Saturday, August 22, 2015

Bloods of the Seas: Sailing Panama to Colombia

Lola is succesfully delivered in port, and we catch a taxi to the quiet coastal town of Portobello. From Portobello the game plan is to board a 45' sail boat, and spend five days cruising down the Caribbean, hopping around the beautiful San Blas Islands for a bit, before arriving in the small town of Capurgana, Colombia. The taxi drops us off at pretty much the only accommodation in town, Captain Jacks Hostal. The reality that we are backpackers for two weeks sets in as this place is everything you would expect of a cheap hostal: bathrooms in poor condition, drugged out girl sleeping in the bunk next to you at all hours of the day, overpriced gringo food, crap wifi, and a mattress that you definitely don't want the sheet slipping off in the night whilst praying that bedbugs wont be feasting on your body. We are promptly told that we have to spend an extra night at Captain Jacks because the boat is delayed by rough weather. There isn't much to do in this small town, so we make the best of it and get to know our shipmates. There are nine of us total, and after a handful of beverages, it was decided that we needed a name, and a solid gameplan. Instantly, Bloods of the Seas was chosen, a name sure to strike fear into our enemies and victims as we plundered the Carribbean, showing no mercy. Of course we needed the vessel to ourselves, so a mutiny was planned and the captains were to be kicked off the boat when they arrived in port. Grandiose plans and a stellar group of shipmates.... Colombia here we come!

Derelict Spanish fort at Portobello

The Bloods of the Seas minus the photographer.
Finally getting ferried to our sailboat.

Eager to finally get the hell out of Panama, we boarded our new home and left port for the open seas. The captains seemed legit, and fun to have around so we spared them from walking the plank and meeting their watery end in Davy Jones' Locker, for now. With 11 people and 2 cats, the small boat was cramped but cozy, and it was a good thing that backpackers and overlanders are a very flexible group of people who can assimilate to any situation. We were given the two beds in the bow of the ship, our "room" complete with porthole windows giving us a nice ocean breeze. The first night was filled with a fresh fish dinner, lots of laughs, plently of rum drinks, and a making of a "Blood Cees" music playlist. Life was good. We were bobbing around on a boat, the temperature was perfect, our stock of booze was fresh, and the music and company was fun.

Our beds in the bow
The captains actually trusted Mallary at the helm!

The next few days were spent in a sort of rhythm of waking up early to grey skies, sailing for a while on the open seas, and stopping at various islands. The San Blas Islands are an archipelago of 350+ islands (give or take depending on the tide) 60 or so of which are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna tribal people, some of the larger isalnds with a whole functioning community and some with just a couple families. The Kuna are a matriarchal society of island dwelling natives that until recently, did not even wear clothes. They exercise a form of self governance and for the most part, choose to be isolated from Panamanian life in a semiautonomous region. On a visit to one of the larger islands, our captains set us up with a rare English speaking Kuna man named Cannabis. Cannabis is a very happy and upbeat guy who makes jewlery, is passionate about the Kuna people and lifestyle, and believes in all things good and natural... including mermaids and smoking lots and lots of weed. We took a tour of the island, it was complete with bamboo houses with thatched roofs and satellite dishes, a school, convienince store and bakery. The Kuna people are unusual because although they have been exposed to modern day life and amenities, they still choose to live fairly simply and have their own unique style of clothing and body jewelry that is stunning. Unlike many other indigenous people groups, they have stood up for themselves in the face of tourism, and make it very clear that visitors need to respect their land. A person can be imprisoned for taking/stealing a coconut, even from an uninhabited island, because each coconut is a wage brought into a family. If you would like to take a picture of a Kuna person, they have made it known that you must first ask and also pay them a fee of a dollar per photo. It seems that some Kuna families like the tourism that brings them a bit more money through selling fish, lobster, coconuts, and even cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs! Others seem quite annoyed at our presence.

Urban San Blas, uninhabited San Blas, and rural San Blas
Kuna neighborhood
Kuna out for floaters!
Chris and Adam on a beer run primitive style - dugout canoe.


The sailing trip was originally supposed to be 4 nights and 5 days, mostly which were to be spent island hopping since our end destination was in Capurgana rather than all the way to Cartagena. Those first few days were bliss. We constantly laughed, appreciated boat life, caught a Dogtoothed Tuna off the side of the boat, layed around on deck, watched the dolphins race with the boat, ate fresh lobster on a picture perfect white sand island, snorkled around, played volleyball, and soaked up the sun that peeked through the clouds every once in a while. The captains taught us a bit about sailing, had us help with certain takses like working the ropes and the anchor, and even steering! The captains started off thrilled to have such a chill and happy group onboard, and they would hang out with us all, telling stories of life on the lawless sea. Real life pirate stories that involved shipwrecks, attempted and successful murders, floating marked bags of drugs, Coast Guard searches, and various gossip about all the rest of the crazy captains. All was good even though each night we would get hit by some pretty fierce rain, causing the three people sleeping up on deck to have quite the uncomfortable time. (The boat was obviously overbooked, and one passenger and both captains did not have beds, but slept on deck in the rain... probably one cause for the crankiness of the captians as the days went on!) But still, each morning we would all awaken and be pumped about a new day at sea, sailing around the San Blas Islands, and each evening consisted of more laughs and more good music, even as the captains seemed less and less thrilled about this hodge podge group of travelers living on their boat!

The cat knows what's up
Where my girls at?!?

We approached the last day of the trip, when our captain told us that we would spend one extra day and night at sea. It seemed like an ok idea at first, but as we awoke the next morning, the reality sunk in that we would be trapped on this floating prison for another day. All of a sudden the boat felt a little bit smaller. The guys sleeping on the floor next to the litter box grew tired of their lot, the water was running low, the deck was filled with clothes and towels that got soaked each night in the rain, the cabin was starting to smell like perma-fart, the quality and quantity of the meals was lacking, and we were all weary of the daily "breakfast" of dry off-brand corn flakes. On top of that, it seemed like the captains were partying just as much as us passengers at this point, and although the two of us never had issue with them, our wonderful Turkish smartass of a captain managed to severly offend half the passengers on board after a few too many drinks. The tension in the air was suffocating, and all the sudden it was not the same blissful sailboat trip it started out as! Not to mention, we were low on pirate juice... RUM!

Life on the boat
Trying to expedite the Turkish meatballs

As the boat grew smaller and smaller by the minute, we all decided an adventure was due, and we suited up to take an epic swim out to "One Tree Island" which we all had set our eyes on the evening before. An actual island with only one tree, not even half an acre in size! The swim looked long, but with all nine of us in, we put our cameras in dry bags and kicked our way to the island for a romantic getaway and a chance to gripe about the annoyances of life on the boat! We discussed how the mutany could still happen and came up with elaborate plans of this takeover. The boat was clearly driving us all nuts, but hey it was just one more night... knowing that we were all in the same boat, literally and figuratively, eased the pain. Satisfied with being off the boat we stayed in the water until the last minute, when we were due to depart the islands and sail towards land overnight. We all got back on the boat, ready to hit the seas, only to hear news that we would be delayed yet another night, due to a bad weather forecast of storms! We groaned about it, but in the end had no choice. It almost felt like the captains were punishing us by keeping us hostage on the boat for one more day, again!!

Is it farther than it looks, or closer... You must swim to find out!
Our island out in the distance
A successful island takeover by Bloods of the Seas
1 Tree Island

Lucky for us another boat showed up and anchored close by for the evening. This boat was a little more luxurious than our ride, and at this point jealousy was setting in. We all looked over at the big catamaran longingly, and wondered what it must be like. That night we joined the other boat for a bonfire party on the beach. Thankfully, their boat (unlike ours) came equipped with a working dingy and amiable captain who gave us all a ride to the island. It only took a few hours on the island with the other boat for us all to realize that although our boat was smaller and less equipped, we had it going on as far as passengers went! We took in their braggy stories about their fresh baked bread each morning, excessive food, private cabins, sufficient snorkle gear, and on and on. Like a middle school dance we slowly but surely divided into two distinct groups at the bonfire, them and us. Turns out even the girl crazy single Ozzie guys would rather hang out with the Bloods of the Seas than the other boat people! ;) We all seemed to come to a great conclusion that night. We realized that the nine of us were not the kind of people who wanted that fancy boat trip... We were pirates, who valued the camaraderie that brought us together through our experiences on the overcrowded sail boat and all the comical miseries. We were getting the real pirate sailing experience...

The next day we took a very curious detour to another island to eat a Kuna lunch, and 5 hours later passed by our little One Tree Island again, leaving us all scratching our heads at to what in the heck was going on here. Why were we not in Colombia yet?!? The atmosphere on the boat was tense, but the sails were up and we were finally headed in the right direction, towards mainland! The plan was to sail through thle night and arrive in Colombia by early morning. That last night was particuarly funny because it was totally clear that we all wanted to be off the boat, and soon! The helm was too small for us all to sit, the seas were a bit rough and the boat was head on into some big swells, none of us could stand straight, a few were feeling seasick, and there was no place to go! The icing on the cake was that tonight, in the tiny kitchen, on the rocking seas, it was "cook your own damn dinner" night! We each took turns struggling to remain upright and not upchuck all over the cabin, while cooking ourselves a hamburger on a sizzling pan precariously tied down to the stove to prevent it from careening across the galley and sending scalding grease everywhere as we hit the waves!

That last night on the boat we all took an extra dose of dramamine and let the wild waves rock us to sleep. We awoke the next morning to smooth sailing alongside the impenetrable Darien Gap. That mysterious chunck of jungle that has dictated the last few weeks of our trip was right there in front of our faces. It is a rare piece of land that is still as wild as it has been for centuries, yet harbors many mysterious animals, indigenous peoples, and drug smugglers. We may be 3 days late and questioning our choosen route to Colombia, but we couldn't wait to set foot on Colombian soil and start the new adventure of South America!
The perfect book for a jaunt out to sea.
The Darien Gap in the background



  1. Despite the hardships, it sounds like overall you had a good time. Uncle Bob stayed on one of the San Blas Islands on a trip to Panama. He said the area was beautiful. Mom and Dad L

    1. Thanks guys!! It was so beautiful and worth all the annoyances for sure!!!