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Cruising Journals - Pam Wall

Chapter 5 - Across the Caribbean

We can never eat Frosted Flakes again! The sail across the Caribbean Sea from Jamaica to the San Blas Islands was one of those passages where keeping food down just was not an option.

Samantha and I made the awful mistake of having breakfast just as we were departing lovely Jamaica. Before we had been to sea for fifteen minutes, up came those big bowls of cereal. Even today, years later, Samantha and I have to laugh whenever we see the familiar Tony the Tiger on a package of cereal. It was one of those wild rides that is incredibly uncomfortable, but thrilling because of the tremendous speed and exhilaration of a fast crossing. The Caribbean Sea was as rough as we had

ever seen it. The strong winter tradewinds were blowing with a vengeance. Kandarik flew along with the wind on the quarter. She went barreling down into the troughs where we would temporarily loose the wind, and then charging up to the crests with the sails snapping with the

impact of the blast. Luckily the wind was behind us; so with a double reefed mainsail and poled-out yankee we actually had perfect sailing conditions. As usual, Kandarik loved it, but the crew was tossed around as if on a wild roller coaster ride. The motion was so great that cooking, and eating, were deferred as much as possible.

You can imagine how excited and grateful we were to raise the palm trees on the horizon. The San Blas Islands lie off the north coast of Panama. They are a group of very low-lying islets. Making a landfall is very difficult, as the first things you see are the fronds of the palm trees, not any land at all. We had no GPS in those days, and navigation was only with the sextant and dead reckoning. The hazy conditions did not help Andy's nerves as we were very quickly approaching unknown territory. It is always a relief to see land when and where it is expected to be. Funny how Samantha and Jamie (ages 7 and 4) never worried about this. They always took the landfall for granted. Lucky little kids!

We had no detailed charts or cruising guide to the San Blas. What we did have was an old and well-used chart. Fortunately for us, the previous owner had penciled in a tiny anchor symbol in a bay near our approaching landfall. If someone had taken the trouble to mark the spot, we hoped it would be a good anchorage after our rough passage. With nothing else to go by, we carefully approached that mark. We found a bay perfectly protected with still clear water. How well you must know that wonderful feeling, after a long time at sea, of dropping the anchor in a new and peaceful place. Nothing compares to it! Here we were in the Hollandaise Cays. We were the only boat. The whole bay was ours alone. At least that was what we thought.

The routine of cleaning up the boat became a ritual with us. Jamie, and Andy, and I always cleaned up on deck. There are usually four or five headsails to dry and flake (this was before we had roller furling on the headstay), sheets and halyards to coil, and the dinghy to launch off the deck. Samantha, who had always been a neat-nik even though she was only seven years old, would clean up everything down below. Her job was to clean up the galley of dirty dishes and pots, vacuum the cabin sole, wipe down all the surfaces, stow the lee cloths under the bunks, hang out all wet foul weather gear, and most importantly have that hot pot of tea anda snack ready for the whole crew! To this day, fourteen years later, we all still follow the same routine at the end of a passage.

As we sat in the cockpit sipping our tea and finally enjoying a snack, we spotted a small dugout canoe coming our way. A lone man was paddling towards us. The canoe came carefully alongside and Arnolfo Robinson introduced himself. Arnolfo was the Cuna Indian chief of the island. It was his family that lived amongst the lovely palms ahead of our anchorage. He graciously gave us a half dozen small hot bread buns, three avocados (our favorite) and an invitation to come ashore to meet his family. What a great Welcome Wagon!

We landed the dinghy on the white sandbar behind Arnolfo's hut. There we met his wife, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, and grandchildren. The family home was a small hut with a thatched roof. The floor was finely brushed bare sand, and his back yard was the sea, and the front yard a lush forest of palm trees. Arnolfo's wife particularly honored me. She took an instant attachment to me. I am sure it is because we both were not quite five feet tall. All the Cuna Indian women look quite similar. They are tiny women. They all have short, very straight black hair, gold rings in their noses, tiny colored beads strung tightly around their wrists and ankles, and wear the very colorful Molas (the many layers of different colored cloths, cut out in lovely imaginative patterns so that each layer of color is carefully stitched back to reveal the other colors in each layer of material).

I will never forget the look on Samantha and Jamie's faces when we had our first dinner with Arnolfo's family. We had been looking forward to the festive occasion. But when we sat down on the sand floor of the hut, we could see what was for dinner! There over the open fire, hanging from a long stick, were six huge iguanas all brown and crispy! I could see Sammy's and Jamie's eyes bulging. They mouthed to me, "Mom, are we going to have to eat those lizards?" I signaled to them, "Yep, that's what they eat for dinner!" And so our two young children got their first taste (excuse the pun!) of eating something really weird that they never would have touched at home.

After this "delicious?" dinner, Arnolfo told us a marvelous story. When his father was a small boy, an American yacht anchored just where Kandarik was. The Captain, a man from New York City, came ashore and became very fond of Arnolfo's father. The little boy was asked if he would like to sail back to New York and go to school there. Arnolfo's father asked his father if he could go to New York and return to his island after he had been educated. And so the young Cuna Indian left his native island and spent the next ten years in New York with the Captain. When he returned to his island, he adopted the name, Robinson, that of the Captain. And thus Arnolfo kept that English name for his family. And when we looked around us and saw the deep blue bay behind Arnolfo's hut, and turned to see the dark green of the coconut palms in his front yard, we could easily understand why his father had left the Big Apple to return home!

The days turned into weeks before we left our new Cuna Indian family. Everyday Sammy and Jamie would go ashore to play with Arnolfo's children's children. The colorful molas, necklaces made from parrotfish teeth, beaded bracelets, and fresh coconut buns all were given freely with so much kindness and love. We would almost cause a riot when the family would come aboard Kandarik. There would be potato chips, cookies, Legos, and Barbie clothes all over the boat! Our life was as curious tothem as theirs was to us.

We shall always remember that sad day when we were getting the anchor up to leave our Cuna Indian family. Arnolfo hastily pushed his canoe from the shore in a hurry to get to us. In his hands he cradled a tiny coconut husk boat, with mast and palm frond sail. Nestled in the bottom was a hand written note, "This ship sails with you full of remembrances." I would like to think that Arnolfo and his family will be reading this, as our hearts are indeed full of wonderful memories.

Pam Wall is currently writing a book about her seven-year circumnavigation aboard the Kandarik with her family.

Pam Wall - Expert Sailor

Pam Wall

Outfitting Manager, West Marine Ft. Lauderdale

  • A lifelong sailor, Pam and her husband have been cruising together for over 36 years!