One of the five most difficult passages in the world, worst in the Caribbean, impossible; this is almost all we heard when talking with others about our plan to sail upwind from Cartagena to Bonaire [over 500 nm]. But for these men a path where anything above a beam reach would be unreasonable and anything upwind was deemed too difficult. I knew impossible was far too strong a word. I also knew that for a 28ft boat this would be a real challenge, requiring careful planning and that we would have 6-10 days of constant discomfort and hard work ahead of us once we set sail.
When we arrived in Cartagena we were ready to retire but once rested we were once again ready to rock. We hoped our stay would last about a week and 8 days later we had a break in the wind. So we gathered our provisions, pulled up anchor and set out on the toughest passage of our lives.
For the first day things were pretty easy. The trades had shifted slightly south of east; this meant closer to shore the winds were very light. The only thing that wasn’t going our way was the Caribbean Counter Current that should have helped us along. Instead it had reversed and was taking about a knot off our speed. Even if a bit slow our progress was at least consistent.
The next morning, as we approached the outflow of Rio Magdalena, it was like sailing in molasses. The current of the river and the ocean set against us only allowed us to make 1.5kts at best. To further slow us down recent rains had sent countless logs, plants and even whole trees out to sea; an entire forest set a drift. This left us tacking and dodging for at least 12hours until the debris began to clear and the sun began to set.
The night brought the first passing squalls and with them the trades started to come alive. Fighting the wind and the current we only made 14 nm of forward progress that night. In 24 hours of sailing we barely traveled 30 nm. Things continued like this for a couple of days but as the wind picked the current seemed to dissipate and our progress began to improve.
One evening after a long day of beating, the thunderheads started to chase us down. Pulling in another reef, preparing for a quick squall, I could not have known that we would be bombarded with rain and thunder as lightning filled the sky for the next 12 hours. I would not say it was a restful night but the squalls brought with them strong westerly winds gaining us many [relatively] easy miles.
The rain ran dry as the sun began to rise. With the sun came the head winds, fiercer than ever. They grew continuously as did the seas, which quickly grew to over 15 ft and broke regularly. Every passing wave soaked us to the bone, and the foul weather gear did little to keep us dry. By the time we had made it north of Cabo De La Vela the main sail was literally having the stitching blown out of it. At this point it was clear that we needed to make for the nearest anchorage for repairs or we would lose the sail completely. The timing was not terrible seeing as 15 miles away was an anchorage, in fact the only good anchorage for over 100 nm. So we adjusted course and headed for safe water.
The conditions may have been rough and very wet but everything was under control, the main was lashed down and the windvane steering a good course. A bit cold and a bit weary from the constant soaking Josie went inside to lay down. After scanning the horizon, I followed her in so to dry off a bit and try to warm up for a minute. After reinserting the washboards and joking about our slow progress, I looked out the port window only to see a freak wave. It towered above the other waves and had to be close to 30 ft and it was moving fast. There was no time to adjust course, no time to take action. So I just turned to Josie and calmly told her to ‘hold on’; a big knockdown was coming. We braced for impact; the wave hit and suddenly we were swimming. When I say we were swimming in the cabin I mean swimming in a very real way. It was not unlike the feeling you have when you are tumbled while playing in high surf; supreme violence interrupted by silence and disorientation.
Once the boat had righted itself everything was unfamiliar. In an instant our home went from a shelter and a safe haven to nothing more than a dumpster. Blood dripped down my face as we stood in 3 ft of water only to see that everything we owned had turned to rubbish. The disbelief didn’t last more than a moment before we began to assess our situation. There was a 4 ft diameter dent in the side of the hull, the hull itself had been separated from the deck and pushed about a foot (nearly the whole length of the boat on the port side), there was delamination at the waterline, we had no electricity, no GPS, no radio, our paper charts were destroyed, the window on the lee side had been blown into the boat from the pressure as we rolled, the permanent shelves and bulk heads had been blown clean off the hull, the tiller had been broken off, one of the chain plates pulled out, the kayak was split in two, we had maybe 2 hours of sunlight and it was still blowing a gale. I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.
As I saw it there were 3 things that needed our immediate attention: the water needed to be pumped so we could determine if/where the boat was leaking, steering needed to be regained because we needed to move towards sheltered waters (also the hull probably wouldn’t survive a direct hit) and emergency preparations needed to be made in case we were forced to abandon ship. In a situation like this everyone aboard needs to be working not only because minutes can matter but also as a countermeasure to panic. I set Josie to pumping water and seeing if any of our phones/handheld GPS or SPOT had somehow survived. I found the tiller but it seemed all my tools had gone missing so I lashed it back onto the goose-neck with what ropes that were on hand. It worked and seemed to hold up, albeit not terribly responsive.
As I was figuring out how to get the dinghy out of the v-berth, Josie popped out of the cabin holding the SPOT device wondering if she should activate the SOS feature. I had already used a steak knife I found to cut the cables on one of the batteries and tried wiring it directly to the VHF radio, but the radio fried. Josie now had been pumping for almost an hour and it didn’t look like it was getting us anywhere. We had steering and were slowly limping our way towards the anchorage at Cabo De La Vela but it was unclear if the boat was going to hold up. Unattached, you could see the hull flexing under the strain of the water. Our situation had not improved much and the sun was setting so I said go ahead. She hit the SOS button, the LEDs blinked and we just had to assume it was telling someone, somewhere, something.
The path to our v-berth was blocked by one of the bulkheads that had been pushed in by the force of the wave, thus hindering our access to the dinghy. The only way to get to the dinghy was to crawl up to the forward hatch and pull it out. This is one of those do-not-try-this-at-home kind of maneuvers. It would be comparable to moving a large couch through a small doorway during a flash-flood….by yourself….while the ground pitches wildly. With a little time and much difficulty I managed to wrestle it back to the cockpit, where by now Gidget had relieved herself.
I rolled out the dinghy and Gidget immediately jumped in and refused to move. She gave me a look that said “this raft isn’t going to inflate itself” and I started pumping. Anyone who has pumped up a dinghy with a foot pump knows it’s a pain in the ass in calm conditions. By the time the dinghy was inflated, tied down under the boom and filled with our emergency gear as well as water it was nearly dark. Looking at the dinghy I knew that if we were forced into it in the open ocean in these conditions our lives would no longer be in our hands. I also knew that if we could see night through and keep Vento Dea afloat I could get us to safe waters.
About this time Josie found her mobile phone and it was dry. This was great news because every phone we had on board was loaded up with NAVIONICS charts. We powered up the phone only to find the battery was critically low, only 8%. I am sure I muttered something like “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me”. Once the app loaded I quickly memorize the charts, our position, figure out a heading and found some reference points and landmarks. We turned off the phone in hopes we could use it later.
After about two hours of Josie continuously pumping it was clear that the water level was going slowly down. This was the big battle and we were winning this one. Once I saw that I canceled the SOS because I knew we could limp in on our own and that’s exactly what we did.
After about 6-7 hours of uncertainty, difficult hand steering and pumping water we made it into the lee of the coast. With no charts, GPS or local knowledge it was far too dangerous to anchor in the darkness of a near moonless night; we had no choice but to wait for first light. For the next 4 hours we went in circles and reflected on our journey. An ending like this, after almost six months and over 4000 nm, didn’t seem possible; it certainly didn’t seem fair. When we set out on this journey I didn’t know if we could have imagined the difficulty and hardship that lay ahead of us nor could we have understood the incredible joys, the triumphs and the unfathomable beauty that we encountered. We met the most amazing, beautiful and generous people. We have received overwhelming support not only from sailors we’ve crossed paths with but also from people around the world that we have never met. This journey had taken on a life of its own and its death was more than I could bare. For the first time in longer than I can remember, I wept.
As the next day dawned, we made our way towards the anchorage and dropped the hook into calm and beautifully blue waters. Our ordeal at sea was over but it was not as much as a holy-shit-we-made-it moment as you might think, it was more of an all-I-wanna-do-is-sleep moment. I was honestly too tired to worry about the fact that we were in an area completely unfamiliar to us, in a remote area of Colombia and that there was no town/village in sight on a disabled boat. But before I even had a chance to find a place to rest, the Colombian Coast Guard pulled up.
Once along side, the Guarda Costa De Colombia came aboard. One energetic and friendly officer introduced himself and told us he could speak English. By this he meant that he could barely speak English but had a smart phone with Google translate. They asked us what we needed, I told them in Spanish as well as typed it into his phone that we needed a place to sleep and the ability to make international phone calls. After repeating this information several times while watching the officers talking on the phone with their supervisor and taking tons of pictures of Vento Dea’s damage, it was decided that they would tow us about 2 miles to the nearest village and find us a place to stay.
This would probably be a good time to note that the Colombian Coast Guard showed genuine concern for our well being and were incredibly helpful. They were all friendly and did everything they could to provide us with what we needed.
We found the final resting place for Vento Dea once our boat had been pulled across the bay. It was another do-not-try-this-at-home maneuver as we were towed well beyond hull speed by a skiff with three 250hp engines that seemed to only operate in the full throttle position. We gathered our dinghy and a few of our things and they took us to shore.
Once onshore we were introduced to Martin who helped find us a place to stay. As soon as we hit the sheets we passed out. We slept a sleep I think few people have ever known. It is only an experience you can have when your body has nothing more to give and your mind is too tired to dream. It is a peaceful oblivion and for the next 48 hours we slept like this almost continuously, ignorant of what was to come. We may have been safely ashore but our ordeal was just beginning.