On March 19 we sailed off the anchor at St. George, Grenada in a light northeasterly. The winter trades were blowing a steady 25 knots and much higher off the Colombian Coast. Our plan was to sail directly for the San Blas Islands off the north coast of Panama. If we laid a course north toward Jamaica we could sail over the top of the deep Colombian low and avoid the worst of the wind and those nasty seas. By midnight we were well out to sea and had the full effects of wind and sea. This was going to be a wild ride, running free for 1100 miles. Hang on! Here we GO!
The ten-day passage was fast but uneventful. The winds never went above our comfort level even though no one along the Colombian coast was able to move. That wind just howled day after day. As we passed the longitude of Cartagena we turned south and left the area of the boisterous Caribbean Trades behind and the wind finally began to moderate; time to shake out all reefs and scoot right along. Now came the challenge of finding the passage in the reef that is the entrance into the archipelago of the San Blas Islands.
According to our fix on that last day we would make landfall in the middle of the night, not a good idea, so we chose to heave to some twenty miles offshore until morning. At first light we found ourselves just one mile from the San Blas archipelago. In a beautiful ten-knot breeze we slid right through the Holandes Channel and behind the reef. The ocean swell immediately disappeared.
The San Blas are very much like the Bahamas, small, low-lying coral cays that are scattered along the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama providing an extensive and effective barrier between the mainland and the Caribbean Sea. They are impossible to see from more than a mile or two away and just like the Bahamas navigating the archipelago requires good light to read the water. The only difference is that in San Blas the water is much deeper. All of the islands look exactly the same, large coral reefs that are just awash at low tide and at high tide submerged just enough to be completely invisible and truly lethal. Somewhere on this reef is a patch of sand completely covered with coconut palms and two to four straw huts. Of the two huts on every cay, one hut serves as the kitchen, maintaining a never-ending fire with a constant supply of fish smoking slowly. The other hut is a communal sleeping area. The contrast to the activity of the Antilles is difficult to describe. We sailed past the first island of Waisaladup and all we saw were coconut palms; no boats, no people. There was NO ONE here! Our chosen anchorage was Miriadiadup. Why? Because on the chart it looked like a cay where no one would go. It would be a good place to be alone and to rest.
We sailed close by the island and saw three people working on the beach; as we passed, they signed to us where they wanted us to anchor, right behind the reef facing out toward the Antilles all those miles away. Anchor down, what a ride! Engine hours for this passage, 0. That’s sailing!
It was 06:00, the sun was out, and the wind generator was spinning merrily away. Monstrous waves thundered onto the windward side of the reef while behind the reef the water was absolutely flat! Best of all, that constant chaos of charter boats motoring wildly through the anchorage and crashing into everyone was absent. The only sounds were the wind, the sea and the birds. It was well worth ten days at sea just for this moment!
Completing this enchanting scene was a dugout canoe paddled by a father and his young son, the first Cuna Indians we would meet. The father greeted us in very slow and clear Spanish,
“Good morning. My name is Robertino and this is my son Alfredo. We watched you sail through the reef. How many days were you on the sea and where did you come from?”
When we explained that our passage was ten days he immediately responded,
“You must be very tired and you must rest. I will give instructions that no one is to visit you or bother you until you have rested. Please come ashore and visit with us on my island.”
With the exceptions of the settlements Nalunega, Wichubhuala, Nargana and a few more, life on the out islands is very basic. The inhabitants have no water supply, no sanitation, no electricity, television, radio or anything else. The Cuna who live here are responsible for taking care of the coconuts that are grown for export. They do a six-month tour and then they can rotate off to one of the settlements if they desire. All children on the cay are sent to school at one of the settlements. What free time they have, they spend fishing and making molas for sale or trade. Every Cuna we met could read, write and do math. The local language is Cuna but Spanish serves just fine. The islands are technically part of Panama but they are entirely self-governed by self-elected Sahilas (chiefs) and are completely autonomous. Just ask them and they will tell you!
We finally had our first interaction with the Cuna. We purchased a fish from Brado and Robelio as they paddled by and were also introduced to the mola. The mola is a work of art indigenous to the San Blas. It is a tapestry of many different layers hand sewn together. By cutting through different layers, intricate and complex designs emerge. Each mola tells a story. The number of layers, the quality of the stitching and the story they tell determine the cost. Brado and Robelio had quite a collection and each one was better than the last. It was difficult to choose.
We were so enamored with Miradiadup but it was time to explore a bit. We heard on the radio that our friends from Seville, the Gomez family on Maestro were in San Blas looking for us and our friends John and Paula on Mr. John VI were coming our way from Florida as well. This was going to be some reunion! We promised to return someday and set off for the island of Uchutupu Pipigua.
Sailing in the San Blas is a bit of a challenge. Just like the Bahamas there are no navigation markers of any kind. Sailing could only be attempted in daylight with good sun in order to read the water and recognize the reefs, and they were everywhere, even in the anchorages. More than one dinghy had its bottom ripped out while traveling through an anchorage at night. It was chilling to see the number of wrecked ships and yachts sitting on reefs, bearing constant testimony to the folly of trying to navigate at night or relying on electronic navigational instruments to run the reefs in the dark.
We caught up with Maestro just in time. They had to be in Tahiti by August for Manuel and Alicia to begin school, so the big push was on. We had a wonderful time remembering Seville and the Canaries before they departed for the Panama Canal and the Pacific.
Mr. John arrived a few days later. We had not seen John and Paula since the Bahamas in 2003. After all these years we were once again in the same place at the same time. It was a dream come true to transit the Panama Canal with Mr. John. The next several weeks were a delightful mix of diving, fishing and exploring but a critical choice had to be made. If we left the San Blas immediately and ran for the Canal we could still barely make this season’s weather window for our passage to Polynesia, but we would cut short our time here and also miss the Rio Chagres. If we stayed, we would transit the Canal much later at the start of the rainy season which meant that Polynesia would have to wait another year.
The decision was sort of made for us as Entr’acte suddenly began to self-destruct. For a boat that had just left a boatyard three months ago, a surprising number of things began to go wrong.
The brand new water maker we installed in Trinidad overheated and began leaking oil, our chronometer stopped, the anchor windlass began to leak oil, and the aft port lights began to leak and cause bubbles to form in the cabin side. The GPS would not boot and when it did the screen was unreadable, but worst of all was John’s discovery that one of our chain plates was bent and cracked. A close inspection revealed that we had evidently been hit while at anchor in the Grenadines. There would be no crossing the Pacific until all of these problems were solved. We decided to slow down, enjoy the islands, deal with the repairs in Panama and head on down to Ecuador to enjoy South America while we waited for next season to make our passage to Polynesia.
As wonderful and peaceful as the San Blas were, the absolute highlight of this area was the Rio Chagres. Seven miles east of Colon and only six miles long, the Chagres served the Spanish by providing an easy way to transport gold and silver overland and out to sea. Now it is completely deserted except for the wildlife that inhabits the surrounding jungle.
Mr. John and Entr’acte had the entire river to ourselves and for two weeks we took our dinghies through its tributaries and into the Panamanian jungle, sometimes by motor and then with oars when the water became too shallow for the motors.
Our favorite trick was to work our way up-current in a tributary and drift slowly down-current poling with an oar, accompanied by the calls of every exotic bird one could imagine. Monkeys scurried overhead and hammed it up for our cameras. Snakes lay on tree branches and crocodiles crawled along the river banks, no swimming here folks! The big treat was the howler monkeys. Their howls were a constant reminder that this was no theme park but a real jungle. We always knew when the rain was coming. Whenever the leader of the howlers rose out of the trees to let out a huge solo bellow, we knew we had fifteen minutes before the rain began. Umbrellas were our constant companion on these jaunts. A short hike through the jungle brought us to the Gatun Lock which provided an opportunity to see what was to come.
A truly great adventure was in store!