Freedom and blue sea: Sailing to Panama

Sitting on the roof under a bright white sail, body finally reconciled to the huge up and down motion of the boat, I feel an unexpected sense of freedom.

The sea is a deep electric blue and there is no land in sight, gazing sleepily at the horizon (the main side effect of seasickness tablets is drowsiness), my mind drifts between Attenborough’s Blue Planet and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Every now and then silver flying fish skim the surface, and a seabird appears out of nowhere before flying off on its nautical marathon.

Feeling happy in this moment is a surprise. For weeks I have dreaded the ominous two-day open sea crossing. Growing up in landlocked Derbyshire and with a vague recollection of nausea on ferry crossings to France had left me with a certainty that of course I would be sick. And it’s true that almost no-one on the boat, minus the crew, can manage to walk below deck, or walk anywhere for that matter, before feeling like you’ve had 10 margaritas and not in a good way. Going to the toilet, with no windows and the tiny room magnifying the rocking, is out of the question until absolutely necessary.

The routine of eating, sleeping, eating and sleeping again, becomes almost hypnotic. With no roads, signs, speed restrictions or other traffic, it’s a mode of transport that is uniquely thrilling. I can see why sailors love it, I think, before making the stomach-churning mistake of looking away from the horizon. Apparently the waves were only two metres, but that’s not something you can believe when the horizon actually disappears every time you go into the trough of a wave. In the night, it’s strangely not too disconcerting to sleep in what I can only imagine it must be like inside a tumble dryer. “There was some movement,” another boat’s captain concedes, when I asked him how he found the sea last night…

Waking up one morning, we spot palm trees, white sand and the first island of the San Blas archipelago. Cue: paradise. After swimming to the island, bags and beers are transported by dingy, we lie on teeny white beaches with no-one else in sight, looking at aquamarine water that should surely be reserved for honeymoons. It all took some getting used to as one of those places you can’t quite believe is real until you leave. Luckily it didn’t take quite that long.

Going ‘home’ to our white sailing ship at the end of the day and watching the sunset with a view of a desert island and a cold beer in hand, I wondered if this is what it’s like to be a millionaire? If so, I can see what all the fuss is about. Lunch on one day is a blue-green Dorada, hauled up from the depths by our captain, barbecued on a fire built from palm leaves and washed down with coconuts fresh from the tree (added rum optional).

The Khuna people who own San Blas are unique in the world as the only indigenous group who have their land rights enshrined in law. Noticeably tiny, they have a system of rotation to move families out from bigger villages on some of the islands and mainland out to the more remote and idyllic islands in the group. Living one family per island is much preferred, despite the isolation, because of the strict rules about socialising and a curfew upheld in Khuna villages.

Toasting our trip while watching the red, gold and navy sunset for the last time, I’m sure there is something profound to say about expanding your own horizons and leaving your comfort zone, but for now I can’t quite remember.

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