From Panama to Colombia – 7 days on sea
Everthing you will read in this blog post happened at the end of December 2013. I needed some time to get my emotions on paper, but finally I made it. This travel was the most scarifying time in my whole life and I hope you all will never have such an experience during your travel. It all started with the idea to safe some money… as usual.
To be honest, before we came to Central America we had no idea that there is no road connection between Panama and Colombia. For us it was normal to just take a bus, to drive to the border and to cross it easily. But the area in the south of Panama and in the north of Colombia, the so called Darién Gap, is ruled by the FARC guerilla (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and nobody should risk to cross their area. Some people have been kidnapped during their travel through the Darién Gap.
So what to do?
There are two options to get from Panama to Colombia: by boat or by airplane. We decided to take a boat as the flights are very pricey. But we did not want a normal boat cruise with the beautiful San Blas Islands, why? Too expensive. We needed something cheaper. We asked around and were looking for a captain who brought us directly to Colombia.
Luckily we found a German skipper, Wolfgang. After a few beers we had a good deal for a direct boat ride to Cartagena in Colombia and even better, we should start in the next days.
Time is money… perfect!
5:30 am. The alarm clock of my cell phone was ringing, but Liane, BoB and I were awake anyway. We slept the last night before our ride on the floor of an old harbour bar, surrounded and protected by two cute dogs of the owners. Not very comfy but dry and safe.
Everybody was sooo excited. Finally we could set sail and we were all looking forward to a nice boat trip from Portobelo (which is not very ‘bello’ at all) in Panama to Cartagena in Colombia. At this point we all didn’t know that we will never forget this boat trip. . . not in our whole life. WE, that was our skipper Wolfgang, Lauren from the US and Marie and Mia from Denmark. Oh Yes and of course Liane, BoB and myself.
We actually planned to leave Panama a day later but the weather forecast wasn’t that good for the following days, so we started our trip one day earlier. The boat of Wofgang was almost 13 meters long and in good condition with the latest safety equipment. Wolfgang built the boat himself (whatever that means 🙂 and he knew every screw of his *amiga*. After we finished the last duties, like checking the water supply, getting the outboard engine from the dinghy onto the boat and controling the GPS, we were ready to leave the harbour.
The weather on our first day was not as good as expected. It was raining like hell and we had already some high waves pushing into the boat. . . and we hadn’t really left the safe harbour yet. Anyway I knew we had a strong engine on board and we could sail easily through the waves, even if we were a bit slow.
Up and down… and up and down… because of the high waves almost everybody started to get sea sick. Just Wolfgang and Marie seemed quiet relaxed. Liane feeded the fish several times and I also had to lean over the reeling. What a shame… I was even baptised on a boat but my stomach was not strong enough. But of course that was normal for non experienced sailors like us. The whole day I decided not to leave my cabine in the back of the boat. It was hot, tiny and… did I mentioned hot already? I don’t know how but I think around midnight I fell asleep and thought… ‘ahh, just two more days…easy’.
The first night was over and everybody had a really bad night. Wolfgang stayed awake as he wanted to sail to Cartagena as fast as possible. Unfortunately the waves didn’t stop, no they were getting even higher and coming from all different sides hitting the boat. That’s why we were slower than expected but still on our way to Cartagena and everything was still normal. . . except of my sea sickness. Have you ever been sea sick? I think it is one of the worst feelings I ever had. I couldn’t stand or move one meter without having attacks of sweating and the feeling to puke again. The problem is, even when you puke you don’t feel better, so you cannot compare seasickness with a headache after a nice evening with friends if you know what I mean. So I was the whole day and night in my ‘grave’ , maybe two to two meters wide and 40 centimetres high. It was dark in there and yes …extremely hot. I had a small window to look out to the sea, but to be honest I did not want to look out. The waves were higher than the boat and the sky was almost black.
Liane was feeling better the second day and told me all the time I should come up on deck (we spoke through a small window in the roof of my cabin) but I was stupid and didn’t listen. I was just hoping that we will reach Cartagena as soon as possible and tried to drink as less as possible because I really didn’t want to visit the toilet as it was soooo far away . . . maybe four meters.
Lauren and Mia felt like me and they were all sleeping on the ground somewhere in the boat, between instruments and the engine.
Ahh yes, engine… suddenly we heard some strange sounds from the engine room. Kind of some stutter… definitely not a normal sound. Wolfgang did not want to risk anything and shut off the engine for the rest of the day. We had enough wind to get closer to the Colombian coast by sailing.
Liane was on deck with Wolfgang and Marie. As Liane understood Wolfgang the best they had a lot of small talks and so I could listen at least to their stories. Well, not the best conversations to be honest. Wolfgang told Liane some really scarry health problems he had till we left… I did not want to know this, but okay. We are miles away from the coast, our skipper does not feel well, and the engine seems to be broken. Let’s see where this ends.
At that day we should reach Cartagena in the evening, but because of the stormy weather and without a proper engine we couldn’t. Wolfgang told us we will sail to Cartagena in the evening as there should be less storm and we wanted to use the engine again. I was still in my ‘grave’ and waiting… and then we tried to sail to Cartagena.
The wind was getting stronger and stronger. I could hear the wind playing with the mast and how the waves hit against the boat with all their power. The sound was horrible. Bam, bam … I could almost feel how the waves busted the boat shell around me. That’s the problem if you don’t know the sounds. You really have the feeling the boat will break in two halfs and you have to swim the next 160 miles… with sharks by the way.
The waves were so high that Wolfgang said, we had no chance to enter Cartagena this night and we need to wait for the next day. The engine was not working correctly and without an engine it was just too much.
The boat was shaking from one side to another and everybody in the boat was scared. What a great evening I thought to myself. It’s getting worse and worse. I decided to go up on deck the next day, no matter how I would feel. I wanted to support Wolfgang and Liane and not longer lying helpless in my sauna. That night we all could not sleep at all and our Skipper was awake now for three days and nights as he had to watch out that we will not hit the coral reefs and sink.
That evening I had my first meal during our trip and guess what, I filmed it. I know, nothing special but on film I said it is my first meal in 6 days?!! I really thought we had been on sea for 6 days already. My mind was obviously driving crazy. I think I was already dehydrated and today I am glad that I started that day to eat and drink more. Oh and by the way, the noodles cooked by Marie and Mia were the BEST noodles ever!
At least I felt better that day and I could walk around and be on deck to support Liane and Wolfgang as planned. But the weather was getting worse. I don’t know how this is even possible but the waves were higher the sky was darker and the raindrops bigger than the days before.
Wolfgang tried to repair the engine and changed different filters. He was so well equipped with spare parts and tried everything to get it started again but with no success. I was just observing the GPS screen when I finally heard a loud scream out of the engine room: ‘Arghhh’… it was Wolfgang.
As one big wave hit the boat again Wolfgang fell into the door of the engine room and cut his hand badly. It was a deep bloody flesh wound. Damn it. Was this really necessary after all? I had a closer look and it really looked bad. Of course no one of us could sew his wound and also we did not have the right equipment for it, but at least Liane made a tourniquet and cleaned and desinfected the wound. With all the oil and dirt of the engine it was the minimum we needed to do.
In the evening we sailed as close to the coast as possible and tried another attempt to reach Cartagena. We thought, if we are closer to the coast the wind and the waves would not be so strong, but we thought wrong! The waves were five to six meters high and played with the boat like with a toy. Wolfgang was the only one on deck as it was too dangerous up there. He fixed himself to the boat with a security leash and tried hard to keep the boat on course. The wind pushed us closer and closer to the coast. Without an engine the risk to crash into the cliffs was very high so he tried to set his storm sail to bring us away from the cliffs. We all tried to help him and fixed ourselfs as well to the boat. The water whipped in our faces when Wolfgang tried to open the sail. Suddenly we heard a loud zip and Wolfgang screamed. A rope from the sail flattered in the wind and hit him. Luckily it was not too bad and after a few minutes he had the rope fixed to the boat again. But it was impossible to set a big sail in the storm. He told us to go under deck again and so we did. The boat was still shaking in the wind.
‘You think I am talking bullshit,
but at this moment
I really thought I would die’
Dishes and glasses fell out of the lockers, the closet doors slamed against each other and even our PC with the GPS screen fell off the desk. I heard the water and the fuel in the tanks swashing around and always these waves. BAM, BAM, BAM, every few seconds a big wave hit us. We all were scared as hell and maybe you think I am talking bullshit, but at this moment I really thought I would die. I thought why I was so mean not buying a simple plane ticket to Colombia but on the other hand I thanked god for the great travel experience we had so far and I thought if it is over now, I at least had a good time. Sounds strange but that’s how it was… that’s what I call ‘travel addicted’ 🙂. I looked around and I think at this moment everybody of us had quite the same feelings. Lauren took a life jacket and Liane and Marie had a closer look on the liferaft instructions.
However, Wolfgang was somehow able to bring us away from the cliffs and as the situation was getting a little bit better we all talked about the next days and what to do, but we all already knew the answer. We had to turn back to Panama.
We still had no engine and it was too dangerous to sail. At least the stream will take us closer to Panama again. What a shame . . . so close to Cartagena. With an engine we would be in the harbour in 5 hours…tzzz.
Liane and I talked to Wolfgang that he needed to rest and that we will stay awake this night and observe the GPS and the ocean for any dangerous. He had almost no sleep for 4 days and nights… and he looked like sh…! We went on deck, fixed ourselfs to the boat and set an alarm clock – every 15 minutes – we did not want any more surprises. 🙂
It was a rough night but on the other hand fascinating to be on the ocean, alone, without any lights around us except for the stars and the moon. We managed to get some sleep and Wolfgang took over the last 2 hours before the sun rised and the next day began.
When I woke up that morning I was totally surprised. What happened? The was no wind and absolutely no waves? The weather changed completely. Now, where we needed the wind to sail back to Panama, there was not even a breeze. Nothing! We were around 120 sea miles away from the coast and the next harbour. Without an engine and wind it would probably take one more week to reach land. That was a horrible thought. We were all totally exhausted already and of course we did not have supplies for one more week.
But Wolfgang told us again, everything is all right and we will make it to the coast the next day. Nobody believed him and Liane and I were thinking already about a backup plan if we will not make it. Wolfgang had a rescue device on his boat, but he did not want to use it as it would cost around 20 000 dollars and he will probably loose his license if we are not in real danger. To be honest, for us it was dangerous enough and we did not care if it costs 20 000 or 100 000 dollar. We just wanted to get on land again. I had some long discussions with Wolfgang about what will happen the next days and how long this journey will go on but Wolfgang was relaxed… a bit too relaxed for me.
Later that day we had our absolutely highlight. Suddenly a group of dolphins joined our boat and jumped out of the water right in front of us. For 15 minutes we all forgot about all the stress we had and were just happy to see something else than water.
That night Liane and I stayed awake again to observe the ocean. I remember it was a beautiful night with a clear sky full of stars.
Of course we did not reach the mainland and everybody was disappointed. So Liane and I talked to Wolfgang again and said if we will not reach the mainland the next day we will call for help no matter what it will cost. We explained him, that we do not have much drinkable water left and he first could not belive it. But then we collected everything we could find on board and showed it to him. We only had 8 litres of water and 4 litres of sodas. Not much for 6 people on a lonely boat in the Caribbean Sea. We had over 35°C every day and it was even hotter inside the boat. Wolfgang knew he had to do something. But what?
He tried to fix the engine again and disappeared for at least 5 hours. It was so hot in the engine room that he himself drank 4 litres of water that afternoon! But anyway, somehow he made it… almost. The engine was not running properly but at least it run for a few seconds and gave us a little push through the waves! I was listening to the sound of the engine the whole evening. That was one of the best sounds I ever heard! Everytime the engine almost stopped my heart stood still. We all stayed awake the whole night and hoped that the engine will not collapse totally. I knew that little engine push was our only hope to reach the coast.
The next morning I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw small islands far on the horizon. That was so freaking awsome! One of the best feelings I had in my whole life. Should we finally make it? The engine was still running and pushing us one mile after another closer to the islands. We were very close to the San Blas Islands now and we saw some cruising boats sailing around them. We got closer and closer to the islands and then, after exactly 146 hours, we reached the shallow waters of one of the islands… and set anker.
Now everything happened very quickly. Liane made a last tourniquet for Wolfgangs hand and we finally said goodbye to our German skipper, hoping he will go to a doctor, but we knew he just wanted his engine to get fixed and to go back on the ocean to give it another try to Cartagena.
The rest of us took a 15 minutes speed boat ride to the village Carti where we had to kiss the ground, so happy that we finally made it. From Carti we took a shuttle back to Panama City. The poor bus driver… we had no shower for the last seven days and I am sure we all smelled very bad :).
In Panama City we checked in at our favorite hostel ‘Siriri’ where we stayed before the boat trip. Lauren booked herself in a hotel and was looking forward to a hot bath, she was waiting for it for sooo long. Marie and Mia tried to find a place to sleep near the airport as they wanted to leave Panama as soon as possible. When we arrived in our lovely hostel the owners were very surprised to see us again and of course we had to explain the whole situation.
After a short time of relaxation there was one more thing I had to do. When I was on the boat in my ‘grave’ I promised myself one thing. If we will ever make it to the mainland again, I go to McDonalds and I eat an Angus Deluxe Burger. Oh man, believe me, I am not the biggest ‘Fast Food Fan’ on earth but THAT burger was the best Burger EVER. Just for the record I lost 6 kg on the whole trip!
A few weeks later in Colombia we met a guy in a hostel and he told us an even more horrible story. There was this guy who built a raft by himself out of bamboo and tried to use his motorcycle engine as a boat engine. He ended up to be on the sea for almost 10 days because his engine broke as well. We could not believe it but he filmed his trip with his GoPro. Have a look at his video.
Crazy Dylan and his ‘boat’
Last but not least I will not say, you should not take a boat from Panama to Colombia or the other way around. Especially, if you book a tour with the San Blas Islands it will be a great experience. But make sure your boat has good safety equipment and your captain has a satelite phone! 🙂.
Thanks for reading and safe travels!
Many readers asked us how we finally made it to Colombia. Well, as you can imagine we did not want to sit in a boat for another time, so we decided to book a totally overpriced flight (it was Christmas time) from Panama City to Cartagena.
Of course something had to go wrong again and we had to sleep at the airport for one night as the flight was overbooked. But this was nothing compared to our boat ride and some hours later we finally arrived in Colombia.