Sitting Around The Pool

"The Swimming Pool," Banedup, San Blas, Panama 09° 35.368’ North 078° 40.585’ West

September 26, 2002

The past two weeks have been the essence of what cruising the San Blas is about. We’ve firmly planted our hook in a bunch of gorgeous anchorages, all of them well protected from the ocean swell by circles of reefs and cays. Breezes waft down our hatches unobstructed. The occasional rain shower keeps our tanks full. We’ve spent our days diving and snorkeling, slowly working through the normal routine of boat projects—one always pops up as soon as the one before it is solved—hanging out together, and with new and old friends. Regularly, ulus come up to Ithaka, rowed or sailed by Kunas selling their freshly caught fish or crab.

| | photo courtesy of Karen Wolfe| | Each of the San Blas islands is unique, and picture-postcard beautiful. * * *| One of the several times over the past months that we found ourselves at pretty Green Island (we continue to gravitate there), we shared the idyll with _Dutchess_, a 60-foot Morgan. On board was a fellow named Erwin, from Holland, whom we’d met briefly at one of the weekly potlucks in The Swimming Pool a couple of months before. Erwin was singlehanding _Dutchess_; his wife Kris had flown back home from Nargana two months before when she learned that her mother was dying. Kris still hadn’t returned, and Erwin missed her. We invited him over for dinner, and that night began a friendship that has been a major part of our joy in the San Blas.

Erwin’s a doer, and we had an enormous number of interests in common—books, political orientation, humor, ideas. An engineer by training, and a computer software designer by profession, he loves to take things apart, figure them out, and put them back together, making him a curiosity (and a great help) to Douglas. Also an avid diver and spear-fisherman, he’s been here now for about four months. From the moment we met him we’ve spent even more time than usual face-down in the water exploring places he’d already sussed out, and that we hadn’t found yet. I was pretty excited about that. And with Erwin and Douglas on the program, and each egging the other on to free-dive deeper and longer, we all always came back from our diving excursions with fish for dinner.


| | Douglas and Erwin kick back aboard Ithaka. The two liked to do their boat projects together, then go fishing. * * *| Oh, and the man can cook. From the first day we were together, we began to take turns making dinner, and it’s been fun to concoct delicacies knowing there was company with whom to share things. One night, Douglas made Thai fish cakes; another night Erwin steamed crab with tarragon butter; another, Douglas made fish curry with saffron rice; another, Erwin made the finest seafood bisque we’ve ever eaten. (His recipe is below.) I loved watching these two perform their cook-offs, all the while chatting alternators, or the Middle East, or finer cooking techniques, or electrical systems, or marital relationships, or computers, or the tanking stock market, or equalizing batteries. And for my part, I enjoyed making all manner of sauces, hors d’oeuvres, and special desserts, and then watching the boys gobble them up. Let’s put it this way: None of us has lost any weight over the past month or so, but we _have_ managed to solve a few world problems.

Off and on,_ Ithaka_ and Dutchess have remained together for several weeks, meandering here and there, but mostly staying put when we liked a place. One day, Erwin told us he wanted to show us a secluded anchorage behind Niakalubir in the central Holandes, a place he’d explored and enjoyed before.

“The fishing’s terrific in the strong current between the reefs,” he said, trying to entice us. “No one ever anchors in there because, if you don’t know the way, it’s pretty tricky to get through the reef, and to squeak around all the coral heads.” These dangers made us hesitate at first, although, naturally, challenges such as these pose no obstacle for Erwin. In fact, he seems to get a sparkle in his eye when discussing dodgy prospects. Emboldened (OK, shamed) by his stirring confidence, we said we’d give it a try on the next calm, bright day.


| | Mola by Lisa Harris| | The boys went scuba diving to explore the reefs, and to catch dinner. * * *| Before that day, however, we boogied back to the mainland village of Nargana to pick up our friend Barry from Washington, who was joining us for 10 days. Right on schedule, the little puddle-jumper landed and screeched to a halt on the dirt runway, and Barry emerged looking excited and suitably pale-faced from the city—his lanky 6-foot frame towering by more than a foot over the teeny Kunas who emerged with him. We bundled him and his heavy duffle bags (the bulk of which contained spare parts and gear for _Ithaka_. Thanks, Barry!), into our inflatable, and within an hour we’d whisked him away to the heart of Kuna Yala.

The anchorage into which we tiptoed, where Dutchess was anchored waiting for us, was indeed a two-mile meandering path through two vast reef systems. But the day was calm and clear, and with the sun at our backs the darker patchy colors of the reef were visible against the sandier clear path. We turned this way and that along the liquid path and finally made it in without incident, with Douglas up at the first spreaders and Barry probably thinking such maneuvers were a normal matter of course on Ithaka. Hardly! When we’d passed through the worst of it, I glanced back over my shoulder, into the sun and toward the reef from which we’d just emerged. All I could see was blinding glare—no reef at all was visible from that direction—a sobering reminder of the importance of a cloudless sky, and the sun behind you, when you want to undertake such negotiations.

| | Barry and our soon-to-be dinner of Kuna crab* * *| We found a clear place to drop the hook in 20 feet, _Dutchess_ and _Ithaka_ had the spot to ourselves, and it was a lovely place. Two cays full of nodding coconut palms and fringed in white beach lay to the south. To the north, east, west and southwest were dramatic crashing reefs. Under us was turquoise water. “This is too much!” said Barry, looking around at the scene. “It’s almost a cliche.” And it was spectacular fishing territory, too. Erwin, Douglas, and Barry did some scuba diving a couple of days, we hung out, did lots of reading, rum drinking, swimming, cooking, strolling the cays, and staying up late talking.


After a couple days, we moved on, to show Barry a different world. Splitting from Dutchess, we set out for the Lemon Cays, to introduce him to a couple of families we’d gotten to know there. Sitting in the huts of the Hernandez and Campos families, he got to see what real life is like in Kuna Yala. The Kuna women showed him how a high-quality mola is made, and he got a feel for how things are here. And, of course, then we took him to the liquid turquoise of the famous Swimming Pool.

During the week, as we snorkeled the reefs almost every day, I loved showing Barry how the colorful little Christmas-tree worms who live on the coral heads, with their beautiful rainbow of blooms, quickly retract into a hard nub when you put your finger near them and tickle the water, then how they emerge and bloom again as you hover and watch. I showed him the fish “cleaning” stations, and how the bigger fish go there to have the little fish nibble away at their scales. I showed him how the peaceful nurse sharks sleep under the coral shelves, and how you free dive down to find them. Thrillingly, spotted eagle rays often soared by us, a show of grace and dramatic effect that always takes my breath away. I could see through Barry’s mask that his eyes were wide.

| | The turquoise water of The Swimming Pool, where Ithaka is suspended in 12 feet, and we can see everything on the bottom as clear as can be.* * *| Before we could imagine that 10 days had gone by, our time with our friend had vanished, and we scurried back to Nargana with a now-brown and mellow Barry. We hugged him goodbye-for-now, promising we’d do our best to be at his daughter’s wedding later in the year.


Ithaka was a tomb after Barry left. After his plane take off, we did the same, back to The Swimming Pool for the Monday night get-together. Often such social events send us fleeing in the opposite direction, but this week we were still feeling like social gadflies.

When we’d arrived in the San Blas three months before, we’d enjoyed our first Monday night experience in The Pool, and meeting some of the other cruisers. They’d come from throughout the archipelago to gather for the get-together at 5:00 on Potluck Island. We hadn’t been in this neighborhood since then, and it was nice to rejoin the group. Now their names and boats were familiar, as we’d crossed paths with many of them and heard them on the VHF and the Panama Connection HF net.

| | Photo courtesy of Marty Baker| | One Kuna Yala beach is more beautiful than the next, and all invite long strolls in the surf. * * *|

Today, Ithaka is anchored in 12 feet, in the magnificent swath of turquoise water that gives The Swimming Pool it’s nickname, and that wraps itself around Potluck Island. This swath is where the cruising boats like to drop their hooks. We anchored at the back of the group, one of the last stragglers in. Ahead of us are an interesting collection of cruising boats, some pristine and new looking, some a bit more battle-worn, all with hailing ports from all over the world. There’s Gloria and Mike on Windfree, Herb and Margo on Bokonon, Reg and Debbie on Runner, Dan on Caliope; Yariv and Iris on Karni—these folks are the regulars here in the eastern San Blas; all of them have been coming to this very spot for a few years.

| | Karin and Carl on Reliance set out from San Fransisco on their 46-footer (the first boat they’d ever owned!), and learned to sail along the way.* * *| Also not far from us are Pnina and Yoav on _Summer Wind_, Israeli friends we’d made back in the Rio last summer and then re-met in the Bay Islands of Honduras! They’re anchored over in The Hot Tub, which is what the regulars call the protected sandy swath before you get into The Pool. And a few boats are anchored in what’s called The Jacuzzi—John on _Gabrielle_, Carl and Karin on _Reliance_, Liz and Roy on _Lisa_. And right beside us is _Dutchess_. He zoomed over to _Ithaka_ in the dinghy when he arrived to tell us with great relief that he’s gotten an e-mail message from Kris, via SailMail, confirming that she arrives back from Holland in a few days.

At 5:00, we bundled into a carry-bag our curried-lentil dip and garlic bread, and our Merlot and glasses, climbed into the dink, and puttered across The Pool to the island. The get-together was already in full swing, and although there were lots of topics bandying about, the prevailing ones around the bonfire were the Middle East and the tanking stock market. Lots of cruisers are nervous these days, as many have their 401Ks and savings largely tied up in the market, and without paying jobs it’s nerve-racking, to say the least, to watch reservoirs evaporate. Barry, Erwin, Douglas, and I have had this conversation several times over the past two weeks, trying to reconcile our shrinking savings against our plans for the future.

Having Barry with us was eye-opening in another way as well. He brought with him all kinds of news magazines containing political and economic analysis, and these have been sobering. I’d been starved for such news and insight, and the BBC and NPR radio reports are good, but often hard to get clearly, and just not enough.

| | Photo courtesy of Karen Wolfe| | Kuna women wearing their most precious traditional breast-plate jewelry * * *| But what can you do? Cruisers, by nature and circumstance, have a tendency toward the philosophical, and everyone said that they were still satisfied to have gotten out of the grind when they did, that to be home right now and trying to go cruising would be do-able, but perhaps emotionally more difficult, and that there was no place else they’d rather be than right here, right now.

“Our savings have taken a hit, like everybody else’s,” said Roy, “but we have very few expenses out here. We’ll manage.”

“At least it’s a lot cheaper to live on a cruising boat than it was to live back home,” said Carl. “And this is a lot more fun.”

“We’re soooo lucky,” said Margo.

Everyone nodded. Our thoughts and plans swirling in our heads, we watched the bonfire reaching for the sky.

e-mail the Bernons: [email protected]

Dutchess Seafood Bisque Shells from 3 lbs of lobster (or heads from 2 lbs of shrimp) 9 tbsp. butter 1 liter water 1/2 cup white wine 2 tbsp. tomato puree 1 chopped onion 2 cloves garlic (or more to taste) 1 bay leaf 2 tbsp flour 1 egg yolk 1/2 cup cream (or substitute canned cream, such as Nestle’s)

| | The Kuna building tradition is to keep a separate hut for cooking meals and steaming fish. This cooking hut belongs to the Hernandez family on Banadupu in the Lemon Cays.* * *| Put the lobster shells in a plastic bag and pound them with a mallet until they’re all broken up. Saute onions, garlic and broken shells in 6 tbsp butter for about 15 minutes. Add water, wine, tomato puree and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain. Mix the rest of the butter with 3 tbsp flour, add to the stock and simmer for another 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Adjust seasoning (salt, pepper). Mix egg yolk with cream in a small bowl. Pour a small amount of soup in it and stir; this gradually raises the temperature of the cream so that it won’t separate. Then pour it back into the soup very slowly, whisking constantly. Taste again and serve immediately. Garnish with leftover bits of lobster or shrimp, if you have any. Avoid reheating, as boiling will ruin it. Serves four as a first course or lunch.

The Perfect Place To VisitThe San Blas Islands, although isolated culturally, are located close enough to the mainland of Panama that traveling there is relatively easy. If you’re cruising your own boat, and you’d like guests to join you from the United States or Europe, there are many convenient options. If you’d like to charter, there are two options.Flying Guests InThere are airstrips all along the mainland of the San Blas, which are serviced by commercial flights originating in Panama City. A one-way ticket is about $30 and can be purchased a day in advance. Most cruisers in the western San Blas use the airports at Nargana and Porvenir for picking up and dropping off their guests.Chartering in the San BlasThere are two options, both are crewed, and excellent value:1) San Blas Sailing Specializing in charters from two to 14 days on mid-size, somewhat basic boats sailed by their live-aboard owners, explorations of the reefs and some of the 368 islands, visits to remote Kuna villages, snorkeling, fishing, and kayaking. (All equipment is onboard.) Also available is a 65-foot powerboat, and a large catamaran, which also charter on the west coast of Panama, and on which guests can do a Panama Canal Transit. Contact SBS in Panama City: Tel/fax: (507) 214-3446 or (507) 687-8521. Website: Email: [email protected]

| | Erwin and Kris on Dutchess* * *| 2) Chartering Dutchess Erwin and Kris Pino have been cruising their well-maintained Morgan 60 for three years, and they’ll be in the San Blas for another month or so. _Dutchess_ is a first-class boat, with all the modern conveniences: diving equipment/compressor; two large staterooms with queen-size beds; air conditioning; email availability; washing machine/dryer. Kris and Erwin take groups of two to four guests for five to 20 days, and encourage active participation in the sailing of the boat, if guests wish. After the San Blas, _Dutchess_ will cruise north to the Bay Islands of Honduras in November and December; and Belize from January through March (dates tentative, depending on the plans of their charter guests). Contact the Pinos via email: [email protected]


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