Thirteen bikes and eighteen passengers assembled in various hostels and hotels around Panama City waiting to board the Stahlratte (German for Steel Rat), a converted sailing cargo vessel built in 1903 that was going to carry us to Colombia.
The Stahlratte Coming To Load Bikes At Carti, Panama
As the ship was anchored offshore from Carti on the Caribbean coast the motorcyclists were asked to ride in convoy so that the Stahlratte could make a single trip to the jetty and load all the bikes at the same time. Countless emails were flying through the ether trying to organise a time and place for the bikes to meet with Tocumen Airport at 7:30am finally being chosen. Rolli, a very tall Austrian crewmember was taking his bike to Colombia and was familiar with the route so he was leading us all. Once everyone had arrived we set off with me riding at the back as sweeper. There was a Chinese TV film crew riding 150cc Jialings who were struggling to keep up. The road was hilly with the tarmac washed away at the bottom of the hills preventing them from building up a bit of speed on the downhill run to give them some momentum to help them up the other side. I was keen to clear the Panamanian Customs before noon when my temporary bike import permit and insurance were due to expire which we did comfortably but I neednít have worried, other riders permits had already expired and Customs didnít create a fuss.
We were taken aboard in an inflatable dingy with all our luggage but had to wait several hours as the afternoon heavy rain and wind whipped the sea up preventing us from pulling alongside the jetty and winching the bikes aboard. Once the weather cleared I went ashore to help with the loading of the bikes and felt slightly peeved to find that while I had been working others had been selecting their beds although in the end this worked to my advantage. All the single beds in the bow of the Stahlratte had been taken so I got a double cabin in the more comfortable mid section to myself. The three sided cabins were screened from the central walkway by curtains but everyone ended up leaving the curtains open to allow the air to circulate. Once all the bikes were securely tied down we motored to a nearby island and dropped anchor for the night.
Waiting For The Storm To Subside Before Loading Bikes
A Few Hours Later..... Loading Bike For Its Second Intercontinental Voyage
In the evening we went ashore on the small island for a chicken barbecue with traditional pan pipe music and dancing provided by the Kuna inhabitants. The Kuna who live on the San Blas coast are semi-autonomous from the rest of Panama and their lifestyle isnít influenced much by so called western Ďcivilisationí. They sell fish and coconuts to cruising yachts and catch fish and grow crops on the mainland for themselves. The small island we visited was literally covered from shore to shore with narrow rows of small timber and thatch houses.
The following day after picking up five backpackers who were joining us from shore we sailed for half a day to a group of uninhabited islands where we were to spend the next two days swimming, snorkelling and exploring the islands. Once we dropped anchor I was the first to climb the mast, others followed and climbed back down the rigging as I had done but intrepid (or suicidal!) Shaun jumped from the crows nest into the sea. There was no dry firewood on the islands but Ludwig our enterprising Kapitšn had arranged to have some delivered by a Kuna boatman so that we could have a barbecue and bonfire in the evening.
It's A Long Way Down
The following day being Saturday our anchorage was invaded by the rich and possibly famous Panamanian Yacht Club members who arrived in their floating gin palaces with every conceivable nautical toy, bright lights and loud music. One group arrived by helicopter, landing on a nearby island to be picked up and taken out to a boat. We had more firewood delivered so that we could have another beach barbecue but it was stolen by some of our neighbours so we had dinner onboard instead. It wouldnít have been the same as the previous day when we had the island to ourselves anyway, having to share an island, thatís really slumming it! I was watching a young teenager trying and failing to get up onto his water-ski. After several attempts he started yelling and screaming at the hired help driving the ski-boat and in a tantrum swam back to Daddies yacht with the ski-boat following closely behind to make sure he was safe. It amused me no end!
Millionaire Row Firewood Thieves
We were all expected to help out with technical sailing chores, I got to swab the decks when the anchor was lifted bringing a load of mud up with it. Swabbing the decks was remarkably similar to sweeping a floor and not as exciting as I thought it would be. I also got to help peel potatoes for 22 people twice which was about as thrilling as peeling potatoes on dry land. I volunteered myself to stand watch while we were sailing from midnight to 3am with Rolli the Austrian crewmember. There didnít seem much point in being on watch during the day when there were so many people on deck anyway; although most of the time nobody seemed to be looking where we were going during the day. Having two people on watch isnít really necessary but we helped keep each other awake and when Rolli went below I was the only person on deck for a full ten minutes, thankfully no stray icebergs appeared during my ten minutes in command. We were hit by a squall while I was on watch which sent everything sliding off the table and bodies that had been sleeping on deck appeared from all kinds of nooks and crannies including under the table. As the others scurried below out of the rain Rolli and I checked the decks picking things up that had fallen off the table or were in danger of being blown overboard.
We Found Another Way Of Getting From The Boat To The Water
It was good to meet up with and sail with a large number of motorcyclists that we could exchange information and stories with. I developed the theory that everyone else is on a serious hardcore road trip, covering vast distances, often with a limited amount of time to spare while I am stringing together a series of nice sunny Sunday afternoon bike rides pointed roughly in a southerly direction and I may or may not one day end up in Ushuaia. Of course, just like planned sunny Sunday afternoon bike rides back home it occasionally rains or something goes wrong but generally I get to go on sunny Sunday afternoon bike rides whenever I feel like it and regardless of the actual day of the week. Everyday is a holiday when you stop working for a living! As I write this in Colombia all the others are ahead of me scouting out the places and roads to go to or avoid and reporting back via email, one of the advantages of being the slowest traveller in the group.
A Caribbean Tropical Island Paradise
We arrived in Cartagena, Colombia about 6am although I was sleeping having been on watch until 3 oíclock. The first thing I saw when I came on deck was a US Coast Guard vessel. The previous day a radar aeroplane changed course to fly low over our heads obviously checking us out although I presume ships sailing towards Colombia attract less attention than those sailing north towards the USA. It was after lunch before all our passports were cleared by immigration and we were taken ashore to find accommodation. The Chinese TV film crew, Kyle and David and I walked into the old walled city of Cartagena in the afternoon and watched a group of drummers and dancers performing in one of the squares. The music and dancing was completely different from any other performances I have seen in Latin America, very lively with obvious African roots.
Cartagena was founded in 1533 and quickly developed into a thriving wealthy city making it an attractive proposition for pirates. Thirty years after its founding Cartagena was pillaged by a French nobleman / pirate prompting the city to build a defensive city wall and a series of castles. In 1568 Sir John Hawkins of England besieged the city but failed to capture it. Eighteen years later John Hawkinsí nephew, Sir Francis Drake arrived with a strong fleet and quickly captured the city, ransoming it back to Spain for the equivalent of $200 million (£128,240,000 sterling) at todayís prices although he destroyed quarter of the city including the palace and the recently completed cathedral first.
Defensive Walls Of Cartagena To Keep The English Out
We returned to the Stahlratte at 8am the following day to offload the bikes and get them cleared through customs. The bikes were brought to shore one at a time in the inflatable dingy and had to be lifted up onto the jetty, hard work but fortunately plenty of help was available. Once we had our bikes we rode to the customs office where we waited all day to be processed, one of the problems of thirteen bikes arriving together is the overload that it puts on customs. Eventually, around 5pm we were cleared as a group and we could all ride out to our various hostels and hotels.
Now All We Have To Do Is Lift It Up Onto The Jetty!!!!
After two and a half years of travelling in North America I now have a brand new continent to play with.
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