Panama seems to inspire a sense of adventure in all who choose to explore it… as well as a tendency towards understatement. Perhaps because many experiences in Panama simply defy description, people opt not to try – instead choosing to preserve their impressions of Panama’s wilderness and eclectic isthmian culture as memories to remain unspoken until they manage to find the right words.
Case in point: a couple of months ago, expat correspondent Jacki Gillcash emailed me “So, we did a yachting trip to the San Blas Islands this weekend. Do you want anything?”
This unassuming prelude belied the rich, comprehensive narrative-cum-travel-guidance-cum-cultural-exposé Jacki delivered to my inbox, which I carved into two pieces for the sake of giving everything its due. (Look out for the second installment of the Gillcash family adventure in Guna Yala next week.)
By way of Jacki’s story, I had the chance to interview the duo of sailing veterans who led Jacki and her family to explore the idyllic San Blas Islands of Panama on their yacht, Blue Sky. My interview with Debbie and Ken “Breeze” Filina of San Blas Sailing Charters appears in full below:
Amble Resorts: You live at sea in a breathtaking part of coastal Panama… but tell me, where’s your preferred paradise spot in Guna Yala?
Debbie & Breeze Filina: We love anchoring off a little tiny island called Wasarladup – the beach is perfect as a romantic getaway for two, or happy hour with a small group of friends. We are usually there by ourselves or only one or two other boats. There’s a long reef with great snorkeling where we occasionally see spotted eagle rays.
AR: And your favorite place to take guests?
D & B: Isla de Perro, where there are the remains of a freighter that sank in shallow water in the 1950s. The boat was taking on water so the captain ran it aground in an effort to save the cargo, which included supplies of food, building materials, and rum. Being in shallow water, it gives both experienced and inexperienced snorkelers the chance to explore a shipwreck with its abundance of corals and see small tropical fish of many colors.
Take a peek at the Isla de Perro shipwreck in this video by a San Blas snorkeler:
AR: How did you welcome Jacki and her family aboard The Blue Sky?
D & B: With open arms and LEGOS!!! We raised our son Josh, now a marine biologist, aboard four different boats and love having families aboard. We still have Josh’s collection of LEGOs and classic children’s books to entertain other children. [The Gillcash’s son] Angus was a joy to have onboard! He and Breeze made some awesome flying machines during their LEGO sessions.
I remember one youngster of about 14, Graeme, who came with his parents. He wanted to sail around the world — could we offer any advice? Breeze took over, teaching him sailing, and I presented him with navigational advice and a book on marine weather systems.
The second morning he was onboard, I was making homemade bread and told him if he was going to sail around the world, he might want to know how to bake bread! He got into it, mixing ingredients and kneading the dough; he was even more excited when I told him basically the same recipe could be used for making pizza.
Graeme remembered us 5 years later and wrote to thank us – he said he was studying to be an engineer and was looking for a crewing position for the summer!
AR: How did you learn to sail?
D & B: Breeze learned on a little sailing pram before he was eventually offered a crew position racing on a 35-ft., very classic Cheoy Lee sloop. On our very first date, he took me sailing on that boat and we never looked back!
We bought a series of four different boats that we lived on cruising in Florida and the Bahamas while raising and schooling our son Josh onboard. Then on to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, the Bay Islands of Honduras, Providencia, Panama, and Colombia.
Our boats got progressively larger as our son got older, from the initial 25-ft. to the current one which is 52-ft. When Josh was about 8 and it was time for some serious sailing lessons of his own, it was on a 16-ft. Laser. It’s best to learn on a small boat you can sail, dump over, and right it up by yourself. Then you know how to sail!
AR: What’s the greatest challenge of life at sea? The greatest reward?
D & B: You could call it a challenge or a reward – it’s the same thing! A life at sea means being as self-sufficient as possible. We catch rain to drink and to bathe with, generate electricity from the sun and wind using solar panels and a wind turbine – we basically do all the work onboard ourselves. Breeze has learned through necessity to be a mechanic, carpenter, electrician and plumber. We carry replacement parts for as many items as possible. We also do canvas work and sail repair for ourselves and other cruising boats.
A job well-done or a landfall after a long passage, knowing it was your own skills you relied on to get you there, is its own reward. Of course, if you catch a really nice fish or two along the way, ah…what a life!
AR: How does boating in Panama compare to other places?
D & B: We’ve been in the San Blas Islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama for the past 6 ½ years and are still amazed – it’s the first time we’ve ever lived anywhere there were no hurricanes! The San Blas Islands form an archipelago with the outer ocean reefs protecting the inner islands and giving us safe waters year-round for sailing, snorkeling and kayaking. Also, here in the San Blas Islands, it is virtually crime-free – the Kuna Indians are very friendly.
AR: What about the “backpacker boats” – how do you interact with them?
D & B: We’re mainly concerned with the safety of the young people taking these trips. The boats are often overloaded with too many people, not enough places for them to sleep, and minimal fuel, food, and water.
The captains generally don’t concern themselves much with the weather conditions. Once they have their load of backpackers on board, it’s time to go! We’ve seen them leave many times under weather conditions we would never go offshore in. Especially in the winter months with high winds and seas, it can be a dangerous situation.
The backpackers are mostly young and inexperienced as far as offshore boating goes. They look at pictures on the Internet and see it as a romantic way to travel to a different country. They simply don’t know what they’re getting into and what questions to ask regarding safety issues. There have been several instances of these backpacker boats hitting reefs and sinking. There should definitely be a second crew member onboard who can steer and navigate if something happens to the captain.
They’re not all irresponsible — there are some boats with top-notch captains and crews that are safe and secure for the 200+ miles non-stop offshore passage to Cartegena, Colombia. The main thing is, the backpackers need to research the boats and captains ahead of time.
We hope those Panama backpackers stumble across this post in their research. Debbie and Breeze have shared a wealth of insights from their 28 years at sea, 7 of them spent sailing in the San Blas Islands of Panama, but they’ve got plenty more where that came from.
Whether you’d like to charter an adventure on their beautiful 52-ft. pilothouse ketch, Blue Sky, or to learn more about living in Guna Yala, sailing San Blas, or boating in Panama, Debbie & Breeze would love to hear from you. Visit their website www.sailingbluesky.com to get in touch.