Sailing to Panama: enduring tropical waves in the Caribbean Sea

While waiting for a weather window in Great Inagua, we had a full time recap about tropical weather. Metereology is a fascinating discipline, and it’s also very important to know the basics when you live outdoor and your safety depends on good weather conditions.

Along the 750 miles that separate the last island of the Bahamas from Panama lays the Caribbean Sea, an open stretch of ocean surrounded by land and islands on its 4 sides. This alley is crossed by tropical waves, low pressure systems that generates in Africa and travel west across the Atlantic ocean, towards the Caribbean and South America and generally dissolve over Central America.

During the peak season of tropical weather activity (August through October) these tropical waves could very likely generate hurricanes and tropical storms if they encounter conducive conditions on their way. The sad events of this very active hurricane season reminds us how small we are compared to the forces of nature, and that avoidance is always the best strategy.

Tropical Storm Bret formed early in June from a Tropical Wave (here covering Trinidad and Venezuela) Author: NASA, MODIS / LANCE

We held our position in Great Inagua because Bret, the “earliest named storm to develop in the Main Development Region of the Atlantic basin on record”, had just formed from “a low latitude tropical wave that had moved off the coast of Africa on June 12”. As soon as Bret went its own way we resumed to follow closely the tropical waves to find the right moment to sneak in between them.

We knew that we would encounter at least two tropical waves during this leg, because they usually run every 2 to 3 days. Tropical waves could bring stronger winds, higher waves and thunderstorm activity, and each tropical waves seems a little bit different depending on the conditions encounter during their long trip. The closer to the peak of hurricane season, the higher are the chances that those low pressure system develop into a life-threatening storms.

Luckily we were about on time in our schedule, and the water temperature and general conditions were still not too favorable for tropical depression development. Making sure no yellow Xs were anywhere on the Atlantic charts (the yellow X is the symbol for potential tropical depression forming on National Hurricane Center website), we prepared to leave as soon as possible.

During the entire passage we also had the fortune to be in contact with two friends on mainland US, Chip and Elliott, that sent us daily weather updates via Delorme messenger along the way. We are very thankful for the great help and company from these cool dudes.

We pulled the trigger of our “as soon as possible” departure strategy during a day of strong southeasterlies that blew over Inagua and made even the sail in the lee of the island a bit of a challenge. Pulling off the umpteenth false start, we re-anchored a few miles to the south from where we started and decided to wait one more day before trying again.

LOG 1002nm June 23 Departure from Great Inagua

Flying fish are common during ocean passages. They mistake Tranquility as a landing strip.

The wind was lighter and on the beam when we set off again.  Once we cleared the south point of the island the swell and wind waves from the trades turned on the washing machine motion on Tranquility. We made a full day of steady progress until we found pockets of light winds inside the Windward Passage, in the lee of Hispaniola. It slowed us down a lot, with only 60 miles logged in 24hours which was exactly half of what we did on Day 1.

Those hours were uneventful from a sailing point of view, but Kate had the luck to see a pod of pilot whales during her watch, while sea birds visited us regularly, with boobies, gannets, frigatebirds and white tailed tropicbirds, very elegant looking birds, flying in circles while scouting for fish. The Windward Passage is a corridor open to everybody, from small old fiberglass sailboats to Freighter and tankers, from wildlife to floating garbage.

South of Navassa Island, a steep walled island that used to harbor a US military facility, the wind came back and we finally pointed Tranquility to 240 degrees shooting for Puerto Lindo in Panama. With no land in sight and way less company, our only “obstacles” were two areas of banks East of Jamaica, areas of shallower waters that could potentially generate rough seas. With 90 degrees of apparent wind on the port side, we had enough play to adjust our course and clear the shoals with ample margin.

Beginning of the night watch


Shortly after we received the visit from the first tropical wave. The wind increased, 25 to 30kts from ESE bringing haze sky. Luckily we didn’t encounter significant thunderstorm activity nor rain, but the soaking was provided by the tall waves crashing on deck and on the watch keeper.

For the following 5 days we experienced very similar conditions, sustained winds of 25 knots and 7 to 10 ft waves, that translates in permanent use of foul water gear and constant change of clothes. All the hatches and portholes had to stay shut, and the cabin soon turned into a steaming hot sauna, with soaked garments hanging in the hope they could dry.

The persistent moisture was source of discomfort for the crew (and we suppose for Beta too) but at least the progress to destination was steady and fast, with average daily runs well above 100 nautical miles and a peak of 133 on Day 4. We counted three tropical waves passing us during this leg, each one bringing slightly different wind speeds and weather.conditions, but nothing too severe, with almost no squalls.

The change of guard during the morning watch is an opportunity to squid around

At a certain moment the shackle of our staysail halyard block, a sort of pulley that hoists our smallest sail, broke dropping the sail on the foredeck. After clearing the area from the tangled halyard and retrieving the block, I started to assess the problem.  Our smallest sail is very important in our sail plan, and we made a great use of it during this passage. The staysail helps filling the fore triangle area catching more wind and working together with the jib during most of the point of sail. In the windiest conditions, when our bigger headsail gives us too much power, we prefer to keep it furled and fly the staysail only. After probably half an hour of concern about how to fix the problem, I finally remembered that we have a spare spinnaker halyard ready to use on deck that worked perfectly in hoisting the sail again for the entire duration of the trip.

Kate with a secure grip on the boat
LOG 1746 nm – July 1st Puerto Lindo, Panama

The vanishing winds dropped us roughly 30 miles to the NE of Puerto Lindo, where we were hoping to land and clear into the country. Panama has two main seasons, dry and wet. From December to April the trades are strong enough to bring constant wind and clear sky over the country, while from May to November winds are light and variable and depend upon weather patterns influenced by the mainland.

Those were the longest 30 miles ever on a boat; the rainy season brought the typical lack of significant wind. On top of that an adverse current pushed us east towards Colombia. It took 24 hours of patience and effort to cover those 30 nautical miles and make landfall, which of course happened around 3AM local time, in pitch dark. Our approach was very slow under electric motor. Luckily our Navionics charts seemed to be accurate enough to pass safely in between three islands and relative reefs before reaching the anchorage. After a brief marital disagreement on where it was safe to drop the hook, we successfully anchored in the unknown dark bay cluttered with other vessels. For the first time after 8 days Kate and I went both to sleep at the same time.

In the morning we called Linton Bay Marina, and proceeded to a dock where we tied up Tranquility. Showers, electrical power, fresh water from the docks and other amenities helped our recovering from the tiring passage. Finally we were in Panama once again. It was 6 years since the last time I was here.

End of the season

End of the season means change of location, migration, farewells and new encounters. I feel lucky I have some time for me. Working as temporary crew allows me not to get trapped in yachts’ schedule. In the Superyacht industry there is little down time. Once something got accomplished there is already something new to come, a passage, guests’ or owners’ trip, yard period. I am glad I have no schedule, it’s enough to have a direction.

My risk as temporary crew it’s excess of down time an uncertainty. For example now I just finished a job but I still don’t know what’s next. I know that there is an opportunity for me to deliver a Southern Wind sail yacht, my favorite on the market today. I have to wait two weeks unemployed and I am evaluating the pros and cons of this decision. It could be time for me to relax and enjoy myself. If it was a “normal yacht” I would have no doubts in looking for something more profitable. But Dharma it’s not exactly a “normal yacht” to my eyes.

There is something that I love about Southern Wind Shipyard. Even if they build 30+ mts amazing sailing machines the impression you have onboard is of simplicity and sobriety. The philosophy of the shipyard is summed up in this sentence.

“We pursue a policy of consistency in building ever better yachts, avoiding technological embellishments that contribute little to the final result but very much affect the final price”

In other words, just what you need, nothing more nothing less.

I will have a taste of Dharma with the delivery to Puerto Rico, then 12days to explore the island. I realized that taking a holiday was something completely out of my mind, always worried about finding jobs and saving money. I found myself back in trip planning modality something that I haven t been doing for long time and something that I love. In Puerto Rico I am looking for beach relax, surfing, and absorbing local culture.

This is also what “end of the season” means.

Delivery Bahamas to St.Maarten

New Year new boat delivery! This time I am going to join the Sailing yacht Ngoni, a 97ft (ex Pink Gin) Baltic Yacht built in 1999 and designed by celebrated Judel/Vrolijk. It could definitely be the most beautiful sailing yacht I ever had the chance to sail. Taste about boats are relative but this sloop with three headsails (I don’t even know which rig name is that) is a masterpiece of elegance.

Baltic Yacht 97

The trip will be long, roughly 1000 nautical miles. The idea is to make stops along the way in places like Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, St.Thomas. With a crew of 4 we prefer to do short legs and hide from the worst blows of the trades that are at their maximum in this season.

Yacht delivery from Newport, RI to West Palm Beach, FL

It looks like we are finally ready to set sails to Florida. A series of negative and sad events plus some bad weather coming up delayed our departure. Now all is set for a departure on Sunday morning.

Newport has been my home for this summer but the winter is about to kick in for real now. I experienced the first cold of the season and I’ve been missing the sunny, long summer days that make this place so beautiful. But most important jobs are heading south as well.

Yachts move towards warm weather and sunny days as birds and other migratory specimen do. The hurricane season is close to its end (1st of November according to insurance companies) and the Carribean is attracting all the boats from NE of the United States and the Mediterranean with the promise of sun, white beaches and crystal waters. Another busy winter season, despite the financial crisis.

Same does Paraiso, a 108 ft Sailing Yacht where I’ve been working a lot this summer, cleaning bilges, washing and polishing the hull, polishing stainless steel, climbing masts, fixing electrical connections… A lot of work.

Now the mission is to sail down the boat to West Palm Beach, FL where she is going to receive her make-up before the Carribean.

With a crew of 5 we are sailing the distance of 700 nm into the Gulf Stream. She is the biggest and more comfortable sailing yacht I’ve ever been and the trip will take approximately 4 days. Full prepared food, drinks, snack and hot shower will comfort our long watches.

Adios Kuna Yala

I’ve been living for ten months in the Comarca Kuna Yala onboard Andiamo, a Beneteau Oceanis 50. While I was on board I accompanied more than 300 tourists to visit the beautiful islands of this area, one of the last paradises in the Carribean, and to meet the Kuna people, proud and smiling natives who still live preserving a unique culture and their language. Simple people who live on the abundant gifts that this place offers, but well aware of the effort required to live.

It was not trivial to relate with them. The differences that exist between Kuna and a European boy may seem unfathomable. I have always received warmth and support from those with whom I had the good fortune to work closely together. It was enough to sit down and talk with them to find out that we humans have much to share even where there are seemingly insurmountable cultural differences. Listen, smile and be open seems to me the best way to meet everyone.

Here in this place where land and water mingle with each other (the archipelago consists of about 370 islands) I lived with sails hoisted and attached to an anchor, being aware of what surrounded me. I meditated on deserted islands and met marine life, I learned to recognize the shape of a fish as it swims, and overcome my fears being in touch with natural environment improving my free diving to go and meet the underwater life so close. I fished a lot and cooked the fish caught by creating dishes that even the best seafood restaurant will find difficult to reply, feeding and making hundreds of happy guests. The diet and lifestyle were the most healthy I ever experienced giving me further reason to think that living on a boat and sail around the world is beneficial to health. I experienced feelings of deep loneliness as well as the strain of never having privacy. I admired Remi (my personal Kuna spearfishing guide) swim faster than a huge Red Snapper and catch him. I used to go with him spearfishing in the outer reef where the open sea crush onto the corals and the marine life is intense and busy. I sailed on a sailing cayuco with Dino, my faithful officer on board and a great friend of many difficulties and joys. I met his family and his friends and the lovely people of Dino’s island Yandup. All this and energetic life sustained me  in the responsibilities of the captain, I had the chance to make mistakes, which fortunately were never serious or dangerous and have always solved the major ones, working on emergency in a place with no assistance at all, but supported by the Team of Andiamo, Tony, Mitzy and of course Dino.

The list goes on and on. If I look behind these 10 months I have no regrets and even thinking about the difficulties I can not look to Kuna Yala with other eyes than those of gratitude and joy.

Photos: Me, Marloes, Stefano

Sailing a Cayuco in Kuna Yala

I took three hours of my free time to fulfill a desire I had since the very first moment I arrived in Kuna Yala. Everyday,  you can see the shapes of the cayucos setting sail since the first light in the morning and heading for the fishing destinations. This image always inspired me a deep sense of freedom and satisfaction and an intense desire to sail one.

The Sailing Cayuco

Cayuco is the name the Spanish explorers gave to the boats built by indigenous people of the Antilles and other American regions. It describes a monohull with flat bottom and no keel or daggerboard, propelled and steered by a wide paddle. In Kuna language it is called  “Ulu”, but they often use the name cayuco, at least with non-Kunas like me.

Cayucos are built with the dugout technique: this means that the hull is shaped by carving a log of suitable dimensions, usually mahogany which grows in the Comarca’s (indigenous territory) well preserved forest. Similar to other canoe desings the bow and stern are pointy and they can be paddled in both directions. Looking at the bilge you notice the rough marks left by the tools during the chipping out. It is remarkable how Kuna shipwrights can obtain such a regular shape with this method and the amount of labor behind every single piece must be enormous.

In San Blas Archipelago cars are useless and the transportation happens on water. Cayucos are everywhere, and sometimes it is hard to find docking to the main piers. They come in very different size and dimensions, every family has at least a small paddle one, but sailing cayucos are longer and more expensive. The modernity brought outboard engines and fiberglass boats named “pangas” or the more common spanish name “lancha”.

The cayuco Dino and I sailed is owned by one of his cousin. The man told me that it was built from a tree donated by his father. When his father died he had the permission to cut the tree and have it carved and painted.

On this type of boat the rig is a spritsail (similar to an Optimist): the mainsail is attached with a loose foot to a boom, and the “sprit” is a spar that support the leech. The main is sheeted to a hole through the gunwale and tied with a simple knot. The boat comes also with a headsail which is set flying from the bow to the mast head. The simplicity of the construction is a demonstration of how little techonology is really needed to sail. Even if a lot can be done to improve the performance of this system, it is enough for the essential living of the Kunas, and I am still amazed about how good it is the windward performance without a centerboard. You just need to be equipped with a lot of patience, a skill which Kunas culture is rich of.

Cayuco Mainsail: the sprit
Cayuco Mainsail: loose foot

The rudder is substituted by a wide paddle. In fact, the helmsman can be very much called a paddler as you need to paddle the boat into the wind in order to tack. It took me a while to understand how to steer with a wooden paddle and the fuzzy wind of the afernoon was not helping, but it was nothing too complicated. There is definetely a more close feeling of how the rudder operates and the forces that act on it using this technique  rather than turning the wheel of a performance cruiser.

Steering the cayuco

As often happens during fishing trips, especially the ones you improvise, we didn’t catch any fish. Nonetheless I had an interesting day, I learned about traditional crafts and fullfilled a little dream of mine. I hope I am going to do it again,  next time I hope with a bigger sail, just to have more speed sensation and capsizing danger.

On the way to San Blas

First step is saying goodbye to family and friend. Has never been so hard before, can’t understand why but that’s it.
I’m leaving Milan heading for Berlin, city that I love but this time I’m only crossing it underground S to N to catch the flight that tomorrow is going to take me to the US. Another night in Fort Lauderdale and finally on friday I’m hopefully landing in Panama where the yacht manager pick me up.

STCW95 Basic Safety Training in Trinidad & Tobago

After I got my Yachtmaster Offshore title I was conscious that I also needed a commercial endorsement to start my career in the world of yachts. The STCW95 (Standars of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) Basic Safety Training is the first step to get into the world of ships (if you intend to get any job on a vessel of more than 24m) and is valid for workin on board Cargos, Oil ships, Cruise ships and Superyachts. With both Yachtmaster Offshore and STCW95 you can get the MCA Master of Yachts (up to 200grt) certificate.

The Basic Safety Training includes Fire Fighting, First Aid, PSSR (Personal Safety and Social Responsibility) and Sea Survival courses. In five days of both theoretical and practical courses you can achieve this title. There are many schools that do this courses in almost all countries as it is a requisite of IMO (International Maritime Organization) for seafarers.

I was looking for one of this school in Europe. The medium price for the complete course is about 1000/1200 euros in Europe, and 800/1000 $ in the Caribbean. As I was already in the Caribbean I started to have a look around and with an advice of a friend I contacted the UTT Maritime Campus of Chaguaramas in Trinidad.

The program and the school seemed to me really worthy and the course fee of 300$ was the cheapest I found. I flew from Willemstad, Curaçao to Port of Spain, Trinidad with LIAT for aprox 300 $ and so I got the cheapest STCW95 around. After the first night at Crew’s Inn (nice and posh but bloody expensive!!) I was lucky to meet Rui on the course that helped me to find an apartment in Maraval for 1/8 of the price. The Guest House is in Maraval (Cor.Woodbine Gardens, Saut D’eau Road, Maraval – (868)-629-1017 ) and is run by the lovely Michelle who has several rooms really clean and comfortable. That was for me also a way to discover the hospitable and friendly people of the island and the culture (food in particular, so tasty and spicy !).

The course is the cheapest I found but it is high standard as well. The courses are well organized and the brand new campus of Chaguaramas has all the facilities (fire ground, pool and nice classrooms) to learn the theoretical and practical outcomes you need to pass the final test.

The most exciting part was Fire fighting. It was the matter I knew less and the practical experience was phisically and psychologically demanding as we fought real fire with all the tools and protective garments during a really hot and shiny day in Trinidad.

I just sent to RYA in Southampton the copy of my certificate and of the Yachtmaster Offshore to issue the Master of Yachts 200 tons Limited 

Transatlantic crossing aborted

It’s always hard to renounce, especially when you worked hard for it. But you have to be really honest with yourself and your crew to decide if things are possible or not. Crossing the Atlantic  could have been possible anyway, man does really hard things when motivated but accept a risk is a matter of responsibility towards yourself, the others and the boat.

Eclipse is not enough reliable to leave now and there’s no time left for more fixing as hurricane season is increasing. Each one of us three has to take  other ways and destinations and the boat will stay here in the Caribbean for one year more.

I am grateful for the experience of preparing the crossing, we tried our best to make it and I can say we almost did it. Next time I will be more conscious and practical with the duties of a transatlantic crossing, or maybe I only will choose an easier challenge. Experience also gives you a different look on reality and modifies you ability to choose which project are possible and which aren’t.

Transatlantic crossing: first leg Curaçao – Republica Dominicana 400nm

After two false starts (never ever use a Max Prop or similar foldable propeller for very long sailing) we finally left Willemstad for a three days sailing up to Boca Chica, Dominican Republic and we moored in a lovely marina just before some more squalls hit the area.

Willemstad, Curaçao

We had good winds for the first part of the trip and then we had to use the engine for almost half of the time. That was another good test that the old Perkins 4.236 passed with some questions. Is the injection in order? Why is overheating some times and some others not? A good mechanic here in Dominican Republic could be a precious help for these doubts.

We’re still in doubt about our future steps. Everything depends on the boat overall conditions and of course on the meteo.  It is possible that we need three more days in Dominicam Republic to get everything we need for the next leg, the strongest one. From here if the weather will let us we would like to go up to Bermudas and then Azores.

I’ll try to keep a record of the next steps, in the meanwhile I start publishing some pictures of the trip.

Transatlantic crossing: Curaçao to Cagliari

The checkings on Eclipse continue, last update the radar dome is not oscillating because they mounted it fixed to the mast. Genious at work!!

Finally we have a schedule. Leaving on saturday 28th May for the first leg up to Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, almost 380 miles. With a crew of three, me, the owner Furio and the outsider Carlos Andres, we’re supposed to be there monday in the afternoon.

There we have time to have some fresh fruit and vegetables, to welcome onboard Annetta, the most experienced of the four (and definetely the best cook) and to collect informations to decide our course and when to leave.

The last two days in Curaçao are dedicated to last small works, provisioning, fuel and to get the boat ready for sailing.

With a little fear in the heart but great hope we’re leaving soon! BYE

Checking a boat for an Ocean crossing

Welcome to a potentially endless post. Relax, I’m too busy for a long writing so I’ll try to condensate the experience of checking and preparing a just bought boat for a delivery trip from Caribbean to Europe.

By the way the problem is that the new owner of Eclipse, a lovely Beneteau Idylle 15.50 (German Frers’ design), want to go to Cagliari and even worst that I accepted to go with him. So now we’re busy with a general survey of the yacht, because for both is unknown. Ok, but what would you check on a sailing yacht to know if is ready to an ocean crossing?

The first suggestion I can give is the following: if you decide to buy a boat in a place but you wanto to sail her somewhere else consider to have a minimum of one month in a botayard to be sure you can fix most of the problems and buy all that you need for a long sailing. Inspecting a boat requires time, patience and several trials, expecially when the past owner disappears after the sale as usually does. Not all boat owners are good sailors so they could not be able to answer to all of your questions.

Safety is probably the most important matter for life at sea and it begins with a reliable and strong boat. Be sure the rigging, mast, hull and seacocks, bulkheads, sails and ropes, engine and electrical systems are in perfect conditions. There’s no point to go out with a liferaft, EPIRB and all the rescue stuff if the boat has some structural problems.

Another thing to test is that everything on deck is waterproof. Hatches, portholes, deck’s core, fittings and plates, each single hole thru the deck has to be completely sealed. Sailing when down below is wet is terrible especially for long time. Water coming from the sky or the sea has to drain off the deck and not inside. Be sure you can dry the bilge with both electrical and manual devices (bilge pumps, electrical and manual, bucket and sponge, everything) and all the electrical system and electronics stay dry. A dry cockpit is a plus that would make you enjoy even bad weather but the minimum of a safe and dry interior is required. Have almost one head full woking (both toilet and shower) and don’t forget the quality of your sailing often comes from the galley, so make it work!

The equipment has to be adeguate for a month of autonomy at sea. That means enough power in the batteries and adeguate charge system (solar, wind and engine, plus charge contoller). A Watermaker is really helpful but in our case we are considering some traditional remedies as collecting rain, cooking with sea water offshore and storing lots of drinkable water in addition to our generous water tanks.

All the sails and ropes (plus shackles, jammers, blocks) have to be checked. Even if we’re not really sophisticated we changed 70% of the ropes and hardware on board, just for  safety. Another important thing is to have few day sailing with the boat and then come back to fix the things that are not working. It’s better to customize everything is possible according to your needs and ability as people sail the same boat in different ways.

Paranoia is the master you’ll follow when preparing a transatlantic crossing, and helps you to keep the attention high about spare parts (carry almost everything!), safety gear and devices, and tools to make emergency fixes on board (a generator should help you with 220v). It will also keep you aware of weather conditions so try to equip the boat with the necessary communication devices to get your forecast (SSB radio, Sat phone, Internet/fax connection). Be sure you have everything and know how to prepare the boat for storm conditions (storm sails, drogues)

But don’t let paranoia absorb you completely or you’ll forget that sailing is for fun and crossing the ocean without pleasure is boring and sad. Try to provision the galley with the best food and drinks (fish cooked on a BBQ is defintely the best!), carry some fishing gears, good books or movies for your time off. A nice coffee and breakfast in the morning or a hot and tasty meal in cold and wet weather keeps the moral of the crew at the right point. Consider cooking as an important part of seamanship.

That’s probably the 12% of what you need to know about this subject, but I have to go back to my work and really don’t have all the answers. I posted these questions on LinkedIn groups and received a huge quantity of answers that helped me to write this partial guide. My thanks go to all the users that replied to my post helping me to have a better frame about what I’m doing to check this lovely boat. One week of last details and if nothing unexpected happens we’ll be heading north to Dominican Republic an then  up in the Atlantic, destination Azores and Europe. Go Eclipse!