Astra Log - San Blas Islands, Panama 12th March - 19th March

Jeremy & Sally Paul
Wed 19 Mar 2008 19:29

The San Blas Archipelago: Wednesday 12th March – Wednesday 19th March


San Blas is a collection of just under 400 islands off the north coast of Panama in Kuna Yala (The Kunas being the indigenous people, ‘Yala’ being their district). The Kunas inhabit only 40 of the islands, leaving hundreds of picture-perfect islands to sail around, snorkel around and explore.


Wednesday 12/3


Our first anchorage in the San Blas was in an area known as “The Swimming pool” so called because the handful of islands are protected by an extensive reef (Wreck Reef!) providing a very calm anchorage. Our welcoming committee consisted of 4 or 5 dolphins – George was so excited that he grabbed a snorkel and jumped right in to swim with them. Jeremy was on Mother Watch and prepared some excellent fajitas and the rest of the evening was spent playing cards.


Thursday 13/3


A cracking day! We tendered in to a beautiful island called BBQ Island and met some of the Swimming Pool’s residents. Some of them have been in the same anchorage for 12 years! The local knowledge they proffered was invaluable, letting us know exactly where we could do the best snorkelling. Sally, Ash and George went for a drift snorkel and had only been going for about 5 minutes before running into a 5 foot nurse shark having a snooze. We popped back to the boat for lunch and were restocked by a Kuna who brought a canoe full of fruit, vegetables and, most importantly, beer. In the afternoon we popped back to BBQ Island to play a bit of boules. Some of the San Blasters (as the longer standing members of the Swimming Pool community are known) had beaten us to it and taught us their inventive spin on the game. George and Ash joined in their “extreme-boules” which consisted of the winner of each previous game choosing where on the island they wish to throw the jack for the next game. Over the next few hours we explored the stunning palm covered island whilst trying to launch our boules between the palms and coconuts.


Friday 14/3


In the morning we weighed anchor bright and early at 11AM and threaded our way out through the coral heads towards Snug Harbour, stopping for lunch at one of the many conveniently placed, white sanded, palm fringed islands. Before eating we decided to make the short swim to the largest of the Farewell Islands for a bit of snorkelling. Halfway to the beach Jeremy happened to look over his shoulder to discover that he was being hotly pursued by an enormous spotted eagle ray that had taken a fancy to his rather tasty looking exotic swimming shorts (thanks Norah!) He was terrified of being ‘whacked’ by its barbed tail and as a result nearly refused to swim back to the boat!


We reached Snug Harbour in failing light which looked to be a perfect anchorage. We were surrounded by mangroves so George and Ash went off to find some crocodiles in the tender. Unfortunately the motor on the tender gave up the ghost so they had to paddle about half a mile against the current in crocodile infested water to get back to Astra – sadly/luckily they did not see any hungry crocs. Our opinion of Snug Harbour worsened considerably as the night went on as “No-See-‘ems” descended and tried to eat the flesh from our bones. Apparently they did not like the taste of rum because Ash was left untouched as the little beasties preferred the gin and tonic flavour of the other crew members meat. The aft cabin was a favourite with the No-see-‘ems and Jeremy became convinced that his significant discomfort was being caused by an allergic reaction to the malarone (anti-malarial) and became gripped by terror for the second time in 24 hours.


Saturday 15/3


We were pleased to leave the insects of Snug Harbour behind and head further east towards some inhabited Islands. Interestingly, this meant heading into un-chartered waters. To avoid hitting the many coral heads, Ash monkeyed his way up the mast to the spreaders in order to navigate by eye – a performance that was often required and repeated in the course of the week. First we went to Dolphin Island, half the size of a football pitch, just big enough to house one restaurant and a few cabins. Having heard many stories of excellent, inexpensive lobster we were disappointed to find the lobster neither excellent nor inexpensive.


After lunch we ventured onto Achutupu, our first inhabited island. Before being guided around the small island we were taken to the Congresso to pay for the privilege of visiting the Island. As Sally had the money she tried to enter the Congresso but was told in no uncertain terms that entry by women is forbidden. We then toured the island and attempted to keep to a minimum purchase of bracelets, necklaces and Molas (decorative squares of fabric). We were then taken to a hut where we purchased 4 little crude wooden figures (3 women for the men, and a man for Sally) which we were instructed to keep with us to ward off evil spirits. What we really needed was something that would ward off Mola-selling Kuna Indians!


From Achutupu we made the short trip to Mamitupu, another paradise for people who enjoy buying bracelets and squares of colourful fabric. We were visited by several canoes selling fresh fruit, vegetables and fish. We were also visited by a canoe of very young children who were delighted with our donation of last November’s edition of Yachting World.


Sunday 16/3


We were up early to tender into Mamitupu to buy some fresh bread (10loaves = $1) and look round another island. We were given a guided tour by an English speaking Kuna, Pablo. Mamitupu is a densely inhabited yet clean island with very friendly Kunas. The Children seemed to take a particular liking to Ash, who they followed around like a celebrity!


We then headed back west towards Coco Bandero, trailing two fishing lines behind us as we went. It was not long before the fish became interested in our tasty lures. Barracuda after barracuda attached themselves to the end of our lines. We landed three from five bites, let one off and one managed to outwit us. The first to meet its bloody demise was a 12lb 3 footer, the next a little smaller and the third a little smaller still. They were filleted in turn by Jeremy then Ash then George.


We were slightly concerned that the fish would have ciguatera so only ate the smallest specimen (as they are less likely to contain the toxin) and put the others in the freezer until we could receive some more expert opinion.


Monday 17/3


Listening to the local area radio net’s 08:30 broadcast we heard that a Canadian vessel, Famous Potatoes, were also anchored in Coco Bandero and were having to cut short their trip as their water maker was broken. George and Ash were despatched to offer the assistance of our water maker. Famous Potatoes gratefully accepted and within half an hour Jeremy and Ash had managed to rig up our equivalent of a mid-air refuelling system. We filled Famous Potatoes 100 gallon tank in under an hour. They were very grateful and kindly plied us with wine and rum in return!. George has taken to calling the water-maker Jesus, for its ability to turn water into wine!


At 13:30 we left for the Swimming Pool. Every Monday evening one of the long time San Blasters, Reggie, organises a party: for whoever happens to be in the Swimming Pool. We were told that this was not to be missed so we made sure that we were back in time to prepare our party food – an enormous quantity of (potentially ciguatera ridden) barracuda, cooked by George. One of the first symptoms of ciguatera poisoning is a tingling sensation in the lips so he cleverly sautéed the fish with a healthy quantity of chilli and paprika to add to the confusion. Having watched the other party guests chow down on the Barracuda with great relish and no ill effect, we returned to Astra to eat ours!


Tuesday 18/3


On Tuesday evening we were to return to BBQ Island again, for another party – this time Diane’s (Swimming Pool regular) birthday party. We had a few jobs to do first: Ash donned scuba gear successfully filled by the repaired compressor to clean the bottom of the hull; George did around the water line with his new snorkel; Jeremy replaced the propeller on the tender; and Sally prepared a delicious chicken curry for luncheon.


George and Ash confirmed British supremacy in the field of BBQ Island boules – firstly by destroying a lovely German couple and then by going on to give some Canadians a resounding battering. Jeremy and Sally then tendered in to join the party at about 6PM. An excellent evening was had by all: it turned out to be a bibulous affair with George doing some excellent work for international relations.


Wednesday 19/3


We left the Swimming Pool in pitch dark at 05:00, using our previous track to avoid the coral heads and make our way towards Colon, Panama. We were able to sail most of the way, motoring the last 30 miles and arriving at Shelter Bay Marina at 16:30. We noticed that things were not quite as they seemed at Shelter Bay as we entered between two Naval patrol boats and a makeshift anchorage to enter the marina where we were asked to remove our Panama courtesy flag and erect a Haiti flag if we happened to have one! All to be explained in the next log…