7/28/2011- First Stack
Finally on the boat, it’s a huge relief to have Central America behind me. From my house in Lake Stevens, WA to the loading dock in Carti, Panama I covered just over 10,000 miles of unforgiving roads over the last four months. I’ve lost at least ten pounds out here, all of it muscle. Monday I went through all my gear for the third time and got rid of another load of unused items. Among them were some rope, bungee cord, a cup, my broken helmet comm device, and a jar of peanut butter. The same day I went out and bought a passenger helmet as well as a matching set of bright yellow rubber rain gear. I’m going to look like a fish sticks spokesperson next time it starts storming overhead, but I am determined to stay dry. Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru all promise to be just as wet this time of year.
As for my list of missing spare parts, I bought none of them. Bright and early Monday morning the boys and I set off for Panama City’s only Suzuki dealer. I knew we’d be in luck because everywhere you look in Panama there is a DR650 flying by with two heavily armed police officers on top. The brand new 2011 model sparking on the showroom floor was a good sign as I walked in. I gave my list of parts to the guy at the computer and he assured me he had all of them. Overjoyed I asked him to tell me the prices so I could see what I was in for. He started with the chain: $200. Then the sprockets: $115 for a front and rear. At home I can get the all three for $129 shipped to my house. Brake pads and cables were similarly overpriced. I balked; I really wanted to take care of this nagging issue, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay such absurd prices. I deliberated going back and forth for at least an hour before Alex and Charlie convinced me to sit tight and give it another go when we arrive in Colombia. As they put it, a country with 45 million people will have a lot more buying power (therefore cheaper prices) than a country with only 3 million. Here’s hoping.
I ended up walking out of the dealership with a can of chain lube and a helmet for passengers. We’ve been giving people short rides around town throughout Central America and very few of them have worn helmets. It was never ideal, but the helmet store is never there right when you need it either. Plus there have been no helmet laws the entire way down. It’s very easy to become complacent with safety after 9,800 miles of smooth sailing. Nevertheless, I saw the DOT approved half helmet on the shelf and decided it was time. Panama has a strictly enforced helmet law and I was tired of risking peoples’ lives. Al and I also had passengers scheduled for a ride to the canal the next morning: Anna, who caught up with us again in Panama City, and the Dutch girls whom Al promised one more ride to.
Monday night everyone got together for a big sendoff in the ritzy part of Panama City. In attendance were myself, Alex, Charlie, Andy, Patrick, Ty, Jill, Anna, Kim, Roberto, Maura, and Chalenka. We really stirred up the district for a Monday night. Tuesday morning we loaded up to catch the boat. Anna and the Dutch girls hopped on the backs of our bikes and we took off for the canal. This was the first time I had given someone a ride while fully loaded. My bike was handling it well, but was obviously overloaded.
We pulled up at the Miraflores Locks twenty minutes later and ran inside to see the attraction. I wasn’t too excited about seeing the locks until we arrived. I’ve seen so many sights at this point that a post card is good enough. The real experiences have proven to be in the streets talking to other travelers or locals and gleaning information off of them. The locks themselves were not very interesting; just a bunch of Panamanians in hard hats walking around doing their day jobs. There were no massive tanker ships coming through nor any opening or closing of the locks. What was amazing was the symbolism that the locks represented once I got up there. I knew I had made it to Panama, but it wasn’t until I looked down at the canal that I realized how far I’ve come since April 2nd. The Pacific was to the west and the Atlantic to the east. The Atlantic Ocean was about fifty feet higher than the Pacific interestingly (hence the locks). We took a lot of pictures up there celebrating the accomplishment of riding motorcycles through eight different countries down to the bottom of a continent. For once in the past four months it felt like we had made it somewhere, rather than always being on the way.
Back in the parking lot we said goodbye to the Dutch girls and Patrick. Monday night we had agreed that Anna would ride out to the dock on my bike since she was catching the same boat. Andy took her backpack on his bike and Alex took on some extra weight as well. Helmets on, we pulled out already late for the boat heading towards the Caribbean in a big hurry. Naturally, we immediately got lost and ended up stuck in traffic for an hour.
Sitting there sweating in 90F degree heat on top of an overheating engine in stop and go traffic late for the boat, I decided it very fitting that the final leg of such a massive journey be so tortuous. Eventually though, the traffic let up and we started making better time. Soon we had wide open road with 70mph cruising and things started looking up. My bike was doing well with Anna on the back although twice the engine stopped running when I released the throttle at speed. Both times I pulled over and it started up on the first try with no complaints. I’m not sure the reason behind the shutdown, but I’m confident it had something to do with the weight or the heat. If there is a problem developing, I’ll deal with that when it presents itself.
With fifty miles to go we came to a checkpoint run by the Kunu people. The Kunu are the locals who live throughout the southern Caribbean coast and the San Blas Islands. They charged us $6 each to enter their property and we all willingly obliged. At this point we were on schedule to be half an hour late for the boat. Charlie and Alex took off in a mad dash into the Kunu territory. The road was more like a big overdone rollercoaster. Lots of ups and downs over the course of fifty miles of hairpin turns. I was not enjoying myself: dehydrated and exhausted with an overloaded bike and a girl’s life at stake. I remember thinking that it would be quite a feat if we all made it through this last stretch without crashing. I was about to hit 10,000 with zero incidents.
That’s when I went down. Not a typical motorcycle crash, this one occurred at about 2mph… in reverse. Ten miles from the loading dock I wound around a very sharp turn that lead directly into the steepest hill I’ve ever ascended. I hit the hill hard in second gear thinking I could make it. Halfway up, though, my engine started bogging down as I fed it more and more gas. Naturally, I shifted down to first as the power gave out in second gear. In first gear now, I let out the clutch with the bike losing momentum very quickly. As soon as the clutch dropped the front wheel popped off the ground and I was riding a wheelie. I had the throttle closed but the engine’s revs were still coming down when the clutch released. With all my gear and a girl weighing down the rear wheel, the front end lifted up with no effort at all. Not about wheelie into a backflip that would crush both of us, I hit the brakes and the front wheel dropped back to Earth slightly to the right at an agle.
As soon as both wheels were on the ground I had my feet on the ground to keeping all 600+ plus pounds of the bike from tipping on the uneven slate. But it wasn’t over yet. I watched in terror as the front wheel started skidding down the hill. The front brake was fully applied and holding the disk, but there was not enough weight up forward to keep the entire bike from slipping backwards. As I mentioned, the front wheel came down slightly to the right after the wheelie so we started sliding backwards into the oncoming lane (thankfully there was no traffic for miles). I held on trying to muscle the bike to a stop, but there was no way. I couldn’t bring my right foot up to hit the rear brake because it was the only thing keeping us upright at that point.
Eventually the levy broke and I couldn’t keep it up anymore. I gave it one last ditch effort to dump us towards the uphill side but it was too late. All the weight went to the downhill side and Anna and I were slammed down into the pavement with the bike taking the brunt of the impact. It still wasn’t over. At this point the bike started sliding down the hill with both of us still straddling it with our shoulders digging into the road. In the midst of the entire ordeal (totaling about five seconds), Andy had come around the corner behind us. He saw my predicament and knew he’d be in the same one if he tried to stop on the hill behind us. Andy decided to pass in the other lane while he still had momentum. Right as he was about to do so is when I backed my overloaded bike into his trajectory and then dropped it on myself. Andy could do nothing but stop.
I knew he was there as I slid towards him while listening to my bike grind along the pavement. We slid right into him. My head was just to the left of his forks when his front tire took the impact. Battling the same hill with no other options, Andy dropped his bike as well. He went down with his bike to the left with his front end landing right on my head. Then, finally, everything stopped moving. There was a set of bike forks resting on my helmet, but I was uninjured. Anna hopped up and said she was fine as well. Andy got up and immediately lifted his bike enough for me to get my head free. We all three stood there and looked at each other for a moment, trying to put together what had just happened. There were two bikes on their sides spread across both lanes on a slope so steep that they were liable to slide down the rest of the way if we weren’t careful.
We got to work right away. Anna went up the hill to stop any oncoming traffic from running right through the entire wreck. Andy and I got his bike up first. Getting it back on its wheels was hard enough, but starting off on the hill was a whole new ordeal. Neither of us wanted to see the same thing happen again. At this time Ty and Jill showed up from behind l and saw our condition. Ty stopped at the bottom of the hill and immediately started skidding backward himself. Luckily Jill dismounted instantly and Ty was able to keep the V Strom upright as he found traction. Observing the hill that had destroyed me, he decided to ride up to the top with his own bike and then come down to help us. He smartly had Jill walk the section as he eased up the hill with all his body weight as far forward as he could get it.
Moments later Ty ran down to me and Andy and helped us position Andy’s bike. Ty, the most experienced rider, hopped on and took Andy’s Tenere to the top. Then he came back, helped us lift mine, hopped on, and rode it to the top as well. Andy and I walked the rest of the way very shaken. Up top I was glad to see that Anna escaped with just a couple of scratches on her right arm. Andy’s bike was ok and mine had no real damage other than some gnarly scrapes and a punched in pannier. My aluminum box on the right side took the impact and caved towards the bike around the steel rack. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The box and the hand guards protected our legs as the bike slid. Coming out with just a small dent is the least of my worries on this trip.
Physically everyone was fine. Emotionally I was rattled. Andy offered to take Anna the rest of the way and I was happy to take his offer. My worst nightmare had just come true. Every time I take a passenger I tell myself that I can’t crash this time. How awful it felt to be responsible for such a dangerous turn of events. And I caused Andy to drop his bike too. And I was hadn’t eaten for eight hours nor had any real means of hydration. I was wrecked and now I had to hop back on the death machine and finish the fight.
Anna hopped on Andy’s now overloaded bike and we all took off together with me in the lead and Ty in the rear. Classic of every time I’ve dropped my bike, everything felt wrong when I got back on. It felt loose, rattily, and unsafe. It was all in my head though. Pulling Anna off changed the way it rode and the trauma of the accident had my mind absolutely warped. I rode it out telling myself that I was just imagining things, which I was.
We rode for another fifteen minutes (nine miles). I was just starting to calm down and feel comfortable when my engine sputtered and died. Out of gas. FML. There really is no excuse to ever run out of gas, but here is mine. When Alex and I rode into Panama City on Saturday we filled up at the first gas station we could find. It was a prepay pump, the first we had used the entire trip. We each put in $15 and emptied all 3.6 gallons into our tanks. Then we set our tripometers back to zeros and took off for the hostel with a mental note that we didn’t have a full tank’s range. Three days went by. I looked at my tripometer Tuesday morning when everyone else was gassing up and I only had 15 miles on my tank… plenty of gas. Then I rode about 150 miles burning more gas than I ever have before with the added weight. Just in case that didn’t suck me dry, the icing on the cake was all the gas that dripped out the tank while my bike lay upside down for fifteen minutes on the road after my crash.
Life sucks and then you have to syphon gas. Normally I have a spare liter of gas in my panniers but it had been empty since I left Trujillo, Honduras. It’s one of those things you forget about after a couple days if you can get away with it. The thought of filling it back up hadn’t crossed my mind in weeks. Plan C; I grabbed my extra length of fuel hose out of my tool kit as well as my empty liter bottle for gas. Andy unscrewed his gas cap and I went to work. I stuck the hose in, brought the other end down below the tank, and sucked hard. I’ve never huffed gas fumes before and I don’t plan to again. I inhaled a full hit of the toxin and collapsed as it burned my entire respiratory system. I tried again and got the same result. My hose wasn’t long enough. I went and got more, pulling it off the bike itself.
This time the hose was long enough and I happily took a mouthful of 95 octane petrol. The shit burned all around my mouth but I was happy to get two liters out of Andy’s tank. Anything to get to the boat. With my face on fire I put everything away, thanked everyone again for all their help, and slumped back into the saddle. It was quarter mile more before we rounded the final corner and there in front of us bobbing in the water was the Stahlratte. I carefully navigated some mud puddles and pulled up onto the dock. I had made it, somehow.
7/29/2011- The Stahlratte
Today is Day 4 on the Stahlratte. Built in Holland over 100 years ago, this hundred foot long, two hundred ton steel-hulled sailboat has a lot of history. It was one of the first steel sailboats ever made. Originally it was a fishing vessel until that market calmed down in the early twentieth century. Eventually it was passed off to a junkyard until a group of people decided to purchase it and live as a commune aboard sailing around the world. It’s an amazing idea. I think at that point the pilot house and propeller were installed. The commune had a hand in a variety of different jobs along the way; for a while they were even commissioned by Greenpeace. By the time they got here to the Caribbean, they decided that the only way to keep the boat going was to stay for a while and work the tourist routes. The Stahlratte normally makes our trip twice a month. She also has routes scheduled for Cuba every month. Google the boat and learn more.
Ludwig is our German captain. He’s awake from dawn to dusk all day, usually in his tightie whities. He’s got a big pot belly and he’s always joking about something. As for crew, there is Spaniard Donatan, French Floyd, and from Grant’s Pass, Oregon Ruthy. They all take care of business throughout the day while we rock back and forth in the gentle swell. The food on board is amazing. I’ve eaten myself sick just about every meal; there’s so much. The menu has been mostly seafood with plenty of rice and potatoes. Last night in particular was a treat: lobster fresh that day out of the ocean. The boat gets a good rock going through the waves. Our bikes are strapped up on the sides of the deck; we’ll have to clean the salt off them when we arrive in Colombia tomorrow. Best of all, when guys need to pee, they are encouraged to send it right over the hand railing.
Day one we loaded the bikes up onto the boat and then headed out in the harbor to spend the night. Ludwig tied loops around each bike’s steering column and rear frame. Then using manpower he raised each bike through a pulley system onto the boat. Then they were unhooked and then lashed to the deck; pretty simple. Everyone was pretty tired that night so after a Kunu dinner on the nearest island we all turned in.
Wednesday was quite a different story. We were all up early for breakfast and excited to start the voyage. The boat picked up eleven more passengers and we took off under power for our destination. The boat offers as much food as you can eat for free. The drinks are priced cheap ($1 beer/Coke, $10 bottle of rum). We decided to start the festivities around noon. Eventually the Stahlratte pulled up between two islands right beside a submerged shipwreck. The San Blas Islands are truly honeymoon post card material. There are always so many islands in sight; sometimes so thick you can see four or five in any direction. They are little lumps of sand with anywhere from one to one hundred palm trees on top. Those that are inhabited are held by the Kunu people. They build thatch huts and docks all around the islands and inside is the city.
Those who were interested grabbed snorkel gear and hopped in the warm turquoise water to check out the shipwreck. I particularly enjoyed this part. The deck of the wreck was just feet under the water. This boat was another steel hull. I checked out just about every nook and cranny I could identifying at least the engine room. We all swam over the nearby island and splashed around on the beach for a bit.
Dinner was on the island over the barbeque that night. Jerk chicken with a whole lot of potato salad. I ate it up and then swam back to the boat. Fantastic night. Thursday Ludwig fired up the engines early and we set sail for a three hour voyage further south. Our second destination was similar to the first, but much less inhabited. We spent the night with several other personal yachts amongst three small uninhabited islands. During the day we snorkeled a nearby reef and floated around the Stahlratte with the beer cooler. By nightfall the group was very familiar with each other and the empty rum bottles were piling up. We have a young average age for passengers so very soon it was a full-blown boat party. Lots of people singing and dancing on the table. I had a great time peeing over the edge every twenty minutes.
Today, Thursday, we are the walking dead. I don’t feel hangover but I’m extremely tired. I’ve taken two naps already. I think four months of adventure and partying caught up with me today; my body is using the boat opportunity to sleep as much as possible. It is such a drastic change to not be responsible for anything. No choosing lodging, no worrying about the bike’s condition or vulnerability, no food decisions, no maps, no Spanish. Just sit back, relax, and let someone else do the work for once. It’s definitely what I need. We dropped the sails this morning and started a thirty-hour non-stop voyage to Cartegena, Colombia. The weather is good and we haven’t encountered much swell. Tomorrow morning we arrive at port and ride off into a whole new continent. I can’t believe we’ve comes so far.
I’m back on dry land on the other side of the world. We got off this morning with just our gear; the bikes are delivered on Monday when customs is ready to deal with them. I can’t walk straight around town because it feels like the whole world is rocking back and fourth after five days on the Stahlratte. I’m well-fed and well-rested. I’ll need a couple more days here in Cartegena getting my land legs back. No matter the price, I will be buying my spare parts here before heading any further south. I can’t wait to hit the street and check out the town. From the boat it appeared beautiful and during the brief time I spent getting to the hostel it was alive with a culture like I haven’t seen before. It feels like a tropical version of the Mediterranean; I could get used to that. Everyone be sure to check out my latest photo update below!