The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
I have written much about the San Blas already. We are very fond of this lovely place and people, and the quiet, comfortable cruising life it provides. Some cruisers love the area so much that they stay all year ‘round and take what comes, but we were getting ready to head north, with a goal of ending up in the Rio Dulce of Guatemala for the hurricane season.
Weather dominates the cruising experience. This area of the Caribbean (Panama and areas south of latitude 11 degrees North) is free of hurricanes but not of all violent weather. During the dry season (from November to May) little rain falls and the trade winds provide a comfortable climate with an average temperature of 85 degrees. However, during the rainy season (from roughly June to October) there are usually several rainy days followed by some sun, but there are frequent thunderstorms with lightning. <Larry: We’ve been told that every year, a dozen or so boats have their electronics wiped out by lightning strikes. Some long-timers have been zapped more than once.> Winds of 40 knots or more, called chocosanas, can suddenly arise.
<Larry: On a larger scale, the hurricane season in the tropics dominates everything. Between about 10° and 25° latitude, the “summer” months (conventionally beginning sometime in May and ending sometime in October in the northern hemisphere) require one to constantly be looking over one’s shoulder. We have generally found the climate during those months to be unpleasant, and have chosen to park Moira in a reputedly protected place while we hie ourselves to more temperate climes.>
We stayed this season for four months at various anchorages. So how do we get food? The Kuna and Colombian traders have become quite sophisticated in serving the cruisers who arrive in these islands. Some of the long-term cruisers have given the Kuna advice on the buying habits of cruisers, some of which has been acted upon. I suspect that over 400 cruisers come through the islands every year, staying several weeks to several months. About once a week a “veggie boat” comes by. <Larry: The cruiser’s radio comes alive with the joyous shout of “The veggie boat is in Green Island” (or wherever) “and will be heading to Coco Banderos next, and he’s loaded to the gun’ls with ….!”>
There were three boats that we bought from.
The biggest boat that came was owned by Colombians and arrived about every other week. The Colombians are the historical merchants in the San Blas and still buy all of the coconut production from the Kuna. The Colombian veggie boat was about 45 feet long, mostly open but with a small deck. They offered beer, wine (boxed Chilean), rum, vegetables and fruits (lettuce, but no arugula or radicchio!), potatoes, yuca (manioc), eggs, and chicken. They offered no paper goods, but had just about everything else to keep the larder filled. Gasoline was often available. We shopped at the side of his boat from our dinghy.
Another, smaller boat came weekly. It seemed to be an enterprise of Tienda Eide, a shop in Narganá that sold food stuffs, both fresh and canned, and paper products. This veggie boat usually had good supplies, but when the weather affected the supplies to the islands, the boat would not appear, or would appear with reduced stock, such as no wine. The usual rule in the San Blas, and any 3rd world area, is that if you see something you want, buy it now, because you may not see it again.
The third delivery option for supplies was a character named Serapio, a Kuna of checkered repute. Last year, he came to our boat and asked if we needed supplies. We had heard negative comments about Serapio but decided that our supplies needed replenishment regardless of his reputation. We came up with a list, based upon which he asked for $100 in advance! Our shopping list shrank implosively, we advanced him $20 for wine and vegetables, and off he went. We talked about whether we would see him again! About three days later he appeared with groceries but no wine. We tried again, and he reappeared some days later with wine and rum but no vegetables. So bit by bit we worked with him.
This year he appeared at our boat and of course we remembered each other from last year. This year he offered to get our supplies with no cash advance. <Larry: I take this to be a sign of his improving respectability in his own community: it would appear that he has developed a source of working capital.> He returned within three days with much of what we needed. A new capitalist had apparently been born and he was now in more favor with many cruisers. One downside was that he marked everything up by almost 50%, so one had to really want certain items to deal with Serapio. We figured the extra cost was a realistic “service and delivery” fee. Serapio would find us in remoter anchorages which were not usually served by the larger, cheaper veggie boats. <Larry: As some days passed between the order and the delivery, we might have moved to a different anchorage a dozen miles away. It sometimes took him a day or three to track us down.> So be it! The guy had learned to deliver and did not disappear with cash advances from unsuspecting cruisers, as had been previously rumored. He had his own schedule which was not obvious to us, but he delivered eventually. He usually had his two young boys with him who were learning the business of running a lancha (launch).
<Larry: The fourth provisioning option came from the individual Kuna who had caught a fish or crab or lobster (or four or five). Once or twice a week we would hear one of these fellows in his ulu, hallooing at the side of our cockpit, offering his catch. The first month we were there, we got magnificent crab and lobster, but the season closed at the beginning of March (the beginning of the mating season for shellfish). Thereafter there would be the occasional, illegal, attempt to sell lobster, but we resisted. Fish, however, remained on offer, and we took advantage when we could. And every now and then we managed to catch a fish, ourselves, such as the tasty rainbow runner in the photo.>
There are several small towns in the San Blas, of which Narganá is the largest. Supplies in the towns are dependent on a weekly supply boat that brings all products to the towns. The boat comes from Colón on the Panamanian mainland. Colón is 135 miles from the San Blas along a coast that can be unpleasant when the weather deteriorates. Narganá has a central plaza, several banks (but no ATM's or cash advances against credit cards) and numerous tiendas (small stores, usually one room, perhaps 12’ square) which have irregular business hours. For basic supplies they are fine but do not be surprised by a lack of variety. If you like canned tuna, canned salmon, and rum, you will do fine. <Larry: The form of delivery may be unfamiliar, too. Whole chickens are kept in a cooler, and the merchant will dismember one to order with a machete. The flour is in a 30-gallon plastic trash can, and ladled out for the consumer into a plastic grocery bag.> The Kuna eat mostly dried or smoked fish and rice with coconut. They do not seem to have vegetables or fruit beyond papaya or bananas. Food variety is not a high priority for these people. All of which makes the services to the cruisers—all of whom want variety—even more amazing. They have learned new skills to be successful at this. Supplying the cruisers has become the third industry here, after the production of molas and the sale of the coconut crop to the Colombians.
There are opportunities to help the Kuna in a respectful way. They do not expect charity, though they have grown to expect that cruisers will charge their cell phones for them. The Kuna generally do not have electricity except in the few larger towns. A very few of the well-to-do Kuna may have generators or solar panels. So at many anchorages, Kuna would paddle by Moira in ulus and ask us to charge their phones, which I always agreed to do. After all, this was their beautiful world which we had come to. Larry wanted to ask for an exchange, which we tried. We asked for a fish. What we got was the male fisherman of the household, who came by and offered to sell us fresh fish. Of course, we bought from him often and his fish was very fresh and delicious. The children usually came by every several days to ask for candy…carmelo. I often added school supplies and a pencil to the requested candy. Occasionally we got a “thank you,” but not often. We got smiles and some conversation in Spanish but the concept of “thank you” does not seem to be part of this culture. I suspect it was a result of the communal nature of the culture. The services we provided were now a part of the communal culture, which had just grown to include the cruisers! The Kuna would come by the boat for other things such as gasoline. In these situations we would insist on a trade and they would expect that. If we could not provide the requested item, they would keep asking other cruisers, but we never noticed rancor if our answer was “no.”
On the other hand, the day after we arrived from Cartagena, we were anchored off of Porvenir <Larry: where were waiting to complete entry formalities with the Panamanian immigration officer and the port captain>. A Kuna man paddled up to Moira in his ulu and asked for help with repairing his torn sail. We were able to loan him the needles, sail thread, and sail tape he needed. We tied his ulu to Moira and he spent several hours patiently repairing his sail. He was very grateful and looked us up several days later in another anchorage with his two kids to say "hello".
In many cases we keep busy on the boat with chores that resemble living on land in a house.
Larry had boat maintenance to undertake: everything from cleaning the bottom of the boat to get rid of barnacles and slimy growth, to polishing stainless, to fixing watermakers and bilge pumps. I am busy with everyday chores: laundry, cleaning the boat inside, thinking about and undertaking provisioning as the veggie boat comes by, and preparing meals. I make bread regularly, which takes all morning.
Doing the wash at anchor requires two buckets, a good supply of powdered detergent, and a hand-size brush to rub the soap into the fabric. Wash hangs up to dry on the lifelines around the edge of the boat. There are no washers or dryers in the Kuna Yala. Washboards are common, just like grandma’s. I recently tried one on our trip to Río Dulce and was surprised to find how effective they are. I will probably order one soon!
We try to keep work to the mornings; afternoons were the time to play <Larry: or nap>. Snorkeling was often the afternoon sport. Often an afternoon in the cruising community is spent with other cruisers, playing games such as “Mexican train” dominoes or bocce ball. In the Coco Banderos islands, the Kuna have permitted the cruisers to use one half of an island, and cruisers have constructed tables for games from wreck wood, and cleared areas for bocce ball. Adjacent to the island is crystal-clear water for swimming, with a sandy bottom that gives a turquoise-colored appearance. It is fun to meet other cruisers and join with them in afternoon activities, but neither of us is sufficiently social to want to do it every day. Some cruisers actually do and enjoy themselves. You can be very social in the cruising community, but you can also participate only occasionally if that is your pleasure.
<Larry: I have “done the weather” for several cruiser radio nets over the last several years, in the process of which I’ve learned a lot. I put together the core of that information in a 2-hour class I presented to other cruisers. During our period in the San Blas I taught the class about every 2nd week. Almost always, the class was “sold out.”>
Our deal on fishing is that Larry catches the fish and gets it on deck. At that time the fish becomes my problem. After several years I have become quite efficient at filleting fish, mostly because of the Kuna’s willingness to sell the (whole) fish they catch. When Larry catches a fish I try to be ready. This bigeye tuna was the best tuna we have ever eaten. It produced two beautiful fillets which fed us for four dinners. The fish was about 20 pounds <Larry: about 2 feet long>. Once filleted, we ate that beautiful fresh tuna that evening and froze the remaining catch, eating it up quickly over the next three days. We’re working harder on fishing. When we catch something we’re both excited and thrilled with ourselves and nature. <Larry: And we’ve learned a tremendous amount. For example, we recently figured out that our success rate really climbs when we have a hook in the water!>
After we entered the Kuna Yala we found that we had several friendly fish called remoras that literally stuck to our boat even as we moved from anchorage to anchorage. They were actually a type of fish that clung to the hull of the boat with a kind of sucker on their heads, dropping off to snack on the growth on our keel, and on any garbage thrown overboard. Larry once caught one but we threw it back. <Larry: They made fishing at anchor really difficult, since they’d zoom out from under the hull to grab anything that splashed into the water.> They are ugly fish and resemble skinny sharks. We have never heard of anyone eating them. We also saw them on rays, sucking off growths on the back of the ray.
We have been cruising for over four years and have racked up 9,000 miles. I have come to see that there are four parts of our life on the water, three of which I enjoy greatly, and one more, the enjoyment of which still eludes me.
The cruising life fits me fine. This is the process of living at anchor on a 42-foot cruising boat with a very strong community of which we are a part. Cruisers help one another and get to know one another based on this chosen lifestyle with little reference to what anyone did in their “working lives.” There is a marvelous sense of control in this life because every day we jointly decide what to do with the day. Work and play are usually easy to balance with lots of time for reading and talking and just being together with each other and our friends in the cruising world. We can do what we want, say, moving the boat to a better or different anchorage if we want to do so <Larry: try that with a house!>.
The second part of our lifestyle that I love is seeing new places from the boat. This is the excitement of entering new ports, marinas, or anchorages and the initial exploration of new places and new people. Nothing beats the excitement of entering a new port from the water and understanding a place for the first time. Wow!
The third part I enjoy is land travel to new places once we have the boat secured. We often leave her in a marina, of which we have found many of high quality with good security, having the amenities that I love after being at anchor or on passage. We have had many trips which we have talked about in these pages. I doubt that we would have found travel so authentic and rewarding by any other means.
The final part of our cruising life, with which I have trouble, is the passage-making. This is sailing from port to port in which the passage is more than overnight. We spend very little time at passage making. In our last four years only a few percent of our time was spent in passages more than one night. Passage-making is not the dreamy, smooth sailing pictured in many travel brochures. It is hard, physical work on a constantly moving boat with the motion similar to that in a washing machine. Lots of noise surrounds the cruiser on passage. There is the wind in the rigging and the constant banging of the boat against the wave-driven ocean. Often the noise is such that sleep is difficult. Moving around the boat both inside and outside is difficult. Each step must be made with care or bruises follow, or even the dreaded “man overboard.”
Passage-making takes a strong mental outlook and some courage. Half of the time is at night. Its dark and often scary. We have radar, which I consider my great friend during night watches, but it is stressful to be sailing along at night and not be able to see a thing except with the radar. Maybe pilots have the same sensation. There are good things about night sailing. The stars are beautiful. We have seen many shooting stars and many of the planets at night. Seeing the moon come up and light the way at night is wonderful and still thrilling to me. During the day in sunny weather, the water is beautiful, with a blueberry color that is only seen at sea in the tropics. At night the phosphorescence in the water adds to the marvels of the skies.
Overall, passage making has pulled us together because it can be only done with a strong team committed to getting to the next port. Much as I find passage-making difficult. it is the only way to get from port to port. When a passage is difficult I often wonder why I am doing this, but once I see land and a new port comes near, there is a marvelous feeling of accomplishment and new beginnings that prevails. To me, good sailing comes with 15 knots and seas of three feet or less. Below 10 knots, there is not enough wind to sail well, and above 20 knots, the passage gets rugged, fast. Sailors who travel the oceans many times have my great respect but not yet my understanding. By the way, our longest passage has been seven nights and eight days. That’s enough for me!
<Larry: It was with great reluctance that we left the San Blas. Choices are painful. We could have stayed in the San Blas-Cartagena orbit for another year, as some cruisers do. But we felt that it was time to move on. With the hurricane season approaching, we needed to get moving. At the slow pace we manage, it would take time to reach the Río Dulce of Guatemala, the nearest area reasonably protected from hurricane winds and seas. Each day that went by increased the possibility of being “caught out.” In our next installment, you’ll see that we reached the shelter of the Río just as the hurricane season went from “official” to right overhead!>
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