“Paradise. We all want to go to paradise, right? Paradise means different paradises to different people – we all have our own personal view of paradise because paradise most often resides inside our head. Panama’s San Blas islands might be described as paradise – the sort of tropical island paradise we see in pages of glossy print so it’s fixed in our minds that a tropical island is where we want to be. To ourselves, Green Island was just a convenient place to shelter from howling thirty-knot winds, until we could launch ourselves from behind paradise into the towering sea that everyone warned us would kick our backsides. When we left, we got hammered – crawling into Cartagena with shredded sails and a broken shackle, our exhaustion a testament to what real paradise is.”
When we left Shelter Bay in mid-January we were glad to be gone. Gone from Panama, nearly two years in the country we first planned to get through in less than two months. We had covid to thank for this, we did not suspect what lay ahead when we crossed the border from Costa Rica having never heard of this virus that was festering inside a bat cave in China.
Now we wanted to move on, we wanted to get out of Panama, we wanted to get away from all the bad memories of covid. We thought we might head south, through the San Blas, to South America…
Shelter Bay to Punta San Blas
From the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal there are few easy choices for a sailing yacht. If you are a weather & wind enthusiast you will see straightaway the prevailing easterly winds that blow relentlessly out of the Caribbean – these are the trade winds, remorseless year-round winds that once brought Columbus, English pirates, the Spanish and ruthless slave traders over the Atlantic from both Africa and medieval Europe. These stout wooden ships came in search of new lands and riches – both of which abounded in unimaginable quantities. Returning home against the trades and unforgiving seas is fraught with hardship and adversity – when you add in deadly hurricanes and weird triangles that even today swallow ships in unsolved mysteries, then you have it, you will begin to see why sailing yachts transit the Panama canal from the pacific then gaze at the wild Atlantic ocean in worrying uncertainty.
From Shelter Bay, at the Atlantic exit from the Panama Canal, there are two straight choices. Northwestwards towards Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala or southeastwards to Colombia, the Amazon and South America. Neither choice is easy with Colombia being perhaps the more difficult, Colombia means a relentless head-on beat straight into the west-blowing trades. The other way towards Guatemala and Mexico may be easier – but even this way the trades turn devilishly inwards to make the passage a hard wet trial of endurance. Until we returned to Panama after the Christmas wedding, which got cancelled because of covid, we had not really decided on a set plan – in truth we made a plan everyday but changed it the next.
We were hearing worrying stories about the boatyard in Shelter Bay – one of our reasons for leaving Vista Mar in pacific Panama to transit the canal was the inability to get major boat work done there, we figured that Shelter Bay’s travel lift and workshops would be a much better option. So far this had not materialised, no one in Shelter Bay matched up to the reliability of Ollie and Wikus, the South Africans who were forging a formidable reputation in Vista Mar that was not matched by the Vista Mar management nor its dubious haulout facilities – and the pacific swell in the Vista Mar marina itself has to be seen to be believed. We were not the only boat to lose cleats and fenders in Vista Mar. So Shelter Bay seemed to be the ideal solution – or maybe not. Our agreement for their workshop to investigate our anchor windlass problems and other key work went unresolved, they never turned up – they gave a price to fix our fridge which was nearly doubled when we got their bill, though repair of our canvas work went well. Worryingly, we were billed for unknown work carried out on other boats. Of course, these type of problems are not endemic to Shelter Bay, they occur in many boatyards and the actual Shelter Bay marina is an excellent sheltered facility – but we were listening to whispers about someplace we’d never even considered. Cartagena in Colombia, South America.
While in Shelter Bay before Christmas we’d got to know the English crew from Durham. Stuart & Avril, Ian & Annie (Annie was Scottish) on their X-yacht Jus Do It. Many years ago, when I left school, I began my working life in the coal mines alongside salt-of-the-earth miners from Durham – their own northern coal pits had been ruthlessly closed necessitating their migration to the Nottinghamshire coalfields to resurrect their working lives. I had made many Durham and Geordie friends, I could recognise the distinct Durham twang in their speech from a million miles. That’s how I met Stuart in Shelter Bay, when he said ’good morning’ one time I told him I could recognise a Durham accent anywhere. Straightaway we became good friends. The Durhamers told Marie and I tantalising tales of Cartagena in Colombia, stories of sultry dark-eyed canvas-repairing women, one-armed carpenters and engine whisperers who laid their hands on broken diesels to make them work. Of course, all this was music to my eager ears, our problem was getting there – we would have to power our way through battling seas and against fierce trade winds on our nose to reach this boat-repairing oasis. But our minds were made up, the rumoured cheap Colombian labour rates were hard to ignore.
When we got back to Shelter Bay in late January, the Durhamers had left, we heard they’d gone the other way, westward to Bocas Del Torro. Nevertheless, our minds were made up. Again we were three crew, Henry had once more decided to travel with us, his year long university gap year gave him lots of free time – those of you who read our blog Panama 2021 – The Panama Canal will recall our adventures leaving Vista Mar, transiting the canal and our hair-raising voyage to Bocas Del Torro – plus Henry’s early-morning interview escapades to secure his future job with Morgan Stanley Bank. Richard & Nancy on Stand Down were still in Shelter Bay – it was great to renew old friendships but there was a secret that Richard & Nancy and myself were unaware, only Marie knew why Henry every weekend took the three-hour bus ride from Colon to Panama City. In Panama City, before Christmas, Henry had met a girl.
I learned of the new romance from Marie when this love affair took a more serious turn, when Henry disappeared for a whole week to spend his time with Emma in a backpacker’s surfing resort on Panama’s Pacific coast. Little did I know that our crew of three onboard Sänna would soon turn into a crew of four. Emma is German, working her own gap year on an environmental project in Panama City. It was agreed that we’d leave Panama and head for the tropical San Blas Islands while Emma would make her way overland by four-wheel drive bus to the only harbour in the remote San Blas. It seemed we had a plan.
While Henry was showing off his non-existent surfing skills to Emma, Marie and myself finished all the outstanding work to make Sänna finally seaworthy. We had fixed the anchor windlass ourselves with no sign of the promised boatyard workers. We had already loaded new anchor chain, our dinghy was new, our cockpit canvas was nicely repaired, I climbed the mast to fit a new LED steaming light – we had a brand new radar set installed too. Also, unknown to the marina management, we arranged with Ollie back in Vista Mar to send Wikus to service our Yanmar engine, on two occasions before Christmas the boatyard’s own mechanic had never showed up. Wikus was an engine genius, so Stand Down and ourselves called Ollie to send him over – Wikus made the five hour trip then stayed onboard Stand Down for more than a week. It was supposed to be a secret from the marina management but when word got around that Wikus was in the marina other boat owners tried hard to seek him out – we had to literally fight them off to get our engine work done.
The whole marina was then interrupted by the Oyster Yacht World Rally, this conflagration of twenty-five high-end expensive yachts crewed by owner-skippers with a myriad of assorted well-to-do crew was viewed with well-voiced disdain by the numerous other boats in the marina – the Oyster ownership mentality does not sit well with seasoned sailors, especially when forced upon them through aggressive aspirational brand marketing which is what the Oyster round-the-world rally is. But you have to take your hat off to the Oyster organisers – the twenty-grand rally entrance fee per vessel plus extra for each member of crew means that Oyster’s high profile marketing costs for their brand was being largely paid for by the rally participants – their own customers. As an ex-marketing man myself I’m familiar with this type of brand awareness advertising and its method of funding – its a hugely successful, widely-used technique. Nevertheless, the rally organisers pretty much took over the whole marina regardless of everyone else, the restaurant was booked out for days on end even though the restaurant did not normally take bookings, the weekly visit by local fruit & vegetable traders was swept clean by the dedicated chefs and cooks that each Oyster yacht carried, Richard from Stand Down insisted that his garbage too was collected by the marina staff on a daily basis. The Oyster Rally visit culminated in a confrontational stand off, when the restaurant staff who were well known to the rest of the marina clientele refused to seat Oyster crews even though they claimed they had pre-booked all the restaurant tables. There are many distinct social classes who make their way sailing upon the sea.
In the first week of February the three of us checked out with the harbourmaster and Panamanian immigration, we were finally, after all this time, leaving Panama. We would forever remember the trauma of emergency evacuation flights, leaking thru-hull fittings, covid travel bans and the tribulations of Vista Mar. We fuelled up and said goodbye to Stand Down. After departing Shelter Bay we crossed the busy approach shipping lanes for the Panama Canal, it was an easy eighteen mile passage northeast to Bahiá Puerto Bello (Portobello). We anchored in this wonderful anchorage that even today is protected by the three Spanish San Fernando conquistador fortifications dating from the sixteen hundreds. The history of this bay, first discovered by Christopher Columbus, is stunning. Portobello was the main harbour of departure for Spanish gold plundered from the Incas, Aztecs and other indigenous peoples of the new world. Stolen treasure made its way northwards to Portobello where it was loaded onto Spanish galleons bound for Spain – the reason for the three forts, which still contain the original cannons in their ruins, was to deter pirates and privateers who had their own wide-eyed interests in Aztec gold. Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Blackbeard and numerous other rampaging pirates at various times attacked the three forts of Portobello – Francis Drake in the Golden Hind actually died in Portobello, he was buried overboard in a lead-lined coffin and still lies somewhere undiscovered to this day.
We stayed anchored in Bahiá Portobello for three days, riding our new dinghy ashore to tie up on the beach directly beneath the imposing walls of the lower San Fernando fort. There’s no entry fees, tour guides or anything like that, we were free to roam after finding our way off the beach, climbing the stonework buttresses and noting one of several iron cannons that aimed directly at Sänna sitting on anchor. It was easy to see why the fortifications were feared and respected. There was no one else around, no mass tourism or the scourge of Chinese visitors – the covid pandemic still raged in Panama. Next we climbed to the upper fort, the one that fired upon pirate ships as they first entered the bay whereas the southern San Jerónimo fortifications protect the old established town of Portobello. We visited this quant little town for more supplies, to eat some food and to buy much needed petrol for our outboard engine. There were a few sunken yachts in the bay – a reminder that this was once an established hangout for live-aboard hippies living hand-to-mouth on their sailing boats not so long ago. The locals rebelled, yachts were robbed, the final straw came when a fisherman had his hand bitten by a sailboat hippy’s dog when trying to sell fish – the resulting confrontational mayhem could only end one way, it lives on in local legend.
When leaving Portobello I was conscious that, as we headed north and then east, we would begin to encounter the west blowing trade winds in their full force. Heading north after clearing Punta Puerto Bello and Isla Verde we were faced with rounding Isla Tambour to head east towards the San Blas Islands still nearly sixty miles away. We were favoured by the trades, they had veered to more of a northerly, blowing out of the north instead of the east would assist us enormously, we could set our sails almost on a beam reach to track the Panamanian rainforest coastline. We passed Linton Bay and Turtle Cay harbours, heading to an overnight anchorage that seemed sheltered and protected on the charts. We sailed directly into the Playa Chiquita anchorage, it was quite rolly in the swell, only worth an overnight stop to get sleep. It was safe enough behind the headland reef, the indigenous village on the beach meant that we weren’t alone but they never bothered us – early the next morning we were gone, making for Punta San Blas headland still twenty-five miles to the east…
Next page – The San Blas Islands & Cartagena – Colombia…