To Bartica and back

Steve Powell
Sat 9 Oct 2010 00:34

One of our early goals on this trip was to go up the Essequibo River, in Guyana, to Bartica, a small but vibrate mining town which is the Guyanian gateway to the Amazon Rain Forest. After refuelling and spending a comfortable night in Roeden Rust we prepared to set out as the tide started to flood. Then we encountered the first challenge of the day, our stern anchor had set hard in the mud, and it is a big heavy ‘bugger’.   Try as we might we struggled to get it out, we tried several of the methods recommended in those yachty mags were it’s all done in text book fashion, and nothing goes wrong. Well, I can tell you with a 3-4 kts tide running up a fast river, nothing goes ‘text book’.

We eventually managed to get it out but poor old Botty got a bit of a bash and might have cracked a rib, or at least badly bruised. We are looking after him well and he is getting lots of pampering at the moment. Relieved of watch duties and lots of tender loving care.

Our trip up river was tense, I was on the helm for about seven hours straight, what with shifting mud banks, narrow channels, brutal tidal flow and inaccurate charts, it all made for exciting times. But we were egged on by the certain knowledge that we are the biggest (deepest draft) modern sail boat to come up here, and the enthusiastic waves we got from local fishermen tended to confirm it.

Although we had prepared everything right on this leg, and we had it all going for us. Spring tides, going up on a rising tide, etc,. When our depth dropped to just 0.4m while crossing a bar that wasn’t supposed to be there, all hearts stopped for a moment. I did some rapid reversing and managed to find a path through but I don’t think I breathed for a good five minutes!

I’ve run aground many times in E’Tu and even a couple of times in UHURU, sand/mud banks etc,. And as long as your not going too fast and are prepared for it, it’s not normally a major problem. But half way up a Rain Forest river in Guyana, at the top of spring tides with a 3-4kt tide running, that’s a different ball game. Had we run aground hard we would have probably had to wait for the next Spring tides, one month later! I suspect the crew would have all had a little sense of humour loss at that moment.

The biggest challenge was the mental one of constantly trying to divine what was really happening under this fast flowing muddy water just from our depth sounder. I used the tried and tested method of sailing into a shallow then bearing away into deeper water until you again hit shallow water, this helps you define the channel. But when shallows suddenly loom at you where they have no right to be, it makes it very difficult. In the end I spent the whole time trying to extrapolate from inaccurate charts, depth sounder info, and Mark One Eyeball where we were and what was ‘likely’ to happen next. I was exhausted by the time we arrived.

We had a number other ‘tight squeezes’,  but all in areas that we expected shallow water. I managed to realign our chart plotter fairly accurately using local landmarks and paper charts as the reference. So as we progressed we became more and more confident. Although a set of waypoints has been published by Doyle's it was clear very early on that they were for much smaller boats, we could never have made it using them. I will publish our waypoints and some notes on Noonsite soon and anyone else who wants them.

We arrived in Bartica at sunset, the last section a nasty tight little run through rocks known as ‘Rattlesnake Rocks’, which might give you an idea of the course we had to take.  Finding the only piece of deepish water we could safely anchor in was just off the commercial dock where the river boats take gold, diamonds and people up and down the river. We settled down for a G&T. Job done.

UHURU goes up the Essequibo River, Guyana.

I am not going to bore you with the detail of our return up river as it was a repeat of the same without too much drama as we knew we could do it. And I am not going to bore you with tales of Bartica because to be honest we didn’t have enough time to really go exploring. It is a very vibrant, busy, mining town and the gateway to the interior. You wouldn’t necessarily want to spend your summer holidays here, but it had a lot of charm, and they take a lot of pride in the ‘melting pot’ nature of the racial mix there. We spoke with a number of locals about ‘life, the universe and everything’ and they were nothing but charming and helpful. In fact I spent a charming hour on UHURU with the Head of CID, The Head of Immigration, the Chief Customs Officer, The Chief of Police, and two other various ‘officers’. All onboard to check that I didn’t have any “drugs” or contraband.  But it soon became very obvious all they wanted to do was sit on the boat and drink my precious Tonic Water!. They took pictures of themselves at the chart table, wondered around and asked questions about all the toys, and generally had a lot of fun. They all confirmed that we were the biggest boat they’d seen in Bartica, and loved the fact that we were on our way to Antarctica, via Bartica.

The be absolutely honest the adventure for us was the journey and it was very special.

We are now heading to Devils Island of ‘Papillion’ fame and it should take us about 5 days, more up wind and against tide!

I will look after Botty and let you know how he is.

Luv to all


8th October 2010

Steve Powell (Owner/Skipper)

UHURU of Lymington
Mob: +(44) 7774 423 449
email: Steve {CHANGE TO AT} uhuru {DOT} mailasail {DOT} com
Boat Sat: +(870) 7731 500353
Skype: stevepowell9999