Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   June 2006
From Bare Poles to Paradise
by Dianne Nilsen

On the 25th of March we left Bonaire, bound for San Blas, in Vula, our 31-foot, sloop-rigged, South African-built Morgan. We had come a long way since leaving South Africa, but this voyage was to truly test our endurance and the strength of our small boat.
We rounded the point of Colombia, 60 miles northwest of Barranquilla, on Monday, the 27th. The winds were up to 25 knots and increasing, with swells up to 15 feet. By 4PM, the winds were over 30 knots and, to our alarm, the swells were still increasing.
I served the two of us a hasty stew and was frantically stashing things away when something came adrift and knocked off our power supply, which switched off the autopilot, placing us broadside to a huge wave. We were lifted and pitched down the face of this 20-foot wave. Les shot outside to try and grab the tiller in time but it was too late.

The force of the knockdown sheared off the rudder to the autopilot. I was thrown into the electrical panel and stew flew everywhere. The fridge became dislodged and went flying in the opposite direction, spilling all its contents, while a ton of sea water came hurtling straight over the stern and down into the boat. What a mess! Les later confessed that what he saw happening below from his position in the cockpit was very scary and he had a daylight nightmare of being both wifeless and fridgeless.
What were we involved in here? We had done everything correctly and had received weather information from a friend in Bonaire before we left. We'd been told that it was the best weather predicted for the Colombia coast in a long time, and it should have lasted for two or three days. In spite of the good predictions, we were in the middle of something bad and conditions were still picking up.
This was not supposed to be happening. The barometer dropped. Les reefed in the genoa to slow us down, as our hull speed is six knots, but we were topping seven to eight although well reefed in. The winds steadily increased so Les decided to bare pole it. This we did for more than 65 hours. The seas became so huge that we were surfing and logged a shattering 17 knots down waves, while averaging eight to ten knots. This was unbelievable to us but it was truly happening.

At this point we had to find a way to slow Vula down, as the shuddering was bone-jarring, horrendous, nightmare stuff. During the night, helming was another nightmare. You could hear the waves coming, feel them lifting you higher and higher before they hurled you careening down their backs. Les tied all our lines to the stern for drag, in an effort to slow us down. This helped to keep our speed to six or seven knots.
During the nights we were at the helm one hour on and one off. Daytime we managed two on and two off. We could not do more hours on the helm, as the stress and strain were just too much. At one point Les was hallucinating and had to keep shaking his head and slapping himself.
I could not and would not look back at the waves nor at our odometer - or even at Les, because the expression on his face and all the "Holy shits!" were scaring the hell out of me.

At one point Les wanted to move the drogue to the bow of the boat so it would lie ahull - bow into the waves. I went ballistic and would not allow Les out of the cockpit, terrified of what might happen to him on that flying, wave-washed deck. I could not imagine him doing this.
At another point he wanted to head out northwest, and that meant motoring up and over the waves. I screamed that this was definitely NOT ON, as I had read and seen the movie "The Perfect Storm" (and at that point, I wished I had not). We were both thinking and praying that this just could not last. Please, just another couple of hours and this madness would be over.
So many hours of feeling, sensing, concentrating on just steering and pulling out of waves were mind-numbing and, at night, the watching and steering our course to the compass, not wanting to go off by even a few degrees, was grueling.
I was thrown three times and have no idea how many times we were pooped. The hardest fall was head and feet into starboard lockers and then tossed back onto a bunk. Les, at the helm, was screaming "Dianne! Speak to me!" That was all he could do, not daring to leave his position.
We did not get much sleep, as  while lying down we had to wedge ourselves between lockers and the mast compression post. The only thing we managed to rest were our eyes. I was afraid to drift off in fear of losing my grip on things and getting thrown again. To sustain ourselves, we swallowed water, juice, crackers and vitamins.

On Friday the swells were down to 10 to 15 feet and the wind had dropped to 25 knots. Our speed had slowed to four or five knots, still under bare poles with the drogue lines out.
Les eventually took in the lines and just before sunset he let out some genoa and poled it out. He also made our first cup of hot coffee without incident. I felt we were going to survive after all.
It seemed incredible to arrive in the San Blas Islands on Saturday, April 1st at midday - in perfect conditions. It's hard to describe these glorious islands; they just took my breath away - the stuff cruising dreams are made of.
Once safely anchored in front of Porvinir, we hugged and kissed each other and Les thanked me for holding out. Then it was painkillers for us, Voltaren and sleep - with everything still wet, hair a tangled mess and layers of dried salt on our skin.
Next day the Kuna ladies, children and a few men arrived in dugouts to sell beautiful Molas, fish, crab and lobster. They are very friendly, honest and very "cute" as Les put it. He fell hook, line and sinker for the lovely ladies and the children. We ended up trading for or buying ten Molas and some crab and lobster. It was so hard to say no, as everyone wanted to make a sale. If this happens too often on our inter-island cruises we will really have to stretch our cruising kitty!

It took Les two days to fix the rudder and we were lucky that our 300-watt inverter did not blow up, as he had to use a 500-watt grinder to effect the repairs.
I cleaned, washed and rinsed for an entire day. I did it as fast as possible, as I wanted to enjoy our time here. The horror of the passage was almost forgotten.
On Monday, April 3rd, Les cleared us into the country and we met with friends Steve and Janet on the yacht Manta. So great to see familiar faces again! They were seeing friends off at the airport. There are daily flights from Porvinir to Panama. They made us wish we had been more organized and had loads of time to spare. This is where it would have been wonderful to have friends and family fly in to join us for a holiday in paradise. It would have been easy to find them places to stay ashore. Just a hammock between the palms would do, or simple accommodation can be found at one of the few posadas on the main islands. Every few days a local boat travels around the islands with fresh supplies, which we found reasonably priced.
In company of Manta, we left Porvinir on 4th for Waisaladup, Holandes Cays, which are the outermost islands of the San Blas, arriving just after 4PM. We immediately hit the water and spent a couple of hours snorkeling. That evening we had a wonderful meal of fresh seafood on Manta.

The following two days we were definitely on holiday, with lots of snorkeling, exploring and a visit to the village. We gave a gift of four beers and some canned food to the chief, and cookies to the children. We could not resist trading for yet another two Molas. I actually traded my reading glasses for a small one.
We have not experienced and enjoyed such good snorkeling in a long time. The stretches of white, clean beaches are just beautiful and it made me ache to leave so soon.

After only six days, we left at 4PM. Les caught a large tuna, some of which I fried up and used the rest to make sushi. This was the first time I had attempted to make sushi and it won't be the last - it was excellent.
As of this writing, we are in Panama and our date for transit through the Canal is the first of May. With wonderful memories of the Caribbean and especially the San Blas Islands, we face the vastness of the Pacific, with our final destination being New Zealand.
After this short and arduous voyage my admiration goes out, ten-fold, to all singlehandlers doing long passages. I just cannot imagine doing it alone.

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