Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Going home for the holidays; day trip to Panama City

Tomorrow morning we leave for our trip home for the holidays.  We are sharing an SUV taxi with Paul & Michelle & kids on BLUEPRINT MATCH.  Their flight leaves about the same time as ours so it was convenient to share the taxi to Panama City.

We have made a couple of trips to the supermarket in Colon using the marina free shuttle.  One day we rode through the town of Colon while the shuttle dropped people off for various tasks.  Everyone had warned us how bad Colon is, and they were right.  It is a dirty old town that looks like no maintenance has been done in the past 100 years, or maybe longer.  It is supposed to be very dangerous and the marina and guide books warn against walking anywhere in Colon; you are advised to use a taxi even if only going 2 blocks.  Supposedly some of the criminal element of the local population strongly dislike tourists and outsiders.  All that said, frankly I did not think Colon looked any more dangerous than the Fifth Ward in Houston, Texas.  In fact, I would take my chances on the streets of Colon before I would venture through Fifth Ward on foot.  Colon just looks exceedingly poor and old.

Last Saturday we took the marina shuttle over to Panama City for a day of shopping.  We visited 2 marine supply stores, an upper-scale hardware type store (sort of like Berings in Houston), and the Multi Plazas Mall.  It was an all-day trip.  The Multi Plazas Mall is a very, very nice mall -- it easily rivals the Galleria complex in Houston.  On the exterior of the mall is located Riba Smith Supermarket, which is by far the best supermarket we have seen anywhere in the entire Caribbean.  Prices are higher, but what the heck; it is worth paying more to shop there.  I bought ten 5-lb bags of bread flour; first time we have found bread flour since Martinique.  I vacuum seal the flour and it lasts years.  Wish we had more time to shop because we only saw a tiny bit of the mall.  But we did manage to finally find a shop vac.  Bill has been looking for one since we moved aboard.

Each time we leave the marina we go through the Gatun lock of the Panama Canal.  You have to because that is the only egress to the marina.  We still have not visited the lock for a tour, but what we have seen while sitting in the shuttle has been interesting.   One day we waited for an hour and a half for the canal traffic to clear.  It was interesting to sit there and watch these huge ships rising up into the air above our heads as the lock filled with water.  Ships are built to fit the canal.  There is literally inches clearance on either side of some of these ships.

The canal truly is a marvel of engineering.  It is amazing to us that the engineers that long ago had enough forethought to build in the moveable road sections to allow motorized traffic to cross the canal.  The road sections turn sideways and fold up into indentions alongside the canal separation partitions.  Very efficient and utilizes the minimum of space.

Looking forward to seeing family and friends for the next 3 weeks.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year wishes to everyone.

Monday, December 10, 2007

: Howler monkeys – growler monkeys? (in Portobello; then Shelter Bay Marina)

December 9, 2007  Sunday
Portobelo, Panama

Portobelo (not Portobello as I previously wrote) is a very small town.  Bill and I cannot fathom why this town has never developed.  It is a perfect bay and close proximity to the Panama Canal.  You can take a bus from Portobelo to Colon for $1.30, where you can change to a nice express bus (with air-conditioning and TV) to Panama City for only $2.50.  Seems a perfect location for a nice marina or tourist resort.  This bay reminds me very, very much of Sopers Hole in the BVI; except Portobelo bay is at least 10 times larger than Sopers Hole.  The Bay of Portobelo was discovered by Christopher Columbus 2 November 1502 during his fourth voyage to the new world.  (I’m sure the indigenous people living here at the time already knew of this bay, but one must give credit to Columbus for “discovering” it.)  Various things happened here during the sixteenth century and the area gained in importance.  Finally in 1597 the official Ciudad de San Felipe de Portobelo was established.  From this port, tons of gold and silver flowed to Seville, Spain, the commercial capital of the Spanish empire.  Portobelo would be a sleepy little town all year until the Spanish galleons arrived with wines and goods from Spain.  Then the town would come alive for the short time that the galleons were here.  They would unload the goodies and load up the silver and gold to take back to Spain.  There was a strong earthquake here in 1882 that destroyed part of the Customs House, but it was rebuilt.

The Iglesia de San Felipe de Portobelo is famous as the home to the Black Christ of Portobelo.  Every 21st October a festival of the Black Christ is celebrated.  Many miracles have been attributed to the Black Christ.  (Funny; there was exactly the same thing in Cusco, Peru.)  There were lots of slaves utilized during the Spanish occupation of this area, so there is quite a mix of races in the current local population.

The pirate Henry Morgan once assaulted Portobelo with a troop of 460 men.  Morgan demanded the payment of 100,000 pesos in order not to destroy the population.  Quite a guy.

Friday we went into town and visited the little museum.  Not much to see but they did have a nice film about the history of Portobelo and it was even presented in English so we could understand it.  The Spanish built several forts to defend Portobelo instead of doing their traditional “walled city” concept of that time period.  I believe Sir Francis Drake died here, but the guide book doesn’t mention that so maybe I am mistaken about that historical tidbit.  Friday was my birthday and Bill bought me a small pocketbook/wallet at a leather shop in town.  We tried to go back to that shop on Saturday to buy several more to give to friends and family when we go home for the holidays,  but our dinghy outboard died.  We were being blown out to sea by the 20-22 knot winds but were saved and towed back to our boat by a Good Samaritan – a guy from the Azores who now transports backpackers between Cartagena and Panama.  By the time the outboard was running again (it was just flooded) and we made it to town, the leather shop was closed.  I am sure that shop will be closed on Sunday and we plan to leave here Monday morning, so guess we won’t be able to buy the leather pocketbooks/wallets to give our family and friends.

Carlos, the guy from the Azores, explained how the backpacker boats work.  Each backpacker pays $250 for transport.  Some of them also travel with motorcycles and those pay extra.  A passage normally takes 5 days because they usually hang around the San Blas Islands for 2-3 days.  The $250 fee includes food and drinks.  Carlos normally carries 5 passengers.  After he pays for the food, drinks and clearing the boat in and out of both Panama and Colombia , he makes between $900 and $1000 per trip.  Not enough to live on full-time and pay for boat maintenance but enough to pay for his day-to-day style of living.  He hangs around the San Blas when not transporting passengers to Cartagena and that is a pretty inexpensive way of life.

The jungle on the mountainside on the east side of our anchorage in Portobelo is filled with howler monkeys.  Man, these little animals are loud!!  Don’t know why they are called howler monkeys because they really sound like a roaring lion.  You would never believe a sound that loud and deep could come out of a monkey that small.  They start growling/howling every time it starts to rain.  This is entertaining to us.  We also enjoy listening to the parrots and unknown birds in the jungle.  It is pleasant to sit in the cockpit with our early evening drinks and enjoy listening to the monkeys and parrots.  I have seen some of the monkeys swinging or jumping through the tops of the trees, but have not have a clear view of one so cannot take a photo.  We are definitely not going ashore over there to seek out monkeys.  I remember all too well how that monkey bared his teeth and tried to attack me in the Amazon Jungle of Peru last year.

We also have enjoyed watching the local men fish from their canoes.  They do it differently than the Kuna.  The Kuna would just toss a hand line overboard from their ulu and wait for a fish to strike.  The Cacique here in Portobelo toss one or two hand lines overboard and then paddle swiftly – so they are basically trolling in a canoe.  They fish in a different section of the bay each day.  I guess this is their native version of fishery conservation.

The small grocery store in Portobelo is owned and operated by a Chinese family.  We assume they are descendants of some of the Chinese workers who were brought to Panama to build the Panama Canal.  It still strikes me as odd every time I hear Chinese people talking to each other in Spanish.  Did not hear them speak to each other in Chinese so maybe this generation no longer speaks their traditional language.

Tomorrow morning we will head over to Shelter Bay Marina.  We made our reservation more than 7 months ago for an arrival date of 10 December.  Bill corresponded with the marina office manager several times during the past few weeks and confirmed that they expect us to arrive tomorrow and stay more than a month.  However, this morning on the SSB Panama Connection Net a man said that Shelter Bay Marina is completely full – there is no more space at their docks.  We hoped that this man was exaggerating.  Bill sent another email to the marina manager today to clarify this rumor and we received a response with a slip assignment.  Yes, they are expecting us to arrive tomorrow.  As usual, can’t believe all that you hear from other cruisers.

December 10, 2007  Monday
Shelter Bay Marina near entrance to Panama Canal
09.22.041N; 079.57.026W           Sailed 23 NM

It was a lively ride this morning.  Seas were 10-ft and winds 22-24 knots.  Thankfully, both were in our favor this time; so no pounding into adverse seas.  At one point we were sailing at speed of 6 knots with only the mizzen sail out!  That is unbelievable.  But at least half of the trip was motoring because the winds were direct downwind.  Couldn’t sail at that point-of-sail unless we poled out the 2 foresails, and that seemed like a lot of trouble for such a short distance.  So, crank up the iron genny.

Anchor was up at 0900 and we arrived at Shelter Bay Marina dock at 1215.  Can’t tell you what a thrill it was for me when we hailed Cristobal Signal for authorization to enter the breakwater of the Panama Canal.  Not sure why this thrilled me so much, but it did.  Maybe because I thought we might never reach this point.  Just inside the breakwater you turn right to get to Shelter Bay Marina, right past the Hazardous Cargo Anchorage for the big ships waiting to transit the Canal.  Shelter Bay is an exceptional marina, far nicer than I expected.  Very, very quiet and protected from any bad weather.  Could not ask for a better place to leave your boat for inland or home travel.  We enjoyed sharing a very good hamburger in the marina restaurant, then got all checked in with the office.  Only complaint so far is that the WiFi is a bit iffy – seems to come and go for no apparent reason.  I stripped the bed and hauled the laundry down to the marina laundry room, where I found a young lady who told me that she was in the middle of laundry hell.  She was using all 3 washers and all 3 dryers and still had 3 more loads to do when those finished.  Figured I would give her another hour and a half.  Then I will go back and stand there waiting for her to finish.
The keyboard on our old laptop decided to quit working today.  And the new laptop has a fried hard drive from the nearby lightning last month.  We must have computer gremlins on board.  Bill already got on eBay and purchased a new keyboard that we will pick up in Houston next week.  EBay makes things so much easier than it used to be to get repair parts for everything.

Looking forward to going to duty-free Colon and to Panama City later this week so we can “pre-shop” before our flight home to Houston on 19 December.  We are hoping that many of the items on our wish list will be available in Panama City so that we don’t have to haul so much back on the return flight.  We think it would be really cool to take the Panama Railroad over to Panama City.  There are several ways to get there, but the old railroad would be our first choice for our fist trip; and it only costs about $22 per person one way.  On future shopping expeditions we can take the nice express bus, which costs about $2.75 each way.  How economical!

Hoping the internet connection is better later tonight so I can upload this log and some photos.  If you are reading this, then it was.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

47 miles away and a different world

December 3, 2007  Monday
East Holandes Cays, San Blas Islands

The stars last night were absolutely incredible.  Love nights like that.

Banedup Island in East Holandes Cays is crawling with bugs.   Bill went ashore one day to burn our garbage; I wisely stayed on the boat.  The bugs were so bad that it was all he could do to stay there until the fire burned down.  Beautiful island to anchor near but not suitable for going ashore.  BLUEPRINT MATCH left yesterday morning and their anchor spot was immediately taken by a Nordhaven.  A small sailboat also joined the anchorage.  Heck, and we were thinking we might have it all to ourselves for a couple of days. 

The small sailboat has at least 6 young people aboard and they do not look at all like cruisers – their skin is way too pale.  We think they might be backpackers.   We have heard of the “backpacker boats” and even know one singlehander who sometimes transports backpackers from Colon to Cartagena to pick up extra cash.  There are no roads connecting Panama to Colombia.  This is called the Darien Gap and is very dense jungle and rugged mountains.  There are a lot of young kids backpacking around the US and Central America who want to get down into South America.  The easiest way to accomplish this is to gain passage on a private yacht from Colon to Cartagena.  It is also possible to hitch a ride on a Panamanian or Colombian trading boat through the San Blas Islands and down to Puerto Obaldia, and then gain passage on a private yacht over to Cartagena.  But that is a far more risky way of doing it because very few private yachts visit Puerto Obaldia and the backpacker might sit there for months waiting to find passage.  Anyway, the young people on the small boat anchored near us looked like they might be backpackers.

Later…….   In the afternoon the Policia National visited each boat in the anchorage.  As soon as the small sailboat saw the Policia boat they immediately began hoisting a yellow quarantine flag.  Up until that point they had been flying the Panamanian flag, so obviously they had not really properly cleared in since they were not hoisting the Q flag.  But they gave the Policia a bunch of beer and the clearance “problem” dissolved. 

Shortly after the Policia left the area another “backpacker boat” arrived and anchored right next to us.  What a piece of crap!  It was an old steel ketch about 50-ft long – rusted and looked like no maintenance had been performed in many years.  This boat was full of young people speaking many languages, none of which was English.  The boat flew an American flag but I am 100% positive that this was not a US registered or documented vessel.  A twenty-something woman seemed to be in charge.  She went ashore and filled their dinghy with coconuts.  In Kuna Yala it is illegal to take coconuts.  All coconuts are considered to be owned by the Kuna.  Anyway, she was unloading them onto the deck of the big boat when an elderly Kuna man arrived in an ulu to collect the $5 anchoring fee and probably discussed the “stolen” coconuts.  The young woman started yelling and apparently refused to pay for the anchoring fee or the coconuts.  They immediately pulled anchor and left.  Good riddance!  Glad they left our beautiful little piece of paradise because they were such an eyesore and looked like gypsies.  The Kuna man then came to our boat and collected our anchoring fee.  We gave him some cold water to drink; he looked like he could use a drink of water after paddling so far from the other island to collect the fees.  It did not occur to me until later, but I wish that I had given him $5 for the coconuts stolen from the island by the trashy backpacker boat.  I am certain that this man will report back to his congreso and ill feelings will result against cruisers, especially cruisers flying American flags.  I would gladly have given him money for those stolen coconuts in hopes that it would prevent bad feelings towards cruisers, but I did not think about it until after he had paddled out of sight.

A megayacht that we guess to be about 40-meters anchored in the distance a couple of islands west of us and 5 people came in a large tender to visit Banedup where we were anchored.  Three men took off to walk around the island, leaving a man and woman relaxing in chairs on the beach.  We assumed they were guests on the megayacht.  The bugs on that island are horrific.  Soon the man and woman were back in the tender and driving around the small anchorage.  As they came past our boat for the third time we asked if they would like to come aboard to wait for the 3 men to return.  They certainly were not going back to that buggy beach to wait for them.  So this couple climbed aboard and we enjoyed visiting with them in our cockpit.  Turns out Maris and Liz are the owners of that megayacht and the 3 men walking around the island are part of their crew.   What a change our little sailboat must have been for them from the big $20 million yacht that they own.  They were very nice people; not at all like other ultra-wealthy people whom we have met in other circumstances.   Liz mentioned that they have an American chef on their yacht and are very pleased with him.  Bill started to say that we have an American chef as well.  I am glad that he didn’t actually say that because it would have been in poor taste. They have lived on their boat for 6 years and have covered more than 100,000 miles, including down to Tiera del Fuego.  They are headed to Alaska for next summer.    After Maris and Liz finish cruising Alaska next year they might sell the yacht.  Maris recently bought an airplane and thinks he would enjoy traveling the world via airplane for awhile for a change.  Must be nice to have that much money to live in such luxury.

December 6, 2007 Thursday
Portobelo, Panama
09.33.528N; 079.40.031W      Sailed 68.4 NM

The customs official in Porvenir was scheduled to be out of the office 5 Dec through 10 Dec, and we were supposed to clear out of Porvenir before going to Colon.  We are scheduled to arrive in the marina on 10 Dec, so that meant we either had to clear out on 4 Dec or change our marina reservation to arrive later.  There are a number of things we need to do before our flight home on 19 Dec, so we did not want to cut our time short in the marina.  That meant we had to go to Porvenir to get our zarpe for Colon on 4 Dec.  Unfortunately, the wind did a rare shift to the west on 4 Dec.  This meant we had to motor the 12.7 miles to Porvenir with the wind directly on our nose.  Clearing out was quick and then we high-tailed it over to Chichime to wait for the winds to calm down. 

Dennis & Paula on S/V YEMANJA had attempted to go to Portobelo earlier that day and were forced to turn back because of the high westerly winds.  So they were back anchored in Chichime.  We anchored nearby and Paula invited us over for a shrimp pasta dinner and a game of Mexican Train dominoes.  During the night the winds finally calmed down significantly – still from the west but tolerable.  So by 0700 the next morning we were both sailing towards Portobelo.

We had only 2 hours of great sailing before the winds started getting flukey.  For the next 7 hours we would put out the sails for a few minutes and then furl them back in.  Then the wind would change again and we would again put out the sails, only to furl them back in within half an hour.  This repeated for 47 miles.  We arrived in Portobelo at 1600 yesterday. 

Portobelo is 47 miles and a world apart from the Kuna region of Panama.  First thing we noticed was a cell phone tower.  This morning I sat in the cockpit listened to the sounds of a chainsaw and a very small dirt mover where a home is being constructed nearby.  Even the way the canoes are paddled is different.  We enjoyed the neat little “straight back pause kick” that the Kuna use to paddle their ulus.  They paddle only on one side.  Normally, if one paddles only on one side then the canoe will not go straight.  In fact, it will go in a circle to the side on which you are paddling.  But the Kuna paddle on one side and turn the paddle perpendicular and hold it in that position at the stern of their ulus briefly with each paddle stroke.  This motion acts like a rudder.  They are masters at doing this and can paddle many miles without deviating from a straight line.   This morning I saw only one man paddling his canoe in this manner.  Everyone else here in Portobelo paddles by alternating strokes on each side.  The indigenous people to this region are the Cacique.  Their way of life is very different than the Kuna.  We have not yet gone ashore but Portobelo looks like a normal town – no more thatch huts and colorful clothing – just a normal little town with people in jeans and tee-shirts. 

We are anchored on the left side of the harbor next to the ruins of an old fort.  There are howler monkeys and parrots in the dense jungle covering the entire land next to us.  Portobelo was a very important port during the days of the Spanish occupation, and we can certainly see why.  This harbor is deep and long and perfect -- one can imagine it full of old Spanish ships waiting to transport gold. 

We are now only 23 miles from Shelter Bay Marina.  Plan is to arrive there Monday mid-day.  Hopefully they will have internet and I can get some photos uploaded.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Snorkeling and Snakes

November 26, 2007  Monday
Nuinudup, East Lemon Cays, Kuna Yala (a/k/a San Blas Islands)
09.33.708N; 078.51.686W      Distance traveled from Green Island 27.6 NM

Ever true to our tradition since starting cruising, we again cleared in on a weekend, thus providing us the privilege of paying additional $40 overtime fees.   This was the price we paid for not wanting to move last Friday.  At the present time the normal costs Monday through Friday when clearing into Porvenir are $69 for Customs and 90-day cruising permit, plus $20 for Immigration (30-days allowed), plus $8 for Kuna congreso.  But on weekends both the Customs official and the Immigration official are entitled to collect an additional $20 each.  Funny thing, our receipts indicate that we paid $69 and $20 respectively; the additional $20 to each guy went straight into his pocket.  But this is legal here; they showed me the printed regulations that allowed them to collect the overtime fees on weekends.  We radioed YEMANJA and warned them about this and Paula relayed the message to BLUEPRINT MATCH.  To further put kinks into our plans, we learned that the Customs official will be gone for business in Panama City from December 5-10.  We had planned to clear out at Porvenir on December 7 and start towards Shelter Bay Marina.  We are scheduled to arrive at the marina on Dec 10.  So now we either need to clear out of Porvenir by Dec 4 or change our arrival date with the marina.  You can see why all cruisers’ plans are written in jello.

Weather has been rainy since we arrived in the San Blas Islands.  According to the weather gurus, the ITCZ has blipped up covering this area and caused all this dreariness and moisture.  The trade winds are starting up again now so the ITCZ is expected to withdraw closer to the equator sometime this week.  We certainly hope so.  It is time for some sun.  Yesterday was the nicest day in the past 2 weeks and we took that opportunity to sail from Green Island to Isla Porvenir to clear in.  Our intentions were to anchor off Porvenir overnight and clear in today during regular office hours.  But it was so rolly at Porvenir that spending the night there was not attractive.  So we bit the bullet and cleared in on Sunday, paid the extra fees, and quickly motored to the East Lemon Cays – where we spent a thoroughly calm night in a lovely anchorage.

The Eastern Lemon Cays are exactly what Bill & I envisioned the San Blas Islands to be like.  A guy came by and sold us a few small lobsters.  I gave his albino 4-yr-old son some candy, crayons, a little book in which to draw and some of the clothes that I had purchased in the thrift store in Cartagena.  The dad asked for cigarettes and Bill gave him a few in a plastic bag.  Bill does not want to give these people a whole package of cigarettes because he thinks that then all their friends will be coming over and asking for cigs.  We still have almost 3 cartons of the cigarettes that we bought in September 2006 to give away (our bribery when clearing in some places).  Those cigarettes must be really stale, but what do we care about that.

Later the same guy came back with his pregnant wife and their 2 sons.  The 6-yr-old boy has normal Kuna coloration, but the 4-yr-old boy is albino.  They wanted to sell us some really nice whelk and conch, but we don’t know how to get those out of their shells.  Nor do we know how to cook either whelk or conch, so we passed on those.  (Really not fans of either.)  The wife had some molas for sell.  I did not plan to buy any more molas, but she was asking only $5 and the quality of stitching was very good so I broke down and bought one.  It is only a 2-layer mola.  I doubt that she could afford the fabric to make the 5-layer molas.  But her quality of work was very good even on a simple 2-layer mola and I felt like she should be rewarded for her work, so we bought one.  I also bought a beaded bracelet for only $3 that she had made.  The entire family climbed into our cockpit while mom wound the string to affix the bracelet to my wrist.  Bill gave the boys each a glass of Diet Coke (warm; he didn’t want to spoil them with ice) and the dad asked if he could have a beer.  Dad also asked if I had any “colores” for “mi esposa.”  He wanted fingernail polish and/or red make-up for her cheeks.  She was dressed in the traditional Kuna fashion but did not have any color on her cheeks.  It was obvious they could not afford a gold nose ring for her.  I didn’t have any “colores” to give them.  They climbed down into their ulu and left, saying they would see us again manana.  The poor pregnant wife had obviously never climbed over a life rail before or up and down a ladder on the side of a boat.  She was making little moaning sounds under her breath the entire time and was panting softly from excitement by the time she sat down in the ulu.  She was flustered but she managed to do it.  If they do come back today or tomorrow I will give the dad some fish hooks and the mom some sewing needles and a tube of dark lipstick that I will never use.  Guess she can use lipstick to color her cheeks, but they will be “Berry Freeze” colored instead of bright red.

On Saturday night at Green Island, Paul on BLUEPRINT MATCH decided to throw out a fishing line while anchored.  It was just getting dark and there was a full moon.  That is supposed to be a good time to catch various snappers.  Well, he caught one – and what a fish it was!  He had a strike almost as soon as the line hit the water.  Paul was so excited about it that he called us on the VHF radio.  We wanted to see it but our dinghy was already up on davits for the night.  So Paul came over & picked us up so we could see this big fish.  It had to have weighed more than 20 pounds and was some kind of snapper.  We will upload a photo when we get internet access again.  Michelle said it looked like a Culebra snapper to her.  The next morning Michelle brought us a large bag of fish fillets.  I fried some in beer batter seasoned with Old Bay for dinner last night, and it was terrific.  This morning I am baking bread so we can have beer battered snapper fillet sandwiches for lunch.  Boy, are we looking forward to that!  Thanks to Paul & Michelle for all this delicious fish.

It is steadily raining hard again today.  We are snuggled inside with the air-conditioners going.  Nice to be cool and comfortable, but the real reason for running the A/C is to keep the dampness out of the boat so mildew won’t start growing.  Everyone else on boats that we know have problems with mildew inside their boats.  We don’t have any yet and hope to keep it that way for as long as possible.  Hoping the rain stops tomorrow so we can enjoy this lovely little group of islands and reef known as the Eastern Lemon Cays.

December 2, 2007  Sunday
Banedup, East Holandes Cays, Kuna Yala
09.35.005N; 078.40.459W                  Traveled 12.7 NM

We are back tracking at this point.   After 5 nights in East Lemmon Cays it was time to move to another island.  So we motored back to the east to the Eastern Holandes Cays.  This is the most popular destination for cruisers in the entire San Blas Islands, so it has not been high on our list of places to visit because we didn’t want to be with the “crowd.”  There is a particular spot in the Eastern Holandes Cays that is commonly called “the Swimming Pool” by the cruisers.  This small anchorage is directly south of what is called Barbeque Island.  It is a tiny uninhabited island that is very beautiful.  Cruisers gather on Barbeque Island for sundowners and pot luck dinners or just visiting or playing volleyball or such activities.  They also traditionally have a big pot luck Thanksgiving dinner on Barbeque Island.  Some people actually had turkeys flown in for this get-together.  We chose to avoid the big cruiser scene on Barbeque Island this year.  We instead enjoyed our quiet Thanksgiving dinner aboard BLUEPRINT MATCH.

There is another area in the Eastern Holandes that cruisers call “the Hot Tub.”  Egress to the Hot Tub is a bit more complicated, but it is infinitely calmer than the Swimming Pool where there is a very strong current.  We chose to avoid both the Swimming Pool and the Hot Tub and anchored south of an island called Banedup.  BLUEPRINT MATCH was already anchored at Banedup and we needed to connect with them to get back our fridge control panel and handheld VFH and a few other things that we had loaned them. 

Their guest had arrived with their replacement parts.  She had also brought a spare fridge control board for us.  Definitely something every cruiser should have aboard.  We are lucky that we have 3 separate fridge/freezer units with 3 separate control boards.  So one spare control board should suffice since it is not likely that we would lose all 3 at the same time.  We know someone on a beautiful (and very expensive) 62-ft Oyster who also has 3 fridge/freezer units but all 3 units are controlled by one control circuit board.  When their board failed, they lost all refrigeration for more than a month until a replacement board could be obtained.  Our Amel is better designed with the 3 independent fridge/freezer systems.

This anchorage south of Banedup is great – totally calm and picture-perfect beautiful white sand beaches with coconut palms to sit and stare at.  Yesterday we took the dinghy around the small island called Tiadup which is south of Banedup.  There are 2 bands of reef on the southern side of Tiadup, so it makes a perfect place to anchor the dinghy and snorkel in very shallow water.  The water at the Holandes Cays is the clearest in all of San Blas Islands because it is the farthest from the mainland and receives less run-off from the rivers coming down from the mainland mountains.  Holandes is pronounced like Hollandaise sauce, and cay is pronounced ‘key’ --- so it sounds like the Hollandaise Keys.  Near where we were snorkeling there was a yacht overturned on the reef.  This boat has been stripped of everything of any value whatsoever; only the hull remains, laid over on her port side.  This wrecked yacht is mentioned in the sailing guide that was printed in 2001, so it has been on that reef for some years.  A grim reminder of how important it is to be constantly alert when navigating through the reef-filled waters of San Blas.

Late yesterday afternoon there was an unusual bit of excitement on BLUEPRINT MATCH.  Michelle and her cousin Annie were on our boat because they needed more provisions.  Michelle was running out of snack foods and a few other things so we agreed to sell her some of ours.  She had tried to provision in Cartagena to last for 2 months without buying anything; but it is hard to plan that far in advance, especially when you have guests for 2 weeks.  So she was getting short on several items.  We have enough provisions to last Bill and I for about 6 months, so it would place no hardship on us to part with a few things.  Anyway, just as they were finishing up with the provisions they wanted, we heard a VHF radio call from Paul telling us to all get over to BLUEPRINT MATCH right away. 

Seems they had found a large snake onboard!!!

We all figured that Paul was just joking around again and that was his way of telling everyone to come over to BLUEPRINT MATCH for a sundowner drink.  So we hopped into our dinghies and went on over there.  And were totally surprised to see a large snake twining itself up onto the stern railing!  This snake was at least 5-feet long when all twisted up on the railing, much longer if it had stretched itself out fully.  Little 3-year-old Seanna was the first person to see this snake in the main saloon.  She told her dad about it.  Soon it crawled back out of the saloon and into the cockpit and wound its way to the port steps of the catamaran, where it then decided to climb the stern railing going across the bridge deck on the rear side of the cockpit.  Little 4-year-old Merric was acting like a typical little boy and wanted to keep the snake.  He got all upset because everyone said the snake had to go.  He really wanted to keep that snake.  When the snake decided to climb the traveler sheets that lead up to the main boom, Paul decided it was time to grab a boat hook and remove the snake.  Paul did not want this snake to get up into the sail bag and nestle down into the flaked mainsail.  What a horror that would have been! 

Paul managed to get the snake untwined from the traveler sheet and used the boat hook to fling it into the sea.  The snake immediately took off swimming at a fast clip towards the south; towards the little island of Tiadup.  The snake got about half-way to Tiadup when it did an about face and started rapidly swimming right back towards BLUEPRINT MATCH.  It first went to the stern of our dinghy and I was afraid that it was going to climb the outboard to get into the dinghy.  But it only hesitated for a few moments at the outboard, then it swam between the hulls of the catamaran and kept going north to Banedup.

Bill inquired today on the SSB cruiser net for this area, and the consensus of opinion was that this snake was most likely a common boa constrictor.  Supposedly, the local venomous snakes do not swim; so that was good to hear.  But the bigger question is how the heck did that snake get onboard that big catamaran.  Of course it could have climbed up the anchor chain or (more likely) up the swim ladder hanging down into the water at the stern steps of the port hull.  But none of us have seen any snakes swimming in the seas here.   In fact, none of us have ever seen snakes swimming anywhere in the Caribbean Sea.  How it got aboard remains a mystery.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving, Sailas, Caciques, Neles & Nuchus

November 24, 2007  Saturday
Kanlildup (a/k/a Green Island) San Blas Islands, Kuna Yala
09.28.762N; 078.38.158W      Traveled 11.9 NM from Devil Cays

After the no-see-um attack in Snug Harbor last Saturday morning we motored 16.3 miles to Niadup (Ticantiqui) at Devil Cays.  BLUEPRINT MATCH followed closely behind us.  Paul said that hand steering is tiring and difficult to stay perfectly on course like the auto pilot.  There was a large swell across the beam and we were glad that this was only a 16 mile trip and not 50 miles.  We anchored south of Niadup for Saturday and Sunday nights and motored to Green Island on Monday morning.  It was time to get away from the villages on the islands close to the mainland.

Bill and I did not even go ashore at Niadup.  The village looked uninteresting and there was a lot of smoke; we assumed from cooking fires.  We did not need to buy anything and I did not want to expose myself to more insects, so we just stayed on BEBE.  We did go over to BLUEPRINT MATCH for drinks one evening.  Right at sundown Michelle spotted a crocodile headed from the mainland towards the village.  Paul, Bill & I all thought it was just a log; but Michelle was right – it really was a saltwater crocodile.  Later, as we were preparing to head home I stepped into the dinghy and was waiting for Bill when Paul said “what is that there by your leg in the dinghy?”  I looked down and saw in the darkness what I thought was a medium sized iguana.  You wouldn’t believe how fast I was able to get out of that dinghy and back onto BLUEPRINT MATCH.  Bill couldn’t see what had caused me to abandon the dinghy so quickly, so Paul was trying to show this “iguana” to Bill.  A couple of minutes later Paul started laughing.  The “iguana” was a 2-foot rubber alligator that Paul had placed in our dinghy.   We all had a good laugh out of Paul’s practical joke.

Green Island is uninhabited and several miles off the mainland.  There is reef in various places around the island.  The channel into the anchorage was 113 feet deep with reef on either side, but no breaking surf on the reef.  Visibility was not the best on the day we arrived.  We again put our faith into the waypoints provided in the sailing guide by Eric Bauhaus and arrived safely in the calm anchorage area.  It was raining the day we arrived and has been raining off and on ever since, with the sun breaking through only for a few minutes at a time.   We are very glad to be out here instead of next to the mainland where there seems to be more lightning. 

Paula and Dennis on YEMANJA arrived here at Green Island on Thanksgiving.  We all gathered on BLUEPRINT MATCH for Thanksgiving dinner.  I provided the appetizer of local smoked fish from Iles des Saintes and smoked salmon accompanied by cream cheese/sour cream base spread and capers and chopped red onion on crackers.  It surprised me how much little Seanna and Merric loved smoked salmon.  That is very unusual for 3 and 4-year-old children.  We each brought our own lobsters and Michelle prepared some wonderful seared pork medallions with a fruity rum sauce.  She also prepared salad and baked cauliflower.  Paula cooked some pasta with tomatoes and artichokes.  I provided stovetop stuffing, which was Paul’s favorite.  For dessert, Paula prepared a baked passion fruit pudding; and I made a French vanilla cake with chocolate frosting and a raspberry and lemon curd pie.   (Wasn’t sure that pie was going to be edible because I made up the recipe, but it was darn good.)  It was great to be able to enjoy a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner with such good friends.  We missed seeing our family and having the traditional holiday treats; but it was a great Thanksgiving, even if paradise was a bit rainy.

We had planned to move all 3 boats out to the Coco Bandero Cays today; but the weather is dreary and we heard on the VHF radio that it is rocky and rolly out there today, so all 3 boats decided to stay put here at Green Island for at least one more day.  Weather is predicted to improve tomorrow.  If it does then we will move 20 miles or so to Isla Porvenir and officially clear into the San Blas Islands.  Figure we better do that soon since we are getting into the area where officials sometimes go around and check to verify that boats are properly cleared in.   If we wait much longer to clear in then we might end up paying a fine and be scolded.

Cruisers might want to stop reading here.  The remainder of the log is info taken from the sailing guides for Panama and you probably have already read it.  This is provided for the landlubbers following our travels who don’t own the sailing guides.


The Kuna people do not like the name of San Blas Islands.  That name was given to this area by the Spanish invaders.  They prefer that these islands and the associated mainland territory be called Kuna Yala.  The land is not divided into individual properties and fences are absent.  Kuna treat their forests and lands as cruisers treat an anchorage; tribe members can pass through and benefit, but do not claim possession by industrial development.  The Kuna like visitors but prohibit any non-Kuna from permanently settling or intermarrying.  Foreigners cannot buy land or invest in Kuna Yala.  The Kuna have always considered themselves more closely aligned with Colombia than Panama.  They are normally a very peaceful people but when Panamanian rule was attempted to be forced upon them in the early 1900s, they rebelled February 21, 1925.  The Kuna killed every man, woman and child who was in the Kuna Yala lands and was not full-blooded Kuna.   The Kuna felt that this was the only way to ensure that their heritage would continue in the true traditional manner.   After the rebellion the Cacique declared total independence under the name of Kuna Yala.  When news reached Panama City the government immediately mounted a military campaign.  Only a quick intervention by the United States Navy, namely the USS Cleveland, prevented bloody retaliation.  Panama soon realized that it would just be simpler to allow the Kuna to govern themselves and that has worked well ever since.   First there was partial autonomy; then recognition as an official reserve in 1938; the Kuna constitution in 1945; and the grant of full administrative and juridical powers in 1953.  The rebellion was called “Holocausto de las Razas.”  The flag of the rebellion was a large swastika, which is still seen today in the villages and on the tombs of their most revered leaders.  This swastika flag has no political connection with the later Nazi symbol in Europe.  The Kuna population is now around 55,000 or about ten percent of what they were before the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors.  (And if the number of children that we have seen is any indication, the Kuna population surely is increasing.)

Each village has 3 sailas (chiefs).  They hold the highest level of authority at village level.  Three Caciques (high chiefs) rule the nation as a whole, each representing his part of the land.  One of these Caciques is elected supreme leader of the Kuna Nation.
The sailas are much more than political leaders.  They are also holders of the Kuna spiritualism, medicinal knowledge and history.  Every village has two oversized huts, the congreso and the chicha.  The congreso is like a town hall.  It is a gathering place for villagers most evenings.  A typical congreso finds the sailas swinging in hammocks in the center of the building.  The sailas are accompanied by Argars (interpreters). The Argar puts the sailas’ wisdom into prospective and applies it to the current situation.  Villagers can voice any complaints or comments to the congreso and the Argar interprets the sailas’ opinions about the topic.  The rest of the tribe are seated on hard wooden seats or benches surrounding the sailas’ hammocks.  The sailas sing long sacred songs about their ancestors and past exploits, including battles with the Spanish invaders.  These songs are part of the tribe’s oral history, passed down from generation to generation.  Sometimes the congreso meetings can become long and boring.  As a consequence, certain people are given the task of letting out ear-piercing shrieks at irregular intervals in order to keep everyone awake.

In addition to the 3 sailas, there are also many junior sailas.  These are sort of like executives and are responsible for tasks such as keeping the aqueducts working or building new huts.  There are also sualipetmar, which is a kind of police who carry sticks.  The sticks are status symbols and are never used to strike anyone.  In the most traditional villages the sualipetmar carry certain branches from a special plant that burn and sting upon contact.  These are used to control unruly children. 

The Kuna have an elaborate system of penalties and fines.  These are strictly enforced by the congreso.  A favorite penalty is to collect coral rubble and deposit it in a barrel to be used as land fill.  This explains all the ulus we saw in Ustupu going up the river and returning full of small stones.  The penalty serves for the good of the community.  There is a story of one case when a Kuna man was sentenced to fill ten barrels because he had hit his wife.  He appealed to the congreso, saying that his wife had provoked him.  So the saila decided that the wife must also fill ten barrels as her penalty for provoking her husband’s aggression.

The other big hut in each village is the chicha hut.  Chicha is an intoxicating drink brewed from sugarcane and other special ingredients and is used for spiritual events.  The chicha ritual is held once or twice a year, and required at least a month of preparation.  It is considered sacred.  I won’t describe the chicha making process here because it takes too long; you might be able to find it on the internet.  The ritual can last several days and the men and women are segregated for it.  They do not drink this intoxicating beverage in mixed company.

Since 1925 no Kuna is allowed to intermarry with a non Kuna.  Violation of this prohibition results in expulsion from Kuna Yala.  This has led to a kind of genetic insulation and there are many albinos.  Based on the number of people that we have seen, Bill and I estimate that about one percent of the Kuna population is albino at this time.  BTW, weddings take place only in February each year.  You are not allowed to marry whenever you want to.  Also, public demonstration of affection is forbidden.  Paul & Dennis on YEMANJA met one Kuna man who told of being fined $60 by the congreso when he was caught kissing a girl.  That was a huge sum for a 14-year-old boy, but he worked and saved and paid the fine in 2 years.  Then he was caught kissing her again.  This time the congreso fined him $120.  He again worked 2 years and paid that fine.  Then he was caught kissing the same girl for the third time!  This time the congreso fined him $180!  He managed to finally pay that fine.  And then he married that girl.  They now have 3 children.

The mainstay of the Kuna economy are coconuts, which grow like you would not believe.  These coconuts are traded to Colombian trading boats.  The Colombian traders bring crackers, poor quality canned goods, potatoes, onions, oil, fuel, glass beads, machetes and assorted trading goods.  Each coconut might be worth only 10 cents when the Kuna are trading them to the Colombian boats, but if a cruiser wants to buy a coconut from a Kuna the current price in November 2007 is 50 cents apiece.

Nuchus are small sacred statuettes.  They are usually about 15-inches tall and act as a link between the spiritual and the physical world of the Kuna.  Every Kuna owns one.  The statues are believed to be alive.  There are many different types, some having a stronger spirit while others are weaker.  Some are good and others are bad.  They mystically represent the owner but also have a character of their own.  Nuchus are normally made of a hardwood like purpleheart; but the ones made for sale to tourists are crudely cut from light balsa wood and have no spirit.  If a nuchu is given to you, then it is considered to possess a spirit.  If money is paid for a nuchu, then it has no spirit.

If a child is sick, the father might bring the child’s nuchu to the Nele (medicine man or shaman).  The Nele would then diagnose the cause of the child’s illness, which is usually a bad spirit (surprise,surprise).  The Nele is a powerful and important personality.  Nele often use selected natural drugs to give themselves special powers.  (Hey, this is beginning to sound an awful lot like Clan of the Cave Bear!  Guess some things never change.)  There are 3 main branches of Kuna Nele, each divided into different specialties.  Ones who chant at funerals are especially impressive.  They sing a continuous song for over 24 hours, in a secret language known only to himself and the deceased.  This is intended to help the deceased find his way and not get intercepted by evil spirits that might be roaming around in the different layers of the Kuna underworld.

I wrote earlier about the transvestites in Kuna society.  These are usually the eldest sons of families who have no daughters.  The first-born son often is raised as a girl and taught the economically important skill of making molas.   Supposedly there is also no stigma associated with homosexuality in Kuna society (according to one guide book), although we have certainly seen absolutely nothing to indicate this one way or the other.  As any public display of affection is forbidden, I wonder where the author obtained his source of information for this subject.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Ustupu -- visited home of the village chief

November 10, 2007  Friday
Ustupu, San Blas Islands, Panama
09.07.748N; 077.55.710W                 
Didn’t measure distance traveled from Tupbak to Ustupu, but it seemed less than 10 miles.

Yesterday we came to Ustupu from Tupbak, and BLUEPRINT MATCH also left Isla Iguana and moved to Bahia de Masargandi which is nearby.  I did not want to visit that bay because the anchorage is behind the Punta del Nalimunkuet, a/ka Point of the Mosquitoes and that sounded most unattractive to me.  Paul said on the radio this evening that they enjoyed their day there but would be ready to move to Ustupu today.  So we decided to wait until Paul & Michelle arrived before going ashore to visit the village.   It was another rainy morning and it began to clear around noon; BLUEPRINT MATCH arrived in Ustupu in early afternoon and we all went in to check out the village.

Think we finally have it straight on who is who.  Luis is apparently the chief’s secretary.  We met the real chief (sahila) today but could not understand his name; he was like Mr. Cool, wearing dark wrap-around sunglasses and black slacks with ironed button-down shirt.  (How did that shirt get ironed on an island with no electricity?)  He reminded Michelle of Sammy Davis, Jr.—very, very small in stature and very thin and oh so cool with the dark shades.  The sahila does speak some English but not as well as Luis.  All of us had to visit the Panamanian police post and sign in a small book; they did not even ask to see our passports to confirm identification.  Paul & Michelle had to buy their $8 permit to anchor and visit the waters and village.  We think Luis saw an opportunity to get a few more bucks into the village kitty because he suddenly decided we also needed to buy a “permit” to allow us to take photos.  None of the guide books mention any type permit for photography, so we really think Luis made this up just to collect another fee.  But Michelle was quick on her feet.  She paid the $5 photo permit fee and said that we should only need one permit because all 4 of us were together.  No one argued with her logic and we all exited the office and proceeded to take whatever photos we wanted in the village.  Luis did tell us that we must still ask permission of each person before taking his/her photo.  Some Kuna do not want their photos taken, especially the women.  One of our guide books says that no photography of any kind is allowed in Ustupu unless people invite it, and that drawing and painting by visitors also is not allowed.  We did ask women before taking their photos and no one objected; we also took photos of the village itself and no one objected; so obviously this ban on photography is not very strictly enforced.

Luis also escorted us to the gallery of a local artist.  Some of his work was quite striking and perfectly captured the Kuna traditional way of life.  We can’t hang paintings on the boat because we don’t want to put any holes in the woodwork, but Paul & Michelle plan to buy a painting for their boat.  We did buy 3 very small simple items for Christmas gifts since we are going home for the holidays this year.

Little Seanna fell asleep so Michelle sat on a bench to hold her while Merric played with some local children, and Paul went for a walk through the village with Bill and me.  We were all struck with how happy and contented everyone seems to be in this village.  They have none of the modern-day conveniences that we think are so essential for a comfortable life, but they are very happy with their simple way of living.  

This morning Paul & Michelle found the Sugandi Tiwar River that Bill & I could not find the other afternoon.  They told us where to find the opening through the mangroves and this afternoon Bill and I took our dinghy up the river.   This is one of the rivers in which you are allowed to use an outboard engine, but many of the rivers in the Kuna comarca are either off-limits to tourists altogether or outboards are not allowed.  If anyone has ever tried to paddle an inflatable dinghy, then you will understand why we would not try to paddle up a river, even a slow one. 

The river trip was interesting.  There are farm lands on each side of the river.  Mostly fruit such as coconuts, bananas, limes and oranges are grown closest to the river.  Farther away from the river are farm lands where the Kuna grow 5 kinds of corn, squash, yucca, etc.  Supposedly it is a 2 hour trip for the Kuna to reach their main farm lands from Ustupu.  Harvesting of the fruit crops grown along the river is alternated from side to side.  The Kuna will pick fruits from one side of the river until the plants are depleted; then they harvest from the other side of the river, allowing the first side to blossom and replenish.

Also all along both sides of the river are the cemeteries.  The Kuna bury their dead (either underground or, more commonly, in a concrete tomb on a concrete slab) and then a “hut” is built over the tomb.  The hut consists of 4 corner poles, no sides, with a peaked roof.  The roofs are usually made of thatch but a few burial sites had corrugated tin roofs.  Often items are placed on top of the graves.  These items might be something that the deceased cared for when they were alive.  Some of the items seen were bowls and small tables.  Also, sometimes relatives of the deceased will go to a loved one’s gravesite and cook a meal to eat and just hang out with the deceased for the day.  This reminded me very much of my childhood because each Easter Sunday after church we would drive to Buna, Texas, to have a picnic at the old Antioch Cemetery where my mother’s relatives have been buried since the early 1800s.  Having a picnic in a heavily-forested country cemetery where your ancestors are buried was a thing of my childhood.  Bill has always thought this sounded crazy.  Kind of nice to learn that it is also a tradition with these very traditional indigenous people.

This afternoon we went for a walk through the village and ran into Paul & Michelle and their 2 kids.  Their little boy Merric is 4 years old and little girl Seanna is 3 years old.  Seanna and Merric caused a stir among the locals wherever they went.  Several of the Kuna women came outside and grabbed little Seanna and brought her back inside their homes to show their relatives.  They called her a “child of the moon.”  A child of the moon is an albino in the Kuna culture.  Albinos are considered special and sacred.  This concept was also common in several North American indigenous cultures.  Merric is also blonde but they weren’t going after him so much; he was busy playing with the little Kuna boys.  Seanna tolerated all this attention by strangers really well for a 3 year old.

We were all invited to the home of Thomas – did not get his last name.  Thomas was born in 1925 and is the youngest looking 82 year old man we have ever seen.  He has visited almost every Native American tribe in the United States, including Hawaii.  He had been requested to serve as a delegate for each of these indigenous peoples.  He has also visited Germany.  He is likely the most well-traveled Kuna man ever.  Thomas’ wife was dressed in the traditional Kuna attire, as were his daughters and daughters-in-law and other adult women relatives.  The younger girls were dressed in normal western culture attire, but all the adult women wore traditional Kuna molas, skirts, jewelry and headscarves, with the beaded leg and arm coverings.  It was really cool to sit and visit with these people and we took several photographs.  Thomas had 9 children and has 13 grandchildren.  Looked like he probably also had a couple dozen great-grandchildren. 

After talking with Thomas, we are very happy that we were able to visit the Kuna now.  Bill and I fear that the traditional way of life won’t survive too much longer.  The children are required to attend school through 9th grade and those who can afford it then go to Panama to complete high school and college.  This education exposes the children to other cultures and will certainly make some of them want different experiences than the traditional life they are accustomed to now.  Thomas said that many of the young men (teenagers) don’t want to work on the farms and do the necessary communal work for the good of the entire village.  He said they must do this work even though they don’t want to.  Given this attitude and a little more time, the Kuna traditional way of life will change.  What a shame.  The Kuna are the last indigenous people in the Americas who still live their traditional lifestyle.  I would hate to see them lose this wonderful way of life.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Close lightning strike; slight damage to us but lots of damage to our friends

November 18, 2007 Sunday
Ticantiqui (a/k/a Niadup), Devil Cays, San Blas Islands, Panama
09.25.222N; 078.28.974W

I don’t know where our logs last stopped because our computer died (story below).  So I will recap from where I think we last reported in. 

We left Ustupu on 11 November and motored about 20 miles to San Ignacio de Tupile.  We stayed there for 2 nights.  We anchored about 2 miles south of the village and had the entire bay to ourselves.  BLUEPRINT MATCH anchored near Mono Island, so we were within VHF radio range of one another.  Since we were anchored so far from the village, it greatly reduced the number of people who came out to try and sell us things.  Three boys (ages 10, 8 and 4) paddled out; their mother sent them to see if we would buy any of her molas.  The molas weren’t very good quality, so I didn’t buy any.  Just gave the kids some candy and they left.  Later, a woman and her teenaged son paddled out.  This woman had the brightest red cheeks that we have seen so far.  Her cheeks were painted fire-engine red.  She had a gold nose ring and a very colorful outfit.  I bought a child size mola blouse for our granddaughter BeBe.  This mola blouse isn’t as brightly colored as most we have seen and I think it would look cute on her worn with jeans.

On our last day in Tupile we took the dinghy up the Mono River.  This river is the source for drinking water for the island of Tupile; the women paddle up the river in their ulus to collect drinking water and haul it back out to the island.  To prevent contamination of their drinking water, outboard engines are forbidden.  So we had to paddle the dinghy up that river.  Bill decided that he would learn to row the dinghy.  Anyone who has ever tried to row a RIB knows what an almost-impossible task this is.  But Bill did master rowing it in the calm water of this small river.  We saw several strange birds and strange flowers but did not see any monkeys.  When BLUEPRINT MATCH went of the river the previous day, they had seen some small white-faced monkeys.  But the monkeys did not chose to grace us with an appearance.

Then we went to the village on the island to buy bread.  We finally found a “restaurant” upstairs in a building near the police office where bread could be purchased – we just had to wait for them to bake it.  While the bread was baking we walked a short way and watched a PE class at the school.  The coach was teaching them how to play baseball and we thoroughly enjoyed watching this.  Then they held a baseball game – girls vs boys.  This was a hoot.  They were playing with a really thick purple plastic bat and a yellow tennis ball.  Sandals were placed upside down for bases and pitcher’s rubber.  The coach drew home plate and batters’ box in the dirt.  The kids were very careful not to mess up what the coach had drawn in the dirt.  They had just as much fun if not more than the properly equipped and uniformed Little Leaguers back home.  The lady baking the bread sent word that the bread was ready.  So we walked back to her restaurant and purchased 54 pieces of Kuna bread; 34 for our freezer and 20 for BLUEPRINT MATCH.

We motored 8 miles out to Aridup in the Ratones Cays.  BLUEPRINT MATCH arrived there before us.  They had caught a nice-sized fish on the way, so we joined them for a pot-luck dinner.  Michelle fried the fish in a beer batter and it was excellent; salad, fresh veggies, potatoes au gratin and just-baked brownies rounded out the dinner -- topped off with a couple of bottles of good red wine.  A great evening and we enjoyed visiting with Paul & Michelle.  Their Catana 431 is the nicest catamaran that we have ever seen.  It is a very comfortable boat.

A northwesterly swell grew overnight and we rolled and rocked with our stern awfully close the reef behind us.  It was not a pleasant night on such a close lee shore and none of us slept well.  First thing the next morning we hauled in the anchor and motored about 5 miles south to Snug Harbor.  And snug it is!  There are many mangrove covered small islands that comprise Snug Harbor, with deep channels between the islands and lots of patches of reef.  We had the Maxsea track from S/V APPARITION and followed their path to anchor between the 2 largest outer islands.  This was a perfect anchorage while the breeze was blowing, but unbearable when the breeze stopped on the second day due to no-see-ums that lived in the mangroves.  The no-see-ums only come out if there is no breeze.  As usual, I received 50-60 bites and am still dealing with the itching. 

The locals came by the boats and offered lots of crabs and lobsters for sale.  One guy also tried to sell us 6 freshly-caught octopus; but since I don’t have a clue how to clean or prepare octopus, we passed on that.   We bought from 3 different guys and ended up with 3 huge crabs and  eight small lobsters for $5 total.  Then our big splurge for the day was $10 each for two 3-pound lobsters.  Those we split in half and cleaned, and put into the freezer.  That will be Thanksgiving dinner.

Many thunderstorms passed through the area during Thursday night.  About 0300 Friday morning, BLUEPRINT MATCH took a direct lightning strike to their VHF antenna, which was the highest thing on their mast.  The lightning strike caused lots of damage to their boat electronics.  The VHF, SSB, autopilot, laptop computer and refrigeration were fried.  Not sure what else was damaged.  All aboard were fine and that is what is most important.  I do not know where the lightning exited the boat, but there was no hole in the hull.  They have a carbon fiber mast and supposedly those are more susceptible to lightning damage than aluminum masts.  They later learned from Michelle’s dad that this is the second time that boat has sustained a lightning strike.

Luckily, the Catana is also a French-built boat like our Amel; and it also has a Frigoboat refrigeration system.  They have a different model Frigoboat system than we do, but many of the parts are interchangeable.  We have 3 separate Frigoboat refrigeration systems on our Amel.  We have one locker set as a freezer, and it is jam-packed full.  The standard upright fridge is also full.  We were using the second locker as a secondary fridge since I had stocked up so much with fresh veggies just before leaving Cartagena.  We were able to shift stuff around and empty the second locker, so that we could loan the control board for that unit to BLUEPRINT MATCH.  This enabled them to run their freezer all night and their fridge during the day.  So far, this is working well for them.  Everything in their freezer is still frozen rock-solid, and the fridge is staying acceptably cold.  They are expecting a guest to arrive in about 10 days, and she will bring them some replacement parts.  She is also bringing us another control unit for the fridge so that we will have a spare onboard.

Bill went over and helped Paul with the electrical.  Paul probably did not really need any help because he knows that stuff pretty well, but he had already been awake all night and it was a good idea to have a more rested brain working alongside.  Paul & Bill rewired some things and got the boat in “cruise-able” condition; so at least they can continue to cruise and not have to rush off to Colon for emergency repairs immediately.  They will have to hand-steer, but they can continue to cruise and not cut short their time in the San Blas.  They planned to arrive in Colon about the same time we will, so we will probably stay fairly close together just in case they need some additional help or parts.

We thought our boat was fine, but Friday evening we realized that our AM/FM radio is fried and our new laptop is fried.  Bill has not yet been up the mast, but he thinks there is also some damage to our AM/FM radio antenna.   Both the VHF antenna and the AM/FM radio antenna are on top of our mast; they are the same height.  Our boat was stern-to BLUEPRINT MATCH when the lightning struck.  The AM/FM antenna is located on the rear side at the top of our mast.  If we had to lose one of them, I am glad it was just the AM/FM radio.  It would be much worse to lose the VHF antenna and radio.

Bill has checked everything he can think of and has not found any more damage to our boat from this very close lightning strike.  We were anchored relatively close together when this happened.  Good news is that we just bought this computer first of August and it has a 6-month warranty.  We have done some testing and think the only thing damaged was the hard drive.  Bill had backed up everything only days before, so the only thing lost was several days of photos.  Count us lucky.

This morning the no-see-ums came out in full-force shortly after the sun rose.  They were swarming me so badly that I jumped into the shower and then into long sleeves and long pants – in this heat!!!!  We pulled anchor and BLUEPRINT MATCH followed us 16 miles from Snug Harbor to Devil Cays.  There was a large swell rolling across our beam almost the entire trip; not pleasant.  We are anchored behind a small island close to the mainland and the swell isn’t bad back here.  Plan to stay here only a night or two and then move out to some outer island.  We have all had enough of these villages and people visiting our boats.

Tupbak (a/k/a Isla Pinos) up to Ustupu

November 8, 2007  Thursday
Tupbak, San Blas Islands, Panama (a/k/a Isla Pinos)
09.00.061N; 077.45.767W                 
Total distance traveled 172.24 NM from wall entry at Boca Grande, Cartagena de Indias

We exited the break of the underwater wall at Boca Grande and departed Cartagena de Indias at 0900 Monday morning, 5 November.  Plans were to sail straight across to Isla Pinos, a distance of approximately 150 NM.  Paul & Michelle on BLUEPRINT MATCH had left Cartagena on Saturday and were in Los Rosarios.  They planned to leave a bit later in the day headed for the same destination.  We planned to talk on the SSB along the way.  Turned out that we were within VHF range for the entire passage.  We had both waited until today because the winds were supposed to switch back to the normal NNE trades over the weekend, which would have meant this passage would be a downwind sail the entire trip.  As happens so often, reality and forecast did not match.  Winds were on our nose for almost the entire trip.

Another sailor had told us that there would be opposing current until we reached 9 degrees 15 minutes; and that there would be no current to affect us once we were down that low.  From the very beginning we did not make very good time; winds of only 10 knots at 210 degrees, and our course was 239; so it was going to be a motor-sail.  Soon the winds were 20 knots at 230 and our course was still 239, so we took in the mainsail and motored along.  Boat speed was 7.9 knots at 2000 rpm but SOG was only 5.9, so there was 2 knots opposing current at the beginning of this passage.  By 1440 (2:20 p.m. for you landlubbers), our SOG (speed over ground) was down to only 4.1 knots, meaning that the current was increasing.  So we changed course to 185 degrees (headed towards the San Bernardos Isla Tintapan) to try and get farther south and closer to 9 degrees 15 minutes in hopes of getting below the current.  By 1500 (3:00 p.m.) our SOG had increased to 6.1 knots under sail only.  Now, this was much better!

Sailing lasted less than 2 hours.  By this time we were at 09.36.6974N  076.24.9313W.  Boat speed was 7.35 knots at 2100 rpm but SOG was 5.8 knots.  We all hoped that the 20 knot winds on our nose would die down after dark.  Sure enough, by 2245 the winds were down to only 5 knots.  Boat speed was 7.25 and our SOG was 6.2 knots, so still had opposing current of about 1 knot.  Location was 09.36.6974N, 076.24.9313W.  Course 242 degrees.

BLUEPRINT MATCH was 4 miles off our port side by the time we were 15 miles from Isla Fuerte and we were both still motor sailing into the current.  They then sped up for some reason and were soon almost out of sight ahead.  BLUEPRINT is a Catana 431 catamaran and is normally a faster boat than our heavier monohull Amel.  But by 0200 we had caught up with them.  In fact, we were so close that Michelle radioed to ask if we planned to run over them.  So we lowered to 1600 rpm to slow down to 4.4 SOG.  I also changed our course slightly to starboard at 255 degrees.  By 0300 we were down to 09.26.072N, 076.46.140W and still slugging into over 1 ½ knots opposing current, but with no wind to hinder our progress.

At 0900 we were finally down to 9 degrees 15 minutes; that magic number where we had been emphatically assured that there would be no opposing current.  Wrong!!!  Boat speed was 8.15 knots at 2100 rpm and SOG only 6.40.  Wind was only 9 knots and was 61 degrees off our port side, so we were motor sailing without wind on our nose.  So that meant we were still experiencing 1 ¾ knots opposing current.  At 0920 the mountains of mainland Panama were clearly visible through the cloudy rain cells.  Destination in sight!

At 1030 and approximately 25 miles offshore, the current finally was down to only ½ knot against us.  I did not record the precise location that the current waned, but it was approximately 9 degrees 7 minutes.

We arrived at the waypoint to enter anchorage at 1400.  Waypoint is 08.59.2000N,  077.44,6888W.  Distance traveled to this point was 170.8 NM.  It was exceptionally calm for the entire passage; none of the rough seas we had been warned about.  Just wish we had experienced the winds from the forecasted direction; then it would have been a perfect passage.  BLUEPRINT MATCH decided to head toward another tiny island called Isla Iguana.  Isla Iguana normally has breaking water all around it and is too rough because it is so exposed to the sea, but it was absolutely dead calm when we arrived in this area so they decided to try it.  Turned out to be a wise choice as they said it was a picture perfect beach with coconut palms along the shore.  Their kids needed some beach time after the passage.

Bill and I dropped anchor at 1500 at 09.00.061N, 077.45l.767W.  Took us a whole hour to travel 1.44 miles!  Depth under our keel got down to 1.8 feet at one point.   Depth under the keel is 4.4 feet where we are anchored.  Bottom is grassy over light mud and sand mixture.  It is totally flat calm; like being in a lagoon.  We are anchored behind Isla Pinos, which is really named Tupbak. 

Tupbak means whale in the Kuna language.  This island looks like a whale from a distance and has been used as a landmark by sailors for centuries.  In 1571 Sir Francis Drake anchored here and planned his attack on Nombre de Dios from this bay.  Privateers and pirates often used this well-protected anchorage.  We were greeted by a man named Peres in an ulu (dugout canoe) shortly after we anchored.  Peres speaks some English.  He came back the next day and asked us to give him some sandpaper, which we did.  No one else has come out to ask for anything or to try to sell us anything, but Peres asked us both times he visited our boat if we planned to visit the village and when and if we planned to buy any molas.  I don’t think this island sees many visiting boats.  The village appears very poor.

An official from the village also came out in his ulu the next day and requested $8 USD as an anchoring fee.  This fee goes to the village kitty.  His cheeks were painted with bright red circles. The thatched-hut village is off our port side, right on the water’s edge.  We have not gone ashore and probably won’t since it is raining today.  When weather is nice and sunny later today we will move onward to another island.  It is very nice here and we probably should go ashore and spend some money to help the local economy, but we just aren’t motivated to get out in the rain.  The people are quiet with a calm demeanor.  The men paddle around in their tiny ulus and fish with hand line.  The children play in the water in late afternoon.  I cannot believe how easily they lift themselves out of the water and into an ulu, while another boy is standing up in that ulu!  Seems like that canoe would tip over.  But they do this over and over again so they can dive back into the water.  I have seen only 3 women along the shore, but there must be more because the village looks fairly large.  Unfortunately, we are anchored too far from shore to take any photos.

Later…..we motored through the cut in the reef on the northwest side of Tupbak.  Then proceeded to motor up to Ustupu, which is the largest village in all of the San Blas Islands.   The waypoints provided in Eric Bauhaus’ guide to cruising Panama have been dead-on accurate so far.  We are anchored up behind the island of Ustupu.  We put the dinghy in the water and tried to explore up the Sugandi Tiwar river on the mainland.  It is almost spitting distance between the mainland and Ustupu island.  The river is supposed to be marked by wrecks of giant trees washed down during the great flood of 1925 which forced the village to move from the mainland to the island of Ustupu.  We went way up the channel but never found the Sugandi Tiwar river.  Apparently the mouth of the river is so overgrown with mangroves that you must know exactly where to look to maneuver your way through the mangroves to get into the actual river.  We gave up and turned back and meandered around the edge of the village at Ustupu instead.  Little kids came to the water edge and waved and yelled “hola” to us.  One woman motioned that she had molas to sell, but since we did not bring any money we called back to her that we would return “manana” for her molas.

The guide book says that villagers here do not come out to visit yachts.  But since we did not immediately go into the village and visit the sahila, he came out in an ulu and greeted us.  His name is Luis and speaks English fairly well.  We paid the $8 fee for permission to go anywhere in his waters and to visit anywhere in the village.  Luis said that we were the first yacht to visit the village in four months and that they were all excited to see us.  Hope they are that excited because we don’t plan to spend THAT much money in Ustupu.  Luis said he will show us around tomorrow.  Bill understood Luis to say that he will introduce us to the chief tomorrow, but our guide book says that Luis is the chief.  We are a bit confused, as usual.

We can upload this log via satellite phone connection, but unfortunately we cannot upload photos until we have an Internet connection.