The original plan was to pay $500 USD each for a 6 day luxury cruise from June 14-20 aboard the Victory, complete with comfortable accommodations, ample cold cervezas, forays into Caribbean islands for beach volleyball and snorkelling, and generally lots of relaxing. Our first hint that this wouldn’t work out as planned occurred 30 seconds after we departed, when the ship’s engine inexplicable stopped working and we began drifting towards other boats moored in the marina in Cartagena. El Capitan’s response to this (which we became used to over the next days), was to yell out a string of expletives, followed by yelling “Mariaaaaaaa!!!!” (his wife), followed by descending into the engine well of the boat for several hours of repairs during which we could hear the banging of metal against metal, hacksawing noises, and more expletives, followed by him returning to the cockpit covered in oil and sweat, and swearing that everything was better. The first time this happened on the first night, we gave the captain the benefit of the doubt and happily sailed off into the Caribbean a few hours behind schedule, assuming everything would be great from then on.
Unfortunately, it became increasingly clear over the following days that several issues with the boat were not random, one-off occurrences. The engine continued to fail several times while we were out on the open ocean, leaving us drifting for hours at a time. It turned out that the problem was a malfunctioning bilge pump, which meant that after the first night on the boat everything in the cabin (including the walls, our baggage, our clothes, our beds) were covered in a thin (at times thick) layer of oily seawater -bilge. Moreover, because the engine kept breaking, the captain permanently removed the cover to the engine, which meant that a boiling hot, extremely loud 500 horsepower Diesel engine was rumbling right next to our beds in the cabin. Needless to say, this made sleeping difficult from the noise and the heat. Another factor that made sleeping difficult was the fact that the cabin (ie: interior) of the boat was not, strictly speaking, waterproof. Several metal rivets leaked rusty sea-water constantly onto my bed. Much worse, though, the main hatch (ie: window on the roof of the cabin) did not fully close, so whenever a large wave sloshed seawater onto the roof of the cabin, about a bucketful would be splashed onto my face through the hatch. Because of the periodic water boarding that became a nightly occurrence, I ended up sleeping in my rain jacket, Panama Hat, and covered in towels.
The engine difficulties and general wetness of the boat certainly made the trip uncomfortable, but in fact at times I felt outright unsafe. On the third night, about 100 nautical miles from land, a major storm hit, meaning we were rocking in 10 foot waves and gale-force winds. The captain didn’t seem to anticipate this and so the mainsail tore in half in the storm. The engine was also at the time not working, so we were literally adrift at sea in a tropical storm in that point on the corner of a map of the Americas where they would have drawn dragons a couple hundred years ago. That night, I checked the life jackets and was dismayed to count only 10 (there were 12 people on the boat, since the captain had oversold the voyage and had also brought his daughter along for a good time). We also had a 6 man life raft, so things were looking pretty grim. Fortunately, we survived the storm and eventually limped ashore at the San Blas islands on the third morning of the voyage.
In the end, the generally awful experience of the Victory itself was punctuated at times by truly wonderful experiences. The sunrise over the Caribbean, with no other boat or land in sight in any direction, is something that Ill always remember. And the San Blas islands themselves are breathtakingly beautiful. The lslands are really an archipelago of tiny white sand islets no larger than a football field at the largest (at smallest, we could see several small islands with only one palm tree on them). They are populated by the Kuna aboriginal people, who have land rights and are essentially independently sovereign from the Panamanian government, and who appear to be thriving along with the tourism industry. In the islands, there are beautiful coral reefs to snorkel around, rays to swim with, and white sand beaches to relax on. On one of the islands a beach volleyball net was set up and we managed to play several sets of extremely manly Top Gun-esque volleyball, complete with Kenny Loggins playing on a nearby iPhone. We also had several delicious fish feasts on the islands, which compared nicely with the otherwise fairly austere food on the Victory (eg weevil-infested fruit loops).
The best part of the voyage had to be the other travellers. We were accompanied by 3 German women, 1 French woman, and an Argentinian man. Everyone was extremely friendly, and with little else to do, we all got to know each other and share stories. It was really neat to relax on the boat and to hear the sounds of four different languages (english, french, german, and spanish) wafting around me. Then, in the islands, we randomly bumped into 2 German doctors, who were in the same stage of training (residency) as I am! They managed to guess that I am in paediatrics because, as they said “you are, what do you say…silly!”. It was the first time I wasn’t outnumbered by lawyers…
In the end, we pulled into Portobello on the Panamanian coast in the wee hours of the morning of June 20th. All experiences can be funny in retrospect, and its valid to criticize a bunch of privileged Canadians for complaining about conditions that are akin to much of the world’s living conditions, but really a lot of the voyage on the Victory was uncomfortable or downright terrifying. I would highly recommend going to the San Blas islands to anyone, but I would suggest flying to Panama City and then taking a ferry boat to the islands. I wouldn’t recommend the Victory, if for no other reason than that “bilge” shouldn’t be a word used in a literal sense in everyday parlance more than maybe once every few years.
Anyways, we did survive in the end, and after a series of buses and taxis through Panama, we ended up catching a 15 hour bus from Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rica. We rented a car in San Jose and drove to the home of Jim and Pat Maxwell, Josh’s family friends from Calgary who are now retired in Costa Rica. They have a lovely home with a guest house, and generously welcomed us in despite the fact that we hadn’t showered in 6 days. Their floor appears not to have any bilge on it at all, and while I slept the first night, I wasn’t water boarded once. It’s the little things.