The stormy road to Cartagena

James & Amelia Gould
Fri 21 Mar 2008 15:13

18 February – 3 March 2008 : Cartagena


We left Curacao after breakfast on Monday morning, and were surprised that despite all the talk from the other cruisers that this was the time to leave to head West we were the only boat weighing anchor.  We should have heeded the signs… We had a great first two days sailing from Curacao to Cartagena.  We sprinted past Aruba aided by 2 knots of tide, and were pleased we decided not to stop there when we saw all the oil refinery chimneys and towering hotel blocks.  By the end of the second day we were beginning to wonder why such a fuss was made about the weather on this passage, and were starting to look forward to our visit to Cartagena.  We had settled into an easy sea routine of cooking, sleeping and playing games.  James taught Charlie some astronomical navigation, and caught some tuna to supplement our vegetarian diet.  I finished sewing our new RNSA burgee – the old one had become so tattered that it was embarrassing to hoist, and we weren’t able to get a new one when we were back in the UK.  We tried to get someone to make us a new one in Grenada, but he couldn’t finish the job.  So I hand stitched the flag, hoping it will last longer than the last one.


Charlie washing up…

…Then doing a sun sight


As our third night at sea approached I went on watch and noticed that the wind was increasing.  I took down the Drifter, and rolled out the Genoa.  Then the sea started building.  I asked James to stay with me just in case things got difficult, and by the end of my first hour on watch all hell broke loose.  The seas had built to 10m (peak to trough) and the wind was gusting 35-40 knots.  We had a scrap of Genoa up and were still surfing down the waves at 6-7 knots.  None of the weather forecasts we had looked at that day indicated we were going to get such strong winds.  The barometer was not falling, and the sky was still a clear pale blue with none of the clouds associated with an incoming front.  We were mystified as to what was causing this phenomenon and decided that it must be geographical as we were just passing the part of the Columbian coast where we were told “things might get a little lumpy”.  So there was nothing we could do but run with it.  We discussed all the various storm tactics we had at our disposal but decided that we couldn’t use the Parachute Anchor as we were too close to land and would drift slowly towards a lee shore.  We didn’t want to use a drogue to slow us down, as we wanted to get away from this area as soon as we could.  We rigged the storm jib in case the wind built even more, but decided not to use it as the reefed down Genoa, set high up on the forestay, was maintaining drive even when we were deep down in the troughs of the waves.  A storm jib would have been blanketed from the wind by the wall of water behind us and if Rahula slowed down there was a chance she would lose steerageway. 


James and I stood in the cockpit for most of the night, watching the huge waves roll in from behind and break around the boat with a mighty roar and rush of white water.  Once a wave broke under the boat, and Rahula surfed along the wave, accelerating to a terrifying speed.  On a couple of occasions a wave rolled in just astern of the boat, and we would watch in helpless horror as the crest turn from dark blue to turquoise to white as the water rolled over itself and came crashing into the cockpit, flooding everything and soaking us.  Worse than getting pooped were the rogue waves that hit us square on the side of the boat.  These would slam into the hull as if we had hit a concrete wall, and send everything flying across the lockers.  Every time one hit we went below and inspected the hull, half expecting to hear the sound of water rushing in as something gave way, but each time the boat took the pounding and held together without a scratch.


We did not wake Helen and Charlie up for their watches, knowing that neither of us would sleep.  Helen popped her head up after a few hours to ask why we didn’t wake her for her watch.  I replied that it was a little windy.  She then asked how windy, and as if by explanation a big gust came along with a big wave and Rahula took off down sea again. The amazing thing was that down below, apart from the sound of the wind howling through the rigging, it was really comfortable and calm.  Charlie and Helen managed to sleep through most of the night, and when they came up to see how things were they kept us sustained with tea/coffee and buttered bread.  By 4a.m. I was cold, wet and tired.  By this stage James and I realised that there was nothing more we could do, and as the boat and autopilot were coping so well, only one of us needed to be on watch.  So we grabbed some sleep on the saloon cushions, still wearing our foul weather gear and lifejackets.


As dawn broke I was pleased to have some light to see the waves and monitor their progress towards the boat.  I watched as two large waves approached us from the side, their peaks very close together.  One slammed into our side, and before the autopilot had time to recover, the other one took aim and hit us square on.  The autopilot tried hard to recover steerage, but the boat was now lying beam to the waves (the most dangerous point for a catamaran).  Before I knew it, another wave came in from behind, and Rahula took off in her usual way.  Only this time as we were not running down the wave but along it (like a surfer) the boat started heeling over to the left as the wave curled over itself.  As if in slow motion I watched the left hand bow dig into the waves, and instinctively I called for James and reached for the Genoa sheet.  (For non sailors – if a bow digs in to the water on a catamaran the boat can “trip” over and cartwheel around that bow.  Bad.)  I let the sheet go to let the sail flap and slow the boat down almost instinctively – my brain did not have time to work out what was going on, but my body reacted perfectly.  Within seconds Rahula slowed down, the autopilot brought us back downwind, and the status quo was restored.  The whole ordeal probably lasted less than a minute, but it was the closest we came to losing the boat the whole night.


After 14 hours it finally looked as though things were starting to calm down.  We had passed the part of the Columbian coast where we were most exposed, and were started to alter course towards the south towards Cartagena.  As we turned the wind, and then the seas started to lessen, and we gingerly rolled out more Genoa to maintain way.  By 10am conditions had calmed down considerably, and as we were both exhausted we let Helen and Charlie take the watch while we slept soundly in our cabin.  It was a great feeling to sail into Cartagena harbour later that morning, knowing that our boat had survived the worst weather we had put her through.


On the way into the city we sailed through a narrow entrance in a centuries old submerged barrier, built to ward off maritime invaders.  We sailed past the island of Boca Grande, which was all high rise buildings and luxury hotels.  As we turned the corner the old city came into view, and we finally had the view we came here for.  Huge fortifications and walls surround the old city, and sticking out above the ramparts were intricately decorated domes and spires of the various churches.  We anchored near the Yacht Club, a stone’s throw from one of the city’s oldest forts.  Once we had anchored we went for a stroll in the district around the Yacht Club which was full of huge old colonial era villas built in a variety of styles.  My favourite was one decorated in a Moorish style, complete with a tiled mosaic seating area around a fountain and delicately carved screens in the windows.


Rahula Anchored in Cartagena Harbour, Boca Grande in the background

Cartagenian Villa


The old city of Cartagena is full of history, and is beautiful.  The city was founded in 1533 and became the main Spanish port in the New World through which the American continent’s wealth was transported back to Europe.  The ships leaving Cartagena laden with gold and riches became a target for pirates, and the city suffered many raids in the 16th century.  Sir Francis Drake is hated in Cartagena as he besieged the city for more than 100 days, and then demanded a ransom for leaving the city folk alone.  The endless attacks led to the construction of an elaborate network of fortifications, which included 11 KM of ramparts, castles and forts.


After a good night’s sleep (assisted by the many celebratory beers drunk on arrival!) and a day spent cleaning the boat and checking for damage we got started on some serious sightseeing.  The entrance gate to the old city has a large square in front of it filled with statues of various Cartagenian heroes.  We then wandered under the arches and into another square that used to house a slave market, but now hosts horse drawn carriages and sweet vendors.  Inside the old city we found a maze of narrow winding streets, and the only way to find our way around was to look up and try to identify various city landmarks.  We came across the obligatory statue of Columbus and some squares lined with beautiful buildings, their balconies sticking over the street and offering some much needed shade from the scorching sun.  We headed toward the cathedral and once inside followed the excellent audio guide’s directions around the building.  Our favourite story was that of the wooden altar which was bound for Peru.  The ship carrying the altar stopped in Cartagena, and the Bishop happened to visit the docks at the time.  He saw the altar and liked the look of it, and obviously figured it would just about fit, so he requisitioned it for his own church.  He didn’t seem to mind that the altar depicted various Peruvian saints and bishops, or that the altar would look odd in his nave.  We wondered what the Peruvian church had to say when they heard their altar had been nicked!


Columbus in Columbia

Rosa Square

Street to Cathedral
Cathedral Nave


I also visited the Convent of San Pedro Claver (James was bored with churches, and had something far more pressing to do at the time…).  Pedro Claver was a priest who did a lot of missionary work for the city’s slaves and was called the “slave of the slaves”.  The convent was a plain fronted building, but inside was a large courtyard filled with tall palm trees which did not take up much space on the ground but shaded the whole area.  I wandered through the quite corridors, peeping into rooms filled with 400 years old austere furniture.  One of the rooms contained a religious art museum, and another a collection of pre-Columbian archaeological artefacts found on the site.  The courtyard led to a side entrance in the church, and on entering I was struck by the brilliance and colour of the stained glass windows.  The whole place was tranquil and I maintained a respectful distance from all those praying.  Then a bunch of tour groups arrived from a cruise ship that had docked that morning and the peace was destroyed.  The groups rampaged through the church and convent, 20 people in each, led by a guide with a microphone describing the obvious in a loud voice (well they are Americans…J).  Somebody produced a parrot (an essential adornment to any 16th century convent…J), and everyone took their turn having their picture taken with the bird.  In the church one tour guide pointed to the skeletal remains of Saint Claver housed in a glass coffin at the bottom of the altar and a few of the Americans went up the steps to the altar and started taking pictures and talking loudly about how gross it was.  They had absolutely no respect for the people praying in the pews.  I was livid, and had to leave.


Iglesia de San Pedro Claver



On our third day in Cartagena we were invited for drinks onboard Sleipnir with Wolfgang and Eva.  While we were settling in to our first beer a dinghy came sprinting over to us and shouted “your boat is dragging!”.  We looked around us, and Sleipnir looked pretty stationary.  Then the guy repeated, “no, your boat is dragging” and pointed at us.  We shot up to look out from under the awning, and saw Rahula travelling at a fast rate sideways through the anchored yachts!  We jumped into the guy’s dinghy, and he shot us back to Rahula.  On the way we were wondering where Charlie & Helen were, as last we knew, they were onboard Rahula with our dinghy.  As we approached they popped their heads out, and looked relieved as we boarded the boat.  They had been down below when the boat started moving (we know what they were doing!  Dirty monkeys…J), and knew nothing about it until the American on the boat next door started knocking on the hull.  They got the American to come and get us, and in the mean time started the engine.  Luckily we were anchored on the edge of all the other boats, so as Rahula started drifting she managed to avoid hitting any other boats, and was undamaged.  We had anchored in a very shallow part of the bay, which quickly shelved to 15m, so once the boat dragged beyond the shallow part the anchor was just hanging vertically from its chain and could not bite again.  Once we were onboard I pulled in the anchor with Charlie, and James manoeuvred the boat to re-anchor next to Sleipnir in another part of the bay (my beer was getting warm so I wanted to be close to it! J).  We set the anchor and put out lots of scope.  Once we were happy Rahula was going to stay put we hopped back in the dinghy and resumed our socialising onboard Sleipnir.  We could not believe we had dragged anchor.  In 3 years of owning Rahula we had never dragged, especially not after 3 days in the same spot.  The only explanation we could give was that some keel boats were racing past the anchored yachts, and one apparently passed very close to Rahula.  They could have tripped the anchor with their keel, and the anchor didn’t get a chance to reset before the water became too deep.  A few days later Sleipnir dragged as well (three or four times…J).  The anchorage was obviously not as good as people said!


We went for a walk around the ramparts on another day.  The Fortification Museum was situated in the cisterns at one end of the city walls and covered the development and building of the city’s defences.  Walking around the old walls gave us a bird’s eye view of the city rooftops and was an interesting way of seeing the domes, towers and narrow streets.  The walls led us to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, perched high on a hill overlooking the city.   The castle contained a network of underground tunnels and we followed the dark corridors as far as we dared to go.  We walked through slowly and then heard what sounded like 100 children heading our way, screaming and laughing.  When the children caught up with us we realised there were only about 10 of them, but the sound was amplified so much it multiplied their apparent number.  It must have been terrifying for a soldier being chased through the tunnels to hear the footsteps of his enemy and not be able to estimate their number.  The castle was a fun place to be, with lots of different levels and nooks and crannies to explore (and randomly some bloke playing a trumpet. J).


Castle Ramparts

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas


Unfortunately (depending on your point of view…J) some of the major museums in Cartagena were closed while we were there.  The inquisition museum was closed for filming, and the Gold Museum appeared to be shut every time we tried to visit.  We finally managed to catch it open, and rushed inside to check out the collection of pre-Columbian artefacts.  It was one of the best museums in the city, well arranged, and full of fascinating things from the original tribes living in this part of South America (ok I admit, it was pretty good…J).  The gold jewellery was beautifully made, and there was an interesting exhibition of the history and culture of some of the tribes.  They had dug a vast network of irrigation channels across the Columbian plains to direct the water running down from the mountains into their farming fields (these channels can be seen from space!).  The channels also stopped their homes flooding during the rainy season and provided water all year round.  Now many of these channels have been filled into make way for housing and intensive farming, and the area is suffering from severe flooding and droughts.  It is amazing how man never learns from his past.


Another good museum in the city was the Naval Museum.  It contained a better exhibition on the city fortifications than the fortification museum, which included models of the forts and drawings of their construction.  Yet again we found lots of scathing references to Drake the scoundrel pirate ransacking the city.  The funny thing was that pirates raided the city for 200 years before they decided to build some defences.  The defences took another 200 years to build at vast expense, but once they were finished the world had changed and no one attacked the city again!  Still, the defences are earning their keep as a tourist attraction…  The museum also had a collection of Columbian navy memorabilia and artefacts, including uniforms and gifts from visiting nations. 


Yet again we were stuck waiting for the weather to head West.  We had planned to leave after 10 days in Cartagena, but as we were preparing to go we heard a weather forecast of strong winds and high seas off the Columbian coast.  We really didn’t fancy going through that sort of weather again, so we decided to delay our departure.  We decided to take a day trip to the Islas Rosarios instead, as we would not have time to take the boat there.  We got up early in the morning and made our way to the ferry terminal, where we joined the hoards of white pasty tourists being herded onto the various day trip boats.  After standing in a long queue for no real reason (apart from that we are British) we boarded the boat, and were handed our lifejackets.  We were really surprised at this strict regard to health and safety as the boat was pretty big, until we saw the H & S inspector talking to the captain…


Going on a boat trip


The boat sailed half an hour late, and motored through Cartagena harbour past more old forts and high-rise buildings towards the open sea.  We were surprised to find the sea calm with only a small breath of wind but still guessed it to be as bad as forecast out of the shelter of the land.  After an hour the Islas Rosarios came into view, and the water changed from a dark blue back to the familiar coral fringed turquoise.  The boat did a circuit of the islands and we admired all the private homes built on these small islands.  Some of the islands were so small, there was only room for a couple of buildings and a boat dock.  We then pulled into one of these islands, and after much manoeuvring to get a big boat onto small dock.  The island contained an open air aquarium but as soon as we found out the entry charge we decided to don our snorkelling gear and go look at the natural aquarium around the island.  The snorkelling wasn’t great, but we saw the usual collection of colourful Caribbean fish (I think we were spoilt a bit in Bonaire…J).  After an hour, when the rest of the tourists had finished looking at dolphins jumping through hoops we boarded the boat again and headed for Playa Blanca, which is the longest sandy beach in Columbia.  We were taken ashore and herded to a place in the woods behind the beach where we were served lunch.  We then had a couple of hours lazing on the beach and snorkelling before it was time to head back to Cartagena.  It was a fun day out, though it definitely reminded us how lucky we are to have our own boat to see things and not have to rely on package trips…


Islas Rosario


The Cartagena Yacht Club was a great place to be based, and not a day went by when we didn’t meet someone new or spend time with old friends.  On Sunday the yacht club hosted a pot luck barbeque, where everyone brings their own meat and salads, and then you all share what people brought.  We took along lots of sausages and a potato salad (not my culinary best, made one hour before it was time to go…) and were amazed to see the effort some people went to with the food they brought.  No one seemed to mind about my crushed potato salad, and everything got eaten.  It was a great sociable evening, and it was nice to hear other people’s stories of where they had travelled.  Though as always, conversation turned to the weather and when was a good time to leave for Panama…


Pot Luck BBQ Spread


Time was marching on for us, as we had promised to get Helen and Charlie to Panama by 3 March.  We soon realised that the weather was not going to settle down in time, so unfortunately they had to book flights to get there (it is not possible to travel overland as there is no road, and the border between Columbia and Panama is just jungle).  They left us very early on Sunday morning, and we were sad to say goodbye.  It was fun having them onboard and we really enjoyed their company, but it was also nice to have the boat back to ourselves.  The following day it finally looked like we were going to have a week of good winds to sail to Panama so we prepared the boat and set sail early on Monday evening.