Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | March 24, 2013

The San Andrés Passage

N 12° 33.74′   W 81° 41.5′

San Andrés, Colombia

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Said “adios” to Portobelo on Thursday afternoon. One of the clearest days we saw in our 3+ months in Panama.


How and when we would make our way north from Panama was a looming challenge that had caused me some growing anxiety over the past months. Bob, who is usually very upbeat about finding passage weather, had warned that we might get rocked around more than we cared for on this part of the trip. The long fetch of seas to the east makes for steep waves along this path which would collide with our starboard side along the route north. His careful study of the Pilot Charts showed that in April or May the spring weather patterns would allow for breaks in the strong trades and we might find a decent opportunity to head north.

We want to get back to Florida before the hurricane season gets cranking. Some of our cruising comrades here look at us like we are deranged when we say we want to be in Florida for hurricane season. But that is familiar territory that we feel comfortable managing. Our “out”, should we get delayed is to spend the summer in Guatemala’s Rio Dulce and return to Florida at the end of hurricane season. That area is a favorite destination of some, but for us, spending the rainy season in rainy territory does not appeal and we hope to avoid that scenario. With the dogs aboard we would not be able to leave the boat for inland travel so we would be stuck in the river in a marina (required for safety there) for many months.

There are a number of choices in the route north.  We opted to skip the part of Panama west of Portobelo. Some cruisers visit Bocas del Toro and vicinity, which puts the trip north on a less appealing northeasterly heading. Even though we are on a power boat, heading directly into the waves is not the most fun point of sail and on a long passage we don’t really want to have to add miles by tacking. Yes, we do “tack” from time to time, just like a sailboat, if the seas are really uncomfortable. It lengthens the period between waves and the slightly different angle of attack helps to reduce what is sometimes a violent pitching motion.

We also decided to skip Caribbean Costa Rica. We had visited Puerto Limón on a past cruise ship tour and didn’t feel we needed to repeat the visit. Caribbean Nicaragua is not considered safe for cruising boats so we planned to avoid that area. Captain Bob had originally suggested a trip through the Panama Canal, extending our trip by another nine months to allow time to explore the more appealing Pacific sides of Panama and Costa Rica. (I think he also hoped to persuade me to continue on to Pacific Mexico . . . ) Further research found that would be very expensive with two canal transits. Many of the Pacific areas are not as cruiser-oriented, with the boating services catering  to sport fishing vacations. We would spend rainy season in rainy country and while we heard different perceptions from people who have done this, we decided we would not be happy campers in rainy season. Better and cheaper to fly down for a visit sometime.

We were really excited to see what looked like a fabulous weather window to leave Panama in mid-March, which would get us out of Panama ahead of schedule. Bob watched every day for two weeks as the models transformed the possibility into a reality. We decided to leave on Thursday afternoon starting out in 3 – 4 foot seas that were forecast to decline to less than 2 feet en route. Two foot seas for this passage seemed too good to be true. Winds would be light – between 8 – 12 knots. We would travel 228 miles at an average of 5.5 knots, spending two nights at sea and arrive in San Andrés  – a tiny Colombian island located to the east of Nicaragua – on Saturday morning.

We hauled up anchor at 3:30 pm, wanting to get out of Portobelo and across the Panama Canal shipping lanes before dark. It was a busy area, but no worse than crossing the Gulf Stream near Miami. We were glad to have AIS-receive, which provides the ships name and various data including a calculation of how close we will come to each other based on current speed and heading. We used the information to contact one of the closer ships to confirm they were not going to make any unexpected course changes. Upgrading to AIS-transmit capability – so the ships can receive similar data on our vessel – is on the wish list for future, but having receive info is probably the greatest help.

I had hoped to make it through this passage without seasickness meds, but we got tossed around getting offshore and I opted to take one dose after seeing the sea state. As the evening wore on, the forecast rang true with the seas very gradually settling and no more meds were needed.

Meals aboard were pre-prepared and unexciting, and even with this relatively smooth passage it was not easy to function in the galley. With the seas hitting the starboard side opening the refrigerators (located along the starboard side of the cabin) was an exercise in timing to keep stuff from rolling out. Guess I need those refrigerator bars someone was telling me about . . . We had pre-made tuna salad sandwiches and microwaved leftover lobster chowder the first night and microwaved leftover casserole dinners from the freezer the second night. Bob had microwaved pre-made ham-egg-cheese biscuit sandwiches for lunch and a supply of rum buns for breakfasts. I had prepared a cold pasta-veggie salad for me for the under way lunch. Snacks were granola bars, nuts and frozen whipped bananas, my newest favorite ice-cream-like snack and a good way to use up an oversupply of bananas. Not gourmet fare or anything, but it worked.

The calmer the seas the better for the dogs. Getting them to the bow for bathroom needs on a long trip is always a concern. This trip was tranquil enough that we could allow them the freedom to get around independently with close supervision. We left the textilline covers I made as a sort of doggie life-line in place and didn’t have to remove them when navigating from the lower helm since there were no objects like crab pots out here requiring constant scanning. The dogs spent most of their time with us on the aft sundeck, the most stable location on the boat. Whoever was on watch went below every 15 or 20 minutes to check the radar and instruments. Not much traffic out here – two freighters showed up on AIS and one slow-moving vessel heading the opposite course showed on radar, but well out of sight.

With two of us to share watches we set up a schedule as we had done on the Bonaire Passage. I took 10p – 2a, having more night-owl tendencies and Bob, the early riser,  took 2a – 6a. In practice, we ended up varying the schedule based on who was tired and who was able to nap. The first night I was not tired and ended up covering 11p – 5a. Always feel good when I can pull my share and allow the Captain as much rest as possible. When seasickness hits me, he has a greater burden. We normally sleep on the settee in the salon during passages. The location is not as comfortable as our regular berth and doesn’t allow the soundest sleeping but with only two of us aboard it seems to work best to be immediately available if needed. God bless the single-handers out there. Don’t know how they do it. We are following with interest the voyage of John and Kathy on Mystic Moon, currently in the middle of their Pacific crossing, worrying about adverse currents and fuel capacity. Makes our little passage seem like nothing . . .

Arrival procedures were easy.  We had been told to call the Guarda Costa (Colombian Coast Guard) to announce our arrival, and although we heard them on the radio a couple of times they didn’t seem to want to respond to our call.  Our agent, René, whom I had advised of our arrival plans via email was Johnny-on-the-spot.  He contacted us on the VHF (in English, thank goodness) as we entered the harbor and he and Bob coordinated check-in logistics. (Colombia requires boaters to use agents to facilitate the interface with  Customs, Immigration & Port Authorities and they are a great help.)   We are settled in the northern part of the anchorage near the tourist hotels just off the Club Nautico.

I had always blamed seasickness and/or the seasickness meds for the post-passage “hangover” feeling but just made the revelation that even with a relatively calm passage sans meds it still took a full day to feel back to normal. The disrupted sleep schedule must be the cause. Not sure how to fix that one . . .

We are getting oriented to this beautiful place and right now we don’t see any weather on the horizon to exit to Providencia, our next stop. So we are looking forward to a couple of weeks at least in this beautiful tourist-oriented island. Seems friendly and upbeat . . . should be fun!

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Mar Azul (little red boat) exiting Panama among the many big ships (little blue triangles). We saw the Queen Elizabeth (little blue triangle on the right), heading for Curacao.

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After the first 8 hours it was tranquil enough for the dogs to enjoy their naps without sliding around. Lady – who has her own little dog bed – hogged the memory foam rug we put out for Bandit, who doesn’t do dog beds.

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Day two – nothing in sight but blue, blue and more blue

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Bob enjoyed a book under way. I listened to tunes and Spanish audio tapes on my iPod, and pulled out the “Oprah Magazine” birthday gift from Jean for some light reading.

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Day two – sunset at sea, about 150 miles east of Nicaragua

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Arrival in San Andres after 40 hours at sea. Two sailboats were exiting the harbor as we were arriving just after sunrise, bound for Providencia, 50 miles to the north (our next destination).

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Dogs say “We see land ahead – it’s about time!!”
“Bienvenidos a San Andres!”

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