Welcome to South America

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A favourite speech from Seinfeld begins with George Costanza setting the scene: “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man sending back soup at a deli.” Indeed, many of the crew would, that day, refund their soup and also cheetos. The wind was coming from behind us as our sailboat, which suddenly felt too small to make this passage, bobbed, weaved, dropped, and heaved in the swell. Contrary to what you might expect, a tailwind is probably one of the worst winds you can have sailing. Why? Well, I’m going to get geeky on you here but it’s because a sail actually works a lot like an airplane’s wing: that is, the wind doesn’t actually fill the sail and blow it forward. Instead, it runs along the curvature of both sides of the sail. Because the same volume of air blows across both sides, the air on the outside of the curve of the sail is actually more spread out than on the inside of the sail and that means there’s higher pressure inside the sail than out. What THAT means in turn is that the sailboat is actually sucked forward more than it is blown much like a plane is sucked upwards into the sky. This phenomenon means that wind blowing about 70 degrees from the front actually gives you the best speed and most stable configuration. What we had was a sail filling and pushing the boat along and then going slack as the boat reached the wind’s speed then jerking taut again as the boat slowed. In addition to the boat not being pulled in one direction and therefore rolling back and forth. (NOTE: This continues part 1, Sailing San Blas, below)

Still, I didn’t get sick. Others did, definitely, but that Dramamine was looking like the best $5 I ever spent. There was nothing to do except sit on the side and stare out at the waves and distant islands we were sailing past or standing beside the mast and looking off the bow as though it were your boat. Thus, it was the most relaxed I’ve been on this entire trip, with no pressure to be moving on to the next place (after all, we were!), study Spanish, write my blog, edit photos, or even read my next book which is Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood a very thoughtful bon voyage gift from Barb. I just sat and watched and contemplated and occasionally listened to music. I could get used to sailing, I think, although by the last day I was getting comfortable enough to not only start studying my Spanish some more but also working on photos belowdecks as we plugged along. At least for a little while.

Kuna, Ya!

We arrived in the Kuna town of San Ignacio de Tupile a bit after 5 PM and immediately headed for land where we noticed for the first time that land felt funny as opposed to comfortable. Some of us even walked a bit off-kilter though I wasn’t really at that point yet, or at least no more so than usual given my tiptoe tendencies. And anyway we were soon too wrapped up in Kuna attention to notice. What a friendly and warm people! After reading about how isolationist and ‘tolerant but unwelcoming’ the Kuna are meant to be according to the idiot that writes the Panama section of the Lonely Planet (easily the most unresearched and throwaway section of the Central American LP) we found them excited to see us and eager to converse with us. In the main square kids would either run up to us and ask us to take their photo or approach shyly or just pose and hope we’d notice. The older kids would be brimming with questions and for us guys the eligible females were definitely curious if we had ‘esposas’. None of this was money related – we were twice approached by people looking to collect a $1 visitor tax but the others never asked for anything aside from our attention.

While we were standing in the square distant explosions, pops, and bangs approached with shouting. Suddenly, the square was awash with Kuna in red with wooden weapon facsimilies like rifles and swords running around and shooting at each other and us. They were rehearsing for their Independence Day celebration and as quickly as all the play fighting had started it moved further along the village. We left the village at sundown for the boat and after another great dinner and a bit of chit chat we went to sleep. Alcohol in any quantities was basically no longer an option after the day’s sail so we had our beer and realized we had purchased far too much alcohol for the voyage. There was no swimming here (especially after seeing the pit toilets over the ocean, Slumdog style) or beautiful island but the village was a unique experience all its own and we felt lucky to have seen it.

Day of the Dolphins

We had another big day of sailing the next morning but everybody had found their sea legs by then and nobody was sick at all. We broke up the trip by stopping for lunch outside a small group of islands and yet more Kuna villages. The afternoon sail was unbelievable: not only were we all in good spirits as the bouncing of the boat no longer phased us, but we saw no less than five separate pods of dolphins including one pod that was very curious and friendly and loved the sound of us cheering and clapping. They’d flip and jump and splash and race alongside the boat and probably hung around for half an hour. By the fifth pod, half the people couldn’t be bothered to look up from their books but I think we all knew it was pretty amazing. My perception of the ocean changed a bit that day. It’s kind of like wandering through the jungle. At first all you see is trees but with enough time you see there is plenty of life hiding among them and sometimes not hiding at all. Dolphins have that peculiar distinction of not having been hunted by man and are one of the few animals out there with whom, despite reckless tuna fishermen the world over, we still have good relations. This, to me, is what being in the Galapagos will be like and I’m very excited to make it there if I can.

Night of the Storm

We anchored that night at Isla Pino which was again beautiful and also the last of the San Blas islands we would visit. There was a really strong current but some braved it anyway and while they were ashore we realized that our anchor hadn’t stuck and we’d drifted pretty far. Luckily we didn’t run aground or get hung up on some reef and we motored back up and anchored again as they swam doggedly back to the ship. We all sat on deck and watched the last sunset we would see over Central America which not coincidentally was beautiful. That night the wind really picked up and the boat was rocking something fierce but again, we’d all adjusted to the sea by then and only Phil in his hammock, swinging in the wind, had any problem sleeping. The captain asked us to wake him up if his computer started beeping, as it would mean we’d drifted more than 100m from our anchor point but thankfully there was no such emergency. We awoke in the morning afloat, intact, and anxious to complete our journey and see the coast of South America appearing on the horizon.

Yes, our last day had arrived and the agenda was nothing but sailing and fried bananas wrapped, interestingly enough, in bacon. I have grown to dislike two foods in my time here: beans and fried bananas. I started liking them, moved to loving them, but have since consumed more of both then any ordinary non-Latin human could be expected to endure and now can hardly stand the taste of either. Not green beans, mind you, just the refried variety that are part of every economical meal from here to Tillajuana. We sailed and sailed and yet more dolphin encounters to the point that I surreptitiously kept an eye on our captain to see if he was chumming the waters but I found no evidence in the end. Our last dolphin encounter came as the green hills of Colombia were growing large on the horizon, our first sight of South America and our last sight from the bow of Da Capo. We anchored at Sapzurro, right on the Colombian border and in the heart of the Darien Gap with no roads or cars, just boats to bring supplies and people in and out. From there, back on to a lancha with all our worldly possessions and we said our goodbyes to Mats, Dina, and Mateo then motored off in the distance to the next coastal town of Capurgana. We arrived just in time to visit the immigration office and get our passports stamped. “Welcome,” the officer said to me, “to South America.”

View Part 2 of San Blas Photos


Mark Single said...


I stumbled across your blog through phil's facebook. You're a good writer, keep it up! I will definitely keep reading.

Canada is frigid.

Dean said...

Mark, thanks for that! Phil tells me you're a really talented writer so that's a big complement and in any case it's always nice to get some feedback. I'll try my best not to disappoint!


PS So I hear. Hopefully that clears up by the time I get back. :)