Captain Debbie and her husband / First Mate Wayne were a blonde haired, blue-eyed easygoing couple in their early 50s. They met when they were just 23 and had backpacked the world together. In 2004 they bought a boat called Sunshine, packed up their comfortable home in South Africa and set off towards Brazil with the idea of sailing throughout the Caribbean for a year. They haven’t been home since. Together they have clocked up more than 10 years experience and 35,000 sea miles.
Ilean (pronounced Eileen) is a hardened 54-foot racing yacht that’s been around the block a few times. She’s a very simple boat with no bells & whistles. There were enough beds and hanging cots to sleep up to 12 people. No shower: Just a whoofy marine toilet & an out-of-action washbasin.
She also had no autopilot, which means someone always needed to be at the helm. While this is a romantic notion, it can be impractical. It meant we would need to take turns at hand-steering so Deb could get some rest. Most of us saw this as less of a problem and more of a wicked opportunity!
The galley was small and lacked a lot of basic cooking utensils but it did have a well-stocked pantry. Although it was clear the shopping had been done by an aging white man. There were lots of white bread, pasta and 2 minute noodles.
We spent our first night on the boat in Portabello harbour. We had a few drinks and I, as one of the self-appointed cooks, made us a big tomato sauce pasta for dinner. We got a ‘relatively’ early night with the aim of setting sail early in the morning.
“Trade winds” are strong & consistent winds which blow in a north easterly direction in this part of the world. It makes for favourable conditions if you’re sailing downwind, which in heading south to Colombia, we were.
However, the seas were really rough & choppy that day, and so we stopped after only a couple of hours in Puerto Lindo – essentially to wait for calmer conditions. We also took the opportunity to have lunch and a swim at one of the nearby islands.
As the sun was sinking into the sea, we set off again. Our Captain’s thinking being that if we were going to be motoring in rough seas – best to do it at night when we could, in theory, sleep and then – when we woke up, we would do so in paradise.
The wind and the sea were behind us but neither were in a good mood. The nor’easterly was picking up and messy swells were mounting under a stormy kind of sky. It was not shaping up to be a good night.
The motion of the boat started to make me feel a little queasy after a few hours and so I climbed down the tiny set of stairs & found myself a bed. After a few hours of sleep, I came up for some air.
Conditions had worsened: we were getting a battering with 15 -20 knots of wind & up to 10ft of swell coming in at us from all directions. It was rough out on deck. The lucky few who were less prone to sea-sickness were valiantly drinking rum and singing songs to keep up morale. But most had passed out downstairs – the effects of the Dramamine kicking in.
After a while, I went back downstairs myself. It was almost impossible to stand up inside the cabin without bouncing from side to side like a pinball. And it was carnage inside.
The solid wooden island bench (which evidently wasn’t attached to the floor!) had slid across the width of the cabin finding a new home in the closest bed. Anything that that wasn’t tied down or stown away had gone flying. Wayne and Guy were valiantly trying to restore order, while people were puking into buckets and clinging to the edges of their beds lest they get thrown to the floor. I felt so nauseas at this point, it was all I could do to send a bucket sliding in Nial’s direction.
I popped another pill, laid down, stuck my headphones in, closed my eyes, breathed deeply and instantly felt better.
I woke up again another few hours later, and saw Marcus had taken the helm, and was swigging away at a bottle of rum, while keeping a close eye on the red-lit compass. Everyone else was asleep. Our Captain was laying on the floor beside him ensuring he was on course from the position of the moon behind him. She later told me Marcus had done a great job, never once straying off course. It was still very rough & black & stormy & ugly, so I fell back into bed until daybreak.
As day broke the next day, we sailed into the simply stunning Archipelago de San Blas. 365 islands. One for every day of the year.
Most are deserted but approximately 50 of them are inhabited by some 55,000 Indigenous Kuna Indians. While technically part of Panama, the Kuna Yala is an autonomous province managed by these proud & fiercely independent people. It is thought that the Kunas may be the last of the full-blooded Carib strain that inhabited the Caribbean before the Spanish conquistadors. They have managed to maintain their culture with their customs, language and dress and have also managed to deter mainstream tourism. Theirs is a very simple existence. And a truly rich life.
As we arrived, we were treated to a warm welcome by some of the other locals – a pod of (what I believe were) short-snouted spinner dolphins which are a lot blacker than others I’ve seen before. They played in our wake until we dropped anchor.
The sun was shining down on the Cocos Banderos cays (Tidal, Dupwala, Olosicuidup and Guariadup). They were decorated with coconut trees and lots of rich green foliage. Beautiful crystal clear waters, a few different shades of blue lapped at shimmering white sands.
That picture of paradise on your screensaver in the office? It’s real. I had to rub my fists into my eyes and pinch myself to check I wasn’t dreaming. As many Caribbean islands as I have visited on this trip, I will never tire of seeing new ones. I’m not sure how it’s possible but they just get better & better. I have wondered if I was doing the trip in reverse, if I’d feel the same.
We all jumped in the water, which I put at around 24 degrees, and splashed around like excited little kids. Some people wasted no time in getting their snorkel gear on. I cooked us up a big brekky. And we spent the rest of the day exploring the various islands – all within swimming and dinghy distance.
We set up camp at the island nearest to us that afternoon, taking across supplies & music. The boys got a fire going and cooked up sandy hot dogs in a very amusing manner. We had a wild rum-fuelled eve that night. Lots of whooping. Lots of running around. Lots of laughs.
A few people strung up hammocks. I had a most uncomfortable night on the ground, fighting with my sleeping bag, wedged between two of the Dutchies. Stretching out my crickety ole back, I decided the next morning I would opt for a more comfortable (and peaceful) night on the boat’s deck for the rest of our stay. Must be getting old.
The next day was more of the same: Swim. Snorkel. Eat. Read. Sleep. Repeat. One of the things that I’m most grateful for in taking this year off, is just having time to really enjoy life. I think I’ve really slowed down. I think I’ve become a better listener. I think I’ve become more observant. And I think I’ve become better at sitting still. Ish.
Late afternoon, Deb took Shannon & I across in the dinghy to the island to meet her Kuna friends, Rosalinda and Mr G. They were a gorgeous brown-skinned, wrinkly old couple with big beautiful smiles (missing teeth not withstanding) who welcomed us with open arms. We wanted to buy some jewellery and molas from Rosalinda & the women in her family. Molas are a traditional art form – colourful cotton appliqués of two or more panels, featuring geometric designs and sometimes images of things, such as animals in their environs. Many years ago, they used to paint these patterns and images on their body. Now, the molas form part of their traditional dress. Ironically, they look to me alot like modern art.
We made arrangements with Mr G to come back with our crew and have a big seafood dinner with them the next night.
Most of our crew spent that night on the deserted island we had set up camp in. Guy, Marcus & I stayed on Ilean with Debbie & Wayne. We had a lot of wine and good banter and slept on the deck of the gently rocking boat, under a brightly lit sky. I went diving in my dreams that night.
Day 3 was exactly the same as the previous day. Swim. Snorkel. Eat. Read. Sleep. Repeat. It’s amazing how this stuff never gets boring.
The crazy assed Dutchies just kept partying the whole time. I must admit, I distanced myself a little as I didn’t feel the need to get wasted in paradise. I sought solitude. And quiet chats with a select few. I spent a lot of time reading & writing. And just lying about enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back.
Mid afternoon, Deb took us over in shifts in the dinghy to the Kuna island for our dinner party. Mr G had organised a shipment of ice & beer for us. He & his men were cooking up a storm. Deb had made up a big garden salad with a lovely caper based dressing, and a garlic butter for the freshly caught langoustines. We also had pan-friend yellowtail with coconut rice. It was, in a word, divine! We played with the island kids and had a bit of a drunken singalong. I snuck off for a quick full-moon skinny dip on my own around the other side of the island.
Much later that eve, while the rest of the crew were running amok on their island, Guy & I kicked back on the deck of Ilean. He had a heart to heart with Wayne, while Debbie slept and I just gazed up at that big fat full moon. I reflected back on my trip. How far I had come. In all senses of the phrase.
Closer to fine started playing on my iPod. Gotta love a bit of shuffle synchronicity.
By mid-morning the next day, we were off again. We sailed all day. I slept for most of the arvo, which enabled me to stay awake for most of the night.
At one point in the night, Shannon was at the helm and it was just she, Deb and I out on deck. Three women sharing stories and laughs. After an hour or so the soft swells sang their sweet song to Shannon, and lulled her to sleep.
I took over the helm for a shift and wondered at the expanse. I’ve never been that far out to sea. The sky & the sea stretched on forever and ever. The bright night sky was calm & clear. The dark blue ocean was a big animal breathing in its sleep.
I was awake when the new day broke and a new continent & a new country came into sight. Again, incredibly, we were welcomed by a pod of playful dolphins. We had travelled 175 nautical miles (324kms) over the last 5 days. I couldn’t believe I was nearly in South America. After all this time.
I took a moment to thank Deb. I wondered aloud what adventures life had in store for me. She asked me if I was scared. I could honestly say I wasn’t. Quite the opposite: I was absolutely brimming with excitement.