Thursday 3rd March 2011

They say all good things must come to an end, and sadly that's true of Bonaire, not just for the beautiful reefs but for the friendships we made there. We departed Bonaire Tuesday and right now we have about 430NM to go until we reach Isla de Pinos which is on the eastern end of the San Blas Islands chain.

The trip's been pretty uneventful so far, with light to moderate winds and seas of only a metre or so. We've been getting a fantastic push along with a current of approximately 2 knots so we've been maintaining an average speed over ground of around 6-8 knots, even though our boat speed is only around 5 knots. The winds we've been experiencing along the coast of Columbia are a bit unusual in that the wind typically dies off in the daytime and strengthens again after dark – the opposite of what we'd normally expect. Strange as it may seem, we've been covering more miles after dark when we're reefed than in daylight when we've been running full sails.

Last night I had an incredible “fish” experience. We'd been trawling a line all day and hadn't had a bite. I'd made up a new lure yesterday morning, since I lost my last lure on our passage to Bonaire when a big fish bit through the wire leader. I was beginning to believe that perhaps my new lure was a loser because I have to confess, I'm not very good at making lures. It was around 5:30pm and we'd just settled into the saloon to watch Toy Story 3 when the fishing reel started making noise and paying out. I jumped up and ran to the cockpit, grabbing the fishing rod from it's holder. I could tell immediately that it was a big fish, the rod was feeding out quicker now and there was a lot of strain on the line. I quickly settled into my position on the port transom, just inside the lifelines and tightened up the reel tension to try to slow the payout rate of the line, but it seemed to only make the rod pull harder. Cheryl turned “Connect4” into the wind to slow us down, but the reel kept paying out – Fast! Then it happened! Off to starboard of “Connect4” I saw a shadow of a large fish break the water and then fall back with a big splash of white water that looked like a breaking wave in the dusk. The line went tight again and I held on with white knuckles as the fish raced across the other side of “Connect4”, my line racing across with the fish. I yelled to Cheryl to look, just as the largest (and only) Marlin I've ever seen made another spectacular leap out of the water. The fish's main body was at least as tall as Cheryl and the spike on the front of his nose made him look gigantic as he leapt out of the water and kicked his tail violently trying to dislodge the hook. Then he dove! Seriously, I've never seen the reel feed out so fast. I had the line brake tensioned as high as I could, yet this seemed to do nothing to slow the fish's flight. In a few seconds he'd take over 100m of line and the reel was screaming out without relent. I was concerned that in another 10 seconds he'd take all my line. The brake on the reel was beginning to smoke and I could feel the heat coming off the reel as the braid continued to explode off the reel at a frightening pace. All of a sudden the line snapped and my world went quiet. With hesitation I reeled in the line and stared in dismay at the broken and frayed end; all that remained of my new line and lure.

I don't know how big the Marlin was, but I can tell you this. The line I was using was 0.5mm high test Dyneema line that had a test strength of 55kg (120lb). My new trawling reel is now broken, I think the brake has melted because I can't get any line tension. I'm going to pull it to bits and see if I can fix it, but I don't hold out out a lot of hope. I could smell it burning when I was fighting the fish. I'm sad I lost the fish, really disappointed. It would have been a great experience to fight a fish like this and while it would have been more meat than we could have eaten in a month, it would have made for a few excellent meals. Cheryl, on the other hand, was quite relieved that we lost the Marlin because we really didn't have a clue how we would ever have landed it, let alone dispatched and filleted it.

The Simple Pleasures of Night Watch

When the seas are flat and the wind is just right, night watches on “Connect4” are a joy. They're one of life's simple pleasures. The air is warm but not so warm as to make you sweat. The breeze is blowing over our aft starboard quarter and we're on a lazy 120 degree reach. I've a reef in the main sail, standard practice for night shift, so there's nothing to do unless the wind gets up to 25 knots, something that's not likely tonight since it's been hovering around the 12 – 14 knot mark all night. “Connect4” has been moving along at between 5.5 and 6.5 knots with a very comfortable motion, sometimes you almost forget you're moving.

Sitting in the cockpit, I look up at the vast carpet of stars, which are all the brighter since the moon hasn't risen yet. It might have been a dark night except there's not a cloud around, so my view of the heavens rewards me with an uninterrupted spectacle of the vast and beautiful night sky. There's so many stars in the sky tonight that they're lighting up the water and illuminating my little world. With no buildings around, I have the best seat in the house tonight; my looking favours me with an uninterrupted view of heaven's giant artwork of stars. From horizon to horizon I can see it all, but it's too grand to take it all in. Never have I seen so many stars, nor so clearly. But then I think this every night I see this view.

I curl up in a corner of the cockpit, my knees pulled tightly to my chest and look out over the transoms of “Connect4” to see where we've come from. Emerging from the back of each hull is a stream of stars flowing out from under “Connect4's” sterns. This is the phosphorescence and one of the beauties of sailing at night. It looks like a trail of sparkling water with the intermittent bright flash. It's not in my imagination, it's real and it looks as if we're riding on a path of light over the water. Some nights it's a gentle trail of light, some nights it's almost blindingly bright. Tonight it's a steady stream of parallel lines marking where we've been, reflecting, as it were, the stars above.

The hum of the wind generator is the only intrusion on the silent night, but this soon blends into the constant background noise and is forgotten. If I listen intently, in the background all I can hear is the subtle sound of the breeze on the sails. This is a sound I hardly hear consciously anymore, but one I know immediately if it changes. My world is peaceful and the only sounds I hear are the familiar sounds of my little world making its way across the waters.

I look towards the helm to reassure myself. It's dark, save for a few clusters of coloured light. There's a faint orange glow from the VHF's tiny display, our constant link with the outside world around us. Slightly above and to the left emanate three squares of soft green light, these are the boat instruments, each displays a piece of information on our condition. The one on the left proudly displays “5.4” - our boat speed. A good speed given the conditions. The middle green square displays the depth. The numbers don't mean much while the little message of “LAST” flashes, reminding us that we're “Off Soundings”. We're in waters too deep to register the bottom and this too is reassuring. The right most green square displays our wind speed and wind angle. Nothing's changing tonight.

I see the gentle red glow of the illuminated compass behind the helm. As I watch, the helm moves ever so slightly as our auto pilot adjusts the wheel to keep us on course. In time with the movement of the wheel, I hear the muted whir of the hydraulics, coming to life for an instant to perform their duty, before going back to sleep until they're next called upon. All these sounds are as familiar to me now as the sounds of the refrigerator, the air conditioner or the microwave used to be.

This is my world at 2am.

Sunday 6th March 2011

After 5 days at sea and a couple more miles of travel than we'd have hoped, we've arrived safe and sound in Isla de Pinos, San Blas.

We'd heard that the trip along the Columbian coast could get rough with large seas and strong winds so we deliberately stayed a good distance offshore. The route I'd planned kept us mostly beyond the 2000m depth contour to try to minimise the large seas. As an additional aid we elected to get our daily weather reports and route recommendations from our weather advisor Herb Hilgenburg via the SSB radio. Herb gave us reliable and helpful weather advice as we sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, so given the potential for rough weather on this leg of the journey we decided to again revert to Herb for advice.

I have to admit that out of the couple of other yachts that have completed this leg of the journey, ours was by far the smoothest, if also the longest. You see the route that Herb suggested for us had us heading west along the 13o 30 N line and then turning almost directly south onto the final leg to our destination. My original route was more south westerly route which would have been about 120NM shorter, but potentially not so smooth. Despite the obvious benefit of Herb's smoother route he also kept us in a fairly strong westerly current and we covered the 750NM in five days.

Isla de Pinos, or Tupbak as it's called by the Kuna indians is a beautiful little island off the coast of Panama. Tupbak means “Whale” in the Kuna language and from a distance the island does look like a giant beached whale. We're anchored in three metres of water and are just off a beautiful white sandy beach lined with swaying palm trees. On the beach are a couple of the traditional wooden canoes that are used by the villagers. Just around the island a little bit, but still in sight, we can see a cluster of Kuna huts that the locals live in. Being here, I could easily believe that I've travelled back in time and am seeing the island just as the early explorers such as Columbus or Magellan would have found it.

Monday 7th March 2011

We went ashore for a little walk around the village and surrounds today. We dingied in and tied up at the small pier. We'd been told by a departing yacht that the Silos (island chiefs) from the surrounding islands were meeting at Tupbak for three days of talks, today being their third and final day. When we arrived in the village, we felt like we were walking in someone's back yard, all the huts were close together and everywhere we looked was someone's washing or possessions. The Kuna people appeared to be very shy of us

even though we made our best attempts to be friendly to them and to say hello when we passed. Unfortunately we didn't know how to say hello in Kuna, but many of the people here speak some Spanish, so we gave our best “Hola” whenever we came across a local. Walking through the village, weren't sure if we were welcome or not. Some people smiled a shy smile when we said hello to them, while others hurried along as if we weren't there. We walked through the village and along a small trail past a church to a cemetery.

The cemetery consisted of a number of small dirt covered graves that were sheltered from the sun by a small thatched roof. Under the thatched lean-to were a few treasured possessions such as cups, mixing bowls, a pair of crutches, a little pink child's back pack with a few toys inside. All these were left with the deceased to be of help to them in the after life.

I know I'm tall, but the Kuna people are very small and I conspicuously towered over everyone. I don't think there was a Kuna in the village that would have even come up to my shoulder. As I walked through the village, I was continually ducking under clothes lines, hut roofs and numerous other obstacles that were strung up just above the height of the Kuna's - right at chest / head level for me! Walking through their village, I feel a little like Gulliver in Lilliput!

Back on “Connect4” we had a swim and relaxed in the shade of our bimini, just enjoying the peace and tranquillity of this amazing little island. A wooden canoe approached us but held off at a slight distance until I beckoned him over. He didn't speak much English, but was very polite and managed to convey to us that he had some fresh lobsters for sale if we were interested. We looked at his collection of lobsters in the

bottom of his canoe and he offered them to us, four lobsters for $5.00 USD. Now Cheryl's a great fan of lobster, but we can rarely afford it back home, but at $5.00 for four, we decided we'd splash out. We accepted his offer for the lobsters and took our four but then with a shy smile he slipped two extra lobsters into our bucket before waving goodbye and paddling off. After our lobster salesman left, we looked at our bucket of lobsters and felt sorry for them as some of them looked quite small. In the end we kept the biggest four, but then swam the two smallest ones back to the reef on the south western corner of the island and released them to be caught another day.

Dinner tonight consisted of lobster smothered in garlic butter, baked potato and carrots. A meal fit for a king!

Tuesday 8th March 2011

Today was an amazingly rewarding day. We went into the Kuna village again today, but this time met a man called David, who spoke relatively good English. He introduced us to his family and then took us for a walk through the village and helped us buy some bread. He took us for a short walk past the village and told us the history of his island and his people, while Chelsea and Nick played soccer with his two boys on the flat grassy area nearby.

Our old guide book told us that there are two villages on this island, Mamimulu, where we're anchored and Pinos, the larger and more northern village. We asked David about Pinos as some friends that were here a couple of days before us went looking for the village when they walked around the island, but couldn't find it. David sadly recounted that a little while ago, some Columbian men arrived in Pinos with guns. As David put it “Columbian men came with great guns … big war guns. We called for the police and they came eventually, but now Pinos is no more.” Our guide book mentions that for several years in recent times Columbian contrabandistas carrying duty free consumer goods from the Colon Free Zone into Columbia would stop here to await radio word from their bosses that the coast was clear for them to enter. I can only guess at what provoked the attack on the unarmed village. David said “I thank my God we haven't had any trouble now for 12 years”.

As we were finishing our walk, David asked if we might have something on our boat to fix his leg. About a week ago, he'd slipped on some coral when he was walking his boat out into the sea and had a nasty cut on his shin. Most of it had healed up, but one part of it was open and looking quite angry. We have a fairly comprehensive first aid kit onboard “Connect4” so were only to glad to help. I went back to the boat and selected some things that I would need, then we all went back into the village. I cleaned David's sore out, applied some topical cream then bandaged the wound. I left him my tube of Bactroban with instructions to clean and apply this three times a day for six days. I also left him some clean dressings, tape and everything else he'd need to look after his wound. We also gave him what was left of our

container of Dettol with instructions on how and when to use it. I guess he was pretty happy with my treatment because next he beckoned me inside his house where he introduced me to his mother-in-law who was lying in a hammock and looking pretty unwell. Between asking her questions through David and checking her out myself, it appeared she'd been unwell for about 3 days with what I decided was something like a common cold. David asked if we had anything to make her well. I told him the best thing for her was rest and to drink a nice hot cup of honey and lemon. I gave her some panadol to help take the pain away from her sore throat and told her I'd check on her tomorrow. Next came David's sister-in-law. I was beginning to wonder if this would ever end. I'm no Doctor, my only training is as an ambulance officer which is primarily first aid and trauma, not diagnosis and cure. David explained that a while ago his sister-in-law had a kidney stone removed via key hole surgery. He showed me the two marks on her tummy where they had made the small incisions, then explained that the third was in her belly button and that one wasn't healing up. I donned some more gloves and had a look, but couldn't see any sign of a weeping sore or anything that would give me a clue that the sore wasn't healing. It was a little unclean in her belly button, so I advised that she should mix up a small solution of the Dettol we'd given David and clean her belly button out with this once a day and see how she goes.

Thinking I was about done here, I made to leave, but David stopped me and brought out his father-in-law. David explained that his father-in-law was having some constipation problems and wondered if we had anything for him. I spoke to his father-in-law through David and asked a few more questions. Onboard “Connect4” we do have some medicine for constipation, so I went back to the boat and returned a little while later with a couple of tablets that we use for constipation. I checked with him again that he was having problems with constipation, but I thought for a moment by his actions that he was trying to describe that he was having lower back pain. I queried him again with help from David, then just to be sure that they both understood that I was talking about constipation, I did my best mime of a guy having serious constipation problems. This brought the whole family out into shrieks of laughter as I stood there slightly red faced. The father-in-law quietly agreed that this was indeed his problem, so I gave him a small supply of Coloxyl and told him to only take one a night.

As I was preparing to leave again, David quietly asked if I might happen to have something onboard that I could use to help repair his canoe. We inspected the wooden canoe and he pointed to a couple of places that had cracked and let in some water. I could see this wasn't the first time the canoe has been repaired as I could see a couple of previous epoxy fills and even some fibreglass matting. I readily agreed and promised I'd be back tomorrow afternoon.

Back onboard “Connect4” we talked about how much fun we'd had in the village today and how all the people seem more easy to smile at us and have accepted us now that we've helped them.

Wednesday 9th March 2011

Nick and I went into town this afternoon to visit David and repair his wooden dug-out canoe. Armed with our fibreglass repair kit and some tools, we set to work scraping out the old tar from the bottom of the canoe until we could see the cracks and see where the water was leaking through. We scraped the wood back until we had nice hard, dry timber, then we plugged the holes with chopped up fibreglass matting before covering the whole section with epoxy to make a good waterproof seal. After an hour or two's work we'd finally plugged and glassed all the leaks and were just sitting back admiring our work when David asked if we could look at his father-in-law's canoe.

We wandered along the beach a little, then stopped at the most beat up canoe on the island. I stared in dismay at a large crack that ran from the very tip of the canoe, down the front bow and along the middle of the canoe, below the waterline. I could see daylight through that crack! Looking at the damage, I could see the remains of some old aluminium plate that had been nailed on to hold the split together years earlier, but that was now perished. I didn't want to disappoint David, but the outcome wasn't looking good for this old boat. David set too and hammered some pieces of wood into the crack while Nick and I packed in some chopped strands of fibreglass to fill the smaller cracks around the timber.

After a couple of hours of repairing canoes, Nick and I were hot and tired and getting very hungry, so we headed back to “Connect4” for lunch and a rest. David walked with us and took us via the chief's house, something we'd been wanting to do for a since arriving here in Tupbak. We were ushered into a small thatched hut and there we met the chief, swinging gently in a hammock. After introductions were done, David explained that the chief was also sick, like his mother-in-law, so asked if perhaps I could look at him later. We readily agreed, and after a few more words were exchanged in Kuna, we said our farewell and left.

In the afternoon, we packed up all the pairs of glasses that were bought and donated and took them all into the village. David helped set up a small table out the front of his house and pretty soon we had a mass of old ladies and men milling around, talking excitedly and trying on various glasses. Watching the expressions on the old ladies faces as they tried on different glasses and finally found a pair that worked for them was priceless. I stood near the table and helped pass different glasses to the ladies to try on, conspicuously towering over their small frames. Every lady was visibly excited when she found a pair of glasses that fitted her, however there are a few that stood out in my mind. One small, traditionally dressed lady was trying on the different glasses when she found one pair that worked well for her. She was so excited that she grabbed her friend and exchanged a rapid flurry of conversation in Kuna.

With a tear in her eye, her friend handed her a small needle and thread and with trembling hands threaded the needle. The smile on her face left no doubt that this was a grand achievement for her. She turned her friend to face her and quickly grabbed the little lady's blouse. Holding a handful of her friend's blouse in her knotted fingers, she carefully placed a beautiful line of stitches along a seam of the blouse. The wonder of the change that we'd instigated in this lady's life, by giving her a simple pair of glasses brought a tear to my eye. In turn the needle and thread was passed around many of the other ladies, each taking a turn to try to thread it with their new glasses. The people here, although initially shy, laugh easily. One lady was trying on different pairs of glasses and was

placing a pair on her nose, then another on her forehead and was switching between the two. I couldn't resist myself, so I quickly picked up another three pairs of glasses and carefully placed these on the lady's head so that she had 5 pairs of glasses stacked up from her nose to the crown of her head. This action brought immediate peels of laughter from her friends who ribbed her over the event. For me, I got my first eye contact from this lady, and a smile that told me I was welcomed and accepted.

We distributed all but two pairs of glasses from the twenty five or so pairs that we'd brought with us. As the crowd started to disburse, David caught my arm and motioned me towards the chief who was sitting out the front on an old plastic chair, under the shade of the hut. I went over to the chief and with David translating for me, I enquired of him what was making him sick. Kneeling in front of him, I listened to his breathing, took his pulse and blood pressure and checked him over as thoroughly as I could. Not being a doctor, the best I could offer him was rest, hot honey and lemon for his throat and some ibuprofen to help lower his temperature and ease his discomfort.

The chief thanked me and then quietly shuffled away back to his house. I watched him wandering off slowly towards his home, thinking of how these people must view us white people who in comparison are so different in lifestyle, assets and resources. As I turned slowly back towards the chair to gather my things I was eye to eye with traditionally dressed lady who was now sitting in the chair looking for all intents and purposes like she was waiting for something magical to happen. I looked blankly first at the lady then at David thinking that perhaps this chair belonged to the lady now sitting in it, and with the chief recently displaced, she was again claiming what was rightfully hers. David looked at me and motioned to the BP cuff intimating that the lady would also like me to take her blood pressure. My BP cuff was almost too large for the lady's fine arm which was significantly smaller than my Chelsea's 12 year old arm.

After I took the lady's blood pressure, she got up and left, then another filled her seat. This continued on for about half a dozen people until finally the seat remained empty and the people disbursed. One thing that amazed me was the constantly low blood pressure of the people here, and how healthy their vital signs were. Even the chief, who was the oldest and probably the one that carried the most responsibility had a blood pressure of 115/70.

Back on Connect4, we saw “Steel Sapphire” come into the bay along with another Australian boat called “Sequel”. We had them all over for a quiet drink and for a catch up on their journey since we last saw them.

Thursday 10th March 2011

This morning we had a visit from David's family. The father-in-law, along with David, his son and wife and his sister-in-law all came out to “Connect4” in their family dug-out canoe. We gave them a tour around “Connect4” acutely aware of the relative opulence we live in, compared to their dirt floor hut. They were amazed at our

running water and the size of our bedrooms onboard. Although there was quite a communication gap, the adults sat in the cockpit and enjoyed some cold drinks and chips, while John-David, the little boy played happily with Chelsea and Nick on the trampolines. David's wife presented Cheryl with a beautiful Molar that she'd made for Cheryl as a gift. She was short a couple of pieces of thread to complete it, so she asked if we had any spare thread. Cheryl brought out her sewing kit and David's wife sat in the corner of the cockpit happily sewing the last threads onto the Molar. Before the family left, David's father-in-law took off his reading glasses and asked me if I could repair them for him.

We unwrapped the cotton that was tightly wound over the bridge and inspected the old man's glasses which had snapped cleanly right down the middle of the bridge. I took his glasses and told him that I'd give it a good try, but that I couldn't promise anything. He gratefully accepted my offer and after the troupe had left, I started work on repairing the glasses. Being an older style, heavy framed pair of glasses, I decided to try to repair them with some fibreglass and epoxy. First I wrapped the broken part of the glasses with long strands of fibreglass that I pulled off the ends of a sheet I had. I mixed up a small quantity of epoxy and loaded it into a small syringe. With the syringe I slowly soaked the glass with the epoxy then set the glasses to cure.

We went ashore with “Steel Sapphire” and with David acting as volunteer guide, we set off walking around the island, staying mainly on the coast, but diverting inland a little when the terrain got too rough. The island is beautiful with swaying yellow and green palm trees nestled in clumps next to magnificent white sandy beaches that stretch on forever.

As we walked around the island David pointed out different landmarks and explained the history of the island. For centuries the 400 foot high island served as a landfall for mariners of both good and bad dispositions. The protected, but easily accessed anchorage on the south western side of the island made the perfect base for the buccaneers working the Spanish Main, especially the gold handling ports. Years later, New England schooners made landfall here in Tupbak to buy coconuts which were a good source of oil for many domestic uses.

In more recent times the Columbian contrabandistas used the island as a place to hide until the coast was clear to run their illegal goods into their various destinations. David explained that not long ago a Columbian drug running ship sank off the coast and quite a quantity of cocaine was washed up on the shores of Tupbak.

On the far side of the island, we saw a canoe that had been hewn out of what the locals call the “Easy” tree. This tree is straight and strong but the outside bark is covered in big spikes that look quite formidable. The almost completed canoe was resting on two round timber logs sitting quietly in the shade of a palm tree. David explained to us that this was a new canoe the chief was building. It takes on average 4 months of

work to make a canoe and this one is almost complete. The chief is almost ready to bring it around to the village to paint and finish it, but at this time of year the waves on the windward side of the island are too large for him to paddle through, so he has to wait another 2-3 months for the waves to subside a little.

Back on “Connect4” I checked that the epoxy on the glasses had cured hard before I set upon the repaired glasses with my little Turkish “Dremmel” tool. Grinding away the excess epoxy and glass threads I reshaped the bridge of the glasses back to as neat an arch as I could manage. I finished off the glasses with a gentle sanding then we went back into town to deliver the glasses and take a couple more photos of David's family. The father-in-law had asked via David if we would mind taking a couple more photographs of him and the family, so that when he “is gone” they can still have a photograph to remember him by.

Walking through town this time, I felt part of the village. John-David came running up to me and asked to be picked up. As I walked, a couple of little girls waved a “Hola” to me from behind the doorway of their hut before giggling and hiding back inside, only to re-emerge a few seconds later. At David's hut I was greeted by his mother-in-law, Ruedelinda, who was up and walking around and looking much better than the other day. I checked her glands in her neck and was pleased to note that they were no longer swollen. I gestured to her with hand motions and my best “pokito” (little) bit of Spanish that it was good to see her standing up rather than lying in bed. She smiled and caught me off guard when she grabbed me and gave me a big hug. I caught up with Emily who is a beautiful but shy little girl. She came over to me and gave me a hug, so I picked her up and gave her a cuddle. All the children

here are so small and light. She had a little bag of coloured blocks, which she was carrying tied around her waist. I took a handful of the blocks out and pointed to each of them in turn. As I pointed to the first one, I said “Blue”. I pointed to the next one and looked at her enquiringly. She replied in a very timid voice “Greeeeen”, then smiled a shy smile. I praised her with “Bien” (good) and her whole face lit up with the praise. As I pointed to the next couple of blocks in turn she quietly told me their colours in English. David had told me he'd been teaching her English as well as Kuna and Spanish and she was pronouncing her words very well, so was such a delight.

With the photographs done and the glasses returned to the father-in-law, I made my way back to the dingy feeling very much at home in the village and with these beautiful people. On the way back I was approached by two ladies who gestured that they would like to see my glasses. I showed them the remaining two pairs of glasses, one of which had a broken arm. They tried them on in turn and then took turns trying to thread a needle with some cotton. Both ladies were very excited to see that the remaining two pairs of glasses worked for both of them. I left one pair of glasses with the ladies, and took the remaining broken pair back with me to “Connect4” to fix.

This evening we went ashore with a new Canadian kid boat called “Discovery”. We had a bonfire on the sandy spit and even set off some fireworks that I'd bought in Martinique and kept hidden aboard. Fireworks for Australians are a big novelty as we're not allowed to buy them in Australia for personal use. “Steel Sapphire”, “Sequel” and “Evita” all joined us and we had a great relaxing time chatting amongst ourselves as the eight strong tribe of children took off exploring, running and playing around the palm trees and through the mangroves.

Friday 11th March 2011

Today was our last day at Isla de Pinos, and we were just sitting onboard “Connect4” preparing for our upcoming passage and giving the children school work when we had another visit from David and his family. An hour or so before, we'd had a message from another cruiser who was in the village earlier. David had asked him if he could request that we come into town earlier rather than later in the afternoon as we'd originally planned. We couldn't work out why, but since I still hadn't finished repairing the glasses with the broken arm, nor had the children finished their school work, we decided to wait a little longer so we could combine the trip. We heard a knock on our hull and came up to see David and his family sitting in their canoe. We invited them aboard and David informed us that his father-in-law had prepared a lunch for us, but that we'd not turned up! Feeling very embarrassed we apologised profusely. David had brought a couple of coconuts with him and his wife asked if she would be allowed to teach Cheryl how to make the traditional Kuna coconut rice. We readily agreed and soon we were all enjoying a fantastic mid afternoon snack of Kuna coconut rice. As David and his family left, they asked that we come ashore immediately. Not wanting to miss out twice in a row, we followed them ashore and were met by the father-in-law, “Marcelliano” who sat us down, as his guests, at a little outdoor table and served us some cold drinks, then brought out a traditional Kuna meal of cooked fish and fire cooked plantain which was a wonderful treat. As we ate, the family stood around and watched us eat, telling us that they would eat later. This wasn't something we felt very comfortable about. It's a strange feeling to be guests, eating at someone's house while they stand and watch. Still, I suppose it was a thing that wasn't so unusual to them, so we tried to eat with as much grace as we could and convey our appreciation in our best “Spanglish” we could muster.

After we'd finished our wonderful meals, Yanuris, (David's wife) took Cheryl and Chelsea into their bedroom house and dressed them up in the traditional Kuna clothing. When they emerged, they looked like … ummm … well they were certainly dressed in traditional Kuna clothing, but Cheryl and Chelsea wore their traditional clothing a lot “shorter”. Truthfully, they looked like Kuna's crossed with the legendary Amazon women because they towered over Yanuris and Rachael, but their clothes weren't any larger. While I don't think we could have passed these “giants” off as Kuna's, it was still fun seeing them get dressed up.

Saturday 12th March 2011

We departed Isla de Pinos this morning in company with Sequel, Steel Sapphire and Discovery and headed to the island of Atitupu, a distance of around 17NM. We arrived in the early afternoon and enjoyed a swim after anchoring. While the sailing distance was only short, we had to program in at least 15 waypoints to navigate us around all the coral reefs and sand bars that litter this chain of islands. The sail was very busy because we always needed somebody on deck watching for sand bars and reefs, and another on the helm watching the depth because although we'd programmed in all the waypoints from the charts we had, the surveys of this area are notoriously unreliable, so we had to watch continuously.

Anchored in a beautiful corner of Atitupu's bay, just off a magnificent sandy beach, we were inundated with curious Kuna people in their little canoes. Some came to visit us, offering for us to buy their molas, while others just came for a look and would turn up smiling and staring. Since we couldn't speak Kuna, conversation was limited to a few Spanish words – so they would sit and look at our yacht and we'd sit and smile, patiently waiting for them to finish looking and head off.

Some of the molas were beautiful, and Cheryl bought two or three from different ladies. Some ladies seemed to bring an endless supply of molas, and no sooner had you said “No gracias” to one, than another two were thrust into your hands. In the end though, the experience was a pleasant one and we got some good souvenirs from the San Blas islands.

Some children came out in a couple of canoes and stayed hovering around “Connect4” watching Chelsea and Claire of “Discovery” jumping off the boat and swimming around. Even when the girls went inside, the boat loads of children clung to the sides of “Connect4”, peering in the port holes trying to glimpse a view of our world. After about 2 hours of peering and clinging on, we decided to politely try to give them the hint that we'd like them to move on. With a polite request and a wave, they got the message and moved off, leaving poor “Connect4” with black scuff marks all the way down both her hulls, from the tar they paint their canoes with.

Sunday 13th March 2011

We only had an overnight stop in Atitupu, because we had to keep moving, so early Sunday morning we hauled anchor again, and set off to a small sandy island bay called Snug Harbour. We sailed in company with Steel Sapphire and Discovery and since we had the shallowest draft, we were elected by the others to be the first to navigate the reef system – nice guys eh? The charts in this area are notoriously unreliable and my navigation software simply shows the whole of the eastern part of the San Blas islands as “uncharted”. Between a couple of cruising guides and the little information we could glean from the navigation software I'd plotted a route in between the island reefs.

As we lined up on autopilot for entry into the narrow deep water pass that would take us safely into the harbour I noticed that we were heading directly for the middle of a small island. We pondered this for a minute and discussed our options as we slowly drew closer to the shoreline. We decided to abort the autopilot approach, clearly our charts and guides were incorrect. Cheryl took the helm and I put the autopilot into standby then went up to the bow to spot the reefs. Standing on the deck, with the sun high in the sky, I could make out the entrance to the harbour a couple of hundred metres to our port, so we turned “Connect4” left and motored slowly towards what we believed was the narrow entrance. We radioed the other boats of our intention and our aborted first approach, then heard a frantic call from Discovery that they had bumped a reef and were warning Steel Sapphire to turn hard left to avoid the same reef. Fortunately, the warning came in time and Steel Sapphire came through unscathed. Discovery only grazed the reef came away with nothing more than a little paint scratched off her keel.

It turns out that on our first approach using the calculated waypoints, we'd slipped nicely between two unmarked and unseen reefs, then turned left just through them as we took over hand steering to correct our course. I guess someone was watching out for us today! We slowly wound our way through the narrow inlet in approximately 9-12 metres of water, with reefs and sand bars on either side.

Safely inside the reefs, we found a beautiful anchorage and settled ourselves in among a couple of other yachts. The small sandy islands fringed with palm trees are so beautiful. They look like something out of a movie or a painting. As I sit on the bow of “Connect4” it's almost so perfect, so surreal that I have trouble believing it's real. I sort of wait to see the palm trees are plastic, or there's some resort just past the palms, with roads and tourists and traffic.

Tuesday 15th March 2011

We arrived in Nargana, Rio Diablo and now I know where the “other” side of the beautiful San Blas Islands is hidden. This is a town that has forgone the traditional Kuna way of life – much to their detriment. They are no longer ruled by the Silas (or island chief. While some of the people here dress in traditional Kuna ways, many of them wear designer jeans, trendy name brand caps turned sideways and every house has a TV blaring. The myriad of concrete shack like houses all squeezed along the water's edge, right to the water, while further in the houses are made of bamboo, timber, plastic and cardboard. To walk around the village gives you a sense that these people aspire for something western, but haven't quite realised that in obtaining it, they're selling out their own culture. In my opinion, this is a classic example that highlights the grass isn't always greener on the other side. They village all looks dirty and very run down. They have built the concrete houses, but now they don't maintain them. The iron bars on the windows are rusted and the paint has flaked off. All along the outskirts of the village, the rubbish is piled up, littering the rocky waterfront. The rubbish is predominantly plastic. Plastic bottles, broken plastic chairs, broken plastic TV cases. They don't have the facilities to dispose of this kind of rubbish, so they leave it lying around. There's a small uninhabited section of marsh land 200m across the water from the village. Here they've taken their bags of rubbish and piled them up in the shallow marshes.  Dumped.

We came to the Nargana primarily to stock up on some vegetables and meat as we were just about out of both. We managed to buy some things, but most of what we wanted we couldn't get.

The Rio Diablo river is meant to be spectacular, so we arranged for a trip up the river. We'd considered just going up with our dingy, but since the outboard was playing up and having trouble engaging into forward gear. Not wanting to have to reverse the dingy all the way up the “Devil's river” we decided to go with a guide in his boat. In the village we met Fredericko and enquired about a trip up the river. He advised us that he was a good guide and spoke good English. He told us that it would cost $60 for the trip and that he would take us wherever we wanted and for as long as we wanted. Basically, he was ours for the day. We went back to the others and discussed the proposal among the other yachts. Everyone was happy to give the river trip a try, so we went back into town and found Fredericko at a local bar with his friends. We told him that there was a couple of yachts that wanted to come as well and he was happy to fill the boat and for us to split the cost. We agreed that we would use him and he asked for $30 up front as a deposit. I found this a little surprising, but he quickly explained that he needed to get fuel for his boat and to prepare things.

The next morning came and we were all picked up, although Fredericko looked a little under the weather. It must have been a big night out for him, we were only hoping our $30 deposit wasn't a contributor! In total there were 12 of us and we set off up the river excited to see the white faced monkeys and the Armadillos that we'd read were in the river ares. We'd got approximately ½ mile up the river when the first signs of trouble appeared. The outboard engine started coughing and spluttering, then it died completely. Fredericko and his assistant spent a long 10 minutes pulling the cord to start the Yamaha engine, but to no avail, as we drifted helplessly across the river and into the mangroves. Trying to help, I picked up the fuel can and was surprised to feel that it was almost empty! This wasn't a good start to the day. The fuel tank was down to the dregs and we'd only just started up the river!!??? I was getting more and more sure with each passing minute that my “fuel money” paid the other night hadn't reached the fuel can. After several more minutes of frantic pumping of the fuel bulb and pulling the starter cord, the outboard reluctantly spluttered to life again and we were off. This lasted approximately 30 seconds before once again dying. They pumped the fuel bulb some more and coaxed the outboard back to life a third time and we were off up the river again. We repeated this process a number of times more before pulling into the right hand side of the river bank some 10 minutes later.

Fredericko unloaded us and then asked us what we wanted to do. We found this a little amusing as we assumed HE was the guide and HE would take us to see the sights of the jungle. We explained to him that we wanted to see the white faced monkeys, hike through some of the rainforest jungle and walk up to the waterfall as we'd discussed the night before. Fredericko quickly set off along the jungle trail away from the river and we followed close behind him. We were watching for white faced monkeys and Armadillos with expectancy, but didn't see anything. We came across a double grave that was encased in concrete and that had a concrete cross at the head, so I asked Fredericko who the grave was for, thinking it must have been somebody important, since it was quite grand. He waved to the grave and replied “some people buried there!” then continued with the walk.

After about 10 minutes of walking we stopped in a little clearing and he asked us how much further we wanted to walk. We said we would like to walk to see the monkeys and the waterfall. He waved his arms in a grand expression and said “waterfall is too far, it is far far away”. Enquiring about the white faced monkeys Fredericko duly informed us that they didn't live around the river system here, but only came down for a month a year to eat the ripe fruit and that we'd probably not want to see them anyway as they throw food and sticks at you from the trees. This trip was turning out to be a disappointment. We asked if we could walk on a little further, so once again, Fredericko set off in the lead, walking us along the track but not doing much else. After another couple of minutes, he stopped and asked us how much further we wanted to walk. We were getting the distinct impression that he didn't want to keep walking. Reluctantly and very disappointedly we turned around and walked back to the river. At the river we stopped and ate out lunches and enjoyed a refreshing swim in the river. The children climbed a fallen tree and took turns jumping from the branches into the river while the adults sat around and chatted.

During lunch, Fredericko sided up to Cheryl and asked her if we could arrange a payment for Fredericko as the $60 was only for the hire of his friend's boat and fuel and didn't include his services as a guide. I'm very proud to say that my very non confrontational Cheryl stood her ground admirably and politely explained to Fredericko that when we asked him how much the trip up the river would cost, that was the time he should have informed us of his costs as a guide, not now. She explained to him that we'd all agreed on a price and this was the price we were paying. Reluctantly he walked off.

Back in the boat, we headed off out the river, but not before the engine died once again. We were motoring along slowly with the driver furiously pumping the fuel bulb and throttling the engine to keep it from stalling, but the further we went the more we could hear terrible sounds coming from the outboard, sounds like there wasn't any oil in the engine or worse. The sounds got louder and louder, but our driver continued on, ignorant of the noises that had the rest of us cringing. Without warning the engine stopped suddenly and when the driver tried to restart the engine, he found he couldn't even pull the starter cord – the engine was seized. This feeling of deja vu overcame us as we once again found ourselves drifting helplessly along the river and into the marshes without a working engine. As luck would have it, after about 5 minutes a yachtie couple came along in a dingy which we managed to wave down. Valiantly, they took our painter and their little dingy slowly towed Fredericko's big boat back along the river and then over the sand bar and back to “Connect4” where we offloaded all the passengers and bade goodbye to Fredericko and floating disaster tour boat. We were saddened to see that Fredericko never even said thank you to the couple who towed his boat all the way out of the Rio Diablo, so we offered them our heartiest thanks and $10 for the fuel. They accepted the thanks, but declined the money – what a great couple. As for the great trip up the mighty Rio Diablo – the saving grace for the trip was that if nothing else, it's made a good story to write about.

Thursday 24th March 2011

As I write this blog, we're sitting on the boat in Portabelo, Panama. The last week has flown by so quickly and it's only now that we've left the San Blas Islands that I have time to stop and put down on paper the last

segments of our trip through the beautiful San Blas Islands. Since we left Nargana in the San Blas, we sailed to the East Holandes Cays and then the Lemmon Cays. Both places were beautiful and were sandy atolls fringed with reefs on the outside and palm trees on the inside. The Holandes were relaxing we had the pleasure of the company of a turtle that swam near out boat a number of times. We went snorkelling in a shallow pass between two islands and discovered a strong current that raced us back into the leeward side of the islands. It was so very hard snorkelling against the current and a number of times we had to stand up in the 1m deep channel to rest, bracing ourselves so that we wouldn't get swept away! However, when we finally reached the middle of the channel and turned around, we enjoyed an exhilarating ride back over the small reef and into the quiet waters of the island sanctuary.

Lemmon Cays were a highlight for us, not because it was a particularly spectacular place to stop or because the locals were special, but simply put, because they had a bar with internet! I never thought I'd say that one of the high priorities of my sailing adventure would be to get internet, but there you go, we've done it. We went to an island just so we could check our emails. The internet here was $3.00 per hour, but we didn't mind as it was a satellite connection. Between our accounts, we downloaded over 180 emails and I even had the pleasure of checking the bank balance to realise we'd once again depleted our cruising funds, so had to transfer some more money over.

While at the Lemmon Cays we met our pushiest and rudest Mola seller yet. Most of the Kuna's we'd met selling wares were very friendly and when they approached your boat, they were very keen to show you what they had made and to offer it for sale, but once you said “No Gracias” (No thankyou) they would politely pack up and leave. This lady was the exception! She was rude and very pushy.

The first I heard of this lady visiting was when Cheryl called me up on deck. I'd just finished diving on the anchor and was tidying up the ropes after our sail in when I heard Cheryl calling to me. I quickly came to see what the commotion was and there was Cheryl - standing on the lower step of the back transom holding this poor Kuna lady's only paddle and watching with an evil sense of satisfaction as the helpless Kuna lady, her canoe and her bundle of precious molas were all getting rapidly swept out towards the open sea. As I stood there, Cheryl heaved the paddle at this lady's head and fortunately for the lady, she missed. I watched the scenario unfold as the canoe and the paddle both drifted further and further away; the paddle always remaining just out of reach of the poor Kuna woman who was sitting mollified in her canoe. I looked at Cheryl puzzled, then dove into the water swimming quickly to get this lady's paddle before it was too late. I retrieved the paddle and quickly swam it her canoe as we drifted further away. Instead of saying thankyou for my assistance in saving her life, not to mention her precious mola collection, she simply handed me her painter and sat back waiting for me to swim her and her canoe back to “Connect4”. This was getting weird. I resigned myself to fate and taking her painter I started stroking hard back towards our boat. Once there Cheryl took her painter and tied her securely to the stern of “Connect4”.

Ok … so you want to hear the real story now? I'm not denying the facts of what I saw and what happened, however after getting the whole story from Cheryl, the truth was a little different to what I saw. Apparently this lady paddled out, rather incompetently, to “Connect4” and botched up the final approach with her dingy turning sideways and getting blown away from “Connect4”. Cheryl tried to help and held her hand out to the lady to pull her in, however being out of reach, the lady extended her paddle to Cheryl which she grabbed and which the lady promptly let go of. Cheryl tried to throw her the paddle, but it fell short and hence the scenario I saw.

No sooner had Cheryl tied off the painter and I'd climbed back aboard than this pushy lady took it upon herself to climb up onto our boat with her molas and start trying to sell them to us. Normally the Kuna's have a fair degree of respect and won't come aboard unless we invite then, however this lady wasn't one to stand on politeness or respect. She changed boats like a rat off a sinking ship and suddenly there we were, being hassled to buy her molas. We looked at them and they were all of a very poor quality. Besides this, we'd already bought as many molas as we wanted so we declined. Trying to get rid of the lady however was another matter completely. It kind of made us wish that we'd just let her drift off – well not really, but perhaps just a little.

After visiting our boat, this lady tried to pedal her wares on “Bondi Tram”, a fellow Aussie boat that was anchored near us. He had a similar experience to us with this pushy lady, however he gave her the message to leave his boat when he took it upon himself to start hosing down the deck with his pressure hose. She quickly collected her molas and left.

From the Lemmon Cays, we sailed to Porvenir, a tiny island where we could check into Panama and get our outrageously expensive cruising permit. We sailed in company with “Steel Sapphire” and arrived just after lunch. We decided to do our check in together as often it's quicker and easier if there are more of you there. Similarly, you don't tend to get ripped off as much if you check in in company. For the boat we paid $193.00 for a 12 month cruising permit, even though we were only here a couple of weeks. We then had to pay for the Zarpe for Colon and all up our check in cost $229.50 including the cruising permit. We were directed to immigration where we paid $50.00 to get our passports stamped and were given a $30.00 receipt. This happens frequently when an official is skimming a little money off the top for himself. I asked the official why the receipt was for $30.00 when he charged us $50.00. He stated that today was a holiday in Panama because somebody died, so the $20.00 was his overtime rate. Great! I wish he'd informed us of this “holiday” before we checked in and we could have waited a day. From immigration, we were directed to another office where the lady proceeded to write out a receipt for $24 for anchoring. Glenn & Lynn off “Steel Sapphire” had been stung with this fee just before us, so I quickly told the lady “No Anchoring – I'm leaving!” She looked blankly at me for a minute and I repeated it again with a little more force. She said “Si” (yes), so I smiled, wished her a goodbye and walked out. In many of the smaller islands we've been asked for $10 to allow us to anchor and walk around their island, but never $24. We set off to Chichime, a small island only 4NM from Porvenir and motored into a 20 knot headwind the whole way. We dropped anchor in Chichime's small bay which was open to the north and so had to put up with a 20 knot wind all night, blowing us towards the shore. Not the best place to anchor, but we let our lots of chain and I dove on the anchor to hand set it and to make sure it had bit in well. One positive about the water here was that it was crystal clear and I could see the anchor even though it was in 10m of water.

The night in Chichime was uneventful with the exception that we had two canoes, loaded with families who came to visit us. They pulled along side and after asking if we wanted to buy molas, they then asked if we had any water. The guy in one canoe held up a big can and asked if we could fill it. We're running pretty low on water at the moment, having switched to our last tank about a week ago, so we said sorry, but we couldn't really spare the water. He then pulled out a slightly smaller container and asked again. This repeated itself a number of times until finally Cheryl accepted his little 1.5ltr water container and went below to fill it. When she returned, she was then asked if she could charge the Kuna's mobile phones. From in the canoe, they produced two mobile phones and held them out, along with chargers and adaptors for the different plug types. We took their two phones and plugged them in, laughing at the incredulity of the scene. Here were these people, living in grass huts on a small coconut island. They are subsistence farmers. They have little of anything. They row leaky wooden canoes, but they come to the westerners and ask if we can charge their cell phones.

Saturday 26th March 2011

Today wasn't such a good day for me. It started with a dull pain in my right kidney and almost immediately I recognised what it was – and it wasn't good. Over the years I've had a couple of kidney stones and they're not fun. The good news is that most of them pass naturally after a while. When the pain starts, I try to ignore it for a few hours because sometimes it goes away again, but if it doesn't, then once it reaches the point of being almost unbearable, then I reluctantly consent to being taken to the hospital where they hook me up to a drip to fill me full of fluids and give me some pain relief. Truth be told, I don't like hospitals and I like needles even less, so I try to avoid the place as much as possible. In a place like Colón there was no way I was consenting to going to hospital unless it became a matter of life and death. Secretly I harboured a fear that if I went to a hospital in Colón it might just become that. Knowing that the best thing I could do was to get the fluid intake way up, I started drinking glass after glass of water, until I felt like I was going to burst.

The pain came and went in waves but slowly got ever stronger and I drank another glass of water and tried lying down and sleeping it off, but it didn't work. I couldn't get comfortable and I was getting irritated more and more by the touch of the sheets on my skin. I balled up my fist and tried massaging my lower back, but that didn't work either. At this point in time I wasn't sure if it was the pain driving me, of the knowledge of what I was in for next that was getting me so frustrated and impatient but everything was annoying me and getting me frustrated. I got up out of bed and started pacing on deck. Walking around sometimes helps, so I paced for what seemed like an hour as the waves of pain kept surfacing and receding. Walking helped take the edge off the pain, so I walked until I was fearful of wearing a groove in the deck of “Connect4”. Somewhere in the middle of the walking my clothing was irritating me something terrible; just the touch of my clothing on my skin was making me cringe and making my skin crawl. My shorts were too tight, my t-shirt too constrictive, and everything was too itchy. I raced below and stripped off my clothes, choosing instead the loosest pair of boxer shorts I could find and going back up on deck to pace some more; another glass of water in hand.

As the pain got worse, I could feel myself weakening and fearing that this could become a long night I came and talked to Cheryl about it – I needed some options and some external help. We're pretty self sufficient here on “Connect4” and the immediate need was to keep the fluids up and to manage the pain. Taking strong drugs is not something done lightly, nor something we like to do, but we needed to have options if I decided the pain was too much. Since there was only the two of us, we needed to make a plan and get it in place before it was needed. Even though I was sweating with the pain and feeling dizzy, I unlocked the drug box and took out an ampule of Morphine and an ampule of Maxalon (an anti-nausia drug used in conjunction with Morphine). I got out some needles and syringes and laid them all out in order on the nav for Cheryl. Together, between pacings, we checked the drugs, the dosages, the frequency and revised how they were to be administered. It was important that Cheryl was confident that she had understood everything. I forced another glass of water into myself and quickly went back on deck to continue my pacing.

I don't remember how long I paced for, but I do remember that at one point it started raining. The rain felt cold on my bare skin and washed away my sweat. At one stage I remember starting to shiver, but the colder I got, the less the pain seemed to bother me, so I kept pacing in my boxers, enjoying the feel of the rain falling on mu skin. I must have looked a sight. A little while later, after another wave of pain had just receded, I took a break from pacing and rested up, waiting for the next wave to start again, but it never came. I felt my side – I still felt tender and raw, but the dark pain, the throbbing pain from deep inside that you can't reach with your hands never returned. I waited another 10 minutes before coming back inside, then lay down for a rest. Sometime later I got up and thanked Cheryl for all her help with putting up with me while I was in pain then I packed away the drugs and needles and syringes, glad we didn't need them.

Sunday 27th March 2011

Well we're in Colón. We arrived last Friday and I have to say that the place lives up to its namesake. It really is the “tail end” of the world. We're anchored out the front of the old Club Nautico yacht club, which is pretty much no more. They still charge $5.00 per day to leave your dingy there, but provide no other services. The anchorage is very rolly with tug boats working the busy harbour and even a few ferry boats that try to give us the hint to move when they weave between the anchored yachts at speed, sending out large wakes that make the anchored yachts bounce and roll in a most impolite manner.

My anchor chain and snubber line are green, smelly and foul and I don't even want to think of what the bottom of “Connect4” will look like when we finally get away from this place. We're working on getting through the Panama Canal as soon as we can, but somehow I doubt it'll be as soon as we'd like.