The Galapagos, the Hard Way!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Well hello everyone and Happy New Year from Jan and I from the Galapagos Islands off of the coast of Ecuador. We have been anchored in Puerto Baquerizo on San Cristobel for 18 days now licking our wounds and fixing all of the boat stuff we broke sailing over here.  It’s with no exaggeration when I say I have spent probably 80% of our time here so far either repairing the boat, looking for boat parts or shopping for provisions to restock the ships larder.

As most of you already know we lost our engine due to water in the fuel which struck while we were still 400 miles north of the Galapagos Islands. This left us to beat up wind, (Sometimes in gales as well as calms) driving the boat hard while battling the strong currents that surround the islands.   If all this wasn’t enough, the brand new radar system that I had installed just days before departing Mexico, failed within hours of leaving port.

The loss of the radar meant that not only was it hard to track nearby shipping or fishing boats, but it also  left us virtually blind as we relied upon sharp navigation as we passed close to islands in the dead of night or in blinding rain storms while engineless.

At times it was very nerve wracking. On the dawn of our 9th day at sea the growing light gave us our first glimpse of the Galapagos, it was Isla Santa Pinta which was less than two miles away. The excitement of the land fall and beauty of the uninhabited, green volcanic isle was lost to us because a strong, west setting current was drawing us in towards shore. The sight of the braking waves upon the black bolder beach was all the encouragement we needed to sail sharp and attempt to claw our way back out to sea. We spent the remainder of the day trying to avoid being driven ashore on first, Isla Pinta, then her sister island, Isla Marchena, a barren shore already known for shipwrecks.

At one point, in light winds, I was forced to launch our inflatable and with its 15hp motor, tow Maiatla around the rugged southern headland on Isla Marchena that just seemed determined not to let us pass.

Just arriving at our chosen port here in the Galapagos safely was no small feat and I’m so proud of Maiatla and her crew, (Mark, Nic & Marina) for rising up to the challenge.  If you ever had to throw a reef into a big mainsail on a pitching deck in the middle of the night during a gale, while functioning on just a few hours’ sleep for days on end, you know what I mean.

Well aside from the engine problems, our freezer packed it in preventing us from keeping most of the fish we caught. (Hooked two sword fish but lost them.) We ripped a batten out of the mainsail and blew some stitching our of our head sail. Because we were working the boat so hard, (and the caulking dried out in the tropical heat over the last four years) the portholes started to leak.

Under normal circumstances in typical rain this would have been a mere aggravation but since approaching the equator the sky has become confused and at times, it thinks it is the sea that it normally hovers over. I have never seen rain so dense. It came down so hard that you would think you could snorkel while on deck.  During this rain, when we were forced to leave the relative comfort of the (now not so dry) cockpit dodger, your first reaction was to hold your breath for fear of drowning.

The rain got in everywhere soaking everyone and everything thing in the cockpit as well as in cupboards and drawers down below. Worst of all was, all of Jan’s cloths that I had laundered back in Mexico before departing which were neatly stowed in her hanging locker, were soaked. They would have fared better hanging in the shower while the crew bathed away. UGH!    With the heavy rain we were forced to keep all portholes and hatches closed so with 100% humidity and 28c heat, it was stifling between the decks. Nic and Marina often took to sleeping in the cockpit just to get a break from the inferno down below.

So I will have to start systematically pulling and resealing port holes. (In my spare time).  Fortunately most of the rain water found its way into the bilge which would normally get pumped out by the automated bilge pump, but the electric bilge pump had also mutinied and we were forced to hand pump. Oh yes and I almost forgot. The hydraulic steering pump has also developed a nasty habit of spitting oil out of one of its orifices which then dribbles down the back of my engine instrument panel to find its way into the towel drawer in the head below. What oil wasn’t caught by a bath towel seeped down through the engine room, coating my transmission before completing its migration downward to finally collect in the bilge.  The combined rainwater and hydraulic oil accumulation, if I were to pump it out, (that is if the bilge pump actually worked) would leave a slick behind the boat rivalling that of the Exxon Valdes Alaskan oil spill.  Aside from the resulting greasy mess, the steering is working fine. Just needed to keep topping up the fluids.

It was at about this point while attempting to furl in our big headsail as another squall approached, the furling gear on our roller furling headsail began to jam, making it very difficult to reduce the amount of head sail we had up. I was fearing the bearing were starting to go which would not only mean I was in for a very expensive and difficult repair, but any work done on the  furling gear would have to wait till we arrived in Panama some three months later. The loss of the furling gear would mean that the big sail would have to be manually put up and taken down, and one size would have to fit all as there would be no way of reducing the size of the sail once up. I have a smaller #2 headsail that we could use but the manual handling of sail from now one would mean for a lot of work.  It has been almost 4 years since we departed our home port of Ladysmith on Vancouver Islands and we have driven the boat hard, mostly in the tropical heat and humidity which plays havoc with a boats’ systems. Maiatla was in need of some TLC but unfortunately, again that will have to wait till we get to Panama.

Our 10th night at sea found us 100 miles from San Cristobal Island and our final destination.  It was a difficult night of sailing hard on a wind that kept clocking and backing 15 or 20 degrees, (Shifting). The wind would also die to an almost calm then quickly build to a gale as another rainsquall approached.   Early one morning we had the added excitement of approaching 0 degrees of latitude. The midpoint between the north and south geographic poles. This point is better known as the equator.

A sailor who has never crossed the equator is known as a pollywog, a veteran of the crossing is called a shellback. Normally crossing the equator is a big event for sailors and is often celebrated with grog and pranks set upon the crew and often later commemorated by an ear piercing or a tattoo.  ( my crew was discussing getting a Southern Cross Tattoo).   But in the wee hours of this morning with soggy misery haunting the cockpit with a crew that just finished reefing the main as another gale crashed upon us, no-one was really in the celebrating mood. We just watched the GPS count down the last few seconds then, when the GPS kicked over to display all zeros in the line indicating latitude; and the Big “N” switched to a “S” we furnished a weak cheer and gave ourselves a verbal “pat on the back”.  This was my 3rd crossing of the equator by boat but by far my most hard won.

By our 11th morning at sea we closed in on the shore of San Cristobel’s western shore where the harbour is located. The wind was fresh out of the south east at 15 to 20 knots as we sailed fast to the west while being pushed by a 1 knot westerly current. Still in the predawn, we tacked back towards shore to cover the remaining 10 miles to the harbour, but as luck would have it, just as dawn broke, the wind died leaving us to wallow in a deep swell with just 8 miles to go.  From this vantage point, so close to shore we could see what we would later learn was kicker rock. A split volcanic plug that raises over 300 feet out of the sea a couple miles off shore. The Rock boasts a water filled cavern and a slot between the island that is a popular snorkeling and dive spot.  After about an hour bobbing about without a breath of wind, I decided to again launch the dinghy and attempt to tow Maiatla the remaining 8 miles to the harbour.  No sooner had we started the tow when we spotted an Ecuadorian patrol boat that likewise spotted us and came over to investigate. Using my rudimentary Spanish I manage to explain to the ship’s captain who we were and what our intent was. I had them call my Galapagos to see if he could assist us. Bolivar, our agent was aware of our engineless condition as I had sent him a email over my Ham radio a few days previous so I was hopeful that he was ready for us. I was told by the captain of the patrol boat that he would request permission from the port captain to tow us in, but after an hour of waiting, the patrol boat sudden re-engaged its engines and motored off to the east, leaving us to wonder what was going on.  As I stood on the foredeck watching our supposed help sail off, I felt a puff of wind from the south which quickly built to a breeze. Not wanting to waste such a good wind, Mark and I hoisted the main and, with much difficulty, unfurled the jib. I put Maiatla on a heading that would take us back offshore a few miles where I would then see if we could lay the harbour.   Maiatla was sailing well at 5 knot and as long as the west setting current didn’t suck us past the point, we would make it into the harbour. While the crew was tidying up the lines, a burst of rapid Spanish came over the radio in which I thought I heard our boat name. Taking up the binoculars I scanned the shore line and sure enough, a couple of miles back, I spotted a small fishing boat which appeared to be in hot pursuit. We quickly tacked the boat and closed in on the fishing panga. Bolivar, our Galapagos agent and his friend, Nocho came along side then took us in tow.

So there we were, 11 days after departing Mexico making our landfall at the end of a long rode behind a 8 meter fishing boat. Perhaps not the most dignified way to end a voyage, but we were exhausted and grateful to finally get the anchor down in the calm waters of the bay. All celebrating would wait as we all went straight to bed, going ashore would have to wait till later in the afternoon, after we had received visits from customs and immigration agents, the port captain and then the parks board representatives.

Perhaps one of the most disconcerting things I discovered later occurred while I was at the top of the mast performing an inspection.  I was horrified to see that the two little wooden jumpers that support the upper part of the mast were cracked. Further probing revealed that dry rot and taken its toll over the past years in the tropics and had weakened the structure. These jumpers are critical to the stability of the mast and would have to be either repaired or replaced before we dare venture back to sea. Fortunately I found a local carpenter who is now making me a new set, and with luck I will have them re-installed at the top of the mast in a day or so.

I also had to send my laptop computer away for repair as the screen mysteriously got broken one night during our crossing. As I use it for navigating I needed it fixed.  I also sent a furry of emails to my radar tech and after a trip up the mizzen mast to disassemble the radar dome, I located a loose wire so the radar is now functioning as intended.  So no more playing chicken with supertankers or islands in the dead of night. Yahoo! Also after dismantling and servicing the bearings, the jamming of the furling gear is cured. What a relief!

Despite being an isolated archipelago, I have been able to find much of what I need for repairs, including a good engine and refrigeration mechanic.My fuel injector pump had to be flown to mainland Ecuador for repairs. I also sent a flood of emails off to the manufacture of my steering pump, Wagner, asking for repair options. Nothing came back yet but I’m hopefully it will be an easy fix.

So I’m happy to say that at this writing that almost all of the critical repairs are done or nearing completion.

Despite being harbour bound in Puerto Baquerizo, we have made every effort to see some of the island, explore and try to relax. Jan and Teri, flew into the Galapagos just one day after our arrival. (They chose a more sane way of getting here). The village has about 4500 residents that live in one or two story block houses, most in various stages of completion or disrepair.  The Malecon, or waterfront Main Street is pretty and well-kept and along the brick lined streets is where many of the tourist shops, restaurants and bars are located.

During the day and late evening the Malecon is swollen with foreign tourists who share the streets with giant marine iguanas flanked by belching and snorting sea lions that will sleep virtually anywhere. (The sea lions, not the tourist.) Park benches and roadside curbs being a favorite spot of the sofa size beasts.  Down an alley and up a set of stairs in a narrow corridor, we found what would become our favorite breakfast restaurant. The rustic, six table eatery with exposed concrete block walls, serves their version of and American breakfast, a fruit smoothie, eggs, toast, jam and all accented with a fist-size ball of Plantain and cheese. Tasty but it has the texture of play doh. Each morning we would be cheerfully greeted by the overly friendly owner who would usher us to our regular table by the balcony rail so we could watch the early morning goings on down in the street. All for the reasonable price of $5USD per person.  (a real deal here)

Out in the anchorage, daily, large tour boats come and go, picking up passengers for week long excursion between the islands.   It’s easy to imagine that a large part of the local population derive a living from the tourist trade. There are two great concrete piers here but due to the heavy surge, you can’t tie alongside so, all passengers and cruisers use a water taxi to get out to the boats. A $1 a ride could be had on a 8 meter panga, “ La Perla Negra” was our favorite boat which flew a tattered, black skull and cross bones flag.  The water Taxi was captained by Danny, an equally colourful local character who wore a head bandana and the caramel skin that is indicative of the locals. Danny, who spoke broken English and had a German wife, took good care of us and tried to make sure that we were all back aboard Maiatla before he quit running at 7 pm.

The water taxi was economical and it was not worth taking Maiatla’s tender ashore. Besides, the harbour is home to over 3000 sea lions that will claim you dinghy so they can have a noonday nap.  The animals my look cute with their big puppy-dog eyes and cat’s whiskers but it’s all the smelly crap, (literally) and possible tooth holes that you get when they use your expensive rubber dinghy as a bed or teething ring, it’s just not worth the risk taking our tender ashore.

Anyway we have settled in and with most of our boat work done, we began to explore this magnificent tropical South Sea island.  So far the Galapagos Islands appear as enchanting as all the tourist hyper-descriptive literature proclaims. We can’t wait to see more.

Check out our pictures.

More to come.

Bye from the crew of the Maiatla.