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Report Five from the Otter: The Galapagos -- the Enchanted Isles
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.
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.
Sunday, May 23 --
Monday, May 24 --
Tuesday, May 25 (Momís birthday)--
Wednesday, May 26 --
Thursday, May 27 --
Friday, May 28 --
Saturday, May 29 --
End of Report Five
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