May 19/2021: Editor’s Note… I was planning here to reprise a fine adventure I had back in May 2003, when I sailed from Cartagena, Colombia, to the western Caribbean islands of San Andrés and Providencia in a local race/rally called La Ruta de Morgan. My host and skipper was a very special man, Eric Thiriez, who made a significant impression on me at the time. Googling about prior to preparing this I’ve just discovered Eric was lost at sea back in 2017. An appropriate end to his life, but a very sad discovery for me. You’ll find more details on Eric’s demise at the end of this post.
IT QUICKLY BECAME APPARENT to me that Eric Thiriez must be the one man on planet Earth who knew best how to get away from the north coast of Colombia under sail. He had it all foxed from the get-go. We leaned away from the line just a shade at the gun to stay clear of useless collisions, then Eric quickly powered up Alegria, his 1990 Jeanneau Sunkiss 47, and pushed to the front of the fleet to set up for our run at the real starting line out at the harbor entrance. This, quite literally, was a narrow gate, the one hole in an underwater wall that embraces the harbor like a chastity belt and forms the first in a series of anti-pirate defenses that centuries ago made Cartagena, Colombia, the best defended spot in all the Americas.
Alegria was the first boat through, slipping between the channel buoys close-hauled on port tack, slicing due north against a moderate 15-knot northwesterly sea breeze.
“We are in the lee of the mountains,” Eric explained as he waved a finger at the chart.
There, more than 100 miles due east of Cartagena, lay the forbidding Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria–the highest peaks in Colombia, the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, an isolated exclamation point punctuating the north end of South America’s Andean spine. They were blocking the flow of the prevailing northeast tradewinds, and though our destination, the island of San Andrés, lay some 400 miles west off the coast of Nicaragua, Eric knew for certain the fastest route there must first lead north.
La Ruta de Morgan was organized and sponsored by the Club de Pesca de Cartagena, the swankiest yacht club in town near as I could tell. Here we see their clubhouse and marina a day before the race start
And here we see various club members hobnobbing over a chart of the race course
The blessing of the fleet. Taking communion was optional
Having your boat searched was not optional. Here we see the police and a drug-sniffing dog inspecting Alegria the morning of the start
I had a couple of days before the start to check out Cartagena. As with other Spanish treasure ports in the Caribbean, its old town has some fine colonial architecture
The city’s Castillo San Felipe de Barajas was in its day considered the region’s most impregnable fortress
But it seemed quite pregnable during my visit, as these panhandlers easily surmounted the walls and assaulted tourists with plastic alms cups taped to the end of super-long sticks
We were not alone. Alegria was the largest of the 11 sailboats competing in this, the fourth annual La Ruta de Morgan, but she was not necessarily the fastest. Boogie, a skinned-out Bernard Nivelt 40, and Flight, a lean Olson 40, were both light and fast enough to keep up with us, and their owners, José Gomez and Jaime Ambrad, were determined to follow Eric’s lead.
The sea breeze was a godsend, but it could not last long. As the afternoon wore on and we stretched out further and further from the coast in the hot gray haze, it slowly expired. By sunset it was a mere breath of air and we struggled to keep the boat moving at more than 2 knots. Eric, though relaxed, was acutely attuned to the wind’s demise. Then there was the slightest of lulls in its faint remains, a barely detectable shift to the right, and he sat bolt upright.
“Ha! Just in time!” And he laughed at the dying sun. “We must tack the boat now!’
We did as Eric ordered, and within a moment the wind filled in nicely from the northeast. It picked up to about 17 knots, and we started close-reaching straight through the twilight toward San Andrés at better than 7 knots. Eric set no watch and instead sat all night long in the cockpit himself, studying the lights of Boogie and Flight, constantly within our ambit. He watched the wind, carefully trimmed our sails, studied those lights some more, and quietly dozed off from time to time.
I KEPT ERIC COMPANY from 2330 to 0330 hours that first night out and was grateful when my Colombian shipmate Carlos Echeverria, a young chemical plant manager, poked his head up the companionway to ask if I’d like to sleep for a while. I was dead to the world in my berth below until about 0700, when suddenly I was wakened by an awful commotion on deck.
On clambering up the companionway I found the rest of the crew–Eric, his young son Massimo, Carlos, and Eric’s old school chum from France, Bernard Crombalk–had launched some sort of a screecher or Code Zero sail forward of the still flying genoa. They also had somehow managed to drop the anchor overboard, and now it was trailing behind us at the end of 200 feet of tautly tensioned rode and about 50 feet of chain as we sailed along on a hard beam reach making better than 7 knots.
Eric was very calm about this. Between the five of us we spoke three different languages–French, Spanish, and English–and only he spoke all three, so he had complete command of the flow of information onboard. It was thus difficult for me to get a coherent explanation of what exactly had happened with the anchor. But I gathered there had been some sort of mishap involving the large folding A-frame sprit on our bow from which the screecher was now flying. Conceived and manufactured by Eric himself, the sprit was a great example of the dogged DIY spirit that enabled Colombian sailors to maintain and improve their boats far from the bounteous Land of West Marine.
Boogie and Flight, meanwhile, were still behind us, but were now–thanks to the impediment of the anchor–quickly catching up. We were racing, so of course stopping the boat was out of the question. Eric instead led us patiently, in our three different languages, through various retrieval schemes involving the windlass and a large primary winch. These failed unfortunately, and in the end the five of us simply hauled the rode, chain, and anchor hand over hand up the transom.
“A beer!” declared Eric triumphantly when we were done.
Massimo dutifully handed them round, but soon we were right back to work again.
For the wind by now had gone light, had shifted a bit aft, and we were first forced to roll up the genoa. Soon we also had to douse the screecher and in its place launched a large symmetrical spinnaker, or “spee” as Eric called it. It was an ancient much-patched bag of a thing, and before we could even get it to set properly a huge hole was torn in it.
Eric shrugged philosophically: “We shall raise the other one. It is older, but heavier.”
This was hard for me to believe–that it was older, I mean–but it was. Like all of Alegria’s sails, as with most sails in the fleet, I guessed, it was a frail hand-me-down. It survived the hoist, stayed set for 15 minutes, then poof, it too was torn to bits.
Our competition meanwhile, inspired by our example, had raised their spinnakers–first Flight, then Boogie. We had no more spee, however, and could only watch helplessly as they disappeared over the horizon.
Eric (right) and Bernard maintain their cool during the race start
Eric’s son Massimo appraises the situation as we sail off the start line. Note the celebratory fireboats in the background! Massimo, though afflicted with Downs Syndrome, was an integral member of the crew
Eric in a characteristic pose, offering food to people
Carlos at the mast
Carlos keeping an eye on the competition
ERIC WAS SORT OF a second-generation expatriate in Colombia, in that one of his grandparents had settled in Medellín. Trained as an engineer, he came to Cartagena from Switzerland in 1970. He served initially as a French aid worker, then as a physics and math professor at a Colombian naval school. Ultimately he made his fortune building first shrimp boats, then massive low-lift pumps for shrimp farming. The company he founded, ETec, exports its unique floating pumps to over 30 countries all around the world.
Though Eric had lived a long time in Colombia, he still seemed very French to me. He was very passionate about both sailing and food. The dinner he prepared for us that second evening at sea was fantastic: a lush seafood stew full of shrimp and mussels with lots of crushed garlic on the side. We washed it down with a fine bottle of Côtes du Rhône, thus were feeling sanguine as we regarded the sunset, the beautiful new moon… and the freshening breeze.
“Now they must take down their spee,” noted Eric with a gleam in his eye.
The tropical night was as magnificent as the meal, a blessed relief from the furnace of the day. Eric spent a few hours sleeping down below, then again was on watch in the cockpit for the duration. The wind stayed strong, blowing over 20 knots, the seas kept building, and Alegria plunged ahead doing 9 knots or better for hour after hour. The next morning was hot and hazy, and I spent a good part of it sitting in the transom scoop pouring buckets of seawater over my head.
In the early afternoon the wind shifted further aft, coming straight from the east, and Eric decreed we should pole out the genoa and run wing-and-wing before it. As soon as we finished the set, we noticed two sails, barely visible, off to the south of us.
The finish was glorious. Long after sunset we caught Boogie at “the stones,” as Eric termed them. Los Cayos del Este Sudesta, a lonely unlit reef lying 30 miles east of San Andrés. We cleaved as close to the unseen stones as we dared to pass Boogie on the inside and in so doing also took a big bite out of Flight’s lead. In the end we could not quite catch her, but we came damn close and crossed the line just a few minutes behind in second place.
But then, in what should have been a moment of pride and exultation, Eric suddenly came unglued. Our Fearless Leader, he who had brought us here so calmly and competently, now suddenly was incapable of interpreting the well-lit channel we had to follow up into the harbor at the north end of the island. He scowled and yelled, and there was, quite clearly, and edge of fear in his voice. Even after only two days of sailing with the man, this seemed impossible to me.
“Have you been here before at night?” I asked.
“Once, in a hurricane,” he answered. Then he waved me and Carlos forward to con the lights for him. “The lights!” he cried. “Why can I not see the lights???”
But the lights were clearly visible, red and green to either side of the channel, shining brightly.
Then suddenly it occurred to me. “Are you colorblind?” I asked.
But Eric only cursed more in several languages and waved me forward. So I joined Carlos on the bow. We shouted urgent directions back to the helm. Eric shouted back. And finally we came to anchor amid a small fleet of ragtag shrimp boats.
Immediately Eric was his old self–cheerful, full of energy–and though it was now after 0100 hours and this was the third night he had effectively had no sleep, he swarmed into the galley to prepare a massive pasta feast.
We ate the pasta and drank more wine and ate some more pasta, and sometime after 0230 I collapsed into my berth like a corpse.
At 0630, on waking again, I found Eric and his old pal Bernard sitting in the cockpit, basking in the light of the new day, pointing at a bright red sailboat anchored beside us. They were both laughing out loud.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.
“That boat!” exclaimed Eric with a huge smile on his face. “We are laughing at that greenish-brown boat over there.”
IN SPITE OF THE FACT that both San Andrés and Providencia are much closer to Nicaragua, they are in fact Colombian territory. San Andrés, a low coral island, has a relatively largely population, with over 65,000 residents. It is also heavily touristed and is a popular offshore duty-free shopping mecca for prosperous Colombians from the mainland. Not exactly my kind of place.
Alegria (left) and fellow competitors on the dock at San Andrés
Eric takes a bath
José Gomez aboard his boat Boogie, displaying his explanatory handicap, a recently broken arm
Alegria’s mighty fold-down bowsprit, designed and manufactured by Eric
These long narrow offshore skiffs, known locally as “go-fasts,” were a common sight on San Andrés. According to Eric they were used by drug smugglers taking loads up to Mexico and often stopped here to refuel. Once they reached Mexico, the boats would be discarded
We spent a couple of days at San Andrés, then sailed north some 35 miles to Providencia. This leg too was supposed to be a race, but Eric by now was in more of a cruising mode and was not inclined to push Alegria too hard on this boisterous upwind route.
For me Providencia was something of a revelation. It is a high volcanic island, idyllic, thinly populated, with just about 3,500 inhabitants back in those days, and has a most intriguing history. What my fellow rally-goers told me seemed a bit of a fable. That history had forgotten that the English Puritan mothership to the Americas, the Mayflower, in fact had a sistership, the Seaflower, that was sent to the Caribbean instead of Massachusetts and landed on this island they named Providence. These Puritans, unlike their northern brethren, quickly devolved into slavers and pirates and were for a time the bane of the western Caribbean.
The anchorage at Providencia, as seen from its smaller sister island Santa Catalina
The colorful floating footbridge that connected Providencia to Santa Catalina
Alegria taking on water at Providencia. It was delivered to the dock in big open tubs, then was siphoned into our tanks
One big treat for me was getting to witness the launching and racing of some traditional island sloops
Assembling a rig on the beach
Getting ready to take off
Under sail! I was little surprised they didn’t use hiking planks on these narrow craft. Note the boats are steered with lines led to a yoke on the rudderhead
Reading up a bit afterwards, I was surprised to find this was largely true. Later in the 17th century, after the Spanish suppressed the noisome Puritans, the island was taken over by Henry Morgan, an English buccaneer of great repute. Morgan’s most famous exploit came in 1671, when he used Providencia as the base for launching his audacious cross-isthmus invasion of Panama City. La Ruta de Morgan, our race/rally, was of course named after him.
One curious result of the island’s history is that many of its inhabitants are now Afro-Caribbean Protestants known as Raizals who speak an English-based Creole that is largely unintelligible to the upscale Spanish-speaking Colombians who hold titular sway over the place. It seemed ironic to me that in this little tropical paradise English should be the secret language of the underclass.
AS TO WHAT HAPPENED to Eric… I don’t have a lot of information. He had another boat, Saquerlotte, a successor to Alegria I assume, that he had purchased secondhand in Europe. In the spring of 2017 apparently he was planning to sail Saquerlotte back to Europe from Cartagena, stopping first in the Dominican Republic. I gather he and three others departed Cartagena on Friday, April 7, and that same night Saquerlotte began taking on water and presumably sank.
The next morning, some 50 miles from Cartagena, the Colombian navy picked up three survivors–Frank Camacho, Roberto Reyes, and Luis Miguel Herrera–but found no sign of Eric.
The survivors as they were extracted from the water. I’m not sure whether a liferaft was involved
Eric was a great man, a really great skipper, a great spirit, and my heart goes out to his family.
RIP: Eric Thiriez, January 24, 1944 – April 7, 2017