1st – 4th February
Well we have reluctantly moved from our island paradise to explore more of the San Blas. We sailed first to have a look at the anchorage at East Coco Bandera where we gave ourselves an enormous fright as, without any warning from our depth gauge that we were heading for the shallows, we touched bottom. Luckily no damage done but it was a salutary reminder of the dangers hidden beneath the beautiful blue water. From East Coco Bandera we went to Rio Diablo where we anchored off the town for a night. We went ashore to explore - the town is actually two islands (Nargana and Corazon de Jesus) joined by a bridge. Some residents have abandoned the more traditional Guna ways and allowed TV and radio to become part of their daily life – doesn’t mean there’s internet though!! – and the majority wear western style clothing. We found two shops open and bought tomatoes, cabbage and plantains but left the carrots and potatoes behind – in UK they would have been consigned to organic waste at least a week before! The bread, on the other hand, was straight from the oven and totally delicious.
We spent our lunchtime sitting on Ocean Rainbow eating our fresh bread and watching a continual stream of dugout canoes and wooden boats making their way up the river with empty plastic drums. These boats then returned an hour or so later with the drums filled and their boats so low in the water it was a miracle they didn’t sink. Curious to see what the boats were doing we joined up with Moody Mistress and Moondancer and dinghied up the Rio Diablo. It was a little tricky to weave our way with the outboard engines over the sandbar and around sunken logs into the river itself but once we’d managed that it was a lovely trip with beautiful butterflies flitting amongst the mangroves, raptors whirling overhead and a woodpecker! Our ride came to a halt at a deep pool where we found the locals busy filling the plastic drums with fresh water. Although there is a freshwater pipe from the river to the town it would appear that either the pipe is broken or the supply is inadequate – or it could just be enterprising folk saving themselves some money. Had we needed to replenish our water supplies we would have had to pay a local US$5 for a 50 gallon drum. So far we are still on our forward tank so water conservation on Ocean Rainbow is doing well. We are out of fresh meat but we have some bacon and chorizo in the fridge and lots of tins so no shortage of choices for meals. Vegetables are always more difficult to store but we do have enough fruit to last until Panama however we will be down to our last tomato by then – providing none go bad on route! We’ve still got the infamous coleslaw as the standby so there’s no chance of starvation or scurvy just yet.
A day was enough in Nargana and we had planned to head further east until we had a call from Suzie Too to ask if we would be around for a musical evening. This was planned for Wednesday at Green Island so we changed our course and headed back west again. What a great decision. Green Island is a lovely big anchorage where all the Rally boats could gather, so not quite the secluded ‘Robinson Crusoe’ islands we love but it was great to meet up with everyone again. During the afternoon, Caspar (10 year old liveaboard on Blue) organised a rehearsal of all the musicians in the anchorage on board Mad Romance, in preparation for our debut ‘concert’ on Suzie Too. He was also going around the anchorage in a dinghy with a 15hp engine collecting signatures for a Birthday card he had made for one of our number who had a birthday the following week. The life of a liveaboard child is very different to the life they would lead on land but it is still a disciplined life with lessons for half a day and then educational activities organised throughout the week with time allocated as ‘free time’. Caspar gave Claire a lift to another boat and his instructions on where to sit and what to do were extremely clear before he got the boat up on the plane and off we went! We really enjoy Caspar’s company as he is always so interested in everything we do and equally it is very interesting for us to hear about his life. Liveaboard children strike us as being very mature, independent and always extremely polite. Caspar is no exception. On Tuesday night we all got together on a tiny island for sundowners and a chat which moved into supper on Ocean Rainbow with Tignanello (Willem and Remco). On Wednesday night we had the dinghy ‘concert’ with the musicians on board the aft deck of Suzie Too. What an amazing sight to see 20 or so dinghies from the anchorage tied on to a restraining line and forming a semi-circle at the back of Suzie Too. Sitting on the stage was the group: Claire on guitar with Jon from Oystergo and Steve from Uno (guest appearance as Uno aren’t part of the Rally); Caspar on Violin; Jeff on Harmonia; James, Georgina from Shamal and Janine from Makani as the vocal backing group. Although we couldn’t actually hear much of the singing dinghies, we were assured that there was a lot of audience participation. The musical group – now dubbed the Suzettes - are hoping to recruit a lead singer and a couple more backing singers before the next evening!
5th – 12th February
On our final day at Green Island, Claire was exceedingly busy. The day started with a handicraft lesson for Sanna, a liveaboard Austrian teenager, who wanted to know how to make jewellery out of beer can tabs. As with Caspar, Sanna arrived by dinghy and was all ready for her handicraft lesson. The time flew past and by the time Sanna left she was well on the way to completing her first bracelet. Many thanks once again to Andrea on Silence for passing on her skills to Claire. Then it was time for the ‘ladies’ meeting’ at the beach, followed by an exercise session and then a brisk chat-a-long walk around the island. James, in the meantime, pumped up the kayak and went visiting. At one stage he saw a local who was selling beer and managed to get the local boat to tow him back to OR so that he could get some money and purchase a few extra cans for the stores. Unfortunately when we both went kayaking in the afternoon we discovered there was a leak so it was back to OR for repairs! While at Green Island we also bought some jewellery made by a ‘Liveaboard’ French woman. She uses coconut shell, local seeds and tagua (from the Amazon and known as natural ivory because it looks like ivory and is incredibly hard) to make some of the prettiest jewellery we have ever seen and, yes, a couple of items were purchased!
After a lovely few days in Green island we weighed anchor but just as we were heading off the VHF radio crackled into life and announced the arrival of Heraldo’s ‘Veggie Boat’ in the anchorage. It was too good an opportunity to miss so we swung around and headed back into the anchorage where we managed to locate Heraldo and buy a few wonderfully fresh vegetables and a pineapple before we set off to East Holandes Cays. Call us boring, but there are just so many islands to choose from and although it would be so easy to anchor at a different island each day it wouldn’t give us the chance to snorkel the various reefs in the anchorage, get to know the local people living on the islands, recognise the fishermen going out in their ulus (dugout canoes) and generally enjoy the variety of colours in the landscape as the sun moves through the sky. This time we managed to anchor even nearer the shore and were on our own for a night. On the second day another boat came in and anchored behind us and when we went to chat to them they said they’d been in the San Blas for 3 months and out of all the places they had visited their favourite place was exactly where we were anchored! (The joys of having a ‘recce’ chap as Skipper – he’s always got a good eye and feel for the local landscape and can spot the good anchorages.)
One of the things that we really wanted to do while in the San Blas was to have a meal with a Guna family but with our limited Spanish we knew we wouldn’t be able to explain ourselves and arrange things, so we teamed up with Makani (Janine and Claudio) who speak the language fluently. They made the initial contact and arranged the day and timings. So, on Monday we went ashore together to Tisdup where Tobias and his family prepared a meal of lobster and coconut rice. Victor is the head of the island but he is ill and has just gone to the mainland to hospital, Claudio (the next most senior male on the island) was away on one of the islands tending his coconuts so it was Tobias who was in charge for the day we had our meal. Interestingly, Tobias had gone to live and work on the mainland for 2 years but he didn’t like it, said he was always ill and there was too much stress and he preferred his life on the island. Now his days revolve around fishing, collecting firewood and tending his family’s coconuts which are spread across a couple of uninhabited islands.
Our meal was prepared in three homes: one cooked the rice, the second the lobster and we ate at Tobias’ home. We were allowed to watch the process and take photos which is very unusual and no demands were made for money. A very special experience. The lobster, cooked in sea water was juicy and tasty, as was the rice which was cooked in coconut milk. There were no herbs in evidence on the island and the kitchens had no signs of anything that might be used to vary the taste from day to day. Rice and plaintains are brought from the mainland and they collect fresh water from one of the surrounding islands. The older children are sent to the mainland for school so, during the school week, the number of children on the island is reduced. It really is a very simple life on the island.
From East Holandes we moved across to West Coco Banderas and anchored once again off our little island with no name. The seas have been building up with the wind so there is a lot of sand in the water which has made snorkelling a little ‘cloudy’ but we have been out every day swimming and keeping fit even if we have failed to spot any fish of great note. The next day we moved over to East Coco Banderas to anchor between three islands. This is the area that is on the cover of our Bauhaus Cruising Guide Book – we don’t have quite the same turquoise blue sea as the weather is very grey and grimble but there is a plus side as we (Makani and Ocean Rainbow) are the only two boats in the anchorage! With the miserable weather, Makani decided to have a cheese fondue and invited us to join them. What a great evening and what a totally delicious fondue – it was light and fluffy and like no other cheese fondue we’d ever had. Apparently it’s all to do with the addition of ‘naturo’ – our equivalent of baking soda (at least that’s what we think!).
13th – 19th February
Next stop was East Lemmon Cays and an anchorage off the island of Banedup. This is a large anchorage and, as a result, it was chosen as an ideal location for all the OCC Suzie Too Rally boats to gather for the Valentine’s Day celebrations we had organised. The family who managed the island of Banedup were very happy to allow us to invade their home island, bring along our own food, music and games provided we drank their cold beers and rum. By the end of the evening they were so happy with us all and had enjoyed themselves so much that they were handing out free beers! We all gathered from 4pm in our ‘Valentine’s’ themed outfits to play some fun games. ‘Blue’, who came armed with an excellent ‘ice-breaker’ game, had everyone entering into the spirit of the party. Then Oyster Mist had a team game with a fender which not only brought out the competitive streak in everyone but also had us all in stitches. It is definitely a game to be used in the future at ‘Court Short’. We also played the ‘cornflake packet’ game which stretched a few ham strings a little further than normal and caused much merriment. Supper was delicious with everyone bringing a themed dish from Cuddly Curry to Forget Me Not Bread Pudding. There was enough to share with the Guna family although it has to be said that they were really only interested in the popcorn and cake! After supper we danced and even managed to have a Gay Gordon! All in all a really enjoyable Valentine’s Party and certainly one we shall remember for many years to come. From the photos it will be obvious who was in charge of the camera ... and the proceedings! James did a great job as Games Master.
We stayed an extra day at Banedup and had an exploration of the islands, some of which are showing alarming signs of erosion. In fact, some have already been abandoned leaving the sea to slowly destroy huts that had once been homes, others still have families living on them as the sea laps around their feet. We wonder about the life of the children: with very limited ‘toys’ they seem to spend their time splashing in the sea or sitting on someone’s lap. Their education seems to be non-existent until they are sent to the mainland and that appears to happen only after their seventh birthday.
With our time in the San Blas coming to an end we moved on, with Makani, to our last anchorage in the Naguargandup Cays. We anchored off Salardup and were really lucky to have this part of the Cays to ourselves. The island is immaculately tended by the Guna family who own it. There is a beautiful white sand beach and the centre of the island is cleared of rubbish and swept. Normally there would be loads of backpackers but, for the 24 hours we stayed, we were the only tourists. We snorkelled on a reef where the coral, on a clear day, would equal the variety of the Hot Tub Japanese Gardens. There were also lots of fish and we saw – and managed to video – a large manta ray. We also enjoyed another supper of BBQ lobster. James stopped a local fisherman to ask if he had any fish but he shook his head and then offered us lobster! What a treat to have lobster more readily available than fish. The lobster season is closed at the end of February so this may very well prove to be our last meal of lobster for a long while.
On Wednesday we weighed anchored and moved back to the real world with our passage to Isla Linton and mainland Panama. We had a great passage until the very last hour when the wind started dropping so we turned on the engine and motored down the narrow channel, past Isla Grande to Isla Linton. We anchored for the night in a very picturesque location but it was also very rolly and we heard via the VHF that one of our number had been stung by a man of war jellyfish so the waters weren’t that inviting either! The next morning we teamed up with Makani and went exploring in Puddle to the villages of Puerto Lindo and Garrote. These villages were little more than a street with a couple of bars, a tiny shop (behind bars) and a dive shop boasting WiFi but it was down! The strangest thing of all was to see cars again. The local people were generally of Afro Caribbean origin but there were a few with Guna characteristics (small and wiry with angular faces). We then made our way towards Isla Grande but the waves were piling up behind a stiff breeze so we only made it as far as the monkeys on Isla Linton before heading back to Makani, changing dinghies for one with a bigger engine.
Once we’d sorted out the dinghy we set off again and made much drier and quicker progress up the channel to Isla Grande – its claim to fame is that Sir Francis Drake was buried at sea just off the island. The island is a popular holiday resort for mainland Panama but it was very pretty and not what we had expected at all. We wandered along the one pathway through the town admiring all the brightly coloured houses and hostelries. On our approach to Isla Linton we had noticed a statue in the water just off Isla Grande but from the back it didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. However, when we saw it from land we found that it was a statue of the Black Christ. Apparently, when the missionaries arrived in this area the locals, who were all black, took exception to worshipping someone who wasn’t the same colour as themselves. Pragmatism ruled the day, the statue was painted black and everyone was happy.
Our walk ended at the north of the island where we climbed the 117 steps to the top of the rickety, rusting lighthouse to stand in the cupola and feel the wind rocking the building. The view from the top was lovely but with the high winds it was a little tricky to hold the camera still! On our return trip we stopped at Surf Spot beach and had a picnic before continuing into town where we stopped at Pupi’s Rastafarian bar and had a beer while watching the Navy deliver water and fuel to their outstation. When they left they were all ‘tooled up’ – presumably their main role is to stop the drug trafficking and smuggling along the coast – and the motto on their high speed launches …. Philippians 4:13 ‘I can do all this through Him who gives me strength’.
We stopped off at Isla Linton on our return to have another look at the monkeys. They really are extraordinary, walking just like humans and looking just like skinny people. Janine and James went ashore with the cameras but they beat a hasty retreat when a couple of the monkeys turned on them with bared teeth. Sand fly bites were a hazard they could cope with, monkey bites weren’t!
On Friday we moved on again to Portobello. We set off early which meant we had a very bumpy exit through the southern channel. The seas had mounted up with a swell of around 3 metres and the wind in the channel was a good 30+ knots. We had two reefs in our main and a very little jib out but, because of the swell, we still needed the engine to get us safely out of the passage between the reefs. Once clear of the channel the seas calmed down a little and we had a cracking sail all the way to Portobello.
The city of San Felipe de Portobello is located in an amazing bay. It is fortified on all sides and protected from the winds. Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502, the town became a major commercial centre for transhipment of gold and silver to the capital of the Spanish empire in Seville. The only evidence of that wealth remains in the ruins of the fortifications and in the recently restored Customs House. The town is colourful, full of bars and restaurants but it is poor and relies on tourists to the Church of San Felipe for its income. The church is home to the original statue of the Black Christ with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visiting each year culminating in the major celebration on 21st October when people from as far away as Costa Rica arrive in Portobello having crawled there on their knees.
Our first night we had a pizza fest with Makani – Italian pizza versus English? No need to ask which one won!! The next day in Portobello was spent exploring forts which formed part of the defence system built by the Spanish crown to protect transatlantic trade. That evening we all gathered at Cap’n Jacks for a Suzie Too Rally party – great fun as always.
On the 21st we left Portobello and headed for the marina at Shelter Bay. It was a really great sail with Makani alongside taking photos when the swell allowed. The seas were quite big and as we approached the Christobel breakwater the swell built up to such an extent that we decided to drop our sails in the calm behind the breakwater. Christobel gave us permission to enter what is to all intents and purposes a parking lot for tankers and container ships heading for the Panama Canal. Apparently permission to enter doesn’t mean the entrance is clear! We found ourselves precious close to a massive container ship and had to take avoiding actions which left our sails looking a little ‘out of kilter’! Once inside the breakwater we made our way into the marina taking care to keep to the narrow channel alongside the breakwater in order to avoid the reefs at the entrance of the marina.
The next few days were a flurry of laundry, refuelling, filling the water tanks, cleaning and sorting. After a month away from supermarkets we needed to resupply the stores ready for the next leg of the rally. Shelter Bay Marina is situated in an abandoned US military base and is miles from any amenities so shopping was a mission and involved two trips to the shops as the shopping bus only took one member from each boat on any one trip ….. such a pain but we managed! We also had a fair bit of socialising which included a wine and cheese tasting session laid on by the marina as a welcome party and a film night with popcorn and nachos. All in all we were glad to pack a suitcase and head off for two nights R&R in a hotel in Panama City!
24th – 27th February
What a great start to our time off the boat. We went through the National Park with a great guide – Ricardo – who pointed out wildlife and plants while telling us about the history of the area. We had a tour of Fort of San Lorenzo where Henry Morgan (famed Welsh buccaneer … a descendant of Claire’s?!) ordered an attack that left the Fort in ruins and then he used the Fort as his base the following year (1671) and mounted an attack on Panama City. On leaving the park we stopped by some park rangers who had a sloth and boa constrictor they were releasing back into the wild having found them in amongst the construction works at Pile 46 of the new Canal! What a funny creature the sloth is.
Next we were driven to the Gatun Lock Visitors Centre to see how the Canal operates. Some of the container ships that pass through the lock have only 2ft to spare on either side – an amazingly precise operation to load them into the locks. This is all done by trains that run alongside the canal and control the movement and speed of the containers. Quite something.
Then it was off to the Panama Canal Railway for a trip along the edge of the Canal to Balboa passing the Pedro Miguel Lock to the Miraflores Lock. The really worrying factor is the level of the water in Gatun Lake. If there is no serious rain within the next 3 months the Canal will have to close for 5 months in order to let the water level recover. The new Canal is being built with reservoirs that will provide 75% of the water needed for the lock system but that project is 4 years behind schedule so Panamanians are worried. The daily income from the Canal is $7million!!!
Finally we were loaded back into our coaches and delivered to our various hotels. Ours turned out to be absolutely great despite being called a Holiday Inn Express! The hotel looked brand new, everything worked beautifully, breakfast was delicious and there was even a swimming pool! Our first night we went out for dinner with Makani and Alembic (Helen and Bill) to a Lebanese restaurant complete with belly dancers. Great food, great entertainment. The next night we found a little Peruvian restaurant where we enjoyed dinner à deux and had another amazingly delicious meal.
The day was spent walking miles and miles around Panama City. Christine, from Rhum Runner, was a great tour guide and took us along the beautiful boulevards of Panama to the fish market. The skyscrapers and sparkling buildings on the reclaimed land on the north of the City were in total contrast to the poverty we found in the old quarter.
We were somewhat disappointed with the old town as we found so many buildings being renovated and a very large area was closed off to protect the President and First Lady!! However, it was a great visit and we have loved every minute of it.
28th – 29th February
What an amazing way to end the month. We were so fortunate to be welcomed on board S/Y Silver Lynx, a 57’ custom made steel yacht, as line handlers. We joined the yacht at midday on Sunday and met the team: Matt (Skipper), Ana, Farah (12) and Zelda (10) with their crew of Philip, Megan and Ryan. Although they had enough folk on board to manage the lines themselves they wanted an extra pair of hands – very kindly they took on two extra pairs! What a lovely yacht and what a super team of people to transit with. We joined Silver Lynx in the marina and left at midday on Sunday to motor out to an area known as ‘the flats’ where vessels wait to be called forward to transit the canal. All yachts have to have an adviser on board and all vessels have a pilot. Our first adviser was called Victor and he was absolutely great and so full of information. He checked our lines and made himself familiar with the boat before we all set off towards the Gatun Locks. Just before the lock we rafted alongside Yallato – a 44’ catamaran. We’d met the family in the marina so it was nice to have them alongside. (Steve used to be the Manager of a Marina in Guatemala and has given us loads of info about what to do when we eventually get there for our hurricane season haul out.)
We entered the lock behind a great big tanker – M/V Kamari – which was a very odd feeling having such a monster towering over us. James and I worked as a team on the starboard stern line leaving Megan and Ryan to manage the starboard bow line. We successfully caught our messenger line and fed our own lines back up ready for the hard work. It requires far more strength to handle the lines if you are going up as you have to keep pulling the lines taut and ensuring that the raft stays in the centre of the chamber. It is a fairly slow process as you have three locks, each step being 8.5m, but each individual lock was far quicker than entering the lock at Portishead! We had to be behind the tanker on the way up the locks and in front on the way down as a safety precaution. If one of the controlling hawsers from the train to the tanker snapped then we would not be in danger as they spring forwards on the way up and backwards on the way down!
Once through the locks and into Gatun Lake we disconnected ourselves from Yallato and made our way to our designated mooring buoy which turned out to be a great big dolphin! Yallato then came and rafter alongside us again for the night. The advisers left and we had a couple of chill out beers before turning in for what was left of the night! The next morning our new adviser arrived bright and early so we slipped the buoy and set off for the 30 miled motor down to the Pedro Miguel lock. An amazing trip past Noriega’s prison (very uninviting and also very run down – we had a much better view when we went through on the train but didn’t take a photo), past islands, excavations for the new canal, through narrow channels – the Calebra Cut – where the locals had been persuaded to dig through rock by the promise of hidden gold in the mountain and under bridges!!
There was a slight muddle about the next lock and how we would proceed. Yallato had been held up leaving the lake so our adviser said that we would be going through alone which would have meant all four line handlers being fully occupied. Well, we tried this but the professional line handler failed to get the messenger line on board Silver Lynx on the port side!! Then we were told that we would wait for Yallato and raft up again so we tied alongside the canal wall – very daunting for Matt, as Skipper, because Silver Lynx was now up against the unforgiving wall of the canal. We did have loads of fenders so no damage done. Eventually we were all ready and positioned in the centre of the canal at the very front of the lock. M/V Nord Guardian came in behind us and we were all set. We proceeded the short distance between the Pedro Miguel lock and the Miraflores lock rafted together so entering the Miraflores was very simple by comparison. Even here our handlers sending the messenger line were less than accurate and their idea of knots would not have passed RYA scrutiny!!!
It was a wonderful moment on board as the lock gates opened on to the Pacific and the crew of Silver Lynx spied their next Ocean. We do wish them the most marvellous trip and hope that we will be able to follow their travels but for us, it was the end of our transit. We were dropped off, along with the hired lines and fenders, and taken to Balbao Yacht Club where Claudio and Janine met us with their hire car. Great celebrations with them – they had their American visas and we had transited the canal. Then it was down to the nitty gritty last minute shopping in the late night store – Reys – before heading back to the marina to stow it all. Luckily James had managed to buy a pizza while we were paying the shopping bills so we didn’t starve! We didn’t finish until 11pm ….. we slept like logs!