Slow boat to Panama

Porvenir Travel Blog

 › entry 13 of 21 › view all entries

Wheat can i say about the sailing trip from Cartagena to Panama? it was by far one of the best experiences of my life even though at times the trip did prove to be difficult.  I woke up early the day of our departure feeling horrible. When am i going to learn to stay away from sketchy sea food?! I sat for the next few hours trying to will myself into feeling better, because i knew it would be hell if i were sick on the boat for 6 days on the open sea.  in the end, an hour before we would have to leave i felt much better.   Our vessel was a heavy, 14 meter french-made boat, built to survive pretty rough waters. It seemed to be in good shape and was pretty comfortable.  Though not the largest of boats, it slept 8 people pretty well, with the captain sleeping outside.  The boat came equipped with all the necessary kitchen appliances and a fairly clean bathroom.  The main cabin had two double beds and one singe.  Towards the rear of the boat were two tiny cabins that slept a person each.  Andreas, our captain, was an interesting character.  Hes a younger german man who has been sailing the world for the past 6 years now.  To make a bit of money, he started doing the trip back and forth between Colombia and Panama.  

With the boat ready and passports stamps, we made for the Caribbean. As we pulled away from Cartagena, we had great views of the entire city as the sun set.  It didn’t take long for something to go wrong.  We had just made it away from the coast when the engine died on us.  After working on it a bit, the captain was able to get the engine to work, but only at idle speeds.  He admitted that he should have waited a couple days to have the engine fixed before heading out, but it was too late to turn back he said.  With the engine almost non-existent, we would have to rely on the sails, and luckily our entire first day, we had plenty of wind.  We also saw the roughest waters our first day.  The both rocked back and forth so much that if you sat on the deck, you had to hold on to something so you wouldn’t fall overboard.  And falling overboard is much more dangerous than I ever thought.  Captain Andreas informed us (after we had left of coarse) that if we fell in the water at night, we only had a 1% chance of survival, and during the day only a 10% chance.  Needless to say, the roughness of the water and the prospect of drowning made the first day pretty terrifying.  The german and argentine girls had it worse though because the got sea sick within the first hour or so.  

With the two cooks sick, I decided it would try to cook the first dinner.  Due to the roughness of the water and the violent rocking, I just stuck with making sandwiches.  I fell and tripped around the cabin as I tried to cut tomatoes and salami… I think I burnt all of the calories from the meal, just trying to stand.  The sandwiches turned out alright, though one girl did through up after eating hers.. I blamed the sea sickness.  Everyone went to bed right after eating.  I tried to get some sleep, but we still were experiencing Colombian heat, so it was far too hot to sleep in one of the smaller cabins.  At about 3 AM I gave up on sleeping and went up to the deck and sit with the captain.  As I got there, he told me that I wanted some sleep and asked me to steer the boat for a while.  This proved difficult, due to the high seas and the sea sickness pills that were making me extremely drowsy.  In the end, I manages alright and after a couple hours, I grabbed the Austrian and had him take over.  I decided to sleep outside on the deck the first night wrapped around a pole so I wouldn’t fall into the water to an almost certain death.  This first night was hard; the rest of the trip went so much better.  

I woke up the next day to calmer seas and zero wind.  The weather would remain this way for the rest of the trip, meaning it would end up taking us an extra day and a half to get to Panama.  At least we would be able to walk around the boat without too many problems.  The two sick girls started to feel better and from that point on, they were masters in the kitchen.  We ate extremely well for the next few days on the water.  The girls were so excited about cooking on the boat that they would end up making multiple courses for each meal.  I was glad to not have to cook again and was content to do my part by steering the boat at night.  The second day was pretty uneventful except for a 20 minute swim in the open waters.  Swimming in the open ocean is scary because of the waves, but it was a lot of fun.  That night was calm and I was wide awake during my night shift.  With everyone asleep, I drove the boat for a few hours.  It was an incredible night..with almost a full moon and not a cloud in the sky.  Being up by myself, I was able to take everything in and enjoy the moment. 

The next morning I woke to the screams of the captain.. “dolphins dolphins!¨ I jumped out of bed and went up to the deck to catch a look.  It was the most incredible sight!  There was an amazing sun rise right behind us, and we were sailing into the fullest rainbow I have ever seen.. it was a complete arc stretching over the horizon.  When I looked into the water, I saw a group of about 10 dolphins swimming around the boat playing with each other in an acrobatic display.  I stayed up on deck to enjoy the most beautiful morning I have experienced. 

On day 4, we finally made it to the San Blas islands!! The trip should have taken just two days, but with a weak engine and no wind, we took double the time.  San Blas includes a chain of about 400 islands just off the rocky coast of Panama, most of which uninhabited.  The few islands that had people are populated by an Indian tribe that harvest the islands coconuts.  We anchored off the coast of a small island with a nice beach that was inhabited by a single family.  I immediately jumped off the boat and swam to shore to be on land after the long 4 days at sea.  The rest of the day the crew did typical island stuff.. we snorkelled around the reefs, laid on the beach, explored the other islands, etc.  Once the sun went down, the crew and captain saw it fit to finish all the rum on board.  We spent the night drinking rum like gringo pirates and singing Bon Jovi songs.  At one point, someone had the idea that we should all swim to the island, so we jumped in.  To my surprise, my entire body was glowing inside the water!!  The water was full of plankton that illuminate when you touch them! It looked and felt unreal.  Everyone soon went to sleep except for me.  At about 4 AM I jumped into the row boat and rowed around for a while before heading to another island.  Since I didn’t know when id have another chance to do it, I laid on the beach, tied the row boat to my body so the tide wouldn’t take it, and slept on the beach of a deserted island.  

The next day, we headed to Porvenir, another island in San Blas that has a Panamanian customs office and a really small airport.  On the island we met up with a group of Uruguayans that we had met back in Colombia.  Since it was our captains last trip and some girl´s birthday, we threw a little party on Porvenir.  There was cold beer on the island even! Trey and I found a couple hammocks late at night and crashed on the beer that night.  We woke up the next morning, said goodbye to our great captain, and started the journey to Panama city.  First we took a small motor boat up a river for about 8 KM to a point where pickup trucks were waiting for us to take us through the windy and buddy jungle passes.  Trey and I asked if we could ride in the bed of the truck and they looked at us strangely but said yes.  Riding through the Panamanian jungle in the back of these trucks was about the biggest redneck thing ive ever done.. but it was a blast.  We arrived to Panama City after about 5 hours.

This was a long blog entry, but it had to be.  For other travellers thinking about doing the sailing trip that we did from Cartagena, I definitely recommend it.  The only thing is is that you have to be careful about your captain and crew choice.  I lucked out, but I heard horror stories about insane captains so be careful.  

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photo by: tristan_suarez