For many months cruising and sailing and exploring has been absolutely grand. Days slip by effortlessly as we swim, sail, and generally have a good time. But then there are times… Like these… Alas, our beginnings in San Blas have not been all that we wished for and perhaps that is part of the problem. Low expectations with a good experience yields great fun. High expectations with bad experiences are doubly bad.

As a side note, this post is not about belly aching about our problems. Its just our life lived out loud here on our blog. I wouldn’t trade it for the world but I figured I’d share some of the darker sides of cruising as they came along. This is one of them.

San Blas from the start was a bit of a trial. Charts here suck. They’re all off. Garmin, Navionics, CMAP, CM93, etc, they’re all wrong. Apparently the only “good” charts for this area are from some guy named Eric Bauhaus who sells his charts and his cruising guide for a reasonable 100 dollars. The problem is that the charts come in paper and electronic form but the electronic ones don’t work in our garmin chart plotter. They DO work on OpenCPN (But only version 3, not version 4)! So I had to install a SECOND version of OpenCPN on my PC to have easy access to the charts. Furthermore, they don’t work on my android running OpenCPN because only OpenCPN 4 runs on android. So to start with, I have to go down to paper chart navigation or use my PC below. Not the end of the world but it was a bother that I didn’t have to deal with before.

Navigation in San Blas is done by eye ball as much as by charts anyway. But to really get where we need to go I have to go below, review the charts, plot the course I want to take, write all the way points, turns, and angles down. Come up and enter the waypoints manually into the plotter. Put my list on my deck and take off. Then you have to navigate in day time and good light. There are wrecks… Everywhere. San Blas is like the boat graveyard. I think literally every island we’ve been to so far has had at least one wreck on the reef around it. Eye opening and this is the first time Dani and I have had to navigate in such dangerous waters. So one bug about coming here is NAVIGATION.

After check in at El Provenir, I realized the second problem. Heat. Its hot again. Everywhere else we’ve been has had nice temps, but not here. The weathers is all kinds of wonky. We have thunderstorms with overcast all day one day with the winds howling in the rigging and water sluicing off the deck, then the next its like the dead calm of a Louisiana Summer with the heat to match. Blazing full sun with no relief besides jumping in the water. And to rub salt in the wound, it was cloudy coming into El Provenir, but sunning during check in when I had to wear GASP, pants and a collar shirt and shoes. I haven’t worn shoes in months.

So we discovered these two bugs (weather and navigation) early. But so what? We hear they have propane, internet, and great beaches. On the run into San Blas we passed some island with like 10 boats anchored and thought, “Man, that looks like a cool hang out.” Also we were looking for some island called Elefante which was the propane source supposedly but in our charts nothing listed such an island that we could find. The 10 boat island was called Chichime so we headed there.

Chichime was beautiful in its own way.
Boat near waters edge with clouds
Overcast San Blas with Mountains in background
Kids in a Dug out Canoe

However, there were two small Kuna villages right next to one another and the anchorage was crowded with boats. Some nice, some not so nice. Some looked like they’d been there for a while. I was almost getting a Key West vibe off the place as people rode by in dingies with wide open throttles and nary a wave, nod, or smile on any face. No propane either. Regardless, we made the most of it. The Kuna there sold us some lobsters for 5 dollars per pound. Which is twice what I think I should have paid but the Kuna that sold it to me was so drunk he almost fell down getting the lobsters out and so I didn’t bargain. In retrospect, it was probably the ideal time to bargain. (As a side note, we started calling Chichime the drunk island because all the Kuna were lit at like 10am and there was a giant mountain of beer cans in the middle of the village.)
Tate buying Lobsters

One good thing about Chichime though was that we met up with Venancio. He is a Kuna who makes molas. He came aboard and showed us his many wares and we bargained and bought some. Dani was very excited as one of her dreams here was to find a mola. So now she has one which we hung in our boat. We really enjoy it.
Venancio with Molas

It really didn’t take us long to want to get out of Chichime. So we spoke with some Kunas who pointed out Elefante to us which on the chart is actually part of the “Lemon Cays” and headed out. When we got there, it was really weird. There were a few catamarans on mooring balls, no anchored boats, and a place they brought tourists that passed as a bar. Elefante itself looked pretty empty.

But undeterred, I rowed ashore with hope swelling in my heart that we’d finally find some propane.
Tate Rowing dinghy with Sundowner in background

There we found a really really small bar.
Painting at Elephante

And some French guy who told us they had a propane adapter but no propane. Thanks French guy. So I went across to the “bar island” and asked some local Kunas in my broken Spanish if we could get some propane. After much talk, I convinced them I wanted to buy a propane tank (Tropigas is the local brand), Yes, the entire tank, gas, tank, and all! Its expensive. 60 bucks and I gave them twenty to bring it to me. So 80 bucks for 25 pounds of propane, ouch.

With a commitment to stick it out until our Kuna returned (hopefully) with gas, we settled in. A sport fisher came by and anchored next to us. They had a dingy with folks on wake boards and we enjoyed watching them as we were treated to a beautiful sunset.
Charter Wakeboarding

Until THEY showed up. Who are they? Bugs. No-see-ums. In mass. Millions of them. The boat was covered, Dani was covered, everything was covered. We’d not gotten the screens out in some months. But after that, we have them in here almost continuously. Such a plague of bugs simply cannot be tolerated. Dani is consuming our Cortaid and Calimine lotion at an alarming rate and the poor baby has bites all over her. Even my feet had angry red welts. These bites last for a week! So there is another down side to San Blas in the rainy season, bugs. Literally. So bad we’ve remade no see um netting screens for all the hatches. Dani sewed a big bag like thing for the front hatch, we made a drop net for the compainionway, and the port lights are all screened now.

Anyway, back to the story. Propane. Yes, the Kuna were true to their word and showed up the next bug bitten morning and sold me the Tropigas tank which I took to Elefante and gave to a Kuna dude to gravity fill my tank. French guy had disappeared. Well, the Kuna guy “Miguel”, rigs it all up but apparently has no flat head screw driver anywhere on his entire island to use to open the OPD overflow valve. So I have to row back out to the boat for it. Madness, no screwdrive. Madness…

Propane filling

Further madness was watching this process. Propane and ice going everywhere as it got started. I grabbed Dani and we backed far far away while Miguel sat there in a chair not three feet from it looking like all was right in the world. I think with the leakage we got about 20lbs of propane out of the 25lb container. And now we have a full tank again, and I have the Tropigas one I can exchange for a full for like 20 bucks. We also paid Miguel 5 dollars for risking his life, island, and peoples to fill our propane tank. Then we got the hell out of that bug ridden, propane explosion likely, tourist packed hole.

My sister Paige writes and asks, “I googled San Blas and there are over 360 islands, how do you decide which ones to visit?” Good question Paige. I have decided you don’t visit islands likely to blow up, eat you, or get you arrested. (We later found out that Chichime is a home for “backpacker” tourists and drugs are rampant.) We still had no Internet, but we heard on the radio and from our friends aboard Muoza that a boat from New Orleans was looking for us. Now where ever New Orleanians are must be at least sort of okay, right? We contacted them on the radio (SV Gris Gris) and found they were at an anchorage known as the “Swimming Pool” in the Holandes Cays. We’d heard of the place. Gris Gris said they’d have the Saints game on if we made it in time. Needed to red line the engine to blow the carbon out anyway right? Oh and charge the batteries after all the clouds.

So off we went and dropped anchor in 20 ft of crystal clear water with course sandy bottom. It truly does look like a “swimming pool”.
Dani in the water Swimming Pool

I started it off with a Saints game aboard Gris Gris. Then things started to get better. Until they got worse.

On the up side, this place is way WAY nicer. No explosions, drug lords, or crazy swarms of man eating bugs. We have lots of other NICE boats around us, we’ve met and hung out with them. The water is great for swimming and there aren’t Kuna everywhere (when there are, you feel like you’re intruding if you go to their beach – or sometimes they ask for money for it.) And many other good things, but first, lets get the rest of the “shit that goes wrong while cruising” out of the way.

So, we weren’t making much power. The batteries were going lower and lower. Many things are happening on a boat that affect the batteries. The sunlight (which its cloudy most of the time here). The fridge, which needed to be defrosted was running too much. We run fans all the time now, etc. But when in full blown sun we were only seeing 5 to 10 amps out of our solar panels I new something was wrong. Worse, there was an amperage fluctuation. I tracked it to the Duocharge controller which seems to have lost its mind. I haven’t tested it yet but I think its actually the starting battery has shorted itself. I disconnected the controller and we’ve been cranking the motor off the house bank. I’ll leave that for repair in Panama later.

Now… Since we were hurting for power I decided to put up two more solar panels I’d had tucked away. We installed them ontop of the bimini. While in this process I found that one of the factory installed MC4 connectors that came with the panels had cracked and one of our original 3 panels was putting out no power. Huh, no wonder it seemed low. No matter, now we’re up to 500 watts after that repair. And a brilliant 25 amps/ hr of power.

Until we get 0 amps of power. One morning I’m watching the battery monitor tell me I’m losing power while the sun is clearly shining down on us and so I start digging around. Then Dani says, “Tate! I smell something burning.” Oh shit. I dive into the engine room and see no smoke so I dive into the lazarette and sure enough a wire is burning up.
Melted wires

Turns out it was one of the VERY few original remaining pieces of wire that I didn’t replace. Shame on me, I am paying for it now. The 8AWG wire that runs from the solar controller to the solar panel junction box had apparently been connected with some weird terminal that melted itself.

I rewired it, sort of…
New Wiring

I don’t have 8AWG terminals onboard so I used a 10AWG and snipped a few wires to make it fit. We’ll get some new ones soon. In the meantime I went ahead and disconnected 1 of the 5 solar panels bringing us down to 400watts. I figure that connector picked now to melt on us because it couldn’t handle the 500 watt load and so I am not going to tempt fate with my jerry rigged connector though I think it should be fine.

Whew, hows that for the cruising life!? But fear not, in the next instalment things get a lot better as Dani and I get back down to the hard business of having the time of our lives in paradise. But as you can see, there are sometimes these dark days that seem to pile up on you.

The thing is to not let it get you down. Keep that chin up, stay tough, soldier on. We’ve had fantastic experiences before and we’ll have them again (provided we don’t blow up). Stay tuned for the good things as we finally cook with reckless abandon again, Tate kills new and exotic aquatic life, Dani discovers the joy of baking, and we meet lots of new friends who take us to new underwater places.

Ciao for now!