21st October 2022
Isla Tintipan, Colombia – Puerto Escosos, San Blas, Panama via San Bernardo, Colombia, Puerto Obaldia & Puerto Perme, San Blas, Panama
JRR Tolkien sent Bilbo Baggins, of ‘The Hobbit’ fame, on an unexpected journey in the company of wizards, orks, and all sorts of mystical creatures that allowed him battle against the odds and seek out his ‘precious’. Ruffian has been on an expected journey, where we have battled with the authorities, overcome weather and have arrived somewhere precious.
After a day of paddleboarding, exploring lagoons and watching fisherman catch what seemed like an endless supply of fish in San Bernardo, we sat on Ruffian and planned our last days in Colombia. We’d identified a restaurant to spend the last of our Colombian COP on a big slap-up meal, a petrol station to replenish our diminishing diesel supplies and a supermarket where we could stock up on fresh vegetables before heading to the remote San Blas islands. All this was within easy reach of a perfectly protected bay and that bay was within an easy reach of us.
As the sun rose Ruffian was heading towards her final stop across the Golfo De Morrosquillo whose rim is lined with long sandy beaches, lush forests and impenetrable mangroves. Unfortunately, it is also home to some of Colombia’s most critical infrastructure, has a recent bloody history of drug trafficking and therefore, as we were about to learn, any traffic is under significant scrutiny and surveillance.
Our radio suddenly sparked into life as we were called by Port Control and told to explain our intensions, then from nowhere a ‘go fast’ boat was by our side, brimming with officials who were all toting bullet proof vests, Kevlar helmets and scary looking automatic weapons. They meant business and the business they were in was scrutiny and surveillance.
Within no time they were swarming all over Ruffian and as we produced documents, pigeon Spanish, and glasses of chilled water the threat of automatic gunfire receded and was replaced by smiles and unbounded helpfulness. The helpfulness didn’t however extend to shore where our fate was in the hands of their superiors and their superiors were not happy. Not only were we not welcome in their bay, but also in their waters*, we had to leave Colombia and we had to leave now. ‘The unexpected journey’ to another country was about to begin.
An unexpected journey offshore is never ideal as the weather is picked for you and in this case the weather that had been picked was 100’s of miles of headwinds, lightning and squalls. Resigned to our fate we pulled in our sails, uptracked the main and started bouncing our way through the waves, never quite pointing at our destination but always pointing at scary looking clouds that sat between us and Panama.
As the last rays of the sun were extinguished the sky was then illuminated by lightning that hit the sea on all sides of us. Ruffian shook as the thunder reverberated through her hull and we did everything we could to sail through the increasingly chaotic sea state.
As the hours went on the lightening diminished, only to be replaced by squall after squall. Wind blew over Ruffian from all directions and the chaotic sea was turned into a washing machine. Ruffian could never settle and we spent hours trying every sail combination, pointing Ruffian in every direction always knowing that we had to conserve previous diesel and that our destination was still far over the horizon.
As we battled our foes of wind, current and waves we slowly closed in on Panama, slowly being the operative word. Unwind sailing was proving to be painfully slow and surprisingly hard work. Those days of reading books while facing backwards felt like a different era as we were being physically and mentally drained. This slowness wasn’t however a complete disaster as instead of arriving in the depth of the night, dawn would be upon us and the rising sun would light our way.
Landing in Panama was like landing in a different world. The verdant green of rain forests covered every hill side and palm trees reached out over the water seeking sunlight. The water was so clear, that far below us we could see Ruffian’s anchor set in the sand and the abundant fish were excited by all the foreign food we’d bought to them on our hull.
In Colombia the authorities had all been about smiles and denials, but walking through the military checkpoints which were bristling with guns, immigration that had only just woken up, and the harbour master who had his hands full babysitting, was all about pleasantries and permits. The military seemed to revel in walking us around town, while the immigration officer was excited to show off his English and the harbour master just wanted to grin and laugh at everything, including our Spanish punctuated by hand signals and English spoken in a foreign accent.
Like all good epic adventures, when we thought that all was won and our foes had been defeated there was one final, almost unsurmountable, challenge to overcome. We left Obaldia and made our way into the tiny safe harbour of Puerto Perme, but inside this ‘haven’ was something more effective than wind and waves at stopping Ruffians progress; there was shallow water, thick mud and incorrect charts. Ruffian slid to a stop, hard aground. Sleep, rest and a successful voyage all within sight, but out of reach.
The water turned a shade of brown as the mud was stirred up by Ruffian’s engine which screamed as it tried to pull her back and forth and Iain ran from side to side trying to rock Ruffian free. Inch by merciful inch we pulled back into marginally deeper water and were free, but we now had the difficult decision where to go with this new found freedom. There were known shallows in front, unknown shallows behind and charted shallows either side. Gingerly we nosed our way out and like heros, found ourselves in deeper water having overcome our final obstacle ready to seek an anchorage that held enough water for us.
Finally Ruffian sat in an almost magical fjord like setting, and in Puerto Escoses, we felt that we’d found something ‘precious’ in Panama and just like ‘Frodo Baggins’ we had overcome all the challenges in front and well as below us. This was an unexpected journey, and just like in The Hobbit, this journey has taken us to what looks like a whole new world (we just hope it’s not middle earth!!).
* In hindsight, the superiors had our wellbeing as their priority, as our plan involved stopping in a known drug trafficking bay, which is hotbed for drug traffickers and we were on potential drug trafficking craft.
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