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Sailing the San Blas: A Little WiFi and a lot of Luck

Puerto Lindo is a place that Spanish speakers would describe as a Pueblito, a small town. There might be a thousand people living in the town, and a few hundred more living on their boats in the marina and anchorage combined.

Not only is it small, but it's remote. The closest grocery stores (think bodega) are 25 minutes away in Portobello, and the closest ATMs and supermarkets are over an hour away in Sabanitas.

Puerto Lindo from above.

While there might not be much to do there, it is beautiful. Roz's house looked out upon the anchorage and Monkey Island (yes, there are monkeys there, and they're not friendly; cruising sailors have been attacked by them and sent to the hospital).

My first night there, I kept hearing someone, or something, seemingly howling. I asked Roz about it the next day. It turns out, one of the species of monkeys there are howler monkeys- their howls can be heard up to three miles away!

Some of the pups at Roz's house, with Monkey Island in the background.

There wasn't any WiFi at Roz's house, and very little cell service in Puerto Lindo, or none if you don't have the right SIM card (I didn't). But the marina did have a dribble of WiFi; pictures would take ages to load, but it was enough to slowly send an email.

In 2017, the marina was still very much a work in progress; the docks were in, but the facilities were not complete. The clubhouse was still being built, so the "bar" was on a floating barge in the marina.

The first time I went over there, the bar was empty, except for the Panamanian bartender and a little girl, seemingly his daughter.

I sat at a low table and opened up my laptop to email Blue Sailing, the booking agency for the boat trip to Colombia. A few minutes later, the little girl started swinging on a hanging chair next to me. All I could think of was how if she fell off, she'd fly into my table and send my laptop into the bottom of the bay. Fortunately she didn't, and I got my email off.

The next night, I went back over to the marina bar to check my email. Just the bartender and the little girl once again. I sat at the bar this time.

I bought an Atlas (think Bud Light, but somehow worse) and opened up my computer. Then I waited for my email to load. And waited. And waited. And then the email finally loaded.

And then someone pulled up to the bar on a dinghy. He looked to be about my age and to be an English speaker. He sat down at the bar, and although I wasn't feeling particularly social, I figured I should at least say hello.

How's it going man? What brought you to Puerto Lindo?

I work on one of the backpacker boats, we go between here and Cartagena.

No way! I came over here to check my email to book that trip. Is the boat you're on Wildcard 2 or Gitanita?

Yeah! I'm the engineer on Wildcard 2, but it's really called Sovereign Grace, the booking agent just doesn't like that name. You should do the trip with us! We're the biggest boat in the fleet and we put on a great trip.

I didn't require much convincing. There was only one spot left, so I emailed Blue Sailing then and there to tell them I'd like to book the trip.

We chatted for a while longer. Wilson, from New Zealand, had done the trip as a passenger a few months ago with his girlfriend. By the end of the trip, he had broken up with her and gotten a job on the boat.

The cost of the trip was $550, which included pretty much everything except beer for six days and five nights. It's a pretty reasonable cost, but for a backpacker on a budget of about $40/day, it was a big expense early on in the trip.

So I asked Wilson-

Do you guys ever take volunteers? I've sailed my whole life, although pretty much always on dinghies. I'd be happy to help out during the trip.

We don't take volunteers, but our First Mate is leaving soon, and we don't have anyone to replace him yet. We're out on anchor now, but we'll be coming in to the fuel dock around lunch time tomorrow. Why don't you stop by and I'll introduce you to Captain James.

We each finished our beers and went out separate ways. Back at Roz's, I thought about how hard I had worked over the past six months. I had been coaching at WYS during the day and tending bar at night. I had $10,000 in my bank account- the most I had ever saved- and going back to work after only week off didn't sound incredibly appealing. But I figured I'd at least give it a try.

So the next day I walked over to the fuel dock and saw Sovereign Grace for the first time. She's a 76' ketch (two masted sailboat); at the time, the boat seemed enormous to me. The deck seemed to tower over the fuel dock.

One of my first times seeing the Sovereign Grace.

Wilson spotted me and walked over with a guy who I assumed was Captain James. We introduced ourselves and chatted for a few minutes until it began to pour rain.

Luke, let me finish up here, I'll meet you over at the bar in 20.

So i went back to the floating barge, cracked a beer, and waited. Eventually James showed up and told me more about the boat and the trip.

Why don't we do this; you're coming on the trip as a passenger, but you can help out with a few things along the way. See how you like it. Once we get to Cartagena, we can both see if it's a good fit.

It seemed like a reasonable request to me. James explained that the boat was owned by a guy named John, originally from New Zealand. He thought it would be a good idea for me to meet John before the trip; he was in Panama City now but would be back later that day. I went back to Roz's to pack, then back to the marina to meet John.

John had bought a massive barge that was "on the hard" (on land) at the marina. He was living on it and doing a ton of work to it as well. Eventually he wanted to put it into charter.

I met up with James, and as we walked over to the barge, he told me a bit about John.

He's straight shooter, no BS kind of guy. And he loves animals, but he just hit a dog driving back from Panama City. He's not going to be in a good mood.

We walked up on to the barge. John's cabin was down below, and James asked me to wait on the deck for a minute. I could hear them talking below. John was clearly upset about the dog. Then I hear James say-

John, I have someone here I'd like you to meet. He's doing the trip with us tomorrow.

What? Why is going on the trip?

...well, he's a paying passenger.

Oh, righto. Then why is he here?

James explained how I had sailing experience and had asked about volunteering. Then he called me down.

Hi John, I'm Luke, it's nice to meet you. I'm really sorry to hear about the dog.

Oh f*** the dog!

Well, that was not the response I was expecting. I guess everyone deals with upsetting situations in different ways. We chatted for a while and John agreed with James' plan. We said our goodbyes and I walked back to Roz's for what I thought might be my last time in Puerto Lindo.

Most of the passengers doing the trip were coming in a shuttle from Panama City, and we were all to meet at a restaurant called Casa X. I lugged all of my stuff over there; the place was on the water, looking out over Linton Bay. There was sailboat out front that had sunk on the reef. I felt like I was in Pirates of the Caribbean.

The view from Casa X, looking out at the anchorage & monkey island in Puerto Lindo.

The concrete bulkhead in front was a parking lot for dinghies; it seemed that most of their customers arrived by boat. Dozens of small, tattered flags hung from the ceiling among canvas and netting. There was a sawfish bill hanging from one of the walls.

Casa X in Puerto Lindo. Pirate much?

The New Yorker in me had arrived a few minutes early. I sat down, ordered a coffee, and waited. And waited. And waited.

When I went to school in Miami, my friends from the Northeast and I would joke- "are we meeting at 8pm NY time or Miami time?" Miami time meant at least half an hour later. It seemed like Panama ran on Miami time, and then some.

Eventually James, Wilson, and the chef, Sophie, arrived, and a few minutes later two white vans pulled up and backpackers started piling out. We all sat around the tables and James gave us a rundown of the trip; safety, living on the boat, living in the islands, the trip timeline, timing of meals, and some general rules.

He started with:

What's the number one rule on a boat?


Stay on the boat!

It was meant to give a laugh, but it was a serious point; a man overboard situation could easily be the end of you, especially in rough seas or at night.

James was a great public speaker and knew how to hold a crowd. He mixed in entertaining stories from previous trips to drive his points home and keep everyone engaged- we couldn't wait to start the trip.

Everyone loaded up into a Panga and motored out to Sovereign Grace. Since I was the last person to book, I didn't get a cabin, but would be one of three people sleeping in the boat's salon (think living room).

The salon aboard Sovereign Grace, where 3 of us slept. Two on mats on the floor, the lucky one on the couch.

Certainly not what I had pictured for sleeping arrangements but...there wasn't much I could do about it.

I heard James fire up the engine and walked out on to the deck. Wilson was lifting up the anchor. And just like that, we set sail for the San Blas.

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