July 15, 2006
Isla Caobos, Kuna Yala, Panama
09º 35.604 North
078º 41.633 W

Slow Dancing Through The San Blas

By Bernadette Bernon

Tonight was one of those cruising nights that come along once in a blue moon. Seemingly out of nowhere, where before there’d been only isolated little islands -- and Ithaka and Sand Dollar anchored by ourselves – now there were friends gathered on cruising boats from near and far, all drawn to the Holandes islands of the San Blas, for a celebration of a birthday – Linda’s on Que Linda.

Ithaka at sunset

We’d traveled together with Que Linda for some time. Sand Dollar, Ithaka, and Que Linda had departed Cartagena together, explored nooks and crannies along the coast of Colombia, checked into Kuna Yala at Obaldia, its most eastern terminus, and dropped anchor together in some of the most remote, traditional and interesting island villages of the San Blas. Our’s was a copasetic little convoy. Every day we’d see our friends; when needed, we’d help each other with odd chores aboard the boats; every few days we’d gather on one of the boats for drinks or dinner. We fell into a comfortable pace – not too much face time, but just enough to have a sweet social life together.

Celebrating the Kuna revolution, with Doug and Linda from Que Linda, Cade and Lisa from Sand Dollar, and friends from the island of Ustupu

From Ustupu’s revolutionary festival, we’d sailed to Playon Chico, a busy hive of an island with a thriving Kuna village. From there, seeking peace and diving, we’d sailed out to the Ratones (the name translates as The Rats, for reasons we couldn’t fathom.) and we anchored in crystal-clear water surrounded by a protective ribbon of spectacular reef. Douglas was thrilled to see the first Goliath Grouper he’s ever found. He estimated this one to be at least five feet in length and compared it to a mastodon with lips. The fishing books claim these fish can grow to seven or more feet and weigh many hundreds of pounds. The books also say the fish can generate a great booming noise, but Douglas said he heard nothing but the beating of his heart.

Douglas spearfishing for dinner

From the Ratones, we aimed for Mamitupu, a traditional Kuna island village, where we reunited with Pablo Nunez, a Kuna who speaks excellent English, a friend we’d made on our last voyage to the San Blas three years before. Pablo and his family were thriving, and he was proud to show us that he’d built three guest huts (each with private al fresco showers) so that he could accommodate tourists. Cade offered to help Pablo create a website, and they worked on it together.

We were pleased for Pablo, yet at the same time realized that progress such as this is a slippery slope for a traditional culture as delicate as the Kuna’s. If tourism increases too quickly in these fragile islands, along with a sudden influx of dollars, it will alter significantly all the economies -- financial, emotional, and social. As Pablo understood, and as many of the chiefs know too, that will be a mixed blessing—greater wealth but at the cost of some cultural traditions – and they are trying to take only the smallest steps toward attracting a few tourists. When you come to care about a place, you can’t help but worry about the impact your visit is having on it.

At Playon Chico, it was bath time for this baby

On our last night in Mamitupu, all six of us had dinner with Pablo’s family. We brought cans of beef, handed them over, and enjoyed cold beers, also brought from the boats, while we awaited a hearty dinner around a table on the beach -- beans with beef, coconut rice, and plantains. We’d brought in our own ships’ lanterns as well, and the evening had the quality of sitting around a campfire with the black night enveloping us, a canopy of stars overhead.

After Mamitupu, with all its relative hubbub, we all craved isolation and snorkeling. The three boats headed for Puyades, another remote islet where we nuzzled behind a protective reef, dinghied into the island beach, and had the place to ourselves. Throughout these excursions, we felt fortunate to be hanging out with such compatible people. Each of us got along together individually, and all six of us worked well as a group. We shared books, DVDs, laughter and a craving for similar rhythms, a little village life, followed by a little island time, followed by a village, and so on.

Bernadette steers as Ithaka soars along, inside the reef of the San Blas

Doug and Linda are from Bend, Oregon, where he was an Outward Bound instructor and then made a successful career as a house builder. Linda is a nurse, and enjoys returning to her profession whenever they take a break from cruising to go home for a season – normally every year or two. Doug and Linda have stayed involved with their land-based lives and careers, and found a balance between their love of cruising, and their desire to remain involved in work they find fulfilling. Over our time together, we enjoyed planning with them a future rafting expedition down the Colorado River, with Doug as guide.

After Puyades, Que Linda split from our three-pack in order to catch up with friends awaiting them farther up the island chain. Sand Dollar and Ithaka continued at our tectonic pace of meanderings, stopping briefly at Nargana for provisions, then for a week or two tucking into anchorages where there were no other boats anywhere to be seen. We spent our days snorkeling, fishing, doing boat work, hanging out, and making fabulous dinners for one another.

Doug and Linda, with Pip The Wonder Dog

Then, for a week, Ithaka had guests aboard. The Roche family – Bill, Michelle, and their 15-year-old daughter Lily – good friends of ours from Newport, came to visit, and that sent our lives into a spin cycle of preparations and entertaining. Sand Dollar accompanied us for the week, and actually became our prep kitchen and mobile storage unit.

Before our friends arrived, all the stuff that had been stored in our guest cabin we moved in large duffels over to Sand Dollar, and Lisa and I filled their larger refrigerator with all the food we’d need for the week. It was a fun experience to plan our friends’ visit, and try to show them aspects of the San Blas that we treasure—a traditional Kuna village, the reef, a beach barbeque, fishing, a jungle hike through waterfalls, fresh seafood, enough nose-in-a-book time, AND some good sailing. The week ended up being a terrific one for all of us, and it meant a great deal to Douglas and me that friends from home could see a little slice of our cruising lives.

Michelle, Bernadette, Douglas, Bill, Cade, and Lisa, aboard Sand Dollar

Finally, after the Roches had flown home, we heard the call. It was going to be Linda’s birthday on Wednesday, and this was an excellent reason for a gathering. John on the motor vessel Gabrielle offered up his boat as Party Central. All anyone had to do was sail to Gabrielle from wherever they were. Boats all over the San Blas began hauling up their anchors, and heading for the Holandes. When Ithaka and Sand Dollar arrived, the day before the big event, six boats already were there -- Contigo, Kiwi, Sandpiper, Constance, Takes Me Away, and Tomatillo.

Lily looks for coral heads as Ithaka glides along into a secluded anchorage.

On the big night, we dinghied over to Gabrielle’s stern, climbed aboard, and were awed by the table of food displayed on the aft deck. Incredible. People had brought their specialties, such as ceviche, grouper fingers with three sauces, fresh guacamole with homemade chips and salsa, chocolate cake, the works. Linda looked beautiful. We all danced into the night to 60s medleys, Latin salsa, and in what must’ve looked to any passing Kuna like a bizarre sight, Maggie and Chris from Contigo taught us how to do The Slide. It was surreal to be enjoying this kind of an evening so far away from what we knew, and on a boat no less. But what a boat this is. Gabrielle is a 64-foot, 1950s-era Choy Lee that John – a master of all things mechanical and aesthetic -- has lovingly restored to her original glistening glory.

Chris and Maggie from Contigo, left; and Tom and Julie from Kiwi

Douglas takes down our broken wind generator blades. Little did we know that four days later we’d meet Bob and Norma on the sailboat Happy Our’s, who’d worn out the bearings on their wind generator. Miraculously, they had spare KISS blades. We had spare KISS bearings. We traded, and both boats were back in business!
As the party rocked on, we never noticed the wind piping up – being aboard such a steadypowerboat such as Gabrielle, nothing felt amiss. Later on, when we got back to Ithaka, a disappointing surprise awaited us. We found that two of the fiberglass blades on our KISS wind generator had shattered and were gone—only sharp edged shards remained! Amazingly, Cade and Lisa, anchored near us on Sand Dollar, found their wooden wind generator blades also cracked and gone. The four of us sat stunned by this development. Some incredible sheer force must have come up quickly to do that kind of damage, because we’ve sustained gusts well over 45 knots before without so much as a hairline fracture. None of us understands it still. We were just glad that the boats’ anchors had held.

So here, in this festive, windy paradise, is where we said goodbye to Que Linda. Doug and Linda were heading east, back to Cartagena, where they’re going to store the boat and fly home for an extended stay – Linda’s excited about getting back to the hospital and seeing her friends and family, and Doug is psyched about building a house and doing some business. Ithaka and Sand Dollar were also going to head in opposite directions from one another before too long, so the next anchorage for our two boats would be a special one. We decided to return with Sand Dollar to the Lemon Cays, where we knew we’d find solitude and lovely diving. We hugged Linda and Doug tight, not knowing when our paths would next cross, but promising to keep in touch, promising to make that river trip sometime down the road.

Pablo Nuez from Mamitupu