The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Catonsville, MD, 01 May 2008

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador , Friday Noon, April 11, 2008

Well, here I am! After nineteen days and probably 1,000 sea miles, I’m here! All my bits and pieces still together - except for a big bruise on my shank when I was thrown in the cockpit on the first and nearly only windy day back near Panamá, a pinched finger when I tried to anchor this morning, and a sunburnt nose from cockpit duty whilst motoring. No damage to the boat. I hope nobody had to worry much. I asked three or four ships to send Kathleen emails to say that the voyage was going very, very slowly and do not know at this point if they actually made it through.

After the first couple of brisk days off Panamá, I was becalmed for days on end and in the end sailed – almost drifted – nearly to The Galapagos before I could get enough of an angle in the SE wind to turn towards Ecuador. Even then, it was mighty slow. But, I was determined to actually sail it. And in the end, except for about 30 hours altogether, including battery charging and the last 75 miles into Bahía, I did it nearly completely without using the engine. I probably used only about 10 or 15 gallons of fuel altogether. Except for reefing at the beginning, I hardly ever touched the sails except to trim for wind and going from a port tack to a starboard tack to make Ecuador. The new sails performed really well and look a treat. But even the best sails are useless without some wind to fill them.

I read eleven books, watched four DVDs, use up all my wine and beer (three six-packs went to panga fishermen along the way), ATE ALL MY COOKIES, and am left with three onions, ten potatoes, two limes and a ginger root. Never wanted for food. Had enough water, although I gave a few gallons to panga fishermen along the way (What’s the deal with those guys? Don’t they have enough food and water for their two-week shifts?) One panga fishermen gave me three salted fish; they stored well but it takes a little getting used to. I caught a couple of fish along the way but mostly lived from provisions I brought with me. Canned beans are important. Mainly it was tedious. It was like taking the Trans Siberian Express except that there was no company, the food was not as good and of course it is warmer in the tropics. “Sailing”, as opposed to motoring, teaches a lot about patience.

If you want the day-by-day flavour of an 18-day solo voyage on the Pacific, just scroll down and read the daily log in the next section.

As I write this I am anchored in 6-10 feet of water in the “Waiting Room” off Bahía de Caráquez. There is a high tide early in the morning that will permit me to cross the shallow river bar into the estuary. It is basically calm but in these shallow waters the Pacific swells do start to get rather large especially since, this afternoon, the sea breezes have been trying to turn me sideways. I have trimmed the boat with a snubber line so she will face up into the waves rather than roll around. The snubber, running back to the bits at the cockpit and fixed up with lots of chaffing gear, works fine but it really does stretch and groan when the big swells come through. The groaning noise it makes I find unsettling; I keep expecting it to part. Fortunately I have lots of chain out. The snubber was basically to stop the chain from rubbing on the bobstay and making a lot of noise. You pays your money and you takes your chances. But the sea breeze should die tonight and Tripp will be out in person to pilot me in tomorrow at 0730 local time. I have spent the time since noon when I anchored here in tidying up the cabin, collecting laundry, stowing and cleaning, writing and reading.

My Navico tiller pilot kept blowing fuses at the beginning and I was never able to use it. That is also one of the reasons for not motoring more, when I am frank. Hours in the cockpit in the gruelling sun was impossible and at night I could not stay awake to steer. So, it was sail or drift to get some sleep.

Starting from about 150 miles south of Panamá, all the way to Galapagos waters and then east to the mainland I was constantly encountering open boat fishermen. There must be hundreds of fishermen in open boats out there judging by the large number I saw just on my route. When they saw a sailboat coming with its red sails they would head me off and guide me through or around their drift lines or nets. Then they would catch up with me and have a chat, ask for water or food or sometimes just stare. Without exception, the one’s I talked to were from Manta, Ecuador. No Panamanians, no Columbians, just Ecuadorians from Manta.

Well, it was an adventure! It would have much more fun if Kathleen had been along. But a solo voyage was a challenge. Our trip from Acapulco to The Galapags two years ago took about the same time. But of course, we motored a large part of it because we were afraid of running out of water with three people on board. This was not a risk this time. As it turned out it was all pretty much a piece of cake. Long and slow, but easy. But you never know in advance, do you?

I have a number of projects to take care of here in Bahía de Caráquez. The big hand-operated bilge pump seems to have reached its allotted days. The stuffing gland issue needs to be taken care of, I want to make modifications to the bobstay arrangements (the galvanised chain still gets in the salt water and corrodes), we will be adding some sort of handholds to the cockpit for when we are heeled over, I want to replace the rusted out deck eyes and turn blocks on the lazarette deck, etc. etc. But the boat performed well on the trip and there were no problems at all.

It was an interesting experience and good preparation for our month-long trip to The Marquesas probably in September or October. Once I know how many days I still have on my Ecuadorian visa, I will be flying up to Baltimore to be with Kathleen for the summer. More on that later.

I kept a journal of the voyage which I will blog as well. This is just a short summary for all of those with too little time to read long excerpts.

Thanks to the merchants vessels, Egelanteergracht, Cap Reinga and the reefer ship NYWCOOL Catspaw (spelling) who offered to pass messages to Kathleen during my trip. The only one that actually got through was from Cap Reinga, a German-owned vessel I met near The Galapagos. It was on its way to New Zealand.

Glad to be here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Boca Chica, Panamá, Easter Sunday, 23 March 2008

Unfortunately, I have been nearly ready to leave here for a week. In fact, I have been checked out of the country for over two weeks now, since before Andrew arrived from the U.S.A. and our week-long father-and-son cruise to the islands. I saw him off at the bus station last Sunday night and was back aboard Vilisar by the next evening.

I anticipate it will be a 10-12 day passage from Boca Chica, Panamá, to Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador. It may only have taken six days to get here last November, including one day when we were essentially becalmed. But going back will mean sailing to windward and light winds at that; also crossing through the ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone or Doldrums), which still down near the equator and has not yet started moving north.

The boat is essentially ready. But I wanted to fill the diesel tanks to the top and make sure I have enough propane. This turns out to have taken quite a few days. It is bad enough that the price of diesel in Panamá rose 35¢ per gallons to over $3.60 while I was waiting for it. A big incentive to use the sails as much as possible! The 20-pound canister of propane cost $12.65. Ruben Villalobos, the Panamanian guy in Boca Chica who had agreed to pick up the fuels while in town (for a $20 contribution to his travel costs, of course) was taking his time. The “freight” costs to get the fuel out from town with Ruben raised the real cost to over $4 a gallon.

I probably could have left on Good Friday. But aside from the fact that I still did not have the propane and diesel, it is an old sailor’s superstition that one never commences a long voyage on a Friday. And, while I don’t for a moment believe any of that stuff whatsoever, I on the other hand like to have as many forces, even the unknowns, on my side as possible when I go offshore.

The fuels showed up in Boca Chica village yesterday afternoon (Easter Saturday) just before dusk. I loaded the three plastic jerry jugs of diesel, three 5-gallon blue jugs of fresh water, my 20-pound propane tank and a smaller one belonging to my friend Mike on S/V Dragon lady, which he had had filled at the same time. The tide was in full ebb and with the extra weight in the dinghy I felt like I was shooting the rapids coming through Boca Chica narrows in the dark and bouncing over the standing waves. But, my 1930 I was alongside S/V Bon Temps of Bordeaux, where I was invited along with Mike and Maria of Dragon Lady to have a farewell dinner with Beatrice and Jean.

I had a moment of panic when I tried to make my espresso this morning and found that the stove was not working. It seems that one of the burners is blocked. Fortunately, I tried the other two and they work but not before I crawled under the cockpit seat to check all the lines for leakage. Grubby work! Surely, it’s time to replace that old galley stove! This all took place before breakfast, so to speak. I was still planning to catch the morning land breeze and the good current and leave in good time today.

Mike was over this morning at about 0900 to help me stow the dinghy on the foredeck. After he left I made some coffee and continued stowing. I had secured the main cabin and forecastle yesterday. But now I had to stow dinghy accessories like oars, the daggerbaord plug, the bolts and wingnuts that hold the two sections of the dinghy together. Then I also of course had to clean the flora and fauna off the dinghy bottom and clean up the big mess on deck afterwards. Otherwise these marine accretions would soon be stinking in the sunshine. A disgusting smell, I can assure. I am still suffering from the sinusitis that somewhat hindered my actions in the past few days, My nose was running and I was constantly stopping to find a piece of tissue paper. Meanwhile, the morning land breeze had dropped, the tropical sunshine was feeling very hot in the still air and sweat was pouring off me in rivers. Time to go below and have some electrolytes in water (i.e., sodium chlorides, potassium, magnesium and calcium: these additional salts are necessary to keep you feeling like a Mensch here in the tropics. Without them you will soon feel terribly lethargic and unable to concentrate of function).

The next task is to pour the fifteen gallons of diesel fuel into the tanks without making a big mess on deck or spills in the water. I generally hate top up from small jugs for exactly those reasons. I consider procrastinating until the fuel levels get low. But being required to refuel at sea where, thanks to winds and waves, I usually make an even greater mess convinces me to do it now and save the hassle later. Having the winds blow diesel across your deck is not nice and neither is having a wave slop up under the caprail and into the open tank entry, which is flush with the deck. You are rather exposed when the tank spouts are open. For several reasons therefore, it’s better to get the job done now. I try to siphon the fuel from the jugs into the onboard tanks. This might not get the bottom litre or two, which I just pour in. I make it a rule always to use a filter since, sometimes in industrialised developed countries, contaminants (i.e., dirt and water) show up in the fuel. Other boaters pooh-pooh this. “Oh, Panamá fuel is clean,” several cruisers told me. I used the Baja filter anyway and, siehe da!, specks of dirt caught in the bottom of the filter. Diesels are very reliable but, since they rely upon a very, very fine spray of fuel injected into the cylinder to be ignited under high pressure, any dirt or water in the fuel can block the injectors. And any steam inside the cylinders leads eventually to rust and other damage to the engine. Better safe than sorry! I give Mike my old (smaller) fuel filter since I now have the larger Baja filter.

By the time all this is completed it is nearly two o’clock. I feel worn out and a little weak what with my sinusitis and the intensive midday sun. I decide I shall make the boat completely ready today but only leave on the morning breeze tomorrow (i.e., Easter Monday). I am a week behind schedule and I am slowly eating up my fresh provisions purchased for the two-week voyage. But I have lots of canned stuff and still have some fruits, veggies and store-bought bread. I also want to work on the big hand-operated bilge pump, which seems to have developed an air leak and is not drawing. I know that if I use the engine, the unaligned prop shaft will certainly cause water leakage (I plan to have it re-aligned in Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador). I can keep ahead of leakage from the stuffing gland with 25-galon per hour hand pump. Provided, of course that it works! I also spend time rigging my two fishing hand lines with new lures. Watch out you tunas! Be careful you mahi mahi! Beware you bonito, pargos, and groupers!

DAY I, Easter Monday, 24 March 2008

I have everything ready by mid-afternoon yesterday. There seems to be no flaring up of my sinusitis (I didn’t need medical problems at sea). In fact, I had no more excuses for hanging around in Boca Chica, Panamá. I set my departure for 0700 today hoping there would be a land breeze that early in the day to allow me to sail out of the anchorage in my new suit of red sails. Maria (S/V Dragon Lady) said she was going to get up in plenty of time to photograph Vilisar looking good in her new duds.

Well, I do have the sails up, and I have the anchor up without the help of the engine. But there is simply too little air to move the boat at all let alone against the tidal currents. Since I am drifting down on another anchored boat, I finally give it up as a lost cause and motor-sail out.

We are at springs now and the current carries me along quite quickly. Soon I turn beyond the point with the palm trees and Boca Chica anchorage is lost to view.

I am still darting up and down the companionway ladder and dashing forward to tidy up halyards and the like. But otherwise an uneventful motorised start. I had planned to sail to the Islas Secas about 15 miles SE. I usually like to make only a short shake-down jaunt the first day in order to test everything and complete the inevitable stowing that has not yet been completed. If there are major problems I can still turn around and get them fixed ashore.

As I come out of the channel into the slow oily swells of the Pacific, however, I change my mind and decide to make for Isla Parida or the neighbouring small Isla Gáymas. Instead of 15 Nm it is only about 5 or 6 Nm away. It is so calm and windless that I motoring all the way to The Secas would be a real drag.

For some reason the Garmin GPS turns on but it spends hours searching for satellites to get a fix. I didn’t need a GPS for this little stint since you can see Parida ahead of you on the horizon and I have been there before. But what if it didn’t work for the voyage to Ecuador? Damn! Blast! And double-damn! I go below and bring up the E-Trek backup GPS. It immediately locks onto nine satellites and gives me a fix in one minute. Well, that’s a relief! Mind you, the little E-Trek is good and reliable too, but there is no routing and no digital map so I would have to keep a paper log of positions. Maybe I can figure out how to get those to function; I recall the old maxim, ‘If all other efforts fail, try reading the instruction manual.’ While reading it, I discover that, if you have stored the GPS without batteries, the GPS then has to restart everything from scratch and you have to push a couple of extra buttons. Once done, I have a fix in no time. There are all our old waypoints from the six-day trip up to Panamá last November. We basically sailed NNW on a straight line between the 80th and the 82nd meridians. This time I shall be heading out farther to the west to about 84º W. But at least the old waypoints are a check.

I have a go at working the electronic tiller pilot. Niente! Nada! Nothing. It doesn’t even seem to be getting electricity. Vilisar is equipped with a Cap Horn windvane steering. But, this does not work if there is no wind or if one is motoring. For this, and in fact I want to say, for almost every eventuality, a tiller pilot is better. It is just easier to use than a windvane steering. It’s mainly disadvantages are that it takes some battery power and, being electronic, is more fragile. But it doesn’t take very much; if you are motoring, who cares about power, and, if it’s sunny you can recharge your batteries with the solar panels as you go along? We used our reconditioned Navico 5500 tiller pilot for the first time coming up and easily got used to the little squeaks it makes for minor course adjustments. Without the Navico, however, I shall have to hand steer any time that I am motoring or motorsailing. As the only watchkeeper on board this is less than desirable option.

We have frequently made just a small move the first day of an offshore passage rather than simply striking off into the blue. Usually there is stowing to complete, though not this time. But little repairs like the above can be taken care of more easily at an anchorage than at sea. I also want to clean the prop and the bottom in water that is less murky than Boca Chica’s.

Besides the challenge and skill of simply ‘sailing’, one of the reasons not to use the engine at present is that Vilisar’s packing gland leaks. The engine and the prop shaft are not properly aligned following the engine work done back in Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador. Mis-alignment is the main reason why stuffing glands leak, I read in Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual. If you don’t use the engine, on the other hand, the stuffing gland doesn’t get loose and let water in and you don’t have to pump. It’s as simple as that. But, for some reason this morning, although it continued to drip somewhat after I stopped the engine, the leaking is minimal.

By 0900 I am at anchor at Isla Gámez, a little pearl with a sandy beach lined by palms just next to the larger Isla Parida. There is already one boat at anchor: S/V Sarana out of Seattle, a cute little 32-foot double-ender like an ‘Ingrid”. But they must still be sleeping because nobody comes on deck. I rig the awning and the swim ladder fast and jump in to cool off. It’s already plenty hot to be standing out in the cockpit on the way here. A current is still running strongly so I put off bottom cleaning until low slack tide at 1130 and make myself another cup of espresso as a reward for getting this far and for getting the Garmin GPS to work. Always good to pamper the crew!

While I am cooling off under the cockpit awning, a large yacht (over 50 feet) arrives. They idle close and I see they are flying a Canadian flag. They promise to come over when they have settled and launched their dinghy. Laurie and Lionel (S/V Sea Whisper, Vancouver) are actually from Nanaimo and Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. He recognises Vilisar from his youth in Maple Bay when it was owned by Bill Taylor, whom he also knows. He will definitely be in touch with Bill when he gets back. I gave him the blogsite. I have met the builder, George Friend in Sidney, BC, and I communicate from time to time with Joe May in Alaska. I have been wanting to hear from Bill Taylor. So, Greetings, Bill Taylor!!! Write! (

It takes half an hour with a plastic spatula to clean the hull. It is surprisingly clean by comparison with Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, where the flora and fauna were astronomical thanks to the volcanic ash and sand brought down from the Andes. The prop is a bit hairy but there were altogether perhaps only five barnacles on the bottom and prop. Mostly just sea lice and a bit of grass at the waterline. I saw no evidence of bare planks. Relief!

Later Lionel and Laurie come over for a warm beer together. They have spent three years sailing from British Columbia to the Med and back. They have to get back to work to fatten the cruising kitty for the next trip. They invite me for a fish dinner tonight. Pick-up at 1800. Don’t dress! I am pondering that.

I notice that a light breeze picked up by noon this morning. So tomorrow I shall wait until I have a breeze before leaving. Lionel has all the GRIB weather files, and can get me a five-day forecast for my route. How cool is that? He also has all kinds of cruising guides for Central and South America on his laptop. He is going to burn a disc for me.

DAY II, Tuesday, 25 March 2008

It is already nearly 30ºC when the sun pops up in a clear sky at 0635. The sun is currently passing directly overhead as we have just passed the vernal equinox; now and around Thanksgiving are the hottest times of the year.

Sea Whisper pulled out about 0600 when it was barely light. I had a lovely evening with them over dinner last night. In a fifty-foot boat with all mod cons, life is probably a little different than in little Vilisar. The main cabin is so large they have to rig a full-height net down the middle of the cabin so they are n’ thrown around. Now that is a high-class problem! I personally wouldn’t want to have the trouble of looking after such a craft because its systems are far more complex. But clearly Lionel, who has owned the Frazer 50 for twenty-eight years, is totally capable and his vessel looks fantastic. To make cruising money he operates heavy equipment for a few years; then, off they go on another trip. Laurie brings in some money by writing for sailing and other magazines. I really liked them and wish them the best.

Lionel enthusiastically explained their computer setup with SSB and ham radio and all the bells and whistles. He also let me send a Sailmail or Windlink message to Kathleen. She will be surprised. Lionel also got me the 5-day weather probs for an area covering about 300 or 400 Nm south of here. The forecast is for northerlies 10-15 knots! Let’s hear it for the Weather Gods! Near the Panamanian coast the winds are lighter and a little more confused because of land and sea breezes. But I might just be able to make a bee-line to Bahía with following winds instead of heading farther west first.

When I got back on the boat last night about 0930 we were getting nice land breezes. I let out a bit more chain as I am now on a lee shore. Tying the tiller down so it doesn’t rattle in the small waves, I turn in. It’s hot in the cabin and I consider sleeping on deck. But eventually I slip into sleep.

This morning after waving goodbye to Sea Whisper, I get the coffee on and download the various cruising guides, etc. that Lionel has put on a disc for me. We have most of them already but in book form. Right after breakfast I shall address the issue of the Navico tiller pilot. Lionel suggests that, since I had a loose wire inside the plug, the fuse in the body of the tiller pilot is probably burnt out. We’ll see! I really want to be able to use it on this trip, though, if the winds are good, the Cap Horn will work fine too.

My efforts are fruitless. I get one little squeak out of the Navico and burn out two fuses. This voyage is going to be trying, I see that coming. I can use the windvane steering when there is wind. But, what about when I am motoring? I shall have to handsteer the whole time. Very dull! Let’s just hope there are no problems with the Cap Horn.

At 0900 I start the engine. It is already 30º C and I am in a good lather by the time the anchor is stowed. I secure it so it does not move at all for this offshore passage. Wouldn’t want it to fall into the water and have all the chain shoot out of the locker behind it. I have seen this happen. Not nice.

There is no wind to speak of so I motor off optimistically in search of the promised northerlies. The GPS shows it to be 274 Nm to the waypoint set just off Isla Mapelo, Columbia, roughly halfway to Ecuador (600 Nm). I have the mainsail up as a steadying sail in the swells; no point yet in hoisting headsails while we are just motoring around the rocks and islets near Isla Parida.

By 1030, however, I have picked up a light morning breeze and can display all Vilisar’s laundry. Very nice new, red laundry it is too. I set the Cap Horn. Hallelujah! It’s working! Sometimes in light breezes it can be reticent. By noon I have only wiped 4 Nm off the trip to Isla Mapelo, most of the time spent motoring out of the islands onto the more open sea. The Pacific is just that but the huge and slow swells slop up over underwater rocks and onto the rocky islands. Suddenly out of calm water appears a huge frothing wash of water and a huge wave begins to curl over some underwater obstacle. I can see then from afar so I can navigate around them. Spectacular, though, and gives you some idea of the power inherent in the swells and waves.

The wind has now definitely picked up and we are showing over 7 kts on the GPS. On a port tack with the NE Trades behind us on the port quarter and the boom swung out to starboard, Vilisar displays her notorious weather helm. Now I also realise why having two people aboard makes managing her easier. I want to go forward to the base of the mast to take in a reef in the mainsail. But I cannot leave the helm untended even for a few seconds since, until I can cut the expanse of mainsail exposed to the wind, the boat keeps trying to twist around the mast and turn our heading off to the E. The angle of the waves adds to the problems. While the big ocean swells are coming up from the southwest, windwaves are now building from the NE Trades that are pushing us along. I wish now I had reefed in before leaving; it is always easier to shake out a reef than to tuck one in. This is going to be a handful. The Navico would be useful for keeping the boat straight while I go onto the foredeck. As it is I can hardly leave the cockpit. Even lashing the tiller will only hold her on course for a half a minute at the most.

I consider heading SE for Isla Coiba and anchoring for the night to sort out this issue. I can see her in the haze, but she is way off my track to the east. There is another island just coming up over the horizon, too, at about 10-15 miles. I cannot find it on the charts or cruising guides so have no idea whether it will have a sheltered anchorage. If it doesn’t I shall just go in under its lee and adjust my sails. Things are really bouncing around out here now. I scandalise the mainsail, spilling air to relieve the pressure.

While I am considering all this my fishing line suddenly jerks hard. Apparently I have a fish on my hand line. It is still fighting so I decide simply to tow it until it drowns. We’re not talking sportsmanlike, catch-and-release behaviour here. We’re talking food. But I simply have too much to do right now. Eventually I get the 150 feet of nylon line up to the boat and yank the fish aboard. It’s a bonito, about 3 or 4 pounds; he has both the hooks in his sharp teeth. I land him on deck where he flops and makes a bloody mess on my new white paintwork. Nothing for it, however. I am too busy too deal with him and he finally expires, looking at me reproachfully with his big glassy eye. It occurs to me that I shall never be able now to leave the tiller unless I heave to. How am I to make meals? Preparing and cooking a fish is out of the question. It is all I can risk to tie off the tiller for a few moments in order to get something to drink or open a can of something. Clearly this trip is not going to be a culinary tour de force. The sun is very direct. And hot! No shelter in the cockpit. I pull on a long-sleeved pyjama top and, of course, a broad hat. I also keep a bathing suit on as it is more comfortable for sitting than bare-arsed.

Jawing across the wind waves at an angle to reach the island in question takes hours of hand-steering, and the sun is nearly ready to set by the time I draw close. I had from the distance been undecided whether to sail down the east or west side. I left my options open until I got quite close. Fortunately! To the west of the island, there is a huge reef running way out at least a mile or two. The huge swells are crashing over it and sending mountains of foam into the air. I would hate to run across that at night unexpectedly, which could easily have happened in this case. The island is crowned with a high, rounded centre and is wooded. At the east side a long sandy spit juts out. It is covered by palm trees cheek by jowl. Surely that indicates shelter just behind the point. But, the closer I come, the more I can see swells crashing along that even eastern coast. There is nowhere whatsoever anywhere close to being a shelter. All the waters out to several hundred yards from the land and even behind the island is a graveyard of black rocks being dashed by wave after white SW swells. Behind the island there are fields and fields of semi-submerged rocks.

So, forget about dropping the anchor. It’s definitely time to get some sail off her for the night. My Plan B was to find some shelter from the NE waves and winds in the lee of the island. This will be the first time on this trip. A local red, blue and orange fishing boat is working through the rocks. They stop and stare in astonishment as I round up a hundred feet away from them and drop the red mainsail, dashing around the cabin roof to tie it down so to doesn’t blow away on me. The headsails are flapping to beat the band and the staysail boom (aka ‘The Widowmaker’) wants to bash me from behind as I tidy up the halyards. I dart back to the tiller, slip off the rubber bungee cords attempting to hold the boat up into the wind, push on the tiller and eventually get back on my course to the south. For this darting back and forth on a pitching deck it helps if you are at least part-monkey.

On a broad port reach under headsails now, the weather helm has vanished. But so has the speed, which has now been cut in half. But, that’s fine with me; I’m tired and badly want something to eat and drink. For one’s added travelling pleasure, the boat is of course, rolling like Hell without the stabilising influence of the mainsail. I try to set up the Cap Horn but cannot get it to work for me now. I curse it, the boat, and the weather and why am I doing this God-damned trip anyway? I’ve had it with cruising! Done! Through! Kathleen will just have to accept that I am taking up gardening. To Hell with sailboats!

Just at dark I spot my first freighter heading into the Panamá Canal. Very big! Scary!

From the cockpit I smell diesel fumes but cannot tell where it is coming from. I sniff all around the lazarette hold, go below to see if a lamp has been upset. But the smell is only on deck. Finally, later, I discover that there is fuel puddle around one of the deck jugs. That explains why the foredeck was like a skating rink earlier! It is completely dark now with no moon until around 2200. I promise myself to clean it up in the morning. I am totally bushed after this first day at sea. Hope the leakage is just from them being too full and not a hole, but I screw on the lids more tightly for the moment. I curse my fate the more.

After an hour of tinkering and disheartening struggle, I finally get the windvane to cooperate. This allows me to go below to make a peanut butter sandwich and find some cookies. I make up some Kool Aid with electrolytes to compensate for the heat, stress and sun, and take a vitamin pill and two aspirins on top of it. It’s all I can manage by way of food. My whole body feels on fire from the sun and worn out from the unaccustomed work of wrestling with sails. With the darkness and my exhaustion I am depressed as well.

The refreshments help. I also lie down for twenty minutes on the port berth leaving the windvane steering to do its work. Short as the rest is, even that few minutes help. But there is no serious rest for the wicked. I am right in the main approach lanes to the Panamá Canal and I see a column of ships approaching me from the west. They are quite fast and I have to start making calculations about whether I can pass in front of them or should I wait for one to go by and dart between them.

I let the first one go and cross the path of the next one at right angles. I can tell it is big but it only has running lights and one or two other white lights. These other lights confuse somewhat. I cannot in the dark tell whether I have actually passed him when I see that he is nearly on me. Terrified, I dash to start the engine to be able to manoeuvre and I head up to run parallel towards him. If he is on radar he will notice my distinct move. I think he had already turned to slip behind me. But, silent and dark, he passes me, much too close for my comfort. Maybe the pilot was ranting on the bridge about stupid pleasure boaters getting in the way of mammoths. Under maritime law, sail always has the legal right of way over power vessels of any size. In the real world, let’s be honest, tonnage rules.

Over this crisis, I try running downwind under just the jib. But there is too little breeze and so much rolling now after dark to keep it filled and it noisily brushes against the forestay before filling again with a crack when the boat rolls the other way. The noise is just as disturbing down below. With great effort I go forward on the oil-slick deck and douse the jib in the dark. I hoist the staysail. But this sail I sheet in tight amidships rather than winging it out, i.e., it tie it to lie amidships in line with the length of the boat. I tether the tiller amidships too and, now out of the shipping lanes and now very late at night, I go below. We are essentially drifting but at least not at cross-purposes with the swells and waves and therefore not yawing and rolling. The GPS says I am heading more or less in the right direction at about 1.5 knots. That’s good enough for now since the next waypoint is still over two hundred miles away. By midnight we have covered 54 Nm since this morning about 0900 including getting out of the islands. Not great. But still all right. There is still the night ahead to reckon to our running time.

I am not confident about being out of the shipping lanes. I get out the egg timer and set it for fifteen minutes. It drags me repeatedly out of an exhausted sleep. I stagger to the companionway ladder, stick my head out to see if there are any ships, check the compass for heading, re-set the timer and fall back onto the port berth for another 15 minute blot-out.

Day 1 at sea has been close to a nightmare. I keep reminding myself that: a) there is no going back against the NE winds; and, b) the first couple of days at sea are always the worst. All this seems worse than ever since I am alone and Vilisar is not really set up to be handled by a crew of one. I think about how to simplify things for the morning.

DAY III, Wednesday, 26 March 2008

At 0310 I am awakened below by strange scraping noises at the bow. I rush on deck to see that we have drifted very slowly down on a large dead tree, which is a roost for cormorants. There are lots of ropes tied to the branches in rings too and the branches have been cut with a saw. Even so, the trees upper branches are higher than my bowsprit. Fortunately we are not going at all fast (1.5 knots). We are now in a hugging match while the birds, their rest disturbed, squawk at me like neighbours who don’t like your loud party music. I start the engine and try to back away. No go! So I give it a gently push forward and, sure enough, the whole shooting match passes slowly down the port side. No damage that I can see to the bow. The whole scene fits to my surrealistic mindset at present.

It is still dark at 0500. But I am awake and reckon I should get going again. I raise the jib as well and Vilisar begins to pick up a little gentle speed.
I see a couple of freighters but they are just at the horizon, i.e., 6-8 miles away and sailing away from me.

If I cannot use the various self-steering arrangements, this is going to be a damned long trip. I am doubtful if I can do it alone. The best winds are during the day from late morning or early afternoon just after sunset. There’s a nice breeze then, of course, but the sun is merciless on anyone who has to hand-steer from the unshaded cockpit. Aside from the dangers of dehydration and sunburn, it is damned boring. Tiring and tiresome.

With this in mind, I decide I need to start motoring if the sailing speed drops below, say, 2 knots. Any wind-driven speed above that and the motor is not really adding much. I probably have enough fuel to actually motor the whole 600 Nm if I don’t push the speed and don’t run into head waves or counter-current. The Lister is just an auxiliary engine and was never designed to be the main means of propulsion. It is only for getting into harbours and setting the anchor and suchlike.

It is still a few hours before the sun becomes intensive and, since we are sailing so slowly and the sea is classy smooth, I decide an a little Happy Motoring. It means of course that I have to handsteer. After a couple of hours I feel very sleepy again and can hardly keep my eyes open or my head up. I groan and let my head fall into my hands. I need a coffee! I do finally manage to arrange a couple of bungees that will hold the vessel on course long enough for me to go below to forage for food and drink. More molasses cookies.

At the noon position-taking, we have gone 90 Nm in the last 24 hours. Not bad but nothing to brag about. The night hours mean a loss of the good times during the day. We still have 180 Nm to go to the waypoint off Isla Malpelo. My God! It doesn’t bare thinking about. But of course, this is somewhat meaningless since we are heading more SW than SE towards Columbia.

At 1330 as the midday heat is roasting me, I decide to heave too (i.e., back the foresail) and give myself some rest and food and at least an hours sleep below. The boat’s action is now quiet, though the heavy main boom, a solid piece of wood, slams when the waves roll us and shakes the whole boat like a sledge. I throw together a salad of a can of peeled tomatoes, a small can of niblet corn and half a can of garbanzo beans. Season to taste. Delicious and refreshing. Then I make myself a large cup of espresso coffee with powdered whole milk and sweetener. Delicious! Delicious! Delicious! Life returns. I literally collapse on the port berth and am out like a light, the egg timer set for one hour instead of 15 minutes. Damn the torpedoes!

I wake much refreshed. Getting the boat back into motion, the Cap Horn windvane steering cooperates immediately. Thank goodness for sleep and coffee! Perhaps, having now reefed the mainsail, that big sail is not over-powering the steering. That is always a problem with Vilisar. Now I can sit inside out of the heat, read a book even.

Eighteen nautical miles and six hours later, the winds have died again just before sunset. I now do any sail shortening before it gets dark so the task does not seem so daunting. I have decided that if I do motor, I shall it in the cool of the evening and/or night i.e., after the winds has dropped our speed to under 2.5 or 3 knots and when the seas are calmer. I want to get to Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador fast if I have to do so much hand steering. With the sky still golden in the west and the sea calm, I throw on the noisy old Lister and take my place in the cockpit facing forward. In no time I am doing 5 knots. Now we’re cookin’ with gas!

At the 1800 positioning, we still had 162 Nm to go to the waypoint. At our average speed of about 4 or 5 knots, it will take us three days and therefore six or seven days for the whole trip if, of course, that speed can be maintained. How much ‘driving’ do I really want to do, though? If I can get that windvane steering to work properly, I can stay out of the sun all day. Even if the breezes are light in the mornings and evenings, I can just accept that and accept that the trip will take longer. I had planned on 10-12 days anyway. At night, if there is no wind, I can drift albeit to the SW at 1.5 or 2 knots for 10-12 hours. It might all turn out to be a slow trip. But that’s sailing for you.

After the 1800 position-taking and this little chat with myself, I decide it would do me good to wash down the cabin roof and decks. Bucket after bucket of sea water are devoted to this task. Most of the surface of the vessel is covered in crystallised salt spray from yesterday’s run. This holds the damp and collects dirt. Rinsing even with sea water seems to clear a lot of this away and make everything look and feel better. I tidy up sail ties, and halyards then check to make sure the solar panels and anchors are secured. Finally I give myself a bucket bath of sea water using lots of shampoo and finishing up with a fresh water rinse off. Glorious! The sun has just set and Venus and Sirius have appeared. Way off to the W and NW I see flashes of lightening, some of them spectacular. I am glad they are not near me but I check all around the boat to see what could be done in case. Dry now, I head below, make myself some Spam sandwiches and fetch an Atlas beer. Tomorrow I must straighten up this cabin. It’s a sight!

By 1900 the sea and air are very calm. I start the engine. The deep Harley Davidson-like muffler noise is comforting. But the little NE wind there is blows the stinking exhaust over the cockpit from port to starboard. I decide I will forget the engine after this run. From tomorrow on, it’s sails only!

By 2200 after three hours of ‘driving’, I am dead tired. My head is off my neck. I turn off the engine, rig the staysail tight amidships as I did the night before, tie down the tiller and get onto the berth below to sleep. There are large ships around but only at a great distance and heading for the Canal. I switch on the LED masthead light and hit the sack, the egg timer ticking for one hour the first time around. I had put off mounting the new Lunenburg-technology radar reflector at the spreaders until the new sails were installed. At the last minute I rigged the reflector so it is on the cabin roof. Hope it works.

When I wake up I am extremely stiff and my knees and elbows all are stiff and painful. Even my palms are rough and sore from handling so much rope. Not used to the physical work, I guess. But I am also not getting any calcium and magnesium. I take a couple of supplements and add in another vitamin pill for good measure. I had prepared the skylight etc for a heavy tropical downpour. But nothing ever came. Only the lightening in the far west.

DAY IV, Thursday, 27 March 2008

I doze in my eggtimer-regulated portions until about 0400 by which time I am caught up with sleep. By 0630 as the sun begins to rise into an empty sky, I get up all sail and head us back on our daytime course. We have probably drifted 10 miles in the night, all more or less in the right direction. The winds are still extremely light and, although we start ticking along at only about 2.5 or 3 knots, there is just enough swell to make us roll; there is still just too little wind to keep the big mainsail filled and prevent it from slatting. It shakes the whole boat. I persevere however. Soon however, the NE Tradewinds fill in, and a few hours later we are up to 3.5 – 4 knots and the slatting has stopped.

The noon position-taking is not encouraging. In what now seems, looking back, like an eternity, we have only made 139 Nm in 48 hours; average speed 2.89 knots. At this rate it will take us 8½ days to get to Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador. Mind you, I told everyone not to expect me earlier than 10-12 days, so I guess 8-9 days is all right too. I have decided to forbear motoring unless the speed drops to under 1 knot and even then to wait and see if a breeze will spring up. It will also depend upon how able I am to sit for hours at the tiller for motoring. Certainly I don’t plan to do this during the sunny hours. I still have to get through the Doldrums (ITCZ), which are down around 2-3 degrees North (we are at around 6ºN at present; One degree equals 60 Nm). The ITCZ has notoriously fluky for winds, or rather no winds. On the southern side of it, near Ecuador I expect to encounter southerlies but should be far enough out to take them at an angle coming from the west.

Instead of picking up during the day, the winds actually decline and soon we are making only 2-2.5 knots but with a lot of slatting around. I do what I can to dampen the noise, but more or less have to except it. After all, two knots is two knots and I can’t change that! I am lazy today after the heavy few days past. I doze and read and doze some more until I feel like I have caught up with things. Then I get bored and start to go through the fresh produce in the cabin. Some of it has begun to go off and others need to be used.

By mid-afternoon the wind has nearly died away again completely. At 1800 we are only 118 Nm from Isla Mapelo after 163 Nm yesterday at dusk, i.e., have made 45 Nm only. Our best speeds in Vilisar to date were 135 Nm off Mexico on the passage to The Galapagos and 147 Nm on our first day out of Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, on the way to Panamá. I didn’t really expect to make the 600 Nm on this trip in six days. But this is going to be slow, I can see now. I cannot tell if there are adverse cross-currents, but the winds are extremely light.

Day V, Friday, 28 March 2008

We drift all night again. Perfectly breathless and a foggy haze over the water. Very humid and tropical in feeling. At least there was no lightening. The boat pokes along making now and then 1.5 knots at the most. I keep a masthead light burning, but do not check as often, so I get a longer sleep to help kill the tedium of the long night hours.

I left all sail up at dusk but later dropped the main and job because the slatting. Later I put the main back up because the boat was rolling uncomfortably. Some people! It’s just not possible to make them happy! At around 0300 this morning a breeze seemed to be coming up and I went on deck to set the Cap Horn. I am getting routine at all this sail-handling now; the first couple of days were exhausting and frustrating. Of course, the winds were stronger back then and I was tired from all the hand-steering and all the direct sunshine. Now I stay out of the sun during the day and leave everything to Cap Horn. I also have a better grasp of where my halyards and ties are without having to search in the dark each time. The new mainsail, by the way, is much easier to furl than the old one because this one doesn’t have any awkward and recalcitrant battens to give you a hard time. The breeze increases somewhat around 0500 so that we are sailing close-hauled at 2-3 knots! Hang on to your hats, boys!

After midnight the half moon appears and it is nice to sit out in the cockpit with no real purpose except to smoke my pipe and watch how the latest sail trimming is working out or to adjust the windvane steering. I guess I am becoming acclimatised to the boat, no longer overwhelmed by sail-handling and steering. Now time will likely start lying heavy on my hand. I go back to my current book (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Excellent!)

The 0600 position-taking shows only 10 Nm gained over the ground since noon yesterday (18 hours). I could walk to Ecuador faster!

My routine evening bucket bath, clean up around the deck, and tonight I put on a small pot of potatoes and what I think might be okra. Since I have never cooked okra before I am curious. Tastes good raw and cooked and seem to store well.

The night passes slowly again but I seem to be able to doze off, get up and check for shipping occasionally (though I have seen none for a couple of days now) and then doze off again. But I am not checking every 10 or fifteen minutes.

But, in the morning at 0800 I am surprised to see the superstructure of a large commercial vessel dead ahead of me but hull down over the horizon. I debate about contacting their bridge and asking them to send an email to Kathleen that I am all right. I know she is worrying. She would be surprised to get a message from me at sea. So many modern cruisers have SSB (single-side band) of HAM on board and nowadays can send emails as routinely as on land. Lionel on S/V Sea Whisper told me that his set up (not counting the laptop) cost about $3500 but it could be cheaper if you could buy duty free, for example, Colón, Panamá. I laughed and said that represented more than 10 percent of the purchase price of my boat! In the end I never did see more than just the superstructure of the freighter and decided it would be too difficult to make them understand who was calling them. Who knows if they could even “see” me from their bridge and I didn’t know the vessel name to identify it on vhf radio. Overwhelmed by the complexity of this situation, I let the opportunity go by.

At the “noon sight”, I find I am still 116 north of Isla Malpelo, Columbia (WP 005). In other words, I have made only 24 Nm good over the ground in the last 24 hours. I thought I was sailing more SW but the positioning shows me still northwest of Malpelo. Maybe there are currents at work. But the weak and mostly non-existent winds are the main culprits. Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador lies 482 Nm away to the SE. I am determined not to motor unless forced to do so for some god reason. I have seven more days before I can be regarded as marginally overdue in Ecuador. That means I have to make an average of 64 Nm per day as the crow flies. Not a very big challenge normally, but doubtful at this point.

I decide to work on one of my writing projects to while away the time and finally I give up and watch a DVD to while away some time. This lifted my spirits; a nice distraction.

I’m now settled into the routine of life on board and, thank goodness, relieved of the necessity of hand-steering. I set to work at dusk to cook my first proper meal. Up to now I have been surviving on sandwiches, on cold canned food or on cookies. So, how do refried beans with lots of onion and garlic, and fried potatoes topped with a fried egg sound? A can of beer to wash it down. A cholesterol bomb to be sure. But it hits the spot, especially after I have sloshed saltwater around the decks and had my bucket bath and shampoo to freshen me up after the heat and humidity of the day. As the sun sinks behind a mass of clouds to the west, I sit in the cockpit to smoke my pipe. Clean livin’ pays. A breeze plays coquette with me from the NE (weak trade winds?) and we roar along at about 2 knots. This seems nearly reckless after days of aimless floating. With enough air in the mainsail there is no slatting. But all this lasts only until about 2130 when the wind dies completely and the boom swings in a wide arc every time a swell passes underneath. I go on deck in the dark to douse all sail except the staysail, well-sheeted in amidships. We drift. Everything above is dripping with dew. The air is very humid and close. In the distance I see flashes of lightening.

DAY VI. Saturday, 29 March 2008

Slept nearly through the night, only getting up once or twice to check on things. The sea was oily calm, there was no wind at all and the moon only came up after about 0200 this morning. At dawn, when I did the position check, nothing much had changed but you could begin to see little cat’s-paws on the glassy sea surface. I pulled up the jib and mainsail thinking it is better at least to have something than nothing. Over the next hour we started moving at 1.5 to 2.5 knots heading more or less south. The water is perfectly blue and very, very clear. While arranging the tiller lines to the windvane steering I spotted a school of some sort of fish swimming around the rudder. They were each about a foot long. On the shady side of the boat I could see down at least a couple of fathoms into the clear unruffled waters. While dipping water to wash down the decks, I also saw that the water was also full of thousands of little blue beads or balls, about the size of pearls. These are jelly fish; the Mexicans call them ‘perlas’. They sting like regular jelly fish.

I forgot to mention that on the first few days I saw numerous green turtles flapping along the surface swimming north towards Panamá. I don’t suppose they are heading for the Canal. But I seem to recall this was egg-laying time when we were on the Mexican coast. Turtles home back to their place of birth to spawn. You think a sailboat goes slow!

Progress over the ground is ridiculously minimal. In the 24 hours to 0600 this morning we have made only 18 Nm. I could have jogged it quicker. I wonder how fast turtles swim. I take a leaf from their book and decide that every little knot is better than just sitting and drifting. So, with all sail set, we are making 1 ½ to 2 ½ knots and in the right direction.

Meanwhile I finish Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. It starts with a rather macabre premise: that clones are raised solely to provide body parts for others and then, when they are out of useable parts, they “complete”, i.e., die. The question dealt with in the book is really how human these clones in fact are; more about this than, say, about ethics of doing all this sort of thing in general. Ishiguro lives in London and is perhaps actually English. His writing is not a translation. I recall seeing The Remains of the Day, a film of his novel about a dutiful butler in an era when big country estates were becoming extinct and the world was moving on.

I decide to get more organised about my other writing projects.

The day passes quietly. What else? I write for a while. Then I realise I can also be listening to music on the laptop. I start listening to Der Freischutz, a little overcome by the richness of it all after so long without a CD player. (I ruined ours when I accidentally splashed saltwater on it, a down-side of cleaning). Then I listen to the Choir of CTK and get out the Tudor Anthem Book (don’t all sailing yachts carry The Tudor Anthem Book with them to sea?) and sing the tenor parts. The other songs I just sing along without music.

While I am soaking up the music, listening, I suddenly realise again that I have been hearing an engine sound outside. Expecting to see a fisherman’s panga, I slide open the companionway hatch and stick my head out to see a white, four-engine, military patrol plane flying at about 2 or 300 feet and a quarter of a mile out to the east. It is flying parallel to me quite slowly (i.e., slowly for a military patrol aircraft, I mean). I can’t actually see any faces, but I wave anyway, and they slowly start to gain altitude and, banking left, fly off into the haze to the east. Just checkin’ up, I guess.

The U.S.A. has a leased airbase in Manta, Ecuador, originally granted as part of the narco-trafficking wars. Ecuador doesn’t produce much coca any more but a lot of Columbian stuff is reported to flow out through neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador. It looks like the airbase will have to close in 2009 when the lease expires. (During the election campaign President Correa said he would extend the lease if the U.S.A. gives Ecuador a base in Miami. LOL.) It is the only U.S.A. base in South America and an offence to some Ecuadorians’ national pride.

All Ecuadorian governments, right or left, have up till now rightly feared being dragged into the civil wars in Columbia. Dragging them into conflict and forcing Columbia’s neighbours to take sides may in fact now be the U.S.’s latest game plan with goals that are much larger than just narco-trafficking. The left-wing governments of the Pink Tide have held back from openly criticising FARC et alia (insurgents in Columbia); they are have not actively been supporting them with weapons or money up to this point. They refuse to criticise them publicly either,

But being dragged into ideological and narco wars came close to happening just recently when the Columbians attacked and killed 15-20 FARC soldiers including one of its better-known leaders, Reyes, while they were over the border in Ecuador.

FARC, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (i.e., Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia); it’s a left-wing (it grew out of the Columbian Communist Party), nationalist insurgency group that along with other insurgency groupings controls about 35% of Columbia and has been fighting the central government for decades now. Neither side has been able to gain the upper hand. FARC has degenerated into financing itself through illicit drug trade, kidnappings and other forms of violent fund-raising activities.

In the case of the attack on FARC members in Ecuador, the Columbian Army in this particular case was clearly relying on American technology: a.) to identify where Reyes was physically located (using hi-tech cell-phone spying on conservations between Hugo Chávez and Reyes about freeing hostages); and, b.) to send the precision bomb that killed Reyes and 15-20 others, this being succinctly and collectively known as “collateral damage”. Most observers assume that this technical backup was certainly somehow connected with the Manta airbase. In other words, American military forces in a host country (Ecuador) were used to support another government (Columbia) to launch an attack on the host country (Ecuador). The tactic is one being used by Israelis in Palestine, i.e., electronic spying and killing off leaders and damn the collateral damage. Some commentators were predicting this approach last year when it was learned that, in addition to American advisors, Israeli military advisors were active in Columbia.

Columbia is a socially very conservative, economically highly stratified, limited democracy run by elites. It is at present reactionary Washington’s main and almost only proxy spear-carrier in South America beside perhaps little Paraguay much farther south. Since the Columbian government has been losing the civil war with FARC, they years ago started authorising ‘paramilitaries’, i.e., non-government mercenaries, who are free from hindrances to action like the rule of law or human rights. Pretty ugly!

The paramilitaries themselves, however, have grown into a cancer in the state of Columbia, at least as bad as FARC from the point of view of the central government. The paramilitaries are totally corrupt, live off drug running, pay off congressmen and other elected politicians as well as the police and military, act ad de facto government in many areas and oppress the locals for their own ends. There has been a huge scandal playing out over the last year or so in Columbia with some pretty hair-raising accounts by ex-paramilitaries. It is a wonder that anyone should be surprised at any of this, however.

With its attention diverted by its currently all-consuming activities in the Middle East, things in the U.S.A.’s Latin American ‘backyard’ seems to have got out of hand: the Pink Tide includes people and countries like Chávez (Venezuela), Correa (Ecuador), Kirchner (Argentina), de Lula (Brazil), Ortega (Nicaragua), Morales (Bolivia) and their like-minded political friends. These are all democratically-elected leaders (certainly more democratically certified than, say, George Bush), and they represent the repressed ambitions of the mass of the people in their countries to get out of poverty and have something to say about how the country is run. Taken together these countries represent about 65%-75% of the population of South America.

About six months ago a new Deputy Secretary of State (the only deputy) was appointed under Condoleezza Rice; some journals speculated at the time that his main task would be to get Latin America back ‘under control’, which is shorthand for getting rid of anti-American, left-wing threats to local pro-America elites and cracking open protected markets for American enterprise and agriculture. The local elites swear to the USA anyway; it is incredible how Americanised they are when you meet them; perfect English, at home in DC or Florida, post-grad degrees from U.S. universities, their children in private schools at home that teach only in English. These elites have largely run Latin American for decades and, of course, they reap the bennies. Whenever historically the mass of the people have striven to get into the act, the elites always run to the U.S.A. crying, “Reds! Reds!” Works nearly every time.

Over the past seven years Columbia has been receiving on average of roughly $1 billion annually of ‘foreign aid’, mainly of course military, not civilian aid; that makes Columbia the third-largest recipient of American aid after Israel and Egypt. But there are also 1,500 American military advisors permanently stationed in the country plus whatever military or civilian specialists comes in on temporary assignment. And then there are of course other players on the board like U.S. Coast Guard cutters off the coast, the Manta airbase in nearby Ecuador, flights or other missions off aircraft carriers or from the U.S.A. ‘homeland’ itself and, not to forget, electronic/satellite espionage.

All this is supposed to be fighting the narco-wars. But nobody believes that any more, not least because more drugs than ever flow to the U.S.A. and along the way too many people are getting rich. No, now it is clearly about re-asserting The Empire and wiping out any “populist” (i.e., popular), nationalist movements.

Interestingly, the Israelis – those notoriously civilised counter-insurgents in Palestine - have had advisors in Columbia too. One U.S. article last year speculated that the Columbian government might soon adopt henceforth the favoured tactic of the Israeli militaristic government, namely selectively to target insurgency leaders using electronic spying and high-tech bombs. Collateral damage would just have to be accepted.

The incursion into Ecuador has to be seen in this context. It was aimed certainly at killing Reyes, a popular FARC leader. But there were some clear warnings to Ecuador and Venezuela and whomever else might want to take note. The cellphone calls that were identified were those between President Chavez of Venezuela and Reyes. Chavez had brokered a deal whereby FARC released six long-term hostages, including the wife of a French president.

FARC and other insurgency leaders (there are other groupings as well) have long used northern Ecuador’s remote areas for R&R. Ecuador doesn’t like it but as provided they didn’t get active in Ecuador itself, Quito (also prior to leftist Correa) has generally turned a blind eye. (The murder rate is high around there because the various groupings also have ‘issues’ amongst themselves, and sometime resolve them by assassinating each other.)

President Correa (and Chavez) was clearly incensed at the incursion into Ecuador as were other Latin American leaders. Both neighbouring countries rushed divisions to the border with Columbia. Ulribe, the President of Columbia, arrogantly said he didn’t think he would have gotten assistance from Quito anyway, blamed Ecuador for sheltering FARC and blithely stated that he would do it all again if necessary. Venezuela take note. At a subsequent summit meeting of Latin American leaders hands were finally shaken to try to keep the lid on things even though Correa at one point left the room in fury at Ulribe’s presence and attitude. The Carter Centre is involved in mediating some sort of settlement.

Basically I think Ulribe has sent out a message on behalf of the U.S.A. that neighbouring countries like Ecuador better not think or act too independently if they know what’s good for them. Either get with the programme or be drawn wolens nolens into Columbia’s civil and America’s ideological wars. These could now spread across the north of South America and into Central America again.

All this has got me rather a long way from being buzzed by a white military patrol aircraft. Anyway, it was nice to have a visitor. Half an hour later a brown boobie makes several unsuccessful attempts to land on Vilisar’s spreaders or bowsprit. It eventually gives up the attempt and flies off to sit down on the water and watch with, I swear, a puzzled expression on its face while Vilisar disappears (ever so slowly) south. So, lot’s of air traffic around today!

There aren’t in fact many sea birds out here at all: a few shearwaters, a few boobies and that’s about it. No frigate birds, no sea gulls or turns. On the horizon I spot another freighter off to the east.

The soft Trade Winds remain but we never get above 3 knots, the boat never heels over at all. But, this is racing by the standards of the past couple of days, and I am please to be advancing. There are no waves and very little swell action to slow us as we sail close-hauled and still on port tack now for five days. To show my pleasure, I get a pad soaked in diesel fuel and wipe the dry-looking wood all around the galley sink. Looks fabulous and soaks in rapidly in this heat. If it still looks good in the morning, I shall do a bit each day around the cabin. You have to be careful since an oily surface attracts dirt and dust. But it does make the wood look rich.

DAY VII. Sunday, 30 March 2008

We (we being Vilisar and me) poked along until about 2130 last night when I go out to douse the slatting main and the flapping jibsail. As usual. No point, really, otherwise. In the now accustomed manner, I sheet the staysail tight amidships, tie off the tiller amidships too and then go below to sleep. All my muscles are sore today from pulling up sails or furling them or whatever. Probably means that I need to make sure I take my electrolytes and calcium+magnesium tablets. I finally fall asleep and, feeling like I have been drugged, waken once or twice during the night to look around. Haven’t had this since the first hectic days.

At dawn there is some wind. But I make a coffee first to see if it will rejuvenate me. Eventually I go on deck and hoist the two sails again. The newly-roven pennant for the lower reefing line had somehow come unknotted. So I reeve if afresh. There is some cloud off in the western distance, as there has been for days. At night I sometimes see lightening far away over there. But it is sunny while I get my Granola breakfast together.

I decide to use my time to write. While I am at work below, I suddenly realise that it has started to rain. Rain? I shut down the laptop and put it in a spot where it won’t get wet below. All the portlights are closed at sea anyway. I dash on deck with the skylight cover; it always leaks when it rains. I arrange it loosely and weigh it down so it doesn’t blow away on me. I pull the sliding hatch closed too. Everything seems in order. The wind has dropped to nothing inside the squall. In fact, there was no wind heralding it either. It’s just suddenly started pouring cats and dogs. I am enjoying the warm heavy rain and use it for a good shower on deck. The rain is also rinsing the salt off the sails and superstructure. It’s like a little Niagara as it comes off the mainsail.

Ah! A small break in my daily existence at sea. While I am making my second cup of espresso I wonder if I have now reached the ITCZ, The Doldrums. They are renowned for squally weather and lots of rain. But of course little real wind. In my vague planning for this trip, I wanted to head out from Boca Chica at W82º to about W84º and then zigzag south down the meridian. Kinda! The Pilot Charts led me to believe I would find more wind out there and fewer calm days in March. But I think we are basically well into April weather, which includes more calm days and a lot more weak southerly winds. When I reached the ITCZ I would probably have to motor through it, I had speculated. How far to get through? 100 Nm? 150 Nm? Coming out to the south of the ITCZ, which last week was still anchored on the Columbian coast just north of the Ecuadorian border (i.e., ca. N 2º or N 3º), I should encounter the typical southerlies. Being so far west, I could turn east and easily sail close-hauled or on a close reach to Bahía de Caráquez. Pretty much as Kathleen and I did from The Galapagos to mainland Ecuador two years ago.

Well, I am now only at N 5º and am possibly already encountering the ITCZ with its localised squalls and shifting and disappearing winds. Has it started to move north? It hadn’t before I left. I am only out to N 83º 5’ but that shouldn’t make much difference. At present I am just sitting here. The sun has come out again, the black rain cloud has moved off to the SW, everything is dripping and steaming. I shall drink another coffee and think for a while. I don’t fancy ‘driving’ during the sunny hours; if I am going to motor, night-time would be better because it’s cooler and the sea is calmer. But we shall see. Forty-five minutes after the rain hits, the sun is out and the breeze back. We are moving along at about 3.5 knots.

The noon sight indicates that I have made only 19 Nm over the ground in 48 hours! Admittedly, I am not sailing directly towards Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, but tacking out to the west so I can sail eastwards once I am through the ITCZ. But this is discouraging. I don’t need the figures to tell me we are barely making any headway. I sure do not want to start motoring but I do not want Kathleen to worry if I am overdue.

At 1445 I am approached by three men in a panga with a Yamaha 75 outboard. They are all dressed as if for winter while I am in my Speedo (once I get it put on before receiving guests). They are ostensibly trying to warn me about a drift line ahead and wave me to pass to the left around the marker flag. This means going to windward so I throw on the engine and putt-putt around. They accompany me, asking if I have any water. I throw them three cans of beer. One of the guys is surely Japanese; he looks it and he is the only fisherman around here that I have ever seen wearing a plastic safety helmet the way you see Japanese fishermen pictured in the papers. They are very pleased. The Japanese guy keeps shooting admiring glances at the red sails. And saying, “Bonito!” they are out of Manta, which is easily 500 Nm away. Surely, not in just a panga! They don’t have any kit or cooking equipment with them at all. But I don’t see any mother trawler around. Eventually we part with lots of waving and smiles.

In the afternoon the breeze picks up and I have a hopeful afternoon. Doodling along at 4-5 knots I gain 15 Nm over the ground. When at dusk it calms down again and the sea begins to flatten, I decide I shall put in at least five hours of motoring for good conscience sake and throw the Lister on at 1900 after I have eaten and pumped out. After running at about 4½ -5 knots I have made around twenty-five miles by midnight, but can hardly stay awake. I have dozed off once or twice in the cockpit. You can use bungee cords to compensate for the starboard turning caused by the propeller while also adjusting the speed (and prop walk) until you find the sweet spot. The problem with all of this that there is no self-correcting mechanism if you get off course; a bigger-than-ordinary wave can push you off a bit or a surprise gust of wind (LOL!) in the mainsail, which I leave up along with the staysail hoping to perhaps add a half a knot of speed and at least keep Vilisar from rolling in the waves. At least I am aiming straight at Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, and every mile will be to the good over the ground. At first I am bumping into waves that slow me down; the wind and waves have been coming straight from Bahía de Caráquez all day. But eventually even these disappear. There are lots of rain clouds and little lightening squalls around, however. I get sprinkled once but no downpour. So this is the ITCZ!

About 2300 I see another light off to the SW (i.e., am travelling SE). It becomes obvious that it is not a freighter. Just white lights. I cannot tell if it is paralleling me or staying in one place. At night things get a little spooky sometimes. I wonder if I am in danger. Sometimes I think the lights are coming closer to me, catching me up. But, at midnight, I am so wrecked that I give up, douse all the sail except the staysail sheeted in amidships, let the boat start drifting back in the direction in which I have just come and go below to sleep.

DAY VIII, Monday, 31 March 2008

I sleep right through my egg-timer and wake at 0600 just as it is starting to get light. There is a quarter-moon high in the sky. The lights from last night are still there. I put on a coffee and go on deck to raise sail. There is actually a small SE or SSE breeze that might work. Soon we are doing 3 knots to SSE. As it becomes light I see one of those covered pangas over where the lights have been. Strung out behind it are four open pangas with outboards. The little group begins to move off. These are surely the same guys I saw yesterday, judging by the open pangas. Assuming three guys to each panga and three guys to the mother boat that means 15 guys living and eating and sleeping in the mother boat and pangas. Pretty crowded. But it is good to know that they are not fishing at night so I might not have to worry about snagging their drift lines.

The 0600 sight indicates that I actually lost 6 Nm from drifting in the night. Shit! Oh, well! Now we are going forward again, at least – and, nearly due south.

At 0900 I am being called from a panga running alongside. The three men point to the black bandera on a stake and say I should turn downwind to pass around it to the right. They ask if I have any water for them but are more than pleased to get three beers. The helmsman brings the panga so close that I can just hand them over. The crewmen, I have noticed are all in the age range of 18 to 45, so this industry must still be a viable career option in Ecuador. The men have a strong indigena caste, so this may reflect, perhaps, a traditional occupation for native peoples in South America. Alternatively of course, it may reflect that the economic rewards are so poor, the pay so bad and the working conditions so tough that only those who cannot get anything else will take the job. The men look healthy except for the teeth of the older guys, which as usual are quite bad.

Their panga has the same markings as the one from yesterday (NICO III) and the crewmen indicate that they are also from Manta. They must be out here for weeks given how slowly I saw the mother boat (outboard-powered and towing four 23-25 foot pangas with outboards) moved off yesterday. How long must have it taken to get the 500 Nm out here from Manta. And of course back again. And I am sure getting enough fresh water must be a problem with 15 guys to look after. Other cruisers have commented, puzzled, that they always seem to be asking for water when they come up. This has happened to me but not every time.

I see the helmsman has a bucket of fish at his feet, and I ask if I can have one. He says something that I don’t get while waving his free hand (all the outboard steering is done by the attached tiller rather than a remote wheel or joystick). I notice that the well of the boat is quite empty but that is surely because all their baited lines are out in the water. He tells one of the boys to dig out a cooking pot from the locker under the foredeck. In it are pieces of grilled and blackened fish. It looks like Portuguese bacallao, i.e., salted fish that has been cleaned, splayed open flat, salted for storage and later grilled. That solves one of the mysteries: they eat what they catch or they bring salted fish with them, grilling on board the mother boat, probably (I saw no sign of cooking equipment in the panga, but there might have been something in the locker), and taking the leftovers for their lunch during the working day. They don’t seem to have any water on board that I could see anyway. I wonder where they all sleep at night. As I mentioned, the mother boat had streamed the four pangas off astern. Not sure how the mother vessel kept itself in one spot: running the engine, a sea anchor or tied to a drift line (probably). Maybe the men simply fall asleep after work in the mother boat: no beds or berths, as such. Just sleeping in their clothes and where they sit. Or they crawl back into the pangas where there is more room but where it is wide open. All this is like ships and fishing vessels in past centuries.

It would be interesting to spend a few days with these guys. It is very traditional, labour-intensive work despite the outboards and the modern drift lines. They remind of the Grand Banks fishermen (read Captains Courageous by Kipling for an insight). Dorymen went out from ships like the Bluenose to jig (hand lines) for cod, returning at night often through fog or ice to the mother ship. The dories were stacked on deck: they were designed to stack like bowls, and out the men went again the next day. When the ship’s hold was full of salted cod (no ice, I assume, but I may be wrong) they headed into shore to sell the catch. Surely these Ecuadorian fishermen don’t go back to town 500 Nm away every time the small mother ship fills up. Perhaps they put into a Columbian port to sell fish and then come back out. Mexican shrimpers do this up and down the Gulf of Mexico coast from New Orleans to the Yucatan. Or perhaps, as in the Alaskan salmon trade, there is a fish buyer who travels around the fishing fleet and buying for cash right on the spot. Have not seen anything like this here but you never know.

After a lot of chatter and smiles, the panga fishermen motor away to work their lines and I slowly make my way around the western end of the drift line. I am hardly by it and getting back on course when their boat comes chasing after me. Oops! What’s up, I wonder. As they draw alongside, they hand me some old newspapers dated from 24 March (last Monday). That was probably when they left Manta. It was a thoughtful gesture on their part. Food and literature for the solo sailor. Of course, being Ecuadorian, boulevard press means that the ‘news’ is simply a melange of tits and bums, on the one hand (so to speak), and absolutely gruesome shots of the cadavers that had built up, strangled and shot or raped and mugged, over the Easter Weekend. Man! I counted over forty pictures of murdered or death-by-misadventure corpses. Some of them had been gutted, others garrotted or shot in the head or guts. A few women amongst them. These editors like it rough! One of the papers refers to itself as a Diario Familiar. And there was the plastic Cheesecake of the Day pictured in her underwear amidst the carnage. Oh, well!

The wind gets weaker.

DAY IX, Tuesday, 01 April 2008

Yesterday I cover some 61 Nm, which is good. Fifty-five of them I booked between ‘lunch’ and 0600 this morning and 43 Nm since last night at 1800. It was a nice breeze, allowed me to leave up all sail and sail very close to the wind and directly towards Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador. The winds are mostly E or ESE so, with my new sails I can get quite close to the wind and steer SE or SSE. I have passed the 1/3rd mark but still a long way to go.

All night long the wind held steady with the vessel heeled over. I have stored a lot of stuff on the starboard berth behind the lee cloth. Last night I also rigged the lee cloth for the port berth where I am sleeping. We were banging into the waves at times because the vessel kept wanting to head up even closer. It would do so, loose a bit of headway and fall off to pick up speed again. Despite playing for quite a while with the windvane steering, I could not seem to take the yawing out of the course and simply left it. At night the speed and noise make me apprehensive. But the speed is actually the same as during the afternoon, so I forebear dousing the jib or taking a reef in the main. Just at dark I see a freighter to the west just on the horizon. So I must be aware. I use the egg-timer all night.

At dawn the wind drops off a bit and it is difficult to hold Vilisar up into the wind as well in the weak airs. I settle for what I can get and we are now steering SSW to SW and doing 3-4 knots. Can’t complain really. My only worry is that, as I am on Day IX or the 8th day of actually sailing, come Friday, Kathleen will really start to worry that I am overdue. This despite the fact that I have not activated the 406 MHz EPIRB (Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon). The only solution I can think of is to contact one of the infrequently passing ships and ask them to send her an email or call her with my position and information that the trip is uneventful but very slow. Maybe I should make a general call on the VHF at high power and see if I can get a response to “Any vessel within range! This is the Sailing Vessel Vilisar”. Alternatively, I could sail downwind to The Galapagos and email her myself.

During the night the espresso coffee pot flies across the galley, splattering coffee everywhere and breaking the handle. I use a pair of channel-lock pliers to take the coffee pot off the stove and thereby preserve one of my main emotional supports on this long voyage.

The whole afternoon I have been drifting under sail to the SSW at about 3 or 4 knots. This is incredible since I don’t actually seem to be moving at all. But I have got south of the N 3º latitude. Really boring at present! I watched a movie this afternoon and have continued reading 1491, Charles C. Mann’s recently released book about the native populations of North America. Really fascinating science history covering the ongoing debates about:

1. How many “Indians” (he justifies using this term) were living in the Western Hemisphere when Columbus arrived a year later? We tend to believe that the Western hemisphere was largely empty of people so we (Europeans) therefore just moved in. Estimates of maybe 100 million but at a minimum 40 million are more likely, i.e., far more than in Europe at the time. Most were in Central and South America (Mexico, Peru, Ecuador). They had built huge and complex cities (e.g. the Mexica in Mesico, the Incas in South America, the Mayans and others in Central America; these were far larger and far more complex and advanced than anything in Europe in the 15th Century. Some of the sites are only now being excavated. Even in North America (NE and Mississippi Valley) advanced and large cities existed. Earliest explorers describe the land as teeming with villages and towns and people.
2. But 90%-95% of the indigenous American population died of European diseases (smallpox, measles, influenza, etc.) within only a few decades of Cabot’s, Columbus’, Cortes’ and Pizarro’s arrival. This is the real reason why the Europeans ‘won’ the continents, not because of guns and horses, for which the Incas and others had developed defensive tactics.
3. How long had the Indians been there? Originally it was thought perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 years. Some archaeologists now say as much as 40,-50,000 years before Columbus arrived. This comes from archaeological sites, DNA and linguistics specialists, geologists, historians, etc. In fact the historical interpretation of all the Indian-European issues is all up for grabs at present. Many of the critics and the critics of the critics read ethnic slant into both the old and the new theories.
4. How did they get here? The traditional story is that they came across from Asia when the Bering Strait was exposed during an ice age, then drifted south over the next centuries until they reached Tierra del Fuego about 1,000 years later. Unfortunately, some of the digs in the Horn indicate that those peoples there had been there as much as 50,000 years ago, i.e., well before any ice age or before pedestrians could have made it down there. There are also signs on the Brazilian coast that there are other sources of peopling; maybe from Africa? Maybe they came down the coast by boat. Possible. Or from Polynesia or Australia by sea.

It is all a fascinating riddle and the latest discoveries attack with an axe self-concepts of who we think we ourselves are, and who we think the Indians were and are. Both sides in the standoffs between Indians and whites are interested in the science. Obviously. Because it will support their contentions or it will oppose them. Of course, the scientific community is as touchy and sensitive as ever about reputations and influence and being correct, i.e., scientists are not without their own personal prejudices and ethnic blinkers. Stay tuned.

DAY X, Wednesday, 02 April 2008

The whole night the boat sailed along on smooth seas at about 3-4 knots close-hauled at about 140-160º magnetic. That means that, while I made about 60 some odd miles south I also pinched a bit to the east. At 0600 this morning I had covered a whole degree of latitude, i.e., about 60 Nm to the south. I am 454 Nm from The Galapagos and 370 from Bahía de Caráquez. I could probably get to The Galapagos quicker than Bahía because it is downwind. But I would still have to get to mainland Ecuador sometime so might as well keep on truckin’. There were a lot so lights around in the night. Fishermen at rest, I suppose. But one of the lights was a very bright cluster and I assume it was a mother ship.

This morning just after dawn I was approached by another panga. All so far have been marked Nico III. They seemed to come alongside without calling out but only to stare. Of course, they have never yet on this trip been chasing me to recover their drift lines as we had it on the way to Panamá last fall. Then they whistled and shouted. So far, the only time on this trip when I hook an unmarked line, there was no panga nearby. If I come on deck they might motor a little closer to talk or ask perhaps for comides, agua, cigarillos or periodicos. (One of these guys wanted cigarillos, i.e., cigarettes). I have stopped handing out beers to those who don’t actually guide me around a drift line and may stop altogether since I am now getting short (or the trip long).

An hour later there is another panga coming up fast behind me when I look out the companionway. I go on deck and chat with them. All the boats tell me that they come from Manta, Ecuador. That’s 450 Nm from here. Nico III is the mother ship or trawler. It has lots of ice to keep the fish; the pangas don’t seem to carry ice since, once they recover their drift lines, they bring the fish to the trawler where it also processed (Stage 1 gutting and cleaning). It takes two days to steam out here and two back to Manta. The men, there are about 36 of them with Nico III, come out for two weeks at a time. I don’t know if the trawler goes back and forth when they are full of fish or not, or if the boats stay out here and there is simply a periodic flying handover of crews. I ask if it’s good pay. “No! Malo!” The second panga guys ask if I have any periodicos (magazines). I give them a bag of sweets, passed to them using their fishing net. They all look indigenas. One young guy never changed his facial expression, never cracked a smile, never waved, and never made a comment.

It would be interesting to write up this fishing business but I would need somebody who can translate for me back in Manta. These guys also asked where I came from, if I were alone aboard, where I was going, what the boat was made of, etc. Mostly the fishermen just stare admiringly at the sails and all.

The bosun on this second panga took about three dozen pictures with his cellphone. Mr. Cool! So I took a few photos of them, though they were backed by the sun, still fairly low in the sky. I had to break off the conversation; I had the feeling that they could have chatted all day. Their lines after all were in the water and they have time to kill while they wait. I even later thought I should have got in the panga and gone off a bit to take pictures of Vilisar under sail. That would have felt a bit weird, i.e., abandoning the boat unattended to get into another. But I shall try it with another panga.

In some ways it is kind of nice to know that I am not totally alone out here on the broad sea. It is hard to spot the pangas during the day. But you see their lights in the distance at night, disappearing and bobbing up again in the swells. One of the panga fishermen told me that the mother ship has radio.

When I get back below to prepare some breakfast muesli, I notice that my batteries are way down. How did that happen? I immediately throw the engine on to charge them and move the deck solar panels around to catch the sun rays more directly. Also pumped out the bilge using the Jabsco engine-driven pump. The stuffing gland does not seem to be leaking so much at present, though there is more than enough water for my tastes. I pump out mornings and evenings in about ten minutes.

Altogether now I have used the engine for about 12 hours on this trip. This is the 9th day of sailing (i.e., since leaving Isla Gámez). My aim is to keep the motoring to a minimum despite the calms and slowness. Diesel, after all, costs $3.50 a gallon; maybe more now. And who knows what it’s going to cost or even whether it is available to a foreign-flagged yacht when I get to Ecuador. Also, I just want to see what it is like to live without an engine. You sure do learn patience!!! The only real reason for me to hurry is so Kathleen is not worried if I don’t report in after 12 days. If I can pass a message to a ship or plane, they might notify her that I shall be late, and then I won’t feel any pressure. I still have lots of water and can always motor is I have to.

While motorsailing along, I spot the telltale Clorox bottles ahead of a few hundred feet. I have not spotted any flagged buoy, but just as you are shaking your head at the detritus of modern society floating around out in the middle of Pacific, your mind makes a shift in gears and you realise you are looking at a drift line’s mid-section floats. Way to the east I see a panga with the usual three men. They stop a few hundred yards away while I am still pondering how, since I cannot see the extreme ends, to get around this one. They wave to me to come right behind or in front of them. They have somehow weighted the line so it sinks below my keel. All smiles. Once through, I wave them over and hand them a bag of sweets, now the handout of (my) choice as long as the supply lasts.

They tell me that they are also from Manta; not from Nico III but some other boat the name of which I didn’t get. There are only ten of them but I don’t know if that includes the crew of the mother ship. The bosun here is about 40, the other hands are about 50 and 19. The youngster looks about 12 with a face and expression that reminds me of a doe caught in the headlights. Each of these pangas seems to have one junior, next-generation kid. No girls, of course. The youngsters might laugh and smile but they are very deferential to their elders and don’t usually get involved in the conversations. The oldest guy is all smiles and has lots of questions about where I have come from, about food and water on board, am I alone, etc.? They are very pleased, it seems, to see me. They also tell me they are on two-week shifts and then go back. I understood them to say that the trawler goes back each time rather than use flying crew handovers.

I would really be interested to do an article about the fishing fleet in Manta that would give and overview of the industry (Manta is the biggest tuna port in the world), the economics, the ownership, the men and the work, etc. It would be an interesting thing for yachties who travel to Ecuador since they are going to run into these guys at sea. It might also even be interesting for a travel mag. It reminds me of the old Grand Banks fishing industry before the huge trawlers from Russia and the EU, then the U.S.A. and finally Canada itself showed up on the scene and cleaned out the cod altogether. I know there are huge 200-foot fishing boats in Manta harbour as well as many smaller units like the ones I have been meeting. The Japanese are big in the industry offshore and sometimes illegally in the Galapagos. I suspect their way of life of these guys is very much threatened. As things improve economically in Ecuador under the new government, wages will go up and ruthless efficiency measures will be put in place for the fishing fleet. Goodbye, panga fishermen. Hello, factory ships. Eventually there will be no more fish, as in the northern Grand Banks which is now closed altogether for fishing until stocks can return to reasonable levels.

I sit in the cockpit and kinda enjoy steering the boat. At certain speeds and in calm seas the boat will steer a straight line by itself. I see the last panga way off in the distance and a flagged buoy. I keep looking ahead. The guys kept waving SE and shouting “Manta! Manta! Bahía!” But I motorsail more SE or ESE so I don’t have to take in the jib if it starts flapping against the forestay. They probably think I’m lost.

The low batteries gave me a scare. I run an LED masthead light and a cabin fan at night, both low-wattage. I also read for a while at night. But I think I still have to run the engine every few days to put a peak on the charge with the alternator. Far too much of the 24 hour cycle the solar panels are not in full view of the sun; the shadow of the sails or the rigging falls across them. There are only twelve daylight hours and of course not even then is the sun always directly on the panels or even high enough in the sky. The computer takes a lot of amps, either to watch a DVD, play a CD or to write. I shall try to do this when there is a float charge during the day.


There is definitely a different feel to the air in the last two days. It feels fresh and cool coming at me from the SE. I think we must be getting a whiff of the cool air caused by the Humboldt Current that comes up the South American coast to Ecuador and then turns west to the The Galapagos. The water is from Antarctica. I just checked the thermometer shows 28ºC whereas back in Panamá it was easily 30ºC by midday and felt humid and uncomfortable. This invites you to sit out on deck. Even in the sun it doesn’t feel really hot, though you can get a burn pretty fast here so close to the equator. I suspect the water is a bit cooler too but can’t measure the temperature. At 1400 we were at N 2º06’. About, what, 80 Nm to the equator?

Ah! I should plan my festivities. When Andrew Kathleen and I crossed near The Galapagos nearly two years ago, Andrew and I were ready to smoke a celebratory cigar. Since we approached it at such an oblique angle, we waited through most of Kathy’s watch. It was late at night and dark. Even without silly costumes, the long delay on the digital camera’s focus plus the difficulty of evening finding anything in the viewfinder meant we all look like escapees from the asylum. Hilarious!

This will be my third crossing in a boat. Kathleen and I crossed it on land aboard inter-city busses a few times between Quito and Otovalo or Cotecochi for conducting seminars. And one day last November, with Washington Morea, I drove the Pacific Coast Highway, a paved but severely potholed country road, from Bahía de Caráquez to Perdenales. It was in his restored Russian stake truck. We were on the way to have engine gaskets tailor-made for the Lister diesel engine. Going north we followed a vaquero (cowboy) over the line that was driving about 100 head or more of brahma cattle on the ‘highway’. My photograph shows cow butts and the roadside sign saying we are crossing the equator. The sign is small and in the distance. The butts are distressingly close up. If you can’t take a joke, don’t travel to Ecuador.

Hey! Now we are jigging along at about 3.7 knots and just East of South. There is a gentle, cooling breeze but no windwaves. There are however quite high swells, probably from distant disturbance far to the south towards Antarctica. But the swells are so far apart that you hardly notice them, really. The boat just goes up and down. We are heeling a bit now to starboard, so maybe the afternoon wind is picking up.

That’s interesting. I’ve discovered on this trip that the handheld GPS will stay connected to the satellites through a T-shirt or some other textile thrown over it to keep the sun off it. It looses its signal if the boom gets in the way, however, or if the GPS is brought down below.

Now, here’s another astonishing discovery. Did you know that if you eat uncooked onions, in a raw vegetable salad say, your first distinct fart will emanate within about an hour? Here on the open ocean, far away from the superficial distractions and the flimflam of ‘civilisation’, one connects with oneself.

DAY XI, Thursday, 03 April 2008

By constantly trimming the sails so we sailed as close to the wind as possible during the night, some progress was made: about 30 Nm to the south with a little drift to the west. I am trying to keep from sagging off to the west as much as I can whilst making headway to the south until I come to a point where I can tack to the east towards the Ecuadorian mainland. It is about 370 Nm away and I am more-or-less paralleling the general line of the coast till I can find the right angle. I don’t expect the direction of the winds to change much now. Apparently I went through the ITCZ a few days ago and am now solidly in the influence of southern Hemisphere breezes. These are almost always S or SE. I whistle constantly to try to call up stronger winds. No sign of shipping or fishermen during the night.

I have been comparing in my mind Ecuador and Panamá. Leaving aside that Ecuador is much bigger and far more diverse ethnically and geographically, some comparisons can be made.

First, Panamá is much more affluent than Ecuador. The cars are more modern, cities like David are loaded with supermarkets and shopping malls. The people look well-nourished as a whole and the buildings and streets look prosperous. You could be in certain parts of Los Angeles. Not Morovia or La Cañada, perhaps, but certainly any lower middle-class housing tract. Ecuador, by contrast, appears much poorer and the people seem - and in fact are more physically stunted. Of course there are more indigenas in Ecuador and they are the tiniest and economically the worst off. There are indigenas in Panama too and they are also at the bottom socially and economically and largely marginalised as rural poor. But even they look better off. Their clothing is standardised missionary-inflicted moo moos that you don’t find in Ecuador, where native costume is quite different.

Economically, Panamá is dominated by two great factors. First, the Canal. It is the major factor in Panamanian economic life. It is owned by the Panamanians and will soon undergo a major expansion to handle the mega-ships that are now being built. Panamá had to wake up as Nicaragua was going to build a competing canal through its lakes and rivers system, an easier route. The Nicaraguan route was always preferred by some both in Central America and the U.S.A.; it is cheaper to build (few actual canals and fewer locks), and also closer to markets in the Gulf of Mexico ports (e.g. New Orleans, Houston, Mobile, etc.) It was de Lessops and the French who got the viability of the current (Panamanian) route wrong (de Lessops was convinced they could build a canal without locks; he was sure wrong!) and were finally defeated by it. But since it had already been started, the U.S.A. finished it off. It was a total government project, by the way. No private enterprise at all. And an excellent job as well. There is probably a sermon in there somewhere.

Anyway, the Panamanians recently passed a referendum giving the Torrijos government the authority to go ahead. This will inject a lot of money into the economy both during and after the construction. What this will do to inflation is another question.

The other big factor is the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.A. The free trade agreement with the U.S.A. was highly sought after by the U.S.A. There is still a lot of hard feelings around and resentment that the Yanques invaded Panamá back in under Bush I to capture President Noriega. Panamá might be independent but clearly how independent they are is still to a degree determined by the U.S.A. The FTA simply recognises that Panamá is independent but nearly a vassal state. Kind of like Canada. There is no way the U.S.A. would allow anyone else get control of the Canal, for example.

At a lower level, the stores are stuffed with U.S. products. You might find one or two local agri products but they will definitely be more expensive than American agri imports. For example, local onions cost 65¢ a pound in the supermarket a few weeks ago. They were small and not well presented. Big fat American onions, looking exactly like one thinks onions should look like, were selling at 45¢. The pineapples, oranges, grapefruit, tomatoes, carrots, etc. etc. – they all came from the U.S.A., i.e., even tropical fruits. The shelves in the big-box stores were lined with canned and other goods as well as cereals and cleaning products from the U.S.A. It’s no wonder that American and Canadian cruisers feel so much at home in Panamá.

The downside is that local producers have no chance against the large-scale suppliers from the U.S.A. Moreover, the agri products in the U.S.A. are for the most part subsidised by the U.S.A. taxpayer from between 20% and 65%. The local onion farmers haven’t a chance and will be put out of business in time. The up-side is that consumers get their onions cheaper. It’s the argument for free trade made in the U.S.A. for importing from China. Unlike Canada and, to a degree also Mexico, Panamá never had an industrial economy and is anyway too small to do anything but specialise (in their case transportation and transportation-relate tax-dodging, i.e., offshore flagging of ships).

Ecuador, by comparison to Panamá, is in many parts of the country in a pre-industrial state. There is some modern manufacturing. But most economical activity is subsistence agriculture and craftsman-level handiwork. I am sure I am generalising here. But not all that much. The national market is far too small for modern manufacturing and, at present, free trade with anybody outside of the U.S.A. has not been on offer. This is changing. Brazil and Argentina are the big industrialising countries in South America and Mexico in Central America; Mexico is in NAFTA, for better or worse.

Even retailing here is still pretty much in the Mom & Pop store level except in the larger towns where periphery supermercados are growing in importance. But, the supermarket phenomenon, after all, depends upon cars, good roads, dispersed housing on the periphery, cash-based employment, etc. These are just getting started in Ecuador after twenty-five years of negative economic growth thanks to the IMF and other outsiders.

In Ecuador the invitation by the U.S.A. to join a FTA was roundly rejected by electing Rafael Correa. He is an economist and stated that a FTA with the U.S.A. would wipe out small farmers. This is without a doubt correct as the experience in Mexico (and Panamá) will confirm. No country can hold out against the highly subsidised agri products from the U.S.A. (and Europe, but the EU is not proposing a FTA). With a FTA however would come a lot of other disadvantages that would have left Ecuador with cheaper industrial and agri imports perhaps, but nothing to pay for it with except oil and bananas. Ecuador would have remained the classic example of hewers of wood and drawers of water for the bigger and richer nations.

Free trade, however, is certainly not off the table for Ecuador. The Mercado del Sur, the Southern Common Market, is definitely an option and already includes in its preliminary stages some 75%-85% of South America’s population and GNP. Ecuador might have it tough against countries like Brazil and Argentina. But the smaller countries (Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela, the Caribbeans, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, etc.) can gang up on the bigger ones and the little guys, just like the Dutch or the Belgians, the Greeks or the Poles do in the EU; they can also offer either specialised services and products or cheaper production factors. Except for the recently announced huge oil find in Brazil, the smaller countries like Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia have the energy while Brazil and Argentina have the industry and the populations. Unlike a FTA with the U.S.A., which would have to follow the pattern of other FTA. In a Mercado del Sur however, Ecuador can actually negotiate its entry conditions. It has oil to offer the energy-short industrial countries in exchange for legal and tax advantages. This would certainly not have been possible with the U.S.A., not to mention that U.S. agriculture is intensely subsidised and would ruin farmers here. A political and economic union with the rest of South America, perhaps even with Central America is attractive, while with the U.S.A. it would not be attractive to Ecuadorians at all.

Ecuador is still in the early stages of it economic recovery. But the auguries are, in my opinion, very good. The IMF-imposed social, economic and developmental rules can now be shrugged off; they have been a horrible burden and counter-productive for Latin America for three decades. The IMF no longer has any loans out in the Western Hemisphere (basically only Africa and Turkey). So Ecuador and its sister states can forge their own futures.

This will not always be easy. But it is a future that they can fashion for themselves. The recent border incursions by the U.S.-oriented Columbia are a reminder that the U.S.A. is not going to look favourably on any new high roads to economic and political independence in Latin America. But, on the other hand, this recent event may actually spur on regional integration.

On another level, people still build to live in a town in Panamá rather than on isolated vestigial ‘homesteads’ like you find in the generally dreary, single-family-houses-surrounded-by-grass. In Panamá City high rises are big. In smaller towns like David, the commercial development makes the town seem increasingly like a strip mall gone mad.

My side observation is that what we think of as colourful and ethnic usually refers to poor and rural people. When you visit Ecuador, you take pictures of the mountains and the indigenas in their native costumes, not the Quito families on their weekly shopping expedition to the supermercado. The guidebook tells you when all the picturesque local fiestas occur and tourists flock to them. The subjects of our Ecuadorian photographs may have been encouraged to make new costumes to interest the tourists. In flourishing indigena towns like Otovalo and Cotecochi, many women (especially) continue to wear the local long blanket-skirts with puffy-sleeved white blouses and imitation-gold necklaces, especially if they live and work in town (the campesinos still dress in whatever drab working clothes they can muster and go barefoot, unless perhaps coming into town for the fiesta).

But once a society begins to accumulate wealth, it usually adopts the U.S. norms of dress, accommodation, transportation, entertainment, retailing, etc. even if a lot of the consumer goods come now from China. After a while the signs of original ethnicity become lost in the usual urban or suburban bland sprawl. You can’t tell David, Panamá, from parts of Los Angeles. The people in their SUV’s could be in Houston. In other words, one reason why Ecuador is still so interesting is because it is contains a very large poor element while Panamá has become more Americanised.

I don’t doubt that washing machines, cars and TV’s (in addition of course to anti-biotics, education, etc.) are just what people/consumers want. But so far I am not aware of a society that has maintained deep roots to its past while signing up for the consumer dream as espoused by TV and film. On the other hand, one thoroughly modern man who owned or at least operated a small hotel in Otovalo, an active musician (as was everybody in that town, it seemed), welcomed us to Sinti Rimi, a pagan festival that is also touted by the local tourist bureau. He said that these events were “my religion”, it was not just play-acting. It was serious stuff for him. The same could be said of the Roman Catholic festivities in, say, Mexico, where obviously poor people, many indigenas, pray their way up the stairs and down the isles to the altars in pilgrim churches like the Virgin of Guadalupe Church in Puerto Vallarta. The hotel-keeper was not, I should imagine, poor, however. He was the only one of his type that I have run across. In Bavaria locals try to maintain some of their dress traditions in a modern world, as well, and it works to a degree. Most places discard the old rags as soon as they can afford the latest GAP gear.


Around mid-afternoon, when we are doing a moderate speed but not heeled over, I empty two deck jugs (10 gallons) of potable water into the water tanks. That leaves two more jugs on deck. The galley water-pump was beginning to suck air while we were heeled over earlier. What with being rather profligate with the water and giving it away (along with beer!) to the panga fishermen, not to mention the fact that the voyage is becoming now quite long, I have run through a lot of fresh water. I still have plenty, in fact. But in a pinch, I could use the emergency water-maker (I always laugh to myself when cruisers say they “make water” on their boat. Doesn’t everyone?)

At 1436 I cross the N 1º line; now only 60 Nm directly to the equator. At this point we are doing a nice speed of about 4 knots. But it turns into very slow going all night including being completely becalmed for much of it. Sometimes the sea will be totally glassy but a whole section will suddenly become very riled, small waves going in all directions with a frothing appearance and noise. The wind does not change. I wonder if these are ocean currents running counter to the swells or wind waves. They are not fish, I am sure of that. The rudder bangs around all night; whenever the boat gets up to 2-3 knots of speed, the rudder quietens down. But, at slow speeds, it rattles its pintels in its gudgeons. Very annoying!

After dark and at midnight I try calling on high power for any listening VHF stations in the area. “This is the sailing vessel Vilisar calling any station within hearing range. Come back, please. Over” Nada! Nichts! Nothing! Silence on the airwaves. But I shall try this four times daily now. Who knows, somebody might be out there listening. I am hoping someone will pass a message to Kathleen for me. Tomorrow is Day XII of the voyage that I predicted would take 10-12 days. I did send Kathleen a message from Isla Gámez to indicate that I started a day later than anticipated. But who knows if she actually received the message. I know she will be trying not to worry and worrying just the same. I don’t mind that the trip takes so long. Just don’t want her to worry.

DAY XII, Friday, 04 April 2008

A tiny breeze has picked up and we are heading SSE at about 2 knots this morning. The boat heads up really well with the new sails, but when there is not much wind, of course, the bow falls off to leeward. It would help if the breeze is not directly from the S and if it has a bit of heft to it. As some experienced sailor told us, your problem with cruising is too little wind, not too much.


Totally, but totally becalmed since 1000. The sea is totally glassy. Not even cat’s-paws. Not a zephyr. Only the long slow swells and it’s even hard to tell what direction they are coming from. I secure the boom tight to the boom gallows so it stops slatting while still leaving the mainsail fully exposed.

I made careful plans for sufficient water and food. But now I am running out of books to read. I am just starting The Turn of the Century by Kurt Anderson, a Tom-Wolfe-type novel set in media New York. Some of it is pretty hilarious; the characters are too. I am going to watch a DVD too; anything to pass some time.

1600 hr

Finally reached a cargo ship by calling on VHF 16 (high power). The Dutch ship Egelantiersgracht answered. The voice (in perfect English) took down Kathleen’s email address and my coordinates and will email her immediately that I am halfway between The Galapagos and the Ecuadorian mainland, that I am well and have no problems, but will be long overdue because I have no winds to push me along. Hurrah! What a relief that Kathleen will not have to worry. Now I don’t have to debate whether to turn on the engine and motor.

I have been whistling as much as I can to get winds. The sea has remained flat calm all day with only the occasional cat’s-paw. We are going so slowly that the GPS cannot calculate anything except our position. (N 00º22.856’ W85º57.98’; I have come about 10 miles south since dawn and only about 2 miles since mid-morning; just drifting along to the SSW). I am now closer by at least a hundred miles to The Galapagos than I am to Bahía de Caráquez. I was contemplating making for the islands to report in. But now I don’t have to.

Of course, except that it is totally unsuitable for sailing, the climate is actually quite pleasant; not too hot during the day. That’s surely because the water temperature is definitely cooler than farther north, as I noted again when I took my bucket bath. I sometimes sit out on the coachhouse roof with a book, pipe and/or a coffee. “Water, water everywhere …..!” Nice but I am getting very bored. Watched another DVD this afternoon (Judy Dentsch and Kate Blanchette in Notes of a Scandal). Excellent acting. Amazing that you can make a film today without any computer graphics!

1615 hr

Just spotted a cargo ship to the WNW running parallel with me just at the horizon. That must be the Egelantiersgracht with whom I radioed earlier.

As night falls in a perfectly cloudless sky, Vilisar is still just making headway, and in fact might actually be stalled. Shortly before sunset I see a cargo ship approaching from the east and looking to cross my bows within a mile or closer. I start calling him on VHF, not because at this stage I am actually afraid he will run me down, but more for something to do. It is a little difficult sometimes because you don’t have a ship name to call specifically so you wind up calling for anybody in range or “container ship at approximately ….” Eventually in this case the bridge answers after I repeatedly call saying “I am a sailing vessel at one o’clock off your starboard bow. I am flashing my spotlight at you. Please confirm that you see me. Without wind I am not able to manoeuvre.” Finally, a voice answers saying he has seen me and is altering course to pass astern of me. I ask if he can send a message for me (thinking two messages are likely to arrive less garbled than one only). He says he has to ask the captain. Bu I never hear from the ship again and he declines to answer my calls any more. It disappears after half an hour into the gloaming to the southwest. By the time he is astern of me it is already dark enough that I cannot make out what kind of ship it is; reefer, cruise ship (probably too few lights for that); tanker; bulk carrier, containers, whatever. A bit rude of the guys not to respond any more. But I nevertheless feel mildly sad as darkness falls and the nearest humankind are leaving.

DAY XIII, Saturday, 05 April 2008

Dead calm all night until about 0500 this morning when the boat and sail noises wake me out of a groggy sleep. It is still dark. But a small breeze seems to have picked up from the east and the windvane, keeping the angle to the wind steady, moved the heading of the boat around so we are pointed right at Bahía de Caráquez. Of course, it’s 390 Nm away. But you gotta start somewhere. The atmosphere has changed sharply. It is very humid and tropical in the cabin. I go on deck to trim sails. Everything is soaking and dripping. We are still only moving at 1.5 knots, which is basically not moving at all and may only be the GPS imputing a number so it can calculate. We are still on a port tack, but the bowsprit keeps steady to slightly off east. This has got to be an improvement of continually heading south until I can get an angle to Bahía. We are about 22 Nm short of the equator.

As dawn comes up I see there are huge cumuli clouds to the south and southeast. Is this a sign of ‘weather’?

While I am checking on things around deck and getting the espresso on, I pick out another ship, a container vessel this time for sure, sailing south across my stern. I can see his hull and superstructure, which means that he is about 10 Nm away. He is moving fast. I hail him several times without a name but only get a response when I ask for “any station within hearing distance” to reply. Then a voice with an accent I don’t recognise replies. I ask him if he has seen me though there is no chance he is going to hit me. l also ask if I can send a message. The voice says he will have to ask the captain.

Ten minutes later a voice identifies himself as the captain of the Cap Reinga, a German-owned container ship bound for New Zealand. The captain sounds like he might not be German. A very nice and helpful man. He takes down a message for Kathleen with generally the same text as yesterday’s through Egelanteersgracht, but perhaps more pithy and better thought through on my part. “I am well. The boat is OK. No wind. I will be many days overdue. Don’t worry. My position, etc.” The skipper takes it all down.

“Can you see me on your radar?” I also ask. I have the Lunenburg technology radar reflector mounted near the deck and am curious if it shows up. “We don’t have radar on”, he replies, then, “Oh yes! We can see you now at 6 miles. Good picture.” It surprises me that they were running without radar, but it confirms what other cruisers have told me about merchant vessels; visual flight rules only except perhaps at night, in bad visibility or in congested areas like the Canal approaches. Of course, anything from a Coke bottle upwards should be visible on radar at six miles. But in the past, i.e., before we had the Lunenburg reflector, other boaters have said they could not pick us up even at two miles distance.

I ask him also for the weather for the day. “Winds SE at 10 knots,” the skipper replies. He chats a bit about my voyage: do I have an engine, how long have I been out, am I solo, why not motor is you are becalmed, etc.? Very friendly compared to the ship last evening. Finally we sign off. He says he will send the message immediately and get back to me quickly while we are still within VHF range if there is a problem. I don’t hear from him so I guess all went well.

Well, all that made me feel better even if we are still poking along at less than 2 knots. I am sure I would have thrown the engine on long ago if the Navico were still working. But I should then have to sit and steer for hours for the motoring to have any effect on the length of the voyage at all. During the day it is pretty gruelling in the sun. At night I can only keep my eyes open so long. Nope! I am going to try and do this as if I had no engine until I need it to get into the harbour. A true auxiliary engine. Vilisar is no motorsailer!

I make a note to myself to keep a good eye peeled for other shipping traffic. This appears to be a busy zone for long distance ships.

DAY XIV, Sunday, 06 April 2008

I will have left Boca Chica, Panamá two weeks ago tomorrow to motor out to Isla Gámez, and then to start actually sailing two weeks ago Tuesday. I thought it might all take a while, i.e., 10-12 days. Well, I am over that now and still have way over 300 Nm to go eastwards to get to Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador. The long southerly tack to almost the equator, 600 Nm mas o menos, means that, without any more tacking, I shall have sailed nearly 1,000 Nm to cover a direct distance of 600 Nm.

Last night the weather outlook was a little worrying for the first time. To the S and SE I saw a huge line of cumulo-nimbus clouds just before nightfall. Huge towering clouds, golden in the setting sun, and a black, black line of horizontal cloud near the water. No lightening, at least. But with the wind so light and fluky I was heading right into it or it was heading for me. The lower clouds were pitch black even after dark. Behind me to the north the sky was still relatively clear and stars were beginning to come out. In front of me all was dark and threatening. I decide around 1900 to use the engine to see if I can bypass this front, and motor for three hours over calm seas towards Bahía. After resolving not to use the engine, this was caving in. But, who knows what was behind that front.

Finally, my head falling off my neck again, I shut down the engine and trim the sails. This goes on all night with the wind suddenly veering or backing. Clearly I am on the edge of some sort of localised weather system. Several times I get up and head Vilisar back on course since the wind has sometimes suddenly backed her jib and she winds up essentially hove to and dead in the water. Not that I can make headway anyway. Most of the time I am just drifting to the south. But the weather front at least is a little farther away now, and I can see the Southern Cross through broken cloud from time to time. There is no moon at present but it is amazing how really dark it is when there are no stars either. “Pitch” doesn’t begin to describe it. Eventually, towards morning, light NE breezes pick up again, though only intermittently.

At dawn I feel washed out. While the coffee is brewing, I tidy up around the deck and cockpit. Then I spot a fishing boat a couple of miles away at about 10 o’clock. I was unsure how to get around him and I could see no flag-buoy for the end of the net or line anywhere in front of me. Maybe his drift line stretches away from him to the south and I shall be all right. Then I notice he is motoring on a slow intersection course with me. Not a panga but a bigger, white wooden double-ended boat of about 40 feet with a wide flaring bow and a two-storied cabin arrangement at the stern. The name Don Abraham XL, Manta, is hand-painted in big letters on the hull. Manta again.

At around 0800 he stops a half-mile in front of me. As I approach, the fishermen, four of them on deck, are waving me through and it is clear that they are opening up a gateway by putting a weight over the drift line so it sinks for me to pass through. All this is in slow motion as the wind has disappeared again and I don’t want to throw on the engine. There is lot of good-natured waving and calling but they do not come alongside as the smaller boats (pangas) do. Just as well with that big bow overhang! Plus I had decided I cannot really afford to be so generous with water; I have a big can of fruit cocktail and a small bag of candies at the ready. When I take photos they all clown and wave.

The waters right here seem to be affected by some sort of currents. I see lots of dolphins cruising in acrobatic teams, a few white boobies, shearwaters and other sea birds circling. Obviously the birds and the sea mammals as well as the fishermen regard this spot as attractive.

Two hours later I am still moving so slowly that I can still see the fishing boat quite clearly. The combination of weak winds and the currents have more or less stopped me in the water. This is depressing. Will I never make it to Bahía? Still 340 Nm to go as the crow flies. Yesterday’s winds, such as they were, at least were bearing me straight to my goal. But now I am heading more southerly again. Shit! I shall be lucky to reach the mainland by next weekend. At least the tides will be good for entering over the river bar. Good high tides at midday. I have to think positively!

But I hit at least one milestone this morning: at 1103 I cross the equator at W 85 º 16.572’. I mix up a glass of Kool-Aid with electrolytes by way of celebration. Slow goin’ though.

I have become more careful with water now. Instead of washing up with fresh water, I keep a couple of gallon plastic bottles of seawater handy to wash the dishes and only give them a quick little rinse with fresh water. The fresh water is now only for drinking and, to a degree, cooking, though I am not doing much of that. Living largely on sandwiches and cookies. Not motivated enough to cook.

At least it is not unbearably hot. Here, near the equator and the nearby cold Humboldt (aka Peru) Current, the water and the air are cooler. There is also a lot of high broken cloud that cuts down on the direct sun rays. I spend some time in the shade on deck from time to time although it really isn’t very comfortable. I wish we had a proper bimini but not sure how it could be arranged so it is not in the way for handling sails and getting in and out of the cockpit. The huge long mainsail boom along with the boom gallows just behind the cockpit dominate everything. Modern boats have much more liveable cockpits that you can actually sit in out of the sun or in the evening. You can even stay on deck at night and be sheltered. The seating is deliberately designed to be comfortable because that’s where cruisers live most of the time in the tropics when they are aboard. Belowdecks is good in British Columbia or Alaska. But here in the tropics you want to be outside where it is cooler. Maybe a higher mast with a shorter boom, or just a shorter boom, with the boom gallows moved forward to the coach house would be better. But, since we have just bought new sails, I guess that is not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

The new sails are great, I have to admit. I admire the workmanship. The red colour cuts down on the glare and the lack of roach on the batten-free and loose-footed mainsail does not seem to affect the sailing. Since they are still new and not yet stretched, going to windward (always of course assuming one has any wind!) is quite impressive.

Everything abovedecks is salty. During the day it dries out and flakes. In the morning and evening you can see the beads of salty water clinging to everything. Belowdecks all the bedding and textiles are beginning to look very grubby. They feel damp at night when you lie down. It is warm enough to sleep naked though, now, sometimes I pull a fleece blanket over me in the early-morning hours. That never happened in Panamá. Can’t wait to strip everything off and have it laundered when I finally arrive. At least I won’t have many clothes to wash. Basically I wear nothing, only putting on a bathing suit if I am getting a social call from panga fishermen. LOL.

In the afternoon a little breeze picks up and we move along at about 3 knots. But, taken over the day, we are hardly averaging any progress at all. I am trying to teach myself patience. Difficult!

In the night the rigging keeps up a constant conversation that sounds like there is perhaps a TV on in the next room. You can just hear the people talking but can’t quite make out the words. Once or twice I have sprung up out of a deep sleep, sure that someone is outside, or stuck my head out of the companionway hatch just to be sure that no one is there. I know logically that it’s just the lines running under tension through the blocks that cause squeaking and murmuring, but it still catches me off guard. Down below too, when the wind is blowing (wind blowing? Oh, yeah! I remember that!) A tensioned-up halyard on the mast sometimes starts thrumming like a violin string. Down below it sounds like a ship’s engine and tricks me into taking a look around outside. You can’t really hear it on deck, though. Only down below.

Night closes in and Vilisar tootles along. Whatever breeze we had has disappeared and we are just drifting more or less south. The skies look more threatening with piled up cumulus again and this time I see lightening ahead of me at about 10 o’clock. I have decided however not to motor again as I did last night. Bringt nicht viel! By midnight I am over 17 miles south of the equator.

DAY XV, Monday, 07 April 2008

The wind must have shifted in the early morning hours from ESE to perhaps SE or even SSE. We are still on a port tack but heading SSW at a couple knots. When I check the horizon around 0500 I see a bright light perhaps a mile or so away. I don’t think it’s a ship but I want to be sure. I think it is more likely a fishing boat. With the dawn I am trying to decide whether it is time now to tack over to and try heading east to Bahía when I am called by a two guys in an open panga. They are shouting at me and I wonder if I have snagged their line. They keep shouting and waving in three different directions at a time. They then drive over and plant a flagged buoy nearly ahead of me. It wasn’t there before.

Since they seem to be telling me there are a lot of lines in the direction I am headed, I take this as a sign from someone that it is time to change tack. This I do while the panga is bobbling alongside me so close that, when the mainsail boom goes over it taps the pole with light bulbs on it that they use for night work.

The driver babbles so that I cannot understand him. Clearly though he wants water, food and cigarettes. I say, “No hay sufficente mas.” Eventually they take the hint and leave. The driver is a bit of a jerk but his young guy, his helper, is smiling and friendly.

I set the sails so I am close-hauled now on the starboard tack. In no time I am pulling over 5 knots! I cannot quite make it onto a straight shot E to Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador. But I am close. The wind has picked up from the SE. The Trades? At last. The miles to the waypoint off Bahía are ticking off.

I am pointed as close to the wind as possible, at about 80º magnetic. There seems to be a bit of yaw in the windvane steering; the bit of elastic that Beatrice of Bon Temps gave me in Boca Chica has stretched. Consequently, when the boat gets up to speed she heads up even closer to the wind, starts to lie in chains, the jib flogging. Down below this sounds like the end of the world as the wooden blocks on the caprail rattle, the sheets slap the shrouds and the jibsail itself flaps to beat the band. I go into the cockpit and trim the sails mainly by tightening up the jib and loosening off the mainsail so we don’t round up every five minutes, slow down, fall away from the wind until the boat picks up speed and the cycle starts again. For the rest of the morning this works perfectly.

I amazed to see that on occasion the GPS shows us touching over 6 knots. At the noon “sight” we have covered 22 Nm towards Bahía since 0600, an average of about 3.5 knots. This afternoon should be even better. The trick is to see if the winds stay around at night. Just keeping moving is important.

I want this trip to be over now. I feel like I am in the home stretch even though there is still 260 Nm to go (direct distance from Panamá to Bahía was about 600 NM!)

I finished readingThe Turn of the Century by Kurt Anderson last night. Really interesting and a big book. Now I am reduced to reading Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle, one of his typical Cold War books. He is actually a pretty good storyteller. But the topics seem so dated now. No doubt new writers will be creating bad Arabs for the reading public to whet their swords against. It’s interesting how we in “the West” so easily learned to accept atrocities carried out in the name of the state. Prior to World War II, when statesmen and politicians were cynical perhaps but did not accept assassination, convenience assassinations and the like as part of international dialogue (I don’t mean that it never happened. But it was not just an everyday occurrence and Western leaders tended to be shocked). During WWII “covert operations” became standard practice. While the public was still sheltered from these dishonourable measures and told only the glorious deeds of their armed forces, after The War memoirs began to appear. They were pretty much sanitised and tended to portray the behind-the-lines workers more as targets rather than perpetrators. By the fifties and sixties, there were lots of novels out portraying special agents and spies and 007 stories. At first they were nerve-ticklers, somewhat shocking. By Ludlum’s times, the reading and movie-going public had completely accepted that their own governments routinely used covert ops’ in international dealings if they could in any way get away with it. More importantly, Western leaders routinely used these methods, though they might lie about it or cover it up in public. During Eisenhower and Kennedy and later presidents as well, how many assassination attempts for example were made on Castro’s life. Undercover guys in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras were just normal. Whole training schools were widely known to exist, the School for the Americas being only perhaps the best know.

We have now become so inured to this sort of thing that we consider it normal. There is no shame involved either by the actual perpetrators or their political bosses. The Israelis commonly use assassination, covert and not-so-covert, to eliminate insurgency leaders in occupied Palestine. In Columbia they are doing the same thing. Does anyone not believe that there are assassination plans aimed at ridding Venezuela of Chávez? Of course we believe it because it is all too believable. And we know who is behind it: conservative opposition elements in Venezuela backed by conservative elements in the U.S.A. and Columbia.

My point is that we now accept this type of international relations. George W. Bush’s smarmy way of implying during a State of the Union address that his administration was going to assassinate evil-doers was about as low a you can get in political morality and about as high as you could get in political ratings. Standing ovation from the congressmen and senators.

The Ludlum book is just one manifestation. It is worse than a cheap opera plot. I may have to root around in the forecastle to find something else. It’s kind of a mess up there.

DAY XVI, Tuesday, 08 April 2008

Even though the wind dropped towards evening again, it picked up a little bit after dark. It was steady from the SE and I managed to keep the boat headed up as close to E as I could. This became more difficult as the wind remained weaker at night and I was getting around more to NNE. Sometime during the night I crossed the equator again going northeast and by dawn I was 16 Nm north of it. By midnight I had covered 77 Nm in 24 hours; by dawn the 24-hour run was 82 Nm. I cannot quite head straight at Bahía de Caráquez so will at some point have to tack a couple of times. Unless, of course, the winds become more southerly as I near the coast, which they frequently do here. Hope springs eternal within the human breast.

The air is cooler despite the sunshine. Instead of reaching 30º C during the day it only gets up to about 25ºC or 26ºC. The breeze makes it necessary to wear a shirt if I sit in the cockpit trimming sails for very long at night. Sleeping, I need a light blanket. A day ago the skies were mostly high cloud. Now it is mostly clear with high-pressure wafers up high and some puffy stuff at lower altitudes. The waves build up a little during the day, but the SE Trades are pushing us right along. Even very close-hauled I am doing over 5 knots. At dawn I have to trim sail again because, as the wind gets stronger, that big mainsail pushes the bow up into the wind, we get into irons and the speed drops off. Once the bow went right over and backed the headsail. A nuisance. But I spill a bit of air out of the mainsail, play with the windvane steering a bit until I get the boat to stay headed up but not too much and not enough to make her zigzag all over the sea.

No sign of shipping or fishermen during the night or at dawn. The horizon is empty. There is sign of under-sea life though. Every night at some point I see big white shapes under the water near the stern quarter. It is probably a porpoise and sometimes at night I can hear them breathing as they surface. But sometimes it is some other sort of fish, a shark or a ray. The outline is hazy since what I am seeing is not the creature but its phosphorescent trail. Seabird life is pretty rare. But yesterday a tropicbird circled the boat for about half an hour. I had the feeling it would like a place to land as it came in close to the spreaders but then sheered off. There was another one back again this morning.

I can hardly get my mind around the fact that we are actually headed at some speed for Bahía de Caráquez. I keep looking at the digital map on the Garmin 76Map GPS to make sure and then take a look at the paper chart as well. Yepp! It’s true! After so many days of heading slowly south with no change in the distance to the GPS waypoint I set just off Bahía de Caráquez, this is good news but hard to fathom.

At dusk a panga with three fishermen comes alongside whilst I am below reading. They are heavily clad in waterproof aprons and boots and wearing toques and heavy sweater. For them it must be cold. They must have motored over from their lines just to take a look. How long they had been out there I don’t know. Finally they must have started whistling impatiently to see if there was anybody aboard. They kept waving straight ahead, which I probably incorrectly understood to mean that there were drift-lines ahead of me. In fact, I later thought, they were trying to tell me that the way was clear ahead. In any case, I started the engine and, after a few friendly calls back and forth, I motor-sailed away upwind to the SE for about ten minutes. They disappeared off to the NE, where, a half hour later when I had returned to sailing again, I saw two or three stationary lights. Pangas, probably.

I have come to the conclusion that the fishermen are bored with the uneventful nature of their work; once the lines are set they just wait around for the fish to commit suicide on the hooks. When they see a sailboat with red sails, they motor over just to gawk and ask questions. Once in a while they will ask for food or water, but sometimes they will actually give you food. Salt-fish, mind you, but food nevertheless. I have tried to be generous with beer, water and sweets but now I am running low and have on water and food. One boat tried to sell me a huge Mahi Mahi. It must have been 5 feet long. We didn’t get into price since I have no refrigeration and no way to keep the fish. At most I could use a couple of filets. Otherwise the guys just like to have a friendly chat.

The sliver of a moon follows the sun below the western horizon a couple of hours later and the darkness is quite consuming. The Milky Way stands out and the Southern Cross too. But nearer the water the darkness seems very black indeed.

DAY XVII, Wednesday, 09 April 2008

Until midnight I checked the horizon every half hour expecting to see other fishing boats. I was surprised to see Ecuadorian fishermen last night within Ecuadorian waters (200 Nm limit). There were plenty of them farther north by 3-500 Nm but nothing here until last night. I wonder if there are different rules for fishing outside of territorial waters or if the fishing is just somehow better farther north.

At midnight I am still heading slightly S of E and trying to make Bahía de Caráquez without tacking. When there is a strongish breeze, I can get the boat to head up. Once the breeze drops we slow down and the bow falls off 10 or 15 degrees. If you are sailing you takes what you can get and ENE will have to do. I fall asleep without setting the egg-timer.

Shortly before 0400 I wake and check the horizon. Christ! There’s a freighter going by in the other direction less than a mile away. I can hear his engines clearly and the prop. I have lights burning and no doubt I am visible to his radar (if they even have it on) with my Lunenburg reflector. But, that certainly jolts me awake. I go back to checking every 15 minutes. I guess I am in the coastal shipping lanes between Callao, Peru, and Guayaquil, Ecuador in the south.

At 0600 I am north of Bahía de Caráquez by about 60 Nm with any breezes containing a southerly component. According to my position entries, we have covered 69 Nm since dawn yesterday and 20 Nm during the night since midnight.

In the pre-dawn the breeze drops and the seas go calm. Although there does not seem to be any wind, I am doing 3-4 knots (perhaps current) but I cannot aim directly for Bahía any more. I am about 60 Nm north and 100 Nm west. If there was a brisk wind out of the SE or SSE, I could perhaps stay on this starboard tack and make it. But in these rather too benign conditions, I am going to have to tack S for those 60 or 70 NM. At noon, I am still praying for breezes. I’m 117 Nm away but cannot get S. It feels very humid and close. Something is propelling me along to the ENE at 3-4 knots but there feels like there is no breeze at all.


The sea is totally calm and I feel no breeze at all when I go on deck at noon. It is sunny but there is a haze especially over towards the east. We do not seem to be moving and the boom is slatting noisily. Despite these signs the GPS indicates we are moving at 3-4 knots! Currents? I keep trying to head the boat up close to the whatever breath of wind I can find so that we are making eastings and at least a little bit of southings. Bahía is SE of us to windward. I try everything but without success and I curse the windvane steering. Perhaps there just is no wind and it is a north-setting current that is pushing us. Finally, I find a setting on the windvane that keeps the bow headed up to E and soon we are moving windlessly along towards shore, which by the afternoon has neared to within 100 Nm. (I take back everything I was thinking about the Cap Horn steering rig and maintain the opposite. I shall perhaps still have to make one more long tack.) But, you never know. Over nearer the coast some favourable wind might give me a break. I celebrate with cold tinned chicken on crackers, my store-bread now exhausted.

I check out the tides for Bahía de Caráquez and find that we are today are the monthly highs. Still, I should be able to get across the bar into the estuary of the Rio Chone for at least the next few days. I only draw 5 feet (plus a few inches for cargo). That should do it. Unfortunately, after the next couple of days, all the high-high tides are in the dark and I cannot imagine the pilot will risk it. Come on winds!

DAY XVIII, Thursday, 10 April 2008

At midnight last night I am still 75 Nm from Bahía but I am much closer than that to the coast north of Bahía. Maybe 20 miles? It makes me nervous. I decide not to heave to but simply to drop the jib and drift accepting that the currents are going to carry me farther north.

I get in a real quandary since there seems to be a major anomaly between the direction we are headed as indicated by the GPS compared to the heading shown on the compass. They disagree by about 90 degrees. The GPS also shows us headed NE (at 2-3 knots) while the compass shows us heading W. I finally figure out that we are drifting somewhat sideways. The coastal currents are pretty strong, I guess. They have certainly dragged me a long way farther N than I ever wanted to be, and now Bahía is 75 Nm straight SE and to windward.

I sleep fitfully. The dew is extremely heavy; all the salt-encrusted surfaces are beaded with water, the bedding feels soppy. Probably warm and humid tropical air has come over the cool water along the coast and condenses. Just before dawn I see a ship pass about 1-2 miles away headed south. I do have a light at the masthead and of course my radar reflector. Surely those ships must be accustomed to navigating through fleets of panga fishermen. I hope!

At dawn too there seems to be a bit of a breeze. I make a cup of coffee to get my own engines going while waiting to see if the wind will strengthen. At 0630 then I get the job back up and head off as close to the wind on a starboard tack as I can lay her. She gets up to about 5 knots at times without making much to S. At 0730 I try putting her on a port tack and heading SW, hoping to get far enough S to make a final run at Bahía. The wind is still very light and the sea calm. I am only making maximum 2 knots; at this rate it will take me nearly 4o hours just to get far enough S.

I get into a debate with myself about motoring the last 75 Nm (as the crow flies). Doing it under sail is going to take quite a few more days of slow, slow beating to windward (or breeze-ward). The matter has become critical since, not only will the last of my wine or beer will be consumed today, but THERE ARE NO MORE COOKIES. Motoring straight to Bahía from here will take 15 hours, use 8-10 gallons of diesel fuel at $4 a gallon (cheaper than that price to replace it in Ecuador). Man! That’s $40! Maybe I could perhaps just do the part to get me S far enough to angle into Bahía. At this writing I have not made up my mind. Being so close yet so far away is trying. The cookies issue is pretty serious, too.

At 0930 my head-for-the-barn instincts win out and I throw on the Lister. I salve my voyager’s conscience by noting that there is no wind whatsoever and I am sick and tired of hearing that boom slatting. I had wanted to do the whole trip under sail. But the last 75 miles; well, maybe I can just ignore that when creating my legend.

The sea is calm and grows even calmer as evening approaches. Without the Navico tiller pilot I am more-or-less forced to spend the whole day in the cockpit; you can tie off the tiller all you want with bungee cord or rope, but there is no self-correcting mechanism and any sloppy wave can suddenly alter your course somewhat. Then the wind gets in the sail at a different angle and the boat heads off in another direction. I get a sunburn on my nose and face. I generally keep covered with a floppy hat and a long-sleeved shirt. But I hate using greasy creams. It’s the reflection off the water that gets me every time. On the other hand, after days and weeks of barely moving, watching the miles tick off at 5 knots is almost exhilarating.

I go below briefly to check the tidal charts for Bahía (you can find these online but don’t try it under Bahía de Caráquez; you will find it under “Puerto de Bahía Caráquez, Ecuador” 0.5833° S, 80.4333° W). There is only one high tide daily at present and this in the morning. Today (Thursday) is the monthly spring tide after which tides levels start to decline. It doesn’t look like I shall make it for the dawn high tide even by Friday. The highs are a bit later in the morning each day, but will there be enough water to bring me in, and will there be a pilot available on Saturday? I debate about motoring all night to arrive at the ‘waiting room’ off the river mouth in the middle of the night. I could do it; I’ve been there before and there are really no hazards if you stay away from the huge sandbanks stretching out to the west and north. But an all-nighter? Malo! I decide to get to within 25 Nm and then drift and sleep and finish the trip in the morning.

All afternoon I run into panga fishermen out of Manta. These guys are setting nets rather than drift lines. I did run afoul of one drift line, a light blue synthetic which I was able to cut with a kitchen knife. The drift lines are usually of much heavier stuff and difficult to reach form the side deck. This was light floating line. I used the engine to back away from it; this has worked in the past even for drift lines that get caught under the keel.

These Manta fishermen – there must be hundreds if not thousands of them working from small open boats for two week shifts at a time even. Just counting the dozens of three-man pangas I have been seeing from just south of Panamá is impressive. How many more are out there that I didn’t see? They are never from Columbia or Panamá; every one of them that I talked to (maybe 15 or 20) all came from Manta. They all asked for comides (food) and agua (water), so I assume they must be hungry and thirsty most of the time and the mother boats don’t carry enough or enough variety. They sometimes ask for smokes or periodicos (magazines) and one boat today asked for “quickies”, which is not what you think, but apparently, from their hand gestures, they mean Schnapps or anything else alcoholic. After the first few boats I beg off with just a handful of candies per panga after I wave them close enough to the boat under power to actually hand them over; “No hay agua suficiente mas”, I tell them. “Mi viaje es muy largo; tres semanas. Mésculpa, no hay suficiente mas.” They all nod and smile and wave in a friendly fashion. Not once have I met any threatening situation with these guys and wonder that some cruisers become almost paranoid about having them near, especially at night.

When I check my position at 1800 I realise I have crossed the equator again. Not quite the same thrill as the first time. And anyway, I have been zigzagging back and forth across it for days now.

At 2200 I shut the engine down, leaving the main and staysail up. I lash the tiller amidships. There is no stir of breeze and the sea is glassy. In the distance I can see lights along the coast and the beacon at Cabo Barachos. I can also see the loom of lights at Manta to the south and, much smaller, Bahía de Caráquez and Canoa. There are some boats with lights around: fishermen, I reckon. I leave the masthead light burning and hit the sack. Bahía is not a commercial port like Guayaquil or Esmeraldes and there is no worry about merchant ships here. Drained from a day in the sun and wind, I sleep until just past 0500.

The completion of Day XVIII makes this voyage the longest passage I have made to date. It wasn’t intended to be longer than the 17 days between Acapulco and The Galapagos but it has turned out that way. That Mexico Ecuador trip would have been much longer except that we were afraid of running out of water and started motoring. In fact, I reckon we motored most of the miles if not the days. Even though I am motoring the last 75 Nm, I reckon this counts as a real offshore passage under sail and I shall instruct my biographer accordingly.

DAY XIX, Friday, 11 April 2008

At dawn the sea is glassy. I have drifted a few miles in the night but the boat was steady as a rock. The coastal hills are clearly visible in blues and purples sticking out of the haze. The sky is clear. There’s no hurry since I cannot make the morning high tide today. I shall just show up at around noon after motoring the 20 miles. I make my morning coffee; it is so clam that there is no need to use the galley-cooker fiddles. While still 12 Nm out I can pick out the high rises at Bahía in the haze.

Off to the north I see three local engine-less sailing smacks with their huge mainsails and tiny fractional jibs. I have met them in Bahía de Caráquez when they come in to sell their fish or take a break. They are too far away to greet but they make me feel at home.

At 0745 I finally start the Lister, pump out the bilge and put Vilisar on a final heading for Bahía de Caráquez. I am excited about getting there now. I have spent a lot of time there and have acquaintances now and friends beyond the “cruising community”. I start wondering who is still in town. I also start organising myself for ‘re-entry’ to life on shore; getting the boat settled, dealing with repairs and maintenance; seeing old friends, getting my flight organised for Baltimore and, most importantly, informing Kathleen that I have made it all right. The trip was really uneventful. But, if you are sitting somewhere waiting to hear, it can be nerve-wracking. I wonder if the messages I relayed through passing freighters made it without being too garbled, confusing or misleading. I think I sent three altogether.

When I think of the town and the people I also think of getting cold beer and a steak dinner at Muelle Uno at the ferry dock. I think I have earned that! And afterwards an ice cream. My own fresh supplies are down to two onions, two limes, ten potatoes, a ginger root and a huge squash that I never cut open.

1200 hr

The anchor is down in ten feet of murky water and the engine turned off just at 1200. A fisherman whom I recognise comes by in his panga after a night of fishing. He tells me it is too shallow to go in now. “Mañana in la mañana”, he calls. We wave to each other. I call Puerto Amistad to arrange the pilot. No answer, but Cher aboard Ilihee, an American trawler at anchor in the estuary, answers me. She will alert Tripp Martin, who, indeed, calls me just a few minutes later. He will be out to pilot me in at 0730 tomorrow.

I set to work cleaning up the cabin, getting ready for laundry, etc. Everything is salty and damp but washing will clear that up. It is calm here off the main ocean beach of Bahía de Caráquez. But in ten feet of water the slow pacific swells are noticeable. They come at you from the SW. The boat is facing the river mouth and held there by the current. Unfortunately, when the afternoon breeze comes up it turns me somewhat sideways and it gets pretty rolly.

An hour later the cabin looks pretty good again and I make my lunch on crackers and the leftover bean soup from yesterday after, of course, first checking that it is not trying to become a major provider of penicillin. Looks OK? Tastes OK?

I also bring the logbook up to date. It looks like I was out nineteen days (roughly 456 hours) during which time I used the engine less 26 hours. Add a little time here and there for getting out of drift lines, rounding up to adjust sails and occasional battery charging; let’s say 30 hours of engine time. Sixteen hours of that was just getting in from the point 75 Nm out when I decided to motor into Bahía. I’m glad I did. It is so calm today that it looks like a skating rink out there. It would have taken so long they would have found a ghost ship one day with my bones aboard. Nope! I’m glad to be here now. And I hardly used any diesel so re-supplying should not be a problem here in Bahía. I did, however, use up all my beer and wine (I foolishly gave away a couple of six-packs to fishermen weeks ago when I thought the trip might only take 10 days. Ha!), most of fresh foods, ALL OF MY COOKIES, watched four DVDs and read eleven books. I still have sufficient fresh water

DAY XX, Saturday, 12 April 2008, Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador

Rolly night off the beach with terrific surge (5-6 feet depth at low tide); the shallows make the swells even bigger when the tide is out. The snubber was groaning like a banshee, and you could see it stretch at least a foot over the 35 feet I had paid out. I fully expected it to snap; I put in lots of chafing gear but the stretching made it difficult to keep in place. At night the onshore breeze turned the boat sideways and we rolled. Sleep-disturbing; in fact it almost dumped me out of my berth.

I had been worrying at night about how to get the anchor up in those big swells. Worry works! Ninety percent of the things I worry about never happen. It was a cinch and I was all ready to go when Tripp martin and Carlos arrived on the scene. In best American style he had me sign a release waiving any claims against him. I suggested he should counter-sign and leave a copy with the skipper. He thought that was being legalistic! As it turns out, a pilot is not mandatory to enter the river and I could have used my old waypoints. As it was, he was using his GPS anyway and even then Carlos and the taxi boat corrected him a few times. Thirty bucks!

Tripp says the past bureaucratic snafu’s in Ecuador have cut his buoy occupancy rate severely. On top of that of course he has raised his prices a lot over the last few years ($260 per month for a buoy; $100 a month for dinghy-docking privileges). He was bitter that some cruisers have deserted him and gone way up river to Sayananda, a retreat centre out of town. “To save money”, he added somewhat critically. Sayananda has been adding buoys. “But I shall be filled up here eventually and Sayananda will be impacted by the new bridge which will limit the sailboats getting past Puerto Amistad.

Carlos stays aboard after Tripp leaves and helps me launch the dinghy. Another cruiser comes over to wish me welcome (S/V Legacy out of Alaska; last seen in Navidad, Mexico two or three years ago). He takes Carlos back to shore and I make another coffee and start getting the boat in shape to receive the Port Captain’s representative. My yellow “Q” flag is up.