Galapagos-Marquesas Passage

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“And yet the sea is a horrible place. Sailing the sea is stupefying to the mind and poisonous to the temper; the sea, the motion, the lack of space, the villainous tinned foods, the sailors, the captain, the passengers – but you are amply repaid when you sight an island, and drop anchor in a new world.” (Robert Lois Stevenson 1888; letter to a friend 1888 on making landfall in the Marquesas).

…To which Paul Theroux adds: “Those were my sentiments exactly: sailing the sea was a monotony of doldrums interrupted by windy periods of nightmarish terror. No desert was ever deadlier or more tedious than an ocean. Then – after weeks or months of your thinking life is a reach and then you jibe – landfall.” (Paul Theroux, Happy Isles of Oceania (1992))

At over 3,000 miles, the Galapagos-Marquesas voyage is the longest ocean passage that we’ve undertaken so far – indeed the longest by far for the vast majority of sailors circumnavigating in low latitudes. During the passage it didn’t always seem so, but looking back, the overall experience was pleasurable sailing in brisk trade winds, under mainly clear skies on deep blue water. However, the passage had undoubted physical and mental challenges including sleep deprivation, relentless, and at times profound, unpredictable arising from a very confused sea from mixing of several ocean swells, as well as an undercurrent of subliminal anxiety about the unknowns ahead and all the “what if” scenarios that inevitably creep into ones mind in a boat pushed beyond the norm. However, we now share a sense of achievement that a couple of risk-averse, conservative, 60 something, “Mom & Pop” sailors actually did this together as a team – as well as a great sense of relief that we and Sea Cloud have arrived in one piece in a pretty respectable time of just over 19 days.

The first hurdle was getting through the doldrums as fast as possible. Although the primary ITCZ is north of the equator at this point, there is a frequently encountered trough (“2nd ITCZ”) SSW of the Galapagos with highly variable winds and convection activity. This dictated we sail south below 30 S before attempting to head west.

Passage highlights:

  • The endless ever changing, restless, groaning, white cap spattered deep deep blue sea and knowing we are further from “civilisation” than the vast majority of the human race will ever or could ever be.
  • The ever changing nature and unpredictability of the sky, wind, waves and weather
  • Brisk sailing every day & night with Sea Cloud posting a 181mile day – a PB
  • Spectacular bright starry nights with virtually no light pollution
  • The bright ¾ moon shimmering silver on wind-affected water
  • At the end of night watch seeing the sunrise out of the water
  • Seeing the green flash at sunset
  • Never tiring of watching the skilful boobies diving for flying fish scattered by Sea Cloud’s bow wave. The fact that these amazing birds, often alone, are seen more than 1,500 miles from land.
  • Great food and that we were still eating fresh fruit, vegetables as well as fresh baked bread and home made fruit cake on day 20. This is testament to Cathy’s brilliant foresight, planning and provisioning in Panama and Galapagos (which posed not insignificant challenges in achieving this aim). Extensive supply of deep frozen, pre-prepared meals ensured superb hot meals even when adverse conditions and passage fatigue precluded lengthy periods in the galley.
  • Not breaking anything (vang broken before we started) & the “Green Death” (Volvo engine) did fire up on arrival. A crucial aspect of minimising wear while sailing downwind for weeks on end is chaffe prevention, balancing sails and helm to permit our indispensible Hydrovane to maintain a steady course without much interference or effort.
  • Approaching land after weeks at sea and being greeted by dozens of dolphins leaping around us and gliding for hours in the bow wave while a welcoming party of dozens of curious boobies circled and swooped around us seemingly looking for a spot to perch
  • Making landfall in a spectacularly beautiful, isolated bay on an island considered to be among the most isolated populated islands in the world – something only enjoyed by the small handful of yachties who get here the hard way. Then, seeing the play of light towards sunset on the jagged peaks and green hills while cracking that first beer after a dry 3 week passage.
  • It’s a big ocean, but knowing others are also out there somewhere over the horizon, makes it feel a little smaller. The Iridium GO, enabling weather reports, unlimited email and SMS and limited phone calls was our lifeline. Most of us with SSB radio could also contact others with variable success out to 800Nm. The community of cruisers in the Pacific is something quite unique. We are catching up with many people we met earlier in the season, from Curacao to Panama. Although there are hundreds of boats making the same voyage across the Pacific each year, many of the boat names and faces are familiar. Panache (Canadian Cat) regularly updated and plotted the position of a smallish group of about 20 boats (“M-Fleet”) between Galapagos and Marquesas. We were sent daily positions of all the fleet, exchanged stories of fish caught, meals eaten and received updates of life on the ‘other side’ from the boats who had made landfall. These emails and those from our friends Monique and Dick (“Umnyana”) as well as Ian’s daily SSB chat with Olav & Birgitte (“Alutia”) were so important in maintaining human contact over the 19 days.

The synopsis of the passage Galapagos – Fatu Hiva:

  • Distance sailed: 3,158 nautical miles
  • Time taken 19d 5hr; overall average speed (SOG) 6.83 kts
  • Average daily run 164 Nm (range 143 – 181Nm)
  • Winds: Doldrums/equatorial trough (2nd ITCZ) days 1-3; remainder SE-ESE trades 16-22kts (90%); 22-25kts (10%)
  • Waves: 0.5-1m (5%), 1-2m (80%); 2-3m (15%)
  • Weather: Rain squall days 5 (25 – 35kts)
  • Sail plan (conservative): double reefed main 95% (with boom preventer and Walder boom break); poled out genoa (“wing on wing”) 80%; broad reaching both sails on port gybe (20%). Number of gybes – nil.
  • Engine hours 21
  • Generator hours 10 (ave 1.5h every 3 days)
  • Water consumed 840 L (22L/d per head)
  • Gear we wouldn’t leave home without: Freezer permitted access to precooked meals for weeks – obviating need for lengthy galley time when fatigued or in unpleasant seas. “Mr D” slow cooker saved LPG and kept galley time to a minimum. Mung beans and sprout cultivator and Basil our potted friend. Ikea “dog bowls” to prevent spilling dinner in rough seas. “Ted” our Hydrovane wind vane self steering device worked superbly & was engaged 98% of the entire voyage. Watt & Sea hydrogenerator worked flawlessly and, without the power drain from the Raymarine autopilot, W&S (if boat speed > 7.5 kts) can provide near 100% of power needs day or night. Water maker (& 900L tankage) permitted the luxury of daily showers. Bean bag – on the cockpit floor on a rough night provided much needed muscle rest during times of profound rolling. Nespresso machine – life too short to go without good coffee

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Galapagos island hopping

Our parts arrived very quickly in Panama City, thanks to Maria and Cathy. As we knew we would have at least another week waiting for them to be brought to us via another cruiser, Ian and I decided to have a few days on a cruise ship exploring some of the islands we couldn’t get to on Sea Cloud. We left JoAnne and Bill with Sea Cloud and caught the ferry to Santa Cruz where we joined the cruise. ship Santa Cruz II for 4 wonderful days of being looked after, eating very well, meeting interesting people and seeing the most amazing places full of wildlife.

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The highlight of Bacchas Beach on Santa Cruz Island was a nesting turtle slowly coming out of the water and then digging her nest.

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A panga trip on Santiago Island was great for bird spotting. Snorkelling along the coastline we saw abundant reef fish, a manta ray and black tipped reef sharks

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On our early morning walk to Rabida Island we spotted the elusive Galapagos hawk and their favourite food, the lava lizard. Mating rays were spotted in the path of our kayak trip along the coastline.

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IMG_3909While snorkelling on Bartholome Island we spotted a group of penguins, quite a treat as there haven’t been as many around this year in the other islands.

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IMG_3951A sunset walk to the peak of the island was spectacular.IMG_4015

Genovese Island was an unexpected gem. The rocky barren top of the island is a favourite for nesting red footed and nazcar boobies, frigate birds. The birds and chicks are so unafraid as we wandered along the paths between their nests.IMG_4127Frigate birds (“magnificent” and “great”) showing the red pouch and full courtship display! IMG_4336

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Back in San Cristobal,  we enjoyed the surf competition at La Loberia beach, then the walk along the spectacular headland.

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After a few days our parts finally arrived, thank you Shawnigan! We set sail for Isabela Island where we spent a few days. We had a very hot but enjoyable cycle to the Wall of Tears – a pointless wall built by prisoners in the 1950s.

IMG_4714Large tortoises could be spotted along the side of the road, lazily resting and eating in the shade of the bushes and the picnic shelter.

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IMG_4720It was iguana breeding time on Isabela, masses of tiny iguanas could were seen on the beachfront bar opposite the Booby Trap Bar, the yachties watering hole owned by local agent James.

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All of our friends had raved about the Los Tuneles tour. It didn’t disappoint. We had the opportunity to swim with turtles, many black tipped sharks and to see a seahorse. We swam through and then walked on the stunning lava formations. The highlight was seeing a blue footed booby performing his mating dance.

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We sailed back to Santa Cruz Island for last minute provisioning, experiencing  the fish market and diving at Nth Seymour.

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The Los Kioskos street of fish restaurants was our favourite haunt – we needed a few restaurant meals before our long passage to the Marquesas.

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We were very sad to say farewell JoAnne and Bill who were heading to mainland Ecuador then back to Panama. We had such a fun time with them!

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Galapagos – San Cristobal

Our checkin to Galapagos went smoothly. Eight officials boarded our boat, the diver went down to check the bottom, cupboards were opened, foodstuff and safety gear checked, forms signed, money paid and Sea Cloud and crew were cleared to stay for 60 days in Galapagos. We used water taxis in and out of town as there is nowhere to put your dinghy. We wouldn’t want to leave one here anyway as it would quickly become a bed for one of the many resident sea lions.

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We were welcomed by a few pups sitting on the end of the jetty. They are so cute and there are so many of them playing in the ‘creche’ pond. You never tire of their antics.

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Monique and Dick from Umnyama had been here for a few days, so filled us in on their favourite spots. Sea lions loved sleeping on their transom. They were happy to have them there, but not so happy when they realised one had slept overnight on their cockpit table!

Our first walk took us to the magical Tijeretas Cove, which very quickly became our favourite spot. Snorkelling with the playful sea lion pups was very special. They are so unafraid, and obviously don’t know about the park rule of keeping 2m between humans and wildlife. Their cheeky face would come right up to your mask, then they’d dart below you. The more we tumbled, the more they copied. So much fun. The bay was different each time we visited, we saw sea lions and pelicans feeding on huge balls of small fish. We also saw rays, turtles, iguanas blue footed boobies as well as many colourful fish.

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IMG_3704Our other favourite spot was La Loberia, a surf beach on the southern cove. The cliffs beyond the beach was a wonderful spot for viewing nesting swallow tailed gulls, watching blue footed boobies fishing, frigate birds swooping and the elegant red billed tropic bird.

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You had to take care not to tread on the marine iguanas on the footpaths. They blend in so well to the dark lava.IMG_3389

A tour across the island to climb the extinct volcano and to visit the giant tortoise breeding centre.

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San Cristobal town is small, laid back and friendly. There are sea lions everywhere along the beachfront and town dock.

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Panama City to Galapagos

After final farewells at Balboa Yacht Club and last minute shopping done, we left Panama City.

A_IMG_7476This passage was the most pleasant we have had by far. We had steady winds on our beam, a 2knot current behind us and calm seas. Having JoAnne and Bill on board meant lots of sleep, laughs, good food and fun for all.

The only hiccup was the burning out of our fan belt when the idler pulley failed. Pretty scary to have black smoke coming from the engine room, but a relief to find it was not a fire. Ian and Bill spent the next day building a replacement pulley from bits on the boat, and it worked!!

We crossed the equator during the night, so postponed our celebration until the following day.

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Crossing the equator was celebrated in style. We wore crowns made by JoAnne, while we told stories, and sipped  French champagne as we toasted our conversion from shellbacks to polliwogs (or is it the other way around?).

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As we wouldn’t make it into port by the evening, we hove to off the top of San Cristobal to clean the hull and to take many photographs posing with our new friends, a pair of red footed boobies perched on our pulpit.

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As the sun rose over Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion) we drifted down in the current towards San Cristobal Wreck Bay anchorage with the dolphins and sea lions swimming around us.

LandHo2_IMG_3210GA_IMG_3216Bill pushed Sea Cloud along using the tender and we safely anchored. Very exciting to finally be in the Galapagos!

 

 

 

 

Las Perlas Islands

Carnivale over, we left Panama city and its very busy waterways headed for Las Perlas islands, about 40Nm from Panama.

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Our first day out we caught our only fish for the trip. Hard to believe as there were fish everywhere!

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Bill demonstrated the art of filleting the tuna for sashimi.

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The islands were lovely.  Contadora, is the closest to Panama City. It is the most populated island, a popular getaway spot for Panamanians.  It was a very pleasant spot to anchor and explore.IMG_2886

Contadora has a colourful history. The abandoned hotel with its beached ferry were apparently owned by a Colombian drug lord. Once his plane exploded mid air with him aboard, his wife was no longer able to afford running the resort. Such a shame to see the graceful old wooden buildings in ruinIMG_2897The bird life, especially around the southern islands was incredible. Huge flocks of black birds would pass the boat in formation, congregate on the beach for about 30minutes, then leave again. An amazing site.IMG_3047

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We never tired of watching the pelicans flying past and then diving for dinner.IMG_2909

To our great excitement we spotted whales off Elephante Island. It was rather scary but wonderful to have these giants frolicking in the water around the boat. We slowed right down to watch the whales and the huge schools of rays which swam past the boat.

IMG_2921IMG_2920IMG_2956IMG_2981We were all very keen to visit Isla San Telmo, the location of the wreck of a 1860s pearling submarine. The sub was abandoned in 1869 following many deaths due to decompression sickness.  JoAnne and Bill had been wanting to visit this treasure for years.  Low tide was the perfect time for viewing the sub. It is a such shame that this important part of history is just rotting away in this isolated location.

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Anchored on the south coast of Isla Del Rey, we explored the Rio Cacique River by dinghy. Beautiful and fun, but didn’t spot any crocs or other wildlife.

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JoAnne, a ham radio operator finally proved that our SSB worked by chatting with some ham operators in Virginia. We are looking forward to using it to communicate with other cruisers as we head out into the Pacific.

IMG_3244We anchored near San Bernando Islet, on Isla Pedro Gonzalez, looking forward to the walks ashore amongst the herb plantations described in Bauhaus, our very good pilot book. Unfortunately the beachfront has been taken over by the Ritz Carlton, so although we could anchor there and take our dinghy ashore, access any further was forbidden.

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It was great to meet up with Karen and Chris on Skabenga for beach walks, drinks, dinner and hilarious card games….

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We’re now back in Panama city to await our French Polynesian visas and to do a final provision before our much anticipated trip to Galapagos.

Panama City Carnivale

Transit over, we settled into life on our mooring buoy at Balboa Yacht Club, watching the passing traffic, catching up with other cruisers and enjoying Panama city.

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Las Perlas Islands

We had timed our arrival perfectly, managing to coincide with Carnivale.

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Carnivale in Panama is a huge 5 day event with parades and all night parties. The ‘schedule’ was very fluid, never seeming to correspond with the anything we read, or were told. The police on site (and there were masses of them!) were the only ones who really seemed to know what was going on. Security was a huge issue, everyone (including tiny children) had to show ID and then undergo a body search before entering the fenced off parade area along the waterfront.

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Colourful, lively and loud parades were held each night, with the main parade being held on the last night.

 

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Panama Canal

Having a scheduled canal transit date of 15th February, with high winds and seas precluding a windward passage back for another look at the San Blas Islands and little hope of transiting earlier, we headed north on a road trip exploring inland Panama. Our planned few days hiking in the small hill town of Santa Fe was cut short after one day when we “got the call” to transit in within 48hrs. The only thing predictable about Panama is that nothing is predictable and expect the unexpected! … but we weren’t complaining!

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So we left the very pleasant Coffee Mountain Inn scampered back the 300+km to Shelter Bay Marina for a last minute shop (yes – even more provisioning), boat clean, stowing of goodies and most importantly, to find line handlers for our canal transit.  We were delighted when JoAnne and Bill (both qualified commercial captains) from SY Ultra, stepped up to the plate. We were very fortunate to secure their help – both great fun with wicked sense of humour and experienced hands. This would be their 3rd canal transit.

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Delays and change of plan were very common throughout the transit. We left later than scheduled from ‘The Flats’ the anchorage just outside the start of the canal. Apart from the 3 yachts transiting, the only other boat in the choppy, windy anchorage (25-30knots) was the one below.  IMG_7160Ivan, our ‘advisor’ boarded us at the Flats for the transit from Colon to Gatun Lake. We passed under the new bridge which will soon connect the Shelter Bay marina side of the bay with Colon, avoiding the car ferries and water taxis which are now used to cross this busy stretch of water.IMG_3080IMG_3086This first stretch of 3 locks up to Gatun Lake was done in the dark. Once close to the locks, we were rafted up to our friends on SY Panache, a Canadian 48′ Catamaran whome we got to know in Shelter Bay.  Manoeuvring the rafted boats with a 15-20kt tail wind required intense concentration and coordination a among the skippers to avoid passing ships in the channel – especially when we were rafted together. Following the large tanker into the lock then maintaining position with the tail wind and turbulence was the next challenge. Every step of the way was a totally new experience!

IMG_3098IMG_3099The line handlers are incredibly important, dropping a line can rapidly deteriorate into the rafted yachts spinning around out of control and a high probability of hitting the very unforgiving lock sides.

IMG_3141Once the boat is secured the large lock doors close and the locks fill.

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IMG_3107IMG_3149IMG_3125Once the lock is filled, the linesman on the shore pull us into the next lock (there are 3 here) and the process is repeated.

 

IMG_3152Exiting the locks at about 9.30pm, we tied up on a mooring in Gatun lake, ready to repeat the process the following day.

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Luis, our line handler

IMG_2719After a leisurely breakfast, our advisors arrived. We were very privileged to have one of the first female trainee advisors for our transit.

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IMG_2762She was very conscientious and pleasant. She should do well, as she even managed to stand up to Ian. Not an easy task for a young woman.

We were very lucky to have a beautiful day and to transit in the daylight. Below is the Culebra Cut, the most difficult part in the construction of the canal.

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Once we had tied up in the lock we could relax for a while. Well, until the big guy started moving towards us.

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Bill thought he looked a little too close..IMG_2759

I guess its all in a days work for these guys.

IMG_2788IMG_2784The closer we were to the Pacific, the more excited we became. Miraflores lock with its webcam caused the most excitement as our friends at Shelter Bay Marina were relaying their photos to us. Sea Cloud and Beachlands (NZ cat) really do look like toy boats in front of the big fella.IMG-20180209-WA0038IMG_2861The doors of the last lock opened and we were finally in the Pacific. The turbulence in the lock and the size of the ship behind us meant that speed out of the lock was crucial.

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IMG_2840IMG_2845Bridge of the Americas ahead, we were now in the Pacific Ocean, only 7500Nm from Australia!

IMG_2869We are now moored off Balboa Yacht club, a great base close to Panama city. Our visit is perfectly timed to enjoy Panama’s annual Carnivale! Never a dull moment here with ships, water taxis, pilot boats constantly passing. When it’s too bumpy at anchor we retreat to the very pleasant Balboa Yacht club.