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’!

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