Sailing on the Stahlratte, Part 2: Cruising the Caribbean

May 10 – 14, 2010

Setting sail on Day 1 of the voyage.

The jungled mountains of the Darien staying close as we hugged the coast heading down the San Blas Archipelago.

Ship detail on an island.

Arriving at Isla Moron (in Kuna language: Narrasgandup Dummat), our destination for the first night. Bike was covered to protect against the salt spray.

As soon as we dropped anchor, Steven here jumped in.

Getting ashore and exploring the island.

The steel rat, rusting a bit and requiring regular care, but a handsome sight nonetheless.

Heading ashore in the dinghy to prepare dinner.

Roli in the dinghy. I basically stuck to Roli and helped in whatever he asked.

The girls collecting shells on Isla Moron with our home for the next few days anchored offshore.

Pristine beach all to ourselves.

Eliza and the Stahlratte.

Roli getting a chicken barbeque going.

Mmm, barbequed Jamaican jerk chicken. Besides Cartagena, Ludwig also makes trips to Jamaica and gets some good spices while he’s there.

Having dinner on the island as dusk grew into night.

Sailing about two hours the next morning to our destination for the day, Coco Bandero (in Kuna: Ordup).

An island for the day.

Too small, ok, here’s another one nearby. Amazing to see so many small islands across the landscape. This is all protected area and the Kunas harvest the coconuts from all the islands.

If you’re really bad, you might get castaway on this two-tree island.


One of the cyclists, Parker having a swing on the boom line.

Letting go…

…and plunging into the Caribbean.

View down from the crow’s nest up on the main mast with people relaxing in the net up front.

Looking back at the ship. Black netting was put up to provide shade.

While anchored for the day, Ludwig had some Kunas scrub the side of the ship.

View of our island for the day from the crow’s nest. I tried snorkeling here for the first time and really liked it – nice window into the world under the ocean surface. It was also my first time swimming across deep open waters and I’m not a strong swimmer but managed to make it to the island from the ship.

Preparing orange juice in the kitchen with the passengers whose turn of kitchen duty it was. Along with Roli and I, about four people took turns each day helping with the food duties. The guy in the middle is Seth, the organizing cyclist and the three girls are sisters: (L-R) Maddie, Hannah and Eliza (Seth’s girlfriend). Everyone on board was super friendly and cordial. Giant Roli getting in on the picture.

Seth is actually sponsored by fishing companies for his cycling trip and they’re all about fishing in interesting places. He and Steven caught these two fish on the island and Roli is cleaning them up for dinner.

One of the girls, Danielle, wanted to learn how to clean a fish and Roli is showing her how to make fillets.

Fried fish for dinner. Along with the fish Seth caught, we had barracuda.

Dinner on top, the night before setting sail for Colombia.

Cleaning the ship, getting ready to sail.

Breakfast with a view.

After breakfast on the third day, we got the ship ready for the open water voyage. Ludwig got a weather report from his agent in Cartagena that there were 3-4 meter (10-13 ft) swells on the voyage ahead. If it had been greater than 7 meter (23 ft) swells, Ludwig said we would wait it out.

Roli cranking the bow motor to reel in the anchor.

The anchor raising up and we’re underway. Note the rich blue color of the water.

Hoisting up the sails to add stability to the ship. To move forward only with the sails would take longer and since the ship was on a schedule, it was an engine-powered voyage.

Dolphins surfing the bow of the Stahlratte!

A huge pod of them kept us company for a while before breaking off. The ship was moving wildly up and down and we were wondering how they know not to get hit by the ship.

Ludwig at the captain’s wheel with the sails fully deployed.

The swells on the first day were quite impressive. The ship pitched up and down as she rode the swells. We would see a big swell coming our way and everyone would brace and yee-haw as we went up and over it. It was wilder than any roller coaster ride I’ve been on.

Everyone got a little sick and some people were not feeling good the whole voyage. The mood became quite somber as everyone found their place of comfort on the ship and tried to sleep it off. It was better to be up here in the back than in their beds down low in the front. I started taking sea-sickness pills before getting on the ship, but it was still too much for me and I had to hurl twice. But I felt much better after that and keeping busy also helped.

Preparing breakfast on Day 4, last day of the voyage. My usual duties were to cut tomatoes, pineapple, prepare the cheese and meat plate and anything else that was required. I actually enjoy cutting vegetables, so it wasn’t so bad. And I liked how Roli placed importance on presentation as you eat with your eyes as much as you do with your mouth.

The stove with supports to prevent the pots from moving while we were underway. The three little pots on top were used to make espresso – good strong coffee.

The view from the kitchen. I had to keep an eye on the horizon to quell my queasiness.

Getting sprayed with salt water as we crashed down from a swell. Good thing for that bike cover, but my rotors still got rusty. I was told to spray the bike down with WD-40 before getting on board to protect against the salt, but forgot about it as I was repairing my flat tire.

Dolphins again as we neared Cartagena.

Looking back from the bow (front).

Ludwig keeping a watchful eye on the waters ahead. He and Roli took turns through the night to man the ship. I asked if I could help, but they said they still needed to be on watch because I wasn’t experienced in this, of course.

Reading up top by the captain’s wheel. After I got over my queasiness, I spent lots of time up here with a great view all around.

Looking ahead on the starboard (right) side and first land sighting ahead on the right.

Everyone feeling better as the swells died down near Cartagena.

Sun setting on a wonderful voyage across the Caribbean Sea from Panama to Colombia.

The tattered German flag indicating where the ship was registered.

Heading into Cartagena with a cargo ship chasing us. If he caught up, we would need to let them pass, since they have higher priority for getting into port.

Beautiful colors over Colombia.

The modern Cartagena skyline, as we pulled into port around 7 pm.

Passing by the cargo ship terminal, Colombia’s largest port.

The next morning, Ludwig heading ashore with my bike papers to process the temporary importation. He has to work through a shipping agent and takes care of all the fees. He also got all our passports stamped into Colombia.

Waiting a few hours for my customs papers to process. sanDRina, say hello to Cartagena.

Bringing sanDRina ashore in the dinghy.

I hoped there would be a crane to help unload the bike, but that was wishful thinking.

We just hauled and dragged her onto the pier. Good thing she’s not a pretty bike and doesn’t mind a few scars.

Sneaking a picture at the customs office.

On the ground at last in South America! Good to be back on two wheels and happy to have voyaged across the Caribbean sea on the Stahlratte.

Next: Colombia, Part 1: Cartagena

Previous: Sailing on the Stahlratte, Part 1: Getting On Board

Sailing on the Stahlratte, Part 1: Getting On Board

May 9 – 10, 2010

Journeying overland from North to South America presents all travelers with the question of how to cross the Darien Gap, a 150 kms (95 mile) stretch of dense jungle that has seen no development due to its harsh environment of swamps and rivers. It’s for the better to preserve some raw nature in today’s high-paced world. The Pan-American highway ends in Yaviza, Panama and picks up past the jungle in Colombia. The quick option is to fly over from Panama to Bogota or Quito, but it’s also the expensive option. The more fun option is to put the bike on a sailboat and cross over to Cartagena, Colombia, across the Caribbean Sea.

There have been quite a few riders who’ve taken the sailboat option and had a bad experience as the captain was either inexperienced or didn’t deliver as promised. With that in mind, I wanted to make sure to sail with the most reliable captain and boat in these waters: Ludwig on the Stahlratte, a 40 meter (130 ft) steel-hulled sail ship, built in 1903 and still going strong. I contacted Ludwig before I began my trip and planned the Central America portion of the ride in order to get to the boat on time. May 10 was the last sailing date before the Stahlratte was going into maintenance for about two months in Cartagena, and as I got delayed leaving the US, this was the earliest I could make it down here. When Ludwig informed me that the trip was booked completely by a group, I asked if there was someway I could still come aboard as part of the crew and work my way across, not requiring much comforts, as I was mainly looking to just get across to Colombia. He happily agreed and said he could use the extra help and I would only need to pay $360 to transport the motorcycle over. I was feeling good about this and excited to be part of the crew of a sailing ship, that too on my first voyage across open waters.

Ludwig, along with all the other captains, offers a four day sailing trip where the first two days are spent exploring the beautiful San Blas Archipelago and then sailing across open waters to Cartagena in about 30 hours. I came on board a day early to meet the crew and get familiar with my duties.

The Stahlratte was anchored near Carti on the Caribbean side of Panama (upper-right on map) and from Chepo (blue marker), I had to take the Llano-Carti road across the divide (black line along the white makers). The road is to the right of the right-most white marker.

The route of the voyage from Carti, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

It was a beautiful ride as the road crossed the continental divide.

The road was mostly paved, but had gravel spots in the troughs. The route also steeply descended and ascended rapidly.

Entrance fee of $9 required by the Kuna Indians as this is a protected area.

Riding through dense jungle with a bit of rain.

The fast-flowing Rio Carti Grande, which was about a meter deep. In the dry season it’s easy to cross the river, but with the start of the rainy season, there was no way.

The road picking up on the other side. They’re building a new bridge, which should be done in a year or so.

Ludwig arranged with the Kunas to have a canoe ready for me to take me to the Stahlratte.

I felt like I’ve done my part in getting to the end of the road here on time and now things were happening to get me to Colombia.

Heaving the front wheel into the canoe.

Balancing on the frame and turning her forward.

And lifting the rear of the bike into the canoe. The guy at the back was holding onto my rear tool tube and snapped a zip-tie, but besides that, it went quite smoothly.

Aboard my first canoe with sanDRina.

They used planks on either side to stabilize the bike but I remained sitting on her, just in case.

Heading out.

Kunas paddling upstream in a slim canoe.

The lead boatsman checked the silt build along the way, from perhaps known sand bars.

Cruising down the Rio Carti Grande.

Heading out to the open sea.

Huge pieces of driftwood at the mouth of the river.

The brown, murky, sediment-filled color of the river slowly getting diluted by the blueness of the sea. The Stahlratte off in the distance.

Coming up to the Stahlratte.

The Stahlratte, meaning “steel rat”. A Bremen, Germany registered vessel. It was built in 1903 in The Netherlands and started life out as a fishing vessel. It was bought in 1984 by the Association of Advancement for Sailing Navigation in Germany and converted to the current twin mast schooner layout and is heading on a long term voyage around the world. Besides a hefty diesel engine, two generators, a seawater-desalination unit, she’s also equipped with all the necessary safety equipment, including satellite communications.

Pulling up alongside.

The Captain, Ludwig getting the ropes ready to lift sanDRina on board.

Yeah, just as we got close to the ship, the bike started leaning over with me still sitting on it and I feared we were going to fall in the water. Quick save by the Kunas.

Ludwig’s First Officer, Roland or Roli, stabilizing the bike as she was winched up.

Easy does it.

Getting some air.

The pulleys used for lifting the bike on board. She was tied around the handle bars and the luggage frame.

Safely on board the Stahlratte.

Passing my panniers onto the ship.

Roli securing the bike to the side of the ship. He’s also a rider and has been traveling for many years, setting off from Austria. He custom-built a motorcycle and rode around South America for five years. After Ludwig helped him in getting across, he decided to stay on board and help restore the ship before finding passage onwards to Asia, hoping the Stahlratte heads that way. He’s skilled in electronics, among other things and re-did lots of the wiring on the ship.

The canoe that we came in. Cost $20.

Woohoo, finally on board the Stahlratte! I was impressed at the size of the ship and being greater than 30 meters (100 ft), she can be called a ship instead of a boat.

On the upper deck looking back at the captain’s bridge.

Looking ahead at the ship’s wheel, used for manual control. The two levers beside it control the rudder and engine speed. She also had auto-pilot, which was used once we were on open waters.

Ludwig preparing dinner in the ship’s galley of steak and potatoes. They liked to eat well and both were good cooks.

Having dinner at the main dining table on the upper level. The girl on the right is Peggy, a friend of a friend of Ludwig’s who spent about two weeks on board, who was leaving the next day for Costa Rica when the main passengers were due to arrive.

The interior of the Stahlratte – looking towards the front from the library/office into the kitchen. The hatch door behind the bench was the entrance to my cabin.

Heading down into my cabin for the trip.

It was a good-sized room at the back of the ship and that fan made it a pleasant journey.

The cabin was right behind the engine room and there were some diesel fumes but at least I had one small window to the outside world.

Ladder leading out of my dungeon.

The back of the ship where Roli slept. Watermelons in the net.

The exhaust pipe from the engine exiting the side of the ship with a workbench above it.

Food stores in the back of lots of fresh vegetables and fruits.

The kitchen preparation area and indoor dining.

Cooler stacked with sodas and beer (part of my duties were to keep it restocked).

Filling up on fresh water for the trip. There was an on board desalinization unit that could pump out 120 liters of fresh water in an hour.

Pantry with lots of food for the trip.

Heading down to the main passenger cabin from the kitchen.

The main passenger cabin, which slept about 20 people.

A typical bed for paying passengers. Most of the them complained that it was hot and stuffy, so I was glad to have a fan in my face.

The shower, which proved quite tricky while the boat was swaying wildly.

The engine room (under the kitchen). It’s a Volund Diesel from Denmark, built in 1954. It’s an in-line 4 cylinder and each cylinder has a capacity of 20 liters. It’s pumps out about 300 hp at a maximum of 280 RPM. The sound was quite rhythmic, almost like a train. We ran on the engine most of the time, since the winds weren’t right for using the sails for propulsion.

Ludwig at his office entering in all the details of the passengers.

He arranged for an immigrations officer to come on board and process everyone’s passport – getting an exit stamp out of Panama.

Nearby Kuna islands. The Kuna Indians were pushed out to the San Blas Archipelago as the Spanish took over the mainland and they’ve been here for about 500 years making their life on the open waters.

The passenger group loading onto the canoes at the river. It was two cyclists doing Alaska to Tierra del Fuego who had their friends fly down for the sailing trip. They met two other Irish cyclists and invited them to join them across the waters.

Next: Sailing on the Stahlratte, Part 2: Cruising The Caribbean

Previous: Panama, Part 2: The Canal & Darien