September 30, 2012
Saying Good Bye


September 15, 2012
Reflections on Our 27 Year Circumnavigation


September 01, 2012
Sea of Cortez Sailing


August 15, 2012
Back to the Sea of Cortez


August 01, 2012
After Circumnavigation: What to Take, What to Leave Behind


July 15, 2012
Mexican Booby Trap


July 01, 2012
Tackling the Tehuantepec


June 14, 2012
Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico


June 01, 2012
Sailing northern Costa Rica and Nicargua


May 15, 2012
Costa Rican Cruising


May 01, 2012
New Found Friends in Golfito, Costa Rica


April 15, 2012
It’s a Jungle Out There


April 01, 2012
Hunting and Gathering in Panama


March 15, 2012
Money.... Money.... Money


March 01, 2012
Feel Free Transits the Panama Canal


February 15, 2012
Transiting the Panama Canal


February 01, 2012
Feel Free is Back in the Pacific


January 15, 2012
Charter Skipper for a Week


January 01, 2012
Confessions of a Charter Cat Chef


December 15, 2011
Away to the Andamans Part 2


December 01, 2011
AWAY to the ANDAMANs


November 15, 2011
Sailing in a Freshwater Paradise


November 01, 2011
To Barf or not to Barf, that is the question


October 14, 2011
Remarkable Cruisers


October 03, 2011
The Sea of Cortez, Another World


September 15, 2011
Panama Canal Here We Come


September 01, 2011
Sailing for Humanity


August 15, 2011
A Hard Lesson on the Hard and Reflections on Boat Work


August 01, 2011
Here Come the Lion Fish


July 15, 2011
The Joy of Books


July 01, 2011
The Sailors of San Blas


June 15, 2011
The Good Life in Kuna Yala


June 01, 2011
The Dirt Dweller in Paradise


May 15, 2011
People of the San Blas, Then and Now


May 01, 2011
Cruising in Kuna Yala


April 15, 2011
Near Disaster in the San Blas


April 01, 2011
At Last in the San Blas


March 15, 2011
Chilling Out in Cholon


March 01, 2011
Ah, Cartagena!


February 15, 2011
Cruising the Cape Horn of the Caribbean Part 2


February 01, 2011
Cruising the Cape Horn of the Caribbean Part 1


January 14, 2011
Aruban Interlude


December 30, 2010
Hunkering Down for a Hurricane


December 15, 2010
A Day in the Life - Our Passage to Aruba


December 01, 2010
Stuck in Curacao


November 15, 2010
Stormy Night Sailing


November 01, 2010
Sailing In The Sticks


October 15, 2010
Safety, Security and Circumnavigating with some tips on how to stay safe


October 04, 2010
Feel Free Transits The Suez Canal


September 15, 2010
Red Sea Sailing


September 01, 2010
FEEL FREEs Voyage Into the Red Sea


August 15, 2010
And just a little further, to Curacao


August 01, 2010
Bonaire Diving


July 15, 2010
Then To Bonaire


July 01, 2010
Cruising Remote Venezuelan Isles


June 15, 2010
Cruising St. Vincent


June 01, 2010
Right Place, Right Time


May 15, 2010
The Spice Isle


May 01, 2010
To the Grenadines


April 15, 2010
We Be In Barbados Mon


April 01, 2010
Atlantic Passage Part II


March 15, 2010
Atlantic Passage Part 1


March 01, 2010
Provisioning for the Atlantic Crossing


February 15, 2010
Atlantic Crossing Preparations


February 01, 2010
Cruising the Canary Islands


January 15, 2010
Out Of Africa


January 01, 2010
Come With Me To The High Atlas Mountains.............


December 15, 2009
Two Years Of Mediterranean Sailing


December 01, 2009
Moving On To Morocco


November 18, 2009
Leaving The Med


November 13, 2009
Reaching The Rock Of Gibraltar Milestone


October 15, 2009
Sailing Spains Costa del Sol


October 01, 2009
Sailing Spains Costa del High-rise


September 15, 2009
Sailing The Spanish Isles


September 01, 2009
At Sea Or On The Hook, These Recipes Travel Well


August 15, 2009
An Interlude At Menorca


August 01, 2009
A Pleasant Passage To Menorca


July 15, 2009
The Agony And Ecstasy Of The Tunisian Coast


July 01, 2009
Tripping Around Tunisia


June 15, 2009
Tales From North Africa


June 01, 2009
Dont Freak If Your Fridge Fails


May 15, 2009
Into Africa


May 01, 2009
Meandering Around Malta, Then Off To Tunisia


April 15, 2009
Low-Tech DIY Ideas For The New Economy


April 01, 2009
The Med Set A Few Cruiser Profiles


March 15, 2009
That Sinking Feeling


March 01, 2009
Thailand to Oman: Three Passages, Three Ports


February 15, 2009
Doing Hard Time in Malta


February 01, 2009
Pirate Alley Part 2


January 15, 2009
Pirate Alley Part 1


January 02, 2009
So Many Islands, So Little Time


December 15, 2008
Cruising With The Bear


December 01, 2008
Versatile Vinegar, The Boaters Friend


November 15, 2008
What I Did In This Summer -- Dock Masters In paradise


November 01, 2008
Over The Top Of Oz


October 16, 2008
The Tumultuous Tasman


October 01, 2008
Sweet Memories Of The Splendid Surins


September 15, 2008
And Then We Were In Malta


September 01, 2008
Feel Frees Siracusan Story


August 15, 2008
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times


August 01, 2008
All Tied Up In The Ionians


July 15, 2008
A Greek Odyssey Our Journey to Ithaca


July 01, 2008
Anatomy of a Near Catastrophe


June 15, 2008
Good-bye Turkey, Hello Greece


June 01, 2008
More Winter Cruising in Turkey


May 15, 2008
Winter Cruising in Turkey


April 15, 2008
Talking Turkey: Marmaris Marina Living


April 15, 2008
The Joy Of The Side Trip


April 01, 2008
Return to Marmaris, And The Budget


March 15, 2008
Passing Time And Dodging The Meltemi


March 01, 2008
Home Sweet Home


February 15, 2008
A Little Working, A Little Cruising


February 01, 2008
Working Our Way Around The World


January 15, 2008
Welcome Aboard Feel Free


January 01, 2008
Liz Tosonis and Tom Morkins Feel Free


January 01, 2008
About Tom Morkin and Liz Tosoni


January 01, 2008
About Feel Free


January 01, 2008
Voyage Itinerary


April 01, 2011
At Last in the San Blas

San Blas Islands,
Republic of Panama

Liz Tosoni

On a sultry, windless morning under leaden skies, just 12 miles offshore, a grey shape swelled from the grey sea like the hump of a whale preparing to sound. We were squinting through drowsy, sleep deprived eyes observing our first San Blas island, Isla Pinos, or Tupbak in the Kuna language, meaning of course, whale.

After a miserable night accompanied by big rollers on the beam, little wind and both the main autopilot and back-up autopilot on the fritz, that bump on the horizon was a welcome sight indeed.

Feel Free had been stalwart as usual, plodding along albeit somewhat drunkenly, while her crew, spoilt by taking for granted the luxury of self steering systems, were just plain exhausted. We couldn’t recall the last time we had had to employ a ‘one hour on, one hour off’ watch system, hand steering, and it made us realize it wasn’t any fun at all.

Approaching the island, we were expecting clear blue waters but on the contrary, they were a murky grey green, the result of proximity to the Panama mainland and overflow of its rivers, we later learned. There was a band of a lighter shade lining the shore, indicating shallow water, but aside from that the waters seemed pretty uniform in color. Rounding the south end, where there should have been plenty of water according to our chart, we were suddenly seeing 40, then 35, 25, 20, 17 and 15 ft. on the depth sounder! Hearts of both Liz and Tom palpitating at a rapid rate, it was hard to port and in what seemed like minutes but was probably seconds, we were back in the deeper water. Feel Free is not happy with only a couple of feet under her eight foot keel. Eric Bauhaus, in his The Panama Cruising Guide, (4th Edition, the latest), states “there are some 7 to 9 meter banks offshore.” Well, we found one of them but it wasn’t offshore.

Once inside the channel that separates mainland Panama from the 400 ft. high, lushly vegetated little island, we found a good spot to drop the anchor. With no other cruising boats in sight, our own personal San Blas panorama was spread out before our eyes. To the west, like a Japanese sumie painting, multiple layers of Panama hills in tiered tones stretched for miles, to the east just a short distance away, a sandy beach fronting a tropical jungle of coconut trees, their fronds gently swaying with the breeze.

Gazing north, a quintessential palm thatched village appeared so picturesque as to be surreal. This little corner of the planet seemed to this tired pair like a little bit of paradise.

Back in 1998 we bought a copy of The Panama Guide, A Cruising Guide to the Isthmus of Panama by Nancy Schwalbe Zydler and Tom Zydler, thinking we’d be sailing that way the following year. We planned to follow the west coast from Mexico all the way south and through the Panama Canal. Things turned out rather differently however. While in Tenacatita Mexico, we experienced a through-hull failure (Boat US blog “That Sinking Feeling..... a very close call”, March 15, 2009) which delayed our departure from Mexico so much that we decided to sail to Hawaii and westward instead. We’ve carried that precious book onboard all those years, across all those oceans, and now we finally get the chance to use it.

Before our arrival, we had done the requisite research, using both the Zydler and the Bauhaus guides. We studied weather, navigation, routes, safe passages, clearance procedures, availability of shops and supplies, all the usual things. Over the years, we’ve talked to plenty of cruisers who visited the archipelago of about 365 islands, “one for each day of the year” and raved about their experiences, so we’ve known for a very long time that the San Blas Islands are a very special place.

What fascinated me most though, was not the splendid beauty of the island chain with its multitude of traditional villages, white sand beaches and clear blue waters, nor the remoteness, the untouched rainforests, the fishing, not even the diving or snorkelling. It was the people themselves, the indigenous Kuna Indians who effectively control this part of Panama. I was drawn to the fact that they are the only native group/clan/tribe in the Americas that has not been conquered, that they may be the last of the full blooded Carib strain that inhabited the Caribbean before the Spanish conquest and, that they have best preserved their culture and traditions out of all the native groups of the Americas; that they are a matrilineal society, that they are a well proportioned yet diminutive people, second smallest in the world, next to the Pygmies of Africa, and that despite plenty of turmoil in their history, they have managed to develop a socio-political system equal to any of the developed western countries.

We were keen to meet a few of the 55,000 strong, people of Kuna Yala as the San Blas islanders prefer to call their area of islands, islets and a small strip of the mainland, strewn like a necklace from Obaldia in the southeast to Porvenir in the northwest; but, after the anchor was set, it was ‘first things first’- a hearty breakfast and sleep after that long night!

No sooner had we polished off that meal, and were putting dishes away when we heard a quiet male voice, almost a whisper, from outside the boat “Hello, excuse me please.” It was David, secretary of the chief or ‘saila’ of the village. “I am sorry to disturb you. I know you are tired, but I want to welcome you to my island and invite you to visit. Please come any time and I’ll be your guide. And I invite you to my house for food.” Of course he was also there to collect the $10 fee which is a kind of tax that everyone must pay, even the Kunas themselves, when visiting another island. Then he was gone, paddling off in his elegant dugout canoe (‘ulu’) with a big smile.

Over the course of the next few days, we did meet and get to know a few of the gentle Kuna people and we did enjoy David’s hospitality including a delicious meal of rice made with coconut milk, and ham.

Horace Martinez, is also a “guide”, semi-retired now, who keeps a guest book with the names of the boats and people he has met over many years. His English is impressive considering he learned it through correspondence textbooks. Unlike the kids, like kids everywhere, friendly, curious, open and enthusiastic, the women seemed particularly shy and it wasn’t easy to engage them in conversation.

Nowhere have I seen such distinctive clothing that the women of Kuna Yala don daily, looking stately as they go about their daily business, straight backed and graceful. I’d seen lots of pictures of the women and their colourful vestments but had been under the impression that these were for special occasions. Wrong.

A colourful piece of cotton cloth is wrapped around the waist and lower body topped by a ‘mola’ or blouse adorned both front and back by a hand stitched panel. Bracelets made of tiny colourful beads are bound tightly around arms and legs to keep them slim (a sign of beauty). Sometimes you’ll see a black line painted from forehead to nose, red painted cheeks, and a gold nose ring, especially on older women. A red and yellow head dress is often worn, completing the unique attire.

The blouse that the women wear, the mola, sewn by women, is the Kuna’s main handicraft attraction. It is a kind of reverse appliqué in which layers of colourful fabric are basted together in intricate and original designs. The women cut through the layers, creating designs, neatly turning the edges under and sewing them in tiny stitches to lower layers, making visible only the required colors.

Originally, that is, before the arrival of the Spanish, molas were made from natural fibres woven in complicated geometric patterns similar to those of the body painting adorned by many in those days. The art has evolved though and these days, most molas depict motifs of animals, birds, fish and frogs.

Before arriving in Kuna Yala land, we were told that the women were hard sellers and persistent but that wasn’t what we found at all. In fact, we weren’t even approached by one woman about molas.

David came by with some, done by his wife and daughter. I couldn’t resist the white and burgundy one by his young daughter which is now framed and matches our main cabin settees beautifully. Not a bad souvenir at $8. We were told that the really valuable ones with the best designs, number of layers and fine stitching, by master mola makers, go for $80.

Every day had a new surprise during our brief stay at our first Kuna Yala landfall, but there was so much more to see and explore and the time came to move on. As we motored up to depart the anchorage we realized we had barely scratched the surface of this captivating new world we had just entered.