Friday, May 30, 2008

Welcome To Columbia

The Columbian Navy and "Dos Milfords" Welcome the 4Wheelers to Columbia.

We left Bocas del Toro, Panama on Sunday morning May 25 at 5:00 a.m. We anticipated a 30 hour crossing to Cayos de Albuquerque (no we are not in New Mexico) but calm conditions allowed us to make the crossing in just less than 27 hours. The seas were flat, which is a blessing, but we had very little wind, forcing us to motor almost the entire way and unfortunately we caught no fish on this crossing.

Cayos de Albuquerque consists of two small islands surrounded by coral reefs in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean directly East off the coast of Nicaragua. One of the islands is used by fishermen and the other is home to a Columbian Navy outpost. These two beautiful islands were a welcome sight, and aside from a complicated entrance that weaves you through coral reefs starting 4 miles from the islands, the trip was very uneventful.

The morning after our arrival I radioed the Naval Station and requested permission to come ashore. We were greeted by a dozen young Columbian naval personnel all eager to practice their Spanish and help bring the dinghy ashore. They introduced us to Julio the commanding officer. Julio walked us around the island on perfectly groomed sand paths all lined with conch shells and although Julio speaks no English we were able to communicate fairly well.

Julio is 23 years old and has been in the navy since he was 16. He oversees the base and the 12 men serving with him. They maintain the lighthouse and serve as a maritime police force yet they have no boat on the island. It seems odd to be in the navy but with no boat. They serve on the island for 30 days and rarely get visitors, then rotate back to San Andres for 60 days. They are all from mainland Columbia and this is a 1 year tour for them. Julio is a bright,attractive and delightful young man mature beyond his years. This turned out to be a big day for them because their tour was up and replacements were arriving soon. We were invited to stay and meet the new crew. We all helped unload supplies and then took a couple of the guys out with us in the dingy to do a little spear-fishing.

En route my rpm gauge had stopped working. In order to see if I could find the problem before leaving I attempted to start the motor to trouble shoot, but it would not start. I spent the rest of the day and the next doing everything I know to find the electrical problem. A number of boats from Belize to Panama provided assistance over the SSB radio but nothing helped. If you are saying to yourself,"that is no big deal it is a sailboat after all" you are right, with two little exceptions. First, I am anchored in the middle of a coral reef system that required five different GPS waypoints and directional changes over 4 miles through the coral to get where I am anchored. Second, and perhaps more important, we are expecting a tropical wave to hit within 48 hours, predicted to contain squalls with winds in excess of 50 knots. That, by the way, is well beyond a tropical breeze and we wanted to be in San Andres battened down prior to the "wave" hitting.

We had no choice but to get ready for the tropical wave here and trust our ground tackle (anchors). When it comes to getting blown on to a reef I do not trust much so I set our second anchor, let out extra rode,thought through different scenarios over and over and then prayed. Maybe I did that all in the wrong order. Then we went snorkeling again. The reefs here see very little pressure and this may be the very best coral we have snorkeled yet. The only thing limiting our time in the water was sustained winds of 20-25 knots and the resulting waves which make it rough to swim in.

While we were setting our second anchor the previous day one of the fishing boats stopped by to see what we were doing and offered assistance and to say hi. We had the privilege of meeting a father/son team named Milford and Milford, which Susan now fondly refers to as "dos Milfords". We told them about the upcoming wind and not having an engine and setting another anchor, asking if we needed any additional help we said no thanks and they left to fish. Later that evening we were pleased when they stopped by to check in on weather and give us 2 fish. We gave them some homemade banana bread and a ginger ale and I sat for a while in their fishing boat getting acquainted.

The wind picked up overnight and we saw sustained wind in excess of 20 knots with gusts of over 25 knots that continued most of the next day. The irony of our situation set in while I was checking the anchor for the 537th time. As I looked around I realized that we were in the most beautiful water we have yet seen. Every possible shade and nuance of blue and turquoise exists within 500 yards of Mima. The clouds had cleared overnight and we enjoyed our nicest day yet. Sure the wind was blowing but the beauty of the water and islands was astounding. Once again Sue and Amy went snorkeling while I watched the boat.

Early evening the winds died a little and we began to make plans on how we could leave for San Andres to get our starter fixed. We know how to tie the dinghy up along-side Mima and use the dinghy motor for propulsion while steering with Mima, but we were concerned about getting both anchors up without using Mima's engine to pull forward and "unhook" them. We would wait and see what the wind was like the next morning.

While watching a movie that afternoon we were again visited by dos Milfords and another gift of a bonito (which became a sushi dinner that night). We all sat and talked and we learned they were heading back to San Andres tomorrow. We discussed the possibility of using their boat, Miss Gabriella, and her twin 40 h.p. outboards,to help pull the anchors and power us out of the reef the next morning. They eagerly agreed to help and seemed as intrigued by the adventure as I was. We awoke early, before 5 a.m., in anticipation of all the work to be done, and maybe due to a little nervousness as well.

It was a lot to ask, but we needed very little wind to pull the anchors and then safely navigate out of the reef system and then a good breeze to sail to San Andres 25 miles away and hopefully arrive during daylight. Even though we had been assured by people that the entrance channel to San Andres is well marked and lighted and with GPS waypoints in hand we still did not want to enter a new harbor at night with no engine if possible. Dos Milfords arrived at 7:00 a.m. and after coffee and some fresh banana bread tied up Miss Gabriella next to Mima and we went to work getting the anchors up.

With our first anchor nearly on board I saw a squall approaching. As we continued to work the heavens opened up, visibility was reduced to 50 feet and the squall hit full force. To be continued next time.

Susan, Amy, Marshall and Mark Wheeler s/v Mima

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