Passage from Aruba to Santa Marta
On our way from Puerto Rico to Colombia we decided to stop in Aruba (after three days and two nights of sailing) for a quick couple of days, to rest, check the weather and keep going. A month later we were still in Aruba, reluctant to leave.
This small vacation island, its clean manicured capital Oranjestad, its sparkling resorts and world-famous beaches, its many natural wonders, and its welcoming people became one of our most favorite Caribbean destinations. It was free and easy to check in and out of Aruba, and free to drop anchor anywhere in its many protected bays on the south shore. We met and befriended a wonderful local family, who welcomed us in their home and helped us enormously; we met Tony, Armando and his buddies who started Ivo kitesurfing; and Maya began windsurfing. It felt like a vacation. But mostly, we stayed longer than anticipated because we decided not to sail until we get favorable winds, so our passage to Colombia would be safe. Safety first.
A month passed and the trades finally calmed down a bit. It was time to lift anchor. The 260 NM passage from Aruba to Santa Marta, Colombia is notorious for being one of the most dangerous passages in the Caribbean, as the winds near the Venezuelan gulf and the Colombian capes are often violent, accelerated by the effect of high pressure colliding with low pressure from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal range creating this problematic for navigation area in the south Caribbean Sea, a so called “compression zone.”. It’s a spot on the charts not to be underestimated. We read all the information we could find online about how and when is best to sail there, and as soon as PassageWeather promised 3 successful days of maximum 15 to 20 knots east winds, instead of the usual 25 to 30 knots, we sailed.
In the morning on April 17th we left our anchorage in front of Palm Beach and went to the docks at Oranjestad to check out from Aruba. It took about one hour of waiting for the officials to show up, bring the paperwork, stamp their stamps and let us go. The process is painless and we didn’t have to leave the boat, as the customs and immigration- very pleasant smiling, good-natured people- came from Barcadera, where they are in the process of building the new port, to Port of Oranjestad, bringing the necessary forms right up to the boat without boarding it. It felt like drive through.
Around 9:30 a.m. we were off with a strong puff behind us- 30 to 35 knots. We reefed and we worried. There were no such numbers predicted by PassageWeather… But as soon as we were well away from the shores of Aruba, about 10 miles, the wind dropped to 8-12 knots and with it, our speed. We were sailing wing-on-wing, full sail, doing 4 to 5 knots. But we didn’t complain. Better slow and safe than fast and stressful. Later in the afternoon the wind picked up to comfortable 16-20 knots and the boat was doing 5-6 kts. Thus, the first day of the dreaded passage passed by with very relaxed wind, sea and crew.
It was late in the afternoon when we had crossed the entrance of the Gulf of Venezuela and we spotted the small twin-rocks which really are in the middle of nowhere, 50 nautical miles from Aruba, territory of Venezuela-Monjes del Norte, where an anchorage is marked on the charts and some people stop overnight. But the wind and sea were great and it didn’t make sense to stop, plus we had read a few accounts of terrible experiences by cruisers there, according to which stopping at Los Monjes should be only in case of emergency and in bad weather conditions. We kept going.
The night fell. Clear skies but no moon at this time of the month. Total darkness descended and we sailed in the blind. We were just passed the first Colombian cape, Punta Gallinas, reefed, expecting accelerated puffs, but nothing like that happened. All night Fata Morgana was galloping lazily, close to shore, about 5-6 miles, and the sea and wind remained calm, between 10 and 18 knots all night.
On the second day things changed. The wind picked up in the late morning as we approached the area directly under the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the sea rose. We reefed the jib and the main and even then the boat was going uncomfortably fast with 9-10 to 11 knots surfing down the waves. We furled the jib and kept sailing only with a reefed main in winds 25 to 30 knots directly behind us. And we were still doing average of 8-9 kts speed.
At one point a pod of dolphins came to escort us. They usually show up when the sea is calm, and glide near the bow for a few minutes, but this time they came jumping out of the big waves all around us demonstrating awesome skills: jolts, pirouettes and splashes- a full program. Then we caught a nice juicy blackfin tuna, also called “football” due to its plump rounded shape and we had food for the next few days.
Then, we experienced something we had never experienced before and understood what people meant by “strong puffs”. They are not squalls that last for 10 -20 minutes, but extremely brief, sudden puffs from 12 to 28 knots for 2-3 seconds and back to 12 knots. It’s really weird, completely unpredictable and annoying. And there is nothing to do, but reef and get used to it.
The second night, sailing close to shore in about 3-600 feet of depth, the wind like a mad person who remembered to take his medication before bedtime, calmed down and became steady and sedate again. Ivo was sure this is the katabatic land effect which we witnessed on the north shore of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala – the nearby landmass cooling at night cancels the wind near the shore just after sunset- but we cannot guarantee that the wind always dies out at night near the shore here, nor can we advise cruisers to sail close to shore. That was our experience and this time we felt we were lucky.
As soon as the sun came out on the third day, the strong wind returned, doing its temperamental thing again, but we had just a few more miles left to go. The last cape to round was Cabo de la Guaja, couple of miles before Santa Marta, and Ivo decided to “cut the corner” and to pass just feet away from the rocks. We had full jib out and reefed main, wing on wing, and suddenly the waves rose big and steep, the wind behind us going up to 35 knots, Ivo hand steering, the boat surfing with 12 knots downwind for the longest few minutes during this passage. That was scary.
Note to ourselves: Next time do not cut the corner, go at least 3-4 miles away from the cape, try not to have the wing-on-wing sail combination when in doubt, and reef in time!
But we passed the cape OK and we found ourselves in calm water finally, heading to a small noisy town at the foot of dry hills, with lots of bus and taxi traffic and some tall buildings near the beach, a busy commercial port, a lonеly anchorage with lots of small fishing boats and just two sailboats, and a brand new modern marina sheltered behind a rock wall. We dropped anchor near the marina.
Many sailors stop once or twice on this passage in one of the five small bays along the Colombian coast between Aruba and Santa Marta, but in bad weather they becmoe dangerous to approach and are not exactly “protected”. This passage can be broken up in 2-3 legs and one can only sail during the day and anchor at night, or sail at night and anchor during the day. But we wanted to get it over with as soon as possible and not have our weather window close, so we sailed non-stop.
We arrived in Santa Marta Sunday, April 19th, after 48 hours of relatively “smooth sailing”.Share