Following Gauguin to Panama
By Steve and Maria Siguaw
Springtime in the Caribbean brings thoughts of calmer winds and gentle seas for the remainder of the cruising season. Springtime also is a time when we think of where we will end up for the hurricane season that begins in June.
For most cruisers the approach of hurricane season means making plans for hauling out in Trinidad, Grenada or, if you have a benevolent insurance company, even St. Lucia or Antigua. The more adventurous even consider making the journey further afield to Venezuela, Bonaire and Curaçao.
Other sailors use the rationale that they need a change from sailing up and down the island chain each season, seeing the same glistening white sand beaches and friendly faces on their favorite islands.
There is another alternative that permits sailing throughout the entire hurricane season in protected waters and provides a new adventure that is totally different from the Eastern Caribbean — sail west to Panama!
The French impressionist painter Paul Gauguin was the ultimate adventurer. Gauguin is forever remembered for leaving the comfort of France and traveling to the South Pacific in search of his dreams. Most sailors can relate to Gauguin as we sail into secluded Caribbean anchorages in our search for adventure.
Gauguin’s journey started in France but in reality it started at a small house near the current-day village of St. Pierre, Martinique. Today there is a small museum that can be visited where Gauguin lived and painted on Martinique.
Gauguin must have grown tired of the beauty of Martinique because he did not stay long in St. Pierre. Instead, Gauguin sailed west toward Panama. It is his journey, rather than searching for a hurricane refuge or forsaking the Eastern Caribbean, that inspired our own journey aboard Aspen, our Island Packet 38-foot sailboat, to Panama.
Panama — home to conquistadors, pirates and Indians. Also, Panama is well below the hurricane belt and is easily chosen by insurance companies as a safe refuge during hurricane season. The sail from Trinidad, Grenada or even Gauguin’s Martinique is downwind and an offshore passage that only took us ten days as we made landfall in the magical San Blas Islands of Panama in the middle of November 2009.
The San Blas Islands immediately reminded us of the spectacular Tobago Cays. There are differences. First, there are 340 islands that make up the San Blas Islands instead of the handful that comprise the Tobago Cays. Secondly, there are no bareboat charter boats in the San Blas Islands! This meant that we could watch a boat arrive at an anchorage and not have to stand on the bow screaming and waving them away. Third, the fishermen sell lobster — US$5 for six lobsters. This is quite a bit cheaper than the Eastern Caribbean as we recall. But why buy fish and lobster when you can spearfish for them right from your boat? Yes, spearfishing is allowed in the San Blas.
Checking into Panama at the San Blas island of Provenir is the legal option, instead of waiting until arrival at Colon to do so. However, beware that a visa and cruising permit for Panama are only valid for 90 days, after which you are supposed to leave the country. Sometimes you can arrange to remain longer by talking with an agent and paying a small fee.
The San Blas Islands are very similar to the Bahamas of 200 years ago. There are no grocery stores, roads or stress. Dugout canoes are the primary means of travel for the indigenous Kuna Indians who govern the San Blas Islands. The Kuna sometimes paddle around the anchorages selling fruit and vegetables. There is also a better-organized fruit-and-vegetable operation that appears in a motorized dugout canoe every one or two weeks, if the weather is favorable and there are enough yachts around to entice them.
The women onboard the dugout canoes sell a local handicraft called molas. Molas are spectacular and intricate needlework that will brighten up your salon and some are even on the walls of museums far and wide. You WILL buy molas by the dozen. Molas, molas, molas are everywhere in the San Blas. We became mola’ed to death, yet still bought enough for all our family, friends and distant relatives. We are fairly certain that Gauguin must have had a collection of molas too!
Summer in Panama simply means it is the rainy season. The rainy season can be described with one word — WET! If you think the rain in Trinidad is excessive, just come to Panama. They measure the rainfall here in feet (or metres if you prefer). These deluges are daily occurrences and they are accompanied by lightning. The chance of getting hit by lightning in Panama is around 99 percent. Those boats that do not get struck are definitely in the minority!
Panama has endless opportunities for exploring. The anchorages near the mainland of the San Blas are where pirates hid for 400 years during the 1500s through the 1800s. Sir Francis Drake and Sir Henry Morgan are two of the more notorious pirates that had bases in the jungle in the San Blas area.
The jungle is a dark and forbidding place in Panama. There are more poisonous snakes, spiders and saltwater crocodiles here than we have ever seen or ever wish to see again! Yet the jungle has beauty around every corner. Sloths hang from branches, parrots darken the skies all around us and there are troops of monkeys everywhere howling and dancing through the treetops. The sea is alive and the reefs are exceptionally healthy around the islands. Not even inept fishermen like us can go hungry here!
The distances between anchorages in the San Blas range from half a mile to five miles. All of the islands are behind a barrier reef so the seas are minimal when sailing between islands. There are no huge seas sweeping between the islands here like there are between St. Lucia and Martinique, approaching Bequia or at the north ends of St. Vincent and Grenada! There isn’t even an Anegada-type passage to negotiate here.
During the rainy season the winds range from calm to higher in the frequent squalls. There are also westerly winds that can rip through the anchorages without warning, bringing gusts to 50 knots at times. If you happen to get in trouble there is no coast guard to come and help you. Only your fellow cruisers will be nearby to lend you a hand.
The cruising area of the San Blas islands is so large that the morning net uses single-sideband radio instead of VHF. The Panama Cruisers’ Net meets daily at 0830 on SSB 8107 USB. It is an invaluable resource. The broadcasts include the weather, a vessel check-in as well as question and answer announcements. The local VHF channel for a particular anchorage area is 72.
The most popular anchorage in the San Blas islands is within the Lemon Cays. There are cruisers who spend the entire hurricane season sitting in this one spot, playing volleyball on one of the cays, snorkeling and just enjoying life. This anchorage is similar to Georgetown in the Bahamas, but with a lot fewer boats!
If you really get desperate for supplies you can anchor near the runway at Nonomulu near the Carti Islands and take a four-wheel drive vehicle across a very rough road (the only road in the San Blas Islands), which eventually joins the Pan-American Highway that goes to Panama City. This tends to be at least an all-day adventure. Think of the bus journey in the movie “Romancing the Stone” and you will have an idea what you are in for.
There are two guidebooks that cover the San Blas Islands. The newest is The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus. The older guidebook is The Panama Guide by Nancy and Tom Zydler. We found that each guide supplements the other and both are useful. Just don’t expect a Chris Doyle guidebook telling you the exact route to take between islands!
Meeting guests in the San Blas is simple. Tell your guests to fly into Porvenir on a commercial single-engine plane from Panama City and look for your boat. The tiny runway is the largest object on the cay so finding you or your boat is a snap.
The nearest haulout facility is at Shelter Bay Marina in Colon. This is a nice and relatively new marina where you can store your vessel in the water or haul out for long-term storage. The marina is safe because the old US Fort Sherman army base that Panama now owns surrounds it. Panama has well-armed guards patrolling the extensive perimeter of the old base to keep everyone away.
You would expect that Panama, one of the world’s largest ports, to have extensive marine stores. Think again! There are very few marine stores in Panama, and the main one, Abernathy, caters mainly to big sportfishing boats. Any sailing gear, parts for your refrigeration system or the like can be ordered through the local Marine Warehouse dealer — they are the best source for parts and equipment in all of Panama.
The natural beauty of the San Blas, for the short time he was here, probably inspired Gauguin in several of his paintings. Gauguin worked on the failed French Panama Canal effort before losing his job and falling ill — they have dengue fever here, just like in the Eastern Caribbean. There are also other nasty diseases like malaria here, too. Our family physician made sure that we took our daily anti-malaria tablets in the San Blas.
There is a major problem about spending hurricane season in Panama, instead of the Eastern Caribbean. Once hurricane season is over and you want to move on, where do you go?
The routes are well known:
• Head north to Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico to spend the cruising season in the Western Caribbean
• Bash your way east along the coast of Colombia, stop in Aruba, Curaçao or Bonaire, then sail north and make landfall in Puerto Rico before struggling back to the Eastern Caribbean cruising grounds
• Hug the coast of Colombia, stop in Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire, and then really bash yourself and your boat to death by sailing east against the easterly tradewinds and adverse current to Grenada.
We will be taking a fourth alternative for getting back to the smiling faces, glorious beaches and yes, even the bareboats in the Eastern Caribbean. We will be following Gauguin’s voyage westward through the Pacific, chasing the green flash and sailing far over the horizon to new places before returning home to the enchanting Windward and Leeward islands of our dreams.
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