Day 75, Mile 4800: Portobello, Sailing the Darién Gap, and entering Colombia illegally
25 February 2017
The day before we set sail to cross the Darien Gap started out a little nerve racking but ended nice and relaxing. First line of business was loading our bikes onto the ship. This was the process (remember my bike weighs around 500lbs), uou meet up at the dock nice and early, around 10:43AM. At that time I meet the nice gentleman who would determine the fate of my new best friend. Total of maybe a half dozen, these locals with their tiny row boat would assist us in getting the bikes on board and hopefully prevent my KLR from swimming with the fishes.
First thing was first, and that was taking absolutely everything you can off your boat. The lighter the better because the deck of the sailboat was very high which would require us to basically lift the motorcycles over our heads all while balancing in a little dingy which looked way too small to me. So we started with the weight loss.
The Britt was finished first. Apparently driving around the world teaches you to pack light so his reward was the chance to go first. Yay for him. Just getting his bike in the row boat was rough enough and once loaded it really looked like the little boat was going to sink with the bike, Aaron, and 3 locals all riding along. Also for some more additional fun added, you got to ride the bike while riding the boat. So if your foot slipped, splash goes the bike. I wished him luck and waved goodbye as they motored off towards the ship. About a half hour later the dingy returned without Aaron and I didn’t hear any splashes so I assumed everything went all right and guess what, it was my turn next. Oh joy!
Once again, somehow, someway we got my bike loaded onto the dingy. Let me tell you, riding my bike while riding in a boat is not much fun. It’s very awkward and any little slip meant my trip was ending that day. As we rounded the sailboat I thought there was no way I was getting my heavy ass pig of a bike up that high. Not only was the deck of the ship high, it was really really high. Like at least 2-3 feet above our heads. I saw Aaron peek his head over with a big smile so I decided “Well hell if a Brit can do it, so can I.”
This was how we did it: A captain threw over a thick rope which I securely tied to the front wheel of my KLR. Then while the Captain, Aaron, and some kid which I found out later to be a fellow shipmate pulled on the rope, we pushed while doing a balance act. Long story short, we got the KLR on deck but I have no idea how we were able to do it really.
The little dingy left for the Aussies while I assisted those on board in tying my bike to Aaron’s and the main mast. If was nice knowing unless we lost the mast, those bikes weren’t going anywhere. Shortly the little boat reappeared with not one of the Aussie’s bikes, but both.
The Aussies (Todd and Chantelle) were also on RTW trips but they were doing it a little different. Apparently in Australia, the postal use these tiny little 125cc bikes to deliver their mail and this is what they choose to use for their journey. These little motos maybe weight 100 pounds so it was pretty damn easy getting them aboard.
After finishing up securing our bikes and gear aboard, the captain had some paperwork to do on his own so we were free to explore as we saw fit. Portobello is a sleepy Spanish colonial town with history including the silver trade and a brief boom during the construction of the Panama Canal. There were a couple old fort ruins to check out and some beautiful colonial buildings. I really could have spent a week just relaxing and taking in the quiet vibe. The port still was creepy to me with masts sticking out of the water and other ships beached on the shore. Apparently within the next month, these will be cleared out but it was a solemn reminder of what could happen to us if the weather went sour.
Our captain was a very interesting character. Italian, he spoke no English and kinda reminded me of a retired rock band member. He seemed very friendly, always had a smile on his face, and you could tell he loved his ship. I also met our other two crew mates. They were early 20 something Norwegians that were sea hitch hikers. This was something I never heard of but it sounded amazing and I wished I would have done something like that when I was younger. Apparently many people do this; for free or very cheap passage, people will offer working on the ship. I guess you just show up at the port and ask around seeing who needs help. So it seemed that one was going to be our cook, and the other was helping the Captain sail the ship. Pretty damn cool!
After a couple hours of exploring the area, a quick stop to the local grocery store for supplies, and numerous runs to the fresh water tap to fill the boat, we ended the day on the ship doing a little swimming and getting ready for our big passage.
The Darién Gap is a space of land between Panama and Colombia which is basically impassable. Since I first started thinking about doing this trip, crossing this gap has been a big highlight because I wanted to sail across. Since my next big dream is to sail around the world, this would be a great opportunity to get a preview of that dream and hopefully motivate me to make it happen. The only problem is that most ships are booked long in advance and I didn’t want to do that because I really didn’t know my timeline on my trip and didn’t want to get in a time crunch where I would have to rush just to make my passage. When I started in December I basically gave up hope that I would find a ship and was going to settle for flying the gap. So when I can upon the opportunity to get on this ship, I immediately took it.
I had a hard time falling asleep that night, so excited to be sailing. The Australians took the bow since they were the couple, the Brit had kinda of a bed on ropes/hammock kind of thing, and I took the small midway bed. My bed was surprisingly comfortable. It was perfect.
We took 4 days for our voyage and it’s been a long time since I was in that much peace. The winds were light and the sea was pretty calm so we ended up motoring quite a bit. Any chance though to raise the sails the Captain took, you could really tell he loved sailing. I caught up on sleep that I’ve been missing for a long long time. I also don’t remember the last time I ate so well. The Norwegians were amazing cooks. Like really, really, amazing. The only real problems we had on the voyage was the head kept clogging up which was a problem because the food was so good. Overall I am so happy I got the opportunity to sail the gap and if you are planning a motorcycle trip like this, you must sail across!
The last night before we arrived in Colombia the wind finally picked up and the ride actually became a little rough. This was what I have been waiting for, some adventure, but apparently I slept through most of it. I do remember waking up at some time through the night with the ship rocking more than normal. I really haven’t slept that will in a long time.
The next morning we woke to the sight of land and I was filled anticipation for the next phase of my journey; South America. After another very nerve racking couple hours of unloading our bikes, we had 4 dry motorcycles on the dock in Colombia. The Captain took our passports and told us he would be back shortly. That was the beginning of our problems and a very long first day in Colombia.
Right before we left our first night on our passage, Todd received information that Colombia was no longer allowing smaller boats to bring motorcycles across in the manner we were doing so. Apparently since smaller sailboats don’t go through the proper ports or custom inspections, they are illegally entering the country. Now for the longest of times this really wasn’t a problem but of course with my luck they just started cracking down on the process and were now impounding bikes.
So first mistake was we pulled into the normal port so no required customs inspections, no immigration, no nothing. Just 4 people on a sidewalk with motorcycles that we were told if we drove them, the police would seize them. To make a long story short and a very long hot day shoter, we ended up finding a fairly close hotel and we pushed our bikes there to sleep.
As I sit here by the pool, I reflect on the first part of my trip. I can’t think of one moment which I didn’t love. It’s hard to decide which country has been my most favorite. Really each country was unique and just amazing in their own way. I can’t wait to return, checking out all the spots I didn’t get to see on the way down. Being able to share them with Melissa is just going to make it that much better. I really don’t want this trip to ever end.