Avoiding "Caribbeanitis"Posted: March 22, 2010
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What a relief to leave the Windward and Leeward islands as we departed Grenada the last week of October and headed West towards Columbia. Downwind, nice weather, a good forecast--it just couldn't get any better. Last year we had decided to visit the Eastern Caribbean again after a 22 year hiatus and were looking forward to the idea of enjoying the world's most reliable trade winds and relatively easy cruising. What a mistake! I won't say more than the Windward and Leeward islands of the Caribbean are simply not very pleasant places to be any more.
As our passage to Bonaire eased along, planning next years cruising began to occupy my mind. I was inclined to bring CHEWINK back to the high latitudes (Maine), but Heidi persuaded me to stay the year where we were and cruise the Western Caribbean visiting the ABC's and Columbia as well as the San Blas islands. So we skipped Venezuela and its hassles, missed the Las Roques' great cruising area, and sailed directly from Grenada to Bonaire for an easy two night passage with 15-20 knot trades--what a pleasure to head downwind again with the jib poled out and a book read each day.
Our middle of the night arrival in Bonaire was greeted by an old professional ski patrol friend we had worked with over thirty years ago. He turned on the lights of his restaurant to guide us in and led us out to our mooring in his fishing boat. There may be no better feeling after three days at sea than to be sitting in your cockpit, secure in a quiet anchorage, enjoying the evening with good friends. Of course fresh baked bread and food helped, but it was obvious we had entered a new and fun area with the 'Caribbeantis1' disease now far behind us--finally someone was glad to see us.
It was soon apparent that many others felt the same way we did as the Western Caribbean is getting a good number of cruisers/sailors looking for a better cruising experience with interesting culture ashore, reasonable prices, and a great social scene with all the boats.
The best part of Bonaire, besides hooking up with old friends, was that we were able to get in the water with our tanks right off the stern of CHEWINK while moored close to Richard's restaurant for very nice diving. This entire area is a diver's paradise with clear water and many buoy marked dive sites surrounding the island. The locals have been protecting the reefs from spear fishing for many years and consequently the fish are not very skittish around divers.
Because we wanted to be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas we only stayed a week in Bonaire (Big mistake!) with the objective of leaving CHEWINK in Cartagena. Bonaire would have been an excellent place to leave her with a great fully enclosed marina and good flight connections, but that was hindsight.
Dave Bridges caught up with us in Curacao for the sail over to Cartagena, which although a short trip is often the roughest passage of any circumnavigation. During the windy months of December, January, February, and March the trades blow steadily at thirty knots--often reaching forty Knots--with a counter current that makes the large seas short and steep. In my 90,000 miles of cruising on CHEWINK, this is the only place that seas have washed aboard over the stern. This happened in 1987 when the kids were with us and we encountered some pretty severe weather. The second time we stayed a hundred miles offshore easing the problem. This time, however, coming from Curacao we sailed along the coast with few worries because it was still October and we had a 15 knot wind for an almost perfect sail. We always enjoy having a third person aboard now that we are older--not just for an extra pair of hands, but for the conversation.
While sailing along the coast in the early morning hours, Heidi came on deck and immediately pointed out snow fields visible on the 18,000 ft. coastal mountain tops as the clouds began to clear. At this nine degree latitude, and with a predominance of trade wind clouds, this is one rare sight in the Caribbean. These mountains are the highest close to any ocean in the world.
Cartagena was a great place and lived up to what we had heard. A walled city that is the oldest European city in this hemisphere, it takes three hours to walk the wall surrounding the old fort enclave. Cartagena has been invaded and captured innumerable times making for a storied history.
There are two very pleasant marinas. Club Nautico is for liveaboards and transients and is fairly run down, but where all the action is and has a great manager. This was a fun place and where we left CHEWINK. The better marina is Club de Pesca and is a very good facility where the local Colombians leave their boats. Its also probably a better place to leave a boat unattended, but only had a few transient berths, so we stayed at Club Nautico.
We returned the first week of January and spent the next month in Cartagena enjoying the city and also took a really great side trip with David and Sydney to Leiticia on the Amazon and Medellin in the middle of Colombia. Both places were terrific with the Amazon being 'Otro Mundo' (another world) as we were often reminded by a fellow Colombian traveler. The Amazon is truly amazing.
Medellin was once the murder capital of the world, but has completely changed and is now a very modern city of three million people nestled in the mountains with a textile based economy. In fact, we felt safer in Colombia than any of the Eastern Caribbean islands.
Coluombia is huge with incredible terrain. Bogota, with eight million people is also very high at 7,000 feet. Cartagena, located on the coast is quite hot. Cartagena has very high quality and quite inexpensive food with many international cuisines represented. Most of the cruising crowd eats out every night, as did we. An evening walk into the old walled city-- a city that does not come alive until after 8:00pm--was a real treat. The city is beautiful at night and exciting with its lively local crowd. Cruise ship passengers are back on their ships by dinner time, so with only a few tourists and the friendly local population frequenting the shops and restaurants, you can explore at a leisurely pace.
Our friends, Bob and Barb Suberi flew in for three weeks and sailed with us over to the Columbia and Panama border where we started up the San Blas Islands. Heidi and I have been to the San Blas three times and think this area offers superb cruising. Most of the cruising fleet hang out in the Western part near the Hollandes Cays, but we like to spend time near the river entrances--dinghying up the rivers into the jungle with all its flora and fauna is spectacular. If being social is on the agenda it is easy to sail out to the islands where there is usually a party or two going on.
Since the cruising is easy and the islands beautiful, most cruisers are staying in the Hollandes area, but we liked the Eastern San Blas quite a bit better--this was our first time there--as the Kuna Indians are much more traditional with an interesting community oriented culture. However, there are no good charts of the area and the sailing is quite rugged around the reefs--chart plotters do not have a lot of value here. Two excellent guide books are available (Bohaus and Zydler) and have allowed all of us to cruise this area during the windy season. The primary problem is the huge seas coming from Colombia where it blows over thirty most of Jan, Feb, and March. The seas mark the reefs well, but also make the coast very rough as they hit shallower water. There are, however, great anchorages to be found.
We laid the boat up in mid-April at Shelter Bay Marina near Colon. Perhaps one of the nicest facilities in the Caribbean, although not a lot of services, but a good place to leave a boat with tight security. Some people think it is too removed, but this is the old jungle training center for our special forces, which means the biking, hiking and bird watching is superb--just the kind of place Heidi and I like.
(1) 'Caribbeantis' is a general malaise felt by the locals due to developers and charter boat operators exploiting beautiful Caribbean cruising areas with virtually no trickle down prosperity for the local West Indian's and is usually identified by a hostile attitude toward the cruising crowd.
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What is Cabot's Log?
The following log and pictures are from Cabot and Heidi aboard CHEWINK, their Lyman-Morse Seguin 49 which Cabot built in 1987 and has sailed more than 62,000 miles. The log follows them as they began their second circumnavigation in 2000 through their current adventures in the Caribbean.