Sailing to Colombia

The land border between Panama and Colombia is covered by a thick mountainous jungle known as the Darien Gap, home to guerrilla fighters, thieves, drug smugglers and all sorts of unpleasant people. Due to this, the only practical way to travel from Panama to Colombia is via air or sea. 5 day sailing trips to Colombia usually cost from US$500 and includes 2-3 days at the San Blas Islands, where you can swim, snorkel, meet the indigenous Kuna people, and eat lots of seafood. Some boats hug the coast to Sapzurro on the border while others do the 30-40 hour open water sail to Cartagena. For further details or to book a boat, please go to http://www.mamallena.com/sailboats-to-cartagena.html

Through mamallena.com, I booked myself onto the Amethyst, a 37 foot sailboat configured to accommodate up to 8 people in 3 double and 2 single berths. The captain, Juan David (26, Colombia), has done the trip many times before but this was his first time on the Amethyst. Rounding out the rest of the crew was his girlfriend Paulina (23, France) and his cousin Camilo (31, Colombia). The 3 of them are really laid-back and fun. Sometimes maybe a little too laid-back; it’s as if they are always on Caribbean time (ie always late). But without a doubt, they are experienced sailors.

27 Jan – We had a meet and greet with Juan David and Paulina (they were almost an hour late) at our hostel. They went over the itinerary of the trip: an overnight sail from Portobelo to San Blas followed by island hopping to Sapzurro. We paid them that evening and set a time to drop our bags off with Camilo at the dock tomorrow morning. It’s important to note that after Colon and Sabanitas, there are no ATMs until you reach Turbo or Cartagena.

Panama - Portobelo - Old Fort

One of the old forts in Portobelo

28 Jan – We were supposed to depart at around 5pm but the port official was running over 2 hours late.  The boat didn’t have the necessary authorization papers which we needed to sail in Panamanian waters so we had to wait for him. We had BBQ chicken for dinner then left the bay at around 9pm. Juan David told us yesterday that the waters would be very rough and he was right. The boat was rocking violently all night and I had to cling onto the wall so that I wouldn’t be thrown off the bed. The hatches were closed and the fan stopped working so it got really hot and stuffy. All night long I was sweating and wanted to hurl. Mind over matter…

29 Jan – I forgot to turn off my alarm and it went off at 9am. Argh! I got up to turn it off and immediately I got the urge to hurl since the boat was still rocking. I just barely made it onto the deck and chundered onto the outer deck of the boat. About an hour later we reached our first island and dropped anchor in a protected area. We jumped off the boat into the warm waters to cool off, relieve ourselves, and have a little swim. Pooping while treading water was an interesting experience. It felt so good to get out of the rough waters.

We had a delicious breakfast and lunch on the boat then motored about 10 min to our anchorage for the night. The local Kuna people caught a bunch of lobsters and crabs and were preparing a feast for us on their island. We rode the dingy over with our rum and mixers and and stuffed our faces with the seafood while the locals helped themselves to our rum. The food was so good! Rather than sleep in the stuffy cabin, I slept on deck.

Panama - Sailing - Seafood Dinner

Lobster feast!!

30 Jan – After breakfast and some lounging, we sailed for about 3 hours to a secluded island with a tiny village on it. The approach to the island was awesome; a golden sand beach beckoned to us as we got closer and closer. Unfortunately for me, the anchorage wasn’t that protected and the boat rocked quite a bit. We still haven’t gotten a health and safety briefing yet. I asked Juan David if he could do one today and he said we would do one later. But we never did. Camilo cooked up a delicious tuna pasta but I was too queasy to finish it and swam to the island to chill out. Still not sure why, but we didn’t get any dinner that night. I didn’t mind too much since I wasn’t feeling well and passed out around 7:30pm on the island.

Panama - Sailing - Secluded Beach

31 Jan – We spent the morning at the island snorkeling and chilling out. Some of the guys went to go fish for lobster. The chief of the island demanded some sort of offering from Juan David for us using their island; he paid in cash, coffee, and some other treats. Then we sailed for about 6 or 7 hours to a flat secluded island covered by a Kuna village. We walked around the island to have a look around and to find the fisherman so that we could buy some seafood. Every house was flying the Kuna flag in honour of the upcoming Kuna independence day on 25 Feb. The locals had us sign some sort of petition or guestbook for the event. A few hours later, I went and found the fisherman at his house but unfortunately he didn’t have any seafood to sell and the restaurant that we were going to eat at didn’t have any as well. I was quite disappointed by the lack of planning on the captain’s part and his lackluster attempt to find the fisherman. I was expecting the restaurant / island to be ready for our arrival with mountains of seafood. Surprisingly, we got octopus with rice for dinner. It wasn’t great but it was enough to keep us from going hungry. We played poker and drank rum till late then returned to the boat to sleep.

Panama - Sailing - Kuna Village

01 Feb – Big day of sailing today. About 10 hours. Yesterday Juan David said we’d set sail at 5 or 6am. But Caribbean time has prevailed and we set off at around 9am. Just as he predicted the seas were quite rough. This time of year is the windiest so the seas are at their worst. Despite the sea sickness pills I took before we started moving I still wasn’t feeling great and sat in the wheelhouse for the duration of the journey. I’ve got to admit, sailing is mind-numbingly boring. All I did was sleep, ponder, and stare at the mainland.

But late in the afternoon, things started to get a bit interesting… in a bad way.

We suddenly went from 50/60m depths to 10m depths in the open water. This created huge swells of 2-4m approaching the boat from the port side and were big enough to cause Juan David to yell out “hold on!” Juan David steered the boat to surf along two big swells. It was quite scary but we came out of it ok. But moments later my biggest fear at that time was about to come true. A massive wave was about to break on top of us. It was as tall as a 2 or 3 story building. I’ll never forget the sight of us all looking up at the wave and fearing for our lives.

I remember looking up and thinking “OMG I’m going to die!!” and grabbed onto whatever I could and started thinking about what to do if the boat capsized.

None of us were wearing lifevests nor were tied down. The wave came down on us like a collapsing building. The boat tilted so far on the starboard side that the mast was touching the water. I was sitting on that side and saw the sea water rise up to within a metre of where I was sitting. This could be the end…But then miraculously the boat started to right itself. We did a quick roster check and realized that Rory got swept off the back of the boat.

Juan David took control of the situation. He sent us down into the cabin (which in hindsight he probably should’ve done after the first big swell) and the crew jumped into action (despite being really sick, Camilo sprang to life!) to turn the boat around to rescue Rory. A fishing line had wrapped around the propeller so the motor couldn’t be used. Thankfully he’s a strong swimmer and after about 15 minutes we got him back onto the boat safely. We were really lucky it was still daylight out too. It was such a relief that we got him back that I finally let go of my spew into the kitchen sink. About 40 minutes later we arrived at our destination with a bang. We heard a crashing sound and we all thought we were going to go under but thankfully it was only the keel which hit the reef. Within minutes night fell and then the crew went to the island to see if anything was open; nothing was. Juan David made us dinner and I immediately knocked out afterwards. My heart rate was still racing after the freak wave and the anchorage onto the reef.

02 Feb – The final day. Still no health and safety run through despite yesterday’s events. The crew didn’t check the keel or try to cut the line loose from the propeller. The wave destroyed most of the eggs and washed away an entire cooler full of beer. So for breakfast we had hot chocolate and fig newtons. Thankfully the seas were calm and we had no problems reaching Sapzurro. It still took 6-7 hours but everyone was very happy to be on land. Although we still had a 10 minute speedboat ride to Capurgana to take care of immigration which was a bit unnerving for me. Despite the big swells, we got there without any issues.

Panama - Sailing - Sunset

In conclusion, while it was obvious that Juan David and the crew were very experienced and capable sailors, the lack of any formal health and safety demonstration is a major issue. Apparently there were 7 lifevests on board, but we could only find 3 stowed away at the bottom of a big compartment in the wheelhouse. And even then, there are 10 people on board, why are there only 7 lifevests? In the event of an emergency, there would be no way to reach the vests. The boat is equipped with a liferaft and an EPIRB (a device used to send out an emergency signal), but none of us knew how to deploy them. The snorkel gear was top quality and brand new (we literally unwrapped them). We weren’t given any dinner on the 3rd evening and had to make our own lunch on the last day. I think if more focus is given to health and safety, departure times, and planning meals then I would recommend sailing with the Amethyst. At least one person (it wasn’t me) sat the crew down and gave them a face to face critique and included the items I mentioned above. Hopefully they take it to heart and make some improvements.

Have you travelled by sea between Panama and Colombia? What was your crossing like?

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