Colombia: dread, dolphins, bats, whales and coast guards

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I left Aruba for Colombia after waiting for the gale winds to calm down for a while. What I did not count with was that the winds will calm down so much that I'd have to motor almost all the way, or rock around in the waves doing not more than 2 knots. Hopefully in the right direction. The birds at the customs point were watching when the boat sailed off.

The beginning of the trip was fine. The sea was still, and I had an comfortable evening meal while making fast progress by engine. I fished up a nice Black-fin Tuna, just enough for 6 meals (before it would turn bad, I had no fridge or freezer onboard). It makes me so happy when small fish bite. I have a hard time understanding people who think it's exciting and fun to kill big fish just to throw away 30 kilos of meat because they can't eat it all.

Anyway, the Tuna was welcome and I promptly made some Sashimi. Of course I had both pickled ginger and wasabi on board. I was, however, interrupted in the middle of the meal because the dolphins came and wanted to race around the boat, happy and playful as always.

As the dolphins made their visit, I was reminded how lucky I was. Eating a freshly caught fish, greeted by happy dolphins, sailing towards the unknown in the soft trade wind breeze. Life could not be better.

There was a sudden call on the VHF - "Unknown sailing vessel, unknown sailing vessel!" - enquiring about or position, destination and intent. The coast guard were apparently flying above us and just checking where we were going! Not often you get called by an airplane while sailing, so we had a little chat before we saw the plane circle around us and then fly back. Another fun experience! I sailed along and marveled.

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During the night though, the wind disappeared and s/y Space was not making almost any speed. However, I was still trying to sail, so I wouldn't waste diesel. There was a diesel shortage on board so no waste was allowed. The low speed meant that all steering was by hand, because the autopilot cannot cope with the lack of steering speed - so not much rest can be expected. The night watches were dark because the moonlight could not penetrate the haze, and there were tremendous thunderstorms over the coast. It was tiring. Also, I was up during 6 hours one night, letting the crew sleep.

The season was finishing, and the Doldrums had moved further North. Since it was raining so much in the mountains, entire trees were ripped out and washed away to sea, miles offshore. Sailing onto one of those huge tree trunks, with sharp branches sticking out, could mean hull damage and inevitable sinking. However, it's hard to see them even during daytime, since they are wet and therefore almost fully submerged into the water. It's even harde, if not impossible, at night. 

The lightnings were extra visible at night, and the rain clouds came and went, creating dead calm or gale winds. The moon being covered, I could barely see the outline of the clouds, trying to steer so I could take advantage of the strong winds that come with the rain, without getting inside of the rain area. That would mean zero visibility, also that the big boats would definitely not see us on radar (as if they would care). It would also mean zero wind, and a major loss of speed. I steered by hand, not being able to run below and get those rubber boots or rubber gloves to insulate me from the metal rudder wheel and wet deck, for the case of a strike. 

It felt that if I'm not to be hit by lightning then I'm going to collide with a tree trunk, or be hit by a large ship that have the reputation of not yielding to anyone, and mauling small yachts as if they were banana flies. The long nights in the dark, with constant lightnings everywhere, took a heavy toll on my psyche. I was mentally exhausted. All have different ways to beat the fear - some become almost religious, praying to all gods they know. I completely understand that. I swore to myself to never sail again if I were to come out alive. But then the daylight comes, and once again it does not seem too bad...

Just at dawn, when I was very tired and all spent from looking at the thunderstorms while trying to steer, a strange bird flew into the cockpit and set about flapping its wings in front of my face. I am not so found of aggressive birds, and I tried to chase it away, but it came back every time, definitely not scared by my waving and screaming, and came closer and closer. What did it want? Why wasn't it scared as I tried to chase it away? Did it want to kill me, just like everything else here? I shouted and waved my jacket around but it just stayed in front of my face, flapping its wings. I screamed for the crew, it was time for watch change anyway, and as the crew went up the bird flew into the sprayhood and..... stayed on it, hanging upside down.

It was not a bird, it was a bat! That explains the behavior. But how did it get 20 nautical miles off shore, and what was it doing there at dawn? Probably looking for a cave to hide in for the day. And my boat probably looked like a very cozy one. I did not want to chase a bat inside the boat, risking getting heaps of bat guano everywhere, and just before I would chase it off from the entrance I took a picture. The flash must have offended it; it flew away never to come back. It was over a foot long at the wing span, which is much larger than the rest of the bats I have seen in Caribbean. There are kinds that feed on flowers, and those that feed on fish, flying around the seas surface at dusk, and I guess this was a fish-eater.

During that morning, the crew had another encounter. He was trimming the sails as the wind strengthened, and suddenly heard a blowing sound behind. There was a whale. We have seen those amazing creatures a few times, but this one was different. It came up just behind the aft of the boat, and dived under it! Of all the stories I have heard of whales either not seeing boats (and crushing into them), or seeing them alright and thinking that it's a pretty female whale (and ending up crushing the boat anyway), I do not really know what the whale was doing. Probably just saying hi.

After more time of agonizing dead calm, the sun's hotness was almost too much to bear. I went for a dip, discovering that a family of four curious fish now live under the boat. I hadn't refilled diesel, so I couldn't motor all the way to Cartagena. In the end, I decided to motor to Santa Marta, and refuel there. The heat was becoming unbearable, as were the nightly thunderstorms, so it really felt good steering for the land.

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The coast guard met the boat outside the dark Colombian harbor. I was worried they'd search the boat or start making trouble, but they were very nice and welcoming. I was in Colombia now, in the newly built marina of Santa Marta.

Santa Marta is a sweet city, very South American (but also reminding a bit of small sea-side cities from the South of Russia). A lot of street vendors, a long beach-walk, old buildings and roads, and much more civilized (and cheaper) than I thought.

The marina threw a party, very conveniently just after I arrived, and treated all the marina guests with a wonderful barbeque. I spent some days exploring the city, and shopping - the stores were very cheap there, compared to Caribbean or Europe. I have met some nice people in the marina, and got some nice opportunities to dust off my Spanish. I stayed there for a few days, and then headed for Cartagena.

The winds were still down as I left, but now at least I had fuel. The thunderstorms on the coast persisted, and the water was filled with vegetation ripped off by the water and carried off to sea, including the huge tree trunks. I felt them brushing by the side a few times, even a couple of thunking sounds as the boat hit them, but I was lucky for the boat not to suffer damage. 

The thunderstorms at the nights were most probably the scariest thing I have experienced. The lightning bursts lighted up the black sky with a blinding brightness, closer and closer, and more often. I tried to maneuver between the thunder clouds, but some disappeared and new came, and in the end I was scissored between two. The lightning came almost every second, and huge lightnings, thick as trees, hit the water under the clouds. I saw the lightning strike across the mast top just over the Windex and thought it would be the end. I wished for being electrocuted and dying instantly, because there are worse things than that. You can get paralyzed and lay around in the cockpit as the seacocks are leaking from the strike and the boat is slowly sinking - unable to do anything except for feeling the slow drowning death crawl nearer with every second.

I had secured chains and start cables to the rigging and let it run into the water, which helps to lead any strike away from the boat into the sea. I also hid all the emergency electronics (a handheld GPS, a handheld VHF, out camera, and the sat phone) inside the oven. Since it's built in metal, it practically acts as a Faraday cage, so in case of a strike the electronics inside there will not be fried, and I can call for help... provided I am still alive. The downside though is that many a sailor had forgotten the thunderstorms in the late night, and turned on the oven in the morning for baking bread. After awhile, they would wonder about the strange smell and then discover their dear VHF baked well-done and the EPIRB melting au gratin.

Sometimes I would go down below, watching as the flashes all around the boat like a giant paparazzi. After a few hours, the cloud passed, and the lightnings died off, lingering near the horizon with an expressive show-down. I stayed on watch until late night, unable to stop looking at the light show, truly incredible but still most ominous.

By morning, I reached Cartagena. Civilization! Just look at the skyline. The marina is a mess though; I got anchored outside and row the dinghy in every day. The city is beautiful, there are very nice places to visit, and I try to see as much as I can.

During my last time in India, when I was writing my Master Thesis, I met a girl called Anna, who was from Russia, and we became friends. She had later moved back to Russia - and then to Colombia, inviting me to come and visit, telling me that it’s nice here. I thought back than that she must be nuts - go visit the country with the highest crime rate in the world! But now I see what she meant. It's very civilized and beautiful here, and it feels safe. Sure, you see some dirt and poverty, but it's not worse than in some places in Russia, India, or the outskirts of Paris.

I asked Anna if she could give me some advice what to see in the city - and she gave me even more; a phone number to her friend living here. We met up in a Bavarian pub, a very surrealistic setting - a Swede meeting a Russian friend's friend in a German pub in Colombia. We had a very nice evening, and I got to know which places to go and explore.

In the central park, there are iguanas of 1-1,5 meters length, squirrels that eat from your hands, huge vultures, and monkeys! Small soft monkeys looking like teddy-bears, monkeys with babies, and old whitehaired monkeys looking a bit like teacher Pai Mei from Kill Bill. And all of them like cookies.

After a few days, I was frantically looking forward to be leaving Cartagena, as the Club Nautico marina here is the shabbiest I have seen so far. It looks grossly postapocalyptic, the guards lazying around and watching a TV fixed with aluminium foil and duct tape. There was no WC, and the showers looked something that you'd rather expect to find in Guantanamo than at a Marina. 

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During a service of the engine I snapped a bolt, using too much hand power. Now the raw-water pump was leaking. There are no chandleries (boat equipment shops) in Cartagena, and I will try to find something to replace it, otherwise I'll just have to get a MacGuyver solution with some liquid gasket and hope for the best. It's over two days' sailing to Panama, and the winds are non-existent there as the beautiful high mountains of Colombia stop the trade winds from reaching the coast further down South.

The “clear-in agents” in Colombia deserve a word. Their business model is to facilitate the paperwork, since it’s all in Spanish and requires huge amounts of forms, meeting the officials in different offices in town, etc. I was satisfied with Dino in Santa Marta, the rates are high (100 USD) but at least I know that's the right rate and he didn't cheat us. But here, a couple of young women in expensive attire tried to get us to pay 150 USD more. After that, they disappeared and could not be reached in a few days, so here we were, paperless, in Cartagena. They showed up at the end, I had a talk with them and managed to take down the price to 70 dollars. Now we were ready to rumble, having two days to sail off. The Colombian authorities are well-known for the corruption and the high fines in case they are not pleased, so I didn't want to bargain too aggressively with the young woman. A good idea is to ask around in the anchorage, and choose a proven agent. My next stop was Panama.