Colon to CartagenaOn October 28th I finally set sail. Windsong looked as good as she did 26 years ago when I first saw her. It was a fairly windless day apart from one thunder squall that followed me into Portobello. My new autopilot was acting up. It stopped steering twice and displayed the error code “drive stopped”. Little did I know how much trouble this was going to create.

Portobello

Portobello

Portobello is an interested place. Today it is a run down little town partially built within the ruins of an ancient fort. But once, it was the hub of trade between Spain and her colonies in South and Central America. The bay was discovered and named by Christopher Columbus in 1502. In 1570, Sir Francis Drake used the bay as a base of operations for harrying Spanish trade. He died of dysentery in 1596 and was buried at sea outside the port, near the island that today bears his name. With Drake out of the way, Francisco Valverde y Mercado founded the town the very next year and the Camino Real was built connecting it to Panama City. As the riches plundered from the natives of South America began to flow, the customs house became so full of gold that silver was piled outside on the streets unguarded.

The Customs House. It was so full of gold that the silver was piled in the streets.

The Customs House. It was so full of gold that the silver was piled in the streets.

Buccaneers were quickly drawn to all of this booty. Privateer William Parker attacked in 1601 highlighting the need for a serious set of defences. When Henry Morgan arrived in 1668, the mouth of the bay was guarded on the north side by Castillo San Filipe de Sotomayor also known as Todo-Fierro, the Iron Castle. The south sentry was Castillo Santiago de la Gloria. Fuerte Farnese controlled the landward approach over the Camino Real, and Fuerte San Jeronimo was under construction to protect the town itself from any ships that succeeded in entering the bay. Morgan landed his force of 500 men four days away to the west and proceeded along the shoreline in canoes. To his glee he discovered that the town was defended by a garrison of only 140 men, few of whom could operate the cannons which had already fallen into disrepair. Morgan quickly took the town and held it for weeks, looting all he could before ransoming the town back to the Governor of Panama, Don Agustín de Bracamonte for 350,000 pesos. In all, it was the most profitable raid of Morgan’s career, even topping his famous sack of Panama City.

Henry Morgan

Henry Morgan

Click here or more details on Henry Morgan’s sack of Portobello.

Edward Vernon showed up in 1739 bragging that he could capture Portobello with only six ships. Despite the completion of San Jeronimo and a full compliment of 700 Spanish infantry, Vernon succeeded and lost only three men. He was far less gentle than Morgan and demolished all of the fortifications before he left.

Edward Vernon

Edward Vernon

Click here for more details of Vernon’s Battle of Portobello.

This necessitated a complete redesign and rebuilding of Portobello’s defences in the 1760’s resulting in what we see today. The rubble of Castillo San Filipe was used to build the three tiered Fuerte San Fernando halfway up the bay on the north shore. Nothing remains of San Filipe as the remainder of the stone was hauled away to build the breakwater at Colon. A new Santiago Battery was built just west of the original castle featuring a small fort at the top the hill guarding the location Morgan’s snipers used to fire into old castle. Fuerte San Jeronimo was rebuilt and extended, while Fuerte Farnese was abandoned to the jungle. Farnese had been of such little use that Vernon did not even include it on his drawings of the harbour. The new fortifications were never tested in battle because the Spanish changed their trade routes.

Click here to see more pictures of Portobello and her Fortifications.

Click here to see more pictures of Portobello and her Fortifications.

I had explored all of these forts back in July 2010. Fuerte Farnese was the biggest adventure. To get to it, I had to wander into a part of town not generally frequented by tourists. I was greeted by a man who claimed to be a tour guide and told me I was lucky to run into him, because otherwise the local boys might have mugged me. I’m not sure I believed that, but he certainly earned his $5 fee when he led me wading through the water into the fort. I never would have found the shallow route into the ruins! The only part I missed on my previous visit was the hilltop fort of the Santiago Battery. At that time the only way up there was through chest deep grass. This year I was delighted to find a new path leading up the hill. It proved to be pretty slippery and treacherous. When I reached the fort, I found that three of the four logs creating the bridge across the moat had rotted away. The remaining one looked really unlikely to hold me so I was forced to climb down into the moat and up the fortress wall to gain entry. I neglected to bring a camera. However it looked almost exactly like the hill top fort of Fuerte San Fernando on the other side of the bay.

Ruins of Fuerte Farnese

Ruins of Fuerte Farnese

From Portobello, it was a 67 mile run to the Lemmon Cays in the San Blas Islands. The autopilot kept giving me drive issues so I swapped out the old drive unit for the new one. I hadn’t bothered during my installation since they were the same unit. I stayed in the Lemmons for a couple of days waiting for some weather to move through, then sailed on to the Holandes Cays, which would be my staging point for my 200 mile crossing to Cartagena.

I cleaned the bottom to make my passage a little faster and settled in to get a good night’s sleep. The morning dawned with a rain squall and on the Panama Connection Radio net they read me the forecast for the coast of Colombia east of Cartagena. That forecast was pretty unpleasant, however the forecast for the waters I was sailing across was very calm. I saw another boat heading out and hailed them. They were in agreement and were heading across as well. I weighed anchor and ventured out.

The passage was actually very boring. There was so little wind that I rarely had a sail up. I had to dodge a few squalls especially during the night. The autopilot kept things interesting by continuing with its “drive stopped” error. It would start beeping and stop steering. The beeping was barely audible over the engine especially while I was below decks trying to sleep. It is hard enough to sleep on a rolling boat in the open ocean with no one on watch. My only way of detecting the autopilot failures was to notice a change in the motion of the boat as it turned and started to ride differently through the waves. Generally, the autopilot reset quickly once I got the boat back on course. Fortunately, with the lack of wind I didn’t have to worry about the damage full sails would have done if the autopilot started making giant circles. Still, it made sleep pretty much impossible. When I finally dropped anchor off of Club Nautico after 36 hours of continuous sailing, I was so exhausted that I was dizzy.

Cartagena

Cartagena

Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia and quickly became a prosperous city which like Portobello was most attractive to corsairs. Jean-Francois Roberval attacked in 1563, followed by Martin Cote, and John Hawkins. When Francis Drake attacked in 1586 he sailed right through an undefended Bocagrande only to be stopped by a boom of floating barrels across Boqueron channel, the entrance to the inner bay. Cannon fire from the El Boqueron tower turned him back. Instead he landed his men on the beach and laid siege to the walled city directly. He succeeded in taking the city and holding it for two months before ransoming it back to the Spanish for 250,000 pesos.

Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake

Click here for more information about Drake’s Battle of Cartagena.

The Spanish spent the next 200 years fortifying the city to ensure that it would never be taken again. A submerged breakwater was built across Bocagrande to tear out the bottoms of any ships that tried to cross it. The twin forts of Santa Cruz de Castillogrande and San Juan de Manzanillo set up a crossfire deeper into the bay to stop any small boats that managed to cross the breakwater. Fuerte San Luis de Bocachica guarded Bocachica, the only remaining deepwater entrance to the harbour. (This was the entrance I used, not wanting to try to find the gap in the submerged breakwater in my exhausted state.) The Boqueron tower was replaced by Fuerte San Sebastian del Pastelillo, the fort Windsong anchored in front of. The city itself was surrounded by 11km of stone walls. The only hole in the defence was a high hill just inland of the city which would give attackers a perfect vantage point to fire into the city. The original plan was to level it, but instead it was fortified becoming the incredible Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest structure that the Spanish built in the Americas.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

After his success in Portobello, Vernon set his sites on Cartagena. He arrived in 1741 with almost 200 ships and 30,000 men. Vernon’s plan was simple, bomb the hell out of Fuerte San Luis to gain access to the harbour, then take Castillo San Felipe and use it to blast the city into submission. The destruction of San Luis went off with barely a hitch, and you will remember that Vernon was a bit of a braggart. He had bragged that he could take Portobello with only six ships, which he did, although his ships were so large that he likely had twice the number of men Morgan had. Now he went one step further. Assuming that San Felipe and the city would fall as easily as San Luis, he dispatched a ship home to announce his victory in the battle that had scarcely begun. He also sent orders for eleven huge, serving plate sized medals be struck commemorating his triumph. Vernon was more than a little premature. Castillo San Felipe proved an impossible nut to crack. In the end Vernon withdrew having lost 11,000 men and 37 ships, while fighting a force a tenth his size. While his victory medals were quickly pulled from circulation, the Spaniards managed to get a hold of at least four of them. Two are housed at the Naval Museum of Madrid, while two more stand at the feet of the statue of Admiral Blas de Lezo that still guards his Castillo that Vernon could not defeat.

Admiral Blas de Lezo

Admiral Blas de Lezo

Click here for more details of Vernon’s Battle of Cartagena.

One of Vernon's Premature Victory Medals

One of Vernon’s Premature Victory Medals

After Vernon’s attack, the demolished Fuerte San Luis was replaced by the twin forts of San Fernando and San Jose de Bocachica. Eventually, Fuerte Santa Cruz de Castillogrande was torn down and portions of the city wall were levelled to improve traffic flow and facilitate the growth of the city and leaving us with what we see today.

Fuerte San Sebastian del Pastelillo

Fuerte San Sebastian del Pastelillo

Things happen slowly in Cartagena, and nearly every Monday is a holiday. When I expressed this to a local, he replied, “Cartagena is a very happy town!” It took me a week to clear through customs. I arrived on a Saturday, Monday was a holiday, and the final inspector took sick and couldn’t come to inspect the boat. When she finally did arrive her inspection consisted of sending me back out to the boat to take a picture of it with my cell phone, then looking at the picture.

This Photograph was my Customs Inspection.

This Photograph was my Customs Inspection.

My primary objective in Cartagena was to get an arch built to support my solar panels and windmill. These were currently held up by something I had cobbled together from stainless tubing and fittings. They wobbled everywhere, and on my first crossing to Cartagena a bolt let go releasing all of the fore and aft support on the starboard side. Lucky for me, I was pretty much looking at it at the time and was able to make a quick repair. If that had happen during the night, it might have torn a hole in the back of the boat while destroying both the windmill and solar panels as they crashed into the sea. Getting an arch made also went very slowly. I started by calling every stainless worker in my somewhat out of date guide to Cartagena. None of the numbers worked. Eventually, I took a cab down to the Todomar boat yard where I had stored Windsong years before. They took my information and said they would call me to arrange for a man to come and take measurements.

Meanwhile, I contacted Alicja, a friend I met in Korea. She was teaching at an International School in Baranquilla, the next city to the east. We arranged for her and her friend Pam to join me for a weekend cruise to the Islas de la Rosario. We motored in near calm out through the gap in the submerged breakwater across the Bocagrande and off to the sleepy little island where we snorkelled the reef and sampled some local food.

Alicja's Photo of La Rosarios.

Alicja’s Photo of La Rosarios.

A week had passed with no word from Todomar, so I got in another cab and went back there. This time they did send their welder out to my boat. He made his measurements and promised to contact me with a quote. While waiting, I got out ye olde 1954 Singer sewing machine and replaced the windows in the dodger. Once that was done, I set to work re-upholstering the main salon. Cartagena has an entire fabric district. Each store is small and has a very limited inventory so I had to buy my fabric, thread, etc. from various places. My Spanish is terrible, and this required a lot of technical vocabulary that I didn’t have a chance of knowing. I used my iPhone as my “Universal Translator” until some little old lady figured out what it was that I wanted and guided me to the store that had it. I had to repeat this process several times imposing on the little old ladies who frequented the fabric district.

New Uphostery

New Uphostery

I also consulted with Sven, the German electronics genius, about my autopilot. In Canada, if your electronics break, you throw them overboard and buy new ones. Sven runs an electronics laboratory in Cartagena where he actually fixes them! I crawled through the piles of old electronics to find Sven at the back of his shop. He examined the autopilot and found nothing wrong with it but recommended I run new power supply cables directly from the instrument switch to the autopilot. This seemed to solve the problem.

Another week passed with no estimate for my arch. I was missing my mountain biking days in Korea and decided to rent a bike for a Sunday ride. It turned out that the bike rental lady’s brother Heiro Castro was a marine welder. She sent him to my boat the very next day and he gave me an estimate on the spot. It was very reasonable, so we agreed and I gave him a down payment. The arch would be ready for installation in ten days. He introduced me to his friend Obama who worked at Club Nautico and could give me a motorcycle ride to his shop at any time to check on the progress of the work. I was really looking forward to being able to say that Obama gave me ride to Castro’s. But, Obama proved very difficult to find, so I had to settle for taxis.

My Swanky Rental Bike

My Swanky Rental Bike

Later that week, Todomar finally sent me their quote: four times what I had agreed to pay Heiro! Heiro may have been cheap, but he was no speed daemon either. A week later, the metal had only just arrived. The welding was done by the end of the second week, but installation could not be done until Tuesday because Monday, of course, was a holiday. Tuesday, it turned out, was only the day we went to negotiate a place at Marina Manzanillo to do the installation. That wouldn’t happen until Thursday.

Alicja's Photo of Bandida Chilling Outside a Porthole.

Alicja’s Photo of Bandida Chilling Outside a Porthole.

The harbour in Cartagena has the fastest growing barnacles I have ever seen. The nutrient (read sewage) rich waters cause a good 5mm (3/16″) layer of barnacles to grow each week. By now Windsong had a layer of barnacles 20mm (3/4″) thick. I was worried that they would prevent her folding prop from opening, so I was careful to put her in gear to check for propeller wash before weighing anchor. Once the anchor was weighed I found that I had a top speed of just over one knot. The anchorage off Club Nautico is extremely crowded, so all I could do was proceed through the anchorage at one knot until I was in fairly open water. Then I went over the side with a mask, snorkel, and scraper. The prop was opening alright but the barnacles were so thick that it no longer had a shape that could bite into the water. I hacked away at the razor sharp barnacles until my hands were reduced to hamburger and I could see most of the metal. Now I could do three knots compared to my usual motoring speed of six.

Marina Mazanillo had no room for me, so Heiro had arranged for us to use their haul out slip right next to the fuel dock. When I arrived a gasoline truck was in the process of refilling the marina’s gas storage tank. The operator was trying to expedite the process by revving the truck’s engine to maximum RPMs. With the help of one of Heiro’s men I set a record for removing the solar panels and windmill as my teeth rattled to the sound of the truck’s diesel and I wretched on the gas fumes. Apparently, I didn’t make a spark because we were not blown to kingdom come. The truck left and the arch arrived, with feet on it. Now I’m no marine welder, but I’ve spent a lot of time around marinas and I have seen many arches under construction. They never had any feet. The reason seemed perfectly obvious. The deck of a boat curves downward toward the edges so that water will drain off. That means the exact angle of the deck where the arch meets the boat cannot be predicted. The feet must be welded in place on the boat.

Click here for more pictures of Cartagena

Click here for more pictures of Cartagena

Predictably, the arch wouldn’t fit. Also the stern pulpit was in the way. While the guys broke for lunch I removed the stern pulpit. After lunch they cut the feet off, fitted the arch in place and marked the cuts that they would have to make to install them on the correct angle. Then it started to rain. When the rain stopped we had to move Windsong out of the haul out slip so they could haul a boat. Once we got her back in place, they began tack welding the feet on and promptly set the deck to smoldering. Gratefully, they noticed immediately and stopped before it became a full fledged fire. With the feet in place Heiro’s men took the arch back ashore and quickly crashed it into the hoist bending the feet. I was starting to wonder if I had hired Laurel, Hardy, Abbott, Costello, and the Three Stooges to build my arch! We had to move Windsong again and wait for four boats to be hauled before they could put the arch back on and hammer the feet back to the correct angle. Once the arch was brought ashore for the final welding of the feet, the workday was over. They had also neglected to weld on plates for attaching the solar panels and the pole for the windmill was inadequately reinforced. They would have to bring it back to the shop for a day to complete the modifications before they could finish the installation.

The marina operator was kind enough to let me sleep there for the night. After dinner a cute little Jack Russel Terrier appeared on my deck. I stuck my head out the main hatch to say hello and the damn thing lunged at me. It hit the deck and slammed the hatch shut, but not without breaking my toe that had gripped my non-skid steps a little too well. The dog’s owner showed up and got him off my boat while I iced my toe.

Two days later I limped back to Marina Manzanillo. One of the plates for the solar panels was in the wrong place and had to be cut off and re-welded. Other than that, the final installation went smoothly. It took me a couple more days to install the antennas and complete the wiring. That’s when I discovered one final error. They forgot to drill holes in the feet for the wiring on the port side. I could not crawl into a locker and drill upwards through 6mm (1/4″) of stainless steel in 40 C (104 F) heat, so I simply strapped the wires to the outside for now.

The Arch Completed at Last!

The Arch Completed at Last!

The other task was removing the barnacles. I bought a pair of stout gloves and breathed an entire tank of air scaping away in the repulsive harbour water. Sheets of barnacles peeled away and rained down all over me while my stiff new BC chafed my shoulders raw. In the shower afterwards, I found barnacles in every part of my bathing suit and every part of my anatomy. The wounds on my shoulders were soon infected from the high bacteria count of the water.

Sailing out the Bocagrande. (Pam's photo)

Sailing out the Bocagrande. (Pam’s photo)

On December 21, I finally set sail for Aruba. My first stop would be Puerto Velero, just this side of Baranquilla. From there to Santa Marta was a short hop, then there would be two overnight runs, one to Puerto Bolivar, and a second to Aruba itself. It was dead calm as I motored out of the harbour and pointed Windsong’s bow into the trades. Things slowly built as I headed north and by lunch time I was lurching and pounding into 3m (10 foot) seas and 20 knot winds. Windsong shuddered brutally and spray covered the entire boat. After all that time refitting, I had seen every bit of structural damage this sort of thing had done in the past. And, this wasn’t something I would have to tolerate for a few hours. I had days of this ahead of me. The winter trades had arrived, and there was no way I could possibly fight against them. I turned tail and headed back to Cartagena. It was a glorious sail going with the trades, but I couldn’t possibly enjoy it. The autopilot began the same error routine and now there was plenty of wind to do damage if it went off course. That, and my plans for sailing along the South American coast to Trinidad were shattered.Comments