August 17, 2011
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!
“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!