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escapade sailing

life on the ocean

A little movie

The cutting room floor

Tidying up the Escapade files we found a few scraps of film from last year plus some recent shots of San Blas.

Dawn stitched it all together for this quick end-of-season roundup featuring Dawn, JP, Jemima and special guest Monkey…

Caribbean: ✓


The ‘Clearing-off Boat’

For many years while we were working in London and spending weekends on boats in Chichester Harbour, there was a long running discussion about the ‘Clearing-off Boat’
Many happy hours were spent discussing the possible attributes of this hypothetical craft on which we would, one day, clear off.  At that time I was keen on cutter rigs, flush foredecks and bowsprits.
The loudest voice of encouragement was always my daughter Jemima who had already crewed us across Biscay and was keen for me to get on with more ocean crossing adventures.
By the time we eventually ‘cleared off’ on Escapade, Jemima was sailing in New Zealand so missed our first winter. Since then she’s covered a few miles sailing to Polynesia and back. But now we have managed to tempt her out of the Pacific for the first time in years.
Finally at the end of our third season, Jemima has come to see us on Escapade.
So here we are, sitting in a San Blas anchorage, looking at the other boats and discussing the possible attributes of her clearing off boat. (Bowsprits etc..)



Farewell to Guna Yala 

So one last lap of this beautiful archipelago with our special guest. We spent three months living in Guna territory and they looked after us very well. The Guna indians we met supplied us with all our food, welcomed us into their traditional island villages and even to their sacred ceremonies. They are a smiling, peaceful tribe and seem to be very happy in their world. And happy to have us passing through. It makes it a very relaxed place to live on a boat. The islands are safe, crime-free and care-free.
(There’s always an exception: just before we left a French yachtswoman was attacked by a crocodile. The first time anyone has heard of a human being bitten here. She was snorkelling in a popular anchorage where Jemima and I were swimming a few days earlier. She was badly chewed and lucky to survive. The news was a real shock to the locals and yachties who swim there everyday)


Our diet for almost all that time was fish, fruit and vegetables. All either caught by us or supplied by passing ulu dugouts. What’s for dinner? Wait and see what shows up. Lots of snapper, the occasional grouper, bonito, octopus, crab, lobster and conch. We also discovered a new method for extracting conch from it’s shell. Rather than chiseling a hole and severing the tendon as we had learned in the eastern Caribbean, the Guna skilfully chip away at the tip of the spiral shell with a machete, then unscrew the whole thing like a corkscrew, pulling the delicious meat out whole through the top.


We discovered a fish smoker, an old lady with racks of reef fish and lobster smoking over smouldering coconut husks. Delicious.


Most of my carbohydrate intake was in the form of chilled cerveza until we discovered freshly baked Guna bread rolls. Irresistible. We found a woman baking them in her thatch hut ‘panaderia’ and became regular customers. There was even a recent outbreak of toast and Marmite.

Underwater with my daughter…
Jemima seems to have a natural ability for free diving and is very comfortable underwater. We spent lots of time exploring the reefs and drop-offs. We could dive together pretty well, as long as we didn’t make each other laugh.
She was hoping to be windsurfing and kiting too but the wind went very light. We still had enough waves for a couple more surf sessions before we left.


More Friendly locals
The Gunas keep dogs and sometimes pigs. Vet Jemima swooped in to action cuddling piglets and puppies, feeding them and treating their various cuts and scrapes with iodine.


Jemima and I were passing Isla Linton in the dinghy when I noticed a small dark figure ambling along the beach. As we drew closer I could see he was about four feet tall and holding his tail high behind him. A monkey.


We waded ashore to say hello. There were three spider monkeys on the beach. A young one who climbed a tree and stayed there watching. A quite loud and aggressive male who occasionally charged towards us baring his teeth and then lost interest and retreated.


And a third character who was very friendly and seemed to want to tell me something. It began with a handshake. Then he came to sit next to me and slowly reached out with his prehensile tail and softly grasped my ankle.


Chattering away at me, he gradually moved closer until, to Jemima’s delight, I was encircled by his arms, legs and tail and my new monkey friend seemed to be set on leaving the island with me. I tried to explain that we had to leave and he would have to let go of me, which didn’t go down well. I finally escaped and we motored off with the distraught monkey reaching out to me in tears!




Colon: the end of the Caribbean
We had a great couple of days sailing from San Blas to Colon, light winds, blue skies, easy broad reaching under full main and gennaker.  A fitting end to the season’s sailing, and the end of our three long winters plying the Caribbean.


Colon is the sprawling city and container terminal on this side of the Panama Canal. It loomed out of the hazy horizon along with about 50 anchored ships, all waiting to go through the canal. Quite a change of scene after our deserted coconut islands. The screen of our chart plotter went dark with a mass of AIS signals, more ships than we’ve seen all year.


We slalomed through them, got VHF clearance to proceed from the port controller and charged in under full sail, through the gap in the huge breakwater protecting the entrance to the canal. Escapade’s final flourish was a 12 knot surf down the last swell in to the flat waters of Colon harbour. It felt like a significant landfall (even though we haven’t come far) but behind us now are the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Caribbean. When we leave this harbour it will be through the canal to the Pacific.


Another boatyard
Can it be yard time again already? We are hauling out in Shelter Bay and leaving Escapade here for the summer. Back in to my boatyard shorts..
Time to clean the boat and put everything away out of the sun. Sails off, halyards pulled, decks cleared. I have always considered boats to be sort of self-cleaning, leave them out in the rain for a rinse off, right? Jemima is much more fastidious, she’s worked on super yachts where everything has to be gleaming. So for the first time, Escapade has had the inside of her cockpit lockers scrubbed!


The boat is spotless, it was great to have Jemima on board for the lay-up, especially since Dawn had fallen over*, broken her foot and was hobbling round the yard on crutches.


Well there goes another winter. Escapade is safe in the yard, we’ll be back at the end of the year to prepare for the Canal and the Pacific.
Jemima is continuing her travels with friends through Central America, we are heading home to Guernsey for the summer.


*No alcohol was involved in this injury.

Going Nowhere


This is turning into a very lazy, low mileage winter.

We sailed in to the Guna Yala 4th January and we’re still here.  Since then we’ve probably sailed about 300 miles in short hops between islands.  Last winter we sailed 4,000 miles, this year we might do 1,000.


Weeks go by with the anchor buried in white sand, there’s weed growing on the props!
What are we doing with all that time?  Well here’s the notes from the last few weeks..


Learning the Guna language:
Since we have been in the San Blas area, we have visited islands with the following names:
Uchutupu Dummat
Uchutupu Pipigua
Nargana Yandup

Ok I made up the last three, just to see if you were paying attention, but the others are all what the Guna consider sensible names for islands.
Not only are the names tricky to read in the small print of the pilot book, or pronounce, on the VHF radio for example, but at some point they ran out of special Guna names for islands so they started re-using them.  There are three Banedups, two Tiadups, two Waisaladups all miles apart from each other in separate archipelagos, which only adds to the navigational challenges.
Then some islands also have an unhelpful Spanish name, like Coco Alto. Great, there are 400 islands here and they all have high coconut trees.


We are picking up a few words of the Guna language, ‘Dup’ as you have probably gathered, means island.  A baby is a ‘mimi’ and a butterfly is a ‘chuchu’. As you can see, we are practically fluent.
Then there is the salutation to the whole hut just before you drink your chicha: “Ito malando!” Which was translated for me as ‘Let’s feel this!”.  (Very appropriate, see previous post.)
The most useful Guna word is ‘Nuedi’ (Noo-weh-dee) which means Good Morning, Hello, Goodbye and Thank you.  A one-stop phrasebook, “Nuedi!”.


Heart rate research:
You may recall that we did a free diving course in Bonaire last year.  (See blog post: Feb 2016)  Since then we have been practising the art of diving on a single breath and now I regularly enjoy relaxed descents to 15m (50ft) staying at depth for a minute or so quite comfortably.  It doesn’t sound long but it’s a special time down there, partly because I still can’t really believe I can do it.  Two years ago I could not have made that dive any more than I could have levitated above the water.
The interesting thing is that it’s much easier to hold your breath at 15m than at 5m.  I referred before to the ‘Mammalian dive reflex’ which is a series of physiological responses to deep diving shared by dolphins, whales, sea lions and humans.
Blood flow is directed from extremities to the heart, lungs and brain, and heart rate is reduced to conserve oxygen and allow for longer dives.  I’m fascinated by this.
My new dive watch displays my heart rate, transmitted from a chest belt.  I have started checking my heart rate, much to Dawn’s amusement, at different times of the day as I potter about the boat.  When I first wake up in the morning, it’s usually about 55, normal walking around about 75, swinging in the hammock 60ish, snorkelling along on the surface maybe 85.  Winding up the dinghy winch, 95.
On a good dive, I am hanging motionless in the blue world, 15m down, watching the fish go by.  The surface looks to be an awfully long way up, I’m in an alien environment.  The pressure down here is 2.5x that at the surface.  My lungs have been compressed and are now less than half the volume they would be at the surface.  My buoyancy is neutral, or negative, I can free fall.  This should be a threatening, stressful experience, but I am calm and comfortable, my movements are sloooow, I am smiling.
My heart rate is at 45, that’s less than when I’m sleeping.



Windsurf daydream
We are anchored in your average pristine San Blas lagoon, the view is a variation on the usual composition of white sand island and swaying coconut palms.  Water in shades of blue and green indicating depths like contour lines on a chart.  The occasional dugout ‘ulu’ is paddled over by smiling Gunas to sell us their catch.  All the splendour we have come to expect from a San Blas anchorage.  But this place also has a nice righthand wave peeling down a reef about 200m from where we sit.  I watch it all day, sometimes glassy, sometimes with 15kts blowing down the steep wave faces.  Sometimes with a few surfers on it from our neighbouring boats, their dinghies anchored at the shoulder.
When it’s time to windsurf I rig on the trampoline, throw board and sail over the side and swim it the 30m to the wind line.  Then it’s a 2 minute sail to the reef.  Colourful corals beneath the board, a bit shallow in places but all do-able, and the bigger the wave the deeper it breaks.


This is a windswell wave.  We’re at the western end of an 1,100 mile fetch of Caribbean, and upwind of that, 3,000 miles of Atlantic.  That whole area of water is blown by NE trades all winter, so there are plenty of waves, no waiting around for a groundswell.  That windswell pounds the reef upwind of us, a constant ambient noise day and night, but as the waves reach our island, they bend around 90 degress and start to form up into walls and troughs as they approach the reef.  Perfect wind angle.



The waves are slow moving, with a short period, and never huge, but there are sets every few minutes which are easy to spot and significantly larger than the rest.   After a few sessions here it’s easy to be in the right place.   Some times it’s too easy, my lap is perfectly in sync: sail out, see a set, tack into the second trough, sail it back in to the reef, drop in and ride down to the shoulder, gybe back out to the zone, oh here’s the next set!  Repeat until next mealtime.


The best rides start on the first peak, or just upwind of it, the choppy hump moves over the coral shelf and becomes smooth and hollow, steep drop, that peak can throw it’s lip.  Time that turn right and you may get two or three more good hits as the wall stands up to meet you.  The ride ends back in the colourful coral shallows, I look back and see Escapade so nearby, I described this place to Dawn as my windsurfing daydreams come true.


Fishing at anchor
We generally troll a lure while underway, as long as the sea’s not too rough or we’re sailing too fast to deal with a fish fight.  But what about all this time we’re sitting at anchor watching fish jumping out of the water?


Recently I’ve been trying to catch fish from a windsurfer.  I troll a lure at slow speed from a big inflatable board with a small sail.  The lure is on the end of a 30m line wound on to a plastic yoyo.  If a fish takes the lure, the yoyo will jump off the back of the board and drag in the water, towed by  a loop of elastic shock-cord, which is clipped to the tail of the board.  I also carry a glove and lump of wood to deal with the catch, and a bag to bring it home in.  Great system, but I haven’t caught anything yet.  I have tried different lures at different speeds, plus strips of fish bait.  I have towed that baited hook right through the fishiest patch of water you could hope for, with fish jumping around the board!  Nothing.
A Guna sold us a brace of octopus which we killed, gutted, tenderised and stewed in their own juices.  Delicious. I had a few scraps which seemed perfect for bait.  The first scrap was dangling over the side at sunset last night when it produced a nice size snapper.  This morning I tried again with another scrap. Soon the clicker was calling and the line was running off the reel.  We jumped up to see what was for dinner. Not a pan-size snapper, but a 5′ shark.


The commercial awakening of the Guna 
I said in a previous post that we were so surprised to see the traditional Guna lifestyle was still intact in the Eastern villages near the Colombian border.
The Guna Indians have chosen to live in a very simple economy, little changed in generations.  The Guna diet of fish, seafood, coconuts, plantains and fruits are all supplied as they always have been, with no exchange of money.  The women paddle a canoe to their fruit trees on the mainland each morning, the men hunt for fish and lobster.
Now a Colombian trading boat chugs in to the village every so often carrying things like toothpaste, cans of salchichas and beans.  They trade with crafts, crops and seafood.  Until recently the coconut was a sort of currency, now replaced by the Dollar.
Guna women sew elaborate molas to sell or exchange.


Here in the Western San Blas change is coming fast.  So if you’re happy to sell a mola for $10, there may be a hundred of hours of work, you’re working for $0.10 an hour?
A couple of good divers in a dugout can easily collect 10 lobsters in an hour, they sell them to the happy yachties at $5 each and paddle home with $50 for a morning’s work.
But it’s not just dropouts in their sailboats that want to be here.  One aerial photo of these islands will sell a thousand excursion tickets in Panama City.  Day trips to paradise!
So a few enterprising Gunas have got some fibreglass fishing pangas, adapted them for passenger trips and started their own tour operations.


But now these little desert islands need facilities for the tourists, concrete toilet blocks, some kind of a bar (beer cooler with a solar panel)  The latest thing is ‘hotels’, now you can stay a night or two on a remote island, sleep in a hammock in a thatched hut with a solar lamp.  Last year $50 per night, now $100.


A society that managed to live in the modern world without money for so long, has discovered capitalism, we’ve seen the ‘before and after’ here and it feels like a loss of innocence, but who can blame them?  The new generation want Yamaha outboards, fibreglass boats, cellphones and solar power to charge them.  Tourist dollars will buy that.
Yachties who have spent a lot of time here say it is already unrecognisable from two years ago.  What will have developed 5 years from now?
It’s the old story: When’s the best time to go to the San Blas Islands?
Ten years ago.


Award Winning Blog!
We started writing this blog to avoid sending long, repetitive emails to family and friends.  We don’t have a huge audience but the blog has followers around the world and we are grateful for all the comments and feedback.
Many thanks to the Royal Channel Island Yacht Club in Guernsey who have awarded us their prize for ‘Cruising Blog of the Year 2016’.
Guernsey yachtsmen have an amazing cruising ground of their own.  The glorious Channel Islands and the French coast so near, but sadly they also suffer from a long cold winter, or so we have heard.
Anyway great to know someone’s reading this back home!


Some more moments from the last few weeks:

Preparing an ulu for the annual sailing races. Crew seems to be one strong man steering with a big paddle as a handheld rudder, one man forward with main and jib sheets, one boy amidships bailing furiously.

Traditional lifestyle plus iPad phone calls.

The cellphone store.

An alternative Guna view of the sunlit coral gardens around their islands.

The man who lived here was a specialist hunter. He used to go into the jungle to stalk tapirs, returning with meat for the village.
He died recently and now there are no more tapir feasts on the island, but these are still hanging outside his hut.

Dawn goes Guna.




It’s not all beer and skittles on Escapade you know, the daily grind of chores is never over..

Laundry day


The weekly food shopping



Keeping in touch with the world

Scoping the next anchorage





21st February 2017
Chicha Ceremony
I’m staring into the bottom of the upturned calabash bowl again.  This is my third or maybe fourth bowl of chicha.  Each one contains about half a pint of opaque brown liquid, tasting earthy, boozy, slightly sweet and with a hint of burnt coffee.  The three men drinking with me drain their bowls and spit some sludge on to the dirt floor.  We’re getting near the bottom of the barrel.  A young man smiles as he takes the bowl from me to be refilled.  Everyone is smiling now.  We have all drunk a few bowls.  Over on the women’s side of the hut they have started dancing.  Two old guys are playing a rhythmic breathy tune on bamboo pipes.  Soon I am shoved into a dance with four women who push me in to each step and turn, laughing as I try to keep up.  I thank the old chief, the smiling one-eyed ‘Saila’ and the swaying village elders, for allowing us to be here to witness this sacred ritual, then I stagger out into the hot sun.
No, we’re not at the Hayling Island Real Ale Fest, we’re still deep in Guna Yala.


Chicha is hooch, moonshine.  An ancient Guna tradition, it’s use is always ceremonial, never recreational, although this afternoon that line seems to be blurred, in fact everything is a bit blurred.  The purpose of this chicha ceremony is to celebrate the onset of puberty for a 12 year old girl in the village, but the result of this ritual drinking is that the whole village is sloshed.


When the Sailas decide that the girl’s time has arrived, a date is set which will be a holiday for this island village of 250 people.  Dugouts are despatched to the forested mainland shore to collect wild sugar cane.  The cane is crushed in their coconut palm presses (as demonstrated by Dawn in a previous post).  The sugar cane juice is fermented for one week, so it is a sort of low grade rum, or more of a sugar-cane wine.  To this brew is added some ‘special ingredients’ and some ground coffee, to keep the party going.


Every Guna village has two large communal huts, built from cane and palm thatch. One is the Congresso, where all of the village business is presided over by the Sailas, the other hut is the Chicha Hut, large enough to host everyone on the island, but empty all year, except for the few days of chicha ceremonies.


Today was the day for this little girl, we watched as she had all her hair cut off with a pair of scissors, all of it, she’s almost bald. The women with the scissors were laughing and enjoying the day.  From now on the girl will wear molas and beads on her arms and legs. Her hair (when it grows back) will be covered by a scarf, like all the women in the village.  The women look fantastic, many with chunks of gold between their nostrils, some with black lines tattooed down their noses.  Today they have had chicha, they are laughing and swaying, smoking tobacco in stylish clay pipes.

(By the way the costumes you see here are not for the ceremony, this is just what the women wear, every day)


The ceremony began at 1pm with the all the village assembled in the chicha hut, strictly segregated into the male and female areas.  Incense smoke filled the hut, its flames tended by the spiritual leader of the village and his young apprentice. We were seated on low coconut palm benches just off the floor, I’m told this is good, not far to fall.
Village elders performed a dance with some hooting before the first bowls of chicha appeared.  We still had no idea what to expect or whether we would be expected to drink.  It was a great privilege to be invited and made so welcome.
As we mentioned before the Gunas are camera-shy, but Dawn managed to take these photos very discreetly, shooting from the hip with respect for the occasion.


Three hours later we were all chicha’d out.  After my performance on the dance floor we were invited to stay in a spare hammock in the village, but Dawn wisely decided we should return to the boat before nightfall.  After the chicha ran out, the bowls were being filled with shots of Panamanian Seco, another type of low-grade rum, but commercially produced.  At one point two girls circulated with baskets, one full of sugary sweets and the other filled with loose menthol cigarettes which everyone happily started smoking.  We were told that the drinking and smoking all stops at 10pm sharp and the next day village life returns to normal, most of the Gunas don’t drink or smoke at all, outside of the chicha ritual.



Did that really happen?
The next morning we were on our foredeck at 6am watching day break, heads buzzing from alcohol and caffeine and very thankful we weren’t waking up in that hammock.

January Blues


Over the hills..
Two years ago we crossed the Atlantic and dropped anchor in Falmouth Harbour, Antigua. Now we are 1,100 nautical miles further west, across the wide Caribbean.
Behind me are the misty, jungly Darien mountains of Panama and behind those, the Pacific Ocean, now just 30 miles away from where we are anchored.


Western San Blas
I mentioned in the last post that we had sailed off the edge of our chart into an unsurveyed area. Now we are in the Western San Blas and the depths have reappeared on the chart plotter, although some of the islands are still in the wrong place.
It is also very much more popular than the eastern islands. There it was just us and the Gunas. Here it looks more like Grenada, anchorages with a dozen yachts bobbing about together, radio nets, barbecues, Some boats stay here for months, or years. But you can see why. It is a beautiful area with hundreds of perfect sandy islands covered in coconut palms, surrounded by coral and lagoons.


There is surf, fishing, reefs to explore with dinghy and snorkels. The weather is beautiful and we seem to be having a week off from those strong trades. The solar panels are powering the water maker, we still have fresh vegetables and cold beer. We even have a phone signal in most places. Guna families come paddling by in dugouts selling fresh bread, speared fish, lobsters for a few dollars. Days go by. We could be here for a while.


But first we needed to visit the mainland for a few days. Linton Bay, Puerto Lindo, Portobello, Savanitas. We handled all the formalities, got our passports stamped (Escapade’s 30th country) did all the laundry and provisioning, then sailed back to the islands.



Wildlife update:
Sightings on the mainland:



I like a monkey.
In the forest around Linton Bay we saw lots of them playing in the trees above us. Leaping from tree to tree and hanging by their tails.
On Isla Linton a family of spider monkeys came to take bananas from our hands and put on a show swinging through the trees around us.



The Lazy Bear

In Panama a three-toed sloth is called ‘oso perezoso’. A lazy bear.

Have you ever seen a three toed sloth? I just encountered my first one, he was sitting very still and looking just like a little long haired bear.
About the size of a big football, long shaggy blond fur, big brown blinking eyes and what looks like a big smile. We didn’t have a camera with us!
But he was the friendliest looking creature, I’m surprised the world isn’t full of cuddly soft toy versions.
I’m told that they have a big meal of leaves and then have to sit quietly for 12 hours because they have a slow digestive cycle. 
Nice lunch and a 12 hour siesta, very sensible animal.
I’ve just been told that three-toed sloths can swim between islands (not after a meal), as can the big cats which live in the jungle here, including jaguars. I’m keeping a pretty good lookout while snorkelling these days.


Back in the San Blas:
Dolphin visit
They appear before breakfast one morning, blowing close to Escapade. 
I grab a snorkel and slip in to the water, immediately I can hear the clicks and whistles, they are close but I can’t see them yet. Dawn directs me from the deck, I slowly fin at a tangent to their direction, they know exactly where I am and I think they will come to me if they’re interested. I glance up to see a fin and then a tail above the surface in front of me. The dolphin dives a few feet away and then approaches me head on, just under the surface, he sends me a complex sequence of clicks, I reply ‘Hello!’. Then he dives and swims on his side just below me, showing his white belly while taking a really close look at me through his upturned eye, then turns for a second pass on the other side. Now I want to dive, show him I can do that too. I descend to about 7 metres and feel another blast of clicks but I can’t see him. I think he was calling the other two over to check out the performing human. The other two appear, an adult and a youngster, now the three come to see and do another side-up pass.
Then we all come up for a breath.



Special Guests
All the way from Maui, Sam and Scotty arrived for a slice of boat life in San Blas. 
Maui-Honolulu-Houston-Panama City, jungle road over the mountains and a fast Guna launch direct to our anchorage.
We soon have the new crew whipped in to shape, Sam specialising in line handling, dinghy launching and catching fish, meanwhile ‘Scotty The Yachtie’ is a natural with main halyard, winch grinding and very busy in the galley.
Dawn was in charge of ukulele while I was shaking maracas.


That week flew by, a procession of lovely islands. We anchored alone in a vast shallow lagoon studded with starfish and conch.
We sailed, spearfished, swam, we even found some waves for Scotty to surf while Sam and I windsurfed.
The galley was turning out lobster, conch, all kinds of pescado, and the wine cellar was woefully depleted.
We lay stargazing on the trampoline.  All over too fast, thanks for coming guys, let’s do it all again somewhere.






Scotty’s first kill



Scotty’s hold-down training



Brain coral at Yansaladup



The squadron of squid that lived under Escapade for a week



Sam vs Lobster



Another Outremer skipper with great taste in anchorages


New crew earning their passage..


Colombia to Panama


This all seems a bit out of date now, we’ve been offline for a couple of weeks , but here’s the blog notes..


Leaving Cartagena 



Islas Rosario

I wake to silence. No wind, the sun is just rising. A boy paddles past in a dugout. the water is glassy and I can see fish swimming around the coral beneath us. 


Yesterday we left the spectacular city skyline of Cartagena in our wake and today we’re in another world. Back to island life.  


As we sailed in here yesterday, an enterprising fisherman paddled over and closed the deal on our lunchtime lobster before we even had the hook down. He told us there are 800 people living on his island and everyone knows each other’s name. Bit like Guernsey.



Sailing to the San Bernardos

Since we rounded the last headland we are out of those roaring trade winds and our route now to the SW seems to be in lighter airs in the lee of the coast. We left with full main and gennaker, our maximum total sail area of 180sqm, ghosting along at 3kts in 5kts of wind. The breeze fills in at noon. Sharp. Still only about 10kts but we are broad-reaching, daggerboards up and gliding silently along at 8 and 9kts, dining on a freshly landed bonito. 


We won’t get spooled again..

We have been trying to fine tune our trolling gear to catch sensible sized fish whilst underway. Last season’s cedar plug was attracting big game and we hate to get ‘spooled’ (huge fish on the hook and no way to fight it, watch as the line disappears in a cloud of smoke). So now we have acquired some much smaller cedar plugs which we hope will appeal to a more reasonably sized fish. Ideally dinner for two rather than protein for a month. We have also invested in a serious new Shimano reel, acquired in the best fishing shop I have ever visited.  If you’re ever in Maui and feel that you really want to kill some marine life, I recommend a visit to Brian Yoshikawa’s fishing and spearfishing emporium in Wailuku: ‘Maui Sporting Goods’. Actually not very sporting I’d say, at least from the fish’s point of view. Racks of beautiful handmade wooden spearguns, an impressive collection of Hawaiian weapons built to slay big fish. Brian has been free-diving since before it had a name, he also supplied me with a free-diving watch that will not only tell me my depth but also my heart rate as I descend. Now I’ll be able to see exactly how those relaxation techniques are working.

Anyway, I explained my ‘spooled’ problems to Brian, who immediately prescribed a gigantic golden Shimano reel the size and weight of a gallon tin of antifoul. Far too heavy for my boat, rod, or arms, I explained. Eventually we settled on a lightweight model (most of the massive metal replaced by graphite) with two gear speeds and a heavy duty drag lever, to control the rate at which the poor doomed beast can attempt to flee.

It has since occurred to me that for the money I gave Brian for the reel, I could have given up fishing, installed a chest freezer on Escapade and eaten fillet steak and fois gras all the way across the Pacific, but where’s the fun in that?

So this thing has been on board for a month now but we’ve been sailing too fast for fishing, today was the first time we tried and the result was this very sensibly sized lunch for two.



Islas San Bernardo

Today’s anchorage sees us just 25 miles further SW off Isla Tintipan in the San Bernardos. The archipelago consists of 10 islands and lots of coral, a few local dive operations and some beach houses owned by wealthy Colombians.

But almost all the local people (1200) choose to live on top of each other on one tiny islet: Santa Cruz El Islote. It’s packed. The highest population density per square metre in Colombia.  


We went in the dinghy to visit, strolled through the tiny village, friendly people, a couple of ‘general’ stores. I had a conversation with the ice-cream man who spoke very rapid spanish. I thought he was trying to sell me some local children, he showed me several, told me their ages and a price. Seemed very reasonable. In fact I was buying them all an ice cream. Everyone was very happy with the deal. Feliz Ano.


The Great Helados Heist




With the exception of Western Australia, Colombia has more flying insects than anywhere I know. In WA they are just flies, millions of them but all the same, whereas here it is a full and varied menagerie. 

We are island-hopping close to the coast which is I think is covered with a well-stocked rain forest. I usually have a ‘zero tolerance’ to flies on board and I’m a dab hand with the fly swat, but here I’m just overwhelmed. Such a variety of elaborate insects seem to swarm around the boat.  Beautiful dragonflies with unlikely colour combinations, some so big it’s amazing they are airborne. All kinds of beetles, moths the size of bats and butterflies that appear even miles off shore. grasshoppers, crickets and/or locusts all hitch a ride with us. Then there are these whacking great hornet type things with long dangly legs. If one of those comes at you you will shout swear words, and probably run away. Today we were ghosting along escorted by the usual cloud of assorted insects, all of the above and more. I have decided to live and let live, unless something actually tries to bite me.



The Isthmus of Panama

Isthmus. Now there’s a word to conjure with. An unbroken stretch of four consonants between two continents.


Yes we have finally reached Panama. We sailed through the night from Isla Fuerte off Colombia to Puerto Obaldia on the mainland Panama coast. It was one of those balmy evenings on the empty sea. Sailing down the glittery path to the setting moon. Dolphins, shooting stars, coconut water with lime juice and rum. Trying to slow the boat down so we could arrive in daylight. We had hoped to land at Obaldia to clear customs, but there was a big swell running, surf breaking round the anchorage and no way to safely anchor. We sailed on to Puerto Perme and our first Guna settlement.



The Guna Yala

This region of Panama is the territory of the indigenous Guna indian tribes who run it almost as an independent country, the Guna Yala.

The Guna have somehow managed to preserve their lands, language and culture through the course of history.

It is now said to be the most intact tribal system in the Americas and their pristine world contains mountains covered with virgin rainforest where no human has ever been.

Today we were welcomed in to the Guna settlement of Achocucho. This is a remote fishing community which also grows coconuts, bananas, plantains and children. 

We wandered down the sandy paths between the traditional Guna huts. Packed dirt floors, woven walls and palm thatch roofs. The women are in tribal dress, elaborate woven garments and sort of beaded leg-warmers from ankle to knee.  Some have gold rings through their noses.


Children running everywhere, excited to see us, peering round a hut, waving, then running off squealing. Many of the women and girls seem to be busy sewing, otherwise people are mainly lounging in hammocks in the shade, chatting, laughing and having a lovely time. 


Girls invite us to look at the ‘Molas’ they are creating, multi-layered applique work that is cut and sewn in tiny detail. This traditional Guna craft forms part of their attire. They want to sell them to us for a few US dollars.

Apart from a few recently installed solar powered lights, and of course a few mobile phones, there is little sign of the modern world. The dugout or ‘ulu’ is the primary personal vessel for fishing and commuting from mainland to islands, almost identical to the ones I was paddling in Haiti. Here they are usually propelled with a hand made paddle, often carrying a whole family and sometimes sailed with a short-masted sprit rig.


 We have seen a few different cultures and lifestyles on this tour of the Caribbean but this is really something else. I’d love to show more of it here but the Guna really don’t like to be photographed, especially the women in their finery, but we found some Guna kids who loved posing for our camera.



The Guna Yala also contains 378 islands, mostly uninhabited, more commonly known as the San Blas Islands. Our next destination.



Uncharted waters

So we have sailed off the edge of one chart system and on to a new one, (on our chart plotter screen) but the new one doesn’t have any detail. The inshore areas are just covered in xxxs, no depths marked, islands reduced to nameless beige blobs, and some of those in the wrong place. We check our back up programs and they are all the same. This part of the eastern San Blas has no detail. Happily we have a brilliant pilot book by Eric Bauhaus which contains his own charts and hundreds of waypoints which we are now completely dependent on. The sea between these islands bristles with reefs, rocks, shoals and shifting sandbanks, do not enter these waters without Eric’s book on your boat. We quite enjoy the old-school pilotage, slaloming between the reefs under sail with Dawn standing on the roof and good light overhead. We haven’t seen another yacht for a week.




I was sitting at anchor one evening off a Guna village, perusing Eric’s excellent book when I saw this under the heading ‘Natural Dangers’. 

And I quote: “Crocodiles and caimans are abundant throughout Panama and particularly in Gatun Lake. Crocodiles in San Blas frequent saltwater marshes and sometimes open water between the islands.”

OK so there could be crocs swimming in the sea where we are anchoring? Eric continues:

“Although they can reach 5 meters (15 feet) most are quite small, in the 1-2 meter (3-6 foot) range.”


Now we’re not phased by having the odd shark hanging around the boat, (see blog post ‘Bahamian Rhapsody’ last year) and I can still knock out a pretty decent front-crawl sprint pace, particularly with fins, but now I’m wondering, how fast does a 15ft ocean-going crocodile swim? Or even a “quite small” 6ft one!



Dawn demonstrating Guna sugarcane press



The sun sets on 2016..


City Life


The extraordinary customs process was still rumbling on but the port capitan gave us permission to sail the boat 50 miles or so round to Cartagena, so we left the brown waves of Puerto Velero and motored out in a calm, back in to the blue.


Cartagena makes quite a spectacular landfall. Arriving by sea, you first see the skyscraper skyline of Boca Grande, the ‘Miami Beach’ of Colombia, then as you close the coast, the old walled city appears in the foreground. About 5 miles out you first hear the music!


The approach winds around the high-rise beach hotels, across the busy shipping lanes, past the Colombian Navy base lined with battleships through the anchorage for sailing boats, and finally to the inner harbour area lined with ancient battlements.


Here it feels a bit like an old Mediterranean port, stately old palms, tree lined parks, the domes and spires of churches in the old town. But you’re still in South America, the noisy smelly water taxis buzz across the harbour, and of course every motor boat in town is fitted with a prodigious sound system. Then look the other way and the view is more like Hong Kong harbour, behind the sailing boats are the soaring new glass towers.

We spent Christmas tied up in the very swanky Club de Pesca, snoozing through the heat of the days and exploring the old city by night.


Cartagena can sometimes feel a bit over-run with tourists. Cruise ships call here, then the street hawkers step up a gear, selling anything from boxes of fake Cuban cigars to fruit, cigarettes and chewing gum, or little shots of ‘tinto’ (sweet coffee) but mainly panama hats.

I estimate there are 500 blokes trying to sell me a panama hat in this town on any given day. (What will it be like when we get to Panama?) They are drawn to my uncovered hair and will cross streets to explain to me how badly I need one from the hundred or so stacked on their head. One guy stopped me on my morning run at 7am, I was jogging along the old battlements like a mobile puddle of perspiration but he thought that might be just the time for me to do a bit of hat shopping. ‘No gracias’. Another guy fell in to step beside us as we were walking purposely through a plaza, he pointed out my lack of a panama hat and how fortunate I was to have run in to him. (He happened to be wearing a stack of 50 hats). ‘No gracias’ . But he had already sized my head by eye, selected one from his stock and placed it on my moving head, I’m still walking, ‘No gracias’. He explains how powerful the sun is and how handsome I look in the hat, ‘No Gracias’. Now he somehow produces a large mirror from his pocket and, still walking backwards in front of me, shows me how great I look in his hat. A superb mobile retail pitch, I take my hat off to him.

But there is still lots of real life going on. I’m fascinated by people’s faces here. The indigenous indian tribes, blended over time with Spanish and African arrivals, a new world of faces. This is a great place to watch the world go by.  At night we wander the narrow backstreets of Getsemani where it’s always happy hour and music pours out of every building.


In 1741 the British sent an enormous expeditionary force to take Cartagena from the Spanish. 186 ships and 30,000 men!  After a long siege and huge losses on both sides, the Brits were seen off by the much smaller Spanish defending forces commanded by the defiant Don Blas de Lezo, or what was left of him.  Previous battles had relieved him of his left leg, right eye and right arm.  Minor flesh wounds for Don, who is now remembered as a hero of the city.  If he had lost that battle, this whole northern end of South America would be English-speaking today, imagine that.

We took a provisioning trip to El Mercado Bazurto which is a huge bazaar selling everything. An overwhelming world of commerce on the poverty line, everyone working very hard in the heat of the day for a few pesos. We loaded up with all the fruit and veg we could carry and retreated.


We are provisioning for the next leg now, a few weeks in the more remote San Blas islands where there will be no supermarkets. It’s amazing how much stuff we can carry on our 2 folding bikes. An fully loaded supermarket trolley is somehow swallowed by 2 front bags, one rear bag and a backpack. Or if you prefer, 72 cans of beer, 12 bottles of wine and a watermelon. Like I said, a few weeks. Anyway, it is so much easier to ride the groceries a mile back to the boat, with all the weight on the bike, than to walk it. Actually a mile on a Brompton bike is usually a pleasure, with some air moving around you. A mile on foot in these temperatures is a long hot walk, particularly with 72 beers on your back.



We will probably be offline for a bit once we leave here, so signing off for now and a Happy New Year.



Me Gusta Colombia


Pablo’s hippos
Eventually we had a signed document from the Port Capitan and were free to leave Santa Marta.  The next passage was a quick 60 mile hop across the bay and in to Puerto Velero. Our route would take us past the mouth of the mighty Magdalena River.  It flows north through Colombia for 1000 miles, passing mountains, rain forests and flood plains before pouring in to the sea here, discolouring a huge area of water.  The pilot books warn of strong currents, floating vegetation, trees and dead animals swept downstream in wet season.  Talking of animals, there are caymans in this river and hippos!   Four African hippopotamuses were illegally imported many years ago to the riverside hacienda of one Pablo Escobar.  They thrived, swam off down the Rio Magdalena and did very well, they are now a successful invasive species.   By the time we had covered the 40 miles from Santa Marta to the river mouth, we were double-reefed and steering down 4 metre breaking waves (did I mention that it is WINDY down this end of the Caribbean?)  The water colour went from blue to green to brown and smelt muddy, we were going a bit too fast to want to hit a log, or a dead cow.  Or a hippo.  Dodging rafts of floating weed and foliage, we rounded the corner and sailed the last stretch in to Puerto Velero, with the sea trying to become blue again.


Silt flowing out from the Rio Magdalena

Aduana? Mañana! 
Puerto Velero is a quiet bay but I could see some windsurfing potential on the satellite images.  We had chosen this place to spend a few days while we dealt with customs formalities, well if we’re hanging around for official documents I may as well do a bit of windsurfing.
Clearing customs is part of life as you move between countries in a sailing boat and the experience can vary widely between countries and cultures.
Sometimes I wonder what we’re all trying to achieve here.  The basic premise is that you are a foreign ship entering national waters and each country wants control of it’s borders.  Some enlightened states have modernised and simplified the process so that a sailing yacht can enter and leave with a minimum of time wasted by officials or crew.  They acknowledge that they are really only going ‘through the motions’ in the same way that you would stroll through a green channel at an airport.
The process has evolved from the days of sailing ships arriving with one cargo and perhaps leaving with another.  My favourite clearance document was a beautifully un-modernised piece of maritime bureaucracy from Portsmouth Dominica, worded like something from a Patrick O’Brien novel.
So anyway, the amount of form filling and faffing about can vary, but Colombia really takes the biscuit.  Here each visiting yacht (if staying for more than 3 days) has to be officially temporarily imported in to Colombia, the whole process can take weeks!
So far I have signed several dozen forms, been fingerprinted on two separate occasions, had to visit a ‘Notaria’ in Cartagena to authenticate my fingerprinted identity document, photos of the boat, engines and registration plate have been submitted, and we still have no idea how long the rest of the process will take. Happily we are in no rush, and the delights of Colombia are well worth enduring the ludicrous bureaucracy.


Windsurfing at Gravy Point
Puerto Velero is cartographically interesting in that it doesn’t exist on most charts.  The Bay is now enclosed by a new two mile spit of land which has been created by the silty outflow of Rio Magdalena in the last decade.  If I look on my plotter, the chart shows we are in open sea!  The new finger of land is sandy mud and now encloses a protected anchorage and a little marina.
On the western shore the wind-swell waves break in a mushy mess on the muddy beach.  On the lagoon side there is flat water, a few kiters and steady trade wind breeze.  But right down at the tip, the new land is curling inwards and transforming the sea state.  The big wind swells are refracted round as they approach the sand bar, becoming smooth and glassy now as the wind direction has become cross-off.  The current is loaded with silt and weed, the first time I tried to windsurf round the point there was so much floating vegetation my quad fins were just clogging up, un-sailable.  Today it was windier and I could slalom through the weed rafts.  Perfect brown waves were barrelling down the point.  As you sail in on one it becomes smooth as it feels the bar and then walls up and peels all the way to the deep water off the end of the spit.  Some of the smoothest, brownest waves I have ever ridden! I’m calling it The Gravy Wave.  It was a bit spooky because you can’t see the bottom at all, water is too muddy.  Also I was alone, and a good mile downwind from the boat.  But what a great set up, new land grooming the never ending wind swell into something rideable.  If you’re ok with the brown thing, and the risk of hitting a hippo carcass, you could have quality waves to yourself pretty much every day of the winter, here in the middle of Colombian nowhere.


Cartagena de Indias
It is Dawn’s birthday so we have decided to leave Escapade for a few days and travel overland to the city of Cartagena to celebrate.
Here we are ashore on the old Spanish Main with a quarter of a million pesos in my pocket! (about $100 US)


Our adventure on public transport included an exhilarating ride on the back of a motorbike and a boring ride in a bus, the high point of which was a roadside snack stop for a deep fried something from the ubiquitous food carts.

Cartagena is amazing. An ancient walled city with architecture surviving from Spanish colonial and early republican days. Some of it is well preserved and some crumbling away, or held together with clouds of bougainvillaea.


We spent a couple of days exploring, following narrow alleys in to garden squares and bustling plazas.  There is an energy here, the streets throng with Cartagenans, tourists, street vendors, backpackers, great bars and restaurants, an art scene, a young crowd in the hip Getsemani quarter and of course there’s music.  Loud.  Traffic stops for b-boy dance routines in the street, salsa bands with full horn sections play in bars, but also in clothing stores and churches, local kids freestyle rapping on the street, then there’s the ancient Cafe Havana where the band plays and the crowd drinks rum and dances salsa all night as they have for generations.
It was a good birthday party.


Bamboo Saxophone


The locals are friendly, everywhere I go I am approached by smiling Cartagenan chaps who speak a bit of English and I’m always happy to stop for a chat. Topics vary from the best bar in the neighbourhood to how am I enjoying their city, but within a few minutes I generally find I am being offered an opportunity to acquire the very best drugs in Colombia.




Merry Christmas!




Curaçao to Colombia


So we left Willemstad and sailed up the West coast of Curacao, checking all systems were working ok.
Great to be sailing again, having been away from the boat for a few months we tend to forget just how fast and powerful she is.  Escapade was romping along, out in the blue again with the flying fish.
We sailed 10 miles up the west coast and anchored for the night in a quiet bay.


Next day at first light we set sail for Aruba, because it happened to be in our way.  A fast 60 miles downwind in 25kt trades, broad reaching down the swells and surfing at 15kts, occasionally 20kts!

Finally, the ‘A’ in our ABC islands tour.
Aruba is just not really our cup of tea, but each to their own.  If you enjoy the convenience of 24hr casinos and all major US fast food brands within a short waddle from your cruise ship, then Aruba certainly has plenty to recommend it.


We spent a few days waiting for a weather window, and it was fun to catch up with local windsurf champion Sarah Quita Offringa, fresh from her Aloha Classic win.  Sarah recommended some cool spots where the locals go so we rented a car and had a quick spin around.  Actually we would have liked to see a bit more, but then our weather window suddenly opened and it was time to leave.


Tranquil Aruba anchorage

Punta Gallinas
Aruba sits just 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, and only about 60 miles from the nearest bit of Colombia, which may explain why clearing in and out of customs there is rather inflexible.  We had to bend the rules slightly to be able to  depart at 6am.
There are about 300 miles to sail to Santa Marta in Colombia, around Punta Gallinas which is a fair sized cabo protruding northwards into an area of strong trade winds and currents.  The pilot books say that this area produces the most dangerous sailing conditions in the Caribbean.  Approach with caution!  The strong wind and uninterrupted fetch runs into an area of relatively shallow water just west of Aruba, just to add to the fun.  Our weather forecast promised 36 hours of 20kt wind, before piping back up to the usual 25-30kts for the next week or more.
We set off with the jib and a reef in the main, the breeze gradually built during the morning and Escapade started to stretch her legs.  Average speed was soon into double figures and stayed that way for about 20 hours until the wind deserted us a bit at 2am.


An Outremer 51 looks very different from most production catamarans.  She has long thin hulls, high bows and high bridge deck. When she starts charging down wave faces at 15 knots you realise why. She is also about half the weight of most cats her size.  Escapade has a carbon rotating mast and we try to keep her light.
So we can comfortably sail at 12 or 14 kts on flat water, but when going downwind out at sea, it can get much more interesting, sailing downhill.
She needs a bit of swell, normally 20+ knots of wind on open water generates enough wave height to start surfing.  As the waves get bigger we go faster.  Once the troughs are long enough for her to slot in to, she can surf for longer.
Most waves will lift our stern as they roll under us, travelling faster than we are.  That’s when you get a view of the bows pointing down hill, but like a surfer paddling a board, if your’e not going fast enough at that moment, you can’t catch the wave and it slides beneath you.
On this trip we needed about 10kts boat speed and sails fully powered as the wave arrives on our quarter.  If it happens to be steep enough at that moment, the bows point down in to the trough and we start to sail downhill.  At this point we usually exchange a glance and then both stop what we’re doing and watch the speed dial.  The acceleration is rapid, the speed climbs from 10 to 12, 14kts in a second, the rig starts to hum, 15, 16kts, now there is a vibration through the hulls and spray is firing up through the trampoline on to the windscreen like a firehose.  It gets noisy, if we hit a piece of chop at this speed it sounds like a collision with a solid object.  If we are still riding the swell, we keep accelerating to18, occasionally 20kts+.


Now the boat is planing and the sound is a loud hum which resonates through the whole boat and rig.  As the bows finally connect with the back of the wave in front they throw clouds of fine, atomised spray, the ride is over and we return to sailing speed, but if there is enough residual speed as the next crest passes, she will often link straight in to the next ride and off we go again.
It’s an unusual experience on a cruising boat, feels more like a giant windsurfer. We still have a few heart-stopping moments, especially at night, alone at the helm as she tilts on the crest and then down we go, accelerating in to the dark trough.


The sun rose and soon we could see high green mountains sloping down in to the Caribbean.  We sailed around the final punta and in to the town of Santa Marta.  Here we had one of those ‘magic carpet’ moments, the boat had transported us from the decidedly North American flavoured Aruba to an authentic South American town.  A bit of culture shock as we found our way around the busy narrow streets crowded with stalls and hawkers, the peoples faces, the street food, the chaotic traffic, noise and music.



La Musica!
Colombians are pretty keen on music.  From our berth in Santa Marta we can hear it all night long, it pauses briefly around daybreak and then by about 8am it’s turned back up to 11.


If you are passing through here you should seek out a backstreet bar called El Rego.  As well as being a very cool little place to eat and drink, it seems to be the hangout for every musician in the area.  A continuous and ever evolving jam session with players and instruments coming and going all night and everyone else dancing.  There was a lot of talent in that room.


Here’s the local Colombian remedy for headaches and sore muscles. Not sure if you’re supposed to snort it, smoke it, eat it or wear it.


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