Joined: Apr 2012
Location: South East Asia
Here is my story in whit text
I really wasn’t sure what to expect about the boat ride to Colombia on the Independence; considering that all I knew for sure was that 1) the boat was going to Colombia, 2) the boat could somehow take my motorcycle, 3) the boat would make some stops in the San Blas Islands, 4) the journey would take 5 days, and 5) It would cost $900.
About two weeks before we sailed, I discovered the cost went up to $1200 even though it was originally agreed the price was $300 less. The ship booking company had a rogue employee who had not updated the price list and the captain wanted to hold firm on his new prices even though I was protesting. But since I had no other way to Colombia (THERE IS NO FERRY…………IT DOES NOT EXIST!!!), I could not protest too loudly. I could fly my plane to Colombia, but the cost would be $900 for the bike and $400 for me. That was more than the boat. And the boat sounded like a lot more fun so I stuck with that plan. The Captain agreed on a final price of $1080……expensive but it is less than the current going rate now. So if you are going RTW, you need to sock away a few more dollars now…….costs have gone up across the board for all boats and the Kuna Indians are partially to blame. They are charging $500 to each boat that visit their islands…….because they can.
The Captain wanted the bikers to get to the boat a day early so we could load all the bikes a day before we set sail. I stayed in Panama City the night before. The port of San Blas was only about 50 miles away. The ride out of town was thru hellish traffic and the last 20 miles was a rollercoaster ride. I have never ridden a road with as many ups and downs and twists and turns. It would make Deal’s Gap seem tame in comparisons. And to make it even more of a challenge, it had rained a bit. In fact, on one downhill sharp corner, I had both the front and rear ABS brakes activated trying to get the bike slowed down, and I wasn’t even going all that fast. It just wasn’t stopping fast because it was so steep, slippery and bumpy. It was a scary moment but I got around the corner ok. And I wisely slowed down after that.
About 5 miles before the coast I got to the San Blas Kuna Indian territory. They had a check point and asked for $9 to enter on their land. And since there was no other way in, I grudgingly paid their fee. But I heard that others were charged more so I guess I should not really complain all that loudly. I don’t know how the Indians decide how much you are going to owe. I guess it depends on how much they need to make their car payment that month. I also heard others were almost turned away all together for complaining about the fee. They only got in by giving their entrance money to their bus driver to give the Indians because the Indians would not accept money from the travelers. This would be just my first incident of the Indians trying extort money from the white-man travelers.
I got to the port and it was like nothing that I expected. It was just a couple of shacks and a couple of docks that seemed unsafe to walk on let alone tie a boat up too. I wasn’t sure I was in the right place so I checked down at the opposite end of the road and found a smaller docking area. I discovered that there were no tourist or lodging facilities on the mainland. The only opportunities for that was on the islands themselves and you had to take a “Launch” boat there. These boats and long and narrow, have an outboard motor and rows of seats to accommodate passengers. Surely I thought that they would have special boats to take our motorcycles out to the sailboat. Ha! Boy was I wrong!
I asked at this special port if I was at the correct place to take my motorcycle out to the sailboat “Independence”. And the Indians said “yes”! One guy even said that the Capitan had spoken with them and I was at the correct port. But I remembered in an email from the Capitan that I was supposed to meet at the dock on the river. But there was no river around either of the two ports and I didn’t see any another ports in the area. The Indians said that there was another port on the river but I couldn’t make it there on my motorcycle. At this point, I didn’t trust the Indians so I went looking for the third port on the river. In no time I found it and there were two other motorcyclists there. Those two confirmed with the Capitan that we were at the correct port and the Indians were not being truthful at the other ports. I had met the couple (boyfriend/girlfriend team) on a pair of KLR650’s about a week earlier in Northern Panama, so I was expecting to see them there. We were wondering if there would be a 4th motorcyclist since the boat will accommodate four motorcycles. And about an hour later, a guy from Russia shows up on a BMW GS1200.
The four of us were trying to figure out how it would be possible to get out bikes in to one of the little boats. There was no dock at this port. The Indians were also trying to figure it out for themselves like they had never done it before. I kind of figured they would have the system down pat by this point. After all, we couldn’t be the first motorcyclist sailing to Colombia from San Blas. We all agreed on a spot on the river that would be easiest. It involved pushing your motorcycle down a steep slope and on to the boat with the use of some narrow boards. Then lifting the motorcycle by hand and rotating it 90 degrees and leaning it on its side so it precariously hangs on to the side of the low slung boat. Fortunately, the KLR’s agreed to go first and I could learn from any of their mistakes. It all went quite well and was easier than I would have thought. But there was a lot of effort involved getting the bikes turned around in the boat. The boat was moving around and it was slippery. But all went well getting the four bikes loaded in to two boats. The sea was relatively calm so the 2 mile boat ride out to the island where our sailboat was anchored was uneventful.
The little boat pulled up alongside the sailboat and we were greeted by our Captain - Michele. He gave us two ropes and asked us where we felt the best place would be to hoist up the bike. Again, I felt like it was the first time that he had even done it but it was just his way of passing the responsibility on to its rider. But he agreed to make the knots so that made me feel better. We hoisted the bikes up using the upper triple clamp and the rear subframe as anchor points. In ten tense seconds, the bikes were winched up out of the little boat and safely on the rear deck of the Independence. We spend some time securely tying down the bikes and then we were off to the island to send the night at a hostel on the island.
The island was like a scene out of the movie “Waterworld”. It was small and packed wall to wall with Sanford and Sons style buildings. The island had no beaches and was a dump……..definitely not my idea of paradise. I didn’t get any pictures because the Kuna Indians charge a dollar for each picture you take with them in it. Seriously! But there are 365 islands in the San Blas Archipelago; I was guessing that the others would be nicer. The four motorcyclists (the couple from Seattle on the KLR’s, the guy from Russia on the BMW and me) all went to dinner. Alex (from Russia) was looking to party and brought a liter of Rum to dinner. And that liter was gone in no time so another liter showed up to replace it. That one was emptied too and I vaguely remember a third one being opened………and then there was blackness. I woke up in my bed in the hostel. I was trying to put the missing pieces together. I staggered downstairs to breakfast and was greeted by the rest of the group who were already up. We were all hung over. The Indian guy that ran the hostel started to fill in the gaps. He complained that I went around the village beating on the thatched houses with a big stick trying to wake people up. This was something I didn’t remember but it probably did happen. But for the life of me, I don’t know why. He also said that I grabbed and pulled on the cable TV cable and now the TV was out on a portion of the Island. He said that the children were upset because they couldn’t watch their cartoons. He wanted me to pay $20 to make the repairs. The problem was that he couldn’t show me where the damage was and had no proof that anything was wrong with the cable. I thought it was just another Indian trick to get more of my money so I told him that I was not going to pay. And then he started to get mad. He told me that I would not be able to leave the island and I would miss my boat until I paid the money. I told him that it was fine that miss my boat and I would just stay there and live with the Kuna Indians. Of course this made him even more upset. He then tried to grab my backpack out of my hands and said he was going to take my bag and wouldn’t give it back until he got his money. But I had a good grip on my bag so he couldn’t get it from my clutches. Now he was furious! He took some swings at my legs but I kicked back. He tried unsuccessful again to get my backpack again. And just to see if I could get that vein on his forehead to bulge out further, I told him that I would give one dollar so I could take his picture so I could post it on my blog showing the world what an ass he was. After that, he went crazy! His face got really red. He grabbed his crotch and said to take a picture of him fucking me in the ass. Of course I laughed at him and he went storming out of the room. He couldn’t take my verbal abuse any more. In the end, I paid him $9 and I was free to go. And it was $9 well spent. It was a great story and I felt I got back with the Kuna Indians. Yeh, sure……I was probably a drunken asshole the night before, but I don’t think I caused any damage on the island. If I had, I would have paid for it.
Back on the Independence, and safely away from the upset Kuna Indians, we set sail for paradise. The ship was the biggest and arguably the best boat in the fleet. But anyone that had taken a cruise ship on a vacation should not use the sailboat Independence or any of the sailboats doing the crossing as a benchmark. The boat is older and I don’t think anyone has ever used the words “luxury” and “Independence” in the same sentence. The cabins are small. The bathrooms stink. But the food was pretty good. We even had fresh lobster one night for dinner. But the most important element to this type of travel is the Captain. And Captain Michele was top notch! He is just the kind of guy that you would want on a boat like this. And until Princess Cruise Lines starts bringing passengers and motorcycles to Colombia, I think the Independence is probably the best choice right now.
The first three days, we sailed (actually motored…….we never put the sails up because we were going against the wind) just a couple of hours each day to nearby islands and dropped the anchor. We spend the days swimming in 87 degree water which was every shade of blue you can think of. In the evenings we went to the islands and had a bonfire and fresh fish BBQ. Everyone had their own bunks but most people found a place out on deck to sleep under the stars. The bunk area was kind of hot but not unbearable.
The last 2 days we motored to Colombia non-stop. We cruised at 7 knots. The Captain warned everyone that the seas would be rough…….and they were. We had 10 to 15 foot seas all the way to Colombia. A few people got sick which just meant there was more food for me.
One night, we motored all night. The Captain asked if anyone had experience driving a boat so he could sleep part of the night. I was the only one to raise my hand. So I was the Captain of the Independence from 2 am to just after sunrise on the last full day. It was really cool. I just kept the boat on a 75 degree compass setting and kept watch for other ships on the water. I was really tired and it was hard not to shut my eyes but I kept our boat on course for nearly 5 hours as Captain Michele got some much needed rest. I thank my Dad and my friend Mark for teaching me about boats so I could enjoy this opportunity.
I was glad to get off the bike for a few days but there were times I was bored without it. It was the first time in a long time that I was on someone else’s schedule. At first, I didn’t like it. But it didn’t take me long to get used to it. I guess it says when my trip is over and I get a job again, I will adapt to the changes quickly. But I am still a long way from that reality………right now, I have a new continent to explore…………………….SOUTH AMERICA, here I come! (pictures to come)