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Panama To The Galapagos

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
December 11th, 2017

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation Hugh and Heather transited the Panama Canal. Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their  1997 outbound Caribbean track.

 

GALAPAGOS: the name conveys magic.  Inspired by Charles Darwin, many dream of visiting these Islands. Our goal was to explore this World Heritage site with its amazing proximity to wildlife and the existence of creatures found rarely or not at all in other parts of the world.

It was Sunday, May 16, 1999, when we left the Pedro Miguel Boat Club in Panama to downlock into the Pacific Ocean. Once in saltwater, we dropped off our line handlers in Balboa and motored to nearby Taboga Island to complete a systems check. We had modified our de-salinator to double its hourly output to 15 US gallons. It needed some tweaking, which took a day. Once all was well, we headed out into the Gulf of Panama to spend a few days among the Pearlas Islands before continuing to the Galapagos. Leaving Taboga, winds were moderate to light from the south so we did a bit of motoring. We had enough fuel to motor the entire 900 nautical miles (NM) but hoped it would not come to that. To reach the Galapagos from Panama, vessels must traverse the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), commonly known as the doldrums. Typically, it is an area of thunderstorms, with very fluky winds lying between the equator to about five degrees north latitude. This was a La Nina year, thus we could expect moderate ITCZ conditions, as well as stronger easterly trade winds once south of the equator. We experienced mostly decent winds and no thunderstorms on our passage.

Argonauta I was floating two inches above the water line, although she had never been as heavily loaded. We had provisioned for over two months, twice that if one counted emergency rations. Heather had prepared and frozen a variety of standby food. We had a well-founded vessel more than capable of the trip. We had excellent system redundancy and we could afford to have a lot of breakages. We had thoroughly gone over the key systems: engine; rigging; sails, communications and nav systems. All were in top condition. With worldwide communications on board via SSB and email, we intended to send progress reports to all our electronic correspondents. Much later these missives were to become the source material for articles and presentations. It was an exciting time, which we looked forward to with a little trepidation but a lot of confidence. This would be our first ocean passage. The ‘big blue’ beckoned.

On the way to Contadora.

May 19th, we left Taboga for Isla Contadora in the Pearlas. There was no wind so we motored down the Gulf of Panama. At Contadora, we replenished our fuel and early May 22nd, we departed for the Galapagos. We motored some 23 hours before finding wind. It was a westerly, which meant close hauled sailing to keep reasonably close to the rhumb line. With no wind once again on May 25th, we took advantage of calm seas to transfer about 70 liters of diesel to refill the main tank. Consumption was just over 3.7 liters per hour at 2100 RPM producing 5 knots. We used autopilot when motoring. Our Cape Horn wind vane steering proved uncannily precise when sailing. The 25th was also Heather’s big 60, so we indulged in a little champagne!

May 26th, wind became variable from 180 to 220 magnetic (M) at 10 ‑ 20 kn. Dawn gave us a wonderful view of isolated Isla Malpelo, starkly beautiful in the morning sun! We commenced a 12 hour tack on 160 degrees M to get some southing, then another overnight tack back westerly to advance course.  We continued close hauled, about 30 NM south of our rhumb line, which was 250 degrees magnetic. For a time, motion became too violent so I furled the genoa for about four hours until the wind reduced from 20 knots to below 15 knots. Configuration by then was reef one in the main, staysail up, and genoa reefed with 2 to 4 wraps on the foil, steering 240 to 270 M depending on wind direction.

Log entry for May 27, 1999 at 1700 GMT (noon local time):  All well onboard Argonauta I

Position 02 35 00 N, 082 27 90 W.  Weather overcast with light rain. Seas 3 to 5 feet, depth variable to 10,000 feet (chart data). Wind +/- 180 M at 12 knots variable to 20 knots.  Boat speed 6.8 knots, VMG to destination 5 knots. Distance to Isla San Cristobal 472 NM.  Distance from Contadora Island, 417 NM.  Marine traffic light.

We had not seen another vessel for three days. If wind continued, I expected at least a day on the present tack, steering 240 to 270 M as wind permitted. I anticipated the north-setting Humboldt Current would prejudice our course, meaning I might have to do another tack straight south. Still some two degrees north of the equator and destination more or less on the equator, I needed to make at least 120 NM more southing in the remaining distance of 472 NM.  ETA Wreck Bay looked like maybe Tuesday, June 1.

Heather sent an email:

As the Old Hands tell us: Life reduces to basics.  Eat. Sleep. Etc.  Fortunately, I am now capable of all three.  Haven’t barfed yet, though I came close before we pulled up anchor.  Each day is different. My personal preference is for NO wind: bring on the doldrums.  The sweetest day was dead calm (unfortunate choice of words!)  I roasted a stuffed chicken!  Yesterday, we discovered the folly of trying to cook pasta when the stove is at a 45 degree angle.  Champagne was good, considering that it was the only alcoholic libation we have consumed in six days. Sometimes dolphins leap all over the sea.  Sometimes sunsets are magnificent.  I even like sunrises now: endless night is over. Turning 60 was not thrilling but I shouldn’t complain.  My husband took me on a cruise.

We arrived Wreck Bay, Isla San Cristóbal, May 31 at 2000 hrs local time.  Lat 00 53.73 S/Long 089 37 W.  We crossed the equator at 2330h local time on May 29. Our 905 NM passage took 9 1/2 days.  To travel this distance, we actually covered 1235 NM as we played the wind angles. We were able to sail for all but 37 hours, when absence of wind meant either no progress or motor. When we had wind, it was mostly from the south to south west 15/20kn, which meant we were sailing to weather all the way.  About half the time we could lay the rhumb line, otherwise we tacked alternately southeast then to the west.  Best sailing day was 132 NM, worst, about 70 NM. Only breakage was the titanium ring on our Profurl gear, which let go at the mast head on May 28 at 1400 hrs.  We re-rigged the genoa with an alternate halyard and shackle and were on the move again in an hour. Exciting though! Crew dialogue might be imagined!

Heather describes our arrival: “We approached the Galapagos at dusk: sinking orange sun, dolphins surrounding us.  We think we saw a small whale, and three sea lions came out to look us over. Seabirds did their sunset rhapsody.  Later the full moon came up and lighted our way past the reef, with a little help from GPS and Hugh’s navigational expertise.  The volcanic islands rise dramatically out of the ocean.  They can also mysteriously disappear into fog, which inspired their Spanish name: “Las Encantadas”.

Thirteen main islands and many small ones make up this archipelago associated forever with Charles Darwin.

Next day, June 1, huge swells entered the anchorage so we stayed on board. Heather observed that there was so much excitement in the anchorage, we might never visit the tortoises.  On Tuesday a ketch broke loose. While being towed to safety by a dinghy, with a jovial but unskilled rescue crew, it swung rapidly in our direction but another local dinghy fended it off. The following day was much more spectacular. A lovely three‑master rammed its bowsprit through the rigging of a navy boat.  Then it took a wild ride through the anchorage (we later learned that the transmission had stuck). Heather got to practice un-anchoring under pressure. Free to maneuver, we dodged it but returned too soon. As we were re‑anchoring, the runaway vessel came straight at us and I was forced to move quickly to avoid it. It whipped past our friends with centimeters to spare, then, as a grand finale, rammed a nice little 30‑40 foot tour boat, which tipped over and sank. Of the two tour-boat crew, one was slightly injured. Never a dull moment! This was indeed Wreck Bay! The following day we checked in and planned explorations. As well, the swell was down so friends on Tamoure helped Heather hoist me up the mast to retrieve the genoa halyard from where it was lodged at the sheave. We planned to move on to Academy Bay, Isla Santa Cruz in a few days.

The unexpected visitor.

One day we heard a thump on deck. A sea lion had scrambled onto the transom. Heather tiptoed out with the camera, but needn’t have been so cautious. The creature was there for the siesta hour, stretched out comfortably, but giving little snorts of warning if one got too close.  Dozens of others lounged on neighboring boats and on the beach. We walked on black lava beaches, which came alive as hundreds of sea iguanas, the exact shade as the rock, traveled to and from the water. They resemble miniature dragons, emitting a projectile of excess saltwater from their noses. rather than fire. Birds, of course, are a major attraction.  As well as Darwin’s finches, which played a significant role in the evolution theory, there are the frigate birds, called “kleptoparasites”. Unable to land on water, they dart from the sky and steal the fish from the beaks of other birds.

We saw the blue‑footed and red‑footed boobies diving constantly into the sea.  They incubate their eggs with their feet and perform a droll mating dance that looks like an inebriated slow shuffle.  Most celebrated, of course, are the giant tortoises. We could approach 250 pound specimens, who often stretched out their necks as if to suggest we might scratch one of those hard‑to‑get‑at places.  Called geochelone elephantopus, they have toes that could indeed belong to a pachyderm. We also visited pathetic “Lonesome George”, the last of a dying breed. Tortoises are particular about their habits, breeding only with their own subspecies. So unless a miracle female turns up, this sub species will join the ranks of extinction, victim of massive slaughtering practices in the last century.

Both Wreck Bay and Academy Bay were somewhat rolly and more than one boat dragged. With a stern anchor deployed, Academy Bay was comfortable. Nevertheless, for this reason most yachties were loath to leave their boat unattended.  In some ways it was a disadvantage being on a private sailboat; otherwise we could have joined an excellent boat tour.  On the other hand, we met some local people and had some unique experiences.  Food was wonderful. A highlight was a fish soup loaded with lobster, shrimps, octopus, squid and tender white fish: a meal that lasted all day! Fresh bread was available, some produce was grown on the Island and some brought in by supply boats.

We progressed to the western-most island, anchoring at isolated Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabella, which at the time, was the third location open to yachts.  Lat 00 57.920S Long 090 57.708W are the exact co-ordinates. Isla Isabella is the largest Island in the Galapagos, but perhaps the least visited. It boasts the second largest volcanic crater on earth. From our perspective, it provided the best anchorage. Puerto Villamil is difficult to navigate into, but once situated, the anchorage is well protected from the Pacific rollers. At the time, there were only 1600 people on Isabella. With a group of ten yachties, we arranged a tour to the crater. Bus, horseback, and one’s feet brought us to a volcanic wilderness. We clambered over lava fields to see fumaroles supporting micro climates, which produced fern covered openings leading to the molten magma far below. Our guide’s name was Darwin!

Preparing to go to the Volcano.

Once again, wildlife was prolific. Near the anchorage was a large sea iguana colony. The area is simply IGUANA City! They literally lie about in heaps!  Black as the lava rocks they inhabit, they loll about in the shade of mangroves. As one wanders along, it comes as a surprise to suddenly see 50 or more iguanas only feet away. Their coloring is so like the black lava that they are not easy to see.

A sea iguana.

Sea Lions are all over. Many snooze onboard several fishing boats in the anchorage. Nearby there was a “jacuzzi” where they dove, leapt and corkscrewed through the water with as much “joie‑de vivre” as we’ve ever seen. There were few tourists here as the difficult sea approach means only daylight arrival is safe. We learned from the locals that tour boats have foundered embarrassingly often, so few now come to Isabella. Those tourists who find their way to Isabella are rewarded with a unique experience found in few other places.

We spent a month in the Galapagos before commencing the longest ocean passage most yachts undertake: some 3000 nautical miles to the Marquesas, French Polynesia.

Cover image attribution: Work by MusikAnimal, in Wikimedia Commons, CC SA 4.0 International

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