Yansalidup, Kuna Yala, Panama
Have Ulu Will Travel: Part IIThe Epilogue
By Douglas Bernon
Just over an hour ago a joyful family sailed around Ithaka in their wooden, dugout canoe, their precious ulu that is part school bus, part car-pool vehicle, part station wagon, SUV, go-kart, race car, fishing skiff, and long-distance cruiser. Mama sat in the bow, grinning from ear to ear and bailing water with a half a calabash gourd -- these are always wet sailing boats. Their kids, two small boys, sat and sometimes stood amidships — one of them always stood when it was time to tack the main — and dad held the mainsheet in the stern where he sat with his large, heavy wooden paddle, sometimes using it as a rudder and sometimes stroking hard when it was time to come about.
They had a new lateen mainsail, complements of a BoatUS member who’d read our logs, and a new jib, complements of another. At the tip of their mast -- a piece of a tree that had been stripped of bark -- they’d tied a small stick that held a BoatUS pennant. None of them could read, though, and the pennant was upside down. No matter, they loved it, and so did we.
In our log of October 15, 2005, “Have Ulu, Will Travel,” with the support of Jim Ellis, President of Boat US, we included dimensions for a typical Kuna ulu rig and invited readers to construct sails which, at BoatUS’s expense we would take down to the San Blas and distribute to families who needed them. Jim said at the time he didn’t know how many sails would come pouring in, but that BoatUS members were and generous and we might well get a lot more than we bargained for. He was right.
We received sails that had been cut down from J-22 mains and jibs, from Etchells, from spinnakers and genakers. We received brand-new lateen rigs that were made originally for dinghies but were never used, and in two cases still had the original sales tags on them, but mostly we received sails that were freshly made from scratch on home sewing machines — some with plastic windows sewn in and a couple with two sets of reef points. One man sent in two brand-new blue tarps and said he had hoped to make Kuna sails from them but ran out of time. He also included boltrope material, grommets and line. We handed those off to a friend who went to work and turned them into two fine sets of sails.
One family wrote us a note and sent us a check for $200, saying they could not make any sails but wanted it to go to a good cause among the Kuna Indians. Their check paid for two round trip air tickets from Nargana (a small Kuna island with an air strip) to Panama City, for a father and his son who needed emergency hospitalization.
With all the sails that came in from readers and all the sailcloth that had been donated by Duncan Skinner of Contender Sailcloth, somewhere between 40 and 50 (we admit to losing count) families got new sails for their ulus. Some got mains and jibs, some just got mains, and a lot of families got line they could use for whatever they needed.
We soon discovered that the distribution of sails and sailcloth posed both logistical and philosophical questions that were not easily answered. Who should get sails? Who needs sails the most? How can you give a set to one person and deny another? Should we just give them away in one village or across the 350-island region? Not knowing how best to answer those questions we divvied the sails up among a number of cruising boats: Que Linda, Ithaka, Sand Dollar, Garabato, and Simba, and each crew had the responsibility of determining when and to whom they would pass along their sails. On Ithaka we decided we would, whenever possible, trade sails for whatever people had, just to make sure we did not foster an atmosphere of wanton gift-giving. We have received fish, bread, a tiger’s tooth, a feather headdress, limes, lobster, and just about whatever anybody presented to us. The notion of give and take was important to us; the value of what someone could give us in exchange was not.
It was great fun to give way these sails. Whenever someone with a beaten up rig would sail up to us to sell fish or molas or crab, we’d ask if they would consider trading for a new sail. Often the people were dumbfounded by the question; it was too far outside their experience to register at first. But once they understood, you can be sure no one refused. Sometimes, a particularly poor fisherman would paddle up to us, with no sail at all, and we’d ask if he needed one. We got some awfully small fish in exchange some days. Again, no one ever said no.
At Ustupu we gave two sails to the village Saihlas (the local chiefs) who used them as prizes for athletic contents among the kids. In Nargana we gave one to Federico Morales, a Kuna man who is known for helping out the cruisers. On his outhouse is posted a “Yacht Services” sign, and now he also flies a BoatUS pennant and a long thin remnant of blue and red sailcloth that he uses as a landmark to guide cruisers from the anchorage to his hut.
Bernadette and I learned a number of lessons in the process of distributing these sails. One is that cruisers coming down to the San Blas (or for that matter anywhere in the Third World) can easily collect old sails from all their friends before heading out. Tightly compressed and tied on deck they will take little space and be much appreciated when they find worthy, new homes. We also learned that we weren’t thinking very far outside the box. We kept thinking of sails as sails, whereas some Kuna families clearly saw them as solutions to major problems that had nothing to do with boats. Twice we traded sails to men in ulus who returned the next day, still hoisting their bedraggled old cloth. When we asked where the new ones were they explained that now they were the roofs of their huts and everyone was dry at night. Their priorities made perfect sense to us. It made me wish we had brought down more tarp material.
In addition to sails we also distributed, complements of Contender Sailcloth, many thousands of feet of UV protected thread. In our meager Spanish and almost non-existent Kuna we struggled to explain why this thread was superior for making sail repairs, but when we also handed out stainless-steel sailmaker needles, the women, especially, who are superb seamstresses, ran their hands and teeth over the thread and got the concept right away.
To make bobbins of UV thread that we could give away, Cade (on Sand Dollar) and I collected a number of dry mangrove branches with diameters that were small enough to chuck into a half-inch electric drill. We cut them into three-inch lengths and used the drill as a bobbin winder. We messed up a bit at first, but soon enough got the hang of it. Every family who got a sail or sailcloth also got a bobbin of thread and a needle. We considered this a complete “ulu-pack.” And even families who did not get sails were pleased to have sturdy thread and a hardy needle.
From the time we entered the San Blas at its eastern most border at Obaldia, to the day we checked out at the western most island of Porvenir, we gave away all our sails, all the extra sailcloth, all the thread, needles and bolt rope. Bernadette and I have rejoiced in being able to pass along the generosity of BoatUS members. On behalf of the Kuna families who you have all given to, we extend our thanks and remind everyone that it doesn’t require great efforts or great funds to make a small difference in other people’s lives. And the pleasure is delightful.