Friday, January 11, 2008

Colombia to Panama- Introducing Your Boatmates

This is a long story, so here's a contents page so you can skip anything boring...

Intro- Meet Your Boatmates
All the background you need (you're already looking at the page)
Day 1- Inexperience the Unknown
A motley collection of inexperienced backpackers tackle the high seas.
Day2- Life on the Moderate Seas After a night of terror, a day of the mundane.
Day3- Sacre Bleu! That Continent Came out of Nowhere
In a hilarious twist, we become shipwrecked on the coast of Panama
Day4- Life in the Village Life stranded in a Kuna Village
Day5- Legal battles Courtroom jousting with the evil captain and hilarious outbursts from the violent-est crew member
Day6- Human Playground Equipment We move villages and act as entertainment for the children
Day7- Back to Reality We catch a plane to Panama City

For God's Sake, Why Take a Boat?

Getting from South to Central America is not a journey that can be made by road. Crossing to the continents by land means an excursion through the Darien Gap, an isthmus of thick swamp and jungle that prevents the ultimate completion of the Pan American Highway. It also provides refuge for Colombian guerrillas on R&R from their civil war, in turn acting as a hunting ground for the paramilitary groups that pursue them. There are also drug traffickers to consider, alongside all manner of poisonous wildlife. The only option, other than by foot and a mish-mash of unreliable, expensive transportations (a trip guidebooks describe using a variety of alarmist language such as foolhardy, perilous and thoroughly discouraged) is by flying (cheating), or by private sailboats, which leave Cartagena at irregular intervals. The journey includes a couple of days at sea, and the boats generally stop off for a couple of days at the idyllic San Blas Islands before continuing on to the North East coast of Panama. We got ourselves on one such sailboat, paid the $300 fare, and undertook a journey that so far is the most epic story to arise out of this trip.


Paul and Me on one of our last nights in South America

Our group was made up of Paul and Charlotte, who we’ve been travelling with for some time now, and Angie and myself. We were sharing the tub with six other souls; a mixture of English and Americans and the captain. None of us (and I suspect this includes the captain) had any sailing experience on the high seas, save for various ocean-themed cinema, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander and old tapes of Captain Pugwash.

Le Capitaine

Bad Captain

The captain, who cannot be named, or explicitly described (it's a legal thing), had a head as sea-addled as they come. Both internally and externally this man’s noodle showcased the depreciatory effects of a life spent solitarily swishing about the ocean. He came from a Western European country: one that, according to cliché, produces the rudest, most arrogant, foulest tempered beret wearing men in all of modern civilisation. The remarkable thing was that once we had handed over our payment, he gradually managed to embody every one of those characteristics in the extreme (except for the beret wearing).


Put simply, J2 was a violent person who was noteworthy for his extreme lack of intelligence. His distinguished acts of stupidity and obsessive preoccupation with fighting, all accompanied by rock-star brashness, keep popping up in this story. He was a hulk of a man who apparently existed on five to seven meals of pure protein per day, supplemented by an extraordinarily displaced sense of aggressive self-confidence. The all-protein diet had bulked out his frame considerably, and his enormous muscle mass was well into the process of impinging on the area inside his skull.

The Boat

Our transport was a handbuilt, twin-masted schooner of around sixty feet. Through disjointed conversations, we learned that le Capitaine had spent eight years or so on the Ivory Coast building the vessel, and a photo album we found on the beach showed the youthful captain laying out the framework, constructing the boat, and finally slipping it into the water. It was a beautiful creation that creaked ever so slightly when under sail. We slept in the cabin, where there was room for nine small people to slumber comfortably.

With no ship's cat on board, we were unsure as to how Angie would cope without seeing a kitty for so long


All the characters in this story first met at the Club Nautico in Cartagena, the old world gateway to the riches of South America. Le Capitaine had called the meeting so that we could all get a look at the boat, discuss the details of the trip and work out if we really wanted to be doing this. The meeting was held just after sunset, which meant that the boat inspection had to be done in the dark. It was the first of an alarming series of little red flags that we should have taken notice of, but ignored. Boats didn’t leave often at this time of year, so getting aboard was a prize in itself, regardless of the cost or conditions. The dinghy to get us out to the boat only held four people or so, so each group had to send one representative to look over the boat by torchlight. One girl was a little upset when le Capitaine asked her to remove her high heels before boarding, and when he revealed that there was no air-conditioning on board, she and her boyfriend began making plans for a flight to Panama.

Which was lucky for them, and also meant there would be enough beds for all of us to sleep below deck, rather than a having to utilize hammock between the masts. We shook hands, and agreed to meet the next day with $300 each. After ten months, we were leaving South America.

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