Saturday, May 24, 2014

San Blas, Panama

San Blas, Panama
Wednesday 7 May - Wednesday 21 May

Wednesday morning we went into San Andres one last time to try to see if we could find an unlocked dongle, a USB connection for WiFi via phone line that is used down here in Central America. Mine was “unlocked” in Providencia, but not sure if it will work with Digicel the main carrier in Panama, but no luck finding one. Back to the boat, take outboard motor off the dinghy and secure dinghy & motor for passage. Do internet one more time since we will be several days without. We would be traveling with Bill & JoAnne on Ultra, but they were still talking to people back in the states about repairs for their auto pilot, so we had time for lunch before leaving. On our way out the channel their engine overheated, so we pulled over and anchored. Steve said it sounded like the same problem we had coming back from Cayos Cochinos with the raw water impeller going, and sure enough it was. Ultra had to wait for the engine to cool down before the repair could be made, so we just rested in the cockpit waiting for them.

By 4 PM we were underway for our 240 mile trip, with 15 – 18 knot winds in 3-5 foot swells on the beam we put out full sails and took off going 7-8 + knots. Ultra was behind us and we were checking in via the VHF radio, their auto pilot was partially working, but they had some hand steering in-between Bill resetting and getting it to work again. After our 4 AM check in we were getting too far away for VHF range, and they could not turn on the SSB radio for fear it would cause the auto pilot to stop again. For Thursday, the winds were predicted to die down and be more behind us, slowing us down, so we thought we would be in range again. Wind speed & direction stayed the same plus we had a 1 to 2 knot current pushing us south, so it was really hard for us to slow down. At first we put in one reef in the genoa, no difference, then another reef plus one in the main, slowing us down a little. As the evening approached with no change in the wind and seas we realized we were still going to fast and would arrive in darkness, NOT what we wanted to do in any area never mind one surrounded by reefs. Just a very tiny amount of genoa sail out and 3 reefs in the main finally got us to slow down, only now that we were going slow at 4-5 knots and not cutting thru the waves the boat was rolling from side to side a lot more, not the most comfortable motion to be in. Late Thursday evening we made VHF contact with Ultra again they were now only about an hour or 2 behind us.

Friday morning at 6 when I came up on deck, daylight was giving us our first glances of the approaching Islands. When I looked at the chart plotter and saw we were heading for the Holandes Channel I asked why we were coming in that way. For the first time in 4 years Steve miss read the guide book / charts. There are 2 entrance channels to Porvenir, one the San Blas Channel is the one to use while the other is for local knowledge and under good light and calm seas. Steve thought that applied to both channels so played it safe and had us coming in the Holandes Channel a few more miles east. It worked out very well as we would have had to try to slow down even more for a daylight entrance thru the San Blas Channel. This way we got the scenic tour sailing back up past the East Lemmon Cays, thru the Eden Channel and past the West Lemmon Cays arriving and anchored at Provenir by 9 AM. Ultra was already there so came by our boat at 10 to pick us up to go into customs to clear in.

As we were checking in we met 2 other couples on the 2 power boats out in the anchorage who had arrived the day before, coming thru the Canal from the Pacific. We also met Nestor, a local Kuna, who spoke very good English as well as Spanish and helped with some translation during check in. Check in was easy but costly, $100 per person for our 90 day visas and $193 for the boats year cruising permit, then $20 for the boat and $10 more for us for the Kuna's. All checked in, a 10 minute walking tour of the whole island and we all were ready for a cool drink. Not much on this island an airport, big nice restaurant, small hotel and some of Panama's Navy personnel. We met back up with the group from the power boats and had a good time visiting and exchanging information. Nestor also joined us and gave us all some local history. Nestor lives in the Kuna community on the island Nalunega right behind where we are anchored. From our boat it looks like one small island but it is actually 4 really small islands. He invited us all over to tour his community / island and serve us dinner that night but we decline for another night so we can rest up from our 2 day passage. After returning to the boats we swim to the reefs close by the anchorage to snorkel and cool off. A nice relaxing evening on the boat with a good night sleep.

Saturday afternoon we, along with Bill & JoAnne meet up with Nestor for a tour of his community on Nalunega. Needing Digicel data cards and minutes for internet we find one of the little stores that sells them and buy what we think we need. This island and the one next to it Wichubhuala are the bigger communities in this section of San Blas, having many families living on them where most of the others will just have 1 or 2 to 5 or 10 families per island. There are also many islands with no one living on them. Nestor’s community is 95 % wooden huts with dirt floors, but very clean. They have a few small stores and a restaurant next to the dock where supplies are brought in, a school where children go to the age of 14, then they would need to go to the main land for further education. We enjoy seeing this totally foreign way of life up close and personal, and agree to come back later for Nestor's family to make us dinner for $5 a meal. Back at 6 for dinner where Steve & JoAnne go back to the store to get more cards to add minutes to the sim cards we bought earlier. We have fun interacting with Nestor's family and enjoy a very nice meal before heading back to our boats. We had two great days of weather but Nestor said the rain would be coming. That night it poured for a few hours giving the boat a great wash down.

Sunday we have sunny skies for our big move 30 minutes away to the Lemmon Cays, and anchor between Tiadup, Miriadup and Naguarchirdup with 6 other little cays nearby. Yes they have some really strange names for the cays. In the Kuna language dup or tupu means Island. We take our dinghy and pick up Bill & JoAnne to snorkel the reef of the south side then go by to see the other islands stopping in at Naguarchirdup AKA Elefante. This island has a bar and restaurant that serves the cruising community as well as the many backpackers that come thru the area. Bill & JoAnne come over to our boat for dinner and we unsuccessfully try to get the Bauhaus charts onto their I-Pad NOT as easy as it was for us to put them on our Android.

Monday sailing an hour further east to the East Lemmon Cays, an even nicer group of about 10 islands, sand banks and reefs spread out. There are two SSB radio nets down here, the SW cruisers net at 8:15 AM on 6209 and the Panama connection at 8:30 AM on 8107. The 6209 channel deals with boats south of Roatan to Colombia so we had previously made contact with a boat we had met in the Bahamas back in 2011, Nirvana Now, and knew they were in the area. The net on 8107 deals mostly with boats anchored here in the San Blas, since the area is so spread out the VHF radio used in most other places does not work as well for the whole area. As we pulled into the East Lemmon anchorage we passed Nirvana Now and yell hello, after setting the anchor called them on the VHF radio to talk. We made plans to go to Banedup, to meet for Happy Hour at the local bar on the island. Bill & JoAnne also join us as Randy & Dawn have a lot of local knowledge to share with us. They have been here, on & off as they went back and forth to Canada, for the last 3 years. We have a great time catching up, leaving as the rain starts making plans to snorkel the near by reef on Tuesday afternoon.

The rain that started lightly Monday night kept up heavily all thru the night and into Tuesday morning. We had discovered a diesel / oil leak with the generator so had that mess to clean up and then try to find the leak. Bill & JoAnne had been working on their own problem with the heat exchanger on their engine so the 1st part of the day was spent on boat chores and since it was still partly cloudy glad to delay the snorkeling. By about 2:30 the sun was trying to peek out, so along with Randy & Dawn from Nirvana Now, Steve & I went to snorkel the reef by Nuindup. Back to the boat, we still had the generator leak but Steve was too tired to mess with it that night. Steve was fearing the worse problem and Randy said he could come by the following day to help diagnosis it. To take his mind off the generator problem, Steve made a delicious pork, sweet potatoes, apples & green beans over rice dish for dinner.

Wednesday Randy & Bill came over to help Steve find the leak, and luckily it was on a filter that we did not even need. Once the problem was found Randy & Bill went back to their boats to work on their own projects. Steve was able to remove it and had the right size hose connector to join the hoses, easier said than done, but as always after a few choice words and time he fixed the problem. During the afternoon we had our first encounter with a San Blas veggie boat, and were very impressed, they had a great selection & a wide variety. There are NO stores on 95% of the San Blas Islands, and the ones that do have them are VERY limited to what they and far between, so access to some fresh veggies is a real bonus. Glad for leftovers for dinner that night and think we have the generator problem fixed.

This is the rainy season here in Panama. Thursday it started to rain at 4 AM and stayed cloudy and rainy all day long, so no chance to go explore the other islands and reefs, just a lazy day on the boat. Friday late afternoon the rain stopped. We had dinner over on Ultra, discussing options to get internet service straightened out. JoAnne's sim card is not working and we need an extra one for me, having only bought one for Steve's tablet. We are very fortunate to have internet at all where we are so I know we should not complain, but the way they have it set up is not easy to deal with. After buying a sim card you have to by prepaid minute cards with a scratch off code # to enter to get credit. Problem is not all the cards work !!!

Saturday we have a beautiful sunny day to sail BACK to Porvenir. Steve goes over to pick up Bill & JoAnne at 9 AM, no sense taking both boats so they join us leaving Ultra at anchor. JoAnne baked some Banana nut bread and it was a lovely sail with just the genoa up doing 7 knots, arriving at 10:30. Steve, Bill & JoAnne go back over to the island of Nalunega to see about internet cards while I stay with the boat. Took them a little longer than expected but 2 hours later they get back to the boat and we pull up anchor to head back to the East Lemmon Cays. A little slower trip back but still able to sail with just the genoa. Arrived back by 2 and were able to re-anchor in our same spot. Steve brought Bill & JoAnne back to their boat and we all had a quick lunch before heading out to visit one of the islands and do some snorkeling. JoAnne brought her spear and we saw and she killed 8 Lion Fish. We are used to spotting Lion fish under ledges, but down here they are just out swimming in the open. A great day, until after dinner we found another diesel leak with the generator and had trouble getting the internet cards to work. Life in paradise comes with a lot of problems.

Sunday another cloudy day with a few rain showers on & off through out the day. Ultra leaves the anchorage to head down to the Holandes Cays while we choose to wait another day hoping for better weather.

Monday we have a sunny day as we leave East Lemmon Cays to head over to the Holandes Cays. Wind too much on the nose so we motor with just the main sail for the 2 hour trip. The Holandes Cays are another group of about 20 islands behind a 7 mile reef, most uninhabited, they are also the furthest from the mainland so the waters are known for their clarity. We are anchored by 11:30 near Ultra & Nirvana Now who are out snorkeling. We snorkel the anchor and a near by reef before seeing rain heading towards us, back on the boat to close up all the windows. A nice passing down pour that is over in about 30 minutes. Ultra & Nirvana Now back on their boats for lunch call us to say they will be going back out to snorkel again after lunch and we join them. A great afternoon snorkeling seeing several nurse sharks up close and personal, and checking out the 2 closest islands.

Tuesday, another partly cloudy day, the plan was to go snorkel other reefs in the area.
Steve had a bad night with chills & fever again and it looked like his infection was coming back. We made the decision to go to the island of Nargana that has a big Kuna community with a clinic, trying one more local option before going to a major hospital in Panama City. Talk to Bill & JoAnne to set up check in time on the SSB radio to let them know how we are doing, and get underway by 11 AM. We have a nice sail over to Nargana and are anchored by 1:45, put the dinghy down and go over to find the clinic. Our guide book has a small map of the small community so we knew where the clinic was and that they close at 3. Steve checks in and shows his passport for ID, and it is just a short wait until we see the doctor. She speaks very little English, but Steve had translated his problem to Spanish and had his papers from the doctors in San Andres & Providencia which were both in Spanish. He managed to get across the problem and she brought us in to see another doctor, so she could consult with him. Steve had brought along his tablet which has Google Translate, so the doctor was typing in what he was recommending for treatment and we got to see the English version. Both doctors were very impressed with this and downloaded it to their phones. In addition to pill antibiotics Steve will get 5 days of IV antibiotic, twice a day, we start the first one that afternoon. It's a male nurse who administers the IV, and his hands are shaking so badly he misses the vein on the back of Steve's right hand and has to stab him a second time. He leaves the needle in his hand with a cap on it, and bandages it so it won't come out. Steve is grateful that he doesn't have to find a vein again, but having a needle poking out the back of his hand really limits what he can do for the next 5 days. The lab was already closed so no blood test or urine test could be done until the following morning. Back to the boat shortly before 5 PM, just in time to talk to Ultra on the SSB radio to let them know Steve has seen the doctor.

Wednesday, cloudy windless day, we are up early to go to the lab at 7 when it opens. Even though we get there a few minutes early, the lab guy is packing up to go visit other islands and tells Steve he will need to come back the following day. Steve gets another IV dose of antibiotic and we are back to the boat by 8, scheduled to go back at 4 for another IV dose. On our afternoon visit the doctor, via the Google translate on her phone tells us the lab tech will not be back until Monday, as he is visiting a lot of islands. Steve still has 3 more days of IV treatment so we will stay around here and hopefully our next 2 weeks in the San Blas will be much better than our first two weeks.

Link to pictures;

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