Passage to Cartagena, Colombia

GPS track of passage to Cartagena in Google EarthFor several weeks, we’ve been keeping an eye on the weather between Aruba and Cartagena. There’s an area just north of Cartagena that is notorious for strong winds. A river comes out to sea near Barranquilla and the contrary currents and temperatures apparently churns up some wind. We’ve regularly seen gale-force (> 30 knot) winds appearing in this area in recent weeks. Our package finally cleared customs in Aruba on Tuesday afternoon (Monday was a holiday). We picked up our new anchor light, but it was too windy to go up the mast to install it. But, the weather forecast for Cartagena was looking pretty good for the next day. There were still some 20-25 knot winds in the forecast, and it was all following winds and seas. NOTE: this is a long post! We decided to stay well offshore to avoid risks of piracy sometimes reported out here, and to reduce the risk of weather effects closer to Cartagena. Check out the map of our GPS track below.

Meanwhile, another boat in the anchorage, named m/v Antipodes, came over and invited us out for drinks. Jim and Lara’s boat is a motor trawler live-aboard, and they have come from San Diego to Aruba in the past few months. They plan to attempt a circumnavigation as well. Only 18 motor trawlers have ever made it apparently. Their boat is registered in North Carolina, so naturally we had to meet them. They also have worked in the information technology business as well. And, the most amazing coincidence is that they know Pat and Ali from s/v Bumfuzzle (an amazing couple who I followed on their web site when they circumnavigated a few years ago). In fact, they met them in person a few times. I really enjoyed hearing their first-person accounts of what they are like.

I spent the rest of Tuesday preparing a route and planning our arrival in Cartagena. We got up Wednesday and first sent me up the mast to install the light. That went very smoothly and it worked perfectly. Next I drove Coconut down to Barcadera port and cleared out of customs. One more trip to town to take in trash and get some cash. Then we got the dinghy up and prepped for departure. We weighted anchor at about 10:30 and headed out. Shortly after we left, we had two dolphin swim over and join us at the bows a bit. I always consider it a good thing when they visit us on a passage.

We had good winds (20-25 knots) all afternoon and were sailing wing-on-wing (main sail out on one side, jib on the other side) making 10-11 knots steady. We use lines to tie the boom and jib in place to prevent them from moving too much if the winds shift. And, we use the autopilot to keep us pointed at the angle of the wind we want.

As the sun set, the winds started to ease. We ended up taking down the jib and having to motor sail most of the night. The fishing lines were put away at dark, and we had no bites. The first night was pretty uneventful and involved motor-sailing all night. In the morning, the winds were still light. We attempted to sail several times, but it was too slow. I put the fishing lines out shortly after dawn. At 9 AM we heard a fishing reel scream. I ran over and looked out – we had hooked a huge bill fish – a marlin! I’m guessing about 7-8 feet long, probably 200 lbs! I called Karen and asked her to get a camera quick. Just as I got it in my hands and took pictures he snapped the line. I got pictures of his splash, but that was it. Nevertheless, it was exciting! I just wish I had a photo.

Frank holding latest Mahi Mahi catchBy noon we finally were getting some more wind and had both sails wing-on-wing again. Suddenly, at about 12:30, we had another fish! And boy was he strong! We were going about 9+ knots so I told Karen to take down the jib. Still, I couldn’t reel the fish in. The rod was bent way over. So, Karen attempted to get the mainsail down. I helped her align the boom to help, but she couldn’t get it down because we were going down wind and the sail kept wanting to fall outside the jacklines over to one side or the other from the boom. So, I had her hold the rod while I coaxed it down. This all took about 30 minutes, and with no sails we were still going 4 knots. Still, the fish was fighting hard, but I was able to slowly reel him in. After another 10-15 minutes I finally got him close enough to see we had a large bull Mahi Mahi. I’ve caught maybe two dozen Mahi Mahi, but none fought anywhere near as hard as this one. He was easily 5 feet in length (see the photo), and weighed about 50 lbs.

Getting him on board was a challenge as well. I gaffed him, but he still fought like crazy. I tried pouring some alcohol down his mouth (which kills most fish very quickly) – and wasted nearly half a bottle. Finally I got him up into the dinghy and dosed him good. Whew! We used the outside coldbox to store him for a few hours until the sun was setting, then I cleaned the fish and we had several bags of fish fillets all cleaned up and ready to eat.

Meanwhile, the winds cooked up all afternoon. We were flying along at a minimum of 9-10 knots, and surfing into the teens. We saw 16+ knots on the GPS a few times! As the sun set (much later since we were over 150 miles further west, we switched to EST as well), we had some fish dinner. That fish was delicious! The winds continued building in the night. It started getting to 30 knots true (only 20 apparent since we were straight downwind), but I decided to double-reef the main. We were still going 10-11 knots and surfing higher speeds. Around midnight, the winds were regularly getting above 30 knots. So, we turned and dropped the main. Then we put up only half the jib and even reduced down to just a bit of jib. The winds got to near 35 knots and gusts to 40 the rest of the night. But, we were on a comfortable direct down wind tack and the seas only gradually built bigger. I slept between 1:30 and 5:30 and the conditions stayed the same.

At dawn, I could see the waves had built to about 20 feet! Tahina was riding them really well downwind. But, we needed to turn left (south) towards Cartagena, so we were going more parallel to the waves. Tahina still managed this quite well, but our boat was leaning pretty sharply as we rose up and over these huge swells. Karen said she felt like we were on a mon-hull! I had to put some things away that were falling in the cabins. Even the laptop wasn’t staying on the chart table.

Here is the map of our GPS track, which you can also load in Google Earth :

View Passage Aruba to Cartagena in a larger map

According to my forecast, the winds were supposed to die off as we approached Cartagena. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen very much. We were still seeing 30 knots until just about 5 miles from the smaller, closer, entrance to the bay of Cartagena we had chosen – called Boca Grande. Out of the misty skies we not only saw mountains, but also a skyline full of skyscrapers! It was like approaching New York City. The water was much shallower, but there were still 4 foot waves in the area with all this wind. At the entrance, it was reportedly only 8 feet deep. Not only that, but there is only a narrow channel marked by two bouys. When we got close enough to see it, I could see there were still the waves, and the buoys were really close (barely wide enough for Tahina). So, I turned us south to go down to the main ship channel entrance called Boca Chica. This was a disappointment because it would take another 2 hours to get to the anchorage because of the diversion. Zoom in on the map above to see what I’m talking about. The other concern with the other entrance is that a boat recently was assaulted by some crooks who managed to board the sailboat and divert them to the shore. They then ransacked their belongings and sent them on their way before the police (who they had hailed on the radio) managed to get there. Fortunately, no boats approached us during our passage.

One thing we were noticing as we made the longer trip – it was really hot. About 94 degrees and humid. We finally motored our way to the anchorage. It is in a bay surrounded by skyscrapers and the huge ship port with container ships and cruiseships. And, they have a large statue in the middle of the bay. Not as large as the Statue of Liberty, but definitely reminiscent. We set our hook just one boat behind A Small Nest – our friends we met in Bonaire. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and we had gone about 430 nm, and we were in a new country. At last, here are some photos from the trip:

View full-sized slideshow

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5 Responses to Passage to Cartagena, Colombia

  1. dianamaps says:

    Hi Frank. Remember when you get there to spell Colombia with two o’s (no “u”), or the Colombians may get upset and not let you dock…

  2. nanag says:

    Just wanted you to know that I just love Mahi Mahi…hope you have some when we come to visit! I really enjoyed this post, but please be careful. Love to both of you.

  3. Jan Warm says:

    Hey Frank and Karen! Awesome picture of the Mahi Mahi! The passage to Cartagena sounded like an amazing sail. How far is it from Aruba to Cartagena mileage-wise?

  4. bill boswell says:

    Hey Frank-This Bill Boswell (48′ viking, D dock, Joyner Marina)Sure enjoying reading about your adventures. I look forward to going to your site each day. Safe sails.-Bill

  5. kredyt oferty says:

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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