Cartagena to Ft Lauderdale

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Cartagena to Fort Lauderdale (11th February to 11th April 2007)

On Sunday 11th of February I flew into Cartagena. It had been 19 months since I left Alegría in a special “long term storage” area of the Ferrocem boatyard, where she would be safe from overspray and other hazards associated with work on neighbouring boats. A good friend of ours had visited Alegría twice during the 19 months. His second report had been a little alarming. The long term storage area had been vacated, and so Alegría had been moved. The shore power cable was no longer connected, and so the dehumidifier was no longer keeping things dry and free of fungi inside. There were paint stains on the boarding ladder, showing a lack of due care and attention. The foreman of the yard, whom I had left in charge of the boat, had been fired. 

My intention had been to store the boat for a year whilst I was working in Oman. I wasn’t sure what to do thereafter. I was reluctant to sell Alegría. Perhaps I could start a charter business. The one year became 19 months, and now I had accepted a contract for another 4 years in Oman. The conclusion was obvious. A cruising boat is too expensive an asset to use it only during the holidays. And so we decided to sell. The purpose of this trip was to sail her to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where the market would be so much better than in Colombia.

My first impression when I arrived was very good. The deck tent had been removed, and the deck had been given a wash. The teak was looking much better than I had hoped for. Two guys were polishing the hull. The interior was exactly how I had left it, if only a little more dusty. The dehumidifier was doing its job. Obviously, the yard had put things in order after our friend’s second visit.

The batteries were flat however. Much to my relief, the battery charger brought them back to life. After several charge and discharge cycles, a “C20” capacity test demonstrated that they were still fit-for-purpose.

The next two weeks the guys at the yard worked very hard. They removed the old layers of anti fouling paint, because it was flaking. After two new coats of epoxy primer, and two coats of anti fouling, the hull below the waterline was looking like new. The cutlass bearing and the rubber shaft seal were replaced. We serviced the winches; they polished the stainless steel and gave the deck tent a wash. I arranged for specialist companies to fix the fridge and service the life raft.  The fridge had been leaking refrigerant. The leak was fixed and after a fresh charge of refrigerant it was working fine. Meanwhile I was still looking for crew for the trip to Florida. And I also needed to make arrangements for my next job in Oman.

I had bought a local SIM card for my GSM telephone. Tania, who had stayed in Holland to sort out various things tried to call me most days with varying success. When the connection was poor we e-mailed.

On Saturday the 24th of February, Alegría was ready to launch. The regular driver of the travel lift was on holiday, but his replacement did an excellent job. Once in the water, the engine wouldn’t start at first. But after venting the fuel system it ran beautifully. I had arranged for Alberto, one of the workers at the Club Nautico marina to come and help me. I needed an extra pair of hands for the dock lines, and I needed a local pilot for the one mile trip from the Ferrocem boat yard to deep water. Despite his directions we touched bottom twice. No drama, we were motoring very slowly and the bottom was soft mud. But it was enough to scrape the bottom of the keel, where the antifouling paint was still wet.

Once at the Club Nautico marina, things were looking up. It was good to be living aboard once again. A fresh breeze was blowing through the cabin in the afternoons. The beautiful historic city centre of Cartagena was close by. With the help of Tania in Holland I had found two crew members: Boris and Elmer. They were due to arrive the following weekend. Meanwhile, I did various maintenance jobs to prepare Alegría for the 1700 miles to Fort Lauderdale, and to make her even prettier for the sale.

I had never met Boris and Elmer before. Boris is a former Olympic rower from Bulgaria and now resident in the USA near Seattle. Elmer is a Dutchman who recently finished several years of backpacking through North and South America. He is in the process of settling in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We quickly became friends. If I ever needed crew again, I would certainly give them a call.

The Colombian coast to the north of Cartagena is notorious for strong winds. The Caribbean trade winds, which are usually pretty strong anyway at this time of year, are accelerated due to the high mountains. The Christobal Colon Peak near Santa Marta is more than 5500 metres high. So it was important to wait for a suitable weather window before setting off on the first leg of our trip with destination Isla Providencia. Whilst we were waiting Elmer, Boris and I, took the opportunity to visit the tourist attractions of Cartagena.

Boris and Elmer both enjoy cooking. This was lucky for me, since my cooking skills are close to non-existent. Together we provisioned for the trip in the nearby Garulla supermarket.

The weather window came on Thursday 8th of March. According to the pilot chart we should have a favourable current and a stiff breeze on the beam. Excellent conditions for a fast passage. I wanted to try and make the 400 miles to Isla Providencia in 3 days and 2 nights. This meant an early rise on Thursday, so we could weigh anchor at first light. Loosing time might mean we would have to spend the third night hove to near Isla Providencia waiting for daylight. The first couple of hours we were motoring. Apparently we were still in the lee of the land. But then the breeze picked up and the rest of the trip we were beam reaching with 7.5 knots on the log and more than 8 knots on the GPS.

One day in the early morning I was in the cockpit to relieve Elmer from his watch. Suddenly we saw a floating container about 150 meters from the beam. This is what all cruising sailors are afraid of. These things are hard to see even in daylight. They don’t show up on radar, and are at the right level to punch a hole in the hull. You hear about these things but never expect to see one in real life.

We arrived in Bahia Santa Catalina, Isla Providencia with a comfortable margin before darkness. The next morning the customs agent told us that the ship that was docked at the town quay lost 6 containers on its way from Barranquilla to Isla Providencia.

Isla Providencia is only 130 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, but is Colombian territory. Tourism is the main source of income for the small community. One night we had dinner at a small open air restaurant at the beach. We parked the dinghy in front of the restaurant. We were the only guests. Whilst we had a drink at the bar, we watched the owner/cook/waitress prepare our dinner. The prawns were very fresh and nicely prepared. Another day we hired small motorbikes to go around the island. The whole trip takes less than an hour if you don’t stop along the way. We ended up at a very nice beach. Reggae music was playing from an open air bar-restaurant. We recognised the Rasta guy who owned the place. We had met him in town that same morning.  He lives upstairs above the bar. He showed us around the kitchen. He recommended a cocktail which we ordered. It was served in a coconut.

After 4 days we set sail to Mexico. The first half of the trip to Isla Mujeres was a relaxed close reach in moderate to light winds. As a cold front approached from the north, the wind started to lighten and veer to the south east. The boat slowed down. We knew that after the cold front passed, we would have a stiff breeze on the nose. We started the motor in order to make way towards our destination whilst the going was still easy. With about 50 miles to go the wind started to pick up from the north-west. This, in combination with the strong north setting current in the Yucatan channel gave rise to steep waves. That night we tacked towards our destination. Off the coast of Isla Mujeres we hove to for about an hour. At first daylight we sailed into the anchorage.

Isla Mujeres is just a 20 minutes ferry ride from Cancun. The main village is teeming with tourists and all the usual businesses that cater for the tourists. The reason why so many cruisers visit the island is because it is ideally located to wait on weather for a trip east in the gulf (with destination Key West, Havana, or the Bahama’s). Checking in with customs and immigration took 4 days. Because our previous port of call was Colombia, regulations required that the boat was searched by the “Armada”. It was quite a sight when the launch arrived with 7 crew members on board, some of them in bullet proof vests and helmets and carrying machine guns. But the officer in charge was very polite and I managed to convince him to leave the machine gun on deck before searching the interior. I did not want them to damage the mahogany joinery. When it was time to check out, the regulations had changed. This time it only took half a day, but we had to take a ferry ride to Cancun to visit the new integrated check-in / check-out facility.

The island was too touristy for our taste, but we did find a few pleasant restaurants and Rosemary’s ice-cream was excellent. Elmer went on a couple of trips with one of the local dive companies.

For a while it seemed like a suitable weather window would open up at the end of the week. But when I checked my sail mail on the morning of our departure, the forecast had changed: 25-30 knots right on the nose. I knew that this, in combination with the Gulf Stream, would result in steep waves and an uncomfortable ride. But time was running out. We were no longer time millionaires. All three of us had a job to go to. So we set off anyway.

The first day progress was not too bad, but during the night the waves were getting steeper. The speed dropped and our angle to the wind wasn’t very good at all. At this rate it would take ages. What to do? We could furl the jib, start the engine and motor-sail closer to the wind. But on starboard tack this would mean we meet the waves almost head on. Even with the engine we would still make very slow progress. After talking it over with Boris and Elmer I decided to turn around and wait for a better weather window in Isla Mujeres. But two hours later we reconsidered. If we set the storm jib, we could point higher and still carry a headsail. That day we made reasonable progress on port tack with the help of the engine. The next night was almost as bad as the first night, but the storm jib made things a little better. At all times we were searching for the best current to take us east. After we passed the longitude of Key West, the wind was easing a little. This was only going to be temporary, but nevertheless very welcome. We could make better progress now.  Once we were past Key Largo we were able to bear away a little and so a strong wind couldn’t slow us down anymore. In the lee of the Bahama bank the waves were a lot more comfortable and we could make a fast dash for Fort Lauderdale. Shipping traffic was very heavy now with at least 6 ships on the radar at any one time. The person on watch had to pay attention. There were a few tug and tow combinations as well to test our knowledge of navigation lights.

When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale on the morning of Friday the 30th of March I felt sad. This was the end of the last trip I ever made on board Alegría. The good news was that Tania was going to fly to Fort Lauderdale. I was looking forward to seeing her.

Fort Lauderdale is an amazing contrast with our previous ports of call. Fort Lauderdale is known as the Venice of the US. But here the canals are lined with multi million dollar mansions and super yachts. It was truly an amazing sight.

Boris and Elmer stayed a few more days. Together we cleaned the boat. Boris helped with some repairs. Elmer and I waxed the hull. We enjoyed the showers at the luxury Bahia Mar marina and visited some nice restaurants. The three of us had become really good friends. It was sad to see them leave.

I picked up Tania from the airport in a rental car. We celebrated in a nice restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard. Next day the hard work began. We had to pack all our personal belongings and arrange for them to be shipped to Oman. We finished this work just in time before our departure.

We couldn’t leave the boat in Bahia Mar marina. It was far too expensive. Our broker had arranged a dock along one of the canals. The dock belonged to a private home. The owner happened to be the mechanic who looks after all the boats our broker is selling. Alegría would be in good hands. The trip to this dock took us right through the centre of Fort Lauderdale. We passed an amazing number of draw bridges. Luckily a super yacht was steaming ahead of us, so we could simply follow in his wake. The broker was kind enough to drive us to the airport.

Elmer's Story 

Do you want to go sailing in the Caribbean?

This very teasing invitation arrived in my mailbox in February and it did not take long to say yes, pass through yet another visa procedure for the USA and arrange my flight to Cartagena in Colombia to join the crew of the Alegría, a 42 feet Hallberg Rassy, sailing boat with captain Marcel Zeestraten and Boris Dimitrov. We did not know each other before, and the first delay of the trip due to the weather we used to get to know each a little better, cruising the very picturesque inner city of Cartagena and doing the last odd jobs and shopping before setting off. For 4 weeks we would be each other’s company, and I did enjoy the experience of forming a team with people that I had not known before.

An interesting crew, Marcel who had bought the boat with this wife Tania to enjoy a sabbatical of a year, sailing in the Caribbean, and in the extension to 4 years of sailing almost making it his retirement until he decided to take up a posting again for Shell in Oman. Boris, from Bulgaria, now an American living in Seattle, a former Olympic rower, king of the spices (if you don’t know what it is, add more of it!) and very skilful with any food and cocktail. And then myself, living in Buenos Aires, working as a consultant and volunteer and with an ipod full of music including tango.

For me the trip was the fulfillment of a long desire, and the Alegría did nothing to disappoint me. Surprise is a better word, she is a home on the water, equipped with a freezer, burglar alarm, water making installation and even email via the radio. Actually, the first day of sailing I wondered what I should do, the course and sails set, autopilot on and the crew not bothering the Alegría doing her job. It took me a short time to adapt to “cruising” – which is what “time-millionaires” do - : wake up, see the sunrise, start breakfast, wash dishes, chat, make jokes, read, listen to music, try a Sudoku, listen to the weather forecast, play with the GPS as it were a playstation and do the occasional sunbathing (i.e. leave the protection of the cockpit cover and go out onto the deck) and take a nap. And surprisingly, the day flies by doing so! On the night watch, put on the safety harness and tighten yourself to the boat, watch the stars and the radar and stay awake for 3 hours.

Slowly I started to wind down, forget Buenos Aires and the things I had going there and to contemplate about everything and nothing. It is easy to take a distance of life onshore when you are on a small sailing boat in the Caribbean, and I find it a very recommendable way to do so!  Sitting down, taking in the movement of the ship on the waves, the sound of the water to the ship and the noises of everyday life on the ship, everything is more relative.

On Saturday 10/3, after 58 hours and 400 miles, with a wind on the beam of 15-20 knots, course 303°, the first leg of the trip brought us to the tropical paradise of Isla Providencia, still Colombia. Underway we passed a floating container, which, as it turned out later, had been lost by the ship with provisions for our destination. It looked nasty, and it made clear why you should be on watch all the time.

We anchored in the bay, protected but windy, and could provide for our electricity consumption with wind energy! The island itself is small, but put itself on the map, or at least: leaflet, as a touristy place with connections to the mainland (17 seater plane) or a 3 hour, very uncomfortable, ride by a type of drugs runner boat. You may wonder... The customs agent claimed that the facilities on the island can accommodate the number of passengers of a cruise ship, but upon renting motorbikes in the local supermarket, we had our doubts. The islanders grow a few vegetables and fruits, other foodstuffs and goods are flown in or shipped in by a small trawler who can reach the quay and sometimes loses its container off the deck.

The motorbike ride was spectacular, and we ended up having a cocktail on a paradise beach: white sands, palm trees, a bar with hammocks and loud salsa music, and an owner who lives in the room above the bar. What a life. 

In the meantime we enjoyed swims around the Alegría and the subsequent shower with fresh water, and the cocktails our bartender Boris prepared as appetizers. He was quite good at it, and we were happy customers. Boris and I occupied the kitchen alternatively, preparing the meals for the sailing days to come. 

After three days we paid a farewell to the 5000 inhabitants, had a nice swim around the Alegria and set course 328° for Isla Mujeres, with the same weather conditions. This leg is 560 miles, and would take us almost five days. During the trip the wind would sometimes fall away, or a squall would occur (especially at night), easily visible on the radar, sometimes causing our captain to have to go out on the deck to do some reefing. Sometimes we would spot ships at night and especially cruise ships would illuminate the horizon, all the lights making it almost impossible to see their navigation lights. With the temperature being very comfortable, we had enjoyed the luxury of putting on a T-shirt only to prevent sunburn or when it would get fresh.

On Saturday 17/3 we arrived at Isla Mujeres early in the morning, having waited a while for the sunrise to get an easier entry. First of all we had a good sleep, and in the afternoon we got to shore with the dinghy where we found all the offices closed. This resulted in a special treatment on Sunday: double tariff and an interview with the health inspector in an internet cafe, why not? After 2 days we got the latest check: the military who came alongside in a dinghy with 6 armed soldiers carrying large guns and bullet proof  vests. They were very polite, we had to come down with them to open up cabinets and in return we requested them to leave their guns on deck to prevent scratching of the wood panels below deck. They could hardly pass through the hatch in their gear! We did not miss the chance to take some pictures when they left!

Isla Mujeres is a very small island, extremely touristy, 3 ferry lines running 30 minutes schedules with Cancun on the other side. We spent some time hanging around, internetting, had a long walk around the airport and further...the usual,  except for the fact that I went diving a few times. We even made a trip to Cancun, impeded by the relocation of the harbour master. Cancun we took in in 15 minutes but to extend our stay a bit longer we made a long walk along the beach, where we would at least have something interesting to look at ;-) .

The weather forecast on arrival had been bad from the beginning, giving us a delay of three days initially, turning out to a week before we decided to leave. For us it had been enough of Isla Mujeres, although we had enjoyed the cocktails, the kahlua and nutella ice-cream of our friend Rosemary from Peru and the delicious fruits for breakfast.

Saturday 24/3 we leave with a bad weather forecast, wind head-on 25-30 knots, in the Strait of Florida. This leg is very different, beating in the wind, the ship moving and slamming in the waves, never a relaxed moment, always securing yourself with a hand or a leg. We used a lot of muscles which we usually do not use! Here it proves worthwhile of having prepared the meals! Writing a diary is useless, going to the toilet a puzzle: how to move around in a confined space if you need at least one hand to prevent you from slamming into the wall or the door?

After 24 hours of sailing decide to return, but after a few hours we reconsider this decision due to the lack of time ahead for us, we are no longer time-millionaires! As a result we continue with motor and sails, aiming to find the favourable currents which will help us to pass the strait between Florida and Cuba quickly.

Life is quite uncomfortable aboard now, and sleeping in the bow involves listening to the waves actually bouncing to the hull and being lifted from your bunk in a wave. But you get used to anything.

Sailing along the coast of Florida was fun, looking at the light of the coastline at night, and with the sea traffic becoming more dense, especially near Miami, where we had to cross the channel to the harbour entry. Night watch meant paying attention, because tall ships go fast!

After 6 days, 750 miles actual and 450 miles bird’s eye, we finally arrive in Fort Lauderdale, definitely a different world in a different world. The number of pleasure boats of $ 10 million and up is stunning, moored to a strip of land with a house equaling this amount of money, and on the streets you appear to be just starting if you can only afford a Porsche Cayenne. What a difference with Cartagena and Isla Mujeres!

As all good things come to an end, this was the time to say goodbye. We split up as a crew, going back to our respective homes, leaving to Marcel the sad task of preparing the Alegría for sale.

It felt very strange to leave, the Alegría had been home for 4 weeks, and I had really enjoyed the company of Boris and Marcel.

A dream had come true, thanks to the Alegría, Marcel and Boris.

Boris' Story

I arrived in Cartagena, Colombia on Sunday night at 11 pm, not having any real idea what type of person I had agreed to spend 3 weeks with sailing across the Caribbean from Columbia to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. My first impression of Marcel was that he was too young looking - to have the experience and expertise necessary to teach me something about sailing. The next thing I remember thinking was about the boat. I thought to myself, if he (Marcel ) was too young and green to be a good skipper - how had he managed to buy such a nice boat? Then I thought - he must be very smart and successful after all to obtain such a wonderful boat. Later I realized that he had sailed the boat all over the place for four years, and then I started to look forward for our departure (Marcel's last voyage on the Alegría) to USA.

I don't think I'm a good writer (I'm a better story teller) , but I'll try to tell you how much fun these two guys were: the Captain Marcel, and the First mate Elmer, which makes me the Last Mate. I might have been the last mate , but I think I had the most fun of them all, because they were so nice
and friendly and they had such a great sense of humor. All this made the time go so fast, even though it ended up taking 4 weeks to cross the water, instead of 3 weeks as we had originally anticipated.

I don't have much experience in sailing. When I say sailing I mean cruising under sail - exactly what Marcel showed me for the duration of our voyage. Before this trip, I had joined some other captains on their sail boats but they never stopped the engines during our cruises. I was looking for some action, and Marcel was the right person, and he had the right boat, and the right knowledge for the job. I consider my self lucky to end up on the Alegría for the trip. I wish there was some dramatic moment of our trip to Fort Lauderdale, to tell friends and relatives - but everything was so smooth and well planned and executed. We were "Time millionaires" (Marcel had told me that all cruisers are time millionaires), and time still flew. It was so nice to see how this beautiful boat was running down wind with full hull speed, and you could see nothing but sky and water on the horizon.

I am from Bulgaria and Marcel and Elmer are from Holland, but they ware so polite to speak English, so I could understand everything they spoke about, except during the time I was sleeping. We understood each other, and never had an argument even about the smallest thing. I had heard stories that people (good friends ) often end up hating each other after small times spent together on board sail boats all the time. I was amazed that we became such good friends in this case. I did not like my previous captains , and I would never sail with them again, but if I have a chance to join Marcel or Elmer again - I'm not going to waste a minute. I'm sure if any one of us , one day get a boat that can fit all of us together again - it will happen. I emphasize so much on the crew , because if they were not so great, just Alegría as beautiful as she was - she couldn't make the trip  so wonderful. I can tell you that when I was taking off back home , I had difficulty to hide my tears , and I had to make it quick after we hugged each other goodbye.