Sailing from Colombia to Guna Yala (San Blas), Panama

by | Feb 20, 2017 | CARIBBEAN - COLOMBIA - PANAMA

February 14, 2017 Marina of Santa Marta, Colombia
As I wake up from a deep sleep, I lie in bed listening to the sound of silence: at last, the fierce wind of the past seven days has died out , the endless whistle of the breeze on the rigs has seased. The east-northeast strong and persistent wind that prevails during the Colombian dry season is called “ El Loco” by the local people, “the crazy one” , a logical nickname.

Today we are setting sail for Panama, and our first landfall will be in San Blas, an Archipelago of 340 idyllic cays, where the waters are crystal clear and the clouds turquoise, reflecting the color of the sea (!). Add palm trees, white sand and magnificent coral reefs and you get the picture of Paradise.. The islands are inhabited by the Guna Indians, the only tribe of the Americas that has preserved so well the tradition and the social structure of their ancestors.
The distance from Santa Marta to San Blas is about 300 nautical miles. And we estimate to make it in 2-3 days. Captain Yorgos is checking both WeatherTrack and Passage Weather forecasts on a daily basis and, although we now are in the peak of the Loco season (blowing 35-55 kts), he has seen a “weather window” that allows us to make the crossing.
Yorgos takes his folding bicycle and is off to meet the agent and get our “ZARPE” document (clearance between ports) and to find exchange for Panama. Changing euros for US Dollars in Santa Marta, was not as easy as we thought, nor was easy getting a cruising permit, we ‘ve been waiting nine days for it I stay in Filizi and start making preparations, I clean, tidy up, cook, prepare the gear, the winch handles and do all that a mate should do before a departure.
10.30 Yorgos is back wearing a big smile on his face
-“ A Triumph my darling! We are all set! I found US dollars , I have our Zarpe,  I even have our Cruising Permit! Better late than never…”. The bureaucracy in Colombia reminded us that we are no longer in the Caribbean but in Latin America.

11.00 We call on VHF 72 and after five minutes, Obir comes to help us untie the lines. I’m feeling kind of sad, we are leaving too soon from this beautiful country, but we can’t miss the weather window.
We spent nine very intense, very interesting days here, we went all around Santa Marta, on foot and with our bicycles, we went trekking at Minca in Siera Nevada – oh how hard was this trekking for a poor sailor’s legs!
We swan under waterfalls, we visited a small plantation and learned all about coffee, from harvesting the plant, to the delightful drink. We drank hot cocoa from freshly baked cocoa – chokochlata- beans ( A-mazing!!) in a mountain house built from bamboo.
We also took a bus- four hours drive on the coast – and visited Cartagena where we stayed in the old city, in an old Convent, transformed by the Univercity to hotel and Art Gallery.
Walking around in Cartagena was like time travel, carriages and horses strolling in the narrow roads, the magnificent colonial houses all beautifully maintained, the tiendas selling colorful mochillas (traditional hand crafted bags). No wonder that Cartagena is called “Jewel of the Caribbean”!

-“ Goodbye Santa Marta, goodbye Colombia!”
We get out from the small marina and take all our fenders in the boat. We set our sails, the main on second reef, the genoa on first.
-“ There are white horses in the sea. Let’s start with little canvas and we see how it goes” Yorgos says
Once outside the bay, we sail fast7,5 kts , the waves are very big and the movement strong. I prepare sandwiches with Lebanese pita bread, avocado, cheese and hard boiled eggs. Our favourite!
13.00 The first waypoint is set 20 NM away  from the coast of Barranquilla, because at the mouth of Rio ( river) Magdalena there are terrible waves and current. We are following the precious advice of Melike and Nejat on this, our Turkish friends from sy North who are  sailing around the globe with the ARC World Rally. As we advance, the swell gets bigger, big waves are coming from NE and the water is filled with eddies.
15.00  For over an  hour, we’ve been watching an amazing spectacle: thousands over thousands of little fish, are  jumping over the waves like an endless silver rain. We can’t even conceive their number. We presume by the abundance of fish, along with the waves and the presence of eddies, the presence of an underwater countercurrent. And what an amazing thing, the sea water has turned green!!
-“This color reminds me of the Saronic Gulf back in the ‘80s, before the Psyttalia water purification plant was built” Yorgos comments. “But surely here, it’s caused by the waters of Rio Magdalena and not by polution.”
17.00 We reach the first waypoint and shift course to 245°. We furl- in all the main sail and keep only the genoa for the night.
I check the map and my eye catches the name of a city, south of Santa Marta: Malambo, and I remember a song named Malambo I used to hear on the radio, as a kid. What a sweet memory, I am back to when I was eight years old, when daddy had his a radio- alarm set  to 4 pm to ser his patients ( he was a docktor) . Oh, how I miss my father. It’s been five years.
17.30 We eat dinner, fresh green beans cooked the traditional Greek way, with tomatoes, onion and virgin olive oil. Delicious! They say the sea brings out a man’s appetite but, this woman’s appetite is always huge.

18.00 A majestic orange colored sun is diving in the horizon. There is not one cloud in the orange sky. It seems like I’m wearing orange contact lenses.
20.00 I lie to rest at the cockpit and fall asleep for 20’. We are sailing smoothly to 240°. The swell is smaller.
21.00 We change with Yorgos, and he lies to rest in the cockpit, too. I spot three lights in the horizon, no doubt they are ships, but they are nowhere on my AIS screen and I am uneasy by this.
21.30 I’m monitoring one of the ships with the binoculars, as it’s getting closer. Still no reading on our AIS screen, but I haven’t figured out the problem, yet. I turn my eyes to the east and see a red, breathtaking moon rising, spreading red reflections on the dark sea water.
I sit and watch it as it climbs the sky, changing colors. Yorgos wakes up and we start reading on kindle, aloud to each other, the book of Bernard Moitesier “ The long way”. His writing thrills us from page one.
Wednesday, February 15
03.45 I tried to rest at the cockpit, but the swell made me fall down so, I went to sleep in our cabin and got 2 hours 30 minutes of deep, good sleep. Happy the lucky sailor me!!! Now I start my shift and Yorgos lies to rest at the cockpit with the sleeping bag. Clever bird as he is, he ties a safety harness around him and so, he sleeps like a baby.

My shift begins. The moon is playing hide- and-seek with the clouds tonight, so the sea is filled with bright reflections and shadows. . Our iPad , with the Navionics charts, needs charging. I check Filizi’s batteries : 12,67, so I put the iPad on the 12V charger instead instead of the, more consuming, inverter.
05.00 We are sailing with 5,5 kts and the XTE (the deviation from our course ) is almost null. Big, breaking waves push our stern. I’m listening music to from the loud speakers, I study the stars , keeping busy to send away the drowsiness.
06.00 The day is breaking, but the sun is hiding behind heavy clouds. Yorgos wakes up after a two hour sleep, feeling energized.

09.45 After 1,5 h of sleep, I’m joining Yorgos in the cockpit. The sky is overcast and the sun nowhere to be seen. We are sailing downwind very slowly, 4-5 kts, Filizi swings badly from the swell. Very carefully and holding myself tight, I make the daily check around the boat. Six flying fish today on the deck, two of them inside the cockpit. I wonder how it may be that we didn’t hear them jumping aboard….
We continue reading to each –other Moitesier’s book, about his famous single-handed circumnavigation in 1968, with his boat Josua ( named after Josua Slocum), on the first race across Earth’s five Great Capes , organized by the Sunday Times. We eat for breakfast bread with raisins and tahini and then I cut the watermelon we bought at the Mercado Publico de Santa Marta. Unfortunately, the watermelon wasn’t good.

It’s now my captain’s turn to rest and I convince him that all is well so he may sleep without worrying in our cabin. I stay in the cockpit, I turn up the volume and do exercises and stretching, holding tight to the back stays. Sailing downwind, Filizi is heeling to the left, heeling to the right, surfing on the bigger waves and jumping on the smaller ones. I get the chills just thinking about it : our beloved Filizi floats happily taking us to Panama….
11.00 end of Day 1
Distance covered 140 NM
Hours of sleep: Yorgos 1,30+2,00+2,00=5,30
Karina 0,20+2,30+1,15=4,05

11.00 The wind is shifting to the north, coming from 120°, wind speed 10-13 kts. We are sailing very slowly3,5-4,0 kts with a 1,5 kts current agains us. The sky is clear by now and the sun is shining. I go and check the boat’s batteries : 13,40 , the solar panels are really charging well
14.00 132NM to go for San Blas. The next waypoint is at the East Holandes, on the spot where not only the ARC World boats went, but also the couple we met in Santa Marta, Joe and Vicky of sy Boisterous, a boat taking part on the Oyster World Rally. We must find some kind of a starting point to the beautiful 340 San Blas cays
16.00 I slept two hours and woke up hungry. I make two more of the Lebanese pita wraps and join the captain at the cockpit. The weather is perfect and the swell reduced to minimum! The sea here has a beautiful bright blue color, the green sea of Barranquilla is history.
16.30 A loud noise sounds from inside Filizi. I dart to check what happened and find our cooker leaning on one side. It looks like one of the two gimbals, that allow the cooker to swing like a pendulum following the boats movement, is broken. This is not good, we won’t be able to cook while sailing, until we fix it. The other gimbal broke last summer, while Filizi was at Marina Marin, in Martinique and then we had found only one new spare to buy. Well, as a famous yachtsman once said “ Yachting is about fixing your boat in exotic places”…

18.00 My captain is hungry. Fortunately we have green beans and potatoes, leftover from yesterday.
19.30 Beautiful, oh how beautiful Venus is! There couldn’t be a more becoming name for this enchanting planet, Venus, Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love. In the dark of the night only she shines so bright, drawing a river of gold on the black, silky surface of the water, lighting our way. And above her lies Mars, Aries the Greek god of war, her eternal lover, always together, always united.
We are sailing beautifully, full sails on broad reach, 15 kts of wind from a great 110° angle. Our speed is 5,5 kts speed. Yorgos wakes up after an hour of sleep with a terrible headache, that I think was caused by the bandana he was wearing all day. I give him one Advil, and I go down and tie the cooker safely with a long rope. We are heeling a lot right now, and we don’t want the cooker to land on the floor. If the forecast is correct, the wind will drop even more, later.

22.30 What an amazing night this is! We are sailing with 5-6 kts, and I’m looking astern at the moon, as it rises behind the clouds. Absolutely magnificent! We feel lucky and blessed. I breathe in deeply.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
I wake up after 1h 15’ of sleep at the cockpit, feeling cold. I should have slept in the sleeping bag instead og the fleece blanket. Yorgos brings the iPad and shows me two ships on the screen of the iAIS app.
-“In 30’, Norwegian Jewel, a cruise ship, will be two miles to our port at 180° .The second one, cargo ship Vilano, will come after 1h , one mile to our port at 160°» What an amazing help for navigation AIS is. While I was sleeping, he turned on the engine, using the propeller.
-“ There is a strong counter current, right now, 2 knots! And we should not arrive in San Blas after sunset. There are too many reefs and shoals there” says my captain. He is really tired by now. I bring the sleeping bag and insist that he sleeps in it. He resists but in the end I prevail. He didn’t sand a chance anyway.
01.30 Night sailing, music and moon light. The iPod is shuffling songs, from Chadji-dakis to Sivert Hoyem and from Kiki Dimoula to Madonna, surprising me and keeping me awake.

02.40 Both giant ships came close to us and the Norwegian cruise ship is already taking distance, illuminating the dark sea all with bright white and blue light. Cargo ship Vilano is approaching and, according to AIS it will cross our course and overpass us. “Better safe than sorry” , I think to myself and take the VHF in my hand
-“ Vilano, Vilano this is sail yacht Filizi,over”I call on channel 16. In the moonlight, I can see clearly the huge ship, the containers, the bridge passing so close. The voice on the VHF sounds loud and clear.

-“Yes, Filizi. Go ahead.” I called them just to make sure that they saw us but I can’t say that, so out of courtesy I ask if they can see us on AIS. The officer on duty answers Yes, they see us. I thank him, wish him a safe journey and hung up. Silently, Vilano passes and now I see her brightly lit stern moving away, in their ourse to Panama.
03.00 The wake of the ship reaches us, our boom bangs and both sails are flapping, emptying their little ai. Yorgos opens his eyes and lifts his head
-“What’s happening?”
-“Look!” I answer, pointing at the cargo ship, already about half a mile away. I tighten the sheet of the main sail and our speed drops but the boom stops swinging. Quiet again. My captain is awake, he slept 1h 30’ and he’s feeling better. He folds the sleeping bag, wears his gear, head light, oilskins, life jacket, sailing gloves and bandana and comes to stand by my me, behind the helm.
-“ My shift starts. You, go get some rest” . I check the time on my watch, 03.30. I have enough time to rest and be back for the sunrise and my favourite shift of the day.
05.15 –“Good morning my captain!”

I’m up at the cockpit fresh as a daisy. In the east the horizon is turning purple. White cumulus cumulus, are floating in the sky where the moon is still high. Yorgos welcomes me and tells me all about his shift, about the big cloud that came bringing some stronger wind. We sit there waiting for the sunrise, listening to music, occasionally laughing at the unexpected sequence of the songs: Joy Division, Leonard Cohen and then Olympins (Greek music group of the ‘60s). Madness…

06.00 One more sunrise in the Ocean, alone on deck. When the sun is up lighting my small universe, I make the round of the deck for the daily routine check. All is well, besides four flying fish lying dead, poor creatures. I through them one by one in the sea. There goes that sqeeking sound again, I think it comes from the boom, maybe it’s the authaul. And the main sail, now furled inside the mast makes a sound I don’t recognize. It is a new sail, though. We’ll have to check it later with Yorgo.
07.15 We are motor-sailing just to keep a good pace with full canvas. The apparent wind is 9-10 knots and our speed 5-5,5 knots, with the current still against us. There are just 40 nautical miles to go for the waypoint in Holandes Cays and with the current speed, we should be arriving there by 15.00. Great! If this is so, we will have enough sunlight to enter safely the lagoon, between the cays, the shoals and the reefs to find a good spot to drop our anchor.
08.00 Glorious morning today. A bluest blue sky paints the sea bluest blue and a few big white clouds reflect on the surface. A solitary sea bird flickers through the air, gliding silently around our little world and then, he suddenly dives in the sea, looking for food. I can see his curious eye, as he passes above us because in the end, this world here is his. I turn on the kindle and start reading the second book, the one we keep to read for ourselves:Herman Melvil’s “Typee, A peep in Polynesian life” where he , describes a voyage to Nukuheva and Tahiti with a whaling boat, sometime around 1850.

10.30 The apparent wind has died out so we furled the main sail in the mast. We are motoring with 2.100 rpm with full genoa and we barely make a speed of 4,5-5 knots. The sea is peaceful, its surface like glass and we see lots of floating things, sargasum sea wheed, plastic bottles, plastic chairs, bamboo. We eat sandwiches, read about San Blas in the Panama Crossing Guide for a while and then I go to get some sleep.
11.00 end of Day 2
Distance covered 124 NM
Hours of sleep Yorgos 1.00+ 1,20’+2,00=4,20’
Karina 2,00+ 1,15’+1,15’+1,30’= 6,00

12.30 I get out of bed in anxiety. A loud thump is heard from under our keel. Yorgos is turning off the engine.
-“Dammit!” he cries. His face looks really worried. –
-“ What happened?”
-“We hit something, a floating tree trunk” he answers and points behind our stern. I can see the wood floating away
-“ I heard a noise, like the propeller hit the wood, before turning the engine off. I’m really worried”
Everything is so peaceful around, I can scarcely sense the light breath of the wind and all that is left of the waves is but slight wrinkles on the water surface . Filizi floats in a calm sea, in the distance the blue mountains of Panama outline the horizon but in our minds a storm has hit.
-“ I will dive, to check for damage” he says. I think of what we were reading before, about the sharks and the crocodiles of the Panamanian waters. I know I’m silly, but I shiver inside. I hate the idea of diving in deep water, ir scares me completely.
We untie the kayak from the stern and throw it in the water. Yorgos ties the orange floating rope on the winch “to have a rope to hold on, in case of emergency”. I hand him the mask and snorkel –“Keep your eyes open, I’m diving” he says and he jumps.
I check my watch feeling that time has stopped. Yorgos is diving to check the propeller and then he swims checking the hull. I’m biting my lips, feeling very nervous. After what seemed like ages, he appears at the transom and climbs the small steps. He’s out and he’s safe.
. –“ What did you see?”
-“ There’s no damage, I didn’t see any problem. We should turn the engine on and check if all is OK there too. You turn the key on my signal, while I open and check the engine shaft”
He gives the signal and I turn the key. I hold my breath until I hear the engine water coming out from starboard. Everything looks OK, no harm is done.
15.00 We are motoring slowly towards the Holandes, we can see them now in the distance. We are studying the maps and the air pictures of our book, Bauhaus the author has done a great job Yorgos shows me where we are going on the map: the anchorage it is called the Swimming pool. I wonder why….

16.00 Climbed on the mast up to the first spreader – I love our new mast steps, I’m so happy we have mast steps after all these years- I make eyeball navigation, helping the captain enter the narrow passage between the reefs. The place is of spectacular beauty, a true Paradise on Earth. I am overwhelmed. We drop the anchor in the turquoise waters between the islands Banedup, Kalugirdup, BBQ island, Ogopirriadup, Quinquindup.
The beauty of our anchorage is breathtaking. A traditional boat, dugout canoe called Ulu passes beside us and the Guna indians are talking loud. The wave hi smiling at us and we wave back. These people, the Gunas are the guardians of Paradise….




  1. respawnables hack ios

    Hi , I do consider this is a superior site. I stumbled
    upon it on Yahoo , I shall return once again.

  2. Karina Sandri

    Thank you! You may subscribe and be notified for all our posts! Be well

Translate »