A Singlehander’s Sojourn
at Bocas del Toro
by John Smith
Leaving the hotel-filled skyline of Aruba astern and setting out under triple-reefed main and a spitfire jib, Mermaid of Carriacou never fell below six knots until, upon reaching the Farallon north of Porto Bello, Panama, I chose to heave to before crossing the busy shipping lanes in the morning. I hoisted my vertical set of red lights and, with the captain now officially declared dead, I could get some rest before continuing on to Bocas del Toro.
From Porto Bello westwards — once across the busy approach to the Panama Canal, turning northward along the coasts of Costa Rica then Nicaragua, and west into the Bay of Honduras — lies a monstrous mostly uninhabited lee shore of swamps, mangroves, rivers, barrier reefs and rain forests: a thousand miles of... nothing. It is dark. It is ageless. It is wet and it is overwhelmingly green. Too much green!
I sailed via the small island of Escudo de Veragua — which nine days later I had not yet reached owing to light or strong constantly shifting winds, or no wind, and a steady running easterly current. It took me seven more days — 16 in all — to sail the 120 miles from Porto Bello to Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro province.
This was accomplished only after having to drop my 250-pound emergency anchor, “Dr. Jekyll”, after the wind died and the aforementioned current almost put the Mermaid onto Isla Colon’s Bluff Beach — to the amusement of the surfers playing there. When the wind did return I pulled a “cut and run”: in the light breeze I let my anchors run and very slowly, with stomach and heart churning, very tenderly sailed her away from that lee shore. I actually had my ditch kit, EPIRB, kayak, logs and dog all settled together ready to abandon ship rather than get caught in what to my non-surfer eyes appeared to be a very ugly place to landfall. For a moment the ill-fated Water Pearl of Bequia flashed across my mind.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it) my safe arrival under sail at the Bocas marina occasioned in this singlehander a need to celebrate the thin edge I had survived — that edge which defines both a good landing and a successful passage. I reach! With the aid of some fine Abuelo rum, the company of sailors and a few beers… well, we celebrated a bit.
News of Mermaid’s arrival cheered some and, as usual, ruffled a few feathers as well. I mean, sailing into the anchorage — “How reckless!”, etcetera. I also fired, with legal firecrackers, an 80th birthday salute to my fellow singlehander Lon Matlock, who at the time had been at sea for 26 days from the Canal Zone. I made some noise. I danced. Long-haired pirates in the trailer park! Oh, well.
I have not been in a place like Bocas del Toro since I lived in Key West in the ’60s and, short of a few old biker bars from that era, I have never seen so much “ink”. Everyone here has a tattoo. Really! Music, bare feet, bicycles, long hair, surfers, backpackers, probably 20 different languages including both the local Guaymi Ngobe-Bugle and the Cuna dialect of the San Blas Islands, both spoken in this area for over 8,000 years. Seeing Israeli surfer girls in cut-offs and tank tops haggling with Cuna Indian women in traditional woven clothes with gold rings in their noses is a mind-altering experience in itself. Want to go grocery shopping? Learn some Chinese. I challenge you to find a single mercado here not operated by Chinese folks. Their ancestors all had a role in the construction of the Canal and their presence is ubiquitous; it makes for some really delightful shopping expeditions.
I still cannot get the image of that Israeli surfer girl out of my head — some archetype or deja vu perhaps, similar perhaps to what the Guaymi folks at the bottom of Bahia Honda might have thought when they saw Mermaid of Carriacou under full sail approaching the very cut through the islands of Bastimentos and Solarte as had Christopher Columbus over 500 years ago — and, to be sure our boats, are not much different. Difference is that I stayed for over two years!
One of my favorite shore activities was just to sit in the commodious park among trees so huge they seem to have stood there forever. A gazebo, flowers, children’s swings and an occasionally operating fountain, all made complete by a bust of El Libertador, Simón Bolívar, and surrounded by Chinese grocers and the combined aroma of a dozen different bakeries and lunch buffets. And not so far beneath the surface there can usually be heard some rock ’n‘ roll coming from The Loco Toro, mission control for a large part of the Boca’s gringo population. A rowdy, roady surfer bar with cold drinks, wide screen TVs and occasionally a few poles on the bartop, and, yep, you can get served food here but take note of the sign over the kitchen: “Good Food Takes a While. Yours Will Be Ready in a Minute”.
Be forewarned, however: there are a few of the less than desirable beasties around as well. And, unless you have already been to the Bay Islands of Honduras, the local biting sand flies called chitre here will definitely get and hold your attention — which is probably good because all the smacking, slapping and swatting will also keep the majority of the mosquitoes away. It’s easier to just go swimming or surfing… or have another Abuelo.
I never saw a crocodile over eight feet long or a snake over 12, and never saw one of the deadly varieties at all, although I did happen to be bitten on the thigh by a Brown Recluse Spider, resulting in a long and ugly healing process and leaving a large scar. (All this occurred before I learned of a new therapy in the event of Brown Recluse bites: that of applying a nitroglycerine and petroleum jelly — or maybe aloe jelly — to the open wound. The toxin slowly shuts down the capillary system, causing massive necrosis and severely limiting healing potential. The nitroglycerine, being a vasodilator, opens these very small blood vessels, restoring a bit of circulation to the affected area, greatly decreasing the amount of necrosis and secondary infection.)
There is also some great small boat cruising and fishing among the countless bights, sounds, bays, mangrove bays and beaches of Bocas del Toro. While fishing with a friend from aboard my inflatable and towing a small surface squid, while passing the absolutely beautiful sight of the Smithsonian Institute Jungle Research Station on Isla Colon, my seven-foot spinning pole bent double and the reel sang its glorious song. What turned out to be a 28-pound barracuda did not want to get anywhere near my dinghy. And when it was finally almost alongside, the quandary became my own: in a rubber inflatable boat, what to do with a four-foot-long “saber-toothed grunt” with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth? It wound up demanding a long — I mean a very long — left arm stretch and a right arm slash to quiet the critter. The Indians and other folks knew the area and had fished it for years, so the fish was cut up and shared out. Later that same week I was boating 30-pound cobia using live jacks caught from my deck with a small Japanese sabiki rig.
Underwater it gets even more interesting. In addition to the healthy reefs and extensive fish population, here in the underwater world, history is literally at your fingertips. With a long history of European visitation beginning in 1502, including all those who settled here after completion of the Canal, those who were re-settled here by the fruit and banana empires, and who came by thousands of ships. The seabed is a bottle collector’s wonderland. Everything from Chinese opium syrettes to 18th century liquor bottles is found here, often in less than ten feet of water surrounding the larger towns, especially Bocas. Anyone visiting here should visit Captain Billy’s Bottle Shop to get an idea of the vast array of what has been found and is still being found here. Being in the water with good eyes almost always yields up some artifact from a bygone era. I found several dozen such bottles while just exploring with my snorkel gear and kayak. I left them with friends; these artifacts had come a long way to be thrown into the sea here and so seemed to belong here.
About 20 years ago a few small islands very near to Isla Colon sank. Disappeared... phtt… gone. It was to one of these sites that I often swam while towing my kayak with air bottle and “snuba” hose. I spent many hours investigating the hard bottom from which the currents had swept all the soft dirt and vegetable matter, leaving a hard coral surface. Except for some young corals, the area was quite clean and by swimming just along the bottom, I found many bottles, and one day a most remarkable find: a stone axe or adze head, more like a hoe than an axe. It was about seven by four inches broad and about an inch thick, made from a very hard stone not common on the islands here. It was old, very old. I carried it to a resident Canadian archaeologist who confirmed the handmade nature of my artifact and estimated its age at about 3,000 years! I visited some Guaymi friends in the village of Saigon on Isla Colon and showed to them my find, hoping to elicit some response. There was excitement and there was silence. My friend showed it to his wife who spoke neither Spanish nor English, prompting a combination of “shock and awe”, but of the quiet kind. I had discovered an ancient “thunder stone” made by the ancestors “in a time before time”, before European encroachment and conquest had all but erased any pre-Columbian history. Time had inexorably wrought many changes and all but erased an entire people’s identity, but this stone, this thunder stone, had survived — and was now in the hands of the descendants of its maker.
In modern times they are mostly kept safe by the older women of the tribe who serve as midwives. During childbirth the stone is heated and applied to the abdomen of the mother to ease her pain and to ensure a continuing connection between the young newborn and the ancient ancestors, to ensure that the spirits of those ancestors are a part of the birthing and a continued influence on their lives. Whew! I thought it was just an old farmer’s hoe.
When I left Bocas del Toro I gave the stone to my friend, who gave it into the care of his wife. It belonged in Bocas, and its story far outshone the glass bottles and bead trinkets of a later, more jaded society. It was, after all, ultimately my friends’ property, made by a grandfather, an ancient one who lived here thousands of years before and could now help maintain the long line of history established by these indigenous people as a thunder stone from a time before time.
As for why I linger to explore and learn from these people, it is perhaps that — apart from my own father and the sailing community of the Windward Islands — I have never met people for whom I hold so much respect.
A wonderful spot, truly — if you do not mind seven metres of rain a year, months of flat calm, shifting winds and wild currents. Not a sailor’s ideal harbor — especially one from Carriacou! So, after waiting around a few years for the Bocas boatyard and hauling facility in Almirante to open (which it did six months after I left), I shanghaied the young, strong and reckless son of a friend and with him as apprentice seaman set out to find a shipyard farther to the north, perhaps in the Bay Islands of Honduras.
Bocas del Toro remains one of the magical places in the Caribbean.
A plethora of exotic anchorages.
A pool of foreign cultures.
A web of international and local languages.
All woven together as elaborately as one of the fine Guaymi Indian shakara bags: strong but simple, functional and beautiful.
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