Before sticking our noses out into the Pacific, we’re going to spend some time investigating the beautiful Les Perles (Pearl) islands and expect to spend a week or so here. It is Saturday may 12 and we leave Panama City and sail out into the huge Panama Bay, sighting the first of the Peal islands after 30nm of sailing.
The Pacific here is living up to its name – pacific – there is no wind and tiny swells, so we are sailing on the motor the entire way. Wonderfully calm sailing – shining sun, only a few white clouds to break the blue sky.
We drop anchor in a small bay by the island of Contadora. There are only 3 of us here. We’ve chosen this island despite the fact that it is the most touristed of the Pearls – the Panamanians use this island as a weekend retreat. One of the reasons for this choice is that we can get internet here, which is going to be necessary next week when we leave in order to get a long range weather forecast. We arrive late in the afternoon and decide to wait to try out our new aluminum dinghy until the next day.
The Panamanians that come out here come in very fast and very big motorboats and we are surprised that there is no dinghy dock. I simply refuse to believe that these motorboat sailors, who are usually very dressy sail their dinghies up on the beach and wade through the surf in their nice clothes.
It is difficult beyond belief to land the dinghy in the hard surf. We finally manage to get it in without it turning upside down and are thankful that we now have a dinghy with an aluminum bottom that allows us to sail directly up onto the beach.
We wander around the island for a couple of hours and it looks almost deserted, nearly a “ghost island”. Most of the Panamanians have closed up their summer cottages for the rainy season which is supposed to be starting soon. Actually, it has already started – due, of course, to the fact that Vinni and Carsten are sailing in the area. We find a half-closed hotel with a little beach bar and internet. But we have to hurry back to Capri because the thunderheads are piling up around the islands and we really don’t want to get caught in the thunderstorms. We just manage to get back aboard as the first drop of rain begin to fall.
The night is horrid, with thunder and lightning all around us. Choppy seas throw Capri all around the anchorage, making it difficult to sleep. At one point the storm is right over us and we can feel the pressure waves through the water when the lightning hits. We are concerned about our electronic instruments, navigation equipment and computers. We’re happy that there is a huge catamaran next us. Statistics say catamarans get hit more often that monohulls – besides his mast is higher than ours.
Early next morning we see that the other boats are hauling up their anchors and leaving the bay. Our neighbor boat gives us the signs to follow them and go around on the northern side of the island to anchor in a bay that is protected from the swells. We follow and it is wonderful to have Capri lying quietly, but it is still raining the proverbial cats and dogs. After 48 hours of rain and thunder we decide that the Pearls can be Pearls – we’re leaving. The rain drops off enough for us to go ashore, get some internet and get a decent weather forecast. We have a three day window before the horrible weather again breaks loose again. We would prefer to forego having to sail in that shit, but it means we have to get 350nm further south in the bay, clear down to Malpelo Rock to get clear. We should be able to do that, assuming we leave early the next morning.
Next morning early we arise to sunshine and no wind, believe it or not. We need to leave, but first we have a little challenge we need to overcome. Where are we going to put the new dinghy? We still have the old one, deflated and folded lying on the coachroof. The two captains (!) get into a heated discussion. Carsten wants to strap securely on top of the old dinghy, which I think is irresponsible. As far as I’m concerned, the first wave that breaks over the deck will carry the dinghy away. I remember the American couple we met in Nassau whose dinghy got washed away in heavy weather.
I think it needs to be strapped down on the front deck. I win the discussion and we strap the new dinghy to the deck with three fenders below her to keep her pontoons from getting punctured. Capri is on 40 feet long so there really isn’t room for two dinghies on deck. We deflate the new one also so it fills a bit less. I end up regretting winning the discussion many times during this passage. Most times when we change tacks, the genua sheets get caught on the new dinghy and someone has to go on deck and clear them. Since this was my “bright idea”, I get to be the lucky one to go on deck. When we sail onward from the Galapagos to the Marquesas, we’ll try Carsten’s idea and hope the dinghy doesn’t get washed overboard (I don’t give up – do I?).
We’re on the iron jenny (engine) as we make our way southward along the Pearl Islands enjoying the small tropical rainforest clad islands and pure white beaches. According to the guide books there are still a few pearl divers plying their trade on some of the smaller islands. It is a shame to miss the experience of meeting these divers, but we’ve learned the hard way that it is the weather gods who decide how and when we sail – not ourselves (if we know what is good for us). Late in the afternoon a big RIB suddenly comes roaring up towards us carrying 3 men in combat fatigues and sporting M-16 rifles. Gulp. They want to board us, but after finding out we speak no Spanish – they decide against it and go roaring off. We assume they are the coast guard although their boat showed no identification and neither did their uniforms. A bit of excitement here in the midst of the idyllic islands.
Leaving the canal and exiting out of the Panama Bay means we are starting on the “Coconut Milk Run”. The Coconut Milk Run takes its name from the WWII bombers in Europe. Whenever they would fly a sortie against German positions and did not experience any enemy fighters or heavy antiaircraft shooting – they called the sortie a “milk run”, meaning it was as safe as delivering milk back home. The term came into regular use after the war to mean anything that was relatively easy and has now been adopted by sailors for crossing the Pacific during the safe seasons. In the Pacific, however, the milk is from coconuts and therefore it is called the “Coconut Milk Run”. Following the milk run and staying out of the hurricane season in the Pacific means that the risk of encountering really nasty weather is minimal.
In most of the circumnavigation books I have read, the impression is that the wind always comes from the back, you almost never have to touch the sails and the sailing is about as comfortable and non-eventful as possible. I can tell you now, dear reader, that our trip to the Galapagos was anything but a “Coconut Milk Run”. Sailing here in June, the wind is supposed to come from the northeast or the east and first later in the year, during the rainy season veer and start coming from the south and even occasionally from the southwest. The direct route (rhumbline) to the Galapagos is 850nm SW and you can now try to guess where the wind was coming from(hint: This is Vinni and Carsten that are sailing this stretch). Directly out of the southwest, of course, where else. As I noted, this is Vinni and Carsten sailing so where the hell else should it be coming from?
As we pass the last of the Pearls, we get some wind (right in our noses), about 8 knots and we set the sails. But we’re also getting a current running right against us – 1.8 knots – which supposedly doesn’t happen here this time of year. According to Jimmy Cornell, the guru of circumnavigators and many other very experienced sailors, we’re supposed to a current of 1-2 knots pushing us OUT of the bay, not into it! We have to start the engine and run at 1100 rpm to make some headway. We’re running at very low rpms because we have a limited amount of diesel and we will need it when we have to cross the “Doldrums”, an area with no wind between the northern and southern trade winds, that can be anywhere from 300 to 500nm across. Frequently this area has no wind whatsoever and must be crossed using the engine which is why prudent sailors carry all the diesel they can get on board. We’ve also bought an additional 5 20 liter jerry cans so we now have 135 liters in the tank and 200 liters in jerry cans on the deck – total 335 liters (approximately 85 gallons for you American types).
We continue our motorsailing through the night, even though it is irritating to listen to the engine while trying to sleep in the sea bunk. The bunk is in our aft cabin and so is the back end of the engine compartment – so it also generates a fair bit of heat back there. I’ve been on watch til 1 a.m. and am on my way for a much-needed 4 hours sleep. “Hot-bunking” with someone else – even your husband is not necessarily the most wonderful thing in the world. I crawl into the bunk and it is damp with Carsten’s sweat. All together a less than enjoyable experience (but probably the same for Carsten when he takes over the bunk after me). I’m so tired that I fall asleep quickly, but am awaken immediately by an unfamiliar sound.
It sounds almost like a smoke alarm when the battery is running out of juice. No way I can fall asleep with that going on. Finally I’m desperate and call Carsten down to help me find the cause of the sound and stop it. After a while we realize we have a stowaway on board. Apparently a grasshopper has gotten on board in the Pearls and is hidden somewhere in behind the boxes of spare parts and tools we have in the aft cabin. It is hopeless to even try to find it. The little SOB continues for hours to rub its hind legs against each other – probably calling for it’s mate. I only get 1 ½ hours sleep before it is my turn for the watch again. Of course, the grasshopper stops immediately when Carsten lies down to go to sleep.
The only positive thing about this night is that despite squalls, lightning and thunderstorms, we have an uneventful night – everything passes us by.
Days sail – 105nm
The wind is still from the SW although now running 12-14 knots. Since we’re moving forward our apparent wind (the wind we actually feel) is closer to 18 knots. Now back in Denmark, we’d be saying “yessir – what a nice strong breeze and something like – now we’re sailing!” The swells are smaller there. Here we have 2 meter high chop and 2 knots of current running against us and Capri is heeling over at 15-20 degrees and let’s be honest – this is anything but fun – especially when you can look forward to several days of this crap.
Carsten would say:
Are we having fun yet?
Damned right we are!
He doesn’t know what he is talking about. We take in the mainsail and reef back to the second reef. Now Capri is heeling less but still too much for the night. We’re walking on the walls and making a hot dinner is more than difficult so we eat ryekrisp with a bit of cheese on it. Before we became ocean sailors, we almost never ate ryekrisp – now it is a part of our diet. We have to crawl out to the head – when we are on one tack you have to hang on for dear life to stay on the crapper and when we are on the other tack you almost need a crane to get off the crapper. In the seabunk we aren’t lying on the mattress but actually on the wall – that’s how much we are heeling. We take a reef in the genua and now the heeling is tolerable but we’re having difficulty holding our speed against the 2 knots of current against us, so we again have to start the iron jenny. Crap that we need to burn our diesel when there is a very good chance that we will really need it later.
When we sail uphill, meaning 45 degrees against the wind, we continually have to tack (turn the boat and go 45 degrees against the wind in the other direction). Theoretically, when you tack, you turn the boat 90 degrees, from 45 degrees against the wind in one direction to 45 degrees against the wind in the other, but in practical terms it is always a bit more than 90 degrees, because the boat is set a bit by the wind, waves and currents, so normally it is about 100 degrees. To our great surprise, when .we tack we need 140 degrees.
What the F**k?
Carsten is aghast and doesn’t believe it – telling me to mind the helm a bit more. Well hell skipper – why don’t you look at the windex and the wind instruments? I can also show him, on our chartplotter, that the another sailboat who is a few miles away, has also tacked and also needs about 140 degrees – so take that skipper!
But I have to say that my DNA is not made for sailing upwind and tacking. I lack the patience.
Just imagine, when we tack we are either sailing 70 degrees AWAY from our goat or only 20 degrees TOWARDS our goal. That means we’ll be sailing a helluva lot of nm to get to the Galapagos and it will take a lot longer than planned unless the wind and current changes. Christ, I HATE sailing upwind against the wind, waves and currents.
My good humor isn’t helped any, when I try to get some sleep and can hear that damned grasshopper going at it. It doesn’t appear to bother Carsten who can sleep through the third world war (I don’t have a lot or warm feelings for him at the moment – he’s snoring and I won’t be able to sleep when it is my turn). Yep, he’s going at it when I crawl into the seabunk – but I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep anyway after a half hour.
Days sail – 144nm
The wind has dropped to 7 knots. We’ve got our sails all up and are running the engine so we can make some distance towards the southeast. We’ll get closer to Ecuador’s coast where we hope to catch some the counter-current that the pilot books say should to be there and will carry us southward.
Carsten does his best to raise my spirits by baking bread and rolls for breakfast – wonderful!
On the one tack we have 2-2.5 knots of counter current and on the other 1.0 knot of counter current. Where is the southward setting current the books say is here?
Days sail 131nm
We’ve gotten a bit more wind today, 10 knots and have all our sails up the entire day, until the wind falls off late afternoon. Start the iron jenny again so we can get a bit more wind in our sails. We haven’t reefed pour mainsail at dusk so if we get hit by a squall during the night we’ll have to ease out the main and fall off from the wind. It has been completely clouded over the past two days and it will be impossible to see the squalls before they hit.
We don’t want to get too close to the coast because we know that the fishermen here frequently sail without navigation lights as far as 40nm from the coast. After getting caught in nets and lines we are getting hysterical about fishing nets and we stay at least 80nm from the coast.
At 7:00 a.m. we get caught AGAIN! Carsten just manages to see (in the twilight) the little white jerry can being used as a marker, but by then it is too late. He can see it is being dragged behind Capri. I’ve only managed to sleep an hour when he calls me up, “I’m afraid we’re caught in a net”. GOD DAMN IT! We see a big fishing boat come roaring at us with 3 fishermen on board. They’re surely pissed and we expect them to start yelling at us, but no, they grab the line and cut it, then point the way out of their nets to us. We start our engine and try carefully to sail in the direction they have pointed out, but we can see that the lines start getting taut again – we’re not completely free yet. We stop immediately and they cut another line. Unfortunately this one is caught around our axle. They go roaring off and here we are 80nm from the coast with 4 kilometers of water under our keel and a net wrapped around our axle. Why in the world are they out here fishing in an overgrown rowboat?
Well, there is only one solution – call diver Carsten. He dons his tank and equipment and goes over the side. 45 minutes later he surfaces, this time with all ten fingers, says he hasn’t seen any sharks, but the axle is now free and we can move on.
So after only a couple of hours delay, we sail onwards. What do other sailors do if they can’t dive or don’t have the diving equipment with them? In all the sailing books we’ve read, we’ve never come across anyone saying they got caught and had to go down and cut themselves free. Either we are just plain very unlucky or else the others have simply “forgotten” to tell about it.
Remember our grasshopper? I thought he sounded a bit hoarse last night – almost as if he didn’t have quite the energy in his hind legs as he had the night before. As I get ready to crawl into our seabunk, what do I see crawling slowly across the deck? Our little friend. Carsten grabs him and tosses him overboard and now I can get some sleep. RIP (Rest in Peace).
Days sail 124nm
We’ve managed to make our way down to latitude 3 degrees. We started this journey at latitude 9 degrees. It has been almost impossible to make any headway west and we’ve still not reached Malpelo Rock, where we expected to be sometime during day 3. We’ve begun to worry about the horrible weather coming. We can see the fronts to both sides.
At this latitude we are supposed to be in the Doldrums – you know – a place with no wind at all. But we still have 15-16 knots, right in our faces of course, so we continue to tack and sail even more nautical miles (away from our goal). Our apparent wind (true wind plus the wind our forward sailing makes) is 18-20 knots and Capri is heeling far over. We’ve chosen to continue with full sails up so we don’t have to augment with our engine – it is tough to make headway against 2.5 knots of current.
We hope to soon meet the Equatorial Current, a current that runs along the equator, which would mean having the current with us, not against us. That current is supposed to start at around 5 degrees, but sometimes you need to go all the way down to 1 degree before finding it. It can decide to run with the Humbolt current that starts down in Antarctica and runs up along the South American coast.
I’m tired, mostly mentally, crabby and quick to tears. I’m feeling this is all hopeless and why is the weather always, ALWAYS, against Vinni and Carsten. Carsten sends me down to the sea bunk and cleans his diving equipment. God only knows where he gets the energy from – usually he is exhausted after diving to cut us free. It is extremely hard work to be under a bobbing boat in 2 knots of current and 2 meter high waves. But frequently, when one of us is feeling down the other one has lots of energy to help pick up the partner. Besides, it is not good if we both give up at the same time. We seem to take turns at this, but I’m more sensitive and show my feelings, where Carsten closes them inside and just trudges on. His energy must be boundless, I wake later that afternoon smelling fresh baked bread and rolls.
Wow. I can’t express my admiration for Carsten that he is able to make and bake bread in these hard seas. I can’t even be in the galley for a few minutes without getting seasick, but it never seems to bother him. Thank god for that, otherwise I’d starve to death. We haven’t made a warm dinner yet this trip – it really is more than difficult and our appetites have also been lacking. We’ve had to throw our beef stroganoff out as it was getting old.
Days progress – 143nm
The statistics all say it can’t happen – but here we are. In the midst of the Doldrums, winds of 14-15 knots during the day and 15-18 knots at night. We’ve had to reef our genua in to the 3 reef, but have kept our mainsail fully up. We’re having problems tightening the leech (a line going down the back part of the sail) when we reef the main while sailing upwind. Our boom also comes all the way down and touches our sprayhood when we sail close-hauled with reefs in the main. The bimini is rolled away. Capri is heeling like mad and it is difficult to get a normal routine for life aboard, because we are “walking on the walls”. We sit quietly and become more and more passive – our conversations get shorter and shorter. This trip is one that just needs to be survived. The sooner it is over – the better.
We finally manage to pass Malpelo Rock, a Columbian military area. They require you to call them on the radio if you are going to pass within 20nm of the rock. It has taken us 5.5 days to get here – a distance we should have sailed in 3 days or so. We pass 25 nm south of Malpelo, and don’t have to call and get the third degree. When will we reach the Galapagos?
And now we have no less than 2 stowaways – 2 Boobibirds have taken up residence on our anchor. They are not in the least bit shy when I look at them over the sprayhood. We stare each other down and it is obvious that they think they have just as much right to be on Capri as we do. They aren’t very pretty but do have a characteristic blue face. I think it is ok to have a couple of passengers, but change my mind when a third one shows up and they all shit all over the front end of the boat. We’ll just have to put up with it, since there is no way I am naïve enough to believe we can chase them away. They stay with us until day 9 when we’re only 80nm from the Galapagos, where they take off and disappear. Perhaps they aren’t as dumb as they are reputed to be – why fly when you can hitch a free ride?
The birds aren’t the only hygienic problem aboard. To be perfectly h9nest – it is starting to smell (read: stink) in the galley. It seems that the smell is coming from the drain in the sink. I try pouring boiling water, mixed with chlorine, down it, but to no avail. Thereafter Carsten tries “ a plumber best friend”, and at first it looks like he might have solved the problem – but a couple of hours later, it stinks again. Carsten asks me to come and stick my nose down to the drains because he’s sure they aren’t the problem and after sniffing them, I agree. Carsten has already emptied and cleaned the cabinets under the sinks in case any food scraps managed to get down there so we know that isn’t the problem. Everything is clean. So the smell must come from up top and I start to look suspiciously at the fruit and veggie net we have hanging over the sink. They all look quite fresh until my eye spots the egg carton which is also up there. As soon as I move it, the smell becomes twice as strong – yukkie! I carry them at arms length up in the cockpit and dump them overboard. Sorry about that King Neptune. But at least we solved the problem.
We’re having issues pulling down grib files (weather forecasts) on our short wave radio and our sat phone. We’ve had no luck the past 3 days. Sailmail via the shortwave radio tells us the receiving station is busy and tosses us off. The satellites here over the equator apparently aren’t very effective because we are having difficulty getting a strong signal on our sat phone. We hope the bad weather is behind us and stays there.
Days progress – 140nm
Yahooo! We still have 15 knots but the wind veered around to the south, meaning we can sail almost directly at our goal, but we still have 1.5-2 knots of current running right against us. We’re below 2 degrees and all our Pilot books say the current shouldn’t be here – it looks like we will have to get all the way to the equator before we can be rid of it. This requires the patience of Job – which I don’t have.
It is quite a sight when Carsten gets up in the middle of the night to hit the head. He walks like a zombie, hanging on to everything in sight – a minute or two later the zombie returns and crawls back into the bunk.
Days progress – 141nm
The wind has died down to 10 knots and the current is now unstable – running 0.5-1.0 knots against us – are we finally reaching the equatorial current that flows east – west? We’re closing in on 1 degree north. During the night the wind keeps dropping, now 6-8 knots and we have to start the engine. We hope that we’ll find the east – west current soon so we can ease up on our fuel usage. It is a good thing we have bought and filled extra jerry cans before leaving Panama – we have an extra 100 liters.
There are always issues on a sailboat that is in use 24/7. Our watermaker has started leaking and this is serious – without our watermaker, we’ll only have the water in our tanks – there is probably no chance of getting it repaired in the Galapagos. Carsten dives down into the locker where the watermaker is mounted. An hour later he climbs up in the cockpit and announces that the problem is solved. One of the fittings (plastic) has cracked and was leaking. Fortunately, we have a spare fitting on board, that while not the same as the one that cracked, can be used. The amount of spare parts and “fix it yourself” on a boat is beyond belief – the nearest place we can get the correct fitting is probably Tahiti or New Zealand – a long, long ways from here. We have to be completely self-sufficient out here in the Pacific and I’m beginning to understand why Carsten has packed all the parts and tools he has.
I might as well admit it – our personal hygiene on board is less than desirable during these days. Capri is heeling, jumping and being thrown in every direction in these 2 meter high waves and that means we only have the energy to take a shower every 3rd day. But it is wonderful, by god, to get one and smell clean and fresh and have clean hair. It is a cold pleasure to shower. We have lots of hot water, but the air is freezing cold – we must be close to the Humboldt current. We’re sleeping under a down comforter (this is at the equator friends!) at night and I’m wearing my full Scottish Bikini when I’m on watch.
Our experiences here are very different from what we have read in all the circumnavigator books we’ve swallowed. They all write about no wind, water as flat as a mirror and sunbathing on deck.
We haven’t seen the sun in over a week.
Many passage sailors sleep during their watches when they are out here in the Pacific – there isn’t anything going on out here. Sunken containers or sleeping whales aren’t worth being concerned about. You can’t see them anyway, no matter how much you stare out in the darkness. Even the radar won’t pick these up, so many feel they might as well go to sleep. Some set an egg timer to ring every 20 minutes or so , which allows them to raise their heads up and take a peek around the horizon for ships. Others set the egg timer for every hour. This is understandable for the single-handed sailors – they have no choice. You have to sleep at some point. On the bigger boats, single-handers usually have both AIS and radar and they set their alarm guard zones so the alarms go off if anything is detected closer than 10nm. Carsten and I are old-fashioned. We stay awake on our watches and mind the boat and the horizon, even though this can be hard when you are going watch on watch 24/ for 3 or more weeks.
The veers a bit more during the morning and we can now steer directly toward the Galapagos. Earlier this morning I asked Carsten if he thought we needed to circumnavigate the globe in the northern hemisphere, because the weather gods simply aren’t cooperating and letting cross the equator.
This is the first day on this leg where we have the energy to make, and eat, a hot dinner. Carsten makes Penne Arabiata which we enjoy in the cockpit while watching a stupendous sun-down.
Days progress: 121nm
We still have 10 knots of wind from the SE, the waves are only 1.5 meters, but directly in from the side. Wonderful sailing and we’re getting excited about crossing the equator sometime during the night or early morning – depending on the current – the wind is weak. We enjoy the silence since we have shut off the engine and are sailing only sails.
11:45 p.m. and Carsten wakes me to take my watch and tells me that we are only 2nm from the crossing.
15 minutes later we are both in the cockpit, dressed in our foulies to stay warm. The countdown begins. Crossing the equator is a major milestone in a sailor’s life. No one ever forgets the feeling of sailing their own boat across for the first time. It is just like New Year’s eve. We never drink alcohol while sailing, except in very special instances. This is very special indeed and we’ve put a champagne split in the refrigerator. Carsten has the camera ready to record the exact moment we cross and noting our position. I’ve got 2 champagne glasses ready and the little champagne split and – YES! 00:15 CONGRATULATIONS sweetheart – big kiss and hug – WE DID IT!
I pop the cork and we fill the glasses. We only take a couple of small sips and the rest is given to King Neptune with a request for fair winds and calm seas. We need to appease him – if he feels we’re not taking him seriously, he can send all kinds of nasty things our way – so we happily share our champagne with him. Sailors are naturally a superstitious lot and if you aren’t when you start sailing you tend to become one. After all – you never can tell – what if there really is a King Neptune and he needs to be appeased?
Welcome to the Humboldt Current – we’ve now got 1 knot of current pushing us from aft – great and I have a wonderful dog watch enjoying the stars.
Days progress: 129nm
Unbelievable that here, right on the equator, we still have 10 knots of wind directly from the SE and we sail the last 100nm in a direct line to San Cristobal. We’ve chosen to make landfall on this island because the bay here is supposed to be much more protected than the anchorage on the main island – Santa Cruz, where the boats “rock and roll” in the swells and do the jitterbug. The anchorage is so bad that most need to have a stern anchor deployed to try to keep the rolling at a minimum. We had enough “rock and roll” during the passage and would like to have a clam anchorage for the next couple of weeks.
Later that afternoon, the wind dies and we are forced to start the engine. Because we’re really ready to drop the hook and get some rest, we run our faithful Yanmar at 2000 rpm, burning a lot of diesel, but also making 6.5 knots. We only have a half knot of current here. We also really need to reach San Cristobal before lunchtime today, Friday, or else we can end up not being able to clear in until Monday. Which means we have to stay on the boat, since we aren’t allowed on shore until we have gone through customs and immigration.
Days progress: 105nm
The morning watch is mine and I’m looking forward to seeing land, but it is cloudy and there is a light mist all around, so everything is gray. But an hour after sunrise, the mist opens up and – Land Ho! – our first landfall in the Pacific shoes up on the horizon. In the old days the sailors used a sextant and mathematical calculations to determine their position, and making a landfall was a joyous occasion for all on board. The Pacific is a huge ocean and there are only small groups of islands and atolls out here. Even today, with GPS, chartplotters etc. – it is still a relief to make landfall.
We cruise along the northern side of San Cristobal, which to our surprise is more green than an arid gray volcanic island. Suddenly we have a visitor, a Frigate bird comes gliding over top of our mast. I admire its 2-3 meter wingspan and can just see it red “chin”, which it puffs up in the mating season (August, September) to attract a female. Now I can understand why Frigate birds never land on the water to grab fish. With its wingspan and weight, it simply can’t take flight again from the water. Just like the albatross. Instead it glides for hours high up and when it sees other birds with a catch in their mouths, it swoops down and steals it. The wonders of nature. This one was cruising, but didn’t want to be photographed – when I got the camera out, it flew away.
We close in on the bay and the sea turtles show up on the surface, curious as to what we are. Seals and Sea Lions scamper around the boat, some of them chasing each other in an endless game of tag. There are only 4 sailboats in the bay, but lots of small fishing boats and a couple of “live-aboard” diving boats. Our Pilot books tell us that the seals and the sea lions will crawl up on the bathing platforms of the boats and sometimes all the way into the cockpit. The books also warn against using your own dinghy unless you the seals, sea lions etc to appropriate them as either a place to sleep or a toilet. There are water taxis to use instead.
We can see the other boats have barricaded their platforms with fenders and surfboards to keep the seals etc. at bay. We quickly do the same.
Anchoring here is like anchoring in the middle of a marine zoo, and I guess we are in the middle of a marine zoo to some extent. We awake every morning to the sounds of the young seals playing underneath Capri – the first morning we had no idea what was going on. When we stand on our aft platform and take our showers we suddenly feel a cool nose touching our feet (that’s a real surprise!)
Total distance sailed from Les Pearls Islands: 1309nm
Rhumbline distance from Panama City to the Galapagos: 845nm
Total distance sailed from Panama City: 1345
Having to tack the whole way and having to fight the current means we have sailed 500 extra nautical miles (we really hope we have better winds and current for our next leg to the Marquesas – 2995nm on the rhumbline.
We’ve used 230 liters of diesel on this trip (good thing we carried an extra 100 liters or we would have reached San Cristobal on fumes).
The thought crosses our minds – Are we just bad sailors? Talking with other boats we find out that we are not. All 12 boats we talk to over the next 10 days have taken just as much time to make the passage as we have or else they have put the pedal to the metal and used 1000 liters of diesel motoring the entire way.
Clearing in to the Galapagos is a story unto itself. We know that the Galapagos is one huge national park and Ecuador takes caring for its uniqueness seriously, making sure that no infectious animals arrive here that can destroy the fragile environment both on land and in the sea.
There are 3 types of visas you can get to the Galapagos and you can only clear in on either San Cristobal or Santa Cruz:
- Emergency: If you have engine problems or sickness aboard or some other type of emergency you can get a 3 day visa (without applying ahead of time) to go ashore to get treated, buy provisions or spare parts etc. Your boat cannot visit any other islands.
- You can get a visa to visit for up to 20 days (without applying ahead of time), but the boat has to stay on the island you clear at – the crew can visit any other islands that they desire. Price: $1000 plus sundry “extra” charges.
- If you apply ahead of time you can get an “autographo”. Cost: $2000 plus sundry extra charges and with this visa you and your boat can stay 3 weeks and visit 4 different islands.
- Carsten and I choose number 2, but the Port Captain doesn’t answer our calls on the VHF. We find out later that if the person on watch doesn’t speak English (very, very few of them do) then they simply don’t answer your calls. Carsten grabs a water taxi to go in but returns almost immediately. On the pier he met a customs agent who told him that he could only clear in through an agent, that takes care of everything. He’ll contact an agent for us and Carsten should go back to the boat immediately.
- Three hours later, at 5:30 p.m. when it is beginning to get dark, a water taxi shows up with 7 persons (count ‘em – 7) on board. Do we feel like we have been invaded?
- A diver
- An agent
- An officer from Immigration
- A doctor!
- A Customs Officer
- A Port Captain
- An interpreter since not a single one of the others, including the agent, speaks a word of English. Duh!
The diver jumps into the water, comes back out immediately and informs us that there is growth on our hull. Rather surprising since it is only 4 months ago that Capri got a whole new coat of anti-fouling paint down there. When Carsten was down there just a few days ago, cutting us free of the fishing net, he could see that there were only a few barnacles growing there. According to the diver, Capri is completely green from end to end.
We’re told that we have to leave the harbor immediately, sail out 30nm and clean the bottom and if we don’t do a good enough job, then they will send a diver out to do it. Carsten asks them nicely if they really mean it seriously that we are to sail out 30nm and lie there all night until it gets light when he then can start cleaning the bottom? After a lot of Spanish mumbling amongst the entire assembly, we’re allowed to spend the night in the harbor, but we have to leave at 6:00 a.m. and we have to call the port captain and tell him we are now leaving the port, and of course, also call him when we return.
Jesus, what a circus.
The next problem is that on our Zarpa (exit visa) from Panama, it says that our next stop is the Marquesas. We explain that we have changed our minds about stopping at the Galapagos while we were at the Pearl Islands, because we want to see the islands and also do some diving. Because of our Zarpa, the Port Captain will only grant us a 5 day visa and we have to pay full price for that. They do keep asking if we have engine problems or the like that needs repairing, but because we are honest (and thick headed) we tell them no. The next day we find out what they were after, but eventually the Port Captain grants us 10 days.
The doctor wants to see our medicine chest and our vaccination papers. He takes pictures of all of it. The Port Captain checks all our safety equipment and takes pictures. He also checks our VHF to ensure it works (we just called them on the radio), and he also wants us to turn on our chartplotter to ensure it works and he takes a picture of the screen? He also takes a picture of the medicine chest.
The Customs officer wants to see all the cabinets and storage spaces on Capri. He checks the food, this takes several hours. He is more than diligent, using a flashlight to peer into everything and every single box needs to be opened. For some strange reason he decides he doesn’t need to look inside the 5 big gray boxes in the aft cabin nor the many boxes (filled with food), we have in the storage area behind the toilet. I think it looked like it was more than he could deal with. Thank god we managed to clean Capri up while we were waiting for this army to invade us. Capri always needs a good cleaning after sailing a passage. Both our refrigerator and new freezer have been defrosted and cleaned. To be honest – tis inspection is rather humiliating.
They finally all leave Capri and we are tired beyond words – although not too tired for a G&T, but the joyous mood of making landfall has been destroyed. We agreed over the G&T that if the Port Captain had insisted on only giving us 5 days that we would have said the hell with and sailed on to the Marquesas. I simply don’t understand, despite what it says on the zarpa – they really only need to make a decision as to how long we can stay here. If we can stay here, then it should be the 20 days, since we are paying the full price for 20 days.
Next morning at 6 a.m. we sail 12nm out of San Cristobal to clean Capri’s bottom. Carsten dons his diving gear and jumps in – shit! It’s cold as all hell – this because of the Humboldt current that comes all the way from Antarctica. His 4mm wetsuit is not made for this and doesn’t keep him warm. The waves are running 1-1.5 meters and there is a 1.5 knot current around us. Carsten does his damnedest with a brush and a putty knife. After an hour in the water, he has reached the area around the bow thruster, but is out of air. He crawls back aboard, tired, shivering from the cold and deeply frustrated. We only have two air bottles, the one he has just emptied and the other is only half full because we used that when he went down to cut away the fishing lines. We have no choice, we have to go back and hire some professional divers to clean the bottom.
Back on the hook in the harbor, Carsten takes a water taxi in to find a diver. In the meantime, our agent and the diving inspector show up in a water taxi and come aboard Capri. The young diver smiles at me and winks, saying he needs to inspect our work and take some pictures to document that the bottom is clean. None of them speak English and I can’t speak a word of Spanish. I attempt to explain that the bottom isn’t clean and Carsten has gone to get some professional divers and we need to sail out again to get the bottom clean.
Both of them keep winking at me and explain using their fingers that everything is ok. The diver goes down, takes a picture or two, comes up fills out some forms and asks me to sign. It finally dawns on me that he has approved Capri and I haven’t got a clue what is going on. At the same time, Carsten arrives with two divers and as they are getting out of the water taxi I tell Carsten that we are now approved. Carsten looks like one great big question mark and asks the new diver he has hired for $350 and who speaks a bit of English if he can talk with our agent and find out just what the hell is going on. Everyone gets busy whispering to each other and finally the diver tells us that the agent has bribed the diver $10 to declare that we are clean.
Oh for Christ’s sake!
The new diver asks for $100 for coming out, because he has had to set aside other jobs to come out and help us. Fair enough I guess. He also told Carsten how they were going to clean the hull – we would sail just out of the harbor and around the corner, turn off our AIS and they would clean the hull there. Then their boat would pick them up and the next morning we should turn on our AIS again and sail back in. He certainly doesn’t intend to spend several hours fighting 1.5 meter swells and 1.5 knot currents just to clean a boat. So much for the exacting protection of the marine environment……………….
I’m appalled. Here Carsten spent an hour in the water and we get by with just bribing the official diver $10. Now I finally understand why they wanted us last night to say we had an engine problem or were sick or something – it would have made it easier for the Port Captain to give us 10 days.
When the papers finally show up, the visa says 3 days. He promised us 10 days. Our agent says, “no problem”, she can fix it, but it will cost $100 more to bribe someone to extend the visa.
Welcome to South America.
All told we have now paid about $1400 for our visa.
The next morning, the Fumigator shows up, who spray a fog of insecticide into Capri’s salon and we’re told we have to leave the boat completely buttoned up for at least 5 hours. We don’t find any dead insects afterwards so apparently we didn’t have any – not even cockroaches. Wonderful but now we can get busy cleaning Capri again. Every surface both in and outside of the cabinets needs to be wiped down with a soapy cloth.
Our new sailing friends, Maria and Willy have told us that our agent is famous for sending boats out to have their bottoms cleaned and our customs agent is equally famous for being a nit-picking “go through everything” inspector. Our Swedish friends, Bertel and Claudia told us that their agent simply told the entire inspection team that everything we in order and they left without inspecting anything. The Port Captain gave them a 2(!) month visa. What a difference – I guess we were just unlucky.
Diving is the big industry on the Galapagos. It is, however, expensive. We paid $175 each for 2 dives, lunch included. Unfortunately, Carsten could equalize the pressure in his ears so he could go down – $175 shot to no avail. Strange about Carsten ears – he never had any problems before.
I’ve only been down about 15 times and most of those were 15 years ago. I did dive on Mauritius 3 years ago, but I was very nervous when we got out to Kicker Rock, a fascinating rock formation. I’m way out of practice and now I’m going diving, this time where there are hammerhead sharks, the most aggressive type of shark, aside from the great white. When you dive, you always have a dive buddy, so there is someone to keep an eye on you (and you keep an eye on them), to give you assistance if something untoward should happen. Carsten is supposed to be my dive buddy, but when he can’t go down, the instructor becomes my dive buddy.
I bought my own diving equipment before we left Denmark and this is the first time I’m going under with it – so I’m also a bit nervous about my equipment. I have mega problems the first dive. Despite having 3 kilos of lead weights in my BCD, I float like a cork. The instructor shoves another 2 kilos in my BCD and down I go to 15 meters but still have a problem reaching neutral buoyancy. So I have to hang on to him tightly. On our second dive he gives me an additional 2 kilos now for a total of 6 kilos. I’ve never had to use this much weight before but he tells me that it is normal because the water here is very salty and therefore there is a lot more updrift than other places. Is this because of the Humboldt Current?
I get 2 fantastic dives. It is like diving in an aquarium as we follow the cliff wall and go into the tunnel between the two cliffs. The current here is very strong. I’m happy I’m hanging on to the instructor. We’re down for 40 minutes amongst a colorful palette of fish, starfish and ocean plants – but no coral. On the first dive we see a Galapagos Shark – that looks just like a Great White only much smaller (1-1.5 meters).
The second dive, in the afternoon, is on the other side of the cliff and here we see the same beautiful environment. My instructor guides me a bit away from the others and we hang on to a rock and await the sharks. Shortly, the instructor makes the shark sign to me and there they are – 6-8 sharks, some of them Hammerheads. They swim by us 4 times, each time coming closer. Finally 4 of them swim right over our heads – maybe only 2-3 meters over us – unreal – I’m not really frightened, but keep reminding myself that the instructors have told us that the sharks don’t like the air bubbles we send up from our breathing apparatus. When they get really close, I take a deep breath and blow out, sending lots of bubbles up to keep them at a distance. I’m relieved that the instructor is beside me and the sharks are above me – I believe I’ve read somewhere that sharks attack from below……………….
We didn’t see them attack any seals or fish though.
Carsten has the camera so I can’t take any pictures but one of the instructors has a camera and has taken lots of video and pictures. On his video I can only see a couple of sharks and lots of the other divers blowing bubbles. We were a bit further away and only 2 persons, blowing much fewer bubbles so that might be the reason we saw so many more sharks. It is a damned shame that Carsten didn’t get to experience this. I had two fantastic dives and felt perfectly safe – thanks to my instructor. This has given me the courage to start diving again. Next time I don’t need a hand, just some extra diving weights.
As I’m writing this we are two days away from being thrown out of the Galapagos. We’ve started making chili and spaghetti sauce for the long passage to the Marquesas. Carsten is mounting the windvane. We expect to be at sea for at least 3, probably 4 weeks. I’m not sure how to mentally prepare myself for that.
Were the Galapagos worth the hassle and the money? Well, we’ll never be here again and they are unique. So, yes – we’re happy we made landfall here and saw them.