We’re still here

  We’re back in Santa Cruz and a great deal has happened since my last blog post. I completed my diving course back in San Cristobal and I’m now a fully qualified PADI Open Water diver, woohoo! Although I must admit, it wasn’t without complications and my confidence as a diver isn’t quite at the level it should be. The course itself turned out to be very interesting indeed! The instructor ended up being a bit of a cowboy and didn’t teach me all of the skills I should have learned. Out of those I did learn, most were only repeated once and I never got chance to practice and really get a grip with those skills I struggled with. Another unfortunate event happened after the last dive of the course when the instructor decided to make an advance on me whilst we were waiting for the taxi to pick us up. Of course the first person I told was Alex and he made sure I was never alone with him again. I suspect it was pretty obvious to my instructor the reason Alex was sat right next to me during my theory lessons the next day. Overall it was quite amusing really, if a bit awkward, but I learnt a lot in the end. The Galapagos Islands really are an amazing place to dive and I got to see some amazing wildlife including sting rays, golden rays, green turtles, sand eels, moray eels, giant puffer fish and at one point I had a sea lion pup playing with my fins – pretty amazing! Also, later on in Santa Cruz we bumped into some friends of ours. Apolline (the French girl I mentioned in some of my previous posts) and Marc (who is the captain of a boat called Pilas, who Christian [the Italian guy who came with us through the canal] was on). Incidentally, due to various office politics, Apolline and Christian switched boats so now she is with Marc on Pilas and Christian moved to the French boat. Aaaanyway…. Apolline is also a diving instructor so she took me for a dive at the anchorage so I could practice some of the skills I felt less confident with – it helped a great deal. There is also a random boat out there somewhere in the world with pictures of flowers, fish, stars and Apollines phone number sketched into the growth on their hull. Before we left for Santa Cruz we spent some time being proper tourists in San Cristobal and took a taxi to see some of the sites. El Junco

The lagoon at El Junco - the largest fresh water reservoir in the archipelago

The lagoon at El Junco – the largest fresh water reservoir in the archipelago

Stunning view of a lake at El Junco

Stunning view of a lake at El Junco

Greater frigate bird (female) - seen during our walk at El Junco

Greater frigate bird (female) – seen during our walk at El Junco

Male small ground finch - seen during our walk at El Junco

Male small ground finch – seen during our walk at El Junco

Female small ground finch - seen during our walk at El Junco

Female small ground finch – seen during our walk at El Junco

El Ceibo

The largest Ceibo tree in the world located in San Cristobal with an amazing tree house built in it. THe tree house come fully equipped with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom (with working toilet and shower) and a balcony.

The largest Ceibo tree in the world located in San Cristobal with an amazing tree house built in it. The tree house come fully equipped with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom (with working toilet and shower) and a balcony.

Oh - and you're very own emergence exit in the form of a fireman's pole

Oh – and you’re very own emergence exit in the form of a fireman’s pole

A good view of the tree from below, you can see Alex climbing it and the tree house up high

A good view of the tree from below, you can see Alex climbing it and the tree house up high

A trek near Playa Mann

A view overlooking the coast of San Cristobal during our trek from Playa Mann

A view overlooking the coast of San Cristobal during our trek from Playa Mann

View of the beach and lighthouse from the beach at dusk

View of the beach and lighthouse at dusk

The sail back to Santa Cruz

I was trying to play around with some long exposure shots during the sail - I quite like how this one turned out

I was trying to play around with some long exposure shots during the sail – I quite like how this one turned out, despite the messy cockpit

Back in Santa Cruz we spent a lot of time with Apolline, Marc and the rest of their crew, as well as making some local friends. As Marc and his crew can all speak Spanish it was easy for them to make friends here and therefore, easy for us to poach them 🙂 Although now they have left the Galapagos Islands, communication with the locals is a little harder. Pilas set sail for the Marquesas Islands a few days ago and although we are heading for Pitcairn and the Gambia Islands before Marquesas, Marc is keen to take his time so I hope we’ll see them again in a few months.

Pilas and her crew leaving for Marquesas

Pilas and her crew leaving for Marquesas

The trials of being 32 years old are taking their toll on Alex already and a few weeks ago he badly injured his neck simply by turning over in bed and he could barely move for two days. In an effort to compensate for the reduced movement in his neck, he overused the muscles in his back and sure enough a week later he was paralysed once again. On the plus side – I’ve become very strong over the past few weeks as it’s been my job to do all the rowing in the dinghy, most of the manual labour on the boat, carrying bags and lifting all the heavy things which Alex would normally do. I’ve even become a seasoned mechanic and did a lot of work on the main engine whilst Alex was incapacitated, which seems to have more-or-less fixed the leak problem. I say ‘more-or-less’ because it still leaks a little, but the leak has now reduced from a continuous dribble of liquid leaking about a pint of oil every 6 hours to just 1 or 2 drops per minute. We also have a spare attachment so if the leak gets worse again we have something else we can replace it with. In fact, the entire engine has had a bit of an overhaul recently with an oil change, new throttle cable, new belt and a serviced fuel filter so it should (hopefully) now be much happier. Unfortunately, the mechanic supplies in the Galapagos are very limited and we’ve had to come up with some innovative solutions to get what we need. This is less than ideal because jobs are taking much more time than they normally would, cost more money and in some cases, not fully fixing the problem. Still, we’ve done all we can and hopefully the engine will run smoothly from now on. Alex’s back and neck now seem to be 95% better, largely thanks to the skills of a Thai masseuse whose services were expensive, but were worth every penny given that Alex is no longer paralyzed! The timing has worked out well because I’ll soon be starting some volunteering with the Charles Darwin Research Station and Alex can occupy himself once again with boat work, although he’s banned from doing anything too strenuous for a while! I met Gustavo, a scientist at the research station, to discuss how I might be able to help them. He coordinates a really interesting project doing population monitoring of three native or endemic bird species (Galapagos penguin, flightless cormorant and waved albatross), and the project has many parallels to ones I’ve been involved with in the past. He uses capture-mark-recapture techniques where he marks the species with PIT tags (similar to the tags used in your pet cats and dogs) to individually identify them. He also takes measurements such as weight, sex, breeding condition, heart rate, body measurements and takes blood samples for genetic testing and parasite monitoring. He is mainly looking to see how the population changes over time and also between different islands where some are pristine with little human influence and others are affected by the introduction of pest species. This should give some really useful information on how pest species are affecting the local wildlife, and over time, the effects of climate change. This in turn can be used to advise on intervention measures which will best enable the native wildlife to thrive. He has some surplus data from his project where he has collected records of all the vertebrate species encountered on the surveys. It is this data that he wants me to have a look at and do some statistical analysis on. If it all goes well, he is keen to share more data with me so we can analyse the effects of other variables. This is a really good project for me because I’m one of those strange people who really enjoys statistics. I find the project incredibly interesting, I think it’s nice to do something which I’m actually good at and also be part of a worthwhile cause. I can do the work from anywhere so I can continue to volunteer even after I leave Galapagos. Also, Gustavo is happy to list me as one of the authors of the papers he publishes as a result of the work – which is very very cool! I hope I get chance to do some field work with them before I leave as well, but if not, I’ve got a foot through the door and maybe it will lead to more opportunities in the future. One final thing to note, unfortunately my beautiful hot pink IPhone is no more. It went in the water during a dubious dinghy ride to shore a few weeks ago when a wave caught us by surprise and flipped us over. Apologies if anyone has tried to contact me via WhatsApp as I won’t have received those messages. If anyone wants to get in touch please email me or send a Facebook message and I’ll pick it up when I’m next online. I think that covers just about everything… other than crabs (in the kitchen sink), an octopus in the toilet and a collision with a dive boat…

Too much sun

The ironic fate of our 20-amp fuse when asked to carry 26 amps of charging current from the solar array for quite a few days. The smell of burning and the obvious warping of the plastic fuse box kind of suggested something might be wrong. Aren’t these things designed to stop this kind of stuff from happening?! It never blew, it just melted! All of that metal should be covered by the yellow plastic. Notice also the scorching and splitting of the insulation on the orange wiring. It has now been replaced with a 40-amp breaker of the type found in household junction boxes, which cost $7 because it doesn’t have ‘marine’ printed on it and seems to be doing the job much better.

The ironic fate of our 20-amp fuse when asked to carry 26 amps of charging current from the solar array for quite a few days. The smell of burning and the obvious warping of the plastic fuse box kind of suggested something might be wrong. Aren't these things designed to stop this kind of stuff from happening?! It never blew. It just melted!

A smidgen of panic…

The excitement and adventure of the Galapagos Islands still hasn’t stopped! I organised my scuba course the day after we arrived in San Cristobal and I’m now half way through. I spent the first day watching the approved PADI videos and yesterday was spent in a shallow stretch of sea learning various skills needed for the certification. Luckily for me the instructor I am using has no other students at the moment so my lessons are one-to-one. I’m quite surprised that there aren’t more people wanting to learn to dive here as the Galapagos Islands must be one of the most idyllic places on the planet to learn, especially for wildlife enthusiasts! I guess many already-qualified divers would come here and go on tours instead, which is what many people appeared to be doing.

Yesterday was my second day of the course and my first ever dive! Most people spend their first dive in a swimming pool to learn skills such as clearing your mask of water, finding and clearing your regulator underwater, what to do if your equipment goes wrong, buoyancy control, etc. My instructor asked if I wanted to go to the sea instead of the pool as it’s much more interesting and a beautiful place to learn, so of course I said yes. I found the sensation of breathing under water very strange at first and extremely unnatural. My instructor could tell I was uncomfortable so spent a bit of time showing me round the sea bottom to get me used to my new environment before proceeding to the skills section. That was a very special experience; in less than 5 minutes we had already seen sea lion pups playing just above our heads, I saw a large sting ray, sand eels, urchins, a plethora of fish and lots of other marine life. After which I practiced the skill of emptying of my mask of water, which I found pretty scary as it involves taking off your mask and closing your eyes in the process. I (like most people probably) am very used to air being freely available whenever and wherever I need it. Things are very different under water and air is only available from a number of small hoses, so the idea of being blind in this unfamiliar environment absolutely terrified me. It took a while but eventually I built up the confidence to do the task in hand, and whilst it wasn’t exactly pleasant, I managed it without any hitches and it did wonders for building my confidence. We completed the majority of the other skills later in the afternoon and I really enjoyed the whole experience.

It was just after sunset when we surfaced (probably about 6.30pm) and as we were gathering up all the equipment in the remaining daylight, my instructor got a phone call and it was pretty obvious he had been given some shocking news. It turns out that during the last hour an earthquake had hit mainland Ecuador where many of his family lived. When he told me I was totally stunned and expressed my concerns for his family. He seemed very calm about the whole thing so I pressed for a bit more information. Even though the phone signal in Ecuador was down, he had managed to get in touch with someone who knew that all his family were safe. He also explained that although this was quite a big earthquake, they are very common in that part of the world and earth tremors probably occur about 20 times per year. It was another half an hour before we got back to the dive shop and I was ready to leave. Another staff member at the dive centre expressed concerns that the earthquake could cause a tsunami which could potentially hit the Galapagos Islands. However, he also stated that given the location of the earthquake that it was very unlikely to cause problems here and that everyone would be notified if there was any danger ahead. It occurred to me that Alex had been working on the boat engine all day and with little communication with the outside world, would probably have no idea what was happening. However, he had also asked me to buy some bread and water on my way back to Bob and as no one seemed particularly worried about a tsunami, I decided to go shopping.

I merrily bought some bread and whilst doing so, I had a chat with one of the locals about the tsunami warning. Again his response didn’t seem urgent. He said it may be a problem but that we didn’t know yet and if it turned into something more serious the police and coast guards would let us know. He explained that we would likely hear loudspeaker announcements and that police cars would be patrolling with their lights and sirens on to make people aware. Everything still seemed calm so I strolled on to another shop to buy some water. Little did I know that at the same time Alex was just hearing the news for himself, from a yacht who hastily pulled up anchor and screamed at people as he was leaving about the tsunami warning and to turn to channel 16 on the radio for more information.

After my shopping I walked down the pier to the water taxi and started to feel slightly more uneasy about things. I could hear a loud speaker in the distance (although I couldn’t understand what it was saying) and I could see the lights of a police car in the distance. In very bad Spanish I asked the water taxi driver for an update. He was clearly uneasy and appeared concerned, I think he said that the tsunami was now a problem and would hit the Galapagos shortly. He took me back to Bob where Alex was shouting “WE NEED TO GO! WE NEED TO GO! A TSUNAMI IS ABOUT TO HIT US IN 15 MINUTES!”. He was in the process of doing the fastest engine rebuild in the history of the world! Having spent all day taking the damn thing apart to fix a leak, he put it together again in just 10 short minutes. We pegged it out of the harbour and headed for deeper waters as fast as we dare push the engine.

We had very few updates from the port captain about what to expect and in the end we experienced nothing more than a few large swells. Perhaps my original blasé attitude towards this tsunami warning would have saved us from unnecessary panic and a rapid journey to sea – still, better safe than sorry. We’ve not been to shore yet but as far as I can tell from the boat, everything appears normal and no damage seems to have been done. We’ll head to shore soon and see what information we can find out, hopefully everything will be as it should.

 

 

 

Panic!

It’s 0010 hours on April 17th and we’ve just re-anchored in Wreck Bay, San Cristobal. It’s been a fun evening! There I was minding my own business, tidying up Bob’s cabin (I know – shock/horror!) when I heard someone honking their horn in a rather urgent manner. The owner of the horn was a Frenchman who was also shouting at anyone who would listen. ‘What an inconsiderate &*%$’, I thought, until I made the effort to listen to what he was actually saying. “Tsunami alert! Listen to channel 16!”

VFH channel 16 is the international radio channel for calling, distress and emergencies. I flicked on the radio and my ears were immediately accosted by reams of urgent-sounding Spanish, intermittently interrupted by some other cruiser saying in very poor Spanish, “is posseeblay to repeatay in English por favor?” I’d heard enough myself to convince me to abandon the plan of having a nice relaxing evening watching a film and instead vamos rapido to deep water. It transpired that there had been a 7.7 magnitude earthquake in mainland Ecuador and that it had created a series of tsunamis which were rapidly approaching us here in the Galapagos Islands. Further details were not forthcoming, except what I could glean from one very eloquent young lady on the radio: “this thing is due to hit us in 15 minutes. We are leaving port at speed!” I planned to do the same, but there were two niggling problems preventing me from doing so. Firstly, Sarah was not on board. She’s taking her open water diving course at the moment and was still on land. There was no way I was leaving without her. Second, there wasn’t a gnat’s fart of breeze out there and the heat exchanger for the engine was sitting neatly in the galley sink. I’d spend the whole day removing it so that I could get access to an oil hose which is leaking badly. It went back on in less than 10 minutes. Just as I was finishing that, Sarah fortuitously arrived on a water taxi and we were ready to make our escape. 120 feet of anchor chain came up in 3 or 4 minutes (by hand; the windlass would have been too slow) and we pegged it for open sea. The depth about 3 miles from land is 50 meters. The depth 4.5 miles out is 100 meters, and the depth at 5 miles is 250 meters. This is the bit I wanted to aim for.

The journey out there took us an hour but it felt like 15 minutes. During that time Sarah took down the sun shade over the cockpit, the wind scoop over the forward hatch and made dinner. Meanwhile I kept an eye on the other escapees and battoned down the hatches in case this thing ended up being really big. We hove-to in about 200 meters of water, had some spaghetti bolognaise for dinner and waited it out along with a load of other boats. Meanwhile the Ecuadorian Coast Guard patrol boat did rounds with a spotlight trying to keep tabs on everyone. Information from the authorities was not regularly forthcoming but we did get intermittent reports over the radio. “The wave will arrive in 15 minutes. It is not a long way. It is a short way.” and such.

We experienced a few rocky moments on par with rogue swells but nothing more (they may just have been rogue swells), and the all-clear was given at 2235. A procession of boats made their way back to the harbour, herded by the Coast Guard boat who came in last. Very fortunately for us a light breeze picked up and we were able to set the genoa and make 5 knots on the way back in without having to push the engine too much. I’d managed to fit an aluminium baking tray underneath the engine during the day and by now there was a fair amount of oil sitting in it. I had also hose-clamped the engine coolant hoses onto the heat exchanger in a very, very sketchy manner and another onto the stern gland cooling water hose that was only half-on but doing the job, so any respite from having to run it any harder than necessary was a welcome treat. The anchor went down in Wreck Bay at 2345. That boxed wine from Panama tastes very good indeed 🙂

Galapagos Arrival

March 27th
We’re anchored in Wreck Bay, off the Island of San Cristobal. It was quite a hectic arrival. We dropped anchor in 36-feet of water and were immediately approached by our agent (we’ve no idea how he knew we were arriving at that time) who informed us that we would be inspected by the environmental agency in 30 minutes. It was a mad rush to get the below-decks looking presentable and make sure everything was in order. I also made a quick foray up the mast, since in my haste to tie the courtesy and quarantine flags onto the flag halyard I had tied a poor knot on the latter and they were both looking quite sad dangling by one piece of string from the starboard spreader. We have found that officials in these parts of the world often put great store in appearances and that first impressions are important, so we figured they might not appreciate seeing their national flag in a twisted heap. Anyway, having fixed all that we were invaded by at least 8 different officials who thrust various bits of paper at us to fill in and sign (I’ve no idea what half of them were) while hurling questions at me as if i were a celebrity being hounded by the Paparazzi. ‘Capitan, what were your last 10 ports of call? Where are your trash cans? What is the capacity of your holding tanks? Do you have any animals on board? Where are your documents? Do you have copies? What is your etc. etc. etc. ‘ Meanwhile a guy turned up in a skin-diving suit to inspect our hull (we’d scrubbed it thoroughly in Las Perlas and again one day before arriving in San Cristobal while at sea) and another guy turned up in a terminator suit with something resembling a bazooka. We were informed that this man was the fumigator and summarily instructed to go to shore and not come back for 4 hours. I hadn’t even finished anchoring properly! Having seen no signs of human existence for the last 7 days other than a single ship which passed some 4 miles away from us, this onslaught was, to put it mildly, quite a shock. The important thing however is that we passed the various inspections and have now been granted permission to stay for up to 60 days – a freedom that we intent to make the most of having spent $1,500 for the privilege of the invasion. I can’t help but think that the British have lost their touch when it comes to invading places. We haven’t done much of it in quite some time but the Spanish on the other hand have continued to hone their skills in this field quite diligently, while appearing the whole time to be doing the invadee a great service.

I digress a smidgen! The passage from Las Perlas – a lovely group of islands on the Pacific side of Panama where we spent two secluded days before setting off to come here – was absolutely wonderful. The general weather conditions for the passage between Panama and Galapagos are light winds or no wind at all. Initially we had intended to take a straight-line route and spend a lot of time chugging along using the engine, since there was no wind forecast at all for the entire passage. The day that we set off from Las Perlas however the forecast changed to favour the ‘traditional’ route of cutting South toward mainland Ecuador before turning West toward Galapagos. This is what we did, and by going as fast as we could (comfortably) we managed to stay with the winds for almost the entirety of the passage. A friend who arrived in Galapagos two weeks before us was pleased to have only had to motor half way. We were very, very fortunate in only having to motor for a total of 23 hours. We also had the longest run in 24 hours that Bob has ever achieved – 165 miles from noon to noon, measured in a straight line from one noon position to the next – and could have made the whole passage in 7 days if we had been so inclined. The wind dropped out in the evenings toward the end of the passage, and on our final night we simply took in all sail and drifted slowly toward San Cristobal with a 1.5 knot current pushing us along nicely. Our days on this passage were spent largely reading, discussing the various characteristics of our fishing lures, discussing life in general and occasionally pulling on a bit of string to tweak a whatsit or somethingorother. Given the forecast i was confident enough to set one of our more racy spinnakers – a lightweight assymetric racing spinnaker from a J105 that was donated to me some years ago – and leave it up for a good 36 hours without having to worry that we’d encounter a sudden squall, or that increasing winds might make dropping it with just the two of us problematic.

March 31st
San Cristobal has changed a huge amount since my last visit in 2003. The tourism industry has boomed and infrastructure has not lagged far behind. What used to be a sleepy town with dilapidated roads, a few bars and couple of shops selling odds and ends is now a teeming tourist trap with boutiques selling plastic turtles and sea lions, companies selling guided tours (it is now impossible to visit most places without hiring a guide, and most tours are in the vicinity of $100 per person or more), dive companies abound, butchers, bakers and probably candlestick makers. Miraculously, it hasn’t lost it’s charm however. The new cobblestone streets are picturesque, the sea lions are still the dominant species (over humans) and the people are very friendly. They are used to speaking to people such as ourselves whose command of Spanish is pitiful, so they speak slowly and simply to us and every now and then we actually manage to complete a conversation without running into a vocabularial dead end.

We enjoyed San Cristobal and are by no means done there. It looks like it might be the best place for Sarah to do a dive course, things seem to be relatively inexpensive (if you buy the right things) and despite it’s incredible development over the last 13 years it is still way behind Santa Cruz. We moved here to Santa Cruz yesterday after a day-sail of 40-miles or so in order to meet Sarah’s mother who is due to arrive from the UK at about the time i am writing this. It was a great sail despite the forecast of 1 knot of wind; bottlenose dolphins and sealions kept us company for 15 minutes or so, and i particularly enjoyed sailing past the Island of Santa Fe, or ‘Barrington’ as it is also known (alas, bureacracy does not allow us to stop anywhere except ‘designated ports’, which now number just 3 in the entire archipelago). Bernard Moitessier and his wife Francoise spent some time on this island during their incredible voyage around Cape Horn in the mid-1960s. Having read his account (‘Cape Horn: The Logical Route’) several times I would dearly have liked to have seen with my own eyes some of those parts that remain unchanged from those days; indeed, unchanged for millennia.

Santa Cruz is much more built up than San Cristobal. Prices are correspondingly higher. Tourism is really the only industry and it dominates over all. Nevertheless, the Ecuadorians have done a good job of avoiding sterility during the development and it appears to be very pleasant based on a cursory wander around last night. I’m going to head to shore now and see if I can find some flax packing to re-seal the rudder shaft stuffing box. I only replaced it 3 years ago……… I wonder what the word for ‘flax packing’ is in Spanish………. and how I’d say “I’m not sure whether it’s 3/8-inch or 7/16-inch thickness so can I have both please?” This will be fun! Maybe they’ll put me out of my misery by simply not having any. It does seem likely under the circumstances 🙂