Pure Sailing – No Money, No Motor, No Problem!

Preparing for the next big trip to Kuna Yala also known as “San Blas Islands” and Cartagena, the little sailboat Renaissance (30feet) is moored in Linton Bay Marina, Panama.

Here we met a wonderfull group of young enthusiastic sailors belonging to the Alternative World Sailing Community. On their freshly fixed boat “Orfin”, they enjoy sailing, living together and performing arts like fireshows, making music and spreading positive vibes into the world.  Motivated by different reasons, experiences and the pure fact that the 43 feet vessel doesn’t have an engine, they are happy to go everywhere under sail. Only in special situations the strong dinghy is used to push the big boat.

Inspired by them, we decide to use only sails on our voyage.

“It will be a good practice for the case we have to sail”, Luigi suggests, “and it will be interesting to see how hard it is.”

The story starts as an exciting game to sail into anchorages, place the anchor, lift it and leave under sail again. With more and more confidence we sail in and out, still knowing we could turn on the engine any time as a backup.
Anchored safely in shallow waters behind the island Ustupu a “Culo de Pollo” (= bud of the chicken) strikes us during the night. This phenomenon is a type of squall which comes down the coastal mountain range and is quite common between the San Blas Islands. As a first sign, the wind dies down completely. Then you feel a chilly breeze picking up from SW. Suddenly gusts of 35-40 knots hammer against your boat. The “Culo de Pollo”, how the locals call it, lasts for 15-20 minutes. Usually it is accompanied by heavy rainfalls and lightening.
Getting up at 5 o clock in the morning to attack the 40-mile passage to Porto Obaldia in daylight, we notice that something is wrong with the boat. She doesn’t turn into the wind, dancing on the anchor chain like usual. A quick look in the water explains everything.
“Vaffan Culo”, Luigi yells. We got turned around and are grounded in the middle of the bay. Sitting on a tiny, sandy mountain surrounded by deep water our bad-luck-day begins.
Of course it is low tide now. All maneuvers, healing the boat with the sails, motoring forward, backward, bringing out a second anchor to winch the boat free and pushing with the freshly patched dinghy remain without any effect.

Hoping for the Panamenian border police to give us a pull with one of their 500PS motor boats, we wait for the water level to rise. All the sudden the dinghy bench breaks in two and once we start another attempt to free ourselves, the motor stops working. The shaft is turning but we cant shift into gear anymore. Something must be wrong with the gearbox and the next mechanic might be in Porto Obaldia or even in Cartagena.

Luigi and I look at each other and know right away: This is exactly what we practiced for! No problem, we will continue sailing. Only sailing!

At least we dont have to worry about searching money for diesel. Both of us together have a total of 20$ because there is no ATM or any possibility to get money in Kuna Yala!

A fisherboat with a strong outboard pulls us back into deeper water and we sail away. Leaving the sheltered bay, heading right into the open sea we have to tack around shallow reefs where huge, glassy waves break close to us. The thought of being totally dependent on the moods of Eolus, the ancient Greek god of the wind, is a little bit scary but freeing and adventurous at the same time!

On our way to Porto Obaldia, the “checkout- harbour” where we have to get the Zarpe and stamps in our passports, we have to cope with all kinds of conditions: Strong winds, a little breeze barely enough to fill the sails and turning winds shooting into the sails from all over the place. Sails flap around and the boom crashes from one side to the other. We have to take the sails down.

“If there is no suitable wind, we just wait and cook pasta”

0.0 knots shown on the chart plotter becomes our favorite speed during the night. We dont worry about stearing into the right direction. Always hoping for consistent 10-15knots I get really excited when the wind picks up a bit. I pull up the sails and after a couple minutes the wind dies down again. This game goes on for hours until I just take the sails down and fall asleep.

Paying much more attention to the weather now, we recognized patterns which occur quite often in the same manner. Usually in the morning a landbreeze blows down the mountains and in the afternoon a seabreeze starts once the sun heats up the air above the land. In these situations we try to use it as effeciently as possible. Handsteering highly concentrated is necessary to keep the boat in her momentum. Once the wind doesnt hold the sails shape anymore we loose speed right away and start to turn.

Without the option of motoring it is necessary to plan every landfall carefully. Sailing becomes much more conservative. We always have to choose the safer option to get into the next possible anchorage before the wind dies down. Otherwise we make sure to stay far out on the sea to keep a safe distance to land during the night. In Puerto Obaldia we meet Humberto, who changes some Colombian Pesos which we have left from Providencia. Enough to buy some fresh food. Because we dont have a chart for these waters, he takes us with him in his motorboat to Capurgana. We inquire about the depths, have a close look at the anchorage and how to approach it.

Puerto Obaldia – The last harbour in Panama for customs and immigration – here we need to get a Zarpe before heading to Colombia

Also getting out of a widely open anchorage bay can be an obstacle when high mountains distort prevailing winds or cause local weathers. It takes us three attempts to get our of Puerto Obaldia and two days to make the 10mile passage around Capo Tiburhon (the Colombian border) to Capurgana. After hours of drifting dangerously close to steep rock cliffs where we can hear the waves crashing, we return to our old anchor spot. In the middle of the night we set our alarms to make use of the exspected breeze. Finally we get 4 miles of shore and the wind is gone. It is hard not to loose oneself in desperation when the destination is already in sight but you just cant get there!

Studying the clouds and constantly checking any slight change in the sky, the afternoon endows the usual seabreeze which carries Renaissance all the way into the bay of Capurgana. We celebrate our arrival with traditionally cooked Italian Pasta and start to get ready for the stretch to Cartagena.


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