Fun fact #112: there is no public road connecting North America to South America. The nearly impenetrable jungle wilderness between Panama and Colombia is affectionately called the Darien Gap by overlanders and, in its current state, must be sailed around or flown over. A few brave whack-jobs over the decades have ventured overland through the Gap with a vehicle but S&M Boiler Works will not be breathing the rarified air of these deranged, errr…. hardy adventurers.
To continue onto South America we opted for passage on a 112-year schooner named the Stahlratte (steel-rat). This German-registered sailing ship is the only vessel of its type currently willing to transport motorcycles around the Gap. At the time of our crossing the additional option from Panama to Colombia with motorcycles was a ferry operated by Ferry Express but it has since stopped operation and it is unclear if it will ever resume operation. While in Mexico we debated taking the ferry as it was a less expensive choice. In the end we decided that the Stahlratte would be worth the extra cost because it would be an adventure unto itself as it slowly island hopped through the San Blas islands vs blasting across the Caribbean in 18 hours like the ferry. It was worth every peso. Our five-day journey to Colombia was a trip we will forever look back on in fond memory.
On the trip so far we have had few “hard” dates/appointments but meeting the Stahlratte on time was very important. Not a good day to have bike problems or mechanical issues one would think. As we were merging from one highway to another on the outskirts of Panama City, Mike was almost through the full circle of the 270 degree on-ramp (cloverleaf we call them in the US) when both wheels suddenly went out from under him and he and his motorcycle went side sliding onto the Pan-American Highway. Thank goodness for full protection riding gear and a well armored bike; a little road rash on the aluminum luggage was the worst of it. Mike got off without a scratch, though he was a little shaken. After picking the bike up with the help of a passing taxi driver we were on our way. The cause of the tumble was spilled diesel fuel covering the entire lane, most likely a trucker forgot to put his fuel cap back on after filling the tank and the centrifical force of the ramp sloshed fuel oil onto the road. The spill was hidden by the sharp turning design of the ramp. Shannon witnessed Mike go down and pulled immediately onto the shoulder to lend a hand. Her pulling onto the shoulder enabled Shannon to bypass the diesel spill. We were lucky we both didn’t go down. Total lost time was 20 minutes, not too shabby for laying down a DR650 on the Pan-American Highway.
Waiting on the concrete pier for loading onto the Stahlratte by Kuna longshoremen. We were now in the territory of the Kuna people and not really in Panama anymore. The Kuna autonomous region compromises the San Blas Archipelago and a thin strip of coastline stretching from Colon to the Colombian border. There were 6 motorcycles booked for the passage to Colombia.
The Black Donkey at lands end. The Stahlratte is anchored in the distance while the captain sorts out a minor dispute with the Kuna authorities over the use of the pier to load the motorcycles. For a moment we thought we were going to be turned away. After a tense half hour we were cleared to load and the ship motored up to the pier.
Not very graceful but effective, the yard arm is rigged over the pier and the Black Donkey is cherry picked and soon airborne over the Caribbean. Captain Ludwig has done this many times over the years and made quick work of loading the bikes.
Shannon’s bike Zippy gracefully slides over the rail.
Shannon and deck hand Damien wait for the skiff to come along side.
South America bound on a century old schooner. It does not get much better than this.
Hello, my name is….
For over 100 years, the Stahlratte has had many incarnation: sailing as a fishing boat, hosting a revolutionary commune in the sixties, taking part in Greenpeace actions in the eighties. Now under the command of Captain Ludwig Hoffman the Stahlratte makes it home sailing to ports of call around the Caribbean. Our trip from Panama to Colombia took 5 days.
After the bikes were loaded from the pier we sailed a mile offshore to a small and densely populated Kuna island. We skiffed to the island for an overnight home-stay with a Kuna family while Captain Ludwig prepared the Stahlratte for sea.
The Kuna are a social people and choose to densely colonize a handful of the San Blas Islands and leave the majority of the 365 islands in the archipelago uninhabited. Every square foot of our home-stay island was developed. There are no roads or vehicles, all traffic is by foot or boat.
This is one of the nicer restroom facilities on the island. All sanitation is directly into the sea and these little huts ringed the island to meet the needs of the islands 800 inhabitants. While using the loo it was novel to look through the gaps in the floor boards at the fish swimming below.
Main street on the island.
Shannon with Captain Lugwig Hoffman. LuLu, as the captain is affectionately known by his family and crew, is a character bigger than life, refreshingly irreverent, and absolutely competent. He made our time on the Stahlratte a lifelong memory. Thanks LuLu!
We anchored among a dozen uninhabited islands for 24 hours of snorkeling, exploring, and general relaxing in the warm Caribbean breeze. Although the skiff is pictured it was actually faster to swim to the nearby island.
At anchor in paradise.
We put up the sails whenever there was enough wind otherwise we ran on the antique diesel engine (the last of its kind still running on planet Earth).
Kuna fisherman on the morning tide.
Anchorage on the Panama/Colombian border at the village of Sapzurro. The jungle in the photograph is the Eastern boundary of the infamous Darien Gap. We anchored here and got stamped into Colombia the following morning after a skiff ride to the immigration office.
Waiting for the immigration office to open.
Once we set anchor in the harbor in Cartagena, Colombia the bikes were yarded off the Stahlratte onto a flat decked pontoon for portage to shore.
Happy to finally make land in South America even though it doesn’t look like it.
Without fanfare we roll onto Colombian soil for the quasi-illegal run through town to the customs office to sort out the importing of the bikes. No one batted an eye as six motorcycles were ferried to shore at 7 o’clock in the morning.
Welcome to South America!