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Passage Panama-Marquesas

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Crossing the Pacific

With the help of a shopper I am able to provision one last time. I am glad to leave Panama, which is in the middle of rainy season with lots of downpours and lightning. After studying wind and current predictions one last time, I decide to sail SW to reach about 3 degrees N of the equator and then head W for as long as the W setting current lasts and only then drop SW heading straight for Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas.

We are a group of boats that leave around the same time but spread out with a distance of 200 to 600 miles. As one skipper notes: The astronauts on the ISS are likely the closest humans! But still, it creates a sense of community, of shared adventure, and reading each others position reports shared via satellite email every day is a lot of fun. Here’s a quote from my log after one week at sea:


“The first few days after leaving Panama City were difficult because wind and waves were coming from SW which is where I needed to go. And then there was the current and did I mention thunderstorms and rain? For the first day or two I caught a favourable current pushing me SW. But to get further S sooner or later you have to cross the counter current that sets E. Seeing that the SW wind and consequently the waves would also pick up over the next couple of days, I chose to beat into wind and waves to go S as quickly as possible. This meant a lot of motoring for two days until I got to 3 degrees N with a lot of green water on deck. It was worth it because the wind turned to S and I was able to sail W from there. Closer to the Galapagos I also picked up a favourable NW current - or rather it picked me up!

Yesterday afternoon I arrived at Isla Wolf, one of the remote Galapagos islands, which are closed due to COVID. I looked for a temporary anchorage but there was none to be had. This island consists of two half sunken half-moon shaped volcanic craters that drop steeply into the sea. But I got a glimpse of what the Galapagos are about: Still miles away I was greeted by a bunch of rowdy boobies and as I got closer there must have been a hundred of these large sea birds swirling around my boat. It was quite like the Hitchcock movie! Closer to shore I came upon a few schools of dolphins, obviously very curious and playfully showing off their tricks. Later three sea lions came to check me out as well. I really felt like jumping in with them. Wow, what fantastic wildlife, worthy of all the protection it can get!

Adjusting to life at sea again came quite easily for me as I am not prone to seasickness at all and love being at sea. The most difficult part is getting up many times at night to check. But I can nap during the day to catch up. I truly enjoy being out here on the open ocean. It is a unique and quite indescribable experience. I greatly appreciate being able to do this journey as I please, especially in these difficult times with all the travel restrictions still largely in place.”


After the Galapagos the current conveyor belt picks up and the 24h run records keep tumbling with an all time best of 258nm in one day, more than 10kn average! My strategy of staying N of the equator turns out to be very fast and just before crossing the equator at 127W I catch up with my Kiwi friends on Windchase. We decide to stop and exchange gifts mid ocean. Not as easy as it sounds, you cannot just tie up because the boats get rolled wildly by the ocean swell. I float a watertight bag with beers, veggies, and home made tuna dog biscuits on a long line. They pick it up, empty it, and fill it with their goodies. Amongst potato chips and a freshly cooked rice dish (still warm!) I find a furry hat with ear flaps… The text that comes with it reads: “I have been advised to wear this hat, because apparently it is around zero degrees here”. Great sense of humour!


Then, at 0606 on the morning of day 16 the big moment… I cross to the other side and a few hours later Windchase must have, too. So congrats! Thanks to Paul I now know I am no longer a polliwog, but a shell bag. I guess that’s on the way to becoming a salty dog. The British are definitely a seafaring nation and it shows in their language!


There has not been much wildlife after crossing the equator other than the ubiquitous flying fish. No more squid, boobies or storm petrels but some elegant and solitary shearwaters showed up and since yesterday I saw flocks of white birds that look a bit like tropic birds but without the long thin tail feather. I get up in the middle of the night. Drinking from a water bottle I drop the lid on the cockpit floor. All annoyed I search for it in the dark and instead of the lid I grab something cold, wet, and glibbery… Boy, was I awake!  It is a dead flying fish who flew all the way in here and has been perfectly trapped. Poor fellow.

Another night I have a magical experience, though. A few dolphins come to visit and I notice I can now distinguish the sound of their blow from the sound of the waves splashing to recognise their arrival. There is no moon and I cannnot actually see the dolphins. All I see is the fluorescent plankton being agitated by the dolphins’ motion which leaves these greenish traces behind them that only linger for a second. Like action painting happening before my eyes. It is utterly beautiful!

Then next day a pod of about eight dolphins come to play in the bow wave for 30 min, a long time. I notice these dolphins look different as their noses are short and there is no distinction between nose and head, only a straight line. Are these called porpoises? One of them is badly injured. It looks like he had a rope or cable tied around his tail which cut into his flesh. Maybe he was caught in a fishing net? I hope he makes it as the gash is really deep! 

There is more wildlife of the nasty kind in my cabinets. Now that we are back in the humid tropics the moulds are making a comeback.


Overall this passage has a lot of light winds and true to its name, the Pacific shows its peaceful side. My light wind sails Code 0 and asymmetric Spinnaker, aka Mr Pink, come in handy. All day Mr Pink is up and together with the current pulls us W quickly. But a few days before arrival the wind is up and the waves are too. It is nice to see 20kn on the anemometer for the first time on this passage. When we crossed the Atlantic that was pretty much the average! But running downwind wing on wing is quite easy, except for the rolling. Hold on!


Other boats have trouble with their transmission, clogged fuel filters, generator not starting, a broken boom, sail damage etc. Luckily my list of mishaps is very short with a tear in the Code 0 and changing fuel filters.


On day 23 I can finally call out: “Hooray! I’ve made it!” But it doesn’t quite feel right to say that. I have just as much only been a passenger on this voyage, relying on a well built boat made for such ocean voyages, good gear, a trusty autopilot, the support of my family and - last but not least - my cruiser group! I drop the hook in Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva at 0730 am. The arrival timing works out perfectly with dawn breaking about 10nm away from the island, a mighty, imposing one, dare I say. I feel very grateful to be here!

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Las Perlas Islands, Panama

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Las Perlas - the Pearl Islands

After staying overnight in a rolly anchorage close to the Pacific Panama Canal entrance we lift anchor and sail out to the Perlas, a group of picturesque islands some 35nm off the coast of Panama City. But lo and behold, this is the rainy season and soon we are sailing full steam into a black wall of clouds with much rain but fortunately not too much wind in it. All the rivers that dump their water into the large bay of Panama City carry a lot of debris. Anything from plastic trash to whole tree trunks are floating in the water and are sometimes hard to spot and avoid.


On the north side of Isla Contadora we drop anchor amidst friends’ boats from Shelter Bay Marina. Invitations for drinks aboard, pot luck dinners and bonfires on the beach ensue. We all have a merry and relaxing time. I have especially grown fond of my Kiwi friends Sue and Paul on SV Windchase with their Italian water dog Mili, a Lagotto Romagna to be precise. Like her, I cannot wait for the next walk on the beach together!

Anchor aweigh is not happening though. Suspecting something serious I don my newly acquired Scuba gear to explore and find my anchor chain firmly wrapped around the pulpit of a large sunken motor yacht. The following under water disentanglement seems something of a mix between an oversized mikado game and untangling your knitting wool. I am happy to resurface with the last air in the tank, unharmed and happy about a job well done.


SV Windchase and I decide to break away from the pack and sail south to explore some of the other islands in this magnificent archipelago such as Ampon, Pedro Gonzales, Isla del Rey, San Telmo, and Espirito Santo. Again, we head into a dark wall of rain and some lightning and thunder. Close enough to scare me sufficiently and make me throw all my electronics in the oven, which acts as a faradaic cage and is supposed to protect them from lighting strike.


The next day early we explore the Rio Cacique on Isla del Rey in the dinghy. The swell is flowing into the river mouth and as I forgot again, every river mouth has a bar, a sanddune you must cross to enter the river proper. Over that bar the waves mount and can easily overthrow an inflatable like ours…by a hair we manage to keep our balance and ourselves mostly and the camera totally dry! We let the dog run off the leash on the beach as usual until we come to notice a pond behind the beach with three (!) large crocodiles floating in it. As Mili is very fond of water and totally oblivious of any dangers that might lurk we are lucky to catch her in time before the crocs do. As one of the national park rangers with limited English pointed out when we were talking about crocodiles with him: He pointed to the dog and said: Boccadillo! She would be but an appetiser since crocs are apparently especially fond of dogs!


Next we motor around Isla San Telmo to anchor on its NE side. On the small beach there is a semi-submerged wreck of a submarine. It is rusting away since 100 years and to this day remains a mystery as to where it came from and who it belonged to. There is still not enough wind but at least we can motor sail on up the east coast of Isla del Rey, the largest of the Perlas Islands to find the very protected anchorage between it and Isla de Espirito Santo (Holy Spirit) to relax from an exciting day. This little island with its even smaller wooded hills and beaches is so enchanting that it might make one feel quite religious.


The next day, again, we motor back to our favourite anchorage on Isla Chapera. It is time for a last dinner together, a last morning walk on the beach with the dog. My New Zealanders are bidding me farewell and are heading straight to the Marquesas from here. This is a 4000nm passage (7000km) or for their boat speed means about 35-40 days at sea with no land in sight. It is amazing that we can just pick up our anchor and go on such a grand voyage, especially in these difficult times!

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Las Perlas - die Perleninseln

Nachdem wir auf der Pazifikseite des Panamakanals an einem rolligen Ankerplatz übernachtet haben, gehen wir drei Boote Anker auf und segeln zu den Perlas, einer Gruppe von pittoresken und weitgehend naturbelassenen Inseln etwa 35sm (65km) von Panama-City entfernt.


Doch man darf hier nicht vergessen, dass Regenzeit herrscht und bald schon segeln wir in eine schwarze Wolkenwand mit viel Regen aber zum Glück nur wenig Wind drin. All die Regenwald-Flüsse ergiessen sich hier in die grosse Bucht von Panama. Sie tragen viel Treibgut mit sich, was von Plastikmüll bis zu ganzen Baumstämmen gehen kann. Diese sind nicht immer einfach auszumachen und zu umschiffen!


Auf der Nordseite der Insel Contadora fällt der Anker zwischen befreundeten Booten aus der Shelter Bay Marina. Von Einladungen zum Drink an Bord bis zur Jeder-bringt-was-mit-Party und Lagerfeuer am Strand gibt es fast jeden Tag einen Anlass und wir alle geniessen und entspannen erst mal. Speziell meine Kiwi Freunde von Segeljacht Windchase Paul und Sue mit Mili ihrem Lagotto Romagna, einem italienischen Wasserhund. Wie sie, kann ich es kaum erwarten bis zum nächsten gemeinsamen Spaziergang am Strand!

Anker auf geht hier leider nicht so leicht und meine neu erworbene Taucherausrüstung kommt ein erstes Mal zum Einsatz: Meine Ankerkette hat sich auf 13m Tiefe um den Bugkorb einer havarierten Motoryacht gewickelt. Die nun folgende Aktion des Kette Entwirren unter Wasser kommt mir vor wie eine Mischung aus überdimensioniertem Mikadospiel und Wollknäuel entwirren. Ich bin froh, läuft alles glimpflich ab und mit dem letzten Luftvorrat kann ich erleichtert auftauchen.


SY Windchase und ich entscheiden, uns von der Rotte zu entfernen und südlich zu segeln um einige der anderen Inseln wie Ampon, Pedro Gonzales, Isla del Rey, San Telmo und Espirito Santo erkunden zu können. Wiederum fahren wir in eine dunkle Regenwand mit Blitz und Donner. Dieser ist nahe genug, dass ich meine ganze Elektronik schnell in den Backofen stecke. Dieser soll wie ein faradäischer Käfig wirken und die Geräte vor Blitzschlag schützen.


Früh am nächsten Tag erkunden wir den Rio Cacique auf der Insel del Rey mit dem Beiboot. Die Wellen stehen in die Flussmündung und wie ich gerne vergesse, hat jeder Fluss eine Barre, eine Sandbank die man überqueren muss, um in den Fluss zu gelangen. Auf der Barre richten sich die Wellen steil auf und können ein Schlauchboot wie unsres leicht kentern… Um ein Haar schaffen wir es, dies zu verhindern und uns mehrheitlich und die Kamera ganz trocken zu halten! Am Strand lassen wir den Hund wie immer von der Leine bis wir hinter dem Strand einen grossen Teich entdecken, in dem drei (!) Grosse Krokodile paddeln. Weil Mili sehr gerne ins Wasser geht und dabei völlig unbedarft ist, was die lauernden Gefahren darin angeht, schätzen wir uns glücklich, sie vor den Krokodilen einfangen zu können. Wie einer der Nationalparkwärter mit beschränktem Englisch vor einer Weile meinte, als wir mit ihm über Krokodile sprachen, und auf Mili zeigte: Boccadillo! Sie wäre nur ein Häppchen für jedes Krok, da diese Hunde offenbar gerne mögen.


Als nächstes motoren wir um San Telmo herum und ankern auf deren NE Seite. Am kleinen Strand soll das Wrack eines hundertjährigen U-Boots liegen. Dieses rostet dort seither vor sich hin und keiner weiss so genau, woher es kam und wem es gehörte.

Es gibt noch immer nicht genügend Wind aber zum Motorsegeln entlang der Ostküste der Königsinsel, wie die grösste heisst, reicht es gerade. Dort finden wir zwischen ihr und der Isla Espirito Santo (Heiliger Geist) eine besonders geschützte Bucht und entspannen erst mal nach diesem aufregenden Tag. Diese kleine Insel mit ihren noch kleineren Hügeln und Stränden ist so bezaubernd, dass man fast religiöse Gefühle dabei entwickelt.


Am nächsten Tag muss wieder der Dieselwind helfen, um unseren Lieblingsplatz bei der Insel Chapera zu erreichen. Es ist Zeit für ein letztes gemeinsames Abendessen und einen letzten Morgenspaziergang mit Hund. Meine Neuseeländer verabschieden sich und segeln von hier direkt bis zu den Marquesas. Ein 4000sm-Törn (7000km) oder für ihre Bootsgeschwindigkeit etwa 35-40 Tage auf See ohne Land in Sicht. Es ist unglaublich, dass wir einfach unseren Anker einholen und auf eine solch grossartige Seereisen gehen können, speziell in diesen schwierigen Zeiten!

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