San Blas Islands, Panama
We sailed from Shelter Bay Marina (just west of Colón) to the Archipiélago de San Blás. The current was working with us and pushed us along at over 7 knots. We wanted to get there a few days before Kimberly, Lance and our grandkids (Blake, Garrett, and Paige) arrived. We anchored at Chichime (pictured left), enjoying the beautiful blue sky, warm water, palm trees, and white sand. This is the rainy season and we hoped the beautiful weather would last during the kids visit.
A Chocosano Hits Us
They landed at El Porvenir Island at 6:30 a.m. and by the time we got everybody and their luggage in the dinghy and back to the boat, the sky started to get dark. We had originally planned to sail to Carti Island to see the celebration dance of young Kuna girls reaching the age of puberty. It's a big event on the islands and is celebrated by drinking chicha which is a mild alcoholic drink made from fermented sugar cane juice. But the wind was increasing and less than one hour after the kids arrived, we were hit with a full blown storm with gale-force winds and blinding rain (called chocosanos). The boats in the anchorage were swinging wildly around in the 58 knot winds. Within minutes, our anchor started dragging and we were pushed into another boat. The horrible sight and sound of hulls crunching and scrapping, stainless steel stanchions and lifelines bending and breaking. Mike was at the helm trying to motor us out of further catastrophe. Lance was on the bow, first trying to fend off the other boat, then feverishly working to get the anchor up. We managed to avoid hitting a second boat as the wind forcefully sent us careening through the anchorage. Our dinghy was flipping over as it dragged behind us, then, suddenly it was airborne, the line snapped and it was gone. Blown out to sea! Linda had to run back and forth between Lance and Mike to yell messages as the driving rain and roar of the wind made it impossible to communicate. Lance didn't have a shirt on, and he actually thought he was bleeding from the force of the rain hitting him. The storm came on so quickly that none of us had life jackets or tethers on, and I was afraid we were going to blow off the side of the boat as she pitched and rolled in the storm. As Mike fought to keep control of the helm and maneuver to a spot to re-anchor, we felt the horrible thud of our keel hitting a rock. We were getting pushed onto the reef! Mike powered hard into the wind, with Lance on the bow pointing us off of the reef. After two more attempts, we finally anchored in sand on the south side of the island and waited for the storm to end. I don't know what we would have done without Lance. Thank you, thank you. I have to say, I was really proud of the way Kimberly held it together. She admitted that the only reason she wasn't getting hysterical was because she had to stay calm for the kids. They were all down below, just holding on as the boat pitched and rolled, dumping things out of the cupboards. So..... Welcome to the San Blas! Having a good vacation, kids?
The storm passed in about an hour. Then all the boaters were coming out and surveying their damages. Amazingly, we sustained very little damage. Our kayak sits in a stainless steel rack mounted on the outside of the port side stanchions. One of the stanchions is slightly bent inward and the canvas cover for our kayak got ripped. And that was it. Our rub rail saved our hull from any scratches, but the tops of the little screws in our rub rail have red paint on them. (The other guy's boat is red.) We surveyed his damage and I felt sick. His stainless steel pulpit was twisted, his stanchions were bent or popped out, his lifelines were dangling, his teak toe rail was cracked and split where the stanchion broke, and his hull had scratches. He's a private charter boat, and he was talking about loss of income, as well. He was heading to Cartegena to get estimates, and I was headed to a deep depression worrying about what would happen next. Mike had a more pragmatic approach and was just happy that nobody got hurt. He said what's done is done. Don't worry about it. It's only money. Our life doesn't change. Don't lose any sleep over it. Let's have fun with the kids. etc. etc. Mike may be the one who gets all excited about the small stuff, but when something big happens, he's the one who helps me keep perspective. Otherwise, I can "what if" myself to death!
Lucky comes home
You'll never guess what happened next. A fellow came motoring over to us in his dinghy, pulling our dinghy behind him! We couldn't believe it! He saw our dinghy get launched in the storm and he actually went out after it. Unbelieveable! (See the Feb. 16, 2006 letter home for another story of our dinghy being lost then miraculously found.) Then, in other good news, we got a message a few days later from the damaged boat. His repairs were completed already and the cost was less than expected. We settled with him immediately and Linda starting breathing again. It would have cost us that much to replace our dinghy had it not been returned. Rationalizing it that way, it felt like nothing. Even Stephen (remember that Seinfeld episode?)
We had the occasional rain and a couple of cloudy days, but mostly our vacation with the kids was filled with sunny, beautiful days in the Comarca de San Blas, or Kuna Yala Nation. Most of the 400 islands are uninhabited, covered by coconut trees and ringed with white sand beaches. On the inhabited islands, the Kunas live in bamboo huts with palm frond thatched roofs. No electricity, no running water. The Kunas mode of transportation is dugout canoes, called ulus. We anchored at Chichime Cays and explored the islands of Uchutupu Pippi and Uchutupu Dumat. The local Kunas came to our boat in their ulus to sell us lobster, and the women to sell their jewelry and intricately designed reverse applique molas. Kuna children were usually present in the ulus and would ask for candy. Kimberly came prepared with bags of candy, paper and pencils in her luggage as gifts for the Kunas. Next, we anchored at the Eastern Lemon Cays and played on the beach at Yansaladup. Mr. Morris takes care of this small island and he burned our trash in exchange for a gallon of gasoline for his small boat. We visited and bought bread at another small island that had two families living on it. They didn't speak any English, and only a little bit of Spanish, but they were able to communicate to us what they wanted. We gave what we could. Candy, paper, pencils for the children, t-shirts and fingernail polish for the girls, t-shirts for the men, hairclips for the little girls, onions and ginger for the women, and an English dictionary to an enterprising young man who was teaching himself to speak English. They were very grateful and gave Kimberly a couple of beautiful conch shells and a small mola to Paige.
We visit the sahila
Next, we anchored at Western Lemon Cays. Lance immediately took Blake and Garrett in the dinghy to explore the nearby island. Alphonso approached in his ulu to convince us to go to his island, Mormake Tupu, where there are no bugs. He said our current spot has many mosquitos and no-see-ums. About that time, we all started scratching and swatting ourselves. He offered to take us on a river trip in his canoe and hike to a waterfall if we came to his island. We hollered at Lance to come back to the boat, but it was too late. They had already gone ashore without bug spray and were eaten by the no-see-ums. We followed Alphonso to Mormake Tupu where we had to "check in" with the village chief, or sahila. Alphonso walked us through the crowded village where we entered the congreso hut. Inside, the men in authority swing in hammocks while the lesser beings share hard benches. We sat and waited for awhile, then the sahila arrived and started swinging in his hammock, we were asked several questions through an interpreter, then another person of authority arrived and collected our $10 fee. A flurry of activity ensued to create a receipt for the money, and then we were sent on our way. There were many children in this village and they surrounded us, smiling at us, talking in their native language and giggling. One little boy took hold of my hand as we walked back to the dinghy dock. Our presence in the village was quite a big deal. Everyone came out of their huts to look at us. Kuna people are very small so I think they thought Mike was a giant. We dropped our anchor at the quiet anchorage called Gaigar.
Hike to the waterfall?
Our river trip on the Rio Esadi and hike to the "waterfall" wasn't exactly what we had envisioned. I guess we thought there would be an actual trail through the jungle... and we had a different expectation of a waterfall. It should have been a tip-off when Alphonso pulled the canoe to the bank of the muddy river and we stepped out and sunk in mud up to our ankles. Then scrambled up a muddy embankment. It was truly a jungle hike. The real deal. And this being the rainy season, we shouldn't have been surprised that it was WET! Pushing through branches and overgrowth, mucking through mud, climbing over fallen trees, forging streams with slick mossy rocks, climbing steep muddy embankments then sliding down the other side. It was dangerous! And I was feeling guilty that I had exposed my family to something so treacherous. Kimberly took a nasty spill landing on her bum, her white shirt now covered in mud. She gave me the brave smile and said she was fine, but the look in her eyes said "we'll talk about this later". Mike was carrying Paige and took a fall on a muddy embankment. Thankfully they were fine. The little kids were amazing. They just don't know the difference. They thought it was a great adventure. After over an hour, we reached the "waterfall". Waterfall?! It was a little concrete dam in the river with PVC pipe poking out of it. The fresh water spilled over one side and fell maybe 5 feet. See the picture. Alphonso had said we could picnic there, but there was no place to put anything down! We stood there and passed around muffins from my backpack, took a swim in the fresh water, and hiked back out. In retrospect, it was an experience we'll remember. And that's what life is all about right? Creating memories. We got a good laugh out of it (after we spent 3 days bleaching the mud out of Kimberly white shirt). And two weeks later, Kimberly helped Mike understand why his left shoulder blade hurt so much. He got a "mom's knot" from carrying Paige on his hip (pictured here).
Alphonso asked if we would take a picture of his wife and baby daughter. His wife is from another village and he wanted to send a picture of the baby to her mother. He asked if I could take the picture on our boat. He arrived in his ulu with his wife, baby and 5 nieces and nephews. We invited them aboard and Linda took pictures, but the baby was "nervous" and wouldn't stop crying. Linda went below to print out some of the better pics, while everyone sat in the cockpit. Garrett said "What's that?" as a brown smelly liquid started running down the leg of the Kuna woman from her lap where the baby was sitting. Oh my God! They don't have diapers and this was awful! I think that baby was more than just "nervous". Mike amazed everyone with his calm reaction. He was smiling, but there was urgency in his voice when he said "Linda, Please get me some paper towels ... and some Lysol!" I could hear him up above saying "It's OK, that's what baby's do." I was thinking she spit up or something. The Kunas quickly got off the boat and rinsed themselves in the water. Kimberly gave her some babywipes and one of Paige's pull-up diapers, which was huge on a 3-month old. Mike boldly went where he's never gone before and cleaned up all the poo in the cockpit. Kimberly was in shock that Mike would do that because he is SOOO afraid of baby poop. She's still laughing out loud, but also impressed with Mike, when she thinks back on it. Mike admits that towards of end of the clean-up, he was on the verge of wretching (but still smiling and telling everyone it was OK). Yuk. We continued washing and sterilizing the cockpit long after they had all left.
Next we went to the Eastern Holandes Cays and anchored near Banedup Island, known by the cruisers as "Potluck Island". It's a great anchorage known as the "swimming pool". There are about a dozen boats here, some have been here for months. They gather on the island each week for a potluck/trash burning party. We enjoyed visiting with all the other cruisers, and the kids enjoyed having other kids to play with. The boys got to help build the big bonfire for the trash burning (pictured left), and to top it off, we had a full moon. Beautiful. We next anchored at the Western Holandes Cays next to Miriadiadup Island. We swam, snorkelled, played on the perfect beach, and enjoyed some beautiful sunny days at this absolutely gorgeous island.
It was a wonderful treat to have the grandkids here. They grow up so quickly. We love talking with them and watching them enjoy new experiences. They are so eager to learn new things, and they are so natural on the boat. Linda and Kimberly enjoyed their much-missed mother-daughter time together. Lance commented, tongue-in-cheek, that his dive gear has traveled to some great places this past year. He brought his gear to Zihuatanejo in April but we couldn't go diving, and he brought his gear this time, but our air compressor isn't working right and we couldn't fill the dive tanks. Next time, Lance ... we promise! It was so hard to say goodbye at the airport. Blake got emotional because he told Kimberly he was going to miss Papa and Mamma so much. As they were getting on the plane, Garrett asked Kimberly why Blake's eyes looked red, and she told him why. So then he got very sad thinking about it like that. Ouch, my heart.
Gloomy, rainy weather rolled in right after they left (to match my mood). We waited two days for the weather to clear, then headed back to Shelter Bay Marina to provision and do laundry. We planned to take two days to get here, stopping at Isla Grande for the night. But the current was working against us and it was well past dark before we reached Isla Grande. So we just kept going through the night and arrived at Shelter Bay in the morning after being underway for 24 hours. We've been doing chores, and relaxing, here in Shelter Bay Marina where it pretty much rains every day.
Today we took the bus to Portobelo (about 1 hour bus ride) where we arranged to rendezvous with Rick and Judith, our friends from s/v Dreamweaver. They are currently anchored on the other side of the Panama Canal, on the Pacific side. They took the bus from Panama City to Portobelo (about 2 hours for them). The seaside town of Portobelo has some old forts and ruins which we explored (pictured right). We mostly enjoyed having breakfast, then lunch, then some beers with Rick and Judith and catching up on all the news since we last saw them.
Later this week, we'll sail to Bocas del Toro, Panama (which is a cluster of islands near the Costa Rican border) to scout out that area in preparation for Sean, Keni and granddaughter Kailyn's visit in October. We've heard and read great things about Bocas del Toro and hope it's all that and more! Kailyn just turned 2 years old this week, and we haven't seen her since February. We've missed a lot of Kailyn's development and can't wait to see them all again. Kailyn sent us this picture to let us know that she's ready!
Until next month, fair winds! (but no more chocosanos, please!)
(Click here to see this month's photo album)