How to Become a Boat Pet: San Blas Islands, Panama
“Do you have change for a twenty?” the man asked me in a distinct English accent as he emerged from the customs and immigration building on the small island of El Porvenir and spotted me sitting on the curb beside the path.
“I don’t but I know someone who does. Come with me.” I replied as I led him over the the tall, unbelievably hairy beast (also known as my brother) sitting under a tree writing in his journal.
“This is my brother Phil, he has two ten dollar bills. Phil this is…” I paused and looked expectantly at my new friend.
“Phil? My name is Phil too. Nice to meet you.”
That was the beginning of a glorious friendship. We spent the next 12 days sailing the San Blas islands with Captain Phil and his lovely girlfriend Julia aboard their 38 foot sailboat called “Diva”. They had met in Jamaica, and recently set out on a Caribbean sailing adventure together.
We had arrived on El Porvenir an hour or two earlier. I had been expecting something more than a tiny island, with a sandy airstrip and a few small, scattered buildings. It was easy to identify the main building as the immigration and customs building, and within a few minutes we had signed in, and spoken to the customs man about our bike permits. He couldn’t extend them for us, but he promised that even if we left a few days after they expired, he would still stamp our bikes out of the country for us. He was the entire San Blas customs office, so we needn’t worry about getting someone else.
With that settled, all we needed was a boat heading to another island. We’d heard that the Holandes Cays were beautiful and Max had said there was a grocery boat that went out there, maybe we could find it and get a ride?
There was nothing we could do but wait and see what the universe provided.
There’s a special combination of feelings when you just leave everything to fate. On one hand you feel fear. Fear of not finding a boat, of being stuck on a small island with white sandy beaches and palm trees. Right, well the fear in this case wasn’t terrible, but still a little uncomfortable. However, much stronger and better, is the feeling of excitement, of not knowing what’s going to happen, but being pretty sure it’s going to be amazing.
And if it all goes wrong? Well it’ll make a great blog post at the very least.
The first people we spoke to were a British couple, who were checking out of the San Blas and heading to Cartagena because their boat had been hit by lightning – twice! They said they would have happily taken us with them, but we weren’t ready to go to Colombia yet, and, of course, like annoying children that you can’t just abandon because you love them so much, we couldn’t jump on a boat to Colombia without our darling motorcycles.
A few groups of rich looking people got out of helicopters and onto yachts while we were sitting there. I initiated conversations with all of them, with varying degrees of success. Some Venezuelans were hosting some Panamanian friends for the weekend and were interested in our journey, and some American girls from Panama City with tiny dogs weren’t interested in chatting at all.
After a rain shower that sent us running for cover, and a couple hours of waiting for any boat that was going to any other island and the captain willing to talk to us, Captain Phil asked me for change.
When we told him about our trip, that we were riding motorbikes (he rides too), that we were Canadian, and that we were looking for a lift to another island, he smiled and said that he’d love to take us, but we’d have to talk to his girlfriend Julia. They’d just arrived from Cartagena, were planning to spend a couple of weeks at least in the San Blas, and were in need of some company after so many days being just the two of them on board.
We went inside the immigration building where Julia was waiting her turn to check in. We took to each other instantly. Julia is lovely, our age, really friendly, Canadian, and even after having only met us for two minutes, was keen to invite us on board.
Our ship had come in.
I explained that we had a tent and so they could just drop us on whichever island they anchored near and we’d camp on the beach.
This plan lasted until about five minutes after the paperwork was finished and we all piled into “Likkle Boat”, their dingy, and were welcomed on board Diva. The beers came out, and Captain Phil and Julia decided they could make room for us to sleep on board.
Living on a boat is somewhat similar to living on motorcycles. You are limited in what you can bring, you move around the world at will, and you spend a lot of time with the people you are travelling with.
Whilst Captain Phil and Julia had more room for “stuff” than we do on the bikes, we have the luxury of riding to a shop, restaurant or bar whenever we want. They need to stock up on everything for weeks at a time. Luckily for us, they had just been to Panama City the day before we met them, and Captain Phil had bought 14 flats of beer as part of their supplies.
Diva doesn’t have a watermaker, so all drinking water has to be brought onboard from shore, and electricity is only available from the solar panels or by running the engine to charge the batteries.
We could not have planned a better trip through the San Blas. The four of us became good friends almost from the second we met. Julia and I would chat and read whilst the Phils played epic matches of Backgammon washed down with bottles of rum.
Julia wrote aÂ blog post a few days after we joined them where she introduced us to the world as their new “boat pets”. (They had adopted a cat and then a dog fish at previous anchorages.) This became a running joke for the remainder of our stay with them. We loved being boat pets!
We anchored in five different places, all over the San Blas. We even managed enough wind to hoist the sails a couple of times.
The San Blas islands are a picture postcard paradise. White sand islands dotted with coconut palms, warm, clear blue water with lots of fish and coral to see, if you care to put on a mask and snorkel. We were blessed with perfect sunny weather, and when it did rain, we used it as an opportunity to get out the soap and shower on deck.
In the East Holandes (known to yachties as “the Lagoon”) we befriended all the other yachts at anchor. We visited Lorenzo and Joyce on board their converted shrimp boat “Eileen Farrell” and wondered at the size of their kitchen.
Phil swam over to some of our other neighbours, and we met our favourite voice from the radio – Tony on Pavo Real!
One evening Aussies Roger and Sasha from the catamaran Ednbal (aboriginie for frog) organised a big BBQ on a small sand island, complete with space trash!
After an amazing week or so aboard, we started to run low on water and supplies, so made a trip to civilization to stock up.
Once we had fully re-stocked on essentials (we did buy groceries as well, I promise mum). We headed off to another group of islands called the “Coco Banderas”.
There’s a lot of work to be done aboard a boat as well. Constant maintenance and little everyday jobs to be done.
During our sailing adventure in paradise I received an email from a fellow couchsurfer who had seen my post looking for suggestions on how to get ourselves and two motorbikes to Colombia. Richard was working as the captain of a heavy works sailboat, currently moored in Panama, and planning to sail to Cartagena in the next week or so from a marina near Colon. Nothing was set in stone, but it was our best offer so far.
Our bike papers were about to expire, and as we hadn’t found a boat to take us from Carti, this meant we needed to head back into Panama City to renew them.
We didn’t want to leave Diva and our new friends, but it was time. We found a helpful Kuna man to take us in his motorboat to his home in Rio Azucar, the closest island with more than just a couple of shacks on it, where we could camp overnight and then take the 5:30am boat back to Carti.
His payment? First we gave him $15 but then we showed him the two four metre brightly coloured pieces of fabric I had bought in Panama city for $10 with the intention of making sails for Kuna canoes. Our attempts at making sails one afternoon were short lived, and we wanted to know if he knew anyone who might want the fabric. He promptly gave us back the $15 and kept the fabric.
After an evening playing with the children on the island, we woke up early and squeezed into the last two spots in the boat to Carti. For $15 each we travelled for two hours back to where our bikes were safely waiting for us.
This is Julia’s photo blog about our time in the San Blas with them.
Our island adventure was over, but our lives on boats were just beginning…