Rhythm At Sea: Beating To The Galapagos

It’s 875Nm as the bird flies to the Galapagos from the Las Perlas archipelago, a charming group of islands in the Bay of Panama from which we set out onto our maiden Pacific Ocean passage.

The thing is though, Blue Eye is neither a bird, nor does she fly. Over the course of what was at times a gruelling 12-day sail, we tacked through 1010Nm to reach Santa Cruz, continually thwarted by headwinds, counter currents and Blue Eye’s unfavourable disposition to sail upwind.

As such it can probably rank amongst the most demanding legs yet of our circumnavigation, for which we thoroughly blamed our friend and third crew member, Will, who was the bringer of headwinds on his last trip with us as well, from Morocco to the Canary Islands. Will also, however, brought with him an enthusiasm for the galley and an infectious tendency to talk in accents not belonging to him, allowing for many an afternoon to be spent eating homemade cake and discussing our swelling bellies in an Aussie twang.

The following is a day-in-the-life account of this three-man crews potterings across the ocean in a ten-metre boat, from the high highs to the low lows.

I wake up damp. It’s not due to any accidents on my part, other than leaving the hatch above my bunk slightly open for air. Air and stray waves.

Nothing like a pouring of seawater in the face to wake you up, I muse to myself as I fumble around in the dark, replacing my sodden sheet with a nearby towel, so I can fall back down and steal a few more fitful hours of sleep before I must be on deck.

James and Will are both up and in full swing of the chosen dialect for the day. “Eyyyy Tommy lad, ‘ow are ye doooing?” Scottish, it would appear.

James takes the watches from 3am to 8am, and Will then does the next two hours. He’s our designated Chef for the ocean passages, so in return for cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner he’ll do shorter stints, with James and I doing five hours at a time each. Waking up to pancakes ready for devouring makes me extremely content with this arrangement, and I get the kettle on the hob to make some more coffee for everyone.

The next five hours I’m on watch whilst the boys rest. As with most mornings, our course is more westerly than southerly due to the headwinds, but at least our speed is ok. I fetch the emails from our satphone as I finish my coffee, not failing to recognise the irony of such a normal event amongst such abnormal surroundings.

In the name of restoring the desired metropolitan-marine balance, I leave the emails to download and inspect the deck for what critters might have joined us overnight. In the Caribbean Sea, a morning without peeling a dried-up flying fish from the deck was a rarity, and on one spectacular and bizarre night along the coast of Colombia, a total of 92 flying fish graced our decks, which I know because I counted them as I tossed them over the following day.

The Pacific, however, offers a different dish: squids. Often no longer than a few inches long, they might be found anywhere: in the cockpit, as two that hopped in simultaneously opted for; on top of the sprayhood; or, as we discovered when shaking a reef out, even in the mainsail. They’re quite fascinating in their own slimy way, but a tendency to ink everywhere upon boarding is inconvenient in the case of the cockpit, and downright rude in the case of the once-white mainsail.

Anyway, de-squidding complete and I find we have an email from Nick, James’s dad. Nick is an invaluable, shore-based aid for us, providing both current information we might not be able to access and his own advice from a wealth of sailing experience. James reads it out and, amongst course suggestions for the now and what conditions to expect later, he recommends hand steering. For all the advantages of our self-steering Aries device, he knows as well as we do that it can’t perform as well upwind as if we were to helm ourselves. So, plugging in to some music, I take the tiller and point Blue Eye harder on the wind, leaning her over and pushing us further south.

Gradually the wind and sea build to force 5 conditions. Downwind, it would have been glorious; upwind, it was decidedly unpleasant. A glance at the ships compass reveals that we are heeling over at 30 degrees now, and the pitching and slamming of the boat increases as the swell creates another barrier between us and the Galapagos.

I peer down into the cabin to check on things and see a sleepless and bemused James looking over at Will from his bunk. Our resident chef is covered in flour, as is everything within a metre radius of him, and he’s using his elbows to prevent baking trays and a rolling pin join the fray of items sliding around on the floor below.

He looks up to the puzzled face of James, then to the furrowed brow of mine, and fretfully announces: “I’m making quiche for lunch”. Then, in the incumbent voice of a Scotsman, “This, was a bad idea!”

Handing the watch over to James, it was a relief that the weather had subsided slightly. Heeling over for days and days is extremely wearing, with even standing up becoming both demanding and hazardous, and we were all feeling the challenge of it physically and mentally.

I go forward to lie (or, perhaps more appropriately, roll) on my bunk. Entertaining myself with Su Doku puzzles, stitching an Ecuador flag, and listening to Elton John, I contemplate whether being at sea disposes me toward the activities of a pensioner, or if we had indeed been on the ocean not for six days but six decades. At sea, time loses the detail that it holds on land, falling instead into binaries: day and night, on-watch and off-watch, comfortable and uncomfortable.

Such contemplations are cut short by the sudden roar of the fishing reel fizzing loudly in the cockpit. At last.

I jump up to find James already battling the fish in, so I set about gathering all the necessary items: a gaff to get it on board, gloves to handle it, and a cheap bottle of gin to splash into the gills. The quickest and cleanest way. As the fish approaches we see it is long and shimmering blue, and hauling it up we find we have caught our first Sailfish, a real beauty! Enthusiasm for the catch dwindles on my part as I attempt to gut and scale it, and two buckets are lost to the sea in efforts to collect seawater for clearing up the crime scene that has taken place at the stern.

Joy for the catch returns, however, as the chef serves up some tasty fish burgers, tangibly grateful for a simpler task than the challenge of lunch. He then relieves James who can retire to bed, and I try to steal forty winks before I’m back on watch.

Another five hours in the cockpit, another coffee. Two days from the Galapagos we’ll run out of gas, rather unexpectedly, and the inability to boil the kettle will be the worst part as we get by on cereal and bean salad wraps.

For now though, I can enjoy the hot caffeine hit under a clear sky of stars, rather than the merciless midday sun. Polaris shines up and above to starboard, whilst the Southern Cross stands over to port.

Not every night has been or will be so pleasant. The weather a few hundred miles either side of the equator is renowned for its fickle and unpredictable nature, and whilst in general the winds are light, squalls are quite common. We’d experienced this first hand on our first eve of the passage, when a large black cloud loomed ahead, flashes of white permeating through it every now and then. Lightning: a sailors nightmare.

We tried to head east out of its path but we soon found ourselves engulfed in torrential rain, with the flashes and rumbles growing nearer. A lightning strike to a boat poses little threat to its crew, but it will almost certainly do a number on your electrics, and so we gathered laptops, phones, tablets the satphone and anything else and put them in the oven, which would act as a Faraday Cage in the unfortunate event of a strike. Much to the confusion of the chef in the morning.

Tonight, though, is clear and the only threat of an airborne strike is posed by one of the seven or so birds that accompany me. Fortunately, they seem more interested in the rich supply of ocean food that I presume Blue Eye is kicking up as she cuts through the water. Indeed, our excitement of nearing the Galapagos Islands, famed for the wide variety of life it hosts, has been augmented by the marine life we’ve seen so far. Not only are birds, squids and fish ubiquitous, we’ve spotted dozens of sea turtles sunning their shells on the surface of the ocean, as well as the unmistakable exhalations of whales blowholes, and even the eerie figure of a large shark basking in the sunshine.

As we roll gently through the calm night, a loud bang sounds down below in the cabin. I poke my head down to find the boys half-awake, half-asleep, stuffing food back into the cupboards beneath their bunks that have been opening periodically, under the weight of all the stores packed into them. They give up and fall unconscious, as tins of spinach roll back and forth.

James comes up to the cockpit for his watch and I retire to bed, exhausted but happy in the knowledge we’re a day closer to the Galapagos and the Southern Hemisphere. A night before our arrival, just as the sun sets, we will attend a unique, three-person strong, Equator Party. Watching the GPS count down – 00.00.01′ N… 00.00.00′ … 00.00.01’ S – we’ll celebrate with a tot of rum, some strange antics in hats, and – less pleasantly in my eyes – homemade Sauerkraut that has been fermenting for the last week.

That’s a few days off though, and for now every day blurs into one. I remember to close the hatch and fall asleep immediately.

A wave sweeps over Blue Eye’s foredeck, and some water finds its way down into the cabin below onto the face of the sleeping sailor.

Nothing like a leaking vent to guide seawater onto your face in the morning, I muse to myself. And so starts another day at sea.

One thought on “Rhythm At Sea: Beating To The Galapagos

  1. What a truly fascinating insight to the reality of sailing Blue Eye around the world. Awesome reading, well done gentlemen.

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