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Safety On The Seventh Sea

Everyone dreams of being a pirate of the Caribbean, sailing the turquoise sea in search of deserted islands. Perhaps that’s why the Colombia-Panama sailboat crossing has become so popular in recent years.

But unlike pirates of ole, you don’t have the right to mutiny and make the captain walk the plank. You’re a guest on his ship and have to spend up to five days with him—no dry land in sight.

Horror tales abound of bad crossings: drunk (or drugged up) or inexperienced captains, insufficient or poor food, water out of rivers (and resultant diarrhea), engines malfunctioning and being adrift for several days, overcrowding with passengers sleeping on deck—the list goes on.

It’s become a lucrative business for some. Consider that at present prices, a captain can pull down a treasure trove of $5,000 on one run, by jamming people aboard. No regulations control these cruises.

To make your cruise as safe as possible, here are a few suggestions. Don’t be afraid to ask pointed questions.

- Meet the captain personally and if possible the skipper and crew, to feel out their vibes. (Anybody can put up slick poster advertisements.)

- Check out the boat. It should have life boats and life jackets sufficient for the number of passengers and crew; flares, emergency radio,

- Ask to see the accommodations, to see about their conditions and cleanliness.

- Ask specifics about food (type, how many meals) and where the water comes from (is it treated?)

- Ask to see the boat’s registry, license to make such runs and insurance. If the captain refuses to show these, don’t go.

- How waste and trash are disposed

- What type of relations the captain has with the Kuna. (See In Kuna Yala for more about local laws and customs).

The website Sail Panama and Colombia has a checklist with more questions to ask (

Seaworthies recommend that to minimize such incidences and to have a safer voyage that you avoid boats under 37 feet, since they are not as stable. A sailboat that is 37 to 44-foot is better. Best is a 44 to 66 footer. Catamarans are the most stable.

Panamanians consider the eastern Caribbean coast to be a No Man’s Land. Real pirates lurk not too far away. If pressed, some captains claim pirates operate along the coast. But in reality, pirates tend to make raids at open sea. Yachters have reported problems near Islas del Rosario, and the Caribbean coast from the Guajira to Trinidad. It’s amazing there haven’t been pirate attacks on these sailboats shuttling foreigners across the Caribbean (or at least what’s being talked about). It would be rich rewards from such sitting ducks. It’s also lucky—considering the condition of some boats and overcrowding—that there haven’t been shipwrecks. Hopefully there won’t be any in the future, either.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to The Caribbean Coast and Islands: When To Go, When To Go, Providencia and Santa Catalina Safety, Safety, Safety, Cartagena Highlights, San Andres Safety, Pirates and the Sacking of Cartagena, Safety and Highlights of the Caribbean Coast and Islands.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

16 Jun 2011

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