Ship's Log               s/v Uliad 

January 2:  


     Cartagena is both a richly historic city, having been one of the major ports by which the Spaniards conquered the new world starting in the 1500s, as well as a modern city.  Why only a 5 minute cab ride (or a 20 minute walk if wanting the exercise) there is a big, air conditioned mall to rival those in the USA.  I found a giant hardware store here every bit as thorough as the typical Home Depot.  Emmett found "Playland"--an arcade filled with every form of entertainment that a kid never knew he needed. 

     Somewhere between the ball shooting gun area and the motorcycle riding video game I wondered, "When did these places get so annoyingly loud?"  In fact, the whole mall seemed unnecessarily crowded, busy, and noisy.  And why are there four stores here dedicated to women's underwear.  Why no stores for men's underwear?  Clearly we had been away from the usual Western culture for too long.

    Emmett did his best to make up for lost time.  But after the initial awe of being able to find exactly what I was looking for at the giant home store, we quickly grew tired of the cacophony.  Back onboard Uliad, the decks were grimy from pollution and land-dirt.  The water tanks were running low.  The harbor water looked way too polluted to try to use our water-maker here.  And the constant ferry boat traffic roaring past and leaving large, impolite wakes was wearing on us.  It was time to get out of the city for a while

    We had heard of a small group of islands off the coast of Cartagena called the Rosarios.  So this morning we were up at the crack of dawn to make our escape.  The anchor was brought up slowly on account of a coating of slime on the anchor chain that needed to be washed off before going below.  I shuddered to think what our bottom must look like after two weeks here.  We motored out of the harbor, over the gap in the sunken wall and headed toward deep water.

    About 5 miles later, we came upon a sudden line in the water where it's color changed from greenish brown to the clear deep blue ocean color we had been missing.  How amazing to see such a sudden change!   The main ship's entrance to Cartagena was then traversed.  After dodging one inbound container ship, we set course for the western tip of the Rosarios and motored on in the morning calms.  Three hours later, we were circling around the south side of the islands, watching tourists play on the beach and snorkel over the shallow reefs here.  Those ferry boats that annoyed us back in Cartagena?  They were all headed here.

    After setting the hook on a beautiful sandy bottom, I made Emmett help hose down the deck before we went swimming.  A thick layer of grime had built up after several weeks of no rain.  It made us happy to see Uliad clean again.  And the cool, clear water was that much more refreshing having first worked up a little sweat.

    We soon discovered that the next item on the agenda would be cleaning the underside of Uliad.  Back in Trinidad, I had applied the most toxic bottom paint I could find.  The barnacles in Cartagena harbor laughed at my effort.  Several hours of scraping and brushing had things back in order, though.  Who's laughing now, barnacles!?  

   We had planned a day of snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, and island exploring.  But after the day's early start, and the cleaning frenzy, suddenly our ambition seemed to vanish.  Lunch in the cockpit was that much more enjoyable for the silence around us--no ferry boats, no sirens from shore, no blaring music or screaming kids.  This was the anti-mall.  I stretched out in the sun to warm my bones after my long hours cleaning the bottom.  This quickly devolved into that most blessed luxury--the afternoon nap.



January  4:

     A mile or so from our anchorage in Los Rosarios is a little island almost entirely taken up by an aquarium.  Every day ferry boats full of tourists pull up and drop people off to look at the exhibits and snorkel around the closest reef before climbing back on their boat for the hour and a half long ride back to Cartagena.  Emmett and I were out exploring in the dinghy when we puttered by this island.  We noticed some large enclosed pens off to one side near to a pool and platform set up for what was obviously a dolphin show.  We timidly approached the pen farthest away from the compound to see if there were actually dolphins there.

     There were.  In fact as soon as they could hear our dinghy motor approaching, two dolphins were bobbing near the fence like neglected dogs saying, "Will you come and play with me?"   I was pretty sure that the dolphin handlers did not want strangers just swimming up to their dolphin pen--especially if we didn't even pay for a ticket.  But this was our one chance!  I cut the motor and threw an anchor in the water as Emmett donned his mask & fins.  We jumped in the water and swam up to the pen where the two dolphins swam around waiting for us.

    It seemed clear that the dolphins were bored and just by showing up we had made their day.  They swam up close and looked us over.  We swam down and spun around and they seemed to appreciate our goofy show.  In turn, they took off and came back around swimming upside down and side by side.  It is no wonder that people love dolphins so much.  They always have such a happy countenance.  They love to play.  They really are like a big, loving golden retriever.  Only one that never shakes stinky lake water on you or pees on your carpet.

Our dolphin friends in ColumbiaThe friendly dolphin

    Soon we were reaching through the chain link and petting the smaller dolphin.  She'd swim right up and lean in to my hand to get a good firm rub down.  She'd stop still in the water so we could give her a rub under her chin or under her flippers.  We'd play this game where she'd swim by, rubbing against my hand, and then when my hand reached her tail fin she'd hook my hand with her fin to stop herself for a moment before swimming around to try again.  Finally after a while, the larger dolphin seemed a bit jealous and he came up close for a little petting of his own.  It was magical.

    By the time the dolphin keeper came by with a bucket of fish, I was so entranced that I had forgotten my initial apprehension.  She didn't seem to mind that we were there, but she did ask that we back up into our dinghy while they were being fed.  (My Spanish is not great, but I think she was telling us that the female can get a bit nippy at feeding time and she didn't want us to get bitten.)

    The pause in the dolphin swim led Emmett to realize that the number one dolphin lover from our boat was missing the experience.  We motored back to Uliad to get Mom, and then came back for another round of dolphin petting.

petting a dolphinEmmett petting a dolphin

    It was incredible to have such an up-close encounter with these enigmatic creatures. look into their eyes and share an interaction was a dream come true.  But it was also a bit confusing.  I worried for their safety.  Shouldn't someone be keeping people like us from driving right up to do God knows what?  Was their pen deep enough?  Large enough?  They both had scrapes and scars in various places on their skin.  Were they being cared for properly?  There were other dolphins "performing" for the crowds on the far side of the pens.  Were these two old "retired" dolphins?

    We never found the answers to these lingering questions.  We tend to shy away from dolphin shows and "swim with the dolphins" experiences that seem to be popping up all over in tourist areas.  I can understand the attraction, but there is something sad about the existence of a caged dolphin.  We did take solace however, in the fact that we clearly provided a fun diversion for these two beautiful animals.  And they clearly returned the favor to us. 



January 8:

     Our time in the Rosarios was interrupted by a trip back to Cartagena.  Nobody was very excited to leave, but we reminded ourselves that it was only a three hour drive to come back. 

     I'm pretty religious about checking the oil, coolant, belts, and hoses on our diesel engine every time before starting it.  Usually everything is fine and my little ritual only annoys my family who wants to get moving.  Occasionally I find cause to top off the oil level.  But a couple of times now it has saved me great aggravation.  Like the time in the Virgin Islands when the rising oil level in the generator clued me in to the fact that a bad water pump was dribbling salt water into our engine.  The time and money that saved us by catching it right away was worth all the time spent looking and finding nothing.

     I was rewarded once again on the morning we left Cartagena for the Rosarios.  The coolant had suddenly gone missing from the header tank.  I topped it off with water and the engine ran fine...the engine temperature was good.  The only clue was that we had an abnormal amount of white smoke coming out our exhaust pipe.  So I watched everything like a hawk on the way down to the Rosarios and after the engine had cooled, sure enough we were missing some coolant again.  Out came my engine manual and a little study had me concluding that I had somehow blown a head gasket on our engine.  Not too serious, but I'd need to find a diesel mechanic when we got back to Cartagena to disassemble the top of the engine and install a new gasket.

     Back in Cartagena I was explaining the problem to my friend Otis, who once worked as an engineer on mega-yachts.  "Have you checked the heat exchanger, Steve?" he asked.  "Those things can get plugged up and give those exact same symptoms.  It happened to me once.  It's worth checking before you pay for a mechanic."  So back I went to the engine manual to see where my heat exchanger was and how to remove it.  It looked like a job I could handle so I charged ahead.

    After removing four hoses, two bolts, and the alternator that was in the way, I had the heat exchanger in my hands.  The heat exchanger runs coolant from the engine around a bunch of thin pipes with salt water running through them.  The salt water cools the coolant, which in turn cools the engine.  It does the same thing on a boat that your radiator and fan do on a car.  I opened it up to find about 80% of the pipes blocked with scaly calcium deposits from the salt water.  I wasn't sure if this would solve my problem, but it definitely needed cleaning.  A combination of muriatic acid and elbow grease had the little tubes in my heat exchanger shiny and new looking again.  I really hate keeping muriatic acid on the boat--I always have visions of the jug leaking and eating a hole in our boat.  But every once and a while it is really handy to have.

    Then began the laborious process of putting everything back together.  It sounds simple, but it rarely is.  And as long as I was down in the engine room and so dirty, I thought I'd go ahead and check the zincs, clean out the sea strainers, and clean some junk out of the bilges.  Well after dark I finally emerged, covered in grease and sweat.  Kathleen shooed me straight into the dinghy to wash up in the marina's showers on shore. 

    By morning, I still don't have all the grease out from under my fingernails, but the white smoke is gone.  The whole episode reminds me of those patients who would come into my office with a sheath of papers downloaded from the internet, convinced that they had some rare disease.  I have all the book reference, but none of the experience when it comes to engines.  So it's nice that there is such a wonderful, informal system among cruisers of bartering experience. 

January 10:

     After getting intimate with my engine, I've spent the next several days nursing sore, tired muscles.  All the machinery on our boat (and most sailboats of non-gigantic proportions) is shoe-horned into a small space which is nice for creating more living area, but really hard on a mechanic.  A day in the engine room is a sort of whole-body yoga work out. 

     Worst of all, I still haven't fixed the engine.  There is now a steady river of coolant trickling down the front of my fresh water pump--a sure sign that the seals have failed and the pump needs to be rebuilt.  I decide to save that project for another day. 

     We take a family field trip to the old fort that used to guard the entrance to Cartagena.  In the days that the European imperial nations were colonizing the New World, pretty much the first thing they did after planting a flag in the sand was start building a fort.  We've probably visited a good dozen forts throughout the Caribbean, so I wasn't expecting anything new.  But, as I reminded myself more than once, it beats spending another day in the engine room.

     But Cartagena's fort is different.  This is one of several sea ports where Spain looted the new world.  For months and months, they'd cart gold and silver and emeralds from the interior to this port, filling sea chests with the stuff and waiting for hurricane season to end so they could weigh down their galleons with as much as they could carry back to Spain.  Unlike the fort on the tiny island of St. Someone, there was actually something important to protect here.

    So the fort grew over the course of 90 years of slave labor into a giant mountain of stone, complete with escape tunnels and booby traps, lookout towers and places to pour down boiling oil and what have you.  The kids had a great time exploring narrow tunnels running down underground until they now stand flooded with water.  The boys took turns hiding around corners to scare each other.

The fort of CartagenaKathleen explores the Tunnel beneath the Old Fort

    On the way home, Denny (Salt & Light) and I decide to go looking for an outboard shop.  The kids and wives walk back to Club Nautico.  I need some new spark plugs and he needed to schedule some more major work.  This proved to be another grand adventure.  Our first stop didn't deal with Yamaha motors.  We were sent to another shop only to find it was a minor branch, and the main office was on the other side of town.  We catch a cab and are delivered to a tall steel gate.  Behind a nearby window is a lady who wears a green security guard uniform.  Her pants are remarkably tight and I wonder how easily she could chase a fleeing burglar in them.  But then I notice the pearl handled revolver on her hip and decide that the sidearm probably does the running for her in situations like that.

   We try to explain why we're here and if perhaps there is a Yamaha shop behind that big steel door.  She gets on the phone for a minute, hangs up, and then tries to direct us back to the store that we just came from!  More explanations ensue and after a second call, the big gate swung open to reveal a dry-stacking marina and (lo and behold!) an outboard dealer and workshop.  Nobody was in the dealership, except for several salespeople mulling around a cubicle and the receptionist looking bored in front.  The receptionist picked up the phone.  While dialing, she glanced down to the cubicle at what is clearly the target of her call.  The salesman surreptitiously raised a hand as if to say "not now, I'm surfing on eBay" and the receptionist put the phone back on the cradle before it

even rang.  We're told to have a seat.

    20 minutes (and God knows how many web pages) later, the neat young salesman allows the receptionist to point us to him.  Denny explained his problem and was reassured that he could bring his motor in any time and for no charge, they'd find out what was wrong and give him an estimate.  As for me...they don't sell parts here.  For that I'd have to go to their parts department at another marina.   But not to worry, they have a shuttle boat that will be along any minute and take us there.  Such fine service!

   The shuttle came and brought me to a small marina just a quarter mile from Club Nautico where we started our day.  A few guys were in line at the parts counter ahead of me, and while I'm waiting, the receptionist asked if I'd like something to drink.  "Si, agua por favor!" I reply.  She went into the back and a few minutes later a middle aged, plump maid came out with a tall glass of ice water on a silver tray with a little doily under it.  (I know she was a maid because she had the whole outfit on--1950s dark dress, white apron with frilly border, white cap)   There was something about the whole presentation that made me completely forget about all my preceding travails.  And they had my spark plugs! 


January 14:

    There is a problem with places like Cartagena.  Yes it is beautiful and richly historic and all, but I'm coming to discover it has a certain pestilence about it.  The problem with fixing your sights upon so many beautiful ancient cathedrals and towers and balconies is that you fail to notice that you're standing in something.

    I was thinking these thoughts yesterday at 4am after waking up writhing with stomach pains.  Gnawing cramps dug at my solar plexus as I pondered my diagnosis.  Gallstones?  Ulcers?  Did I have an obstructed bowel?  Appendicitis?  Is this what a myocardial infarction feels like?  Tums failed to help and I decided to try to walk it off as the sun was coming up.  Our decks are covered with city grime.  The same black soot that turns a New York snowfall into grey slush coats our stanchions and mast.  In the three weeks we have been here, it occurs to me, we have not had a drop of rain to wash things down.  Slicks of petrol randomly float by in the harbor.

    The walk didn't help, except for the fact that I passed some gas and concluded that it's probably not a bowel obstruction.  I feel nauseated.  Kathleen woke up just long enough to express her bleary eyed sympathy then promptly fell back to sleep.  She's had her own health issues, having been plagued with migraine headaches off and on (mostly on) since our arrival in Columbia.  Come to think of it, in all my time sailing, I've never been busier as a doctor.  Lately I've had a steady stream of fellow cruisers looking for advice on their tendonitis, warts, rashes, fevers, and whatever.  Is this the unhealthful tropical air that early European settler complained of?  Even my diesel engine seems to be getting in on the act.  After flawlessly running for almost two years, I've been running into nothing but trouble in Cartagena.  Hmmm.

    By mid-morning the stomach cramps have resulted in several bouts of diarrhea and despite the nausea, I managed not to throw up.  My symptoms had evolved into a classic case of food poisoning and I took comfort in the fact that A. I wouldn't need surgery and B. I could expect to feel fine again within 24 hours.  The rest of the day I felt weak, exhausted, and sore all over, but by this morning I had completely recovered. 

    But I'm not taking any chances.  Tomorrow I'm going to fix this water pump and we're going to start thinking about getting out of Cartagena before any more pestilence takes hold!


January 15:


    So with more than a little reluctance, I climbed back down into the engine room this morning and removed my faulty water pump.  Before doing that, I had studied my shop manual and rifled through the bilge to find that  indeed had a spare water pump on board.  (thank you to the previous owners of Uliad who had the foresight to pack on plenty of spare parts!)   The next challenge was removing a pulley on the front of the old pump that I needed to put on the new one.  No amount of pulling, twisting, grunting, or swearing would loosen the nut holding the pulley in place.  I tried penetrating oil.  I tried heating the nut with a torch...nothing.  I was ready to give up and hire a mechanic to take over.

    Conveniently, Independence happened to have a diesel mechanic on their boat that morning.  I motored over to talk to Elvis about my problem (yes, the mechanic's name is Elvis!)  He nodded and smiled and wrote down the name and address of a shop.  He assured me that it would be very simple and take them 5 minutes.

    Off I went in a taxi to the mechanical district.  It seems that each trade in Cartagena clusters in one part of town.  Riding along in a taxi, you'll suddenly find that every single shop on the street has carpenters making furniture...or repairmen fixing tires.  In my case, we went to the auto mechanic district where one small shop specializes in nothing but automotive water pumps.  I pulled my pump out of the bag and he immediately nodded and said "Perkins, 4 cylinder".  Si.  Perkins 4 cylinder indeed.

    I show him the new pump and describe how I need the pulley moved from the old to the new.  He told me to wait and went in back where I could then hear much clacking and pounding of heavy machinery.  A single cockroach skittered along the black cement floor and no sooner had he disappeared then the man was back with my pump problem solved. 

    While I was at it, I asked if he could rebuild the old pump, too?  "Come back in two hours", I was told.  True to his word, the old pump was also made good as new right on schedule for $60.  I don't know what a new water pump would have cost me back in the US, but I'm sure it was more than that!

    The taxi also took me to the gasket shop, where I had several new gaskets for my pump custom cut.  And then to the hose shop where I bought a short length of water hose and a couple gallons of coolant.  I was ready! 

    Back on Uliad, everything went back together as it was supposed to.  I filled the coolant, cranked the engine, and crossed my fingers.  It worked!  To celebrate, the three of us walked down to Old Town and got a table on the plaza next to the Old Cathedral.  We ate a leisurely meal and talked of our next destination somewhere over the horizon.

The Castillo de San Phillipe


January 20:

     We've been doing our provisioning and getting ready to leave for Panama soon.  We'd like to visit the remote San Blas islands, where there aren't many grocery stores.  I'm planning to fly back for a couple weeks in February and after talking with some other boats, Kathleen has decided that she'll stay on Uliad in the San Blas islands.  So that means we need to pack on enough food to last a month or so before we leave.

     Columbia has plenty of food for us to buy, but the old USA brands are no longer there.  In fact, many of the foods we assume to be staples aren't available here.  So we're figuring out how to improvise.  For example...wheat flour seems to be more of an exotic item here.  There are bags and bags of corn meal and corn flour on the shelves, but only a few tiny 1 kilo packages of wheat flour.  And despite all the corn meal, I can't find corn starch anywhere.  Or baking powder. 

    But don't feel to badly for us.  As I have mentioned before, the fresh fruits and vegetables are fabulous and cheap here.  And coffee!  The coffee is wonderful.  Folks of my generation will remember the old Folgers coffee commercials where "Juan Valdez" and his smiling donkey wander the Columbian hillsides plucking the finest "mountain grown" coffee.  Well, it turns out that Juan Valdez leveraged his 15 minutes of fame into a whole franchise of coffee shops here bearing his name.  I bought a bag of Juan Valdez coffee for the boat, and it's not too bad!  Meanwhile, if you're not into the pseudo-Starbucks experience, wandering coffee boys can be found on almost every corner carrying, in one hand a box with 3 or 4 pots of very strong, very sweet coffee.  In the other hand are little shot glass size plastic cups, and a box of cigarettes, candy, crackers, and whatever.  This caffeine army wanders the streets from sunup to sundown making sure that everyone stays "perky" all day long.  If you love coffee, you'll love Columbia.


January 23:

     Well, it seems that we're stuck in Cartagena.  Shortly after arriving here, we inquired about having a new canvas awning made to shade our cockpit.  The old one was getting pretty ratty and franky, it doesn't match the boat anymore since we repainted it.  We were planning to do this back in Trinidad, but the canvas shops were all too busy, so we held out until Columbia.  So just after Christmas we hired "Taller de Velas Benjamin" (Benjamin's Sail Loft) to come and make us a new one. 

     So he ordered up the canvas and after a week or so it arrived and he started to work.  We have been all ready to leave Cartagena as soon as he finished.  But every time he was supposed to come with our canvas, there was another delay.  This went on for a week.  Finally his son arrived to install the dodger and our hearts sunk.  It didn't fit right.  Worse still, the quality was terrible.  The stitching was crooked.  There were places where zippers had obviously been sewed on in the wrong place, and then removed leaving stitch holes across the canvas for rain to come in.  The sewing thread was too small, and it looked like the seams were about to rip.  The clear plastic windows didn't line up.  We were livid!! 

Our dodgy dodgerI'm no seamstress, but...

     We imposed upon our friend Jenny to translate and make sure our message was absolutely clear.  We insisted that the boss himself come out to the boat where we could point out the many glaring problems.  And then, we let him know that his work was unacceptable and we wanted our money back.  I had no idea what would happen next.

     At first, Benjamin was somewhat apologetic.  He tried to reassure that he could fix it all and would take it back to his shop and re-do the problems.  "No, senor" we replied.  We really don't want you working on our boat anymore.  We'll hire someone else.  He looked at us for a minute, then his shoulders sagged and he slowly nodded his head...

    In the end we came to a fair settlement, he returned half of our down payment and gave us the canvas that we had paid for.  He also left part of the bimini that might be able to be salvaged.  We immediately called another canvas guy who had done some great work for several other friends and hired him to re-do it all.  It was a big disappointment to start over.  The time we lose on this is time we won't be able to enjoy in the San Blas Islands.  Time we'll spend sitting here at anchor, bored.  But in a few months, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when the rain is pouring down from the sky or the wind is picking up, I think we'll be glad that we insisted that it was all done right.


January 26:

     Cruising down the Caribbean islands, we met few boats who were planning to go any further.  Most of the sailors we met were either Americans or Canadians, and most were planning to stay in the Caribbean, or sail back to the States at the end of the season.  But all this has changed in the past few months.  Our circle of acquantances has become truly international.  In Cartagena, we now have good friends who are Australian, Brazilian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish (glad to see the adventurous Scandinavians so well represented!), and French. 

     Another change:  Up until recently, I had never met another physician out cruising.  Seems like we're the perfect candidates...high income, high stress jobs.  But apparently most of us are a little too conservative to chuck it all and go sailing.  Well, now in the last week I've met two other Physicians here in Cartagena.  One is from Maine and another from New Caledonia (French Island north of New Zeeland)   Interesting.

    The final change is that most everyone we meet now is planning to go through the Panama canal this spring and head for the south Pacific, like us.  It is a community connected not by a common heritage, language, or place...we are connected by this collective undertaking:  to sail across the sea.  So even though we're stuck here longer than we'd like, and even though our new friends are one by one sailing on to Panama without us, we know we'll likely catch up at some point and continue the relationship.  This is the sailor's life.  Whatever new harbor you may come upon, an old friend may already be waiting there for you. 


January 28:


     Our new canvas guy, Esteban, arrived yesterday to re-measure for our dodger.  I like him better already.  He was very meticulous about measuring everything out.  Esteban seems to be pretty popular with the sailors.  He can't walk through the Club Nautico bar without somebody getting his attention to discuss some project.  Maybe that's why he wanted to come at 7am to sailors up at that hour.

     Anyway, he now has to go back to his workshop somewhere and start sewing.  He tells us he wont get to it until next week, and probably won't finish it for another 10 days.  So we've decided to head back out to the Rosarios Islands to get away from the sludgy harbor here.  Hopefully we'll return to find a much better product!!


                            created by Steve Erickson 2007-2012
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