Sailing a Cayuco in Kuna Yala

I took three hours of my free time to fulfill a desire I had since the very first moment I arrived in Kuna Yala. Everyday,  you can see the shapes of the cayucos setting sail since the first light in the morning and heading for the fishing destinations. This image always inspired me a deep sense of freedom and satisfaction and an intense desire to sail one.

The Sailing Cayuco

Cayuco is the name the Spanish explorers gave to the boats built by indigenous people of the Antilles and other American regions. It describes a monohull with flat bottom and no keel or daggerboard, propelled and steered by a wide paddle. In Kuna language it is called  “Ulu”, but they often use the name cayuco, at least with non-Kunas like me.

Cayucos are built with the dugout technique: this means that the hull is shaped by carving a log of suitable dimensions, usually mahogany which grows in the Comarca’s (indigenous territory) well preserved forest. Similar to other canoe desings the bow and stern are pointy and they can be paddled in both directions. Looking at the bilge you notice the rough marks left by the tools during the chipping out. It is remarkable how Kuna shipwrights can obtain such a regular shape with this method and the amount of labor behind every single piece must be enormous.

In San Blas Archipelago cars are useless and the transportation happens on water. Cayucos are everywhere, and sometimes it is hard to find docking to the main piers. They come in very different size and dimensions, every family has at least a small paddle one, but sailing cayucos are longer and more expensive. The modernity brought outboard engines and fiberglass boats named “pangas” or the more common spanish name “lancha”.

The cayuco Dino and I sailed is owned by one of his cousin. The man told me that it was built from a tree donated by his father. When his father died he had the permission to cut the tree and have it carved and painted.

On this type of boat the rig is a spritsail (similar to an Optimist): the mainsail is attached with a loose foot to a boom, and the “sprit” is a spar that support the leech. The main is sheeted to a hole through the gunwale and tied with a simple knot. The boat comes also with a headsail which is set flying from the bow to the mast head. The simplicity of the construction is a demonstration of how little techonology is really needed to sail. Even if a lot can be done to improve the performance of this system, it is enough for the essential living of the Kunas, and I am still amazed about how good it is the windward performance without a centerboard. You just need to be equipped with a lot of patience, a skill which Kunas culture is rich of.

Cayuco Mainsail: the sprit
Cayuco Mainsail: loose foot

The rudder is substituted by a wide paddle. In fact, the helmsman can be very much called a paddler as you need to paddle the boat into the wind in order to tack. It took me a while to understand how to steer with a wooden paddle and the fuzzy wind of the afernoon was not helping, but it was nothing too complicated. There is definetely a more close feeling of how the rudder operates and the forces that act on it using this technique  rather than turning the wheel of a performance cruiser.

Steering the cayuco

As often happens during fishing trips, especially the ones you improvise, we didn’t catch any fish. Nonetheless I had an interesting day, I learned about traditional crafts and fullfilled a little dream of mine. I hope I am going to do it again,  next time I hope with a bigger sail, just to have more speed sensation and capsizing danger.

Surfing the unconscious

For the first time a couple of days ago I tried to surf. I mean surfing on waves (in Hawaiian he’e nalu, “gliding on water”), what you see in many American movies from 50 years onwards, with the Beach Boys as the soundtrack and Baywatch’s  towers in the distance.
I took some lessons and I found myself very capable, with great personal satisfaction. For this discipline are necessary strength in upper limbs (you row a lot to catch the wave at the right time) and of course balance.
The technique involves several steps to surf a wave. We must reach an area where you stand for “get” the wave (line up). It coincides with the point at which a wave begins to break, making a steep surfable wall. In order to begin to ride the wave the surfer swim with their bellies lying on the table, perpendicular to the wave towards the beach and when the board starts to slide independently the surfer stands up by pressing the table with both hands and pulling with a single movement (take off).
In the case of particularly large wave that is the most dangerous moment, and if dropped the surfer can incur serious consequences, especially in the presence of rocky or coral bottoms. The instructor who followed me warned me about the disruptive force of the wave and its dangers. In the event of a fall in the belly of the wave she told me to let go and not fight with the wave and curl up in fetal position, protecting the head. The wave is stronger than any swimmer, and the falling water strikes you with a chaotic incontestable force. But the wave will pass, ending its effect and in that time you can re-emerge. Even paddling into the wave, when you went to place the new line-up requires care. The maneuvers to overcome the power of waves are two: Duck Dive going under the waves by dipping the tip of the board (only with short boards);  Turtle roll is made grabbing the board on side, turning upside down 180 degrees and let the wave pass.
This long digression on techniques is to highlight that it is highly inadvisable to contend with such a powerful event. But if you take off and you can begin to ride the wave then you can be transported, make flips, surf away from breaks.
After this first experience I began to think about waves in terms of unconscious. Maybe its because of the aquatic metaphor, the power and uncontrollability, the dynamics of wave generation so tied to the sea movements in general, cyclical but unpredictable, governed by complex patterns and outside of human control: a wave, think of a tsunami, you certainly can not divert, control, manipulate. A wave breaks and modifies landscapes over time, erodes the coastline, dig her groove. Then switch back and retires leaving a calm sea. But since James Cook discovered the Hawaiian natives and saw them surfing on primitive wooden tables, humans love to confront these powerful natural phenomena, having fun and trying immense joy to slip on the water. When I managed to ride the first wave I felt a euphoric sense of control and I fell in love with surfing.
But if the metaphor holds I wonder which is the surfboard that allows us to ride without having to undergo the unconscious, which techniques allow us to get up at the right time and remain on the wall, in a precarious state of balance, but without being overwhelmed by the turmoil that follows us. What can keep us directed to a safe place and which the moves? I always thought that the unconscious is a phenomenon to be exploited, which consists of uncontrollable energy but that can be surfed managing to remain afloat and upright, without hitting obstacles on the road.