Yes they exist…
Waiting for a weather window in Isla Mujeres next to an Israeli catamaran we noticed a pattern. The wind was howling from the East through the Caribbean with no letting up for the next 10 days, and that was the forecast every single day. You can get a reliable forecast for 5 days and after that the percent of accuracy fades. We needed to head SE before we could head to Panama, as Nicaragua juts out to the East between the Yucatan and Panama. Our insurance requires us to be south and we want to be there too. Hurricanes are no fun. No fun at all and the season was approaching.
Finally we met someone who helped us make a critical change of course.
Instead of heading SE, beating upwind and bashing the boat to get around the dangerous banks off Nicaragua; dangerous because there are hidden rocks but even worse, pirates who cling to them and attack unsuspecting boaters. Brad advised us to consider motor sailing east or even east north east towards Cuba, hugging the coast but keeping 12 miles offshore to stay in international waters, then stopping in Grand Caymen, and Then head south. We exchanged e mails with him for our IridiumGo and he not only kept in touch, but also watched the weather and our path. In addition to Brad, we had friends onshore across the USA knowing our plans, tracking us, sometimes chatting with texts, and we made sure they knew if and when we left, changed routes, and when we landed. This was the first time I was extremely diligent about keeping people in the loop of our plans. We will continue to do on long passages as it worked really well when things got rough. And rough they got. For us and for our friend Kat who was on a boat that followed our lead in trying to get south and around Nicaragia safely.
The sail to Grand Caymen took approx. 2 days. Day 1 was spent sailing across the narrow strong Gulf Stream (again).
It took us north of our rhumb line course but once we were alongside the south side of Cuba things calmed down and we motor-sailed until the wind filled in again the following day.
Sailing off Cuba, almost retracing our wake in the opposite direction from February, we were sailing at night in awe of the majestic feeling when out at sea away from land, Wifi, and all the other trappings we get comfortable with.
On top of the cabin to watch shooting stars and satellites on a moonless night studded with stars, planets and the Milky Way, we found ourselves marveling at the beauty that surrounded us. There is no ambient light off Cuba to diffuse the universe’s brilliance. We were alone.
A half moon rose at 01:00 and a tint of the Sahara dust was in our nostrils.
The dust actually helps prohibit cyclone activity by keeping humidity lower. Always grateful for nature to behave.
As much as we hope not to arrive at night to new destinations, we arrived around midnight but it was calm and easy breezy. We did not have to enter a harbor, rather we needed to find a mooring ball on the lee side of the island. Happy that Garmin, Active Captain and Navionics are all combined now. That means we can look at a chart, zoom into an area, see an icon, click on it and read what other cruisers have said. Lots of input and great advice out there. We called the Port Authority who were courteous and helpful and picked up a free mooring for the night. Always grateful to have a good nights sleep.
The next 3 days were filled with exploring the island (not much there if you don’t have a boat or access to one) and the highlight was swimming with dozens of rays who would eat out of your hand,
then eating at Rum Point where the Mudslide drinks were invented. Think ice cream and Baileys. Rum Point got its name from all the rum kegs that washed up on the beaches from shipwrecks that didn’t see the barrier reefs.
The big question hovers over our heads.
Do we stay or do we go?
Usually the forecast gives you the answer. This time however many variables are in place.
#1 It is hurricane season and with global warming we take this very seriously.
Not only does our insurance company require us to be south of Latitude 12 40 by July 1st, we know that storms can come at any time. There are 48 hour outlooks, and 5 day outlooks for cyclone activity, but when you are 3-4 days from the next safest port that isn’t much of a window. And if we are on a passage and something brews we need to head south and fast! South ids Venezuela. We are not allowed to go there (insurance), nor do we want to. Remember Sir Peter Blake at the famous Kiwi who was shot and killed when they were boarded by pirates? He was working with the Cousteau Society. I digress.
A British hurricane relief ship is right behind us and has been here for days. They have a lot of territory to cover!
2# The wind is howling across the Caribbean and hasn’t let up nor will it for the next 10 days. Seas are building. Currently around 6-10′.
#3. The CAPE factor which measures instability in the atmosphere is at its appex. Instablility translates to likelihood of clouds building because of the humidity and heat thereby forming large cells which can and often include lightening.
From a scale of 1-10 the CAPE is now a 10. I used to be afraid of sharks. Now it’s lightening because it can take out all our instruments and all things with batteries, wires, bluetooth and and and. It can cause a fire which would be only one of two reasons we would abandon ship, the other being on a reef and sinking or something like that. So yeah, I do not like lightening at all. We will dodge the squalls in a game aptly called Dodge Squall.
#4. The waves will be on our beam. If we head south towards Panama we should miss the pirates off Venezuela, but the waves will be on our beam, not a good choice. So we will head high to begin the journey then head down when things get more spicey. That keeps us in the CAPE zone longer. Ugh.
A few other cruisers arrived and were planning the same route. When it looked like once again no real decent weather window we decided to head out. The Caribbean winds were still howling but we’d have over 100 miles before we’d reach them. Jamaica was a bit of a buffer to the east.
The other boats arrived after us and needed more time for provisioning and would leave the following day. Our boat is faster so we didn’t feel like wasting any more time, plus they were going straight to Panama and once again we were thinking of changing plans. Instead of going to Panama or the Bocas de Toros, an archipelago off of Costa Rica and owned by Panama, we would break up the trip and stop in Colombian Islands La Providencia and St Andres. Again, always good to stop, see new places and sleep when it’s just the 2 of us. Changing our plans had become a pattern and each one was working out for the best.
So there we were, leaving after checking out of customs, hoping the storms predicted would abate or just calm down and stop, but no, they were going to be an all afternoon and evening slalom course.
The sailing was decent, we were making good time, sailing SE between Grand Caymen and Jamaica.
However it was one of the worst nights we’ve experienced since we started cruising 5 years ago.
The idea was to sail the fastest point of sail as far east as possible before the wind howled and the seas built and then head down towards Panama surfing and sailing with the wind and seas at a good angle to push us along. Using radar to track storms, we also had our eyes peeled to watch out for those that were still developing. When you see a cloud that reaches up to the heavens it’s not good. Our senses were on high alert. During the day it’s obviously easier to watch storms grow, but at night when the lightening sparks up the entire sky with tentacles reaching in every direction it gives you a good indication of how large the storm and clouds are. That night it was frightening. Nervous Nelly here doesn’t touch anything metal, puts all electronics that aren’t being used in the microwave to protect them, and hopes we are lucky. Of course we were changing course and using our best storm tactics we could and that helped a lot. But sometimes it’s all about timing and ours was good and lucky. If we left a couple hours later we could have been under a huge cumulomambonimbus. This the name of the monster of all clouds that can reach over 50,000′!
No dodging it as we looked back and saw it take over the sky behind us. Ay yay yay. And that was the afternoon! Anyway, we worked hard all night and finally got past all that s—t by morning. Cruising along at 10-13 nicely, taking naps on our off watches we rested up for one more night offshore.
That night Brad saw our tracks and that we were headed too close to the Seranillo Banks. There is a light on this small bank and an outpost for the Columbian Armada however he said they are not always on station and there are 2 boats missing at the moment who were in this area. WTF!?!
And while we thought our course was taking us safely far enough off of Nicaragua, it turns out even at 200 miles offshore we were too close. The pirates are now hanging off of tiny little cays way out to sea, waiting for boats to come by and attack. Some have AK47’s, other have machetes, but how do you know until they are alongside? We’ve seen the movie Captain Philips twice. It’s not pretty. And we’ve read the CSSN reports that lately have reported piracy and deaths in this area of the Caribbean. This we do not take lightly. So when our new buddy in Mexico wrote us at midnight saying we were heading towards a pirates den we freaked! There was a choice. Head upwind and bash in 20-25 knots, 8-12’ seas, or keep sailing on a broad reach, hauling ass, turn all lights off, AIS off, and use eyes and radar while heading a little deeper and keeping 40 miles inside the cays. We chose the latter. We grabbed our machete, bear spray, flare gun and placed it on the galley table. Just in case. In hindsight it was a joke. At the time we had no idea some boats have AK47’s which was probably a good thing. And honestly, we know that if we ever get boarded we have to hope and pray they don’t hurt us. Having a gun onboard means you must be willing to shoot to kill, be trained for that, and hope they don’t shoot first. We will give them everything. Just don’t take our lives.
Our thought process included the fact that it was rough out there. To try and keep up or board a boat would be extremely difficult. For them to spot us they would need to be close enough to see us in the pitch black night. That would be extremely lucky unless they had radar. Which some might if they’ve hijacked a boat with it. More often the reports are about pangas so sailing over 10 knots boat speed means we can outrun most of them. The conditions were very prohibitive for boarding or keeping up so we went for it. And it worked. We sailed through the night like a ghost ship communicating with friends, sharing our location and staying on high alert throughout the night.
It was a long night filled with adrenaline. We saw cargo ships on AIS that were heading north after passing through the Panama Canal but other than that nothing, nada.
As dawn emerged it was a bit hazy but otherwise good weather conditions and we still had plenty of wind. Our next island was another 50 miles away. That felt relatively close. And then it happened. A ship showed up on radar but not on AIS. All commercial ships must use AIS. We decided to turn our AIS on to help ships see us. This ship was not heading north in the opposite direction, it seemed to be pacing us but staying 4 miles away. And it was big enough to show up on radar yet we couldn’t see it with our eyes. Using binoculars it was blending into the hazy horizon and then we finally understood why. It was a metal grey Colombian Armada frigate (Coast Gaurd) patrolling the area. Providencia is a Colombian island and there is still a fair amount of drug traffickers out there plus did we mention pirates so they were doing their job patrolling. They eventually moved on but it certainly got our heart rate pumping! Again!
The exception to using AIS (which we also experienced in the USA) is that Naval ships go under the radar when they are practicing or trying to hide. Now we knew why this ship was undetected except for on radar. Now we truly felt safe(r).
Arriving in La Providencia, we were deservedly exhausted and after calling in to the authorities we went straight to sleep. Never did we need to relax more from 2 nights at sea!
After a lengthy and costly check in with the infamous Mr. Bush we did a walk about. The process included a scooter ride.
There were many Colombian tourists coming from the mainland by ferry from Nicaragua. A carnival had taken place the day before and the island was littered with trash. This island deserved more time than we gave it, but the clock ticked on and we felt the urge to keep moving south.
But not before we did a dinghy discovery cruise to the small island called Catalina. Since we live in San Diego when not cruising it felt fitting to go see this little paradise.
The decision to move on was a good one. After checking out of customs we pulled anchor at 12:30, and 56 miles later, arrived at 19:00, or 7PM. As we rounded the reef and corner of St Andres we jibed and were flying at 9 knots in the channel. The Armada came out to greet/board us in a fast RIB, requesting us to slow down with hand signals. I was driving and gestured not possible. A large tanker called us on the radio and asked us to hug the starboard side of the channel – they were departing. The channel bends and as things go we passed each other right at the bend. They were sliding sideways, there was a reef on our right, a large metal government buoy, and no room for error. They stopped skidding just in time and we passed close but not dangerously close. It was yet another case of good seamanship in tight conditions. When we finally got the anchor down it was dusk and the Armada came aboard. The group comprised of 3 young men and 1 women. They divided and conquered with one staying on their boat, one doing the paperwork and the other 2 looking through El Gato. They lifted every cushion, opened every drawer, and checked under each and every hatch board. We’ve never had such a thorough inspection even in Cuba where we could have smuggled someone out easily. Maybe they would be OK with that? We’ll never know.
It’s a little embarrassing to see what they see, or see it through their eyes. We have rum and wine stashes under 3 bilges! My bra was on the desk top in our cabin, and dirty clothes were draped over the hamper. Needless to say we weren’t expecting company and there was no time to tidy up.
They were relaxed and fine with me snapping photos.
The female agent hailed from Bogota and spoke a little English. She wanted to know the difference between the words for sailboat and sailor.
Knowing some keys words is good in any country but the most important thing when traveling to new countries is to be very polite and smile. When you make them feel human, like fellow beings and respect them for doing their job, it really helps ease the process. It’s always been our goal to make them smile, and most times it’s easy. When it’s not, it becomes a challenge. So far we have achieved our goals.
While we were barreling down the channel on our way in being chased by the Armada we got a radio call from Kelly on NautiKal, guiding us in to the anchorage and offering help. They are friends of a friend named Caren on Serenity who we met in Grenada and had let them know we were coming.
Kelly and Darren – NautiKat invited us over for wine and chats and we enjoyed meeting and sharing stories discovering we have mutual cruising friends like Christine and Matt on Sugar Shack and Cindy and Steve on Willow. So nice to meet fellow cruisers and let our hair down after so much sailing and worrying.
The next day we rigged our windsurfers and saw 2 dinghies return from a session of kiting.
Mike – “We kite in the AM, do boat jobs, coffee at 4 onshore with friends, dinner, rinse and repeat!”
He gives me the best mental picture of how to kite than anyone ever has. As much as I’ve watched and even commentated on kiting during the AC Open races, I have not gotten past the blast and splash and have put my foot in the sand about trying again. Even Eric has decided it’s easier to sail with me than rig his own kite, worry about getting back to the boat, and finding a good place to launch. Most places are sketchy. But if you stay in one place like these guys and you know the area and are addicted to the sport then it all makes sense. Our MO is to keep moving on and seeing new places so finding the perfect spot is not so easy. The next day we meet at the kiting place and I take off on my windsurfer after getting freaked about kiting, again. My thought process goes like this: If I were younger and could afford to crash and splash until I felt like it was riding a bike I’d be all in. My body is showing many signs of a life well lived and played hard so I am trying to preserve what I still have left. Windsurfing is my sport and I embrace it. It may as the kiters say harder physically, but I’ve never felt like I could die if I screw up on a windsurfer or if someone makes a mistake and screws me up. So there you have it. I’m never going to be that lady out there kicking ass on a kite at 60. Who cares! I know in my heart of hearts if I had started when I was 20 something I would be racing them and flying as high as the kite would carry me. So I brought my camera and snapped shots of others crushing it. Kelly was learning and did a beautiful job of getting up and gliding – especially since she has hardly any feelings in her legs!
Instead of suffering through another humiliating day of trying to kite, I took off on my own and windsurfed to a little island called Rose Cay. Bought a delightful drink made with fresh coconut juice and bought pearl earrings for me and my friends. A young man was feeding his friend the sting ray just like in Grand Caymen but this time it was shallow and calm so easy to touch and enjoy the experience.
That night we had a date at a restaurant called Club Nautico and it was wonderful! The food was excellent and the ambience incredible.
The next day we walked around town.
and that night we hung out with the other cruisers, most of who stay in St Andres for the kiting and community. Someone organized a beer tasting field trip to a new brewery. What was to be a short walk wound up being a group of gringos lost in the city with police guarding and escorting us.
Turns out the location took us though some less than desirable neighborhoods and the police did not want us getting hurt on their watch.
The Barracuda beer was good, the presentation great, and we all had a really good time. I don’t even like beer. Hahah
The next day we made plans to sail further south. Tom advised us to skip Panama. Too many storms, lightening, and mildew at this time of year, and we planned to leave the boat for 6 months. He said we’d return to a boat covered in mushrooms. LOL. So much for visiting Boca De Toros and hauling at Shelter Bay Marina. But I’d read about Cartagena and was excited. And first we would stop in the San Blas Islands where it’s like walking into a National Geographic story.
Next blog, San Blas and Cartagena.