the journey


Homeward Bound

March 15-24, 2011

Location: Panama City to Golfito, Costa Rica

We are homeward bound, back in Momma Pacific and it feels right. We've been welcomed home by flocks of pelicans flying 30 deep gliding gracefully just inches above the rolling Pacific. There is life in this water.

Pilot whales bust through wind chop and swell, sending spray from their bulbous heads, somehow managing to look graceful. Frigates soar above us and every now and then, touch water aiming for fish. Dolphins visit us daily in short bursts, flashing their sweet smiles before disappearing into the deep. A small group of golden cow-nose rays glimmered beneath the surface of the sea. Turtles seem like obstacles as we have counted more than 40 over the last few days and passed 10 within two hours, two serving as resting rocks for birds perched upon their shells. Sea snakes slither by and mobula rays entertain us with their comical flips. A sierra mackerel landed one of our lines and we are blessed.

We sat down in Panama City and looked closely at the calendar and charts. Reality hit us. We have a long way to go to get to northern Mexico before hurricane season begins in the middle of May, let alone up to San Francisco by sometime in June. Even though we really want to be cruisers and want to surf and explore and play along the Central American coast we have to change our mindset and get DK north, homeward bound. A combination of long day sails and some overnight hops should get us there.

This kind of sailing is a novelty for us; a fun change. Long day sails up the coast of Panama. If we have to be awake at 2 am we might as well have the moon and glittering stars for company. We did as we made our way west around Punta Mala, Bad Point, notorious for it's strong winds and currents. We were lucky and had timed things right. Winds were 20-30 knots, seas pretty small. Although we did buck the current most of the way. Once around the point we were glad for the calm seas. It was reminiscent of sailing in the Bay through Racoon Straits, again and again, without really knowing where the wind acceleration points would be. Even with gusts to 37, it sure was a different ride without swell or wind chop than being out at sea.

Hugging the coast is more scenic too. The ragged rocky mountains slid by, replaced by cloaks of rainforest as we made our way north westward. Our evening in Benao was punctuated by frigates riding the winds above us and pelicans and hundreds of other sea birds feasting just beyond the surf. About 12 surfers sat in the line up and the off-shore winds blew the waves out like mist.

Another dark departure at 5am to Ensenada Naranjo. Good thing it was too. We had a maddening contrary current running all day against us of about a knot and a half. But another beautiful thing about these days sails is that in addition to being entertained by flipping mobula rays and dolphin visits we also spend much more time together in the cockpit than offshore passages. These 10 to 15 hour day sails, have provided us with ample time to muse about our present and our future. Long road trips were always good for us, this is a better substitute.

We have fallen in love with the Pacific again and with life, a good vibe to ruminate from. In the dusty twilight hours while we sip our morning elixirs of choice, coffee for Gar and jasmine tea for me, we talk about towns and where we want to live, how big, what it feels like, if it has to have dear friends of ours already in it? What will we do for work? What should we look for? A green building scene and lumber yards with FSC wood in them? Somewhere with open space nearby and a change in seasons. A community pool and farmers markets. By sunup we return to the discussion of having a kid. My clock is ticking and we need to decide soon. What about the planet? There are so many kids in the world who need good homes. Are we too selfish in wanting a kid? Are we selfish not to? Around 10 we are slick with sweat and have been since 8. We think out loud about snow country, mountains, rivers, alpine climbs, and long hikes. We imagine snow, a cozy kitchen, and fresh cold air streaming past us along with a bath to decadently warm ourselves in.

But like life everywhere it's not dreamy all of the time. Even after 4 years of sailing, we still have our biggest fights while anchoring. Just days ago as the sun slunk below the horizon and the cicadas started to hiss we still were struggling getting the hook down for the night off of Isla Metidor. Reef ran along our starboard side and we had three options, none very promising. After four attempts at anchoring in one of the best bays we moved on ungracefully. Our conversation went something like this: "What do you want to do Nicole, give me a solution, make a decision," Gar said with mounting frustration and sweat beaded upon his brow. It's hard making a decision when the decision is really up to the hook. I was done with the spot that was seeming smaller and smaller without relenting a hold. We had two more options and the light was fading fast. "I don't know what to do, we have to try one of the other spots and if that doesn't work, the other," I replied growling from the inside. This went on longer than you need to hear about. I didn't like our options. Everything looks more menacing in twilight with the spring tide falling 15 feet and hidden reefs around our hull.

"What do you want to do, tell me where to go." While stacking chain for the 5th time I made a decision. "Go to the small bay, just there, drop the hook back and let's tie to a tree." Gar didn't like my choice and was worried about escaping with the 15 foot tide being tied to shore. For us, getting the dingy ready takes a little while and is sweaty work, but thankfully, our stern line is basically ready to go. Mostly, it was that we'd been up since 4:30 and we were hot and tired and ready to be done. The current pushed against me as I rowed 200 feet of line to shore (unfortunately, not long enough with the sideways current). After an hour and a half of fiddling with adding more line, maneuvering DK again and again into the right position long enough to get the stern line wrapped around a sturdy enough log with the current lifting me up and over the log, we were finally hitched to shore and nestled in for the night.

It proved to be our favorite anchorage, even with the drama. Bats clicked and chirped throughout the night, cicadas hissed and howler monkeys roared in the background. Friendly fishing boats honked at us more than once. We feasted on our freshly caught sierra mackerel and finished the last of our Lanzarote white wine. The wind blew through our companionway from the island and managed to cool us down even with bug nets in place. We slept like the dead and woke in the morning to find a black and white striped caterpillar bigger than my longest finger clinging dead to our line along with two very alive 6 inch green grasshopper like creatures.

We untied our stern line after a more leisurely morning and lifted the hook by 0800 for a 30 mile hop to the Secas, known as one of the prettier island groups in Panama. The swell was running and the tides were big. We decided to stay and have a look at the island before high tide consumed what there was of the beach. We left DK rolling in the swell in 40 feet of water and rowed to the beach for a swim. The tides were severe because of the moon so there was limited visibility. Standing in the shallows I spotted a fin and a white body of a shark, I grabbed Gar and started back to the beach. I don't know what it is, I am in love with sharks, have swum and dove with them, and yet when I can't see through the water I fear them. We stood shallower, watching fish being chased to the surface and keeping a lookout for the shark. No luck in spotting it again but we did see a huge barracuda on the way back to the boat.

We thought at the Secas we would have our fourth anchorage to ourselves, a first since the Red Sea. At dark, we got company, a big Lagoon catamaran and the wind came up. We had been happily surprised to be so fortunate as to have all of the anchorages to ourselves, but were expecting and fine with sharing this one with someone, just not so close.

They were blasting tunes as they rolled in (good ones) and dropped their hook close to the cliffs to our starboard side but they continued to drag out, closer and closer towards us. The wind kicked up some more and when it looked like they might be set they were within two boat lengths of us. Too close for a big anchorage and shifting winds. Gar said something but the skipper wanted to stay put. He was too close for us here. I can remember of no other time in our circumnavigation where Gar yelled at someone for anchoring too close and being unsafe and rude. They yelled back and forth and finally, the guy moved. I was shaking in my bare feet as I hate conflict and wanted to make things all right but Gar was right. Had it have been light, we would have moved. We should have. At 2300 the wind shifted 180 degrees and we kissed coral with the dropping tide. After a lucky escape and one light coral kiss we pulled anchor and motored into deeper water. I couldn't sleep.

At 0630 we were off again, on a short sail to Isla Parida after too much drama and a terrible night's sleep. We changed plans within a half and hour and rerouted direct to Punta Balsa so we could check into Costa Rica before the offices closed over the weekend. We were happy to be leaving the Secas even though we fought a 1.5 to 2 knot current throughout the day.

Tired from the night and our previous long days we both took turns napping in the sea berth. The wind deserted us for most of the day until our last hour when we could sail in 7-12 knots of wind. By 1700 we were anchored in what was a much better surf spot than anchorage. Rolling from side to side we decided to set up the other sea berth so both of us could sleep in the middle of the boat. Good call. At 0600 we groggily awoke with a gentle rolling and a light breeze and we were off on our last long Panamanian daysail towards Golfito to check into Costa Rica.

The Canal

March 13 and 14, 2011

Location: Panama Canal transit Colon to Panama City

The sun had set and the massive halogen lights cast a surreal dreamy light into our floating world. I found myself strangely relaxed, hands finally released from the helm, sitting back and just observing the process of our final leg in the Caribbean Sea. Another strange milestone was happening in our 4 1/2 year sailing journey, and it was beginning to hit of those moments...I smiled to myself.

DreamKeeper was in the best spot possible. 8 plastic-wrapped tires lashed to each side fended off both 45 foot catamarans that rafted next to us. We were in the middle, the safest and easiest position in our huge nested flotilla, all of us tied together with a spiderweb of lines, creating one very wide beast that we maneuvered together using our 5 engines (2 for each catamaran) in whatever way our fearless and competent advisor, George, decided for us. George was, El Jefe, the boss.

He’s been doing this job for 17 years, had a warm bright way about him, quick to smile, and relaxed, even when it got a little dicey, which it soon did. Every boat has to have an official advisor onboard through the canal, and we had George because we were the middle boat where the big boss sat who made the piloting decisions; all 3 of us captains were at his beckoned call.

The Gatun Locks are the first three locks you use when leaving the Caribbean and rising up to the huge artificial Gatun Lake, halfway between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. In total the 3 connected locks will raise us 84 feet. Each lock is 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long. For a long time they were the world's largest concrete structures, but not only that, they have been working non-stop, 24/7 for almost 100 years without issues. Amazing.

We had left Shelter Bay Marina earlier that day around 2:30 p.m., our home-base for the past 10 days. Shelter Bay Marina turned out to be a great spot for us. Not only were we in an easy and safe place to deal with all the Canal officialdom process, including the official visit of the admeasurer who measures your boat and explains and fills out all the official canal paperwork, but we could do our laundry, dip in the pool when we were roasting hot, have plentiful water to give DK the best wash she has had in months, as well as get the boat ready for the transit.

The other two great things about Shelter Bay for us were that we met some new friends, plus we got to experience some Panama rainforest wildlife.

It had been a while since we had met warm friendly younger sailors who actually wanted to hang-out a bit. When we were in the San Blas Islands we met some younger folks on a number of boats we tried to connect with. Unfortunately, it felt to us like they couldn't care less, all hanging in what felt reminiscent of high-school "clicks", and not very open to new-comers. The situations started to make us wonder if it was just, US. Maybe we had changed too much? Maybe we had been out too long and turned into weirdo sailors that can't socialize normally anymore? Did we smell? Talk too fast? Not talk enough? We were the rarity of the few boats almost finished with a circumnavigation, so maybe we just needed to tell better scary stories. You know, like this one time when we were in a hurricane off of The Horn....

Thankfully, in Shelter Bay, things turned back around. You know how you meet certain people and just know that you will be friends?. This was how it was when we met Petter and Rosanna on SV LoLo. Petter (a Swede who has lived and worked all over the world), and Rosanna (A Brit who has done the same), along with Teddy (their 4 year old son) and Poppy (their 2 week old daughter who was just born in Panama City), are young adventurous cruisers making it happen as a family. We spent some time hanging out when we all could sharing stories, drinking wine, and talking about Central America and Mexico, as they are planning on heading up the coast right behind us as well. For us, it was such a refreshing change and wonderful to meet new friends we look forward to seeing again someday.

And, the great thing was, they weren't the only ones. We also met the crew on SV Tiburon, Andrew, John, April, and dog, Kitty, who had just come south from San Francisco and were, unfortunately for them, in the middle of a total engine re-haul. But we still got to hook up a bit for some stories and beers. Thankfully, it sounds like they have found some success and will hopefully be enjoying some time on the Caribbean side of Central America for the season.

And there were even others, the most social of a cruiser scene we have actually enjoyed in quite a long time. Maybe there still is some socializing hope for us when we return to the land-based world again in a few months, even if we have turned into weirdo cruisers. :)

Besides the social scene, the other aspect that was very cool about Shelter Bay is that it is located at the abandoned US military base, Fort Sherman, basically right in the rainforest. 5 minutes walking away from the marina and you are almost guaranteed a sighting of one of the troops of Howler and/or Capuchin monkeys in the area. If you walk some more, especially in the early evening or early morning, you might see trails of leaf-cutter ants, parrots, toucans, blue morpho butterflies, sloths, and you never know what else.

One morning we even borrowed some old rusty cruiser bikes and did a cool ride out to the old Spanish fort of San Lorenzo through the national park. Besides the monkeys and toucans and parrots we saw riding in the rainforest, the fort itself is equally impressive. Sitting out on the edge of a cliff and looking out over the Rio Chagres, the fort is in great shape and has beautiful vistas. And for all you pirate fans, this is the fort that Sir Henry Morgan, one of the most notorious privateers ever, battled over and used as a base when hiking overland with his pirate brigade to sack Panama City in the 1600's.

But, now back to the Canal.

Besides having an official Canal Advisor onboard, small sailboats are also required to have 4 line handlers. This can be anyone, but, of course, seeing that it’s your boat, you want competent people onboard. We got lucky and scored 3 super helpful, as well as enjoyable cruisers to come along. Vries and Daphne of SV Aquamante, from Holland, and Lucas of SV SantaPaz from Brazil. Both Vries and Daphne, as well as Lucas (with his wife and two daughters), were to transit on their own boats a week or so after us and wanted the experience of going through the Canal first on another boat. And, because I couldn't get on a boat prior to our transit, we also felt like it was a good idea to have at least 1 experienced person onboard, and so we hired, Juan, a local Panamanian, who works as a line-handler and has done the transit hundreds of times before. With the extra person, it also left Nicole with freedom to deal with all the food and drinks for everyone, plus the space to pull out her camera and shoot some images without the stress of being responsible for line handling. This turned out to be a really good thing.

So, if you have followed our journey at all, you know by now that we rarely have people onboard, except a few times here and there with a couple of good friends. Only once have we had 4 friends onboard for 2 weeks in Thailand, and these are our closest people. For the next 2 days we would have 4 other people, practically strangers, in our little floating house, and an additional advisor during the days, which we also needed to provide drinks and food for. Let's just say Nic was a bit anxious about making everyone feel comfortable and well fed. For the record she did an amazing job!

We pulled out of Shelter Bay Marina after hugs and a farewell ceremonial conch shell "blow" from our new friends on Lolo and motored across to the Flats Anchorage in Colon. The 2 catamarans, SV Kittywake and SV Changing Spots, were already there. At this time we didn't know how we were going through the locks, no one does, until the advisor comes onboard and decides the routine.

Everything was lining up nicely. We were out of the marina, we had our crew, and we looked ready to go. And then...the toilet broke. Timing. These are the times I hate living on a sailboat. Even though we had just been tied up for 10 days with ample time to fix almost any issue, the toilet decides to break right when I absolutely can not make the time to fix it. Already I knew what my night would look like. Not a fortuitous beginning.

It wasn't too long before the pilot boat zoomed out and all 3 of our advisors were dropped off, smiling George, El Jefe, had arrived. We all knew we had scored with a good advisor, and, oh yes, there are bad ones, which we unfortunately found out the next day.

Away we went motoring towards the locks. Already it was dusk and the nerves on all the boats were tight. This is when we were told our configuration, us nested in the middle of the 2 catamarans. Nicole and I were psyched. The best fenders we could ask for. Thankfully, we also had chosen to lash 8 tires on each of our sides, both of the Cats only had 4. Plenty of bumpers to keep Team DK from extra stress. I'm sure the catamaran's were happy for that too.

Once rafted up, the beast that we had become, made forward progress into the first lock.

So here's the process:
First the canal line handlers throw small lines with a monkey-fist weighted knot to both forward and aft sides of the raft. Each of the positioned line-handlers on the boats use this small line to tie a bowline onto our long (mostly rented as every boat is required to have 4 of these bulky long lines) 7/8", 125' lines with a loop already spliced in the end of them.

The Canal line handler's then pull up these large lines and walk with them forward until our "raft" is in the correct position of the lock. Then they fix the loops over some large bollards and, we, on the boats, are responsible to keep our "raft" in the right position by either easing or taking in the line while the water is lowering or raising in the locks. Comprende?

It all seems easy, but then you have to figure in the intense currents, wind, and mixing of saltwater and freshwater that is boiling around the boats while the locks fill. Going up is the most difficult because the currents and hydraulics are pretty intense. And then there's the reality that right in front of our little sailboat "raft" is a 500 foot container ship sharing the lock with us. Not much room for error.

Once we got the hang of all 3 boats working together (me, basically just using the engine to power up or reverse), it wasn't too bad. At least for the first lock.
After we made it up from the first lock we started moving into the second lock. This time the currents were bad and because we were so wide a raft, the wiggle room was small. All of a sudden we weren't in the middle anymore and George was yelling instructions to the two cat captains to turn and throttle up/down while the starboard catamaran whistled only inches away from the rough concrete wall. A bit further over and the fiberglass would have been totally shredded on that aft hull (another reason to have more tires). A bit touch and go, George never lost his cool, and thankfully neither did the two catamaran captains. We eventually worked our way back into the middle of the lock and managed to safely get through the last ones unscathed. We motored the couple miles over to the massive steel mooring ball in complete darkness and rafted up for the night.

The crew celebrated and relaxed with some drinks while the captain went about taking apart the toilet. Fun.
To my luck, it was an easy fix, and in about 45 minutes time back in working order. The best part of my day and definitely a reason to celebrate and kick back with some cervezas! I could finally really relax again and appreciate where we were.

Overnight, after a super tasty dinner of black bean soup, cornbread, and grilled chicken breasts, and a couple bottles of wine, we managed to find everyone a dry place to sleep, as it did rain pretty good overnight.

After a late night we were back up at 5:30 a.m. to get some hot drinks going before the new advisor stepped onboard. All the advisors showed up later then expected to our groggy detriment, but worse then that, our new advisor was a real piece of work.

The antithesis of our fearless leader, George, yesterday, this guy was all brazen and cool and spent most of the day texting on his phone or sleeping in the cockpit. When he ate all the food given to him on our boat, he decided that he would go hang out on the catamaran we were rafted to later that day and even ate their food. By the end of the day, we all were extremely happy to be rid of his energy. Win a few, lose a few.

Day 2 began with a long motor through Gatun Lake towards the first locks heading down to the Pacific. It was a pretty day, hot and sunny with a light breeze from behind, with lots of time to just kick back, talk story, and watch the birds flying and appreciate the rainforest lap at the water's edge. At the end of the lake is the historic Gaillard Cut, a 7.4 mile section cut out of solid rock and shale, the area most notorious for slides and the most difficult stretch to have engineered of the whole canal.

By early afternoon after exiting the Gaillard Cut we had arrived to the first of the down locks, Pedro Miguel, consisting of only one lock. We were told that today we would only raft up with one of the catamaran's. A good call considering there was another large monohull sailboat behind us that came in at night and would raft up with the other catamaran. More wiggle room for all of us and our crew was happy because they actually got to handle lines.

This day I steered our 2 boat raft and the catamaran beside us just hung out for the ride. Everything went smoothly and the currents and hydraulics were much more mellow then the day before. The gate swung open and we stayed rafted up for the 1 mile stretch of water through Miraflores Lake before entering the Miraflores Locks, the last 2 locks before being in the Pacific Ocean again.

*view of boats rafted behind us entering first Miraflores lock

*view of DK taken from boat behind us while lowering in Miraflores Locks

The monkey-fists flew, our line handlers managed beautifully, and before you knew it the massive steel gates swung open and we were motoring under the Bride of the America's and officially back in the Pacific Ocean!! Yahoo!

For our safe success, many thanks go out again to our competent crew of helpers: Juan, Vries, Daphne, and Lucas!


February 15-March 3, 2011

Location: Kuna Yala, Panama

The San Blas Islands are highly coveted in the cruiser community as being one of the most beautiful and peaceful in all of the Caribbean. Many even call it "Paradise". It is a large archipelago of over 340 low-lying islands and atolls along the Panamanian Caribbean Sea stretching for approximately 100 miles to the border of Colombia.

There are many reasons why this area is interesting and unique. First of all, this is the home to the Kuna Indians and they call this area, Kuna Yala, not the San Blas Islands that the Spanish conquistadoras named it. They are a very independent nation and have fought to defend their home from many invaders, as well as the Panamanian government and big-money interests who would love nothing more then to come in and log the virgin rainforest, mine the gold in their rivers, and develop the islands for large scale tourism.

Who are the Kuna's:
1. They number around 55,000 people (about 10% of what they were before the Spanish conquistadoras came).

2. They live on islands adjacent to the mainland where many of them have small scale farms or where they can access the bounty of the virgin rainforest. The village islands are clean, organized, but crowded; wall to wall shelters built of bamboo, thatch, and other rainforest materials. The toilets are outhouses where the deposits go directly into the sea. Water is piped in from nearby rivers. The villages are run by 3 "Sailas" (chiefs) who hold the highest authority in the village.

3. The mainstay of the Kuna economy are coconuts. Every coconut palm is owned by a tribal member. They mostly sell coconuts to the Colombians, who in turn bring in most of the outside supplies like: canned foods, oil, fuel, machetes, etc... The other Kuna exports are lobsters, king crabs, octopus, and the famous colorful "mola’s", layered cloth intricately styled and sewn into abstract shapes or symbols. The molas are Panama's most famous handicraft.

4. Foreigners are not allowed to buy land, marry into, or invest in the Kuna communities.

5. Kuna Yala is matrilineal. The women control the money and the husbands move into the woman's household.

6. Many of the Kuna's have temporary "island homes" out on the outer islands where they live and fish for a few months each year. Quite a few Kuna's now have mobile phones to call their families and friends on the village islands, but few have a place to charge them, so it is often an everyday occurrance for a Kuna to paddle up in his/her Ulu (canoe) and ask you to charge their phone for them.

7. And, lastly, here are a few regulations that we all of us visitors are supposed to abide by to respect the Kuna culture: No taking of coconuts. No spearfishing or collecting of conch, lobsters and other seafood. Charter operations and commercial tourism are not allowed to foreigners. No scuba diving. (And there are some more, but I just wanted to highlight a few of the ones that are most applicable to our experience.)

Nicole and I came to the San Blas with an open mind. We knew it would be busy with sailboats as this was high season, but thought that the beauty of the islands and the type of culture represented in the Kuna's would be both positive enough to not get annoyed with the hundreds of boats we would be around, like everywhere else in the Caribbean. And, overall, our stay was positive.

We arrived in the Coco Banderos Cays, and after a few days, moved down to Waisaladup Island next to Green Island, just a bit south. Then up to the famous anchorage called the Swimming Pool in the Eastern Hollandes Cays and later to the western Hollandes Cays. And lastly, we moved into the Eastern Lemmons and thread thru the reefs to Yansaladup Island, where all the international boats full of kitesurfers gather to play. We spent the last night in Chichime where we left at first light for our 55 mile passage down the coast to Portobello, en-route to Colon, where we are now preparing to transit the Panama Canal.

In Kuna Yala, we were real cruisers. We let time stand still and soaked it all in. We relaxed and didn't focus on boat projects for a change. We listened to the familiar rustling of coconut palms. Every day we watched the colors pop out of the sea and disappear again with the sun. We delighted in taking long swims and searching for elusive sea horses, lobster, squid, unique fish, and graceful bowing palms. We stretched our legs on whatever sized islands we anchored by, set up a hammock and even read in it. The bonus was 6 days of kitesurfing. Life was very easy. Many of the anchorages were stunning and very close together, (one day, our passage was 3.2 miles). It was quiet at night and we were blessed without the bites or buzz of any insect. It was such a pleasure to enjoy life in coconut-studded islands again.

We purposefully chose not to go and anchor at the villages. We didn't feel the desire to just go walk around a village, unless we were invited by a Kuna that we befriended on an outer island. This didn't happen and that was OK with us. If we had more time and could have visited some of the more eastern remote, less cruised, parts of the Kuna Yala, we would definitely have done some village visiting. But our time was short and because we chose to be in the busy touristy area of the western Kuna Yala, we decided against it.

Our interaction with the Kuna's was interesting. We probably met 30 or 40 people overall. Some of them were quite kind and lovely, some of them very shy, all of them had stunning smiles. Many of them just coming by to ask us to charge their mobile phones. One asked us to charge his laptop. laptop? Not sure what he used it for...I didn't ask as I was already talking with another group of Kuna's who wanted me to buy mola's and charge their phones too. At one time we had 2 phones and a laptop plugged in and two more phones waiting to charge. We felt like it was the least we could do for these people; the intersection of the modern world and a local subsistence economy and culture. Who are we to judge in our fancy yachts with electricity for lights, laptops and ipods?

We often had the Kuna's selling their beautiful mola's onboard to show us their inventory or went to shore to meet up with some of the women on the outer islands. Nicole loved looking through all the handicrafts and, of course, we are proud owners of a number of beautiful pieces. One of the artist's, Venancio Restrepo, clearly had the most beautiful molas we'd seen and his self-described title, Master Mola Maker, was deserved. After viewing so many different mola's and artists, Nicole even had Venancio back onboard for a second showing, his were just so impressive. Molas are part of the deal with coming to Kuna Yala but the Kuna seem to understand if you are "mola’d out". Nicole never was.

But for us there's something just not right going on in Kuna Yala. And for us, it has to do with the cruising community and it's impact. Writing this, I am expecting some cruiser's who will undoubtedly have negative reactions or feel that I have no basis or foundation for what I'm writing. But this is just our impression and our experience in our short visit, take it or leave it, but maybe it will at least make you think.

We strongly felt that in a general sense, most of the cruiser community thinks they are "entitled" to whatever they want to do in Kuna Yala. This is the first place around the world we have really felt like this before. There were so many things we heard about or saw first hand that made us feel saddened about being lumped into the cruiser tribe, and even though overall we enjoyed our experience there, we left with a bit of a sick stomach and will not be surprised if someday the Kuna's decide to reevaluate allowing boats to be there.

Here's some of our reasons:
1. Spearfishing
Almost all cruisers are spearfishing. And what are they mostly spearfishing? Almost all of them (we saw) were inside the lagoons spearing the small juvenile reef fish. Some of them were taking lobster, crab, and conch as well. Almost no one is going to the outer reef to spear pelagics or more difficult to locate or hunt larger adult reef fish, where fish populations are almost always healthier. We realize, of course, we were there during the windy and rough dry season when it is more difficult to go to the outer reefs. But, to us, during these seasons, shouldn't you just not fish, especially in inner lagoons where the Kuna's are already overfishing?

We also understand that some of the Kuna's don’t seem to mind if you spear, or at least they aren't going to do anything about it. But, from what we've read, and from what we understand in talking with cruisers and some Kunas, the Kuna Congreso (highest Kuna Yala authority) has said no to visitor's spearing or taking of lobster, crab, and conch.
We even heard from one boat that many cruisers spearfish while scuba diving. To us that is the ultimate disrespect of the spearfishing moral code. Not to mention that the Kuna's outlaw scuba diving, but that spearing while scuba diving is just a lame lazy unsporty practice. Ask any true spearfisherman what they think about using scuba, and you will undoubtedly achieve a deep saddened expression and/or a tirade of abuse.

Nicole and I went snorkeling almost everyday. We went to some outer reefs and many of the lagoon reefs. Almost everywhere we went, there were no adult reef fish. And, all the juveniles are deathly afraid. It was very clear to us that these reefs were being overfished. I like to spearfish and I also like to hunt lobster. In many places this is totally legit. Also, in many reefs there are healthy populations of adult fish, as well as culture's that are perfectly fine with you hunting fish and lobster. We felt this was a different situation.

We saw some adult lobster and many baby juveniles. We even found a few king crabs. We didn't take any of them, as we wanted to respect the culture and also so the Kuna's can hunt them for their livelihood. However, the Kuna's are more then happy to sell you the baby juvenile lobster. (We only chose to buy two lobster from a fisherman that were adult size.) And, guess what, most of the cruiser's buy them. Why? Because they're cheap. No thoughts about that the lobster are the smallest we have ever seen or that if the Kuna's keep hunting the babies and the cruiser's keep buying them, then there will be no more lobster. In one situation on our last day in Chichime, some Kuna's tried to sell us some baby lobster. I told them no, that they were too small, plus it was March 1st and the beginning of what we understood to be the total ban by all Kuna's of hunting lobster, crab, and conch (their own law to help let the lobsters and crabs re-populate). The guys paddled away not happy, but moved to the next boat, a "Backpacker" boat, who bought them all anyways.

2. Backpacker Boats
A backpacker boat is where a captain has decided he can make some money bringing young "backpacker" travelers from Colombia to Panama via the San Blas. He packs them onto his yacht of various shape and size and takes them on an adventure.

So, what's the problem, you are thinking. The problem is that the Kuna's, albeit a few that sell them molas, fish or baby lobsters, are not benefitting from the situation. No charter operations are allowed in Kuna waters (even though the boats may have permission from Panama) and they are coming through the islands in waves, many of them competing with each other. Just a few weeks ago, one of the backpacker captains was on the run after killing another backpacker boat captain who was rumored to be competing with his business. We don't know the whole story and it is still in the courts, but regardless there is definitely fierce competition in the business.

To us, it was just another reality of the disrespect of the Kuna people and the way that sailor's feel they are entitled to do whatever they can get away with, especially if there is a way to stick around a beautiful area and make money.

3. Trash
The Kuna people, like most island people, have a trash problem. And the cruisers who spend months or years out in these islands obviously have a trash problem too. Weekly trash burns happen on some of the most popular islands and that is really the best situation. Although, we also heard that burns were not permitted by cruisers as per Kuna Yala law. Common sense is that you should still pack out your cans and glass and deposit them elsewhere. Some of the Kuna's even asked us for cans, collecting the aluminum for recycling.

Unfortunately, it was common for us to see "cruiser" burn piles on some of the islands. The rubbish was definitely not totally burned and many of the piles had cans and glass beer and wine bottles in them. It was easy to see it was boat trash and not Kuna trash. Champagne anyone? Basically, just pure disrespect and laziness

4. Cruising boats left at anchor
Where else in the world can you just anchor your boat in a popular beautiful remote island anchorage and walk away from it for months without paying a thing? We were in the most busy of all the beautiful anchorages, called the Swimming Pool, by the so-called cruiser locals, where 3 sailboats have been left at anchor, right in the middle of the anchorage. Really?? Sure it is protected from weather. Sure, the Kuna's most likely won’t touch the boats, as theft is very uncommon. But, what about just common respect to their culture, as well as the culture of cruisers who want to come in and anchor their own boat there as well, but can't, because the spots are taken up by abandoned boats? We don't know the details about who looks after the boats (if anyone), but it just felt wrong to us. Cruiser's feeling entitled to do what he/she wants, and trying to save some bucks instead of going to a real mooring field elsewhere, because they can get away with it and it's free.

5. Anchoring fees
Some of the Kuna villages and outer islands have anchoring fees established by the family or village. These are legit and not expensive (like maybe $5 per night or per stay of multiple days). They have real paper receipts and the money benefits the people. A no-brainer in our book.

Talking with some Kuna's we had onboard for sodas and mola viewing, they told us about some recent American boats (American boats being the most common long-term nationality in the Kuna Yala) who left, refusing to pay the anchoring fees after several nights in front of their island. Really? Talk about creating enemies. BTW, from what we understand from the Kuna people we talked with, Americans are not so highly regarded in these islands. Maybe this is one of the reasons, no??

One of things we have always tried to do sailing around the world was to respect the local culture and traditions. We have also tried to be good ambassadors for the United States to create good positive relations with other people's and nations.

We are definitely not perfect nor expect anyone else to be. We all make mistakes. We also realize there are always bad apples and in the cruising community it is the same. We are sure there are many long term cruisers who have spent months or years in these waters that are respectful and know all the ins/outs, changes in rules, and pros/cons of Kuna/Cruiser relationships better then we. But, for our quick 2 week stint in these islands, we felt there was a general ethic of just doing what you please and what you can get away with. For us, it is just a shame, as we are guests in this place and think we should treat the people, land, and water as respectfully as possible.

If the Kuna people say no more sailboats, who is to blame?
Maybe that would be a good thing. They aren't really gaining much by having us all there anyways. A few molas bought, maybe a few lobster. Most cruisers are cheap and don’t like to pay for anything they don't have to, hence the reason just to go collect their own juvenile reef fish and baby lobster for dinner, especially if you stay for 6 months or a year straight. Mola sellers? Just annoying. Anchor fees? Move to another island without one. Mobile phone charging? If you can't charge it, don't have one. This looks like a nice safe place to anchor my boat and fly home to California for 4 months. I'm sure all the other cruisers that anchor around me will keep an eye on it. Plus, it’s FREE.
Catch my drift???

Are the San Blas Islands a PARADISE? Paradise for whom, we wonder. For the Kuna's? For the short term cruisers like us that are just passing through? Or for the long-term cruisers who spend the whole season or years in these waters?
I guess it all depends on how much you care about a local place and culture. How much you care about your impact. Are you just a "taker" or are you a "giver"? Are you willing to make some compromises, and respect established local laws that hopefully create a peaceful air for the clash of two cultures?

Like I said before, we enjoyed our stay in the Kuna Yala, but left with a heavy heart. To us this isn't a paradise, but it is a beautiful part of the world with a very unique people and culture. We sincerely hope that the Kuna's can continue to maintain their sovereignty, keep their reefs and rainforests alive, and if they feel that the sailing community isn't a benefit to them anymore, then they will either figure out a way to enforce their laws or kick us all out. The Kuna's have resisted invaders of all kinds in their history. Maybe the cruising community is next.

Riding the Beast

February 10-15, 2011

Location: Passage from Bonaire to the San Blas Islands of Panama

No one has it easy getting to the western Caribbean during the dry season. To avoid getting your butt kicked down the notoriously nasty Colombian coastline, you need to be patient for a good window and still have a little luck on your side. And with this in mind we waited in Bonaire for the best window we could (within our time-line) and when it came up, we shoved off direct for the San Blas Islands of Panama, about 650 miles away.

Some nice tail-winds, smaller seas, and a favorable current for the first few days helped us ease back into passage mode again after being idle for a month. We fell back into our routine painlessly, with so much time this past year on passages it just doesn't seem to even phase us much piece of how much we've changed since striking out from the U.S. 4+ years ago.

And then we were in the business. Approaching the windy stretch of Colombia, from Cabo Augusta down to Carthagena, the situation changed dramatically. Again note that we waited for a very good weather window that was predicting winds in the mid-20's and seas under 8 feet. There is weather forecasting and there is reality.

It seemed to happen quickly; the seas rose up, the winds piped up in the mid-30's, the current changed against us, and things started to get very sporty. A set would roll through and Nic would ask, "how big do you think those ones were?"
"Maybe 12-15 feet or so?", I would attempt to estimate.
Another hour would go by and my answer would change to "definitely 15 feet."
A few hours later it would be, "Damn girl, those things are getting really big, looks like 15-20 feet now, steep as walls and breaking!"

And that was the clincher, steep and breaking. Big rolling waves in the mighty oceans aren’t really an issue, but steep breaking waves are, and it feels altogether like you are riding a completely different beast.
We put the companionway boards in, clipped in our safety leashes, and held on for the ride.

Then a wave broke over our stern, one of the first to ever do so. I heard a loud, "crunching" noise, and once the wave passed I checked the scene and saw that our windvane paddle was bent 90 degrees. Quickly we disconnected the windvane steering so we didn't go beam to the seas and get knocked down, and set the electric autopilot on, crossing our fingers that it would work OK in these conditions.

The windvane paddle was banging around our boat while I attempted to snap off the bent stainless steel safety tube with no success, timing my attempts between the breaking seas coming at us. No luck. So Nic and I managed over the course of an hour or so to lash the unit solidly to the rails to prevent anymore further abuse from the gear. Unlike the Atlantic Crossing, there would be no hanging over the stern to disconnect the unit on this passage.

For 2 days we rode the blustery beast westward with a double-reefed mainsail and our little staysail unfurled. DK took it all like a champ and even surfed some of the bigger waves over the 10 knot range. And along the way we even managed to pick up some unlucky passengers, about 50 flying fish, continuously washed up as the seas washed over our rails.

Sleep, eat, rest, stare at waves, sleep, eat, rest, stare at waves, listen to music, try to read a book, stare at more waves...shit they are really Big....the routine set in.

And then everything mellowed as we drew close to Panama. We could, maybe if we pushed it, sail into one of the outer island anchorages just after sunset. But we were approaching the San Blas Island group, infamous for the number of uncharted reefs and shipwrecks of all types, including many careless sailboats that made a poor decision or wrong turn through the reefs. We knew our charts were supposed to be off, and even though we had the newest Bible of a guidebook for the area, didn't want to trust a nighttime landfall to the supposed accurate waypoints.

So, we hove-to, essentially stalling DK, for 8 hours in the middle of the night, about 40 miles out to sea. We've hove-to many times, but this will have been our longest time just waiting for the timing to be right. And in the end, we are happy we did.

We talked to a boat many days later that came into our anchorage at night. They were navigating with charts that were "off" and a spotlight looking for reefs and using our anchor light as a reference. They told us they almost put their boat on a reef, only last second maneuvering saved them from the near-miss.

We don't really understand it but we know it happens all the time. One of the golden rules of sailing is if you are coming to make landfall at night, it should only be into a very easy anchorage with no, or very little, chance of wrecking your boat. But, in reality, sailors come into these very difficult places trusting their electronic charts completely thinking that it will be OK. Many of them end up having very close calls and sometimes even losing their boats. We've read or talked to folks all over the world now who have done just this, and in the San Blas Islands you can see the sailboat carcasses on the reefs right in front of you to prove the point.

The next day we sailed in through the shallow reef-lined channels and dropped our hook in the midst of 20 sailboats at the Cocos Banderas Cays. 3 coconut-tree filled islands formed a barrier for the lagoon and the outer reef on the northern end broke up the big seas. It was calm and a nice breeze was blowing. As the sun broke through the grey clouds at mid-day, the water turned the tropical cyan and aquamarine color that highlights every front cover of Islands Magazine.
Our 5 day blustery passage was over and we had entered into many cruiser's version of Shangri-La.
Paradise? We will see.