Holandes cays


November 29, 2002. Holandes cays, San Blas, Panama.

Hello all:

Yes we are still in the San Blas. As you may recall, we were going to leave last weekend for Providencia but were delayed by a powerful (and out of season) cold front which brought high winds and rain all the way down to Panama. Cold fronts are not supposed to do that until January. Then we worried about a tropical wave which had hurricane tendencies. The tendencies dissipated and the tropical wave passed over us quietly, so we were planning to leave Saturday 11/30 when the early forecast suggested that the winds would get lighter. It has been very windy with high seas for a week now. But, according to today’s forecast, weather conditions changed so that winds are supposed to stay strong until at least Tuesday. So we keep waiting. We have to sail close hauled (almost against the wind) to go to Providencia and we do not want to do that with 25 knots of winds and 9-foot waves if we can avoid it! It is much harder bashing against wind and waves than sailing with them downwind.

We are worried about the weather because these steady northerners and northeast winds are early for the season and may be indicating an early winter in the Caribbean. It may be difficult to find a good weather window to sail north in these conditions. But at least, we should not have to worry about hurricanes anymore in December (statistically).

So instead of spending Thanksgiving in Providencia, we celebrated it in the San Blas with our friends Neil and Brycea from Windchime. We had a traditional diner with most of the trimmings. The turkey came out of a can but since it was a very expensive can of high quality American turkey, it tasted almost like a freshly roasted one. In fact, Clark suggested we should forget the trouble of finding, defrosting, and cooking a turkey, with all the risk of not having it ready on time or over-cooking and drying it, and only buy the perfectly cooked and moist canned meat (search for Brinkman’s on the internet). We had a jar of good gravy, a can of whole cranberry sauce, a can of green beans, stuffing, fresh mashed potatoes and cornbread, with a cherry pie for dessert. It was wonderful to have such traditional comfort food, so far away from home, and we all savored it thoroughly. We missed our families but gave thanks for our friends and the beautiful surroundings.


It was so good that we forgot to take a picture before we finished dinner!


Today we moved from one anchorage to the other, inside the Holandes Cays, to gain more protection from wind and current. Our previous anchorage was very pretty but open to the 20 knot-wind and with a lot of current generated by the tall waves pushed over the reef by the high winds. The wind kept our batteries fully charged (thanks to the wind generator) but also reminded us constantly of the fact that we are stuck here, which was getting depressing. The wind waves also made any dingy ride quite wet.

Besides watching the weather, Clark has helped Contessa to fix the damage brought up by a lightning strike and has also worked with Neil to re-vamp his faulty charging system, which was destroying its batteries. We also re-installed the lee-cloths on Temptress to protect us from

boarding waves. I (Birgitta) have been more lazy, in part because I fell on a step and badly damaged some tendons in my toes, resulting in a lot of swelling and bruising. So I have been hobbling, avoiding putting weight on my right foot. That gave me time to ponder superstring theory thanks to a challenging physics book written by Brian Greene and to meander through one more Jane Austen novel.

We will keep listening to the weather reports, hoping for a reasonable weather window to sail north. I hope we will not have to wait too much longer as we will run out of fresh vegetables in a few days and we risk getting short on propane as well. We can survive on dry and canned food for a long time (given propane) but I do not relish testing my culinary skills with just canned vegetables.

We hope all our American families and friends had a great Thanksgiving (assuming our European families and friends have not adopted this celebration).

San Blas

11-24-02 3:30pm

We had such a nice day today. The wind stayed at about 15 knots all day and the sun came out at about 10am this morning. We have been doing boat projects getting Temptress ready for our crossing to Providencia. I strengthened one of the solar panel mounts and improved a dingy seat. We did laundry and mounted the lee cloths to protect us from waves. Birgitta cleaned the boat. We have a few more projects but I think we will take the rest of the day off.

The trade winds have pushed the front back east so we may not see any more thunderstorms here for a while, but it is still very windy and wavy outside the protection of the San Blas, so we do not expect to leave for Providencia until it calms down a bit and the front dissipates. A tropical wave is expected in a couple of days and since it has a lot of curvature to it (which may transform it in a hurricane), we will likely wait until it passes too. It sounds more and more likely that we will spend Thanksgiving in the San Blas instead of in Providencia.

Holandes Cay


November 23, 2002. 1pm Holandes Cay, San Blas, Panama.

N 9 35 20 Rainy and windy
W 78 40 29

For the last couple of days boats north of us have been running into very bad weather. A strong front stalled over Honduras and Cuba last week and another front came down and seemed to join with it. The new front is coming our way! Reports have been coming in of strong winds and big waves. Boats at sea have been forced to run with the wind and search safe harbor. Boats in harbor have been dragging anchor and been generally uncomfortable. Usually fronts dissipate before they get this far south but this one is knocking on our door right now.

Yesterday morning we had a thunderstorm that hit us with a lot of rain and a peek of 40 knots of wind. We decided to move from Tigre to here because of the better protection since we expected worse weather. Yesterday we had a nice afternoon passage to here but today no boats are moving.

Last night the front seems to have passed through Colon. We moved to Holandes Cay and have prepared for it. This is a nice protected anchorage with reefs between us and the ocean waves. It is shallow with good holding sand. With no land between us and the ocean is it a bit odd to see the big waves breaking just to windward of us but we are only getting about a half of a foot of wave here so far. Right now its raining like you wouldn’t believe. We cannot see 100 feet. The lightning is striking all around us ever 10 seconds or so. (I’m glad I added the ion dissipater back in Panama City. Every little thing might help.) I think we are only seeing some thunderstorm activity that is before the front right now. The big front should pack a lot more wind then we are currently seeing. We have only 25-30 knots of wind. Anyway it will be a while before we reconnect the antennas and try to send e-mail so I will know more before we send this message. Our only problem right now is that we had to close the boat completely down to keep the rain out and it is a bit stuffy inside.




Well, the worst of it is over. We saw 30-35 knots of wind, when we bothered to look. We had lightning like I have never experienced before. There were strikes every 2 to 5 seconds all around us. And it rained, and rained, AND RAINED. We got over a foot in about 3 hours. A foot tall bucket laying on deck filled to overflowing and the dingy with about 1.5 foot freeboard sank. I went out at about 4pm to see how much water it had accumulated and it was only floating because of it’s foam seat cushions. We had some real rain in Costa Rica but nothing like this. It felt like we were in a submarine because there was so much water running on deck and pelting the windows and we could not see anything outside. I was so glad that I didn’t mount the engine on the dingy when we arrived yesterday. Had I done that it would have been submerged and damaged. As it was, the only damage was some water in the fuel tank. We expected weather when we got here so we rigged the boat and anchor for a storm. We put out a lot of chain and rigged the nylon snubber and we removed the awning. With these precautions we didn’t have to worry about the wind and rain. I doubt the main front has passed over us yet as it was only in Colon last night. I imagine we are in for more of the same over the next couple of days. We won’t really know until we get a new weather fax or listen to the net tomorrow morning. I guess that this front is the same one that caused all the havoc in the United States last week.

Tigre Island

November 21, 2002. Tigre Island, San Blas, Panama.

N 9 deg. 25′ 57
W 78 deg. 31′ 26″

Yesterday, Clark repaired the propeller hub with welding and epoxy and today’s trial (after 24 hours of epoxy curing) was successful. This morning he repaired the dinghy’s stern reinforcement, so the dinghy is currently in good shape.



After lunch, we motorsailed to Tigre island where, we had being told, the people were particularly friendly and the bread particularly cheap. Since we have already emptied 3 of our 5 propane cans onboard (in 5 weeks), we are being a little careful with propane now and prefer to buy bread than to make it. We are not sure when we will be able to refill the cans: maybe in Providencia, more likely in Roatan (island of Honduras) or Rio Dulce (Guatemala). We do not have the adaptor necessary to transfer gas from the standard Panama can to our American cans.


After anchoring, we went ashore with Neil and Brycea of Windchime. We had to pay $3/person for the right of anchoring here and visiting the island, but after that we were free to visit the island at our leisure, without chaperone or guide. According to the island log, only about 6 boats had visited the island since the beginning of September. The Kuna were very friendly, offering molas, bracelets, fans and baskets for sale of course, but also willing to chat a bit. We also saw the traditional comb made of black palm wood which few Kuna still make.


The island seems very tolerant with a mixture of women dressed the western way, the traditional way with molas, the traditional way topless, with a sarong, or with skirt and bra only. They have a pipe bringing water from the closest river on mainland to a water tower and each hut has running water. They also have electricity from 6 PM to 10 PM thanks to an old generator, and two phone booths which look quite odd with a background of palm covered huts. We even saw a satellite dish on one palm covered roof.


The island is very clean and we saw people actively removing weeds growing near the runway fence. According to Felipe, an island inhabitant, the women are in charge of keeping the island clean, as well as the water filter, and may start cleaning the common grounds as early as 5 AM when the moon is full and the sky clear. Many huts had little gardens with flowers, bananas and squashes, but the men also have plots of land on the mainland where they grow their staples. Felipe said they had 800 people living on the island but a total population of 2000, 1200 of which were living in Panama City or elsewhere. He claimed that the dyes used to color textile for molas used to come from trees and that there were originally 5 colors: yellow, burgundy, blue, red and white. They could also be mixed to get other colors.

The island had several stores, and families advertising bread and kerosene, or bananas and school supplies, but there was no bread left at 4 PM. We bought a few cooking bananas and will return tomorrow for the bread.


As mentioned earlier, the island has a runway and we saw at least 4 planes land in one afternoon. We were close to the end of the runway when the last one arrived, flown by Michael, a New York native (raised in Panama). He owns and flys the plane through a dozen islands everyday, except Sunday, to collect crab, lobster and fish caught by the locals. He resells them in Panama City, mostly for export. His small, single propeller, 2-seater plane was filled with bags of live lobsters and crabs with antennas and legs emerging in every direction. But he assured us that he never had a crab come and pinch him while flying. A few minutes after his plane landed, guys with bags of lobsters and crabs were arriving from every direction, eager to sell their catch of the day. Business was conducted briskly under what appeared to be the supervision of Kuna tax collectors. The store next to the runway had a refrigerator containing orange and punch drinks, beer, margarine and sandwich meat. They also sold prepackaged cinnamon rolls. An odd assortment!

We enjoyed our visit of the island but one downside of a more modern island is that now we have to listen to a very loud generator all evening, as the best anchorage seems very near the generator building.

Cheers, Birgitta and Clark

Text original to website (not sent previously by email):

The next morning, we went back to the island to buy bread and we also brought some Neosporin (skin antibiotic cream) to Felipe to treat a cut on his foot. He usually fish or cultivate his plot of land in the morning but a heavy rain, just before we arrived, had brought him back home. He thanked us for the cream and explained that their little dispensary did not have much good medicine due to lack of funds. Each person on the island contributes a small amount per year and those funds are used to buy basic medicine and supplies.

I asked him more questions about the origin of the molas and he explained that before the Kunas had textile, they used the barks of trees, flattened, as cloth, and painted the mola patterns and symbols on the bark. This explains why the mola patterns are made of lines. The pieces of bark were sewn together by piercing them with a black palm needle and then threading the thread through the holes by hand. They also used glue from tree sap. The patterns were abstract, with special meanings, and not representative of animals or village scenes like most modern molas.

We had heard that the Kunas used to live in the mountains of Panama and were chased onto the islands by other tribes and the Spanish. The legend Felipe told us was that a large Kuna family wanted to host a very big party and needed lots of fish to feed the guests. So they sent one of their men down the river to search for more fish and the intrepid fisherman eventually reached the sea where he found an abundance of large fish. He initially established just a temporary hut on the coast but eventually the tribe moved to the coast. From there, they quickly moved onto the islands to escape the mosquitoes of mainland. The tribe to which Felipe belongs was called “owners of gold” because apparently there was a lot of gold to be found in the rivers draining in the San Blas. This of course interested the Spanish mightily and resulted in a lot of harrassment by them early during the conquest of Central America.

This about as much as I understood of his explanations in Spanish and I hope that you will forgive me if there are some inaccuracies. Felipe was hoping to open a museum on his island someday and we wish him luck. He was very interesting to talk to and we would have enjoyed seeing old artifacts in a museum. He said that he had given a lot of ancient pieces, such as a mola on bark, to the Panama City museum, which we did not visit. The guide book did not rate it highly.

He invited us to come in the evening to listen to his brother play some traditional Kuna flute but, unfortunately, we felt we needed to move to a better anchorage before a large front reached the San Blas that night or the next day

Coco Bandero


November 20, 2002. Coco Bandero, San Blas, Panama.

N 9 deg. 30′ 22″
W 78 deg. 37′ 2″


We left Green Island 3 days ago and have been enjoying the diving and beautiful scenery at Coco Bandero since then. We met again our friends on Windchime and shared diners, diving and evening games with them.

We are seeing a much larger diversity of flags here in the San Blas. In Mexico, the boats were generally either American or Canadian, but here we have seen many flags from Europe and some from South America. At Green Island, there was a reunion of scandinavian boats with 2 Norvegians, one Dannish and one Swedish. I loved to hear their voice on the radio when they spoke to each other in “scandinavian”. I could not tell if it was Swedish, Norvegian or Danish and it is possible they understood each other in all languages. We have also seen several French flags, German flags and today, the first Dutch flag when the boat anchored too close to us! We are also sharing the anchorage with an Argentinian boat. These boats are either doing a tour of the Caribbean before returning to Europe, or are headed through the canal and to the South Pacific. Very few would consider going upwind along the coast of Central America and the US which is why we did not see them before.

Yesterday, I had a minor crisis when I realized that my cans of fruits where rusting through, leaking in my cans locker and promoting even more rusting of other cans. I lost several cans of apricots, pears and peaches, dating back from Seattle. It was a mess to sort and clean the cans and the locker and restack everything. So, we are going to eat the remaining cans from Seattle at an accelerated pace: yogurt with canned fruits for breakfast every morning. We already had vanilla parfaits with peaches the last two days.


Today Clark is attempting to fix the 7.5 HP outboard motor’s propeller which is slipping badly. It is an ambitious project because we do not have the appropriate replacement part and Clark is being creative with welding and epoxy. If he is not successful, we will revert to the 4 HP outboard which consumes more gas (being 2 strokes instead of 4).

We plan to move to another island tomorrow and we will start seriously planning our trip to Providencia island for next week. We will start looking for a weather window to allow us to sail north, between cold fronts. It will likely take us a day and 1/2 or 2 to get to Providencia, an island of the coast of Nicaragua, which actually belongs to Columbia.