Cartegena to ColonBack in Cartagena, I took a few days to regroup, work on the autopilot and make a new plan. I spent hours studying weather maps to try to understand what had happened and where I could sail to. Here are the basics: Hot air rises at the equator. Cold air from further north flows along the surface of the earth to replace it. The earth turns underneath these winds causing them to curve to the right creating the northeast trade winds. When the trades hit the mountains of eastern Colombia it is a bit like putting your thumb over the end of a hose. The winds come blasting along the coast. Underneath the hot rising air at the equator there is very little wind and lots of rain. This region is known as the doldrums. In the summer time, the doldrums shift north. That was what created all of the rain I experienced in Panama and the very calm conditions I had while sailing to Cartagena. Winter was now here. The doldrums had shifted to the south and the temperature difference between the north and the equator had increased. It is this temperature difference that fuels the trades, and they now had lots of fuel. It was still calm in Cartagena because it is sheltered the mountains. What I had run into was the tail end of the mountain enhanced trades. If I had continued east, things would have gotten much worse.

A Weather Map Called a GRIB. Notice strong winds north of my position and light winds in Cartagena and south.

A Weather Map Called a GRIB. Notice strong winds north of my position and light winds in Cartagena and south.

So what to do? I could sail back to Panama and go through the canal. By February, the weather would be shaping up for a Pacific crossing. The downside to that idea was that I had zero confidence in my autopilot. A good autopilot is essential for single handing the long passages in the Pacific. We are talking about a week to the Galapagos and three weeks to the Marquesas. Also, I had not seen the eastern Caribbean. I had already bought the flags and the books for the Caribbean, but not the Pacific. If I headed to the Pacific I would have to sail all the way around the world before I got a chance to see the Eastern Caribbean again.

The other option, again involved sailing back to Panama. However, from there I would head north, reaching across the trades. Once you get far enough north, the trade winds begin to weaken again. From the Yucatan I could cross east to Cuba in lighter winds, then play the light night breezes to fight the trades as I island hopped to Trinidad. This seemed like the only viable plan. Also, I needed a job for next year. I had a couple of Skype interviews in Cartagena, but nothing had really been a fit. I was going to have to bite the bullet and go to a job fair. I reserved a spot at the Boston fair and booked flight from Panama City.

If there “was nothing wrong” with the autopilot, I thought perhaps the problem was with the steering itself. There was a lot of squeaking that I thought was coming from the drive unit. When I started taking things apart I discovered that it was coming from the steering pedestal. I also found that the quadrant was rubbing against the cockpit sole. I lubricated everything and ground away some space for the quadrant. The steering was now super easy and silent. This should finally fix it!

Cholon Inlet

Cholon Inlet

On Christmas Eve, I set sail again. I decided on a more coastal route to Panama so that I would see something different. The autopilot immediately went back to its error routine. I anchored for the night in the Cholon Inlet near the Rosarios. It was a beautiful peaceful anchorage. A man named William stopped by in his kayak and sold me some Christmas cookies. I nibbled at them while I installed by backup autopilot. After my lightning strike last year in Cartagena, Sven, the German electronics genius, sold me an Autohelm 4000 from the 1980’s. This simple black box with a built in compass and six buttons could control the same drive unit as my old autopilot and got me safely across to Panama. It looked like it was time for it to do that again. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really an option for long offshore passages because it was no longer waterproof. I would still have to fix my new one.

Christmas Cookies

Christmas Cookies

Christmas Day I continued down the coast to Isla Tintipan where I explored the mangrove channels by dinghy. So far I had still been feeling the effects of the lee of the mountains and had very little wind. At noon on Boxing Day, I reached the trades and by nightfall when I reached Isla Tortugiulla I had a good 15 knot breeze and 2m (7 foot) seas. According to my Government of Colombia cruising guide, you could anchor in the lee of this island like the fisherman often do, to take refuge from bad weather. That was a cruel joke. The island was so small that the waves tripped around both sides and crossed creating a complete maelstrom in the only place shallow enough to anchor. There was no other shelter along this stretch of shoreline. I would have to head for Panama and spend the night at sea.

Sunset over Isla Tintipan

Sunset over Isla Tintipan

I set a course for Puerto Escoses. In 1698, William Patterson established Fort Andrew, a colony of 1300 Scots in this bay. They did not learn from the Kuna Indians who build their villages on islands to escape the heat, insects, and disease of the jungle. Instead they built their fort in the rainforest on the downwind side of the peninsula guarding the bay. This would have been a good strategy in the cold wet climate the Scots were used to. In the steaming Darien jungle it was disastrous. Two years later 1700 new settlers arrived. Everyone of the few survivors opted to sail back to Scotland. The second wave of immigrants faired no better. They abandoned the fort for good in 1702 along with 2000 graves. When I visited in 2013 I found mud coconuts, mangoes, bananas, large spiders, monkeys, a woodpecker, and something large in the bushes but not a single trace of the settlement.

Just east is village of Carreto. It was from here that Vasco Nunez de Balboa set out to walk across the isthmus of Panama and become the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean in 1513. He also married the chief’s daughter. This was another place I visited in the summer 2013. It is in a rather open bay so there was no question of returning this year with the winter trades blowing. It was amazing to think that this little village was older than Cartagena. It looked to be no more than a decade old. The Kunas build their huts from biodegradable materials from the local forests. Rot resistant poles are used to create the framework, the walls are lined with cane, and then palm fronds are used to create the roof. Each village has a unique architecture. In Carreto, they used bamboo for the support structures and walls as well as to create fences around each family compound. None of these materials last more than fifteen years which is why a village over 500 years old looked so new. They have experimented with concrete walls and tin roofs, but have generally not found them to be worth the cost of importing.

Balboa

Vasco Nunez de Balboa on an Panamanian Quarter

The village is located next to a small river. It seemed obvious that Balboa would have gone upstream by canoe as far a possible before starting his trek and I wanted to retrace the start of his journey. There was sandbar across the river mouth with lots of big breakers crashing on it. While walking through the village I saw a couple Kunas swim across the river to the other side, well inside of the breakers. So I knew that it was deep in there at least. The surf didn’t look so bad from the inside so I decided to attempt the entrance with my dinghy. The trick with river mouths with breaking surf, is that the deepest point has the strongest current. That means the breakers may be just as big there.

I approached slowly in the dinghy and tried to time the swell. It was looking good until I started to surf down a huge wave. In my concern over the depth, I was going too slow. So when the wave started to turn me sideways, I could not respond quickly enough. The dinghy rolled over dumping me into the surf. When I popped up, my sunglasses were in my mouth, my Tilley Hat was floating ten feet inshore of me, and the dinghy had somehow righted itself. I did manage to kill the engine on my way over the side so at least I didn’t have to worry about getting chopped up by the propeller. I swam for my Tilley. My eyeglasses stored in the grommets were gone. I continued to the dinghy and climbed back in. Of course the whole time I was in the water, my old digital point and shoot camera was in my pocket dying. It turned out the river was only navigable for about 300 metres so I really doubt Balboa started his journey that way. In fact, some sources claim that he started out from Puerto Escoses. At least I got an excuse to buy the kick ass digital SLR I have today.

At Anchor in the San Blas

At Anchor in the San Blas

It was a fantastic sail across to Puerto Escoses with my antique backup autopilot steering like a dream. A little too good in fact. I was beam reaching along at 7 knots. That would have me making landfall around 3am. I had seen enough wrecked cruising boats in the San Blas to drill the message very firmly into my head: NEVER, EVER MAKE LANDFALL IN THE KUNA YALA IN THE DARK! It is surprising how difficult it is to slow a boat down. I reefed the genny, but I couldn’t keep the boat stable in the waves while going slow enough to reach the shore in the daylight. The nice thing about beam reaching is that it is just as easy in either direction. Eventually, I tacked 180 degrees and sailed back toward Colombia for an hour to use up some of the time before day break.

When the sun rose, the seas were up to 3m (10 feet). I was welcomed to Panama by a dolphin playing in my bow wave. Then I got a less pleasant welcome when I crashed into a floating tree. I was looking forward at the time but it was completely hidden between the waves. Fortunately, Windsong’s forefoot and keel are shaped such that they drive any floating objects downward. I didn’t even see the tree until it floated up in my wake. The seas grew steeper as the water shallowed. I had to enter a fairly wide channel then proceed east behind the reef, rolling in a beam sea, for about a half hour to get into Peurto Escoses. I elected instead to turn west for an anchorage in the mangroves behind the island of Suledup. It was a great choice. I had a perfectly calm anchorage with a cool breeze running through the boat to allow me to get some much needed sleep.

View from the Summit of Suledup.

View from the Summit of Suledup.

I was now in the San Blas Islands or, as the natives call it, the Kuna Yala. The Kunas are the second smallest people in the world and self govern their own quarter of Panama. As noted earlier, they live on islands. They fish the surrounding seas and commute to the mainland in their ulu dugout canoes. Ulus can be sailed as well as paddled. I have seen Kunas trapezing to keep their ulus level while sailing to windward. This practice involves standing on the windward edge of the canoe, holding a rope connected to the top of the mast, and leaning as far out over the water as possible. On the mainland the Kunas have plantations of coconuts, sugar cane, and bananas, as well as various fruits and root vegetables. I went ashore on Suledup and followed the Kuna’s trail up the highest hill. Along the way I saw various Kuna plantations. The coconut plantations are quite obvious because they clear and burn the areas beneath the trees. The others blend in with rest of the forest until you start to notice that there are an awful lot of the same species of tree.

Trapezing on an Ulu

Trapezing on an Ulu

I am quite comfortable walking literally for months in the Canadian woods. The Panamanian rainforest is a whole different story. The Kunas, who are adapted to the climate, venture into the jungle wearing T-shirts, long pants, knee high rubber boots, and carrying machetes. I can’t handle the heat so I find myself feeling very vulnerable walking shirtless and in sandals. You have to be very careful where you step due to the columns of leaf cutter ants with their painful bites. Spiders 5 cm (2″) across often build webs across the trail. I’ve seen very few snakes, but they are out there and very poisonous. While I can never quite relax, my machete adds great confidence by providing a nice long implement for removing spiders and some assurance that if I met something larger, I might just win the fight.

Big Ass Spider

Big Ass Spider

It was a spectacular sail through the inside passage to to Soskandup. Then I ran into the 3m seas again. I took shelter for the night before continuing to Bahia de Masaegandi. On the way I passed Isla Pinos. This conspicuous island, with an easy approach and sheltered harbour, was another haunt of Drake’s, along with privateers John Esquemeling and Basil Ringnose. It was also a stop on my 2013 cruise, when I toured the village of Tupbak on the island. I met David, the tour guide who introduced me to his chief and guided me up to the radio tower on the island’s peak. Tupbak was the smallest and most traditional village I have seen. Still, they have solar panels to power their cell phones and televisions. The men were fascinated by my 1985 Evinrude outboard. A crowd of about twelve of them gathered around the dock to gape at it. I suppose that if I had to paddle everywhere I went, I would be amazed by outboards too.

Bandida Checking the Sail Trim

Bandida Checking the Sail Trim

Bahia Masaegandi is a very large and fairly uncharted bay. I anchored where the soundings ended and continued in by dinghy scouting the route to a really good anchorage. I still wound up running aground on a mud bank, but found a peaceful anchorage that I had all to myself. I spent New Year’s eve exploring mangrove channels in the dinghy. From there, I headed to Ustupu, the largest village in the San Blas. The trades promptly built the 3m seas back up trapping me there for nine days. I was fairly restricted in what I could do. I could explore the village bumping my head on eves designed for 150 cm (5 foot) tall Kunas. The villagers were friendly and happy to sell me bread and give me fresh water from one of their communal taps. Like most villages, fresh water came through a pipeline that ran across from the mainland and far up a river. The source was much higher than the village providing the water pressure. They asked me not to take my dinghy up either of the local rivers because my outboard would pollute their drinking water. The harbour itself was ringed with mangroves. The only way to reach the trails into the mountains was from the forbidden rivers. I did lots of reading, cleaning, and polishing. At one point I did try to leave. An ulu sailed out with me. I turned around when a 3m wave came over my bow. The ulu sailed happily along to Bahia Masaegandi.

Ustupu

Ustupu

When the weather broke, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, but at least the water stayed in the ocean. I had some bizarre sailing because the winds and the seas were often in very conflicting directions. As I passed Isla Tigre I saw a catamaran up on the beach. Another reminder not to enter the San Blas at night. After three days I reached Nargana Town. This was my first stop in the western part of the San Blas. This area is much more popular with cruisers because there are many offshore islands creating a channel that is safe to sail in most weather conditions. In Nargana I anchored with other cruising boats for the first time since Cartagena. I soon found out that Alex and Chris on Blue Wind were about an hour away at Waisaladup.

Waisaladup

Waisaladup

I joined them and wound up spending a week behind the tiny palm fringed island. We had fires on the beach, hors d’oeuvres on various boats, and snorkelled the reefs. I met up with Steve and Connie on Better Days. We first met in Jamaica when I sailed down here back in 2009. The 22m (70 foot) steel behemoth Joanna rolled in, piloted by Maria and Kathy. The other cruisers gave me a good set of electronic charts that made navigating the San Blas much easier. It was lovely to be in the San Blas in the winter. It was dry and there was plenty of wind to keep things cool and make electricity. Alex and Chris, along with Mike from Gilana took advantage of the winds by kite boarding. I read, snorkelled, and wished like hell I had a kite.

Mike Kiting

Mike Kiting

We ran into Nargana for supplies. When the Colombian trading boats came in, they supplied the stores with basic vegetables and canned goods. I had to get really creative with my cooking since I couldn’t find much that I was used to. Pretty much every meal was served with a side of rice. There was laundry service available quite inexpensively on the island. Though once she forgot to return my underwear and another time she dried my clothes downwind of a fire. Freshwater was obtained by going up the Rio Diablo in my dinghy to fill all of my buckets and water jugs.

Nargana

Nargana

Eventually, I sailed on to Porvenir to make my official entry into Panama then set off to do some exploring. Entering Porvenir I saw a very sad sight: Firefly shattered on sail rock. A week ago she tried to enter in the dark, struck the rock, and was a complete loss. In Porvenir it was the usual debate with the customs and immigration people to see if I could keep any of the money in my wallet. At first they wanted to charge me for a new cruising permit even though I still had a valid one from October. We went through various possible fee structures until they settled on just charging me for my entry visa.

Firefly

Firefly

Once the formalities were through I made my way around the corner to Nalia, a perfectly sheltered bay, where I could escape from the trade winds for the first time in weeks. During the night, the no-see-ums invaded making me miss those trade winds very much indeed. In the morning, I hiked around Punta San Blas and toured the Village of the Dead. This was the Kuna cemetery. The Kunas are buried in their sleeping hammocks with their hands above their heads. A roof is built over the grave site. Multiple family members are buried under the same roof. Various items are left for the dead including pottery, bottles, chairs, stuffed animals, and more sleeping hammocks. Traditional grave sites had palm roofs and only a few graves. More modern ones had tin roofs and dozens of graves.

Village of the Dead

Village of the Dead

I sailed on the Isla Gertie. This was actually a series of small islands absolutely overflowing with huts. The Kunas here were extremely friendly. They surround me with ulus, sold me bananas, tried to sell me all sorts of seafood, charged me an anchoring fee, and told me which rivers I was allowed to dinghy up. The children raced homemade toy sailboats in the bay and paddle by in their mini ulus to say hello.

Children from Isla Gertie

Children from Isla Gertie

The next day, I had quite the dinghy adventure exploring the Rio Mandinga. I had a very hard time finding it at first. I explored several short dead end rivers and was about to give up when I spotted a large shoal covered in snagged trees. This certainly indicated the opening to a big river. The river had a very swift current which was a challenge even with my 8 horse outboard. I was amazed to see Kunas rapidly poling their ulus up along the banks. It was a long bumpy upwind voyage back to Windsong and I arrived back running on fumes.

Bird on the Rio Mandinga

Bird on the Rio Mandinga

My next stop was the Lemmon Cays for Australia Day. Rob on Southern Comfort was bound and determined to make this the biggest cruiser’s party the San Blas had ever seen. I would say that he succeeded. Off the entrance to the Lemmons was another wrecked boat. This one had decided to switch fuel tanks just before entering only to discover that the second one was contaminated with water.

Sunset over the Lemmon Cays

Sunset over the Lemmon Cays

When you drop an anchor in the San Blas you are usually visited by men selling seafood, and ladies selling Molas. Molas are the Kuna’s traditional needlework used to make the clothing that is still worn by many of the women. Originally, the designs were simply geometric, but today, they make “Tourist Molas” decorated with sea creatures and even cruising boats. In the Lemmons, I was visited by two interesting Mola makers. One was Lisa, a famous transvestite who speaks excellent English. I told her I didn’t need any Molas because I don’t have a lady on board. She told me that I can’t get a lady because I don’t have any Molas! The other one was a very small elderly local lady. When I declined to buy one of her Molas, she told me she was exhausted and asked me to tow her back to her island. She handed me the painter of her ulu and crawled into my dinghy with her Molas. Ulus have very steep forefoot and a similarly shaped stern to help them track straight through the water. They are able to sail to windward with the assistance of only a steering oar, held on the lee side of the stern. This shape actually made it extremely difficult to turn the ulu around with my dinghy to get it to point upwind to the lady’s house.

Eric Bauhaus's Photo of Lisa

Eric Bauhaus’ Photo of Lisa

I wanted to check out Kuanidup, an island so beautiful that a cruiser named his boat after it. When I got there, the anchorage in 3m of water proved to be 20m deep. I continued on to Gunboat Island. It was another beautiful palm covered island. This time I managed to anchor, but it was so rough that I had to sleep in the main salon. Hauling anchor in the morning was terrifying. The bow was lurching up and down and the chain proved to be fouled in coral. I was afraid I would lose a finger, snap the anchor line, or tear the bow cleat right out of the deck.

Kuanidup. Beautiful, but no real anchorage.

Kuanidup. Beautiful, but no real anchorage.

My next anchorage was Canbombia it was idyllic, but the cell phone coverage sucked and I had a telephone interview in the morning. I had lunch and continued on to Esnasdup. The holding was poor so it took a few tries to get the anchor set. Otherwise it was fantastic. I was on the windward side of an island with a nice breeze and a huge reef giving me perfect protection from the waves. I also had my cell phone coverage.

I spoke to Andrew Buckman, the Secondary Principal at Tashkent International School (TIS) in Uzbekistan. This place sounded interesting: a mountainous former Soviet Republic with four seasons for me to enjoy all of my outdoor pursuits. It was hard to tell how the interview went with the poor connection, but I would be meeting his director at the Boston Fair.

I re-supplied in Nargana and headed for Yansaladup where I buried my anchor deep in the sand. Blue Wind was there kite boarding. Chris and Alex had volunteered to take care of Windsong and Bandida for me while I flew north to Boston. In the morning, I boarded a large open fibreglass boat called a Panga with Joyce and Lorenzo from Eileen Ferrel. We were whisked across to Carti, the only place in the San Blas accessible by road. From there, an SUV took us across the mountains to Panama City. It was surreal to suddenly be in the middle of a large city after so much time in the wilderness.

Bandida Waiting for me in Yansaladup. (Thanks Chris!)

Bandida Waiting for me in Yansaladup. (Thanks Chris!)

Things went very well in Boston. I met with David Henry, and he offered me a job at TIS before the fair had even started. It was even before my suit came back from the dry cleaners. I spent some time making sure that there were no better jobs available at the fair before accepting. I spent the remainder of my time, romping around in the snow like a little kid, buying things I couldn’t get in Panama, climbing at the incredible local gym, and throwing tea in the harbour. I also took advantage of the good telephone connection to contact Raymarine about my autopilot. I had the actuator with me ready to send it back for warranty service, but the technician was sure the problem was with my rudder position indicator. I bought a tool to test it and hoped for the best.

Tea to Throw in the Harbour

Tea to Throw in the Harbour

Back in Panama City I loaded up on real food, not knowing when the weather window would come for leaving the San Blas. It came the morning after I got back to Windsong. Chris and Alex were making their own supply run to Panama City. I felt terribly guilty leaving and not looking after Blue Wind for them. They insisted that Mike on Gilana could take care of her and I could not control the weather.

The rudder position indicator failed inspection so I disconnected it. The autopilot steered differently but gave the same error. I reconnected the back up and roared along to Portobello. The break in the weather was short. I had to hole up in Portobello for a day of rain before having a rough sail back to Shelter Bay. On the way, I got smacked in the beam by a large wave. Spray doused the back up autopilot and it steered hard left. It too was now dead. I went back to the new autopilot and nursed it the rest of the way there.

It was absolutely orgiastic to be able to plug into the shore, turn on the airconditioning, and have all the water and electricity I could use. But, it was also rather deflating to have sailed almost 1000 miles just to wind up right back where I started. This autopilot thing had to be resolved before I started the long passages north. I contacted Raymarine again. This time they told me I needed to upgrade the software or the actuator was defective. Since there are no Raymarine dealers in Panama to upgrade my software, I needed to find a cruiser with a new Raymarine chart plotter who could do it for me. I put out a call on the local cruisers net and learned that Dick on Celtic Cross had just installed one. I met Dick here during my refit. He and his wife run a ranch where they rescue wild horses. I knew he would be happy to rescue my autopilot. We did the upgrade and I did all I could to test the autopilot in the harbour. It seemed to work fine. I also tested out the backup. It worked well now that it had dried out. If I need to use it again I’ll be covering it with a plastic bag. To be doubly sure, I ordered a new actuator.

Stowaway at Shelter Bay

Stowaway at Shelter Bay

Bandida also need to be fixed. She had gone into heat twice now. She was due for her third when she met my neighbour’s tom Michou. She promptly fell in love with the dapper Frenchman. They consummated their relationship for the whole dock to see. I brought her to the vet who said it was really best to wait six more months. He gave her a contraceptive shot and just hoped the tom’s seed hadn’t taken root.

Bandida Falls in Love with Michou

Bandida Falls in Love with Michou

I was having breakfast one morning when I was interrupted by a knock on my hull. The man outside told me that my cat was in the water. I rushed to investigate and found Michou in the water between two sections of the floating dock. There was no way to get from him except from underneath. I changed into a bathing suit and grabbed my mask and snorkel. From in the water I could see that he had actually climbed out of the water between the docks. He was terrified and could not figure out where to go next. I couldn’t reach him, so a cruiser handed me a pool noodle to push him through to the other side where they could grab him. When they pulled him out, he ran immediately onto his boat and down the forward hatch. After all this commotion, I began to wonder where Bandida was. I checked Windsong and she was not aboard. I knew that she and Michou had been rendezvousing aboard Salsa, a boat with no one living on board. When I approached Salsa I heard meowing. There was Bandida in the water as well! She was much easier to rescue. I just had to coax her to swim to were I could reach her and pull her out. She also ran to Michou’s boat and jumped down the hatch. Since then, both Bandida and Michou have lost shore privileges.

I went swimming and lost my shore privileges.

I went swimming and lost my shore privileges.

It took two weeks for the autopilot part to arrive. Then the winter trades decided to have one last good blow. I’ve been waiting two weeks now for them to die down so I can head north. Everything is cleaned and fixed. The tanks are full and the provisions are aboard. It looks like next week the weather will change allowing me to make the 240 mile, two day passage to Providencia, a Colombian island I visited on my way south in 2009. From there it is a 500 mile, four day sail to the Bay Islands of Honduras. That will be my longest passage to date. And it will also be the first time this year that I have truly boldly sailed somewhere I have never sailed before.

Click here for more pictures of the San Blas

Click here for more pictures of the San Blas