Dear friends and family,
We last wrote to you from Bocas del Toro, Panama, where we rejoined Thurston after four months in the States.
For the first couple days we stayed inside the muggy inland sea we had briefly explored in our shakedown cruise. Then we sailed offshore to a big, rocky island called Escudo de Veraguas. A scattering of shy or merely disinterested indigenous families live there. As we anchored at dusk the wind picked up from the south and rocked us around all night.
The coastline after that offered little protection other than small river mouths. Fortunately, the swells were small so we could enter anything with a foot of depth. The Isthmus of Panama is narrow, tall, and heavily forested. Most of the villages have no communication with the outside world except by coastal boat. We stayed at a place called Calovebora a couple days. It had two stores and a school. From the village various small trails radiated out to coastal landholdings where the people had erected fences to keep cattle from falling off the seaside cliffs.
Our next stop was the Rio Belen, where Columbus had to abandon a ship on one of his voyages. We rowed upstream two miles before settling for the night. We came to native community consisting of six primitive houses spread over some cleared hills. They had cattle, pigs, chickens, and dogs. They kept their dugouts in a little tributary ravine. With their permission we parked there also. The many curious children took advantage of the ravine’s steep banks and climbing trees to perch themselves overhead and comment upon our every move. They gave us plantains to eat, and a strange wild fruit that is like a large bean with a woody husk. The edible part is a sugary white fur around the hard black “peas”. We shared our cookies, and that’s a big deal for us!
We also explored the Rio Chagres, a wild river with no sign of man along the banks. Six miles up we reached Gatun Dam, where the river’s flow is impounded to power the locks in the Panama Canal. From the foot of the dam we walked up to the edge of man-made Lake Gatun. To our left were the upper Gatun locks. The lake was full of Atlantic-bound ships waiting to go through. The sea on the Caribbean side was full of anchored ships waiting to transit to the Pacific.
We sailed past the Panama Canal entrance to Portobelo, a day’s travel away. Portobelo is the harbor in which the Spaniards used to load their treasure fleets with silver and gold. The ancient forts still stand, their cupola-capped sentry booths intact, cannons still protruding from the embrasures. The town is small but boasts the cathedral in which stands the statue of the Black Christ, which many worship. Thirty-odd sailboats from all over the world lay at anchor.
We stayed for six days getting things done, including a trip to Panama City. There it took us hours to find a certain upholsterer to repair our awning. The buses were crowded and slow due to traffic congestion. Hating taxis we got off in the general area and looked on foot, but there were no street signs or address numbers. When we finally found the place indicated on the web site it turned out that they had moved six years before! A good Samaritan phoned the upholsterer, who came and picked us up. We three drove all over gathering the correct cloth, thread, and needle. His shop was a converted house, very messy, in a residential area. At 9:00 PM he finished the repair, cleared off a couple of couches for us sleep on, showed us how to lock the door, and left. In the morning, before anyone showed up for work, we walked to a nearby bus stop and started the grueling return to our boat.
Panama is 400 nautical miles west-to-east. Portobelo was the halfway point. From there to Colombia we passed through the San Blas Islands, land of the Kuna Indians. The coastline remained mountainous and roadless. Some of the islands were hilly, others mangrove-y. The sonorous howling of monkeys was never far distant. Birds made many strange cries. The Kunas maintain a traditional lifestyle. Many of the women still dress in their colorful traditional garb. Their homes are of stick and thatch, their boats are motorless dugouts. They live in dense villages, not in scattered homes. In one bay we passed six small, low isles, all entirely urbanized, like a Kuna Venice.
We mostly slept undetected in out-of-the-way places, but one evening we pulled into a small river mouth a half mile from a village. All the males of the village immediately ran over to us. They spoke excitedly in Kuna among themselves, Spanish with us. One said we had violated their law by entering the mouth. If we didn’t pay a fine of $50 the policia nacional would be called. (Panama uses U.S. currency.) “No, a hundred dollars!” cried another. Finally the Autoridad Maxima arrived, the oldest man in the village. He was a small, slender man with smooth, honey-colored skin and cataract-covered eyes. He wore faded brown slacks and an old Tyrolean hat with a little feather. Perhaps due to near blindness it took him a while to get his bearings. Finally he rendered his verdict. “One hundred fifty dollars!” Everyone laughed, for the people were jolly as well as mildly hostile.
Steve, after various defenses, hit on a proposal. “Okay, we will leave at once and sleep in front of your village. Whoever wants to can come with us so you know we won’t escape. In the morning the policia nacional can come and sort it out.”
This suggestion seemed to disappoint them, perhaps because they were more interested in money than getting the police involved. However, a ride in this strange and wonderful boat was not to be scoffed at, so five, including the Autoridad Maxima, climbed aboard. The latter sat on a side deck tapping this and that to see what it was made of. The others laughed and chattered. Steve rowed to the village where we anchored bow to shore, stern to sea. Fortunately there was only a mild surge. Steve waded ashore and interacted with the massed villagers. Fines were no longer mentioned. The schoolteacher taught Steve the Kuna word for “alright:” “Neuti.”
“Neuti?” Steve asked the people to his left. “Neuti?” he asked to his right. “Neuti,” they said, the women smiling shyly. They wore bright, hand-crafted clothing with leggings like stacked beads. We retired and left early in the morning before many were up, at the advice of a village elder.
The wind was from the south. It came over the mountains in eddies and gusts, always too much wind or not enough. We now saw a new species of coastal freighter: clunky wooden double-enders that come from Colombia. A friendly mass of porpoises led us to a towering green mountain which tapered to a point called Cabo Tiburon. We had reached Colombia! Just past the cape was a steep-sided cove with a village called Sapzurro catering to Colombian tourists.
The civil war is over; Colombia is safer now. The snorkeling and hiking are great! When walking the path from the anchorage to the village we have to be careful not to step on crabs or huge frogs. The stars are bright at night. We have been here three days. Soon we will sail across the opening to the Gulf of Uraba and continue to Cartagena.
The new outboard motor is working well. We are glad we didn’t get one at first because it allowed us to develop our sailing skills and work out bugs in the rowing station. But starting in Honduras we had felt the lack, because we increasingly encountered headwinds and a lack of harbors. Thurston rocks a lot in waves, so you can’t just stop in the ocean and go to sleep! From here we face about 1500 miles of upwind sailing, so in Bocas del Toro we installed the Honda 2HP. It has been a challenge to find places to stow the gas tank, oil, funnel, etc. Ginny is averse to the smell of gas so we have to wash with soap and wipe with vinegar everything that come into contact with gas.
We always sail on fair winds (3/4 of the time so far). We row if there is no wind (1/8 of the time). We motor straight into headwinds (1/8 of the time). When we get to where we can sail to our destination without tacking we kill the engine. We also have the option of motoring up rivers, which is fascinating. The motor has boosted our confidence. We choose destinations that are further away, knowing that headwinds won’t thwart us. We feel like we are cheating, but it is fun to cover more ground.
When Steve was promoting Three Years in a 12-Foot Boat he was once guest in a radio talk show in which the other guest had just written a book about extreme outdoor challenges. His thesis was that due to modern technology the only remaining challenges are those in which the adventurer purposely makes it harder on himself, such as by climbing without oxygen or sailing in a ridiculously small boat. Steve protested that his situation was different. In his home life he is a minimalist and an ecologist. He doesn’t burn fossil fuels very much or live in a big house. He just carried that philosophy over into his adventuring. The motive for doing something “the hard way” may be environmental or spiritual, not vanity.
We both honor the nature we are sailing through. We’re sorry we have to start the motor now and then, and we feel like “wussies.” But we are having a great time!
Enjoy some new pictures at https://picasaweb.google.com/ginnygoon/BackinPanama#
Take care - we love you all.
Steve and Ginny