Jacqueline Sailboat

March 6th was like Christmas Eve. After running around all day—shopping, prepping, packing—we were all tuckered out but still couldn’t sleep because of our “exciety” (which is the word we made up for excited anxiety.) After what felt like a five-minute snooze, our 4:30AM alarm went off and we bounced out of bed to begin the adventure.

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A band of 4x4s was parked outside our hostel and from the shadows of the pitch black morning emerged handfuls of bleary-eyed boat-bound travelers. We squeezed into the back of one of the Jeeps and zoned out for the long and rugged drive—it was still too early to talk to any of the other passengers. We definitely needed the all-wheel drive trucks to get out to the dock, as the muddy roads were speckled with countless potholes, boulders, and unrelenting twists and turns. If we weren’t so out of it we probably would have been scared, but instead we calmly enjoyed the natural roller coaster.

A water taxi shepherded us our to our 56-foot sailboat, The Jacqueline, which was set up to welcome us with breakfast—fresh-baked German brown bread, sliced cheese and tomatoes, coffee, tea and fruit. There were 16 of us passengers and we introduced ourselves over small talk as we sized each other up, individually imagining how the next five days would take place without having any idea what to expect.

Screen shot 2013-03-17 at 7.36.46 PMOur captain, Fritz, had to be one of the most epic aspects of the entire escapade. I’ve never met anyone who reminded me more of a cartoon character, it’s almost too difficult to explain. He is a 62-year-old German man who has been living on the boat with his girlfriend for years. He is loud, often shockingly honest, innocently perverted and absolutely hilarious. He made us very comfortable aboard his vessel and fostered an environment of safety and fun. One of the best phrases we picked up from him (and have been using in various situations since) is “If you like it, it’s okay. If you don’t like it, bad luck!”

We all gathered in the cockpit as Fritz explained the basic rules of the boat—what to do in a man overboard situation, how to flush the toilets, where to find the snorkel gear, etc. He then showed us to our accommodations, which were… interesting. There were a couple rooms in the pontoons of the boat, four cubbyholes with beds in them, and a couple lounge/couches in the main cabin. Surprisingly it didn’t feel cramped even though space was tight and there were quite a few of us.

I was assigned a bed in one of the top shelf cubbies, but within the first five minutes of laying down in there I got an extraordinary wave of claustrophobia and had to evacuate immediately. My “room” turned into a storage area for Juicebox belongings and I ended up sleeping outside on the nights we were anchored, which was nice and spacious also had the benefit of a soothing breeze to keep me cool.

149142_10200312748755064_1039270860_nAfter a brief nap, we cruised for a bit and got to know one another. Everyone on our boat was fantastic! It was such an unexpected treat to have that many random people—all different ages and backgrounds—that got along so well together. Everybody had a great attitude, was happy to help out and positively contributed to the entire experience.

We spent the first three days of the trip exploring some of the San Blas islands. Right off the coast of Panama, there are dozens of tiny islets with copious palm trees and scattered members of the indigenous Kuna tribe. Every time we anchored The Jacqueline, we were able to swim through the cerulean water to any of the nearby islands and explore. Often the local men would ask for two bucks as a tourist tax, or they would sell coconuts for a dollar. It was fun watching the locals scurry up the trees to shake out the fruit and then use their rusty machetes to break open the husks for us. A couple of us tried to shimmy up one of the coconut trees but found out it’s much harder than it looks!

429634_10200312747115023_1469200211_nThe San Blas islands are encircled by beautiful and cool water—perfect for swimming and snorkeling. We passed the days jumping off the boat, paddling around on our pool floats, stalking the marine life around the nearby reefs and exploring the various mini landmasses. One day the current was exceptionally strong and a few of us decided to swim against it in order to get to one of the islands, which was a good workout but well worth the struggle. On the way back we didn’t have to do anything but keep our snorkel masks in the water and watch the sea life beneath us as the flow carried us gently back to the boat. We found tons of conch shells, a giant stingray, pretty little reef fish and much more.

Going into the trip, we weren’t expecting much in the way of food quality. We came prepared with some granola bars, peanut butter, jelly and bread and imagined a few meals based around spaghetti. It came as a pleasant surprise when Fritz and his deck hands whipped up fresh servings of chili, roast beef, omelets and crepes from the tiny kitchen in the boat. Every meal came with a thoughtful vegetarian option for Meghan and me. They baked fresh brown bread every morning and had an endless supply of fresh fruit hanging above the cockpit for our casual enjoyment. We definitely didn’t starve!

554874_10200312451147624_1819221377_nEvery once in a while when we were docked in San Blas, a hollowed out canoe would pull up and a Kunu family would present us with their homemade crafts for sale. Many of us bought headbands and bracelets, which were colorful and cute and helped to support the local tribes.

Because we spent most of the first three days pretty stationary, we were able to chill out and party. Fritz encouraged us to drink all the booze we brought during this timeframe, as he predicted the open water sailing would be rough and we wouldn’t even want alcohol then (not to mention the safety hazards.) We definitely took advantage of the party time, cracking beers in the morning, playing drinking games around the dinner table, and sharing hilarious stories that kept us all in stitches well into the night.

The stars are unbelievable out there in the middle of the sea. It was truly an amazing feeling to lay out on the deck at night, surrounded by wonderful new friends somewhere in between Panama and Colombia and look up at the clearest, brightest canvas of stars.

Screen shot 2013-03-17 at 7.36.22 PMOn the afternoon of the third day, we had our “Last Supper” meal and prepared to set sail in unprotected water. We left San Blas around 5PM and at first we all gathered at the front of the boat, laughing as the waves crashed up underneath us and clutching to whatever rope or bar we could hold onto. The water was especially “confused,” as Fritz put it. There was no rhyme or reason to the powerful waves—they were short but steep and came at us from every direction. Everyone seemed okay until we had to relocate to the back of the boat, where you could really feel the impact. Instantly Kyle and a few other passengers started feeling nauseous and it was only a matter of time before we started dropping like flies.

I went down to my “closet” to grab something from my bag and as soon as I stepped foot below my pesky vertigo made an epic comeback and I instantly realized that whatever I needed down there was going to stay put until we stopped moving; I’d be wearing the same dress I had on for the next 40 hours. Some people were miraculously able to sleep downstairs but I could barely force myself to walk down the steps to use the bathroom. I didn’t expect to get seasick and I hung in there for the first couple hours, but once dinner was served and a got a whiff of food, I could feel my stomach turning. After vomiting once I had had enough of sailor life and pretty much put myself into a coma with constant doses of Dramamine for the remainder. Meghan, Kyle and I slept on the big couch in the main area in a cuddle puddle for about 30 straight hours.

45687_10200312745354979_1502706774_nFritz had recently hired two new deckhands and this trip was their training. They were so helpful and really nice, but apparently they, too, were not meant for a life at sea. They got just as seasick as the rest of us, and we all felt awful when we saw them trying to work and cook while they were so ill. When the seas got especially brutal, one of them was lying on the floor of the kitchen, peeling potatoes and crying. I only found out about this a couple days later and I am so happy I didn’t see it—it broke my heart just hearing about it.

Everyone was overjoyed when we finally made it to Cartagena! Even though we were dirty, tired and wobbly, we were in great spirits going through customs. The sailing trip was absolutely unforgettable and I wouldn’t trade that experience for everything? I don’t think I’ll pursue any boat trips in rough water for a long time, but the journey was a highlight of my travels so far. Anyone who needs to go from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) needs to go with Fritz!.

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Panama

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