Published: February 21st 2011February 14th 2011
Lawrence of Arabia. A 45ft 1985 sail boat. 8 naive backpackers. a huge mess. canned food. 8 meter swells. all the good stuff that makes its way from your stomach onto a. the side of the boat b. into the toilet c. anywhere it manages to land. lots and lots of water. wayward dingies. broken sails. more water. beautiful postcard perfect islands. land. snorkelling. fresh wood fire fish. calm. swimming. turquoise waters. palm trees. land. bliss. dread. nausea. vegemite on bread. vegemite on biscuits. even more water. scary thoughts. laughing. cringing. praying. bad smells. garlic. cabbage. music. loss of gps. huge swells. cartagena harbour. arrival. relief. celebration.
The combination of these words pretty much sums up my five day sailing trip from Portabello, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. It was a challenge. Both physically and mentally. It was as beautiful as it was scary. It was your best dream and your worst nightmare. There were feelings of disbelief; at the beauty of the unbelievable San Blas Islands and the fact that maybe captain and his boat weren't ready to take 8 backpackers across some of the world's roughest seas to Cartagena. It was an adventure. And for someone that travels the
world thats all you can ever hope for!
As with any experience it's the people around you that make your experience what it is. I had 7 fantastic people around me all of whom need mentioning; Katja and Martin, my two favourite Dutch! Kevin, also dutch but whom comes under a different category, Kevin the world's best stand in Captain! Annika, the cutest little Swedish doctor you'll ever meet! Caroline, a German travelling vagabond and Laura and Aly, two fellow Aussie girls flying the banner for the great Australian blood lines!
We were 8 backpackers just wanting to make our way to Colombia. We wanted to see and experience the beauty that is the San Blas Islands and we wanted to say that we sailed through the Caribbean. Lawrence turned up at the hostel in Panama City, offered a decent price, a decent yacht and a welcoming enough face. We all said yes, paid him our money and after handing him our passports we waited...
I've always thought I've been a fairly good judge of character. I'm not always spot on and as we all know you can't always judge a book by it's cover, but I always get
a sense of a person as soon as I meet them. In the case of Lawrence I wasn't all that sure. I instantly got a weird vibe. He was old, which is all good, but he needed a shave. He spoke slowly and without all that much enthusiasm,that is when he spoke. He seemed rather vague. Stop. This is the point at which I remind myself not to judge a book by its cover. He is a captain, a captain of a sail boat that sails the seas. The sea is salty and the weather is harsh out there in the big bad ocean. He probably just needs sleep.
As he repeats for the 5th time...."any questions" I decide to jump in. I have for the last 5 minutes simply been observing, trying to make up my mind. 7 people have already booked, there is only one spot left. I could be waiting for a boat for 2 or 3 weeks, this is my only opportunity. "So you've made this trip before?" he responds with the fact that he's just brought a group from Cartagena. Tick. "And there are enough mattresses for all of us?" Yes. Another tick. "And we
bring our own food?" in which he responds yes because you won't want to be eating all that much throughout the trip anyway. Now I'm getting a better vibe. He seems to know enough about sailing. He reminds me of someone's grandfather and he 'means well'. Before I knew it I had signed up. On Monday I was off on my journey to Cartagena.
The funny thing is, after travelling through Costa Rica and Panama I heard a mixture of things about the trip. People told me of the amazing time they had on the boat and for most it was the best part of their whole journey. I also heard nightmarish stories, people telling me not to take this trip, that I'll regret it. I never want to regret anything in my life. You can learn something from every situation good or bad. I was prepared either way. After all it would make good blog material!
Monday evening after waiting all day for Lawrence to get organised, namely, picking up diesel he was supposed to collect to days ago, going into the city to buy fans for the rooms and buying a new back up motor, we found ourselves
sitting on the dock preparing to board the dingy and finally board the boat. The boat which we hadn't yet seen. WARNING SIGNS?!!!
At 6pm we were all on the boat and in well all in shock. Emergency group meeting. The boat was filthy. Like I know that I have some issues with my ability to deal with un tidy-ness but I wasn't the only one complaining. Both guys thought that it was un acceptable. I mean there was (excuse my language) shit everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Think of a caravan, add onto that an extra room and you have the boat. Not all that much room for 8 people, with 8 backpacks. Throw into the mix random kitchen utensils on the floor, broken airconditioners on the couches, rotten vegetables and fruit everywhere (imagine my freak out!!) plasma screen tv's stowed behind doors, dirty toilets, damp beds, a fridge you wouldn't store dog food in and a general 'bad aroma' taking over the cabin and we have ourselves a disaster!
I'm cringing just thinking about it! I needed a beer actually scratch that I needed some Flore de Cana on the rocks. But I wasn't drinking. I hadn't been for 4
days. I was still not back to normal, darn food poisoning. SO you can imagine. I was tired, sick and now FREAKING out about what I was going to have to deal with for the next 5 days.....was it possible to say I wasn't feeling well? was it still possible to pull out? I want to fly to Colombia! What was I thinking. This was a stupid idea. We're all going to die. These were just some of the thoughts flooding through my head and I'm sure the 7 others around me as we sat in the cock pit ready to confront Lawrence.
After passing the other boats that would be making the journey in the coming weeks and arriving at our smaller and older looking boat we started questioning how much we were paying and if we should try and bargain. We were after all going to be living in a dump for 5 days and apparently as we were just informed would be performing night watch whilst the captain slept.
Should I remind you that we hadn't even left the harbour yet?!
After numerous deep breaths and attempting to make some order in the cabin (which was
impossible) I started thinking a little more positively and got excited albeit briefly about the journey I was about to embrace upon.
By 8.30pm we had set sail, although we weren't exactly sailing, more like motor sailing. By 9pm Aly, Martin and Katja, in that order were lurched over the back of the boat throwing up macaroni and cheese (I could have told them that it maybe wasn't the best idea to eat such a meal at 7.30pm!)
The three of them stayed in this position for the entire night. Sick as dogs, which was unfortunate for them. Kevin and Laura joined them in the early hours of the morning. Luckily enough Annika and I didn't get sick.
The waves were huge, 6-8meter swells, which is why once they began to throw up they couldn't stop. We were pounded with water every 5 or so minutes and to be honest, as much as I feel at one with the ocean, looking out the back of the boat after soaring over some of these waves I felt a little unsure. We were so insignificant in relation to this huge body of water. We were a 45meter sail boat. The ocean is
one of my favourite photos
photo courtesy of caroline
well HUGE! It was a rough first night! It was a crazy night. Things went wrong. Things that should not have gone wrong. Lawrence of Arabia, who is in fact 63 year old Lawrence from Ohio failed to tie the dinghy down. FAILED TO TIE THE DINGHY DOWN!!! Who fails to tie down a 150kg dinghy? Slight overlook don't you think Cap?
So here we are, about 3 hours underway, in like I said 6meter swells, with three of us wishing they were else where, slung over the back of the boat, one in the toilet and a dinghy flying off the back of the boat, tied on from the very top of the mast. Let's just say we had a little situation. Thankfully Kevin was on board and smart enough to be able to get the dinghy back on board, however not without risk. After several failed attempts we brought the boat around and waited for the dinghy to swing on board....not easy in 25knot winds. Lawrence thought it was a bright idea to have he and Kevin stand near the mast and catch the dinghy. Also not the brightest idea. After almost giving me a heart attack and
one of the islands
photo courtesy of caroline
falling overboard, the dinghy was secured and we were under way. Talk about it! This is when I disappeared down stairs, I was starting to feel fairly nauseas and thought it was a good idea to attempt to get some sleep. Surprisingly enough, despite waking up every 10minutes from rolling into the wall I had a fairly decent rest. When I awoke at 7 the following morning, Katia, Aly and Martin had not moved. I suddenly felt on top of the world. By 11am we had anchored, which by the way took at least an hour, is it normal for a captain to take this long to anchor?!! we arrived in beautiful San Blas. Thank god! Praise the lord! Hallelujah!
It was beautiful. We were on the boat for the entire day because the cap was too tired to take us to the islands, but we weren't rocking any longer. We were able to swim in the crystal clear water off the back of the boat, buy freshly caught fish from the locals, bargain with a crazy Kuna Lana native selling us her goods and talk about the night that was. We momentarily started talking about the next 36straight hours
of sailing but decided that it would soon enough be upon us so we should in fact think about nice thoughts and not ever mention mac and cheese again! But in all honesty it was a wonderful day and we couldn't have asked for a better location, simply breathtaking.
At about 5.30 after Lawrence woke up we found ourselves on a tiny deserted, un inhabited island in the San Blas cooking our fresh fish on a make shift bbq. After Kevin and Martin cleaned our beautiful fillets of fish I kind of took over as chef. I think I did a good job. With my fire proof hands (thanks Barb) and bbq knowledge we made a grill out of wood and produced some to die for smokey flavoured Mackerel. The fish was really good, like delicious and with the rice that Annika had prepared earlier and the veggies we quickly cut up, we ate our first and last meal of the trip. Not bad, not bad at all!
We stayed up quite late that night, talking about how good the fish was and sharing our life stories and after retiring to bed most of us got a good nights
sleep. I didn't have a bed. There was in fact space for 8 but there were 3 beds and 1 couch. Lawrence couldn't be bothered turning the table to make the 8th spot available so I slep outside in the cock pit, for about mmmmm 10minutes before it started raining. It was up until that point that I felt bad that I had been complaining. It was a beautiful night, almost a full moon. The stars were bright and it wasn't in the slightest bit cold. But as I said, then it started raining and Lawrence being Lawrence was too tired to rig up the tarp, so instead he just let it flap against his face. I wasn't so keen. So i took my cushion down stairs and attempted to sleep in the kitchen. The filthy kitchen. Didn't go so well. I won't dwell on it haha if I haven't already! but I think I got maximum 1 hour sleep.
Wednesday morning after waking up we made our way to another island, people were tense, it was only an hour and a half away but after the first days sailing we knew it didn't take long at all for people
to get sea sick. All was good however and we arrived at another island by lunch time. It was simply breathtaking. Completely deserted but unbelievable beautiful. Postcard perfect. The bluest of blue waters, perfect snorkelling, white sand and palm trees. It was just what we needed. I decided to make myself a bit of a meal, tuna, tomoato, some avocado and biscuits, just enough to make me feel a bit better and enough to allow me to take a well needed nap under a palm tree. After swimming, snorkelling and escaping the heat for 3 hours we were ready to re-board the boat. Actually I don't know if we were ready to get on the boat, but we did. Lawrence wanted to get going by 4.30. But if you haven't already picked up what I'm putting down, Lawrence never really did things when he said he would. By 6pm we had all showered briefly and were underway. We were shocked. It was super calm. We didn't believe him when he said the wind was blowing perfectly and that the trip to Cartagena was going to go wonderfully, that we couldn't ask for better seas, but in fact it was great.
We all slept that night and nobody got sick. It got bumpy, but it was nothing compared to the first night. So we were all happy campers. There was a leak in the window above me, I had no pillow and the swinging garlic, rockmelon and cabbage above me kept freaking me out but it was one of the better nights.
Thursday was again super nice, I was outside for most of the day enjoying the endless blue ocean. The waves were actually quite calming and the sound of the ocean has a somewhat meditating effect. Lawrence turned off the motor for about 4hours which was wonderful. It made us realise how enjoyable sailing can be. Just you and the ocean. Bliss. Add into that the 30 wild dolphins that joined us; jumping, swimming and performing for the crowd and you had yourself a pretty unforgettable Thursday. The dolphins, they came out of no where. It truly was magical and absolutely made my trip. The whole time I'd been saying how much I wanted to see dolphins and then there they were. They looked so happy, so free. Ahhhh this is when you realise life isn't so bad after all.
I'm on a boat, sailing the Caribbean sea by choice, with great company, good weather, sure there were some slight mishaps that could have turned out disastrous but at the end of it all it's a great story to tell.
Come 10 o'clock though it was a different story. I wasn't all blue skies and rainbows. The weather changed suddenly, the waves picked up and we were in a similar position to night 1. I had gone to lie down early as I was starting to feel rather unwell. I did not sleep a wink. It was horrible. It was hot, the hatch had to be closed because the waves were so huge. So forceful that they came through the portholes and down the stairs of the hatch, they made there way through the seals of the windows and dripped all over me, all night. There were basically waterfalls, albeit sporadically but fairly consistently all night. Every time it came in I giggled, I mean what could I do about it?! But I was saturated and salty. I was sweaty and smelly. The mere thought of the mooshed up melon, rotten cabbage and squashed garlic that was swinging above my
head made me want to purge and I I'll admit that I was at moments, when the boat felt like it was going to capsize, scared. Things were getting really loud, there was definitely a lot of action going on out there. But the main reason for my fear was when I saw The captain rest his bald head on the cupboard and curse. He was scared. The captain. At the time I didn't know why and I'm so very glad that was the case, for if I had known that the GPS was no longer working and that the auto pilot had broken I would have freaked out. Kevin=champion. If it weren't for him we just may not have made it. He steered us the whole way into the bay, a 30 year old dutch guy who had never before sailed a boat but who calmly sailed us to safety! We arrived safely in the Cartagena bay at 3am Friday morning. It's fair to say we were all very relieved when we awoke at 7am and found ourselves sitting calmly in the harbour. A beautiful sunny morning in Colombia. We were dirty and tired but we were here. Now
the fun really began. The stories about the trip, the reveal of the other issues Kevin chose not to tell us about....the broken sail, the gps, Lawrence's bad night vision (may explain why he wanted us to do the night watches!) etc etc etc. What a great day of reminiscing.
My sailing trip from Panama to Colombia was an adventure. I would do it again, in a heart beat. However I wouldn't sail with Lawrence. I would inspect the boat before agreeing and I would definitely ensure that the environment I was to be spending a large proportion of time in, the cabin, was livable and that rotten vegetables weren't floating around. For me the sea sickness thing wasn't an issue, sure I was a little nauseas, the boat was rocky, I didn't sleep all that much but that is all part of the deal, that is sea travel. The real issue for me, the reason I was at night's so miserable was the filthy, smelly environment we were in, the cabin with shit strewn from left to right and the fact that our captain was super vague! The fact that maybe he wasn't capable of taking 8 young,
vibrant backpackers with him across a notoriously rough stretch of sea! A nice enough guy who meant well, but i think next time I'll be looking for a confident, cocky captain!
But hey, I'm here, I made it to Colombia and I've got a pretty cool story to tell. We've all spent hours talking about the boat, Lawrence and our adventure and we all feel like we survived something pretty crazy so we shouted ourselves to a $50 meal at an argentinian resturaunt in the old city. A huge Argentinian steak as big as my fore arm, complete with mashed potato and a couple of bottles of red wine....after all we deserved it!!
So here I am in Cartagena, tired and still getting back into the swing of things but I'm in a beautiful city, I've finally made it to South America and my real adventure is about to begin.
If you get the chance to sail through the Caribbean, do it. Even though after reading this you may not think its the best decision. Its a fantastic experience, one I would do again. Like I've said in past blogs, you really do find out a lot about yourself
the beautiful san blas
photo courtesy of caroline
when you travel, the obstacles you work through the challenges you figure out. After all, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I definitely think I'm stronger after that trip. And maybe it was perfect timing, great preparation for my time in South America. It was an adventure and now it is a story. A story that I will no doubt enjoy sharing time and time again to wandering travellers and willing listeners. It is part of my journey around the world. It was my sailing trip from Panama to Colombia.
There are more photos below