Expedition Around North America
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Canal transit / San Blas / Colon (Panama)
(January, 3 to 12 janvier 2009 )
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Leg 14
Canal transit / San Blas / Colon (Panama)
(January, 3 to 12 janvier 2009 )

January 13, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Shelter Bay Marina, Cristobal, Panama,
09°22’N – 79°57’W
22h00 local time

The traffic is dense now. In the background, the lights of the harbor make the watching for cargo ships difficult. Fortunately, we do have the radar to give us precisions. Then we can enter without disturbing any of these mastodons. The swell pushes us inside, soon we’re protected. We can follow the channel towards our anchorage. At 1h30 AM we drop the anchor off. That’s the end of the 14th leg of the expedition. Huge crane and containers replace San Blas coconuts trees. We have two days only to get rid of the technical preparation for the next leg to Roatan Island, Honduras. At noon, we docked at Shelter Bay Marina, more convenient for logistic.
This trip to San Blas gave us the opportunity to approach Kunas people and understand better their thoughts about global warming, modernism and nature. Their are attaching people, enthusiastic and proud of their culture. We hope they will keep their vision of the world, their relation with the nature. They want to deal slowly, gently and quietly with the modernism but modernism id coming fast to them. We hope they will find their way without loosing their traditions.

The crew of this trip was :
On top, from left to right : Olivier Pitras (France), Thaly Blanga (France), Adeline Borot (France).
Middle, from left to right : Marie Jo Etienne (France), Françoise Sylvestre (France), Thomas Binet (France), Odile Seren (France), Laurent Ceresoli (France), Pierre-Charles Gueroult (France).
Down, from left to right : Gaia Sanctis (Italy), Joël Etienne (France), Vincent Berthet (France).

Crew Panama - San Blas  - Vincent Berthet

Crew Panama - San Blas
Photo Vincent Berthet
(Click to enlarge)
January 12, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Back to Colon, Panama.
09°30’N – 079°48’W
23h30 local time

It is time for us to head to Porvenir where we have to check again the functioning of the Kuna Museum’s solar panel and proceed with the clearance. The pass is narrow but visibility is good. We leave Cayos Limon by the West where waves are heavily breaking on the reefs. The trip is quick. We avoid the Sail Rock reef and moor just in front of the dock in Porvenir. We spend our time in DIY, formalities and lunch on
The early afternoon is already here and we cast off. We steer East and sail round the long reef of Punta San Blas. The swell is massive. Soon we head to the West-North West and leave the furious breaking waves behind us in the South. Once cleared of danger, we gently follow the coast and maintain a good and comfortable speed, pushed by a propitious wind. The lights of Colon and the first cargos simultaneously loom out of the skyline. In spite of clouds, the moon is shining on the deck. Within two hours, we will sail trough the jetties.

Coconut trees - Vincent Berthet

Coconut trees
Photo Vincent Berthet
(Click to enlarge)
January 11, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Cayos Limon, San Blas, Panama.
09°32’N – 78°54’W
21h45 local time

Time is flying by; we already have to go to Porvenir tomorrow for clearance. This last day in the San Blas archipelago leaves no time for rest. We start early in the morning, the light is perfect for a shooting of the boat sailing. Later in the morning, we moor in Cayos Limon where we meet divers who collect crabs, lobsters and shellfish. We spend most of the afternoon with them and their family.

ivers family - Thomas Binet

Divers family
Photo Thomas Binet
(Click to enlarge)
January 10, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Sourth West Mangles canal, San Blas, Panama.
09°28’N – 78°41’W
21h30 local time

The Kuna hospitality is not a myth. We spend the day on the island. People we meet are curious about us being here but they already know that we want to discuss with the two ‘Sahilas’, the chiefs of the villages. These present the Kuna position about the changes they experience. Climate change is an obvious concern but integration into the modern world is another big one. They promote a reasonable and progressive evolution toward modernity since they are highly attached to their ancestral traditions and their spiritual vision of the world. The raise of the sea level worries them, however they envisage returning to the main land as a sensible future. Everyone we have met in the San Blas since we are here are smiling and open-minded.
In the late afternoon, we leave Nargana, steering for Porvenir, and moor shortly before dust in the South of a narrow and long island. Here is the scenery for the night: a white sandbank at the very end of the island covered by coconut trees swayed by the trade wind.

Nargana - Vincent Berthet

Photo Adeline Borot
(Click to enlarge)
January 9, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Narganà, San Blas, Panama
09°26’N – 78°35’W
21h50 local time

We leave Canirtupo and head south to the village of Nargana located 5 NM from here. The sun is high in the sky, the various sandbanks give a whole range of turquoise shades.
The village is installed on an island, which is only 200 meters from the continent. The island is connected by a pedestrian bridge to an another tiny island where the village of “Corazon de Jesus” is settled. In these two villages, we find a mix of tradition and modernism.
A meeting is scheduled for tomorrow with the two ‘Sahilas’, the heads of the villages.

Molas leader - Vincent Berthet

Molas leader
Photo Vincent Berthet
(Click to enlarge)
January 8, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Canirtupo, San Blas, Panama
09°28’N – 78°38’W
23h25 local time

As yesterday, we set sail once the sun is high in the sky. We pass round the reef zone in the South and head for Canirtupo eastwards.
We moor in a quiet, very beautiful place with a cool wind. Rolando and his family have arrived the same morning. They will camp in the island for a few days to sell Molas to tourist boats. The whole family is getting on well with the camera. From Rolando’s perspective, climate change is nothing tangible: the level of water is changing, sometime high, sometime low. He fishes and his wife sells Molas, they both highly rely on nature for their living.
Later, Francois and Catherine who have been living in the San Blas for six years on their boat ‘Eolia’ come onboard to spend the evening.

Kunas children - Laurent Ceresoli

Kunas children
Photo Laurent Ceresoli
(Click to enlarge)
January 7, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
South Mayflower Channel, San Blas, Panama
09°28’N – 78°43’W
22h25 local time

We spend the morning in the small island of Porvenir. Everything is quiet. We help our new friends from the day before check their solar panel installation that causes some trouble. We set sail by the end of the morning since we have to move eastwards. The sunlight in front of us prevents from locating coral reefs.
We follow the ‘San Blas channel’ and leave ‘Cayos Limon’ to starboard. Some of the islands are so small that they can only bear one shack whereas others are five to six hundreds metre long. Entering the Eden channel, we can then steer South East toward the ‘Moron channel’. Reefs are now surrounding us. We use the colour of the water to assess the depth. We hug a long reef for a while until deeps become unclear: water is not limpid enough and we need someone up in the mast to guide us through the risky zone. The helmsman carefully follows the instructions given by the watchtower. We sneak out the shadow waters and we finally reach the island where we plan to stay.
The possible wind rotation planned by the weather forecast forces us to moor at some distance from the beach. The trade winds are scheduled to decrease for some hours, we therefore take advantage of the tranquillity of the desert spot. No document mentions the name of this island.

Anchorage in San Blas - Thaly Blanga

Anchorage in San Blas
Photo Thaly Blanga
(Click to enlarge)
January 6, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Porvenir, San Blas, Panama.
09°33’N – 78°57’W
23h15 local time

We wake up to discover the beauty of the spot: low islands covered with coconut trees that the coral reef protects from the swell. We notice a difference between the position given by our electronic instruments and our real position: our decision not to moor at night in Porvenir happens to be a rich idea! The easy access during the day can be tricky for those who do not know the site and reach the islands without having tested the instrument precision. We set sail to Porvenir to run the official procedure to access the islands.
We meet there the person in charge of tourism at the San Blas local Congress. Since he is willing to give an interview, our fieldwork can begin. During two hours, we have the opportunity to explore the fascinating history of the Kuna people. These reveal to be very conscious about the current issue of environment. We understand that the representative of the Congress attended the international conference in Poznan, Poland, dedicated to climate change – in order to prepare the coming Copenhagen conference later this year. The Kunas already have in mind several scenarios to move people away from the islands in case of water elevation, as some islands have recently been flooded.
Their vision about the environment is knowledgeable.

Welcome of Kunas people - Vincent Berthet

Welcome of Kunas people
Photo Vincent Berthet
(Click to enlarge)
January 5, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Chichime Cays, San Blas, Panama.
09°35’N – 78°52’W
22h00 local time

At 4.30 a.m., the crew is ready to go and we cast off right away since we have to reach the San Blas during day light due to numerous coral reefs surrounding the islands. The sail is trimmed as soon as we leave the Porto Belo bay and we face an opposite wind that forces us to start tacking. Some cargos remind us of the close presence of the canal. The sky is cloudy and some gusts of wind coupled with heavy showers can be seen around us.
We enjoy the sailing and plan to reach Porvenir before the sunset. In the late afternoon we go through a gale, the wind direction rapidly changes and we have to make a tack off the tracks: our chances to moor before night have just gone out. Weak consolation: a yellowfin tuna rises to the bait. In these conditions, mooring in Porvenir is out of question and we target the easy-to-access Chichime islands.
The night is here and we enter the lagoon without visibility regarding coral reefs. Electronic instruments are the only things we can rely on, but the moon allows us to locate the islands. 8 p.m., we moor in a quiet island bay inside the reef. First night in the San Blas!

Sailing to San Blas - Vincent Berthet

Sailing to San Blas
Photo Vincent Berthet
(Click to enlarge)
January 4, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Porto Belo, Panama.
09°33’N – 79°39’W
22h30 local time

As scheduled, we enter the first of the Gatun locks at midnight. We are quickly joined by an impressive cargo. As the level lowers, waters remain calm, contrary to the first set of locks where water level raised. We hence go through the three successive locks that separate us from the Caribbean. This time, we stay linked to four liners that accompany us by walking along the locks. Back to the sea level, the last gate opens to the waters of the Caribbean. We then moor at 2 a.m. in front of Colon to take some rest.
In the morning we decide to get to Porto Belo located 20 miles from there. Facing the wind and a short way to go, this is an ideal journey to get used to the boat and being at sea. Shortly after the sunset we anchor in the quiet bay of Porto Belo: the shelter is perfect. That was such an enjoyable day while sailing with that constant wind.

Gatun locks - Pierre Charles Gueroult

Gatun locks
Photo Pierre Charles Gueroult
(Click to enlarge)
January 3rd, 2009 (time onboard = UTC - 5)
Gatun, Lac Gatun, Panama
09°15’N – 79°54’W
22h00 local time

10 a.m., we are entering the first lock. The pilot who is helping us to cross has been onboard since our departure from La Playita one hour ago. The huge gate shuts behind us, taking us apart from the Pacific.
A powerful rip appears and the level of water raises rapidly in the Miraflores lock. Within few minutes, we have gone up to 9 meters high. Three successive locks help us reach the altitude of 27 meters and we start to make our way to the well-known Gaillard cut announcing the Gatun lake. For once, we navigate into freshwater and the boat follows the multiple curves of the canal. Welcoming islands call for a stop but we stick to the objective and follow the buoys. Forest surrounds us while we sail trough the lake. 4 p.m., the Gatun locks are close by: they will enable us to get to the Caribbean.
We moor for a few hours while waiting for the next pilot scheduled at 11.30 p.m. Good time for a dip in the freshwater!

Transit in lock   - Vincent Berthet

Transit in lock
Photo Vincent Berthet
(Click to enlarge)
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