The Argonaut: The Tough Passage To Santa Marta (BLOG)

After enjoying the good life in Port Antonio, Argo sets out across one of the trickiest passages across the Caribbean and breathes a well deserved sigh if relief when the lights of Santa Marta appear.
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March 11 - 13: Departing Port Antonio Bound For Colombia

We planned to get underway today and fortunately our satellite phone replacement part arrived at 0930. Christina, the administrator of the harbor office was so kind and helpful in getting our part through customs - we can’t thank her enough. The fees to get this supposedly duty free part into the country were $156, more than the cost of the part itself. Christina gave us a free day of dockage to make up for our frustration, which was very nice of her. At noon we departed with our friends Ismael, Olga and Paul (the harbormaster) on the dock waving us off. It was very nice, but sad to depart from the wonderful people we had met.

The sea state on our way south was as expected: 4 to 5-foot seas running toward the west, in line with the Trade Winds. Not knowing exactly what we might encounter, we decided to head for Santa Marta on the north coast of Colombia near the Venezuelan border, but retained the option of turning west toward Cartagena or Panama if conditions warranted. Going to Santa Marta was the most aggressive route as it put us directly abeam of the waves, and depending on their size, we might have to heave to and turn westward to put them on our stern. As we progressed southward the wind and waves were in the 24 knot/4 to 7-foot range with periods of both higher and lower conditions. Argo rode them very well, but our movement was tedious and tiring. Being bounced around all the time makes me very sleepy for the first few days. Although the seas built as we headed south, things were tolerable and we continued to Santa Marta.

Argo sitting in her slip at the marina in Port Antonio.

Argo sitting in her slip at the marina in Port Antonio.

Santa Marta is located behind a point that forms a bay, sheltered by the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains, which rise sharply several thousand feet from the sea. The Trade Winds are particularly strong this time of year. They are known as the “Christmas Trades” and reach 20-30 knots in the open sea, but close to the coast the wind is funneled by the mountains down toward the coastline and can reach much higher speeds. The wind was over 50 knots as we approached the coast at 0100 Friday morning. With big wind comes big waves, and I had been watching the weather in this region for several months. Thirteen-foot seas on a daily basis are not unusual, although they usually subside to around an average of five feet as the rainy season approaches in April. We hoped spring might come early this year.

The Caribbean Sea is a cauldron of tormented water. The trade Winds blow in from the Atlantic Ocean along the coast of South America. The mountains focus and accelerate the wind at sea level, while seas build and blow to the coast of Central America. There they meet solid land and are pushed northward toward the Gulf of Mexico, eventually leaving the Caribbean via the Gulf Stream. Inside the Caribbean, the water rotates in a clockwise direction. Near the center where we crossed the currents are seemingly random. For a period of time the current will be going in one direction, then suddenly change to another. Wind pushing against the current changes the shape and intensity of the waves, which affect Argo’s speed as well as her roll and pitch. At sea, wind and wave intensity is stronger around sunrise and sunset.

As the days passed and we got closer to shore we became optimistic that we could actually make it to Santa Marta. The hours hung like days. Around 2300 we were within 3 hours of port, but the wind was building to over 30 knots and the sea started to roll Argo in a concerning manner. As the current beneath us changed direction, the rolling ceased for a while, but then it would reoccur and gave me thoughts of changing course.

Tyler and I enjoying Rebecca's phenomenal cooking.

Tyler and I enjoying Rebecca's phenomenal cooking.

Around midnight winds were in the 40’s, and we began to tack against the sea. At 0030 on the 14th we were about 5 miles off shore, but the wind was over 50 knots with waves to match. We headed for the lee of a shoal near the entrance to the harbor. It was pitch dark and it was very hard to read the sea state. We couldn’t spot the big rollers or see the direction from which they might come. Tyler tried to open the upper part of the door to look out, but 50-knot winds made it all but impossible to open. It was a dangerous moment.

My goal was to cut the waves at a 45-degree angle, but the correct course was hard to determine. The last mile or two into port were tense as the seas moved this big and heavy boat around like a toy, rolling us nearly 40 degrees. A little concerning to say the least! Changing course positioned us into the waves and lessened the danger, but slowed our progress to get behind the shoal. By 0130 we breathed a sigh of relief as we were in calm water behind the shoal and headed into the harbor. The lights of Santa Marta were a welcomed sight.

We tied up at the marina. Argo was completely covered in thick, gritty salt. Inside, the walls and counters were also covered in a misty-salty coating. She had been through a difficult passage and kept us safe and sound. She is a great boat and we feel very safe on her.

March 14: Santa Marta

This is a lovely town; clean, interesting, historical and friendly. Simon Bolivar died here at a sugar cane hacienda. The marina is an IGY, which is a chain located all over the world. They are clean and well managed. We are glad to be here.

Simon Bolivar Park. Formerly the site of executions of inquisition

Simon Bolivar Park. Formerly the site of executions of inquisition

In Colombia, one has to hire an agent to deal with clearance formalities. Dino, our agent, has been very efficient and reasonably priced. We spent perhaps 2 hours altogether, there were no inspections, they do not seem to care what you have aboard as long as you do not bring it ashore. This has been the easiest port entry we have ever made.

The town is clean; there are many parks and public modern art sculptures decorating the thoroughfares. Along the bay is a long beach bordered by the Simon Bolivar Park. The park is about fifteen blocks long and fronts the city center located between an extension of the park and a second “Couples Park.” In this part of the city there are many colonial style buildings that are brightly painted and very colorful. The parks are clean and neat and occupied by people enjoying the siesta period in the afternoon, or the cooler temperatures of the evening. The main streets are busy with little cars from all over the world, the sidewalks are narrow and crowded with pedestrians trying to get passed each other and the little stands selling everything from toys to clothing and food. It is a real cornucopia of sights and sounds and smells. The other side of the city is modern and conventional with six or seven lovely high-rise apartments and hotels on the beach.

Racially, Colombians seem to be a mixture of all the races that have occupied this territory over the millenniums. Regardless of how hot it is here, the men wear trousers and often long sleeve shirts (like my old Navy boss Chief Lingenfelter said: “Women wear pants and men wear trousers”), sometimes a coat, rarely shorts. Women on the other hand seem to prefer brightly colored and very tight spandex or jeans of some sort. Whatever they are wearing it is usually very tight on the top and bottom. The men are handsome; they apparently prefer their women a little plump and pear shaped. Many of the ladies are very beautiful, with jet-black hair, almond shaped faces and eyes, and lovely complexions.

There are a large number of native people here and their appearance is striking. Their skin is a brownish red, and their facial features are just like they came alive from an ancient stone carving. One wonders what their life experience has been. Colombians seem to be hardworking and very pleasant people who are proud of their country and their culture. I am not sure that we in North America, particularly the U.S., have a very accurate image of Colombia or the depth and beauty of their culture.

We are leaving for four days in Cartagena and then to Bogotá for a few days before returning to Santa Marta.

Thanks for looking in on us.

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