Friday, February 07, 2014

Cruisers help Guna Indians of Panama, get new sails.

A few years ago, I decided to make a few sails for the ulus (dug out canoes) of  two Guna men I knew.  That idea quickly blossomed to making 10 sails for their village.  Then I just decided to put x amount of $ into the project.  The end result grew to .... 30 main sails and 8 jibs, delivered a few months after manufacture.You see, the sails common in this island nation were normally made from scraps of materials... some old sail cloth sailors had donated, bed sheets, political posters, fabric from almost anything that could 'catch the wind'.  The sails usually could catch wind, but did not and could not perform well.

 Bed sheets and political posters and a lot of paddling.
 Sadly, sails like this are commonly used for their only form of transportation.
So now you see there was a need for real sails, made from new sailcloth, that could power these crafts upwind as well as downwind or in any direction with confidence, speed and some added safety.

The project started simply, as I sat on the floor of a friends garage, but it got up to speed quickly with a table, my Sailrite sewing machine and often assistance from friends and family.
The first batch of sails were traditional white.

One of the men, Justino Galindo Martinez called me 4 or 5 times in the months following my first delivery and asked if I was coming back with more sails..  More Sails??
A few sentences later, I understood there was a demand for new sails sized to fit their ulus.  I gave it some thought, then proceeded to prep for another stint at sail making.

The result was an order for 1100 yards of sail cloth and all the peripheral materials and equipment necessary to produce them, including a location.
I rented a building, set it up with electric, lighting and tables then began cutting material..

 Over a mile and a half of strips cut by hand, for the edges of the sail.
 Rolled out 4 layers of different colored cloth and used a hot knife cutting tool to speed cutting of patterned material.
 There were times, organization ran a muck.
 Colors were mixed and matched for variety I thought the Gunas would enjoy.
 I hoisted a set on the wall to give me inspiration during the cold winter of sewing.
 Batches of 10 were vacuum packed for shipping.

Long story made short.. more sails have been made than I can as yet deliver or distribute..

This is where the story takes an interesting and inspiring turn.

This past fall, several cruisers who had noticed the new sails on the horizon, began to contact me, asking questions and lending verbal support to the Ulu Sail Project.  Then one couple, Frank and Gretchen really got behind the idea and began to promote it with emails, radio contact and personally within the sailing community of the San Blas Islands, and even got word over to a gent in Germany who did some promotion there.  Now, they have a number of these Ulu Sails aboard and are offering them to the cruisers who wish to assist in this project in a direct way, by purchase.
                                                         Justino of Isla Gerti, with 2 new sails.
Friends of Frank and Gretchen, Tom and Julie of sailing vessel Gris-Gris, happened to be in the U.S. at the time but soon heading to the San Blas, offered to take a few sails south with them for distribution..  A small snowball effect, but things were building.  The sails arrived a month later in the San Blas and with the word out, some cruisers began to purchase a sail or two, at cost later on, be given away or bartered for molas of their choice.
      Frank and Gretchen advertising the sails, aboard their yacht.  They are Super Supporters!

It often takes a village, the saying goes...but it is wonderful to see it happening.  Really, really nice.

...Today, in an email from Frank:

We have sold 12 sails so far to cruisers.  Here is the list of boats, so you can put it on the website:

Respite, Mike and Gloria
Changing Tides, Carl and Karen

Akka, Monty and Chris
Infinity, Frank and Gretchen
Gris-Gris, Tom and Julie
Lion's Paw and Clarity, who split a sail. (don't have all the crew names)
Eileen Farrell, Joyce and Lorenzo

Icarion, Brian and Marilyn
Blue Sky, Breeze and Debby
Islander, Barbara and Connie, who bought two sails.
Hiatus, Owen and Betty
Islander is trying to organize an Ulu regatta, with their sails as some of the prizes.  We'll try to get some pictures for you.

 All I can say and think, is how impressive the cruising community can be.  Really cool!


Unknown said...

Great story about sail making.

Where in Panama were you? Looks pretty primitive - no ugly cement houses which natives consider "up-scale."

We sailed the San Blas in 2000-2001. We went far, far to the south part where cruisers dared not venture - for some reason? It is primitive down there and lovely.

Bill and Soon Gloege
S/V Gaia Home Port San Francisco
boat currently in Virginia USA

Ron Sheridan said...

I'm now back in the USA, along with my boat. Retired from sailing, but flying back once per year, with sails for the Guna's Ulu's.
An act of love for the beautiful experience they and their land gave us.
Payback or just feels right.