Thursday, 30 April 2015

Navigating the San Blas

PS pix added on May 3

A boat called Fantasy in the West Holandes Cays

We've given ourselves 10 days to "fatten up" in the San Blas islands. In years past, half that time in the tropics would have done us nicely. We're not so far gone that we don't remember how tightly time is accounted for when you've got a job to go back to (and that's not a "boat job"). But ahead of us, all going according to plan, is the Panama canal transit, and then the Very Long Passage to the Marqesas. Four lean weeks, maybe more, at sea. So we'll take the full 10 days.

A cool wind comes through the cut

In the high season, up to 40 boats have been counted in this anchorage

Derelict huts - or are they? Gone fishing? 

It's hot out here in the eastern Holandes cays. Oh my lord is it hot. And damp. The sun has gone, and the rain has arrived, along with the bugs. I'm covered in tiny bites. Am I putting you off?

Lemon lime and bitters made in Trinidad - with ice

Enki's big shade saves the day - again

The season is changing. A few days ago the wind was blowing from the north-east, as it does consistently from November to April. The sky was clear, and even from a dinghy or a kayak, you could see the magnificent coral banks and indigo fish as clearly as if you were in an aquarium. Then yesterday the wind dropped off and swung indolently around the clock, big banks of heavy grey cloud lowered themselves onto the horizon, the sea turned pearly-grey and as night fell the thunder and lightning show began.

NZ-made and registered - Exit Strategy in the East Holandes cays

In the mangroves, the bugs read the shift in the weather. They didn't announce their intentions but the old hands knew. Yesterday morning, there was an exodus of boats from the shallow, gin-clear anchorage known as the Swimming Pool out into deeper waters. Bug alert. By then, I was a goner, bitten all over. Excited by the lack of wind, I'd taken the kayak out very early in the morning for a couple of hours. The paddling was easy, and I nosed my way through the island channels, close to the mangroves - what a fine meal I made for those no-see-ums.

The vege men
We're eating well too though. The vege boat, an outboard-powered dugout loaded with fruit, vegetables, eggs, even cask wine, trawls regularly through the most popular anchorages. It's manned by three Kuna Indian adults, typically short and well-muscled men. Their tools of trade are simple - a set of manual scales, a notebook and a pencil, a pouch of small change, and a sweet-faced child. There's usually a child, or several, on any dugout which approaches our boat. The produce - pineapples and mangoes, tomatoes and potatoes, passionfruit and peppers - comes from the mainland, mostly Colombia, we're told. Nothing grows on the islands except coconuts, but we're not eating those since they're not for sale. Nor are we eating fish or lobster which strictly speaking are off limits, this being the breeding season. But the Kuna know a diminishing market when they see one, so they're still fishing while there are boats around which will buy.

The vege men came with family and friends one day

Much is made of the Kuna having resisted the modern world, and living in the traditional way and no doubt there are many people who are happy to do so, either in their crowded villages or in solitary, on a water-less palm island of their own. Their customary sources of income have been trading coconuts and selling molas (the gorgeous hand-sewn applique squares which, as Panamanian souvenirs, are almost as famous as woven hats). But the modern world is breathing down the Kunas' necks and there's a suspicion of seduction in the air. The Kuna girls who checked us into Porvenir were giggling over their smartphones. There's internet in the islands now (we didn't know till tonight). Minutes have to be paid for, as does petrol for outboards. There's flexibility in the traditional ways, for sure.

The morning after we dropped anchor here, a small bony man called Victor paddled cross from his island to let us know that we owed him $10 (we don't share a language, but some things are always clear). He gave us a receipt which was good for a month. A day later, another boat called on us to ask for anchorage money. They looked at Victor's receipt, and went away. Who were they? Things are a bit murky in the San Blas out of the water.

Molas are an important part of the Kuna economy - Venancia is a shrewd dealer

Venancio reels me in - I didn't offer much resistance

The trip out has been more than worth their while 

The charge for anchoring amongst these idyllic coral atolls and sandbars, small though it is, comes on top of the fee you pay the Kuna Yala (nation) when you arrive in the San Blas islands, which is on top of the hefty non-negotiable annual cruising permit you pay the Panamanian government. It's the cost of doing business, Alex always says, and he's right, but we've found along the way that there's a certain give and take between yachts and those who provide services to them (sorry to smash the romance of cruising, but that's the reality in every place we've been to thus far on Enki - we'd love to be surprised by another kind of human interaction). Get the balance wrong, and the yachts go somewhere else. We've seen that happen in the Med.

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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Tropical cruising lesson #1


pix added on May 3

"You're dragging."

A woman's voice sliced through our sleep. We'd gone to bed, hoping to stay asleep for 8 full hours after five quick-stepping nights at sea. The air had been so still and full of water you could have drunk it. But now, at 5 am, a 20 knot north-easterly was blowing through the anchorage in behind the reef at Porvenir Island.

Alex bolted into the cockpit. It was dark. No moon, no lights ashore (Porvenir has a small airstrip, but no streets). He felt rather than saw the boat pass by our starboard side, "almost close enough to take out the solar panels", he said later. Then it was gone into the blackness. He heard the woman say, again, "YOU ARE DRAGGING". But if we were dragging, we were dragging upwind?

He started the engine (how simple does that sound now?), turned on the chart plotter and the windlass. Which direction were we facing? I was up by now, and went forward. I took off the snubber (a safety line for the anchor) and began to winch up the chain. It felt firm and wasn't rumbling. I hesitated, and even though time is always of the essence when you are dragging, I went back aft again, and compared the note I'd made of our position when we anchored, against the position which by then had popped up on the chart plotter. The same. We haven't moved, I told Alex. But the woman had said... Who was she? and where had she gone?

Our torch beam found our nearest neighbour, the Norwegian boat, just where it should be. Behind us though, where there'd been no boat in the evening, it found a yacht. We recognized the shape of the hull - the Turkish yacht. We'd met Tarsin onshore while we were waiting to clear in. One thing led to another and we discovered we had a mutual friend in Turkey - Banu, an exceptional Turkish woman and solo sailor. Tarsin was over the moon. He'd been running charters with his wife Rengen between Panama and Colombia, including the San Blas islands, for six years. He hadn't seen Banu for a long time, but they went way back to university days in Istanbul, and sailing out of Bodrum.

He pointed out his yacht to us. It was anchored close in. We were at the back of the small anchorage, where waves broke on a shallow coral tongue about 75 m from our stern. And that's where Tarsin's boat was now. It didn't seem a good place to be.

We determined that we weren't dragging, and kept watch - again. At 6 am the sun rose. We kept looking behind us for clues as to what was happening. No-body responded on VHF 16. The Turkish boat was floating. It wasn't on an angle. Its anchor chain was down but the boat wasn't swinging with the wind. It looked to be stuck. Several workboats driven by Kuna Indians running beween Porvenir and the village on Wichubhuala island stopped and words were exchanged. They left. Tarsin and his wife seemed to wave them away.

They must be ok, we said to ourselves. Alex saw Tarsin light up a cigarette (of what significance? a man always has time for a cigarette, I've found). Then they were both at the bow, then both in the cockpit. About an hour passed, during which more local help with serious grunt was turned down. Then a couple in a rubber ducky came alongside, friends obviously. I figured they were from the big charter yacht which had come into the anchorage at sunset. Commercial friends. They tied on, and tried to push Tarsin's boat off the coral.

Then they went away. What was going on?

We got into our dinghy and went to to see. Did they need help? Yes. They did. They were on the reef. Tarsin explained why he'd waved on the local help. The Kuna Indians would claim the boat for salvage if he let them tow it off - they were just waiting for it to be REALLY stuck and then they'd be there, stripping it bare. He knew what he was talking about.

Just behind us was the upturned hull of a wrecked yacht - stripped bare. Later, when were looking at our charts and guide books, the wrecks leapt off the page/screen. Our Canadian friends Jane and Russell on TaB, who were in San Blas a couple of months ago, reported that already six yachts had gone up on reefs this year.

So, within 24 hours of arriving in the San Blas islands we were helping to get a yacht off a reef. And that yacht didn't belong to some dumb newcomer like ourselves. Tarsin had anchored in Porvenir more times than he could remember. "We're more or less locals," he said. Moreover, they'd had been anchored in that same spot for a week, which ordinarily would lead you to believe you were "well dug in", as the saying goes. The kicker though was that when they found they were dragging, they couldn't start their engine. Their batteries were flat. They couldn't start their engine or work their anchor windlass. So they had no way to manoeuvre the yacht in a tight anchorage.

Their friends came back in their large charter yacht with a long tow rope and with the help Enki's dinghy (with its 15 hp outboard) and two Kuna Indian volunteers at the bow, hauling on the anchor chain with Tarsin, the boat came off the coral. An hour later, with the anchor set and holding, Tarsin and Rengen were waiting for sufficient charge from their solar panels to allow them to start their engine.

Why did they drag? Rengen thought that someone had knocked into their boat a couple of nights ago while they were ashore. She'd noticed a bent staunchion when they came back. "Perhaps they moved us a bit, and our anchor had been dislodged and was just sitting on the sand, and we couldn't have noticed these past couple of days because there was no wind."

After breakfast, we weighed anchor (by choice) and moved four miles to one of the exquisite island groups for which San Blas is so famous. We're on our own here, though around the corner about 20 yachts are crammed into the (obviously) favoured spot in the Chichime group. I don't think we've ever been anywhere which matches the brochures so closely - the tropics as they are in your dreams. We're anchored behind a barrier reef, off an island with waving coconut palms. It's uninhabited apparently, though there are two thatched huts set back from the white sand beach. As far as the eye can see are more tiny sandy islands top-heavy with coconut palms.

The water is lukewarm and standard issue tropical turquoise. Clear too - this afternoon I swam enchanted through a coral garden which, like an artfully-landscaped English garden, left me wishing I could commit to memory its contrasting textures and undulating contours, its repeating patterns and sculpted features. Failing that, I'll turn up again tomorrow (with my boatman Alex), at the same place (a dot of sand in the middle of nowhere, with no palms, about half a mile southeast of our boat), and the pleasure will be all mine again.

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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Boatyards 'R' Us

Boatyards are not bad places to be. Now, before you faint, hear me out.

The daily business of boat maintenance (and below)

All these supports will be in use soon - the storage yard is fully booked 

We've delayed our departure a few days because it's been blowing a gale and the arc off the north-east coast of Colombia has a wicked reputation for building mountainous seas in strong winds. No way do I ever see us setting up camp in a boatyard again for months at a time, as many cruisers do - and as we did at Port Napoleon in 2011. But a couple of weeks is more than tolerable, especially when you've got interesting company. We've found that here at Curacao Marine.

A full house - view from the top of the hill (below)

This isn't a marina, as such. You don't stick around for the view. Willemstad has its charms, but it's a very small city, and a long hot walk over the hill. Over on our side, the only retail is chandlery. In other words, you're here either to work, or because you're ready to cut and run.

Willemstad's Bizarro Mundo cafe - reminder of another world (and below)

Polar beer is the local brew

The Swedes pack up for the season - HR39 Balance
When we arrived shortly before Easter, most of the slips at Curacao Marine were empty, but in just two weeks the season has changed. This is a popular storage yard, Curacao is drier than Grenada or Trinidad during the summer and boats are pouring in. Part-time cruising sailors are taking off their Crocs and pulling out their suitcases, bound for summer at home in Vancouver, Gothenburg, Phoenix, Hamburg, Bordeaux, Toronto. They'll be back later in the year, or even next year, when the cold chases them back to the Caribbean. In many ways we envy them. Geography makes it much harder for cruisers from our part of the world to "divide their time", but it's not impossible. You just have to organise yourself differently.

This is what draws them back - Knip beach on the west coast of Curacao

Yesterday we heard a knock on our hull and a short, lean man with cropped hair came alongside. "Enki," he said, and he looked at us, and at the boat. Neither Alex nor I recognised him. We waited for some explanation. Not a buyer, surely? He continued: "We met in Turkey." We struggled to place him. He sounded North American but his accent wobbled a bit. We waited some more. "Cokertme." He said it the way the Turks say it (chockertmee). A light went on, dimly.

The boatyard "facils" have had a makeover - the Palapa Bar is self-service

Dick, his name is. He's a ex-pat New Zealander who married a Canadian, Marian. They have a catamaran with a Turkish name - Van Kedisi (it means, Van cat - a type of cat which swims in Lake Van, in the east of Turkey). We'd met Dick and Marian the very first time we anchored in Turkey in 2012. Of course we remembered them.

We had no idea what we were doing back then, and they they were old hands. They seemed to know everything about Turkey - they even spoke a bit of Turkish. Dick had been working in Saudi Arabia for many years, and they'd raised their children in Saudi. During that time, they kept their boat in Turkey, and took their holidays along its lovely Aegean coastline. The Centre of the Universe, Dick said they used to call Cokertme (it's a tiny village, and we became very fond of it too).

They retired back to Vancouver, and in 2013 Dick brought the boat across the Atlantic. To meet him again here in Curacao - that makes us feel as though we've come a long way, and as though the world is small, both at the same time.

Then there's Andy. Andy is a Berliner, who is very much at home in Australia. He's already crossed the Pacific twice in his own boat. Now he's crossing a third time in a catamaran named Matilda. Matilda isn't his boat. He's delivering her for friends.

Matilda on the hard

We met her owners, Andy (another Andy) and Jane, last year in the gulf of Corinth, and immediately took to them - as I suspect people usually do. They're warm, enthusiastic, relaxed people - and they're English. They emigrated to Australia a few years ago, and as the name of their boat suggests, are mad about the place. They were on their way back to Australia in Matilda and we hoped we'd see them again either in the Balearics, or failing that, in the Canaries.

But in September, Andy was diagnosed with myeloma, a bone marrow cancer. He and Jane went back to England to get treatment and now, April, is when the going gets really tough for them. Every time I see Andy (Berg) working on Matilda (she's sitting right in our sightline), I remember that nothing about cruising is guaranteed. Just because you buy the boat doesn't mean you get to sail her. We sincerely hope that Andy and Jane get to sail their Matilda again in Australia.

Gubby (and below), on a mission to Maine
Gubby Williams is an English shipwright, late of Heir Island, Ireland, who is reviving an American classic yacht which had fallen into shocking disrepair (the owner is a commodities trader whose wallet can absorb the cost of its drastic surgery, one assumes). If anyone can make this boat float, Gubby will. He's a wooden boat man from way back. He took a break from the grind this morning to drink a cup of tea in our cockpit (he spotted my teapot) and talk about Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing with Alex, who knows McCarthy's books better than I do. Conversation with Gubby is diverse and never dull.

At the end of the pontoon is a boat called St Leger, owned by another Canadian couple (there are a lot of Canadians in the Caribbean). They're also heading through the canal (Enki, Matilda and St Leger are, as far as I can tell, the only boats which are leaving Curacao - the rest are going up on the hard). Doreen and Michael built St Leger themselves 35 years ago. They've been cruising since 1991 and have spent years on our side of the world and in Asia. Their conversation is littered with names of boats and people who are spread across the the world's oceans.

They're going to Cartagena, in Colombia. We're heading for the San Blas islands in Panama. Perhaps we'll catch them in the holding pen for the Panama Canal.

Dick is taking his boat to New Zealand next year - more interesting than the Caribbean, he reckons, and just as easy to get to from Vancouver. We all see the globe in the way that suits us, don't we?

Dried fruit, juice, champagne, instant noodles, jam and teabags - what's missing?

These places are beginning to seem real

Enki spruced up, and ready to move on

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Curacao blue

Enki's Willemstad drive-by - the district of Punda to starboard

The next bridge is over 55 m high - all the better for fuel tankers to pass beneath

Past the pretty stuff...we approach Schottegat, one of the world's largest deepwater harbours

The Queen Emma floating bridge is now back in place
Curacao is an easy downwind day sail from Bonaire. We arrived in Willemstad, its capital city, the way all ships do, no matter what their size - by way of the front door.  My mother  stopped in Curacao on her way back to New Zealand in 1955, and I feel sure she saw what we did (her ship came in for re-fuelling, as many ships did back then, before going on through Panama). Willemstad's front door - the fortified entrance of Sint Anna, a wide channel of water which divides Willemstad down the middle -  won't have changed much in 60 years.

It's a thrilling entry. The wondrous Queen Emma pontoon bridge, which joins the two halves of Willemstad, was pulled back to shore for repairs on the day we arrived, so we didn't have to mull around in the open sea waiting for permission to enter the harbour.  Passenger ferries which flit back and forth when the floating bridge is opened for water traffic were taking on pedestrians. We passed the docks and their palate-tingling pastel-coloured buildings, passed the cruise ship terminal, and under the soaring road bridge named for Queen Juliana; and then turned into Schottegat, Curacao's large deepwater harbour. In one of its many corners, most of which service the interests of the petrochemical and marine re-fit industries, we found Curacao Marine, within sight, but thankfully upwind of the smokestacks.

The view from Curacao Marine's pontoons (and below - at sunset)

Curacao is the big smoke, in every sense. Willemstad is dominated by a gigantic sprawling oil refinery, originally built by the Dutch Royal Shell company in 1915 to process Venezuelan oil. The oil industry's future on Curacao is reported to be uncertain (Shell bailed in 1985, all but giving the refinery to the local government which rents it to the Venezuelans, whose lease expires in 2019).  It's hard now to understand why it seemed a good idea to situate an oil refinery (the largest in the world at one stage) in the middle of a "heritage" city. But then again, Curacao was built on dirty money.

Dutch maritime history is a long and complicated story - the museum tells it

The Kura Hulanda museum lets nobody off lightly in its telling of Atlantic slave trade history

Bronzes from Benin - circa 16th century
Willemstad was built by the Dutch in the 17th century to support the island's first filthy industry, transporting and selling on slaves.  Curacao was the major clearing house of the Atlantic slave trade. Over the course of two centuries, about half a million Africans were delivered in chains onto Willemstad's docks and sold to Caribbean plantation owners at a depot now on the property of the original oil refinery. The Dutch themselves had relatively little use for slaves on Curacao, which like Bonaire, is an arid island covered in scrub and cacti. Lush doesn't come to mind. But there's colour, lots of it, both above and under the water.

At the entrance to the Spanish Waters anchorage oil rig

Willemstad streets are so very Dutch

So what are we doing here?

Enki alongside, ready to be hauled

Enki needs her bottom repainted with anti-foul before she crosses another ocean. We chose Curacao Marine after hearing its reputation extolled by several cruisers we knew or met along the way. She's in good hands, we think. We've been caught out a bit by Easter, but then again, the longer stay on the hard has given us time to explore Willemstad and the island, and to do a few jobs we'd put aside for.....well, a boatyard, I guess. Like polishing the topsides, and dealing with a serious twist in the anchor chain. Time is short now.

Here's what they use at Curacao Marine - a 60 ton hydraulic trailer

Taking it one step at a time - living on the hard

Good-bye Hempel, hello Micron 66 - but first, the barrier coat

We had another incentive to stop in Curacao. Andreas Klassen, the osteopath whom Alex saw in desperation in Bonaire, lives and works at Jan Thiel, a suburb built around a glitzy resort to the south of Willemstad. We've been down to Jan Thiel twice already, with a third appointment booked for the Tuesday after Easter. I wouldn't say come to Curacao just to see Andreas, but if you're in the area and your joints needs attention, the man has wondrous hands. Alex is much better articulated than I've seen him in months.

Andreas and Alex's old bones - a fine pairing

This is the Caribbean they sell in the brochures....

And the people seem happy enough with what they've paid for. 

Further up the island's west coast are a series of white sand beaches where, on a Saturday afternoon over Easter, we were among only a handful of pale-skinned bodies. The campgrounds were packed with families doing what families do - sleeping, clearing picnic tables, splashing in the shallows, drinking, building sandcastles, flirting, changing nappies, adjusting the angle of the umbrella.  Not so many black people snorkelling though, or even swimming beyond the shoreline - and it couldn't have been lovelier, or easier, right off the beach and along the reef at the cliff base. I don't know why it should be that white people will fly for several hours to swim amongst brilliant fish and colourful corals, while locals don't much care to look beneath the surface of Curacao's blue. But there's far too much I'll never know.

This beach is not for sale .... bring your own bucket and spade

Playa Lagun

Yes, even here....