Prats of the Caribbean
With the bike strapped safely to the deck next to the mast, we sailed off on the 'Melody' into the bay of Cartagena and then out into the blue, blue Caribbean Sea. I was keen to help out as I enjoy sailing. Captain Marcos tried to quell my excitement by reminding me he was on a schedule, the wind was against us, and letting me know that we'd probably need to use the motor most of the way. I tried to remain optimistic.
Ours was a mixed crew. Apart from Captain Marcos and his First Mate (and wife), Paola, there was Werner, a German-American who was cycling home from Japan after working there for seven years, Judd, a down-to-earth American 'surfer dude' who was going home to study for his Masters in Environmental Education, Frankie and Neale, two London-Irish brothers travelling the Americas with their childhood pal Ginge, Vicky, an English lady travelling alone after becoming tired of working with the British government, Matt, a Kiwi and also surfer, and me. I was the only one who had done much in the way of sailing. All others had been out on boats before and were excellent swimmers.
We were all looking forward to arriving at the San Blas Islands, where Capt. Marcos promised we could spend some time snorkelling off the nearby reef. Without the bike or organising any other travel to worry about, this would be my first real break since Christmas, and I was looking forward to kicking back and chilling out.
During the 36hour crossing to the San Blas we were encouraged to help ourselves to food and help out on the boat if we wanted to. Captain Marcos went through some safety procedures and what to do if . . . The land disappeared over the horizon behind us as we went farther out to sea. Soon, there was nothing around us in any direction. The new shipmates introduced themselves to one another and we all got along well. Everyone was out travelling for so many different reasons, and we all had a fairly good understanding of one another. Apart from the three lads travelling together, we were all lone travellers. And even those three had split up and got back together over their time in South America.
As the sun dropped into the sea ahead of us, I took over the steering into the darkness. We had to follow the little lines on the compass in front of the wheel on a bearing of 270 - West. We kept a good lookout for other lights around but we saw only a very few other ships. Some slept through the night in the cabin below. Others sat around the rear cockpit of the yacht, helping to keep watch and chatting to keep each other awake. Sleeping was a bit of a challenge because of the bouncing, rolling movement of the boat.
The San Blas Islands are an autonomous region of Panama, which means they more or less rule themselves. 365 mostly deserted islands run by the indigenous people, the Kanu. Little sandy stereotypical desert islands with just the one or two coconut palm trees, and some a bit bigger. Lots of tiny airports and sailing all over the place. People who had sailed the Atlantic from Europe were relaxing here, and some Americans who had sailed down were enjoying their retirement. The Kanu came and went on their motorised dug-out canoes, selling fruits and vegetables among the boats and collecting fish and coconuts from the sea and the tiny islands. Idyllic? Well, too few windy roads for me, but something pretty close. A small (41ft), ocean-going yacht for sale was a real tempter. Anyone interested?
Next day was spent more or less lazing in the heat, with occasional splashes into the refreshing depths. Keeping out of the sun and finding some shade was a priority. Paola made some delicious food for both lunch and dinner. We were totally spoiled with her culinary skills. We were tied up to an old anchored shrimping trawler - just like Forrest Gump's. This was much bigger than Melody and we could spread out more and relax (Matt, Frank, Neal, Viki). A dvd player was put to good use and cards were very popular.
My sunglasses and Matty's iPod bag had been left on the island from the previous day and it was widely thought that they'd be long gone by now. There had been four boats to the island by the time I went, they'd be half way to Colón! However, it was still worth a try and so I went over in the little tender dinghy to see if I could negotiate their return. I landed, tied up the boat and had a wee look around while the Kanu on the island gathered their coconuts - of course, they had a lovely bunch in the end! I couldn't see our stuff anywhere so went to ask the men in my Spanuguese (now confusing and annoying me!) and sign language. Immediately they went into their hut and produced both the bag and the sunglasses!! I was delighted and made sure I bought some coconuts to take back to the boat. So much for the cynicism of the local ex-pats!
Who'd have thought, Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller on the same boat! (Frankie and Judd)
On the Sunday we untied Melody and went to the local island where we had a quick look round and then sought out shelter from the pouring tropical rain. All were pleased to find the final game of the English football season being coincidentally broadcast live on the telly.
On the Monday, the customs and immigration office on the tiny island of Porvenir was open for business. While Capt Mark went to organise all our passports for us, we dived off the back of the boat and swam onto the island, where we tried diving off the pier. My efforts were laughable but the others were quite acrobatic. We had little else to do as we sailed towards Portobelo on the mainland. We followed the coast west and at one point some dolphins decided to swim alongside the boat, rubbing themselves on the bow.
We arrived in the bay of Portobelo just as it was getting dark. Once we had been ferried to shore on the little dinghy, we quickly found the hostel in town and filled it up. They only had four rooms and the eight of us were lucky none were taken. It was a bit weird wandering around and feeling dizzy, trying to get our land-legs back after so long at sea.
First thing in the morning Werner and I went back to the Melody to unload his bicycle and my bike. We had missed the barge so my bike stayed where it was, we planned to get it off later in the day. I said a hurried goodbye to my shipmates, hoping to meet up again further north, and jumped on a bus to Colón. With any luck, my parts would be at the Panama Canal Yacht Club, and I could be on my way.
The bus journey was very uncomfortable, these are US school buses. Those big yellow ones you see on the films, designed in a certain way for safety but only meant to accommodate children. Average European adults like me have longer legs so Capt. Marcos and I were a bit squished. The locals were fine, as they seem to be built, on average, a bit smaller. Of course, there were no parts, but there was a note from DHL saying they were nearby, and I only had to leave a few dollars and they would be delivered.
I collected them the next day, fitted them and was dismayed to find the bike still wouldn't start. There was a spark, there was fuel. Eventually I took the carbs apart to find them full of grit and mess. A kindly marine mechanic helpfully blew them out using his air compressor. I refitted them and the bike burst into life. Throughout all of this I had received invaluable help from Turner, an itinerant American living on a small yacht in the bay.
I had found a friendly bar to sit in - the Drake - owned and run by Fijian/Indian Keshni, her Quebecois husband and their family. Saturday night would be curry night but I had to go that morning. On hearing this, Keshni very kindly offered to make myself and Turner a curry on the Friday night. It was fantastically delicious!
I also managed to meet most of the new crew that was going to Cartagena and give them some information on what to expect. One (quiet!) Australian couple, Luke and Carmen, e-mailed later to say they had enjoyed the trip.