March 13, 2011
Although they became further apart and diminished in size, the unusual tidal surges that had started when the tsunami arrived in Puerto Villamil continued for a couple of days. The water remained very stirred-up and cloudy for even longer. After we had been forced to re-anchor in the dark and surges due to Kailani’s windlass mishap (luckily nothing was lost), Randall had slept in the cockpit on anchor-watch. The next morning we repositioned Tregoning to a more comfortable distance from the rocks of Las Tintoreras and, needing to catch-up on sleep, Randall was content the stay on the boat for the next couple of days
I went ashore with Jackie and Adrian late on Saturday morning (March 12th) to see how things were in the town. We had already noticed that the beach chairs for the little bar by the dock were still lined-up at the top of the beach so we were optimistic that there had not been too much damage onshore. This was confirmed by our visit during which time we only saw the one passenger ferry-boat on the rocks and a sunken panga near the docks. Plenty of people went out to help refloat both vessels and within a couple of days they were both on the beach and, at least superficially, it looked as though some fiberglass work and, not doubt, outboard overhauls might been sufficient.
The town was very quiet with only a few people on the streets and most of them looking unexpectedly idle. We discovered from Julio, a guide whom Jackie and Adrian had befriended, that the town was evacuated to campsites up on Cerro Negra which were not particularly comfortable (lots of insects), so most people had returned home when permission was first granted around 1 am. The other reason for the sleepy atmosphere was that everyone had expected to be involved with the town’s fiesta (Saturday’s program had included all sorts of contests and races). It had obviously been postponed and we eventually discovered to our disappointment that it was to start the very day we planned to leave for Isla Santa Cruz.
The other reason for our trip ashore was to rearrange our tour to Los Tuneles which had been scheduled for Friday. We debated about trying to go on Sunday but realized that the water might still be murky and the channels among the rocks might not be safe if there were any residual surges, so we ended up postponing the trip until Tuesday. It was low tide by the time we returned from town and with the water so turbid that it was quite tricky finding our way back around the shallow sands and submerged rocks. We were thankful that it was not our first trip ashore at low tide.
We learned that overall the impact of the tsunami in the Galapagos Islands had been much less than was anticipated. Hearing other cruisers on the SSB radio networks, we gathered that there was no damage at all at Isla San Cristóbal but there had been some flooding of water-front buildings and a damaged passenger dock at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Like us, all the cruisers and tour-boats had been ordered to leave the anchorages. It must have been a bit nerve-wracking for any cruisers who had left their boats and taken ferries to other islands at the time.
Overall we were very impressed with the efficiency with which the Ecuadorian agencies handled the event. We had initially heard a warning in Spanish around 7 am on the VHF channel 16 (which we luckily happened to have on in case we needed to talk to Ocean’s Dream or Kailani before our tour). Although we did not understand the whole message, we sensed that it was an official announcement the first time we heard it and when it was repeated we listened carefully and identified the word “Tsunami”. I jumped into the dinghy (which of course had to be pumped up first) and went over to tell Ocean’s Dream and Kailani to monitor channel 16 and to check the internet. I then approached the nearby tour boat, Angelito, which seemed to be preparing to leave at an unusual time of day.
I managed to communicate with the crew in Spanish enough to confirm the tsunami warning and that we had to go out to sea but the distance and timing was a bit confusing. Luckily, their English-speaking park guide came out and helped to explain that we all had to leave the anchorage by 10 am and that the tsunami was expected around 5 pm. We had to go at least 5 miles offshore (8 km), where the water was at least 300 ft deep (100m). She also told me to monitor VHF channel 26 as this was where further information was given in Spanish and English. So the three sailboats raised anchors and motor-sailed out for a day of circling around in what were beautiful conditions. It was a pity that we could not fish.
It was not obvious why we had to leave the harbors so early but we suspect that these were rules principally aimed at the tour-boats which could not be trying to drop-off or pick-up passengers through the day as the towns were evacuating. We presume that most people on such boats just lost a day of their tours at sea but it must have been quite awkward for people who were supposed to leave or join their vessels that day.
The official information about returning to port was not as clearly provided as the orders to leave, presumably because officials were preoccupied with damage assessment. Without access to the internet, we had been monitoring the SSB networks and got the general impression that other than the devastation in Japan, the tsunami damage elsewhere, such as in Hawaii, was not very bad. We also remembered the non-event of the tsunami warning after the Chilean earthquake the previous year when we were in Panama City. So we returned to the harbor as soon as we could, hoping to get anchored before dark and thinking that there would be no residual effects after the expected arrival time which had been revised to 5:30 pm.
In retrospect, given the surges and our unsatisfactory re-anchoring we might have been better just drifting out at sea for the night and sharing regular night-watches. Is it worth remembering for next time that even if the arrival of a tsunami can be forecast fairly accurately (and if you are not too close to the epicenter, it seems that it can be), how long any effects will linger is much less predictable. While it is important to get away from the shore with plenty of time to spare, we should plan to stay at sea for quite a few hours afterwards, even if there is the slight inconvenience of having to wait until the next morning to re-anchor.
In our self-absorbed state of general oblivion about the rest of the world, we did not see pictures of the damage in Japan and only heard second-hand about news reports of the reactor failures at the nuclear power facilities. While we were very thankful that the Galapagos Islands were spared much damage, we felt terribly sorry for the people affected by the quake, tsunamis, and evacuations around the reactors. Unable to stay glued to the mass media, our experience of the day of the quake may have been a different than for most other outside-observers but, like everyone, we wondered when and how the continuing drama in Japan would end.