Horror stories from Bonaire to Colombia – Santa Marta , or “What a difference a Hurricane makes”

Lourae and Randy on PIZAZZ
These 400 miles between Aruba and Cartagena are known for the worst weather conditions in the Caribbean and among the top five worst passages around the world. The “weather guru’s” almost always say to stay at least 200 miles off-shore (they base this not on weather but upon a fear of the coast).  We have heard that the conditions off-shore can be horrendous resulting in stories of boats getting pooped, torn sails, and scared crews.

*From Bare Poles to Paradise*  by Dianne Nilsen
We were lifted and pitched down the face of this 20-foot wave. Les shot outside to try and grab the tiller in time but it was too late. The force of the knockdown sheared off the rudder to the autopilot. I was thrown into the electrical panel and stew flew everywhere. The fridge became dislodged and went flying in the opposite direction, spilling all its contents, while a ton of sea water came hurtling straight over the stern and down into the boat.The seas became so huge that we were surfing and logged a shattering 17 knots down waves, while averaging eight to ten knots. This was unbelievable to us but it was truly happening.

The above 2 quotes are a few from dozens that you can find on the internet about the stretch between Aruba and Santa Marta Columbia , tales of giant waves, broken boats and days of misery !

Having heard and read these stories from fellow cruisers I started to keep an eye on the weather while we were still in Bonaire, knowing our stay was coming to an end and we would have to leave soon, but I was not going to expose our family and Blue Pearl to any of this if it could at all be avoided. Then tropical storm Dorian approached the leeward islands and a memory came back about someone telling me that they sailed from Bonaire to Grenada in 3 days with westerly winds (!!) because a hurricane changes the normal trade winds as they suck all the wind up, leaving nothing but very light eateries or even westerlies.

So when Dorian passed Grenada, slowly making its way to Florida as a cat5 hurricane (as I write this I have no idea what damage it caused or where it went) I noticed that that the forecast indeed showed the normal 25-35kts were almost down to nothing ! , even leaving us with too little wind to sail around the northern most point of Colombia.

So discussing this with Joline we decided to make the best of it and calculating our arrival point at the most northern point meant we had to leave at 10pm on Saturday. We could have visited Aruba and Curacao as planned but since we had no idea when the next ‘perfect’ weather window would arrive we decided to pass these islands and go straight to Colombia instead but stil having 3 possible safety stops on our way , Curacao , Aruba , and the Venezuelan Coast Guard Island in the Los Monjes archipelago

Leaving Bonaire at 10pm means its pitch black , but since there are no dangers we soon found ourselves settling into the sail with 25 kts from the back making good speed in 3-4 feet waves , nice sailing ! This continued during the next day and Monday morning as the sun rose we found ourselves at the northern most tip of Colombia ‘Punta Gallinas’ following the 50 meter depth contour line, some 5 miles from shore in 2.5 foot waves . Nothing like the horror stories we heard and this was perfect sailing ! So we sailed comfortably around the Punta Gallinas when the wind picked up again to 15-20 kts and we started to discuss anchoring for the night at Bahia Honda just around the corner . As we approached Bahia Honda I took a look at the charts and saw that there were some reefs at the entrance and no depth soundings ! , knowing we are a bit deeper that other boats , the entrance with reefs , the comfortable weather and sailing we decided to continue our sail and went further down the cost , with winds picking up to 25kts with 35kts gusts , nothing we had not experienced before , so we just kept going with good winds and good waves and as the night started to approach we caught our 1st Sashimi ! Nice 8 to 10 kg of dark red meat !

During the night the winds almost disappeared again and we had the most spectacular lighting storm , 4 or 5 hours of lightning every other second from around 7pm to midnight unbelievable ! The storms were about 15 to 20 miles away and non of the lightning strikes seem to hit the surface , what a force of nature this is.

Since we were only doing 2 to 2.5kts of speed we started calculating our arrival and no matter how many times I recalculated we arrived in the dark ! Either early evening or early morning , but in the dark nonetheless . Ever since we left we kept reminding ourselves ‘never arrive in the dark at an unknown place as its just too dangerous’ but we also once said  ‘it will probably happen a few times as sometimes its unavoidable’ and this seemed to be one of those unavoidable times. We picked the largest of the ‘5 bays’ 20 miles north of Santa Marta in the national park and aimed for its entrance around 2;30am , a nerve wrecking hour followed making our way into the bay keeping an eye on the chart plotter to keep us in the middle and the other eye on the depth sounder with Joline and a bright flash light making sure we would not hit anything in front of us !

When I saw the depth sounder climbing from 50 to 13 meters depth I figured it was ‘good enough’ to drop the anchor , so down it went with 10-15 meters of chain extra (on top of the 4x depth we usually use) and we opened a celebratory anchor beer

We made it to Colombia ! Going to bed I was wondering what we would see in the morning , where we were and what surrounded us, but we made it

The next morning we came outside and we were smack in the middle of a gorgeous bay , sheltered from the ocean swell and (we thought) quite protected from winds .

This particular bay must be a favorite with the locals because as soon as the sun came up taxi boats were buzzing from the one side to the other bringing and taking visitors to the beach , of course we had to see what was going on ! Upon arrival we were greeted by a few people in the most friendly way , helping us take the dinghy on shore and securing it . While walking the beach

we were hit by the realization ‘we made it to Colombia !’ We hadn’t checked in yet , so technically we were still illegal (which enormously appeals to my inner rebel 🙂 but we made it and spend a few hours on the beach , watching the visitors all leave with only the locals that run the small bars and restaurants , and tranquility descended on that place. Locals quietly talking on the ‘main square’

birds chirping , wind softly blowing . What a peaceful place !

The night following the peaceful beach time was more ‘interesting’ as suddenly the winds that everybody speaks of were here ! Midnight , wind generator spinning and resonating like crazy in a way we have never heard before and Blue Pearl pulling on her anchor like mad as if she wanted to escape ! There must have been 50 to 60 knots of wind hurling down the mountain sides ! Luckily there were no waves or swell and our 35kg Rocna anchor held like a champ and did not budge ! Even though everything seemed ok I decided to sleep outside with our anchor alarm on in case anything happened. The night came and went and so did the winds and the next morning everything was back to normal . As we now spent 2 illegal’ish days in Colombia we thought it would be a great idea to add a 3rd day and night to that in a small fisher village 5 miles away from Santa Marta so we left around 10am saying goodbye to this wonderful place . After a few hours of light winds, dolphins playing across the bow

we slowly approached Taganga and just as we wanted to make our way into the anchorage we were met by a friendly coastguard boat who told us that we needed to go check in in Santa Marta and call Santa Marta port control letting them know we were on our way , crap.. no 3rd illegal night , no illegal shore stay , no quaint fishing village

So here we are , Santa Marta Colombia ,

all checked in , all legal , no stress , no horror stories of any kind (aside from the one the sashimi tells) but trampling at the bit to explore this country and tonight we have football ! Colombia plays Brazil 😉

(and the internet is down in the marina so we’re borrowing it from the steakhouse 300 meters away where we had lunch yesterday)

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