Thursday, March 15, 2012

Taking It Slow in the San Blas Islands of Panama

The wind has been blowing mightily here in the San Blas islands of Panama,  reminiscent of the Christmas winds in the Eastern Caribbean. It's not  as dire as the blizzards of northern winter but it does encourage hibernation. Sleeping under the fore-hatch, it's a choice between the howl of 18 or 20 knots through a small crack, or the atmospheric pressure pouring on the skin through a large one.

"Atlantic ridge causing strong isobar squeeze in the central Caribbean and off the traditionally windy corner of Colombia": these conditions also bring big seas to Panama. Recent weather reports from Chris Parker have used words like 'humongus', 'immense', 'ludicrous'; referring to 15' seas at 9 second intervals, certainly not something you'd want to beat into in 20 knots + on your way to Cartagena, and pretty uncomfortable coming the other way too.

The outer anchorages are full of current; it's like trying to swim up the stream of a faucet. Many spots are too churned up for snorkeling (not to mention the occasional Portuguese-man-of-war stinging jellyfish and other creatures blowing through). Only the kite surfers, of whom there are a growing number, are really getting exercised.
Iguana swimming
IGUANA: He must have fallen out of a tree somewhere - sure was happy to clamber into our dinghy, where he curled up in the shade under the seat until he was delivered ashore. I'm glad I knew he was there before I hopped in!

The air near those crashing outer reefs is full of salt spray, which means the inside of the boat gradually gets that way too. The up-side is that the wind generator has no trouble keeping the batteries topped up; fortunate for us because it's also been overcast  for days, 20 and counting. The gray sky carpet inhibits the solar panels,  snorkeling, and a small part of the spirit.

The sailing, however,  is fantastic, at least in the flat water behind the reefs.  We even had a close little 'race' the other day - race being defined as two boats going in the same direction. Each boat had excuses ready in case of loss; luckily we weren't the ones who had to use them!

The cruising fleet, now numbering about 120 vessels in the more populated western San Blas, flows and ebbs between anchorages in random rolling clusters. It's interesting to watch how the proximity of a cell tower, the route of the veggie boat,  the chance of no-see-ums near the mangroves, and social events like birthday parties, determine where and when and with who(m?) the fleet disperses. 

More about the overcast skies. We're used to clouds over the mainland mountains, and a certain haze which can make the mountains difficult to see even from islands only a couple miles out. But it's been a long time between bursts of sunshine. Some people believe the wind has spread the moisture from the mountain clouds more out to sea. Others mention the cosmic radiation associated with a current uptick in solar flares as contributing to low-level cloudiness. Or it might be 'normal' like warm weather in March up north is 'normal' sometimes. It's easy to be skeptical about these hypotheses, but it sure is cloudy, harder to read the water and I miss the lovely colors of the sunlit sea.
SAILING ULU: there's a wall of mountains not three miles behind us, barely visible.

And, recent solar activity has in fact disrupted several GPS receivers and chart plotters. If it keeps up, we'll all be lost, since, in this land of reef, shoal and surprising bottom contours, everyone relies on waypoints and tracks from previous visits, and tries to travel to a new place when the visibility is fine.

The 'rainy day' feel of things is not unwelcome. We've been chasing down inside projects, including some pesky plumbing problems, varnishing, and general installations, repairs and maintenance. Spring cleaning,bread-baking, hand-laundry, all that domestic stuff which takes time, and a dash of Zen. Repacking lockers, curating our collections of stuff. Much of what I try to get rid of, Doug snatches back, and vice versa, so progress is erratic.

Reading. It's hard to believe, but in these Kindle days, some people are adamant about getting real books OFF their boat.  With a Kindle 'shelf' full of books I actually selected for myself, my own reading habits have changed. Feeling book-rich, I've become more of a nibbler than a savorer, and less of a hoarder. I'd still rather read a real book, admire the cover and fold down the corners. But books I want to read indubitably come my way more readily on the Kindle. Modern times, mon.

This dry season is what the Panamanians consider summer, but it has had a hearth-focused feel of winter to me. In any event, balmy spring will soon be upon us, and new life. I'm ready!