Sailing across the Darien Gap on the Stahlratte, a 111 year old, 120 ft sailboat, past the tropical San Blas Islands with 17 bikes and 26 people.

Panama City to Cartí

The day begins with a 3 hour ride from Panama City to Cartí, a small port on the gulf of San Blas. Heading south on 1 towards Darien there is a turn off that heads north to the Cartí and the Caribbean coast through the San Blas hills. This road is as hilly and twisty and steep as any you will find anywhere in the world. Beautifully paved for most of it and yet somehow doesn't make google maps. I don't know too much about the history of it but this area belongs to the Kuna people and to go down the road there is a check point where they check your passport as well as issue a fee for you and your motorcycle ($13).

I leave from Panama City at around 8:45 am and miraculously it is not raining yet. At the last toll booth out of Panama City I was told I needed to buy a $10 toll card to get through the toll booth even though the toll is only $1.40. I ask if I can just pay the toll but the lady there is unsympathetic and insists I have to. Cars start beeping behind me and I see a cop just past the toll booth so I go around the gate and pull up to the officer. I ask him about the card and he confirms I need to buy it but after chatting a bit about my trip he says that I am free to go but when I return to Panama I should buy toll!

It started to rain as I head down the Panamerican highway towards the turnoff to Cartí. I expected to see other motorcycles on the route but for the first hour I didn't see anyone. I pull to the side of the road to close the vents on my jacket. My rain liner goes inside my jacket so there is really no point to wear it unless it is cold...either way my suit is going to get soaked...really poor design. As I am zipping up my vents I see two or three bikes zip past...they give me an acknowledgement beep.

Shortly after I get back on my bike I see the turn off to Cartí. I double check the email to be sure it's the right one but the email from the ship captain doesn't jive with the road sign. So I decide to go a little further just in case there is another one. After 10km I turn around and take the turn off. 20km detour in the pouring rain...ah well.

The road is windy and awesome and I keep thinking to myself what I had been thinking a lot at that time..."if only it wasn't raining this would be really fun." I throw caution to the wind and I try to have as much fun with it as I can but it's difficult. There are very sharp and blind crests and it's pouring rain. The road was very steep and sometimes it was hard to get the bike slowed down enough for the next turn and I didn't want to lean it over too far. Also, surprisingly there was a bit of traffic.

After about 30 mins or so I see tail lights of a bike. I guess I was pushing it pretty hard to go 20km out of the way and catch the bikes that had past me...or maybe they were different bikes that hit the turn off while I was past it? No matter...I pass a couple of the bikes and then hit the check point. Stop, pay, continue on. Getting close to the water can see the gulf at the crests of the hill. Right near the end I see a guy on Triumph Tiger for the final little dirt section. I pull up along side of him and egg him on to run up the rear and have some fun. 2 mins of muddy dirt and we reach the town which consists of a small hotel, restaurant and a dock. We are the first ones there and we can see the Stahlratte in the distance waiting for us.

Loading the Bikes

We then pushed our bikes to the end of the pier and start pulling off gear in preparation for loading.

17 bikes lined the pier for loading! It was an odd feeling. Going so far on this trip alone and not really running into many riders and yet so many doing the same trip just at slightly different timing.

The Stahlratte, even though 120 feet, runs right up to the pier and digs into the mud. No anchor needed.

The mighty KTM gets loaded!

We use the mast and the ships winch to hoist the bikes. Pretty primitive but quite effective and efficient. Didn't take long until there were 12 bikes on deck.

The bikes are just kept on deck and roped to the side and covered. Pretty primitive and through the rough seas not everyones bike came out completely unscathed. My bikes' fender was bent under for the trip and sustained some damage. Another guy had a broken light and another broken hand guard.

Doesn't take me long to spot the crows nest. I ask if we can go up there...I get a response like, "why the hell not?". Oh yeah, I'm not in America the land of the risk is yours.

Pretty cool view from up top of all the can spot my KTM just below.

Another guy, Chris, climbs up shortly after to get some shots.

The ships are supplied by this mobile grocery store. 23 people, 3 crew and nothing to do but eat and drink for 4 days...many supplies and beers were purchased.

The Stahlratte

What I remember but please don't quote me on this:

Built in 1903 in Holland originally as a fishing boat. 38.5 meters long. Sleeps 25 people. Originally didn't have a deck that and the current engine were added about 70 years ago.

Captain for the last 22 years is named Ludwig...really funny guy with as much character as the boat. Great food and a great crew of 3 including the Captain.

The boat is owned and operated by a's a non-commercial deal. Operating costs of a boat that size are huge.

Cruising speed was between 7-10 knots. Most of the time we used motor and sails but we had favorable winds most of the trip so we made really good time.

San Blas Islands (Take 1)

Shortly after the first batches of bikes were loaded we were ushered onto a small boat and told we were going to an island while they pack the bikes away and then load the remaining. We weren't quite sure what we'd need but I grabbed some money, a towel and a toothbrush.

We headed to a Kuna inhabited island with a small restaurant and some bungalows. The rest of the evening is spent swimming between islands, playing volleyball, eating a feast of fish, lobster, crap, chicken, fruit and more.

We were then treated to a spectacularly large full orange moon that of course my point and shoot doesn't do justice.

I had a quite enjoyable night swim under the moonlight before they turn off the generators and the islands go dark. We retreat to little huts packed with beds for a rough nights sleep with some very high winds.

Back on the Stahlratte

The next morning we head back to the Stahlratte on lanchas and get debriefed and settled. This was my bunk...cozy. They also had a nice big breakfast waiting for us with surprisingly delicious and varied food...not bad for a tiny boat kitchen!

San Blas Islands (Take 2)

We set sail for the 2-3 hr ride to a different set of islands were we would anchor for 2 nights before heading to Cartagena, Colombia.

Naturally I had to head back into the crows nest now that we were sailing through all these spectacular islands.

Video from the Crows Nest


These are the islands we anchored off of. Absolutely gorgeous and eerily similar to the Pearl Keys. These islands are not inhabited and the coco trees are not native...these were mangrove islands but are now coco plantations of the Kuna people.

A couple days of snorkeling, eating, resting, reading. We also had fun jumping, diving, flipping off the side of the boat and one afternoon we rigged up the motorcycle hoist as a rope swing.

It was nice to meet back up with Christian, Greg, Felipe and Silvana... the crew I met in Mexico and rode with for a few weeks.

This was a popular destination for many tours and charters. Although the entire time we never interacted with anyone from outside our boat.

The money shot!

BBQ on the beach.

Captain Ludwig aka Lulu with some Kuna friends.

Cartagena, Colombia

At 5am after the second night docked (3rd night since loading the bikes) we set off for the roughly 30 hour straight shot to Colombia. This time of year the sea is quite rough and it was challenging for many of us who suffer from motion sickness. Of the 23 of us passengers the symptoms ran the full spectrum from completely fine, "I don't know what is wrong with you people", to vomiting over the side for 30 hrs straight. I suffered from mild nausea while lying down to intolerable nausea while moving about.

Most of my time was spent on the upper deck in the rear of the boat listening to music...eating crackers, drinking water and avoiding moving or even talking to people. Half asleep on my lounge chair when a huge wave hits the side of the boat. My lounge chair goes sliding across the deck...with me in it...and slams me into the railing. Not only did it hurt like hell but it was extraordinarily close to throwing me, my camelback and my phone out of the boat. It was a rude awakening to say the least but luckily there were about 5 people standing around that area at the time to help.

After that I decided to sleep in my bunk. Later that evening I woke up and it seemed calmer. I went to the upper deck to find it deserted. Full sky of stars...calm ocean and no sea sickness. For the next couple of hours I got to really enjoy being out at sea, help take down some sails and talk with the crew.

At around midnight I retired back to my bunk. Not long after the seas got the roughest they had been the entire voyage. We were rocking up and down and back and forth very violently and motorcycle boxes are slamming into each other. By this time I was over most of my sea sickness and just kind of drifted in and out of was not uncomfortable and somehow kind of relaxing.

Wasn't long after sunrise when we hit the bay near Cartagena, slow down and everyone and everything seemed normal again. People are back on deck and we had our final breakfast and we watched Colombia get closer.

30 hours later and a mess of confusion we got our bikes and gear off the boat and through customs. Now I'm off to explore South America!

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  1. You did not mention the "murder" part though...

    Murder !
    (at least in the kitchen and for 13 or so lobsters)