Sunday, January 30, 2011

To Cartagena, Colombia

The plan was to eventually arrive at the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. And to get there by April 2011.

Most cruisers will take the scenic route around the leeward and windward islands of the Caribbean (Dominican Rep., Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, and all the Saint-Somewhere's down to Trinidad. Then across the "ABC" islands, across the Colombian coast to Panama.

Not me. I was in a hurry. Not so much to get somewhere specific. But rather to get to somewhere I'd never been before. The quickest way to get there was to go straight south from George Town, Great Exuma, Bahamas, to Colombia.

Galena's track for this trip looked like this:

Galena's 8-day trip from Bahamas to Cartagena, Colombia

Each day's progress and stats are on the left.

Most of the trip was just sitting there, holding on, while Galena dealt with the wind and waves. There were several events worthy of note and I'll cover them here. For anyone who wants a blow-by-blow account of the voyage you can click here for the actual deck-log. But I warn you it's pretty boring.

OK, the highlights.

Getting off the Bahama Banks.

There are three routes I could have taken to get down to the Windward Passage (between Cuba and Haiti).

1. Travel NE to the top of Long Island, then SE along the eastern coast of Long and on to the Windward Passage. (Shown in RED below)
This route was a bit longer than the others and as it turned out, may have been the better choice. But I didn't choose it.

2. Head toward Thomson Bay on the west side of Long, turn back west following Comer Channel after clearing the White Cay Banks, then SE to the top of the Raggeds and off the banks and on to the Windward Passage. (Shown in YELLOW below)
I've run the Comer Channel before and know there's only a couple of 6.5-ft spots. The rest is 8-9 feet deep. The only bad thing would be if the wind doesn't clock around to NW as predicted I would be heading directly into the wind for 12 miles.

3. Cut south through Hog Cay Cut. (Shown in Blue below)
This is a narrow and shallow channel that is not marked except by all the anti-fouling paint in the sand. This shortcut would have saved me about 20nm of travel. But there's only about 4-ft of water at low tide on this route and I need five. I could have waited a day and run through at high tide and probably made it. But I didn't like the idea.

Choices for getting off the banks south of Great Exuma Island

Galena's first day is in Yellow on the above picture.

I departed George Town at 0715 on 22 Jan 2011. I still had the 130% Genoa up and with a full main and staysail Galena was rocketing along at 6-kts.

I got a few radio calls from friends saying goodbye. Pagan Chant, Southern Cross, and Knot Tied wished me well among others.

I dropped the genny for the turn south and then fired up the engine when I had to turn back west; directly into the wind. There was a 2-ft chop and the wind was 15-kts. Galena really doesn't like to go to windward, even motorsailing. But eventually she made it to the west end of Comer Channel and we turned southeast. With the engine secured and just a full main and staysail the ride was smooth and fast. I took advantage of the gentle sailing to get the 130 genny unhanked and the Yankee jib hanked on. Always a struggle to get the sails in the bag and down below.

About nightfall I was in deep water with nothing between me and Colombia but a couple of rocks (named Cuba and Haiti). I was concerned about big ship traffic through the Windward Passage. I was planning on running right down the right-hand edge of the Traffic Separation Zone for southbound ships. But I wouldn't get there until late in Day 3 so I tried to relax and get some rest.

The evening of the first day was a bit tense: First night out and all that. I was expecting a cold front to come through this area about midnight. My plan was to ride the NW- and N-winds that usually follow a cold front. After dark I could see lightening all around the horizon as the squalls started to develop. Your classic "Dark and Stormy Night."

Radar image of squalls accompanying the cold front

The second and third days out (23-24 Jan) were windy and rough. Big seas just forward of the beam were running about 8-ft. Generally uncomfortable.

On the third day a heard a very strange noise and felt Galena slow to a crawl. "This can't be good," I thought. I stuck my head up and saw that the staysail had dropped on deck. I ran up and gathered it up trying to see what had happened. My first thought was that the forestay had parted but, nope, it was still there. Then I saw that the staysail halyard block was lying on the sail. The small shackle that held the block to the ring on the front of the mast had parted.

Galena's staysail halyard block with broken shackle

I have spares, but with the wind and sea state there was no way I was going to go up there. So I gasketed the sail to the boom and raised the Yankee Jib. The Yankee is about the same size (in square feet) as the main so raising it makes a big difference in Galena's performance. As all sailors know, more sail is not always better. But now my choices were limited.

On day thee I remembered that I had a spare halyard on the mast. I think it was originally for a drifter (which I don't have one of). It ran all the way to the masthead so it wouldn't lead fair if I used on the staysail. But I figured if I didn't tension it too much it would be ok. I pulled up the staysail and dropped the yankee. Galena seemed happy.

For the next few days I was constantly raising, lowering and reefing sails. The winds were almost always over 20-kts and either just on the beam or a little ahead. The seas were always over 8-ft with a 3-ft chop on top of that.

I found that the starboard scuppers leaked into the boat. This would be a bother for the entire trip to Colombia. The water made everything on the starboard side of the cabin wet. I had to use a towel and mop up the pilot berth (where it was accumulating) every couple hours. I'll have to find a solution to this problem in Cartagena.

Also of great concern was that my main hatch doesn't seal. I had several (many) boarding waves that ran a couple feet of green water over Galena from port-bow to starboard stern. The tremendous force of water gushed around the hatch and aimed directly at my nav station hitting my radios, charts, and everything else that was lying about.

The dorades were also a source of incoming water. I had left them open because it was hot (82-deg all the time). So a breaking/boarding wave would force water through the dorade and into the cabin. Most things stowed on the starboard side of the cabin were soaked in saltwater. [As I write this I've just finished rinsing off all my canned goods and everything on the nav station.]

One of the breaking waves flooded the cockpit to the point that it literally overflowed! This caused a few problems: First my auto-inflating safety harness, which I had left on deck attached to my jacklines, did it's thing and auto-inflated. Second, the engine control panel was under water for a few seconds. That caused the oil pressure and temperature alarms to short out and sound continuously. Third, one of the boarding waves ripped off my sea curtains. And finally a few odds and ends that I had left lying on deck were now gone (like the bucket I piss in, an old 'Bottom-Sider" seat cushion, the life jacket for the dinghy, et al.).

I re-armed with inflatable harness (I have some spare kits on board) and shut off the engine alarms by turning off the engine electrical power at the main panel.

In spite of all that, some moments are pretty nice out here. Sunrise is usually a good time of day. Especially after a hard night. Here's a typical sunrise from the 28th.

Sunrise on 28 Jan

My plan was to head straight across the Caribbean Sea and grab as much "easting" as I could, when I could. That would allow me to fall off when things got too rough. That part of the plan worked out well.

But when things got really rough, at times when in other circumstances I would have simply hove-to, I felt I couldn't because the current and wind would have carried me too far west to make Cartagena. So I had to just persevere.

The ride was rough inside the cabin. There was no sitting down. It was the classic case where you aim for a spot and fall toward it. Sometimes you hit it; sometimes not.

I was not just bruised from thigh to hip, but actually quite sore. Especially where my hip was constantly crashing into the fiddle rail on the nav station. I may have a permanent bruise there.

The last couple of days were not much fun at all. The wind was on the beam or just behind. But the wind was at 30-kts most of the time and the seas were over 10-ft. But Galena, with just a double-reefed main, rode along confidently.

For some reason pictures, even videos, do not capture the essence of big waves. I took many, many photos of some really big waves as they rolled under (and over) Galena. But they just don't look impressive. Here's an example. This was a really impressive wave, about 10' high. But it looks tame in this picture:

Wave passing under Galena. It's a 10-footer. Honestly

Cartagena has two entrances: Boca Grande and Boca Chica. Chica is 11 miles south of the anchorage I was aiming for. But it's a deepwater ship channel. Grande is at the north end, but there's a 6.5-ft wall under the water (if you cross it in just the right place). With the 4-ft swell running as I passed Boca Grande I wasn't confident enough to attempt it. I went on south to Boca Chica and then motored back to the anchorage at Club Nautico. That meant I was to arrive just after dark. As I came into the small northern harbor I couldn't make out anything against the background of city light. I used my radar to approach to within a few hundred yards of the boats that were furthest south and dropped the anchor in 50-ft of water. I shut down the engine and just savored the stillness. The wind was still blowing but the waves were only a foot high so Galena hardly moved. It was only 1800 but I went to sleep anyway.

Securing the dinghy and motor.
As a rule, here in Cartagena we all keep our dinghies and outboards locked at all times. While there has been a high theft rate here of outboards the Club Nautico dockmaster, John, told me they have not had any thefts yet this year. I don't know if he means calendar year or season; big difference. Anyway, John was telling me this and then, looking at my little, beat-up 2hp outboard he added "Well, in your case I wouldn't worry too much. But they might want your aluminum dinghy."

Anyway, those of us without davits haul our dinks up high enough to keep inquisitive hands out of the dinghy. Here's mine after I've settled in for the night:

Galena's dinghy secured for the night

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