The morning of departure we got up early, left the stinky hostel, went to the shops to stock up on beer, rum, assorted snacks, and Dramamine, loaded it all that along with our luggage into a taxi and made for the docks and boarded the MS Independence. There were twenty eight of us in total, nine bikers, fifteen backpackers and four crew.
The website depicted the conditions on board as being the height of luxury, but once we were on board we started to see the reality of conditions. The cabins in general were fairly shabby, but hey at least it’s a place to sleep. Berths weren’t assigned so you just grabbed what you could. Five of us annexed a tiny cabin with it own bathroom and shower. What we discovered soon after was that the bathroom in our cabin was one of only two on the boat that was working and would have to be used by all twenty four passengers! This meant there would be a lot of traffic in and out of our cabin at all hours.
Just before sailing the Captain called everyone together for a pep talk. He went through a few basic rules, such as don’t touch any controls, don’t open deck doors at night, and then said that if you were “positive”, the trip would go fine.
What a strange thing to say. Its like something they say to soldiers entering a battle, I thought to myself.
Strange as that was, we were then informed that the toilets could only be used when the pump was on, and it would be on only for a couple of hours around mealtimes. If you needed to go another time just go over the side or in a bucket! This was certainly not mentioned on the website. After much protesting the Captain grudgingly agreed that the pump could be switched on in an “emergency”.
The sailing from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia would take five days with four nights spent at sea. There were two distinct legs to the the voyage: The first three days were spent island hopping among the San Blas Archipelago. From there it would be a thirty six hour open sea crossing to Cartagena. The rest of this post deals with the island hopping part of our voyage.
Over the course of the next few days we sailed between postcard perfect desert islands. The San Blas archipelago really was a paradise, and it was hard to believe we were less than ten miles from the mainland. The islands are inhabited by the Kuna Indians, who make their living from fishing and selling crafts to whatever pleasure-boaters pass through.
We stopped for several hours a few islands and docked overnight at one of them. Basically each island was as beautiful as the next, so I’m just going to focus on one here. Not to sound jaded, but if you’ve seen one desert island, you’ve seen them all!
In spite of the let downs of the accommodations, life on board was a lot of fun, at least for those of us who didn’t get seasick. Even though we were relatively close to shore during this phase of the trip, there were strong swells causing the boat to pitch back and forward at fairly sharp angles. Ever since I’d gotten on board I’d been popping Dramamines like a fiend, and the strategy seemed to be paying off. Not once did I feel nauseous, I had a hearty appetite (and the food was great), and could even sleep ok down below in the fetid and sweltering cabins. Unfortunately a few people were having a miserable time with seasickness, but at least during those first few days there was plenty of opportunity to step on dry land. By the way, I’m going to let you in on a sure-fire way to ward off seasickness : sit beneath a tree. Works every time, trust me! You can thank me later.
As a group, us passengers bonded very well. Apart from the bikers, who I already knew, there were German, Swiss, American and Australian backpackers. Being at such close quarters all of the time there was no choice but to be social with each other. Needless to say, copious amounts of rum, beer and wine helped things along immensely.
The Captain, Michel, was quite a character, and that’s putting it mildly. He had some very strange views of the world. Among which was that the world is overpopulated by eighty percent and that in the apocalypse that was sure to soon befall the human race, only twenty percent would survive. He obviously included himself in the twenty percent, and would survive Armageddon at sea, on this very boat. For that he needed more crew, according to every female passenger under thirty years old, whom he shared this vision with and asked them to join his crew.
The Captain said if anyone would like to “learn to sail”, he would be happy to show us the ropes (no pun intended as we used motor power 90% of the time). Among several others I was up for this and on the first night at sea it was my turn to join him on the bridge for “training”. Even a landlubber like me could see he rarely ran the radar and not once did I see the radio turned on. It was all compass and steering with him. I stood there watching him steer and waiting for instruction, but none was forthcoming. Maybe I needed to ask a few appropriate questions to get seafaring class going. Here was my best guess at a knowledgeable, maritime question:
Me: “Errm, so this boat has a Volvo Marine engine?”
Captain: “No, No! Volvo piece of shit! Boat, he have Caterpillar engine! Is number one best marine engine!”
Me (Nodding sagely): Aah yes, of course!
Captain:”……”, ***Resumes peering into the dark night***, “…….”
Note: This exchange was important. You’ll find out why in my next update.
So I just continue standing there, watching and waiting. About fifteen minutes later the Captain abruptly announces:
“Ok, now you drive boat! keep 110 degree heading! Wind coming from northeast! When wave hit boat, you steer him to re-adjust heading! No touch throttle, just steer him! I go now now, come back later!”
Me: “Wait! , what!?”
With that he was gone and there I was at the helm, untrained,and unsupervised. Bear in mind it was dark, the sea was choppy, and I’d been at happy hour with the others just a short while before. Also, I could make out lights on the shore just a few miles off to my right port? starboard?
Ok, so how hard could this be I thought to myself. Basically its steering and I’ve steered cars lots of times before! I kept the heading for a few minutes until a larger wave hit the front bow. No problemo, lets go ahead adjust a little to get back on course. Ok, I adjusted a bit too much. Lets counter adjust! No, too much counter adjusting…lets try to counter-counter adjust then!
And so on I zig-zagged, until I realized I’d almost turned the boat around and in the opposite direction. Instead of hitting the waves almost head on, there were a few minutes when the boat was facing the waves broadside. That’s when things started to get a lot rougher. Not to worry though, lets just call for the Captain! I asked one of the other passengers who was sitting nearby to go and find him. At eighty five feet length, it’s a small boat, but it took what felt like an eternity to locate him. Eventually he showed up and regained control of the boat. And he was pissed off:
Captain: “Why you drive like idiot?? The boat, you drive him to South Pole!”
Me: “Because a bigger idiot left me alone in control!”
Captain: “If you steer car like this, you drive him in bush!”
Me: “ When I steer a car the road isn’t moving underneath me!”
I was as furious as he was at that point, but then, one of the passengers stepped in to cool things down, and everything was back to normal again, and on the correct heading.
A little later the Captain apologized to me for leaving me alone in control of the boat and offered proper training the next day, in the daylight. I declined this but we agreed I could stand watch if I wanted to.
Over the next couple of days a few more passengers tried and failed to control the the boat, with the exception of Gui, who had never sailed before but turned out to be natural born sailor. We later realized was the the boat was so under- crewed that the Captain was counting on at least one or two passengers to help sail it! like I said earlier, none of this was on their website when I booked.
But in general, those few days were idyllic. I spent most of my days on shore at the beaches or lolling about on the sundeck, socializing, and thanking my lucky stars I was where I was. Things don’t get much better than this.
Until they got worse, that is. And things were about to get much worse……