May 15, 2006
Perme , Panama
08º 44.224 North
077º 32.668 West

Hugging The Coast Toward Kuna Yala

By Douglas Bernon

After so many good meals and good evenings with our new Colombian friends in Fuerte, the excitement of the cockfight, and seriously considering buying a small piece of land on which to retire there, our checkbook stayed in our pocket, we shook ourselves loose, and moved on to our last stop in Colombia, the coastal town of Zapsurro, 80 miles to the southwest.

FARC wanted posters are everywhere in Colombia, but especially prominent in the border town of Zapsurro.

Eighty miles is one of those distances that always confounds me. When we plan any passage, I figure we’ll average 5 to 5.5 knots. Bernadette thinks we’ll make 6 knots or more, which is correct, actually, if we get any wind at all, because then Ithaka scoots. But I’m essentially pessimistic, and my wife is generous, so she indulges me and we start out earlier than we should, and damn if she’s not generally right, and then we have to spill air to slow down, and of course she beams, which is a silent I-told-you-so, and I apologize, and then, naturally, we repeat the same exercise the next time.

Figuring this to be a 16-hour trip, and figuring we wanted to enter Zapsurro with good light, logically we should’ve departed late afternoon. But there had been no wind for several days, or so it seemed to us, tucked in to our Fuerte anchorage. Sand Dollar left at 7:00 a.m., figuring to sail at about 2 to 3 knots. Que Linda and Ithaka waited until 10:30. Doug on Que Linda and I both got antsy and convinced our wives that with so little wind we ought to leave. Sadly they acquiesced.

In fact, there was no wind for the first hour. Then it picked up enough for us to reef the main. Then it picked up enough to shorten sail with the genoa, too. Then we put a second reef in the main and shortened the genoa even further. By midnight, which is when all hell starts to break loose, we had three reefs in the main, a handkerchief of a genoa, were doing 7.5 knots in nasty seas, and getting tossed about way too much. We were also going to get to the Zapsurro harbor, a reef-lined entrance at the foot of generally fog-covered mountains, way too early. By 3:00 a.m., we no longer had a main up at all, just a whisker of the genoa for stability. We had a favorable current of at least a knot and were hauling along way too fast. Sand Dollar, the slowest of the three boats had already hove to for a couple of hours, but we’d started later and so on we trudged, figuring there’d be enough light to enter by around 7:00 a.m.

Local beauties, Linda (from Que Linda) and Bernadette at the entrance to Zapsurro.

At 7:00, we had gray-blue light in a rainy mist. With 22 knots from astern we surfed into Zapsurro, rolling wildly as we rode the swell between the two points of land that open into this mountain-circled bay. Once inside, we were still hoping to keep our spreaders dry. The roll was wild. Only when we hooked around to starboard, ducking behind the mountain, and getting some relief, did the rinse cycle slow down.

The key to entering Zapsurro, which is poorly charted but actually quite straightforward, is to pick a waypoint directly east of the entrance and enter dead on west, 270 degrees. We chose 08º 40.000 North and 077º 20.500 West. Actually there are red and green markers ashore -- and they’re illuminated and blink at night -- but the green is so deeply set into the pine forest that during the day it’s utterly useless, and if you can’t see the opening, you’re screwed anyway. No one in his right mind would enter at night.

With no sunlight to illuminate the water we were operating on instructions we’d been given by another boat that been here two weeks previously, and had run hard onto a reef, bounced around and cracked open their rudder. Once inside, they discovered, it’s crucial to keep to the south side of the bay because there’s a reef in the middle of the harbor. One’s instinct is to turn immediately toward the town, but it’s better to favor port, and either anchor in a gorgeous little one-boat spot at the far southern end, away from town – Doug and Linda anchored Que Linda there, and thereafter called it “The Honeymoon Suite” -- or work your way in an arc close to shore, gradually turning north. Off the town dock the bottom is rocks and rubble; farther out we anchored in 40 feet with good gripping sand.

Zapsurro, with just 200 people, is a sweet village. There are no roads — just sidewalks, no airport, no helipads, no large stores, but plenty of love and ambition. The welcome sign, posted just before the church at the foot of the dock, feels genuine; the local padre personally invited us to Sunday services, and the town meeting, which was being held while we were there, opened its doors to us as well. Their main agenda item, with good reason, was what to do with garbage.

The local bakery had paintings in which all parts of the human body were modified veggies and fruit.

Zapsurro has a bakery – with first-rate powdered-sugar doughnuts, and whole-grain bread -- that doubles as an art gallery. There were three paintings by the same artist, in which the human body and the moon on which the human sat was composed entirely of fruit and vegetables, proving I suppose, one is what one eats. There also was a woman who sells propane, which turned out to be a good thing, because the regulator on our system had died earlier in the week, leaking a 20-pound can of gas into the atmosphere — an event we discovered while cooking dinner for six people. We carry a spare regulator on board that I swapped out, but still needed to replenish our supply, which after the leak was down by 50 percent.

The propane regulator repair took place during drinks and appetizers. Providing adult supervision are Doug from Que Linda and Cade from Sand Dollar.

By 8:30 in the morning, Ithaka’s anchor was well set and both of us slept until noon. We went ashore, checked in with the Policia Nacional, showed our passports and boat papers, and were thoroughly welcomed. This is the only Colombian town we’ve been to, other than when we arrived and departed Cartagena, where the officials wanted to see our papers.

Leaving the police station we were hijacked by the local ice-cream lady, a chubby gnome toting an igloo cooler full of homemade coconut, lime, and coffee ice cream, each frozen in a cup with a stick protruding. They were 65 cents each and two per person was just right. When the ice-cream lady saw Sand Dollar’s little dog Tikka, she promptly fed her an ice cream free of charge.

We wandered the streets for an hour but were totally whopped after a sleepless night, and by 3:00 that afternoon we were sitting in a restaurant ordering what amounted to the early-bird special -- stewed chicken, patacones, cabbage and cucumber salad, iced Pilsner, and carambollo (starfruit). Sitting at the picnic bench that was our table, I actually fell asleep with my head on my arms, but was re-invigorated by the arrival of fried food.

Starfruit, known locally as carambollo, is a tart fruit when not quite ripe — but still delicious, and gloriously sweet when the sugar has fully set in.

Naturally, American propane tanks and Colombian propane tanks have different fittings, which presented an initial stumble, but Cade rigged a hose with the appropriate national coupling at each end, and I bought a 30-pound can of Colombian butane to fill our 20 pound tank. The only way we could get much flow was to tip and secure the Colombian tank upside down several feet above the gringo tank, warming the source tank in the sun while swaddling the lower tank in a frequently changed bath of ice cold water and wet towels. The temperature differential made the gas pass well, but it took a lot of baby-sitting and a score of 80-cent ice packs to accomplish the goal. Filling the tank actually took 20 hours, but in the end, we were back in business. The lessons for us were: 1) always carry a spare regulator, and 2) carry a spare propane hose that you can cut whenever necessary and attach to a local/foreign fitting.

Uva fruits, which look like orange cherry-tomatoes but in a brown wrappers, are my favorite sweet fruit on the entire earth.

On our way out of Zapsurro, we bucked the same rollers that swooped us in, and although it was only an eight-mile trip to the Panamanian border town and check-in point of Obaldia, it took close to three hours as we sloshed about in the tortured seas. That was the good news. If we had any sense, we’d have blown right by Obaldia, entered the country illegally, and checked in somewhere else a month or so later when we got to another official town. But for some dumb reason we decided to behave.

The port of Obaldia is as squalid as any official village I’ve ever seen. Not only is the town itself an unattractive collection of squat, crumbling, cement and cinder-box hovels, not only is the bureaucracy tedious and officious, but the anchorage itself is a totally open roadstead. We entered, flying in toward the beach, with 20 knots behind us, whirled around, anchored in 15 feet of breaking waves, with that wind on our nose and a lee shore 250 yards behind us. On top of that, in order to get ashore and check in, we had to hoist the inflatable off the deck in the howl, lower it in the water, and then put the outboard on it – a hairy series of maneuvers that convinced me we were fools to be there in the first place. Other times when it has been dangerous to enter a harbor to clear immigration or customs, we have ignored protocol and gone about our business, which is what we should have done here.

Regardless of the squalor of a town, the Police always seem to have a formidable sign.

In the rain and whipping wind, as Ithaka rocked back and forth and jerked back against her snubber, I powered over to Sand Dollar and Que Linda, and picked up Lisa and Doug for the trip to the dock to process our papers. I dropped them off and collected the agricultural inspection agent, or at least that’s we think he was. He brought aboard a large tank with a pump sprayer and efficiently sprayed our starboard deck. Then, tired of standing in the rain, he sought refuge in the cockpit. I delivered him to the other boats for a similar process, returned him to shore and re-joined the paper processors. Meanwhile, Linda on Que Linda, Cade on Sand Dollar, and Bernadette on Ithaka all kept their engines running as insurance against dragging up onto the surf-pounded beach.

The paperwork took two hours because everything was done in triplicate but without the assistance of carbon paper. Usually I carry a few sheets with our boat papers to avoid just this inconvenience, and then leave them with officials as a gift. But in today’s scurry I’d forgotten and now was paying yet another price for our stupidity.

At last we got everything stamped and paid for, were given clearance to proceed, and with much relief took off for another nine miles of bronco seas, which were truly a relief after sitting in that harbor. In three hours we dropped our anchor in Perme, Panama, a perfect little cul de sac of a bay, well guarded by land, and regardless of sea and wind conditions, a safe and flat refuge. Children immediately paddled out from the village in their dugout ulus and hung tight to Ithaka. Seeing those smiling faces gripping Ithaka, calling “Hola! Hola!” to us, we knew we were officially back in Kuna Yala.

Our return to Panama and the San Blas is also our return to the world of molas. These two turtles, one swimming and one coming up from air, were made in the Eastern San Blas, where we’re sailing now.