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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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…
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!