Call For a Tow

September 15, 2008
Last Letter From Home

September 1, 2008
Saying Goodbye

August 15, 2008
The Circle Closes At Arue

August 1, 2008
Last Days In Rangi

July 15, 2008
The Road To Rangiroa

July 1, 2008
A Social Whirl

June 15, 2008
The Land of Men

June 1, 2008
Sweet Days in Hiva Oa

May 15, 2008
Homing In

May 1, 2008
A Perfect Day At Sea

April 15, 2008
Beating Across The Pacific

April 1, 2008
The Worrier Transits The Canal

March 15, 2008
The Boys And The Hunt

March 1, 2008
Sweet Landfall In Panama

February 15, 2008
Gloom in Cartagena

February 1, 2008
Connections With That Long-Ago Girl

January 15, 2008
Where the Boys Are

January 1, 2008
Life On The Hard

December 15, 2007
Last Letter From Vermont

December 1, 2007
The Final Countdown

November 15, 2007
Welcome Aboard Shangri-La

November 1, 2007
More Bad Dreams Than Good

October 15, 2007
When Our Systems Overwhelm Us

October 1, 2007
Shaking Off The Remoras

September 15, 2007
The Deal Is Done

September 1, 2007
The Search For Shangri-La

August 15, 2007
The Birth Of A Dream

August 15, 2007
Tania And Sons

August 15, 2007
About Tania

August 15, 2007
About the Family

August 15, 2007
About Shangri-La

August 15, 2007
Voyage Itinerary

August 15, 2007

August 15, 2007
Tanias Books

August 15, 2007
Chartering With Tania

March 1, 2008
Sweet Landfall In Panama

By Tania Aebi

The boys are doing vocabulary, English, and math lessons, taking turns between humming or muttering inanities until the other – or I! -- cuffs him. Grandpa is taking another nap up in the forepeak, sulking because I asked for the third time that nobody comes below dripping wet, and that all hair brushing happens on deck. He muttered something about soon not even being able to move around me anymore. A long-haired and almost 70-year-old staunch individualist doesn’t take well to being told, or asked, what to do, if it isn’t the way he’s always done it.

Once we made landfall, I made up for all the frugal eating by cooking up a storm. Here, the finishing touches go on a leek tart.

Trivialities aside, we’re all very pleased to be here. Anchored in turquoise waters, perfectly surrounded and protected by several sandy islets covered in coconut palms and a barrier reef system, is just what I’d promised the boys, what made the upwind trip in typically downwind waters over from Cartagena more bearable. With this awful crossing, we paid a directly proportionate price for our perfect passage from Curacao to Cartagena. It was hefty, and it was also a premature and unexpected taste of the contrary winds and currents we’ll be briefly facing on our way to Panama, then for much longer from Panama to the Galapagos. I’ve even started thinking we might forego those Darwinian islands and head straight for Polynesia. Right now, survival of the fittest to me means avoiding as much as possible anything that is upwind or current

We made landfall in a place so aptly nicknamed the “swimming pool,” whereupon, the boys had their first lesson with the windlass and anchoring. The dinghy was also assembled for the first time on the foredeck, after some ado and fussing because it’s much harder to insert the floorboards and inflate the dinghy on top of the windlass and hatches than on a dock. Anticipating an ordeal, Nicholas had even suggested that we inflate the dinghy on the dock in Cartagena, then just stow it on deck for the short trip over here.

“You’re going to be always doing this on the foredeck from now on,” I said. “Might as well figure it out.”

The way the subsequent “short” crossing to the San Blas turned out, I don’t know how often I was grateful for having disagreed. And yesterday’s assembly wasn’t the end of the world, but I did have a pang of regret for having decided to not clutter up deck space with a rigid dinghy, crappy passages notwithstanding. I helped, and grandpa took pictures and added his opinion of the way it ought to be done to three others. In the future, though, I expect the boys will streamline and fully take over this job while I go about the routine of settling in. By the time it’s their father’s watch on Shangri La, and by the time I’m home in Vermont, they’ll be old hands at this. Already, I can’t bear to think about it.

Tania and the boys attempt re-inflating the dinghy on deck.

There are a bunch of other boats here, this being one of the more popular anchorages in the San Blas. I knew it was and headed here anyway, figuring that the place where the flocks gathered would be an easy spot to find. I haven’t made a reefy landfall in a long time and didn’t feel an urge to be overly adventurous, especially after what it took to get here. I’ve got my bearings now, am reminded of how easy navigating between reefs can be with some caution and good light, and we’ll head for another recommended and more isolated spot tomorrow. Maybe. The idea of staying put for a little while is tempting.

Exploring a tropical island in the San Blas

In the meantime, Sam has already mapped out the menu for the next four days; we’ve got some catching up to do in the eating department. I can see his ribs! But, I’m happy to report that throughout the ordeal, we had only a couple beleaguered teenager hours after one night of particularly fitful sleep—apparently, he doesn’t like lee cloths. Otherwise, between some greener bouts, he was very solicitous, upbeat, and helpful. It was nice to have something to be grateful for when sailing hard on the wind, heeled over and pounding through waves, and to see that the ship’s log says you’re doing 4 knots through the water while the GPS says you’re only making 1.5-2 knots over ground. Both boys have no idea how priceless each smile, chat, and offer of help, or a seat on the comfortable side of the cockpit was to this frustrated mother. I’ll let them know with a delicious chicken curry tonight.

Tania on deck, tweaking the sails, on the slow ride from Colombia to the
San Blas

Some Kuna men just came by to collect the $5 fee for being here, which, apparently, will be transferable to other anchorages during our entire San Blas stay. They also needed a hook and, fortunately, Sam is well equipped in the fishing department. Last night, all the other (American) boats around us but one (English) hauled up their dinghies. I’m not sure why. Theft danger? Scum avoidance? Perhaps we should get a lock and chain in Panama because there’s no way we’ll be doing nightly dinghy haulings. Maybe the world is a different place in that regard; maybe with the growth of the cruising lifestyle, more dinghies get stolen, and I’d hate for us to find out the hard way. In Curacao, Grandpa and the boys splattered the brand new dinghy and outboard with all kinds of red and blue splotches and graffiti, the idea behind having a clown craft being that its distinctiveness might make it less appealing to a thief. I hope the artwork will be as effective a deterrent to them as it’ll be an embarrassment to us so conspicuously pulling up to future landings.

Out there, though, the only thieving going on was of any good winds. When we left Cartagena, it was overcast, a squall was headed up the bay, and the winds were from the southwest quadrant, precisely the direction in which we were headed. The forecast was predicting more of the same for the entire foreseeable future, but I decided to leave anyway. The boys had gotten further ahead with their home-schooling schedule, we’d done and seen everything that interested us about Cartagena as a city, and our choice was between planning some sort of inland expedition (something that could be done anytime with an airplane and luggage) while waiting for a better weather window, or to just brave the elements, hope for the best, and get to the San Blas to spend time there instead (something that can only be done with a boat). So, we left.

Tania and Sam tweaking sails, trying to eek out a bit more speed

One-hundred-and-ninety upwind miles. How long can that take? Two days, max? Ninety-five miles a day with a little motoring to help us along? Nope. Not at all. We’re here to tell you that if and when the headwind chooses to briefly abate, and you still have a counter swell and current, it’s a waste of fuel to use the engine—1.5 knots over the ground hardly justifies the use of three liters of diesel, the wear and tear on the sails, and humors. It took us fourdays.

On top of that, the first day was plagued by a constant smell of gasoline seeping from the fuel joint on the outboard’s external fuel tank and stinking us out even once I moved it from the cockpit sole and lashed it down on deck. There aren’t many more nauseating smells. On day two, the wind eased enough for a couple of hours for me to go out and find that the brand new gasket on the brand new and as yet unused tank was broken. I made a new seal from some gasket goo in a tube, which seemed to solve the problem, but then out came Grandpa’s foul foul weather poncho, last used about seven years ago on a Himalayan trek, about which I chose to remain stoically silent. You know, choose your battles.

Engine check

Then came the loss of the Monitor’s windvane during some particularly squally weather because I’d apathetically neglected to attach it to the rig with a lanyard, as instructed, and so we had to use the less responsive heavy weather model. Then came the wave, in through the hatch Grandpa opened during a deceptively calm moment. And then came one miserable cross on the chart after another.

Nobody cared how many miles we actually pounded out; the prevailing subject of conversation and dismay was that we covered fifty miles in the right direction per day, turning this three-hour tour into a major slog through rough weather (some of the squalls were pretty fierce), and much tossing of the tiny ship and the bellies of her occupants. Only Grandpa kept up with his appetite for cocktails, wines, and eats, and was able to stand in the infernal galley to cook pasta and rice. One thing is for sure: if he weren’t with us, the boys would have had to fare on their own with cold canned soups and crackers, and we’d have saved some propane.

In the end, floating here on this idyllic lagoon, I look back on the past four days and see this as an authentic shakedown cruise, a way to see what happened when the going started getting tough. No doubt about it, there is a definite correlation between weather and moods. Even so, the mood never got much worse than greenish and snippy, and the boys held their own on watch, helped and learned about taking in reefs, tacking, and plotting, and Shangri La handled well. Most importantly, nobody would ever appreciate this anchorage as much without earning it, and earn it we did. So, now I’m being dragged out to enjoy it, too, because the boys are done with their day’s lessons, and are chomping at the snorkeling bit. Maybe, catching a little langouste will snap Grandpa out of the sulk. We’re off. Hasta l’heugo.

Finally, fishing and diving and the fruits of a spearfisherman’s labor...
a big meaty San Blas crab for dinner