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!

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