Some take a boat around the Darien Gap, others take a plane. Dylan Samarawickrama built himself a GS powered raft…
On one evening in 2010, towards the end of a long Swiss winter, I made a decision. Even after three years I remember that moment so vividly. It was another cold day and I got into the shower to wash off the grease and the dirt of a hard days work. There I started contemplating my life. The monotony of it and some personal issues that had been bugging me for a long time didn’t quite make me the joyful man I used to be. The idea I had under the shower was almost a revelation and I knew it was the right thing for me: to travel and see the world on my motorcycle! I usually make quick decisions and when I have an idea in my head, I make sure that time does not go wasted ’til the conditions were perfect. Rather, I have learned to perfect my improvisations and make adjustments to suit whatever the occasion it may be.
In Switzerland, my home of choice, I ran my own car repair maintenance workshop for six years. Since I didn’t have enough money to fund a world tour, I decided to sell my small business, pay all the debts and use the rest of the money to finance my crazy idea of travelling the world on my BMW 1150 GS, which I baptized with the name Bruce. Believe it or not, from the moment I had the idea to actually implementing it took a mere three months. I had no plans of a certain route and the final destination was to be back home but only after having ridden around the world. Appropriately I named my mission Around the world 360 and on the 28th of June 2010 I began my journey. I travelled 120,000 kilometres through Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia before finally tackling the North American continent. Starting from Vancouver I travelled to the northernmost town called Prudhoe Bay in Alaska and from there I began my journey southward aiming for Argentina. It’s on this leg of the tour that I seriously began to plan the biggest adventure of my life. Though the two continents North and South Americas are connected by an isthmus, a road connection linking Panama and Colombia has remained wishful thinking to this day. This vast area without road connection is known as The Darien Gap.
Darien is one of the most notorious regions of the planet Earth. It is mostly uninhabited jungle but acts as a safe haven for guerrilla and paramilitary groups as well as drug smugglers pushing their produce towards the North American continent. Once you have reached Panama, there are two choices to get across this section into Colombia: a plane or a boat! To me this was a God given opportunity to justify my insanity! Rather than getting on a boat, I decided to build a raft and power my way forward using a propeller driven by the motorcycle engine.
The idea is very exciting as well as terribly crazy. Every obstacle is a test of your will power. What added more to its craziness is the fact that I had no experience whatsoever as a sailor. I have never built a raft before nor have I seen anyone building one. There were more challenges: until that point of my ocean adventure, I had been travelling around the world for two and half years and I was running out of money. The costs of the entire tour, including clothing and equipment have been funded by my own resources. So the ocean adventure had to be done at low cost before I ran out of money altogether. “Adventurers should be optimistic”, I always told myself. So I began doing something which only children dream of doing! I built a raft using ten empty 55-gallon oil barrels welded together with a metal frame and started sailing the Pacific Ocean on the 14th of March 2013.
There were many things which made me afraid. Apart from the biggest threat to my life being the ocean itself, I feared bandits, terrorists and pirates and in case I made it to land before reaching civilization, I would still be stuck in the vast jungle of Darien. But that can all be overcome if you handle your situation right. After all, danger is part of the adventure. But my biggest concern were the local authorities. I worried that the police and the coast guards and the maritime officials of Panama and Colombia could put an end to my little sailing trip and even put me behind bars for several reasons: possession of an unregistered and unrecognized vessel and operating it without a licence, leaving and entering a country without notifying the immigration authorities could have been some of those charges against me. It’s not that I didn’t try to get the proper documents before I left. When I spoke to the authorities, they simply laughed at me saying it’s impossible to register such a vessel without meeting safety requirements. Since my vessel was not registered, immigration authorities denied me the exit stamp in my passport. But nothing deterred me from trying out my luck. To avoid any encounters with officials and with many fears in my mind, I began my infamous departure out of Panama exactly at midnight of the 14th March 2013 sailing southward towards a group of islands called Las Perlas.
“You are going to get yourself killed in that raft of yours!” “You think so?” “Yes, I AM POSITIVE!” A small part of the dialogue I had with an experienced Israeli sailor couple of hours before my departure.
The experiences I made in the next six weeks in sailing in the Pacific Ocean were many. Wrapping it up in a magazine article is like trying to cut a mammoth tree with a bread knife. The six weeks I spent at sea had been a gruelling challenge at times. It has also been the most extraordinary and beautiful experience of my life by far. Since motorcycles are not made for the sea, Bruce was breaking down constantly. Repairs and constant maintenance work became part of the deal. A French sailor whom I had met in Panama, helped me to rig a sail to assist my forward motion so that I didn’t have to burn fuel using the engine. An idea to help me keep my costs down but in practice it hardly worked due to changing of the wind direction.
There was a constant two kilometre per hour current which made ‘getting somewhere’ a slow process. But sometimes the current was so strong and I had no control of my vessel. I simply had to leave my life at the hands of gods and wait for a miracle. Most of the time there were those miracles. The biggest one being the miracle of dolphins when I was stranded 136kms from the nearest shoreline and I was drifting toward the deep Pacific Ocean. Currents were too swift for my raft and I waited for two days not knowing what my fate would be.
The biggest problem at that point was how to determine the direction of travel. Since I was being dragged by a current I could not build up a genuine speed to keep course. This created confusion in my GPS. Every few seconds it gave me contradictory advice for direction and I began to sail in circles. There I also realized that my compass wasn’t going to be any use. The needle started showing in different directions depending on where on the raft I stood. I could only hope for a miracle by then. Then came the Dolphins and they started playing with my raft. They came and they went away and then I thought I could start following them instead of letting my raft be drifted by currents to an unknown place. And it paid off! To this day I do not know whether it was intentional from the Dolphins side. They swam to a place where there was current going north east towards land. However, following Dolphins probably saved me lots of trouble, probably my life!
The following is an excerpt of part of my notes while at sea. …The wind was quite favourable. It came from the north and blew up my sail like a balloon. Waves were nothing more than usual and I had a steady speed of 5km per hour showing on my GPS. To my right hand side there was the largest island of the Perlas, Isla del Rey. The setting sun and the cloud formations of reddish tone made the evening to a very pretty one. I spent my time enjoying the landscape and occasionally correcting my course by adjusting the rudders. When the faint light of stars slowly started to appear in the sky, I lit up my stove and started to cook some spaghetti with some readymade sauce. That was about the best meal I had that evening, enjoying it under the twinkling stars and listening to the wind. At around 10pm I had reached the point where I had to leave the Perlas and sail westward. Knowing that the next land I was to encounter still many hours away, I prepared my hammock to rest. First of all, I fixed the tiller with a rope keeping it straight and then changed the GPS warning signal to come only at the 500 meters of any deviations from my set course. But the GPS alarm was too weak to wake me up in case I had fallen into a deep sleep. So I also set the mobile phone alarm to ring every hour.
Around 1 o’clock in the night the wind started picking up and my GPS alarm started ringing. It showed me that my course had changed, drifting south. I intervened and changed the bow of my boat towards the west and monitored the GPS track it drew on the display for a few minutes. But to my amazement, it did not bring any changes to my new course. I kept on drifting south and I was drifting off course very fast! Oh darn! I am caught up in a strong current!! I knew that I had to start up the engine. But even with the engine running, I kept moving southward. After about two hours of fighting with the current, I decided to stop the struggle. There is the small but uninhabited island called Gallera to my south, which was about 12 kilometers away. So I stopped the engine and let the current take me towards Gallera. I thought it was a good enough plan. The Spanish sailors I had met a couple of days earlier in the island of Contadora told me that there are plenty of coconut trees and even bananas to take freely.
Toward early hours of the morning I reached Gallera. I was nervous! I am caught up in a strong current and being dragged towards an isolated island. There could be rocks and other obstacles lurking in the water which could cause a shipwreck. It was dark and I had no reliable maps on my GPS. There weren’t too many options left for me but to be ready to face any situation which I’ll be confronted with. So I put on the life jacket not only for the first time on this journey, but for the first time in my life! …… …..I had been trying hard to sight the island for a couple of hours but when it finally stood there in the dark in front of me it was more like looking at an enemy who is holding you at gunpoint. All you need is to hit a rock and cut open couple of your barrels to be in deep trouble. Or worst still is to get dragged by a wave and get smashed against the cliff. So I fired up the engine and started to navigate closer towards the island and ever so carefully. It was a slow process. Until there was faint light I circulated the small island looking for a place to anchor, fighting my way forward against the strong current inch by inch. But no matter which side I was at, there were big waves on all sides. To the south of the island there were the biggest waves and I was getting the first taste of the open wide Pacific Ocean. However, towards the early morning I had enough of living in fear. I came within 100 meters of the island and threw in my anchor hoping it would reach the bottom of the deep blue sea. The water swallowed all the rope I had and it didn’t take three seconds before I felt the vessel stood still in the strong current. From the feel of the rope I knew it had caught a rock and it caught it solidly. There was my next fear. Will I be able to free the anchor? Before the sun rose, the moon peeked through the clouds and I was very tired and fell into a deep sleep until midday.
The Island of Gallera marked the boundary of the beginning of the deep open Pacific. Until that point I had not seen such large swells. Though I knew that my vessel would float above the water, the sight of swells over three or more meters high gave me shivers. But at the same time it was a magnificent sight! They came towards you like gentle giants. I saw them come towards me and when I was on top of one, I turned my head and watched it pass me swiftly and smash into the cliffs of Gallera with a thundering noise. Moments like this make you think about how big the universe really is and how small you really are. It makes you feel like an infant, it makes you feel weak. It makes you feel like crying and it makes you start asking questions about who the hell you really are. Is there a God? What on Earth are you doing here in the middle of the ocean? And then you see the fin of a shark swimming about 50 meters from your vessel. Oh shit! My anchor!!!! What if it’s stuck now and can’t free it? I’ll surely not go diving in this water to free it. But on the other hand, if you cut off the rope you’re left with no chance of anchoring yourself for the entire journey!
So I start the engine once again and with a terrible feeling inside of me. I rev the engine fast enough to keep up with the current so that the rope would be slacked. After two or three meters of bringing the rope back into the vessel my suspicion is confirmed by the tightness of the rope. It doesn’t want to free itself any further. So I bring my vessel to different positions and keep on trying for at least 20 minutes and I was exhausted. There is no way that I can free the anchor. I take the machete into my hand while trying to catch my breath back. Cutting off the rope is the only way out! But then once I have enough oxygen in my bloodstream I start debating with myself. Give it another go Dylan! That’s the typical Dylan style.
The fighter in me always calls me back on the stage. So I lay down the machete and start boxing my opponent. Instead of having my opponent against the rope, my opponent has become a rope. I try hard once again but this time I manage to free the anchor. Not without a cost. I have strained my back in the process. But who cares about it! I cry out loud in jubilation for about five minutes. I pump up my arms in the air. These moments make you feel strong! You can conquer the universe. You can battle rocks and win and fight the ocean and it will not defeat you! You are the man Dylan! You are the man! I pat myself on the back with excitement. But in reality, I know that it has been a close call and I have been extremely lucky.
My sailing adventure lasted six weeks. My intention was to sail from Panama city to the Colombian coastal city Buenaventura. Roughly the distance would have been about 800km. After six weeks being at sea I had covered 650km and I had just managed to cross over to Colombia and I had been zigzagging the Pacific Ocean. On a few occasions I gave up trying to sail towards Colombia simply because Bruce kept breaking down and I was in serious doubt if I will make it back to land. But my fighting spirit kept up the challenge alive until one morning I tried to restart my engine. On the previous night I had been caught up in a storm. Waves were big enough to wet my pants in both senses. But the lightning strikes were my biggest concern. However, without much thinking I got into my hammock and slept through the storm. The next day I discovered that the engine oil level sight-glass had been broken and what remained was a gaping hole. No engine could survive without proper lubrication. With that fact I decided to end my boatercycle adventure. I managed to fix the hole temporarily and arrived at a small jungle village called Ardita on the Pacific coast and ten days later arrived in Buenaventura on a cargo vessel with Bruce on board.
Photos: Dylan Samarawickrama