Marquesas Islands – Hiva Oa

Our plan was to sail directly into Fata Hiva which is known as being one of the most impressive anchorages in the world but due to our steering issue (broken cable) we decided on Hiva Oa which should have offered more services and chances for repair.

Hiva Oa is also where you also check into French Polynesia whereas a lot of cruisers risk a fine and expulsion by sneaking into Fata Hiva first, so at least we were doing the right thing there.

After making it into the anchorage under the auto-pilot with the emergency tiller we celebrated with Matelot before heading back to our boat and crashing out. We then headed back out to another boat, Savannah, where we had a lovely night catching up and swapping stories of all our crossings over to the Marquesas. Really is quite an epic thing Helen and I have done, something you tend to forget while underway. We really were in the middle of nowhere for three weeks under pretty full-on conditions so everyone was feeling quite rightly proud of themselves and their boats for making it.

Everyone seems to have damage, although most of the badly hit boats seem to have gone directly to the main town on another island – Nuku Hiva. We heard some pretty scary horror stories. We got away quite lightly I think. A broken steering cable sounds bad, but we were never in any real danger.

The next morning we woke to a pretty amazing view!

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We headed ashore… Land at last!!

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We spoke with the Yacht Services person on the island called Sandra. She tried her best to get us help but there’s really nothing on the island so a car mechanic turned up, shuck his head, and we were back at square one again.

She did give us a lift into the small village where we headed straight to the Gendarmerie to check in. As we have EU passports this was very painless, no bonds or visas to deal with. Made a refreshing change after the red-tape hell that is Panama.

The village was pretty tiny, even though it’s the second biggest settlement in the Marquesas! There were two or three small shops, a bank where we got some local currency, one restaurant, and that was about it.

Shopping here is going to be painful. We knew the prices in French Polynesia were high but you don’t really get the full smack to the wallet until you experience it. One fresh baguette, some brie, a few cans of drink and a six-pack of beer came to something like $65 US. Ouchy!

No idea how the locals deal with these prices. Very few people we’ve seen have any kind of job. A lot prefer to spend days playing guitars, or laughing with friends and families over meals. Nothing wrong with that but how are they able to afford a $6 can of beer?

There does seem to be a quite a lot of subsidies involved, although the system is quite complex. Tourists to the islands pay in hard cold cash but the locals just throw whatever they want into a basket, rock up the counter, have something scribbled in a pad by the owner, and walk off without ever opening a wallet. Everyone, no matter how down and out looking, owns a brand new 4×4 truck as well. Not kidding.

All this free time they seem to have by not needing to work pays off in other areas. Everyone is extremely happy. Gardens are perfectly kept. No litter anywhere. It’s a very good standard of living they have going on here, well, apart from the internet which still totally sucks.

After an hour trying to download a few emails (and failing), another quick wander around the village, and another $85 in shopping for what seemed like nothing, we headed back to the anchorage. A kind guy quickly stopped as he was driving past and offered to give us a lift. Lovely stuff! After a quick chat it turns out he’s the head chef on the island and trains everyone else to cook. Originally from France he now lives on Hiva Oa and passionately informed us that the food here… ‘Is very bad! Not good like in French or England. Rubbish!’. He must be a gem to work for and we can’t wait to check out his restaurants. Humm.

The next morning we caught up with the boat we went through the Panama Canal with – King’s Legend. They said that as we couldn’t get our steering cable repaired, we could use strong halyard rope. It’s as strong as steel so should work well until we can get the official parts made up in Tahiti. We got an invite over to Kings Legend, a very famous older boat that’s doing the Sydney to Hobart race this year. We relaxed the rest of the day, still fighting to get back into the swing of not having a max of three hours sleep.

Stepping foot onto King’s Legend that night was an amazing experience. The boat is a classic 65 foot racer, from a time where boats were real boats. They had photos showing the boat back in the day during races. Smart looking gents and there was even a chef on board. Learning of the history and talking to the owners was great fun. We should be doing roughly the same trip back as them over to Australia so it’ll be good to keep in touch.

There’s not really a lot going on in Hiva Oa it has to be said. Sure the backdrop is stunning, the mountains around you are very impressive, and you really get that feeling of being in a very new part of the world, but… not sure how to put it, we got a little bored of it after a while.

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I look at these photos and feel quite bad about saying that but you can’t swim here as the water is murky and sharks are known to be in the bay so we were kind of getting cabin fever after a few days of being here. We also don’t have a huge amount of time in the Pacific so need to maximise our time in places we really do enjoy.

With that in mind we set off early the next day to a little island just South of Hiva Oa called Tahuata.

Galapagos Islands

Good morning Galapagos!

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San Cristobal

Shortly after arriving in San Cristobal our agent showed up and went through all the paperwork with us. Our inspection was booked for 3pm so we had a few hours to kill. I asked if we could ‘unofficially’ pop to shore and was told it wouldn’t be an issue.

You can’t use your own dingy here so we took a water taxi to the dock.

Wow. Seal city! They were everywhere. On the jetty where you try and depart the taxi, lined up on the steps, on benches, flopped in the middle of the road. No fear of humans at all. Such an amazing sight that really takes your breath away.

We weaved through the seals and found a nice cafe for some lunch.

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The town is a little bit sprawled out covering way too much area. Lots of development work is going on, most seeming to be half-finished backpacker accommodation. Shame there isn’t a little more town planning going on here. Nothing really struck us as Eco built, large concrete structures were everywhere. The seals seemed happy enough though. They are protected near the shore by a large walkway.

We headed back to the boat to do a final clean up ready for our inspection. I was in the middle of washing the decks down when this cheeky fellow decided to pay us a visit. He hung out on the swim platform for a good 30mins before flopping off back into the sea. Seals can be a real problem on boats here so I’m glad we can raise our platform.

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No sooner had we finished cleaning then the welcoming committee turned up.

Nine, yes NINE, officials showed up including customs, immigration, two park officials, the harbour master, a random soldier, some guy who dived under the boat to inspect the hull, two environment officials and our agent.

Two people headed below decks with Helen and inspected everything while I was hammered with paperwork and questions from all angles above. It was very full on but they were all very friendly and seemed happy with the drinks and biscuits we’d laid on for them.

We passed with flying colours, handed over a load of cash in fees and they left to visit our Kiwi friends on Matelot who’d only just arrived from Panama.

We decided to just stay on board that night as the drain of the crossing hit us like a brick.

Next day we went into town, did some provisioning, and explored the area more. We also managed to get totally refuelled so we’re ready for the long passage coming up. We joined Pippy and Richard from Matelot with their friends who were visiting and had an amazing seafood meal. Yum!

Day after we headed over to the interpretation centre built just outside the town which went into the history of the islands and the human effects on the environment. Was quite a depressing eyeopener.

Ever since humans discovered the islands the wildlife has suffered greatly. Many species of giant tortoise were lost due to them being used for food and to power streetlights !?!

Whaling wiped out the local numbers, anything that could be used was striped for a long time.

Introduced species are a real problem here as well. Cats and dogs, goats, rats, and many aggressive plants, have all attacked the delicate balance in this unique area with many areas now lost. The locals are fighting hard to protect what’s left but it doesn’t sound hopeful.

The number of tourists visiting is also growing expnentraply, but the money they are willing to spend is shrinking. Backpackers looking for budget accommodation and cheap tours seems to be the way things are heading and the demands on resources can’t keep up.

Wish I had a silver lining to all this but I don’t. We feel very lucky to be able to visit, and totally understand that by being here we are adding to the problem, but unless something changes the Galápagos Islands will become just another screw up in human history. It’s a very tricky issue as people want to visit and experience this amazing place and the money needed for research and protection comes from tourism for the most part. It’s a bit of a catch22.

After the centre we headed down a trail to an amazing cove where you can dive in and snorkel with seals and other sea life.

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We couldn’t believe our eyes once underwater. The density of fish in the water was staggering. Then… Whoosh… A huge seal swam just below me scaring me half to death, the fish he was after were probably a little more scared. We followed Mr Seal over to a rocky ledge where loads of his friends were hanging out. We dived around the water and they’d come over and play with us. So cool to be swimming with wild seals, watching them feed and play.

The water here is pretty cold so after 45mins we called it a day and walked back to town with huge smiles on our face.

On the way back we also saw a huge land iguana and lots of small finches that are native to the island.

We went to shore later for one final meal and got an early night ready to depart for our second island tomorrow.

Santa Cruz

We had a lovely sail between the islands over to Santa Cruz and arrived in good time. The anchorage here is well known for its swell so we wanted to be safely in before dark. We managed to get a good spot at the back of the pack where we noticed other boats nearby had their stern anchors out.

We’d read this can help with the swell here so we decided to give it a try ourselves. We’ve never used a stern anchor so didn’t really know how to set it. I came up with the great idea that I could just swim with the anchor from the boat, take it behind us and then drop it. Helen thought I was nuts and would sink.

Turns out Helen was right (as normal). I did quite well for the first 10secs before noticing that the top of my snorkel was now well underwater and I was sinking like a brick!

Helen pulled me back above water and we decided to go back to the drawing board.

We decided to throw the dingy in the water then throw the anchor in the dingy. I used the line from the anchor to let myself adrift backwards then paddled over to the side a little to give us a good angle then dropped the hook. Helen tightened up the line and I paddled back. On board the boat was now heading nicely into the swell and much more stable. Nice!

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Santa Cruz is even bigger than San Cristobal. An old salt we got the water taxi in with from another boat said he couldn’t believe it. He visited 15 years ago and said there were only one or two restaurants and bars back then. There must be 50 times that now. These towns aren’t really what we expected. There must be over a hundred places selling the same tours.

We visited one to book a visit up to the highland area the next day then walked over to the Darwin centre where good work is being done to breed and reintroduce Giant Tortoises back into the wild. The size of these creatures is amazing. They live over 200 years and can weigh over 200kgs. I bet a few of the older ones must wonder what the hell is going on as they have watched explorers come and go and then towns built smack in the middle of their lands.

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The tour up into the highlands the next day was great. Seeing the Giant Tortoises in the wild rather than breeding pens was amazing and we also visited huge lava tunnels and volcanoes.

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There isn’t much (hopefully) on our final Island, Isabela, so we needed to visit the main market to reprovision for our huge passage over to French Polynesia. When we did the Atlantic crossing this was easy… pop into a huge supermarket and buy whatever you want and they delivered to the boat. Here we had to get to the weekly market (fresh produce gets delivered to the island once per week) early and fight over the best items with the locals. Was a great experience but there’s only so much you can carry and we fear a lot of the produce won’t keep. We’re not worried though. The huge number of fish we’ll catch will ensure we don’t starve. Yeah right.

We caught up with the guys from Matelot who were also a little so-so of the places visited so far. We decided to leave the next day and head for Isabela which we hoped was still unspoilt.

Isabela

We sailed over with Matelot and pulled into the anchorage at Isabella where we instantly knew this was what we’d been waiting for. The anchorage is surrounded by a reef where birds by the 1000’s were nesting. Scores of blue footed boobies were dive bombing the waters just behind us, more seals came to inspect our boat (one scaring me half to death as he swam under me while I checked the anchor had set), white tipped sharks glided through the waters, penguins waddled about on the rocks, and huge iguanas sunned themselves in the warm sun. Oh, and not a tour operator or hostel in sight.

After a few hours we got a shout from Matelot to head over for some beers so we rowed the huge distance (about 20m) and caught up with everyone. Was a fun night and we decided to head into the little town about 1km away to book a guide to see more of the island the next day.

Next morning we took a long dingy ride ashore. Long due to the reef surrounding the anchorage, you have to take a huge arc round to get to shore safely.

Ashore we found the dingy dock to be a seal stronghold. It’s so funny here how so many structures built have been only to be taken over by the seals. All the seats were claimed and boards put up to keep them taking over more areas. I guess they aren’t taking over, humans have built on their habitats so fairs fair.

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The walk into town is down a small road that’s about to become a very big one. Yep, the early signs of development were to be seen here as well sadly. Boards lined the trees and scrubland to either side of the road offering land for sale. Why the hell isn’t all this national parkland and protected?! The road was due to be replaced by a huge two-lane highway linking the (currently) small town with the (currently) small dock. Give it a few years and Isabela will have gone the same way as the other islands. Get there quick!

Luckily the town was still lovely, much smaller and more basic than the others we’d visited. We had breakfast and bumped into Josh who had taken a ferry over to the other islands to do some exploring. He gave us the low down on the area and what tours to visit. I should explain this ‘tour’ thing. You have to visit most areas on the islands with a guide so small tours are provided. It keeps humans confined to set areas which can only be a good thing.

We thanked Josh and headed straight over to book a tour of the volcanic areas. We also needed to visit immigration and customs (again) to let them know we’d arrived. Honestly the whole visa in and out for each island is starting to get a little annoying. No one seems to know the rules, it takes ages getting the agent to smooth things over, etc. I really don’t mind but if you’re going to put complex requirements and red tape in place at least inform your officials how they are meant to work.

After a few phone calls, lots of form filling, and good old Google translate, we were cleared in and able to explore a little more. The town is really cool actually. It’s how I imagine the others would have been ten years ago. A lot more laid back, slower paced, and not full of endless shops selling the same ten t-shirts.

After a slow lazy day hanging out in the town and checking out the amazing beach in front of it we headed back aboard as our volcano trip kicked off at 7am.

Fully rested we were picked up from the dock the next morning. A 4×4 drove us up to base of the Volcano and then we were on foot for the 14km hike around the area. The guys from Matelot joined us and it was good chatting and getting to know them more as we ascended. If was quite misty for the first few hours and one of the main viewpoints looking out over the huge crater was totally greyed out. Was quite funny having our guide explaining and bigging it up when all we could see was cloud. Could have been a massive industrial estate there for all we knew.

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After a few more k’s we made it above the clouds and entered into a surreal volcanic landscape that could have been on Mars. It was fascinating learning from our guide how the area had been destroyed by a recent eruption. Really amazing to see the world turned inside out as all the minerals were belched from below. The colours and textures of this barren landscape became more intense as we walked higher where we ended up looking out over Isabela while we had lunch and took it all in.

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We then had to walk back but was lucky that the mists had cleared so all the lower views opened up, for the record there wasn’t an industrial estate. It took a few more hours to get back to the base by which point people were starting to fade. A massive hike, but one of our favs, and well worth a few blisters. Even the ride back to town was fun. All the seats In the 4×4’s were all full (no idea where the extra people came from?!) so we were lobbed in the back bouncing around- loved it!

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Once back in town we pressed on. Had a lovely walk over to another tortoise breeding centre. This one was way better than the first one we visited with all the major species from the different islands represented. Once past a certain age they are reintroduced back to their native islands. One guy was well grumpy though- what a face on him!

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By this point we’d climbed / hiked / walked enough so headed to the beach for a quick dip and then lazed in a cool beach bar with some ice cold beers.

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We met a very inspirational women who was traveling South America so shared stories and some more beers with her for a few hours then braved the reefs in pitch dark in the dingy back to the boat.

Next day we were up and at ‘um early again. We heard there was a good cycle route away from town so picked up some bikes and headed out. The route led us a good few k’s out into some stunning woodlands. It’s amazing how quickly the landscapes here change. At the end of the route stood the ‘Wall of tears’. Some genius around WW2 times decided to teach some prisoners a lesson by forcing them to stand in the blistering heat and build a wall. The wall serves no point. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just in the middle of nowhere. It’s huge and the area has a bad vibe to it. I hate to think how badly they were treated. This pointlessness was designed to break the poor sods out there in the sun. I bet he didn’t even give them suncream to wear.

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Can’t help but think this workforce couldn’t have been put to better use. You know, like building schools or a hospital. Humans. Mad as hatters.

After leaving the wall we started back down the route towards town. We raced to the end on the way out but stopped in some places on the way back including an amazing lava pool where we took a dip and watched the iguanas, crabs, and huge pelicans doing their thing then cycled to another spot where we climbed up to some lookouts to get a view from up high. A cycle down the beach was amazing also, but hard bloody work!

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Once back in town we booked another tour for the following day and headed back to the boat to rest.

Next morning we joined up with a few others for a tour of the lava tunnels. A speedboat took us about two hours down the coast to an amazing spot where lava had washed into the sea and cooled creating tunnels and bridges above and below the ocean. In this area the lava had cooled to form a reef of sorts so you were protected from the swell. We popped on our snorkels and jumped into the water to explore.

Below the surface was amazing. Tunnels you could dive through. Fish everywhere. Our guide took us over to some caves where we watched some white tip sharks resting in the shade. Then onto a lagoon where a sea lion came right up to us and decided he wanted to play. Helen and I were just diving and spinning under the water and he was copying our moves then showing off with his own. After our guide tore us away from this (I could swim with sea lions for days and not get bored). He showed us where the sea turtles hung out. We’ve seen loads of turtles on this trip but these fellas were super-sized. Absolutely huge things and like all creatures on the island couldn’t care less we were there.

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It was a magical few hours and such an amazing highlight of our time here.

Back in town we headed to the Port Captain to clear out which resulted in us ended up in the back of a police car being questioned. Long story short the Port Captain said we needed to visit the police station to get our passports stamped. Fair enough. We went there and all hell broke loose as they couldn’t understand we were on a boat and we’re just trying to clear out. Five guys and two hours later we ended up in the back of the police wagon with some official who’d been yelling at the Port Captain driving us back to him. We went back in to see the Port Captain who stamped our passports right away?! No idea what that was all about but we hope we haven’t caused any internal deputes. Oops.

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At the dock we met up with everyone off Matelot who were heading out for drinks and a meal so we rushed back into town and helped celebrate Pippy’s birthday. We’re going to be buddy boating with Matelot for the little 3000 mile passage to French Polynesia so it was good to chat about our options and plans for the crossing with them. Pippy and Richard’s friends Brenda and Andy were leaving the next day so a few goodbye drinks were had with them as well. Lovely bunch of people and a great final night in Isabela.

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Next morning was a bit of a rush to get the boat ready and the we were off. Next bit of land is maybe 3-4 weeks and 3000 miles away! Gulp!

Have to say the Galápagos Islands really were a highlight of the trip so far. But mostly the last island, Isabela. It’s still undeveloped enough to blend in with the surroundings rather than dominate them, the wildlife and scenery really is breathtaking and we’ll never forget how lucky we were to spend some time hanging out in this unique part of the world.

If you have ever thought of going do it now. Not sure it’ll be the same in a few years which is really sad to say as we both loved it exactly as it is.

Panama City

The size of Panama City shocked the both of us. We hadn’t seen so many huge skyscrapers since leaving Sydney.

Before departing for Galápagos we needed some fresh food, to top the fuel back up, and of course to see what this major South American hub could offer us.

I did some research online and the top of every must do list is a visit to the canal. I think we’ve safely ticked that one off! The next up is the Old Town area which has gone under a major regeneration program over the last few years and many old buildings have been saved by reworking the area as a safe place to eat good food, drink, and be merry! Sounded like just the thing we’d be interested in but before we could play we had some stocking up to do.

As it was Easter weekend we only had one day to get everything we needed. As Pippy and Richard had the same objectives we decided to team up. First up was getting all the paper charts we needed for the remainder of the trip back to Sydney.

We found  a huge shop stocking everything the budding sailor could need. We left with all the recommended charts, cruising guides, and lighter wallets.

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Despite what many will tell you paper charts are dead. Digital versions, and the power of the devices displaying them, are just too good. That being said we always carry large area ‘planning charts’ on board. If anything was to happen to the 349 GPS devices we have on board (lightning strikes have been known to kill anything electrical) we’d be able to hopefully get back to land with some dead reckoning.

Next up we needed to hit the supermarket and get some fresh produce on board. We must have two years worth of long life foods… the usual rice, pasta, canned goods, etc, so it’s nice to just focus on fresh items. We made it back to the boat and packed the fridge solid.

Our reward for such good provisioning was a night on the town. I forgot to mention that Balboa yacht club doesn’t have a dingy dock. You just call up on channel 12 news get a lift over to shore on a launch they send out. We called up, waited, and headed over looking slightly out of place in our ‘hitting the town’ clothes while boat workers, fishermen, and other yachties rocked the ‘oil splashed, fish gut splattered, sun faded shorts and t-shirts’ threads they were wearing. Funny thing wearing jeans and a shirt – felt really weird to me its been that long.

We hit the yacht club bar to unwind from the excitement of the canal transit and full on day we’d had bouncing around Panama hunting for supplies. After a few ice cold beers we asked the barman if he could order us a taxi into the old town. A very nice gent a few seats down spoke up saying that he was heading there and we could hitch a ride with him and his lady friend (we still don’t know what was going on between those two but he’d done alright for himself if anything was).

We had a lovely ride into town chatting with them both about the history of Panama City, how it was very safe compared to a few years back when you’d be rolling the dice walking down a lot of streets. He owned an apartment very close to where we we’re heading. Heavy traffic (Panama City’s roads are crazy!) stopped us in our tracks so we thanked the couple and headed out on foot.

The Old Town is lovely. It’s so good to see the old buildings being restored to their former glory. The town planners have cleverly breathed new life into the Old Town by creating a safe area where every second place is a restaurant or bar. The quality of the establishments reflect the grander of the architecture so it’s quite high end.

We loved seeing this after experiencing so many places we’ve visited with areas just like this being left to rot while everything is relocated to modern developments.

We visited a few bars and had an amazing meal looking out over the bay to the skyscrapers beyond.

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The area was stunning with old churches getting ready for Easter, people of all ages filtering into their choice bars, restaurants, or all night clubs. A very good energy and feel to the place.

Around midnight we wondered into a square packed with people just standing and looking very solemn. We then noticed a procession of priests and men walking, silently carrying a huge cross with Jesus over to a magnificent church. No one said a word, the faces of all the onlookers were lowered and sad looking. It was very powerful to witness.

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The next day we chilled on board doing not much of anything really in the morning and then headed over to the yacht club for some lunch. Everything was closed pretty much in Panama City so we used the free wifi at the bar get more Pacific planning done.

On Saturday all we needed to do was refill some jerry cans with fuel. We found a nice taxi driver who took us and then we returned, loaded them up on the launch and headed back to Interlude. I learned the hard way that transferring heavy 20 liter cans is tricky. As Helen scrambled to take the weight our launch drifted away from the hull with me leaning further over to support the fuel. It became clear that either I had to drop the can or take an unplanned bath in the dirty canal waters. A few seconds later Helen had the can safely on board, turning back to see my feet disappear as I fell head first into the drink. I don’t recommend swimming in the canal.

We’ve hired a professional weather router for our long trip back to Sydney. We’ll use Predict Wind for shorter legs but the long distances can be problematic. He emailed over to say the best weather window was to leave ASAP to avoid the growing number of thunderstorms in the area. We said our goodbyes to Matelot who had friends join them and needed an extra day to sort out some tasks. They are faster than us on the water so we should arrive roughly the same time.

It was sad sailing away from Panama City. If Europe was part one of our trip the Caribbean was part two and transiting the canal marked the end of that leg. The coming months will hopefully be filled with many amazing days but we really feel like we’re on the home stretch now. ‘Just’ the Pacific to go.

Panama Canal transit

After a few days of battling with some boat jobs in Shelter Bay we were as ready as we’d ever be to head through the canal.

We managed to tick off lots of old jobs that had been hanging around- most importantly was was handheld remote for the main VHF radio. The charging cradle for this had broken a few weeks back and it’s very useful to be able to control the main VHF from on deck. Our dealer had sent out a replacement so I wired it up and thought everything was working perfectly.

The day before we left I thought it wise to check the radio. The handheld worked perfectly. The main radio. Nothing.

Over a very stressful hour I managed to find someone who’d kindly email me over the electrical and fuse locations for everything and fixed the fuse for the radio which must have blown when I connected up the cradle. I replaced this, kept my fingers crossed and turned on the main radio. It worked. Time to breath again.

During our 5 nights at shelter bay I learn’t how to fix radios, service shower pumps, learn’t what ‘thermal runaway’ is and how to prevent it, and 100 other things. The skills required for doing a trip like this are never ending it seems and there’s always something new to learn.

The morning of our transit was pretty easy going in comparison to the crazy days beforehand. We had nothing to do but wait.

Around midday our line handlers showed up. We hired two professional guys who’d done numerous transits called Chris and Felix, plus Marie, a French girl from a boat that had just sailed in and wanted experience of the canal before helping her skipper through. With Helen helping that made the four we needed. I was to skipper the boat and our canal advisor, who’s basically a pilot you take on board and tells you what to do, made up the rest of the boat. Six people! Interlude was pretty full and felt very heavy with all the food, water and extra fuel we were carrying.

At around 2pm we were ready to leave Shelter Bay and head out to the ‘Flats’ anchorage where you await your pilot.

People gathered to wish us well including everyone off Marie’s boat who were wearing Sydney t-shirts they picked up visiting Oz a while back. So nice to have a good send off.

I pressed the engine start button and…

The engine was fine. But the electrical fan in the engine room (which you can hear just before you start the main engine) wasn’t working.

Without this fan the engine could overheat. And we’d be motoring the whole canal. Panic mode!

I raced downstairs with Helen and grabbed the laptop and started to wade through the electrical diagrams, fuse charts, and other PDFs trying to locate the fuse for the fan. Everyone up stairs was still saying their goodbyes but the pressure was on.

I found the diagram, traced the wires back to the fuse panel. Ran over and found that when I was repairing the VHF radio I must have put the fuse for the fan in the wrong place. I popped it back over one slot and asked Helen to try again.

She turned on the starter, the fan powered up. The engine started perfectly.

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had such a panicked, stressful, moment on the boat. Everyone waiting… The transit booked…

It really goes to show just how important having documents for EVERYTHING onboard is.

Luckily I don’t think anyone on deck realised anything had happened.

As the adrenaline subsided we eased out of our slip and headed over to wait on the Flats.

We were lucky enough to get the same slot with Pippy and Richard on Matelot- the Kiwi’s we’d met weeks before and had been sailing around with since. They headed out with their crew about an hour later and we hung out on anchor.

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Around 5:30pm the pilot boat pulled up and radioed over to us to approach them. In order to get our advisor on board I had to position the boat close enough to them for him to safely step on board. No problem! 20 knots of wind, bit of roll to add to the fun, and they want me to get within 1 meter and hold her there. We managed to get the guy on board with no damage but Helen and I couldn’t help thinking there must be a safer way to do such an operation.

Our advisor / pilot was called Asfa. He was a lovely chap who gave us a run down on what we’d be doing. You only get to learn who you’re heading through with once he arrives and what formation you’ll be in. For our first night, yes sailing boats transit at night just to add to the fun, we’d be following a 230m tanker called Planca Muscat into all the docks while nested next to the Kiwi’s.

30mins after Asfa arrived we saw Palanca Muscat on AIS heading our way, we left the Flats and followed her down the channel with the Pippy and Richard following closely behind.

As the huge tanker sorted his lines out we needed to come alongside Matelot and raft up alongside  them. The advisors here asked too much the first time. The wind was blowing up to 25knots by this point, we were in the dark, and heading downwind. As we approached and tried to get lines to each other it became clear it wasn’t going to work so I backed away. We then tried upwind which was much more stable. I managed to hold the boat in place while the guys raced around with lines throwing them over to the Kiwi boat and ramming fenders in place wherever possible. It was pretty full on but we managed to get safely connected with no damage to either boat. We then turned back downwind towards the tanker and followed her into the first dock.

Panama1bYou can’t get a sense of the scale of these docks until you’re close to them. The engineering of everything is off the chart. Everything’s been super-sized. Bolts are the size of large trees, nuts the size of cars. The dock gates themselves are vast. The workers look like ants walking around them.

As we slowed up behind the tanker it was time for some monkey fist action. Basically to keep the boats from bouncing off the walls when the water is pumped in or out you need four lines, one of each corner of the nested sailboats connected to strong points on the docks. These lines are 50m long, as that’s how high the dock walks get, and very heavy. Our line handlers need to get the lines up to the canal workers high above.

So what happens is this…

The line handlers on the wall throw thin lines with tied up balls on the ends for weight (called monkey fists). These ping off the boats or go in the water until our line handlers catch one. Then the heavy lines are tired to the thin lines and fed back up to the guys above.

As we were a good 30-40m below the guys throwing the monkey fists this wasn’t that easy with the winds. Time and again they’d try as we motored slowly towards the tanker beyond. One smacked the solar panels, which is why you’re told to cover them up to protect them, and bounced off into the water. Another almost hit one of our line handles in the face so he had to duck out of the way. It’s quite funny to see the guys above throw again and again, their pace going from quite relaxed at first then having to run down the walls to keep pace with us as time runs out.

It felt like we’d never get a line on and just smack into the tanker but two perfect throws from the canal guys and some great fielding from our line handlers meant we got our larger lines up to them just in time.

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Matelot to the side of us was of course also having the same fun next to us. They also needed many tries but also got their lines passed up.

We slowed as we entered the first dock, the echos of workers and the radios of our advisors bouncing off the walls. We stopped about 20m behind the tanker and the lines from each corner were tightened. The huge lock gates shut behind us and water started pumping in. It’s so amazing to experience this. Millions of gallons of water get pumped into the lock over just a few minutes. The turbulence was extreme, you can feel the boats pulling on each other lines groaning under the stresses. We were raised 25m in next to no time, the line handlers having to take in the slack while Richard (the skipper on Matelot) and myself fought to keep the boats straight. The stress on the cleats must have been crazy. And upwards, which is not what they are designed for at all.

Once at the top we could see back out from where we’d just come. 20-25m in the air with just a lock door holding all that pressure within.

The gates in front opened and the tanker, it’s lines handled by huge train wagons on rails, moved forward. The wash as he moved out of the lock again caused powerful turbulence which we had to counter.

Four canal workers, one for each corner then led us out walking alongside us as we motored forwards. I don’t think they liked the pace our advisors set as they had to almost run to keep up with us.

We then repeated the process in the second dock. And then the third. Each time being pushed higher to reach the height of the man-made lake in the middle of the canal.

Our only real issue happened in the second dock when our rear line got caught in the wall as we were moving down the lane. Our line handler, and the canal guy above, couldn’t free it so in the end the line was cut. With only three lines we needed to counter the effects with some quick steering and engine work but kept everything in place under a fresh line was thrown down. We now have a souvenir monkey fist onboard!

Just after 9:30pm we exited the final dock. The tanker we’d followed raced off into the night and we headed into the freshwater lake where we were to spend the night.

Panama1c

We moored up alongside a small US boat who were heading the other way. Our advisor was picked up and we all headed to bed, tired from all the excitement of the hours before.

It was an amazing experience for us. Doing it at night added to the effect I think. And it was great to have friends on the boat next to us. Was quite the party atmosphere, mixed in with a good helping of fear and tension. The advisors did a great job through and we always felt safe.

We stayed overnight in a lovely still lake lit by a full moon and the lights of passing tankers in the distance.

The next morning we awoke early (our second advisor was due on board around 6:30am) to a wonderful sunrise.

Panama1dWe had some breakfast, the crew slowly woke up, and the pilot showed up on time. With that we were off again, well after swinging round to pick up Marie who’d somehow been left behind on the mooring as all the lines were thrown off. Oops.

Panama1eWe had 25 miles to travel through the man-made lake towards the set of locks on the Pacific side that would slowly drop us back down to sea level. The reason the lake was flooded so high is that it made an easy passage through all the mountains and hills. Why blast through when you can sail over right?

The lake itself is very beautiful with lots of birds flying around the man-made islands. The tops of 100 year old trees can still be seen in the water, their bases once above ground before the lake was flooded.

We had a lovely few hours moving through the lake before mooring up outside the locks where we waited for our slot. For our second day we were to raft up with two other boats. Matelot again and a lovely old 60’ Swan sailboat called King´s Legend. The nesting process went much smoother this time and we headed into the locks together very controlled.

Panama1gThe first two locks back down to sea level went without a hitch. But the last lock is well known for it’s turbulence due to fresh water mixing with salt. I’d read that this always effects the port side boat (which we were) so was ready to try and correct things if we did get swung around.

As soon as the water started draining the pressure on the rudder was huge. All three boats started to twist as we drifted closer to the wall. The advisors were on top of this in a flash shouting over clear instructions to the outer boats which fixed the issue. The last lock gate opened and before us was a river leading out to the Pacific!

We broke away from the other two boats and grabbed a mooring at the Balboa Yacht club just outside the last lock. Pippy and Richard from Matelot did the same and seconds later a small ferry turned up to collect the fenders, lines, and our guests. It was quite surreal how quickly we went from packed boat to being totally empty again. We hardly got a chance to thank our line handlers for all the great work they’d done keeping us and Interlude safe.

Panama1iWe radioed over to Matelot, who were also now alone. We got the dingy out and popped over for some celebrationary drinks and to debrief the last 48 hours.

Panama1jThe canal was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us and really lived up to the hype. We actually preferred the first night in the dark. It seemed to add to the excitement.

Being that close to supertankers, and seeing just how small you are when placed in machinery built for their world, was amazing to witness. Yes it was quite stressful at times and we’re pleased it’s behind us now but we also loved every second of it!

Panama Canal here we come!

The boat is ready, our temp crew all locked in (turning up in a few hours), all documents / visas / permits done and the huge lines and fenders have been added to the boat.

We’re ready to go!!

Our transit time is currently around 6:30pm local Panama time. Keep an eye on us via the web cam’s here: http://www.webcamgalore.com/EN/webcam/Panama/Panama-Canal/1272.html

We transmit AIS so you should be able to keep track of us that way as well using something like: http://www.vesselfinder.com

I’ve also updated the onboard YB Tracker to update our position every hour, it’s on the ‘location’ page clickable from above.

Very excited! Weird to think that exactly this time last year we were heading through the Keil canal with zero off-shore experience with Jamie and Pete from Halycon Yacht’s. With their help- and everyone we’ve met along the way we’re now tackling the daddy of canals and will be in the Pacific 48 hours from now.