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  • Writer's pictureTom

Aruba to Panama: Inspiration, two handkerchiefs and major damage

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

Skyfall with twin-headsail set-up heavily reefed
Skyfall with twin-headsail set-up heavily reefed

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 (SV 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 weather routing as we left Aruba
Predictwind weather routing as we left Aruba (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 (SV 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 top 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.

Trailing lines prepared andd read to go.
Trailing lines prepared andd read to go. (They should help to keep the stern into the waves)

The crossing started off well enough. Our speed over ground was initially augmented by a strong current such that we did 108nm in the first 12 hours. As we passed the northern most point on our passage the current suddenly disappeared and our speed-over-ground returned to a more sensible 7 knots. The sea-state on the first two days looked really wild, much worse than would have been expected with 25-30 knot winds and 3m waves. Even in deep water, the closely spaced waves were steep enough to be decapitated by the wind, leaving a cauldron of boiling spray all around us. But Skyfall remained dry and well-behaved whilst the autopilot or Hydrovane remained in charge.

The problems started towards the end of the second day. I noticed that, as Skyfall rolled, our solar arch was no longer a rigid structure. Instead, at the end of each roll,the frame seemed to struggle to stop the momentum of the solar panels and the frame had started to flex. By the morning of the third day the inevitable had happened. One of the upright legs snapped and the frame looked like it would fall apart. As quickly as possible I lashed a splint across the broken upright.

Our solar arch failed after the welds fell apart
Our solar arch failed after the welds fell apart

I heaved a premature sigh of relief when I finished it. Then I realised I was too late: the welds holding two cross-pieces had given way and, on one side, the solar panels were being held up by the wires running inside the frame. I lashed the thing together again as best I could. Just in time as the wires were severed before I finished the task. Next we set about reducing the weight on top of the frame. I took down the first solar panel, meaning to stow it below. Unfortunately it was too large to go through the companionway so was stowed in the cockpit and wedged in position.

At this stage it was clear that we would not be cruising the San Blas and altered course for Shelter Bay marina,Colon, hoping to make repairs there. Whilst I researched who might be able to help I stumbled on the reviews for their yard. "Terrible boatyard", "yard is poorly managed and expensive", "they did not bother giving me a bill before taking my money", "DO NOT GET WORK DONE HERE". But where to go? Fortunately, I came across Linton Bay marina with a rather better reputation and that is where we headed. We were safely tied up by 10.30 on the fourth day and ready to inspect the damage.

The damaged solar arch held together with lashings of rope
We saved the wind generator and solar panels by lashing the structure together

So,the passage from Aruba to Panama, started out with such inspiration (Bill), used two hankerchiefs yet ended up with major damage. In Linton Bay, Stanley, their stainless steel fabricator, was on hand that first morning to assess our best course of action. We are now awaiting his drawings and quotations, but expect to be here for at least 3-4 weeks.

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Hi Tom and Annick - Greetings from Kitty and David of SV Ithaka, we met in the Caribbean last winter. Sorry to hear about your arch, we hope the repair goes smoothly!

We have a few questions for you, as we are planning a crossing from Nova Scotia to Scotland this summer. 1) re: twin headsails, do you have both on separate tracks on your forestay? Do you pole each out, one with a spinnaker pole and one with the boom? 2) what type and diameter line did you use for your 80m trailing line?

Love the blog, thanks for keeping us inspired.

Kitty and David

SV Ithaka

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Thanks so much! Fair winds, D&K


Oh no! Sending best wishes for the upcoming repairs.

Feb 12, 2023
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