August 1, 2005
Acuakargana, Kuna Yala, San Blas, Panama
09° 35.800 North
078° 46.509 West

Booking Passage -- Jamaica to Kuna Yala

By Douglas Bernon

By 5:45 a.m., we'd pulled down the last weatherfax, topped up the water tanks, languished in the marina shower for the last time, and dropped off our final bag of garbage. I sent an email to my friend John, who keeps track of our departures and landfalls. The deal is this: If he doesn't get word from us within three days of our conservative landfall schedule, he's set to roar into gear and try to find us. As payment, if we've bought the farm, he gets to keep my bicycle.

By 6:00 a.m. we'd unwound dock lines from the water pier. To the greater world, ours was a quiet departure -- no conch horns, no waving, no shouting from boat to boat. We motored out of the anchorage before our friends were awake, a pre-dawn departure that avoided yet another round of difficult good-byes. If we seemed quiet on the outside, inside we were hollering, thrilled to be returning to the San Blas Islands off Panama, our favorite spot of the past five years.

The isolated beauty of the San Blas draws us back like a magnet.

The main reason we departed Port Antonio so early, though, was not to escape unnoticed; it was in hopes of avoiding wind on the nose. We'd be heading east for about 10 miles, then southeast for 18 more, to round the shoals at Point Moran, and on those days when the easterly trades fill in off Jamaica's Blue Mountains, they can pack some gusto, often climbing to 25 or 30 knots before falling off again with the coolness of the evening. Once around that southeastern-most tip of Jamaica, though, we hoped for those powerful east and south easterlies to fill back in, and push us the 550 miles on a southwest course to the San Blas.

As we puttered out of the Port Antonio harbor, other than brief comments regarding buoys and navigation, neither of us spoke much. While we leave a place as a couple, we also leave as individuals, and for each of us there are individual reckonings as well, both with the end of an experience and with the start of another. It's always a conflicting mixture of grief and wild anticipation. Before an offshore passage there's also the added anxiety of days at sea, but in leaving for San Blas, the excitement of being back in the Kuna Indian culture, and in connecting with some old friends who we knew awaited us there, ruled the day.

The Kuna women of Kuna Yala (the Kuna name for the San Blas Comarca of Panama) are magnificent seamstresses and decorate all their blouses with extraordinary molas.

The light grew brighter as we exited the harbor. The silhouette of the Blue Mountains grew clearer astern as we were met by the ocean swell. We hugged the coast for eight miles, running off soundings but parallel with the reef, motoring at five knots in windless conditions. On our starboard side now, the sun highlighted the John Crow Mountains, large and blue in the early light. On the port side we could see nothing but ocean, a still deeper blue. We rounded all of Jamaica and there was no wind on nose. In fact, for the first 16 hours there was not even a zephyr, and our high spirits sagged as we wondered if we'd interpreted all the weather faxes and GRIB files incorrectly. I dreaded the notion of motoring forever to Panama, listening to that drone, and sucking up diesel fumes all the way. But then the trade winds did what they're supposed to do, and just before Bernadette came on for the 10:00 p.m. watch, we rolled out the 135-percent genoa, loosened the mainsheet, and pulled the plug on the Yanmar. From there until we arrived in Panama, the only times we started that engine was for an hour here and there to charge the batteries.

We left Jamaica with enough green bananas to last us quite a while, but on the third day out, they all ripened together.

No matter the distance of a passage, and no matter how fast we're traveling at any given time, one of us always seems to be checking the GPS and estimating our time for landfall. It's an entertaining obsession more than a genuine prediction, because whatever the conditions are at a given moment, they're unlikely to remain exactly the same over a period of four or five days. Our friends Lynda and Frank, on Simba, had crossed the same waters from Port Antonio the week before, and with nearly perfect conditions, they'd made landfall in Panama in 3 days, 23 hours, and 45 minutes. We were thrilled for them and envious, too!

With so little wind the first day we were grumbling mightily, figuring at our current rate we'd be out forever. In fact, though, once the wind kicked in, we started to scoot, and at the end of 24 hours Ithaka had knocked off 123 miles. Still, we were way behind Simba's pace, and realized that in our race with a boat that had already gotten there, we were losing horribly. At the rate we were going, we'd need nearly a half day more than Simba, and at that we'd be arriving after dark, requiring us to wait offshore until first light -- making it a five-day voyage -- because there's no safe way to enter the reef-cluttered San Blas without some sun.

Bernadette and I tend to be lazy sailors. We don't tweak and tug for every moment of advantage. But on this trip, without either of us saying so, we found ourselves trimming more often than usual, and it paid off. On day two the winds were a touch lighter than we'd hoped for -about 12 to 15 knots just behind the beam -- and Ithaka, who's really an extraordinarily swift boat in those conditions, started to canter. By the end of the second day, when the winds were 15-18, we were galloping. Over a period of 24 hours we'd traveled 165 miles, and in the direction we wanted to go! This was the most miles we'd done in one day, and we'd done it without any hard labor. In fact, neither of us drove at all. The sails were well balanced, the seas kindly, there wasn't a drop of rain or a single squall, and both of us napped and read in between watches. The only event of the day was when Bernadette noticed an area on the genoa that was chafing against the spreader. We took down the sail, and she sewed on a protective patch. We didn't cook much either. Bernadette had prepared a number of dishes before we left, and we nibbled on chicken, tortellini, fresh veggies, and lots of delicious ginger cookies.

The Kuna are extraordinary mariners, and make and mend their sails with bits of anything they can find.

We had an SSB radio schedule each morning and evening with David and Shauna on Zia Lucia, Frank and Lynda on Simba, and Cade and Lisa on Sand Dollar. This gab best among boats in Florida, Panama, and at sea was a welcome interruption to otherwise routine days, and we appreciated our friends checking up on us. They all said we sounded really upbeat. Right! Between anticipation of returning to San Blas and fine sailing, we were incredibly high. When the trades picked up a little more, Ithaka really showed her stuff; we knocked off 171 miles that day, averaging 7.1 knots. Never had we maintained this kind of speed for 24 hours, and all without any current to push us. These are the kind of conditions Ithaka loves, and she sailed perfectly. Now when we checked the GPS it looked like we might beat Simba's time after all. Our first day had been slow, though, and we needed another like this last one.

Throughout the trip, especially after Bernadette's heroic accomplishment at home of securing our new radar, we monitored the steady stream of large ships that seemed to grow thicker as we got closer to the Panama Canal. At one time we had six ships on radar and were grateful to have this electronic crewmember who never flinched. At night, especially when there are multiple ships on the horizon and lights are difficult to distinguish, radar helps me determine which of these behemoths is most likely to be the first to smash us. Twice during the passage I called tankers on the VHF to see how strong a target we were registering on their radar. One captain said he picked us up at 14 miles and the other at 8. That told us our radar reflector was working okay but was nothing to brag about.

This is a perspective we never want to see. (Photo courtesy of Bill Band.)

Every night at sunset we sat together in the cockpit and had our cocktails. On passage we never have alcohol, so drinks were ice-cold sorrel, the tangy, red ginger tea I'd made in Jamaica. We talked of all we were sailing toward in Panama, and all we'd left behind in Jamaica. Leaving the country wasn't so hard. It was saying goodbye to Kitty Hawk that tore us up. Jack and Elizabeth Midence, two of their three kids-Samuel and Annie-and a sweet Chihuahua named Teeny, were good friends who were heading in a different direction.

We first met Kitty Hawk in Guanaja, Honduras, where they were living on land at the time. Elizabeth was running a school; Jack, among other things, was flying his little Cessna into unheard places, landing on bits of land that had never seen airplanes before, picking up people - often indigenous Mosquito Indians - with medical emergencies, and getting them to hospitals. He did all these air-evacs as a mission, not for profit. As a couple Jack and Elizabeth were the resident hosts to all cruisers who came through Guanaja. From their home, named Lighthouse, high on the hill looking out to sea, they'd welcome new boats to the harbor, have everyone to a potluck dinner once a week, run errands, lend telephones, take care of folks in need.

In the northwest Caribbean, in the cruising community, Jack and Elisabeth on Lighthouse are legends. Then, they decided that the cruising life looked interesting. They bought a sailboat, Jack refurbished it over a few months, and for the past two years they've been cruising. It's been our treat to hang out with them in Maine, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Florida, and Jamaica. But now, this leg of their cruise is coming to an end. They were sailing west, returning home to Guanaja, and we were moving south. Separating from good people who are deep in your heart remains the most difficult part of cruising. We've met a lot of people cruising whom we like very much, but only a few couples we know we'll be in touch with forever. Bernadette and I count the crew of Kitty Hawk among them.

The crew of SV Kitty Hawk: Sam, Jack, Elizabeth and Annie

On this passage, as on others, we found that we were most tired the first two days; after that, our bodies seemed to adjust to the strange rhythms of long midday naps, less overall sleep, and an overall schedule that differed so dramatically from what we know at anchor. During our third and fourth day we both commented that we felt refreshed. Because we had no moon, the nights were darker, but with such clear skies we had a full canopy of stars. We kept a three-hour-on-three-hour-off watch system throughout the day, so that we could get enough rest. I'm naturally more tired in the early evening, and Bernadette often gives me an extra hour or two of off-watch nap time then. I thrive on the 3:00 a.m. and onward watch and on this trip, with everything going smoothly I stayed on until 8 and 9 o'clock. It was curious to me, too, that we played very little music on this trip, but listened more to the sea. Of all the passages we've ever made, this was the least taxing.

We're always counting between the sight of the light and the impending sound-hoping it will take many seconds to be heard. (Photo courtesy of Bill Band.)

Eighty miles out of the San Blas we were scooting along and figured we had a chance to beat Simba, but on the horizon, we saw a march of black clouds that meant it was time to reef the sails deeply. We continued to mark off the miles, but with just over three and a half days behind us, and too many miles to go, with a steady barrage of squalls, we knew we'd been licked. Weather-wise, the last 10 hours of the trip were the only unpleasant ones: constant squall activity as we approached Panama, lots of lightning, lots of thunder, lots of heavy rain, lots of ships to keep track of. Instead of lolling about, both of us were up most the night, and made slow progress as we tried to negotiate the squalls and high winds from the wrong direction.

Regardless of where you are, storms are draining.

Radar screens can show squalls as well as ships. They look like enormous black blobs instead of small ones. Blob size can also be measured precisely so that you know what you're running into or what you're trying to skirt. Just after 3:00 a.m., I was at the nav station and Bernadette was in the cockpit. We both commented that in the midst of this particularly nasty squall it was lucky we didn't have to deal with any ships on top of everything else. But in reality, we weren't seeing any ships because on the radar a little blob was hidden inside the big blob. There was a huge freighter in the squall with us, and we didn't know it until a burst of lightning came, and for a few seconds illuminated an enormous tanker only a couple of miles from us, and headed our way. We immediately altered course. It was a good lesson why radar alone is insufficient to tell you what's going on, and that it's important when you're in a squall to turn down the gain on the radar once in awhile so you can pick up other vessels in the squall with you.

In the fog and in storms, some days it's almost impossible to see anything. (Photo courtesy of Bill Band.)

At 6:00 a.m., we were 10 miles out of the San Blas, and still fighting squalls, so we'd lost our virtual race with Simba, but we were jubilant. Despite the weather dramas of the past 24 hours, despite no sleep, despite not catching a single fish, it had been a great passage, and we'd had a ball together. Ahead, in the fog, we couldn't see them yet, but we knew they were there - the San Blas islands, one of the most beautiful places on earth. And to make our landfall even more exciting, we were aiming for an anchorage that held dear friends, Cade and Lisa on Sand Dollar, whom we hadn't seen in two years, and with whom we'd planned this grand rendezvous. Finally, it was about to happen. Close enough to feel confident we'd get there, I fired up the computer and sent my friend John an email back in Cleveland: "Landfall in two hours! Go get your own damn bicycle!"

Cade and Lisa Johnson, from Sand Dollar. Lisa shares a welcoming cocktail with Douglas.