San Blaas Islands, Panama

06 March 2018
Photo: Isla Morrodlib, (BBQ Island), East Hollandes Cays
After checking emails and a last visit to the supermarket to use up our Columbian Pesos, we did need what we bought, it was back to the Dol and to get her ready for an overnight passage to the San Blaas Islands, Panama. We had the anchor up and where motoring back out of the Cartagena Boca Grande entrance at 11:00, Saturday 10th February.
It was light breezes, so with a full main and Yankee we set sail. The passage was 159nm and took us almost exactly 24 hours, as we had the anchor down in 6m of water at Islas Pinos at 11:15 the following day. The trip was uneventful, we had dolphins come and play with us for half an hour or more, the sea state was slightly uncomfortable but not too bad and the maximum wind speed was 24 – 26 knots, which saw us put a reef in the main and Yankee.
Islas Pinos is a whale shaped island and the most easterly of the San Blaas Islands, is it considered an easy first entry island as it has no fringing reefs, getting out and onto the next anchorage may be more of a challenge. The anchorage was shallow and there was one other yacht, a Dutch couple, Rene and Brigit on Blue Spirit. After tidying the boat we were visited by one of the local Kuna Indians who spoke minimal English but eventually we understood he wanted the USA$10 fee to anchor for the duration of our stay. We paid and he gave us the receipt, this is something we will be used to by the time we leave the San Blaas. With the weather predicted to deteriorate in a few days we decided to move the following day 30nm to Mono Island.
Moving was a challenge as the area is unsurveyed and therefore the Navionics charts are inaccurate. The San Blaas consist of many small islands surrounded by numerous reefs, bombies and shoal areas. Luckily we have the Eric Bauhaus Panama Cruising Guide which has very good in-depth chartlets with information on the San Blaas, a must have publication for the area. He gives waypoint tracks from one anchorage to the next. We duly put these waypoints into the chart plotter ready for the trip. We set off through the gap in the reef at 07:15 the following day as there was good light and the first part of the trip was relatively free of hazards. The waypoints were double checked as we headed along them, the seas when outside the reefs were quite large but inside the reef the water was flat. It was interesting seeing the Kuna villages as we passed them, all very close to the water and surrounded by reefs. The Kuna Indians are very short and small in stature, we felt tall when talking to them.
We arrived at Mono Island just before midday, there were 2 Dutch boats in the anchorage with Blue Spirit following us would mean 3 Dutch yachts in the anchorage tonight. Again the local Kuna Indians came out to the boat to collect the anchoring fee and a dad with 4 small children in his dugout came past and watched us lower the outboard motor onto the dinghy and attempted to talk to us. This reminds us of Asia and Indonesia in particular.
Rob and Anamika, Charlie 11, came over and invited us for sundowners with Rene and Brigit, Blue Spirit and Jos and Herard, Mermaid. It was a good evening as we swapped stories and information of our travels so far and those to come. They are currently planning to visit New Zealand but not for a couple of years, so we may see them at home. The following day we took 3 dinghies and went up the Mono River half a mile up the coast. Along the river bank we saw many local ulu’s, dugout canoes, and also a few passed us taking the harvested bananas and coconuts out to the villages. There was plenty of bird life on the river, a few fish and we even saw some small brown and white monkeys in the trees. We used the outboard motors up the river but drifted back down using paddles, the silence broken only by the birds and monkeys, was great.
Time to move again, this time only 10nm to Snug Harbour. Again the wave action was high once outside the protection of the reefs as Dol and crew got tossed around. This time we had the Eric Bauhaus chartlets electronically, connected to Open CPN to guide us through to the anchorage, although we did double check using the waypoints we had transposed onto our chart plotter. Murphy’s Law, just as we had the anchor down in 13ms of water, the anchor winch started to fail, it is a long way to haul it up by hand. Hopefully Brian will be able to source the issue and fix it. With the help of Rob, Charlie 11 and Renee, Blue Spirit, Brian identified the anchor winch problem as a stuck brush. This was duly freed, all connections to the anchor winch cleaned and reassembled, and the anchor winch is now working beautifully. Later in the day we had a visit from a Kuna family selling bananas, coconuts, Kuna bread and molas. Molas are intricately sewn layers of material depicting birds, animals or sea creatures, some abstract, sewn by the Kuna women and are the most recognised craftwork of Panama. We bought a couple along with some bread and “chatted” to the family, they went away happy. Later in the day we had sundowners on Dol with Blue Spirit, Charlie 11 and Mermaid, another good evening.
We stayed 3 nights in Snug Harbour, then two sailed reached with 2 reefs in the main, 31 nm to Coco Banderos Cays. These Cays are a group of 4 small islands surrounded by reefs, there were 7 yachts, the most we have seen in any San Blaas anchorage. Again the breeze was up, we have not really had the weather to fully appreciate the San Blaas. We are currently in the dry season with the accelerated trade winds, maybe with the lighter winds in the rainy season, we could have done more snorkeling and exploring, but then you get more thunderstorms and reverse winds, it is all a compromise.
Sunday 18th February and we have finally found sun and flat water at the Hollandes Cays. We motored the 6nm from Coco Banderos Cays where it was cloudy, windy and overcast and it is like a different world. The extra distance from the mainland and the larger islands of the Hollandes Cays have us in a picture perfect location. The Hollandes Cays are approximately 7 miles of islands, sand cays and reefs, plenty to explore, time to relax, swim, watch the turtles, snorkel and chill. Some local fishermen called past the boat in their dugout with several lobster, crabs and fish. We treated ourselves to a lobster, he tasted wonderful bbq’d with a salad for dinner. This was the first of several such dinners over the following week, shared with Pelizeno and Raftkin.
Pelizeno, Peter, Lisa and Zenon, is another Kiwi boat were anchored in the bay and we haven’t seen them since the Balearic Islands a couple of years ago. We had sundowners with them and an Australian catamaran Raftkin, Dave, Tracey, Hailey and Megan. The next week was spent socialising, swimming, snorkeling and enjoying sundowners. We took the dinghies and explored the island cays and reefs, there was nice soft and hard corals, plenty of fish and lobster hiding under the bombies. On the Saturday late in the afternoon a crocodile was spotted off the beach on Bandeup Island, time to move on.
Sunday 25th February we sailed under Yankee the 7nm to the Western Hollandes Cays, and dropped the anchor off 2 small islands, picture postcard perfect. A snorkel to the reef in front of the boat revealed some of the best soft and hard corals and fish we have seen, it was like an aquarium. We spent an hour happily snorkeling around. The following morning we took the dinghies ashore and walked around, Lisa speaks fluent Spanish and therefore we were able to talk to the families who lived on the island and understand some of their lifestyle.
After returning to the boats and taking some water and food supplies ashore for the families, we upped anchor and motored 6nm to Lemmon Cays, smaller than Hollandes but busy. We seem to have caught up with all the cruising and tourist day boats who are also enjoying the wonderful reefs and islands Tuesday we took the dinghies to the outer reef for a snorkel, the inner reefs were disappointing, but the outer reef to quote Lisa “was like a tropical aquarium on steroids”. Most of the coral was hard corals unlike Western Hollandes which had more soft corals, but interesting with large schools of tropical fish of all shapes and sizes, we even spotted a small manta ray on the way back to the boats. The following day we moved 3nm to Chichime Cays. These cays where smaller again, just two islands but quite extensive reef, again flat water. The islands had the most holiday huts and tent campers we have seen so far and each morning we watched the locals raking the “Atlantic sea weed” off the beach just above the high tide mark, walking 50m down the beach and putting it back into the water.
Saturday 3 March we took advantage of a good sailing breeze and sailed 49nm to Isla Linton, dropping anchor at 15:15. There are roads, cars, trucks and a marina we have found civilization again. Overnight we heard the screeching from the howler monkeys in the forested areas around us, they make quite a noise. The next morning we took the dinghy into the marina and found Charlie 11 and Blue Spirit, they are staying here so we had a coffee and said our farewells till next time we meet. Later in the day we were joined again by Pelizeno and Raftkin who will be joining us in Shelter Bay Marina, Colon.
Monday 5th March we left Isla Linton and sailed, motored the 26nm to Shelter Bay Marina, Colon and start the process for the Panama Canal transit to the Pacific Ocean.
Vessel Name: Dol'Selene
Vessel Make/Model: Warwick 47 cutter, built in three skins of New Zealand heart kauri timber, glassed over.
Hailing Port: Auckland, New Zealand
Crew: Brian & Gail Jolliffe
About: Brian and Gail have retired, at least for now, to enjoy the opportunity to cruise further afield than has been possible in recent years.
Current cruising plans are not too well advanced but we are inspired by Mark Twain’s quote “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your [...]
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