Our passage from Grenada to Bonaire was our first Westward passage. After several weeks of sailing South down the West Indies, we were both sad to say goodbye but excited to move on to new horizons, to experience new cultures and see new sights. We were on a tight schedule. We were meeting Grey, the Director of “Sea Change”, in Bonaire and then heading from there to Cartagena, Colombia. In Cartagena, Grey had a flight back to the states and on the same day we had several other friends flying in. There is a golden rule in sailing, don’t have a hard schedule. You should always leave flexibility for weather.
We had to motor most of the way to Bonaire from Grenada. The Caribbean Sea was glassy for several days. The calm had heightened out awareness for the threat of pirates. We sailed North of all land by at least 50 miles to keep ourselves further out of the range of speedboats. We followed the advice of several friends in the West Indies and we ran without lights at night, which required exceptionally alert watches. Finally, the wind built a bit more on our last day and we sailed into Bonaire. Upon arriving, we had to fill our fuel and water tanks and check in and out of customs and immigration (all at once since we were only going to be in the country for about 15hours). We met Grey at the fuel dock and found dinner. That evening I had time to connect to Wi-Fi and download our weather forecasting files to see what we had in store. The files downloaded and suddenly my screen was completely dark red. Beginning the morning of our departure, the wind was predicted to build. The first day looked to be great, 20 to 25 knots of wind from the East, but as the days progressed, the wind was forecasted to build up to 35 and 40knots sustained. We had already learned from our passage to Bermuda, that often times the wind is much stronger that what the forecast will show, if heavy weather is predicted, you better believe it will be heavy. The only promising part of the forecast was that the wind and waves would be at our back, which could make for a quick passage. We planned to keep close to the coast and to tuck into the mainland if the weather got too rough. At this point, we were far past Venezuela and Colombia seemed like a much safer place to arrive unexpectedly if we needed to.
Just after 6:00AM we un-tied, having promised customs we would be leaving then, and headed out to sea. We had an early start and the day was beautiful. The first two days were some of the best sailing we have had so far. We caught a Yellow Fin Tuna on the first day, which fed us well for the remainder of the passage. We had time to read, film, and enjoy the return of the trade winds.
On the third day, the wind had picked up a bit. Our 25-knot wind was working its way quickly to 30 knots and then 35 knots. Around mid-day, we decided we should make our way towards shore. We were hoping to get in the lee of the land and if need be, tuck into a harbor for the evening. As we approached the mountainous coastline of Santa Marta, Columbia, the wind picked up. At this point, we had pulled the Jib in with only a sliver remaining and our mizzen was up. We were still making 7 – 10kts on average. Within the last mile of land, we realized the wind was only going to build as it shot down and around the mountains. We braced ourselves and hoped for shelter in the harbor ahead. The wind was now gusting to 40kts 45kts and 55kts. We shot behind the cliffs and had one final blow that was off the charts! With only the Mizzen up, J. Henry got knocked a good ways down. Finally we were clear, however only for a moment.
We immediately pulled our mizzen down. As soon as we passed the first cliff, the wind returned, only this time it came in periodic gusts that took us from 15kts to 50kts. We looked for a good anchorage or ideally a dock. There was nothing in the first small harbor and the wind kept ripping across J. Henry. We motored down to another bay and again found no answers. The small areas that could have provided a decent anchorage were still plagued by these intense gusts of wind. The option became putting down our anchor and having to keep watch overnight to ensure we didn’t blow into the rocks, or to tidy up the boat and push on. The wind was forecasted to remain the same, if not build, for the next several days and therefore we decided to push on. As the sun was setting, the waves grew a bit, as did the wind, but it was more bearable than the gusts we experienced closer to the land. Night came and the full moon rose. The wind and the waves continued to build. I felt that the moonlight came at a necessary time; with the growing waves, it was becoming necessary to turn with the steeper waves and surf them a bit before continuing to make our way north. We were in a large bay and we still needed to clear a point of land before continuing West to Cartagena. The wind and the waves continued to build. After an hour or two sailing in the dark with the moonlight, we had gone from 20ft waves and 35knot winds to 35 – 40ft waves and 50kt winds with gusts to 65. Zach watched for the steeper waves as I manned the helm with a constant eye aft, looking for waves and wind as well. When the strong gusts came up, the entire sea turned to froth. We could hardly look into the weather, but we had to fight. If we allowed one wave to approach us from the wrong direction, we could easily pitch and roll. We fought on. My body was exhausted. My head was focused on sailing but also running through the worst-case scenarios and how to handle them. The fact was, as tired as we were and as rough as it was, we had no choice, we could not quit. One wave came up on us, another big one; I turned J. Henry and braced myself at the helm. The wave crashed on us and shot us out. I saw 17.9kts speed over ground on the sailing instruments. We did not want to break that record!
Finally we were approaching the point on the other side of the harbor. This was also the entrance into a large river that was large enough to be a busy inland shipping route for container ships. We now had to contend with crossing the shipping channel. The big risks were avoiding ships and avoiding channel markers. When the big waves and wind came, we would have no choice but to turn with them and accept where they take us. Zach was on the GPS and I was at the helm. We were both fighting a good deal of confusion, as it was hard to see anything, hear anything or feel anything. Our senses were completely overwhelmed by the conditions of the sea.
The moonlight lit up the wave faces as they came; it lit up the froth the wind created from the sea. We were crossing the channel. We hadn’t had time to think much of the crossing. Our minds were set simply on making it. Another big gust came through, but this time, it felt different, it smelt different. It was fresh water, a lot of fresh water. The moonlight allowed us to see the slightest bit of brown in the water. This water held J. Henry differently; it also changed the patterns we had been sailing in. Now in addition to the massive waves and wind from the East, we had a massive crosscurrent coming from shore. The feeling of it all was almost alien. We sailed on through the river. Finally, as we slowly found ourselves in salt water again, the conditions seemed to lighten. The combination of the river breaking up the seas and us finally rounding the point, helped to ease the weather a bit. My nerves were able to relax just the slightest bit. We sailed on and continued to make our way further into the lee of the land. It was about 3:00AM. We wouldn’t make it into Cartagena until sunrise around 6:30AM. We were caked in salt. We were still sailing in heavy weather, but it was much better. We felt that the worst was over. We decided to take turns going down below and grabbing a hot shower and dry clothes. A ride that rocky, had never felt so luxurious. Around 5:00AM we had a final test. We had to make it around some shallower water. It was plenty deep for J. Henry, however, I was concerned the waves would still stack up as the water changed from 500ft to 25ft. We sailed back out into the sea to get around. Again, the waves began to build. The thought of returning to what we had just made it through was nearly too much. We were exhausted. We finally decided to cut across the shoal in an area that was much narrower on our chart. the thought was that we would at least cross it quickly. I steered J. Henry West again. We didn’t speak. We surfed a few more waves. Luckily the crossing of the shoal was anti-climatic. We made it safely and finally we were able to sail straight for Cartagena. As we came into the harbor, the sun was rising over the city. The swell had flattened. We had made it.
This is the furthest I have ever had push myself; the most I have ever asked of my mind and body. It’s a valuable experience to have. Seldom in most our day-to-day lives, do we have the opportunity live completely in and for the moment. Sailing offers so many of these sorts of experiences, some come easier than others. Both Zach and I are better off because of this last passage, however we both hope we have faced the worst weather we will see for the remainder of this circumnavigation.