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Report Five from the Otter: The Galapagos -- the Enchanted Isles

Papeete, Tahiti
Wednesday, September 8, 1999

Dear Friends and E-mail Family,

Otter is tied to the yacht quay in downtown Papeete, Tahiti - the capital of French Polynesia and the subject of legend since first visited by Bougainville and Cook.

I am now sitting below, out of the sun with a gentle breeze blowing through the cabin, catching up on my journal and reflecting on events since my last report, which I wrote from the Galapagos just after I arrived there on May 19th.

Iíve decided that Iíd like to truly follow in the footsteps of Joshua Slocum and get my name in a book somewhere for sailing around the world alone.

The thought to solo may have begun taking hold when I was in Bermuda and met Philander Wallace, who was delivering a boat to the Caribbean. He had sailed alone around the world in 1982-84; he was about the eightieth American to do so. By the time I return in 2001, I will probably be the 250th or so.

When I mentioned my desire to be the "250th American to sail around the world alone" to some yacht friends, they thought I was being specific. They wondered how I could know exactly, and asked if I would circle Block Island for a few months while the 248th and 249th single-handers came in, and then make a dash for it! I had to explain I was guessing at the number.

I spent eight days in the Galapagos and then sailed the 3,000 miles to Fatu Hiva, the most exotic and southern of the Marquesan Islands chain. I spent twelve days there and then sailed for six days to arrive in Tahiti in time for my wife Sandyís arrival on July 13th, a day before Bastille Day, "Quatorze Jullet."

Sandy and I sailed for two weeks through the chain of Society Islands to Bora Bora. She left from there a few days before an old childhood friend, Todd Peterson, flew into Bora Bora to join me. He and I spent three weeks sailing Otter back to Tahiti Ė I have to leave, alone, from the point where Sandy came aboard to keep up my solo standing.

The following are excerpts from the Galapagos section in the log of the Otter.

Weíre all on the journey,

Brec

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I arrived in Academy Bay on the main island of Santa Cruz, at 5:00 p.m. in golden, afternoon light on Wednesday, May 19th. It was the end of a 23-day passage of long, frustrating calms and slow days. Twenty-three days to go 945 miles or an average of 1.7 knots for the entire voyage. I was glad to be preparing the anchors!

The anchorage area off the busy town of Puerto Ayora had turquoise water with more than fifty boats of all descriptions. All the boats anchor bow and stern so no one swings into another boat. The prevailing winds and waves coming into the bay are on the bows of the boats.

My first attempt at anchoring toward the back-center of the crowd of boats didnít hold; I moved closer to shore in the middle of the fleet, directly next to the path of the barges plying in and out.

Freighters anchor offshore, in the bay. They all come from Guayaquil, in Ecuador, with literally every thing that is used on the island---refrigerators, cars, cement, bottled water, toilet paper, hardware---all stacked high. The goods are unloaded onto wooden barges that are pushed ashore by small, outboard-motor-powered boats tied alongside the barges.

All around me were cruising yachts of various sizes, from Otter, which was about the smallest, to Valsheeda, a 100-foot-plus J-boat replica, and other mega-yachts.

Then there were the tourist boats - motor vessels, large catamarans, and ancient steel schooners that take between six and 40 people at a time on tours of all the exotic islands in this archipelago.

And there were water taxis, flat-bottom wood boats about 10-16í long and about 6-7í wide. They are painted bright yellow and have pipe frames that support blue awnings over the boat for protection from both sun and rain. They carry up to 10 passengers.

One of them came over and helped me set my stern anchor. The operator, Gustavo, spoke no English, and my Spanish is minimal. But after I was anchored and made the boat secure, he took me ashore in his water taxi. Since he was getting off his shift, he offered to walk me to the telephone building -- a quarter of a mile down a street heading out of town.

Itís the only location on the island where people can make long distance calls, and it was jammed. I had to wait for an hour to call Sandy to tell her Iíd arrived.

When I left Panama I said it would be a 9-to-15 day run. Along the way I encountered boats that relayed messages to her telling her I was OK but going very slowly. One, Rongatai V, near Malpelo Island, e-mailed her a short note from their boat.

And a week later she got a call from Canada, from Herb Huldeberg, the yachtsmenís weatherman in Canada. He had been asked, via an SSB contact from Brian on OTO who had heard from David on Sunshine that I had passed within UHF radio distance (16 miles) and had spoken with him and asked if someone could please call Sandy on the phone, to explain again that I was moving very slowly.

It was an emotional call on both ends, me hardly able to talk, and Sandy repeating, "Thank God! Thank God!"

After my phone call to Sandy, I have an ice-cold beer with Gustavo at his girlfriendís small sidewalk restaurant. She brings out two cigarettes and a small box of matches. I have a smoke for the first time in 15 years and get very dizzy. I wonder if this is all it takes to start smoking again. I fall asleep immediately when I get back to the boat.

The Galapagos is an archipelago of 13 large islands, six small islands, and dozens of islets of volcanic origin that lies directly on the equator 1/4 of the way between Panama and the Marquesas Islands. Santa Cruz is approximately 20 miles long by 16 miles wide and the town of Puerto Ayora is on the southern coast, tucked into the back of Academy Bay.

The islandís simple profile starts low on all shores and rises in a volcanic cone just off-center to the east. The height of the cone is about 2,600í above sea level. The peak, Cerro Crocker, is often shrouded in cloud. The temperatures are about the same -- mid to high 80ís -- as in Panama but there isnít the sweltering humidity and there is almost always a breeze blowing through the anchorage, keeping below-decks cool.

The vegetation is mixed. At lower elevations and around town itís very dry and arid with cactus and scrub brush, reminiscent of Aruba except much thicker -- not single cactus but whole patches and impassable expanses of it. The higher the elevation the greener it becomes and the larger and more numerous the trees -- in sections there are woods.

In the harbor, the brilliant, tropical light loses the soft hazy edge it had in Panama and is sharp and crisp instead. Where I anchored at the west side of the bay, Otter was 400í from 20í black lava walls washed by the white foam edge of the deep aqua water. Atop the walls are a collection of small houses looking like owner-built summer cottages painted bright colors of orange-yellow and sky blue. Steps cut into the rocks there provide landings for the people who live on this peninsula, which is only accessible by water taxi.

On Thursday, in the bright, early morning sunlight I took the taxi ashore to check in with the port captain and walk around town.

Iím happy to be ashore after 23 days at sea.

The town of Puerto Ayora is small, extremely friendly, and tourist-oriented in a very different way from Aruba. Aruba was glitz and neon and casinos and up-scale shops, whereas here I saw only one up-scale jewelry store. It was a beautifully designed, small, sculpted building with a huge set of small art nouveau iron gates in its low surrounding wall. I never saw it open.

The main road follows the curve of the bay along, or close to, the water for about a quarter of a mile. Many side streets branch off inland and a web of cross-streets goes back about four blocks before turning into suburb and brush. Along this main street are most of the tourist shops selling t-shirts, souvenirs, ice cream, books postcards, jewelry, and Ecuadorian Indian crafts -- belts, rugs, woven items, baskets. Some are extremely beautiful.

There, too, are the tour shops where tourists can get a one-day to two-week voyage out to the exotic sights on other islands via various boats with national park guides. There are also bicycle rentals, taxi-tour rentals, and the townís restaurants. Some restaurants are no more than a few tables on the sidewalk outside someoneís home with a barbecue grill to darken the strips of mystery meat while others have tablecloths and uniformed waiters. All were open to the breeze, none was fully enclosed.

The buildings are mostly a little worn and rundown--in need of fresh paint, but the streets were clean and picked up. In contrast to Colon, I felt no danger of any kind anywhere, night or day.

Prices were generally very cheap: a large bottle of beer was 75 cents and a chicken-and-rice dinner at one of the smaller sidewalk restaurants was $1.50 for more than you could eat.

The monetary unit of the Galapagos is the Ecuadorian sucre. The rate fluctuated daily but was between 800 and 900 per dollar when I was there, so a $120 withdrawal with my bank card at the only machine on the island gave me over a million sucres. In the Galapagos I am a multi-millionaire!

Puerto Ayora has a series of pocket-parks and a small volleyball area between the road and the bay. The parks have large realistic sculptures of the islandsí iconic fauna - a 12í wingspan blue-footed booby, a giant giant tortoise, a giant lizard.

The tourists here are in a number of categories - many from the United States and Japan in their 60ís and early 70ís who are out-doorsy types, plus lots of young backpackers from all over the world, and then the yachties.

As I went ashore my first morning I rode next to a park guide on his way to work and he told me about tours and the attractions on other islands and how to get to the Charles Darwin Research Station.

My first stop was at the port Captainís office. It is set in a small group of neat white buildings, one of which had a large, roughly-painted mural depicting the Ecuadorian navyís various heroic duties, all vignetted against renditions of the islands. The port Captain and his assistant were both out and I was asked to wait.

I struck up a conversation with a 23-year-old French-Canadian backpacker, Dominic Papineau, who is from the Montreal area. Trim, wiry, and crew-cut with a soft, close-cropped beard, heís spent four months trekking up from Antarctica. This is his last stop and last week before he goes home, where he is studying astrophysics and hopes to be on the first manned flight to Mars.

There is an immediate rapport as we swap stories - mine of the month at sea, his of hiking in the early morning up Machu Picchu along a lonely trail and spending weeks alone in the jungles. We agree to meet later at the Darwin station to try to get a view of Lonesome George - the last Galapagos giant tortoise of his particular species.

The assistant port Captain comes in and I go into his office.

The cruising guides and other accounts I read of the Galapagos bureaucracy led me to enter with trepidation. In the past, the Ecuadorian navy had seen cruising yachts stopping on their way to French Polynesia as a nuisance. So, yachts were warned that they should clear out in Panama declaring French Polynesia as their destination and, when arriving at the Galapagos, declare some form of emergency for landing.

The government previously only allowed three days to provision, make repairs, and depart. Cruisers wanting to stay longer had to apply to the government in Ecuador a year in advance and were usually turned down. If accepted, they had to retain a $75-$80 per day national park guide on their yacht, plus bunk and feed him. Impossible on my small boat and small budget. The cruising guides also warned of $300-$400 in fees being applied to the three-day stay and inspections by the navy patrol-boats that were a hassle.

But the Ecuadorians take their stewardship of these unique islands very seriously. Iíd read that some of this poor treatment stemmed from incidents in the 50ís and 60ís of cruisers not checking in, finding a beautiful cove in a remote island, and then living by fishing, taking birdsí eggs, and shooting animals.

I was surprised therefore by the warm welcome I received. The attitude had changed a number of months before with the arrival of a new port Captain. The official attitude now seems to be that since tourism is being encouraged as good for the islands, cruising yachts, as part of the tourist business, are quite welcome.

Amazed, I left to go to the police and immigration office to get my passport stamped. The police department seemed to consist of two young men who were more interested in playing volleyball nearby than being in their small almost no furnitured, ill-equipped office.

A man in the office they brought me to found the immigration officer who was to stamp my passport and fill out the forms. But they couldnít find pencils or pens in the office. I loaned them my drawing pen which, when I forgot and left it behind, I decided not to retrieve. The officer stamped my passport after pounding an inkpad with no ink - the image barely showed.

He asked me if I wanted to stay 30, 60, or 90 days. I took 30. He looked at me and said the immigration fee was $30. I got the impression he was making it up. I thought maybe Iíd gotten a break. Was it $50? Later I heard of one cruiser who paid $20 and another who only paid $12. I was to discover that almost everything in the Galapagos was subject to adaptation -- even the assistant port Captain, if you saw him in the bar and bought a few beers, appeared to adjust the complex fees, paid when you cleared out, downward a bit.

I walked in the blazing heat out to the Darwin station, about a half-mile from the edge of town along the same coast road. There is an outdoor boardwalk going through the cactus and vegetation to different locations where you can see the tortoises.

I looked for Lonesome George in his area and couldnít see him. Dominic joined me there and we took pictures of ourselves with some giant tortoises in another compound where they let you approach them. I asked at the research buildings about the Pata-Payata bird study project for a friend, Evie Weinstein, and we were directed to the public information personís office.

A beautiful young Ecuadorian woman who introduced herself as Regina Barba came out of the office into the sun. The soft brown under her chin was illuminated with a bright, lavender-tinged white from the sunís reflection off her snow-white t-shirt. Out of the blue I asked her if she was in love because the reflection under her chin reminded me of a buttercup game I played as a child Ė if you saw a yellow reflection when holding a buttercup under someoneís chin youíd say, "It shows you love . . . . butter!" (An odd premonition, because, as she told me a few days later, sheíd seen Dominic the day before I asked and had felt something move in her.)

She smiled, looked confused, and then offered in her capacity as an intern-volunteer visitorís guide to show us around -- again. This time we learned a lot about the breeding and turtle re-population program they run and about their overall ecology efforts and the scientists based at the Station who come to do various studies.

We also heard about Robert De Niroís recent visit and how her boss -- the woman who had the Pata-Payata information -- had taken charge of the De Niro tour, one of their most famous visitors so far. I could visualize "Bob" also straining to get a glimpse of "George."

Dominic told me that the tortoises with the upturned front edge of their shells come from an island where the vegetation was higher to reach than the other islands. The shape of the shell that allowed the neck to stretch higher was one of the observations here in the Galapagos that led Darwin, sailing as the naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, to later formulate his theories of the adaptation and evolution of species.

I felt I was at the birthplace of our Western paradigm of the way we have come to agree the world works. It is a relatively new idea in the history of ideas and, like a dominant species, has crowded out and made other, older, Ďlegendaryí ideas almost extinct.

I feel that like all things in this strange land of exotic animals, this paradigm, too, will evolve and may at some time, like Lonesome George, become extinct and forgotten, except for its fossil traces.

What follows it we cannot know, except in the dreams of our bones.

___________________________________________________

 

Papeete,  Tahiti
Wednesday, September 8, 1999

Dear Friends and E-mail Family,

During the first few days in the Galapagos I did an endless series of boat chores and repairs: changed oil and fuel filters, cleaned up after a monthís journey, took on fuel and water, did laundry, tuned the rigging, varnished the flaking cap rails, and scrubbed the algae off the hull, which accumulates during each passage. And I made phone calls home.

I had some dinners with Dominic and Regina -- they were becoming closer and were hanging out together a lot. Dominic is passionate about the stars. He has a huge pair of 70-power binoculars and showed us star clusters, craters on the moon, and the rings of Saturn, and told us stories about the constellations.

He taught me how to find the position of the South Pole by bisecting the two bright stars to the left of the Southern Cross and running a line through the Southern Cross top to bottom. When the two lines are extended the point where they cross, that point is over the South Pole, in the same way Polaris is over the North Pole.

They both came out and visited Otter. We had long conversations about Ecuadorian history and politics - and the French Separatist movement in Canada. Dominic helped me one day by running errands. With his fluent Spanish he found the dozen objects I needed in almost no time. Regina at dinner another night demonstrated her castanets and flamenco dancing skills. Sheís graceful and enchanting

The following are more excerpts from the log of the Otter.

Weíre all on the journey,

Brec

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sunday, May 23 --

I go to a mass at the Catholic Church near the docks. Itís all in Spanish, but I can tell the sermon is about the family and the Church. The priest is a forceful speaker and uses repetition and rhetorical questions Ė "Where is (ĎDonde estí) the Father? Where is the Mother? Where is the family? And where is God?" I assume they all combine in the embrace of the Church.

I sing along as I can. For a 7:30 p.m. mass Iím impressed that there is standing room only in a large space. The building has high ceilings of white corrugated metal on wood trusses that no one could have used a tape measure on -- they are all at odd angles.

There are bright plastic flowers on white walls. Iím drawn to a clear plexi box on a pedestal at one side of the sanctuary. It has a doll inside. A man in a white suit and hat, with a thin mustache. He is surrounded inside the box with flowers and money -- a memorial to someoneís grandfather with a "Please do not touch" sign in Spanish.

When the service ends I return to the boat. Iím reading St. Augustineís Confessions -- I wonder if the fig tree in Milan where he was converted still stands like Buddhaís bodhi tree in India.

Monday, May 24 --

I pull everything apart looking for a leak in the water system. I buy some new eyeglasses, then watch the opening and inspection of my life raft. I meet other cruisers from Wind Chime, Discovery, Sally Forth, and Xiomarra. Itís good talking to others making the same next step.

Tuesday, May 25 (Momís birthday)--

Still more boat chores to do. The boat feels upside down and very damp in the rain today. Iím feeling the self-imposed "behind" pressures again, and am very lethargic and depressed, the same way Iíd feel as a kid on the Saturdays I wanted to be out playing while it would take me all day to clean my room.

Wednesday, May 26 --

St. Augustineís mother dies after breakfast. I clean the forepeak and add new distilled water to top up the batteries. I talk to Sandy on the phone; she reminds me this coming weekend is Memorial Day weekend. For a number of years weíve enjoyed going to Gloucester to a friendís large summerhouse and I feel a touch of homesickness knowing I wonít be going this year.

Thursday, May 27 --

Todayís the one day Iíve planned to see the island. Dominic joins me at 7:00 a.m. and we get a quick breakfast. He negotiates a taxi ride out to the base of the volcanic mountain, Cerra Crocker, down from $20 to $8. I feel badly for the driver but Dominic convinces me not to tip him or feel sorry for him. He says $8 is a lot of money.

We stop first at Las Gemen, the twin craters, and follow a guided tour for a while. Then our taxi takes us up to the end of a gravel road and drops us off at the base of the volcano. We have no maps and just start walking.

Itís good to hike -- I work up a real sweat. My breathing is deep and regular; I can feel my legs. We donít find the trails to the top of the volcano but see the pinnacle of a small volcano-cone about 300-400 feet high about a mile further along our trail and decide to head for that and scale it. Its sides are extremely steep and its top is a rocky platform only about 20í x 30í.

The view is incredible - Isabella Island, dark to the west across sparkling water. To the north, across the slopes, is Isla Baltra and Isla San Salvador; to our east is Cerra Crocker, rising above us into cloud. Below us to the south is Academy Bay -- the wind is blowing from there and we watch a low cloud roll in across the bay and up the slopes toward us.

It becomes gray, the fog below us blotting out all except the last few feet of our little island in the gray cloud. Then it envelops us and we can see nothing past our perch alone in space. The wind, which has gotten cold, opens occasional holes through which we can see parts of the distant landscape.

Dominic asks me about the state of timelessness I experienced when I was 21. I havenít attempted to describe it in years and find his questions open up memories. Heís curious and wants to understand. My words are only blunt tools. I can only say it was beautiful, like being on this peak.

On the hike back, he picks about 20 guavas and 15 passion fruits for me. My pack is stuffed - they will ripen on the way to the Marquesas.

That evening I visit Jack and Jennie on Xiomarra and plot the great circle line on our charts from the Galapagos to the Marquesas. The great circle rhumb line only bulges about 30 miles at the center from the straight rhumb line drawn on the Mercator chart.

Back on Otter I continue to read my College Highlights of Literature book. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, writes: "It is ultimately the union with God that is the purpose of our journey." I sleep.

Friday, May 28 --

Last provisions -- fruit, vegetables; last load of laundry; tie downís; last prepping to leave Saturday. Through a mix-up I donít connect with Regina and Dominic for our last dinner and eat alone. I throw the I Ching for them. The prospects for the growth of their relationship is slow but favorable.

I rent a small, inexpensive hotel room at the Sol y Mar and take a long, hot shower. I spend my last night in the Galapagos on a real bed.

Saturday, May 29 --

Up at 6:00 a.m., dress and stretch, and am running by 6:15. Run out to Tortuga bay - two miles through the brush on a path of octagonal cement paving. It feels good to run and at the beach there are already bathers swimming in the giant coamers sweeping the sand.

Back at the hotel an hour later I take another long shower. I finish my postcards and check out. I mail my postcards back in town.

Regina has been waiting at the dock to see me since she saw Dominic off on his airplane. Iím happy to see her and even though Iím ready to leave, we talk for over an hour. I tell her of the I Ching and we talk about what difficulties may lay ahead for their relationship. I feel Iíve found two kindred souls and that weíll all meet again.

Gustavo takes me out to Otter. I share the short ride with the owner of the oyster-boat-building company. He says that the Otter is a good strong boat and Iíll probably break before she does -- that is good to hear.

Gustavo comes back with his girlfriend and her two daughters to see me off - I give the kids some presents from my "gifts and trade" box - a box of watercolors. Gustavo helps me lift my stern anchor.

Iím powering out of Academy Bay by 1:00 p.m. on the way to cross the largest single body of water on my voyage Ė 3,000 miles to the Marquesas.

End of Report Five

 

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