Stories while under way from Balbao to the Galapagos

Below a number of stories that I wrote while I was under way to the Galapagos.  I prepared them with some pictures in it, but I have a hard time uploading pictures from this internet cafe.  So, they might trickly in, please be patient (and appreciate a fully working internet from your desk while you have it).

Finally moving again

I was going to leave for Las Perlas on Thursday morning, possible together with Sayonara. After the local cruiser net I was talking to Sayonara on the VHF and we had a hard time communicating. This had happened before, but I had changed a few things around thinking this would improve the reception/transmission. Well, apparently not. Sayonara is at the Balboa Yacht Club (near the Bridge of the Americas) while I am anchored in La Playita, about 3 NM south. Well, a radio range of 3 NM is really pathetic.

Must add that other boats in Balboa Yacht Club were receiving me fine. Nevertheless I decide to start troubleshooting. Found out that most connections of my antenna cable were suspect, especially the where the connector on the back of the radio goes to the print, that connection seemed to have gone loose. Peter (Sayonara) still had some things to organize anyway, so I decided to postpone the departure and start dealing with the radio.

Radio parts can be hard to found, mind you, most things are probably available in Panama City. But, knowing where, that can be a bit of a challenge. Went to the nearby marine store (right at the dinghy dock), they did not have the right connector (I was wanting to replace the antenna connector on the back of the radio) but they said their store on the other side of Panama City might have it. Checked another nearby marine store first, but nothing. So time to get in the bus, first a bus to Plaza Cinco the Mayo. The I had to find a bus to Transmistica. There is pretty good bus system in Panama, but some things I am used to are lacking: bus schedules and maps of bus routes. I really mostly on the worth to mouth system, other cruisers have found out which bus to take where and they share that information with others.

A long bus ride later I was at the other Abernathy´s (same story as the one at the dinghy dock). Much to my suprise they had even less antenna connectors. Asked where I would be likely to find those and the nice gentleman replied in a avelanche of Spanish that went way beyond me (sometimes I wonder if attempting to talk some Spanish is worthwhile, some people seem to think that if you can say one half broken sentence in their language you must be fluent in it). Eventually I managed to convince the guy to make me a drawing, and weapened with that I went looking for the bus in that direction. At the bust stop there was a girl who told me I was at the right bus stop, and after having missed 3 buses (I did not flag those buses down in time, since I had to read their sign first making sure it was the right bus) I got in one. Even managed to get out only 100 meters past the electronics store.

The girl behind the counter frowned when I showed her the part I was looking for. She went into the back of the store and stayed away for about 10 minutes. Came back with a bag of wrong connectors. Well, I did see some other useful connectors, so I started to ask for some other parts. For one other one she had to go to the back again, and much to my surprise, this time she came back with a bag of the connector I started this search for! So, got out with a bag of various VHF antenna and other coax connectors.

While walking down the street, was pretty sure I was only a few blocks away from Cinco the Mayo, I did some more shopping. Panama is very cheap, and I am heading for the Pacific, which is notoriously expensive (even more so with the current Euro-Dollar exchange). So I bought some stuff that could be useful, either for myself, or for swapping in remote Pacific Islands (I have read that in some places people prefer to swap items instead of money). So I bought things like: shoes, flop flops, base balll caps ($1 each) and sun glasses (also $1 each).

Back on board I started resoldering my antenna connections. Once this was done it did not appear to have helped, leaving the antenna on top of the mast as the only thing not checked yet. So I asked Arnold (from Drifter) if he was willing to help me climb the mast next morning.

Friday morning after a cup of coffee Arnold winched me up the mast, where I checked the connections between the antenna and cable. Also measured the conductance of the antenna cable up to the mast. Did not see any problems, but at least that all has now been checked.


That is the view from the top of the mast. You can see the new solar panels on the pushpit, and a new Dutch flag (thanks to Coby).

After cleaning up I decided to get going. Mentally I had been ready leave for a long time, now there was no reason to stay. Sayonara wasn´t quite ready yet, but I had given Peter the coordinates where I planned on going in Las Perlas, maybe he would be following me the next day.


Typical Pacific fishing vessel.

Looking back across the Pacific anchorage to the skyline of Panama City. Also shows you how far the anchorage is from the city.

The wind had been blowing quite well over the past few days, but today it had disappeared. I did hoist the main, and for a while even the genoa, but basically I motored all the way to Isla Pacheca.

Isla Pacheca is not much more than a rock inhabited by Fregat birds, Pelicans and other birds.

It was a nice quiet anchorage, a bit rolly at times, and there was the slight smell of the bird droppings. But nice and peaceful. Even with the bird smell it was still a lot cleaner than the past weeks in Colon and Balboa (the air pollution in Panama is absolutely horrific, it appears that black sooth is flying in the air everywhere downwind of Panama City. Anywhere you put your hands on the boat will make them turn black).

First nice sunset in a long time. 

Under way to the Galapagos

Saturday morning I woke up at anchor, in the quiet surrounding of islands with rarely any sign of other people. Just lots of birds.

Took it easy in the morning, a little bit of cleaning up and putting some more things away. Wanted to jump in the water but decided to wait, there were lots of small jelly fish around the boat, of the stinging variant.

After lunch the tide had changed and there was no more sign of jelly fish. Decided to keep the snorkeling to a minimum, wow that water is cold. It is obviously a La Nina year (that is when the cold currents reach the South American coast, and apparently also the Golf of Panama). Hard to say what the water temperature really is, but is sure is a lot colder than the Caribbean. After cleaning the speed log I decided that was enough snorkeling for the day. The water was dark green, had expected it to be somewhat clearer here.

Had been thinking about going for a little sailing, if at least the wind would show up. Well, suddenly near 1 o´clock the wind picked up, somewhere near the north west. That would make an easy sail out from the anchorage. Picked up anchor and hoisted sails. First break down of the trip was there: the jammer (or brake) for the main halyard failed. That is the one I had been hoisted up to the mast the day before, guess it was a good thing it failed now and not yesterday. For the time being I just kept the halyard on the winch, that same winch is also used for the spinaker and spare genoa halyards, but those are rarely used.

Just a mile underway and suddenly I was surrounded by dolphins. That has been a while!
Good luck sign: dolphins! I know they are hard to find, but we all know dolphins are very picture shy.

After the dolphins had passed went through some interesting layers of water, after the dark green came a sort of dark red color, followed by the more familiar clear blue.

The wind picked up a little more till there was about 17-19 knots of apparent wind. Decided to go high on the wind, more or less backtracking towards Balboa. Had an ambivalent plan with this: I would be running into the direction Sayonara would be coming from. In case we would run into each other I had an easy sail back. If I did not run into Sayonara and the wind stayed steady, I could continue on towards the Galapagos.

At 4 o´clock I tried to call up Sayonara, assuming that if Peter had left today, we should now be within radio reach. Since there was no reply, and the winds seemed to be very favorable, I decided to change course towards the Galapagos. We had been waiting long enough, the boat was ready, I was ready, and there was wind to carry us in the right direction. TIME TO GO!


First sunset underway to the Galapagos.

One thing I didn´t tell yet, since I have been on a boat, near lots of fresh fish, I decided to relax my diet rules and include fish as something I consider to eat. In combination with longer trips at sea, which can be monotonous at times, I had sometimes thrown out some fishing gear. In the Caribbean I had only had birds show interest in my bate. Everyone says that fishing on the Pacific should be so much better, so I was towing a line with a hook and a colorful fake squid. Just after supper (I had checked before cooking if I had a bite yet) the line suddenly was taut. And sure enough, something really heavy was on the line. It was a bit of work, but I did manage to pull this fish on board:

Feel free to share with me what fish this is. I thought maybe a Wahoo, but are not so sure.

After a night with lots of shipping traffic, of course this is the shipping route to and from the Panama Canal, we got to Punto Mala.
This is the last sight of continental land mass till either Australia or Asia. 

Sailing in the ITCZ

The first day under way to the Galapagos the wind was very favorable: a beam reach with winds between 15 and 20 knots. As we came further south the wind started to turn slowly, not always in agreement with the wave patterns. This made for a trial and error to find which heading and sail configurations made for the best compromise between speed made good and comfort on board.

These good winds carried on till about Monday after midnight. Then the winds subsided, the horizon started to show clouds and there was even a slight drizzle. Rain was quite welcome, there is still lots of dirt to be washed of the deck, the sails, the rigging and the lines.

Today (Tuesday) is the second day outside the trade winds zone, this area is known as the ITCZ (Intra Tropical Convergence Zone). A band more or less around the equator which seperates the northern and southern hemisphere´s trade wind zones. There are many other names for it, like the doldrums, or the horse latitudes.

So far I cant complain about the winds. They have been very light indeed, and can change quite often. But we have not yet been completely becalmed. And, luckily, there isn´t much of a swell. All this means that there has not been any need to start the engine yet. Yesterday the progress was remarkably good, but that was also due to a strong south setting current (my guess is at least 2 knots). Today the wind is weaker, about 4-6 knots, making us do about 2.5 – 4 knots through the water (not always directly towards the destination, since I need to avoid courses where there is not enough wind pressure in the sails to keep the sails filled up).

The chosen strategy is from the Pacific Crossing Guide: not a straight course from Panama to the Galapagos. In stead from Panama we aim to cross the equator at the longitude of 84 West. From there we would keep going south a little further and then head west towards Wreck Bay.

Right now we are 238 miles away from the equator. At the current speed (little over 3 knots) it will be another three days. I have been starting to think about a crossing the equator party. It will not be my first equator crossing on a boat, that was in 1996 on board the pipe lay barge Global Cheyenne, when under tow from Warri, Nigeria to the off shore fields of then Zaire (now Congo). Forgot to buy some Akvavit (Scandinavian gin), so I will not be able to make my own Linie Akvavit (Linie Akvavit is regular Akvavit, but it has been traveled across the equator, which is supposed to do something special to the drink).

I have taken not on the direction of the whirl in the boats toilet: it is counter clockwise. Lets see if it will change on the other side of the equator.

For the last few nights the Southern Cross has become visible. That is about the only thing to do at night: watch the stars. For the last two days I have not seen a single boat, neither on the horizon or on the AIS. No longer keeping up the tough Caribbean night watch schedule of getting up every 30 minutes. In stead I set the alarm every two hours, not so much for keeping an eye on possible traffic, but mainly to keep an eye on the sails´ setting and the course.

Flying the spinaker

Yesterday afternoon the wind became really light. When it is behind the beam that means it is easiest to lower all sails except the genoa. That way the sails don´t overlap and caused flapping. Just when I was about to do lower main and stay sail I remembered that I had been waiting for a good occasion to try the spinaker. Well, this was going to be a good occasion! So I got to work and ran the spinaker sheets, brought the spinaker bag to the foredeck, got the whisker pole ready. And started attaching sheets and halyards to the spinaker. I had attempted this once between Willemstad and Colon, but that was a dummy try, I had not used the whisker pole (which was still on the genoa at that time). This time I went all the way. And, after some puzzling and going back and forth between foredeck and cockpit I got it to fly. Not very steady at first, but with some more adjustments of pole and sheets it got better.


Flying the spinaker (with a questionable sheeting and pole angle)!

Now, what seems to be obvious from this picture, but had not been so obvious to me before, is that this spinaker is actually not symmetric. The tack and clew are not the same length: the tack (starboard in this picture) is longer. That was not something I had counted on, and when I talked about flying it with Suzie (Wishful Thinking, who is the one that convinced me to try it) we did not cover that. So I went dig into my books (yes, I have some books with sailing theory on board, for these kind of situations) and there is some mention of asymmetric spinakers, sometimes called genakers. Genakers are supposed to be flown from the bow sprit. Well, I don´t have a bow sprit, but the whisker pole is extensible such it can be made into a bow sprit.

Flew the spinaker all night until 5 this morning when the wind had shifted. To sail the proper course we had to go to a close reach. Got the spinaker down and raised the main, stay sail and unfurled the genoa.

This afternoon I spent some time patching two minor scars in the spinaker (these were probably the result of having been in a sail bag for maybe 20 years?). Then I redid some of the lines on the whisker pole which should make it extend more easy. I am looking forward to the next occasion when I can test my improving spinaker skills.

Sometimes in the middle of the quiet Pacific you enter a patch of unsettled water. This is probable due to a cross current. But it is funny how this happens to be very local (if you look near the horizon you can see how the water there is calm again).

Just when I thought I had all this ocean for myself there was another boat. I was reading on the foredeck, seated in my deck chair in the shade of the sails, when I thought I heart an engine noise. But, out by yourself at sea for days, sometimes you start hearing things (I call that heatlhy paranoia). I look in the direction, and there is a fishing boat coming at me. And when I look closer I can see the 4 little ducklings it is towing behind. We we right on a collision course, so I adjusted sails and took the wheel to steer clear of them. They were quite suprised to see a boat here too: they were waving enthousiastically.
Fishing boat encountered in the middle of the ocean.

Think the boat is Ecuadorian (could be Columbian, those flags are very similiar).

Crossing the Equator

Friday at noon we were within 10 nm of the equator. So I was really looking forward to crossing it during daylight and have a good celebration in honor of Neptune.

Well, mother nature decided differently. There had not been a lot of wind for the past days, but this afternoon it completely disappeared. The water became perfectly flat, except for the slow rolling hills from the real slow swell. It got to the point that I was so bored, I decided to go for a swim. Put the swim ladder down and jumped in the water. It was great! The water was warmer than in Panama, but only the top layer. Down at your feet you could already feel it was getting colder. Swam around the boat and got the scrubber out: cleaned the water line.

For the rest of that afternoon and evening there was no wind to speak of. We were just leasurely floating about, though slowly but surely closing in on the equator. By midnight another one and half miles to go. Then somewhere the wind must have picked up a little, say from 0 to 0.5 knot or so. The boat accelerated (yeah, right) and when I checked at 1:30 in the morning (I went sleeping you know, did not feel watching the GPS creeping towards 0 in latitude) we were actually 0.3 minutes (also 0.3 nm) south of the equator! So we crossed the equator and I missed it. Even thought about turning around and crossing it again, now watching, but that was pointless, it would have been hours to do just that.

The Neptune celebration was done the next day at noon, including some sparkling wine for good measure.
Champagne for the Neptune celebration, the second glass is for him.

Morning Light is dressed up for the Equator Crossing Party.

Crossing the equator has been an anti climax in another way as well: since then the weather has deteriorated. I think the ITCZ (doldrums) are a little south of the equator right now. Even though the barometer did not drop, we have been having rain, thunderstorms and in between long spells of no wind at all (which is very uncomfortable in combination with the confused wave patterns that remain after the squalls).

Have been quite busy with sail changes, including running the gennaker yesterday afternoon for a good bit. Have started the engine twice over the past days, just to get some movement going. Sadly the autopilot is not working anymore, have had a look at it in Curacao and Colon, but it does not want to behave: when its little engine runs to steer it never stops steering. So it is only good for running in circles, which I am capable of doing without depending on electronics. This way, while motoring I must be steering, which obviously means we are not going to be motoring for 24 hours a day.

I am writing this on Monday afternoon. We are still 238 miles from Wreck Bay (Isla San Cristobal) and not making a whole lot of progress. Sailing was decent this morning, but while I am typing the wind has gone. One other drawback since crossing the equator: we no longer have a favorable current, we are actually pushing into a 1 to 2 knots of current.

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2 Responses to Stories while under way from Balbao to the Galapagos

  1. DonKent says:

    Frank, sounds like you had a nice really passage. In light air we have flown a Genaker by attaching the tack to the anchor roller with a lenght of webbing. If your going dead down wind you can go wing to wing with the genaker and genoa. The way that sail is cut it is good for broad reaching, you should keep your pole as low and close to the forestay as possible. That fish looked like an Albacore Tuna or they might call it a Bonita in the Pacific.

    Good Sailing: Don

  2. frank says:

    hi Don,

    Thanks for the tip, I have been thinking about doing that, it is just that the pulpit could be in the way.

    Albacore Tuna, hm, maybe so. Must sat the taste was a little disappointing: a bit of a livery taste.

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