East and West.

Classic San Blas.

29th November 2022

Sabudupored, San Blas, Panama – Benedup, San Blas, Panama via Green Island, Coco Banderos (East) & Coco Banderos (West), San Blas, Panama

The character of places often changes dramatically as you move from east to west. The east of London is known for its geezers and jellied eels, while the west is full of bankers sipping champagne. East Berlin, was for a long time, dark, secretive and poverty stricken while west Berlin bathed in the glory of an economic boom. The changes in the San Blas have been just as stark as we have moved from the remote, culturally fascinating east, to the well-trodden beautiful beaches of the west.

These changes could have been more stark as we watched the anchor descend into the deep blue water of Green Island. The anchor chain ran out of the locker but we had no need of the markers as we could see the anchor far below us land in the sand, and then watched that chain play out along the seabed. As we settled back the reef sat inches below the keel while in front of us the deserted island calmed the waters. The wide shallow murky anchorages protected by towns and mangroves were gone and had been replaced by deep, danger strewn tight anchorages where the water shone and palm trees gently touched the flat waters.

The one constant in all these places were the people. As ulu’s came along side we were greeted by smiles and retuned their affection with chilled water and sweets. Some were so enamoured with our simple gift of chilled water that the we felt compelled to invite them on board for shade conversation (in our very sketchy Spanish) and yet more water.

Instead of exploring cultures above water we explored those underwater and we were in for our first proper San Blas snorkelling experience. As we swam offshore the reef plunged into unfathomable depths and was alive with fishes of all sizes. As we happened upon ever increasing fish the sounds of a morbid cello rung in Fiona’s ears and then just below us a huge shark sat snoozing, so we turned tail and fled. The sharks in the deep water seemed positively serine compared to the sharks that patrolled the cut that led back to Brock. They thrashed about in confined waters and were thankfully more interested in a tuna sized dinner than a Fiona sized one.

The theme of blue water anchorages surrounded by perilous reefs which teamed with fish continued but the east and west juxtaposition was about to happen again. In the east Coco Banderos the anchor had been safely set far from any dangers and the reef that extended for as far as the eye could see quelled all the waves in great spumes of white water leaving Ruffian sitting serenely. The story was quite different as we headed west.

As we anchored in the western Banderos we spied, just outside our anchor circle*, a small floating coke bottle and Iain was intrigued. With Ruffian safe, Iain dived in and found to his consternation that a coral bommie, invisible in the poor light lurked just a meter from surface. If the wind turned to the west and if Ruffian dragged then we ‘d be just mere inches from the danger, but with no wind forecast Iain uttered the fateful words ‘It’ll be fine’.

As night fell, Ruffian was enveloped in darkness and with the dark the wind began, and with the approaching squall the wind changed direction, to the west! Slowly Ruffian faced the wind and straightened her chain, and inch by inch we closed in on the dangerous coral bommie. With danger so close and so present we knew that sleep would evade us as so we sat, hour after hour in the cockpit, occasionally flashing a torch on the bottle that marked our point of destruction. As Ruffian swung around, we watched the bottle pop out from onto our port side and with the next gust it would pop out to starboard. Our wishing powers were proving to be ineffective and we resolutely remained a hairs breath from danger and the bottle was playing peep-o just to taunt us.

As the sky lightened dawn marked our route to escape, and escape we did, leaving the plastic bottle and its scary shallow water behind. We learnt that we should never trust Iain’s ‘It’ll be fine instinct’ and realised that the dangers that seem to surround us in all these eastern anchorages really are real.

We exchanged one anchorage where we were close to dangers for another where we were, err, close to dangers. The difference in the Holondais Cays was that we had protection from all angles, lovely flat sand and a community of boats that could answer every query, knew every inch of sand and were practically as permanent as the reefs themselves. What a difference from the empty anchorages in the east.

The western San Blas have proved to be a total change from the east. Thankfully we’ve not had to deal with geezers, jellied eels, or economic deprivation. The east was remarkable for its fascinating culture, ancient way of life and welcoming friendly people. The west is also proving remarkable for its picture-perfect paradise anchorages, incredible underwater world and its welcoming friendly people.

* This circle marks the extent that we can swing around our anchor, assuming that it stays in the same place, doesn’t drag and doesn’t have to ‘reset’.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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