I sent an email to Captain Ludwig saying “Count me in” finally a decision was made on my route to Colombia. I would be sailing on the Stahlratte (the Steel Rat). Built in 1903 in Holland the Stahlratte started life as a steel hulled fishing vessel. Since then many modifications have been made to it including an enclosed galley and wheelhouse and a diesel engine. It also served as a Greenpeace vessel back in the 90’s. Operated now as a non profit venture all proceeds from fares and monies generated go back into the maintenance and up-keep of the vessel. And what a fine vessel she be to..
I left Chepo in Panama after having breakfast with the Manager of the local pizza shop. Who insisted in helping me with my endeavor by having me around for something to eat before I headed off.
The Port of Carti was a 2 hour ride from Chepo. I left with what I thought was plenty of time. Not realising that fate had other plans for me and my patience and temperament was about to be tested to the extreme. The ride to Carti was very hilly with repeated ups and downs interspersed with patches of completely broken away pavement at the bottom of the hills due to wash-outs, which my wheel bounded off as I made my approach to the next hill at speed while trying to keep up the momentum. It was bone shuddering and not very much fun. As I rode I felt my rear tyre going soft. What the hell? Another puncture? Just my luck I thought, just as I was heading for the boat and for the first time in a long while I had a specific time to be somewhere. The hills had already slowed me down significantly so I knew I was going to be cutting it fine to make the boarding time. I decided to get my pump out hoping it was just a slow leak. It wasn’t, within minutes it was down again. After a few attempts at this I had to stop, it was just too unsafe trying to keep up speed with the tyre going down so quickly. I had no choice but to make another road side repair in the knowledge that I was already late and with frustration building inside. Of course at this stage I may have had an outward appearance of being calm but underneath there was a battle being fought as I resisted the temptation to just flip out at my bad piece of luck and start cursing the world and its dog. This I would save for a little later.
I removed my bags and took the wheel off. I pulled the punctured inner tube out and inspected it. The earlier patch had lifted, I threw it aside in disgust and took out a new tube and started putting it in. I had it in and the tyre re-mounted in double quick time. Taking a chance of not inflating it to check it, I quickly refitted the wheel, took out my pump and began pumping. Nothing. I pumped harder, some air was going in but the hissing air mocked me as it leaked back out again.
Disgusted I spat on the ground and what came from my mouth was a succession of expletives that certainly would never be heard on primetime TV. Aggressively I started to pull down the back wheel again and even resorted to giving innocent Burrito a kick to release the stuck wheel immediately feeling pangs of guilt. Then it started to rain and and with that the bike keeled over off its center stand minus the rear wheel and fell into the ditch spilling the entire contents of my back box and my sexy front basket into the ditch and bending the break push rod in the process. ARRGGGH.. “Oh Come on!!!??” Yes this was Karma I concluded from my uncontrolled swearing bout and lashing out in anger at little Burrito.
After a soaking and getting covered in the red clay from the ditch I managed to repair the tube and get it mounted again and hit the road. I was now late. But I calmed down after a while and said to myself that there was no way Captain Ludwig would leave on time (German or not) when a $930 fare was only just down the road for his non-profit organisation.
I arrived at the port delighted to see the Stahlratte anchored just off shore. The plan had been to load the bikes from the pier earlier but they had move away after the other bikes were loaded to await the missing motorcyclist. A dingy was launched from the Stahlrattte and I was fast approached by Max one of the Stahlratte crew who later became known as the toothless hunk on board. A slightly intimidating at first sight tall blonde blue-eyed muscly German who might have been a poster boy were it not for his 2 missing front teeth that when smiled oddly reminded me of Jaws from James Bond despite missing his main attributes, and a what a thoroughly nice guy he turned out be.
They wanted to load the bike into a tiny inflatable dingy and then hoist it on board, I was a bit dubious about this at first but as it turned out this was how they normally loaded the bikes. Even the giant BMW GS’s.
In no time Burrito was hoisted aboard and was surrounded by the passengers of the Stahlratte who looked on in disbelief at the little bike that had made it all the way from Alaska. There were 5 other motorcycles on board. An Africa Twin 750, A V-Strom 650, A Brazilian Honda 300, A KLR 650cc and of course the little Honda 90. The star of the show.. at least in my eyes
The passengers and crew of the Stahlratte were all like the cast of movie, each very individual and very different and at the top was the outrageous show-off and flirt the pot bellied blonde haired speedo shorts wearing Captain Ludwig. This was going to be interesting I thought to myself.
So I arrived late, but I wasn’t the latest, the latest was a young and very attractive German girl called Yvonne, and so it was that Yvonne and I were christened and referred to thereafter as Mr. and Mrs. Late. Suggestions of holding a fake wedding on board were made as a good excuse to dress up and have a party. All my life I had been avoiding marriage and now it was thrust upon me. Surprisingly I wasn’t too unhappy about the prospect of being pared with Mrs. Late.
And so the Vessel hauled anchor and we were away, what lay ahead of us was 10 days of sailing the seas of the Caribbean, through the San Blas Islands to Colombia and on up the Colombia coast to Cartagena.
The first evening we motored out of the harbour and headed for a small group of islands in the San Blas archipelago. We dropped the anchor and soon everyone was stripped down to their shorts and bathing costumes and in the water swimming and splashing about. That evening Max and Meggy made preparations for our barbecue on a tiny uninhabited golden sand island surround by crystal clear blue water and covered in lush palm trees, with the Stahlratte anchored just offshore as the sun went down it was idyllic and I knew this was going to be a great trip.
Meggy was Max’s girlfriend an american girl who strutted about the boat with head phones on singing at the top of her lungs while going about her daily tasks. Meggy was quite enamored by her tooth less hunk and loved his honesty by not wearing his false teeth, in fact I think she quite liked the brutishness male rawness of it.
Over the next few days we grew to know each other a little better and friendships started forming. I was glad it was a 10 day trip as it gave everyone a chance to get to know each other a little better as the first few days were spent feeling each other out, unfortunately not literally but it was early days. There were quite some characters on board, one of which was Eric a cowboy hat wearing baby faced american with a black goatee who had his motorcycle trip sponsored by a big gay boot shop in San Francisco despite him not being in the slightest bit gay. Eric’s spent his trip in search of “money shots” for his sponsor which involved him trying to get sexy shots of him and his big gay boots in various locations on his trip. I loved the irony it presented to the macho world of motorcycling. He was good fun to have aboard. Eric liked to fill all silences with his very own brand of strange and strangely funny stories and personal experiences. On day 3 Eric became rather frustrated on board the Stahlratte and complained at the dinner table about the lack of places to masturbate on board the vessel, he even contemplated swimming over to one of the uninhabited islands for some self loving sexy time. Of course most of this was a joke, he liked to entertain in his geeky software engineer come self proclaimed International Motorcycle Travel Adventure Hero. On Day 4 Eric proclaimed “So, this morning I woke up with a pain in my groin and I couldn’t tell whether I was sea sick or just incredibly horny”. I got a kick out of listening to Eric but he positively confused and weirded out the Germans, but eventually they too came around to his odd sense of humour.
Eric travelled with Darren a Civil Engineer who served time in the Peace Core building water systems for poor communities in Guatemala. Darren was completely different from Eric, in that he was just more normal than Eric was, he too was also a very nice guy and was a bit of a character himself. Darren had the uncanny ability to talk at length and in incredible detail on the most mundane of subjects. He had a depth of knowledge on such subjects that defied belief and you had to be very careful as what you asked Darren because if you weren’t careful you would end up in an hour long conversation about something that after 5 minutes you had already forgotten what is was you had asked in the first place. Darren was a fan of the 5 toe shoe, the craze that has swept through North America, (as far as I could make out its basically a glove for your foot). Somehow someone made the mistake of asking him about his choice of footwear The upshot was we were treated to an hour long lecture on subjects covering foot mechanics, tactile feedback, weight transfer and material coefficient of friction. But I also loved listening to Darren talk he was an engineers engineer and certainly did know his stuff and his knowledge on various subject was not simply a magazine article based level of knowledge but a deep rooted, understood and thoroughly evaluated level of knowledge that led me to believe that he might have actually been the inventor of the 5 toe shoe. If he was he was playing his cards close to his chest. I would get to the bottom of this over some rum I figured.
Darren was also really good at drinking. He didn’t drink that often when on the boat but when he did he was able to put away quite an amount of rum in a very short time. In no time at all we had a 2 litre bottle of rum cleared-away but I never did find out who invented the 5 toe shoe.
The forming of a band.
Somehow the musicians found each other on the boat and a very impromptu band was formed aboard the Stahlratte led by Alex. Alex was a young french guy who always insisted on dressing in black. He was an aspiring guru seeking enlightenment and a very talented pianist. Alex was a guy seeking to control himself and all his human and male desires and endeavored to lead the purest life he could. He did not drink or smoke, take coffee or sodas, he was also a vegetarian, a virgin, and apparently not a wanker. Unlike Eric who clearly was one.
So Alex led the band, on the piano, I played a little guitar and percussion and Eric was the vocalist. What was played were classical versions of metal songs. System of the Down, Pearl Jam and Lincoln Park, Metallica.
While we sailed on the Stahlratte, we were visited by some indigenous folk the Kuna Yala and we bought some fish and lobster from them which provided a very tasty dinner. Dinner times were great all 17 passengers and crew would sit up top under the night sky and eat some great food prepared by Max and Meggy. The Germans mainly talked among themselves which I found a bit frustrating, for the first time on the trip I felt like I felt when I first arrived in Mexico. I hadn’t a clue what they were saying. Not that they couldn’t speak English, they all spoke it quite well and I was able to chat to them individually but inevitably the conversation swung back to German. I had set myself the goal of learning Spanish on this trip and that was coming along fine if a little slow but German, well I didn’t have a clue, but I was quite happy to sit there and listen. They were a very jolly bunch and liked to joke about a lot. Funnily enough the word “Prost” was said quite a lot on board and I had no problem in partaking in the drinking salute before the next drinks were downed, so when we arrived on a Kuna island and the natives were speaking in Spanish, and I was actually able to understand and communicate with them I was positively delighted. For me it was a reminder that I had actually learned more Spanish than I thought as the contrast of language knowledge was laid before me.
We walked around the island looking at people and smiling but you couldn’t help feel like you were in a zoo. Here were the gringo tourist walking around with their cameras on this isolated island taking pictures of people going about their daly business. It was a weird experience that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I decided we should spend some money on the island so I called a few of the guys over to the little shop. It was a very basic shop and not very well stocked as you would expect. I asked for 2 cokes for myself and Eric as I had seen him drinking the black stuff earlier and ordered water for Alex. When the cokes were delivered Eric looked at his bottle with disappointment and then enquired whether they had any Coke Zero or Diet coke. I nearly fell over laughing. Here we were in the middle of the ocean on a tiny island and my american friend was asking for his zero calorie sugar free soft drink. They looked at him puzzled eyes and giggled amongst themselves.
We decided that Eric had to get one of his money shots for his sponsor whilst on board Stahlratte so we basically pressurised him into doing a late night photo shoot after a few rums.
During my time on the boat I became close with Mrs Late, occasionally we would share a hammock together while chatting or reading a book, these times usually ended up with us getting bored and jumping overboard into the water with a floating noodle tucked under our arms and some beers, and we would just float about until we turned wrinkled or dinner was called.
We were anchored at several spots during our trip which allowed for some swimming, snorkeling diving from the boat and playing on the rope swing which was lots of fun. The main work activity aboard the Stahlratte that everyone was involved in surprisingly was not hoisting the sails but was actually pumping the hand pump on the toilet which involved around 20 full strokes to call upon the water to do its job. The abiding memory for most people and something most people would not miss about the Stalratte was the hand pump. Sabine, Andy’s girl friend freely admitted to developing welts on her hands for using it.
And so as the trip neared its end a few us spent the last couple of nights sleeping suspended in the net that extended from the front of the mast jib back to the bow of the boat with the stars above us and the ocean 3 meters below us it was hard to imagine of a nicer place to spend the night.
Eventually the time came for us all to part company, we had arrived in Cartagena port. I was sad to be leaving the boat it had been such a great trip with really great people. We unloaded the bike into the dingy and sped across Cartagena port, I had a rendezvous with my brother Gavin who I hadn’t seen for 3 years and I was quite excited. He had just bought a motorcycle and would travel with my through South America.
Thank you Captain Ludwig, Ludwig’s Mom and Sister, Werner and Claudia, Andy and Sebine, Carlos (thanks for the T-shirt!), David, Kannis, Alex, Yvonne, Darren, Eric. Max and Meggy. It was a great trip and full of great memories, and for some of us the journey continued..
Next… Colombia and the formation of a motorcycle gang…
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