The San Blas Islands

The San Blas Islands are a vast archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast composed of over 300 islands. Some are inhabited but many not. We had never heard about them before but they are a popular, in a remote kind of way, cruising area particularly for those going onto the Canal and the Pacific. The Islands are home to the delightful indigenous Guna Indians who have preserved their culture and traditions, and live in a very simple way. They have no electricity except maybe a solar panel, no running water, and sleep in hammocks. Life seems very relaxed. They have certainly given us food for thought.

The Islands are idyllic, but the people really make the area. There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the Guna’s and cruisers which appears to work. They like our dollars and we really appreciate the veggie boat, the lobsters and the molas! Quite what they think of our sophisticated boats and inability to catch our own lobsters we do not know, and possibly that is a good thing!

We have met up with Bill and Moira on s/y Krabat, Allen and Maria on s/y Lady Jane and Jana and Jan-Dirk on s/y Jajapami and we are loosely cruising together. These are all friends from our Jimmy Cornell rally who are travelling through the Canal and onto the Pacific.

Wonderful palms

Green Island. The view from the mast.
Beautiful beaches
A little dug out sailing past us
They paddle in these dugouts for miles
The very simple little Guna huts

One day a Guna came out to our boat and via some good sign language we understood that one of the men on the island had cut their hand badly with a machete. We offered plasters, bandages as you would, but this was not going to do. Our friends on Jajapami could speak Spanish and that was certainly going to help so Julian took the injured Guna to Jana on Jajapami, and she did an excellent first aid job and they then ferried the chap in their Catamaran to the nearest hospital the next day. He had 7 stitches for a severed artery. It was great to be able to help.

The poor Guna resting on Jajapami on the way to hospital

As you would expect the snorkelling has been great, although climbing/slithering over the reef at Green Island proved a serious challenge which we probably will not repeat.

Julian ready to venture over the reef in the background
Believe me there are no Mc Donald’s near here but their plastic gets everywhere
There are not so many fish but great corals

This place is really remote and the last time we really provisioned was in the USA at the beginning of December. Our stores are getting very low and there are no shops here so when you see fresh fruit and vegetables you buy! There is a little bit of moaning from the captain about his rather plain diet.

The veggie pick up in Linton
The veggie boat in Chimichimi

There always seems to be a dog living with the families. We were most entertained to see this dog dig up a crab. I guess when there are no rabbits, moles, rats or other small vermin what can you do. It seemed an uneven fight but the crab won the day!

Size did not matter here!

We are kept well supplied with lobster and they are excellent. What a treat!

This chap free dived for our lobsters
Two happy boys cooking lobsters in Uncle Peter’s pot!
An excellent Lobster supper on Krabat

I have really enjoyed admiring the molas made by the Guna ladies. They come out in the canoes to sell them or display them at their huts. These pass Julian by, but they are very beautiful appliqué with embroidery on top. Quite how they do this without glasses and light I do not know. I will reluctantly limit myself to two!

Two beautiful molas

Arrived in Panama!

We arrived in Panama last night after 5 days of sailing from Jamaica. We have had better long sails. Leaving Jamaica we were close-hauled in big lumpy seas and it took us a long time to round the eastern corner of Jamaica; we then had a current against us and some very light winds. We managed to use all sail configurations – wing on wing, spinnaker and code zero and of course main and jib. So much choice these days! Approaching both Panama and Jamaica is certainly dramatic and we could see the mountains some way of the coast. Jamaica was a convenient stopping spot as opposed to a destination in its own right. Port Antonio marina is tiny but known to be secure and well located.

A Capella safely anchored in Linton, Panama

Port Antonio in Jamaica is definitely colourful, and Julian reckons that you can get high just walking down the street as there is that much dope being smoked. While I do not think we were in any great danger, the hustling proved annoying and at at times difficult. These guys are good and hustling ranged from thoroughly unpleasant to eccentric, to charming. We were certainly charmed, and are now owners of a little bowl of dubious quality which will remind us of Jamaica. I guess we will just get used to it. Buying at the fruit and vegetable market was also a challenge and I am quite certain we were always on the wrong side of the negotiation – these guys saw us coming! On the plus side the fruit and vegetables were of good quality and we had some new things to try. It is hard to know if Port Antonio is the “real” Jamaica but it was certainly not on the tourist trail. It was scruffy, endless shacks, dead cars and rubbish, numerous stray dogs, continuous noise, people playing dominoes, drinking and dope smoking everywhere. The plus side was the street food and we did have some excellent jerk chicken and festivals which are a sort of fried banana dough.

The new bowl, “free” jelly coconut and the marina in the back ground
Banana man- a more eccentric hustler
Almost certainly on the wrong side of the negotiation but great fruit and veg
Endless colourful shacks

In the marina we were a select few – one chap from Florida was on his second circumnavigation and on his way home, and Peter Smith and Marlyse on the mighty KiwiRoa who were great company. Peter had built KiwiRoa himself, is a font of knowledge and has sailed in all the very tricky places in the world. The yacht was amazing and very tough. Peter also designed the Rocna which is a great bit of ground tackle and the one we use. Peter was generous with his advice and Julian now has an even longer job list!

The mighty KiwiRoa

We were thrilled that our friends Bill and Moira on Krabat arrived in Panama in the morning after six days sailing from Bonaire. They had an interesting time anchoring and managed to find someone else’s lost chain and anchor! The neighbouring boats were delighted – Bill and Moria less so!

Bill and Moira’s find
An excellent lunch while we waited for the cruising permit office to open

It is extremely exciting reaching Panama, and we very much look forward to exploring the San Blas Islands and surrounds, before heading to Colon and the Panama Canal.

Beached out – Good bye Bahamas!

As I write this we are drifting slowly (making 4.2kts in 4.6kts of wind under the code zero) towards Jamaica. We are definitely back to the hot part of the world and our iPads periodically proclaim over heating – really! We passed the Tropic of Cancer on Long Island and are now on Latitude 18 degrees north. Nassau was 25 degrees north.

We left the Bahamas (Great Inagua Island) rather hastily last night. I was very much hoping to visit the largest breeding population of West Indian flamingoes and the various other birds who reside at the Inagua National Park. The anchorage at Matthew town is decidedly rolly. While we do not expect much sympathy, for those who do not know, a night at a rolly anchorage is a hateful experience, and just recently we have been in a few. You do not rock peacefully to sleep, rather the rocking tends to be inconsistent, things fall over, the boat rattles however hard you seek out the rattle culprit, there are always creaks, and you end up trying to sleep like a star fish – it never works! The winds were forecast to become very strong in a couple of days and we would probably have had to stay at Matthew Town for at least 5 days if we did not leave. Sadly the flamingoes had to be missed.

We managed to clear out on a Saturday much to our surprise, but the officials could not have been more helpful. A marine defence officer phoned the customs official. To be fair there was not much “guarding” going on, but it was generous all the same. She picked us up in her car and took us to the customs office. Immigration were not there but happy we leave the forms with the customs officer. A very casual way of operating but so helpful and very typical of all the islands.

Freshly caught amberjack for supper on our trip down to Jamaica.

It was a busy day in Matthew Town as the, once a week, mail boat had arrived. No next day deliveries here! This seemed to be a very social occasion and although it looked a little chaotic to us, I am sure that, via the ever faithful pick up truck, all the supplies reach the right home eventually. Just behind the mail boat was a sail boat from Haiti which delivers a special drink which is made there. This boat’s mast is a crudely shaped tree trunk with all the original bends, no engine but some long oars instead, and one suspects fairly primitive inside. Haiti is approximately 70NM away so these chaps are tough sailors!

The mail boat and sailing delivery yacht from Haiti at Matthew Town

We left Nassau for the last time on January 7th after leaving Tristan and Marie off to travel back to the UK, restocking the boat at the eye wateringly expensive supermarket near the marina, and Julian’s final eye check up which confirmed that all was fine.

A Capella sailing to Nassau for the last time. Thank you to World Dancer for the fabulous photo.

On our trip south down the Exuma chain of islands we stopped at Norman’s Cay again and then Black Point and George Town on Great Exuma. Black Point was a very local, but friendly tiny village. George Town, on the other hand was a serious cruising boat “hang out.” Many cruising people arrive here and stay for an extended time and some never quite get around to leaving and so create house boats! This is not for us but we were very happy to be sociable, and do some boat jobs in some beautiful surroundings for a few days. This cruising community is well established – The daily radio net lasts up to three quarters of an hour every morning, there is volley ball, soft ball, yoga, hiking trails, sailing regatta, poker nights, quiz nights, beach church and, of course beach parties. The swap, buy and sell works well and we were lucky enough to be given a replacement dinghy oar as the original had been lost.

Doing boat jobs in fabulous places. Julian prepares to climb the mast.
Looking down from the top of the mast and admiring those solar panels
The anchorage at George Town seen from the top of the mast.

House boats!

Beautiful beaches

Julian was delighted to see the Magistrate’s Court was operational in George Town and the clerk very kindly showed us into the court. It was much like home. Somehow the pink paint work seems to work in this brIght light and Julian was suitably impressed with the court rules! The Bahamas is an ex British colony so there are many legacies. They drive on the left albeit most of the cars, imported from America, are right hand drive, which is slightly disconcerting.

Moving south from here is not particularly easy due to coral heads and prevailing easterlies. It also takes you away from the tourist areas to the remote aptly called “far out islands”. According to our guide book these are the islands where Christopher Columbus first landed in 1492. We opted to motor west in a flat calm to Conception Island. This is an uninhabited island and a sanctuary for migratory birds and green turtles. We did not see any birds or turtles but we were on our own, and it was another wonderful beach.

All on our own at Conception Island

Then onto Long Island and Clarence Town and South Point. There is not much happening on Long Island except the weekly mail boat which just happened to be at Clarence Town when we were there. We learnt that in older times there had been plantations here and we saw the evidence of substantial walls but the island is now mainly scrub and very depopulated. Lovely as these islands are, I can see why young people would rather move to Nassau or Freeport. South Point had another wonderful beach and there were just two other boats in the anchorage. We ventured inland for a change and walked along the only road and found a tiny store. Julian was after some rum. The lady in the shop, who was just lovely, did not have any but her brother who had a little bar would be able to help and he was just down the road. On our return her brother was waiting for us, so we joined him at his bar for a few beers, some chat and a bottle of rum! We learned about the island and it was a lovely interlude. Next planned stop was Jamaica bay on Acklin Island but this was rolly and the wind was making it a lee shore. We opted to do a night sail to Matthew Town on Great Inagua and arrive in the morning.

The little bar at South Point, Long Island

We have thoroughly enjoyed the Bahamas and it was great to have Angus, Tristan and Marie on the boat for Xmas and the New Year. Nassau is busy but on the islands it is really very quiet. We have had some great sailing in good winds and smooth seas, but we will particularly remember the beaches, the warm clear waters, the light and the turquoise colours. Happy days.

Sharks, Rays and bright turquoise Seas

We arrived in the Bahamas at the most westerly point aptly named West Point on Grand Bahama at the beginning of December.

We knew that the Bahamas was shallow but I do not think we appreciated quite how shallow. We have now got used to sailing in 2 metres of water, when anchoring we are pleased to have 0.5 metres underneath us at low water, and a tidal range of 3ft is now significant – unheard of in the UK. On the plus side the water is gin clear, we can always see the anchor and the reefs seem to ensure that the seas remain relatively flat and we have had some wonderfully smooth sailing in good winds. The colours are amazing. The winds are variable in direction and strength. There are numerous anchoring options. It is not quite as warm as we expected but definitely shorts and T shirt weather and very comfortable.

Boat speed 9.2kts, wind speed 18.4kts, 3.8m under the keel

We first toured the Abacos. These are a delightful collection of uninhabited islands, idyllic beaches and little settlements.

Treasure Cay – a beautiful 3 mile long beach
Unfortunately rather too much plastic detritus on the Atlantic side of these islands
Speed bumps In Little Harbour

Next stop Nassau to pick up Angus for Christmas. Nassau is not attractive and is home to the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island. The Atlantis resort seems to have every attraction but in terms of scale it has a 60,000 sq ft casino providing 75 gaming tables and 750 slot machines. We have left it to our imagination. With Angus on board for Christmas we headed to the Exumas returned, and then picked Tristan and Marie up after Christmas and returned to the Exumas. The Exumas are on most cruisers bucket list and they did not disappoint. There are 365 cays with some of the most glorious anchorages and little harbours. Settlements are few and far between. This is a beautiful part of the world but very much a holiday park.

Under the water there are many sharks of numerous varieties, which apparently are all reasonably harmless but let us hope so. There are rays which glide along effortlessly and many other multi coloured fish. We have explored the mangroves at Shroud Cay; Seen rare iguanas at Allen’s Cay; Tristan and Marie explored the Thunderball grotto – This was used for filming a James Bond film and is quite magical; Snorkelled over a crashed aeroplane originally used for carrying drugs at Norman’s Cay and looked at Blow holes at Warderick Wells Cay.

Swimming pigs

A massive ray spotted by Marie and Tristan
Marie taking a photo of a shark – quite brave

The Exumas are also the home of the most massive fleet of super motor yachts – we have never seen so many. It gives us a certain satisfaction that we can enjoy the same pleasures on our own small yacht at considerably less cost.

Sadly the Christmas weather was disappointing – no long walk on a cold, crisp morning. We had rain, wind and blustery conditions! We took a rather wet dinghy ride to the famous swimming pigs at Staniel Cay. They were unperturbed and happy to perform despite the weather. We had roast lamb on A Capella for Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner was at the yacht club with our friends Allen and Marie from Lady Jane. The dinghy ride back can only be described as treacherous!

A wet dinghy trip to see the swimming pigs on Christmas Day

Ready for the treacherous return dinghy trip after Christmas dinner

We had a quick sail north to Nassau the following day, with three reefs in the main. This is the first time we have done this since crossing Biscay in October 2017!

A quick sail north

Not much time goes by without some sort of repair or maintenance. This time it was the outboard engine. Dirty petrol was deemed the problem.

Outboard engine surgery

By New Year’s Eve the weather had much improved and just after we had finished anchoring in Staniel Cay who should appear but Lady Jane. This resulted in an impromptu BBQ and so we saw 2019 in on A Capella. We would like to wish all our friends a very happy New Year.

Happy New Year
And finally celebrating Marie’s birthday – chocolate brownie cake

Good bye America….

We are now leaving America after 6 months, and it actually feels a little strange. The onward plan is Bahamas for Christmas, then to the Panama Canal and the Pacific. Very exciting.

It was very fitting that our last place to visit was Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Centre. There are many things we will remember about America but in particular it will be the scale and the ambition – nothing is too big, too far or too difficult and somehow the Space centre encapsulates all of this. We will also remember the people who have been unfailingly polite, welcoming and helpful. The OCC network and rallies have been great and hopefully we can keep up with many of our new friends. Our knowledge of American history is greatly improved albeit from a very low base.

There are somethings we are glad to leave behind – the food, the complete domination of the car and pick up, the urban sprawl and the excessive use/waste of energy in all its forms. Of course there are some things we will miss in particular superfast broadband and BBC Radio 4 in the morning via the internet. We have been frantically downloading books, pod casts, films and charts in preparation for lean broadband!

On the sail down to Cape Canaveral from St Augustine we had the first opportunity to use the new asymmetric spinnaker. This is a downwind sail for light winds and essential for the long downwind stretches in the Pacific. The more astute might think this looks very similar to the code zero. It does, but I can assure you the colours were picked with great care and are different, and more importantly the cut is different and this allows it to go downwind. Dare I say it, but this might just seem like some boat bling as it does seem rather subtle, but actually it goes really well and we can now do reasonable speeds in some very light downwind airs. This will be much appreciated in the Pacific.

The new spinnaker flying well

Approaching Cape Canaveral there are some new notations on the charts which I do not think we will ever see again.

“Exercise caution while dragging the ocean floor since missile debris may exist in this area”

The lock we had to go through to get to our marina had to be specially enlarged to hold parts of the Saturn 5 rocket and the space shuttles. Much to our surprise the lock was opened, water lowered and risen just for us. A Capella must have looked rather small in this very large lock.

Going through the Cape Canaveral barge lock

We really enjoyed The Kennedy Space centre. All the facts and figures are just enormous. There is amazing wildlife on the site – up to 6000 alligators and 300 different types of bird species! Yes, there are a few tacky bits but all in all a fascinating visit.

The amount of horse power on a space shuttle!
Note the alligator at the top of the pond just near the launch pad. We stayed on the bus!
The Vehicle (ie rocket) Assembly Building. Known as VAB

The VAB is where the rockets are assembled. It used to be the worlds biggest building by volume but now it is the sixth biggest. The doors are the biggest in the world and take 45 minutes to open. We could see this building from miles out at sea.

Behind me is Launch pad 39B

The launch pad 39B will launch NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) which will hopefully take man to Mars sometime in the 2030’s!

The computers which took man to the moon! Our mobile phones have 10,000 times that capacity!
Moon landing module.
Saturn 5 motors which were used to launch the Apollo spacecrafts

The Saturn 5 plus rockets and the moon landing module that we saw were the real machines. The moon landing research was rather abruptly stopped and the equipment was already built.

The used space shuttle Atlantis

And now for the tacky bit

Hot foot to the south

We had a fun but very busy return home visiting Northern Ireland, Herefordshire, London and Gothenburg all in 3 weeks. A big thank you for all the generous hospitality, it was great to see everybody. We will allow a bit longer next time but we were delayed going home because of Julian’s eye and then nervous about making the trip south before the weather turned against us.

It was very, very cold when we returned to the boat – definitely thermals time. A Capella’s bottom was painted and very smart, the rudder damage mended and the rope cutter fitted. I polished the hull, we stashed everything away and she was ready to be launched.

The new rope cutter

We had been worried about the trip south, in particular getting around Cape Hatteras which is a notorious spot. The Gulf Stream, which keeps us warm in the UK travels close by this point and can make for a very unpleasant and dangerous coast. We had kept our options open and could, in theory use the ICW (Inter coastal waterway,) but our mast height was always going to make this a stressful option at every bridge, and there are many bridges.

As it happened we were extremely lucky and got an excellent weather window which allowed us to sail around Cape Hatteras to Florida in 5 days and we are now enjoying some warm sunshine.

Double thermals time setting off down the Chesapeake
Our cockpit tent which does an excellent job of keeping us warmer at night
There was a little group of boats rounding Cape Hatteras with us

Good fishing but a bit gory!

Florida, the sunshine state, definitely feels different. St Augustine, where we are now, is American’s oldest city and according to our taxi driver the Christmas lights are in the top ten. We have learnt all US cities claim something special and as you can imagine the Christmas lights will ensure climate change remains an issue forever!

As is also usual there is a history lesson. St Augustine was founded in 1513 by Ponce de Leon and claimed by the Spanish and it really has a very Spanish feel with red tiled roofs, and narrow cobbled streets. The sad thing is that the cars (which are huge) and car parks intermingle with the pedestrians and little streets. There is much to be said for traffic free city centres. I won’t bore with the detail but there were many wars between the Spanish and English over the centuries.

No shortage of lights
Hotel Ponce de Leon

We are now waiting for a weather window to go south again and hope to visit the rockets at Cape Canaveral before crossing to the Bahamas.

Just as an aside, when we were in London we visited the Greenwich Observatory to check all was well. You can’t but help be a little proud when you hear the US coast guard give times in GMT. Given we rely on Lat and Long for all our navigation this was a fascinating trip.

Harrison’s Chronometer at Greenwich – Glad we do not have to carry this time machine on A Capella
Zero longitude and a fabulous view of the city

Annapolis for the second time

The weather has suddenly become cold!  This has been a bit of a shock as we have been in shorts for a year, but the trousers still fit and socks, shoes and a jersey are not so bad.  Julian has bought a new winter hat in preparation for coming home in a couple of days time and I have found my favourite woolly hat. There is a wonderful hat shop in Annapolis which just had to be visited.

We have had a trumatic time during the last few weeks.  Julian had a detached and torn retina.  This involved eye surgery and exposure to the US medical system.  Paying up front for emergency surgery is definitely culturally different but our experience was that the system was quick, efficient, and caring and the eye is healing well.  Our insurance should pay up.  Poor Julian had to spend a week looking down which is tortuous.  Thankfully at the time we had a hire car, but this did involve me having to drive hundreds of miles around Washington, on the wrong side of the road,  having not driven for a year.  Anyhow we all survived but thank goodness for Mrs Google maps.  She is a star!

Ready for surgery

Before the eye incident we did some walking in the Shanandoah National Park.  We stayed at the Skyland resort which is within the park in a little cabin.  We did feel a bit packaged but it gave us excellent access to the walking without having to drive miles. The walking is good and the views must be magnificent, but sadly yet again the Virginia weather was against us, and there was thick fog.  The Skyland resort is just off the Skyline drive.  This is a magnificent road through the park which was one of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930’s.

Up high but sadly no view
Our little cabin

Our main reason for being in Annapolis was to visit the Annapolis boat show – the largest sailboat show in America.  Our boat was also being used by the American agents to show perspective purchasers around.  It was a busy few days and great fun talking to fellow yachties and/or potential yachties.  Julian’s paper on batteries and power use has been well appreciated by those who worry about such things.

The boat show
Go faster foils

And now for the boat bits. The other reason for visiting Annapolis was to have all the essentials systems checked ready for our next trip south and on to Panama. The engine has had a service and the pre filters cleaned, drained and refitted. All the sails and canvass work has been removed and patched as appropriate. The rigging work has been checked and some modifications have been made to the forestay. We have thoroughly enjoyed working with the American contractors, and they have been generous with their knowledge, but as always seems to be the case, such projects never seem to be quite finished. We are awaiting some fittings, which are being sent from France, for the base of the mast and the zip on the boom bag is still not right. Keeping the boat in good shape is an expensive and never ending job but we are now much more knowledgable so hopefully we can do more ourselves the next time. Next time is hopefully New Zealand so that is an exciting prospect.

Refitting the forestay

Machined bushes made by Julian

We are planning to go south via the ICW (inter coastal waterway.). The bridges have an clearance of 65ft and our very carefully measured mast is 63.5ft. This will be a tight squeeze so we have now fitted a new whippy VHF antennae. It has been quite an effort but going down the ICW should be a lovely interesting trip and much less scary than Cape Hatteras and the Gulf Stream.

Only one significant boat show purchase – a new asymmetric spinnaker plus snuffer This will allow us to go downwind in light winds at reasonable speed, essential for the long Galapagos to Marquesas trip. Pictures to follow but it is very colourful.

Today we arrived at Herrington Harbour North. This is the most enormous boat yard we have ever seen. It comes highly recommended. The boat will be lifted out tomorrow for a bottom clean and anti foul. The damaged rudder will be mended and a new ropecutter fitted for the prop.

We return home on Thursday and are, of course looking forward to seeing everyone but also hopeful that on our return the boat will be “good to go” as they say here.

Ready for going home