Panama Spam

Lost in Guna Yala

I understand that those who follow me on Facebook, may have seen Gisele Young or some such automatic spell check when I posted about being in this part of Panama. We are in Guna Yala, the islands close to the shore of southeastern Panama. You may have heard of them as the San Blas, which is what the Spanish named these islands. The Guna Indians are an autonomous nation inside of Panama and have decreed that they want their region and people to be called by the correct name. Confusing the issue for we who cruise, most folks know of this tribe as Kuna Indians, because that is how one pronounces their name. But---just as in Maine when we add that extra "r" to Augusta when we pronounce it "Auguster"---the Guna Indians have no letter "k" in their written language, so they want it written with "G" -- but you say "K". (As for Maine, now you know where all those lost "rs" went. We know a woman who introduced herself as "Melisser". Cracked us up.

Now then, you haven't heard from us because we've been hella-busy, and because we are still learning how to work the phone/wifi situation. I am running the local morning cruising net on Wednesdays and said this morning that I hadn't any local weather because my signal had been slow, going on to say, "I feel that I 'm missing a step, such as clicking my heels three times and saying 'There's no place like Google. There's no place like Google.'" So, while I have been taking photos and would love to send out a post showing the area and our happy faces, and the happy faces on Kookaburra, you just get words today.

It's been just over a week since we arrived, to be greeted by the dulcet tones of Jaime as we spoke on the radio. They led us directly into Provenir to check in, and we followed them like a larger, slower duckling for the next week. There are a lot of reefs here in Guna Yala---and a number of lovely anchorages near tiny, low islands. These are not the hilly, volcanic islands of the Eastern Caribbean and the Azores, these are sand spits with coconut palms, nearly surrounded by reefs with breaking waves.

Jaime and Keith had a deadline, as they are flying back to Massachusetts this week for three weeks off the boat and a wedding, and they had a plan of anchorages they wanted us to learn. Of course, we all wanted to spend time together, have fun, play Euchre, drink a bit, break bread, sail, and play with at least one dog. Everything was accomplished. As a bonus, they made sure EW met two guys who play guitars and like to get together and jam. All is good.

So, let's see. How about a story?

I had been anxious to get into the water, and finally did a bit of swimming after we anchored on the third day. I'm not a really strong swimmer, but can stay afloat and moving for quite a long time with mask, snorkel, and fins on. Well, I thought I could. On the fourth day we moved to this lovely anchorage in Holandes Cays. According the oracle Panama cruising guide, we can't get into that anchorage, but Keith and Jaime knew otherwise. They are also sailing a catamaran and were able to go ahead, checking depth and confirming that we had "plenty water" -- or 11 feet (4.5 below the keel for La Luna). It's a lovely anchorage, and I wanted to go for an exercise snorkel swim. I generally put my mask and snorkel on while on the deck, and climb down the ladder with fins in hand, putting them on when I'm in the water. First mistake. Actually, the first mistake was noting in my mind that the swim ladder seemed to be more horizontal than vertical---and doing nothing different.

You know where this is going, right?

I very quickly realized that the current was moving faster than I could put my fins on. No problem, the dinghy was still astern, so I could hold onto that and put my fins on. Not easily, and nearly impossible while holding the second fin. So I put it in the dinghy. (Remember Deedle Deedle Dumplin', My Son John"? Yep, I ended up steaming away from La Luna with one fin on and one in the dinghy. I called to EW in that non panicky but means business voice and he popped up on deck to see his bride of almost 30 years traveling rapidly away from the mother ship.

"I'm OK!" I yelled and waved. "Just can't get home!" Of course the dinghy motor had been causing problems so it was on deck. Of course we had been towing the dinghy and the seat and oars were removed. Of course EW grabbed a rope and realized that I had already sped beyond the length of that rescue option. In the meantime, Kookaburra had anchored a bit closer to the tiny island, up current of our boat. Jaime was getting into the water to check their anchor and join me, when she saw me heading west at a rapid clip. She pointed to me and looked at Keith who said, "I'm on it." They stow their dinghy lifted aft of the deck with the motor on and he was already launching "Livingston" as Jaime was pointing out my situation.

Jaime, who is much more fit than I am, jumped into the water with both fins on (now there's an idea) and swam/floated to La Luna, checking our anchor along the way. In the meantime, Keith yelled over to EW, "Does she have her fins on?" EW (I am sure rolling his eyes) "One." "Well that's no good," said Keith. Jaime got to the stern of our boat and asked EW, "Does she have her fins on?" Same reply. Same reply to the reply.

At this point, I knew I would get rescued and thought I'd make it easy on Keith. I was never in any danger of heading out to sea; we had negotiated a whole lot of reefs to get into that anchorage, and I would have ended up on one or on "Bug Island", had there not been a Canadian catamaran anchored a ways behind us. As I swept parallel to their anchor line, I started swimming for their boat and just barely made it far enough south while moving west to grab their stern. There I sat, waving to the team, letting them know I was fine. Since the excitement was over, Jaime decided to swim to Kook. She got as far as our bow before deciding it wasn't worth it. Tough current. She floated back to La Luna's stern and waited for "Livingston".

The next night a boat anchored near where the Canadian cat had been. Two young men decided to swim to the island. One did quite well, but the other was going only a smidge faster than the current, and would lose ground when he rested. He was near La Luna, where we were playing Euchre, and we asked him how it was going. "It's slow," he said with a strong German accent, while he struggled not to lose ground. "Glad I have my fins on."

"You should try it with just one," I replied. While my three rescuers laughed, the swimmer looked puzzled and continued toward shore.

So, the first snorkeling lesson for the Guna Yala area: In strong currents, take the dinghy, up stream, tie a line from it around your waist and float back. Of course, you will have to get into the dinghy from the water at the end. There are three methods for that, see that blog post with videos written in St. Thomas for tips and another really good laugh at my expense.

I live to serve.


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Rob Sibley

great timing with this little tale. :) we have been anchoring up in Hockomock(spelled incorrectly I'm sure) bay and I have been letting the dinghy out a couple hundred feet off of our stern on a long line so the kids could grab it on the way by in the outgoing tidal current. Once all three are aboard I pull them in and repeat. Great fun. They love it and of course have life vests on so I can go retrieve them if they miss the dinghy.\
Robinhood Marine Center


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