3 days in paradise, 2 days in hell

Deserted island, San Blas Panama

Sailing the San Blas Islands of Panama for three days on the sailboat Sacanagem, we entered an unspoiled paradise of pristine white sand beaches, small palm studded islands, and enough fresh seafood to satisfy the hungriest stomachs. The San Blas Islands are controlled by the Kuna Indians, a semi-autonomous indigenous group in Panama, but the majority of the hundreds of islands in the San Blas archipelago are uninhabited. We spent the first two days moored between two small islands that were home to about four Kuna families. The days were hot and breezy with plenty of snorkeling, swimming, reading, and cooking to keep us happy. We spent the cooler nights eating on the island and getting to know our fellow travelers. We were quite the international crew: we spanned the globe from Italy, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, to Canada, the US, and Colombia. The third evening we anchored in a small bay that was once used by Captain Morgan as a hiding spot, although we didn’t find any pirate treasure. For our last night in Panama, our underwater allies put on a great show when luminescent squid surrounded our boat and floated slowly by, twinkling their eerie lights.

Chris has always dreamed of sailing around the world, so we figured some time on the open ocean crossing between Central and South America would be a good way to gauge if we ever wanted to make that dream a reality. On our way out to the Caribbean, we picked up two confused Koreans who seemed somewhat stranded in the San Blas. They spoke no Spanish and almost no English, but we think they had been waiting for the last four days on a tiny island hoping for a ride to Colombia. The captain of our boat referred to them as the chinos (Chinese) for the rest of the trip, as their true nationality appeared not to be an important detail to him. Once we left the area protected from the waves by the San Blas islands, the seas became rough and the swell really picked up. We had naively assumed that the Caribbean would be a placid turquoise ocean with gentle waves lapping the sides of the boat. However, our small yacht took stomach-losing drops and sickening rides over huge waves. Although I had been drugging myself with the maximum daily amount of Dramamine, I quickly had a death grip on the boat’s railing as I stared desperately at the horizon in a vain attempt to quell increasingly overwhelming nausea. I added some chum to the ocean off the back of the boat into what looked like a sea of stars, as the waves were again lit up by luminescent creatures. After that, I laid on the floor of the boat in the fetal position praying to every and any god to make the boat go faster. My fellow boat-mates quickly became accustomed to my prone body at the aft of the boat, easily stepping over me to move through the kitchen to the boat’s deck.

Playing dead on the deck of the ship

The first day I tried to amuse myself by listening to podcasts on my iPod, but after its battery ran out, I could do nothing but stare at the people‚Äôs feet around me. When morning arrived the next day, I hopefully looked for land on the horizon. I was crushed to hear the captain tell us that the winds had shifted so we would sailing for another 24 hours. Meanwhile, the sea worsened as huge rolling swells washed over the ship, causing periodic avalanches of stereos, plates, books, or pots and pans in the galley. Chris slept next to me on deck the second night, although we were twice awakened by people falling on us as the ship pitched unexpectedly below their feet, and once rudely awakened when a huge wave crashed over top of the boat drenching our only blanket. By hour 40 of our crossing, the chinos had barely been seen outside of their cabin. The captain commented that they were like “popcorn”, laying on their bed bouncing up and down through the rough seas. I did manage to crawl to the front of the boat as the skyline of Cartagena appeared in the distance on the third day and gazed hungrily at the land for the last 2 hours of the trip. I now have serious doubts that sailing around the world will be one of my life’s accomplishments. Once on shore, we all went out to dinner to toast our survival. We were not joined by the chinos though. Last we heard they spent two to days resting in their hostel eating bananas, and then disappeared as mysteriously as they came.

Our journey was finally over in Cartagena, Colombia