it and we just had to anchor.

Our mood was good. Adina has a Rocna anchor – generally rated the best on the planet and on the whole it has served us well. One hour and eight attempts later, we finally secured! Sea grass – you can’t see it in the dark and it doesn’t like anchors! We probably provided the night’s entertainment for the local Kuna Indian islanders seeing this yacht with its green and red lights going around trying to anchor.

But we had done it, it felt good, and we were now in the fabled paradise islands of the San Blas – we felt our adventure had now really started. Exhausted, we went to bed, hoping to wake to palm trees, white beaches, and the Kuna folk who occupy these beautiful islands.

(Pictures to follow as we currently have no internet access)

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