Weather brief­ing Chris Tibbs on sail­ing to­wards Panama

CHRIS TIBBS ON SAIL­ING THE WIND­WARD IS­LANDS TO PANAMA

Yachting World - - Contents -

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

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