Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Logbook from the Sea of Marquez

Goodbye Santa Marta

September 15th
In her new coats of varnish, hard and shiny as a candy coating, and wearing a new biminy, Tortuga left Santa Marta at 9:30 looking clean, sharp, well-rested. We too left in top sorts after a month of marina living. Preparing for the kind of weather which ushered us into Colombia, a kind of manic sleigh ride, I sea stowed the cabin like never before, rigged the storm trysail, and scoffed at the weather forecast of 1-2 foot seas. After a short motor out we took up a broad reach under full canvas and found that the forecast was correct for once. Now we are moving along nicely at 6 knots in flat seas. It is quiet as a church in the cockpit and the boat is only heeled slightly. Full shade in a freshly painted cockpit. So fresh and so clean.

This morning I felt incredibly anxious about leaving Santa Marta. I felt it in my stomach and chest, and most in the hustle of readying the boat. Had this city begun to take on a feel of home? Was I sad to leave or was it the impending intimidation of the traffic en route to the Panama canal that had me worried? Maybe I was nervous about going to sea again after a month of land-lubbing. Regardless, the Sierra Nevadas are fading into the clouds, the waves are taking on an offshore pattern, and the great big ocean is calming me. We will be at sea for 4-5 days. A short passage but long enough to catch fish, rotate through watches, take some noon sites, and forget land troubles for a while. No nightly fee out here. No sewage overflow or Colombian night club vibrating the hull until 2 a.m.

We had a great day of sailing before the waters off Baranquilla became turbulent. Short steep waves and a dramatic color line in the water. What was slate blue became dark mustard. With it lightning and squalls suffocated the horizon and the wind shifted and stayed on our nose. We sailed close hauled through the squall, which was not severe, but was wide and wet. Afterwards, the wind died and we began to motor.

Day 2
Last night's squall turned to a rolly and windless sea and we motored until 4 a.m., put up sails for a while, and are motoring again this morning. It's hot in the cabin and all berths are see-saws. She is trying to move forward but the conditions just won't allow. I chase mangos and onions across the cabin trying to make lunch and my stomach clenches with each roll. Max is frustrated with the lack of wind and the feeling that a current is trying to push us back to Santa Marta. Our first 24 hours only saw us progress 94 miles. The engine temperature is creeping above 180 and we are only making four knots. Usually, the engine would allow for five at least. The fishing line went off just before lunch and we landed a pretty little Tuna. Just enough for two which is the perfect fish when you don't have refrigeration. Sushi for dinner, steaks tomorrow.

Contents of Tuna Stomach
We motored until 4 p.m. and then decided to put up our spinnaker, as a light breeze began to build. Sail changes can be risky because of the frustration when we spend 30 minutes working and then have to undo everything. Not this time. The sail filled and stayed filled, pulling us forward with enough force to create a bow wake. We marveled at its beauty and strength. What a sail! Our only regret was the thought that we could have done it sooner and saved ourselves from the oppression of the motor.
The biggest sail we have

We had cocktail hour, cold Gin and Tonics if you would like to know, underneath the rainbow shade of our spinnaker. The sun set bright fuchsia among happy clouds and no devilish squall line came to steal the evening from us. Max taught me how to say sunset  in German, sonnenuntergang, sun under goes. We sat on the foredeck and talked about the secret world we feel like we inhabit at sea, our month in Colombia, and that the leaves were certainly changing color at home. We quizzed each other on Spanish sailing vocab with flashcards I made, and lamented when it was time to take down the spinnaker and take up our night watch rotation. Tonight I will have the 8-12 and the 4-8.

8-12 Watch
A full, orange moon is rising. We are on a broad reach with two reefs in the mainsail, the staysail and genoa up. It was such a beautiful evening that Max decided to sleep next to me in the cockpit. The boat is going about its business and the lines of the self-steering system are inches above Max's head going back and forth in their measured way. The moon is bright enough to write letters by and I get to work.
Moonrise kingdom

Day 3- 2:10 a.m.
Max has the shitty watch tonight. The 8-12 and 4-8, leaving very little time for sleep. This means that I make dinner, go to sleep, and wake at midnight for just four hours. Tonight Max woke me at 11:40. He was exhausted. I was sticky and hot slowly coming out of my sleep state. I'm exhausted too. We spent too much time on land. For the first hour of my watch I stare out at the horizon. I study the clouds, the moon, the sails, letting the coffee do its work. The compass oscillates between 270 and 300. We should be sailing 240 but it just isn't possible. The boat keeps turning up. The wind rushes and rushes and then the boat falls off towards 260 and luffs slightly before beginning again. And so it goes, an uneasy s pattern kind of in the direction of where we need to go.

Sunset Day 2

Laura's hobo village
Day 5 
This morning we are close to Panama, technically. 50 miles off but only averaging 4.2 knots! In frustration Max and I laugh that we could walk there faster. If we could walk 50 miles, that is. I can't wait to get there! The passage has been slow. A current has been working against us the whole time and we now realize that, over time, there is a hell of a difference between 4 and 5 knots. We had been relaxed about the time this passage would take as we are really in no rush, but this morning we have
dedicated ourselves to making this boat move faster. All day we have been focused. Trimming sails, changing the sail plan, jibing and seeing if we can track better, never resting satisfied. We will make it to Colon today and it would be really nice to enter one of the busiest ports in the world during the daylight. We pull in our last fish at 11:00 and Max fries it up for lunch. Absolutely delicious and we have no idea what type of fish it is. We took in the pole because it's almost arrival time.

Day 6- Shelter Bay, Colon!!
This morning we woke up in Shelter Bay. A knock on the hull at 7:00 and we moved from the slip we had tied up to at midnight last night. Yes, we arrived in Colon at midnight, navigating through giant barges and tying off to the first empty dock we found in the marina.

I know already that I will fail in explaining the extraordinary entrance we made into Colon port. As my log tells, we were 50 miles off yesterday morning and hoping to arrive before nightfall. Not even close. We crept towards the port and it seemed to get closer very slowly. After dinner I took a nap and when Max woke me up we were 7 miles from the channel markers and it was very dark. The freshly waning moon would not make an appearance from behind the clouds.  Above deck it was already spectacular. A semi-circle of ships flanks either side of the entrance to Colon Port. They are each gargantuan and their intentions come slowly into view. A mass of lights becomes a ship moving east stacked four stories high with containers. Another complex light display is anchored and we can sail right by. You don't know until you are close. It is an understatement to say that a keen eye is essential to knowing what is happening around you as you enter this port.

We had full sails up on a beam reach. The water was flattening out as we got closer and we were able to sail so beautifully through the dark. I was on the helm and Max was running around the boat checking our approach to the channel markers, and picking up on which barges were moving and which were anchored. Lights absolutely everywhere. Smaller channel markers leading to larger channel markers all around, flashing at different intervals. Red, green, yellow, white.  It was Rockefeller Center at Christmas, but silent, with the possibility of getting flattened by a ship at any moment.

We realized more and more that while all this was going on we were also having a tremendous sail. There was time enough between oncoming giants that we could chat easily about completely unrelated subjects in the way we do when we sail the Hudson. Every few minutes we took time to acknowledge how steadily we were slicing through the water, this incredibly busy world quietly going on around us. Were we really sailing into the entrance to the Panama Canal with all our sails up? In the dark!? We called port control on channel 16. We called the marina on channel 74. No answer. Did anyone even care we were arriving?  At airports they seem to care.  Why not at the gate between the Atlantic and the Pacific?

Two miles out from the markers we got down to business. We decided to sail right through and take down sail on the other side. This meant that I needed to sail high, towards the red marker to starboard, not giving up an inch, and that Max had to direct me around moving cargo ships to port where I couldn't see for the sails. Already we had dodged a few big boats that came up behind us at three times our speed, or crossed in front of us throwing off some waves. We put on our spreader lights to illuminate our sails, which worked. They saw how little and cute we were and did not run us over.

As we pulled through the channel the biggest ship we had seen yet, Hamburg Sud cargo vessel, came out of the channel. My heart was beating pretty fast as it passed by, or more like over, us at tremendous speed and I held our course in water completely changed by the bulk of the boat. We were yelping with joy after it passed. Laughing, saying holy shit!! over and over.

So then we were in, but it certainly wasn't over. We had to find the marina in the mess of lights, and the ships were still moving. I turned up into the wind and somehow there was enough room to do a sharp turn to the right and keep sailing.  There must have been a wind shift. The water became even flatter and the wind picked up to around 12 knots. We were slicing through the water like a hot knife through butter, the seawall to starboard and a long line of anchored ships towering over us to port, each as big and complex as its own little city. This sail, the 30 minutes from the entrance of the channel to the marina was the loveliest of my entire life. The dark, flat water and the lights all around. We were sailing a thin line of safety among numerous hazards, and doing so like bosses. Did I mention it was dark? At the height of all of this, Max kept telling me to mind the ship to port, which I did not see. Slowly a strange, unlit cargo ship abandoned and listing came into focus, a ship that I would have hit if not for Max!, and I emitted a quiet wow, I can't believe there are no lights on that as I steered clear of its large hull. Then the seamless entry into a dark marina. Magical.

Inside the marina we were pretty high off the sail. Too much to go to sleep, which we desperately needed. Instead we tidied the lines and the cabin and set off to explore the sleeping marina. We made some cocktails out of passion fruit juice from Colombia mixed with the Vodka our friend Russ gave us when we left Santa Marta, and drank them while swimming in the dark marina pool. Showers, bed, and today already busy with canal transit prep and the upcoming arrival of Max's sister, Anna.

Full Moon Sailing

Gin and Tonics on the Foredeck

Staysail beanbag

Staysail beanbag for two

Rest of picture inappropriate

Sushi Dinner!

Max calculating Noonsite. His was only a half mile off our position. Mine the next day was 120 miles off!
That's why he is the boss.

Monday, September 5, 2016

A La Orden in Santa Marta

Photo courtesy of Anjali 
The evening in Santa Marta begins like this. The sun starts to set in swirled up sorbet colors and we take it as a sign to end the workday. From the marina we walk down the malecon where it seems that the whole city has gathered to watch what the sky will do. There are people dancing on the beach, men selling juices, a woman who sells cafecitos for 500 pesos, wild dogs trotting with testicles or teats swinging, boys whistling after girls, dollars beers from styrofoam coolers, wedding photo shoots, and then me and Max, gringa and gringo, chica and chico, saying no gracias over and over. We tend to draw attention.

From the malecon we turn up Calle 20 and head to the Plaza de los Novios where everything is happening. The plaza is a rectangle of benches and stone gazebos flanked by amber lit restaurants and
flowering trees. Boys practice their break dancing moves in the square and trios of old men in fedoras play and sing. On Fridays young men in Adidas track pants take turns on the stretched goat skin drums of the Tayrona people. Each seems more skilled than the previous. They bang out rhythms so forcefully that broken clubs pile at their feet. The city at night drips with culture and romance. The plazas fill up, everyone drinks on the street, and live music is omnipresent . Every other Saturday, when paychecks are handed out all over the city, it gets really crazy. In general, gringos get a little extra attention (offers of quieres coca are whispered as we pass) but we have never felt ripped off. Quite the opposite, Colombians are affable and accommodating.

Early on Max and I were enchanted by Colombia, and Santa Marta, and have remained here almost three weeks. We have had friends visit from home, explored the mountains, El Parque Tayrona by sea and by land, and had many nights on the town in Santa Marta.  We have local friends to adventure with, a feel for the city, and a bit more boat work to do before we leave. It is certainly different to be right in the heart of the city. There is a nightclub next to us where people dance on a terrace until 3 a.m. The same songs play over and over, regaetone, salsa, regaetone, salsa. A few hours later a Zumba class runs from 6-7 a.m. on a nearby roof. It is loud. We hate the Zumba class. Max day dreams of shooting the instructor with the flare gun. We know that soon we will be alone at distant anchorages, so for now we don't begrudge ourselves the easy step from the boat to a dock, the air-conditioned captain's lounge, or the daily shower.

We decided to stay at the Marina Santa Marta. It was built five years ago and is lauded as the "safest, most beautiful marina in the country" by the local mariners. There is no evidence to suggest
Photo courtesy of Anjali 
otherwise. The facilities are sparkling clean, as are the docks, and the front gate is heavily secured. We haven't felt that Santa Marta is a dangerous city, but it does feel nice to leave the boat to go into the mountains without thinking twice. We pay $23 a night which includes wifi, water, and electricity. We also have a grill area where sailors tend to gather, showers, laundry, and a small store with the cheapest beer in Santa Marta. Within a few minutes walk there is a very nice Carulla supermarket, and a little farther is a huge Exito, which is something like Target. There is an open market five blocks into town where it seems that you can get whatever you want, taking breaks for street food and fresh juices. Specifically, the market is great for having things sown while you wait, finding fabric, having electronics fixed on the side of the street, and small hardware stores where we have been very successful.

Entering Colombia was much different than what our research suggested. The reputation of strict customs guidelines, an expensive agent to help you clear in, or officials boarding the boat to inspect have all been false. We pulled into the marina in the simplest way. A call on 16 and a clear channel
brought us to a dock where men in polo shirts tied us off. After minimal paperwork in the office, we were free to move about. Customs officials never came and we were cleared remotely by the free marina agent. For sailors reading this, don't hire an agent to enter Santa Marta. We did have to pay $100 for the temporary importation of our vessel, but that's it. Many of you have probably not read the sailing forums about this port, but they make it seem much more complicated. Other places on the Colombian coast are not as well reputed, such as Cartegena and Barranquilla. A friend here says if you want to know what hell feels like, anchor in Cartegena. So we have followed the advice of locals and mariners and struck gold in Santa Marta.

As far as the night life is concerned, I have to mention our favorites. We always start with Iguanas where, in a couch on the street, we can sip ridiculously good cocktails made from local fruit while listening to live music. After that we head to a bar to dance called La Puerta where Max and I try to make our hips do what Colombians hips do. Impossible. These people are incredible. La Puerta is a high-ceiling brick maze filled with local art. They play dance music to a silent film background. Shakira blasting while Charlie Chapman fumbles. If you don't dance at this place, some one will make you.

Another great spot is a creperie called Bienvenue opened recently by a French couple we met through a mutual friend. Adjacent to the Plaza de los Novios, Nicholas and Aurelia serve sweet and savory crepes with foreign beer in a very hip store front. Tres Brooklyn.

The neighboring bay, Taganga, is a small fishing village with a  free and secure anchorage. It doesn't have a great reputation because last year two Ausie sailors were tied to their mast and robbed by some locals, but we went there the other night and had a blast. There is a restaurant on the beach called Tacos, owned by an expat from Tennessee named Tony, and his lovely partner Caro. They are incredibly hospitable and Max talked at length with Tony about creating a security patrol that looks over boats while at anchor or on a mooring. As Santa Marta blows up, and more cruisers come, a safe and free anchorage in Taganga will be valuable. For now, we are cautious enough to pay for the dock in Santa Marta. As much as I enjoy likening myself to Odysseus, I don't want to be tied to the mast, even if to escape the sirens. Actually, if the sirens come, I think I am supposed to tie Max to the mast.

On the other side of Santa Marta, there is a bay called Inca Inca where you can anchor, snorkel, and have a lunch of fresh fish delivered to your beach cabana. From there we were able to hike up the mountain for stunning views of the coastline. Unfortunately, Colombia suffers from a plastic
pollution issue, and this particular walk revealed a lot of plastic bags in the cacti. Like in Dominica, they are trying to eradicate this problem, but it looks at times like they have a long way to go yet. How sad it is to look into the turquoise water of the marina and see three Barracuda and a empty Doritos bag. Anyway, there are many places in much worse shape.

Our one disappointment about Santa Marta is that sailboats cannot anchor in El Parque Tayrona overnight. Understandably, they want to prevent destruction of the reef, however, you can anchor for the day, and I am still trying to figure out how that makes sense. We have gone there once so far and anchoring was a challenge. It's deep and then suddenly shallow. The reefs are hard to avoid and it doesn't feel right to hook into a giant brain coral.

The best part of Santa Marta, and maybe the entire trip has been the adventures we have had with friends. Those who have visited us so far, Jay, Anjali, and Henny, have refreshed our sense of adventure by their sheer joy at seeing things that we see often. I remember Henny sitting on the bowsprit for hours surrounded by dolphin in huge seas. I remember Jay literally screaming with joy watching the dark-haired Colombian girls salsa (bit more raunchy than salsa) with one another at a local dance club, and Anjali's tireless hunt for the best ceviche.

At the marina we have also met stellar friends. Manny, who owns a steel-hulled boat called Artic Front, is a 30 year old Colombian who speaks perfect English and German. At night he tells us stories over beers in the street. Stories of fighting the FARC in the jungle, being falsely imprisoned in Panama for smuggling immigrants (he was really just running a charter), and the strange way he came to own a sailboat fit for the southern ocean. He says that the best things that have ever happened to him have happened because he speaks English, and he learned that from video games. That's also how I learned to fight the FARC, he adds. Manny's heart is big and he helps us with everything, whether that means a shared cab to a hardware store, a night of partying on the town, or a BBQ on Artic Front. By his own loud and frequent exclamation, he is a crazy Colombian man.

We plan to leave Santa Marta in just nine days to head to Panama. We have had a tremendous time here and will always feel at home in this town. On the horizon we have challenges awaiting us, getting through the canal for instance, but we also have much to look forward to. Max's sister Anna is coming for three weeks of cruising! Together the three of us will explore the Las Perlas archipelago on the Pacific side of Panama and then head to Nuqui, Colombia to pick up Ian and head for the Galapagos. This has already been an immense experience. but as the school year starts in NY, and we plan to head through the canal to a different ocean, it seems like it is getting even more real.

Here are a million more pictures...