7/15/19 – 7/20/19
Sailing from Panamá to Colombia via the San Blas Islands is a bit like living in a Bud Light commercial. Everyone is young and successful with visible abdominal muscles and revealing clothing. You drink cheap beer on a million dollars’ worth of molded fiberglass and epoxy while great friends that you barely know wakeboard behind the dingy over a Caribbean coral reef as little sardines dart from the surface and silhouetted pelicans hover in front of the setting sun before plunging for grouper. When bored you dive into bath water warm sea and swim to a thirty foot diameter island with two palm trees and a sandal that has washed ashore.
As we left Puerto Lindo, Raymond was still presiding over the drunkenness and there was still blood on the floor from the previous day’s dispute between dog and sailor. “Monsoon will wash it away eventually,” he said with several sharp nods and a puff of cigar smoke. As we said goodbye he put his hand on my shoulder. “Hey look, most of the people that come through here are assholes, but you two seem alright and I just want to wish you the best.” He hit me in the face with a billow of smoke and I coughed and thanked him.
The first night was spent in the harbor. The boat was scheduled to leave early the next morning. There were thirteen people including the crew. We started off with a round of introductions and drinking games designed to get to know one another. I never feel prepared for these sorts of situations, although this time I had worked out what I felt was a solid description of self and was awaiting the finger to point in my direction.
“Hi, I’m Chris. I don’t really have anything interesting to share about myself, but I’ve been reading a book that seems fitting of our current endeavor. You’re all probably wondering how humans learned to measure longitudinal distances from east to west….”
I went on to explain that in the 1700’s mariners knew quite well how to navigate latitude based on the heavens; that the magnetic poles created a natural and indisputable set of parallels centered about the equator. Longitude on the other had was more or less subjective. The crown had offered a massive ransom for the person who could come up with an accurate method of measurement. Of all people, it was a clock maker by the name of John Hamilton who devised a solution. At the time, clocks were relatively fidgety and prone to inaccuracies. He reasoned, that if he could build a clock that kept time perfectly, then all a captain would need to do was carry a time piece set to high noon at their departing location and compare it to high noon of their location at sea.
“Time, of course, changes by four minutes with every degree of longitude. So if there is an hour difference between where you started and where you are, this means that you’ve travelled fifteen degrees longitude.”
My delivery must not have been as eloquent as it sounded in my head as I was met with blank stares. Eventually Martijn, a Dutch science teacher commented. “I would like to hear more about this at a later time.”
We awoke the next morning in the midst of an archipelago of tropical communities. The boat anchored and we were told we could swim ashore to any of them and explore. I jumped in behind Adi, an Israeli accountant. He wasn’t wearing a mask, so he wasn’t aware that he was swimming through a school of jellyfish. I decided it was best not to scare him and found that as he splashed through, and even kicked some, it left a relatively clear path for me. Once ashore, we found a few clapboard houses, some carved wooden canoes, and an old airstrip that had been reclaimed by purple wildflowers.
Juan, the first mate, was a native Kuna. They control the islands which are technically part of Panama, but generally govern themselves. It is a matriarchal society in which the women control the finances and the men drink and go fishing. If somebody misses a day of fishing they have to pay six dollars to the community. Juan was the only Kunan working on any of the boats going through San Blas. He took us to the island where he grew up. It was the sort of tropical paradise that one imagines with little kids learning to fish, tattered soccer balls being kicked around the beach, and blue cloudless skies. Most interesting to me were the toilets. Roofless outhouses were built at the ends of docks and little wooden benches with holes cut into the seat and floor below. Occasionally from the corner of your eye you see a turd dropping into the sea.
Our next anchor point was in the middle of a handful of uninhabited islands. We snorkeled along the hull of a ship that crashed into a reef. The coral, bleached white and completely dead due to rising sea temperatures, would appear beautiful to anyone not knowing what it should look like. The uninhabited islands had a tendency to fill with trash that washed ashore. Mila, Martijn’s partner, organized a beach cleanup. The island could not have been any larger than seventy by two hundred feet and we filled two thirty gallon trash bags. There was more, but no room on the boat for it.
Back on the boat, Juan was preparing two lobsters that he’d caught. One appeared to be pregnant and somebody suggested that perhaps we should not eat it. He shrugged and hammered a dull knife through the hard shell with a rock.
Richard was a German law student and son of diplomats who spoke seven languages, travelled on three passports, and ran a non-profit. He was twenty three years old. He’d managed to hook up with Susie, the cook and only single woman on the boat. Susie was a runaway Southern Baptist minister’s daughter living the party life in the Caribbean.
“The nice thing about sleeping with passengers is that they’ll do the dishes for you.”
On the third day Susie informed Richard that their love was ephemeral as she had a boyfriend that captained another boat. Richard transformed into a downtrodden man in his mid-forties struggling to find purpose. Pacing from front of the boat to the back, occasionally checking a fishing line that he’d cast.
"No tuna yet Richard?"
"Is that a metaphor or are you actually talking about fishing?"
"The tuna looks like she's on the other island with her boyfriend."
Over breakfast one morning Fritz, another German, was explaining the future of global internet delivered by a system of low orbiting satellites. Julia, Susie’s trainee, was trying to make breakfast, but the previous day’s sun had managed to cook all of the eggs while sitting in their carton. Lars, the third German and a model; Adi; and Eman, a young Italian with jet black hair that never appeared completely dry but also never seemed to get wet; were dropped off at seven in a shabby little raft after a night of partying on another boat and a nearby island. Everyone red faced and baggy eyed reeking of booze and dripping with pride of all night Caribbean escapades. Dying for coffee.
"Oh man we did not sleep. I tell Italian love stories to a beautiful American girl and she is powerless against my accent."
"Did you see that cook?"
"Yes, she is old woman with tough skin."
"She’s only forty.”
“Yes but she smokes two cigarettes at a time. She tell me she is on honey moon before jumping off top deck into sea. I never see her again."
On July nineteenth the boat turned for open water to make a straight shot to Cartagena. I woke up around six. I'd actually been up since the engine reverberated from its own slumber at 4:30. Everyone was asleep. Juan was at the wheel in the captain's chair. His head looked as if it would roll off his shoulders as our little boat lurched. Occasionally his own snoring woke him and he'd look at the horizon or wipe the saltwater from his sunglasses before nodding off again.
I knew this was all standard procedure, but still decided it would be best to appoint myself watchman for the morning. Just to make sure we didn't hit a reef or another boat. I scrambled starboard side to the front deck and sat. It was cold and windy and the movement more exaggerated than near the center. I held my hand at my forehead like the brim of a cap to block the sun while I scanned the waters ahead. A few waves hit my book and, rather than let it get ruined, I decided all was well and returned to the cabin.
That day was mostly uneventful. Everyone was hungover and without the protection of the islands the boat tipped in all directions. Everyone picked a spot and stayed putt, alternating between sleep, reading, listening to music, and occasionally telling stories.
Rough seas at 1am. Feels like getting tossed around in a dryer that occasionally gets hit in the side with a sledge hammer. On the big drops the bed sinks faster than I do and I get a brief sensation of flight. Sweltering cabin. Wake up having to pee and notice Soph is gone. I check the deck and she's not there. Angela is driving and hasn't seen her. Eventually I find her in another bed with better ventilation.
Typically we used the buddy system in which one person urinates off the back of the boat and another keeps watch to make sure they did not fall off. All of my buddies were asleep. I stare off the back of the boat. Watching the rear end heave I decide that this is not in my best interest and take my chances with the toilet. Marine toilets have an intricate flushing system that involves a manual pump. I depress and draw upward the handle as I release just in case we hit a hard bump and the contents defy gravity.
Cartegena came into view around eight thirty. We all clapped and cheered and smiled and high fived as if we'd accomplished something. I had had a dream about laundry and realized that a shower was probably in order as well. Adi, who had done a superb job of selecting music for the duration of the trip, played the sort of reflective acoustic guitar and smooth hip hop that one wants on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and a joint after having told the boss to suck it on Friday. As we get closer he plays Rocket Man and everyone sings or at least mouths a bit when Elton says "I'm not the man you think I am at home."
Richard casually brushes his teeth between conversation with Lars, who mostly sits and smiles, while Soph suns herself and Martijn washes on the back of the boat. Mila reads, Eman sits on top of the boat in the lone patch of shade like an Italian prince.
We’re the last ones off the boat because we have to get our bikes out of the luggage hole and put them back together. They’re noticeably rusty from the salty air and water. We catch everyone at the pier, say our goodbyes, and ride into town to find our accommodations.
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