The Galapagos Islands

JJMoon Diary
Barry and Margaret Wilmshurst
Wed 27 Jun 2007 22:19

The Galapagos Islands are all they are cracked up to be and we had as rich a time in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz as anywhere we have been.  As ever, our experience was full of surprises.  To start with we were expecting bureaucratic difficulties but the naval officers who run the port and the police who deal with immigration were relaxed and easy to deal with; all much more straight forward that in Panama and Colombia.


On arrival we were consumed with the need to get a new computer on to the island within the twenty days that we were allowed to stay.  We had been told of the terrible delays in customs in Quito.  To our surprise there were already three lap-tops for sale and one was entirely suitable and offered at a discounted price.  Friday and Saturday were spent homing in on that bargain and trying to work out a way of getting our charts to work on it.  The electronic chart-plotting company protects their product with a dongle which up to now has fitted into the parallel or printer port.  The latest computers do not have one of these and after much huffing and puffing we decided we must try to get a USB dongle sent out.  The company was brilliant, overcoming internal difficulties, and the dongle arrived in five days; a record.  However, in trying to load the programme we found it would not run on the new Vista operating system. Aaagh!  Should we change the operating system (someone lent us a copy of Windows XP)?  Since we were under such time pressure we eventually decided to risk making do with the back-up computer until we could get a new programme disk sent out somewhere.  Another problem was loading software.  There were plenty of internet facilities but connection speeds throughout the island are so slow that simple software was going to take five hours to load.  How long a word processing package would have taken I dread to think.  All this took up much time and effort.


On our first night at anchor we were hit by a fishing boat.  Every other boat in the harbour was held head to wind and swell by a stern anchor.  This boat was not and swung and gave us a series of frightening bumps.  We were up for two hours fending off and in the morning found our decks littered with flecks of paint and small pieces of fishing boat.  It was a good job it was rather a decayed and soft wooden boat.  The following day we shifted our position.  We later learned that this boat had been fishing illegally and was under “house arrest”.  The navy brought bolt croppers and took away its nets but in doing so got a line round their prop and had to return to the fishing boat to ask for a knife to cut it free.  Some days later one of our friends was hit twice; by a fishing boat leaving the anchorage and then by the small boat it was towing.  Fortunately there was no damage but a catamaran astern of us was not so lucky on our last night.  A large steel fishing boat got athwart her and broke a bowsprit and associated rigging.


Our next priority was the blocked heads.  This is a HORRIBLE job.  Seawater reacts with urea to calcify the pipes from the bowls to the holding tanks until they are completely blocked.  Two metres of pipe had to be un-installed cleaned out and re-fixed.  It took most of the day but at least the weather was not swealtering hot.  Conditions were much worse when I last did it on Corfu.  I took the opportunity to fit a new flushing pump so the whole thing now works very sweetly with no evidence of “flow back”.  “About time too”, I hear some blog readers muttering.


The water maker had been playing up and the tank was getting low.  I decided that it was necessary to replace the seals in the high pressure pump which was an educational process that took the two of us most of the day.  In the end I do not think there was anything wrong with the seals but the handbook assures us that it is good practice and should be done after five hundred hours whether the seals are worn or not.  It will be easier next time – they say.  The equipment was still not making fresh water so I spent ages trying to track down the cause of the trouble.  In the end I cured the symptoms by removing one of two filters.  It now works a treat in the open ocean but I think we need the second filter when anchored; it has always become dirty quite quickly.


Now the generator stopped and would not start again.  Diagnosing a fuel problem I took several bits apart and, as before, contrived to replace a small part upside down.  However, an excellent mechanic ashore put me right on this and having put it all together again the engine is running better than it has done for some time.  I really don’t know why.  I had a lot of help and advice from friends and professionals; it’s heart-warming the way people rally round if they have any expertise to offer.


The shower sump pump was next.  I bought a replacement, because it was there and they do not last for ever, but I managed to get everything going again anyway.  The spare pump is a comfort.


It took a whole day to take on fuel.  Largely because I anticipated trouble importing parts we had taken the pilot books’ advice and engaged the services of an agent.  Through him I arranged for the fuel barge to visit four boats and we were told to be ready from 0800.  We were, but the pump on the barge was defective.  They put that right and we had the barge tied up securely alongside when the man in charge explained that he wanted to serve the other yachts first.  He finally left us at 1700.  A bit frustrating but…… you learn to go with the flow!


Between times we were practicing new skills.  Two of the features of the anchorage at Puerto Ayora are swell and an excellent water taxi service.  Very few people use their own dinghies.  The yellow painted taxis swarm round at busy times and are usually available at very short notice.  They all have big bow fenders and take on passengers by nudging into the side of the boat or landing stage.  Passengers climb on to a small foredeck which is equipped with single or double handrails.  It is all very easy in calm seas, but they are rarely calm.  It takes a sense of balance and a bit of nerve to stand hanging on and waiting for the lift of the wave before making a decisive move, particularly with two big bags of laundry or gas bottles.  On the other hand there is never an occasion when someone will not leap up to help if they see the slightest need.  The locals generally could not be more friendly and helpful.


We have been rather surprised at the size of the boats getting ready to cross the mighty ocean.  There are very few large Swans and Oysters and we find that there are many boats smaller than JJ Moon.  Many cruisers have a story to tell.  A 19ft Bulgarian boat, built of ferro-cement, had an engine break down and lost a spreader.  She had to be towed in after forty days at sea from Panama.  Two young Scandinavians in a 26ft boat are having the top of their engine re-built after a passage of twenty-one days from Panama.  They think they might miss out the Marquesas.  Cameron, a large Aussie has found a new lady with a twelve year old son.  They have just left in a 1970s British bilge keeler, its deck stacked with water and fuel cans, and are heading straight for Fiji (about three months, he thinks) where they will try to get Australian visas for the lady and her son.  An Aussie boat coming up from the Marquesas with two on board lost her skipper en route.  When asked why he had not reported this mishap before reaching port the mate said that he did not know how to use the radio.  There is an enquiry going on and the skipper’s widow back in Australia is said to be “cross”.


When not working on repairs and malfunctions we were enjoying ourselves!  Six of us hired a minibus and an authorised naturalist guide to take a trip round the island to see the giant tortoises and other delights.  We have already put the pictures up.  Unlike many places we have visited these islands really do have things to offer tourists.  In addition to the tortoises and iguanas the whole environment of the air, land and water is teeming with interesting life.  Seals play round the boat and sun themselves on every ledge.  Manta  rays swim past the stern.  Pelicans and boobies catch fish and the frigate birds steal the catch from them.  The blue footed boobies behave like the Red Arrows, flying in tight echelon formation then pealing off and diving into the sea like…well, arrows.  There is always something going on.  Mags did a dive with hammerhead sharks and a very friendly cosmopolitan group of people.


The islands are unique because of their geographical position a thousand miles from land and at the meeting of two currents, one warm and the other cold.  In spite of being on the Equator the climate is temperate.  All this results in a profusion of life and, of course, interesting discoveries.


Some readers may be wondering why they have to put up with all the boring bits about repairs and malfunctions.  “Stop whingeing on about things going wrong and tell us more about the tortoises!”  Well, you can read about the tortoises and iguanas in the guide books.  All we can add is that we have been there, seen them, and it’s all true.  They are wonderful.  Our excuse for spending so much time describing the other stuff is that the breakages and repairs are a major part of all cruisers’ lives.  It is difficult keeping these rather complex machines, operating in a hostile environment, rolling round the world.  Half the boats at anchor or on a mooring are having work done or waiting for parts.  One very experienced skipper was reported recently to have cried out in anguish “I can’t keep on doing this, Natalie”.  But we all know he will have to.  We all have to.  We’re cruisers; this is what we do.



This comes to you from latitude 03°S longitude 100°W, about 550 miles west of the Galapagos on passage towards the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas group, the north-eastern tip of French Polynesia.  We are in radio contact with three other boats but conditions are a bit difficult for clear communications and we are trying radio “skeds” twice a day.  We turn everything off to reduce interference, including the sat-phone, and this means you are getting twice as many little position flags as you need.  Sorry about that.