Friday, 17 February 2017

Bye bye Colombia - Hello Panama! (featuring Las Islas San Blas and a surprise visitor)

I was sad to leave behind Colombia and I’d grown rather enamoured with this vibrant city of Cartagena but it was time to set sail again this time in the direction of Panama but stopping en route to the idyllic islands of San Blas.

We woke at dawn to up anchor and realised we hadn’t taken the latest bag of rubbish ashore, so whilst los hombres got the deck ready for our next voyage, I rowed Snowy into the marina with the basura.  It was a calm morning and there was hardly a ripple on the water.  The sun had just risen and i could see it ascending through the high rises.  From Snowy, I could here loud beating music coming from the shoreline, and periodic whoops and shouts.  My initial thought was wow - there’s some energetic partygoers still up and dancing at 6am.  I mean, this is Columbia after all ; ) and only two hours earlier I was woken by a party boat sliding past Tin Tin with dance music blaring out.  But onshore, at a closer look I saw that this group of partygoers were infact up for their daily exercises and were taking part in a lively aerobic class.  Looked like fun to me and was tempted to join.  Must keep to the task at hand, though, the rubbish run...How glamorous I am? Must get back to Tin Tin before she sets sail without me! 

The forecast has predicted winds of 30-40 knots for our passage.  But its not until we are a good 10 miles from the coast of Colombia that they hit us, slowly at first but they soon pick up to 40 - 50 knots (storm force 10) this is going to be a rough ride! The swell gets bigger and soon waves are crashing over the aft with the occasional wave wiping out whoever is at the helm.  After my watch which finishes at midday - I go below to make lunch for the crew.  I try and wedge myself in the galley to stop me flying, I curse the fridge for being so difficult to find anything! I don’t think I’m very good at this after all! I come up through the hatch for some air and to deliver lunch.  I take the rest of the afternoon to recover as i’ve become quite green.  Its been a few days now of not sailing so my sea legs have left me and it may take a while to get them back.  I retire to my cabin and sleep it off.  I wake and Justin has made a lovely stir fry but my appetite has gone  slightly and I think about how I’m going to get through the night - i’ve got to stay awake till midnight when my watch will end.  

Just as I was thinking I need a distraction,  we get a surprise visitor  - a brown booby who had come to Tin Tin for a refuge as it must have been tired - miles away from land now.  He looked young and balanced very skillfully on the side railing just by the cockpit - apparently undisturbed by our presence.  He settled down for the night and tucked his head under his wing for a sleep.  poor little fella he must have been tired.  It amazed me that he could withstand these intense winds and wildly rocking Tin Tin and manage to rest.  He stayed with us for about 6 hours as we transported him closer to Panama.  I was thinking how lovely it would be if we could have a companion/ pet aboard who would stay with and keep us his home only leaving to catch fish daily.  Sadly my hopes vanished as near to the end of my watch the biggest wave crashed into the cockpit, drenching me and knocking poor booby off his perch.  Like me, he too must have had such a fright and the poor thing was in a dreamy sleep.. He tried desperately to land back on Tin Tin but without any luck - the winds were too strong by this point and there was now way he was going to land without being blown off again.  He tried the boom first, but it swung violently and knocked him into the water, he recovered himself and tried the stern and managed to land on the solar panels but it was so slippy he slid right off and into the water again with a loud cry - I didn’t see him again after that and i felt quite tearful after my long watch, i had grown quite attached to this little chap and fear that he was injured.  And i missed him as my companion.. its funny that because I was so tired I suppose and it had been quite a scary rough watch on my own, i had become emotional and the loss of Berty the booby had made me into a  fervent sailor.  

I will tell you another thing that I forgot to mention on that watch, the exact same wave that took out Berty, also washed our safety ring over the side with the attached Danboy.  I had seen that it was attached by just one string and went astern, falling over a few times from the waves,  and tried to save it.  I was too late and I watched it float away, with the lit Danboy bobbing out of sight into the distance.  This felt quite dramatic and imagined how horrific it would be if that was a person in there and I was losing them from sight, helpless.  Obviously if it had really been ‘man-over-board’  I would have alerted the rest of the crew and set off the GPS  MOB alarm.  When I let Papa know in the morning his said we should have used that for MOB practice.  It all happened so quickly - first boobie, then life buoy.  I stayed astern a little in shock i guess, and it was so rough i could barely make it back in the cockpit.  I thought it would be safest to wait until Uncle Mark came up on his shift which would be very shortly.  I’d like to add so as not to alarm my close ones - I had made sure I was attached by my harness through all of this  - so easy for a wave to take me over in this weather - in fact by rule I’m always attached when I’m alone on watch and always at night - I’d be stupid  - the risk is too big without anyone  to even see you go overboard. Just putting it out there for rested minds.

We arrive in the beautiful archipelago of Las Islas San Blas and wow is this paradise!  We have to navigate carefully through these atolls as coral reefs surround the islands with only a few narrow passages that will allow you entrance, make a mistake and Tin Tin will be another of the many shipwrecks that have met there unfortunate demise in these turquoise waters.  In fact there’s quite a history of ships meeting their tragic end here -  and because these waters aren't that well chartered we don’t want to be one of them!We find our anchorage in the middle of three tiny islands.  The water vis so clear and so blue, it doesn’t even look real - the islands have a perfect ring of white sand around them and tall coconut trees swaying in the wind.  There are two other boats anchored in this spot.  It’s funny how we are finding new neighbours all the time.  We don’t have this paradise to ourselves it seems but I’m not complain this is.heaven.  

I want to jump in the water as soon as our anchors taken and i decided boldly to sim to the closest and smallest island.  I haven’t, however, taken note of the state of the sea -  there is a rapid current that is racing past Tin Tin - even if I swam my hardest, i wouldn’t be going anywhere!.  I give in and go with the others in the dinghy where the trusty 2 stroke engine does its work to get us ashore, battling the current.  As we approach the white sand beach, we are met by a small native man who greets us and tells us we can land but this is his island and we must pay $3.  What else can we do, we oblige and come ashore.  The men stand there not really knowing what to do with themselves, i however, am in paradise and take a tour of the island, filming this paradise.  To walk the circumference takes about 10 minutes and I’m back to snowy.  The men have finally settled into hammocks and realise that they just need to relax and take it easy. 

 I find a perfect stop on the beach and soak in some glorious sun while the gentle waves cool my feet.  My head blissfully cool by the shade of the coconut tree, i drift into a luxurious snooze but not long after i’m warned that this is the most dangerous place to sit under, the tree is loaded with coconuts ready to drop and i’m in prime position for one to whack me on the head. It has been known to be death of some unfortunate souls.  How foolish - I did know this but It had been the most heavenly spot that I’d ruled out any risk assessment!  We meet the family, who live on the island and i watch the two young boys flying the kit they have made from plastic bags and sticks and a long bit of cloth to create the tail - it flies well and I’m impressed.  I think how much richer these boys are making and finding joy in a kite they had created instead of sitting in front of playstation or a computer screen and getting square eyes.  I see these boys later go out to fish. They may not have any money but they are richer in life.  

We move onto the next set of Islands the next morning and venture through more treacherous coral reefs, hoping that we’d taken the right line…  We see remnants of old ships wrecked on these reefs.  There’s a ferry that didn’t make it and another yacht tipped on its side with the full force of the waves crashing over.  I hope they managed to escape. 

Here, the current isn’t as strong and I don’t hesitate to jump in with my snorkel gear on and swim ashore.  first I go and have a look at the anchor to see if it had caught but it just lies there at the grassy bottom and hasn't taken purchase at all - I inform Papa who reverses Tin Tin and we hook to a rock - seems to have done the job.  I navigate through the coral garden, with a few fish acquaintances on the way, I lose my nerve half way and start thinking of the big fish - apparently there’s a large ray and shark population - the jaws theme tune naturally comes into my head and I react, swimming faster and quickening my breath. Every dark shadow below, making my heartbeat quicken! I’m glad when I reach the beach. And i lie facedown on the sand like i’ve come from my own ship wreck and found land for the first time - it was quite a tiresome swim - not from the distance really but from my nerves - get a grip Em!

The island is dotted with a few backpackers that have made it over on a tourist boat and they have hitched up their tent for a few nights.  there are also a few basic huts on the beach you can rent.  I’m surprised to see though that the main holiday makers there look as if they are Panamanian.  From the small tourist influx, its sad to see that the island is littered with rubbish.  Such a beautiful place but polluted with waste.  

These are incredibly beautiful islands, but the further in you get to the mainland, the more accessible it is to tourists and the boats that bring them over and the more spoilt they become.  It makes us feel lucky that we are travelling this way as we are able to experience the unspoilt, almost untouched islands. I am saddened by the impact us humans have on this planet.

Tomorrow morning we sail to Colon at daybreak, it must be light enough to navigate through the reefs. 

The coast of Panama is lush wish green jungle as we sail along it's coastline. By late afternoon we are entering into big shipping waters and we are reminded of what a significant entrance this is.  Once you transit the canal you enter another Ocean and there is no going back. When we reach the breakwater at Colón we make a radio call to Port Control which seems to be regimental in its organisation.  We have to wait for 3 big ships to exit before we were allowed entry.  Here we dock in a well established Marina called Shelter Bay.

This seems to be the stopping point for boats who have to fix things up before making the transit.  Some have been here for years and have made this their home with not much intention for moving through or onwards.  There is a strange but lovely community here from all walks of life, I could almost write a book on their stories of adventures.  We feel welcomed, there is a pool and yoga and I'm quite content to hang around here for a few days  (it gets small on the boat!) The men however, seem quite restless although we have things to do - Tin Tin needs to be lifted out of the water for her bottom to be scrubbed and anti - fowled (the Galapagos are very strict about clean bottoms, especially no barnacles, quite rightly)  We have a need for an electrician, the fridge needs a look over and she needs to be fumigated for the Galapagos.Oh and paperwork!! Relentless for poor Papa!  It's nice to stop for a while but even I'm itching to get on now , the transit (intense line handling and sailing by Caiman crocs) and then the Galapagos awaits! It's getting closer now and I am excited beyond words!



Thursday, 9 February 2017

Dolphins and The great escape of El Dorado! (St. Kitts to Columbia via Dutch Antilles)

I am now lying in my cabin at the bow of Tin Tin as she rocks wildly and I can faintly hear the nightlife of Charlestown , the bustling heart of St.Kitts.  We arrived here in the dark and luckily spotted a buoy to moor off overnight after a long sail over from Antigua.  We left Jolly Harbour at noon and arrived here around 9pm, about and hour ago.

Justin's brilliant idea was to get the fishing line out and now we were far enough away from the reef where the fish could possibly be contaminated by ciguatera, so they would be safe to eat.  He had attached a very shiny squid lure to the Watuma Yoyo which was deployed with its very strong line and a makeshift teaser to flap around and make it look like a fish trying to escape the squid's advance.  ingenious!  It seemed to work as after about and hour of having the line out Justin landed the biggest Dorado I've ever seen!  The poor fella battled violently when hauled in on deck (unsurprisingly) and before we'd got round to being in control of the situation (i think we were all in a state of shock) he had got free of the hook and made a great escape off the stern with Papa Paul and Justin desperately trying to cling onto it but he slipped through and was the one who got away! Ahh, so close to having a good fish supper.  Im hopeful there will be more ..  but I hope Mr.Dorado wasn't too injured and can go on now to live a peaceful life in the ocean. Thankfully for you we aren't yet practised fishermen. Im glad you are free now - you deserve to be after that incredible escape!  For supper instead we enjoy one of Uncle Mark's famously good veggie omelettes before our night adventure in the dark to find a mooring.

We spend the next 2 days in Nevis and St. Kitts. Nevis is very friendly, small and unassuming.  After Papa deals with tedious formalities and clears us with Customs and Port Control, we learn a lot about its history in Charlestown which has maintained its picturesque colonial style.  St. Kitts and Nevis was the first English settlement in the Caribbean.  Nelson was based here and fell in love and married here.  It was rich from its sugar plantations but famous for its slave trade and slave markets, a poignantly shocking history.  We trek across the island in unbearable heat to find an old fort of Nelson's, nothing much remained bar a couple of canons, an old well and a dead goat. It was a hot, heavy day and I was starting to feel really unwell with my cough and a horrible pounding headache, not helped by the heat.  We found some lunch in a shady courtyard of the museum and the hopped back on Tin Tin to move on to St. Kitts.  I'm a rubbish crew member at this point and go for a lie down in my cabin , with practically all my clothes off to cool down!  I don't feel much better on arriving arriving in Basse Terre, the capital but it would be a crime not to step ashore.

What a contrast this town is to the other Leeward Islands we have been exploring.  St. Kitts is comparatively more rugged and rough around the edges but seems to have more character than that of the americanised, "Disney" versions of the Caribbean.  We ignore 'go this way' signs intended for the cruise liners and find ourselves in downtown Charleston as the sun starts to go down.  This certainly feels like the edgier part of town but is alive with music and reggae blasting out of every street corner.  For a while, I forget my headache and fever and feel immersed in the heat and smells and sound of the town at night.  You can see the old colonial buildings dilapidated but in a way still beautiful with cracked colour.  The Independence square is a shadow of its former glory , with the grand houses that surround it and the out of place (could be in England) church and red telephone box!  We feel quite weak from our night time strolling and think its high time we stop for a drink and maybe some food.  We should have been brave and bought some jerk chicken from the side of the road but we succumb to a far too enticing Thai restaurant (of all places!) with a luxuriously breezy terrace.

We set off after breakfast for our big sail across the Caribbean Sea to the Dutch Antilles (ABC Islands).  This, with Papa's calculations may take us 3-4 days.  I had hoped I'd feel better by this point but I don't.. frustratingly I feel worse.

We settle into our watches, 3hrs on, 9hrs off which works out well, but I wish I could enjoy my watches more without feeling wretched and coughing myself half to death! Despite this, it is a lovely feeling being up on watch on your own especially at night when there's just the expanse of rolling black sea, glittered with phosphorescence as your companion, and the night sky which feels bigger than ever before.

My watches look like this:
6pm -9pm, 6am - 9am, 3pm - 9pm, 3am- 6am, 12pm - 3pm, 12am - 3am
At night, it can be a challenge to stay awake, so I set a timer every 20mins to keep me alert on watch.  Every hour, I go down to write the log and position, wind speed, SOG ( speed over ground), COG (course over ground), barometer reading etc.  and every 10mins I scan the horizon to look for other boat's lights, ones that don't have AIS and so don't appear on the charts - usually small fishing vessels.  In fact, there's very little traffic on this passage,  just the occasional tanker/cargo or cruise liner that lights up the horizon.  We're to wake Skipper Papa if they appear too close!

The nights are dark which means magical phosphorescence, dance, sparkling in the black waves.  It really is beautiful. The wind stays a steady 20-30 knots which means Tin Tin cruises along at an impressive speed of 8-9knts, getting us there quicker than we expected.  I am blessed on my morning watch as the sun has just risen and we are joined by a playful school of dolphins, about 9 or 10 of them leaping out at our bow - an incredible sight.  they must think our hull looks like a friendly giant whale's belly.  They stay swimming with us for half and hour and I manage to film them on my GoPro aas I sit at the bow infront of the Genoa.  Such a treat - i think I am falling in love with these playfully graceful creatures!  They join us again on my evening watch , Im sure they are the same ones.

Justin hasn't lost faith since the great escape and puts his line out but we don't have any luck for a few days yet.  This means suppers remain purely vegetable.  This doesn't deter the chefs, though, and beautiful meals are produced which is no mean feat battling with the vigorously rocking Tin Tin at a 45 degree angle! The fridge you have to almost climb into to find anything as it only opens from the top, the oven sways violently and anything that's not strapped in flies off the surfaces.  Knife skills are hit and miss and chopping/slicing anything is a precarious operation!  There are bananas going brown in the fruit and veg hanging net and so I ambitiously attempt a spiced banana bread. I'm feeling fairly pleased with myself as i pop it into to the dramatically swinging oven to bake but a sudden squall tips Tin Tin over and the remaining eggs on the side all crash to the floor.  I shout a number of obscenities and Papa pops his head down below to see what the problem is,  in which I then blame it on them for changing course without warning! Turns out I can't always keep my cool... I'm ridiculously hot and starting to feel slightly sea sick.  Air, I need air!

My last watch of this leg finishes at 3am and I willingly collapse into my cabin for a sleep that comes easily.  I wake up and we are in Bonaire, anchored off Kralendijk.  Bonaire is a renowned spot for diving and snorkelling, supposedly one of the best in the world.  I had hoped to be recovered by now as i was dying to go diving again since I got my Paddy in Dahab years ago, I haven't got round to using it since.  Actually, if I have any diver friends.. I've lost my Paddy card, will dive centres be able to look me up on a database? The snorkelling here, though, far from disappoints.  There is a small island surrounded by coral reef a dinghy ride away from the main island and we venture over on Snowy.  There is a dramatic drop off where the reef drops to 100m due to the volcanic nature of the island.  Here the bright turquoise parrot fish nibble on purple tubular polyps, clown fish come close to investigate my goggles, pouting puffer fish swim cutely between huge fan corals. At the drop of the colourful coral is a beautiful contrast to the deep blue of the water that plunges 100m below.  This sends shivers through me as I know this is where the sharks like to loiter.  I get a grip of myself and my adventurous streak comes back as I challenge myself to dive deeper each time to explore this stunning underwater garden.  If things cant get any better I meet a chilled out turtle who's quite happy for me to film him as he paddles along...woahhh!

Onwards we sail to Curaçao, sailing into the wonderfully serene and sheltered bay of Spanish Waters.  It is one of the most well protected anchorages in all of the Caribbean.  The inlet and bay got its name because it's reputed to be the first place that Spanish explorers landed in Curaçao hundreds of years ago.  The island has quite a different feel to it than Bonaire. Both have their Dutch influence but you can see that Curaçao has been heavily influenced by a huge wealth and we walk through the Miami-like neighbourhood line with million dollar homes.  This doesn't feel very authentic and we decide to take a bus to Willemstad through colourful villages.  the roads are pristine and one could easily be in Europe if it weren't for the coconut trees and intense heat!

Willemstad has a huge Dutch influence, the amazingly designed bridges that part to let the boats through, and especially the Queen Emma floating bridge! We walk past the bustling floating market, traders that have come over by boat from Venezuela selling fruit, veg and fish.   The brightly coloured Dutch architecture derives from when the Dutch captured the island from Spain in the 1600s. Here there is the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas built by the Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam and Recife, Brazil.  Sorry for the history lesson!

We prepare to sail the next morning after stocking up on supplies.  We meet a lovely young Dutch family who have made their boat their home and are slowly sailing round the world with their 8 year old twin boys.  They've stopped for a year there as the husband has found work and the boys will go to the local school. I could see myself living a nomadic life like that...

Off the coast of Curaçao, we hit gold and Justin lands a very decent sized Skipjack tuna.  I gut, fillet and skin it off the aft steps, whilst dangling my legs in the water, I quickly lift them out as I realise its prime feeding time for sharks!  We dine on lime chilli and ginger ceviche and seared chilli soy tuna that night.  It can't get fresher than this, delicious. Result!

A short breakfast stop in Aruba  at anchor, a respite from the gale force winds, and onwards to Columbia - wahooo!  This is the roughest passage we've done so far and it takes 3 days.  Wind speeds are up in the 30s/40s and we zoom along at 9-10 knots  upto 15 knots as wind speed reaches 50 knots - a record for Tin Tin! Sailing like this is really thrilling but not so comfortable.  We are running most of the way as the wind is behind us and we start sailing with goose-winged genoa and main but as the wind accelerates, we have to take them down and put up the stay sail as we are flying and the swell is getting bigger (4m waves).  This is fun when we can surf them but the occasional odd waves hits at a different angle and completely crashes over Tin Tin and crew, soaking us!  I'm off watch at night when one of these hit and I'm trying to sleep without success.  I have a fleeting moment thinking this wave has really taken us and we are going down as all I can see is water out of my hatch and side window.  I think of my exit plan and that I should probably go and help whoever is on watch but sleep takes me and I wake up in the morning and I'm still alive and Tin Tin has not sunk! Phew..

Frigate birds and brown footed boobies follow us and we are met again by dolphins. Mark lands another fish that looks has the shape of a tuna but is much smaller with a mackerel patterning.  He discovers its covered in a parasite.  It has long been on the hook and is dead when pulled in.  I fillet it and chuck the remains over the side for the sharks but i think we've been put off and we still haven't tucked in.

The coastline of Columbia comes into view and we are blown away by this stark, rugged coastline.  A dramatic line where land meets raging sea.  The land is arid and lined with cacti.  We anchor in 30 - 40 knots of gale half a mile of a village with a cluster of shacks.  We have to dodge fishing nets marked only by a small plastic bottle, one of which we get tangled up in!  A group of young native men come and suss us out in their boat and offer to sell us water, petrol and  beer and more..??  The are very friendly and seem unthreatening so having been keeping down below, I poke my head out to say hola.  The boat rules (with me being the only female aboard) are that I'm to find a hidey hole below in case of pirates! Let's hope we don't have such an encounter..  Mark keeps anchor watch and the rest of us dinghy ashore and meet the indigenous tribe of the Wayuu weaving beautiful bracelets and bags.  I succumb and buy a wristful of bracelets from the most adorable young girls. It gets confusing because I've come ill prepared with no pesos and only dollars so awkwardly get change from a neighbouring Argentinian tourist who helps me out, then having to share it amongst the girls.  We eat a lovely lunch of grilled red snapper (I think?)  and watch kite the kite surfers who obviously gravitate to this stretch of coastline to catch the unsheltered wind.

We venture up the coast a way and find an anchorage at Taganga, north of Santa Maria and there is one big PARTY on the beach - its Sunday funday for the columbians and the loud fiesta music floats over to us.  We resist going ashore here, as officially we are illegal immigrants as we haven't cleared into the country yet and and risk getting caught out in this busy town.  The coastguard boat floats nearby us looking important but never comes to question us.  Eeek!  An elderly Canadian lady swims over to Tin Tin and chats to us.  We invite her on the boat and she tells us of her story of how she came to live here and gave us oodles of advice of what to watch out for in Columbia, scaring us with crime etc and who not to trust! She later comes out on a boat and has brought us some take away supper from the local restaurant and a bag of fruit.  What a sweet lady!  We enjoy yet another beautiful sunset which I can never get bored of.

We set sail for Cartagena for a very rough passage.  Arriving in this city is quite a sight as the shore is lined with white skyscrapers.  Under close radio supervision for Port Authority we  anchor in 15m of water not far from the Marina Club Nauticó.  Papa and I dinghy ashore to deal with formalities and en route we help to rescue a Columbian boat which had wrapped its anchor around another yacht - we push them off under power and they come free.

We are finally legal and are free to roam this incredible and exciting city! I have fallen in love with this city especially the Old walled quarter which is beautiful beyond words.  Bright pink bougainvillea climb vibrant coloured colonial houses which fill the streets with such character. Salsa music fills the fiesta - like atmosphere.  The Old City is surrounded by a coral and stone wall with canons poking out of the ramparts. This was built in the 1500s in Sir Francis Drake's time to protect the city from invasion.

As i write this, I'm now sitting under a fan in a high ceilinged  beautiful café and I'm blissfully cool as I sip on a Limonada di Coco,  a Cartagenan speciality and very delicious.  We've had a couple of days here now and its been a real treat to stop long enough to relax and really get a feel of the city.  I will definitely be returning to this city if I can - it's up there in my top!

We sail tonight to Panama to start our journey through the canal which is going to be complicated but exciting, I'm sure.  I hope Papa Pablo has decided we can stop an the San Blas islands on the way.  Finger's crossed!

Thanks for reading, sorry it's so long winded.  I really will try to refine, but I'm just blabbing out whats going on in my head - there's so much to share!  I will try and write more frequently but less volume. I'm struggling to write much when we are sailing as I cant bring my laptop up on deck and i tend to get a bit sea sick if I write down below as its been so rough! So it's limited to when we are land based.  Sorryyyy.

Lots of love my friends,
Panda xxx

Hey, I forgot to mention I'm an Aunty again to a Alice and Matt Matt's beautiful baby boy who has no name yet.  Unbelievably thrilled - Congratulations guys and sending you bundles of love and hugs!!