Thursday, 28 May 2015

Cruising past the Galapagos

This is our ninth morning at sea. The pale outline of Isla Pinta, the northernmost of the major islands of the Galapagos, is fading. We're turning south now, around the outline of Isla Isabella. We won't see much of that either. It's buried in cloud.

Is what we're doing, bypassing the Galapagos because we can't come at the stiff fees and biosecurity regulations imposed on visiting yachts a bit like ignoring Paris and taking the autoroute direct to Avignon, judging that a day or two inside the periphery with a car is not worth the aggro? A bit. We've done that too. Like Paris, the Galapagos seems to be tailored to air traffic. Perhaps one day we'll fly back to this equatorial latitude and join the obligatory tours to play with the giant tortoises and sea lions. For now, we're pressing on, past the rock named for Mr Darwin the naturalist, and along the highway towards the Marquesas.

We've taken a day longer than we expected to make these 1000 miles from Panama, but on the plus side, we've hardly used the engine at all. That's unusual. We know of people who've motored for eight days to get through the ITCZ and down into the trades. We're still north of the trades, but it seems we've benefited from unusual weather which has pushed us along at a decent speed under sail, albeit not in the straightest of lines, and close-hauled. The easy downwind sailing is yet to come, along with fish on the plate, but there are promising signs of both. We've had two strikes. Both times the fish got away. We'll keep putting the line in the water while there are two of us awake, and there's daylight, and the swell and waves are kind enough to make fish action on the aft deck safe and viable .... it isn't THAT straightforward fishing on a sailing vessel, no matter what you hear.

We've signed off the Pan Pacific net and onto the Magellan net which will see us through to the Marquesas in appproximately three weeks. These SSB radio nets are just what they sound like - safety devices. In theory, if other yachts expect you to check in at a certain time (0200 UTC in the case of the Magellan net) and you don't show up for a couple of nights, you are missed. They're loose structures, run by the people who benefit from them. So right now, for example, there are about ten yachts, perhaps a few more, strung out across this 3000 mile run. Unfortunately St Leger, with our friends Doreen and Michael on board, is no longer among them. Their fridge blew up on their first day out of Panama, and they've headed north to Costa Rica to deal with that. So while we don't know any of our fellow travellers personally, by the time we make landfall we'll be very familiar with the names of their yachts and the sound of their voices.

You keep the chat brief - position, wind speed, sea state, cloud cover, boat speed, and sign off with "all's well on board", if indeed it is. If it isn't, the net is where you can broadcast that fact.

Of course we also have our sat phone, EPIRB etc, but this is a closer to home kind of security. Boats have been known to turn around and battle adverse conditions for many hours to go to the aid of another boat which has put out a call for help.

I say all this to ease anxiety, should it still exist on our behalf. This is a well-travelled route, crazy as it may seem. It's called the Coconut Milk Run. Think of it like trekking in Nepal or running a marathon. Same sort of personal challenge. Not everyone who enjoys boating is interested in crossing oceans (in fact, many can't think of anything worse). But for a certain kind of person - someone like Alex, for example, who gets off on being self-sufficient and on the history and romance of sea-faring (don't under-estimate that) - it's the logical conclusion of preparing a boat to go cruising, and then thinking you might like to go somewhere other than your favourite coastal anchorages. All the better if you can share the experience. Most single-handers we've met are not cruising alone by choice.

So here we are. I didn't think I'd got to philosophizing, but damn it, all this space allows the mind to freewheel. Bread's out of the oven, Alex is out for the count, dolphins spotted cavorting to starboard, small birds skimming the surface of the milky grey ripples to port, larger birds (our Galapagos hitchhikers) gone off fishing, leaving the pulpit free, and, as they say in Netland, all's well on board. May it stay that way.

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Saturday, 23 May 2015

The lure of the doldrums

Now that we're out here, we're turning over everything we've heard or read about this passage from Panama to the Galapagos. It's a bit of a crapshoot, to use a phrase I'd never use.

What sticks in our brains is something we heard from Michael Barker, a garrulous Kiwi rigger who hangs out a lot at the Balboa Yacht Club ("not a bad office, is it?"). He's done 12 Pacific crossings (12!). On 10 of them, he passed north of the Galapagos. The two times when he went beneath the Galapagos were the least successful, he said, but he didn't think his experience was statistically significant.

For us it is. Anything is statistically significant when your experience is zero.

Just as there was for the Atlantic crossing, there is a rule of thumb for this passage too. Make your first waypoint the Isla Marpelo (a buttressed rock which belongs to the Colombians). From there, head south. After some time, you'll find the south-east trades; turn west. There are some magic numbers mentioned too - 2 degrees north and 83 degrees west. It all comes good when you line those up apparently.

Of course there are more modern ways of routing. I can request grib files and NOAA's East Pacific high seas forecast on the sailmail, but they tell me more or less the same thing. The trades are where they always are, way down south. What's in between here and there - the fluctuations of the Intertropical Convergence Zone - is ours to deal with on an as-it-comes basis.

We left Isla Marpelo behind as darkness fell yesterday. We've got plenty of wind (now that's a surprise) but for most of today it's been coming from the south-west. So we're close-hauled, and tacking - zigzagging from west to south. Cruisers like to go in the right direction. On the positive side, we're not motoring.

I had thought I'd be writing about our first fish. Spare you the nautical details (how we've had the gennaker out of the bag, the foul weather gear out of the locker etc). But we haven't caught a fish yet. Yesterday seemed like a great day for catching fish. Wind from the right direction, boat level, no squalls, a day to give thanks for. But the fish ignored our lures. We tried two. We've got more.

Today we've been busy sailing again. Sailing can be busy. It's not all naps after lunch and sundowners. I'm struggling to keep up with my radio schedules and the second of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy.

I've also got my work cut out trying to keep the bounty of the central Panama fruit and vege market moving along. I missed the rock melon, and the lettuce. They turned to mush before they made the menu. The tropics are tough on leafy, juicy things. The forepeak smells of pineapple. The saloon smells of banana cake (aha, got those bananas). Best not to talk about other smells. It's very hot and we're heading towards the equator. The boat's exterior is pristine though, sluiced clean of Panama's blanketing dust. On our second day out it rained heavily. Actually, neither of us had ever seen rain like it. Torrential rain. Monsoon trough rain. Mesmerising. And soaking.

Alex reminded me today of the half bottle of Veuve Cliquot we bought in readiness for crossing the Equator. I'll drink champagne anytime, but it would go very nicely with fish, I believe.

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Thursday, 14 May 2015

Pause for Panama

Enki moored at the BYC at the Pacific entrance to the canal

In the evening, from the mooring field of the Balboa Yacht Club, we watch the bead of light streaming across the Bridge of the Americas. Panama City is notorious for its heavy traffic. Upstream from the bridge are the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. We've got them behind us. What a good transit it was.

On the Caribbean side, our first advisor Rod (in red tee-shirt) steps aboard

Our two "nesting" companions (above and below)

James and Doreen get the lines ready to raft up

Rod's day job is officer on the tugs - yacht advisory work is done on days off

The Gatun locks - pulling up the lines from the top of the walls

The lock is nearly full ....below, it's full

On the horizon to the south is another dense necklace of lights. Those are the ships mulling about,  waiting to transit the canal from the Pacific. Day and night, they slip past us with their towers of freight, the Panamax and RORO monsters and all shapes and sizes of ship down the scale. Panama funnels the world's shipping. There's more than enough of that to keep the canal open 24 hours. But in between the ships, the Panama canal schedulers must find slots for small boats like ours. Our second advisor (each yacht must have an advisor on board) told us the Panama Canal Authority would much rather yachts went "the other way" i.e. around Cape Horn. Whatever toll a yacht is charged to transit, it never covers costs apparently.

The shipping lane next to the mooring field (and below)

Now that we've been here in Balboa a few days - we are late leaving because of a couple of technical problems - I almost wish we could do the canal all over again. I would see more. I would not be as nervous.

We transited in two parts. For the first part (we left the Flats anchorage ahead of schedule, at around 1630), we were rafted up with two smaller yachts, with Enki in the centre, her engine powering the "nest" through the Gatun locks. The lack of preparedness of the other two yachts, neither of which were in particularly good condition, shocked and rattled us. We had a strong team - the unflappable James and Delvis, experienced line handlers, as well as Doreen and Mike, both good mariners. The other yachts made a much less confident showing with several "line handlers" who didn't seem to know one end of a boat from the other. Backpackers? It happens.

There was serious doubt about the forward cleat on one of the smaller boats. Given an ultimatum from his advisor - fix it, or stop here - the captain sent a capable girl with a tool kit into the anchor locker. The cleat was pronounced acceptable, but a line was run from Enki's forward cleat to the lock wall, just in case.

Alex did the driving, while the other two boats kept their engines running. He was cool, calm and collected (or at least, that was the impression). Michael was everywhere at once. Someone will have to tie that man to the wheel when St Leger transits, Doreen said.

Michael and Doreen, team St Leger

Moored on the Gatun Lake (two NZ-flagged yachts)
After the first couple of locks, the routine on the other two boats settled down. By dusk we were tied to a huge mooring in the Gatun Lakes. Rod, our first advisor, was picked up by the pilot boat before I could get dinner on the table (catering is taken seriously by the agents - we cleared the bar though).  Our second advisor was delivered to us at 0630 and for the next four hours we motored at full throttle across the lake, and then into the Cut. Ships passed all the time in the other direction. Nobody saw any crocodiles. The much-vaunted Panamanian wildlife was having an off-day. But it was fun. Honestly, I'd use that word too.

Going through the Miraflores locks we were rafted up to only one other boat, with a big New Zealand-flagged ketch ahead of us. Perhaps going downhill is always easier, or perhaps we had learned the ropes. It seemed an easier day.

The pictures below tell the rest of the story.

Michael checks the mooring

Early on the second day, the pilot boat returns with new advisors

Crossing Gatun Lake

Canal maintenance
An old canal lighthouse

Traffic in the Galliard Cut 

Centennial Bridge

Looking back to the second Miraflores lock

The last downhill lock at Miraflores

A cleaner nips across the lock gates as they close

Enki passes beneath the observation platform at Miraflores

The water is halfway out....then we're out into the Pacific (below)

A Panamax comes into the canal as we exit

I'm sitting under the clacking ceiling fans of the thatch-roofed, open-sided Balboa Yacht Club, the best vantage point in town from which to watch marine traffic. Alex is doing an oil change. He'll hail a water taxi when he's finished (that service comes with the mooring fee). We won't be budging far from here today. Panama City itself is a taxi ride away. We're well acquainted with taxi protocol now (fares are negotiable, and cheap), having scoured the city for a compact flash adapter for our Pacific Navionics Gold chart - and turned up nothing. Old Technology, we were told, time and again. Haven't seen one of those for a while. We got luckier with the broken generator elbow.

Panama City's needly skyline 

View from San Felipe, the old district

You can walk around most parts of Panama apparently, but not for long because of the heat, and not everywhere because of the bandidos.  It's safe to stroll around the old city of Panama (re-sited in 1673 after Henry Morgan, the pirate, razed the original Panama to the ground in 1671), though its restoration seems to be a stop-start affair. At its back is a neighbourhood heavy with police "presence".

Restoration in the old part of Panama (and below)

The Canal Museum - for Spanish speakers

Lunch -  tasted a lot better than he looked

We'll be on our way as soon as possible. Our timetable is Fedex's at the moment. That pesky adaptor we need is coming from New Hampshire.

Friday, 8 May 2015

The Panama run

Before the canal, Panama was Porto Bello and its harbour
We're called a Y-Job. First timers through the Panama Canal. That means we'll have a Panama Canal Authority Advisor with us when we transit from the Colon side of the Panama isthmus to the Pacific side. We have been instructed to feed him well, and to offer him only bottled water. No watermaker water, thank you.

The Panamanian Canal Authority Admeasurer visits Enki

We enter the canal on the evening of Saturday 9 May, all going according to plan. That's tomorrow.

Sailing through anchored ships towards the canal breakwater - Atlantic anchorage, it's called

Approaching the breakwater, under motor 

We've been instructed by our agent (Erick Galvez, from Centenario Consulting) to leave Shelter Bay Marina in time to be anchored at the Flats (the anchorage off Colon) by 1 pm. The advisor won't come on board until 5 pm,  but you cross the channel when when you're told to cross, you anchor where you are told to anchor, and then you listen out carefully on Channel 12 for any changes to the schedule. The traffic going through the Panama Canal is much too big to argue with.

We're going through.

It's quite something.

When we say we're nervous, we mean it. Not jittery nervous, just aware that while most transits are uneventful (people on a large catamaran which came in last night from the Pacific side described their transit as "fun"), there isn't any room for error. You take this one seriously.

Shelter Bay marina takes cruisers to the supermarket by bus, and picks them up

Other people walk...
or catch public transport

We crossed over the canal the other day by road on the way to the Rey supermarket on the grim outskirts of gangster-ridden Colon. The massive, studded iron gates of the first of the three Gatun locks looked their age, 100 years old. Water ripped through the median "strip" separating the canal's two lanes. The currents in the locks are notoriously strong. You're forbidden to swim, though I've read of one yacht skipper who jumped overboard to cut away a line which had wrapped around the prop. You don't want that happening. Definitely not.

A jerry jug necklace - we've got 12 now

Alex checks the secondary fuel tank for sludge

We'll have four extra bodies on board, in addition to the advisor. Two are very experienced seafarers, Doreen and Michael from the Canadian yacht St Leger whom we met at Curacao Marine and shared an anchorage with at Porto Bello, about 20 miles east of the canal breakwater. St Leger (another Y-job) is booked to transit the canal a few days after us, and Doreen and Michael jumped at the chance to be line-handlers on Enki. We're hiring a couple of young electrical engineering students to make up our required 4 line-handlers (I'm floating, and the cook). They come with Erick's personal recommendation - one is his son. We've heard from other cruisers who've transited with these boys that they know their stuff, and they speak English well. We think we're in good hands all round.

Panama is the end of one stage, and the beginning of another.

Porto Bello town and anchorage

Spanish cannons at what's left of one of three forts at Porto Bello

A restored Spanish custom house - 17th century

They no longer stack silver in the streets of Porto Bello

We've covered a lot of miles since we left Turkey at the end of May last year. It makes sense in some respects to do as Australian friends we've met along the way are doing which is leave your boat here at Shelter Bay marina (we've spotted a shrink-wrapped Tainui on the hard), go home and see the family (and, for the well organised, earn some money) and then come back to the boat in, say, November. That allows time to fit in a bit more cruising in the western Caribbean and then get an early start on the big trip across the Pacific. Some yachts go through the canal as early as January on the understanding that cyclones are so rare in the eastern part of French Polynesia that the usual caveat about not sailing in the Pacific before April can be safely ignored. Certainly many people go through in February now, with the peak transit season for yachts heading across the Pacific being March and April. We are at the tail end of the armada.

Shelter Bay marina is backed by jungle 

Fringe dwellers at Shelter Bay
Ah, the benefits of hindsight. We could have organised our cruising adventure so many different ways. But when we started out on Enki three years ago, we did what was possible and we're still doing what is possible. There is no perfect way of living on a boat as long as you keep moving (some people in this marina have forgotten, or abandoned that basic premise - going troppo is a bit of a risk in these parts, I reckon).

Gone troppo - at Porto Bello

Sunrise at Shelter Bay

When we're at anchor off Panama City, we'll be in the Pacific ocean. We'll still be in the Pacific ocean five months later when, all going well (I am like a parrot), we'll enter NZ waters.  If you can cross the Pacific once in a lifetime in your own boat, you are lucky.