Getting to Colombia was our biggest nut to crack. The Caribbean Sea is known for relentless high winds and seas, and this would be our first venture to a truly foreign land. Bill and I had sailed to the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic decades ago, but had not ventured further south. I can’t tell you how many hours we stared at the Pilot Charts (statistical data on wind and wave conditions by month) and talked with people who had sailed here before. The clear message was that the winds would blow at least 25 knots and the seas would be at least eight feet. These conditions are nothing new to us or to Alembic, but we were concerned about traveling three days straight and being overwhelmed if the conditions piped up. The Christmas Winds, we learned, were notorious for escalating to fifty knots and thirty foot seas, and could begin any time in December.
Chris Parker, our single sideband weatherman, had advised us to hang tight before moving south of the Windward Passage (the body of water between Cuba and Haiti) so we tucked in to Haiti for five days. We experienced almost zero wind in our protected anchorages there while the Caribbean Sea roared just south of us. Once we had the okay from Chris, we said our goodbyes, raised the anchor and headed due south. Within three miles, our zero winds turned to twenty and the seas were confused as we tried different sail arrangements. Up with the mainsail, two reefs; out with the genoa, roll it back in halfway for a smaller sail; up with the mizzen, reef that too; up with the inner jib; down with the mizzen. Finally, we settled with the double reefed main, inner jib, and a genoa that we could use as a throttle. We rolled it out when our speed went down and in when our speed was uncomfortably fast. We tried to sail Alembic under eight knots because more than that just caused more crashing into the seas.
Soon, we settled into a nice routine of watches. Bill and I traded being in charge every two hours. This allowed for plenty of off watch time to try to sleep, cook, and navigate. Alembic was fabulous. I highly recommend this boat to anyone. She seemed to relish the wind and rolled gently with each wave that passed under her keel. A beam reach (wind directly on the side of the boat) is the perfect angle and this was the position the entire three days. When larger waves approached at a rate of about once every half hour, we were showered with a spray that soaked the entire boat except the area under the dodger. So we hunkered down in the two corners of this dodger while the autopilot steered. When we ventured out further in the cockpit to adjust sails and search the horizon for any other vessels, we risked getting drenched.
Once in a while, a huge set of rollers would arrive and Alembic tipped to port and starboard, scooping seawater with her gunwales. These rivers of water roared down the length of the boat, spilling overboard as she rolled, and draining final contents down the scuppers. Certain that water was making its way below, I kept checking for leaks. As water rushed past the seven ports (windows) on each side, I was pleasantly surprised to find only a few drips onto our stove, a few more onto a wooden cabinet, and a few more onto a shelf where we keep hats. Zero water made its way to any electronics or cushions, which are damaged by salt.
Knowing Alembic was handling these conditions like a champ, we assessed our own safety and comfort. Unfortunately, there was no moon during our passage, so it was “dark as a pocket” as Bill kept saying, by 6:30 pm each night. You could feel the rhythm of the ocean but see nothing, and mother nature likes to throw new beats in now and then. At one point, during my watch in the dark, a huge wave happened to crest just as it reached us, and dumped an enormous bucket of water into the cockpit. Now this bucket was the size of the biggest dump truck load imaginable. It roared over our dodger and bimini and submerged the wheel momentarily. The aft companionway (steps down to the aft cabin) had a door in place, but the wall of water pressed so hard and allowed a few gallons to spray through the seals, soaking everything below. Luckily this only happened once. This put my level of comfort on edge for a bit, but I soon realized that this was a fluke and would probably not happen again. Luckily it didn’t.
To be safe, Bill and I always wear our inflatable PFD’s and connect a tether from these to pad eyes in the cockpit. When we need to venture out of the cockpit to adjust sails or perform other tasks, we clip our tether to a jackline. This is a long piece of webbing that runs the length of the boat. We have one to starboard and one to port. Often, this connection to the boat seems overkill, but imagine one weird wave coming by, just as I’m out on the bow. If I slip and fall overboard, Bill would have a hard time turning this boat around and finding me in the seas.
Settling in to our routine, we found that this trip was much less worrisome than we had envisioned, weather-wise. What was more alarming than the wind or seas, were the ships we had to navigate around. This area is like a super highway for tankers, cruise ships, and tugs. Again, true to Bill’s nature, we were well prepared. We had purchased a new VHF just before leaving Maine, which is equipped with AIS. This is a system, somewhat like Radar, which shows you where the ships are within a fifty miles radius. We have radar, so this may seem redundant. However, Radar falls short on several counts. First, we rarely used radar because it drains our batteries quickly with its huge power consumption, and second, it only gives us a spot on the horizon. AIS identifies the ship with its name, location, course, and time and location of nearest point to us. For example, it will say that the closest point of approach may be 2.5 miles in 34 minutes. Of course, when the calculated closest distance is less than a mile, we alter course, or contact the ship by radio and come up with a plan to pass safely. I have radioed many of these ships in the night and they are happy to talk and even alter course for us. They often see us as a tiny blip on their radar screen, but have no idea of our vessel type, course, speed, or anything else. We do not transmit an AIS signal at this point. We may consider adding transmitting, in addition to receiving, AIS data.
During our third night out, our AIS system indicated that there was a ship towing cables that were six miles long! Our radar certainly would never have picked this up. I called the ship to see if the cables were submerged, and if we could sail over them. He said they were seismic cables on the surface and we needed to steer around them. He also indicated that there was a chase boat (a tug) staying at the end. This boat was not showing up on AIS or Radar with the current weather conditions, so speaking to this Captain was a life saver! We altered course significantly to avoid any issues, and gave thanks for our AIS yet again.
After this encounter, our sail began to ease in every way. The sun rose, shedding light on our world which was surprisingly calm! The seas had eased to a very settled state, unlike what we had expected. Everyone had told us that the coast of Colombia would be wild with crazy seas coming from winds whipping from the enormous mountains of the coast. This was not the case. Our strongest winds, over thirty knots, were one hundred miles north of the coast, and now, at fifty miles out, we were experiencing our lightest winds of the trip, about twenty knots. I stared at the horizon for hours, creating mountains in my mind out of the cloudy skies. I told Bill “this feels like Maine in the fog!” because I couldn’t see land through the haze. Finally, at about eight miles offshore, the huge mountains appeared, and our hearts leapt. We had arrived!
After this point, we sailed easily into the harbor. Two kind men in a large inflatable escorted us to our dock and helped us tie up. This was a first; never before had anyone ever escorted us into a marina. I knew right away that I would like Colombia.