Boating 4 Adventure
The schooner on which we booked passage is ancient. It was built as a fishing vessel in the Netherlands and first sailed in 1903. Later in its life, it was refitted to accommodate an engine and a super structure was added. Eventually the engine was replaced with a 1955 vintage, 280 horse power 4-cylinder VOLUND that is still in operation today. This 2-mast-schooner is now known as the Stahlratte and its home port is in Bremerhaven, Germany; however, it currently operates out of the Caribbean, mostly transporting riders and their motorcycles between Panama and Columbia. During a colorful period of its life it was operated by Green Peace and sailed missions in the North Sea.
Ludwig, our captain, was just as colorful a character as our schooner. He seemed to know everything about the boat: the sails, the ropes, the engine, the wenches and most importantly the sailing characteristics of the schooner itself. He has worked on the Stahlratte for the past 23 years, so it is no wonder he knows every steel panel and rivet that holds the ship together.
After getting our bikes and bags safely onboard, which was an adventure itself, we headed for our first destination. The calm waters of the San Blas Islands, where we anchored for a couple of hours. Most of the San Blas Islands are less than 5 feet above sea level, uninhabited and covered in a dense forest of coconut palms. After a couple hours of swimming and walking around an island nearest the schooner, we pulled the anchor and headed southeast. Once underway, the crew served us a delieous meal made from the fresh lobster they purchased a few hours earlier from the native Kuna people who inhabit these islands.
After we left calm waters, Ludwig ordered the crew to hoist the sails. With sails aloft on both masts and the engine running we could hit around 10 knots an hour, which would put us in Cartagena about a day later. It was quite a sight the see those big sails blossom in the wind. We went to bed that night with the Stahlratte listing slightly to the port side, gently pulling and pushing us toward our destination.
My deep sleep was abruptly interrupted around 2:00AM when I noticed the Stahlratte was lurching violently side to side and back and forth in a choatic dance that meant the weather had significantly worsened. Not one to miss the action, I popped out of bed and headed for the main deck. What I saw was an ocean that had come to life with strong gusty winds and seas with swells of five feet. Needless to say, it was a thrill to feel the power of nature tossing our heavy steel ship with motorcycles onboard around with such ease.
Omar soon joined me on deck for the show. As we were watching, we heard a noise above us and saw the main sail first develop a small tear, then rip along a seam to create a five foot hole. I began thinking the worst, but Ludwig and his crew didn’t seem to be too bothered. They must have seen something like this happen many times before and knew it was no big deal. After an hour or so we made our way back to the lower deck where the wildly rocking schooner put me to sleep again. The storm persisted for another eight or more hours then gradually weakened.
There were two really cool things I witnessed during our voyage. We saw bioluminescent in the waters the night of the storm. It caused tiny little lights to glow in the ocean alongside the schooner as it passed by. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but Omar reported seeing the same thing.
I also saw a gull that was following our schooner. The gull would glide just above the water waiting for a flying fish to break surface, then would put on a mad dash to try to catch it. Mostly it missed and the fish would get away. One time it was lucky and got its reward.
The other thing about this voyage that made it memorable was the people. All of the passengers were motorcycle adventurers like Omar and me. They booked passage on the Stahlratte to get their motorcycles around the Darien Gap with the goal of touring South America, and most were planning to ride all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Some were even planning to ship their motorcycles from Argentina to South Africa and continue their journeys on the African, European and Asian continents. Of the 17 passengers on the Stahlratte, there were representatives from Israel, England, Switzerland, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Costa Rica, Columbia and America. Needless to say, we had many lively conversations about our past, present and future adventures.