UPDATED CRUISING GUIDE FOR COAST OF COLOMBIA
Part Two: Anchorages from Five Bays to San Blas
by Lourae and Randy Kenoffel
We, Lourae and Randy Kenoffel on Pizazz, are pleased to provide this "guide", a collection of our personal experiences, to fill in the blanks between Bonaire and Panama. If you are going east from Panama, just reverse the sequence. Please refer to Doyle and Fisher's Guide to Venezuela & Bonaire, as well as the new (March 2006) Cruising Guide to the ABC Islands by Waterson/van der Reijden; and refer to Zydler's Guide to Panama.
The information that follows is our personal opinion only. We provide the essentials of cruising; that means "where to find what you need when you are in new places". The information is sorted by category and we will give you data by location.
Pizazz, a Beneteau 500, has day-sailed along the Colombia coast four times: twice going west (in November 1997 and October 2000) and twice doing the impossible by going east (in early May 1999 and October 2005). Four trips have given us experience BUT we do not claim to be experts. Some people say "you shouldn't stop along that coast", including some guides that say your chances of survival aren't good. However, we believe there are more risks off-shore to your boat or your crew. This guide describes safe anchorages to rest and enjoy, wait for weather, and make repairs, if needed. You will see some beautiful spots along the coast and meet some very friendly people, or you can by-pass all the wonderful anchorages and go direct to Cartagena or the San Blas Islands. You make your choice.
Notes of Caution (a.k.a. 'CYA')
All GPS readings vary slightly depending upon your equipment and selective availability of satellites, as well as input error. The GPS waypoints given are listed in degrees and minutes with hundredths of minutes (not seconds). These are waypoints for places to head towards or near anchor spots; they are not designed for you to connect-the-dots (do not go from waypoint to waypoint without checking your charts). People, USE YOUR CHARTS AND USE YOUR EYES!
Here are a few important factors to remember. One, be realistic and do not set a schedule that you cannot meet. Second, watch for the right weather windows (see WEATHER section below). Third, PREPARE YOUR BOAT AND YOURSELF for downwind sailing in heavy seas - tacking downwind is easier on the rig; it helps prevent accidental gybes, broken booms and poles; and is often faster and more comfortable. Be careful. Going east will be primarily a motor sail.
Weather (the Most Important Issue)
The key to cruising the Colombia coast safely and comfortably is weather. This is especially important if you plan an off-shore passage but is also important for coastal cruising.
The entire Caribbean has two seasons: Wet Season is June through November; Dry Season is December through May. If you travel in the months between the seasons - late March through early June or late September through November - you are likely to have calmer conditions. Our four passages have been completed during the so-called "change of seasons".
Generally, the farther south you go, the lighter the winds. These 400 miles between Aruba and Cartagena are known for the worst weather conditions in the Caribbean and among the top five worst passages around the world. Over the years, sea captains have learned that this Colombia coast is prone to strong winds and abnormally large waves. Look at the Pilot charts for each month and you will easily see the few times when the conditions are calmer. So plan ahead and watch for calm predictions; and, always add a minimum of five knots to any forecasted weather.
The "weather gurus" almost always say to stay at least 200 miles off-shore (they base this not on weather but upon a fear of the coast). We have found that the conditions off-shore can be bad, resulting in stories of boats getting pooped, having torn sails and scared crews. By staying close to shore (within five to ten miles, or closer) you may experience some land effect on the weather, often beneficial for your cruising; at times it is possible to use the currents and counter-currents; and, as mentioned above, you can always stop for needed rest or repairs (not an option on an off-shore passage).
Here is a list of various anchorages along this route - all are pleasant, some are excellent, others are just a rest stop. Last month we looked at anchorages from Bonaire to Cabo de la Vela.
Check your pilot charts for currents. You will experience about a one-plus knot west-flowing current until you get to the Colombia coast. At times, you may see a 1/2 knot east-flowing current along the coast to Cartagena (great for those heading east). Beyond Cartagena, depending upon the time of year, there can be a slight west-flowing current but most times it is an east-flowing current.
There is some great fishing along the entire route, so put your lines out.
When at anchor, use your anchor light.
As you head to the next waypoint at 11.22.00N, 074.03.50W, sail downwind as comfortably as possible - again, tacking downwind is suggested. You may experience some counter-current along this stretch (good for those going east). There are no obstructions along the coast (just an oil rig near Riohacha).
Look for the snow covered mountains as you approach - the only time you'll see snow while sailing in the Caribbean. These bays have been compared to the fjords of Norway. You can spot the various bays (easy eyeball navigation) as you get close to the area.
This waypoint gets you to the northeast of Bahia Cinto, the first of five wonderful little bays. There is good holding in 30-plus feet of clear water. If there is a northerly swell, Bahia Cinto can get rolly and you can get some very strong southeasterly williwaw winds off the Santa Marta Mountains.
Two bays to the West is Bahia Guayraca (at 074.07.00W longitude) with more swell protection. There is about 25 feet of water with good holding in good sand, shore exploration with friendly people, and good snorkeling; this is our favorite spot.
The fifth bay is Ancon Chica, which has the most protection from swell, deeper water, and more shoreside activities (however, some cruisers have been told "You do not want to stay here" - a hint of drug smuggling, perhaps?).
These bays are on DMA chart 24493A (which is no longer available). Please refer to our chart of these bays, which is a tracing of the DMA chart. Stay as long as you want in any bay where you feel comfortable.
When you are ready to move on to civilization (about 15 miles away), go through the cut between mainland and Aguja Island. Go between the south jagged tip of the island and the exposed rocks in the middle between the mainland and the island. It is 45 or more feet deep at 11.18.46N, 074.11.60W. The current and waves from the east may seem scary but once in the middle and then to the west of the cut, it is flat calm.
Continue south along the coast past the commercial port of Santa Marta (it's okay to go between Morro Grande and El Morro Chico) to Rodadero (which shows as Gaira on charts). Suddenly there are tall buildings, condos, and beaches (almost a small version of Puerto La Cruz); this is a resort area for Colombians.
Anchor at 11.12.10N, 074.13.75W in 30 to 40 feet, or go in closer to the swim buoys in 20 feet. There are good restaurants along the beach and an Olympica supermarket for fresh supplies.
Sometimes the Port Captain will come by and limit your stay but otherwise, no problems. The agent here wants US$100 to clear Customs and Immigration but you still have to pay $60 to an agent in Cartagena to do it again or even get your zarpe later. So, save your money and do your clearance in Cartagena. You may also get a visit from the Guarda Costa, just to check on you.
It is good to see civilization again, but get prepared for the dreaded Rio Magdalena.
Rodadero is an easy spot to enter or exit in the dark. You may want to leave at "oh dark-thirty" to cross the Rio Magdalena (about 40 miles away) in early morning or before mid-day when the winds get stronger. The winds kick up the seas against the outgoing river current, mostly the last five or so miles east of the river mouth. This area can be very rough in strong winds. It is okay to stay in close to the river mouth (we were two miles out) but farther out is a little less rough. The conditions get smoother once you cross the outflow of the river.
Watch for river debris - anything from lily pads to logs - for the next ten or more miles to the west. The water is muddy, smells "earthy", and looks ugly.
NEVER, NEVER go into the entrance of the Rio Magdalena to the port of Baranquilla. People get robbed there, shot at, etcetera. DO NOT go there!
There is a good rest stop near Punta Hermosa (another 10 miles along) which the charts do not show at all. We have been there and it is easy to get to with waypoints but USE YOUR EYES. Charts of this area show many shipwrecks and the water depths change (due to outflow from the Rio Magdalena) so BE CAREFUL!
Head well to the west (probably eight to ten miles) before heading to the southwest or south towards a waypoint at 10.58.00N, 075.03.10W (about one mile due west of the lighthouse), then go to 10.56.20N, 075.03.00 (30 feet deep), then turn towards the red cliff with a big house on the upper left, then go to 10.56.98N, 075.01.98W (12 feet deep).
You can anchor farther north behind reef/land if you want, but you are out of the swell almost as soon as you reach the south reef edge. See our sketch chart of this area. Enjoy the calm and the friendly people. This area is packed with people on the week-ends. The locals have renamed this area "Puerto Velero" (after all the sailboats that stop there). You are now only 50 miles from Cartagena.
NOTE: Be very careful navigating in this area. One sailboat was lost on the reef in 2002 because the crew was not watching where he was going.
Leave the anchorage and go west southwest towards Zamba Bank (it is okay to go over this 30-foot bank) then towards Punta Canoas then to Boca Grande entrance to Cartagena Bay (which saves you about two hours rather than using the Boca Chica entrance). You will usually experience a slight counter-current and less wind along this stretch. You will be in 20 feet of water during the last several miles, until you get outside Boca Grande.
Use waypoint 10.23.45N, 075.34.47W, which is approximately 100 yards from the entrance, and you will easily spot the entrance markers for an 11-foot depth over the underwater wall. NOTE: This entrance is marked by lighted buoys, so you can enter in the dark.
Check your chart and, staying out away from the hotel beaches, head toward a monument to the Madonna and Child (which is not lit). Follow red-right-returning buoys on either side of the monument and you will see Club Nautico with anchored boats. The buoys can be confusing around this monument, so be careful.
If you do not like the 11-foot depth entrance at Boca Grande, go on to the Boca Chica main shipping channel entrance and follow the channel markers. NOTE: There are many more buoys than those shown on the charts, however the basic bearings are the same. (The easiest route after you enter the channel is to follow the green buoys towards the monument.)
NOTE: Do not anchor near Boca Chica entrance; you will be robbed. Also, you should contact "Cartagena Port Control" on VHF 16 to give them your intentions.
You can anchor south, west, or north of Club Náutico in filthy, sticky, smelly mud. (We seriously considered abandoning our anchor here, rather than spend the time and effort to clean it!) The depths vary from eight or 12 feet to over 40 feet. Make sure that your anchor is well set. We usually let the anchor sink into the mud for an hour or so and then back down to set it.
During the dry season, the winds are normally northeast at ten to 20 knots. During the wet season, the winds are light from the south-southwest, but watch for squalls containing 30-plus knots which generate a three- to four-foot wind chop for the ten mile fetch down the Bay.
There is plenty of local water taxi traffic going through the anchorage; be careful when you dinghy into the marina area.
Club Náutico offers med-moor space, when available. Club de Pesca is a more upscale (and expensive) marina, which offers some limited transient space.
This group of islands is about 18 miles from Cartagena. Use them as a "get away" from Cartagena in between the fun times and/or work. Go there to clean the boat bottom, as the barnacles grow fast and big in the "hot" waters of Bahia Cartagena. Buy the Kit Kapp's chart from Club Náutico as it is the only detailed chart for this area; you will need it.
Use a waypoint of 10.11.18N, 075.44.45W, where you will spot a "guard tower" on shore and several cement posts to the south of the reefs. Get there around noon for good light. Leave the first post (with red paint on it) to your starboard and turn right towards two more cement posts (painted red and green) which you go between. Then swing left.
Anchor anywhere along the shore in 15 to 20 feet of water. Our favorite is the farthest "cove" to the east, away from another cement post.
Use your dinghy to explore other areas, including a good aquarium at the west end of the island group. There will be lots of local boat traffic, mostly on Sundays.
This island group is 25 miles south of Rosarios. Anchor to the south of Isla Tintipan. You can exit this island group to the south through a cut in the reef at 09.43.45N & 075.50.19W in 20 feet of water. And, if approaching from the west, you could anchor west of the island with the lighthouse.
This island is off the path of many cruisers, so if you visit you will find that the people are very nice, friendly, and helpful. Two boats visited here in March 2005 and two others were there in April 2005.
There is an anchorage east of the lighthouse, just north of the dive center, at approximately 09.23.13N & 076.10.48W - watch your depth. The island population is geared for week-end visitors and everyone wants to be your guide, whether for an anchor spot or island tour.
There is another anchorage south of the island at about 09.22.26N, 075.41.98W, but watch the weather, as this would be untenable with south winds.
This small island at 09.01.45N, 076.20.25W was visited by two vessels in March 2005. They do not recommend this place as the holding is very questionable and the anchorage was rolly. As with most of the Colombia coast, the time of year and weather conditions will dictate your visit.
SAN BLAS ISLANDS
The sail from Cartagena to the San Blas is generally a fast passage with winds at your back quarter, so time your passage carefully for daylight arrival. Follow the instructions in the green Zydler guide and only enter the San Blas at one of the three entrance channels. There are many uncharted reefs off-shore making other entrances dangerous without local knowledge.
Next Month, Part Three: Clearance, Security and Services.
Pizazz's updated Cruising Guide for the Coast of Colombia is now available on the Caribbean Compass website www.caribbeancompass.com. Or anyone can write to Pizazz at [email protected] for Lourae and Randy to send it to you; the files are big, so you must have a land-based e-mail address to get all of the information.
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