We’ve been watching weather forecasts for over a week now, seeing the current patterns of the high and low pressure systems. The ‘normal’ picture at the moment should be a big high pressure system centred over the Azores, appropriately named ‘The Azores high’ with winds circulating around the centre in a clockwise direction. The middle of a high has little or no wind but it strengthens as you head out of the centre. This picture has been abit of a mess this year, and far from reliable – the forecast we are seeing now is a week or so of this only that the centre of the high is further North than usual. So we plan to leave tomorrow morning in Easterly winds running along the bottom of the high, then the winds will lessen as we approach the centre, we hope there will be enough the creep on and to pick up the Westerlies running across the top of the high…
About 1000 miles to Ireland so maybe 2 weeks, but could be longer if we get stuck in areas of no wind…
Its been just a tad over 2 months in the Azores, Sister Tamsin arrived by plane on day 1 in Horta, Faial where we spent a couple of weeks. Djanna left us to fly home and we found Britt a lovely dutch 19 year old who after a couple of beers thought it a good idea to join us.
A couple more weeks in the beautiful Sao Jorge alongside the wall, before a 36hr sail to the most Sou’eastern Island of Santa Maria. Here was the only travelift in the Azores able to lift our 30tons, so we spent 11 days in the yard, scrubbing, scraping, sanding, sewing, and finally painting and varnishing. It was a new sparkling Lilly that was lowered gently into the cool Azorean waters, and a much slipperier, nimble ship that took us North to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel a few days later, with additional crew Laurie, an old friend of Nicks, for whom this sailing life is a new experience.
Its been interesting to get a clearer picture of this Portuguese group of islands stuck out in the middle of the Atlantic, they are very beautiful, the volcanic geology, giving dramatic coastlines, towering peaks, and a varied topography. Rich soils underlie rolling hills, lush woodlands full of variety, from tree ferns, to conifers to cactus often with a web of stone walls throughout. The People have been friendly and welcoming, hitching is easy, its safe. This culture seems a little threatened in Sao Miguel which has beautiful lake and mountain scenery but also a city and a much denser population, with which comes a host of social issues of course. We met a lot of folk who had migrated to Canada and the USA soon after the war, made lives there and were now returning on holiday. There is certainly more wealth and investment into these islands than the mainland, I’d say the people are traditional, conventional, not sure how many participants for the revolution we’ll find here.
We have met a host of other great sailors in the Azores, made some new friends amongst them and had some great discussions – something we had missed a little previously.
We were due to leave Cartagena today. We have been here too long. An outbreak of Covid on the boat and unfortunate timing waiting for a good weather window has meant we have again been anchored off the city for more than a month for the second spell. In total we have been in Colombia for three months and in The Tropics for more than a year but it’s time to leave. I relish returning home and especially at this point cooler climates. Here, surrounded by sky scrapers and loud obnoxious speed boats plus awful heat and humidity, it has been impossible to find respite day or night.
With the weather improving we did an enormous stock up at the market yesterday. The Bazuca market is from hell. In spectacular contrast to the gleaming, heavily policed jewelry shop studded streets of the colonial old town the impoverished part of town has been left to rot, literally. The approach to the market is on a road running parrallel to the most polluted infested mangrove you could imagine. Inumerable depressed pelicans and herons pick through the heaps of rubbish on the water’s edge or perch on top of fisherman’s shacks waiting for guts. It stinks and you gag but whilst it’s overpowering passing the main fish area that particular scent of death never completely vanishes thanks to renegade fishmongers that are scattered in isolation all over the vast market labyrinth.
Today we worked hard to finalise the boat preparation for departure. The last minute list always takes longer than expected so by mid afternoon, behind schedule, we looked again at the forecast and chose to postpone leaving until the morning. Nice to have one more uninterrupted night sleep and it was looking like squalls and thunderstorms tonight which doesn’t constitute an ideal beginnings.
Interesting how different this moment feels compared to last year as we got ready to cross The Atlantic the other way from The Canaries. Much less fanfair, a more sober mood. Partly this is due to the nature of the passage ahead which is a more complicated and unpredictable proposition. Gone are the prospects of consistent firm trade winds and on this occasion we have the inconvenience of navigating through islands. We will sail north and hopefully navigate between Cuba and Haiti then pick a course through The Bahamas before the Atlantic opens up for us. It also will be the longest passage for all on board. I feel some underlying anxiety, it’s not strong but there’s a flutter. I try to accept, the unknown awaits but overall the sensation is one of readiness. The boat has been well loved and it’s the moment for a new adventure and ultimately a new life chapter as we head towards home.
Day 1 – 3,300 miles to The Azores
5am cup of tea before hauling anchor and motoring out of Cartagena’s filthy bay yesterday. Very light winds so engine on to get away from the coast and find wind. By the evening it was blowing and so, close hauled, we set in for a fairly boisterous first night back at sea. Away from light pollution we finally saw stars again with The Plough our mark for navigation and The Southern Cross in our wake.
We are sailing as close as possible to the easterly winds as we head north, ideally east of north. It could be a problem if we are blown west of Jamaica and it’s not clear if we will be east of the island based on current performance and forecasts. If we don’t make it we might be forced to sail west to pass Cuba the long way round adding many miles and days to the passage.
This morning brought clear skies and savage heat. Djanna has mild sun stroke. We put up a makeshift tarpuline sun shade but there’s no real escape. The bits of deck that have stayed dry are roasting and below is an airless sweat box, too many waves on deck to have hatches open. In this sense we can’t wait for cooler latitudes.
Slept well last night and grateful for it given it’s the start of the passage and it can be hard to find the rhythm particularly when sailing to windward. Sailing to windward means it’s wet and uncomfortable. Simply put we are bashing into the waves and weather rather than going with it. It’s also tough on the boat, more stresses on the rigging and on this occasion more water than ever down below. Lilly has some new leaks and it’s mildly disconcerting to have water sloshing around your feet when at the chart table. Bilge pumps busier than usual.
Beautiful dove currently catching a ride on the triatics. Reading a book about a sailor who apprenticed on tall ships in the late 19th Century and they were a superstitious bunch. Surely a dove would be a considered a good omen.
Currently 80 miles off the eastern tip of Jamaica. With luck the wind will turn to allow us to get more easting in the direction of the channel between Cuba and Haiti. The sea state is calmer and the moon is growing lending to a relaxed atmosphere for now.
We are chasing our tails with mountains of vegetables we bought trying to eat things before they go off. Seemingly everywhere you look there is veg rapidly overrippening. We expected this to be the case, Cartagena was a bad port to stock up from with most produce arriving from far and some previously refrigerated massively reducing shelf life. It’s a stark difference to last year where we sourced amazing food direct from lush fincas in The Canaries. In that case we had fresh food weeks into the passage. On this occasion we are already force feeding ourselves half mouldy mangoes and pineapples by the kilo as they race to go rotten. Our diet might go beige before long.
Sailing blind currently with regards to weather. Our decades old SSB (short band radio) weather fax system is temperamental and thus far we have not received a single broadcast. It makes planning a bit impossible so for now we look at the clouds and take what we get.
Memorable sailing last night. In the lee of Haiti we found perfect flat water, a bright moon and immaculate 7 knot close hauled sailing. Today the wind has dropped and we have been headed and pushed onto a course perfectly towards Guantanamo Bay?! What to say about that fucking place. We will press on with this tack towards Cuba hoping to pick up northerlies that will assist progess towards The Bahamas.
Lighter and lighter winds until it’s time for swimming and with no sign of improvements we motored through the night. Glassy sea and strange eerie fog encroaching from Haiti. It’s become routine to see incredible lightning at night in the distance from weather on the land of Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti. The rain for us has held off until this morning when a squall brought a few hours of wetness. Chance to get the rain catcher up and top the tanks up.
Caught a toothy barracuda today but the area is well known for cigutera and these beasts are famous for carrying the disease so fish returned. Light wind sailing this afternoon with Cuba visible on the horizon.
Grey, grey and plenty of pathetic rain. We are heading home and getting a taste of things to come. Almost no wind this morning left us slowly sliding towards Cuba having made just 9 miles in the last 12 hours. Slow progress with 2,700 miles remaining.
It’s enjoyable to slowly make our way up the Cuban coast with its uncannily flat, terraced volcanic hills. We have also had some human contact with big smiles and waves from the passing local fisherman. Apparently rich fishing grounds here so we put the line out and half an hour later had a perfect sized tuna to add to Djanna’s feast.
By late afternoon we had technically crossed from The Caribbean Sea into The Atlantic having exited ‘The Windward Passage’. Sailing sweetly now at sunset with a big moon aloft. If the wind remains like this we will be eyeing up a Bahamian pit-stop possibly at a horsehoe reef (one of only four in The Atlantic) called Hogsty. If we get there tomorrow we plan to drop the hook for 24 hours.
Last night the wind filled in and the sea picked up. Plenty of waves on deck, rain and more lightning storms brilliantly lighting the sky up. We were obliged to keep bashing into the waves in order to keep a good course towards Hogsty Reef. We look forward to The Atlantic proper when we can afford to be much less precise with the compass and instead choose a comfortable point of sail vaguely in the right direction. Grey skies in the morning and very tired crew as we continued to charge towards the reef still not knowing if it will be safe to anchor there in these conditions.
As we arrived and nosed Lilly carefully into the horseshoe it was disheartening to realise it was not a place we could stop and be relaxed. Too choppy and windy. We edged back out and as a last chance sailed round the outside of the reef to a spot that might just work as an overnight anchorage. It seemed unlikely but to universal relief it turned out to be sheltered enough from the swell to drop the anchor at least for the afternoon.
The appeal to stay longer grew when Kieran found himself surrounded by sharks and a monster barracuda while cleaning Lilly’s hull. Promising signs for snorkling and a last Carribean spear fish. The slight hesitation was that the holding was bad with risks of squalls about we settled in for the night with an anchor watch rota which constitutes a two hour shift for each of us during the night sat on deck being sure the conditions don’t deteriorate. It would be a shit place to be shipwrecked 40 miles from the nearest land. In fact the reef was littered with wrecks, some impressively visible still with parts of hulls sticking out of the water or beached on the tiny deserted island found at the end of the reef.
Day 9 – 734 miles covered 2,607 miles remaining
Last night was calm in the end and woke to a postcard perfect Bahamian scene with clear skies again at last. Nono managed to get the SSB radio working (bloody aerial wasn’t plugged in!) and we received grainy weather faxes showing no nasty storms between us and The Azores. The decision was made to not seek more detailed weather from a habitated Bahamian island and instead just go for it.
We allowed ourselves a few hours before lifting the anchor. Some headed for the island to put their feet in the sand while Kieran and I went spearfishing. He came back with a very nice Snapper, the carcass of which we fed to the sharks still surrounding the boat. After lunch the moment had arrived to begin crossing the Atlantic, we have one more island to pass before it’s open ocean so we hauled the anchor and headed off.
Two nights ago it was back onto lumpy sailing and shit weather. On watch with Nono in the middle of the night we were feeling aggrieved to be cheated out of a clear night and a full moon and then we got nailed by a squall and all went dark. It stayed dark as the squall passed and we could see a glimpse of the moon through the cloudy sky which just so happened to be covered by a cloud creating a perfect crescent moon. It took us 20 minutes to realise that in fact it was a lunar eclipse which perked us up a bit in rubbish conditions.
This morning caught a big Wahoo. Many kg’s of beautiful fillet which we cooked in fresh coconut milk.
Some amazing sailing this afternoon up to 11 knots on the GPS. Incredibly changeable conditions so far on this passage. Wind doesn’t stay stable for more than half a day at a time. Keeps it interesting and us active with regular sail changes.
Exciting moment yesterday for Seren, another tooth fell out and last night the tooth fairy found our coordinates and dropped off three pearls and one shell.
Wind’s gone. Been virtually becalmed for 24 hours now. Had an opportunity to swim with two Mahi yesterday that were circling the boat. I have had an ambition to spear one of these overshore fish in just these circumstances but now I’m not so sure. It’s a stupid reason because we happily catch them on the line but they looked sensational underwater and they mate for life so to spear one means you’d have to look them in the eye and then break up the happy couple.
Much earlier in the passage than we hoped to be becalmed. Hell of a long way still to go. Bit of a crazy thought that we are two weeks at sea and very far from the half way point. Doesn’t serve to look too far into the future and enjoy each day as it comes. Becalmed moments are lush, time for rest, writing and creative projects. Seren has been teaching me crocheting and so I’m working on hats for a baby niece and nephew. 31 miles covered in the last 24 hours.
The calm was broken yesterday afternoon initially with a firm wind under a cloud that had us racing along. It was during this period, with all on deck, that we saw humpback whales jumping clear out of the water. It’s an absurd site. They are the size of Lilly (around 50 feet) and it seems improbable that they can leap in the air. An outrageous moment.
Wind was short lived and had almost gone by sunset but for the first time in a while we had some clear skies and before the moon rise the starscape was perfect. My night watch was 3am and being totally becalmed by then Rowena and I went swimming under the moon surrounded by super bright phospheresence.
Today totally becalmed all day. No progress. Time for other things. Nono gave me a tattoo, Kieran made up bottles of spiced Colombian moonshine and we all had the chance to see large yellow fin tuna jumping out of the water close to the boat. All day the tuna were leaping within 200 metres of the boat. Not quite sure why they jump but spotting wildlife like this totally enriches being becalmed and frustrations of not moving are abated. I kept jumping in the water to swim with the tuna but they never came close until Rowena and Seren got in later and had a lovely interaction with a tuna bigger than Ren!
Weather faxes received today show a gale between us and the Azores around 1,000 miles away. Happy now we have been slow. It will dissipate in a couple of days but very unstable conditions forecast. Currently we are stuck in the one place in the North Atlantic with no wind. We may get impatient if we don’t make progress within a day or two. Either that or I’ll get more tattoos…….
Sloooooow progress. Drift for a bit then sail into exceedingly light headwinds for a bit. That’s the rhythm. It’s entirely pleasurable, the climate is more manageable and the days are longer now we are more north. The only detail inhibiting perfect relaxation is that we have a destination and we are incredibly far from it. Over 2,000 miles in fact. Progress on the chart looks excruciatingly slow and we have appeared to make no significant dent in the actual crossing of the Atlantic. With any decent winds we would have passed Bermuda a long time ago but it remains 400 miles to our North East and our best course currently is a disappointing 110 degrees on the compass.
Our belief is that surely the conditions will change and of course they will eventually but it’s healthy to accept mentally that this will be a very long passage. It’s too slow to catch fish trailing a line but we see plenty of wildlife with tuna regularly jumping, a brief visit from dolphins and two days ago at sunset we saw more whales jumping in the middle distance. Hugely uplifting these moments.
I hope we will be alright for drinking water. We haven’t had enough rain to collect much recently. The vegetable situation for now isn’t desperate. Pumpkins, cabbages and potatoes still remain. Fruit almost gone with some mouldy oranges made into juice this morning. It was sour and drank like medecine.
Some healthy progress at last. Wind returned and we had our first day of covering over 100 miles for a while. It felt good although our heading wasn’t great due to more headwinds and the four day forecast suggests we should get used to this.
It’s not a good idea when sailing to have expectations but we had anticipated more favourable winds once in the Atlantic but they just haven’t arrived. It is however a very enjoyable period of the crossing, the sun is shining, it’s comfortable and with a shrinking moon we are treated to some stunning starry nights.
Rowena and I enjoyed a beautiful orange crescent moon rise two nights ago. We hoped Kieran would enjoy the same last night when Nono and I handed over to him for the midnight shift. It wasn’t to be and we got nailed by a torrential short squall during handover. It’s a bit shit getting drenched right at the start of your watch in pitch darkness with clouds obliterating any star scape.
Caught another wahoo this morning. Very impressive fish but not sure they are that tasty.
As we get deeper into the passage the rhythm becomes more entrenched. It’s an opportunity to experience a mental cleanse. There is a clarity of mind that comes from being connected primarily with the rising and setting of the sun and the lunar cycle. It’s interesting to imagine how much this would be interfered with if, for example, we had access to the internet out here. Even without it the mind does occasionally wander to speculate about what is going on in the outside world. Are we closer to nuclear war, has covid spiked again or is there a brand new crises to cause concern? These thoughts are fleeting though. Our concerns presently are tangible. They are the wind, the setting of sails. They are preparations of food, discussion and reading, How to achieve this mental space back on land?
Back to my book. Reading a memoir of an Irishman born in 1850 who lived on The Great Blasket Island in Dingle Bay. His life was closer to the sailing experience in the sense that his primary day to day concerns were with trying to live well in nature. We hope to reproduce elements of this with our plans to find land together in Wales and live on and from it communally. More sure than ever that this is the future that will provide fulfillment and purpose.
Rowena read a poem yesterday she’d found about The Sea. The message was to learn patience in order to find peace with the ocean. This notion grows in pertinence as we continue to drift more often than we are sailing. If there was no destination, no objective then each day would be complete bliss. Each day in fact is complete bliss, almost. Almost all the time it’s easy to enjoy the tranquility. It’s like living on a slightly lumpy lake with almost perfect weather. But this acceptance and enjoyment reveals itself to be conditional occasionally. The underlying assumption is that conditions will change and winds will become favourable. But as time goes there are moments, and they are normally short lived, of frustration, irritation or disbelief by the conditions. It might be the fact that at current speeds we are still 6 weeks (!) away from The Azores that triggers irritation at this interminable lack of wind.
How to make the final mental leap of acceptance without expectation of change. In these conditions generally it feels like progress is made towards that ambition. With sailing it’s quite obvious that the experience is just as much about the journey as the destination. This cliché is less clear of course in a traffic jam on a motorway.
There are of course a few considerations on passage that are not flippant. Water, food, gas, the boat and of course everybody’s health. Water is a small niggle. The flipside of ‘perfect’ weather in the traditional sense is that there is no rain to collect. Maybe our perspective of ideal conditions will change if we feel the tanks are getting low. For now it’s just a case of practising frugality rather than tight rationing. An added bonus of a downpour would be the chance to wash some clothes. Everybody wants to wash some pants!
150 miles until we have reached the halfway point. It will be a welcome milestone.
We were blown out of our slumbering and philosophising last night. My night watch with Djanna at 9pm began with a nice breeze sending us in a good direction but the wind strength was inconsistent and with a growing swell we were constantly tweaking to keep Lilly balanced. By midnight it was clear we were overpowered for the conditions so more hands were stirred to begin reducing sail area. By the time we had the fore sail down the wind had strengthened further meaning next it was time to reef the main and swap to the small jib.
With the wind by now blowing strong and substantial waves crashing on deck in the pitch darkness it became a job for all hands on decks and a discussion on the planned manouvers. These are not conditions when you want to make mistakes in or have an accident and reefing Lilly’s main is a physical, protracted event that would keep us all busy. We hove to and went about the sail changes methodically. These moments are exhilerating but hard to describe the scene and do it justice. It took all five of us over an hour before Lilly was sailing again. Time then for tea, cake and bed.
Woke up at 6am for my watch and it was beautiful to be properly sailing again after all this bobbing around. For two hours I watched squalls scoot in front of us until the clouds cleared and wind seemed to hold pushing us along at a comfortable 5/6 knots.
It felt like things had changed and this time the wind was here to stay. This was not the case and we only managed one day of over 100 miles before the cycle of light and then no wind returned. We are getting used to it and frankly enjoying it more and more. Yesterday we dribbled over the halfway mark (1,650 miles to go) and shortly afterwards saw 3 ships in quick succession. We are meeting Kieran’s sister Tamsin in The Azores. She flies in on the 15th June. When we left Cartagena we felt confident, even if this turned out to be a slow passage, that we’d be by then. Since it’s an incredibly slow passage so far this may not be the case so we thought of trying to get a message to Tam via the closest ship.
We spoke with Jonas, 2nd Mate on a coal ship coming from Panama, on the VHF and he agreed to try and send a whatsapp to Wales explaining we are moving slowly and might be late. Before he was out of radio range he even got back in touch to relay a reply from the UK which included the question ‘Do you still want me to bring the ski suits out for the kids?’. Entertaining to hear the officious Jonas reading this in his Phillipino accented English. Maybe he thought it was code for something less innocent? We asked him how long ago he’d left Panama and he replied 5 days. When we told him we’d covered a similar distance in 3 weeks he dryly replied ‘very slow progress’! We had the impression he was tired of acting as our secretary and he promptly signed off.
Wildlife moments continue to punctuate and enrich these times with little wind. We’ve had around 14 petrels swimming around the boat at times picking up food scraps. Before sunset last night a brilliant Mahi was stalking round the boat and a few hours later, whilst Rowena was reading out sections of her book to me under the stars at the start of our watch, we heard a strange noise not far from the boat. It was the breathing of an enormous animal. Reasonably short but strong intakes and exhales of breath loud echoey and gutteral. A whale surely and within 50 metres of the boat. Everyone quickly on deck to listen and a bright torch to try and spot it. No luck in seeing it but phenomal to feel the company and curiosity of this anonymous giant.
Soon we were back to idyllic sailing for the night during which Kieran and Djanna had a visit from dolphins trailing phospheresence. Stars in the water and in the sky.
By midday today becalmed again. No problems. As we get deeper into the passage the mental clarity, the peace is experienced on an increasingly deeper level. All kinds of reflections arrive. On many occassions I have thought of Glen. He was a friend of mine that I was shoulder to shoulder with during my battles with addiction. It killed him. I feel strong waves of grattitude, appreciation and sorrow. I never could have imagined at the time being able to leave the drugs. I had accepted on some levels that my destiny would mirror Glen’s. I was incredibly fortunate and ultimately found therapy in nature and community in leaving London and moving to a farm in Wales. I remember at that time marvelling at clouds and trees like I had never seen them before. I haven’t lost that initial lust for nature but it has evolved. Here on passage, without distraction, it is a chance to be immersed with the therapist again. The stars, the moon, the whales, the jellyfish, the tranquility. It feels good, it feels like a mental cleanse. That is of course until someone irritates you of and you come back to the emotional self. Being slightly sleep deprived means you are always vulnerable to flow in and out of this oceanic meditation. But that’s funny in itself! It’s time to read a story for the girls, but no. Morla hasn’t tidied up her toys yet. “Come on Morla tidy your shit up!!”. It’s serenity with hiccups. Would be boring wihout the hiccups.
Thinking of you today Glen, love you mate.
Definitely an unusual year for weather. We have watched on the weather faxes a series of gales move across The Atlantic since we left. This should be a time that’s quiet on that front but now another big low has developed into a gale and for the first time it’s likely to affect us. We are forecast to be on the southern edge of the system and currently sailing SE to hopefully avoid the strongest winds. Using this time to enjoy the fine weather and prepare the boat incase we do get a blow. We have decent wind for now and clocking off a few miles.
A little bird arrived on board yesterday. I has happy because I now have cockroaches in my bunk and was hoping for some winged pest control. Sadly the bird dies today after only eating a few fruit flies. The girls are preparing a respectful sea burial in an open coconut shell cask.
Collected a bit of rain in a squall today. Some pants washed so this is a good moment.
Vegetables remaining are 5 cabbages, 8 pumpkins, 2 squash, 2 yucca, some potatoes and a sack of half rotten onions. Not bad.
9am and sat on watch alone virtually becalmed. Sky is grey and we are rolling around helplessly in a swell generated from the wind we’ve enjoyed for the last 48hours. At last (!) we had some good downwind sailing and covered some miles but as quick as it came it went. Last night we had some torrential rain. We are influenced by a cold front to our North and beyond that it’s a substantial gale that, it seems from the forecasting, we are going to be lucky to just avoid. We have been especially attentive to the weather faxes in the last few days as the N Atlantic has been littered with low pressure systems, some already gales and some developing. There’s even a developing cyclone SW of us just off Florida. Surely it’s too early in the year for a hurricane and if it did develop the likelihood is that it would track North. It’s definitely a strange year for weather. There should be the lowest chance of bad weather at this time of year yet gales have been constantly forming.
There are pros and cons to having access to weather information. It’s fascinating to learn more about the weather and when the forecast is good it’s fabulous piece of mind and we can take tactical decisions (although to be honest we rarely do, preferring to vaguely point to where we are going with the boat balanced and comfortable if possible). The negative side to the forecasts is the anxiety that can be created if the news is bad. You feel the energy shift across the crew as everyone processes the news in their own way. Notice the impact that three little words on a weather forecast yesterday had on the boat ‘Potential Developing Cyclone’. It’s probably all a waste of energy as well when it doesn’t develop but it’s already sown a seed, led to unharmonious conversations about how we should sail in the next two days as people respond differently. The alternative is to be blissfully ignorant, don’t look at forecasts and take the weather as it comes and use the clouds and barometer as your best guess of what’s up next. You could have crossed the Atlantic and had 10 severe gales passing 500 miles to your north and be almost none the wiser. It’s hard though to say ‘no’ to the information when you know it’s available and there’s always the ‘what if’ argument that is the justification of all safety precautions. ‘What if’ there was seriously bad weather and the forecast could have allowed us to avoid it. If that happens then cool but I feel acutely aware at the moment just how much the weather takes our minds away from the present and the beauty around us.
Time for a coffee and fag, the wind has been building while I’ve been writing this and if people get up and I’ve still got all the sails down and I’m lounging around while there’s wind then there will be questions asked.
Sailing well and in a good direction. We have been covering some healthy miles, 120-140 miles per day. Hand steering for 6 days now as we try to get the best possible angle downwind. The idea of not using the wind vane auto pilot for extended periods has always been a daunting thought but in reality hand steering has been rewarding and engaging. After 3 hours it’s tiring but like the feeling after a good days physical work you feel your rest is more earned. On top of that, while helming, you become much more sensitive to changes in swell and wind.
That tropical cyclone is over Florida at the moment while we skirt the edge of the Azores High. For now it’s perfect and for the next 48 hours it should stay this way. I’ve taken a slight step back from looking in detail at the forecast. For now it’s great and so focusing on appreciating that.
Two pods of pilot whales lazily swam within 50 metres of us the other day with the appearance of magnificent enormous dolphins. Less cuddly than they appear though with apparently 12 pairs of huge teeth.
Literally hundreds of Portuguese Man of Wars slide past the boat every hour of varying sizes. When you wash yourself under the bow you pray not to bump into one.
It’s cooler at night now and we are reintroduced to dew again. All is soaking wet in the mornings. Given how salty our clothes and bedding are life is getting very damp at night. 1,080 miles to our next laundry and showers.
We are flying now. We are currently on the NW edge of The Azores High which is being squashed by a Low to our North and the tropical cyclone to our West. These weather systems are creating a channel of strong sou-westerlies which we are now enjoying. At times it’s tiring, this morning it was rough and Lilly was a handful to keep on course but we are so happy to be charging towards our destination (150 miles in last 24 hours).
Things are not totally relaxed as far as weather is concerned. Those depressions are not too far from us so we just have everything crossed that the High stays strong and gives sweet road to the islands.
Discussions and thoughts now are turning more towards plans and excitements of being on land. Camping trips, climbing, bike rides and piss ups all being fantasised about. We have another incentive to maintain this momentum, we are a little low on drinking water. Not quite on stark rations yet but everyone is making cut backs except for cups of tea which for still remain sacrosant to the bewilderment of our French crew.
Nice prolonged visit by dolphins two days ago, around 30 spotted Atlantic dolphins came and played on the bow wave for 20 minutes. Less than 800 miles to go now!
We have perfect conditions now and have made healthy progress in the last few days. 150 miles per 24 hours and some amazing speeds at times. Spirits have been very high as a result and the dolphins have picked up on this with daily visits now. Again we have been lucky to avoid a big blow. There was a nasty low pressure to our north with hurricane force winds but we only caught briefly the southern tail of it last night. With just a fully reefed fore and headsails we ran with the weather in an impressively growing swell that threw us all over the place but always still heading in the good direction. The roughest night of the passage so far but within our comfort zone. We have got now within 500 miles, teasingly, tantalising close and the weather is sweet again.
There are two thorns in our side however; the weather forecast and our water situation. In current conditions we’d be there in three days but tomorrow the wind is predicted to turn right in our face. This could make the last few hundres miles seriously protracted. Not a real problem if it wasn’t for our diminishing water. We have only 160 litres left and almost no chance of rain. It’s a horrible sensation being short on such a fundamental element of life. Everybody is making big cut backs and we will focus on foods that we can cook with big proportions of sea water. Potatoes, which we have plenty of, we can cook well with 100% sea water so we have them every day now.
Fingers crossed the forecast is wrong in our favour. We just need a bit of luck to get over the line. 450 miles remaining.
Water is the dominating theme onboard at the moment. It’s a shame in a way because there would be no reason not to just relax and enjoy the end of the passage now however slow we are if it wasn’t for our serious lack of water. A couple of cups of tea and a coffee is virtually the limit of our fluid intake with regard to drinks but there’s also a hydration boost from food. Last night we watched brooding rain clouds grow on the horizon but they never arrived. The forecast suggests a front might pass over us tonight so there is possible hope for some rain collection. A good downpour would completely change our outlook.
An added complication is that some scrap metal in the bilge has pierced all the engine oil cans meaning that we no longer have the insurance of using the engine if we had to. We probably have just enough to motor for 100 miles if necessary. Just under 300 miles to go now and the forecast remains unfavourable.
A lot of people are curious how Seren (7) and Morla (5) find being at sea. We have been at sea five weeks now and more recently in conditions where it’s much more favourable to hang out down below. You could imagine that the girls are going crazy with the limited life at sea. Incredibly this is very far from the case and they manage to find endless ways to play, to create and amuse themselves for hours often without adult interactions. It is fair to say that Morla is showing some signs now of wanting to burn off some physical energy on land but Seren gives the impression that another 5 weeks at sea would be just fine! They truly are a joy to be with at sea. Their perspective, their humour and their company are things I can’t imagine being on a boat without now.
Headwinds, headwinds and more headwinds. Feels a touch cruel to be within 220 miles of our destination and have have headwinds. The wind is blowing precisely from where we want to go. It’s rough and wet progress bashing into waves and making minimal progress. In the last 24 hours we have only managed 34 miles in the right direction. We did manage to collect 20 litres of rain water in a couple of hours rain buying us a bit more time on that front. We are all well into the swing of water rationing, drinking just enough to hold off banging headaches. It’s possible to get demoralised but we are enjoying and embracing the challenge. Our sailing has become more tactical than usual and we are taking a risk by sailing NW hoping for a slight wind shift to the north. If it works then we will be laughing but for now we are getting further from our destination. In the last 12 hours of sailing we have actually added 1 mile to our miles remaining. Currently 178 miles left.
It’s cold on night watch now. My feet were ice blocks when Kieran and I handed over to Nono at 3am last night. It was at this moment that a whale surfaced near the boat with it’s back illuminated by the setting moon. One of the advantages of a long passage, more moments like this.
A couple of days of fairly rough battling into the weather and finally the wind has turned a few degrees. It’s enough for us to point towards our destination at last. At 11am this morning we spotted the volcano ‘Pico’ in the distance. 45 miles to go as write this meaning we may arrive under the full moon tonight. Such mixed feelings. Land is exciting and we are incredibly keen to wash clothes, sheets, ourselves. We look forward to filling water tanks, eating fresh vegetables, meeting people, smoking a joint, having a beer, going for a walk, sitting on grass and finally having an uninterrupted nights sleep. But it’s also complicated, at least compared with our last 39 day. There is the burueacracy of checking in, immigration, uncertainty on current covid rules etc. We will also of course turn our phones on. I look forward to contacting friends and family but it’s also been a blessing to spend 6 weeks without whatsapp etc.
Land means we suddenly have choices again. We haven’t had to ask ourselves the question ‘what shall we do today’ for a while. It’s a moment of reflection and of looking forward. Not for the kids mind you, they are simply bouncing with excitement to be nearly there!
It’s a week now since we set sail from Cartagena in Colombia; it feels like it’s taken that long to gather the thoughts and reflections of our 3 and a bit months there, to filter out the noise, the intense heat, the gorging extravagance we felt trapped in the middle of in Cartagena and remember the beauty and earthiness we found on our travels inland.
There are not many times, outside of Europe, that I’ve crossed land borders (or in our case sailed around a headland from one bay to the next); crossing this imaginary fabricated line between what we now call Panama and Columbia and dropping anchor in Sapzuro was a fine example of cultural differences created by a different economy, history, world outlook and governance, which meant that gone were the simple thatched dwellings, earthen roads, dugout canoes – here was concrete, loud music, opulent holiday homes, lawns, restaurants, tourists (though very few) and modernity. Relatively speaking it was a tiny settlement of maybe a couple of 100, around a beautiful bay surrounded by jungle, howler monkeys and wilderness. It was not until a week later when there was a good weather window and getting to Cartagena 3 days sail later that we were literally dumbstruck by the contrast.
Anchoring in the brown waters of the inner harbor, sandwiched between a military naval base and their fleet of war craft and a marina rammed with plastic, over sized gin palaces and a panoramic backdrop of skyscrapers on 3 sides and a container terminal on the fourth, we took stock of this ‘other world’ – a world more representative of the Western consumer culture from where we originate. But a world away from the Guna Yala – a place and culture that we had allowed our hearts and minds to to be embraced by, and had swum in its humble smiles, crystal coral waters and tropical, colourful beauty.
This slow, immersive, gentle way of travel seems to make these contrasts all the more absorbing, stark and at times shocking.
We had big plans for Cartagena, to lift Lilly out in a yard and give her a big spruce up… These plans were somewhat thwarted however when we found that the only yard with a hoist big enough was a place we were warned not to go near, greedy, regulated, industrial and on visiting, this reputation was confirmed when we were told we were not allowed to work on our own boat, unless we payed them, or had to employ their staff…. No thanks!
So we put any valuables below, fitted a few barrel bolts to hatches, threw out a second anchor, dug out a padlock and left Lilly under the watchful eye of the friendly neighbours, and headed for the hills.
Jean-Marc went first – the furthest and fastest – back to France and fromage; Rowena took an overnight bus South to a rock climbing area, and Nick East to the Sierra Nevada. We followed a few days later to Minca, also in the Sierra Nevada, a mountain village in the foothills of the worlds highest coastal range of mountains; surrounded by forests, rivers, waterfalls and of course the mountains. The combination of its natural beauty, its proximity to the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta only 40 mins away, the intrigue of the Indigenous population in the vicinity, means it’s popular with tourists, daytrippers and backpackers, and also with city Columbians and foreigners who have settled in the area creating retreats, hostels, permaculture fincas and communities. Some of the accommodation places we stayed in were stunning as the pictures show…
After a week or so and after catching up with Nick for a couple of days and his Birthday, we family got itchy feet to explore some more of inland Colombia. Nono had been in touch with her close friend Lucia who she hadn’t seen for 10 years plus, who’d put us onto a doula friend of hers living in San Augustin, a town way down south, so that was decided, as good a reason as any, we had a destination!
Travelling with the girls is fantastic! They are up for the adventure, always excited to sleep in a new bed, get up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus, and take the rich variety of stimuli that travelling throws up with amazing ease. Plus of course we were always given an extra warm welcome in hostels, markets etc., their blue eyes attracting a lot of attention and admiration; sometimes ladies would grab them to look at their eyes and coo over them, “How old are you?” “Whats your name?” “Where are you from?” the girls could soon reel off the answers in perfect Spanish and it was presumed they were fluent.
Despite these great travelling abilities, we decided against days on a bus and took a plane to Cali and from there just half a day’s bus ride on to a small mountain town called Sylvia, where we’d heard there was a thriving indigenous population of ‘Misak’ in the area and surrounding mountains. This was an aspect of Colombia we were keen to learn more about, Nono had done some reading and researched a bit about the different groups of indigenous people and their history and current situation, with regard to their place in Colombian society, a lot of which is appalling and shocking! Now to try and meet and hear more of their culture and beliefs and how the relationship was with the other side of Colombia – those of European decent, tied into a system of growth, extraction and in a nutshell – capitalism.
Sure enough, distinctive for their traditional dress, Sylvia was a hub, especially on market day, and on a voting day (round one for the Colombian president in which left wing Petro won an impressive lead, we will know by the time we reach the Azores if he’s won overall) the town was busy with Misak in bowler hats, royal blue ponchos, brightly trimmed dresses, going about their business, often around the market or one of the many agricultural supply stores, or the main plaza.
The windows we found to get a peak into their culture was firstly a visit to what was called a ‘botanical garden’ but in reality was more a community garden and cultural centre to celebrate, encourage and teach the traditional indigenous ways of living with the land, to keep it alive amongst their own, but also to spread and share their knowledge with anyone interested. We were given a very warm welcome here, shown around the garden, and into their ceremonial roundhouse, splashing herb infused water with the left hand over ourselves to cleanse and prepare for open discussion within. Sitting around a little fire in the centre we got to hear a lot about their customs and ways, again the recurring theme seems to be this connection, respect, and gratitude for the natural world around them. It’s so not rocket science, but has become so buried in the quagmire of our Western cultures. Another opportunity was when Nono tracked down a traditional Misak midwife and visited her at her birth centre, she was welcoming and happy to chat but of course the time felt limited…
We had a memorable walk home after visiting the garden: we were directed down a path leading across some beautiful fields where small crops of yuka, banana, corn and more were growing, a grazing cow with its sagging camel hump and big droopy ears standing tethered in the rain, the odd child in school uniform and a smart young lady with a brolly; we on the other hand were trying to share a big plastic poncho, except Morla who’d been given a sheet of plastic into which she’d cut a head hole. Back on the dirt road leading down the valley to town, we stuck close to the verge as there were regular motorbikes laden with 2,3 or 4 people winding round the puddles and potholes. Soon we arrived at a kind of roadside market/food court/bus stop – a couple of high, tennis court sized bamboo shelters, in which were half a dozen fruit and veg stalls, and in a lean-to, a couple of wee kitchen setups where we installed our dripping selves. We were all served hot, very weak and sweet coffee and empenadas and sat to take in our surroundings. It was steamy and bustly in the kitchen where it appeared most the family were involved grating, chopping, frying, diverting the curtain of water streaming off the roof or attending to the toddler who seemed determined to pass the curtain and check up on the goings on in the neighbouring cafe. A ‘chiva’ bus sat idling nearby where the driver had the bonnet up and was tinkering with the massive engine; these buses are beautiful, wide enough to get a family along the bench seat next to the driver, are brightly painted, open sided with a substantial roof rack usually covered with a ridge tent arrangement to protect the cargo from the weather. Not going our way however we were obliged to wave a hopeful thumb which brought the first passing jeep to give us a lift home. A simple episode but with Seren and Morla, soaking it all up, (and being given grown up coffee) the attention we received in return, the beautiful bright clothes and faces, the stories and humble indigenous beliefs we had just heard of at the gardens, and the heavy rain all felt scrumptiously Colombian.
What we didn’t visit was a Misak run university in the valley which we were told focused on Colombian politics, history and law, this to educate the indigenous population and equip them to defend and fight for their rights against the hungry claws of capitalist colonisation.
After a week in and around Sylvia we were back on the bus, (usually a large minibus) in our beautiful new woolen poncho’s; a night stop by some hot springs then the last 150km to San Augustin, which on the unpaved mountain road took over 6 hours, not helped by the occasional need to squeeze past enormous mack trucks bumping along in the opposite direction.
On hearing that we were going to visit Amalia and Jaime in San Augustin, Lucia bought a ticket from Michigan and was there to meet us with her 3 year old daughter Willow, this was to be our home for the next 3 weeks. This pause at ‘Casa de Jaime’s’ was really ideal! A great house, built like most the rural dwellings in the area, of bamboo, surrounded by a lush, jungly forest garden, in which was our abode, aptly called the igloo. There was a table tennis table, a bread/pizza oven, our own separate wee kitchen where we made jams, preserves and dozens of jars of lacto-fermented veg., an abundance of tropical birds attracted by the endless supply of bananas Jaime would put out for them and the buzzy town was a 20min walk away. Maybe the best thing about the stay there was Shanty 8 and Zianna 11, Amalias kids, who along with Willow gave Seren and Morla a little posse to hang out with, they became firm friends. Shanty was quite the hero and Morla has since requested his haircut for herself, and picked up some great new mannerisms! It was a popular and socially welcoming house (so much so that in the past its social/jam nights were mentioned in the lonely planet) and though much lower key nowadays, musicians would still come and jam, and nighbours come to play table tennis and hang out. There seemed to be a very nice balance of local Colombians, expats, and backpackers in the area which gave a nice variety and zest – a Steiner school group, vegetarian restaurants, nice handicraft shops and a fantastic music venue we visited in a big bamboo covered area with a firepit, bar, sawdust, murals, sofas, cake and a brilliant all womens’ indigenous music band. Nono took the girls home before this band, which was a sadness, but no worries, it turned out the band came and stayed on the floor at ours and so we got to hang out and get a little concert over breakfast the next day.
Days passed pottering about at home til we realized we couldn’t stay forever, so in the last week, made an effort to be tourists and explore a little of the area, one day on horseback, another walking around the archaeological park – for which San Augustin is most famous. The local market was always fantastic with stalls of coffee, cacoa, second hand shoes and clothes, leatherworkers, handicrafts, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs, yum yum and of course mountains of fruit and vegetables. Nono would walk down at the crack of dawn and return with baskets of goodies, and Panella, a raw, unrefined sugar of which we bought 120kg! This and the jars we’d done and any other paraphernalia we didn’t need we packed up and couriered back to Cartagena a few days before we followed via a couple of nights in the tiny, but impressive in its contrast, Tatacoa desert, sandwiched between two branches of the Andean mountain range, then on to Bogota and a plane back to Lilly.
We had a better idea what to expect from Cartagena this time, but still the contrasts were once again stark and to be honest, depressing, (not helped by a bout of suspected covid on board)
From the rich tapestry of images, experiences and encounters we had in Colombia, it is this contrast that has provoked the most thought, discussion and contemplation. Once again the tastes and impressions we observed and got from the indigenous cultures gives hope – their connection and respect for the land seen in their agriculture, their ritual, beautiful Andean acoustic music, their knowledge and use of native plants in medicine, seeing multi generational families together and their modest homes, transport and lifestyles. They clearly have a respect for the nature and hold onto their traditions of treading lightly on the earth.
Fast track to Cartagena, party town! Every day a fleet of speed trip boats with up to 4 massive outboards would wind through the anchorage, their rows of speakers and subwoofers blaring out the latest Colombian hits. The morning flock would be lathering on sunscreen to their thong-clad, botoxed bodies or posing for selfies, before zooming out to the nearby Rosario islands. The daytime would be relatively peaceful, when there wasn’t a military helicopter arriving or taking off 200m away, or a drone buzzing around. If we weren’t working on Lilly, we’d visit the nicest parts of town – the old part and Getsemanie, with their cafes, fantastic murals, street performers, colourful narrow streets and parks with monkeys and sloths and the girls’ favourite, Pigeon Park! Or we’d be off stocking up or tracking down some boat part for Lilly – these forays would often take us to areas not in the tourist guides, into the less fortunate parts of town – extreme poverty, street sleepers, rubbish, corrugated shanty towns, dogs and more rubbish, is it really a lack of fortune or is it all connected? A wealth imbalance not exclusive to Cartagena of course! but very blatant here. Back on the water, 5 o’clock was rush hour as the flotilla of speed boats full of Colombian tourists returned, now whooping and dancing, arms aloft, most still clutching phones. But that wasn’t the end of it! That was just the daytrippers, the evening brought same big open boats but now with multi-coloured disco lights, louder music and more party pumped punters, whooping in hedonistic revelry til the early hours. We were told that Cartagena was where the rich Colombians came to holiday and party and I guess that’s what we were witnessing; how they got rich I couldn’t tell you but they didn’t look like bankers. If it wasn’t the party boats it was party buses and clubs, they were all loud – “Can you hear us…?”
Now clearly we’ll make our own variety of conclusions from these glimpses, and they are only glimpses and impressions that I have taken from our encounters and time spent amongst these different cultures, but as Nono put it: “I know which world I want our daughters to see, witness and experience!
The sadness and tragedy comes when we see that this individualistic, expensive, sexist, aggressive, exploitative, unequal world being so often the idealized one, the one capitalism advertises and aspires to, the world ‘progress‘ takes us to… but we only see the sugar coated icing, where most of us inhabit.
The indigenous culture on the other hand, in the small corners of the globe where it hasn’t been wiped out to varying degrees, is still suppressed, is under threat, even though they exist so much closer to nature, in sympathy with their surroundings and each other, yet they still have to fight and struggle to retain their culture, customs – and land, of course – against mining, deforestation, agriculture and tourism – business which exists to support our rampant consumerism. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ how the American first nation people presumed that the European arrivals were surely only visiting, and would go home before long, due to their extractive and exploitative relationship with the natural world – if they planned to stay then surely they’d take better care… I highly recommend this book on the subject of the relationship of the indigenous cultures with our modern day world!
Where I saw a glimmer of hope is that in Colombia and of course all through S. America, these indigenous cultures do exist, and from what we gathered are keen to share their knowledge with those who’ll listen, and some are listening, its just not that easy to hear their voices, especially at home in the UK where with the absence of such cultures, we are having to reinvent our roots and our relationship with Pacha Mama. Our experiences in Colombia have stoked this fire in me!
Lilly very happy to report their arrival, now in Horta, the Azores. The skipper’s birthday ‘ and the day they said they would arrive, all those thousands of miles ago … Congratulations and a warm welcome to all aboard!
Lilly puts out to sea again from Cartagena, Colombia.
The plan (as ever subject to modification on the way!) is for a single long passage to the Azores (some 5,000 miles away). The first 900 nm or so will be heading a bit E of N and aiming to pass between Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, thread through the Turks and Caicos Island, keep heading roughly NE until they pick up the more favourable winds with a bit of W in them to carry them towards the Azores.
For this first part of the passage the prevailing winds are the NE trades so they can expect to be fairly close hauled most of the way. But they set out with the wind a more favourable Easterly of around 15 kts – a much more comfortable direction. As ‘they’ say, you can choose the weather you depart in, but can only accept whatever follows.
Passing close to the islands, though they don’t plan to stop, they may get enough of a signal to send a message. Otherwise it may be 6 weeks (or so …) before we get news of their passage …
They crew sound entirely happy and positive as they settle into what has become the familiar routine of life at sea.
Visiting the Guna Yala (San Blas) has been a profound experience. The Guna Yala is a largely autonomous province of Panama stretching for 230 miles of the Caribbean coast until the border with Colombia where we spent two and a half months. It was a privilege to be amongst these indigenous people (‘The Guna’) who’s values towards nature and one another are rooted in a spirit of harmony, peace and co-operation. Attitudes towards community, sharing of resources and ‘work’ that are revolutionary to the western ear are second nature to the Guna.
It’s impossible not to constantly draw comparisons between The Guna and life at home. A commute for a Guna might involve a leisurely sail or paddle to the mainland in a dugout ‘Ulu’ in order to tend to vegetables or collect fire wood for a few hours. A world away from the archetypal frenzied rush to get to work involving packed trains that was the norm for me in my London days.
The Guna people live in an abundance of the important elements of life. Their natural environment (for now) is bountiful and they are able to self-sustain themselves well; but most strikingly the Guna are rich in time. Time for their family, time for community and time for just existing slowly. This is not to sugarcoat or fetishise their lives, they of course have problems and they are not perfect but there is something at the core of their culture that suggests powerfully that these are the type of people that our extractivist culture must learn from if we are to mitigate or slow the effects of the catastrophic climate breakdown we face.
It is the subject of dramatic climate change, specifically sea level rise, that ultimately landed the biggest emotional impact in relation to the Guna. As weeks passed and a love of the islands grew so did feelings of anger and sadness as the reality began to land that soon all the Guna will have to leave their islands for good. All but a small handful of the 300 odd low lying sandy islands are doomed (around 50 are inhabited often densely). Doomed because most of the rest of the world hasn’t shared their respect of nature. A global system that has exploited this planet under guiding principles of greed and accumulation has committed the Guna’s islands to watery graves due to sea level rise. Within a generation this paradisaical archipelago will be gone, vanished, washed away. Even knowing this it takes a while for the facts to sink in. Personally it felt like there was a cognitive reluctance to accept that, for example, my newly born niece will not be able to visit the Guna islands if she waits till she’s my age because they simply won’t exist. There is denial even within some of the Guna communities about their sinking islands. It’s possible that this new hyper impermanence of the natural world is just too hard to accept even if you are watching your islands shrink before your eyes.
The abuse of the Guna by the outside world is not a new phenomenon. After the country of Panama was created by America 100 years ago the Guna’s existence and territory was immediately under direct threat. For America the stealing of the land we now recognise as Panama from Colombia was a natural step in their explicitly racist imperialist project. In 1912 President William H Taft declared “the day is not distant when three stars and stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory: one at the North Pole, one at the Panama Canal and the third at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, is already ours morally”.
America’s interest in Panama of course centred around The Canal control of which represented power over a large proportion of global trade. It was however not just shipping but banking that was set to prosper. It has been described that “in 1903 the administration of Theodore Roosevelt created the country after bullying Colombia into handing over what was then the province of Panama. Roosevelt acted at the behest of various banking groups, particularly JP Morgan & Co, which was appointed the country’s ‘fiscal agent’.” Immediately the new country was used as a tax haven and to this day the trend has continued. Due to secretive banking laws the exact scale of sleaze and thievery hidden in Panamanian bank accounts remains a matter of speculation but it is known to be ‘one of the filthiest money laundering sinks in the world’.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner Roosevelt’s Panamanian project became a direct threat to the indigenous people’s way of life. The Gunas’ land and culture were set to disappear as a process of ‘westernisation’ was initiated. Whether through schooling, clothing, policing or land enclosures the Guna were oppressed as subjugation was attempted. This forced assimilation partly came through legislation. In 1919 Panamanian President Porras banned the Guna women from wearing traditional dress, nose rings and leg and arm bindings. There is an incredibly strong link between the Guna traditional dress and their culture. The Gunas rebelled in kind with an even greater number of Guna women than before the ban adopting the traditional dress.
Organised matriarchally, one aspect of Guna resistance took the form of lullabies. Sung exclusively by the women the lullabies were used to educate the children on behaviour and the importance of common sharing. This one just one of the tools along with a rich oral history that was used to educate and empower the youngest generation of Guna’s to resist the cultural assimilation programme.
In February 1925 the Guna Revolution began involving attacks on Guna islands that were under the control of the Panamanian government and police. The revolt lasted just four days but was formidable enough to force the Panamanian government into negotiations and by 4th March an historic peace agreement was signed followed by a treaty in 1938. The first indigenous people in Latin America to have their rights formally recognised, the Guna Yala was enshrined as a reserve. The fight however by no means ended and attempts to encroach on their land and their way of life have continued ever since. In the last 30 years tourism has presented new battles to fight for example in the form of foreign developers wanting to build hotels and also the more the subtle cultural threat that is presented by increased exposure to ‘westerners’. This has recently been exacerbated by the proliferation by mobile phones although some of the islands (they have a high level of autonomy) have approached this threat head on with bans on television and phones.
The fight for cultural integrity and health is an ongoing process and one fought on many fronts. Nono met up with Signora Antonia, a Guna feminist activist who had been the Guna representative at COP26 recently and discussed, amongst a range of topics, the experience of Guna women that birth in hospital in Panama City. The women are not allowed to be accompanied by traditional midwives, family or partners so they find themselves in an alien environment where the only language spoken is Spanish meaning that those who only speak Guna are completely unable to communicate and therefore disempowered. This is just one example but it’s representative of the second class citizen status they are subjected to by much of the wider Panamanian society.
Given the smiley, calm and humble disposition of almost all the Gunas we met it’s not always obvious at first glance the struggles that they face but some aspects are totally unignorable. One of these elements is the ubiquity of rubbish. This is not a problem of rubbish of their own creation but mountains of plastic that has washed up on their beaches or in their mangroves. It’s visceral to experience the juxtapose of idyllic islands littered with polluting rubbish that has been carelessly sent to the Gunas by winds and currents. As with sea level rise the plastic pollution is emblematic of a global system that cares not about the consequences of its actions. A system that, unlike indigenous beliefs, doesn’t consider it a duty to protect the environment for generations to come.
One thing for the Gunas that is sure is that the future will involve huge changes. They will leave their islands and return to their mountain roots. In this regards they are more fortunate than other vulnerable populations around the world. The Gunas have land, they have the ability and the knowledge to be self sufficient as they have been before but this will surely not diminish from the loss they will feel when they lose their islands. On a personal level it has made a strong impression and will provide easy access to a memory that demonstrates unequivocally the need for immediate radical change. Sometimes the urgency of addressing climate change can be diminished as it’s something that will effect other people first but having met some of those ‘other people’ and looked them in the eye and shared a smile it’s impossible to feel any emotional distance.
To the Gunas I would say simply thank you, we will take you in our hearts always.
We were all pretty excited to come to Panama, a place where none of us had been before, a country we didn’t know much about apart from it having a ruddy big canal, and that the San Blas region covered most the Caribbean coast, east of the canal.
We soon learnt that the San Blas was the Spanish name, the local indigenous name is the Guna Yala – land of the Indigenous Guna people.
Our first port of call was Linton Bay, an anchorage sheltered behind a jungle covered island, a small marina and boatyard and a small village with a shop and a couple of restaurants, half a mile away.
Here we were able to check in with immigration and the ‘port captain’ (all offices being converted containers!) and receive instructions that we were to get to Colon to apply for a cruising permit which could be collected a week later in return for 200 dollars, the US dollar is used when in note form, coins are Panamanian.
Linton Bay itself was a pretty nice place, a family of inquisitive spider monkeys lived on the nearby island and howler monkeys could be heard at dawn and dusk, in the jungle that fell down from the mountains behind, right to the coastal road. The sailing fraternity felt a bit more gruff than in the West Indies where there were lot of catamarans, and white plastic, here there were a few boats in various states of sinking, a couple of masts poking out the water, and a few boats that looked like they hadn’t moved for a while but often still inhabited! It was nice.
Colon was an eye opener – as is everything after much time out getting zen with the sea and the elements. It doesn’t feel right to be too rude about anyone’s home, but it kinda lived up to its name – we later learnt that the government wanted to pretty much rebuild the central part of town and had therefore neglected to give any investment towards its upkeep for what looked like the past 30 years, it was crumbling, the poverty was blatant, rubbish everywhere, and no sign of any rebuilding so far!
Mission accomplished however and pineapples were 50 cents! Plus the buses were a hoot – they’re the old yellow American school buses, brightly repainted and pimped to the max, dripping with chrome and tassels, belching out clouds of black smoke out of the huge twin chrome exhausts which run up the buses back end skyward. And blaring out poppy Salsa-ish djs mixes.
Next on our to do list was to apply for a new passport for Morla. Failing to understand anything concrete over the phone, Nono and I decided that to visit the embassy in Panama city would be prudent. So the two of us headed off for a city break, the girls happy to spend a few days with Nick, Rowena and Jean-Marc. Twas a treat, nice Hostel, complete conversations, cold beers, Halloumi burgers… though no luck with the embassy, we returned to Lilly in a hire car laden with canvas to remake all the sail covers and sun awnings, PVC to make a rain catcher, and merchandise from some of the biggest supermarkets I’ve ever seen! And a cruising permit.
Rowena, Nick and JM, keen to see some more of this diverse and varied country returned the hire car to Panama city, via a couple of nights as close to the jungle as was easily accessible, before we stocked up, fueled and watered and made ready to make the 40 miles West to The Guna Yala.
The Guna Yala we had heard a fair bit about – all good, and it was exciting to clap our eyes on the first palm covered, sandy, tropical island, but we had a smorgasbord from which to choose, an area of about 30 miles West to East and 15 miles North to South of 100’s of tropical islands, coral barrier reef, and an an indigenous culture autonomous from Panama, where to begin?
Coastal navigation on board is done using a chunky old toughbook laptop, on which we have files of the worlds charts in moderate detail – better in well trodden areas, not so good in more remote, we read that these charts were not good at all in the San Blas, similar story with a system called Navionics which Nick has on his phone, uncharted coral heads are a scary prospect! A cruiser, Eric Bauhaus however has devoted a number of years to accurately charting all of Panama, using techy GPS gear and writing a cruising guide, full of drone images of anchorages. With his digital charts on the computer, a GPS connected showing our exact position on said charts and the cruising guide book, navigating around the numerous reefs, islands and shallows becomes relatively easy. But, while on the topic – therein lie negatives too. As it’s easy, anyone can do it and I’m sure the Guna Yala is becoming more and more popular with sailors and charterers. On a more personal level, having such a good cruising guide means one tends to stick to the suggested anchorages, along with everyone else, like having a lonely planet guide, which certainly makes the planet a lot less lonely, but it becomes harder to think of going into the ‘unknown’ which so often can be more rewarding, but a little more challenging. Lastly on the topic is a point about technology on the whole – With the passing of time come more and more gadgets which make, what was once a hazardous and challenging thing to do, relatively easy, Engines on board, GPS, Autohelms, Electric winches which roll sails up around a stay or inside the mast. We spoke to some folk on a palatial Catamaran (complete with watermakers, freezers, washing machine etc.) who described how they would input a route on the computer system (waypoint to waypoint) and press go on the autohelm (electric steering) which would simply take the boat to their destination – like a driverless car without any safety features like sensors for other boats for example. To a far lesser degree, we are also victim to this modernisation, though Lilly is very traditional in her rig and we proudly do without the majority of gadgets, (she’d be an old landrover of the motoring world) we still rely on our motor and GPS which means we wind through tricky reef passages where we wouldn’t otherwise go, and maybe in less than ideal light conditions, (sun high and from behind). So it’s a fine balance – using the tools we have to explore beautiful anchorages but retaining our senses, keeping a keen look-out from up the mast where shallows are most easily seen from.
So it was that we spent the next 7 weeks hopping from bays to islands, winding through clusters of jewel like islands, perched in turquoise lagoons, sheltered behind expansive fringing coral reefs.
Snorkeling, dinghy sailing, beachtime, reading, spearfishing, pottering on boat jobs was the order of the day. The coral here was in great condition which was nice to see after previous experiences in the Pacific and Indian Oceans which even 10 years ago was seriously suffering, with bleaching and mass dieback; and so it was that snorkeling was fantastic especially with the girls, seeing sharks, rays, and every kind of reef fish… For the rest of us it was usually with a speargun, which more often than not put fish on the menu. Most common would be the Jacks – classic silver fish that would cruise the reefs to feed on the shoals of sardines, similar were rainbow runners or spanish mackerel, your best chance with these was to dive down and hang on to a rock in the hope they’d pass, Horse eye jacks seemed more territorial and favoured the deeper patches at 10 to 20 metres, 10 is comfortable, 20 is pushing the limits… Hunting snapper is different, they have a definite territory and a cave system and are shy, you get to know where they live then try and creep up on the cave entrance or dive down hiding behind a coral head and wait for them to emerge… you can spend an hour stalking one of these… Nick, JM and Rowena would sail off in Plumbob and be gone for 7 hours sometimes… you can get utterly immersed in this underwater wonderland.
Plumbob must of done hundreds of sea miles by now – sometimes Lilly would go on to the next anchorage and a couple of folk would do the trip in Plumbob… other times we’d go off and explore neighboring islands with a picnic, she’s become a much loved runabout!
There are blemishes to this paradise – on any visit to the beach one was confronted by a mass of rubbish; plastic bottles, shoes, nappies etc. The winds and currents carry the vast majority of this detritus from anywhere East – Colombia, the West Indies, Europe… it was obviously hard to ignore, so a beach walk was mixed with emotions of anger, frustration and helplessness, ‘When are we gonna stop producing all this sh*te?’ and what are the locals supposed to do with it?
Another more subtle worry was that of sea level rise, these islands are barely above sea level. One Island we anchored behind was shown in the cruising guide (and on the front cover in fact) to be covered in a forest of coconut palms but now had only 5 trees left, when we asked the fisherman, they spoke of a particularly big tide…. its not just the literal rise in sea level but also the waves – with slightly deeper water over the protective fringing reefs, the destructive waves are carving away the sandy islands – a lot of the windward shores were a tangle of fallen palm trees and water lapped over the beach to form pools on the island… Plans are now afoot for a couple of the village islands to relocate back to the mainland. Its interesting to note that climate change is not a clearcut phenomenon to the Guna – some that we spoke to saw it as a western fabricated notion… they wouldn’t or couldn’t believe that their mother nature would fail them!
It really felt like the front line of sea level rise, and results of our wasteful culture, and seeing the victims of that being amongst some of the least deserving… grrrrrr!!! I did some wee videos to document these points, not sure if I’ll publish them here or on faceache or something…
We were regularly visited by the locals in their ‘Ulu’s’ – dugout canoes – either to sell fish or lobsters, or Mola’s: these are their local handicraft – incredibly intricately sewn designs which the women sew onto their blouses, the traditional designs originate from bodypaints when they were forest people and needed less clothing. Its only in the last few hundred years that they moved out to the islands where they found life to be better – less insects, snakes, predators. I’m sure there are other reasons, like the fresh air, fishing, flat land, coconuts which is one of their biggest exports even today. Their permanent homes are on densely populated village islands closer to the mainland, the men will then spend the mornings tending to crops on the mainland, sometimes hours of walking from the coast or up beautiful rivers, others may go out fishing. Out on the tropical islands where our favoured anchorages were, there would often be families who would be staying days or weeks to harvest the coconuts – collecting and de-husking them ready to travel… or to be used at home of course, as they are a staple part of their diet (and ours!) Some of these island huts under the palm trees, simple palm thatched shelters with space for a fireplace and room to hang a few hammocks, were eye-wateringly idyllic.
The festive season was mildly ceremonious but barely Christmassy, the girls were heartwarmingly delighted and excited and appreciative of our efforts however, confirming our beliefs that we don’t need ‘stuff’ to have a special time.
After a lot of boring phone calls, scanned letters, a few tears, Morlas passport was sent to the Embassy in Panama early January. So it was that we made our way to Carti, which lay at the end of the only road into the Guna Yala; here was where all the supplies came through – gas, petrol, and tourists. Everything by 4WD, as was necessary for the windy broken, once paved, road to Panama. It was in a slight state of bewilderment at all the activity and vehicles, that we family jumped into the back of a 4WD, early one morning and made the 3 hour drive to Panama City once more. The jungle drive, being with Seren and Morla as they viewed their first massive skyscrapers and experienced a large city for the first time, with all its modernity, noise, traffic, variety of people, from desperately poor to overly rich, shopping malls bigger than the villages we had recently visited in Guna Yala, was a privilege and of course striking in its contrast. It was also enough distraction to barely give a thought that Lilly was off navigating for one of a very few times without me – Nick, JM and Rowena took charge, I imagine 3 days peace felt too short for them!
That was then, this is now – as I write we have left the area most trodden and the 30 mile stretch previously mentioned, and started down the coast of the Darien peninsular, still Guna Yala, towards the border with Colombia, due to the lay of the land and the predominant winds, it is not so suited to Island ambling, so there are no yachts here – The Island village we have been at the past days said we were the 3rd sailing boat this season. It makes for a whole different feeling – rewarding exploration, welcoming locals, a deeper immersion in the country. Having said that, the nature of this travel – being so self contained in our comfortable cocoon means our immersion is limited, days might pass without going ashore and our focus is life onboard. A few islands have waved us away – or asked us to stay in the dinghy while they shop for our provisions – that’s about the extent that Covid has affected us so far.
The past days anchored off the village island of Mamitupu have been a highlight, here we were warmly welcomed. A dugout was being built or rather sculpted under the palms, a gaggle of children for Seren and Morla to play with, a coconut press setup making coconut oil run by a gent who spoke English and we were able to quiz on some of the Guna customs. It is a matrilineal society, the women control the money and the husbands move into the women’s family compound. Its been noticeable as visitors that the women have a healthy degree of authority in the household and a general confidence. Its also noticeable that the men seem very humble, respectful, smiley, and there isn’t that chin up, chest thumping, bravado so prevalent in our society, or sexual attention towards the women which became nauseating, intimidating and rude for the women amongst us in the West Indies, but of course exists in varying degrees in so much of the world. Whether that’s due to the matriarchal nature of the Guna society or just the lack of exposure to the patriarchal and male dominated, sexualized nature of so much of our media, I can’t say but its refreshing and warming to be around.
Each Island seems pretty autonomous and unique, with their own ‘Saila’ or Chiefs making up the Congresso, who meet at least weekly to discuss the communities affairs, often attendance from the whole village is compulsory, It seems that it will be dependant on these Chiefs as to the degree of tradition that is adhered to, some ban television for example. Other villages are more westernised – more tin and concrete, and denim and leggings replace the traditional beaded legs, sarongs, molas and red headscarfs Then villages are grouped into six and the chiefs from each village will meet monthly. Once a year all Sailas from the 49 communities meet to discuss more national affairs. Alternatives to our top heavy, financially driven, self benefiting, egotistical, political systems are out there, if we were only interested to look and demand!
These photos are from a mothers day celebration we were invited to, generally the Guna aren’t keen on being photographed but were very happy on this occasion, so they are the only few we have of the people. The day was hilarious – sack races, climb the greasy pole to win the pigs head at the top, Ulu races, thread the needle races etc.
Though part of Panama, the lovely Guna Yala is a world away, I hope it stays that way – they have so much to show us, to inspire and teach; as seeing their beautiful way of life, its minimal consumption, its connection to the natural world around them, their clear healthiness both physical and mental, makes the lunacy and destruction of so much of our ‘developed’ consumer world, all the more glaringly obvious.
This is slightly old news now. It’s scribblings from our 1,050 mile 12 Day passage from St Vincent and the Grenadines to Puerto Lindon, Panama. We arrived in Panama1st November 2021. by Nick
It’s 2pm scorching hot and we are cruising along at a steady 5 knots plus a knot or two of current. We have been sailing for two days now and the ocean swell is growing as we put more distance between us and land. A lolloping 3 metre swell creeps up the stern lifting Lilly from behind and we surf down the waves as the water overtakes us. It’s generally pretty comfortable until the odd wave hits us at a funny angle sending the boat into a big lazy pitch and roll.
I’m on watch for the next couple of hours which, in conditions like this, means plenty of time for reading and writing. A scan of the horizon every few minutes to check for boats and half an eye on the compass to check that the wind vane self-steering is keeping on course is the extent of responsibilities for now. We caught two Mahi Mahi this morning, our first fish of the passage. They are beautiful fish that mate for life so we were happy to catch both the male and female. They are creatures from a fantasy, iridescent greens and blues continually changing until sadly the colour drains out of them and they turn grey within half an hour of being caught. They make for incredible eating. We flash fried the fillets which are tender beyond belief andmade a broth with the bones and head plus bread fruit and cooking bananas (staples of the Caribbean). On the subject of wildlife we have a stowaway in the form of a Blackpoll Warbler (like a tit) that found sanctuary on Lilly when we were about 30 miles West of St Vincent. It seemed lost offshore but over the last two days she has become entirely comfortable with the boat and us. She’s currently sat 1 foot away from me sat on the compass looking for more scraps of avocado. The children (Seren and Morla) have been hunting spiders which has served to befriend the bird so much that she will come and sit on our shoulders making us looking like camp pirates.
Day 4 (4pm)
We have had 3 beautiful moon-bathed nights so far and only one squall to interrupt the consistent wind and sea state. Another fish this morning, this time a beautiful chunky Albacore Tuna around 8kg. Too much meat for us in one day (we have no fridge) so with the pressure cooker we have seasoned and jarred a load of meat. It should be good for months like that, even improving as time passes. The only real disturbance today was coming closer than is comfortable to a 150 metre long LPG tanker. As it got closer it appeared we were close to being on a collision course and it was only after finally reaching them on the radio did they change course but still passed 0.3 mile across our bow. Far closer than you want to be with these roaring behemoths. It was never a real stress being as it was in daylight and good conditions but we will see more traffic now as shipping funnels into towards the Panama Canal. It’s an entirely different experience when you see these ships at night. Distances are very hard to judge in the dark and it’s an art to get a good sighting squinting through binoculars with the boat moving always under your feet. Tonight my watches are 7-10pm and 4-7am. The sunrise watch is normally a joy. Experiencing the first signs of dawn on the horizon and relishing the slow transition to daylight with its change in atmosphere is engaging and time flies subduing fatigue. This is also the moment to set the fishing lines so there’s the added interest of a potential dawn catch. I’m on watch in two hours so time for my bunk and hopefully a couple of hours valuable rest
Exhausted today after not sleeping well last night. I had stayed on after my first watch to hang out with Kieran and extraordinarily, for the third time in 24 hours, we had a massive ship heading towards us. Again we radioed to request a change of course as it was not obvious that they’d seen us despite us putting on our bright deck lights. We sat and watched all 250 metres of container ship pass 0.5 miles ahead. Their silhouette looks incredibly menacing at night. Hopefully we have had our share of close interactions like this, it’s far more normal to see ships sighted passing miles away on the horizon. My second watch at 4am started with a splash. I arrived on deck bleary eyed with my cup of tea to be promptly drenched by a sloppy wave that slapped the side of Lilly. Back down below to put dry clothes on and start again. These moments are far more manageable here in the warm waters of the tropics than they are, say, in The Irish Sea when it’s a much sterner test of your sense of humour. After that it was much more steady sailing with a firm wind from behind and manageable sea state. Interactions with wildlife are especially treasured off shore as there are less and less birds around so it made my night when a Petrel (about the size of a pigeon but infinitely more athletic) landed right next to my head on the life line. They seem to like human contact because the night before one landed on Kieran’s head and started fluffing his hair. Curious beasts! Update on our stowaway Warbler is that she is now firmly part of the crew, always around us and now sleeping next to the chart table despite nearly breaking her back when a jar rolled on top of her yesterday. It’s possible her name is Daffodil but the girls debate it regularly so this is subject to updates. Again caught two Mahi today and we will eat most for dinner, salting the excess to eat another day. Just finished reading my book (The Art of Joy by Sapienza, recommend highly!) and moved onto a non-fiction account of a family that had to abandon their boatin the Pacific and drifted for over 30 days in their life raft and dinghy before rescue. It’s slightly morbid but also important for us to discuss and plan, as we did last night, what we would do in case of a similar emergency. Hitting a sleeping whale or semi-submerged shipping container could be possible causes. I’ve put 40 Marlboro Reds in the grab bag so feeling relaxed about our prospects. We are approaching half way in terms of distance, heading now more SW as we have passed the Venezuelan/Colombian border. We have sailed mostly in the middle of Caribbean Sea so far to avoid potential bad weather off the Colombian Peninsular , which has a reputation, but also to be far from the Venezuelan coast to eliminate the slim chance of piracy. We picked up a weather fax last night and nothing to worry about for now. The slight concern is that we will have not enough wind as get a few hundred miles from Panama which could make for a teasingly slow and drawn out end to the passage. My guess is itwill take us 12 days in total.
It’s late morning and for now we still have plenty of wind. Yesterday we even had to start reducing sail area as the wind increased and we are now running down impressive ocean swell. Generally comfortable save for one wave every half an hour that drenches those that are sat on deck on the windward side. I was having a shower this morning and it’s worth a few words to describe this comedy process when it’s rough. Generally an undignified scene, you grab a bucket of limited fresh water and head to the foredeck where the movement of boat is most exaggerated. Then, legs apart for balance, the game is to not face plant while the bow lurches up and down waves. It can be similarly exhilarating taking a shit which is also rudimentary (bucket and water on the foredeck) but the stakes are that much higher if you fall over! While writing this there was a shout of ‘Dolphins!’ from on deck and I paused to spend 15 minutes captivated with the pleasure of watching a large pod play around the bow of the boat. The most energetically performing dolphins we have seen since leaving Wales they acted like surfers waiting for the biggest waves to then leap clean out of the water. Sometimes executing elegant arcs but often, and more entertainingly, shooting vertically out of the water and landing with a phenomenal belly flop. Speaking of their bellies they had pink undersides adding to the richness of the scene. We’ve had a nice morning for wildlife with a huge Osprey at dawn coming to view us just above the masts. Took a day off fishing yesterday but back to it this morning but only had a small Barracuda on the line which we sniffed at and put back. With the superior meats of Tuna and Mahi around we felt justified in being picky. Time for a strong coffee and to take the bread out of the oven. I’m on watch this afternoon and we have seen a few big logs float passed today so we have to be extra vigilant. Not a nice thought that we could crash into one of these at speed. Update on our stowaway Daffodil is that she’s has abandoned us after making an ambitious bolt for land flapping furiously in the direction of Colombia. We hope she makes it.
It’s incredible how sailing can feel so different in such a short space of time when the weather changes like it has in the last hours. Late afternoon yesterday I was dozing on a dinghy on deck in the calmest conditions of the passage so far then nightfall brought with it brilliant flashes of lightning from a big weather system in the direction of Colombia. We gybed to sail further offshore partly to improve our course also to move away from the weather which might be associated with the land. The sea state was beginning to pick up as was the wind. By 10 pm there was distant lightning on the horizon all around us but still we stayed dry and I went to bed wondering how conditions would be when I got up again at 4am. Jean-Marc and I began our early morning vigil and the drama was cranking up and soon we were in a theatre of lightning storms all around us, closer than before. Every few seconds the sky, the sea and the boat were momentarily and brilliantly illuminated with repetitive flashes. Fork lightning was beginning to be a regular feature of the show, some staying in the sky and reaching from cloud to cloud and others crashing down and connecting with the horizon. Its gets the heart going but counting the seconds to the booming thunder we guessed the storms were between 15 to 25 miles away and not getting much closer so it was easy to sit back and absorb the drama without anxiety. There is a part of me that really wants to experience being in an electrical storm at sea but equally I don’t want to wish it up on us so no problem if it doesn’t arrive!!! 12:10pm: It arrived!! I’m writing this in the middle of a phenomenal electrical storm with fork lightning FAR too close for comfort with thunder shuddering what seems like a split second later. It’s windier now and we have taken down more sail area, racing down the waves with just a reefed foresail and headsails. You feel like such an obvious target for a lightning strike with two great masts sticking 15 metres up towards the weather. We have put the handheld GPS, VHF and mobile phones in the oven as a precaution. I’ve no idea why it works but apparently it can protect them from an electrical surge if we do get hit and they would be vital if we lost our other instruments. It’s very hard to describe this atmosphere. It’s so intense, so powerful being in the middle of all this. Utterly exhilarating! Amusingly the kids are here down below playing with their toys, completely chilled and unfazed as if it’s just another day. Where’s the fuss?
Over the late afternoon yesterday and through the night the clouds cleared, the wind dropped and the swell calmed steadily until now where we enter a different paradigm. We are becalmed and it’s bliss. Mainsail down, sunshade up and time for swimming. We are 160 miles from Panama and there is a small low pressure ahead which we anticipate will not move so soon we will decide whether to use the engine a bit to help our onward progress. It’s a real shame to consider using diesel but we could be here over a week trying to pass a hundred miles if we are to be purists about it. For now we are just enjoying the tranquility. This morning we had a very special moment. We were sailing very slowly and over 20 dolphins came to visit Jean-Marc and Seren who were hanging off the bobstay under the bowsprit to have a dip. We ‘hove to’ (stopped the boat), put snorkel masks on and jumped in to swim with them. We were incredibly lucky because they were not spooked, instead they swam underneath us to watch us with interest at a safe distance. I was unprepared for how emotional it would be to swim with these incredible animals. The visibility was almost perfect and diving down towards them listening to their distinctive clicking and squeaking provoked an instant lump in the throat. We came crashing back to reality moments later however when one of Jean-Marc’s swim fins was dropped overboard and neither Kieran or I could dive quickly enough to grab it as it rapidly sank. We are bloody clowns compared to the dolphins! An extra point of interest is that dolphins mainly seem to visit us when we have loud music on. Party animals.
We decided to motor through the night to clock off a few miles and after a snooze I came on deck to meet our latest and most eccentric stowaway to date. Clumsily perched on the hatch above the companionway was a massive heron. At least a foot and a half tall it was described to have the air of an undertaker about it with its hunched stance, gangly limbs and long pointed beak. Every time you went down below you would find yourself at eye level with our funereal friend less than a metre away. It added a totally surreal aspect to the nights trundlings. It’s the afternoon now and only 80 miles to go. We motored again this morning and then stopped for lunch and a swim before a squall sent us charging at 7 knots in the right direction. Feels good to sail again and landfall will be possible in the next couple of days.
Confronted by a headwind last night we scrapped the idea of trying to push to arrive today and we are just sailing the best course we can. This morning we got our first glimpse of Panama 35 miles away and can at times smell the forest. Morla (5) literally jumping for joy! The night time breeze has dissipated so we are becalmed again but the sea is flat and this situation has provided for some more beautiful moments. I put fins on and went swimming an hour ago. Free diving off shore is very special. The colour of the water and perfect visibility makes the experience utterly expansive. When in the water there was a cry of ‘fish!’ from on deck and Jean-Marc and I swam over to meet an excitable school of small tuna. I dived on them to get closer but I found not just tuna but also a bloody shark below them! Annoyingly I didn’t fight my instinct to get sharply out of the water but I did fulfill an ambition to shout ‘SHARK!’. Jean-Marc stayed to look on until we saw there was more than one shark and he found his comfort limit there. We were back in the water shortly after hoping to see them again as the tuna continued to school not far from the boat but they never came close enough again. It was back to simply enjoying the mesmerising experiencing of free diving in incredibly deep water. It elicits an infantile joy, trying to push boundaries and diving deeper and longer as you relax more into it. It’s a very nice moment of the passage to be slow after mostly brisk sailing. No rush to get there and a time to unwind before land which will be overstimulating after being at sea.
I had a preconceived image of arriving in Panama in lush sunshine but it was much more like a typical Welsh wet day. Completely grey skies and rain intensity rising and falling. We were soaked through when we dropped anchor but the setting is staggering. Surrounded by lush jungle and waters visibly busy with fish. That afternoon as we unwound and drank rum we watched eagles soaring overhead, spotted spider monkeys on the beach and at dusk listened to distant howler monkeys noisily moving through the jungle. It’s a very promising start to watch promises to be an incredible part of the world to explore.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is made up of the main island of St Vincent and a cluster of islands trailing off to the South – the Grenadines, including amongst others, Bequia, Mustique, Balicaux, Canouan, Union and the marine reserve of the Tobago Cays. These islands are a variety of lushly forested volcanic mountains, sandy cays, turquoise lagoons, and picture perfect beaches, Its a bit of a sailors paradise.
We left Dominica at the beginning of June, laden with friendly Rasta produce, cocoa beans, plantain by the hundreds… and having received our negative covid test results, we spent just one day sailing down to the most northerly bay of Martinique, a nights rest with our yellow quarantine flag flying, then an early start to sail south down the coast, a wee channel hop to be in the lee of St Lucia for a night sail, arriving at dawn under the still smoking, recently erupted volcano of St Vincent. Our destination was at the south end of the island near the capital Kingston, where, once we had managed to make contact with anyone interested in our presence (not easy without a working mobile these days), we were cleared in and free to roam.
After burying our anchor for so long in Dominica it was a treat to have plenty of islands and anchorages to explore. In the three and a half months there we’ve visited most of the islands, returned to our favourite spots at least once and got to know a couple of spots well – in particular Bequia!
Our first island was Balicaux, rarely visited, and we were alone, it’s uninhabited by humans but has a healthy population of Tortoise! It felt a kind of edgy place, maybe the rolly anchorage, the occasional gunfire of visiting goat hunters, and we learnt of a rather morbid history as it was also a prison island where thousands of Carib Indians were left marooned, and perished. The torrid history of the Caribbean and European’s vulgar impact, was often referred to in our observations of its culture, our conclusions only naive guess work of course…
A short sail took us to Petit Nevis, where we found 3 boats already anchored – all with young children on board, Hallelujah! This fact was to determine our movements for the coming weeks. From there to Bequia, to Tobago Cays, to Chatham Bay on Union, kids came and went, beach fires, snorkeling trips, play dates, beach days, and even sleep overs. The kids made lovely friends from Canada, France, and even NZ/Wales!
It was now hurricane season, which meant Jean-Marc and Nick kept a close eye on internet weather sites, a blip in the pressure would show up over western Africa and then over the following week or so it would track Westward over the Atlantic towards us, then it was a matter of watching to what degree and at what rate it would develop and then where it would go… more often that not they would veer off to to the North and fizzle out in the North Atlantic, some would clip the Northern Caribbean Islands – Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti… others would pass over the West Indies and develop later, maybe hitting America, and some of course developed faster and stayed South; generally speaking the further South one was the less likely you were to get nailed. So it was when Storm Elsa approached, it was forecast to pass over the Grenadines, so 3 days before, we sailed with friends on ‘Rajac’ South, through rainy squally conditions to a cosy little bay on the South coast of Grenada. A slightly legal grey area we felt we were hiding from officials as well as the weather! A couple of very wet days on board later we scuttled back North, back to our tropical playground.
The next fact to determine our movements, or rather non-movements was that one day having just weighed anchor the engine puttered to a halt… returning, under sail to our anchorage, we found the engine to have no oil, and on closer inspection that the culprit was the pipe leading to the pressure gauge had broken! So it slowly dawned that this was a major problem, (as are most problems on a Fordson Major!!!), and would involve removing the engine and dismantling to inspect its big end – bearings and crankshaft…
We chose Bequia to get greasy: it’s a good secure anchorage, has good boating and mechanical facilities, chandleries, a nice beach, plenty of potential for social interaction and is the main base for ferries both between the Grenadines and even to Trinidad where we ended up sending the crankshaft to be reground.
We got to really like Bequia; Rowena volunteered at a local sail loft run by Alec and his son, I believe Rowena will expand on this experience in her post… Alec and his family became good friends, one highlight was getting out sailing and even racing in his ‘Two Bow’ a 28′ wooden open sailing boat, based on the traditional whaling boats of the island – Bequia is still licensed to catch a handful of whales by traditional methods – it seems a little more acceptable when the risks are so much higher – a small open sailing boat, a hand harpoon, but it sounds like an element of the tradition and ceremony are under threat from greed and selfishness and a catch can create a furore of whale hungry locals after a cut…
Bequia’s inhabitants come from a broad palette of backgrounds – those of black African descent make up the majority, but there is also Carib Indian blood and a number of fair skinned locals of mostly Scottish descent and all the tones in between, It felt our whitey tourist status was a little less obvious…
After about a month with the engine on deck, it was rebuilt, repainted along with the gearbox and replaced into a clean and painted bilge, along with a few bells, whistles and improvements and we were once again able to move with ease. We do endeavour to do as much maneuvering as possible under sail as it is great fun (and we like to think impresses any onlookers!) but having the engine on call is a great added security and permits risks one wouldn’t otherwise take, like tacking through a busy anchorage and dropping anchor. Amanda, keen to get on to Central America, found another boat heading West and we waved her off during this period in Bequia.
Though all ship shape again, we did not make a dash for the Western horizon, though we could have. We hadn’t planned to stay this long in the West Indies; indeed our original plan was to pass straight through and head to Colombia and Panama. But it became hard to leave – the familiarity, the good anchorages, the easy inter island trade-wind sailing, snorkeling, spearfishing even a couple of days windsurfing with a great French guys kit. We met a handful of really nice folk, mostly with kids, on other boats, the excuses to stay just a little longer were always easy to find.
Back in Wales on rainy days it was largely this that I longed for – to muck about with the girls on the beach, collect coconuts, snorkel with amazing wildlife like turtles, eagle rays and abundant tropical fish, and they seemed to love it – learning to dive off Lilly, sail alone in the Dinghy, Seren can pick up star fish from 5 metres depth! Go to shore in search of fresh mangoes, passionfruit or maybe a fresh local juice…
And time to discuss and to write – there’s something liberating about the detachment we have from media and social influence… Any news we read is what Nick and Jean–Marc read and share from independent news sources so it feels like views and opinions come from a relatively uncorrupted, heartfelt perspective. If you read The Times every day or watch the BBC news then surely it becomes hard not to see the world through that lens…discuss…!!
Despite this paradise, there are questions: where next? What’s the purpose? Missing family, timing… and what’s the state of the rest of the world – do we need to get busy doing something more productive to save it? Is it a good time to travel? Which countries are open…? The days where I felt I was just hanging around in the exhausting heat were frustrating – In Wales I would chop wood on those days (though to keep off the chill not trying to search it out)
As I write most of the Pacific countries are closed; French Polynesia though open is experiencing a backlog of yachties with nowhere to go and the relationship between locals and yachties sounds to be getting a little fractious in places, and currently New Zealand our ultimate destination is not accepting visitors.
So some big questions: we are now approaching Panama and excited to visit the indigenous people of the Kuna Yala or San Blas islands; in the next months we will have to decide whether to continue through the canal to the Pacific or head North and East back towards Europe.