A Capella of Belfast Blogs

Definitely something different – Marquesas – the land of tikis, tattoos and human sacrifices

The Marquesas, in French Polynesia are definitely something different – tikis, extensive patterned body tattoos, evening drum rolls, ladies wearing a flower in their hair and ancient sites of human sacrifice. Thankfully the locals have become much more peaceful now and this is a charming place – very friendly people, good French cuisine, French bread and croissants, and everywhere is clean and well looked after. The Marquesas are high atolls and rise up to over a 1,000m with mountains and deep valleys. This makes for dramatic scenery and exciting roads.

A great lunch spot overlooking the bay

Our knowledge of the geography of the Pacific has rapidly improved. So, we are now half way across this huge ocean and have a further 2,500nm to sail before we head south in November to New Zealand. French Polynesia includes 5 Archipelagos – the Marquesas, the Tuamotos, the Society’s, the Austral’s and the Gambier Archipelago. Due to the prevailing wind conditions we will not visit the Australs and Gambier Archipelagos. French Polynesia is about the size of Europe! From here we will visit the Cook Islands, Tongo and then Fiji.

Being part of France and Europe, The Polynesian’s are able to vote in the European elections. The election boards where the candidates posters are supposed to go remains empty on Wednesday! Elections are on Saturday! Ummm.

Election boards!!

The Marquesas Archipelago includes 6 islands. After arriving in Hiva Oa we had to do an overnight sail to Nuka Hiva where Stuart was catching his plane onward to Tahiti and then New Zealand. This has proved an excellent spot for some rest, relaxation and a general “sort out ” of the boat, and we are enjoying catching up with old friends and meeting some new ones. We have spent some time in Taiohae Bay and Hakatea Bay on Nuka Hiva, and plan to visit Hakahau Bay on Ua Pou. These names are extraordinary – impossible to remember and pronounce, and the spelling is difficult, inconsistent and not improved by “spell check” adding its own version.

A tiki complete with his weapons

The Cathedral

Frustratingly the generator has broken – the exhaust pipe has corroded after a mere 1 and a half years. It is not a fundamental piece of equipment but does mean we need to be more frugal with electric use and water. A fitting for the spinnaker halyard at the top of the mast was also damaged. As it happened we had had evening drinks with Graham, Johnny and AA from S/Y Karma who are from Belfast, and their boat had been kept in Strangford! Graham is a very experienced rigger and he very kindly helped replace the damaged sheave fitting for us. We could have used a spare halyard but it is so much better to have fixed the broken fitting. In common with all the boats which have crossed the Pacific the hull of the boat has picked up a feast of wildlife. I fear these nutrient rich waters are going to make hull cleaning an endless job.

We had an excellent island tour of Nuka Hiva from Richard who was extremely knowledgeable. Since Captain Cook’s time these islands were unwilling hosts to a multitude of explorers, whaling ships and missionaries until France took formal possession in 1843. There were also various tribes and so over time there has been plenty of warfare. European diseases devastated the population at times. We visited sites of human sacrifice which were really quite elaborate with elevated platforms (presumably to get a better view) for priests and chiefs. Some of these sites have been reconstructed and are used for celebrations, and once you get past the gory bit are actually rather lovely. Tikis are spirits of the dead and old and new are plentiful – they certainly add to the mystique. The views and roads are spectacular.

A very old tiki, with the sacrifice site behind

There is very little native wildlife but we see many smallholders farming pigs, and cattle mostly tethered. There are many small tough looking ponies, wild pigs and goats. Feral hens are everywhere. Tropical fruit is plentiful when in session. There are always bananas and we have now tried purple bananas and orange plantains for a change. Pamplemouse (like a sweet grapefruit) and star fruit are in session at the moment and until the supply ship (once every three weeks) comes that is the fruit we will be eating. Choice is limited but we certainly will not starve.

The water here is quite murky but we have seen sharks and turtles and the anchorage is visited by mantra rays. Julian spotted the rays while up the mast!

We had a fantastic walk with friends from 3 other boats (Krabat, Hullabaloo, and Jolly Dogs) to see the third highest waterfall (1000ft) in the world. We enjoyed it so much we did it twice. Once again the scenery was amazing. The scale is such that photos will never do it justice. This was followed by an excellent lunch – wild pig, citrus salad and bread fruit, followed by coconut ice cream – provided at a local house. A real experience as the cooking is done on an open fire and the facilities are very basic.

We are now waiting for a weather window in order to move onto the Tuamotus about a four day sail away. These are low atolls and are only as high as the tallest palm tree, and do come with a reputation as they were previously known as the Dangerous Archipelago. Hazards include the very strong tidal currents in the passes, and numerous coral heads. We will undoubtedly learn some new skills.

Land Ahoy!

Land Ahoy! We have sailed 3,000 miles and taken 17 days to arrive in Hiva Oa, in the Marquesas part of French Polynesia. Hiva Oa is a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, but it has the virtue of being the first land fall, and port of entry, going west after the Galapagos. It is a strange thing when you finally reach land after such a trip. Part of you is of course, relieved to have arrived safely and pleased to have reached the end; but another part of you is sad that the adventure, the rather splendid isolation and the simple world were small activities can bring much pleasure has finished. Such a trip is not exactly a holiday, but is a very special time and truly unique.

The weather has been kind, and for most of the way we have had good winds from the right direction. For the more technical our best daily run has been 189 NM at an average of 7.9 knots and our trip run is 7.0 knots. All sail plans have been deployed – spinnaker, code zero, poled out jib plus staysail and normal white sails – something for every eventuality. The boat has gone well. We have motored less than ten hours so arrive with a nearly full tank of fuel. This is good news as getting any decent quantities of diesel in Hiva Oa will be challenging.

We can confirm that the Pacific is a huge rolly sea and very empty. We have seen a few birds, ocassionally dolphins and have seen some whales blowing. Most mornings we have cleared the decks of flying fish and small squid. We have seen only two other boats on AIS about 30 miles away so we never saw them physically. The skies, particularly at night are amazing. We have had daily radio contact with our friends on Krabat, and email contact with a Norwegian boat who both left Galapagos at the same time as us. This all makes for rather easy night watches, but the rolly seas have been tiresome.

The fishing has been exceptional thanks to Stuart who takes on his fishing responsibility with some gusto. The grand tally is 4 mahi mahi, 2 tuna, 3 nearly caught and numerous false alarms. One of the tuna was an absolute monster – 1.35m long, depth 0.35m and probably weighed in at 70lbs/30kgs. It took over an hour to land and was too big for our new net, so it was expertly gaffed by Julian. It took another 3 hours to deal with the fish and clean the boat afterwards. We were all absolutely exhausted. Should we ever catch another fish of this size, I think photographic evidence will be sufficient! Following this effort, fishing has had to be suspended as the freezer is full. As always the fish also have it their way, and a rather angry fish took our lure and all the line – we probably did not want that fish, but did it really have to take our equipment? The new, very big catching net has proved a great success and we do not miss the rather bloody, bludgeon affair with the gaff.

Julian has been honing is astronavigation skills and has successfully plotted latitude and longitude to within less than a mile of our GPS position. This is a very time consuming process but at least we can feel assured that if the GPS went down we would still nearly know our position. It does seem to require at least 2 people on tender hooks 3 times a day. We did spend a few minutes considering what it was like for Shackleton in his open boat in the Southern Ocean navigating from Elephant Island to South Georgia. How incredible and tough they were.

New culinary achievements include fruit cake and onion chutney. We are missing good old branston pickle but the onion chutney has proved a suitable substitute. I am no cake baker but three fruit cakes (Moira’s recipe) have disappeared quickly. Top menu items were Mahi mahi in oatmeal with pickled beetroot and black rice, blackened mahi mahi with couscous flavoured with cucumber and coriander, and cappachio of tuna with pickled beetroot and flatbreads. We have just about managed to spin out the fruit and vegetables.

It seems hard to explain where all the time goes on a trip like this but between sail changes, astronavigation, fishing, cooking, cleaning, water making, battery charging and a few extra sleeps we fill the days. We have an hotly contested sweep stake for the daily run. I have managed to draw a blue footed boobie – not so easy on a rolling boat. Stuart has tackled rope work, Julian taking on the supervisory role! and we now have at least a years supply of soft shackles and rope loops. Stuart and I, occasionally joined by Julian, have taken up daily scrabble and the top score between us is 756. Stuart nearly always wins, hence the collective goal! Local rules allow double points for nautical terms.

So, all in good spirits here, looking forward to some french cuisine, catching up with the world, and exploring the Pacific Islands.

Goodbye Galapagos and onwards to French Polynesia

Tomorrow we set sail for French Polynesia after three weeks in the Galapagos. The forecast is good for a 20 day trip. This, of course assumes we manage the “leaving” bureaucracy! And yet another boat inspection, this time to check for baby tortoises and drugs. Do not get me wrong the officials are all very polite, it just doesn’t happen like this anywhere else.

Stuart Dawson has joined us for the trip so we have a “Team Pacific” which is great news.

We have re provisioned at the local market. The pricing still remains a mystery or maybe a “dark art” and most things seem to cost a dollar. If we look a little perplexed we just get a bit more produce and it still costs a dollar. Bananas are virtually free so we have two large hands of bananas for a dollar. Sadly no Branston pickle or indeed any decent pickle. I suspect we will have to learn to live without it for sometime.

Our cobbler cum sail maker has come up trumps and the code zero has been mended, checked and re furled. This time we shared the football pitch with a construction lorry.

We have had a great time in the Galapagos but we will really remember the Galapagos because of the animals – they have been fantastic. The fish market at Santa Cruz is full on entertainment. The big, very fat sea lion just reminds you of a Labrador – very, very greedy and always in the way. I thought iguanas were vegetarian but clearly not all. Although the pelicans are very keen, but the heron with his evil sharp pointy beak is king. The frigate birds are just shameless and have no manners hence the plastic screen defences.

These guys can fillet fish at speed. We, of course have not purchased any fish as with Stuart on board we are completely confident of catching are own. In anticipation we have purchased the white wine to complement the fish as even on passage, fish really does need some white wine!

I have awarded myself a “I love boobies t shirt” as a souvenir!

Nearly Good bye to Galapagos

What can I say…. For us, on a sailing yacht, Galapagos is a bureaucratic nightmare most of which we still do not really understand. A permit here, a permit there; a few more dollars for something or other; restrictions, rules; and plenty of waiting around for something or someone! Today we had the cheese, we had just bought in Santa Cruz photographed before we boarded a local speedboat – why we don’t know? We can only assume it is a game designed to deliver some more dollars, keep people employed and enhance the eco marketing credentials of the Galapagos – but it might just be bureaucrats completely out of control.

But you cannot help being charmed by the wildlife. Where else in the world will you climb out of the dinghy and have to step over sea lions, and iguanas and going for walk navigate around giant tortoises? These guys know they are in charge, and we have to walk around them, but they do let you come incredibly close. On the boat at anchor we have pelicans diving, the sweetest little penguins, sea lions and black tipped sharks just metres away. I am not sure who eats who but it all seems to work.

We have visited three islands – San Cristobal, Isabella and Santa Cruz. Isabella is our favourite being more relaxed and has a better anchorage. We have seen all three boobies – blue footed, red footed and Nascar’s and definitely earned the right to wear the “I love boobies t-shirt.” We were lucky enough to see the blue footed boobies dancing which is the mating ritual and very comical. We have had some amazing snorkelling and the highlight must be swimming with rays and giant turtles. On the way to the snorkelling spots we were also lucky enough to see jumping rays – another mating ritual, and the blows and fins of fin whales.

The islands are volcanic and it does make for dramatic scenery. The very dark tangled rocks against the bright turquoise water is spectacular. We visited the Sierra Negra which is still an active volcano and has one of the largest craters in the world. We have been on push bikes and did an “only downhill” bike ride on San Cristobal. This sounds a bit slack but the heat is draining and quite frankly the bikes had very dodgy gears and were fit for downhill only. The ladies, Helen, Moira and I biked to the “Wall of Tears” and this is uphill but we did see wild giant tortoises which is really special on the way. The wall of tears is a wall 100m long and 7m high. It was built by convicts from the penal colony and served no real purpose except punishment.

The place is extremely clean and we have seen none of the dreadful plastic waste that has been on other islands. There seems to be no single use plastic cups or plates, no plastic straws and even in the supermarket no plastic bags for vegetables. It can be done.

Our friend Helen Phillips has been in Galapagos for a month and joined us on the boat for a week. Stuart Dawson has joined us today to do the long Pacific crossing to the Marquesas.

The boat jobs do not stop. Helen very kindly went up the mast to polish the shrouds -what a star because this is not a popular job. Julian and Bill, from Krabat, fitted a aft roller so we can use a stern anchor more easily. We have taken our torn (again) code zero sail to be mended on Santa Cruz. No posh sail loft here but a rather rough football pitch to roll the sail out on. We suspect the sail repair man is more of a cobbler, but he has a machine and some material, and for what we feel is rather an expensive price, seems willing and is probably competent – needs must.’

We are now preparing for the long voyage to the Marquesas. This will be 3000 NM and our longest non stop trip so far. We expect it to take about 20 days. Amazingly we are looking forward to it!

Limited broadband has meant smaller and fewer photos than usual in this post.

We have crossed the Equator and arrived in Galapagos

We set of from Panama City about 10 days ago and our now in Galapagos. I can’t include many photos as the internet is very slow here.

We enjoyed Panama City but after a final provisioning trip we were, as always glad to be moving again. We were looking forward to getting back to the islands after nearly a month near Colon and in Panama City.

The first stop after Panama City is the Las Perlas Islands about 50 miles south. We needed to do a final clean of our hull to ensure it was good enough for the Galapagos and we hoped the water was cleaner here than in Panama City. We thought the water temperature at 22c was rather cool but with wet suits on and deep breathes we got on with the job! We also visited a little settlement on one of the islands but this was very remote and although friendly we were definitely the tourist attraction!

The trip of 6 days to the Galapagos was uneventful and we were pleased to only motor for 30 hours out of 150 hours. This trip goes through the doldrums and is notorious for poor winds. Sadly our code zero which did a fantastic job in the light winds has ripped. We are hopeful we can get it mended here in Galapagos as we will miss it on the long trip to the Marquesas. You are supposed to celebrate crossing the Equator but for us it was 9.30 in the morning and after night watches that didn’t seem like a great idea. We allowed ourselves a glass of wine with supper, which we do not usually do on passage.

Just passed the Equator on the way to Galapagos

We were expecting a thorough bio security inspection on arrival in Galapagos and we had spent considerable time ensuring our hull was clean, the boat clean, no raw meat, no vegetables, many labels, numerous waste disposal bins. Clearing in was an experience.  9 officials got on board. No divers – they are all sick, apparently. It took about 1 hour and it was not really clear who was doing what. They checked our safety equipment and our paper chart, which covers the whole “other side of the world”, was deemed to be sufficient for emergency navigation. I fear there is much process, officialdom and corresponding checking but little real or useful rigour. We are all for sensible bio security but when you actually see what is happening on land we, as cruisers, are not the real risk.

A new friend!

We are just feeling a little underwhelmed by Galapagos at the moment. I know – first world problem. The cruising is very restricted and everything costs money. Perhaps we have just been spoilt and have become used to such freedom. Truthfully we are yet to see amazing wildlife but hopefully that will come. The sea lions at San Cristobal are great to watch and do get everywhere and that includes our swimming platform. Unfortunately sea lions do what sea lions do, and they are very smelly! Julian spent a good hour, moaning and grumbling, cleaning after them! Our defences have been reinforced!

Giant Cactus Trees

We have reached the “other side” – hello Pacific!

I still have to pinch myself to remember we really are in Panama and looking at the vast Pacific Ocean.

The marina in Colon, Shelter Bay, was a hive of activity and very much reminded me of the Canaries when we were preparing to go across the Atlantic 18 months ago. Amount half the boats were preparing to go through the Canal and cross the Pacific. There are all manner of things to do – be measured by the Canal authorities to allow us to go through the Canal; organise line handlers – 4 required; remove solar panels so that they cannot interfere with the lines which will keep us out of trouble in the Canal; our code zero needed some attention from the sail makers; the boat was hauled out in Linton and pressure washed to ensure it is clean for Galapagos; engine and generator check; provisioning and a clean and polish.

Our good friends Bill and Moira from Krabat, Allen and Maria from Lady Jane and Jana and JD plus their boys from Jajapami were all in the marina waiting to go through the canal so it was not all jobs and we did find some time to be social. Yoga started at 8 am, we had a great nature walk in the jungle near the marina – the birds are hard to photograph and the sounds are fabulous particularly the howler monkeys. We joined a talk on the Pacific Islands and we took the opportunity to check out the Gatun locks in advance of our trip. Caryn Canfield from USA who we had met on the Chesapeake rally joined us for the Canal trip.

Noisy howler monkey living next to the marina
The wildlife was great – the resident crocodile in Shelter Bay marina

We have installed a large CO2 canister on the back of the boat so we can have ad-lib sparkling water. I think we must have a five years supply of CO2! Caryn made a very smart neoprene cover.

We repacked the series drogue. This is a series of 124 fabric cones which we can trail behind boat to slower her up in seriously bad weather – hopefully it will remain packed up!

One safely packed up drogue

Panama will be the last serious shopping opportunity for about four months so I have created a comprehensive spreadsheet of stores in the hope that not too much runs out. We took the marina bus to Colon a couple of times for the hour long, bone shaking ride and a taxi ride home with our massive shop.

Loading our shopping into a pick up taxi in Colon

Finally the day for the Canal arrived but Julian had lost a crown from one of his front teeth the night before. Our wonderful dentist in the UK, Chris Bocking, confirmed that if it was not painful it would wait until we return to UK next. Very fortuitously however, Julian had met a German cruising dentist at the marina, and he very kindly replaced the crown in the morning.

So with long four 125m lines, big fenders, and professional line handler, Gutti, we were ready to go and wait at the anchorage for the Canal pilot. We were also joined by our friend Peter Smith who we met in Jamaica. Peter has been sailing the world for the past 20 years in his hugely impressive aluminium boat, Kiwi Roa. Peter is also the designer of the Rocna anchor. Gutti had played football for Panama’s national team – I think he was rather disappointed at our lack of football knowledge. Our best effort was to show him where Manchester was on the map which I suspect he already knew! He was a delightful young man and is now studying Economics and Law at Panama University. We waited three hours for our pilot or advisor as they are called here to arrive. Transiting the Canal is a precision exercise but there still does seem a fair bit of waiting around and time for some great photo opportunities!

lifting the Rocna anchor – Peter checking all is well!
The first bridge – this is a busy waterway.
Our delightful line handler Gutti organising the ropes

The Gatun locks (three in a row going up) came up quickly and we were told to raft up to a French boat and an Australian boat and followed in behind a large tanker. The line handlers then keep the raft in the centre of the lock as the water rises. It does sound simple but it is quite an experience, hard work and completing the three locks took about two hours.

Our advisors David and Wayne
Rafting up
Safely secured and our new best mate Claxton Bay
Going up the locks and looking forward to a hairdresser in Panama City

We spent the night attached to the biggest bouy we have ever seen in the Gatun lake. Our new advisers Jerry and Giovanni arrived the next morning and we then travelled for about four hours across the Gatun lake to the Gaillard Cut and the three downward locks – Pedro Miguel Locks and Miraflores Locks. We learnt that The Australia boat had somehow drifted out of the channel and run aground – apparently no serious damage but they were now behind and unable to join us.

Looking towards the Gaillard Cut

For the next locks we attached to the French boat which attached to a small tourist boat and they looked after the shore lines. This was much easier. There was one last drama when the French boat failed to attach their stern line to the tourist boat and did a full pirouette at the front of the lock gates. They were now right up against the gates, facing the wrong way and against the wall – a very bad place to be! The water was dropped and somehow the advisers and line handlers managed to turn the boat – these guys are very skilled.

The downward locks – approaching our raft

Not a good place to be
Celebrating in the final lock – Pacific ahead
Last lock completed
Our mate in the downward locks – Sunbird!

The locks over, we motored past the Panama docks, returned the hired lines and buoys, the advisors were collected and Gutti and Peter left the boat. We then went under the Bridge of The Americas and finally into our marina in Panama City.

A job well done – Freddy leaving us
The big fenders, lines, Peter and Gutti leave and we are on our own once more
The Bridge of the Americas

We were tired but elated – it had been a fantastic trip unlike anything else we have experienced. Pacific here we come!

Celebrating in Panama City with Krabat, Lady Jane and Jajapami
One happy Captain
Panama City and a new Panama hat

Good bye and thank you to the San Blas Islands

We are heading to Colon tomorrow. We will have to wait there (probably for about 10 days) while the boat is measured and we get our slot for going through the Canal. We have plenty of boat jobs and provisioning to do. We really enjoyed the San Blas but as always, are excited about moving on and going through the Canal is definitely on the bucket list.

We had great fishing on our sail from the San Blas up the coast. One tuna and one baby (thankfully) shark. We returned the shark to the sea but were pleased to have tuna for supper and fill the freezer!

One fine Tuna
A shark!

While hanging out next to idyllic Islands is delightful we did feel we should see the jungle and some native villages. The Guna Yala region has some of the most untouched virgin rainforest in the world. Stores were getting very low and there were promises of shops in Nargana. This large village was billed as being the most “advanced” community in our guide book and where the residents have decided to give up the traditional Guna way of life; but I can assure you this is all relative.

In Nargana we did manage a meal out. This was a real treat – basic fare, slightly chaotic but good all the same. There was also excellent broadband and we were able to purchase SIM cards. Although rather ramshackle there were satellites, TV, a tiny airport and a health centre.

Eating out in Nargana

Traditional hut complete with Satellite

I am afraid rather basic sanitation – sit over the sea!

When we arrived the shopping was really dire – a few over ripe tomatoes and bananas. The supply boat was due the next day and, thankfully it did arrive but shopping on the supply boat was a whole new experience! There really is no basic hygiene, and we watched as a raw chicken was chopped up on the top of the cool box (no refrigeration here) and the very same knife then used to cut up an orange. These guys clearly have a tougher constitution than us, and we opted for just whole vegetables and some lovely Guna bread.

Shopping on the supply boat

The shop

and the bakery

In Nargana we were curious to see many dugouts full of barrels heading up the river each day and returning heavily laden. It turned out these little boats were getting fresh water from up the river. One island (there are two joined by a bridge) has running water from a stand pipe and the other does not. It seems interesting to us that people have satellite TV but no running water. Perhaps when time is less limited this is a better option but it looks jolly hard work.

We visited Isla Maquina which is a much more traditional village with a guide named Idelfonso. He spoke reasonable English which he had learnt from a book and with his family had purchased his panga (motor boat) for $14,000. This would be a huge sum of money and we had to give him top marks for his entrepreneurial spirit but he remained very proud of his culture and way of life. It was excellent to see how these people live in such a simple way – sleeping in hammocks, cooking on open fires, very few processions, and experts on re-using just about anything.

Going to collect water at some speed
Heavily laden dugouts full of river water

There are dugouts and dugouts – learning from Idelfonso

A lovely Guna lady making a mola
Off fishing with man’s best friend!

We did have two great hikes up the river Rio Diablo with Bill and Moira, and a second one from Gaiger with our guide, Idelfonso. This was serious jungle hiking including rickety bridges, river crossings and it was very hot. We had been given dire warnings of dangerous snakes, frogs and panthers the previous evening so Julian was prepared with machete and bear pepper spray! Fortunately these were not needed.

The beautiful mangroves
A selfie on the initial exploration trip

Ready with the machete

Aquaduct – Guna Yala style

With Idelfonso
Not elegant but safe

Just as we were getting a little relaxed on our return dinghy trip down the river we saw a large crocodile! I was just taking a photo of the little banana plantation, and had not noticed the crocodile, until it slid into the water! We were all of 5 metres away! but imagined how thrilled I was when I discovered I actually had the photo to evidence the encounter.

What a spot for lunch – we felt like intrepid explorers!