Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Autumn in Belize. For photos see Picture Gallery no 48

Autumn in Belize. By Diana.
Travel report nr 48. For corresponding photos see Picture Gallery nr 48

Tapadas and zarpe.
Tuesday, 21th October we were ready to leave Monkey Bay marina. Having had the boat left in the water, there seemed much less to do than usual, get on the sails, check the engines, fill up with drinking water, do some shopping and a few small jobs, and we were ready to go. John and Efrain at the marina were amazingly efficient in moving the boats blocking our exit, so that we were able to get out at 7.20 a.m! We motored slowly down through the large lake, La Golfete and through the breathtaking gorge leading back to the ocean. Our ropes were slimy and green after months partly lying in water, so we scrubbed these and trailed them in the water for a while. By 11 a.m. we were in the coastal town of Livingston, this time we knew exactly what to do, found the agent Raul for clearing us out, paid the fees required, and could collect our important ‘zarpe’ a couple of hours later. This is the document which shows that one is correctly cleared out of a country, which will be demanded by the authorities of the next country. We had the rest of the day to enjoy the town, a charming array of small restaurants, cheap hotels and souvenir shops, which looks much more attractive in the subdued street lights than the harsh light of day! We met up with a young Frenchman Oliver, from the Sorbonne, doing studies on tourism here. He joined us for lunch on board and recommended that we try Tapadas, the local Garifuna speciality of fish and rice in coconut with shell-fish soup, which we had for dinner at the cheap restaurant which he showed us; excellent!

Punta Gorda.
The next day we were off to Belize, not a long trip, just about 10 nautical miles to Punta Gorda where we could check in, but in a northerly fresh breeze it took nearly 3 hours of motor-sailing. We anchored in the rolly sea in front of the town and went ashore to the customs and immigration. Here a laid-back customs official gave us the required papers, took 25 US dollars, told us about the great variety of races in Belize’s population of just 300.000 and assured us that there was no ethnic cleansing here! Then we had a walk around town, including a meeting with a persistent hustler; a Rasta guy whom we had to pay a few dollars to leave us alone. We did some shopping, bought some paraffin, and had to make a quick retreat to the boat when we found the (free) container was sending out little jets of paraffin through a couple of leaks!

Placencia, a pretty village.
We moved on quickly to get to a better anchorage. Studying the charts of the area and the cruising guide, I found that they didn’t correspond completely, so felt a bit anxious about navigation in this area. We later heard from others that the maritime charts are old and many areas are not completely surveyed, so had to rely on the cruising guide being the more correct. By now the wind was lighter and had changed direction, so we had a pleasant sail to our first island in Belize, Frenchman’s Cay. This is one of many mangrove islands near the coast, not so exciting, but a safe, calm place to drop the anchor. Our next port of call, further up the coast was the pleasant beach town of Placencia, a small holiday spot for both Belizeans and foreigners, with colourful beach cabins, bars and restaurants along the shore.

Catamaran country.
We were on our way fairly quickly to Belize City, where Stein’s mother Eli and cousin Stein would be arriving on 29th October. The wind had turned northerly, just what we did not want, so again we motor-sailed most of the way, day-sailing up through the mangrove islands. Belize has the second-longest barrier reef in the world, a long stretch of reef and islands about 10-20 nautical miles off the mainland. The area in-between is shallow, often only 2-3 meters, perfect for a catamaran. The islands near the reef are the prettiest with sandy beaches and palm trees, the ones nearer the mainland more often mangrove-covered, home of the dreaded ‘no-see-ums’, the sand flies which can hardly be seen but leave their mark in the form of very itchy red spots! Our three overnight stops at Colson cays, Bluefield range and Robinson Cays were at this type of island, the highlights of which were cheap lobster tails from fisherman Alfredo, and meeting the French family on board ‘Pnytwenn’, the only yachties we met on this whole trip, a young French couple with daughter Veia aged 7 and son Nyle aged 2. It reminded us of our cruising days with young children, but looked like a lot of work! Father Jean-Marc is a carpenter and could show us a very interesting left hand from which he had managed to cut off three fingers, but which a clever French surgeon had made to function with the help of one of his toes! The low point of these days was discovering that our starboard hull was full of water, and the water tank empty. The pipe into the bathroom sink had loosened, not difficult to fix, but a lot of mopping up to be done!

Eli and Stein and no-see-ums visiting.
The last leg into Belize City was motoring straight into a stiff 25 knot wind, so it was nice to get into Cucumber Marina, even though the last free berth was where a river came into the excavated basin, and we were tied up in a 4-knot current. It felt quite comfortable on board, but sounded as though we were at sea. Anyway, we were ready for our guests, provisions bought in and new bed-clothes on. Stein went to the airport to meet them, while I did a quick housework job, one of the advantages of living on a boat is that there is less to clean! Eli is nearly 93 years of age, but still going very strong, and had no problems getting up into her bunk or getting in and out of the dinghy, with a little push. The next morning we were off again. It was blowing less, but still northerly. We first anchored in a beautiful cut in the mangroves near Swallow Cay, but made a hasty exit as soon as the no-see-ums began to attack, especially Eli seemed to be allergic to them. As the whole area is shallow, we could anchor out in more open water. This area around Swallow Cay has been converted into a manatee reserve, where there is a colony of about 150 of these big, gentle plant-eating mammals. We paid our few dollars to the ranger, who lives in a little house on stilts, and rowed around in the dinghy looking for them. We did see a few shadows and a couple of snouts, but because of recent heavy rains, the water was murky, and it was no great experience. The next stop at St George’s Cay was more interesting. It is a pretty, coconut covered, historical island where the British finally drove out the Spanish in 1798 at the battle of St George’s, helped by the fact that the reefs were uncharted and the Spanish galleons ran aground! There are a couple of canons to be seen as the only reminder of more violent times. Otherwise it is a peaceful place with summer homes of the rich from Belize City. They all were empty as it was not the week-end or the high season, so we wandered about admiring them. The only family we met was an Austrian who had made a new life here with Belizean wife and 7 year old son. They had a shed full of aquariums with good examples of the local fish and marine creatures, some of which they sold for private aquariums, and the son gave us a guided tour of the place, amazingly knowledgeable for a child of his age.

Caye Caulker; a favourite island.
At last a nice sunny day, although wind still was from the wrong direction. We had to pass a narrow channel to get north, with the intimidating name of Porto Stuck, and we weren’t far off getting stuck ourselves, as it is quite easy to stray from the narrow channel. However we got safely to Caye Caulker, one of the bigger islands with a thriving community of about 700. It is described in the guide as a funky, relaxed, bare-foot kind of place, and so it was. The village has sand streets, colourful shops, restaurants and an abundance of cheap hotels, a back-packers paradise! There are no cars, only electric golf-carts, which run noiselessly. We rented one to drive Eli about the island, and otherwise enjoyed walking on the paths along the coast, and had a couple of meals in the cheap restaurants. Lobster is in season, and is cheaper than anywhere we have seen it; we paid about 75 kroner or 6 pounds for lobster, plantains and rice in coconut, including a rum-punch!
On the 5th November we awoke to the good news that the Democrats were back in power in USA.: Good luck, Barack Obama! From Caye Caulker it is a 2 hour sail/motor-sail to San Pedro on Ambergris, the main island town with a few thousand population. This is also a tourist resort, a bigger, noisier edition of Caye Caulker. We were anchored on the east side, where all the water taxis race back and forth, making the anchorage rolly. However, it is a good place to shop, walk, fill up the tank with diesel, and go golf-cart driving again, although as there are also cars here, it is noisier and less safe. Apart from me, the others went a taxi trip to the lagoon, an inlet of the sea behind the town on the west side, where they could ‘admire’ wild sea crocodiles which come at a certain time to be fed chickens on a rope!

Expensive snorkeling.
The reef near our anchorage is a great place for snorkeling, we had made a stop on the way up at the famous spot of Hol Chan Cut, a deep channel in the reef where there are large numbers of big sting-rays, groupers, barracudas and other fish. It is in a national park area, so we had to pay 10 us dollars each for the half hour snorkel. We stopped on the way south again for another planned half hour, thinking we deserved it for the stiff fee, but were rather indignant when the ranger wanted another 10 dollars each! We dinghied back to White Admiral and had the snorkel just outside the cut instead. Here cousin Stein first spotted the biggest rainbow parrotfish we’ve ever seen; a docile, green and orange monster nearly one meter long. It was as if he and other fish in the area knew they had nothing to fear from us…
San Pedro was the northernmost point of our Belize tour, and now that we were going to go south the wind of course became southerly! We have therefore had to use quite a lot of diesel on this trip.
After another pleasant day in Caye Caulker, we sailed (at last with a breeze in the right to direction) to the next island south, Caye Chapel, cousin Stein baking buns on the way. We anchored on the west side of the island in a choppy sea, but hoped the weather forecast was correct that the wind was turning north-east. So it did and after a few hours the anchorage was perfectly calm. Meanwhile we went ashore to find out what this resort was like. It took our breath away; a long beautiful island with the scrub all cleared away apart from the southern third, which is dominated by an air-strip. The rest has an 18 hole golf course, dispersed with lagoons containing crocodiles. Along the perfect white beach are luxury villas for rental, and now also for sale. Apparently this island is owned by a rich American who has spent a fortune on it, and considers it more of a hobby, so the rental prices are not too unreasonable. We went in and talked to the reception, and were rather surprised at the friendliness, they were happy for us to roam about after having signed a waiver in American style, and it was quite possible to come in for a drink or dinner. (as we discovered later not all other resorts are so friendly to the yachties). Eli had not wanted to come ashore in the rough sea, so we left having dinner there for another time.
Our last day sailing back to Belize City was lovely, a nice north-east breeze for most of the day, and smoked salmon for lunch, the rest of a large amount that cousin Stein had brought from Norway.

With Jim to Caye Chapel.
Back at Cucumber marina, this time we got a berth away from the river, which made it a pleasanter place. From here we visited the Old Belize museum in the grounds, quite an impressive collection of sets depicting rain forest, street scene, homes and industry from the old times when Belize was British Honduras.
Having waived off Eli and Stein at the security entrance, we could just walk across the airport and meet the next crew, my brother Jim from Toronto. He came in on the same plane from Miami that the others were going out on, most convenient. Jim never outstays a welcome and was with us for 6 days, the first four with good weather, the last two with rain, clouds and gusty winds. We visited the same islands where we had been with the others, except for the most northerly Ambergris, now feeling like old hands in the area. This time we did have dinner on the luxurious Caye Chapel, the four course meal costing 45 US dollars each, plus wine. This is much more than any other meal we have had in this part of the world, but since it included a wine cruise before dinner, and a film at the pool afterwards, it wasn’t bad value. The other guests were ordinary, friendly Americans and the next morning they were keen to show us their villas and tell us about the good deals they had got. So we are tempted to try to persuade some of the family to rent a house here for a holiday while we have White Admiral tied up in their private marina. After a morning walk through the golf course, we drove up to Caye Caulker in a dead calm, a really hot day. The same evening we could celebrate the news of Jim’s fourth grandchild, now both his sons have a girl and boy each. But now came a change of weather, we woke up to find the wind gusting up to 30 knots, and the anchorage exposed and choppy. We realized that the east side of the island would be much more sheltered, so got the anchor up and drove round the shallows south of the island and found a calmer spot, just behind the French family on ‘Pnytwenn’ with whom we had a new get-together the next evening.

To the atolls: Turneffe first; a mixed experience.
Jim left on the 18th November, on the morning water-taxi to Belize City, a cheap and fast way of travelling between the capital and the islands. Now our crew was back to just Diana and Stein, with nearly 3 weeks to explore more of Belize. We decided to visit the outer atolls. Outside the barrier reef there are three large atolls, each with several islands, supposedly with lots of wild-life and excellent diving. Some parts of these are national parks, but there are also some private resorts, which cater mainly for divers. Off we went to Turneffe atoll on the 19th, in a blustery northerner which gave us a fast sail. We found out that neither the maritime charts or the cruising guide are accurate, so had a hair-raising exit through the barrier reef, the passage was narrower than on the guide’s chart, and another scary passage through the atoll’s reef. In fact, we hadn’t gone through the passage at all, but meandered through coral heads! We had been warned about this, both from other sailors and the guide that these waters are not fully charted, and one should always enter and exit anchorages in high sun to see the reefs clearly. This anchorage was with a mangrove island to our lee, so we left the day after for the shelter of the south of the atoll, another fast sail down the west side, having found the passage out without trouble after studying where the local boats came in and out. The southerly anchorage was easy to find, entering through a passage in the mangroves into a large, calm lagoon with scattered islands. We anchored off a beautiful island with a diving resort, Turneffe Island Lodge, but found a rather snotty place that only wants its own, paying guests and has no facilities for yachties. The guests were all out diving when we went ashore, and a young South African who works there showed us around the lovely place, and seemed a little embarrassed that he had to tell us we could not even buy a drink at the bar! So no diving for Stein there, instead we went our own snorkeling trip on the nearby reef, which was full of fish, but the water was a bit cold, thanks to the passing cold front. Here we met a lobster fisherman, Mike, from whom we bought 6 small lobsters for dinner, for the modest sum of 15 Belizean dollars, about 45 kroner or 4 pounds. Later in the day Mike appeared at White Admiral and asked if he could clean his lobsters on the back of our boat, as they would otherwise start to go bad. To our amazement we saw that his small canoe was filled with about 80 lobsters, which he had picked up off the reef since early morning. We found out that his fishing camp was about ten nautical miles up the east side of the atoll where there was a good anchorage and a resort which was known to be yacht friendly, so with his local knowledge, we decided to drag his canoe, saving him the long paddle home, and we drove through the inside of the atoll, anchoring just before dark. His local knowledge took us there safely, but didn’t extend to safe anchoring. We woke up in the middle of the night to the slight bumping of the hull on sand, the current having swung the boat round onto a shallower area. Stein had to row out a stern anchor, which took three attempts, and pull us back into deeper water. Fortunately no damage done! Mike came for breakfast the next day, and helped us find a safer place to anchor. The resort here, Blackbird Island Resort was not so up-market as the last, but much friendlier, and Stein arranged for a memorable dive with Kelly and Chris from USA and dive master James the next day.

Amazing Half Moon Caye, Lighthouse Reef.
Lighthouse reef, the next atoll lies a few miles farther east, an hour’s fast sail in the fresh NE breeze. We made sure to enter in the middle of the day, and could easily see the corals. We anchored beside Half Moon Caye, another nature reserve (a World Heritage Site), famous for its colony of red-footed boobies. These nest along with a large colony of frigate birds in the tops of the Ziricote trees. A pretty nature trail leads to an observation tower where one can look over the tree-tops at the bird colonies, a magnificent sight with thousands of white, blue-beaked , red-footed boobies and frigate birds with the males puffing out their red throats pouches.
We were treated to another live-show on our way back to the boat, the local fishermen were filleting their snappers on the beach, and when one of them threw the bones into the water, five nurse sharks fought for the scraps, and dozens of frigate birds came diving over them to pick up any small morsel they left behind.

Glover Reef.
Weather continued to be grey and windy, but it gave us a fast sail to the last atoll, Glover atoll. Here we anchored off a pretty sandy island with another resort, the Marisol Resort, a friendly one where we had dinner, sat in their bar chatting to Liz and Jon, a sporting , English couple living in Houston. Stein went with them and dive master Kitty on another excellent SCUBA dive the next morning.
Now we were getting tired of grey, drizzly weather, but as we sailed back west to the barrier reef, the skies cleared and it was good to see sunshine again. We picked what sounded like a beautiful island for our first stop, Rendezvous Caye, but it had just fallen into the hands of developers, and was being torn apart by bulldozers and a team of workers digging and laying down earth. The pelicans and ospreys will not be pleased when they are finished - a good example of human interference with nature! Anyway, we enjoyed the sunshine, calm weather and good snorkeling.
Norwegians in Placencia.
By now we hadn’t seen a shop for 11 days, so next we headed back to Placencia, for fresh provisions, a laundry and Internet cafes, and anchored off the north beach in a flat calm. Suddenly I heard Stein chatting in Norwegian on the front deck, and looked out to see a Norwegian couple in a kayak, Tone and Ørjan, who are backpacking around Latin-America for a few weeks. They came aboard for a drink, and we found out that he is a full-time football player for Kongsvinger, and she a child social worker in Oslo. The next morning we awoke to another change of weather, northerly wind, the anchorage had become choppy and we made a quick change to the south anchorage where it was fairly calm. Tone and Ørjan were leaving that day for Mexico, but had time to have lunch with us before getting their water taxi to the bus in Independence. We felt a bit disconsolate at yet another cold front passing, and the forecast was poor for the next few days. We decided not to do any more island hopping, but get back to Rio Dulce and relax for a few days before going home. Checking out was a full morning expedition, a 15 minute water-taxi ride, 45 minutes walking each way, and three offices to visit in Big Creek and Independence. The third office was Immigration Police, but they had heard we were coming and drove to meet us, the only time we have had our passports stamped at the side of the road!

Back ‘home’ to Guatemala.
We motor-sailed the whole 45 miles back to Guatemala in a very light headwind and drizzle, leaving at 6 a.m. and arriving in time to be cleared in to the country in the afternoon. A whole army of officials came to the boat, but they only took the papers, chatted for a few minutes, and left. Our passports were ready to be collected half an hour later at Raul’s office. After another Garifuna meal of Tapadas and a calm night in front of the town, we drove up the gorge and through the lake to Rio Dulce, where we are again tied up at Monkey Bay Marina, which now feels a bit like a second home! Our Belize cruise has given us a good impression of a beautiful, sparsely populated country, but this time weather spoiled things a bit. Hopefully this will be better in March when we plan to be back.
But now our thoughts are on the journey home, to work a little and celebrate Christmas with the family, this time including all three children and all three grand-children!
And Merry Christmas 2008 and a Happy New Year 2009 to you, too!

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Summer 2008 See also Picture Gallery 47

Summer 2008
By Stein. For the corresponding pictures; see Gallery 47

This is written in early November aboard White Admiral. We are at anchor in Caye Caulker, Belize, where all is well with White Admiral, Diana and I. We also have family visiting for two weeks; my mother Eli (who will be 93 next month!) and cousin Stein (“St. Buster”) who also were with us a year ago in Panama and San Blas. The wind is a moderate breeze from NW, an unusual direction for this trade wind region, but the sun is shining and the sea a nice temperature. Also the village of Caye Caulker is really charming. But more details on our present voyage in the next report. For now I will concentrate on a recap on nearly 6 months back in Europe.

Elisabeth has a baby on our anniversay!

This summer’s highlight was definitely the birth of our third grandchild; Elisabeth’s and Hugh’s son in London: Finn weighed in at 4.2 kg when he first saw light Tuesday 15th July. He has been a healthy and happy baby and a pure joy to parents and grandparents alike. At the age of five weeks he also visited his great grandmother Eli at her cottage in Veierland to officially mark his Norwegian roots!
Finn was actually born on Diana’s and my 40th wedding anniversary, so his parents could not attend when we celebrated the event 18th July in Kristiansand, but we could not have wished for a better anniversary present! The next day, Saturday 19th was Johan’s big day (Johan is Martin’s boy and our grand-child nr two) when he turned four. This was celebrated attending a Captain Sabeltann live musical performance at Kristiansand Zoo and Amusement Park. Sabeltann is Johan’s hero and favorite pirate!

40 years as a medic.

Another 40th Anniversary was when Diana’s Beta Club Medical Year (1962-1968) gathered in style at Turnberry Hotel, Scotland in October. About 75 of 180 attended, partners in addition, for a week-end, so a good and nostalgic time was had by one and all! (Except maybe for some devoted golfers as the planned tournament was called off due to rain…)

Working in both ends of Norway.

Otherwise the summer, as usual, involved a lot of work and on-call duties. For the fifth summer running since quitting private practice and starting part-time retirement/sailing, I did my four months as a locum (fill-in) consultant at Sørlandets Sykehus, Kristiansand. This time alternating between the Departments of Pulmonary diseases, Infectious diseases and Cardiology. I was a bit rusty on the infectious side, what with recent development regarding HIV and AIDS, MRSA and the use of antibiotics, but with an excellent nursing staff and good junior doctors, I learnt a lot and found it fascinating.
Diana divided her work between the Eye Dpt. in Arendal, and private practice in the small town of Mo I Rana in Nordland County close to the Polar Circle. That is a long way from Kristiansand, as I found out when I had to use three different planes to visit her for a week-end in August! Nature in Nordland is breathtaking. From her office window Diana had a view of a big blue fjord, dark mountains and the silvery Svartisen Glacier.
Mo I Rana may be a smallish town, but being the only ophthalmologist for miles and miles (five hours drive to the nearest colleague in Bodø!) Diana had plenty to do, but was able to take the week-end off to visit the outer islands of the Helgeland coast with me. We drove along spectacular fjords and took the ferry from Sandnessjøen to Dønna. Here we stayed overnight and explored the outer skerries by road and multiple bridges in the car and the highest peak by foot. The climb to the top of Dønnamannen was among the most strenuous we have done. We started at sea level and were grateful to find a rope for the last 50 m close to the peak. At 858 m elevation we recovered with sandwiches, chocolate and hot tea. Between the drifting clouds we admired glimpses of the hundreds of islands scattered along this shallow coast. Sometimes, hopefully, we will return in a boat and with plenty of time, as the weather here can be unpredictable. But fish and shellfish are plentiful; the locals friendly and waiting for good weather should not be difficult.

Planning old age (with more debt?).

Our work brought welcome income; an essential for our lifestyle since 2003. Also, in September things looked good regarding selling our house in Kristiansand, prices were the best ever, so we decided to start the process of moving nearer Oslo, something we’ve been planning for a long time. We had already looked at several places near Drammen and Sande, when in late August the “dream flat” by the sea close to Drammen and next to good friends (Dagmar and Christian Platou) came up. We made an offer, had to make a couple more as others were also interested, and we got it! Then we prepared our house for sale and put it on the market. And what do you think happened next? - The bottom of the market fell out!!
So it looks like our move was badly timed and may cost us dearly. But whatever happens to our finances and future sailing and travelling, in February 15th next year we take over our new home and move nearly 300 km north-east from Kristiansand, where we have lived since we finished the circumnavigation on Red Admiral in 1982. We will then be much nearer our son Martin and his children Hedda and Johan in Oslo and my mother Eli in Sandefjord and the cottage at the island of Veierland in the Tønsberg Fjord.
Otherwise the summer had the usual trips to Veierland and Oslo, seeing our grandchildren grow and develop. Hedda at six is now enjoying the first class at school.

In September Diana had four days with her girlfriends Fiona, Liz and Sandra in Bourgogne, France. These four are girlfriends of more than 50 years’ standing having attended Hutcheson’s Grammar School for Girls in Glasgow 1953-1962. Needlessly to say this was another memorable and nostalgic get-together!

Keeping fit.

At the age of 63 keeping fit is probably more important than ever, but it gets a little harder each year… I concentrate on rowing and biking. At the World Masters Rowing Championship in Tarkai, Lithuania in September I had an enjoyable long week-end, but did not win anything. However, in cross-country biking in Birkebeinerrittet in late August, a 91 km race from Rena to Lillehammer with 12.000 participants, things went better. Here I surprised myself with a new personal best. This was due to all the help I had from my two sons: Robert and I trained a lot together for nearly four months and Martin gave me a lot of technical advice as well as better parts for my Nakamura bike. And all three of us did well in our respective age-groups and qualified for “the Mark”.

A journey to friends and family.

Diana’s and my journey back to White Admiral in Rio Dulce, Guatemala in October was a detour of two weeks in several countries. We had planned the trip for a long time and had booked the planes months ahead. Had we known about our new financial situation, we would probably have arranged less ambitious circuit... However, we’ve now enjoyed seeing lots of family and friends and have no regrets! We started off in Scotland with Diana’s Medical reunion in Turnberry. While in Scotland we also saw Diana’s half sister Linda with husband Rune in Barrhead, her cousin Tom with Jane in Ayr, cousin Diana with her Kenny in Gourock and our friends Anne and Alastair in Blanefield. From Scotland we drove via Lincoln, England for a reunion with Aunt Joyce and Donald before staying with Elisabeth, Hugh and young Finn in London. Robert is also in London presently, and with him and girlfriend Olga we enjoyed the “Cav & Pag” dual opera (Cavelleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci) at ENO (English National Opera) and visited the British Museum.

From London we flew via Miami to Barbados. This island east in the Caribbean Sea is where we have lived and worked for two periods in our lives and have also rowed to, sailed to and visited numerous times. Last time was in 2004. Barbados is as beautiful and busy and touristy as always, but to us it is also where good friends the Goddards, Jordans, Smyths and Mackenzies live. Maureen and Doug Mackenzie we had already happened to see in London a few days earlier. Wendy and Harold Goddard gave us a bed and a relaxed household for three nights. They have now sold their catamaran Kiskadee. Like us, they sailed around the world with three children nearly 30 years ago. We first met them back in the Solomon Islands in 1981.

Other old sailing friends from way back are Martha (“Kiki”) and Russell Wheelock in Belverde, Texas. Their yacht was named Islita. We first met them in Bali, Indonesia in 1981 and like the Goddards on Kiskaddee we sailed together and took more or less the same route via islands of the Indian Ocean, South Africa, St. Helena and Brazil to Barbados. We had not seen Kiki and Russell since we parted in Barbados, May 1982. We did, however, make a valiant attempt to see them 11th September 2001 when we were in Los Angeles, California and about to go to the airport for a plane to Texas when the terrorists stuck the Twin Towers in New York… They have been great correspondents and for 26 years we’ve been exchanging letters, pictures and e-mails. This time we made it and had two wonderful days with them in their house, built by Russell and decorated by Kiki; a true 68’er and Hippie by heart!
Detouring about in USA takes time and flying from San Antonio, Texas to Miami took us via Charlotville (a beautiful airport) and the need for a stop-over in Miami. Finally, October 17th Continental Airways flew us safely to Guatemala City and another stop-over before the five hours’ bus-drive to Rio Dulce. But shopping in the City is so much better than at the Rio, so we were able to board the bus with bags of items like blue cheese and brown flour.

White Admiral was well and sound in Monkey Bay Marina and thanks to the work of Ephraim, the top-sides and the stainless steel have never been cleaner! Three days later we were ready to set off down the river for the small town of Livingston at the coast, and next day north to Belize, or British Honduras as it was known in my school days.

But that is another story.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Panama, Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala: Pict.Gallery 46

For corresponding pictures see Pictures Gallery No 46-
Norwegian winter

Well, here we are at the end of another period of sailing, ready to return to Norway and back to work! First a quick review of Winter 2008 after our stop-over in Canada with Diana’s brother Jim. We also stopped in London to see (our daughter) Elisabeth and her Hugh, and in Lincoln and Manchester to see more family and friends. 13th December 2007 Ryanair again brought us cheaply and quickly from Stansted to Sandefjord and a reunion with Stein’s mother Eli, still tanned after her visit aboard here in San Blas last October. On Dec. 19th Stein was also happy to be back at work in the Dpt. of Cardiology, Sørlandets Sykehus, Kristiansand. Diana did not start work until late January, just as well as Christmas was only days away and our house was quickly filling up as Eli, Robert, Olga, Martin, Hedda and Johan came to join us. On Christmas Eve we also had Camilla join us before she took the wee ones for more Christmas celebrations with her own family. Our usual lobster feast, this year also with other seafood, was enjoyed by all.

Towards the end of January, Diana spent a week in Mo I Rana, a town quite far north on the Norwegian coast, to do a week’s locum (fill in) for colleague ophthalmologist Knut Resellmo, who works there alone and is in need of some time off. He has a very busy practice, and she was thrown into it, seeing 30 patients a day. But it went fine, and was a good way of earning money! Then she worked for a month in the local eye department in Arendal, which is more leisurely, and also more sociable with good colleagues. We had a weekend in February in the mountains with our children (except Robert who was busy in England), grand-children and Eli, when we hired a very typical Norwegian cottage in Norefjell. This February reunion has become a family tradition which we hope to keep up.

Time goes quickly when we are both working, training and seeing friends, so it did not seem long until it was time to pack again and head back to the Tropics. We returned to Panama the same way we had come home, via London and Toronto, another chance to enjoy the company of Elisabeth and Hugh and my brother Jim. Due to delays we had an unexpected night’s stay in Atlanta, where we took the opportunity to visit the fantastic Georgia Aquarium, probably the only aquarium in the world which can boast whale-sharks, beluga whales and a copy of the Australian Barrier Reef!

Back in Panama.

White Admiral was safe and sound when we arrived in Shelter Bay Marina on 5th March, but pretty dirty and in need of attention. We had brought a new compressor for the fridge and spare parts for the anchor winch in our luggage, which we were very happy to have got through the long journey undamaged. The two keels had some damage from previous rough handling in marinas, so they needed repair, and the hull needed anti-fouling. So in addition to shopping and cleaning, we were kept busy until the boat was launched on 10th March. Jim joined us on the 9th, for ten warm days away from the Canadian winter. A bit of excitement was going on in the marina, as some filming for the next James Bond film was taking place. Some of the sailing boats had been hired to lie at anchor outside the marina, getting paid US$ 100 a day! It would have been fun to have seen White Admiral on screen, but we wanted to get on our way, and left the marina the day before James Bond alias Daniel Craig himself was due to arrive.

Rio Chagres

Our first sail was a short one, only a few nautical miles to the Chagres River which flows from the Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal to the sea west of the canal. After motoring along the inside of the large breakwater, we emerged into a very bumpy sea at the canal entrance, but once we got away from the opening, we had a brisk genoa sail to the river entrance. This is supposed to be difficult to enter in rough weather, but we followed the chart carefully and got across the shallows without problems. As soon as we entered the river, it was another world; deep, flat water, jungle on each side, the calls of howler monkeys, and birds everywhere. We motored slowly up the river for about 4 nautical miles, enjoying the tranquil scene, and let out our anchor for the night. The next day we motored up the rest of the river which is navigable for yachts almost up to the Gatun locks, here three other yachts were anchored. From the east shore there is a half hour walk through jungle up to the lake and the north part of the Panama Canal where the Gatun locks are located. We had a good look at the enormous ships in the locks before we were chased away by some officials for being too close! As we were on a public path outside the fence, and there were no signs to say that the area was off-bounds, this seemed rather unreasonable, but one doesn’t argue in the face of machine guns! We were up at dawn the next day to motor back down the river, then sail the 23 nautical miles to Portobello, against the trade-winds. Fortunately the wind was light to begin with, and we drove against it all the way. Again, it was very bumpy outside the Panama Canal entrance, and the wind picked up during the last hour making it a bit uncomfortable, but we did catch a nice king-fish on the line. Portobello we knew from before, it is the historical town where most of the gold traded and stolen by the Spanish was shipped to the old world. Comparing the beautiful buildings in Madrid to the shacks of Portobello, it can be seen that not much was left behind! Jim is fascinated by history and enjoyed looking at the old forts built to keep out the British and the Dutch. He and Diana also took a bus trip to the town of Sabanitas, which has nothing much to offer except an excellent supermarket. They loaded up with provisions for the next month, and got a taxi to take them the 40 min back to the boat, stopping at his house en route, where his wife served fried yucca balls.

While in the harbor in Portobello, a couple came by in a dinghy to say hello, and turned out to be a Norwegian couple, Hildegunn and Lakki on their catamaran “Enata”, with Mayni, their beautiful 6 month old daughter. We enjoyed their company and agreed to meet later in San Blas where we were all headed for.

San Blas for a third visit.

Another trip against the trade winds, this time 45 nautical miles to get to San Blas. We left on the evening of 14th March, and by luck picked the calmest night in March to do this trip, and were able to motor in almost calm seas and very little wind, arriving in Chichime early in the morning. Wonderful to be back in San Blas with its palm-covered islands, blue waters and Kuna Indians! Jim had three days left of his holiday, which we spent on this island and on Dog Island, where there is a submerged wreck, great for looking at reef fish. We said goodbye to him on 18th March in El Porvenir as he took off on the morning 16-seater plane to Panama City. Our next guests were due to arrive on 24th March in Nagana; Anne and Knut Kollandsrud Nilsen. Diana knew Anne through work; she is the optician at the eye department where Diana sometimes works, and their daughter Margit rents the flat in the basement of our house in Kristiansand. When D showed slides of San Blas at work,sheI has never known anybody more enthusiastic about our travels. It turned out that she and Knut were able to travel at a time which we had kept free for other friends who now could not make it, so they took the chance and booked up! We spent the time between guests at Salardup, an uninhabited island with the now standard coconut palms, turquoise reefs and 27 centigrade water, snorkeling, relaxing and doing a little cleaning of the boat. Then we had a lovely sail, this time down-wind to Nagana, where there is another little air-strip. Our new guests turned out to be as enthusiastic as expected. They also were with us for ten days, in which time we sailed slowly back to El Porvenir, visiting both inhabited and uninhabited islands. On the first evening Stein took them on a trip up the Rio Diablo, to get a feel for the mainland rain forest. The outboard engine failed far up the river, Stein had to row back, and as it was getting pitch black D was beginning to wonder how long she could wait before calling for help. But eventually they emerged from the shadows, very pleased with the experience! The next day we were the only yacht on beautiful Puyadas where Anne and Knut could have their first snorkeling experience. In addition to the usual array of reef fish, to our great delight we saw a large sting-ray and a nurse shark. From this island we took a day trip to one of the inhabited islands, Niadup, a traditional community with thatched houses, where we were shown round by a young man. Here we bought some souvenirs and gave reading glasses to some of the older members of the community. Anne had brought the glasses from Norway, and we had fun watching the expressions of old ladies as they suddenly saw their sewing clearly!

The cluster of islands named Coco Banderos is one of the most popular places for the foreign yachts to anchor. We had heard on the radio that Hildegunn and Lakki on Enata were approaching here with their guests Christian and Cathrine Thomessen and their two lovely teenage daughters on board, so we made this our next stop for a rendez-vous. The anchorage is a blue lagoon surrounded by white sand, palm covered islands, with several boats at anchor. On the way in, we had a bad moment as the steering suddenly stopped functioning when poor Knut was at the helm, and we had to get out the emergency tiller before we could come in. Stein as usual managed to sort out the problem later. We had two days together with the Norwegian crowd, including a dinner on White Admiral with their baked king-fish and our trimmings, then “sun-downers” on one of the small islands, and lots of Norwegian chat. We even had some medical drama, when Christian ran into the water to catch a run-away dinghy and stepped on flame-coral. He had deep cuts in his foot and a swollen ankle due to the toxic reaction, it was very painful, so we had some use for our first aid kit, bandaging the foot and giving him strong pain killers. Eneta sailed off westwards as we went on towards El Porvenir, with our next stop at the “Swimming Pool”, another protected anchorage where the yachts collect, especially on Monday evenings for the weekly cocktail party. This week featured a jazz concert, with one of the yachties who is a good saxophone player, a magic tropical evening with his soft tones in the background. We came to this anchorage partly to meet up with “Nautibear” again, with German couple Hans and Susanne on board. Hans is a great extrovert, everything is “vonderful” and apart from the usual chatting and eating/drinking, we had a hilarious game of Perudo (a dice game) with them.

From here we had a 10 mile gentle sail in a light NE breeze to Dog Island, for a last snorkel for our guests, and they also enjoyed the submerged wreck with all its colour and life. Knut and Anne were now getting a bit sad at the thought of having to leave soon. More thankful and enthusiastic guests than those two are hard to find, and this makes the experience even more of a pleasure for us, as we see things with new appreciation. On 3rd April we waved goodbye as it was their turn to take off on the morning plane to Panama City. That was the end of guests for this period. Now we had most of April to make our way to Guatemala where we planned to leave White Admiral in the fresh water of Rio Dulce, on an inland lake which has several marinas for yacht storage. This would be a journey of about 800 nautical miles.

Isla Providencia , Guanaja and Cayos Cochino.

We got on our way the same day, intending to sail about 200 miles to San Andres, an island belonging to Colombia. We motored the first 4 hours in a light headwind, but then the NE trade-winds set in, and we had a brisk sail which in fact made us go faster than anticipated, so to make a daylight arrival we skipped San Andres and ended up at Providencia, another Colombian island a bit further north, east of Nicaragua. This is a smaller and less touristy island than San Andres, probably more to our taste. While San Blas was like the Pacific, now we were definitely back in the Caribbean. Providencia is a high, volcanic island, but with some lovely beaches and good snorkeling. We walked the 20km circling road, enjoying the lush vegetation and friendly people. Amazingly, the people here are bilingual. It is 200 years since the island was British, but English is still spoken at home, and sounds very similar to that spoken in Barbados. The colourful, ramshackle homes also reminded us of Barbados. We had a fantastic meal at a beach restaurant called El Nino Divino, a seafood feast with lobster, crab, fish, shrimps and conch, all for the price of about 5 pounds (60 N kroner) each!

The next sail to the Bay Islands off the Honduras coast involves crossing a shallow, reef-studded shelf off the Nicaraguan coast, but fortunately there was a good weather forecast and we had good instructions in our guide book, so again we had a good sail, sometimes quite brisk and averaging up to 9 knots. We took a pause at Vivorillo Cays, a deserted group of atolls where we stopped for an hour and a half just for a swim and a walk. We didn’t stay longer as we wanted to reach Guanaja , the most easterly of the Bay Islands by dusk the next day. We managed this and dropped our anchor about 5 p.m. in a lovely flat bay on the south coast of the island. The main island of Guanaja has few inhabitants, strangely nearly all the population of about 8000 are packed together on a small island called Bonacca, about half a kilometer in diameter. This is a modern town with shops, banks, schools and churches, but no roads! Between the buildings are narrow pavements with no cars, not even bikes or motor bikes, everybody walks. It seemed very safe for children, and an attractive alternative to our car-filled cities. We again felt quite at home as these people also speak Caribbean English. Here we met the biggest yacht we have ever seen handled by just one couple on board; 75 foot “Blue Dawn of Sark” with Englishman Geoff and his French wife Geraldine aboard. We had dinner on board their beautiful yacht, and were amazed at the technology on board, but could not imagine having to sail or look after such a huge craft.

On 18th April we left at dawn for the 46 n.mile sail to Cayos Cochinos. The breeze got less and less during the day, so we finally motored the last few miles, and it was again 5 p.m. before we tied up to a buoy. This is a national park, and we were immediately visited by a representative of the park, accompanied by two young, fully armed naval recruits. He wanted US$ 20 for one day or US$ 40 for up to a month, so our stay of 2 days was poor value. However it was an interesting stop with marvelous snorkeling, and we had a good walk over the main island to a small village (East End) of about 50 people. Here we became friends with Guillaume (“Billy”) who is the watchman for rich Italians who own lots of land and property. After being initially a bit suspicious, he obviously judged us as trustworthy and let us walk around the area he was responsible for, and later showed us the village and the tiny restaurant, where he accepted a drink, in this case a small bottle of spicy-smelling home brewed liqueur! When we decided to stay for lunch, he declined the offer of food, but wanted another drink. We had rather a bad conscience as he got more and more tipsy as he drank this second bottle! The lunch turns out to be excellent, fried tuna fish and plantains with coconut rice, and the helpings were so big there was plenty for Billy, too.

From Utila, Honduras to Rio Dulce, Guatemala.

From Cayos Cochinos it was just a morning sail to Utila, our last stop in the Bay Islands. This is a laid- back place, full of young back-packers and diving schools. You can get PADI scuba-diving certification here cheaper than anywhere else in the world. The village is just one long main street full of small hotels, restaurants, bars and diving schools. The average age of the tourists looked to be about 20, so we felt as if we came from another era. We did our usual walking, including a visit to an iguana research station, founded to save an endangered species in their mangroves; the swamper iguana. Since this is an easy place to fill a diving bottle, Stein had a dive on the reef near the anchorage, while Diana had a last snorkel. It wasn’t the best reef we had seen, but was still special as there were a lot of angel fish and groupers, which we hadn’t seen much of elsewhere. As we were having our last lunch before leaving for Guatemala, we suddenly heard a Norwegian voice shouting to us from a small boat, and we were joined by John Arne Løken, the only Norwegian living here. He enjoyed having a chat in Norwegian, it is several years since he has seen a Norwegian boat here, and appreciated having some brown cheese, something that Norwegians love, and nobody else knows what it is, so he was the perfect person to give a piece of this cheese to, as thanks to our last visitors, we had more than we needed.

Then we set off on the 107 n.mile sail to Livingston in Guatemala, another perfect, gentle sail running down the trade-winds. April has indeed proven to be a great sailing month in this area. We anchored early the next day off Livingston, a small town at the shallow entrance to the Rio Dulce. Here we were checked in. This was a complicated exercise as we were first visited by the Port captain, an Immigration officer and a Customs officer, then had to go ashore to collect our papers from an agent for the quite expensive fee of 925 Quetzals, about US$ 120 (NKr 650). We wandered about the run- down town, although did find a charming spot to have a sandwich, before returning to the boat. By this time the sea breeze had picked up, the anchorage was choppy with a strong current, so we decided to get going up the Rio Dulce Gorge right away. The first few miles of this river cuts through a breathtaking high gorge with thick vegetation up the cliffs, then opens into a large lake where we could sail for several miles more, before coming to a narrower area where the marinas are. This is a good hurricane hole, and about 400 yachts come here each year for storage during the hurricane season. White Admiral is now tucked away in a little corner of Monkey bay Marina, a delightful and friendly place with room for about 20 boats, jungle all around, and a lovely open kitchen and sitting area under a thatched roof.

As I write on the 27th April, we are getting White Admiral ready to be left here until October, this time in the water. Diana has spent the past two days painting the main toilet & shower (known as “the head” on a yacht), getting a bit polyurethane intoxicated in the process, but the yellowish off-white has now been transformed into a fresh, sparkling white. Stein has been attending to the engines, packing away ropes and all loose items from deck, and doing a couple of repair jobs. We are quite well organized and even have some time for reading and socializing with other yachties here. We have our bus tickets to Guatemala City in two days, then it is home again via London. Elisabeth is now 7 months pregnant, so her little son is no doubt making himself more obvious! Next week it is back to work for Diana, first with another week in Mo I Rana, then we both start at hospitals in Kristiansand and Arendal from 19th May. We have had a wonderful two months in this amazing part of the world, but now it will be good to be useful again, and see the family.

White Admiral, Rio Dulce, Guatemala, April, 2008. (Written by Diana)

Friday, 29 February 2008

Kuna Yala to Isla Linton, El Valle, Shelter Bay and Canada

Written by Stein, Kristiansand, 29th Feb. 2008. For corresponding pictures see Picture Gallery No 45.

From Kuna Yala to Isla Linton, El Valle, Shelter Bay and Canada

Pizza Dining with a Sloth
Ilse left us after 10 days of not the best weather, we were indeed in the rainy season, but after a lot of adventures.
Diana and I now felt like seeing more of mainland Panama, and after a last few days in Chichime, we day-sailed Friday 23rd November the 40 miles to the anchorage behind Isla Grande and Isla Linton, on the north coast of Panama. It is only eight nautical miles from Portobelo, but much longer by the windy coastal road. This anchorage is safe and fairly spacious, the locals friendly and honest and is now so popular with visiting sailors that they stay for months and years and sometimes forever! Some buy property ashore, quietly accepting that the area has the highest annual rain fall in Panama. Isla Linton is privately owned and uninhabited, apart from a group of curious spider monkeys.
Yacht “Naughty Bear” with our friends Susanne and Hans were also here after weeks of waiting for generator spare parts and mechanical help. If you are socially inclined, then waiting in this beautiful anchorage is not a problem. They introduced us to some of their friends afloat and ashore. Some have cars and offered lifts to the Friday night gathering at Don Quichote, a popular pizza restaurant about 20 km in the direction of Portobelo. Only problem is that the road has not been maintained for a long time, is full of potholes, so the ride is a slow and bumpy zigzag experience. But when finally arriving at the restaurant you feel you deserve a good meal and a glass of wine.
One of the guests was a young, orphaned three-toed sloth named Bandido. An American couple living in the bay had managed to rear him after his mother was shot by hunters. Not an easy job. Apart from finding the right leaves for his diet, the sloth also has to cling to a “parent” nearly 24 hours a day for about a year. Fortunately Bandido is happy to accept almost anybody as a parent for the night.

Miraflores Visitors Centre
Susanne and Hans said they could keep an eye on our boat for a few days while Diana and I decided to be proper tourists. We got on the bus at 7 am mostly accompanied by school children for the shaky ride to Portobelo, when the road becomes quite good. At Sabanitas we changed for Panama City. The bus service in Panama is mostly cheap and comfortable, some buses are air- conditioned and cost more – but need extra clothes! Our main problem was the painfully loud music that blasts out of the loudspeakers most of the time. A polite request results in a bearable level for about 5 mins before the decibels again hammer your brain… Next time we are bringing ear protectors!
In Panama City we took a taxi to the Miraflores Visitors Centre at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. It is as excellent museum about the challenges that first defeated the French and finally were overcome by the Americans. Not just challenges in construction and engineering; here is also medical history: More than 20.000 workers had lost their lives from malaria and yellow fever, especially in the first years before the French were bankrupt. It was an American Army Doctor, William Crawford Gorgas who first understood how to control the diseases by interrupting the life cycle of the two types of mosquitos (Aedes aegypti and anopheles) that transmit these diseases. He implemented large scale draining of nearby ditches and bogs, regular oiling of still water, fumigating and screening the houses and isolating the patients.
In the visitors centre we could also view the plans for increasing the capacity of the canal. New sets of locks are going to be built on either side of the Gatun lake. These locks are going to be huge and have a system of recycling some of the water that today is lost downstream every time the gates open. The new locks will allow even bigger ships to pass through the canal, and will secure good income after the enormous initial costs. The museum is also a reminder of how USA helped rebels create the country of Panama in 1903. Before that is was part of Colombia. USA also created the Panama Canal Zone as their territory in order to have complete political and military control. It was only in 1st January 2000 that the last military base was closed down and the Canal Zone officially handed over to the Panamanian officials.
The buffet lunch at the centre was as excellent as the exhibition, and having recovered sufficiently from the first bus-rides, we entered a mini bus for a two hour drive to our main destination, El Valle de Anton.

El Valle de Anton
People usually refer to the area just as El Valle - the Valley. It is a fertile valley inside the circular peaks of a huge extinct volcano. Situated at about 600 m above sea level, it is pleasantly cool compared to Panama City, yet still surrounded by lush rain forests, with its tropical flora and fauna. Especially the bird life is amazing. The area is quite affluent with a low crime rate, and many wealthy Panamanians and foreigners, especially Americans, have holiday homes here, and there are many hotels. We settled into a small cabin in Cabañas de Colores, and being a Monday, had the large garden of flowering trees and bushes all to ourselves.
Our three days at El Valle was spent doing a lot of walking. We took a Canopy Tour and were safely guided by Roger on wires through the top of the trees and across water-falls. Apart from lots of birds, butterflies and a big toad, he pointed out a large sloth with a clinging baby that looked like Bandido asleep in the tree tops. Next day we walked to La India Dormida. This area of the peaks looks like the profile of a sleeping Indian from afar, hence the name. We thought we could manage to find our way up on our own; surely such a famous trail would be clearly marked? But climbing steeply on tortuous dirt tracks past water falls and huge trees we could not get our bearings. Between orange trees, bananas and chirping chickens appeared a small farm. A boy named Felix confirmed that we were lost. Would he like to help us for one dollar? He nodded and disappeared to change from rubber boots and rags to nice shoes and a school uniform. After helping us he may as well do the 45 min walk down to school in the valley.
Finally, there we were on the Indian’s “chin” and could view the green, circular valley and the rim of mountains, five km to the opposite side. Unfortunately it was too cloudy to see beyond, on clear days you can see both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. But on the way down, near a water-fall, we were compensated by several iridescent morpho butterflies flashing their amazing colours like blue lightening in the green foliage. There were also two large stones decorated with pre-Colombian petroglyphs.
The final day we walked to see the bird sanctuary at El Nispero and to another area for the so-called square trees (arbour quadratum). Another attraction of El Valle has been the beautiful, golden (harlequin) frog. This poor amphibium is now near extinction due to the loss of its natural habitat, illegal pet trade and a fungus infection, the spread of which human are to blame. We only saw one small and strikingly yellow specimen in a terrarium, its few surviving brothers and sisters were in the frog hospital being treated with weak chlorine solution…
In El Valle we made breakfast and lunch ourselves in our cabaña, buying food at the market and from the Chinese store, but at night we ate at the restaurant Casa de la Mar. Good price, reasonable food, big helpings. We had hoped for a final dinner at Casa de Lourdes, one of Panama’s most famous restaurants, but it was low season and only open at week ends. We had a long walk, gazed longingly at the elegant, empty tables and trudged back to Casa de la Mar,

Land Storage and Home via Toronto and the Tilley Company
White Admiral was still fine when we returned to Isla Linton. We had done some shopping in Sabanitas (on road between Colon and Panama City) and instead of waiting for a slow and noisy bus found a taxi willing to do the more than one hour journey for 35 dollars. I think he regretted it when we passed Portobelo and started slalom driving between rain-filled monster holes, so when he delivered us safely at the jetty we gave him a bonus.
Two days of mostly socializing followed; first another memorable Friday get-together at Don Quichote. Bandido the sloth was there, of course, and we met Pam on Chautauqua. Pam is an American dentist and belongs to the rare species of female single-handers. She is also a keen bird watcher and has a lot of knowledge about South American birds that she was willing to share with us. So each armed with a pair of binoculars Diana and I joined her at 05.45 the next morning for a slow walk. A couple of hours later we had seen a lot of birds! Hawks, vultures, herons, tropic birds, bananaquits, seed eaters, tanagers, parakeets, parrots, humming birds, toucans, pigeons and more.
American Drew invited us to meet some friends at his place near Isla Grande. In 2006 he had invested his retirement and savings in a new marriage, a house on the beach (with a fitness-room), a stunning view, a small boat and a 4WD car. He left no close family back in USA, through his new wife had gained in-laws and step-children that he got on well with. So for Drew, life seemed to have started at 60! Sandy joined us. She is a vet and another single-hander on “little Bit”, but unlike Pam, Sandy has “swallowed the anchor” and bought property in Panama. She was a little sad that day at Drew’s place, as she had heard the same morning that one of her canine patients had died at sea. Sandy had performed the operation of hysterectomy (removing the womb) on the dog a couple of days earlier, and had recommended a week of rest. However, the owner had already been delayed due to his sick dog, and decided to leave the day after. He sailed straight into rough seas, the dog fell out of her basket, the stitches ruptured and the dog had to be put down….

Monday 3rd December we sailed passed the massive breakwater outside Colon and the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. Sadly, a lot of the breakwater consists of stones taken from once so impressive forts and fortifications of Portobelo…
Tucked in behind the west end of the west breakwater, next to the Coast Guard sation in Limon Bay, lies Shelter Bay Marina. It is a new marina of floating, concrete docks, modern facilities and good security run by two Americans; Russell and Bruce. There is a daily free bus ride to Colon and back. This trip takes 30 min each way, provided no delays, but as it goes across the Canal, and the bus can only pass when the first lock is closed, so the trip may take a lot more than half an hour.
All this comfort and service has a price, of course, but we had heard that it was so much better organized and reliable than their competitor back in Cartagena that we had decided it was going to be worth it. And next door is the San Lorenzo National Park, great for early morning walks for us budding bird lovers.
Wednesday 5th Bruce in his large travel lift placed White Admiral gently and safely on land. Two days of hard work followed. We were very grateful the last night when we were invited for dinner aboard Christmas-decorated “Santa Magdalena” with Jamie and Casey. We first met Jamie in Los Aves, then in Bonaire when we had a memorable cycle trip with her and Robert. Bonaire is also when she first met Casey. At that time he was a single-handler, a state of affairs that quickly ended when they met! They are nearly 30 years younger than us, but like us also part time sail and part time work. They had just returned from a working period and were in great pre-cruising spirits. Diana and I arrived in our best Kuna shirts, mine was made by the waiter of Porvenir Hotel. A few hours later, in the middle of the night and after a couple of hours’ sleep, we locked up White Admiral, and entered a taxi for the long ride to the airport in Panama City on the opposite side of the isthmus.

Toronto, Canada was our first stop-over. Diana’s brother Jim lives in Oakville, not far from the big city. He has two married sons, Craig and Andrew, who between them have three children, and his daughter Heather also has a partner. In Oakville we in addition have good friends from Glasgow University, Ethel and Will, so our three day stop in Canada involved a lot of pleasant socializing. Fortunately Jim loves a fast walk to burn some calories, but the sub zero temperatures, ice and snow made a big change from hot and humid Panama.
In Toronto lives Ilse, whom we had arranged to meet at the main shop of the Canadian Tilley Company; famous producer of outdoor and travelling clothing. We were pleasantly surprised to see how glamorous she looked in smart clothes and make-up, not the way this superbly practical traveller normally looked when we had met her in Colombia and Panama! She brought us pictures from her trip, several gifts again and insisted on taking us out for lunch. There was little doubt she had enjoyed her sail, in spite of touching that reef! (or maybe just because of it?!) While in the store I was going test if the Tilley hat really has a life time guarantee like it says inside. My ten year old hat had been a constant companion on many travels, including two rows and one sail across the Atlantic, trips to Orinoco and the Andes, the Sahara Marathon, Galapagos and Cuidad Perdida. The Tilley store is a really beautiful shop, and I felt a little self conscious about bringing this expensive hat that was now falling apart; was it through use or abuse?. But there was no need to bring witnesses or proof, I was immediately allowed to choose a brand new, similar hat. (And they let me keep the old one.)
Well done, Tilley!
(Wonder if I’ll be back in another ten years?)

More Kuna Yala. Visit from Ilse and Near Disaster

Written by Stein, Kristiansand, Norway, 29th feb. 2008. For photos see Picture Gallery No 44.

More Kuna Yala. Visit from Ilse, Rio Gangandi and a close call in Porvenir.

Dog Island, East Lemmon Cays
Since Diana last reported 31st October we had another few days before my mother Eli and my name-sake cousin Stein (now officially “St. Buster of WhiteAdmiral”!) flew back to Norway. A new anchorage for us between the East Holandaise islands and the air strip of Porvenir was the tiny Dog Island. Years ago a small ship that developed a serious leak was run aground here. The rusting bow of the ship sticking out of the water near the beach does not look pretty, even with the customary brown pelican perched on top, but if you snorkel over the submerged parts it becomes a truly amazing adventure! Thousands of fish obviously love this wreck for shelter, feeding, breeding and just socializing. A lot of the ship is covered with marine growth, including colourful corals and wavy anemones, creating a concentration of living things that is hard to beat even on the best reef. It is only about 4 m down to the deepest part of the hull, so it is very easy to skin dive outside and inside the wreck. But there is also quite a current running, so while admiring butterfly fish, tangs and sergeant majors, one has to be careful not to drift into something sharp, abrasive or poisonous.
The Dog Island wreck and an ulu in the foreground
Ashore a family from the large island of Carti who owns the island, take turns in serving visitors and keeping it immaculate. You pay a small fee for going ashore. There are two clusters of small huts, one is the living-quarters for themselves and one is a shelter for visitors where one can buy molas, cold soft drinks, beer and drinking coconuts. Eli also managed to come ashore here, but when returning to White Admiral in the dingy in a choppy sea got drenched while getting back onto White Admiral. She didn’t complain though, good going for somebody about to turn 92!

Sunday 4th November Eli and Buster entered the small Air Panama plane in Porvenir and started their long journey home. The plane was delayed by two hours due to squalls with heavy rain, which also flooded the half-finished shed where we were waiting. We were luckier the night before when we had a farewell dinner at the Porvenir Hotel, a very simple but friendly establishment close to the south beach. The metal chairs are rusty and permanent wax cloth covers the tables, but the outdoor restaurant has a splendid view and is sheltered from sun and rain by a large roof of palm fronds. They have a rather limited menu, a choice of fish, chicken or squid, served with a salad. Tastes good and is very cheap! After sunset you have to endure the noise of a generator which provides electricity for the fridge, in order to serve ice cold beer and wine, including cold red wine! Also in San Blas it is never far to the nearest mola-seller, and both St. Buster and Eli were happy to make some last-minute bargains before we rowed home and finished dinner with tea and biscuits and another glass of wine aboard.

Bredio Villalobos
Alone again, Diana and I did some shopping in the tiny store of Whichubhuala next to Porvenir, where Diana even managed to find a couple of tomatoes and paprikas. Then we sailed south to Isla Gertie in the Robson Group, a group of islands close to the mainland in the south-west part of the Gulf of San Blas. Close to shore, outside the tiny Rio Torti the navigation is tricky with sand banks and reefs and, due to the heavy rain, brownish water with poor visibility. But with our Bowhouse Guide, a reliable echo sounder and some patience we found a reasonable anchorage at 11 m. depth. We even had time for a ride up the river to wash clothes and fill some cans of water. Coming back just before sunset we saw white and red ibises landing in the mangroves. Especially the red ones are such a spectacular sight.
Next day among other visitors to offer molas and vegetables we met Bredio Villalobos, who offered his services. He is a short and muscular man with an infectious smile. He is in his mid thirties, originally a Kuna born in the Robsons, but has spent nearly 20 years in Panama City before returning to his roots to marry a single mother and have his own family. Kuna males also love children, and a girl with a child is no hindrance for a permanent bond. Girls with property are of course especially popular; in Kuna Yala land is inherited from mother to daughter. Because Bredio speaks good Spanish and understands that he must speak slowly, he is popular with the yachties that infrequently visit this part of the archipelago. The bunch of bananas he brought us was cheap and of excellent quality, so we arranged to employ him for a day when we returned with our next visitor, Ilse from Canada.

With Ilse to Rio Gangandi
Ilse Cloer we met first on our strenuous and memorable trek to Cuidad Perdida, Colombia in late February. We were impressed with this extrovert, adventurous and very fit lady in her late 60’s, wanted to get to know her better, and offered her a sail on White Admiral. True to her spirit she immediately accepted and duly arrived in Porvenir 7th November. She brought us some unusual and practical gifts, like Tilley scarves of micropellets that when wet swell up and can either be cooled or warmed depending on the effect wanted. She also did some shopping for us bringing goodies like lettuce and cheese.
After introducing Ilse to the lively village of Wichubhuala and the peaceful shores of Chichime, we returned to Isla Gertie. On Nov. 10th, with Bredio as our guide, we rented a local big dug-out canoe (known as an ulu) with a 15 HP outboard and a driver to get us part of the way to the village of Gangandi. It is one of only two of the many Kuna villages not situated either on an island or along the coast, but by a river inland in the Darien. Few tourists travel her, so it was an opportunity to see a more isolated way of living, a lot of rain forest and birds, maybe some reptiles and monkeys, and get some exercise.
The boat trip was about 30 minutes first going south along the coast and then up a biggish river. At the right entrance of the river we were surprised to see the tops of big wooden piles, obviously the remains of a large quay. Bredio explained that the Chiquita Banana Company operated plantations here in the 1920s, even building a small railway. But the turn-over was disappointing; bananas were not produced or delivered in the amounts they had anticipated, and the operation was closed down only after a few years.
Our driver took us up the river for a few miles, and while he returned to the sea to fish we walked for about two hours along a narrow and mostly muddy path up to Rio Gangandi. We waded across the river in quite a strong current before finding the village of Gangandi behind a field of big elephant-ear like leaves of yams and a thicket of banana trees.

Bredio has an older sister living in the village. She served us sweet oranges straight from the tree overhanging a bench and a table (shaking the tree made them drop in your lap!), and was happy to introduce us to her house and large family. Promising to make some printed copies in return, they were also happy to be photographed. Bredio then took us for a walk through the village to the local Congreso, to meet the saila (chief) and pay our visitors’ fee of $2 each. The chief was leading an informal meeting while lying in a hammock in the middle of this huge, wooden hall, but did not seem the least worried by our interruption. He spoke good Spanish, wished us welcome and explained in a friendly manner the many rules affecting visitors: No video filming, and photographs of people only by prior arrangement. The chief proved to be a retired teacher in his early 70s, had a chiselled, square face with dark skin, broad cheekbones and the slightly slanted, humorous eyes of the Amerindian. And he knew about Norway and its capital Oslo! Afterwards we regretted not having asked permission for a photograph, as with long-sleeved yellow shirt, pink tie, black trousers and black round-rimmed hat he was a colourful and unexpected sight in this simple village in the steaming forests of Darien.
Crops of yam, oranges, plantanas and bananas provide income for the 300 or so villagers of Gangandi. And the women here as elsewhere in the Kuna Yala are almost always working on molas for their own decoration and as an extra source of income.

Judging from the many rows of white jaw bones hanging outside some huts, the villagers also enjoy the meat of the large tapir mammal. But their numbers are dwindling even in the Darien and the occasional hunting parties now have to wander far from the village for their prey.
A tall tower built from bamboo and covered with a few leaves had children playing in it, they shouted the now familiar “Photo one dollar! Photo one dollar!” Is this a hunting tower? I asked Bredio, or for bird watching? No, Bredio explained, people climb up to get better cellular phone cover! So the modern world of solar panels and mobile phones is also entering the village of Gangandi. But we only saw two houses of concrete and tinned roof and no TV antennas.
We had been lucky with the weather so far, and only while waiting for our boat back at the head of the first river did the heavens open up. The rain filled the ulu so fast that one man had to work hard to bail out faster than it came in. Soaked to the skin in spite of our oil skins, it was good to get back aboard and we were grateful for our diesel cabin heater and a cup of hot cocoa. But with all this rain and more to come, there was at least no more need for collecting brownish river water…
At the Gunboat anchorage the next day we introduced Ilse to her first snorkelling, and like Dagmar she also learnt it in record time. With so much to see on these reefs it’s a wonderful feedback to learners of all ages. Then we bought two large crabs and several big crayfish from some young men in an ulu before sailing out to the Swimming Pool in time for the Monday sunset socializing with other yachties on Barbeque Island.

A Near Disaster
Sailing slowly back to Porvenir we revisited Nuinudup and neighbouring Banadup, where we found to our delight a small store were they bake Kuna bread. Now we understood the meaning of the tall flagpole beside this hut: A raised flag is a fresh-bread-signal to passing boats!
At Nuinudup we met again a family with a small albino boy, gave them prints of photos and bought some fish. More snorkling at Dog Island before sailing to Porvenir, catching a mackerel on the way and anchoring in slightly choppy conditions. The three of us had agreed to do one hour of brisk walking on the air strip before dinner, and as we dropped the hook just before 5 pm I broke my golden rule of skin-diving to check the anchor. But we had a really fast walk, discovering that 69 year old Ilse was impossible to keep up with. Afterwards she explained; she used to compete in speed –walking!
The wind picked up at night, but we thought we were safe as we fell asleep about 10 pm, tired from all the exercise. The awning was as usual spread across the stern to protect the cockpit area from rain, we did not worry about the fact that it also is a bit of a wind catcher.
At midnight I woke up with the most awful grinding noise going through the hull followed by the sound of surf nearby. I ran outside with a torch and lit up jagged corals beneath the port hull and not much depth on starboard side either. The portside keel was scraping a ledge of a reef and the surface breakers were only a few metres away; our anchor must have dragged! Diana and Ilse were also out in a few seconds; we got the awning bunched up and the engines on and started motoring off the reef while winching in 50 m of 10 mm chain manually, the electric winch having broken a few weeks earlier. At this point we did not know the extent of damage to the port keel, rudder and propeller, but we did not think the hull could have hit, certainly there were no leaks on portside, and with hearts pounding and arms aching we slowly moved off the reef bringing chain and anchor aboard in the relative safety of a 13 m deep channel just outside the reef.
To find a good anchorage in Porvenir in daylight is not easy, the bottom being an undulating surface of small patches of good sand separated by areas of dense grass and poor-holding corals. I knew we had not anchored on coral, as that makes a lot of noise when dragging, so most likely the plough anchor had hooked the edge of a grassy patch. With the rising wind and harder pull we would probably had broken off a piece of grass which would have stuck like a cork on the tip of the hook, effectively preventing it imbedding again. And reefs are never far away in this dangerous anchorage. In the middle of a windy night safe anchoring is much trickier than during the day. But with our strongest torch we located the sheltered, white sandy beach off the south-west corner of the island. Slowly we moved in till we were very close to the beach, and in a couple of metres dropped the anchor followed by lots of chain while the wind blow us back to deeper water. Finally at rest and feeling shaky, but safe a man ashore shone a light at us and shouted something we could not make out above the wind. He kept shouting for a while, but we ignored him, thinking he was probably drunk.
After Diana and Ilse were back in their bunks, I stayed at the chart table watching the movements of the boat on the GPS for a long time. Finally I was convinced that the wind was from a stable direction and new disasters were not imminent, and got a couple of hours of sleep before sunrise - and the prospects of a morning dive to inspect the damage.
At 06.15 there was hard banging on the hull and the same voice shouting again, now very loudly from a small boat alongside. It was the Immigration Officer: “¡Mueva, pronto, aeroplano llega 15 minutos!”
Now we understood. We had anchored in line with the air strip! If we did not want the top of the mast torn off by the 06.30 plane coming in for landing, we’d better move quickly!
Having re-anchored yet again I was quite nervous before I could finally jump in with mask and snorkel. But it was with happy amazement I found only superficial abrasions on the aft part of the keel and two small scratches on the rudder. No serious damage! After breakfast we anchored the dingy near the reef of our nocturnal adventure and found a fan-shaped area of broken finger-corals, many of the small pieces bearing blue spots of our bottom paint!
As sailors, Diana and I together have a fair amount of skill and experience, but occasionally we also make mistakes.
Everybody needs a little luck sometimes!