Gringo Escapade Part Quattro: Columbia

by Larry Caillouet

After spending three weeks in the States, we returned to Santo Domingo where Escapade was waiting to take us to Colombia and beyond, but first there were some challenges. Like getting out of the airport. We were carrying with us a new Mastervolt battery charger/inverter and this caught the attention of an ever diligent customs inspector. “Where is your receipt for this? Show me that you have paid the required import duties.” Calmly I explained that this is for a boat in transit, not to be sold here in Dominican Republic. Not good enough. “Boat in transit” seemed to carry no weight at all. “I must see the receipt. This item cannot leave the airport until I see the receipt.” The fact that he did not speak English and I can barely speak Spanish did not help, but fortunately a fellow-sufferer who had been snagged by Customs was bilingual and served as translator. Diana asked our translator, who seemed to be familiar with the customs operation, if we needed to pay a bribe to get through. “It’s too late for that now,” he explained. “Too many people involved.” I changed tactics and explained that there is no receipt because this item is a replacement under warranty from a purchase in the United States a year ago. “Then I must see the paperwork.” At this point they loaded my charger onto a cart and we went down a long unmarked hallway to a concrete room in the bowels of the airport. More customs officials got involved. I pulled my laptop out of my backpack and showed them the pdf file where Schafer & Brown Electrical in Puerto Rico billed me for inspecting the old charger and shipping it back to the factory in Wisconsin for repair or replacement. This was the proof they needed, but still not good enough to let me go. “I must have a document for my file.” “OK, I can email you a copy.” That would have worked if the airport’s WiFi network had been sufficient to let me log on. I guess WiFi doesn’t work well in concrete bunkers. So with Customs retaining my equipment I set out on a quest for usable WiFi. I never found it, but my telephone worked, so I called Schafer & Brown and got them to send the invoice pdf directly to the Customs official who had given me his card. This must have been the magic because soon my charger was released to my custody. I found Diana and our driver in the terminal and only two and a half hours after arriving at the airport we were on our way to the boat.

When we arrived at the boat our friends from Toronto, Greg and Elaine, had already arrived and were cleaning out the food that had rotted in the refrigerator when the power went off. The joys of boating! A more interesting task was replacing the genoa halyard that had partially snapped during the regatta in Samana. I had brought a new halyard with me (which the customs officials had overlooked), so we were eager to get started. I loaded the bosun’s chair with the tools I would need and Greg hoisted me to the top of the mast. First I cut the thimble end off the old halyard. image1Then with a curved needle I sewed the bitter end of the new halyard to the cut end of the old halyard. When this was done, Greg started pulling the old halyard down through the mast. I was absolutely elated when I saw the new halyard go over the turning block at the masthead and easily follow the old halyard down through the mast. I thought the job was over, but when the thimble end of the new halyard reached the top of the mast, my elation turned to frustration. I had led the halyard through a steel tool ring on the bosun’s chair to carry it up the mast with me and that ring was too small to allow the thimble end of the halyard to pass through. “We will have to pull the new halyard back out and do it over,” Greg said. “No way,” I said. “Put the angle grinder in a bag and send it up to me.” So I cut the steel ring off the bosun’s chair, attached the halyard to the top of the genoa furler, and the celebration began. 

We found an electrician to install the charger/inverter, so we were ready for the final step before departing: getting a despacho. A what? A despacho is a permission document required in Dominican Republic to move from one harbor to another, even within the country. So Elaine, who is fluent in Spanish, went with me to the Armada, which is the office of the DR Coast Guard. The Armada was about 2 kilometers away from Marina Zar Par, so we hired a moto to take us there. In DR there are many men with motorbikes who function as an informal taxi system. We chose one with a motorcycle large enough to carry both of us, and off the three of us went. Our moto waited patiently while the Coast Guard meticulously filled out the papers by hand, and then we rode back to Marina Zar Par.

Phase 2 was immigration, and the immigration office was conveniently located at Zar Par. Phase 3 was boat inspection, so we waited at the boat for the Coast Guard to arrive. The same men who filled out the papers plus one more man arrived and came aboard the boat. They didn’t speak English so we didn’t know what they were inspecting for. They raised a few seat cushions and looked at a few items, but seemed to have no plan of inspection, and were in no hurry to finish anything. Then it occurred to me that they were on what Garth Brooks and George Jones sang about in a song called “B, double E, double R, U, N.” Beer Run! These guys were on a beer run! We had bought a carton of Presidente, the national beer of Dominican Republic, for such an occasion as this.image2 When I pulled a cold one out of the refrigerator, their faces lit up. “These Gringos are slow,” they thought, “but they finally caught on.” Soon the beers were finished, the papers were finished, and we were ready to depart.

We set out for Isla Beata at the southernmost tip of Dominican Republic, about 125 miles away. The winds were fairly light, and we were feeling lazy, and it was already late in the afternoon, so we debated about whether it was worth the trouble to put up the spinnaker. Eventually the sailing instinct took over and we dragged the spinnaker out on deck, installed the necessary blocks on the toe rails, ran the tack line and spinnaker sheets, and hoisted the spinnaker. 1640 square feet of red, white, and blue glory unfolded in front of us.image3 We doubled our speed and doubled our pleasure. As a general rule, we don’t fly the spinnaker at night, but as a general rule we don’t have perfect conditions and a hundred miles to go, so we left it up through most of the night. Sometime before morning we turned on the deck lights and snuffed the spinnaker when we needed to change course for Beata.

Isla Beata is an uninhabited island visited only by lobster fishermen, but otherwise we had the island to ourselves. We went ashore, walked on the beach, gathered a few shells, chased a giant iguana, snorkeled some, and exhausted the full range of activities available to us. We had intended to spend the night here, get some rest, and then set sail in the morning, but the moon was nearly full, seas were calm, and we were eager to get started on the 500 miles between us and Cartagena.

image5At 8 pm we weighed anchor and put up the full cutter rig–mainsail, genoa, and staysail. In the lee of the island, winds were quite light, but when we got beyond it, winds picked up to 15-17 knots and Escapade loved it! Soon we were doing 8+ knots, 9+ sometimes, and once hit 10 knots. Not bad for the ancient mariner–the boat, I mean. The crossing to Cartagena was a rip roaring blast! The boat heeled to starboard 10-15 degrees and galloped along with a gentle pitching motion. The sea was our private ocean without another boat in sight, not even on the AIS. The full moon was a celestial floodlight painting the sea silver in front of us.

Morning light came and the ocean was still ours. Nightfall brought us more of the glorious moonlight sailing until we got a blast of another kind. The seas had picked up with waves 6-10 feet and the wind became gusty. Just as I was getting up for my 3 am watch, the boat rounded up sharply burying the starboard rail in the water. A blast of water shot through the open port in the aft cabin where Diana and I were sleeping and soaked the bed and us like a firehose. It was only a moment, but what a moment! Not only were we and the bedding drenched, but the lurching of the boat threw me across the cabin against the starboard hanging locker. I stopped my fall with my head and raised a big knot on my forehead that was not gone until a week later. The cut over my left eye looked like the result of a stiff left jab. “I could have been a contendah,” I thought.

image6Even with a slow start we reached the midpoint of the crossing to Cartagena in 37 hours. With no land to impede the winds, we maintained our speed the rest of the way and finished the Cartagena 500 in 66 hours, an average speed of 7.57 knots entirely on sail. It was exciting to see the ocean crossing potential of Escapade, but that wasn’t the only excitement of the passage. Still 200 miles out of Cartagena I discovered that one of the steel cables suspending the dinghy on the davits at the boat’s stern had broken and the dinghy was dangling from only the port side davit and a webbing strap under the starboard side. While Diana stayed at the wheel, Greg and Elaine and I sprang into action. We used the old genoa halyard that I had removed a few days earlier to create a sling around the dinghy. It wasn’t pretty with all sorts of homemade knots and the dinghy still hanging at an angle, but at least the dinghy was secure and we could relax and enjoy the crossing.

I had been warned by some cruisers I met in Santo Domingo about the garbage and junk that flows out of the Magdalena River that empties into the Caribbean Sea about 60 miles northeast of Cartagena. One man recommended that we dock in Santa Marta, which is east of the Magdalena, and take a bus to Cartagena. We were prepared for a real mess but we encountered much less than we expected. It seemed to be mostly gardening scraps from machete workers and tree branches of different sizes. We crossed the Magdalena outflow during daylight, so it was easy to avoid the flotsam.

image7We arrived at Cartagena in the early afternoon and decided to use the Boca Grande entrance to the harbor. Although Boca Grande means “big mouth,” this is an ironically narrow mouth. Cartagena was the most important Spanish port in Spain’s “God, Gold, and Glory” heyday, so to fend off their British rivals, pirates, and various other marauders the Spanish built a low stone wall across the mouth of the bay leaving only a small opening for boats to pass through. The wall was below the surface of the sea, so it would be easy for an uninformed vessel to shipwreck into the wall while the crew admired the fine bay. The opening is marked today with a red buoy on one side and a green one on the other side, so after questioning ashore whether the markers were accurate and reliable, we ventured through the Big Mouth into Bahia de Cartagena.

image9Cartagena is built on a combination of islands and mainland bridged together around a bay. Our marina, Club de Pesca, was located inside the walled fort San Sebastian del Pastelillo on Manga island. This happened to be a stop on the route of the Hop-on Hop-off city sightseeing bus, so we bought a ticket and hopped on. It took 90 minutes to complete the tour of the city which gave us a great overview of places to return to. Much of Cartagena is new and modern with high rise apartments, condos, and office buildings dominating the skyline, but it is the historic Old Town that draws tourists to Cartagena. We were told that Gethsemane, a neighborhood inside the walled city, was once the most dangerous neighborhood in Cartagena when the drug wars were raging, but now is considered a chic and desirable location. Bars like the Havana Tavern are famous for their night life.

image8We began with a tour of the Cathedral of San Pedro Claver. This 16th century priest is revered for his ministry to the slaves who were brought to Cartagena from Africa. This church’s tradition of caring for the oppressed continues with a large display of banner photos of women who have suffered aggression in Colombia. These photos hang from the ceiling and fill the cathedral’s airspace.

image10After the tour of the church we walked through the Plaza de Simon Bolivar where vendors were selling the usual tourist items and specialties such as maracas and boxes of cigars which claimed to be Cuban, but the most interesting vendors were the women wearing colorful traditional dresses. They were carrying large bowls of fruit on their heads and were not selling the fruit but selling the right to take their photos.image11.jpeg Metal sculptures of children playing were located throughout the plaza.

image12Days were very hot in Cartagena, so we toured the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas early the next morning. San Felipe is the largest fortress built in the Americas by the Spanish Empire. image13It stands on a high hill overlooking the bay and the city below. Its large guns could pound enemy ships at sea and its high walls were a formidable barrier to land assaults. In addition to its sheer size and height, the fortress was built with several fall-back positions and a series of underground tunnels that were rigged with explosives that could be detonated as the enemy advanced. The audio tour was rather detailed and by the time we finished the tour, the day was getting hot, hot, hot. We went back to the boat to rest and cool off.

image14By 4 pm the day had cooled, or maybe it was just us, so we took a taxi to the Torre Del Reloj, the Clock Tower that is the entrance to the walled Old Town. By the way, pirates are still active in Cartagena; they are called taxis now. We had a guided walking tour which was mostly in Spanish but with brief summaries in English. image15.jpegIt began with a tour of the Candy Street where shop after shop sold all sorts of specialty candies—nothing that you could buy in an American grocery store. We saw several important churches including the Cathedral that had been visited by Pope John Paul II and more recently by Pope Francis. We also saw the Palace of the Inquisition, but the tour wasn’t entirely spiritual. We toured the Gold Museum which had a lot of items made of gold—behind glass and well-guarded. We also toured the Emerald Museum which was informative but mainly a vehicle to sell Colombian emeralds. After the tour we found a gelato shop that we couldn’t resist.

image16We ended this day’s touring with dinner at Cande’, a restaurant recommended to us as very authentically Colombian. It was upscale with great food and fine presentation, but the most memorable part of the evening was two dancers who came out into the restaurant three times in different costumes and performed classic Colombian dances. In one of the dances the woman came to various men who were dining in the restaurant and with a sultry look on her face put a fake sword down inside the front of the men’s shirts. Somehow I escaped getting my heart cut out.

The next day while we were waiting for the Hop-on bus, it began to rain. It hadn’t rained in Cartagena yet in 2018 and this rain made up for it with a vengeance. The streets were soon ankle deep in water and Diana and I decided to go back to the boat to wait out the rain. It’s a good thing we did because our cabin was being flooded once again, not by the ocean but by the sky. One port was closed but not dogged down and water was pouring through it. Drying our cabin seems to have become a routine for us, so we got busy with it. When the rain finally ended in the afternoon we again ventured out.image17 We had dinner at a fun little diner called “Say Cheese.” The menu was dominated by cheese dishes including the absolutely best grilled cheese sandwich that I’ve ever tasted. What can you do with a grilled cheese sandwich? You have to go there to find out. The young people working behind the counter seemed to be having as much fun as those of us who were eating. When I raised my camera to them and said “Say Cheese,” they didn’t miss a beat.

The treasures of Cartagena are many, but the best treasures we found were its people. They were all friendly, happy, and helpful. The dock hands not only helped us to dock the boat, but repaired the broken cable on our dinghy davit. The people in the marina office spoke little English but patiently worked with us and our little Spanish to fill out the contract and tell us about amenities. The people in the shops were friendly but not pushy. Passersby were quick to help when we looked confused or lost. The tour guides and bus drivers were pleasant and patient with us. The young man at the fuel dock played Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” for me on his Bluetooth speaker after I played a Colombian song for him on my cockpit speakers. In spite of our language barriers and our age difference, we talked like old friends.

Cartagena is a city that is proud of its heritage, excited about its daily life and opportunities, and confidant of its future. It would have been easy to spend a week or more in Cartagena, but it was time to move on to the next escapade. We spent almost the entire next day getting the boat ready to depart. This included not only the physical preparation of the boat but also the paperwork. We had hired an agent named Jose to take our passports and boat registration papers to all the local authorities to have the proper despacho for arriving and leaving, so we needed a final meeting with him to complete the process. This cost 450,000 Colombian pesos ($160 USD) but I can’t imagine having to do all the legwork myself. image18Night was falling as we motored out of Bahia de Cartagena through the Big Mouth. We were treated to a lovely evening silhouette of this charming city. Adios, Cartagena!

~Larry

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