#41—The San Blas Archipelago
Thursday March 22nd we sailed to Green Island (Kanildup) to wait for fuel, delinquent in arrival because of mechanical problems with the delivery boat. There, we mostly rested, swam, snorkeled; caught up on e-mail and finances; and worked on our web site logs. It's amazing how much electricity is required to create these web site logs while we're cruising: two computers, digital camera, occasional scanner. Gone are the days of oil lamps and paper chartsat least for us. This high tech boat needs power. Thankfully we had the engine running again to supply ample amp charges for our batteries. We loved every noisy minute of engine time, not to mention those wonderful water maker pumps that thumped along under the galley sink.
On Friday the 23rd we made a trip in a dugout canoe to Rio Azucar, one of the nearby island villages. This island should have been named island of the children, because of 300 residents, 150 of them were Kuna children under the age of 10.
A quick tour of the village attracted virtually every kid in sight, and every single one of them wanted to hold our hands. All hopes of taking some candid photos were dashed when the kids discovered that we had arrived. Weor I should say the digital cameraimmediately became the center of attention.
Every island village has a school where the kids learn Spanish, in addition to their native Kuna language. Some schools even teach English, and a few of the kids tested their skills with a few carefully chosen words, such as "hey!"
Outside of school, there's not much for the Kuna children to do. There's certainly no place to go, other than another village, which is pretty similar to their own. Some of the larger villages, such as Nargana, have DTV satellites, and we occasionally found kids clustered around a TV watching cartoons.
Monday the 26th we returned to Nargana (Rio Diablo) where Federico had a barrel of diesel waiting for us. Our (diesel) ship had finally come in. We made sure that the diesel we purchased came from Panama and not Colombia. The Colombian diesel often contains water, which is about the worst thing you can possibly put into diesel engine. Prior to making this transaction, I asked our contact Federico, on three distinct occasions, about the quality of this diesel:
Karl: "¿Esta diesel es limpio?" ("This diesel is clean?")
Federico: "Si." (Yes.)
Karl: "¿No hay aqua en esta diesel?" ("There is no water in this diesel?")
Federico: "¡NO!" ("No," he said, emphatically.)
Karl: "Bueno, porque es muy importante. ¿Comprendo?" ("Good, because this is very important. Understand?")
Federico: "Si." ("Yes.")
I watched Federico arrive with another man in a long boat powered by an outboard motor. They slowly hand pumped the diesel into the tank.
With the long-awaited diesel fuel in the tank, we decided to return to Green Island for a few days of repair work and route planning. We motored out of the small bay when, after about four minutes, the engine died. As the engine sputtered out, full of water, a small old man approached in his dugout canoe and motioned us to turn port. Now I know why: we drifted onto the edge of a shallow mud bar in the bay and grounded. So there we were: firmly stuck in the mud, and no engine to maneuver with. My stomach dropped out through the bottom of my feet.
The old man tried to pry Andanté out of the mud with a long stickall 15 tons of her. (She's a big girl.) Becky yelled in Spanish, "We need more strength. The strength of 20-men!" He smiled, turned, and paddled off toward the village.
I jumped into the dinghy while Becky lowered our main anchor and 150-feet of chain into its bow. I motored out, away from the mud bar, and dropped the anchor overboard. I had the idea of first getting the engine running and then towing Andanté out of the muck by pulling in the anchor.
Meanwhile, another hopeful solution emerged. Gregoire de Brichambaut, a cruiser from Paris, motored over in his dinghy with a spare 150-foot line, which we attached to a halyard on our main mast. His idea was to pull the boat sideways from the top of the mast, and allow the keel to slip out of the mud. "Really?" I asked incredulously. "I've done it four times already," he smiled.
We attached his line to a spare halyard, and he sped off to salvage us. It turned out that the size of his dinghy engine wasn't sufficient to dislodge us. So I motored out with our 10-horse power engine on my dinghy, and the two of us blasted outboards full power together. This didn't work either.
Gregoire suggested putting out the mainsail, which was perpendicular to the wind. Out came the mainsail. Gregoire pulled with his dinghy. Still nothing happened.
Gregoire suggested putting out the genoa. Out came the genoa. He pulled hard with his dinghy and, again, nothing happened. We were clearly, a stick-in-the-mud.
Then, we spotted three canoes rowing toward us from the island, with eight able-bodied men. I wasn't sure what their plan was, and thought that they probably came to watch the festivities. When they arrived, however, all of them jumped into the water and lined up along the keel. Their idea was to push us off the mud bank. Reinforcements, perhaps, enlisted by the old man in the canoe?
Gregoire drove my dinghy, attached to his dinghy piloted by his 8-year old son. Father and son opened both outboard motors full throttle, and took off like jet skis. The line attached to my halyard snapped out of the water sending spray six feet into the air, and Andanté leaned hard to port, with the toe rail close to the water's surface. Then, I signaled our Kuna reinforcements to push. The Kuna men screamed like a marauding invasion force, and pushed against the hull as if trying to topple the Berlin Wall, with freedom just on the other side within arm's reach. As they pushed, a gust of wind hit the main and genoa, and Andanté slid sideways off the mudflat. Amazing.
All eight Kuna guys screamed in victory with their hands high in the air. We rewarded them with the universal sign of gratitude: eight ice cold Coca Colas. (I'd like to teach, the world to sing, ya da, DA DA, DA DA, OK, I'll stop.)
It would have been great to get all of this on video, and Becky did. (Click on image at right. Read download warning first!)
Next we had to remove the water from our diesel tank and engine. The hand pump for the diesel tank that hung in readiness inside the engine room door had rusted shut. I couldn't even budge the handle. Instead, I used an ample supply of the universal problem-solvingduct tapeand attached my ThirstyMate handheld bilge pump to the fuel tank line. I pumped about an hour, and removed six gallons of water from the tank.
Becky and I collapsed for the evening, discouraged, but hopeful that we could get the engine running the next day. We turned off every nonessential electrical device on the boat to conserve energy, and even washed and dried dishes by candlelight.
6:30 the next morning I attached a spare electric bilge pump to the fuel tank line, and switched it on. Three hours later, we finally found the diesel fuel in the tank. Including the previous evening, we pumped approximately 40-gallons of water out of the tank. I purchased a 55-gallon drum, and 40 gallons of it was water73%. At $2.00 per gallon. Great margins.
Now came the hard part: purging water from the engine system. Next I connected the pump to the fuel line that fed the engine, and pumped it free of water. Referring to my Volvo shop manual, I opened the bleed nut on top of the secondary fuel filter, and pumped water out from the fuel pump to the fuel filter. Only this time I had to use the manual fuel pump on the enginea small button on a metal stem designed for the sole purpose of making your thumb sore. I pumped: "wicka wicka wicka wicka wicka wicka." Two minutes later diesel came out of the bleed valve. I removed the secondary fuel filter, and replaced it with a new one.
Our friendly, helpful, energetic boating neighbor Gregoire arrived, and over the next several hours the two of us cleaned the primary fuel filter, put in a new filter cartridge, cracked open and bled each fuel injector, started the engine, and nothing. After that, we started all over again, bleeding each part of the engine system, step-by-step, until we turned the key and nothing.
At this point it was early afternoon, and the engine wasn't about to catch. To make matters worse, our batteries were approaching 50% drain. Gregoire returned to his wife and family while I used precious amounts of draining battery power to call the Volvo dealer in Seattle for advice. The advice was: the fuel injectors were probably scored by the water, and the fuel pump was most likely damaged as well. "You'll probably have to pull all four fuel injectors and test them," the service manager informed me." Are you aware of any Volvo dealers in Central America?" I asked. "No," came the reply.
I informed Becky about the bad news, and I started adding up the potential costs of the batteries draining to zero in about 36-hours: $300 worth of food in the refrigerator and freezer that would go bad. The new membrane that we installed for the water maker would go bad. Five D-gell batteries, probably toast. Cost of flying mechanic into Rio Diablo from God knows where. Or we would have to sail without an engine all the way back to Colónabout 150 milesthrough the San Blas reefs.
Right then and there I thought about making a deal on the boat to a local Kuna bidder. Maybe we could trade it for a dugout canoe with a scrap of sail, four buckets of molas, and we could continue our adventure. Yeah, it's a little breezy, but you wouldn't have to worry about the engine or the water maker.
An hour later, Gregoire returned, as did Federicowith a retired diesel mechanic in tow. Paco, the diesel mechanic, was a Panamanian who had married a Kuna woman, and now lived in Rio Diablo. Paco had a vested interest in our solution, since he sold us the water-infested diesel (diesel-infested water?) to begin with. He said that three out of five barrels that he recently purchased contained mostly water. No kidding.
Gregoire and I explained the situation to him: how much water we had removed, how we had changed the filters, primed the lines, bled the injectors, etc. etc. Paco listened intently, and then spread his hands in the air and shook his head, like a modern day Moses, as if to say, "stand back boys."
Paco knew the exact sequence to bleed the fuel injector valves: One and four. Then one and three. Then two and four. He proceeded methodically. Patiently. Two hours later, after many many attempts to get the engine started, it finally jumped to life. Scored injectors be damnedthe engine never sounded so good to me. We drained an additional two gallons of water mixed with diesel from the inside of the engine. Becky and I hugged each other, and smiled as diesel fumes filled the boat.
With the water completely purged from our tank and engine, we hopped over to Coco Bandero Cayfour unbelievably beautiful tropical islands that we had all to ourselves for about six days of island exploring, snorkeling, and lounging.
After that we sailed over to Eastern Holandes Cay where we snorkeled around a small reef inside the lagoon, with the larger ocean-edge reefs surrounding us on all the islands. By now you may have read Becky's first shark story in this log's Becky's BYTES. Here's the second shark story:
We snorkeled around a shallow little coral mound in the lagoon, perhaps measuring 150-feet by 150-feet. We swam along in about 20-feet of water when a 10-12 foot long shark passed about 15-feet away from us. You've heard many people say this, but now it's my turn: I've never been so frightened in my life. This thing was twice as long as I am. It was HUGE.
As it swam past us I grabbed Becky's hand and pulled her back to the dinghy, leaving a wake on the surface. I have never been so close to something that big in my entire lifeit was almost four feet wide. We spoke to some local Kunas who said that someone had been bitten in the area several years ago. That encounter cured us of wanting to go into the water in the San Blas for a while.
Instead of more snorkeling, we sailed southeast to Mormaketupu Island where Venancio Restrepo lives. You may recall from the previous log that Venancio is the master mola maker of San Blas. His elaborate and colorful designs command up to $50 a mola.
The tiny island of Mormaketupu measures only several hundred feet in diameter. But it's home to over 100 Kuna people, including Venancio, his three sisters and three brotherstheir spouses and children, mother, and fatherwho all live together. Mormaketupu has no running water. Like Nargana, villagers must paddle or sail their dugout canoes up a river where they collect water for drinking and bathing. The trip to the river yields enough water for only two days. No generators supply electricity. When the sun sets, the village turns dark. Homes are constructed of thin wood poles and roofs thatched from palm fronds that cover packed dirt floors. Few huts have mattresses. Hammocks are strung high above the floor. Living huts cover every square inch of the island, except for the dirt paths between them.
Even after visiting the village and seeing all of this firsthand, it's difficult to imagine what that kind of life would be like: no water, no electricity, no conveniences. And no opportunity: Education stops at about age 13.
We invited Venancio, a brother, and one of his sisters and her girlfriend, to visit us on Andanté. When they arrived around 16:00 one afternoon, with two children in tow, we gave them a tour of the boat. We showed them our web site and the destinations where we had traveled over the past two years. As we snacked on microwave popcorn in the cockpit, we also showed them a National Geographic article on CD, written about the Kuna people in 1941.
Sixty years later, the kuna people appear virtually the same as the 1941 photographs. The only noticeable difference: in 1941 women wore large rings through their noses, which were pierced when the girls were still infants. Today, only a small nugget of gold is visible inside the end of each woman's nostril. Girls wear contemporary clothing until about age 15. Then, to signify their womanhood, they get their noses pierced, their long black hair cut short, and they begin wearing the traditional, colorful Kuna dresses.
The End ... for now
In May of 2001, after writing this log, we toured Guatemala for two weeks, and then returned to the US. After returning home we decided to stop cruising for a while. But we hope to be able to continue these logs with new sailing adventures in the future. If you want to contact us, you can still reach us at: email@example.com