Pacific Cruise 2010-11
Saturday, January 1st Cartagena
We had hoped to leave for the San Blas today but our laundry was AWOL. The Marina office was, of course, closed for the holiday so there we sat with our Zarpe, but no clean underwear. We took a New Years stroll around the Old City. In the afternoon on our way back to the boat we stopped by the Valiant that had anchored behind us a few days before. It looked very familiar. Had we seen them last year in the Caribbean? No. “Where are you from they said. “Newburyport, Massachusetts” we said. Ah! They had bought their boat, Galivant from John Douglas our old mooring field mate at the American Yacht Club. When we knew the boat it was called Aventura. It is a VERY small world.
Sunday, January 2nd,Cartagena
The Marina office was still closed but magically our laundry had turned up. It was clearly visible through the office window. Thankfully, one of the helpful dock staff managed to break into the office using a broomstick. He had obviously done this before. We located the tab for the laundry and left the requisite cash and departed, laundry in hand. It was too late in the day to leave for the San Blas but at least we were ready for a Monday departure.
Monday, January 3rd, On Passage
We left Cartagena at mid-morning, wanting to arrive in the San Blas by noon(ish) the following day so we’d have good light to avoid the lurking reefs. The reefs in the flesh and the reefs on the chart(s) are two different things. The charts are notoriously whimsical. We understand that this is going to be the norm for our foreseeable future.
As the GRIB files suggested there was no wind until the afternoon when it picked up from 0 to twenty+ from the NE in about ten minutes. The arrival of the wind was naturally accompanied by an increase in the seas. It was going to be a rolly night. In a wonderful turn of events, Roger has seemingly fixed the wind vane. Yay! It’s a good thing as the autopilot would not have enjoyed our evening’s conditions. A very broad reach with big seas. The stars were spectacular and the ship traffic was minimal. The last ship I saw was a cruise ship called Island Princess and according to the AIS she was headed for the Panama Canal.
Tuesday, January 4th, Aridup, San Blas, Panama
Our well planned arrival was foiled by threatening looking clouds. Nonetheless it was fairly easy to see where the reefs were since there were very large rollers breaking on them. We wove our way slowly in and around the back of Aridup Island and dropped the hook. The Island was spectacularly beautiful with swaying palms and white sand beaches. We began to see the boats of the native Kuna Indians. Some were paddled while others were sailed with small, well worn sails. What an amazing change from Cartagena. Despite our stunning surroundings we were tired and went below to sleep, with plans to explore in the a.m.
Wednesday, January 5th -7th, Snug Harbor, San Blas
Despite its loveliness, Aridup was only a one night stand for us. The seas that had followed us down the Columbian coast continued to dog us in the anchorage. A night passage followed by a night in a rolly anchorage is ideally followed by some peace and quiet. We decided we’d take a walk on Aridup then make the run to Snug Harbor, two miles closer to the coast of Panama. Snug Harbor was indeed snug. We anchored in the cleft between two Islands which are separated by a reef. Just what we had in mind. The Islands weren’t as spectacular as Aridup but the beauty of the mountains on the Panamanian mainland was a reasonable exchange. It was like being anchored off of Jurassic Park.
It was in Snug Harbor that we first encountered the Kuna Indians in any numbers. The Kuna live in Kuna Yala (known by many outsiders as the San Blas Islands) which is a somewhat autonomous region of Panama. The islands are theirs, the rivers are theirs and the mountains are theirs and they tolerate our presence. They live mostly on the islands but often keep small gardens on the mainland. A large portion of the Kuna population still lives in a very traditional fashion. Many of the adult women wear traditional garb including blouses which incorporate molas, the famous native layered stitch work.
We were visited regularly over the three days of our stay by several vendors. Our favorite was a fellow named Aureliano. Aureliano sold us lobsters and crabs which we greatly enjoyed. He also liked to barter so we traded wire (for catching lobster) and a baseball cap for some veggies. Aureliano, in his amusing English, told us about the “hotel” on the next island and the prices that the tourists paid to stay there. He was obviously floored. So were we for that matter.
One day we took a dinghy ride past the hotel towards Playon Chico, the nearby Kuna village. The hotel, on its own little island, was built of bamboo with thatched roofs. Guests stayed in individual cottages on stilts above the water. There was a matching restaurant with a deck above the water. It looked like a spot where you’d definitely be away from it all. The village of Playon Chico was overflowing its tiny island. For some reason we felt uncomfortable about landing and continued on our way. We were obviously going to have to become less inhibited about interacting with the local population if we were going to be successful cruising in out of the way places.
During our stay in Snug Harbor we discovered that our stern water tank had leaked. Roger thinks the screws which fasten down the top need to be rebedded. He had messed with them over the summer for a reason which I can no longer remember. It’s a job that will wait for our stay at Shelter Bay Marina in Colon. In the meantime we’ll keep it empty and use just the bow tank. One particularly hot and sunny day I finally mustered the courage to face the sewing machine. We needed a sun shade for the port side of the cockpit and now was the time. I had been fighting with the machine during my last few projects but the shade went well for some unknown reason. Thank goodness. Now we have a shade for each side of the cockpit.
Saturday, January 8th, Isla Tigre, San Blas
After three days at Snug Harbor we decided to make our way west. We hadn’t been ashore on an inhabited Island yet and Isla Tigre was described in our cruising guide as being somewhat traditional so we headed in that direction. It was a cloudy day so we were especially vigilant in our approach. The reefs were clearly visible even in the overcast conditions so we scooted in unscathed. After lunch we headed in for a village tour. We found a dock to tie the dinghy to. The man on the dock seemed fine with the idea so off we went. Walking the village streets really was like stepping back in time. There were two main streets and a multitude of cross alleys, all of dirt. The homes were small and densely packed. They had either concrete or bamboo walls but all had thatched roofs. Much to our amazement each dwelling had its own solar panel mounted on a pole and wired to a twelve volt car battery. Very eco-friendly.
The word had obviously gone out that we were there because we rounded a corner and found several Kuna women busily hanging up their molas for display. There were dozens to choose from, each one more beautiful than the next. It took us several minutes of careful deliberation but we made our selections and were on our way. Our next stop was the school yard where we watched the boys play volleyball. There was a coach who insisted on blowing his whistle regularly and with vigor. It was a signal to the players to drop to the ground, stretch out as if they were going to do a push-up then bound back up again. Perhaps it improves agility. We heard this whistle going all afternoon from the boat. Those boys must sleep well. After a fashion we returned to the dinghy and to Shango beyond, having caused no international incidents. Roger bought three lobster tails from a man named Walter and we ate a lovely dinner.
Sunday, January 9th – Thursday 13th, Sabudupored, San Blas
The next day we made our way to Sabudupored, an uninhabited island a bit further offshore. The entrance to Sabudupored was fairly straightforward especially with the appearance of sun which decided to show itself at just the right moment. Sabudupored is one of the eastern most Islands of the Naguargandup Cays. It is about a half mile southeast of Green Island which is the most popular of these Cays.
We had Sabudupored all to ourselves if you don’t count the birds. A savvy birdwatcher would be happy here. There is a resident hawk in a shade of tan and pinky cream. It looks a bit like an overgrown pigeon but more threatening. There are also lots of pelicans and a variety of squawking birds heard from the interior of the island. The afternoon was overcast and gray. Sort of like New England but warmer. The cruising, in fact, is like Merchant’s Row in Maine but with bad charts and coral instead of pink granite.
By this time in our stay we had identified two cruiser’s nets in the neighborhood. There is the Southwest Caribbean net at 8:15 on 6209 SSB and then there’s the Panama Connection Net at 8:30 on 8107 SSB. Our first major (and I have to say unpleasant) discovery was made during the question portion of one of the nets. A cruiser new to the neighborhood asked about the availability of cash in the San Blas. You’re out of luck was basically the reply he received. In our handy dandy cruising guide there was mention of a bank on the Island of Nargana. The guide did not mention that you couldn’t actually get cash from the bank. Several days later we heard the same question and the answer was the same but from a different source. This was bad news for us. We had taken minimal U.S. cash out of the bank in Cartagena before our departure and were now committed to that figure. A figure which was now greatly diminished. After purchasing several lobster tails, several crabs, several molas and paying several anchoring fees we were down to twenty dollars with basically three weeks left in the San Blas. We decided it would be like a trial run for our Pacific crossing. If it’s not onboard you’re out of luck. Of course if I thought I was going to be crossing the Pacific when I left Cartagena I would have brought more onions.
We spent our days at Sabudupored in a fairly relaxed fashion. We went swimming, walked on the tiny nearby island beaches, read and ate the remains of our veggies. There was a flurry of activity one day when Roger unclogged the galley sink drain (with ease) in the morning and attacked the ailing pressure switch on the watermaker, eventually bypassing it, in the afternoon.
Sabudupored was also the site of the Hookamax christening. The Hookamax is a DC powered air compressor which remains on deck feeding air to a regulator (in the diver’s mouth) through a long hose. There were two reasons for the Hookamax purchase. First, it would allow the bottom to be cleaned or zincs to be changed with far less aggravation. No matter how good bottom paint claims to be it is never a match for certain harbors like Luperon or Cartagena. A week in these places and the bottom is never the same requiring monthly cleaning thereafter. Second and more importantly, when our chain gets lodged in coral like it did in Great Inagua, Roger cannot free dive and work any deeper than 15-20 feet. The Hookamax will extend this depth. So, down into the abyss went the Captain, with a weight belt on his waist, a regulator and hose dangling from his mouth and a steady stream of bubbles from below letting me know he was still amongst the living. Afterwards he said he was pleased. Now all he needs for the perfect bottom cleaning setup is a suction cup so he can hang suspended like Spiderman from the hull.
We stopped at Green Island one day after a dinghy outing and introduced ourselves to Russ and Fay on New Morning. We had “met” them online via the Puddle Jump web site. They seemed pleasant and we look forward to catching up to them as we cross the South Pacific.
Friday January 14th, Coco Bandero Cays, San Blas
After five days of lounging around at Sabudupored we moved northwest a few miles to the Coco Banderos. The Coco Banderos are quite beautiful. The anchorage is popular but still manages to fit a fair number of boats in and around the four main islands. We were behind the outermost Island where there were more breezes but a bit more roll. Over the next few days we snorkeled in earnest and walked on the beaches of the neighboring islands. We chatted with a boat called Rachel who we had last seen in the Bahamas a few years ago and with another called Quicksilver, which is headed through the Canal.
Monday, January 17th, Orduptarboat, San Blas
After a night which was rollier than ideal we made our way to Orduptarboat in the Western Coco Banderos. We began our visit by watching (from afar) Kunas gather coconuts and transport them to a waiting ulu. The pile of coconuts was quite large and there was a family of seven doing the gathering/loading. It was amazing to watch all the coconuts and all the Kuna fit into the very small boat. As they left we could see the load of coconuts being redistributed for better trim. After lunch we headed off for a snorkel on the reef to the west of the island. It turned out to be one of our better trips to date with lots of fish and a lobster sighting. We would have liked to stay longer but there was a cocktail/book swap the following night at “BBQ” Island in the Eastern Holandes and Roger was hoping for a good score in the book department.
Tuesday, January 18th –Thursday, 20th, Ogoppiriadup, Eastern Holandes
Tuesday morning we dropped the hook behind Ogoppiriadup or what the local cruisers call “Cell Phone Island”. The Eastern Holandes are a very popular cruiser hangout despite being surrounded by uninhabited Islands. The anchorages have names like “The Swimming Pool”, “The Hot Tub” and “Bug Island”. The cocktail party/book swap was being held on “BBQ Island” next to the “Swimming pool” anchorage. What do the Kunas think of these names? The appetizers and the company were much better than the book selection. We met several nice people, a few of whom are headed in our direction. Most of those gathered were staying in the San Blas for the winter if not longer. I chatted with a woman named Carol from a boat called Chewbacca. We arranged for an early morning swap of a can of Tahini (mine) for some onions (hers). Bartering is a fine tradition.
We spent several more days lounging around the Eastern Holandes. We visited Michael and Hilda on Quicksilver and arranged some mutual book lends. The Beak of the Finch (ours) for Typee and The Hidden Worlds of Polynesia (theirs). We also offloaded a book that Roger picked up at the swap. When he picked it up he thought it was on economics but upon further inspection discovered it actually dealt with Armageddon and the Book of Daniel. Hilda on Quicksilver finds such books fascinating. It is now hers.
Friday, January 21st, Los Bajos Lagoon, Central Holandes, San Blas
We moved all of two miles today. We didn’t even raise a token sail. Our destination was Los Bajos Lagoon in the Central Holandes. It has islands in the distance on three sides but it is mostly an anchorage in the midst of a fringing reef and intermittent small internal reefs. We had some waypoints and the light was good and we suspected that the snorkeling would be nice so in we went. The snorkeling was very good. At our first site we made our way around the perimeter of a good sized patch reef and it was brimming with fish (including a nurse shark asleep under a ledge) and healthy coral. Our third stop was my favorite however. It was a smaller reef but further out toward the fringing reef. The fish here seemed much less skittish than at some of our previous dive sites. At one point we were completely surrounded by a giant school of 12”-16” silver fish. They swam in circles around us as if they were interested. I definitely felt like one of the fish.
Saturday, January 22nd –Sunday, January 23rd, Achudup, Western Naguargandup Cays
Despite the good snorkeling the roll drove us out of Los Bajos. Achudup, adjacent to Salardup, is a lovely spot behind two lovely islands. It is roll free but also wind free so it’s a bit warm. Pelicans rule the roost here and make for amusing cocktail hour viewing. Roger fussed with the rigging and a mast boot leak , and I started to think about our Shelter Bay work list.
Monday January24th – Wednesday, January 26th, Eastern Lemon Cays, San Blas
We’re slowly working our way west and eventually out of the San Blas. Today’s destination was the Eastern Lemons. We were actually able to put the jib out for the four mile jaunt. Very pleasant. The Eastern Lemons anchorage is set among several lightly inhabited islands (one or two families). The islands flank the anchorage and a reef fronts it. Because of this there is a good breeze and everyone’s wind generators whir happily. There were a dozen boats in this fairly popular spot but there was plenty of elbow room. In the afternoon we went ashore for a swim on one of the islands and met some Canadian cruisers with a dog named Vicki. Vicki, bred to be a bird dog, has traded her birds for fish and chases them unceasingly around the shallows, never catching them. It certainly appears to be good exercise for her. In the evening we had a visit from Lisa, a master mola maker. She brought samples of her molas including beer snuggies with mola exteriors. Lisa’s English was relatively good and it was nice to be able to chat with her. She said “Many people know me” I told her that I too knew her from her picture in the cruising guide. I asked her if she minded having her picture there. She said that she didn’t.” I felt bad not being able to buy any of her molas but she was the first vendor who at least understood our predicament. The caption under Lisa’s picture in the cruising guide reads: “Lisa, a native of Rio Sidra, master mola maker and infamous transvestite, shows off her merchandise to a visiting yacht.
The next day we headed out to snorkel. On our way out in the dinghy we stopped to chat with Suzy and her dog Cruiser who were out for a paddle on their kayak. They are headed through the Canal soon also. I think this snorkel ranked up there as one of Roger’s favorites. The reef was fairly good sized and the fish plentiful. He claims I packed it in before he encountered the good stuff. Isn’t that always the way? We harvested our crop of sprouts this evening. Nice to have some greens.
Thursday, January 27th – Friday, January 28th, Chichime, San Blas
This is the last stop in the San Blas for us. We arrived mid-morning at the entrance. We are still reminded that we aren’t at home when we have to make our way into an anchorage between a reef with large breaking waves on one side and a recently sunken sailboat on the other. We had a hard time finding a pleasantly shallow spot but we were eventually happy with where we landed. Chichime was smaller and more crowded than we had anticipated but we wanted to use it as our jumping off point for Portobello, our next stop which is fifty+ miles away.
The anchorage has a reef in front of it, an inhabited island to the left of the reef and another behind. There were many vendors milling around. We gave out powdered milk, peppermint patties and eventually shed ourselves of our last ten dollars for three lobsters, hoping no one would ask for an anchoring fee in the last two nights. We spent our days swimming and walking on a tiny uninhabited island nearby.
The San Blas Islands have been a wonderful respite for us. Prior to arriving here we had been moving fairly quickly for a few months. It has been nice to take some time and do very little. We can’t help but think about what lies ahead as we head to Colon and eventually the Panama Canal over the next few days and weeks. We will be jumping back into preparation mode and then into passage making once again. I’m sure we’ll look back at the San Blas longingly on dark and stormy passage nights or in unlovely anchorages and wish we were bobbing tranquilly here.
Saturday, January, 29th, Portobello, Panama
Fifty-two miles, Chichime to Portobello. We’re embarrassed to say it’s the longest distance we’ve sailed since our overnight from Cartagena a month ago. We left Chichime at seven forty-five in reasonable light. We could see several other boats taking advantage of the good wind to head west out of the San Blas. What started out as 18-20 knots on the starboard quarter began to diminish as the day went on. By noon we had 13-15 knots. It’s not really enough wind at this wind angle to get us 50+ miles and still arrive in daylight. On several occasions we had to resort to mechanical assistance. The coast of Panama was only a few miles off our port side and it was spectacular. Even though we were out of Kuna Yala there was still not any development to speak of. As we rounded the corner and sailed the last ten miles to our destination we passed the towns of Isla Grande and Linton. These were both more developed and cater to vacationing Panamanians. Shortly before four we arrived in Portobello. We dropped the anchor, pleased that we still remembered how to sail.
Sunday, January 30th, Portobello, Panama
We arose slowly after a loud night. Much music was played in town till three a.m. Welcome back to the modern world. Our plan for the day included a dinghy trip across the harbor to see one of the town’s old forts and then perhaps with a bit of luck we’d find a place we might be able to eat lunch out.
On our way across to the fort we encountered Morgan, our roving Oregonians. They said our best bet for cash would be to take the local bus to Sabanitas and get off at the Rey supermarket. There were two ATM’s and the bus cost only 1.50 each. I sensed a plan afoot. But first, the fort.
Portobello was the main transshipment point for the gold and silver that the Spanish “discovered” in Peru beginning in the sixteenth century. Mules would carry the loot from Panama City over the mountains to the Chagres River where it would be put on boats and taken to the Caribbean coast. Ships would arrive in Portobello from Spain and haul the goods home. The town was sacked several times over the years, most notably by the Pirate, Captain Henry Morgan in the 1670’s. The fort we went to look at was a later creation, dating to 1760. Fort San Fernando has lower and upper batteries as well as a hilltop storage building. We have encountered numerous historic sites like this in the Bahamas and the Caribbean, sitting alone, unguarded and most amazingly unmolested. There is no fee to enter and no protective fencing. No one mows or weeds. It’s just you and the cannons and the wildlife. We made it as far as the upper battery, deciding that perhaps flip flops were not up to the task of summiting.
By this time Roger had it in his mind that we were going to make the bus trip to Sabanitas. I don’t believe he heard when Morgan said it would take “a little over an hour” to get there. I was game since local bus rides always make for interesting log entries. This bus ride would prove no different.
First we had to go back to the boat and scrounge up our remaining change. We came up with about six dollars in change, give or take. That ought to get us there, and back if necessary. We found a place in town to tie the dinghy, giving Eduardo the dinghy kid ten of our precious dimes.
Next we went in search of the bus. The busses, the same Blue Birds that you and I once rode to school, are hard to miss as they are covered in spectacular airbrush paint jobs, fluttering flags, pom-poms and the occasional faux shark fin or two on the roof. The decision is “which bus is going my way?” Once we solved this we stood on the appropriate side of the road and waved our arms at the next bus. Four of us got on. There were two seats. We gave the first seat to the woman and child who got on behind us. Roger offered me the last seat but I am much better at standing up on a swaying bus in the heat than he is so I bided my time and hoped someone might get off. While scanning my fellow passengers from above I could see that many of them were holding postcards of the Black Christ. The Black Christ is a carved wooden statue of Christ which hangs on the wall of the Church of San Felipe de Portobello. Apparently the statue is considered holy and in October people walk on their knees from as far away as Costa Rica to pay homage. Certainly I could stand as far as Sabanitas if necessary? After not too long however I was rewarded with a seat.
The bus headed out of town past the sight of two recent mudslides, one taking eight houses with it, killing seven people. Not surprisingly the geology has not improved since the digging of the Panama Canal. After about twenty peaceful minutes of upbeat Spanish Christian music, with which many passengers sang along, there was a loud pop. My seatmate immediately took cover below window height, others blessed themselves. The kid who works the bus door (I call them the sweepers, but I’m sure there’s an official term for them) knew better. The bus came to a stop and he headed out returning thirty seconds later for the jack. The driver accompanied him with a tire iron and a giant lever, not bothering to even turn off the bus. In no time at all we were back in business. If we were on a bus at home we would have had to wait for the powers that be to send a replacement bus to get us on the move again. A real third world benefit.
The bus by now was absolutely packed, cheek by jowl. This presented a bit of a dilemma since we didn’t really know where to get off. The driver would occasionally call out and at one point seemed to be calling for us. We “made our way” to the front of the bus but there was some confusion about our specific destination. Happily there was a young man squashed in near us who spoke some English. He was able to convey to our bus driver where we were going. Success. Ten minutes later we were dropped on the curb in front of the Rey Supermarket. Much to our horror, both ATM’s were broken. Thankfully the man at the supermarket customer service desk was able to explain in fairly decent English that there was an ATM across the street. After waiting fifteen minutes in the ATM line we were presented with cold, hard cash which allowed us to buy a few groceries. After watching one Portobello-bound bus depart, bulging at the seams Roger headed for the nearest taxi. After some negotiation he was able to secure a ride home for $20 which seemed well worth the price especially given the new cash in our pockets. We were homeward bound. Back in Portobello we enjoyed watching an apparently important soccer game played in the town square (by adult men, on concrete) followed by an unlovely dinner of fish and rice. Then it was back to the boat for much longed for showers.
That is the tale of our visit to Portobello. Next stop Colon. Did I mention the snake??
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