According to one source, the 400 miles between Aruba and Cartagena are known for the worst weather conditions in the Caribbean. The same source goes on to say that it’s one of the five worst passages around the world. Mike and I were pleased then when our friends Graham, Anne and Dany aboard Vinga, a 20-year-old Leopard, planned to buddy-boat with us and leave Curacao, just east of Aruba, at the same time. We took comfort in the idea that another vessel would be traveling with us in case of an emergency.
Unfortunately, Vinga’s port engine began acting up. “Tugboat Joe” performed some work on the injectors in Spanish Waters, Curacao, that fell short of expectations. At one point Graham was considering rebuilding or replacing the engine. When Mike described Mikayla’s mantra when starting our dinghy–”I love my dinghy, I love my dinghy”–Graham suggested that perhaps instead she could say, “I love Vinga’s Volvo Penta MD2030B port engine.”
Meanwhile, our favorite weather expert in the Caribbean, Chris Parker, had advised us to leave on Wednesday or Thursday. We departed from Curacao at noon, Thursday, so we could spend Christmas in Cartagena and arrive before an expected change in the weather.
The first 24 hours
Happy Times flew with 17 knots of wind during the first three hours of our passage. We had to dodge some traffic outside of Willemstad as a large container ship offloaded some materials onto a pilot boat. A cruise ship was anchored just outside the Queen Emma Bridge; another was tied up along the picturesque waterfront. The next traffic we ran into was the best kind: dolphins.
Mike and I were idly watching the horizon when something shot out of the water and headed toward our boat. I leaped up and exclaimed, “What was that?” I ran to the starboard side to look for a large fish and instead found 20 dolphins swimming alongside us. Quickly they moved to the bow and entertained us for 30 minutes or more as the sun began its descent. It was such a thrill to see these creatures which we consider a sign of good luck. Four or five raced along the starboard bow while the others playfully darted in and out of the slipstream. Occasionally a dolphin leaped out of the water, all too quickly for a photograph.
Sailing past Aruba was downright eerie. As Mike handed off the watch, he pointed out some lights in the distance that we couldn’t make out. They didn’t match up to what we read on our radar and chart plotter. The Garmin indicated a few vessels, but they didn’t show up with matching AIS (automatic identification system) information. From my perspective, the lights seemed to line up as though illuminating a runway.
As Happy Times got closer, I was able to make out individual container ships. At that point the AIS information indicated that they were underway and I wanted to steer clear of them. I called one ship and asked for his intentions. I could almost hear him chuckle as he said he was anchored. We sailed on.
By 11:30 a.m. on Friday we had put 170 nautical miles behind us, averaging 7.2 miles per hour in speed over ground.
Sailing in slow motion
Though Happy Times was flying, the crew was not. Mikayla felt lethargic and napped a lot as did Mike. I puttered a little in the galley. I made grilled cheese sandwiches at one point; Mike made soup at another time.
We rallied a bit Saturday morning as we completed our second round of 170 nautical miles and played Super Quiz, a game similar to Trivial Pursuit. Afterward, Mikayla took over the helm and all hands were on deck. We were about 25 miles from the mouth of the Rio Magdalena, notorious for floating debris, including entire trees, logs, lily pads and even dead cows. We watched as tree trunks and other matter passed us by.
An hour later, the block that holds the jib sheet broke. The jib sail wrapped around the forestay like linens twisted about a clothesline. Two battens poked out of their pockets and revealed shredded ends. Mike and I tried to take down the jib as Mikayla struggled to control the boat. A second reef in the main offered no help, so we took the main down altogether. Mikayla regained control and held the boat steady as we took down the jib and unwound it, removed the shattered battens and replaced the broken block.
Mike and I were relieved that the jib fouled in the daylight. We were able to get it down and back up without too much trouble, and from that point on we continued sailing with only the jib. In a few more hours, we’d have our hands full again.
The last stretch
As Mikayla finished her shift from 6 to 8 p.m., she lost the small amount of food she’d consumed overboard. She went below and somehow slept through the sail from hell.
I returned to the helm from 10 p.m. to midnight and added another hour to cover Mikayla’s shift. The following sea continued to push us along uneasily. Mike came on at 1 a.m. and Belle and I went below to sleep.
Within the hour the wind and waves churned wildly. A wave hit us on the port side and washed over the stern. I rushed up the stairs and found Mike in the salon. He had been doused a few times while standing at the helm and had swung the chart plotter around so he could continue to observe our progress from inside Happy Times, now shuddering and scooting over the swells to starboard.
Poor Belle could no longer take the rough conditions and threw up a gallon or two of dog food onto the small doormat. Earlier she had done her business in the cockpit instead of the trampolines as she usually does. She had no business attempting to move forward; none of us did.
At 2:20 a.m. we were only 34 miles from Cartagena. It seemed much farther than that. The wind was blowing from 20 to 25 knots and the waves were about eight feet high from our rear port quarter with an eight-second interval.
“Normally this would be a very comfortable sail for us,” said Mike, “but every 20 or 30 minutes a wave hits us broadside and really shakes the boat.” Happy Times rose solidly to meet each wave but the rattle of the dishes in the cabinets as well as the teeth in my head was unnerving.
Mike persevered on his watch. I could no longer keep my eyes open and laid down on the settee. Belle snuggled behind the crook of my legs, propped her head on my knees and promptly fell asleep. Mike let us snooze until 5:00 a.m.; then he needed some rest.
Mikayla returned to the helm an hour later, and I crashed again. We were about 10 miles from Cartagena.
When I got up at 7:30 a.m., Mike was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He asked when the sea had settled, but I was too dumb from lack of sleep to answer. In the distance I saw tall buildings and could not grasp what I beheld. It was Cartagena.
Soon another small pod of dolphins encircled Happy Times as we dawdled toward the city. Chris Parker had advised his listeners to arrive at their chosen destination for Christmas by today. We were happy to be in Cartagena after a very bumpy finish.