Reluctantly we hauled ourselves away from the San Blas and hopped the fifty miles to Shelter Bay in Panama to await our Canal transit.
As a condition of the Galapagos, Meteorite had her bottom cleaned, so we nipped to Cartegena, city one. A wonderful, chaotic, vibrant place; street traders, entertainers, super food, beautiful buildings, a lived in and loved old town, great place for Debbie's birthday.
Back to Shelter Bay or unsheltered as the wind just blew. It was a former jungle training centre for the US army so lots of old buildings deep in the jungle where you hear howler monkey's that make your heart stop.
We took a classic train ride to city two, Panama, for a few days. Also an old town very much on the up, also with some spectacular colonial buildings, bars and restaurants, but it sits next to a huge financially driven modern city, which allowed for some serious retail therapy catch up, even Andy shopped, well sort of.
Then the day came 18th March and we left ocean one to transit the Panama Canal, opened in 1914 a true wonder of the world. We joined the five other larger Oysters and rafted up in threes to enter the first of the three locks that would fill up and take us up to the lake. Awe inspiring, massive, and just incredible as you rise hundreds of feet as thousands of gallons of water rush in. We and our two crew mates Mike and Robbie from Oysters that had already transited, passed long ropes to the handlers and made ourselves fast like a cats cradle, pulling the ropes in as went up.
Then into lake Gatun for a much needed beer, spending a super peaceful evening at anchor. But awake to drama, the other five boats motor off to do the 30 miles to the down locks but our pilot doesn't turn up, we are left behind !!!
Three agonising hours later, a pilot arrives, we are off but too late to meet our mates, so we have to go through alone. We were told to more up against the lock side, as a super large tanker slides in behind us. Then we literally slipped down the side of the three locks and popped out, under the Bridge of Americas, into ocean two The Pacific. A new world and it feels like it, satisfaction, relief and expectation all rolled together and a little tearful, well the girls and of course Hugh, as a long held dream for all of us came true in the most wonderful way.
Auto helm fitted (hurray), fully loaded with strange Dutch brands and trusty Bonaire Beer and we are off to the San Blas Islands . A four day 700mile downwind sail that proved to be delightful with warm gentle trades winds.
San Blas are 350 mainly uninhabited islands 30 miles off the Panamanian coast. The Guna Indians own and run them having fled from Spanish persecution.
We headed straight for the iconic Coco Banderas a small group of islands that feature as the cover shot on the famous guide written by Eric Bauhaus. Because of their rare beauty however there can be 10 or more other yachts, however we spent the first night completely on our own, with the anchor dropped exactly on the spot Eric reckons is the best in the world. And oh my is he right, the pics speak better than words!
We moored between two islands, literally a stones throw from a Guna hut occupied by 9 of the friendliest people you could wish to meet, who supplied us with delicious lobsters. We gave them a sola powered light, such a small thing but for them a night light which became hugely treasured.
We spent five of the most idyllic days, bar b q'ing on the beaches, partying with the other Oysters who turned up, swimming and snorkelling on the reefs and just chilling. This is what we hoped this adventure would sometimes bring us and oh wow was it ever worth it.
No trip to Guna land would be complete without buying at least one Mola, a hand stitched work of art, worn on traditional garments - thanks to the best sales man ever, who used every trick, we are the proud owners of not just one but a boat full of Mola's !
All good things etc and we have now left that little bit of heaven, next stop Panama and the Canal.
Not everything in sailing goes to plan. On our passage from Carriacou to Bonaire at 1 o’clock in the morning our autopilot failed, leaving us hand steering for 36 hours (imagine it’s a bit like playing a computer game where you have to stay on track). It also meant we had to extend our stay in Bonaire while we had a new part made and delivered. We know...not exactly a hardship.
Life in Bonaire was essentially a mix of diving, driving, drinking, dining....and for a bit of balance doing Debbie’s Fitness sessions. The diving is extraordinary. Pretty much the best island in the world for “walk-in” diving....you literally throw everything into the compulsory Hilux, drive to a site, put your kit on and walk into the sea (it’s a weird sight seeing people fully kitted up and walking across the road like very slow turtles). As well as Debbie and Janice completing their Padi, we did over 8 dives and even managed our first night dive (as you’ll see from the pictures we were a little nervous when they told us about the massive Tarpons who liked to swim VERY close using our lights to help them hunt little fish).
Bonaire also played host to 8 Oysters during our stay and once again the social scene ramped up a notch. Hugh’s birthday at La Cantina, a big night on Safiya and an even bigger one on Miss Tiggy with 21 of us gathered for an Aussie BBQ complete with Aussie Songs (look up the words to True Blue if you have a spare moment) and Aussie Burgers (beetroot, avodaco, cheese and egg). Finally after a wonderful 2 weeks in Bonaire our new part arrived and we set sail for the 600 mile trip to the San Blas islands but it probably won’t be our last trip to Bonaire.
First impressions can be misleading. We nearly didn't visit Dominica. There was no 'main' in Main Street in Portsmouth town, just a few locals chillin' in the doorways, and there was certainly nothing to suggest the true richness and vibrancy of the island that we later discovered.
After our initial landing we organised an island tour. As luck would have it the owner of the tour company, Cobra himself was our tour guide for the day - a big warm character with lots of entrepreneurial plans and immense knowledge of the flora, fauna and local landscape. Better still he brought his lovely girlfriend Jamie. Jamie's family is pure Dominican, her uncle designed the national flag and she holds a key role in Dominican government. First stop was impressive waterfalls Syndicate Falls. We hiked through a rich plantation with ferns, grapefruits, sugar cane and coconut trees. One plant mashed up on a rock provided both a shampoo and a setting agent for dreadlocks. Jamie and Hugh demonstrated the shampoo after our waterfall swim or "pounding" (the shampoo definitely worked better on her than on Hugh).
Calabishie (home of the original Carib people) on the coast was wild and dramatic. We pulled up outside a small supermarket and marched through the shop to discover a waterside restaurant with fantastic views. Cobra drank rum with peanut milk and coconut. Interesting. The afternoon included cold sulphur springs, a chocolate plantation and a trip to 'Mars'. Mars was actually an amazing large flat area of red rocks, eroded with gulleys we could scramble over and take in another spectacular coastal view.
Dusk began to set in and we assumed that the last part of the trip, a row up Indian River, would be scrapped from the schedule but no. So in the dark we rowed past white and black crabs, iguanas and Calypso's house in Pirates of the Caribbean (built by Cobra natch) and who knows what else. In the depths of the forest we arrived at the Bush Bar (Cobra's bar natch). More rum cocktails.
Throughout the day Cobra and Jamie had entranced us with their passion for the country, its history and their understanding of what it takes to run a country of 70,000 people and the conversation continued over wine and beers on the back of the boat long after the official tour ended. Dominica touched our souls (and almost Hugh's wallet).
As in life there are many routes you can take to get to the same place, evidently even to Panama. Boats have gone direct to Bonaire, North to BVI's, even Cuba. However, we always wanted to re-visit the Leeward and Windward Isles, home to warm memories of past family holidays and literally Island hop our way down south. First stop Guadalupe and a windy mooring in Deshaise, 'Death in Paradise' lovers will recognise 'that' bar but not the torrential rain that gave us the wettest dinghy ride ashore ever. We had to buy 'tourist' T shirts so we didn't drip over the food (its not always hot sun, honest).So to Isle des Sainte, sooo French but really cute, good food and a beach where goats come for a stroke.... seriously. Onto Dominica, wow how first impressions can be so wrong, what a jewel of an unspoilt island ... the Deli of the Caribbean later (see more in our next blog). Then more of a stride than a hop down to St Lucia, vainly to pick up our trophy, where oh where shall we put such a fine piece. Bequia, the boomerang Island proved to be the case as we were here exactly 10 years ago, even diving with the same Dive School .... Caribbean time moves slowly. Great little island best coffee and smoothies café. We shared the experience with the other crews that sailed south, sun downers on back of boats, meals ashore and trips .. fun and interesting to find their stories and how they came to be Island hoping to Panama.
After 3 weeks in Antigua, today we start our circumnavigation adventure!
We've had an amazing time here in Antigua starting with 2 weeks over Xmas and New Year with all the family in the Villa Sariel (with the most glorious views of Falmouth Harbour). Then back on the boat for final preparations, getting to know our fellow World Rallyers, drinking our weight everyday in rum punch, whilst exploring the bars and restaurants. We've also picked up a few rum recipes from our rum cooking course at Nicole's Table...here's our favourites. Enjoy!
1. Best Rum Punch : Just make in the following portions - 1 x Sour (Lime) : 2 x Sweet (Sugar) : 3 x Strong (Rum) : 4 x Weak (Water).
2. Coconut Chips : Using a vegetable peeler shave pieces of coconut onto a baking tray and sprinkle with sea salt - put in the oven for 20 minutes until slightly brown and serve. believe us they're delicious.
So today we finally start our voyage (not a journey apparently!) from A to A...from Antigua to Antigua via the rest of the world! 31 boats, 28 months!