On Crab Racing and other Caribbean pastimes

Monday, 13 September 2010



Here's my vomit-splattered log of the 5-day sailing voyage from Cartagena, Colombia, to Panama.

Day 1

Decide last minute to join Capitan Federico and his boat, Saconagem, on a five-day sailing trip to Panama.
The boat departs from Club Nautico, a small, ramshackle tin port in the Manga neighbourhood of Cartagena.
Pot bellied, barefoot men pad around the stone harbour, tinkering with oily engine parts and calmly slicing fish bait into buckets.
The boats are slackly tied to the harbour with thick knots of rope; allowed to bump gently against plastic buoys and buckets; sandy scavenger birds hop around the gangplank freely, the waves gently lick moss from the harbour walls. This is a port of pastime and leisure, a passageway to other such places in the turquoise Caribbean sea.
Suddenly it seemed very clear; the sailing life is the life for me.
There are 10 fellow backpackers on board; the largest portion made up of laid back, beer-sipping antipodeans.
The captain, a Brazilian of French naval background, stresses that his orders must be obeyed at all times, and that he will need help with the sailing.
The boat is fuelled, the crew are sat down and the rules are set - Nautical Big Brother can begin.

Day 2


The night was spent crippled with sea sickness as the boat chopped heavily through a tropical storm. The waves only reached 1 metre high, but for safety reasons all crew were confined to the cabin, where motion sickness ensued.
I slept curled up in a foetal position at the back of the boat, littered with hot raindrops and lit-up with unbroken strobes of sheet lightning. During a half-hour stretch, there was more lightning than darkness - the night sky being the colour of white-hot electric more than black.
The boat bumped on in wavy procession; church bells of thunder peeled out all around us, I leaned forwards on my knees, hoisted myself over the stern and dry-wretched a call to prayer over the dark and empty sea.
We travelled all day, the next morning promising the calmer waters and reefs of the San Blas Islands. The only respite from the stomach churning nausea was to clutch the deck on all-fours and breathe slowly.
Suddenly it seemed very clear; the sailing life wasn't the life for me.

Day 3

I managed to keep down a lunch of spaghetti and curried egg. Land came into sight just before midday.
The long haul was over, and in jubilation we threw ourselves into the clear waters and swam the final 100 metres towards the nearest vacated island, the white sand beach littered with driftwood, discarded flip-flops and coconut husks.
I scavenged through the fallen coconuts to find one that was full of milk, and set about trying to gouge, rip and tear off the impenetrable husk that surrounded the shell. After a good 10 minutes of grunting, smashing it against rocks and slicing my fingers open on the thick strands, I had, with the help of one of the Ausies, 1 milky coconut.
Upon returning to the ship the Captain hoped out loud that we had been discreet; the native Kuna Indians don't take too kindly to people stealing their biggest export.
Later that evening we visited a small island inhabited by four families of the natives; an 80,000-strong race of short, broad, dark-featured folk who dwell within the islands and parts of Panama.
According to Federico the natives believe that their race was created by five women, and thus the young women in their society are seen as little gods. The abuse or disrespect of women on the islands is often 'punished heavily' within the Kuna's own society of law; one which the law enforcers of Panama don't intervene with outside of cases involving death or murder.
The Kuna society pay a collective and equal tax towards the island chiefs, who, in turn, pay a collective tax towards the main chief of the race. Should one of the Indians wish to build a house, or should they fall ill, the entire island helps out, for free. It's a system comparable to communism, and, perhaps because it exists as a microcosm within the capitalist nation of Panama, it seems to work.
That night we made a fire on coconut island, ate hot greasy potatoes with our fingers, stared up into the milky way and watched forks of lightning rain down over the mainland. As we swam back to the boat to sleep, thousands of blue-white phosphoresense plankton sparked into life around us, mirroring our swimming strokes.
At the same time, 6 time zones ahead in England, millions of people were waking up and putting on sensible charcoal grey trousers, preparing for another day in the office.

Day 4

Relaxing on idyllic beaches can only provide so much entertainment - this is where the noble sport of Crab Racing comes into play.
A circle is drawn into the sand, roughly 2 metres in circumference (consult the Crab Racing Association for exact measurements).
Each man then finds a hermit crab, preferably a feisty one with a nice wiggle and a bit of a nip, then manoeuvres it into the 'retreat' position.
An appointed adjudicator collects one crab from each man, gives them a single shake, and then drops them into the centre of the sand circle.
The first crab to recover it's composure and power past the line of the circle (in any direction) is the victor.
What started as a little game during our wanders around many of San Blas's crab-infested islands turned into a fully fledged sport.
The trainers (myself and the Aussies) were soon planning out intensive training schedules and nutritional diets for our contenders, giving them motivational speeches and deep-shell massages before races, drafting the rules and restrictions for shell size validity and boisterously accusing each other of cheating and disgracing the sport.
Winners provoked bellows of triumph, strengthening the all-important crab-trainer bond, losers (especially non-movers) provoked shame, humiliation and a venomous punt back into the sea.
Crabs of all sizes and colours are abundant in the San Blas islands; a night time stroll through the surf reveals hundreds of large, sky blue crabs brandishing one prominent claw. Federico told us that the Indians harvest the claws from the crabs by poking them with sticks until they latch onto them. After a brief tug of war, the crabs will detach their own claws and make a getaway. According to Federico the 'main' claw then grows back on the opposite side within a few days.
Another species of growing population in the Caribbean Sea is the deadly Lion Fish. Six of the spiny, spherical fishes escaped from a Miami aquarium a few years back, and have since multiplied to numbers thought to be around 600,000. Sailors in the area are urged to report sightings to their local coastguard.
"They breed faster than rats", said Federico, "Touch them in the wrong place and you die in 30 minutes. Fucking yankees".

Day 5

The rest of our crew comprised of a Finnish man and a German couple. Over the first few days, the Ipod of one the Australians had held a monopoly over the sound system. On the last day, just as we were heading out to the main community of the Kuna Indians, the Germans had decided to redress the balance with some music of their own.
As it coincided, the flag of the Kuna Indians is a black swastika, on a red and yellow background. As a mark of respect for the natives, Federico flies the flag on the mast.
And so it transpired that we, a group of predominantly blonde caucasians, sailed past the mainland of Panama with hardcore German death metal blaring out of the speakers, and a nazi flag flying proudly above.
The Kuna island itself had a small school and around one hundred conical bamboo/ palm tree huts. The main focal point of the island was a large volleyball court, which it seemed the entire population of pre-adolescents centred around.
One of the Aussies and myself joined the kids for a game (played with strict adherence to the rules by a midget referee with a whistle) and were thoroughly spiked and battered by the kids whilst they cackled with glee.
It was difficult not to be envious of the lifestyle of the Indians; they seemed to have everything that they needed, without the distraction of excess. It appears that it is possible to live in a place without a Starbucks, a Tesco, a John Lewis home section.
Our final night was spent fishing with lines of tackle wrapped around plastic bottles.
Every so often, as Federico was telling us the story about how the French immigration authorities had blackmailed him into joining the navy, or as the Finnish man was telling me how he had to re-build the much-hated Berlin Wall in 1989 for the benefit of a Pink Floyd concert, a huge Eagle Ray would glide serenely through the water below us.
"Northern Colombia and Panama is the best areas of the world", Federico would tell us later, over freshly-caught jackfish.
"You have the great weather, food and beaches of the Caribbean, without any of the Hurricanes. It's perfect."

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