In San Blas, Panama with Family and Friends 2011.
Written by Stein 18th Nov 2011.
Shelter Bay and San Blas with the Øistad family.
We have now almost lost count of how many times we have sailed in Panama’s San Blas (Kuna Yala) archipelago, but once again, that is where we were heading Wednesday, 9th March. At 11.30 pm it was a black, tropical night as we motored out of Shelter Bay Marina. Aboard were Diana and myself, my mother Eli (95) and Eli’s good friends and neighbours from Sandefjord; Irmeli and Ingar Øistad and their daughters, Rebecca and Suzannah. Earlier this year Eli had to leave her beloved house after more than 60 years and moved to our flat in Lier. In the spirit of friendship and gratitude we had all left Torp together and via Amsterdam and a ten hour flight travelled to Tocumen Airport, Panama City. Amazingly, the maxi taxi ordered via the marina office was there and waiting. On the way to the marina (on the other side of the isthmus) the driver was happy to stop so we could buy fruit from a road-side vender; the mangos were especially popular with our guests. At Shelter Bay Marina we had rooms waiting, and the first meal in White Admiral was lunch next day – on terra firma! (Eli, like the rest of us, had to climb a ladder to get into the boat – quite a challenge!) When we headed out into the Atlantic it had been two hectic days since we arrived, we were not absolutely ship-shape, but had food, water and diesel aboard, the sails were on and the engines were working.
The plan was to sail straight for the islands, but the conditions drove us close to the coast and the little town of Portobelo, and that is where we anchored the next morning. Our friends were quite happy to visit this historical port with its massive forts, Custom House and church with the famous Black Christ, and Diana and I got another day of useful preparations done.
The next night there were good conditions for a gentle sail around the north of Panama and on Friday morning we could have a morning swim safely anchored at Porvenir.
As our friends only had one more week to spare, a shortened version of a San Blas ritual followed: We visited some favourite spots in West Lemons; Isla Elefanta and Dog Island, then had nearly three days in Salardup, then via Carti and Gunboat back to Porvenir. The schedule was as usual swimming, snorkelling, beach–combing and good meals aboard. And everywhere Ingar was sketching and painting. The densely populated island of Wichubwala the first day gave impressions of Kuna life and a chance of provisioning. In Gunboat Rebecca and I did a night–dive, i.e. a snorkel trip after dark. Suzannah started off with us, but was unfortunately stung by a jelly-fish just behind the boat. These sea-wasps are small and transparent and hard to sea even in day-light. Fortunately not very common in the Caribbean, so Suzannah was unlucky. The corals were not as colourful as I had hoped (they have little tentacles that come out at night making them look furry), but we saw a sting-ray, some crabs and a big porcupine puffer-fish. My torch blinded it and I was able to grab its tail which made it suck in water with a croaking sound until it was a spine-bristling ball and I had to let go. Before it was back to normal shape it lost its balance, swam in circles and with its rather serious, comical face it made us really laugh!
The last morning was not so funny. The Øistads were due to fly to Panama City at O6.30, our friends quickly found seats, but were then told that the morning plane was full and as they had not tickets in advance, they had to climb out again... We had contacted Señora Oti by mobile phone a few days earlier. She is the Air Panama representative in Porvenir. She said there was a problem in contacting the airline, but that there would probably be four seats available and they just had to turn up. Not so. After the plane left she helped us to chart a small, private two-seater Sessna from Panama City; apparently the only solution. It should arrive within two hours. But as the hours ticked along and no Sessna came, two more Air Panama Twin Otters arrived in succession, which could have taken our friends back to Panama City. But as we thought the chartered plane was on the way, we had to wait. Eventually after about 8 hours, the little Cessna arrived and we suspect the commission we saw Señora Oti getting from the pilot had something to do with the whole, expensive mess! Apart from the annoying extra cost of chartering, the Øistads did not get the whole day in a four star hotel in Panama City which they had hoped for. But they did get the excitement of a bumpy, scenic and a bit scary ride in a tiny plane across the emerald-green tree-tops of the Darien rain-forests.
Anne and Knut’s third sail on White Admiral.
Diana, Eli and I now had five days on our own as we made our way slowly towards the twin islands of Nargana. We did some maintenance, swam, read books, relaxed and socialized with some of the other yachties we met in Isla Elefanta and Nargana, especially with old friends on Wooden Shoe and NautiBear.
Near Nargana is the strip of tarmac known as Corazon de Jesus airport, and that is where Anne and Knut arrived early 24th March. They had sailed with us in San Blas in 2008, in Belize in 2009 and now they were returning to refresh good memories of the Kunas and their islands. After breakfast, a shopping-trip ashore and some bird-spotting up the Rio Diablo (in the dinghy), we threaded our way north-east between treacherous reefs and shallows and anchored close to the eastern tip of Tupile in time for a swim and a beach visit before sunset. Next day we were off to Isla Puyades where the water was crystal clear and the snorkelling unusually good, even for San Blas. It is a place where we regularly see nurse-sharks, sting-rays and other large fish. Anne and Knut loved this island in 2008 and were delighted to be back.
Glasses for the people.
Our generous friends from Arendal aways bring us a lot of goodies and gifts, in addition Anne brought about 100 pairs of reading glasses! She is an optician with her own shop in Lillesand and wanted to provide her own private aid for the Kunas. So off we sailed towards the island of Digir Dupo (Isla Tigres). This is a well organized, quite traditional village. Although quite a few of the simple straw houses have modern items like solar panels and mobile phones, the adult women are mostly dressed in a mola blouse with patterned skirt, orange head-scarf, gold ring in the nose and arms and legs encircled by strings of beads.
Anne offered glasses first to an old women sitting in the shade of her hut and sewing a mola. Soon the word spread and we were invited inside many of the homes so that the glasses could be tested in poorer light. This was a great chance to see how the Kunas live in Digir Dupo. And when we wanted to take pictures nobody minded – not necessary to offer the usual one dollar.
After 2 hours, many of Anne’s glasses had found new, mostly older female owners, the midday sun was chasing us home. We bought fresh rolls from one of the homes, had a cold beer at the tiny restaurant/bar where the dinghy was beached and rowed back for lunch in White Admiral.
Next we headed for the pretty island group of Coco Banderas, but had a short stop in Nargana on the way. New supplies were in and we were able to get a frozen chicken, potatoes, papaya, tomatoes and lettuce; such luxury!
Coco Banderas is probably the prettiest group of islands in San Blas and in all of the Caribbean. Several of the islands have beaches that are perfect for walking or jogging around, for sunbathing, for entertaining kids small and old, or for barbeques on starry nights and a patch of colourful corals teeming with life is never far away. A broad reef protects the anchorage from the prevailing north-easterly swells. The large, rusty wreck on the reef is a reminder that these pretty corals can also be deadly dangerous.
For the next few days Anne, Knut, Diana and I continued to explore corals and beaches in Holandes Cays and Salardup. Some of the compact digital cameras are now made to tolerate hostile environment over and under water and make underwater photography possible for almost everybody. Eli had bought an Olympus µ Tough camera in Amsterdam on the way to Panama, but it was on almost constant loan to me. It can be taken down to 10 m and was with me a lot of the time in the water. To take a good underwater picture of fish, you need patience, a reasonable ability to swim and hold your breath, and to take lots of pictures.
In Carti the water-pipe from the main land had been burst for a while, a real nuisance for the several thousand inhabitants on this group of four densely populated islands. But it is at least close to the mainland and every day there was a procession of dugout canoes with plastic containers being paddled up the river to fetch water. Some of the more modern homes had tin roof with gutters and cisterns for storing rain water, and the small hospital had several such huge, blue and not very pretty plastic containers. Here Anne donated a lot of glasses to the grateful doctor on call. She was a Kuna and told Anne that she in fact was the first local Amerindian to study medicine. This she had done in Cuba, probably on a grant from Castro. Cuban doctors are found scattered in the poorest regions of Latin America; one reason why the old communist system still has a lot of followers in the area. In Porvenir 6th April Eli had her only trip ashore during the 6 weeks in San Blas. She invited everyone for lunch at Porvenir Hotel. It was a day of scattered showers and a surge on the beach and I had to make several trips back and forth between the boat and the beach to get everybody, including Eli’s wheel-chair, ashore.
Next day if was farewell once again. Anne and Knut had booked their seats directly with Air Panama and now there were no problems, apart from a one hour delay due to heavy rain in Albrook, the small airport for national traffic in the heart of Panama City. But at 07.50 off into the air they went, and as the anchorage had a lot of surge and was uncomfortable, we also left and took the short sail over to Isla Elefanta in Cayos Lemones.
This sheltered anchorage with a small bar and an Internet facility (via satellite dish, solar panel and battery driven) is popular with the yachties.
Diana lost an earring as she climbed out of the water after a swim. We marked the spot with an anchor, and I used ropes to divide the bottom into a grid and systematically searched every section by swimming back and forth slowly. The bottom was not all plain sand but had lumps of coral, pieces of wood and areas of fluffy mud, and I did not find the ear-ring... But I but came across several lion-fish instead. These strange fish are completely fearless and for a reason; they bristle with poison-tipped fins! Fortunately they do not harm humans, so it is easy to get a close-up portrait.
Camilla, Hedda and Johan.
Saturday 9th April we anchored off Carti (still no running water) and Diana got a lift with a boat heading for shore where small buses offer trips to Panama City. She was at the international air-port at 17.25 when the KLM plane carrying our last guests landed as scheduled. Our grandchildren Hedda and Johan and their mother Camilla (a colleague and soon a specialist in gynecology and obstetrics) had had a good trip and together they stayed at the Riandi Aeropuerto Hotel where the children wasted no time in getting into the big swimming-pool.
On the way back to Carti the next morning (about 2 hours’ drive from Tocumen Airport) they shopped a lot of fresh products, got a taxi boat out to White Admiral and were all safely aboard by 11.30. Hedda and Johan usually sleep in the aft bunk on portside, this was now occupied by Eli, but they were quite happy to share the other big bunk on portside with Camilla.
After lunch we rowed ashore for some sightseeing and to look for Kuna bread and sun-glasses for the kids. This we were not too confident about finding, but at the 3rd small store we visited we actually did find suitable pairs. Camilla got her first impression of Kuna life and was quite fascinated, but our blond children were like a magnets to the little dark-skinned, black-haired locals, and Hedda and Johan were happy when we were back aboard. We soon motored out to Gunboat and a swim and a snorkel before sunset. Last year, Johan did not master using a snorkel, but now he was very fast in getting the technique. Breathing through this tube is a distinct advantage when you want to lie still looking at interesting wild-life in the water beneath you.
After Gunboat we did a round-trip to visit Salardup, Esnadup, Isla Puyadas, Coco Banderas, East Holandes, Isla Perro and Porvenir.
Near Salardup is our favourite picnic island. We used to call it the 30-palmtree island, but after Suzannah did a proper count, it’s now officially the 68-palmtree island! Here is what you need for a perfect desert island existence, rough beaches for shell-hunting, soft sand beach for swimming and sunbathing, corals nearby for great snorkelling (with fish to be caught if necessary), coconuts for drinking and eating, dried husks and wood for a bonfire and even trees to sling up the hammock for a rest afterwards. A magical place for kids of all ages! In Isla Puyades Hedda was weak and feverish for a few days with diarrhea. Fortunately no one else was affected, but for two days she stayed mostly in the boat and lived on water-melon. When she was feeling a little better we had a scare when Camilla noticed reddish stuff in the toilet; was she bleeding? Closer inspection revealed fruit fibres – it was undigested, red water-melon! Next day she was fine, but she had missed seeing the nurse shark and the large dog snapper with Johan.
However, the last few days she was back to spending most of the day in the water with her brother – often hanging on to ropes or the rubber dinghy in the shadow of White Admiral.
A lot of the international yachts gathered in East Holandes to celebrate Susan on Wooden Shoe. This remarkable solo sailor has lived, mostly alone, on her ketch for 12 years and was now turning 70. “Happy Birthday” was sung in lots of languages, including in Kuna by the owners of the island, and the crew of White Admiral also did a good rendition in Norwegian. And there were games for young and old. Hedda and Johan both won prizes, but Hedda was not too excited with a prize one liter of Chilean white wine and gave it to Camilla instead!
The last couple of days provided calm, clear magical evenings. One evening I paddled off with both kids in the inflatable kayak. In the sun-set we admired pelicans plunging in for sprats, and on the shallow we spotted large fish fleeing as we surprised them. Back aboard for a quick dip and fresh water rinse before dinner in the cockpit. After the dishes were cleaned the guitar came out and a sing-song finished a perfect day. The kids took turns in the hammock strung across the stern, but when we sang “Vippetangens konditori” (by Øystein Sunde) Johan could not keep his feet still and danced away on the after-deck. This song was so popular, I had to play it again and again…
But all good things come to an end, and on April 21st White Admiral became a quiet and duller boat again as the trio left on the morning plane from Porvenir. After one day in a resort and one day in a luxury hotel in the city, they headed back to schools and work in Oslo.
White Admiral sailed across to Isla Elefanta in West Lemons. Here we had a last visit from Lisa, the transvestite master Mola maker, a favourite with Eli. Lisa was in a good mood and her beautiful molas a little cheaper than normal.
On the evening of 22nd April we sailed off through the narrow north passage, in the blinding evening sun ahead we misjudged the channel and were fortunately going very slowly when we hit coral on port side. Looking down we saw coral heads suddenly sticking up everywhere around us! Fortunately there was minimal surge and wind and we could gingerly back out where we came from without touching any more of these boat-killing polyps. But it was too late to dive and look at the damage and only next day in Portobelo could I do so and conclude that we had been extremely lucky.
Eli's Last Sail
28th April the boat was again safely on land in Shelter Bay Marina and the next night we were back in Sandefjord. But the night flight was tough on Eli (and Diana who had to help her to the toilet and get in there with her!), but Ingar was there at Torp to meet us and the rest of the family had supper ready for us at home. And Rebecca gave us an artistic model of White Admiral complete with the Hoff and Øistad crew from the San Blas adventure. Eli was seen looking out of the hatch in her bunk. She said she had also enjoyed the trip in spite of a lot of practical problems for her and us, but Diana and I realized that this would be her last sail on White Admiral.
When Eli sailed with us across the Atlantic in February 2004, she was 88 and that was remarkable, now she was 95 and sailing on a small boat is, unfortunately, no longer realistic.