Drifting through the Doldrums

James & Amelia Gould
Mon 28 Apr 2008 15:52

15 - 26 April 2008 : Passage to the Galapagos


We left Panama and headed for the Galapagos Islands on our wedding anniversary (7 years! Aren’t I supposed to feel itchy…J)), waving goodbye to the last bit of mainland we will see for 8,000 miles.  We figured that we would celebrate the special day on arrival at a new exotic destination.  The weather forecast looked favourable and we took on extra diesel to help get us through the region of light winds around the equator commonly called the doldrums.  (For those who are interested and put in layman’s terms; the sun heats the Earth’s atmosphere the most at the equator and this warm air rises creating a band of low pressure around the equator called the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), or the doldrums.)  We had a cracking start to the passage, with 20 knots of wind on our quarter and a 2-3 knot current rushing us along towards our destination.  We covered 90 miles over the ground in the first 12 hours, and we figured that at this rate we’d be in the Galapagos in no time at all!  James caught his first Pacific fish, and while we were enjoying an anniversary dinner of fresh fish a pod of dolphins came to wish us happy anniversary and swam with us for a while.  All was great on Rahula.


But the good life was over all too soon.  By the second morning at sea we lost the wind, so we stowed the sail and switched on the engine.  We were in the doldrums, and there was nothing we could do but motor through until we found wind on the other side.  Unfortunately the calm period seemed to go on forever, and it started to look like it would outlast our diesel.  So instead of steering directly for the Galapagos Islands we started to head straight south in order to take the shortest route through the doldrums.  Problem was we then encountered the current which sets North up the Pacific coast of South America, which meant that we were pounding into the swell caused by the current and the prevailing southerly winds to the south of us and making little progress against it.  We were burning lots of precious diesel trying to get South, but actually making very little progress over the ground.  Sometimes we would get some wind and we would try to sail, but this never lasted more than an hour.  However, the peace and quiet we got when we shut down the engine during these periods was golden.


To add to our troubles we discovered that the mechanism we use to furl our Genoa (the sail at the front of the boat) had broken, which meant we could no longer reef the sail or stow it away easily.  We spent a few hours at the bow taking the drum apart and figuring out if there was a way we could bodge it so that it would at least last until the Galapagos.  James’ ingenuity saved the day yet again, and after much fiddling and readjustment we could use the drum again, though it was very stiff (I replaced the disintegrated bearings with a lot of grease and reversed the bearing shells so they were smooth against the inner flange of the drum….a bodge my Grandad would be proud of… J).  The bodge managed to last for 6 days, so it was a pretty good temporary fix!  We immediately contacted my Dad to see if we can order another furler and get it shipped to the Galapagos.  After much to-ing and fro-ing, and lots of help from my dad (for which we are eternally grateful!) we managed to locate a unit at a chandlers in the UK and order it.  The silver lining is that it worked out not much more expensive to have someone fly out with the new part than it would have been to ship it (thanks to my mum for that one!), so my sister is acting as courier and is coming to visit in the Galapagos (with nothing but a Bikini and 12 metres of aluminium extrusion and a large furling drum… J).


The calm spell lasted for 4 days and we used up nearly every last drop of our diesel trying to get south (we saved a small amount to get us into the first island we get to in the Galapagos).  It was frustrating to hear that friends who had left Panama around the same time as us in large monohulls with large engines and big diesel tanks had arrived in the Galapagos having motored nearly the whole way.  We vowed that next time we cross the equator we would take plenty more diesel, and not worry about over loading the boat – it all burns up quickly enough anyway!  Luckily not long after the diesel ran out we managed to find some wind, though this time it was coming from exactly the direction in which we wanted to go!  It seemed that Neptune was against us this passage.  We set the sails, and tried to continue making progress south, but the constant slamming into the swell was driving us both crazy.  As we headed South-East the distance to the Galapagos Islands on the GPS increased, and a glance at the chart had us heading towards Ecuador.  We did briefly consider going in to Ecuador to get some more diesel, but then we figured we would prefer to press on to the Galapagos.  Eventually we could take it no more, so we tacked and started heading north-west. Despite the fact that we had tacked through 90 deg of apparent wind the Northerly current was still taking its toll and our course over the ground was nearly 180 deg apart.  The port tack was much more comfortable as we were no longer slamming into the swell.  With time, the wind also finally shifted further to the South, which meant we were finally making good a course South of West.  Finally the distance to go was counting down.


It was eerie being on an ocean so calm and still.  During our year of sailing across the Atlantic and Caribbean the sea was always different, changing colour and shape every day.  In the doldrums the sea took on an inky blackness that moved with the consistency of treacle.  Our wake seemed to be the only thing disturbing this watery desert, leaving a straight line of turbulence for as far as the eye could see astern.  A sad fact of the world was that in this tranquil place where nothing disturbs the water the Pacific’s rubbish appears to have collected.  We motored past endless floating plastic bottles, buckets, plates, odd shoes, all littering the ocean like confetti.  I felt like collecting it all up, but figured the Galapagos would not be happy if I turned up with so much rubbish.  When will the chemists of the world invent a biodegradable plastic that can be mass produced?


Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of life in the deep waters below. One morning a small turtle surfaced near the boat and swam about for a bit, poking its head up every so often to take a breath.  On another day we motored though a strange orange growth which hung just beneath the surface like a cloud and seem to extend in large clumps for miles around.  It turned the water orange in places and was a strange sight.  We came across a large flock of birds resting on the surface of the water, and Rahula charged straight through them making them scatter like the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.  The heat was overbearing when there was no wind, climaxing at 40 deg C nearly every day.  We tried to stay out of the sun, but even in the shade it was oppressively hot.  I suggested stopping the engine for a while and going for a swim to cool off, but as if on cue James spotted a fin circling the water 10m from the boat.  We watched it for a while and when it was joined by a tail we realised it was a shark, so all plans of swimming were abandoned!  We also managed to acquire some more nautical hitchhikers.  Two Red Footed Boobies found us one night and perched on our bow all night.  As dawn broke they preened themselves for a while, then flew off in search of food.  The following night they returned again.  We did think of charging them for the nightly ride!  (A wildlife favourite of mine was the three or four boobies that would fly with us at night trying to pick up the squids that were churned up in our wake.  They would all spot the same one at the same time and head for it, one would scoop it up and a mid air fight would ensue.  The squid was invariably dropped to fight another day or landed with a splat on our deck dieing to be bait the next day.  This happened for hours on end and it may be an indication of my simple mind or the tedium of the Doldrums but I found it all rather amusing…J)


The scariest incident occurred on the morning of our seventh day at sea.  I was sat peacefully in the cockpit watching the sun rise behind us when I heard a loud snort of water nearby.  Thinking it was dolphins again I stood up and looked around, expecting to see them leaping through our bow wave as usual.  Then a huge black bulk rose out of the water next to our port bow, snorted again, and went back down into the deep.  A whale, at least 10m long!  I was terrified, as whales have been known to sink boats as a boat sometimes looks like a whale from below, and the whales get a little friendly or aggressive with the hull depending on their mood.  I called for James, and before he came up the whale surfaced again, this time off our starboard hull, heading right for us not less than 5m away!   We started the engine to make lots of noise and make the whale realise we were not his next dinner or mate.  Luckily that seemed to give him the message and he went away.  It was exciting seeing a whale up so close, but an experience I do not want to repeat again in a hurry! 


Despite all this marine life James struggled to catch another fish after the first day.  Day after day we trolled a line behind, changing lures to see if something new would work, and every night we reeled the line in, empty again.  Then one day while we were enjoying sundowners in the cockpit and playing a game the reel went off and we jumped up excitedly.  We glanced astern and saw a huge Marlin jump clean out of the water in an attempt to escape the line.  James leapt on to the reel and started bringing in the fish (it’s a bit more technical than that actually… J), while I tried to slow the boat down.  It took James at least 20 minutes to bring the large fish up to the transom in a real battle of man against fish (the red mist fell again over my eyes… J).  As the fish came closer we were able to identify it (a Striped Marlin), and looking it up in our book to check if it was edible we found out that though it was very tasty it was also endangered due to over fishing.  So James grabbled hold of the poor Marlin by his sword and while holding him up in the air with one hand (no small effort with a 30kg Marlin that is quite adamant that he wasn’t ready to get out of the water just yet…J) got the hook out of his mouth with another.  James then released him, and the fish swam away, tired, but alive enough to breed. (Sod’s law of the sea has dictated that I haven’t had another bite since and this behemoth would have fed a small pacific island for a month so next time screw ecology, if it’s on the hook it goes on the plate! J)


Despite the lack of fish we had plenty of fresh food onboard from my visit to the fruit & veg market in Panama.  Most of it seemed to be lasting well, though the stem of bananas I bought all ripened at once as I expected, and not in accordance with what I was told by the market trader!  So we ate lots of bananas every day, and when they became too sickly to eat I made banana bread and banana and chocolate muffins (mmmmm tasty, one of A’s new found talents on this trip is baking and it’s not easy in a boat oven although ours is a pretty good one.  The positive effect of some midnight Muffins can not be over stated!  J) .  Both these offerings seemed to boost morale far more than finding some wind!   The big bag of oranges I bought provided us with fresh juice every day, and the rest of the vegetables went into curries, stews, tagines and other tasty creations.  We were still eating well despite spending days at sea, and we still had plenty of water.  So we just accepted our lot and kept on sailing as best as we could towards our destination.  (Well, to say we accepted our lot is taming things a little, we both went through bouts of depression at our lack of progress despite the fact that we knew this would be a slow passage and we had budgeted 10 days for it.  Luckily we seemed to go in cycles so one day I would be grumpy and the next Amelia would be grumpier and we had to make an effort to make it bearable with ‘enforced fun’ at least once a day.  Sundowners were the time when we would shut off the engine if it was running, have our daily beer and play a game or do something to avoid thinking about our slow progress.  It’s strange, but I think it was just a matter of perspective, we had been spoilt by relatively fast trade wind passages and this was definitely not one of those so we became frustrated.  Maybe now we can use this passage as an example of how slow things can be so we can be grateful in the future!! J)


We had some typical tropics weather along the way.  In the doldrums with no wind to cool the air it was oppressively hot, and the nights brought a welcoming chill.  As we got to the edge of the ITCZ the sky became overcast and we had a nightly thunderstorm displays high in the big black clouds.  We rarely got much wind with these squalls, though one monster cloud bore down on us quickly and hit us with 25-knot winds and torrential rain.  It gave the boat a much needed clean, and we finally got rid of the Panama grime (James also used the opportunity to have a shower…).  Once we were south of the ITCZ we were back to normal trade wind conditions of blue skies with little fluffy clouds. 


Rahula crossed the equator on 25 April at 1216.  We made the obligatory offering to Neptune of a glass of neat Grenada Rum and had a beer ourselves to celebrate.  As there was still no wind we decided to go for a swim on the equator, so we stopped the boat and jumped in, holding on to floats attached the boat.  I made the mistake of looking under the water and almost got vertigo from the sight of blue water extending to a black empty void deep below.  There was nothing around us, but I couldn’t shake the memory of that shark we saw, so after 10 minutes of surfing on our very own wave machine we got out.  The best thing was that it was finally time for James to shave the remaining half of the horrible beard he had been growing for the occasion!


At dawn the following day the dim outline of San Cristobal Island came into view.  As the sun came up we could make out more features of the island and were struck by how barren it looked.  There was no sign of human habitation, and huge volcanic peaks rose up straight joined by acres of low grassy plains.  We sailed past a part of the island covered in red and black volcanic rock, and a huge square cliff in the middle of the sea that looked like a forgotten last piece of cake.  (It was quite a poignant moment for me.  Amelia’s father had bought me Darwin’s ‘Voyage of the Beagle’ in a vain attempt to complete my education and although I haven’t got to the bit where he arrives at the Galapagos Islands [he’s still in Patagonia looking at worms or something] I could imagine him seeing the islands for the first time and the bit we were looking at with the sounds of the surf and the sea lions was exactly as he would have seen it in 1835…and the same as the scene in ‘Master and Commander’…J)  We still had no wind, so we drifted along the coast with the current barely making any progress.  The advantage of the slow and quiet progress was that we did not disturb any of the marine life, and turtles and sea lions swam gently past us.  We finally managed to catch a fish, and James reeled in a big Wahoo which has supplied us with enough food for a week.


As we approached the only coastal settlement on the island at Wreck Bay the clouds that had been building all morning finally discharged their load and it started to drizzle.  We motored into the bay in the rain, past a school of Manta Rays on the surface and Sea Lions swimming all around the boat.  After a long, tedious, windless passage, we had finally arrived in the naturist’s paradise, the Galapagos Islands.