Most of the fleet have arrived in Shelter Bay, having enjoyed the beautiful crystal clear waters of the San Blas islands (and a little bit of rain).
Since crossing the Leg 2 finish line some miles off the coast of Panama, they have been working their way slowly from island to island along the famous archipelago San Blas where each island is a near perfect paradise. The island natives, the Kuna Yala, live in settlements scattered amongst the hundreds of islands that stretch for miles east from the Panamanian mainland. They get around in traditional dugout canoes for the most part, although a few small motorized wooden boats are used to ferry people and goods. A fair share of their living is made from visiting yachts, who they greet upon arrival and offer handmade molas, traditional jewellery and fish and lobster, often caught only minutes before. Famously each island has every coconut accounted for, and stealing them from the islands is strictly forbidden as they are a mainstay of the Kuna people.
Few of these islands have more than a few palm trees and even fewer rise any higher than a meter from the crystal clear sea that surrounds them. Despite the clear water, navigating these islands can be tricky – even in a dinghy – as the area is poorly charted and strewn with reefs. To an untrained eye the bottom can be deceiving, as sand banks that are nearly islands themselves rise up across the region.
At the very western end of the San Blas chain, as the islands come within clear sight of the mainland, the mountainous jungle terrain rises up out of the sea, making the islands appear as tiny dots of sand in the foreground. Here, on the island of Porvenir, a small runway (the chains only) divides the island between an immigration office to the west and the very basic Hotel Porvenir less than a stone’s throw away on the eastern side. The whole island is less than half a kilometre in length, and not even a quarter of a km wide. It is on this truly tiny island that yachts clear into the country and pay for the permit to visit the Kuna islands.
Stefano and Matt from the World ARC team have been based here this week – to help with immigration - and the small traditional restaurant in the hotel is a great place to catch up with fellow participants over some fresh fish and beer from the mainland. Porvenir is the first step back towards the modern civilisation & canal that awaits the fleet only an overnight sail away, where the contrast is quite extraordinary. The quite idyllic islands so sparsely populated give way to a modern industrial society shaped in so many ways around the canal. Traditional 12 foot dugout canoes filled with coconuts are replaced by 1000 foot metal goliaths, carrying cars, containers and all sorts of commercial goods across the globe.
For World ARC participants the San Blas offer a glimpse at the sort of societies and islands that await in the pacific, where there is little industry to be found beyond copra sheds and pearl farms. The canal and Panama City on the other side is the last these yachts will see of such a civilisation for many months to come.
Once they reach Shelter Bay there is a very apparent air of anticipation and excitement along the pontoons and onshore in the marina office. The Panama Canal transit preparations are now well underway, with a number of boats already measured for the transit, and being hauled out the water to be cleaned underneath and fumigated over the past and next few days, necessary for entering a yacht into the Galapagos.
The idea of building a route through from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean dates back some 500 years ago, and the Panama Canal, constructed between 1881 to 1914, first by the French and then completed by the US has a long, tumultuous history. Expansion plans were completed in 2016, allowing more and larger cargo ships to pass through per day.
Transiting the Canal this year has been particularly tricky for sailing vessels, due to a drought in the Panama region, which has made the Gatun Lake, also used as drinking water to local populations, shallower than usual. This has placed a limit on the amount of non-commercial vessels that can go through the locks, including our fleet. Slowly but surely the boats will make their way through over the next week in 5 separate transits.
Sailing yachts Tri II Fly, Sea Lover, Influencer, Sea Larks and Verbena have joined the World ARC fleet here in time for the transit. We welcome them all wholeheartedly to the World ARC family.
Skipper briefings on the first couple of transits begin today, Thursday and transits will kick off in the early hours tomorrow. Volunteer extra line handlers will assist with the first day of transits, experiencing it themselves before crossing on their own boats.
Themed evening nights at the Dock Bar and restaurant started yesterday evening, with a successful wine and cheese tasting, which will be followed up by a traditional hog roast tonight. Friday will see participants enjoying a Pool party and BBQ. Amongst all the preparations for the canal, the atmosphere is staying lively at Shelter Bay and even sightings of the local resident crocodiles are coming in from yesterday… so participants are warned to stick strictly to the pool for a swim!
Once through the canal, participants will be staggered through La Playita Marina and enjoy local tours to Panama City and the traditional Embera Indian village. They will also take the opportunity to stock up on fuel and provisions before heading out into the Pacific Ocean to Las Perlas.