Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Curacao to...Colombia? !

"Big ship, big ship to our starboard side, this is sailing vessel Ula!"...
Preparing to snorkel out to sunken tug.
Our week had disappeared fast preparing for the next leg, with a good weather window taking us around the notorious Colombia head: 20 knots wind with 1.9 m swell easing.
We had a morning family swim and hair wash so left the anchorage feeling fresh and sparkly. (By far our most preferred method to wash hair by the way: jump overboard to wet hair, rub ocean friendly shampoo through and jump overboard again. Shake your head profusely upon returning to the surface, a couple more dolphin dives may be necessary. Repeat if using conditioner! Over and done with in minutes and far more fun.)
We sailed up the coast of Curacao in a jovial mood, enjoying the view, the sailing conditions and looking forward to our next port of call: Portobello, Panama.
Late evening, the lights of neighbouring island Aruba came out to greet us.  As did the lights of the ships. Dave counted 12 in all, along this small coast, bit daunting at first but thankfully the majority were anchored.
Not too much happened over next couple of days, although a few dolphins cruised past on their way to some other more important engagement.  Was a near full moon so at night there was a good amount of visibility.
One evening Dave was adjusting sails and yelled out to Eli to "tighten the sheets", to which Eli, who's not too bad on the nautical terms, teasingly replied, " oh stop being so fancy, no one understands you!" While he dutifully pulled the correct rope!
Third night in, I was on watch, swell seemed to have increased but was comfortable. I'd been watching the lights of a ship for some time and decided to call Dave up to ascertain course of action as it approached nearer. It seemed we were both headed toward the same direction but he was coming toward us and there was the chance he may not have seen us and cut too close in front of us. In the dark, we thought he had pushed the autopilot button to go 10 degrees to port. The numbers changed but soon after, large wave walls were coming straight at our side. Looking down at our compass, we realised we were in fact heading due south instead of west. Tweaked the button again, it glitched, Dave gave it a whack and the screen did something else. Another wave shoved us at our side. We decisively turned off the autopilot, and got back on course handsteering to the compass. The lights of the ship loomed nearer all too soon. Two calls on the vhf were met with silence.
" Big ship to our starboard, this is sailing vessel Ula, we are having steering problems, can you please turn to your starboard. " To which the reply came,
"Hello, I see you, I will try to altar course but I don't know if she'll change in time!"
Righto. Off to port we veered as much as could be, thankfully they did noticeably veer away from us in good time.
With that out of the way, Dave took off down below, pulling the surfboard bag onto our bed, opened up the space to see what was going on.  Over the next couple of hours or so, he topped up the oil,  bled it for air, had to fossick about up front in our over filled focsle looking for our bike pump, then pumped up the hydraulic arm 25-30 psi. All this done in the stinking hot while I snaked all over the ocean, trying to maintain course.
I see what you're thinking, if the power steering goes out in a car, it's tough, but do-able, not that bigger deal. I've done a good amount of non-power-steering as a teenager and I can tell you, this is comparing apples with lemons. This is a 16 tonne boat and I was wrestling for its control against the power of the waves, most with walls towering above us.  My neck and shoulder were agitated, taking most of the strain (mainly due to a surfing injury back in NZ where I tore the ligaments in my neck-another story).  I felt exhausted and it seemed every minute I was praying, "God I can't take much more of this".  But at least I had breeze. Eventually poor Dave surfaced, sweating from his sauna-like workout, spewing from my snaky driving.  He decided to switch on the engine and try the autopilot.  Hallelujah it was working! We wearily watched the numbers on the two dials for sometime and made the call to head into the nearest port, Santa Marta, Colombia, some 84 nautical miles away.
Nearing Santa Marta.

It's a peculiar thing to be under that amount of stress, wanting to throw in the towel and walk away...but you can't. You have to just keep going, keep enduring,  inspite of exhaustion, were both shattered, we managed to continue on with our watches till morning when Eli could watch.
Something I did notice during the intense time was how the large waves didn't scare me as much as they had two years ago on our last scare coming into Bonaire.  Yes the situation was scary, considering possible outcomes, but I do remember feeling a deep down peace and trust in Ula to ride us out safely, which in turn gave me some reassurance and confidence.
The engine and autopilot happily chugged away for the rest of the day. The lush mountains of Colombia finally came into sight and the high rises as we came close to landfall in the late afternoon, dropping anchor in the very picturesque Santa Marta Bay, near a Venezuelan fishing boat.
Sunset Santa Marta.

Saturday night was lively ashore, small buses zooming past with people hanging in their doorways, beach filled with swimmers, soccer players and street vendors.  The smells were welcoming and comforting.  South American music filled the night.. ah, it was good to be back in South America.

I spent a year in Brasil as an exchange student when I was 16/17. My love affair for all things South American never seemed to dissipate. I even managed to drag Dave and Eli over when he was three. We spent 4 months between Brasil, Peru and Chile.  We noticed that people would warm to us more because of Eli.  But also, we got to see things through his eyes that we would've overlooked otherwise.

Santa Marta was not just a silver lining, it was more like the Icing on the cake.
With no working outboard we paddled waka style to the marina for clearance procedure. We arrived at the berth of some newly acquired friends from Curacao and actually Bonaire at customs when we were begging for an extension mercy.
Another cruiser guy was there who happened to be the dad of three boys almost the same ages as ours! Talking with these people was like being welcomed with open arms.  We felt reassured and encouraged almost immediately.  The boys instantly keen to hang out, they spent the day back and forth between boats and diving off various platforms at the beach. Their blond hair making them instant celebrities!

Clearing in and out of Colombia requires an agent, at every port.  Our options were:
1) use outside agent while at anchor, cost approx: $300 US
2) stay at marina five nights: $370 US, free  agent but temporary import of boat required.
The marina seemed like a plan. After many questions and apologizing for our lack of sleep and decision making abilities, the lovely lady offered for us to take up a berth, get some rest and come back tomorrow to see the agent.  We were jetted out to our boat then we slowly, slightly nervously, made our debut entry into a marina.  It was the perfect first time  setting : not busy, not huge, not too many boats down our lane and not too much wind.  Suffice to say, with the guidance of Dave and Eli, I managed to successfully back our boat into our slip without collecting anything on the way, yay!

Much to the delight of the boys, we each had to register our fingerprint for entry to the very nice bathrooms!  Got some rest and had an enjoyable evening meeting the other cruisers.
Our view: big mountains overlook the city when the cloud peels away.

As arranged the night before, we met up with another guy to taxi our gas bottles a 15 minute ride through town for refill.  For $8000 Colombian pesos each way, it was the ultimate cultural experience.
$3000=$1 USD by the way!
Quick snap out taxi window.

The taxi driver skilfully zoomed and weaved us down streets lined with mango trees, in between bikes, buses, cars, horse and carts, he seemed to know the precise dimensions of his car and where he could squeeze it!
Horse and cart still prevalent in the busy city streets.

Inside a walled compound backed up against lush green hills,  a 20 minute relay ensued between us English and the lovely young Spanish, talking to the translate app, deciphering the translated message, negotiating gas fill prices and delivery as there was a delay.
Back to the marina, we met the agent, began filling in forms, handing over documents when Kelly pointed out our clearance  paper from Curacao states our next port of call is Portobello, Panama. We explained the autopilot situation.
Much Spanish between Kelly and Agent Jonathan.
So, because it's really essential to go to your next 'port of call' as stated on last port of call clearance form, and because of the whole Colombia drug issue thing, we really needed to go.."manana".
My eyes must've widened somewhat with a gaping mouth I repeated what I'd translated...tomorrow? ?!!
More Spanish.
Dave mentioned we needed to claim safe harbor under maritime law.
More Spanish.
If they put clearance stamps on our papers, it will open a lengthy, investigation once we get to Panama.  If we are treated as "in transit" with no paperwork and leave asap then things will go much easier for us.
More Spanish. Agent Jonathan said we could leave no later than Wednesday morning. Phew!
This turned out to be a bonus costing us much less by not paying agent fees and staying less time in the marina.
The day disappeared with loads of washing, cooking meals for on passage, Dave's fix-it jobs, etc. The following day we had a very interesting town day getting extra supplies.
There was a football game between Colombia and some other country. Every shop it seemed had a few people milling around their TV watching the game, cafe's were filled with possum-eyed spectators and you could hear the uproar in the street when a goal was scored!
It's all about the game...

Gardener taking his siesta in the hammock - every
work place should have these!

Streets flooding after a pour

Aside from some technical ATM delays, we successfully drove up to the fuel dock for our first time ever and refilled. (The last time we refueled was two years ago in Trinidad,  running multiple jerry can dinghy relays over a couple of days to fill our tanks!!). This was so fast and efficient, no wonder so many cruisers prefer this method! !

We left the spectacular Colombian coast late morning and was even able to sail under all four sails for a couple of hours.

Panama, here we come!

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