|INTRO - Gavin McClurg is captain of Discovery, a 57-foot catamaran that becomes home to riders on the Best Odyssey, transporting them on remote expeditions, chasing wind and waves. This issue, they head back to a group of islands that time forgot
It's taken twelve years to get here. That's when I first learnt of San Blas. The stories I heard had faded, it's true, but never vanished. Twelve years ago you would have been hard pressed to find anyone telling a kitesurfing story and the stories told to me were not ones of raleys and F-16s; they were of clear, wa rm waters, fascinating culture, lobster, fish and soft sand. And no tourists. There are few places in the world that have perfect postcard beaches and don't also have a Marriot, Hyatt, Intercontinental or other monstrosity, overflowing with gluttonous sunburnt Speedo-clad tourons, gawking from behind that perfect palm.
Our mission is to pioneer the best places in the world to kite. That doesn't just mean perfect flat water, or perfect winds, or perfect waves, it means finding all of the above - and having it all to ourselves! Finding your own jewel, riding with a handful of your best mates; those are the days you remember.
Much can change in twelve years, but after sailing some 75,000 miles - many of them in pursuit of places to kite - and sailing on every sea and ocean in the world, finally in December 2007 we crossed from Cartagena, Colombia into San Blas, Panama. I knew immediately the wait had been worth it. Incredibly, there were still no tourists, beyond a small fraternity of cruising boats all there for the same reason we were: to get away.
Soon after we anchored, some local Kuna Indians paddled up in a kayuko (a hand-carved canoe) and offered us a few 'Congrejo', a cousin of the Alaskan King Crab. Our chef, Nico, went to work and, some hours later, served the delicious white meat in their shells. It was one of the tastiest and most exquisite meals I have eaten. Beyond our bow lay a few miles of barrier reef that protected us from the onslaught of the ocean, plus a scattering of palm tree clad i slands. The anchorage was perfectly calm, the water perfectly clear and the wind perfectly steady.
The San Blas archipelago and a long thin strip of mainland on Panama's north coast are administered and controlled by the Kuna Yala. The 'Kuna' are a small (the second smallest race on earth) yet strong and compact people, with a fearsome reputation. Many organised groups have attempted to conquer them over the centuries without success. Finally, the Panamanian government decided enough was enough and gave them their own territory to rule as they wi shed, which they have done remarkably well for decades. The Kuna have defended their lands against developers and western interests, and their backyard is as stunning as Bora-Bora and much more accessible. Their homes are built of sustainable materials, and their islands stand now as they have for centuries; protected and raw. Their communities are strong, their children healthy, their smiles and their hearts, warm.
They are not without problems, however. The Kuna's only significant export are coconuts. If, as scientists predict, sea levels continue to rise, their entire archipelago, consisting of over 400
islands, will disappear. Dozens of islands have already gone in the last decade. Their way of life, already in jeopardy, would vanish.
Six dazed and groggy kiters disembarked from a small prop plane on the grass runway at El Porvenir the next morning at 6am. From Panama City the flight takes just 25 minutes, but judging by the looks on everyone's' faces, I was glad I sailed in. The runway runs the length of the island, which I could walk in about three minutes. You get my drift. We boarded the Discovery and our forecast looked good. For the moment, however, the winds were light, which left little to do but enjoy the local hospitality and, for everyone coming from much colder climes, relish the perfect 25?C water. A few of the boys wanted to try spear fishing, so I grabbed my gun and some time later landed a 12 pound red snapper, which Nico transformed into a superb lunch.
In the afternoon the winds built and we sailed around to an island called Mordup - no more than a small chunk of sand with an abandoned hut and a couple of palm trees. We anchored just off its shore, in a spot I doubt another cruising boat has ever been. In no time the blue sky was filled with slashes of colour as kites launched in rapid succession off our stern.
I headed off downwind and landed on another island, much larger, but no less spectacular. Some kids ran out to say hello and, because I was paying attention to them and not my kite, I was suddenly yanked ten feet up in the air, my face resting inches from the tree's trunk. I pulled my release and came down softly, my kite still languishing 50 feet above me, tangled in a palm tree. Before my breathing settled, a man in his fifties had scaled a 50 foot coconut tree and freed my kite while the family and I all shouted encouragement. Within minutes he had it down unharmed, all of us laughing playfully at me, the silly gringo.
That afternoon we brought a trainer kite back to the island to show the family what our addiction was all about. One little boy, no more than sixyears-old and 20 kilos, couldn't get enough. He would grab the bar and launch himself through the shallow water, screaming with laughter. Another kiter joined the ranks. It was a poignant moment that I'll never forget.
Many of us commented on what the family had here. At home this property would be worth millions: a white-sand beach, coconut trees swaying in the wind, a sea filled with fish and lobster right in front of your house. These Kuna families leave their mainland communities to live on the islands for three to four months at a time. Property is not owned here; it is shared by all. The families' job is to look after the islands. Keep them clean, harvest the coconuts, sell 'molas' - a Kuna handicraft - to the few sailors who pass by. By our western standards they have almost nothing; a hut, a pig, some chickens, yet all the money in the world cannot buy the peace we perceived in these people. How did we get so far from the simplicity that nourishes the Kuna so well?
We pondered these thoughts as we continued on through a group of islands called the Hollandes Cays. There we found kiting nirvana and a place we would revisit again and again, both on this trip and in the weeks to follow. The anchorage was protected from all sides. A barrier reef ran further than the eye could see, leaving a sandy, shallow flat water area to kite that was miles long. A thunderous offshore swell crashed day and night against the reef, sending great plumes of white water towards the heavens; an incredible backdrop for those prepared to ride its edge. For four days the trade winds blew, reaching nearly 30 knots at their strongest.
On our last day in the Hollandes Cays we joined some of our neighbours on other boats on 'Bar-BQue' island for? a barbeque. There was quite a crowd and, as everyone had enjoyed the kiting show of the past few days, we were each bombarded with questions about how to get started. 'How hard it is?' 'How much does it cost?' 'Can an old guy like me do this?' We realised how overwhelmingly lucky we were to be doing what we loved in a place like this.
As the sun was replaced by a blanket of stars someone noticed a bright comet slowly crossing the sky. It seemed to reflect what I was feeling: it took me twelve years to get here. The journey was worth it.
Follow Gavin and Jody on their expeditions at: www.offshoreodysseys.com
This article was taken from issue #43. Click here to find out more about it
All At Sea - Part Five
Kitesurfing Test - Boards 2013
Kitesurfing Test - Kites 2013
Best Cabo 9M
Kitesurfing travel directory
Barra do Cunhau