A Bit of a Character
The captain of the Victory was a bit of a character, we were warned when we booked our passage from Colombia to Panama. Crossing the Darién gap, a hundred mile stretch of land spanning the Panama-Colombia border, is incredibly unsafe, and with a preference for a more adventurous option than flying, we opted for a sea crossing. This route, from the port city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast to Panama’s mainland, had the added bonus of going via the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of more than 365 white sand islands off the eastern coast of Panama.
And so we turned up at the yacht club the evening before departure, feeling a touch apprehensive after our warning about the captain and stories from other travellers describing forty-eight hours of seasickness. We asked around and after a short while found the Victory sailing boat, nestled amid other yachts, bobbing gently on the water. She was smaller than I had imagined, considering I knew that we would be eight people in total, with a white deck and blue hull embellished with an upper and lower yellow stripe.
Capitan Hernando Higuera came out on deck to greet us. He had the look about him of a captain straight from adverts, the most stereotypical image of a captain I could have conjured up. He was dressed in a light shirt, loose trousers, and his brown, lined face was framed by a greying mass of curly hair and a thick white beard. We greeted him heartily in Spanish and introduced ourselves, and once I had edged along the gangplank and stepped into the boat, he hugged me by way of greeting. So far so good. Emma, his deck hand and a traveller from Germany with sailing experience, helped us to lug our large backpacks down into the cabin and stow them away in a cupboard under one of the beds. As we were the first to arrive, we got first pick and chose a triangular double bed area at the back of the cabin, hoping the movement of the boat would be less pronounced than at the front and therefore reduce the chances of seasickness.
Over the next hour, the other passengers turned up: there was Alejandra from Chile, olive skinned with long dark hair, willowy Vera from Switzerland, and Marianne and Stian, a Norwegian couple wearing matching tops which exclaimed ‘¡No somos Gringos!’ on the front and ‘¡Vikingos!’ on the back (‘We’re not gringos!’ ‘Vikings!’). Quite incredibly, six out of the eight total people on the boat were vegetarian, much to the consternation of the captain, who informed us that in his fifteen years sailing between Panama and Colombia, this had never happened.
While Emma cooked us our first meal in the small kitchen downstairs, we got to know the basics about each other. Whether due to a Spanish ex-boyfriend or a university semester in Mexico, everyone spoke a good level of Spanish, so it was our go-to language (Sam being the exception: as he put it, he just about managed to understand what was going on). Very quickly I felt a great vibe going around the group. True, the captain did indeed seem like a character; he liked things done a certain way and didn’t polish his phrases when it came to telling us so, but he was also an excellent storyteller, a real laugh, and absolutely loved what he did. By the end of the first evening we were all singing together as Marianne strummed chords on her guitar (yep, some travelling stereotypes are true). When we settled in to our bed below deck later that evening, I could feel that my apprehension had turned to excitement, for the most part.
Riding the Waves
After breakfast the next morning, the anchor was hoisted and we slowly motored our way out of the harbour. Once we were out at sea, there was very little wind. This trend continued for the whole crossing to the San Blas Islands, so for the entire journey the motor was on and the autopilot directed us, which required one person to sit with the electronic device in their hands and keep the bearing at the correct number, as it had a tendency to veer somewhat off course.
The sea was pleasantly calm to begin with. We all stayed above deck, with orders from the capitan not to descend into the cabin unless strictly necessary, to minimise the likelihood of seasickness. Someone managed to put music on through a set of speakers, so we lay about in the increasing heat, somewhat like a group of beached whales, trying to find as comfortable a position as possible with the swaying of the boat.
Suddenly Marianne began exclaiming and pointing out to sea. A pod of dolphins swam up to the boat and began bow riding. They swam incredibly close, grey shapes flickering just below the sunlit surface and leapt out of the water again and again. They eventually left us to chase a shoal of fish, which we saw jumping out of the water a short way off, evidently to escape their new predators.
For the duration of the crossing, the stove could not, understandably, be used. Preparation for each meal became a group activity, with a number of chopping boards handed out and various vegetables cut to the motion of the boat, all overseen by the capitan. For our first dinner, Sam rushed around preparing as much as he could, as everyone else, capitan aside, felt nauseous and seasickness coping strategies ranged from curling into a ball to trying to drift off to sleep. Considering the limited supplies and cooking methods, the meals were delicious; sandwiches tastefully embellished with a range of ten sauces and condiments for lunch and Mexican salad in wraps for dinner.
The waves slowly increased throughout the day, so that by the time darkness descended we were pitching about a lot. Phytoplankton shimmered in the wake breaking on either side of the bow, like fireflies trapped just below the surface or stars twinkling in the water. Perhaps due to the fact that I have synaesthesia, so that different senses can sometimes cross over, I realised that with every movement of the ship I was seeing a shape, and after more than twelve hours this was starting to get a bit much.
The night was one of broken sleep, but at least the moving yacht meant that we had a breeze going through the cabin, unlike the thick oppressive heat of the first night when we were moored in the harbour. The next morning the waves were calm once again. The day passed much the same as the one before, though without the entertainment of the dolphin pod but with the bonus that I was more settled in to the constant movement and the slight claustrophobia of being stuck on a tiny moving island.
That evening, having dozed off below deck, I was woken by a kiss from Sam to find that, after forty-two hours of travelling, we had reached the San Blas Islands. When I climbed up onto the deck to check out what I could see in the darkness, I found we were anchored between the dark outlines of several islands and the sea was so calm that the boat hardly moved. As we were experienced seafaring people by now, we celebrated with a hearty drink of rum.
It’s a Hard Life
The next three days were paradisiacal, so picture-perfect that it was hard to believe we were living the experience. We woke the morning after arriving just in time to watch the sun rise over the crescent island nearest us, the glowing orange rays revealing a white sand beach, curving palm trees and dappled turquoise and deep blue water. Before breakfast we all jumped into the sea. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet and the water was already 28°C, according to Sam’s dive watch. We swam to the nearby island and wandered along the beach, gazing out at the several islands around us and the incredible colours of the sea.
During the morning, while everyone went their separate ways for an explore, Sam and I stayed on the Victory with our capitan, smoking a celebratory natural tobacco cigar together, and listening to the story of how the yacht had won the Admiral’s Cup, an international yachting regatta, in 1981 for the United Kingdom. I felt thankful for the fact that it was a racing yacht when another boat that had left Colombia just after us sailed into the key after lunch, twelve hours after we had arrived.
In the afternoon, Sam and I grabbed a couple of snorkels and swam across to another island. Wearing a pair of fins I had borrowed from someone on board, I swam along easily, passing over green brain corals as large as wine barrels on the way, while fin-less Sam opted for a different route and ended up getting slightly caught in a current, which was, he informs me, very tiring and not quite as fun as coral sightseeing. When we emerged out of the sea and began wandering along the beach of the new island, we found it littered with seashells, sometimes as big as my forearm, sometimes a rich shiny pink, like delicate porcelain. There were a few wooden shacks on the island made of driftwood and with thatched roofs of palm leaves. These belonged to the Kuna, the indigenous people who live on the San Blas Islands, who move from island to island every three months, fishing and farming yuca, coconuts and other fruit. When we returned to the Victory, Sam practised freediving using the anchor chain and managed more than twelve metres.
That evening, the Turkish couple who captained the other boat anchored in the key and a few of their passengers came over, and we all drank red wine and rum and coke, whilst listening to increasingly old rock songs. I chatted to the other captain and found out that he had great respect for our own capitan, proclaiming that he was the best captain who sailed between Colombia and Panama, and revealing that he had once been an instructor for the Colombian Navy.
The next morning, we sailed between the dark patches of multiple reefs and out of the key. Sam took the helm, turning the wheel to follow a strict route that capitan barked at him, so as to avoid the numerous reefs. The waters around the San Blas are such a maze to navigate that it is very common for boats to shipwreck; the captain told us about two that had run aground in the last week, as we sailed passed an island with four wrecks visible in its shallows. We passed many islands, some covered in palms trees, some simply mounds of white sand rising out of the vividly blue sea, and one just big enough to provide the foundation for a single small Kuna hut.
After a couple of hours, we arrived at the shores of Chichime, a large island covered thickly with palm trees. There were maybe twenty yachts anchored there, and when we swam to shore we found a hotel of several thatched and concrete buildings as well as a camping site. After several days of minimal human contact outside of the group on our boat, the increase in activity was strange.
Before lunch, Sam and I snorkelled in a quiet bay away from the bustle, and though we were mostly swimming over swaying sea grass, we did see one small ray lying on the sea bed amid the grass and huge seashells, unfazed by our presence.
In the afternoon, we took the blue sea kayak which had been tied to the Victory’s deck during the crossing from Colombia, and rowed ourselves and Sam’s camera ashore, for a photography wander around the island. When we had walked about halfway round, we saw our capitan sat beside a couple of Kuna huts, chatting away with a large family. He called us over, and I was quickly presented with a tiny black and white puppy, which nestled into my arms, and shown the pet kitten, birds, chickens, dog and snuffling piglet, by a couple of shy little girls. Several of the woman of the family were dressed traditionally and looked stunning, with mola blouses wrapped around their chests sewn with colourful patterns, beaded leg bands which almost reached up to their knees, and their faces decorated with a thin dark line down their nose and pink on their cheeks. Our capitan was clearly very fond of the Kuna, demonstrated by that fact that when he isn’t sailing, he lives on this island with the Kuna. As we walked away from the family, he sighed with contentment and described them as ‘my people’.
Sam and I got back into the kayak and rowed around the rest of the island, just as the sun was setting. I could feel Paradise starting to settle over me, starting to relax my mind.
The next morning, we left Chichime and sailed to El Porvenir, the most built up of all the islands we had seen, based on that fact that it had a small airfield and actual buildings. This included the immigration office, where we were stamped into Panama. While we were waiting for our passports to be sorted, Sam and I swam around close to the boat and saw an eagle ray flying gently through the water below us, bright white spots dotted all over its dark brown back.
Once bureaucratic matters were settled, we sailed away for our final afternoon in the islands. After an hour or so, we anchored a short way from a hilly, forested island. Most yacht trips only last five days, but our capitan, being a legend, had decided we might as well have an extra day just for fun. As this spot was off the usual course, there were absolutely no other boats around, so we spent the afternoon blissfully alone, enjoying the sea, the solitude, and the final hours of each other’s company. Capitan cooked us a dish from his home city of Bogotá, which we accompanied with the last of the rum and wine, and we had a last guitar sing along.
The next morning, a Kuna man picked us up in a small launch. We hugged farewell to the capitan, Emma, and Vera who had decided to take the return voyage, and waved for as long as we could as the launch sped away. When we disembarked at the coast, we found a curious thing had occurred: in our several days absence, solid land had started to precariously sway.