For travellers heading south through Central America and into South America, there is one big obstacle: the Panama-Colombia border. If you keep on driving south through Panama down the Pan-American Highway, then you'll eventually get stopped by a very big man with a very big gun, and trust me, you don't want that to happen.
It hasn't always been this way. When Panama gained independence from Spain in 1821 it immediately joined Simón Bolívar's confederation of Gran Colombia, which comprised modern-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. When this dissolved just ten years later, Panama stayed as a province of Colombia, which remained the case until 1903, when Panama declared itself an independent nation.
These days, Panama and Colombia are definitely not part of the same country; they're not even part of the same region, as Panama is positively Central American while Colombia is definitely South American. This division is highlighted by the lack of a land crossing between the two countries; the result feels like the border equivalent of a messy divorce. The Pan-American Highway manages to struggle all the way to Yaviza in Panama's eastern Darien province, but that's where it stops, because the border area is a no-go area unless you're a drug trafficker or a soldier trying to catch drug traffickers. So for the average traveller, the only options for getting from Panama to Colombia are to fly, or to go by boat.
Flying is, obviously, the easy option, but the advantage of taking a boat is that most of them go via the San Blas Archipelago, which is one of the most beautiful parts of Panama. Lying off the northeast of the country, the San Blas islands are strung out along 200km of shore, all the way from El Porvenir in the west to the Colombian border in the east. The area is unique because although it's part of Panama, it's run by the indigenous inhabitants, the Kuna, as an autonomous region, which has been the case ever since a rebellion in 1925; the Kuna even send a representative to the country's National Assembly, uniquely among Panama's indigenous groups. This autonomy means that the Kuna live their own lives here in the San Blas, with their own language and their own economy – which is mainly based on bartering with visiting sailors – and their own distinctive clothes and art-forms. You can fly to some of the 400-odd islands in the San Blas, though as the Kuna only inhabit about 40 of them, by far the best way to see the archipelago is by boat.
So the attraction of taking a boat to Colombia is clear: you get to explore a Caribbean island paradise with a unique indigenous culture, which you otherwise wouldn't get to see. And that's why we found ourselves considering the boat trip, despite what we'd heard.
Not All Plain Sailing
The first people we'd talked to about the crossing to Colombia were Neil and Bronwyn when we first met them in Playa Esteron back in El Salvador. Bronwyn did this very trip a couple of years ago with their daughter Stephanie, though Neil had flown, as he's really prone to seasickness. This would turn out to be an excellent decision on his part, as Bronwyn's tales of the crossing to Colombia were horrific. The ocean passage east from the San Blas to Cartagena is against the direction of the prevailing wind, and as any sailor will tell you, this means a pretty bumpy ride, and although Bronwyn wasn't seasick herself, she was pretty much the only person who pulled through unscathed. Everyone was sick, the sea was scarily rough, and the passage was a complete nightmare; and as if the terrible weather wasn't enough, it turned out that the last time the captain had done this trip was the previous year, when her husband had been in charge. He'd died of a heart attack during that voyage and she'd had to finish the trip in sole charge of the yacht, and after a period of grieving, she'd decided to continue the family business on her own. This was her first full voyage in charge, and she'd filled the boat to bursting with hard-drinking backpackers, only to have them all turn green around the gills once they'd passed through the San Blas and turned east, directly into the ocean swell of the Caribbean Sea.
Now, me and yachts, we have a bit of history. Back in 1997, three of us sailed a 36ft sloop halfway across the Pacific from New Zealand to French Polynesia, and I got so seasick – and stayed so seasick – that the captain declared he'd never seen anything like it. The first leg – a non-stop 28-day bash down into the strong winds of the roaring forties and up towards the Gambier Islands – saw the captain and the chef fall out to the point where they were only speaking through me, and as I was spending most of my time on deck throwing up, conversation ran a little dry. When we reached the Gambiers after the initial 3000 nautical mile leg, the chef jumped ship, leaving just me and the captain to sail the last 1000 nautical miles through the Tuamotu Archipelago to Tahiti, where I escaped onto a plane bound for Australia. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, and I made a promise to myself that I would never board a yacht again.
But despite Bronwyn's tales of hell, I didn't rule it out, because of something Neil said. 'It's one of the last real adventures left,' he pointed out one evening in Granada, and that was when I knew I was going to have to face my demons, because if there's something I can't resist, it's an adventure. We were clearly going to have to sail from Panama to Colombia, and all we had to do was to find a decent boat to take us.
The Black Dragonfly
There are quite a few websites selling places on the so-called 'backpacker boats' that sail between Panama and Colombia. Some of them are better than others, but the good ones let you search by date for boats that are heading in the right direction at the right time, so that's exactly what we did.
The results were varied, to say the least. The cheapest option, at about US$350 per person, seemed to be some kind of motorboat that takes you through the islands, dropping you off at night to sleep in hammocks or tents. Judging by the blurb, you needed to be able to drink your body weight in beer to qualify for this budget-backpacker experience, so that one got the chop pretty quickly.
Then, at around US$450 to US$550 per person, were a few yachts and a couple of catamarans, where you sleep on board and actually have a sailing trip on a proper boat, rather than a lift in a fancy water taxi. We searched for reviews of the various boats and captains, and again they all seemed to cram as many people on board as possible, fill them with beer, and encourage late-night partying by taking group shots of them all throwing shaka signs at the camera, beer cans in hand. We read one review where a girl had been horrified to find that the berth she'd booked was actually a space on the table in the dining room, rather than a bed; it seems that there are a lot of captains for whom profit is the bottom line, even if it means not having enough life jackets to go round.
And then we spotted a slightly more expensive trip, at US$700 per person, that specifically said it wasn't a party boat. The Black Dragonfly, said the blurb, is a beautiful teak-lined Formosa yacht, with gourmet food, a maximum of seven passengers, no late-night partying and a very experienced captain. And it was leaving from Portobelo for Colombia on 18 March, just around the time that we were hoping to go, and there were still some spaces left.
We didn't click on it right away. First, we let the idea sink in. 'Do you really want to go?' I asked Peta.
'I'm happy to go if you're happy to go,' she replied, tactfully.
'But I don't know,' I said. 'There's an ocean passage involved. And I know what that actually means.'
'It's up to you,' she said. 'I'm not going to decide for you. It has to be your decision.'
So I sat there frozen, genuinely unable to decide. That ocean passage to French Polynesia was one of the lowest points in my life, and yet it's also one of my most interesting stories. Could I bear to set foot on a sailing yacht again? Or could I live with the decision to skip what might be the trip of a lifetime, if not for me, for Peta? I didn't know what to do...
Science to the Rescue
Decisions like this are often made easier by research, so we both started hunting round the net for inspiration. What could we do to prevent me getting seasick? Drugs, perhaps, or a special diet? And would the size of the yacht be relevant, seeing as The Black Dragonfly was listed as a 50ft ketch, and my Pacific nightmare had been in a 36ft sloop? And as we searched the web for clues, Peta stumbled across a conversation on a yacht design forum about which types of boat were best for preventing motion sickness, and someone had posted to the conversation, talking about the Motion Comfort Ratio formula.
This clever mathematical formula, which was formulated by boat designer Ted Brewer, takes factors such as the boat's length, beam and weight, and comes up with a number that should, in theory, show how comfortable a ride you'll get in that yacht. The poster had gone through more than 1000 types of yacht and calculated their ratios, including that for a 50ft Formosa, the same type as The Black Dragonfly. The higher the number, the more stable the ride, and the Formosa 50 came in with a score of 52.48. As I scanned the list of all the other makes and sizes of yachts out there, it was obvious that most of them scored in the 30s, with a handful in the 40s, but only a tiny number managed to reach the 50s. In his list of scores, the Formosa 50 had the fifth best Motion Comfort Ratio overall, and was only 2.25 points off the top spot (which, incidentally, was taken by the Herreshoff Walrus with a score of 54.75). There, clear as day, science was telling me that The Black Dragonfly was one of the best possible yachts for this crossing, and that was the clincher.
So after letting the decision settle in over a couple of beers in our hotel in San José, I fired up the laptop and booked a passage for two on The Black Dragonfly. And then I collapsed in exhaustion, literally shaking at the thought that, once more, I'd be sailing across an ocean in a yacht.