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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.