February 1, 2007

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!