Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Summer 2007 and Back to San Blas (Kuna Yala)

Summer and back to San Blas (Kuna Yala).
Written aboard, October 31st, 2007 by Diana. For photos see Picture Gallery No 43.

Summer in Norway
South Norway has had one of its worst summers for many years, for us this was no big problem, as we had arranged hospital work, Stein for 4 months from 7th may, and I for 3 months from 1st June. We both enjoyed freshening up our clinical expertise, and getting that ‘Friday feeling’ again. Our free time was spent socializing with old friends and family. Our grandchildren Johan and Hedda are now 3 and 5 years old, maturing quickly, and it was good to have some time with them and see how they are developing. 17th May is Norwegian National Day, which we celebrated in Kristiansand, and a couple of days later we managed to attend the Ocean Rowing Society (ORS) Annual Dinner in London. A representative of Guinness Book of World Records granted diplomas to several rowers, including Diana and Stein. But a bigger family highlight was a week-end trip to Cambridge in August, with Stein’s mother Eli, to see Robert receive his post graduate Diploma in Computer Science. This was an interesting ceremony, not least as the diplomas are given out each year by Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes, one of the first people to make a computer in the early fifties. He is now 96, absolutely clear and interested in the proceedings. There were 11 students receiving the diploma, and he chatted to each, finding out what their plans were. We felt proud of Robert, who got very good marks, so it will be interesting to see what kind of job he can get now.
The best week-end weather-wise we had in early June, which was a stroke of luck as my brother, Jim, who lives in Canada, my Aunt Joyce and her husband Donald who live in England, as well as my cousin Stuart and wife Kathleen from Scotland all came for a five day visit. The tropical weather started and ended with their visit, and SE Norway showed itself at its very best. I also had an autumn week-end with Elisabeth and Hugh in London, (although shamefully not the one that Elisabeth had arranged, as I made a mistake with the dates!) and one with old school friends in France. Stein did some rowing as usual, and as is now his custom, took part in the Birkerbeiner cycle race in the mountains, this time the only one in the family to do so. He was a bit slower this year, hadn’t had much sleep the night before, so hopes for a better time next year. He also spent some time with his mother Eli at the summer cottage in Veierland, and in late September took her on a trip to visit Stein’s cousin, also a Stein, who has built a new cottage in the mountains near Trondheim. So never a dull moment - and before we knew it, it was time to return to White Admiral in Cartagena.

Back to Colombia
We left Norway on 29th September with our good friend Dagmar Platou who has been hoping to visit us aboard with her husband Christian for about 30 years…. He does not like the heat, so she finally gave him up, and decided to come with us on her own for 3 weeks. We spent two nights in London, sleeping at Elisabeth and Hugh’s photographic studio (Skin studio in Kensington). The first evening we had dinner at an excellent fish restaurant, Sheekey’s, toasting Hugh who had recently turned 50. Robert also joined us, and we went on to see Carmen at the English National Opera. This was a modern version, a good effort at destroying Carmen, but we still enjoyed the music! The next day we were typical London tourists, and drove round on the top of a double-decker bus, looking at the sights, then Elisabeth gave us a nice dinner at their flat.
We arrived in Cartagena at nearly midnight on 1st October, after a long day flying from London via Madrid and Bogota, and spirits were a bit low when Diana’s suitcase didn’t appear. A taxi took us to a cheap hotel for the night, then in the morning we were back at the airport waiting for flights from Bogota, and wonder of wonders, the missing suitcase turned up, and off we could go to White Admiral in the Ferroalquimar shipyard. She was looking good, if a bit dirty, and slightly paint spattered. We immediately got to work, getting ready for launching in two days. As we wanted to get Dagmar to a pleasanter place than a dirty shipyard, we hired our old friend Nilson and his team to do the antifouling, while we washed and polished and put all the sails and equipment in place. On 4th October, a large crane turned up on time (not always the case here!) and in two stages put White Admiral carefully into the water. It was lovely to drive out into the large bay south of Cartagena and be able to take our first swim in near-tepid water. Then we motored about one hour to Club Nautico in the township of Manga, and tied up to the dock with the help of dock-master John and his assistants. Having got the boat into the water, we could turn on the sea-water cooled fridge, and the day’s big disappointment was that it seemed to work, but did not cause any cooling! We immediately got in touch with two brothers who do refrigeration work, they came, did various tests and took away the compression unit with copper wiring and holding plate, returning the next day to set it up again with new filter and gas and re-soldered joins. And it cooled beautifully! After two busy days in Cartagena, getting ready, shopping loads of provisions and sightseeing in the old city, we were ready to leave for the San Blas islands. The prevailing winds here are the north-east trades, but we are now in the rainy season, when the winds are variable, and the two day sail was a mixture of good sailing, motoring in no wind and motor-sailing close-hauled. On the second day, we had a little invasion of small birds, looked like a kind of swift or swallow. There were several sitting around the cabin, even landing on us, and one also died. This sort of invasion of birds we have never experienced before; maybe they were migrating birds who were undernourished or had got another problem.

San Blas (Kuna Yala) revisited
We dropped anchor south of the little island of Banedup on 8th October. Back to paradise! The next eleven days were spent on different islands in the San Blas (Kuna Yala); white sand, palm trees, blue water and wonderful snorkeling the order of the day. For Dagmar who had not snorkeled before, this was a new experience; she became an expert snorkeler in about five minutes, and it opened up a new and exciting world for her. We always have a line trailing after the boat, had caught a big yellow-fin tuna fish on our way into the islands, but after that not much luck. Stein had an accident with one of his fingers when a huge fish took the lure. As he started to wind in the line, the fish jumped and tore away as the line raced out throwing Stein’s hand against a metal base holding the reel. It broke a finger nail, and tore a slice off the same finger – ouch!! This finger is still a bit swollen and blue; most of the nail has fallen off, but no permanent damage, fortunately. Apart from the natural beauty, the other feature of these islands is the interesting local Amero-indian culture. The Kuna Indians live here peacefully, with a large amount of control over the large area called in the Kuna language for Kuna Yala. They live on fishing and subsistence farming, living mainly on the islands off the coast, with their farming plots on the mainland. Coconuts are grown everywhere and an important income. They are best known for their art-work, a type of embroidery, making the famous molas, which they come round selling in their dug-out canoes. We had some interesting sessions in the cockpit looking at these little works of art, and Dagmar was tempted to buy a few, even though she had not intended to do so. The local men also come round, offering crab, lobster or fish, occasionally a bunch of bananas or limes. There is also a vegetable boat which comes about once a week from Miramar further west in Panama proper, with a good selection of fruit and vegetables, beverages and occasionally frozen chicken. We were very grateful for these additions to the larder, as our refrigerator friends in Cartagena had not done such a good job as we thought, and the fridge stopped cooling again after five days!
Days go quickly in paradise, and soon it was time to take Dagmar to Panama City to get her flight home, and meet our next guests. We anchored the boat between the twin islands of Nargana and Corazon de Jesus, the most modern of the islands, where there is also a nearby air-strip named after the latter town. This lies near the mainland, and we took the opportunity for a dinghy ride up the local river, the Rio Diablo, into the rain-forest. This is a bird-watchers dream, we saw kingfishers, herons, pelicans, and innumerable others which we couldn’t put a name to. But even more exciting was a 1½ m long cayman, a river alligator, lying sunning himself on the bank of the river. We managed to get quite close before he discovered us and rushed into the water where he remained motionless with only nostrils and two suspicious eyes showing.

New Guests
Early the next morning we rowed over to the air-strip at 6 a.m. It was totally deserted, and we wondered if we had been given correct information, but half an hour later, others started to arrive. The ‘no-see-ums’ or chitras (a type of sand-fly) had already begun to wake up and were soon attacking us and the other poor passengers in the windless morning. One of the big canoes with an outboard engine took pity on us, and drove us all out onto the sea, where we waited another hour for our 20-seater plane. The bumpy ride with itchy ankles to Panama City took half an hour, and another hour was spent going through immigration, customs and police. This we had problems understanding, as it is supposedly the same country, and other travelers just walked right through! It may have helped if had we brought our ship’s papers... The day in Panama City was spent mostly shopping in very modern shopping malls and markets and trying to buy a small 12 v fridge – with no luck. Our next guests, Stein’s mother Eli and cousin Stein arrived the same evening from Norway, and we had just time for a brief sleep before going back to the national airport and another bumpy plane ride, stopping at two other small airports back to the boat. Dagmar left shortly after us for the international airport, and we know she had a safe trip home.
We didn’t give our new crew a good first impression, by touching the bottom with the port keel for the first time on our way out of Nargana… The depth sounder said 3 m, but it is located on the starboard hull! Fortunately it was a sand bottom, we reversed off easily and no damage done. Things got better when we got to our first anchorage two hours later; a lovely lagoon, surrounded by reefs and palm islands, with a friendly German couple in the only other boat, “Nautibear”. Near the anchorage are beautiful reefs and excellent snorkeling. In this anchorage we saw large rays, sea-turtles and for the first time ever in an anchorage a large sea crocodile swimming near the boat. Didn’t immediately tempt the guests into the water! (But no humans have apparently been harmed by this reptile in San Blas, although 2 years ago a dog was eating by a hungry croc.) After a couple of days in a new anchorage in East Holandaise Cays and still no fridge we decided that we would make an expedition to try to get it fixed. The nearest town to do this is Portobelo, about 50 nautical miles along the northern coast of Panama. The winds are still variable at this time of the year and we had a gentle night passage mostly motoring to get there. Portobelo is a historically interesting town. It was the main town for storing the riches the Spanish took from Central and South America and brought across the isthmus on mule trains before shipping tons of gold and silver back to Europe. Several old fortifications built between 16th and 18th centuries tell the stories of efforts of keeping out the pillaging Dutch, French and British! Famous buccaneer Sir Francis Drake successfully looted the place in the 1590’s but died after the effort and was buried at sea just outside the bay; an island off the north entrance being named after him. In addition to the interesting fortifications the town has a large church housing the famous Black Christ. It is a statue/effigy that supposedly floated in from the sea and caused several miracles. There is an annual celebration of this event when the statue is carried in processions by 20 men and thousands come on pilgrimage to the little town. Otherwise the place is, unfortunately mostly a dump, with many totally dilapidated houses in need of removal and the rest in need of paint.

Miracle Aboard!
A refrigeration engineer named Mario came to see the fridge. He measured and studied it, eventually giving us the bad news that the compressor was clogged up and gone, the sea-water heat-exchange unit probably corroded, and that we would need a new unit. He spent the next day driving to Panama City (1½ hr. driving each way) to try to find an air-cooled 12 volt compressor, but came back very sorry having found none. As the anchorage was rolling, filled with brown water, logs and other debris brought by the river in the torrential rain we had most of the time, we were now pretty discouraged, and decided to return immediately to the lovely islands of Kuna Yala. Mario wanted a very modest fee and was very happy when we gave him some extra dollars. We were lucky again with the night passage in a westerly breeze, and a strong current going our way, and could anchor in the flat lagoon of Chichime early the next morning. Then the miracle occurred! Cousin Stein told us to put on the refrigerator - and it worked! He had secretly taken a hammer the day before when we were ashore, and banged the compressor in different positions, switching it on and off about fifty times, hoping to unblock whatever was causing the problem! As we had visited the famous Black Christ statue in the church in Portobelo, we declared cousin Stein, who has had a childhood nickname of “Buster”, to be canonized, and he has now been renamed “Saint Buster of White Admiral”! The same day, a Panamanian power-boat cruiser asked us if we could charge an I-pod for them, which we did also thanks to St. Buster’s equipment, getting a bottle of pink Spanish champagne as thanks. So we even had something to celebrate our miracle with!
Since returning from Portobelo, we have been in two different anchorages, swimming, snorkeling, socializing with other crews, trading with the Kunas, and as always there is a constant list of things to be repaired, so Stein is always busy fixing something. In four days we shall take Eli and Saint Buster to the little airstrip on El Porvenir for the plane back to Panama City, and from there to Norway.
Stein and Diana have over a month to go before we leave the boat in Shelter Bay Marina near the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal. Our journey home will go via Toronto to see Diana’s brother, and London to see Elisabeth, Hugh and Robert. But now we are going snorkeling!

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