"Wait for a weather window"
"Be careful of the katabatic winds off of Santa Marta"
"Don't arrive at night"
This was some of the advice that we received when planning our passage from Curaçao to Santa Marta, Colombia, so let me explain...
"It's one of the five most difficult passages" This is an oft repeated saying with people listing this passage along with The Cape of Good Hope, crossing the Mozambique channel, Cape Horn. Personally I feel it is a little overstated, but I still chose not to share that bit of information before we left so as to not alarm any relatives ashore. The passage is known for high winds and rough seas and is the most difficult when the "Christmas winds" kick in, in addition there are the "katabatic" winds. Katabatic winds are also called "downslope" or "gravity" winds. They are caused by winds flowing down a steep mountain slope and are strongest at night as the mountains are cooling off. Santa Marta is at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains and is famous for the high winds blowing off the cape.
Because of this we made sure to...
Plan carefully- We consulted multiple weather forecasting site, talked with friends who had completed the passage either the previous month, or the previous year. We read blogs, we talked to people, we consulted the weather and wind forecasting again. One of the difficulties is that wind prediction services do not include katabatic winds in their forecasts.
We waited an extra day for what we believed to be a better weather window . We were ready to go, checked out of Curaçao, dinghy was up on the foredeck where we put her for passages, food was prepared, safety equipment checked and ready. We looked at the weather one more time a thought that we would have a mellower ride if we waited a day, so we did.
The journey started off well. We left on a Wednesday morning. Winds were light, waves were down and we were congratulating ourselves on our preparation and planning.
We watched a cruise ship heading to Curacao as we were leaving. Dolphins played off the bow of Rhapsody, this was starting off as a nice passage. We approached Aruba as the sun was setting, the high rise hotels visible on the lee side of the island. The wind started to pick up a bit, but only a little. Several cargo ships crossed our path and the lighthouse at the tip of Aruba guided us on.
This was the maiden voyage for our Sat phone. This was the first time that we had access to updated weather while on a passage. In the past we have gotten our last look at the weather as we were leaving and hoped there was no major change while we were underway. Perhaps this time it was too much of a good thing because we were trying to time our arrival so that we would not round the cape at Santa Marta at night but our various weather predictions gave a variety of ETAs over a 12 hour period. Do we speed up, or slow down? Arrive too soon or too late? When will the biggest winds hit us, and how will that affect our speed? You would think that the bigger winds would automatically make us go faster, but the reality is that as the winds get bigger we roll in more of our sails and may or may not go faster.
The gusts grew up to 40 knots and we saw waves up to 4 meters ( up to 15 feet). Everything in the cockpit, including the person on watch, became soaked by the wind driven spray. A larger than expected wave hit us and deposited everything that was loose or not properly stowed on the starboard side over to the port side. Our jib dipped into the water and came up dripping salt water. The winds continued to increase as did the waves. The period between the waves shortened causing Rhapsody to swerve more on each wave.
We tried to slow down enough to approach Santa Marta at first light, but at one point, with only two very small sails out, we still hit speeds of 11 knots surfing down the waves. Our normal cruising speed is between 5 and 7 knots, 8 or 9 is fast. This was the first time we had ever seen a speed of 11. The upshot of this was, we hit the biggest winds and waves at night.
|Our route. Venezuela on the right, Colombia on the left.|
Our chartplotter has a touchscreen display and we were having great difficulty moving the display to show what we wanted. We also struggled with turning down the light on the screen at night so as not to night blind ourselves, and turning it back up during the day so that we could see the screen. We did not get much sleep on the three day passage, cat naps here and there, alternating watches and resting when we could.
We pulled into the harbor at dawn and had to make circles in the bay until the Marina Staff was ready for us. Into the slip, all tied up. Friends on the dock said that we looked done in. After a warm shower and a nap we had a new perspective on life.
Upon reflection we had a wet and windy ride, but Rhapsody handled it like a champ. We didn't break any equipment, no one got hurt, and although we did lose a pillow overboard nothing else was lost. We now have more confidence in the weather that we (and Rhapsody) can handle. We will continue to wait for good weather windows to make our passages and will continue to make the decisions to keep ourselves safe, but this passage has added a few more tools to our sailing kit.