El Pacifico!

Bob is in the Pacific! We passed through the last of the Panama Canal locks at about 5pm on Friday March 11th and officially entered the Pacific Ocean. That last lock was very fun indeed. To explain why I’d better explain first how the Panama Canal actually works:

The history of the Panama Canal makes a very very interesting read. The story of the construction begins in 1879 and goes through to 1914. What we’ve ended up with today is a feat of engineering that is impressive by modern standards and absolutely incredible by the standards of 1914. It remains essentially unchanged from how it was then, and about 80% of the original construction is still in use.

The canal operates on a lock system. The first three locks (coming from the Atlantic to the Pacific) raise their contents by 84 feet, after which you enter Gatun Lake. This is a huge freshwater lake which serves as a channel across the Isthmus of Panama (about 30 miles) and also as a reservoir for the water which is needed to operate the locks. It is fed entirely by the rains which usually fall heavily and consistently during the rainy season here in Panama.*

Having motored across the lake, one enters the second set of locks and is lowered down to the level of the Pacific Ocean. The height of this drop varies greatly because the tidal variation in the Pacific can be 20 feet or so. What makes this lock particularly challenging is the entry into it from the penultimate lock. This second-to-last lock contains fresh water, but the last is salt water. Salt water is much more dense than fresh. As the lock doors open between the chambers, the fresh water and salt water meet. The fresh water, being less dense, wants to sit on top of the salt, while the salt wants to burrow underneath the fresh. As this is happening, the result on the surface is a current of 5 knots or so carrying you straight towards the closed doors of the last lock. For a monohull sailboat with a single diesel engine this poses a big problem. Aside from the fact that most monohulls are not good at going astern, the water flow over the rudder is the opposite of what it needs to be in order to steer effectively. The usual thing to do in a strong current is to speed up so that you’re going even faster than the current and therefore maintain maneuverability. That’s not an option here however as the closed lock doors of the last chamber are 190 feet down-stream, and besides, there are line-handlers on the dock trying to walk your lines to the next chamber, and they don’t like it when you go anything over about 3.5 knots as they then struggle to keep up. Many a yacht has come into serious difficulties in this lock when they have not managed to maintain position in the center of the chamber, have not managed to maintain their stern to the current and have ended up broadside to the current, hard up against the harsh metal of the lock doors. In fact, our friend Marc, who came through 2 day after us, ended up in this very unfortunate state of affairs and ground a hole in his port quarter against the chamber wall. Fortunately for us, we were tied alongside a large catamaran with two big engines and a very skilled owner at the helm, so for us this experience was not so much nail-biting as exhilarating. Aside from helping out the owner of the cat by going full astern once or twice, my input to the proceedings were limited.

Having made it through the last of the locks, we untied from our new friends and set off on the last leg of 4 miles or so to the point where we were to drop off our pilot. Since the engine had been running all day, mostly at low speed, I decided to take the opportunity to open her up and blow out some of the carbon deposits which tend to build up in the exhaust system under such circumstances. That was perhaps a mistake as it turns out. The engine alarm began to sound; tentatively at first and then more insistently, telling me that something – either low oil pressure or an overheating engine – was wrong. To make matters worse, I still wasn’t allowed to shut down the engine and sail since there is a ban on sailing for the entirety of the canal. I have heard that some pilots consider this ban to be somewhat flexible. Unfortunately, although our pilot was excellent, he did everything by the book and would not allow me to set a sail even under these circumstances. We got in without anything blowing up, dropped off the pilot, dropped off our professional line handler, Jonathan, as well as our two new friends who saved us $200 by handling lines for us (canal requirements are for 4 line handlers on board each yacht in addition to the captain and the pilot, so it’s been busy!) and dropped anchor at the Balboa Yacht Club.

I set to work immediately trying to identify the source of the engine alarm. Unfortunately, the electrical system for the engine is antiquated to put it mildly and many of the gauges don’t work, so i’m still unsure what caused the problem. This morning we moved to different anchorage (a free one!) and the alarm did not go off after motoring for an hour, so i am inclined to follow standard procedure of ‘Brooksie’s First Law’, which essentially reads ‘usually, when presented with a problem, the best thing to do is nothing’. This modus operandi is one that I have followed for many years and it has usually (but not always) stood me in good stead. We’ll see how it works out this time!

* Lake Gatun was the largest man-made lake in the world until some time in the 1970s, and the dam which created it (and which is still in use) was the largest concrete structure in the world when it was constructed. Currently, the lake is very low due to the huge drought that is being experienced by much of the West Coast of the American continents due to El Nino. The pilot tells me that it may be necessary shortly to limit the draught of the ships that are able to transit through the canal – a limitation that would have considerable consequences for the shipping and goods that pass through here; about 42 per day.

Update, March 16th: Against my usual philosophy i decided to fix the gauges, then I ran the engine pretty hard (going 3/4 astern while at anchor for a little while). Everything is showing normal. I have traced the wiring and found that only the oil pressure is wired to the alarm, so that must have been it………….. but i can’t replicate the fault, whatever it was. Hoping it was just an electrical fault. On the plus side, after this next passage to the Galapagos Islands we really shouldn’t need the engine at all util we reach New Zealand in about a year and a half 🙂

We’re still waiting on the arrival of a new tiller pilot, which allows us to have self-steering when motoring (David the wind vane is wonderful but will only work when there’s wind to steer by). Apparently it was sent to Colombia by mistake but is now in Panama and we should get it tomorrow morning…………… we’ll see! Really looking forward to Las Perlas, and personally I’m kind of looking forward to being in such remote locations that it’s impossible to find spares for stuff that needs fixing. That way I’ll have no choice but to ignore whatever is broken and spend the time drinking rum instead. We have lots of rum. In fact, I think we could stock a small shop by ourselves. One can never have too much rum.

Colon to Las Perlas

I was hoping to have written at least two, possibly three blog posts by now but unfortunately I’ve had a slight lack of motivation. I’ll just have to do my best to sum up everything from Colon to Las Perlas in this entry…. I’ll try not to make it too long.

We arrived in Colon on the 3rd March and I was really keen to see what all the fuss was about. Alex had told me some really horrible stories about the city and I just kept thinking to myself, “It can’t be much worse than the rough areas of Bradford where I spent my high school days”. I was wrong! The first thing we saw when leaving the yacht club was a man having a poo on the path in front of us, yelling at us in a flustered manner in a language that we couldn’t understand. To be fair, he seemed more upset by the whole ordeal than we did. As horrible as Bradford is in some places, a man defecating in the street is something that I’ve thankfully never seen there. Also, a French skipper from a small boat who was anchored nearby was attacked when he left the yacht club to go to the shops – so far Colon was living up to its reputation. Despite this (and the fact that two of his friends had been mugged in Colon in the past), Alex ventured out into the depths of the city on his own a number of times. Luckily he’s pretty spritely and stronger than he looks, I’m sure he could have out run any mugger. Anyway, there was no need for me to worry as Alex was absolutely fine. Oh, and there was one good thing about Colon! The supermarket sold fresh milk; this was the first fresh milk I had had since leaving England. I enjoyed cereal and savoured my last two cups of Yorkshire tea, it’s probably the last time I will have fresh milk in a while and I absolutely can’t stand the UHT stuff so I wanted to make the most of it. Unless I can find a suitable substitute for my cereal I think I will be going without this sort of food for a while.

The fresh milk we bought in Colon

The fresh milk we bought in Colon

Me eating cereal with FRESH milk :-)

Me eating cereal with FRESH milk 🙂

My last cup of Yorkshire tea, with FRESH milk :-)

My last cup of Yorkshire tea, with FRESH milk 🙂

We were hoping to get a spot to go through the Panama Canal pretty quickly but we ended up having to wait 8 days or so. Rather than staying in Colon for all that time, we decided to rent a car with a girl we met from the French boat, Apolline, and see some of inland Panama. Apolline is from Normandy and she tells me that one of her friends owns a big rum shop there. She therefore takes every opportunity to taste as many different types of rum as possible and learn as much as she can about each one. She found the location of a big distillery in a small town called Pese in southern Panama, about a 4 hour drive away. All those rumors you hear about a sailor’s love of rum are very true, so off we went on our hunt for the distillery. The journey was a welcomed change and gave us a break from the uneasy feelings we had in Colon. We hadn’t been able to organise any tours of the distillery in advance and when we finally arrived, we didn’t have much luck getting in to see any of the rum factory. Fortunately, we met a very nice English speaking gentleman from the distillery and although he wasn’t able to give us the full tour, we were allowed to visit the sugar cane fields, see the workers harvesting the cane using traditional hand tools and cattle, visit the bar, watch a few videos of the rum making process and we even got some free tasters and a rum cocktail on the house – not bad considering the tours here normally cost $75 per person! We were impressed enough to buy a bottle or two to take back with us.

Alex, Apolline and I with our free rum cocktails

Alex, Apolline and I with our free rum cocktails

At the rum distillery

At the rum distillery

Our rum tasting glasses

Our rum tasting glasses

The cattle towed wagons filled with sugar cane harvest

The cattle towed wagons filled with sugar cane harvest

We arrived in Pese at about dusk and found ourselves having a drink in an empty bar attempting to figure out where we were going to have dinner and spend the night in this tiny town. We had been told there was a hotel here and although the whole town only has four streets, we searched for about an hour and couldn’t find one. We gave up and found ourselves at this bar. The gentleman running the bar kindly took time out of his evening to show us exactly where the hotel was (which was completely unmarked) and introduce us to his English speaking friend, a really lovely lady whose name escapes me. She took us into her house and introduced us to her family; she then took us to the local cafe for dinner where food for the 3 of us plus drinks came to a total of $7. We then went back to hers and drank beers on the porch and chatted to her and her son for the rest of the evening. I guess this secluded town wasn’t used to having tourists and the people here wanted to make us feel welcome. For me, the welcome we got from the people of Pese was the best part of the whole road trip.

A church in the main square of Pese

A church in the main square of Pese

A short hike we did just outside of Pese overlooking the sugar cane fields

A short hike we did just outside of Pese overlooking the sugar cane fields

A lizard I saw during the hike

A lizard I saw during the hike

We headed back to Colon the next afternoon ready for our canal transit. Apolline joined us as a line handler along with a really friendly Italian guy called Christian who we met from another boat. Both Apolline and Christian speak excellent English but both have incredibly strong accents from their respective countries. I loved to listen to them talk to each other in English with the thickest French and thickest Italian accent you can imagine, wonderful. Alex has described our transit through the Panama Canal in his blog post so I won’t go into it in too much detail here, only to say that it was a wonderful and interesting experience that went far too quickly. Hopefully the photos below will give you a bit more perspective on the experience.

 

Motoring through Lake Gatun

Going though the locks on the Atlantic side of the canal

Going though the locks on the Atlantic side of the canal

Going through the locks on the Pacific side of the canal

Going through the locks on the Pacific side of the canal

The salt water from the Atlantic mixing with the fresh water of the locks caused the death of many small fish which the nearby birds feasted on - this is one of them

We arrived in Panama City on the evening of the 11th March and most of our time here was spent shopping and doing jobs on the boat. This is likely to be the most built-up place we’ll visit for at least another year and a half so we wanted to stock up on spare boat parts, food, rum and any other important things we might need over the coming years. I can’t believe how much we’ve managed to fit into this 36-foot long boat but I think we’re now both experts in coming up with space saving ideas. We also managed to figure out and fix (we think) the problem with the engine. Even more exciting was doing the final touches to the table leg supports so that we now have a fully functional dining table! Oh, and we also installed a hammock for the fruit and (kind of) fitted a carpet – Bob is starting to look quite homely.
After just less than a week we were ready to leave and make our way to the Galapagos Islands to meet my mum. After a complicated and bureaucratic checkout procedure in Panama we set sail towards Las Perlas islands yesterday. The scenery leaving Panama City was absolutely stunning. As we left there was no wind at all – not much good for sailing but it left the sea looking like a sheet of glass reflecting every shadow and ray of light that touched it. The atmosphere was humid and hazy, leaving a vague shadow of the Panama City skyline and mountainous backdrop on the horizon. As we motored along, our route passed directly over an area absolutely packed with brown pelicans and some sort of black-headed gull – there must have been thousands of them, all in one tiny patch of ocean. As we approached all the birds took flight around us, thousands of gulls and large pelicans gliding beautifully just above the surface of the glassy water just meters away from us. This was one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles I have ever seen (involving birds at least). I would even say it was better than the starling murmurations in England and that is no mean feat! I wish I could have taken a few photographs to give you an idea but I didn’t want to miss out on the awesomeness of the moment to take a picture so unfortunately I don’t have any to show you. As we went through that patch of water we noticed lots of small dead fish floating on the surface, obviously this is what was attracting all the birds. I’m not sure what could have caused it, perhaps some marine predators trapping the shoal at the surface for the birds to feast on? I just hope it wasn’t some sort of chemical spill from a large ship!

It’s now the morning of the 18th March and I’ve just woken up to see Contadora (one of the Las Perlas islands) for the first time in day light. It’s overcast today but still bright and the surroundings are very tranquil. It’s incredibly quiet here, there are about 8 other cruisers anchored nearby and two secluded beaches on the island. There are a number of small buildings which look like something you might find on the coast of Spain surrounded by what appears to be deciduous woodland. That’s surprising given our tropical location, I guess many of the trees had gone into dormancy over the recent dry period. Contadora is only about a mile long and is the most built up island of Las Perlas, it still seems pretty secluded but hopefully I can find some wifi on shore to post this shortly.

Right, I’d best get going. There’s not long before we need to leave and it would be nice to see some of the island before we do so. Next stop…Galapagos.

San Blas to Colon

The archipelago of San Blas, or ‘Kuna Yala’ as it is called locally, is possibly the most idyllic place I have ever had the pleasure to visiting in my travels. It is an archipelago of very small, very low-lying islands with limited flora and fauna, sandy beaches and coconut palms. The reef system in and around Kuna Yala is extensive, unrelenting and there is no buoyage of any kind, or electricity for that matter, so at night the islands cannot be seen at all except as absences of stars. The charts for this area are also exceptionally unreliable, making the approach and navigation within the archipelago very treacherous. At any one time there are about 150 yachts in Kula Yala (almost exclusively private cruising yachts, many of whom have completed circumnavigations and, having seen the world, decided to make Kuna Yala their home) and every year two or three of them come to grief, much to the dismay of their owners but to the considerable glee of the local Kuna tribe to whom such events are akin to a gift from the heavens.

The people are really quite incredible. They are an indigenous tribe who moved over from the mainland hundreds of years ago and to this day they maintain Kuna Yala as an autonomous tribal state within Panama. The fact that they have managed to achieve this state of affairs and maintain it in a sustainable way despite centuries of oppression, occupation by foreign armed forces and now the rapid ‘development’ of the world around them is nothing short of astounding. The people themselves are also astounding – resilient, physically phenomenal but also friendly, accommodating and in all other ways a delight to interact with. They take no offense and consider it no imposition upon their privacy to have foreigners such as ourselves visit their homesteads, and approach yachts daily in their canoes full of lobster, conch or whatever else they are selling (at very reasonable prices, and they take no offense nor try to push their goods on you if you simply say ‘no gracias’). These canoes in themselves are evidence of considerable physical prowess. They are dug-out canoes made over the course of several months from large trees which are harvested on the slopes of the mountains of mainland Panama. They lug them all the way back to whichever island they live on and then spend months digging them out. I say ‘physical prowess’ rather than workmanship necessarily because, to be honest, in all other ways these craft are quite silly as far as I can tell. Since they are made from a single piece of wood they are very heavy (but not slow. The surprising strength and endurance of the Kuna despite their slight build sees to that!). The wood also frequently cracks, allowing water to leak in such that the occupants are obliged to spend as much time bailing as paddling. I can’t help but think that their lives would be altogether easier if they devoted a smidgen time to improving upon the traditional design………..

The Kuna are rather fond of gold and many of the women can be seen adorned with it. The islands themselves contain rich deposits, however it is illegal for anyone, including the Kuna, to extract it. The logic behind this speaks volumes about the history of the region. The Kuna simply say ‘whenever we have tried to harvest gold from the land, someone else has come and taken it from us’. Therefore, they simply don’t bother and instead buy it in Panama City using funds generated mainly from the sale of coconuts and coconut products.

Suffice to say we were very, very sorry to have to leave San Blas after so fleeting a visit. Above all it was wonderful to spend some time with two old shipmates from the Barque Picton Castle, Cathy and Maria. Maria and I met in 2000 during my first sail aboard a tallship and my first proper voyage to sea. Cathy, two years later when I signed up for 5 months on board the Picton Castle as a trainee. That voyage took me from the East Coast of Canada down through the British Virgin Islands, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific as far as the Cook Islands. It is our intention now to visit many of the same places that I visited previously on that voyage back in 2002, and many others that I have not visited myself but feel a certain affinity to since my mother visited them during her circumnavigation on the same ship between 2003 and 2009 (is that right mother?!). Cathy and Maria have a beautiful steel Yawl (they say it’s a yawl so I’ll defer to their definition. I think it’s a ketch despite the positioning of the mizzen mast, but it is their boat after all!) which I last saw when it had first been purchased, on the hard in Prince Edward Island (Canada) in 2006ish. It has come a long, long way since then, Cathy and Maria having poured most of their time and much of their gargantuan expertise into her to refurbish and rebuild pretty much everything from the keel to the trucks (she is traditionally rigged with served and tarred galvanised steel shrouds, ratlines and gaff sails). Sarah has posted a link in her blog post. I will only add that if anyone reading this is feeling the oppression of the modern world closing in on them and wants to get away from it for a week or so you would be hard pressed to find a better opportunity than signing up for a charter in the San Blas Islands aboard Joana. I promise I haven’t been paid or in any other way coerced into touting their business so shamelessly!

Sadly San Blas, similar to many islands in the Pacific, may not be around for much longer. Rising sea levels caused by global warming are claiming islands rapidly. It looks like some which used to be inhabited have now been abandoned, and according to Eric Bauhaus, who has painstakingly produced and continues to update the only existing reliable charts of the area, many islands that he once charted as such are now sandbars awash or even completely submerged.

We set sail to Colon, the city that marks the entrance to the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal and sailed overnight arriving here in the early morning of March 3rd. I didn’t get much sleep on that passage -at one point I registered 16 different targets on the AIS system. I ended up turning off all the alarm systems and just looking around to try to figure out what all the various shipping was doing. Since you’re reading this, it all worked out very well 🙂

So far Colon has lived up to it’s name. We didn’t go ashore until yesterday afternoon (after we had been measured and inspected for the canal transit) and one of the first inhabitants we met was a gentleman defecating openly on the path in front of us. A very appropriate welcome I thought. Fortunately we have managed to find a supermarket, buy stuff in it and get it back to Bob without getting mugged (yet). There is also a lively bar at the yacht club which we are anchored off and something resembling a chandlery on the premises which was closed yesterday but which may hopefully be open today. It’s a long-shot but I’m hoping they might have an ‘Alan Jr.’ sitting there waiting for me……………… OK, maybe ‘long shot’ doesn’t quite cover it, but I shall remain ever optimistic until the very moment of my hopes being dashed!

We have a spot for transit booked – March 10th. The time between now and then will be spent preparing Bob for the transit and then we might try to get of Colon for a day or two -we’ll see.

 

A typical Kuna Family House

A typical Kuna Family House

 

A Kuna canoe, sailing awkwardly. I suspect the source of that sail may have been a spinnaker from an unfortunate yacht............

A Kuna canoe, sailing awkwardly. I suspect the source of that sail may have been a spinnaker from an unfortunate yacht…………

 

From left, Cathy, Maria, heir two guests Jodie and Pete, and of course Sarah on board S/V Joana for a lovely dinner of fresh-caught snapper and not-too-bad Panamanian boxed wine (and rum......... always rum).

From left, Cathy, Maria, their two guests Jodie and Pete, and of course Sarah on board S/V Joana for a lovely dinner of fresh-caught snapper and not-too-bad Panamanian boxed wine (and rum……… always rum).

The inner workings of a woman

Bob is a very interesting boat with a very complex personality. In fact, from what I have seen so far I would say she is more sensitive and irritable than any woman I know! There seem to be only a finite number of her components that can be fully functional at any given time. As soon as something is repaired or installed, she retaliates and something else breaks. This morning before our departure to San Blas, this happened a number of times. First the electric pump to the cock pit shower stopped working, which is very unfortunate not just because it’s less than one month old and cost Alex quite a lot of money, but mainly because I really really like showers. After some time exploring various reasons and solutions, we then discovered that the volt meter was also broken – so that’s another thing that needed to be replaced.

As we were leaving the harbour Alex asked me to steer the boat under motor around the bay whilst he dealt with the anchor at the bow. I am very unfamiliar with driving Bob under motor so I wanted to test the throttle and gears to get used to them first. Of course in any other boat, to go forward you would push the throttle lever, well, forward. Not so in Bob! In Bob, to go forwards you push the throttle lever backwards – naturally. Like I said, she’s a complex lady. I of course didn’t pull it backwards, instead I pushed the lever forwards with not a whole lot of force and broke the whole thing. This was not the best start to my first sail of this round-the-world trip and it was yet another thing to add to the list of repairs. My theory is that all the things that went wrong did so because we installed a nice new working freezer in the galley. Luckily, all these problems ended up being easily fixed and without too much extra time or expense and we set off to San Blas – this of course meant that something else was bound to go wrong imminently. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before something else stopped working and Alan was the next victim. Alan is the electric autopilot which Alex named after his dad for being reliable and getting him out of sticky situations when he really needed it. I guess he’s now just a bit old and tired (not saying anything about Alex’s dad here – but if you will name something after a Lanky…..) but hopefully we can find him a new working motor in Panama and give him a new lease of life ready for the crossing to Galapagos.

When at sea, there’s a tradition that the captain should eat the first flying fish to land on deck. It’s supposed to bring good luck but this tradition is one that Alex has never fulfilled in the past (perhaps another reason for Bobs irritability?). The most tiny and pathetic flying fish was discovered lying on the port side in the morning and was still lovely and fresh. Alex thought it was too small to be worth bothering about, but if eating that tiny fish brings us good luck in the future then I thought it was worth a try – especially given all the little breakages we’d experienced over the past day. So it was de-scaled, gutted and fried up for the captains breakfast. It was about two bites worth of food including the head. Still, Alex seemed to enjoy it. The good luck kicked in almost immediately because just a few hours later we caught ourselves a perfectly sized tuna (first catch of the trip). Most was frozen for later but some was made into ceviche and fried tuna sandwiches for lunch – very tasty.

Alex eating the first flying fish of the journey to bring good luck. It may have been small but it seemed to do the job!

Alex eating the first flying fish of the journey to bring good luck. It may have been small but it seemed to do the job!

The tuna we caught...

The tuna we caught…

...and the ceviche it was turned into

…and the ceviche it was turned into

The sail to San Blas was wonderful. The seas were relatively calm and although I felt sea sick at times, it was nothing major and all my food stayed firmly in my stomach. If anything, I noticed an overall increase in my apatite during the sail over. Perhaps I was finally getting used to the hot climate and got my appetite back. I was reacquainted with Stugeron anti-sickness tablets and the drowsy feeling that comes with them, but it knocked me out for 12 hours on the first night so I woke up feeling wonderfully reenergised. This sail was the polar opposite from my first major sail on Bob from Bermuda to Grenada in 2008. Back then we had no wind vane, appalling weather conditions and were doing 3-hour-on, 3-hour-off watches. In fact, at one point we were doing 1-hour-on, 1-hour-off watches when the weather was at its worst. With our wind vane (David) at the helm, this trip was absolute luxury in comparison. I think David is my new best friend.

 

A view of Bob around sunset on our sail from Cartagena to San Blas

A view of Bob around sunset on our sail from Cartagena to San Blas

After about 40 hours of sailing we arrived in Porvenir; the only island in San Blas where cruisers check in. San Blas (or ‘Kuna Yala’ as it is known by the locals) is one of the most idyllic places I have ever seen. There are over 340 islands that make up the archipelago and most are uninhibited with only palm trees, deserted white sandy beaches and turquoise water. It’s a very tranquil area with only a few permanent inhabitants. The local Kuna tribe live very basic lives, making a living from selling coconuts, hand-made textiles (called molas) or hand caught lobsters, conch and other fish. From the little contact I’ve had with them they seem very friendly and attempt to make conversation even though Alex and I speak next-to-no Spanish. They paddle round in these wonderful little wooden canoes called ulu’s calved out of a single tree trunk and beautifully painted. It takes five men to trek for half a day into the mainland forests to find a tree suitable for one of these boats. They lug it back to San Blas and then spend months calving out the hull to make the main body of their boats. It’s really great craftsmanship, and they are justifiably proud of their craft.

One of the many deserted islands around San Blas

One of the many deserted islands around San Blas

One of the inhabited islands of San Blas

One of the inhabited islands of San Blas

Just a picture of one of the boats we were anchored near

Just a picture of one of the boats we were anchored near

San Blas sunset

San Blas sunset

San Blas sunset again

San Blas sunset again

The wildlife is surprising sparse but I never had the opportunity to venture into some of the more developed reefs further offshore. I had a great time snorkelling in the sea grass and low coral areas near one of the islands we were anchored off. The habitat in these areas is very shallow and I expect much of the marine life that lives here is small and easily hidden amongst it. I tried to do a coral bleaching survey on the small amount of low coral that was around. It was my first survey of this type so I’m still getting used to the technique and the marine environment in general. My natural habitat and where most of my experience lies is in terrestrial ecology, but I wanted to use this trip as an opportunity to branch out into marine ecology. I’ve got a lot to learn and my ID skills are terrible but I still saw an abundance of small fish, crabs and cushion star fish. Cushion star fish are dominant in this area and are very impressive; they are brightly orange-coloured with touches of yellow and red and reach up to 20cm in diameter. There were also many bird species to be seen including the common brown pelican – another impressive looking creature which performs remarkable dives into the water in an attempt to catch a fish or two.

Brown pelican

Brown pelican

Colourful cushion starfish

Colourful cushion starfish

4-legged cushion star fish. Their asexual method of reproduction is to loose a leg which then turns into another starfish, cool eh?

4-legged cushion star fish. Their asexual method of reproduction is to loose a leg which then turns into another starfish, cool eh?

Some of Alex’s friends (Cathy and Maria) operate a charter boat here, a beautiful 72 foot ketch which we managed to find anchored off Green Island on our first night. Cathy and Maria are really great people and were incredibly welcoming. We’ve spent many of our evenings with them and their friends enjoying good food, drink and the tranquil scenery.  They are both natural born hosts and it’s very easy to see why they do what they do. What a wonderful way to make a living chartering out a fabulous yacht in such a beautiful area of the world. Unfortunately we forgot to take any photos of their boat, but you can see it here if you’re interested. It really is a stunning boat both inside and out which has been beautifully built and maintained. Having spoken to them about our various breakages on Bob, I found out that they also find themselves doing never-ending repairs and maintenance work – it’s nice to know that we’re not alone.

Alex and I on Cathy and Maria's boat, 'Joana'.

Alex and I on Cathy and Maria’s boat, ‘Joana’.

The source of our initial breakages I mentioned earlier – the new freezer – worked perfectly to start with. As everything else slowly got repaired the efficiency of the freezer became less and less so that by the time we’d spent some time in San Blas, it didn’t seem to be working at all. I guess Bob was still upset about something. Fortunately, the good luck we gained from eating the flying fish was still with us; it turns out that we were anchored right next to a refrigeration specialist who had on board sundry equipment for refrigeration tests and repairs. What amazing luck to be so close to exactly the person we needed even though we were in the middle of one of the most secluded places on the planet! He’s called Mike, he’s from South Africa and is one of the funniest men I have ever met! After 20 minutes or so of checking the freezer, he came to the conclusion that the problem was most likely caused by a small amount of moisture getting into the system and the very act of defrosting it removed the moisture and solved the problem. Again, what luck! I’m happy to say the freezer has worked ever since. Hopefully Bob is now a happy boat and her various components will stay fully functional for a little while longer.

 

Ice from our new freezer, what a treat!

Ice from our new freezer, what a treat!

Hopefully we can enjoy a few more nights here before heading to Panama to sort out the canal transit. This will require us to sail to a city called Colon, which I’ve been told lives up to its name. It’s going to be a shame to leave San Blas, especially when the next destination is supposed to be the arm pit of the world, but I’m very much looking forward to going through the Panama Canal and I’m also very keen to make sure we leave plenty of time to get to Galapagos for my mum’s arrival at the end of March.