“Adventure”. The word was easily bandied about by friends and family commenting on our plans before our departure. I think people generally have a loose understanding of the word, but perhaps don’t realize or accept that the true definition of the word must include “risk and danger” – here is the Merriam Webster definition: “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks”. This is what wiktionary.com has to say on the matter: “The encountering of risks; hazardous; a bold undertaking, in which hazards are to be encountered, and the issue is staked upon unforeseen events; a daring feat.”, and finally the Apple Dictionary app says this: “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity”.
As a child, I loved (and still do) the Belgian animated series of books “The Adventures of Tintin” – and those stories have always been my barometer for what can be classified an “adventure”. I can’t think of a single Tintin story that did not include Tintin’s life being in mortal danger at least once in the story. It always struck me that we could not easily have adventures in the real world – there are always a litany of safety regulations and safety fallbacks at our disposal if the going gets tough, which is obviously a good thing. But people still throw the word adventure around as if it is an easy thing to obtain and always has a happy ending.
After having participated in my fair share of risky activities (I could easily have broken an arm here and there) while growing up, I think Bev and I can finally say, for better or worse, sought out or not, that we have had a true adventure.
Below is the account of our six day Caribbean Sea crossing from Puerto Lindo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia by charter sail boat.
Traveling from Panama to Colombia requires passage by either air or water – there simply is no road connecting the two countries, as there exists an area of jungle, known ominously as the Darien Gap, an area active with drug traffickers and terrorist factions known to kidnap and kill people who venture there. After considering our options, we decided to make the crossing by water, as an exciting and interesting alternative to the rather humdrum air option.
It turns out that water crossing by sailboat is a very popular way to cross between Panama and Colombia with many sail boats offering charter services, including sailing around the gorgeous San Blas Islands, and offering service between various Panamanian and Colombian ports.
After many hours online we selected our boat and captain. Our selection criteria included: good reviews of the boat and captain, size of boat, reputation of trip as being “party” or “quiet”, and finally the ability of the crew to provide vegan meals onboard. Every review we could find of our boat and captain offered a glowing endorsement of the safety and comfort of the boat, the competency of the captain as well as the attention given to the requirements of his passengers. We were confident in our selection of a 50’ Dufour Atoll 6, and while a little nervous before departure, we were mostly excited about a new and unusual experience awaiting us.
We hope you enjoy our short video
The day before departure we made our way, by bus, from Panama City to Puerto Lindo, on the Caribbean coast of Panama. While this journey was one of our tougher “local bus” trips it went off hitch free and we arrived at the departure port where we met our fellow boat mates, and of course, our very experienced French captain, Loic.
After a nice dinner at a small oceanside restaurant, the 12 passengers had a chance to get to know each other a little before boarding the boat where we’d sleep before setting sail early in the morning the following day.
Our group was quite varied, ranging in age from 21 to 60’ish years of age, and included people from Canada (us, plus 4 others from Saskatchewan and Alberta), Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Australia and the United States. Early indications were that the group would get along really well, and as events unfolded, it is clear that the way the group gelled was a big part of how well we handled the challenges we faced.
Day one dawned and after breakfast we set off on our way, making a quick stop at a nearby marina to top up the diesel and water tanks (our boat was a Dufour Atoll 6 50’ sailboat with a main sail and a Genoa roller sail and had a 90HP Cummins diesel motor).
The agenda was to spend most of day one sailing to the astoundingly gorgeous San Blas group of islands where we’d then spend another two days exploring a number of the islands, snorkelling in the crystal clear blue waters, and sitting on the white sand beaches watching sunsets.
Reaching the San Blas required a 6 hour open sea crossing and during this first encounter with the ocean it became clear that not everybody was built for life at sea. A number of our boat mates quickly deteriorated and became quite sick in a very short space of time. Unfortunately Bev also got hit by the green sea monster, and had to evacuate her last meal the hard way. (Two doses of Dramamine later, she found her sea legs and was good to go for the rest the trip). I was lucky, and didn’t seem to be affected.
We reached the first island, and as soon as we dropped anchor, Terry, our hilarious (60’ish year old) shipmate from The Gold Coast of Australia had on his fins, mask and snorkel and splashed into the gorgeous waters for his first bit of snorkeling. He was quickly joined by the rest of the boat – all of us truly enjoying the warm, clear waters of the Caribbean; it was quite awesome.
The next two days played out much like what was described above, with short 3 to 4 hour open water sailings to reach the next island on our way, and before we knew it, it was time to hit the open water for the final 30 to 40 hour (wind dependant) open sea crossing to our destination of Cartagena. These first 3 days were simply fantastic. Everybody on the boat got on really well, and it was fun getting to know our boat mates; we were truly a diverse group of people that included human rights lawyers working for the United Nations in Guatemala City (the couple from Belgium), no less than 4 school teachers (2 from Canada and 2 from Australia), a Geology graduate student (the girl from Georgia in the US), and people in various sales oriented jobs (and of course Bev, the marketing specialist and me, the engineer).
To finish our journey to Cartagena the plan was to complete the remainder of the crossing over two nights, and a day and a half, of sailing (aided by motor as required). Our captain briefed us on what to expect, and what we should and should not do as the water could get rough, and much of the sailing would occur in the dark. The tension on the boat rose a degree or two, especially among those who suffered the worst of the seasickness, since we would not be allowed on the deck during the night on the open seas – all would have to remain in the salon or below deck, where the seasickness seemed to be worse for those afflicted.
So, after dinner on the third day we set sail for Cartagena. Most of us heading to bed pretty early as the water was rather rough with a 3 – 4 meter swell with some white water at times. Things were about to get interesting.
About half an hour after Bev and I went down to our cabin, at exactly 8:40PM, I heard a loud noise and saw some of the rigging ropes falling down on to the deck (I could see it falling onto the hatch (transparent plexiglass window) directly above Bev and my cabin) – my first thought was that the cleats holding the ropes which held the sails at the right angles somehow let go and that the sails were now just flapping wildly in the wind – not a very big deal, I thought – surely the captain can quickly correct that. Not long after that though, I heard several more loud noises, and seconds later, as I started climbing up to the salon to see what was going on, the young man from Alberta urgently whispered that everyone needs to get up…now! Suffering from a rough bout of seasickness he chose to remain in the salon rather than going to their cabin below deck. He had a perfect view of what had happened.
The entire mast and rigging system, sails and all, came crashing down across the boat into the water alongside the boat. The mast had simply come undone. It was unbelievable. It was dark, the wind was strong, the sea was rough and I felt the worst fear I’ve ever felt. Mostly because we simply didn’t understand why the mast fell down and whether there was any other damage that we hadn’t seen yet. And whether the mast and sails, still attached to the boat by their guy cables, could have any damaging effect on the integrity of the boat while we were being thrashed around by the waves.
At this point the captain, who clearly had no reason to think we were in any mortal danger, was still trying to think of a way to somehow save his mast. I took a cue from his calm demeanour and managed to calm myself down and think more carefully about how bad our situation likely was. Bev also managed to stay very calm, but a few of the people on the boat were wildly concerned that somehow the mast in the water could capsize us. It occurred to me that the sails, full of wind, above the boat does not capsize the boat, and that since the mass of the mast is negligible compared to the mass of the hull, combined with the very slow relative speed of the current below us there was likely a zero possibility of being capsized simply due to the mast hanging in the water below us instead of being up in the air above us. The captain quietly expressed his opinion that the boat could not be capsized by our situation, and managed to calm everybody down.
After about 15 minutes the captain realized, with a bit of encouragement from the rest of us, that he would not be able to pull the mast back onto the boat and agreed to cut the mast and sails free of the boat. This was no easy task, since most of the 6 or 8 guy cables were still firmly attached to the boat, and had to be released.
It was dark and windy with rough seas, and the only way to get the mast free was to climb up onto the deck and work on the guy cables up there. The captain rushed up with the Aussie, Terry, and one of the human rights lawyers, Bertrand. Bev held on to me and asked me not to go up on deck; she needn’t have as I had no interest in going up there in the dark. While the 3 up on the deck worked on cutting us free of the mast, a few of the larger waves managed to wash into the boat from astern due to the fact that the boat’s attitude in the water was affected by the mast hanging into the water (I was beginning to doubt my earlier conclusion of the inability of the boat to be capsized under these circumstances).
The rest of us who remained in the boat realized that the water washing into the boat was overwhelming the boat’s bilge pump handily and we formed a chain and started bailing water with large buckets. After what felt like a really long time the captain yelled down that the last attachment was about to be released, and with a huge crunch and scraping sound the remainder of the rigging slid free of the boat.
During this whole time the motor was running in neutral, and all of a sudden alarms started sounding from the ignition console and the motor shut down.
The captain attempted to restart the motor without luck – the alarm showed an electrical fault. After another hour or so of bailing we managed to get the boat dry. At this point we were all absolutely exhausted and most people simply went to their cabins to get some sleep. I was hoping the captain would start looking at the motor immediately, but I soon realized that he was completely exhausted and when he said that he needed to get some sleep I realized that it was probably the right decision.
Bev and I went down to our cabin and thus began the longest 6 hour stretch of our lives. Lying on our bed, adrift in rough seas in the middle of the Caribbean, with no mast lights to indicate our presence to other vessels, I was unable to sleep. Plagued by thoughts of waves inundating the directionless boat, simply bobbing around in the sea, I had vivid images playing in my head: us on a life raft drifting around, waiting and hoping for a rescue vessel or plane to find us. Of course, every now and again I stopped worrying about being sunk by waves and instead focused on the likelihood of one of those colossal freighters we saw at the Panama Canal locks broadsiding us in the dark. My only mental respite came from the numerous times that the crew of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek were able to resurrect their ship from similar states of being without propulsion. Of course, it occurred to me that we could not replicate the parts we needed to replace the mast, and we would have to find a way to fix the engine (hopefully without having to replicate any replacement parts).
We greeted the lightening skies at 6AM the next morning with a mixture of excitement at having survived the night and a sense of utter dread. The captain calmly announced that the plan would be to start with some coffee, and a bit of breakfast, followed by fixing the motor. Not everybody was happy at his rather relaxed start to the day, perhaps hoping for a slightly more urgent attempt at getting us underway. Turns out that it was the right way to start what would turn out to be a long and physically and mentally demanding day.
Right after breakfast, the captain quickly discovered the source of the electrical problem, and successfully started the engine. Our first short lived moment of elation, as within minutes of running the motor, we smelled something burning. The engine was overheating.
The captain stuck his head into the engine compartment for a few more minutes, emerging with a smile and an announcement that he had found the problem. Another short lived moment of elation was awaiting us, as he once again successfully started the engine and started us on our way. About 3 minutes later, the engine alarmed and shut down – still overheating.
I realized that the motor in this boat was very similar to the engines we had in our waterskiing boats when I was a child, and that the motor would be cooled by taking in seawater and pumping it through the cooling system. It was pretty obvious to me that we should start by looking into the water pump. I mentioned this to Terry, who quickly relayed it to the captain. The captain, who was clearly stressed and probably not thinking too well, immediately relaxed and said: “impeller”. Luckily he had spare impellers onboard. The manual was consulted and the captain started the task of checking the impeller – sure enough the impeller was completely shot; 5 of the 6 vanes on the impeller being nowhere to be found in the pump housing – a problem, because it means that they would likely be causing a blockage somewhere in the cooling system. The captain replaced the impeller and started the task of locating the rest of the broken down impeller. After a lot of work, and about 3 hours, he located all the missing pieces, and reassembled the motor. He was ready to test that the water pump was working.
He turned the ignition and the motor sprung to life, this time with engine compartment still opened – this turned out to be very key. He checked the exhaust outlet and no, no water was being expelled indicating that the cooling system was still not functioning. While the motor was still running I looked down into the compartment, remembering that this was how we solved more than one problem on our waterskiing boats. Sure enough, I noticed water pouring out of a grey, plastic box-like device sitting in the exhaust line. The captain couldn’t believe it, but removed the “box” to inspect it. It was destroyed – completely melted (I’m still trying to figure out why a component in the exhaust line of a long run engine is made out of plastic). At this point a feeling of defeat was felt in the boat since it was very clear that this component could not be repaired and there were no spares onboard.
To me it looked like the box was just a muffling device and I suggested we simply bypass the box by connecting the two sections of exhaust together – of course we needed 3” exhaust grade hose to do this. Captain Loic smiled and said in his French accent: “ees no problem, I can do thees”. While captain Loic started this job I checked the motor’s manual and with a sense of relief found a diagram showing the exhaust system indicating that the box is a “water lock silencer”. The only niggling concern at this point in my mind was that removing this box would probably change the exhaust pressure and that may have negative consequences for the engine, but it was our only option at this point. (I was also wondering if “water lock” may prove to be an important part of the device’s name).
Again, after a lot of work and several hours, captain Loic was ready to test the motor. But before he could do that, it was once again time to bail out water – with all the running of the motor through the broken water lock silencer earlier in the day a lot of water had once again found its way into the boat. All of us once again formed a chain and an hour of bailing later the captain was ready to turn the ignition again.
This was basically our final chance – if this didn’t work, it would have been a case of activating the satellite emergency locator beacon and waiting it out, hoping somebody would come to our aid in a reasonable amount of time. The captain turned the ignition and motor fired up (for all the troubles we had with this motor, it started on the first turn every single time – quite amazing for a marine motor in my opinion). And water was pumping out with the exhaust! It was a sweet, sweet moment.
It was time to set the motor in gear, re-engage the auto-pilot and head for Cartagena. The GPS showed our time to destination to be around 15 to 16 hours. It was going to be another long night, hoping that everything held together, and no further problems occurred.
As we got underway, we were concerned about whether or not water was being taken into the boat – and it seemed like it was. It was not clear where it would be coming from and of course the change to the exhaust system was certainly a possibility. We performed a few more bailing operations, finally realizing that the boat was not taking in water, but that large amounts of water previously dumped by the failed water lock silencer had made its way to the bow of the boat and was not previously bailed out. Once we actually cleared all the water by bailing, it became clear that we were not taking in water anymore.
All that we had to do now was sit and wait for 16 hours, hoping that the motor would not stop again. It was another long, sleepless night, and when land was first sighted (with another 5 hours of motoring remaining) the collective mood on the boat lightened substantially – perfectly timed to coincide with the rising sun over a calming Caribbean sea. The chatter on the boat increased as we all started believing that we were actually going to make it, only 28 or so hours late.
This experience provided, by far, the highest level of (and longest lasting) fear I have ever experienced, and while I still don’t believe that our lives were ever in immediate mortal danger I was afraid of the very real possibility of a very uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous and protracted period spent adrift waiting for help, with the concomitant deterioration of people’s humor and all the additional drama that could thus ensue.
Bev was, as always, a super star – she remained calm and helped me through more than a few moments of extreme fearfulness. And to the rest of our boat mates – a big thank you as well. Special thanks must go to our friend Terence, from Australia – he was great, risking falling overboard when helping with the detaching of the mast, and also providing many helpful suggestions during the course of the drama (although he had many suggestions even before the drama started as well! ).
And finally, mixed emotions regarding our captain; of course, I don’t blame him for the mast falling off the boat, but it is clear that there were some engine maintenance issues at play here. However, once the drama started it was his quiet, persistent, and skilled work on the engine that ultimately got us to Cartagena and I believe that his calm demeanour had a very calming effect on all the passengers.
(I managed to find this Youtube clip, showing the actual boat we sailed on, before it was acquired by the charter team that we sailed with. The boat was built in 2001 and it was overhauled in 2011 with replacements of various components).