Monthly Archives: April 2014

The road less traveled


I guess you could say that Marce and I are end-of-the-roaders. What I mean is that we have a compunction…a strong need to see what’s around the next bend or explore a different path. So just recently we were surprised to find out that on several recent occasions we missed some really interesting things by not going far enough. The Galapagos isn’t like the USA with its handrails, warning signs and kiosks featuring maps and explanations. You’ve just got to…well, explore. When you’re visiting once-in-a-lifetime places and a friend at the local sailor bar casually remarks, “oh, you didn’t take that little dirt path at the top of the mountain?” or “you know the path after the beach continues up a lava boulder strewn cliff and that’s where the blue footed boobies roost,” we knew both were worth a second go.

On the way up the boulder garden past Loberia Beach we saw the familiar white and green vertical sticks stuck between rocks marking the trail which was essential because there was no discernible path. It was easier to spot the well camouflaged marine iguanas than the route while scrambling over the lava boulders. The view was breathtaking. We were above the rookery watching the frigate birds, boobies, red and blue, step off the rocks below us and soar around the cliffs and back to a spot where another bird would step off and pretty much do the same thing, kind of like a tag team with the more thoughtful ones giving an impressive squirt of guano at the outside of the turn. The cove far below us, engulfed in crashing sea foam, was swarming with large sea turtles, mating we suspect. Where’s Marlin when you need him?




A young guy came walking up to us and asked if this was the end of the trail…why yes, we smiled, this is the end of the road. We saw him again the next day after we’d succumbed to our siren song and climbed down off the lookout at Tijeretas Hills onto a steep dirt path strewn with black lava boulders to a deserted beach whose only shade was occupied by a large possessive sea lion and with a pair of roosting blue footed boobies on a lonely rocky outcropping.



We smiled when we saw him as we re-crested the summit and told him it’s rough but worth the effort. “I’m going to call you my rough guides,” he said as he started picking his way down the steep dirt path. It’s always worth it.

Maybe it would be more wise for each of us to be with someone who would temper our need to see it til the end but we knew there was something special about each other from the first day met.



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Red moon over the Galapagos

The last time I watched a total lunar eclipse from start to finish I was encased in blankets in 17 degrees Fahrenheit on our tiny deck in Pittsburgh with a perfect view between two tall evergreens. Every half hour I ducked into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, as much to keep my hands warm as my insides.

This was better.

It was our last night in San Cristobal. We strolled the malecon one last time, had a pizza and a couple of beers at Calypso and got a ride back to EV with the crew of a large and fancy sailing yacht. We both dozed in the cockpit but I had the foresight to set an alarm for what I hoped was the correct time and when I woke up Jack had gone to bed and I was chilly and damp from the heavy dew. I fetched a blanket and parked myself in the same corner of the cockpit where we stand watch at sea and that gives us a protected but full view of half the sky.

As the earth’s shadow crept across the moon I thought of the ancient people who watched the moon disappear and wondered what they’d done to incur the wrath of the gods, and what they could do to appease them. I thought of early thinkers who didn’t succumb to fear but rather set about learning why the planets move the way they do and why the rivers flood sometimes. I thought of how many centuries it has taken to discover the patterns of this complex universe and how our understanding deepens with time.

The moon turned the red of molten glass and I thought of what it took for Jack and me to get here, the years of frugal living, of standing in a store holding a shirt or a pair of shoes or a gadget and asking, “do we want this or do we want a boat?” I thought of how we kept the dream alive for each other when life events and the economy and our own flagging resolve sometimes conspired against us.

I called down to Jack and he stumbled outside to have a look through the binoculars at the detail on the lunar surface. “Beautiful” he pronounced, “thanks” and he stumbled back to bed.

I kept watching the slow-motion celestial drama as the shadow moved off and the moon turned brilliant white again and I thought of how far we’ve come in the two years since we plunked down nearly the entire profit from the sale of our house to buy the complex machine that has brought us to this magical place. I thought of the magical places yet to come on this journey as I went inside and joined Jack below. Tomorrow we sail to Santa Cruz and I need some sleep.

Yep, this is better.


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The view from the water taxi dock


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Cliff walking

Judging from the number of tour boats anchored around us I guess most people who come to these islands take package tours, but there are plenty of places to explore on your own without a guide. We hiked up past the sea lion beach the other day on a trail that started fairly easy then turned into a steep lava field that left us by the end with tired and achy legs. It’s shocking how quickly we sailors get out of shape when we spend our days at sea walking less than twenty steps a day.

The hike took us past many marine iguanas sunning on the rocks. From the top we watched sea turtles feeding in the surf far below and boobies and frigates swooping and soaring above us.








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The view from the back porch


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Further afield

We only meant to stay here in San Cristobal for a few days because we want to spend most of our allotted time on Isabela, further west. But our permit hasn’t arrived yet from Quito so we have to stay her until it arrives. No problem, there’s plenty to do. We heard from several people that a good way to cram a few sights in is to hire a cab for a couple of hours. We carefully wrote on a piece of paper the locations we wanted to go to and stationed ourselves on the corner where the cabs congregate. Our first try landed us a driver who speaks English and who’s been through the Galapagos Park naturalist training. Perfect! We saw other groups whose drivers just parked and pointed to where they should walk; our driver Jorge walked with us and pointed out plants and animals and birds along the way and answered all of our questions about life in the archipelago. It was a wonderful private tour for the price of a cab ride.

The route is standard on this end of the island. We started out at the Galapagos tortoise sanctuary where they shelter hatchlings until they’re old enough to survive in the wild. Originally they had no native predators but a couple of introduced species a long time ago have endangered them. The habitat is natural and beautiful and in addition to the tortoises we saw the ubiquitous Darwin finches and Galapagos mocking bird.





From there Jorge drove us to nearly deserted Playa Chino, China Beach, and he led us up the rocks to the top where we found the famous blue-footed boobies — our first. We sat on the rocks and watched them preening not ten feet away. The photos just don’t convey the incredible color, and you’ll notice the two sexes have different color feet. The lighter color is the male, the darker, female.







There was so much algae on the beach or in the water that when you walked on the sand you left green footprints.

Our final stop was the largest freshwater lake in a volcanic crater. By this time it was getting dark and it was very misty and Jorge stayed in the car and sent us up the steep mountainside on our own. When we crested the top we couldn’t see a thing at first, but as we started down toward the water the lake began to take shape. On a clearer day we could have seen more wildlife and plant varieties but even so it was a mysterious and peaceful place and we were reluctant to make our way back again.






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Moment of truth

It was another moment of truth, the kind that we seem to have to face nearly every day here on Escape Velocity. We’d had great, even unexpected conditions so far on our passage from Contadora, Las Perlas Islands, through the doldrums and the equator toward the Galapagos but with the winds getting increasingly fluky and light, we realized that to arrive before dark Friday, it would probably have to involve the Iron Genny (the engine) and maybe not even then. There would be no nighttime anchoring for us with shoals and reefs everywhere. We either make it by 1700 hrs. or we slow up and just sail, ending up standing off and waiting until morning Saturday and pay overtime fees for the check-in crew. So it comes down to pay the officials and stay out an extra night or pay BP.


We kept the pedal down and the breeze picked up a bit for my 0100 to 0700 shift and it began to look plausible for a late Friday afternoon landfall.


Yes Escapees, it’s true, Marce and I are officially SHELLBACKS now that we crossed the equator. It’s mandatory to mark the occasion with a ceremony of some sort. I had envisioned something naked and slippery on the bow trampoline but a very curious thing spoiled the party. We were both awake at the same time which, at night, is unusual in itself and with cameras poised the latitude countdown commenced. All went well until the moment of truth (MOT). We were using the AIS display to photograph the occasion but we noticed the latitude display never switched to South degrees but went to 00 00.00 degrees and started back up, still North! (The chartplotter, shown here, did show our position correctly.)


With the mood shattered we gave each other the this-isn’t-good-look (MOT) and immediately began to troubleshoot. It didn’t switch to South degrees which means we aren’t transmitting the correct location and presumably it will show us boats that are nowhere near us anymore. Not good. Not good at all. Strongly worded emails to follow.

So, as I was saying, precisely at 1600 hrs we rounded Punta Lido, Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos, and I really don’t know what I was expecting…well, you know, the Galapagos. Islands of Mystery. But instead we found a cute little touristy town and nine officials waiting to board EV with demands for multiple copies of everything.





We passed.

Our agent Bolivar made it all go smoothly and really before we knew it we were officially checked into the Galapagos. We washed down EV while being serenaded by hundreds of croaking, bawling sea lions. One even came up for a close inspection. Cute, big dark eyes, playful..isn’t that nice? I think we were so exhausted that that we never considered going into town and I made pasta, eaten in situ. So, it’s early to bed for the handy bloke and a long restful sleep.

Simultaneously we both sat up in bed, turned to each other and said someone is on the boat. Don’t know how we knew, we just knew. Of course it’s the skippers job to confront whoever decides to join us so I armed myself with a bright LED flashlight and crept up the side deck playing the bluish beam back and forth. Wait…what was that, unblinking, unearthly red eyes were staring back at me from the front of the trampoline. Just then it let out a chest vibrating bellow. A medium size sea lion is not pleased with having its beauty sleep interrupted. Boat hook and flashlight in either hand I felt like a toreador herding a shy bull with flippers. Slowly he reluctantly got the idea and slid down our inviting sugar scoop steps into the bay. Out came every fender we own and what we were too tired to rig this evening we had to do at 3 am.

The following morning the true cost of having a sea lion sleepover became known. Muck and filth was everywhere. After another full washdown and a pot of hot coffee, we were ready for a spot of exploring. Now we know why they don’t want you to use your dinghy. These behemoths would sink it.



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So far, so very good

Truth be told I could’ve used a couple of days in Esmeralda or even Contadora but when Aeolus smiles down on you, one smiles back and says thank you…thank you very much. At the very least we’re like a watermellon seed between pursed lips being shot out of the gulf of Panama into the Pacific proper…which it turns out is green, nothing like the cobalt blue-gray of the Atlantic. Back lit, the waves of the Pacific turn pale green at the tips, like thick glass. We’ve been lucky with continuing good winds and very few dead areas, averaging well over six knots in an area known for the doldrums. Most unusal.

Even more unusual was a drama that played out over VHF radio which still has us spooked. Yesterday afternoon we started hearing alarming transmissions from what turned out to bhe a couple of large tankers calling all mariners to be on the lookout for an unspecified something in the water in an area approximately thirty miles to the north east of our position. What another conspiracy theory about that damn airliner? The captain that we could hear the best was Indian so he was kind of hard to understand but he seemed to be point man in the search. Finally we could hear words like sailboat-rescue-flares, and the names of two yachts that we were at anchor with in Contadora. This is not good. We knew they would be behind us to the north. We could hear tiny bits of transmissions but from what we’ve been able to piece together, we think they were taken off their boat in the dark, judging from the limited descriptions from the tankers. We might as well be on the moon for all the news we can
gather here. There are several SSB cruiser nets here in the Pacific but we cant seem to conjure them up on our radio, but we did conjure up a couple of spotted dolphins who spentfive minutes playing in EVs bow wave…nice for a change.

What a difference a day makes. As dawn broke, I was largely comatose when my watch alarm, an old car klaxon horn sound from my iPhone, went off. What, what, oh yeah, we,re at seaand I’ve got to get up and have a look around to make sure we’re not about to run into anything and still heading in the general direction of the Galapagos. this is something that goes on every twenty minutes or so all nighbt long. That’s when it happened, just a strange splash off the starboard aft quarter. I turned and saw a leaping dolphin heading for the bow. I hopped out of the cockpit and with age adjusted speed raced up the side deck to see dozens of dolphins frolicking in and out of both of our bows, a mere foot from my out stretched hand. Of course I didn’t have a camera and Marce was out cold catching up on her sleep down in our stateroom. I told them to standby for a minute and rushed down to wake her, I was afraid she would think it was an April fools day joke, grab a camera hoping that they had h
ung around. This was a first for us. They looked like a mixed bag of Common, White-sided, and Spotted, some quite large often turning to look at us as they swam between the bows. What a welcome.

The breeze continues to surprise and we couldn’t be happier as we approach the Galapagos. So far so very good.





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Life at sea

We knew from reading that this passage to the Galapagos is a challenging one, not for bad weather but for finding enough wind to get there without motoring a substantial part of the way. We’d been checking the GRIB files and ocean current maps and whatever other sources we could find only to see that there was fluky wind predicted for at least the next week. We’d told our Galapagos agent to expect us about the 15th of April but I got a list email Friday morning from a New Zealand weather router saying Saturday and Sunday would see steady winds at least until Isla Malpelo, then expect to motor pretty much the rest of the way to the Galapagos. I think he used the word “slingshot.” Sure enough, when we made the last minute decision to sail on by the nineteenth century submarine carcass on Isla San Telmo and take advantage of the glorious wind we skipped down the Gulf of Panama like nobody’s business. Until mid-afternoon Sunday, that is, when the wind dropped to nearly nothing and we rel
uctantly cranked up the port engine. I made fuel calculations to be sure we would reach our destination with what we had on board.

As Jack woke me for my watch at 1am Monday morning the wind came up again and we shut down the engine and scooted along again in perfect wind. What a bonus, we thought. Every hour we sail is an hour of diesel we save and an hour of peace and quiet over the grumble of the engine.

During the day I started to feel the familiar — but rare these days — beginnings of mal de mer and I took one half of a Non-Drowsy Formula Dramamine. I passed out almost immediately on the cockpit cushions and dreamed that the figure skater Michelle Kwan came to visit and brought me some makeup she thought I’d like and told me about her job at the State Department. Hours later I woke covered in drool and feeling completely doped up. Non-drowsy my ass.

We continued to enjoy favorable winds all day and I napped on and off while Jack held down the fort. Finally he needed to sleep and we started our night watches a little later than usual. Just after 8pm the wind died again and I called Jack up to help pull the sails in and get us set for motoring again. It was a beautiful night despite the engine and I watched Mars astern and saw a shooting star in the middle of the Milky Way. A gull kept circling us and I saw it as a flash of white, lit by our steaming light and stern navigation light as he glided past.

About an hour before change of watch the wind started to pick up but it was unsteady, moving back and forth behind us. We were rigged for the wind on the starboard quarter and it looked like this was going to stay on the port side and the mainsail was starting to fill, pulling against the preventer keeping it amidships. I crawled out on the starboard side deck and released the backstay then let the main boom out so the sail could fill.

At 2am I woke Jack and we turned the engine off. Ah, peace. We were running downwind on just the main at a comfortable speed. Later Jack rigged the jib for wing and wing and set the port backstay.

Just after 7am Jack called down, “Marce, Marce! There are about 20 dolphins in our bow wave!”

Dolphins! Dolphins are a common occurrence at sea for eveyone except us. We were wondering if EV had an odor or something because we never saw more than one or two at a time. I scrambled up on deck in my underwear and there they were, so many of them, swimming back and forth ahead of us and leaping into the air. We watched in delight for about ten minutes until they swam away. What a treat!

It’s now Tuesday. We’ve come about 430 miles, not quite halfway, and only run the engine for 17 hours total so far. Not bad for a sail through the doldrums. I sent an email via HAM radio to our agent in the Galapagos to say we’d be arriving about ten days sooner than planned. No problem, he wrote back. Excellent! Things are going our way.

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