Monday, March 15, 2010

Panama to Galapagos Crossing

When we left Isla Bayoneta in the archipelago of Las Perlas in Panama on March 4th, 2010 we didn’t completely knew what to expect of the 880 nm (1637 km) crossing ahead of us that would take us to the legendary Galapagos Islands. Of course we had read everything that has to be read about this crossing and did everything we thought was necessary to prepare the boat and ourselves to avoid any trouble but the fact is that our longest passage so far was 300 nm and took only 56 hours. The key point here is weather prediction. Usually the wind forecasts are relatively accurate for up to three days and since all our previous rides took less than three days we were able to have a good picture of what to expect along the way before we departed. All we had to do is to wait for the proper weather window and leave at the right time to have favorable wind and waves for the entire trip. But this passage we were facing now was to take at least 6 days and there are no weather forecasts today that would give us a reliable picture of the wind six days ahead of time. Well it gives you a forecast for about 8 days but that may change really fast, the first 3 days are usually accurate. The other major unknown factor was the time it would take before we can anchor and have descent sleep. We knew we could manage to sleep two or three hours at a time between our watches for two days but how about 6 days? How about 3 weeks that it will take us to get to French Polynesia after the Galapagos? Are we going to be able to cook along the way with the waves and all? Many questions we knew the answers from the books we read but this is the kind of things you cannot answer by reading books but only by living them yourself. But the unknown is intrinsically part of this journey and like we did every day for the last year and half we would face it and address any situations as they arise along the way. We did it in the past and frankly we were quite successful at it so we had a good level of confidence in ourselves and the boat as we were motoring to clear out the island and position the boat in the proper direction with the wind right behind us.
Danielle had carefully chosen our weather window after analyzing the local wind patterns for the past month while we were preparing in Panama. According to the forecast there was a strong northerly wind system coming up in the Gulf of Panama and would stay there for at least three to four days or maybe more. Our plan was to leave as soon as the system starts developing in order to be just on the edge of it and sail south with the wind from behind pushing us away as the stronger winds develop behind us. After a bit more than two days this would take us to a zone called the ITCZ, which is around the equator and where the winds of the northern and southern hemisphere sort of cancel each other creating a no wind zone that usually requires motoring hundreds of miles. However, the strong northerly winds Danielle was waiting for would literally blow away the ITCZ and allow us to sail almost all the way to the Galapagos. Thus we would sail south until we reach the zone where the ITCZ should be then start turning west toward our destination, at least this was the plan.
As we raised the sails the first day the wind was there as planned and we were literally flying with the wind and since we were still inside the Gulf of Panama the waves were still very low giving us a smooth and very fast sailing. Since the boat wasn’t rolling much Danielle decided to cook many meals in advance so should the weather get worst we would be able to eat just by heating the meals in the microwave oven. Ok, I have to admit that Danielle doesn’t eat much when it gets shaky. I still eat without problem hehe! After a few hours of bings and bangs in the galley with me watching the boat in the cockpit Danielle came out with two shepherd pies and a meat loaf ready to be eaten. After that we started our watch shifts of about three hours each for all night. Right after the sunset the wind started to pick up even stronger. We lowered the front jib sail and reduced the main for the night to avoid having to play with the sails in the dark in the middle of the night. Better play safe then being sorry. However, even with our conservative approach with the sails the wind was still strong enough to keep us moving at 7 to 8 knots, which is quite fast for Chocobo. We sailed the first night in 28 to 32 knots of wind which was fantastic.
The next two days were just at the image of the first day as we made around 180 miles every 24 hours. The strong wind system developing behind us was pushing us away south just as we had planned and once we got to the ITCZ we still had 15 knots of wind and were able to sail at a fast pace instead of motoring for days as it is often the case for this passage. But as the days passed something became very obvious to us. In the middle of the ocean at hundreds of miles of the closest piece of land there is just nothing and I mean nothing just more than water and the sky with the unbelievable excitement of clouds moving in it! The wind was relatively stable and since we had prepared the boat thoroughly nothing was breaking. In other words during our 3 or 4 hour watches while the other was sleeping there was nothing to do. At night with the moon rising only around 23:00 we would stay for hours in the dark doing pretty much nothing.. Boredom was unbearable especially for me. Of course we didn’t stay sitting in the captain chair staring at the instruments until we reach the mental state of a green pepper and but we both read about two books each and listen to all the music we had in our ipods during that time. The constant movement of the boats created by the wave and the growing dumbness created by our crazy sleeping schedule prevented us for doing anything more intellectual than reading novels. We were basically sleeping when the other one was on watch. But aAfter the fourth third day we started to have enough sleep, 10 to 12 hours every 24 hours is kind of a lot of sleep so we couldn’t sleep anymore. We started to get used to it the beat and were able to start increasing the length of the our watches hence allowing better sleep stretches for the other and eventually recover some mental capabilities.

Maybe as a proof things cannot be boring forever at about 200 miles from the Galapagos a bird joined us at the stern to rest for the night. As Danielle found out later that night about 6 other birds had decided to join the party by standing at the bow. In the morning they were all gone for a new feeding day but not without gracefully leaving us a nice and smooshy gift on the deck!

At one point we must have hit a school of calamari because we found about six of these little fellows dried up on the deck. Look at these cute black eyes wide open! As we were and while getting closer to the first Island San Cristobal the insects also started to look weird. A house fly landed on our chart plotter with nothing particular in its shape but the color, which was mind boggling. It was sort of beige. All the flies I’ve seen were black or maybe sometimes a shade of blue but surely not beige! We saw black gadfly (taon in French) so big that we were wondering how it will be to cook some on a brochette!.The last night before our planned arrival to San Cristobal the wind died abruptly and as it often does it happened in a matter of minutes as if someone up there had turned the switch of the fan off. We started motoring and did so for the most part of the night and with motors come the divine infinite supply of electricity in the boat. For us electricity rimes with video games, ok maybe not syntactically but for sure practically! Playing video games is the best way to get your brain busy for four hours and not see the time passing or the equator for that matter. While I was fighting with the increasingly fast strings of balls of Luxor we crossed the equator that night passing from the northern to the southern hemisphere. I was a bit sad when I looked at our position at the end of my watch just after level 6-8 of Luxor as I wanted to take a picture of the GPS when the latitude shows all zeros. A bit after sunrise Danielle could have shouted “land ho!” as San Cristobal started to materialize at the horizon but I was sleeping at that time and she would have just shouted at herself. But with the proximity of San Cristobal came also all the wild life. We were greeted by a school of black dolphins then later Danielle saw a huge ray jumping out of the water and birds were feeding everywhere on the poor fishes who are not smart enough to go three feet lower in the water to save their life. Probably because just below them are the sharks just waiting for that! We arrived at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on Isla San Cristobal Island in the archipelago of Galapagos at 12:11 local time after 149 hours at sea. After that passage we realized that after 3 days or so the body gets used to the motion and that we can start to live a more normal on the boat. So we are not worry to go for the 3 weeks or so to cross the Pacific which is supposed to be next week. Remember, Pacific is the calmest ocean of the world.