Saturday 31 January 2015

San Blas Islands

After 24 hours of gale force winds and heavy seas, we sail into flat water inside the barrier reef on the eastern approach to the San Blas archipelago. It is a moonless night and pitch black as we ghost through the water, relying solely on our charts to guide us through the channel towards Holandes Cays, a small atoll surrounded by a complex reef system. We have heard that 6 boats have been lost here since Christmas so we check our pilotage carefully, silent in the cockpit, straining our senses to see or hear something in the inky black night.

The San Blas Islands, off the coast of Panama, are notoriously poorly charted and under normal circumstances we wouldn’t attempt a night-time entry. However on the SSB radio net today we discuss this with other members of the World ARC fleet and one of the crew on Acquillon III, who has sailed here before, assures us that the wide channel approaching from the east will allow us safe access to shelter south of Holandes Cays until the morning when we can tuck up closer inside the reef.  We have several sets of electronic charts: Navionics on the boat’s two plotters and a backup on the ipad, however both use cartography that relies on surveys carried out over 100 years ago.  Importantly we also have charts in the CPN format, an open source chart plotter that allows users to incorporate their own survey information.  In preparation for sailing in these waters, we have acquired CPN charts surveyed by Eric Bauhaus, author of a pilot book on the islands and acknowledged to be the definitive authority in this area.  We are using all three to plot what we hope will be a safe course into the anchorage.

We furl away our sails and motor slowly up towards a small atoll on the chart that appears to have clear, deep-water access from the channel. It is still pitch black, no moon, no stars, our eyes glued to the luminous face of the echo sounder.   We can now hear the unnerving sound of surf breaking on the reef; shining our powerful flash-light ahead we can make out the white outline of a beach. We drop the anchor in 6 metres of water and let out fifty metres of chain, allowing us to drift back downwind into deeper water.   Apart from the distant sound of the surf there is a profound silence in the cockpit, no wind, no waves and absolutely no ambient light from anywhere.  We sleep like hounds in bunks that seem cast in concrete after the rolling seas of the past few days.

We wake in the morning and find ourselves anchored only a few hundred metres from a perfect desert island with swaying palm trees fringing a white beach.   With the sun high in the sky for good visibility we motor slowly between the reefs, our spotters, Saz and Kez on the bow and Fatty and Andrew in the cockpit driving the plotters.  We anchor in a deep pool just off a small atoll known as Barbecue Island, so called because of the Kuna Indian owner who likes to cater for visiting yachtsman. Two days relaxing in the sun and its time for the rendezvous with the ARC fleet at Chichimee Cays, a slightly larger island, around two acres in size, 10 miles to the west.

It is good to meet up again with the other boats and we beach the dinghy on the north of the island where World Cruising has set up its base on the beach. After a potluck lunch where we all bring a dish to share, the indigenous Kuna Indians perform in our honour. They are a diminutive race, second only to the pigmies in stature; standing in a circle they begin their dance. The men play a simple melody on homemade panpipes, their breath as loud as the notes, all the time stepping rhythmically from foot to foot. The women are dressed in brightly printed skirts and tops, their tiny limbs covered in coloured beads and they too step delicately in time to the music. The sounds of the pipes and the metronomic movements of the dancers is graceful and mesmerising, interrupted only by one young dancer whose hat is blown off by the wind, causing embarrassed giggles as he chases it down the beach.

As I reflect on the rally after a month underway, it feels like a community on the move, carrying its home and its possessions but also its fears and joys, hopes and high expectations.  We now know most of the crews from the other boats and when we speak on the SSB daily roll call the tone is more familiar, everyone more at ease. Sitting in the cockpit on Juno having supper we imagine the scene on other boats. Some are crewed by just husband and wife with the strengths and pressures of such extended periods of intensity. Others have taken friends and family; some are crewed by perfect strangers and these occasionally show the strains of unfamiliarity and intolerance. However, regardless of the composition on each boat, everyone is keen to help each other. Among the fleet are engineers, electricians and mechanics from a diverse range of backgrounds who happily volunteer their services to less knowledgeable crews. Our only contribution is having the boat with the deepest keel in the feet and therefore everyone is happy to follow us through the reef as a pathfinder, knowing that our keel will surely touch the bottom first.

With advice from our friends Mike and Laura from the yacht Gilana, we find some perfect anchorages. Each of the cays is protected by a barrier reef where the surf breaks, and in its shelter lie a group of islands, each no more than a hundred metres long, fringed with swaying palm tress and always encircled with a white sandy beach. It truly is the perfect desert island from Robinson Crusoe. However, to gain access to these tempting jewels we must navigate a course through the treacherous reefs; some of the most challenging navigation where chart plotters are wholly inaccurate and the only trustworthy instrument is the human eye, enhanced by polarised sunglasses that can penetrate the glossy surface and expose the jagged reefs that lie beneath. Once inside the reef the anchorages are glorious with an abundance of sea life. Our final days in the San Blas islands are in the impossibly named Naguargandup Cays. As we anchor off the beach, dolphins play in the clear water around us. We are cleaning the hull with snorkels and scuba gear when a large nurse shark glides past. A leopard ray waves its wings trailing a long venomous tail as it swoops slowly by. A flock of pelicans are fishing in the lagoon, hopelessly clumsy as they crash into the water to snap up a fish, then look around, seemingly embarrassed by their failure to score.

We leave our anchorage at dawn, using our tracks on the chart plotter to make our way out of the lagoon. Outside the archipelago we are back into the big ocean waves as we follow the coastline west towards Panama.  The coast is heavy with rain forest, not a sign of inhabitants, the waves driven by the trade winds crashing onto miles of deserted beaches.  Then as we approach the city of Colon the horizon is obscured by the silhouettes of merchant ships, anchored in the shallows, waiting their turn to transit the Panama Canal.  A big sea is running as we weave through the anchored vessels towards the outer breakwater where the waves that have followed an unbroken path all the way from Africa, finally reach the western perimeter of the Atlantic and meet their end against the rocks on the shore. Through the northern entrance of the breakwater and we are back in calm water, running along the small craft channel inside the wall to our next destination, Shelter Bay marina, where we will prepare for our transit through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific Ocean.

Here in Shelter Bay it is time for a crew change. Sadly Saz leaves us today, having been with us since St Lucia, and Kez flies home from Panama, after we transit the canal.  We have had such a great sail on the run down from St Lucia.  Saz and Kez have been fun and hugely capable, helping to navigate, sail the boat, produce amazing delicacies from the galley and even clean the heads. Together with Fatty we have definitely had the prettiest crew on the rally – certainly the happiest. Consuelo joins us here for the leg down to the Galapagos Islands and her husband Paulus joins in Panama, through to the Marquesas, on the other side of the Pacific. And I couldn’t finish without mentioning Andrew who is with us all the way to Australia.  We love having his easy company and quirky humour. I am pleased to say that Andrew still has not found a filter for what goes on in his head so we always get the benefit of his thoughts, unexpurgated, unconventional and often unexpected. ”Did he really say that!?”.

Sitting in the bar in the marina last night after a few drinks I was asked philosophically by another ARC boat what I want to do in life. And for the first time I was able to say, “This, just this, here and now; this is what I want to do”. 

We leave Shelter Bay marina for our transit through the canal on Sunday 1st February, moving up through the Gatun Locks in the afternoon where we are raised a total of 26 metres in three chambers. We then anchor overnight in the man-made Gatun Lake and on the morning of Monday 2nd February we motor 24 miles through the lake and down the Miraflores Locks, under the Bridge  of the Americas and into the Pacific Ocean. There is a web cam of the canal here:
Anyone who sends us a screen shot from the cam gets it published on the next blog. Remember that we are GMT -5.


  1. Say Hi to Andrew from Nick (neighbour in Borden Wood west Sussex) - sounds a great trip!
    We are skiing in Verbier!!
    Literally ocaens apart

  2. Think we can see you in the Miraflores Locks - Well definitely a group of ARC boats. Wave - you're on camera!

  3. Claire (Nee Windsor)3 February 2015 at 20:33

    What a fantastically descriptive and well written blog. I could almost imagine myself there and away from -1 mornings here! So glad to see Consuelo has arrived safely. And so the adventure begins for the Windsors (almost there P) well jel!! lots of love.