Monday, 27 December 2010

Back to the tropics and San Blas. Report No 55.

Written by Diana in Panama, 24th Nov. 2010.

Click here to view the photo album no 55

It was lovely to have left the first cold winds of winter behind, and feel the warm sunshine of Panama as we stepped off the plane on 4th October. We spent the first night in Riande Airport Hotel, a good and reasonably priced bed and breakfast, then took the express bus to Colon the next day, and got Shelter Bay Marina’s own bus from Rey Supermarket, Cuatro Alto, after we had done our first shopping. We found White Admiral in good shape, this time no big repairs to be done, just usual maintenance jobs, and a bit of cleaning after the humidity had left some algae on the hull and mould on the interior walls. We were lifted onto the water on 7th October and our good old friend Russell from earlier sailing days arrived later the same day. We did a huge shopping together the next morning, the last good shops we would see for two months, so we tried to get all the foodstuffs, drinks and so on, as much fruit and vegetables as we thought we could use up before they went bad, as well as all the bits and pieces for keeping the boat in shape. After everything was stored away, we were ready to go. The weather was calm, just a slight breeze from the west as we drove out of Shelter Bay Marina, along the huge, western breakwater off the Panama Canal’s entrance. Just outside the breakwaters, there is usually quite a rough sea, and today was no exception, so we quickly had to get things spick and span as we rolled about in the big swell. This soon calmed down, however, and we had a period of good sailing with the genoa, before the wind died down, and we had to motor sail during the night. There was a strong current with us, so we found ourselves going faster than expected, and had to drift the last few hours waiting for dawn.

San Blas islands revisited

As dawn broke over the palm trees, we motored into the anchorage at El Porvenir, and were able to check in with the Port Captain later in the morning. The first day after a night sail we are always a bit tired, so some of the day was spent slumbering, but we did have time for swims and snorkeling, even saw a nurse shark, had dinghy trip to the island of Wichubhuala, where we bought some of the local Kuna bread (white rolls) and had a look at the village with its thatched houses and narrow, sand-paved streets. (No cars here; people walk or use dug-out canoes.)

Russell was going to be with us until 17th October, so we planned a trip through some of the islands ending up at Nargana, another island with a small air-strip. First stop was Dog Island where we always take our guests to snorkel on the old wreck. It is an easy place to see a huge variety of reef fish, and some schools of bigger ones, swimming around and through the coral- and sponge covered skeleton of the wreck. Then we moved on eastward, motoring again in the calm weather, to the Holandes Cays; first to Sandy islet, a lovely little ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island with a few palms on the white sand, and then into what is known as the ‘Swimming Pool’, a well sheltered anchorage, where earlier there was a weekly yachties cocktail party on one of the islands known as Barbeque Island. This had unfortunately stopped, as some of the Kuna Indians now want to do their own little bit of tourist business on this island (they are not very business minded, so this may not come to anything). However, Reg the Canadian who has been here in ‘Runner’ more or less non-stop for 12 years and kept this island in good shape is now clearing a patch on one of the other islands, and the custom will probably be revived there. Reg and his wife Debbie came over for morning coffee and we got the story about what happened to BBQ/Cocktail Party Island. There is obviously a clash of cultures between the traditional Kuna Indians and the privileged yachting community, but we are the guests in this paradise and have to respect their way of living. The amero-indians are on the whole pleased to have us around to sell both their handiwork (mostly molas) and sea-food to. With education and television, the young people of course want to join the modern world, and especially want out-board engines and mobile phones, so they are in need of dollars. Here we bought 3 lobsters and a big crab for 20 US dollars (120 kroner or 12 pounds), not much by Norwegian standards!

We then sailed/motored to two of our favourite anchorages, one almost completely surrounded by a reef which we call the crocodile island after Stein’s mother saw a crocodile swimming past us a couple of years ago. There is some excellent snorkeling nearby. Then onto Coco Banderas, one of the most beautiful spots on earth with several small palm-lined islands, and a background of mountains on the mainland (the Darien Peninsula). Russell was an easy guest, appreciating being on a yacht again, and repeatedly praised my cooking! He and his wife Kiki sailed round the world many years ago, we first met them in Bali in 1981. After 1982 he was manager of the Moorings boat charter firm on Tortola, BVI (British Virgin Isles) for a long time, but has now been retired and land-bound in Texas for the last few years. It was fun to show him the beauties of this lovely area. He returned on the morning plane from Nargana (Corazon de Jesus) on 17th October to Panama City, then back home to Kiki in San Antonio in the afternoon.

Just the two of us

After Russell left, our crew was back to its basic two, Diana the admiral and Stein the deck-boy! Our next guests were not arriving until 9th November, which gave us 3 weeks on our own, to go where we like and do as we please, what a luxury! We motored back to Coco Banderas to enjoy this lovely place a bit more, walking round the islands, snorkeling and visiting an old wreck out on the reef. And buying fish and seafood and the occasional mola from the locals.

After a few days we motored west in the calm weather to the west Lemmons, an island group which has now become the social hub for yachties. Here the Kunas have shown some enterprise and set up a bar with the only internet connection in San Blas. It seems to be run mainly by a German yachtie, Yogi on ‘Samantha - Nova’, who helps Alberto, the owner. Here the boat folk can meet for a drink in the evenings (one dollar for a large tumbler of wine, two at happy hour on Saturdays!) and once a week have a pot-luck dinner together, everybody taking a dish. We met quite a few yachties from different countries, especially the solo sailors anchored near us: Susan from USA is a 69 year old retired musician (cello), who has lived alone on her yacht ‘Wooden Shoe’ for 12 years, a tough and very nice lady! Dave from ‘Anasu’ and Ireland is a 44 year old bachelor looking for a lady to sail with; he is a great guitarist and singer so made an entertaining dinner guest. There was also a Norwegian boat – ‘Skamløs’- in the anchorage – a rare sight! Here we met the crew, captain Maja and cook Leif, with three passengers, Una, Stian and Anders. Maja did us a big favour by buying us a local mobile telephone on a trip to Panama City, and with the help of Susan, we managed to get an internet connection (albeit a very slow one) on the boat. We stayed here for a week, socializing and doing jobs on White Admiral, Stein worked on the engines, changing oil, putting in new mounts, and resealed a locker hatch which was leaking. There is always a list of jobs on a sailing yacht! I did some long overdue domestic work, washing curtains, and the walls and windows under them. Nice to have the place clean and orderly!

Bad weather

By now our vegetable supply was down to a couple of plantains and onions, so time to move on in search of fresh produce, and we returned to the island of Wichubhuala, where there is a sort of shop. Among a few rotting vegetables lying on the floor of the back shop, we managed to pick out a few tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes which were not too bad. However our luck suddenly changed, as Geraldo and his ‘Veggie Boat’ arrived from Miramar, Panama, and we had first choice of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly some lovely avocados and papayas. Then we followed the Norwegians back to Coco Banderas, but there was now a stiff contrary wind, and after an hour of slow motoring, we decided to spend the night at another anchorage, Salardup, and joined them the next day when it was calmer. Here a Kuna Indian offered us a huge red snapper, about 4kg, which we bought for 10 dollars. The perfect excuse for a party with the five Norwegians and also the Swedish solo sailor Thomas on ‘Rebacca’, so we all took some dishes, and fried the fish over a bonfire in the magical tropical night.

The weather forecast was now reporting that a hurricane –‘Tomas’ - was passing over the Eastern Caribbean, and would soon pass north of us. This is not a big worry as hurricanes never hit these islands directly, although they can bring a lot of rain and heavy swell. We started to move west again towards Carti, where we would get a car to Panama City to meet our guests, Stein’s mother Eli and cousin Stein. (one of the yachties has christened our Stein Einstein and his cousin Twostein!) On our way, we anchored again at Salardup, and here we noticed the hurricane effect; strong SW wind and heavy rain-squalls for 3-4 days. We were not in the best anchorage, had quite a big stretch of water in front of us making the lagoon a bit rolly, but we were safely anchored. We quite enjoyed these rainy days, relaxing and reading, watching films and glad not to have any guests who wanted sunshine.

New guests

We sailed to Carti on the 8th November, this is one of the main population centers, a group of 3 islands with a population of 7000 people, all living very closely together a short distance from the mainland. The next morning we were off early in a 4x4 Toyota to Panama City. There is only this one road from Panama to San Blas, which has been recently surfaced, and the drive takes two to three hours. This has made it easier to get to San Blas, and has affected the plane service which is now 4 times a week instead of daily. We stopped at a large supermarket for a new unexpected chance for shopping, and then met up with Eli and cousin Stein at the same hotel we had stayed at near the airport (Riande Aeropuerto Hotel). After a buffet lunch, our driver Manuel drove us back to the jetty near the Carti islands, where local Kunas transported us in an open motor launch back to White Admiral. It had been a long journey for our guests, especially for 94 year-old Eli, so after helping her unpack, she was happy to relax with a glass of red wine, and have an early night. Cousin Stein had come for a period of 10 days, and we planned another round-trip to some of our favourite anchorages.

Fortunately the weather was now more settled, and we enjoyed lazy, uneventful days swimming, snorkeling and exploring some of the lovely islands. We had visits on different islands from both the main mola-makers, Venancio and Lisa (a transvestite). We were all tempted by the impressive workmanship and now have more molas than we need!

Eli is quite happy to sit in the cockpit and enjoy the changing views, her days of swimming and walking beaches seem to be over. Cousin Stein has a hectic life at home in Trondheim with his business enterprises, so he enjoyed these relaxed days on board. We left him suntanned and happy, on the jetty near Carti on 18th November, and Manuel came again to drive him to Panama City where he would have a day on his own before flying home to Trondheim.

Back to Shelter Bay

Soon it was time to think about making our way back along the Panama coast to Shelter Bay Marina, which lies just inside the entrance to the Panama Canal. We checked out the next day at El Porvenir, where there was a young stand-in for the usual Port Captain, who gave us our ‘zarpe’- the paper we need to go from one area to another. He told us that unfortunately drugs are becoming a problem also in this area of Kuna Yala, being so close to Columbia. A lot of drugs come past the islands, and some of the ameroindians cooperate with the Columbian drug dealers. This some live to regret, having once got into their claws they will take revenge if the Kunas do not then do just as they want. The island of Sidra had just had a big fire with several houses destroyed, which may have been such an act of vengeance. So there are, unfortunately, also snakes in this paradise…

We left El Porvenir in pouring rain early the next morning, to sail the 40 nautical miles to Isla Linton, which has a big, good anchorage. We had to motor - sail most of the way with the genoa up in a very light southerly breeze. The biggest excitement was when we got a big barracuda on the line, but it slipped off just as Stein was about to pull it into the boat! However, we still got our dinner, as we caught three smaller fish, one Spanish mackerel and two small tunas.

Among the many foreign yachts at anchor in Linton we saw our old friends Hans and Susanne on ‘NautiBear’. We first anchored in the middle of the yachts quite near them, but it was a deep anchorage and after letting out 40 meters of chain, found we were a bit close to a French boat behind. So at dusk we decided to move, and re - anchored in even deeper water behind all the others, but with plenty of space round us. Hans and Susanne came aboard for lunch the next day, we ate some of the smoked salmon from Norway which Stein had brought, and some marinated shark (cevich), which we had bought from a Kuna in Salardup. We hope to see them again next summer in Norway when they are coming to do a cruise on the ‘Hurtigruta’ up the west coast of Norway. The next morning we again left in pouring rain on the last leg to the marina, about twenty miles motoring in an almost dead calm. This time there was just a very short rough patch outside the entrance to the canal. Eli thought it exciting to see all the ships both at anchor and moving in and out of the entrance end then pass between the huge breakwaters protecting the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. Half an hour later we were tied up to berth B7 in Shelter Bay Marina.

Going home

Now we are busy getting the jobs done before the boat is hauled up on Friday, 26th November. The engines have been serviced, new chain is in place (our original chain was completely rusty), lots of laundry has been washed and dried, in fact we are quite well organized. We will be lifted early in the morning on Friday, and take the evening plane to Amsterdam. Stein starts work next Monday, I have decided to have December free, and then work after New Year. We hope to be back here for another two months in early March. So that is all our sailing for 2010 – thanks again to our trusty craft ‘ White Admiral’!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Summer 2010 Travel report no. 54

by Stein in San Blas, Panama, October 2010

Click here to view the photo album no 54

Once again Diana and I are enjoying tranquil days on White Admiral in the wonderful islands of San Blas, Panama. It is, indeed, very difficult to beat this area when it comes to natural beauty and friendly locals. For a few weeks it is just the two of us aboard, but when we sailed from Shelter Bay Marina on October 8th, 2 weeks ago, we had the pleasant company of Russell Wheelock. Russell is an old friend who now lives in San Antonio, Texas. Despite living so far from the sea in a dry climate, Russell has spent a generation or more sailing or working on yachts. We first met him and his wife ”Kiki” (Martha) in the Indian Ocean when we were all circumnavigating. Their boat was ”Islita”, ours ”Red Admiral”. But more about Russell and our present 7-8 weeks’ cruising here in San Blas in our next report. For now I will do a short review on another summer in Norway and our trip to Panama. This review I should be able to get on Internet fairly easily, but whether I’ll get the accompanying pictures over is less certain. The only Internet connection available in these islands is via satellite a dish on tiny Isla Elefanta next to us here in West Lemons, but the connection is very slow and uploading photos is very, very slow…

After our last visit here in March-April, when we had first sailed down from Cuba and Grand Cayman, we had a number of family and friends visiting us before storing our faithful catamaran in the high security area on land in Shelter Bay Marina.

Back at work.

I was back at work April 24th at Drammen Sykehus. Biking the 10 km back and forth was so easy compared to my dressed up, often very cold expeditions last winter… Starting my second year at the Department of Medicine I was getting to know the people and the routines better, would also be seeing occasional patients I already know. Working with capable colleagues and nurses to solve and treat diagnostic challenges continues to fascinate me. And interacting with junior doctors is one of my particular joys. - Junior doctors, of course, never age as they keep being replaced. It helps to revive an occasional delusion I have of not getting older myself, and it makes me imagine I will never retire from an activity I enjoy a lot! (But I suppose in a couple of years with a stiffer body and a slower mind also I will be forced to accept reality…)

While I have stayed with the same employer, Diana has divided her work between the Eye Dpt. in Tønsberg and two private Eye practices: The one in Mo i Rana, North Norway that she knows from the past, this time doing 2 stints of 2 weeks, and one with new colleagues in Tønsberg. Going to Mo i Rana is several hours on two planes, while to Tønsberg is one hour driving each way. Here she kills time by listening to Norwegian and English audio-books lent her free of charge from the excellent Drammen Public Libray. This way she has digested a small library of books!

Summertime means numerous visits to the cottage in Veierland. My mother Eli, approaching 95, is still able to make it out there with some help from me. The cottage being on an island, and no bridge to the mainland, means a small boat trip back and forth in all sorts of weather. In early June she became very breathless and weak, an X-ray revealed pneumonia, but after antibiotics and a few days staying with us in Lier, she was ok again.

There were a lot of social activities mostly in Lier and Veierland, but we also visited Martin and Tonje in Oslo and friends in Kristiansand. We had a look at our old house in Vigeveien where we had lived for nearly 26 years, a bit nostalgic, but were glad to see it being well looked after.

Klara Ljosland.

There was also some sad news, when our 82-year old friend Klara Ljosland, suddenly died in Kristiansand. I had spoken to her just a few days earlier. Being an SDA (Seventh Day Adventist) she shared our fascination for Pitcairn Island. When we moved house in February last year, we gave her a wood-carving of a shark from Pitcairn, done by one of mutineer leader Fletcher Christian’s descendants.


Happy milestones were a string of birthdays, especially in July: Our daughter Elisabeth turned 38, grandsons Johan 6 and Finn 2 (July 15th, i.e. our 42nd Anniversary) and son Robert 30. When Elisabeth, Hugh and Finn and Robert came over from London for a long week-end in late July, we did an en bloc celebration, including my upcoming 65th for late August. And we got a rare chance of a summer family, four generations’ photograph. (Martin’s 37th birthday was not due until 10.10.10, a celebration in his and Tonjes new house in Stabekk, West Oslo, which we unfortunately could not attend.)

Last weekend in May had Diana and me visiting Scotland for my Glasgow University Delta Club (1964-70) Medical year 40 year reunion. It was held in the Old Course Hotel, St Andrew by the 17th hole of probably the Worlds’ most famous golf course. Scotland, and in particular the historical city of St Andrew, is considered the birthplace of golf.

There was an excellent turn-out for the reunion, about half the class of 200 were present, most with partners. Food and entertainment was excellent, dancing to nostalgic rhythms of the 60’s and 70’s was good (swing and twist and rock & roll typically). But we never got into any of the Scottish country dancing... The kilt I was wearing should qualify, but the heavy garments also had me dripping with sweat long before the band struck up with the Dashing White Sergeant and Canadian Barn Dance!

From Norway came also Reidar Melsom, accompanied by a young lady; Linda, not a new wife as some thought at first, but his charming daughter! (Originally we were three Norwegians in this class at medical school, but Ivar Hauge, sadly, died from malignant melanoma a few years ago.)

Biking and Rowing.

As in the past few years I took part in Birkebeinerrennet, the off-road cycling race from Rena to Lillehammer, this year on August 28th. Last year was the muddiest and most unpleasant ever, but this year turned out to be more rainy, as much mud and much colder. Of the 17000 due to bike that day, 3000 did not turn up and 1000 gave up during the race. I was one that very nearly gave up. It took me a record slow 5 hrs 15 min and the last 2 hours was a constant struggle against cold and a failing bike. I had not dressed well enough, towards the end my fingers were useless and I could not manage to get more clothes on or even get one glove back on. I was so cold I could not even properly appreciate having finished, and only thanks to Diana did I manage to find my bag, get to a warm shower and finally stop shivering. The small highlight just after the end was the warm tomato soup served by an angel in the rain!

From our family, this year only Martin and I took part, but he was better prepared and although had bike-problems, did very well. Tonje stayed at home preparing a delicious sea-food dinner for the four of us, again some celebration for my 65th the next day. When Diana drove me the 40 min home to Lier, I slept the whole way…

A few days later we were off to the annual World Master Rowing championships in St Catharine’s, Canada. This famous rowing course is near Niagara Falls and not too far from where Diana’s brother, Jim lives in Oakville. Not far from him are all his three children; Heather with partner Andy, Andrew and Craig with wives Karen and Jaime and with two children each, so it was also very much a chance to meet up with family and friends. We stayed mostly with Craig & Co who live only 20 min by car from the event. Every night somewhere there was an enjoyable family get-together for dinner.

I had a bad cold when I left on the Wednesday, probably related to all that freezing during the bike race a few days earlier. I raced as planned on Friday and Sunday, but my race on Saturday had to be cancelled with most of the other races due to strong winds. I managed to compete in single sculls, double sculls, mixed double and mixed quadruple sculls. No wins this year either, but in single sculls I was very close – 0.5 sec – grrr! (Distance is 1000 m, time in my age group about 4 min.)

Off again – with some problems.

Back home again it was only 4 weeks work before leaving for London. We closed up Veierland with Eli, who managed to pick a large amount of edible, wild mushrooms of which I am a particular fan, emptied her freezer and fridge, got the boat and outboard safely stowed for the winter, had some final nice evenings with our good neighbours the Platous, before leaving for London, Saturday, 2nd October. Everything was well planned, I thought, Diana was not working the last two days and did almost all the preparations alone, including taking the car for service. But Friday at my job is always demanding, and I had a mad rush before biking home arriving about 40 min before the taxi was due to take us to the railway station. During that time I did my final bit of packing while having a quick bite to eat. Only when safely on the train from Drammen to Sandefjord did I realize I had forgotten the new iPhone (birthday present from Diana) at work! In Sandefjord we walked the 10 minutes from the station to Eli who was waiting with warm supper and a glass of wine. But that wine was not for me, for as she and Diana went to bed I borrowed her car and drove back and forth to the hospital in Drammen to get my new toy… It took me nearly 4 hours as I had to stop a snatch some sleep several times. At least the roads were quiet!

Socializing – then a Tube Strike.

So the real holiday feeling was not really there before we were on the plane from Torp to Stanstead early next morning. In Chiswick, London, we arrived in time for lunch with Elisabeth, Hugh and Finn and our old friends, Yvonne and Jonathan. That is when the good feeling really hit us.

At night we were out for dinner at La Trompette with more friends and the next day Robert came down from Cambridge for the entire day. He is doing another postgraduate computer degree in that grand old university; we are already looking forward to more excuses for visiting him!

Next morning there was to be a Tube (Underground) strike in London. We did not know which lines would be affected, but ordered a taxi to Heathrow. We thought going out of London we would not be so affected by the expected traffic jam. We were wrong and ended up incredibly stressed. With less than a mile to go to Terminal 4 according to the taxi driver, and the terminal supposedly in sight ahead of us, we got out of the cab and started walking with two pieces of luggage each. Well, the driver was wrong, what we saw was the Cargo Terminal and there was still a long way to go, the pedestrian area was littered with puddles, soggy leaves and fallen chestnuts; soon we were panting and sweating and obviously about to lose our flight. During the last mile the traffic started flowing faster, so we attempted to hitch-hike or get another cab, but nobody paid us the slightest notice… Our rescue was a shuttle bus service from a Tube Station we passed, luck had it that Terminal 4 was the first destination. When we came running to the Continental Airlines’ check-in they fortunately ushered us to a free counter. But at Security there was another “traffic jam”, so before long they were announcing our names on the loudspeakers, and we were the last passengers to board that wonderful plane… But we got on! We noticed a few empty seats for Newark; no doubt that Tube strike caused a lot of chaos and delays in London that morning!

Having dried off and washed my face we could again get into the right mood, enjoy a reasonable in-flight lunch and watch a couple of films. In Newark we had 3 hours before the flight for Panama City, and with security and passport control being so slow, especially in USA these days, we needed every minute of it. But we managed to buy some extra food for the flight and some duty-free chocolate (Toblerone and Cadbury’s) from a small store just by the gate. In USA they now deliver the duty-frees to the gate. So we were handed the sealed bag as we entered the plane, did not check the receipt and did not break the seal until Diana wanted a snack the next day in Shelter Bay Marina. She got a bit of a disappointment; the bag contained a bottle of Vodka and a carton of cigarettes! So somewhere else here in Panama I suppose somebody else also got a bigger disappointment! To sum up the journey; never a dull moment when Diana and I go travelling!

Monday, 17 May 2010

Winter and Spring 2010. Travel report no 53.

Written by Diana in April in Panama and finished in Norway in May 2010.

A cold winter in Norway

Having left White Admiral safely on land in Cuba in late November, it was back to work for us both in our respective hospitals. Stein worked the whole period until the end of February, still enjoying his medicine as much as ever, and working longer hours than he is paid for. I took a period free around Christmas and New Year, as all the family came to visit. Three children, two partners, one grand-child and a great grand-mother were gathered for our usual shellfish feast on Christmas eve, then the other two grand-children came for Christmas day, where their biggest surprise was the unexpected visit of Santa Claus (our good friend and neighbour Christian). It was a very white Christmas, and kids big and small had snowball fights and built snow houses on the front lawn. The long snowy winter gave me little excuse not to make another effort at skiing, and again our neighbour Christian was sure he could teach me better technique. I did improve slightly with cross country, but the one attempt at downhill was a disaster; the nearest I have ever been to an acute panic attack! Stein was able to make more use of the good skiing tracks close to our new home, and had many moonlight trips, and also a memorable outing with colleagues in his medical department. He cycled back and forth to work every day in the snow, 10 kms each way, even in temperatures around -20 degrees centigrade! With skiing goggles, a balaclava, and two big pairs of mittens, he managed to keep warm enough, although he looked like the abominable snowman when he arrived home!

We had an enjoyable evening before Christmas at Martin and Tonje’s flat, meeting her family, including her mother, grand-father and aunt. This was an indication that they have now a serious relationship, which we are very happy about, Martin is a lucky man!

Before going back to work, I had a few days in London, staying with Elisabeth, Hugh and Finn, getting to know my little grandson a bit better, and also taking the chance to visit my Aunt Joyce and her husband Donald in Lincoln. Joyce is my mother’s youngest sister, and my last aunt alive. She and Donald are a cheerful couple in their late eighties, still with lots of zest for life, and were delighted that I came with Elisabeth and her little son.

Three months soon pass, and suddenly we were packing again for the tropics. Another good neighbour, Tore, drove us in falling snow to the train station in Drammen, we spent the night with Stein’s mother Eli in Sandefjord, and were off the next morning on KLM and Martinair to Amsterdam and Cuba.

Back in Cuba

The flight into Cuba on 28th February was full of Europeans, as Cubans generally have no money for travelling. We were met at the airport by Jhonny (that is how he spells his name), a worker at the boat-yard who will do anything for an extra dollar (or ’tourist peso’, which is 1.1 dollars). He took us to a private guest house, run by a woman he knew, actually a very attractive and reasonably priced place to stay. The next morning he collected us and we were taken to the boat-yard where White Admiral was sitting on land, looking good with her newly painted, i.e. antifouled bottom. René, the boat yard manager, had arranged to have her lifted into the water the same morning, the crane arrived as planned, and all went smoothly. Jhonny was supposed to have washed and polished the boat for us, but was not finished with the job, so we lay at the dockside for a couple of hours while this was done. My brother Jim was arriving from Canada the same day to join us, this delay meant that he had looked for us all over the huge Hemingway Marina, before eventually arriving at the right place. We paid the rest of our bill to the yard, which came to about kr 15000 (1500 pounds) for three months storage and the paint work (we had bought the paint in Mexico). This is the most expensive storage we have had in Latin America, so Cuba knows how to charge tourists, and we will not be leaving her there again. Then we were able to drive round into our place in the marina proper. We had already decided not to do any more sailing in Cuba, there are now too many rules and regulations, and very few places on the North Coast where pleasure crafts are allowed to visit. So the week Jim was with us was spent in the marina, and having a look at Cuba by land. We had arranged with Jhonny to hire a car from his uncle at about half the price of the care-hire companies, which is very high. However the uncle had got cold feet, this was obviously not legal, so we had to take Jhonny along with us as our guide on a two day trip to the south coast. Here we visited the lovely old town of Cienfuegos with its 19th century mainly French architecture, and the infamous Bay of Pigs, where the Americans invaded and were defeated in 1961. We stayed the night at a ’Casa Particular’, one of the private guest houses that are marked with an upside down anchor. These are homes where the owner is lucky enough to have a spare room or two, and gets a chance to earn some precious extra pesos. They are regulated by the government, one can only have up to 4 beds, there is a yearly charge for running a guest house, and one has to keep a record of every visit, with names and passport numbers. It is a good way to meet Cubans, and we had a very chatty, friendly hostess. On the drive home, Jhonny stopped to buy vegetables from workers in the fields. We bought a large bunch of green bananas, and about 20kg potatoes for next to nothing. Seeing the workers shove them quickly into the boot of the car, and look around worriedly, we realised that this was illegal, and that they were also just making a little extra.

Most of the other days were spent in and around Havana, enjoying more of this fascinating city with its huge boulevards and beautiful buildings in various states of disrepair. Highlights and lowlights include mojitos (Ernest Hemingway’s drink) at the famous Hotel Nacional, traffic lights with a countdown, crowded vegetable markets, dreadful toilets, vintage American cars and the ballet. This latter event was an unexpected huge highlight. We saw by chance an advertisement outside the Gran Teatro de Havana, that the national ballet school was having a graduation gala, and we got tickets for the next day, even for my sceptical brother. Seeing the wonderful old theatre was in itself an experience, but we were unprepared for the incredibly high standard of the ballet dancers, there seemed to be an endless number of future Fonteyns and Nurejevs leaping about the stage, and a beautiful corps of children of all ages, both boys and girls. Even my sceptical brother had to admit that it was superb.

We had the same impression of Cuba as on our previous visit; daily life is a struggle for most people to make ends meet. Everybody has a house of some kind, (few with running water), a basic food supply, and a small wage of about 20 dollars/month. Schooling and health care is free, so there is not such abject poverty as in most other Latin American countries, but everybody is poor by our standards. There are few luxuries, and seemingly no legal way to make a better life for oneself. Unfortunately, the only way for many young women (and a few men) to get a little luxury is to prostitute themselves for the tourists.

On our last day we had decided to invite René, the boat yard manager and his family, to lunch on the boat, but despite being in charge of the yard, the security staff would not give his wife and two children permission to come aboard. This is probably the worst thing about the Cuban society, that everything is controlled, there are security guards everywhere, your neighbour could be watching you and ready to report if you do anything that seems to be against communist principles and the revolutionary ideals. Viva la Revolucion! Anyway, we took René and his family to a nice restaurant, probably a much bigger experience for the children, who never otherwise have such a treat. We hope they will grow up into a freer and better society, and hopefully; that the Cubans can solve their massive problems peacefully.

Jim left us on the morning of the 8th March. Jhonny was supposed to drive him to the air-port, but came so late that Jim had taken another taxi 2 minutes before. Poor Jhonny, so desperate for work, but not very reliable!

We decided to leave the same day for Grand Cayman as the weather was looking good. We had heard that a south-easterly wind was on the way, although according to Kjell on the Swedish yacht Emma, this would not happen for three days, by which time we should be nearly there. The checking out process was thorough like all Cuban bureaucracy, with a search of the boat, including with a dog, to make sure we had no drugs or stowaways, although everybody is friendly and polite. As we motored out of Hemingway Marina, we did not think we would ever be back, certainly not with our own boat.

A rough sail to Grand Cayman

From Havana to the West Cape of Cuba is 136 nautical miles. The first couple of hours were sunny and windless as we motored along the coast, then a north easterly picked up and we had a good sail with winged genoas for most of the day, later with mainsail and a poled genoa. During the night when I was on duty, I suddenly saw that the echo sounder showed 2.5 metres. In a near panic I stopped the boat, got out Stein and the digital charts on, and found that there was a shallow which I hadn’t noticed sticking a long way out from the coast. We had to motor straight north, and soon were back in deep water. A scary lesson for the navigator!

The next day we motor sailed in a very light wind, enjoying the lobster tails which Jhonny had got for us (he managed to do some things right), but as soon as we rounded the west tip of Cuba at night, the wind freshened from south-east, much sooner than our weather forecast had predicted. Three miserable days of tacking back and forth followed, with a near gale right on the nose, only making about 50 nautical miles a day. The only ship we saw during this time was a U.S. coastguard vessel which came quite close, and over the VHF radio wanted all the details about who we were, where we had come from and where we were going. They were quite friendly about it, so I asked them to send an e-mail to Elisabeth, so nobody would worry that we would be slow getting to Grand Cayman, and this they did. What a relief when the wind turned first south west, then north west for the last hundred miles, and we could speed along at 7 knots in the right direction. It was lovely to see the silhouette of Grand Cayman appear on the horizon, and motor round to the south coast where we were directed by the port authorities to a place we could anchor. Not that we were impressed by their suggested anchorage, with high corals between the sand patches, but we did manage to find a safe place to put the anchor down. We were lucky to get in just before dark, and our glass of wine tasted good that evening!

Grand Cayman

Checking in here is easy; the immigration and customs officers came to the nearest jetty, and filled up the forms on the beach. It is very cheap during working hours, but unfortunately we had arrived on Saturday evening, and the check-in the morning after cost us 50 dollars more for overtime work…

After the poverty and lack of goods in Cuba, it was almost overwhelming to be in prosperous Grand Cayman, with its American-style supermarkets, restaurants, souvenir shops and especially banks, which seem to be on every corner, leaving no doubt we were back in the realm of capitalism! The atmosphere here is very Caribbean, the local accent reminded us of Barbados, and the people seemed relaxed and friendly. We did not have long to spend here, as we were anxious to get to San Blas in Panama well before our first guests. As the first day was Sunday, with most businesses shut, we had a hectic second day with a hired car, doing the biggest food shopping we had ever done, ordering air-tickets on Internet, getting the laundry done and even unsuccessfully looking for a couple of geo-caches! It was good to get our food cupboards well-stocked before our month in San Blas, as there is very little to buy there. On 16th March, after delivering the hired car, we were ready to unhook from the buoy we had been glad to get after it was vacated the previous day, and get on our way to El Porvenir in San Blas, a journey of 595 nautical miles.

Sail to San Blas

This time the weather forecast was correct, and we had five lovely days with a light north-east breeze sailing pleasantly often with winged genoas. We have begun the habit of keeping one engine idling at night so that we have unlimited electricity. This means we can watch films and use as much light as we want, much easier to stay awake. Martin had downloaded a number of films for us, and we both particularly enjoyed ’Invictus’ about Nelson Mandela and the Springboks Rugby Team.

We had our fishing line trolling behind most of the way during the day, but it was not until we were approaching El Porvenir on 21st March that we caught a nice mackerel, perfect for our first dinner at anchor.

Back in San Blas

It felt great to be back after two years, and we soon were out walking on the air-strip on El Porvenir and visiting the nearby island of Wichubhuala, with its Kuna Indian community. We shared our fish that evening with a young Englishman, Jonathan Williams, who had been left on the island that day as he had not confirmed his flight back to Panama, good to know for those who were going to visit us.

Our first guests, Martin with two kids Hedda and Johan, and partner Tonje were due to arrive on 26th March, so we had good time to get a few jobs done and the boat ship-shape. We had found out that our cockpit floor and benches had become too smooth, and were very slippy when wet, so we did a paint job with a scattering of sand between coats to make the surface rough, which worked very well. The local shop on Wichubhuala had as usual neither vegetables or chicken, so I was a little anxious about how to get enough fresh produce before they arrived, but like a miracle, the ’veggie boat’ appeared the day before they were due. The Kuna Indians themselves do not seem to have much business sense, and Panamanians are not allowed to set up permanent businesses in Kuna Yala, the Indian area, but the veggie boat is run by a couple of enterprising Panamanians who come along the coast about once a week, and visit yachts with a good supply of fruit, vegetables, chicken, beer, wine and so on. Now we were ready for our family to visit us, and were standing by the air-strip the next morning as the plane arrived from Panama City. After waving madly at the plane, it is a let-down when the expected guests do not appear, but the pilot could tell us that another was coming in half an hour, as there were too many passengers that day, and we finally were able to welcome them.

The children; Hedda (8) and Johan (5) soon discovered that the water temperature of 27-28 centigrade makes swimming a delight, and they could spend hours each day messing about in the water, and were both soon accomplished snorkelers. We had missed Heddas eighth birthday earlier in the month, so had a birthday lunch with treasure hunt to find her birthday present, a huge ring for playing in the water with, and a non-birthday present, a soft beech freesbe for Johan.

The next morning we set off on our Kuna Yala round trip. We were going to pick up Elisabeth, Hugh and little Finn on 30th March at another small airport about 20 nautical miles away, Corazon de Jesus. We planned two stops on the way, Salardup and Esnasdup (dup being Kuna for island), both typical San Blas anchorages with azure water, coral reefs for snorkelling, palm trees, and white beaches! No problem entertaining people here! Johan began the first day with feeling ill and vomiting, but later the same day was swimming and snorkelling as if he had never been ill. At Salardup, we took an expedition to a deserted little palm island for a picnic, fried fish and salad followed by toasted marshmallows! At this anchorage as well as the usual reef fish, there are usually spotted eagle rays to be seen, and we were all lucky to have this extra thrill. At Esnasdup, Stein and Diana had seen a sea crocodile on a previous visit, but we were not lucky enough to have this repeated. Between islands Martin had the fishing line out, but just didn’t seem to have any fishing luck this year, disappointing after so easily fishing barracudas last year in Belize, maybe the waters here are more fished-out. Tonje spent most of the sailing time working on her tan, and quickly became very bronzed. On the way to the air-port we had to make an extra stop at the inhabited island of Azucer, to collect water, which was now getting low. We tied alongside the cement dock, where our tanks were filled up very slowly, Stein supervising this while we others had a walk ashore. Obviously the Kunas here were less used to foreigners, and were delighted to see white children. Hedda and Johan were a bit overwhelmed as lots of women and girls came up to look at us, and ask our names. A friendly local showed us around, and we managed to buy fresh bread and some bananas. With full water tanks we motored the last two miles to the air-port, where the others were expected the next morning.

More visitors in San Blas

The morning plane from Panama City is due about 6.30 a.m., so Stein, Hedda and I rowed over to the air-strip at this time. There was no sign of any plane or other human being, so we presumed it was delayed. We returned to the boat, kept our eyes open, and when we saw some people going to the air-strip an hour later, Stein rowed over again. After waving to the plane, he got another let-down as they did not appear. The pilot told Stein that another plane was coming an hour later, so back for a third visit, this time to see only military personnel descending! Where were they? Unfortunately our mobile phones didn’t work in this part of Kuna Yala and we had no contact with them. We then took a walk in Nargana, the local town on a nearby island, found a booth where a lady could phone their mobile phones, but got no reply. After shopping, we returned to try again, and by some miracle, Hugh phoned that number just as we walked up, and he could tell us that their plane from London was delayed, they had missed the connection to Panama, and were soon coming in a chartered plane! I couldn’t help asking if that cost a fortune, but in fact it was surprisingly reasonable, 490 dollars for the 40 minute flight from Panama City in a 4-seater Cessna aeroplane. On his fourth visit to the airstrip, Stein could at last welcome the family to San Blas, and we got them installed on White Admiral. Just to make their arrival even more bothersome, the rain was now coming down in buckets, and most of that day and the next we had frequent heavy squalls. But life soon improves, it was lovely to be together, and we were soon in wonderful San Blas islands in the sunshine. Our little one and a half year old grandson just loved the sandy beaches and warm water, during the visit he learned to run down the beach and throw himself into the surf, and lie with toes out of the water floating with his wings. We had now six adults and three children on board, quite a logistical problem when there are no shops! Fortunately, Elisabeth and family had brought a lot of fruit and vegetables from Panama, no weight limit being one of the advantages of the plane charter. So off we went to deserted islands, managing to feed everybody despite seeing no more veggie boats. Our round trip continued to Coco Banderas, one of the loveliest anchorages, with three perfect sandy, palm islands near each other with calm anchorages between them. Great for snorkelling, beach walking and swimming. Then we were off to what the Americans call the Swimming Pool, a big anchorage protected by a huge reef in the Holandaise group, where the yachties meet on BBQ island for a weekly cocktail party. We had not time to wait for this, but moved on to Dog Island, with it’s wreck covered with corals and sponges, and loads of reef fish, a super snorkelling experience for all, especially the children! We had to be back in El Porvenir on the 5th April for Martin and his group to leave the next morning. Winds had been very light during these days, and we had mostly motored with a little help from the genoa, but on our last sail together, we got up both main and genoa to remind everybody that we are indeed a sailing vessel! We spent the last evening having dinner at El Porvenir hotel, the most up-market of San Blas’s few restaurants. The menu was the same as before, chicken and chips, fish and chips or octopus and chips! Eaten on an open terrace, with the Caribbean lapping a few feet away and the evening temperature 28 degrees, it tasted wonderful!

After waving goodbye to those leaving on the morning plane, Elisabeth, Hugh and Finn had one last day with us. This was spent mainly on the island of Wichubhuala, experiencing the Kuna indians and how they live. We are used to this from previous visits, but it is still impressive to see how the ladies dress with their orange and red headscarves, beautiful molas on their blouses, and beadwork along their arms and legs. Elisabeth is a photographer, and had to get a good supply of single dollars to be able to take some proper portraits.

Last visitors

The next morning as Elisabeth and family got onto the plane, they had just time to say hello and goodbye to my sister Linda and her Norwegian partner Rune, who were arriving for a week. They had fortunately also managed to get some fruit and vegetables with them, as our cupboards were now almost out of fresh produce, but it was still necessary to get more. So our first stop was at the West Lemmon Cays, a popular anchorage where we heard the veggie boat was coming in two days. Here there was really a surprise, a little Internet cafe has been installed! It is run by Kunas, a small thatched hut with three machines, and a little bar beside it, slow reception, but great to get our mail after being out of touch since Grand Cayman three weeks earlier. The veggie boat did come as expected, a great relief to get our shelves and nets full of bananas, papaya, tomatoes, avocado and so on. They also had fresh chicken, and a Kuna shortly after sold us a huge red snapper fish, we felt rich! Linda is the first proper vegetarian we have had aboard, but she is easy going, takes what we have apart from the meat and fish, and she had some soy mixes with her to eat instead. Our round trip included Salardup, where we had picnicked with Martin and kids, and here Linda was also able to see the spotted eagle ray as well as the usual reef fish, then the Swimming Pool. This time we were there on a Monday, so took part in the weekly party, meeting some of the crowd we knew from two years earlier, particularly Hans and Susanne on NautiBear, who ate dinner with us one evening, and had a hilarious game of Perudo.

Our last stop was again at Dog Island and its fun snorkelling, before sailing back to El Porvenir and waving them off on 14th April.

Little did we know that a volcano in Iceland was now erupting, and that it would be a week before Linda and Rune could get a plane back to Europe. They spent a couple of days in a hotel in Panama City, courtesy of KLM, then moved to a jungle resort where they enjoyed the wild-life, hopefully courtesy of their insurance company, so not a bad exchange for being at work!

Back to Shelter Bay Marina

At last we were alone on White Admiral. We had enjoyed our three weeks with guests, but it is also nice to relax alone. We motored in a calm over to Chichime, another San Blas paradise to enjoy a last couple of days of white sand and 27 degree water, before the journey to Shelter Bay Marina at the entrance to Panama Canal. A calm day’s motor sailing took us to Portobelo, which we know from earlier, the port where the Spanish took incredible amounts of gold out of the continent. To look at the poor town today, it doesn’t seem that they left much! Portobelo is

just 15 nautical miles from Panama Canal, and it took us about three hours of motoring, again on an almost calm sea, to arrive at Shelter Bay Marina. Now we were back in civilisation, with electricity, fresh water and hot showers. The marina is on the edge of a nature reserve, and on our pre-breakfast morning walks, there were lots of howler monkeys to be seen as well a a rich bird life. On 22nd April, White Admiral was professionally lifted onto land and into a high security storage area.

After the usual rush to get the last jobs done, including varnishing the floor, we were off by bus to panama City, and got our plane next morning to Houstion and London. Unfortunately the flight into London was delayed, and we missed our Ryanair flight to Norway by just a few minutes. Surprisingly we met an obliging Ryanair employee who rebooked us with no charge for the next morning. This gave us a night in London and a chance for some time with Elisabeth and Finn, Hugh was away on business.

We arrived safely the next morning in Norway, had a couple of hours with Stein’s mother Eli, before taking the train home.

It was altogether a long, tiring journey, and it felt great to be back home. Now it is work for us both over the summer, before going back to White Admiral and Panama at the beginning of October.

From 100504 Winter & Spring 2010 report