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.

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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.




Colombia – Ciudad Perdida

It is nearly time to leave Colombia and head west again. Fathom has been moored in the marina at Santa Marta which has allowed me to travel about and leave her in safety.  The highlight of my time here has definitely been the 4 day trek through the jungles, hills and river valleys of the Sierra Nevada mountains to Ciudad Perdida-(The Lost City). Ciudad Perdida is thought to have been built around 800 AD and consists of over 160 terraces carved into the mountainside. It was abandoned after the Spanish conquest when disease wiped out the indigenous inhabitants of the city but discovered again in 1972 when some stone steps were found leading up the mountain. Apparently the indigenous communities in the nearby mountains knew of its existence but had remained quiet. Unfortunately grave robbers ransanked the place over the next few years but it is now protected. In 2003 several visitors to the site were kidnapped by local rebels but the government now has the area back under control.

Our group with guide walked over 50km in four days which was a bit of a shock to the system after so long sitting on a boat. At night we stayed in camps and ate dinner prepared by our cook, usually consisting of rice, fried meat and one small token piece of vegetable. All the food, water and equipment at the camps was transported up the mountains by mule. Everything stays damp in the high humidity and the walking was hot and sweaty work. Thankfully there were several natural pools and rivers to jump into along the way to cool off.  It was a unique experience to witness the local indigenous Kogi community as we walked past one of their villages high in the mountains. At the Lost City we were lucky to meet the Shaman who governs the local area. Within the the Kogi community, all knowledge is passed to the younger generations by the Shaman through oral instructions and he runs their lives. He gave us wristbands to provide life long health and welbeing.

Unfortunately the wristband appears to have had the reverse effect and a few of us have been hit by sickness and the runs. We have not been able to work out what caused it but quite possibly it was the water the tour group provided. I was sick on the 3rd day and was barely able to eat any food for the next days. In fact even today, over a week since returning from the trek my stomach has still not returned to normal and I have only just got my appetite back. Same story for four or five of the others.

Last week I travelled to Cartagena by bus for a couple of days and met some shipping clients for my old company. Good to earn a few pounds and revert back to work mode temporarily. I have taken advantage of being in a marina to carry out some maintenance to the boat including engine service (oil change, new filters etc) and windlass overhaul. The marina is fine but a major disappointment here is the coal dust and sand which blows around constantly and covers not just the outside of the boat but gets inside the cabin forming a layer over everything.

As a few of you have probably guessed I am planning to transit the Panama Canal and head into the Pacific. I have appointed an agent and Fathom has been registered with the canal authorities. Spare parts are being delivered to Shelter Bay Marina in Panama at the end of the month (cross fingers) so I don’t have much time to visit the San Blas islands but hope to spend a few days there. The weather has been very lively as normal for this time of year. Wind constantly over 30 knots in the marina with peaks over 40 knots and big seas outside. It looks as though things are calming down this week for a few days so I am aiming to leave on Tuesday.




Grenada to Colombia

It was with a fair amount of trepidation that I left Grenada on the 18th January. I knew I had to leave and keep moving but felt unsettled and not completely at ease which is unusual for me. Initially a nice breeze pushed Fathom to the west away from the south of Grenada but by mid afternoon we were becalmed in the lee of the island. After several hours of motoring to the west the wind had still not made an appearance and as the sun set I was torn between carrying on or heading back to the islands. There was a blues music festival at Bequia over the next few days, maybe I should just head there. I sat in the cockpit struggling to make a decision. It was an important moment. To carry on westwards now was a big call, no turning back afterwards into the N.E tradewinds with the only possibilities thereafter to head through the canal into the Pacific or wait out hurricane season in the ABC islands or Panama. I turned Fathom 100 degrees to starboard and headed N.E towards Bequia, 15 hours or so motor away assuming the wind didn’t return. I went below to cook dinner. After eating I poked my head out of the companionway to have a look around and to my surprise noticed there was now 10 knots of breeze. Right, the final chance to decide. It didn’t take long to realise that heading back to the Islands wasn’t what I wanted to do and Fathom was destined to keep chasing the sun. Engine off, sails hoisted and sailing again to the west, the target Bonaire.

The sailing was excellent over the next four days with winds ranging from 10 to 15 knots and a low swell of under 1m. I set a course which strayed no closer than 50 miles to the Venezuelan Islands as there are sadly increasing reports of armed boarding’s and robbery’s and I didn’t want to take the risk. To maximise speed I chose not to deploy the tow generator (which slows the boat by just under half a knot in light airs) so turned the fridge off at night to save power. Tried my luck with the fishing line and during the afternoon of the 21st caught something very big and powerful. So big I was struggling to haul it in until the line went limp – turns out the hook had snapped. My fishing success rate has dropped alarmingly since I lost my special lure during the Atlantic crossing.

The stretch of water around the ABC islands and down the Colombia coast is renowned for being extremely rough and windy between the end of December and end March when the tradewinds are at full strength. This is also due to the local topography and rapid decrease in water depth from 2000m+ to 50m along the coastline. Many voyagers have reported this area to be the roughest they experienced during their whole circumnavigation. I was therefore not completely at ease and avidly analysing the daily GRIB weather forecast downloaded from the satellite phone and thankful to mates Tim, Mike and Joe for regularly emailing me a summary of the wave height forecast for the area. Unusually for this time of year there was a very nice weather window for the next days with next to no swell and winds under 15 knots.

On the evening of the 22nd, just after dark, I noticed a strange looking light on the horizon which would regularly disappear and then reappear again. After monitoring it for several minutes I checked the AIS and turned on the radar but neither showed anything. Strange. After a few more minutes of observation the light seemed to be getting closer. Accounts of armed boardings in the area swirled around my head and I decided to turn off all the cabin lights, mast head navigation lights, turn off the AIS transponder and then hide the sat phone and other valuables just in case. I sat in the darkness as Fathom continued sailing on. After another 15 minutes I realised I had been a complete muppet. I had in fact been looking at Venus which had been regularly obscured behind some clouds. I admit I was a little tired that evening but even so..!

By the 23rd I had decided to bypass the ABC islands and continue on for the port of Santa Marta in Colombia. The weather window was holding and although I was likely to lose the wind for a day I decided this was preferential to battling on in 4m + seas and 30 knot + winds. During the morning I hoisted the cruising shute for the first time since leaving England and Fathom glided along at 5 knots in 8 knots of breeze, aided by a knot of current. During the afternoon I noticed on the AIS a tugboat called MTS Vanguard which was heading east towing a drilling rig. I knew the tug and the its owners well from my previous work as a shipbroker. Once a tug spotter, always a tug spotter! I had a pleasant chat with the Master on the VHF and asked him to pass my best wishes on to the vessel Owner and a few of the guys I knew in their commercial team back in the U.K. The wind then died just before midnight and Fathom was becalmed. For the first time ever I was forced to motor through the night which was not enjoyable.

It was hard to get sleep with the noise of the engine filing my head and by sunrise there was still no wind. After going on deck I couldn’t believe how flat the sea was, like a mirror. I suddenly had an urge to go for a swim so turned off the engine and waited until Fathom had completely stopped. After deploying a floating line off the back of the boat, just in case, I jumped in and swam a few lengths away from the boat to take some photos. The photos, taken with the Go Pro, give the impression I am further away than I am. Must admit it was quite a surreal experience floating around in 2,000m of water, 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela looking at Fathom bobbing up and down in front of me. I underestimated the transparency of the water which is why, to protect my modesty, there is a star in a certain area of the photo!

The next day, 24th January, was not a great one. Firstly the starboard Genoa car snapped where the block is fixed into the car. It had clearly worn after 25 years of use and was not fully repairable. I have a huge number of spare parts on board but a genoa car is not one of them. Thankfully it didn’t break mid ocean. I rigged a temporary repair with some spectra and will order a new one + spare for delivery to Panama. Then during the late afternoon I was sat in the cockpit when I noticed a small insect/bug crawling on the cockpit locker lid. It looked remarkably like a dreaded cockroach. Then I saw another, and another. Oh no! I looked on deck and there were bugs everywhere, ranging from cockroaches, to grass hoppers, ear wigs, moths and other strange looking creatures. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I have taken the utmost care to wash fruit and veg before bringing them onboard to minimise the risk of getting a bug infestation. For the next two hours I was a man possessed wielding my can of bug spray and aiming at anything that moved. I untied the diesel jerry cans in the cockpit and lifted them up to find several bugs underneath. Everything I moved on deck seemed to have a nasty sheltering under it. I emptied the can of spray and crossed fingers that I could buy more in Colombia. I came to the conclusion that the bugs had arrived onboard due to a combination of Fathom being completely becalmed for a few hours close to a small area of low pressure over the land where thermals or high altitude winds had picked up the bugs and deposited them many miles away out of the sky.

More motoring was required until the wee small hours of the 25th when the wind returned and I was thankful to hoist the sails and turn the engine off at last. On the approach to Santa Marta the wind rose and rose until it was blowing over 30 knots for the last couple hours and Fathom flew downwind under staysail alone. Talk about a change in conditions! I had booked a place in the marina as I was planning to leave the boat for a few days and was met by a RIB on the approach. A friendly welcome to Colombia and they even insisted on one of the staff coming onboard and helping me to moor up. That evening, with Fathom safely tied up and in my bunk reading, the wind began to shriek outside. I turned on the wind speed display and it showed 41 knots. Now that is good timing!