A Passage to Remember

As we approached Grenada we heard more and more rumblings of a sailor’s worst nightmare. Things like weather and injuries and sharks most often come up when people ask if we’re worried about “x.” But the truth is that the scariest thing we could encounter is much more familiar, much closer to home. The word pirate conjures up images of hooks, eye patches, and Jack Sparrow. We imagine swashbuckling mustachioed brigands waving their epees and yelling “Arrrgh!” as rum gargles in their throats. Today that word has a much different manifestation. It is often people who are pushed to the brink in their home countries — drought, famine, political corruption, war, and other pressures leave these people desperate and willing to do anything to provide for their families. Venezuela is in such a position these days. In Cartagena I spoke with Venezuelans who had fled their country to avoid starvation. They told me that the only food anyone can afford is yucca and even that eats up much of a paycheck. Grocery stores have other food but one orange might cost a week’s wage. Hyperinflation of this sort sparks crime and the Venezuelan government has responded by killing its own citizens. The situation is at a critical point and some Venezuelans have taken to piracy to provide. The Caribbean being the cruiser hub that it is, many of these Venezuelan pirates head north to intercept cruising boats, taking their food and their money. We heard many reports of pirates around Grenada and farther north, there were even reports of piracy at Tobago Cays not long before we were there. We were urged to be wary as we traversed the sea north of Venezuela’s coast on our way to Bonaire and Colombia. We stayed at least 50 nautical miles from any land and kept our running lights off at night. We have no lethal force on board, but our mace, flare gun, and a light specifically made to blind were close at hand at all times. Night watches were spent scanning the horizon and the radar for boats of all kinds — those that we didn’t want to hit as we sailed invisible through the darkness and boats filled with pirates that we didn’t want to hit us. The sea was entirely flat for the entirety of the passage to Bonaire but there was tension in the air. Piracy is one of the things I never anticipated having a real fear of in my life but here I was with a real sense of foreboding. To add to the tension, the Venezuelan Coast Guard has been known to act a bit like a mafia and had a reputation for shaking boats down and taking valuables if they boarded your vessel. There truly wasn’t a boat that you wanted to see and every time something showed up on the radar or the horizon my heart would skip a beat. Luckily we saw only the occasional oil tanker on the way to Bonaire and we arrived to pick up Grey without incident. When we consider implications of climate change I think we need to consider what food and water shortages may cause people to do. The Venezuelan crisis has many factors at play, mostly political and economic, but the reality is that after a point you cannot tease environmental issues from their political and economic ramifications. If we continue on the path we’re on and famines and droughts continue, there will certainly be consequences. There will be refugees who will need shelter and sustenance, that is a monumental hurdle in its own right. But what about those who are less dissuaded from violent means of getting what they need to survive? If we are unable or unwilling to address climate issues, one of the most dangerous natural forces will be humans and our need to survive at any cost. Ultimately our mission with Apparent Winds is about hope and finding ways to solve our climate problem together. But an occasional dose of a darker reality is essential for maintaining perspective and realizing what’s at stake if we can’t work together to save our planet. This passage and the fear of pirates was that dose and it was sobering.

The worst of our pirate fears behind us (for now) we picked up Grey at a fuel dock and checked in and out of Bonaire customs at the same time with a plan to leave at first light the next day for Cartagena. Just before we left for Bonaire, Tripp surprised me with one of the greatest Christmas presents that I could imagine — he had called Joanna and offered to pay half of her air fare to join us in Cartagena, Colombia. The holiday blues I mentioned in Carriacou had been intensified by the ever present shade of missing the love of my life. There were no plans to have Joanna visit until April of 2020 in Tahiti and I was steeling myself in order to have that six months seem feasible, with varying degrees of success. The surprise was one of the greatest shocks of my life and I was brimming with excitement at the thought of seeing her. In order to make it to Cartagena on schedule we trimmed time in Bonaire and Curacao. Not only was Joanna meeting us, but three other friends from home would be flying in with her and it we didn’t want to miss any time with them. With our customs documents in order we looked at weather routing for Bonaire to Cartagena and noticed that about two days into our passage that wind would be steadily picking up until it reached a sustained 30-40 knots. Judging by our models we would be able to make a fair amount of headway before then and we figured that we could hug the coast and duck into an anchorage if things got too heavy. We left Bonaire that morning with good wind and good weather. The sailing was fantastic, however, we did have one last spectre of piracy and political upheaval as Bonaire dissolved on the horizon. A plane flying very low came nearer and nearer until they buzzed us just off our stern, they came close enough that we could see the pilots in the cockpit. Emblazoned on the side was the last insignia we wanted to see, Venezuelan Coast Guard. The next 24 hours were filled with the same tension that hung over our passage to Bonaire as we waited for the other shoe to drop and a Venezuelan Clipper to appear on the horizon looking for payment. Luckily that fear never materialized and as we found ourselves in Colombian waters there was a collective sigh of relief. Our relief was destined to be short-lived though as our antagonist turned from the human world to the natural world.

We had made incredible time and progress over the first two days of our passage. It was some of our best sailing since our passage to Antigua, spirits were high and I was beginning to believe that Grey may have been a good luck charm. As the sun rose on our third day of sailing the wind began to rise with it. Waves started building, the surface of the water rippling and foaming as the wind excited it — it was beautiful. When sailing downwind with following seas even heavy weather can seem manageable and we were thrilled with our speeds, regularly moving around 10 knots as we surfed the waves. We were cascading down 20 foot waves and wind speeds were likely 35 knots (our anenometer was broken at the time) but the sailing was thrilling. As the day wore on the wind kept rising and the thrill began to wear off as we watched our mizzen mast shuddering with each gust. The 12 and 13 knot boat speeds that were showing up on our instruments began to drum up concern instead of excitement and soon the ecstasy of heavy sailing was entirely replaced by a realization that we should get to shelter. The wind and waves had carried us about 20 nautical miles from shore so we adjusted our course and began to head inland toward a large bay where we planned to reassess and potentially hunker down for the evening. At that point we were about 70 nm from Cartagena and the end of our passage. The wind now felt oppressive, an unforgiving and uncaring bully, continually rising. As we got closer and closer to shore we kept expecting the mountains on shore to provide a shadow and relief from the gusts but that promise never came through. Our knuckles got whiter, our cheeks more red from windburn, sun, and salt with each moment. Silence fell over the cockpit that had been lighthearted and cheerful less than an hour before, all eyes fixed ahead on the point that would provide our salvation, the mouth of the bay, our safe haven.

The confusion and betrayal of our hopes as we rounded that point I won’t soon forget. As we got closer we could see a number of small boats running to and fro within the bay, a promising sign of calmer waters. We turned the engine on, pulled in the jib, and prepared to get the mizzen down. Up until this point the coast had looked only mildly inhabited, small cities here and there, but as we came around the rocky point we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a hive of activity. Jet skis pulling banana shaped floats laden with tourists, gondolas filled with families floating above a packed beach, loud music, water taxis everywhere. Our worn out senses were overloaded and in that same instant the williwaw hit. What must of been a 75 mph gust screamed down the mountain and J. Henry careened over, submerging the rail. With only the mizzen sail up we had almost rolled, in the bay that was supposed to be our reprieve. The revelers all around us were unfazed and carried on with their water games and laughter, no one seemed to notice the sailboat that almost flipped just of the beach. We hurriedly pulled the mizzen down before the next blast threatened to finish us. All sails down, exhausted, surrounded by this surreal Colombian beach party, the three of took in the scene around us, jaws agape. Our bearings slowly began to return to us thanks to a well timed apple break, Grey’s suggestion. We searched the bay for an anchorage or mooring field and saw nothing. After consulting our charts it became clear that there was no place with good holding. Poor holding and 75 mph gusts are an unworkable combination and we came to the realization that our only option was to motor on with bare poles, only the slightest sliver of jib out to stabilize us through the waves. We could make it to Cartagena the next day by motoring slowly and the winds would be less of a factor with our sails down and securely tied to their respective booms.

To understand what happened next you have to visualize the bay that we were in. It was massive, from the middle of the half-moon or semicircle shaped body of water you would not be able to see land of any sort. We had ducked into it at the east-north-eastern point, from there you could draw a straight line to the south west and connect to the other end of the bay. This line formed the flat side of the semicircle and faced the sea. We had made our way south into the bay along the curved shoreline for a few miles. To get to Cartagena we had to make our way around the southwestern point of the bay, the opposite corner of the semicircle. The wind and the waves were coming into the bay and pushing all the water to to south, into the bay and onto the rocky shore. In short, if we were to leave our boat to the mercy of the waves and wind we would smash violently into the shore, well away from the point we needed to get around. This meant that we had to move parallel with the waves and aim well outside of the point we were trying to around. Moving parallel with waves is bad, that’s how you roll a boat, but we had no choice. As night fell we slid up and down these waves and tried to aim high enough to escape the bay. Moving with the waves in this way meant things started to get wet. Tripp and I donned our foulies and let Grey go down below since he didn’t have the proper gear. We worked our way toward the point, using the moonlight. Waves that were gradual enough to cross parallel we did, those that were too steep we’d turn the boat and ride with it perpendicularly until we could turn back toward the point. It was a constant game of aiming past the point and being pushed back into the bay. The waves were building again, getting even larger than they had been earlier that day. Under the light of the full moon you could see massive 30 foot and bigger waves, dark behemoths, rolling and cresting in the shadows. The waves and wind continued to grow, eventually reaching monstrous proportions and there was no longer any denying the severity of the weather we were immersed in. Waves were regularly ~40 feet high the wind must have been a sustained 60 knots with gusts that were frighteningly high. I was glad the anenometer was broken because if I actually knew how much we were dealing with in the moment it likely would’ve been too much for my psyche to handle. I do know that the entire surface of the ocean was a turbulent froth with the top of the water being flung into the air like salt water rain. It was the worst rain storm I’d ever been in and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Gusts were deafening, strong enough to shake the skin on my face and make my ears ache. Its hard now to discern when this switch flipped, but at some point during the weather there was visceral realization that I was closer to death in that moment than I’d ever been and my consciousness moved past the point of fear. I don’t say that as a point of pride, I’m not boasting of bravery. If anything my body had become so saturated with fear that there wasn’t room to even feel it anymore. Either that or something primal kicked in, something that understood fear was useless here. There were two options – make it out of this or don’t. I assume Tripp had passed into this state as well, the speaker that had been competing with the wind and playing songs to keep our spirits light had died long ago, our silence and focus took hold. The only communication was necessary communication, communication to keep us alive. The point we were trying to clear had a few complicating factors. For one, it happened to be where the Magdalena River met the sea. The Magdalena is the entry way for one of Colombia’s largest ports, in the city of Barranquilla. The mouth of the river flows into the sea accompanied by a cavalcade of channel markers and lights to guide large tankers into port. That not only meant that we had to be wary of cargo ships coming in from sea, but we also had to make sure we didn’t hit the channel markers that stood guard off the point. With the waves as large as they were these channel markers were regularly obscured by the peaks ahead or entirely blocked when we were in a trough. Going around the markers was not an option, they extended too far out. We couldn’t go parallel with waves of this size and whenever we turned our broadside to the wind the boat threatened to spin out of control. We were left with the option to run with the sea and thread the channel markers. The boat has never moved faster. One of the most terrifying waves was a 40 foot moonlit nightmare. Sheer and vertical it barreled toward us black and shimmering. J. Henry’s stern climbed its face until we were nearly vertical as well, our bow pointed directly at the sea floor. As we reached the top it was similar to that moment just before free fall at the peak of a roller coaster — still and weightless, anticipating the fall. The moment crashed with the wave over our stern and the cockpit flooded as J. Henry went rocketing forward. I glimpsed at our instruments afraid of what I might see and saw 17.9 knots flash across the screen, I hope to never see speeds like that again. We galloped on toward the channel, markers appearing and disappearing between the waves, seemingly on a whim. I scoured the horizon for flashes of green and red, screaming out their locations above the wind, my voice hoarse and tired. We were drawing nearer and the markers weren’t as far off as I’d hoped. A frenetic stillness encompassed me as we plowed into the channel blindly, riding a wave. I braced myself, not truly knowing how close we were to the channel markers. We rose up to the crest of the next wave and I saw the flash of a channel marker about 20 yards to starboard. We had cleared the first buoy. The next mile across the channel felt like a lifetime, but I felt more confident in our position now. As we finally exited the channel my body began to relax. We had rounded the point. We made our way along the coast, the same land that had threatened our demise now acting as a shield against the waves. The seas were still 20 feet or more, but relativity is a funny thing. Relieved and exhausted we took turns going below to remove our foulies and shower the salt off our bodies. It was caked thick on my face from the torrent that had engulfed us, I could’ve cured a ham with the amount of salt on my left cheek alone. The two of us stayed awake for the rest of the night, barely on the edge of sanity, struggling to keep the other awake. When day broke the towers of Cartagena’s Boca Grande district were sprouting out of the horizon. As we pulled in to the harbor of that ancient walled city a joy that I had never known crept through my body and brought me new energy. We danced in the cockpit like fools, happy to be alive. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated life as much as I did in that moment, we had escaped death and I was one day away from seeing the love of my life. I’ve tried to carry that feeling of gratitude with me since then and I know I’m a better person for having rounded the point at Barranquilla.

-Zach

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