Wild On the Galapagos

Having departed New York on Thursday, Joe and Sashin arrived in the Galapagos on Friday morning via Bogota, Quito, and Guyaquil. After meeting them at the airport on the tiny island of Baltra, we proceeded to take a bus to the southern tip of the island, a ferry to the northernmost point of Santa Cruz, a land taxi to Puerto Ayora, and, finally, a water taxi out to Audentes. Wasting little time unpacking, we embarked on a tour of Santa Cruz. No sooner had we loaded into the back of the pick-up truck that served as a taxi than the rain arrived – the first rain to hit the Galapagos in at least two weeks.

The first stop on the tour was some really deep sinkholes caused by the hallowing out of the earth by volcanic gases. Playing the part of the ugly American for this portion of trip was Joe, who was reprimanded for going around the fence and getting too close to the not-quite-bottomless pit. The next destination on our tour was some lava tunnels that were caves formed by the flow of hot liquid magma. Sachin, suffering from some questionable food consumed in Quito, was forced to relieve himself in a dark corner of the tunnel and quickly replaced Joe as the leading candidate to spark an international incident. His position was further solidified during our next stop at a turtle farm when curiosity provoked him to touch a defenseless turtle, resulting in yet another reprimand from our incredulous guide. Our tourist duties completed, we returned to the boat and we were soon joined by Eva and Anna, two young Polish women who were foolish enough to promise to cook us a traditional Polish meal of pierogi. Along with the other Polish Anna, this one the newest addition to the Audentes crew, the girls commandeered the galley for several hours and managed to use every single pan on the boat. The food was well-worth the wait and we all felt Polish for an evening. (Insert ethnic joke here.) The conversation lasted late into the night and, as is the custom on Audentes, our cultural differences were drowned in good food and excessive drink. If only the United Nations had the good sense to accompany all discussions with flavorful food and strong drink, I doubt that the world would be in the shape that it is in today. I defy anyone to tell me that Kofi Annon mixing rum drinks and Butros-Butros Gali singing show tunes would not reduce the bad feelings between Israel and Palestine. The United States and Iran would end up in bed together. Japan and China would be laughing over the atrocities of their youth. India and Pakistan would be singing Bollywood favorites until the wee hours. What a wonderful world this would be.

On Saturday morning, we planned to head to the beach to go surfing. However, just as we were getting ready to leave, a loud noise near the bow of the boat drew the terrified attention of the captain and aroused the general curiosity of the crew. The cause of the horrific crack was the one-inch thick rope securing the anchor chain snapping. As a result, all of the weight of the 14-ton boat being blasted by wind and waves was placed on the windlass, the mechanical device used for raising and lowering the anchor. Should the windlass break down as a result of excessive load, I would be in the unenviable position of having to raise the extremely heavy anchor chain by hand, an unattractive prospect at best. So, I sent Joe and Sashin surfing under the able guidance of Zach and I scoured Puerto Ayora for an acceptable replacement snubber for my anchor chain. After being shut out by every place that I visited, I eventually settled on using a flimsy climbing carabineer that managed to last nearly a day before shattering like so much metal confetti. A number of similarly ineffective short-term fixes were attempted and a long term solution is still being sought. Meanwhile, Joe and Sashin came back sandy, sunburned, and slightly humbled. A primitive shower on the boat slowly restored their normal good nature and we headed out to explore the vibrant nightlife of downtown Puerto Ayora.

The evening started at a swanky sushi restaurant that seemed like one of the nicest places in town, but was almost entirely empty on a Saturday night. The food was good although Joe’s brave attempt at ordering a Long Island Ice Tea was met with frustration when a drink laced with peppermint schnapps arrived instead. Seeking out an establishment that might know how to make a decent drink, we proceeded to one of the two active bars in Puerto Ayora. Drinks were consumed. An odd variety of billiards was played. And awkward conversation with local girls was made. The night ended as all nights on the town end: poorer, with less self-respect, and with a handful of inappropriate stories to draw upon in the future.

Despite the late night, we arose early on Sunday morning and set sail for Isla Isabella. The nearly 50-mile journey was comfortable and a favorable current pushed us slowly towards our destination. Thankfully, after a couple of hours of motoring, the wind picked up just enough to sail the remainder of the trip, thus sparing my guests from the disgraceful scene of me pleading with my uncooperative engine. The crew was entertained by sudoku, a movie, and yet another failed attempt at catching fish in the Pacific. In perhaps the most courageous act ever to be attempted on Audentes, the worthy crew decided to open the gallon can of liquid cheese that has been sitting on board for two years waiting for just such an occasion. The cheese was mixed with pasta and the result did little to make us regret waiting so long to crack open the imposing container. Valiant attempts aside, common sense prevailed and we decided to dispose of the remaining cheese at the earliest opportunity. We entered the crowded harbor just before sunset and spent the rest of the evening relaxing. In the morning, we headed ashore and spent a couple of frustrating hours dealing with customs and immigration. As usual, the final outcome was acceptable, although the Ecuadorean government once again exacted their pound of flesh. After officially gaining entrance to the island, we proceeded to explore the ghost town that is Villamil. Although we found surprisingly few locals, we did find a paved area that provided sufficient space to throw around the football. Still sweating profusely, we stumbled into a quaint restaurant that offered a three course meal, including a drink, for $2.50. Fat and happy, we returned to the boat before nightfall so as to have enough light to spot the numerous rocks and reefs that must be navigated through to get from the beach to the boat. For dinner, we dined on board on grilled fish sautéed in garlic, olive oil, and vegetables a la Campopiano before settling down to watch the laugh-riot of a movie, American Psycho.

On Tuesday, we performed some long overdue boat maintenance with Sachin waxing the hull and Joe working on the broken running light. The work was followed by swimming, reading, and a trip ashore for another local culinary experience. As the hours slipped away and the sunlight faded, we realized that we had no flashlight to guide us through the treacherous reefs in the dinghy. Further compounding the difficulty of the return ride was the fact that a new moon meant hardly any natural light would be available. Arriving back at the beach, we found the dinghy resting about 25 yards from the water. The timing could not have been worse and, at low tide, we were forced to portage the dinghy across several sandbars and then row through a maze of exposed rocks. In the dark night, a group of five cackling 20-somethings navigating through breaking reefs with frantic instructions and more than a few choice words probably made for an entertaining scene for those practical sailors already safely aboard their yachts. In retrospect, I would give our nighttime navigation an A- and our planning an F.

Wednesday morning, we took to the water and snorkeled in the anchorage before taking the kayak out for ride through the lava reefs. Despite my general indifference to birds and fish, the wildlife on display was impressive. Penguins swam alongside the boat, sea lions dove under the kayak, and blue footed boobies within reach ignored the bright vessel in search of more interesting marine life. In the afternoon, we returned ashore one last time to play soccer, volleyball, and football on the beach. Racing back to the boat to avoid repeating our mistake of the previous night, we quickly raised the dinghy and prepared Audentes for the overnight trip to Santa Cruz. We hauled anchor and left Isabella about an hour before sunset in order to arrive back in Santa Cruz in time for Joe and Sachin to catch their flight on Friday morning.

Leaving the anchorage, our lame attempts at fishing were finally rewarded when we hooked a barracuda while still casting the line out. Disappointed that we had not caught an edible fish that could serve as dinner, we were partially compensated by an impressive show of manta rays jumping clear out of the water before flopping back down within easy striking distance of the pursuing sharks. As nightfall set in, we nervously avoided several surrounding islands that were completely invisible in the dark by relying solely on electronic charts. The adverse currents and lack of wind made for a slow trip, although the engine came through yet again and I am in mortal danger of beginning to trust the damn thing (with a 30-day passage upcoming, the last sentence was probably the dumbest thing I have ever written – it is now a virtual certainty that the engine will die en route to the Marquesas). The new moon meant a spectacular sky littered with clusters of stars. Joe and Sachin helped me stand watch throughout the night with Anna providing some much needed early morning support. Zach kept a vigilant watch from the bunk of the v-berth.

On Thursday morning, we arrived safely back in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. Immediately after anchoring, a water taxi approached us and offered some free water that another yacht had purchased and not needed. We filled one of the 75-gallon tanks and rewarded the kind deed with some candy and a t-shirt that I was given in Trinidad and Tobago at a soccer match. The water taxi driver was ecstatic with the bounty and quickly donned his new shirt that he wore proudly for the remainder of the day. After enduring an unnecessary scare concerning lost passports, we headed ashore for food and to run some errands. Maybe it was the lack of sleep during the passage or perhaps it was just that the Galapagos is not designed for convenience, but our attempts at being productive were thwarted time and again. At the bank, Joe learned that VISA really is not everywhere that you want to be and that if you want access to money in the Galapagos, you better carry a Mastercard. In a related story, Joe and I trudged a couple of miles under the blazing hot afternoon sun to a gas station with the intention of filling two 10-gallon jerry jugs. Upon finally reaching the gas station, we realized that we had eight dollars between us and that we needed two dollars to get back to the boat. As a result, all we had to show for our effort was six gallons of diesel. Hot and bitter, we returned to the boat where we continued our unfathomably futile attempts to fix a simple light bulb on the boat. After three more hours spent trying to make a bulb light up and additional input provided by Sachin, three college graduates accepted failure and decide to reward our incompetence with a nice sushi dinner. Our hopes for the evening were buoyed by the tip from a local that a soccer game between the Ecuadorean and Japanese national teams would be shown on television at 8:00 PM. At the internet café, we sought to confirm the time of kick-off and were disappointed to learn that the game was not to be for another three days. Seeking clarification, we investigated further and inadvertently landed on a site that told us not only the time of the game, but the score as well. Apparently, the game had been played in Japan during the early Ecuadorean morning and would not be aired until the evening. We considered using our unintended knowledge to find a sucker at the bar to bet on Ecuador, but we had heard of enough South Americans getting shot over soccer to think better of the ill-advised plan.

On Friday morning, we awoke early so that Joe and Sachin could pack for their trip home. The entire crew went ashore for breakfast and then Anna and I accompanied Joe and Sachin to the airport. Already running late, our efforts to catch the flight were not helped by the inexplicable delay in waiting for a bus to arrive at the ferry terminal. When we finally did arrive at the airport, Joe and Sachin tried to check in less than 10 minutes before their scheduled departure. Although we could see the plane sitting less than 50 yards away with the boarding ramp down and the luggage compartment open, the agents at the counter said that they would have to catch the next flight, scheduled to depart two hours later. Fortunately, they boarded the later flight without incident and their South American adventure will continue for several more days in Quito and Bogotá before they return to the city so nice that they named it twice (hint: it isn’t Panama).

The past week was a memorable one and it was great to have two good friends visit Audentes. The distinct personalities and good humor that Joe, Sachin, Zach, and Anna each demonstrated made life aboard a crowded boat extremely enjoyable. With five people sharing less than 40 feet of space, the experience fell somewhere between living in a frat house and what I would imagine it would be like living in a zoo, if there is in fact any difference between those two. The Galapagos themselves are exceedingly interesting and having such amiable companions greatly increased my enjoyment of the surroundings. However, as interesting as the Galapagos are, most of the best times of the past week were had when we were doing nothing at all. Whether it was conversation during dinner, playing on the beach, commenting on some oddity (of which there were many), working on the boat, competing at sudoku/minesweeper/cards, watching little kids play video soccer, quoting movies, or shopping for food and trinkets, the true highlight of the past week was simply spending time with good company. Thus, it is with a mixture of sadness and eager anticipation that I say farewell to my high school friends and begin to look forward to the long passage to the Marquesas. The 3,000 mile voyage is expected to take an entire month. Undaunted, I am excited to undertake by far the longest trip of my sailing career. There is nothing better than making a fresh start, having a clear, obtainable goal, and embarking on a new adventure. The past week has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip so far, but new experiences await and it is time to head for the South Pacific.

Leave a Reply