pirates

In preparing for our journey, Pirates were a threat we failed to take seriously. By the time Taylor and I reached South America, we expected to look more haggard and pirate-esque than the “pirates” awaiting us. Besides, we were young, we were men, and all we owned was a banged-up sailboat. We weren’t in a million-dollar catamaran, and we weren’t cruising in a cargo ship down the coast of Somalia – we were going to Ecuador, Chile, Brazil. So at our farewell dinner, when my aunt (a Colombian native) asked, “But what about pirates?!” Taylor and I had to stifle our laughter.

We answered the question earnestly, though. I explained how we had a flare gun and radios, and how we could alert the local armadas with our Garmin. I also detailed a few strategies for thwarting pirates that Taylor had picked up from his Coast Guard buddies, which we would implement if we found ourselves in a sticky situation. “And I’ll be packing my Glock,” Taylor said.

None of that satisfied my aunt—she grew up in Cartagena and would’ve had a stronger grasp of South American poverty than either of us—but we had to move on to other topics. There were more likely threats, like what we would do if the boat capsized during a storm, or what would happen if we ran out of water a hundred miles offshore.

I’ve thought of that moment a lot since our cruise along the coastline of Colombia. Especially after a night shift about 60 miles north of Buenaventura. Because pirates are never more real than when you can see their spotlights sweeping the waterline off of your bow, or when you can hear their outboards roaring over the rush of the surf, hunting for you in the black of the night.

***

A week before we embarked for Colombia, Taylor and I found ourselves sharing a beer with a couple of San Diegans in a Yacht Club near Panama City. Our restaurant overlooked the mouth of the Panama Canal. The Bridge of Americas glowed in the dusklight, with the silhouette of mountains behind, and the Taboga Islands beyond. The San Diegans were telling us to sail straight for Ecuador, to go out and around Colombia.

“It’s dangerous, you know,” said Cindy. “And not just because of pirates. The charts are way off. Rocks jut out of the water, sometimes five miles off the coast. And the current…”

“You don’t want to battle that current,” said Jeremy. “Nobody goes toe-to-toe with the Humbolt and comes out happy.”

Jeremy and Cindy were your classic California couple. Tan, full of life, and fifty-two years old, Jeremy still spoke with the drawl of a SoCal surfer. They’d retired on a sailboat in Costa Rica, leaving every three months only to return and renew their tourist visas. But they were salty. They’d seen their share of big seas.

“Those waters aren’t for novice sailors,” said Jeremy. “We’re talking intermediate to expert level. We’re talking the big leagues.”

Before we left, I promised to consider avoiding Colombia. But what Jeremy didn’t realize was that he and Cindy might as well have been selling it to us. We were hardly novice sailors at this point – having weathered a hurricane and two tropical storms, along with a frozen engine in the middle of Caribbean doldrums. We’d seen some shit. But the very premise of our expedition was to go against the grain. We wanted to sail the waters that no one else would - that mark on the map that read “HERE BE DRAGONS.” After two months in Central America, we were desperate for uncharted waters, for bays where the rivers didn’t run with trash, for untarnished coast and a culture uncorrupted by western influence.

A week later, we set a b-line for the Pacific coast of Colombia. Our transmission had been rebuilt, we’d spent our last dollar on provisions for a month, and we hoisted the sails for the first time in what felt like a century. It was everything that you dream sailing to be. The sun strong enough to heat your skin, with just enough wind to cool it. We cruised five knots at a 20-degree lean through calm seas, and when the wind lulled at dusk or dawn we’d turn on the engine and motor-sail until it picked up again. We anchored off Las Perlas one night, and in an uninhabited cove off the coast of Colombia the next.

Jungle-laden mountains dropped straight into the Pacific Ocean, with waterfalls spilling from their pores. Thatched huts of fishermen scattered the narrow shore below. No road led to these villages—the thickness of the jungle and the steepness of the Andes fortified them from the mainland. Their only connection to the outer world was a canoe and the odd fishing skiff.

Children and young men paddled out from the shore toward our anchorage for a closer look. Expressions of joy and awe lit up their faces when we’d surface, or when we shouted back in Spanish. They kept a comfortable distance, though, and never lingered. They didn’t ask for money or food. Instead, they shouted “Bienvenidos!” and “Hola!” and waved frantically when we’d laugh or show them the slightest acknowledgement. On Christmas Day, off the coast of a fishing village near Bahia Solano, a lone fisherman came out and invited us to join his family for dinner.

Here, Taylor and I were aliens. Here was an untarnished world. We'd found our haven – everything we'd wanted to find this far south of the USA. Here was an original culture—a third dynamic to the eastern and western dichotomy that divided globalized politics—here was Latin America. 

*** 

They came in the night.

It wasn’t our first encounter. We’d had run-ins by day – fishing skiffs without a lick of fishing equipment on board, stalking us by day. Taylor and I would trade off going below deck, only to resurface in different clothes and hats. Thinking there were four or five men on board, the skiffs would veer off. But at night, exposed by the moonlight, there was no counter-strategy.

We were on a stretch of sail just north of Buenaventura. Nikki Wynn, a friend we’d met in Panama City, had given us a guide to the Pacific coast of Colombia. It was a PDF she’d downloaded off the internet, written by a Colombian native who wanted to encourage sailing the Pacific Coast of Colombia in the wake of the Cartel’s dismantlement. It was titled “The Forgotten Coast,” and after a resurgence of drug trafficking in the 1990s, it was similarly forgotten.

The guide had helpful tips, though. We’d use GPS coordinates for when the Garmin charts were off-base (they were often errant by more than two miles), and descriptions of coves and cities to choose from for our sailing route. It was an optimistic and encouraging guide, but even its author warned cruisers to avoid Buenaventura at all costs. “Especially the mangroves to the north.” This wasn’t Narco country, and there were no career pirates operating in this area since it was low in commercial traffic. It was simply impoverished.

What we should’ve known is that desperation breeds the most dangerous pirate. The reckless and inexperienced kind. The kind with nothing to lose.

“The Forgotten Coast” suggested we sail at least twenty miles offshore, starting a hundred miles north of Buenaventura. Because of the current, we were flirting with a distance closer to five miles. Twenty miles just wasn’t an option.

***

Taylor had Googled the Humbolt Current before we set sail from Panama. The online forum we found claimed that the current averaged 2 knots and occasionally ran backwards (north to south) during the months of January and February. This sounded reasonable enough, and for the first few days out of Panama City there was no current to speak of. We only started noticing the resistance after we’d begun working our way down the Colombian coast. But even then, we had no way of knowing what lay ahead of us.

We raised anchor in a cove outside of Bahia Solano, and sailed for a point that jutted out of the coast before cutting dramatically to the south. Coming around the bend, our GPS heading started to veer west of our compass heading. Our boat was pointed south, but our GPS course curved west. The further offshore we sailed, the stronger the current became. Currents weren’t new to us, by this point – but this current was pushing us north faster than we were sailing south. At one point, our GPS heading was almost 50 degrees off – so while we were pointed southwest, we were actually moving northwest.

The wind shifted at sundown and we were able to cut dead south. With sails full, our hull heeled to the side, we were going one knot – backwards. Surfing down the back of choppy swells, our boat crashing through waves like we were flying forward, we were barely breaking even. Watching the water rush past us, the way our bow rose and plowed into the swells, you would’ve thought we were breaking speed records.

Then the wind died. We didn’t want to risk wrecking our new transmission by fighting through that current, so we lowered the sails and watched our course accelerate northward. “We’re going to drift back to Panama at this rate,” said Taylor. And he was right. The GPS had us cruising north at six knots – our top speed on a good day.

In the morning, the wind rose from the west and we were able to cut a course back to land – but not before drifting thirty miles backward. We spent that entire day fighting our way to Bahia Solano, where we’d set off from the day before. When we arrived, almost two full days had passed. We’d covered a distance of over 150 miles, only to come full circle. We hadn’t slept. We’d hardly eaten. We dropped anchor an hour after sunset. 

It was Christmas Eve.

*** 

After losing our battle with the Humbolt, we wanted to avoid sailing offshore at all costs. So when the mangroves appeared a hundred miles north of Buenaventura, we flirted with that murky line in the water where the coastal tide met the current. It was about five miles offshore. Close enough for us to see that faint line of the coast – a lush jungle desaturated by haze to a faint grey – but far enough for us to feel invisible beyond.

It wasn’t far enough, though. And when the sun fell and the dark rose, the bowlight of their mothership glowed to our starboard. We were caught between the pirates and the coast.

*** 

The weather along the coast of Colombia had been fairly predictable up to that point. At dawn, the sky was clear as the water. It remained sunny throughout the day, but clouds would begin forming over the jungle with the morning heat. By afternoon, there was a thick haze over the whole coast. Then the sun would set, and the clouds that had formed above the jungle would roll over the ocean and dump a heavy rain onto the water. 

It was a clockwork schedule that Taylor and I could set a watch to. Rain would begin around 9pm, and it always ended before 2am. It was a nuisance because the winds would shift on a dime, and the downpour of rain would leave us wet and miserable. But it was much calmer than the storms we’d encountered in the Gulf and Caribbean. All the same, that first shift at night was our least favourite, and we’d often hand over the helm with a quip like, “Enjoy your bath” or “Keep dry!”

There were no words exchanged that night, though. We’d been sailing nonstop for five days straight, and we didn’t want to risk anchoring off the mangroves to be ambushed by pirates. But we also couldn’t afford sailing out to sea and getting swept off by the Humbolt again. The current and headwinds already held us to about forty nautical miles a day—a pace that wouldn’t put us in Ecuador for another two weeks—and we hadn’t the gas or provisions to spend an extra week at sea. We were tired. So when I crawled into the cockpit at 6pm to start my shift, Taylor didn’t even wait for me to grab the helm. He moved past me into the companionway and collapsed onto his bed below.

Dusk settled and the glow of violet was replaced by the trance of a full moon. I drank stale coffee with clumped-up creamer, and would take a caffeine pill before the night was over. There was a six-hour shift ahead of me. Six hours per night (so the other could sleep); four hours by day. 

I saw their bowlight well before they could see me. It flickered on the horizon, rising and falling behind distant swells so that I thought it might be a lighthouse off the point of Buenaventura. It was too far west, though, and too close. A mile and a half, perhaps, by the time the second light appeared. It flipped on like another bowlight, except much brighter. Then I saw a beam sweeping across the waterline. It was a spotlight. They were searching for us.

Only then did I look up at our sails. We had stopped turning on our bow lights and running lights at night, and were sailing in silence: no engine, no radio, no music, to avoid detection. But when I looked skyward on this night, our sails were glowing. The moon was nearly 90-degrees to starboard. Our sails are white. They were catching the moon and reflecting it outward.

The beam of their spotlight swept over us just once before settling. And when it did, our sails went up in flame. They caught that spotlight and magnifying it. The light held for five, maybe ten seconds, then it switched it off. Their bowlight went dark immediately afterward, and as I sat there, holding my breath, an outboard engine roared to life in the distance.

There was no time to hesitate. The moon was still lighting up our sails like a projector, and they had more than just a mark on us – they had our heading. So I did the only thing I could think to do in that moment. I tacked to port. I angled our bow inland until the moon was right off our stern, and its light deflected off the length of our sails. We were far from invisible, but our sails weren’t catching the moon like they had before. More importantly, though, we’d changed direction.

I thought about waking up Taylor, of course—even in my delirious state, it was pretty clear that these weren’t curious locals or fishermen—but I knew how deep in sleep he’d be, and you have to understand how important sleep was to us at that point. I also knew that there was only one way I’d be able to bring him up from below deck.

We’d discussed a code word upon entering those waters. If armed pirates were ever approaching or attempting to board our ship, I would say “Pineapple” and Taylor would come up with his Glock loaded. After our recent close encounters, I knew more than ever that there would be no false alarms. But if I screamed “Pineapple” now, it would not only bring Taylor on deck with guns blazing, it would give away our position.

Instead of risking all of that, I decided to try and shake them. I held my course east at a full lean, cruising as fast as I could with our engine off. Still, I was no match for their skiff and its 60 horsepower engine. The roar of their outboard approached at full speed. It grew louder and louder until it sounded like a jet engine hovering above us. Then, right as their outline appeared on the horizon—a glint of moonlight refracting off metal—the sky went dark. A wall of clouds had swept over the moon.

I listened to their engine zip behind our stern, and felt the wake of their boat slap against our beam. They were searching right where we would’ve been if I hadn’t tacked. But we weren’t out of it, yet. Their outboard revved behind us in the dark, and I heard them searching in a pattern that spiraled outward. They were to my portside, so I tacked back to distance myself as much as possible – but it wasn’t long before their spotlight flickered to life.  

They’d brought it with them on the skiff and were sweeping the horizon behind me. The light was right off our stern—so it wouldn’t catch us broadside, like before—but it was only a matter of time before they would lock in. With the night as black as it was, our sails would be like a beacon in the night.

There was nothing I could do. The spotlight grew nearer and nearer. It swept over me once, then twice. Then...

A drop of rain.

I held out my hand. Another. And then the sky fell.

It rained heavier than it’d rained that entire trip. The heavens opened up. The floodgates collapsed. Condensation from the jungle, which dumped onto the Pacific like clockwork every single night, came just in the nick of time. I’d never been so happy to be caught in the middle of a storm in my entire life.

The roar of their pirate outboard was replaced by the hammering of rain. The wind picked up and soon we were cruising at six, then seven knots. It was a hefty cell, and the rain carried on well past midnight, shielding us until we were clear of Buenaventura.

*** 

Two days later, we limped into Tumaco Harbor under the sheltered escort of the Colombian armada. I hadn’t slept more than a few consecutive hours in almost two weeks. In total, we’d had four, almost five, encounters with would-be pirates (the last thwarted only by a radio call from the Tumaco Guardacosta). But what we found in Tumaco made the entire journey worth the risk.

The Colombian Armada rafted us alongside one of their patrol boats so that we could have access to their dock, and then they let us wander their naval base at our leisure. When we went into town, they gave us personal escorts. And on January first, the day after we arrived, they took us to the beach to see how the locals celebrate the New Year.

Tumaco beach was filled to the brim. The waterline was so crowded with children and families swimming that it would’ve been difficult to dip our feet, much less fully submerge. Tents and blankets rolled off the beach in layers, and everywhere we went the locals stopped and stared.

“My friend,” called a man, early after our arrival. “My friend, where are you from?”

He was speaking English and stumbling after us. I almost ignored him because he opened the way that most solicitors did in Central America. But when I turned to find a small man smiling and genuine, with no spread of items for sale, I stopped. He was clean-shaven and wore swim trunks with a tanktop.

“Estados Unidos,” I responded, but he responded in English.  

“An American!” he said, as if to confirm his suspicions. “How do you like my country?”

I kept my answers short, but polite. We talked about the beauty of the people, the culture and the scenery. A crowd began to gather around us, and Taylor getting anxious beside me.

“Well, we’re going to walk around a bit,” I said. Then to the crowd, “Vamos a caminar.”

They giggled and a few of the girls blushed. But when the man reached out to shake our hands, he held on.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for visiting my country.”

We turned and walked down to the beach. Looking around, I saw no “gringos”. In fact, the only caucasians we’d seen since Panama were a pair of middle-aged Europeans, dressed in African safari gear, sitting outside of a hotel directly across from of the airstrip in Bahia Solano. Tumaco, however, was a larger city, with roads to the major cities and a link to Ecuador. So I asked Nestor, our Guardacosta friend, “Do a lot of foreigners come here?”

“No,” he said. “Only ten boats all year.”

“Ten boats?” I said. “Only ten boats came here last year?”

He paused, as if second-guessing himself, and said – “Ten, including you.”

*** 

The west coast of Colombia was untamed. In certain “resort cities” like Bahia Solano and Nuquí, the dirt roads and downtown strips were reminiscent of the wild west (minus the smartphones everyone carried around). Still, never in my life had I been to a place so beautiful with people so genuinely happy to host.

South America is a world of extremes. Knowing what we know now, if asked whether we should’ve sailed around Colombia to get to Ecuador—saving time and energy; skirting pirates; avoiding uncharted rocks that stuck out of the sea like spines; sleeping without stress; and arriving without the frustration of having sailed backward as often as forward—I’d say no. In fact, I might even do it again. Only, this time, I’d sail in the direction of the current, from south to north, with the wind at our back.