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.