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The Two Captains

Electronic Bookshelf

Tackless II ? 44' CSY, walkthrough ? 5' draft ? October 2000
Subject /Area: ?Curaçao to Cartagena : The Coastal Route?

Dear SSCA?

In May 1999, Lourae and Randy Kenofell of the Beneteau 50 PIZAZZ put together one and a half pages of cruising notes for people interested in an alternative to the potentially arduous 640-mile offshore passage across the Colombian Basin between Curaçao and San Blas. These cruising notes, entitled ?Daysailing (almost) Bonaire to Cartagena ? were based on two trips they made themselves along the Colombia coast, once in each direction, using the beautiful and historic city of Cartagena as a stepping stone. These notes, published in July 1999 in Caribbean Compass, a monthly newspaper of the eastern Caribbean, have since achieved an independent dissemination passed from one cruiser hand to another or Xeroxed from bulletin board copies posted in Trinidad, Bonaire, Curaçao and Cartagena. Dozens of boats have made this trip in both directions and at all times of the year, but in October 2000 alone, taking advantage of prime travel time, twenty boats made the trek between Spanish Waters, Curaçao and Cartagena, Colombia (one eastbound) using PIZAZZ's guidelines. Of these 20 boats, eleven are Seven Seas members : BRIANA, SUE THING, AUSTERITY, SUNBOW, SANDI LEE, ENCHANTRESS, SOGGY PAWS, HOMEWARD BOUND, NEW MORNING, and ourselves TACKLESS II. CAMRYKA gets honorable inclusion; despite being delayed in Spanish Waters, Mary was a dependable net controller for the group, and they will shortly be following

One of the boats that is not a Seven Seas member is PIZAZZ itself, making its third trip. Hopefully, this is something we can persuade them to remedy, since the detail of their cruising guidelines as well as the level of their personal input to this year's informal flotilla is definitely in the spirit of the Seven Seas tradition. Meanwhile, the details of this trip need to be recorded somewhere for posterity, and we can think of no better place than in the Seven Seas Bulletin. So, with PIZAZZ's permission, I will paraphrase those directions here, with annotations and observations contributed by various boats making the trip this year.

(PLEASE NOTE: Waypoints ? 000*00.00 ? are given in degrees, minutes and hundredths of minutes (not seconds)! Remember: GPS readings vary slightly depending on your equipment. Also, these readings were taken before the desensitization of the GPS system, however, they worked well for all the boats making the trip this October. Similarly be advised that available charts for this coast, whether digital or print, may not have been updated in decades. All captains must use their own discretion.)

The starting node for the passage west proved to be Curaçao's Spanish Waters. It is approximately 35 miles downwind from Bonaire, with the waypoint for the entrance at 12*03.55N 68*51.143W. The squat green fuel tanks on the hillside just beyond the entrance make a great landmark to aim for. The entrance is narrow, but stay close to the beach and swim area on the south side in 90 feet of water and you can see the reef on the north side easily. Zigzag in watching for shallow areas. We noted that our Maptech DMA digital chart for Spanish Waters was unusually accurate, but the channel is unlit, so be sure to arrive with plenty of sunlight.

This huge, completely enclosed bay has plenty of room for assembling yachts. The anchorage off Sarifundy's Bar Restaurant is to port once you are clear the channel. Sarifundy's provides a number of services for yachties including water at a few cents a gallon and laundry facilities. Seru Boca Marina, a popular spot for storing boats, is to starboard.

The city bus to Willemsted for clearing in can be caught in front of Kees Place, another bar at the westernmost lobe of the bay. Customs is in a modern building right on the corner of the inlet and the estuary. For immigration, however you must walk across the pontoon bridge and follow the pier inland to an inconspicuous, barely-identified, blue and white building almost beneath the overhead highway bridge!

Curaçao is an excellent place to provision. From Sarifundy's Bar a free bus goes almost daily to one of several different supermarkets. Curaçao also has a Cost U Less as well as their own wholesale store, but either will require a rental car, which we arranged conveniently from Limestone Guest House, a very short walk from Sarifundy's. We were also in the market for a multi-system TV and VCR for worldwide reception and were able to work a decent deal with Boolchands downtown.

It's 70 miles from Spanish Waters to Oranjested, Aruba, so in keeping with the spirit of doing this trip in daysails, plan at least one stop at the western end of Curaçao. Because there is no sounding practically right up to shore, you can enjoy sailing the Curaçao coast close to. There are a number small anchorages indented into Curaçao's NW coast.** The PIZAZZ guidelines recommend stopping in Santa Kruz Bay at 12* 25.34N 069*08.77W which is about 25 miles northwest of Spanish Waters. This is a little U-shaped anchorage inset into the prevailing rock cliffs of the coast with a sandy beach at the head, which the locals use as a boat launch facility. We found good sand well-in in about 11' of water. Behind that is mostly rubble. SOGGY PAWS reported good sand in the outer shelf just to the south of the bay, inshore of several dive moorings. The snorkeling is interesting along the cliffs, but dull away from them.

One of the chief recommendations for Santa Kruz is that it makes for an uncomplicated pre-dawn departure. From this end of Curaçao it is 45 miles to Aruba, usually downwind and with a good current pushing you along. There is a reason that Aruba is not a big yachting destination: there are not many anchorages, and those few are shallow. The first, included mostly as an emergency stop, is Rogers Beach, just south of the refinery in Sint Nicholas Baai ? enter between the buoys at 12*25.34N, 069*53.96 W (green buoy to starboard!), head 090 to the next green buoy at 12*25.38N 069*53.51W, then head 115 to anchor wherever you wish in 10-12' in sand and grass. It is a little rolly and eerie at night with the lights and the flames of the refinery, although you at least are upwind of smoke and smell!

Most of the boats used PIZAZZ's recommended anchorage about 3 miles north of the Oranjestad area near the high-rise hotels. The lighted red buoy that once was at 12*34.87N 070*03.34W was carried away in Hurricane Lenny. Currently there is a white float with no light, but the waypoint still works. Leave the float/waypoint to port and head approximately 090 toward the beach and anchor in 7-8 feet in sand and grass. The Marriott Hotel and Condos are the left two buildings along this stretch. There is easy access to $2 busses (RT) to supermarkets. Several boats, including PIZAZZ, spent quite a bit of time enjoying the sights of Aruba. It is easy to forget, with your mind on getting to Cartagena, that Aruba is a destination in itself worth visiting.

By the way, when you clear out of Curaçao, clear out for Cartagena, with about 3 weeks allotted for the passage, even if you plan to spend a few days enjoying Aruba. Unlike most of the boats, we did the official thing in Oranjestad, because SANDI LEE had a guest to disembark. What a pain! The Aruba Port Authority (VHF 11) requires you to come to the dock ? a cement pier with black rubber tires. There is a long reef right off the city which you can enter either from the entrance near the airport at 12.30.27N 070.02.40W (red buoy to starboard) or from the NW entrance at 12.31.58N 070.03.55W (red buoy to port.) The ?cruise ship dock? is perpendicular to the channel right in the middle of its length. Although there was no one to help us dock, the customs officials were pretty quick to show up, even though it was a Sunday afternoon. There were three, and all came on board, admired the boat and enjoyed a cold beverage! Regardless of this warm exchange, they insisted we would have to return to the dock to clear out even though we planned to depart at 0500! Sure! The Immigration officer was slower to appear, but he surprised us by making no fuss over the disembarking guest, cleared us in and out, and even gave the guest a ride to the airport!

We spent our night in Aruba along with SANDI LEE at the so-called airport ?anchorage.? This proved to be a very shallow area ? 6-8'? to the side of the channel, which, with the wind piping at 25 kts, the jets landing overhead, and the Sunday afternoon power-watersports enthusiasts zipping all around, was not especially relaxing. Holding proved good, however, and our exit was well lit for another pre-dawn departure.

The next stop is Monjes del Sur, which is one of a small archipelago of islands suspended over the mouth of the Gulf of Maracaibo. The waypoint of 12*21.74N 070*52.77W takes you in a straight shot to the north coast of ?The Rock? as the cruisers took to calling it (You will pass south of another Monjes.) Although it is off the Colombian coast, the rock is Venezuelan, and the Venezuelan Coast Guard maintains an outpost there. They monitor this area of sea pretty thoroughly by radar, so you will most likely get a call from them (?vessel at such and such a lat/long?) as much as 20 miles out! If not, be sure to call (VHF 16) before your arrival to request permission stop there. Their English doesn't go far; just assume they are asking the usual questions about the boat, homeport, the captain etc.

From the waypoint, come around the north side to reach the ?harbor? at 12*21.65N 070*54.24W. The harbor at Monjes del Sur is an experience. It is maybe about 150 feet wide behind a rock dam reinforcing whatever connection might have been original between the two natural piles of rock. On the north side is a long concrete dock with big black tires, to which you could tie, and, although it is possible to anchor, the depth is 50-60' with mixed bottom conditions. Instead most tie up to a line stretched from one side to the other. The line was set up with four eyes, previously the most boats to use the refuge at one time, through which a long dockline (and a safety!) loops through and back to the boat. The afternoon we pulled in, however, it turned out the boat group ahead of us had not left as scheduled, making a total of six sailboats to be accommodated! In the hours between our first contact and our arrival the Coast Guard and the yachts crews (all 7 Seas members) worked together to reinforce the line and make room for two more!

Which brings us to the real charm of this barren outpost: the commandant. When we were there, the official in charge was a Lieutenant named Antonio. (They alternate one month on, one month off.) It is not hard to imagine that visiting yachts are a welcome distraction from the norm for the 15 men stationed here, but Lt. Antonio in particular went out of his way to make us feel welcome. Currently his office is in the white building on the rock promontory defining the east arm of the harbor, and he stands in the doorway looking down on you as he talks to you on the radio. We learned, however, when we went in to do paperwork, that swells from hurricane Lenny went right through the original facility. A new facility was nearing completion much farther up the hill. Hopefully they will move the generator up there with them. Its 24-hour presence was the real hardship of Monjes?once you got used to the precarious concept of being attached (with five other boats) to a 5/8? line in 20-25kts of wind!

We stayed 3½ nights waiting for a break in the wind and seas. Snorkeling is quite interesting, and several people had successful spear-fishing forays, although the gangs of barracuda are discouraging. Until the last day, we were reluctant for both of us to leave the boat at one time. The image of the line snapping and setting all attached boats adrift was pretty vivid, especially as, during our stay, the Coast Guardsmen had no tender!! (Reportedly, they had one a week later!) Also don't miss the hike up to the lighthouse; it is well worth the view.

The next leg is 80 miles to Cabo de Vela on the Colombian coast, so a wee hour departure is required. We left at 0200, easily done in the well-lit basin by dropping our tethers to the line. The first waypoint 45 miles distant is Punta Gallinas on La Guajira peninsula at 12.28.80N 071.40.03W which is about two miles offshore. After weeks in deep water areas, it is startling to find yourself sailing in 50' of water or less. La Guajira peninsula is semi-desert flatlands with mountains way off in the distance. A possible emergency stop along this coast is Bahia Honda at 12*24.00N 071*49.00W. Swing back to the port side of the bay entrance as there's a visible rock towards the starboard side, and anchor in 30' This anchorage is probably most useful for eastbound boats needing a break from windward bashing. Boats that stopped there this year didn't care for it.

Continuing along the coast, the wind seems to drop off here in the morning hours, but it will pick up again as you bear south around waypoint 12*14.49 72*10.022. We had a romping downwind run on the way to Cabo de Vela at waypoint 12*14.50N 072*10.00W. The rhumb line will pass right through the offshore anchorage for huge bulk carriers waiting their turn at Bahia Portete, a coaling port. It makes you feel very small!

The headland at Cabo de Vela is striking. A black pyramid of rock thrusts up through buff-colored bluffs. By this time we had reefed down to a scrap of headsail which carried us briskly around the small offshore island (you can go between the island and the peninsula in 15' of water) to anchor at 12*12.27N 072*10.69W in 10-20'. There is good holding in sand, which is fortunate since, as the name Cabo de Vela suggests, there is plenty of wind! The scenery is striking with a lighthouse atop the burnt umber slope, and the Indian fisherman will appear in their dugout canoes to set nets around you or you will see them on foot combing the rocky shore. This was our first chance to interact with Colombians. The fisherman were friendly, and there would have been the opportunity to trade for or buy some small lobsters had anyone known the exchange rate for pesos (2000 pesos=$1 US). This anchorage is fine in northeasterly winds, but should the wind go to east or southeast, the fetch could make things unpleasant. The group before us moved 1.8nm bearing 120 degrees to anchor in 10' in a variable bottom where they found protection from any wind in the eastern quadrant. This put them to the right of the little Indian village, at the end of a long beach which BRIANA reports had the best shelling they'd seen in years.

Whichever anchorage you choose, get well rested as the next leg is the only full overnight passage of the journey. The single waypoint at 11*22.00N 74*03.50 W is 120nm away defining a straight line like a bowstring from cape to cape! We left just before 1400, tacking our way downwind, and all boats with lines in the water enjoyed great fishing all afternoon ? tuna and wahoo! We had strategically planned this passage just after the full moon, but the strategy was pretty much wasted as the sun set like the proverbial red rubber ball into a murky haze that foreshadowed a stormy night.

For all the weeks we'd been cruising the islands north of South America, we had watched the distant lightning shows over the mainland. This night we had front row seats! Most of the time, it's probably true that the lightning stays over land. It didn't that night. An ominous black cloud seeped seaward (we were more than 12nm off shore at this point, just about abreast the oil platform off Riohacha), and, when it hit us (at the time the lead boat), we experienced 37 kts of wind, the highest sustained winds we have yet seen at sea. We had lightning going every which way ? up, down and sideways through the clouds. It took about two hours to get through. By this time there were six boats in our group, and everyone came through unscathed.

After the storm, the winds went light, the skies cleared, and the full moon finally showed up. Dawn seemed to take a helluva a long time to make its appearance. But, when it did, it was like a ?rebirth of the world? moment, for up beyond our waypoint, where we could make out a layer of mountains and clouds, we perceived in a double-take that the second layer of clouds was in fact a second layer of mountains. No, MOUNTAINS! The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, with snow-capped peaks reaching over 15,000 feet!! What a change from the Gaira Peninsula!

The waypoint brings you to an area we called ?the Five Bays?. The favorite one seems to be Guayraca Bay. To distinguish which bay is Guayraca, continue along the coast to longitude 74*07W and turn left. (By the way, two boats caught huge tunas in the last few miles!) It is a beautiful deeply inset bay with steep green hillsides and a caramel-colored beach. It, like all the other bays, is part of the Parque Tayrona, and there appeared to be a mixture of fisherman's houses and vacation places. The anchorage has a good sand bottom and is protected from all directions except north, but it is prone to willywaws, abrupt gusts from just about any direction that sets the boat a humming. Willywaws or no, most all the transiting boats stayed multiple days in Guayraca. Although several fishermen waved, no boat approached us. The snorkeling, especially on a submerged rock about 2/3 the way out the west side (under the white house), as well as along the east shore was rewarding, revealing several uncommon species. Even more protected than Guayraca is the fifth, most westward, bay called Ancon Concha. Several boats who spent a few days there report there is a bit more shore development here, and it is liable to be busier with local boaters from nearby Santa Marta. Also, the depth drops off quickly from the beach and holding varied.

For the next leg of the passage, you can choose to leave from the Five Bays directly, or you can opt for a jump-start by motoring about 15 miles to Rodadero. Rodadero does not actually appear on charts. It is an upscale tourist area of handsome high-rises, palm trees and beaches between Santa Marta and Gaira. To get there you can take a short cut just west of Ancon Concha between Aguja Island and the coast with 45' of depth at 11*18.46N 074*11.60W. Go between the jagged point sticking southward into the cut from Aguja and the three rocks awash in the center. Reel in your fishing line; this is not the place to get a strike like we did! Continue south along the coast passing Santa Marta inside or outside El Morro Grande, a white rock with a neat lighthouse on top. We picked up a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphin here that stayed with us a good twenty minutes. Proceed around the bend past a private island until Rodadero reveals itself tucked up to the northeast corner of the bay. Anchor outside the swim buoys near 11*12.10N 074*13.75 in 25-40'.

With six boats arriving together, we expected a visit from the port captain who has been known to limit your stay to 24 hours if you don't clear in. The agent in Rodadero will want $100 US to clear you, but as you will have to do it again in Cartagena it's wiser to avoid it. Surprisingly, we never heard from the port captain. We did get a welcoming call, in English, on the VHF from the operator of the marina. The marina is up a very narrow canal that has a gate across it, so we never actually saw it, but the caller offered to change dollars and help in any way we might need. Those of our group who ventured ashore were scooped up by some entrepreneurial tour guides ? Carlos and Eddie ? both of whom spoke good English. Rodadero used to see a lot of Canadian tourists, and Carlos was an official tour guide in those days, but the internal troubles have not only squashed that market, they discourage even Colombians from driving across the mountains. Carlos set someone to watch the dinghies and then guided us to a cambio, to a place for lunch, and then to the supermercado, which was nicely stocked especially with produce. Since they would not commit to a fee for their services, we anticipated a bad moment at the end, but they were quite happy with the $5 per person that we offered, and we were happy to give it to them, as they were informative hosts. Apparently, the six US-flag boats were somewhat of a curiosity as all afternoon we were circled by rental pedal-boats checking us out. In any other situation it might have been unsettling, but it's hard to get anxious over something that looks like a ladybug! Unfortunately, the last group in the October flotilla, were approached by someone presenting himself as a policeman and asking for $25 per boat. They did not pay, and fortunately there were no repercussions.

Rodadero is very easy to leave in the dark, especially as the city is lit up all night. We left about 0200 in order to do the 40 miles to the Rio Magdalena, the outflow of which one wants to cross in the morning before the winds pick up in midday and kick up the seas. There is much debate about whether it is better/safer to cross the Rio well offshore or close-in. In theory, the seas are less rough offshore, but the turbid water with the potential of floating debris ? from water hyacinth to logs to mankind's trash -- will have fanned out into a wider area. Most of our group chose to cross within two miles of the sea buoys. We were quite anxious, as we had had rollicking winds all night with no evidence of lessening come daylight. It seems it was our good fortune that there had been little rain in the highlands. Although the water turned quite brown with a powerful earthy scent, we saw no hazardous debris whatsoever. On the other hand, there is some large river traffic, inbound and outbound. We had a container ship doing donuts offshore, so, unsure of his intentions, we did a security call. This prompted a courteous exchange with the Baranquilla Port Control on VHF 16, who were friendly, gave us the go ahead, and did it all in clear English!

The waypoint for Punta Hermosa, the next night anchorage, is 10*56.50N 075*02.35W. Punta Hermosa does not show up well on the charts; it seems that it is a bay in the process of forming. Indeed, CHANGE MAY BE THE WATCHWORD for this whole stretch of coast down current from the Rio Magdalena. When we switched charts, we were a little startled to see depicted some potential hazards (a wreck and a sand bar) within 3 miles of shore that the first chart hadn't suggested. Therefore, you may find that the rhumb line from the Rio Magdalena, especially if your cross close in) to the waypoint may bring you a little close to shore if you cross the Rio close in. Probably best to sail so that you approach the waypoint from the northwest. Also, it seems one switches climatological zones upon crossing the Rio Magdalena. The winds went light, veered east, and our ever-present current from behind disappeared.

The Punta Hermosa anchorage, behind a long, long?. long spit of land (manually reinforced?), currently appears to be wide open. BRIANA took soundings all around the entrance, as in the past, according to PIZAZZ's directions, a dogleg was required to enter. Whatever was there is no longer. We all entered straight in to the east and northeast anchoring in about 15' of water.

Finally, the last leg! At only 50 miles, it really is a ?daysail,? except that again there is little wind and perhaps a slight counter current. You will, however, finally be close enough along the coast to see some details. We all made another dawn departure, motorsailing about 18.5nm to the Zamba Bank (no problems going over) at 10*49.07N 075*20.41W ; another 18nm to our next waypoint off Punta Canoas at 10*34.96N 075*31.79W, and finally almost 12nm, the last of it in 20' of water, to Boca Grande, Cartagena, which unfolds like a mini-Manhattan with all development UP!

Historically, Cartagena is known for its defensive wall network, and this extended right across the mouth of the Boca Grande Entrance. The submerged wall is still depicted on charts, but the Boca Grande Entrance waypoint ? 10*23.45N 075*34.47 ? sets you up for a straight-in turn through the small craft entrance, which is clearly marked with fixed red and green beacons with lights. PIZAZZ's original directions quote an eleven-foot depth, but we saw a steady 17' coming-through. Stay out aways from the hotel beaches, as the water will start to shoal quickly if you stray in that direction. There is a lighthouse at the inner end of Boca Grande. Round that to port and proceed into the harbor behind the Boca Grande peninsula. Ahead of you will see the Madonna and Child statue in the center with buoyed channels circling it to starboard or port.

PIZAZZ'S original directions include information about the wider and deep Boca Chica entrance to the south, but, considering how well-marked the Boca Grande entrance is, I can see no reason why a cruising boat would choose it. It adds at least two hours to your arrival time, and the word is that anchoring in that area is a sure bet to get you robbed. However, should you choose to enter that way, it is buoyed but with more buoys than are indicated on the charts.

Club Nautico, the cruisers hangout, easily identifiable by the anchored boats, is on the far (North) side of the monument. Depending on how many boats are around, be prepared to anchor in 30-40'. Allow plenty of swinging room, as Cartagena is known for winds clocking around on a daily basis.

Speaking of ?clocking,? it's time to set your watches back an hour. Cartagena is ZD-5. You will appreciate that extra hour in bed come morning!

Club Nautico offers many services to cruisers, including water, laundry, phone, fax, a bar/restaurant and secure dinghy dockage at very reasonable rates, plus it all goes on a weekly tab (That you MUST pay Wednesday mornings!) You can also opt to dock, med-moor style at Club Nautico (VHF 06) with power (120v; 60hz) and water, or you may be able to arrange a slip at the Club de Pesca, which is one of the places you can get fuel.

Finally, you must use an agent to clear in at Cartagena. There are two that cruisers most often use: Manfred, who hangs out at Club Nautico, or Ana who operates AS DE GUIA Agencia Maritima from a small office, several blocks down the waterfront (turn at the white building with Mercury sign on it). The cost is $60 with either. They do all the paperwork, except that this year all cruisers were required to go personally to Immigration. Nobody actually spoke to us (!), but it's required all the same. AS DE GUIA provided transport and accompanied us, and generally reports on their service were better than on Manfred. (Note: the Immigration office is a short walk from a major commercial strip with Home Mart; a big, new Olympica supermarket (best for real provisioning), and a whole string of battery, automotive, electrical repair and parts shops that are worth checking out while you're there! Taxis to and from are about 2500 pesos ($1.25))

Enjoy Cartagena. It is a far more elegant city that any other we have yet seen in the Caribbean. By choosing the coastal route, you didn't have to cope with 3-4 24-hour days of often rough offshore sailing; you ?cruised? a part of the world that relatively few ever see, meeting nice people along the way, without getting exhausted. Now that you are here, you can sightsee a truly historical city and prep for your next destination ? San Blas or perhaps San Andrés and Providencia?. or, you could turn around and go back! Many do! Just reverse the order of waypoints to go east.

A couple of final words: Before you choose either route, be sure to check you insurance to know what it says. Some policies exclude Colombia, some exclude it except for Cartagena, and some require you to not be more than 200 miles offshore. Just because the policy says something, don't assume it's their final word. Frequently modifications are available simply for the asking. Insurance companies tend to write up for the lowest common denominator.

The other is to not be naïve about Colombia's reality. It is the major drug trafficking center of the world AND it has a long-running guerrilla war going on in the mountains. The Lonely Planet Colombia Guidebook makes a great reference for learning something of the country's history, geography and evolving politics, but Colombia is NOT a good place for cruisers to even think about traveling inland! At this point in time, outgoing President Clinton recently gave the government ?mucho dinero? to aid in quashing the remaining guerrillas, whose popular support is waning anyway, plus we understand that the currently dominant drug cartel is one that does not indulge in narco-terrorism, a comforting trend! Although things change, let's hope they continue to change for the better. Meanwhile, traveling in company relieves a lot of the security anxieties that people have in this part of the world. Having someone expect your daily checkins (any of the morning nets, for example) is smart, but having someone you can touch base with by VHF anytime on passage, should there be any trouble from bad weather to suspicious shadows on the horizon, is smarter. Our Cartagena 2000 group ran our own SSB radio net, and each subgroup, usually 4-6 boats, maintained regular two-hourly checkins, complete with position reports when underway.

--Gwen Hamlin & Don Wilson ? sv Tackless II

** Bob and Kathy Pauly of BRIANA have prepared an article for Seven Seas specifically on the ?other? anchorages of Curaçao.



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