Final days in San Blas

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Sat 14 Apr 2012 18:53
For the 'Admiral's' 5?th Birthday we motored 30 miles to Snug Harbour which lies towards the eastern San Blas. We had first entered this area with the RAF Trade Winds Rally in 1996 although this time we arrived from the west.  A far safer option than picking a hazardous route through the outer reefs to the east. Our destination was a tiny island the size of a football pitch that was then called Iskardup but has since been renamed Sapibenega. It's a Kuna lodge. Guests fly in via the local airstrip to spend a couple of days chilling out in the few huts located on the island. Looking at one or two planes arriving through a tiny gap in the hilly jungle before flopping onto the airstrip you would need a couple of days to recover from the flight itself. This is a tropical paradise that probably costs an arm and a leg to stay at.  All we had to do, apart from sail 5000 miles to begin with, was to anchor off and pay a $10 fee to the local Kunas to enjoy the views and tranquillity. We were the only visiting boat in Snug that day.
The day got off to a decidedly bad start as Skip served up a rotten boiled egg for the 'Admirals' dippy soldiers to fight their way into. Sod's Law states that the rotten section of the egg is never at the top in the egg cup but lurking lower down as a nasty last mouthful. A shriek of disgust was uttered towards the Breakfast chef who had no Sous Chef to pass the buck down to. The eggie soldiers were now in full retreat as the egg was the giant sized version in the pic we've posted. The little egg was just fine, what there was of it , but by then we had both been put off our breakfast. Shame, on such a special day as well. We had suspected there may have been a problem with those monstrous eggs and can imagine the poor hen had tears in its eyes that day.
Birthday boiled eggs - one small one, one rotten one......    On the subject of dodgy food...  Skip's Homemade bread rolls - a dentist's dream
We booked a table for lunch. The island has changed considerably since we were last there. The old restaurant is no longer in evidence. A newer eating area for lunchtime has been constructed on a pier over the water with half a dozen tables for guests. There was just one choice of meal which was locally caught fish with potatoes and a salad. This was preceded by a very tasty fish soup. Washed down with a couple of beers we then had coffees sitting in rocking chairs in the splendid lounge area with a convenient view over the protected anchorage towards - the boat. It was just a perfect afternoon and one we'll remember well into the future.
 Iskardup today - in parts quite different from 1996                                                                                         but we could still easily recognise the grounds as they were
Pre-lunch beer in the grounds                                                                                                                                         before tucking into fish and potatoes
The lunch area which is new                                                                        Skip holds up an article written by Dr Dick Allen in 1996 about the island
Murals depicting the Kuna Lodge - Sapibenega means a type of  tree as might be obvious                                        along with another mural in the lounge area
Snug Harbour was used by sailing ships taking on cargos of coconuts back in the 1800s. The area was also used in Drake's time when he planned his attack on a place further along the coast to the west called 'Nombre de dios' . This was the port used for keeping and loading Spanish gold from the Americas to be shipped back to Spain.  San Blas seems to have been the area where notable pirates (even if they did play the odd game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe) chose to sneak out from and rob the Spanish galleons of their treasures. Later the gold reserves were moved to Portobelo which was much easier to defend.
We left the following day and motored a couple of miles north to the Ratones Cays where we enjoyed the anchorage all to ourselves with just a few Kuna ulus that could be seen fishing off the reefs close-by. Skip went off to the reef to try out the Hawaiian sling that had been a parting gift from 'Soul Mates'. Whilst it may sound like an exotic cocktail it is in fact a 6 foot long harpoon powered by a rubber sling. Unlike a traditional spear gun where the spear is launched towards the fish leaving the diver attached by the gun and a piece of string to the spear the whole sling itself shoots off (hopefully) towards the fish and you are left holding just the rubber sling. It had all the makings of a disaster in Skip's hands or his right hand to be precise but eager to try his luck he ventured off leaving the 'Admiral' safely back onboard preferring to play around with the Singapore variety of sling. Needless to say fish was not on the menu that evening although the 'hunter' returned with tales of having given a Lion Fish a dreadful headache. These interlopers are not native to the Caribbean and are causing problems in many of the reef systems and so must be destroyed at all costs. But get stung by one and the fish has the last laugh.
                                                                                                                 Lion fish (not the actual one though)
With the weather suddenly changeable and thunder and lightening visible the next morning we pulled the anchor and headed back to the western San Blas where there is more all-round shelter from sudden storms that will become a feature of the weather in the months to come. As the northeast trades start to diminish and the temperature of the water and land increases we become subjected to violent thunderstorms which will sometimes - but not always - bring 50 knot winds from just about any direction. Nice.
Motoring westwards again we looked for another island that we stopped at in 1996 which was then deserted. Unfortunately, with no coordinates to go by we weren't able to exactly locate the tiny strip of sand and palm trees.  We finally gave up the hunt choosing to anchor off Nargana again as we were running low on diesel and veggies.  Seven gallons of diesel, as before were filtered through the remains of old clothing,  possibly underpants for all we know, but re-filtered back onboard through a slightly more reliable device we keep for that purpose.
Wishing to spend our last few days in the islands somewhere special we sailed out to the eastern Holandes Cays one of the most impressive locations on the cruising itinerary in this part of Panama. We arrived to crystal clear water equal if not more impressive than anything we'd seen in the Bahamas until horror of horrors, the wind changed into the west for a day. Not a danger for our boat as it was not strong enough to affect our anchor holding but it was strong enough to blow every bit of floating garbage that has been pinned in the Western San Blas throughout the northeast trade wind season back eastwards. Overnight the pristine water was overwhelmed by floating detritus of flip-flops, plastic water containers, babies nappies, plastic bags and other unsavoury items which completely removed any thoughts of taking a refreshing dip. Just as quickly another day of northeasterlies blew it all back to the west again and the day we left to head for the Lemmon Cays there was not a single floating flip or flop to be seen.
        Yacht wreck off the Holandes Cays (not the only one in the San Blas!)                                                Sunset off Bug Island - Holandes Cays
Hove-to off the Lemons to call home we heard of a yacht in distress having grounded on one of the nearby reefs. This was not a cruising yacht (the floating home of a couple just like us that had unfortunately wandered into the shallows and needed assistance) but a notorious 'Backpacker' boat which was ferrying, at huge expense, four students that had no doubt paid the skipper the going rate of $500 each to be taken from Portobelo Panama to Cartagena Columbia. To any students, or the parents of any students reading this we urge great caution in getting onto one of these craft. Many are not up to the trip which in the popular dry season can be hellishly rough going against the Caribbean trades. Only five weeks ago one of these boats had to put out a Mayday having lost steerage and yet another suffered difficulties.
This boat and the poor unfortunates onboard had been 9 days at sea with the top forestay fitting having parted early on in the voyage. The yacht had then subsequently suffered an engine failure. All they had to be able to make any headway was the mainsail. Their grounding on the reef provided the students with the opportunity to plead over the VHF for help to get off the boat as they feared for their lives. Not that they were now in any danger as the east Lemons are pretty crowded with cruisers who would not allow such an event to happen. In fact it was an armada of dinghies that went out to pull this sorry apology for a yacht off the reef and into deeper water. The story told the next day was that they were all taken to the Port Captain's office in Porvenir where the youngsters demanded their money back from the skipper who was (surprise, surprise) unable to comply for reasons unknown. He was apparently shipped off to jail in Colon. The boat, which doesn't look fit to undertake any voyage anytime soon was left at anchor outside the west Lemons where maybe somebody will kindly cut the rode and open the seacocks one day! Since we heard about this traffic in human cargo between Panama and Columbia we have been amazed at how young people with perhaps no experience of boats will willingly pay good money to an unscrupulous skipper in exchange for a possible ride from hell in their efforts to hike round the Caribbean. One never ceases to wonder!
We finally cleared from San Blas ready to move westwards back to Colon where we are in need of a marina for a few days before heading onwards to Bocas del Toro, an altogether different part of Panama with a completely different feel. Here's hoping we like it.