Panama - San Blas Islands 09 35.703 078 46.424

Mike and Liz Downing
Sun 17 Jan 2010 03:46
Arrived today in the San Blas Islands, stopping in the outer group, the Western Holandes Cays. There are 5 islands in this part and another 16 further to the east, all linked by a 7-mile long protective barrier reef. Mostly all are uninhabited. (There are over 300 islands in the San Blas chain.) We are anchored on the lee side of the barrier reef at an island called Acuakargana - it's Kuna name. The San Blas part of Panama is inhabited by the Kuna Indians and governed by them. They have named all the islands and they are quite unpronounceable (to us at least). The islands, and particularly the one we're moored off, are near perfect desert islands - lovely white sand around the shoreline and backed with dense thickets of palm trees. Unlike the Eastern Caribbean islands, Panama has never been affected by hurricanes, so the palm trees are tall and in pristine condition. The islands, particularly the outer ones, are all very remote. no shops, no wifi, no cell phones, so all our provisions were bought from either Trinidad or Bonaire. We will not stock up again until we reach the Canal zone, which is about 75 miles along the coast to the west.
Sailing during the last 24 hours was a lot more relaxed. We wanted to make sure we arrived here during the day, so didn't need to go more than 5kts. The wind dropped to 10 - 20kts and by late Friday the seas started to drop too, although the large swell has continued. Friday and today, and in fact every day of the passage, were beautiful days - not a cloud in the sky. We haven't had any rain during the day since we left Trinidad on 17th December. Even gales are tolerable when it's sunny and hot all day. The total distance sailed was 673.7 nautical miles.
The conditions on Thursday were the roughest we have sailed in. The sea was in a state of turmoil, breaking waves in all directions. The swell was 12 to 15 feet most of the time with some huge swells every now and again - a wall of water the size of a house comes up behind you! But Aurora B handled it well, just lifting up as the swell/wave went underneath. These rogue waves always seem to come in threes, so thinking there can't be another of that size, you then see the next one coming! Down below, with the hatch shut, it was so peaceful, you wouldn't believe what was going on outside. We're very pleased with the way the boat handles in these conditions and pleased with our own performance. Someone was always on watch out in the cockpit, we still managed to get around the deck to secure things that had come loose and had regular meals and sleep.  Waves came down the side decks on a few occasions, but only one actually came into the cockpit. It was already breaking as it went under the boat and the frothy white water ran along the side decks with such force that it ran up the side of the cockpit coaming and into the cockpit. It didn't do any damage, just got things wet! The passage along the Colombian coast is notorious for bad conditions. It is known for the worst weather conditions in the Caribbean, and ranks among the top five worst passages around the world. Jimmy Cornell, who established the ARC in the 1980s, quotes that many experienced sailors describe this passage as the roughest part of any voyage. So we are very pleased that we only had the rough conditions on one day and equally pleased to have this passage behind us! Apart from Thursday's weather it was great sailing and very fast sailing, but now we're just looking forward to some uninterrupted sleep!
After arriving, we started to get the boat back in shape for general living and coast hopping. It takes 2 days to get the boat ready for a long passage  - e.g. putting all the pole handling running rigging on, putting all the boat safety gear on, securing the dinghy on deck and stowing every thing well so that when we roll it doesn't all come bursting out of the lockers,. While Aurora B is quite stable most of the time, a big wave at the wrong angle will cause her to roll significantly in one direction followed a an equal roll in the other direction - it pays to be hanging on to something strong when this happens! Once we arrive, all the gear needs to be cleaned in fresh water, dried and then put away again. So after all the water we had on deck this time, there's plenty to do over the next few days as everything on deck is covered in salt.    
With no wifi we won't be able to send pictures for a while, probably not until we get to the canal zone in a week or 2, but we'll continue to send text updates.