Category: Panama


Picking up our friends Evan and Olivia Bartlett from the airstrip brings smiles that can

Sammy and I – my hero

only come from seeing someone that you have been friends with half your life.  Our stay in Nargana is punctuated by visits to Sammy and Mina’s home.  On one visit his son gets a neighbors foot long land turtle for Chase.  He is happy just to look, but when he gets to hold it, he’s ecstatic.  Another visit Leroy, his son, climbs a coconut tree so that we can have some fresh juice.  Chase finds a suitable tree a week later, but gets stuck six inches up; I don’t even try.  Leroy is a hunter and gives Chase and I wild boar teeth for a necklace.  The three-inch tooth is more imposing than the shark tooth necklace that chase has, but I’d rather go against the boar.  Taking another dinghy trip up the Devil River brings less wildlife than our last visit with more talking and less scouting but is equally fun.

All three fuel tanks have been topped off from some suspicious 55-gallon drums but filtered through an amazingly dirty towel (so all should be good?)and we are ready to head out to some more picturesque islands.  Cocos Banderos is our destination along the tranquil seas.  The islands are small, spectacular palm-filled, translucent turquoise water surrounded havens.  My best part of the day is when I realize there are seven islands I could swim to today.  I make it to three.

The Cocos Banderos

My father has helped us to concoct a story of buried treasure at the hands of Captain Hook.  Finding an old, although oddly smelling freshly burnt, treasure map in a bottle floating by, we decipher the islands and realize the treasure is on the island next to us.  Mounting a SUP and swimming expedition the six of us head out to find treasure.  Chase finds the old hut first, takes the right number of steps and when they find the “X” in the sand start digging like mad.  Ella finds a necklace of her Gram’s with jade and gold frogs.  Swooning and smiling she holds it to her chest like she is hugging Gram.  Chase finds a Snoopy doll, which sends him into beaming smiles and giggles.  “Snoopy’s back” is a constant refrain for several weeks.

Hanging out

Treasure found, we play a game of baseball on the island that’s the size of a baseball field’s

infield.  Home plate consists of two coconuts and the other bases are in foot deep water marked with starfish.  Giggles, splashes and cheers fill the air as we play.   Ella finds the smallest anchor ever weighing less than a pound and begs to keep it.  She knows that weight is such an issue, but really wants it.  It’s only a pound so we now have a 6th anchor aboard (2 for the dinghy, 1 plow that we use constantly and 2 danforth anchors).

With more exploring to do we take the dinghy to an island with two palms and a large sandy area.  Making life size sea turtle models fills the kids time while three adults snorkel the reefs surrounding our jewel in the sea.  The kids are learning more about sea turtles daily so when Chase points at the full moon in the sky and says that it’s time to lay eggs and starts making sand eggs, I am hardly surprised.

Moving on to the Holandes Islands brings us to an anchorage called the swimming pool because of the nine-foot depth and resulting green glow.  We jump ship immediately after anchoring, enjoying the cool waters of this giant pool.  The kids will swim anywhere, but they do prefer to swim in water where they can see the bottom – it’s understandable.  When the water is forty or fifty feet deep and the bottom can’t be seen it can send the mind into the what was that movement over there hysteria.

The kids jump from the deck into the turquoise waters below screaming in delight.  They have swordfights on deck, and then zoom down the slide as they chase after an imaginary Captain Hook.  Once in the water we catch starfish and silver dollars.  Mounting a SUP expedition, we head to a nearby reef for some snorkeling.  Using Ella’s new anchor we moor the boards diving into the warm water.  The shallow reef brings all the colors up brightly and we see a Spotted Eagle Ray and then an octopus – another successful expedition.

On the way over from Cocos Banderos I caught a Skipjack Tuna.  Lindsey shows Olivia how to

Sashimi appetizers

fillet it for sashimi and then we all enjoy a couple platefuls of the melt-in-your-mouth meat.  But, before the sashimi arrives they start throwing the scraps into the water.  A nice two-foot Snapper fish seems to be liking the dinner.  So do a couple of nurse sharks.  Armed with my Hawaiian sling I slide into the water.  The fish is squirrelly and doesn’t let me get too close.  Telling Olivia to “chum the water again”, she throws another handful of fish parts over the side.  I can get the fish closer but not close enough.  I grab my underwater camera to take some pictures of the sharks under Rivers2Seas.  One is four feet long and the other about six.  Swimming down the nine feet to the ocean floor is easy even though I have a camera in one hand and my Hawaiian sling in the other.  Feet away from the sharks, I start to video their circuitous path picking up the skipjack parts.  My first indication that something was wrong, although unheeded, is when I notice that the shark has spots all along it’s back.  Actually, I believe at the time I thought it was cool looking.

The shark does two loops looking at me from the same spot each time as I float on the surface.  On the third loop, it lunges straight at me fast.  My sling is six feet long and I’m holding it in the middle giving me a three-foot range.  As my foot pushes to keep me on the surface it comes close to the lunging shark.  I strike its nose hard with the sling twice.  The first strike feels like I have hit a piece of coral, hard and unmovable.  Except this time the hard unmovable coral is moving towards me pushing back my hand.  The second strike is softer and only hits the rubbery skin.  Lasting less than a second our battle is over and my opponent swims away.  Making a speed record back to the boat, I pull up the ladder as everyone wants to know what all the shrieking is about.  No grown man wants to hear that he was shrieking for sure.  But, sad to say it was true.  I’m just happy to be onboard.  A quick look into our aquatic oceans book reveals the Tiger Shark, juveniles having spots that grow together in adult years.  Looks like mine was a teenager.  Reading on it says that they are some of the most aggressive sharks in the waters.  Needless to say, but I doubt I shall utter the words, “chum the water again” while swimming with any shark.

The next day we resume our swimming regime, but the kids keep a weary eye out for sharks.  They have played a game since birth called Hey mister shark what time is it, asking if they want to play, they steadfastly refuse.  With the two SUP boards tied in a line of the back they run down them trying to stay on until the end.  Giggles galore.

During all the play the man on the boat behind us continually comes on deck to glare at us, shake his head then head below.  As we are heading out to do some more snorkeling from the SUP boards he asks to speak with the captain.  Having been standing on a SUP already it takes less than fifteen seconds to arrive, yet he has demanded twice more to speak to the captain, even though I said I would be right over.  When I arrive, he says, “You’re the captain?” with utter disdain.

“Yes, how are you today?”

Ella diving into the “Swimming Pool”

“Are you going to move?”

“No, we’re going snorkeling.”

“You must move.  You are too close.”

“We aren’t that close to you, the anchor is dug deep and we have lots of scope out in this nine foot deep water.”

“Well, since you’re the new kid on the block I’ll tell you.  The wind blows hard here and will drag a poorly anchored boat.”

“Yes, I know.”  We have already had some 60-knot storms come through and know of other boats dragging and hitting reefs.  That’s why I dive on the anchor each time and let out more scope than most boats.

“If you don’t move I’m going to ram my bowsprit up your ass of your boat.”  By the way he says boat I can tell he doesn’t like catamarans.  By the glares at the kids all day I can tell he doesn’t like kids.  By the glares and mutterings at our happiness I can tell he doesn’t like much.  Our conversation goes nowhere, but I don’t like the fluky way the boats here try to push opposite ways and I don’t want to hit another nearby catamaran.

“I’ll move.”

“You should read a book on how to anchor.”  He then throws some more obscenities at me, turns around and walks to hide in his cabin again.

The fight gets the best of me and I tell him “there’s no need to be an asshole.”  The singlehander with nobody else to talk to loses his marbles at this point and becomes raving mad.  Luckily, I can’t understand a word he is saying.  He is Swiss and has reverted back to that.   Unluckily, his antics make me laugh which sends him into hysterics.

I head back to Rivers2Seas and we decide to not just move, but to move to a different anchorage a half-mile away near a different island.  The kids don the name of Captain Grumpypants to the man who we would see a few times over the next two weeks.

There are several types of sailors out here: singlehander men (I’ve yet to meet a singlehander woman), couples, couple with kids, pairs of men (I’ve only seen one pair of women) and then large groups usually charterers only out for a week.  Most of the groups get along fine, except the singlehanders.  These men have ditched it all and shunned society.  Or they just don’t get along with anyone.  Or they just couldn’t find someone to go with and left before their dream never happened.  Some of the latter are the ones who crave companionship and can latch onto anyone who can speak.  The others degrade into this mental instability where they talk to themselves muttering constantly.  There is nobody to share any of the good or bad moments, nobody to talk about experiences or confusing situations that are constant in a travelers’ world.  The longer these guys are out here, the more unstable they seem to become.  I have travelled alone before and I don’t mean the going to a fancy hotel and eating at nice restaurants type of travel that can be fun.  Expedition travel is different with tough challenges hardships and glorious triumphs.  That type of travel for me is unpleasant and not nearly as rewarding when I’m alone.  While misery loves company, so does happiness.  I like the fact that for years to come Evan will see me and say, “Chum the waters.”  Life is more interesting with people in it.

Our new anchor from the days of pirates

Reanchoring by a nearby island, we drag through the sand then catch on something that holds us well.  I’m worried that we have hooked a piece of coral and as soon as the wind shifts we’ll no longer be hooked and drag to the next island.  Visibility isn’t great in the 35-foot deep water, but I can tell there isn’t a large coral head holding the anchor.  Diving down I can see the outline of something straight.  A couple more dives tells me that it’s an anchor covered in coral about three feet by five feet.  With some serious work over the next couple days, I winch up the 150-pound anchor attached to a 3-inch chain twenty feet long.  It’s seriously rusted, old as anything and undoubtedly cool.  Figuring it must be a pirates’ anchor from at least 200 years ago, I manage to hammer off the rust and coral before getting another crazy memento from our trip.  (Research now puts the date between 1785-1825.)  I’m doubly glad that I let Ella keep her one-pound anchor.

A local Kuna family comes by in their dugout and leaves later after we buy some Christmas

presents for family back home.  Having invited us to their home on another nearby island we show up the next day in our dinghy.  Cries of “Tortuga” greet us before landing.  Once again Chase is the hero in these parts with a name everyone

New friends

loves; Turtle in English, Tortuga in Spanish, Yauk for small turtle in Kuna, Morro for large turtle in Kuna.  We constantly hear cries of “Tortuga” from passing dugouts.  Today it is the beginning of a friendship with these locals.  We have some fun with them and when I bring out my camera the fun really starts.  Families are posing together and with Ella and hanging out in their canoes as a living room set.  A woman who a week later I discover is Sammy Morris’ niece introduces her 11-month-old son as “tortugito” – little turtle.  Chase is ecstatic – kinfolk.

Ah! The anchor. Evan and I had a great time paddling this dugout.

As we are leaving I tell Eric who speaks the best Spanish of the bunch that we should trade

paddles.  Immediately, he comes out with his best paddle and we are both happy for getting the better deal.  He tells me to try his paddle out with his dugout.  It’s fun.  Getting Evan, my

paddling buddy for years in with me, we make an erratic circle with laughter all around.  These boats are tippy and responsive.  Eric keeps telling me to look out for the rock below.  Not too worried, we continue on.  I’m more worried about the crab attached to the back that keeps grabbing my paddle.  When we stop Evan gets out and proceeds to dump us both in to the great hilarity of all present.  That’s when we find out about the anchor, a rock, that we have been dragging around.  Once again, the joke is on us.

As we are leaving, a fishing boat has entered the bay and it’s time for work.  Heading back to Rivers2Seas we tow their dugout behind us.  Later, I call them over and present them with fish hooks and Rivers2Seas hats.  In a great gesture later that night they return with five small lobsters as gifts.  It’s actually rare for the Kuna to trade or give gifts back so we are deeply grateful.  They teach us how to devein them by using the antennae which works wonderfully.  Later a large lobster dinner becomes our birthday celebration for Olivia.

We have had a great visit from our friends, but after nine days it’s time for them to go.  They are travelling in Panama for three weeks and obviously wanted to stay longer and we wanted them to stay too, but food, propane and diesel are all in short supply or impossible to get here.  Every day they spend here is a day earlier we would have to leave the San Blas Islands.   They find a ride to Carti on a 75-foot megayacht, which I bet takes only an hour.  It would have taken us 2-3 days there and the same back.

More storms and more lightning

The storms took a break while Evan and Olivia were here but come back for four days straight.  Several hours each morning are filled with lightning strikes to close to count the distance, tingly feelings in our hair and thunderous roaring that reverberates through the boat and our bones.  I get some cool video of a couple strikes but am a bit scared to get too much.    Another boat sees a strike forty yards from us that strikes a coconut tree.  Our Kuna friends had a strike hit six feet from their hut that he said almost made him go deaf.  I kept part of the tree that exploded from the impact.  We get dozens of strikes within a half-mile of Rivers2Seas.  It has been a bad season for storms and many sailors are reporting that 10% of boats have been hit resulting in $4,000-45,000US in damages.  One friend half-jokingly wanted to wrap herself in aluminum foil to protect her.  She settles for earplugs and closing the curtains to form a cave and hides under the covers.  If you’re not scared of the lightning out here, you’re not paying attention.

Once the storms subside there is enough light for us to travel again.  Our goal is the Eastern

Many reefs around here are marked nicely with wrecked boats. Not exactly comforting.

Lemons, but light is fading as we enter the large bay.  Our horrible charts and less than adequate books are not much help as we negotiate a 8 foot sand bar while skirting several reefs.  As with many of the reefs here a smashed up sailboat rests on one of the reefs from a sailor with not enough light, time or experience.  Our charts show a shoal that we can find and several rocks that we cant.  The water is deep inside the bay at 60 feet but most all of the boats are moored and won’t swing.  With a minimum of 240 feet of line out we will swing almost 500 feet in a circle.  Not knowing where the rocks are or the bottom composition we try to anchor once, drag and bring it up to head for a different anchorage.  The kids were ready to swim and are unhappy; so are we the light is fading fast.

The Chichime Islands are only a couple miles away so we skirt around a sailboat wreck 70 feet off port and head through a reef cut.  At Chichime two wrecked boats mark two separate reefs, but another six are unmarked.  The confusing guidebook points the wrong way.  Lindsey’s keen eye from high above sees the reef and points the way.  Inside we anchor with another 20 boats in soft sand.

Teaching local kids to SUP in Chichime

Grabbing a beer for Lindsey and I and lemonade for the kids I relate my stories of these three islands in my past.  My first sailing experience was to travel through the Panama Canal for five separate boats, then to work aboard Chantyman and sail to Portobello and then this anchorage with two other sailboats.  It was my introduction into paradise.  The smallest island with two palms on it became my campsite while there.  We didn’t stay long before heading out to Providencia and the USA.  I came back here a couple years later with Bobby and Chad when we bought the dugout canoe.  The island to our starboard is where machine gun toting policeman arrested us then dragged us on to into Nargana.

Ella practices getting high for reef spotting.

One set of three huts lined the shore of one island; the other was only used to get water out of a well in the middle.  The islands are all the same size; a football field, a half football field and a volleyball court size.  Now though, there are five settlements of huts, a bar on each of the larger islands, a backpacker hostel with cabanas, tents, showers, volleyball and dining area, 20 boats in the anchorage and a helicopter even landed on one island.  Paradise was found in my absense.   Disheartening for sure, but not unexpected.

All but a couple of the boats are the singlehander men that seem so strange.  The vibe is weird here, the Kuna come begging for goods and the scenery is marred – we stay two nights before getting out.  Long enough for someone to board us in the middle of the night and steal all the money out of my wallet lying in the entrance.  The $100 is not of significance, but the violation is without a doubt.  Other cruisers are adamant it was not the Kuna but one of the other cruisers.  We agree, but it is sad.

As one boatload of cruisers is talking to us from their dinghy (to ask if we had a dive compressor they could use, which we don’t) they were astounded that we had been in the San Blas for six weeks and they hadn’t seen us.

“We started in the Eastern San Blas and have been working this way slowly,” I said.

Just one of the beautiful islands surrounding us

“Oh, the Holandes.  I don’t like it there.  There are too many Americans.”

“No, the Eastern San Blas.”

“Huh?”  He’s confused.

“We started in Puerto Obaldia, then Puerto Escoses, Isla Pinos, Mamitupu, Ratones Cays, Isla Tigre then we hit the Western San Blas in Nargana.”  It’s defeating for all of them in the dinghy.  We have been travelling the uncharted waters of a very difficult area with kids.  He had tried to insult me with his crack about Americans in the Holandes, yet it proved we have done so much more than all of them.  It feels good.

Leaving the Chichime Islands behind we motor two miles away to Yansaldup Island.  It takes an hour and a half winding through tight channels between reefs.   A wide bay surrounded by reef has one other trimaran ¾ a mile away and us.  Our type of home.

A great beach for the kids

We rest doing boat chores for several hours and then SUP trips to nearby islands a couple miles away and redneck snorkeling (using the dinghy over reefs to check out the animals below) each day.   A week later it’s time for us to head over to Porvenir to check out of the San Blas Islands.

Porvenir is an island with only an airstrip on it and the customs house.  Nowadays it is twice as long as it used to be.  With my buddies after our dugout canoe trip we waited here in our hammocks for a boat to take us to Puerto Obaldia on the Colombia/Panama border.  Each time a plane would land, twice a day, the local Kunas would come out to watch.  I thought they were amazed with flight and all it’s possibilities.  Actually, they were just watching NASCAR – Kuna style.  So many planes have crashed on the short runway plunging into the sea that all want to see it happen.  Made me glad we were waiting for a boat and not a plane.

Wichi Walla is the island forty meters from Porvenir.  With one last effort to find a sail for our dugout canoe I ask a local, Ernesto, for help.  Soon this wiry man with passable English is bringing us home to home in our efforts.  The first sail is nice but lacks a jib.  The second home we must parade through fifteen kids watching a movie on a big screen TV.  It seems so oddly out of place with the sand floor, bamboo framed thatched hut.   Up above in the rafters are large bags full of clothes and other things; it appears that some Kuna are packrats and hoarders.  We continue the search and settle on one for $30 Balboas (actually they use US dollars and don’t even print their own money except for a handful of coins).  A crowd of ten men has watched the episode and thinks it is hilarious that an American would want one of their sails.  I have only two twenties and nobody has change, absolutely typical.  I buy the man’s well-used wooden ironwood paddle that he has used for dozens of years for the extra ten.  We both made a great deal.

Walking back through town that is very accustomed to tourists with a sail, mast, boom,

I’m going to miss sights like this

spinnaker pole and paddle, we are seen as suckers in the house.  We get accosted for more purchases with women and kids streaming out of their homes selling their goods.  Finally boarding the dinghy we have the sail set up, five paddles, a new bracelet for Lindsey, a mariachi gourd, a calabash bowl and a shiny jib.

It is with great sadness that the anchor is brought up at 6am.  The San Blas islands have treated us so well.  This is the place I most wanted to visit on our round the world voyage.  I love the Kuna people and their affinity for traveling in canoes either by sail or paddle.  The exquisite white sand islands surrounded by deep blue water and sparkling emerald water are what people view paradise as – and they are right.  This is paradise here.  We worked hard to get here over the last year and the last seven weeks has been everything I had hoped.

Sailing over tranquil seas riddled with tree trunks and coconuts brings us into Puerto Lindo.  The anchorage is a surprise with 75 boats in the protected bay.  Monkeys howl from shore and then are answered by the troop on the far shore.  Parrots squawk in that crazy call that cannot be mistaken.  A cacophony of other bird sounds rise deep within the jungle walls.

Lindsey has taken a lot of grief over the comment about the log looking like a crocodile.  Sitting on the trampoline listening to the jungle, she says, “Is that a camel?”  We all laugh at her before even looking.  Ella is adamant that camels only live in the desert.  Oddly, it is a camel.  I feel as though we took a wrong turn somewhere and now are living in the Madagascar movie.  A few days ago we saw the same four engine propellered plane as in the movie come low out of some dark clouds with one engine out, flames and smoke spilling out.  We guessed that a lightning strike took it out.  We couldn’t see if four penguins were the pilots, but it’s possible.

Puerto Lindo has some cool areas to explore by dinghy, but is filled with old cruisers ready to die and boats that already have.  Meeting a boat with two boys four and five keeps us there a couple extra days as they play and laugh together.

inside the fort, soldiers wait for the likes of Henry Morgan

Heading to Portobello just a few miles away, brings us into one of the most famous ports

keeping Spanish gold (mostly) away from pirates like Henry Morgan and Vernon.  The place had been ransacked and burned many times and the forts just kept getting better.  Making some hikes to four of the forts takes up most our day as we pretend that the cannons are aimed at captain hook and his cronies and our Ninja Turtle and Fairy Princess are there to help.

Hauling up the sails is refreshing as we haven’t been able to sail in the Kuna Yala.  The sail is cut short as we weave in and out of freighters waiting to cross the Panama Canal.  Literally there are over 50 all around, some moving, mostly anchored.  It’s intimidating.  Smoke billows over Colon filling the air with an acrid smell.  Later, we find out that people are rioting and protesting the sale of land burning cars and shooting policemen.  Our planned restocking will have to wait, it looks like we may be having spaghetti again tonight.

We are in the marina at Shelter Bay now waiting for weather to head north.  Having only spent 3 nights previously in a marina (except leaving it in Santa Marta to head to Colorado) it’s a weird world of cruisers coming together.  Normally we would be anchored out, but all but one person we meet insisted on the safety of the marina.  Many had stories of scary incidents.   Colon is one of the most dangerous cities around, so spending $500US on lodging seems like cheap insurance.   We have, however, told the kids it was just so they could swim in the pool, enjoy the library, have cheap juices in the bar and go on jungle hikes during the day – all for them.

Happy still!!!

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The Kuna Yala (San Blas) are my favorite place on earth – a true tropical paradise.  Reefs and lightning keep most sane people out.  Luckily, we aren’t sane.

Sailing due south to North America

Setting out from our slip in the Santa Marta marina, we make one more stop to fuel up before heading south to North America.  It’s a cool feeling.  Rivers2Seas has been in South America, Colombia, since May and now it’s August.  I am ready to go.  More than ready, eager in anticipation.  The San Blas islands of Panama were the first destination of my sailing career and when I reached them I knew.  This would be my place on the planet that would be the picture of tropical paradise.  How could a place get any better?  And now, we are sailing Rivers2Seas there.  In less than a week, my paradise awaits.

The fueling process goes slowly as we fill 5-gallon jugs and our inflatable 37-gallon

My tough little man

bladder.  Diesel and any sort of clean gas will be difficult or impossible to obtain there.  Before casting off the dock lines, Chase trips over landing face first in the metal sliding doorway.  Blood covers his chin, teeth and fills his mouth.  He gives that horrible silent nothingness of sound that certifies this as real pain.  When the screams come, it’s heart wrenching.  Sputtering blood he says that he doesn’t like the boat anymore.  The fact that he’s talking is good and that no teeth come flying out is even better.  Checking to see if he does indeed still has all his teeth is difficult with all the blood, but they are all there and intact.  For the next week he has two fat lips, a puffed out cheek and bruised gums.  I didn’t even know you could bruise your gums.  You can.  He doesn’t eat any solid food for a day and then is back to being a rambunctious four-year-old.  Ella has been sporting a black eye from an acrobatic swinging fall onto the table edge and she lost a tooth two days later (under natural circumstances).  Our kids look like they have been brawling pirates on their way to Cartagena.

The sails set we relish the feeling of being back on the water.  Motors are off and all we hear is the slapping of water against the hulls and wind in the rigging.  Peace.    We have been trying to make good time south so that we can cross the Magdalena River in daylight.  This river drains a good portion of Colombia and if you are not careful, trees can do real damage to your day.  There are two schools of thought on how to cross; go near the coast crossing near the mouth where the rivers flow is most narrow or go out to sea far enough that the effects and trees have dissipated.  Hearing that we should go at least three miles out, we go over six.  Even then we cross the muddy water filled with trash, sticks, logs and thankfully no trees for over an hour.  It’s stressful.  The seas clear up just before sunset.

Our planned anchorage of Puerto Valero is still a few hours away.  Nearing the coast we pull in sails, motoring towards the coast and the protective bay ready for a night of slumber.  A nearly full moon guides the way, but also creates weird reflections on the sea.  Approaching the bay the coast gets more confusing, I yell to Lindsey that it looks like a reef in front of us.

“What’s our depth?”

“SIX feet!!, Five!”  We now have six inches to spare under the keel.

“Reverse now!”  But she has already started back.  Stopping a 41-foot boat weighing 15 tons and reversing isn’t that quick with two twelve-inch propellers.  We start backward and gain some reverse momentum when a wave pushes us sideways.  Three quick little thump, thump, thumps are all we hear and feel.  We barely touch the sand.  Abandoning that anchorage we point towards Cartagena for another 12 hours of sailing.  Looks like we are doing an all night sail.  I check the bilges constantly for any signs of water, which thankfully are clear.  We lucked out on that one.  Having relied on some other cruisers’ knowledge (or lack) and their waypoints almost proved catastrophic.  Lucky again and more lessons learned.

Pulling into Cartagena brings such a sense of pride as we come to this historic port that all four of us are giddy.  It’s been an easy sail, but we are ready to get off and do some plundering of our own before we leave Colombia for good.

Cartagena is a cool, historic and modern city.  We visited here while the boat was in Santa Marta so we don’t stay long.  While historic and pretty above the waterline, below it is a cesspool of sewage, trash and who knows what.  There will be no swimming here.  Leaving the port, the traffic controller asks over the VHF for information.   The control station looks like an air traffic controllers but is surrounded by a low fort on a tiny island.  We have over a dozen ocean going freighters all around, some anchored, some moving much faster than us.

“Rivers2Seas what is your destination?” the controller asks.

“Puerto Obaldia, Panama”

“Si, when will you arrive?”

“I don’t know, maybe tomorrow if all goes well,” our hopes of a quick 30-hour sail.

“Who is the captain?”

“Brad Modesitt.”

“There is a ship behind you.  Continue your course and leave the channel.”

“Yes sir.”  I move to the extreme side of the marked channel but will not go further and hit some reef.  I speed up a bit.  The ship lets out a giant horn that reverberates through us.  Ella yells, “what was that?!”  It’s sort of like when Kent and I were canoeing through New Orleans and ran a red light causing some issues.  My boat is bigger this time, but so are the giant freighters.

“Rivers2Seas continue your course and leave the channel.”

“Yes, sir.”  I continue the course but won’t leave the channel in hopes that the language barrier can be used as an excuse.

“Who is the captain and spell please.”

“That’s E..L..M..E..R………F..U..D..D.”

“Thank you, have a good trip Mr. Fudd.”

“Thank you.”

We cruise along towards Puerto Obaldia on confused but small seas.  I have four fishing

At least the fish that got away has a picture!

lines out, 2 rods and 2 YoYos that are hand reeling basic ones.  I catch a Skipjack Tuna and then a Blackfin Tuna when the catch of the day happens.  As usually happens I am in the bathroom when a strike hits.  This time everyone is yelling.  It must be big.  When I arrive, it is chaos; with the kids yelling about the fishing pole and Lindsey yelling that it all just went flying.  What went flying?  I slow our speed down to reel the fish in easier and go to the rod, which is no longer there.  The entire fishing rod holder bolted to the transom is missing.  The line tied from some stainless steel to the rod is missing.   Damn, that must have been a monster fish.  Bummer, that was our good fishing rod that we traded a kayak for.  I notice that the YoYo line has caught a fish too.  As I reel it in I notice that it’s caught the original fishing line and has the rod on one side and the now obviously unhappy MahiMahi on the other end soaring through the air every twenty seconds in brilliant yellow and green arcs.  Slowly reeling in the hand line, I get the original fishing line.   Ever so slowly I pull the rod up from over 200 feet below.  Miraculously, I pull the rod out of the water, holding it above my head like the Stanley Cup and we all cheer.  Now it’s time to fish.  I reel the MahiMahi in who is now exhausted, gaff him in the gills and heave him onboard.  Ella, my tall seven-year-old is ecstatic that the fish is an inch taller than her.  I’m happy to have recovered all our fishing tackle and have 16 pounds of MahiMahi steaks.

Lindsey made a deal with me before leaving, if I would learn how to fish and make it happen she would learn how to fillet them if I caught them.  It’s a good deal.  We must sever the head using a sharp machete type knife and a hammer to get through the spine.  Blood is everywhere.  As Lindsey starts to fillet, I wash the blood off the deck.  Sharks can smell a drop of blood from miles away.  This monster fish has leaked blood all over and soon a Great White Shark appears.  Jaws.  Well, not actually, he’s just a little guy about six feet long, but I bet there are more.  Ella wants to see him and leans way over the railing.  Yanking her back, I yell at her to get inside.  She understands immediately, we are not on the top of the food chain here.  Lindsey comes off the rear steps where she does the filleting and tries it backwards.  The fish is too big and slips through her fingers into the sea.  There’s no way any of us are chasing after that one and soon disappears under the boat.  I bet the sharks are happy.  We are not.  Luckily, I catch three more fish and we have some great sashimi fillets when we arrive in Panama.  So much that I can’t eat any more.  Couple that with the chilled white wine, a safe anchorage and the coming back to a starting point of one of my previously greatest adventures, all I can say is “Life is good.”

Puerto Obaldia was the starting point of a trek across the isthmus of Panama with two friends in 1995.  A jungle trek is always exciting.  We had two guides, one of whom left after two days because he was so scared and no amount of money would make him stay.  The other guide didn’t want to go by himself, so he bailed out too.  We floated down the Membrillo River by ourselves buoyed by our drybags and a young foolish sense of adventure.  Later in the day, one of the guides returned with a hunter he met in the forest, good thing too because we would have been eaten by crocodiles soon if not for them.  Visiting a small village where only two of the inhabitants had ever seen a foreigner before was truly amazing.  We were as excited to meet them as there were us.

The uncharted waters of Puerto Escoses

A short hop over to Puerto Escoses brings us to our first foray into uncharted waters.  Our Garmin maps just show red lines across the screen to signify that coral could be anywhere.   Uncharted.  Unmapped.  Barely explored.  This is true wilderness.  While the excitement is enormous, so is the worry about hitting a coral head.

One eye is kept on the horizon, one on the depth sounder.  The depth changes drastically as we go over a shelf.  100 feet, 80, 40 in 10 seconds, then slowly down to 30, 25, 24, 22, 30, 40, 88, 120 and we are back up to speed.  As we round the corner into this protected bay, no other yachts are there, which has been such a rarity out here.  The small camp of Sukunya with a few thatched huts on shore and a few built in the sea on some coral beds.  This place feels so good!

After anchoring, I swim over to a coral bed a few hundred yards away to look for lobsters and well, enjoy the view.  I don’t find any lobsters and the visibility isn’t so good, but I still have fun splashing around for an hour.  Lindsey has filled the SUP boards up by the time I return, but I’m too tired and must settle for a rum and coke.

While sipping my drink, the kids and I have art class which is always fun.  Lindsey meanwhile swims laps around the boat.

The next morning while drinking coffee, Lindsey points out a log that looks like a crocodile.   Chase replies, “Mom, that is a crocodile.”  Ella joins in and then gets some binoculars.  The log is only 30 feet off the transom so its’ not that hard to see and they all keep gigging how real it looks.  Then I hear, “Brad, will you look at this?”  One look is enough, Chase is right – It is an endangered American Crocodile, six feet long with imposing snout and teeth.  A slow moving tail confirms it for everyone.

Mounting a dinghy expedition with Chase and Ella almost exploding off the bow to see the croc,

We don’t see any cars for two months

we take off.  Lindsey is firmly planted in the middle with a tight grip on both kids.  The motor scares him off so I shut it off, much to the disapproval of Lindsey.  We never make it closer than when aboard Rivers2Seas.  Our minds keep returning to yesterdays swimming activities and our obliviousness to the dangers that lurked all around us.  Jeez, a Great White Shark and now an American Crocodile, what other dangers are going to befall us here?

Staying in this paradise for a few days is truly remarkable.  Mounting another dinghy expedition, we travel up some mangrove choked rivers and visit the huts.  I am able to fix an outboard of some Kuna men heading to the coconut farms, which is fun for me and very welcome by them.

Motoring Rivers2Seas out is much less stressful as we can follow our exact path using the navigation system and a few hours later we anchor off the small island of Piños.

We have fun meeting people in town that has 70 men, 80 women and 170 kids.  I buy my first of many paddles and contract to buy 20 loaves of bread from a woman in the morning.  I remember these small loaves fondly that resemble garlic bread sticks but taste sweet and fresh.

Buying a mola from the Kuna. The boy on the left is one of the many albinos that occur here more than any other place.

During the afternoon, lightning streaks out of the sky unexpectedly, hitting in the center of the small town of Piños next to us.  Smoke billows immediately as the thunder reaches our ears.  Shit, that’s bad.  Having thought the storm had passed we had let our guard down, not that we can do much.  I shut off the generator and throw all the handheld electronics in the oven.  Worried about the villagers, I head with a medical kit in the dinghy to town.  Lightning strikes are generally instant killers and quick CPR resuscitation is the only hope.  That said, CPR rarely works which also brings back so many bad memories of doing it on a friend.  As I speed towards the dock, rain plummets down masking the tears that come unhindered.  I know what I am heading towards and don’t want to see it, feel it and live it again.  But, if I can help, I should, I must.  Still, the memories of my friend six years ago feel like yesterday.  I don’t want this.

A minute later, I tie to the town dock and run through the driving rain.  Under the first hut I ask if everyone is all right.  They are.  The lightning… everyone is OK?  Thankfully, they are.  I explain that I have medical training and came to help.  Some villagers show me the radio tower that exploded from a hut and the smoking remains of some lights.  Other than that all that remains is the excited chatter from the villagers.  I drive home to Rivers2Seas, hug my family and try to suppress the demons that have followed me ever since my friends’ death.  Some horrific memories you just can’t escape, they live in you with excruciating detail.  Some you try to hold onto but seem to evaporate just as you are about to hear your dead mothers voice again.  How can our minds play such cruel tricks on us?  I cry a little again, hug my kids harder than they want and then hold Lindsey close.  She knows and just holds me.

I grab a beer, look out into the palm fringed islands with dolphins leaping and realize that

hundreds of canoes line the shores of Ustupu,

paradise has sadness too.  That said, the beer is cold, the coconuts are delicious, my family is close and the acrobatics from the dolphins are amazing.  Life is good.

Many reefs later, but only a dozen miles away we anchor in Ustupu, which is the largest community in the San Blas Islands.  10,000 adults live here and probably another 14,000 kids.  My favorite part of this place happens most mornings from an hour before sunrise until a couple hours after, the Kuna highway.  Dugout canoes stream off the island heading to inland rivers, coastline farms and ocean fishing reefs.  At any moment for several hours at least a couple dozen, “Ulus” as they call them can be seen going all directions.

I had been joking with Lindsey that we would be heading home with one of the dugouts.  Luckily, she knew I was only half joking.  Days worth of searching the winding passages of the island, sometimes with a guide but usually without, we search for the perfect canoe to buy.  The tallest Kuna is about 5-feet tall, so hitting my head on doorways and roofs becomes commonplace.  The word finally got out about the “Merki” (for American or any foreigner) who was looking for a dugout and a few offers come our way.  Trying one out, it lists horribly to the right and has a large bend partway down from a bend in the tree.  Paddling that was like

Our new dugout canoe.

shooting a crooked arrow, nothing works, which is probably why the guy wants to unload it.  Chase and I track down a newly hand chiseled one twelve feet long, weighing three or four hundred pounds and beautiful.  Sold!  Lazaro Mori, a 69-year-old Kuna took a month to carve this out using an axe and a hand chipper.  The Caracoli tree had been floated down the river we did an expedition up the day before into the mountains.

Buying it was the easy part.  Then we had to move it half a mile through town and get it onto Rivers2Seas deck.  With two others pulling a line attached to the bow and Turtle pushing, we start dragging our prize through town.  Men and kids start streaming out of huts and join in helping and we end up with thirty people helping.  Once we get to Rivers2Seas, I map out where we shall store our ridiculously large memento.  I call for two guys to help and they call two

Having heard that a mechanic was in town after fixing an outboard motor a couple islands distant, this man paddles his ancient singer sewing machine out for repairs.

others.  The five of us then lift and pull and strain, trying to not break windows or lifelines or fingers.  A strenuous five minutes later, our dugout rests happily on our port hull and our new friends all sport Rivers2Seas hats and a few dollars in their pockets.

A strong storm in the morning brings 60-knot winds pushing Rivers2Seas within touching distance of a reef.  Do we move and risk getting struck by lighting as I must sit within three feet of the mast or do we risk hitting the reef?  During a lull in the lighting, we hope, we reanchor in a deluge of rain.  None of it is fun, but our teamwork and hand signals accomplishes it all efficiently and quickly.

A quick run of five miles takes us two hours to achieve the anchorage in Mamitupu.  We stay a night but don’t feel to welcome and head to Ratones Cays.  A group of six islands, one of which has a small camp on it are so beautiful that we spend a week there.  Days are spent working on the boat, snorkeling, playing on the beach or investigating the islands.

Turtle and I head off to a small island with only three palm trees on it.  Large coral and some

Picking flowers for mom on a deserted isle.

tough surf prevent us from landing our inflatable dinghy so we head to the nearby island with maybe 50 palms on it.  Armed with a giant magnifying glass, some bags for collecting specimens and backpacks we tour the island.  Lush vines grow up the leaning coconut trees while a flowering network of growth on the islands floor gives a greater feeling of lushness.  We collect a stunning bouquet of purple, yellow and white flowers for mom.  During a small break for a snack in a clearing we watch hermit crabs crawling out of a large shell.  Picking the fastest ones we have a race, but they go in different directions and call it a tie.  Being the first explorer on the island, Chase decides to name it Turtle Island (in honor of himself I suppose in the tradition of all great explorers).

The town of Tigre is our next anchorage and one of our most difficult.  Poor holding and lots of reefs necessitate the use of a second stern anchor, something we haven’t used at all on this journey.  I set one once while in the Bahamas and four strong men struggled with the procedures of setting it.  Here our primary anchor isn’t holding at all well and I need to rush to get the stern out.  Everything seems to be going wrong with tangled lines, dropping the 45-pound anchor on my foot and poor sleep for three days.  Lindsey wants to help, but a person must know what he is doing to request the steps needed for help.  I don’t know what I am doing.  I am winging it in a rush and getting frustrated.  The kids are singing their own versions of 10 little Indians loudly, off key and simultaneously.  After five minutes and 75 versions of 10 little polar bears and 10 little turtles, I yell for them to shut up.  Distraught they both run inside – Not my best parenting moment.

the morning commute.

Getting the anchor out, I then pull Rivers2Seas forward and set the stern anchor.  With snorkel and mask I set the primary anchor by hand.  An hour later and a dozen jellyfish stings later, my job is done.  Well, my anchor job is done.  Now, I have to apologize to my family.  I angered Lindsey last night and she is still bristly with me, the kids are mad for my yelling at them.  All are correct in their feelings.   I make the apologies and get hugs in return.  I ask Chase, who is the best equipped for an important job.  All are curious as to what it could be, especially when I make him promise to not laugh.  That done, I proceed to explain in my best scientific terms that I have many jellyfish stings, but the worst is in my armpit.  “Chase,” I ask, “what I need is for you to pee on my armpit.”  The looks of astonishment and then the wails of laughter that I am “for reals” brings the family together again.

Ratones Islands that we had all to ourselves

A short hop over to Nargana brings us to a nice protected anchorage.  Anchoring a few hundred yards from the only jail in the San Blas Islands, I relate a story to Ella and Chase about being imprisoned there seventeen years ago.  It’s a long story about buying a dugout canoe with my two friends who hiked over the istmus with me.  Our original plan was to paddle sail this dugout to Colombia and then hike back through the Darien Gap.  After procuring a decent dugout we set out for the nearest island.  A few hours after landing, the police arrived and hauled us off to this jail in Nargana.  The interrogations were difficult in Spanish and terrifying.  Our passport stamps were deemed too light to be valid, they knew we were running drugs, and lastly we had been seen blowing up islands with grenades.

The only person on the island who spoke English was Sammy Morris.  He counseled us and the police.  It was with his help that 30 hours after our ordeal started, the police set us free.

So now, seventeen years later, I return with my family to such a crazy spot of my adventuring history.  Walking to the military post, I show the kids the main jail and then our hut where we were incarcerated.  It’s now a cooking hut it seems.  A military man in fatigues and large baton wanders out wondering what this family of four could be doing.  I’m certainly not going to tell him that years ago I was arrested for running drugs in a dugout canoe, which would be a joke to make the run to Miami in, and now have a nice sailboat, which would be awfully convenient for running drugs.  “Do you sell diesel gas?” I ask pointing to the barrels nearby.  He takes me for a fool and laughs saying no.   We wander out of the complex free to go as we please – it’s a nice feeling.

Searching for my friend Sammy in town is easy and only takes a couple questions to find his home.  Once there, Sammy warmly welcomes the entire family into his home.  Sitting down he asks how I know him.  Relating the story a smile beams across his face with recognition.  His wife, Mina, nods with recognition.  They both remember well our story of sadness and confusion.  It’s a wonderful reunion meeting his family and he meeting mine.

Lindsey and I toast each other with a cold Balboa beer in a local restaurant.  Freedom has made this beer taste colder and better.   Outside Ella and Chase play some games with the local kids.  Irony can be funny.  Today, my kids are playing jail and springing each other from the jail cell of a nearby table.  This is certainly a circumstance that I could never have dreamed of so many years ago.

The next day I pick up Sammy and Mina to have them aboard Rivers2Seas.  They are amazed at the plushness of a catamaran and how big it all is.  We talk about the changes in Nargana like 24-hour power, a bank and the traditions of Kuna.  New bridges and a road to a Kuna village of Carti has made life easier for the people here.  Time passes quickly with our guests who saved me from a most horrible fate.  Giddy?  Ecstatic?  Words can’t express my gratitude.

the happy family