The Cayuco and Machete

Along the beach is a row of fine cayucos on their rollers.  Near the point, under a shelter of thatch, an Indian is shaping a cedar log with a short handled adze.  Our relations are friendly.  The file I gave him as made the tool cut better.  I pick up a fresh chip and inhale its fragrance.  He nods, and pats the log.  In it he sees the cayuco that will take form to his liking.  A pleasant business, this hewing of a hull beside the blue water on which it is to sail.  when it is finished he will start another, perhaps not of cedar, for one must go far into the blue mountains across the little harbor for that.  There are serviceable trees of other kinds closer to the village.  He has fashioned many cayucos of various lengths and uses.  He points out three in the row along the beach that are of his making.  They are now the property of others, but this thought went into them and remains his possession.

The cayuco is a sweet craft, silent, fast moving, responsive to sheet and helm.   It sails best under whim or caprice, past a toothed reef where a barracuda may be waiting for a lure, toward a tiny isle where cowries glisten on the beach, and it heads into the open sea with the eagerness of a coursing hound.  Perhaps this is not an unwelcome change for a tree that has been rooted all its life to one spot.

Iguaniti's cayuco will sail in a breath too indolent to disturb the mirror surface of the water.  At such times we seek the shade of the sail and loaf along without a helm.  when there is a breeze and the reefs are smoking, A Las Tres (Three O'clock) goes along as active ballast.  The cayuco is twenty-two feet long, with a three foot beam and round bottom.  The only keel is under the bow.  This is five inches deep forward and tapers back for five feet to nothing.  It grips the water and prevents the sail which is well forward, from swinging the nose around.  The steersman thrusts a broad paddle straight down on the lee side, two feet from the stern.   This serves more as a lee-board than a helm.  The sprit sail has a mast step two thirds of the way forward.  A jib completes the rig.  A greyhound before the wind, no doubt, but what happens when the breeze is a-beam?  That's where Three O'clock comes in.  He stands on the windward gunwale holding a loose line fastened to the top of the mast.  As she heels he leans overside — full length out sometimes — then as she eases he pulls himself erect and stands with a hand on the mast.

In the open sea when the rollers are big, Three O'clock needs his every ounce of weight, even with the great leverage he exerts.  As the cayuco settles in the trough, the oncoming wave cuts off the wind, then as she rises we get it with a bang.  Since we are out for sport, Iguaniti will not ease the sheet short of a spill.  He looks at me to see if I ask him to, but in spite of my inward quaking I show an unruffled exterior.   Iguaniti must not let her turn over unless he is willing to listen to the jibes of the village.  No Indian is willing to do that.

Most Cunas are adept sailors.  With their cayucos they ride the ocean range, combining business and pleasure; loaded with coconuts or family, fair winds or half-gales — weather doesn't matter.  When they do upset, which is more likely to happen to a boat without cargo, the sails are first cleared, then one Indian swims to the stern, another takes the bow and they rock out most of the water in a jiffy.  No harm done; just a dose of chagrin for the one responsible if the upset was avoidable.  Ten minutes or less and they are on their way, unperturbed.

fig6.jpg (95352 bytes)

Part of a bridge between Nargana and Nusatup.   Small coral islands
and a Cuna Indian Canoe under sail are also seen.

Inside the barrier reef it is seldom rough, and then only a chop, but outside is another matter.  The coast has its share of gales, or which the weather signs give warning, but sudden squalls and the nasty cross-seas they kick up some unannounced in treacherous combination.  There are seventy miles of open sea between Cape San Blas and Colon, and the prevailing winds are onshore.  Large coasting vessels, with engines and steadying headsails, make heavy weather of it.  A cayuco, with an Indian on the windward gunwale, will sometimes outrun the coaster.  Outside the cape for thirty miles is shoal and the rollers are tremendous.  On a big schooner, with engines at half speed and the foresail and jib drawing, you stand braced, a firm grip on something, and watch the green water come tumbling over the weather rail, run part way aft and spill in a cataract over the lee.  Between times you watch a sailing cayuco between you and the coast, now aloft on a crest, now hidden by a mighty wall of green that will surely overwhelm it.  You shout your fears to the captain.  He shakes his head and laughs: "Wherever he's bound for he'll get there.  The only tragedy I know of was during a blow in March, two years ago.  Old Nipiguinya, from Nusadup, got upset off Isla Grande and lost a new machete in twenty fathoms.  It bothered him considerably.  I had taken a diver to the islands on a previous trip to salvage the diesel off an old tub that had sunk at Playon Chico.  Nipiguinya wanted me to get that diver again.  He didn't want the machete himself.  He said the diver could have it.  But he didn't want it to rust away on the bottom of the ocean."

Cayuco is Spanish; the Cuna name is urrcatcor.  Their generic word for boat is ulu.  A sail boat ulumola, boat with clothing; steamship soulu, fire boat.  There is another type of dugout called chinga in Spanish; ulachui, in Cuna.  This is for use on rivers.  It has an overhang fore and aft, which is left as broad as possible for the use of a man standing on the bow using a pole.   This is an ideal river craft where there are shallow rapids.  It is narrower and has less freeboard than the rough-water type.  It withstands the hard wear over gravel and boulders and can be poled or paddled speedily.  Given a machete and ulachui a river Indian is a well equipped, independent person.  The machete is of Spanish introduction, though now largely manufactured in the United States.  It may be described as a compromise between a broad sword and a butcher knife.  A grip of horn, wood or fibre fits the hand and it has a strong blade two feet long and two and a half inches at its widest part.  This is primarily a bush knife or grail cutter, but it is used to fell trees, butcher game, open coconuts, slice meat and cut down heavy stemmed fruit.  As an offensive weapon it is deadly.  To build a house of poles, vines and thatch anything more than a machete would be superfluous.  Nipiguinya's tragedy is more easily understood when we consider the possibilities of his new machete which lies buried under twenty fathoms off Isla Grande.

From: San Blas and The Forbidden Land by Fred McKim, Göteborg, 1947

October 16, 2002