Ferry Express

In December 2014, a group of eleven motorcyclists from all over the world arrived at the Ferry Xpress office in Panama City, hoping to make its next sailing between Panama and Colombia. Taking the Ferry Xpress is certainly one of the fastest and least expensive ways to get around the notorious Darien Gap, but it can be a frustrating experience.

My riding partner and I arrived at the tiny Ferry Xpress office, situated on the corner of two of the busiest roads in Panama City. Getting there was a nightmare, but we burst through the doors expecting to emerge in a few minutes with two freshly printed ferry tickets and time to see the city. Instead, it would take us two full days to navigate the federal bureaucracy.

The office was crammed with people. A rider from Spain and another from Israel recognized us and asked if we’d been to the police station yet. They said we needed to get our VIN numbers officially checked before the Ferry Xpress personnel would consider issuing tickets, so off we went, following their vague instructions.

Arriving in a ghetto was unexpected, and our BMWs gave the residents reason to stare. I asked the lone policeman where the inspection station might be, and he pointed to a gravel impound yard surrounded by a tall chain link fence and topped by barbed wire. Once inside the gate, another officer promised to be “right out,” but that translated into several hours of waiting under the hot sun. Two other motorcyclists joined us in the waiting game until at last, our VINs were checked and paperwork was meticulously completed.

But, instead of handing us the documents we needed, we were told to return five hours later at the Dirección de Investigación Judicial (DIJ) office directly across the street, where we’d be given our official paperwork. So we returned to the Ferry Xpress office where we were able to purchase tickets for the next day; however, they wouldn’t issue boarding passes until they received the DIJ documents.

Meanwhile at the DIJ, international motorcyclists were lining up to await their paperwork. There weren’t enough seats and several travelers sat on the floor. This casual approach didn’t bode well with the officials; they were told to stand up, and anyone wearing shorts or tank tops was promptly removed. Nearly three hours passed before the first person received their official documentation, while a copy machine located at a nearby trailer did a brisk business making the requisite copies.

Paperwork in hand, we raced back to the Ferry Xpress office—the desperate pleas of our new comrades begging us to somehow keep the Ferry Xpress office open for them still ringing in our ears. Finally, we received our official boarding passes along with instructions to arrive at the ferry terminal in Colón the following morning at 0800.

Colón is a run-down city, so once behind the ferry terminal gates, no one was anxious to leave. After the previous day’s turmoil, I was looking forward to exploring the duty-free mall, but that wasn’t to be. An authoritative woman sitting at a folding table took note of all of us and began demanding two copies of some documents and three copies of others. Copies could be made at the nearby window for 50¢ each. A French motorcyclist balked at the price and the window was permanently shut to him. Lesson learned, the rest of us “smiled” as we handed over our dollars.

Chaos ensued in the attempt to keep the paperwork straight, a random system that continued to change as the day wore on. Some of my documents had my partner’s name on them because they assumed I was riding solo, resulting in even more explanations and apologies. The woman at the table then said we either made too many or too few copies of each document, sigh…. In the meantime, ferry officials were affixing shipping labels to our bikes, and of course we were required to make copies of these, too. Just over seven hours was wasted under the blazing sun, comparing numbers of copies, only to be turned away by the officials for more seemingly worthless copies of such ordinary papers.

We got excited when the ship arrived—was this actually going to happen?! By midafternoon we were given the all-clear to line our bikes up in front of the terminal, surrounded by police and ferry workers. We were then instructed to remove every single item from our motorcycles and panniers, and to line them up in straight lines for their dogs to search before being allowed to put everything back.

Next, we were instructed to remove all external luggage and place each bag through an x-ray scanner that led to the inside of the ferry terminal. Each of us leaned into the hole that swallowed our duffle bags, futilely trying to keep an eye on our gear. Bags and belongings got mixed up when returned to us; some were scanned twice and some were never scanned at all.

Once again, we were instructed to put everything back on the bikes. Meanwhile, another officer told us to remove anything we intended to take to our cabins and to place the bags against the outside wall of the terminal, leaving them there before bringing the bikes aboard. A scrawny security guard was assigned to watch our stuff, but no one liked that arrangement so I volunteered. The security guard wasn’t happy about that and kept repositioning the bags as I sat there unmoving.

All the while, the group of motorcyclists were enduring other troubles. For one, the dock workers began measuring pannier width and made unhappy sounds as they realized some of the bikes might not fit on the gangplank or through the passenger door. So, panniers were removed and each motorcyclist traversed the narrow planks into the bowels of the ferry where they were securely strapped down.

In the confusion after my bike was loaded, I thought I’d left my passport in my pannier during the systematized chaos. That set off a chain reaction where customs officials, security guards, port police, terminal workers, and Ferry Xpress employees all scrambled around in panic, trying to figure out how to allow my riding partner on board to access the bike he’d just loaded. Fortunately, I found my passport resting safely in my jacket pocket… oops!

Once inside the terminal we found an extremely long line of walk-on passengers waiting for Customs to stamp passports. That line was followed by another long one with an airport-style security checkpoint and x-ray scanner.

Finally aboard the MS SNAV Adriatico, everything relaxed. It was a beautiful ship and obviously brand new, built somewhat like a cruise ship. The food was expensive and presented in a fancy cafeteria-like buffet, and the rooms were small but good. The ship rocked peacefully throughout the night and we docked in Cartagena, Colombia, around 2:00 the following afternoon. Everyone waited for Customs and Quarantine to board and clear the ship for unloading, before the okay to ride our bikes off the ship around 3:00. In contrast to Panama, Customs in Colombia was extremely orderly and straightforward, as were bike importation requirements. We each got motorcycle insurance and were on our way with little delay.

The Tally:

Ferry Xpress tickets were quite reasonable in comparison with other methods of crossing the Darien Gap; the base passenger fare was $118 per person, with an additional $57 for a two-bed cabin. Each motorcycle cost $125, plus taxes. Port fees at Cartagena were fairly steep at $25 per motorcycle, but Colombian motorcycle insurance was included in the ferry fee at $10.69 per bike.

Time spent for 11 motorcyclists to go through Panama’s customs procedures: 18 hours.

1. Make sure the vehicle entry paperwork into Panama is perfect and without errors, especially on bike VIN numbers.

2. Ask as many people as you can in Panama City if the ferry will be running that week.

3. Visit an inspection station to get bike VIN numbers checked by a police officer.

4. Get a certificate from the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública (Dirección de Investigación Judicial).

5. Purchase ferry tickets from Ferry Xpress with copies of the aforementioned certificate.

6. Arrive at the Ferry Xpress terminal in Colón first thing in the morning.

7. Prepare to load and unload your bike multiple times for various inspections.

8. Go through passenger customs (and watch your money belt!).

9. Board the ferry and relax!

10. Go through customs in Colombia.

The 4mph Brain

It’s a beautiful day as the bike effortlessly glides around the bend; suddenly, the rider discovers that the road is tightening up and, being experienced he responds with lightning fast reflexes—closing the throttle and pushing the bike deeper into the lean….

As he lies in the ditch listening to the approaching siren, he’s still trying to figure out what went wrong. Sifting through all the fancy talk, concepts, and advice, the reality is that each of us are dealing with a brain that has only evolved to travel at four MPH—not at 30, 60, or 100 MPH.

We’re all operating within the perimeters of a brain that, although it’s been evolving over millions of years, still clings to many obsolete behaviors. Within those confines, it’s fear that causes us to brake early, turn the bike too soon, dump the throttle in the middle of the corner, tense up, and keeps us from mastering visual acuity.

Understanding and knowing how to cope with fear is how one advances to the next skill level as a rider. Fear is the reaction our brain manifests in survival mode; the byproduct of which are reactions that are often the opposite of what we need to do when riding a motorcycle, interfering with riding ability, or worse, causing a crash.

Before one can master things like body positioning, perfect line selection, becoming a smooth rider, minimizing negative effects from rider input, etc., he must first be able to remain totally relaxed as a rider. Fear and poor visual acuity both prohibit the achievement of that goal.

During the track-based Advanced Street Skills Course (www.PugetSoundSafety.com), and the Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic, we take riders straight to the root of riding with a “Four MPH Brain.” The theory is that evolution taught our brains that we travel at four MPH (essentially walking speed), and can only safely look 20 to 50 feet ahead with ample time to plan for changes in direction, or deal with upcoming hazards. This also applies to lean; when we lean more than approximately 15 degrees, our brain sets off a reactionary alert that we are likely to lose our footing and fall over, coupled with the “fight or flight syndrome” which increases blood flow, pumps out adrenaline, causes tensing up, and prepares for the fall. This is exactly what we don’t want to happen while riding.

So, how does discussing brain evolution make one a better rider? As soon as we straddle an internal combustion engine, we’ve launched ourselves well beyond our brain’s natural behavioral inclinations. This partially explains why a rider may have so much trouble regarding where he should be looking. As a motorcycle safety instructor, I’m often amazed by the number of students who don’t understand how far ahead they should be looking. For example, only scanning one corner, or partially into a corner, when looking ahead. If the rider looks to where it feels natural… that’s wrong—look farther. If it feels right it probably isn’t.

Understanding concepts like fear and poor visual acuity, and how they affect our riding will help one to overcome these deficits. I’m hoping that if you know why you have a hard time looking where you should, this knowledge will help you to improve your riding, and to overcome those outmoded instincts that put us in harm’s way. You may not know that you have visual acuity deficiencies if you haven’t challenged yourself. And, the best way to retrain the “Four MPH Brain” is by taking an upper-level training course.

Mastering Fear by Cross Training

Even when the riding is good, don’t discount the advantages of using non-traditional training techniques. Most of us know that taking an MSF class, attending an off-road school, or advanced training, like Lee Park’s Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic (TotalControlTraining. net), is a good idea. However, using cross training can sometimes reap huge benefits.

Cross training, or the use of non-motorcycling activities, can be used to develop and improve riding skills. This involves learning things off the bike that could never be learned on one. The cross training method is frequently a part of the program when I work with all levels of riders, including those in law enforcement and U.S. Special Forces motorcycle training for tactical environments. Lee Parks has the only other school I know of that utilizes cross training drills together with on-bike skills to improve riding ability.

To become really GREAT riders we must remain diverse, not limiting ourselves to a single focus style. A street rider can only learn so much on the street, a racer on the track, and an off-road rider on the trails, etc. The majority of the students who come through our school are street riders, so I often find myself looking for comparisons to help explain why, as street riders, they should consider adding adventure or dual-sport bikes to their stables, and then attend training such as our multi-day adventure camp (AdvCamp.com).

The issue is getting riders to open up and look at things from new perspectives. For example, one of our greatest fears is falling down on sand, oil, painted lines… or some other type of slippery goo. What happens in an off-road environment is that our brains learn how to identify slip more quickly, arming us with better reactions when it happens on a paved surface. This, coupled with an understanding of weight placement for traction and other related dynamics, better prepares us for situations where slip is not expected or wanted. If you are reading this article it is likely you already know that as soon as you leave the pavement slipping and sliding is just part of the fun, and doesn’t need to be a fear-inducing experience.

Besides motorcycle training there are great benefits to be had from cross training. Let’s use football as a comparison; even if you’re not a football fan most people have heard of football players taking ballet lessons to improve footwork. I have never seen ballet on a football field but it obviously helps the game or they wouldn’t do it. Why would motorcycling be any different? When a street rider takes to the dirt they gain benefits like increased confidence on loose surfaces, becoming more comfortable moving their body mass on a bike, improved balance, mastery of the clutch, throttle, brakes, and better low speed techniques. On the same note the adventure rider can gain similar benefits from attending track-based training.

Let’s simplify our goals into two categories; mental and physical. I am going to leave the realm of traditional training and offer some ideas for cross training. One example is snowboarding. Snowboarding was not a natural activity for me at first and it often scares the @#$$%% out of me just looking down a hill. There is something about strapping one’s feet to a board and then hurling down an ice-covered cliff that just doesn’t seem natural! Snowboarding relies on two skills that are also very critical to riding a motorcycle, vision and keeping your body relaxed when you’re stressed. How vision is used in snowboarding is similar to how you use it on the bike, by keeping your eyes on the horizon, and always looking where you want to go… look down and you eat snow! The second skill is keeping your body relaxed; this is not a physical skill as much as it is a mental one. If you can train your brain to keep your body relaxed, even when you feel fear or are stressed, you are way ahead of the curve.

It is difficult to train your mind and body what to do safely while riding, yet in a situation like snowboarding, kickboxing, or skydiving, you can learn to control your fears without putting yourself into high risk situations. The real jump occurs when you make the cognitive connection between one activity and another. Once you make the connection you can apply the skill of maintaining visual control while remaining relaxed in fear-generating situations. The key is to learn how to stay physically relaxed even though you are stressed or scared.

We train to overcome survival instincts (that often get us into trouble) like tensing up our bodies when we sense danger. It is up to you to cognitively connect these activities to your skills as a motorcyclist. Your brain doesn’t care if you are on a motorcycle or not, but it is up to you make the connection between cross training and riding, so you can carry the learning over to the bike.