Sailing: Colombia to Panama

Posted by on Jan 24, 2012 in Colombia, Panama | 5 comments

We had a great time in Colombia, by far more beautiful, exciting, and friendly than we expected. Now we had to figure out how to get across the Darien Gap. The Darien Gap is the 100 mile missing link in the Pan-American highway. The Pan-American highway runs from Alaska (where my great grandpa helped build it) down to Ushuaia. Argentina.

Crossing the gap is either done by boat or plane. We’ve both been on a plane but never on a sailboat. So we opted for the sailboat option. There are plenty of boats making the journey, but after hearing some of the other traveler’s horror stories, we were very particular about the boat we choose. We heard of one captain being stabbed by his girlfriend on the boat, another captain passed out from drug and alchol use and the backpackers had to man the ship back to shore, and the occasional sunken sailboat.

So we found Tomek and his boat Luka. Tomek sailed around the world, non-stop, against the wind, solo. He’s in the Guiness Book of World Records for being the most recent person to do it. (there aren’t any crazy people in that book) So we thought this captain knows his stuff, plus he was the size of Andre the Giant, so he could body-slam any pirate we might encounter. He has his story on


We met Captain Tom, his wife, and the other backpackers on our boat. Everyone was really fun-loving and laid back, so we knew this was the right boat.

We hopped on the boat just before sunset and left the harbor of Cartegena, Colombia as the sun was setting behind the skyline.


After the harbor was out of sight we headed into the main cabin to talk, drink, and relax. Inside the main cabin reminded me a lot of the movie jaws. I think it was the rocking from the waves and the wooden table with people playing cards around it.

We headed to our cabin at the front of the boat and jumped into the single bed we shared with our luggage and were gentled rocked to sleep by the calm ocean.

Our first day at sea was a quest for shade. It was hot, really hot. Inside the cabin, where Tom’s wife, Beata, was cooking was the hotest. Everyone was on deck, and strategically looking for the shade. The boat was stocked with all kinds of fruits and drinks so we munched on watermelon and talked with our shipmates the whole day. There wasn’t much to see. Lots and lots of blue. It was cool, and watching the boat cut through the water was impressive, but the novelty wore off pretty quick. We stopped mid day and everyone jumped into the warm water. It was the bluest, clearist water I’ve ever seen. We opened our eyes under water to a deep blue in every direction.

Here is a picture of the skipper. He ran around the boat and barked at anything that wasn’t water. Pirates like to strike at night, many sailboats sail on autopilot at night and pirates hop aboard while the captain is sleeping. Skip here will wake the captain with his fury of barks before the pirates can board the sailboat.

I spent a lot of time talking with captain Tom. We discussed a lot about everything. But I was most interested in sailing. We talked about why this boat, what to look for, benefits of certain hull designs, sails and motors. I also learned about how all the electronics worked.

At night we went back into the main cabin and talked movies, ate, and relaxed. We weren’t allowed on deck at night, because it would be impossible to find anyone if they fell overobard in the ocean. So while we were sailing at sea, when it was dark we went into the cabin. The one crew guy and Tom’s wife slept on the deck, tied to the mast.

Half way through the second day at sea we saw the first islands of the San Blas archipelago. This group of islands was once a safe havon for pirates, and is now home to the Kuna people. The Kunas still hunt and fish for their food, speak their own language, were nearly no clothes, and live in thatch huts on the islands. There are almost 400 islands in the San Blas archipelago.

We navigated around a couple trouble spots, where Tom pointed out sunken sailboats on his depth finder. Two of the boats were backpacker boats that hit reefs and sank. We anchored for the night and everyone slept on the deck. Sleeping on the deck was amazing. The night sky was brilliant with millions of stars.

Finally our first day on the remote San Blas islands. We grabbed snorkel gear and dived into the warm water. The islands provided a nice shelter from the harse ocean waves. It was a natural harbor and perfect for snorkeling in. We made our way to a nearby island. If you look closely on the left hand side of the picture you can see a clothes drying on a line.

The island had white sand beaches and a shore covered in starfish. There had to have been dozens.

A huge reef was on the other side of the island and we spent the rest of the day exploring it. We found a nice current to propel us along the entire reef. One side of us was the reef with flourescent colored coral as far as we could see. On our other side was a cliff the ocean dropping into the oblivion. I always kept one eye on the cliff hoping to see a shark or a school of large fish or heaven forbid a squid. Squid are my biggest fear.

We headed back to the ship for dinner. The local Kuna people have canoes carved from a single hollowed out tree. They paddle around to the ships selling lobster and other sea creatures at ridiculously low prices. We picked up a couple lobsters for $2.50. They also tried to sell us a sea turtle and we tried to convince them not to sell this protected animal to people for food but they didn’t want to listen. So we bought the turtle for $2 and set him free.

Our second night at the islands was spent snorkeling around a sunken ship. During a strom, the ship sank near one of the islands. Many schools of fish call this artifical reef home and they didn’t seem to be bothered by a couple visitors.
We were both exhausted from a couple days of sun and snorkeling so we relaxed on the deck of the ship for the rest of the day.

Helicopters fly into the islands daily to allow vistors from Panama a day-trip into island life.
On a side note, I wasn’t allowed to shower. Well, not just me, all the guys on the boat. The girls were each alloted 90 seconds of showering per day. Which didn’t seem like a big deal to us, we’d just jump in the ocean and rise off every day -no big deal. What I didn’t realize is how gross salt water feels as it dries. My skin would always feel sticky and my hair matted. My hair would mold to whichever shape I put it in because of all the salt. Then, to up the gross factor, I don’t like putting sun tan lotion on (who does?)We were already covered in salt and ocean grim, then we have to smoother sun tan lotion on top of that. Bah. We loved the trip, but we were ready for land and showers.

This is a picture inside the boat, I loved all the wood work.

That evening we left the San Blas Islands and made our way for Panama. It was hot, really really hot. The room we were in was a the bow of the boat. It felt like a russian sub only 100 degrees hotter. The bed Leah and I shared seemed to get smaller and hotter every night. We had a little skylight on the ceiling that let in a stream of cool air. It wasn’t much, but it helped. Then it started to get choppy. Really, really choppy. With every wave we’d bounce off our bed and then crash into the celing (which was only 4 inches above my face) and then back into our bed. Not fun. Atlantis or whoever was the jerk incharge of our ocean fate made sure we understood how mean and unforgiving the ocean can be. It started to rain. My half of our bed was right below the skylight so I was getting drenched. I was forced to close the skylight, which turned our russian sub into a finnish sauna. It was hot, muggy, and downright miserable. I tried to sleep but every minute or so a drop of cold water would hit me square on my forhead from the slow leak of the seal around the skylight. Finally, at 4 am I decided sleep wasn’t an option and I headed to the captain’s house to talk with the captain and watch the ocean.

We arrived in Panama the next morning and feelings were mixed as everyone departed the sailboat. We built relationships with great people while on the boat and it was sad to part ways. The sailboat trip was an amazing experience and it was sad to see it end.


picasaView plugin: Could not load data from picasaweb. Maybe the user or specified album does not exist?
This was the generated url which failed at picasaweb:
It returned the following data:
Error 404 (Not Found)!!1

404. That’s an error.

The requested URL /data/feed/api/user/wolfgramb/album/20110909SailingColumbiaToPanama?kind=photo&thumbsize=144u&start-index=1 was not found on this server. That’s all we know.


  1. Oh My gosh Ben..sounds like this was an adventure. Love keeping up with you two. Wish I could have seen you at Christmas time. Keep posting…love reading about your adventures.

    • Thank you! It was a neat adventure. We’d never been sailing before. Thanks for reading. We’ll keep in touch!

  2. We are making the same trip (Cartegena to Panama) in late March albeit on a more “civilized” vessel. Any suggestions on “just can’t miss” sites in Cartegena?

    I am a friend (lifelong) of Jan and Tom and just connected with your site. It is fantastic what you are doing and we look forward to hearing (and seeing) more of your adventures. Happy travels! Dan

    • Oh no Dan! Sorry I didn’t reply to your comment. Internet is not the best and I missed it. I hope you and your wife had a great time in Cartegena and sailing to Panama. That trip was one of my favorites. Cartegena is beautiful, Ben and I just walked around inside the walled city. I think when you visit my parents this week you should talk them into traveling more!!! Can you believe that they didn’t even want me to go to Columbia! Thanks for checking on our site!

  3. hey Ben, I think you are enjoying your life fully !!! keep writing and enjoy your travel !!

Leave a Reply