Cruising England to Australia: Panama to The French Marquesas [Part 4]

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MULTIHULLS Magazine • May/June 2003

Panama, Galapagos, Pacific. After a great time in the BVI, we were cruising along in the Caribbean Sea. The seas were wonderfully calm and we could fly our spinnaker even at night. The trip was a bit longer than expected, 8 days, as the winds came from all points of the compass. It was as we drew closer to land that the size of Colon dawned on us. Container ships raced past, towering over Zazen. The skyline boasted huge cranes, containers, oil rigs and ships. Colon reared its ugly head in greeting us and coughed out fumes. After a tricky entrance, Roy, who was catching on fast, steered, we dropped the hook and settled down. I could not help thinking about the birthday that was around the corner. Colon – what a place to spend it! On no account were we allowed to step outside the yacht club walls – it was too dangerous. So everywhere we went it had to be in a taxi and that grew very annoying. However, every cloud has a silver lining and our Flemish friends from a Beneteau called Mercator were in Colon. With Luna (8 going on 15) to play with, Colon did not seem too bad. When Thomas, the skipper of Mercator, heard about our bleak birthday he suggested we go to a hotel! My parents thought this was a great idea – any excuse to get rid of us and–soon we found ourselves pulling away in a taxi to Isla Grande. Four days of bliss away from school, boats, washing up… it was the best birthday present I ever got. We returned to Colon and then had a party with some other kids who were about to transit the Canal. Mercator went through ahead of us and Dad went through with them to help as line handler. He returned full of exciting tales of what the Canal looked like and the incredible scale of it. Even these descriptions could not have prepared me for the true size and beauty of it.

It was 4 a.m. Dad had collected all of the people who would be line handlers, including Rudi, a local who was a taxi driver, customs clearer, line handler, and goodness knows what else! Then an adviser called Alex pulled up in atug. Alex’s job would be to show us through the locks, how to raft and get across the lake. We took up the anchor and left heading for the dazzling lights of the Canal. The plan was that we were to go through the locks as a nest of three. While heading for the first one, we were to raft up against the two other yachts – Joyeste and Smack. I am glad to say that Smack did not live up to its name! Things went surprisingly well and dawn was creeping into the sky as we entered the first lock. The sheer walls rose past Zazen’s mast and higher, but in a matter of minutes we had risen 9 meters and Zazen sat happily level with the gates. Now the big steel ship in front started the engine. I held my breath – the horror stories I had heard of yachts being tossed into walls and smashing their hulls… never came to pass. The ship seemed aware of our presence and politely moved forward before turning up its speed. As we started forward the adviser on Joyeste commented, “We are going to use you as a very expensive fender!” Still laughing we headed to the next lock.

At 7 a.m. I watched in awe as the huge lock gates swung open to Gatun Lake. The lake stretched out in front of us, green fertile islands sending wafts of forest smells on the breeze. The boats threw back each other’s lines and headed across the lake –Zazen in the lead. We were settling down, everyone sprawled about he decks relaxing, including our adviser who enjoyed our front nets a lot. Mum had started frying bacon and soon we were all tucking into a full English breakfast. This consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans and buttered bread. Delicious! Half an hour later Alex turned to Dad and asked, “Want something to tell your grandchildren?” “All right,” Dad said, so Alex directed us to a shortcut.We passed between two green islands and Alex told us to slow down. He then whistled and monkeys came swinging through the trees. After crossing Gatun Lake we came to the Culebra Cut. It was a narrow passage that led to the Pedro Miguel Locks. It was there that we sighted the Andes and the Cayman crocodile slipping silently into the water. We were joined by the other two boats and rafted together while heading for the locks – an interesting experience – and we soon shot through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks. At this point all of the Zazen family started waving at poles and all tall buildings. No, this stress and early start had not got to us – we were looking for the web cam after having instructed our grandparents to log on. We finally spotted the camera and jumped up and down waving like fury until we had to move on. It was the last lock.We sank steadily down and the huge metal doors swung open.

The Pacific waters swept up to greet us. Yes, Zazen’s hulls were now motoring smoothly in the Pacific. Excitement filled me, and then the Bridge of the Americas came into view. It came closer and closer, until we were underneath and at that point we all threw in coins for luck. So, our transit went smoothly and we made great time dropping the anchorin Balbao at 1 p.m. We hung around in Balbao, still absorbing our amazing transit. We were also awaiting Roy’s return. Before our Canal transit Roy had gone to Costa Rica to spend some time with his brothers. I felt that there was an air of nervousness among my family at the thought of leaving Balbao. It would be another week’s passage before reachingthe Galapagos and then the very long Pacific crossing to the Marquesas. I, for one, was not thrilled with the thought of ocean crossings but the waiting was almost unbearable. Roy returned and after 10 days in Balbao we set off for the Galapagos. The journey was quite pleasant and we had some fun crossing the equator. Apparently when you cross the equator you have to make a sacrifice to Neptune. Dad had already suggested Lorin and me! I made a cardboard sea dragon, Lorin sacrificed some soap (he never used it anyway!), Mum threw in a Werther’s original toffee, Dad a collection of jellybeans, and Roy sacrificed a storm match. This done we cheerfully looked forward to the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos were teeming with wildlife and breathtakingly beautiful. We were allowed to go to four anchorages, the first was Wreck Bay, San Cristobal. As we came inthe first thing I noticed was the smell – the smell of sea lions hung in the air and their barking filled the morning quiet, as these lazy creatures sunbathed on nearby fishing boats. We anchored with our trusted Spade anchor sinking in deep and Mum, Dad and Lorin went to clear customs. Later, we all wentashore stepping over sea lions and we checked out the town. The next morning I awoke early, courtesy of the sea lions, and after preparing our rucksacks we set off. Our mission wasto swim with the sea lions. We tied up the dinghy and walked to the town, we were still walking an hour later along a dusty track. Eventually we came upon a beach and, there, I was confronted by a very large iguana. It sat completely still, its long body stretched across the rock hoping it was camouflaged. I then realized that all the rocks had iguanas on them. A little unnerved by their watchful eyes we picked our way through the rocks and onto the beach. Easily 30 or more sea lions lay stretched out on the sand, but did not seem playful. The bull sea lion, recognized by his enormous size and loud bark, glared at us. We attempted to enter the water but an angry sea lion barked us away. Then the baby sea lion came to play – he swam around us and blew bubbles, he tumbled, turned, splashed and curiously stuck out his tongue. It was very funny and incredible to see how these clumsy land animals became so graceful in the water. After our fill of sea lions we returned to Zazen to discover a surprise visitor in the cockpit. Stretched out, dozing in the sun, lay a very big and very smelly sea lion. He was not too happy having to leave. Skipper tried to shoo him away but at this the sea lion reared up and bared his teeth. So Dad did the same and seeing as he was no match the sea lion grunted and slid off leaving us in fits of laughter.

Moving on we went to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. This was by far the most tourist-ridden but that could not be helped as all the tour boats were there. We got a cold welcome from the officials, as the regulations seem to change from island to island. He got very snappy and yet there was a whole anchorage of boats not bothering to check in. The locals seemed pretty cheery and we went to see two things: The first was the Darwin research center that was a bit of a letdown. Giant tortoises gave us the odd glance, then disappeared into bushes and others just slept. But that is tobe expected – those lazy creatures were hardly going to be thrilling to watch and at least we can say we have seen giant tortoises. Also the visitor center was still being built so don’t be put off – I am sure it will be pleasant when finished. The second excursion was to see lava tubes, which was a lot more interesting – in fact it was incredible. An old man hurried out of his house and gave us a quick speech in Spanish. He then gave us torches (flash lights), took us through his garden and showed us the entrance. Inside the lava tubes were 3 m tall and 2 km long. Intricate carvings made by the lava flows covered the walls and at times we had to pick our way through rocks where the ceiling had caved in. At one point we all turned off the torches and experienced pitch-blackness. It was very dark with no streetlights or moonto shine in. After walking through the lava tubes, the highest in the world, we met our taxi driver who brought us back to the man’s house. The man seemed very happy and gaveus a bunch of red bananas and showed us on our way.

The final stop was Puerto Vilammil, Isabella and this was my favorite island and it was also the biggest and the least populated. It was there that we saw white-tipped sharks, penguins, blue-footed boobies, sea lions and the biggest sea turtles I have ever seen, tortoises, flamingos and iguanas. We also rode up a volcano called Sierra Negra on horses! The horses seemed a bit underfed but were keen to ride through the mist and up to the top. Though due to lack of horses I had to share one with Mum. When we reached the top, the mist cleared and revealed the 10-kmwide crater. It is the second biggest in the world and amazingly beautiful. It was also a very fertile volcano and the best 70$ we ever spent. On the way down, everyone got enough horses to be able to ride on their own. We saw much in Isabella and it was sad to leave – but we had to. After hoisting the sails and setting the correct course, the Galapagos were a mere speck on the horizon.

The Pacific stretch is 3055 miles from the Galapagos to the Marquesas. An average passage time is about 30 days. The trade winds should have aided us, a speedy catamaran, for a fast crossing or not! The trade winds were a complete myth – probably invented to keep the sanity of the crew in the vague hope that the promised trade winds would get them moving. To cruising kids and adults alike I can hardly expect you to be thrilled by the – thought of a long ocean passage and I do not blame you. Day after day of only sea, sky and squalls dragged by. At one point I flipped my lid begging for us to stop and fly the rest of the way, which of course was impossible. Being cooped up with the same people for so long gave everyone a short fuse, except Roy. He seemed his usual calm self – happily cooking – his plantain breakfasts and doing his share of night watches. In fact it could be possible that Roy was enjoying himself! You may think that I was making a mountain out of a molehill and that it can’t have been that bad but here is a normal day for me: Wake up. Stumble into clothes and nearly pass out due to lack of oxygen in cabin as all hatches must be closed in the bows in case we take a wave. Go outside. Look at waves and feel ill. Go back down and look at the chart. Feel depressed at the huge amount of miles left to go. Do morning watch. Say good night to a tired Roy who would not emergeagain until after midday. Finish watch. Have breakfast and do school. Adults come on deck while others sleep. Mum who has less night watch, works hard in the galley greeting early and late risers with food. Finish schoolwork and have lunch. Doze. Eat dinner. Do evening watch. Sleep. This routine continued for 10 days until we reached halfway.

During the crossing we kept in contact with other boats. Together we came up with the idea of having a halfway party over the SSB. This meant we all had to say a poem, limerick or story over the radio so we all participated, and for a very special treat we had some crisps and a can of coke. Then we faced another nine days of long stretches of ocean until we saw it – yes, sweet beautiful, wonderful land! The fantastic smell of land and trees filled our noses and I thought I would cry. Unlike our arrival in St. Lucia, the land had no lights, electricity was scarce but with the help of some friends who had arrived a few hours earlier they guided us into the anchorage of Hiva Oa, where we sat exhausted and shell shocked after an overall passage time of 19 1/2 days. We had done it! —–

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