The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
The Comarca de Kuna Yala, also known as the San Blas Islands, is home to the Kuna Indians. The Kuna Yala is a political district on the northern (Caribbean) shore of eastern Panama which overlaps a large part of the province of Darién.
The first chart on this page is an overview of our route from the Panama Canal, through the Chagres River and the San Blas, to Cartagena, Colombia. The second chart, an enlargement of the lower left part of the first chart, shows how we entered the Archipelago de San Blas (the Kuna Yala) at its northwest corner, and anchored in the lagoon of the Chichimé Keys.
The Kuna Indians are fiercely independent, and the Comarca de Kuna Yala is not quite Panama. Before the islands were inhabited by the Kuna, a few indigenous people and traders lived here. In the days of the Spanish Main, pirates and privateers found hiding places among the 400 islands while they planned expeditions to plunder rich mainland towns like Portobelo, or to seize the heavily-laden trade and treasure ships of the Spanish, English or French, depending upon who was at war with whom at the time. By the time the Kuna came to these islands from their historical home in the Darién area of Panama (then part of Colombia), the islands were pretty much empty of anyone who claimed any rights to the islands. The Panamanian government and successive waves of missionaries attempted to assimilate the Kuna. After an uncharacteristically violent rebellion in 1925, the Kuna were left to continue their life here with relatively little interference either from the Panamanian government or other peoples who might interfere with or corrupt the “Kuna way of life.” The Kuna demanded and were given the right to have their own government, though they are a sort of protectorate of Panama. The Kuna have their own flag, a swastika design that predates the Nazis. Within broad areas the Kuna make their own rules. Intermarriage with non-Kuna, and land ownership by non-Kuna, are forbidden. <Larry: There are interesting parallels with the Indians of eastern Ecuador, which we talked about in one of our South America reports.> To oversimplify, each island is ruled by a chief called the “Saila” and an advisory board. The Saila together form a body (the congreso) who rule the Kuna nation overall.
The Kuna have their own language as well as their own culture. Taught to speak Spanish in school, most of the children chatter away in both Kuna and Spanish. The older folk seldom know Spanish but both men and women in their thirties tend to know enough Spanish to communicate with the cruisers. Many of the traders have a command of English. The Kuna language is remarkable for its intricacy and expressiveness. Every island has a Kuna name. For example, the east Holandes is called Acuukargana. South of there we anchored at Waisaladup, close to the village of Wuargandup. We picked up some simple phrases: Iggy mani: how much does it cost? Iggy naga: what are you called? Nuedi, taki malo: thank you, see you soon.
While Kuna life is primitive by western standards <Larry: think mostly Stone Age with outboard motors and cell phones>, the people live in a beautiful place with ample food, work and recreation. <Larry: For completeness, it must be noted that some islands have chosen to give up the traditional Kuna ways and are quite westernized, while others retain the traditional structures.> The Kuna seem content, with little desire to “do better” even though opportunity is there for the entrepreneurs among the Kuna. But we were told that “too much” success is frowned upon by other Kuna. The concept of personal property among the Kuna also seems to be amorphous. It appears that the vast majority of the islands and nearly everything on the islands are owned collectively. Occasionally, we had individual Kuna tell us that they “owned” this island or that but we were never sure whether they actually owned the island in a western concept or whether they only controlled the products of a particular island.
In the Chichimé anchorage, we were invited to dinner in the home of one of the Kuna who had sold us fish and whose wife had sold us molas. For a group of cruisers in one of the anchorages, he organized a guided tour to another group of islands. He was obviously the local entrepreneur in Chichimé. We accepted his invitation to dinner <Larry: for which he charged $10US for the two of us> and were able to visit his home, meet his family, and meet the teacher on the island, to whom I gave some school supplies. The dinner was apparently typical of what they eat: smoked white fish served with rice cooked with coconut milk. No veggies or fruit were added, nor did we see any around the village. They do eat plantains and drink lots of Coca-Cola. The plantains and fish are often baked over an open fire or deep-fried.
Traditional houses of the Kuna are constructed of palm leaves tied to a wood structure constructed from palm materials or driftwood. There is no furniture other than a cooking pit and hammocks strung up for the family members. All was clean, neat, and organized. Some of the islands have a well for fresh water, separated by a short distance from another well used as the “baños” (bathroom) area. Most islands have no well, and if the island is inhabited, the people must bring water from elsewhere in jugs. Other than the two or three villages like Narganá on or near the mainland, the islands have no electricity. Kerosene lanterns provide light in the evenings. Often a Kuna would come by Moira in an ulu and ask us to charge the battery in his cell phone!
Here’s an example of their independence. After resting for a few days at the Chichimé Keys, we motored for an hour or so southwest across the Canal de San Blas to check in with both Panamanian government (immigration) and Kuna government (port captain) officials on the island of Porvenir. We had a valid cruising permit from Panama but our tourist visas were about to run out. We thought we could renew the visas in the islands….not so! After much hemming and hawing the Panamanian immigration official said that as long as we did not leave the Comarca and return to Panama “proper,” we were OK. So for several months we had no visas, but a wink-and-nod understanding that we would be able to get an exit stamp in our passports, and get an international zarpe (permission to sail) to leave Panama for Colombia even though we had no (current) Panamanian visas. Panamanian officials in any other area would have made us fly to Panama City to get the visas renewed.
<Larry: The international chain of trust works like this: Whenever you want to enter a country, the immigration officers of your destination will insist upon seeing an exit stamp (salida in Spanish) in your passport from the previous country, and the port captain will insist upon seeing a document (zarpe in Spanish) giving permission for the vessel to exit the previous country. If you don’t have those documents, you can be refused entry. Then where do you go? Any other destination will make the same demands.>
After paying our respects, and fees, to the officials at Porvenir, we moved southeast to the Lemon (Limón) Keys. <Larry: At the entrance to the Lemon Keys we scared ourselves half to death, not for the last time, as we passed over a reef with about 8’ of depth. We were, and are, still learning to calibrate our eyes to the depths implied by colors of the water.>
The Kuna economy is based on three external sources of income: coconuts, molas and servicing cruisers. In addition, they have a thriving contract (in season) to deliver seafood such as lobster and other shellfish to various buyers like the Red Lobster restaurant chain.
These lovely islands grow coconuts by the thousands. Each coconut has an owner, who is Kuna. One of the rules for the cruisers is to never take a coconut. To do so is stealing. About 30 million coconuts are grown and harvested annually by Kuna men and women, and sold for about ten cents each (a rate set annually nationwide by the congreso) to the Colombians, who are the primary traders in the islands. The Colombians come and cart the coconuts off to Colombian factories where they make shampoo, hair conditioners, and all sorts of oils for cooking and for the restoration of the human body. The Kuna have never tried vertical integration of this industry and seemed to have no interest when cruisers mention that they could make the coconut oil themselves. It has been done this way since the Kuna populated this area and that is good enough for them.
While we were still in the process of getting the anchor down in any anchorage, Kuna women were arriving in their ulus to sell to us molas. The ulu is the family car of the Kuna, a dugout canoe perhaps 15-25 feet long, typically propelled by paddles or a spritsail. Two or three ulus hovered with varying degrees of patience while we completed our anchoring rituals. Each ulu carried one or two women, one or two children, and several buckets of molas.
The women of the Kuna make and sell for their own personal gain beautiful, elaborately detailed, appliquéd fabric mini-tapestries known as molas. The typical mola is about 12 inches by 12 inches, constructed by layering several pieces of fabric and then cutting out designs from the layers to expose lower layers of contrasting colors, or by adding small pieces of fabric on top and sewing them to the other pieces. In the finest molas, the stitching that outlines the cut-out areas is so finely done that the sewing is almost invisible. The quality of the design and of the sewing determines the price of the mola. I bought molas for ten dollars as well as 50 dollars, though one can pay less and more. The master mola makers of the islands generally sell their molas for 30 to 50 dollars. <Larry: We were told that the pre-Colombian Kuna would paint geometric and abstract representational designs upon their bodies. After the intervention of the missionaries, the Kuna kept alive their artistry on fabric rather than skin.>
<Larry: The Kuna are matrilineal, but not matriarchal. In their gender-based division of roles, production and sale of molas is “women’s work.” As the demand for molas grew over time, the Kuna discovered that there weren’t enough skilled and motivated women in the population to keep up with the demand. The solution? A number of men became women! A significant fraction of the mola industry is now serviced by transvestites, some of whom were chosen for the role while quite young. The most widely-known example of this gender-economics is one of the masters, “Lisa,” but we were approached by others. In some cases, the transvestites marry and adopt children to lend verisimilitude to their spiel. There seem to be two non-Kuna reactions to this adaptation: either (a) isn’t it wonderful that homosexuality is so accepted without prejudice? Or (b) isn’t it awful that their sex discrimination in employment is so rigid that one must forfeit one’s gender to get a job? In any case, habitual references to mola makers in the feminine gender require an implicit asterisk.>
The mola selling is taken very seriously by the Kuna. It is one of their main livelihoods but it is also a matter of pride to them that the cruisers look at the molas, to admire them even if they do not buy one. <Larry: Since the purchasers of molas also tend to be women, there is a whole woman-to-woman bonding ritual in showing the molas. The woman on the yacht invites the woman in the ulu, and her children, into the cockpit of yacht, where molas are spread out on every horizontal surface. Each mola is fingered and admired. If the cruiser’s Spanish is adequate, an exegesis of each design is presented by the maker. A selection is made, and haggling may ensue.> I must admit that after buying about thirty of these lovely objects I was financially and emotionally exhausted from the persistent hard sell of these ladies. Eventually, I told them that though I thought that their molas were very pretty, I did not want to buy any more molas. Instead, I would offer to buy veggies or fruits from their men. After a while, the ladies would no longer come to Moira to sell molas but would wave on their way to circle some new arrival trying to get his anchor down. Of course, when we went to a new island, the ladies of that area would come try their luck.
The major players in the mola trade cover the whole district in outboard-powered ulus. After a while they didn’t approach us because they knew that they had already cleaned us out. The best turf for selling is the lagoon of the Chichimé Keys, because that’s where most cruisers first enter the Kuna Yala. The hard sell there is because they know that by the time the cruisers have worked their way halfway through the islands they have usually bought as much as they’re going to buy for that season. They’re “mola’d out.” If you come back for the next season, they expect that their new molas will attract your new money.
The Kuna are learning to sell goods and services to the cruisers. This is a new idea to the Kuna. The trading that does go on between the Kuna and the cruisers is usually haphazard and unorganized, though some Kuna traders are learning western practices of regularity and punctuality. Most cruisers stay in the Chichimé, Lemon, Coco Banderos, and Holandes Keys, and there are one or two merchant Kuna in the village of Narganá who organize a trade in veggies, fruit, and occasionally wine and chicken, moving among the islands in outboard-powered dugout canoes perhaps 30 feet long. The merchants come to the Keys every week or two, or three, or not, depending on the supplies that come to them from the mainland. Then the cruiser’s VHF radio crackles with sightings of “The veggie boat!”, with reports of the boat’s progress, intended track, and remaining inventory.
The word in the cruising community is that you should try to bring everything you are going to need in the Kuna Yala with you. <Larry: Paradoxically, we were told that it is relatively easy to get boat parts and such in the Kuna Yala. There is daily air service between several of the islands and Panama City. We were told that, for appropriate remuneration, parts could be flown in, or the cruiser himself could fly to Panama City to do the shopping and return.>
I followed that premise, but I thought I would be able to buy lots of lobster, crab and conch. Wrong…when we got to the San Blas area in early March we learned that from the beginning of March to the end of May was the mating season for shellfish, and the congreso had ordered a “closed season” on mariscos. The Kuna are not allowed to capture these creatures during the closed season, but some of them do anyhow, and we dutifully turned down all offers to sell us the shellfish. <Larry: The Kuna congreso is showing some signs of ecological awareness, which is to be applauded. The cruisers’ SSB net most mornings would include a reminder of the closed season. It is perhaps unsurprising that ecological sensitivity has not permeated the rest of the Kuna population. We saw large amounts of plastic, mostly HDPE containers like oil jugs, on the windward sides of several islands. I suppose that it floated a couple of hundred miles downwind from the cities of Colombia. What’s to be done with the stuff?!>
By the middle of our stay I was beginning to run low on supplies and my canned goods and freezer supplies were fast disappearing. While we stayed in the Keys popular with other cruisers, we enjoyed getting fresh veggies and fruits from the occasional “veggie boat,” which seems to be an enterprise of Tienda Eidi on Narganá. We finally were able to buy boxed wine from one of the veggie boats, having used all of the wine we had stocked in Panama City. At $3US a box we thought the “Clos” box wine was just fine. This wine is Chilean and better than most box wine we have tasted. We should have bought more. The next two times, the trading boat brought neither wine nor chicken. Two of our friends (Moonsong) took pity on us and sold us some wine and rum. The crew of another boat (Shibumi) who were leaving for the States didn’t want to run their freezer while they were gone, and gave us Parmesan cheese, garlic and frozen chicken cordon bleu. Wow! Thanks, guys! We were almost back in business.
After a pleasant stay in several anchorages within the Lemon Keys, we moved on to the Holandes Keys. We spent a delightful week in the western Holandes (where Larry actually caught a couple of dinner-worth fish!), ending up at an anchorage in the eastern Holandes that the cruisers call “the swimming pool.” Where we had the western Holandes anchorage to ourselves for several nights, “the swimming pool” in the eastern Holandes was definitely “A-List” material: there were 22 boats there when we arrived (though when we returned to the east Holandes via Narganá and Waisaladup/Green Island, we found only one other boat, Runner, in the anchorage). We participated in one of the cruiser potluck dinners on “Barbeque Island,” and exchanged “dinners aboard” with Shibumi and Runner.
The remarkable thing about the “swimming pool” anchorage and the adjoining “hot tub” and “jacuzzi” anchorages was that the anchorage is quite shallow, with a nearly flat bottom 8-14 feet deep, and with utterly clear water. <Larry: I’m convinced that the “swimming pool” anchorage got its name from the way sunlight plays on the white bottom through ripples on the shallow water.> The clearest water is found around the islands that are furthest away from the mainland, about 5 to 10 miles off of the coast. Closer to the mainland, the muddy outflow from the rivers makes the water less clear, and the shoreward anchorages less attractive for diving. So for the best snorkeling, we stayed away from the coast. Even when an anchorage was forty to fifty feet deep and the bottom was not really visible, the water was clear to at least 20 feet which made swimming a pleasure (because you could see what was swimming around you in the water!) and made cleaning the bottom of the boat easier.
We loved snorkeling not far away from the boat on the Barracuda Reef at the edge of “the swimming pool.” We could watch the barracuda swim by, ignoring the clumsy snorkelers going by them and very aloof and superior to all other fish—until they got hungry. <Larry: One night I left a fishing hook in the water, baited with some leftovers. In the morning the bait was gone, and the hook had been bent straight! I expect that some barracuda was seriously irritated with us.> Often we would see a nursery shark sleeping under our boat during the day. I think they liked the shade produced by our hull. These sharks are harmless and no bigger than 3 or 4 feet. <Larry: We named ours “Frederick.”> Rays were common both under the boat and swimming by as we snorkeled. The smaller rays were often accompanied by a fish which hovered just above the backs of the ray, the fish perhaps stealing food scared up by the ray. Some of the best snorkeling was in the Lemon Keys where we dove on the nearby reef in water varying from 20 feet to 3 feet, with the sun’s rays raining down through the water and hundreds and hundreds of colorful fish sparkling in the water. The coral reefs are varied, with much brain coral and stag horn coral in different colors and shapes. This snorkeling was better than any other we have experienced in central America and Mexico. From what I have heard from fellow cruisers, the snorkeling in the San Blas beats the south Pacific. Well, maybe I will find out some day!
I often used my inflatable kayak to visit reefs too shallow to swim over and to watch the fish, rays, sharks and turtles go by. Shells were not as common as I had hoped they would be, but I regularly found beautiful conch shells. If they had live conch or if the conch shell had already been cut into to remove the hard muscle of the conch, I tossed them back (this was the “closed season”). But I did find some conch shells undamaged and unoccupied. The other beautiful shells we found were the sand dollars and the delicate “sea biscuits.” <Larry: This was our first encounter with “sea biscuits.” To imagine their shell, think of inflating a sand dollar with air, until the shell is perhaps 5” in diameter and 2” from top to bottom. The shell is extremely thin, and the joints between its segments are not fully fused, so that the shell, once vacated by its owner, tends to collapse unless some preservative action is taken. We were advised to dip the shell in a 50-50 mixture of Elmer’s glue and water.>
While we were in the San Blas Islands, we celebrated a quiet milestone: On April 24th, our Furuno GPS clicked over 8,000 nautical miles since it was installed in San Francisco. Almost all of that mileage was accumulated since we departed San Francisco on April 2nd, 2004.
We wanted to explore other areas of the islands which did not attract many cruisers. There is something to be said for being the only boat in an anchorage <Larry: and one is apt to say it—under one’s breath—after another cruiser has anchored too close>. We moved southeast to the Coco Banderos Keys, where we found several anchorages that provided this solitude, though we did not expect to see any more traders.
But one morning a fellow named “Serapio” came by in his ulu and wanted to know what we needed from Narganá. Señor Serapio has a reputation among cruisers for taking money and not delivering on time (which for cruisers on the move, may mean not delivering at all), but I thought that with a little inducement of a bonus and some money up front to buy wine he might come through. <Larry: His credit policy is to require cash in advance for alcohol, but he accepts cash on delivery for groceries.> The first order we gave him was small, to limit our financial risk, but if he delivered it would keep us “happy” for the next week. He was sure he would be back in two days, but it wasn’t until the third or fourth day, rather late in the afternoon, that he showed up. No wine (the supply boat had not come to Narganá that week) but he did bring veggies, some fruit, and three chickens enteros (heads and feet included, no extra charge). Fortunately, they were already plucked and gutted. We were introduced to the bread the Kuna make, sort of a mini-baguette, which was tasty when fresh, and made very good garlic bread when it had lost its freshness. We did three more deals with Serapio before we tired of his prices (substantially more than the boat from Tienda Eidi charged cruisers in the Holandes) but after all I decided that for the most part he was a “start up” business and needed to charge higher prices to new customers until he was a more known commodity. <Larry: He already was a known commodity, which was perhaps part of his problem. More likely, his prices were higher because he was buying his inventory at retail prices from Tienda Eidi!> So we spread the word that when he did show up with produce it was good, even though it was seldom when he promised. Some of his “flexibility” on timing was no doubt because of the Colombian traders’ schedule; some of it was perhaps that Serapio simply found something else to do, or had no real sense that precision delivery schedules contributed to his overall business plan.
After the Coco Banderos, we puttered over to Narganá (in the southeast corner of the second chart), the largest town in the Kuna islands, where we hoped to stock up on supplies. As we arrived, a fellow paddled up in an ulu to ask whether we needed diesel fuel, and we did a small deal. We then rowed ashore, and after much discussion with one of the grocery merchants in this small town we left a long list in Spanish of what we would like from the trading boat expected in that evening. We returned the next day to find that about half our order was forthcoming. In the order we had requested twelve boxes of vino blanco (there is only box wine, beer, and hard liquor, in the Comarca) but no luck. As we were getting ready leave Narganá for Green Island, our fuel merchant paddled by Moira and asked if we needed anything else. This was just a day after the trading boat had visited Narganá, supposedly not bringing wine. Upon learning our desperate plight, the merchant said he would check with “his friends” and after a short delay, paddled back to report that he was confident he could produce the wine. So off he paddled with our money and shortly paddled back with the twelve boxes of wine. This is just a small example of what may actually be in Narganá if one only knows whom to ask!
<Larry: Narganá has electricity, an army outpost, a jail, and a clinic. A crewmember on one of the boats in the Holandes got a severe sunburn while we were there. She was taken to the clinic on Narganá, and then put on a plane to a hospital in Panama City.>
On the way back to the “swimming pool” from Narganá, we spent several delightful days at Waisaladup Island, near Green Island. A photo of Moira anchored off of Waisaladup graces our 2007 Christmas Card.
<Larry: The entire island chain of the San Blas/Kuna Yala seems almost carpeted with wrecks, both commercial and pleasure boats.
As mentioned in our last installment, a conventional depth sounder is almost useless in these waters, because the depth changes so rapidly: one can go from a relatively comfortable depth of maybe 50’ to being high-and-dry in less than 50’ of distance. The only depth-sounder of any predictive value is the Mark I Eyeball, and then only in good sunlight. Good sunlight means: coming over your shoulder, between about 10AM and 3PM, with minimal overcast, and with enough breeze to ruffle the surface of the water. We have sat at anchor and watched reefs magically appear and disappear before our eyes as clouds come and go, or the direction of the sunlight changes during the day.
The reefs are both a bane and a blessing. In addition to their ability to ruin your day, they also make sailing in these waters pleasant, and anchoring possible. The islands in the outer rim (Chichimé, Holandes, Coco Banderos, and so on) are protected on their windward (northeast) sides by nearly continuous submerged barrier reefs, mostly a foot or two below the surface. Although invisible, they cause the great rolling swells of the Caribbean to trip, fall, and expend their energy. As a result, the waters behind the outer rim are nearly flat, except in the vicinity of the few channels into the coastal areas. Likewise, many anchorages within the coastal area (for example, Waisaladup), appear utterly exposed, but in fact are guarded on all sides by reefs a foot or two below the surface, so that even the minor swells of the coastal area are broken up, giving a placid anchorage and a good night’s sleep. And, of course, the reefs provide magnificent snorkeling.
The charts are uniformly wretched. We have anchored several times in locations where our charts showed us to be in the middle of an island! And that was with GPS (Global Positioning System) assistance. Pity the poor navigator who needed to rely on his sextant! Or maybe not: you’re more likely to sail defensively if you know you can’t trust your instruments down to the gnat’s eyelash.
Which raises the next problem. As Eileen Quinn’s song says, “All the islands look the same.” If you’re trying to obtain a fix by compass bearings, upon what bit of sand are you actually taking a bearing? If you know there’s a deep channel to the southwest of Orduptarboat Island, are you sure that’s the island you’re southwest of?
The freighter in the first picture missed a channel into the eastern Coco Banderos islands by about 30 feet. As near as we can tell, the initial impact on the coral “broke her back” (severed the keel of the ship). It’s hard to tell from the angle of the photo, but the hull has been twisted along its length, like a rope, by about 20 degrees. It appears that part of the hull plating has been removed (you can see through the ship from one side to the other), perhaps as part of trying to salvage the cargo.
The Hallberg-Rassy 42 sailboat, in the second picture, was wrecked in early 2000. The skipper attempted a nighttime entry into a popular anchorage in the east Holandes that cruisers call “the swimming pool” using his GPS and his charts. The story is that the cruiser had already completed a circumnavigation, so he certainly should have known better. The wreck has been stripped of everything of value. For a long time, a large piece of the foredeck was used as a table for cruisers’ potluck dinners on the nearby “Barbeque Island.” Supposedly, the boat went up on the reef during a Monday-night cruiser’s potluck.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I actually met the skipper of the boat “After You” (the dark hull in the third photograph), in early 2007. I ran into him when we were still in the Balboa Yacht Club awaiting our Transit, and he came around looking to buy a boat, having lost his boat in the San Blas. I never got the full story on her loss, except that he anchored in a supposedly safe channel, dragged anchor, and went aground. The coral ground a hole the hull, and she sank (the brown area in the photo is a rough, temporary fiberglass patch applied by the salvors).
While we were in the area, a boat sailing over from Colombia arrived about sunset and came up on the VHF radio asking for someone to “talk him in” to the “swimming pool” anchorage. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and advised him to stand back out to sea until sunrise.
While we were in the anchorage at Narganá, a cruising boat attempting to exit the anchorage ran hard aground on a shoal within the anchorage. The skipper thought he had gone aground at high water (there’s one tide per day here, with a tidal height of maybe 18”) which, if true, would have meant that he needed to get off quickly, or be stuck there for 24 hours. After much gunning of engine, laying out of kedge anchor, and general angst, the boat just floated off the shoal without apparent damage—he’d gone aground at low water. But he could have avoided the whole episode with the sun over his shoulder.
There are at least three other wrecks in the central San Blas that we know of.>
Often, if I did not buy a mola, the Kuna would ask for gifts of things they thought cruisers would have. Popular items were pens for the kids, lipstick, hair bands, magazines (the women look at the photos for new ideas for designing molas), canned milk, aspirin, batteries, and women’s clothing. At first, I gave what I had and asked nothing in exchange. As Larry and I discussed this it seemed that we may have been providing charity that was neither required nor desirable. These folks don’t need charity, and we didn’t want to create a sense of dependency, or to distort the local economy any more than we already were. It seemed to us that we could best serve the Kuna by nourishing the self-respect that comes from honest trading for something of value to them. So we tried to change our approach. We tried a policy that we always ask for something in exchange for what they request, be it a fish, a small mola, or a pretty shell. Enforcing such a policy will be harder on me than on Larry because I am the one who meets the ulus with women and children in them, many of whom give the impression of being in some need <Larry: though none of them is skinny!>. One downside to charity is that if I gave one child a pen, every ulu on the island soon came out to ask for the same thing for their child. These people are not shy.
<Larry: The sail of an ulu, if it has a sail, is usually a chunk of tarpaulin or plastic sheet, often with patches over patches. In 2006 the Bernon’s, a cruising couple on the yacht Ithaka, organized donations from the US of some sail cloth for the Kuna, effectively free. But rather than make it a charity, a “giveaway,” they instituted a policy that the recipient must give “something of value” in return. As a rule, people value more highly that for which they must pay, however little. You can read the story of the Bernon’s sail cloth campaign here. One disorienting artifact of their imitative is that today one sometimes sees ulu sails with very un-Kuna logos, batten pockets, and reef points!>
While the clear water snorkeling and the usual delicate breezes enchanted us and kept us in the San Blas for two months, the thunder and lightning storms were getting worse. The sun would shine for several days, and then the clouds would cover the sky and rain would follow. And not only rain, but lightning and thunder sufficient to get your immediate attention, all of which made us realize that the end of May was about our limit for a reasonable stay in the San Blas. The rainy season was coming quickly. Though some cruisers stay in the San Blas through the rainy season, I did not see the attraction of it, when we could beat a hasty retreat to Cartagena. Even though it rains and thunders in Cartagena, we would be in a secure marina and would have the advantage of easy travel from Cartagena into South America and the States.
Watching the weather has become a pastime for both of us. There does not seems to be a consistent way to forecast the weather in this area with much accuracy other than to assume that in the rainy season it was going to rain, thunder and lightning. In the dry season, the wind is stronger and more consistent, which makes a nice difference in the hot areas like the San Blas and Cartagena, but it would still rain (and thunder) when it pleased. <Larry: Squalls and thunderstorms in this area are driven, not by lows and fronts as in the temperate parts of the world, but by differences in water temperature, and are not forecast.> Larry has spent much time studying the weather, gaining some expertise in interpreting the many weather charts available to us, and reporting on the weather. During the cruisers’ daily SSB net on the eastern side of the Caribbean, Larry became one of the daily weather men, sharing the duties during the week with one or two others. He enjoys this activity and it gives a good start to our morning. He has held several weather classes for cruisers. The classes were well attended and appreciated by the cruisers who attended.
By the middle of May we were waiting for our resident weather man <Larry: Himself.> to determine when we should leave for Cartagena. At this time of year the winds are seldom more than 25 knots but they are generally more-or-less “noserlies”: they come from the direction you wish to go, if you wish to go from the San Blas to Cartagena. But even with 25 knots the waves build up, and the waves are the more uncomfortable part of the combination. So were waiting for a 48-hour window when the forecasters who are holed up in Miami could agree that the winds would be less than 15 to 20 knots and seas about 4 feet or less. We worked our way back north and west through the San Blas while we waited for our opportunity. We got an extended period in late May where the forecast was better than what we wanted as a minimum, so we were off to Cartagena.
The sail took us 43 hours, and—for a passage that most expect to be a “motorboat ride”—we actually sailed most of the way! The winds were consistent from the northeast and usually 12 to 15 knots. During one night the winds dropped to 5 or 6 knots and our speed was in the 2.5 to 3 knots range…not very exciting but then I was not looking for excitement! We could have turned on the engine, but why bother? It was a very even, pleasant sail, slowly through the dark night. Every so often the winds came up and off we would go through the night. For almost 6 hours we picked up the favorable countercurrent that follows the rhumb line from the San Blas to Cartagena, during which time we were traveling at 8 knots with 6 or 7 knots of wind! This is not expert sailing; it is just a very nice 1 to 2 knot current pushing the boat along at speeds out of all proportion to its hull size. That was fun! During one day the winds picked up to 15 to 18 knots and the seas became confused, making sailing tough and lumpy. Larry got seasick and I muttered under my breath that Cartagena had better be worth this effort. It is sailing in tough conditions like these which leaves me black and blue in unusual places. <Larry: One compensation was the phosphorescence. The passage of the boat seems to disturb small, pea-sized creatures in the water, who register their indignation with flashes of light. Maybe you’ve seen one of the Star Trek scenes where the Captain looks out of the “back window” of the Enterprise at the star field receding behind them, or perhaps you’ve seen a PC screen-saver with the same theme? That’s what it’s like some nights to look over the stern into the water as we slide along.>
But the morning always comes, and this morning was glorious because right where we expected it, Cartagena came out of the morning mist in all its beauty. And once morning appeared, we no longer had to worry about the small fishing boats of the Colombians that rarely appear on the radar but are seen by the cigarettes they are smoking in the distance—but frequently not distant enough for comfort.
Our first sight of Cartagena was of the walls of the old forts of Boca Chica, that once defended Cartagena from raiders looking for loot, backed by the high-rise skyline of upscale modern apartments. But Cartagena needed no defenses from us: we were simply delighted to be there. We anchored at the head of the harbor, close to the marinas, slept for several hours, showered, and then called Club de Pesca marina for permission to enter. We were finally in Colombia and had a new world to explore.
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