Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Underwater World of the San Blas Islands

It has been raining for five days in a row in our little piece of paradise. The sky is grey and massive ominous dark clouds keep forming and heading our way. Tons of water falls out of the sky, filling our water tank and jerry cans, which are now overflowing, and keeping the air damp, so nothing dries. We collect laundry water and rinse water, but, with no sun to dry our clothes, that chore is postponed until the sky brightens again. The palm trees are swaying in the heavy winds and the islands and choppy waters beckon for reprieve. Some of the storms contain massive thunder heads that vibrate our boat with every roar. Bright, dangerous lighting bolts create a painful spectacle for the eyes, while they lit the whole area. With every flash in close proximity, we hold our breaths, hoping it will not hit our boat.

While being cooped up inside Irie, it is the perfect time to focus on the beauty that lies beneath the storms and that we will investigate more once all this “blows over”. Enjoy the following pictures of the local underwater world!


Spotfin butterflyfish

Scrawled filefish


Ocean surgeon


Spotted eagle ray

Southern stingray

Coral scene

Elkhorn coral

Colorful coral scene

Foureye butterflyfish

Shallow coral scene

Purple flowers...

Some kind of crab

Fuzzy flowerlike things

Hiding pufferfish

Young blue tang

Spiny lobster


Coral crab

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Trash Matters in Remote Areas

There are a lot of differences between sailing in civilized areas and sailing in “the boonies”; dealing with trash is one of them. While in the Eastern Caribbean, the ABC islands and various coastal areas Mark and I took our garbage bags to shore, on the San Blas islands no trash containers are to be found. Just like when at sea, cruisers in this remote area have to dispose of their garbage themselves in the most proper way. The question is: how?

Organic Waste

This category contains fruit peels, egg shells and vegetable cores; basically all the produce parts we don’t consume. It goes overboard when the tide is outgoing or the wind is off shore, and at a time nobody is around enjoying the clear waters. It is best to cut the bigger items, like banana or plantain peels, into smaller pieces before disposing them. The organic waste deteriorates quickly or is eaten by sea creatures.


In the San Blas islands we are lucky with the beer and soda cans: the Kuna Indians collect them and sell them to the Colombian trading boats stopping at their village. Anytime vendors pass by Irie or we visit one of the towns, our beverage cans are received with a smile. Other cans are opened on both sides and sank in very deep water while underway. They will dissolve over time.


Simplistically speaking, glass is made out of sand and might eventually return to sand. The quickest way to make that happen is to shatter the glass and make sure it sinks to the bottom of the ocean or the deep passages in between islands. On Irie glass jars are washed and recycled as storage containers.


This is the most controversial piece of trash. When we are in a remote area for just a few weeks, we hang on to our plastic bottles until we reach civilization again. If we are out here for longer periods of time, a trash burn takes place and other cruisers are invited. We make a fire under the high water line of a leeward beach (bug spray required) and burn the plastic trash. This is exactly what the Kunas and many other cultures do as well. The leftover ashes are washed away in the sea water. Any parts that didn’t burn are taken back to the boat and disposed of properly at another time. On Irie we also use cleaned plastic bottles to store used cooking oil, used engine oil or other liquids.


Paper items, egg cartons, cardboard and (thin) toilet tissue deteriorate quickly in water, especially when shredded. We dispose of paper the same way we treat organic waste, ideally on a passage. We hang on to cardboard to start fires.


Items that don’t fit in one of the previous categories (like batteries, used engine oil, aluminum foil) are stored in a separate garbage bag in the anchor locker and taken to the mainland whenever we reach it again.

Disposing of boat garbage properly is a hot topic and one not many people like to talk about. It was a concern of ours when arriving in Kuna Yala, but other conscious cruisers set examples. When Mark and I cruised in inhabited areas (without recycling options, which is most of the Caribbean) the previous years, our shopping bag sized garbage bin was full every two or three days. Most of the space was taken up by organic materials and cans. Using the methods described above, it takes about a week or longer to fill our trash bag with plastic items and tetrapak boxes (in which milk and wine are sold). These bags are stored in the anchor locker until the next trash burn, while the cockpit is temporarily littered with two other bags: one “for the Kunas” and one “to be sunk”.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Simple Bliss

After finding propane (and inventing a way to actually have our horizontal tank filled by gravity) on one of the San Blas islands, exploring the waters around Dog Island – where we snorkeled on a wreck, which was quite amazing – and waiting around for the vegetable boat to show up, Mark and I arrived at one of the most remote and outer laying anchorages of Kuna Yala. While the wind from the ocean keeps the temperature down and the wind generator happy, the extensive reefs protect us from the swell. The water around us is drop dead gorgeous and I can’t get enough of just sitting outside and looking around. When standing on Irie’s deck, we see starfish scattered on the sandy bottom and the occasional ray or shark swim by.

Settled into the new environs, we handed our friends from SV Reach, SV Infinity, SV Kaya and SV Sawadi their share of fresh vegetables and were rewarded with an abundance of freshly caught (and cleaned!) fish. Not only were we stocked up on veggies and treated with a big rainstorm that nearly filled our water tank, we now had protein for a week as well! Welcome to the blissful central lagoon for an extended stay!

Having so many “youngsters” around means that there is always something to do: early morning yoga, snorkeling, swimming or beach combing during the day, fishing (hunting) for the men in the afternoon, baking at any part of the day and social gatherings with new recipes and wonderful food at night. And, of course, there are plenty of quiet days spent reading or enjoying time with the other half. One day, Mark and I explored a big chunk of sea and shores by dinghy and snorkeled in the "Japanese Garden", where we – unfortunately – saw a lionfish. Since that day we have seen plenty more on the reef patches around Irie. They are very pretty, but kill the reefs and mess up the ecosystem by feeding on the bottom layers of the food chain and reproducing en masse without having natural predators. It appears to be a real problem in the Caribbean.

I can keep going on about the beauty of this area. I sure think about it every day the sun is out and the water is clearly and attractively shimmering beneath. The only thing missing is a beautiful beach with palm trees to string our hammock, but if that were the case, more boats and cruisers would find their way to the outskirts and never leave.  As it is, more and more sailors feel confident enough to weave through the many reef patches to get here and anchor in relative solitude. But, if you’ll excuse me now, I have to go back on deck and stare at the breaking reefs on the horizon and the turquoise water around us. Maybe I’ll see one of the pretty rays protrude above the surface and land with a splash back into the shallow depths… 

Bright corals and pretty fish enrich the wreck at Dog Island

On a funky day without wind, we could see our anchor from Irie's deck

Eating a freshly made bagel (thank you, Gretchen!) on my own bagel!

Having our friends Michele and Mark(o) from SV Reach over for dinner and wine, and more wine...

The view from Irie I have come to love very much!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Float

Once upon a time, Irie was anchored in Nassau, the Bahamas, downwind from a fancy resort. One day, a big yellow floating device turned astray and leisurely bobbed by. Nobody seemed to be on the lookout or on the rescue for it, so we retrieved the float with our boat hook. It smelled like sun tan lotion and was very greasy, but a wash with dish soap took care of that. We cleaned the thing in full view on our trampoline, just in case someone wanted to claim it. We left it there to dry. After realizing what a fun toy we just obtained, we deflated the tube and stored it “up front”, where it eagerly collected mold over the years.

Sometimes, we would notice the sad deflated thing and pull up our nose at its grey color. It sure looked better and more inviting when yellow! But, the other day (windless and extremely hot), while being anchored in the most clear and tempting water, Mark retrieved the big piece of plastic, pumped it up and handed it to me. With all that salt water around, the clean-up was quite easy and minutes later, we had a comfy yellow float hanging off Irie’s stern. Now, we look just like all those charter boats with colorful toys and guests enjoying their time in the tropics.

Yesterday, I dove into the crystal water and climbed onto our clean river tube. Just when I was wondering what the hell I was supposed to do now, a wooden ulu with colorfully dressed women rowed by. I smiled, they smiled. I said “No molas ahorra, gracias!”, even though Mark thought it would be funny if I went through their whole stack of intricately sewn handiworks from my new hangout. But, when they offered some Kuna bread, I couldn’t resist. So, the “baker” came to me and while I was lying on my yellow floating device, I bought eight typical breads for US$1. Now, which charter guest can say they had this cultural experience, scoring fresh bread, while lounging on a river tube?

A new dinghy and a bright yellow float behind Irie

Kuna bread makes perfect garlic bread!