Wishing you Tranquility for the New Year

Dear Reader,

I am writing to wish you happy and wonderful New Year’s, and to give a little recap about our position, on the planet and perhaps in life.

I apologize for the long absence from writing, the transition from traveling to a semi-stasis in Panama waters was not particularly fertile for keeping up with this blog. I am hoping that something finally switched with this New Year transition. After all there is so much to tell, even if we moved so little!

At the moment we are in wonderful Kuna Yala, an autonomous indigenous region within Panama’s borders made of hundreds of tiny islands, encrusted by big sections of coral reefs teeming with marine life. It is definitely one of the nicest places I have ever sailed to (let’s say it, the best). If you don’t know anything about it I suggest you check out this Facebook Group I administer. If you are on of the lucky people who is not on Facebook, stay tuned on this blog for some pictures and an extensive description when I will encounter a broadband internet.

Panama is becoming a mid-term stop, a place where we are hoping to gather resources and finances for the next chapter of our voyage. Kate here is able to continue and improve her new career of scientific papers editor, but I struggled to find reliable sources of income. I had so many offers yet neither of those resulted in something concrete and long term. Right now I am freelancing as a chef for a Turkish Gulet named Jubilee, and keeping an eye out for other gigs on charter boats.

We are aware of the threat that this country pose on voyagers: calm waters and favorable weather all year round, modern infrastructure and services still with a laid back culture, and all for a reasonable price tag. It’s not a coincidence that this place is referred to as the elephant graveyard, as many vessels end up piling up here to finish their lives.

We are also aware that too much comfort could kill our voyaging desire, and we really want to get back underway and finally cross the tiny stretch of land that separates us from the Pacific Ocean, where a bounty of destinations awaits.

Our electric motor is not the best solution for a Canal crossing, as the vessel is required to keep a minimum speed of 5knots at all times during the transit. This is way too fast for our means, and we will have to get creative about that, either strapping an outboard engine to our transom, or looking for friendly bigger yachts that could give us a tow. The trucking alternative across the isthmus we were looking for does not seem to be viable, but we will keep asking.

Getting to the other side of Panama would be just one of the steps that allow us to continue voyaging, although probably the most important. Once there we would assess our best opportunity to set sail, depending on the conjunction between time of the year and finances. Luckily the Pacific side of Panama offers plenty of opportunities for cruising destinations, so in case of a prolonged wait we could enjoy more exploration of places like Coiba, Las Perlas Islands, and other great destinations.

We are trying to keep some dangerous habits in check. For example, we decided not to answer the call of the sirens of boat work, and get back to a total refit again. It is a tempting thought because the more we learn how it is to live and sail on Tranquility the more we like to design and make improvements. There is a bit of work scheduled for early 2018, including a haul out and bottom paint, But nothing revolutionary. It would be also important to give Tranquility a thorough check before setting sail for long ocean passages. After all, Tranquility is a good enough vessel as it is.

We are developing a plan to leave Panama. Even if it is still under construction, it’s a first step to start 2018 with a purpose. Rest assured that I will keep you on the loop of further developments. In the meanwhile, I wish you and your family and friends joy and tranquility for New Year, and hope for a bright future.

I know boats…

Je connais des bateaux qui s’égratignent un peu

Sur les routes de la mer où les mène leur jeu

 (transl. “I know boats that get little scratches
On the ocean roads where their games lead to”)

 Mannick, Je connais des bateux

The “Idea of Self” has given me trouble since I had memory. When sailing became an unexpected reality in my life these identity troubles got complicated.

The very first time I sailed it was on a 51ft sloop with a dead engine that we took 136 miles away from departure to give her a brand new propulsion apparatus. I still remember that as no biggity, even though I should ask Fernando (the skipper) about it. All the work needed to push the boat with the dinghy through a swinging bridge in a choppy channel in front of a crowd of waterfront breakfast eaters was just new fun activity for an incompetent sailor like me.

Sailing fun
Ignorance can be a bliss

Then there was the first dream about taking off on my own boat: it was a sailing Cayuco (dugout canoe type) from the Kuna people, my belonging stuffed in watertight barrels, coasting South American shores and pulling on the beach every night to enjoy a bonefire and a sound sleep on a hammock. No mosquitos were bothering me in those fantasies. I even dared picturing some offshore sailing in such a craft. It remained a dream when other events dragged me away from Kuna Yala before I could accomplish it.

My Dream Boat
My Dream Boat

What is left of that naive man today? Training and experience, in one word knowledge, added layers of complication to the art of sailing. The present is filled with words like safety equipment, ideal ground tackle, auxiliary mean of propulsion and proper sized elecrical wiring, as well as a lot of gadgets and products that “you can’t sail without” pushed by marketers and opinion leaders. It is extremely hard to make order in all this crap.

Since Tranquility owned our lives, I experienced shifts in what was to be expected from a boat, oscillating from “really just a hull that don’t take water in” to “safe, unsinkable, performance-oriented sailing machine”, sometimes being happy to fall in the first category, sometimes working hard to achieve the latter.

It’s hard to tell why Tranquility chose us, she won’t tell. Being far from the “perfect boat” she challenged our own Idea of Self, our needs and our goals. She proof tested our skills and endurance, she took the majority of our money, forcing us to visit places we had not planned to, before leaving us stranded in an unknown point on the chart. She made ask ourselves if we were ready and when that will be. In synthesis, she changed us.

I am happy I am a different myself, even only for the fact that there was a path in these years, any path really. I can still look behind, look at me now and think about what will come ahead. When past and present look alike, there’s a chance that the future won’t be different. So in the end I am happy about this incongruity.

I usually welcome change. Helping others going through change was part of my career back in pre-financial crisis Italy, so I can’t exclude I suffer from the prejudice that sees change as inherently good, necessary and unavoidable. Sometimes I look back with nostalgia to the man that wouldn’t hesitate to embark in an unsafe, uncertain journey on an ill-equipped vessel, and I wish I hadn’t changed.

Knowledge and experience can be a heavy and safe anchor, but when it grows too big it could block any movement at all. The restoration chapter of Tranquility has gone through the same pattern. We started performing the quickest cheapest and unfinished jury rig repairs to be able to leave before the winter gales, and now we would spend a considerable amount of time and money to make things “the best we can”.

Tranquility undergoing surgeries
Tranquility undergoing surgeries

There are definetely good learning coming from this endeavor, but the more we remain attached to a dock and in the range of hardware stores, marine suppliers and Amazon Prime, the poorer we become and the less likely we are to unmoor as the perfect boat is nothing but an illusion.

 “Je connais des bateaux tellement enchaînés
Qu’ils ont désappris comment se libérer!”
(transl. “I know so chained boats
They have forgotten how to break free!”)

Maybe Tranquility needed somebody who would give her an anti-age treatment, new life out of tiredness. Maybe she had something to teach two illiterate sailors like us, or she was looking for warmer climate to retire. Maybe it’s all or none of that, it’s very hard to get her to cough the story up. Or maybe she is not immune to different Ideas of Self battling for supremacy. She used to sail across the ocean, she has it in her bones and chances are that she misses it very badly.

I know boats that are never really finished but this doesn’t stop them from setting sail. And I have the suspect Tranquility is one of those boats.

Adios Kuna Yala

I’ve been living for ten months in the Comarca Kuna Yala onboard Andiamo, a Beneteau Oceanis 50. While I was on board I accompanied more than 300 tourists to visit the beautiful islands of this area, one of the last paradises in the Carribean, and to meet the Kuna people, proud and smiling natives who still live preserving a unique culture and their language. Simple people who live on the abundant gifts that this place offers, but well aware of the effort required to live.

It was not trivial to relate with them. The differences that exist between Kuna and a European boy may seem unfathomable. I have always received warmth and support from those with whom I had the good fortune to work closely together. It was enough to sit down and talk with them to find out that we humans have much to share even where there are seemingly insurmountable cultural differences. Listen, smile and be open seems to me the best way to meet everyone.

Here in this place where land and water mingle with each other (the archipelago consists of about 370 islands) I lived with sails hoisted and attached to an anchor, being aware of what surrounded me. I meditated on deserted islands and met marine life, I learned to recognize the shape of a fish as it swims, and overcome my fears being in touch with natural environment improving my free diving to go and meet the underwater life so close. I fished a lot and cooked the fish caught by creating dishes that even the best seafood restaurant will find difficult to reply, feeding and making hundreds of happy guests. The diet and lifestyle were the most healthy I ever experienced giving me further reason to think that living on a boat and sail around the world is beneficial to health. I experienced feelings of deep loneliness as well as the strain of never having privacy. I admired Remi (my personal Kuna spearfishing guide) swim faster than a huge Red Snapper and catch him. I used to go with him spearfishing in the outer reef where the open sea crush onto the corals and the marine life is intense and busy. I sailed on a sailing cayuco with Dino, my faithful officer on board and a great friend of many difficulties and joys. I met his family and his friends and the lovely people of Dino’s island Yandup. All this and energetic life sustained me  in the responsibilities of the captain, I had the chance to make mistakes, which fortunately were never serious or dangerous and have always solved the major ones, working on emergency in a place with no assistance at all, but supported by the Team of Andiamo, Tony, Mitzy and of course Dino.

The list goes on and on. If I look behind these 10 months I have no regrets and even thinking about the difficulties I can not look to Kuna Yala with other eyes than those of gratitude and joy.

Photos: Me, Marloes, Stefano

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.

New possibilities in San Blas Islands

How to describe San Blas? I’ve been spending aproximately 2 weeks in my new adventure aboard SV Andiamo and I’m still without words. I noticed one sure fact: visitors going crazy about their sailing experience here.

front of Cartì Yundup

First I have to explain where we are. It’s Panamà, the fastest growing economy in Central America. It’s Panama City  with new buildings appearing everyday, traffic and good restaurants, malls and signs that invite you to come and invest or retire here. The skyline is amazing, something I’m not used to as I’m from Europe and that’s the reason why Casco Viejo, the old colonial zone is more familiar to me.

But San Blas has nothing to do with Panama City, we’re at the antipodes. The separation is provided by a wide stripe of virgin forest still unexplored in some of its parts. After the forest the coast and and the islands, more than 370, sometimes just few centimeters of sand with  palm trees. We are in the home of Kunas, the indigenous that own and administrate this region, with their own laws and traditions. Paddling or sailing on their dugout they move from and to the coast carrying water, food, people.approaching the boat to sell lobsters, crabs or fish, or the Molas, traditional and really artistics handicrafts made by Kuna women.

And that’s the other world, the world of wise Kunas, ancient traditions and deep respect for natural environment that gives us a wonderful scenario to sail and relax. It’s more than a postcard, it’s life!

Central Cayos Holandeses

On the way to San Blas #2

After Berlin underground crossing it’s time of U.S. in a trip that since its starting was very long and became even longer.
Landed in Miami on July 21st I stayed in Fabi’s house in Ft. Lauderdale for one night to be ready to leave for Panama on Friday night. Fabi is my boss’s friend, a friendly and nice woman who helped me a lot in Ft. Lauderdale.
After an entire day visiting around to wait for my late flight already checked in and already at the gate I received the bad news from the airline: plane had mechanical problems so is not leaving
General panic and fights always ready to start  between passengers and staff and between passengers! I used all the skills trained in italian post offices to conquer one of the first places so I got quickly my hotel room and my ticket for next day. One more day in Florida that passed by taking advantage of the comforts of my hotel room and going out for dinner with Fabi.
I have few and confused images of me in a car with Mitzy, the boat manager, and his brother driving through the incredible buildings of Panama City. Not more than three hours in the apartment and I’m
on a 4×4 that carries Kunas and their provisions from the city to the “Comarca de Kuna Yala”. The road is a tarmoil ribbon that flows trough the jungle and I ignore completely where I am only noticed I am stuffed in a vehicle that is collecting people all around. Finally I get to the “embarcadero” and jump on a lancha that takes me to the SV Andiamo, my new experience, in the unknown surrounding of San Blas Islands.