On the morning of Christmas Eve, Ellen and I went back down to the docks where we’d arrived in Cartagena, to drop off our passports at immigration. (Apparently Christmas is a celebration but not an excuse for a two-week-long holiday like in Canada.) While we were there, a European man approached us to ask whether we could give him advice about taking a sailboat to Panama. He wasn’t sure if the trip was right for him. This is the advice we gave him.
Take this trip if you like camping. Life on a boat is a lot like camping. Take this trip if you like boats and sailing – boats are slow, imperfect, leaky, meandering, and peaceful. Take this trip if you’re comfortable being uncomfortable. Your clothes will be wet, your food will be cold, even the fresh water will seem slightly salty, and I’d be surprised if at least one of your things doesn’t blow overboard. (Mine was my bikini bottoms, hanging up to dry on the last day.) Don’t take this sailing trip if you think you’re in for a luxury cruise. Don’t take it if you have high expectations, expensive tastes, or a strong need for control. If airplane delays worry or offend you, this isn’t the trip for you. If getting a flat tire ruins your road trip, you should rethink sailing. According to our captain, most trips go more smoothly than ours went, but if you expect smooth sailing, you’re invariably going to be disappointed.

The cabin was bigger than our tents, but the beds were narrow, so it was hard to sleep comfortably.

The cabin was bigger than our tents, but the beds were narrow, so it was hard to sleep comfortably.

This trip was perfect for us, but for Betty and Wilma, the other two tourists on the boat, most of it ranged from barely tolerable boredom and misery to pure unadulterated torment. I’m going to tell you my perspective on their story as a bit of a cautionary tale of expectations gone wrong.
Betty and Wilma were travelling together, having met at a hostel in Central America. Both were well-travelled, and Betty worked in tourism for a cruise line. They both spoke Spanish fairly fluently, as well as English and their native language. They had arranged a sailing trip at a hostel in Panama, but didn’t like the way their first captain spoke to them about the boat, so they arranged passage to Cartagena with Antonio instead. (It is recommended, by the way, that you meet your captain and make sure you’re comfortable with the boat before you pay and board.) They told us they’d paid less than $400 for six days’ passage from Portobelo, Panama, to San Blas, and then on to Cartagena.
On their first night on the boat, the sea was rough and they were seasick. They decided that they couldn’t go on to Cartagena, and that the captain should change course and go to Turbo instead, avoiding the open water crossing they feared. Now, there are many boats that go that route, but Antonio’s boat wasn’t one of them. The captain agreed to look into it, asked around, heard it was dangerous, and decided to continue with the original plan to Cartagena. When we got on the boat, bound for Cartagena, and wouldn’t agree to change our plans for them, they flipped out. They screamed, they raged, they cried, they threatened. Ellen and I might have considered agreeing to arrive at a different port than Cartagena, except we didn’t want to encourage them in thinking that they could veto the captain’s decisions, and besides, our cousin Daisy told us we’d love Cartagena.
Betty and Wilma seemed to think that the boat was like a taxi, and that they, as paying customers, were in charge and the captain, as their employee, should do what they wanted. I saw it as more like we were hitchhikers, or possibly paying guests, sharing the captain’s journey with him and helping with chores and food. The captain is the expert, the captain is the owner of the boat, and it’s his decision where he will take it and when. The girls didn’t see it this way at all. This difference in perception was just one of many as the trip progressed.

For the trip to work, everybody has to take their turn helping the captain with the boat, like steering while he adjusts the sails.

For the trip to work, everybody has to take their turn helping the captain with the boat, like steering while he adjusts the sails.

Both girls were scared of the sea, rather than exhilarated by it as Ellen and I were. It turns out that while Betty was a generally pleasant and positive person who was nervous about sailing, Wilma had what must be clinical anxiety and was actively trying to bring Betty, and the rest of us down. Neither of the girls was comfortable with the boat. Both interpreted each creak and bump of the boat as something awful happening. Every gust of wind felt like a storm, and every wave foretold a tempest descending upon us. The isolated islands and night sky free from artificial light pollution that Ellen and I so openly admired were indications that nobody would find our bodies when we inevitably gave in to our imminent destruction.

A frighteningly isolated island with no night life, surrounded by dangerous storm clouds that show the ship will probably be hit by lightning.

A frighteningly isolated island with no night life, surrounded by dangerous storm clouds that indicate the ship will probably be hit by lightning.

You assume I’m exaggerating. I’m really not. These girls, especially Wilma, suffered the worst anxiety on the trip that I’ve ever witnessed. Neither was comfortable sleeping, and while Betty took seasickness pills that knocked her out one night, Wilma sat upright, knees curled up around her in fetal position, eyes wide open like saucers, for the entire sea journey.
Needless to say, the nervousness had its predictable effect on them. Betty came down with a urinary tract infection that she was sure would turn into a deadly kidney infection. Wilma had a full-on panic attack on the open water, convinced that the boat wasn’t moving, the sails, motor, and radio non-functioning, and the water and diesel used up. She flailed, punched the captain, and freaked out, completely lost to hysteria.

To be completely fair, the captain did have to dive into the water to check the motor when it stalled.

To be completely fair, the captain did have to dive into the water at one point in our trip to check the motor when it stalled.

After about 40 hours on the open ocean, we saw an island in the distance, and both Betty and Wilma begged the captain to radio the island for emergency assistance to get them off the boat. While Antonio was fiddling with the radio and confirming with Betty to what extent she’d be able to pay for an emergency rescue, Wilma saw a nearby motorboat and flagged down the three Colombian fishermen in it, who cheerfully ferried the two girls to the nearby island, home of an expensive resort. We waited while they made arrangements and got medical treatment, then had to go back to the resort with them to get a statement from the doctor (who wasn’t even a doctor at all) that they’d left the boat and been treated, so the captain wouldn’t be held responsible for getting them to Cartagena.
Finally, we made it back to our sailboat and were able to do the last 24 hours of the journey in peace. We had realized, but couldn’t fully appreciate while they were onboard, how much their anxiety had affected our enjoyment of the trip. Whenever we’d made a comment about enjoying the weather, we were contradicted. If something was bad but not terrible, “just you wait, it’ll get worse.” Mostly it was Wilma being negative, but neither girl was happy with the trip. I’m sure there are dozens of travellers being warned against our captain, as they painted him as a willfully neglectful, dangerously inept seaman.
Really, I felt sorry for all of us on the boat while they were in the worst throes of anxiety. The captain was sleeping restlessly if at all, worried Wilma would stab him in the night from another panic attack or bout of hysteria. The girls suffered immensely because of their fear, and mostly because they didn’t turn back or make other travel arrangements when they realized they were uncomfortable. Ellen and I got off lightly. Their fear and anxiety cast a shadow over some of our enjoyment of the journey, but overall we still loved it. It was too wonderful not to love, for us.