The Life Aquatic: San Blas Sailing Adventure

It takes a very special kind of person to live at sea full-time.
This is what I was thinking as I sailed with my husband and son through the San Blas Islands on Blue Sky, a 52-ft. cutter rigged pilothouse ketch sailboat captained by the Filinas – Ken “Breeze” and his wife Debbie.
We spent two-and-a-half days cruising with Breeze and Debbie off the Caribbean coast of Panama among the islands of the Guna Yala comarca. Our gracious hosts took us snorkeling, introduced us to the locals, fed us delicious home-cooked meals and regaled us with fascinating tales of life at sea. As spectacular a time as we had, my family and I were in agreement as we debarked the Blue Sky: we could never live full-time on a boat.
Yacht life is nothing like you see in the movies. Cramped spaces, questionable plumbing, limited conveniences, isolation, and pretty much constant work to maintain your “home”. The simplest things become far more complicated when taking place out on the open ocean. A trip to the bathroom becomes a feat of engineering, every use requiring the turning of knobs, flipping of valves, and vigorous pumping – all in the correct sequence. Suffice it to say, it’s not for everyone.

And yet – and yet – it can also be magical.
With the warm blue-green Caribbean surrounding us, the endless sky above, white-sand islets beaded along the horizon, and fish periodically jumping in the air as the local Guna (or Kuna) in their canoes slipped over the water… you suddenly see this life through the eyes of Breeze and Debbie, and you understand why they’re here.
Both Florida natives, Breeze and Debbie have been living at sea full-time for over half their lives. They even raised their son Josh on a boat. After  years of mooring among the San Blas Islands and leading chartered sailing and snorkeling tours in the area, they know it like the back of their hands.
It took us 30 minutes by boat to reach Blue Sky where it was waiting for us near Isla Elifante. We were travelling by launcha – the wooden or aluminum boats used by the Guna to transport goods and tourists around the islands. Being that it was the weekend of Panama’s most important November holidays, the waterways of San Blas were abuzz with activity.
Mixed in with the yachters and launchas are campers and “backpacker boats,” as Debbie calls them. These are commercial sailboats that transport backpackers from Panama to Colombia, and vice versa. And still another kind of vessel plies the crystalline waters of San Blas: the produce boats.
Day 2 of our excursion, a wooden motor boat approached Blue Sky carrying crates of cabbage, cucumbers, pineapples, sweet peppers, onions, eggplant, carrots, tomatoes, limes, watermelon and potatoes; Breeze got very excited.

“It’s our lucky day!” he yelled to Debbie below deck.
Debbie scrambled to the surface, a few dollars in hand. We’d been sharing provisions on board and had treated Breeze to the bag of grapes we’d brought with us, but the fresh supplies were welcome.
Later in the day, another boat approached selling just-caught lobster. We watched, fascinated, as the Guna fisherman split open the shellfish – its claws still moving – with a big carving knife and then handed it over to Debbie.
Life at sea requires some sacrifice, true – but there’s no denying it is the ultimate adventure.
We sailed from Elifante to a group of islets called the West Lemmon Cays and dropped anchor next to a Guna-occupied island called Tia Dup. After a delicious lunch of grilled sandwiches with slabs of sweet pineapple, we hopped into the Filinas’ motorized dinghy to take in some of the best snorkeling in Panama.

Our first outing was to a “manmade reef,” as Breeze called it: a shipwreck on the shores of nearby Isla de Perro. Usually, to experience the thrill of an underwater shipwreck you also need to contend with sharks and other dangerous creatures. This one, however, was grounded in fairly shallow water, so deep diving was not necessary to gain a view. Breeze and Debbie led our underwater tour of the wreck – not our first family snorkeling expedition, but our 11-year-old son certainly thought it was the coolest by far. An abundance of sea life had gathered there; we spotted at least half a dozen different species of brightly-colored tropical fish. Checkered parrotfish, lizard fish, spotted groupers, a spotted ray… even a lobster!
My husband and I preferred the huge natural reef next to the islet of Nuinu Dup where we spent three solid hours exploring this massive piece of coral. It was the highlight of our trip. At one point, Debbie called me over to where she had been guiding our son around.
“Watch him underwater,” she told me.

 Photos by Jacki Gillcash.

Photos by Jacki Gillcash.

I watched as Angus swam about 10 feet down and, wearing Debbie’s glove, touched what looked like a flower on a piece of coral with his finger. It swiftly closed up into a ball.
We resurfaced, and the look on my son’s face, to be discovering his scuba prowess and thrilled by what it had produced, had me bursting with pride.
On Nuinu Dup, we got to meet a Guna family who had recently established a home there. For our son, this was truly a first-of-its-kind experience. This was not a display in the Museum of Civilization, nor a class in school about native tribes of the world. This was the real thing.
During our brief visit with the Guna women, we learned about their intricately-patterned molas, perhaps the most recognizable piece of artisan work in Panama, and the beads they wear wrapped around their calves and ankles. These are tied on at marriage – and they wear them for life.
Surely these facts appear in a textbook somewhere, but my son had a chance to witness them firsthand – I can’t imagine a better education for any child.