On the heels of closing out 2016 with our first afloat learning experience, we decided to give sailing another go, this time unscripted and a little more on the wild side!
With so many options to consider, I turned to the source every novice sailor uses to chart both destination and destiny – Google Earth.
Scrolling through island destinations, I found myself moving west to the far reaches of the Caribbean. There, in the middle of hundreds of small islands … but not ON any of them … I found “San Blas Sailing” … but was it a marina? a charter business? a submarine?
Intrigued, I called San Blas Sailing and got the lowdown on our next adventure – a springtime voyage off the Caribbean coast of Panama aboard Ti Kay – an immaculate Nautitech 40 in their charter fleet. We couldn’t wait to get there! … but getting there was an adventure in itself!
Our friends Brant and Miquelle had invited us on the next in their series of exotic trips, and one of the locations under consideration was an eco-resort in Panama! We put the opportunities together and crafted the perfect two-week trip to the isthmus.
The eco-resort we visited was in a gorgeous natural setting, and we had some great adventures on trails, ropes and bridges in the western Panamanian rain forest, plus a visit to the Panama Canal. This being a sailing blog though, I’ll focus on our journey aboard Ti Kay.
After our eco-resort stay and visit to the Canal, we spent the night at a Panama City hotel – launchpoint for the next leg of our adventure … which began early the next morning when a 4X4 picked us up around 7 am to carry us the 3 1/2 hour trip up, up, up the mountainous terrain of Chagres National Park, then down, down, down into the Guna Yala (previously known as San Blas or the Kuna Yala) – a comarca indígena, or indiginous region, in northeast Panama that is home to the Guna people.
As the thick jungle opened up, we found ourselves in a riverside clearing that looked like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Bustling with activity, this is where Guna crews herded eager cruisers into long, flat-bottomed, wooden boats with motors for transport to their arranged charters. The Guna speak both their native language and Spanish, and I speak neither (a shortcoming I’m working on) so, as I tentatively handed the Guna captain a slip of paper that San Blas Sailing promised would convey my charter’s destination, I was completely unsure how this was going to turn out.
Watching everyone but us guided onto the Guna boats, we were getting a little anxious when, finally, a Guna crewman directed us to a boat with several other tourists already aboard. The crew helped us load our bags, then covered them with a blue tarp. By the time we’d reach our boat, we all wished we had also been covered with a blue tarp too.
We started up the river slowly, picking up speed as we entered open water and the Caribbean Sea. After half an hour passed on what was supposed to have been a half-hour trip, we were drenched from bow spray and wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into. On top of the soaking, Barbara confessed to scenarios floating around in her head of us being left for dead on some deserted island for the contents of our luggage. In fact, when what looked like arrival at our destination turned into a stop for gas, cargo, ice and more bow spray, her feeling of dread intensified.
Finally, after about an hour and a half, we approached a lone sailing cat and I was able to make out “Ti Kay” on the back of her port hull.
I think Barbara was particularly ready to get out of that Guna boat, especially when our Captain, Eduardo (imagine a tan, ripped Spaniard in a barely buttoned linen shirt), reached out to her cooing “Welcome to my boat” in a rich latin accent. “Oh, great” I thought, “I’ve delivered my wife to Antonio Banderas … on HIS boat!” I’m pretty sure my buddy Brant was thinking the same thing.
As it turned out, Eduardo and Adriana were incredible hosts. Eduardo is a skilled captain and fisherman and Adriana is a phenomenal chef. Ti Kay is a comfortable, well-kept boat and our time aboard her included great snorkeling, fishing, eating, drinking and camaraderie!
Culinary tip of the day (Adriana did this for us):
soak chunks of pineapple in Añejo rum for an AWESOME desert!
… you’re welcome!
The best part of the trip, though, was visiting the small, unspoiled islands. No strip malls, no condos, no tiki bars – just islands, and the friendly families who look after them.
The islands of the Guna Yala (San Blas) are a major economic resource. Each of the roughly 400 islands is occupied by a single Guna family for a year, during which time they benefit from visitors and harvest the island’s resources – tourism and coconuts.
Brant and I rowed to one in Ti Kay’s kayak, pulling up shore, where we were met by the island’s Guna caretaker who asked for a $3 tourism fee. Eduardo had briefed us on this practice in advance, so we came prepared and gladly paid him for the privilege to visit his island. We even had a beer and tried to engage him in conversation (a real feat when we didn’t speak any of his languages) about complicated subjects like drone flight. It wound up looking more like charades than a conversation, but we communicated successfully and killed a couple of beers in the process.
When our whole boat disembarked together on one particular island, we discovered the influence Eduardo had with the locals. Speaking the language, he arranged for our fresh catch to be prepared over a coconut husk fire while we relaxed in hammocks. Oh yeah.
Eduardo also arranged for Barbara and Miquelle to have shakira’s (ankle bracelets) woven by a Guna woman living on the island. Both wore them for most of the following year before they finally wore out.
Eduardo and Adriana still sail Ti Kay the Islands, chartering her from time-to-time. In fact, that’s pretty much the only place they sail anymore.
Looking back on our adventure there, we don’t know why they’d go anywhere else.