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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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…