San Blas Islands
With no sign of any bugs or nasties on board, the outward clearance zarpe from Colombian customs safely stowed, and the diesel and water tanks topped up, Fathom departed Santa Marta at midday on the 14th bound for the San Blas islands, 280 nautical miles to the south west. These are a vast archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast comprising of over 340 islands and home to the indigenous Guna Indians. A brisk wind of 20 -25 knots allowed for fast sailing during the afternoon and evening with good progress towards the corner at Barranquilla. Unfortunately I was still feeling run down after the stomach bug I had picked up during the jungle trek and had a temperature and migraine so topped myself up with paracetamol during the night. 15 minute cat naps while feeling like that was hardly the most enjoyable experience. Not quite man flu but warrants a mention! After turning the corner at Barranquilla the wind gradually decreased and the seas flattened. Some pleasant sailing during the 15th when I started to feel much better but by the 16th the wind was under 5 knots and the engine was required. I planned to arrive at the San Blas in daylight so slowed intentionally. Land was spotted early on the 17th with the chosen landfall Coco Bandero Cays. The cruising guide describes these as ” a group of extremely scenic islands, situated behind a four mile long protective outer reef barrier. These uninhabited islands may be the most beautiful in all of the San Blas.” Sounded good to me.
A couple of days were spent anchored between the picture postcard islands of Olosicuidup and Guariadup. If you perform a google image search ‘The Panama Cruising Guide 5th edition, Eric Bauhaus’ and look at the front cover, Fathom was anchored where the 2nd boat from the right is. Doesn’t get much better. I spent a lot of time in the water and cleaned Fathom’s incredibly weedy waterline and propeller. The anitfouling is holding up pretty well but it is the soft eroding type which means I cannot scrub it otherwise it will all rub off. Hope it will last until the end of the year when Fathom will be hauled out. One afternoon was spent sewing a repair to the sprayhood, my herringbone stitch is coming on well. It is said that the definition of cruising is ‘performing maintenance in exotic locations’, an accurate description I am coming to realise.
From Coco Bandero Cays it was a nice sail west to East Lemon Cays and an anchorage off the island of Banedup. Navigating between the islands and reefs of the San Blas takes considerable care. Electronic charts of these islands are not accurate and the cruising guide contains the only accurate paper chartlets. It is therefore necessary to extract waypoints from the book and enter them into the chartplotter. Most importantly keeping a good lookout and eyeballing entrances to anchorages is vital. Thankfully the reefs can easily be seen with good sunlight and polarised sunglasses. I didn’t go ashore at Banedup but enjoyed the sunset from the cockpit. It would easy to spend a year exploring these islands, in fact many boats do, but for me time was pressing and unfortunately it was not possible to stay too long. The island of Porvenir, which lies on the west end of the chain, contains an immigration office for Panama so I headed there on the 20th. After anchoring and rowing ashore I got talking with a local Kuna Indian called Nesta. He is one of very few that speak English on the islands and kindly offered to act as translator when I met the immigration officer. After everything was completed Nesta offered to sail me in his dug out canoe to the tiny island he lives on about a mile away so I could buy a local SIM card. Why not I thought.
Half an hour later Nesta and his mate came alongside Fathom and picked me up. We set off downwind for their island sipping cold beers which I had offered to them for a return trip. The bamboo mast and boom, torn sail and leaking hull hardly seemed up to the job but after 15 minutes or so we arrived at the tiny island they share with 500 others. This island, like a few others, has lost the traditional Kuna Indian clothing but everyone still lives in small thatched houses like their ancestors have done for hundreds of years. It was fascinating to be invited into Nesta’s house, a one roomed building, and meet his family of 8. I couldn’t help notice the lack of privacy with potty in the middle of the floor but assume they all get used to it. We then strolled through the island, past the town hall, school and small jail to the one shop. Here, surprisingly, I was sold a local SIM card and I bought some bread (8 rolls) from a local lady for 1 USD. The return sail to the anchorage was upwind and I was surprised how well the canoe sailed to windward. I offered to bail halfway as we appeared to be sinking but they didn’t seem concerned. As the wind gusted up Nesta’s mate became human rigging in order to keep the bamboo mast upright. We arrived in one piece back at Fathom. I feel lucky to have had that unusual experience off the beaten track, it has definitely been a highlight of my trip so far. *video at bottom* I can now tick off ‘sailing in a Kuna Indian dug out canoe’ from the list of things to do before i’m 35.
Early afternoon I raised anchor and headed off for Gunboat island which the cruising guide describes as “uninhabited with high coconut trees and white sand beach”. Here I intended to spend the last night before leaving the San Blas and sailing to Puerto Lindo the next day. After negotiating the reef and anchoring in 6m of water off the east of the island I rowed ashore to find quite a few people on this ‘uninhabited island’. A man approached me and demanded 20 dollars for anchoring and told me it was now a private island. I wasn’t going to pay that so walked back along the beach and took some photos. Luckily the photos have come out quite well which justifies the visit. With only an hour of daylight left Fathom dashed to the next island (not private) and the anchor was set just before dark.
Early the next morning, Tuesday 21st, Fathom departed the San Blas and headed west 40 miles to Puerto Lindo which houses a customs official who can issue the mandatory Panama cruising permit. The wind held up for most of the trip and a few hours were spent under cruising shute. Puerto Lindo was reached an hour before sunset and a cold beer drunk in the cockpit while listening to the monkeys shrieking on the nearby island of Isla Linton. I write this now at anchor in Portobelo, 8 miles to the west of Puerto Lindo, a place where Sir Francis Drake is buried after dying of dysentery in 1596. I will have a walk round this afternoon before heading west to Shelter Bay tomorrow to await the official who will measure Fathom for the canal transit. Busy but exciting times.