We caught the bus from Portobelo to the next town, Sabanitas, about an hour west. The town has a bank and a Rey supermarket so we could stock up on a few items not found in Portobelo. The pouring rain and steamed up windows didn’t slow the colourful bus down as it hurtled along the road, artistically decorated on the outside and plenty of pink feather boas and pumping music on the inside. A white knuckle ride with a difference. Sabanitas sadly has nothing else to offer other than the supermarket and bank, the litter was far worse than Portobelo and there were a few ‘dumps’ right by the roadside that literally had rubbish piled high.
Moving on from Portobelo with a fully stocked freezer, we rejoined Prism in Linton Bay where the number of cruisers had tripled since we were last there. This is a good place to get propane bottles refilled, although pricey for the Caribbean at $1 per pound it was still a fair bit cheaper than Shelter Bay’s service. We endured the really uncomfortable conditions, as of course the wind was howling and the swell was rolling in, until our gas bottles were returned then we eagerly checked out with the Port Captain as a very narrow weather window was appearing to make some easting. As you may have gathered Panama has not been our favourite place and we were pretty keen on getting back to the eastern Caribbean for the season now that we are not going through the Canal this year. As we were completing our paperwork with the Port Captain we had a message from Prism to say a boat was dragging through the anchorage and heading towards Joy, so we made a quick dash to go rescue her. By the time we arrived on the scene the boat was skipping sideways alongside Joy, luckily just missing us by a couple of metres and amazingly not disturbing our anchor. We climbed on board the unoccupied dragging yacht along with another guy and after letting out some more rode she came to a halt. The boats caretaker soon arrived and proclaimed that she was on a dead-weight mooring and whenever the wind pipes up she just drags it somewhere else! So no damage done, and after watching them tow her with their dinghies to another mooring we continued to complete our checkout by catching the white-knuckle bus ride back to Portobelo immigration.
The wind eased a little in the afternoon as forecast so we lifted anchor and headed out, our plan was to get as much easting as we could first, by sailing towards Cartagena then on to Santa Marta before turning north across the Caribbean Sea. Knowing that we had possibly a couple of weeks of beating against the wind ahead of us, Christmas and New Year was put on hold until we arrived…well, somewhere.
The first couple of days going east towards Cartagena were pleasant, light winds and flat seas with just a gentle swell, but as we approached the Colombian coast, everything changed. Within half an hour the wind went from 8 knots to 25 gusting 30 and an uncomfortable sea state set in. As the night progressed we tacked in towards Cartagena and got some protection, another weather check confirmed that our small window had completely disappeared and tacking back out we encountered a pretty nasty sea state. With large confused, steep waves and consistent winds of 30 knots plus, we decided it would be pretty difficult to beat around the corner and continue on to Santa Marta so we remained on our tack heading north away from land in hope of improvement. That improvement didn’t arrive, I actually mislaid my sea legs for a few days and resorted to popping a few pills to keep going which is most unlike me! Every day the weather forecast confirmed another 48 hours of gale force or near gale force conditions, and they were right. We kept watch from the comfort of our raised saloon and used the autopilot remote controller to tweak the helm, only gearing up in full wet weather gear and venturing out for sail changes and reefing, as it was getting rather tedious being continuously drenched. This is the first time we have relied totally on the autopilot, we usually love helming and like saving power too. Not on this passage. Luckily our D400 wind turbine came into its own and helped keep up with our power demand.
Winds continued at 25-35 with the occasional 40 knots for a few days, with some nasty rogue waves occasionally hitting the sails, one particularly nasty one claimed the BBQ cover and our fishing net as well as tearing a seam in our mizzen. Luckily with in-boom furling we could furl it back to a baton above the tear and still keep a slither of the sail up. On day seven as we were changing shifts during the night, I heard a flapping and shone the torch forward, our stay sail had come down and was soon to be trailing in the water. Clipped on to the foredeck in 30 knots of wind with water crashing over the bow, we hauled it back on deck, bundled it up with sail ties and dragged it back into the cockpit. The strop which attaches to the halyard had chaffed through. We bashed on regardless without the staysail, using a heavily reefed genoa instead, ploughing on towards Haiti. The sea state eased sightly as we got closer to land and so did the wind, this gave me an opportunity to winch Jez up the mast to retrieve the staysail halyard, he survived without too many bruises. After mending the strop we rehoisted the stay sail as we knew stronger winds were forecast as we tacked back out offshore when our easting dwindled. From there we started shorter tacks as we zig-zagged our way underneath Haiti and the Dominican Republic until we finally reached the Mona Passage, another seven days that seemed to take forever. After dodging a line of squalls for several hours finally the skies cleared, the sea state improved and the winds dropped to 15-20. The notorious Mona Passage treated us well and gave us dolphins, sunshine and some excellent sailing with a south east wind which enabled us to sail north east across the passage to Mayaguez on the western coast of Puerto Rico.
After 16 days at sea, 12 of which were near gale to gale force conditions, sailing 1,700 nautical miles to cover 885 as the booby flies, we had finally arrived a few pounds lighter….somewhere.