Google Earth has been a big obsession of mine since we got home from our first round-the-world trip, and I’m not the only traveller smitten with the tool. Frank Taylor writes the Google Earth blog, and we’ve been in touch every now and then for the last couple of years – Frank and his wife Karen have now set off on their own five year circumnavigation by sailboat on a trip they named the Tahina Expedition. It looked like our routes might intersect in Colombia so we decided to try and meet up, and after me and Edel decided to call off our Venezuela plans Frank and Karen kindly invited us to join them onboard Tahina for the passage to Panama, spending some ten days on the paradise islands of San Blas on the way! (Now maybe we should be thankful to Hugo Chavez and his power-cutting riot-inducing ways…)
Frank and Karen had an eventful passage from Aruba, with 20 feet waves and gale-force winds, but made it safely to Cartagena where we set off to to meet them, leaving Taganga once I finally felt better. Tahina is a beautiful 50 feet catamaran with lots of space, and me and Edel settled in to our own room in the
left, sorry port-side, hull. Frank had to wait for a replacement water pump to arrive so we had a couple days in Cartagena before setting sail – used them to see some of the sights we had missed on our last visit before Taganga. The San Felipe fort overlooking town and the gold and history museums, pre-Columbian artefacts and post-Columbian torture instruments from the slavery and inquisition days.
In the morning of the 3rd of March we set off from the Cartagena harbour on the 24-hour passage to the San Blas islands off Panama, making a short stop to scrub some barnacles off the hull which added nearly a knot to the speed. Still amazing to me how you can sail against the wind – it was only some 30 degrees off head-on when we started, adding a few more degrees during the day. Apparently it can even be faster sailing like this than when the wind is on your back! It was fun to learn a bit about sailing while watching our progress on the screen at the helm – and learning a bit about how to use all the nautical terms properly instead of the way I like to shout them when I’m in a paddle-boat or kayak with Edel (note to self: it seems you don’t “keel-haul the square-rigged spinnaker on the starboard side to make westing!”).
We set a couple fishing rods once we were on the open sea – and an hour or two later they both hooked a small tuna within seconds of eachother. One of the fish was big enough to keep and Frank set the other one free. Karen is a great cook luckily, and during our days on Tahina I quickly put back the kilos I had lost while sick in Taganga. In the evening we spotted a huge cruise-ship on the AIS – heading straight for us at twice our speed. Sailing ships always have right of way on the open sea, and it wasn’t without some delight that Frank radioed them to politely get them to take their three hundred passengers and get out of our way! Me and Edel took the first night-watch, until mid-night, but the only thing moving on the radar during our hours was a few squalls. Great feeling to be sailing – amazing to move from one country to another without using a drop of fuel. As a catamaran Tahina doesn’t roll much, and we slept well even though the wind picked up during the night and we gained speed.
In the morning we arrived at the San Blas – beautiful tropical islands with post-card beaches; white sand and coconut palms overhanging the turquoise water. We stayed five nights at our first anchorage near BBQ island – a small uninhabited island where sailors by tradition meet every monday. We spent the days doing little expeditions to various islands with the dinghy and going snorkelling (though there was mostly sea-grass in this area), and watch pelicans dive for fish. Most of the San Blas islands are only sandy beaches or mangrove, but a few of the bigger ones have little banana plantations owned by the indigenous Kuna indians. The Kuna come around by the boats occasionally, selling lobster, crab or molas – colourful decorated textiles.
Most of the islands we visited had lots of plastic trash lying around all over the beaches, bottles and sandals…more than I probably would have guessed – ten bottles for every coconut in places. This is more of less how all “pristine” islands look today though, sadly, unless there is someone actively cleaning them. This was actually the case with BBQ island, where we had seen hardly any trash at all – one of the sailors anchored in the area had “adopted” the island and did a cleaning round every morning, picking up the pieces brought in by the waves – really lovely thing to do.
Since BBQ island stood out (and was of a handy size) Frank picked it for trying out his kite areal photography unit. Him and I set off in the dinghy on the one day we had at this anchorage with good sun and wind, and put the kit together on the beach, slowly sending the DSLR high up in the air before making our way around the island. Some of the coconut palms on the beach were quite high, making it difficult to work the line – we were wading waist-deep in water on one side of the island and went out in the dinghy on the other side with the kite still in the air. Kite-boating actually, the kite was pulling the boat along at about one knot speed without the engine on! Frank gets these kite-photos stitched together, corrected for topography, and then included into the base satellite imagery for Google Earth (the current resolution around San Blas is very bad, but hopefully at least this island should soon be sparkling!).
We had a couple of days with bad weather while at the first anchorage (it does rain in paradise..) so we didn’t get as much time in the water as I’d liked – me and Edel started every morning with a pre-breakfast swim from the boat though, rain or no rain. The BBQ on the island on the monday was fun, meeting some of the other sailors and cruising couples. When chatting with other travellers me and Edel are normally used to being the ones out on the road the longest, but our 11 months is nothing among cruisers – most people we met had been sailing around for years or even decades!
The morning after the BBQ we sailed to a new anchorage by the West Holandes Cays group of islands in San Blas. This spot was excellent – sheltered on two sides by islands and with great coral reefs to snorkel just a short swim from the boat. We spent four days here, and I think I probably spent more time in the water than out, nearly knowing all the reef dwellers by name before we left. There was a big sandy area close to the anchor where lots of sting rays would be buried in the morning, and nearby over the sea grass I’d usually find a school of reef squid – great fun to watch as they swim in formation and change colour. Also saw big trigger fish, file fish and trumpet fish and so many parrot fish they were swimming in schools which is rare. There were two big reefs going all the way to the surface, a lion-fish hiding in a cave in one of them, fields of brain-coral and sea-fans in between. Swimming back to the boat there would be a huge school of tiny fish, tens of thousands, hiding in the shade under the hull, amazing to watch as the school morph in shape when you swim closer or swim up from below to be completely surrounded by the fish. One day we did another barnacle scrub – I’d spent so much time snorkelling by now that it was no problem to stay down below the keel to scrub – walking around upside down underwater below on the hull to joke with Edel. A big spotted eagle ray came cruising below the boat while we were doing this so I took off to follow it for a while – beautiful to watch, slow gentle movements of the nearly two meter wind-span as it was flying around over the bottom.
We also used this spot to play with another of Frank’s cool techie toys – a VideoRay underwater robot/camera! It is attached by a long cable to a control unit on the boat, where you can watch the video output and steer the little submarine around. Great fun, and at least as much fun to be out snorkelling next to the robot – watching it chase around and try to keep up with the reef squid or pretend to be one of them swimming along in the same formation!
One evening Frank set the lights under the boat and we used a strong flashlight to see what strange animals we could attract from the dark – first just lots of plankton, then jellyfish started showing up and some fish – the squid came by as well for a quick dash in and out of the light. Some animal was shooting off neon-green bioluminescence as well here and there in the waves, glowing for 5-10 seconds each time (…maybe a prawn fishing or scaring off predators? – didn’t look like the usual shiny blue dots of bioluminescent plankton). There were lots of stars out as well, the sky clear and no cities anywhere near us – never short of cool techie toys Frank had an image-stabilized pair of binoculars with enough magnification to pick out the nebula in Orion’s sword.
When it was time to leave for the next anchorage me and Edel did a final snorkel in the morning, saying goodbye to the two meter barracuda that had taken up residence under the catamaran, and then we set off. In addition to the flying fish we also got to see dolphins this time, jumping and swimming next to the boat. After one tack to be able to get as close as possible without engine we motored in the final short bit. Chichime Cays anchorage was more busy – a couple dozen boats instead of the one or two neighbours we’d had at our last stop, and there was a small Kuna indian village on one of the islands. Me and Frank went out with the dinghy outside the fringing reef to try the snorkelling – there was a good bit of current so hard to swim but we did get to see a huge elkhorn coral, 7-10 meters. The second spot we picked was nicer, several big coral heads rising up from a deeper sandy bottom, and enormous boulders of brain coral with caves underneath where squirrel fish and bigeye were hiding.
From San Blas it is roughly one day of sailing to get to Colon by the Caribbean side of the Panama canal. There is a spot halfway called Isla Grande which we sailed on to after it was recommended by the captain from another boat (who visited us wearing a pair of speedos that even Borat would have found shocking). After seven hours of sailing we reached the island just around sunset – continuing to Colon the next morning. Now we had the wind in our back so Frank took the opportunity to show us the most magnificent sail on Tahina. The spinnaker is a bit of work to get set (and even more to try to put back down in its sack while the wind is catching it), but it looks great when it is full of wind and it pulled us along splendidly. We saw more dolphins on the way also!
Arriving in busy Colon was a little strange after nearly two weeks of solitude on the islands – hundreds of massive cargo vessels were waiting outside the harbour for their turn to go through the canal. The AIS on the screen at the helm showed so many ships the marina entrance looked completely impenetrable! After arriving in Shelter Bay marina we spent two more nights on Tahina, getting the passports stamped and everything organized before it was time to say goodbye. We had a really great time with Frank and Karen, and it was a little strange to be back to being backpackers again now for the final ten days of our trip. It was very nice to get an introduction to sailing, another mode of long-term travelling which was new for us, but certainly very interesting. Round three perhaps…