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.