Not everyday, but often, we listened to the morning VHF net.
For those of you who are not mariners, the VHF is a very high frequency radio used for communications between boats for distances up to 20 miles or so. In various locations, especially foreign anchorages, sailors like to stay connected spreading the news, gossip, weather, tips, advice, recipes and schedule of events within it's community of travelers.
One morning I caught a piece of conversation about the upcoming launch of a new ulu (dug out canoe in Kuna language). This would be from the mountainous jungles on the western shores of the San Blas Islands in about a week. I missed most of the conversation for some reason but later on, a local Kuna Indian named Justino(pictured below) was working aboard our boat and mentioned it too.
JUSTINO. EXCELLENT BOAT WORKER, RESIDENT OF GERTI/THE "ROBESONS", AND FRIEND.
I questioned him about it and was quickly struck by the rarity of such an event, his excitement about it and the fact that I was in the neighborhood.
His village, a half days sail west of our location, had cut down an old growth tree up in the jungles of the mainland miles away and was finishing up the rough carving of this tree into a huge canoe or 'ulu'(in Kuna language) for the chief of their village.
It was to be a special ulu; for the chief and special needs of the village! They had turned the rough carving of the tree, over.......... and had almost finished carving out the inside of the tree and thought they would be ready to start to drag it up and down the jungle terrain to a river and then down and out to sea to their island group, the Gerti's, within about a week. It was a huge task to drag a 30' x 3' log out of the jungle by manpower alone especially considering the terrain's ruggedness, altitude, temperatures, humidity. The village however was inviting any sailors interested to come watch.
We sailed Memory Rose west to their island group 2 days early before some heavy rains threatened my plan. We actually ran just a mile or so in front of the heaviest of it and managed to anchor safely while it passed to our south. Arriving early, many of the women and children of the islands, came out in their smaller ulus to try to sell us molas, bananas, avocado's etc.
SMALLER ULUS ARE USED AS WORKING BOATS AND FOR FAMILY TRANSPORT
Of course Dorothy accommodates them and gives granola bars and packets of raisins to the children. Some of the Kuna women take Dorothy's offer to come aboard and sit in our cockpit to do their presentation of their finely sewn mola pieces and stringed beads of their jewelry.
Justino told me their might be 72 men show up for this event and confessed it might take 3 days to get it out to the island. The Kuna's would start at 4 a.m. in total darkness and so would we. I arranged to pick him up at his island in our inflatable boat and also would pick up a cruising friend Jack Midence.
Giving this some thought, I mulled over what might be helpful to them. I decided to bring along 3 snatch blocks I normally keep for heavy weather emergency gear and as much spare line as I thought I might carry without killing myself. That ended up to be 5 sections totaling about 3-350' of 1/2" and 9/16 line.
In darkness, we picked up our friend Jack Midence of Sailing Vessel (s.v.) Kitty Hawk.
Jack and Nicole a few weeks before our Ulu adventure at a local pig roast.
His wife Nicole was pregnant and would remain on their vessel also a CSY 44, to guard the ship.....and read. Jack is excellent at almost everything a guy needs to do out here and did not miss a beat on this adventure. His language and interpersonal skills were as impressive as his physical efforts extended. Aboard our inflatable, he and Justino offered to carry a part of my my load of lines.
WE ARRIVED IN THE RIVER WITH THE FIRST HINT OF LIGHT AND AN HOUR LATER, WERE HIKING STEEP TRAILS IN THE JUNGLE. (Photo by Ivy, SV Ruby Slippers)
Dorothy would take pictures, but also carried my backpack later on when I got seriously involved with the line work. Once we got involved with the ulu, Jack worked the Ulu end of things with lines and blocks, while I took the uphill position.
S.V. Tishababy also brought along a good long length of 1/2" polyester line.
JACK, NICOLE, IVY AND JOHN
John and Ivy of S.V. Ruby Slippers were right in the thick of things too. Ivy as photographer with splendid equipment and John as Sampson. (John's a big guy, in great shape and also with bi-lingual skills) He worked varying positions along one line or another, adapting to the needs he saw and I think was critical in the recognition by the Kuna men of our intent to really make a positive effort for their endeavor. They all seemed to love John. His humor and hard work never ceased and was an excellent representative of the gringo crowds capability.
SLASH AND BURN FIELD UP IN THE MOUNTAINS. THESE AREAS ARE USED FOR BANANA PLANTING AND GOOD FOR ONLY 2, MAYBE 3 YEARS. THIS IS 1.5 HOURS INTO OUR MARCH INLAND to the ULU location.
I found the hike up, to be difficult and soon recognised how fit these Kuna men were. We hiked for over 2 hours at a steady clip. Some men were in their teens, but I bet some were near my age and they were fit and trim. On the trail, they virtually flew past me. Lives of hard work and meager diet kept them light and strong. In my case, abundance of everything in our western lifestyle and very little aerobic exercise in these later years had me sucking wind at the back of the pack. The humidity was extreme.
We really goofed in provisioning. We had brought only 3 bottled waters and 2 Gatorades. They were gone in 3 hours.
EARLY ON, WHEN WE FIRST MET UP WITH THE KUNA GROUP ALREADY AT WORK, NEGOTIATING A 40 DEGREE INCLINE. WE COULD 'HEAR' THEIR RHYTHMIC CHANTS TO COORDINATE THEIR EFFORTS.
When we finally met up with the Ulu, it was already being drug up the side of a hill with about a 45 degree incline in a slice of jungle barely wide enough for a man to walk through.
These men had started at first light an hour ago. However, men on both sides of the 3' wide ulu and maybe 50 in front struggled foot by foot to surmount their challenge. In unison they chanted and struggled, achieving a few feet of success at a time.
I looked downhill to their position a 100' or so and began to think my gear would be useless in such a scene. Shortly however, I noticed that when they arrived at the summit of this steep hill, they would have to turn and fight their way up another difficult grade at a different angle.
WORKING IN ADVANCE OF THE ULU CREW, I WOULD PICK A TREE FOR A GOOD LEAD ANGLE AND TIE OFF A BLOCK QUICKLY, SO THEY COULD GET A LINE THROUGH IT.
The jefe (boss) in charge of the ulu crew was a powerful and larger Kuna, always intent and sporting a mustache.
He belted out orders and cadence to all the men and physically pushed and manhandled the ulu with all his strength, always. I'm not sure I can remember ever seeing a man more aggressively involved in a project and I've been around some tough men in tough situations, but he really impressed me.
Later on, as we became accepted as crew, he was as cheerful as the winner of a major Olympic event. His counterparts were no slackers either...well a couple of the younger ones did not have his work ethic, but they were put up in the very front where their effort was not essential. I was surprised how focused all the men were; always looking in the same direction, listening and working as a team. I was impressed.
The jefe did not initially want our help. Jack spoke fluent Spanish as he was a Honduran of distant European decent, speaking English and Spanish without flaw. He attempted to suggest what the extra lines and blocks could do for them. The jefe and many of his men just laughed at our seemingly light lines and professed their belief that they would break in a minute or two but they did not know the strength of modern synthetic lines; being used to using older, often discarded lines and equipment. They seemed to have no clue of the purpose and effect of our snatch blocks though. Well, after trying things their way, running their 1.25" rough manila rope around a tree uphill to be able to pull the ulu a few feet at a time, the line nearly cut through a soft tree they used as a turning post. The friction of the line and the tremendous loads imposed by this heavy craft, mud, roots and rocks was severe. Jack tried his line of reasoning again and although the jefe did not look happy, he agreed to let Jack try my gear. In a minute, we had something rigged and then 2 lines of men, not one, began to pull the ulu uphill. One line of men pulling upward on the heavy manila rope and an equal group pulling downhill on a length of red polyester running gear. The beauty of the Garhauer snatch block is in many of it's facets, but instantly noted by even the Indians is how much easier it was to pull using a super efficient pulley rather than the endless friction of a quickly eroding tree trunk. With looks of amazement and chuckling at first, they slowly accepted these new tools. They were not 'sold' yet, but they let us continue to lead lines and blocks as 'we' saw fit and then pull on them. 2 shorter lines of men rather than one very long line got us flowing as a more effective team.
The simple truth was that there were so many curves, angles and obstructions they were encountering, that getting ALL men to be able to pull on ONE line was impossible. The men in front were sometimes pulling other men into a gully or into trees. A very long line was impractical. 2, 3 or 4 lines were NOW used to control not only the pull, but to guide or stabilize the ulu on ridges or turns. WALLA! The men were now quickly moving aside as I would run back to Jack to retrieve a line no longer used to an uphill position to be able to reset it in a new location. Not long after, the Indians near the ulu asked to be shown how to open the block so they could run it forward instead of the 'old blanco'....me! We were getting into a rhythm. Every minute or 2 a line with block would be brought forward and I would then move forward and picking out a new set point, would attach it to a tree giving the group a good lead for the next pull.
The chants continued, the smiles and laughter grew and we were now working as a unified group.
THE TOP OF A 'BIG' HILL, WAS A MAJOR EFFORT FOR THE GROUP. WE CERTAINLY WERE GLAD AT THIS POINT TO HAVE HAD THE GARHAUER BLOCKS AND EXTRA LINE. PULLING DOWNHILL WAS MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE THAN PULLING UPHILL.
Several of the cruisers were helping back at the ulu. One gal, a retired hair dresser worked as hard as a longshoreman! She was great and she kept all smiling with her good spirits.
THE GAL IN RED, WAS OFTEN ON THE RED LINE PULLING OR DIRECTLY WORKING THE ULU. SHE PUT IN GREAT EFFORT. HER HUSBAND HAD BROUGHT A LONG LENGTH OF LINE AND HELPED WHENEVER HE COULD.
The heat was brutal up in those jungles as was the humidity. Sailors that got involved with elbow grease were from Jumbi, Ruby Slippers, KittyHawk, Glide, Tishababy and Memory Rose. Hello World photographers and another boat viewed the event with us.
A few of them worked hard assisting the effort at the ulu itself. The rest stood aside mostly and took photos. One female, the professional photographer, claimed injury to her foot or leg and was put Into the ulu and transported most of the way back to the river. The Indians called her "the..........Queen".
From inside the canoe, she was able to get some fine photos and a 'few' were passed on to us and I have labeled them as hers.(Hello World)
Refreshments, sustenance, was had at a rest stop most of the way down the mountain slopes at a predetermined area. Their boost came from jugs of water with azucar(sugar.......much sugar). A few had Kool Aide. No electrolytes, no proteins, carbs,,,,, Lunch? nope- sugar water!!
Only a few minutes later they were rarin' to go again. It seemed only a little while longer and we were at the crossroads near their jungle cemetery and they were jubilant at being near to pull the ulu over a steep bank and down into a shallow river.
That done, they cheered and frolicked for a bit, most of them disappearing down hill again towards their smaller ulu's tied to the streams banks to return to their island.
I was beyond exhaustion as I'm sure some or many were. Really knew I had passed my limits as my thinking was off, balance and certainly strength. Pure and simple dehydration.
Soon Dorothy and I were down to our inflatable Avon dingy and was told one of the other gringo's- John, a strongly built Californian/Hawaiian that really opened the eyes of the Indians with his extraordinary effort physically and with his Spanish speaking abilities and humor, was still upriver. I hopped into my dingy to retrieve or meet him but instead only found one of the Kuna men poling the long ulu downriver with only partial success. I offered to assist him and he quickly smiled and nodded yes. We set up a tow and I towed him down river with my stern first for steerage ability. Worked like a charm!
By late afternoon, I untied the Ulu at the main island of Gerti and soon after, at the stern of Memory Rose, I downed 2 sixteen oz. bottles of Gatorade before I even left the dingy. Aboard only 20 minutes, another 2 bottles of water. By nightfall, a couple of icy cold beers in the cockpit watching the setting sun, then sleep time. I had pushed it too far..............but hope all are well from this experience. It was tough.
Definitely for us, we can add to our list, another "once in a lifetime experience". What a glorious day!