Our Diary Galapagos

Cleaning the hull is a chore at the best of times, but in Wreck Bay, San Cristobal, Galapagos it is a pleasure. The seals just love to show off their underwater skills and are so playful, blowing bubbles in your face, doing back flips and somersaults. Needless to say the bottom took a long time to get scrubbed!

Galapagos certainly lives up to its reputation of being a haven for wildlife. Trips into the barren volcanic hinterland are a treat - with giant tortoises wandering around, tame birdlife and, of course, the unique marine iguanas, seals and sea lions - all unafraid of humans.

Talking to fellow cruisers and swapping stories at the sun-downer meetings at bars and on boats revealed very different experiences during the 900 mile voyage from Panama. Motoring in light winds predominated - with the occasional squall, but the wind direction varied considerably. In the true spirit of adventure our trip was the most bizarre.

We left Panama and motored for three days with the occasional glimpse of whales and dolphins to break the monotony. Heading for the recommended 84 degrees west crossing-of-the-equator, just south of Malpelo Island we encountered a strong easterly current that forced us south into the cold Humboldt current. Thermals and fleecies on - despite being in the tropics - and no wind! Our speed-over-ground dropped to 2-3 knots, fuel was being consumed and we were getting nowhere. We decided to turn west to get back on our rhumb line. It was like hitting a wall; speed dropped yet again, and it became evident that we were not going to have enough fuel to cover the last 400 miles to the Galapagos. With enough fuel remaining for emergencies we decided to wait for wind. So the engine was turned off and sails set in the 4-5 knot head wind. We quickly came to a complete standstill! Looking at our GPS we saw that we were travelling at 4kts east - in totally the wrong direction…

The decision had been made for us - we were heading for the coast of mainland Equador. A quick look at the chart (and consulting the pilot book) we noted that Esmeraldas, 150 miles away, was a likely place to buy fuel. Changing the boat's heading we were now speeding along at 7.5 kts in only 4-5kts of wind. We covered the distance in double quick time and arrived off Esmeraldas at daybreak. Holding up our empty fuel can to the local fishermen signalled our plight and they indicated the location of the fuel dock. After seeing the fuel dock (tucked away in a corner) we decided to anchor in the middle of the harbour and luckily Ernaldo was quick on the scene in his dugout canoe. He then paddled Keith ashore to collect 180 litres of fuel in our jerry cans. Meanwhile Christine was left to negotiate with the officials who visited the yacht wanting us to complete entry formalities. It was Good Friday so we were a bit reluctant due to the possible delay and overtime costs. After a few cups of coffee, Christine's charm and a few cans of beer, they agreed to give us three hours to complete refuelling. In fact, after one more trip we were away after only 2 hours. The tide was rushing out so we were keen to leave before it got too low. Patting ourselves on the back for achieving a quick turn-around, we headed for the open sea - then suddenly came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the channel as we hit mud! Full power in reverse (and a quick prayer) pulled us off and with some frantic sign language to a local fisherman we headed for deeper water and back towards the Galapagos Islands.

The rest of the trip was uneventful and luckily our diversion allowed us to skirt the foul current. Our adventures and 300 mile detour had been relayed to the other yachts on the same passage via regular links on the SSB radio. They were very thankful and chose different routes and avoided these strange currents. In the end we were at sea for 11 days and covered 1175 nautical miles - for a trip that should only have been 912!

The Galapagos Islands are still officially off-limits to cruisers unless you have a pre-arranged cruising permit. These are not easy to obtain so most yachts just turn up "on spec". We were one of these. Our experience indicates that you can stay in Wreck Bay on San Cristobal for 10-20 days (although some boats have been told to leave after 3 days!). Academy Bay, Santa Cruz is off limits but Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela welcomes short stays (the Harbour Master there will stamp your exit visa for $30 although you can't check in or out there!)

Wreck Bay is lovely safe anchorage and on the island you can see most of the wildlife that the Galapagos is famous for. The cost of a 30-day immigration visa is $15 per person. There is an anchoring charge for yachts whose Gross Registered Tonnage is greater than 10 tonnes (we are registered as 19.35 tonnes). We paid US$150 and could stay as long as our visa allowed.

In order to protect and conserve the unique nature of the Galapagos Islands, it is only possible to do sight seeing as part of organised tours. Graham, Liz and Keith from Ellida joined us for an excursion inland with Fernando. We thoroughly enjoyed the trip to the tortoise sanctuary, to a volcano lake with flights of frigate birds overhead, and to the coast where marina iguanas and huge sea lions lazed about on the black volcanic rocks. The trip concluded with a wonderful lunch prepared by Fernando's mother at his home. They proudly displayed guest books going back to 1986 - it was fascinating to read the comments of previous boats that we know.

While still at Wreck Bay, Keith put on his scuba gear and cleaned the barnacles off the bottom of the boat - and really enjoyed the company of the playful and inquisitive sea lions who visited! Christine was in the dinghy scrubbing the waterline and was also interrupted by a sea lion who wanted his back scrubbed! The best way to clean the boat! A quick explore around our anchor also showed Keith the wonderful variety of sea life - including a 6' sting ray. The sea lions also like to sun bake in the dinghies - and, sure enough, we have a wonderful photo of one balancing on the tube of our RIB!

Rob and Gemma from Orinoco Flow were keen to do some diving and organised a day out on a local boat for themselves, Leona (their pet Tamarind Monkey!) and Keith. During their dive they saw sharks, turtles, seals, sea lions and other tropical fish - against a colourful backdrop of marine lichen painting the underwater walls of the island.

After a week on Cristobal we did an overnight trip to Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela to catch up with our friends Nils and Marit on Checkmate. It is beautiful here - a peaceful anchorage and blue-footed boobies abound. The Galapagos penguins perch on the rocks about 300m away and occasionally swim past the boat. The local sea lions are HUGE - but not as playful as the ones on Cristobal.

We explored Isabela with Alfredo together with Nils and Marit from Checkmate and Jan and Eva from Necessity. After about an hour in a truck we reached the slopes of Sierra Negra - an active volcano still steaming after erupting in October, 2005. We then mounted horses for another hour heading around the rim and towards Volcano Chico - a lava flow from 1979. We walked across this barren moonscape for a view to the north of the island.

Another trip sounds great - a boat trip up the coast through lava tunnels and channels to a lagoon where you can snorkel with green turtles and penguins. Hopefully one of the other boats will arrive soon to join us on that trip!

After that excursion we plan to set sail for the Marquesas 3,000 miles away - so we'll be out of touch for a while!