Spice of Life

N 17° 37' W 63° 14'

South Sea Cruising

August 17, 2011

Upwind Beat

Panama to Galapagos

1000 miles of South Pacific ocean to cross at a speed equivalent to 15km/hr…cramped in a tiny space with motion akin to a sluggish roller coaster…functioning 24/7 at a 30 degree angle to the cabin…as each day passes I’m increasingly intrigued by people who choose this as a lifestyle for decades on end. Our cruise to the magnificent Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, sees us up against 20 knot headwinds and slamming into choppy three metre swells for six days, consuming 20 kilos of rapidly ripening Panamanian mangoes, and sleeping each night with the sensation of someone continually smashing a giant wooden bat against the hull-a couple of inches from our ears. Nights see us each sitting three-hour watches, scanning the horizon for ships and squalls. I wedge myself in the companionway leading down to the cabin when the sea’s rough and I feel too seasick to sit downstairs. During watches we listen to music, watch Spice nosedive through waves and check the radar. I gaze at the little ship icon’s progress from east to west on our electronic map screen downstairs…this is not a good idea, the voyage seems it will never end. I fall into a 12-hour-a-day-plus out at sea sleeping pattern…the constant bracing and adjusting to the boat’s movement takes it out of us, even when just lounging around…it’s a tough life!

 

Mango juice runs everywhere as we chop up pieces for brekkie…and we’re competing with little critters to get them all eaten…I realize this one morning when I pick up one that’s covered in tiny wriggling baby maggots…yee-uck! On a calmer day we pull hessian sacks of oranges, onions and potatoes outside to sort through the bad ones. I climb the cabin steps balancing a huge bowl of rotten onions in one hand…”Dad…Dad! Quick can you take these?”…he’s a few seconds too slow and I overbalance as Spice tips, toppling back down into the cabin, tipping onions over myself and the floor where they roll happily back and forth, in sync with the swell. On Day Six, at midnight, we arrive at San Cristobal Island, Galapagos. Trying to line up the lighted markers, which are meant to safely guide us into the anchorage, is confusing; we just can’t work it out. Dad radios some friends on other boats in the bay and they shine a spotlight from their boats, such a welcome sight! Sleeping at anchor without waking for a night watch is pure bliss…we do wake up though, in the early hours of the morning, to the sound of raspy, gravelly coughs resounding from the cockpit. Rushing outside, we’re captivated by the sight of two young silvery seals lying on the cockpit seats. They’ve climbed up the transom steps, squeezed through the lifelines and are engaged in hearty discussion. I beg Dad not to kick them off…they’re such cuties and so tame! One slithers back into the water as we peer at them, but the other appears untroubled, gazes at us for a while, them rests his head down and begins snoring behind the helm…welcome to the Galapagos!

 

San Cristobal

Galapagos Islands

“Hola Kapitan!” (“Hello Captain!”) we hear early the next morning as a Spanish local boat chugs up alongside Spice. The locals don’t waste time in lining up services with the yachts which arrive in the bay! This young agent is very persuasive in us employing him to help with the fees and check-in procedures for Ecuador arrivals. To step ashore we use local water taxis…seals have been known to occasionally get a bit peckish, chewing holes in inflatable dinghies. San Cristobal is a low-lying, shrubby island, sitting on the equator and surrounded by the cool Humboldt Current. This explains the cooler weather and unusual creatures found throughout the islands. The Galapagos Islands are world-renowned for giant tortoises, marine iguanas and Darwin finches. Hundreds of sleepy lobos marinos (seals), line the beaches, children’s playgrounds, park benches and abandoned fishing boats in the bay. Animals are literally everywhere…sea birds plunge from great heights rapidly into the water near our boat for fish, palm-sized green lizards scamper along walkways and tiny finches hop along the path lining the waterfront…none seem overly wary of humans. The streets on the bay front are a little shabby and rundown, lined with small local eateries and dive and tourist shops. We eat ashore with cruising friends a few times. No need to worry over meal options here…many places have set menus with a steaming soup of corn, chicken and dumplings served first, followed by a main meal of rice and fish or chicken in a tasty sauce.

 

At the Giant Tortoise Research Institute we mingle with leisurely tortoises over 100 years old and weighing as many kilos. An isolated rocky bay with icy cold water is found and, as we snorkel around the shallows, a young seal swims directly towards me, stopping abruptly centremetres from my face…a little intimidating! They really are water dogs…this one wants to play and finds a tangled ball of seaweed which it tosses in the air and retrieves from the sea floor. As we swim out deeper, five graceful sea turtles over a metre long are seen eating off the reef. I dive down and touch the tough leathery skin of their flippers and their smooth, shiny patterned shells. The reef and sea floor are teeming with masses of unusual fish…an immense school of staring silver fish hover near the sea floor along with vivid angel and butterfly fish. As the days pass, we buy more fresh fruit and veggies for the long-awaited 3000-mile journey ahead to the volcanic Marquesas Islands. We buy another giant stalk of bananas, so heavy Jade and Dad have to take an end each as I drop into the bakery for fresh bread. During our sail out of the bay, another baby seal hops aboard…quite pleased to join us for the trip. We prod it off with a boat pole, concerned it’ll become disoriented the further from shore it travels. Really though, what a perfect pet it would make…taking itself for a swim off the transom, catching fish for dinner and providing some excitement during tedious ocean passages…

 

The Long Haul

Galapagos to Marquesas

Memories of this 17-day long sail will forever be permeated by the sickly sweet fermenting smell, and taste, of hundreds of overripe bananas filing our unventilated cabin. With no way to keep them fresh, we end up throwing around 15kg overboard, such a waste! Dad puts in a good effort, eating about six a day, but their smell and taste makes me want to heave over the lifelines. I make banana pancakes…banana cake….”Would you like a banana?” Dad generously enquires when Jade and I are feeling a little green. During the first week we hook a small yellow fin tuna and a mahi-mahi (dorado). I wind in the line really carefully as mahi-mahi tend to put up a good fight…success! Just under a metre long, the beautiful fluorescent yellow-blue colours of the mahi-mahi begin fading within a few minutes of capture. Marinated and baked in lemon, garlic and soy sauce, it makes a delicious dinner…we savour the fresh meat.

 

The first few days of the downwind rolling boat motion leave me feeling nauseous, curled up outside and begging an airlift to dry land. After rushing past Jade in the galley to lose my brekkie over the side one morning, with the sun’s rays lighting the horizon, I’m truly fed up…a seasickness pill seems to settle things. We often bake fresh bread and, if boredom sets in during a watch, try creative baking…spicy hot cinnamon scrolls at 3am fills the gap! We begin adopting a bizarre bleary-eyed look from strange sleeping patterns. Endless days of long ocean swells, sunlit pale blue skies and starry moon-bright nights are broken up with inventive meals, good books, outdoor speakers resonating sound waves over the open sea (Phantom of the Opera take on a whole new level!), leisurely conversations, and some adopt more productive pursuits…Jade diligently teaches herself to navigate the old-fashioned way using a sextant.

 

One night, during heavy winds, the fitting linking the mainsail boom to the track on deck snaps out of the blue. The boom and mainsail swing wildly back and forth, free from their deck restraint. Dad scrambles around the slippery dark deck with a torch, making temporary repairs. I grip the wheel catching face-fulls of salt-spray and Jade stands by to assist Dad.  Another night I hear bad news at the start of my watch. “There’s no point checking the radar anymore” Dad says uncharacteristically calm, ”it doesn’t exist…nothing was coming up on the screen so I went outside and looked up the mast…it’s disappeared…there’s nothing there”, his face is shadowed with lack of sleep. Sometime during the last hour, the whole radar dome has pulled loose, tumbled down the mast and sunken into the South Pacific. The radar allows us to detect ships, land, rain and pressure systems, difficult to see by simply glancing around outside. Aside from the expense, we need to be far more vigilant during our watches, checking the sky and sea every ten minutes for danger. A close eye is also kept on the cruising spinnaker, which is flown in light breezes and can easily fly out of control. It’s like a colossal red, white and blue kite and looks incredible when the breeze fills it, and it balloons out in front of Spice carrying us a precious few knots faster.

 

The social aspect of our lives is livened up a little by a daily high frequency radio sked held each evening. Fellow yachties making the same passage talk amongst each other, discussing their latitude and longitude, weather and daily progress. There really is something in women speaking so many hundred (or is it thousand?) words more than men daily. The sked is progressively dominated by women yachties who, after the essentials are discussed, chat about halfway crossing celebrations, fish recipes, and what the next landfall offers. Halfway for Spice sees us celebrating with a rare bar of chocolate…Dad mysteriously procures it from some hideaway in a spare parts locker. On a good 24-hour day we cover almost 200 miles…about the distance from Perth to Geraldton, WA. Compared to a car it’s slow going, but after a couple of non-stop sailing weeks it’s amazing the distance covered!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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N 17° 37' W 63° 14'

Isla Las Perlas

June 18, 2011

Patchy camouflage, black waterproof boots, hunting knives tucked into the back of hiking vests, a machete, rifles, bottled water, chocolate and four armed-escorts…it’s a world away from Spice’s usual ‘spur of the moment’, shorts and T-shirts clad, “grab your thongs and let’s blaze a trail!” trekking party. One minute Dad and I are slipping over wet, flat boulders circling one of the humid, jungle-ridden Pearl Islands off Panama…shortcutting our way back to the dinghy before the tide rises…and the next we’re iguana spotting with a “two in front and two behind…and the machete guy goes first” military escort. “You expecting trouble?” Dad half-jokes looking pointedly at their array of weapons as we leave the beach and head into the forest…but it’s just protocol, in case they encounter drug-runners whom they’re on a lookout for.

Standing in the midst of dense tropical forest, a light rain falls…adding to the steaminess of the forest floor. Our faces drip with sweat as we arch our heads, scanning trees for the giant mossy-orange coloured iguanas known to crawl along the thick branches. We’re given water and Snickers bars…mossie spray…and the guys fix our shoes, which keep breaking as we slip up and down muddy creek beds. We teach them some English…explaining the merits of eating Australian kangaroo…they teach us Spanish…promising they’ll find an iguana and cook it for us. We laugh…I don’t realize they’re serious.

Our machete amigo slashes through the overgrown path…the ground is crumbly, wet and uneven…fruit-laden trees tower above us almost blocking out the already overcast light. Suddenly he stops and points up a tree where he’s spotted one…I spot it finally but this guy’s vision is amazing! He’s had practice picking them out. The guys spot one that’s low down in a tree. Scrambling through tangly undergrowth, they grab the tree trunk shaking it back and forth. I can’t see anything but I feel the thump of the iguana landing on the ground…apparently this stuns them so they’re easy to catch. While they bind its legs, I touch the scaly, still warm skin…they’re beautiful creatures and this one is over a foot long. I’m sad but try getting into a Bear Grylls frame of mind…it’s important to appreciate where what we eat comes from.

Later that evening we dinghy back to the military headquarters where we’re invited to join the iguana-eating. The headquarters are the only buildings on the island. An ex-drug runner previously owned the sprawling house and outbuildings…with a pool, gym, and stunning views of the beaches surrounding the island, it doesn’t seem a bad place to work! We’re shown around, made to feel welcome and invited to use their gym. “Anything you need…just ask” they tell us cheerfully…I think their happy to see some new faces. Apart from guarding the islands and being on lookout, the military have time to fish, trek and swim. We are warmly welcomed and give them a plate of chocolate cake we’ve cooked. Bowls of hot iguana stew are placed in front of us…it’s been cooked in a delicious sauce and tastes like really chewy bits of curled up chicken. Some of the workers play an impromptu game of soccer on the grassy cliff flat as the sun sets.

A few days are spent on Isla Las Perlas (the Pearl Islands) seeing the occasional boat…but otherwise it’s fairly uninhabited. In the past, African slaves were brought to the islands for pearl harvesting…now it’s a tranquil sprinkling of shell encrusted, bird-laden islands. Sandy beaches border pockets of jungle filled with coconut and banana trees…we discover wild bananas on one island. As we stand still in the midst of trees, we see and hear an incredible variety of Central American birds. At Isla Mogi Mogi, we anchor the dinghy off a nearby rocky island, which disappears when the tide rises, and jump over for a snorkel. As I swim along the edge of a shallow reef, huge fluoro blue-green parrot fish zigzag by…schools of silver fish linger on the sandy floor, and tiny reef fish chase each other off prime coral pieces as they vie for reef food. So many fish! I try catching one for dinner off our transom step one evening, with a hand line and some flour-water dough for bait, but it’s too murky…I give up quickly. We do catch a little bonito on the 50-mile sail back to Panama though…enough dinner for three hungry crew.

Spice sits at anchor at Las Brisas de Amador (Panama) for a few more days as we make final preparations to leave for the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador). Our spinnaker pole arrives, we farewell other yachties making the same South Pacific crossing, and keep a close eye on the weather. Most days begin as windless, humid and hot with gusty squalls setting in by afternoon. One morning, all sitting in the cabin, we hear a “boom!” and Spice shudders. As we rush outside, we’re shocked to see a beautiful, dark blue 70-foot yacht has hit us broadside. Fenders are rushed forward as the wind continually pushes their boat backwards onto ours…their engine is useless with their anchor still down and their anchor chain wrapped around two other boats. Adrenaline pumps…everyone’s yelling as the blue yacht bounces between others. “Dad’s using himself as a human fender Quick quick quick!” we yell as a dinghy holding a French couple barely escapes being squashed between our boat and another as they try and help. My hands shake as I try unknotting our dinghy from Spice…it’s about to be crushed and there’s tension on the rope…loosened just in time, Jade jumps in as it pops away to freedom…whew! Someone radios for assistance and eventually the blue boat cuts its anchor chain and is towed away. The rest of the day Dad spends untangling anchor chains and helping retrieve the lost anchor in murky water. Adrenaline rush had…no one injured…Spice unscathed…new friends made (quick way to meet people)…bumper cars in an anchorage isn’t all bad!

The morning before we leave Panama, Jade and I buy fresh fruit and veggies for a couple of months from the local produce market. The outdoor market has bulk produce, seemingly straight from plantations…huge sacks of potatoes, onions, mangoes, and oranges are bought. Hundreds of bananas still on the one stalk cost $5…pineapples four for $1…we have to hire someone with a cart to follow us round so we can get it all back to the taxi. A police officer voluntarily accompanies us…I think he’s worried about us being robbed. There are few westerners here…and communication is difficult knowing only a little Spanish. “Gracias…you’re very helpful”, we tell him gratefully.

Fuel-filled, food-stocked and ready to beat to windward…Galapagos here we come!

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N 17° 37' W 63° 14'

Isla Las Perlas

June 14, 2011

 

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N 17° 37' W 63° 14'

Panamanian Episodes

May 29, 2011

“Daaad!” I hiss as another guttural, phlegmmy snore escapes from one our local Panamanian line-handlers, whom we’ve just hired to help us cross the Panama Canal, “maybe we should get them to DO something?” Dad chuckles in disbelief …one of the guys is sprawled out in the cockpit dead to the world, whilst the other has taken up residence in one of our aft cabins after furiously texting on his Blackberry…and requesting Coco-cola and potato chips…darn this western influence!

 

We have arrived in ship-ridden Panama, Central America, after a benign 5-day sail from touristy Aruba, Caribbean…our first sea on Spice has been duly crossed and we’re starting to adjust to the rhythm at sea. Night watches have been allocated to 3 hours per person…after Jade and I convincing Dad we’re fine doing single watches…and promising to keep our safety harnessed clipped on. The danger of falling overboard at night without being strapped to the boat means it may be hours before anyone realizes your missing…and then trying to locate someone is mighty difficult in the middle of the ocean. We’re becalmed the last few days before Panama, having to motor and hand-steer 24 hours a day…we have no autopilot and our self-steering wind vane needs wind to function. The closer we get to Central America, massive ships begin to converge as we all head toward the Panama Canal. One night I see 6 tiny blips on our radar screen, indicating we’re surrounded by ships which cannot be seen by simply peering into the horizon. Avoiding these ships drives out the occasional monotony of night watches! I try and stretch my legs when it’s calm…they start feeling cramped after being under-used for weeks on end…while my arms do all the work, clinging on as Spice rolls in the gentle Atlantic swell.

 

Days pass calmly…relationships seem to improve at sea…maybe because we’re working as a unit, more consideration is given…we’re all relying on one another to accomplish something. Sometimes we rush up on the slippery, wet deck squealing and whistling when we see a pod of silvery dolphins riding our bow wave. Dolphins seem perpetually happy…it’s hard not to absorb the mood! I sleep a lot more out at sea…12 hours a day normally…strange considering we’re less active during the day. At times the sea is glassy…the surface unbroken…and we see incredible bright blue-purple jellyfish-like creatures floating across the top. Our fishing is dismal…I’m glad we’re not relying on fish as a major food source! We cook up corned beef and canned chicken…doesn’t sound too attractive but Jade and I try keeping the meals interesting…homemade lasagna, fresh baked bread…we run out of fruit though! The last few days at sea and I’m CRAVING fresh food…we resort to drinking lemon juice concentrate, sometimes mixed with Caribbean rum…breaking the bank at $1.88 a bottle from Sint Maarten.

 

After anchoring at Colon, Panama we begin the preparations to cross the canal. Dad hires an agent to sort out the lengthy paperwork, gathering of tires and hiring of line handlers. The Panama Canal is an engineering feat, noted as one of the great wonders of the industrial world. Built in 1914, over 25000 people died during its development. It splits North and South America, acting as a gateway to the immense South Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic, and vice-versa. This prevents ships from traveling all the way down south around Cape Horn. The canal takes us two days to transit and is made up of six gated locks, into which water is pumped in or out. The locks accommodate for the differences in tides and water levels between each ocean. Panamanian regulations require us to have an Advisor, Captain and four line-handlers on board, so we hire two local line-handlers, while Jade and I stand in as the other two. As boats transit the canal, they connect to the lock walls with ropes in order to stay steady in the turbulent water. Jade and I offer our line-handling services to another French boat in the marina, hopeful that they can reciprocate and line-handle for us. The French captain looks doubtfully at us, a little perplexed, “Ah no…but you see, you need to have muscles”…I feel a bit deflated. It’s not true…you need more brain than brawn…most people can tighten a rope which has slack in it…but there’s a major communication barrier here so we just shrug and smile.

 

While waiting to transit the canal, we trek through lush, towering forest surrounding the marina. Sky-high palm trees dwarf us, and we come across old military ruins from when North Americans controlled the canal. The ruins are dilapidated, crumbling and covered in vines and cobwebs. We approach with caution…sloths, leaf-cutter ants, vultures, monkeys and jaguars abide in these forests. I tentatively make my way up a crumbling stone staircase, peering through broken windows…it looks like a scene from Indiana Jones.

 

Panamanians speak Spanish and I try to learn some while I’m here. It’s easier to pick up than other languages and a friend from Guyana, whom we meet on the jetty, prints off some phrases for us…a very sweet gesture. Soon we are hola-ing (hello-ing) and gracias-ing (thanking) everyone we come across! And “por favor que precio une conos?” is a VERY important one…imagine not being able to ask for ice cream! We walk through the streets of Colon, a city known to be a bit dangerous…I think the locals think we are “loco”. Dad needs some boat parts though and we are desperate for fresh food. “Be carefullll” locals warn us as we make our way down the neglected streets. We dress down, trying not to look like tourists, and only carry what we can afford to lose…even so we don’t blend in with the deeply tanned, dark-haired Latin Americans and can feel eyes watching us on every corner. Security guards stand outside shops wearing bulletproof vests and we duck around structurally questionable building overhangs. We buy engine oil, huge pineapples for 50 cents each, and delicious mangoes for 25 cents each…making it back to the boat in one piece!

 

Our date to transit the canal moves forward and we end up waiting only a few days anchored at Club Nautico, a local club for Panamanian fishing boats. At anchor we are surrounded by cargo ships from the world over, along with smaller yachts like ours from France, England, America and Australia. The local line-handlers are picked up from the jetty to spend a couple of days aboard with us. One speaks fluent English, the other a little less…both guys are university students in Panama. Either shy, or simply uninterested, our efforts to engage in conversation with them are fairly fruitless. They chat in Spanish to one another and display an intense fascination with their phones. One asks for “Coca-cola” which we explain we do not carry as we have no refrigeration…and don’t drink much anyway. An hour or so later the question is repeated…sorry guys our situation hasn’t changed much in an hour! I not to laugh as they conk out almost immediately when Dad doesn’t ask them to help right away…hey they’re nice enough…maybe they’ve just had a big night. Our Advisor hops aboard a few hours later to direct us through the canal, he’s friendly, chatty and very encouraging! “Steer a little more to port…a littllle more…very good, right there…you’re doing a great job Andrea!” he enthuses as I steer Spice towards the canal…hmmm I could get used to this treatment, I smile…hoping Dad’s taking careful note!

 

We transit half the canal at night, watching the boat slowly rise through the locks as we leave the Atlantic Ocean, our home for the past four months, behind. As each 6-foot thick gate closes behind the boat, water is pumped in from underneath us and the boat gently rises to the level of the lock in front of us. The water swirls in eddies around our boat, which is rafted up alongside another for the transit, and bright spotlights illuminate us. We arrive at croc-infested Lake Gatun, our halfway point, for the night and raft up with four other boats. We drop a fender overboard and a French backpacker from the boat next door casually walks up to the bow of the boat he’s on, diving over to retrieve it. “I don’t think he knows what’s in the water!” I call over to Jade but he surfaces unscathed…and he knows there’s crocs, but it doesn’t bother him…hmmm. On that note, Jade and I decide it’ll be okay for a quick dip. I perch on the transom step being an awesome croc spotter while Jade swims around. “Jade…ummm…” my eyes widen as I look frantically behind her, “what? WHAT!!??” she yells, “oh myyy goodness…ohhhh it’s…nothing” I tease. It’s ok though, she gets her revenge…I’m feeling the sisterly love :)

 

“Urghhhh…chunder-material!”…I crack the fifth green-black, partially solidified, rotten egg into the bowl. I think I’m going to throw up…maybe scrambled eggs for our workers’ brekkie this morning wasn’t the brightest idea! I try not to make a big song and dance…I don’t want to put them off their food. Seriously though, …no refrigeration on Spice has produced some incredible results with our cheese, bread and eggs so far. We find inch-thick olive-coloured furry mould growing off our Gouda cheese wheel another evening when we want to make pizza… “just scrape it off” becomes our mould motto.

 

It’s the next morning of our canal transit and, after feeding the crew (I manage to find some decent eggs), we welcome a new advisor aboard and the remaining transit is pretty smooth. As the gate to our last lock opens…we take a long look at a brand new ocean! The South Pacific is larger than all the world’s oceans combined we’re eagerly anticipating navigating it…right across to back to Oz.

 

For now though, we are anchored at La Brisas, a calm and pretty anchorage in front of Panama City. Dad is waiting for a spinnaker pole to arrive, and a new mainsail halyard…we snapped our old one on the crossing here. We’ve managed to find some wild sloths…seen our first raccoon…and are currently sweltering! Our next stop…the long awaited Galapagos Islands :)

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N 17° 37' W 63° 14'

Wisdom-less in Aruba

May 06, 2011

My palms are sweaty as I brace myself for the next crunch…nothing like feeling a wisdom tooth shatter under pressure inside your jaw! “I’m going to cut the tooth in half now”…a nerve may be struck…let me know if there’s too much pain” mumbles the dentist. Calm…keep calm…be strong, I tell myself, use some of those visualization techniques you learnt last year in fieldwork placements…YEOWWW!!! My image of a rolling green hill meandering down to a sunlight-hued riverside crumbles and the tooth comes out in six pieces…an abscess is discovered in the gum…gross! It’s Day 5 in Aruba and a dentist has been found in walking distance of Oranjestad, Aruba’s main town. A Holland-trained dentist, above-board surgery and amazingly accommodating receptionists put us at ease. The consultation is scheduled and the surgery takes place the day after that. It’s a nasty one…dentist’s words not mine but trust me I agree! One of the roots is curved right over in my gum like a fishing hook…the dentist does a great job considering. I feel like I’ve had a mechanical workshop whirring inside my head. Nothing can express my relief when it’s over.

 

Initial arrival here sees us anchor in a small, flat watered bay off the coast of low-lying, cactus-covered Aruba. It’s perpetually windy, and we realize we’ve anchored next to a popular tourist attraction here…a sunken wreck, the Antilla. Tourist-laden catamarans sail past unnervingly close to us, pointing cameras in all directions. During the evening we watch balloons with hooks and bait float by, attached to fishing lines by people on the rocks. We recuperate from being out at sea…washing is done…fatigue wears off…Jades bakes bread. We snorkel our to the sunken wreck once the tourist boats have left for the day. INCREDIBLE!!! The wreck is close to the surface and shrouded in coral…it’s eerie…ghostly…stanchions once preventing crew from going overboard are now corroded a sickly green colour. The water above the wreck is thick with reef fish…zebra fish, so tame! They swim up to us…checking for food…close enough to touch. I want to stay longer but Dad moves us on…it’s getting late…shark bait time! We swim back to the anchored dinghy and haul ourselves in.

 

The next day we check in with Immigration and Customs. The offices are quiet…the workers South American-looking and Spanish speaking. This island is so close to Venezuela, it’s seems more South American influenced than African-American like our last port. We explain our reason for pulling in here…boat and tooth troubles. The officers are really helpful…on the phone immediately trying to find a dentist open…going beyond their normal duties.

 

We plane the dinghy into the shiny marina on the forefront of town, smiling at the ‘dingy dock’ sign painted on the jetty we use. We’re in a tourist hub, designed to cater for the thousands of people off the daily arriving cruise ships.  Well-kept boardwalks, green cut grass, spick an’ span restaurants and casinos surround us. People in the streets smile and “hello” us as we pass, such a nice change from other places we’ve visited! We eat at all-American Taco Bell…burritos, tacos, Mexican pizza, nachos…tasty Mexican fast-food…twice in one day is an overkill though…I never want to see another burrito.

 

The dinghy is taken to a strip of land a little way off the island inhabited with brilliant green lizards, large friendly iguanas and sunset-seeped flamingoes. We chat to American tourists, find a family of hermit crabs scurrying along the path and discover that iguanas take leaf food right from our hands. Flamingoes step rightfully up and down the beach like catwalk models, it’s said the type of shrimp they eat gives their feathers the distinct vibrant shade.

 

One day we take a bus out of town to a boat chandlery. The bus is full of Spanish conversation, the landscape dry with huge 5-meter tall cactuses rising up from the earth. As we wait on the edge of the road for our bus back to town, the heat reminds me of Australia, searing and dry! The bus is taking FOREVER…I sit down on the edge of the road and sing ‘Stand by Me’ nice and loud…singing always makes things more bearable.

 

Our last leg to Panama begins next week. We have a spinnaker pole waiting for us there, for better downwind sailing across the Pacific, and need to recruit people to help us get Spice through the canal. It’s a long waterway full of locks where water is rushed in and out, as the ocean on one side of South America is significantly higher than the one on the other side. Strange thought!

 

 

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N 17° 37' W 63° 14'

Caribbean Crossing

May 01, 2011

Quick…grab a settee cushion and throw it in the narrow hallway between the two front cabins…erghh waves of nausea rise as Spice rolls 25 degrees from side to side in steep Caribbean sea…cushion makes it to the floor without me breaking anything…success!…throw sheets on top…watch as their ends dip into the food scraps bucket at the end of the hallway where fresh egg shells have just been tossed…eww…too tired to care…lie down and realize the cushion’s too short to stretch out on and too narrow to curl up on…chuck cushion aside and curl up in the dining area trying to get a precious three hours sleep before my watch…trying not to think there’s at least six more endless days of this to come…have to admit I’m having one of my “what on earth possesses a person to go to sea?” moments.

We’re on Day One of our approximated 6-day sail to Panama from Sint Maarten. The wind is off the quarter meaning it’s pushing the boat along from behind…fast sailing…we’re moving along at around 8-9 knots…11 knots as we surf down waves…wind speeds gusting to 25 knots…choppy seas around 2.5 metres…nice sailing apart from the motion! During the day Jade and I sit outside and try to adjust to the constant rolling of the boat…reading makes us sick…we talk and laugh about recent experiences and home. I sing every song I can think of all the way down to old playschool songs (‘Dingle Dangle Scarecrow’ anyone?) trying to take my mind of the seasickness…desperate measures needed…Dad rolls his eyes…we recite poetry but every second line’s forgotten words are filled with “blah blah blah”…scrap that idea! We see plenty of tiny silver flying fish as they bolt away from the boat’s shadow…probably thinking Spice is a giant fish, and keep a lookout for dolphins and whales. Seabirds fly low here and there but there’s no other sign of life…a plane, maybe a Coast Guard, flies down for a closer look…then circles off into the distance.

As the days pass we get into a 3-hour on and off night watch routine. It seems excessive as we’ve seen no other boats in days but has to be done. I get used to living off crackers, stale bread and pretzel sticks. Jade and I take watches together…there’s something beautiful in the power of the wind and relentless waves…the way the stern of the boat endlessly rises to meet the bubbly crest of each dark wave…and the stars bright and abundant between patches of smoky black cloud. The surroundings somehow add meaning and depth to the music I listen to through headphones at night. Occasionally we hit a squall…we can pick them up on our radar…actually they look more menacing on the radar screen than their reality…still the wind picks up and cold rain pelts down…on the bright side the boat speeds up and adds excitement to the night! Our front cabins are now unusable due to the rough sea…it’s too easy to get thrown out of bed. At first cooking’s a bit crazy…if a hot meal results, it’s a proud achievement! Our gimbaled stove is a lifesaver, it’s mounted on an axis and swings flat no matter how violently the boat falls. Food manages to stay in the pots while things placed on the bare kitchen bench threaten to fly across the cabin. Before we set sail everything needs to be anchored down…I learnt my lesson when I found my hairbrush fallen into the toilet the other day…it now bobs up and down in a bucket of Dettol.

I’m regretting my decision not to get my wisdom tooth extracted before I left for this trip. It’s decided to infect itself at the most optimum of times…hundreds of miles from dentist or doctor. I think it’s the reason for a sudden aversion to sugary foods…it’s difficult to eat properly…getting it extracted on one of the islands will be interesting!

Day Four at sea and we’re detouring 170 miles (~a day sail) to Aruba, a Caribbean island north of Venezuela and Colombia, approximately halfway to Panama. We need to fix the wind-vane (it’s attempting to peel itself of its mount next to the transom step) and sort out my tooth before it abscesses. Dad and Jade spend the better part of last night’s watches constantly checking the wind-vane’s attempted progression to freedom…meanwhile I lie on the cockpit cushion in wet weather gear feeling drowsy and toothachey. Jade self-sacrificially did our watch herself…thanks big sis! As much as I love good sailing, I can’t wait for a good wash and terra firma :)

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N 17° 37' W 63° 14'

Sun, sea turtles & scenic views...Saba, Netherlands Antilles, Caribbean

April 05, 2011


“Captain, permission to come aboard?” the Coast Guard Sergeant states, rather than questions, Dad, as his ominous black 12 metre rigid inflatable dinghy with six Caribbean officers aboard creeps up alongside the Dufour 50’ yacht Spice. They are just a bit intimidating, tall in stature and officiously dressed in black uniforms and belts with holsters for communication aids and what looks like knives and pistols. An undercurrent of quiet hastiness and frantic whispers accompanies the usual serious mood, which typically falls over our family when officials approach us onboard, as we try to explain why we haven’t yet checked into the island. I for the millionth time try to imagine a place where security officials smile, joke and pass pleasant chitchat while we watch them checking our passports in the cockpit. Dad downstairs is hastily trying to locate the scanned ship registration papers on the computer, hissing with annoyance as he fumbles with the tight knots which prevent our laptop from going flying when we sail. As a last straw he ends up severing the knots with a knife. After coming downstairs to check our lifejackets, flares, which we turn the dinette area almost upside down to find (good sign in an emergency?), and alcohol, they are satisfied and we all exhale. All in a morning’s work!

The previous day we have set sail from Sint Maarten, Netherlands Antilles, Caribbean for a nearby island 30 miles away, Saba. Our first shake down sail since the purchase of Spice in Sint Maartenbegins in light breezes and, with both the genoa and mainsail hoisted, we sail a steady six knots. Dad plays around with the self-steering wind vane, which we are hoping will be our autopilot from here to Australia, and discovers…well it’s not really working. Hey what’s new on a boat? To wire things up a bit while we hand steer, Michael (the little bro) turns on the sound system and we pull out some pretty epic dance moves…gotta keep things interesting on an uneventful sail! I love the simple things appreciated out a sea, the silly things you laugh at, the meals you anticipate and enjoy, the conversations held in which life’s problems are solved, the feeling of a fresh water rinse after being encrusted in salt, the strength of the wind and waves in heavy weather, and of course the luxurious bliss of a full night’s sleep after weeks of night watches! Eventually we pull up a mooring on a deserted side of the island, throw on our snorkeling gear and swim towards the only ‘beach’ on the entirety of Saba, a thin strip of land covered in giant pebbles. The breaking waves attempt to throw us onto the rocks so Jade and I stay safely in the water!

  

A few days spent on mountainous Saba, over the Easter long weekend, see us snorkel, dive and trek to the top of Mount Scenery (which lives up to its name!). The island is part of the Dutch Netherlands Antilles and once you conquer the steep, rocky roads leading into the island, you will find yourselves amongst pretty red roofed villages, extremely well kept. The local people, known as ‘Sabans’, seem to travel the island by hitchhiking so we do the same on our way to the base of Mount Scenery. This sheer climb is tiring but really worth the sweat and aching muscles as we enjoy a 360-degree view of the island. We see the airport runway, so short that pilots have to regularly take a special test to navigate it…planes begin their ascent right off the edge of a cliff! I’m proud to say we complete the entire trek wearing only thongs…or flip-flops as they’re called here. The looks on some tourists’ faces! Hey we’re devoted Aussies :)


We snorkel the reefs around the island and I’m ecstatic to see three sea turtles up close. I plan to work on equalizing my ears better so I can get down alongside them. Schools of dory fish make me laugh right into my snorkel. They really look like Finding Nemo’s Dory, lips and all! Jade and Dad go out with a dive boat for a couple of hours one day. The dive boats facilitate deep dives here, 120 feet deep in some spots. Too much sun for me though…I arrive back in Sint Maarten with what seems like heat stroke, a headache which lasts for couple of days and nausea.

 

Panama next up! Oh and we finally have our wind vane working…Dad didn’t like the idea of hand-steering ALL the way to Oz :)

 

 

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N 17° 35' W 63° 21'

Our trip begins..

April 04, 2011

During February and March 2011, the crew of S/V Spice flew from Perth, Western Australia to Sint Maarten, a Dutch/French island in the Netherlands Antilles, Caribbean.

 

The past month has seen us living in the Sint Maarten Shipyard, preparing the boat for the voyage, stocking the boat with copious amounts of provisions, enjoying the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, experiencing a new way of exfoliation: sand from jumbo jet blasts on a beach backing onto the airport, trying local island foods…don’t break your teeth on homemade yam chips!, dodging the guard dogs which roam the shipyard by night, and catching up with lovely friends who stopped at the island on a cruise.

 

With the goal to sail Spice, a Dufour Classic 50 foot sloop, west across the Caribbean Sea, through the Panama Canal, across the South Pacific ocean and safely back to Australia within this year, we are under strict time restraints to avoid the southwest tropical cyclone season starting in November.

 

The next few weeks will hopefully see us setting sail for the Panama Canal, around 8 days non-stop sailing…nightwatches aplenty :) We are all looking forward to making a move and testing the boat!

 

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