Panama to Galapagos

Beer of the moment :   Pilsner Cervesa - $1.40 per pint bottle

Journey from Panama to the Galapagos Islands

Wednesday 28th April - Friday 7th May

We left the Balboa Yacht Club, Panama City at 11.30 am and motored for the first 36 hours of our journey as we were "head to wind" and what wind we had was very light. We expected this to be the case so sat back and settled into our 850 mile journey to the Galapagos islands enjoying the view of Panama and the Las Perlas Islands. Allan was given a very short haircut en route to help him feel cooler.

Bev had been given some  Stugeron - sea sickness pills - to try by Trade Secret. They had an amazing effect on how well she felt and are now referred to as the 'miracle' drug. Many sailors swear by them and we can understand why. They really helped to stop her feeling queasy and enabled her to sleep at night as well.

For the first 48 hours we were amazed by how much rubbish there was floating in the water and managed to hit a couple of tree trunks despite a careful look out. On the second night Allan heard something strange and shone his torch across the water. We saw three large white birds floating by on a log making lots of squawking noises - a very funny sight. 

That night and for the next few we had lots of thunder and lightening. Initially it was in the distance but by 1st May it was directly overhead - rather scary when your mast is the tallest thing around. Anxiously we put our hand held radio and portable GPS (global positioning system) in the oven to protect them in case we got hit. 

On the 30th and 31st we also had rain so out came the waterproof oillies and before long the boat was filled with lots of damp clothing. The weather turned grey, overcast and started to get pretty cold at night (out came the fleeces, wellies and thick socks). Visibility was terrible. Winds were still fairly light and therefore initial progress under sail was slow.  

On day 3 we had to tack towards the mainland due to the wind direction. We were still 120 miles off the coast of Ecuador when we saw a small open boat coming towards us with 3 people on board. They tracked us for half an hour or so and by this time we were starting to get nervous. We were not far from Columbia - a notorious place for pirates and feared that we would be boarded. Bev was sent to hide the money. Eventually we saw a very long fishing net and realised what their waving must have been for ! However an hour later we saw another similar boat which headed towards us at speed. Anxiety returned again. This time they came right along side us even though we were doing 7 knots and asked for beer and cigarettes. We gave them some beer and were relieved when they left. We immediately headed away from the coast as fast as we could. We later found out that Luc and Emma from Eaglewing had had a similar experience and they had also been unlucky to get one of the net's caught around their prop.

By day 4 we had found SW winds and were now bashing directly into the waves with a knot/knot and a half of current against us. The winds fluctuated in strength for the next five days up to 30 knots and the current and waves stayed against us, making for a very uncomfortable journey. We often had to slow the boat down so that she didn't go too fast as she would launch herself off each wave and then crash land with a bang :( . It was not easy to sleep at night with all the banging and crashing and spirits definitely dipped.  

Beating to windward places a lot of additional stress on your boat and unfortunately we had a few equipment breakages en route. First to go was one of the welds on the dingy davit extension arm. This basically holds the dingy in place and stops it swinging on passage. Allan tied it up with rope and we hoped that it would hold. Next the engine stop cable snapped so that the engine couldn't be turned off. We had to leave it running for a while until the sea calmed sufficiently for Allan to climb into the engine compartment and rig a temporary solution. In the middle of the trip we had a major problem when one of the steering cables broke. Luckily our autopilot steers the boat directly from the rudders so we were able to steer the boat until Allan was able to rig a temporary solution using ropes. We got Bev's Dad to call our boat dealer and he arranged for the factory to a send a new set out next day. We were relieved that it hadn't broken in the Panama canal as that would have been a nightmare, however we were anxious that the ropes wouldn't stretch too much so that we could steer ourselves into the anchorage when we arrived. We do have a manual steering device that we can use - basically a long piece of stainless steel pipe that connects to the rudders - but its very hard to use and we didn't want to have to rely on that. Last the wind instrument went crazy showing untrue wind speeds and directions.     

As you can guess we were not having a good time. In fact it was our worst passage so far and we were not alone in thinking this. We had arranged to speak to Trade Secret, Meander and Pamina twice a day on the radio - they were having a similarly awful time.  Eaglewing can't transmit on SSB so sent daily email. It was nice to hear their voices and know that we were not alone. Karen from Trade Secret did a fantastic job of running the net and motivating us all. Trade Secret managed to break their stay sail halyard and depth gauge en route but it was poor Meander that had the worst journey of us all.

First one of their davit's broke, spilling the contents of their dingy into the sea, then their fridge died which meant that they had to ditch all their chilled food, next they lost their forestay and one of their inner shrouds and finally their watermaker came off its platform so couldn't be used. Mel had to climb the mast twice in rough seas to tie rope supports to the mast so that they didn't lose it - what a brave person she is. They couldn't put any stress on the mast so had to motor the rest of the way. Unfortunately their engines struggled to cope with going head into the waves and it took them 17 days in total to make the journey at 2.5 knots an hour. Pamina rendezvoused with them to give them additional fuel and we were all ready to head out to help them as well in case they needed more. They arrived with 10 litres to spare. Poor things.

Things did improve for us though by day 8, the sea calmed and the current turned in our favour. We were joined for a night by a large brown booby who sat on our bowsprit. He had no fear at all and even sat through all the sail changes. He did make rather a mess though ! 

At 16.48 on 6th May we crossed the equator. We toasted Neptune and had a sea water shower on deck. You are supposed to go for a swim but we thought that would be too dangerous with only 2 of us on board. We felt we were pretty brave though - the sea temperature was 30.5 in Panama and had now dropped to 20 degrees due to the Humboldt current. We were very excited to be in the South Pacific at last :)

Crossing the Equator

We awoke from our last night watch to flat calm seas, no wind and fog. As we got within 5 miles of our anchorage - Wreck Bay in San Cristobal - the fog lifted and we could see land at last. We had been at sea for 9 days and it was a welcome sight. We spoke to Luc and Emma on the radio - they were just anchoring in the bay and told us to expect surging waves when we arrived - plus loads of sea lions and turtles.

As we approached we could see the sea lions lounging over everyone's boats and sunning themselves in their dinghies. They were an amazing sight.

By 10.00 we had anchored and sat enjoying the view. San Cristobal is the main administrative port in Galapagos. Its a small pleasant town with several bars and restaurants - all fairly basic but with a nice feel about it. Tourism is still in its infancy and everywhere we went the locals greeted us warmly 'Hola' or 'Buenas Tardes/Nochas'. But the most amazing thing about the place is it's large sea lion colony on the beach. There are about 100 of them sunning themselves or swimming around the bay. You can get so close to them - its just fantastic.

Wreck Bay  

So all in all it hadn't been a pleasant journey. We had predicted that it wouldn't be a great sail as we had to sail through the doldrums - the place where 2 weather systems meet - but it had been far more unpleasant than we had expected. We were very pleased to be in. 

The rest of the day was spent checking in and cleaning the boat. We got stitched up on the entry fees as they are based on registered tonnage. Our boat is 9 tons but our registered weight is 25 as the tonnage is based on a funny calculation rather than actual weight. So whilst everyone else had fees of c.$100 ours was twice that. 

Trade Secret arrived just after dark and we talked them into the anchorage. Its very scary approaching an unknown anchorage at night as its hard to see anything in the dark and all the lights from the shore and other boats just mingle into one. Then it was over to Luc and Emma's for a bring your own drinks party and a great bacon pasta. They had also invited Katy and Matt from Lionheart who we had met briefly in Panama. They both lived in Cornwall before they set out on their journey.

Saturday 8th May

We rendezvoused for a late lunch at La Plage with Trade Secret and Eaglewing. Its a small restaurant overlooking the beach. Glad to be on terra firma we were still there at 10.00 pm that evening having consumed 29 pints between us plus lunch and dinner. Our bill came to $35 for 2 - less than £20. There is a myth that Galapagos is expensive - we found it pretty cheap. Getting back to the boat in the dark was fun and a bit wet and nippy as you have to launch your dingy from the beach.

Sunday 9th May

Having had a very lazy day on Saturday after a set price lunch (soup, chicken and rice for $3) we decided to explore the island a bit and took a walk with Stephen and Karen to the local visitors centre which gives a potted history of the islands.

The Galapagos Islands consist of 13 major and several minor ones. The islands are striking - lava flows, interesting basalt formations, cacti and beautiful sand beaches. They are a province of Ecuador and all native animals, reptiles and birds are protected. The islands were discovered in the 15th century and English pirates sought refuge here in the 17th. Charles Darwin visited it in 1835 and formulated his theory of evolution based on the observations that he made on the islands. There are only 6000 residents on the islands.

We then took a trek across the volcanic rock to Frigate Bay where we met a Frenchman diving for sea urchins. He offered us a try but only Stephen and Karen took him up on his offer. It looked disgusting but with fresh lime they said that it tasted great ! We took their word for it. 

The reason we had gone to Frigate Bay was not just to see the Frigate Birds circling overhead with a huge red plume on their chests but to swim with the sea lions. We donned our snorkelling gear and one by one jumped in to the cold water. Allan and Stephen went first and put a brave face on it. Karen nearly had heart palpitations and then trying to be positive told Bev 'Its not as bad as you think !' Bev always takes a notoriously long time to get in the water so sat cautiously on the edge of a rock to slowly edge herself in - however she slipped on her flippers and was in before she knew it ! Once in it was absolutely amazing - 3 sea lions decided to come and play. They swam up close with their face inches from your snorkel and all around you - flapping water at you with their fins and blowing bubbles. It was a magical experience to swim with them in the wild. They were incredibly playful and seemed to enjoy it as much as we did. 

As we wandered back into town we stopped at a local beach and had an ice cold beer and savoury pancake from a local stall (50 cents each). The beach was filled with locals out enjoying the sun on a Sunday afternoon - what a great way of life they have here. 

The climate in the Galapagos Islands at the time we visited was wonderful - warm days and cool evenings. The pace of life slow and uncomplicated. 

That evening we all rendezvoused aboard Trade Secret for drinks and a great Tuna Pasta. Allan and Stephen decided to try the cheap rum we had all bought in the Caribbean and several drinks later when Stephen was a little late returning from the heads we found him fast asleep in his cabin.

Monday 10th May

A day of sightseeing with Trade Secret, Eaglewing and Waterdragon (Taren and Graham from America).  We were collected by Gustavo a local tour guide turned yottie entrepreneur  and taken first to Kicker Rock an amazing rock formation off the coast. We snorkelled with Karen (the rest all dived) off the edge of the rock and saw some amazing fish and a shark. It was a very strange experience to be snorkelling in 200 metres of water in the middle of the ocean when you can't see the bottom! It was also pretty difficult as you had to get pretty close to the rock to see anything as it was so deep and dark but make sure that the current didn't push you onto it. Next it was onto Lobos Beach to snorkel with the sea lions ( we were still overwhelmed each time we did this ) and then to see the amazing birds (blue footed boobies and frigates in particular) and iguana's. Unlike wildlife in the UK, you could walk right up to them and they don't move an inch. It was amazing to see so many unusual animals in their natural habitat. A great day out for $25.

Blue Footed Booby

Blue Footed Booby

Katie and Matt from Lionheart invited us all for chilli that evening but as we had got back relatively early from our trip and Pamina had just arrived in the anchorage we invited everyone aboard Bagpuss for drinks and nibbles first. Katie did an impressive chilli made with fresh mince from her freezer (a rarity on a boat) plus kidney beans and the secret ingredient- baked beans. We were very impressed that she had pans big enough to cater for 10 people. 

Tuesday 11th - Monday 17th May

Gustavo arrived first thing on Tuesday morning to deliver some diesel we had ordered in cans. We needed to refuel early in case we needed to deliver more fuel to Meander. Everything here has to be delivered by boat - there is no opportunity to go alongside to refuel. He made a bit of a mess getting it in the boat and we later discovered that it had tons of bugs in it so were none too happy. Allan also gave him the extension arm of our dingy davit so that he could get it re-welded for us. This turned into a bit of a saga as when we got it back a few days later it looked as though he had given it to a child to weld rather than a welder as promised. He promised to get it cleaned up but despite repeated requests and visits to him to him no further progress was made and he seemed to go into hiding. In the end we didn't pay but took it back in a rather sorry state. 

Meander arrived on Wednesday so that was a great cause for celebration and relief. 

Most nights were spent eating out with the 'gang' and we were often joined by cruisers from other boats. The bay became quite crowded with about 30 boats - most of whom we had met in Panama who were all doing the same route as us. A surprising number of the boats were catamarans. With beer only $1.40 for a pint bottle and food around $3-$5 a meal it was often cheaper to be eating out than on the boat. We were delighted to find out that the plantain fritters that we all loved were simply slices of plantain (starchy cooking banana's) bashed and fried in the pan - delicious with mayonnaise and ketchup and a new recipe for the boat.  

On Sunday we took a land tour of the island with Trade Secret and Pamina. We were collected at 8.00 and first taken to see the volcano with its fresh water lake. The countryside and views from the top were amazing and it made a pleasant change from being on the coast. Parts of San Cristobal are very barren and volcanic but in the mountains its much colder, wetter and as a result greener. We passed many orange trees laden with fruit en route.  Next it was onto the Giant Tortoise sanctuary. This was set up to ensure that the Giant Tortoises don't become extinct - baby tortoises were being eaten by the rats and goats were destroying their habitat (they were brought to the island by early explorers).


It was a great place and free to visit. The tortoises are huge and live a charmed life here in beautiful surroundings where they are free to roam, eat and swim. Baby tortoises are bred and then released into the wild.  Next we trekked to an isolated beach for lunch. It was quite a way over rough volcanic stone but definitely worth the effort - white sand edged by black volcanic rocks and trees and gleaming surf. We had a great picnic lunch - fresh bread and cheese, Spanish Omelette (prepared by Henri), watermelon and pringles - all washed down by some French wine we still had in our stores. The only negative thing was that there were a lot of sand flies so we each got a few bites.

San Cristobal Beach 

On our way back we stopped at our guide's house for a drink and were delighted to find that he had a cute albino Husky puppy only a few weeks old. He was the cutest ball of fluff we had ever seen. We were then driven around other parts of the island and were back at 4.00 - a great day for only $40 for 6 people. 

Most days were spent doing jobs and trying to track down our steering cables which seemed stuck in Quito, Ecuador. Allan must have rung 20 different numbers, spent hours on the website and recruited the help of several Spanish/English speakers to assist us. The problem with packages is that you often have to pay duty and recruit the assistance of an agent to get it through Customs. Our package had been sent via UPS but they were using local agents in Quito as they don't have a base there. We were disheartened to hear that Rolling Home had been waiting since February for their package. Luckily for us Fountaine Pajot had been explicit that the steering cables were a warranty item and had stated their value as only $5. Although it took them 17 days to get to us we were thrilled to have them and could now be on our way.

First we had to get the sea lions who had taken up residence on our boat off. We could have up to eight of them on the back steps at any time. They typically woke us up at 4.00 in the morning (!) fighting for their spot and would then spend all day sunning themselves or trying to get a better spot. Many times we had to referee the allocation of spaces. We had several of them come into the cockpit as well as they got braver. They are amazingly cute (but pretty smelly) and have really human like personalities. As we tried to leave we tried to get them off the boat by spraying water at them from the shower hose. This worked initially but then they found they liked it and would lift up their flippers and show their bellies to get more of the spray. We tried to get them off by waving the cleaning brush at them but they thought it was a great game to jump off when the brush came near and then back on instantly. As soon as we had cleared one step of steps they would be climbing back onto the others. In the end after much effort and fun on their part we had to set off with two on board and luckily got them off before we were too far from the island so that they could swim back to their colony.

Sea Lions

It had been such a privilege to have lived so close to them for a while. 

Tuesday 18th - Saturday 22nd May

The Galapagos islands are very strict about where Yachts can go but we were allowed to visit Isabella the largest island in the Galapagos (although not the most populated with only 1200 people). Its a popular place for yotties as its the last landfall before the long trip to the Marqueses. Its an 80 mile sail so we decided to do an overnight crossing to ensure we left and arrived in daylight to be able to see the reefs. 

Eaglewing, Lion Heart and Trade Secret had already left (as had most of the other boats) and we sailed across with Pamina. We had good wind for the first couple of hours and then had to motor the rest of the night as the wind dropped. Just after daylight as we were in sight of the island Bev was startled to see a large whale as long as the boat surface 3 meters away. Am awesome although slightly scary sight. She turned the boat away but the whale seemed to follow. It must have just wanted a closer look because a few minutes later he continued on his way.

The anchorage at Vilamil on Isabella is beautiful and isolated - sparkling green water, white sand beach, hidden behind a reef - but very crowded with boats resting before their long crossing. We found a small space and dropped our anchor just in front of the rocks. Almost immediately we saw a small penguin and sea lion swim by. There was a lot of fish and rays in the bay and all around us birds were diving into the water. 

Unfortunately Trade Secret had a problem with their engine pump so Allan and Conor from Pamina went straight over to help. They struggled all morning to get one of the nuts off so we retreated into town that afternoon - about a 15 minute walk - with Trade Secret and  Pamina for lunch. $2.50 for soup, beef, mashed potato and rice ! Simple but fresh tasty fair - what a bargain. The streets here are made of sand and whilst the town is fairly undeveloped we saw that we could get most things we needed.

The rest of the afternoon and all the next day was spent working on the problem of the pump. Many boats lent tools, expertise and parts. By the end of day 2 despite lots of effort they still hadn't managed to get the nut off.

Karen and Henri spent most of the day on Bagpuss and the guys appeared about 8.00, tired and hungry. Bev whipped up an Arribiata pasta and the boys were up until 2.30 am drinking much wine and beer as they mused over the problem. 

Luckily Allan eventually got the nut off on day 3 and amazingly a local guy was able to replace the bearings with some old parts that he had. A couple of other boats Rolling Home and Sundance were able to come up with a spare seal each. That day Lion Heart had gone diving and the fishing boat they were on had caught a huge tuna. We all bought some and Henri offered to cook it that evening. Marinated with limes and cooked in Thai spices it was delicious. Having had a late night the previous night we were all flagging and in our beds by 10.00. 

Meander arrived on Friday and we went into town with them for dinner - again $2.50. The great thing about Isabella is that the locals will give you a lift in the back of their vans for a dollar a group and you can get a very cold beer outside the supermarket for $1.20. As we headed back someone spotted the local nightclub and before we knew it we inside watching the locals salsa - no two left feet here!

The only bad thing about Isabella is that the journey from the anchorage to the beach is strewn with rocks which made navigation in the dingy very difficult - especially at night. There was also a bit of swell and breaking waves in places. Many a wet night was had getting back to the boat and a few boats did crunch the rocks in the dark.

One morning we took a short trip across the bay to a shark pool - a place where sharks get trapped when the tide goes out. We could see about a dozen white tipped sharks about 4-5 foot in length in the pool. It was great to see them in the wild basking in the sun - I would not like to meet them in the water though !  En route we were able to see penguins, sea lions and hundreds of iguanas. 

Saturday night was spent at a barbeque at the local beach bar. We all had freshly caught barbequed Wahoo which was truly excellent. 

Sunday 23rd May

We had been told that the best tour on the island is a horse riding tour to the volcano's. Bev is a bit afraid of horses and was not keen to go but eventually succumbed as everyone we met raved about it. Joseph our guide (who was excellent) met us at 8.00. He drove us (Pamina, Trade Secret, Meander, Water Dragon and David from Nejtle) through the mountains to our horses in the back of his wagon. The scenery changed from barren volcanic rock to lush vegetation as we got higher. The horses were generally very placid and Bev was assigned a very gentle one. It was amazing to trot through the countyside and as the mist and rain cleared we caught sight of the crater of the first volcano which is absolutely enormous. What an awesome sight it was - like something out of a movie. After an hour or so we stopped to give the horses a rest and we hiked up to the second volcano. It was like walking on the moon. We saw sulpha, lava tunnels, holes, rivers and caves en route and Joseph pointed out the different types of lava rock. Being so high up we got some amazing views of the island - breathtaking. We returned to our horses out of breadth but exhilarated .

The horses had been amazing. Allan's had led him through all the soft vegetation en route so he had had a few close encounters with bushes but thankfully Bev's had calmly trotted all the way. We had an amazing time but knew that we would have a few aches and pains the next day ! We had been pleased to see that the horses were pretty well looked after and to hear that they didn't ride everyday. 

It was then back in the van and onto a local 'country estate' for a late lunch. Again we had wahoo which was excellent - plus some of the best fresh orange juice and passion fruit we have ever tasted.

The day ended about 4.00 and was superb value for $25 a head. It was probably one of the best tours that we had been on. Everyone was pretty tired but we headed back to Meander for a glass of wine and nibbles. Despite protests Mel then rustled up a great vegetable risotto for us all. What a star.

Monday 24th - Tuesday 25th May

First priority was to finish fixing the pump on Trade Secret which took several more hours and then everyone took a trip up their masts to check everything was OK. Then it was off to the local shops to finish our provisioning for the voyage to the Marqueses. We were lucky to get most things that we needed although provisions are limited. Its a case of buying what's available. What produce they do have is freshly and organically grown though and tastes fantastic. You can also get fresh eggs and home made bread as well.

In the afternoon we walked up to the Tortoise sanctuary with Matt & Mel. There were many more here than in San Cristobal and they had an active breeding program to help preserve the various species, many of which are under threat in the wild. Sailors in the 1800's used to catch these creatures as they would provide a fresh source of meet on long voyages. There is something to be said for their slow pace of life as these giant tortoises can live for 150 years or more.

On Tuesday morning we took a trip by taxi, with Steven and Karen to see the "Wall of Tears". This was a huge wall built of large boulders by convicts of a former penal colony. It was a time wasting exercise to demoralise the prisoners. Eventually they revolted and killed all the guards and their families. Only the prison cook survived as he had been kind to the prisoners.

On the Tuesday evening we had dinner at a local guest house where we had also left our washing the previous day. Its owned by a cruiser friendly Swiss lady and the meal was fantastic. Homemade vegetable soup, proper beef and banana pancakes for desert. They seemed to have got a bit confused over whose washing was whose though and when we went to collect it, it was all in a muddle - Allan ended up losing one of his favourite t-shirts in the process. 

Wednesday 26th May

By now most of the boats had left and the anchorage was pretty empty. As each boat departed people blew their fog horns and waved them off shouting good wishes.

We had spent 20 days in the Galapagos Islands and loved every minute. The scenery is beautiful, the wildlife amazing, the people warm and friendly and the places we had seen were still largely untouched by tourism.  It was also great value for money - not what we had been led to believe. Until recently yachts could only stay for 3 days maximum and we were glad to have benefited from the change. Many cruisers rate this as one of the highlights of a world tour and we can see why. It had also been great fun to see it with our boating friends. As we set off on our long passage to the Marqueses we knew that we would miss seeing Penguins and Sea lions swimming around the boat and birds diving for fish. There are not many places on earth where you can see that. A unique place that we will have many fond memories of.

However it was time to go and so with everything prepared we pulled up our anchor and set sail to the Marqueses - a 3000 mile journey.


© Copyright Allan & Bev Dornan 2016