June 1, 2006
Suletupu: Kuna Yala, Panama
08º 53.799 North
077º 41.205 West

The Sail’s Call

By Bernadette Bernon

There’s a price for island hopping west and north through the San Blas: You have to sail upwind right into the prevailing northwesterlies, as well as contend with an unfavorable swell. When the two combine, it’s no picnic. But Douglas and I are doing it anyway because of the payoff: In this area of the San Blas, few yachts come through, and the villages are still traditional. Take Caledonia for instance.

Everyday at Caledonia, little kids came out of visit and would sometimes hang on the side of Ithaka, watching, giggling, and inevitably getting some lemonade.

Although we’d visited the island three years ago, when we saw the current weather predictions, and realized a full gale was not far off, we decided to go there again. We fondly remembered Caledonia’s gentle people; its quiet little walking paths through the village; and its children, who ran up to hold our hands and follow us around as though we’re the pied piper. We sailed in, and now, here we sit.

Their anchorage, just off Isla Suletupu, is sweet – 360-degree protection – and the view from Ithaka’s cockpit is spectacular. On one side of us is the dramatic mountainscape running all along the Panamanian coast; a short dinghy ride away is the village of Caledonia; directly to our starboard side there is a mountainous island for exploring; and all around us a small flat-calm bay. With land and circling reefs as protection, Caledonia would be a perfect place to ride foul weather. As if avoiding the gale weren’t enough, there was another reason Caledonia would be a great place to spend some days.

These wonderful boys from Caledonia paddled out to Ithaka to show off their freshly made hats, fashioned out of sheaths from a coconut palm. Douglas, who loves goofy hats, must have been horribly envious.

Last October, in this BoatUS column, we asked readers who had extra sails that they didn’t want anymore to cut and stitch them for Kuna sized rigs and send them to us at BoatUS. When Douglas and I visited our families in the United States last Christmas, we picked up a slew of sails sent in from readers all over the country, and brought them all back down to Cartagena with us. BoatUS generously agreed to pay the extra baggage fees charged by the airlines. The plan was all Douglas’s, to distribute these sails in the San Blas, where they’d be put to good use.

Many Kuna men sail many miles out to the reef to fish, and normally their ulu sails are made of rags and rice bags sewn together.

Sails like these are common in the San Blas, and the fishermen were thrilled to be given new sailcloth with which they could work their wonders.

So, thanks to the kindness of many of you, the support of BoatUS, and to the generosity of Aaron and Bernice Jasper, owners of Jasper and Bailey Sailmaker in Newport (who stitched together the most elegant jib and main imaginable), and especially to Duncan Skinner, who owns Contender Sailcloth, and who gave us six full rolls of brand-new spinnaker material, we returned to Ithaka with piles of sails for the Kuna. It would be in Caledonia that we’d begin to cut up new material, stitch it into lateen-sail shapes, sew up the seams, and distribute your gifts to the local fisherman.

Cade and Linda at work on Sand Dollar, making new sails for the Kuna fisherman out of the Contender sailcloth.

We had a team of friends to help with this work. First were Linda and Doug on the sailboat Que Linda, who helped us cut up the big sails and spinnaker cloth on the beach into ulu-appropriate lateen shapes. Next were Cade and Lisa on the sailboat Sand Dollar, who sewed up all the sails in colorful combinations on their Pfaff sewing machine onboard. Douglas and I moved between these two camps, with Douglas organizing all the efforts, and I helping wherever I was needed. Contender had also given us hundreds of dollars worth of UV thread that we wound onto bobbins (made of mangrove roots) so that the men and women could make whatever alterations they chose. We’d also brought along 75 high quality stainless steel, hand-stitching, sail making needles, which were much coveted and appreciated.

The first sail that we gave away – to a fisherman who’d had sails so decrepit that it was hard to imagine why they didn’t just fall apart in the wind – was received with stunned awe. We asked him to sail by the next day at 3:00 p.m., with his new sail on the ulu, so that we could take a few photos. We gave away three sails that day, all to men with raggedy rigs.

This little gem was made by one of the fishermen who got a new sail.

The following day, we got a call on the VHF from Linda. “Ithaka! Ithaka! Take a look out your port side!” Coming around the corner of the island were three ulus, all with colorful new sails. The three fishermen sailed around our three boats with delighted expressions on their faces. One fellow brought his young son. Another brought an exquisite miniature Tall Ship he’d made, which was now rigged with a bit of the extra high-tech Contender sailcloth, and which he set sail across the bay. We snapped photos, cheered, and enjoyed the show as the fishermen raced each other around our three sailboats, played with their new sails, and just enjoyed the feeling of sailing their ulus with improved performance.

These men could sail. Each of them steered their dugouts with a large oar, tended the sail with the other hand, hiked out, tacked with a swift turn through the wind, and was off again. The ulus looked brilliant with their bright pink, green, yellow, red, and blue cloth, and with their BoatUS flags flying proudly.

This fisherman sailed many circles around the three boats in the anchorage, waiving each time and laughing. He is the man who gave Douglas the three inch long tiger tooth, which he informed us came from an animal someone in the village had shot last year. Hunting parties from the village go regularly to the mountains (only a 10-minute sail and several-hour hike) for fresh meat.

We’d thought long and hard about it, and decided to ask each fisherman to repay us with a modest gift of some kind. It was a matter of their pride; we wanted to make sure that they didn’t think gringos just descended with expensive sails and other things. When they sailed back to us that second day, one man gave Douglas a tiger tooth on a string to wear around his neck; another man gave us a bag of limes, avocados, and some freshly baked bread; and the third brought us a little wind chime that his wife had made out of a hand-painted gourd and seashells. We were thrilled; they’d given of what they had. We still have several dozen sails to give out and look forward to this on-going process and lots of photos over the next few months.

Sailing a gorgeous new white sail made by a BoatUS reader, these guys were happy as could be and were thrilled by how much faster their ulu would sail.

When I asked her at the village if I could take her picture again Flordelina Guardia asked me to wait, and several hours later appeared at the boat dressed in her gold necklaces and best mola.
The last time we’d visited Caledonia, I’d made friends with three Kuna women, all of whom are mola makers. They’d spent time with us on Ithaka; they’d brought their husbands and children out to the boat – dressed in their finest Kuna outfits -- and we’d given them tours, and shared drinks, and stories. Since I’d met them, and bought from them some of my favorite molas, I’d thought of them often over the ensuing three years because two of the molas are now beautiful pillows on Ithaka (an Adam and Eve set that depict them before and after biting the apple), and two are dramatic pillows on the couch of one of my best friends, Heather, back in Providence, Rhode Island -- a male and female dancing crab, each with shoes on!

When we took these photos years ago, we didn’t have a printer on board and could not give out copies, but now we do, so Douglas and I found the digital images on the computer—photos of Amalia Arias, Iselma Morris, and Pretina Presiado—printed them out, and went looking for the women in the village the day after we arrived. We found all three. Iselma and Pretina were at their huts -- in the midst of their busy days of cooking, washing clothes, and tending children -- and we had sweet reunions. We found Amalia in her little café – Amalia’s -- which had doubled in size since our first visit, and was thriving thanks in large measure to a high speed motor launch that brings every few days a dozen or so Colombian tourists for day trips here from the border villages of Capurgana and Zapsurro. Iselma was as beautiful as ever, and still making exquisite molas along with her aunt and sister. Pretina had had two more children in the three years since we’d last visited, which made a total of four little ones under seven years old, and she clearly had her hands full.

From left to right, Iselma’s aunt, Bernadette, and Iselma. It was a sweet reunion..

To have family photos is an unusual and priceless treasure for most Kunas, who have no access to such luxuries, let alone the money to pay for them. So Douglas and I had the joy of being able to print them out with our little photo-printer, put each of them in ziplocks to protect them from moisture, and then give them as presents. On subsequent visits to each of the three women over the next week, I noticed the photos in the ziplocks displayed proudly in each of their huts.

Standing with Linda from Que Linda, this beautiful old woman gave Linda and me shell necklaces as gifts of welcome. She told us she is 86 years old.

One day, I went ashore to check out one of the Colombian trading boats that had just pulled in. I hoped in vain they’d have tomatoes, and maybe some green vegetables. They didn’t, of course, but one has to remain positive. While I was ashore, I passed a group of women sitting together sewing under the shade of an awning spread out near the tienda. One of the women asked me in Kuna if I liked molas. I said yes indeed I did. She took me by the hand and led me to her hut. She was about four and a half feet tall, very old, and she reminded me of Yoda in a mola.

When we arrived, I had a sense of deja vue. I recalled visiting this very same hut on our last visit three years ago. As she pulled out several nice molas to show me, my memory was clearer. Her name was Delfina Guardia, and I distinctly recalled a terrific mola that she’d had back then, which I’d decided not to buy, a decision I’d regretted ever since. On the front of the blouse had been a rendition of a box of Parrot-brand matches that said “Made in Sweden” with no spaces between the words. After I’d admired the molas she offered me this time, I tried to communicate to her that I’d met her three years ago, and she had a mola back then, and it was about a… Hmmm. I wondered how on earth I could communicate this in Kuna, let alone my fractured Spanish.

I was thrilled to find this mola that Id always regretted passing up the first time. Many of the molas of the past 75 years are fanciful renditions of everyday items that the mola maker uses. All of them speak to the contemporary culture and personal world of the woman who made them.

With Delfina’s permission, I started snooping around her hut, near the cooking pots and the fire in the corner. She watched me with amusement, until I found a box of matches, and held them up triumphantly. Her jaw dropped, she said something in Kuna, then scurried to where she had her other molas, and produced the mola I’d been describing. We were both delighted and amazed that so much time had gone by, and here we were together, looking at the very same blouse. This time, however, she hadn’t offered it for sale. She looked at it a long time – apparently it was the mola she wore for special occasions – and then she abruptly put it in my hands and said I could buy it. The price she quoted was the same as three years before. This time, I didn’t let the opportunity pass.

Our week in Caledonia flew by with all our sailmaking exploits, our photo printing project, with entertaining Kunas aboard, with looking at molas whenever someone brought them up to the boat, not to mention enjoying Amalia’s patacones concaracol (fried plantains covered with conch in a tomato sauce), and a cold beer. Douglas and I did boat projects, wrote our stories, and hung out with our friends on Sand Dollar and Que Linda. Such is the stuff that fills cruising days, and they were special ones here in Caledonia. We didn’t care how long the wind blew outside our peaceful anchorage. We were happy and snug in here.

We knew this sojourn in Caledonia would probably be our last. We’d been privileged to get to visit these Kuna families again, to see how their lives had changed, to see how their children had grown, to see how their village had thrived, to reconnect. The heavy winds had given us a gift.