Monday, April 11, 2011

New photos online (Curacao, Colombia and Kuna Yala). Click here

A Man, A Plan, A Propellor, Panama (not quite a palindrome)

‘Vroom ‘  is the sounds we expected to hear as we put the engine in reverse to maneuver into the anchorage next to Porvenir in the Kuna Yala (San Blas) Islands of Panama.  Instead the entire boat began to shake with great fury.  Yikes! This does NOT feel right!  We quickly shut down the engine and rolled out a little genoa to get ourselves into a good position to anchor.  Once the hook was down, Seb jumped overboard to investigate and came up with a very long face.   “Half of our propeller is missing.”

And this happened just as we anchored at a group of islands owned by a the very nobly traditional Kuna Indians.  Not a place where we were likely to find a diesel mechanic, let alone parts and definitely not a new propeller.  Luckily, we arrived with the big Pjotters and the s/v R Sea Kat had arrived in the anchorage earlier in the day.  It was not long before Seb, Kees and Mike were in the water with snorkels and weight belts to see if they could find the missing parts.  But, in 15 meters of water in a large anchorage this was a little like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.   But they went to work and, on the advice of a kind Frenchman named Daniel who also offered his help, lowered a weight on a line to give themselves a reference point to begin the search.  After this they snorkeled in formation in widening circles around the weight and suddenly Mike spotted something square in the sandy bottom.  We are extremely lucky to be friends with an incredibly accomplished free diver (10,000 plus diving hours - Mike’s wife Deana calls him a fish).  Mike free dove (i.e. with just a mask and fins) down 15 meters and came up with a big smile holding the missing propeller blade.  Incredible!  ‘Ummmm, but there is also a rather critical pin…measuring about 1cm in diameter, 10 cm long…”  So, with the help this time of Kees’ diving tank with just enough air to allow the maneuver Mike headed down again and doubly incredibly, unbelievably, came up with the pin.  Hooray! 

So, the plan was to tow the Pjotter with the dinghy into shallower water to reinstall the propeller blade.  There is always a risk that you will drop something when working underwater and the shallower water would make the parts easier to find should this occur.  As Mike was towing us to the shore, his dinghy stalled and as the Pjotter was moving rapidly into shallow water he attempted to restart quickly and ended up breaking the tip of his finger.  We finally got the anchor down and the Pjotter temporarily stabilized.  As Deana swam over carrying a bag of ice for Mike’s finger (we have no freezer on board), Seb and Kees donned their masks, weight belts and fins and started the reinstallation of the prop blade.  Fortunately, they managed to execute this with no further issues, losses or injuries.  Needless to say we all turned in rather early after such an alarming and exciting day.  Seb and I were incredibly grateful at our luck in being able to find and reinstall the parts, and hugely grateful to have such supportive, helpful and talented friends to help us in a time of need.


At 0900 in the morning there was a knock on the boat and two young women, Paula and Jessica,  were standing in a dinghy next to our boat offering to act as our agents to check in to Columbia (you need an agent).   We agreed a price with them and after cleaning up the boat and checking into the Club Nautico Marina, we handed our passports and boat documents over to these virtual strangers.  Scary, but all of the other cruisers assured us that this is how it is always done.  All the same, we heaved a small sigh of relief when they were returned two days later.  
Cartagena's colonial charm and the old walled city, the Ciudad Amarullada, with tiled roofs, balconies and flower-filled courtyards  is a joy to wander about and get lost in.  We closed off our first day with an afternoon walk through the beautiful old town, soaking up the vibrancy in the squares and watching some amazing street dancers and musicians.  

On March 5 we boarded a bus at 0800 (with Kees, Martha, Ralph and Suzan) for the 2 hour ride to Barranquilla for the carnival.  This carnival is said to be second biggest in the world, second only to Rio.  The bus dropped us off eight blocks from the parade route.  As we approached the centre the excitement built, starting with a little music, some decorations and a few vendors and culminating in a huge explosion of sound, decorations, crowds and music.  We haggled a little for chairs in one of the shaded stands along the route.  The eight of us appeared to be the only non-Columbians in attendance.  Excitement continued to build during the 1,5 hour wait for the parade to begin.  During this time, our tent became rowdier and more friendly and by the time the parade arrived we were all sharing snacks and laughing when frequent showers of shaving foam  sprayed over us from some of the more boisterous viewers.  The parade was a fantastic mixture of costumes and music ranging from very professional dance groups to single strangely clad exhibitionists.  Good  fun.  After two hours of enjoyment the parade was still in full swing but our bus was waiting. We bid goodbye  (and  exchanged Facebook names) with our new friends and walked up to the bus stop, pausing briefly for an empanada on the way.  

On Ralph and Suzan’s last day in Cartagena, they (and Kees and Martha) kindly invited us along for a day of exploration.  Our first stop was at the impressive Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.  This fort offers great views from the ramparts and battlements and an exciting underground tunnel system.  We were also given a fascinating explanation of the ingenious development of fortifications built up to protect the city from pirates and other unwanted invaders.  Our second stop was much less enchanting.  Although the Boca Grande beach is surrounded by high rises and hotels it still has the potential to be a beautiful spot for a swim.  Unfortunately garbage lines the shore and aggressive vendors push their wares into your face whenever you stop walking for more than five seconds.  I was actually chased down the beach by a women who smeared a yucky cream on my back and wanted to be paid for a massage.  Needless to say, our stop at the beach was rather short.  At the end of the day, we wandered the lovely cobblestone streets of the old city and happened upon a perfectly lit little courtyard with a lovely garden and eclectic and interesting furnishings.  The food matched the ambiance and we ate interesting and delicious mixtures of seafood.   Slurp!   

In Cartagena we finally met  Jeff and Jose from Stravaig, the sailboat we passed on our way to Cartagena, face to face, and spent a couple of evenings sharing a gezellige borrel.  Sometime you meet up with people that you would like to have time to get to know better.  Sadly, this was not to be but we waved a fond goodbye and a hope to meet again.  

Our departure from Cartagena was followed by a windier than expected but safe and uneventful sail to Porvenir in the Kuna Yala province of Panama.  

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Pjotters Away!

The first leg of our voyage from Curacao to Cartagena was in the company of the s/v R Sea Kat, the catamaran with whom we shared the treacherous journey from Samana, DR.  They had decided to send Keiko (their very sweet cat) home for the remainder of their circumnavigation and had arranged for their daughter to pick her up in Aruba.  As such, after a pleasant and uneventful night they headed into the Haven Barcadera, Aruba and handed the baton off to the big Pjotter who were just sailing out of the same bay to continue the journey to Catagena, Columbia with us. Great sight to see the big blue boat sailing out to join us.  For the rest of the journey we remained within sight and frequently maneuvered close enough to chat to each other and take many many pictures.

With the trade winds behind us, this was one of our most pleasant voyages to date,  one that gently put us through our paces.  The first day was lovely light winds and we sped along at an average of seven knots.   The boat was helped along on the second day with 1,5-2 knots of current. Hurrah.  Surfing over a wave we sometimes sailed up over 9 knots.  Super!  The wind reduced on our third day and both Pjotters hoisted their colourful gennaker for the afternoon.  Superb!  Many photos were made to commemorate this wonderful event.  Fortunately, another boat sailing along the coast hailed us (s/v Straivaig, containing Jeff and Jose whom we would later learn are really lovely people) and kindly agreed to make some photos of the two boats speeding along together.   

The wind picked up again on our final day and we reduced sail significantly to keep moving smoothly along.   As we approached the mouth of the huge Rio Magdalena, by the Cabo Augusta of Colombia, the 100m deep water turned abruptly to brown.  An amazing sight to see seven nautical miles from land.  

We pitched and rolled relatively comfortably,  with double reefed main and genoa, through this and approached the Boca Chica entrance to the Bahia Cartagena at 2200 on the March 3rd.  The waves were large and the wind steadily  above 25 knots as we approached the entrance.  The harbor patrol was professional and instructed us to remain close to the green buoys as we entered the narrow channel.  We carefully followed these instructions and watched in awe as several enormous ships sped past us in the darkness. The bay of Cartagena emerged in the form of the New York skyline as huge brightly lit skyscrapers loomed up all around us.  Unexpected.  We finally approached the Isla Manga  and dropped our anchors with a grateful sigh at 0030 on March 4rth.  This was a passage that we had been dreading , the Tangaroa and the Elena were beaten severely by it and there are frequently extremely high winds and waves peaking as you approach Cartagena.  Whew!

Curacao Family Visit

Seb’s Dad, his wife Rena, sisters Linda and Caroleijne and Linda’s boyfriend Rudolf picked us up on February 12 at the Kima Kalki marina in Spaanse Water in Curacao. We left our Pjotter at anchor before the marina in the excellent company of the Kees and Marta’s big Pjotter. They were off visiting family in the Netherlands while some of ours had come over to see us. 
So we moved from our small and warm boat into a fabulous huge house with air conditioning and with our own swimming pool.  And we relaxed and enjoyed ourselves in luxury and great company for two weeks.  

In between swims we were rather active.  Seb’s Dad and his wife try to visit Curacao once a year and thus consider it something of a second home.  In addition to this, Rena lived in Curacao for four years with her family when she was younger.   It has long been a dream of theirs to bring Seb and his brother and sisters to share this island that has become so special to them.  And now that dream was a reality.  They took us around and showed us some of their favourite places, the wonderful apartments where they usually stay, Rena’s old house and school, the beautiful Christoffel Park at Westpunt, the colourful Punda area, the Queen Emma floating bridge,  and they shared some of their favourite restaurants.   In addition to this, Seb and I (along with Caroleijne and Rudolf) finally earned our NAUI  certification and can now start to hone our diving capabilities.  And most amazing of all, Emma learned to snorkel and swim without her water wings!!!  A very special visit and very sad to see them heading off to the airport and back to Schiphol.  

 The next few days were spent enjoying the Dutchness of Curacao, shopping in the Albert Heijn, chatting with the locals (in Dutch), having dinner with Mike and Deana and Brakkeput Mei Mei (one of Seb’s Dad and Rena’s favourite restaurants) and joining Kees and Marta at Marta’s brother’s school for their annual festival.  This was a great event with many many kids and games to play.  An absolute paradise for Emma and Macsen and a great place for us to have a beer with Kees and Marta and meet Rolf and Suzanne who would be joining them onboard for the passage to Cartagena. 

Thursday, April 07, 2011

DR to Curacao or The Rubber Ducky Route

On February 8th we waved goodbye to Samana, DR and headed out for a 490 nautical mile passage to Curacao.  This route would take us 80 nautical miles straight into the 20 knot trade winds (unpleasant), through the Mona Passage (scary) and south in the Caribbean sea (windy and wavy).  

Seb and I still argue about the intensity level of this particular trip.  I think it was the harshest to date but he holds that our trip from Vila Real de San Antonio, Portugal to Rabat, Morocco still tops the list.  Either way, this one was a doozy.   Fortunately, we had the company of s/v R Sea Kat with Mike, Deana and Keiko (their cat) on board to commiserate over the radio along the way.  Keiko, in particular, had a very difficult voyage.  

Our departure from Puerto Bahia, Samana in the early evening forced us to head immediately out into the trade winds.  Uncomfortable and slow, 3,5 knot speed over ground with the motor at 2000 revs.  And we were worried that we wouldn’t make it through the Mona Passage by 0800 to take advantage of the relatively lighter night winds.  Tedious and stressful.  

The Mona Passage has the reputation for being one of the most treacherous routes in the Caribbean, especially for small watercraft. The eighty mile section of sea separating the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico is prone to unusual and unpredictable currents created by sandbanks stretching out from both islands.  In this short stretch the water depth changes rapidly from >100 meters to over 5000 meters and the water pushing between the islands is put under incredible pressure.  These effects contribute notoriously dangerous waves and the coastline of Puerto Rico is known for sudden and heavy thunderstorms.  We only needed to cross halfway into the Mona and then head south but we still approached her with some trepidation and several double checks of our weather window.  

We held our breath (figuratively of course) as we turned southwards into the notorious Mona.  The waves were slightly higher than in the Bahia Samana but our wind angle was much better so we picked up speed and rather enjoyed this bit of the trip.  Mona spit us out into the Caribbean sea with slightly less sympathy however.   Winds banged us straight on our beam and kept the boat at an angle that made even the smallest tasks a huge challenge.   And so we spent the next three days crossing the Caribbean sea with many squalls, sustained 30+ knot winds and average 4 meter seas (meaning that there were several even bigger waves that looked liked walls of water).   In short, we felt like a rubber ducky bobbing about  in the bath with a particularly rambunctious child.  What a relief to round  the Eastern tip of Curacao at dawn on the 12th and coast along the lee of the island. 

Technology is unfortunately not always foolproof and more fool we for thinking that with three communication systems we should always be able to stay in touch.   Spot stopped working just above Curacao, our modem from the SSB refused to connect and the satellite telephone kept losing connection and refused to pick up a connection when it rang.  The result of this was that on the home front it appeared on Spot as though we had stopped suddenly about 50 miles north of Curacao and our usual email and phone connection gave no answer.   From the  perspective of anyone not with us onboard, we had temporarily disappeared.  Not difficult to imagine that this caused panic on the home front, fortunately relatively short lived.