Getting to the Next Continent
Hanging out at the yacht harbors of Panama City, things weren’t looking very promising for finding a crewing opportunity across the Panama Canal. Many folks told us that it was the wrong season and that not many non-commercial boats would be heading from the Pacific to the Atlantic. So when a captain contacted us looking for line-handlers for his canal passage, the excitement was that much sweeter.
The S/V Running Free is a gorgeous 49 foot mono-hull owned by the dude who built The Gorge amphitheater in Washington. He had hired Techs Mex Repairs, the La Paz-based shop started by our new friends Will and Marylin, to deliver the boat from Baja to Florida. Will and Marylin had recognized our names from when we advertised for crew back in La Paz, Mexico, looking for a ride to mainland Mexico, and generously offered us room aboard the boat. Being very generous boat movers, the captain and first mate understood the once-in-a-lifetime experience that they had the ability to offer a group of travelers and happily agreed to take a large group; the four of us bicyclists, our hitchhiking friend Seth, and two Dutch backpackers made up the line handling crew. We were boarded by the mandatory “canal pilot” supplied by the Canal, a laid back Panamanian named Ivan, who guided us through the locks. It was a full fledged fiesta for us, and just another day on the job for him.
Our passage under the Bridge of the Americas and into the first set of locks was quite exciting. We were all on the edge of our seats, trying to help get prepared and wondering when our time would come. For those of you reading who are not familiar with the Canal, a series of 3 locks on either side of Gatun Lake were constructed in 1914 by the United States, allowing for vessels to be lifted up, motor across the lake, and then lowered down to continue voyage across the next ocean. This engineering feat (one of the most impressive of all time) significantly reduces the length of world shipping routes and allows vessels to avoid the journey around the dangerous waters of Cape Horn. Now run by the Panamanian government, the Canal is by far the greatest source of income for the country, with large shipping vessels paying in excess of $200,000 for each passage across. Needless to say, it is quite an operation, and as we bobbed around idly outside the first locks we were transfixed by the traffic moving in and out.
When a vessel enters the locks its position is kept by lines running from the boat to the shore. As the locks are filled and drained the lines need to be taken-in and given-out so to keep the vessel centered and straight. This process is accomplished by specially made locomotives for large ships, but smaller craft complete this task manually and so need four human “line-handlers”, one for each corner of the boat. Turns out, line-handling is even easier than it sounds, and a lot less work than we expected. Toss a rope, catch a rope, tie a bowline, and watch the slack. Most of the time we weren’t even necessary for the job, but those few moments when we had a responsibility made us feel important.
The Panama Canal is quite a site to witness. We watched as the doors of the locks slowly closed in, like a booby trap from Star Wars. And then slowly, we feel the rising water level under the boat and the view of the next elevation appeared. Our large sailboat, a passenger tour boat, and a large car carrier ship were lifted around 25 feet up, we were thoroughly impressed. Equally impressive was Marylin’s cooking for our gang in the galley of the Running Free. We enjoyed some delicious dishes as we made our way through.
The lake of the Canal is huge. It took multiple hours to motor to the other side, and it was a bit surprising to see how much open country lies between the two sets of locks. Passing wild islands and jungled shores, the industrial spirit of the day was given an opportunity to take a deep breath and recollect itself.
We arrived at the northern locks just barely in time to squeeze in with the last load before the traffic switched directions. If we hadn’t been able to maintain our 8 knots speed through the lake, we would have had to spend the night on the lake and wait for the next morning. Thankfully we made it through with full memory cards in our cameras and a sense of accomplishment just as the sun was beginning to set. We were back at sea level again, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, all in a day’s work.
That night we enjoyed gourmet dinners at the restaurant in Shelter Bay Marina, our payment for the laborious sweat we had shed. We celebrated our great day with Will and Marylin, and slept on the boat that night. Thanks again to Will & Marylin! (Unfortunately, Chris lost his camera, losing the group photo)
The next day we got busy with looking for our next boat ride, hoping we might find a ride to Colombia from one of the docked sailors. Again we were met with some discouragement, as it seemed that everyone heading toward the coast of South America had already left a month or two ago. We kept playing the cards and making new friends, but no one seemed to have quite what we were looking for. We camped in an abandoned U.S. Army battery building that had been used for “jungle warfare training” that night. The next morning we decided that Shelter Bay was not the place that we needed to be for our goals, so after one more delicious breakfast on the Running Free, we saddled up and got back on the road.
After riding over a mobile bridge across the canal, we found ourselves in Colon, a port city with a bad reputation for crime. Knowing that we’d be in a smaller town on our hunt for a sailboat, we stocked up at the super mercado with some rations and then got the heck out of town just as the afternoon rains kicked in. It was an easy ride over rolling hills and along a beautiful Caribbean coast line. Before we knew it the sun was out and we were pedaling into Portobelo, a small town with a promising amount of sailboats anchored in the bay.
Just as we were about to ride down the hill into town, we stopped at an old Spanish colonial fort to check out the view. Suddenly the telephone wires over head gave an odd pulsing sound followed by a buzz. Max looked back down the road at where we just were and saw a huge orb of light flash, and as we scooted our bikes to see what he was referring to, a bright fire and smoke started to spark up. We pedaled cautiously toward site and could see that a telephone pole had been knocked down and there were live wires zapping and popping in the roadside grass. We had just pedaled through that spot and had missed the car accident by less than a minute. We could hear children crying down off the edge of the drop where the car had spilled, and so we sounded the alarm to call for help and then found our way down to the vehicle. No one was seriously hurt, but we still felt like heroes carrying the crying children back to the road and helping the mother evacuate via boat.
That night the whole town was without power, but we were able to cruise around town and get a feel for the status of the Panama-Colombia passage. As we had previously known, there are a handful of charter boats that regularly run out of Portobelo (along with other ports along this section of the coast) bringing backpackers and travelers to Cartegena, Colombia. The prices we had heard rumor of were also confirmed, but upwards of $500 was way over our budget, so we were determined to find other options. As we headed to our camp spot for the night a French sailor, Thomas, overheard us talking and offered his boat for the ride to Colombia at a significantly lower price. We left, encouraged that we had already found a cheap option, arranging to make contact with Thomas the following day while we kept on the lookout for other boats headed that way. On the advice of people around town we headed back to the Spanish fort for camping. Over the past year we have camped in a multiplicity of locations but this was our first UNESCO World Heritage “campground” complete with cannons to lean the bikes against.
We had heard that a lot of the regular boats that run Panama to Colombia were “hungry” for customers. We were not seeing other travelers, and with having plenty of time to spare, and the buying-power of 4+ (our friend Seth was still with us but undecided about where he was going to go) we decided to keep shopping around.
We spent four nights in Portobelo and with no options looking more promising we decided to head to Cartegena on the Guam with our French captain Thomas. Our itinerary would be to first stop in the San Blas Islands for two days of tropical islands and then head due east (Yes, east. Check the map, probably not how you thought continents were laid out) for a three day crossing to Colombia. A May 28 departure date would put us on the South American continent on June 1st, 2013 – 1 year after leaving Juneau. But the tropical islands had a little different plan in store for us.
San Blas is an archipelago of nearly 400 palm-covered, white sand-ringed islands. This island grouping and the adjacent mainland comprise the semi-autonomous region Kuna Yala. The Kuna indigenous people have inhabited (and now govern) this area for the past hundreds of years; currently 50,000 Kunas live on some 90 islands. Due to the picturesque beauty of the San Blas this area is frequented by many yachters and sailors but its remoteness secludes these islands from some of the heavy traffic seen in other parts of Central America.
After enjoying a full day on Chichime, the “backpacker” island where many yachts anchor for a fiesta night, we sent Seth to shore to go find his own “hitchhiker” way to South America. He had elected to take the adventurous route, as he had the flexibility of only carrying one small backpack, and a desire to meet some of the Kuna people of the region. After taking him and his backpack to the island in the dinghy, he came back for one last visit, and then literally jumped ship to go hitchhike to another island. It was quite the way to see him off, as our most recent memories of Seth were watching him swim to an island with an uncertain plan of how he was going to get to the next place.
We left Chichime for the fully inhabited islands of El Porvenir; literally at maximum capacity for the number of structures that could be built upon them. The villages have overflowed onto the shore, with the outer circumference of houses built on stilts over the water. We stocked up on fuel, snacks, and beverages; did the full walking tour of the towns; and then headed to the neighboring island to go get our passports stamped at the customs “office”. We were surprised to find out that the official responsible for passport duties was actually out of town, and would not return for four more days. We had no choice but to wait it out, so we elected to visit the nearby Lemmon Cays islands for some new scenery and snorkeling.
You can’t really complain about being stuck in a tropical paradise. We had some amazing underwater explorations, including a bioluminescence-assisted night snorkel session; harvested, prepared, and dined on conch; read a combined total of 10 books (including the 600 paged Grapes of Wrath – that’s right, we’re not just some great bods biking the world, we can read and even know all the words…mostly.); played an uncountable number of card games; and tried to remain in the water as much as possible to beat the merciless heat of each day.
Finally the awaited day came and we headed back to find the passport stamper. The number of waiting boats had grown and the rumors weren’t sounding good. Our captain headed to shore to investigate and brought back the news: the official was now going to return on Wednesday, two days later! Well, back to paradise!
This was starting to get ridiculous so we began thinking about other possible options, but those would either involve heading back to the mainland (possibly even Panama City) or far south to the border, forcing us to skip Cartegena. We eventually decided to wait it out and went back to the islands to stock-up on food.
Well, can you guess what happened on Wednesday? Yup, no passport stamper. At that point there were a dozen or so boats waiting and a few of them had had it. They pulled anchor and left Panama without an exit stamp ready to deal with the consequences in Colombia. We were going to do the same but Thomas went in for one final check. Two things happened when he came back: 1) Thomas was able to speak with the port captain who told us that the immigration officer left Panama City at 5am that morning and “Cien por cientos (100 percent)” he would arrive tomorrow 2) We had two new passengers: Mitchel from Mexico City and Salvador from Spain. Since we received some legitimate information we decided to hold off leaving that day; not wanting to risk trouble upon entering Colombia.
The port captain turned out to be right, and the next morning we lined-up with the other boaters to get checked out of Panama. There being a backlog and the officer’s seemingly lack of remorse and lack of attempt to expedite the process we weren’t stamped and back on the boat until 5pm, but we were just happy to be leaving. So we pulled hook and, literally, set sail for Colombia.
Although we did very little sailing and for the most part remained in calm seas, the previous week of living on the water seemed to be plenty of time for our bodies to acclimate; we had settled onto our “sea legs” – albeit for gentle seas. Our crossing took two night and two full days, arriving near midnight in Cartegena on our third night. We had good weather; no squalls and even some clouds! We had a decent-sized swell the whole time and intermittent wind meaning a mix of sailing and motoring.
As the sun set on our last day about 15 miles out of Cartegena a Northeast wind kicked up off of our port bow and we really got to sail. With both sails up we were cruising at over 5 knots and even wilder for us: the boat was leaning 25˚ from vertical to the starboard side. We now had to climb around deck with all fours; lest that we let go and drop into the sails. We all took a turn steering, trying to keep the correct heading so we could maintain maximum speed. We couldn’t have asked for a better end to our first Caribbean sail. As night came the distant lights of the Cartegena skyline brightened on the horizon and we caught our first glimpse of Colombia. The next day, June 8, 2013, we stepped off the boat and onto South America. It was one year and one week after stepping into our kayaks and pushing off from home.