Almost at the Galapagos…

It’s currently late morning on the 26th March and we can see the Island of San Cristobal about 6 miles off the port bow. It’s our seventh day at sea (I think) since leaving Las Perlas and the wind has been very much on our side. This passage is notoriously slow with large areas of the route having little or no wind and most boats are often left with only two options: 1) bob around in the same spot for days on end, or 2) start the loud and, at least in our case, unreliable motor engine. It looks like our passage will take a total of 7 and a half days, but it could have been twice as long if the winds lived up to their reputation. During our entire passage we only had to motor for 24 hours and we took in all sails last night and bobbed around for the night whilst we slept. Otherwise we’ve been able to sail beautifully, frequently making 7 knots and we’ve been able to reset the spinnaker this morning for the final leg of the journey. In fact, Bob made 165 miles over a 24 hour period during this passage – her all time personal best.

 
We caught 3 and a half oriental bonito fish on the first day. We caught 3 whole ones (which were filleted and stored for future dinners) and also reeled in only the front half of a fish as something large had eaten the other end! That same night we had dolphins swimming under the boat. Rather than playing at the bow they seemed much more interested in diving underneath the hull. The moon was almost full and the dolphins were lit up well as they jumped out of the water. You could even see them under the water as the phosphorescence made them glow like faint green ghosts floating just under the surface. They kept us company for a long time and I could hear their calls from down below for hours after I had gone to bed.

 
We crossed Neptune’s realm in the early hours of yesterday morning and we celebrated our arrival in the southern hemisphere by using up the last of our breakfast ingredients to have a really good fry-up. It was a wonderfully drunken day doing Neptune’s bidding, but unfortunately I’m not allowed to talk about it, in fact, I’ve already said too much…

 
As the winds and seas died down late yesterday afternoon, we decided to take in the sails and go for swim. It was wonderful to cool off and also a good opportunity to clean the hull in preparation for the Galapagos officials. It’s part of entry requirements to have a clean hull and we’ve heard from others that boats are often sent away from the islands if their bottoms are not spotless. Given that we were almost 60 miles away from land and in 1200 feet of water, I was surprised by the sea life here. We were in the water for less than an hour and I saw a small tuna and some transparent free-floating marine organisms which I think were comb jellies. They look a bit like jellyfish and are often mistaken for them. Rather than being dome-shaped they are oval or pear-shaped and are usually very small. There’s a small group of them known as platyctene ctenophores which look like transparent flatworms which I also saw around the boat, not to mention hundreds of minute shrimp living in any vegetation growing on the hull.

We’re just making some fresh water at the moment and I’m just about to head on deck to do some laundry. It’s calm enough to hang out and it should be bone dry before we hit land later this evening.

Fish and chips in true Yorkshire fashion

Fish and chips in true Yorkshire fashion

Flying the spinnaker

Flying the spinnaker

Something big ate our dinner!

Something big ate our dinner!

Arriving in Galapagos. The terrain is very lush and green as it's the wet season at the moment. You can see San Cristobal on the right

Arriving in Galapagos. The terrain is very lush and green as it’s the wet season at the moment. You can see San Cristobal on the right

 

El Pacifico!

Bob is in the Pacific! We passed through the last of the Panama Canal locks at about 5pm on Friday March 11th and officially entered the Pacific Ocean. That last lock was very fun indeed. To explain why I’d better explain first how the Panama Canal actually works:

The history of the Panama Canal makes a very very interesting read. The story of the construction begins in 1879 and goes through to 1914. What we’ve ended up with today is a feat of engineering that is impressive by modern standards and absolutely incredible by the standards of 1914. It remains essentially unchanged from how it was then, and about 80% of the original construction is still in use.

The canal operates on a lock system. The first three locks (coming from the Atlantic to the Pacific) raise their contents by 84 feet, after which you enter Gatun Lake. This is a huge freshwater lake which serves as a channel across the Isthmus of Panama (about 30 miles) and also as a reservoir for the water which is needed to operate the locks. It is fed entirely by the rains which usually fall heavily and consistently during the rainy season here in Panama.*

Having motored across the lake, one enters the second set of locks and is lowered down to the level of the Pacific Ocean. The height of this drop varies greatly because the tidal variation in the Pacific can be 20 feet or so. What makes this lock particularly challenging is the entry into it from the penultimate lock. This second-to-last lock contains fresh water, but the last is salt water. Salt water is much more dense than fresh. As the lock doors open between the chambers, the fresh water and salt water meet. The fresh water, being less dense, wants to sit on top of the salt, while the salt wants to burrow underneath the fresh. As this is happening, the result on the surface is a current of 5 knots or so carrying you straight towards the closed doors of the last lock. For a monohull sailboat with a single diesel engine this poses a big problem. Aside from the fact that most monohulls are not good at going astern, the water flow over the rudder is the opposite of what it needs to be in order to steer effectively. The usual thing to do in a strong current is to speed up so that you’re going even faster than the current and therefore maintain maneuverability. That’s not an option here however as the closed lock doors of the last chamber are 190 feet down-stream, and besides, there are line-handlers on the dock trying to walk your lines to the next chamber, and they don’t like it when you go anything over about 3.5 knots as they then struggle to keep up. Many a yacht has come into serious difficulties in this lock when they have not managed to maintain position in the center of the chamber, have not managed to maintain their stern to the current and have ended up broadside to the current, hard up against the harsh metal of the lock doors. In fact, our friend Marc, who came through 2 day after us, ended up in this very unfortunate state of affairs and ground a hole in his port quarter against the chamber wall. Fortunately for us, we were tied alongside a large catamaran with two big engines and a very skilled owner at the helm, so for us this experience was not so much nail-biting as exhilarating. Aside from helping out the owner of the cat by going full astern once or twice, my input to the proceedings were limited.

Having made it through the last of the locks, we untied from our new friends and set off on the last leg of 4 miles or so to the point where we were to drop off our pilot. Since the engine had been running all day, mostly at low speed, I decided to take the opportunity to open her up and blow out some of the carbon deposits which tend to build up in the exhaust system under such circumstances. That was perhaps a mistake as it turns out. The engine alarm began to sound; tentatively at first and then more insistently, telling me that something – either low oil pressure or an overheating engine – was wrong. To make matters worse, I still wasn’t allowed to shut down the engine and sail since there is a ban on sailing for the entirety of the canal. I have heard that some pilots consider this ban to be somewhat flexible. Unfortunately, although our pilot was excellent, he did everything by the book and would not allow me to set a sail even under these circumstances. We got in without anything blowing up, dropped off the pilot, dropped off our professional line handler, Jonathan, as well as our two new friends who saved us $200 by handling lines for us (canal requirements are for 4 line handlers on board each yacht in addition to the captain and the pilot, so it’s been busy!) and dropped anchor at the Balboa Yacht Club.

I set to work immediately trying to identify the source of the engine alarm. Unfortunately, the electrical system for the engine is antiquated to put it mildly and many of the gauges don’t work, so i’m still unsure what caused the problem. This morning we moved to different anchorage (a free one!) and the alarm did not go off after motoring for an hour, so i am inclined to follow standard procedure of ‘Brooksie’s First Law’, which essentially reads ‘usually, when presented with a problem, the best thing to do is nothing’. This modus operandi is one that I have followed for many years and it has usually (but not always) stood me in good stead. We’ll see how it works out this time!

* Lake Gatun was the largest man-made lake in the world until some time in the 1970s, and the dam which created it (and which is still in use) was the largest concrete structure in the world when it was constructed. Currently, the lake is very low due to the huge drought that is being experienced by much of the West Coast of the American continents due to El Nino. The pilot tells me that it may be necessary shortly to limit the draught of the ships that are able to transit through the canal – a limitation that would have considerable consequences for the shipping and goods that pass through here; about 42 per day.

Update, March 16th: Against my usual philosophy i decided to fix the gauges, then I ran the engine pretty hard (going 3/4 astern while at anchor for a little while). Everything is showing normal. I have traced the wiring and found that only the oil pressure is wired to the alarm, so that must have been it………….. but i can’t replicate the fault, whatever it was. Hoping it was just an electrical fault. On the plus side, after this next passage to the Galapagos Islands we really shouldn’t need the engine at all util we reach New Zealand in about a year and a half 🙂

We’re still waiting on the arrival of a new tiller pilot, which allows us to have self-steering when motoring (David the wind vane is wonderful but will only work when there’s wind to steer by). Apparently it was sent to Colombia by mistake but is now in Panama and we should get it tomorrow morning…………… we’ll see! Really looking forward to Las Perlas, and personally I’m kind of looking forward to being in such remote locations that it’s impossible to find spares for stuff that needs fixing. That way I’ll have no choice but to ignore whatever is broken and spend the time drinking rum instead. We have lots of rum. In fact, I think we could stock a small shop by ourselves. One can never have too much rum.

Colon to Las Perlas

I was hoping to have written at least two, possibly three blog posts by now but unfortunately I’ve had a slight lack of motivation. I’ll just have to do my best to sum up everything from Colon to Las Perlas in this entry…. I’ll try not to make it too long.

We arrived in Colon on the 3rd March and I was really keen to see what all the fuss was about. Alex had told me some really horrible stories about the city and I just kept thinking to myself, “It can’t be much worse than the rough areas of Bradford where I spent my high school days”. I was wrong! The first thing we saw when leaving the yacht club was a man having a poo on the path in front of us, yelling at us in a flustered manner in a language that we couldn’t understand. To be fair, he seemed more upset by the whole ordeal than we did. As horrible as Bradford is in some places, a man defecating in the street is something that I’ve thankfully never seen there. Also, a French skipper from a small boat who was anchored nearby was attacked when he left the yacht club to go to the shops – so far Colon was living up to its reputation. Despite this (and the fact that two of his friends had been mugged in Colon in the past), Alex ventured out into the depths of the city on his own a number of times. Luckily he’s pretty spritely and stronger than he looks, I’m sure he could have out run any mugger. Anyway, there was no need for me to worry as Alex was absolutely fine. Oh, and there was one good thing about Colon! The supermarket sold fresh milk; this was the first fresh milk I had had since leaving England. I enjoyed cereal and savoured my last two cups of Yorkshire tea, it’s probably the last time I will have fresh milk in a while and I absolutely can’t stand the UHT stuff so I wanted to make the most of it. Unless I can find a suitable substitute for my cereal I think I will be going without this sort of food for a while.

The fresh milk we bought in Colon

The fresh milk we bought in Colon

Me eating cereal with FRESH milk :-)

Me eating cereal with FRESH milk 🙂

My last cup of Yorkshire tea, with FRESH milk :-)

My last cup of Yorkshire tea, with FRESH milk 🙂

We were hoping to get a spot to go through the Panama Canal pretty quickly but we ended up having to wait 8 days or so. Rather than staying in Colon for all that time, we decided to rent a car with a girl we met from the French boat, Apolline, and see some of inland Panama. Apolline is from Normandy and she tells me that one of her friends owns a big rum shop there. She therefore takes every opportunity to taste as many different types of rum as possible and learn as much as she can about each one. She found the location of a big distillery in a small town called Pese in southern Panama, about a 4 hour drive away. All those rumors you hear about a sailor’s love of rum are very true, so off we went on our hunt for the distillery. The journey was a welcomed change and gave us a break from the uneasy feelings we had in Colon. We hadn’t been able to organise any tours of the distillery in advance and when we finally arrived, we didn’t have much luck getting in to see any of the rum factory. Fortunately, we met a very nice English speaking gentleman from the distillery and although he wasn’t able to give us the full tour, we were allowed to visit the sugar cane fields, see the workers harvesting the cane using traditional hand tools and cattle, visit the bar, watch a few videos of the rum making process and we even got some free tasters and a rum cocktail on the house – not bad considering the tours here normally cost $75 per person! We were impressed enough to buy a bottle or two to take back with us.

Alex, Apolline and I with our free rum cocktails

Alex, Apolline and I with our free rum cocktails

At the rum distillery

At the rum distillery

Our rum tasting glasses

Our rum tasting glasses

The cattle towed wagons filled with sugar cane harvest

The cattle towed wagons filled with sugar cane harvest

We arrived in Pese at about dusk and found ourselves having a drink in an empty bar attempting to figure out where we were going to have dinner and spend the night in this tiny town. We had been told there was a hotel here and although the whole town only has four streets, we searched for about an hour and couldn’t find one. We gave up and found ourselves at this bar. The gentleman running the bar kindly took time out of his evening to show us exactly where the hotel was (which was completely unmarked) and introduce us to his English speaking friend, a really lovely lady whose name escapes me. She took us into her house and introduced us to her family; she then took us to the local cafe for dinner where food for the 3 of us plus drinks came to a total of $7. We then went back to hers and drank beers on the porch and chatted to her and her son for the rest of the evening. I guess this secluded town wasn’t used to having tourists and the people here wanted to make us feel welcome. For me, the welcome we got from the people of Pese was the best part of the whole road trip.

A church in the main square of Pese

A church in the main square of Pese

A short hike we did just outside of Pese overlooking the sugar cane fields

A short hike we did just outside of Pese overlooking the sugar cane fields

A lizard I saw during the hike

A lizard I saw during the hike

We headed back to Colon the next afternoon ready for our canal transit. Apolline joined us as a line handler along with a really friendly Italian guy called Christian who we met from another boat. Both Apolline and Christian speak excellent English but both have incredibly strong accents from their respective countries. I loved to listen to them talk to each other in English with the thickest French and thickest Italian accent you can imagine, wonderful. Alex has described our transit through the Panama Canal in his blog post so I won’t go into it in too much detail here, only to say that it was a wonderful and interesting experience that went far too quickly. Hopefully the photos below will give you a bit more perspective on the experience.

 

Motoring through Lake Gatun

Going though the locks on the Atlantic side of the canal

Going though the locks on the Atlantic side of the canal

Going through the locks on the Pacific side of the canal

Going through the locks on the Pacific side of the canal

The salt water from the Atlantic mixing with the fresh water of the locks caused the death of many small fish which the nearby birds feasted on - this is one of them

We arrived in Panama City on the evening of the 11th March and most of our time here was spent shopping and doing jobs on the boat. This is likely to be the most built-up place we’ll visit for at least another year and a half so we wanted to stock up on spare boat parts, food, rum and any other important things we might need over the coming years. I can’t believe how much we’ve managed to fit into this 36-foot long boat but I think we’re now both experts in coming up with space saving ideas. We also managed to figure out and fix (we think) the problem with the engine. Even more exciting was doing the final touches to the table leg supports so that we now have a fully functional dining table! Oh, and we also installed a hammock for the fruit and (kind of) fitted a carpet – Bob is starting to look quite homely.
After just less than a week we were ready to leave and make our way to the Galapagos Islands to meet my mum. After a complicated and bureaucratic checkout procedure in Panama we set sail towards Las Perlas islands yesterday. The scenery leaving Panama City was absolutely stunning. As we left there was no wind at all – not much good for sailing but it left the sea looking like a sheet of glass reflecting every shadow and ray of light that touched it. The atmosphere was humid and hazy, leaving a vague shadow of the Panama City skyline and mountainous backdrop on the horizon. As we motored along, our route passed directly over an area absolutely packed with brown pelicans and some sort of black-headed gull – there must have been thousands of them, all in one tiny patch of ocean. As we approached all the birds took flight around us, thousands of gulls and large pelicans gliding beautifully just above the surface of the glassy water just meters away from us. This was one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles I have ever seen (involving birds at least). I would even say it was better than the starling murmurations in England and that is no mean feat! I wish I could have taken a few photographs to give you an idea but I didn’t want to miss out on the awesomeness of the moment to take a picture so unfortunately I don’t have any to show you. As we went through that patch of water we noticed lots of small dead fish floating on the surface, obviously this is what was attracting all the birds. I’m not sure what could have caused it, perhaps some marine predators trapping the shoal at the surface for the birds to feast on? I just hope it wasn’t some sort of chemical spill from a large ship!

It’s now the morning of the 18th March and I’ve just woken up to see Contadora (one of the Las Perlas islands) for the first time in day light. It’s overcast today but still bright and the surroundings are very tranquil. It’s incredibly quiet here, there are about 8 other cruisers anchored nearby and two secluded beaches on the island. There are a number of small buildings which look like something you might find on the coast of Spain surrounded by what appears to be deciduous woodland. That’s surprising given our tropical location, I guess many of the trees had gone into dormancy over the recent dry period. Contadora is only about a mile long and is the most built up island of Las Perlas, it still seems pretty secluded but hopefully I can find some wifi on shore to post this shortly.

Right, I’d best get going. There’s not long before we need to leave and it would be nice to see some of the island before we do so. Next stop…Galapagos.

San Blas to Colon

The archipelago of San Blas, or ‘Kuna Yala’ as it is called locally, is possibly the most idyllic place I have ever had the pleasure to visiting in my travels. It is an archipelago of very small, very low-lying islands with limited flora and fauna, sandy beaches and coconut palms. The reef system in and around Kuna Yala is extensive, unrelenting and there is no buoyage of any kind, or electricity for that matter, so at night the islands cannot be seen at all except as absences of stars. The charts for this area are also exceptionally unreliable, making the approach and navigation within the archipelago very treacherous. At any one time there are about 150 yachts in Kula Yala (almost exclusively private cruising yachts, many of whom have completed circumnavigations and, having seen the world, decided to make Kuna Yala their home) and every year two or three of them come to grief, much to the dismay of their owners but to the considerable glee of the local Kuna tribe to whom such events are akin to a gift from the heavens.

The people are really quite incredible. They are an indigenous tribe who moved over from the mainland hundreds of years ago and to this day they maintain Kuna Yala as an autonomous tribal state within Panama. The fact that they have managed to achieve this state of affairs and maintain it in a sustainable way despite centuries of oppression, occupation by foreign armed forces and now the rapid ‘development’ of the world around them is nothing short of astounding. The people themselves are also astounding – resilient, physically phenomenal but also friendly, accommodating and in all other ways a delight to interact with. They take no offense and consider it no imposition upon their privacy to have foreigners such as ourselves visit their homesteads, and approach yachts daily in their canoes full of lobster, conch or whatever else they are selling (at very reasonable prices, and they take no offense nor try to push their goods on you if you simply say ‘no gracias’). These canoes in themselves are evidence of considerable physical prowess. They are dug-out canoes made over the course of several months from large trees which are harvested on the slopes of the mountains of mainland Panama. They lug them all the way back to whichever island they live on and then spend months digging them out. I say ‘physical prowess’ rather than workmanship necessarily because, to be honest, in all other ways these craft are quite silly as far as I can tell. Since they are made from a single piece of wood they are very heavy (but not slow. The surprising strength and endurance of the Kuna despite their slight build sees to that!). The wood also frequently cracks, allowing water to leak in such that the occupants are obliged to spend as much time bailing as paddling. I can’t help but think that their lives would be altogether easier if they devoted a smidgen time to improving upon the traditional design………..

The Kuna are rather fond of gold and many of the women can be seen adorned with it. The islands themselves contain rich deposits, however it is illegal for anyone, including the Kuna, to extract it. The logic behind this speaks volumes about the history of the region. The Kuna simply say ‘whenever we have tried to harvest gold from the land, someone else has come and taken it from us’. Therefore, they simply don’t bother and instead buy it in Panama City using funds generated mainly from the sale of coconuts and coconut products.

Suffice to say we were very, very sorry to have to leave San Blas after so fleeting a visit. Above all it was wonderful to spend some time with two old shipmates from the Barque Picton Castle, Cathy and Maria. Maria and I met in 2000 during my first sail aboard a tallship and my first proper voyage to sea. Cathy, two years later when I signed up for 5 months on board the Picton Castle as a trainee. That voyage took me from the East Coast of Canada down through the British Virgin Islands, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific as far as the Cook Islands. It is our intention now to visit many of the same places that I visited previously on that voyage back in 2002, and many others that I have not visited myself but feel a certain affinity to since my mother visited them during her circumnavigation on the same ship between 2003 and 2009 (is that right mother?!). Cathy and Maria have a beautiful steel Yawl (they say it’s a yawl so I’ll defer to their definition. I think it’s a ketch despite the positioning of the mizzen mast, but it is their boat after all!) which I last saw when it had first been purchased, on the hard in Prince Edward Island (Canada) in 2006ish. It has come a long, long way since then, Cathy and Maria having poured most of their time and much of their gargantuan expertise into her to refurbish and rebuild pretty much everything from the keel to the trucks (she is traditionally rigged with served and tarred galvanised steel shrouds, ratlines and gaff sails). Sarah has posted a link in her blog post. I will only add that if anyone reading this is feeling the oppression of the modern world closing in on them and wants to get away from it for a week or so you would be hard pressed to find a better opportunity than signing up for a charter in the San Blas Islands aboard Joana. I promise I haven’t been paid or in any other way coerced into touting their business so shamelessly!

Sadly San Blas, similar to many islands in the Pacific, may not be around for much longer. Rising sea levels caused by global warming are claiming islands rapidly. It looks like some which used to be inhabited have now been abandoned, and according to Eric Bauhaus, who has painstakingly produced and continues to update the only existing reliable charts of the area, many islands that he once charted as such are now sandbars awash or even completely submerged.

We set sail to Colon, the city that marks the entrance to the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal and sailed overnight arriving here in the early morning of March 3rd. I didn’t get much sleep on that passage -at one point I registered 16 different targets on the AIS system. I ended up turning off all the alarm systems and just looking around to try to figure out what all the various shipping was doing. Since you’re reading this, it all worked out very well 🙂

So far Colon has lived up to it’s name. We didn’t go ashore until yesterday afternoon (after we had been measured and inspected for the canal transit) and one of the first inhabitants we met was a gentleman defecating openly on the path in front of us. A very appropriate welcome I thought. Fortunately we have managed to find a supermarket, buy stuff in it and get it back to Bob without getting mugged (yet). There is also a lively bar at the yacht club which we are anchored off and something resembling a chandlery on the premises which was closed yesterday but which may hopefully be open today. It’s a long-shot but I’m hoping they might have an ‘Alan Jr.’ sitting there waiting for me……………… OK, maybe ‘long shot’ doesn’t quite cover it, but I shall remain ever optimistic until the very moment of my hopes being dashed!

We have a spot for transit booked – March 10th. The time between now and then will be spent preparing Bob for the transit and then we might try to get of Colon for a day or two -we’ll see.

 

A typical Kuna Family House

A typical Kuna Family House

 

A Kuna canoe, sailing awkwardly. I suspect the source of that sail may have been a spinnaker from an unfortunate yacht............

A Kuna canoe, sailing awkwardly. I suspect the source of that sail may have been a spinnaker from an unfortunate yacht…………

 

From left, Cathy, Maria, heir two guests Jodie and Pete, and of course Sarah on board S/V Joana for a lovely dinner of fresh-caught snapper and not-too-bad Panamanian boxed wine (and rum......... always rum).

From left, Cathy, Maria, their two guests Jodie and Pete, and of course Sarah on board S/V Joana for a lovely dinner of fresh-caught snapper and not-too-bad Panamanian boxed wine (and rum……… always rum).