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.

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!

It was rather misty, but we managed to see the contour lines of the Sierra Nevada mountains along the way.

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.
A view of the marina from the top!

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!

When we (almost) faced hurricane Gonzalo!

Seventy two hours before Gonzalo was meant to hit the leeward islands, we were on our way to Bequia from Union island (Grenadines). 

Pelicans social distancing at Frigate Island – Union
Pelicans….so beautiful and powerful, even while at rest

We had found out about ‘it’ only a few hours before, when all of a sudden there was a commotion in Frigate island and everyone had started talking about this perturbation forming in the Atlantic. 

Within an hour, Frigate Island had quickly turned from buzzing place for kite surfers to open air consultation room, with sailors moving from one boat to the other, small groups assembling and dissipating, people exchanging calls on the VHF…

Frigate Island is THE place to be for kitesurfing!

When we got to the Caribbeans, one year ago, everyone would tell us that hurricanes could be predicted up to 2 weeks before, and that there would be plenty of time to move far away from their eye, in one direction or another.

Gonzalo on its way towards us…!

“Don’t worry!” – They’d say. “You’ll be sipping your rum punch in a safe place by the time the hurricane hits!” Well, it wasn’t exactly like that with Gonzalo!

Now, we all knew 2020 was going to be a very busy seasons for hurricanes, the signs were all there… it was the end of July and we had already made our way to the letter ‘G’ of the alphabet!

We also knew that 2020 hadn’t been herald of great news till then…with a global pandemic and our nostrils being closely inspected twice monthly, on average…

So it should not have come as a surprise when our friend Gonzalo started heading towards us and no one knew, up to 24 hours before, where it would end up!

You know it’s bad when the colour changes from blue to dark red….

I’ve very quickly learned that perturbations forming off the African coast, can either dissipate while travelling through the Atlantic, or acquire strength, become bigger and start heading north where they normally encounter more favourable conditions.

Our Gonzalo did not dissipate, did not get bigger, and wasn’t heading north but was acquiring strength nevertheless – so much so that 48 hours before its arrival it was forecasted as a category 1, possibly 2, hurricane. See, the issue with Gonzalo was that it was small and therefore unpredictable! 

The two main weather forecast systems, the European one and the American one were in total disagreement, with one forecasting Gonzalo heading north and the other south.

Now, considering that I’m not particularly fond of the idea of witnessing a ‘simple’ tropical storm, you could imagine how thrilled I was at the idea of finding myself in the middle of a category one (or possibly 2) hurricane. 

When we (almost) faced hurricane Gonzalo!

Panic started to take over!

Within 2 hours from Gonzalo appearing on all forecasting models, I was lifting the anchor and we were on our way north to Bequia, with the possibility of travelling further north once it would become clearer which way Gonzalo would head. 

Sundowner with other sailors, where should we go? North or South?

Once in Bequia, more “consultations” took place with sailors amicably discussing which way to go over a beer or two. 

All this discussing and drinking, though, didn’t bring us any closer to making a decision. So 30 hours before Gonzalo was meant to arrive, all options were still on the table: 

  • Heading all the way South to Trinidad and Tobago (150 miles, which equals one full day of navigation). Some experienced sailors were adamant this was the best choice as hurricanes heading south tend to lose strength;
  • Heading south to Grenada, (65 miles which equals roughly 12 hours of sailing) and try and find space in the mangroves. Some friends of ours were heading there, so that made this option quite appealing; 
  • Staying in Bequia – no hurricane had hit Bequia since 1955 and the locals were assuring us there is something about Bequia that just keeps them away. Do we believe them?
  • Going to Canouan Marina (25 miles which equals 4 hours of navigation). Our friends Tom and Laurie were there, and they assured us the marina was very sheltered and the staff friendly and helpful.
  • Heading North to St. Lucia (50 miles, which means roughly 9 hours of navigation) or all the way up to Martinique (90 miles, 15/16 hours of navigation).

The more we’d talk to people about it, the more confused we’d get. We kept changing our minds and the uncertainty didn’t make it easy to sleep at night. 

Finally, Gc and I decided that on Friday – Gonzalo was meant to hit us on Saturday afternoon – we would wake up early in the morning, check the latest weather forecast, and decide what to do. 

On our way to Canouan….hoping for the best!
We even caught a barracuda on the way to Canouan!

What did we decide then?

Friday morning at 6 am, we checked the forecast again and decided that the best option for us was heading south to Canouan Marina (only 25 miles away) for several reasons;

  • We didn’t want to travel too far and find ourselves out at sea in rough weather conditions hours before the hurricane-to-be would hit;
  • Being inside a marina, we would be able to prepare the boat, removing all sails, the Bimini, and anything that could blow away, and tie up the boat with as many lines as possible;
  • Worse comes to worst, we would abandon ship and take refuge in a nice 5 star hotel, drink a glass of red wine and take a hot shower praying for the worst to get over soon. 
When a big squall comes the sky becomes white, and within few minutes, you don’t see anything around you.

I knew Gc’s heart would be badly scarred for life, should something happen to Gladan, but it was a risk I was ready to take!

And so, 20 hours before Gonzalo would hit us, we entered Canouan Marina hoping our choice had been the right one. 

Gladan ready to face Gonzalo. She looked so naked without her sails up!

During our sail down to Canouan, we met several boats sailing south and several others motoring north as fast as possible. Clearly, no one had any idea of what was going on!!

Taking the main sail down is a tough job!

Inside the marina, we spent the afternoon and evening ‘undressing’ Gladan; removing all sails, deflating our paddle board and kayak, dismantling the Bimini, and creating a spiderweb of lines that would keep us in place. After many hours of hard work we took a nice, long, hot shower in the amazing bathrooms of the luxurious marina and went out for dinner at the gourmet restaurant.

The last supper! Better enjoy till you can, right?!

We checked the weather forecast once more, and with great relief, saw that Gonzalo had been downgraded to tropical storm and was headed south to Grenada! Great news for us, perhaps less for the ones that headed south….! 

The sky is getting darker and darker…something is coming!

The morning after, around 7 am, Gonzalo arrived – its eye deep south on Trinidad and Tobago. For us, that meant winds of up to 30 knots, with gusts of 40 kt, and torrential rain which only lasted couple of hours. Then it was over! 

Gusts of 40 knots and a lot of rain

I was still half asleep and I would have probably missed Gonzalo hadn’t it been for the noise Gc was making while giving a good scrub to Gladan. Who else would have thought of using a tropical storm to do some spring cleaning?!

This is real love!!!