“It’s kind of a funny story…” is how I will surely begin every narrative of our five day voyage at sea from Panama to Colombia.
Ah, yes, Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands–sailing through an idyllic and remote archipelago few people are lucky enough to see in their lifetime; lounging under palm trees on white sand beaches; relishing the unrelenting sunshine; sipping Cerveza Panama while bobbing peacefully atop crystalline Caribbean waters.
It’s a backpacker’s dream–at least every backpacker I’ve ever spoken to about it–and it all sounded incredible; too good to be true, almost.
But there was a lot of anxiety surrounding this trip, and the contributing factors were numerous: low season meant our boat might not fill up by our intended departure date, stranding us in Panama City days longer than planned; it being the rainy season meant weather was likely to be volatile; we had no way of confirming just how capable our captain and his crew would be (word of mouth can only tell you so much); had I really rid my backpack of every last blood sucking bed bug after my horrific infestation in the hostel? What if we got seasick? WOULD WE SEE DOLPHINS?
Of course, in the end, none of this mattered. Our boat filled at the last minute and left on schedule. The weather cooperated for the most part and no one suffered from seasickness. Our captain and his mate, though not what I would deem entirely capable, did manage to get us to Colombia alive. I didn’t spread bed bugs to anyone on the boat. We didn’t see dolphins.
The trip was entirely unforgettable, but not for the reasons you might imagine. “Victory” was a bit of a misnomer in a way. Better alternatives for our vessel might have been “Folly” or “Lunacy,” or even, “Dumb Luck.” My assessment of too good to be true wasn’t completely misguided, I soon found out.
But enough rambling. I’ve broken this post into two easy to digest categories, because if I were to write the whole story from start to finish you’d all inevitably fall asleep before I got through the details of day one. Not because it’d be boring, per se, but because it’s not just a funny story, it’s a really long story.
So without further ado, here’s how this five-day circus at sea went down.
What Went Right
Right On Time. Central American Time.
The schedule did go according to plan…mostly. The boat filled up at the last minute and left on the intended departure date, October 17th. Sure, we set sail a good five hours later than we thought we would, and even then just sat in the harbor for several hours, but there’s no use splitting hairs over what “on-time” really means.
Upon arrival to Cartagena (also on-time, if we’re talking strictly about dates) the captain DID have a wee bit of trouble docking the mighty Victory. We must have wasted another hour or two, mere meters from dry land, during which a lot of shouting and pointing and miscommunication ensued before a few kind souls took pity on us and eased the boat into a “good enough” position. But we were on-time! And alive! Which is really all we were hoping for at that point.
The ragtag group of international misfits we had the good fortune of sharing incredibly intimate quarters with for five days was the true saving grace of this trip. Having people to commiserate and laugh with when everything seemed to be going awry made the whole thing tolerable. We formed some amazing friendships, and we even continued to spend all our time together once we landed in Cartagena. Five days in cramped quarters at sea and we still weren’t sick of each other. It was a miracle…no, destiny!
Easy on the Eyes
There’s no denying it–the San Blas Islands ARE, in fact, some of the most beautiful little mounds of sand I’ve ever laid eyes on. They hardly rise above the level of the sea; if not for the palm trees that carpet each one from shore to shore, from a distance you wouldn’t even know they were there. Up close, the white sand glows in stark contrast to the invitingly turquoise water. Sea life is easily visible in the shallows–eagle rays, starfish, barracudas–one needn’t even don a snorkel mask to marvel at the underwater world (although the rewards for doing so were even greater). The sunsets over the vast ocean were spectacular, to say the least.
Captain Hernando was surprisingly adept at cooking in his tiny little kitchen, and I found myself constantly impressed with the meals he prepared for us. Boats would motor by on occasion, their occupants triumphantly hoisting up their freshly caught seafood, which would then be purchased on the spot. Though I’m not a seafood-lover myself, I know my shipmates were quite pleased to dine on fresh fish, lobster, and other salty delights. That is, when the captain remembered to cook for us. More on that in a minute.
What Went Wrong
Ladrones a bordo…
We didn’t want to believe it. When a traveler who’d just arrived to Panama City on the sailboat we were about to board recounted stories of thievery by none other than the captain and first mate themselves, we gravely underestimated how much truth those stories contained. The offense wasn’t as grievous as it might sound, but by the end of the trip we were all up in arms. I wish I could blame it on misunderstanding. I wish I could blame it on cultural differences. But as the captain and his first mate guzzled beer after beer after beer after beer that we, the paying passengers had purchased, we couldn’t help but think they were just assholes. I can’t remember many moments when either one was without beer in hand, including at 7:30 most mornings. When our supply began to dry up long before our arrival to Colombia (quantities carefully procured to last us the whole trip, mind you), we finally stood up for ourselves and refused to share.
As a result of days on end of drinking little fluids other than beer, you might imagine that the crew of the Victory had a bit of trouble performing their duties. First, there was the night the captain was too drunk to cook our meal, leaving us to take matters into our own hands (thank god we had a chef on board). Then, there was the time we had to sail through the night to stay on schedule. The crew fell asleep yet again leaving us passengers, with fuck-all for sailing experience, to keep the Victory on the correct route according to the closest thing we had to a captain at that point, a GPS monitor (I tried it myself for about 2 minutes and we turned a full ninety degrees in that time).
As if the captain wasn’t taking it easy enough, he came to an agreement with another ship captain early on in the trip to take on an additional passenger, a girl who’d been hopping from boat to boat for nearly a month, working in exchange for a place to sleep. While this girl, who we came to know affectionately as Tsunami, was nice enough and incredibly helpful, we couldn’t help but feel slightly uneasy about the situation. We only hoped for her sake that her duties didn’t extend beyond sailing.
No, not that kind of reefer. I’m referring to the day we got stuck on a reef. The Victory came to a jarring halt on a short jaunt between islands, the rudder firmly lodged under the poor reef. How a captain with 20+ years of experience sailing this route miscalculated the depth in this particular spot is beyond me. Following captain’s orders we worked as a team, throwing ourselves from starboard to port in unison to rock the boat and jimmy the rudder free. It was one of the more ridiculous sights I’ve ever seen, each of us with a beer in hand, simultaneously trying not to spill or fall overboard. At least once we realized the boat wasn’t going to sink we were able to laugh at ourselves and yet another blunder aboard the “Victory.”
No Photos, Please
This last bit of information is for the ladies. I have to admit that I didn’t feel 100% comfortable running around in a bikini all day on the Victory. The captain and his mate had some bad habits, like getting a little too close, touching a little too inappropriately, letting their eyes linger a little bit too long. I even woke up from a short snooze on the bow one afternoon to find I was having my photo taken as I lay out in my bikini. I immediately covered up and spent the rest of the trip keeping a generous distance between us.
Lessons to be Learned
There are many, many boats that sail this route between Panama and Colombia. It’s important to your enjoyment of the trip to know as much as possible beforehand, so try to do diligent research. From my own experience on the Victory and the experiences of friends, the captain and crew can make or break your trip.
In case it wasn’t already blatantly clear, I do not recommend sailing with Captain Hernando on the Victory. (Browse other boats and captains here.)
I’m not saying we didn’t have fun. We made light of every weird situation that came our way and created some amazing memories when all was said and done. And I’m not BY ANY MEANS suggesting that this trip is not worth it. It is. Or at least I’m sure it can be. So long as you know what you’re getting yourself into (not bathing for five days, for example) sailing from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands can be an extraordinary voyage.
My Top Tips for Sailing from Panama to Colombia
1. Bring lots of snacks and as much alcohol as you’ll want for five days. There are a few opportunities to buy things on the inhabited islands, but don’t count on that.
2. Bring hand sanitizer and baby wipes. No shower for five days. Remember that.
3. Wear high factor sunscreen at all times, even early in the morning. Especially if you’re a fair-skinned Irish lad. Light clothing and hats are helpful too.
4. You’ll most likely be able to charge electronics on the boat, but keep a book and other forms of entertainment handy as well.
5. Go with the flow. It probably won’t all go smoothly–the only way to get through it is to laugh.
Have you ever considered sailing from Panama to Colombia?