It would have been nice to stay longer in the beautiful Perlas islands but as Fathom was full to the brim with fresh food and the forecast showed some good north east winds for a few days I was keen to set off on the 3971 nautical mile voyage to the Marquesas as soon as possible. After a trip up the mast for a last check Fathom was on the way out of the anchorage early afternoon on the 17th March when I spotted two people in a small dinghy waving frantically to me in the distance. It turned out they were a young American couple who had just been spear fishing on the reef and had guessed I was off to the South Pacific, probably by Fathom’s incredibly low waterline. They had wanted me to take a fresh fish they had just caught and passed up a good sized red snapper all gutted and ready for the pan. A nice send off and another example of kindness from fellow cruisers. They would be the last people I would see in five and a half weeks.
Perlas to the Galapagos region – Day 1 to Day 9
It turns out that the most consistent wind and fasted progress of the whole voyage occurred during the first couple of days. Sustained 15 to 20 knots of breeze, the remainders of the Caribbean tradewinds, and a tail current enabled Fathom to roar along at 6 knots at times. Due to the high amounts of shipping in the bay of Panama I slept in short chunks at night and used the AIS and radar alarms to keep a look out. By the third day the wind was under 6 knots and the cruising shute was deployed. This is the big asymmetric spinnaker which I use in winds under about 12 knots but never fly at night in case there is a squall or it gets wrapped. On the fourth day I spotted another yacht on the horizon but couldn’t raise them on the VHF for a chat.
The wind was still under 10 knots during the 5th day but a current of nearly 2 knots enabled 24 hour runs of close to 100 nautical miles. It was on day 6, when becalmed, that I made the spontaneous decision to swap the sails over. The yankee headsail was swapped for a new and unused downwind headsail and the mainsail swapped for a well used but serviceable second hand one I had purchased for £150 as a spare before leaving the Island. The idea being I could save the primary sails from UV light damage and from banging about in the calms to come. It took nearly all day to remove the mainsail, battens, reefing lines and get it stowed (not easy to get it neatly packed into the bag alone!) and the replacement bent on and single line reefing setup adjusted accordingly.
The wind remained very light during the 6th and 7th days but I was reluctant to use the engine due to the need to save the diesel for calms later in the voyage when there would not be favourable current. The cruising shute was deployed in the daylight hours and at night the mainsail and poled out headsail. One notable change was the increase in cabin temperature as we approached the equator. The cabin thermometer regularly showing temperature of up to 42 degrees! I was constantly drenched in sweat, day and night, and without any real wind it was very uncomfortable onboard. Everything inside was sticky and it was generally not too pleasant.
At last a better breeze on the 8th day with 12 knots from the north east and I was in great spirits. During the afternoon Fathom crossed the equator for the first time. Second time for me having crossed 10 years ago when sailing from Hawaii to French Polynesia on yacht Babelfish. I toasted Neptune by tossing him some Balboa lager and enjoyed the remainder of the can myself. I never drink at sea so this was a rare treat. It felt great to be in the southern hemisphere and I remember feeling that I really was a long way from home. As part of the celebration of being in the south I decided to bake a cake later in the afternoon by cheating and using a pre mix pack. However it turned out like a chewy rubber mess which was most disappointing and it was inedible.
What a difference a day makes. On day 9 there was less than a knot of wind and Fathom was crawling along at 2 knots with the current. A real game of patience in these conditions and with over 3,000 miles still to go to the destination I couldn’t help thinking, however unrealistic, that we might be at sea for months and soon i’ll be so low on fresh water i’ll be performing rain dances on deck. I had never properly got to grips with the fuel consumption of the engine since it had been installed in October so spent a bit of time working out how many hours I could motor on the fuel capacity I was carrying and various RPM levels and reckoned on about 450 miles max. Resorted to motoring for several hours during the afternoon to make some meaningful progress and myself feel better. The south east tradewinds still at least 500 miles away to the south.
During the night I was very close to the Galapagos islands and as the sun rose the next morning I could just make out the outline of Isla Cristobal on the horizon. It was a shame to give these islands a miss but the cost for visiting yachts are in the thousands of dollars and the regulations stipulate the underwater hull must be entirely clean and the cabin fumigated. Fathom was completely becalmed during the next night so I dropped all the sails and went to bed leaving Fathom to drift south with the current at 1.5 knots. I later received a few messages from people asking if everything was ok as they had seen low speeds on the tracker map and were worried something bad had happened!
Over the next days I noticed a significant increase in bird and animal activity. I was visited by blue footed boobies who flew constantly in loops around the boat, especially at night when they loudly squawked and looked like they were trying to land on the mast but never did. Lots of dolphins by day. I awoke one night to the sound of flapping sails and the boat wildly offcourse. After going on deck the cause became apparent. A bird had decided to perch on top of the wood paddle of the self steering gear for a rest. Why on earth it chose to sit there when it had the mast and the rest of the boat is beyond me.
Galapagos region and south to the trades. Day 10 to Day 17
At this time the weather forecast and free routeing advice emailed weekly from a forecaster in New Zealand was not overly encouraging. A convergence zone had formed south of the equator between the Marquesas and the Galapagos islands with big squalls, thunder storms and calms. Furthermore there was now a river of east going current, the equatorial counter current, running between 2 degrees and 6 degrees south, west of the Galapagos. The recommendation for yachts heading to the Marqueasas was to avoid the direct route, cross the foul current as quickly as possible then head right down to 12 degrees south to find the tradewinds before turning directly to the Marqueasas. A much longer distance.
The journal reminds me that day 10 was quite successful in the galley. An excellent cake baked, fresh loaf of bread and a sausage, carrot and sweet potato stew in the thermal cooker. Good sailing in the day but little wind during the night. A small milestone on day 11 was that Fathom passed 91deg 30′.27W longitude and therefore was a quarter of the way round the world from Yarmouth!
Fathom was well and truly in the doldrums during days 12 and 13. Baking hot with not a breath of wind and a mirror like sea. Motored through the night which was miserable to try and get though the foul current as soon as possible. A couple of notable things on day 14 – the equatorial counter current was passed at last, signified by the speed over the ground increasing by a knot and I mastered the four hole draw bend on the harmonica!
I guess I wasn’t completely alone as technology in the modern age allows contact with others. A highlight each day was checking emails and reading messages from friends and family. Thanks to everyone who messaged me it was much appreciated. It was good also to exchange SMS messages via the sat phone with my friends Victor and Julie who left the Perlas islands one week after Fathom. We would compare weather conditions and fishing success rates and generally check everything was ok.
The night of 31st March I was woken up in the wee small hours to a squall so went on deck in the howling wind and heavy rain to put some reefs in the mainsail and roll in some headsail. A long standing problem, which I thought I had solved in the Cape Verdes, began to occur again around this time. The Aries self steering gear paddle began to flip up time and time again especially in bigger waves and wind. When this happens the boat veers off course and invariably this occurs in the middle of the night during a squall or when i’m fast asleep. The boat needs to be stopped and I hang over the stern with the boat hook to reseat the blade. It was not something I could really fix at sea because the cause was the swelling of two parts of the hinge so I made the best of it.
During the following days the sea became rough and very confused with swell from several directions. The motion of the boat was most uncomfortable and doing any task in the cabin difficult. To make it worse squalls regularly appeared from astern with wind going from 7 knots to 27 knots in an instant. Sleep was hard to come by at night so I was tired and lethargic during and not in great spirits. The Aries paddle flipped up numerous times which didn’t improve my mood. At least progress was reasonable with daily runs ranging from 110 to 121 nautical miles. Most of the days were spent catching up on sleep or reading.