Across the Salty Roads
An inspiring journey hitchhiking by sail across the South Pacific Islands to collect stories of locals taking the initiative in the fight against climate change.
After securing his first ride in the port of Panama, Guillaume embarked on a 62-foot catamaran with five other crew members for a 30-day crossing to his first destination: the Marquesas Islands, where he will visit experimental farms and marine protected areas maintained by protected communities. But first, here’s how the adventure began.
11 April 2017, Panama
“After a few days, a broken car window, and one flat tire, I have done quite a bit of travelling around Panama to find boats. There is a remote marina on the Atlantic side called Shelter Bay where most of the sailing boats and pirates wait to cross the canal. This can take up to a week or two at this time of year, during the high season. There isn’t much there, save for a couple of hotel rooms, a few abandoned boats, and a restaurant where the crews spend their time, so it is the perfect place to hunt for a ride across the ocean (see my tips below).
I was told about a group of friendly ocean hippies working on a boat called the Orfin, and decided to go meet them. I arrived late and barely had the chance to introduce myself. The next day they invited me to dinner and I followed them as they were doing some work on the mast. Chatting with them, I quickly realized they had proper work experience on alternative social projects such as permaculture with tribes on Vanuatu, and took a few notes for my upcoming quest.”
12 April, Panama
Guillaume eventually formalized the perfect ride for his first crossing, a catamaran being delivered to its owners in French Polynesia.
We spoke with him a day prior to his departure for the Marquesas Islands:
How To Hitch A Ride
How to Hitch a Ride Through the Panama Canal
Before every departure, Guillaume will send us a few lessons he learned while hitchhiking the high seas. Here is chapter 1, how to hitch a ride through the Panama Canal.
Firstly, finding a ride is not as hard as it might seem. With a little effort, a good sense of timing, and some flexibility, most people will be able to secure a few decent options. In early spring, after spending the winter in the Caribbean, many sailboats cross the Panama Canal. There is a window of two to three months when most of the boats leave Panama before the hurricane season to reach French Polynesia, with possible stops in the Galapagos or on Easter Island.
Where to find boats
A few websites can help you join a crew before you head down to Panama, but keep in mind that most of the boats will prioritize seeking crew members in the area. Check out Crew Seekers, Crew Bay and Find a Crew. Here’s where you can look for boats in Panama: Flamenco Marina and the Balboa Yacht Club on the Pacific side (in Panama City) have many sailing boats, but most are anchored. I found Shelter Bay Marina on the Atlantic side (1.5 hours away from Panama City) to be the best spot into which to put the most effort. There is a large restaurant in the marina where people meet and hang out. There are notice boards in both the Balboa Yacht Club and Shelter Bay. While most boats prefer to take on an experienced and qualified crew member, many will be glad to have someone who’s in shape, with a good attitude and possibly some cooking skills!
From Panama, sailing to the Marquesas takes about 30 to 40 days on a normal boat depending on the winds, and 20 to 30 days with a higher-performance boat or catamaran. The Galapagos Islands are about one week away and Easter Island two to three weeks away depending on your boat, route, and winds. Most of the boats coming from Panama go directly to the Marquesas and anchor there a little while before heading towards Tahiti for a longer stay.
From the Panama Canal
17 April, 1.60616n -85.9132w
“The most epic part of the Panama Canal crossing is being tied to a sailing boat with free-spirited chickens on it. Well, I guess floating next to a million-plus ton heavy cargo ship is also a little impressive.
“The crossing usually takes two days, but we ended up doing it in one, waking up at 3 a.m., starting on the Atlantic side and making our way to the Pacific. Being on a 62-foot catamaran, we were assigned two smaller boats which they tied to either side, and in turn we were tied to a mother-cargo-ship from Liberia called the Sea Trade Blue (who could very easily squash us into the canal walls if we’re not careful).
“As we made it through the narrowest locks, there were a few tricky maneuvers we needed to execute (it seems damage to boats is not uncommon), but most of our crossing was quite easy. So I had plenty of time to chat with the French owners of the ‘chicken boat’ (called the Ekolibri).
“I learned that they are on a zero-waste world tour they call Sailing for Change, looking for social and environmental causes to study and share along the way.
After a few days of getting the Indigo repaired and prepared, we are now ready to leave tomorrow morning for a long trip on the ocean.”
21 April, 1.60616n -85.9132w
“We are now sailing south towards the Galapagos (although, sadly, we will not be stopping there) and will pass the equator soon. Our departure a few days ago was a tough one, as we were delayed for hours by electrical and engine problems, as well as a thunderstorm. The wind has been very inconsistent and mainly against us until now, but we are slowly making some progress. Aside from the occasional dolphin, shark, turtle, and whale we’ve already encountered along our journey, we have a new friend onboard whom we call Sergei. He’s a big bird resting on the lifelines (‘Probably a gannet,’ the captain says). He looks like an old, stiff Russian guy. However, he’s quite sociable and he lets us chat him up from up close.”
Guillaume is sharing his journey with five other crew members: the captain, James, 35, and his wife, Catherine, 31, from England, who have been taking care of the boat for four years; another couple, Tessa and Emile, 25 and 23 years old, she is a physiotherapist and he is a trained sailor; and lastly with Emily, an American, 24, hitchhiking like Guillaume across the Pacific Ocean. She is hoping to reach New Zealand.
On 30 April, we checked in on Guillaume to see how he goes about his daily routine on the boat. The connection was poor, but here’s what he had to say:
“We’re about halfway from Panama to the Marquesas, we’re in the middle of it. We’ve been in the middle of open water for two weeks maybe. I got very lucky with the people I’m travelling with. The captain tells jokes all the time. Everyone is very nice. I have two watches, which basically consist of being on deck and keeping an eye out on what’s happening and changing the sails if the wind gets stronger or weaker. I have to watch from 2 to 6 in the morning and from 2 to 6 in the afternoon, so I usually sleep twice a day, a few hours at night and a few hours in the morning as well. The rest of the time, I’ll be cleaning or cooking, and I have audiobooks to listen to, just enjoying the view! Right now it’s blue skies and light wind; we’re going about eight knots (14.8 kph/9.2 mph) which is very decent. At this pace, we should expect to arrive in about 10 to 12 days.”
Guillaume reached Tahuata in the Marquesas mid-May.
Stay tuned for more on his adventure…