Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I do not like ocean passages. Back in 1997, after crossing half the Pacific from New Zealand to the Gambier Islands, I wrote, 'I don't regret going. I'll just never get on an ocean-going yacht again.' And here I am, on an ocean-going yacht again. What the hell just happened?
Well, the appeal of a trip through the amazing San Blas islands just happened, and the fact is that this time round, I'm not a member of the crew, I'm a passenger. And I'm also drugged up to the gills on the maximum possible dose of seasickness tablets, which I didn't take in French Polynesia, and I'm also fully aware that it's when you go below deck that things can start to go wrong, so I'm staying up top as much as I can.
It went well, I have to say, and I didn't expect to be writing that at the end of this particular journey. The seasickness tablets really worked, and although I still felt pretty uneasy through most of the trip – an ocean-going yacht is not a natural environment for me, however hard I try to think otherwise – I managed to get through it without once heaving over the side. Compared to the weeks of seasickness I endured on the Pacific, it's been a holiday, and I still can't quite believe that I escaped unharmed.
It helped that Peta found her sea legs quickly, because that meant at least one of us was able to cope with life on board. It's always difficult at first, getting used to a yacht's movements on the ocean, but by the end of the ocean passage she was happily moving about downstairs, without a hint of green about the gills. I had a feeling that she would cope well, as she's always been fine when everyone else around her has been succumbing to la mal de mer, but you never know until you try it.
A huge factor was that Captain Jan did his best to keep the voyage as smooth as possible, and he did a great job, especially when you consider what the swell could have been. The wind comes from the northeast and we were heading east, so for this last leg across the ocean we were sailing into the wind and into the swell, which is far from the most comfortable approach, but the swell was less than it would have been a day ago, and we made good time. And Holly had prepared all the meals in advance, designing them to fit into bowls that we could eat easily on a heavily leaning yacht, and which could be easily digested and were gentle on the stomach. She even prepared plain rice for anyone who was feeling a bit rough; this turned out to be a great idea, and a surprisingly popular option with some of the more fragile passengers...
But even with this relatively easy sailing, it's still a huge shock to find out just how difficult life on board the ocean can be. When people look at yachts and imagine the sailing life, they think of being moored in the marina at Monte Carlo, sipping champagne on deck, or dropping anchor amongst the turquoise delights of sheltered coral islands. Most yachties don't even experience proper ocean crossings, but that's where the real sailing is, and it's impossible to imagine what it's like: you really have to be there.
Take a beautiful yacht like The Black Dragonfly, with all its teak decking and picturesque rigging, and tilt it to one side by something like 30 or 40 degrees. Now take your tilted yacht in both hands and rock it from side to side while bouncing it up and down and tilting it backwards and forwards along the bow line. And now imagine being stuck inside this pretty little yacht for a full night, a full day and another full night, and you're getting close to the experience of crossing the Caribbean Sea from San Blas to Colombia.
But it's the sheer amount of effort involved that takes you by surprise. Take a simple task like going to the toilet, and it turns into an epic adventure that will leave your head reeling, and possibly your guts. Just walking down stairs and along a corridor is a lesson in balance that leaves you breathless; trying to sit on a a toilet at a 30° angle is seriously hard, and then you find that your body doesn't like doing its stuff at that angle... and there's nothing you can do except wait, while the room spins around you and the force of the bow hitting the waves pushes you down into the seat before lifting you up like the crest of a roller-coaster. It leaves you completely drained, in more ways than one.
And what about going to bed? We slept in the aft cabin, where the double bed has the pillows right at the back of the boat and your feet pointing towards the bow, but when the boat is tilted over to starboard at such a steep angle, you can't sleep like that or the person on the port side will simply crash down into the person on the starboard side. So you have to sleep with your head to port and your feet to starboard, effectively standing up to go to sleep as the world crashes around you. We tried to sleep like that, but we both independently discovered that the best way to cope is to give in to gravity, and each of us curled up at what had become the foot of the bed, in a scrunched up foetal position that took most of the sting out of the boat's bouncing.
Stretch out this constant strain on your muscles over 40-odd hours, and it gets a bit wearing. It was astounding, then, that we both got a good night's sleep on the first night, and an even better one on the second night when Jan sailed us into the lee of Isla Barú, some 190 nautical miles from the San Blas and just off the coast to the south of Cartagena. He dropped the anchor in the wee hours and we spent the rest of the night in deep sleep. In the end, we survived well.
The others weren't so lucky. Cordelia was the first to lose it, pretty soon after we hit the ocean swell, and she sat at the back of the boat, being sick over the side, before going back downstairs where she stayed ever since, avoiding the whole issue by sleeping in her bunk. Marco also lost it over the side pretty early on, and spent the trip eating plain rice and lying on deck, his face wrapped up in a T-shirt to stop the sun from burning. Reto felt really queasy from the off and discovered that standing on the aft deck, holding on to the rear mast, was the best option; he refused to go downstairs, even to check on Cordelia, because he knew that if he went down there, he'd lose grip on his ability to keep food down (and it would turn out he was right). Indeed, the only person (apart from Peta) who coped well was Stephan, who was completely at ease, happily smoking, eating, reading books and generally going about things as if he was on land. Some people just have natural sea legs.
After the ocean passage, the final push up the coast, past the Islas del Rosario and into Cartagena through the Bocachica entrance, was child's play in comparison. We had to avoid some huge vessels as we joined the shipping lane into port, and there were dolphins jumping in the bay as we sailed in, and tweeting birds landed on the spreaders to welcome us to land. The skyscrapers of the new part of Cartagena faded into view on the horizon, and it wasn't long before we'd docked and jumped onto land, even though it would still be swaying in our heads for days to come.
And as we hopped off the deck and walked into Colombia, I turned and saw Jan and Holly hugging each other, their first proper Panamanian charter on The Black Dragonfly in the bag. You deserved that moment, guys, because you did an excellent job, and coming from me and my phobias of the sea, that's praise indeed. It really was an excellent trip... one of the last real adventures, indeed.