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Thursday 16 March - Sunday 2 April - Galapagos Islands


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Thursday 16 March

Last night we had a real treat. John and Rosette Ripard (JJ’s mum and dad) are cruising the islands here on ‘Polaris’, a small and exclusive ship. We were invited on board for dinner and had a wonderful meal, on the high table next to the Captain. It felt very odd being in such swish, air-conditioned surroundings. Quite a contrast to being up to our elbows in diesel, or oil spill! The girls all dressed up in their best (only!) smart dresses, and Kurt and I had a shave, so as not to let the girls down.

Today we went for an inland trip. The aim was to go and see the giant tortoises, for which the islands are famous. In fact the word ‘Galapago’ means giant tortoise in Ecuadorean Spanish. We set off in a land rover with our guide, Paola. We are soon in the wildlife park where they roam freely, and walk down the valley to find them. There are two resting in the shade under a tree, and the girls are fascinated. What is really amazing about these creatures apart from their size, is their age. These are at least 150 years old, but there are some that are 200 years old. This means that some of the tortoises were here when Charles Darwin visited here in 1836!

The tortoise population was severely reduced at one point because the sailors of old used to carry them away for fresh meat on their ships. They would make ideal livestock because they could be fed on scraps from the kitchen and were very hardy. Now they are heavily protected and flourishing again.

Darwin spent 5 weeks here and collected the data that led to his amazing work on the theory of evolution in ‘The origin of the species’.

Later we went to visit some lava caves, created under ground by molten lava flow. This was followed by lunch in one of the most beautiful settings we have seen. Its high up in the hills overlooking the South-East, in a private house owned by Anita. She cooked us a superb lunch, and we basked in the glorious view. None of the pictures I took do it justice, so no illustration I am afraid. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Friday and Saturday 17/18 March

The main event in these two days is the arrival of John-John and Sebastian from Malta. It seems like yesterday since JJ left us in St.Martin, high and dry in Bobby’s Marina.

It is great to see them again. Sebastian joins me on the evening run up the hill towards the highlands. He is very fit for a 13 year old and it is hard work keeping pace!

On Saturday we all went on a boat out to the island to swim with the sealions. Although we have already done this here once, it does not lose its charm, and Sebastian in particular is thrilled by it.

We are being very well served by our agent, Riccardo Arenas and his wife Yvonne. They are sorting us out with diesel, laundry, water, and also organising the tours that we do. They are also giving us access to that most valuable of commodities: a telephone, which allows us to log on to e-mail and send pictures much quicker and cheaper.

A minor scare happened on Friday. An irate English yachtsman came up on the VHF and explained that he had found that when he tried to pull up his stern anchor, it wouldn’t budge. They dived on it, and found that someone had stolen the anchor, and then re-tied the chain to a rock, to make it seem as if the anchor was still there. What cheek! A poll of the harbour was conducted, and it was found that 5 boats where similarly robbed. It seems that they only went for stern anchors, marked with tripping buoys. They must however been doing it with diving tanks. We pulled up our V. expensive Fortress stern anchor, and were relieved that it was still there. We replaced it with a cheap small one and some chain. Our main anchor is buried hard in three feet of sand, so would be hard to steal. Just to be safe, however, we dive on it and tie the dinghy safety chain round it, securing it by padlock to the chain and anchor hook. That should fox the buggers. We will no doubt have to write off the padlock but that is better than risking losing our main anchor, and possibly the yacht if they do not re-tie it well.

Sunday 19 March

This evening we set off to the North of the island to join our three day Cruise. We have booked to spend three days on a 50 foot Catamaran called ‘Pulsar’. It is owned by a Frenchman called Patrick, who is a guide and Divemaster. There is an Ecuadorean crew, consisting of a skipper, deckhand, and cook.

Patrick has a license to guide us around some of the outer islands in the archipelago. We plan to sail to Santa Fe, Espanol (Hood) and Floreana, see lots of wildlife, and do some diving and snorkelling on the way.

We arrive on board on Sunday night, and settle in. There is an Australian couple, Sue and Adam, also on board, but otherwise we have the yacht to ourselves.

Patrick is a warm and welcoming character, and our first dinner bodes well for the quality of food we will enjoy on the trip.

We turn in early, as the plan is to be up at 5.30 and on our first dive before breakfast.

Monday 20 March

We have moved during the night to a base in Plazas, which is on the East side of the Island of Santa Cruz. We are up early and out, ready to dive by 6.30. The boat is moved to the dive site nearby, Gordon Rocks, and we are soon kitted up and all sitting on the back ramp of the Catamaran ready to go. I am really excited about this moment. I have seen some excellent marine life just snorkelling, but a dive puts you deeper and closer to some of the really big fish that inhabit these islands.

The dive does not disappoint. It is one of the best moments of the trip so far. We go over the side and straight down to 25 metres. It is drift dive, and we are carried along on the current along the under-sea wall. The visibility is good, and as you look from the wall outwards to the deep sea, the whole food chain is laid out. Small colourful fish darting around in the coral heads that grow out of the volcanic rock, preyed on by bigger fish, which in turn are preyed on by the Jacks and snapper, which are good lunch for a sealion or turtle. Outside these concentric rings of life, the really exciting predators lurk. Within minutes we see them. Large Hammerhead shark circle menacingly, slowly weaving their way around the big rock. What a wonderful sight. Initially we see them in twos and threes. After about 20 minutes of the dive, Patrick grabs my arm and points down. Directly below us, an enormous school of about 35 Hammerhead swim past slowly, moving gracefully, apparently with minimal effort. What strange looking creatures they are, with their eyes set so wide apart, at either the end of the ‘hammer’ on their heads. I wonder what the world looks like through their eyes.

Thankfully, there is so much fish to eat that they are not at all interested in us, and just glide by. I was a little apprehensive at the thought of diving with sharks at first, but am surprised that I am too taken in by the beauty of the scene to feel scared. Bizzarely, a cartoon I saw once keeps flashing through my head. There is a picture of two sharks stalking some divers. One shark points at the divers’ aqualungs and says to the other “Dont eat the hard bit on their back – it makes you fart!”

The dive takes an hour or so, and soon we are back on board, ravenous. Diving builds up a big appetite.

We go for a walk on Plaza island and see some sealions at play and also some iguana. Then we motor off to Santa Fe island where we take another walk and see some Blue footed boobys, and Land iguanas. We are not allowed to swim here, as there has been a shark attack recently, the first known one in Galapagos history. The shark bit a swimmer and was seen leaving the bay by some divers. It was a Bull shark which had got lost, as no indigenous Galapagos shark is known to be aggressive. In fact, the shark was caught a week later, but the authorities are playing it carefully before allowing us to swim again. We are happy to oblige.

In the evening we set off for Espanola island (also known as Hood) which is 60 miles away. We have a lovely dinner and afterwards play some music on the lovely expansive foredeck on Pulsar under the full moon. Patrick is good guitarist and singer, and Sarah and I alternate songs with him until late. A lovely night.

Tuesday 21 March

It is my 39th Birthday today. I wake up early to find the Girls and Caroline waiting expectantly at the foot of my bed. There has been much conspiratorial whispering from the girls over the last few days, and mysterious packages brought onto ‘Pulsar’. Hannah, who is quite hopeless with a secret, had been dropping heavy hints as to what to expect, but I was genuinely surprised to get a large woven Hammock, made in Ecuador. An ideal present, perfect for hanging in the fore-triangle and relaxing in those lovely Polynesian anchorages. Also some great t-shirts, a Spanish phrase book form Kurt and Claire, and Macy Gray CD from Emma. A really good one from Mum and Dad is the full collection of National Geographic magazines of the 80’s and 90’s on CD-ROM. There are some excellent articles on Galapagos, Polynesia, El Nino, etc which I can read now. Brilliant.

And that is just the beginning. As a special treat for my birthday, Patrick has brought us to what is without a doubt the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. It is huge, white and full of the most playful sea-lions. We spend ages enjoying it, playing with the sealions. Sarah finds a baby sealion that decides it would be fun to copy her every move. When Sarah lifts a hand, it lifts a flipper. When she lowers it, down comes the flipper. Great game.

We do another dive at midday, and again see lots of amazing undersea life. Turtles, eagle rays, stingrays and moray eels. This time we come across some white-tip reef sharks that are sleeping on the ocean floor under a rock. It is teeming with life, and not for the first time, we feel very lucky to be able to see visit this unique place. You just have to sit quietly on the bottom, and it all comes swimming by.

A good walk on the island and the girls are excited to see albatrosses. These birds have 9 foot wingspan and have to double fold their wings to tuck them away. They can fly non-stop form the equator to the Antarctic in ten days, and can sleep whilst gliding away aloft.

At tea-time, I am treated to freshly baked ‘Lazy Duck’ Carrot Cake and cream, which I am relieved to see only has two candles on it.

In the evening we set sail after dinner, again with a good moon, and arrive in Floreana which is 40 miles away, in the small hours.

The end of a really perfect birthday

Wednesday 22 March

We wake up in Floreana, in Cormorant bay. We do another walk ashore. This time we walk past an inland lake and see some flamingos adding a dash of pink to the browns and greens of the lake.

We dive again at midday, and this time see more coral reef fish, including some sizeable grouper. Patrick tells us the amazing story of some German people that settled in Floreana in the 1920’s. Doctor Ritter and his wife, The Wittmer family, and the eccentric Baroness with her three lovers. Dr. Ritter had all his, and his wifes teeth pulled and replaced with stainless steel to avoid the need for dental work! The Baroness and one lover disappeared one day in 1936 and were never found. Another lover tried to get off Floreana and make it to one of the other islands with a fisherman, but was shipwrecked and they died of thirst. Margaret Wittmer is still alive, aged 92 and and only recently moved back to Germany. They all lived a real Robinson Crusoe existence in this harsh, arid environment. She has apparently written some papers that will shed light on the mystery of the Baroness’s disappearance, with strict orders to publish only after her death.

We visit Post Office bay in the North of Floreana. A Barrel has been there for well over 300 years, for the purpose of transacting mail. Ships in the olden days would stop at the bay, pick up any mail that they would be able to deliver on their route, and leave mail to be picked up by the next ship heading in the direction of the addressee. It is a tradition that is now kept up by sailing yacht visitors. We leave some cards for various people, and pick some up to deliver. Kurt and Claire take some for Utah, where they are going next for a skiing holiday, and we take some bound for Tahiti. The barrel is surrounded by ships memorabilia, and makes quite a spectacle. It is the only thing in an otherwise completely deserted bay.

We head back the 40 miles to Puerto Ayora, to rejoin the Duck in the evening. A final treat is when we are joined by a particularly playful school of dolphins. The catamaran has a really great viewing platform at the bow, and they duck and dive around us for a good 15 minutes of entertainment.

By dinner time we are back in Puerto Ayora and we say our goodbyes to Patrick and the crew. It has been a wonderful trip. Caroline and I particularly enjoyed being temporarily relieved of our respective responsibilities. It was strange and welcome feeling to know that the boat was going to be moved from A to B but my part in the process was just to watch, and read my book! We saw much of the best there is to see in these islands in a very short time.

We are, however, glad to find the Duck in good shape, as we’d left her.

Thursday 23/Friday 24 March - Academy Bay, Galapagos Islands Lat 0 deg 44 (South!) Lon 90 deg 18 West

These next few days are all about preparing for our trip to the Marquesas islands in French Polynesia. This trip is the Main Pacific crossing leg. The Marquesas islands are 2900 miles to the West, so this passage is almost exactly as long as the Atlantic crossing we did in November. We expect it to take 18 to 21 days, but of course it all depends on the strength of the wind. The boats leaving last week did not have wind for the first 600 miles, and were reduced to motoring all that distance. Whilst we will stock up with lots of diesel, we will still not have the range to motor that distance. So if there is no wind we will have to wait until some wind appears before we can get going. It usually does after a while.

I will be consulting various web-sites to find out what the current weather picture is suggesting, which will help with routing plans.

There are a couple of other yachts that are also heading for the Marquesas, and we will be maintaining a radio net with them.

One piece of good news is that the provisioning situation is better here in the Galapagos than we had expected. We have found plenty of diesel and fresh water, and there is also more fruit and vegetables than we had expected to find.

We plan to set off on Sunday March 26th. The crew will be our family, plus JJ and Sebastian, as well as Philippa Hamilton. Philippa is an old friend from J24 and Hunter 707 Racing days.

We expect to arrive in the Marquesas some time around April 14/15, but all is weather dependent.

March 26 – April 2 - Week One (By 2 April, 2,130 miles to go)

We slip from our anchorage in Academy bay, Galapagos Islands at about midday on Sunday March 26th. The Galapagos have really lived up to expectations as a wildlife paradise, particularly under the sea. The highlight for the children was probably the swimming with the sea-lions, but I will never forget diving with schools of hammerhead sharks off Gordon Rocks. Definitely a place to come back to and linger longer on the next trip (already in planning stages....!)

We have good wind as we reach past Floreana, home of Post Office bay, leaving it to the East. The wind gradually reduces to a gentle evening breeze which bobs us along at 5 knots. We still choose to sail however, rather than start the engine and motor. We have limited diesel, and must use every breath to head South, towards the promised Trade Winds.

In the event, we are lucky with the wind. Only fair really, as we had suffered such appalling calms in the Atlantic crossing when the Trades went AWOL. We have three days of slipping South with a combination of light breezes interspersed with calms during which we motor. This is just enough to get us down to Latitude 6 degrees South. By Wednesday the winds have built up to 15 knots and are blowing steadily from the South East. We turn right (dead West), point almost directly at the Marquesas, engage Max the Monitor Windvane, and start trucking on a rhumb line course. 2600 miles to go.

We catch our first Pacific fish, two skipjack tuna. First a 6 Kg one, then a 9 kg beauty. We can be certain of the weight now since my dad gave us a new spring balance. So it’s delicious sashimi and tuna steaks for a while.

One evening Max breaks one of the sacrificial stainless steel tubes that the servo rudder mechanism hangs off, over the stern. The stern tube runs straight up and down over the back, and has an 18 inch sacrificial piece made of slightly weaker metal. This is designed to buckle and break if you hit something under water, so that you do not risk ripping the bolts that secure the whole frame to the stern transom. We did not feel a jolt, but we are bucking around a bit on the waves. We probably startled a turtle. We have seen plenty lazily swimming around on the surface around us. We have a spare tube, so we conduct the delicate operation the next morning whilst hanging over the back (well strapped on of course mum!). The paddle, which was hanging by a thread of shredded steel, is cut away with a hacksaw. Then the new tube is bolted on and the whole assembly re-fitted. The job is done in less than an hour and we are delighted to be under way with Max faithfully tracking Westwards again.

Bird’s Eye View – Pacific Crossing

Sunday 26 March

I’ve loaded the last of the provisions on board – a couple more bags of apples, pints of milk and fresh loaves of bread from the tiny, one-and-only supermarket – and I think we’re ready to go. It feels completely different to our departure from the Canaries four months ago. As we’ve moved further and further away from the Mediterranean we’ve had to become more and more self sufficient and so we now have most of the basic essentials already tucked away in their respective nooks and crannies. I had also stocked up in Panama on all the tins I reckon we’ll need until we get to Australia, so all I had to do in the Galapagos was top up with whatever fresh produce they had to offer. The word amongst other boats coming this way was that the Galapagos don’t offer anything much in the way of decent fruit and veg, but I was pleasantly surprised. Santa Cruz, where we were based, is very lush inland with beautifully tended pastures for livestock and acres of fruit orchards on the hills. I discovered that the best day at the ‘Mercado Municipal’ was a Saturday, so after a 5am start with the pelicans I spent a couple of hours at the tiny market sorting through what was on offer. Our fare will be much more exotic than across the Atlantic – not an orange to be had, but instead we’ll feast on passion fruit, tree tomatoes, orange bananas and paw paw. I’m not sure if any of it will last for very long, but we’ll have fun getting through it all before it goes off! I was also pointed in the direction of a wonderful establishment called ‘El Frio’ which is basically an enormous walk-in deep freeze holding rock hard lumps of beef fillet, chicken, pork, lamb, sausages... I almost wept with relief as the only butcher I had found up until then offered a few black fatty lumps of meat sitting on bloody pieces of cardboard which were curling at the edges and covered in flies! So we’ll eat well at least for the first week as the meat defrosts and the fruit ripens. After that it’ll be down to what we can catch.

Tuesday 28 March

The Pacific has been living up to its name for the past couple of days – the winds are blowing us gently along at a leisurely pace and Max is doing a great job with the steering. This is very different from the Caribbean crossing to Colon and we relish the peace. On Sunday night four squid land on the boat, one of which jumps clean through the central hatch onto the saloon floor! True to form John John scoops them up with delight and makes a delicious pasta sauce for supper. One night a squid flew right into Jonathan’ s face as he sat at the wheel which gave him rather a shock – clearly Pacific squid are more active than their Atlantic cousins! The big excitement for Monday came at tea time when the line went whizzing out and a 6kg skipjack tuna was eventually reeled in. John John did an expert job of filleting it and it was easily big enough for two meals for the whole crew. The children were fascinated. Today’s lunch was tuna fillet cooked in a sauce of tomato, garlic, onions, wine and soy sauce. Quite delicious – we’ll never eat such fresh fish anywhere else.

Friday 31 March

The weather is excruciatingly hot which the wind does little to alleviate. We’re thankful for the bimini which at least shades the cockpit. Down below, although out of the worst of the sun’s glare, it’s very hot and muggy. It’s difficult to get comfortable or move without breaking into a drenching sweat. We have to be careful about drinking enough water in this heat and we are getting through our bottled water rather quicker than expected. However, by early afternoon the decks begin to get cooler as the sun slips behind the sails and the crew line up for their salt water showers on the foredeck. There’s a special feeling sitting right at the front of the boat as it powers through the waves, with the whole of the Pacific horizon before you as you drench yourself in wonderfully cool, clean water. Everybody comes back aft with a big smile. The heat does my stores no good at all, and already I find one of the paw paws has collapsed and consumed a couple of the tomatoes. Much to my dismay all the bananas are beginning to ripen together, despite my care in selecting bunches which were at different stages of greenness – looks like it’s going to be banana with everything. The avocados have gone mouldy and squishy on the outside while still rock hard on the inside. Thankfully the tomatoes and onions are holding out and look as though they’ll last until the end. As part of my role as ship’s medical officer I take everyone’s blood pressure (just an excuse to use at least something in that scary medical kit) and check on allergies. At least then I’ll know where I’m working from if someone gets appendicitis or some such horror half way across.

End of Bird's Eye View

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