Sailing in the 5th most dangerous waters, ever!

Cabo de la Vela had been our nightmare for weeks – the countless sailors we’d spoken to agreed on one thing only; “be careful when rounding it, that’s where the winds compress and blow like crazy, there are huge waves and the wind blows at 40+ knots”. To my probably naive question, when is the best time to do the crossing, the answer had been “when it’s less shitty”!

The 400 miles between Aruba and Cartagena are famous for having the worst weather conditions in the Caribbean, and the passage ranks among the top five worst passages around the world.

Though all sailors agreed on the fact that we shouldn’t underestimate Cabo de la Vela and that the crossing from Curaçao to Colombia was the roughest of the Caribbean’s, there were different currents of opinions when it came to the best way to round the Cabo, with some sailors saying the safest way was to keep more than 100 miles off-shore and be weary of the gusts (“reduce all sails and bring them all down if you need to, motoring your way through”); and others saying it was much better to go closer to the coast as to be protected from the wind gusts.

Half relaxing half sleeping, fighting the seasickness caused by the confused seas!

I’m glad we asked!

It goes without saying, we were all a bit nervous before departing. To be on the safe side, I called all family members and friends in case it was the last time I heard their voices :)!

This was one of those times I wished I didn’t have so much information about the passage, and boats in general! When we first bought Gladan, I enjoyed sailing so much more! You know why? I had no idea of all the things that could break and go wrong and therefore it was all about, you know, enjoying!!

You know what they say, “if there’s anything worse than knowing too little, it’s knowing too much”…

For example, one of my misconceptions at the beginning of my “sailing career” was that I’d feel reassured by the presence of the coastline, thinking “what could possibly go wrong?… there is land nearby!”

What I’ve quickly learned is that if you’re caught in the middle of a storm with strong winds and big waves, you’re better off waiting out at sea than trying to, for instance, enter an harbour. The things you learn along the way!

The Crew

With Beatrice, Gc’s niece, it was three of us onboard for the crossing. Well, two (kind of) experienced sailors and a beautiful anchorwoman in charge of reporting our sailing voyage minute by minute.

Beatrice and GC in Curaçao

We couldn’t find any sailing buddies on a similar time schedule, so we were going to cross on our own. And since Beatrice’s boyfriend, Ludovico, was going to wait for us in Colombia, there was no time to waste!

The pre-departure

Few days before our departure, we met a couple, an Italian skipper and his English partner, who had just sailed upwind for 3 consecutive days from Santa Marta to Curaçao. They had been bashed by 30+ knots of wind and 3 metres waves for, I’d like to stress that, 3 consecutive days, while treating themselves to roast chicken and vegetables, and apple pie.

Now, I’m kind of a competitive person and I thought – if they managed to do it upwind while fleshing out a chicken thigh, surely we can do it downwind while slicing a pizza!

And off we went!

The departure

We set off from Santa Cruz Bay, north-west of Curaçao, very early in the morning on San Valentine’s day. The wind was 20 to 25 knots so quite ideal for sailing, but the sea was very confused with waves coming from different sides, making the first part of the journey rather uncomfortable. The sky was grey most of the day but, at least, it did not rain.

Beatrice and I on shift :)! Though it might look otherwise, we did keep an eye on the road, from time to time!!

The sea conditions improved when we got closer to Aruba: the sea was flatter and we were sailing at a broad reach (at 135° off the wind).

We also got signal because of the proximity to land, so Gc could do some of his beloved Facebook lives and Beatrice could speak with Ludovico to reassure him; we had started our trip and we should get to Colombia in a day or two…

The second day of the crossing, the sun was shining and Gc didn’t miss his chance to polish his beloved Gladan!

Bioluminescence, my friends!

The best part of the trip was the 2nd night of sailing, when we passed by the Los Monjes islands, off the Venezuelan coast. For the first time since we started sailing, I witnessed the phenomenon of bioluminescence.

What an incredible thing to experience!

While Gladan was smoothly sailing across the ocean, at a comfortable speed of 7.5 knots, downwind, his wake was populated by teeny tiny sea fireflies that made the whole experience magical!

The funny thing about this phenomenon is that the light produced by the microscopic plankton is actually a defence mechanism. The light these microorganisms release helps to temporarily blind their predators, or to attract their predators’ predators, taking the attention away from them! Teeny tiny yes, but incredibly smart!

Beatrice enjoying the first lights of the day!

Rounding Cabo de la Vela

We had planned to round the tricky Cabo de la Vela in daylight but Gladan sailed so fast that we got there around 4 am, in full darkness.

The wind blew at 30 knots. We had only the jib on and were ready to reduce it when necessary. We had opted for an in between option (from the two conflicting ones that had been recommended to us), and decided to keep 30 miles away from the coast, following the 100 metres depth line.

Our track for the crossing from Curaçao to Santa Marta.

We were all on alert; the treacherous Cabo was here, and so were the huge waves!

As in all matters of life, perception is key. Depending on the point of view you adopt when looking at things, you perceive them differently. This applies to waves as well!

One thing is to see a 3 metre wave from the cockpit (meaning from a position of disadvantage, where you feel like you’ll be submerged by it, should it decide to briefly pay you a visit) and a totally different one is to experience it from the height of the flybridge, zipped inside the enclosure (and sometimes also tucked in below the blanket… ).

As I said, it’s all a matter of perception. And waves do look smaller when you’re taller than them – that’s why I spent most of the passage on the flybridge!

Long passages can be very tiring..!

When wind gusts reached 35 knots, we reduced the jib till it looked like a handkerchief, and waited to see what’d happen next. We had to keep an eye on some unexpected shallow patches we got quite close to, with the sea depth suddenly dropping from 100 metres to less than 20 metres. We realised that something was wrong because the waves quickly got steeper, so we adjusted the route to move away from the shallows.

Big waves…..
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta!

Several hours later, we could see the peaks of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountain range in the world. Our destination was close!

Little we knew that the worst was still to come. The last few hours were the scariest ones, at least for me. Once we reached Cabo de la Aguja, it was time to turn and start heading south towards the marina de Santa Marta. The wind reached 40 knots and waves were coming from the side.

A female frigate bird with her freshly caught prey.

During our last miles, we had big following waves, a few of which broke into the cockpit and flooded it. Since we had left the saloon’s door open, I rushed downstairs from the flybridge, and shut the door behind me. Luckily no water had got inside, but it could have been very dangerous. I spent the last thirty minutes or so tiding up the messy living area, while Gc and Beatrice were filming the huge seas behind us.

Beautiful sunset @ Santa Marta marina.

Arrival in Santa Marta

Once close to the marina, the sea was flatter and we were filled by the excitement of realising that;

a) the passage was over and we were still in one piece,

b) the 3 days long ride on the rollercoaster was about to end

c) we were finally going to sleep!

Ludovico, Beatrice’s boyfriend, was already waiting for us on the pontoon. The marina of Santa Marta was different from what we were expecting. It is very modern and surrounded by skyscrapers and high mountains.

We made friends with the security guards of the marina – everyone was very polite and efficient there!

It’s part of the IGY chain and it’s a gated marina, with security guards checking on people coming and going, as Ludovico could testify; he was thoroughly questioned before being allowed in!

The view from our dock, inside the marina.

We celebrated the successful ending of yet another adventure with very cold beers. We had made it through the fifth most dangerous waters in the world, in one piece!

There is nothing like a well deserved drink after a long passage!

“Bonbini Dushi”!! Sailing through tricky waters to get to Curaçao!

A time comes when you know you need to go. You get some kind of ‘island fever’ and start feeling restless. You miss that cocktail of freedom, fear and excitement you only experience when sailing.

After months spent with our new friends in Bequia, playing pétanque and tennis, hiking and having way too many sundowners…saying goodbye wasn’t easy. But we had to!

The view from the top of Mount Peggy, Bequia
On top of the world!
Princess Margaret Beach, Bequia.

Our next destination – Curaçao

Curaçao belongs to the so called ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao). Geographically speaking, they’re not in that order; the first island you encounter coming from East is Bonaire, Curaçao is in the middle, and Aruba is the last of the three. I’m specifying this for a reason, other than just being pedantic :): while sailing east to west is quite a pleasant experience, I wouldn’t say the same about the opposite. Let’s say you come from East and decide to stop directly in Curaçao, like we did; going to Bonaire from there is no cup of tea! With 2.5/3 metres waves in your face and the wind on the nose, even a relatively short journey from one island to the other needs to be carefully planned.

The last goodbye to our good friends Joakim and Virginie from Drakkar @ Plantation House Bequia

Coming from Bequia, our trip to Curaçao was roughly 460 NM, which at an average speed of 6 knots, meant 3 nights and 4 days of downwind sailing. We took it easy and sailed most of the time with only the jib on. When the wind was lighter, 15 to 20 knots, we would have both the jib and the code 0 open.

The sailing was very enjoyable, despite the big waves (2.5 metres). Luckily the period between them (the interval between one and the other) was such that they didn’t bother us too much, that’s also because they were coming from the back!

Hiking in Bequia!

Sailing through tricky waters

In the past, there have been incidents of boats navigating close to the Venezuelan coast, who had been boarded and robbed, so we were a bit afraid at the idea of sailing in tricky waters. And when I say a bit, I mean I would freak out any time a boat, especially of fishermen, appeared to be chasing us. Mentally, I would go through all the best hiding places on the boat (wrapped up inside the code 0, or the second jib, inside one of the spacious cupboards containing electric cables, under the mattress in our cabin, right next to the leaky boiler Gc keeps fixing!)

I would have preferred to wait and travel in a convoy, but we couldn’t find other sailors leaving at the same time, so we decided to go anyway. I mean Gc did….:) I’m ok with procrastinating!

Our tricks not to be tricked!

During the navigation, we kept at a great distance from the Venezuelan coast, and turned the AIS off at night, from time to time. Luckily, the passage was uneventful, and we only met loads of cargo ships and few fishing boats on our way. The first night was quite challenging as the area off the Grenadines was very trafficked.

We kept seeing one cargo after the other on the radar, and needed to make sure we wouldn’t get hit by any! The other two nights instead, we were almost completely on our own, no one else around except for a great full moon which made the crossing quite magical.

Gc and I did 3 hour shifts starting around 9pm and finishing at 9am. After the first one and half days, we got into the routine and didn’t feel tired anymore. Gc spent most of the crossing experimenting with a new way to make focaccia dough, which doesn’t require kneading, and baked one tray after the other.
I spent time reading books, memorising poems and eating a lot of focaccia, while Gc perfected his technique :)!

“Bonbini Dushi” – Welcome to Curaçao sweetheart!

When we finally got to Curaçao, it was noon. Entering Spanish Waters, the main anchorage, was quite an experience. After months in the Grenadines, we were immediately hit by the change of scenery; luxurious villas scattered along Santa Barbara beach and golf resort, super yachts moored along the pontoon. We were not surprised to find out this is one of the richest and most expensive parts of Curaçao.

Spanish Waters’ anchorage though is definitely not one of our favourites. It is very crowded, the water is muddy, and it’s quite dangerous to swim around because of the motor yachts constantly passing by at full speed, and with loud music on. No chance of them seeing or hearing you if you happen to be swimming in the wrong place. A few weeks before our arrival, a boy had lost his life there, run over by one of these speed boats.

At weekends, there is more traffic here than in central London!

The only dinghy dock where you can leave the tender is small and rather neglected. You’ll see dinghies parked in second and third row and getting off yours can be quite challenging. The only positive note is that there is a security service, so less chances of your dinghies being stolen.

Despite this premise, we loved Curaçao and actually had a great time there! After 30 minutes on the island, we had already experienced first hand how nice, kind and genuinely happy to help, locals are.

Sunbathing on Kalki beach – Curaçao
Kalki Beach – Curaçao

The day we arrived and anchored in Spanish Waters after 4 days out at sea, we needed to go to Punda (the town centre) to check in into the island. This is a rather time consuming process as the customs and immigration offices are far from Spanish Waters, and they’re not close to each other. We read that it normally takes up to 3 hours to complete the check in.

Our case, though, was quite different! After leaving the dinghy at the gated dock, we asked for information about the buses going into town. The guard standing close by told us that they were not very frequent, that we had just missed one, and would have to wait at least an hour for the next. Reading disappointment on our tired faces he added, “wait a second”…and stopped a car about to exit the parking area. After a quick chat with the driver, we were welcomed aboard a comfortable Toyota Yaris and offered a lift all the way to the Customs office!!

Thirty minutes later, we were on a hunt for the immigration office, which was proving very difficult to find…we asked for information and… there we go…. another kind driver offered to take us there! He dropped us in front of the immigration office and waved us bye!

Last but not least, once we had completed all the check in procedure, we mentioned we didn’t know how to find our way back, and one of the immigration officers offered to give us a lift back to the town centre; 3 lifts in less than 2 hours! What a welcome!

The Queen Emma’s Bridge, connecting Punda and Otrabanda. It’s also known as the “Old swinging lady” as it was built in 1888!

Once in the beautiful town centre, we found a nice bar by the canal, and sipped the first cold beer in 4 days, which tasted incredibly great. Around us, the colourful building of Punda’s promenade, which looks a bit like a little Amsterdam, with Queen Emma’s bridge (“The old swinging lady”) opening in front of our eyes to let a boat through.

A stop for flamingos watching in…..Curacao

Our time in Curaçao

You know you’ve been too long in the Grenadines when you get overexcited when stepping inside a Carrefour! When we first went to the big Carrefour inside Sambil shopping mall, I felt overwhelmed at the sight of so much food!

There was even a deejay playing music in the middle of it!

Curaçao is incredible when it comes to shopping, it has several shopping centres, all kind of shopping districts and an incredible variety of produce. Fruits and vegetables are so abundant and cheap!

The first week went by running around to buy boat parts, fixing things, doing shopping (we bought new cushions and carpets for Gladan, bedsheets, clothes and whatnot, after months of deprivation :)) and getting Gladan ready for our new guest, Beatrice, GC’s niece who would fly in to join us for a few weeks.

Thanks to Beatrice we had a chance to feel on holiday again and spent a few days exploring the island. We went to the north-west part of the island, which is plenty of beautiful beaches, bars and turtles popping their heads out from time to time in Playa Blanca.

Locals are very relaxed and there is a great blend of cultures, religions, and languages.

We found a pirate in Curaçao!

“Nay nay” – Jo would say in between a cigarette and a sip of the fourth cup of our espresso coffee. ‘This coffee is amazing, Señorita!’

JO’s “dinghy” is an old rescue boat quite oversized as a tender 🙂

Jo is a legend around Spanish Waters and does a bit of everything. He was recommended to us by another sailor who mentioned he was a good mechanic – although a bit eccentric… Originally from Holland, he’s been living in Curaçao for the past 20 years and knows everyone there – especially beautiful women!

A few times he had to start his engine in a hurry and quickly sail away to escape from some very upset husbands. “One morning, I was drinking my coffee – filtered coffee, not even a tiny bit as good as your espresso, Señorita– he started telling me the story- when this woman I had only met the night before…you know how it is…showed up with her suitcase and told me, “Jo do you have an engine on your boat?” Yes of course, I do! “Then turn it on, quickly. My husband wants to kill me!” So I lit a cigarette, gulped down my coffee, and started the engine…”

“Bonbini Dushi”!!

Slim and fit, with blondish hair crowning his head like a crest, and a cigarette always in his mouth, Jo looks a bit like a pirate. He certainly is one of a kind! Despite his rough look, he is a generous, cultured and caring person. After working in a kindergarten for many years, he decided to change lifestyle and career and started working on cargo ships travelling around the world on big beasts.

Nowadays, Jo organises day tours for families on his 2 motor boats. He loves entertaining kids and their families and also makes pizza for them on board: “I make the real one, with great fresh ingredients not the shitty stuff you find around here…”

When it comes to food, Jo definitely knows his stuff. He took us around the island, introducing us to the best selection of street food; Sunayna’s chicken soup, the “batidos” truck which also makes amazing arepas, Mama’s Indian food…our heads were spinning around….so much food and so many stories from his past!

Going out with Jo meant stopping at every corner to eat something here or drink something there. A constant feast for our palates and souls.

I think we met the best pirate of the Caribbean’s!