Friday 26 June 2015

What Does Paradise Really Mean?

This is a question I have been increasingly asking myself as the journey has progressed and the range of interesting places visited starts to increase.

The question really hit home in the San Blas Archipelago, consisting of approximately 400 islands (one for every day of the year) scattered over a huge area along the north east Caribbean coast of Panama. They are picture perfect remote atolls with an abundance of coconut trees and white sand, set amongst a maze of reefs. If you were looking for the ultimate deserted island picture postcard this would be it.
Added to the spectacular scenery is a very interesting cultural history. The islands are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna, who arrived here from Colombia in the mid-nineteenth century having been driven out by the Spanish. The Kuna way of life remains largely unchanged to this day (though we did charge a number of islanders’ mobile phones on the boat!). The men paddle amongst the islands in hollowed out canoes, fishing and harvesting fruit (apparently some 3 million coconuts are picked annually) which is then bartered with trading boats that come from the mainland and Colombia. Meanwhile the women make the world-renown molas, colourfully embroidered textiles usually depicting wildlife or abstract images. These from part of their traditional dress and are sold to tourists as souvenirs. Interestingly Kuna society is traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal.

Mola from Cayos Holandeses, San Blas Islands

As an interesting sideline the Kuna also get the odd windfall when boats become wrecked on the outlying reefs which still happens with alarming regularity. The sands in this area shift with such regularity that modern GPS navigation systems are at best unreliable. As a result the Kuna scramble to salvage cargo and then strip any unfortunate boat of fixtures and fittings. We saw at least half a dozen yachts lying prostate on a reef, stripped to the bare bones.     

So the islands are both visually attractive and have an interesting human story. Yet having anchored amongst this ‘paradise’ for 5 days I felt ready to move on. We had visited three different islands, talked to the Kuna, bought molas and fish from them, provided them with things they were short of (cooking oil and spectacles), swum in the turquoise water and skin dived wrecks. It felt like to stay longer would have just seen these activities repeated with diminishing novelty.

In contrast our time in Colombia left me craving for more, something which points towards a greater feeling of ‘depth’ associated with the place. Depth of scenery (mountains, beaches, rainforest, dilapidated colonial architecture) and character (diverse and multi-cultural society).

Undoubtedly the question of what does paradise really mean asks more questions than it answers. To a large extent it exists in the eye of the beholder, but to my mind the ideal of the remote island paradise that has been sold to us by countless advertising executives is not the paradise for me. But then is paradise ever truly achievable?


Nuts & Bolts

In the first article about life on board Sea Wolf I thought I’d give some details of the boat and plans for the voyage as some background information. Future articles will be less jargonistic and factual…

Sea Wolf is a 1997 Nautor Swan 57 RS (18m length, 4.9m beam, 2.3m draft and 25 tonne displacement), designed by German Frers and built in Finland. Powered by a 135 horse power diesel engine, she also has a generator (to provide more efficient power on long passages, particularly the navigation instruments, fridge/freezer etc) and water maker (turning sea water into drinking water). She has a compact centre cockpit offering good protection from the elements. Ultimately she was designed for long-distance blue water cruising.

Sea Wolf is now on her third owner, with Scott having had her for nearly 2 years, in which time she has benefitted from a new suit of sails (main, genoa, yankee, staysail, storm jib try sail and asymmetric spinnaker), new standing and running rigging (including conversion to cutter rig which gives us two furling headsail options at any one time) as well as updated electronics. In Scott’s wife’s words, he bought two boats.

The boat sails extremely well and is very seaworthy. We have experienced storm force winds off the coast of Columbia and Sea Wolf more than met the challenge, with some help from the crew, which gives me a lot of faith in her ability when we get to the really rough stuff in the Southern Ocean.

The one downside of having so many sophisticated systems on the boat is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong, and the marine environment is harsh on equipment. Added to that the boat is 18 years old so some components are coming to the end of their design life, as recently demonstrated by the anchor windlass when the base plate completely corroded. The dreaded ‘defect list’ seems to be persistently at around a dozen items, and usually in addressing one issue you find others.

I met Scott for the first time in London in June 2014, having applied to an advert for the job of First Mate. I immediately liked him and he invited me to join the boat in September to help take Sea Wolf from Gibraltar to Lanzarote, via Morocco. Scott then crossed the Atlantic towards the end of the year with friends and family. There are normally between 4 and 6 on board, quartered in 3 ensuite cabins.
I then rejoined the boat in St Lucia in April 2015 and we have been continuing westwards since, with the boat now at Shelter Bay Marina, just inside the breakwater leading to the entrance of the Panama Canal on the Caribbean side.

From here we will transit the Canal, spend some time in the Archipielago de las Perlas (Panamanian), before reaching the Galapagos. Then it is deeper into the Pacific to French Polynesia, notably the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Tahiti. From there we will start to head in a south-easterly direction, via Pitcairn Island (population largely descendants of the Bounty mutineers) and Easter Island (why the stern face?) to Puerto Montt in Chile for a distinct change in temperature, winds and scenery. We then hope to round Cape Horn, dropping by the Falklands to see if they’re worth keeping, before heading up to Buenos Aires to possibly give them back.

Timing and weather routing will then determine our return track across the Atlantic, probably either via the Cape Verde Islands or Azores, before ultimately cruising across the Med to Turkey – ETA September 2016.    

Sea Wolf (Canadian flag) docked in a tight spot in Tangiers