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.
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.
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.
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.