Corey, one of the Canadian buddies who rode with me and Justin, told us that all good sea stories start with the words: "So there I was.....", and end with: "....and it's been f*cked up ever since!"; all said with a strong pirate accent. Remember that for later.
Our intrepid boat Captain had told us to be ready to leave Mamallena's Hostel at noon on the 12th. Their resupply truck would guide us out. Being a good punctual former jarhead, I was ready and waiting 15 minutes early. Unfortunately, our guide was on Latin time and didn't feel like showing up until about 12:45. This gave me time to meet up with my fellow motoristas with whom I would be sharing the boat. Stan, the intrepid 66 year old Scots pensioner on his KLR650, Mike on his GS1150:
and Kevin and Katerine on their matching 1972 Yamaha XS 650's. They bought the bikes together from a guy who was trying to build a chopper out of them for around $1,200 total. Incredible.
After our guide showed up, we rolled out of Panama City for Carti in the Kuna Yalla Indian lands. Long story short, the truck broke down several times, there were some rough roads, and we didn't make it to Carti until just before dark.
We arrived at the landing where we were supposed to load our bikes and found no dock, no crane or hoist, just some locals with a wood plank, a mud embankment, and a leaky launcha.
Unfortunately, they said that we were too late to load that night, so we would have to leave our bikes at the landing. We could take our baggage and go out and stay on the Independence that night, then come back in the morning and grab our bikes.
We threw all of our gear into the launcha and headed for the Independence. When we pulled alongside we were told by the Captain that we couldn't stay the night on the boat but could leave all of our gear on board. Go figure. Disorganization in Latin America. Now we were in a quandary. There really weren't any hotels nearby; Carti wasn't really even a town, it was just three little landing points on a river that the Kuna Indians used to get to the mainland when they left their Islands. We decided just to head back to the bikes and camp underneath the little tin roof where we had left them.
We got back and racked out next to the bikes. The mosquitoes were especially vicious so I built a smudge out of some palm bark, motor oil, and gasoline and put it in a beer can that I had cut in half.
I put up my little one man tent and slept like a baby. Stan, who hadn't brought camping gear, slept in his riding clothes on two benches that he had pulled together. He wasn't a happy camper.
The next morning we were up and cracking by 5:30 AM. The Indians had told us they would be there at 6:00 AM to load our bikes; however, after everything that I've experienced with punctuality down here, it wasn't a big surprise that they didn't show up until 7:00 AM.
Having the lightest bike in the group, I volunteered to load first. The loading process goes something like this:
Step 1: The Indians drive their launcha right up to the mud bank, hop out, and try and hand lift your bike into their dodgy little boat while you frantically run about assisting and trying to make sure they don't drop it in the water.
Step 2: Indians drive their launcha with you straddling your bike down the river and out into the ocean. You pray fervently the entire time that the boat doesn't list to hard to one side or hit a large swell and send you and your bike into the drink.
Step 3: Arrive at the Independence and watch as the Captain ties two aged static lines around your bike with a couple of bowline knots and then hoists the whole mess on board with a crappy electric hoist.
Luckily we got everything loaded up okay. I'm still not sure how we got that R1150GS into the launcha. We lashed the bikes down on the back of the deck and I taught one of the crew members how to use a ratchet strap.
A few words about our boat, the Independence. I didn't do a lot of research about crossing the Darien, but I was told by a few people that the only two boats worth really looking at for doing the crossing were the Independence and the Stahlratte. I tried to book the Stahlratte, but they were full. The Independence is an 85 foot, steel, twin masted, sailing yacht. I found it to be dirty, cluttered, smelly, and cramped. There were tools and rope and all manner of nautical things lying about that could have easily been stowed somewhere out sight. Here's an example of one of the passage ways:
The Captain was a crusty old Slovenian dude who may have been anywhere in between 50 and 70. His name was Mitchel (pronounced "mee-shell") and I don't think I ever saw him wear anything other than some really crusty boxer briefs and a ratty t-shirt. I guess those were his business pants. Here's Mitchel:
The only nice thing about the Independence was the food and the way they handled the Customs process for us. I don't know what else to say about it. I kind of figure that when you pay $900 to do something, you'll get a little bit of a better deal than what we got. On the other hand, this is Latin America and it's all part of the adventure, so, what the hell. Why not.
We spent the first few days sailing around the San Blas Islands. They were quite beautiful and very picturesque. Every single little spit of an Island seemed to have a little grass hut on it and a family of Indians. They even managed to rig up aerials so they could watch the tube.
They were all very nice though and managed to ignore all of the gringo tourists who swam up on their island and started drinking beer and raising a ruckus.
On the second night out we were ferried onto a little island that Mitchel told us was the "party island". It had a little bar and a BBQ pit where we cooked a bunch of fish that the crew had bought from the Indians that day.
About halfway through the meal, an epic storm rolled in. It was raining cats and dogs and we were all huddled under the grass roof of the bar trying to stay dry. After about an hour of drenching rain, it looked like the storm was going to keep going all night, so it was decided that we should all jump in the launcha and head back to the Independence. So, we all dashed for the boat.
I was the first one in and immediately realized that the launcha was about calf deep full of water. Myself, Mike, and a few of the sober passengers found bailing devices and started bailing for our lives. Meanwhile, the rest of the passengers (who were mostly drunk as hell) were all in the boat yelling and singing and making a nuisance.
SO THERE I WAS, in the middle of a hurricane, bailing for my life in a leaky motorboat full of drunk tourists. As I was bailing, the local Indian launcha driver realized that his battery was dead and that his engine wouldn't start. So now I have to loan this guy my flashlight as he tries to sort out his electrical issues in the middle of a torrential downpour, in a boat half full of water that smells suspiciously like leaked gasoline. Luckily by the time we had bailed out enough water to get underway, he had sorted out his battery and fired up the engine without igniting all of the spilled fuel that was sloshing around our ankles.
But then we realized that we were beached because the tide had rolled out. So now I have to start bellowing and yelling at all of the drunk tourists to get out of the boat so that we can push it out into deeper water. Eventually I had to jump into the water and wade along the boat yelling and cursing at people to get them out. After the boat was empty, we managed to push it back far enough to get going again.
By this time It's still storming like crazy and now we've got a leaky launcha with about 30 tourists, most of whom are fairly well inebriated, and we are slowly motoring back out into the bay, trying to find the independence. Unfortunately, the Indians who are operating the boat don't have a flashlight and cant' see worth a damn. Moreover, all of the drunk people are making so much damn noise that the driver can't communicate with his buddy who's up in the bow trying to guide him. It had the makings of a disaster all over it.
Luckily, we were able to get everyone to shut up for a while and I was able to stand up in the back of the boat and try and give the driver some directions. We eventually picked out the Independence from the inky blackness and started coming alongside. At this point a drunk Australian dude came back and started trying to give the driver some jacked up directions. Eventually we were able to get him to sit down and shut up long enough to dock with the independence and get everyone safely onto the ship. AND IT'S BEEN F*CKED UP EVER SINCE!!
The next day, the signs of excessive partying were apparent:
I shouldn't gloat because this was me a few hours later, albeit for different reasons. We spent the rest of the day cruising around and snorkeling. Here's some pictures:
I'll say one thing about the San Blas Islands: if you are really into open water swimming, this is a great place for it! Everytime we pulled into a little cove you could just jump off the boat and swim a few hundred yards to the nearest Island and relax. I usually managed to take a can of beer with me in my cargo pocket.
We spent the rest of that day exploring a really cool little Island and doing some kayaking. I went out to see an old wreck that had run aground on a reef:
And climbed up into the rigging to try and replicate the iconic photo of the Stahlratte that's on the cover page for ADVrider:
That evening we got underway for Cartagena. Up until this time, we had been cruising around the San Blas islands and hadn't really got out into the open ocean. About five minutes after we passed the last reef and started hitting some swells, I felt the onset of sea sickness setting in.
Within five minutes I was clutching the railing and hurling the contents of my stomach into the ocean. The next thing I know I'm lying on the deck, moaning, and begging for somebody to end my miserable life. I went on to spew at least once or twice every ten minutes for the next four hours. After that, it abated slightly so that I was only spewing once every hour. After the first few times I had lost all of the food in my stomach, so after that it was only dry heaving with the occasional thick yellow globule of bile.
I ended up being sick for the next thirty hours or so, all the way until we reached Cartagena. I'm never getting on a small boat on the ocean again. We pulled into the harbor around midnight and I was able to get a few hours sleep before daylight. When I woke up, I realized that we had pulled in right next to the Stahlratte.
I'm really wondering if the Stahlratte would have been any better. I'll have to ask around. As it now stands, I'm finally in South America! Now there's really no going back. Up until Panama, I could have just turned around and started going north. Now I'm really committed!