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).

IMG_7389

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.

DSC_0011

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?

IMG_7402

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!

Advertisements

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.

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. 

Panama Canal transit

 

The night was awful. It started out just fine; we had the cold beers the cheese and crackers, listened music and had a nice chat. I was able to give everyone a berth (or a half) but unfortunately two of these were outdoor ones. Not the best at the beginning of the rainy season. I was praying for a dry night. The two boys were sleeping outside, Elsa in the bunk berth, and the two of us in the ‘bow-cabin’.  Just after we fell asleep unusually strong wind arrived, flapping my cheap and noisy plastic sheet that was used to make a boom tent. The guys tried to readjust the system but I knew it was hopeless so I let them at it, and tried to sleep instead, I had a very long day before me. When they finished with the commotion and finally laid down to sleep the rain started. Of course the boom tent was leaking everywhere so they came in the cabin and sat wherever they could. Now, that would have been a picture, the five of us sitting around the cabin which is obviously too small for even one… We hardly slept all night obviously and when the alarm clocks signalled the wake up time at 4:30 in the morning it was inevitable that we over slept and only woke up to the bright light of the ferry boat bringing our pilot onboard. I tried to pull up my trousers and greet the man at the same time, but I was still half asleep it was dark and I hardly knew where I was. But we had no time to think too long, Freddy, possibly the biggest man of all pilots was ready to go, instructed us to start the engine and pull up the anchor. We followed again Lindsey’s boat, after I managed to break out the anchor, and soon were catching up with them. The two boat had to go into the first lock together, tied up alongside, and the bigger boat would control the lines and the engine while we only helping out if necessary. To come alongside S/Y Avolera I had to slow down so I pulled back the throttle and heard the stomach wrenching sound of the engine alarm. It was the water temperature sensor, overheating… I guessed it was just because the rev fell back and there was not enough water going through the system so I waited a minute or so and noise was gone. The engine cooled down now enough to continue and by now we were made fast alongside Avolera and practically on tow.

It was soon time to go into the first chamber of the three of Gatun Locks. The three Chilean and one American strong crew of the other boat was handling our situation well, Lindsey had his hand on the wheel and on the throttle, I only had to help with my engine to slow down and stop and my guys just had to occasionally help out the other boat’s line handlers  and taking photos of course. The shore crew threw the four monkey fists with the messenger lines, we grabbed them, tied our lines to them, and then the lines were pulled over to the shore crew, fixed on the bollards to let the boat crew tighten them. As we were going up, the lines had to be kept taut all the time and synchronously to hold the two boats at the same position in the middle of the chamber. It all went well and soon we were in the second chamber, when I heard the dreaded engine alarm again. My engine stopped and this time I had really no idea what caused it. At first I thought the worst, that the overheating cooked the engine and it will never start again ever, new engine plus the cost of towing us out of here, it is the end of the road. Well, we will see I decided, in the big chaos nobody noticed that the engine failed again, everyone was busy with their own job, we were still alongside so let’s keep going. When I was told to reverse my engine to help stopping the two boats, I pretended the engine was still running and moved the lever backwards. I put up the poker face and waited for what has to come. When we were out of the third chamber and it was time to part from Avolera I tried the engine and it started. It didn’t run too long though, just as we were saying good bye to each other it stopped again. That is impossible I thought, I opened up the engine room and again manually pumped up the system with fuel and tried again. It started again. We were out of danger at least now as we had steerage way, but the question was in the air. Will it work all the way through the 28 Nml to the next lock and further on out of the canal? Avolera offered us a tow all the way, but the pilots didn’t let us do it because of various (made up?) reasons. I set the cruising speed on 4.2 knots left the engine room open to let the air circulate better to help cooling the engine and again followed the slowly disappearing Avolera.  Our pilot was looking for affirmation that we are indeed able to continue and finish the transit and looked slightly unconvinced by the yes answer.

When things settled down, and the engine was running for 30 minutes or so, Regina presented us with a beautiful breakfast. Fruits and muesli, omelette, coffee and tea everything you need to forget the night and the morning hardship and get ready for the challenges of the day that was just before us. After breakfast most of the crew just gave in to the tiredness and fell asleep, including our pilot. It was just the long boring motoring, the jungle around us and the ships passing by every direction and very near to us. We made it through Lake Gatun, then the Chagre River. The space ship looking tug boats were speeding up and down leaving huge wakes behind them which we had to turn into if we didn’t want to get them from the beam and being in danger of thrown overboard by the rocking of the boat.

By lunch time everyone was sufficiently rested and Regina has finished the cleaning up after the breakfast. We made quite a good progress, but it was obvious we were not able to make the next set of locks to the planned time of 12:30. It was too tight of a schedule anyway, so it wasn’t a huge problem, and we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. With mutual consent our chief chef Regina set out to prepare our midday meal. With the rest of the crew we were sitting outside in the cockpit and on the deck looking at the big thick, black cloud that we were running into. Underneath the cloud the rain was clearly visible, not only on the water because of the bubbles but like a wall in the air, sharp and clear. It was coming and it was a heavy rain. Elsa, Laurent and me at the helm shoved Freddy down below to the galley to keep him dry and happy and we stood in the heavy tropical rain stunned but cheerful. It lasted 10-15 minutes, and we didn’t know to laugh or cry. Guillaume was stuck at front cabin where he climbed in and couldn’t move anywhere, Regina and Freddy was in the galley and filled out the available small place, and the three of us soaked to the bone standing in the rain nowhere to hide.

The warm breeze dried us quick after the rain, and the nice lunch helped to forget it. The Canal narrowed down by now and soon we arrived to the hill that caused so much trouble to cut through and demanded so many lives during the building process. The bridge we had to pass under signalled the end of our long motoring session and soon we saw the first of the descending locks where we had to wait nearly an hour to be accepted. Cabo Misaki, the ship we were going to share the lock soon was in sight and we moved in the lock, this time with no other yacht and crew to do the job for us. My line handlers handled their lines and their job like professionals and we were soon secured in the middle of the chamber by the four lines. This time, as the water was going down, it was crucial to feed out them precisely and without hiccup, I didn’t want to see Comino hanging up on the chamber wall like an oversized decoration.

Two more locks were handled in a similarly professional manner and the cheer and claps went up in the air from us. We are on the Pacific Ocean! We rounded the pillars of the Americas Bridge just before dark and dropped off Freddy to the waiting ferry boat. We were at the famous Balboa yacht club mooring field, and we tried to come alongside their pontoon so my crew can get ashore, but it wasn’t allowed. Eventually, a small water taxi took them, for a dollar each. We said good bye, I thanked them for their help and patience to endure the conditions then steered away and headed to the anchorage around the corner about a 6-7 miles distance.

Preparation

 

The transit was scheduled for the 17th May a Wednesday, so I calculated we night-sail back to Cristobal on Monday, do our shopping of provision on Tuesday, the crew would have arrived in the early hours of Wednesday, I’d pick them up at Club Nautico, then we proceed to the ‘Flats’ before noon, pick up the pilot and do the transit. Nothing like this happened. 

Monday early Regina and me said good bye to everyone we could in Portobello, did a last minute gas bottle refill, then left the bay and stopped at the beach at the north corner to swim and snorkel for the last time in this warm and pleasant water of the Caribbean Sea. We found a mango tree on the beach and ate as much mango as we could, marvelled the wildlife of the reef again and swam around for hours. At 1830 hours, just before dark we pulled up the hook and started to motor towards Cristobal with no wind and calm water. Not much later the engine started to cough and miss the beats then it stopped. It was completely dark now, we had the mainsail up and there was just as much wind that by unfurling the jib we had steerage way. I was completely devastated, we were not in danger whatsoever, but I knew I have to sort out this problem properly before we go into the canal and we had not much time left. I went down below and opened up the engine room. There was no fuel coming to the filter on the engine side it was obvious. I managed to manually pump the up system  and the engine started again and run for about 45 minutes before it stopped again. Repeat this many times, and we limped in to Cristobal Harbour and dropped the anchor at 0030 hours. I worked all day and night I was tired, and just fell into the bed and slept, but early morning I was up again nervous and thinking what to do. I wasn’t sure if the fuel pump was faulty or the system leaked air in somewhere else, I bypassed the Racor type filter last night but that didn’t seem to make any difference so I run out of idea. We went to a test run again and the engine run for two hours, I thought maybe it sorted out itself, but just stopped before we got back to the anchorage. It is no joke! I contacted Tito, the agent again, we met up and decided to postpone the transit and try to sort out the engine. He brought me to a mechanic near where we were staying anyway and he offered his help the next morning. I contacted the scheduler and asked two days and let my crew knew about the trouble. Shopping postponed, I just had to persuade Regina to stay an extra two days as her flight back to Europe was on the early morning of Saturday and we wouldn’t have finished the transit by then, not to say anything about unexpected events! And this, after her adventure with the outbound flight with a change in Atlanta mix-ups with visa and a day of delay! We called the airline, the change was possible they said, the credit run out of the phone and the call was interrupted… On the scale of problems we had it was actually laughable. Anyway I adopted the mantra ‘It will be a good story, it will be a good story’ to murmur as I had no better idea. We went ashore to the now well discovered town of Colón again, topped up the phone and called the airline again. It was too expensive… I had a momentarily brain break down at this stage. We were sitting in a nearly empty no-name fast food restaurant, where the policemen put us in, after we nearly wandered out of the safe zone of Colón to the gangs’ zone and the certain death, or robbery anyway. I tried to check my phone, maybe email, maybe Google something and I couldn’t open it up with the screen lock. I forgot the pattern I drew millions of times and use for seven or more years. It was so automatic before that I couldn’t consciously recall it; it was like I was locked out of my office. Later on, I managed to open it with a backup pin I didn’t even remember I saved, but the pattern never came back to my mind…

A few hours later we called the airline again and got a better price, so the ticket was changed. My crew was still OK with the date and time. Back to the boat, and the next morning we had the mechanic on board, he checked the fuel pump and it was working fine then traced the problem to the Racor filter. It was blocked, and fuel flow was insufficient. I hoped he was right despite that I tried to bypass it before and it didn’t help. Andreas, the mechanic, from Cuba, cleaned and replaced the filter. I dropped him back ashore when everything was ready and by the time I turned around the engine stopped again. Back to him, he bled the system again and said it should be OK now. We went to test it out, and run the engine for two-three hours and it seemed to work fine. We had an unnecessary spare day now, so I contacted the Canal office again if we could maybe go the next day, as they suggested this before, but the place was taken since. Waiting then, that was left.

Thursday came and it found us, yet again in Colón, as we were planning to do the big shopping for the big day. This was the day before, when you suppose to call the scheduler to confirm the day of transit. I called the scheduler. He said there is no transit the next day. They have no pilot for tomorrow. We went back to Comino. Every time you go out at Club Nautico you pay $3 per person and you passing through a gate, a check point. The security guy knew me by now, so many times I had to go in and out, and he was laughing at my long face. Well, I was not in the mood to laugh back at all…

On the way to the boat we met Lindsey and Paul from the next boat, a 44 feet home built steel boat and figured we are in the same situation, we will transit together, and theirs was rescheduled too. They already had their crew on board, so they were heading to the River Chagre to look around.

Tito called me, and said he has the stuff I have to take on board. Four ¾ lines 40 meters each, four tyres for fenders and the chemical toilet. I should come along side a big steel boat and take it from him. I did, we transferred nearly everything when a tugboat sped by quite far away from us, and its wake came in to this tiny harbour we were. The waves started to reflect from the big boat hull and by some strange phenomenon the incoming waves were amplified by this reflection. The waves were getting bigger and bigger and started to bang Comino dangerously to the ship. I had my biggest fender out it was squashed flat between the two boats. One big wave finally was too big to take, a big crush and a big chunk of the rubbing strake was torn out of Comino. The bare fibre glass hull where the timber was before, was like a big open wound on an animal, it was just about not bleeding. I jumped aboard the motored out as fast as I could. It was too late though, the damage was done…

They still had surprises for us, when I called again I was told the transit is now put on Saturday 5am instead of the usual afternoon then morning transit, ours will be a one-day one. Contact again Elsa, Guillaume and Laurent to come in time in the evening then we run to do the shopping and get ready with everything. With no fridge on board it is difficult to pick the food that will last and be good to eat for so many people. With the new time setup we decided a cold cheese-ham-cracker dinner with lot of beer, eggs and muesli for breakfast and grilled chicken for lunch menu. We worked hard with Regina all day, and we were just about ready when the guys rang me, they are here at bar ashore, and waiting for the transport. I picked them up and a bag of ice to cool the beer and we followed the wake of Lindsey’s boat to the ‘Flats’ to park for the night.