Voyage To Colombia Part 2 – Trial By Water


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Last hours in the islands

After our idyllic island interlude, it was time to begin the open sea crossing from the islands to Cartagena. This was, at best, a portion of the voyage to be tolerated. Far away from land and known for rough seas in this time of year, no-one was really looking forward to this last thirty six hour section of the voyage.

We would leave the last island in the chain at night, spend all the next day at sea, and arrive in Cartagena early the following day. There was no partying or socializing that evening when we set sail. Everyone just looked for a comfortable place to sleep for the night. Most decided to sleep in the partially enclosed upper deck behind the wheelhouse area. I opted to sleep down in the cabin as the pitching of the boat in the rough seas was less pronounced in the lower part of the boat. Once I got over the heat and the stink down there it was almost relaxing. The engine ran at a constant RPM, which along with the pitching of the boat, lulled me into a light sleep until it was my turn to go on watch at midnight.

Going back up to the wheelhouse, every inch of available deckspace behind the wheelhouse was covered with people asleep, and with the tossing of the boat in the pitch dark, I may have stepped on a few sleepers as I made my way up to the wheel. Sorry, whoever you were!

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The wheelhouse at night

The reason I needed to go on watch was that as usual, the Captain had one of the passengers sail the boat while he went off for a sleep. The boat was woefully under-crewed, consisting of:

– Michel, the Captain. He generally did all of the sailing, except when he got tired and put the passengers in charge unsupervised (!).

– Majo, First Mate and long suffering girlfriend of the captain. She was nice enough and capably sailed the boat for brief intervals. however she was mostly concerned with the business side of running the boat, such as collecting fares, dealing with customs etc.

– Paola, the Cook. Of all the crew she was the most hard-working and served us great meals throughout the trip.

– Diego, the deckhand/general dogsbody. He was terribly seasick the entire trip but did his best.

So among the crew it seemed Michel was the only one who sailed the boat. Given that this was a five day trip there was no way he could be at the helm the entire time, hence his offer to us passengers to “learn how to sail”.
Among ourselves we decided that there should be two other passengers with Gui, the only of us who was able to control the boat. As I said the radar was never switched on so we had to keep our eyes peeled for other ships in the dark night. What we could do if we came across another ship’s path I’m not sure, since we weren’t allowed to use the radio , and and the only foghorn was one of those handheld aerosol things. I think we were there for moral support more than anything else, and to stop Gui from falling asleep at the helm since he was exhausted from sea-sickness. Several times during the trip, that was the extent of staffing of this eighty five foot boat on the open sea.
The sea was choppy that night with four to five foot waves, but everything went fine on our shift , but I was nonetheless relieved when Captain Michel returned to take the wheel and I could go back to sleep.

During this time I didn’t take many photos because of the constant pitching of the boat, but I did take some shaky video. So without further ado……

On the open seas
Quick Video From the back deck

Sea conditions were more or less the same all the next day and there was nothing to do but sit around and read or play cards and count the hours until Cartagena. Every now and then we would check on the bikes as some of the ropes and tie downs securing them to the deck came loose, causing the bikes to slide into each other (and nearby passengers).

Even though I hadn’t gotten in any way seasick, I minimized my my food intake for this last leg. I just stuck to liquids mostly,and looked forward to eating a huge meal once we got to Cartagena. By this time we had run out of snacks and soda. Normally I don’t think about sweet food so much, but being at sea and having no access to any was giving me a huge craving. Its not like we could stop at the next shop and buy some chocolate and a coke, so the thought of it took up all my waking hours. Eventually one of the Aussie backpackers gave me a fresh bottle of ginger ale since he was to seasick to drink it. I drank it like a man dying of thirst! Seriously, I’ve never tasted anything as good in my life. Of course, when we got to dry land where all sorts of junk food was available, that craving disappeared completely.

I was tired of the claustrophobic conditions on the boat and impatient to get to land so decided I would sleep most of the way there. I went back down to the cabin mid afternoon and slept until midnight when it was my turn to go back up on watch again.

I went back up to the wheelhouse at midnight but instead of Gui at the wheel it was Michel. He said there was a storm and he would sail the boat, there was no need for me to be there and that he had it under control. I didn’t think things were that much rougher than before, but it was fine by me if I didn’t need to be on watch. I went back down to the cabin and fell asleep, fully sure I would wake up in Cartagena.

Later that night I was half asleep, you know the sort of sleep where your mind registers things as a dream but are in fact real things occurring while you are snoozing. I remember hearing screams and plates crashing and then turning around in the bed to try to go back to sleep. However the list of the boat was not “natural” and my head was pushed against the headboard, my feet in the air. Slowly waking up I realized that all of the usual noises of the boat were not present. The drone of the engine was absent, and the normal creaking I’d become accustomed to had been replaced by a thumping noise on he roof of my cabin, which was directly beneath the main sail deck. I don’t know why long it took my slumbering mind to assimilate this information, but I eventually emerged out my doze realizing something was wrong.

When I came out of the cabin the first person I saw was Sherri. I asked her what was wrong and she responded calmly that she was wondering if we were all going to drown. Then I noticed the water sloshing in the corridor. Now I was fully awake.

Up I went to the saloon area. The place was mess. Water was sloshing all over the place with dishes strewn around the floor. The boat was not only listing from bow to stern but listing badly to one side as well. It became clear had no engine or sail power and we were drifting in very heavy seas with sixteen foot swells.

At this point I ran into David (who I rode out of Panama City with), one of the more sensible of our group. He filled me in on what happened while I was comatose down below in  the cabin. The boat had been hit by a succession of larger than usual waves that had washed out the upper deck as well as the saloon area, where one of the windows was jammed open allowing a serious amount of water to come in. The sail had been damaged, and the force of the waves at one point had tilted the boat so much, that a huge tool chest had fallen on the Non-Piece-Of-Shit, Number One Best in All World marine engine (ref: see last post)  and damaged the throttle housing. The boat was being tossed around so much while he was telling me this that I could barely stand up. He concluded that this might be a good time to look for the lifejackets. When someone as unflappable as David was worried I really began to worry.

I was about to go look for the lifejackets when Kevin, another one of the bikers showed up and said he had found them. They were in a cabinet on the upper deck, back behind where all the bikes were stored. This was not an easy place to get to in calm weather, what with all the straps tying down the bikes, let alone the turbulent seas we were in now. Once he removed the bags of chains from on top of the cabinet he found the life jackets. All eight of them……including crew there were twenty eight of us on board.

For a few moments I really started to panic. If things got worse and we really needed those lifejackets, I didn’t want to be part of the struggle to get one. Besides, how would a lifejacket help in these heavy seas with no land in sight? Nonetheless I got an idea and ran back down to the cabin, got my motorcycle jacket, put two empty two liter soda bottles in the internal pocket where the back protector goes, and duct taped (travelling by bike, my tool kit includes a roll of duct tape – I never thought I would use it in a situation like this!) a few smaller bottles to the inside also. At least that way I had some form of buoyancy and didn’t have to count on maybe getting one of the real lifejackets, if it came to that.

By this time, the panic had died down a bit. I cant remember who, but someone told me that they had been down to the engine room. The engine was still out, but there was no water down there in the lowest part of the boat. Well it was a relief to hear that; no more water was coming on board. Then I ran into a German passenger who had checked his handheld GPS and said we were less than thirty miles from land.

During all this there was no leadership provided by the crew. Michel was struggling to fix the engine (fair enough), Majo was bailing water from the salon, Paola was fixing the sail, and Diego was still seasick. Again us passengers had to take things into our own hands and do a headcount to make sure everyone was still on board. There was a real concern that if anyone had been the sleeping on the sundeck at the back of the boat, they could have been tossed overboard in the violent seas and no one would have known in all the chaos. Fortunately after checking the boat form top to bottom, everyone was accounted for.

A short while later the sail was repaired so we had some sort of momentum to help stabilize the boat and get us towards land. To keep my mind off things I helped with the clean up below decks. Some oil containers had also fallen over and spilled and I helped mop this up. Not easy when the boat is pitching wildly!

Little by little the seas calmed. I didn’t know time it was but it was still dark. I went back up on deck and could make out lights on the horizon. What a relief. I was utterly exhausted and went back to the cabin and fell fast asleep.

A couple of hours later, I woke up to the humming of the engine, went up on deck just as we were entering Cartagena harbor. What a sight for sore eyes!

Shortly after dawn & nearing Cartagena

When we got into port, there was much relief at arriving on dry land! However Michel, the Captain, seemed totally unfazed by the emergency of the night before. Maybe we were never in real danger but I later found out that no other boat left Panama the day we did due to the severe weather forecast for the Eastern Caribbean. I truly think Michel is a good sailor, but be he is overconfident in the seaworthiness of his boat , a terrible communicator, and has a bizarre belief system. I mentioned some of these in an earlier post, but here are some more nuggets of wisdom form the man that took us in to a tempest and frightened the living daylights out of us:

He believes that history is a fabrication, that the earth is only six thousand years old, that man coexisted with dinosaurs, and finally that all energy on planet earth is delivered to us through the clouds by extraterrestrial. I shit you not, this was the man we entrusted our lives to. I wish I’d known this before boarding. That’s why I’m posting this for the benefit of future travelers along this route (as well as to entertain my regular readers)

Finally, before we gratefully debarked, Michel had the nerve to ask us to write comments in the guestbook. Here’s my comment at the top of the page:

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Our Comments

Comments from a previous crossing:

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The Australians Say It Best

So all’s well that ends well. However if you are researching a way to get to Colombia from Panama and stumbled on this post, I strongly advise you, DO NOT even consider taking the MS Independence. Sure it wasn’t the luxury cruise many of us were expecting it to be. Turns out not many of the boats that ply this route are. I can get over that, but I cannot forgive the lack af safety equipment on board. Eight lifejackets, for twenty eight people (bundled away in a difficult to get to location.), one lifesaver, and heinous lack of crew. I don’t like to do a hatchet job on anyone – that’s not the purpose of this blog – but if you value your life, do not get on board this boat!

When I booked the passage on this boat, its name “Independence‘ was evocative of carefree days on the open waves. Now I believe the boat is named “Independence” to signify: independence from sufficient crewing levels, independence from meeting minimum safety requirements, independence from bothering with the maritime weather forecast. You get the idea. Board at your peril.

And I though riding a motorbike was dangerous…….

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