I found a perch within the cockpit of One World, a custom built 64 ft Brigantine Schooner. I glanced over the starboard side. A wall of water doubling our height bore down on us. A cocktail of chop and ocean swell relentlessly approached from our 4 o’clock. Instead of a steady up and down movement, we rolled up the face of these monsters. Pausing on it’s peak, the watery cliffs on either side of One World dropped away into a foamy turbulent valley. Dropping off the waves’ cusp into this valley was visually stimulating to say the least. The sea was confused and some rolls were violent. I sat bracing for the worst. The next wave sank our port edge into the water and sent the starboard side vertical. My feet swept out from under me and I held on for dear life.
A few hours earlier, eleven backpackers from France, Australia, Switzerland, the U.S. and myself, innocently boarded One World for a five day adventure across the Caribbean sea to Panama from Cartagena. We would be silent zombies for the next 36 hours of open ocean transit, as we tried to combat sea sickness and fear of the unknown.
As the first night drew on, I realized that in my mind, I was trying to correct the boat with my body’s position. Instead of going with the boat, I was tensing up and trying to influence its intense pitch with my positioning. It took some time and awareness; but letting go of my fear enabled me to relax and learn to expect and anticipate the motion of the ocean. The weight and posture of my body would have no effect on One World’s position.
The walls of water kept coming and we floated up and over every epic swell. As the dark night wore on, I forced myself to my cabin for a lie down. With my security strap across me to prevent rolling continuously across my mattress like a tossed baby seal, I tried to remain calm and breathe deeply. ”Tonight I will sleep and stay in control” I told myself. With all out sea sickness a mere thought away, I meditated and tried to relax.
The morning began at sunrise for me. The intense movement of the vessel was still with us. Rachele, One World’s friendly owner, sat at the helm. Captain Jeff slept like a baby next to her on the floor. We had been sailing for 8 hours and were now in wide open seas.
Strange as it felt, my body seemed used to the sea. Still, I had to focus on the horizon and remain calm in my mind and body. At last I knew what it felt like to be on the wild ocean! A deep blue hinted at the depth and vastness below. I felt very small, vulnerable, yet incredibly empowered.
We all sat calmly and quietly, confronted with the fact that we had another day and night mercilessly exposed to the will of the sea. Speaking to a fellow traveler, she explained her initial panic at seeing no land in site, surrounded by towering swell. Like her, I think we all felt a challenge inside. Like her, we all came to terms with it and got used to our alien surroundings. We all did extremely well and only one of us puked over the edge and even that was only once!
I was enjoying the feeling of adventure by late morning. The crew, bless them for working in the kitchen down in the galley during this constant pitching and rolling, kept us fed really well, and more amazingly, we ate without our stomachs revolting.
A weathered fin appeared on the adjacent swell. Someone yelled “Shark!”
I swiveled quickly in my seat and got a great view. In the vastness of the open sea, it amazes me that One World had chanced upon this magnificent soul surfacing to warm. I wondered what kind of shark she was. It looked like a monster with a 2 ft fin splitting the surface. As quickly as she came, our shark friend disappeared beneath the waves.
The sight of a wild lone soldier cruising the open ocean brought hope of seeing more beasts. Could it happen? Could our needle called One World find more wildlife in the proverbial haystack of the Caribbean sea?
By late afternoon, our prayers were answered. A pod of dolphins saw us and hastily skimmed the oceans surface to join us. They jumped with pleasure at the thought of riding our bow wave. And ride it they did! Frolicking just beneath the surface, they were all around us. The deep blue provided a refreshing backdrop to their missile like grey bodies darting back and forth along One World’s gentle bow wave. I counted ten in total. They were so close I could reach out and touch them. Good thing my level head prevailed, as I would’ve risen my chances of instigating a ‘man over board’ drill. For the next ten minutes, we were graced with dolphin play. Ten minutes was all they could spare on their quick dolphin coffee break. A more urgent hunting mission was underway. As the adults called an end to break time, the dolphins dove deep and vanished in an instant, never to be seen again by our glazed backpacker eyes. We all glowed warmly in gratitude for our interaction with raw nature.
Day 3 morning broke with our approach to the San Blas / Kuna Yala Island chain. These island, of which only a handful are inhabited by the fiercely independent Kuna Indians, are run as an autonomous province with minimal interference from the national government of Panama. We dropped fishing lines as the water lowered. A cargo ship lay broken on the reef off to starboard. A reminder that when mechanical problems arise, not even a tanker has hope against the team of surging ocean waves and unforgiving reef. According to Captain Jeff, the ocean surge had taken less than two months to rip apart steel and bolt.
We navigated smartly through the opening in the reef, and dropped anchor off the shore of a beautiful island paradise called Coco Bandevo. Before I could jump in and bath in the crystal aqua blue water, a local wooden fishing vessel called an Ulu, motored up along side. The Panamanians call these vessels Kiukas, and the romantic Americans name the boat a Dugout. With a pick axe, the Kunas dig out a trunk and reinforce the frame. With a narrow berth, one must exercise dexterity and experience to balance within them.
The Kuna had a bucket full of beautiful lobster and fish including a huge Red Snapper. We bought $100 worth of lobster for our dining feast. The sea feeds well in the tropics. I swam ashore to greet the local tribe. Rosalyn and family have been running a modest cabana home with a social area for travellers. I wandered around the 2 acre island. White sand tickled my toes on the beach and though the foliage. This palm garden is a heavenly place, gently being caressed by exquisitely clear blue water. My cells vibrated the word YES!
With islands scattered close by, this aquatic neighbourhood teemed with joy as locals ferried around in Kiukas and sail boats scattered the calm anchorage sites amongst the shallows. The San Blas Islands are a magnificent playground of culture, snorkelling, beach combing or simply laying in hammocks and drinking rum out of coconuts, as we did that very evening.
Our band of salty, experienced open ocean sailors, enjoyed the sheltered tropical waters of the San Blas for the next three days. As we approached the run down and out right dangerous port city of Cologne at the east end of the Panama Canal on our last morning, my melancholy grew. One of my most enjoyable adventures was coming to a close. The sway and glistening light of the ocean’s vibrations would give way to a more normal human existence on land once again. The excitement of setting out to sea, the challenge of relentless ocean swell, the connections to incredible marine life and the indigenous Kuna, all made this five day transit very memorable. I look forward to my next open ocean adventure.