Crossing the Pacific I.

 

The bearing from Bahia, Ecuador to Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquises Islands starts out as 255⁰M if you follow the great circle route which is the shortest between two points on the sphere shaped surface of the Earth. So close to the equator, and sailing nearly parallel to it means there is not a huge difference between the great circle and the rhumb line (that is the shortest distance between two points on the two dimensional representation of the Earth on a Mercator projection chart) but every mile saved and not sailed counts. In my mind I have already dismissed stopping at the Galapagos, so I tried to make the 255⁰ or as close as possible. The SSW winds meant it was a tight close-reach again, a rough ride when I finally got out from behind the shelter of the land, and sailed into the full force of the breeze. When the effect of the ebbing tide faded away, the current took over, and started to push me north, off of my intended heading. It was a real battle between the elements and me, but I knew I must hold my place and sail against wind and water; every mile I can make south now, will count double later on when I am in the proximity of the Galapagos Islands and its infamous light winds. With lot of hard work and fierce fight, I sailed out of the inter-tropical convergence zone, a weather belt around the equator between the south and the north east trade winds, and sailed into the light SE trade winds just south of the equator.
When I arrived to Bahia, three weeks before, I changed the main and the fore sails to the older, spare ones, thinking to save the better ones from wear and tear and use up the old ones on this very long leg, however, I had to realize now, that my spare main sail is absolutely useless. Its leech is flapping widely, shaking the whole rigging (it does not have battens, as the pockets are very narrow, and I failed to find suitably sized ones) it is worn and it has no draw at all. I had to change back to the old-newer Hyde sail. It, with its pal, the jib, are a remarkable pair of masterpiece, some fifteen years old or more and still keep going strong. I kept the old jib on, despite the significant difference in performance between the two jibs (even though they look very similar).

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Fishing boat near the Ecuador coast

It was hard sailing into the light wind, making only 50-60-70 miles in 24 hour periods, in the dull and grey landscape as the sun and the stars were hiding behind the clouds most of the time. Hundreds miles offshore, and I was surprised to still see fishing nets and small fishing boats around. I was even more surprised that they left fish in the sea, and I caught at first two tunas, then a couple of mahi-mahis. I ate fish with fish, and the remainder was salted and sundried for later use. I got into the habit to filet the fish, and not to throw away the bones, head and fins, but make a good thick soup stock out of them. Later, with the filets added, spiced and flavoured a very nutritious dish was created, and no part of the fish was wasted. Apparently, the Inuit Indians obtained the vital vitamins and minerals by eating not vegetables and fruit, but every single part of the caught fish, eyes, skin, and all the lot.
I was still trying to make as much southing as I could, but soon I found myself in the position where I had to decide if I pass Galapagos on the south or on the north. The northerly route means easy short term solution, longer but more comfortable passage. The southerly route means hard work in the next few days, but with a bit of luck, keeping close to the wind to sail a hundred mile south of the islands gain back the time and effort later. I went for the second option, even though it felt dubious, but the wind gradually changed from SW to S and it enabled me to head 260⁰ – 250⁰ COG instead of the initial 310 – 280⁰.
The wind was in general very light compared to the size of the swell and the waves. It looks like there is always wind somewhere and the generated waves reach us, but the wind dies before it arrives. The mornings are the worse. At sunrise, the wind can die nearly to nil, and there is nothing more annoying than listen the sails flapping and banging with the rhythm of the boat rolling in the swell. I’ll get nowhere like this! The current is getting stronger though, it looks like I’ve arrived into the stream of the west flowing Equatorial current and it maintenances my progress.
On the fifth day, I decided to try the cruising chute to scare away the light winds. I had to bear away a little bit, but it might be worth it. With the boat jumping forward in a puff and with the help of the current, we overtake the wind and the sail collapsing and start to flap. It goes on for awhile, and very tiring, so I am glad when the wind shift back to the west side of south, I drop the spinnaker, harden up the white sails and continue on close reaching.
My plan of the southerly route seems to be working, but I can’t let my guard down just yet. I am still sailing close to wind and have to adjust the sails a lot. Sometimes I put in a reef or two in the main, not to decrease the area, but to flatten the sail to stop it flapping. Jib is poled out or pulled in, the wind-vane tweaked, traffic checked. There are not many boats around, thank god; I can get a good sleep at night. I even turn off the chart plotter for the night it isn’t that important, and turn on the depth sounder instead, allegedly, it keeps the whales alerted and away from the boat. They can sense the pulses the transducer emits and they do not like it. Better than bumping into each other on a dark night.
Soon, the daily routine establishes itself. It temporary disturbed by the changing of the time zone announced by the plotter’s clock, that synchronised with the satellites’ atomic timepiece. Not a huge change, it goes back by one hour at every 15⁰ meridian or about 900Nm on the equator (15⁰ x 24h = 360⁰, one day) The nights are still very long and very dark, nearly 12 hours total darkness; I am lucky at the moment if I can get a glimpse of a star or the moon for a short time. I don’t like to use the cabin lights for reading or staying up late doing anything for a couple of reasons. The battery is not an infinite resource of power and I might need it later, and I might have to go out into the dark in case of an emergency and I would be blinded by the bright light. Lucky, I like to sleep. The same goes for music or loud sounds. My primary sensors are my ears; with hearing what the boat and the surroundings doing I am more ready to react quickly.
The day starts with getting up with or before the sun. A good breakfast and a cup of good coffee are essentials. There might be a fish caught last night and it is waiting to be sorted out, or there is just a general cleaning and dishwashing to be done. I check the course and the sail settings and adjust if necessary. I start a new day in the log book and might jot down something about the night, or some notes to be remember. Sometimes I have ideas how to make or repair something that come at night and I write it down not to forget it. This time the wind can be so light I am afraid to move around too much, it disturbs the balance of the boat and affect our progress. It is a good excuse to go back to the bunk and read another book. I like reading, and now is the time for it. It is quite a binge reading, but I make sure not start a new book on the same day I finish the old one. It has to settle down, find its way to the labyrinth of the memories. As nearly all my paper books got soaked on the way to Bahia, and I had to dry them out by putting them out to the sun and wipe the mould off them, I had decided I would read them as fast as I can and give them away. E-readers are very useful; you can store hundreds of books on them, but when you read them they don’t have their own character. You can only see the new words and the symbols in the same case. When you handle a hard copy book, you make acquaintance with the individual item, the quality of the paper, the size of the font, the cover and the special scent of it. Sometimes it is worth refreshing last century experiences. I also find it hard not to open my last, special bottle of red wine, kept for the celebration of successful landing, as each and every book (contemporary and 19th century) seem to be full of drinking. Drinking of good wine, strong rum, grog and beer, casually, for aperitif or digestive, or simply to get drunk. I resist.

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Catch of the day: mahi-mahi

Midday comes, and it is finally lunch time. Not before I scribe down the “noon sight” data, position, SOG, COG etc, and put my position on the paper chart. The Pacific Ocean is huge, the chart is small and small scale. The dot I am making with the tip of the pencil is as big as the island I am heading to. Nonetheless, step by step a curved line is developing showing the path of our journey.
With no fridge on board, nearly every dish has to be made fresh. It is not an easy task, as the cooker is not on gimbals and the boat is rolling. The menu is fish. I start to pray now when I throw the lure in to trawl, not to catch any fish, please, I want to eat something else, but just before I run out of the salted, dried bites, another one is landed successfully. I imagine I will resemble a fish in appearance at the end of the sail, if I keep eating so much. It is a fair game for the fish though, I hooked many and lot managed to get away one way or another, for instance by doing a spectacular twisted summersault and thus get rid of the hook.
The afternoon goes fast with the belly full. The weather is surprisingly cold and the water temperature is low. Not much after the sun is over the zenith the air is cooling down and a jumper is needed. It might be because the deck is now shadowed by the sails. At around six or seven o’clock the day is nearly over, darkness soon takes over again. Time slowly losing its significance, and so are dates. One can go back, in mind at least, to the ages before clocks and calendars, when the time was not divided up to arbitrary hours and weeks and our ancestors followed its natural pace.
On day eight, a Saturday, I finally declared the Galapagos Islands cleared and bore away slightly to get the wind more on the beam and start to make a bit of speed. So far I sailed about 530 Nml in a huge curve projecting northwards and from now on it should be more of a straight line. Also, I reached the first magic milestone, and now there is only 2999 Nml in front of me. That calls for a celebration and the inevitable fish-soup and fried fish is accompanied with a few small glass of red wine.
The next day was Sunday; I had a big wash of myself in the cold sea water, from the bucket. It was refreshing. I felt I deserved a good healthy breakfast of French toast from the bread I still had. If I was there, I turned over the eggs in the box, it makes them keep better and longer. The light winds still persevere; I hoisted the cruising chute just before 1000 hours, and kept it up until the first sign of a bit of stronger gusts in the afternoon. I dropped it, albeit too soon. The gusts only lasted for a short period of time and I was quickly back to the struggles with the insufficient sail area.
I was in danger of running out of fish in the next couple of days, so one afternoon, on the first sunny, warm and really nice day I tried a new lure. I thrown it into the sea and was still standing there watching the line getting taut and adjusting its length, when I felt a big jerk on it and realized there was a fish at the end of it. That was quick, I thought, and started the fight which lasted for awhile as it was a big fish. Unfortunately, it was a smart fish, and just before I could lift it in, he has gone free. Never mind, there is plenty fish in the sea! There is plenty fish, and plenty other sea life in the sea too. This ocean is truly more alive than the Atlantic. Any time I look outside there is life form in the sea, even hundreds of miles offshore. Dolphins, fish, funny and unusually looking jelly fish, a cloud of what looks like fish eggs or planktons, or if nothing else some birds are always circulating around Comino. One night I woke up to a strange noise. It was a fishing boat way far away, but up wind of me, so I heard it a great distance. That was a bit too much life for me on my ocean! It felt like an intrusion of my privacy.
I was still fighting my battle with the light winds, now turning more and more to south and occasionally even SSE, when on the 11th day the last noisy fishing boat passed by us. It was a small enough boat with two big extra diesel tanks on the deck, towing three open boats behind it. Hundreds of miles from the Galapagos Islands and more than a thousand miles from the continent, I wondered what they would do if the engine broke down…
With them gone, I didn’t see people again for a long, long time. That night I was kept busy, at first checking regularly if our paths would be crossing again or not, then with sail adjustment and various noises that kept me awake, their sources to be found. In the morning I cooked a big bowl of rice in milk with sugar, a treat of mine. It was a promising morning with sunshine, wind and warming air. I could feel the weather improve as we leave behind the cooling effect of the Humboldt Current and it gives me a bit of extra energy.
As the weather improves, at least the temperature, I spend more time outside in the cockpit and less hiding in the cabin. I am not a person to sit down to watch the landscape and stick to it for hours; I can get bored with it fairly quickly. However, the waves following and overtaking Comino can mesmerise me easily. They are big, not like the Atlantic waves were, tall and sharp, but their mass and volume is stupendous. They do look like small hills and as they roll underneath the boat and lift it up extending the horizon significantly, is something one can watch indefinitely. There are always waves, sometimes they are coming from multiple directions and cross each others’ paths reinforcing or cancelling out each other. If I am lying awake in my bunk the sound of the waves are indeed resemble music, your imagination makes up the beat and rhythm possibly from some (subconsciously) stored melody. Some days, idling and listening the song of the sea, I start thinking of fearsome ideas, like the incredible depth of the water beneath and how little separate me from sinking quickly without a trace, and all the things would be down there waiting. Strange creatures, enormous pressure, rocky seabed, ancient wrecks. What can be down there 4000 metre deep, we will possibly never know, it is just such a vast area?

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The Pacific Ocean

On the 13th day the wind completely died by the morning after a squally period and left a lumpy uncomfortable sea state. I turned on the engine to try how it works, but I still have problems with it, so after half an hour it was shot down. At least the batteries are fully recharged. In the afternoon I took of the fuel pump, various hoses and fuel lines, checked again every bits I could, and everything seem to be working. The wind is back, so I do not need it at the moment. Until I try again, I have hope that I might have just done something to it and it will function better. 2540 nautical miles to go to Atuona, Hiva Oa, and I am ¼ way between Ecuador and the Marquises Islands. Coincidently, I am ¼ way around the world as well. I have passed the W 96⁰ longitude and I left from Dublin which is at about on the 6⁰ meridian. That is 90⁰ done out of the 360⁰.
The days are slowly crawling forward; every day there is something extra worth to jot down into the log book. Now, I passed another time-zone, then I was able to hoist the spinnaker for an hour, or I am at the 1/3 mile stone. The light winds are frequented with big squalls and it makes a hard sailing sometimes. Also, there is rain, or at least drizzle with the squalls which doesn’t make life easier at all. As the wind speed goes up and down rhapsodically and the waves are not in synchrony there is lot of work to find the proper sail configuration that suits the conditions. Main sail up and down, reefs in and out, spinnaker, staysail and jib tried and tested. The bearing and the angle of the wind I should take is not perfectly suitable either I can’t use the running sails it would take me to much north, but can’t use the main sail most of the time as it is blanketing the jib, and then it is just flapping useless. A huge and long squall woke me up in the 18th day early morning and I had to run to pull down the main sail. It was already in the third reef, but it was still too much for it.
On the 4th of August, 1756 miles from Bahia and Atuona as well, I am half way across the East Pacific. This is Day21, but I hope to make the second half of the voyage faster than the first, and I give 18 days to myself to arrive. After the very light winds at the beginnings and the squally unsettled weather in the last while, I seem to have arrived the steadier and stronger SE trade wind zone. The sun is shining!

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The earthquake at Bahia de Caráquez

 

Everything I touched seemed to break down in Ecuador. I put on the coffee in the morning the valve of the burner on the cooker fell apart, I swapped the jib to the spare one, the furling gear got stuck, the engine kept playing havoc, as I am getting used to it now, but when the throttle cable broke one morning when I started it to charge the batteries… well, what can you do, laugh.

After the arrival my main concern was to empty the boat and dry it as much as possible. One of the reasons I was here, because it supposed to be in a dry tropical climate. After the humid and warm conditions in Panama and the wet ride down to Ecuador mildew and mould farms cherished all over the interior of Comino, and it become a dangerous health issue to me. I felt breathing in the smell of the fungus and the ill effects of it, dry flu like symptoms.  While the port, for a hefty, compulsory fee, organised my check-in procedure, and various officials were visiting me to fill their papers with ridiculous information, I surveyed the damage this last tough leg of sailing caused in my assets. Half of my paper books were soaked in water, some of them beyond rescue. Clothes and various items also dripped from the seawater, only God knows how it got there. The deck soon looked like a yard sale; section by section I emptied the shelves and lockers, dried them then wiped them with vinegar while trying to air out the contents as much as possible. The sun rarely showed itself during my stay, it is true, it was that season, however, the air was dry and slowly, I managed to get from the bow to the lazaret.  The seawater, but even the salty air eats itself into everything, especially metals and even more if two dissimilar metals are in touch irreversible corrosion sets in. I routinely have to open and oil every single zip I have on board at every stop, or more frequently if possible, otherwise they seize up and there is no way to open them anymore without permanent  damage. Jeans, even in waterproof bags lost the studs in the pocket corners, starting with a slight discoloration, and rapidly going downhill to complete destruction. Luckily, no real valuables got spoiled, yet. However, I will have to be more careful in the future, if it is possible.

The ungrateful behaviour of the cooker, by giving up working for me, was a great blow in my mood. I didn’t know how and which way I would be able to sort out this problem, if at all, here in the middle of nowhere. I decided I needed a day or two off, and one early morning I got on the bus and bought a ticket to Manta. Manta is one of the biggest cities in Ecuador, and it has a huge commercial port as well. A mere 100 km distance on the road, it took nearly five hours to reach it. Bahia de Caráquez and the area were destroyed by a powerful earthquake just last year, and the roads still under repair. I had to change in Portoviejo, but it was all organized for me without my knowledge. The system here is still that one man is driving; one man cares about the passengers, like in many other South American and Caribbean countries. So my conductor took the money from me for all the way to Manta, then in Portoviejo he put me on the other bus and gave the share of the fair to his colleague. It suited me fine. I bought some funny food from the local vendors who got on the bus at some stops with their goods and sometimes had to stay on until the next one if the driver was too impatient to wait for them to finish. They were selling everything from cocoa water to cakes and candies. They were real homemade curiosum for 50 cents or a dollar. It really seemed like hard work for little profit.

Manta is a real big town with an incredibly sized market. Just the hairdressers’ tiny workshops filled many rows on the market, so I quickly got a badly needed haircut. On the market you can buy everything from tobacco leaves via chilli peppers to smart-phone covers. A few stall was selling the gas cookers that I thought, with a bit of modification would suit me, so I made a mental note of their location in this maze of vendors, and set out to find a bed for the night. There were no tourist and hardly any other gringos around town, and I just happened to wear a bright yellow T-shirt which seems to be Ecuador’s colour, so the local people looked at me curious and usually smiling but at least on an approving manner. No one speaks English though and my Spanish is virtually non-existent and this makes communication rather hard. Still, it depends on situation and personality. Sometimes, a conversation could be held by I am talking in English and listening in Spanish and my partner doing the opposite. I met not one young Venezuelan refugee, working in Manta, who was keen to telling me about the harsh reality in the home country. No money or no food to buy in the politically unstable Venezuela is a good reason for escape.

After bombarded with European prices on a well-known booking site, I decided to ask personally for a cheap bed for a night. The first place’s best shot was a room with breakfast for $27, but I found it too expensive. At the next hostel the receptionist’s offer was $20 so I asked the busy young couple who looked like they were running the place, if there is anything cheaper. They gave me a room that was under construction for $8. It was really like sleeping on a building site but I was tired enough to fall into bed after a shower and a quick shopping for breakfast.

The morning came fast, I went back to the market bought the cooker and headed for the bus stop. When I got on the bus and connected to the Wi-Fi, messages kept coming to me if I was alright after the earthquake? I thought it was funny, how could an earthquake from a year before hurt me? Then I looked up the news, and realised there was a quake at the same spot not too far from Bahia, just the last afternoon. It was a magnitude 6 one, strong enough to be reported in the European news, but not strong enough to do any damage in the already half-ruined town.  I did not feel it, but now I was in a hurry to get back to see if I still have my boat.

Back in Bahia they reassured me that they only felt a little rumble after all, and all is OK. Comino was safe and snug on the anchor and after some fixing and tinkering the cooker was ready to be tested. It worked, although not as good as the old one used to be, but I have to do with this now.

My next job that was on one of the sticky notes that were lining up on the switchboard not to be forgotten was to change the sails to the other set I had. I used the better ones so far, but I would like to keep them as they are not too bad, and use the old ones until they last. I will have to buy a new set sooner or later and this way I would have a usable spare one. Also, the pulleys for the reefing lines needed to be replaced, they were getting rusty and were stuck. I changed the main, and it took some time to find the best way of using the available resources to set up the reefing, but it was sorted out anyway. However,  when I hoisted the jib it didn’t want to furl up so I had to drop it again and again until I figured I had to oil the bearing on the top gear. Maintenance is the key to the seamless running of the ship.

Days were going fast and I started to understand the few cruisers who spent prolonged time here. Food is cheap here; I could have a three course meal with a soft drink for US$4, the Port provides Wi-Fi and shower, the staff is nice, the weather is mild. I wouldn’t mind a bit of more sunshine, but should have come earlier I suppose…

As there is no sunshine the solar panel is hardly generating any power, so I use the engine occasionally to charge the batteries. It still has the same problem as it started in Portobello, despite my belief that it was fixed, many time. Then one morning the throttle cable broke at the control head. I knew there would be no chance to get a cable in Bahia and not in a short notice in Ecuador either. An old couple on one of the few boats here were waiting six weeks for a fuel pump to be delivered from Europe. I was already getting ready to leave and gave my passport to the port to obtain my zarpe, so I quickly put together a makeshift solution and decided I will not rely on the engine any more at all. I am sailing.

A rough sail to Ecuador

The normal route yachts usually take, if they are planning to cruise the Pacific and French Polynesia is to go straight from Panama to Galapagos Islands then the Marquises, the eastern most island groups. Landing on the Galapagos if problematic, rules and laws changing every day, and you don’t know what mood the local authorities are on the day of your arrival. To obtain cruising permit takes weeks of bureaucracy and lots of money. Beside, you more than likely run into the doldrums with no or little wind for days, drifting by the mercy of the local currents. I was still planning a short stop there, but decided to sail south, against the SW winds to Ecuador, then turn to west from there. Thus, I would break this long leg to half at least, and hopefully have good wind for the second part. The first 600 miles would be hard though, I knew.

As I had to sail SW my main concern was to make as much westing as possible so that later on I will be in a better position for the stronger wind. At the same time, sailing south was the shortest route, but I hardly had the problem of worrying between the two choices as many times one tack took me SE the other NW, neither one good for me. It was desperate.

The first evening, I was just enjoying a reasonable sail heading 230⁰M, putting myself in a good position after pushing the boat and the engine a little bit to round the northern tip of San José island, when I saw a big black cloud coming towards us. What is that going to do? I kept an eye on it as it was getting closer and closer, and before the night fell I finally gave in to the more cautious inner voice in my head and put in two reefs in the main. That was the first reefing that must have been followed by hundred more on this 11 days sail to come.

Dusk arrived, the big black cloud was getting closer, the wind dropped and the darkness grew around me, soon there was nothing to see, only small patches of fade light from the reflection of the mast head light and the compass illumination. I was sitting at the companion way in anticipation and was thinking if I was maybe too careful with the two reefs when a few stronger gusts hit the sail. Our speed increased, Comino heeled over, the wind-vane started to work. The gusts became more frequent and suddenly the gunwale was under the water, and I had to damp the mainsheet to depower the main sail. The wind kept increasing it was howling amongst the rigging like in a small gale. The boom was hitting the water while I was trying to furl the jib and was fighting with sheets and the furling line. By the time I found a good balance between the sails the waves grew big and the rain started. It was awful. We were beating into the big black moonless night, the storm was raging outside, and this was not how I imagined the Pacific Ocean cruise. I was disappointed. The storm lasted most of the night, when the wind decreased the rain got heavier and the air cooled down. Still, I had to go and let out some of the jib, then later on the main, to keep the boat moving. By 5 am the wind was completely gone, and I started up the engine. The sea was still disturbed and without forward motion the boat was rattled like a mouse in the mouth of the cat.

Soon the wind has come back and I was able to sail again. Close haul, tight on the wind in a SW direction. Good sailing conditions a F3 wind, moderate sea. It didn’t last long, the wind veered at first and I was tacking between 270⁰ and 130⁰ M, probably against some current and then dropped to nothing. I started the engine again, after I span around a few times losing steerage way, but only for a half an hour. Light breeze sprang up, and I sailed through the night without needing to touch the sails or the tiller.

The darkness of the nights was a bit of an unpleasant surprise. All the way through clouds covered the sky day and night. The new moon wouldn’t have given me much light, but still at least should have shown its face, the stars were hiding as well, and during the day I had no sunshine at all. After the first rough night everything was wet in the boat and there was no way to dry things out. Both of the bilge pumps worked hard, the sea found its way into the boat in the smallest holes. There are bad days when nothing seem to work. There is no wind and I drifted 5 miles back NE during the night, the fishing reel broke down, not that I would catch any fish with this slow speed, the bilge pump fell apart. When a nice breeze come the hopes are rising, then it is gone and desperation sets in. What if there will be no wind for two weeks here? What if the wind will be SW and I can go neither to Ecuador nor to the Galapagos? Then a westerly light wind starts to blow and after hours of contemplating I hoist the cruising chute and making a good southerly progress. It wasn’t used for long time and mould and mildew grew on it just like everywhere on the boat after the humid and warm Panamanian climate. I don’t trust the wind so nervously watching it for any sign of change, but so far so good. I am getting the gist of it though, laying in the pilot berth one eye on the chart plotter, looking at the COG, I can see it is gradually veering back to a southwest. Sometime during the night I pop out of the bed, drop the chute and pull up all the white sails. The wind vane is set just a few degrees off of close haul we are making 2-3kn of SOG with a SW heading through the night. The seas flat, the wind gentle, the boat is upright and happily sailing along, while I am listening the water churning on the outside of the hull. It was a beautiful sail; still the next 1200 hrs position report confirms a mere 48 Nm progress in the last 24 hours. It is still an improvement from the day before of 26 miles…

The wind and weather keep changing there is all kinds of variations. At some stage, I decide to get ready with the third reef on the main sail, which had no precedent since I left North Atlantic winter. It was not put in use eventually, but only because Comino was enjoying herself so much riding hard the waves and winds gunwale is submerged the bow thumping on every fall. Sometimes I tried the tiller but it was easy to hold, the sails were balanced, we did the best we could.

After a week sailing I cleared the imaginary border of Columbian waters and I was close to Ecuadorian shores. I felt a little bit safer now; I heard nothing good about the Pacific side of Columbia. Still, I was surprised and apprehensive when one morning, just finished my breakfast and ready with the coffee, I heard shouting and engine noise from the outside. There was a small open boat with three men on board, some with a covered face (with a balaclava-like piece of cloth, used by many people with outdoor activities around here). Add a huge outboard motor and plenty of spare fuel in the bow, colourful decoration on the hull and you can understand why I was thinking to put down my cup of coffee and pick up the machete instead. They were only fishermen, more than 50 miles offshore on that little boat and was warning me of their drifting net just under the surface. I changed course until I cleared then waved them off, and kept going S-SW.

Later on there was another, similar fishing boat, from Esmeralda, Ecuador, visiting me, with three young lads, and they were laughing and dancing when they saw me. They demanded that they can take photo of me and were generally very happy to see such a small vessel on their home water. They come too close, unfortunately, and ripped off another chunk of the rubbing strake on the same side of the Panamanian incident. They gave me a calamari from their catch, so I ignored the accident. I am corruptible, it tasted good.

After the beautiful day of the incident with the fishermen, the weather turned bad, and it stayed like that more or less for the rest of the trip. The wind picked up, and now blew consistently from the bow. Tacking, never a strong point with poor overloaded Comino and the old sails was frustrating. Sometimes, on both tacks I managed to head away from my destination, and the 24 hour runs never exceeded the 60 miles range. One dark night, after fighting all day the elements and desperation, resting dreamlessly in the bunk, I heard a scratching noise on the hull. I sharpened my hearing with disbelief, but it did not stop, and by the time I was on the deck with the torch, the boat has stopped and started to spin off the wind. I got tangled in an underwater fishing net. It was raining, the wind was strong, the darkness, like an impenetrable wall to every direction, and I was alone on the big merciless Pacific Ocean in a big mess. ‘No panic, no panic!’ I told to myself ‘What first?’ I dropped the main, and furled the jib, then lifted up the pendulum rudder of the wind vane before it gets damaged. ‘Luckily’, I had been in a similar situation, in one January on the Irish Sea, only with a lobster pot, so I had an idea what to expect. I grabbed the boat hook, and tried to push down the net deep enough to clear it from the rudder. It didn’t work; despite I am lying on the lazaret hatch and being in the water with half of my body to get as deep as possible. I didn’t want to damage the net, it is someone’s livelihood, but after many unsuccessful attempts I had to resort to the hack saw, and cut it off. There was still the problem of which way to get out of it. I imagined it to be a circle with a narrow entrance that I accidently found and now I will never be able to get out of it. In the dark, where you have no sense of direction it is no easy task to decide which way to try. I saw a bright light in the distance occasionally flash and even getting closer and I thought that would be the trawler belonging to the net, but coming close to it I realized it was a tiny calamari fishing boat and they may not even know about the net. When I run into the net a few more time and had to change direction suddenly to avoid it, I started panicking a little. I decided to ignore my bearing and just follow the net for a while as much as I could in the small light of the torch and in less than ten minutes I concluded that I cleared it one way or another and I am safe from it. I reset the vane, set the sails, changed my wet outfit and went back to rest.

I was getting nearer and nearer to shore and now I really had to tack back and fro if I wanted to clear Punta Ballena and later Cabo Passado. But the conditions did make it easy for me, and half of the time I felt I was sailing backwards when I had to tack away from land, but I could not do better than NW. Hours made days and I realised, the rough conditions became a norm and I resigned into a state where you accept that you can’t change the weather and the sea state, you have to work with what you have. In that mind set I crossed the equator and I celebrated it with a drink offered to Neptune.   As I predicted it didn’t help much, and I was back to counting back the miles and meters to my destination.

On the 27th June, Tuesday 0000 hours, I rounded the last protruding cape and I could at last bear away. I headed towards the entrance of River Chane and to the ‘waiting room’ where you suppose to wait for a pilot to direct you in amongst the shifting sandbanks. When I arrived there it was still dark and I had an hour or two before high water so, I dropped the anchor and went to sleep. I woke up in an hour later to the unbearable motion of the boat due to the swell coming in from the sea. It was daylight already but a very dull one. I tried to radio the port for a pilot on both Ch69 and Ch16 but got no reply. The swell was getting worse and I decided I had to leave before it turns dangerous. I started the engine, it run for about half minute then stopped for no reason.

I think that was the moment when I thought it was like a Fawlty Towers episode, when the character of John Cleese trying to stop a guest entering the room or the hall. It was just like a bigger force was trying to stop me the last five days to arrive to this place, and every time I felt it will be easy from here, a new hardship struck. However, I was determined. I restarted the engine, and connected the autopilot. The engine worked the autopilot didn’t. That was new, but nothing could surprise me anymore. Just by routine I flipped on the switch of the instruments and strangely, the depth sounder that was out of function for months was showing signs of life. I might just have fixed it on the way here when I was fiddling with it, that time thought to be unsuccessful. I checked it quickly with the lead I prepared earlier and accepted the result within measurement error. There were small fishing boats coming and going in and out of the river, so I pulled up the anchor, murmured a short praying, spiced up with some cursing and headed towards that seemed to be the channel. The movement of the boats coincided with the channel shown on my Garmin chart plotter (not the first time I am glad I had spent that lot of money on this digital chart) and it was reassuring. One of the smaller, open fishing boats slowed down to let me ahead of them, but I waved them in front of me. They seemed to understand at once that I wish to follow them, if they could show me the way in, and they did so, all the way to the deep basin of the river. With the dropping tide presenting extra danger, the breaking waves left and right, the sandbanks already showing themselves here and there, between the ill-functioning engine and the now not-working autopilot I cannot express the relief when I was through. Another mile motoring up the river and I saw the boatman of Puerto Amistad coming to greet me and show me to my anchorage.

Amador to Las Perlas Islands

 

After the goodbye circle around the anchorage and a few last words and waves, I pulled in to the marina and quickly filled up with fuel, the first time since Las Palmas in the Canaries. It gave me an easy calculation. I have done nearly 5000 Nm including the Panama Canal with 25 l of Diesel. Not bad, but coming out of the marina I faced calm condition and flat seas, so the engine was left pottering away until I crossed the anchoring ships and the main route of the ones that just exiting the Canal. Maybe the first time, it was a warm and pleasant night to stay and sleep outside in the cockpit, and to keep watch so I did. I wasn’t happy when suddenly raised from a few minutes nap there was a ship’s bright light blinding me way too close to comfort. It passed safely in front of us, but I sweared I would look into to get an AIS device. During the night I was trying sail when I thought some breeze sprang up but against the tide and with an overloaded boat in that light wind my SOG (speed over ground) rarely went up above 1.5 knots. When it fell under 0.7 I was in danger losing steerageway, and if there was no hope for any better it was back to motoring again. I had to keep moving.

After sailing through the hours of darkness a beautiful day greeted me at the vicinity of my first stop at the Las Perlas. I chose a spot to drop the anchor far away from everything and everyone After the busy anchorage of Amador, I just wanted some different experience with nature and nothing else around me. I got it, there was no other boat around me and in fact there was nothing else only a few islands with sandy beaches at low tide, trees on the top of them and a huge variety of birds. It was beautiful in the morning sunshine and I decided to row around with my dinghy that I have towed all the way to here. I picked the nearest tiny island and rowed over to have a look. It was even prettier from close than from far, the sandy beach washed by the cold water of the Pacific, perfectly round rocks rolled by the small breaking waves, the cliffs protecting the trees, the wildlife and the nests of the birds rising up in the middle. I saw another small island not too far away, and when I got bored with the old one I rowed the half mile distance over. It was an 8 shaped one, one of the loop is smaller than the other, and the two with the higher points connected by a sandy ridge only visible until half tide or so. Clean, unspoiled, fresh sand under my feet, the sea both sides, only the splashing of the waves, the sound of the wind and the occasional squawk of the seabirds disturbing the silence.

Feeling the effect of the long last night, I fell asleep on the beach my hand under my head, resting on a rock as a pillow. I woke up to the waves of the rising tide reaching my feet. I had been in a deep state of sleep and was dreaming something completely unrelated to my situation and suddenly I didn’t know where I was and jumped up to strange feeling of my feet in the water. It took a second or two to fully come to my senses, but, besides my hands feeling numb from the pressure, there was something else unsettling at the back of my mind, I couldn’t explain.  Where is my dinghy?

I hadn’t thought I would fall asleep and I left the dinghy a good two-three metre below me on the beach, and it was taken away by rising tide. I run up to the nearest highest point of the island to look around, my right hand hanging off my shoulder useless the other one is a bit better. I was looking around, but the grey coloured dinghy wasn’t a striking image standing out of the now dull, greyish surroundings.  I saw something that could have been it, somewhere between Comino and the first island I’d visited. I had no other chance just to swim for it. Forget the possibility of crocodiles and sharks, I jumped into the water and started to swim. Luckily, there was no wind and my hands were coming back alive, and half way trough I was sure it was indeed my dinghy. Sometime later I reached it and climbed in with a big relief. I paddled back to collect the stuff I had left on Island Nr2, then back to Comino for a well deserved dinner.

Unfortunately, the benign conditions didn’t last too long. Big swell entered the anchorage combined with strong wind, and I was unable to finish the jobs I had intended to. It was really unpleasant, and I was thinking of leaving or not, but gave it another day. The next morning was much better and I manage to work on the fuel filter again, as it still letting air somewhere into the fuel system, hence making the engine unreliable. That was it though, by the afternoon the swell and the strong wind were back, and I decided to leave in the morning. I should have left in the evening though, as I hardly had any sleep that night from the rolling and pitching and yawing of the boat.

The weather was similarly appalling in the morning, so it was an easy decision to pull up the anchor and motor out of this place, paradise turned to hell. At least the engine was working well, and I kept it running to make as much westerly as possible, and clear the islands safely. I even hooked a tuna in the first hours, so all was good again.

Amador

It was hard to quit Amador anchorage despite the dirty water, distant traffic noise and the appalling dinghy landing place. The conveniences make lot of cruisers to stay, as we saw already in Portobello, and some of them get stuck on these places for decades. I had the excuse of repairing the boat to begin with, then towards the end of my stay I had so many friends and acquaintances, I felt like part of a little community.
  The morning after our arrival I was up early, the sun was only rising over the horizon, when looking around the number of anchoring and moored, strange and beautiful boats; I noticed one that looked familiar. It was Avolera, our transit-partner just a quick rowing distance away. “Our friends are here” I said to Regina “I am going to visit them, do you want to come?” We quickly put on some gear, jumped into the dinghy and rowed over in the starting rain. I thought they wonder what happened to us, after we parted and they had to leave us behind with the struggling engine, and likewise, I was curious how did they manage, and did they make the tight schedule in time? They were in a similarly high spirit as us, left the stress behind and enjoying the relief. We climbed aboard and accepted our coffee. They made the Pedro Miguel lock in time indeed, and they still had the crew onboard, so a big merry group of people was around to discuss the events of the yesterday. We stayed for a good while, then said good bye the two Chilean boys, and Manu the Chilean girl, Ben the American crew, and Lindsey and Paul the two brothers.  
  The good feeling of the successful transit lasted for weeks.  After a few days I was left on my own, as Regina had to go back to pursue her career, and I started to prepare the boat for the Pacific Ocean sailing. I got rid of the lines, the tyres and the toilet, by giving back them to the agent (a dinghy load of stuff), then started to cut out the pieces of timbers for the repair of the gunwale. I also cleaned the engine’s cooling water ways and did a general engine maintenance session, like replacing the anode, impeller, checking the thermostat, changing gaskets and seals. I should have done these before the transit, but it is easy to be smart with hindsight. Cleaning the boat and stocking up with provision and all possible materials that could be useful was on the agenda too. I listened to the VHF cruisers’ network on mornings where plenty of useful information is shared between the participating boats, and obtained a free travel card suitable for bus and metro in Panama City. I just had to top it up and it was ready to be used. There was another problem I had to sort out, the wind vane, the balancing weight on the vane was hitting the push pit rail on certain settings. I tried to move the whole apparatus aft by putting spacers between the bracket and the transom, but it was not enough. Someone recommended Alli, a German engineer, who is one of those cruisers who got stuck here; he could do the cutting and welding of the stainless steel rail for me. It turned out Alli and his wife, arrived 15 years ago to Panama, and they are the parents of Eric Bauhaus who surveyed the San Blas islands, Las Perlas and other cruising areas around Panama, making these beautiful places accessible to many. It has to be said, Alli was not 100% positive about his son’s great achievement, as these once secluded places are now flooded with foreign yachts. We did the cutting and welding anyway, as soon as the weather let us, and if cheap it was not, I was happy with the result.
I frequented Lindsey’s boat when we both had time for a chat, as the ice cold beers were just too tempting to ignore, and we became good friends. He was waiting for new sails coming from Honkong, and was keen to go back to Australia after 17 years of cruising around the world. According to him, one place is worse than the other, except Australia, which is the most beautiful and splendid of all, but I think it is just the nostalgia that’s talking. He will get bored of it soon enough, and we will meet him again somewhere in Patagonia, Greenland or similarly exotic place. 
Two weeks has been spent already in Amador, but I was nearing the end of my preparation. I went into town regularly with the cheap 25 dollar-cent bus, and came back to the boat with full of rucksack and shopping bags of provision, epoxy, materials, spare parts, carrying sometimes 30 kg on my back and in my hands. One day a small, 32 feet Etap yacht, S/Y Jasina anchored close to Comino, and Regina and Matthias, a German couple came over to say hello. They just came through the Canal and were happy to see a smaller-than-theirs boat.  As we were so close together, we started to cooperate and help each other, I dropped them ashore with their dinghy, so they don’t have to leave it at the unsafe dinghy landing spot; they came with me to the market and so on. We talked about our plans, they persuaded me to stop at the Perlas Islands and I told them about my idea to go south to Ecuador to find wind for the Galapagos. We exchanged charts and other digital goods, books for beer, rum for help. Then two identical Lagoon catamarans arrived to the anchorage and tied up alongside a third bigger one, french style. I guessed, my crew member for the transit, Elsa, should be aboard one of them. The catamarans are being delivered from Europe straight from the factory, to Tahiti to charter, and she was waiting for them at Portobello to join as a delivery crew. Sure she was, we met soon again and I got to talk to the rest of the big group of French sailors too. Mingled with the catamaran sailors was Andreas, with an aluminium mono-hull , whose plan is to cruise to New-Zealand, prepare his boat for the Antarctic, then sail down and freeze in for the a winter. Some 26 years old have strange ideas of fun…
  The days were going fast, we survived the big squalls that regularly hit the anchorage and surprise most of the newcomers. Combined with the poor holding and the big tide range these squalls can reorganize the map of the anchorage so that you find it hard to locate your own boat. After the carefree anchoring on the Caribbean side, yachts here were being dragged up and down and in circles. Nearly everyone has to re-anchor at some stage despite of all efforts and best anchors. I already did once and put some extra weight on the chain to help the anchor and it seemed to be holding. I was watching the big black clouds coming towards us on Lindsey’s boat, sipping an afternoon beer. He showed me the clouds and said something big is coming over there, but he was confident in his anchor, despite I am telling him how the boats danced around last time when he wasn’t here. Ten –fifteen minutes later the squall hit us, and I watched the neighbouring boat passing by on the starboard side windward. She was fast and she was at anchor. We were at anchor. It was time to put down the cans and start the motor…
The night before I was going to leave Panama for the Las Perlas Islands and then Ecuador, Elsa visited me to swap the videos and pictures of the transit. I recommended going over the party boat, Avolera, for a reunion of the participants of the Canal adventure. I didn’t expect it to turn out like that. We had a few glass of the bilge-found rum, from 11 years ago from somewhere around Madagascar, when Manu showed up hitching a ride from Alli in his dinghy. She said the Chilean boys (whose’ name I forgot) are here too, ashore, with Whitney, so we sent a boat to fetch them at once. They are doing a ‘circus’ a street performance now, Whitney is their trainer and they have a van plus two dogs, and they are going north to Mexico to try their luck. They just met a week ago or so, and came to visit Lindsey if he was still there. It was an unbelievable night, with unbelievable people and stories of life and travels. Everyone was happy to see each other. If we wanted to organize to everyone be there like that, we would have never managed it…
  Again, I had many people to say goodbye. With some we said to meet in Tahiti, with others in Australia or just keep in touch in email. It was a new part of my journey, into the unfamiliar vast waters of the Pacific Ocean, again alone with the sea after spending nearly two months in loose or close company of others. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the 600 miles sail south bound, mostly against wind and current but I knew it will not be easy.