Special Post: How to Survive…36 Hours at Sea

The following post, the second in a series of occasional guides for those on the road, was mainly written for visitors who may be intending to sail from Panama to Columbia in the near future. Friends and family of Prawns for Breakfast may want to skip to the next piece simultaneously published with them in mind, heartwarmingly entitled ‘Things We Miss Most‘ (other than YOU, you silly things). 

Getting from Central to South America by sea provokes heated debates amongst travellers approaching the continental divide. These days there’s a bewildering flotilla of boats offering pretty much identical trips, all of which will broadside your budget pretty effectively. (The average price per passenger at the time of writing is US$480 – 550.) If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably got limited experience of being on the open seas. So, along with Tiffany, our American travelling companion, we had lots of questions we wanted answering before we parted with our cash.

It was when we started this research in Panama City that we realised there were slim resources online – the best by far being this guide, produced by Mama Llenas hostel. We were also surprised by how few bloggers who had taken this trip were able to offer useful advice on the subject. With this in mind, we decided to compile a helpful cut out and keep survival guide based on our experiences…ten simple steps to keeping calm and staying sane at sea.

1. Choose a single-hull sailboat for speed, Catamaran for stability – but definitely pick one over 40 ft

Of course, the size of ship should be judged relative to the number of passengers it says it can take. Ours, a 43ft Catamaran, could theoretically take 14 passengers, as well as two crew. Luckily for us, we had only five fellow seamen, meaning eight souls on deck, and two more below (see step 8). This gave us plenty of space to ourselves when the going got rough. So check out the photos of the boat’s deckspace carefully before choosing your vessel. Single-hull sailboats are more streamlined, and therefore theoretically faster in open water – so you could be cutting down your sea-time, but getting cosier with your neighbours. Catamarans are built for stability and normally wider (unless you want a real hulker like the Independence), but could take longer to cross if the sea’s choppy. Your pick.

The deck of the Tango: comfortably takes… two.

2. Check your chosen boat’s destination carefully

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of various travel agents’ florid descriptions of the trip you are about to undertake (“Four days of awesomeness!!!” springs to mind here), and forget to check exactly where you’re headed. Although most southbound crafts land in Cartagena, some talk up cheaper or faster crossings, and only mention in the small print that their destination is further up the coast of Colombia. If you’re going this way, look out for mentions of Sapzurro or Turbo. If your preferred vessel lands here, make sure you calculate how much a combination of further boats and/or busses will set you back before you finally make it to Cartagena.

Check whether this is actually where you are going

3. Bring more alcohol than you think you’ll need

Although our Captain had banned consumption of spirits for the actual sea crossing, for obvious reasons, there will probably come a time when the pressing need for cold beer can kick in (see last step). For us, that was about 24 hours into the sea crossing, with the sun is still beating down at the end of a long day. Unfortunately, whilst stocking up at the supermarket in Sabanitas, we had had a collective moment of denial concerning our alcoholic intake over five days (four if you exclude the first night and day of the crossing). Consequently, we had run dry by the end of Day 2. We were only saved by the chance purchase of a Kuna’s entire stock of Balboa whilst snorkelling to another island. Essentially, you should triple your calculations at the supermarket to avoid an enforced dry crossing.

Um…just get all of it

4. Take drugs

It is wise to start from the premise that, unless you are a sea-dog of the saltiest order, you will get sick whilst in open waters. Dramamine (or a number of similar travel sickness medicines) can be purchased over the counter at every Farmacia and should eliminate the need to feed your dinner to the fishes (see next step). Take your first pill the moment you leave the furthest island in the San Blas archipelago, and then every six hours from then on until you get used to the motion of the ocean. We were subsequently advised that marijuana has a similar effect. Needless to say your PFB correspondent can neither corroborate nor condone this advice, and would remind you that smuggling illegal drugs across borders could land you in a whole world of pain.

5. Don’t buy lobster from the Kuna the afternoon you’re due to set sail on open water

It sounds such common sense advice as I write it that I have trouble even believing that we did this. But at the time, playing at being Robinson Crusoes on a tiny island sporting one palm tree, a travelling Kuna salesman arriving at our shore armed with fresh lobster seemed too good to resist. And the picture below of the cooked product would seem to back that hunch up. Now I want you to stand up, spin yourself round as fast as you can for about 45 seconds, then sit down and re-focus on the picture. Not such a cool idea, hey?

Yum yum! I mean, eurghhhh…

6. Teach or learn and practice a new card game

Unless you are blessed, like me, with the constitution (and ice cool wit) of Iron Man, you can discount reading and writing (see step 9) as ways to pass the dragging hours at sea. So follow our advice and make sure you pack a pack to while away the evenings. Teach each other new and if possible, insanely complicated games to distract you from that nauseating rocking feeling. A Dutch couple on our boat had gone a step further and bought a whole new card game on board: Cow Trade. You literally trade cows! It doesn’t get zanier than that folks.

7. Sing the entire Aladdin songbook

It’s a Whole New World out at sea, and what better place to practice your mastery of your favourite Disney soundtracks, show tunes, classic rock ballads or simply a killer rendition of ‘My Heart Will Go On’? Lurch on up to the prow, clear your throat (carefully) and serenade those dolphins like your life depends on it! (Tip: always wear a life jacket whilst attempting the high notes.)

Your experience at sea, but with less vommit

8. Bag a bunk above sea level, or sleep on the deck if possible

On our boat, most of the beds were above sea level, arranged hostel-style in groups of two and three. Unfortunately, our Dutch colleagues had been assigned a cabin situated in one of the Catamaran’s narrow hulls. As the bed was located below sea level, the window had to remain closed throughout the crossing, causing heat levels to soar, whilst the slap of the water against the hull conspired to keep them awake all night. Naturally they ended up sleeping on the deck, which can work well only if there’s enough space (see step 1).

This is going to get worse before it gets better…

9. Think of stuff to put in your next blog post

Even if you follow all of the above suggestions for calming your nerves and passing the time until sleep takes you (and believe me it will if you’ve been taking Dramamine) chances are you will still have a lot of it on your hands. So put these hours to good use by mentally composing brilliantly witty descriptions of your time aboard for your diary, blog or emails home when you arrive in glorious Cartagena. Just don’t attempt to write any of it down.

10. Er…Sit and stare at the horizon

It’s an old sea-dog’s trick, but a goodie: if you’ve self-medicated up to the eye-balls but still can’t take your mind off the 36 hour spin cycle you’re trapped in, don’t forget that it may be a whole lot worse to try and turn in. Grab a tinny (see step 3) and drag yourself to a (hopefully) semi-private part of the deck with a clear view of the horizon. Stare levelly at it, whilst thinking lovely land-based thoughts. Inhale the salty air deeply. Sip beverage slowly. Rinse and repeat.

And that’s all for this instalment of ‘How to Survive…’ my hearties! We hope this advice helps your travel plans, but if you have any burning questions about our experiences, feel free to drop us a line.

All worth it in the end

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