Sailing on the S.S. Santana

Getting from Colombia to Panama was not as easy as we thought it would be when we looked at a map and routed our trip.

Although the nations are physically connected, a land crossing between the two is virtually impossible due to what is known as the Darien Gap, a jungle-covered break in the Pan-American Highway. Physically impassible, largely controlled by violent rebels and narco-traffickers, the question wasn’t whether we skip it but how we skip it. We had two options: plane or boat. Both choices were expensive. One was quick and efficient, one was slow but an experience in itself. We opted for the latter.

Our ride was a decently sized catamaran named Santana. The name is not the reason we signed up, but it made choosing that much easier. The Santana is captained by a middle-aged German named Gisbert, though he answered to ‘Gizzy’ and ‘Gisbo’ as well. Gisbert was the perfect captain: strict and professional to the extent that you feel safe onboard, but not so serious you couldn’t have a good time on his ship. His Colombian skipper, Juan Carlos, was an equally adept deck hand. Quite ironically, the lifelong sailor is allergic to sea water. 

On top of the two man crew, we had 15 passengers. We had four Brits, three Germans, three Swiss, two Swedes, and an Argentinean. Josh and I were the only Americans. While English was the universal language, out boat contained an unusual number of German speakers thanks to Gisbert, the Germans and the Swiss. Considering the size of the boat, we all fit quite comfortably, and considering we were 17 people stuck on a boat, the everyone got along smashingly.

The trip was designed to take five days: two days to traverse the open sea, and three days of island hopping on the San Blas archipelago off the Carribean coast of Panama.

The first 40 hours were rough. Hundreds of miles from the nearest coast, I was as far from land as I’ve ever been. In the open sea, with nothing but waves in every direction, you earn a respect for how small you are on a planet that’s covered by 70 percent water. It is quite a thing that our little vessel could traverse such a unforgiving environment, and all by using the wind. I’ll always remain a land-loving mountain man at heart, but I have a newfound appreciation for life at sea, and the existential feelings it creates.

The ocean was ruthless, with wave after wave rocking the two-hulled boat back and forth without rest. Even with strong sea legs the rocking takes a heavy toll on your energy and well-being. It makes every simple action exceedingly challenging, from walking five feet, to pouring a glass of water, to going to the bathroom. With the proper sense of humor it’s quite a hilarious obstacle to life, essentially simulating the physical dabilitations that you experience from being exceedingly drunk. Despite the Dramamine we were all taking, several people became sea sick.

Out at sea, the elements are harsh out there, most notably the sun and the wind. With just a negligible amount of exposure, the hopelessly pale Young Joshua earned a gnarly sunburn his first day that would make him look like a lobster for the remainder of the voyage. He may have been the worst but he was not alone. Thanks to the 70 SPF Josh initially refused to use I was probably the only one on the boat who didn’t burn at all.

Struggles aside, the open sea was an incredible experience. The ocean has a mystic, dark blue color to it, and the endless waves in every direction can be mesmerizing to look at. On more than one occasion we were treated to a massive show of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. At night the stars were bright and unobscured.

With the tiny, rocking kitchen that took up part of a hull, Gisbert crafted some expert meals to feed his crew. Dishes included pasta bolognaise, mango-pineapple chicken, and baked red snapper, always accompanied by a fresh salad. My favorite meals may have been the daily European-style breakfasts, with endless bread, cheese and fruit, that harkened me back to my time in Denmark.

The boat really came alive when we pulled into San Blas on our second morning.

The chain of 378 islands (only 49 of them inhabited) is nothing short of a postcard paradise. These are the elemental desert islands movies make you dream of, composed of a simple patch of sand and some palm trees. To start Gisbert took us to a small pair of islands where nobody lives expect a single man who, for a dollar, will hack open a coconut with a machete. As the only source of income for many island residents, one rule you are told to strickly abide by in San Blas is don’t take the coconuts, you have to pay for them.

After two days onboard we were a bit anxious. As soon as the anchor was set the snorkeling gear was brought out and we were in the water. I had never snorkeled in my life and I have to admit I had low expectations. It just looks so dorky. As it turns out snorkeling can be downright amazing, with no small amount of credit given to the waters you’re doing it in. As it is, San Blas is blessed with crystal clear visibility and prevalent reefs that are booming with life. In three days I saw a plethora of tropical fish, a two-meter wide manta ray, a lion fish, two shipwrecks and more coral than you can shake a stick at. Only half-jokingly, I said that most of the exotic fish I’d seen up to that point was in a Chinese restaurant.

Though we hopped from island to island, each day was more or less the same: we park, we snorkel, we chill out. One exception was when we visited one of the inhabited islands where Gisbert was friends with the locals. From our anchored boat we swam to the beach, trekked across the island and were greeted by the self-described “king,” a short fellow named Julio. We were seated on palm logs around a wood table and each handed a coconut freshly machete-chopped to drink the milk. For his part Gisbert had brought two bottles of Abuelo rum, which were poured into the coconut as well. The subsequent cocktail is called a Coco Loco.

After days of little drinking and much exposure to the elements, everyone got a serious buzz. While most of the group lingered around the table, Josh and I got to know Julio and his tiny, cranky wife who refused to look anyone in the eye. Julio was drinking his own variation of our drink, the Cafe Loco, and though she complained as we repeatedly refilled his cup, she snuck in several big gulps and laughed at all our jokes.

Of the many folks we got to know on Santana, we got to know the Swiss girls, Helen and Susanne, the best. 

As it so happened, Susanne was turning 30 years old on our last full day on the boat. Despite their shared nationality, the two girls had only met two days before departing Cartagena, meaning Susanne had planned on celebrating her birthday alone. Not about to let the day go unrecognized, Helen, Josh and I put our heads together to make the day special for her.

To start off the morning, Gisbert made a special omelet with a big “30” spelled in fresh parsley. With the art supplies available on the boat we put together a card, with everyone onboard signing it. Josh did the drawing of our boat on the front. Later in the day Gisbert gave us permission to use the kitchen and, with few ingredients and no recipe, we attempted to make a cake. 

Eyeballing the ratios based on my semi-professional baking experience, we threw in eggs, flour, milk, oil, sugar, baking powder and bananas for flavor, pouring them into three small bread pans to bake. What we got out resembled banana bread more than cake, but it was certainly edible and pretty good at that. To finish we topped one in Nutella and oranges (because we ran out of bananas) and the other two in a sugary glaze I made, spelling out Susanne’s name in raisins. They were far from the prettiest cakes anyone had seen, but we did the best we could with the modest means we had. Susanne was truly touched by our efforts. 

Josh’s mom was also having her birthday while we were on the boat. With no possibility to call home we recorded a short video to send her later with the whole Santana crew saying happy birthday in their own language. It’s cool to see how everyone, regardless of culture or association, gets behind celebrating a stranger’s birthday.

On our fifth day, after a morning of snorkeling and swimming, we dropped anchor at a tiny island with tiny buildings, which acts as an official border post for entering Panama. 

Since last year the country has imposed a $100 entrance fee for any tourist staying more than three days. Because Gisbert is a crafty man, he had told us before departing Cartagena how to create and print off fake plane tickets from the internet, supposedly departing within that three day window.

Everyone tried to make their ticket look different, with different times, airlines and destinations, but they were still obviously fakes, most obviously because everyone, regardless of date or destination, was departing from concourse A12 and sitting in seat 26B. However, because the turd of an island has no internet, the officers 1) could not prove they were fakes, and 2) probably didn’t give a shit. In any case we felt pretty cool sneaking into Panama and saving a good chunk of change.

With our passports stamped we were officially in Panama, and our voyage was over. We were picked up and squeezed into a long, low boat with an outboard motor and carried to the mainland. It was actually quite sad waving goodbye to Gisbert, Juan Carlos and the S.S. Santana. They treated us so well. We would later find out how lucky we got with our trip. We met several travelers who took different boats, professing horror stories of bad crews, drunken captains, broken vessels, cramped quarters, food and disappointing islands. I’m glad we didn’t fly.


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