Moonrise is cursed. It's the curse of grime, and we can't seem to shake it off.
As long as I had Moonrise in Alameda, I couldn't sail her without getting black hands. This was due to handling the ropes, which, hanging outdoors all the time, picked up all the exhaust pollution from the air. I replaced all the halyards with shiny new ones when I bought the boat, and within weeks they were disgustingly black and grimy.
So, I had high hopes that once cruising, I would be able to get the boat thoroughly clean, and never again have black hands. Well, of course, we spent months in San Diego, near the airport, Coast Guard helicopter base, and navy airfield, and the pollution was worse than ever. But, as we were preparing to leave, we got fresh ropes out of plastic bags, cleaned the old girl up, and got her all ship-shape.
Then the wildfires hit, and dumped a quarter-inch layer of ash all over our decks. For weeks afterward, even after the fires were out, every wind off the land would blow ash in from the desert; combined with the morning dew, we soon had disgusting black slime over everything.
Out of San Diego at last, we thought it was all over. More smoke off Mexico set us back a little; but soon it seemed we were in the clear. Until we got farther down central America, and got into the sugar-cane regions, where they are always burning off old cane; with the result that huge flakes of black ash fall from the sky. Once again, there was soon a coating of black gunk over everything.
The sugar-cane fires persisted down Central America, and even into Balboa; but once through the canal, we were upwind of all that, and safe at last! Or so we thought.
Colon seems to have a rubbish problem. Two years ago, when Rachel came through here, there was a plague of flies over the town from the dump. Now, it seems that the rubbish dump has resorted to fire to drive the flies off. When the wind is off the sea, as it usually is, this is no problem for Colon, but these last few days, the wind has been off the land in the morning, with the result that Colon has been suffocating in evil-smelling smoke. And Moonrise, of course, has picked up a fresh layer of black soot.
Now, these logs may not have created a very positive impression of Panama, but this is very unfair -- as we've been stuck in the two major commercial ports for the sake of our canal transit, we've been exposed to the worst side of the country. Panama, however, has very much more to offer than Colon; beautiful mountains, remote villages, lovely islands, and much more. So, it was with great relief that we finally raised the anchor at 8:30 am. and headed out to sea.
There are three main anchorage areas within Bahia Limon, the huge harbour formed by two 2-mile breakwaters; and the Atlantic anchorage outside. As we motored towards the breakwater, past Cristobal Signal Station (the traffic control centre for the Cristobal/Colon side), we could see dozens of huge ships swinging at anchor. At 9:04, we passed the breakwater, and entered the Caribbean for real; and found ourselves surrounded by freighters in the Atlantic anchorage. Turning east, we soon left them behind, and headed for Portobelo.
Portobelo is a historic bay about 20 miles northeast of Colon. It was discovered and named ("Beautiful port") by Columbus, and in 1570 was used by Drake as a base for harassing the Spanish treasure ships. In 1597, the Spanish chose Portobelo as the port where goods from the colonies were loaded onto ships, and a programme of fortifications was begun; only to be interrupted by Drake, who destroyed the fortifications but then died, being buried at sea in a lead casket just outside the bay.
After this, the Spanish kept up an impressive flow of treasure through Portobelo, being harried by captains such as Henry Morgan and Admiral Vernon ("Old Grog", after whom the drink is named).
Today, Portobelo is a beautiful bay, dominated by the remains of four Spanish forts; it is also known as the home of the Black Christ, the patron of pickpockets. The forts are beautiful; ancient stone walls, pocked by gun slits loaded with cannons, and connected by protected pathways which wind up the steep hillsides. We arrived at about 1:15 pm., after a short and easy motor from Colon, and anchored off the northern fort.
After a quick exploration of the fort, we headed to the town. The town has a distinctly Caribbean feel; it's hard to say why, but the atmosphere is quite different to the Hispanic towns we've visited. The place is quite basic, but has an undeniable character; the church, as might be expected, is lavish and beautiful, with depictions of the Black Christ. The ancient customs house is an impressive building, too.
We started to explore the town, and the little handcrafts market, but soon found ourselves caught up in a festival. It just happened that today was the culmination of a series of religious events, the day when the devils are driven out of the town. We soon found out what an energetic affair this is, but not before meeting an old friend -- Marin, our pilot from the canal!
Marin had told us he might be in Portobelo, but on Monday, and we had thought of trying to meet him; but we just couldn't get here in time. It turned out that he was delayed by work, so we just bumped into each other in the town square! He introduced us to his kids and extended family, and acted as our guide for the big event of the day.
All through the afternoon, devils -- represented by extravagantly- costumed townspeople -- appear, and torment the villagers (those taking part in the festival, anyway) with the whips they carry. Certain people dress themselves up in comical clothes and makeup to act as the unwise fools who dally with the devils, and get whipped around the legs for their pains. The devils have the most fantastic costumes, all different, and topped by elaborate and grotesque masks.
The main event is in the evening, when the whole town gathers in the square to watch the devils run amok with the poor fools. The fools taunt the devils, who whip them around the legs -- and this is no joke, we saw big welts and some blood drawn, and a lot of participants were limping.
The devils don't have it all their own way, though -- as the evening goes on, a team of angels, dressed all in white, run through the crowd with a long rope, capturing the devils one at a time, and baptising them, at which point their mask comes off and they are out of the ceremony.
The antics of the fools and devils -- the youngest are barely walking, and still elaborately costumed -- get wilder and wilder. At one point the devils tempt the villagers with sweets, and the poor fools fall for it, getting more whipping. All the time the devils are being thinned out by the angels; but towards the climax, the chief devil appears, a truly grotesque figure, played, as it happened, by Marin's uncle!
We never got to see what happened to the boss devil, but the evening was certainly memorable. Marin headed back to work, a night shift directing ships at the Cristobal Signal station; and we rowed back to the boat to collapse in bed. And the good news is that we're out of the smoke -- for now -- even though the boat still smells of it.Thu 26 Feb 2004 21:26 America/Panama
We continued our exploration of Portobelo's ancient forts this morning, when we got up early to beat the heat of the day and rowed over to the fort at 8 am. The fort is in two levels, the lower being the larger, connected by a steep pathway dug into the hillside to as to be protected from gunfire. The cannons are mostly still there, and the walls are in fairly good condition, so there's plenty to see. The upper fort makes a picturesque vantage point, with good views of the whole bay.
Rachel headed back to the beach after that, but I persevered and climbed up a narrow, steep path to the top of the hill, where the third part of the ancient defences stands; a small stone keep, surrounded by a moat about 6 feet deep and 10 wide. The moat was completely covered by dense cobwebs, though I don't know how the spiders got across it with their webs -- mind you, they were huge, about 4 inches across. I think the spiders alone would have kept invaders at bay.
The moat was bridged by a rotten-looking old plank, which I dared, testing its strength as I went. As I made it across, I almost walked right into a huge spider, which was hanging in its web in the middle of the doorway! Inside, the keep was pretty spartan, with a well in the centre, and a partly-ruined tower in one corner. The keep has commanding views of the approaches to the bay, and was probably a lookout post for the guns below; but it must have served as a vantage point since Columbus got here. It was fascinating to be standing on the same spot where Columbus and Drake once stood, looking at the same strange plants, toucans in the trees, and the beautiful view over the lake. I wonder if they saw the spiders too?
With our exploring done, it was time to leave, except that we rowed back to the town on the other side of the bay to drop off some things for Marin. We'd printed some pictures of him piloting us through the canal as souvenirs, and we left them with his grandmother, who lives in town.
Finally, we were off. Our destination was a little anchorage off Punta Macolla, just 20 miles away; the reason for stopping there is to be in a good spot to set off for the San Blas islands the next day. It's a 35-mile run to the San Blas, through some narrow passages between reefs; and you need to arrive when the Sun is high, so as to see the coral when making your way into the islands. So, we want to do the whole run in daylight, and we'll be leaving Macolla at about 7 am.
Our run to Macolla, though, was pretty easy, except that we also wanted to arrive there in daylight, and we'd left Portobelo a little late. After an uneventful motor, we finally got there around dusk, and set the anchor mid-way between the reefs on either side of the bay.
So now here we are, anchored in a beautiful little spot; and for the first time, there are no jetskis, low-flying aircraft, pangas, cars, busses, generators on other boats... just us, the surf on the rocks, and cicadas in the jungle. Ahhhh!Fri 27 Feb 2004 21:55 America/Panama
We're here at last! We upped anchor from Macolla at 7 am., and we weren't sorry to get out of there -- it was a pretty narrow bay, surrounded by reefs, and quite exposed to the swell that was being pushed in by the north wind. This wind was our friend as soon as we cleared the anchorage, though; we set sail and had a good ride along the coast.
We needed to get to Porvenir while the Sun was high, and I'm glad to say we were at the reefs by 1:30 pm. The high Sun certainly helped, and Porvenir turned out to be well-protected by barely-submerged coral reefs, but we made it in. The island is tiny -- about 600 yards long, and that's all airstrip for the island air service from Panama City. This is where Rachel's friends, Meg and Chan, will be arriving tomorrow morning; the island contains the airstrip, a small immigration post, and that's about it. All of the people hereabouts live on other islands nearby, and small canoes known as ulus are the main more of transportation.
The San Blas islands are properly known as the Kuna Yala territory, gained near-independence from Panama in 1938, and since then the 55,000 Kuna people have flourished as a self-governing territory. Their main (if not only) source of cash is tourism, and selling handcrafts to tourists.
The Kuna women dress in striking costumes, surprisingly European in style, with brightly patterned skirts and blouses. The blouses are decorated with vibrant panels, made in a reverse-applique process, and featuring intricate geometric designs; these panels, known as molas, are much sought after by tourists. The best ones are put together with hundreds of stitches so tiny they can't be seen.
The Kuna ladies have a reputation for being quite aggressive in selling their wares; unsurprisingly so, perhaps, given that this is their livelihood. We certainly found this to be true -- we hadn't got the anchor set when an ulu came alongside, with the women inside whipping out molas, bracelets, etc., and loudly exhorting us to buy. We did buy a couple, and we finally managed to persuade them that we had to finish anchoring and get some rest!
So we're finally here; Porvenir looks beautiful, as do all the surrounding islands, and hopefully we'll get some snorkelling in soon.Sat 28 Feb 2004 20:49 America/Panama
We picked up Meg and Chan, Rachel's friends, from the "airport" on Porvenir this morning. The airport is quite bijou -- just 500 yards long, a few yards wide, and a small control tower. The "terminal building" is the great outdoors. The planes come in right over the water to land, so yachts can't anchor in line with the runway, as their masts would be hit. In fact, from what I saw, a dog lying on the beach would be in danger.
The plane came in at grass-cutting height over the beach, and used every inch of runway to land. It came down with a bounce, and taxied back over the grass to where the next batch of passengers waited. The captain jumped down, lowered the steps, and out got the passengers -- not too shaky-looking, surprisingly!
Meg and Chan had just come from Wisconsin, where it's well below freezing right now, but they seemed to have no trouble adapting to the weather here. Actually, it's been a little cooler in the Caribbean, with quite a lot of rain; something we hardly saw in the Pacific. Still pretty warm, though.
Pretty soon we got the boat under way. We didn't really want to spend the night at Porvenir, and preferred instead to move to the Lemon cays, a nice snorkelling spot among small, palm-covered islands; and once again, we needed to get there around mid-day to negotiate the coral reefs. So we got going, and soon set sail, in a strong wind off the Atlantic.
After sailing through the Eden Channel, we found the Lemon Cays to be crowded with about 15 boats in the small anchorage. So, we decided to carry on the Holandés Cays, a prime snorkelling area. We found a few boats there, but only four other boats in the Swimming Pool, one of the most well-known anchorages in the San Blas. We got anchored, and dove straight in the water for some snorkelling. The bottom here is sand, so not much life -- we'll head to the reef tomorrow for more of that -- but we had a great time, and saw some giant starfish, as well as checking that the anchor is well dug in. Meg got lucky and saw a huge ray swimming by.
One of the highlights of the day was when the local official called by to collect the $5 cruising fee for the local group of villages. His launch was an authentic dug-out canoe, his English was as full of gaps as his teeth, but he was a very friendly fellow, and he even gave us an official receipt!
Tomorrow, more swimming!Sun 29 Feb 2004 21:30 America/Panama
Today has been our first real day of relaxation in the San Blas... we dinghied over to a nearby island, beached the dinghy, and snorkelled around the coral reefs. The water is beautiful; warm enough to stay in all day, which is just as well, because that's what we did. By the time we got out, I thought it must be lunch time; it was 5:30!
One issue here is that, although we're sheltered from the swells by the reefs, the trade winds blow right through the anchorage here. Since this is the season of the reinforced trades -- the so-called "Christmas trades" -- they're blowing pretty hard, and creating a strong current through the anchorage. The result is that the row up to the island is a long, hard slog; but the row back was over very quickly. So we walked over the island, swam around with the current, then walked over and did it again.
The islands here are beautiful. All the cliched pictures you've ever seen of beautiful palm-covered islands, with white-sand beaches, surrounded by crystal-clear turquoise water, were taken in the San Blas Islands. The snorkelling was everything it was supposed to be, with crowds of brightly-coloured fish, including a huge, multi-coloured queen parrotfish.
Heigh ho, more of the same tomorrow...Mon 1 Mar 2004 21:59 America/Panama
The confusing thing about the terrain in the San Blas islands is that it's mostly underwater. Looking at the chart, there seem to be vast expanses of ground, but when you look at the detail, it's all coral reefs; only a few tiny islands are above water. So, reconciling the chart with reality takes a bit of a mental effort.
It also lends a new slant to the idea of shelter. When we woke up this morning, waves were crashing on the reefs all around, but we were protected by the reefs, and in relatively calm water. But with no actual land (other than one tiny island) upwind of us, the wind was fairly howling in the rigging.
Having had enough of this, we decided to move around the downwind island to a more sheltered anchorage -- one that is protected from the wind as well as the waves. And that's where we are now; and after a quick lunch, we jumped in the water to explore our new surroundings.
The water turned out to be disappointingly cloudy, as was the sky, so it wasn't great. One high point, though, was finding a large ray, about 4 feet across, in the process of burying itself in the sand. We're not sure what species it was, but it looked like a Southern Stingray.Tue 2 Mar 2004 18:28 America/Panama
It's been cloudy (above water) and murky (below), so we've had a quiet day today. Just a little swimming and shell-hunting at the corner of the island, where the current was very strong; we had a hard swim up, but a great run back. Meg and Rachel went to Tiadup, one of the inhabited islands, afterwards, and traded some magazines, coffee, and sugar, for fruit, fish, and coconuts -- sounds like they had fun. We have an appointment to go back for bread tomorrow.Wed 3 Mar 2004 21:11 America/Panama
Still cloudy and windy here -- very windy, in fact, with huge waves crashing on the reefs not far away. We went ashore in the morning to trade magazines for bread (the Kuna are really keen to get magazines, as well as essentials such as sugar, soap, toothpaste, etc.), and we met the women of one of the villages, who put on a mola show for us.
The women here are the main bread-winners, by selling molas to tourists, and they are pretty keen to see more customers. So, they were pretty enthusiastic about selling their molas, getting dozens and dozens out and displaying them for us. Today was no exception, with the whole village turning out for the show. The striking Kuna women, who often maintain their elaborate traditional dress, aren't keen on being photographed; but will usually oblige for a dollar, or if you buy a mola.
The Kuna in general are a strange mix of traditional and canny; they have maintained their traditional way of life to a surprising degree, but are very alert to the ways of the tourist trade. As such, they get a lot of exposure to outside influences; one of the little girls on the island insisted on having her photo taken, so that she could see it on the digital camera.
One sad sight near Tiadup is the wreck of a large, expensive yacht, which evidently tried to get into the anchorage by sailing right across the reef. How this happened I have no idea, but the result is a well-known landmark for sailors, and a reminder that it's always best to navigate around here with a clear sky and a high sun.
After all that excitement, we moved the boat again, hoping to find a more sheltered spot and clearer water; but with not much luck. We're in a small anchorage between a reef and two islands a little farther west in the Holandés Cays, but it's still pretty windy, and the water is still pretty cloudy.
We might move again tomorrow, but this weather's supposed to last a few days...Thu 4 Mar 2004 18:25 America/Panama
We heard today, from another cruiser, that the last few months here have been fantastic for snorkelling -- beautiful, warm clear water everywhere. The weather suddenly turned for the worse, and the water clouded up -- the day after Meg and Chan arrived! Unfortunately, it's forecast to last for a few more days; there are apparently serious gales just outside the reefs, and the waves on the reefs are stirring all the water up.
Right now we're still in the anchorage we moved to yesterday, and the good news is that things seem to be clearing a little. Maybe we'll stay here a day or two and see how it goes.
Did a little underwater maintenance today -- cleaned the grounding plate for the shortwave radio. Our reception has been getting worse and worse gradually, so we're trying various things to fix it. Meanwhile, if our emails suddenly stop, you'll know we're wrestling with electronic gadgetry, not sharks.Fri 5 Mar 2004 21:28 America/Panama
We rowed over to another boat this morning and got heaps of good advice on good spots in the San Blas islands. This was just what we needed, as we got the real information on the best snorkelling spots -- including places where the reefs can easily be reached without a motorised dinghy. This is very useful for us, as our rowing dinghy is pretty hard to get about in with the strong currents around here.
Anyway, we soon upped anchor again and headed to the Naguargandup Cays, where we are now. This was another piece of hairy navigation; the charts hereabouts were surveyed by U.S.S. Leonidas in 1917, and aren't too accurate. The GPS tells us exactly where we are, of course, but the charts have the islands and reefs about a quarter of a mile from their true positions. This means that we have to navigate by bearings from landmarks, and by keeping a lookout on the bowsprit for coral. Here, Meg and Chan are really earning their keep by standing lookout duty.
With all the reefs around, we made sure to set the anchor in properly. I got into the water and watched the anchor, while Rachel backed down with the engine, so I could see whether the anchor was digging in and holding well. It worked great, and the anchor is now well and truly set.
So we're settling in here; we're just off Salar island, which is a nice, palm-covered, beach-fronted island, in a large lagoon surrounded by reefs. This means that it's pretty calm here. Best of all, there's a fantastic coral reef within swimming distance of the boat, with amazing coral formations, sponges, and millions of fish. We just had a chance for a quick look around before the sun set, but tomorrow we'll be up and in the water early.Sat 6 Mar 2004 20:00 America/Panama
Today was snorkelling day! We got in the water early and headed off for the reef just to the west of where we're anchored. It's so close that we can swim it, and most of us did, although Rachel took the dinghy over so as to have a place to keep our equipment, drinks, etc.
The reef was spectacular; all kinds of coral, including fan corals, a lot of brain coral of several types, red rope sponges, vase sponges, tube sponges, staghorn coral, huge sea fans, and of course fish -- at one point, we found a massive school (a hundred yards or so across) of tiny minnows, a couple of inches long, swimming around in a dense pack. It was easy to dive down and swim among them. There are also angel fish, butterfly fish, damsel fish, trumpet fish, yellow snappers, silversides, parrot fish, bluehead wrasses, barracuda, and much more. Quite a few things are to be avoided, such as the long-spined urchins and anemones, but in general we just don't touch anything.
We were in the water until the Sun started going down and it started getting cold. Now, we're completely exhausted, having been refuelled by a delicious stir-fry by Chan.Sun 7 Mar 2004 20:45 America/Panama
Another move day today, as we decided to take Meg and Chan to a different site for their last day here. We decided on Kanildup, univerally known to cruisers as Green Island, which is reputed to be one of the nicest spots in the San Blas islands. The motor in was pretty tense, as the sky was completely overcast, and we had to be extra careful to look for reefs -- luckily, there are plenty of waves to break over the reefs and show them up.
By the time we got here the clouds were thick and dark, and it was raining, so our welcome to Green Island wasn't so good. There are nine other boats crowded into the little anchorage, so finding a place wasn't so easy either. And to cap it all, our bilge pump was running almost continuously by the end! This was due to a worn shaft packing (the leakproof seal where the propeller shaft exits the boat), and isn't too serious; we should be able to fix it tomorrow.
So hopefully Green Island will be looking a little better tomorrow! In the meantime, we were visited by some mola makers, including Venancio Restrepo, a male master mola maker from Isla Maquina, about 13 miles away. He was really nice, and gave us the idea behind each of his designs; and his molas were certainly superb. Meg and Rachel were definitely taken with his wares, and made some purchases.Mon 8 Mar 2004 22:12 America/Panama
First item on the agenda was to fix the flooding in the engine room, which, conveniently, only happened when the engine was running. It turned out not to be the shaft seal as I thought -- when I opened it up, the packing material was in perfect shape (after thousands of miles of use). The problem was actually a hose in the exhaust system, which had come adrift, allowing seawater into the very back of the engine room, right by the shaft. This was not too hard to fix, so now we have no leak and the shaft seal has been re-packed -- it should be good for a few thousand miles more.
Meg and Rachel had been exploring Kanildup while I was doing this, and pronounced it very beautiful -- certainly their photos are magazine-cover quality. After all that, Meg and I had time for a quick snorkel before we upped anchor to head for the airport.
Narganá is one of the main towns of Kuna Yala, though it's crammed on to a pretty small island. The airstrip is actually on a nearby island, and there's a sheltered anchorage on the mainland side, where we are now. Tomorrow Meg and Chan fly out, and we'll probably do some re-provisioning.Tue 9 Mar 2004 19:12 America/Panama
We saw Meg and Chan off this morning, from the "airport" at Corazon de Jesus, next door to Narganá. This is a pretty large airfield for the San Blas; it even has a wall to keep people from wandering on to the runway (unless you walk the 10 yards or so to get around it). The plane was late, but finally arrived, loaded up, and left. I think Meg and Chan had a pretty good time here; it's a shame the weather wasn't better, but we managed to show them quite a lot of the islands.
After that, we returned to Moonrise and kind of slumped; both of us are a little under the weather, so all the provisioning etc. can wait til tomorrow.Wed 10 Mar 2004 19:40 America/Panama
We didn't get much done today, as we're both still a little under the weather. Nothing bad, ie. nothing that would have kept us from the snorkelling, except that the weather has been terrible -- solid overcast, and lots of rain. Not very inspiring. Still, I got a load of laundry done, and we've arranged to have some diesel delivered tomorrow.
I haven't had a chance to fix the shortwave aerial yet -- it needs to be reasonably dry -- so we've still got a pretty bad signal. So don't worry if we suddenly can't get through.Thu 11 Mar 2004 22:55 America/Panama
We still haven't been feeling too good today; maybe we caught something at the airport. That usually happens, but the airport here was a field! Well, maybe.
Still, we took on 15 gallons of diesel from Frederico this morning, so the tank is about full now. He delivered the fuel in his traditional, hand-paddled dugout canoe, in 3 old 5-gallon plastic jugs -- undoubtedly the most low-tech fuel delivery we've seen! There are lots of local traders who bring us goods this way; bananas, mangos, and coconuts come round every day.
We had some coconut for dinner today, in a rather nice spicy rice and beans dish Rachel concocted. Opening the coconut is a lot of work -- they come in the husk, which is extremely tough, and has to be hacked off before you can even get to the nut. This takes quite a while -- 15 minutes or so. Still, it was worth it, and the goods couldn't be much more fresh.
We also managed to re-do the shortwave aerial connection this morning, so hopefully or reception will have improved again. I hope it lasts longer this time.Fri 12 Mar 2004 21:03 America/Panama
We're still here in Narganá -- and the weather is still rotten. It was cloudy and drizzly all day, and now, just for a change, it looks like lightning!
So we're staying put for now. Navigating around the reefs without good light isn't too wise; also, we're kind of helping to keep an eye on another boat here. The husband of the couple is in hospital in Panama City -- haven't heard why -- and the wife is off to visit for a couple of days. She has friends staying on board, but they're not boaters, so in the event of the anchor dragging it will be nice to have some boaters keeping an eye on things.
At least we managed to get a bit more motivated today. We made several trips ashore to haul water to the boat, so far about 60 gallons; we now have one tank full and one half-full, plus we've made inroads into our huge laundry backlog. And that was about it for the day!
We had a good wander around the island, though, which is solidly built up; the waterfront is pretty unpleasant, consisting mostly of outhouses -- plumbing is of the simplest possible kind here, outhouses are just built hanging over the water -- but the town itself is quite attractive, being mostly traditional palm huts and some more substantial buildings separated by sandy tracks. There are a few very minimal shops, a small bank, and a couple of phone boxes, as well as water piped from the mainland. Shopping isn't great here, but you can get the basics, as well as, surprisingly, "Salsa Inglesa": Worcestershire Sauce!Sat 13 Mar 2004 21:55 America/Panama
Weather's still lousy, so we're still here in Narganá. However, we've now filled the water and diesel tanks, and all our jerrycans on deck, so we're ready for some time out in the islands.
One big event today was that we finally met my friend Elaine from Morning Star! Just briefly so far, since she had some business in town, but hopefully we'll be able to catch up soon.Sun 14 Mar 2004 21:31 America/Panama
Still in Narganá, but now we're absolutely, definitely ready for a morning start! Assuming the weather breaks even a little bit, that is.
It actually cleared up a little today -- after it was too late to leave -- and we got another mammoth load of laundry done; all the bedding (or at least most of it). Of course, once it was on the line, the drizzle started again. A good tropical downpour followed by some blazing sun would be far better than this constant overcast and drizzle. The water tanks are again full, and the inside of the boat has been thoroughly cleaned and tidied (thanks to Rachel).
So, tomorrow, we're off -- hopefully. Even if the weather doesn't break, we'd rather be hiding from the drizzle somewhere other than here.Mon 15 Mar 2004 21:00 America/Panama
We've moved! No more bright lights and discos for us (yes, there are both of those things on Narganá); we've moved back out to the Swimming Pool, in the eastern Holandés Cays. And the good news is that the sky has cleared (at least a bit), and we've actually been getting some sun!
We had a straightforward trip up here; it's about 13 miles, and took us about 3 hours, including all the anchor raising and lowering at each end. With the high sun, getting through the reefs was easy; you can see sand on the bottom 40 feet down with no problem. The entrance to the swimming pool is a little tricky, with several reefs in the middle of what appear to be channels, but between our cruising guide and eyeball navigation -- plus the fact that we've been here before -- it was no problem.
The Swimming Pool was living up to its name today -- this is a beautiful little lagoon, sandy-bottomed, and surrounded on the ocean side by reefs, so that it looks exposed but is actually sheltered. With the sun out, the swimming pool lives up to its name -- the water is a beautiful bright turquoise, as the sun reflects off the coral sand on the bottom and lights up the water.
There were quite a few boats here today, as Monday night is potluck night! Each Monday night cruisers get together on one of the uninhabited islands here and have a potluck and a huge bonfire, on which we burn our rubbish. This is a great convenience, as there is really nowhere else to get rid of rubbish here, and this is one of the reasons we came here today.
The other reason, of course, was snorkelling, and we wasted no time in getting into the water! I checked the anchor, which is well dug in, and then we rowed over to the island and swam off the back side. The water seems to be getting clearer, which is nice, and we saw huge numbers of fish -- much more, and with more variety, than before. At times, it was like swimming through a packed tropical aquarium.
After our swim, it was potluck time, and we rowed over to meet some other cruisers. We had a good time, and met quite a few folks -- including one Australian couple with a boat called Thunderbird One!
One thing that all the long-time San Blas cruisers were agreed on is that the lousy weather we've been having is very out of character. So we're hoping that the nice weather is here for a while, and that we can finally see the islands as they should be.Tue 16 Mar 2004 21:01 America/Panama
More snorkelling today! The weather has got cloudy again, but there are still lots of fish to see. We've been thinking about using the spear to get some dinner, but all the fish look so pretty, it's hard to think about spearing one! What we need is some big, ugly, meaty, tasty, fish -- and we haven't seen one of those yet.
When the sun comes out, though, we're going to try shooting some of them with Rachel's camera. We got a cheap waterproof camera bag in San Diego that her camera fits into, and hopefully we'll be able to use it for underwater shots. We'll see.Wed 17 Mar 2004 20:28 America/Panama
Got one project done today -- we demolished one of the galley lockers on the boat. When the boat was built, there was originally a shelf between the galley and the salon; but a previous owner had built the shelf up into an enclosed locker. Unfortunately, this blocked a lot of light from the interior of the boat, so today we took the additions off and restored it to its original state. It was pretty easy, and the result looks pretty good; also, the inside of the boat looks a lot larger now. We still have all the bits of the locker in case we feel the need to put it back.
So I reckon we've earned another snorkelling day tomorrow -- if only the clouds would go away.Thu 18 Mar 2004 19:24 America/Panama
Today was another rainy, cloudy day, so we stayed aboard for more boat work. We did some finishing on the new kitchen shelf (ex- locker), and repaired our indoor/outdoor thermometer (right now it's 85F / 29.4C in here). The inside of the boat is definitely improved by being opened up, and the original ceiling we've exposed looks far better than the added-in locker.
We made some water, and did a little laundry -- which started the rain again, of course! Apart from that, and a quick swim, it's been a lazy day here. Tomorrow, we're planning some swimming if the weather's nice, and then maybe a move to another anchorage.Fri 19 Mar 2004 20:09 America/Panama
The weather seems to have broken today, with quite a lot of sunshine, specially in the morning. The clouds seem to have been due to a low pressure over Colombia, which has finally moved off to the west.
Unfortunately, the sun came with wind -- lots of wind. This makes the rather exposed anchorage at the Swimming Pool a little uncomfortable, but also pushes huge waves up against the outer reef. This causes extremely fast currents in ocean-facing areas like the Swimming Pool, and also stirs up the bottom, reducing visibility. So when we went in for a morning dive, we found bad visibility and a current so strong we could barely stay in place, let alone swim against it.
So we cut short our dive, Rachel rowing the dinghy back down-current to Moonrise while I swam. On the way back, I met a huge Southern Stingray coming effortlessly the other way, and hung out with it for a bit while it found a place to settle down. These stingrays are very approachable, and this one wasn't bothered by me swimming around a few feet away from it.
Once back on the boat, we decided to move to somewhere a bit closer to the mainland, hoping for clearer water and less wind and current. So we upped anchor and came back to Kanildup, a.k.a. Green Island, where we stayed for a night with Meg and Chan. It was a pleasant motor over, just two hours, and we got anchored and settled in no problem. I dove on the anchor to check that it was dug in; unfortunately, the water right at the boat is very cloudy, and I had to dive down about 20 feet just to see the anchor -- which is about my limit.
So hopefully we'll get some swimming in tomorrow, and if not, Green Island is very nice for just walking around.Sat 20 Mar 2004 20:05 America/Panama
We rowed over to explore some reefs on the end of Green Island today; we didn't find a good place to jump in, but we did meet a couple of young Kuna lads in a dug-out with crabs for sale. Rachel took them back to the boat to pay them (and regale them with gifts), while I walked around Green Island.
The island really is beautiful; another postcard-pretty palm-covered island, surrounded by white-sand beaches and coral reefs. After Rachel got back, we had a swim off one end of the island, but we couldn't get out to the reefs from there. However, I found a really nice shell, and tucked it into the sleeve of my dive suit for safe keeping.
Several times on the way back to the island, I noticed my new shell scratching my wrist, but I thought it was just a sharp corner. Finally it got so bad I took it out and had a look -- just to see a couple of little pinchers retreating into the depths of the shell! It seems the shell already had an occupant, a small crab. So I placed it back on the bottom.
On the island we'd also met Venancio, the mola maker that Rachel and Meg bought molas from the last time we were here; and since Meg and Chan had asked for more molas, we arranged to meet him later. So after we got back to the boat, he stopped by and gave us a mola show -- picking out about 60 molas for display! His molas range from traditional geometric designs to such odd themes as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all done in the traditional mola style, and all beautifully executed.
Choosing between the amazing designs was the hardest part, but we finally made some purchases, and said good-bye to Venancio; after which we cleaned and cooked the crabs, and had them with butter and lime juice -- delicious!Sun 21 Mar 2004 21:01 America/Panama
Tried some more snorkelling today, but we didn't see many fish, and the water is still rather cloudy. Since it was rather windless in the shelter of the island where we were, around noon we re-anchored in a more exposed location; so now we have a nice breeze blowing through the boat. Now (9 pm.) it's a nice cool 83F / 28.5C inside the boat.
After our move, we went swimming again, this time for business; I replaced a missing anti-corrosion zinc on the propellor shaft, and we headed off in search of dinner, our trusty spear at the ready. The spear is a "Hawaiian Sling", a 7' spear with a three-pointed head, and a large rubber band at the blunt end. You put the rubber band between your thumb and first finger, then using the same hand hold the spear as close to the point as possible, stretching the rubber band as much as you can. When you let go, the spear shoots forward, missing the huge barn-door sized fish sitting motionless in front of you by several yards, and impales itself in the sea bed. Cool, eh?
The effective range of the spear is about 12" past the points, so you need to get pretty close to a fish to make it dinner. We saw several large mackerel, and shot at some of them, but to no avail. Oh well, we had a nice swim anyway.Mon 22 Mar 2004 21:21 America/Panama
Another lousy, cloudy day, and noticeably cooler -- only 84F today, practically wintry! So we didn't exactly get off to an early start. With the visibility in the water still poor, sunshine is needed to bring the underwater landscape to life.
One highlight was provided by Venancio, the master mola maker, who stopped by early in the morning. When we met him here with Meg and Chan, Rachel bought one mola with a traditional zig-zag "yokor" design, which she liked a lot -- it is rather striking, and beautifully made, actually by Venancio's sister, Benita. After Meg and Chan got home, they asked Rachel if she could get the matching mola (they are traditionally made in pairs) for Chan; so when we met him again a couple of days ago, Rachel asked specially for that mola -- but unfortunately, it had already been sold to another cruiser.
So Rachel was delighted this morning when Venancio appeared with not one, but two, similar molas -- still attached to a dress! Apparently these had already been incorporated into a dress, but seeing Rachel's desire for that mola, Venancio and his sister decided to recycle it. We were glad to get it, but we had visions of some poor Kuna lass running around some island in her underwear! But I'm sure Benita will make sure that she gets a replacement.
The Sun finally poked out in the mid-afternoon, so we decided to give the snorkelling a try. We set off in the dinghy, looking for a good place to anchor and dive, and settled on the end of the reef that surrounds the north side of Green Island. As we rowed out, a couple from a British yacht zoomed past us in their motor-powered inflatable -- there's definitely something to be said for having an engine! But we got there soon enough, and anchored, with me diving in first to set the anchor where it wouldn't damage the coral. Since it was now getting late, cloudy, and a little dark, Rachel decided to sit this one out in the dinghy while I explored the reef to decide whether it would be worth coming back for a full dive tomorrow. I had my spear with me too, in case dinner should swim by.
A quick survey showed that this is certainly a place that would be worth a day, at least -- amazing coral formations, sea fans, fish, and more. The formations alone are spectacular; it's really incredible what rock can do when it's alive and growing.
While I was swimming around the base of a coral outcrop, about 10 feet underwater, looking for interesting -- or possibly edible -- fish, I saw a tail poking out from underneath; quite a long tail. I thought at first that it might be a ray, but when I got down and close I saw what it really was -- a 5-foot nurse shark, hiding under the lowest ledge of the coral head. I thought I remembered that nurse sharks are pretty timid, but I have to tell you that it's hard to see anything 5 feet long and shark-shaped as timid. Still, as I looked at the shark from a few feet away, it noticeably squirmed farther under the coral, so I guessed that I wasn't on its list of favourite foods. So I had a couple more dives to check it out -- my first encounter with a shark, other than behind glass.
By this time it was getting really late, so I climbed back in the dinghy -- still dinner-less -- and we rowed for home. On the way back, though, we noticed some fish jumping ahead, so I slid back in the water, spear in hand, to swim the rest of the way home and hopefully get something to eat. I guess all the fish must have heard me coming, since there were none around -- not that I could see very far in the gathering gloom. Suddenly I saw a long grey shape ahead -- just a few feet ahead -- and before I realised it, I was practically on top of a 6-foot nurse shark! This one was in the middle of a flat sandy patch, sitting on the bottom with its head poked into the ground, and was watching me carefully -- I told myself that it was being timid, not working out how hungry it was! Anyway, we left each other alone, and I set off for Moonrise -- quite hastily, now that the Sun was going down, which is when sharks get more active. I made it without incident -- and without spearing any dinner.
Tomorrow we'll be heading back to the reef, and this time we'll be hoping for that elusive dinner catch. But I think we'll make an effort to get home well before sundown.Tue 23 Mar 2004 21:49 America/Panama
It dawned cloudy and dull again today, so rather than hang around to explore Green Island, we decided to move again today. Another cruiser had strongly recommended Banderdup, just two miles to the west, as a great place for snorkelling; the last time we looked, the anchorage had seemed a little unprotected to us, but the guide book says its very smooth, so we decided to make a quick crossing of the channel and try it out.
As we were preparing to move out, we were visited by another mola maker: Otilda, and her husband Laurencio, in a dug-out canoe. At first we thought Oh no, not more molas; but they turned out to be really nice and friendly, and had some very nice molas for sale. Otilda, as is quite common among the women in particular, seemed to speak no English or Spanish -- or was too shy to try -- but Laurencio spoke pretty good Spanish, and a word or two of English, and he was very keen to chat, teach us Kuna and Spanish words, and learn some more English ones. He was quite an interesting mix of cultures, wearing a nice pair of cool shades, speaking in modern, laid-back Spanish, and all the while sitting in his beautiful dug-out canoe! In the end Rachel bought a rather nice traditional abstract design, loosely based on the Kuna flag.
With our new addition to our mola collection tucked away, we tidied the boat up, had lunch, got under way, and were anchored by 2:40 pm.; that includes my usual dive on the anchor to ensure that it is properly dug in. The anchorage we chose, a little farther north than the first place we looked, does indeed seem pretty sheltered; we don't want it too sheltered, since the wind is very nice to keep us cool. So this looks like a pretty good spot.
Once settled, we had a visit from Bill from Good Medicine, another boat anchored here. They are heading north sometime soon, like us, so it was interesting to compare notes. Finally, the sun came out, so we headed off to explore the island and waters nearby. The island, unfortunately, is full of little midges called no-see-ums, but the reefs nearby are pretty cool. Rachel rowed while I explored again, and found more great coral formations and lots of fish. Knowing that nurse sharks like to lurk under ledges, I dove down a few times, but didn't see any; then suddenly two swam past me in opposite directions at once!
These were only little 4-foot specimens; however, on my way back to the dinghy, I stopped to wave to Rachel, and as soon as I got my head back down, a huge nurse shark was swimming past underneath me, at least 6 feet long. So after never seeing a shark suddenly they're everywhere -- though it was, once again, pretty late in the day. And talking to cruisers who've been diving here for years confirms that the nurse sharks are completely harmless. It's still quite an experience to be swimming with them, though.Wed 24 Mar 2004 22:37 America/Panama
The weather is still not great here, but today we had arranged to go snorkelling with Bill and Patty from Good Medicine. Still, the morning was so dull that we settled down to doing some boat work for a while. Rachel started work on repairing our Panama courtesy flag, and making one for Colombia -- the island of San Andres, our next probable stop to the north, is part of Colombia. Meanwhile, I started fiddling with our sewing machine! We had bought a fairly powerful-seeming home machine in San Diego for use on the boat, but recently it's been nothing but trouble -- it sews for a foot or two then jams. Obviously we wanted to use the machine for the flags -- and a dozen other projects -- so I had a go at sorting it. After several attempts, it was not only still jamming, but giving me electric shocks (no, I hadn't been messing with the electrical part!) -- so we gave up and called it junk. Maybe when we get to the US we'll find a place that can repair it -- although it may just not be able to cope with the stiff and heavy thread we use for outdoor work.
After some heroic hand-sewing by Rachel, followed by lunch, Bill and Patty picked us up and we headed for the reefs. We anchored their dinghy close to the reef I'd scouted out yesterday, and started swimming; but the conditions weren't too good. The diving here would definitely be fantastic if the weather was what it's supposed to be at this time of year -- fairly calm and very hot and sunny -- but with the wind and clouds, the water is too stirred up and dark to see very much.
Still, we saw some cool coral formations, and Rachel spotted a couple of Southern Stingrays having some kind of argument nearby. Later on we moved to another reef and Rachel saw a Spotted Eagle Ray pass within a couple of feet of her -- she called me over and we had a good look at it. The ray, with its leapord-spotted back, was fascinating to watch in motion, as it "flew" along through the water; this one was only a couple of feet across, but its tail -- which was incredibly thin -- was about 5 feet long.
Even with this excitement, the conditions were bad enough that we called the trip off fairly quickly and headed back to the boat. The best diving is on the reef wall, which is on the side facing away from the islands, in the main channel; but with the big waves and current, diving there wouldn't be too comfortable. So we're hoping things die down soon.
After the dinghy ride back to the boat, soaking wet, we were rather chilly; so we put some hot chocolate on, and baked some bread. That got us warmed up, and dinner was bread-themed; pickle sandwiches and lemon curd on bread. Delicious!Thu 25 Mar 2004 21:43 America/Panama
The anchorages around here are described in the cruising guides as having views to make your heartstrings twang. We can see, in the haze, the outlines of what must be fantastic mountains on the mainland; but in all the time we've been here, we have never had a clear view of them. All the people who have been here for more than one year (Runner has been anchored in the same lagoon for seven years, barring breaks for refits) tell us that this weather is highly unusual; it's a real shame not to see these islands at their best.
Still, today we had some breaks in the clouds, so we headed off for some snorkelling on the exposed reefs west of the boat. The reefs there are beautiful, but the cloudy water and mostly dark skies made the experience a lot less than it should be. Even so, we saw more stingrays, loads of fish, and after Rachel got tired and headed back to Moonrise, I saw a couple more nurse sharks, resting under coral ledges. Sharks in general are supposed to need to keep swimming to keep water flowing over their gills to breathe, but nurse sharks, which are mostly nocturnal, seem to be able to spend their days immobile. From a couple of feet away I could see that they flap their gills, presumably to keep the water moving over them.
Once back on the boat we had some thinking to do. The next stage on our journey is to Belize, stopping -- probably -- at two intermediate points, making three legs of 250-300 miles each. The first stop will be one of the Columbian islands of San Andres, or maybe nearby Providencia; these are in the Caribbean about 100 miles east of Nicaragua. Next is the Honduran reef, Cayo Vivorillo (part of the Cayos Cajones), off the "knee" of central America, where Nicaragua meets Honduras. Last stop is Belize itself, probably in Placentia in the south of the country.
The problem is that the first leg in particular, to San Andres, is notorious for bad conditions; so the best plan is to wait for a weather window, then head off as quickly as possible. We're rather early in the season to be leaving, but Belize beckons, with almost certainly better weather and amazing snorkelling; and the word on the nets is that a great weather window is opening on Sunday. So right now, we're giving serious thought to a Sunday departure, heading north-west for San Andres (or maybe Providencia). That would be a journey of about 3 days, all being well. With a week in San Andres, and another in Cayo Vivorillo, we'd make Belize by late April / early May, which would be pretty good.
So we're attacking some of the tasks we'd need to attend to for an ocean passage. One of our autopilots failed a few days ago, so I opened it up tonight; a pin that holds the worm screw to the motor had failed, so the screw had pulled out of the bearing, leaving all the balls loose -- so when I got it apart I was faced with countless tiny ball bearings falling about. I spent a good hour re-packing the bearing and making a new pin from a rigging cotter pin; we'll see if the repair holds, and if not, that autopilot arm becomes spare parts for its identical twin. We've also fixed some broken locker latches; and Rachel has made our Colombia flag, and most of our Belize flag.
Tomorrow we'll head to Narganá for some provisions -- mainly water -- and then see how we go from there.Fri 26 Mar 2004 22:25 America/Panama
The problem with a good weather window for leaving the San Blas is, of course, that it's also the first good weather window we've seen for enjoying the San Blas! So as the promised good weather started to arrive, we spent this morning having second thoughts about leaving. All of the islands around our Banerdup anchorage were looking particularly beautiful, and the water was turquoise and tempting.
Still, we decided (for now) to stick to the plan. So we spent the morning tidying up the boat (it's amazing how long it takes to get seaworthy again after just a couple of days at anchor) and at about noon we lifted the anchor and headed for Narganá. This was just a short trip, about an hour, and we got here in time to get to the bank and change some large bills before it closed. Then we were visited by the inevitable mola sellers.
Since income from tourists is a huge part of the Kuna economy, and mola sales is a huge part of that, we're never short of opportunities to buy molas; in each anchorage, no matter how isolated, mola sellers come by, always in dugouts, proffering their wares. Usually they pull up alongside the boat and start hanging their molas on the lifelines for display. Mola makers vary in how aggressively they promote their wares, but we've noticed that boats containing all women are the most strident -- certainly at Porvenir and Narganá, the two (relatively) large towns we've visited. In contrast, men like Venancio, and the couples we've met, like Otilda and Laurencio, are much more easygoing and pleasant to deal with. Today's canoe contained three women, who strongly suggested that we buy one mola from each of them! Well, they were kind of kidding, and settled for one mola in total -- a nice crab design that I took a liking to.
Having got the compulsory mola show out of the way, we headed into town for supplies. There's not a lot in Narganá, but with the help of Frederico, a local who helps cruisers get diesel, water, and so on, we found a few more places to shop. Shopping in Narganá definitely needs some local knowledge, as there are no big shops, but it seems like one in four houses has something for sale -- rice, chickens, and occasionally a small and unpredictable range of general goods. With Frederico's help, we found a place where we bought some vegetables, and another shop that had fresh bread for sale -- good Kuna bread, just baked, and delicious.
Shopping isn't restricted to the land, though, as locals drop by one or two times a day in dugouts with various wares for sale; in Narganá, it's usually mangoes, bananas, coconuts, avocados, and the like, whereas in the outer islands people often come by with fish and seafood. Today we were visited by Donaldo, a nice guy in a traditional, paddle-only dugout, who sold us some coconuts, and promised to come by tomorrow morning with avocados. Not only that, but Rachel talked him into husking the coconuts for us, so we could see how it's done -- in contrast to the hours I spent at the job, a few whacks of his machete was all he needed. We must get one of those!
Apart from that, we made three trips to shore for water, so we now have full tanks. With that, we're ready for the off on Sunday, if the forecast doesn't change. We're spending the night at Narganá, and hopefully tomorrow we'll be able to relocate to a more scenic anchorage; and after that, it's a case of watching the weather for our window.
In case you're wondering what we're doing with all that coconut -- Coconut Dreams: coconut, egg, flour and sugar. Delicious!Sat 27 Mar 2004 20:02 America/Panama
We got an early start this morning when Donaldo, our friendly fruit and veg seller, came by at 7:30 with some avocados we'd asked for. After that, we had not much to do to get ready to leave, although Rachel made a quick trip into town -- to get a machete! It seems she never wants to wrestle with coconuts again. She picked one up for $5, complete with sharpening file.
After some quick tidy-up, we were off, out of Narganá for the last time in a while, hopefully. We headed off north-west, back to the Holandés Cays, but this time to Waisaladup, on the western end -- the opposite end from the swimming pool. Once in the main channel, we set sail for the first time in a while, and had a fast 6-knot passage up on reasonably calm seas. If our trip to San Andres goes like that, we'll be very pleased!
Once here, we anchored, then I did the usual dive on the anchor to watch it dig well in as Rachel backed down with the engine. Then Rachel jumped straight in after me for some snorkelling. We'd had this recommended as a great snorkelling spot, but we were totally amazed at how wonderful it is. Most of the islands have the best reefs to the north, well offshore, and facing outwards, making them hard to get to from the anchorage; but here there is about half a mile of beautiful reef inside the anchorage area. This was actually the best bit of reef we'd seen so far, which, coupled with clearing water and reducing wind and current, made for a memorable dive. Fantastic coral formations, loads of fish, and I saw a reef shark (another timid one, this one was about 5 feet).
Having sampled the inside reef, we walked the island and discovered an easy pass out through the outer reef. We headed out and immediately discovered nurse sharks and two or three spotted eagle rays; we swam for quite a while over the rays, as they circled lazily a few feet below us. The fish life was quite fantastic, and the conditions were great. The only slight problem was the water temperature; in the shallows, it was up to 95 F -- hot! -- but just a foot down it changed rapidly. We could swim in lovely warm water and reach down an outstretched hand into a bitterly cold layer just below. I guess that this might be a product of the water just starting to warm again after the rough weather brought cold ocean water in over the reefs.
We finally got back to the boat at 5 pm., after three and a half hours of solid swimming! Undoubtedly the best snorkelling either of us has seen to date, and Rachel's first shark experience. The problem is, we're leaving! We really need to head to Belize tomorrow, or the weather window could close and leave us stuck here for a month or more. So, at least we've had one really good day in the San Blas, and Belize should have plenty to offer.