Saturday 9 May 2015

Panama to Galapagos

Galapagos Islands 11th February to 4 March 2015

The sail from Panama to the Galapagos was going to involve a lot of motoring as we were crossing the equator and sailing through the Doldrums. It was 900 miles and on board were John, Catherine, Sarah and Chris.

Leaving Panama
The rally was due to leave from the Las Perlas Islands off Panama on 11 February. We were all acutely aware that we had to prepare the boats to be allowed access into the Galapagos islands which included removing all slime and barnacles from the boat. Our original plan was for Andy and Emma from Pentagram to do this but events conspired against us – we had to return to Panama City to get our generator fixed and then both Andy and Emma were ill just before the start and while they valiantly tried to clean the hull, they could not spend enough time on it.

So we employed a professional diver and left six hours after the rest of the boats and just as it was getting dark. We started with good winds as we got into the Gulf of Panama which rapidly rose to 40 knots + with gusts of up to 55 knots. This was Chris’s first real sail with us since he joined us in Panama - in the dark with a big sea behind us and sailing between islands either side and shipping coming to and from the Canal. What an introduction to ocean cruising that was!

With the help of Sarah and Chris we managed to reef the boat and get it under control but not before we took a few waves that knocked us sideways with the consequence that the wind got in front of the genoa and ripped out some of the rivets holding the genoa pole to the mast. Nothing we could do except put away the pole and not use it – effectively it meant that we could not sail downwind directly and had to be at least 30 degrees off the wind, one side or the other.

By morning the winds had calmed down and we settled into sailing the 900 miles to the Galapagos. At least for the first 24 hours because that was as long as the wind lasted and we were then three days motoring in breathless conditions but helped by a strong current.

We crossed the equator with a celebratory drink of champagne with a toast to Neptune.
Crossing the Equator

We finally managed to sail for the last couple of days into the wind coming off the port bow for about 36 hours until we got to the top of San Cristobel and we were faced with 28 miles of beating directly  into the wind and against the current. Sod that, we decided we would motor so as to get there and get through the formalities quicker!

The Inspection Team

 We had been well briefed on what to expect and we radioed in as we approached San Cristobel so that the officials could come and meet us. The first thing was the three divers who spent 15 minutes inspecting the hull to ensure it was clean. An hour later the 7 officials came on board to inspect the boat, what we had on board and how we managed the boat e.g. rubbish etc. we filled out separate forms for each of the officials, much with the same information on and we showed them round the boat while they opened cupboards, inspected the fridge and all our stores. The only thing that came out of this was that a mango was confiscated, being wrapped up in tape with the words “dangerous item” printed on it. Otherwise we got a clean bill of health. Whew, what a relief.

San Cristobel 18 march - March
The first thing that struck us about San Cristobel was the sheer number of sea lions. They were on the back of boats, on the quayside, on the beach and hundreds of them. We were advised not to use our dinghies for that reason and to make sure that we did not give them the opportunity to get on the boats. They can be difficult to dislodge and are not house trained! In the harbour there is a fleet of water taxis that ferry people to and from the yachts anchored in the harbour and it was a very good service.

The town itself is very small with minimal shopping facilities other than basic food stuff. Fortunately we did not need much.

We took a taxi ride around the island the next morning and by 2pm we had pretty much seen all the major sites on the island:
  • A tree house that was enormous that some over indulgent parent had built for their kids about 50 years ago, complete with a fireman’s pole and a basement beneath the tree.  It really was quite spectacular and a popular place for tourists.
  • A walk around the highest lake on the island which gave us the opportunity to do some hiking and see the birds using the fresh water lake to clean themselves. As it was high up and to the windward side of the island, it rained while we walked around which was very refreshing, if not slightly damp!
  • The tortoise breeding centre where they breed the giant tortoises before

    letting them back into the wild. This was a 2 mile trail up a mountain where you saw nothing until about 100 years from the exit where all the giant tortoises hang out. Mainly because that is where they put the food and water for them. If we had known this, we could have walked around the breeding centre in the reverse direction and saved the two mile walk.

The highlight was the trip to Kicker Rock which was a 45 minute fast boat ride (fast and wet with the spray) and then a swim through the gap in the rocks which lasted about an hour. We saw plenty of fish and reef sharks in clear water as the current drifted us through the rocks. Another boat had seen some hammerhead sharks the other side of the rock and they took us back around so that we could see them. It makes you realise how big these sharks are when they are swimming 5 metres under you. Fortunately they are well fed in the Galapagos because of the abundance of marine life so we were not on the menu.

Andy from Pentagram came over to our boat to look at the genoa pole track armed with a rivet gun and 20 years experience of dealing with metal. It took us two hours to straighten the track and re-rivet the pole back in place – something that I expected to be a lot more difficult. That night, Chris prepared a BBQ and Andy and Emma joined us for what was a splendid meal on board as a way of saying thank you for fixing the pole. And as ever when we meet up with Andy and Emma we had a good few drinks!

Our favourite island although to get to the town required a water taxi from the boat (a very poor service and expensive), and a 1.5 km walk along a hot dusty road under construction. The town was something like I imagined in a wild west town to be with wide dirt roads and one main street. There were a few restaurants and bars and a few shops, mainly offering tourist visits.

The first day we took a water taxi the price was $1 which was the same as San Cristobel.. The trip back became two dollars and in the evening they charged everyone $5 and we had no option but to use them. The next day and thereafter we used the dinghy and took the risk that we would find a sea lion in it when we returned. We also decided to take the short cut across the reef which we could do if the sun was behind us or it was night time and we could use a torch to spot the coral heads. We could only do this if it was at least half time but it saved about 10 minutes and a long trip around the reef.
The second day we decided that we would walk up to the Wall of Tears, a wall that had been built by convicts while it was a penal colony as late as the 1960s. It was a brutal regime and the prisoners were made to build a wall that was totally pointless – and in the heat of the equatorial sun. Eventually it was closed down but not before many convicts died in the process.

We left the boat at 10:00 in the morning and in typical English style chose the heat of the day to walk the 8 Km up the hill to the wall. It was a very long, hot and tiring walk and there was no-where to get any water at the top. Seeing the wall was a little disappointing after spending 3 hours getting there but it was good to have a long walk. The walk back was at least downhill and we stopped to have our picnic on route. We stopped at one of the beaches and while Sarah and Catherine went for a swim, Chris and I laid on some benches and had a good sleep. Sarah and Catherine took the opportunity to eat some cake on the beach which we had bought for afternoon tea, only to be told off by one of the wardens since consuming food in the national park was not allowed. Not sure how they expect people to walk all that way and back without something to eat!

The following day, Chris and I had arranged to walk up to the top of the Volcano which involved getting to the dinghy dock by 8:00 ready to be picked up and driven to the base of the Volcano. We joined a group of 20 people, some of whom spoke English and the rest Spanish. You have to have a guide and the tour was in supposed to be in English. As he seemed reluctant to actually speak to anyone it might have well been in Spanish. We had a two hour walk up to the top crater (the second largest in the world) and then on a further hour to set of barren rocks which had stunning views over the island.

Meanwhile Sarah and Catherine stayed on the boat before heading into town. Sarah had gone for a snorkel from the back of the boat the 100m to the reef only to be told that she must have a guide to do so – several times! Not sure what value the guide would add other than providing employment for a guide.

Our final trip was to the lava tunnels which entailed a one hour fast boat ride along the coast and then snaking through a series of reefs to get into the heart of the lava tunnels. The tunnels were produced by gas within the lava which created bridges over the water ways. Quite spectacular as were the penguins that live there. Smaller than traditional penguins but they are an odd site in such a warm place.

We were taken snorkelling to see some of the wild life. The sea horse was very suspicious – it was fixed around a plant growing up from the rocks in about 5m of water and there were no other sea horses around. It was suspicious because we were taken straight to the place where it was and it did not move at all. However the sharks we saw were real and swam around us as was the giant turtle which as 1.5m long by 1m wide and happily munched on the sea bed while we dived down around it.

While we were in Isobella, we adopted The Booby as our place of choice to drink. It was run by an American with a Galapagos wife who had passable wifi and provided a very friendly service. We passed many an afternoon with Pentagram (Emma and Andy) plus an assortment of crews from other boats drinking and chatting the afternoon and evening away.

Santa Cruz
We had to be in Santa Cruz for 28th February when Martin was once again joining us. Victor joined us for the 40 miles trip to Santa Cruz to get back to Wayward Wind which he had joined as crew. They had missed out Isobella and gone straight to Santa Cruz and Victor had jumped on a ferry to get to the island. He spent three night in a hammock on the beach as it was cheaper than staying in a hotel.

Bailing out the water
On the trip across to Santa Cruz, I picked up one of the floor boards to check the bilges to find that we had 2 feet of water in the boat. A little bit of a shock to say the least and I found out that the bilge pump was not working either. We closed off all the sea cocks and could not find the source of the leak. So we set about with buckets and pint glasses to empty the bilge which took about an hour until it was a reasonable level having taken out 60 gallons of water by hand. I then managed to fix the bilge pump and we cleaned out the rest of the water.

The leak was traced to a gasket on the fridge sea water cooling pump which was a small but steady stream of water. I could not believe that it could have created so much water in the bilge but once we switched it off no more water appeared. Chris and I had checked the bilges while at anchor not four days earlier so that it must have happened during that time. It was a few days later until I was convinced that this was the sole source of the leak but we had no more trouble once we sorted this out. Just another job to add to the list of jobs before we were to leave Santa Cruz for the 3000 mile trip across the Pacific in 4 days time!

We met up with Martin on the 28th in the local bar as arranged. Sarah decided to move off the boat into a hostel for her final two days to allow Martin to move into her cabin which was very nice of her. Catherine also joined her in the hotel to have a few days away from the boat and I suspect away from Chris, me and the endless list of jobs to be done.

Preparation for the Pacific
Martin’s bag was a little heavy when we met him. He had very kindly agreed to bring any spares out from the UK with him since they are difficult to get out here. While there were quite a few packages delivered to his house, they were mainly small and light weight – until the final order. I had decided that the generator needed a new collector ring and bearings which I ordered from the UK as an urgent request, 4 days before Martin was due to fly. The order had to go through to the headoffice in Brussels and they could only supply a complete replacement unit and not the individual components in the time frame. And it had to be expedited by courier to the UK.

Apart from the cost of all this, it weighed 12.5kg which is hardly hand luggage. I had taken a little gamble that this was the part needing replacement and so the cost and the effort of getting it out to us seemed excessive at the time. However it turned out to be the best thing I have done for long while.
With all the spares that Martin had brought, it meant that we could now get on with the jobs on the boat.  Martin and Chris both worked solidly through the list with a few hours off in the afternoon.
We also had to get all the food, water, fuel and gas sorted out for our trip, the food being the most time consuming and difficult. Several trips to markets and supermarkets were undertaken mainly by Martin and Catherine while Chris and I carried on the repairs on the boat.

Shopping takes on a whole new importance when you are shopping for 4 people for 3-4 weeks at sea knowing that anything you have forgotten or not bought enough of is just tough. And food is a very important part of life on board as it is one of the key ingredients in maintaining morale on a long journey so not something you want to get wrong.

Fixing the Generator
Chris and I had spent three days trying to get the fan off the generator so that we could replace the Collector and bearings – it was the first job after taking off the casing which itself was difficult because of the working space in the engine room.  We had tried to clean the Collector which we could see was pitted and not much copper left on it but it was too far gone and so we started to take the generator apart. After three days it was clear that no amount of heating, hitting and pulling was going to shift the fan and Andy from Pentagram offered to come and help. At 1:30 on the day before we were due to leave, Andy came over and tried and failed to remove the fan which made me feel better in one way but it still gave us the problem of how to get it off.

Andy decided that the only way this was going to work was to replace the whole of the unit which meant dismantling the core of the generator. Given the time and the fact we were leaving the next day I was more than a little nervous about stripping it down but Andy was confident. Two hours later and a lot of effort and heavy lifting we extracted the generator itself from the engine compartment. It was bloody heavy!!! We also found that not only had the Collector gone but the bearings were also on their last legs and so replacing the whole unit was the only viable option. Fortunately I had bought a complete unit so we could repair it.

Taking out the whole generator unit allowed us better access to getting the fan off (it is only plastic held around a metal centre pushed on a tapered shaft). No amount of heating, bashing or pulling would move it and so we had to drill out the side of the taper. Two hours later and more bashing and pulling and we got off the fan intact.  It took a further two hours to reassemble the generator with more heavy lifting, careful alignment and rewiring before we could test it. And it worked first time!

It took a further hour the next morning to clear up the boat from all the effort with the generator and we still had to get the final shopping, sort out the weather forecast etc.  But we were ready on time although a little tired!

Panama Canal

Panama Canal 26 February to 4 March

We reached Shelter Bay on the Caribbean side of Panama on 28 January as planned to meet Chris Budd who was joining us for the Pacific leg of the journey. We were due to transit the canal on 3 February so we had 5 days in Shelter Bay, two days to transit the canal and then a further two days in Panama City before heading off to the Las Perlas Islands, thirty miles off the coast of Panama.

Shelter Bay
The days after we arrived we went on a visit to the Panama Canal. In fact it was the same visit that Catherine and I did the previous year on a trip with Capgemini but it was interesting to see it again as we would be soon going through it. It also gave Chris his first glimpse of the locks we would be going through. The boats that go through the locks are built to a specification that allows just a few feet clearance between the ships and the side of the locks and are held in position by four trains with steel cables attached to the boats. It made you realise just how little clearance these boats have.

Catherine and I took our first reconnaissance of the shops the next day as we were advised to get most of the shopping we needed on this side of the canal. The shuttle bus left at 8 in the morning (there is only one per day) and took us on a 45 minute journey to the local shopping centre, crossing the canal. The first 20 minutes were along a pot holed road where the bus had to swerve from side to side to miss the potholes and could only travel at 10 miles per hour. When we reached the locks we had to wait until the locks were closed to be able to cross the canal which would take 30- 40 minutes of waiting in a traffic queue and then a further 30 minutes to get to the shopping centre. So the whole journey was about an hour and half each way.

The shopping centre was not as I was expecting. There was one fairly small supermarket and a number of shops which looked pretty run down and even one that sold guns. Many of the shops had signs on them barring the carrying of guns in their shops and it was not an area that you want to hang about in too long. The supermarket covered all the basic needs but not much than that.

The following day we went on one of the visits which was the highlight of our stay in shelter Bay. There is a tribe of Indians that live deep in the jungle which allow tourist to visit twice a week during the first 3 months of the year – during the dry season. The tribe numbers 140 people who still live a traditional life style although earn some income from tourism. They originated in Columbia but moved to Panama to escape the conflict about 150 years ago and have lived there since.
Something was funny!
We were taken by bus to a river, a two hour drive from Shelter Bay where we were met by the Indians in dugout canoes with large outboard engines attached. From there they took us on a 30 minute fast ride along the river, deep into the jungle to their village which is the only route to get there. Very remote and cut off from civilisation except by boat. The shame is that they can no longer hunt animals (because of international law) and have turned to tourism to allow them to support their independence.
Traditional dwelling

We were treated to traditional cooking of fish and plantains wrapped in a cup made of leaves and they talked about their life style through an interpreter. Much of the traditions remain (apart from hunting) and villagers can only marry within the village if they are to remain there. So very few have left and they provide their own schooling for the children.
Catherine having a Tattoo

While we were there a group of American tourists arrived from a
cruise ship. They did not have the traditional food we eat but had bought their own food – processed white bread with processed slices of cheese and ham with tomato sauce. It was amusing to see this.

The ride back was equally wet as the ride there as dugout canoes are not really designed to have outboard engines and go at that speed. But the journey through the jungle was beautiful and was part of the magic of the trip.

Our final few days at Shelter Bay consisted of maintenance of the boat plus one major shopping trip where we tried to buy six month’s worth of dry food (rice, pasta, flour etc) since provisioning would get more difficult and expensive as we crossed the Pacific. We also needed to get enough meat for the next 8 weeks to see us through to the Marquesa islands, 4000 miles to the west.

Each evening we would meet up in the bar with the crews from the other boats, the core being ourselves, Andy and Emma from Pentagram plus some of the crew from Exocet Strike. Many a good evening was had at the bar with happy hour from 5pm – 7pm providing the focus to stop working on the boat and go for a drink.

Transiting the Canal
We left the marina at 3pm to go to a holding anchorage about 4 miles away from the first lock. Each boat had to have one pilot on board for the entire journey and one of the key requirements was to feed them when they arrived. And keep them fed and watered during the next 24 hours.

Ricardo - our pilot for the canal
Our pilot was Ricardo who was also the manager for the transit of our yachts through the canal.  Not a small man to say the least but very friendly and unexpectedly he brought with him a trainee, equally as large. Catherine had already prepared and cooked a beef stew for us all but with the size of our guests had to forgo her dinner least they went hungry on route!

All the 9 boats set off together towards the first lock two hours before our scheduled lock time to cover the 4 miles. We had to go very slowly as it was only 4 miles but we did have to come together in groups of three to raft up. The first boat we rafted up to was not from the Rally and the boat had seen better days (or had been in lots of adventures and come off worst in them) so when the skipper brought the boat alongside while trying to video the procedure it explained a lot about his boat.  But we had fendered the boat well so after his third attempt at actually coming alongside rather than bouncing off us we managed to tie him up without any damage being done. The other boat Allegro was from the Rally and rafting up was, as it should have been, very easy.

We approached very slowly into the lock at dusk with line handlers
each side of the lock throwing pilot lines onto the two outside boats of each raft. The crew grabbed the pilot lines which were attached to the huge dock lines onto their boats while as the centre boat we provided the steering and power for the raft. It seemed to take an age to get the three rafts into the huge locks before the doors closed and the lock started to fill. As the boats rose the 10m in the locks, the crews had to pull in the slack on the dock lines to keep the raft still and in the middle of the lock. With a million gallons of water rushing in over a 10 minute period, there is some turbulence in the lock but not as much as I expected. It felt like going up in a very slow lift but fast enough so you were aware that the boats we rising.

We repeated the same process for the first group of three locks at the entrance so that we were 30m above sea level after two hours and into Gatun lake the other side. There we tied up to a buoy for the night while our pilot guides left us to go home at 10pm only to be back at 7am the next morning (and ready for breakfast!).

We were the last boats to go through the locks in this direction that night (the direction of the boats changes every 6 hours) and we left our anchorage before the direction changed again so that we would be ahead of the new set of boats coming into the canal. We had 28 miles to go to the next lock and were scheduled to go just ahead of a car carrier at 12:10. If we were not there on time, the boats behind us would overtake us and we would lose our slot.

Gatun Lakes after the first locks
The first part of the journey was through Gatun Lake which is a flooded valley where you can still see the tops of trees that have not yet disintegrated. It was through the jungle most of the way and provided plenty of things to look at. We only saw one crocodile although the canal is full of them so swimming is not encouraged! All the way along we were passing container ships coming the other way and we had to keep well over to avoid them, particularly on bends where often tug boats were needed to get them around the corners.

Three Rally Boats rafted in the lock
The second set of locks are three separate locks which took us down 30m back to sea level. As we approached the first of these, a big oil tanker was coming out of the other lock and after a lot of shouting we were asked to put on full power to get into the lock on the right hand side. When we looked back 20m behind us we could see the oil tanker being pushed by two tugs sideways across the canal to where we had been coming along so that it could get around the bend further up.

The first lock was still quite exciting as it was the first one in the day light. We could see lots of people in the viewing platforms, more interested in the big ships going through the canal than us. There is 7 miles to the next set of two locks which are together took us back to sea level and into the Pacific which felt like quite a milestone.

We moored in a marina for two days on the Pacific side of the canal and Catherine and I went for a visit into the old town. We found a micro brewery which served their own beer that was not lager – first time since we left the UK we could drink real beer. We found a nice restaurant for dinner with the bar on the top floor overlooking the city. It was a pleasant place for a gin and tonic while we waited the 45 minutes for a table and it was worth the wait. Some of the best food we had had in a restaurant for months.

Las Perlas Islands 

We left the marina on the third day to go to the Las Perlas islands. Very beautiful islands, some of which were uninhabited (and one where a TV reality programme had been made (survivor or something like that) but no-one seemed to know which but we went for a walk around it anyway. The main island was very attractive with some beauriful houses dotted around the island. It was where the drug barons used to own holiday homes but since been fallen out of favour (or they are all in jail somewhere, probably Columbia).  Now slightly jaded but still very attractive. The only mode of transport are golf carts driven along immaculate roads with stunning beaches around the coast. 

Unfortunately the generator stopped working and we were forced to go back to Panama City to have it fixed. So we cut short our visit and spent yet another day waiting while it was taken apart and fixed. By lunchtime it was working again and 20 minutes later stopped. So they had to come back and spend another 6 hours trying to fix it.

It was also the day that Sarah was due to arrive from Equador so she was able to meet us in the marina rather than take a ferry to the Las Perlas islands. It was good to have Sarah back with us and we enjoyed listening to all her stories over the coming days.

So with the generator fixed (or so we thought), we set off again to Las Perlas to get the boat ready for the crossing to the Galapagos.