Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Sailing from Colombia to Panama

On the evening of the 28th January we hopped in a taxi to Club Nautica on the outskirts of the old town to find Big Fish, the boat that we would be spending the next 6 days on making our way over to the San Blas Islands in Panama. 

We got dropped off in a bit of a vague place with no visible entrance to the dock in sight. We obviously looked lost as a man spotted us, he turned out to be one of our fellow passengers; Ignacio. He showed us the way in (through a building site entrance, we NEVER would have found it) and here we met the first member of crew; Luana (we called her Lu). To our relief she was English! We had been slightly apprehensive that the rest of the boat might not speak English – we knew we had 6 Argentines; a family of 4 and an older couple (their friends) as well as a Dutch couple, Paul and Mar. It was nice to know we would have a little taste of home. Lu is 26 and has been living in Colombia for just over 2 years doing this crossing, working on the boats as a cook.
Lu showed us the way to the boat where everyone was. 

Kyle had spent hours and hours researching the various different boats and captains and had finally settled with this one. It was also a bonus that Big Fish was leaving on the date that we wanted. This is usually the deciding factor when people are choosing a boat. As there are not many choices we have heard some real horror stories from some fellow passengers, fingers crossed this was a goodun we thought.

(Kyle writing) 
I have been looking forward to this trip similarly to how much I was looking forward sampling some of Argentina’s finest Malbec and steak. I KNEW it was going to be a big highlight of the trip and started my research months before we left the UK. I wanted to go with the best company for Hannah’s first ever proper-sailing trip, what a journey it turned out to be. Two days of open sea crossing with 3 days exploring some of the worlds most beautiful remote locations, The San Blas Islands.

Hannah’s first challenge was to take the leap of faith from the jetty to the boat! I reassured Hannah there is normally a plank but the tender was in the way.

We met the 8 other passengers and headed back out to do a snacks and booze cruise, returning with muchos cervazas, vino tino, ron - coca cola y limons y oreos!

We met our captain; Tilson, an interesting character… A short Colombian 29 year old, sporting a gold hoop earring – very pirate indeed (you should see his skull and cross swords tattoo on his chest – no joke). He seemed quite tired and very serious, although occasionally mid serious sentence giving some kind of safety instructions he would let out a little squeaky giggle and let the whole tough guy captain thing slip, once saying something along the lines of “I MUST know where all of you are at all times when doing the open sea crossing … but then you can let loose and run around the islands naked or whatever”.  An odd chap from the start so we knew this is the kind of guy that might take a bit of getting used to. 
Mr. "Smooth"

After the briefing we spent the rest of the evening getting to know our fellow passengers on the front deck of the boat, practicing our Spanish and helping with their English. To our delight we got to try Mate; Argentina’s national drink. For some reason when we were there we never tried it. It tasted good – like a herbal tea – really herby. The Argentines are even more committed to their mate than the English with their tea. Wherever they are; beach, jungle, anywhere - they come prepared with their flask and special cup. This boat was no exception. It’s a social thing. They share the cup and we learnt the code; if you don’t want anymore you say ‘gracias’ to the pourer when you return the cup (something we found hard because our British politeness wanted us to say thank you every time). We enjoyed it throughout our sail.

Once it had gone midnight we went down for our first night in the cabin in the harbour; a nice gentle introduction!

The next morning we met Harry, the 3rd and final member of the crew and we set sail from the historical naval city of Cartagena around 9am. 

Having breakfast before setting sail

It was a beautiful day and the sea was so calm it was like a millpond…this isn’t too bad, Hannah thought, having been worried about seasickness. Just wait! 

We had been informed that we would be sticking near the coast, as the open sea crossing was very rough and a little too dangerous to cross. We spent the day motoring along with the jib out, sunbathing on the beanbags on the bow.

Lu cooked us a lovely lunch of pasta carbanara with salad. In fact, all our meals were delicious. We breakfasted, lunched and dinnered every day. Fajitas, homemade burgers, tacos, Moroccan chicken with cous cous….even home baked cake on board! Our tummies didn’t know what had hit them!

In the previous few weeks we hadn’t been eating so much – 1 or 2 meals a day, partly to save money but mainly because in the hot weather we just weren’t that hungry therefore our stomachs must have shrunk a bit. The problem that this caused was that we weren’t able to eat seconds when we really wanted to! Mmmmm…

During the evening of that first day, the waves picked up and the group started to go downhill with seasickness. Time for Han to start popping those seasickness pills! Slowly people started to retreat to bed, we still managed to appreciate the phosphorescence glowing in the wake. I was the last to bed after staying up for a while doing the night watch with Tilson then Harry. After a while of dipping in and out of sleep whilst staring at the bright stars, falling asleep then waking up with my face very close to the bright phosphorescence whizzing past me because the waves were so big, I decided to call it a night. I also knew I really wasn’t being a very efficient look out trying to spot boats or anything hazardous. All this whilst staring into the pitch-blackness which visually tripped me out a touch, and continuously rocking up and down vigorously. Ugh.  

The next day was rough. For the whole day, it was like the group was drugged. Some being sick over board, everyone sitting/sprawled out in the galley (the only place we could be as we weren’t allowed out on deck because it was too dangerous). The boat was seriously rocking!

I (Hannah) couldn’t move without feeling horrendous and I certainly could not venture down into our cabin or even to go to the loo! I just had to stare. Stare out to the choppy sea; eyes on the horizon, keep your eyes on the horizon. Unable to read, hold a conversation, sleep or eat much… At a particularly low point, plastic bag at the ready, Kyle sat me on the deck just beside the galley in an attempt to blast me with air and sea splash. Whilst I was mid stare, suddenly out of the water dived a dolphin! There was a group of them and they seemed to be following us, swimming side by side and giving little acrobatic shows. 

I’ve never seen anything like it! It lifted the spirits of the whole boat and totally snapped me out of feeling rotten; what a great seasickness cure and such a treat.

That evening, after 32 hours of sailing we arrived at a small island in San Blas. Hooray!! We had reached Panama! We didn’t hang about; grabbed a snorkel, some fins and jumped into the bath like water for the last 40 minutes of daylight.

It wasn't all fish...we found a barbie...!

The following 3 days were brilliant! Spent sailing and anchoring around the tiny islands. There are around 330 islands spanning over 100 square miles. It is here that the Kuna Indians people live. The Kunas are a wonderful example of how indigenous people can continue to flourish and practice their age-old customs surrounded by the modern world.  Their dress was very unique and colourful; the women wore ankle to knee rows of beads. They were very little and had such distinctive faces. The islands, together with these people are protected by the Pan-American government. There are no resorts or big hotels; the San Blas Islands are entirely unspoilt.

The Kuna's houses

Our captain; Tilson, having some 'alone time' on his tender

Harry flying
Our group reading up on species of fish
We played, explored, sunbathed, read, chatted, swam, snorkelled, ate, read…

One night we had a fantastic Argentinean Asado. Ignacio did a great job cooking all the meat. 

We met some other sailors and had a great evening chilling around the big campfire, drinking and sharing stories on the beach. 

It wasn’t long before all our beers and rum had been drunk by all, (we discovered that your own drink is everyone’s drink in the sailing world). 

We headed back to Big Fish in the dingy at what felt like 1AM although in actual fact it was around 10PM.

One of the mornings we went to the island with the immigration office on it. It consisted of a hut, a small helicopter and a few Kunas trying to sell their colourful products.

It was here we realised we had officially left South America after 5 months! The end of an era.

Later that day we snorkelled around a shipwreck that had turned into an artificial reef.

During our sail around the islands we spotted quite a few shipwrecks out of the water that had got caught on the coral reef. There are tiny tiny islands peaking up everywhere and super shallow areas!

At the last Island that we stopped at, Tilson bought 5 lobsters (alive) and 2 groupa fish for $60, 4 beers and 2 yogurts!

We were all quite fascinated with them!

Not so brave!
That night, after witnessing the process of fish gutting, we had a fish feast, which to our surprise, as neither of us are fish people, we loved!

 ‘Lobsters are cockroaches of the sea.’ - Tilson

On the afternoon of the 3rd day in San Blas, we said goodbye to 6 of our group. They left in a speedboat for the mainland. This just left the Argentinean couple, the crew and us. A much quieter boat, allowing for more relaxed crew members!

Kyle stayed up with Tilson and another guy from a different boat that night, drinking, being merry and getting up to mischief boarding other boats and being pirates.

The following morning was officially the end of our trip. However, Tilson agreed that we could stay an extra day, as we just weren’t ready to leave! Our form of payment was in the shape of a bit of cleaning here and there. 

With all the passengers gone (and Lu too as unfortunately she had to go to the city to do the big food shop for the return) it was just us 4. Tilson made a big fish soup, which seemed to feed the 5000; many of his pirate friends boarded the boat and socialised.

More time to explore!

We were sad to leave the following morning in our speedboat to the main land. After 7 nights on a boat though, perhaps it was time. Will definitely miss those islands though. They are very special.

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