October 15, 2005
Have Ulu, Will Travel
By Douglas Bernon
Whenever we’re within a few days on either side of a full moon—and any night when there’s meager breeze and lots of heat, I like to sleep in a hammock in the cockpit. Last night, on the cusp of the full moon, among my rewards, at just after 0300 hours, I watched and heard three Kuna men sail past Ithaka in their wooden ulu. They were talking and laughing. It was too early for them to be leaving their island to go fishing, and too late to be going home. They seemed to be just three guys hanging out together, sailing along, enjoying the beauty of the universe. I hailed them by whistling softly, and they waved back. There wasn’t anything for any of us to say, really, just a moment for sailors to salute each other and smile.
The men and women of the San Blas are serious sailors. Their vessels, called ulus, range in size from six feet long to fifty, depending on the tree they’ve been carved from. Very young kids paddle and play in ulus from the time they’re four or five years old. Whole villages travel in them from their islands to mainland farm plots to harvest crops, but mostly pescadores (fishermen) are the people we see the most often; they pilot them everywhere, from village to village, to reefs in search of lobster and crab, to favorite cuts for line or spear fishing, to shallows in which they can hurl and retrieve their cast nets.
Ulus are the station wagons, pick-up trucks, fruit stands, hot rods, moving vans, school buses, get-away-mobiles, and chick-magnets of the San Blas. They’re the essence of get-around. And when ulus break up on the reefs or plain wear out, they go on, morphing into washing basins for scrubbing clothes at the river, and begin a new life ashore. Ulus are even used in burial crypts. The dead man is wrapped in his hammock. The hammock is suspended between two poles inside a dirt tomb in the ground. Then, in the crypt with the body are placed many ceremonial objects, and an ulu, so that the dead can make his final journey to the realm of the Kuna spirits. His little ship will be lifted by Great Mother to the heavenly house of Great Father.
A tiny number of fortunate Kunas have outboard engines, but the vast majority of people rely entirely on sails and a large wooden paddle that serves as auxiliary motor, rudder and paddle. These vessels have no tiller, no keel, no daggerboard and no leeboards. They are seriously tipsy craft but, regardless of the sea state, I’ve never seen a Kuna turn one over. For anchors they carry a large rock that has been totally ensnared with polypropylene line. When it’s time to stop, the rock is tossed over. The Kuna are not single-handers. Both fishing and sailing are usually two-person jobs, and one person is always busy bailing the shallow ulu with a half gourd.
Tacking involves some fine balancing near the bow because bringing about a loose-footed jib that has neither fittings nor a track sometimes demands that the person stand up to turn around. Similarly, bringing the main around means the tillerman must ship his paddle/tiller/rudder and hold onto the mainsheet, which also has no fittings, and bring it across. If someone is sitting in the middle (a third sailor), he or she can handle that chore while the tillerman steers. Despite the seeming awkwardness of these maneuvers, they are generally performed with artful dexterity and without the histrionics that distinguish us gringos.
The ulu sail plan usually consists of a traditional jib foresail with a sprit rig for the main. First world racers obsess about the weight of spars and blocks and gear, but ulus have no lightweight composite spars. Ulu hulls are trees and weigh what trees weigh. Pulling one up onto a beach offers an aerobic workout. On the hundreds of ulus we’ve seen, not on a single one contained any labor-saving hardware -- no shackles, no blocks, and no tackles rove to advantage. The hulls have been carved with hatchet and adze. The spars are limbs of trees that vary in length, diameter, straightness, and weight. Sheets and halyards are hemp or string or polypropylene. Mast steps are usually a raised part of the hull that has not been adzed away; and seats, which are removable, are often the most artfully cut part of the boat, with each end macheted as a dovetail joint.
Sailing is not just a guy thing in Kuna Yala. While we’ve rarely seen women working the sea for fish, they’re often in their own ulus, hauling fresh river water in all manner of plastic containers, or coming up to the cruising sailboats with their buckets of molas to sell. In some righteous seas that would have terrified me I’ve seen Kuna women tearing along under sail and doing just fine.
Like all vessels, there are bound to be leaks, and with such low freeboard there’s no such thing as a dry ulu. Everyone aboard has a bailer made from half a calabash, and they’re constantly in use. When there are checks in the hull, forget fiberglass and two-part epoxy sealers. Think instead of tar and hammered tin, or of old cooking pot lids that have been flattened out and nailed into the hull.
Ulu decoration is like boat decoration everywhere: sometimes elegant, sometimes sloppy, always idiosyncratic, and often related to the sea. Occasionally, we’ve seen ulu hulls painted with a long stripe or with someone’s name. More often the exterior is just too beaten by the sea to hold onto its paint for long, but we’ve seen proud sailors who’ve decorated the inside of their ulus with depictions of fish, porpoises, and lobster, as well as intricate Kuna geometrics.
Like boats everywhere, some are pristine and elegant, but that takes money and leisure, neither of which are plentiful. Inevitably, as my wife reminds me, when we see an exquisite ulu sail of patchwork colors, there’s the fine touch of a woman’s hand at play.
Occasionally we’ll see an ulu shoot by, sporting some spiffy sail cut down from a blown out and donated main or jib or chute that some cruiser no longer needed. But mostly the sails are cobbled together from rice sacks, political banners, old bed sheets, trousers, shirts, and whatever else is at hand. There’s no UV-protected thread to keep things from unraveling in the tropical sun. Nor is there an abundance of high-strength, stretch-free lines for sheets or bolt ropes, though cruisers donate hanks of line, and now and then you’ll see some much-holed sail lashed at the foot with a piece of colorful spectra line that the Kuna fisherman received in exchange for fish or lobster or just gave away as a present. When we came down here this year we brought a couple hundred feet of old line that was welcomed with great joy.
Recently, here in the Lemon Cays, a 42-foot cruising boat dropped off its old main. They donated it to the three families on Nuinudup. When the Kuna fisherman saw what was being rolled out on the beach, they were stunned into silence. One man, with the ancient name of Archimedes, was so overcome that he turned away, not wishing for anyone to see his tears. He later confided that he intended to cut a new ulu to do honor to his new sail.
Sailors everywhere, no matter their means, no matter their vessel, share a common respect for one another’s acumen in harnessing the wind, the currents, the moon. One of the great joys we’ve experienced in Kuna Yala is sitting in our cockpit, watching the ulus flying by, dipping their gunnels, their owners hiking out exuberantly, pulling the maximum from their boats. We smile. We know the feeling.