Monday 14 September 2015

Galapagos Expectations

Land was a welcome sight after 11 days at sea, beating into the wind for the majority of the passage from the Panamanian Las Perlas Islands, turning the 700 mile rhumb line into a distance covered of over 1,000 miles. We passed some small uninhabited islands, little more than stacks, before arriving at the alarmingly named Wreck Bay on San Cristobal Island, the second most populated in the archipelago. And so began the unravelling of most of the preconceived ideas I had about the Galapagos.

I suspect my exposure to information (or lack of) surrounding the islands prior to arrival is fairly typical, hearing about them as a young lad from some elderly relative who hadn’t actually been there, but described as a magical far away land of unique flora and fauna shrouded in mystery. The next dollop of information came via biology class aged around 11. This was when the names Darwin and Beagle were thrown in, as well as the terms ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘origin of the species’. Still no one I knew had been there, which was a major factor in ramping up the mysticism in my mind.

Generally when you arrive somewhere by boat it is a passport for greater access, and thus understanding of a place. You can reach locations that planes and cars can’t, and in my experience the local people tend to be more hospitable to those having arrived by sea, perhaps as a result of an appreciation for the more historic method of travel and the greater effort involved in getting there (unless you arrive in a superyacht with a helicopter on the aft deck, as recently witnessed on the small island of Hiva Oa, in which case most locals tend to scoff ‘wanker’, or some such colloquialism).

I recently read a book by the legendary French yachtsman Bernard Moitessier, who arrived in the near deserted Galapagos in the late 1960s, going from island to island as he pleased, harpooning turtles as he went. All I can say is those days are long gone. The islands have become increasingly protected, as they should be, but the bureaucracy surrounding the tourist industry has become bloated.

Shortly after arrival our boat ‘inspection’ was scheduled. This involved being boarded by no fewer than 8 people, though it was impossible to guess exactly what each of their roles were. A few questions were asked, a few forms were filled in, smiles and handshakes and then they all left as quickly as they had arrived. What a farcical arrangement. Our permit, which was the most extensive available to visiting yachts, allowed us to visit only three islands, and on those three islands we were only allowed to anchor in the principal harbour/bay. So, unusually our movements were far more restricted than the commercial tour boats plying the coast.

That said the few day tours I signed up for were spectacular. A dive boat out to Kicker Rock, a magnificent isolated island, was the highlight. Above the water line there were hundreds of breeding sea birds, including the poster bird of the Galapagos, the blue footed booby. Below the water line was a stunning cliff wall descending into the abyss below. All sorts of sea life had taken up residence in the pock-marked lava, including pencil spined sea urchins and chocolate chip star fish. Prehistoric looking green turtles went dreamily by, sea lions were darting back and forth and in between was a huge variety of tropical fish. Continuing deeper I saw black-tipped sharks which were of a modest 1.5 metres in length, but the highlight was seeing the much bigger hammerhead sharks (5 metres) patrolling the shadowy depths.   

The other thing that surprised me was just how large the two main towns we visited were. There has been a significant population increase in the more populated islands in recent years, predominantly from the Ecuadorian mainland. Very few people you speak to were actually born in the Galapagos, and this unsurprisingly appears to have led to a slightly incoherent sense of community and common culture. The streets were shabby and seemed unloved. What the community does have in common though, along with the Ecuadorian Government, is the desire to earn the tourist dollar (it cost US$3 to send a postcard to the UK).   
There is no doubt there is some spectacularly unique wildlife – notably penguins on the equator and the prehistoric looking marine iguana. The landscape is extremely volcanic and largely arid. The history of the islands is littered with attempts of na├»ve early European settlers trying to tame the harsh environment, with the result generally being them returning to their homeland within a few years or dying wretchedly. There was good reason for the islands being used as a penal colony.

In reality I only saw a small fraction of the islands as so much is off limits without the relevant permit/tour operator. I suspect with a decent 10 day tour package on the right boat the experience would be more rewarding in many ways. But one can’t help feeling that were it not for Darwin (who only spent a matter of weeks among the archipelago) the Galapagos would not be the tourist sensation that they have evolved into today. 

Classic Galapagos vista: lava, clear water and birds in flight

Lava tunnels on Isabella, make for great snorkeling
The iconic blue footy booby

The Alejandro Lopez

In the course of being on a boat for a long time you come into contact with all sorts of people. In the case of Sea Wolf you come into contact with a lot of mechanics given the ‘defects’ we have been dealing with.

When we arrived at Shelter Bay Marina, close to the Panama Canal on the Caribbean side, we had a number of significant issues to address. The anchor windlass base-plate had completely corroded in the San Blas Islands, the consequence of it being 17 years old and in a location which is permanently being attacked by salt residue. Solution – remove the corroded plate and motor, find out the model number, order a new part and fit. All fairly straightforward bar the over promising and under delivering Fedex. Similarly a new relay was ordered for the bowthruster.

Then came the fridge/freezer system. I really will try and save you the tedious mechanics, but some description of this is necessary to understand the issue, and by extension the man for the job, Alejandro Lopez.

He came into my life on Sunday 31st May. It was good of him to come on a Sunday, especially as he lives in Panama City, at least 90 minutes away by car. A short man in his mid-thirties, slightly rotund, well groomed black hair and the arrogant swagger of someone confident of fixing your mechanical problems. He drove a Volvo and wore Ray Ban’s, somewhat exotic in Panama which gave further lustre to his capability. Just the person I needed I thought.

I explained the problem, that the engine driven (DC) fridge/freezer wasn’t working, but that the independent AC system was (powered by either shore power or the generator). He wasted no time in squeezing into the engine bay and confirming what we already knew, that there was no power coming from the magnetic clutch. Alejandro quickly suggested he remove the clutch, try to get a new one in Panama City, though failing that re-wire the existing one and reassemble. Just the sort of can-do attitude I was looking for.
He talked a lot, and as I’d been on my own on the boat for a couple of weeks I enjoyed asking the kind of open questions, whilst handing him spanners, that gave him the room to express himself. And express himself he did.  

Half Costa Rican half Panamanian, he had strong views on the full hand-over of the Canal in 2000 by the US, believing it to be a big mistake to lose the presence of so many Americans in the country on the basis of what they brought to the national economy, as well as the legitimacy they leant to the Panamanian Government. This has been the major political issue since Panama achieved nation status (with US backing, sound familiar?) in 1903. We also covered topics as diverse as the Kuna Indians (“I’m not racist but I can’t stand those people”) and prostitution in Panama City. He was formerly an aircraft mechanic before setting up on his own repairing boats, though apparently he could have been a doctor.       

He returned on Wednesday with the rewired clutch, though when this was installed and we turned on the engine this is when the fun really started. It transpired that while the clutch was now engaging the compressor, the compressor itself was knackered. And so it continued along the whole fridge/freezer system chain until we had replaced more or less all component parts. Furthermore, as we got deeper into it, the AC system (which till now had been working fine) stopped working due to shared electrical connections with the DC system. So two weeks into the work we were a small fortune down on parts and actually in a worse position than before the work began. 

Despite these set-backs Alejandro’s confidence in his ability to complete the work remained a persuasive force. That was until the final freon gas loading phase, when Alejandro’s body language shifted from prancing peacock to that of a person under pressure and at the limit of his own understanding of the matter in question. The freon loading, a dark art of injecting gas into the system under the right pressure and temperature conditions, was not going as expected and he didn’t know why. After struggling on aimlessly for a little too long he finally admitted he needed help and spoke to the manufacturer, who was more than helpful in discussing the issue with him and even agreed to send two technicians who were in the area over to the boat to have a look.

Armed with some larger orifices through which the freon could pass and a dose of reassurance from experts, the system miraculously became fully loaded and the swagger returned. 

This wasn’t quite the end though. Having passed through the Panama Canal and halfway to the Las Perlas Islands the engine driven fridge/freezer ominously stopped working. So with a sinking feeling we headed back to Panama City where Alejandro met us at anchor, late on a Sunday evening. You certainly couldn’t fault his commitment (or was it that the bank transfer for the work hadn’t yet taken place?). The issue was a faulty brand new compressor which Alejandro returned and replaced first thing Monday morning.

From beginning to end it tool a month to compete the work, during which time I met his father (dead ringer for the Spanish golfer Miguel Angel Jimenez) and brother in a professional capacity on the boat, and his wife and daughter in a more social setting. We shared scores of What's App messages and I came to love his use of emojis - bombs and guns among his favourite.

All smiles after a job well done, Bridge of the Americas, Panama City

Friday 26 June 2015

What Does Paradise Really Mean?

This is a question I have been increasingly asking myself as the journey has progressed and the range of interesting places visited starts to increase.

The question really hit home in the San Blas Archipelago, consisting of approximately 400 islands (one for every day of the year) scattered over a huge area along the north east Caribbean coast of Panama. They are picture perfect remote atolls with an abundance of coconut trees and white sand, set amongst a maze of reefs. If you were looking for the ultimate deserted island picture postcard this would be it.
Added to the spectacular scenery is a very interesting cultural history. The islands are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna, who arrived here from Colombia in the mid-nineteenth century having been driven out by the Spanish. The Kuna way of life remains largely unchanged to this day (though we did charge a number of islanders’ mobile phones on the boat!). The men paddle amongst the islands in hollowed out canoes, fishing and harvesting fruit (apparently some 3 million coconuts are picked annually) which is then bartered with trading boats that come from the mainland and Colombia. Meanwhile the women make the world-renown molas, colourfully embroidered textiles usually depicting wildlife or abstract images. These from part of their traditional dress and are sold to tourists as souvenirs. Interestingly Kuna society is traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal.

Mola from Cayos Holandeses, San Blas Islands

As an interesting sideline the Kuna also get the odd windfall when boats become wrecked on the outlying reefs which still happens with alarming regularity. The sands in this area shift with such regularity that modern GPS navigation systems are at best unreliable. As a result the Kuna scramble to salvage cargo and then strip any unfortunate boat of fixtures and fittings. We saw at least half a dozen yachts lying prostate on a reef, stripped to the bare bones.     

So the islands are both visually attractive and have an interesting human story. Yet having anchored amongst this ‘paradise’ for 5 days I felt ready to move on. We had visited three different islands, talked to the Kuna, bought molas and fish from them, provided them with things they were short of (cooking oil and spectacles), swum in the turquoise water and skin dived wrecks. It felt like to stay longer would have just seen these activities repeated with diminishing novelty.

In contrast our time in Colombia left me craving for more, something which points towards a greater feeling of ‘depth’ associated with the place. Depth of scenery (mountains, beaches, rainforest, dilapidated colonial architecture) and character (diverse and multi-cultural society).

Undoubtedly the question of what does paradise really mean asks more questions than it answers. To a large extent it exists in the eye of the beholder, but to my mind the ideal of the remote island paradise that has been sold to us by countless advertising executives is not the paradise for me. But then is paradise ever truly achievable?


Nuts & Bolts

In the first article about life on board Sea Wolf I thought I’d give some details of the boat and plans for the voyage as some background information. Future articles will be less jargonistic and factual…

Sea Wolf is a 1997 Nautor Swan 57 RS (18m length, 4.9m beam, 2.3m draft and 25 tonne displacement), designed by German Frers and built in Finland. Powered by a 135 horse power diesel engine, she also has a generator (to provide more efficient power on long passages, particularly the navigation instruments, fridge/freezer etc) and water maker (turning sea water into drinking water). She has a compact centre cockpit offering good protection from the elements. Ultimately she was designed for long-distance blue water cruising.

Sea Wolf is now on her third owner, with Scott having had her for nearly 2 years, in which time she has benefitted from a new suit of sails (main, genoa, yankee, staysail, storm jib try sail and asymmetric spinnaker), new standing and running rigging (including conversion to cutter rig which gives us two furling headsail options at any one time) as well as updated electronics. In Scott’s wife’s words, he bought two boats.

The boat sails extremely well and is very seaworthy. We have experienced storm force winds off the coast of Columbia and Sea Wolf more than met the challenge, with some help from the crew, which gives me a lot of faith in her ability when we get to the really rough stuff in the Southern Ocean.

The one downside of having so many sophisticated systems on the boat is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong, and the marine environment is harsh on equipment. Added to that the boat is 18 years old so some components are coming to the end of their design life, as recently demonstrated by the anchor windlass when the base plate completely corroded. The dreaded ‘defect list’ seems to be persistently at around a dozen items, and usually in addressing one issue you find others.

I met Scott for the first time in London in June 2014, having applied to an advert for the job of First Mate. I immediately liked him and he invited me to join the boat in September to help take Sea Wolf from Gibraltar to Lanzarote, via Morocco. Scott then crossed the Atlantic towards the end of the year with friends and family. There are normally between 4 and 6 on board, quartered in 3 ensuite cabins.
I then rejoined the boat in St Lucia in April 2015 and we have been continuing westwards since, with the boat now at Shelter Bay Marina, just inside the breakwater leading to the entrance of the Panama Canal on the Caribbean side.

From here we will transit the Canal, spend some time in the Archipielago de las Perlas (Panamanian), before reaching the Galapagos. Then it is deeper into the Pacific to French Polynesia, notably the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Tahiti. From there we will start to head in a south-easterly direction, via Pitcairn Island (population largely descendants of the Bounty mutineers) and Easter Island (why the stern face?) to Puerto Montt in Chile for a distinct change in temperature, winds and scenery. We then hope to round Cape Horn, dropping by the Falklands to see if they’re worth keeping, before heading up to Buenos Aires to possibly give them back.

Timing and weather routing will then determine our return track across the Atlantic, probably either via the Cape Verde Islands or Azores, before ultimately cruising across the Med to Turkey – ETA September 2016.    

Sea Wolf (Canadian flag) docked in a tight spot in Tangiers