31 January 2006
San Blas Archipelago, Panama
Cousin Fred and Shauneen's Visit
On the small island of Porvenir several commuter planes land at the break of every day. The runway is so short that if you anchor too close to the island, the height of your mast will interfere with the glide path. After landing the first of these twenty seaters pulls off the patched runway into the sand filled potholes in the grass and comes to a halt. Passengers from the thatch covered hooch head to the plane to occupy the seats emptied by those disembarking. Luggage is literally dumped out of the nose and aft compartments of the plane and is replaced by the departing passengers luggage. The pilot talks to the agent who is also the clerk at the hotel and before the plane takes off a policeman in army fatigues makes a hapless effort to keep people off the runway. The plane quickly is back in the air making room for the second and then the third landing of the day. This morning one of the planes is carrying Cousin Fred and his wife Shaun back to Panama City where tomorrow they will return to the US.
Fred and Shaun visited Shiraz for three weeks and during that time logged more sea miles than any cruising guest we know. The first leg of our voyage took us from Colon to Portobello, a short three or four hour run. This allowed everyone to get their sea legs and gave us the opportunity to have dinner ashore. The next afternoon we headed for Cartagena, Columbia which was three hundred miles to the east and against the prevailing trades. There was a shift in the wind to the north and a lessening of the seas around the Columbian coast opening a window for us to sail to this wonderful South American seaport. It was a close haul all the way with the winds from 20 to 25 knots out of the NNE and we pounded for approximately 50 hours before we entered Boca Chica and motored up the bay to anchor off Club Nautico just before night fall.
You may think there is not much to do while pounding into eight foot swells spaced about 7 seconds apart, but there is actually quite a bit of activity. First there is the watch responsibility where three hours out of every nine you track the progress of the boat and keep an eye out for wind shifts, floating debris and any boat traffic in the surrounding area. The occasional tact to keep us near the rumb line interrupts any resting during the off watch hours, but hey it's not all work. There's fishing and cleaning fish and "chumming" for fish. Our luck was commensurate with our effort and we only landed two black fin tunas on the trip to Cartagena. There was a full moon during the passage and after the moon set the stars blanketed the sky.
We were last in Cartagena over a year ago and the city and Colombia have made notable improvements. The once outlaw nation of drug cartels and violence has gained more and more confidence in its place in the world community. Security continues to improve up and down the coast enticing more cruisers to make a number of costal stops traveling form Colombia to Panama. Club Nautico Marina has undergone a small face lift and it was good to renew acquaintances with the staff which remains unchanged. Prices for services have nearly doubled but are still very reasonable by US standards and the city itself appears to be cleaner. Cartagena is full of great hotels, restaurants and entertainment and the charm of the old city has to make it one of the best spots to visit in all of South America. You can sit in a modern internet cafe which is housed in a old mansion and out the window there will be fruit vendors in carts pulled by rangy looking donkeys. The old city comes alive at night when the streets are filled with dining al fresco and street entertainers. The history of the old city and surrounding forts could keep you busy for weeks and yet in Boca Grande you will find a modern city with a surrounding beach.
While at Club Nautico we had the opportunity to be introduced to Douglas and Bernadette Bernon from the vessel Ithaka. Bernadette was editor of the Cruising World magazine that all "want to be" or "plan to be" cruisers read and reread. About 5 years ago she and Douglas gave up their professions and went cruising. Rene and I lived vicariously through their monthly logs. So it was quite a treat to sit at the bar and embarrass myself by reciting all the logs we had read long ago. If you're not familiar with the logs of the Ithaka they are still available on the US Boat web site and today the Bernons occupy the back cover of Cruising World.
On the return trip from Cartagena to the San Blas Islands, we headed out in late afternoon. After clearing the breakwater the wind was up to 28 knots and the seas were steep and confused as they always seem to be outside of Cartagena. The swells were off the quarter deck and occasionally exceeded 12 feet. "It reminds one of being stuck on a never ending ride at a low budget carnival", at least that was how Shaun described the experience. Fishing netted us a dorado which Rene prepared into one of the most delicious meals ever served underway. We also became unwitting observers of the war on drugs as unlit low flying craft broke the silence one evening and US Navy helicopters circled our boat the next day. But as the hours wear on and monotony starts to set in something spectacular happens. A very large school of dolphin surround Shiraz and delight us by jumping and breaching along side the boat for over a half an hour. This happened twice on the return trip. At times you could stand on the bow and see twenty spinner dolphins swimming between or in front of the almas. The return took only 36 hours as our destination was a bit closer. We dropped the hook at about ten in the morning and as is tradition celebrated with a cold beer.
The weather in the San Blas was windy and overcast which puts a damper on snorkeling and other water activities but as the sun started to go down we listen to Kenny Chesney and Shagg and the Commanders as we drank sun downers and ate great meals. The wind kept the boat cool every night and Cousin Fred established several sleeping records while aboard. Visits to the Kuna Yala villages provided a modicum of entertainment and souvenir molas and beads to take home. But mostly we were able to entertain ourselves. Our friends ask how it was with other people on board for twenty days and as we described it we couldn't think of a thing we would change or anything that took away from the fun. So we look forward to a return trip from our Cousins anytime they chose.
To view more photos of Cousin Fred and Shauneen's visit just click on the arrow to start the slide show. To end the slide show just click on the square.