Have you ever felt that wait when your dinner arrives late? hearts beating fast when those chicken drums sticks pass, blubbery eyes on buttery surprise, that ocean of temptation rising up from the depths of despair. Well I think I know now, the gravity of it all, because I in this instance was the fat man, and it was me aboard little coconut that snuck in at midnight, creeping around Bonaire’s south east lighthouse, tip toeing down the stairs to the anchorage, all to indulge in the sanctuary of landfall, that cool box of rest, where you can sleep for more that three hours straight, where your feet feel the tread of solid ground, where the bars are filled with cold beer, where that rolling motion is stopped and stillness returns to your walls. It was all too tempting to resist, our passage to San Blas was put on hold, we picked up a mooring buoy in the early hours and turned in, falling into a deep sleep at last, our heads resting heavy on salt covered pillows.
The island was an oasis for us, with amazing wildlife and crystal clear water, the bluest we have seen so far. The shoreline holds every type of fish imaginable, some dance softly in fast moving shoals, others roll solo, armed with heavy beaks they bite into the coral, spilling off clouds of sand as they feed with erratic twists. The landscape is flat, the trees stand like tin soldiers, dry to the bone and filled to the brim with thorny branches and lizards. The flamingos were Miranda’s favourite, feeding in shallow runs of brackish water, stooping down to sieve through the mud with their spade like beaks. I managed to dig out our bikes from the hold, we spent a few days cycling around, flippers sticking out of our backpacks, we’d cycle for an hour or so, go for a snorkel, hit some lunch, sleep it off, then find some flamingoes in the evening, body and mind satisfied, what a fantastic existence. One evening I remember the falling sun, pockets of liquid gold spilt across the waterline, running out in reels of colour, we sat by the shallows watching the Flamingoes, their elegant sills moving slowly across the shoreline, it was a picture of peace, in the stillness of the banks we embraced the silence, forgetting about Miranda’s punctured bicycle completely, with twenty miles of road sitting between us and boat we luckily managed to snag a lift back with a local just before it turned dark, piling the bikes into the back of his ute with relieved smiles.
Wildlife was top of our list, supermarkets got a close second. Miranda reckoned she hadn’t been to a proper supermarket since the Canary Islands way back in December. ‘define proper supermarket,’ I’d say, ‘you know,’ she’d answer ‘nice things, cold things, fresh things, brands, air conditioning.’ The Dutch supply chain has it wired, the shops were full of reasonably priced produce, everything you get back home and more, after months of sparse shelves gloomily selling five buck cans of mix veg it was novel, just to walk and look. How we took it all for granted, how we’ll take it all for granted again, but in those moments ashore at Bonaire we didn’t, we saw everything as clearly as the waters that surrounded us, beneath that new found banner of appreciation we sat joyfully and recharged the batteries.
If Bonaire was the first hop on route to Panama then Colombia was the skip, a fast four day sail. We ran down those miles at sea effortlessly, not having to touch the wheel or change the sails for the duration of our trip. Our landing was dramatic, it was 01:00 am, the night was dark, black like the ace of spades, we’d spun into the shipping channel, turning little Coconut hard up into a stiff breeze. I was standing on the engine box when the incident happened, that hot release of high pressure, the whoosh, the fiss, the pop, my heart skipped a beat. I hastily opened up the box, fluid was spilling out everywhere, pulsing onto an overheated engine, clouds of steam rose up, clutching my face with burning talons, I reached down and shut her off, ‘whats the matter’ wailed Miranda, a thin frightened voice faintly made it’s way down the companionway hatch to my ears, I popped my head up, shinning a head torch straight into her eyes, they bulged out, wide like saucers, white like shark’s teeth, ‘ I think the head gasket has blown,’ I replied, a total misdiagnosis , tilting my head down so as not to blind Miranda, ‘could be in for some trouble, steam everywhere!’ With no engine and with the wind right on our nose we suddenly found ourselves in a spot of bother, the channel was far too thin to attempt beating, not that Coconut would partake in such an arduous activity anyway, a pair of scissors had just risen up from the sea bed and cut us loose, we were drifting around the channel hopelessly like a dead leaf in the river, still ten miles from the anchorage, meanwhile Colombia slept peacefully on a bed of flickering white lights, she suddenly seemed miles away from us. My first thought was to sail on, roll out the gib and head for Panama. Would anyone hear us on the hand held? would they understand us? How much would they charge for a ten mile tow? When the steam subsided I inspected the damage, the engine heat dial was strangely working, tuned up to the max, 115 degrees, despite this my negative thoughts were soon cast aside, a hose had blown off from the radiator, ‘ we’ll be alright to limp in,’ I found myself whispering, plugging it back on and screwing it tight. At the time I had no idea our thermostat was frozen, the blockage meant our fresh water wasn’t cooling the engine, I had no idea what a thermostat was, beneath that engine box slept a temperamental and misunderstood creature, whose tentacles dropped down confusingly in a tangled array of hoses and wires, whose calls for attention were let loose at the most inconvenient times, filling the air with belches and groans. In short my heart only rests steady when under sail, after re filling the coolant Miranda cranked her up, she started with an angry jump, hot fumes and steam continued to leak out as we slowly pressed on, eager to drop the hook and wake up in Cartengena.
Our engine troubles were completely forgotten as soon as the anchor dropped, it fell fast, drawing great lines of chain with it, sinking down into the dark still waters. We awoke to an armada of local motor boats which whizzed by at great speed, smiling and waving as they left their walls of wake. The city surrounded us on all sides, we were immersed in it, sitting like ducks in a castle pond, us cruisers weren’t a collection of far away boats, a party of strangers unto themselves glistening away in peaceful seclusion, we were part of it all, lying right in the hustle and bustle, feeling the echoes and the waves. Miranda got the shower stuff ready and packed our boat papers and passports whilst I hastily pumped up the tender, eyes shone out from open doorways, the city was awake and on the move, we rushed ashore.
Five days in Colombia wasn’t nearly enough, we barely had time to get our bearings. From what I can tell the old city sits like a protected jewel, polished and groomed for the coach loads of tourists that wonder around her pretty stone walls. The best view of it all is from the Catholic monastery, a hilltop retreat overlooking the whole show, you can see the high rise peninsular running down the spit, wrapping up the anchorage in it’s protective arms, at the base of this peninsular lies the old city which slowly unravels itself unto a flat plan of residential blocks, they fall away like rows of card houses. The streets come alive when the sun drops, the city buzzes with life, flamboyant and full of colour, food and dancing, huddles of locals sitting on the pavement, doors open, children up late playing in the parks and squares. The culture is polar opposite to western suburbia, not even the beggars seem lonely in Colombia.
The jump came with a sorrowful goodbye, I hauled up 100 foot of chain, till my palms where red roar, till my muscles shivered with fatigue, heaving and heaving till eventually the anchor surfaced from the muddy waters. It was too early to go but we had no choice, Panama canal lay waiting, a bottleneck for cruisers heading into the Pacific. The wind blow gently the whole way to San Blas, the sails slept peacefully as we marched through the milky nights, just three days or so, short enough to stay lively, long enough to change the scene. San Blas awoke with the rising sun, as day dawned landfall broke, faint pockets of palm trees crouched just above the emerald green water, floating weightlessly like lilies on a still pond, Miranda was excited, the picture postcard cruising destination waited outside our walls, slowly becoming more and more visible as the wind drew us close.
Our adventures in San Blas were very nearly cut short, it would have been a sad sail down to Colon having missed out on the jewel of Panama’s Caribbean coast. It was our engine again, after ten minutes on idle she’d start to boil up. We stayed put on our first night, anchored just off the customs island at Porvieir, a thick black electrical storm rolled off the mountains, it shut out the north east wind and we got hit by westerly squalls. The second night we managed to limp across to an easy anchorage, our mood was low, ‘ we might have to sail on,’ I said to Miranda,’something is just not right with that engine, we can’t stay here without it, we’ll end up on a reef,’ Miranda could see my pain, I’d been talking about San Blas for months, and there we were all the way from Jersey, held up by hot fumes, faces flat like two battery chickens.
In the anchorage beside us sat a sleek swan 36 with a massive American flag blowing proudly off it’s tail, Apollo moon landings massive!! it was then something clicked, ‘Americans,’ I said to Miranda with a relieved look, ‘what about them,’ she replied perplexed, ‘they’re all engine nuts, they spend entire childhoods beneath the bonnet, hours every evening in the garden shed making things tick, I’m yet to meet one that doesn’t know their way around an engine,’ it was a eureka moment, or as close as you get aboard Little Coconut, in that neighbouring boat sat a soul that had the answer, I was sure if it, and hastily boarded our tender to find out.
Mark was sitting in his centre cockpit drinking a cold beer, long hair, an old sea dog type, looked like he had blown around the world a few times, we exchanged pleasantries then I waded in, telling him our troubles, ‘ sure I’ll come over and have a look,’ he said, ‘ my buddies are leaving today, I’ll see them off and come over around lunch,’
‘great,’ I replied, ‘thanks a bunch, we’ll get something cooked up for the occasion.’ With that, as far as I was concerned a mechanic was booked, I told Miranda we were in then snuck off for a quick snorkel.
Sure enough Mark was a dap hand at engines, flicking through my Kubota manual like it was a Sunday newspaper, ‘ I’ll be betting it’s your thermostat,’ he said ‘ thinking out loud, ‘saltwater pumping out, no leaking coolant, you’ve checked the heat exchange, no water in the oil so it can’t be the head gasket, burst hose by the radiator, got to be the thermostat, frozen up most likely.’ He looked up and eyed my blank expressionless face, ‘thermostat!!!! they’re heat regulators, they release when your engine gets to a good temperature for combustion, about 80 degrees or so, your one could well be frozen so it will stay closed blocking the freshwater side of your cooling system,’ he waited for a second then carried on, ‘good news!!!! we are in the tropics!! so you don’t need one!!! they are designed for colder climates, just unscrew these, ‘ he said pointing in the manual to the spot on the engine near where the hose blow off, ‘and pop it out,,, I’d be betting it is the thermostat alright,’ he repeated. Engine diagnosis complete we moved on, chatting about San Blas where Mark first sailed back in the 80’s, we slurped down Miranda’s tasty soup then all boarded Mark’s tender and moved onto his swan for an afternoon of cold beers and cocktails, it was a brake through moment and cause for celebration, Miranda even got to wash her hair in a shower!!!
That evening I took out our thermostat, we cranked the engine and watched, holding it to see how hot she would get, ‘ I think its working,” Miranda observed with a concentrated look on her face, her hands had become thermometers all of a sudden,’it isn’t getting as hot!!! ‘We ran it for thirty minutes or so and it definitely seemed good, it sounded healthy and didn’t burn like hot rocks upon a quick touch,’praise the Lord for Mark,’ Miranda concluded, and with that our short passage through the islands began.
As time passes those memories of San Blas start to surface, slowly rising up through a thick mix of windswept nights and long sun beaten days. It is a special place because it is unique and unspoilt, all the clutter surrounding our modern world somehow hasn’t found it’s way through the door sill, the Indians have managed to shut it out and go their own way, living in small communities, traveling in dug out canoes, hardy characters in a strangely fragile place. Maybe that is the key to it’s charm, sleeping head just above the waterline, ocean surrounding all four walls, pounding away through the night, only palm leaves between you and the stars, only tree trucks for protection, maybe that is how they’re stayed grounded after so many centuries. I made good friends with an Indian, we couldn’t speak a comprehensible word to one another but talked none the less, looking to Miranda strangely for translation, of which she offered none. I used hand signals and drew in the sand if things got really bad, he was one of the good guys, living in a wooden hut and cooking on fire, no electricity, no radio, no gadgets, basic tools and a canoe was all that family needed, and the surrounding Indian community of course, he had a wife, a baby daughter and two puppies, he couldn’t have been older than twenty five, short, tough looking, white teeth and brown eyes.
We spent our last anchorage camped out in his backyard, before raiding the larder I asked if it was alright to dive for lobsters, not that I was doing much damage, three mornings diving one lobster in the pot, still I thought it best to ask. After five minutes of stickman sketches in the sand and much laughter he caught my drift and gave me the thumbs up walking off to his hut, minutes later to my surprise he was back with a mask and snorkel of his own and a twin pronged spear, we dived together, following the reef round, swimming through gutters and tunnels in crystal clear water, above coral so alive it jumped up in great plums and fans, it felt pretty amazing to get that type of hospitality from the Indians, and it is rare in this world to find. He came to our boat one afternoon and sat down below nailing Miranda’s flap jacks, before we left he gave us a polished shell, it was a sad goodbye, we would be off to Panama in the morning. It was the simple living in San Blas, that is what I loved, their jewels the nature that surrounds them, sparking bright in the mid day sun, emerald green off the shallow mangroves banks, sapphire blue behind the reef where the seabed falls away in verticals cliffs. Necklaces of golden sand line the palmed islands, turning white and silver in the moonlight, it is a magical place, that boarder line between land and sea, a fragile ecosystem, threatened in some many ways, tourism, sea level rises, industry, modernisation, mining, pollution, to name but a few, threatened but still standing, we felt very privileged to have sailed our little floating home through those islands as so many cruisers have done over the years.