Five days aboard a private sailboat, visiting uninhabited Caribbean islands, exploring reefs, relaxing in the tropical sun, enjoying peace and quiet, just we two, the skipper and his wife– those were our expectations. However, the brutal reality of seeing third world slums reflecting the 40% of people living in poverty, rampant rubbish and trash, air and noise pollution, and a rash of peevish details-gone-awry seemed determined to deflate our initial optimism about our week’s vacay in the tropics.
What brought us here initially was a desire to get out to the remote Guna Yala (aka San Blas) islands, located off the northern coast of Panama. This archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands is owned by the native Guna tribes, and harbors some of the remaining healthy, living coral reefs in Central America.
Once I discovered charter sailboats operating in the Guna Yala, it was a matter of delving into the selection of boats to settle on one that we might possibly secure, at the desired time of year (not windy season, not rainy season, not the height of tourist season). I eventually secured a private charter for Robin and myself on the stable, roomy 52 foot Blue Sky ketch for 5 days of island hopping and reef snorkeling.
Podcast: my interview with Chris Christensen of Amateur Traveler podcast about our trip to the Guna Yala islands.
Facing the Challenge
From the outset, I recognized that the most challenging part of the trip was going to be the process of transferring from Panama City to Carti, on the coast. Two plus hours drive from PC through rural countryside and rain forest road would bring us to where we would catch our launcha boat to Blue Sky’s anchorage behind a scenic tropical island.
The common transportation for backpackers and tourists to the Guna Yala from PC is primarily provided by a fleet of SUVs, owned and operated by various individuals and small businesses. Our hosts had made arrangements for our SUV, providing detail about the transfer that mirrored the reviews and trip reports I read on Trip Advisor, repeatedly warning visitors about the nausea-inducing rigors of the hilly, twisting, hour-long passage through the Cordillera Central mountains leading to the coast.
The airline schedules dictated we’d need to spend the night in Panama City (PC) both coming and going, so after much digging and communications on Trip Advisor, I settled on a “4-star” Starwood Hotels property, Le Meridien. We don’t typically opt for expensive hotels but the choices were limited because we needed to stay very near where our driver would pick up the boat provisions after he collected us the next morning between 5-6am. So, it was either a hostel with no hot water, or the Waldorf Astoria, the Intercontinental, or the Le Meridien.
Peevish details-gone-awry started to make themselves known when we arrived at the PC airport, to discover that our ride to the hotel would be late– about an hour and a half late. Should have stuck with my original plan, in which I had emailed our hosts not to worry about having us picked up at the airport, we’d simply cab it to our hotel. However, our hosts asked that we please use their driver. I get it. Always happy to route the money to the families that our hosts depend upon to help their business to run smoothly. But really. We could have been long settled into our room by the time Roger showed up, all smiles and sincerely embarrassed about his having mistakenly set his phone alarm for the wrong time.
Still in the glow of anticipation of the good times to come, we gave up our pique pretty readily and settled in to enjoy the ride in Roger’s air-conditioned van, even if it did completely lack shock absorbers or springs.
We left the airport, suffused in the orange miasma of heavy, oppressive smog that we had seen as we approached PC from the air. The mid-day haze over the ocean and the city seemed to add weight to the fetid, humid air, coated as it was with diesel exhaust pouring in thick black streams from city buses.
Cars zipped willy-nilly across traffic lanes, barely missing fenders and bumpers literally by millimeters. A crazed din of car horns assaulted my ears, and I was reminded of other Central American cities where blowing one’s car horn was apparently the most critical skill for any driver.
Car horns were used totally in lieu of turn signals, to indicate “Hey I just pulled up behind you, get moving!” to warn three lanes of traffic that you were cutting right across them NOW, to encourage people to rabbit-jump a traffic signal turning green, to intimidate drivers to run caution or even red lights, to alert pedestrians that you have no intention whatsoever of giving way, and to say “Hey look at me!” to pretty girls mincing along broken sidewalks.
I had gamely driven my way through such tumult in Cancun Mexico on Christmas Eve, San Jose Costa Rica during rush hour mornings and evenings, L.A. during rush hour in the pouring rain, and Boston during the era of the Big Dig. And of course Atlanta traffic for the past decade. Still. As familiar as the scene may be, each time I experience it, the adrenaline kicks in with a bit of the ol’ pucker factor.
The route that we took into the city generally used high-rise highways and so we didn’t get a good look at the slums (or barrios) that spread out below the highway overpasses, oozing up to the many glittering, modern office buildings, impressive skyscrapers, and high-rise condos of the city central. At first look, Panama was a fairly typical modern, cosmopolitan, crowded, busy, polluted, noisy city wrapped in a veil of smog and haze.
Arriving at our hotel in the neighborhood of El Cangrejo on the Avenida Balboa, the “… biggest upscale area of real estate development in Panama City and the most modern road”, we nearly slid right down the slick tiles covering the steep incline at the portico. We quickly snatched our roll-aboard luggage before it sped down-slope into the alley, where a line of cars coughing gas fumes jostled and honked and inched forward, trying to squeeze between parked cars on either side of the street, while dodging delivery and construction trucks backing blindly into the narrow passage.
The cacophony and diesel and gasoline fumes were simply mind-numbing. The doorman was gesturing to us, Roger was yelling something unintelligible, and the hotel parking guy-in-charge was gesturing frantically for Roger to move the van to make room for one of several cars waiting to perch on the slippery tiles and disgorge their unsuspecting riders. Sure hope those folks had on crepe soles!
In the din, I just plain forgot to pay Roger his fee for the ride, although I did manage to tip him the money I had palmed for the doormen. Nothing for it, Roger was long gone. The best we could manage would be to correct the mistake when we saw Roger next, on our way out of PC.
The expansive, brassy, glittering and cool lobby of the hotel greeted us, and we gratefully hauled up in front of the giant check-in desk. While the process unfolded, I looked around, noting the beckoning restaurant and bar area with its outside seating framed by a massive wall of thick glass, the 20-foot waterfall along the left wall pretentious with its see-through bridge across a little stream with colored up-lights embedded in the stream bed.
The elevators sported an array of LED lights, and both cars actually worked. We took one to the “Preferred Guest” floor, reserved for members of the Starwood Hotels guest program. I had signed up for the awards program when making the reservations, more out of curiosity about what goodies the program might offer a new member. As a cynical marketer, I didn’t expect much more than mints on our pillows.
Of course I had been assured by the scowling gent at the desk that we did indeed have a quiet room at the back of the property, just as I had requested. After all, we would be waking at 4:45 the following morning, in time to check out and be in the lobby for our shared SUV to the coast. We had awakened at 4am this day to head to the Atlanta airport. We needed all the rest we could muster.
Well, of course we got a room overlooking the busy Avienda Balboa below, with a view of the huge parking lot across the avenue and beyond that, the Bay of Panama.
I clawed back the heavy blackout drapes and through the grime on the plate glass, and the haze and thick smog, I could just make out the silhouettes of massive ships queuing up to pass through the Panama Canal.
“Well, how do you like our quiet room at the back of the property?” I ruefully asked Robin. She said “What?” as if the racket from the avenue below was louder than it was. Which was loud enough, believe me.
While I tiredly considered what to do if we came back after dinner and that loud TV blaring next door was still on, Robin checked the in-room safe to ensure it worked. Few seldom do, at least for us in our travels. Sure enough it wouldn’t encode any set of digits. Sighing with the inevitability of the runaround, Robin got on the phone to request a security or maintenance person to come check the safe.
Our plan was to pop out for an early dinner, then swing by the nearby supermercardo for a few personal boat snacks and to pick up the prepaid phone cards our hosts had requested at the last minute. But we weren’t going anywhere until we could secure our passports and cash stash. We weren’t about to go strolling on city streets with all our valuables on us.
Two “security” guys showed up to check the safe and of course much mansplaining was launched to show two dumb gringas how to work a safe. Their English was sketch and Robin’s Spanish was stretched but her patience wore them down, as she slowly and repeatedly mimed and explained that A) she knew exactly how the safe worked, B) the digital keypad was broken and not accepting any inputs, C) the safe was not operational and we desired either a different room or a new safe.
It took some 8 minutes for these guys to poke, prod and mumble their way to the conclusion “So sorry, the safe is broken!” Sigh. Well at least they offered to fetch a replacement safe, and Robin’s wide smile and enthusiastic nods sealed the deal. In minutes they were back, unplugged the crap safe, plugged in the new one, and waited outside the room at Robin’s request while she checked that the thing would work. Yay! Success! Final gracias and so forth and we could now prepare to head out.
Considering the tiny fridge in the room wasn’t working so well either, some ice was needed for the complimentary, warm bottled water. I headed off to find the ice machine on the floor, but the thing had apparently been out of service for several months, if not years. Up to the fifth floor- same thing. Back to the room to report to Robin. She trotted down to the 3rd, then 2nd floor, with the same results.
Back in the room I was unpacking and Robin was on the phone to the front desk, again, explaining that no ice machine on any floor was working (we hadn’t checked the 6th floor, but no sane person would believe they’d find a working ice machine there, either). Mr. Scowls at the Front Desk begrudgingly sent someone up with a tiny bucket of ice.
Honestly, we are not the demanding, high-maintenance pain-in-the-butt gringas. We never send meals back, we are always saying thank you and smiling, we tip well. But man I was parched, tired, grimy and not a little put out with the “services” we’d experienced so far as “Preferred Guests” in this supposed “4-star” hotel. I bit down on angry frustration, and settled for a bit of a funk.
Tripping the Streets of El Cangrejo
Off we strolled to find the restaurant and the market near the hotel. I had mapped both, but we found it difficult to traverse the broken sidewalks, smashed curbs and dangerous intersections in the din of the city streets at rush hour. Tripping around in the heat and smog, we practically shouted directions to each other as we walked for dozens of blocks, retracing our steps past a city park, and past a forlorn 19th century hotel apparently converted to low-rent apartments, its once-splendid facade now reduced to cracked plaster, peeling paint, and broken concrete steps flanked by the remains of giant concrete planter pots. The sagging edifice was shaded by a massive ficus tree supporting a leaning, rusted bicycle. A dog tied to the bike casually lifted its leg on one of the numerous roots jutting through large sections of cracked sidewalk.
Our evening stroll continued, past the fancy glass fronted auto dealership flanked by yet another hotel or high-rise condo entry. Just one block off Avienda Balboa, the neighborhood mutated from glass upscale-veneer retail to a jumble of overhead power lines, narrow, crumbling storefronts with bars across the windows, overflowing dumpsters, and numerous empty lots strewn with garbage, plastic, and cast-off appliances rusting in the rubble.
The only eatery open in the area that wasn’t outside food service in the noise, dust and searing sun was a Mexican restaurant. We were greeted by welcoming if anemic air conditioning and the owner, who was perched at a shaky table with his laptop.
Twenty minutes later we paid and left the remains of our unappetizing meals of slightly “off” meat served in oil-soaked tortillas, and headed to the supermercardo. The familiar act of food shopping in a foreign market was somehow reassuring, as we negotiated narrow aisles and the crush of impatient workers on their way home after apparently a grump-inducing day.
I idly realized that so far most of the folks we’d run into, except for poor unpaid Roger, had proven to be ill-tempered and impatient. Ah well, maybe it was the heat, and that unremitting city din getting on everyone’s nerves. We certainly weren’t in Costa Rica, the land of the friendly Ticos, any more, Toto!
We found suitable snacks and drinks to bring aboard Blue Sky (soft drinks and beer offered only at lunch and dinner, water free, all other potables the guest’s responsibility). Paying for them was an adventure, but Robin’s Spanglish prevailed.
I waited outside in a speck of shade, collecting another coat of street dust and grime, while Robin trotted to a small store up the street to purchase the prepaid phone cards our hosts had requested.
Purchases in hand, we returned to our room and to the neighbor’s TV blaring incessantly. Once again Robin phoned down to the desk, where a more helpful person assured us we could get ice for our small travel cooler in the morning- at 4:30am. We might even get a cup of coffee. We rolled our eyes and hoped for the best.
The gringo couple next door was kind enough to turn down the TV volume upon my respectful request, and after showers and re-packing for our journey to the boat, we turned in for a somewhat restful night’s sleep, the traffic and horns and sirens on the avenue below barely muted by earplugs.
A Panama City Dawning
4:30am Panama was 5:30am Atlanta, so we felt positively refreshed as we blearily dragged our carry-ons and backpacks down to the lobby. Hurrah! Coffee and little slices of breakfast cake were on a sideboard and ice appeared in the small cooler we passed off, ensuring that at least 3 cold beers would make it aboard Blue Sky.
The SUV ride through the barrios of PC was eye-opening, as much as we could see of derelict buildings. The SUV’s headlights swept over old colonial apartments with peeling stucco and bars over every window, litter in the gutters, and scrawny and mangy dogs picking through the garbage in the alleys and empty lots. We picked up a couple of backpackers at a hostel, its narrow facade faint under a wan street light. Police cars with screaming sirens passed in the street below. Everyone aboard was quiet, struggling to wake up in the predawn.
After thirty minutes winding through the narrow streets of the city’s barrios, we collected another young backpacker couple and were brought to a large food market tucked into the ground floor of a high-rise of some sort. Various tricked-out trekker SUVs were parked among the building’s support columns, sporting heavy roof luggage racks, snorkels, and a host of dings and bashed-in fenders and rear hatch doors.
With no explanation, our driver jumped out and joined the other SUV drivers milling about. We all sat quietly in a stew of confusion mixed with a tiny tinge of apprehension. Someone in the rear of the SUV muttered something followed by a nervous laugh.
Our driver’s door was suddenly wrenched open and an in-charge kinda guy leaned in, announcing in a loud voice in Spanish that, well, the gist was “Pay me your $25 per person fee now and soon your driver will return and we’ll all be on our way.”
It’s amazing what you can do with a smattering of a foreign language, talking to someone who has a smattering of yours, followed by gestures and lots of facial expressions to reinforce pleasure, agreement, confusion, and the fact that you do not intend to move until we work this all out. Yeah we didn’t need to go there just now, but the time would come, I could just sense it.
This is where we have learned to trust arrangements made by hosts or whoever our in-country connection may be. I could see that Tito, the guy who managed his little fleet, ran a tight ship, reflected in the deference shown him by several drivers, including ours.
As suggested by our hosts, I pre-paid for our return SUV trip and watched Tito put our names into his phone to hold our seats, exactly as our hosts had said he would. A smile, a nod, a quick handshake and we were assured we’d have a ride back to the city. Not everyone knew to do this, which would catch some folks unprepared.
To the Guna Yala Islands
Tito doled out some cash to his drivers, who all dispersed smartly to their respective SUVs. We were finally headed out to the Caribbean coast of Panama, a line of SUVs in various states of repair, swirling up clouds of dust and street litter, madly accelerating and decelerating, scattering dogs and pedestrians as we muscled our way, horns blaring, through crowded roundabouts and around delivery vans parked with their butts protruding into the street.
We passed the newer Metro city buses plugging along in their reserved lane, coughing clouds of oily black diesel smoke and past gaily painted Diablo Rojos (Red Devils), converted school buses that are owned by individuals and painted with crazy colors and designs, each spewing its own oily diesel clouds.
The poverty and the filth in which many of the poor live was on display right outside our tinted windows. People crouched beside shanties and cobbled-together hovels growing like mushrooms under overpasses, dotting the vista of construction rubble, refuse and garbage.
Faded billboards proclaimed the glitter and glamour of the “Coming Soon” mega-mall and surrounding luxury high-rise condos and hotels. Beyond these, giant beautiful faces and photos of jewelry and well-dressed families mounted on plywood sheets and attached to hurricane fencing marched up and over a steep hill, disappearing in the haze.
Behind the fence stretched an expanse of weed-choked, refuse-strewn dirt and rubble, I could glimpse through the smog tiny figures of people and dogs crossing into the distance toward the line of skyscrapers, giant cranes and highway overpasses.
The entire scene reminded me of the set of a dystopian science fiction movie or otherworld online game, the middle and far distance filled in with clever computer graphics.
Soon we were on the highway out of town. The scenery changed to large tracts of weedy land decorated with windblown plastic bags, litter and refuse, interspersed by large commercial warehouse or transportation facilities, then the airport and its surrounding blight, then on to the countryside of gently rolling hills and scrub, a few ranches and cattle estates beginning to dot the middle ground between the highway and the Cordillera Central mountain range on the horizon.
We were leaving PC just as rush hour was building, as attested to by the miles, and I do mean miles, of traffic gridlock in the opposing lanes. Compact and sub-compact cars, delivery trucks and buses honked and inched their way toward the city receding in our SUV’s side view mirrors.
An hour or so later, we came to the turnoff for the infamous Road to Carti, where we would catch the launcha to Blue Sky. This road was not too long ago a muddy morass or roughly graded road. In spite of being paved, the route is still a nausea-inducing, bat-out-of-hell twisting, turning, roller-coaster ride that had many SUVs in the line of vehicles stopping to regurgitate vomiting passengers.
Luckily nobody in our SUV succumbed to the “scenic” ride through the mountainous rain forest to the “port” where we, and dozens of other green-faced visitors, finally unloaded bags to make our way past the rough-and-ready restaurant, and over muddy gravel to the concrete dock where launchas in various states of repair awaited passengers for islands and charter boats.
Unfortunately, this location on the northern coast of Panama is absolutely downwind from the prevailing winds and currents of the western Guna Yala islands. This means that all manner of plastic and other flotsam and jetsam washes up on these shores. As far as we could see, a virtual wall of garbage washed back and forth in the waves as they lapped ashore, the heaps marching well inland.
Overflowing trash barrels festooned with flies, sodden cardboard boxes, boat parts, rusted equipment, bedsprings, toys, plastic water bottles, plastic ware, clothing, sheets of plastic, torn tarps, ropes and lines and string and god knows how many single flip-flops, crocs and other footwear decorated the ground no matter where you looked.
In the midst of the sea of crap was the crapper, a concrete structure raised some 4 feet above ground, featuring 4 individual stalls for ladies on the left and 4 for gents on the right.
A Guna woman dressed in her typical colorful native attire, slumped in a broken-down chair in a strip of shade, her tiny worn and wrinkled hand extended for the quarter paid by each guest. I was glad I kept tissue in my pocket, although it, like all paper, was deposited in the plastic wastebasket beside the toilet. No running water here, in the Guna Yala (land of the Guna people).
For me, this entire scene was worse than all the garbage, trash, dust, sick and scrawny dogs and urchins we’d seen as we made our way through Panama city to the outer reaches and into the litter-strewn countryside. I was beyond funk and dismayed beyond description. My photo of a Guna woman, sitting dejectedly on the dock, her head covered and her back to the wind, her face to all that garbage, really captures the essence of the refuse heap that is the port of Carti. What Man Hath Wrought.
Blue Sky– and Beyond
The hour-long ride in the launcha, out to Blue Sky’s anchorage, through a heavy wind-driven chop, tested our pain threshold as our butts took a real beating on those hard benches. The launcha slammed down hard in rapid succession the entire way. We deployed our inflatable pads to cushion our backsides and provide some relief to our backs. As luck would have it, we were both in physical therapy for swollen discs– therapy that was interrupted for this trip.
Here’s a quick video capturing our launcha ride! And below, we’re aboard the launcha, with inflatable butt-pads nestled between us and the wet bench seat.
What a welcome sight to pull up beside Blue Sky! It only took a bit of Cirque-du-Soleil twisting to step over bench seats, under the Bimini top, and clamber aboard Blue Sky’s deck some 4 feet above the bow of the launcha. Thank goodness for the help with our bags and backpacks, I was pretty much out of steam, even as I stood in that hot sun on the deck, greeting our hosts with a big grin on my face. I saw Robin visibly sag with relief as she stepped under the wide expanse of blue canvas providing ample shade on the broad after deck of the boat.
A steady breeze wafted faint cinnamon aroma from the tiny island off the bow of the boat. I drank in the scene: the sun glittering off the waves and reflecting the blues and turquoise colors of the sea around us, the bright green of the palm trees waving hello from the island, the bright yellow-white of the sandy beach and tongue of sandbar seeming to anchor the island.
Layer in the waves breaking over the fringing reef to the windward of the island, the salt air, the gentle movement of the boat as it swung on the anchor. Oh my, how many decades had it been since I had experienced these all at the same time?
The blue funk, my painful back, and too many nights of poor sleep all simply fell away. It may have taken real stamina to get to this point, but here we were. I was determined to absorb every morsel out of the experience that I could.
Aboard and Below
Our hosts skipper Breeze and his wife and first mate Debbie knew we were here to snorkel. They had a logical if fixed order of islands to visit each day, an itinerary that found us, on the first two bright, sunny days of our 5 day stay in the Guna Yala, anchored off exotic-appearing tiny islands with glittering sandy beaches, surrounded by rather blah patch reefs with few fish.
I knew that the mid-term NOAA marine forecast for the region predicted the last 3 days of our trip to be beset by rain, wind, and thunderstorms. I was hoping we’d get to snorkel a decent wall, with more soft and hard corals and a lot more fish, while the sunny weather lasted.
Each day we moved to a different tiny, uninhabited island, where a short dingy ride would bring us to a series of patch reefs and, on two occasions, very nice reef walls near two of the uninhabited islands/islets in the western Guna Yala islands.
On the first wall we snorkeled, highlights were spotting three Porcupine fish, one of the talismans we seek on every dive.
These cute, shy members of the puffer, or balloon, or blowfish tribe, typically tuck well back into deep crevices and holes within the living reef, making them difficult to see. We luckily spied two swimming free, which was a treat. The largest fish was playing hide and seek under a pillar coral, but we could easily see it was about the size of a fat adult dachshund, which is large for these guys! And really, who can resist that timid, wide smile?
Sighting the Porcupine fishes pretty much signaled the end of the wonder. On our second day, we slipped off the dingy and into warm, soothing seawater. Almost immediately, I realized we were swimming through a sea of trash, garbage, plastic sheets, torn tarps, pill bottles, shoes, and assorted crap. It was so bad that I had to keep wiping my hairline at my mask skirt, and untangling crap from around my snorkel. There was no way I could realistically collect all the trash I saw floating around and below me, which is what I usually try to do. I couldn’t help but be struck by a deep sense of dismay and foreboding. What are we doing to our planet? The seas? Where are the fish? Where are the living coral reefs? What is this liquid dystopia?
This was positively the worst, a real capper to the godawful scene of the shitshow ashore at Carti. Over three decades, I’ve grown steadily disenchanted while observing the results of the steady, unremitting trashing of our seas, the death of reefs, the depopulation of fisheries, the sorrow of silent, bleached and abandoned reefs waiting forlornly and pointlessly for the fish to return. This time I really did cry behind my mask. As I write, I am filled with loathing, revisiting the scene in all its vivid, revolting detail.
Getting a grip, I realized that pissing and moaning or getting all wound up in a harangue against the gods would make no difference and would certainly rain on everybody’s parade. As it was, we were gonna see plenty of rain.
Tranquilo and Local Color
Our hosts Breeze and Debbie certainly did their best to help make our stay aboard their home Blue Sky a pleasant and safe one. Our water and drinks were kept chilled in a fridge, the meals were terrific, and safety first reigned– even as the music played, all day, every day, until after dinner. I could have used a break in the unremitting tune fest, to listen to the waves slapping Blue Sky’s hull or the waves breaking over the exposed reef just beyond that little island.
Here I will digress just a smidgen to point out that, for me, quietude and tranquility are THE primary reason I seek the great outdoors. Whether on vacation or after a hectic week of work, trading human-made racket for the sounds of nature is a critical component of getting away from it all. Check out this article, by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, which makes my point more eloquently than I can do here.
Robin enjoyed tranquility on several occasions when she kayaked around an island where we were anchored, or way off to the south, toward the coastal mountains. She was careful to remain within sight of the boat, and the sure knowledge of chitras (sand flies) that inhabit every island kept her aboard her little craft. A newly-developed case of persistent bursitis in my right shoulder meant I couldn’t join her in the second kayak. Too bad, because I would have greatly enjoyed just sitting and floating upwind of Blue Sky and in the lee of the reef, listening to the waves crashing over the reef top, the wind in the palm trees, and the call of frigate birds when they cruised overhead.
Not all was doom and gloom. We enjoyed spotting a turtle on the surface, and Robin enjoyed watching a spotted eagle ray cruise by the reef on two occasions.
We also had a visit from the fruit boat and a lovely Guna couple, friends of our hosts who were happy to show us the wife’s stunning Molas. These well-known and collected examples of traditional Guna skills are each hand-stitched, using the technique of reverse applique. This process requires patience, time, imagination, and extraordinary stitching skills.
Our third day aboard, we dared darkly threatening skies to jump into the dingy with Breeze to motor over to a shallow anchorage near the reef off yet another pretty little island. Robin and I slipped into the water and we all made our way against the moderate current over a (thankfully) lovely wall that started some 4 feet below the rain-patterned surface and disappeared into the limited visibility some 40 feet below.
The light was gloomy, making it difficult to see much of the reef’s denizens. Still, it was heartening to be surrounded by more fish here than we’d seen at any patch reef the previous two days. I could hear the typical snap, crackle, pop of a healthy reef populated by parrotfish that crunched coral, unseen shrimps that popped and snapped, and the odd grunts and groans from the many types of fish that produce sound.
Those sounds were soon overshadowed by the rumbling from nasty thunderheads to the east– and west, and south, and north. Thick curtains of rain headed our way, which was fine, except lightning was in those clouds. Drat. We turned around and finned directly back to the dingy, the wind slapping waves against our ears. I tugged on the anchor line and fed it to Breeze as he quickly drove up on the line, took in the slack and anchor, and off we buzzed back to Blue Sky.
The rain and wind steadily increased, and the lightning in the area encouraged us to do the quickie rinse-off on the swim platform and hustle up the ladder to the after deck, where Debbie was just putting the finishing touches on battening down and zipping up for the oncoming deluge.
The master stateroom, with its king mattress, was the most comfy furniture to stretch out on as we wiled away the day reading, listening to the rain slam against the hatch and closed portholes.
Just forward of our stateroom, the salon area featured two ramrod-back wicker chairs and a short, somewhat padded settee where Breeze tended to spend his time on the iffy internet, attempting emails and downloads pertaining to boat parts, provisioning and arrangements for the next guests to arrive the same day we departed.
I’m glad we paid the extra for the master suite. It had a hatch overhead for better air flow, and two busy little fans over the bed. It was comfy enough that each night we were gently rocked to sleep in a different, quiet anchorage, the boat swinging placidly on anchor, the stars (when we could see them) brightly crowding the sky, the tiny sliver of the moon floating above looking all the world like the Cheshire Cat grin.
I found myself grasping at those mental images of the stars, the moon, the mist-shrouded coastal rain forest mountain range towering just to the south, the silvery light bathing the skies, clouds and surface of the seas after a squall. I needed those mental, and photographic, images to tamp down the creepy, dreadful images of a planet choked with human detritus, trash, and garbage. I needed images of wonder and hope, not despair.
And so it rained. And thundered. And squalled. When not slaving away in her galley below and forward of the salon, Debbie would perch on one of the chairs in the salon and read on her Kindle. With the hatches and portholes dogged down, the boat tended to get rather airless, the diesel fumes from the small generator on the forward deck mixing with the bilges and the used TP cooking in the waste basket next to the toilet in the master stateroom head providing a noxious perfume that threatened to send me off into waves of nausea. The only way to avoid the miasma was to sit up on the after deck under vast, if dripping, canvas, in plastic garden chairs that our backs simply wouldn’t tolerate for long.
Up anchor in the rain – brief video clip.
While snorkeling was relatively easy if I didn’t push the leg cramps, the climbing up and down the ladder to the swim platform, the clambering in and out of the dingy, and negotiating the up and down sets of steps in the boat was a bit tiring. And this after two flights in commuter-sized aircraft to get to Panama City, walking the streets for way too long, a lurching ride in a top-heavy SUV, and a butt-sore transfer to Blue Sky aboard the launcha. No doubt, our backs were definitely funky.
Back to Panama City
After our 5 nights aboard the Blue Sky, we awoke again at 4-something AM for the transfers back to PC. Debbie prepared another lovely breakfast, and fortified by coffee and gritty determination, we said Ta to our hosts, and performed our Cirque-du-Soleil twists to clamber aboard the launcha for the hour long ride back to the trashy Carti docks, to await the SUV from PC.
But first, we found we were aboard the “local bus” launcha, which stopped at several islands and boats to gain and lose various passengers. The final stop before scenic Carti was a larger, heavily populated Guna island, apparently built on a giant heap of garbage, flotsam and jetsam, the makeshift hovels crowding each other to the water’s edge.
The photos capture what appears to be a third-world island scene in Malaysia or Thailand. As we approached a rickety dock, an elderly gent was picking through the garbage at the water’s edge. Two neatly attired nuns in pristine, starched, full-length habits complete with wimples waited serenely at the end of the dock, apparently unaffected by the morning’s heat and humidity. With dignity, they quickly climbed aboard with an ease borne of practice, and quietly chatted as we pulled away from the dock.
Why was I surprised that this scene of overcrowding and floating garbage surrounded by clouds of flies and the reek of fish should disgorge two tidy, together women of faith? Surely their work was most direly needed and deeply appreciated, in spite of the mean surroundings– or because of them.
Once back at Carti, we hefted our backpacks and lifted our heavy roll-aboards to hump across acres of mud and gravel to the restaurant where we awaited our SUV for the ride back to PC.
There were few amusing moments in our entire trip but the one that stands out was provided by the two obviously French women approaching their 30s, possibly sisters, standing with stringy arms akimbo outside the restaurant, looking wind-blown, beyond trendy thin, in matching well-washed tight black short sleeves. One sported ragged short-shorts and the other dark leggings. Long, frizzed, and massively tangled manes of indeterminate washed-out color blew across their pinched faces as they gazed about them with noses high. I pegged them for upper-tier backpackers, some might label Eurotrash. They were wearing little flat slippers instead of the ubiquitous crocs, and dragging rolling carry-ons through the muddy gravel, vs hefting large backpacks.
Those two were right out of Central Casting: disdainful, and impatient with me when I didn’t take the photo of them with their camera quite as quickly as I should have, then rapidly switching on smiles when they saw the shot I finally did take after I waited for a couple of ogling young boys to get out of the picture frame. The men all hanging about waiting for launchas or new tourists to arrive in SUVs were chatting and rolling their eyes and gesturing at the two women, who studiously ignored the stir. I desperately wanted to capture the essence of these two, their attitudes, and their impact on the immediate surrounds, but there was no easy and discrete way I could get the shot I wanted, so I took mental pictures for this blog post description.
Our SUV soon showed up. We were joined by two young German women who seemed somewhat confused and out of place, glancing nervously about them and carefully watching the drivers in a group, chatting among themselves while passengers settled into their vehicles.
Our SUV had no bench seats, just individual seats like those in a converted van, thus, one butt for every seat. This came into play when, a short drive from the port, we pulled off the Carti road and followed a rutted dirt track down to the edge of a river. Several launchas were pulled up on the shore and a group of around 30 backpackers were milling around in the shade of an open pavilion, applying bug spray with gusto.
Our driver seemed resigned as he dismounted and slowly made his way over to a guy-in-charge-of-drivers. In the next few minutes, several SUVs pulled into the area, the drivers joining their fellows.
Much gesturing, scowls, shaking of heads, pointing to the parked line of SUVs and back to the backpackers in the shade of the pavilion ensued. It was clear that there were far more passengers for PC than there were SUVs and things were in a state of flux.
I muttered “Oh yeah, here comes our driver and the news isn’t good.” Behind me, Robin muttered “Oh. Swell.” The German girls’ eyes got bigger as our unhappy driver opened the door and, in a mixture of Spanish and English, communicated that this SUV needed to take two additional passengers aboard.
I laughed and gestured to the seats, saying “Oh? And where will they sit? (Gesturing)– on the roof luggage rack?” He just shook his head and closed the door.
The German girls, who had been mute until now, both started speaking in German, clearly quite concerned. I waved a “stay cool” signal and watched as Mr. Guy-in-Charge-of-Drivers opened the driver’s door and said, in clear English, “We need to put two people in here. One or two of you may need to jump out and change to a different SUV or wait for…” I cut him off, my voice ice cold and Army tough. “Oh no you don’t. We (gesturing to myself and Robin) paid Tito for this return trip, in advance. We are NOT giving up our seats. Call Tito if you like, but we are not moving. No way.”
His eyes locked with mine and we had an instant understanding. The German girls piped up and, together, made it quite clear that they, too, refused to leave their seats. He shrugged, snapped the door closed, and within a couple of minutes here came a young couple over to the SUV. With muttered apologies and a surprising lack of fuss, they squeezed themselves somewhere into the back of the SUV. I’m not sure where they both ended up. I sat in the front passenger seat, looking out the windshield, my jaw set in the universal don’t-mess-with-me signal.
Robin may have thought me a bit rigid when it came to nailing our butts to our paid seats in the SUV and even the launcha, but the truth is, people who don’t pay for tickets always hitch rides of convenience when they can. People who just don’t plan ahead or who aren’t capable of adjusting to conditions on the fly can easily be intimidated to give up their seat, their money, and information. You simply must look out for yourself when you travel, because nobody else is going to. End of lesson.
Hey, like I said, this trip wasn’t totally a bummer. I’m sure if we’d spent a lot more time in country, and a lot more money, we would have experienced many more of the delights of Panama and the Guna Yala. Still, in my attempt to provide a clear-eyed report and to help travelers understand conditions as we find them when we travel, I believe that any description of Panama City that describes the upbeat vibe and majestic skyscrapers and high rises should rightfully include the fact that those soaring buildings, expansive highways and broad avenues are surrounded by barrios and slums, harboring abject, third-world poverty that no “cosmopolitan” veneer can possibly begin to cover up.
Like a tart, Panama City aims to impress, but the lightest scratch reveals the crushing poverty underneath the surface, and the massive divide between the rich and everyone else. All the hoopla about the new, improved Panama Canal can’t whitewash the fact that, as a 2016 CIA analysis notes, “…Panama has the second-worst income distribution in Latin America”. Check out this brief article from David Brancaccio, NPR’s MarketPlace host.
Here’s another article that will lend perspective about how Panama’s canal divides the country into haves-and-have-nots.
By the same token, any description of the Guna Yala islands must scratch beneath the surface of scenic islets gently washed by a virgin sea, surrounded by healthy and productive seas and reefs. These islands are no longer peopled by an ancient tribe of natives living life as they have for centuries, paddling or sailing in their hand-crafted canoes, producing their unique crafts for trade, enjoying the benevolence of the tourists who visit private cruise boats and the islands. Instead, the Guna people have adapted to 21st century technology, and embraced mobile phones and gas-powered engines. The indiscriminate netting of fish has rapidly replaced the age-old selective spear fishing these gentle people practiced in the past, and the Guna now find their archipelago over-fished, even as they sell out-of-season and undersized lobsters by the ton to cruisers and island guests who either don’t know or don’t give a damn about how they are contributing to the inevitable degradation of a people, their culture and the very islands they call home.
You may wish to read this eye-opening report on the state of the Guna Yala and its people.
Put me in, on or near the water and I’m happy as a clam. Unless of course, there’s a gale blowing and I’m hanging onto the edges of my bunk for dear life to keep from being flung to the deck while outside the cabin portholes an angry, tossed and foamy wall of ocean is going down, down, down past the porthole then rising quickly up, up, up to arrive at the precipitous lip of yet another gigantic wave, seeming much taller than the flying bridge of our 50 foot Hatteras motor yacht. A gust of wind blows sea foam and not a little sea water through the portholes, soaking my friend Anni’s bunk below. She won’t be pleased to discover a wet bunk, if and when we ever get out of this mess and make our way safely back to Miami and the relative calm of the dock space at the yacht club.
We were aboard the Sailor’s Hat, owned by my friend Anni’s parents. Some three weeks earlier Anni and I had driven down to Miami from Ocala, Florida to join her folks and the “fleet” from the yacht club on the annual Spring Cruise. This year, 1985, the fleet was to spend a month, more or less, cruising the Berry and Abaco islands of the Bahamas. Months of preparations developing itineraries, establishing which boats were leaving when, and deciding on rendezvous points and communications protocols led to the eventual leave-taking of around a dozen sailboats and motor yachts, heading out of Biscayne Bay and across the Gulf Stream to points east and south.
We spent a couple of days at the sprawling Coconut Grove home that Anni’s dad, Cap’n Pete, had built after WWII. I helped Mother Dunan cook and freeze food and pack linens and kitchen ware. Anni helped Cap’n Pete effect some last-minute boat repairs and schlep load after load of tools and all manner of gear needed to keep the boat afloat and self-sustaining for the coming weeks.
The fateful day for departure came, with a cooperative weather forecast promising a calm crossing of the Gulf Stream. As Anni and I gathered in the bow and stern dock lines and Cap’n Pete slowly backed the ‘Hat out of her slip, our little group waved goodbye to members gathered on the great lawn of the yacht club to see us off.
It certainly felt like a momentous departure, at least to me. For several years I’d been regaled with stories of previous Spring cruises, complete with photo albums stuffed full of terrific shots of people cavorting aboard boats and yachts, big and small, and exploring unpopulated specs of islands floating in turquoise shallows in various Caribbean island chains. I couldn’t wait to join my adopted family to spend several weeks in relative isolation aboard a boat with shared spaces equivalent to less than an 800 square foot apartment.
Actually, we got along very well together, which is a good thing, because we were going to spend a great deal of time in each other’s company. And along the way I was to be reminded just how critical teamwork would prove to our safety and well-being.
Once the ‘Hat was topped off with diesel fuel, ice, beer and the all-important fresh water, our first hurdle was the crossing of the Gulf Stream. Sometimes the crossing could be smooth as glass, others the waves could stack up to well above 10 feet. Numerous skippers’ wives, who had been through a crossing or two, opted to skip the crossing and instead meet their boat on an island with a convenient air strip. This meant that some boats would initially make their way to one of the islands in the Abacos or Berry islands that offered airports. Other boats with their full crew would make their way east to Hole in the Wall, then “around the outside” and north again to the inside, protected Ababco Sea passage threading the chain of islands.
I had applied a scopolamine patch behind one ear the day before our departure, hoping to ward off the evils of mal-de-mer. Once we hit the Gulf Stream proper, the waves towered to the point that we lost sight of a cruise ship less than 4 miles away every time we dipped into a trough. And this was a “calm” crossing!
My vision was getting blurry and my speech slurry from a reaction to the medicine, so off to the port stateroom I went, to lie on my bunk fighting off sea-sickness for the next five hours or more. At one point I staggered up the companionway steps leading from the galley to the salon, to find Cap’n Pete perched on his high-boy wicker chair, which was carefully lashed to the starboard bulkhead, his bare feet planted firmly on the edge of the steering console. Anni was perched much the same on the port side on her own high-boy chair, serenely looking out over a vast, wave-tossed watery domain.
Wind whipped massive gobs of foam off the tops of what appeared to me to be giant waves that churned willy-nilly, with no apparent pattern or determination, beyond that of tossing our little craft about like a bobber.
Cap’n Pete had engaged the automatic pilot but was keeping a careful eye on our drift rate as the Gulf Stream pushed the boat northward. As he explained why he was having to correct our course, my brain had difficulty processing the information through a fog of scopolamine. Also, the lurching and corkscrewing of the boat was more pronounced in the salon, and pretty soon I was headed back down to my bunk. Along the way I passed Mother Dunan, who was comfortably jammed into the corner of the booth of the galley dining table, playing solitaire. Sympathetic to my plight, she assured me we would be clearing Customs at Chub Cay by 4pm. I was looking forward to solid land again and a quiet night tied to a stable dock!
My vision and speech problems persisted, even after walking about on dry land for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until that evening that I figured out I had a reaction to the medicine. I removed that damned patch. It took 2 more days for the stuff to finally wear off. I decided I would just bite the bullet and hope to develop sea-legs naturally, without the help of any medicine. Which worked, just fine. So well, in fact, that I developed the opposite problem – getting sea-sick on land!
After several lengthy days at sea, I discovered I couldn’t tolerate sitting still on a beach or in a building without the world spinning faster and faster. Luckily, the best food on the trip was Mother Dunan’s cooking aboard.
Although the itinerary called for different groups to meet at several restaurants on different islands throughout our trip, I never managed to sit for long without being assaulted by land sickness. I was much better off on the boat. Even if we were in a slip, the slight motion of the boat was just enough to keep me comfy, and I was fine as long as I had a cold beer and a good book to read!
Our “deserted island” adventures began on the third or fourth day, as I recall, at Frozen Cay. It was mid-afternoon and I was below, again, trying to develop those sea-legs by distracting myself listening to my Walkman, when I felt the boat shift course and I heard the distinctive sound of the twin diesels drop below a roar– no surprise, since our stateroom was located just aft of the port engine.
From previous weekend and week-long trips aboard the Sailor’s Hat, I had been trained to respond to any change in the boat’s movement or the pitch of the engines. In a matter of seconds we left the tossing of the ocean and entered protected water. I headed up to the salon to be met with my first experience of approaching a deserted, quiet anchorage in the dangerous shallows of the Bahamas.
I was quickly asked to put my eagle-eyes to work to help Cap’n Pete carefully pick our way up sandy passages in-between coral patch reefs and rocks that could hole the boat like the antique wooden craft that she was. Anni was doing her best to “read the water”, which for land-lubbers I might describe as the fine art of staring into the sun’s glare while attempting to make sense of the cat’s paw pattern of wind as it moves across the surface tension of the sea. Depending on whether the pattern was unbroken, or formed a swirl or any number of other esoteric shapes, one might suspect an obstruction, like a big rock, to be lurking just under the surface. Or, you could do like I did and climb up to the flying bridge and with my handy-dandy polarized sun glasses, I could actually see those patch reefs and big, dark rocks and shout down directions to Anni.
It must be noted that the flying bridge was just that—a bridge, complete with a steering station. But on this boat, it was uncovered, so the boat was driven from the steering station in the shade below, in the main salon, which was far preferable to cooking in the hot sun!
I soon appreciated there was more art than science at work here, but somehow we managed to maintain sufficient steerageway to dodge obstacles and bring us across more than a mile of water, deep inside the protected anchorage. Whereupon it was “anchor drill” time, when Anni and I got to do our thing.
Anchor Drill consisted of a little dance: lifting that damned giant Danforth anchor (with extra lead poured into the crown) out of its slot on the bow while avoiding crushing our bare toes. Using well-honed technique, Anni would pull out and carefully coil on deck quite a lot of line (depending on the scope Cap’n Pete wanted). Then, carefully grasping the chain attached to the ring at the top of the shank, she would dangle the anchor and a few inches of chain over the lip of the bow, awaiting Cap’n Pete’s signal from the bridge to “let go”.
My job was to stand about, close enough to relay messages between Anni and her father through the open salon doors, but not in a spot where I would obstruct Cap’n Pete’s view. Oh yeah, and of course to hector Anni to “be careful, don’t trip on that combing, don’t drop that anchor on your toe” or else make smart-ass remarks or dry observations about the anchorage if we were in a lull of time while Cap’n Pete was slowly driving us up to the absolutely ideal spot of sand for the anchor to be dropped onto. Whereupon the heavy beast was dropped with a big Splash. The coiled line would pay out, and Anni would lash the line to the cleat after Cap’n Pete signaled satisfaction with the scope of the line, then we’d scoot back to the salon (I always went through the starboard doors, Anni went through the port doors, we had it down pat after awhile) to await further orders from Cap’n Pete.
Our skipper was a retired Navy man, had been the Commodore of the yacht club time and again over the years, and was considered the most learned and senior of all the boat owners at the yacht club. Living up to his reputation for Safety First, he always came out on the bow to check his anchor, to feel the boat underfoot, to sense her movement in the wind and any current or tide that might be running. All this before he would ever shut the engines down. Anni and I would remain alert, rather like two hunting dogs waiting to be let loose, until those engines were shut down and Cap’n Pete, a man of few words, would give us a small wave or grunt “Ok, good” or something equally weighty.
I soon learned on this trip that the end of anchor drill didn’t exactly signal time to go swimming or crack that first beer. Rather, my job became that of window cleaner. Because we spent almost all day out on the open ocean, the boat would be coated in sea salt, so I got to sponge a little of our precious fresh water, mixed with Joy dish washing liquid, onto the massive acreage of glass encasing the boat’s salon. The job entailed being out in the broiling sun, with nothing on but quick-dry shorts and a tiny crop-top cotton shirt, sponging and squeegeeing until the glass shone like, well, glass. I soon learned to glop on sun screen, don a hat, and work efficiently. Eventually I reduced the task down to less than 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, as soon as we hit calm water, Mother Dunan typically started her stint as “Galley Slave”, prepping a tray of appetizers, which Anni would ferry up to the salon to spare her mom going up (and down) several galley steps, making the turn on the little landing, then proceeding up (and down) several more steps. Boating could be hard on one’s knees!
Sometimes Mother Dunan would begin dinner preparations, depending upon what time of day we arrived at the anchorage. Or, on numerous occasions, we might join, or be joined by, another boat of our little fleet, in which case the already-scheduled host boat would trot out the appetizers, ice and drinks while the guests freshened up, donned their nicest “among friends” evening boat attire, then would dinghy over to the host boat for cocktail hour.
One such occasion found us tied up at a slip in Hopetown Harbor, rowing the dinghy over to the evening’s cocktail boat anchored in the center of the harbor. The host boat, a 30-foot sailing vessel, served as a stable, if cramped, platform for the 20 or so guests, who perched on any available flat area, trying to balance paper plates of goodies and plastic cups of wine.
The sun was sinking into the west, setting the famous lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor aglow and bathing us in the last of the day’s heat. Anni and I were chatting about the name of a nearby boat, the Carpe Diem. I said something about the appropriateness of the name for a day-sailor when an elderly gent on a comfy cushion in the cockpit behind us said to his companion “Look, Carpe Diem. Doesn’t that mean Fish of the Day?”
I had just taken a hefty bite of a cracker balancing a tasty slice of sharp cheddar and nearly choked as I let out a sputtering guffaw. The gent’s companion said something like “Now there’s a young lady who must know her Latin. Tell me, Miss, isn’t Carpe Diem Latin?” I laughed and said “Yes—Latin for Live for the Day, I believe”. Silence from behind me. Anni lifted her eyebrows quizzically. I turned around, faced with two older gentlemen who looked surprised and, I thought, a bit pained. I didn’t understand why they were so obviously put off until the companion laughed and said “Of course! Live for the Day! How could we forget?” And here I thought I’d overheard a clever pun!
It wasn’t until later that evening, back aboard the ‘Hat, that I learned that the Fish of the Day gent was a recently retired director of the Smithsonian. And yes, he was quite serious and did really believe his version of the Latin translation. I don’t recall seeing that particular fellow again during the cruise. He may have been one of many who flew into Marsh Harbor to join the fleet for a leg or two of the journey, to return to Marsh Harbor to fly away again; apparently to a place where they don’t know their Latin.
Then again, he may well have been aboard the tres’ expensive, modern, fiberglass 60-something foot Bertram motor yacht, which joined us and another member of the fleet sometime later in the cruise.
It was late in the afternoon, once again, when we approached a tricky, narrow anchorage between two of the dozens of tiny, low, scrubby islets that make up an area of the Abacos called Double-Breasted Cay. The only protected anchorage there is quite narrow, with a typically high current at tide change. Knowing this, Cap’n Pete determined to arrive ahead of other boats to secure a safe spot for the ‘Hat. He explained that, due to the likelihood of significant tidal currents swinging the boat onto exposed reef/rocks on either side of the narrow passage, we’d set two anchors off the bow so that we could swing a bit on either one in such cramped space.
As Designated Diver, it was my job on this occasion to don snorkel gear and dive some 30 feet down in the (luckily) crystal clear water to the sand, reposition the thousand-ton (it felt like) anchor and dig the flukes well into the sand—in the correct direction, of course. Only after the main anchor was set to Cap’n Pete’s satisfaction would the second anchor be placed in its proper position.
This was one of the more challenging assignments I was given. There I was, feet planted firmly in shifting, fine sand at 30 feet, using the weight of the anchor to steady me as I craned my neck upward, trying to see Cap’n Pete through my fogged mask and the patterns the wind was making on the surface of the water. He was hanging over the stanchions at the bow, gesturing for me to move the anchor “over that way”, holding his arms wide to indicate the distance the anchor needed to be moved. Ok, I thought, I can do this. But I need more air. So back up I went, floating in front of the bow while Cap’n Pete gave succinct directions. Back down, plant my feet, lift that big-ass honkin’ anchor, grunt out a precious large bubble of air, glance upward, see him gesturing again, move the damn thing once more then back up, in a hurry now, for more air. More discussions ensued. Back down. This went on for far more time trips to the bottom than I had bargained for. Not to mention my breath-hold capacity was dwindling precipitously each dive.
One last galvanic effort and the thing was set. Anni was at the transom, watching me crawling, exhausted, onto the swim platform. While I caught my breath, she quipped “Hey, wanna go snorkeling before dinner?” Very funny. The only thing I was ready for was a brief fresh-water shower and a cold beer.
About this time here came that big Bertram, barreling into the narrow passageway. Cap’n Pete observed something dry and not too complimentary about the careless approach. Sure enough, as we watched and Cap’n Pete predicted, the boat’s skipper was positioning his boat to be anchored way too close to us for any margin of safety, especially if either boat dragged anchor or even swung more than a bit on an anchor. Much discussion ensued between the skippers. We left it to the men to work things out, as Mother Dunan shooed us below to help prepare for the group cookout slated on a nearby islet.
A third boat, and perhaps a fourth (my memory hazes) joined the line-up, and our little group crowded the protected anchorage. Too bad if some other group showed up, we had the prime spots. Now, off to the cookout!
The four of us crammed into the 12 foot Jon Boat-cum-dinghy. And now a word about that much-rightfully-maligned boat. Usually, the Sailor’s Hat was the largest boat in the fleet. You’d think she would sport a lovely little Boston Whaler, complete with electric start engine and steering console, but no. The utilitarian and humble little aluminum Jon boat perched on the after section of the fly bridge, sitting out in the sun and baking in temps hot enough to cook meat, her white paint oxidizing so that every article of clothing or strip of bare skin that came in contact with the surface would come away with an almost-impossible-to-wash-off white chalk!
The dinghy further endeared itself to those who had to balance on the often slippery deck of the bridge while wrestling with the somewhat rusted and recalcitrant tackle used to winch the thing over the side. Next, the single stroke little-engine-that-could would be brought out from its storage area, bolted onto the dinghy’s transom, topped off with precious fuel and cranked. Or so we hoped. Actually, the thing needed work during the cruise, and I believe it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth island stop that we finally got a working engine to save on the rowing duties, which I was exempt from, having had absolutely no experience in the fine art of rowing. I could paddle a canoe through the proverbial eye of the needle, but rowing left me confounded, describing ever-widening circles or sketching a snake-like course over any distance I attempted to traverse.
So, there the four of us were in the dinghy, Mother Dunan perched precariously on top of a coffee table cadged from the salon, gripping a large bag of foodstuffs. A group of a dozen or more people were making energetic preparations to clear flotsam from the only narrow strip of sand on an island otherwise covered with thorny, low scrub. The resident sand flies waited to strip the flesh from the unwary who wandered a few feet away from the water, which proved a problem as the tide began to come in.
We’d barely managed to distribute food stuffs, and the portable charcoal grill was still warming up, when everyone decided to abandon the island for the comfort of our boats. Darkness having fallen, we splashed through shallow water, loaded up the dinghy, got Mother Dunan back aboard her coffee table, waved goodnight to everyone and high-tailed it, as fast as Cap’n Pete could row, back to the ‘Hat. Yet another case of a land-based mishap, as far as I was concerned.
Fast-forward to the end of our Abaco and Berry Islands trip. We were met with glassy, calm waters as we cruised west most of the day across the Gulf Stream back toward the east coast of Florida. It was late afternoon and we were miles away from the coastline when we first spotted the tops of thunderheads just above the horizon. Throughout the afternoon, as the twin diesels worked to move us steadily to the west through the eerily calm, deep aquamarine blues of the Gulf Stream, the thunderheads grew into severely-bruised appearing massifs, arrayed in a towering wall as far as we could see across the horizon to our front. The weather reports went from bad to worse. The closer we got to the coast, the more lightning we could see firing from cloud to cloud. After awhile, it looked as if there was a massive artillery barrage as far as one could see, with colors ranging from deep magenta to orange to a sickly, too-ripe banana yellow to shades of greens, purples and blues.
I was awed and increasingly alarmed as I watched the Florida land mass appear infrequently at the bottom of the cloud wall. It eventually disappeared altogether. Only my faith, or dread, of knowing the coast was There lent reality to the scene.
The obvious question is, why in the world did we keep going? Why not just turn back or head north up the coast and away from the storm front? Well, going back wasn’t possible – we had only so much fuel and Cap’n Pete calculated that the return trip back to any close port in the Bahamas would mean an almost head-on push against the Gulf Stream, which would consume a helluva lot more fuel. Not to mention he would need to be at the helm of the boat for likely most of the coming night. At 70-something, with eyes that were scheduled for cataract surgery, our skipper determined that a return to the Bahamas was a foolish and very dangerous option.
A change in course to follow the north coast of Florida and duck into the intra-coastal waterway at, say, Cape Canaveral or Jacksonville, might be a likely choice, considering our present course and fuel consumption. However, the storm front stretched virtually the entire length of the state; we had stumbled into a late spring cold front, one that was rapidly developing into a very dangerous storm for all residents of the east coast of the state. Tornados, flooding, downed power lines and wind damage reports soon frequented every radio station we tuned in. The marine weather forecast had been trumpeting small craft advisories since we’d first spotted the thunderheads.
So after listening carefully to every snippet of weather information he could get, Cap’n Pete’s best judgment was that we should go for it, drive under that massive, anvil-shaped storm front and into the gloom of the looming wall of rain. We were just a few miles offshore, and once we ducked into the intra-coastal waters, we should be able to safely navigate “the ditch” down the coast to Biscayne Bay and, eventually, the home slip for the Sailor’s Hat. However. First we had to get the boat, and ourselves, through what was likely to be a very hair-raising couple of hours of boating.
As Cap’n Pete monitored the weather reports, Anni set to checking the lashings on the dingy and securing every moving thing in the salon. Mother Dunan and I scurried about the galley and checked the staterooms and heads, securing movable items in every storage space available and stuffing pillows, blankets and clothing into the galley cabinets where glasses and crockery were stored. I tried to secure the portholes in the stateroom I shared with Anni, but two were so corroded that they wouldn’t batten down.
As soon as we came under the anvil storm front, the conditions rapidly deteriorated. We were headed inexorably into a maelstrom that looked like the end of the world to this gal, who got bug-eyed over 5-8 foot seas on our first Gulf Stream crossing. I could barely keep my feet, even though I was hanging for dear life onto the rails of the stairs leading from the salon to the galley. I peered fearfully across the steering console, where, over the bow, that dark awfulness loomed. The seas all around us were tossed and turned, churning will-nilly. All thoughts of sea-sickness flew from my brain. I remember feeling like we were so small, so tiny, and being literally swallowed into the gigantic maw of a massive beast that would never, ever let us go.
Cap’n Pete had closed the windward salon door but lashed the lee salon door open – a ready escape route, I figured. None of us had life jackets on, although we all knew where they were stowed, under seats on the afterdeck. Of course, if anyone ventured out there now, they’d be washed overboard.
The boat bucked like a bronco, struggling up one side of a wave, tottering at the pinnacle, then rushing down the other side, to come crashing down in the trough with a massive “Boom!” that caused my teeth to snap together until I learned to anticipate the blow.
Mother Dunan was laid out on an air mattress, in the middle of the salon floor, on her back with her arms and legs splayed but planted as firmly on the deck as possible. The ship’s bell on the afterdeck clanged like a fire engine bell. In the gloom of the salon, Anni and her father’s faces were mirror images of each other, tensely peering through the now-slamming rain to try to determine any hint of a pattern the waves might offer, any indication of which course to follow to reduce the rocking, tilting, slamming and wild gyrations the poor old boat was going through.
I heard a loud “thump” from below and Cap’n Pete told me to not try to discover the source of the racket, but to go down to my stateroom, jam myself into my bunk, and stay there. Which brings me full circle, to the opening of our little tale of a spring cruise.
Cap’n Pete managed to drive us through that wet, dark hell straight to the mouth of the river at Fort Pierce, some 130 miles north of our final destination. Once we hit the intra-coastal, the relative calm and silence were startling, and as the darkness of the storm was replaced by the late afternoon light, we made our way slowly south down the intra-coastal. Waiting for bridges to open was lengthening our trip home to another 6 or more hours, so as evening came on, Cap’n Pete took us through another cut to the outside, where the storm-tossed seas had settled down to a steady chop. We hauled butt down the coast, heartened by the lights of homes, businesses, traffic and civilization off our starboard side.
I remember slowly savoring the sandwich Mother Dunan had made, grateful for a quiet passage and the steady, reassuring thrumming of those powerful diesels, shoving us further south, toward the Port of Miami and eventually, home. But first, we had to again maneuver in the narrow confines of the intra-coastal waterway, dodging small craft that failed to consider that a 50-foot boat can’t stop on a dime and a large tour boat that did it’s best to jam us into an old bridge jutting out from land.
Anni and I spent a good deal of time out on the bow, doing our best to spot the lights of channel markers that were lost in a sea of colors and lights against the Miami skyline. After hours of picking our way along, we finally reached the familiar lights of the yacht club. It was after midnight, and the place was locked down tight. Customs was long since closed, so we left the yellow quarantine flag flying and everyone fell gratefully below to our bunks. It had been a long day, some 18 hours since we had set out from our last port in the Bahamas.
We spent another day in Coconut Grove, schlepping gear back to the house and cleaning the boat. It took me another four or five days to get my land-legs back, and the boat movement remained in my head for another couple of days beyond that.
I was very glad I had come along on the cruise and realized it had been, for me, the trip of a lifetime. I look back at the photos and slides we shot and recall scenes like being dive-bombed by sea birds as we stomped through a large nesting colony on Frozen Cay, making our way to the windward side of the island to catch a glimpse of the sailboats in the fleet approaching the anchorage. Highlights included visiting Revolutionary War era ruins and a large blue hole on yet another deserted island, and walking around Man-O-War Cay early on a Sunday morning, buying freshly-baked Bahama bread from the window of a lady’s house while listening to the choir from the little church, music wafting down the narrow lanes between the gaily-colored homes and cottages lining the harbor.
I got some snorkeling in, as well, on a reef off Green Turtle Cay and some fantastic snorkeling in the currents ripping through and among the shallows surrounding the many tiny islets of Double-Breasted Cay.
But of course the most memorable thing about that trip was the people—spending time with my adopted family, meeting many members of the fleet, and sharing memories. Like the morning we and another boat were anchored in a small bay near yet another deserted island: Anni got up at the crack of dawn, took the dinghy ashore and spelled out a giant Happy Birthday, Janie with seaweed on the steeply sloping, sandy shore. When the folks aboard the other boat in the anchorage arrived topside for their morning coffee, they laughed, called across to us, waved and generally made their delight known.
I also learned about many things nautical, and how to be useful and safe aboard large and small boats alike. Not to mention a great deal of history about the Bahamas, the Berrys and Abacos, and how to read The Cruising Guide and, yes, eventually how to read the water. It was, indeed, a memorable trip, simply messing about in the Sailor’s Hat!