Thursday, July 28, 2011

Darwin's Theory Revised

This isn't the Captain's first attempt at Galapagos.  3 weeks earlier he headed out with a different crew of 7.  They turned back - turned back! - because of mechanical difficulties.  Even though we had to re-route to mainland Ecuador for bad fuel, this is a one way ride for us!

We headed on knowing full well we didn't have the proper authorization, to the tune of 1000$, from the mainland, but a friend told us we could tiptoe around a wild west village called Villamil without concern.  When we arrived, we paid our significantly cheaper dues to the Port Captain & ventured out.  Galapagos!
The islands are famous for the right & wrong things.  The animals are obviously quite unique to the islands because of their isolation, & it is where Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution.  (He is celebrated so much, he has an island named after him!)  But it not the tropical rainforest you might imagine.  It is very dry & arid, with mostly desertlike conditions.  It is a paradise in it's own right, & still draws foreign & Ecuadorian exiles alike, with cactuses every which way you turn & a porous black volcanic coastline.

Lounges of lizards, hundreds of them in a bound.  Black iguanas you can't see & when your focus shifts, suddenly they are everywhere - including inches from your feet!  The great tortoises have only recently been reintroduced to the wild.  Their population has diminished since they are easy prey for introduced species & hungry sailors, who would take hundreds of them on passage as an endless supply of fresh meat - something I can relate to.

To my dismay, we had a ton of boat chores to do: cutting fishing net off the propeller, tending to the generator that recently crapped out on us, re-provisioning, refuelling & re-watering, etc.  Getting it done efficiently is the trick, but they've given us a week's breathing room, so no hurry on any front.

Our anchorage is home to sea lions, penguins & blue footed boobies.  It is also hurrendous to navigate because of very shallow rocks & sand bars, which we hit almost everytime we went one way or another.  But if we made a slightly larger arc around the perimeter this way & zigzag a little more to the left that way, we could see these super cool creatures in their natural habitat!  A couple times they were in a feeding frenzy with the huge-ass pelicans at the docks.  When it was done they all acted cool, but weary of the sea lions that'd swoop around, chase them & clearly run the show.

Every night we were isolated to our boat, not wanting to chance the shoals at night & in low tide.  We made our own fun & became good friends with the 2 other boats in the harbour - Aquamante, a Dutch boat, & Baju, a German catamaran.  Since they had been there a week already, they gave us tips on who to talk to & how things go around here.  We had some fun nights on each other's decks, drinking & being merry!  This is the sweet side to boat social life.  This, and being able to tell people on the mainland, "See that boat there?  That's ours.  We're sailing across the ocean.  No big deal."

Together with Baju we went volcano climbing!  All the islands are a chain of extinct volcanoes.  At the highest top of the crater, it was so much more like the moon than what I expected.  Red & black rocks fused together.  Very otherworldly.  The last eruption here was in 2005!  So recently!  This is the most exercise we've had in a long time, our existence pretty much minimized to our 46-by-12ft world the rest of the time, so we are properly winded by the time we get back to the trailhead.  Feels good.

During this whole time, we've been sindestepping pretty much every regulation we possibly can, & it's about at this point everyone starts asking for their cut.  We had an ominous feeling right off the back when shaking hands with a gentleman & realizing he was the islands Agent - a bloodsucking mafioso of Ecuadorian bureaucracy who corners the market on fucking yachties & milked us of 700$ on the mainland.

Suddenly we were being stopped on the street to ask questions, the boys at the docks were looking for handouts & we're pretty sure the Port Captain was fired.  The Parks Department were sympathetic & we got out of paying the park entry fee to go to the volcano, so long as we don't leave the town here on out.  Afterall, we still have legitimate boat chores to take care of.  Great.  Which means no diving, which we haven't gotten around to yet, or sidling our boat over to the rocks 40m from our boat to see penguins, since that's technically part of the National Park.  Hmm okay.  We've dealt with adversity before, so no worries.  We'll figure it out.

Me & an American threw our boards in the back of a truck & hitailed it to the closest beach break.  The waves looked AMAZING the past couple days, but today they were very wishy washy.  (I marvel at surfers' creativeness when describing the waves, which is perfectly comprehensible to surfers & incomprehensible to outsiders.  It's always clean, choppy, smooth, draggy, bouncy, mushy, etc.  These waves would be called cha-cha, Spanish slang for piss.)  I dove right in, only to prove that my skill level is what I would call Determined Beginner.  It is NOT longboard weather.  I caught a couple very early on, & afterwards couldn't even get out for all the white water.  Paddle paddle paddle paddle paddle paddle, only to be still touching bottom.  I gave it a good effort, & walked back to town with an Aussie from the Sunshine Coast & an Ecuadorian.  A great sunny afternoon.

This time when I did my "See that boat?" gag, I was taken aback.  There's a f-ing warship in the harbour!  Like, a proper gunship!  Shut the f up!  Carrying my 9ft board an hour back into town (I literally don't have 2 cents to rub together, or 1$ to pay a taxi), salt drenched & tired but happy, I rendezvous with the boys.  "Have you talked to Jamie?"  Yeah, he said to meet him at the docks in 30 minutes.
"There's a change of plans.  We need to get our shit done now & hit the high seas.  See that ship in the harbour?  It's the Ecuadorian coastguard.  They're here to kick us out.  We have until 6am."

So began our fateful journey across the Pacific ocean.  In haste.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Sailor not the Sea

A sailboat to me is like a dinghy in the bathtub, but completely wound up with rope.  Dang knots.  Should have paid more attention in Girl Guides.

1 knot/nautical mile = 1.15 miles
Right - Starboard - Green light
Left - Port - Red light
bow/V berth cabin - front
stern/aft cabin - rear

luffing - fluttering
flogging - flapping
Missen - rear sail
Main - middle sail
Jenny - large front sail (light winds)
Jib - small front sail (heavy winds)
change tack - switch directions
listing - leaning
heading - intended course
course - direction we're actually headed

Through a pod of dolphins alongside shipping lanes in Panama.  Caught in a swell, The boat keels to a 45 degree angle.  All we can do is watch the Cpn attend to the sails, dumbfounded.  That'll be us one day, we hope.

It's our first day.  Our first sailing trip is one most sailors will never do in their lifetime: Crossing the Pacific.

Life aboard is pretty routine.  The rhythm comes easily.  Just when we start to find our footing, & learn to use a moving kitchen without dropping anything or killing/burning ourselves (hint: the stove is on a pivot, & thus always upright), we change tack & start leaning in the other direction.  Listing to portside turns my bed into a cradle, listing to starboard makes my bed the floor.

Everything has a system.  Washing dishes in seawater, but careful not to throw any rogue cutlery into the depths.  Showering in the rain, when we get the chance.  Jamie is sharp & demanding when need be, but quick to lighten the mood.  On sunny days there's nude sunbathing on deck.  Some days we have to duck from flying fish, & apparently 3 inch little squids, & get glimpses of sharks or turtles, or whales breaching on the horizon.  Some days you see nothing but overcast all day & you're sweating it out in the kitchen.  We're resilient.  We will resile.

Rule #1 - Do not leave the boat.

If you fall in the water under sail, you're screwed.  +/- the currents, wind, weather, time of day, GPS coordinates; we are all told we'd be very lucky to get back on board & spend many a nights laughing about the adventures we'd have when the captain falls overboard.  I can just imagine a mistreated boat with tattered sails being spotted on the horizon, with the crew drunk as all hell & completely useless.
Which brings me to

Rule #2 - Must be alert & sober at all times.

The boat is well provisioned, so much so that I think it's kind of crazy.  Soy milk powder, tons of candy, spinach flavoured pasta, kalamata olives, gouda cheese, sundried tomatoes and plenty o rum - but alas, this fair crew cannot get drunk during passage.  It's not happening.  With Cpn's permission, we're allowed beer or wine during dinner, or on special occasions, which could be anything.  It's a party if we catch a fish, and there is a fine tradition of sipping Venezuelan rum salvaged from a ship & eat apple crisp at 2:30am when we cross the Equator.

Night watch is enchanting.  You can see 3 times further at night.  The ghosts ships you that seem to slip by during the day, are illuminated, along with flecks of phosphoresence along the side of the boat.  There is no such thing as darkness.  The undersides of clouds are brimming with light, or the surface by reflection of the moon.  My watch is 2-4am.  Soothing.  Attention to the sails, & the instruments must be precise.  In fact, the definition of sailing is finding the balance between where you want to go & where the wind will allow you to go.

One night Jimmy was taking a scheduled nap during his watch & awoke to a light coming straight for us.  In the dark, distance is perceptual.  The first few nights I had recurring dreams of exactly that, of hitting something during my watch.  Cpn sprung out of bed to a flurry of spanish voices yelling at us.  I have selective hearing at night that jerks me awake when I hear the Cpn swear, but not for possible pirates.  It's deciphered that we almost ran across a fishing net, which would put us in a bad situation fast.  We've driven over our own fishing line twice, which is a pain in the ass.  Under the boat in close to 10,000ft of water with a kitchen knife trying to free up the propeller is fun-ish.  Fun in the way your mind goes blank & you think don't look down.
Rule #3 - Step up into the liferaft.

If the boat flips onto it's side, it's got the weight of 3 cars on the hull, and will right itself.  If there's a hole in the hull, we're getting in the water to plug it.  Ships are found sailing with no one on board, because they skipped out too soon.  The boat will sail on across the ocean.  Whether we are on it is another story.  Which brings us back to Rule #1.

On our 7th day, it became obvious we were having engine trouble.  We discovered we'd been given dirty fuel from the marina in Panama & it was destroying our filters & ruining the engine.  Our heading changed towards the coast of Ecuador instead of Galapagos.  Paramour needs some TLC & if that means skipping Galapagos in lieu of bigger fish in the South Pacific, we are okay with that.

We drank rum that day.  And had showers.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Paramour III

Last year on the east coast of Canada, I was introduced to the prospect of boat hitchhiking.  Since I've been travelling, I've wanted to try it out, & 2 months I have been carrying with me a Sailing Dictionary, a fabulous picture of a racing sailboat from above, & a reluctance to continue my 900pg novel, for when I commit to setting sail.

Paramour III
46ft long, 12.6ft wide, 55ft high mast.
Home port of Toronto.

Captain: James Haley (Canada)
Jimmy Keen (UK)
Chris Forbes (UK)
Hanne Vanderkammen (Belgium)
Jocelyn McLean (Canada)

Captain James took on 4 couchsurfers knowing we had no sailing experience.  He demanded seasickness medication for everyone, & fully anticipated us losing interest after a week & backing out.  We are not the same as the backpackers who have scratched the hardwood, lost things, stole, & broke expensive equipment.  This is our home.  We admire her.  I am humbled by her strength & appreciate every knot she fights for us.  Anything lost or broken, is a constant pinprick of discomfort magnified by the isolation of the water.

My setbacks include losing my credit card, threatening to close my bank account because of unique access problems, my online Western Union account never working, & even when it's fixed, restricting me from a boatload of money because my name's not really Jocelyn McLean McLean.  I may have trown a tantrum.

There is a devil in indecision.  Plan A always has a catchy ring to it, when it is called Plan B.  Whatever I had wanted to do, is rescheduled for another lifetime, & even throughout the mess of making it happen, the crew fought for me.  "If this is what you want, we will pull through.  Surrender is the coward's way out."  'There will be a next time', but finding a cool capable captain, with a fun crew, on a beautiful fully outfitted boat, is a tricky combination.

And why would I give up a crew who aren't just willing to take on another inexperienced sailor, but eager to have me on board?

What might we need for the next 3-5 months?  3 of everything.
What will we need for the Pacific crossing, when we won't see land for ~30 days?  Lots of books, movies, music, earplugs, patience/tolerance & a deck of cards, or 8.  (Earplugs especially since there are 2 couples on board, if you know what I mean.)
What will we need when we arrive at the islands?  Snorkelling gear, diving gear, sunscreen, & more of everything we might need, because we don't have the money to settle for islation prices.
What will we need when we arrive to New Zealand/Australia?  Champagne.