A lively breeze rushes through the dense vegetation that crawls up the hills and embeds the bay’s turquoise waters, shielding them from the unpredictability of the open sea. The setting sun sends its beams towards this Caribbean retreat, bringing the green lushness of the jungle into prominence and leaving the water’s surface sparkling, while the expanding leaves of the coconut trees cast long shadows.
Standing in the shallows, translucent water swirling around my legs, I would be foolish not to marvel at this picture-perfect scene, yet my mind is distracted. Carefully placing my feet, I dig my heels deeper into the sandy ground and put my arms in front, completely blinding out the beautiful landscape encompassing me. Eyes bound-forward, I brace for the imminent impact of the wall coming in my direction.
Carried by the waves of the evening flood tide, the leaderless yacht rapidly approaches, undeterred and set in its path. It seems quite unimpressed by the effort made to prevent it from getting washed ashore like a deceased whale.
The vessel hits and drives us back, sending volleys of seawater our way. We are left drenched and exhausted. Under normal circumstances these waves would not be anything to write home about, however, combined with an 8-metre-long boat erratically swimming on top, they become quite unpredictable. One misstep, one moment of heedlessness and any of us men in the water runs the risk of falling and potentially getting pulled beneath the hull of the yacht by the tide’s undertow.
As the water retreats, we sense an opportunity to get it into deeper realms and push the boat away from the land, using the momentum of the withdrawing sea.
It is a hopeless fight, however. Our strength is no match for the power of the tidal waves, bound to return. To make things worse, we have not even reached the climax of the tide yet. Out of breath, I spit out some briny seawater and adjust my stance for another impact.
You are probably scratching your head, a few questions in mind.
How on earth did we end up in this situation? In which universe is it plausible to stop a loose yacht with your bare hands? Were our
heroic idiotic efforts crowned with success? And why was the yacht being washed ashore in the first place?
AN INFALLIBLE PLAN
It all started with an infallible plan.
Max, a Dutchman, and I had met a few weeks earlier in Medellín, every expat’s favourite Colombian city, and after going our separate ways for a while, we reunited in the colonial harbour of Cartagena, located on the Caribbean coast.
Over a few beers and concerns about our already stretched budgets, a scheme was created, so bulletproof and void of flaws, that it left no doubt in our minds, of it working out as intended.
Instead of leaning back and booking a pre-planned tour to get to Panama via the San Blas Islands, we longed for adventure. Thus, we travelled to Capurganá, a small fishing village close to the border with Panama, equipped with the conviction of finding a boat ourselves, ready to take us the roughly 250 kilometres up the coast. At this point, we had a week left to make it to Panama (by chance, both our flights departed from Panama City AND on the same day).
Honestly, what could possibly go wrong?
After doing absolutely nothing everything to find a passage, by lying on the beach and watching the non-existent boat traffic, it slowly dawned on us that it might not be so easy after all to get to the Panamanian capital.
Our options were few and far between, and after realizing that our emergency plan, flying from Puerto Obaldia (a quick boat ride from Capurganá) to Panama City, was not happening either (all flights were booked out), we were close to accepting our defeat, head back to Cartagena and fly from there.
However, our hopes for a Caribbean adventure were sparked anew, when we learned from a Frenchman that there were two Spaniards with their sailing yachts laying at anchor in a bay just a short hike across the border.
This was an opportunity we could not let slip, so we packed our bags and made our way over to La Miel, a conglomeration of a few houses and corrugated-iron huts, hugging the densely forested coastline of the Darién Gap. We quickly got a hold of them and negotiated a fare, which, in the end, turned out to be the same as the price of a tour. Oh, well…
Our wallets were not happy, but at last, we were set for a cruise through the gorgeous San Blas Islands.
COMING OF THE TIDE
One day later, Max and I were comfortably resting in a pair of cheap plastic chairs on Playa Blanca, just outside of La Miel.
Overlooking the bay and waiting for our skippers to return from their supply run, I noticed something odd. At first glance, nothing had changed, but after giving it a closer look, I felt certain that one of the yachts was loose and slowly moving towards the beach.
A few minutes later, the last doubts were swept away by the crashing sound of the boat being washed ashore. Over and over again, the yacht was thrown against the sandy ground and with every collision our plan started to crack.
At some point, the Spaniards (let’s call them Carlos and Rodriguez) showed up in their dingy, Carlos frantically waving his arms in shock of the unfolding scene. As they reached the ship, Carlos recklessly climbed the rolling craft, while Rodriguez jumped into the water, demanding help.
And thus, seeing our plan rapidly disappear, we too leaped into the ocean to prevent a bloody yacht from being washed up on the beach.
As the sun starts to hide its face, the waves grow stronger and stronger, successfully undermining our rescue attempt.
The sound of the sea intertwines with men shouting and painful screams from the main deck. Carlos, barely holding on to the rigging, cries out in agony, every time the yacht’s hulk meets the ground. He truly embodies the mantra of a captain going down with his sinking ship, his screams an expression of horror seeing his love suffering. It is a bizarre soundtrack.
After a while, the incoherent screams begin to transform into two words, getting hysterically repeated over and over: “Una lancha, una lancha!”
It appears as if he is losing his mind, yet the other Spaniard clarifies that he is calling for a second boat to tow the yacht out into the bay.
For whatever reason (I barely speak any Spanish!), it falls on me to find a guy named Antonio, who is supposed to possess the barque that we so urgently need. Like the wind (it was more a jog, really) I fly into the village, track him down unexpectedly fast and successfully convey our predicament.
Returning to the centre of the drama, I find the beach filled with locals. I am not surprised in the slightest. This might be the most action they had in months, if not years!
Minutes later, Antonio arrives with his barque. An end to the yacht’s torment in sight, we challenge the tide once more, only to get our hopes crushed again by its might.
The engine of the barque is too weak.
Refusing to give up, we continue for at least another hour, until we finally pull it off. The yacht, although damaged, swims again!
As time urges us to leave (we only have three days left), a lengthy discussion ensues, during which we decide to set off without Carlos.
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
It is already close to midnight by the time we board the unscathed ship.
In retrospect, it seems like a bad omen, but as soon as I step onto the boat, I get seasick (this has never been an issue before).
Taking the backpacks to our cabins, the lower deck greets us with the next shock. Plastic packaging and old cans lie scattered around. The shelfs are dusty, the kitchen unit grimy and the sheets look like they have not been changed in weeks. This ship is filthy, yet this is where we will spend the next days, uncertain if we can even make it on time.
Max and I share a resigned look. We do not have a choice. If we want to sail through the San Blas Islands and end this trip on a positive note, instead of accepting the miserable failure of our master plan, we will have to endure this.
Steadily feeling unwell, I decide to call it a night, expecting to set sails with the first sunlight and a smooth ride thereafter.
Seriously, after all that happened, what could possibly go wrong now?
Not long after, I am awoken by a hollow sound. Still drowsy, I listen carefully, trying to figure out its source and whether it was just in my dream.
There it is again! Not only is it real, but also right underneath me! A bad thought creeps into my mind.
A third one. Now, I am certain of the noise’s origin. This is the sound of a yacht hitting rock bottom!
I jump up and rush on deck. Not only do I see Rodriguez struggling with the steering wheel, but the faint glow of the streetlamps not even 25 metres away, confirms my suspicion. I do not know how or why, but the second yacht is also in distress, literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Not even M. Night Shyamalan, could have come up with such a plot twist!
Apparently, Rodriguez deemed it a good idea to sail tonight, however, not able to navigate the winds to get us out to the open sea, the yacht was blown onto these rocks.
Max crawls up from the lower deck and looks at me. We do not say a thing, yet we both know that we are not staying on this boat any longer. High tide is still in full swing, so we decide to leave our large backpacks behind and only take our most valuable belongings with us.
Manning the dingy (which even lacks air!), we push off the yacht, only armed with a small paddle to face the waves. We cannot row straight towards dry land, however. To avoid getting smashed against this rocky stretch of the shore, we first have to veer a good 20 metres to the left. After a nerve wrecking crossing, we safely reach the beach (Sure, we probably would not have drowned if the dingy capsized, however, getting slammed against those rocks in the middle of the night, definitely had the potential of becoming quite dangerous).
The soldiers already await us (this is a border area after all), and even though, the beach is closed off at night, they kindly let us sleep on some sunbeds.
The sea has calmed down in the morning, so we row back to the yacht to fetch our remaining luggage.
We also take the opportunity to demand the rest of the money, but Rodriguez, assisted by Carlos, insist that he lost it in the ocean yesterday. At this point, I am not even sure with whom I am more upset. Rodriguez for being a godawful skipper and scumbag, or us for hiring him. Fed up with those idiots, we don’t even bother arguing. We can’t waste any more time, if we want to catch our flights.
Therefore, we shoulder our backpacks, a wild story and a broken masterplan as extra baggage, and journey back to Cartagena.
I guess, in the end we got our Caribbean adventure, just not quite the way we imagined.
Besides, who can claim to have survived two maritime accidents in a day?