Monthly Archives: March 2014
The San Blas islands weren’t really on our bucket list because we’re normally more pastry/cafe/museum people. So what are we doing sailing around the world, you ask? Good question. For one thing I have an unfathomable itch to push myself beyond my comfort zone. But still, the whole Margaret Mead thing generally interests me only in filmmaking terms, you know, how can I shoot this to a script?
We were on a mission to get a cell phone working. We had chosen wrong way back in Grenada and got a SIM card for Lime instead of Digicel, and we paid for that mistake all the way up island. Digicel is the more widely available network in the Caribbean and by the time we realized we should get a Digicel SIM card we were in Puerto Rico and they don’t have Digicel. So we arrived in Panama with no working cell phone and no access to data for email or blogging.
Ashore on Porvenir Island where we cleared into Panama we asked a man who said he was the administrator for the Kuna and he sold me a SIM card for $5 and said we should go to the next island over for prepaid cards to apply credit. The next island is Wichubwala and it is completely covered with thatched huts.
I was initially reluctant to go; the island is a small village. Would we be intruding into private spaces? Would we be instantly classified as walking wallets? Would we be set upon by aggressive vendors? We weren’t even sure where to dock a dinghy but we found a spot, tied up and entered another world.
The sandy paths between the rows of huts are neatly swept. What looked like a jumble of buildings from the perimeter of the island is an organized layout once we got to the middle.
There are basically two main “streets” with side paths that lead to the sea. The areas around the dwellings are neat and clean but each time we took a path back to the water we saw where the trash piles up.
There is no plumbing on the island but there are well-placed privies, and what electricity there is is produced by solar cells and stored in car batteries.
The residents watched us placidly with a look that told us they are used to being gawked at by tourists. We smiled and greeted people with our mangled Spanish which most of them don’t speak either, but they warmed up, especially when we admired their children. They are small people; Jack and I are easily a head taller than everyone.
Against all odds the Kuna have preserved their language and culture. The women still wear traditional dress featuring their beautiful molas on the front and back of their blouses. I know people buy piles of them but we are on a budget and I carefully selected two from what I assume to be a mother and daughter. Using sign language they indicated who made which ones and I chose a mola made by each. You’re not allowed to take photos of people but with permission you may photograph a craftsperson you purchase from.
We walked up and down the lanes between rows of huts. As we walked by women snapped to attention and brought out their wares. One woman led me into her hut where she laid out mola after mola, the representational kind they make for tourists, pretty but not authentic. I tried to indicate I was more interested in the traditional ones, and I pointed to the one on her own blouse. That prompted her to bring over blouse after blouse, with a mola on the front and back. The molas were beautiful but I couldn’t communicate that I only wanted one mola like that, not two and not a complete blouse. In the meantime, I could appreciate the hut. The space was very large with no furniture except hammocks hung from the ceiling. There were other hooks and high shelves but precious little else in the space. There was nothing on the floor at all. The Kuna live at sea level and the sea is rising.
We eventually came upon the little shop but there was no one minding the store.
We walked around back and found the proprietor and managed to convey that we wanted a “chip” and “saldo.” These words, in addition to “cerveza” and “cuenta” now constitute the sum total of my Spanish vocabulary. It’s pathetic, I know, but I have my priorities.
While we were waiting for the lady to get the cards out and do a little bookkeeping another artisan came up to show me her molas. I would like to have bought something from everyone but I couldn’t.
We strolled around the tiny island a little more until we circled back to the dock where we had left the dinghy only to find a wooden launch in its place. A few men and women were unloading food and supplies in no particular hurry and we stayed out of their way as we walked to the end of the dock to find Catnip safely tied to a different post. One of the men indicated they’d had to make room for the cargo boat, and I apologized for being in the way. No, no, he said, it’s ok, and he made it clear he had taken care of our dinghy and tied it well. We thanked them all and motored slowly away from Wichubwala.
We spent another day anchored beside the island, then spent a day at the less populated Lemon Group. When we sailed back to Porvenir to clear out we anchored close to Wichubwala again and it felt like coming home.
We wish we could stay longer in the San Blas and get to know the place, but we have promises to keep, and the canal waits.
NB: We’re posting via satellite phone and SSB radio, so we aren’t receiving any email or getting on the web. We figure once we get to the canal we might find wifi, but if you’ve sent us messages and we haven’t responded, that’s why.
This place is amazingly beautiful. We’re so torn; we’d love to stay a while and just appreciate the Kuna world and the picture postcard beauty, on the other hand we need to get to Colon so we can get the process started for canal transit. In a way, this is what it’s like cruising on a sailboat. Some places you have all the time in the world and others you have to race through because of weather or other considerations. It’s funny that more than once we’ve had people tell us “You’re going too fast!” but those are invariably much younger people who think they have unlimited time on this earth. We’re old enough to know all too well that life is short and we aim to pack as much as we can into whatever time we have left. This voyage isn’t “the trip of a lifetime;” it’s just one of the things we want to do before we leave this earth. I’m still trying to talk Jack into Svalbord but it’s tough going.
My sister got word to us via satphone that my dear aunt died this week. Aunt Evelyn was an early role model for me. She was gentle and kind, but what I loved about her most was how she sought out and embraced new things. She was an artist who learned toll painting (not sure that’s the right word) and was a member of a guild. We have a beautiful little mirror she painted in our guest bedroom and I think of her every time I look at it. When she moved to upstate New York she took up cross country skiing. She learned to make chair seats out of rushes and picked her own rushes. She had a metal detector and went looking for treasures she could do something with. She always made a spice cake for my Uncle Paul and to this day we all make ‘Paul’s Cake.’ I can still hear her quiet laugh and see her twinkling eyes. She’s the last of my mother’s sisters to leave us, and we’re down to one of the ‘original recipe,’ as Jack calls them, my Uncle Ralph, still doing well in his 90s. All six of them lived well into their 90s and if I’m lucky enough to have inherited those genes I’ve got some good years ahead of me.
Here’s to you, Aunt Evelyn! The older I get, the more people I meet, the luckier I feel to have had my mother and her incredible brothers and sisters and their spouses. They taught us the meaning of family, an inclusive and welcoming version that takes in newcomers with the same love as those born into it. As my mom used to say, “If you’re with us, you’re one of us.”
Here we go again. We’ve been here before…no, not here in the San Blas Islands, but here trying to slow down this freight train. Heretofore our job has been to keep her moving while enjoying where we’ve been. Let me explain. On a passage we are usually found facing backwards tucked in behind the cabin bulkhead which is quite tall so we see most of the scenery of our passages after we passed it, if you know what I mean.
We’ve had an amazing passage from Puerto Rico and tonight is no exception but we’re close enough to do the arrival math and no matter how we slice it, we keep coming up 0-dark-thirty. No good, dear Escapees, no good at all. Tip-toeing into Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, in the dark is one thing but you’d have to be daft to try that stunt here with unlit and unmarked shoals scattered everywhere. So if tonight follows protocol we’ll pick up about five extra knots of breeze but how does that translate into shrinking EVs sail area down so we can slow to about five knots of boat speed without de-tuning the rig too much? We chose one more reef in the main and no more wing and wing which EV seems to really like.
We only hit seven knots a few times and with the jib partially blanked by the main on the same side, we were ready if the Colombian Basin acted up. However, we failed to appreciate how many freighters are passing in and out of the Panama Canal. Marce had eight simultaneous targets arrayed around her in the dark but with nothing aimed directly at us, while I had six targets, two passing us within a mile or so. With AIS we felt confident that we were targets on their screens as well, maybe just not as big as these 400 foot behemoths. The radar foot-print of a forty foot fiberglass sailboat would be hard to pickup among all these monsters but with AIS there you are.
Still with that said, there was no napping and by daybreak a very tired skipper and crew could see the mountains of Colombia. As we approached Panama the low lying San Blas Islands came into focus out of the mist in the foreground. What a thrill. This is sailing calendar beautiful and quite exotic.
So Escapees, the photos are in the darkroom lab but the graphics team has been goofing off looking out the porthole again so stay tuned, the photos will follow. (We’re posting underway via satellite phone and SSB radio. That’s why there are no photos; they’re too big.)
Jack and I are hugging each other with delight that we finally got to Panama, and we did it with our second longest nonstop passage ever. We will stay here in the San Blas islands for a few days to recover from our 934 mile voyage from Puerto Rico and to clean up the boat and ourselves. Then we’ll mosey down the coast toward Colon and the Canal. Looking around it’s clear we’re not in Kansas anymore. Photos to come, but this is as primitive looking a place as we’ve been so far, despite being about 60 miles from one of the great crossroads of the world.
We’re still amazed at how well EV performed on this passage, at how beautifully Uncle Ray steered us, and how perfect the weather was. We know this was a very special passage, one we’ll be talking about in the years to come. It was the best day-after-day carefree sailing we’ve ever had.
Damage report: Starboard nav light lost a few of its LEDs; we have a spare bulb which Jack will replace tomorrow. The welds on two of the supports for the starboard pulpit seat corroded through. We’ll get a welder in Colon to come repair it, and we’ll check the port side too. That’s it.
We have sailed 830 of the most incredible passage miles with only 100 more miles left to our destination, Porvenir, Panama. We’ve had sunny day after sunny day, no squalls, no scary stuff at all. For the past four days we’ve barely touched our wing and wing sail configuration and it’s kept us moving in winds ranging from 10 kts to 22 kts.
I finally got it together to make and freeze meals ahead of a passage so we’ve eaten well, and we’ve done 6-hour overnight watches instead of our usual swing 4-hour watch schedule and we both feel pretty rested. It helps that going downwind means we can actually sleep in bed instead of cramped on the bridgedeck settee or in the cockpit. This is definitely what we signed up for.
We are going a little too fast today. The chartplotter calculates our arrival in darkness so we will reef down the mainsail again tonight to slow us down for a dawn landfall. We will be clearing in to Panama but about 60 miles east of the canal. We’ll take a few days to rest, clean up the boat, do some laundry, fill up the water tank.
So it’s one more night of watching Mars over the port sidedeck, the big dipper just astern to starboard, the sails in their now familiar wing and wing configuration, and the green blinking light of the dashboard GPS reassuring us that it knows where we are.
I really can’t describe the joy of how this passage to Panama has begun. Well…not the final preparations in Ponce what with having to find our way across the bay around the quay to an unmarked minimalist dock that customs doesn’t even own to pickup our zarpe…those Panamanians are sticklers for this kind of thing, saying a final goodbye to our friend George from Summer Wind, and fueling up. Part of the problem may have been two tense people with too much to think about…but we did it and now we are flying down sun-kissed white-capped rollers out of the south east in twenty knots, and we are finally heading for Panama. Even Uncle Ray is cooperating and there is a lot of peace of mind knowing that the rigging is brand new and carefully tuned by Fraito. Chris Parker, Caribbean weather guru, assures us that we have a great weather window and right now at least we are making great time under sail. Of course these predictions are only good for a couple of days and weather gathering resources while underway are always problematic.
We are quite used to the Atlantic with its tricks but the western Caribbean is another matter. As we settle into passage mode it turns out that the winds have become variable and flukey so we occasionally motorsail to keep up some momentum towards Panama. For now it’ll be fair weather and just enough breeze to keep us honest and sailing. We will set no records on this one.
Our plan was to stay well north of the Colombian basin where currents and high winds predominate and turn a passage into a cauldron of pain and disappointment, but we find that when our average speed drops in a lull, we are well tempted to cut the corner a little closer to Colombia. The fly in the ointment is what will the weather be like by the time we get there and how close is too close?
In the meantime sailing downwind for days on end is everything that you’ve read about. The waves approach and gently lift the stern, Escape Velocity gathers speed and surfs on the face, and then the wave passes underneath with a loud whoosh. There’s a circadian rhythm to it that just feels right.
As dusk falls the breeze over our left shoulder begins to rise into the low twenties, which is right in EV’s wheelhouse. The only problem would be if it continues to rise, due to the fact that we have all the “laundry” out with preventers and we are flying wing and wing in the dark. It would take about ten minutes of foredeck work to turn her about into the wind so we could shorten sail. Still eight knots is eight knots and this is what we came here for. By the dawn shift change the wind had moderated and Marce came out yawning with a grin, approving of our happier pace.
So it’s a slow motion race to a spot in the ocean about 200 miles north of the Colombian Basin, but that’s how you get to the Panama Canal and we can’t wait.