This is a Caribbean sailing blog which captain Julian wrote as a gift to a group who spent time aboard Tropicbird. They had such a good time and allowed the captain to relax and enjoy himself.
Andres group charter ‘Blog’.
Written by their captain Julian.
It all started way back at the end of November 2010 when I got a telephone call whilst my boat Tropicbird and I were in Sapzurro Colombia. The person calling explained that he had found me on the internet and would I be able to take him and a group of his friends on a tour of the Sanblas islands. These islands lie along the coast of Panama and can be easily accessed from Sapzurro on the border with Colombia and Panama. A myriad of questions followed and via emails and text messaging a plan was hatched. The guys’ name was Andres; see Clownaman.
Upon arrival in Capurgana the group of seven stayed at Chillis’ hostel in Sapzurro before boarding Tropicbird. Over dinner I was able to plan with them the route and give them a better idea of the logistics. There were several under estimations of time and distance on their part but I decided not to be too dogmatic and hoped within a day or two decisions could be made much more easily; given also that they had no experience of traveling on a sailing boat.
The group had traveled together before and so the dynamics had been established prior to this adventure. They were a mix of young professionals and (obviously to me) had been raised to respect others and practice good manners. Now was the time to add me to the mix.
It had been agreed that they should provide all the food and catering for the trip. There wasn’t enough room on their plane for a large bag of food which they had purchased, so whilst waiting for its arrival they hiked over the hillside to Carpurgana next to Sapzurro to finish the food shopping. They waited all afternoon for thirty loaves of bread to be baked, most of which were later fed to the fish after having gone moldy. This was the first example of the pragmatic sense of humor of the group as they held on to the bread for as long as possible managing to still have the bread in their possession several days after it was inedible. (Loathe or even ‘loaf’ to get rid of them.)
On the morning of 29th of December we sailed off to Isla Pinos; six hours sailing up the coast to anchor for the first night. Excited as young children they busied themselves with establishing their own ‘space’ and positioned themselves for their first experience of sailing on a cruising yacht. They adapted well apart from the threat of seasickness. However Dramamine had been advised and some had been taken so those most prone were getting used to the motion and thus nothing traumatic occurred. Tamara established herself as the worst sufferer but dealt with the issue by curling up under a sheet during all the passages.
Andres was the spokesman for the group, although they all spoke good English. They were curious about me and my lifestyle and I explained about my family and history of boats and in turn I learned of their individual lives and the adventures of the group. Andres had manufactured tee-shirts for everyone, each displaying the individuals’ name so that I might remember all of their names. I did a dismal job of remembering although it seemed easier for me to distinguish an individual by profession rather than by name. By the end of the trip I still couldn’t remember one of the girls names; never mind. Another gift was a traditional Colombian coffee strainer. All this showed considerable forethought on their part. I was appreciative and understood these acts as part of the bonding process. Perhaps non-‘random acts of kindness’; the motivation seemed similar.
We arrived at Isla Pinos, dropped anchor and all went for a swim. Most were experienced swimmers although two of the girls wanted to row the dinghy to shore so as to carry some camera equipment without getting it wet. I under estimated their skills at handling a small boat and had to dive into the water to bring them safely to shore. I made a bit of a fuss but I believe this established my authority and my desire for safety first. I had made the mistake of not accessing their capability before untying the dinghy; a lesson learned for me more than for them.
Having got into the dinghy I ferried them to the others on the beach. It was getting dark by this time and we all marveled at the stars and the clarity of the night sky. I told them of the extent of my astronomy knowledge, which is just that Venus is the first light to show, a planet rather than a star and I pointed it out; I was incorrect and they corrected me: hey-ho.
Feeling humbled and in appreciation of these wonderful people I started writing this sailing blog.
I was so happy to see them involved in their new environment. It helped me relax and feel that I could allow myself to enjoy myself and not get stressed out by the responsibility. We retired to Tropicbird where we cooked dinner and watched a movie in the cockpit. After the movie they chose their sleeping quarters, half of the group choosing to sleep on deck beneath the stars.
The next leg of the journey along the coast would take us to Snug Harbor and shelter from the seas. The Easterly trade-winds were established by now and with them came a high swell. Since we were traveling side onto the swell as soon as I got some sail up the motion was dampened which helped with the seasickness issue. We had to motor out of Isla Pinos but raised sail as soon as we turned away from the wind. All my guests relaxed on deck or in the cockpit and enjoyed the salt air and the freshness of the day. We got full sail up and joyfully shut the motor down and sailed onward, making good speed. On approach to Snug Harbor there were depths of twenty five feet which, since the swell was so powerful made the waves break, creating crests of white foaming water. Fortunately there was a passage with depths of eighty feet and more so nothing to fear. It was an exhilarating sail for me and I got plenty of exercise setting sails.
The entrance to Snug was a blessed relief for Tamara and she rose from her cocoon. The rest of the group collected at the bow anticipating a restful stop. We anchored outside a restaurant I knew of which has an island to one side. We all waved and called to the launch driver who worked for the restaurant and he came over to talk. We planned a pick-up for six-thirty and the group invited me to join them for dinner at the restaurant. It’s been about four years since I have been invited to dinner, I felt privileged.
They all went for their first swim that day and although the water was murky due to the weather, they all seemed to enjoy themselves. We had a fresh water shower and cleaned up for dinner.
During that after noon I continued writing the blog.
The restaurant was run by Kuna Indians and was an up-market affair, although access to a variety of produce was limited. We ate fish with rice and a very small portion of broccoli followed by fruit salad. Perhaps typical of Kuna Indian design; the restaurant didn’t have its own rest-room and since we were not staying in the Cabanas had no access to toilets, so the open lawn and a coconut tree had to suffice.
The neighboring table had a family of boisterous people and I got chatting to them. They were fascinated with our situation and introductions were made. The father of the family used to be in the music business but now produced music to go onto cell phones and told me that this is now a business three times as big as the music business; surely an example of our rapidly changing world.
After dinner my group found the restaurants’ hammocks and rested. I am used to the rigors of sailing and the salt air; they were tired! I tried to get everyone involved in playing Chinese Charades but I got only a few takers so played Pictionary with the family instead. We said our farewells and returned to Tropicbird on the Restaurants’ launch. We were all tired and slept well.
Perhaps as part of the bonding process or perhaps to establish Tropicbird as ‘mother-bird’ whose responsibility was to take good care of these fledglings it was decided, (amongst us all I believe), to make a flag.
I took an old tee-shirt and sowed a line into it. Tamara and the other artists in the group designed the logo whilst I foraged in my paint store and found a paintbrush and black paint to finish the job. We hung it up to dry (not without one person bumbling into the wet paint). By the end of the day it was proudly flying from the port-side signal-flag halyard. (How’s that for pomposity of nautical terms!)
I repositioned Tropicbird beside the island and took a long rope from the bow to a palm tree on the shore and thus was able to draw my boat sideways close to the beach. During the day we all spent time on the beach playing Frisbee and the Colombian version of ‘Hop Scotch’. We took lunch over to the beach and had a feast. This included vegetable chili, rice and some more of the bread.
We discovered a pile of shoes and wondered why so many shoes were in one place. Perhaps over the years other people had accumulated them, we found one more on the beach to add to the pile and thus contributed to the tradition.
I left the beach before the others to continue my duties as their host. I decided to have a fresh water shower standing on my swim platform at the stern of Tropicbird. I have found in the past that showering with a swimsuit is a waste of water, time and effort so I stripped naked. I turned my back to my guests and merrily took my shower. After a few moments I heard some joyful giggling from the shore and glancing backwards found most of my friends also naked! This was an establishment of the camaraderie and relaxed atmosphere which is a hard commodity to ask for. As `Andres said ‘Let the group grow organically’. I think we took photos from both directions!
Whilst preparing the evening meal we discussed the route for the rest of the holiday. I was not keen on sailing throughout a whole night and Tamara for one didn’t want more than five hours sailing at one time. I explained the distances and the options with the help of the navigation charts; much heated debate followed. I sat back and let the process evolve. Finally compromises were made and it was agreed to get up early in the morning and continue to Coco Banderos, up the coast by five hours or so.
I got the boat ready to go by seven next morning and Andres swum over to untie the line from the Palm tree whilst I up-anchored. We made breakfast as we left Snug Harbor blowing the conch horn to announce our departure to the restaurant dwellers.
Coco Banderos which had been my very first stop in the islands two years previously. We made good time although the sea was quite high. There were long, tall waves of about eight to ten feet combined with a good breeze. Fortunately the swell died down as we approached the island because of the shelter from the reefs. Everyone was enamored with the scene as we slid gently between two of the islands and anchored amidst a half dozen other boats. The group swam over to the reef and explored. I took Tamara over to the island immediately in front of Tropicbird, actually we hitchhiked a tow from a ‘cruiser’ who was passing by in her motorized dinghy. On the island we met a Kuna couple; it seemed husband and wife, who explained that the woman owned the island. As is often the case the Kuna women hold the purse strings of any household or business. Tamara bought a Kuna ‘anklet’ and I rested for a while and marveled at the scene. It was truly beautiful, crystal clear water, tall coconut palms and pristine beaches. Time for more blog.
Tamara and I had ordered some bread and fruit to be delivered the next morning but had got no response from the phone number given, so choosing to leave first thing in the morning we planned our next stop. It was getting easier to choose a route and a timetable since the check list of delights was being eroded. We decided to continue to the Holandes Cays the next day and thus satisfying an early request whilst we were in Sapzurro. I endeavor to satisfy the needs of my guests and this was an easy facilitation.
My group cooked dinner and watched a movie in the cockpit; as per normal I fell asleep during it. Despite the threat of rain the group slept on deck under the stars. Although free from mosquitoes because we were away from the beach rain was still an issue to deal with. Luckily there was little rain during the whole trip, it cleared up just before the charter; luck or divine providence?
Next morning we set off for the Holandes and the ‘Swimming pool’, I had read somewhere of a resident nurse shark in the area and suggested we introduce ourselves by shaking fins! My crew continued to wonder about this character although they didn’t chastise me when I couldn’t find the article in the cruising guide. I guess the shark fled the book also.
On the way to the Holandes we followed a sailing boat and I discovered that this was a boat I had first met in Portobello. The captain had given me some unwanted clothes and various goodies so I decided to pay him back with some photos of his yacht under sail. One of my guests took the photos as we approached, via the VHF radio we organized to be led into the anchorage.
We followed the yacht in and found it crowded but practicing the science of anchoring I managed to find a suitable spot. Unfortunately this left us well away from the beach and any of the surrounding islands. I was hesitant about re-anchoring and asked on the radio for anyone benevolent enough to supply dinghy transportation, I got no takers. The answer to this predicament came when I realized my anchor was dragging. The placed was crowded and I was so close to other boats that I had to move rapidly to up-anchor. Another captain was staring at me with a tense expression on his face, I suspect he had experienced a novice trying to get out of this situation, he didn’t need to worry I pride myself in maneuvering my boat.
I talked on the radio to a friend and he explained about the ‘Hot Tub’, another anchorage, so I decided to go there. I explained to my group that there would be a beach in easy access, coral to snorkel on and probably this would be the place to stay for the night; at-least I thought it did. It seemed suitable for my guests, they had another opinion, voiced , after suffering mosquitoes on the beach.
After some exploration it was decided that this was not the place to stay for the night. Mainly due to the presence of mosquitoes on the beach. I tried to explain that this was a typical area and in my endeavors to satisfy their need for a bug free beach, yet again I got on the VHF radio.
Another friend of mine was anchored next to us and he explained that we might try Sand Island. By the nature of its name this seemed an option and up came the anchor again. We couldn’t see Sand Island at first and upon approaching discovered why; it was just a patch of sand surrounded by the sea, no vegetation at all. Mind you no bugs, just too exposed for camping. There were a number of beaches behind sand Island and instead of going back to the previous anchorage I decided to be brave and explore. This led to me to hitting the bottom! No big deal as I was purposely moving slowly in a relatively uncharted region, I just went astern and shuffled off the sandy bottom. The light was fading so I had to anchor in fifty feet of water which provides less grip for the anchor. I hoped that the weather didn’t turn heavy during the night as I would have to monitor the security of my anchor. I have had many fit-full nights together with heightened paranoia; please don’t lock me up just yet!
Whilst I was going to stay with my beloved Tropicbird and blog. The others, after a quick reconnoiter, decided to camp on the beach for the night. I asked how many were participating, the answer came from Tamara who told me that this group of friends did everything as a group. They busied themselves with packing tents, sleeping bags, covers, lights, food and water whilst I thought through a signaling system in-case either they wanted to vacate the island or I wanted them back on the boat. The code consisted of a combination of flashing of a light on my part and the blowing of a conch horn on theirs. My reasoning was the weather; theirs I hoped was not because they couldn’t make the best of the adventure they had chosen. So many times I have had to deal with people who don’t think their plan through thoroughly, especially given this new environment. This usually ends in a lot of work for me having to clear up their disorganized mess. It was not the case this time. My group made a fire on the beach and they reported next day that they had a great time. The mosquitoes arrived only in the early morning hours so the comfort level was maintained, helped I am sure by the fire which they kept ablaze all night. I recognized in all of my crew experience and practicality.
Next morning Andres was the first to arrive and he described the night’s experience, only complaining about the bugs as a reason to get up in the morning but otherwise having had a good time.
The night before I had delivered my crew to island using my rowing dinghy and another inflatable which had only one paddle (the other one had been absconded by a Kuna Indian some time back). I tied the two boats together and with combined propulsion moved people and possessions safely to the shore. The next guest arrived having paddled the inflatable with one paddle and no tow, all the way across the bay, which he explained was successful due to technique rather than strength. I was glad to hear that someone else shares my practical outlook, hence my adopted expression “I don’t have problems I have challenges”! More for the blog.
Next stop was Dog Island where many years ago a captain had beached his ship and swimmers could view the remains whilst snorkeling. I had been there several times before and had suffered the consequences of onshore winds and had stayed aboard ship; as yet I had not swum on the wreck. Fortunately there was an offshore wind so I anchored Tropicbird and joined the others for the experience. We all enjoyed the dive and exploring the small island. We met a couple from the Dominican Republic who were staying on a friend’s boat and they helped ferry my group back to Tropicbird. I was eager to find a suitable anchorage for the night and since time was pressing on the time and energy saved by this taxi ride helped enormously; thanks all around.
The East Lemons had been mentioned in the initial planning session and these were immediately next to Dog Island. It was an easy entrance and led to a perfect anchorage. There was an island off to one side, a reef behind and crystal clear water all around. On my request the boys willingly swam to inspect my anchor and I found out later spent much effort in setting the anchor for maximum grip. Afterwards they departed to the island to do a complete reconnoiter. Meantime back on my boat I asked if anyone would like to go up the mast. Much discussion ensued as to how and who would really want to. Some trepidation was shown until it was suggested to Ava, who jumped at the chance without any hesitation what so ever. She got herself belted into the Bosons’ Chair and between myself and the remaining crew we winched her aloft. It was just getting dark and she was a fading image well above us. She stayed there for two hours or more! She counted over thirty islands and thoroughly enjoyed herself. On the last day having put my down anchor in Sapzurro she even asked if she could do it again, sorry Ava, next time for sure.
That evening my group made coconut rice whilst I barbequed some fish we had bought from a local fisherman. I had the fish ready well in advance of the rice; it took over three hours to prepare! It was well worth it and reminded me of ‘Milky Way’ chocolate and coconut candy bars I had eaten when I was a child. Half of us were involved with the cooking and the others, including myself, fell asleep and suffered through the hunger. It was suggested that we eat the fish first but out of good manners we all waited till the rice was ready. We took photos of the whole complex technique, marveling at the way the coconut oil separated from the juices.
Next day was a long one for me and I rose at five-thirty faced with the washing up from the night before. Due to the Coconut Oil manufacturing every pot in my cupboard had been used and it took me a long time to get everything back in place ready for sailing. I up-anchored and set course for Snug harbor once again. Although this would be a repeat visit it was a place which provided a safe anchorage and an opportunity for further exploration, there was the village nearby which as yet we had not visited.
Passage there was uneventful except for one glimpse of a few dolphins; my guests lounging around deck semi-comatose. Tamara as per normal was cocooned, avoiding seasickness. We arrived in late afternoon and anchored next to the same island adjacent to the island with the restaurant and cabanas. The boys took a swim and Tamara hailed the restaurants launch over to Tropicbird so as to meet with the proprietor and order dinner. She came back with one of the guests, a girl from the States who was given the grand tour of my boat. Later she came with us to the village and played volleyball with the local Kunas. She stood nearly six feet tall and dwarfed the locals although they were experienced players and fought a strong battle.
The rest of us toured the island and bought fresh drinking water, beers and snacks. We were amazed at how many albinos there were in this village and how the life of the community was unaffected by cell phones since there was no signal. Ava was adopted by a small boy who took her hand and bonded readily. They walked hand in hand for the duration of our stay.
We joined other guests from the Kuna hotel and returned to the restaurant for dinner. I had caught a fish during the day and it was cooked for me. The others either had fish or lobster, we were aghast at how small the lobsters were. If the Kunas want to have lobster in the future they must learn to farm intelligently.
The owner of the restaurant showed me photos of a piece of land up a river where he is building a ‘Finca’. It was interesting that he showed me these on an IPad. The Kuna Indians live with extremes of technology; from dugout canoe to computer.
One of the guests was an environmentalist whose primary interest was the monitoring and restoration of Coral, he had projects all over the world and showed my guests one of the areas he was involved in at the back of the resort island. He took all our email addresses and promised to send us updates.
During dinner Andres spoke to me about the onward journey. I had refused to sail at night for many reasons, most logistically since too much distance would be covered and the possibility of seasickness heightened. At this juncture the distance between the last two stops was fourteen hours so I agreed that we all stay at Snug harbor during the next day and start early the next day arriving in Sapzurro in the dark on their final day. I knew the entrance and had tracked the course on my computer, so the plan was ok with me.
As per normal that night we had dinner and watched a movie this time ‘The invention of lying’. I had chosen all the films for the group and all were readily accepted and enjoyed. I have tried to have a group decide for themselves before but this leads to great controversy, it’s much easier just to have one person to blame!
The group organized an excursion into the jungle to a waterfall so I was able to spend the afternoon preparing Tropicbird for the passage to Sapzurro. I was thinking about the timetable as I busied myself with the rig. I knew that the whiskey had come out and the words ‘Farewell Party’ were ringing in my ears. They had also given me some earplugs immediately before departing for their excursion, what was planned? As I tended to my boat I realized the best way to avoid being kept up all night without disturbance would be to sail through the night. This was challenging for me since there was little moonlight, I doubled up on the GPS and with everything ‘Shipshape and Bristol fashion’, motored into the blackness.
Food was prepared but not much was eaten. The sea had been flat for all of the afternoon; it now decided to gets its act together and make the ride a bumpy one. The announcement at my Pow-Wow in the cockpit that we would depart as soon as possible was met with childlike glee! The enthusiasm and joy continued for the next hour or so. Once out of the harbor and on the open sea the mood dampened. Having eaten everyone slept, snoozed or just rested. I had my egg-timer set for twenty minute snoozes, between instrument checks, setting sails and keeping lookout. Since almost everyone was in the cockpit I didn’t adhere to a strict watch keeping schedule. Next day I was told that many times I had slept on after the alarm; I guess this was a sign that deep down I had learned to have confidence in my present crew.
We rolled on, (literally) and made Sapzurro by early afternoon. Plans were made to go to the hostel and once again I was invited to have dinner with them. They got themselves together and after several group photos departed Tropicbird.
That evening they prepared the lobster and the crab and we all had a splendid dinner at the hostel. I had spent the afternoon writing this blog as a gift to my friends. After dinner I enjoyed reading it to them. Perhaps they will use it to remind themselves of their time with Captain Julian and Tropicbird.
This was the best charter I have ever had; and despite the help of the San Blas islands as a venue, the main contribution came from my guests. They allowed me to concentrate on sharing this paradise with them and sailing my boat. Andres noticed and commented on the broad smile I expressed whilst sailing. They brought new dishes to my boat and cooked fabulous food. They were enthusiastic and respectful of both myself and my boat.
I have said before that sailing is not about the place you get to or the place you came from, its about the bit in-between; as is life itself.
Being a worldly person is gained by experience and I hope I did my bit to provide some for them. They gave me a ‘life experience’; thanks one and all.
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