Just Back: a rum voyage to Cartagena

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Sarah Eustace wins London’s Telegraph‘s weekly travel writing competition – and £200 – for her tale of a boat trip to Colombia with an inebriated Swedish sea captain.

The grey slippery fins of a pod of dolphins sliced through neon green pools of phosphorescence as I leaned over the edge of the small boat during a bout of sea sickness. The captain, Henrik, fed me lumps of ginger and, slapping me on the back, stated “You’ll get your sea legs soon.”
I was on my way from Panama to Colombia on a cramped vessel. The Caribbean Sea was more inviting than the virtually impenetrable overland route through the Darién Gap.
Henrik, a Swede in his 50s, had spent most of his life at sea. His leathery skin was varnished from years exposed under the sun. Grey spikes sprouted from his unshaven chin. He was a Scandinavian Jekyll and Hyde who lounged around playing battleships and teaching me the ropes of sailing by day, and by night transformed into an uncultivated drunk who imbibed potent tipples by the gallon. His piercing blue bloodshot eyes stared unnervingly each evening as the horizon swallowed the sun and I expected him to howl at any moment.
We wove our way through the San Blas Islands, hundreds of unspoilt mounds of white sand and palm trees inhabited by Kuna, indigenous locals who fished and paddled out to tempt us with their handmade jewellery of shells and coral. We stopped off at one island and ate grilled fish, plantain and coconut but had to make a retreat after an inebriated Henrik insulted the chief.
The following night I had to take the helm as Henrik, pickled in rum, failed to emerge from his cabin. Waves the size of houses slammed into our skiff. One threatened to envelop us as it crashed over the boat. Daytime brought calm.

We dropped anchor halfway. During a swim to a fleck of an island, I spotted a fin protruding menacingly from the water nearby. I panicked and called out to Henrik who raised a can of Balboa beer and smiled revealing his cracked yellow teeth. My arms slapped and pulled at the water and my legs kicked for life. I soon made land, cutting my feet on some coral. Over my shoulder my pursuer fled, a playful dolphin.
Back on board Henrik rationed me to sips of water as my seasickness deteriorated. He poured more hot sticky rum into his cracked highball glass and challenged me to a game of battleships. The twinkling lights of Cartagena danced on the horizon. Due to Henrik’s disdain for bureaucracy we entered Colombia illegally under the cover of darkness. I never did find my sea legs.

For the original report go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/southamerica/colombia/11259869/Just-Back-a-rum-voyage-to-Cartagena.html

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