Kuna Yala Tales

Kuna Yala is the part of Panama controlled by the Kuna Indians. They govern their own territory independently under the umbrella of the Panama nation. Most land is owned in common and people share duties, resources, and equipment. Tomorrow is Kuna independence day, marking the day in 1925 that a rebellion against repressive Panamanian rule began. 

Though the second smallest race on earth (after the pygmies) Kunas are universally very strong and fit due to endless paddling and hiking to get their daily hunter-gathering work done. In 1925 the Kunas slaughtered the Panamanian police forces and killed off mixed race people as well. Only the intervention of the U.S. Navy prevented Panama from retaliating with serious military might, which might have been the end of the Kuna people. In a series of political moves over many decades, the Kunas have gradually gained more and more independence in governing their nation.

We've come to a more traditional island, Isla Tigre, to witness the independence festivities. At the moment Leslie and the kids are ashore enjoying (I hope!) a traditional puberty festival that precedes the independence activities on Sunday. Kuna society is matrilineal and the men play a secondary role mainly as hunter-gatherers. When a girl reaches puberty the whole village celebrates in a day-long rite of chicha drinking, dancing, and socializing. Soon everyone on the island is reeling around drunk and enjoying themselves. We understand that families start saving up for this celebration the moment a girl is born.

I've decided to skip this traditional festival. I'm not wild about crowds and drunk crowds give me the willies—I'll get the play-by-play from Leslie later.
We're traveling in company with Kalani, a catamaran with two kids the right ages for Ian and Heather to hang out with. The other day we took our two dinghies up the Rio Diablo, deep into the jungle. The river was very shallow and full of snags and fallen trees. It was very reminiscent of paddling up the Kayaderosseras River back home, if you ignored the alligators. Finally, we reached an area that was too shallow to continue without lots of dragging across sandbars, so we pulled up the dinghies and jumped in for a wonderful freshwater bath. We were surrounded by primeval jungle, millions of polliwogs, and lots of young frogs. Parrots were chattering in the trees, but we didn't see any monkeys. We did see lots of birds that will require our bird books to figure out what they were.

Last week we were over in the East Lemmons for a Kuna dance demonstration and langousta cookout on the beach. Leslie was in seventh heaven and we were able to film a lot of dancing. Often the Kunas don't want their photos taken, or else they demand a dollar to take a shot, so it was great to be on an island where they didn't mind photography. We had a wonderful sail from the Lemmons back to the area we call the Swimming Pool, which is the cruisers' favorite hangout. There is an island there we call BBQ Island, where every Monday cruisers get together for a potluck dinner and giant trash burning. Unfortunately, a huge rainstorm blasted through just after we lit the bonfire, which quickly became a huge smoke pot as we all ran for our dinghies. Some of the boaters dashed into the kids fort they had built under the palm trees, complete with a good thatched roof. The local Kuna caretaker, Edwina, is very friendly and he encourages the kids to come and play on the island. When we're in the area we bring him a little treat of cookies, or some sort of food, and say hello.

We're finding that we know a fair number of Kunas too. Onshore we ran into a family that we met last summer on the Coco Banderos Islands. Families are rotated around the various islands to take care of the coconuts and maintain the islands, and to gain access to new fishing grounds. This group remembered Leslie from her dance and singing routines on the beach, and for the day we towed some of them to safety during a storm. Leslie was quickly surrounded by dozens of Kunas all wanting to meet her and to introduce their extended families. It is an interesting experience for Leslie (all 5' 2" of her) to tower over the crowd. Ian, who is now taller than Leslie, gets lots of odd looks. He is taller than everyone. Kids his age look like grade schoolers next to Ian, and Heather fits right in with some of the adults. I am constantly banging my head on low overhangs, rafters, and branches that are cut just high enough for the average Kuna. Entering a store gives me a crick in the neck because I usually have to stoop the entire time.

On the boating front the big news is the salvage of After You, a 35-footer that sunk after being towed off a reef. The singlehander (all by himself) came in from offshore late and tired and decided to anchor on Mayflower Reef, a shallow area studded with coral heads. He let out all his chain and some nylon rode, which eventually was cut through by the coral. There was a large sea running which pushed him rapidly onto a reef further to the south, where the boat pounded for at least a day. Rescuers soon gathered and plucked the sailor off the boat. 

In a situation like that the laws of salvage come into play, and essentially the salvagers get to keep the boat if they save it, or they get paid by the owner to get the boat back. (Never accept a tow on the water unless it is clear that you are not agreeing to a salvage claim.) Towlines were rigged and the boat was dragged off into deep water but rapidly filled from damage on the starboard side. In fact, the boat went down so quickly that several people onboard had to swim for their lives. It sank in 160 feet of water. From there a local trader with a big shrimp boat managed to dive down, secure a towline on the craft, and then drag it into shallow water. A fiberglass patch was applied and the boat was refloated. 

I took a quick tour of the craft and it looks pretty good for a boat that was on the bottom for a week. The interesting thing is that items containing air were crushed flat by the pressure at 160 feet. The cockpit cushions looked like slices of cheese. The salvager has made some deal with the former owner who is now off to Mexico to look at buying a new boat—jump right back on the horse after it throws you! After You will be towed to Cartagena for a rebuild and then sale.

We also had a fun time obtaining water at Rio Azucar. This tiny island has organized a pipeline from the river to a small water tower, which then feeds pipes that run down to the public wharf. The town earns a bit of money by selling water to sailors and others. We sailed in only to find an inter-island freighter tied to the wharf, but they waved us in and we rafted alongside. Everyone was very friendly and excited to see us, but no water was available for some reason to do with washing laundry?! We bought a few good veggies and decided to try again the next day.

The next day we arrived at the wharf and tied up alongside a big dugout, who soon decided to leave, causing another fire drill. But, no water available again, due to it being Sunday. Aargh! We left the dock but the crowd started shouting "Agua, agua!" So we circled back, and then we could hear everyone sigh, then shout "No agua, no agua," just as we reached the wharf. We took off again, then everyone started shouting again: "Agua, agua!" Were they playing a game with us?

Back to the wharf we went, but this time we could see the secretary showing up to take our money ($5 for dockage, $10 for all the water we could hold) and we tied up. Then we discovered that the regular pipe had no water pressure, but a 2" PVC pipe could create a gusher. The problem was to connect our garden hose to the big pipe. Lots of rags and lines later, and two Kunas holding the lash up together, and we were golden. We took on lots of water and were almost full up when a little child decided to turn up the water pressure, which blew out our temporary lash up sending a geyser over the laughing crowd.

Finally, we were just about done when a missionary boat showed up (this was Sunday) and wanted to dock outside of us. We didn't want missionaries tramping back and forth over our boat all day, so we waved them off with shouts of "cinco minutos!" We dashed around coiling hoses, paying off our helpers, undoing lines, and off we went with half the town shouting and waving goodbye. We were the entertainment for the day.

San Blas Navigation

I'm hoping this gets through to the blog. I'm sending the update using email via my Iridium phone, but I have no way of checking what it looks  like until we get someplace with Internet access--none of that here in the San Blas Islands. 

Lots of boats are going up on the reefs this year. At least one boat was lost. He had tons of electronics, and the boat was a good one with lots of solid equipment. I will not speculate or second guess what happened, but I will warn others that you can't fool around with navigation here in the San Blas. 

This area demands respect. There are no buoys, lights, or other navigation aids. The charts and guides are fairly accurate, but nothing like what you are used to coming from the U.S., the East Caribbean, or even the Bahamas. Landfalls and harbors must be entered in good light only, even if you have borrowed waypoints or your own. If you arrive from offshore after dark, heave-to outside or head offshore until daylight. If you travel between harbors, don't leave until around 10AM, and plan to be back at anchor by around 4PM at the latest, 2PM being better. In short, you need high sun to safely navigate the San Blas, and if you don't have it you have to use every technique in the book
to stay safe. Don't depend on your electronic chart plotter and radar to do that for you. Some of the charts are inaccurate, latitude/longitudes are off, coral grows, and shoals shift. Go slow and go safe!

Kettlewells in San Blas

The Minke crew is once again underway. We left Cartagena, Colombia after four enjoyable months. It is a beautiful city with friendly people, and it is generally safe despite what you may hear. 

To get Minke ready for more voyaging we had her hauled out of the water at Club de Pesca on a contraption called a synchrolift. It consists of a platform that the boat is floated onto. Arms on either side hold the boat upright while it sits on its keel. Then the whole platform is winched up out of the water vertically with the boat on it. In Colombia you pay the boatyard for the haulout then you contract separately with your own workers. On the recommendation of a friend staying in Club de Pesca, we hired two men, Escuardo and Manuel, to help us clean and paint Minke's bottom. The going rate was 40,000 pesos per person per day, which we gladly paid (less than $20 U.S.), as these guys were excellent workers. 

After four months in Cartagena harbor water, our bottom looked like an aquaculture project. Great strings of muscles were scraped off only to reveal thick barnacles below. However, it was all soon cleaned off and several coats of red antifouling paint (laced with copper) were applied. The topsides were cleaned and polished, the dinghy was cleaned up and the wood parts painted, we installed a new hydraulic steering cylinder (thanks to Dad bringing it to us when he visited), and we installed a new seacock to help the cockpit drain better. We relaunched on New Year's Eve, just in time to be back in the water anchored off of Club Nautico for the big event.

New Year's Eve and day are even bigger holidays than Christmas. We went to the old part of the city known as Centro and all the streets were closed off. Restaurants were setting up tables in the middle of the streets where they would begin serving expensive prix fixe meals at around 9 PM. The major squares in town were jammed with revelers, drinking and dancing. In places we had to squeeze single file between crowds to get through. A group of us with kids wandered around until we found a gourmet sandwich shop that was serving food before 9 PM, then we all went to our favorite spot, Crepes and Waffles, for a delicious ice cream desert. We hiked back to Club Nautico to arrive just in time to see from the docks the fireworks at midnight.

After New Years we began to gradually stock up the boat with food and spare parts sufficient for the next several months. We ordered fresh meat from the butcher who then kept it for a few days so it would be hard frozen. We purchased 30 eggs which had to be hand carried (very carefully) though the streets of Cartagena back to Club Nautico. Since the supermarket was just one block from the Club, we tried to daily bring back to the boat extras of everything. We made many trips heavily laden with bags.

We also began a serious study of the weather offshore from Cartagena. The winter winds had really kicked in, and typically were up to 30 knots on many days with seas running up to 15 feet. This is typical for this time of year, so we had to be patient and wait for a small window of opportunity to escape. This is what sailors call a ?weather window.? Originally we were planning to sail direct to Providencia Island, about 395 miles to the northwest of Cartagena, but the weather on that route was consistently atrocious for weeks at a time. Finally, we decided to loop south below the worst of the wind and seas by sailing first to the Rosario Islands (20 miles) and then on to the San Blas Islands (175 miles). From the San Blas we could still get a decent wind angle on Providencia (275 miles) and hopefully find a weather window big enough to jump through. Plus, we love the San Blas!

Our trip to the Rosarios went smoothly except for a brief boarding and inspection by the Colombian Coast Guard. We had checked out of the country and our papers and passports were all in order. The Rosarios belong to Colombia but it is acceptable to stop there for a few days when exiting or leaving the country. They are beautiful tropical islands that are frequented by tourists arriving by boat from Cartagena. Leslie, Heather, and Ian enjoyed visiting a free aviary owned by a wealthy Colombian. They saw birds from all over the world as they wandered around all by themselves. We also took the time to carefully stow everything for the offshore trip, and we got a final check on the improving weather. Our window was small, but hopeful. It called for gradually easing winds and seas Wednesday through Saturday, then back up to the near gale conditions again.

We set sail at first light and had to motor until about 3:30 PM with no wind, but that was fine by us as it allowed Minke to get well offshore and into safe deep water. The big northeast swells began to be felt, coming from the howling winds to our north. We were soon running downwind in 6-9 foot seas, but relatively comfortably though the self steering couldn't hold the course. Friends of ours on Morning Star sailed nearby much of the way and it was nice to talk to someone on the radio from time to time. Finally, in the middle of the night we were able to get the windvane steering to work as the wind angle had improved and the seas moderated. The big swells continued to roll under us, but the wind waves on top were less. 

As we approached the San Blas Islands the next day the wind began to build and build, gradually coming more and more into the northwest, which was not predicted. Weather reports out here are vague at best, covering hundreds or thousands of square miles. We were probably experiencing a land-effect wind generated by the high mountains backing the coast of the San Blas.

We began to pick up radio transmissions from some of our friends already safely anchored in the San Blas, and we were soon talking to them. It was interesting that they could see our sail coming from offshore before we could see land or them. The islands are very low and indistinct and we had the setting sun in our eyes. We were soon roaring in the Caobos Channel, occasionally surfing on the big swells. Because of the big seas, we had to detour well to the south of the Hollandes, our destination, before heading back up towards the islands. Some of the big swells were breaking on shoal patches along the direct route. Our friends kept telling us to hurry as night was rapidly approaching, and it is not safe to navigate coral waters in the dark. There are no buoys or navigation lights in the San Blas, and where we were headed there are no lights ashore.

We had been into the anchorage before, known as the Swimming Pool, so we had some GPS waypoints that helped guide us to a safe spot where we dropped the hook just before dark. The wind howled in the rigging, but we were comfortably at anchor. The next day we moved our anchorage to near BBQ Island, the local cruiser hangout. Soon we were visiting and talking to our many friends from Cartagena who were already there. Soon our friends on Kalani arrived with friends for Ian and Heather and then more kids arrived on another cat. The kids ran around BBQ Island playing tag, building a fort, and conducting hermit crab races. Everyone got together on Monday for a big potluck dinner and garbage burn (the only way to get rid of stuff) under the palm trees and a brilliant moon. We're back in cruising heaven!