Sunburnt & Seasick

Sunburnt & Seasick

July 22, 2014

The Darien Gap! A 50km stretch of jungle separating Panama in North America from Colombia in South America. The jungle is so thick that it isolated the Mayan civilisation from the Inca's. Although a few well equipped adventurers have had success in navigating through the harsh environment, most attempts have failed. Plans to join Panama to Colombia by road through the Darien Gap have never eventuated mainly because of the terrain but also because of the poor relations between the two countries.

How then would The Pack Track get from North to South America? There are essentially two options, fly or sail, each with its pros and cons. Flying can be done in a day whereas sailing takes 5 days. The price is very similar with flying only fractionally more expensive than sailing but our main concern was Skyla's comfort and well-being as we didn't want to put her in a crate again if we could avoid it.

The sailing options include the traditional single hull or catamaran sail boats. However, at the Panama - Costa Rica border we met a fellow adventure rider who told us of a new ferry service called the San Blas Ferry. A quick google search hi-lighted some bad reviews about this service from  its maiden voyage (also the only voyage) about 6 months ago where the owner failed to obtain landing rights in Colombia. What should have taken 24 hours to get from Panama to Colombia took 5 days. We contacted the owner hopeful that the ferry was now operating and he quickly responded saying he could have us on his next voyage and was happy to accommodate Skyla. We couldn't believe our luck and quickly paid the deposit to secure our spots. Once the payment was cleared, he sent us the details of the would be a five day voyage through the San Blas islands on his catamaran with 20 other guests. Our hearts sank. With little time now to reach Brazil for the World Cup we had no choice but to take the adventure on the high seas. Really, how bad could it be?

Our sailing instructions were at least very clear, be at the wharf by 11am. The ride was around 100km and we were told by Captain Fritz that due to the road conditions we would  need 2 hours. We checked this information at the hostel and they told us they allow 3 hours and take it slow so we followed their advice. The first 60kms was good road, a bit of traffic but easy to pass. After the turnoff towards the San Blas islands we were heading across the country from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean. The first hill was immense, and quickly took us to over 1000m but instead of plateauing off to a nice easy ride, it became a continuous series of undulating hills, with the road snaking through the landscape.  This might seem like a riders dream, but the twists were tight, the hills were steep and the road was unpredictable with no warning signs and loads of pot holes and gravel patches; every metre of road required intense concentration and resulted in a slow paced ride. This 40km stretch took us well over an hour and had us a little worried about the time.

As we followed the signs to the Wharf the road turned in to a gravel trail, Janell was so stoked about that (Not). Then, at about 1km from the wharf (according to the Garmin GPS) we came across a water crossing with no way round. It actually looked like part of a wetland and a dead-end to the road we were on. We hoped we'd taken a wrong turn and started to turn around when a couple of locals walking by assured us that we were on the right route. Janell didn't hesitate (mainly because she'd freak out if she thought about it too long) and before Stuart could say a word she was into the 30m wide crossing maintaining constant speed while trying to keep her bike upright. The crossing was murky but luckily it had a fairly solid bottom so traction was not a problem. Janell reached the other side, took a big sigh of relief, and passed back some good advice to Stu and Skyla on which bits to avoid but mainly to follow her tracks. Stu and Skyla, following all the advice, entered the water maintaining a constant speed, but clearly not enough revs and at about midway Stuart stalls the engine!!! The bike rapidly slowed as Stuart grabbed the clutch  and pressed the ignition, desperate not to go down in the middle of this murky water. The bike started immediately and while trying hard to balance on two wheels he applied throttle and powered back up in speed, 'Thank god' he thought as he rode up the other side and on to dry ground.

So we arrived at the wharf with wet boots and muddy tyres but most importantly on time. We could see the Jacqueline (our home for the next 5 days) waiting for us in the bay. We did as instructed and unloaded the bikes to allow for an easy transfer onto the sailboat. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. We grabbed a quick bite on the wharf, a plate of beans and rice which is typical in this part of Central America. Finally the Jacqueline started to move our way, our bikes parked at the end of the wharf with luggage stacked neatly along side. The Jacqueline approached but surely too fast, then giving us great confidence in the crew she rammed into the wharf. What had we gotten ourselves in for? Luckily no damage to either the wharf or the Jacqueline. With the help of some of the locals and a few other passengers (all backpackers including a number of Australian's) we manhandled the bikes onto the boat and lashed them to the deck.

Finally it was time to relax. We had been allocated the captains cabin so that Skyla could be contained (Thanks Capt Fritz), we had a double bed, a 12v fan, an en-suit and best of all some privacy. We changed into our swimmers and headed to the upper decks to meet the rest of the passengers. We took a slow 90 minute transit through benign seas to a picturesque location amongst the islands to drop anchor. The afternoon was spent in and out of the water, including Skyla who was having a great time splashing around. During dinner Captain Jose (a retired Colombian naval officer, Capt Fritz was just the boat owner and did not sail the boat himself) told us of a wreck which we would be able to free dive. The next morning after breakfast we grabbed the snorkelling gear and boarded the dingy, the captain dropped us roughly in location and told us to look for a sail boat sitting at about 8m below the surface. It turned out we weren't that close but after about half an hour of separating and searching we finally found the 40 foot yacht among the lovely coral reef. For the next half hour we all took turns swimming down to check it out, but even with good diving fins, it was a challenge to reach the depth and have time to explore before needing to return to the surface for air. The key was to reach the boat, relax and gain ones composure before entering through the main door. We ventured inside the wreck, swimming through the cabins and exiting through the large tear in the side of the boat. Once we'd had enough of looking around the wreck we slowly made our way back to the Jacqueline passing some nice reef on the way. Having now spent around two hours in the water we were feeling the effects of the sun, the sun screen we'd used hadn't been as affective as we'd hoped, being stored in our hot tank bags for the last couple of months had caused the fluid to separate into a lumpy solution, but it was all we had so we took our chances as opposed to missing this great opportunity. With everyone back on the boat lunch was served and we all sat around and talked about how amazing the wreck dive had been.

After lunch we set sail again, this time it was a very short run to another set of islands only a few kilometres away. We dropped anchor again and were taken to one of the islands for a game of volleyball; more time in the sun, fortunately it was late afternoon by this time. Even before the volleyball had kicked off the beer was flowing freely. After the game the mood quickly changed to a party atmosphere, with the locals selling cold beer from their purpose built hut and everyone becoming very merry.

The following morning there were a lot of sore heads and sore skin as everyone woke to sun burn and hangovers. The breakfast plater was put out but hardly touched, a bit of swimming helped relieve some of the pain but otherwise mostly rest. Late in the afternoon we set sail for our final destination, Cartegena, Colombia. This was to be a 30 hour transit in the open sea! Out came the sails for the first time and into open waters we went. Nearly straight away the seas picked up and the small catamaran was being thrown all over the place, water was being sprayed over the decks and the bikes were getting covered in salt water :o(.

Even with Stuart's 12 years of Naval service, he was still prone to sea sickness and quickly retired to his bed. Janell and Skyla seemed unaffected by the inclement seas and Janell read a book while Skyla relaxed by the kitchen waiting for the next meal to be prepared. For those maritime aware readers we were in sea state 5 waters and the Captain said it was the biggest seas he had seen on this boat. Finally we were sailing the Caribbean, and we felt horrible. All the hatches had to be closed to stop water from flooding into the cabins. This meant that none of the bunks had ventilation and with the lack of air conditioning it was unbearable for most below decks (apart from the lucky ones with the captains cabin). Every comfortable spot on the upper decks was occupied with one person or another, all sick, either still from the hang over, sun stroke or now from the sea sickness. The boat had turned into a cesspit with food and alcohol spilt everywhere, patches of vomit and sea water leaking into cabins all over. It wasn't long before we just wanted off the boat!!

Through the night, the seas picked up even more and the boat was making some terrible noises. The Pack Track lay in our bed wondering if the boat was able to make the journey, the cracking noises were horrendous and Skyla was clearly distressed as she cuddled up very closely all night hoping we'd keep her safe. The second day saw the biggest seas, the deck was constantly being washed with sea water and the hatch above the captains cabin bed was leaking resulting in a wet bed. The day dragged on and we kept thinking about reaching land and getting back on the bikes. When we went to bed for the last night we were expecting to get in to port by 3am the next morning. Through the night the line holding the main sail broke on two separate occasions, again our confidence in the boat reduced. We got out of bed at around 7am having had a very broken and wet sleep but excited about getting off the boat. Our hearts sank again as we discovered we were still at sea, moving very slowly now and with no land in sight. The captain explained that we had run out of fuel and were now relying on sail power alone. The seas were now much smaller and we were comfortably able to sit on the upper decks, all wondering if we'd make it to Colombia that day. We'd run out of food and fresh water by this point, luckily Capt Fritz had the forethought to provide some emergency jerry cans of water, but this wasn't going to last long. By midday we could finally see land, but at the speed we were going it was going to be another two or three hours before reaching our anchorage.

On arriving in Catargena, all passengers were taken ashore to the local DIAN (immigration) office and passports processed but no preparations had been made for our bikes. After some fussing about we were told that the bikes had to remain on the boat until the next day and then taken directly to customs. We needed something nice to get our spirits up so booked into a luxury hotel (still within our budget) and got some rest ready to deal with drama of importing the bikes into Colombia. To be honest the process turned out to be very straight forward, not really any different to what we'd come to expect at any other border crossing.

After three nights resting and exploring Cartegena it was back on the road with 4000km to cover across Venezuela to Manaus, Brazil!

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