Thursday, September 16, 2021

San Andres 1999

So there we were living the idyll in the San Blas islands of Panama, however the purser had been on the satellite phone from Corazon de Jesus, the twin village to Rio Diablo and the news from the bank was not great. These days my wife has all our banking and credit cards and auto pay accounts linked through our bank account. In those distant days there was no now online to tell us our plans were mad so we took off on the first available weather window. Tom on Thundercloud agreed and that encouraged me as he was a long time western Caribbean sailor. However like all idiots I ignored his very sage advice that I have since then never forgotten. In the Caribbean keep north and west of your intended target. That's because  frontal weather comes from the north and east and will push you home. Silly me I laid a rhumb line to San Andres on the lovely southeast breeze and off we went.

We had two nights and a day to get across the western Caribbean, the idea being we would arrive earlier in the day and have plenty of time to find the pass through the reef and then locate the clearing in officials. It would have been brilliant had I followed the sage's advice. He took the southeast breeze and promptly buggered off due north as though aiming for Jamaica. We streaked on a straight line northwest towards the tiny dot of Columbian land off the coast of Nicaragua. San Andres and Providencia have been fought over by Colombia and Nicaragua after the pirates who actually inhabited Providencia Island were kicked out. Providencia in English is known as Old Providence and was a real pirate haunt in the 18th century as it launched raiders right across the path of the bullion convoys traveling from Portobello got Havana where they staged to sail to Spain. I finally learned why Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas is located on New Providence Island. That's because after they were kicked out of Old Providence they fled north and established a base whence they could harass the convoys after they left Havana bound for Cadiz. Key West never was a pirate base sorry to say. On Tom's routing plan it's too far west to catch the gallons leaving Havana.

These are pictures I took with my rapidly failing film camera after we landed in San Andres. That's because the journey there turned into a version of one of Dante's circles of hell and I ad no time for frivolities. In the middle of the night Layne woke me from a deep and dreamless sleep to inform me the wind instrument was being very odd. It sure was: boat speed was rocketing in concert with increasing wind speeds. One thing about the catamaran was that the roof over the cockpit gave protection to the person driving but by the same token judging conditions especially at night was harder to do without instruments. What followed was one of those ghastly fire drills, happily on the broad flat heaving deck of our boat with two hulls, as I put two reefs in the main and rolled up the foresail. Boat speed barely dropped and we roared off, more or less under control towards San Andres, hard on the wind crashing through waves with the wind howling and tossing buckets of cold seawater over the fiberglass canopy above the wheel. Debs was in bed with Layne bouncing like a trampoline, Emma was in her spot on the bench in the cockpit behind me never complaining as we got hosed by cold seawater thrown by the howling winds. After a couple of hours I figured the boat wasn't going to break and we might live through this nightmare. I check our course and naturally there was a cluster of small island across our path, owned by Colombia and occupied by soldiers according to our guide book. Indeed after I wiped salt spray off my eyes I spotted the properly winking light on the horizon putting us on a. safe course. All I had to do now was monitor everything and try to keep us pointing far enough north not to kiss the seven mile long island. As I recall the instruments recorded top speeds of 13 knots but we never went below eight which are bicycle speeds but we were carrying our home with us. Through water with next to no sails aloft. It was exhilarating once I figured I wasn't going to drown.

The navigational problem was that if we missed San Andres in the darkness we would sail into a maze of sandbars, islands, mangroves and uncharted perils of all sorts on the infamous Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. In these winds we would surely crash and once past San Andres there was no way we could sail back. We were plowing at high speed into the bottom of a very painful sack, a lee shore in sailing terminology, and I absolutely had to hit San Andres fair and square. We had a primitive GPS but I spent hours peering through binoculars looking for the lighthouse in the murk. Happily as the photos show all was well. Funnily enough as we sailed into the calm waters under the protective hook of the north shore Thundercloud rolled up and Tom hailed us cheerily. His wandering off to the north gave him an easy downwind sail with never a drop of salt water in the boat; I was a drowned rat. We arrived at the same time. Confirmation I was an idiot. 

In 1999 Colombia was a mess rife, with drug traffickers, FARC guerrillas and hijacking and kidnapping were rife along the highways. San Andres was completely safe and peaceful, because we were told, the cartels declared it a safe zone for, of all things, their vacations. They split the calendar up between their factions and life here went on tranquilly like any other place in the Caribbean. Luckily for us it turned out, as we were stuck here for a couple of weeks, hemmed in by the cold front that frothed up the sea outside the reef. It was an expensive stop as we replaced camera and laptop here through a Dutch guy who married a local and ran an electronics shop in town, a resource for all passing sailors. He ordered stuff from Bogota and his electronics flew in with the vacationing Colombian cartels and their families. The airport was massive and modern to make the drug lords' flights as smooth as possible, I guess. We stayed at anchor in the harbor next to a little uninhabited island that gave me a place to walk the dogs close by on rainy days and there were many of those. As you can see Emma and Debs took every place they went in their stride. As long as they were off leash they presented no threat and the locals ignored them. A leashed dog meant danger (why else would you hang on to it?) and cleared the sidewalks. They never came to any harm in defiance of all the Facebook worry warts you can read about these days. I think they like us, had the time of their lives. I expect Rusty will too.

It rained, God it rained. It was more of the rainy season we had endured in Costa Rica and Panama. Rainy days in Key West remind me of these tropical downpours we endured while sailing. You can't stop living because of rain so we went ashore, walked the dogs into a coma then left them aboard and took tours while they slept. By he time we got back I had to drive them back to the docks for anther walk around town. I must have walked miles every day. In the morning I walked the main sea trail on the eastern shore, a broad sidewalk resembling Smathers Beach except they had little coffee carts which sold hot sweet mild Colombian coffee and fried pastries, savory with meat and sweet with cheese and guava. Luckily I was walking so much and getting exercise because dollars bought me many pastries. Best dog walks ever! Colombians in our experience save their strong dark beans for foreigners and seem to prefer a light mild coffee for themselves. This suited me just fine but other cruisers were disappointed they couldn't get rot gut black coffee in Colombia.

We had no Internet in those days of dial up e-mail and lost connections but we had books and DVDs and we organized a bus tour with an English speaking guide who led us around the island which is seven miles long north to south, and a coupe of miles wide with a hilly spine down the middle separating the east from the west coast. There was a coast road all the way round and as we drove up the east side I looked out at the water where I had sailed in a few days earlier. I remembered the relief of landing my family in exactly the right spot. I could see school buses chugging up the coast road past brightly colored houses and churches surrounded by bright flowers and coconut palms. I was filled with relief. In Key West when I looked at Smathers Beach from the water I remembered my landfall in San Andres after that stormy night. There is a saying among mortal sailors "I'd rather be in here wishing I were out there, than out there wishing I were in here." 

We played tourists, we ate Colombian food, much like other Central American countries where three dollars bought you rice, vegetables meat and fish and in Colombia they have a tradition of soup to start with, which was unexpected and much enjoyed. Its not worth cooking Layne the chef grumbled as we sat on the sidewalk protected by the dogs sipping soup. We also went to the movies in a glorious old single screen theater. many theaters at least in those days all across Central America showed American films in English with Spanish subtitles. We got scared rigid at a showing of Sixth Sense, the supernatural movie that came at us out of nowhere. We had never heard of it or had any expectation of the plot and we spent the darkness clutching each other like a row of schoolchildren, not seasoned sailors. I see dead people, that unforgettable line struck us rather harder than the joke line it became later. I think there is something very naive and wholesome in an old fashioned way about traveling by boat.  You revert whether you realize it or not to a simpler time. Perhaps you don't any more but we did. We were alone in our circle of strangers and we helped each other out without thinking and without expectations. To me it was a tranquil time and the movie reminded us of the complexities and social demands of life back home.

San Andres itself was a place out of time. Colombians could only live there by special permission from the government. I guess everyone would have liked to move there to escape the civil war but they couldn't. You'd think maybe that wouldn't be a bad rule for the Keys! People who did live there were trapped on a tiny island with limited facilities and we who were visiting soon got bored by the limitations of life.

Its a fact that every time we put down an anchor and settled into a life "on the hook" we tended to be glad to have arrived. Yet always after a few days or several days or many days a switch clicked in our brains and suddenly we were ready to go. If we left too soon we regretted not staying, but if, after that switched clicked we stayed we got progressively more antsy and frustrated. The weather hemmed us in and soon coffee and pastries for breakfast lost their appeal. The streets started to look the same with duty free watches and stands filled with fruit that so enchanted us at first. The dogs did fine, meeting the locals and living such full lives they filled the boat with the sound of snoring at night.

Finally the winds let up a bit, the skies remained leaden and gray but it was time to go. Tom got this picture of me ready to drive outside the reef and head north along what was actually the most dangerous stretch of our journey though we had no idea at the time. I was anxious to thread the Mosquito Coast, a mysterious land of literature rarely visited by cruising sailors. 

Miki G, a Gemini catamaran model 105M, 34 feet long, 14 feet wide with an 18 inch draught with a five foot centerboard in each hull. Displacing 7500 pounds we always sailed on the waterline and the boat was a joy to sail. Too lightweight they told us in California, but we found the boat tough as nails with an even worse storm between Cuba and Key West proving that point to us. The lilac sail covers were Layne's idea in case you didn't guess already.