The Caribbean Sea is notorious for strong trade winds and steep seas. The trade winds peak from January to March and gradually dissipate from March onwards. We watched weather patterns in the Caribbean for two weeks before leaving and left Port Antonio as a strong system dissipated on March 20th.
The first thirty miles of the passage took us against the wind and current along the north eastern coast of Jamaica. We motor sailed into the wind and current and then found more favorable conditions as we turned south towards Panama. As night fell the first night, we found ourselves becalmed with strong thunderstorms forming over Jamaica, so we motored again during the night to get a safe distance away from them.
Around midnight, we turned off the engine again, and enjoyed a spectacular lightning show over the island of Jamaica from a safe distance. Becalmed again, a north setting current pushed us eight miles northeast until the wind finally rose enough at dawn. At dawn we raised our full sails and picked up speed as we made for our next waypoint, 50 miles east of the Rancador Bank.
If you look at a chart of the Caribbean, you might wonder why we headed towards the Rancador Bank. The Rancador Bank adds about 80 nautical miles to the passage to Panama. However, pilot charts and a study of weather suggested a high likelihood of gale forces winds along the rhumb line to Panama. They also suggested more northerly winds and favorable currents closer the Central America.
Sea Change II is a heavy cruising sailboat which prefers stronger winds, but there was no reason to subject to 30 to 35 knot winds if not necessary. Strong sustained winds make it more likely things on the boat will break and leave less room for error on the part of the crew.
From Monday morning, wind and seas built steadily from light and variable to 20 to 30 kts off the stern quarter by the time we turn south of the the Rancador Bank. Big, steep, following seas and some current pushed along at up to an impressive 9 kts at times (the nominal hull speed, or maximum speed, of our boat is just under 7 kts).
The steep seas also took a toll on the crew as we adjusted to the motion of the boat. I usually take one Dramamine on the first day of the passage and that usually “cures” me on sea sickness for the remainder of the trip. On this passage, I took four Dramamine over the roughest two days to keep sea sickness at bay. We have always cooked on passage, but we found it much more difficult on this passage. We resolved to bring more easy to prepare comfort foods.
The longer passage also gave us a better opportunity than our shorter passages to learn the ideal watch schedule for us. Remember, we need to maintain a sharp watch all the time which means somebody must always be awake and alert. By the end of the sail we were finding long shifts during the day and evening, followed by 4 hour on, 4 hours off shifts over night. Mary tends to sleep better in the morning and I tended to sleep better in the afternoon.
We had also been wondering how Franklin would handle his longest passage yet. We found he handled the passage best (perhaps because he was getting plenty of sleep!) and was happy snuggled in his lee cloth during the bumpy times , watching movies, reading books and playing computer games. Mary also found the time and energy to read books to Franklin and snuggle him during the day.
For this passage, there was no question who the stronger crew member was. Mary. She was generally less affected by sea sickness and/or had a stronger will to overcome it. When I first took Mary sailing more than five years ago, no doubt who was the “better” and more experienced sailor. I think on this passage it became abundantly clear we are now increasingly equal in skill. It sure is good to have a competent crew mate. Even nicer to have one so gorgeous and smart.
With the 5 to 30 knots off our quarter for the remainder of our sail we enjoyed an almost perfect trade wind sail from the about 50 nm south of Jamaica to 50 nm east of Panama. During one 26 hour period we made 160 nm, quite impressive for a 34 ft boat with a 26 ft waterline.
Early Friday morning the winds tured light and variable as we approached Panama so we turned on the motor and used the remainder of our diesel to motor into Colon.
Entering Colon harbour we were surrounded by anchored ships and a a procession of ships entering and leaving Colon Harbor. AIS, a technology we have our our boat to track the movement of ships, was never more useful as it helped identify how fast ships were moving and if they posed a danger to us.
We entered Shelter Island Marina around 10:30am on Friday morning after a fantastic sail.