For as much preparation as went into our passage to the Galápagos, it commenced almost spontaneously. After four days at lovely Isla Parida, we weighed anchor bound for Islas Secas, a triad of tiny islands with a reputation for stunningly clear water and tremendous snorkeling. At a quarter after 10 in the morning, we motored from the protection of the island, discussing our sail plan for the 20-nautical mile jaunt. Winds were calm. We’d likely hoist Gypsy (our asymmetrical spinnaker) after we reached open water.
It was not to be.
The southeastern bay of Isla Parida had protected us well from the Papagayo wind that whipped vigorously from mainland Panama. Minutes later, we were close reaching in 30-knot winds, fighting to keep our bow pointed toward our destination.With the winds
Neil and Lori proposed simultaneously that perhaps we should “just go now.” Go now, as in turn downwind and begin the 700-nautical mile trek to the Galápagos immediately! Of the three of us, I was the most reluctant. It felt like the right move, but I’d long looked forward to visiting the Secas. More so, however, the enormity of our departure from the Americas tugged at my heart strings. I sat high in the starboard jumper seat, my legs dangling aft over the sea, tears streaming down my face. I stared back at my home continent, knowing not when I would see it again. By flight, at least a year or more. By boat, perhaps more than a decade. The weight of that thought and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean beyond the bow filled the cavity of my chest with heavy emotions, leaving me feeling for several minutes as if I hardly had space to breath!
The Red Thread was laden with stores of rice, quinoa, canned goods, and rum stocked from Quepos and Golfito. We’d also been tracking for weeks the whereabouts of the notorious intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ), a weather phenomenon that can wreak havoc on transequatorial passages. We knew that an optimal weather window was opening. We were for all intents and purposes, ready to jump. We just didn’t expect leap off the continental shelf for a few more days.
Perhaps it was better that we made the decision in an impromptu fashion. There was no opportunity for nerves or trepidation about our impending passage—our first true “bluewater” passage—to rob us of sleep the night before our departure. No preemptive antagonizing about how the three of us would fare “out there.” With the decision made, I blew our conch to mark our departure, and we simply sailed on.
Into the night
The gap winds that blaze across the Central American isthmus had been roaring for weeks, and the seas bore the evidence. The combination of sea swell and wind-driven chop that churned and spit generated a rough ride. The boat retched violently in seas that heeled us 30 degrees from port-to-starboard within seconds.
Sleep was captured in increments of minutes at best, as we paid the price for a rocket ride away from the mainland. Despite the steep seas, the wind was with us, and we consistently made 5+ knots under sail. At sunup the next morning, the three of us were quiet in the cockpit, conspicuously aware that the only remnants of the familiar were the boat and the orb rising in the east. We could no longer see land.
Settling in on an unsettled sea
In our experience, day 2 is the most difficult of any passage. The off-we-go-adrenaline has subsided, and sleep schedules have yet to be well-established. Our crew of three was fatigued, but we did our best to settle into a routine that would maximize rest and conserve energy. Lori was learning that she, like Neil, was born with the gift of the iron gut. Her first offshore passage, and she wasn’t experiencing a lick of seasickness! I, on the other hand, was battling queasiness and bemoaning the lack of notice to put on a Scopolamine patch (patches work best if placed 12-24 hours prior to departure). Neil insisted that a “better late than never” approach might be, well, better. He was right. I slapped on a patch.
Throughout the morning, winds continued in the low 20s, and the description of the sea state in the logbook reads, “Shit. Lumpy w/waves to 8 ft.” It wasn’t the height of the waves, but the tightly compressed character of them, that was problematic. In those conditions, we barreled through a school of yellowfin tuna, hooking two on our hand lines at exactly the same instant! We kept the larger of the two, a 25-inch beauty that would be our dinner for the next three days.
02.13.16 12:01 am: Stars twinkle on the sea of black above, as The Red Thread grooves side-to-side, and the wind generator hums overhead. An easterly wind blows 13-15 knots, and we’re broad reaching at over 6 knots in an ocean more than 10,000 feet deep. We’ve picked up current that has added oomph to our stride. At this pace, we’ll cross the 200-nautical mile marker of our passage between Panama and the Galápagos Islands in just under 2 hours.
Valentine’s Day afloat
Thirty-six hours into our passage, the seas tempered and, with our daily rhythm established, we began to feel rested. The winds dropped to the mid-teens, but with milder seas, our pace quickened. On day 4, we experienced our 24-hour best: 148 nautical miles; an average of just over 6 knots!
In those first days, we lost track of the number of sea turtles we spotted, and in the distance, a pod of dolphins leapt and played. Neil was a real Casanova on Valentine’s Day. During his night watch, he handmade cards for Lori and me. He’d already surprised with an early Valentine’s Day gift in Golfito—a machete—which I love. I was a real schlepp and just made him a heap of misshapen pancakes.Having a crew of three meant that our night shifts were only three hours long (we usually do 4 to 6 hours). Any concerns the three of us might have had about what it would be like to share tight quarters in the middle of the ocean had dissolved. We were loving having Lori’s humor, skills, and stories aboard. We could not have asked for better conditions or company.
You’ll never catch me, ITCZ!
For weeks before our departure, we diligently tracked the ITCZ. Each day, Neil plotted its location on a map he drew by hand. We became accustomed to the rapidity with which the band of doldrums and squalls could shift and knew that catching a good window to dodge it would not guarantee we’d avoid it entirely. As they say, it’s better to be lucky than good! When winds persisted through Day 4 and we continued to cover ground, we began to feel confident that we’d managed to evade the ITCZ!Dawn of Day 5 broke, and we found ourselves becalmed. The morning sky lost itself in the glassy sea and offered Lori and I a delicious tequila sunrise. Indigo flecks of glitter drifted past the boat. Lori insisted she had seen such sparkles in other parts of the world and had been told they were “whale scales.” As absurd as that sounded to me (whales are mammals and therefore do not have scales), I couldn’t help but be on high alert for spouts in the distance. Alas, there were none.Trusty SHELLBACKS are we!
The calms were an excuse to motor for a few hours to give the batteries a hard charge and to run the watermaker, things we needed to do anyway. Settled seas and nonexistent breeze also enabled us to focus on preparing for the impending celebration that would occur later in the day. We were less than a degree of latitude north of the equator, and we spent the afternoon beading headdresses and other accoutrements, chilling a bottle of champagne, and otherwise gearing up for the festivities.
We silenced the motor and hoisted the sails several miles before the big moment: 00°00’.00S. We may have been motoring for half the day, but we’d be damned not to cross the equator under sail!
Crossing the equator has been long considered a rite of passage among mariners. Sailors who have not crossed the equator are considered slimy, lowly pollywogs. Those who have are listed among honorable “Shellbacks”, worthy of standing thereafter among King Neptune’s court. Historically, Shellbacks haze pollywogs with all manner of punitive torment before they are considered befitting of the title of Shellback. None of us had sailed across the equator before; thus, we were all worthless pollywogs! We glued a beard of frayed jib sheet to Luihi, a lanky wooden statue from Key West, Florida (a 26th birthday gift from friends), and tied him to the helm as King Neptune to preside over the ceremony.A ceremony to be remembered
Every equator celebration is unique, and we cared less about tradition than about sheer amusement. And amused with ourselves were we! Our celebration consisted of five elements:
- Recounting the dastardly deeds of our fellow crew members. These were silly and included such reprehensible acts as failing to stow the steeping French press, which resulted in it flying across the cabin in a heaving sea and making an obscene mess (Neil); clumsily ripping the Sirius satellite radio antennae from the back of the boat (Lori); and inconsistently turning the eggs, which caused many to go rancid (Jessie).
- Popping a bottle of champagne. We’re generally a “dry boat” when at sea, so this was celebratory indeed!
- Tossing a message in a bottle overboard. The bottle was from a winery in Washington that we’d long been saving for this purpose. We sent good wishes to whomever might find it…hopefully someone will contact us eventually!
- Collecting a 00°00’.00S water sample for Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation. What equator crossing ceremony would be complete without…science? During our Pacific crossing, we’re collecting data for a couple studies. Why not use an experience that would otherwise contribute only to our own personal growth as something for greater good?
- Being dragged behind The Red Thread in the chilly equatorial water. That water was deep, deep, deep…10,000 feet deep. And cold. And we all dipped in [and abruptly out] like good sports!
Not traditional, but hilarious! To commemorate our accomplishment, I surprised Neil and Lori with beautiful one-of-a-kind certificates that were hand-painted by my young artist friend, Rachel Morin. Lastly, to cap off the festivities, a pod of orcas spouted in the distance in the midst of the fun.Landfall
Isla San Cristóbal greeted us the next morning, emerging from the darkness to signify that our passage would come to a close within hours. Lori and I felt bittersweet about it all and would have happily stayed out at sea for a few days more. Neil was ready to drop the hook and begin exploring the fabled Encantadas. We were greeted by Leon Dormido (aka Kicker Rock), a colossal mountain of stone that juts vertically from the sea floor hundreds of feet below the surface and towers hundreds of feet into the sky.As we rounded the southwestern corner of the island, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno came into view. The settlement was far more built up than we had expected, and we were surprised by the spires of more than two dozen masts crowded in the anchorage. We’d hoped that arriving early in the season would mean less-congested anchorages. As it turned out, our arrival had coincided with that of the World Arc Rally, a parade of 32 boats on an 18-month circumnavigation. The hubbub, while briefly overwhelming us, did not dampen our moods. Galápagos had more than enough charm to enchant us all.Passage perks
Point of departure: Ensenada del Veradero, Isla Parida, Panama – 02/12/16
Point of arrival: Baquerizo Moreno, Isla San Cristóbal, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador – 02/18/16
Distance traveled: 756 nautical miles
Fastest 24 hours: 148 nautical miles
Slowest 24 hours: 93 nautical miles
Total time: 147 hours
Engine roaring: 10 hours
Sails soaring: 137 hours
Average speed: 5.1 knots
Jessie’s musings: The extremes of emotion I experienced during the passage are etched most deeply in my memory. I was overcome with a guttural ache as we left the continent in our wake; not a feeling of sadness but, rather, sentimentality, as we raced from mainland Panama. The second was the extreme sense of elation I experienced as we celebrated our equator crossing. I love few things more than a good theme party, and I’d been thinking about the merriment to be had since long before we left Seattle! Watching our latitude click from N to S was truly an accomplishment worth celebrating! Sharing those moments in the middle of the blue with Neil, Lori, and a pod of orcas in the distance—all bits of the Pacific Northwest—made me feel a world away and, simultaneously, completely at home!Neil’s reflections: While on a rhumb line from Panama, the Galápagos is a shorter route than our first passage from Seattle to San Francisco. It is easily a more nerve-wracking experience for sailors who have never lost sight of land for more than a few hours, however. We had intended to see Islas Secas, but with 30 knots on the nose from the north-northeast, it was too good an opportunity to pass up to make our run. The Galápagos passage was remarkable, with nearly 72 hours of excellent wind (the first 48 being a bit of a rocket ride), and we could not have asked for a better overall trip. The commitment of giving yourself to the mercies of the seas is a big leap of faith in yourself and your vessel, and I felt a sense of peace with whatever might come overtake me as we lost sight of Central America.