Our Trip To, Not Through, The Panama Canal

Jumping back several months, to catch you up on our canal adventure:

Our cruising plans do not include transiting the Panama Canal. It’s a substantial cost, and I have no interest in crossing the Pacific (after our passage to Puerto Rico, neither does Scott). However, being one of the seven modern wonders of the world, and Panama’s biggest tourist attraction, we were very interested to see the canal. Since our route from Bocas del Toro to the San Blas islands took us within a few hours of the canal’s visitor center, it seemed a shame not to visit.

But first, here’s some interesting history of the Panama Canal, and it’s construction (with some cool visual aides):

The idea of creating a water passage across the isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans dates back to the 1500s, when Spain surveyed a possible route across Panama’s Chagres River. The idea seemed impossible at the time, but remained intriguing a potential shortcut from Europe to Eastern Asia.

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France was first to attempt the daunting task. They planned a sea-level canal, with Count Ferdinand de Lessep (builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt) in charge of the project. After breaking ground in 1880, the construction team soon realized the monumental challenge ahead of them.

They were plagued by yellow fever and malaria, and incessant rains caused heavy landslides. De Leeps realized that a sea-level canal was too difficult, and shifted his plan to a lock canal. However, it was too late; funding was pulled from the project in 1888, after nine years and a loss of approximately 20,000 lives.

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With a push from President Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. purchased the French assets in the canal zone for $40 million in 1902. After a proposed treaty over rights to build in Panama was rejected (at the time, it was a Colombian controlled territory), the U.S. threw its military weight behind Panama’s fight for independence from Colombia.

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In November of 1903, the U.S. negotiated a deal with the newly declared Republic of Panama, that gave them rights to the canal zone. In exchange for the ten mile stretch of land, the U.S made a one-time, $10 million dollar payment, annual payments of $250,000 and agreed to guarantee the independence of Panama.

The U.S. also had plans for a sea-level canal, but much of the French equipment was in need of repair, and the threat of malaria and yellow fever was frightening off the workforce.

A railroad specialist took over on July of 1905, and immediately recruited West Indian laborers to solve the workforce issues. He ordered new equipment, and came up with more efficient ways to speed up the work. In addition, he realized the difficulties that landslides posed, and convinced President Roosevelt that a lock canal would be best for the area’s terrain.

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Image result for photos of west indian workers panama canal construction

Image result for photos of west indian workers panama canal construction

What helped the project immensely was the chief sanitary officer’s belief that mosquitoes carried the deadly diseases plaguing the area (who knew they had a chief  sanitary officer??). On a mission to wipe out the pesky mosquitoes, his team diligently fumigated homes, and cleansed pools of water. The last reported case of yellow fever in Panama was in 1905, and malaria cases dropped sharply over the following decade.

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Image result for fumigating homes during the construction of the panama canal

In 1906, a new chief engineer took over, and he focused efforts on the Culebra Cut,  a nine mile stretch of mountain range along the canal route. Clearing this area became a 24-7 operation, with more than 6,000 men contributing at any one time. Despite the attention paid to this section of the project, the Culebra Cut was a notorious danger zone. There were many, many casualties from unpredictable landslides and dynamite explosions (Good grief, its a wonder this thing ever got built!).

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Construction of the locks began in August 1909. Built in pairs, each lock chamber leveraged gravity to raise and lower water levels (there were/are no pumps used). Ultimately, the three locks along the canal route lifted ships 85 feet above sea level, to the man-made Gatun lock in the middle. The entire operation was powered by electricity, and run through a control board.

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Image result for photos of panama canal locks construction

The gates separating the chambers in each set of locks hold back a considerable weight of water, and had to be made both reliable and strong enough to withstand accidents, as their failure could unleash a catastrophic flood of water downstream (bad for business) .

Ranging in size from 47 to 82 ft high, depending on position,the gates are enormous, and are 7 ft thick; the hinges alone each weigh almost 17 tons! They can be opened during the operating cycle only when the water level on both sides is equal.

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The original gates are still in use, but their mechanisms were replaced with hydraulic struts in January 1998, after 84 years of service. Much like the hull of a ship, the lock gates are hollow and buoyant. They are so well balanced that two 25 hp motors are enough to move each leaf. If one motor fails, the other can still operate the gate at reduced speed.

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Image result for photos of panama canal construction

In October of 1913, President Roosevelt operated a telegraph at the White House that triggered an explosion of Gamboa dike, flooding the final stretch of dry passageway at Culebra Cut.

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The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914, but a grand ceremony was downgraded, due to the start of WWI. The canal was completed at a cost of more than $350 million, and was the most expensive construction project in U.S. history at the time.

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Image result for photos of the opening of the panama canal

The canal was a vital part of expanding global trade routes in the 20th century. Transition of overseeing the canal, from the U.S. to Panama, began in 1977, with a treaty signed by President Carter, and the Panama Canal Authority assumed full control on December 31, 1999. In September 2010, the canal hosted its 1 millionth passing ship, and in 2016 a massive canal expansion opened, doubling the waterway’s capacity.

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Image result for photos of the panama canal expansion

Here endeth the lesson.

After our short stay in Portobelo, we headed to nearby Linton Bay, which is just over an hour car ride to the visitor’s center at the canal’s Mira Flores Locks. It was also a short ride to a grocery store for provisioning, and an easy jump off point to head for the San Blas. We decided to leave the boat at Linton Bay Marina. From there we could visit the canal, spend the night in Panama City and return the next morning, with Howard and Sea Life tucked into a slip for safe keeping.

We arranged for a cab to take us from the marina to the Miraflores Locks, traveling winding, hilly roads along the way, and arrived at the visitor’s center an hour or so later. The ticket office was not yet open, but there were already many people waiting to get in. We took our place in line, just beating a huge tour bus full of people..whew!

After purchasing our tickets and heading inside, we were told to make our way up to viewing area on the fourth floor, as there were ships entering the locks. Once off the elevator, we managed to get a front row spot on the rail, and settled in to watch the large ships “lock through.”

As ships approach from the Pacific side, two locks at the Mira Flores Locks raise them up into Mira Flores Lake. At the other end of the lake, a single lock at Pedro Miguel Lock raises them again, into Gatun Lake and then a triple set of locks at Gatun Locks lower the ships back down to sea level in the Caribbean sea.

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Image result for aerial view of the panama canal

Though the channels in the locks seem large enough for ships to pass in both directions at the same time, the Culebra Cut makes this impossible. The area is far too narrow for the large ships to pass each other, so two “lanes” transit traffic from the Caribbean to the Pacific in the morning, and then the direction shifts, for those transiting from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

We were watching ships pass from north to south. They had transited from the Caribbean, and entered the locks from the Mira Flores lake. There were no private/pleasure boats coming through when we visited, only large ships and smaller commercial vessels.

Pleasure boats and small fishing boats usually transit very early in the morning, or after dark. They are tied together, or to a canal tug, as they move through. We have several friends who’ve transited the canal, and all have stories of things not going exactly as planned. Here are some photos. They also have great blogs!

s/v Prism (Jon & Shannon)

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Pull faster Shannon!! AH

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s/v Morpheous of London (Richard & Jan)

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Mini towing locomotives, called mules, are used for side-to-side and braking control in the locks (Forward motion into and through the locks is actually provided by the ship’s engines). The mules  run on “rack tracks,” to which they are geared, and their traction is electric, supplied through a third rail that is laid below surface level on the land side of the channels.

Large ships have two mules on each side at the bow, and two each side at the stern—eight in total, allowing for precise control of the ship. Each mule has a powerful winch, operated by the driver; these are used to take two cables in and out as needed, in order to keep the ship centered in the lock while moving it from chamber to chamber. With the larger ships having very little clearance, the mule operators have to be pretty good at what they do!

All ship captains are required to yield control to a canal pilot while transiting, who are specially trained to guide vessels of all sizes safely through the locks. Some ships are so wide that they clear the concrete walls by mere inches. A lock master is in position on either side of the lock, and is in constant communication with the pilots and the control tower during the entire process.

An announcer narrates details about each ship passing through the two lanes, providing the country of origin, what type of cargo is on board and other details. Relayed in both Spanish and English, the information was both interesting and helpful as we watched the huge ships pass by us.

We saw some amusing sights as the ships passed by: a basketball court on the deck of a ship, crew members enjoying the ride in a shady spot and the amount of radar waves that we were exposed to at the observation deck level!

When the canal opened, a set of guidelines were put in place for the maximum requirements of ships transiting across. “Panamax” includes the width and length of the available lock chambers, the depth of water in the canal and the height of the bridges that span the it. A new set of locks opened in June of 2016, allowing larger, “New Panamax” ships to transit back and forth. From our spot on the viewing deck, we could see ships transiting those lanes as well.

There was so much see; we stayed on the viewing deck for hours, taking it all in. When all the ships has locked through, we headed downstairs to check out the rest of the visitors center. There was a short film on the history of the canal, and many rooms of exhibits, containing information about the canal’s construction. We ended our visit with a spin through the gift shop, and then went outside to catch a cab to our hotel, stopping on the way at McDonald’s, for Scott to get a fast food fix!

At the recommendation of one of our friends at Red Frog marina, in Bocas del Toro, I’d booked a room at the Comfort Inn and Suites, which sits right on the canal route. The balcony rooms look over the Balboa Yacht Club’s many boats at anchor, and ships on their way to and from the locks.

Scott kept watch online, in live time, to see when a ship was coming our way. We’d take a break from the air conditioning, and watching English television channels, to go out and watch them pass by (our balcony was in full sun until dusk, so small bursts of outside time were all we could handle).

Our water view all but disappeared during a late afternoon downpour, as the streets below quickly flooded.

Now you see it…

Now you don’t…

We ate a room service steak dinners on our king-size bed, enjoyed long, “roomy” showers, and kept a “ship watch” out the window until well after dark, and again at first light the next morning.

It was a great Christmas treat to ourselves! Here are many more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Snug Harbor And Our Last Days In The San Blas Islands

We waived a final goodbye to the swimming pool anchorage, and traveled six hours east to Snug Harbor, one of many anchorages, islands and villages farther east in the San Blas. The quiet anchorage was beautiful, surrounded by small islands made up of palms and mangroves, and again set against the lush mainland mountains.

The three of us spent the evening out in the cockpit, enjoying the scenery (us) and smells (Howard).

After parting ways in the Robisons, our friends Ted and Barbara (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) caught up with us in Snug Harbor. The four of us made our way into the nearby village of Playon Chico, connected to the mainland by a long bridge.

We were in search of the usual…veggies, eggs, Coke and Guna bread. As we wandered the quiet streets, a man offered to help us locate a woman who sold bread. We purchased the most delicious rolls from her, still warm from the oven. The man then led us along a narrow path that wove it’s way tightly between some of the village houses; I didn’t dare take a photo at the most narrow spots, as we were practically inside of peoples’ homes!

The labyrinth-like path ended at the village docks, where two supply boats were tied. We were able to buy eggs, beer, sodas and a few veggies right off of the boat.

After we’d returned to the boat, and put away our things, Scott and I took a happy hour ride around the anchorage, exploring our surroundings.

As usual, Scott wanted to get his hiking fix in. He’d heard there was a waterfall in the area so he set out the next day with Ted and Barbara to search it out. The threesome made their way to shore, and into the woods.

They passed by several fincas, or farms, where villagers grow vegetables. One farmer offered to lead the three of them to the waterfall. Having local knowledge is always helpful, and it’s also a nice to learn about plants and such along the way. Ted is fluent in Spanish, and could easily translate information, so they accepted the farmer’s offer and continued on with the now guided tour; one of his helpers tagged along as well.

They learned that dark, dirt-like edges around the garden areas was actually made up of ant nests taken from higher elevations. Cutter ants can tear plants to shreds, but it seems the cutter ants down near the fincas don’t like the smell of the “higher” ants, and therefore keep out of the gardens (not sure if this works for other critters as well).

Water is carried from the falls back down to the village through a  pipe system that follows the trail. In most places, the pipe is raised off the ground in an attempt to keep it as straight as possible, and out of the water, using branches and wires.

The guide pointed out a tree whose fruit is used for containers, when dried.

Voila! Guna tupperware!

We have noticed many of the Guna people with red paint-type stuff on their faces. The guide informed Scott, Ted and Barbara that it is actually a type of sunscreen that comes from the berries on this tree. We’d assumed it the red faces had some kind of traditional meaning…sunscreen, go figure.

They continued on through the woods, making their way higher and higher, with the water line leading the way.

The guide stopped to show the three an ant nest, used to create barriers around gardens in the fincas below.

 

After walking approximately four miles, they arrived at the waterfall. It was time for a lunch break…and a swim!

Fed, rested and cooled off, the group began to make their way back. As they walked, Scott noticed a big line of carpenter ants carrying leaves of a tree, along the top of a water pipe. We’re always amazed at what they can carry, and how quickly they can tear something apart.

Nearing the end of the hike, the guide stopped to pick coconuts, so the three could enjoy some fresh coconut water. Thankfully, Scott has not yet attempted to harvest a coconut himself (Kevin Stotz, if you were here, he’d most likely make you do it!), but I’m afraid that day is coming.

Once they were back down among the fincas, the three were met by other little helpers, who were finishing their day’s work on the farms. They happily posed for a photo.

After only a few days at anchor in Snug Harbor, Scott noticed a good weather window for us to get to Cartagena. Not knowing how long we’d have to wait for another, with early spring weather being unpredictable (scratch that, with all weather being unpredictable), we decided to forgo visiting any more of the eastern islands, and make the jump. It would be goodbye to the San Blas, and sadly, to Panama. Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Our Last Weeks In The San Blas Islands

Our last few weeks in the San Blas were spent revisiting several anchorages and saying final goodbyes. I had spread the word for cruisers in the area to gather for a Mardi Gras celebration on Barbecue Island, located at the head of the swimming pool anchorage. We had a terrific turnout, with nearly 40 people arriving by dingy. It was a fun and festive evening!

 

Our friends Tate and Dani (s/v Sundowner) were entertaining their friend, Michele, who was visiting from New Orleans, so several of us gathered at our usual beach spot for afternoon drinks, bobbing and of course some trash burning.

Scott and I brought Micah along, who was aboard Dauntless, our fellow Krogen, and we were all thrilled to have Debbie and Reg join us, from s/v Runner. They have been living at anchor in the swimming pool for almost ten years!  Everyone enjoyed time in the water, and the fun lasted until after sunset.

The forecast called for winds to increase in the coming days, so the following morning we headed just around the corner to the hot tub anchorage, which usually offers a bit more protection from winds and the current that comes with it. For this go-round however, the hot tub was still considerably wind-chopped. In addition, the sun decided to take a break, and windy, cloudy conditions lasted for nearly ten days.

We had sizable neighbors just outside the anchorage, in the form of several large charter yachts. I named this one “Little Titanic.” It was a beautiful yacht from the 1920s, completely refitted in 2003, at what I’m sure had to be an astronomical cost. Speaking of astronomical, $500,000.00 (yes, half a million U.S. Dollars) will buy you a week-long charter….for eight guests. I was happy just to enjoy the view.

Several of our cruising friends waited out the windy weather with us in the hot tub as well. We passed time visiting each other by dinghy, and dealing with the ongoing internet challenge. Our friend Jon spent much time at what we called s/v Prism’s “internet cafe.”

There were several boccie matches on the large beach of a nearby island, an afternoon trash burn at the nearby lazy river beach (you can ride the current, just floating along, around the end of the island) and Sea Life hosted our friends in the anchorage one evening, with Scott making his now-famous quesadillas.

The winds began to die just in time for us to head back to the Robison Islands. A regatta was being held, made up of local Gunas in their sailing ulus. Our friends Ted and Barbara (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) were also in the Robisons, with things for us from Panama City (yes, you always take advantage of having things brought from the city!).

On our way, we decided to make a stop at the Carti Islands, to shop the tienda there. Many friends frequently mentioned it as one of the best locations for produce in the San Blas. We anchored right off of the island, which was crammed with houses and other buildings. Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to locate the ice machine we were told to look for, which marked the pier leading to the tienda.

As we approached, I thought we must have been coming up on the wrong location. Surely this store wasn’t going to have much, other than junk.

Inside, we were impressed with the variety and amount of produce jammed into the small store with dirt floors. There were large bags and boxes full of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots and cabbage, as well as apples, bananas and papaya. A large cooler contained plenty of parsley, celery and culantro, and an abundance of pineapples and netted sleeves of garlic hung from the ceiling beams.

The small store also carried a decent supply of canned food, rice, sodas, cleaning supplies and similar shelved items. We arrived at Carti, shopped and were back on board raising anchor within two hours, and then continued on to the Robisons.

Unfortunately, we decided not to fight winds in the open water, to arrive in time for the regatta. Many cruisers who were already on the Robisons’ side of the archipelago, with a more protected course, had come for the event as well. Most arrived the day before the regatta, and the anchorage was much more crowded than in our previous visit.

By the time we anchored, the main dock on the largest village was crowded with dinghies and ulus, as everyone gathered for an awards celebration. When the party broke up, I was able to get many photos of the colorful ulus sailing away from the village.

Ted and Barbara came over to deliver our requested items from Panama City. We thanked them for their efforts with dinner aboard, and were treated to another full rainbow over the anchorage.

The next morning, we made the 90 minute trip back to Porvenier, with fingers crossed to get ourselves cleared out of Panama. Several dolphins joined us along the way, and they caught our eye as looking a bit different from others we’d seen. They had white speckled bodies, and after some checking, we discovered that they were spotted dolphins.  One of them was completely content to swim upside-down for an extended time alongside the boat. Dolphins….always amusing.

Inside the office, it took some doing to get our exit stamps. The officer was concerned about our paperwork. We had recent exit and re-entry stamps (from my adventure to Panama City with Howard), but our customs form had us checked out three months prior to those dates. Scott explained that the discrepancy wasn’t Panama’s concern, as we weren’t coming back to the country; it was an issue for the agent in Colombia to deal with. He finally got the message through, and the officer stamped us out of the country, but not before confirming one more time that we would not be coming back to Panama anytime soon.

From Porvenier, we began a San Blas farewell tour. Our friends Dani and Tate were anchored in the eastern Lemmon Cays. They had recently decided to sell their sailboat, Sundowner (setting their sights on a larger cruising boat), and the Lemmons anchorage provided a short sail to the mainland for meeting potential buyers. It would be our last chance to see them, and since the anchorage was just 90 minutes from Porvenier,  we headed their way.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to the Lemmon Cays without some time in open water between reefs. Scott decided that since  it was only a short stretch, we could forego putting the paravane birds in the water. He quickly regretted the decision, becoming seasick in the rolling swells. Not wanting to lose speed or time by stopping to put the birds in, Scott instead chose to battle his stomach for the 30 minute open water ride.

I still had some ground beef stashed in the freezer, from Bocas del Toro, so we invited Dani and Tate over for a burgers. The two of them were some of the first cruising friends we met in the San Blas, and we were going to really miss seeing them regularly.

The next morning, our friends Chris and Anne (s/v Mr. Mac) hailed us on the vhf. They had just arrived in the Lemmons, and were anchored right near us, stopping on their way back to Bocas. Mr. Mac would be stored for the summer at Red Frog Marina, while Chris and Anne headed back to North Carolina.

A plan was made to meet at the small restaurant nearby for happy hour drinks, and then back to Mr. Mac for dinner. The four of us met during our stay at Red Frog, and immediately hit it off. It was a treat to have them in the San Blas for much of our stay, and we’ll definitely miss our time together.

From the Lemmons, we made our way to anchor in the swimming pool one last time. Several of our friends were there, giving us the chance for more goodbyes. Another large gathering was planned for Barbeque Island, to celebrate all cruisers with March birthdays. This included several of our friends, so we made our way ashore for one last potluck happy hour.

 

We spent a few more days at anchor in the pool, managing to squeeze in a final trash-burn gathering on one of the local beaches (cocktails included of course), before saying final goodbyes to the people we’d become close with.

Our friends Julie and Tom (s/v Gris Gris) have spent many years cruising the area, and were immediately welcoming when we arrived. They shared their extensive knowledge of the Guna people, and helped with many San Blas cruising details during our stay.

Our beautiful, Trinidad-born friend, Sharda, had worked many years in bakeries, much like myself. We hit it off, trading recipes and tips, with our husbands reaping (or should I say eating) the benefits of our friendship.

With the farewell tour complete, it was time to make our way further east. We would head for some of the more remote anchorages and villages in the eastern San Blas, while waiting on favorable weather to head for Cartagna. It was definitely hard to leave this beautiful place, and all of the great friends we’d met during our stay.

Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

A Fellow Krogen Comes To The San Blas

Scott regularly follows cruising and trawler websites, as well as several blogs. During our refit, and over the last 18 months or so of actively cruising, the various sites and forums have been useful sources of information and first hand knowledge. One of the more interesting blogs is that of Duantless, another 42′ Kadey Krogen trawler.

Richard Bost began cruising with Dauntless in the Bahamas, and then traveled back up the east coast to New York. After his “shakedown” cruise, he headed for Nova Scotia, and then crossed the Atlantic (traveling alone from the Azures to Ireland). Richard wintered in Ireland, and then spent time extensively cruising areas throughout the North and Baltic Seas.

Dauntless returned to Ireland for maintenance and repairs, and then continued on, making stops in France, Portugal, Gibraltar, Morocco and the Canary Islands before crossing back over the Atlantic, and into the Caribbean. After spending time in Martinique to rest and refuel, Richard planned to head for the Panama Canal, stopping in Cartagena along the way.

Scott and Richard had been communicating through Trawler Forum for about a year, trading information back and forth. When logistics for stopping in Cartagena became an issue, Scott convinced Richard to make a detour, and come to the San Blas for a visit.

As Dauntless approached the San Blas, we kept an eye on Richard’s progress through the Delorme link on his blog. We noticed him stopped in Nargana, and realizing that he’d been informed we were there, Scott contacted Richard to let him know that we were now in the Eastern Holandes. It wasn’t long before we spotted Dauntless making her way into the swimming pool anchorage.

Once they were anchored, Scott went over to officially welcome Richard and his nephew Micah to the pool. They had traveled straight through from Aruba, so we made a plan to meet aboard Sea Life for brunch the next morning, giving the two a chance to rest up.

In the morning, rested and refreshed, Richard and Micha joined us for brunch. With full bellies, the inspection of Sea Life began.

 

Then it was back over to Dauntless, where Richard and Scott compare boats and notes.

 

The two enjoyed exchanging information, learning much about how each boat was outfitted. Unfortunately, Richard was on a tight schedule to make his Panama Canal date, so it was a short San Blas visit, but we enjoyed meeting him, and Micah, after following Dauntless’ adventure for the last several years. It was also nice to have another trawler in the anchorage, among all the sailboats!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

Dinner And Drama

We enjoyed getting to know Michele, who was visiting our friends Dani and Tate (s/v Sundowner), so before she left to go home, Scott and I wanted to have the three of them aboard Sea Life for dinner. Unfortunately, when date night came around, Dani wasn’t feeling well, so Tate and Michele joined us as a twosome.

The four of us enjoyed dinner, and Howard amused us all with his usual antics. He tends to burn off his evening energy by racing around the decks like a maniac, before jumping from the cockpit, to the rail, onto the grill, and then launching up to the flybridge. Because we had guests on board, he was extra wound up, and had too much momentum going from the rail to the grill. Instead of landing on it, he sailed past….and into the water.

Luckily, Scott and Tate were outside, and realized that Howard had gone overboard. They began to try and locate him in the water, while I yelled to them to get a towel (A cat can grab the towel with his claws, and hang onto it as you pull him in. We used this tactic on one of the three times Howard went into the Baltimore harbor).

Scott and Tate spotted Howard swimming off of our port side. On top of it being 10pm and dark (why do things like this always happen in the dark?!?), there was a bit of current running through the anchorage. With the Bengal breed being part of his make-up, Howard is a good swimmer, but Scott was concerned that the current would be an issue. As I was still yelling to get a towel, he thrust his hand into the water, hoping to pull Howard back on board.

As Scott reached toward him, Howard bit right into the last two fingers of his right hand, puncturing the pinky, and tearing through the ring finger. With his bloody finger, Scott was still trying to help Howard, who was now attempting to get hold of our inflatable dinghy. Realizing that his finger needed immediate attention, Tate took Scott inside to help wrap the wound.

By now, I was out on the swim platform, and Howard had made his way around to the back of the boat. As he bit at one of our fenders hanging in the water (we later realized that he popped it; jaws of steel), I realized that Howard had not intentionally bitten Scott. He was just desperately trying to grab hold of anything he could with his teeth, to get out of the water as he swam. Howard grabbed right onto the towel that I threw in the water, and I was able to pull him up onto the swim platform and into my lap.

Michele tossed me another towel, and Howard stayed in my lap as I began to dry him off. Once he’d caught his breath, we moved inside, and I went over his fur with “kitty wipes,” so he wouldn’t ingest too much salt as he continued to dry himself off.

Meanwhile, Tate had helped Scott wrap his finger, and was now attacking drops of blood on the saloon rug with hydrogen peroxide (It took the spots right out, along with those on Scott’s shirt; a nice little trick to remember). He suggested that Scott immediately start taking an antibiotic, so I unearthed a bottle of Cipro from our stash of drugs.

Not fifteen minutes after coming out of the water, Howard was crying for food. He wolfed it down, followed by some water (Maybe he was trying to get the taste of salt water out of his mouth?). Once things had settled down, Tate and Michele headed back to Sundowner. Tate was a huge help, and Michele went home with quite a story!

The next morning, being concerned about a cat bite in salt water, I suggested that we try and raise our friends Ted and Barbara (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) on the vhf. They are both doctors, and I wanted to make sure that we treated Scott’s wound correctly.

We were able to reach Ted and Barbara, but because they were several islands away, and our vhf antenna is not nearly as high in the air as that of a sailboat, it was a very, very hard to hear them through the static. Fortunately, our friend Judy was anchored nearby (s/v Chinook). She heard our struggling conversation, and stepped in to relay the conversation for us through her vhf radio; this was a huge help.

Both Barbara and Ted asked Scott several questions, gathering information about the wound. They instructed Scott to add 1500 milligrams of Amoxicillin per day, to the 500 miligrams of Cipro that he was already taking. The two drugs together helped fight any possible infection in a more broad spectrum. In addition, Scott was told to soak the finger twice a day with a diluted iodine solution, and to not fully close the finger up for several days. This would allow the iodine soak to really clean out the wound.

Barbara and Ted suggested that Scott may need a few stitches to close the wound on day three or four. This posed several questions: Do we make the costly trek to a hospital in Panama City, head back to Nargana, and have it stitched at the clinic there or take our friend Chris (s/v Mr. Mac) up on his offer to close the wound (Between our two boats, we had everything needed for this.)? Of course, Scott was voting for option three. Chris had only stitched up lab animals, but skin was skin….right??

Thankfully, we didn’t need to put any of the options in play. Judy came over to take a photo of Scott’s finger on day three (which I had still not looked at…gross). When she sent it to Barbara and Ted, they said that the finger looked great, and instead of stitches, Scott could get just use a sterile-strip to close the wound (thank you to our friend Maria, who is a nurse, and stocked us up on many emergency items before we left home!).

Of course this meant Scott was out of the water for at least two weeks, something he was not happy about. However, during his entire “sentence,” the winds picked up and it was mostly cloudy, which somewhat softened the blow. Scott’s finger healed beautifully, and he and Howard are still friends…for now.

Nargana, Our Visit To The “Big City”

After our friend Karen headed back home, Scott and I decided to head over to the “big city” of Nargana. On the morning net, we regularly hear cruisers mention stopping at the larger, more populated island for fresh produce, water and other items. At only an hour or so from our anchorage in the Coco Bandero Cays, we thought it was time to check out Nargana for ourselves.

One of several larger and more populated islands in the San Blas archipelago, Nargana is joined to the neighboring island of Corazon de Jesus by a covered, concrete bridge. Here’s an overhead view.

Being a “big city,” we were greeted by a sizable cell phone tower, but unfortunately I still struggled with a decent signal (what are these stupid towers made of??)

Not long after we had anchored, a local man stopped by in his ulu. Frederico lives on the island, and offered his help with anything we may need during our stay. His primary income comes from offering laundry service, but thankfully we have a machine here on board. After chatting with Scott a bit, Frederico told Scott where to land the dinghy when we went in for groceries, and then made his way back to shore.

Never meeting a river he didn’t like to explore, Scott took off the next morning to see what the nearby Rio Diablo river had in store (I stayed behind, to fight with the maddening, in-explainable internet service). He found the usual thick jungle-lined shorelines, but also discovered several graveyards through the trees.

Toward the end of his exploration, the sun came out brightly, casting beautifully clear reflections in the water.

That afternoon, we headed into town in search of fresh produce and bread (Guna bread is made with coconut water, and it’s the best!). As we approached the dock, there was Frederico, waiting for us to land. His house is located on the the outer edge of the island, with a view of the anchorage. He’d seen the dinghy heading into town, and came to offer us a tour. Having no idea where to go in search of produce and bread, we thought, why not, and accepted his offer.

Frederico walked us down one of the island’s main streets, passing a heated volleyball game and many gardens.

We ended up at the water’s edge, where there were several graves. Frederico explained that the raised burial sites were important people, but we didn’t quite get the who and why.

He showed us a beach where many turtles come to nest and hatch each year, and then we made our way back to town, walking an old airstrip that used to service the island.

Our quest for bread and produce was lengthy. We’d had no success on Nargana, so it was across the bridge, to try our luck in Corazon de Jesus.

The bread wasn’t too difficult to locate on Corazon de Jesus, although we’d never have found it on our own. Many of the bakeries and tiendas are run out of, or blend right in with homes on the island.

Finding produce was not as easy, or productive. We’d seen several supply boats in town as we came in, but there was nothing to be found but some beat up cabbage, carrots and potatoes. There’s always talk of fresh stuff disappearing the day after it arrives here, and apparently this was true.

After walking both islands in the midday heat, we enjoyed a beer in the shade with Frederico before he walked us back to our dinghy. He raises funds to aide the handicapped people on both islands, and we were happy to donate to his efforts as a thank you for his help in town. I snapped a photo of our friendly guide with Scott, who is a giant in the San Blas; for that matter, in all of Mexico and Latin America.

Our last quest was for gasoline, and we’d been told that Paco’s was the only game in town. Frederico hopped into the dingy to help us locate the pier (again, we’d have never found it on our own). It was quite the place, definitely not your usual gas station. While gasoline was siphoning out of a barrel and into our jerry cans, Frederico grabbed a seat.

With two out of three things checked off our list, we headed back to Sea Life. Off of our bow was the crowded Nargana shoreline, but behind us were beautiful views of scenic islands in front of the mainland mountains.

Before leaving the next morning, I sent Scott back into town to get some more guna bread, so we could stock the freezer. Again, Frederico was there at the dock to greet him, and it was a good thing. They visited seven places, before finding bread. Apparently, it’s not usually ready until early afternoon; very different from the bakeries in other countries, where fresh loaves are available first thing in the morning.

With the big city visit complete, we headed back to the swimming pool anchorage. Our friends Dani and Tate (s/v Sundowner) were expecting a guest with provisions in tow, and some of the loot was for us. On the way, Scott decided to put his fishing rods out, to see what might happen.

As luck would have it, he snagged a little tunny tuna. The poor thing threw up some icky liquid, as I performed my designated “documentation-of-fish-catch” photos. Knowing that Dani and Tate are fans of sushimi, we decided that the fish would make a nice welcome dinner for their guest.

We arrived just in time for Michele’s arrival to Sundowner by panga, and headed over to collect our goodies. It took a little leg work and a bit of water travel, but we had quite a productive and satisfying 48 hours: bread and gasoline in the big city (along with some river exploration), and now butter, pretzels and bacon! Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Our First Visitor!!

Not long after we began our journey, and were spending the month of December in Key West, Florida, several friends visited us during our stay; a quick, easy trip, no customs and warm weather.

Of course, we had a great time with everyone who came to Key West, but we’ve been anxious to have visitors during our travels through Mexico and Central America. While these locations aren’t as developed with resorts, or easy to get to as more familiar locations in the Eastern Caribbean, the towns and anchorages we’ve been to, and their gorgeous surroundings are not to be missed.

We also looked forward to having friends on board, so they could experience a bit of our life at anchor. To date, we’ve been alone on our journey aboard Sea Life, but that was finally about to change!

Our friend Karen contacted us, wanting to visit in February, and I excitedly pitched her the idea of meeting us here in the San Blas. Aside from my sister, Sally (who has traveled on her own to many far-reaching locations, including New Zealand, Thailand, and most recently Antarctica), Karen is one of the most adventurous people we know, so I was sure she’d be up for the adventure. As expected, she jumped right on board with the idea, and would be our first “official” visitor!

Karen’s journey began with a flight to Panama City, where she took a day to explore a bit. Our friend and provisioning master, Emilio, arranged for Karen to see some historic sites of Panama City, as well as a visit to the Miraflores Locks at the Panama canal.

The next morning, Emilo arrived at Karen’s hotel with a carload of provisions for us. Karen had arrived with two bags in tow, completely filled with items we’d requested and ordered from home, carrying  just a backpack of things for herself (and a pair of flippers). Her bags were loaded in with our provisions, and she and Emilio were off to meet Nacho, who would then drive Karen across the mountains to the Carti docks.

During the drive, Karen re-channeled her high school Spanish, and with a bit of Google Translate help, she and Nacho chatted (he remembered driving me…”Oh, the cat!). Along the way, they stopped for a priest and a young man who were walking on the side of the road, hoping for a ride. Nacho turned to Karen and said, “Miss Karen??” It was Karen’s paid ride, so it was her decision whether or not to let them in the car. Not wanting to say no to a priest, Karen gave her ok, and the two additional passengers hopped in.

Once at the dock, Nacho helped Karen find her panga, which we had pre arranged. There was some initial confusion as to which boat was hers, but finally all bags and provisions were loaded aboard one of the waiting boats. Karen would be brought out to us in the Robisons. It meant a short panga ride (20-30 minutes), and a chance to see the rural Guna villages.

We’d been in touch with Karen since she arrived in Panama City, and also along her journey over the mountains, so as the approximate arrival time for the panga drew near, we kept our eyes peeled.

The expected time passed, and then some more time passed…and then some more time. Eventually, our cell phone rang, and it was Karen (we were shocked to have enough signal to receive the call!). She informed us that the panga couldn’t find our boat among the others, and the men wanted to take her back to the dock…what?!?

Clearly, the panga was in the wrong location, as we were one of only five boats in the huge anchorage, and the only one that wasn’t a sailboat! Scott quickly began listing off the islands near us (using both “English” and Guna names for them), and also nearby rivers, hoping that the men on the panga would realize where they needed to go.

When that didn’t work, he went into navigational/survivalist mode, asking Karen questions, trying to find out where she was…”When you left the dock, did you head right or left?”…”From which side of the boat were the waves coming at you”… “What side of your face was the sun on?” This proved challenging for all involved. Karen now had us on speaker phone, and we could hear the men yelling back and forth at each other in frustration.

After talk of leaving her on the island where they currently were (wherever that was), we were finally able to communicate our location using Bradeo’s name (Scott’s village tour guide). We hoped that there was only one Bradeo (and that it wasn’t a name like “Joe”), and Karen would be headed in the right direction.

It wasn’t long before we spotted what had to be her panga on the horizon, and were soon unloading Karen, her bags and all of our provisions; her 20-30 minute ride had taken almost 90 minutes. After a bathroom break, and a cold beer, we took some time to relax before our friend Ted (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) came over in his dinghy to take us over for a walk through the largest village near us.

We were not permitted to take photos in the village, but enjoyed walking among the houses and saying hello to some of the Gunas. Our long day ended with dinner on board and an early night. Things were so crazy, I failed to get any photos of Karen’s arrival.

Bright and early the next morning, we headed back to the Holandes. The wind forecast was predicted to be perfect for Karen’s stay, so we were headed for the swimming pool anchorage. Unfortunately, during our short passage between the reefs, in open ocean swells, Karen became sea sick while trying to check emails (the price for working during vacation!). After emptying her stomach over board, she retired to the guest stateroom, to sleep it off.

We arrived to a fully cloudy, rainy afternoon in the swimming pool, which never happens! However, Scott spotted a Triggerfish under the boat, and decided on an alternate form of entertainment for amusing Karen. While she kept an eye on the fish, Scott set up one of my frozen lobster tails in the water for bait (great). He speared the large Trigger from our swim platform…dinner and a show!

The rains finally ended, and we were treated to an amazing, full rainbow over the anchorage, that faded and then brightened again for quite a long time…welcome to the San Blas, Karen.

Keeping the underwater show going, Scott next lowered the Triggerfish carcass into the water, to see what it might attract. Karen and I were relaxing up on the flybridge, when I noticed Howard in front of me, leaning over so far that he was practically hanging by his toes. I went to grab him, and realized that we had company in the water below.

Two blacktip reef sharks had turned up to sniff out our offering. Howard moved downstairs, and out onto the swim platform for a better look. We quickly squashed his fun, not wanting him to be the second course!

The sharks were sizeable, approximately six feet in length. They would bite at the carcass, but were easily scared off by seeing us above.

By dusk, a third shark had joined in, and we enjoyed a shark-filled sunset.

Check out our “friends” at the bottom of the photo.

Just before the sun set, one of the sharks finally mustered up enough courage to snatch the prize, and just as quickly as they came, they were gone.

The next morning was sunny and bright, and the swimming pool was living up to it’s name; the visibility was insanely clear. We were anchored in ten feet of water, and I could easily see right over the side of the boat, down to the sea floor below, which was littered with sand dollars, conch shells and other interesting stuff.

Karen joined us in the dinghy, as I passed out baked treats to our friends in the anchorage, who we hadn’t seen for awhile. By the time we were through, Venancio, the master mola maker was coming through in a panga. He came aboard, and Karen took time to choose some of his work to take home. Much to Scott’s chagrin, I bought another beautiful mola for myself.

It was now time for water play! Scott took Karen snorkeling on the reef behind our boat. He’d find interesting things to show her along the way, and also snagged some trinkets from to floor below us.

Next, Scott took Karen to the outer reef, for a change of scene.

Karen and I enjoyed some time “bobbing” on our water loungers, and watched a large yacht at the back of the anchorage lower one of their several tenders down into the water. If only the Aluminum Princess had it so smooth and easy going up and down!

I’d rallied a gathering for cocktails and sunset on one of the nearby island beaches, and we headed over to our waiting friends.

Our friends were very welcoming to Karen, as cruisers are, and we all enjoyed a great evening.

Another beautiful sunrise over the anchorage brought a plan to change location.

With the calm wind forecast, we decided show Karen the Coco Bandero Cays, it’s beautiful island views and my favorite beach. Before leaving, we were lucky enough to catch a veggie boat coming into the anchorage..who came to us first!!! We hadn’t seem them before, but were glad for the chance to stock up before leaving. Their daughter swam around the panga while we shopped, and then practiced her motor-starting skills.

With fresh produce on board, we left the anchorage, bound for the Cocos. Just around the corner, our friends Jon and Shannon (s/v Prism) came into view, on their way back to the pool. We waved and snapped photos of each other as our boats crossed paths.

Karen stayed off of the internet, escaped sea sickness and we  enjoyed the scenic ride to the Coco Bandero Cays.

The next day, Karen and I spent the afternoon on my favorite beach, while Scott went out to hunt the reef. We had the beautiful little island all to ourselves.

There were more snorkeling outings, and we also took a dinghy ride around the area, passing over some massive coral. Aside from that, our last day together was spent walking the islands’ beaches and bobbing in the water. We also introduced Karen to the official cruisers’ game of Mexican Train dominoes!

After the crazy panga ride to the Robisons, we arranged Karen’s return pick up through Nacho, thinking that using a Guna driver to set up a Guna panga would work better. We also assumed that Nacho would keep things on time, to avoid waiting at the docks for Karen.

Nacho informed us that a panga would be at the boat to pick Karen up, in the Cocos, at 6am on Sunday morning. Scott thought this suspect, as the sun doesn’t even come up until 6:30am, and the area is much too full of coral for a panga to come out any earlier, even for locals. We expected to see the ride arrive closer to 7:00.

Seven am came and went, so Scott and Karen made their way in the dinghy to the beach behind us, for a cell signal to contact Nacho (Seriously, on board…no signal at all…just behind us on the beach…terrific. The only thing in between us and the tower?…a spindly island. Scott’s convinced that the palm trees here must be lead-lined).

As soon as they left, our friend Ted (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) hailed us on the vhf radio. There was a panga alongside his boat, and he was fairly sure they were looking for Sea Life, and Karen. I was afraid to ask where Ted was anchored, fearing that it was hours away, but he replied that they were in the nearby Western Cocos…whew!

I relayed to Ted where we were, and thanked him for sending the panga in the right direction. Hearing all of this on the portable vhf, Scott and Karen were already headed back to the boat. Ten minutes later, she boarded her ride for the mainland.

In just over an hour, the appropriate time for a ride from the Cocos, Karen was back at the Carti dock with no issues, and on her way over the mountains with Nacho. Aside from having to stop and wait for Nacho to get his breakfast, her trip went smoothly, and she arrived at the airport in plenty of time for the flight home.

The crew on board Sea Life, including Howard, spent the rest of the day relaxing, and enjoyed another beautiful sunset.

So, I think all of the San Blas experience boxes were checked during Karen’s stay: seeing a Guna village; getting sea sick (could’ve skipped that); spearing fish; seeing sharks; eating fresh-caught lobster, fish and crab; snorkeling, hanging with cruisers at a beach gathering; bobbing; having a private beach day;  seeing a long-lasting, full rainbow on the water; purchasing molas, playing Mexican Train dominoes, buying food from a veggie boat and taking in lots of gorgeous views!

Karen quickly adapted to life at anchor with us during her visit, learning where things were, dealing with generator day, helping with laundry, tolerating Scott’s yes’s and no’s on board the boat (yes, you can take all the time you want choosing a beverage from the Engel cooler, but shut the refrigerator door immediately!), helping us prepare to get underway and  personally dealing with the Congresso, when they came for their monthly anchoring fee!

It was so great to see our friend, and have a “piece of home” on board for a bit. We greatly appreciate that Karen rose to the challenge of visiting us in such a remote location, and hope she survived to visit us again! Here are a few more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

 

Scott’s Trip To An Inland Guna Village

Guna villages have not always been located on the islands of the San Blas archipelago. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the small coral and mangrove estuaries of the San Blas were ideal for trade activities of the numerous pirates and traders operating in the region.

By the end of the 18th century when the days of piracy had passed, the Guna people slowly began to move from the protective cover of the jungle to the coastline, and by the middle of the 19th century, they started transferring their villages to the islands offshore.

The Guna Yala forest property extends for more than 1,250 square miles along the northeast corner of Panama’s Caribbean coast. There are still a few villages that exist in the jungles of the mainland forest, and near its rivers.

Gangandi, one of these villages, is relatively isolated, and one of Guna Yala’s poorest communities. It was not far from our anchorage in the Robison Islands, so Scott joined our friends Barbara and Ted (s/v Rosa dos Ventos), and two other cruisers for a tour. They were led by Bradeo, a local Guna who spent many years living in Panama City, before choosing to come back home to settle in the Robinsons.

Bradeo (with two “assistants” in tow) arrived to pick up everyone at their respective boats in an ulu, outfitted with loose boards across it to serve as bench seats. The group balanced on the unattached, wobbly boards as the ulu made a 45 minute ride through open water chop of the Bay of San Blas, then 25 minutes  up a canal once used  by the United Fruit Company to transport bananas, before finally going ashore.

The next leg of their journey involved a 3-4 mile hike to the village. Not long after going ashore, the group walked an old air strip, also used by the United Fruit Company. Previously paved in tar, the runway was large enough to accommodate jets and Scott has since spotted it on Google Earth.

They crossed a stream, noticing two small rails paralleling the wooden bridge across it; the remains of the United Fruit Company’s railroad tracks. The Gunas used these rails to transport  wheeled vehicles across the river, their tires rolling between the beams. Panama eventually built a bridge, to more easily transport construction materials for a new school.

The group continued on, following the wide dirt road through the jungle, eventually reaching the edge of the village.

They first came to the area where a new school was being built. Panama requires the schools to be built with cinder block and concrete.

Scott wasn’t sure it was worth the time, as the current school didn’t appear to be getting much use.

The group walked through the village, passing many homes, several small tiendas (stores) and the congreso building.

Men gather nightly in the congreso, to discuss local events and problems, make decisions on pressing matters and listen to the advice of the saila (Chief).

The saila sings the history, legends and laws of the Guna, and also sees over the day-to-day political and social affairs of the village. The songs are sung in a “higher” language, with specialized words, and are followed by an interpretation from one of the voceros (interpreters and counselors), in”everyday” Guna language..

The group was allowed inside the congreso building, to speak to the saila. Two other chiefs from nearby villages were visiting; a big event. The sailas were all laying in hammocks, and stayed put while talking to the group (occasionally leaning over to spit on the floor), while the voceros sat on surrounding wooden benches.

After their chat with the sailas, the group continue to walk the village. Photos were allowed, as long as the villagers were not in them. Of course, Scott found his way around the rule, and managed to stealthily take some photos, camera down at his side. His results were pretty good, capturing women hanging laundry, children at play and some “lazy” villagers napping in the sun.

On the far side of the village, the group made their way down a hill, to the Gangandi River. Ahead of them, scenic, mountain views; behind them, the village, all but hidden from view by the jungle trees.

Originally located along the banks of the river, the Gangandi village began to experience life-threatening floods during the rainy season, with waters rising to extreme record levels.

In 2010, the elders finally decided to make a move. They suspended hunting and gathering, and tending to their crops, to concentrate all efforts on the monumental task of moving their village from the low-lying river bank, to more steeply elevated land. Teams of men, women and children managed to complete the move within four months, but suspending their food-providing tasks took much longer to recover from.

Today, women and children gather at the river’s edge to collect gravel, which is used to make concrete for construction of the new school.

The gravel is bagged, then hauled (on their backs) to various area in the village, where it is spread out to dry.

The women are paid roughly a whopping $1.50 for every 50 pounds of gravel, with the money going to the village.

After returning from the river, and through the village, the group made their way back to the canal. Bradeo carried bananas and yucca with him for his family, back on the island village.

The group boarded their waiting ulu, and headed back to the Robinson anchorage. It had been a long, but very interesting day.

Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

 

Visiting The Western San Blas

After Howard’s Panama City adventure, we headed back to the Eastern Holandes. We were told that Howard’s post-vet photo didn’t come through on my previous post. It can now been viewed, but here he is in all his shaved belly glory, just hours after returning from his adventure.

Our route took us past the Carti group of islands, most of which had densely populated villages. This overhead photo gives you a good idea of just how crowded they are.

I snapped pictures of the villages as we passed by, and of women paddling their ulus.

We moved father east, and chose to travel through the Lemmon Cays along the way, admiring the return of sandy, palm tree islands and beautiful blue water.

We were amused by these two little huts, smartly outfitted with both solar panels and a wind generator, and also a huge sailing yacht!

In four hours time, we were back in the “hot tub,” and delivered goodies from Panama City for our friends Tate and Dani (s/v Sundowner).

After some time with friends anchored in the area, we returned to Porvenier in early February to see Joe, for Scott’s passport renewal stamp.

My passport stamp date is now different from Scott’s, as I’d flown in and out of Panama when I visited Baltimore, so I am now permitted to be in the country on a “tourist” visa (good for 180 days) until the beginning of April . Since Scott was still working with a “mariner’s visa,” (stamped when we arrived by boat in August), his stamp expires every 90 days, so we needed to get his renewed again.

When we arrived at the immigration office in Provenier, Joe wasn’t there, but the young man on duty stamped Scott’s passport with no problem, (and no charge!) and we headed happily back to the boat.

Our supply of dinghy gas was getting low, so Scott planned to make a stop at the nearby island of Wichubwala while we were here dealing with immigration. However, it was now too late for a gas run, so that would have to wait for morning.

The anchorage off of Porvenier is open to the ocean swells, and even with our flopper stoppers in, it was a rolly go; so much so that Scott got seasick. The next morning, he mustered up the energy to go for gas, only to realize upon arriving at the dock that everything was closed. It was Sunday, so that meant we’d be spending another rolly night at anchor.

Our extra day was not completely in vain, as we were visited by the mother of all veggie boats! The National Waiters panga stopped by on their way to the outer anchorages, loaded with produce.  As they cut open the large bags of potatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers and other items to sell us, it was like Christmas! The produce was some of the best we’d purchased so far, including a the longest bunch of celery I’ve ever seen!

After filling our dinghy gas tanks on Monday morning, we left the area near Provenier, passing more densely populated islands. After traveling close to the shore of Panama’s mainland, now in the western area of the San Blas islands, we decided to investigate Nalia Bay.

The bay was lined with beautifully lush rain forest. Since we hadn’t seen that much green in months, it seemed like a great place to spend a few days. We had the bay all to ourselves, except for the few locals who were clearing land up on one of the hills, preparing to build a house; they waved their arms in a hello as we dropped anchor.

The surroundings were gorgeous, and it was a treat to have the area all to ourselves. However, in all our excitement, we failed to realize that our anchorage was also surrounded by mangroves….many, many mangroves…which means biting noseeums!

By the time we had pulled all of our screens closed, it was too late. Those evil bugs, the size of a grain of pepper with a bite like a bee sting, had taken over inside the boat. I spent hours just slapping my legs, trying to kill them as they bit me. Scott chastised me, for not “just dealing with it,” but later we both spent the night in long pants and long-sleeved shirts!

Scott finally snapped, as they bit at his uncovered face, and began to smash all he could see on the stateroom wall. Counting each one, he killed 320…just in our stateroom.

Even though the bugs were miserable, the internet signal was surprisingly terrific considering we were surrounded by dense jungle (I have given up trying to make sense of when, where and how internet signals work in the San Blas). We decided to gut it out one more day, so I could upload photos, and get a blog post or two out.

Scott took advantage of his surroundings, and went off immediately the next morning to explore the bay.

He landed the dinghy in a “mud hole,” and ended up hiking through the surrounding hills.

He came back with some great photos of Sea Life alone at anchor, but his shoes were caked in mud.

An additional day was all we could stand, and the following morning we ran, covered in bites, for open water, where welcome winds blew away the unwanted pests.

We continued to follow the mainland coast, and our next stop was the the Robison Island group, where there were many Guna island villages. Here we chose to anchor just off of the mountainous mainland, near three villages, offering us a beautiful view.

The two smaller islands were each made up of one extended family.

There were many more ulus with sails here (notice the man in green shirt falling overboard…which we saw happen several times, as the narrow boats suddenly shifted).

We noticed many more children than we’d seen before, and it was also surprising to see very, very young children out paddling and sailing in ulus without adults. It’s obviously a much simpler, safer life here.

Our friends Ted and Barbara (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) were here when we arrived. We’d seen them at anchor in Isla Mujeres last winter, but didn’t actually meet until we were both in Providencia in June. It was good to catch up with them, and have friends in the anchorage here to spend time with.

There were several inland rivers nearby, so Scott lowered the Aluminum Princess for some extreme exploring. He traveled miles up the up the Mandinga River, lined thick with jungle vines. It became quite narrow in places, and almost blocked his way in others.

He fought his way past the dead wood coming out of the river, which offered more sandy banks along it’s route.

Howard enjoyed the anchorage here as well, and the many smells coming from land close by. When Scott lowered his green LED light into the water each evening, Howard would go right out to the swim platform, for a look at the fish below. However, he also enjoyed waiting for the fish to jump, from the inflatable dinghy, that spent evenings hanging from our port side.

Scott tolerated this surprisingly well, but became pretty peeved when Howard decided that the tiller for the dinghy’s motor made a good chew toy.

Aside from the sound of people talking in passing ulus, or children playing on the islands, it was quiet, and very peaceful. Being close to the mountains, it was cooler here at night, and the smell of smoke from the villages came gently through our stateroom hatch. It was like we were camping, with the smoldering campfire just outside our tent. These things filled in for the feel and smell of fall, that we miss. Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

 

Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Groceries In The San Blas Islands

As you may imagine, keeping stocked on groceries and supplies in the San Blas was challenging, to say the least. Although we were glad that Howard’s trip to the vet in Panama City resulted in no real issue, it gave me the chance to stock up on groceries and such. As long as the round trip by water and land was already in motion (to the tune of $200.00+ dollars) it was smart to fill the car and get my money’s worth!

With the trip to Panama City being logistically and time challenging, as well as costly, cruisers usually find other ways to get what they need.

There are several larger islands that have tiendas, or stores, on them. They offer a limited selection of canned items, rice, boxed milk and juice and produce that is more shelf-stable, such as onions, carrots, eggs (not refrigerated here) and potatoes.

Boats from Colombia arrive with supplies for these stores at various times each week, bringing with them, among other things, fresh produce. Scott is amazed that these old, wooden boats (that have seen much better days) make the journey to and from the San Blas, without breaking apart in the big waters off of Colombia.

Unfortunately, the fresh stock is usually depleted within two days, so unless you happen to be very close by when the word gets out about a boat coming in, you’re out of luck.

Many out here use the chance to have things brought to them through other cruisers who may be traveling to Panama City, or through friends (or friends of friends) coming to visit. We have taken advantage of all three of these scenarios to restock on hard goods and groceries.

So….unless you are traveling near one of the larger villages when a shipment arrives, or have some form of Panama City connection coming to the area, the usual cruiser method for getting food (aside from fishing) is the veggie boat.

These pangas visit the many anchorages in the San Blas, bringing with them fresh veggies, fruit, beer, boxed wine, soda and sometimes meat and cheese. Their boats are filled with bags and crates of goods, and many also have “mobile” freezers, that may contain celery, parsley, chicken, cheese or butter.

Some items are weighed by a hand-held scale, and others are sold by piece. We (especially Scott) have become familiar with most words needed to communicate what foods we need. For the rest, we just point.

Word spreads of these traveling grocery stores’ arrival over the vhf radio. You may hear, “There’s a veggie boat in the anchorage!” or, “A veggie boat is just left Esnasdup, on it’s way to Green Island.” Some cruisers even have direct access to the boats by phone, and alert others as to when they will be coming to certain anchorages: “A veggie boat will be in the eastern Holandes early tomorrow morning, around 8am.” Knowing a boat is on the way gives you a heads up to stay put and be on alert, so as not to miss your chance at buying food!

In anchorages farther east, such the Holandes (swimming pool and hot tub), where we spent much time, the boats have to pass through stretches of open ocean, and come less frequently when strong winds are blowing. Between high winds and the holidays, we went almost three weeks without seeing one around Christmastime.

Now don’t get me wrong, we’re by no means in danger of starving here aboard Sea Life. We packed her to the gills with canned and dry goods before coming to the San Blas, along with plenty of soda and alcohol. However, you never shake the panic of not having convenient access to things, especially fresh food.

It has become more and more common for pangas to bring pre ordered groceries out to cruisers at anchor, especially to those who stay out for months at a time, or even year-round. Recently, these boats have even started to deliver diesel, gasoline and water…smart thinking!

The veggie boats usually stop first at cruisers who have placed an order, and then proceed to sell to the rest of the anchorage, usually starting at the front of the pack, working their way back. The excitement of spotting a veggie boat is quickly deflated by having it blow by you, and then watching and waiting for it to stop at all the other boats before coming to yours. Since we usually try to be toward the back of an anchorage, and away from any crowd of boats, we are typically one of the last ones “in line.”

This whole process is incredibly stressful for Scott. Once the panga has been spotted, and identified that it is indeed a veggie boat, he keeps track of it’s progress through the anchorage, eyes peeled through binoculars, trying to see how much is being taken at each stop. I commonly hear, “@#%*@#!, so-and-so just hauled up two buckets full of stuff onto their boat! They just got here yesterday, and we’ve been here a week! We’re going to be last, and there won’t be anything left but some rotten @#%*!

These veggie boats must smell interesting to Howard, because once they’re tied alongside us, he jumps up on the rail, or cries to be held, to see what’s going on. Most of the men were taken aback at first, as Howard is much larger than any island cat (he is in no danger of starving either). We hear…“Grande!” or “Mucho Gato!” Several boats have learned his name, and call out “HOW-arrd!” as he appears.

The usual veggie boat produce choices include: cabbage, iceberg lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and occasionally green beans.

Unfortunately, as you may expect, the quality of these items isn’t always the best. Tomatoes are hard, and very often more green than red. No matter how hard you try, they will not ripen, and instead rot pretty quickly if not used. Carrots and cucumbers can be gigantic, and sometimes bitter as a result.

The outer leaves of cabbage and iceberg lettuce heads are usually peeled off when sold, to exposed the non-wilted, inner leaves. We were so desperate for lettuce after one “dry spell,” that we paid for these sad, little things….the tiniest heads of lettuce ever seen!

Fruit offerings usually consist of pineapple, papaya, apples, limes, oranges, grapefruit, bananas and mangoes (once, I got avocados). The pineapples have been decent, but not nearly as good as the candy-sweet ones we were getting in Bocas del Toro, and the poor apples that I’ve tried are just tart and tasteless. I’m not a papaya fan, and the mangoes are very stringy, making them hard to eat. The damned bananas stay green and hard forever, and then ripen and rot in just days. As a result, we have eaten many banana muffins!

I’ve mentioned before that we have discovered “limon mandarinas” during our travel in Panama. They are about the size of a mandarin orange, and usually beat up-looking on the outside. The inside is orange, but tart like a lime. However, they are a bit sweeter, and juicer than the tiny, key lime-like ones that are also offered, and we’ve come to like them much more. Here’s a quick photo I grabbed from the internet, as we are currently out of them.

Image result for limon mandarina

We’ve gotten good celery and parsley from inside the “mobile” freezer, and there’s almost always “culantro.” It grows wild in the area, and smells and tastes exactly like cilantro.

I once saw shredded cheese in the freezer, and have also heard of people getting butter from it as well.

On one occasion, we were told by a veggie boat that they had chicken (pollo) available. Scott indicated, by putting two fingers toward his eyes and then toward the freezer, that he wanted to “see” said pollo. Out came a whole, dead chicken, and I mean whole…no feathers, but head, beak, legs and feet intact. I was definitely not up for that remote island challenge, so we passed on the pollo.

Overall, there are many more food choices than I expected to get here in the San Blas, and for the most part, we’re satisfied with what we get, and enjoy it. Here’s the result of a good veggie boat visit for us. Notice Howard getting right to work on his favorite…the pineapple tops.

Thankfully, Scott’s prediction of empty bins with only some rotten @*#! left, only happened to us once. There was almost always a decent choice of food left the in the boat when it arrived, and we’d live to eat another day.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”