May 2000 : The Galapagos and Pacific



Well, whoever would have thought there would be email in the Galapagos – but there is and here we are.

The 900 or so mile passage from Panama to the Galapagos was a slow laborious slog . Although we had known - theoretically - that it would be slow due to the light winds associated with crossing the Equator, dogged by adverse winds and a current which effectively added over 130 miles to an already long passage, it was painfully frustrating in practice. Not for nothing is the area called the Doldrums. The situation was not improved by oppressive and drenching heat. At last on the seventh day, the south east trade winds kicked in, and we picked up speed, giving us a final passage time of 9 days. The previous owner of this boat made the same passage in 14 days – but then he probably had a more purist approach and didn’t use the engine in complete calms, which we did. It wasn’t all bad. The Pacific has so far lived up to its name and is very much more benign and comfortable than either the Atlantic or Caribbean. We very successfully resumed our fishing activities, catching four good sized tuna. And we passed an important milestone in crossing of the Equator and heading into the southern hemisphere – for the first time in my case. This event was marked with great celebration and champagne. Chris, having crossed the line many times before, emerged from the forepeak dressed as Neptune, complete with crown and trident, to mastermind my ceremonial drenching!

Another welcome feature of the passage was our ‘return’ to the cruising community. Our long stay in Trinidad had put us way behind friends of ours also planning on the Pacific this year. We had been in intermittent radio and email contact with boats including Vagabond and AnCala during our time in the Caribbean, but had gone our own way over the past four months or so. Whilst there are always new people to meet, we had missed our real ‘mates’. We find we feel a need to be part of a community, to have a sense of belonging, to have people to share experiences with. We had arrived at the Panama Canal the day after AnCala left, and caught up with Vagabond the day before their transit. It was a surprisingly good feeling to be back in the ‘club’. A new radio net was established for the passage from Panama to the Galapagos and then the Pacific crossing, from a nucleus of boats which had crossed the Atlantic when we did. It encompassed quite a range – just as were arriving in the Galapagos, the first couple of boats on the net reached the Marquesas - 3000 miles away! Just before we left the Galapagos ourselves, a new net formed – the Tortuga Net – for those at the rear of the Pacific crossing.

The Galapagos islands – a UNESCO World Heritage site - are not at all what we had expected – not that we had really known what to expect. Perhaps we had imagined the islands would be pristine and uninhabited. We had certainly not anticipated there would be much in the way of ‘civilisation’, but four of the ten islands are inhabited by a total population of over 15,000 made up of the descendants of penal colonies and more recent settlers from Ecuador. We made our landfall in ‘Wreck Bay’, on the island of San Cristobal - quite to our surprise home to some 6,000 people, a naval base and fishing fleet. However, we certainly knew we had arrived at a different and special place when we observed that on board every craft anchored in the bay were several sea-lions lounging lazily in the sunshine, many attended also by pelicans. Sea-lions seem to have life sussed. They appear to do very little ‘work’, spending all day in sleep or play. During our week’s stay there, we came almost to regard them as a nuisance, frequently having to shoo them off our dinghy – evidently a prime sun-bathing spot!

We had imagined that the Galapagos had been spared the ravages of human intervention, but this is not so. Although the wildlife is fantastic, it is certainly not what it was. The famous giant tortoises are now confined to the most inaccessible areas of the islands or kept in captivity. We were unable to see any in the wild. Astonishingly large numbers of them were eaten by early explorers, and many more taken away as specimens. Man continues to pose a threat. There is great conflict between the international conservationists working in the islands, and the increasing numbers of fishermen arriving from the mainland of Ecuador to live there – in complete contravention of agreements, but unchallenged by their government. The fishermen, trying to earn their living, fiercely resent restrictions on their activities demanded by the scientists. While we have been here, industrial action by fisherman protesting against regulations governing their ‘harvesting’ of sea cucumbers, has included the taking hostage of giant tortoises from breeding centres . Another major problem for the wildlife is the importation – still continuing - of non-native species – goats, pigs and horses in particular, which prey on the native species competing successfully for their food. So much for the fauna – the flora has also suffered irreparable damage as nature plants have been overwhelmed by imports such as guava and raspberries – very nice, but not what nature intended. I shouldn’t be too downbeat – it is an amazing place. What is left is certainly very special - both in its abundance and the phenomenal tameness of most birds and animals. I have already mentioned the sea-lions. We also saw and were able to get very close to marine iguanas, pelicans, and blue-footed boobies, and within a few feet of a Galapagos hawk. Scenically the islands are beautiful – black volcanic lava, white beaches, reefs and a bright turquoise sea. We investigated - on a fantastic jeep/horseback/footslog trek - the crater of one enormous volcano and walked over a lava field complete with smoking fumiroles.

We are due to leave tomorrow, for the longest voyage we have ever and probably ever will make. We have been gearing ourselves up for some time. Even here in the Galapagos we have been stocking up on yet more supplies and equipment – everything here is incredibly cheap (diesel 5p per US gallon, CDs under £3, meals out for 60 pence each). We keep thinking of more things we ought to have. Loading on supplies of diesel and water was quite an experience. Diesel had to be collected, by can, from the only filling station – a taxi ride away – several journeys. Water was obtained, again in cans, from the hospital. We then had to ferry all this out to Perdika, at anchor in what had by then become a horrendously swell-ridden bay. It took us all day. Impossible to land the dinghy on the surf-pounded beach, we had to motor it as close as possible to a broken down stone jetty, with waves lifting and dropping it by a couple of metres every few seconds. With Chris in the surging dinghy, I had to drop the heavy cans down to him to be ferried out in a series of rollercoaster trips - amazingly they all made it. The glamour of yachting!

Wish us luck – we are hoping for a passage of about 25 days.