One of the five most difficult passages in the world, worst in the Caribbean, impossible; this was almost all my wife, Josie, and I heard when we announced our plan to sail the 500 miles from Cartagena, Colombia, nonstop to the island of Bonaire. I mostly brushed this off because the naysayers were people who felt anything above a beam reach was both unreasonable and too difficult; I knew impossible was far too strong a word. I also knew that for our old 28ft Pearson Triton, Vento Dea, this would be a real challenge. The passage required careful planning, and we would face at least six days of constant discomfort and hard windward work once we set sail. We waited in Cartagena and watched the passing weather systems for the right timing. When it looked like the winds would abate, we cleared out, gathered our provisions and set out on the toughest passage of our lives.
For the first day things were pretty easy, but after that life became increasingly difficult. As we approached the outflow of Rio Magdalena, it was like sailing in molasses. The outgoing river current set against us and only allowed us to make 1.5 knots over the ground at best. To further slow us down, recent rains had sent logs, plants and even whole trees out to sea; an entire forest set adrift. This had us tacking and dodging continuously. That night brought strong trade winds and passing squalls. Fighting the wind and the current, we barely made 30 miles in 24 hours. Things continued like this for a couple of days, but as the wind continued to strengthen, the current seemed to dissipate and our progress began to improve.
Soon it was blowing a strong gale with 20ft breaking seas. Every passing wave soaked us to the bone, and our foul-weather gear did little to keep us dry. Our triple-reefed mainsail was literally having the stitching blown out of it. It was clear we needed to make for the nearest anchorage for repairs or we would lose the sail completely. Luckily we were less than 20 miles away from the best anchorage for over 100 miles, so we eased sheets and headed for safe water.
At this point the conditions were rough and wet, but everything was under control. The main was lashed down, and the windvane was steering a good course. A bit cold and a bit weary from the constant soaking, Josie went below to lie down. After scanning the horizon, I followed her in to dry off a bit and try to warm up. After reinserting the washboards and joking about our slow progress, I looked out the windward portlight to see a wave that towered high above the others and was moving fast. There was no time to adjust course, no time to take action. I simply turned to Josie and calmly told her to hold on, a big knockdown was coming. We braced for impact, the wave hit, the boat inverted and suddenly we were swimming in the cabin.
In an instant our home went from a shelter and a safe haven to nothing more than a dumpster. After the boat had righted itself, everything was unfamiliar. Blood dripped down my face as we stood in 3ft of water and saw that everything we owned had turned to rubbish. The disbelief didn’t last more than a moment before we began to assess our situation. There was a 4ft long dent in the side of the hull; the hull-deck joint had been split from stem to stern and pushed in about a foot; there was a massive crack at the waterline; we had no electricity, no GPS, no radio and our paper charts were destroyed. The portlight on the lee side had been blown into the boat from the pressure as we rolled. The shelves and lockers had been blown clean off the hull. The tiller had broken off, one of the chainplates pulled out, and our kayak, somehow still on deck, had been split in two. We had maybe an hour or so of sunlight, and it was still blowing a gale. I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.
There were three things that needed our immediate attention. We had to empty the boat of water so we could determine if it was leaking, we had to repair the tiller because we needed to move toward sheltered waters, and we had to get ready to abandon ship if necessary. In a situation like this everyone aboard needs to be working, not only because minutes can matter, but also as a countermeasure to panic. I set Josie to pumping water and seeing if any of our phones, the handheld GPS or SPOT satellite tracker had somehow survived. I found the tiller, but it seemed all my tools had gone missing, so I lashed it back onto the rudderhead with whatever ropes I could find. It worked and seemed to hold up, although it was not terribly responsive.
I found a steak knife and used it to cut the cables on one of the batteries, which I wired directly to the VHF radio, only to discover it was fried. As I was figuring out how to get the dinghy out of the V-berth, Josie popped out of the cabin holding the SPOT device, wondering if she should activate the SOS feature. She had now been pumping for almost an hour, and it didn’t look like it was getting us anywhere. We had steering and were slowly limping our way toward land, but we weren’t sure the boat was going to hold up. You could see the hull flexing badly under the strain of the water, and our rig was damaged. Our situation had not improved much, the sun was setting, and seeing as the SPOT was our only way to contact the outside world, I told Josie to go ahead. She hit the SOS button, the LEDs blinked and we just had to assume it was telling someone, somewhere, that we needed help.
Access to our V-berth was blocked by one of the bulkheads that had been pushed in by the force of the wave, thus hindering our access to the dinghy. The only way to get to it was to crawl up to the forward hatch and pull it out. Eventually I managed to wrestle it back to the cockpit, where by our dog, Gidget, had now relieved herself.
I rolled out the dinghy and Gidget immediately jumped in and refused to move. She gave me a look that said, “This raft isn’t going to inflate itself,” and I started pumping. By the time the dinghy was inflated, tied down under the boom and filled with our emergency gear as well as water, it was nearly dark. Looking at the dinghy, I knew that if we were forced into it in the open ocean in these conditions our lives would no longer be in our hands. I also knew that if we could see the night through and keep Vento Dea afloat, I could get us to safe waters.
About this time Josie found her mobile phone and discovered it was dry. This was great news because every phone we had on board was loaded up with Navionics charts. We powered up the phone only to find the battery was critically low. Once the app loaded I quickly memorized the charts and our position, figured out a heading and found some reference points and landmarks. We then turned off the phone in the hope we could use it later.
After about two more hours of Josie continuously pumping it was clear that the water level was going slowly down. This was the big battle, and we were winning it. Once I saw that, I shut off the SPOT. I did this for two reasons: I now knew we could limp in on our own, and I have heard of people being forced to abandon their pets when being rescued at sea.
After about six hours of uncertainty, difficult helming and constant pumping, we made it into the lee of the coast. With no charts, GPS or local knowledge, it was far too dangerous to anchor in the darkness of a near moonless night; we had no choice but to wait for first light. For the next four hours we went in circles and reflected on our journey. An ending like this, after almost six months and over 4,000 miles, didn’t seem possible. It certainly didn’t seem fair. When we set out on this journey, I didn’t know if we could have imagined the difficulty and hardship that lay ahead of us, nor could we have understood the incredible joys, triumphs and unfathomable beauty we’d encounter. We’d met the most amazing, beautiful and generous people. We’d received overwhelming support not only from the sailors we’d crossed paths with but also from people around the world we’d never met. The journey had taken on a life of its own, and its imminent death was more than I could bear. For the first time in longer than I can remember, I wept.
As the next day dawned, we made our way toward the anchorage and dropped the hook in calm and beautifully blue waters. Our ordeal at sea was over, but it was not as much as a holy-hell-we-made-it moment as you might think. It was more of an all-I-wanna-do-is-sleep moment. I was too tired to worry about the fact that we were in a remote part of Colombia on a disabled boat and that there was no town or village in sight. Before I even had a chance to find a place to rest, though, the Colombian Coast Guard had pulled up. Our position had been reported by a passing fisherman, and they were following up on our SPOT call. The SPOT office in Texas had alerted the Garda Costa De Colombia, but the only available patrol boat was too small to look for us offshore in the dark.
An energetic and friendly officer from the Garda Costa introduced himself and told us he could speak English. By this he meant that he personally could not speak English, but he had a smart phone with Google Translate. They asked us what we needed, I told them in Spanish (as well as typing it into his phone) that we needed a place to sleep and the ability to make international phone calls. Eventually, it was decided that the Garda Costa would tow us to the nearest village and find us a place to stay. The officers showed genuine concern for our wellbeing and were incredibly helpful.
We found the final resting place for Vento Dea once our boat had been pulled across the bay. It was another do-not-try-this-at-home maneuver as we were towed well beyond hull speed by a skiff with three 250hp engines that seemed to only operate in the full throttle position. We gathered our dinghy and a few of our things and the coastguard took us ashore, where we soon found a place to stay. As soon as we hit the sheets we passed out. We slept a sleep I think few people have ever known. It is only an experience you can have when your body has nothing more to give, and your mind is too tired to dream. It was a peaceful oblivion, and for the next 48 hours we slept like this almost continuously, ignorant of what was to come. We may have been safely ashore, but our bureaucratic nightmare was just beginning...
What I did right:
Immediately took action and stayed active. In an emergency situation everyone needs to be working to not only give you a better chance of survival but to stave off panic.
Researched and studied all possible anchorages on our route before we departed even though we planned no stops.
We always were clipped in when the weather got bad, had one of us been topside when we were struck it would have been the difference between life and death.
We had a SPOT satellite tracker, which allows our position to be tracked via satellite and a distress signal put out. This ended up being our only surviving form of communication.
We had navigational redundancy, with a hand held GPS, chart plotter, paper charts and three phones with Navionics charts. All were destroyed but one. Had we not had backups to our backups we would have had nothing.
We had a grab bag with dry food items, passports, copies of documents, fishing gear and other emergency items along with nine gallons of drinking water ready at all times.
What I did wrong:
We were in too much of a hurry; we were trying to beat hurricane season since we would be traveling through Atlantic hurricane territory after Bonaire. If we had planned stops in Santa Marta, Cabo de la Vela and Bahia Honda we would have been able to make several small hops and wait for tamer weather along this notoriously windy stretch.
We had no hand-held VHF as a backup. All of our wired electronics were fried. This meant our only option for communication was to send a distress signal via the SPOT
Illustration by Tadami Takahashi