August 15, 2005
Acuakargana, Kuna Yala, San Blas
09° 35.80 North
078° 46.50 West

Sweet Reunions In the San Blas

By Bernadette Bernon

For the past two weeks, the San Blas has been the setting for some of the sweetest reunions Douglas and I have ever had. First and foremost was our reunion with Lisa and Cade Johnson on Sand Dollar, who we haven't seen in over two years, when we'd gone one way - to explore Kuna Yala and Cartagena -- and they'd gone another, to take teaching jobs in Venezuela. Since then, we've been in touch with these friends, toying with the idea that we'd come together again, somewhere, sometime, but not sure if it would ever happen.

Other than seeing good friends again, enjoying looking at molas and swimming to see the beauty of the underwater life were the biggest draw of the San Blas Islands for us.

Since then, Ithaka meandered back to the United States, we spent time with our families, refit the boat, and took care of business, and for awhile it didn't look like we'd be in Sand Dollar's neck of the woods, nor would they be in our's. But then again, we realized, we could be, if we set our minds to it and just made it happen. If cruising has taught us anything, it's taught us that when you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you can get most anywhere you really want to go.

When you're cruising, you meet interesting people from all corners of the world and, because you're all living on boats, you have your lifestyle in common, and there's lots to talk about, lots of fun to have together. This is a very nice aspect of the cruising lifestyle. But it's not all that often that you meet true kindred spirits, people with whom you share your innermost joys and fears and thoughts, people with whom you feel you want to be friends forever. When you meet people like that, it's worth it to alter your plans, and stay together awhile. We felt that way about Cade and Lisa, so when we finished Ithaka's refit in Newport, and set off again, one of our goals this year was to rendezvous with Sand Dollar in the San Blas.

Cade and Lisa harmonize, while Julia strums away.

After all the emails, and single-sideband communications, and setbacks, and planning, and lingering in the Bahamas, and delays, and the voyage from Jamaica, finally the thrilling moment was upon us. We sailed into Acuakargana in the East Holandes islands of the San Blas, and there waiting for us was Sand Dollar - a sight for sore eyes. Cade and Lisa were on deck, waving like crazy as we sailed by. We homed in on an anchoring spot near them, dropped the hook, our friends jumped into their dinghy, roared over, and climbed aboard Ithaka. We all rushed to hug each other, with huge smiles, and tears of joy running down our faces - giddy with that all-too-rare feeling of a long-held dream finally realized.

The boys immediately started planning the day around getting into the water together and going fishing - for each, spearfishing had become a major passion. Lisa and I sat down and went through all the subjects we'd longed to talk about since we'd last seen each other - our families and mutual friends, how she and Cade had liked teaching in Maracaibo, where they'd been since they'd left Venezuela… life in general. We made plans to take a swim out to the reef, and have a celebratory dinner together later. Email is great, but there's nothing like being together and just talking and laughing and looking into the eyes of a loved one.

A school of blue tang glide by, over gardens of spectacular coral.

As the day unfolded, Douglas and I looked around. The San Blas were as beautiful as they'd been in our mind's eye, perhaps even more beautiful. Palm trees like quills sprouted thickly from the island near where we were anchored. The island was ringed with a white beach, and off its shore, in the teal-colored water, were the mottled tones of the reef. We could swim to it from the boat. Through the trees, we could see a few little palm-frond huts. It looked like about two or three families lived here, and I looked forward to meeting them.

After a passage, there's nothing so satisfying for me than cleaning the boat inside, scrubbing and rinsing down the cockpit, and getting back to "normal" - replacing the throw rugs, changing the bed linens, arranging the pillows and table cloth, and putting out the baskets of things we like to have out. After that was accomplished, I went for a refreshing swim, took a soapy hot shower, then sat in the cockpit decompressing with a cup of Earl Gray tea. Like clockwork, an ulu of beautiful Kuna women and their children paddled out from the island to Ithaka to say hello, to show us their molas, and to ogle the yachts. Even though I was tired, I couldn't resist inviting them aboard, and one by one I looked at their handiwork. I loved this part of being back among the Kuna. You never knew, when a woman brings you her molas, if they're going to be good or bad, and it's always a thrill for me when they turn out to be real works of art. I was looking forward to this process, and to expanding my mola collection.

Kuna women sew their molas outside their huts, then paddle out in their ulus to show them to boats that anchor nearby.

Meanwhile, Macy sailed in from Jamaica a few hours after we did, and anchored nearby. We'd stayed in touch with Julia and Dave during our passage, and it was great to see them arrive safely. Also anchored in our cove was Queen Mary with Gene and Brenda aboard, and Spray with Bob and Bonnie aboard. Over the next few days we'd have a concert on Queen Mary; Brenda and Gene have keyboard, bass, banjo, and amplifiers aboard. Lisa and Julia play guitar. Cade plays harmonica. Bob and I hammered away on the spoons. We made a lively orchestra, and our repertoire was eclectic - everything from Brenda and Gene's southern foot-stomping favorites, to old folk classics we all knew by heart.

The beach get-together on Acuakargana.

Another night, we had a potluck on the beach and invited the Kunas who lived there to join us. They all came, and politely took a bit of hummus, a conch fritter, and a few other things when we offered them. Clearly these foods seemed dubious to them. They nibbled at the edge of each one until, with great relief showing on their faces, they realized they liked what they were eating, and then they tucked into the buffet like the rest of us. One of our Kuna guests turned out to be the Saila - a chief of this group of islands - and knew a bit of Spanish, so it was fun to ask him questions about his domain.

We lingered at Acuakargana for four days, before deciding to carry on toward the central Holandes, where we tucked the boats way up near the outer reef, anchored them in crystal water, and had our pick of great fishing and snorkeling crannies. I popped my kayak in the water, and everyday paddled out somewhere - one day to a wreck on the horizon, another day over the sand flats, another out to some shallow colorful reefs. Every day was a new vista of beauty - such a relief after the confinement of the passage, and the sweltering days in Jamaica. Douglas and I were thrilled with ourselves for being here.

Bernadette and Lisa repair Ithaka's genoa with the Pfaff, while ashore a Kuna sewing machine bites the dust.

In a burst of energy, I was inspired to pull out my sewing machine, a rebuilt German 1950 Pfaff that Douglas had bought for me as a surprise before we'd left the States. Although I like to sew and have a machine at home, this Pfaff was a heavy-duty model, and far more complicated to use than we'd realized. In fact, I still had no idea how to use it. Miraculously, Lisa has one too, and knows its idiosyncrasies. Together we hauled the beast from its lair under Ithaka's V-berth, figured it all out, made about 300 adjustments, set it up for sewing a sail, took down the genoa, which had a chaffed area I needed to fix before we used it again, lugged the machine on deck, and with Douglas holding an umbrella over our heads to protect us from the blazing sun, we proceeded to sew a patch on it. This project took two full sweaty days, and if I wasn't doing it with someone as patient and upbeat as Lisa, I would've been temped to throw the Pfaff over the side. Instead, she inspired me, and urged me on with her southern charms, and made me admit a growing fondness for the machine. It certainly had no trouble tearing into those multiple layers of sail cloth, and I admired its strength. Doing projects together with friends makes anything more fun.

Katie and Jim

Happily we had one more special reunion in our sights. Jim and Katie Coolbaugh on Asylum had been cruising this area for three years. We'd met them when our boats were docked together at the Club De Pesca in Cartagena three Christmases ago, and we'd become fast friends. We'd explored some of the San Blas together that following season; we'd gotten together in the States. We'd carried on a hilarious email correspondence over the time we'd been apart, and through it all realized we had so many things in common - books, politics, cooking, jokes, cruising styles, family life. Even our careers, though dissimilar, had had similar trajectories. Jim and Katie too would be among the cruising friends we would count on one hand who we'd like to have in our lives forever.

Sunset in the Lemon Cays

Two years ago, we'd gone north, and they'd stayed here to explore Panama. Now, we'd just arrived as they were preparing to go through the Panama Canal, and head for Ecuador. But, bless them, they'd decided to head back for one last hurrah in the San Blas, and to come together with us. In preparation for this momentous occasion, they emailed us a series of co-ordinates leading in through the reefs to their favorite anchorage in the eastern San Blas, we set a date to meet there, and as it approached we upped Ithaka's anchor and headed off to meet our friends.

The route into this spot snaked around shallows and reefs, and we followed it to the letter until we saw Katie and Jim themselves tearing out in their inflatable to meet us and lead us in the rest of the way. Inside the protection of the reef, alongside another spectacularly lovely island, Ithaka's anchor went down in 20 feet, grabbed deep into the sand, Katie and Jim jumped aboard holding a cold bottle of champagne ("That's the style!" as my Uncle Ted would've said), and we hugged, and laughed and caught up together as we joyfully popped the cork and polished off the bottle of bubbly. Douglas and I were so lucky to have such people in our lives. We knew we needed to savor these moments, because they'd be fleeting. Jim and Katie only have two more weeks in the San Blas before they turn Asylum's bow north. For Ithaka and Sand Dollar our time here is just beginning.

In one way, these days are now unfolding slowly. Douglas and I awake at six, do our boat shores, check the weather forecasts. Then we dinghy out to the reef, where we jump into the refreshing coolness of the water, glide through the shallow coral beds, marvel at the kaleidoscopic fish, and experiment with our underwater camera -- thrilled to be here. In the late afternoons, we cook for our friends, or our friends cook for us, and we stay up late into the evenings enjoying the company of special people. All the time we talk, and share ideas, and noodle projects, and make plans with one another. In another way, though, the days seem like they're flying by, because for Asylum a deadline looms; when it comes they'll push north, away from us, and toward a different ocean. But that's still some time away. For now, we're easily made happy, here in this magical spot, surrounded by heart-breaking beauty, among friends, after a long slog of a winter to get here.