Setting out from our slip in the Santa Marta marina, we make one more stop to fuel up before heading south to North America. It’s a cool feeling. Rivers2Seas has been in South America, Colombia, since May and now it’s August. I am ready to go. More than ready, eager in anticipation. The San Blas islands of Panama were the first destination of my sailing career and when I reached them I knew. This would be my place on the planet that would be the picture of tropical paradise. How could a place get any better? And now, we are sailing Rivers2Seas there. In less than a week, my paradise awaits.
The fueling process goes slowly as we fill 5-gallon jugs and our inflatable 37-gallon
bladder. Diesel and any sort of clean gas will be difficult or impossible to obtain there. Before casting off the dock lines, Chase trips over landing face first in the metal sliding doorway. Blood covers his chin, teeth and fills his mouth. He gives that horrible silent nothingness of sound that certifies this as real pain. When the screams come, it’s heart wrenching. Sputtering blood he says that he doesn’t like the boat anymore. The fact that he’s talking is good and that no teeth come flying out is even better. Checking to see if he does indeed still has all his teeth is difficult with all the blood, but they are all there and intact. For the next week he has two fat lips, a puffed out cheek and bruised gums. I didn’t even know you could bruise your gums. You can. He doesn’t eat any solid food for a day and then is back to being a rambunctious four-year-old. Ella has been sporting a black eye from an acrobatic swinging fall onto the table edge and she lost a tooth two days later (under natural circumstances). Our kids look like they have been brawling pirates on their way to Cartagena.
The sails set we relish the feeling of being back on the water. Motors are off and all we hear is the slapping of water against the hulls and wind in the rigging. Peace. We have been trying to make good time south so that we can cross the Magdalena River in daylight. This river drains a good portion of Colombia and if you are not careful, trees can do real damage to your day. There are two schools of thought on how to cross; go near the coast crossing near the mouth where the rivers flow is most narrow or go out to sea far enough that the effects and trees have dissipated. Hearing that we should go at least three miles out, we go over six. Even then we cross the muddy water filled with trash, sticks, logs and thankfully no trees for over an hour. It’s stressful. The seas clear up just before sunset.
Our planned anchorage of Puerto Valero is still a few hours away. Nearing the coast we pull in sails, motoring towards the coast and the protective bay ready for a night of slumber. A nearly full moon guides the way, but also creates weird reflections on the sea. Approaching the bay the coast gets more confusing, I yell to Lindsey that it looks like a reef in front of us.
“What’s our depth?”
“SIX feet!!, Five!” We now have six inches to spare under the keel.
“Reverse now!” But she has already started back. Stopping a 41-foot boat weighing 15 tons and reversing isn’t that quick with two twelve-inch propellers. We start backward and gain some reverse momentum when a wave pushes us sideways. Three quick little thump, thump, thumps are all we hear and feel. We barely touch the sand. Abandoning that anchorage we point towards Cartagena for another 12 hours of sailing. Looks like we are doing an all night sail. I check the bilges constantly for any signs of water, which thankfully are clear. We lucked out on that one. Having relied on some other cruisers’ knowledge (or lack) and their waypoints almost proved catastrophic. Lucky again and more lessons learned.
Pulling into Cartagena brings such a sense of pride as we come to this historic port that all four of us are giddy. It’s been an easy sail, but we are ready to get off and do some plundering of our own before we leave Colombia for good.
Cartagena is a cool, historic and modern city. We visited here while the boat was in Santa Marta so we don’t stay long. While historic and pretty above the waterline, below it is a cesspool of sewage, trash and who knows what. There will be no swimming here. Leaving the port, the traffic controller asks over the VHF for information. The control station looks like an air traffic controllers but is surrounded by a low fort on a tiny island. We have over a dozen ocean going freighters all around, some anchored, some moving much faster than us.
“Rivers2Seas what is your destination?” the controller asks.
“Puerto Obaldia, Panama”
“Si, when will you arrive?”
“I don’t know, maybe tomorrow if all goes well,” our hopes of a quick 30-hour sail.
“Who is the captain?”
“There is a ship behind you. Continue your course and leave the channel.”
“Yes sir.” I move to the extreme side of the marked channel but will not go further and hit some reef. I speed up a bit. The ship lets out a giant horn that reverberates through us. Ella yells, “what was that?!” It’s sort of like when Kent and I were canoeing through New Orleans and ran a red light causing some issues. My boat is bigger this time, but so are the giant freighters.
“Rivers2Seas continue your course and leave the channel.”
“Yes, sir.” I continue the course but won’t leave the channel in hopes that the language barrier can be used as an excuse.
“Who is the captain and spell please.”
“Thank you, have a good trip Mr. Fudd.”
We cruise along towards Puerto Obaldia on confused but small seas. I have four fishing
lines out, 2 rods and 2 YoYos that are hand reeling basic ones. I catch a Skipjack Tuna and then a Blackfin Tuna when the catch of the day happens. As usually happens I am in the bathroom when a strike hits. This time everyone is yelling. It must be big. When I arrive, it is chaos; with the kids yelling about the fishing pole and Lindsey yelling that it all just went flying. What went flying? I slow our speed down to reel the fish in easier and go to the rod, which is no longer there. The entire fishing rod holder bolted to the transom is missing. The line tied from some stainless steel to the rod is missing. Damn, that must have been a monster fish. Bummer, that was our good fishing rod that we traded a kayak for. I notice that the YoYo line has caught a fish too. As I reel it in I notice that it’s caught the original fishing line and has the rod on one side and the now obviously unhappy MahiMahi on the other end soaring through the air every twenty seconds in brilliant yellow and green arcs. Slowly reeling in the hand line, I get the original fishing line. Ever so slowly I pull the rod up from over 200 feet below. Miraculously, I pull the rod out of the water, holding it above my head like the Stanley Cup and we all cheer. Now it’s time to fish. I reel the MahiMahi in who is now exhausted, gaff him in the gills and heave him onboard. Ella, my tall seven-year-old is ecstatic that the fish is an inch taller than her. I’m happy to have recovered all our fishing tackle and have 16 pounds of MahiMahi steaks.
Lindsey made a deal with me before leaving, if I would learn how to fish and make it happen she would learn how to fillet them if I caught them. It’s a good deal. We must sever the head using a sharp machete type knife and a hammer to get through the spine. Blood is everywhere. As Lindsey starts to fillet, I wash the blood off the deck. Sharks can smell a drop of blood from miles away. This monster fish has leaked blood all over and soon a Great White Shark appears. Jaws. Well, not actually, he’s just a little guy about six feet long, but I bet there are more. Ella wants to see him and leans way over the railing. Yanking her back, I yell at her to get inside. She understands immediately, we are not on the top of the food chain here. Lindsey comes off the rear steps where she does the filleting and tries it backwards. The fish is too big and slips through her fingers into the sea. There’s no way any of us are chasing after that one and soon disappears under the boat. I bet the sharks are happy. We are not. Luckily, I catch three more fish and we have some great sashimi fillets when we arrive in Panama. So much that I can’t eat any more. Couple that with the chilled white wine, a safe anchorage and the coming back to a starting point of one of my previously greatest adventures, all I can say is “Life is good.”
Puerto Obaldia was the starting point of a trek across the isthmus of Panama with two friends in 1995. A jungle trek is always exciting. We had two guides, one of whom left after two days because he was so scared and no amount of money would make him stay. The other guide didn’t want to go by himself, so he bailed out too. We floated down the Membrillo River by ourselves buoyed by our drybags and a young foolish sense of adventure. Later in the day, one of the guides returned with a hunter he met in the forest, good thing too because we would have been eaten by crocodiles soon if not for them. Visiting a small village where only two of the inhabitants had ever seen a foreigner before was truly amazing. We were as excited to meet them as there were us.
A short hop over to Puerto Escoses brings us to our first foray into uncharted waters. Our Garmin maps just show red lines across the screen to signify that coral could be anywhere. Uncharted. Unmapped. Barely explored. This is true wilderness. While the excitement is enormous, so is the worry about hitting a coral head.
One eye is kept on the horizon, one on the depth sounder. The depth changes drastically as we go over a shelf. 100 feet, 80, 40 in 10 seconds, then slowly down to 30, 25, 24, 22, 30, 40, 88, 120 and we are back up to speed. As we round the corner into this protected bay, no other yachts are there, which has been such a rarity out here. The small camp of Sukunya with a few thatched huts on shore and a few built in the sea on some coral beds. This place feels so good!
After anchoring, I swim over to a coral bed a few hundred yards away to look for lobsters and well, enjoy the view. I don’t find any lobsters and the visibility isn’t so good, but I still have fun splashing around for an hour. Lindsey has filled the SUP boards up by the time I return, but I’m too tired and must settle for a rum and coke.
While sipping my drink, the kids and I have art class which is always fun. Lindsey meanwhile swims laps around the boat.
The next morning while drinking coffee, Lindsey points out a log that looks like a crocodile. Chase replies, “Mom, that is a crocodile.” Ella joins in and then gets some binoculars. The log is only 30 feet off the transom so its’ not that hard to see and they all keep gigging how real it looks. Then I hear, “Brad, will you look at this?” One look is enough, Chase is right – It is an endangered American Crocodile, six feet long with imposing snout and teeth. A slow moving tail confirms it for everyone.
Mounting a dinghy expedition with Chase and Ella almost exploding off the bow to see the croc,
we take off. Lindsey is firmly planted in the middle with a tight grip on both kids. The motor scares him off so I shut it off, much to the disapproval of Lindsey. We never make it closer than when aboard Rivers2Seas. Our minds keep returning to yesterdays swimming activities and our obliviousness to the dangers that lurked all around us. Jeez, a Great White Shark and now an American Crocodile, what other dangers are going to befall us here?
Staying in this paradise for a few days is truly remarkable. Mounting another dinghy expedition, we travel up some mangrove choked rivers and visit the huts. I am able to fix an outboard of some Kuna men heading to the coconut farms, which is fun for me and very welcome by them.
Motoring Rivers2Seas out is much less stressful as we can follow our exact path using the navigation system and a few hours later we anchor off the small island of Piños.
We have fun meeting people in town that has 70 men, 80 women and 170 kids. I buy my first of many paddles and contract to buy 20 loaves of bread from a woman in the morning. I remember these small loaves fondly that resemble garlic bread sticks but taste sweet and fresh.
During the afternoon, lightning streaks out of the sky unexpectedly, hitting in the center of the small town of Piños next to us. Smoke billows immediately as the thunder reaches our ears. Shit, that’s bad. Having thought the storm had passed we had let our guard down, not that we can do much. I shut off the generator and throw all the handheld electronics in the oven. Worried about the villagers, I head with a medical kit in the dinghy to town. Lightning strikes are generally instant killers and quick CPR resuscitation is the only hope. That said, CPR rarely works which also brings back so many bad memories of doing it on a friend. As I speed towards the dock, rain plummets down masking the tears that come unhindered. I know what I am heading towards and don’t want to see it, feel it and live it again. But, if I can help, I should, I must. Still, the memories of my friend six years ago feel like yesterday. I don’t want this.
A minute later, I tie to the town dock and run through the driving rain. Under the first hut I ask if everyone is all right. They are. The lightning… everyone is OK? Thankfully, they are. I explain that I have medical training and came to help. Some villagers show me the radio tower that exploded from a hut and the smoking remains of some lights. Other than that all that remains is the excited chatter from the villagers. I drive home to Rivers2Seas, hug my family and try to suppress the demons that have followed me ever since my friends’ death. Some horrific memories you just can’t escape, they live in you with excruciating detail. Some you try to hold onto but seem to evaporate just as you are about to hear your dead mothers voice again. How can our minds play such cruel tricks on us? I cry a little again, hug my kids harder than they want and then hold Lindsey close. She knows and just holds me.
I grab a beer, look out into the palm fringed islands with dolphins leaping and realize that
paradise has sadness too. That said, the beer is cold, the coconuts are delicious, my family is close and the acrobatics from the dolphins are amazing. Life is good.
Many reefs later, but only a dozen miles away we anchor in Ustupu, which is the largest community in the San Blas Islands. 10,000 adults live here and probably another 14,000 kids. My favorite part of this place happens most mornings from an hour before sunrise until a couple hours after, the Kuna highway. Dugout canoes stream off the island heading to inland rivers, coastline farms and ocean fishing reefs. At any moment for several hours at least a couple dozen, “Ulus” as they call them can be seen going all directions.
I had been joking with Lindsey that we would be heading home with one of the dugouts. Luckily, she knew I was only half joking. Days worth of searching the winding passages of the island, sometimes with a guide but usually without, we search for the perfect canoe to buy. The tallest Kuna is about 5-feet tall, so hitting my head on doorways and roofs becomes commonplace. The word finally got out about the “Merki” (for American or any foreigner) who was looking for a dugout and a few offers come our way. Trying one out, it lists horribly to the right and has a large bend partway down from a bend in the tree. Paddling that was like
shooting a crooked arrow, nothing works, which is probably why the guy wants to unload it. Chase and I track down a newly hand chiseled one twelve feet long, weighing three or four hundred pounds and beautiful. Sold! Lazaro Mori, a 69-year-old Kuna took a month to carve this out using an axe and a hand chipper. The Caracoli tree had been floated down the river we did an expedition up the day before into the mountains.
Buying it was the easy part. Then we had to move it half a mile through town and get it onto Rivers2Seas deck. With two others pulling a line attached to the bow and Turtle pushing, we start dragging our prize through town. Men and kids start streaming out of huts and join in helping and we end up with thirty people helping. Once we get to Rivers2Seas, I map out where we shall store our ridiculously large memento. I call for two guys to help and they call two
others. The five of us then lift and pull and strain, trying to not break windows or lifelines or fingers. A strenuous five minutes later, our dugout rests happily on our port hull and our new friends all sport Rivers2Seas hats and a few dollars in their pockets.
A strong storm in the morning brings 60-knot winds pushing Rivers2Seas within touching distance of a reef. Do we move and risk getting struck by lighting as I must sit within three feet of the mast or do we risk hitting the reef? During a lull in the lighting, we hope, we reanchor in a deluge of rain. None of it is fun, but our teamwork and hand signals accomplishes it all efficiently and quickly.
A quick run of five miles takes us two hours to achieve the anchorage in Mamitupu. We stay a night but don’t feel to welcome and head to Ratones Cays. A group of six islands, one of which has a small camp on it are so beautiful that we spend a week there. Days are spent working on the boat, snorkeling, playing on the beach or investigating the islands.
Turtle and I head off to a small island with only three palm trees on it. Large coral and some
tough surf prevent us from landing our inflatable dinghy so we head to the nearby island with maybe 50 palms on it. Armed with a giant magnifying glass, some bags for collecting specimens and backpacks we tour the island. Lush vines grow up the leaning coconut trees while a flowering network of growth on the islands floor gives a greater feeling of lushness. We collect a stunning bouquet of purple, yellow and white flowers for mom. During a small break for a snack in a clearing we watch hermit crabs crawling out of a large shell. Picking the fastest ones we have a race, but they go in different directions and call it a tie. Being the first explorer on the island, Chase decides to name it Turtle Island (in honor of himself I suppose in the tradition of all great explorers).
The town of Tigre is our next anchorage and one of our most difficult. Poor holding and lots of reefs necessitate the use of a second stern anchor, something we haven’t used at all on this journey. I set one once while in the Bahamas and four strong men struggled with the procedures of setting it. Here our primary anchor isn’t holding at all well and I need to rush to get the stern out. Everything seems to be going wrong with tangled lines, dropping the 45-pound anchor on my foot and poor sleep for three days. Lindsey wants to help, but a person must know what he is doing to request the steps needed for help. I don’t know what I am doing. I am winging it in a rush and getting frustrated. The kids are singing their own versions of 10 little Indians loudly, off key and simultaneously. After five minutes and 75 versions of 10 little polar bears and 10 little turtles, I yell for them to shut up. Distraught they both run inside – Not my best parenting moment.
Getting the anchor out, I then pull Rivers2Seas forward and set the stern anchor. With snorkel and mask I set the primary anchor by hand. An hour later and a dozen jellyfish stings later, my job is done. Well, my anchor job is done. Now, I have to apologize to my family. I angered Lindsey last night and she is still bristly with me, the kids are mad for my yelling at them. All are correct in their feelings. I make the apologies and get hugs in return. I ask Chase, who is the best equipped for an important job. All are curious as to what it could be, especially when I make him promise to not laugh. That done, I proceed to explain in my best scientific terms that I have many jellyfish stings, but the worst is in my armpit. “Chase,” I ask, “what I need is for you to pee on my armpit.” The looks of astonishment and then the wails of laughter that I am “for reals” brings the family together again.
A short hop over to Nargana brings us to a nice protected anchorage. Anchoring a few hundred yards from the only jail in the San Blas Islands, I relate a story to Ella and Chase about being imprisoned there seventeen years ago. It’s a long story about buying a dugout canoe with my two friends who hiked over the istmus with me. Our original plan was to paddle sail this dugout to Colombia and then hike back through the Darien Gap. After procuring a decent dugout we set out for the nearest island. A few hours after landing, the police arrived and hauled us off to this jail in Nargana. The interrogations were difficult in Spanish and terrifying. Our passport stamps were deemed too light to be valid, they knew we were running drugs, and lastly we had been seen blowing up islands with grenades.
The only person on the island who spoke English was Sammy Morris. He counseled us and the police. It was with his help that 30 hours after our ordeal started, the police set us free.
So now, seventeen years later, I return with my family to such a crazy spot of my adventuring history. Walking to the military post, I show the kids the main jail and then our hut where we were incarcerated. It’s now a cooking hut it seems. A military man in fatigues and large baton wanders out wondering what this family of four could be doing. I’m certainly not going to tell him that years ago I was arrested for running drugs in a dugout canoe, which would be a joke to make the run to Miami in, and now have a nice sailboat, which would be awfully convenient for running drugs. “Do you sell diesel gas?” I ask pointing to the barrels nearby. He takes me for a fool and laughs saying no. We wander out of the complex free to go as we please – it’s a nice feeling.
Searching for my friend Sammy in town is easy and only takes a couple questions to find his home. Once there, Sammy warmly welcomes the entire family into his home. Sitting down he asks how I know him. Relating the story a smile beams across his face with recognition. His wife, Mina, nods with recognition. They both remember well our story of sadness and confusion. It’s a wonderful reunion meeting his family and he meeting mine.
Lindsey and I toast each other with a cold Balboa beer in a local restaurant. Freedom has made this beer taste colder and better. Outside Ella and Chase play some games with the local kids. Irony can be funny. Today, my kids are playing jail and springing each other from the jail cell of a nearby table. This is certainly a circumstance that I could never have dreamed of so many years ago.
The next day I pick up Sammy and Mina to have them aboard Rivers2Seas. They are amazed at the plushness of a catamaran and how big it all is. We talk about the changes in Nargana like 24-hour power, a bank and the traditions of Kuna. New bridges and a road to a Kuna village of Carti has made life easier for the people here. Time passes quickly with our guests who saved me from a most horrible fate. Giddy? Ecstatic? Words can’t express my gratitude.