Outside magazine, May 1995
When my friend G.M. asked me to crew from Colombia to Panama and through the canal aboard his 35-foot Morgan sloop, I grudgingly consented--though I suspected the invitation was yet another attempt to involve me in one of his odious schemes. True, the invitation was innocently couched: He was recovering from back surgery, he said, and an extra hand was needed to get his boat through the locks. Also, he hinted that it would be nice if someone from the States could bring last-minute supplies. Once through the Panama Canal, he planned to sail to his native New Zealand, so he was desperately in need of cutting-edge nutritional products for the ship's larder.
"It is absolutely essential that I have a five-pound can of crunchy peanut butter," G.M. said. "Peter Pan, if possible. It's your money, but I wouldn't worry about the cost. This is, after all, the Pacific Ocean we're discussing."
The request for peanut butter, I felt, added just the right touch of Third World authenticity. Dilettante travelers can whine all they want about backward health care and bad lodgings, but a true road vet will beg for peanut butter or American ketchup every time.
Even so, I didn't accept G.M.'s invitation at face value. The man has a history of strange dealings in far-flung places--Uganda, Grenada, and Nicaragua, to name but a few--and I had no intention of being drawn into some cheesy intrigue. The last time we met, as a diversion, hadn't he trolled me behind his boat like some giant tuna? How many West Indian coast guardsmen had we offended? Certainly the Statian constable could be counted among the outraged. Why else would he have threatened to wing me with a tranquilizer gun? Yet I wanted to help. To ease my mind, I asked G.M. some litmus-test questions: Did his invitation have anything at all to do with the trafficking of drugs?
"I could use some Extra Strength Tylenol if you have room," he replied. "But the peanut butter has top priority."
Did he expect me to pack a side arm?
"You mean bring a pistol?" G.M. asked. "If you do, make sure you file off the front sight before you leave. That way it won't hurt so much when the guerrillas stick the gun up your ass."
Frankness is the hallmark of innocence. I would serve as G.M.'s crew. I would buy crunchy peanut butter. I would not pack a side arm.
I booked an Avianca flight to Cartagena and arrived on a January afternoon when the temperature at the outdoor customs station had to be 90 degrees in the shade. There were parrots rattling around in the palms, and music was being piped through the airport, the sort of South American music that, to me, has always sounded like a hot accordion player mounted on a galloping horse. My reservations about G.M. aside, it is a wonderful thing to arrive alone and on the loose in a Latin country. Latin countries are a strange mix of energy and lethargy: the heat, the noise, the smell of diesel and mangoes--everything radiates potential. There are roads, there are taxis, there are bored taxi drivers. In the tropics, any combination of the three guarantees adventure.
In the past few years, Columbia has received a lot of negative press. Yes, there was that unfortunate business with Pablo Escobar. And the charge that Trujillo militiamen have been using chainsaws to dismember locals is apparently accurate. Also, there is no doubt that the guerrillas have abandoned their lofty left-wing political ideals for the more earthy business of ransoming innocent kidnap victims. All of this is true and far too tragic to joke about--particularly because it tarnishes all of Colombia and its superbly gifted people.
But there is nothing sinister about Cartagena. Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in the 1500s and became the port treasury for gold and silver robbed from indigenous peoples. Because of its wealth, the city also became the target of British and French pirates, who more than once looted and held it for ransom. It was after Sir Francis Drake sacked Cartagena in 1585 that Madrid decided to take action. Fortresses were built. A great stone wall, 40 feet high, was constructed around the city. And the main sea channel, Boca Grande, was sealed with a submerged rock rampart.
The forts, the wall, and the rampart still stand, so driving through the city is a lot like driving through a very noisy museum.
I was to meet G.M. at Club Nautico, a small marina where his boat was moored on Cartagena Bay. But instead of finding G.M. aboard, I found a note instructing me to meet him across the bay at the Colombian navy's Atlantic command headquarters. The bastard! If he truly planned a pleasure cruise to Panama, what was he--a foreigner and a civilian--doing at a high-security installation like the Armada República de Colombia?
The note contained a prescient addendum: "You won't have any trouble getting on the base, for the same reason you've never been searched by customs in your life."
What the hell did that mean?
But G.M. was right. At the base gate, armed guards checked a list and waved me into the parklike grounds, where I wandered unchallenged until I finally found G.M. in conference with several Colombian officers. He grinned, introduced me around, then handed me a plastic sack as if presenting me with a gift. Later, when we were alone, he tried to offer some lame explanation as to what he was doing ("An old friend of mine's on staff, and I know how much you like ships...") but I cut him short, saying, "I don't want to know what you're doing. And I particularly don't want to know why you're doing it. Those men in the black T-shirts--they were marine commandos, for God's sake. Batallón de Fuerzas Especiales! They'd have both your legs eaten before you even woke up!"
G.M. seemed to find this amusing. "You didn't even thank me for the present."
He meant the sack. Inside, I found a regulation Colombian coast guard cap, blue and gold with red lettering. "Very nice," I said. "When the owner misses it, will they shoot us or just start up the chainsaws?"
"One of the officers gave it to me!" G.M. retorted, genuinely offended.
"Uh-huh. Sure." I put the hat back into the sack. "Now just tell me one thing: Are we really sailing to Panama?"
"Did you bring the peanut butter?" he asked.
"Five pounds," I said. "A trillion calories and crunchy, just like you wanted."
"Then we're going to Panama," G.M. said. "But there's no rush."
None of the sailors moored at Club Nautico seemed to be in a rush to go anywhere. It didn't take me long to understand why. This little marina was no bigger than a farm school parking lot, but it was a crossroads for blue-water cruisers from around the world. It was safe, cheap, clean, and ideally located. Walk across the bridge, and you were in the heart of Cartagena. Catch a cab, and the Boca Grande nightclubs were only a few minutes away. If you needed to resupply, there was fresh bread, meats, just about everything but peanut butter at the Magli Paris supermarket, just three blocks away.
As G.M. said, "I sailed in planning to anchor for a week. That was a month ago. Cartagena is just such an easy place to live."
It was true. I met sailors at Club Nautico who had veered in to pick up fresh water but stayed years. The marina itself was a simple series of docks fronted by a thatch-roofed bar and restaurant. The food was excellent, Colombia Club beer was only 60 cents a bottle, and there was a television in the laundry room that got at least one channel and sometimes two. Life was indeed laid-back and friendly--too much so, if G.M.'s appearance and behavior were any indication. Back surgery had ended his obsession with long-distance running, but the lazy life at Club Nautico provided other obsessions in its place. Food was among them. When he wasn't gorging at the restaurant, he could be found squatting on the boat, sewing salted strips of fresh meat onto a string, which he then hung around the taffrail to dry in the sun--beef jerky. A sailboat decorated with raw meat is an uncommon thing to see, and locals gave us wide berth, as if they feared cannibals lived aboard. Beer was another obsession, as was Cartagena's bawdier nightlife. G.M. would return to the boat late at night and stumble up out of his dinghy, saying things like, "Find a light! What do you wager Mr. Happy looks like the handle grip of a bicycle?"
After nearly a week of this crude lifestyle, I took command. Food was restricted: We ate nothing but fruit all day--a wonderful way to live in Colombia where two dozen bananas cost a dollar. Beef jerky and alcohol were banned until sunset. G.M. grumbled about the new regimen ("Do you have to act like a Boy Scout, too?") but gradually gave in. After that, I began to enjoy life aboard.
It was during our evenings at the marina that I began to notice a telling and perhaps sinister pattern emerging. Marinas are gypsy communities; friendships form quickly. But G.M.'s close friends also included several moneyed Colombians. This is not to say the Colombians were sinister--they weren't--yet I was forever suspicious of G.M.'s objectives. Every night we ate and drank with a group that included a British filmmaker, a businessman from Bogotá, a politician from Cali, and a Cartagenan treasure hunter named Alvaro Sierra. They were a fun group: smart, generous, extraordinarily trusting. Sierra was also an amateur historian, and he told wonderful stories about the pirate days, when Cartagena was the richest treasure port in the world. "This bay," Sierra said, gesturing toward the glimmering water, "is littered with the wrecks of 400 years. There are so many cannons and so much metal on the bottom that a magnetometer is useless! But the government will not allow us to dive in the bay. It is a wise rule. Our national treasures must be protected."
On a dirt lane in the industrial section of town, Sierra had a warehouse--Compañía Maritima del Caribe--that G.M. and I visited several times. Over many years, Sierra had collected nautical treasures from all eras. Name any maritime rarity, and Sierra had it. There was even a conning tower from a submarine. "I love ships," Sierra told me. "I joined the Colombian navy when I was 15! Now I collect pieces of the things I love."
It was in Sierra's chart room that I began to suspect G.M.'s true motive for luring me to Colombia. Cartagena is connected to the sea by two natural passes: Boca Grande and Boca Chica. As mentioned, the Spanish built a milelong rampart across the largest opening, Boca Grande, so they could more effectively defend against pirates. Sierra, leaning over an old chart, indicated the submerged wall--the water shoaled to two feet--and then touched a point beyond. "Perhaps because of the wall, there are many wrecks here, though I know of no one who has ever dived them. The surf is high, and the water murky. Besides, the coast guard would follow a vessel out from Boca Chica, and the wall makes it impossible to approach the site unseen from Boca Grande."
"Not impossible," G.M. told me as we taxied back to Club Nautico. "I draw six feet, but I met a local fishermen who says there's a tiny opening in the wall with enough water." He said it in an airy, musing way, but I knew then what he planned--piracy, plain and simple. He was going to look for treasure.
We sailed the wall on a Friday. Actually, we did it under power, puttering out past the high-rise hotels of Boca Grande, heading for the foaming surf line. The local fisherman, Jaime Hernando, stood at the bow, pointing the way. There were no markers, and there was certainly no break in the rolling five-foot swells. On the digital sonar, I watched the wall ascend beneath us, calling out depth: "Fifteen feet...13...12 and shoaling!" On the beach, a few knowledgeable spectators had collected and were trying to wave us away from disaster--even they knew a sailing vessel couldn't make it through Boca Grande. "Ten feet...eight...we're still losing water!" And then I saw it, too: a thin, pearly streak of water that lanced its way through the darker water that marked the wall. We hit the opening squarely and were jettisoned through into the deeper Caribbean on the other side.
G.M. is not a demonstrative man. But he was excited now, laughing and shaking his fist at the sea as he yelled, "They said I'd kill my boat on the rocks. Bull feathers!"
I was trembling like a Chihuahua. "The smart thing to do," I suggested, "would be to turn around immediately and sail back to safety before we forget where the opening is. Or maybe just abandon the whole business. Anchor off one of those beaches and flag down a cab. Cabs are cheap here."
But no, G.M. was on a roll. He had found the passage, and now he wanted to find one of the wrecks described by Sierra. Which is the reason--perhaps the only reason--that he had invited me to Colombia in the first place. You see, it is not easy to find something on the ocean bottom even when you have the best electronics and know exactly where to search. If you don't have either of those advantages, then it is nearly impossible. But G.M. had long been convinced that I have a gift for finding things underwater, an absurd belief that dated back to an incident years before involving a cuckolded husband, a public dock, and an inscribed Rolex watch that G.M. shouldn't have been wearing. The details are unimportant. You need only know that he has a devout confidence in my abilities. That is why he once trolled me behind his boat like a giant tuna. It is also the reason that the sneaky bastard had tricked me into flying to Cartagena.
"I'm not getting into that water," I told him, and I meant it. The sea was marl gray, like smoky crystal, and the tide was ripping. "Sharks around here have to root like pigs just to survive," I said. "They'll eat anything that moves."
G.M. shrugged. "Then we'll let Jaime snorkel around. With just one diver, it'll take a lot longer, probably three or four hours, which means we won't head back through the pass until the afternoon wind is up. That'll be dangerous. Can you imagine sledding over that wall in a following sea? Seven-foot swells? Jesus!"
Yes, I could imagine it--which is why I pulled on my mask and snorkel and joined Jaime in the water. It was not pleasant work. The wave surge was brutal. I'd dive down 20 feet or so to the bottom, tumble along with the tide until I was out of air, and surface. Visibility was so poor that I couldn't see anything until it was right in front of my mask.
And that is why finding the stack of cannons was such a shock. I almost collided face-first into what initially appeared to be a black obelisk rushing toward me through the gloom. I surfaced, gathered my courage, and dove again, this time more tentatively. Again I saw the black shape, and I grabbed it. I pulled myself down and took a more leisurely look. There were six...seven...no, at least eight cannons in a pile, all seemingly glued together by a heavy growth of coral. I surfaced, hollered the news to G.M., then did a couple more dives while he gathered Jaime and moved the sailboat. I found three more cannons and a ten-foot-long anchor before G.M. got anchored on the site.
It is an awesome thing to cling to a stack of galleon cannons that possibly no one has seen or touched for 300 years. It was a thrill--worth the trip. But the moment G.M. got into the water, I got out. My work was done. Also, if the three of us ended up in some hellish Colombian prison, I wanted to be able to tell the judge the truth: I hadn't tried to salvage anything. And it almost came to that. We had been anchored on the wreck for less than an hour when I noticed a big gray patrol boat charging in on us. I banged on the hull to get G.M.'s attention, and when he surfaced, I said in a calm, controlled voice, "You lunatic! That's the Colombian coast guard closing on us!"
He checked his watch, as if he had been expecting them. Had he pilfered their schedule from the naval base? "Put on your hat," G.M. said. "The one I gave you. If they do come in close, just smile and wave."
It was an absurd finesse, but what choice did I have? I put on the hat. When the patrol boat slowed, I smiled. I waved. The boat was close enough that I could see one of the men studying me through binoculars. After a tense minute or two, he lowered his glasses and waved back. Then the boat did a U-turn and went burbling out to sea.
"It's that bland expression on your face," G.M. explained over beer back at Club Nautico. "Same reason you've never been searched by customs in your life. Traveling with you is like carrying a letter of transit."
Or maybe, as I preferred to believe, it was because of all the beef jerky hanging from the taffrail--from a distance, it looked like fresh scalps.
Whatever the reason, we didn't disturb the wreck, didn't take a thing. I wouldn't allow it. As G.M. said, "That's always been the downside of traveling with you."