Go With the Flow

Having spent most of the last two years cruising around the Caribbean, I get a lot of questions from folks about proposed routes and schedules. Unfortunately, a lot of the time I have to shoot down others' ideas on this subject, because winds, currents, and seasons just won't cooperate. 

It may be that someone is on the coast of Venezuela and they get the idea they want to return to Florida by the shortest route, in the middle of the winter (you know who you are!). This just isn't a good idea. Winter winds and seas between Venezuela, Colombia, Jamaica, and Cuba are just brutal--I'm talking about 30+ knots and 15+ foot seas. That's not my idea of cruising. You might be able to wait and wait and eventually get weather windows, but you might not. It is just not worth it fighting the elements like that. 

On our way south, we were late leaving Florida (May) and had to push south towards Panama quickly in order to beat the start of the hurricane season. As it was, we had a long, slow slog to windward, fighting the Caribbean Current half the way, with thunderstorms harassing us constantly. I would never do that again. The season's first tropical depression formed just after passing over us as a tropical wave--we were lucky to not have worse. 

The best voyaging advice I can give is to buy an old book like a '60s or '70's version of Hart and Stone's Cruising Guide to the Caribbean, written prior to everyone having GPS, SSB, and powerful engines. The winds and currents haven't changed and their advice is the best I've found. Back that up with a full set of pilot charts for the area you're in and don't try to micromanage your weather by squeaking between systems and going against the odds. Have fun!

Land Life is Hectic!

Boy, we are busy now that we're back living on land again. The kids are both in soccer, Leslie is teaching dance, and I'm working full time during the week and on the weekends to make ends meet.

Don't let anyone tell you cruising is expensive--at least not compared to land life! When we go cruising we get rid of cars, car insurance, repairs and maintenance for the cars, registrations, inspections, lessons, after-school activities, repairs to the house, winter clothes, boots, snow shovels, colds, and endless little drains on the checkbook that add up to a big drain on the finances. One of the questions we are always asked is how we could afford to go. Now I wonder how we can afford to come back.

Cruising costs really do vary by how much you have to spend. In other words, you spend what you've got. But, I can guarantee you that it can be much less expensive than your land life--maybe half as much or less. That's what we found. Plus, we were able to eat out a lot more, go to more interesting events, and visit fabulous places that would normally be out of our vacation budgets. In Colombia it was probably cheaper for us to eat out than it is to eat at home here in the U.S.!

So, don't let money worries hold you back. You don't need a $200K boat to do it. Our boat cost around $55K and then we put a lot of hard work and some money into it, but we could have done it for less than half. The expensive stuff is all the modern gizmos that you don't really need. Approach any new piece of equipment like it is a possible thief--stealing your time and money. Some people like fixing stuff and having all the toys, but I don't think they have any more fun because of it. 

I always think the ones having the most fun are at the low end of the economic ladder. The little old boats are the ones that seem to always be on the move with smiling faces onboard. Maybe it's because they tend to be young, but we met some older folks on small boats who were really happy. A lot of the folks on bigger more luxurious boats only kept going for a few years, before they sold up and moved on to something else. I think worrying about a $200-$300K investment that is not very secure is too much for many people. Go small, go now!

Reentry Successful

Minke is now safely moored in Rhode Island and we're safely moored in Saratoga Springs. Land life is very hectic after living with the schedule of the wind and tides for two years. Our lives are now governed by clocks and date books. Oh, yes--and the new puppy!

Reflecting back on some earlier posts, I thought it is time to update a few thoughts. My switch to the "dark side" of computing, when I got myself a new Toshiba laptop to replace my Apple iBook, has been just about entirely successful. It has now been eight months since I fired up the Toshiba and I still get frustrated at how long it takes Windoze to wake up. But, once the windows are open I've generally enjoyed the view. There are lots of great programs available that really do work as well as Apple stuff, though in many cases they don't look as slick. I'm particularly happy with the availability of great free stuff like Open Office, Avast antivirus, Opera and Firefox browsers, and Skype.

When we first moved ashore I used Skype as my main phone, which saved me a ton of money and allowed me to stay in touch until Verizon could get the landline going, though I was at times frustrated by poor call quality. Though I have a fast cable connection, Skype just doesn't cut it for day-to-day use due to the poor quality and more complicated calling interface. Still, if you're out cruising, get a Skype phone number so people can call you using regular land lines, use Skype Out to call those landlines, and try to get your family and friends on Skype so you can make those cheap calls when you're really far away.

Because almost everybody and everything utilizes PCs there is a comfortable feeling that no matter what comes along you can take advantage of it. With Apples I was always waiting for the Apple version of something, or else emailing developers pleading for them to create an Apple version. There are advantages to being in the mainstream. I'll have more updates on old blogs coming. Right now I have to get to work on the update of our ICW Chartbook.

I Love the ICW!

We just finished a mad dash north from Beaufort, North Carolina, to Hampton, Virginia. All of it was inside on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), and once again I think that is my favorite stretch of the Waterway. In 205 statute miles you get a taste of everything: narrow channels with opening bridges and locks to negotiate, historic and welcoming towns, free docks, wide-open bays and sounds where the sails go up, deserted anchorages where you wonder what the rest of the world is doing, and endless bird and wildlife viewing.

We made our record day ever on the ICW--99 statute miles. I didn't add it all up until after the hook was down or else I might have tried for that last mile to get to the century mark. There are advantages to a motorsailor. Minke cruises at a comfortable 7+ mph, and we can crank it up to near 8 mph at times if we need to catch a restricted bridge opening. Plus, we've got the tankage to go more than 500 miles without refueling, which speeds things up too.

It's great to see that in general this stretch of the ICW is just as beautiful and just as friendly to boaters as it was 22 years ago on our first trip. We anchored out in Beaufort, in a somewhat shrunken anchoring space, enjoying the free use of a nice dinghy dock right in the center of things. The maritime museum has discontinued their free courtesy car, but we found that a taxi ride from the grocery store was only about $5, which is different than in Florida where you might be better off renting a car in most towns.

Then we went up to Goose Creek, just north of Hobucken. After a last few hours in blinding thunderstorms (our pilothouse kept us cozy and dry), we anchored for the night in Campbell Creek. We were the only boat in there, but I could see one other sailboat over in Eastham Creek and one trawler anchored further north on Goose Creek--a crowd for that part of the ICW.

We had a calm trip across the Pamlico River and up the Pungo River, where I was happy to see a dredge working on the shallows around the Wilkerson Bridge. The Alligator River was a nice motorsail and we just squeaked across Albemarle Sound before some brief thundersqualls swept by. We then anchored north of Buck Island just before sunset. That was the end of our 99-mile day, and it was fun!

We stopped at Coinjock to get cheap diesel, and we spent some bucks on nice stuff in the Coinjock Marina store. My daughter bought a fleece jacket, guaranteeing blazingly hot weather, which I am now melting in here in Hampton, Virginia. All of the bridge and lock restrictions are a pain in the Norfolk area, with the timing of the Centerville Turnpike Bridge and the Steel Bridge (only once an hour!) really boloxing up your schedule. We ran through on a Sunday, which helped, as some of the bridges aren't restricted on weekends and holidays. 

As usual in Norfolk we had to dodge huge ships, tugs, barges, and Navy vessels, while helicpopters and jets swooped overhead. There were reports of an airplane down in Norfolk harbor and an 83-foot boat adrift near the bridge-tunnel. A typical day in Norfolk.

We're Back in the USA!

We're back! We had an uneventful, but long, motoring trip back from Isla Mujeres. We had to await the passage of a lot of tropical squalls, which eventually turned into Barry just north of us. 

I'm glad we waited. At times the see was as calm as a bathtub, but Minke's powerful motor kept churning along and we were soon arriving in the Dry Tortugas, where we overnighted. The Yucatan current was hard to find and follow. We had some waypoints that Chris Parker provided to another cruiser, but they didn't prove to be much good. For much of the trip we had only a half knot or so of favorable current, and then at the end, when we were supposed to have almost nothing we had a wonderful two-knot boost. 

In short, don't believe the pilot charts or the government current charts found on the Navy site. I think the best advice is to head almost directly to the Dry Tortugas at first, letting the Yucatan current carry you northward of the rhumb line, and then gradually angle over to the east after you pass 85 longitude. In any case, we had a smooth, fast trip.

We left the Dry Tortugas with a weather report of scattered showers and thunderstorms, which soon became continuous and stayed that way all day. In fact, I think it was the worst one-day weather of our entire two-year cruise. Visibility was near zero most of the day, winds were gusting well over 40 knots, rain was torrential, and the seas became six-foot monsters, with huge holes in between. Again, Minke's powerful engine came into play as most the wind was dead on the nose for getting to Key West. 

We lumped and slogged our way along all day, anchoring at 8 PM just west of Wisteria Island off of Key West. The next morning we went ashore to clear into the U.S.A. and we were surprised to find you can't bring any electronics into the court building, not even a cell phone or a camera. Of course my 1.5-inch pocket knife couldn't go either. We felt like criminals heading off to jail. They had no facilities for holding all this stuff, which I always carry with me, so Leslie had to wait outside while I went in with the children. Then we switched places while they asked Leslie questions. In no other part of the Caribbean were we treated like this when clearing in or out. I don't think the answer to the supposed "war on terrorism" is to restrict all of our own rights! If we do that, the terrorists have already won, because that's what they want us to do.

Where is Everybody?

We´re now on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, awaiting a break in the weather to sail back to the Florida Keys. We´ve just sailed north from the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, through Belize, and then up the coast of Mexico. 

These are beautiful cruising areas, with gorgeous coral reefs, friendly ports, and plenty of nice things to do ashore. What has struck us the most is the lack of cruisers. We only saw one other cruising boat on the entire Mexican coast between Xcalak and Isla Mujeres--and that was in a week of harbor hopping. In Belize we were frequently the only boat in gorgeous anchorages, or maybe we shared them with two or three others. At Half Moon Cay on Lighthouse Reef we saw two other cruising boats.

So, if you get tired of trying to shoehorn your way into crowded anchorages, head down here to the Northwest Caribbean and join the few of us down here--we´d love to see you!

Go to Tikal!

We had a great trip from the San Blas to Providencia Island, then the Vivorillos, Honduras, and on to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. The first leg to Providencia was made with a reef in the main the whole way, hard on the wind with spray flying over the boat. Minke did well, but for some reason we were pumping a lot of bilge water the whole way. We arrived in Providencia just at dusk. As usual, the welcome in Providencia was very friendly. The port agent there, Mr. Bush, arranged a soccer match between our cruising kids and the locals--our kids got whupped! Clear in and check out was very easy, and the total charge for everything was $40.

We stayed with Kalani and Lightfoot on the leg to the Vivorillos Cays, a coral reef with a couple of small islands. There were rumors of mysterious fishing boats approaching too closely at night, so when this very thing happened to Lightfoot they called us on the VHF and asked us to close ranks. However, as far as we could tell, all of the boats we saw were just fishing. I've seen the same sort of thing in New England and other waters. Fishermen are not watching you or anything other than their nets. They then appear to be operating oddly when they approach too closely, when in reality they are trying to steer the net around some obstruction. In any case, no pirates for us, though another boat nearby was boarded and inspected by the Nicaraguan Coast Guard. The moral of the story is to pass east of Media Luna and stay close to Gorda Bank to avoid fishing boats, pirates, and possible Coast Guard encounters.

The Vivorillos were just an overnight stop to catch our breath then on to Guanaja, where the check in (contrary to some rumors) was easy and free. The tiny town, with a population density something like Hong Kong, is a fascinating maze of narrow walkways and shops. We were surprised by the wide variety of goods available and the very friendly welcome as we had heard nothing about the place. I even got an alternator rewound by sending it off to the mainland overnight via plane, for a total charge of about $50, including a new rectifier. The large fishing fleet means that marine services are pretty good for this part of the Caribbean. On Guanaja we really enjoyed visiting Graham's Place on tiny Josh's Cay. The island resort is very welcoming to cruisers with free moorings, water, ice, pet parrots and other creatures, a neat pool with turtles, sharks, and groupers, and a nice restaurant.

The trip to Roatan was uneventful, and again we were really happy to visit a big grocery store complete with ATM machine and lots of U.S. products. West End on Roatan is a diver's paradise, and snorkelers enjoy it too. Right behind our boat was one of the best reef snorkles we've had in the Caribbean. We also enjoyed walking the narrow sandy street and doing all the touristy things.

We had a perfect forecast for the 150-mile run to the Rio Dulce, except the wind never appeared. Minke's big engine ate up the miles and we crossed the Rio bar just after dawn. About one hour after low tide our 5.5-foot draft just squeaked across with no bumping. Livingston officials soon came out to visit us, then we trekked all over town to complete the business of checking in, all for around $80. We were soon motoring up the "canyon" of the Rio Dulce, where steep cliffs covered in vines drop off into the river. It was very reminiscent of going up the Hudson River back home.

Mario's Marina found spaces for us just at dark and we were soon enjoying the cold comforts of the pool and the bar. Dragging the kids away from the Internet was tough, but we hired a van to take us to Tikal to see the Mayan ruins. The van was comfortable, the roads were smooth and safe, the hotel was comfy, and the tour guide was informative. It was a fantastic trip! The temples loom out of the jungle, just like you've always dreamed of lost civilizations. Unlike the U.S., we were allowed to scramble up the pyramids via rickety ladders and slippery stone stairs--not for the vertigo impaired! Our kids are now writing about their experiences and what they learned about Mayan civilization. Go to Tikal!

Kuna Yala Tales

Kuna Yala is the part of Panama controlled by the Kuna Indians. They govern their own territory independently under the umbrella of the Panama nation. Most land is owned in common and people share duties, resources, and equipment. Tomorrow is Kuna independence day, marking the day in 1925 that a rebellion against repressive Panamanian rule began. 

Though the second smallest race on earth (after the pygmies) Kunas are universally very strong and fit due to endless paddling and hiking to get their daily hunter-gathering work done. In 1925 the Kunas slaughtered the Panamanian police forces and killed off mixed race people as well. Only the intervention of the U.S. Navy prevented Panama from retaliating with serious military might, which might have been the end of the Kuna people. In a series of political moves over many decades, the Kunas have gradually gained more and more independence in governing their nation.

We've come to a more traditional island, Isla Tigre, to witness the independence festivities. At the moment Leslie and the kids are ashore enjoying (I hope!) a traditional puberty festival that precedes the independence activities on Sunday. Kuna society is matrilineal and the men play a secondary role mainly as hunter-gatherers. When a girl reaches puberty the whole village celebrates in a day-long rite of chicha drinking, dancing, and socializing. Soon everyone on the island is reeling around drunk and enjoying themselves. We understand that families start saving up for this celebration the moment a girl is born.

I've decided to skip this traditional festival. I'm not wild about crowds and drunk crowds give me the willies—I'll get the play-by-play from Leslie later.
We're traveling in company with Kalani, a catamaran with two kids the right ages for Ian and Heather to hang out with. The other day we took our two dinghies up the Rio Diablo, deep into the jungle. The river was very shallow and full of snags and fallen trees. It was very reminiscent of paddling up the Kayaderosseras River back home, if you ignored the alligators. Finally, we reached an area that was too shallow to continue without lots of dragging across sandbars, so we pulled up the dinghies and jumped in for a wonderful freshwater bath. We were surrounded by primeval jungle, millions of polliwogs, and lots of young frogs. Parrots were chattering in the trees, but we didn't see any monkeys. We did see lots of birds that will require our bird books to figure out what they were.

Last week we were over in the East Lemmons for a Kuna dance demonstration and langousta cookout on the beach. Leslie was in seventh heaven and we were able to film a lot of dancing. Often the Kunas don't want their photos taken, or else they demand a dollar to take a shot, so it was great to be on an island where they didn't mind photography. We had a wonderful sail from the Lemmons back to the area we call the Swimming Pool, which is the cruisers' favorite hangout. There is an island there we call BBQ Island, where every Monday cruisers get together for a potluck dinner and giant trash burning. Unfortunately, a huge rainstorm blasted through just after we lit the bonfire, which quickly became a huge smoke pot as we all ran for our dinghies. Some of the boaters dashed into the kids fort they had built under the palm trees, complete with a good thatched roof. The local Kuna caretaker, Edwina, is very friendly and he encourages the kids to come and play on the island. When we're in the area we bring him a little treat of cookies, or some sort of food, and say hello.

We're finding that we know a fair number of Kunas too. Onshore we ran into a family that we met last summer on the Coco Banderos Islands. Families are rotated around the various islands to take care of the coconuts and maintain the islands, and to gain access to new fishing grounds. This group remembered Leslie from her dance and singing routines on the beach, and for the day we towed some of them to safety during a storm. Leslie was quickly surrounded by dozens of Kunas all wanting to meet her and to introduce their extended families. It is an interesting experience for Leslie (all 5' 2" of her) to tower over the crowd. Ian, who is now taller than Leslie, gets lots of odd looks. He is taller than everyone. Kids his age look like grade schoolers next to Ian, and Heather fits right in with some of the adults. I am constantly banging my head on low overhangs, rafters, and branches that are cut just high enough for the average Kuna. Entering a store gives me a crick in the neck because I usually have to stoop the entire time.

On the boating front the big news is the salvage of After You, a 35-footer that sunk after being towed off a reef. The singlehander (all by himself) came in from offshore late and tired and decided to anchor on Mayflower Reef, a shallow area studded with coral heads. He let out all his chain and some nylon rode, which eventually was cut through by the coral. There was a large sea running which pushed him rapidly onto a reef further to the south, where the boat pounded for at least a day. Rescuers soon gathered and plucked the sailor off the boat. 

In a situation like that the laws of salvage come into play, and essentially the salvagers get to keep the boat if they save it, or they get paid by the owner to get the boat back. (Never accept a tow on the water unless it is clear that you are not agreeing to a salvage claim.) Towlines were rigged and the boat was dragged off into deep water but rapidly filled from damage on the starboard side. In fact, the boat went down so quickly that several people onboard had to swim for their lives. It sank in 160 feet of water. From there a local trader with a big shrimp boat managed to dive down, secure a towline on the craft, and then drag it into shallow water. A fiberglass patch was applied and the boat was refloated. 

I took a quick tour of the craft and it looks pretty good for a boat that was on the bottom for a week. The interesting thing is that items containing air were crushed flat by the pressure at 160 feet. The cockpit cushions looked like slices of cheese. The salvager has made some deal with the former owner who is now off to Mexico to look at buying a new boat—jump right back on the horse after it throws you! After You will be towed to Cartagena for a rebuild and then sale.

We also had a fun time obtaining water at Rio Azucar. This tiny island has organized a pipeline from the river to a small water tower, which then feeds pipes that run down to the public wharf. The town earns a bit of money by selling water to sailors and others. We sailed in only to find an inter-island freighter tied to the wharf, but they waved us in and we rafted alongside. Everyone was very friendly and excited to see us, but no water was available for some reason to do with washing laundry?! We bought a few good veggies and decided to try again the next day.

The next day we arrived at the wharf and tied up alongside a big dugout, who soon decided to leave, causing another fire drill. But, no water available again, due to it being Sunday. Aargh! We left the dock but the crowd started shouting "Agua, agua!" So we circled back, and then we could hear everyone sigh, then shout "No agua, no agua," just as we reached the wharf. We took off again, then everyone started shouting again: "Agua, agua!" Were they playing a game with us?

Back to the wharf we went, but this time we could see the secretary showing up to take our money ($5 for dockage, $10 for all the water we could hold) and we tied up. Then we discovered that the regular pipe had no water pressure, but a 2" PVC pipe could create a gusher. The problem was to connect our garden hose to the big pipe. Lots of rags and lines later, and two Kunas holding the lash up together, and we were golden. We took on lots of water and were almost full up when a little child decided to turn up the water pressure, which blew out our temporary lash up sending a geyser over the laughing crowd.

Finally, we were just about done when a missionary boat showed up (this was Sunday) and wanted to dock outside of us. We didn't want missionaries tramping back and forth over our boat all day, so we waved them off with shouts of "cinco minutos!" We dashed around coiling hoses, paying off our helpers, undoing lines, and off we went with half the town shouting and waving goodbye. We were the entertainment for the day.

San Blas Navigation

I'm hoping this gets through to the blog. I'm sending the update using email via my Iridium phone, but I have no way of checking what it looks  like until we get someplace with Internet access--none of that here in the San Blas Islands. 

Lots of boats are going up on the reefs this year. At least one boat was lost. He had tons of electronics, and the boat was a good one with lots of solid equipment. I will not speculate or second guess what happened, but I will warn others that you can't fool around with navigation here in the San Blas. 

This area demands respect. There are no buoys, lights, or other navigation aids. The charts and guides are fairly accurate, but nothing like what you are used to coming from the U.S., the East Caribbean, or even the Bahamas. Landfalls and harbors must be entered in good light only, even if you have borrowed waypoints or your own. If you arrive from offshore after dark, heave-to outside or head offshore until daylight. If you travel between harbors, don't leave until around 10AM, and plan to be back at anchor by around 4PM at the latest, 2PM being better. In short, you need high sun to safely navigate the San Blas, and if you don't have it you have to use every technique in the book
to stay safe. Don't depend on your electronic chart plotter and radar to do that for you. Some of the charts are inaccurate, latitude/longitudes are off, coral grows, and shoals shift. Go slow and go safe!

Kettlewells in San Blas

The Minke crew is once again underway. We left Cartagena, Colombia after four enjoyable months. It is a beautiful city with friendly people, and it is generally safe despite what you may hear. 

To get Minke ready for more voyaging we had her hauled out of the water at Club de Pesca on a contraption called a synchrolift. It consists of a platform that the boat is floated onto. Arms on either side hold the boat upright while it sits on its keel. Then the whole platform is winched up out of the water vertically with the boat on it. In Colombia you pay the boatyard for the haulout then you contract separately with your own workers. On the recommendation of a friend staying in Club de Pesca, we hired two men, Escuardo and Manuel, to help us clean and paint Minke's bottom. The going rate was 40,000 pesos per person per day, which we gladly paid (less than $20 U.S.), as these guys were excellent workers. 

After four months in Cartagena harbor water, our bottom looked like an aquaculture project. Great strings of muscles were scraped off only to reveal thick barnacles below. However, it was all soon cleaned off and several coats of red antifouling paint (laced with copper) were applied. The topsides were cleaned and polished, the dinghy was cleaned up and the wood parts painted, we installed a new hydraulic steering cylinder (thanks to Dad bringing it to us when he visited), and we installed a new seacock to help the cockpit drain better. We relaunched on New Year's Eve, just in time to be back in the water anchored off of Club Nautico for the big event.

New Year's Eve and day are even bigger holidays than Christmas. We went to the old part of the city known as Centro and all the streets were closed off. Restaurants were setting up tables in the middle of the streets where they would begin serving expensive prix fixe meals at around 9 PM. The major squares in town were jammed with revelers, drinking and dancing. In places we had to squeeze single file between crowds to get through. A group of us with kids wandered around until we found a gourmet sandwich shop that was serving food before 9 PM, then we all went to our favorite spot, Crepes and Waffles, for a delicious ice cream desert. We hiked back to Club Nautico to arrive just in time to see from the docks the fireworks at midnight.

After New Years we began to gradually stock up the boat with food and spare parts sufficient for the next several months. We ordered fresh meat from the butcher who then kept it for a few days so it would be hard frozen. We purchased 30 eggs which had to be hand carried (very carefully) though the streets of Cartagena back to Club Nautico. Since the supermarket was just one block from the Club, we tried to daily bring back to the boat extras of everything. We made many trips heavily laden with bags.

We also began a serious study of the weather offshore from Cartagena. The winter winds had really kicked in, and typically were up to 30 knots on many days with seas running up to 15 feet. This is typical for this time of year, so we had to be patient and wait for a small window of opportunity to escape. This is what sailors call a ?weather window.? Originally we were planning to sail direct to Providencia Island, about 395 miles to the northwest of Cartagena, but the weather on that route was consistently atrocious for weeks at a time. Finally, we decided to loop south below the worst of the wind and seas by sailing first to the Rosario Islands (20 miles) and then on to the San Blas Islands (175 miles). From the San Blas we could still get a decent wind angle on Providencia (275 miles) and hopefully find a weather window big enough to jump through. Plus, we love the San Blas!

Our trip to the Rosarios went smoothly except for a brief boarding and inspection by the Colombian Coast Guard. We had checked out of the country and our papers and passports were all in order. The Rosarios belong to Colombia but it is acceptable to stop there for a few days when exiting or leaving the country. They are beautiful tropical islands that are frequented by tourists arriving by boat from Cartagena. Leslie, Heather, and Ian enjoyed visiting a free aviary owned by a wealthy Colombian. They saw birds from all over the world as they wandered around all by themselves. We also took the time to carefully stow everything for the offshore trip, and we got a final check on the improving weather. Our window was small, but hopeful. It called for gradually easing winds and seas Wednesday through Saturday, then back up to the near gale conditions again.

We set sail at first light and had to motor until about 3:30 PM with no wind, but that was fine by us as it allowed Minke to get well offshore and into safe deep water. The big northeast swells began to be felt, coming from the howling winds to our north. We were soon running downwind in 6-9 foot seas, but relatively comfortably though the self steering couldn't hold the course. Friends of ours on Morning Star sailed nearby much of the way and it was nice to talk to someone on the radio from time to time. Finally, in the middle of the night we were able to get the windvane steering to work as the wind angle had improved and the seas moderated. The big swells continued to roll under us, but the wind waves on top were less. 

As we approached the San Blas Islands the next day the wind began to build and build, gradually coming more and more into the northwest, which was not predicted. Weather reports out here are vague at best, covering hundreds or thousands of square miles. We were probably experiencing a land-effect wind generated by the high mountains backing the coast of the San Blas.

We began to pick up radio transmissions from some of our friends already safely anchored in the San Blas, and we were soon talking to them. It was interesting that they could see our sail coming from offshore before we could see land or them. The islands are very low and indistinct and we had the setting sun in our eyes. We were soon roaring in the Caobos Channel, occasionally surfing on the big swells. Because of the big seas, we had to detour well to the south of the Hollandes, our destination, before heading back up towards the islands. Some of the big swells were breaking on shoal patches along the direct route. Our friends kept telling us to hurry as night was rapidly approaching, and it is not safe to navigate coral waters in the dark. There are no buoys or navigation lights in the San Blas, and where we were headed there are no lights ashore.

We had been into the anchorage before, known as the Swimming Pool, so we had some GPS waypoints that helped guide us to a safe spot where we dropped the hook just before dark. The wind howled in the rigging, but we were comfortably at anchor. The next day we moved our anchorage to near BBQ Island, the local cruiser hangout. Soon we were visiting and talking to our many friends from Cartagena who were already there. Soon our friends on Kalani arrived with friends for Ian and Heather and then more kids arrived on another cat. The kids ran around BBQ Island playing tag, building a fort, and conducting hermit crab races. Everyone got together on Monday for a big potluck dinner and garbage burn (the only way to get rid of stuff) under the palm trees and a brilliant moon. We're back in cruising heaven!

Goodbye to Cartagena

The jerry jugs are full and the tanks are loaded. The lockers are crammed with food and spares. It is once again time to set sail for a new destination--if we can get a decent weather window. 

This time of year is tough in the southwest Caribbean. The forecast is calling for 25- to 30-knot winds and big seas north of 10 north, and 15-20 with 7- to 9-foot seas south of 10 north. That's about as good as it gets in the winter, so we'll be shoving off in the morning for a short trip to the Rosario Islands, then a 170-mile run to the San Blas the next couple of days. 

Hopefully, it will be just one night at sea and hopefully conditions will improve as we get further south. Many ask what we are using for weather forecasts down here. I find the NOAA weather fax charts (24, 48, and 72 hours) very useful, and I also get the offshore waters text forecast for the SW North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea. I occasionally glance at the virtual buoy predictions on buoyweather.com, but I think they are interpolating finer results than the data warrants.

Others use weather routers and listen to weather nets on the SSB, but again these sources tend to micro-interpret the weather to greater detail than is possible with the data available. I think most cruisers agonize over the weather more than is necessary, and they have lost the ability to think for themselves. Get a decent forecast for the beginning of the trip, avoid any predicted severe weather, and don't trust any forecast more than three days out--it is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Getting Ready to Leave

We're finally getting ready to leave Cartagena, after a great stay of four months. The first big project to tackle was the aquaculture project growing on the bottom of our boat. Our last bottom job dated from August 2005, and Cartagena waters are famed for their fertility (at least for barnacles and muscles). 

We had hired divers to scrape the bottom a few times, to avoid the unpleasant task of swimming in toxic waste, though I had to go over the side a few times myself to open up plugged through hulls and clear the propellor.

We finally decided on going to the synchrolift at Club de Pesca. This is a platform that one floats onto, which is then raised vertically out of the water by a system of winches and cables. Steel arms are raised on either side of the boat at bow and stern to provide support, but the weight of the boat rests on the keel. To ensure proper alignment two divers entered the water to guide the keel onto a central steel beam. A maze of docklines helped keep us vertical. 

Once we finally got into the lift (Colombian time!) the whole process went smoothly. We hired two local hands, Manuel and Escuardo, to help with the scraping and painting, and they worked very hard and well. In fact, the whole operation was very professional, helping to make an unpleasant process as painless as possible. The final price was very reasonable--probably the cheapest haul and launch ever for this cruiser. That was step one in the long process of readying Minke for a rough offshore passage.