Home » Cruise » St. Thomas to Guna Yala: Tough But Never Horrific
A shot of me at the wheel after things had gotten a bit better but before the auto pilot could be trusted. Photo by Barbara Hart
A shot of me at the wheel after things had gotten a bit better but before the auto pilot could be trusted. Photo by Barbara Hart

St. Thomas to Guna Yala: Tough But Never Horrific

We’re anchored next to the island of Sabudupored in the Panamanian region of Guna Yala, also known as the San Blas Islands. We’re in an isolated anchorage with only one other boat, surrounded by reefs and a few tiny, sandy, uninhabited islands. This is a whole different type of cruising than that found in the Eastern Caribbean, which is fitting because getting here was also different than moving among the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Unlike most cruisers, who visit the ABC Islands and pick their time to go from Aruba to Cartagena and beyond, we attempted to sail a straight line, directly from St. Thomas.

Don’t do that.

We had planned to sail along the coasts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and since our whisker pole was inoperable, we agreed that we’d have to gybe in 100-200 mile legs, intending to stay within a couple of hundred miles of the southern coasts of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola in case we had to duck into a safe harbor. Once we had gone far enough west, we planned on turning south at the ‘right’ time. There was no right time in mid-June, but we didn’t know that because we had blithely and foolishly decided to sail southwest, directly to the entrance of Isla Porvenir. You know how it is, you are on a reach, things are going so well, and the captain asks the navigator “Why don’t we just keep going like this? It’s straight to our mark.” In the back of my mind I (the navigator) though we might run into harsh winds close to Columbia, but still I didn’t veto the captain.

I should have.

We had two days of lovely sailing, watches were fun, I baked bread and cooked real dinners—and we were heading directly to Isla Porvenir. Life was good. From June 10, for 48-hours, we had 10-15 knots ESE. Then the wind went easterly and picked up to 20 knots, the seas built, and our course switched more to the south. One day later, we had gone well south of the rhumb line and gybed north. The autopilot kept dropping out due to the contrary seas, so we hand-steered for a day in three hour watches, gybing back after we crossed the rhumb line. Unfortunately we gybed too soon and again found ourselves in increasing seas heading for Venezuela, so we gybed again. This time we went over 50 miles beyond the rhumb line before gybing back, to find the seas rougher, the autopilot less and less amenable to working, and ourselves more and more tired.

On June 15, less than 200 miles off the Venezuelan coast, after several hours of hand-steering in winds of 25-35 with 40 knot gusts, we hove to. Oh, the bliss, the quiet, the lack of effort. To keep the boat on course, I had to use every muscle in my arms and back and even pushed my front into the wheel to give myself extra traction in a big wave. This is not how you want to go to Panama. We hadn’t subscribed to Chris Parker or any other weather source, and the grib files we downloaded were quite accurate for winds, but predicted lighter seas. They did not promise improvement; in fact we knew things could get worse.

We listened to Chris Parker every morning, but he didn’t often discuss our area of the Caribbean Sea because, after all, who would be out there? We sent daily updates via Sailmail to our son in California and our friends on S/V Kookaburra, anchored in the Guna Yala region. Keith e-mailed weather information every day. He understood why we hove to and told us that our current conditions were predicted to include the area from the South American coast up to at least 15˚N, and extend to at least 78˚W. I had already told the captain that our next north-bound leg was going to last a long time and plotted a box course that took us straight up to 15˚N, west to 78˚W, and south to Isla Porvenir. Imagine our joy to discover that heaving to allowed us to ‘sail’ comfortably north at 1.7-2.5 knots.

We hove to for 44 hours. During that time, folks following Chris Parker called from a harbor in Jamaica and asked when they could safely travel to Columbia. “Probably not until July,” said Chris followed by my favorite sentence ever, “Things are horrific between 15 north and the Columbian and Venezuelan coasts.” And he proceeded to describe exactly what we had been experiencing, including the occasional 15-20 foot seas.

While this may sound horrific, I was never scared, and the boat handled the wind and seas beautifully—sliding up one wave and down another, as she continued to make her way north. All we had to do was check the rigging and the sails, and watch for traffic. Waves would bang against the boat, roll down from the bow, or simply take the shortest route and dump directly on us. We got wet, but it was a warm wet. Neither of us are fans of sailing ‘au natural’, but that may be protocol if we ever find ourselves in this situation again. We changed after every watch so that wet, salt-laden clothing didn’t get in the main salon. Unfortunately, we couldn’t leave it on deck, so a mountain of clothing piled up in the forward head, and the rest was hung on lines in the master stateroom. Still, we were never in any danger and once we reached 15N˚, we hove to one last time to rest, eat a real breakfast, and fix the autopilot. (There had been a lot of discussion about the autopilot, manuals had been read and settings changed.)

Our last two days at sea were nearly as agreeable as our first two had been. We arrived off Isla Porvenir within ten-minutes of our agreed rendezvous with S/V Kookaburra to begin our season in the Guna Yala region. But first, I had to wash ten bucket-loads of laundry.

 

Barb and her husband EW have been cruising full time since 2010 and are currently in the Guna Yala region of Panama where she is still doing laundry, visit: www.HartsAtSea.com

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