Passage: Colombia to Panama

Author: Pete


We left Cartagena behind on the 28th of January.  Motored out of the harbor over the submerged wall and left her in our wake along with our good friends. Had a last dinner with the Glabs, they too graciously loaded us up with goodies for our passage: cookies, peanut butter, champagne, ham and cheese (real, glorious, from-the-United-States cheese). We were all set up, and boy did the goodie basket end up coming in handy. Thanks guys!


Started our trip with two knots of wind astern and ended with twenty! Fickle mother nature! On the first night, we hid behind Isla Grande in the Rosario Islands just in front of a narrow water channel into the interior of the island. Snorkeled in choppy, cloudy water. The sea life left some wanting. We’ve been spoiled in the Bahamas. At least we were able to get in the water after being confined to land and the deck while in Cartagena’s yucky water.




Having picked up my Dad in Cartagena and my sister in the Bahamas, we were now sailing with four aboard, which is tight. One wants to be picky about one’s own boat and it’s hard not to get annoyed when finely dialed systems are messed up. That’s the cost of having family and friends aboard though.  Which, of course, we wouldn’t change for the world.


Sailed from the Islas Rosario to another of Colombia’s Caribbean island chains, the Islas San Bernardo, for our next staging point for the Panamanian push. No wind in the morning meant we ran Wendy and Belinda for a few hours before the wind built enough to run a broad reach.


It’s the life of a sailor. The wind is never going the way you want, or as strong as you want. Once the wind came up we had flat seas and a lovely sail to San Bernardo’s Isla Tintipan. Anchored in the lee of the island and swam ashore to a coconut grove and a thatched palapa.  We gave ourselves a day to snorkel and catch up on some sleep before our final 36-hour push to the San Blas.






When our alarms rang the following morning at 3:30 am (the day of our first wedding anniversary), all hands were up for our departure and we motored around the north side of Tintipan, hoping that in the dark we weren’t bearing down on reef. Although we had electronic and paper charts of the area, it’s a generally poorly charted locale.

Out in the open water in the growing swell we hoisted, or rather unfurled, our sails and put ourselves on the right course to Panama! Swapped watches throughout the day. Went back to our zombie-deckhand mode of slight sickness mixed with sleeplessness. The day came and went (Happy Anniversary my love!). We had to motor a few hours from lack of wind. The night returned as did the wind. It blew the lettuce right off our tacos as we ate dinner in the coming dark. No, it’s not a euphemism for anything. Maybe it could be. “Man, that really blows the lettuce off my taco!”

Somewhere in the banging sleepless night (and not in the good way), Dad spotted a ship on the horizon. It got closer and closer. Took bearings on it and found it to be slowly coming our way. Couldn’t raise him on the radio or AIS, so we jibed to get out of the way. Jibing around the back of the waves is way easier than tacking straight through the front of them, and we bravely ran in the opposite way of our mysterious ship. The lights seemed to be maintaining their distance from us, like he was moving at our speed.   We sailed an hour out of our way, waiting for some sign that we’d cleared him. Turns out it was an oil platform and his nonexistent speed was close to our very-slow-sailboat speed. Zero is pretty close to five knots when you’re used to looking at big freighters going 20 knots. So, yup, we ran away from what turned out to be a stationary object. That’s embarrassing.  Nonetheless, we continued on our rocky way to Panama.

The wind kicked up higher in the night and we deployed an anchor drogue which slowed us to six knots and kept us from slewing and surfing in the waves. Kind of an intense night. As the waves abated in the wake of the dark we found ourselves a few hours short to make it to Porvenir for the next night. Decided to turn into shore and anchor on Apaidup, Snug Harbor, just off the jungle-crusted Panamanian coast.


A Kuna man in a dugout canoe, an ulu, came up to our stern and chatted in Spanish with us for a while. He lived on Playon Grande and wanted to sell us Molas and fruit. We bought two hefty coconuts from him for one dollar each. His canoe streaked off to the nearest island with spear-like paddle flashing. He had a hand-scrawled anchor tattoo on his forehead. Pirate territory.



We woke the next day to strong winds. Exited Snug Harbor, an apt name which we thanked a good night’s sleep to. Dodged islands and shoals the whole way. The light wasn’t great, but the sailing was fun. Still managed to burn my skin in the overcast. Damn UV rays!


Pulled into the unwelcoming harbor at Porvenir. At least four wrecks dashed on the reefs reminded us of the uncharted nature of the San Blas. One boat was currently holding itself off a shoal with lines north of Channel Island as waves broke over it. Yikes. Our Garmin Blue charts were pretty worthless. We supposedly sailed through and on top of a couple islands. Glad to have The Panama Cruising Guide by Bauhaus. I know why it’s a standard now.




When we anchored the customary welcoming party of ulus came scooting over. We caved and bought four lobsters from one canoe, as we are happy to support the economy. Of course we couldn’t clear in at 4:15 pm as the office closed at 4:00. So we wait out the night. We’ll pay around $700 in total. $193 for Panaman cruising permit, $100 for Panaman Visas per person, and $100 for the Kuna. The excitement of raising a new flag never gets old.  We’d arrived in Panama!




Cartagena, Colombia


Author: Pete

Location: Cartagena, Colombia


Our first morning in the city we met up with our customs ‘agent’, an person who organizes the four different entities dealing with admission into the country. It’s apparently voluntary to employ an agent, but difficult to do without. Their fees are negotiable, but ours cost about 100USD. It’s worth it too. Five people showed up in the late morning after talking to our agent earlier in the day. It seemed like something out of a joke set up: “A navy guy, an immigrations guy, a health inspector, a customs agent, and his son all walk into a marina.” After some pleasantries that ask to see the boat. I asked them if the five of them, and Miranda and Liza and I, were to all hop in my tiny dinghy to be driven out to the boat. They looked around sheepishly and asked if we could see the boat from land. After some neck craning on the dock they stood in a circle for a few minutes winking and lip-pointing in a language unknown to me. Something was decided by someone in the group, and the requisite papers were all pulled out and signed without anymore fanfare and we were free to explore our city.



Hoisted the Colombian flag in our new port.





We feasted on fresh, cut up fruit. I wanted to rub it on my face after the months of meager offerings in the Bahamas. Walked the streets eating fried goodies and drinking really cold, really light Aguila, and generally rekindling our spark with this beautiful place.




Had a celebratory dinner with our friends Nico and Erin Leigh, who live in this delicious city. Nico was our officiant at our wedding right here in Cartagena, and Erin Leigh was the matchmaker who orchestrated our initial chemistry. They have been such a big part of our lives here and afar and a good deal of our interest in sailing to Colombia was to see them.



Took Nico, Erin Leigh, and their two beautiful little daughters out for a little sailing day. The weather was a little rough, but we anchored off Tierra Bomba, and spent some time playing in the waves and the sand.





Collected more crew at the airport. My dad came in to sail the Panama push with us! We are spending a few days working on the boat, provisioning, exorcising electrical demons on the boat, and also enjoying Cartagena de Indias.




First Major Passage: Bahamas to Colombia


Author: Pete

Location:  Cartagena, Colombia


Sailed on the first day out of Inagua. Felt odd to leave port in the late afternoon with night coming on and no land in sight. Sailing overnight was a novel experience again after not doing it for some time.




Our second day the wind died in the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba, so we motored for about sixteen hours on the flat seas. The ocean almost became a mirror it was so still aside from our wake. As we passed close to the southern peninsula of Haiti we could smell the land, sweet like flowers. Miranda thought sweet like human musk. Eeew…. She’s weird like that.  Played Settlers of Catan and Pass the Pigs taking advantage of the flat.




Body is adjusting slowly to the awkward motion of the boat. It’s pretty loud in the hulls from slapping waves as we were on a beam reach doing five knots. Morale was good though, if slightly sick feeling.




It’s short of like a week long hangover after a college house party. Everyone is lethargic, and slightly nauseous. We sit and stare into space at the horizon and talk sparingly. Every couple of ours someone makes a big pot of starchy bland food that we all eat quietly and feel better for a bit. Dishes pile up. Bright lights are painful. Everyone is just a little unwashed. Does that bring back memories? We’re making them right here.



I guess it’s a challenge. The night watches are still novel and beautiful. The sky lights up with the stars and you can see clouds, waves, and horizon. It’s a peaceful, if boring four hours. The right song comes on the iPod, and it becomes a solo dance party breaking out on the deck in a lifejacket and tethered to the boat. They can’t hold these moves down though.


Once in a while the realization of how far we are from anything and what we’re actually doing crosses my mind. I feel fear and elation. And sick. Always just a little sick. Damned the dry heaves, full speed ahead. Onward to Colombia!



Day four in the passage. Wind steadily increasing as we go south. Now about 15 knots. Still choppy, uncomfortable seas, but nothing ferocious. Altered course 10 degrees starboard for our final run to Cartagena, which lays 116 miles away. I think we’ll be ready to get off the boat.



Last night on watch was like living a dream. I’m on the midnight to 4AM graveyard shift, and generally pretty spaced out at the beginning of watch. Throw in clouds and no moon, which blurs perception, and the boat trailing streams of bioluminescent sparks, as well as being hundreds of miles from anything, and no boats in sight for days. Pretty far out there. It’s nice on deck. Down below the creaks and bangs sound like the boat is coming apart. …but I know she won’t. Not my Tayrona.


Last day of the passage was a trial. We went to bed with moderate winds and low swell. Over the course of the night we passed 11 degrees N and the trade wind predictably caught us. Screaming 25 knot winds gusted 30 and kicked up big rollers. We were beam reaching, which rolled the boat disconcertingly. Tayrona started surfing on the waves, reaching the troughs and veering to port, climbing the next under sail and repeating.


Down below trying to sleep in the roller coaster of creaking fiberglass and hammering waves was impossible. We did our best. I relieved Miranda of duty at midnight and kept it together until 2 AM when the wind had reached 20 knots and we had a Cartagena-bound freighter to dodge. I couldn’t raise it on the radio, so I woke Mir to help me reef and tack back north out of the big ship’s way. The seas were so big by that point we couldn’t swing the bow through the wind to tack. I fired up the engines, but the starboard wouldn’t turn over. There may have been some swearing involved, but eventually we got the boat tacked over. Liza was up by now roused by the vulgarity washing over the decks. The lights of the big boat grew closer. I thought I was sure which way it was headed and then wasn’t convinced. The rolling waves bucked and skidded the boat. The dark felt overbearing in the cloudy, moonless night.


Then the fore and aft lights unaligned and the freighter passed us a mile off our port and slid south. By now it was 3 AM so Liza and I put together an anchor, chain, and several warps as a drogue, and also double reefed the sails.   The combination slowed the boat to six knots and kept it from surfing radically. Still big walls of wave thundered in to our aft quarter, rolling the boat sickeningly up and forward. We stood at the helm and watched them come like a car wreck that you couldn’t help rubberneck. It was sickeningly worrisome that maybe, though not likely, but just maybe, one of those waves out there was steep and tall enough to roll us.


Eventually it was Liza’s 4 AM watch but I stayed up, too juiced to go below. We ate all the cookies and tried to keep hydrated. The waves pounded on. Dawn broke, as did our hopes that the weather would moderate at daylight. I don’t know if seeing the monsters is better than just imagining them. I went below and pretended to sleep for an hour.


It was into the early afternoon that we approached the coast and seeing it through the haze got to bellow a legitimate, “Land Ho!” Actually, I’m not sure that I can bellow, even if I tried. The waves and wind moderated and a pod of dolphins welcomed us to the continent. We sailed to South Amercia. We were exhausted.

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Ran with the wind under full sail past Zona Norte, my old kite beach, and our friends’ apartment, past the walled city that I love, and beside Boca Grande’s glittering highrises. So close. We were so close. Pulled down sails and motored towards the shallow entrance to Boca Grande and Wendy, the port engine, started screaming. Well, her alarm did. I shut her down and found no coolant. So we loitered under sail until it cooled off and I could get more coolant in, then motored over the submerged pirate wall into the bay. The smell of fried goods wafted through the air from shore. We dodged skiffs and slid past the statue of Mary protecting the harbor. We anchored off Club Nautica with the other scabby looking boats.







We were home. We’d made it back to Cartagena, Colombia, South America under sail. Back to where it all began. I love this city and I can’t wait to walk her streets again. But now to bed, at 7:30 PM. Gork, out.