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The Way West to the North Coast of South America and Beyond

Having spent two wonderful seasons in the east Caribbean, we were ready to head west along the South American coast. There is not a huge amount of information on sailing in this part of the world and we were curious what to expect, especially along the coast of Colombia.

At the end of September, in a particularly quiet hurricane season, we left Trinidad and made our way to Los Testigos, where we stayed for a few days before having a month in Venezuela. Along this coast you can generally expect favorable winds and currents. Although in the winter months the trades can be stronger. An eye must be kept on the forecast as although this area lies below the hurricane belt, tropical weather to the north can have far reaching effects.

The beginning of November we made our way along the Venezuelan outer islands of Tortuga, Los Roques and Las Aves, before arriving mid November in Bonaire. You can expect the usual predominant north easterly trades and a west-northwest setting equatorial current ranging from half to one-and-a-half knots. We only stayed a few days in Bonaire before we left for Curaçao.

To this point we had promised ourselves that we could turn around and head back east if we changed our minds. But already the winter trades were filling in, so we adopted the now or never attitude and carried on sailing west.

We had to wait in Curaçao until the beginning of December for a good forecast to sail the notorious coast of Colombia, rated, by some, amongst the top five worst passages in the world. The easterly trades prevail here but because of permanently low pressure above Colombia and the Andes Mountains, gradient winds are higher especially during winter months. It is recommended by Jimmy Cornell in his book World Cruising Routes not to depart for this coast in anything more than 30kts or if strong winds are forecast. For a comfortable journey we would recommend no more than 20kts as you can expect the wind to increase as you approach the Colombian coast. Favorable currents can be expected, although closer to shore, and within a 20-30 mile range of Cartagena, countercurrents can be found. Rough seas, due to shoaling waters and a 700 mile fetch, are to be expected in this area. There are different schools of thought as to whether to stay off shore or hug the coast. We decided to stay within 10-15 miles of the coast, just far enough out to avoid any counter currents. The best times to go are between April and May or November and December in the transient seasons. We were lucky as this was the last weather window before Christmas, so those hoping to spend Christmas in festive Cartagena need to plan their passage accordingly.

This was one of the best sails we have ever had. Although it is possible to stop a few times along this route, we choose to do a three night passage to Five Bays on the northwestern tip of Colombia. We sailed from Curaçao with only the jib poled out in a comfortable force 3-4 easterly wind. We made such good time that we had to heave to.

As daylight approached on the last day, the winds picked up. The seas were big but they were coming from behind and only once did we get ever so slightly pooped over our high topsides. The whole trip was both comfortable and exhilarating at the same time – how often can you say that?

It was important when we moved on from Five Bays that we timed our passage so that we would cross the Rio Magdalena in daylight, as you must keep a careful watch for floating debris where logs and huge trees trunks may be hidden amongst lily pads. Also, the river's outflow can push you offshore. It was around this area that we were affected by the countercurrents and progress was slow at times. We arrived in Cartagena with the sun rising above the spectacular skyline in time to enjoy the Christmas festivities.

The next part of our journey was staged from the Rosarios, a small group of islands about 18 miles south of Cartagena. Our destination was the San Blas. In this part of the western Caribbean, seas can pile up from the constant northeasterly trades and heavy swells arriving from Colombia. Hurricanes do not reach down to this corner of the Caribbean but strong trades can effect the winter months, while in the summer months the wind can be variable with heavy rain and electrical storms. As with all reef-strewn coasts arrival should be made in daylight. We timed our trip accordingly and decided to do the 180 miles over two nights. With wind just abaft the beam this was another fabulous sail.

Compared with the east Caribbean, where we were constantly hard on the wind, sailing along the north coast of South America was a
complete joy.

Rosie Burr and her husband, both from the UK, have cruised the Caribbean and North America for the last six years on Alianna their Corbin39. They are currently in Grenada for hurricane season.

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