The Shelter Bay Bungee Cord: A tale of trying to leave Panama
Crossing the Darien Gap isn’t easy. There’s no road, (I double checked) so you can’t ride, thus the options are to fly or to sail. Flying costs about 700$ per bike, plus whatever it costs for you. There are many sailboats that take bikes, but they cost over 1000$. Each. To travel about 200 nautical miles. So I suppose I should rephrase: crossing the Darien gap for an affordable price, with a motorcycle, isn’t easy. Not easy and time consuming, but possible. Jayne and I have more time than money, and we managed to find a way. So this is the tale of how Jayne, Phil, Cricket and Jugs found a boat to cross the Darien Gap…
13 August 2013:Â Jayne receives a reply from Richard to her post on a Couchsurfing “boat hitchhiking” forum. Richard is the Captain on a boat that has deck space, is leaving from Panama and going to Cartagena, Colombia for a ‘salvage job’. If they will make landfall before doing the job, we are welcome aboard! Many details, including when the boat will sail and what it will cost, to be determined. But we have a potential affordable boat!
August 21, 2013: Jayne and I return from our stint as boat pets in the San Blas, and ride back to Panama. Our temporary import permits and insurance expire tomorrow so need to be renewed. A great explanation on how to do this is here, so I won’t bother parroting. Note: You MUST get the insurance first. Your fake (or real valid-around-the-world) insurance won’t suffice, the aduana will only accept Panamanian insurance. Of course everything takes Latin-America type time. For us it took 5 hours over two days, because paperwork takes time, the offices close at 4pm, and there is Panama traffic to navigate between them. Ugh.
August 22, 2013: Hit and miss attempts to connect with Captain Richard of our potential boat. The tentative plan had been to meet up at a bar to discuss details and get to know each other. We didn’t connect. Jayne and I did connect with Steve and Karen again however, and that was a beautiful slice staying with them for a couple days.
August 24, 2013:Â Jayne and I decide to head to Shelter Bay Marina, near Colon, where the boat is located. There we can hang out somewhere new, get to know the marina and potentially meet other folks headed to Colombia in case this boat falls through. Unable to contact Captain Richard, who has changed flights and hence wasn’t answering his phone because, well, he still wasn’t in the country. This means the boat isn’t leaving right away, but we learn the boat owner Captain Marc is aboard, so perhaps we’ll meet him. We still don’t know the boat’s name though.
This evening our plan was to camp, but after some drinks were invited aboard the ‘Ingwe Spirit’ owned by Bev and Handre, a fantastic couple from South Africa. Aboard their catamaran a great fiesta developed, and we would later gladly accept the offer to stay the night aboard. The Ingwe Spirit had been struck by lightning and was in Shelter Bay for full electronics repairs. They had been in the marina for repairs prior, and had only just left when they were struck by lightning springing them right back in again.
August 26, 2013: The party with Bev and Handre elapsed itself over two nights, now including new marina friends Nano and Gaston. Argentinian and Mexican respectively, they too were heading south planning to buy motos in Venezuela after delivering a couple sailboats to Bocas del Toro. Meeting new friends was fantastic and was a blast to have a solid marina fiesta…
But we came here to take a boat to Colombia. Remembering this, Jayne found out the name of the boat from Richard: the “Crazy Horse”.
Boat name in hand Jayne then wandered over to meet the owner, Captain Marc. She negotiated hard for the price of 350$ each for passage, basically helping cover fuel costs, and found out that if all goes to plan we load up the bikes and set sail tomorrow! My hangover decreased as the heavy rains dwindled in the afternoon, and I too met Captain Marc and his crew Diane of the Crazy Horse. The boat is large and has plenty of deck space for the bikes. Perfect!
The full plan, now already slightly modified since the morning: pick up Captain Richard and his lady friend Crystal in the morning from Panama, load the bikes in the afternoon and set sail the next morning. Marc wanted his friend Richard along as Marc hadn’t sailed his own boat yet, and Richard had been his delivery Captain to sail the boat from Florida down to Panama.
August 27, 2013: Cooked breakfast and made Sailboat cinnamon buns! Delivered some to the Crazy Horse in anticipation of our pending departure. In the evening had our final dinner with Bev and Handre, joined by their neighbor Joaquin from Germany. Much wine and good times were had… Then Marc returned from the city… without Captain Richard or his lady friend Crystal. Richard and Crystal had decided to take advantage of Panama and head off surfing for a few days. With them not in a rush to set sail, neither was Marc. His new plan was to fly down to Colombia to sort out details with his prospective client. Captain Marc said he may still sail down, but now not until at least the 3rd of September. And if this job falls through likely not even then. Ugh.
This boat ride was almost too good to be true: a symbiotic ride with someone who had to go anyways, who had space, for a great price.Too good to be true indeed. And now we have just lost our boat.
August 28, 2013: Bit of a bummer waking up today with no plan. We’d also been extending our stay on the Ingwe Spirit daily as plans pushed back bit by bit. Now with no impending departure, and workers doing repairs all over the place on Ingwe Spirit, it was time to give them back their space and find a new home. And a new boat ride.
Back in Nicaragua we had met Max. A seasoned captain in the Panama-Cartagena route, Max had given us tons of great advice. One nugget went a little like this:
“…I’m sure you’ve had many folks tell you about this country and that city and how dangerous they are and that you should never go there. I’m sure you’ve found them to be wrong. Well if you listen to any of this advice ever, listen to this: Unless you ABSOLUTELY have to: Do not go to Colon. Gangs will rob you in broad daylight and not get half a block away before someone robs THEM. They fight over who gets to rob you. It is that bad.”
Well… now we needed a new boat ride. And boats that go to Colombia leave from Colon. So to Colon we went. And Colon IS that bad. At least very close. The buildings are all falling apart, yet appear fully occupied. Poverty is very visible everywhere. Constantly have the feeling that my bright yellow jacket is not attracting the kind of attention I want.
We heard “Molle (mo-yey) 3 or Molle 5″ were the place to check. Asked for directions a couple times that day, and while the people were friendly, their directions always ended with “be very careful”.
At Molle 3 we were given little assistance, and told to go check “Colon 2000″: the cruise terminal. At “Colon 2000″, we were escorted right back to Molle 3 by a travel agent employee named ‘Raul’. He found us a couple captains, but only one who was willing to help… and that captain apologized that his boat was full. He’d be back in a week if we were still around. Maybe then. We left Colon with no options, but another friendly warning to “be careful” in the city.
That evening Captain Marc from Crazy Horse offered to take us to Portobelo to meet his friend Fritz of Fritz the Cat infamy. Perhaps he would be able to help us out. Fritz has a sailboat that ran backpackers, and also was rumored to now have a ferry! Upon meeting, Fritz shared a couple tales, including the story of acquiring and sailing his new ferry from Canada down to Panama, where it currently resides! Sadly, it’s not running yet and won’t be for six weeks or more with many details to sort out. He did still have his other catamaran “Jacqueline” running, leaving Thursday, that would be an option should we not find anything else in time. In time for what? Yes, unlike our normal unplanned itinerary, I have to be in Cartagena when real-sized Kelly arrives on September 8th.
August 30, 2013: Still holding out hope that the Crazy Horse would potentially set sail on or around September 3rd when Marc returned from Colombia, but trying to keep our options open, Jayne and I returned for a second attempt in Colon. The guard at the dock gate wouldn’t let Jayne in: no women allowed. Apparently sailors aren’t to be trusted. Me touting my succulent beard, the guard let me in, though he doubted my luck. The problem isn’t that the captains don’t want to take us (though some don’t) it’s that they aren’tÂ allowed to take us, and face problems with the coast guard if they get caught with passengers aboard their cargo ships. My offer to work as ship nurse got a laugh, but not a ride. The one captain I had met the day before was still in port loading up, and assured me he’d be in touch when he returned next week if he had space.
As we dejectedly walked to the bikes to leave, youth at the end of the street caught my eye. They were piling scrap wood and old tires across the road, blockading off the very same road we needed to ride down to escape the city! Quickly on the bikes, I saw kids were still throwing more tires over a fence to their waiting friends, but that we still had a gap. “Lets get the hell out of here, NOW!”. We zipped through the gap in the tires and scraps, and escaped Colon unscathed to ride on another day. (Pulling out my camera seemed a foolish idea at the time, though I of course now have my regrets)
September 1, 2013: Still residing in Shelter Bay Marina, though now have moved house to “5th Child” where we will help line handle across to Panama Canal in a few days. Marc got in touch yesterday from Colombia to let us know that the job had fallen through and “Crazy Horse” would not be sailing to Colombia after all. Our last hope for that ride now officially squashed. We are going to stay aboard and travel with “5th Child” to cross the canal anyways, because that’s awesome, then work on our plan “B” on our return.
September 4th, 2013: We’ve sailed the canal, returned to shelter bay and slept on yet another boat. This time the “Sabatayn” that was in fact not even in the water. “On the hard” as they call it. It would be our last “boat-surf” here, as we were leaving Shelter Bay for good in search of our passage to Colombia.
Goodbyes said to all of our new friends here, we rode into Colon again for one last ditch effort. We were met with police checks and yet again tires and scrap wood piled across the road, except this time they were on fire!
Again no luck finding any boats going our way at Molle 3, the guard assuring me he would call if any came in. He told us to go to Molle 16, where all the BIG cargo ships come in and try there. That was a quick failure, as security wouldn’t even let us down the road towards the port.
Then we tried again at the travel agent at colon 2000. Maybe there was a cruise ship that we could board? They have tons of room, and a short trip might be cheap? The lady at the desk had zero interest in helping, but Raul was there again. He phoned a friend who worked at Molle 16 who might be able to help us meet some captains there later in the day. “He’ll call me”. He didn’t.
So Colon is a bust. And an absolute hole. A sketchy, crime laden hole that you should never go to. But if you find yourself in our position, you probably won’t take that advice either…
Next plan: off to Portobelo where many backpacker boats leave from. Fritz’s boat Jacqueline is leaving tomorrow (Thursday), and at this point, with real-sized Kelly arriving on the 8th, my hands are tied. I have to go. I phone Fritz to see if I can negotiate a discount. He’s friendly to the idea, and offers 20% off… but the boat is full soooooo we’ll have to wait for the next run: in two weeks. Well shucks. There goes our only backup plan. Ugh.
We meet another captain in town and a local who gives me the run down of the backpacker boats. Basically, it is (in my words) a cartel. Nobody undercuts each other, and everyone waits for one boat to fill up and set sail before taking their turn, and everybody (of the few who take bikes) charges about 500$ for you and 550$ for the bike. It’s understandable, as if they undercut each other no one would make any money, but no competition sucks for the consumer. Then they start speaking of Fritz…
The large ferry now ominously floating in the harbour, and it’s owner, are not popular with the backpacker boats. They feel the ferry threatens their livelihood. From the motorcyclist perspective, it will also likely bring down prices. Sadly it’s not running yet. And the backpacker boat leaving in the morning doesn’t take bikes. “Too much hassle” she says, “sorry”. Options are really running thin. We talk to the port captain, hoping for information on some smaller Colombian cargo boats . After waiting 20 minutes for his friend to arrive who can help us out, we find that it is just another backpacker boat charging 1050$ apiece. Frustration fest, and I’m now notably stressed that there is simply no way to get to Cartagena in time anymore, not even for the full 1000$+. And on top of that we don’t have a place lined up to stay the night yet.
It’s amazing, every time we get down, how things just have a way of working themselves out. It has been this way the whole trip, and even in life before that…
Because then, at that moment, I get a text message from Julia, of Diva fame, checking in to see how we’ve made out. They are in the harbour in Portobelo! We meet for dinner, then after some rum and backgammon, spend the night once again on Diva. I phoned real-size Kelly to inform her I won’t be in Colombia in time. She’s not too bothered and decides she’ll just change her flight and extend her stopover in New York for an extra week.
September 5, 2013: We load up and ride to Miramar, a great ride on a sunny day. We’ve heard other Colombian cargo boats often leave from there. A quite small town, Jayne and I spent solid 4 hours sitting and waiting for a captain to return just to ask if he could take us. But that time was incredibly productive. In that time we met other kind folks and captains from other boats at the dock. A couple gents from Panama City buy us a couple beers and tell us of a boat on the Pacific side they’ve heard of. We also touch base with myriad of other people and now have the following options:
-On Monday the 9th there may be a boat that leaves on the Pacific side. quoted price is 250$, but I’m skeptical. (We never heard anything more about this option)
-On Wednesday the 11th, one cargo boat is heading out from here at Miramar and would take us to Turbo for 300$ each. The trip would take a week or so with multiple stops. Jayne is pretty set against Turbo as the road out from there is reportedly dirt, not her cup of tea.
-Tomorrow! A man will take us and the bikes for 1500$ direct to Turbo with a stop at Zapzurro for customs. The boat: his lancha (i.e. 15 foot boat). My desperation to get to Colombia has me considering it, but Jayne is quite rightly opposed.
-Ludwig from the Stahlratte replies to our email (again, we’ve inquired about several of his sailings). He has no room for US but he could take our bikes leaving Monday the 9th, for 500$ apiece. With this option we figure we could likely hitch a ride on a sailboat for just us. It’s only the bikes that complicates things for the Panama-Colombia crossing.
Then, standing on the dock looking again at the little lancha devising how it might even be possible to fit both bikes and gear, Jayne gets a text message from Marc of the Crazy Horse.
“How are you? Have you found a boat yet?”.
Marc was back in Panama. If we find a couple extra passengers to help with fuel costs, he would be willing to make the trip, to help me get down in time to meet real-sized Kelly.
Meanwhile our friend Greg, who we stayed with in San Antonio, has caught up to us here in Panama and been messaging us back and forth all day that he is also on the hunt for a ride. Extra passenger number one found!
So in one day, from nothing to a solid plan A, with a plan B, C and D in the wings! We head back to stay on Diva for another night, a party night with joined by Tony and Ann we had met in San Blas.
September 6, 2013:Â Like everyone else with boat problems, we find ourselves back in Shelter Bay again. Have dinner with some friends from round one on the “Arctic Front”. I would spend the night sleeping here (my 5th boat-surf), but not before Miguel goes diving for the 4 bottles of wine that had fallen overboard! It was only right that we reward his efforts by drinking them.
The “Arctic Front” and it’s sister boat “Kiki” have also been unable to break the Shelter Bay bungee cord, with a myriad of delayed parts and compounding problems. Also joining us for dinner was our friend Nike, of White Spot Pirates. She was having bungee cord problems of her own as well. So many times we have told each other ” we’re leaving in two days, FOR SURE”. We all lied to each other a lot I guess.
Greg arrived into Shelter Bay, ready to join us on the Crazy Horse, and joined us for dinner too.Â A great night, with my mood much improved now that things seem to have fallen into place.
Sadly our friends Nano and Gaston, who had also been looking for a ride south, had just left once and for all the day before. Unfortunate since we could now offer them a ride, and they could have helped fill the extra spaces we had. So close.
September 7, 2013: Rode into Panama city as a favour to pick up Marc’s bag he had forgotten at his hotel. Least I could do now that he was actually taking us! Also stopped in at a hostel to advertise the extra spaces on board. In the end this was futile. Riding with all my gear off the bike was fantastic. Jugs has some good power when naked. Fun reminder of what she can do.
September 8, 2013: Moved myself and my gear onto the Crazy Horse and helped with some minor tweaks and fixes to take some slack out of the steering and run some wiring. I’ve learned that boats, like bikes, always have something that could use your attention. It’s been good times hanging out with Marc on board. He noted that he now has an appointment in Cartagena on Sunday the 15th, the day real-sized Kelly arrives.Â So he too needs to hit the seas and get there, leaving me with the confidence that we really might go this time. That said…
September 9, 2013: Leaving day… or so it was to be. Marc found out that it’s actually cheaper to stay docked in the Marina until Wednesday since the price drops the longer you stay. Given that it’s nearly 100$ a day(!) dockage, it was understandable to go for the discount. While that also gave us more time to scout for more passengers, it did nix my backup plan of the Stahlratte.
I pulled Marc aside: “If we don’t leave today, you have to guarantee me we are actually leaving, or I lose my backup plan. All my eggs are in your basket”. Marc assured me we would leave Wednesday. Phew. Though had we known that we were leaving on Wednesday a touch earlier, we could have informed a couple other bikers to have them join us. Opportunity lost. We wouldn’t find anyone else, and all paid 50$ more (400$) to help cover Diesel. More than fair, everyone wins.
Health note: Some bites I got on my right arm during the canal crossing seem to have become infected, along with some athletes foot, so trying to put some nursing skills to work.
September 11, 2013: This date will be one I remember forever. The day we finally set sail from Shelter Bay! I’ll miss the 5pm happy hour though. I think I might have been on the verge of alcoholism. With NOTHING to do but socialize over the few weeks we ended up staying here, I would notice that it was after 5pm and find myself jogging to the bar. Every day. I’ll also miss all the people who made happy hour, and every hour, so amazing during our stay.
Jayne and Diane went to Colon to provision the boat and give all the paperwork to the agent. Meanwhile Greg, Marc and I loaded the bikes onto Crazy Horse. Riding down the dock to the boat, I couldn’t shake the image of one unfortunate video I had seen awhile back. All bikes made it without incident however, with much space given to the paniers.
About 10-15 minutes to load each bike, all quite smooth using the boom as a hoist. Bikes aboard, the ladies returned with the provisions. I ran around to say goodbye to all our friends. All Aboard! The agent returned right on cue with our paperwork and passports.
“You can’t leave today. Your zarpe (boating paperwork) is expired. We can get you a new one for first thing tomorrow.”
Are you kidding me!!??
You really just can’t ever leave this place!!!
We used our now spare time to wrap our bikes in plastic sheeting, then play some cards to kill the hours.
Then the agent was back. “I was able to get the zarpe renewed today with a little tip to the officer” he claimed.
I flipped through the paperwork. Our temporary bike import documents had no stamps, no signatures, nothing indicating they had been canceled. The agent told me that they didn’t need to do anything with the permits. Ugh. WRONG! Forget it. At this point we we had clearance to go, and the only problem will be if we ever want to bring the bikes (or possibly ourselves) back into Panama.
It was late afternoon, and now there was debate at weather we should just wait anyways. I was in “go-go gadget go-mode!”, so I pushed to leave. Marc agreed, so once again got everyone aboard, untied the lines… and away we sailed. A post all about the voyage coming soon!
Motorcycle Minute: I’ve noticed my fuel mileage has sharply decreased in the past few weeks. Jugs always takes a little more than Cricket, but recently it’s to the tune of 3-4 litres more over 350kms. I had hoped to have a week in Cartagena to do a solid maintenance overhaul before Kelly arrived, but we’ll just have to do it on the fly as per usual.