Was finally able to recover our stockpile of videos we took on our trip and put together a montage.
Was finally able to recover our stockpile of videos we took on our trip and put together a montage.
Was finally able to recover our stockpile of videos we took on our trip and put together a montage.
We had entertained the idea of continuing 3-knots but it seemed right to leave it as its own story. Josie and I would like to thank everyone for their continued support of us in our new life and adventures.
Currently we are living in St Croix and it really is home for us. Our new boat, a 48ft C&C custom, is the work horse for our new business Bon Bagay Sailing. Again the support and following of 3-knots was surprising and overwhelming for us and we want to thank everyone who followed us along the way.
-Jerrad & Josie
Never, on the course of this journey, did it ever cross our mind that after traveling over 4000nm we would be forced to ship Gidget back to California so close to our final destination . After the sudden and cruel end of our adventure it was something that we now had to deal with. Of course, once you’re thrown off track, getting back on is usually neither smooth nor easy but the only thing to do is keep moving forward and do your best to take everything in stride.
We thought it would all be downhill once we got to Cartagena but because of our unique situation nothing was easy. It didn’t take long to figure out that apparently you cannot book a dog on flights out of Colombia (out of concern of drug cartels using dogs to smuggle narcotics, we were told). The only possible way to fly a dog out is through a freight forwarding company who will take care of the necessary paperwork and official procedures. It is a process filled with tiresome bureaucracy and extra costs that in the end will result in your dog ending up in a commercial airline cargo hold, in the same flights anybody would take to the States. So our first step was to contact one of the companies approved by Copa Airlines; we emailed back and forth with one of the agents, named Jose, to try and get everything figured out – all done in Spanish of course, with some help from Google translate. He let us know what we would need (the usual excessive copies of all paperwork plus pictures of Gidget and her kennel) and that his office was in Barranquilla – two hours north of Cartagena. The fact that we found no company in Cartagena that could arrange transport for our dog surprised us, especially since the airport is located in Cartagena, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. He advised us not to take a regular bus, but instead to take this door-to-door shuttle service called Mar Y Sol (thank goodness, we weren’t exactly ecstatic about the prospect of another bus ordeal in Colombia).
After making copies of all the needed paperwork, we set up the alarm clock before going to bed to make sure we were ready when the van would pick us up at 5AM. During our entire journey, even with my cellphone’s touch screen occasionally non-functioning, we never had a problem with the alarm clock – not once, until that Saturday. Jerrad leaped out of the bed and frantically told me it was, according to my cell, 5AM. We hurriedly got dressed, got Gidget ready and ran downstairs with the kennel to make sure the shuttle didn’t leave us. Well, nobody was there and we waited thinking maybe we would be the last one to be picked up before they were supposed to leave Cartagena at 6AM. Lo and behold, after waiting nearly an hour, we noticed a clock on the wall and figured out that the cellphone was somehow one hour BEHIND (it was correct the day before). By the time we realized this it was nearing 7AM. Slightly panicking, muttering repetitions of “shit” to myself and pondering on why my trusted cellphone decided to pull a prank like this, I had the hotel personnel call Mar Y Sol again and thankfully they had another shuttle nearby to pick us up.
Once the van came, the baggage man took one look at Gidget’s kennel and started spewing words angrily at us because the kennel wouldn’t fit in the van. He seemed so angry with us and acted like we were doing this on purpose solely to make his life difficult. Luckily, being the more reasonable party in this scenario, we came up with a brilliant idea. We still had the old, small kennel from the village – so we put Gidget in this one, took apart the bigger one and managed to fit everything inside the van. Off we went.
After a bus change and a taxi ride we arrived at the Vet’s office to meet with Tatiana and to drop off Gidget. It would be the last time we would see her in Colombia. Then Tatiana took us to meet Jose at his office. A young and energetic guy with hair so short it could have been painted on, he looked like he could be in a Colombian boyband instead of working for a freight company. We all went to Jose’s office waiting around while he prepared all the documents, switching between his computer and typewriter and printing a large stack of paper between calls to Copa Airlines. This went on for about an hour while Jerrad, Tatiana and I sat around twiddling our thumbs.
It was approaching noon when he finished, and I was getting anxious about getting to the notary which was supposedly closed at noon. Then he calmly spent some time to explain to us what was going to happen: the ICA (Colombian version of USDA) has a policy of holding a dog for 48 hours before shipping it out. This meant that after Gidget received her international health certificate from the Vet, she wouldn’t fly out with us the following Monday and would have to stay until Tuesday. On Tuesday, he would bring her to Cartagena and she would fly on the same itinerary we had only a day later. Unfortunately she would have to clear customs and quarantine in Panama City, even for only a lay-over. The five-hour-long process would ensure that she would miss her connecting flight to Vegas so she had to stay overnight in Panama City and continue on Wednesday. Gidget would be all alone for 5 days inside that kennel on her very first international flight. All sorts of worst-case scenarios were entering my mind and I badly wished that somehow we could just cancel all this and bring her with us on our flight. Damn you Colombian drug cartels for making this so complicated. Seeing that there was no other choice, we agreed to continue. So he took us to the public notary – which closes at 1PM fortunately – where Jerrad was fingerprinted and all the necessary paperwork as well as copies of identifications stamped. At this point, Tatiana left us to go back to the Vet’s office and we breathed a sigh of relief as everything on this side was nearly done.
Then Jose gave us the bill: a whopping $692 to ship Gidget back, equivalent to 1.3 million Colombian pesos. We found it slightly amusing that flying Gidget back to the States, with the agent’s fee and the giant expensive kennel we had to buy, turned out to cost more than our own plane tickets. She is the most expensive free dog we’ve ever had.
“Oh, and we only take cash,” Jose said. What?! He was not kidding – we needed to pay him over 1 million Colombian pesos in cold hard cash.
Back in Jose’s office, we dialed our bank in the US and told them that they needed to raise our daily withdrawal limit because we needed to withdraw a large amount of money from a Colombian ATM. Next we went to the nearest ATM, inside a mall, where it took 3 separate transactions to get the 1.3million pesos out of the machine. I am sure a young Colombian with a backpack conducting a large cash transaction with two foreigners in an area void of tourist activity is totally normal, and didn’t look shady or suspicious at all.
I then asked where we would be able to pick up Gidget on Wednesday. Jose, looking as serious as ever, answered, “at the airport”.
No kidding. Really?!?! I thought maybe I was supposed to pick her up at IHOP.
Seeing his first answer was unsatisfactory, he then proceeded to tell us, “when everything’s done, I will email you all the documents and you can print them out. All you have to do is go to the airport to Copa Airlines counter, give them the papers and they will tell you where to go.”
It was still vague but better than his first answer. It was the best he could do and we figured once we got back to the States things would be more clear. We went to spend what pesos we had left to eat empanadas, while Jose walked away with 1.3 million in his backpack and our dog in his possession.
Monday came, and with it our second attempt to leave Colombia – this time by plane. We left with two duffle bags, one weighed 88 lbs with an outboard engine and the windvane paddle inside, two backpacks, a guitar case as well as the metal frame of the windvane wrapped in bubble wrap. Realizing how odd our luggage collection was, we were pretty sure things were going to get interesting once we got to the airport. We left early.
The check-in process , turned out, was quite painless perhaps only because the counter personnel gave up on trying to figure out what the hell we were bringing. I would be too if I were him: I told him, to the best of my ability of explaining the concept of a windvane in Spanish, that the weird metal frame wrapped in bubble wrap was to help with the navigation on a sailboat. He shot a skeptical look at me. He didn’t even charge us the overweight baggage fee, even after his startled look at our 88lb bag. He was probably just trying to get these crazy Americans away from his counter as fast as possible.
After going through the security check, which included a complete pat-down and a very thorough search of our backpacks, we arrived at our departure gate. Once at the gate they called Jerrad back, had him remove everything from our duffle bags and grilled him over the contents of our luggage, in Spanish of course. What is this, does it work, where is the receipt? Luckily, just knowing about the isolatad area of Cabo De La Vela and the strange Anulado stamp in the passport gave him enough credibility to continue our trip with all of our luggage intact. They released Jerrad just as the plane was boarding and we were Vegas-bound to meet up with our family. What took us 6 months to accomplish on Vento Dea took only a mere 6 hours by plane. It was very surreal as we landed in US soil – a land that now felt foreign for us: the big lanes, the orderly traffic, everything is in English and the assault on the eyes that is Las Vegas. It made us miss our stick hut in Cabo De La Vela.
When Wednesday finally arrived, we headed to the airport after Jose emailed us all the paperwork we needed. Following his advice, we tried to find Copa Airlines counter. Of course there was no Copa departure at that time and therefore no Copa counter. We went to lost and found and the guy was nice enough to call Copa, after a few wrong extensions dialed. Finally we were told to go to the Customs office at the International arrival to pick up Gidget. The Customs officer then told us to go to Worldwide Service, 1.5 blocks away from the airport, to pick up paperwork that we needed to bring back to Customs so he could stamp it and cleared Gidget into the country. By the way, Customs was closing in 20 minutes.
We ran back to the car, drove to Worldwide Service and picked up the paperwork.
Not to be forgotten, of course, was the $40 fee that Worldwide Service apparently charged us to pick up our dog. While we had to pay almost $700 only in cash in Colombia, here in Las Vegas we had to pay the $40 fee…. money order only; no joke.
Finally, the final mad dash to the Customs in the airport. Then with all the paperwork stamped, money order bought and fees paid appropriately with money order, we were reunited with our Gidget. The joy and relief we felt to see her again was indescribable, however her condition was a bit dismal. She has relieved herself inside the kennel, she stank like poop and there was no water in her bottle. And she very likely has not eaten in the last 48 hours. But knowing Gidget, none of those would stop her from the usual superbly excited greeting she has for us: her little stumpy tail wagging hard back and forth, her whining, her jumping up and down to lick our faces, her running back and forth and spinning. She was ecstatic. And so were we.
Eight days after our rogue wave ordeal, we were ready to head to Cartagena- 300 miles away from Cabo De La Vela: the boat was inspected and turned over to Customs, a statement was given to the Port Captain, a full report was generated and sent to Bogota and all the legalities concerning leaving Vento Dea in Colombia were taken care of. We have asked around to villagers and local Coast Guard officers on how to get to Cartagena. They all said basically we needed to get a ride to the nearest airport, in Riohacha, and we could fly to Cartagena.
“Fly? What do you mean fly from Riohacha? There’s no flight from Riohacha to Cartagena. And if there is, you don’t wanna take it!” This advice came from a friend of the Port Captain, a large man with a thriving business in the shipping industry who was in Cabo De La Vela to watch the kitesurfing competition. Up until that point we had made plans based on information the well-intentioned villagers had given us. For some reason it never dawned on us that they had never been to an airport and they must have assumed that at the Riohacha airport, with their many planes, one of them surely must fly to Cartagena. Although this train of thought is logical, the businessman then told us that our only/best option was to take the bus from Riohacha to Cartagena, which should be inexpensive and take about 6 hours.
“And we could take our dog in the bus without any problem?”
“Of course. Nobody cares of your dog. And if the driver gives you a problem, just slip him 5000 pesos then he gives you no problem. This is Colombia.”
So we packed all our belongings, salvaged from the boat: some clothes, some lines, some random small equipment and tools, the guitar, the windvane and the new outboard engine (we donated our yellow dinghy to the kitesurfing school). We packed all that could fit into two big duffle bags. At 4 AM, the village truck came to pick us up. The two men piled our duffle bags and the windvane onto the rooftop alongside Styrofoam containers that would be filled with soda and beer and ice in town. We hopped onto the back of the pick-up truck with our backpacks, the guitar case and Gidget in her small kennel – the first passengers in the truck. After two hours of driving through the bushes and the desert, we were jam-packed along with 14 other villagers, 2 toddlers, 1 baby, 2 cases of empty glass bottles along with 2 goats. We were jammed in there so tight that the only thing you could do during the ride is close your eyes and pray your legs don’t fall asleep because it was impossible to move.
As the sun began to rise and there was enough light to see one another all the Wayuu ladies began to chatter in a native dialect. We had a pretty good idea who they were talking about even though we speak no Goajiro.
“blah blah blah china”
“Oh, china blah blah blah”
“Blah blah china blah blah”
Although I am sure to an outsider it could be construed as rude but I think they were more curious than anything; there is a good chance that they have never seen an Asian in the flesh.
Once we got to the central market district in Uribia, one of the men asked us where we were going. I answered to Riohacha to take the bus to Cartagena. He then pointed to an old Toyota Camry behind the truck sporting a sign on the windshield made out of cardboard scrap that said RIOHACHA. So we got off the truck, transferred all our belongings into the trunk of the car and paid the truck driver. The car driver then put Gidget in the front seat, we sat in the back with our backpacks and off we went. Or so I thought. Obviously the driver didn’t seem to think that the car was full enough because he drove around the area 3 more times to find 1 other passenger. We had to rearrange so Gidget (in the kennel) was between us in the backseat while the other passenger sat in the front. We couldn’t complain though, it was still much more spacious than the back of the truck.
One smooth and short hour later we arrived at the bus terminal in Riohacha. As soon as we stepped out of the car, a man approached us asking where we were going. After I answered, he began to scribble something in his little official-looking notepad. Jerrad and the driver was unloading the trunk when 3 other men came, grabbed our luggage under the direction of the man with the notepad and started wheeling them away. I had no idea who these men were or where they were going with our stuff. The first man, who was still scribbling something that I could only presume as bus tickets, said something to me but, even with tremendous brain power and concentration, I failed to comprehend most of the fast, Staccato-style strings of Caribbean Spanish words coming out of his mouth. I just started following the men while Jerrad finished paying off the car driver and the ticket man.
They took our bags next to the bus and one of the men started loading them. He then said (repeatedly, so we could understand) that one of them had an “excessive weight” to be loaded onto the bus. This was where Jerrad took the advice of the businessman and gave the busman some Colombian pesos. Excessive no longer; plus Gidget also got to be inside the bus with us. Right after that I told this man that I needed to go to the bathroom inside the terminal and he gave me a hand signal to go. I left and came back only to see the bus pulling out of the parking spot. Apparently the bus driver along with the man stepped onto the bus the second I turned the corner inside the building and they decided it was time to leave. Jerrad had to stop them to wait for me.
We left the terminal at around 8.15 AM. After an hour or so we were no longer in the arid desert region of Colombia. Back in the lush and tropical rainforest region, it wasn’t long before the rain started pouring and for the bus to start leaking. Water was dripping in various spots – some passengers were annoyed, some took out their umbrellas, one man held the cushion above his head, some were laughing and taking pictures but a few were not amused at all. Water was dripping on us as well, and truth be told it actually felt slightly nostalgic: it was like being in Vento Dea again… I closed my eyes and took a short nap, daydreaming that we were still sailing in the Caribbean instead of being inside a leaky bus.
After about 7 hours, we arrived in the bus terminal in the city of Barranquilla. There we had to transfer to a smaller bus to Cartagena, which was less than 100 miles away. They started loading our belongings to the smaller bus but then came to realize that our bags were too big. More commotion on our luggage, more Colombian pesos slipped, and the problem disappeared. We were transferred to a bigger and more comfortable bus and were on our way to Cartagena shortly after. After 3 hours on the bus, we finally checked in to Hotel Casa Andrea in Bocagrande, Cartagena – slightly exhausted from the trip. A total of 14 hours were spent on the road that day, in which ten of those were from Riohacha to Cartagena, much longer than the 6 hours we were told.
We had a lot to do in Cartagena, but our first business was to deal with our immigration status, having left and re-entered the country illegally after our boat accident. We took a short taxi ride to the Immigration office, explained what had happened and told the officers that they could call the Port Captain for all the documents they might need. Of course nobody wanted to call the Port Captain – God forbid one government agency communicating with another. Instead, one officer decided to call our agent Danny (all official paperwork for a sailboat entering the country was done through agents – Danny was our agent the first time we entered Colombia). Danny then told us to write a semi-official statement basically explaining what had happened, email it to him and meet him back in the Immigration office later that afternoon. We came back, waited around and finally met him. All three of us were brought in to speak with another Immigration official named Arquimedes. We told our story again, showed the letter from the Port Captain and some pictures of the boat I took on my phone. Arquimedes looked skeptical, but he did called the Port Captain’s office requesting copies of the official statement and report. Danny then told us how simple the process was. Our statement was all Arquimedes needed and he would fix our status. No problem. Danny’s role was over and he left. However, it was not as simple as what Danny said. Arquimedes then told us, using Babylon translator on his computer, that they needed to cancel our exit stamp. They couldn’t just give us another entrance stamp because technically we never left Colombia and we never checked in to another country. To cancel our exit stamp, he needed to present all our documents to El Jefe (the boss) so they can be approved and signed by the big boss himself. Arquimedes said it wasn’t going to happen that day. So we went home after being told to return the next day.
We came back 2 more times the next day only to hear Arquimedes repeat the same phrase: the boss hasn’t signed it yet. He then told us that he would email us when it’s ready. Again we left the Immigration office empty-handed. In the meantime we busied ourselves taking care of little things that needed to be done before we leave Colombia. We went to Servientrega – the Colombian sister company of DHL- to try and ship our windvane back to the US, however they required an original receipt to send any objects anywhere, no exception. So we decided to just have it as a checked item for our flight and hope that it would not be a problem. Then came the “finding-the-store-that-sells-whatever-random-things-you-need” game. We had to hunt down for things like bubble wrap as well as needle and thread to fix our duffle bag. In the States, things like this can usually be found at your local drugstore, but it’s not quite that way in Cartagena (or many places we’ve been really). Although Cartagena has stores that are similar but they never had what we needed. Here what you need is a Variedades: a tiny store selling a variety of random things – so random that no two stores sell the same thing. For example, we had to ask a few locals on the street and visit 3-4 different stores before we found one that sold needle and thread – at an unmarked counter in the back of a souvenir store, where there was a display case and a shelf comprised of all sorts of oddities. Luckily on one of the days we happened to stumble, on our first try, into one Variedades who sells a big roll of plastic bubble wrap – a joyous victory since that meant no more time wasted looking around every store on the blocks surrounding our hotel.
Meanwhile, as we kept checking our email we heard nothing from Arquimedes. One day, we came to realize in the afternoon that his email might be in our spam folder – and of course it was. Having sent the previous day, it said to come before 6PM that day or come the next day early morning. Shit, it was 2.30PM already and it was Friday – for all I know the Immigration office might close early or something and we would not be cleared to fly back to the US the next Monday. We rushed back to the yellow Immigration building to see Arquimedes, who thankfully was still at his desk. He then explained that he had all the paperwork ready and our information entered in the database, but el jefe still hasn’t signed it (what a surprise…). However, our Immigration buddy here was just going to stamp our passports so we could fly out on Monday. Wait, that’s it? You made us come back 4 times to the office only to do something you could’ve done on our second visit? The answer is yes and yes. That Friday afternoon, possibly hoping to get rid of us forever, our buddy Arquimedes artfully stamped ANULADO over our exit stamp. He gave us our passports back, we shook hands and said goodbye.
Finally! After our life-altering accident and everything else we’ve been through, soon we would no longer be stranded in Colombia. We could leave and go home to our family. I was getting teary-eyed thinking of coming home to a familiar place and people where we could just unload and refocus, especially after the crazy couple of weeks and especially after the accident that could very well turn out much worse than it did. But our stressful time in Cartagena was not over yet. During that week, we also had to figure out how to ship Gidget out of a country where, due to its drug trade, no airlines directly ship out dogs from – a nightmare in and of itself.
I lay down on the bed in our cabana/shack carefully, barely able to move my whole body in pain from the previous day’s adrenaline-filled-five-hour-long pumpathon, which apparently was the most extreme workout I’ve ever had in my life. Bruises covered my arms and legs as well as cuts and scrapes from the ordeal; I walked like I was a fragile 95-year-old woman. Jerrad and I haven’t eaten anything in the past 24 hours but we just lay down on the bed and passed out from exhaustion.
We woke up later that day and walked along the main dirt road of the village to find food. Cabo de la Vela, which is located in the state of La Guajira on the northernmost coast of Colombia, literally means “cape of sail”. This isolated desert village is located on a wide bay boasting mile after mile of beach with turquoise waters. The area was special: the wind constantly blew across the flat peninsula, and the wide bay was only 10ft-deep as far as 2 miles out. Steady wind with no waves along the bay makes it a perfect spot for activities like sailing or kitesurfing – and the kitesurfing rental/school in the village was indeed the main attraction. Besides kitesurfing, Cabo de la Vela also promotes ecotourism for the ultimate environmentally-friendly beach relaxation: open-sided shelters made of palm fronds and branches with hammocks to relax in while enjoying a view of the picturesque water during the day or the twinkling stars at night. Life in the village was otherwise still quite traditional: no wifi access, no running water (the cabana owner gave us buckets of water to shower), and no electricity apart from when they ran the generator (7-10PM). It also happened to be low season when we were there and, besides a couple of kite surfers, the village was pretty dead.
All the “restaurants” were closed and no food was to be found the first day we arrived. We ended up going to the little corner store and bought cans of tuna and cereal to feed for the next couple of days. After those two days of nourishing-albeit-slightly-unappetizing meals, we walked further down the dirt road trying to find food on the other side of the village and met a fisherman named Capitan Anaya. We asked him if he knew of any place to eat. His reply came in the form of a hand gesture to come over to his house. He was making fish soup and we were invited for lunch. His house was a very simple hut piled high with fishing nets, old fenders along with bits and pieces of old outboard engines in one corner. When we came, two other fishermen were sitting outside his hut mending their nets. Capitan Anaya soon came out with two bowls of the most delicious fish soup I’ve ever had. Then he told us that he had to go fishing and we should come back around 7.30PM for dinner. This went on for the next couple days: the fisherman would go out fishing, come home, cook his catch and share his meals with us. All those days he refused any payment, saying that we were “hermanos del mar” or brothers of the sea. We would sit around the front of his hut, enjoying a heap of white rice and grilled or fried fish. While eating, he would ask about our boat and our journey or tell stories of his life. Capitan Anaya was a captain of a big vessel in the past; unfortunately he was caught in possession of drugs, arrested and sentenced to some 30 odd years in prison. He was very difficult to understand and our communication could be difficult from time to time, mostly because of our lack of comprehension, but it never stopped him from conversing with us. We are forever grateful to this man who welcomed us to his home and shared his humble meals with us. To repay his kindness, we gave him our solar panels and some fishing line from the boat, something that we hope would make his life a little easier.
Our 8-day stay in Cabo De La Vela was filled with running errands, salvaging items from the boat, waiting and more waiting. First the Port Captain himself came to the village to talk to us and hand us a letter for Jerrad to come to his office in Puerto Bolivar to make a statement. His office is located in a large port dedicated to the mining and international transportation of coal. It was a high security area and one could only enter if invited, hence the letter he had prepared so Jerrad could make a visit. The visit itself turned into a whole-day affair. He got a ride from one of the villagers with a motorcycle to arrive in Puerto Bolivar at 10AM; however once he got there, the Port Captain was busy and had to christen two new tugboats. Then somehow the translator ended up hurting his back and had to go home, so they couldn’t proceed with the written statement. Another translator was called, but in the meantime the Port Captain took Jerrad to lunch. Then they waited around for the replacement translator to arrive so Jerrad finally was able to give a full statement of what happened to the boat. It was 5PM by the time he came back to the village.
We also had to make a trip to town to get more Colombian pesos, go to an internet café to contact our families, buy a suitcase for the salvageable items from the boat, a dog kennel for Gidget, and a pair of shoes for Jerrad (whose shoes and sandals went missing after the boat incident). To do this, we had to get on one of the trucks that transport supplies as well as passengers to and from the village. The truck left at 4AM and the driver said we would be back around one in the afternoon. Off we went in this truck, going through the desert, sometimes on dirt roads, sometimes on no road, picking up villagers who seemed to just show up out of the bushes in the middle of nowhere. We finally arrived in a town called Maicao around 7AM. The driver stopped in a market district loading area and told us, while pointing ahead, that everything we need/want we could find somewhere down the street. So we started walking around, Jerrad with bare feet, looking for an ATM first. Once we had some cash, we then headed to the first shoe store/stall we could find. It is important to note here that Jerrad, being 6-ft tall, has the shoe size practically unheard of in a town where the population’s height mostly is around 5 feet 3 inches. He needed size 46 shoes and for the next 35-40 minutes or so the shoe store owner along with his wife rummaged through their whole entire supply of shoes and sandals to no avail. The shoe store owner, while searching his store, kept mumbling to himself, “pie grande… pie grande” (which means “big foot”) and he kept handing Jerrad everything sized 42 and up (none were above size 44 however), including a pair of hideous black and pink Crocs that would probably fit but, before the shopkeeper could even ask, Jerrad flat-out refused. It’s not that he’s vain but he would rather walk barefoot than spend money on the giant rubber clown shoes he had been offered. Finally the shoe store owner left and came back (from another shoe store/stall) with a pair of shoes that would fit as long as Jerrad wasn’t wearing socks. And they were decent-looking sneakers. Good enough.
The rest of that day was spent finding a dog kennel for Gidget (big enough for her to get in, but too small for a proper travel kennel), a suitcase and some food. We rushed back to the meeting area around 10.30 because that’s the time the driver told us to come back, only to wait around for an hour for everybody else to return – time that we could have spent in an internet café to get in contact with our families. We eventually got on the back of the pick-up truck with about 10 other villagers and supplies such as ice, soda, beer, goats and gasoline. We left Maicao around 11.45, stopped in another town for lunch, stopped again later because we had a flat tire, and finally arrived back in Cabo De La Vela at 4PM! We were both pretty exhausted after this much-longer-than-anticipated trip to town.
Having to wait for the official inspection of our boat, we spent the next few days semi-cleaning the boat and taking items we could salvage, hanging out with the local village kids as well as the kite surfers who were in town for a competition. The Port Captain told us the inspector will arrive on Friday morning, but nobody came until after lunch. The Port Captain’s assistant, “Freddy”, came to the village with a Customs official as well as the inspector. We went on board and told our story once again. Our guests were shocked by the state of the boat and amazed we were able to safely make it back to land unaided. With the obvious damage the boat was deemed unsafe and any attempt to move it would put our lives in extreme and unnecessary danger.
Any attempt to repair Vento Dea would be nearly impossible, since there was significant damage below the waterline and it would have to be taken out of the water to even attempt this kind of repair. This is not practical seeing as the closest haul-out facility was more than 100 miles away from this isolated area. The cost and energy that we would have to spend to try to repair the boat was not worth the end result, so the boat was turned over to Colombian Customs. This was the only way we could leave the boat there without having to import it and pay the expensive import tax (it is illegal to leave a foreign boat unattended in Colombia).
Whatever happened to Vento Dea? We probably will never know for sure; we left it anchored right off the village where the Customs was supposed to either move it, destroy it or strip it. Because of the harsh seas and isolation in this area we have a feeling that no officials from Customs would bother to come back to that area to do any of those things. What I am sure has already happened is that the local fishermen have stripped Vento Dea taking whatever they could salvage and the vessel itself would have sunk by now. It was very sad to lose our first boat (and first home) like this, but every time we came back after the incident she looked more and more like a dumpster and not the boat we cared for; the boat that calloused our hands and required as much hard work and sweat as she did wind but in return for our struggles she showed us the untold beauties of the sea, provided safe passage for thousands of miles, taught us about ourselves and showed us what freedom really is. The more we saw the damage and destruction the more she became unrecognizable to us; it just wasn’t the same boat anymore. I suppose this made it easier to say goodbye.
We then asked Freddy about our immigration status: the fact is we had officially exited the country, passports stamped and everything but there we were, back in Colombia. Of course there was no immigration office anywhere near Cabo De La Vela.
“You mean you’re illegal in my country?” Freddy asked humorously.
Both Freddy and the Customs official seemed amused at our worrying of our immigration status. “Relax, this is Colombia,” they told us. Freddy jokingly added, “no es Alabama.” It was simple: just go to the Immigration office in Cartagena and they will fix it. Phew, as long as it was easy enough to fix – apparently neither of us remembered that we would be dealing with a government agency running on third-world bureaucracy and efficiency. In other words, “easy” and “simple” became tedious and complicated, another story in itself.
After 8 full days in Cabo de la Vela, we finished all our official business with the Port Captain and Customs and were allowed to leave. We planned on going back to Cartagena and from there fly back to the States. While the prospect of going somewhere with easy wifi access to call our families was rather exciting, we knew we would miss this place. If only the circumstances were different, I think I would’ve enjoyed my stay in Cabo de la Vela much, much more. It was truly a beautiful, serene place.
More pictures of Cabo De La Vela here.
One of the five most difficult passages in the world, worst in the Caribbean, impossible; this is almost all we heard when talking with others about our plan to sail upwind from Cartagena to Bonaire [over 500 nm]. But for these men a path where anything above a beam reach would be unreasonable and anything upwind was deemed too difficult. I knew impossible was far too strong a word. I also knew that for a 28ft boat this would be a real challenge, requiring careful planning and that we would have 6-10 days of constant discomfort and hard work ahead of us once we set sail.
When we arrived in Cartagena we were ready to retire but once rested we were once again ready to rock. We hoped our stay would last about a week and 8 days later we had a break in the wind. So we gathered our provisions, pulled up anchor and set out on the toughest passage of our lives.
For the first day things were pretty easy. The trades had shifted slightly south of east; this meant closer to shore the winds were very light. The only thing that wasn’t going our way was the Caribbean Counter Current that should have helped us along. Instead it had reversed and was taking about a knot off our speed. Even if a bit slow our progress was at least consistent.
The next morning, as we approached the outflow of Rio Magdalena, it was like sailing in molasses. The current of the river and the ocean set against us only allowed us to make 1.5kts at best. To further slow us down recent rains had sent countless logs, plants and even whole trees out to sea; an entire forest set a drift. This left us tacking and dodging for at least 12hours until the debris began to clear and the sun began to set.
The night brought the first passing squalls and with them the trades started to come alive. Fighting the wind and the current we only made 14 nm of forward progress that night. In 24 hours of sailing we barely traveled 30 nm. Things continued like this for a couple of days but as the wind picked the current seemed to dissipate and our progress began to improve.
One evening after a long day of beating, the thunderheads started to chase us down. Pulling in another reef, preparing for a quick squall, I could not have known that we would be bombarded with rain and thunder as lightning filled the sky for the next 12 hours. I would not say it was a restful night but the squalls brought with them strong westerly winds gaining us many [relatively] easy miles.
The rain ran dry as the sun began to rise. With the sun came the head winds, fiercer than ever. They grew continuously as did the seas, which quickly grew to over 15 ft and broke regularly. Every passing wave soaked us to the bone, and the foul weather gear did little to keep us dry. By the time we had made it north of Cabo De La Vela the main sail was literally having the stitching blown out of it. At this point it was clear that we needed to make for the nearest anchorage for repairs or we would lose the sail completely. The timing was not terrible seeing as 15 miles away was an anchorage, in fact the only good anchorage for over 100 nm. So we adjusted course and headed for safe water.
The conditions may have been rough and very wet but everything was under control, the main was lashed down and the windvane steering a good course. A bit cold and a bit weary from the constant soaking Josie went inside to lay down. After scanning the horizon, I followed her in so to dry off a bit and try to warm up for a minute. After reinserting the washboards and joking about our slow progress, I looked out the port window only to see a freak wave. It towered above the other waves and had to be close to 30 ft and it was moving fast. There was no time to adjust course, no time to take action. So I just turned to Josie and calmly told her to ‘hold on'; a big knockdown was coming. We braced for impact; the wave hit and suddenly we were swimming. When I say we were swimming in the cabin I mean swimming in a very real way. It was not unlike the feeling you have when you are tumbled while playing in high surf; supreme violence interrupted by silence and disorientation.
Once the boat had righted itself everything was unfamiliar. In an instant our home went from a shelter and a safe haven to nothing more than a dumpster. Blood dripped down my face as we stood in 3 ft of water only to see that everything we owned had turned to rubbish. The disbelief didn’t last more than a moment before we began to assess our situation. There was a 4 ft diameter dent in the side of the hull, the hull itself had been separated from the deck and pushed about a foot (nearly the whole length of the boat on the port side), there was delamination at the waterline, we had no electricity, no GPS, no radio, our paper charts were destroyed, the window on the lee side had been blown into the boat from the pressure as we rolled, the permanent shelves and bulk heads had been blown clean off the hull, the tiller had been broken off, one of the chain plates pulled out, the kayak was split in two, we had maybe 2 hours of sunlight and it was still blowing a gale. I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.
As I saw it there were 3 things that needed our immediate attention: the water needed to be pumped so we could determine if/where the boat was leaking, steering needed to be regained because we needed to move towards sheltered waters (also the hull probably wouldn’t survive a direct hit) and emergency preparations needed to be made in case we were forced to abandon ship. In a situation like this everyone aboard needs to be working not only because minutes can matter but also as a countermeasure to panic. I set Josie to pumping water and seeing if any of our phones/handheld GPS or SPOT had somehow survived. I found the tiller but it seemed all my tools had gone missing so I lashed it back onto the goose-neck with what ropes that were on hand. It worked and seemed to hold up, albeit not terribly responsive.
As I was figuring out how to get the dinghy out of the v-berth, Josie popped out of the cabin holding the SPOT device wondering if she should activate the SOS feature. I had already used a steak knife I found to cut the cables on one of the batteries and tried wiring it directly to the VHF radio, but the radio fried. Josie now had been pumping for almost an hour and it didn’t look like it was getting us anywhere. We had steering and were slowly limping our way towards the anchorage at Cabo De La Vela but it was unclear if the boat was going to hold up. Unattached, you could see the hull flexing under the strain of the water. Our situation had not improved much and the sun was setting so I said go ahead. She hit the SOS button, the LEDs blinked and we just had to assume it was telling someone, somewhere, something.
The path to our v-berth was blocked by one of the bulkheads that had been pushed in by the force of the wave, thus hindering our access to the dinghy. The only way to get to the dinghy was to crawl up to the forward hatch and pull it out. This is one of those do-not-try-this-at-home kind of maneuvers. It would be comparable to moving a large couch through a small doorway during a flash-flood….by yourself….while the ground pitches wildly. With a little time and much difficulty I managed to wrestle it back to the cockpit, where by now Gidget had relieved herself.
I rolled out the dinghy and Gidget immediately jumped in and refused to move. She gave me a look that said “this raft isn’t going to inflate itself” and I started pumping. Anyone who has pumped up a dinghy with a foot pump knows it’s a pain in the ass in calm conditions. By the time the dinghy was inflated, tied down under the boom and filled with our emergency gear as well as water it was nearly dark. Looking at the dinghy I knew that if we were forced into it in the open ocean in these conditions our lives would no longer be in our hands. I also knew that if we could see night through and keep Vento Dea afloat I could get us to safe waters.
About this time Josie found her mobile phone and it was dry. This was great news because every phone we had on board was loaded up with NAVIONICS charts. We powered up the phone only to find the battery was critically low, only 8%. I am sure I muttered something like “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me”. Once the app loaded I quickly memorize the charts, our position, figure out a heading and found some reference points and landmarks. We turned off the phone in hopes we could use it later.
After about two hours of Josie continuously pumping it was clear that the water level was going slowly down. This was the big battle and we were winning this one. Once I saw that I canceled the SOS because I knew we could limp in on our own and that’s exactly what we did.
After about 6-7 hours of uncertainty, difficult hand steering and pumping water we made it into the lee of the coast. With no charts, GPS or local knowledge it was far too dangerous to anchor in the darkness of a near moonless night; we had no choice but to wait for first light. For the next 4 hours we went in circles and reflected on our journey. An ending like this, after almost six months and over 4000 nm, didn’t seem possible; it certainly didn’t seem fair. When we set out on this journey I didn’t know if we could have imagined the difficulty and hardship that lay ahead of us nor could we have understood the incredible joys, the triumphs and the unfathomable beauty that we encountered. We met the most amazing, beautiful and generous people. We have received overwhelming support not only from sailors we’ve crossed paths with but also from people around the world that we have never met. This journey had taken on a life of its own and its death was more than I could bare. For the first time in longer than I can remember, I wept.
As the next day dawned, we made our way towards the anchorage and dropped the hook into calm and beautifully blue waters. Our ordeal at sea was over but it was not as much as a holy-shit-we-made-it moment as you might think, it was more of an all-I-wanna-do-is-sleep moment. I was honestly too tired to worry about the fact that we were in an area completely unfamiliar to us, in a remote area of Colombia and that there was no town/village in sight on a disabled boat. But before I even had a chance to find a place to rest, the Colombian Coast Guard pulled up.
Once along side, the Guarda Costa De Colombia came aboard. One energetic and friendly officer introduced himself and told us he could speak English. By this he meant that he could barely speak English but had a smart phone with Google translate. They asked us what we needed, I told them in Spanish as well as typed it into his phone that we needed a place to sleep and the ability to make international phone calls. After repeating this information several times while watching the officers talking on the phone with their supervisor and taking tons of pictures of Vento Dea’s damage, it was decided that they would tow us about 2 miles to the nearest village and find us a place to stay.
This would probably be a good time to note that the Colombian Coast Guard showed genuine concern for our well being and were incredibly helpful. They were all friendly and did everything they could to provide us with what we needed.
We found the final resting place for Vento Dea once our boat had been pulled across the bay. It was another do-not-try-this-at-home maneuver as we were towed well beyond hull speed by a skiff with three 250hp engines that seemed to only operate in the full throttle position. We gathered our dinghy and a few of our things and they took us to shore.
Once onshore we were introduced to Martin who helped find us a place to stay. As soon as we hit the sheets we passed out. We slept a sleep I think few people have ever known. It is only an experience you can have when your body has nothing more to give and your mind is too tired to dream. It is a peaceful oblivion and for the next 48 hours we slept like this almost continuously, ignorant of what was to come. We may have been safely ashore but our ordeal was just beginning.
Rain. Thunder. Rain. Lightning. Thunder. Thunder. Rain.
That was our last night in San Blas islands – Gidget was curled up next to me and looking quite nervous; she was never a fan of loud noises. Squall after squall passed in a never ending precession of wind, rain, lightning and thunder. Next to us was the small baking pan I used to catch the water dripping from the improperly-sealed windows. Towels were laid out as well but our bunks were still damp none the less. The rain continued into morning; however we learned from other sailboats at anchor that the weather forecast was favorable for the trip to Cartagena. We donned our foul-weather jackets, prepared the boat and left Tortuga (BBQ) island around 10.oo.
This trip turned out to be the one where I almost decided to quit, which is somewhat bizarre considering the trip itself wasn’t so bad – about 200 miles covered in 2 days. From Tortuga island we were sailing on a beam reach with a speed of 5-6 knots. The wind shifted to the east at nightfall, however, and Jerrad had to tack upwind several times that first night with more of the same the second night, resulting in exhaustion from lack of sleep. This was not a perilous trip or even a dangerous one; fear had nothing to do with my desire to quit. But somehow all the little discomfort and annoyance associated with long-term sailing on a 28-ft sailboat began to get the better of me – the absence of a shower, the cramped space, the wet cushions, the lack of the support system I was used to back in California and the fact that I missed talking to other people. I was overwhelmed and was getting worn out with this journey, especially now that the deadline was approaching fast and we felt the pressure of being rushed to reach the Virgin Islands before the hurricane season started. So in this state of mixed, high emotions (always a good state of making important decisions, right?!) I shamelessly declared that I “don’t wanna do this anymore.”
Then there was the mouse.
We have always been careful to not bring unwanted critters onto our boat. But this uninvited guest found its way somewhere in Panama, most likely from the tires and lines we had to rent to transit the canal. At first I would hear odd noises at nighttime. Then we found half-eaten bread and dog food with holes in their plastic bag. I kept hoping it was really Gidget and not a mouse, but then I saw the one undeniable evidence: mouse droppings. Damn we have a mouse in the house. Oh, but we have a dog that loves to catch other animals, I thought. I told Gidget to catch the mouse numerous times. But while she is always excited to catch flies, bees and squirrels, she apparently had no interest whatsoever in locating and/or catching this mouse. And while she would wake up in the middle of the night to the sounds of people walking on the street outside our house in Bakersfield, she would slept through the ruckus the mouse was making inside the cabin. It was becoming apparent that Gidget was not going to kill the mouse so our first solution was to buy mouse glue – non toxic, harmless and safe for Gidget to be around. Didn’t work. The mouse ate the cheese and Gidget tried to eat the glue that perhaps now smelled like cheese. Then we bought four small mouse traps. Still didn’t work. The mouse stopped eating our food and started chewing empty plastic bottles instead; it kept me awake at night.
Finally Jerrad bought some heavy-duty mouse traps a few days after we arrived in Cartagena. “Be careful,” he warned me. “These ones can do some real damage. We’ll definitely get the mouse this time”. He was right and it only took one try. The loud snap woke us up. We turned on the light and there it was… except it wasn’t a mouse, it was a small rat. Its neck was broken, its eyes were wide open staring lifelessly at me that I had to look away for a second. It then twitched a couple of times before it stopped moving for good. We won, we got the rat! The rest of that night we slept in peace.
However, as I’ve mentioned before, the mouse was but one of many minor annoyances of living onboard Vento Dea at the time. So in an effort to re-energize and rejuvenate our spirit to continue sailing, right after we dropped anchor in Cartagena near Club Nautico, we decided to take a short, quick break from the boat and stayed in a hotel. We looked online for a decent and cheap hotel that also allows pets. After a short search we found Hotel Casa Andrea. The website listed indoor fan, wifi, parking and laundry as amenities. Air conditioning wasn’t listed, but for $30/night we were more than happy to have shower, dry bed and wifi access. We were shown to our room after checking in, and lo and behold: it not only came with one bed, but it had TWO queen beds AND air conditioning! And massive closet space lining the walls that looked odd enough to be in a hotel room. We were in for a treat! After 2 days of basking in this “luxury” as well as exploring the city, I felt much better and we were back to our normal selves. I thought of how silly it was that I wanted to quit over a damp bed when we have come this far and our destination was drawing ever closer. We were ready to get to work, tackle the leaking problem and finish our journey. After checking out from our hotel in Bocagrande, we walked the 3 miles back to Club Nautico.
We came back to the Club Nautico dinghy dock only to find our yellow dinghy, bought used merely 3 weeks ago, was not there. Vanished without a trace. Was it stolen? We didn’t think it would’ve been stolen, considering there were plenty of better looking, more expensive, less conspicuous dinghies that were as easily accessible as our vividly yellow one. So we went to the Club Nautico’s office and the staff said somebody had taken it to our boat. We got a ride in the marina’s patrol/service boat back to Vento Dea. We didn’t see it tied to the boat and we started getting nervous. It wasn’t until we were within a few feet that we finally saw it: a messy, deflated, yellow blob all over our cockpit floor. Oh my god, I thought, where is the outboard motor? Jerrad had to dig through the mess to find it laid on it’s side at the bottom of the pile. Phew, it wasn’t stolen. Later on a fellow sailor from Australia dropped by saying he brought the dinghy back because he had found it completely deflated and completely sunk (including the outboard). Jerrad eventually figured out why: the dinghy seemed to have literally exploded from the expanding air inside it while under the hot Cartagena sun. He patched the torn seams together, remembered to deflate it a little if we were going to leave it for a while, and we haven’t had a problem since.
The rest of our stay in Cartagena was spent to work on the boat and exploring the city. Cartagena De Indias, a large colonial city on the northern Colombian coast founded by the Spanish in 1533, served a major role as a port city for the expansion of the empire. The city, due to its strategic location and economic importance, had been the target of many attacks and raids by pirates. Today the historical past of Cartagena is well and alive in its architecture. The most famous historical colonial district is the Walled City – a large area of colorful colonial-style buildings surrounded by a fortress wall – which is the most popular tourist attraction. You can easily spend hours inside the Walled City exploring the blocks, enjoying the architecture, the statues and the food. The one-way streets were crowded mostly with taxis. The streets were packed with not only tourists but locals going about their daily business, selling merchandise, running errands or going to school.
There are other smaller colonial districts as well such as San Pedro and Getsemani, which seemed less well-maintained than the Walled City, but still charming nevertheless. Getsemani was the area where all the hostels seemed to be located. It was also the area where we unexpectedly found a restaurant that served Indonesian food! It was quite disappointing however. Seeing as I was born and raised in Indonesia my expectations may have been unfairly high for a Dutch chef cooking Indonesian food in Colombia.
One of our favorite places in the city was the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas: a massive stone castle overlooking the entire city and bay of Cartagena. This impressive fortress demonstrated a wide entrance, a system of artillery batteries and a complex maze of underground tunnels that you are free to explore. It was surprisingly well-preserved and, like the Walled City, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If colonial and historical architecture aren’t your thing, you can still very well enjoy Cartagena. The Bocagrande area is refreshingly hip and modern, where the skyscrapers, hotels, cafes, museums, bars, and nightclubs are located. There were also daytrips to nearby islands and beaches offered daily: Playa Blanca on Isla Baru seemed to be a very popular destination.
The weird thing about Cartagena was the fact of how little English is spoken here, considering how large and metropolitan the city is. I’m sure if you go to a five-star hotel resort and restaurant, the case would be different but most taxi drivers, receptionists in regular hotels and simple eateries don’t speak English at all. And this brings me to another point: the Spanish spoken in the Caribbean is nearly a language of its own. Living in California we were constantly exposed to Spanish and after being in Mexico and Central America for almost 5 months our Spanish was consistently improving. But once we got to Cartagena it was like starting over again from the beginning. Different words are used, different phrases, lots of slang, many words are shortened and it is spoken very quickly. The accent and emphasis work to throw you off even more. As time went on it became easier but still took considerable effort and concentration to hold even basic conversations.
Despite this difficulty in communication, we still managed to taste some very delicious Colombian food, such as their empanadas (fried dough filled with meat or cheese), and their typical meal called comida corriente – soup, rice, beans, fries/potato/fried plantain, salad and choice of meat dish. The eatery next to our hotel offered a fulfilling comida corriente for about $4. They were much more flavorful than similar plates in Costa Rica and Panama.
Finally after 10 days, we were ready to move on to our next destination: the island of Bonaire. The boat was clean and organized, the cushions were dried, laundry was done and we were well-provisioned for the next leg of the journey. We checked wind and weather reports daily and waited for the best window to head up the notoriously windy Colombian coast. As we left we knew one day we would like to return, but little did we know we were not going to have much choice in the matter.
More photos here
After just over a week in Shelter Bay preparing the boat and waiting for the pushpit to be repaired we began the trip to Portobelo and the San Blas Islands beyond that. We left on a beautiful day with fine winds. Weaving in between the tankers that filled the vast anchorage outside the break water, our long-awaited voyage into the Caribbean had begun. The further we got from Shelter Bay the stronger the wind became. The contrast between the downhill ride we had in the Pacific to the steep, choppy seas and trade-winds found in the Caribbean was a stark one. The constant water coming over the deck showed us that our windows were not sealed nearly as well as we had thought. The constant drip, drip, drip of water into Josie’s bunk was almost too much for her to bare. Everything was beginning to get damp and tiresome as we finally made it to Portobelo. It was a short trip but it wore us out.
After a short rest we hopped in the dinghy and headed for shore; excited to have a rest from the kayak. Portobelo was far more interesting than we had expected. The well-preserved old Spanish fortifications and cannons were without fees, gates or velvet ropes. You could explore freely and go where you please. The openness of the forts made it all feel more as if you were in place where something really happened long ago. It is also a vivid reminder that even though these structures are amazing, the men who built them wiped out the history, culture and knowledge of millions of people. To add to the mixed emotions, the diverse culture in this part of the world that emerged in modern times is as vibrant and beautiful as the people that live here.
As the sun came up it was time for us to go. We left early in hopes that the wind would be less severe as we rounded the headland and that we would make it to San Blas islands before dark. With a 20kt headwind, tacking back and forth, dodging dangers and trying to take advantage of the slightest changes in the wind, we made consistent progress. But despite our best efforts it was clear we would not make it to San Blas before sundown. So a new plan was hatched and we headed to Turtle Cay bay.
Once we arrived we noticed how the north swell had made the anchorage untenable. It was rumored a marina was being built here but we were unable to see it. Looking over the charts and seeing all bays in the area were north facing did not make me too happy. Fortunately, our luck turned around just as we were considering turning our boat around. The first boat we had seen all day headed straight into the harbor, put its fenders out and disappeared. We followed suit keeping a weary eye on the uncomfortably close shoals and as we approached the beach the entrance appeared. It was marked with the tiniest buoys I had ever seen. Keeping one eye on the depth sounder, we slowly made our way through the narrow channel and found a marina mostly finished and rented a slip. The price was right($12/night), even with no showers. The only problem was that the marina did not have floating docks and our free board was well below the height of the slip fingers. So we had to tie the boat from all sides to keep it off the dock, but the height and distance made getting on and off the boat a bit of an exercise; Gidget even miscalculated the jump and ended up in the water once.
The grounds were unmolested and there were two isolated beaches on the grounds. It was a shame we did not stay more than one night and enjoy the natural beauty found here. But we had friends we wanted to meet up with in San Blas and were anxious to see the islands that we had heard so much about. When talking about the San Blas Islands you often hear things like “I was only planning to stay for 3 months and I stayed for 3 years”.
So once again we casted off at first light and made the 30nm trip to the islands. The headwinds still persisted but they were down to about 15kts and once behind the protection of the reefs the choppy seas were flat and the uncomfortable ride became a joy. Our first stop was Chichimi island. The approach to the anchorage was easy enough with good light and a watchful eye. The anchorage itself was crowded but our relatively shallow draft gave us much more option than the larger boats had. We moved up into the shallows and dropped anchor in 9ft of water over sand.
The San Blas islands pose a beauty that even in person is hard to believe is real. The price of admission, over 3000nm of hardships and difficulty, was well worth it. From our position we could simply dive into the crystal waters and swim to coconut-laden shores. It was a true paradise in every sense and we wanted for nothing but more time.
After a few days in Chichimi we pulled anchor and headed to the Holandes Cays, another set of islands in the San Blas chain known for some of the clearest waters in the Caribbean. We chose to anchor just off of Tortuga (BBQ) island, the expansive shallow sand bottom gives the water just the right turquoise color that should only exist in dreams. This is a popular spot but as luck would have it the anchorage was nearly deserted. This is where we spent our 4-year anniversary: sitting on a small quiet island, watching the sunset and eating delicious seafood prepared by the Kuna Yala people. It was perfect.
Dark clouds blew in from the northeast as the sun set on our last day in San Blas. Throughout the night the sky was filled with blinding bolts and flashes, torrential rains and thunder that cracked and grumbled almost endlessly. I look up at the island next to us only to see a bolt cut through the sky frying a coconut tree as thunder cracked in perfect synchronization. The sound was deafening and the streak of light was burned into my vision well after the event. The next 12 hours of squalls that followed served as a reminder that it is not always sunny in paradise.
The alarm went off at 05.00 on our big day: the panama canal transit day. After last minute preparations and picking up our linehandlers, at 06.40 we were ready to motor ahead to the spot where we were to meet our transit adviser. We hovered around the meeting area for what seemed like hours, awaiting further instructions from the Flamenco Signal Station, when finally the canal authority vessel came and dropped off Edgar, our adviser for that day. Edgar’s job is to guide the vessel’s captain and linehandlers when we are inside the locks as well as to ensure we follow the proper route as we cross Gatun Lake. By 08.00 we were making our way into the channel to Miraflores locks, the first set on the Pacific side of the canal. An air of excitement was all around us as we were about to transit this incredible man-made marvel, amidst all the tankers and container ships.
There were 3 yachts, including Vento Dea , scheduled to transit that day, and originally we were supposed to be all tied together. As we came closer to the locks however, Edgar informed us that the configuration has been changed. The motorboat would go in alone – tied to the side wall of the locks’ chamber- while we would be tied up together with the 50-ft sailboat Nkhwazi owned by a delightful and hilarious retired British couple. While we were waiting to enter the locks, we witnessed the motor vessel in front of us wildly maneuvering itself and almost crashing into the port (left) side wall before proceeding across the canal to the starboard (right) side wall where the canal linehandlers were waiting to throw them the monkey fist (the lines with a weighted ball at the end that was to be tied up to the vessel’s own lines). What a spectacle; all of us, on both sailing vessels, breathed a sigh of relief knowing we would not have to be nested(tied) alongside a boat so wildly out of control.
Vento Dea and Nkhwazi entered all the locks (Miraflores and Pedro Miguel) without any incident. There were a total of 3 sets of locks from the Pacific side, and in each lock fresh water flows in to fill the chamber and raise us up 12 m we were told. By the time we finished transiting all 3 locks, we were 26m above sea level. From that point on, the two sailboats were separated and we were to motor the entire canal to the anchorage area at Gatun lake before continuing the rest of the transit the next day (no sailing allowed in the Panama Canal). Nkhwazi, being larger and faster, was soon gone from our view as we proceeded at the allowed minimum speed of 5 knots(..ish). Our little boat soon were passing the giant tanker ships as they were driving the opposite direction – their speed creating exciting waves coming our way. The whole trip was slow, but it was fun and relaxing… until at one point Jerrad noticed that the oil pressure gauge looked low. He went downstairs to the cabin and opened the companionway stairs to examine the engine. He then pulled the dipstick out and an explosion of hot oil mist shot out across the whole entire cabin. His whole face, hair and body were covered in grease and so was the ceiling, the floor, and pretty much every other surface in the cabin. I, standing in the cockpit at the tiller, also managed to get a whiff of some of that oil mist on my face. I knew something was wrong, but I was too nervous that I would lose it and freak out if I actually looked down to see what was going on, so I kept on steering. Jerrad then told me that the engine had too much blow by and running it as hard as we needed to, to keep up the 5kt minimum, was heating the oil and making it less viscous. So he added a small amount of gear oil to keep the pressure at a safe minimum. So for the rest of the drive, he had to monitor the pressure carefully. There was some doubt if the engine was stopped if it would start again before having time to cool so this was done with the engine running and spitting scalding hot oil all over the cabin. And for the rest of the day, the inside of the cabin was somewhat slippery and smelling like gear oil. Luckily our guest linehandlers were having too much fun and relaxing out on deck to notice this slight mishap.
We reached the designated mooring/anchorage area of Gatun Lake around 19.00. After we anchored and Edgar left us, we ate dinner, hung out until we finally were too exhausted and went to bed. Now how do you fit 5 people to sleep on a 28-ft sailboat? Easy. Jerrad was on the hammock at the front of the boat, Marga and myself were sleeping outside on the cockpit, Daniel and Adriana inside the cabin. Perfect arrangement, until it started raining hard and we all had to go inside the cabin. Jerrad decided to go to the V-berth and slept among our stuff, while the rest of us were sleeping half sitting up with our knees pulled to our chest on the two bunks. Luckily the rain stopped and for the remainder of the night, only light sprinkles came and went. Jerrad and I decided to go back outside and sleep on the cockpit under the tarp, while our 3 guests slept inside – Daniel pulled one of the cushions and slept on the floor – until morning came.
The morning brought sunshine and blue sky across Gatun Lake. It was a beautiful sight, even made more remarkable by the fact that this incredibly large lake was entirely man-made. After breakfast, while waiting for the new transit adviser to come, we decided to jump and have a swim in the lake. The water was clear, but the 70-ft depth resulted in it having a brilliant green color. It was absolutely refreshing to swim in this freshwater lake, even the existence of crocodiles did not deter any of us from jumping in (yes there are crocodiles there, but an incident was quite rare. Almost all cruisers said they jumped and swam in the lake without any incident. Our guidebook said only one death has been reported so far from a crocodile attack). Feeling refreshed, at around 11.45 we finally saw canal authority vessel driving around dispatching pilot and transit adviser for the ships and vessels waiting to finish the transit. Our adviser this time was Ahmed.
We enjoyed so much being tied together to Nkhwazi the previous day that we were slightly sad when we were told Nkhwazi would not be joining us. Apparently there was some glitch and they did not send enough advisers around. We were to transit solo, center-chambered this time – all 4 linehandlers would be working, as opposed to none when we were tied to Nkhwazi. Minutes later, the plan has changed again. Ahmed told us we would be going in together with the motorboat from the previous day – the same one almost crashing into the wall of the Miraflores locks. Jerrad quickly said to the adviser that it was a bad idea and explained why.
“I do not want to be tied up to that boat,” he ended firmly.
The adviser, horrified with Jerrad’s story, completely agreed with him. Unfortunately, the final word came from the canal authority through the radio and even the adviser had no say. We were to be tied up to this motorboat- such was our luck. As we came closer, we saw the motorboat’s captain who looked like he came straight out of a cartoon: a white captain’s hat, a cigar in his mouth, bare-chested and belly overhanging with only a pair of underwear as his attire for that day, it was quite the spectacle. We were told to tie up our port side against the motor vessel’s starboard side- against Jerrad’s wishes of being tied on the opposite side. Our boats were tied up at the bow and stern, with spring lines in the middle. Jerrad has just finished tying up the stern lines, and before he double checked everything or even agreed that he was ready, somebody had told Captain Underwear to start driving towards the locks. Captain Underwear decided to blast through it, going full speed at once without any proper observation and communication with Jerrad. All hell broke loose at that point. The front lines failed. They were slowly coming undone, separating the two bows. Five or six people were screaming and yelling about for Captain Underwear to stop, but the oblivious Captain kept going at full speed. I would never understand how it is that he did not notice all the panic voices shouting at him – I understand powerboaters love going fast, but hell you need to pay attention to your surroundings when you drive. That’s just called common sense.
It was a horrific sight as I slowly watched Vento Dea’s bow drifting away from the powerboat. With only a stern line and spring line (tied to the same cleat) it was inevitable: the boats ended up nearly 180 degrees from each other and our stern pulpit crashed into the back of his boat with a screeching sound. Bolts from the solar panel flew around the cockpit. It wasn’t until several seconds of people screaming, yelling and boats colliding before Captain Underwear finally stopped. Of course by then it was too late. Our stern pulpit broke, the stern cleat was bent, our windvane was slightly bent while the motorboat only sustained some dents and scratches. Rapid-fire Spanish was shot back and forth between the two advisers, the crew members from the motorboat and our linehandler friends. Jerrad was beyond pissed at this completely avoidable situation had the canal authority listened to him and I was shaking from anger. The whole situation calmed down and we re-tied. While awaiting to enter the first set of the three Gatun locks, Captain Underwear even dared to call us to look up at him, with a huge grin on his face, so he could take a picture. Not one single word of apology; it was like nothing ever happened. I couldn’t believe this obnoxious bastard – this was our boat, our home which we have worked so hard for that he had damaged. I was in tears from pure frustration – I wished I had the courage and the opportunity to go to his boat, knock his damn cigar off his mouth and slap him across the face. It took me some time to finally calm down and let go of the situation. It already happened and we couldn’t let it ruin our whole experience. I reminded myself of what Jerrad and other cruisers have always told me: something always goes wrong with sailing, that’s just how it is.
The rest of the transit, thankfully, revealed no more drama and surprises. We finished all 3 sets of Gatun locks in a little over an hour and were on our way to Shelter Bay marina to dock for a few days while repairing our boat. There we said goodbye to our new friends Adriana, Marga and Daniel. As we settled in the marina and were about to eat dinner in their restaurant, we saw the most repulsive sight of that day: Captain Underwear himself – he added a shirt to his attire by that point. He was walking towards the dock where our boat was. Jerrad decided to follow him. What happened next, as Jerrad told me, was even more unbelievable. He came to our boat (apparently he saw us coming into the marina) to show us pictures he has taken during the transit. When Jerrad asked him if he wanted to see the damage on Vento Dea, he incredulously asked what damage Jerrad was talking about. He then managed to say that he had no idea of any incidents during the transit, let alone that the two boats have collided. Whether he was lying or he indeed was incredibly idiotic we do not know; either way it didn’t change the situation. One week in Shelter Bay marina gave us the rest and time we needed to fix Vento Dea. The time then came to continue forward – this time to cruise the Caribbean Sea!
It began as a simple question.
“¿No tiene dinghy?” (You don’t have a dinghy?) The security guard at La Playita marina/anchorage asked us as we pulled into their dinghy dock in our yellow kayak.
We answered no, to which he replied that his friend is selling a 6-ft dinghy complete with an outboard motor for $300. Holy crap that’s cheap! The thought of having a dinghy to make our trips ashore far more efficient and faster than a kayak started to tempt us. So we were told he would give us his friend’s phone number the next day, and thus we added “buying a dinghy” into our already-long to-do list in Panama City. To-do list while on vacation? Yes, our time in Panama City unfortunately was spent mostly going around town buying things or working on Vento Dea to get her ready to transit the Panama Canal. It was not very fun, but needed to be done.
The next day we found out that the security guard’s friend already sold his dinghy. Bummer. But then he asked this guy who was hanging around the marina parking lot if he knew of anybody selling a dinghy and that guy answered yes. That was our introduction to Fred, a taxi driver and canal transit expeditor (as stated on his business card). And so we went with Fred, to check-in with the port captain and immigration first, then to see his friend with the dinghy. Fred was pretty much our chauffeur for those days we had to go all over town running errands; he helped us find everything we needed and translate our haggling for the dinghy as well.
After finishing up with the checking-in process, we drove to meet Fred’s friend in the market area. We met him, but no dinghy. A short conversation later, Fred parked his cab on the side of the street and told us we were going to go in his friend’s car to his house, 20 minutes away. As we were driving away from the city in a random stranger’s car, I couldn’t help but think that worst-case scenario these two were secretly serial killers about to murder us and dump our bodies somewhere in the Panamanian jungle. Okay, too much CSI and Criminal Minds reruns, I thought. We did only end up at his house, located in a nice suburb where each house looked exactly like the one next to it. He showed us his dinghy; it was yellow and cute and…motorless. But Fred convinced us that he could help locate a used motor for relatively cheap, so that yellow dinghy ended up coming home with us to accompany our yellow kayak.
We did find someone who had a used 2HP outboard motor that he could fix and sell to us in 4 days’ time. Meanwhile we busied ourselves: going to the marine store for a whole bunch of stuff (including a brand new, super cool depth sounder), buying a new GoPro, getting extra diesel jerry jugs, installing new cleats for the transit, refilling our propane tank and fuel, and going around hostels to find backpackers who want to help us as linehandlers as we transit (these are the people holding the ropes to secure the sailboat as water rushes into the locks so the boat won’t slam around too much from the current. The lines are held at the other end by the Canal linehandlers). Everyday there was something to do; it seemed as if we were always running errands, working or just stuck in the rolly La Playita anchorage. Restlessness began to take over the female crew members on board Vento Dea. Gidget chewed up my bed out of immense boredom and I simply had a mini breakdown from it all: the waiting, the work, the rolly anchorage, the leaking boat, the no-amenities marina, Gidget, the chewed-up bed – you name it, I was pissed with anything and everything. It simply was amazing (worthy of a standing ovation, in my opinion) that between Gidget’s shenanigan and my temper tantrum, Jerrad hasn’t thrown us overboard yet. Instead, he calmly dealt with his female crew and continued to focus and do what needed to be done to prepare Vento Dea for the transit.
The last day of our stay finally came, and the dinghy was still motorless. After 3 useless trips and delays, it was promised that the motor would be done that Friday. We started our day by moving to the calmer and less rolly Las Brisas anchorage, cleaning and organizing Vento Dea so she looked decent enough to accommodate 3 extra people for 2 days. We met Fred at noon to check out with the Port Captain and Immigration, run more errands and go provisioning so that we could feed 6 people for 2 days (that would be us, 3 linehandlers and the panama canal transit adviser). No wonder I was never fond of the idea of “entertaining in our home” because trying to figure out what to buy and cook to feed these people has made that provisioning trip the most stressful one I’ve ever had. Finally we went to pick up our outboard motor, only to find that it was not ready…. again. He needed a new part and said it would be ready the next day – the day we transit. No bueno. Fred offered to deliver it to us to the other side of Panama (for a fee of course), but that was still no bueno. You see we had to pick up 3 people from the dinghy dock to our boat very early in the morning of our transit day – a trip that would be much easier and faster if we had a dinghy instead of a kayak. Besides, what if the guy screwed up and the outboard doesn’t work properly?
So came the backseat-of-Fred’s cab conversation. We discussed our options, exercising our marital obligations like husband and wife are supposed to do. Option A would be to have Fred deliver the used-and-hopefully-properly-fixed $400 motor after we finished the transit. The up side obviously was the (relatively) cheap price. The down side would be the fact that we wouldn’t have a dinghy to pick up our linehandlers and that nagging possibility of the motor not working properly. Option B would be to buy a brand new outboard for $900. Gulp. We almost never bought anything new; the only new objects on board were our solar panels, the refrigerator and the depth sounder. Everything else was pretty much ancient. The up side to this would be a new, properly working and reliable engine. The down side obviously was the cost – this was money no longer available in our budget. Especially not since we have spent an exorbitant amount in Panama city. Between new supplies and paying the canal transit fee, in 10 days we spent the same amount of money as what we spent in the first 2 months of our trip! Yes we would get most if not all of the canal transit buffer fee back (that’s the money paid back if your boat doesn’t damage the canal), but Panama canal was still one expensive ride. In the end, we decided to go with option B and whipped out the magic credit card. We will need a dinghy once we get to the Caribbean sea and after we are settled in the Virgin Islands, and a good outboard is worth the long-term investment.
We got back to Las Brisas anchorage with no time to waste. We had 45 minutes to mount the outboard to the dinghy, test it and put away all the groceries before we had to meet up with our potential linehandlers. Jerrad zoomed out with our kayak – the box containing the motor propped on securely – with clear instructions that I was to get all our groceries on to the dinghy dock ready for when he comes with the dinghy. Here came the fun part, for Las Brisas dinghy dock was no ordinary one. It was a public dock with significant surge damage – covered with random boards and literally separated from the stairs leading to the parking lot. The attachment to the pilings were half gone and tied with ropes to keep the dock from floating off into the sea. The dock actually moved back and forth with a vocationally jarring motion. This motion created a creaking noise enough to convince me that the whole dock would just randomly break and fall apart at any moment. And what was the solution to this problem? A red, small dinghy that was attached with ropes and a pulley system to transfer people from the dock to the stairs. Having no super upper extremity strength, I had to walk back and forth between the parking lot to the bottom of the stairs to carry all the grocery bags. Once everything was there, I then had to get all of the bags into the red dinghy with muddy water puddle inside it. As I was struggling with this grocery-bags exercise while sweating profusely from the heat, pulling on the rope to get us to the dock then balancing to get myself and the now-half-torn-and-soaked-in-gross-water grocery bags out on to the floor of the dock, I couldn’t help but laugh at the silliness of the whole situation and imagine the horror look on my parents’ face if they just could see me at that moment.
Finally I sat waiting, surrounded by our groceries, until a few minutes later I saw a yellow dinghy zooming out from behind the anchored boats. Yes! I got up and put both my hands up in the air with a feeling of triumph: we got ourselves a working dinghy! We put away all the groceries and came back to meet with our linehandlers who agreed to return at 6am the next morning. With that the exhausting day came to an end… almost. We were about ready to finally relax when suddenly it struck me like a lightning bolt that I didn’t remember putting the sausage away. The sausage we just bought that would be the main and most important ingredient to feed these 6 people for dinner… it was gone. Damn, did I drop it somewhere? did it fall during the whole dinghy dock ordeal? Should we just go with vegetarian dinner? Ugh definitely not, we need meat. So Jerrad dinghied back to the dock trying to find our sausage. It was lost for good. He then walked to the closest convenient store to replace our seemingly-delicious, jalapeno and pepper sausage with mediocre convenient store sausage. I just hoped that our linehandlers were neither high maintenance nor picky eaters. Thus came the true end of the day. We were exhausted and in dire need of a good night’s sleep, for in a mere 9 hours we would go through the Panama Canal – to the Caribbean sea at last.