RYA Gold Member Fergus Dunipace and his wife Jenevora Swann have been slowly sailing around the world for the last five and a half years. They are currently sailing in Central America on their Lagoon 440 catamaran, Two Drifters.
Here they talk about their recent adventure and share their top tips for sailing in the area….
San Blas, with its multitude of small tropical sandy islands, lined with tall coconut palm trees, has long been on Two Drifters’ bucket list. This breathtakingly beautiful archipelago, which lies off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama in Central America, has an extensive cruising ground with many fabulous anchorages to explore.
While San Blas is their more popular Western name - given by Spanish invaders – locally the islands and associated mainland territory are known as Guna Yala by the autonomous Guna Indians who reside in this section of Panama.
Officially, just 49 of the 365 stunning islands and cays are inhabited by the Gunas. The rest are deserted, except for one or two enterprising families, making money from caretaking cays near the popular anchorages by sweeping the beaches, selling a few essential groceries and cooking fish and rice for boaters who wish to dine out.
The archipelago naturally splits into two cruising areas. We adored the less-travelled eastern islands, which have a closer proximity to the mainland and are completely isolated by mountains, thick jungle and virgin tropical rain forests. In the Western San Blas, many of the popular islands such as the Holandes Cays and Coco Bandero Cays, lie protected behind coral barrier reefs, making them more scenic, photogenic and also great for snorkelling.
When we landed on our first deserted island in the San Blas, it was total paradise. Picture-postcard perfect, with palm-trees gently swaying in the wind, surrounded by a soft white-sand beach and azure-blue water. I was in heaven.
However, beauty doesn’t come cheap. We paid US$197 for a cruising permit for Panama; plus monthly fees to the Gunas for the boat and crew, additional anchoring costs and occasional fees to visit popular beaches. In six weeks, it cost over US$400, but it was worth it.
We adored our time exploring San Blas and have some incredible memories and photographs. A huge tick off bucket-list for Two Drifters.
Our tips for cruising San Blas:
The Gunas are very keen to sell their wares and will paddle around the anchorages in their dugout canoes touting molas (majestic hand-sewn embroidery), fruit, bread, fish and lobsters. They can come across as abrupt and persistent, so knowing a few words of Spanish greatly helps with communication.
Take lots of US dollars, broken down into small denominations of 10, five and single dollar bills. Having the right money to pay for anchoring fees or local produce is paramount as change may not always be available.
Amid the beauty, there are some lurking dangers to be aware of, namely crocodiles; so, take care in certain areas with swimming, especially at dawn and dusk.
We had the fifth edition of The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus and would not want to sail the islands without it. We also used satellite photographs downloaded from the internet and viewed through Open CPN (free chart plotter software) to double-check reefs and waypoints and carefully plotted our passages accordingly.
Stock up on staple provisions beforehand as there are no supermarkets, just an occasional village shop. However, there are vegetable boats who cruise the popular anchorages; selling more than just fresh fruit and veggies, including crisps, beer, rum, juices, rice and soap.
The mobile phone signal is non-existent in the Eastern San Blas, and weak in the Western San Blas (except around Green Island) so prepare to enjoy a digital detox!
You can follow Fergus and Jenevora’s adventures at www.facebook.com/TwoDriftersTravel
For advice on boating abroad visit www.rya.org.uk/go/boatingabroad