Menu Close

escapade sailing

life on the ocean

Quiero Viento

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is very hot and the wind is not really enough to motivate us to hoist a sail. We are waiting for some breeze to take us 850 miles across the Pacific to the Galapagos. Our GRIB file forecasts are relentlessly light and variable.  So we have had a few days island hopping in Las Perlas.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our first anchorage at Pachequa was surrounded by so much life, in the sea and the air.  Squawking seabirds in vast numbers. Pelicans dive-bombing, whole colonies of cormorants taking flight, fish jumping, dolphins never far away.

DSC_7577DSC_7548

We made our way to Isla Contadora with the promise of a bar or restaurant, we found both and had a memorable return trip to the boat that night. 3-up on the paddle board splashing towards Escapade through bright bioluminescent sea.

DSC_7573

Next anchorage was a hot swampy lagoon. Just us and a million birds. We were too worried about crocodiles to swim.

DSC_7679

The following day we found the pearl in Las Perlas. The tiny islet of Boyaneta is a bank of white sand on a ridge of rock. Clear water to cool off in, no sign of crocs. A wild and beautiful speck of land.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am loving the freedom to explore again. Open the pilot book, pick an island and plot a course, nobody around, go where you like and probably catch supper on the way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We visited the village on Isla Pedro Gonzales and threaded the narrow and shallow channel Ventura Cruz through the jungle to Isla del Rey.  While we were keeping an eye on the depth and calculating the tide, we couldn’t help noticing the sharks and crocodiles in the channel, so no swimming there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We plan to leave tomorrow, next post should be from The Galapagos, wind permitting!

A whole new ocean.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Getting out of Panama was starting to feel like one of those dreams where you just never quite get where you’re trying to go.

The weeks went by, antifouling, waiting for a rigger, waiting for the Watt & Sea, installing it, waiting for the canal transit date, provisioning, last minute jobs.

Living in a marina, which is not our natural habitat, using our shore-vehicle fleet: two folding bikes and a skateboard to get the three of us out to dinner.

Finally the morning arrived for us to cast off the lines and sail away.

DSC_7514

How different can it be? Another stretch of tropical sea, a few miles from the one we just left.

But it is different.  We are now entering the largest expanse of ocean on the planet.

Let’s see, the first difference is that there is no wind!  At this time of year the trades blow reliably and strong on the Caribbean side, but over here they are light and fickle.  Caribbean Panama sees plenty of cloud and passing rain squalls, over here it’s blue skies.

We motor away from the Panama City skyline with zero wind, past the last of the anchored ships and all the canal traffic, out into the smooth blue world with a low long swell sliding under us.

DSC_7559

The beginnings of a breeze reach us, we hoist main and gennaker, turn off the engine and we are ghosting along at windspeed, 4 or 5 knots in silence. The simple pleasure of feeling Escapade under sail again at last.

DSC_7523

Large numbers of rays are swimming past, great packs of 20 or 30 at a time, close to the surface.  They look like mantas, but small and golden brown.  Haven’t seen those before.

DSC_7550

A few spotted dolphins join us briefly, but they are distracted by the rays, ambushing them in what looks like a feeding frenzy now astern.

DSC_7599

The skies are full of sea birds, wheeling above shoals of fish.  The sea is full of life!  Whales surface close by, my new fishing lure attracts a nice bonito for our lunch.  (And dinner).

DSC_7551DSC_7533

By now the wind and boat speed are creeping up to 9 knots as Jemima tiller-steers us round Isla Pacheqilla, the northern most of the Perlas, our first Pacific island.  We sail on to Isla Pachequa, furl the kite, drop the main and anchor off a white sandy beach, densely covered by the colonies of pelicans, frigates, cormorants and egrets.  The pungent scent of guano wafts over the bay!

DSC_7643DSC_7621

Tides are not really part of life in the Caribbean, except perhaps to time the best current for a trip.  But anchoring here needs to be carefully calculated, there is a 5 metre range, Dawn is consulting a tides app for the first time in years. Get this wrong and we could wake up sitting on a rock.

DSC_7593DSC_7582DSC_7587

Now humpbacks are breaching, bottlenose dolphins slowly cruise by and the air above us is dark with birds.  So yes, it all feels new and different.  The plotter shows this anchorage is still only 45 miles from the Caribbean, but we are floating in a whole new ocean.

DSC_7570DSC_7574

Across the Great Divide

The two giant continents of North and South America were connected by a tiny thread of land, just 30 odd miles across, until 1914 when the Panama Canal opened for business. And what a business! An audacious civil engineering project that included the biggest dam ever built, the world’s largest man-made lake, and the locks which were world’s largest concrete structures at the time. It was superbly conceived and executed in the era of steam trains. The flooding of high valleys to create a 30 mile wide inland lake, requiring locks and cuts to connect to the two coasts. The whole enterprise runs on simple mechanical principles and gravity. It has operated flawlessly every day and night for over 100 years.

IMG_2589

It was our great privilege to take Escapade through this extraordinary feat of engineering. We left Shelter Bay Marina on the morning of the 29th March. Decks loaded with rented nylon lines and fenders for the locks. Our friends Josh and Suzee were aboard as line handlers, joining Dawn, myself and Jemima. Spirits were high, everyone excited to be on our way at last. I was a little jumpy, checking all the systems and instruments were working, trying to remember how to drive the boat after the long lay-up. We had one of those cylindrical radar-reflectors that sit at the top of a shroud. Lots of UV up there, it must have degraded, then filled with rain in the wet season, and the motion of the boat leaving the harbour was enough to shake loose the cooked cable ties and allow the water-filled plastic cylinder to start it’s journey towards the deck 60ft below. This brittle plastic water-bomb landed inches from my head in a spectacular explosion, starting the trip with a bang and doing nothing to calm me down.

Bridge

We arrive at the anchorage off the container port at Colon to have lunch and wait for our pilot to come on board.
Our pilot Roy arrives and explains we will be transiting with another yacht, rafting up together to go through the locks behind a ship.
The ship appears and we follow her below the unfinished new bridge to the Gatun locks, rafting up to the yacht Aequus just outside. Her pilot is also called Roy. As we motor slowly in, lines are thrown from the walls on both sides. Light lines with a ‘monkey’s fist’ flying accurately to the four corners of our ‘raft’. We tie them to our heavy nylon lines which are hauled up and secured.

DSC_7377DSC_7382DSC_7386DSC_7384

The locks are 980ft long and once the ship was tied up there was room for our little raft in the space behind her. The gates close and 150 million litres of Panamanian rainwater fill the lock, lifting the giant ship and two sailing boats up 9 meters in as many minutes. Turbulent waters as the fresh and salt mix around us. Gates open, we all move forward in to the next two locks and the process is repeated until we have the bizarre view from the top of the third lock, looking back down to the Caribbean, now 27 metres below.

DSC_7387

There are jungly hilltops up here, and a lighthouse! Escapade moves into the strange environment of the Gatun Lake. Our ocean-going boat in fresh water for the first time, 85 feet above sea level.
We tie up to a huge ship’s mooring buoy for the night, a launch arrives to pick-up the Roys, and we settle down for sunset and supper on the lake.

img_2639.jpg

Next morning we wake to a chorus from the howler monkeys and a steamy, windless day.
Today’s pilots arrive in time for breakfast; Luis, a trainee advisor and Ricardo, his examiner. Together they will pilot us across the 30 miles of lake to the Miraflores locks. The buoyed channel runs around beautiful islands in the lake, lush rainforest filled with wildlife, a few feet from the world’s freight plying endlessly between oceans.

JungleDSC_7439IMG_2717

Little boats like us don’t tend to get too close to giant bulk carriers and container ships, generally best passed at a distance. But here we are invited in to the big ship’s world. Sharing locks and channels with the largest craft ever built.

IMG_2561 2DSC_7449

For 100 years, ships have been built to the dimensions of the Panama locks, apparently squeezing in with inches to spare. They are hauled through with locomotives towing them on steel hawsers.

DSC_7456DSC_7426

Last year a set of new, wider locks opened for a new generation of even larger ships. ‘Neo Panamax’, the one-way toll for these giants to use the canal is a million dollars.

DSC_7393

One of these broke down as we were approaching the locks, delaying us for two hours before our final sprint down the Gaillard cut and under the centenary bridge to the Miraflores locks.

DSC_7398

Then down through the Miraflores lake, into the last two locks tied up against a tourist ferry, and finally the last set of gates open and we untie and motor out into the Pacific Ocean. Pelicans diving as we glide under the Bridge of the Americas in the golden sunset. Quite a moment.

DSC_7418DSC_7403

DSC_7435IMG_2581DSC_7463DSC_7481DSC_7490DSC_7505IMG_2773IMG_2797

Then a few more days in Panama City, preparing and provisioning. Dawn and Jemima run a highly organised victualling program, filling the boat with food, wine, beer and finally a trip to the Mercado Abasto, the huge clearing house for the fresh fruit and vegetables of Panama.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It begins at 03.00 every day, farmers arrive with truck loads of farm-fresh, never-been-refrigerated produce, just how we like it. Lots of hard green tomatoes and papayas to slowly ripen on board as we head west. We were there at first light, browsing the huge piles of fresh greens and fruit in the cool of the early morning. As the sun rose higher the aromas of ripe fruit became headier. Our patient porter followed us with his barrow, loaded with our growing haul of goodies. Get that lot stowed, nearly ready to go now…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now, where were we?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
First of all, apologies for the long silence on the blog.  The last update was almost a year ago, at the end of our third winter in the Caribbean.
 
Now, where were we?
Oh yes, sailing round the world.
So we lifted Escapade out in April 2017 and left her in a field in Panama while we went home for a while.
Finally we are back on board, that was a longer lay-up than we had planned, but we keep getting distracted..

IMG_2588

A bit of windsurfing:
2017 was a big year of windsurfing for me.
Starting with the magical San Blas islands, the first distraction of the year, then home to Guernsey.
Except that we were on the International Windsurfing Tour which took us to wave competitions in Morocco, Barbados, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Hawaii.
I also managed to fit in the Kona Worlds in Sweden, a longboard race class world championship with a crack squad from Guernsey.
Dawn’s involvement grew into a tour manager role for IWT, so she was increasingly busy while I was competing.
So while the original plan was a summer in Guernsey, the IWT Summer itinerary was too tempting!
A compelling list of destinations and waves to be ridden. So our Guernsey time was shorter than planned, but sweet as always.

Sam & Dawn Barbados

26196417_1558349117536080_2307816838598642435_n

23471944_1939095109440526_4745816541607874866_n.jpg

Maui Time:
After the last event of the tour at Ho’okipa, we stayed on in Maui for a while.  Living on the North Shore and getting plenty of exercise.
Surfing, windsurfing, wind-foiling (hyrdofoil windsurfing).  Immersed in the healthy, hippie Paia lifestyle; lots of kombucha, chia seeds, hemp protein, yoga, avocados, rainbows and mountainous Hawaiian waves..
It suited us very well and our quick Maui trip extended to three and a half months!

IMG_2559

26231788_1566758876695104_5534456659235036752_n

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Japow!
A quick January pitstop to see family and friends in Guernsey and UK, then off on a snowboard trip to Japan.
More of an expedition really.  I was invited to join friends from Guernsey who are split-board enthusiasts.
That means that the board splits into two skis, to which you attach climbing skins and crampons, whip out a pair of telescopic ski poles and climb a Japanese mountain, rather than use a ski lift. Sounds like hard work, and it is, but the whole point is that you can go wherever you like, up mountains where there are no lifts, and no skiers.  So we did. Central Hokkaido and then up to the island of Rishiri.  Incredible terrain, fresh Siberian snow every day.  Very cold.  Wonderful toilets.

IMG_277727540790_1199937060139396_4329275349515406163_n

Back to Panama:
So two weeks in the frozen North of Japan, reunited with Dawn in L.A, then straight to the heat of Panama.
Another tropical boatyard; chickens clucking beneath our hulls as we prepare the boat to splash.
Ten months is a long time to leave her in the jungle, long enough for a bit of mould to grow, but we did a really good job of putting her to bed.
Everything was stripped, cleaned and stored.  Sails off, halyards pulled into the mast, all deck gear lines and canvas stowed.  Then a big tarp rigged for sun protection, which was still there when we got back!
It seems so much quicker and more satisfying to be putting it all back together than it was to pack up last year.
The start of a new season and all the adventures to come, pretty good motivation to get her ship shape again.

P2240842.JPG

The to-do list
It seems to me that there is a brief honeymoon period in new-boat ownership.  The first year tends to involve quite a bit of snagging, getting to know all the systems and dealing with the teething problems.  Years 2 and 3 are then blissful seasons of carefree cruising, enjoying life onboard, everything works, with a small and easily ignored ‘to do’ list.
We are now in year 4!
The last few weeks have involved quite a bit of what my daughter Jemima calls ‘Bilge Yoga’. Contorting in to hot, awkward spaces to replace water pumps, solenoids, hose-clips etc, keeping corrosion at bay, maintaining all the little 4 year old components.  Little things that tell me my new-boat honeymoon might be coming to an end.
She is still a young boat, but old enough now to have seen a few gear failures.  We have just had to replace a Facnor roller furler and a Furuno chart plotter display.

IMG_2538.jpg

Hydro-power
We also added a bit of complexity by installing a Hydrogenerator.
We have been so happy with our decision to live by solar power only (no generator).  Our 600W panels provide all the juice we need for life at anchor: pumps, lights, cold beers, charged Macs and even running the water-maker. The last three winters in the Caribbean have been sunshine powered.
The Pacific will be different, long ocean passages with the auto pilot working day and night, depleting the battery bank (No solar at night!).  Escapade powers across oceans with foaming wakes and an abundance of free energy in her sails.  So we have installed a Watt&Sea hydro-generator which should be able to produce clean electricity from all of that wind-driven boat speed.  I will report back on how it performs once we get going.

Jungle Jogging
After all that boat yard work we have been escaping into the Panamanian forest for some exercise. It’s a great nature trail, this week we have seen howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, three-toed sloths, parrots, a magnificent toucan and an anteater.

P4140014

Ready for the canal..
We have paid the money, had the boat measured, filled in all the forms. Now we have a date for our transit.
29th March Escapade will travel the 35 miles across the Isthmus from Caribbean to Pacific.  The next chapter!

IMG_2536

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: ✓

DJI_0003

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..)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSCN3550DSC_7150

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pescatarians
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSC_7126

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
 
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGOPR5174OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSC_7195DSC_7054

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

IMG_1052

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!

 

IMG_1057IMG_1065

 

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.

DSC_7138DSC_7202

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.

DSC_7219DSC_7222

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.

IMG_2588

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!

IMG_2379

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.

IMG_2592

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSC_6938DJI_0012DSC_7110P4140014DSC_7118DSC_7081

*No alcohol was involved in this injury.

Going Nowhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

DSC_6580

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..

DSC_6735

Learning the Guna language:
 
Since we have been in the San Blas area, we have visited islands with the following names:
Acuadup
Banedup
Uchutupu Dummat
Uchutupu Pipigua
Nargana Yandup
Gusebgandup
Nuinudup
Niadup
Misdup
Nasargandup
Kagandup
Naguarchirdup
Kalugirdup
Kuarsurdup
Ogopukibdup
Iskardup
Sugardup
Salardup
Yansaladup
Waisaladup
Eggsaladup
Greeksaladup
Thisendup

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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!”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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.

DSC_6863

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.

DSC_6820

 

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.

DSC_6814

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.

DSC_6459

 
 
 
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?

DSC_6930

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.

DSC_6584

 
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.

photoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

DSC_6998

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some more moments from the last few weeks:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

DSC_6697
Traditional lifestyle plus iPad phone calls.

DSC_6620
The cellphone store.

DSC_6701
An alternative Guna view of the sunlit coral gardens around their islands.

DSC_6692
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.

DSC_6738
Dawn goes Guna.

DSC_6683DSC_6768

DSC_6693

DSC_6708

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

Laundry day

DSC_6756

The weekly food shopping

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSC_6607DSC_6451

Fishmongering
DSC_6933

Keeping in touch with the world
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Scoping the next anchorage
DSC_6752

Etc..

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSC_6598DSC_6570

Chicha

dsc_6633

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.

dsc_6644dsc_6628dsc_6626

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.

dsc_6662

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.

dsc_6729dsc_6657

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.

dsc_6689dsc_6665

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)

dsc_6629

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.

dsc_6684dsc_6678dsc_6667dsc_6654dsc_6653

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.

dsc_6639

dsc_6655dsc_6642dsc_6649dsc_6640dsc_6636dsc_6630

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

07.01.17
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

08.01.17
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.

dsc_6348dsc_6381OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

img_2643-2img_0218

11.01.17
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.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wildlife update:
Sightings on the mainland:

 

dsc_6255

16.01.17
Monkeys
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.

 

dsc_6259dsc_6273dsc_6248

11.01.17
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.
 
Jaguars?
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.

dsc_6340

Back in the San Blas:
 
23.01.17
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.

 

dsc_6342

29.01.17
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

img_2649dsc_6074OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

dsc_6448

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Stingray

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Scotty’s first kill

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Scotty’s hold-down training

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Brain coral at Yansaladup

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The squadron of squid that lived under Escapade for a week

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

img_0176

Sam vs Lobster

dsc_6433dsc_6431dsc_6419dsc_6406dsc_6404dsc_6384

dsc_6383

Another Outremer skipper with great taste in anchorages

dsc_6375

New crew earning their passage..

dsc_6372dsc_6364dsc_6337dsc_6329dsc_6318dsc_6299dsc_6238san-blas-1

Older Posts