Sand Dollar Pays The Piper

Kanildup Island, San Blas, Kuna Yala, Panama 09o 28.964’ North 078o 38.333’ West

September 11, 2002

SAND DOLLAR, DAY 7, 9 p.m.: “This coast is fearsome!” Cade’s voice over the SSB was loud and clear, even though Sand Dollar already was a few hundred miles from us, beating along the coast of Colombia toward Venezuela. “We only made 12 miles over the last 24 hours. Tacked 12 times, and it’s still howling 35 knots. Man, I wouldn’t wish this trip on anyone.”

| | Cade and Lisa Johnson, from Sand Dollar* * *| We’d been talking to Cade and Lisa on the SSB every night since we parted ways in Linton, on the Panamanian coast—our radio date set at 2100. As _Ithaka_ headed east from Linton, back to the slow cruising pleasures of the San Blas, _Sand Dollar_ was plugging away on their uphill climb against the trades, around Cabo de la Vela and then Punta de Gallinas, two of the most feared and dangerous capes in the Caribbean, and toward the new job Cade had accepted. Out of the blue, while he and Lisa were cruising the San Blas, with plans to mosey around Panama for the season, he’d been offered an attractive position teaching high school chemistry and physics at the Escuela Bella Vista, a K-12 program in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Cade’s always wanted to be a teacher, and the prospect of doing so in South America enticed them, but the job was upwind, and the opening bells of the new school year were about to ring. They needed to hustle not to be tardy.

For a variety of reasons, Cade and Lisa decided to do the voyage in one and two-day hops, against the conventional wisdom of avoiding the cape and sailing it all in one fell swoop first way way north—like five days north—and then tacking south toward Aruba. Sand Dollar chose a close-to-shore route that would take them along the Colombian and Venezuelan coast, a geography whose few anchorages are inhospitable at the best of times. Other than the peaceful motorsail from San Blas to Cartagena, from then on they would head directly into already strong trades, which in that neighborhood are complicated by powerful and sudden winds funneling down the mountains, making for sometimes horrendous seas in relatively shallow water. On top of all that, they were making their way, alone, through serious drug-runner country, hoping not to stumble into the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time.


| | Two heads are better than one, is one message we get from this mola—especially true if you’re trying to beat more than 650 miles to windward.* * *| Every night at nine, a group of cruising sailors, spread out along the Panamanian coast—_Simba_, _Street Legal_, Gringo Joe, and _Ithaka_—tuned in to see how their friends on _Sand_ _Dollar_ were faring. Then, every morning on the Northwest Carribean and Panama Connection Nets, all the other cruisers exploring this region tuned in to pay close attention to the “Boats Underway” segment, when _Sand Dollar_ would check in, and everyone could chart their position in case of problems, no doubt getting some vicarious excitement without actually having to be out there. With twice-a-day radio contact, I think—I hope—_Sand Dollar_ felt that for a few moments, at least, they weren’t totally alone.

| | Mistud, a minuscule postage-stamp of sand making up one of the islands in the East Lemon group, is home to a family of about 12 people.* * *| With Lisa and Cade on our minds, the radio chats have been the psychological parentheses that embraced our days, and the contrast between our lives and their’s during this time has been dramatic. While they’ve been battling the elements, we’ve been moseying. We left Linton two days after they did, and made a lightning-fast 50-mile run back to the San Blas—through dramatic thunder-and-lightning squalls I could have done without. We arrived in the Lemon Cays, and had our anchor down by mid-afternoon. Here, we look forward to hanging out, swimming and fishing, and reconnecting with two Kuna families we’d enjoyed meeting when we’d stopped here briefly a few weeks before.

| | Every day, ulus sailed by Ithaka. The Kunas are avid and skilled sailors who take these tippy dugouts all over the San Blas every day.* * *| The East Lemons form a horseshoe- shaped anchorage with reefs and islands corralling 300 degrees. Depths ranges from 6 to 40 feet; we’re in 15. Around us are picture-postcard cays packed with coconut palms. On each of the islands are a couple of huts where Kuna families live and work. Lenny, an 18-year-old who lives on one of the islands, regularly sells us freshly caught fish and lobster, when I haven’t caught our own, and one day he gave me a tour of the best cuts in the several reefs in which to hunt. We’ve visited his family in their hut several times, and bought traditional Kuna bread from them. One of his cousins has a small propane stove and is a first-class baker. They also have a separate hut, as do most island families, for smoking fish. Without electricity for refrigeration, it’s a necessity, and with plenty of smoked fish I feel as if I’m home in a fine deli.


Every day, lots of ulus sail and paddle past Ithaka. At first they stopped so the women could show us their molas; we acquired a couple more, and now they know us and just wave as they go by. A large ulu came by one day, and to our astonishment, an enterprising man offered fresh lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, carrots, eggs, mangos, and cucumbers from the mainland. His prices were high, naturally, but what an incredible service! We’re in the lap of luxury out here, especially compared to Sand Dollar. I think of us as being like the remora I saw riding the back of a spotted eagle ray. Effortlessly along for the ride.

| | Two remora, with their suction-cup heads, lived under Ithaka for the week we idled at Green Island, thinking, I suppose that she was a great lazy blue fish who provided them with plenty of food.* * *| _SAND DOLLAR_, DAY 9, 9: “You guys are _STILL_ _still_ at the Lemons?” asked Lisa over the SSB. I sheepishly admitted we hadn’t budged an inch, and didn’t plan to for several more days. We’re the only boat here and loving it.

“I wish we were there, too,” she said. “The boat’s doing great, but she’s taking a real beating. I’m finding salt water in places I never knew salt water could get into!” Sand Dollar was pushing onward, under reefed main and jib, and Lisa described some of the Venezuelan coast they were passing as barren desert. “There isn’t a tree or anything green anywhere. Just mountains of sand as far as the eye can see. No houses. No towns. We haven’t seen any ships in days. We haven’t seen another sailboat since we left Cartagena. It’s very lonely out here.”



| | We spent many enjoyable days with Moisellio and his grandmother, Punabebe, who live with their family on another of the pretty Lemon Cays.* * *|

Suddenly, I feel very lucky not to be on a schedule, not to have to be anywhere. The San Blas is incredibly seductive, and life here is generally undemanding. We’ve met boats who literally haven’t left Kuna Yala in years! They extend and re-extend their visas. Reg and Debbie on Runner are good examples; they’ve been here going on five years now. Reg explained it to me one Monday night in an anchorage so clear it’s known as “The Swimming Pool.”


“You think it’s ever going to get any better than this? Look where we’re anchored. It’s in a totally protected lagoon. The water’s crystal clear.” (He’s right, you can see starfish 30 feet below you.) “The sand is perfect holding,” he continued. “The diving’s great, and if you don’t kill anything, don’t worry because every couple days some Kunas in an ulu come through with fish and crab and lobster. You can even get’m to bring you out diesel or gasoline. Tell me, you think it’s going to be any better anywhere else? Well, I don’t, so hell, we’re not leaving any time soon!” Reg and Deb are institutions here, considered by their fellow cruisers to be The Mayors of The Swimming Pool. They organize a weekly Monday night pot-luck supper and garbage bonfire, which brings cruisers together from all over, and Reg is one of the net controllers on The Panama Connection Net. If there’s something, anything, you need to know, ask Reg. He’s always happy to help.

| | Ithaka‘s bow with a backdrop of pure turquoise, anchored in The Swimming Pool* * *| _SAND DOLLAR_, DAY 14, 9 p.m.: “We got a problem,” said Cade. “We’re getting pretty low on fuel, and we gotta find some out here pretty soon. We’re burning it faster than you can believe trying to motorsail into these winds!”

Considering the isolation of where they were, this was not good. With beastly headwinds and continuous motor-sailing, Sand Dollar found themselves getting pretty light pretty fast. Cade is a sailor, first and foremost, and hates motoring, so while some cruisers can tell you precisely what their engines consume in any conditions, being more a purist, he’d been hypothesizing about how much fuel Sand Dollar would consume under continuous motor-sailing conditions. Now he knew, the news wasn’t good, and he was needing to write some new fuel-consumption equations. They’d have to fill up somewhere along the coast the next day. Trouble was, there was nothing on the charts that offered a place to duck in.

SAND DOLLAR, DAY 15, 9 p.m.: “I just paid more for 50 gallons of diesel than I ever paid for fuel in my whole life, and more than I’m ever going to pay again,” Cade said. Somehow, on the VHF Cade and Lisa had managed to contact a Colombian boat who could bring diesel out to them, but the man gouged them criminally on the price. “But the money was only half of it. We had to do the fuel transfer at sea, and the seas were high. The transfer was awkward, messy, and punishing. We took a beating just getting the stuff. No major damage, but lots of hammering.”

That’s when I really started feeling guilty, because our only hammering in the last week or so has been on conch, lobster, and crab shells.

| |

| | The crabs in the San Blas are enormous; one has enough sweet white meat in its claws and body to make a meal for two people. And they’re easily captured on the reefs, so long as you’re willing to dive down into the water where they’re hiding, and wear good strong gloves. Kunas sell them to cruisers for $2.* * *| _SAND DOLLAR_, DAY 16, 9 p.m.: “Well, we got another problem,” Cade said. “Something’s fouled our prop. Putting the boat in reverse didn’t untangle it. It’s pitch black outside, so I can’t do anything about it. The wind is 32 knots on the nose, and we can’t make much way in it. We’ll just have to try to stay clear of any dangers through the night, and inch forward.” For the first time, ever, we could hear the frustration in his voice. We all offered to take turns coming on frequency every few hours during the night, but he said no thanks. We assured him we’d be on the morning net to find out how well they made it through.

SAND DOLLAR, DAY 17, 8:20 a.m.: “Man, diving that prop was a mess,” said Cade, when we checked in with each other just before the net started. “Sure enough, we had some line wrapped tightly around the shaft. I was finally able get under there and cut it off. That one scared me.” Cade had regained his chipper southern Southern accent. There was much relief all around. They were on the move again.

SAND DOLLAR, DAY 18, 9 p.m.: “We’re getting close, finally, to turning the corner!” said Lisa. “We needed a lay day to get some rest, and the wind is howling anyway, so we’re staying anchored here tonight. We swam ashore this morning and walked around. I made Cade a birthday cake, and all’s well, but this coast has been brutal. Very dramatic, but really brutal. We’d never recommend this route to anybody.”

Bernadette and I look at each other. What an ordeal.

“You guys still at Green?” Yes, Lisa, my friend, now we’re tucked in behind Kanildup. On the Gringo charts it’s been renamed Green Island. We like it here. The outside coral reef is huge and spectacular for diving, and we’re planning to stay here for a while longer, maybe forever.

“Sounds so good…” she sighed.

Getting from one island to another down here is decidedly not brutal. You need good light to squeak between the reefs when entering and leaving anchorages, but there’s little swell inside the archipelago, and distances from one stunning anchorage to another rarely exceed 10 miles. Cruisers in the San Blas (Sand Dollar included, when they were here) joke about actually raising “the white thing that lives under the sail cover.” Most days, conditions are so gentle that to get from one place to another, even though you may start out by sailing there, usually you end up with a motor-sailing experience. The only sail that gets to see the light of day on a regular basis is the genny.

These days, there’s not too much wind. The exception, of course, is when some squirrelly and powerful breeze briefly attacks from the mainland. This happens every few days or so during the rainy season, mostly when you’re not expecting it, which generally means at night. There can be sudden blasts of wind funneling down from the green rampart of mountains along the coast, which are only a few miles away. These wind storms, sometimes with heavy rains and sometimes with none, can knock your socks off at a consistent 30-40 knots, generally out of the southwest, and last for less than a couple of hours, then peter out to nothing, leaving us suffused with adrenaline and not likely to return quickly to snooze. (Nocturnal excitements have always been my excuse for afternoon naps.) The weather systems in the San Blas are sandwiched between offshore and mountain forces, so some days we get an hour or two of black skies with torrential rains that can fill our dinghy to overflow. Then, 10 minutes later, the sky turns clear blue and bright, and during all of this there may be fewer than five knots of wind and sometimes none at all. It’s eerie. But I think of Sand Dollar, and I don’t complain.

So while our buddies are thrashing ahead, we’re incredibly impressed and proud of them but equally glad not to be living their dream up close. San Blas cruising is a much easier kettle of fish. And I’ve always been up front about being a wuss.

| | The Campos family, who live on Mistud.* * *| _SAND DOLLAR_, DAY 23, 8:20 a.m.: On the SSB, it’s pure jubilation from Lisa, who boomed out to us (and to everyone else that was “lurking” before the morning net) that they were anchored one quarter mile from the yacht club in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Safe, sound, pooped, and exuberant after 23 days of beating, frequently in gale-force conditions. They’d bargained for precious fuel, and successfully performed risky transfers. They’d anchored in unlikely, god-forsaken, and sometimes spooky places. They’d prevailed against wind, wave and conventional wisdom. Now, within the hour, they would motor proudly up to the dock that would be their new home for the next school year. In their tanks they had but 10 gallons of water and 10 gallons of fuel.

“Sort of skinny on the liquids,” Lisa laughed, “but we made it!” Damn straight they did, and every sailor in the western Caribbean who’d been following their aruduous trek for the past three weeks breathed a collective sigh of relief, and saluted them.

Nice going, Sand Dollar.

e-mail the Bernons: [email protected]


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