On the one hand, timing is said to be everything. On the other, anyone in real estate will tell you the thing that really matters is location, location, location. When it comes to passagemaking, though, it’s not one or the other, it’s both.
Making a passage from, say, Bermuda to the U.S. Virgin Islands, in February, you’ll likely find yourself loving life, with steady tradewinds scooting you along under “flying fish” conditions, as the old square-rigger sailors used to call them.
Do so in October, however, and it will likely be a very different story. Not only will you be constantly looking over your shoulder for tropical depressions spinning your way from far-off Africa, you could very well find yourself caught up in a full-blown hurricane if you’re not careful.
A Well-Worn Path
It’s for this reason that bluewater cruisers typically follow a number of well-worn paths across the world’s otherwise trackless oceans as they make their way to and from such places as the Caribbean and the South Pacific—or even all the way around the globe.
It’s also one of a number of reasons why more and more bluewater sailors—newbies and seasoned salts alike—join up with such rallies as the World Cruising Club’s ARC, World ARC and ARCEurope: because the people planning and running these events are masters of getting from point A to point B as quickly, easily and safely as possible.
I was reminded of this last February in the course of a quick visit to Santa Marta, Colombia, to welcome the 2016 World ARC fleet at the end of its first leg out from St. Lucia—specifically, because what looks like an otherwise fairly basic east-to-west passage of about 800 miles is, in actuality, a leg that requires sailors to transit one of the more notorious pieces of water north of the equator.
Problems arise because you’re sailing over the northernmost tip of South America—where high, rocky headlands rear up against a piping northeast tradewind that has encountered absolutely nothing besides white caps and possibly one of the distant Windward Islands for literally thousands of miles.
While not as rough as Cape Horn over 4,000 miles to the south, this is still not a patch of water to be taken lightly. Untold boats have come to grief here, including a 28ft Pearson Triton that was not only rolled, but pounded by such brutal seas that its hull-to-deck joint split, nearly sending the crew to the bottom (a tale told in the February 2015 issue of this magazine).
Of course, as you may have already guessed, the crew of this beleaguered vessel came to grief because they insisted on going the “wrong way,” so to speak—sailing west-to-east from Cartegena to the island of Bonaire, just past Punta Gallinas. Granted, it’s possible, and sailors have done it. But given that winds off the northwestern coast of Columbia are frequently in the 25 to 35 knots range with 12ft to 15ft waves, it remains a passage fraught with hazard.
In contrast, while going the other way can still be a challenge, there’s all the difference in the world between beating and broad-reaching in these kinds of conditions. And the latter is what the World ARC fleet experienced, so that instead of misery and survival conditions, what they went through was a whole different kind of passagemaking.
In fact, for much of the World ARC fleet, the trip was actually a somewhat slow one, plagued by light airs soon after its departure from St. Lucia. Nonetheless, the ARC team’s route planning still paid off big-time as the boats entered the home stretch, where crew after crew reported higher winds and rougher seas during the last 24 hours—exactly as you’d expect—making for many a sleepless night as they closed in on their destination.
Still, there was no major damage (save a broken gooseneck—the result of an unplanned gybe) no misery (save the usual bouts of sickness among some of the fleet’s less fortunate sailors) and, most important of all, no serious injuries. Everyone arrived in Santa Marta a bit tired, but exhilarated with what had been by any standard a successful first leg.
Do the Right Thing
Of course, the ARC fleet’s experience is just one of dozens of examples of how smart and careful route planning can make the difference between a safe and pleasant passage and one fraught with misery, danger and, in some cases, even death.
Among the earliest mariners to take advantage of this kind of passagemaking knowledge were Arab traders who regularly traversed the northern Indian Ocean in search of silks, spices, sandlewood and other highly profitable items from Asia. Many people associate the “monsoon” as it’s called with torrential rains—which are part of the meteorological mix in countries such as India. But the true monsoon is a seasonal reversible wind pattern, which in the case of the Indian Ocean blows predominantly southwest to northeast from April to September and northeast to southwest the rest of the year. (Not surprisingly, the word monsoon comes from the Arab word for season, mausim.)
Similarly, 15th century Portuguese sailors took full advantage of what they called the volta do largo, or “turn of the sea,” comprised of the southeast and northeast trades in combination with the eponymous Canary current to get to and from their island holdings off West Africa. In fact, it was knowledge of this phenomenon that convinced Columbus to first turn south, as opposed to sailing directly west from Spain in search of India.
Not until the early 1850s, however, did sailors have a truly clear picture of how global currents and trade winds worked (and by extension, how they could get quickly and safely get from point A to point B), thanks to the efforts of a U.S. Navy officer by the name of Matthew Fontaine Maury who decided to take a serious and systematic look at the passages times of his fellow mariners. (One exception was Benjamin Franklin’s map of the Gulf Stream, which he created in conjunction with a seafaring cousin named Timothy Folger to try to speed up the mail coming to the colonies from Great Britain.)
Maury accomplished this by studying the thousands of ships’ logs and charts he had access to as the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory and head of the Depot of Charts in the 1840s. He then published his findings in what he called his Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic: a truly revolutionary book that not only helped the mariners of his day dramatically improve their passage times, but served as a model for similar studies that ultimately served to describe all the world’s major trades routes.
Not surprisingly, these same routes remain relevant to this day as a means of crossing large bodies of water under sail—even in this era of advanced weather forecasting—and as such play an integral role in route planning planning for both individul sailors and organizations like the World Cruising Club.
“Sailors have been navigating these trade wind routes for hundreds of years. The difference is now we understand them really well,” says World Cruising Club director Jeremy Wyatt. “The basic premise is to be in the right place at the right time. If you can plan a passage with the winds coming from abeam or astern of the beam it’s going to be a good trip.”
“The factors that have to be taken into account when planning an extended voyage are … predictable and most of the dangers that can threaten a cruise are well known,” agrees renowned navigator Jimmy Cornell in his famed book World Cruising Routes. “The wise navigator planning an offshore voyage will try to take full advantage of the favorable winds and currents and avoid encountering extreme weather.”
That said, Wyatt notes that real-world route planning also has to take into account the shoreside demands of the sailors taking part in the passage, which can sometimes lead to a bit of a balancing act.
With respect to the original ARC, or Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, which was established in 1986, the ideal time for a departure from its starting point in the Canaries would be January, since that’s when the northeast trades are the most reliable. However, that would mean missing Christmas in the Caribbean, a major draw for many sailors.
Leaving in November also creates an overlap with the tail end of hurricane season. However, given that the waters of the North Atlantic have had a chance to cool down from where they were at the peak of hurricane season in the late summer and early fall, the risk is minimal.
According to Wyatt, by ducking well south of the Bermuda, or Azores, High the ARC route also makes it easy to dodge any depressions that might be spinning about in the vicinity of, say, the Bahamas. (The Bermuda High is just one of a number of semi-permanent, high-pressure areas across the globe that are renowned for their light winds: in the North Hemisphere these air masses rotate in a clockwise direction; in the Southern Hemisphere they rotate counter-clockwise.)
Along these same lines, Cornell describes how his family’s determination to sail from Panama to Peru before setting off into the wider Pacific meant “a long beat against contrary winds and the Humboldt current as they made their south along the western coast of South America.
Of course, by early May, when the ARC Europe fleet jumps off from Nanny Cay, in the British Virgin Islands, the chances of a hurricane hitting are nearly zero. However, you’ve now got the low-pressure systems spinning off North America to keep an eye out for. It is for this reason, Wyatt says, that the fleet makes a stopover in Bermuda on its way to the Azores: to check in on the latest weather forecast with an eye toward ensuring a favorable weather window for crossing the Atlantic. Not coincidently, the 845-mile leg to Bermuda also takes the fleet north of the same Bermuda High the fleet dodged to the south on its way west and into the belt of prevailing westerlies to power it on its way.
And so it goes, all the way around the world. From Colombia, the World ARC, which also ends in St. Lucia, hooks onto the Northeast Trades again for the trip to Panama and then continues along the tradewind route straight through until it runs up against Africa on the far side of the Indian Ocean. Along the way, it also makes a point of passing through the various bodies of water it visits during those months when the threat of typhoons or cyclones is at a minimum—transiting the South Pacific in late winter/early spring and Indian Ocean in late fall, when the monsoon is also in its favor.
At the Cape of Good Hope, Wyatt notes, the fleet dips far enough south that it actually passes out of the tradewind belt, and therefore has to adjust its way of thinking as it waits for a break in the potentially disastrous lows that regularly careen from from west to east in the Southern Ocean. But on the other side its back into tradewind mode, as the the fleet locks onto the southeast trades, which take it north of the light air in the St. Helena High to St. Helena Island itself on its way up to South America and the Caribbean again.
Along the way, the fleet also receives a boost from any number of favorable ocean currents (no surprise, given how they are largely driving by the prevailing winds) including the North and South Equatorial currents running east to west in the Pacific, the South Equatorial Current running east to west in the Indian Ocean and the Benguela Current running northward off the western coast of Africa.
Not that this means all is automatically smooth sailing. In fact, Wyatt emphasizes that even in the heart of the trades, there can be a great deal of variability, not to mention squalls, and that it’s still important to have a well-found boat and keep and eye on the weather. Similarly, Cornell warns that at any moment a sailor is dealing with probabilities, and that it is vital to be prepared for the unexpected.
“The fact that you have wind coming from behind you doesn’t mean it can’t still bash you about on occasion,” Wyatt warns, noting that not only can the trades themselves become quite powerful, but that you can easily see 35 to 40 knots of wind, or even more, in the leading edges of any squall you might encounter.
“I really dislike the term ‘coconut milk run,’” he says, referring for the expression some sailors use to describe the long leg west from French Polynesia. “The implication is it’s so easy any sailor can do it, which isn’t the case. You still have to have a boat and crew that are well prepared for whatever you might encounter.”
That said, “whatever you might encounter” can vary widely depending on your point of sail when you encounter it, and there’s nothing like running before the weather as opposed to beating into it. Never forget that the well-worn adage “gentlemen never sail to windward” isn’t just a manifestation of a bluewater sailor’s desire for a comfortable passage: it’s also a matter of smart seamanship.
I confess, when I first learned I would be flying down to Colombia to check in with the World ARC, I couldn’t help wondering whether it was such a good idea, given the area’s history of kidnappings and drug cartels.
What I found, though was a different situation entirely. While it still has some security issues—a situation not uncommon to much of he Caribbean—Colombia is a far more stable place than it was in decades past, and it is very much looking to take advantage of this newfound stability by making it as welcoming a place for cruisers as possible.
Ground Zero for this effort is Island Global Yachting’s extensive, brand-new marina at Santa Marta
(igy-marinasantamarta.com), located at the midpoint of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Not only does it offer dozens of clean, safe slips and access to fully modern provisioning, but Santa Marta is a wonderful town with a gorgeous old Colonial section that is well worth visiting, as is nearby Tayrona National Natural Park. It is also safely south of the Caribbean hurricane track, making it a good place to leave a boat in the late summer and fall.
While I was there I met any number of sailors who couldn’t say enough good things about the experience they’d had there. These included both long-term cruisers who were passing through on their way to Panama, and U.S. sailors who were still based up north but kept their boats in Santa Marta because they liked it so much.
Beyond Santa Marta, Cartegena was said to be fairly hot and windless, but has excellent marine facilities, while immediately to the east of Colombia are the “ABC” islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire. Farther away to the west are the Colombian islands of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina, which are actually much closer to Nicaragua than they are to Colombia.
One thing to be aware of: while a number of anchorages dot the coastline to the east of Bahia Santa Marta, these should only be used as day anchorages, as there have been reports of robberies there. Unfortunately, Colombia is still not as safe as it could be. Nonetheless, especially as a pit stop for those on their way from the Eastern Caribbean toward Panama, Colombia in general and Santa Marta in particular, are very much worth a visit.