All the options described before have some larger drawbacks. And for a long time (months) we’ve tried to organise this without these major drawbacks, a bit naive probably. In the end we did ship in a way not described in the previous blog, but some of the drawbacks still applied. We ended up booking a flat-rack, which is essentially a container without walls & roof and therefore not the size restrictions. Reason; We were within the 1cm range of fitting in a container, which meant a big risk booking, and we found a partner willing to share the flat-rack with us. Together we shipped “once around the Darien Gap”.
Together with Thomas and Stefan from “Einmalrundum” (“once-around” in German) we formed a Swiss-Austrian duo-Grisu combination. This was just perfect. Their vehicle also used to be a firetruck (from Denmark) and they also named him Grisu. (This last fact can of course be interpreted as funny, but also as embarrassing, but that’s up to you.) Both Grisus together fitted (lengthwise) exactly on the rack, leaving no space unused. We used flat-rack because their Grisu is taller than ours, and would definitely not have fitted in a container. And they also wanted to avoid the RoRo due to the risks as described before.
For us, we could have aired down the tires and taken the risk of squeezing our Grisu into a container. But this would have been a lonely journey for Grisu. Grisu could use some rest without distraction from a companion, but our bank account would not have handled that, since we wouldn’t have had a partner for this option.
But the flat-rack decision wasn’t the only one we needed to make. For an operation like this there are a few parties involved. Basically there’s a carrier and a shipping company. In addition, many people ship with an agent/broker* because they find it convenient (but you don’t actually need). But there’s also many carriers on this route that don’t deal with individuals but solely with agents, making the obsolete agent mandatory. The carrier deals with the containers on the port, and the shipping company is the vessel doing the actual transport.
We used a shipping agent in Panama to book the flat-rack. It was convenient since we had never done this before, and it includes a little bit more than booking a flight across the Atlantic. But now we’ve seen things, I’d never use an agent again. Our main drawback of this way of shipping, was that due to port rules, the carrier employees need to load the vehicle on the rack. Basically, anybody not an employee isn’t allowed on the port. This includes handing over keys, for which I’m incredibly allergic. It was either this, paying double, or the journey ended. So in the end I agreed, but only after I had a written confirmation that they are liable for mechanical damage due to improper handling.**
We got in contact via a non-profit website/app called ContainerBuddies, a platform for overlanders wanting to share the shipping. You sign up, and if there’s somebody with a match, you both get an email and you go on a date. When we first met through the Word Wide Web. We were still in the States and they were already in Nicaragua. We caught up with them the last night before we had our first appointment in Panama City to start the process.
With the two vehicles it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. But also amongst the 4 of us two-leggers, I couldn’t have pictured a better way to team up. Together you’re stronger, and in this case mainly with information. And this is extremely valuable, especially on the Colombian side. Because once you’re shipped around the Darien Gap, that’s where you end up in a maze…
*Agent in this case must be understood as a shipping agent, not so much a customs agent.
**This must sound bizarre to many of you, but carriers and shipping companies tend to do everything at the customers risk. This is, to European standards, unheard off. But since they all work the same, there’s no choice.