09:35.238N 78:52.885W - A miniature South Pacific

Hamble Warrior
Jamie Hickman
Thu 23 Mar 2023 23:30

The San Blas Islands
5th February

We set out from Puerto Lindo at 
0730 and waved goodbye to Rob once more as we left. We had quite a tough days sailing ahead of us but the conditions were pretty good and we managed to retain enough phone signal to follow the Spurs v Man City game which yielded one of the few happy moments in our season to date; a 1-nil win over City and our star striker Harry Kane breaking the club all-time goal-scoring record. By the time we could spot the tiny little islands of the Kuna Yala the light was starting to fade and we picked the islands of Chichime Cays to start our island hopping adventure as the access through the reef there was pretty straight forward. As we dropped anchor the large outline of something swept through the water across our bow. I couldn't be sure if it was a large dog fish or a small nurse shark but it was the first of many spectacular creatures we were to see here.

Over the next 3 weeks we cruised between the islands stopping at a different spot nearly every day and visiting about a dozen or so islands; revisiting some later with our friend Lindy aboard.

Each of the San Blas islands had it's own  character; from tiny sandy islets with just a few palm trees balanced on, through to the largest with densely growing vegetation and numerous huts.

Surrounding these islands is the growling reef; a line of foaming white surf that rumbles away as a background noise to the tranquility of the flat calm waters it encloses and protects. Sailing between islands is both comfortable and exciting. The flat waters protected by the reef mean idyllic sailing conditions even in strong winds and the many coral reefs and islets not detailed on electronic charts need to be navigated by sight and using GPS coordinates given in the pilot book that makes for a fun challenge. The thrill of tacking through small channels between islands by watching the depth falling off and then coming about to find a perfect anchorage of crystal clear aquamarine water lying ahead is unrivalled. It felt like we were in little "South Pacific training ground".

Moving nearly every day or every other day to see as many spots as possible; each new spot brought it's own little gem. The first of these was the pod of half a dozen dolphins which came through the anchorage at Chichime Cays; at East Lemon Cays it was the sight of a Ray leaping out of the water, and at Miriadiadup the island itself was the most delightful treat with its long sandy beaches and the tiny habitation where "Prado" and his delightful family made Molas - which are applique-style pieces of fabric artwork depicting animals and plants created by layering fabrics and intricately stitching them - and jewellery in the traditional way of the Kuna Yala.

At each island we would be visited by local Kunas who would paddle out in their incredible dugout canoes to sell Mola or freshly caught crab; fish or lobster, or on launches with outboards selling fruit and vegetables that they ply from island to island.

The Kuna Yala live in a very traditional tribal way although there is a huge amount of evidence that their way of life has changed dramatically in very recent years with the increasing number of visiting yachts and the booming private charter business in the area. They are rather diminutive in stature and the ladies wear brightly coloured beaded bracelets wrapped up their legs; traditional hand made clothes with Mola designs, headscarves and have a gold piercing inside their noses and tribal markings on their foreheads and down their noses. They are very kind people although often can appear quite stern. Their children are very friendly and always seem curious about the visitors to the island; they are keen to say hello in English and Spanish; neither of which are their mother tongue.

Watching the locals make their way across the apparently calm anchorages in the way they had traveled for generations was particularly impressive once you have experienced some of the incredible currents that the conditions can create in some of these spots. Whilst anchored in the ironically named "swimming pool anchorage" (presumably named for the perfectly clear water opacity and not the actual swimming conditions) we decided to try and finish the job of cleaning the hull and prop which were still carrying some fouling from our stay in Cartagena. We had begun to clear this in Linton Bay when we first arrived in Panama but in the murky waters of the bay had really only managed to clean a little of the waterline; there was still much to do and the clear water seemed ideal for the job. We rigged lines under the hull for Jamie to pull himself down to clean the prop and for & aft for me to work my way along the hull. We were aware the current was quite strong and prepared everything we needed in advance hanging a bucket of tools over the side and checking the lines were well secured. Jamie went in first and after his first dive on the prop suggested that I would struggle with the conditions as the current was stronger than he had anticipated. Being a strong swimmer and in a particularly stubborn mood I lowered myself down the swim ladder and selected a scraper from the bucket which I held between my teeth. I eased myself around the stern of the boat and set off swimming with all my strength along the port beam. I made about 4 feet to good and could see the line just another few feet ahead; if I could just make that next metre or so I would be able to grasp the line and pull myself up towards the bow where I could start working at the waterline with one hand and use the line to stop me being swept away. I gritted my teeth and swam as hard as I could for several minutes but made no ground whatsoever; however hard I swam I remained in the exact same spot with the line just a metre or so out of reach. Eventually I gave up and allowed the current to carry me back the few feet had swum where I then grabbed the stern of the boat and accepted my defeat. The cleaning would have to wait another day! This current wasn't present everywhere but seemed to be created by water coming over the reef and flowing out through small channels between islands which meant we had to be careful to pay attention to the local conditions before we swam.

In the Coco Bandero islands we met Medina and Ambrosa and their small family who lived in the only hut on the tiny island. Ambrosa was out fishing from his Yulu (dugout canoe) as we approached the island through a particularly tricky pass in the reef. When we paddled ashore we were careful to walk on the beach away from their home trying not to be intrusive but Medina waved us over and was soon showing off her beautiful Molas and jewellery. Later she asked us to charge her phone onboard Hamble Warrior for her; there is no electricity on most of these islands, and we readily agreed. As a thank you Ambrosa gave us the biggest coconut we have ever seen!

Despite the beauty of these tiny little paradise islands one of the most intriguing was Nagana which; although still only approximately half a square mile, was jammed full of little buildings and here the Kuna had shunned the traditional ways of tribal life and lived in fairly modern conditions with limited electricity and even televisions. We stopped off here three times in our time in San Blas. The first was to locate the medical centre to get some cream and pills for a rather nasty outbreak of cold sores that I was experiencing. This being the only place we could see that had anything resembling a pharmacy we spoke to the receptionist who registered me as a temporary patient, had me in with a doctor within 15 minutes and shortly after that I was walking out with a bag of medicine and a bill which came to the grand total of $17; of which $5 was the consultation fee for the doctor and $12 was for the medicine. It was as efficient and inexpensive a service as I have ever experienced! We bought a few grocery items from the tiny "Tiendas" which comprised small huts with a single counter behind which a small variety of items were displayed. Afterwards we enjoyed a lunch of fried fish and rice at Juande's little restaurant. We had a nice chat with Juande mostly talking about his beautiful cat who he had named "Princess" which was a bit of a mystery as Princess appeared to have some of the biggest balls we've ever seen on a cat! Then we heard Juande on his phone using the "Duolingo" app to learn English; at this time Jamie was on a 10 week learning streak on Duolingo learning Spanish and we sat comparing lessons with our new friend and both practicing different words and phrases, it was really quite sweet.

We returned to Nargana a second time just before our friend Lindy was due to arrive, having been preparing the boat ready for our visitor and done a huge load of laundry which took an entire day and a lot of our water supply. We hoped to fill our tanks from the service on the small quay at Nargana but when we arrived we discovered it was a holiday and nothing was open. We accepted we weren't going to be able to fill our tanks and went to the small Tienda next to the public dock where we asked if they had any rum. A man sitting outside the Tienda went to fetch the owner of the small clubhouse next door who unlocked and brought us a bottle of rum for just $12. We bought some cokes from the Tienda and then thanked our new friend for his help. He introduced himself as Jackson and we offered him a rum and coke by way of thanks. As we sat chatting he told us anything we needed while we were there just to ask him; I told him we needed about 
500 litres of fresh water, "no problem" he said, I will bring it to your boat at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning. We agreed a price of $10 for the water and said goodnight. At 8 o'clock on the dot the next morning there was a knock on the boat. There alongside was Jackson with his tiny Yulu loaded with huge plastic barrels full of water. He had paddled 2 miles up the river this morning where the water source was very good and collected it for us. This was good drinking water he told us. We opened the tanks and Jackson handed up the barrels where Jamie then emptied each one into our tanks through a funnel. Once all the water was onboard and we had paid Jackson the agreed money he offered us a huge branch of bananas; 5 or 6 tiers each with half a dozen hands of unripened bananas on for $5. We readily agreed knowing this would be very useful once we had a full crew on-board. Finally he handed us 3 large coconuts; these were a gift from him. We thanked him and Jamie gave him a gift of a length of line to replace the painter on his Yulu; his was only about 2 feet long and not really up to the job of tying alongside even a modest sized yacht. We said our goodbyes and set sail for the island of Tiadup where I had an arrangement to be collected by a local boat and taken to the mainland to make a trip to Panama City and collect Lindy.

Lindy's arrival was timed for the final week of our time in San Blas and her trip began with an overnight stay in Panama City after I collected her from the airport. My own little overland adventure started early in the morning of the 20th February when a local launch collected me from Hamble Warrior and took me back to the mainland which was about half an hour or so away and then dropped me up the river at a small make-shift port where I met a car that took myself and a small group of American visitors on a bouncy ride on a poorly-maintained road through the jungle and into the city dropping me at the airport around midday; several hours before Lindy's flight was due to arrive but as it turned out just enough time for me to work out how to get her back into the city again. It had been about 15 months since we'd last seen Lindy when she visited us in Gran Canaria shortly before we crossed the Atlantic and we were both looking forward to seeing her again. As usual she arrived laden down with boat parts and spares for us as well as some mail from home and the all-important bank cards we had been waiting for! We took the bus and the metro into the city where we had a hotel booked for the night and spent the next few hours catching up on each other's news and me interrogating Lindy for all the news and gossip from home. Then it was time for an early night as we were being collected to make the return trip to Hamble Warrior at 4am the next day.

The return trip went very smoothly and the ride back to Hamble Warrior on the launch was even more exciting than the ride out; partly because as we left the river I spotted my first ever crocodile in the wild - basking on a log in the sunshine - and partly because the ride back to Tiadup was twice as fast, twice as bouncy and a hundred times more thrilling than the ride out. As we smashed through the water it was like a high octane rollercoaster ride and by the time we arrived back at Hamble Warrior I had the biggest grin and my face literally ached from smiling!

We had a wonderful week in San Blas with Lindy. The first night we went ashore we spotted a huge ray and a nurse shark in the clear waters off the island. After that we were treated to dolphins and turtles regularly as we sailed between the islands and we declared Lindy head of wildlife spotting!

We took Lindy to several places we had already visited and a couple of new islands too. Her favourite was another of the islands in the Coco Banderas where she enjoyed the clear waters and idyllic setting whilst Meep stayed on-board and tried to defend our bananas from the cheeky little birds that were determined to steal them.

We also revisited Nargana with Lindy as Jackson had told us that there would be a big festival on the Wednesday night. When we arrived it seemed the festival had long since burnt out and everything was very quiet but we sat in our usual spot and drank our usual rum and Lindy received an unexpected and unwanted marriage proposal from "Davey" who was very keen to take her home to meet Mum. We decided it was probably time to head home at that point and all bundled into the kayak as quick as our legs would carry us leaving a very disappointed Davey on the quayside.
Before leaving San Blas we treated ourselves to some souvenirs of the island; Molas and jewellery. I bought a couple of Molas to send back as birthday gifts for some big birthdays coming up at home and Lindy bought herself a beautiful beaded bracelet which the Kuna lady wrapped and stitched to her wrist. Buying Molas from the Kuna is an amazing experience in its own right; firstly as a matriarchal society the ladies are only really interested in doing business with the ladies onboard which is quite hilarious to see the captain so readily dismissed from his own cockpit. Secondly once you invite the Kuna onboard you will suddenly find the entire cockpit covered in fabric and brightly coloured Molas with more appearing by the second. Once you have made your purchases it takes a good 20 minutes for the goods to be replaced into the Yulus and paddled away again!

All too soon it was time to head back to Portobelo and meet up with the rest of our crew ahead of our canal transit. We were sorry to leave San Blas but we were looking forward to showing Lindy Portobelo and to get ready for our next big adventure.

We sailed back to Portobelo on the 25th February and for Lindy it was her biggest sail yet; 8 hours and nearly 60nm. We were very proud of her!!!

The next few days we showed Lindy around Portobelo; introduced her to the joys of street drinking outside the Tienda, ate Sui Mai, visited the black Jesus, took the pilgrimage to the cash point to confirm that our new bank cards worked - stopped at the beautiful bar overlooking the bay to celebrate that they did (!!!!) and rode the bus to Linton Bay to collect our cruising permit paperwork that we had been waiting on for several weeks whilst Jamie rode the bus the opposite way to Sabanitas to do some provisioning. It was an action packed few days but by the end of it we were ready to meet the rest of our crew and had everything we needed onboard for the canal transit.