Sailing the Cosmos, Canaries to Cabo Verde

I last left you in the Canary Islands after a crash landing onto a nude beach following a 6 day sail on open waters from Portugal on La Fortuna, an old Swedish built sloop. You can click here if you missed that update.

So I had a beer (on land!!!….first beer in a week – all boats flying under a Swedish flag are dry) with Richard and Ivy to celebrate our safe arrival then we said our farewells and off I went to stick my thumb out once again, traveling to three islands hitting up marinas and posting my “personal ad” wherever I could. Some tidbits from the Canaries….

I knew exactly one person in the city of Las Palmas, the guy who had rented my bedroom while I was to be away traveling. He’s from Las Palmas and would be there for the Christmas holidays. In the 5 days that I was there, in a city of 600,000 people. I ran into him two times randomly on the streets

I got a feel for just how much competition I was up against when I saw a motley crew of more than a dozen vagabonds from all over, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Holland, etc. They were camped out on one of the main city beaches next to the marina cooking over a little gas stove. I knew immediately when I saw them that they were hitchhikers. I struck up a conversation with them….of the 6 or so I talked to they had on average been there for more than two weeks looking for a boat. 😬

I celebrated Christmas Eve alone eating in at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. It suited me just fine 😊

I was contacted by two guys readying to set sail for the islands of Cape Verde, they had room for more crew, had seen my profile and thought I might be a good fit. I met them for a beer and toured their boat, a 45 year old 12.8m(42ft.) Danish racing boat….They would become an big part of this next chapter of the story…

I had a good connection with them from the start, was happy to see the boat was well equipt and kept tidy and organized. The only issue was their itinerary, they were heading to Cape Verde and from there crossing the Atlantic making landfall in Suriname (For those who have no idea where/what that is you are not alone….it’s a Dutch colony part of “the Guyana’s” between Brazil and Venezuela)

The boat and crew were a great match, but the destination would make it really hard for me to stay on my schedule and keep my goal of not flying. But I talked it through with the guys and it was decided I would go with them to Cape Verde and once there give them an answer as to whether I would stick around for the crossing.  And like that I had found my next ride! I was gonna set sail again. So on Christmas morning I caught a ferry to the next island (Tenerife) where they had sailed to and boarded my new ride…Cosmos.

Our captain was William, a 35 year old Dane (via Lebanon & Syria). He had bought the boat 5 years ago and had slowly slowly been making his was south from Denmark with the ultimate goal to cross the Atlantic and do a full circumnavigation. There was no doubt that Will was a character. A strong personality, full of energy and bravado and with his own brand of logic. He’s very intelligent and full of all sorts of knowledge and facts, I just had to learn to sort through them to find which were based in truth and which were based on conspiracy theories. He had some Trumpian qualities for sure (who he openly admired). Political correctness had no place in his discourse, he could say things that would offend the likes of most people. But unlike a Trump, his brash ways would often be contrasted by actions or remarks that showed (genuine) empathy and a big heart. He’s a walking talking paradox, you never know what will come out of his mouth or what position he might plant his flag in on a subject.

Will’s first mate was a 30 year old polyglot who grew up between Luxembourg and Ireland. Kevin (or Kev as he prefers to be called) loves beer (was a professional brewer for years) and had done a fair share of traveling in his days. He got the sailing bug when he was living in Panama managing a hostel and went out on some sailing trips with some people he knew there. He had joined the crew of Cosmos also as a hitchhiker for the first time in 2018 back when Will was still in France with the boat and had spent bits of time onboard off and on since then. He knew the boat well and had a good working relationship with Will. From the get-go I knew I wouldn’t have any problems with Kev. He had the Irish propensity of joviality and good humor and a well-balanced demeanor.

I also met Aksel for the first time when I reached the boat in Tenerife. Aksel would be the fourth crew member who was also just joining the boat and had found Will and Kev in the same sailboat hitchhiking group on Facebook as I had.

A young 20 year old from Denmark, still wet behind the ears but well on his way to being a proper sailor (he already had his own small boat back in Denmark.) I got to like Aksel a lot, he was mature for his age and resolute in his desire to become a true sailor. He had a good head on his shoulders and kept a positive attitude.

On December 27th we set sail from the island of Tenerife bound for the neighboring island of La Gomera.

The Cosmos Crew

Some stories and observations from my time onboard the Cosmos…

In total I sailed 960mi/1550km miles on Cosmos, this was the route:

While moored in Tenerife climbing onto the boat, my phone (Fully loaded with podcasts and apps for the crossing) fell out of the pocket of my hoodie, bounced off the deck of the boat and fell right into the 15in/40cm gap between the boat and the dock. Plop….right into the water.

In the same marina where I lost my phone we had been admiring this beautiful fancy 50 meter yacht that was moored near us. On Christmas night we noticed they were throwing quite a party onboard…music and dancing. We walked closer and I said, “Wait! I think I know that girl!” In a crazy random coincidence I did! A friend of a friend I had spent a week hanging out with doing some day-sails in Barcelona. Small small world.

I was involved in another disgraceful crash landing in a dinghy on a rocky beach in La Gomera, did some nice damage to my shoulder and ribs which made it impossible to sleep on half of my body for the rest of the trip

I decided to try and dive down and recover my phone in the marina, at least I would have my SIM and SD memory card. We guessed the water was 20ft./6m deep. After a couple attempts I just wasn’t getting down fast enough, so in addition to my fins I made myself a weight belt (to the amusement of the rest of the crew) and tried a few more times. It was only after those failed attempts that someone finally thought to just check the depth meter…62ft./19m!!! .😳 R.I.P Sony Xperia XZ1

Having completed my second long crossing, I learned that for me they are not a thing of constants. Your mental state is in always in flux. One day you are totally exhilarated by the experience, the next you might just want it to be over, many days are just apathetic and/or lethargic. It’s only natural out there that your emotions come in waves too.

We completed the crossing in record time with nice broad reach winds behind us. Cosmos may be old and heavy but she was still built for racing. We averaged 6.65 Nautical miles per hour. Most boats do the crossing in 6 ½ days. We did it in just under 5.

For three days the sky was muted, a dull miserable yellowish color. We were sailing through a massive sandstorm that originated in the Sahara Desert, sometimes it was so thick you couldn’t see the sun at all. Massive amounts of dust where being blown into the air and would eventually be taken by the trade winds across the Atlantic where they provide essential minerals to sustain the Amazon forest on the other side of the pond. But before reaching there much of it had opted out of the wind in lieu of hitchhiking on Cosmos, which was completely covered in dust.

Check out the dust on that line

I became convinced that the word “lurch” defined as “an abrupt, unsteady, uncontrolled movement or staggering motion”, was most certainly invented by a sailor. I have never lurched so much in my life as I have since I started sailing.

We sailed the entire way hand-steering in shifts (for those who aren’t sailors, this is almost unheard of nowadays as most boats utilize some sort of autopilot to maintain their course). This despite the fact that we had one of these fancy autopilots onboard that cost several thousand dollars and works perfectly well. Just one of Will’s little quirks.

I got to scramble up the mast with a safety harness to free up a line that was stuck and I got a birdseye view of Cosmos.

You always need someone awake at the helm which means you often have to wake up at one in the morning to sit alone in the darkness of night for several hours, this along with the rocking motion, the constant noise from the water and the boats rigging, and just general sleep irregularity on a crossing totally messes with your biorhythm and leaves you in a constant state of impaired awareness, also probably a big contributor to the emotional waves.

In 5 days we never saw a single other boat.

Despite diligently putting out our lines everyday, and checking on them incessantly, by the last day of our sail we had still not caught a fish. And then all of sudden hits on both lines! A hysteric scramble ensued. We had not quite perfected the protocol for hooking a fish. But we managed to pull in our catch (we were hand-lining). Two nice Mahi Mahi (Dorado)! Our giddy happiness perhaps a bit overexaggerated for our small accomplishment. The smiles say it all.

Aksel got a bit carried away…like I said, we were pretty excited

We rang in the New Year right around here: CLICK LINK

Nightshifts are a solitary march through space and time. It’s hard to describe. First the alone-ness is compounded by the reality of the fact that you are a tiny speck floating through a pitch dark night with no land or man-made thing in sight. The barely perceptible horizon extends evenly in every direction creating a sense almost akin to vertigo. And then above you there is a full 180 degrees of dark blue sky ripe with shooting stars just waiting to be harvested by your eyes. And then there is the phosphorescence, “magical” blue and green light that flickers and dances in the ripples of the water like telescopic photos of the cosmos. And this magical phosphorescence is delivered by the waves, which on a moonless night you can’t see approaching like you can in the day, so every once in a while a 4 meter wave will hurl the boat in once direction or another and you have to wrestle not to get knocked too far off course. Speaking of which, when you aren’t staring the elusive horizon, harvesting shooting stars, staring at the magical phosphorescence, or wrestling the helm, (and when your handsteering) then your eyes are glued to the glow of a spherical compass that just never seems to sit still no matter how much you try and micro-steer. You can only get away with taking your eyes off the compass for about 4 seconds max or you risk veering far enough off course that the sails could jibe (when the boat changes direction so that the winds forces the sails to the opposite side of the boat). The whole things somehow manages to be both stimulating and monotonous at the same time, all with a serving of introspection, loneliness, and moments of feeling very much alive.

We arrived in the small fishing village of Palmeira in Cape Verde on the island of Sal at seven in the morning on January 4th, very excited to get into the harbor, drop anchor and make landfall. Went to start the engine to motor in – Nada. There was such a thick layer of dust on the solar panels that we didn’t have battery enough to turn the engine over. So we had to sail around in circles just outside the harbor for 5 hours!

Our GPS track upon arriving at the first island in Cabo Verde

The important thing is that in the end we arrived safe. In total I would spend 16 days onboard Cosmos. But after being a few days on anchor in Palmeira, in an unfortunate and unexpected turn of events, Will gave up my space on the boat to a couple who he had sailed with a few months prior. I wasn’t too pleased about the circumstances around this, but I guess being captain has its benefits and there was not much I could do about it other than try not to let it get me down or take it too personally.

So I found myself once again with the thumb out, looking for my next ride, having traveled thus far 750mi/1150km overland and over 2000mi/3200km by sea.

So here I am on a tiny African island nation off the coast of Senegal…a bit closer to my goal but still a long ways away. I’m currently on the Island of San Vicente in the town of Mindelo, spending my days hanging around the marina pestering every new boat arrival along with about a dozen other hitchhikers (most of whom have been here for weeks). I’m trying to keep a positive attitude, I’m sure I will get a ride soon 🙂 But there is more to Cape Verde than marinas, and I hope that in the next post I can share some impressions of the country with you. Until then, click to view a few more photos from the trip (if you move the mouse towards the bottom of the photos you will see some have a bit of commentary)

And if you want to track my movements (and maybe get a sneak peak of any departure across the Atlantic that I make before I get out another blog post) you can always use this link to see where I am in the world: (Click on “View all Tracks” in the upper right if you want to see my prior routes)






Setting Sail from Portugal

If you didn’t read my last post feel free to check it out, it explains how I found myself being dumped onto the floor of a 45 year old sailboat while being tossed around in the middle of the sea.

About 24 hours prior to that I was meeting the boat’s skipper for the first time at a marina just outside of Lisbon. Captain Richard is from Sweden and got into sailing a few years back. He bought his boat and has been sailing around in the North Sea gaining the experience he would need for his big plan….to sail from Sweden along with his fiance Ivy to the Philippines where she is from. Not bad!

I felt comfortable with the crew right away. Richard turned out to be a super easy going mellow kind of of guy.

Ivy was the lively, expressive and spontaneous one.


Richard had also accepted another crew member who was in the same boat as me (damn pun…literally and figuratively). Maksym was about the same age as me and aside from some sailing lessons as a kid had not been on boats as an adult and was also just curious about the world of sailing, wanted to do a decent size crossing to see what he could learn and how he liked it.


I got a little introduction to the boat, went on a shopping mission with Max to get provisions to feed 4 people for a week at sea, and then when the wind started to pick up around midnight we hoisted the sails and floated out into open waters. I would spent 9 days aboard La Fortuna. So what was it like?

  • I learned a LOT about sailing. The most important and scary thing I learned? Just how much more I have left to learn
  • Max jumped into the freezing cold Portuguese Atlantic waters and swam all the way to the beach near where we were anchored. After this he was affectionately referred to onboard as “The Crazy Ukrainian”.

  • I watched a giant full moon rise out of the sea three nights in a row and bathe the boat and the water with pearly light
  • We set sail from Lisbon and traveled a total of 870miles/1400km.
  • In all my travels it has always been my way or the highway so to speak, well, actually it was my way AND the highway. But the trip was always my own or I had entered it with a partner and it was “our” trip. Now it was interesting for me to have to adjust to being the tag-along on someone else’s trip. I learned a lesson in letting go of control, that not every decision was mine to take.
  • I learned to cook in a tiny galley with waves tipping the boat to 40 degrees in each direction
  • This journey has been to learn to sail but also to learn how much sailing I would like to do. I don’t want to buy a boat and outfit it for a circumnavigation only to find that after 2 months of it I am bored. My hopes are this trip will let me know what my true appetite for sailing really is. I can say that on the first day, in 4-5 meter swells and feeling slightly seasick, I already had doubts just about finishing this one Atlantic crossing I had just set out on! By the end of the trip I had gained appetite for more, but still not for a full circumnavigation (something that would take 2.5-3 years). At the time of writing this I would say I am still excited to buy a boat and do a real sailing mission of my own. But I think I would have my fill of life at sea after 8 months or so. We’ll see how this appetite grows or diminishes as I the journey continues.
  • I had to make some adjustments to my bed so that I wouldn’t get dumped on the floor every 5 minutes.

  • Max and I tried for 30 minutes during the peak of “the high seas” to capture with the camera what a 5 meter wave looks like as it rolls towards the boat. We hung off the side of the boat from different angles and tried different perspectives, trying to include more or less of the horizon or the boat in the photo…we tried everything. But  camera simply cannot capture the depth of field necessary to get a feel for the height of the waves. So you’ll just have to trust me, they were big 😉
  • During one of the times we had no wind and were motoring the motor suddenly died. This will deliver a shutter of anxiety to any sailor. Luckily it was just a fishing net caught in the prop and we had a crazy Ukrainian onboard who didn’t hesitate to dive in with a knife and free us.
  • Seasickness. I have been on several boats in my life and on more than one occasion there were crew members vomiting off the side while I was making myself a sandwich. I thought I was well immune. But when we first set sail from Portugal in rough seas with swells of 3-5 meters….I did not feel well. Nothing to the point of wanting to vomit, but I was definitely “on the spectrum” of seasickness. I didn’t eat anything for almost a whole day. This was very disturbing considering that it was the first day of an adventure that was to keep me at sea for 6 weeks. I hoped and prayed it would not last


  • I pined for a shower. By the time I first got one it had been 10 days since I had had a proper shower.
  • We conversed with a pod of dolphins

  • When I was still on the boat but about to disembark, I remember thinking to myself that if someone offered me another ride across the Atlantic leaving that next day that I would find it hard to accept…I felt I really needed at least 2 or 3 days on land before just heading back to sea. But the next morning (after one night on land), I had already had my fill of land and would have happily joined another boat
  • While Max was swimming through the icy cold Portuguese waters to the beach, Ivy had already donned her wet-suit and was swinging from the halyard line into the sea. Feeling the pressure, Richard and I each took a pathetic swim barely making contact with the water long enough to get wet.

  • We reveled in the fact that with each day’s sail we were going further south, away from the European winter and the cold. By day 3 I had shed one of my layers, and by day 5 I was even walking around in shorts for a brief moment. But we were always hoping for weather that we never got. We just wanted one day of full sun. It would peak out here and there, but never for long. This shot was taken during the brief 40 minutes we had on day 5 when the sun came out in full and the water was nice and calm
  • For three nights after making landfall I would wake up in the middle of the night, in a bed, on land, feeling my body move side to side with the waves.
  • I listened to LOTS of podcasts and audiobooks.
  • Arriving in the Canaries I immediately sprang into action looking for the next ride across the Atlantic. I hitchhiked from the south of the Island to the north stopping at 3 marinas to leave my little flier on their announcement board. Even on this much-less-trafficked island there were already about 8 fliers up from other crew seeking boats. Competition was going to be fierce!
  • The seasickness I felt as we cast off from Portugal only lasted for about 18 hours. After that I was happily cooking down in the galley while 4 and 5 meter waves tossed us about. HUGE relief that it was something I just needed time to get used to.
  • On the last night in the boat we dropped anchor in front of a beach at about 11 at night after 6 days on the open ocean. The next morning, we piled into the dinghy to motor to shore and made perhaps the most disgraceful landfall ever. We totally botched the timing of the waves and came careening into the beach sideways getting totally soaked with people jumping over into the water trying to keep bags from getting wet everyone shouting conflicting orders….a total disaster. And when we finally gained composure and looked up, about 4 meters away was a couple in their late 60’s naked as the day they were born with big smiles on their faces having just thoroughly enjoyed a good show. We had anchored at the nude beach.
    Don’t be fooled, this picture was taken during the tiny 30 min. window of nice weather that we had

    So, the journey has begun! I don’t have many pictures from this first leg of the journey but there are a few more to see if you click this link.

    I don’t want to give away too much of what will become the next update, but lets just say that I rang in the New Year of 2020 right about here: Click Google Map Link  I’ll update when I can the story of the boat I ended up on and what’s in store for me next. Happy New Years to all 🙂


Story of a Shipreck

Saludos from Panama, this is a special news bulletin blog post that I am writing from Panama, I’ve been through lots of adventures in the last 6 weeks that I still need to blog about but when the adventures are abundant it gets tougher to find time to blog about them.  Anyways, my most recent adventure is such a story that I’m going out of chronological order here to tell the tale while its still fresh in my mind.  For those of you who want the details skip the text in blue and begin reading the text in italics right now (Will take about 15 minutes).  If you don’t have 15 minutes, the blue text below is a very summarized summary.

For those who don’t have 15 minutes for the full story, the short version is this.  About a week ago I hitched a ride on a sailboat heading from Colombia to Panama with hopes to hitch another ride from Panama to Cuba.  After 80 hours at sea we shipwrecked in the middle of the night off the coast of Panama.  Yea, full-on.  There were about 10 minutes that might have been some of the most intense of my life but in the end the situation could have been MUCH worse and nobody died  or was injured.  Some Indian fisherman saw us and rescued us and brought us to a deserted island, then the Panamanian Coast Guard picked us up and took us to the mainland.  If you want to hear the details read below.

If you want to listen to some music while you read, this song randomly came up on my ipod as we set off across the Cartagena Bay and from now on I will always associate it with the memory of that moment that began this adventure.  Its is a piece by one of my favorite composers, Phillip Glass.  There is something magical and light about the piece, but at the same time it seems to have a  foreboding undertone, qualities that in retrospect suit the story quite well. 

It’s nighttime and the motorless little dingy boat is slipping quietly through the shiny black water of the Cartagena bay.  The moon is almost full and I can see the faces of the men piloting the little boat.  Jose is from Spain, he’s the captain of La Sierra Madre, the 45 foot sailboat that is anchored about 150 meters ahead of us.  This is the boat that I would spend the next 80 hours on until it would eventually crash into a reef leaving me and 6 other people on board with a near death experience story to tell. 

Jose is in his late 40’s and has the look of a man who is either dishonest or just naive.  He’s at the bow of the little boat holding a paddle in his hands while giving sharp unnecessary orders to his first mate Tilson.  Tilson is at the rear of the dingy paddling us towards our ship.  He’s Colombian, originally from Cali.  His heavily creased black skin, his eyes bloodshot, the sunken features of his face, and the front teeth he is missing tell a tale of a rough life.  All the same he had a positive energy and I was glad he was going to be aboard. 

This was never in my plans.  Plans….they are fun to make when you are traveling, but even more fun to break.  I was trying to get to Cuba.  When I arrived in Cartagena from Medellin I spent a day wandering around the marinas asking around for private sailboats heading in that direction hoping to find one that had an extra berth and was looking for a deckhand.  It became clear pretty quickly that I wouldn’t find one, the winds don’t head that direction I learned, but several people I talked to had suggested trying to get to Panama.  They said from there I might have a better chance of hitching a ride to Cuba.  I had already been to Panama years ago, about 4 months into a year long trip through Latin America.  It was a nice enough place but I had no desire to return unless it was going to get me closer to Cuba, which apparently it would.

So when Jose appeared at the marina one day and offered me a ride to Panama I took it.  Most backpackers pay $400-$500 for the 5 day long trip which is supposed to include a few days sailing around and exploring the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama.  There is a whole cottage industry based around shuttling backpackers between Panama and Colombia on sailboats. Since jungle and armed and dangerous narco-traffickers make it impossible to cross from Colombia to Panama and vice versa by land, lots of backpackers opt out of flying and instead choose to sail.  Jose was not part of this cottage industry, in fact he had never sailed this route before, he just saw it as an opportunity to make a little money on the side by taking on some paying passengers. 

I had struck a deal with Jose that I would work as a deckhand during the trip and in exchange only paid enough to cover expenses.  I didn’t have much experience sailing, a few days here and there really.  The last sailboat I was on had actually shipwrecked in Mexico about a month after I had jumped off it.  It belonged to a close friend of mine and I had accompanied her on its maiden journey from Southern California to Northern Baja Mexico.   I remember when I heard she had shipwrecked I thought to myself “No way!  That doesn’t happen to people!”

The dingy had almost reached our boat when the other passengers emerged from the hull and appeared on the deck to help us unload the dingy of the supplies we were carrying.  These other  passengers were backpackers in their 20’s.  There were three Argentines, Tracy, Julia, and Javier and a Colombian named Martin, originally from Cali but who now lived in Panama.   We unloaded the dingy and went to work putting things away and organizing…our departure had already been delayed several hours so we were in a hurry to get going.  At 8:15pm we pulled anchor, started the motor, and off we went cruising through the calm black bay waters watching the Cartagena skyline recede behind us.

Cartagena Skyline
Cartagena Skyline As We Headed Off

 The mood on the boat was festive and light.  We were all happy to finally be on our way, on our way to Panama, to islands, to sun, to adventure.  An hour later though we were out of the bay and into open waters; no more calm bay waters, this was the real deal.  The small swells of the open ocean pushed and pulled, and the light of the moon passed over the water with an ease and grace that La Sierra Madre was not capable of. 

An instantaneous change in mood swept over the four other passengers.  Cigarettes were extinguished, cups of rum set down, and conversations fizzled into non-existence.  Seasickness and its bastardly effects had crashed the party like a silent force.  Everyone settled into their sleeping spots and closed their eyes hoping for sleep to arrive.  I felt fine, in fact I felt great.  I carefully made my way to the bow of the boat where the bobbing and bouncing effects of the swells was exaggerated to an extent that it seemed absurd and impossible.  I sat there alone watching the sky and the horizon and that feeling that I am always seeking came to me.  The feeling of being quite alive and surrounded by adventure.  It’s a feeling that always makes me smile to myself.  It’s a feeling that would remind anyone that life is good, it is a gift.

Me at the till
Shipwreck I-086
Sunset Night Two
Sunset Night Three
Shipwreck I-103

The next few days were passed inching our way through open seas.  The wind was not behind us, or ahead of us for the matter, it was nowhere to be found.  The passengers seasickness made conversation amongst us short and sparse.  I felt bad to see them in such a state but there was nothing I could do.  Jose, our captain, came under scrutiny by me and the rest of the passengers, including his first mate Tilsen, from the second day.  He made an effort to be a good captain, responsible and hospitable to the needs of the passengers, I’ll give him that…but it just wasn’t in his nature.  His personality clashed with just about everyone on board and the bickering began quickly.  He acted Shipwreck I-070irrationally choosing not to start the motor even when the wind died completely and we began to drift backwards.  The trip on open ocean that was supposed to take 48 hours was on course to take 90 hours.  It wasn’t long before the word mutiny was making its rounds, although to some it was in jest, I know there were others who, if they had possessed more sailing experience, would have been making serious plans. 

I kept a close eye on all this but was also determined not to let it ruin the trip. We were going slow but we were heading in the right direction. Yes Jose was difficult but se la vi. We had plenty of food and water, so if it took a little longer to arrive and I had to deal with a little negative energy on board then so be it.  I never actually thought that something could go seriously wrong. 

Shipwreck I-065

Piloting duties were shared between me, Jose, and Tilsen in two and a half hour shifts.  Piloting was an easy job.  My instructions were simply to keep the boat on its bearing, stand up every ten minutes or so and scan the horizon for the lights of other boats, and if the winds changed direction to wake up Tilsen or Jose.   I liked being on my shift, especially at night when I was alone with the ebb and sway and the stars.  The feeling of adventure and of being alive and the excitement it produced mixed with the calming effect of the waves and the breeze in such an intoxicating way that I never wanted my shifts to end. 

It was on one of these nights, our fourth night at sea that Jose woke me up at 3:45am to begin my shift.  I looked at the GPS and saw that we were getting close to our destination, Caye Holendese, one of the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama.  But the GPS was old from 2005 and only showed the coastline, not small islands, so I asked if I needed to worry about land, if there were any islands on the horizon.   He said we had about 4 hours to go before reaching the islands.  That land was far away and that my shift would long be over before we needed to worry about that… just keep the ship on course, watch for other sailboats and he would take over in an hour and a half.  He stayed with me for ten minutes or so and then went below to catch some sleep. 

Only Forty five minutes later I was fully wrapped up in one of my joyful moments admiring the sea and the night and standing at the till.  The moon had already gone down. There was no light whatsoever – the boat was sailing through total darkness.  All of sudden a rather large swell rocked the boat.  This was kind of unusual but happened from time to time when we were at open seas.   Then, 5 seconds later I looked to my right and saw a huge wave crested with white water heading straight toward me.  Not towards the boat, but more as if there was a target painted on my chest.  I knew this was bad. 

I screamed Tilsen’s name and held on to the wheel with both hands waiting for the beating I was about to take.  The wave dumped a thousand gallons of water onto the deck and rocked the boat so hard that I could hear all the silverware, pots, and pans come flying out or their locked cabinets below.   Tilsen began to scream bloody murder in is rough salty voice through his missing teeth.  He was screaming the most panicked terrifying screams that you could could imagine.  “NOS CHOCAMOS! NOS CHOCAMOS!  ARRANCA EL MOTOR!” (We’re wrecking! We’re wrecking!  Start the motor!).  Jose went for the motor to try and start it.  In the meantime the ship was getting bashed around like a toy at the will of an angry kid.  Tilsen had taken the wheel and was trying to point us into the waves which were crashing over the deck of the boat and rocking it so far on its side that I was sure it would flip.  The motor didn’t start.  It wasn’t going to start.  And then rocks came. 

Along with the sound of Tilsen’s terrifying scream, the sound of the boat hitting rock will go down as two of the scariest sounds I have heard in my life.  It began with a WHAM!!!  As the boat smashed against a rock and then followed by the sound of scraping metal as the wave pulled the boat off of the rock it had just smashed us into.  To endure this sound once was enough, but it happened again and again and again. We would be rammed up against one rock until a swell dislodged us and we were smashed us up against another.  Standing on the deck, holding on with both hands so as not to be knocked overboard by a huge wave or 1000 gallons of water I listened to this smashing noise wondering when it would end, and when it ended, what would that mean for us?  Down below there was lots of praying and crying going on.  Above we had our hands full.  Surely the boat was already taking on water. 

At this point my only thought was that we were still several miles away from land, that is what the GPS showed, that whatever was happening here was of epically dangerous proportions.  That with waves like this broadsiding us, with the boat being smashed up against rock after rock, there was no way we were successfully, all seven of us, going to get out of this boat and into a tiny dingy, in these conditions of whitewater waves and rocks.  There was just no way.  My mind dropped the idea in a second and moved onto the next.  We needed help.  If we are going to go down out here, someone needs to know we are here, wherever here is.  We need to get help on the way.  Jose was still trying to start the engine below when I made my way to the hatch  “JOSE!  El RADIO!  EL RADIO!  LLAMA POR RADIO!”  The engine was never going to start so he left it and jumped on the radio and began the SOS call.  He held the receiver up to his mouth and shouted “MEYDAY MEYDAY! Es el barco La Sierra Madre, tenemos una emergencia! MEYDEY MEYDAY!”  As if the situation was not already extremely (sur)real enough, for some odd reason hearing our captain shouting the word Meydey into the radio made the reality of it all reverberate in my mind.  But there was no response.  Channel after channel…nothing. 

Jose threw me some flares and while he kept trying the radio I went back out to the deck, held onto the mast with all my strength and ignited the first flare which burst into a blazing red light.  The blinding light caused a small feeling of relief…at least it was something.  At least we were doing something to get noticed.  But as with calling in Meydey over the radio, igniting that flare also made the reality of our situation hit home a little harder.  Its something that you might see laying around a hundred times but you never thing you would actually be taking that plastic cap off and striking it lit.  Once you make that Meydey call, once you strike that flare, its not a game, its very real. 

Back in the hull the water was beginning to come in through the bow of the boat, I knew this was coming but the sight of it still sent an extra urgency through my body.  The radio was not working.  To this day I still don’t understand why, maybe it never worked. “Who has a cellphone that works!?” I shouted.  Martin, the Colombian said he had a cellphone with a Colombian chip that would probably work here, but he had no battery.   Tracy said she had a phone but the service was blocked so that it wouldn’t accept foreign chips.  “What kind of phone is it?”  I asked.  “A Blackberry.”  A flash of hope sprung up inside of me.  “Is it charged?” I asked.  I had a blackberry also, mine was out of battery but was unblocked.  “Tracy, give me your battery, Martin, give me your chip!”  I said.  And like that we pieced together 3 phones and got an SOS signal!  We called 911 and to everyone’s great relief within minutes we were talking to the Coast Guard reading them off our coordinates.  By this time the waves seemed to have wedged us between two rocks, we were still being pounded by waves and the boat was rocking back and forth with the grinding noise of metal on rock reminding us of the gravity of our situation.  Nevertheless we seemed to be stable, at least compared to the prior ten minutes that had lapsed since the first rogue wave. 

It was about this time that the sun began to illuminate the horizon and reveal to us our situation in clarity.  There was a tiny island, not even the length of a football field, sitting only a few hundred meters away from us.  We were wedged on a reef, surrounded by reef and white water waves.   Jumping off the boat and swimming or trying to use the inflatable dingy were not safe options, the sea was too violent and the reefs too unavoidable.  But at least we knew then that our situation was no longer dire, that worst case scenario we could make take our chances in the dingy and if need be could try to swim without being pummeled into the reefs.  There might be some serious injuries but our lives were not so much in danger as before. According to our captain we were far away from land, and that is what we had thought during the initial chaos of the shipwreck.

From that moment on the panic subsided (at least for me) and we just faced out reality.  We were relatively stable it seemed, the coast guard was supposedly on their way, the ship was filling with water, but everyone was ok and we were close to land.  The sun rose above the ocean covering us with a beautiful golden light that noone had time or mind to notice or appreciate.  We busied ourselves with various chores, throwing the dingy overboard and getting it ready in case we should need it, taking down the sails, throwing out the anchors to ensure we did not slip off the reef, and making periodic calls to the Coast Guard to ensure they were on their way.  The boat was still getting rocked by large waves and as it began to lean more and more to one side there was some fear that a large wave could topple it over.  A tank of gasoline had also somehow opened in the hull of the boat and the water that was now knee high stank of gasoline that could possibly ignite.  These two fears we held close; but the light of day, the site of the nearby island, and our impending Coast Guard rescue kept everyone’s nerves in relative check. 

An hour and a half after the beginning of the episode we were wondering why the Coast Guard had not arrived when we saw a small boat heading our way from the nearby island.  It was a homemade longboat, like a large canoe with a small outboard engine that was being piloted by two Kuna Indians.  The Kuna is a tribe of indigenous Indians who inhabit the San Blas islands and the nearby coastline.  They were fishermen and had seen the boat in the morning light being taken slowly by the sea.  They knew the reef well, the crevasses and shallows and they carefully zigzagged through the reef through gaps that would only accommodate a narrow little boat such as theirs.  By the time our rescuers had arrive the water was waist high in the boat. 

And there we found ourselves.  Shipwrecked on a deserted island.  Safe.  Alive.  Shocked that the last hours were not a dream, that the thing that could never happen to you had happened to us.  On the bright side we could not have asked for a better place to have wound up.  The island was a postcard; with translucent blue water surrounding white sand and coconut palms.  You could throw a rock from one side of the tiny island and hit the shoreline on the other.  It was stunning.  And from the distance we could see the outline of the ship, slouching into the waves.  It wouldn’t be long before the sea would take the rest of it. 

Shipwreck II-018
Our Island. Its official name is Mauki, the Kuna name for the island is Morotup
La Sierra Madre being taken by the seas (Note, the waves that initially                                 got us into this situation were WAY bigger)

While of course we felt bad for Jose that he had lost his ship, everyone on board couldn’t help but be be angry that his mistake had nearly cost us our lives.  He had calculated that we still had hours left before we would reach the islands when in fact we had already been sailing dangerously close in the dark of night past the unseen islands for quite some time before the shipwreck.  

The Coast Guard arrived at the island about 3 hours after they received the distress call.  Thankfully they brought their ski-masks and assault rifles.   They offered to give us a ride to another island where we were to go through customs and answer some more questions about the shipwreck.  And so we boarded their boat and waved goodbye to paradise, to the island that we would always remember as a our ray of hope.  I’ll never forget the feeling of relief and salvation I felt when the sun had first lit up the horizon and I saw that island  in the near distance.  And now, as I sat on the coast guard boat in the blazing sun and watched the island grow smaller in the horizon,  the feeling of being quite alive and surrounded by adventure swept over me again.

Mauki, as seen from the Coast Gaurd rescue boat taking us to the mainland.
The Survivors

So that’s our story.  To see more pictures click here: MORE PICTURES.  Although seasickness and shipwrecking had prevented me and the other passengers to get to know each other while on the boat, in the days after the shipwreck we made up for it by spending time together in Panama City.  I lost a lot of belongings in the shipwreck, including a camera that was full of videos and photos I had taken from the beginning of the boat trip through the rescue.  Fortunatly I had taken some pictures with my other camera and Julia and Tracy also had some so that I had these pictures to share here on the blog.   I dont know what happened to Tilsen, he was going to try and make his way back to Colombia.  Although things were not so amiable between Jose and the rest of the passengers when we left the island, I hope that he is doing as well as can possibly be after losing something that I know meant so much to him.

So for all those other travelers reading my blog who are thinking about doing the trip from Panama to Colombia by boat, the lesson to be learned here boys and girls is don’t cheap out.  Either spend the money to go with a reputable captain who is known in the community and has a track record, or fly.  Or in general if you are going on a tour of any kind where there are risks involved, find out as much as you can about the safety record of your operator, make sure they have the right equipment, working radios, maps, charts, etc.

Well, I know I’m way behind in my blog and I still have to report on lots of things that happened before the shipwreck…eating bugs and finding fossils in Santander, going deep into the Amazonian jungles of Peru, vacationing in Colombian hospitals, and motorcycle riding in Medellin and the surrounding mountains.  This is all to come on the blog (And has already happened), but I though the shipwreck story was one that should be told sooner than later.

Well, thats all for now folks!  Smooth sailing to everyone.