Guests on a boat: how our friends nailed it

“Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” When Benjamin Franklin said this, he wasn’t thinking about fitting two families – a total of nine adult-sized humans  – into a 47’ boat that technically sleeps six, for ten days. So why did things go so well when our friends visited Totem in Panama a few months ago? Partly because we already knew how well we clicked, individually and as a group. But also because the Waters family (or to fellow boaters, the Calypso family, because you are known by your boat name) groks sharing small spaces. They’ve cruised on a 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter. They GET it. (pictured above at a historic fort in Panama: our two families plus the crew of Utopia.)

Disclaimer: I’m not going to provide a packing list here. Yes, we do have a standard document for guests coming aboard Totem. It’s partly a checklist directing prospective guests as to how to pack what they’ll need, what to leave behind. It also previews what to anticipate about boat life for everyone to be comfortable on board. (Spoiler: never ever turn on the faucet unless you are using every drop that comes out! THE HORROR of water wasted stuns us all into speechlessness.) Because the packing directions vary based on where we are, what season it is, and what kind of sailing (or not sailing) is expected – the content is customized every time. As I edited our Totem Guest Prep file for the Waters family I kept cracking up while deleting whole sections about life aboard, because thanks to their prior years of experience living aboard and cruising there was very little orientation needed. So, sorry, no checklist: this is about how to be a good guest on a boat.

So, what makes a good guest on a boat?

Mindful of scarce resources

Utilities and the basics of everyday life readily taken for granted on shore (power, water, internet, the ability to refill the snack bin) are constrained resources on Totem. Space, too, is in limited supply. Constrained resources are a big deal on a boat and can be a big challenge for non-boaty visitors. Orientation to what we have (and what we don’t) is in an advance letter to help them prepare for those divergences from everyday life, like the Navy Shower.

I may have thwacked down a faucet turned on to full flow once, which frankly I have to do with my own teens too. But that’s about it. The Calypsos integrated easily because they had awareness, respect, and the needed dose of flexibility to keep things smooth.

Me, Karen (Utopia) and Nica (Calypso)… photobomb by Nica’s son Julian, Niall wondering what the heck we are doing…

Courier service!

Isn’t it amazing how you can have a need, order what you need online, and have it at your door in lickety-split time? I guess it is, but that’s NOT our reality! We may go (many) months. It’s one of the ways in which cruising is good for practicing gratitude and minimalism: when you have to wait six months for that Shiny Thing, you are either VERY appreciative of it when it arrives, or find it wasn’t necessary and skip ordering it altogether.

When visitors come aboard, the understood quid pro quo is that they’re bringing things for us. Possibly a lot of things. I’m pretty sure we told our crew Ty that it was one duffle bag for him, and one for the boat when he last flew to meet Totem in Namibia! Nica and family arrived four months since our last access to “stuff” and the shopping list included everything from quality sketch pads to books to shampoo (one lone bottle thwarted their goal of traveling all carry-on but they didn’t flinch).

Minimizing our cost

We live on a thin budget. When we invite guests, we take care of them, but that’s within the limits of our very frugal life. Gotta go somewhere? Hoofing it or public transport. Eating in a restaurant? An extravagance not to anticipate. We expect to take care of our guests, and we expect them to be OK with the way we live. If we make plans to do anything on shore, we assume we’re doing Dutch and everyone pays their way.

Nica and family went one better. We walked together to find a grocery store near where they met us in Puerto Lindo, Panama, that would cover us during their stay. It was a good leg stretch, with good company, and helping hands to carry provisions back to the boat – and, it turned out, a friend who didn’t let me pay for any of it. Chipping in to cover your part is welcome. Subsidizing the whole grocery stock-up is awesome! Later in San Blas it was lobster from passing dugouts, produce from a visiting boat. They didn’t just cover their share, they lightened the whole burden. This gets you invited back!

Nica in Totem’s cockpit, underway in Guna Yala

Remembering who is on holiday

Our visitors understood that while they’re on vacation, we’re not. (Because cruising looks good, but we still have things to keep up with: beyond everyday maintenance, Jamie’s advising customers about new sails, we have coaching clients to connect and respond to, etc.). Our choice of destination some days had to be Where The Cell Tower Was, not necessarily where the most awesome beach or snorkeling reef or interesting village was.

Nica, Jeremy and family didn’t expect us to be cruise directors with a planned social schedule. We definitely had a more relaxed everyday routine, which was great all around. Their presence ensured seeking out experiences we might have passed on were they not on board. And much of the time they’d figure out a bunch of their own entertainment, whether it was going for a swim, working out on the bow, or reading a book in the cockpit. They had some of their own keeping up to do as well: Nica filmed for her Tasty Thursday YouTube channel I got to peek over her shoulder to learn about the video editing process.

painting on the boat

Bee takes time out to paint on Totem’s bow in Portobelo, Panama.

Getting involved

Being an active participant instead of a cockpit potato is a corollary of remembering we’re not on holiday. When there’s something to be done, good guests pitch in. The Waters family helped prepare meals. They did a lot of dishes. They kept our (snug) berth spaces tidy. We shared the everyday load more like one big family than two families stuffed together. When our neighbor had trouble with the watermaker on board, Jeremy went with Jamie to help troubleshoot. They hung swimsuits on the lifelines, kept shoes out of the way (who am I kidding that was easy, we barely wore shoes the whole 10 days!), and were always ready to lend a hand.

Jamie and Jeremy checking sail trim as we sail west from Guna Yala

Being flexible

Our cruising mentors would tell their hopeful visitors: “you can choose the date, or the place, but not both.” This actually isn’t too far from the truth, especially for any longer-range planning. We can hone in pretty well as a date approaches, but often it’s just hard to know where we can be: weather plays with our ability to control planning. Our mentors’ guide is a truism ameliorated with a mix of planning, flexibility, and the weather gods.

Nica and Jeremy’s ideal was to transit the Panama Canal on Totem, a preview for their intentions to bring Calypso through to the Pacific in the future. But as their arrival date approached, it was peak season at the canal and the lag to confirm a transit spot did not match well with the dates on their plane tickets.

We called them with our Iridium GO (yes, you can make calls with it) from a remote corner of San Blas with the news, and some options. They took it in stride, and plans were revised. They weren’t able to go through the canal, but we had a great time cruising around the idyllic San Blas islands instead.

Flexibility is an everyday need, too. Nica sent me a beautiful thank you note after they got back to Virginia. She felt what I did: that despite the fact we believed our odds were good, there was always some chance that packing us all in a small space for a week and a half would eventually create some strain…yet didn’t. She catches the vibe perfectly:

I keep trying to put a finger on what made it so incredible, and it comes back to a couple of things. First of all was the pace. The way we went through the week felt like just the way we like to cruise. Hang out a while, move on when we want to. No need to race somewhere else just because we’d already seen where we are. Need internet? Stay where we are an extra day or two. Want a better anchorage? Pick up and move. Want to see a village, or get onions, or get to access to town? Move. Check weather, make sure we’re not in for horrendousness, and go accordingly.

kids play at tropical island

Kids… going accordingly, off a picture-postcard island in Guna Yala (San Blas)

Lasting reminders

The Calypso crew surprised us with some excellent treats, picked out with thoughtfulness and care for what our crew would appreciate. First, understand that outside North America, maple syrup might as well be liquid gold (I saw 250 ml in the grocery store here – a surprise itself – for $10. That’s not even one breakfast for this crew!). They know we love it and have Vermont hookups. They brought so much we have it in quantity that doesn’t require RATIONING! That’s been YEARS! And chocolate… oh, the chocolate. Many bags of chocolate chips. Nica, I confess to you here, I might have hidden some of the really good stuff for midnight treats while standing watch between Panama and Baja. We have one bag of chocolate chips left (with less than two weeks until haulout time, when the food stores must be depleted before we leave Totem). PERFECT.

We’ve lacked good music on board Totem for a while, and I might have complained about how Hamilton sounds through laptop speakers (not good). They brought (and left) and AWESOME bluetooth speaker which has been a great way to bring music and cockpit movie nights back to Totem. Just about every day I use or benefit from something that they brought and smile remembering their visit.

aprils maple syrup for breakfast

Totem + Calypso teens digging the April’s Maple… excellent Vermont maple syrup! Photo: Nica Waters

We hope the Calypso family comes back. But even more I think we hope they SAIL CALYPSO this way, and come share an anchorage with us. South Pacific plans may be brewing, and that’s all I’m going to say on that.

You can also read about the Calypso’s experience aboard Totem on Nica’s blog, Fit2Sail!

Guna Yala (San Blas) practicalities for cruisers

tropical paradise sailboat

Guna Yala, Kuna Yala, San Blas: an evolution of names for the archipelago that stretches from Panama’s border at Colombia very nearly to the canal zone. Officially “Guna” (the better linguistic match than Kuna) since 2011, the region’s active effort to preserve indigenous culture and traditions creates a draw for many visitors. Here’s what I think is important to know for cruisers in our wake to plan their visit.

Orientation

There is a meaningful divide between “Western” and “Eastern” regions that is worth considering in planning. The personality split begins where boats coming from the canal zone would bend SE if continuing towards Colombia.

chart of San Blas

Western San Blas is most accessible to canal/Colon. It is peppered with cays and atolls that drift further from the mainland: picture-postcard tropical islands surrounded by swimmable clear water. Guna communities are clustered on islands nearer to the mangrove-lined mainland shore.

Western communities were a mix of those which followed traditional practices and those which had abandoned it. Basic provisioning (fruit, vegetables, meat, staples) is available, including some dugouts that venture to sell to cruising boats, nearly all cruising boats of which seem to remain in this area.

By contrast, the eastern San Blas is more sparsely populated by Guna and cruisers (we saw only one other cruising boat). Boats carrying cargo arrive from Colombia; as a dejected couple of travelers told us in the eastern port of Obaldia, there’s no road out. You can fly, or you can join a backpacker boat, either at some expense.

Here the water was murkier; this may have been seasonal, but we were there in the dry season when you’d least expect the effect of river runoff. Peak trade winds chopped the water, and together these factors made eyeball navigation difficult. Between water quality and presumed crocodile hazard, swimming was off the menu.

Rules to respect

Visitors are welcomed, but this is Guna land – Guna rules – and between our guest status and indigenous people’s willful choice to separate from modern norms, important to respect. Here’s a snapshot reference for to what the Guna feel are important for visitors to know and avoid: there’s more in the Bauhaus guide.

Guna Yala regulations, as sourced from the Kuna Yala Cruisers Facebook group

I had to restrain my usual snap-happy self, as many Guna are reluctant to be photographed. Always ask first: “¿puedo tomar foto?” to know if it’s OK. In some (so picturesque!) communities, there’s no photography allowed at all. I wish I could paint the pictures in my head. And Guna women, in mola blouses, red and yellow head scarf, gold septum rings and necklaces, and bands of beading on their legs and arms… they are stunning and tempting subjects. But – no, unless permission is clearly given.

Ask permission

Besides asking permission for photos: you’re effectively asking permission to anchor, and expected to pay for the privilege. Be a good guest. If you are anchored off an island with a community and aren’t approached by anyone, go ashore and ask for the saila (village leader) to pay up. It’s the right thing to do! The morning after we arrived, a poor Guna became quite irate with us because he thought we were trying to skip out on paying (we were getting ready to depart). When we finally found the receipt we’d been given the night before to show him, he was mollified and paddled off, but the reaction made me think – he’d been taken advantage of before.

Anchoring fees are pretty consistent in eastern Guna Yala. We paid $10 at almost every stop. In the west it was a little different; sometimes we were asked for an anchoring fee (even at uninhabited islands, if they were part of the purview of a nearby community), sometimes it was a cost-per-person ($2) for going on the beach. In either case it was good for a month. If you’re zipping through, they can add up!

Guna Yala anchoring receipts

Guna Yala anchoring receipts, on top of Bauhaus’ book

Arrive with cash

US dollars are the currency used in Guna Yala. There are no ATMs, there are no credit cards accepted (there are no roads, or power grid, so…). One family arrived recently and had to borrow money from other boats in order to complete clearance formalities! Kind of shocking planning… granted, it’s unusual.

Bring small bills. If you’ve negotiated a couple of lobster for $10 but only have a $20, there’s probably no change; you’ll be buying more lobster or having none. Small tiendas on Guna islands might make change, but not the dugout on your hip.

Is there trading? No. Well, not really. I wondered, before we got there. But this is not so much a “remote” place as one which has chosen to set itself apart… there is access to Stuff, if people want, and that requires cash. So the bartering that was central to some other corners of the world where we have cruised where Stuff is enough, here it was all about cold hard cash. That said, when I came up short on a mola I wanted to buy, the woman selling it was willing to take a handful of instant coffee packets in lieu of about $10 difference I was trying to make up!

Sailing dugout in Guna Yala

Sailing dugouts are the primary mode of transport, east and western Guna Yala

Provision up

General guidance for Guna Yala is to bring whatever you need, and don’t count on buying anything. That’s a little extreme, as there were small shops on occasional communities. It is limited, so good to plan ahead as have a modicum of flexibility. We actually ran out of toilet paper: PROVISIONING FAIL! Times when it’s good to have friends nearby that will sling you a package of TP!

Veggie stand at a shop on Nargana with a posse of cruisers: pretty typical! SV Aseka and Utopia

In the eastern San Blas. where we were offered coconuts, plantains, locally grown fruit or small fish from passing dugouts. On more populated islands there are probably stores; we were only in little islands, and the one store I saw had little more than rice, dried beans, boxed cereal (?), and canned meat.

In the west, boats visit outer reef anchorages specifically to sell produce and meat to cruisers

Honestly, even with the TP fiasco, we’d have been fine. It was available at small shops in Guna communities, along with a surprising variety of other goods. We’re used to adapting our diet to fit what’s available locally, and it wouldn’t have been much adapting to make it work with what we were able to source in San Blas.

Watch for crocs!

Crocodiles are a very real problem in San Blas – this coastline is theirs, not ours, and they do foray out. Risk exists not just in the murky waters near shore but the gin-clear reefs offshore. Yes, both. Even on the islands away from mangroves and murk, dogs have been taken off beaches and a snorkeling cruiser was attacked (and survived, but not without a helicopter ride to the hospital in Panama City) in 2017. What can you do? Find out through the cruiser’s coconut telegraph (radio nets, Facebook groups, deck-to-dinghy chats) if and where they’ve been spotted, and consider whether you want to get in the water or not. I wouldn’t forgo swimming, I’d just swim with some information.

I didn’t realize

We’d be so disconnected! Cruisers reported “there’s internet here,” and I just believed it. Well, there is, in some parts of western Guna Yala. We found none in the much larger eastern region. The Iridium GO kept us connected, but at a text-only basis. (You can post pictures to a Facebook profile from the GO, but not to a Facebook page…to my chagrin).

Plastic garbage. There is an appalling amount of garbage, some floating in the water, much of it just drifted up on the beach. It’s far, far too much to do anything about. At least those were the only crocs we saw while in Guna Yala.

Crocs of San Blas

Liveaboard community. Gringos have been living aboard (is it really cruising when the western bay where all these boats hang out is only 35 miles wide?) in San Blas for years. There’s a nice collection of some really helpful folks. There’s the inevitable dose of jaded old-timers who seem to have forgotten they are guests and have a skewed view of their “rights.” Whatever. On balance they the driving reason behind this curious distinction between the western and eastern portions of San Blas.

 

Instant coffee is a hit. Who knew! I’ve been working through a hoard of individual serving packets which are very convenient on night watch. When someone stops by, unless they’re a flyby offer to sell fish, visitors are invited into the cockpit to sit in the shade and have a drink. We don’t have sodas on board so it was water or coffee and… well I served a lot of coffee! It would be a great gift item to make nice with the local sahila or a Guna family that you meet.

Next time

If (when? I hope when!) we revisit, I’d plan differently. Mainly, we’d extend our stay, and skew heavily towards eastern Guna Yala. We found the frontier nature of it far more interesting. There was minimal tourism; people had more time; they weren’t only interested in us as potential transactions. Exactly the kind of place we love to sink into and understand better.

Second, I’d extend the stays in individual anchorages, instead of moving on after a night our two (an unfortunate pace driven by necessity at the time). This is a fascinating region, and when you skip through as quickly as we did – you don’t have the opportunity to really connect and understand much of what makes it special. It takes time we couldn’t give to gain that permission and trust.

fishermen on beach with net

Fishermen cooperate for the morning catch

Helpful resources

The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus is an invaluable reference; there’s really not a substitute. The chapter on San Blas opens with an illuminating discussion of Guna history and culture, along with guidance for how to be sensitive to it as a visitor. For details about the islands, it’s the best, and the author has surveyed the region extensively: his charts are the best reference for a coastline which was mostly “unsurveyed” or insufficient for use in our (new!) Navionics charts. They aren’t infallible, but what chart is? We don’t always pick up cruising guides, but I cannot imagine cruising Guna Yala without this one (thank you MM!).

Bauhaus’ chartlets, digitized. Some helpful person turned chartlets in the Bauhaus guide into KAP files you can overlay on your charts (we used OpenCPN for this). Particularly in the eastern territory, murky water hampers visual piloting. Know that Google Earth / satellite imagery isn’t high enough resolution to be useful in many areas, particularly the east. Readily passed between boats on memory sticks, they are invaluable. They are also the intellectual property of Eric Bauhaus! If you acquire and use them, figure out how to pay him. I emailed him, but he never replied… just buy the book, which you can pick up in Linton or Shelter Bay Marina if you didn’t plan ahead.

San Blas Cruisers on Facebook This helpful group is administered by long-term San Blas cruiser/liveaboards who strive to keep information flowing and on point.

Radio. San Blas cruisers have a morning mobile maritime net. It’s a long time since we’ve been regulars on the SSB, but this was very useful for sharing information in an area too spread out for VHF. The 8 meg frequency is posted in the Facebook group. On VHF, 72 is standard hailing for cruisers here.

Totem and crew are in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico… playing catch up on notes & info to share with the community and cruisers in our wake. In case you missed the memo, just because we completed a circumnavigation doesn’t mean we’re done cruising! More adventures ahead.

Exploring Panama’s Guna Yala

sailboat at sunset

Plumes of spray shoot up where waves strike the rocky spires of a reef off the coast of Guna Yala. Totem is bashing west to our next pocket of protection for anchoring, and none of our charts on board match what our eyeballs tell us. “I guess we won’t sail between those islands” considered Jamie while eyeing breakers that stretched across the gap. One chart showed the area as grayed-out UNSURVEYED territory. Two others with some detail suggested it was passable. Welcome to navigating in the eastern Guna Yala! (This post builds on the prior introduction to Guna Yala).

Tucked into a deep bay a few hours later, the kids jumped in for a swim: sediment meant limited visibility, but the sun broke from behind the dry-season cloud cover and turned it a lovely shade of turquoise. Swimming was short lived… was that the smear of a crocodile’s haulout on shore? Impenetrably green hillsides tumbled down to the water’s edge, and in the distance cried a bird, or maybe a monkey; the call was unfamiliar to our ears.

Visitors arrive paddling a large dugout ulu (which also sports a 9.9 hp outboard) from the cane-and-thatch homes nearby. Three generations of a family come aboard: grandmother, parents, and three young children. Together they comprise the majority of the 11-count human population of this community, a handful of structures built a few yards over the water on piles of coral rubble.

Arsesio speaks reasonable English, a legacy of the time he spent in Panama City before choosing to return to traditional Guna life. A few of our Spanish words come in handy too; his wife and mother are more reserved but listen in and smile at appropriate enough times that I think they understand more than they let on. We share snacks stories of our lives while his adorable toddler stuffs crackers into the top of a winch, just like our own kids found them receptacles perfectly suited as string cheese holders some a few years ago. Gifts were lightly bartered: green coconuts and plantains in thanks for batteries and candles. (I’d love to come back to Guna Yala with cases of solar-powered Luci lights to brighten evenings in settlements like this!)

He later asked a favor: since we were headed west, could we take his family (his mother Selina, wife Obaldina, and their three children) on Totem to their larger island community? We pored over the thin data on our charts, and it looked risky. The shallow draft of their dugout makes it effortlessly through a channel between islands and mainland, but it looked questionable for Totem. In good conditions, with water depths we could visually pilot? Maybe. But whitewater blowing across the reef didn’t give us enough to work with for finding a safe path.

Meanwhile, learning about the reason for the request helped us understand how to help. It was time to fill their canoe with coconuts, plantains, and more to sell at the densely populated 10 miles north. Yet when it was loaded down (this included two additional village members, their gear, and an intact but very much not alive deer-like mammal), the sea state was too rough to safely cross the ocean pass between the islands. Now we knew what to do: it was a matter of getting them across this cut into the lee of the next island, not all the way up to their destination; and that we could do. And so, the following morning, all six family members boarded. It wasn’t until they began loading goods—a chain saw, a portable generator, a shotgun, a plastic tub of clothing, two puppies!—that the need became even more apparent. No way could they get across the rough seas in their dugout with all this! So our girls led their girls in coloring pictures below deck while we nibbled fresh bread in the cockpit with adults. It wasn’t a long journey, but an unforgettable one.

We had all the company we needed already with Utopia II.

The eastern range of Guna Yala (also called Kuna Yala, or San Blas) is virtually devoid of other cruising boats: we encountered only one throughout this stretch. Did the relative isolation foster opportunities like meeting the family in Escoses? On another island, we were shown ambergris worth tens of thousands of dollars sitting out on a coral wall to dry. Near Playon Chico, a frequent Guna visitor would ramble for hours some afternoons on everything from his island’s upcoming chicha festival to bandidos stealing from his garden on the mainland. There’s the time our guide for a hike told us with pride about the role of US military in supporting Guna independence; he offered geologic survey markers from the late 1940s as evidence and told us about the armadas from the US to support the Guna during their struggle for recognition – pointing to his ballcap commemorating the 90th anniversary, 1925-2015. And memorably, the afternoon a weathered man beckoned from his doorway calling “cultura! cultura!”- culture, my kryptonite – to show me rows of nuchu, statues with living spirits important to Guna religion, on a corner hutch inside his drafty bungalow.

In the western San Blas, the dynamic shifted significantly. Here were scores of cruising boats. Not all islands follow the Guna’s traditional ways. There were conveniences again: the ability to buy bread and other groceries from small stores (in the east, fewer options and smaller shops; we might buy coconuts or plantains or fish from an individual with extra). Internet access. And here, at last, were the breathtaking islands: white sand beaches, tall coconut palms leaning gently towards turquoise water.

Empty anchorages of the east were traded for bays holding a dozen or more boats at a time. Many were long-term liveaboards, many were “backpacker boats” ferrying travelers (at surprising cost) for their Kuna Yala Experience… or an alternate mode of transportation to Colombia. A few, like us, were cruisers passing through; the western islands are an accessible overnight sail away from the canal region.

These numbers shift local dynamics. Guna in the western islands have built livelihoods around marketing to visiting boats. Dugouts were more likely to come along side marketing handicrafts, offering tours, selling fish and lobster, and occasionally other provisions. And here in the west, thanks in part to that reach, are renowned mola makers: Venancio Restrepo, from Isla Maquina, and “Mola Lisa,” from Rio Sidra.

Venancio and his brother Idelfonso charmed us with their beautiful textiles, patient explanations, and gentle manner

We saw stunning molas in the east, too, but the combination of volume here, the English proficiency of the artists, and their ability to range to the more distant islands favored by cruising boats contribute to their fame.

Shortly before we departed San Blas, a Guna family from Nusatupu island (just below Rio Sidra; near 9 26.8 N / 78 50.20 W ) sailed their ulu over for an early morning visit. They’d seen our mast over the spit of mangrove-covered land that separated us from their home. Igua and his parents were pleasant company; his mother, Floricelda, more outgoing than any other Guna women I met. They visited in our cockpit for a while—drinking coffee, offering molas for sale. From them we learned about the divide is then between Guna who can afford outboards for their canoes range further from the settlement islands to peddle molas; should we return (I hope we return!), I’d make more of an effort to seek out these islands and the artists who don’t have those means. Igua is an albino; there’s a high incidence of this among Guna. The trait is revered, and has a special place in their culture, but given the hot tropical sun… we sent Igua with a bottle of sunscreen. I wish I could say if I’d though tof it first, but it took his request for an application from the one in our cockpit for me to clue in. Maybe some boat in our wake can stop in at Nusatupu, pass along a bottle of sunscreen for Igua, and tell Floricelda her beautiful mola has a good home.

Floricelda allowed photo of her stunning wini, the beadwork decorating women’s arms and legs

Guna Yala holds so many facets of what makes our life interesting packed into one place. Picture-postcard views when the sun emerges (white sand, turquoise water, islands the size of a baseball field sprinkled with palms). Deserted islands where the kids can swim and play. Low tech local community, where people have time to talk. Cultural experiences far from our norm, with lessons to give. And not least, good company: this is the last sailing we’ll do with Utopia II for a while, and so we made the most of it.

Celebrating a boat-kid-birthday in typical low key style, with a beach picnic and games.

Next: practicalities for cruisers planning to sail for Guna Yala / Kuna Yala / San Blas

Like nowhere else: the allure of Panama’s Guna Yala

dugouts under palm tree

Headwinds. Choppy seas. Eyeball navigation through reefs where the usual tropical cues are absent. Days of gray skies. Taciturn communities. Few supplies. All features of our weeks sailing through the islands of Guna Yala (also known as Kuna Yala, or San Blas). Am I selling it yet? The truth is, there’s an undeniable attraction to this wild section of Panama’s Caribbean coast.

The territory includes around 350 islands along a coast of just over 100 straight-line miles. Communities pack into islands where homes constructed of cane and thatch butt up against one another, and footpaths are small enough in some cases to reach out and touch the low-slung palm roofline on either side. These alternate with islands which are largely uninhabited.

It is relatively disconnected: just a single four-wheel-drive road links the far western end to the rest of Panama. The only other “roads” are rivers and footpaths reaching into the tangled green jungle on the mainland: coastal waters are the real highway. Guna ply their dugouts by sail and outboard between islands; what isn’t grown or foraged is largely brought by Colombian supply boats.

Guna Yala is part of Panama… and it isn’t. Indigenous Guna people fought (and won) the right to self-determination and have largely rejected modern “civilization” in favor of preserving their traditions. Retaining this culture is not an outcome of their location, but a deliberate choice: although Guna Yala feels remote, the modern hub of Panama City with its millions of people and bright lights and shiny tech is within reach.

Google’s satellite view shows the density of a populated Guna island

Most islands have little more than coconut palms

Escaping the breaking swells in the clearance port, Obaldia, we shook off the difficult passage from Colombia in the placid water off Anachucuna village. Within a few hours with a shy young couple paddling their dugout to Totem introduced the first ritual of a Guna anchorage: anchoring fees. Uncommon in most of our travels, it’s the norm in the eastern San Blas. There; you’re expected pay whoever presents an officially stamped receipt on behalf of the local ‘congreso,’ the governing authority, and receive rights for a month in return. Too bad we were only staying overnight! I explained this to the visitor, asked for grace on the charge based on our short stay, and offered a handful of instant coffee packets as goodwill. A more social visit came from a father and son the following morning: in addition to their fishing handline, the bottom of their dugout included bananas, limes, and handicrafts to sell. Joining us in the cockpit we learned Andreas also had time, and was interested in talking. Or trying to, as our Spanish is weak and Guna language (Dulegaya) skills nonexistent! My first lesson in ensued, along with my first mola purchase.

Tucked in his basket were a few molas, panels of reverse appliqué panels used in women’s blouses. If you’ve heard about San Blas, you’ve probably heard about molas: the textiles are famous, for their intricate hand-sewn detail and vibrant illustrations representing everyday life or cultural motifs. The first mola he showed us was so nearly approximate a likeness to Totem’s orca, I couldn’t resist. Little did I know this was the beginning of what I now understand to be emola virus: by the time we sailed out of Guna Yala, the single panel had grown to a small stack in the aft cabin.

Totem moved steadily west, gunkholing from one island to the next with a night or two in each stop. It was a fast pace, but we hoped to secure an earlier canal transit (it didn’t work, oh well). Now is the dry season, but ironically, that’s when a cloudy haze obscures the mainland. Occasional breaks offer a tantalizing hint at rugged topography beyond the nearest foothills: the mainland horizon is only rarely visible behind a veil of clouds. Not the classic tropical landscape, but beautiful vistas nonetheless. Local knowledge and shallow draft let local boats move more nimbly than we could!

sailing dugout canoe

Overcast skies also make navigation difficult. The charts here are… wait, what charts?! Most of eastern San Blas just shows ‘unsurveyed’ on ours, and many visual piloting cues are absent in the overcast light and murky water. We move slowly and try to read each wavelet in the choppy water.

There’s a reef here just 3′ below the surface. See it? Yeah neither do we.

This is the area chosen for the Darien scheme, a Scottish effort to find the overland route to the Pacific: doomed not only to fail in transiting the isthmus, but to bankrupt many Scots and contribute to weakening the kingdom to the point it “united” with England. In a deep bay where St Andrews Fort once stood, a village with a handful of cane homes sits out on coral rubble over the reef.

sailboat and thatched huts

To be continued…

Pictures from the Passage: Colombia to Panama

Photos of sea state never do it justice. It is a truth and occasional lament, as it’s difficult to convey the feeling of being at sea. This passage (Trials at Sea and Ashore) held some of the most unpleasant seas we’ve experienced: flat-fronted walls of water, tossing Totem around. These pictures won’t capture those seas, but to the challenging passage from Colombia to Panama.

A more pleasant start on departure from Santa Marta; ahead of us, the 51’ Utopia II is dwarfed when passing the massive yacht M5.

Bit of a size difference

A few hours later, a chain link of Totem’s steering cable broke: steering was still possible with the autopilot, but not with the helm. In many situations, that wouldn’t be such a big deal. In these seas, which necessitated more human-controlled steering to avoid rounding up, it was a bigger problem. What followed was about eight hours of “hand steering” the waves by pressing autopilot buttons to adjust course. Here, Jamie works on repairs that night as we lay at anchor near Baranquilla. More about the break, and the fix, in a later post.

Headlamp-powered repairs to the steering cable

The next day was relatively uneventful, but exhaustion prompted a stop in Cartagena to rest. Aussie catamaran Aseka entering behind us, in a narrow channel shared with commercial vessels like that in the background.

Kinda snug in the channel…

Fishermen heading out to sea in the early morning, passing the 18th century San Fernando fort which guards one side of Cartagena’s Boca Chica entrance.

Fishermen commute

For the first time in months, a pod of dolphins joined us to play in the wake.

What species?

Feathered hitchhikers are always fun, although boobies like the one that joined us overnight can leave appallingly smelly poo on deck. This one struggled to sit on the furler and eventually settled on the anchor roll bar (an excellent poop scoop). We decided it was practicing for a band album cover with extended stares off into the middle distance.

Clearing in at Puerto Obaldia, Panama, was… “interesting” as swells rolling in made us pitch at anchor. Thankfully we were able to depart the tenuous spot to find serene waters in Puerto Perme before nightfall, and host our first Guna visitors (and their dugout) the following morning.

Trials of this passage are detailed in the prior post, but internet prevented pictures at the time – enjoy a late update!