From Cayman to Galapagos
The Cayman Islands
After a few days' wait on the south side of the island of Grand Cayman, the swell is gone and we can return to a mooring just outside Georgetown. It is still early in the morning, but five cruise ships have already anchored. Local taxi boats are going back and forth to take as many as two hunderd passengers at a time on shore.
The centre of Georgetown is completely geared toward tourists and despite the fact that there are no taxes, duty-free shops selling souvenirs, art, jewellery and the most beautiful watches are everywhere. With five cruise ships anchored off the coast, the city is jam-packed with tourists; sometimes there are up to nine of these floating villages, it doesn't bear thinking about.
Sailors are really special here, but fortunately we meet Monika, a Canadian who has been working for a sailmaker for several years now. Within two days she manages to repair our sail so we can leave before the weekend. But this turns out differently, because Monika invited us to spend a day "holidaying" at her home on Sunday, including a spareribs meal, and that's an opportunity we're obviously not going to pass over. We bring all our dirty laundry and we spend the whole day lazing away, watching TV, using the internet, showering and swimming in the upstairs neighbour's swimming pool. In the evening she takes us back to the Hammerhead bar where our Maxi is dutifully waiting for us. All clean and with three loads of clean laundry and wonderfully rested we come back on board. When we have another look at next day's route we get a bit of a scare. We had thought we would be able to sail straight south, but there's a huge reef with a lot of wrecks on our route to Panama. This means we have to turn eastabout first and as a result the wind direction is not as favourable as we had expected.
De first day on our way to Panama we can sail a decent course, but soon the wind changes so we have to start tacking. The current is against us as well which means we are hardly making any headway anymore. The only thing that keeps us optimistic is the knowledge that, according to the latest weather forecast, the wind will soon change. After two days we are still struggling with the head wind and we have to make a decision: either we sail back to Grand Cayman in one day and wait for good wind conditions, or we continue tacking and crawling along until the wind changes. We decide on the latter and resign ourselves to the fact that, during the coming "waiting days", we will only be able to reach an average of 2 kilometres (1.3 miles) per hour. In the next five days we only cover 160 miles and once we reach our waypoint we change to a more favourable course and the wind changes to a better direction as well. Suddenly we fly towards Panama and four days later we see the entrance to the canal. Just before we reach the two piers which we have to sail between we want to start the engine and lower the sails, but all we hear when we press the start button is click, click, click. After a quick search we find that the wiring of the starting motor is short-circuiting. We apply some insulating tape and yes, the starting motor is running again, but the engine does not start. We guess it's a clogged up diesel filter, replace it and now the engine starts again without any problems with a press of the button. We slowly chug to "The Flats", the anchorage for sailing boats waiting for transit through the canal.
The Panama Canal
The canal consists of three locks and in each lock the water rises about ten metres. Following the locks is an artificial lake which provides the locks with the necessary water. On the Pacific Ocean side there's a canal which is twelve kilometres long and which was dug by at least 70,000 men, and another three locks which will take you back to sea level. All sorts of terrifying stories about the canal's locks are going around. They say for example that some sailing boats got stuck in the lines and were smashed to pieces against the huge walls of the locks.
In Colon we arrange all the paperwork needed for the transit through the canal and we have to have our boat measured. We pay a hefty amount and then we have to wait for a week until it's our turn. In the meantime, our friends Rien and Leilani of the "La Mar" had already arranged everything a bit earlier and we join them as line handlers. Rien has also asked Ripley and Jeff, who arrived in Panama as crew on another ship and who would like to experience passing through the canal, to join him. This is because every ship is required to have four line handlers on board.
In the evening we sail on the "La Mar" to the location where the canal advisor comes on board. We wait for half an hour and are then informed that our transit has been postponed one day. This is very inconvenient for us, because that means we have one day less to make the last arrangements needed for "Happy Monster"'s transit through the canal.
The next evening the canal advisor comes on board and late in the evening we sail to the first lock. The locks are bigger than the Dutch ones we are familiar with, but definitely not as big as we had expected. Four men on shore throw us thin lines with monkey fists and we tie the rented 40-metre lines to them. The lines are drawn up and tied to the shore. Then it's just a matter of making sure the lines remain taut so the boat will stay in the middle while the water rises. And if everyone does their job properly it turns out to be a piece of cake. Everything goes well and we arrive at the lake where we spend the night on the boat. Only the canal advisor leaves the boat. The next morning at half past six another advisor comes on board and after a long beautiful trip on the lake we go down again through the last three locks.
"La Mar" has arrived on the Pacific!
We take the bus and drive back from Panama City to Colon in two hours. The next day Rien, Leilani, Ripley and Jeff board our boat after they have done some shopping for us. We arrange the last paperwork and bring the lines we rented on board. The car tyres which should protect our boat in case we bump against the wall of the lock are already in place. Right, most of the stress is gone and despite the fact that we know by now what to expect, we are still a bit nervous.
At four our canal advisor comes on board and we leave for the first set of locks. Dory cooks fried rice for seven people. Just like with the "La Mar" everything goes smoothly and our Happy arrives at the lake between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. The next day we sail across the beautiful wildlife area again and we arrive at the first lock to descend. We have to tie up to a boat that is twice the size of ours and because they are so much bigger they do all the line handling. All we have to do is be on standby with idle engine. That seems easy, but it's more stressful than we expected, the crew on board the other ship is not very experienced, they are not paying attention and regularly slack the lines, as a result of which we heel over considerably several times while we're in the locks. Fortunately it all turns out well and we arrive at the Pacific Ocean unscathed. A weight is taken off our shoulders, we can start thinking ahead again. "Happy Monster" has also arrived on the Pacific! It was only a small mountain (30 metres) we had to tackle, but it felt like a very high one. Our thoughts kept lingering, first Panama, then we'll look further.
To the Galapagos
We stay another few days at the anchorage of La Playita near Panama City to work on the boat, do some more shopping and buy a new anchor chain, because the old one was rusty and worn. Then we go to Isla Pacheca, a small island belonging to the Las Perlas archipelago, about thirty miles south of Panama City. The island is inhabited by thousands of birds, we have never seen this many together, you can smell the bird droppings. The trees on the island are constantly moving because of birds landing and taking off. The peace and quiet on the island is remarkable, no throbbing of generators on other boats or dinghies flying by with outboard motors which are much too big; just birds. We stay there for two days and then start our trip to the Galapagos Islands.
After all the wild waves in the Caribbean sailing on the Pacific is a real treat. This ocean has a very calm swell and with just a little bit of wind we slowly slide over the water, it feels very unreal but very pleasant. We see lots of dolphins and even a few whales.
We soon have to change one of the gas cylinders, even though we thought it wasn't that long since we had connected that cylinder. Maybe it hadn't been filled to capacity. Oh well, we'd better use the gas sparingly, because we don't know whether we can buy it at the Galapagos. One morning there are dolphins around our boat, they are squeaking and hitting the smooth surface of the water with their pelvic fins, it's as if they want to warn us, but we don't know what for. The next day, when the next gas cylinder suddenly turns out to be empty, we understand. The gas ended up on the water through a leak in the anchor bin and that's what the dolphins were smelling. Aren't they wonderful animals! This means it'll be really important that we will be able to fill our gas cylinders and we obviously have to find the leak. Because without gas and therefore without coffee, tea or warm meals we can't possibly make the big crossing to the Marquesas Islands.
After thirteen days we arrive at the Galapagos Islands and before we drop our anchor near Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz we are welcomed by a seal. We are looking forward to following in Charles Darwin's footsteps and exploring the unique flora and fauna of these beautiful islands.
(Translated from dutch to english by Percy Balemans)