BY Damara Stone
Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was 3 feet tall
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.
-Jimmy Buffet, A Pirate Looks at Forty
We arrived in steamy Portobelo, Panama, at sunset, enchanted by brightly painted buildings, the oldest customs house in the Americas, and the crumbling, deserted Spanish fort straight from a Pirates of the Caribbean set. The tropical air was thick with the ghosts of pirate battles and conquistadors lugging stolen Inca, Maya, and Mapuche treasures to ships bound for Spain. In the distance we spotted our chartered ketch (a two-masted, fore-and-aft-rigged sailboat), the Sagrada Maria, in the deepwater bay full of sailboats, framed by lush, golden jungle. We were here to embark on a journey I had fantasized about since a spring day in 1984 when I was 12 and had just watched the classic movie Romancing the Stone. Raised on the lyrics of Jimmy Buffet and the dreams of my hippy, nomadic parents, I wanted adventure and romance on the high seas and to sail off into the sunset.
Thirty-eight years and many adventures later, I was a lady pirate looking at 50, my dreams of sailing yet to come true. To celebrate my milestone birthday, I chose to live the Buffet song and romance the stone by sailing from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia, the walled city of pirate lore and magical realism that had called to me since that day in ’84. I recruited my beloved and another intrepid couple for an inexpensive, backpacker-style passage I had read about in my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook.
We gathered with four other travelers — young Europeans — for a trip briefing. The captain was a tall, middle-aged Aussie who exuded calm confidence. He described the journey, the potential hazards (wind, weather), and reminded us often that we had signed up for a low-end, rustic, no-frills ride. But a ride, he promised, that would take us to paradise.
Across the bay, the Sagrada Maria was a classic beauty with clean lines and all the romantic promise a sailboat from a distance can hold. As the dinghy drew closer to the boat, our excitement grew, and we climbed aboard, wide-eyed and optimistic. The captain and his young Colombian wife welcomed us aboard. However, our excitement soon turned to dismay at the single, tiny berth in the bow that the four of us would share. Two narrow bunks on each side, the top ones inches from the ceiling. A single head, no fresh water for washing, and no privacy, anywhere. More alarmingly, on closer inspection, the vessel was worn with signs of age and disrepair. Tattered lifejackets, loose screws, and an emergency beacon so rusted that it probably hadn’t been serviced since Romancing the Stone was released. But, despite our private concerns, we exchanged glances, shrugged, and settled in with apprehension but open minds.
The captain warned that the sea would be rough outside the bay. He planned to sail through the night so we would “wake up in Paradise,” the mostly uninhabited San Blas islands. We would stay a few days then attempt the three- to five-day blue water crossing to Cartagena. The prevailing winds were against us and it was a sleepless night motoring, not sailing, through15-foot swells that heaved the vessel up the face of a wave before violently slamming down the trough. I lay sideways, bracing against the opposite bunk, but with each slam I was wide awake, running through worst-case scenarios and nauseous from diesel fumes.
Shortly before midnight of my 50th year, my partner and I huddled in the cockpit with the captain and his wife. A sudden loud crack, a rope whipped free, and the boat shook violently in the dark, moonless night. The pulley holding the boom had snapped and the untethered arm of steel was swinging wildly. The captain swore, put his wife at the helm, and barked to hold course. He rifled around for a flashlight and tools, then, to our horror, wrapped a rope around his waist and hung precariously over the railing, one hand holding a flashlight, the other a wrench. The ship pitched and rolled in the relentless swell. The boom swung dangerously as he reached over the rail for the broken pulley.
The captain refused help, and in a thick accent his young wife recited their only emergency protocol: Should he fall overboard, we were to cut the dinghy loose. We looked at each other in disbelief. If we followed this misguided man-overboard plan, the captain would be dragged underwater to his death by the rope around his waist while we cut our only life raft loose to disappear into the stormy night. Soaking wet from spray and crashing waves, we whispered our own contingency plan should he go overboard. We would commandeer the helm, cut the motor, steer into the wind, and rescue the captain ourselves. For 30 tense minutes we were ready to take action, but the fates were with us and the crisis was averted. The captain made a janky repair and we motored on through the rough night. My birthday dawned as the Sagrada Maria limped into the protected azure waters of the San Blas archipelago.
True to his word, the captain delivered us, however precariously, to paradise. We enjoyed three blissful days on the pristine islands, strolling empty beaches fringed with palm trees. We snorkeled teeming, healthy reefs and drank coconut water from the source while swinging in hammocks.
We also demanded that, rather than thrash our way to Cartagena in the ragged vessel, we turn back and re-trace the turbulent passage to Portobelo. Carrying on to Colombia in even more violent seas on a decrepit boat felt suicidal. We escaped the decrepit sailboat by taxi to Panama City for a smooth 45-minute flight to Cartagena.
That evening, in a flowy dress and sleek Panama hat like Kathleen Turner at the end of Romancing the Stone, I strolled Cartagena’s massive stone ramparts at sunset, looking north toward the wind-chopped, agitated sea, grateful to be on solid ground and off the Sagrada Maria. In that sun-kissed moment my life felt more vibrant, romantic, and exciting than Romancing the Stone ever could. And the harrowing journey reminded me to trust my dreams but listen to my instincts, and, while in life we can’t change the direction of the wind, we can adjust our sails.
~ Damara Stone was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and is a 30-year Truckee/Tahoe resident, the proud mother of two teens, and works as a nurse and educator. She is a river and international adventure travel guide, aspiring writer, and lover of all things outdoors, culture, art, and travel.