Weather briefing Chris Tibbs on sailing towards Panama
CHRIS TIBBS ON SAILING THE WINDWARD ISLANDS TO PANAMA
We tend to think of the Caribbean as the islands from the Virgin Islands in the north to Grenada or Trinidad and Tobago in the south, but the Caribbean is actually the sea bounded by these islands and the landmass of central and south America.
The more southerly islands, from Dominica to Trinidad are known as the Windward Islands – being the islands that ships arrived at first, having sailed from Europe along the trade wind route. The islands to the north are known, unsurprisingly, as the Leeward Islands.
Cruisers are increasingly heading further off the beaten path, west to Panama and into the Pacific. There are 1,000 miles of ocean between the Windward Islands and Panama with some good cruising grounds along the way. Any passage from the Windward or Leeward Islands passes close to the Colombian coast and offers an opportunity to explore South America.
Unfortunately the political situation in Venezuela has removed this country from most cruisers’ itinerary (not least because it’s difficult to get insurance). This is a great shame as the off-lying islands offer unspoilt anchorages that are now largely ignored. The more travelled ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) offer good diving and are well worth a stop.
But what of the weather?
The Windward Islands are still influenced by the tradewinds, driven by the Azores or Bermudan high, and low pressure over South America, which is part of the equatorial trough. Synoptic charts will often show a cell of low pressure over Colombia.
High pressure to the north and low to the south tightens the isobars and the southwestern part of the Caribbean Sea is an area of enhanced trade winds. As we head west from the Windward Islands the trades are generally a little less than in the latter part of our Atlantic crossing.
Averages can be misleading but for January and February, when most circumnavigators head west, statistics indicate 13-18 knots of trades increasing to the west, and as we get towards the Venezuela/colombia border averages are closer to 18-23 knots.
Passing to the north of Colombia the wind increases further and you often find an acceleration zone along the Colombian coast; averages suggest 25-30 knots but it will sometimes become gale force. This is because of the tightening pressure gradient due to low pressure over Colombia, the shape of the coast, and high mountains to the south. Late afternoon sees an additional acceleration due to thermal effects and the passage along the coast can become quite exciting.
Currents also play their part as, although the general current is from east to west, an increasingly strong counter-current works its way along the coast, sometimes as far as Venezuela. Strengthening wind against current can kick up a nasty sea state, particularly on the approaches to Santa Marta past Barranquilla to Cartagena.
Having been aware of its history of coffee, cocaine, and gangs, Colombia was not originally high on my list of destinations. How wrong I was. I have now sailed there a couple of times and although the approach can be breezy it is well worth the effort.
Weather forecasts do pick up the acceleration in the wind speed along the Colombian coast although GRIB files tend to underestimate the strength, particularly around headlands, so be prepared for stronger bands and gusts. After a quiet night the early morning can also see some strong winds off the mountains.
Historically yachts would stay 50-100 miles off the coast to avoid the strongest wind and sea state. However with a reasonable forecast and well found boat I’d not want to sail past without stopping.
San Blas to Panama
West of Cartagena the average wind strength eases again, until close to the Panama coast when it usually becomes quite light and will have backed more to the north. There’s a group of islands called the San Blas that are becoming increasingly popular to visit. They are populated by the Cuna Indians who travel between the islands in dugout canoes; a friendly people whose lifestyle is changing quickly, with most inhabited islands now sporting solar panels and some electricity. The islands are, however, at risk from rising sea levels.
Charts are not great here; good light and eyeball navigation is a must for entering anchorages reminiscent of Pacific atolls and a night-time approach is not recommended.
The approach to the Panama Canal is usually made with light onshore breezes increasing through the day and declining again at night. AIS is essential as there are numerous ships at anchor as well as transiting the canal.
Panama and the San Blas offer a good cruising area – the main drawback is a hard beat back to the Windward Islands, making it easier to carry on westwards towards the Pacific than to return!
is a meteorologist and weather router, as well as a professional sailor and navigator forecasting for Olympic teams and the ARC rally.
High pressure to the northeast and a low over Colombia are classic signs of strong winds along the Colombian coast
The San Blas Islands are worth a visit but charts are not reliable so approach with care CHRIS TIBBS