Cayuco Sailing like the Kunas


Silently glides the dugout cayuco through the calm waters between the islands. A little breeze of 6-12 knots is enough for the indigenous Kuna to travel between the islands. Nestor, a Kuna from the island Cabanas Ukuptupu picks us up and shows us how easy it can be to sail this shaky boat. Now we want our own cayuco and use it instead of the dinghy to get from the anchorages to the islands.

On the traditional Robinson islands, which are known for their quality dugouts, we find exactly what we were looking for. Justino, a Kuna who speaks good Spanish and English helps us with the negotiations and the next day Luigi is the proud owner of a sailing cayuco. To paddle the narrow piece of hardwood requires a certain technique and sailing it is by far not as easy as it looked like.

Our new dinghy – exploring the islands like the Kunas

Carved out of the trunk of a huge tropical tree the cayuco is heavy and lays deep in the water. Steering is done by holding the paddle in the back and turning it. One little moment of not being concentrated is enough to capsize. I try to jibe, the sails flaps to the other side and push the rail deep in the water. Throwing all my weight on the other side is too late. More and more water streams into the hull. It takes no time and the boat is full with water. From the island I hear the kids laughing and see that they have been watching me from the pier. Swimming and scooping out the water with a half-cut plastic container takes a while until I can set the sails again.

Back on the island we pull it out of the water and discover that this cayuco doesnt have a keel which is necesary to hold the course under sail. Together with Bredio and the universal tool “machete” I place a keel under front part. In this position it keeps the bow in a straight line and doesnt affect the steering ability in the back.

It is time to set sail again and see some of the other islands. Our idea is to tow the cayuco behind the boat. We could use it as our traditional dinghy and then sell it before we leave Kuna Yala. It would stay in the Kuna territory and we could definetly not pull it in the open sea.

Having the mast, boom, benches and sails all tied together we let the cayuco out on a long line. Watching it dance behind the sailboat and slowly filling up with water by waves crashing over the sides, we come to the conclusion that its pointless. It wont be possible to tow it all the way to the bigger islands. By now the wooden boat is full with water and drags behind us like a submarine.

Turning around we return to Ailitupu and leave the cayuco with Bredio and his wonderfull family. Many evenings they invited us over for dinner and told us many stories about the islands. Bredio is a remarkably honest man and can use the cayuco for sure to sail together with his son.

Fredi, the son of Bredio, padling the cayuco back to the island

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