A Daring Crossing: Part 1

Arriving in Panama City we quickly found a sea bound service that could provide transport to Colombia.  Our Captain spoke with an Austrian accent and after some playful negotiations, we opted to take him up on our shipment around the Darrien to Colombia.  Although the decision was made only hours after entering Panama City, simplicity attracted us to the Capitan.   The vessel was scheduled to set sail from Portobello, Panama in less than 18 hours. 

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The Capitan had spent ten years sailing the Caribbean and in his previous life was a businessman and restaurant owner in Austria.  After a messy divorce he opted for a new life in paradise and moved his business ventures to the warm waters which we were about to embark.  The arrangement was to pull out of Portobello and be in Colombia four days later.  After further discloser, we found that our destination was not actually Colombia, but a small Caribbean town called Obaldia, on the Panamanian side of the Darrien mainland. 

Fritz had a somewhat trivial past in the aqua blue waters.  Only a year after moving his life to the 40-foot catamaran, his business mentality got the best of him and he began offering a charter service from Panama to Colombia and back.   There was a demand for such a service as the only professional business to bridge the countries was by air.  Soon, Fritz had a second boat and another Capitan making trips for travelers at $500.00 a head, all-inclusive, except alcoholic beverages.  The Captain also noticed a growing trend in motorists looking for transport.  The wheels cranking in his mind, he began searching for a large ferry in which he could offer the only commercial RORO (roll on, roll off) service between the countries.  This would have been the perfect answer to the nightmare that currently exists for motorists touring the Pan-American; not to mention, extremely lucrative for the Captain.

There was a period between 2012 and 2014 that another entrepreneur offered such a service, but it was short lived as customs in Panama consistently found narcotics being muled by the ferry.  Captain Fritz’s plan was to run a tight ship and professional service that would make its money by transporting persons and their vehicles to and from the ports of entry/exit.  It would be the quickest, simplest, and most cost-effective way to make the transit.  Waiting for the opportune moment, his sailboats worked for a few years as he looked for potential ferries.  Eventually he found a retired passenger ferry that was quality and priced right.  It was Canadian and before the cost of transport to the sunny Caribbean he paid 1.5 million dollars. 

The business made sense as it would only take a couple years to break even on the investment, after which huge profits would be realized.   Little did he know, there was a problem.

Captaining his new giant ferry, while employees continued services with his sailboats, he began his search for harbors to dock the behemoth in Colombia and Panama.  Panama was easy.  With a little paper work and some fees, the city of Colon became the new home port for the beast.  Colombia wasn’t so kind.   His search lasted for months.  Cartagena was the logical answer, but there were complications in his negotiations with officials.  The same went for Turbo and other locations. The problem was buried in Colombian corruption.  The reason the previous ferry, from 2012-14, was granted permission was because of relations with the cartels, and Fritz had no intention of nefarious activity the governments or customers.

Frustrated and depressed from the extortionist practices delaying the simple act of parking his boat.  He retired the ferry to its home port in Panama in hope that one day Colombia’s habits would improve.  Since then, the Captain went back to running tourists with his sailboats.

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Fast forward to 2018, we arrived in Portabella thirty minutes late to find our Captain in no hurry to set sail.  There we six passengers total: two Polish men, an Italian couple who now call Dublin home, and the Naylor brothers with their motors.  Our first test as sailors was to figure out how get our bikes from the dock to the boat.  Nothing without an obstacle, there was a cargo boat that refused to move and was blocking our path.  To state this clearly, our sailboat was tied to a cargo boat which was roped to the dock where our motors sat.

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Getting our cargo onto the sailboat involved a plank and six shirtless, barefooted, single-toothed Panamanian sea dogs and about five breathless minutes.   Never the less, the bikes landed on the ship and we strapped them to starboard side of the boat.  Nearly three hours after our arrival to the port, including time for our first meal on board, the mainsail was raised, and we began the next leg of our journey to the continent of South America.  

Prior to departure, we heard February can be a rough time of year to sail the 365 islands that make up the Archipelago which we were traveling along.  This was found to be true as our stomachs were ill-prepared for the ten-foot swells.  Of the ten members on board, nine of us experienced symptoms derived from the motion of the ocean.  We were lucky to have found some Dramamine on our way to Portobello that morning, which provided some relief.  As for Captain Fritz, he was born with an immunity to sea-sickness and had never experienced the churn personally.  As result, he ushered our motos through the seas with the jib and main under full sail and diesel fumes spewing from the twin engines.  He knew we needed to make time as there was no way to anchor for good sleep for some distance.  We spent nine hours full steam ahead bouncing through the swells at speed of 6-7 knots.  

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The open sea was a thrill after months on land. We spent the initial hours of our maiden voyage perched on the bow dipping between the crests as the nose plunged into the blue and soaked our burning skin.  It felt as if our adventure was finding new life until Seth’s lunch decided to make a reappearance.  The final three hours of Seth’s first day on the Catamaran was spent grasping the side of the boat as he hung his head overboard to feed the fish.  I sympathized for my brother until I experienced an explosive bout after a private dinner of lentil soup with the captain later that night.  Belly’s agitated, we finally found shelter behind the first Island of the San Blas chain at 11 pm.  Dropping anchor in the dark, we could barely see a handful of other boats nearby.  With a sign of relief, we slipped away to our bunk in the starboard hull.

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Morning arrived with heat radiating through our portholes and we arose to the smell of breakfast and coffee.  Finding our way to the deck our eyes needed a moment to perceive where we had arrived the night before.  What was visualized was a real-life Corona commercial.  Perfect paradise, the water was clear and blue, islands spotted the horizon, there were coconut palms holding together the sand that made up the islands, and coral reefs full of life.   Yet, there was a blemish in the mist of this wonderland.  A behemoth in its rusty grandeur paid tribute to a deceased dream of an opportunistic businessman.  It sat unevenly on top of the outer reef as large waves did their best to erase the imperfection.  At this point, the story of Capitan Fritz came full circle.

He explained that a couple years prior another Capitan was ferrying some customers on the same route, in the very boat we were in that morning.  The Capitan, who was working for Fritz, arrived late just as we had, but, problems arose while navigating the obstacles surrounding the island and the boat was drove onto a reef damaging the hull and it began to take on water.  Fortunately, the passengers were able to make it to the nearby island, however, the boat was stuck with no way off the reef.  Frantically, the Capitan called Fritz for aid with his dilemma.  Fritz, knowing a professional service would take time and upwards of $50,000 to align, resorted to alternative options.  It just so happened, he had a Canadian ferry with appropriate power and no other tasks to perform.  Taking matters into his own hands he immediately departed from Colon to rescue his stranded yacht that was getting dissected by crashing waves.

Hours after departure from Colon, his naked eyes were introduced to the catastrophe.  He examined the critical state of his sailboat from a distance and began making maneuvers to unstick the problem…. What happened next must have seemed unreal.  During the final stages of the rescue mission an engine blew.  Suddenly natural currents took control of ferry and the power of the sea pulled the behemoth onto the reef beside his somewhat sunken sailboat. 

The sailboat was eventually rescued and repaired.  Unfortunately, the shear enormity of the ferry gave it such immobility that only rising seas might one day free the beast.  Additionally, time is generously allowing salt to consume the boat.  Now it is rests as a monument to the severed dreams of one man.  The same seventy-year-old man captaining our journey, now starting over with a single sailboat ferrying customers just as he did ten years prior.

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The image of Fritz’s ferry stuck with us as we skipped through the swells between the islands.  As the days floated by, we developed great respect for our Captain.  More the anything else, his attitude and perseverance regardless of the destruction of his dream left an impression that we were able to relate to.  Although of different magnitudes, our travels have not been without opposition and disappointment, and at times we thought our dream might be dashed.  However, despite our dreams being discouraged, we both persevered by consciously choosing to neglect our opposition and placed our concentration in keeping positive attitudes.  Faith in optimism is the sole necessity of any venture.

Fritz now lives in paradise and gets to do what he loves.  We made it to South America and get to continue our journey of learning and growth.  

Ross Naylor