Inspiration, two handkerchiefs and major damage
First, the inspiration. One of the joys of RTW sailing is the people you meet. We spent our last night in Aruba drinking beers with Bill (S/Y Cara Mor), a circumspect Scot with a dry sense of humour. He had sailed when younger but marriage, kids and life in general put paid to that. Then, three years ago, Bill decided to start sailing seriously again. He bought a boat and set off around the world. He is 78! Annick asked him if he worried about falling ill mid-passage. He replied," No, if it happens, it happens. I spend more time worrying if things on the boat will break!". Cara Mor may not be as old as her owner, but she is not of this century and has seen better days. The boat is bereft of luxuries like electric winches to help with the heavy lifting - everything must be done the hard way. Who helps him? Nobody. He sails (mostly) single-handed, including the tricky passage which we will now describe.
The passage from Aruba to Panama is regarded as potentially one of the five scariest on the planet. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the prevailing winds 'bend' around the Columbian headlands, are accelerated, and typically become two wind forces stronger than in Aruba.
Predictwind forecast for our passage. Deeper red colour indicates stronger winds
In addition the waves seem to be much closer together in this part of the Caribbean as the waves 'pile up' before reaching land. The wave period was under six seconds, half what is usual in the Atlantic. CLosely spaced waves means steep, breaking waves. One strategy is to 'stay inshore' to duck for cover if the wind starts to increase. There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, cover is usually just past the headland where the wind acceleration is at its worst. Secondly, the waves around these headlands are famous for being massive, much worse than further offshore. Our favourite Youtube sailing channel, Sailing Florence, chose this option (see Episode 14). They were treated to 40-50 knot winds and huge seas, causing Matt to suffer a 'sense of humour failure'.
We decided to go offshore. Following advice from our friend Mike (S/Y Cornelia), who has done the passage three times, we headed NW from Aruba following the deepest water until we reached the 3000m deep line and then followed this round past the two worst headlands before making a bee-line for Panama. One of the concerns with steep, breaking waves is that you will lose control of the direction you are going in, causing the boom and mainsail to crash across the boat. To mitigate this risk we do not use a mainsail! In our opinion a twin headsail (see photo above) is infinitely safer. The sails 'pull' from the bow, keeping the boat sailing down the waves. For two days we unfurled just enough to show two 'handkerchiefs' which still generated enough power to average 7 knots over 48 hours. A further safeguard is to trail something behind you to hold the stern in the direction the waves are coming from. We had no idea if this would be necessary but with 25-30 knots, gusting 35 forecast, before we left we prepared 80m of line behind the cockpit, ready for easy deployment.
80m of trailing lines ready to go