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  • Day174

    San Blas Islands, Panama

    April 9, 2017 in Panama ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    Island paradise and ocean hell.

    You may be wondering why we're getting back on a boat to get to Colombia. Well, the truth is, if you're not a drug runner or part of a cartel, the Panamanian jungle that spreads across the Panama-Colombia border is a no go zone, traversible only by those with a death wish or a bag full of cash or powder. There are only a few roads which are suitable for 4x4 and monitored by almost nobody except cartels. They are undoubtedly the most dangerous roads we would have come across on our travels and I'm not even sure we could find a vehicle to travel in if we tried. Hence to get to Colombia we had the choice to fly or to boat.

    We booked a cabin on a 50 foot monohull out of Porvenir, along with eight other passengers, three crew and a dog - our destination: Cartagena, Colombia. The trouble with Porvenir, is that it isn't much more accessible than anywhere else in the jungle. It involved a 5am start, several hours squished into the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser, paying fees to the local tribes people and a boat ride down the river and across the bay to one of 360 San Blas Islands. Now that I mention it...I'm not even sure we went to Porvenir.

    You may be thinking 13 people living on a 50 footer is a tight fit. Well you're right, but not uncomfortably so and to my surprise it never really felt too crowded. We had a great crew of a captain, a deck hand and a Argentinian cook who treated us to some of the most delicious food on the trip - impressive considering she was cooking for 13 in a boat kitchen which was last stocked up back in Colombia.

    Our captain and mate spoke soley spanish and our cook spoke some broken english so on the whole communication was very poor. Some of the others on our boat were a great help translating but they weren't always there and our nautical jargon in spanish was zip (it's now barely improved). So we didn't really know where we were going, where we were or when we were leaving but it didn't matter - the San Blas Islands are so beautiful you wouldn't ever want to leave. Actually I lie, a local Kuna tribesman told us he was bored to death and he would love to leave. Fair enough, he was living on an island which would make Tom Hank's desert island look like a continent.

    We spent our first night at anchor between two tiny islands and behind the protection of the reef. This reef was littered with wrecks, one of which we snorkelled and another (the San Blas ferry) lay listing high above the tife for all to see. Apparently it tried to follow a catamaran through the reef. It's a hundred and fifty foot ship! Too much coco loco for that captain.

    The next day we sailed to customs (with dolphins on the bow) where the captain cleared us out of Panama. While we were wating the local Kuna paddled their tree trunks out in an effort to sell us all kinds of junk. They literally boarded out boat and set up shop. Safe to say I was overboard and miles from the boat before that played out. Whilst sailing out our mate Ray got his fish on and caught us tuna to have as sashimi for lunch. Cheers Ray!

    We had two more nights at even more picturesque anchorages. We spent hours swimming and snorkelling in the warm and outrageously clear Caribbean Sea. It was world class snorkelling; awesome reefs both shallow and deep with all the usual creatures and coral. There were also starfish and conch and sandy bottoms which make for great rock running. When we weren't in the water, we were reading, eating, drinking, kayaking or exploring the islands (where permitted). Volleyball and bonfires of palm leaves also notable affairs.

    However, island paradise does not last forever and we had some 30 odd hours of open sea miles to cover to get to Cartagena. We left at dawn, in a building 15kt breeze, close hauled motor sailing the whole way. The wind built as did the waves and the boat got wild. Everyone was drugged up to their eyeballs with anti-nausea and were subsequently absent minded, sifting around in zombie-like drowsiness. Several were sick, including our chef and one poor girl Mary, who didn't leave the vomit station for the entire trip.

    We passed the time sleeping and listening to podcasts and generally drifting in and out of consciousness. I also noticed that autopilot wasn't working so these guys were steering the whole time! Late in the night, we woke to bickering from our neighbours. Their hatches were leaking and bilge water was splashing up from under the floor boards. This alerted us to the fact that ours too were leaking (as with every other cabin in the boat!). Apparently the bilge pump didn't work as the captain was literally bailing the boat with a cup and a bucket in the middle of the night in what could be described as a stormy sea. What?! To say this was concerning was an understatement.

    When I got up the next morning, I realised just how rough it was. A few big waves crashed through the splash guards and straight through the cockpit, providing explanation as to why everyone on deck was so wet. Lucky for the warm wind and water! The boat and it's crew were in quite a state. I failed to take any photos of any of this but I'm surey words speak bettee than photos this time.

    Relief from the elements came in the form of flat water and sunshine as we weaved through the islands off the coast of Cartagena in the late afternoon. As the drugs started to wear off there were at last some smiles creeping through the weary faces. We were treated to a delightful harbour tour of Cartagena on our approach to port and more importantly; land, glorious land! If feel for whoever had to dry out that boat. First stop South America!
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