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Crossing the Caribbean Sea, Aruba to Panama

Miles so far: 6,428

Miles since last blog: 509

The 600 mile passage from Aruba to Panama is deemed to be one of the worst 5 in the world, as the seas and trade winds from across the Atlantic pile up in the corner where Panama connects to Columbia. With the wind not showing much sign of easing and the locals confirming that it was likely to stay this way for the next 3 months, we felt our plans of being in the Pacific by April rapidly slipping away from us. Each morning was spent checking the weather, only to be disappointed. It seemed the only possibility of a good passage had passed us by before the Carnival. Desperate to get going we stocked up on food, water and fuel so we could be ready to go as soon as a weather window appeared.

Local opinions and written accounts each had conflicting advice on which route to take, apparently half stay well offshore where they are clear from the river debris and acceleration zones of the headlands but encounter big wind and waves for most of the passage, plus sail an extra 200-300 miles. The other half hug the coast and take small hops, stopping in Columbia in an attempt to dodge the worst of the weather, but they then encounter the wind acceleration around the headlands. With too much time on our hands to hear and read how bad the passage can be, we were both feeling unusually nervous.

After a week a small window appeared and we chose to go for it, planning to make it in one hit but taking the inshore route to give the option of pulling into a port on the Columbian coast if needed.

Here is some of our log from the passage:

Date/

Time

Comment Weather

07/03

1100

Left customs dock Aruba, bound San Blas

Wind 20 Knots, Sea Moderate

The weather was much calmer that we had expected which made us start to feel a bit less worried. We had been so concerned by the tales of ‘big gusts as you leave the island’ that we had actually set off under just the storm Jib. This was a ridiculously conservative!

1330

Changed from Storm Jib to Genoa with 1 reef, no mainsail

Wind 20 Knots, Sea Moderate

2330

Sea state building, triple reefed genoa to prevent surfing

Wind 17 Knots, Sea Mod – Rough

08/03

0110

Passing light on first headland, gybed to follow coast

0438

Big rain squalls, not pleasant on deck

Wind 30 knots Sea state Rough

At this point we were happy to be sailing with just the headsail as, although slightly slower, it is easy to furl away when the squalls approach. Something we had learn’t from our Atlantic broken boom experience. Once the squalls had passed through the weather became much more peaceful.

0715

Breeze has eased, Full Genoa, waiting end of night watches before setting Mainsail

Wind 12 Knots, Sea Moderate

0945

Main up, 1 reef and poled out Genoa

Wind 14 Knots, Sea state Slight

1340

Wind shift so gybed and put second reef in mainsail

Wind 16 Knots, Sea Moderate

1540

Wind increasing and more northerly than forecast, dropped main, 2 reefs in genoa

Wind 25 Knots, Sea Moderate

1605

Small bird perched on board, looking for shelter not a sea bird, taking shelter in mainsail cover

We had enjoyed the day chatting, reading and attempting to learn spanish and went into our night watches feeling relaxed.

2230

Sea state building, some unweclome waves splashing into the cockpit!

Wind 19 Knots, Sea Mod to Rough

0130

Gybed to stay inshore

Wind 20 Knots Sea state Moderate

0440

Approaching headland, wind accelerating

Wind 30 Knots Sea state Rough

0530

Wind and sea still getting worse, decided to take shelter in Santa Marta – Columbia

Wind 40 Knots Sea state Rough

We knew it was too good to be true, the wind increased through the night. This was much more wind than the forecast and with the conditions further along the coast supposed to be worse we made the decision to stop in Santa Marta which was a few hours away.

0700

Gusts topping 50 knots and breaking waves!!!

Wind 40+ Knots Sea Very Rough

We now found ourselves having to work across a big breaking sea state to get into Santa Marta, If we got it wrong there was a chance of Florence being spun so that she was sideways on to a breaking wave which could cause a lot of damage or in the worst case roll us over. That sounds scary, we should say that we never came close to this happening, mainly due to how well Florence handles and Matt’s experienced hand on the helm, but it was in the back of our minds that it was possible. We motor sailed the last 2 hours with a tiny headsail, the engine gave us more control in the wave troughs where we had very little wind due to the massive wave behind us causing a wind shadow.

1100

Anchored inside Santa Marta Harbour

Wind 35 Knots, Sea state Smooth

Sat at anchor in Santa Marta with the wind still whistling through the rigging, we gave Florence a hug for looking after us, we are so happy that we have such a seaworthy boat and a good anchor. Then we set the anchor alarm and went to sleep.

Feeling better for a few hours nap and with the latest forecast looking good for the next day we relaxed, ate a good meal and watched a film that evening (pirates of the caribbean of course). We were keen to leave Santa Marta before an official came and asked us to check into Columbia as we had heard it can cost around $200 and take a week. Santa Marta is an industrial looking city, but is surrounded by beautiful inviting mountains. The anchorage was full of container ships who seemed to have had the same plan of dropping the hook to wait for better weather.

P1120423-1-4
Sunrise over a becalmed Santa Marta

Typically there was absolutely no wind the next morning! We motored out of the bay with a beautiful sunrise over Santa Marta and were soon able to set sail in a pleasant 15 knots of wind. One hour later it picked up to over 25 Knots and we started contemplating turning round as we didn’t fancy another dose of 40 knots. However the wind remained constant and we had a very pleasant sail even catching a Tuna and spotting a leather-back turtle. The rest of the sail to San Blas just got better and better as the weather improved and dolphins came to play.

P1120432-1-5

To anybody reading this blog as research for their own passage, our advice would be:

1) Wait, wait and wait for a decent settled weather window

2) Reef down early before each headland (as we did)

3) Have details of possible ports of refuge at hand (our plan made the decision to pull into Santa Marta an easy one)

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3 thoughts on “Crossing the Caribbean Sea, Aruba to Panama”

  1. Really enjoying reading your blogs. I came across your videos by accident. It’s great armchair sailing! Great for research for our own trip… we’re sailing to St petersburg this summer from Chichester harbour. Keep posting. Fair winds and happy sailing!

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  2. Looks like the passage lived up to its reputation. Well sailed. We are currently doing our own passage planning for a similar trip to yours starting from Brest, France in May/June next year. Thanks for the passage advice – I think we will do this run on the shoulder of the Trade Wind season, probably in October/November when the winds tend to be more manageable (or so we’re led to believe). N’joy!

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  3. Matt, Amy,
    Fantastic account of the crossing, really great read, good luck going through the canal to a whole new ocean!
    Si and Jo

    Like

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