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


July 01, 2011
The Sailors of San Blas

Waisaladup, San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala)
Panama
 

Even before we got the hook down off Isla Gerti (Tupsuit Dummat in Kuna) in the Robeson Islands (Tadarguanet in Kuna, meaning “where the sun sets”) of the Gulf of San Blas, we knew that we’d arrived in the sailing center of Kuna Yala. In every direction we looked, we could see dugout canoes (ulus) with sails of every colour and apparently almost every variety of fabric. Bed sheets, table cloths, old sails and awnings left by cruisers, rice bags, old advertising banners- you name it, they’ll stitch it and hoist it.

The sailing ulus are in much use throughout the San Blas Islands but the Robeson archipelago is the undisputed sailing capital.

Every day, scores of sailing ulus ply the local waters. They are used for fishing, to transport the island people to their fincas (garden farms) on the nearby mainland and for trading among the islands. Since none of the inhabited islands in the group have potable water, canoes are sailed to the rivers, then paddled upstream a mile or so, to the site of clean water. One day we saw 20 plus ulus transporting townspeople to the mainland cemetery to bury a young man who’d recently died unexpectedly.

Nor is their use restricted to adults. It would appear that not long after they walk, Kuna kids use ulus like they use bicycles in the rest of the world.

Ulus come in all sizes. They are dug out from the hardwood mahogany trees that abound in the tropical rainforest. When the need arises for another ulu the men fell a massive tree and immediately rough it out on the spot. When ready, teams of 40 or more men carry the tree to a nearby river to float it to the coast and then to the village where it is finished off, axes and adzes being the only tools required.

Your average family size ulu, maybe 20-25 feet long, could be purchased for about $200. The average life expectancy is between five to seven years, so amortized over say six years, the cost of the family’s transportation comes to about $30 per year. Not bad, especially when the $30 is paid in labour and the raw materials basically come as a gift of nature.

Around the four year mark they begin to leak so it is not uncommon to watch these masterful sailors trim the sails, steer and somehow bail all at the same time- multi-tasking to the max.

The Kuna go to great lengths to keep the ocean on the outside of their crafts. Patches are put together with sheet metal and nails, asphalt, epoxy, fibreglass, often donated by visiting cruisers, polysulfide, silicone, you name it. If it sticks to the wood and sheds water even for a day they’ll use it.

About 500 people live in just the two small adjoining islands that we visited in the Robeson Group. I estimate there were about 50 sailing ulus and three ulu outboards. So as you might expect, not too many Kunas in this area got upset when gasoline prices sky rocketed to $5.50/gallon here. After all, the price of wind remained unchanged.

Jack and Zdenka, our cruising buddies from the Maine based Kite, and Liz and I spent a couple of hours in one of the big motorized ulus while in the Robeson’s. We took a guided tour with Bredio, the local Kuna guide and the ulu captain Arsellino up the Nicuesa River as far as possible, then hiked for two hours to the Kuna village of Kandandia.

The people of Kandandia are unique because they live three miles inland in the mountains, not on the coast. Their relative isolation meant we’d catch a glimpse of a village even more traditional than what we thought was quite traditional in the Robeson group of islands.

After a brief tour of the village and a refreshing dip in the river with the local kids, we got down to business.

That is, Liz got down to business, the mola business. It was her intention to add to her already impressive collection of molas, but she wanted to trade clothes she had bought expressly for the purpose, for molas, a tactic that hadn’t work elsewhere in the San Blas.

Everywhere, it was molas for cash only. Liz thought perhaps the village of Kandandia would be different and she was right. When the women saw the clothes coming out of Liz’s backpack, molas came out of Kuna huts and the trading began. When it was over, Liz left with 4 molas and a few necklaces, and a lot fewer clothes. The Kunas on special occasions make alcohol called “chicha” which is fermented sugar cane juice. In order to drive juice from the sugar cane a simple but effective press is used. Bredio provided us with a demonstration of the pressing technique.

The mash from the pressing needs nothing more than to sit for about eight days in the open air. Naturally occurring yeast in the air is enough to ensure fermentation. None is added. A drink (which wouldn’t go over well in any of the pubs I’ve frequented) with the kick of a strong beer is the result. It is only consumed on special occasions. Alcohol abuse is not an issue in the San Blas.

The Rio Torti was our next river to explore as we wanted to do laundry, bathe and collect water for drinking.

We could dinghy up the river but the use of the motor is prohibited. It is after all, where their drinking water comes from.

Like the dozen or so ulus we met travelling up the river, we paddled a mile to the point where drinking water could be taken. Just downstream of the spot where the drinking water was collected, we all bathed and did our laundry.

One after another, Kuna arrived, lean muscular men, loading 50 to 60 gallons of precious water to be paddled and sailed back to their village. Sometimes the ulus would also be filled with hundreds of pounds of bananas, baskets of cassava, limes, grapefruit, oranges, sugar cane and coconuts. To them, it’s all in a day’s work.

We put about 25 gallons of water in five jerry jugs and leisurely drifted downstream passing mammoth mango, mahogany and pandanus trees that reach well over the river making a shady canopy. On the higher banks the land had been cleaned for the occasional garden. The cemetery, atop the highest bank, clearly occupied the choicest location. Miniature thatched huts covered family plots. Inside these well tended huts were pots, pans, chairs, bits of clothing, flowers, old ulu paddles, things the deceased could use and give comfort in the afterlife.

In total, we spent only five days in the Robeson group. The densely populated, tiny islands were a dramatic counter point to the almost unpopulated islands we’d spent most of our time in, in the San Blas. We were pleased to discover that these people have successfully maintained their traditional ways and live so harmoniously in such tight quarters. Most of all, we were delighted that unlike other parts of the Caribbean where we visiting sailors are at best, treated as just customers, here we are welcomed guests as well as possible customers.