Call For a Tow

The Sailors of San Blas


Waisaladup, San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala)

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.