Having spent quite a while in Les Saintes, south of Guadeloupe, we were eager to sail West. In many ways this was the beginning of our trip. We had many previous voyages to the eastern Caribbean, but to sail its whole length, from Guadeloupe to Panama, was something neither of us had ever done, though we had been dreaming of it for decades.
We dropped our mooring at 1445 on Friday Feb 1, immediately set the genoa and rigged the Monitor self-steering. In 20 minutes the engine was off, the breeze was filling in, and we were heading west, in the wake of circumnavigators. By early evening, with soup and baguette in the cockpit, we were rolling deeply and broad reaching in 18-20 knots of wind, reeling off 6.5 knots with only the genoa. No moon as the night wore on, just an inky black sky with brilliant stars.
The passage turned in to a Trade Winds romp. We rigged our whisker pole, and set the double reefed main to balance the genoa going wing-and-wing (one sail on each side) dead downwind. It was awesome. A few dolphins about; Green Flashes as the sun set several evenings, and always the Trade Winds. It’s 1100 non-stop miles from Les Saintes to the San Blas Islands off Panama the way we were going, and the boat was eating it up.
Of course, the most notoriously rough area in the Caribbean is north of Columbia, on the way to Panama. No way to avoid big seas and strong winds there. So we soldiered on, with the Southern Cross to port and the Big Dipper to starboard, and the compass reading always “West.” By Feb 6th our speed was building, along with wind and sea: 6.5, 6.8, 7.2, 8 knots, and one burst of 9.2 surfing down a wave. Winds gusting over 30 knots and seas 10-12 feet provided some challenge.
We struck the mainsail on the 7th, but roared along nevertheless with just the jib in those conditions. My respect for Capt Ned MacIntosh increased. Mac is 102 now, and known in Seacoast NH as a famous boatbuilder. As a younger man, however, he ran a commercial fishing boat out of Panama, fishing the Galapagos, freezing the catch, and then unloading in Puerto Rico – meaning he was steaming to windward in that notoriously rough patch of the Caribbean!
Saturday, Feb 9, our 9th day at sea, we made landfall off the Eastern Hollande Cays in the San Blas Islands. Navigating through the coral, we dropped anchor at 1215 near LEELA, with friends Graham Openshaw and Janaki Lennie (from Portsmouth). It had been a wonderful passage, rekindling our desire to sail West and see new things. And to rendezvous with friends in the enchanted San Blas Islands was icing on the cake.
The San Blas Islands – Like Sailing into a National Geographic Feature
The Guna, an indigenous First Nation people, inhabit tiny coral islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast. With their gardens, water supplies, cemeteries, firewood, and timber for dugouts on the mainland, they commute each day in “ulu’s – dug-out canoes – to carry on the business of living. It’s a storybook world, harsh conditions notwithstanding, and we felt fortunate to spend a week moving from anchorage to anchorage in the San Blas, sometimes at inhabited islands, and sometimes at deserted ones.
The Guna are best known for their mola’s, embroidered cloth panels which women work into their wardrobes, and which are also free-standing pieces of art. At many islands mola-makers came out to our boat in their dugouts or outboard skiffs – and of course we had to buy some mola’s.
The mainland, hazy and inviting, is drained by small rivers. Janaki and Molly and I took a dinghy up Rio Diablo and saw a bevy of wondrous birds – the Long-Tailed Tyrant, Squirrel Cuckoo, Smooth-Billed Ani, Lineated Woodpecker, Flame Rumped Tanager, Carracara (a stunning hawk), and about five species of Kingfisher. This was head-turning bird-watching at its best.
At Isla Gerti we were allowed ashore by the Chief, and were fortunate enough to have a tour of the village. Graham summed it up: Stone Age People Meet 21st-Century Consumer Culture. The contrasts were jarring, and its tough to see how the Guna will be able to persist as their population grows (due to better medicine and public health), even as food resources, such as fish and turtles, decline.
As boat folk we could not help but be charmed by the ulu’s. Some dugouts were paddled, others sailed, yet others had outboards. They were the equivalent of work boats, cars or bikes, and recreational craft. Little kids paddled. Old ladies paddled. Young men sailed for the pure joy of sailing – all this against a magical backdrop of rustic villages filling every square inch of tiny islands. It was quite a sight
Shelter Bay – The Entrance to the Panama Canal
Now we are secured in Shelter Bay Marina, at the entrance of the Canal. There are Brits, Kiwis, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Canadians, Americans, French, and others, lots of sailors poised for their next leg. It’s the only place we have ever been where we can walk five or ten minutes from the boat, and be in the jungle surrounded by monkeys, parrots, coatis (a raccoon like animal), and birds galore. Today Molly and I were in the main salon around lunch time when we heard a neighboring cruiser shout “CROCODILLIO.” Sure enough, a six or seven footer was swimming lazily across the marina, between C Dock and D Dock. No swimming here!
Today the official “Admeasurer” arrived to measure our vessel and certify us for Canal transit in a few weeks. Tomorrow we are off to CA to see Ellie and Carl and Earle (our cat, who drove W with Ellie), and to catch up with Molly’s sister, Jen. So the adventure continues, as of Day 95.