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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Panama: Portobelo to San Blas

El Porvenir
El Porvenir

After we'd booked our passage and paid a deposit, we didn't hear anything further until a week before the departure date, when the Norwegian captain of The Black Dragonfly, Jan Kåre Stenberg, got in touch to confirm the final details. We were to meet at the westernmost pier in Portobelo at 10am on 18 March, and he listed the items we should bring, specifically highlighting the need for seasickness pills. My stomach lurched at the thought; all of a sudden the trip was real, and not just a date sometime in the future. I replied to the captain to say we were looking forward to the trip, and we set out into the depths of Panama City to buy the best seasickness pills that money could buy.

Another Day in Port

The Black Dragonfly at anchor in El Porvenir
The Black Dragonfly at anchor in El Porvenir

So the morning of 18 March saw us stomping down to the westernmost pier in Portobelo, pills in hand, and as prepared as we were ever going to be for a sailing trip against the wind and against my better judgement. We met four others waiting at the pier for the same boat, and after saying hello and finding out that they were all German-speaking Swiss – not a bad choice for sailing companions, because if there's one thing you want on board an ocean-going yacht, it's people who aren't going to start a war – we all stood to attention as a small dinghy powered across the harbour with a blond-haired man at the engine.

Getting to Know the Crew

Jan, the experienced captain of The Black Dragonfly
Jan, the experienced captain of The Black Dragonfly

On a yacht, you get to know people pretty fast; there's nowhere to hide, particularly when all the passengers are up on deck and finding their sea legs. This was particularly true on The Black Dragonfly as we sailed out of Portobelo, bound for the San Blas archipelago.

Holly, ship's cook and second captain on The Black Dragonfly
Holly, ship's cook and second captain on The Black Dragonfly

Into the Ocean

Mark doing my stuff at the bow when raising the anchor in the Cayos Holandeses
Me doing my stuff at the bow when raising the anchor in the Cayos Holandeses

After the introductions, we settled down on deck to eat our first meal on board. When the advert had said that the food was gourmet, they weren't wrong; I've cooked in a galley and I know how difficult it is, but that first meal of chicken with onion and mushroom sauce, salad with balsamic dressing and perfectly cooked rice, was delicious.

Swiss manpower raising the anchor without a windlass
Swiss manpower raising the anchor without a windlass

Shaky Start

That night we sailed the first leg from Portobelo to the island of El Porvenir, which is the capital of San Blas and home to the immigration post where we had our passports stamped and officially left Panama. The weather was being kind and the swell was only about 1 or 2m, so the short overnight passage of about 50 nautical miles was relatively comfortable, at least as far as ocean swells go. This was helped in no small way by the captain's constant fine-tuning of the sails; every now and then, Jan would grab the winch handle and trim the sails, changing the angle of tack in ways that were unfathomable to us landlubbers, but we could certainly feel the benefit as things suddenly got a lot more comfortable. He did this throughout the night as we headed northeast from Portobelo and into the Caribbean Sea, before turning east to go round the Panamanian mainland so we could drop down into the Gulf of San Blas, and most of the journey was overnight, with Jan and Holly taking it in turns to sail. I was worried that this – our first proper bit of ocean sailing – would set off my seasickness, but I'd been taking the tablets for at least a day before we hit the sea, and although I felt a bit uneasy, I felt OK. I was pretty stunned, particularly as the boat was leaning pretty heavily to starboard to catch the northerly breeze.