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In Greenland

Iron Bark

Iron Bark
Under full sail


At Russell Boating Club's Tall Ships Regatta

Blue Water Medal

Blue Water Medal
Blue Water Medal

Books By Annie Hill

  • Brazil and Beyond
  • Voyaging on a Small Income

15 May, 2006

I wanted to be in Newfoundland for my birthday and we also wanted to spend some time in St Johns; our friend Denise had told us that this was one place we really should see. Our first stop was right at the north end of Newfoundland, at the harbour of St Anthony: a great place to start because it was so kind to us. We had a hole in the silencer when we got there and were told to contact one Albert Pilgrim. Trevor couldn’t get through to him on his cell phone, so called his wife, who despatched him forthwith to meet Trevor. Trevor took him the rusting silencer and its pipe, which is a rigid construction, so had to be perfectly made in order to fit. Trevor explained this and Albert said that he reckoned that would be no problem and by the way, he should make a new silencer because you can’t buy stainless steel ones in Canada (!) and that he’d do all the rest in stainless steel while he was at it. Trevor came back to the boat somewhat concerned about it, because of course Albert couldn’t come back and forth to fit it. This was about 1830, so I gave him a whisky to reassure him and cooked dinner. We were drinking our coffee, at about 2100, when we heard an outboard motor coming our way. It was Albert with silencer and sidekick, whose name I’ve forgotten. Trevor offered it up and it fitted as near perfectly as you could hope for. ‘How much?’ he asked. ‘$60’, says Albert, which was daft, because that’s about £30, and the materials and welding rods must have cost nearly that. So Trevor gave him $80 and offered them both a rum. Albert gave $20 to his mate and they both quaffed two or three (large) glasses and shoved off. We reckoned that for $80 and $10 worth of rum, we’d done OK. The following morning, the mate came by to check that everything actually did fit and while he was at it, he gave Trevor half a bottle of shine (as we cognoscenti call moonshine), which was at least as good as the rum they’d drunk!

We also met a couple of boats from St Johns, off on their summer hols and had a splendid day with them. They had a total of 5 crew, and together we hired a taxi bus and went to L’Anse aux Meadows, a Viking staging point, which has a superb museum. The ride cost us $20 a head, which was pretty good value and then one of our new friends paid for us to go in, which is typical Newfie generosity. Trevor had been a bit hesitant about going and because I’d already been, I hadn’t pressurised him, although I felt he would be missing out. However, he thoroughly enjoyed it and was fascinated and impressed by the whole thing. They have the clever idea of people dressing up and acting out the parts. This sounds tacky, but is in fact done very effectively. We got talking to the ‘blacksmith’, who was extremely knowledgeable, and after chatting for some time, took us to his forge and showed us how he made iron from bog iron. He then forged a couple of nails, one of which he gave to me. He’s been to courses about blacksmithing and talked to all sorts of historians about the matter and is probably as well informed as many a university-based historian. He was a great talker, a natural storyteller and charming, to boot, as well as being completely enthralled by his ‘trade’. It was a wonderful afternoon.

We pottered our way south stopping at several places and meeting all sorts of interesting people. The weather was magnificent, there were no mosquitoes or blackflies, the scenery was superb and I can’t help wondering why more people don’t go there for a holiday. We saw dozens of humpback whales, fooling around, breaching and flapping their tails and fins about; thousands of enchanting puffins; seals and dolphins and all sorts of seabirds. Ashore we picked raspberries and blueberries and were shown every kindness by the locals. It was marvellous. I spent my birthday in a little town called Fogo. We didn’t manage to find the perfect food for my birthday feast – which was a shame, because it was my 50th – but we did have a lovely walk ashore along a superb trail that had been laid out by the local town council. To make up for the somewhat inadequate birthday blow-out, Trevor took me out to dinner in Trinity, a little further down the coast, where we had a splendid evening in a restaurant that overlooked the water.

Then we went on to St Johns for ‘the music and the craic’ and had plenty of both. We tied to a floating pontoon in the middle of the city. A little tour boat was on the opposite side and when we went to our chosen pub to drink the superb Quidi Vidi beer and listen to the music, we discovered that the lead singer was the chap on the tour boat. The band was excellent, singing Newfoundland and Irish folk and we had a great time. We’d got the best table and were joined by two couples, who asked if they could lean against it and see the band. Of course we said yes and in return they bought us each a beer, which we appreciated, because it’s so expensive in Canada.

The next day, I saw Con O’Brien, as his name is, on the dock and asked where we could buy some of his CDs. We’d already decided to buy a couple of Newfoundland folk music and felt that we couldn’t do better than to have some of a band we’d actually seen. He said he’d bring some along that evening and I asked him how much they were, so that I’d make sure I had the right money. ‘Sailors’ prices,’ he replied. So we had another good evening of music and at the end, he gave me a couple of CDs. When I offered to pay, he said he’d be along for coffee the next day, but although we were there a further 3 days, he never came by. He’d obviously planned to give them to us all along!

After leaving St Johns we went to two or three other places and then set off for the south coast, but the wind wouldn’t let us. In the end, we gave up and headed for Cape Breton Island, arriving about the 1st September.

We’d love to have stayed longer, because of all our friends in the area, but unfortunately, we feel duty bound to use Henry’s marina and he charges us $25 a day for the privilege. This is really more than we can afford, but he would be hurt if we anchored off and I’d hate to upset Henry – he’s been so good to us.

Anyway, it was worth doing, because as well as spending time with Judy and Henry, we had good times with several other friends there and felt that we’d caught up with everyone we wanted to see. We went out in our friend Corky’s lovely little motorboat – the Cape Islander (a local fishing boat) that he was doing up lat time we were there. She’s turned out a treat and we had a lovely evening on the Lake, visiting a village where we went ashore and had a chowder take away from the community centre. We had lunch with Ruth and Aaron in a wonderful restaurant/gallery that has opened down by Baddeck Marine and does really good food – a rarity in Nova Scotia, in my opinion. It was lovely weather for most of our stay and we really enjoyed it. We then went down the Bras D’Or Lake to Isle Madame, to visit Don and Marjorie and Greg and Denise, more friends from our winter in Baddeck. We spent nearly 3 weeks there. Trevor was doing some jobs in Iron Bark and I made use first of Greg and Denise’s holiday home (which they rent out) and then Don and Marjorie’s spare bedroom, to use my computer and get on with some writing. All in all, it was great to be able to sit somewhere with endless electricity and no distractions!

Sadly, though, we had to tear ourselves away. This business of saying goodbye gets worse and worse. On the other hand, there are often reunions to compensate for the partings. Our friends in D’Escousse (Isle Madame) asked us to go back for Canadian Thanksgiving, so at least this was more of an à bientôt.

The sail to Halifax was a mixed bag, but we stopped at some pretty harbours. Coming from Newfoundland and heading east is not recommended, however. Not only are you going against the prevailing winds, but the country gets less attractive and more crowded, and the people seem less interesting the further you go. I could easily imagine spending years in Newfoundland. I’m very fond of Cape Breton, but the rest of Nova Scotia, now seemed less appealing, although the Canadians are some of the most genuinely friendly and civilised people I have ever had to deal with. We are not, of course, talking about the Authorities, although this time we had no problems entering, largely due to the super-friendly harbour master in St Anthony who apparently bullied the Authorities into letting us clear in there, instead of going on to St Johns like what we should of. We ended up clearing in via the phone and a guy in Ottawa who apparently had never heard of Newfoundland and wanted to know if ‘this St Anthony’s marina place is in the Halifax area’! Anyway, we were given our magic number and that was the end of it.

We were so busy in Halifax that we hardly had time to catch our breaths. However, we did have time to spend a night or two with my friends Chris and Lesley, who kindly lent us a car to help with shopping and problem solving. Then we hired a car to drive back to D’Escousse, where apart from enjoying some great parties, we also attended a couple of marvellous concerts. I came back full of enthusiasm for my music!

Trevor’s nephew, Tim was in Canada on a young person’s work visa. We managed to meet him in Halifax and he stayed with us for a couple of weeks. He was a joy to have aboard. We sailed with him down to Lunenburg. The poor boy was horribly seasick, but very gallant about it all. He loved Lunenburg, I’m pleased to say, because it is one of my favourite places, too. My old friend Norma, widowed the previous winter, made us very welcome, enjoying having a distraction in her very real and painful loneliness. She is being so brave, but without Cliff, her life has neither meaning nor sparkle. It seems a terrible price to pay for such a happy and long marriage – 63 years – but it’s always the case that the more you have, the more you have to lose. My feeling that a paucity of things is the ideal, in no way relates to personal relationships and I almost envy Norma the enormity of her loss, because it tells so much about her marriage.

We were busier than I’d have chosen to be in Lunenburg, too, but we did have a little time to see friends and to chat to some of the interesting people there. By the time we were ready to leave, I was once again in love with Nova Scotia and quite ready to put down roots!

We got away on 4th November, which I reckoned was pretty good, considering that our earliest possible departure had been scheduled for the 1st. It took us several days to get away from the Gulf Stream’s influence, but we never had more than a knot or so against us, as far as we could tell. It was noticeably warmer by the Sunday. We had one nasty blow a few days out and it was after that one, that I think we must have got involved with a Tropical storm on 11 and 12 November, around 35°30’N, 61°00’W. We apparently went through the eye and when the wind came back, it caught us with the mainsail still up. By the time Trevor had got it down, the wind was blowing F10 or 11 – I’ve only seen it as strong as that, at sea, once or twice before. It literally tore at you as you crawled about on deck. It took Trevor ages to secure the sail, as you can imagine, with the whole thing bellying about in the wind. The only consolation was that at least it was relatively warm. It was seriously frightening for a while, but once the sail was muzzled and we were under bare poles, all we had to do was to endure. The new staysail on its boom came down without too many problems. However, nothing would ever induce me to sail single-handed with anything other than junk rig.

The wind continued strong for the best part of a week, with a few breaks of no more than 12 hours. Then it seemed that we had found the Trades, but a few days later they died away completely and we were almost becalmed at about 17°N for the whole of 23rd November, with very light winds both before and after. Then the breeze came back and we sighted Martinique: the freezing temperatures of a couple of weeks previously were already only a memory.

As well as the storm, we had a jammed roller furling gear (fortunately, we have the sail either wholly in or wholly out. In this case it was out, so we lowered it), the boom fitting for the boom vang come adrift, the self-steering broke a block and chafed through its line, a 6 l container of rice emptied its contents into the bilge. There were several other incidents that I can no longer recall. To say nothing of course of lots of wind. Of course, this has nothing to do with leaving on a Friday! Trevor is not superstitious, he tells me, which is fine for him, but can lead us into trouble. It’s not a case of being superstitious, anyway, just not pushing your luck! Next time, I’ll find a reason to ensure that we cannot leave on Friday!

We arrived in Trinidad on 1st December, having put in for a couple of days in the Grenadines, due to lack of wind. We immediately booked a place ashore. We hauled out on the 7th and 13 days later were back in the water, having prepared and repainted the hull and antifouling, installed a new heads, refitted the dinghy, changed two seacocks and done several welding jobs. The yard gave us their award for the fastest turnaround in memory!

We moved round to beautiful Scotland Bay, where we can tie up so close to the trees that we can watch the Capuchin and Howler monkeys in the trees. Trevor also saw a toucan one day, only about 100 yards from where we were anchored, but I had been sent off to do the shopping and missed it. While we were there, we installed new lockers in the galley and made some bunkboards, our previous leecloths having been less than satisfactory. Trevor went back to Oz, to see his aged mother, leaving me with a vast amount of gluing, scraping, sanding, varnishing and painting to do. I was less than happy about this, because I planned to finish my book (The Voyaging Vegetarian) while he was away. However, I got through the list, painted out one extra locker and managed to do some work on my book. It was far more bother than it should have been because although we are supposedly in the dry season we had a tremendous amount of rain and I ended up having to bring everything below. When it wasn’t raining, it was blowing! I was given huge amounts of moral support by Jamie and Marjorie on Ave del Mar – the sort of people who remind you that the best part of cruising is the people you meet. I also enjoyed seeing John and Gudrun on Speedwell, whom we seem to meet regularly, either in Trinidad or on the Bras d’Or in Nova Scotia. Heaven knows when we’ll cross tacks again.

One day we woke up to find another Wylo anchored in the bay. Miracle was built in Yorkshire and we became instant friends with Maggie and Humph. They too needed to do work on their boat and we recommended IMS, the yard we’d used. We were almost sorry that we had, when they left a couple of days later to go and haul out. They had a rather unstable plywood dinghy and had given their second one to a fisherman in Tobago. We decided that this was the perfect opportunity to offload our Portabote, which Trevor hated with a passion. They were more than happy to take her off our hands and Trevor then built a small plywood dinghy, to fit inside Lisa. We do enjoy having two dinghies on occasion. Lisa is still a delight and she did sterling work, ferrying us back and forth to Chaguaramas. Scotland Bay is about 3 miles away and our 2 hp outboard took us there in about 45 minutes. Unfortunately, the impeller burnt out one day and we couldn’t get a replacement. However, we had the sailing rig aboard and Lisa coped very well with us, the o/b and various bits and pieces. We’d have been tempted to do it as a matter of course, but it’s not easy beating to windward with a load of shopping onboard and it would disastrous if we capsized her.

We were just about to leave for Panama when we heard that two more Wylo were up in Bequia. One of them was the original, still owned by Nick Skeates, whom we’ve both known for many years. The other, Ariel, belongs to a couple from Falmouth; we met them there the day the boat was launched and have kept in touch since. As we wanted to see both boats and people badly, we bit the bullet and beat back to Bequia. This should have been relatively straightforward – a hard thrash from Trinidad as close as she would lie and then close-hauled up the east side of Grenada. We’d done it a couple of years previously. However, this time the wind was well into the north and the current was running to the east like a runaway train. By the time Grenada was abeam, we were thirty miles to leeward. It took us 3½ days to sail the 140 miles, but the welcome we received when we got there made it all worthwhile. As well as Wylo and Ariel, was another gaffer that belonged to a couple, Chris and Marsha, I’d met in 1997. Now they had two children aboard. It was fun catching up with their news.

Trevor and I managed to persuade Nick that he’d rather go back to the Pacific and spend his 60th birthday in New Zealand, just as he has spent his 40th and 50th. Ian and Kathy had been working on him, so it didn’t take too much persuasion on our part. We tried to persuade Marsha, too. The children were just the right age to appreciate and benefit from it, but in the end, she decided she’d rather go back to Europe. We left a couple of days later to sail to Margarita (an island off Venezuela). Our plan was to stock up with rum for the 3 Wylos planning to go into the Pacific, some cheap food for ourselves and then to sail down to Panama. Poor Barky, having struggled hard to get north, now had to be reined in going south. The great drawback of sailing in the Tropics is the 12-hour nights that make landfalls a real problem, unless the harbour is well charted, well marked and well lit. Porlamar, the main town of Margarita, is a dirty, depressing place and the anchorage is a long way from the shops. We had to use taxis to get to and from the supermarkets – no hardship in itself, and not particularly expensive, but I missed being able to saunter around and see things for myself. We were there over the weekend and had to say longer than planned because everything closes down at lunchtime on Saturday. The rum was certainly cheap – a good bottle was US $2 a litre, and beer was also a very good price at about 25¢ for a 250 ml can. We got plenty of both. Food, however, was more expensive than I’d anticipated – at least the same price as Trinidad. Apparently, this was because we were on an island, and a tourist resort at that. Food on the mainland is supposedly a lot cheaper. Diesel fuel for our engine was an unbelievably cheap 10¢ a litre – delivered to the boat!

We were pleased to leave the rolly anchorage and head off towards Panama. On the way we stopped at some beautiful offshore islands, well-named Aves (Spanish for birds). Here were thousands of red-footed boobies, wonderful, colourful birds, nesting in the mangroves and quite unafraid of us, as we rowed quietly by in the dinghy. They nest for most of the year, so we saw everything from eggs being carefully turned, to tiny, newly-hatched chicks, through fluffy fledglings, to young birds flexing their wings, ready for their first flight. It was wonderful.

A couple of days later we sailed off for the San Blas Islands, the home of the Cuna (Kuna) Indians, an ancient tribe who have never yet been conquered by white men. One wonders how they survived, because they are tiny, gentle people: only the pygmies are smaller. However, they must be tough and they are certainly strong. One day, while visiting the village of Playon Chico, we saw a boat unloading supplies. I watched a man pick up a 50 kilo sack of rice, hoist it negligently on to his shoulder and set off at a jog trot back to his home. He couldn’t have been a day under 70 years old and was considerably shorter than I. The villages are delightful, most of the houses being built of wood and palm thatch. They and the streets are all kept swept clean and inside, the breeze wafts through, taking away the wood smoke from the fire that is kept constantly burning and bringing in cool, fresh air. In spite of the density of housing, there are few flies and no unpleasant smells. Their more sophisticated neighbours on the mainland could learn from these people. We were shown round by one of the elders, who introduced us to two or three of the leading figures. Even without them being pointed out to us, we would have known who they were: they carried themselves with a natural dignity and the air of one who expects respect. They seem to get it, too. The Kuna women are renowned for their wonderful needlework. Their blouses, all of one style with a scoop neck and puff sleeves, are decorated on bodice and back with intricately made molas. These consist of 3, 4 or 5 layers of cloth, the middle layers often divided into 6 or 8 differently coloured squares. A pattern is created by careful decoupage and competed with layers of appliqué, so that the end result is a complex and amazingly colourful design. Some are near abstract, some show people, animals, household objects or tell stories. For many years, the women have made more than they need to sell on the mainland. Needless to say, passing yachtsmen also provide a good market and it was with great difficulty that I resisted buying scores of these beautiful pieces of work. We had been told that they were very expensive, but bought several beautiful ones for only $20 each – a pittance for the work involved. The Indians were delightful to deal with. They offered you what they had, stated their price and then waited for your decision. If you said ‘yes’ you were rewarded with a delightful smile and the mola, if you said ‘no’, they accepted this and packed their wares back. The old man who showed us around the village, craftily inveigled us into his home, where we were instantly surrounded by womenfolk, offering their work. There was none of any quality at this time – it had probably all been taken to the mainland – but we bought several cheap and cheerful designs, two of which were destined to go on a new sail for Lisa. Yes, another one – the one we had made in Lunenburg is wonderful but too big for the Trades and Trevor wanted a small boomless one for fooling around with.

The San Blas Islands, as well as being the home of these wonderful mola-making, dugout canoe-sailing Indians, are spectacularly beautiful in themselves, consisting of picture perfect islands, with white sand beaches and graceful palm trees, complete with obligatory turquoise water. And if all that isn’t enough, there is hardly anyone there. Where we were anchored for 5 days, there were two other yachts, Katinka, from Britain and Elysium, from USA. They too, were enjoying being almost alone after the bustle of the Eastern Caribbean. It was only the promise of more of the same in the Pacific that made it possible to leave.

Portobelo was our next stop, made especially romantic and interesting for me by John Masefield’s poem. Francis Drake died of dysentery at sea, nearby, and is buried just off the town, cast into the deeps in a lead-lined coffin. It’s a very historic place – all the gold from the Spanish Main would end up in warehouses here, awaiting the ships to carry it back to Spain. There are several magnificent forts and some well-preserved buildings standing, in spite of the best efforts to the English to raze the place to the ground. Morgan raided it, as did sailors that are slightly more respectable. However, the difference between a pirate and a privateer is moot at the best of times and probably seems extremely theoretical if you happen to be in the besieged town. Wylo and Ariel were both there. They sailed for Panama a few hours after our arrival and we followed a couple of days later, secure in the knowledge that they would have done our homework for us.

We sailed in through the imposing breakwaters on Friday 24th March. We cleared in on the Monday. It is possible to do this yourself, but it might well take several days. A number of the English-speaking taxi drivers will go with you and handle all the paperwork for US$20 and believe me, it’s $20 well spent. They know exactly how many copies of each document are required, where to copy them and where to go for the passport photos that are also necessary. Our driver, Ellington, sat beside us to fill in the forms. My Spanish is quite sufficient to know that ‘fecha’ means ‘date’ and therefore should not be followed by the name of the boat, but I did as I was told and no one on the other side of the counter seemed to care less. The whole process took less than 2 hours and then we were driven back to the Panama Canal Yacht Club, who, for a fee of $2 a day, allowed us to tie up our dinghy. They also provided Internet access, a bar, restaurant, washing machines and telephones – none of these are free, of course, but they are not expensive and are very convenient. They were quite happy for the yachtsmen to use the club house, too, which was useful at times: several afternoons a week, the yachts waiting to go through would get together and sort out line handlers.

The passage through the Panama Canal is an amazing feat of organisation and I suspect that the yachts are a damn nuisance. The average ship pays $60,000 to transit – we pay $600. For this, we not only have people coming to measure us and fit us into a complex schedule, but we also get an advisor on board for the whole transit. And if you think that this is an unnecessary bureaucratic demand, you have no idea of what is happening. Because of the number of ships passing through and unforeseen situations, the advisors need to be in constant contact with the other pilots and the lock keepers. The yacht may be suddenly moved forward to pass through in front of, rather than behind, another vessel; a delay in the passage of a ship coming the other way may impede the whole process – 101 things can happen to change the situation. The big ships are handled by electric ‘mules’, which take their lines and assist their passage, but anything under 100 ft requires people: usually four of them, one at each corner. Generally speaking, the yachts go through rafted to one or two others, but occasionally they go through in glorious solitude as we did: one of our assigned raft was moved forward a day, the second one had to postpone when his advisor failed to turn up. This was not necessarily because of sloth and idleness: the advisors are often tug captains and he may well have been asked to do some other, more important task. Tug skippers are normally paid $50 an hour, which reflects both their international qualifications and the number of years required to get there. However, the only way to get advisors for the 2 or 3 months that yachts are going through, is to ask people to work overtime. On top of this, they get danger money, due to the very real risk involved when transferring from the big (superbly handled) workboats on to the deck of a small yacht. They are paid from arriving at the workboat station, until they leave there, and as the transit itself generally takes a total of around 12 hours, I can’t see that the Canal Authorities are making much money from the yachts.

Because of needing to be tied at four corners, all boats have to provide 4 line handlers, plus someone to work the engine. Of course, if you go through in a raft, only two of your handlers will need to work and if there are three boats, most of the line handlers will be redundant, but as our own experience showed, there is no way of being sure that all will go according to plan. Generally speaking, the line handlers come from other yachts. If you’ve got any brains at all, you want to go through with somebody else before taking your own boat through, so with a couple, if you both do two trips, you can ask other people to help you with an easy conscience. As it turned out, due to a number of circumstances, I only did one other passage through, while Trevor did four. We were very lucky in that friends who had already taken their own boats through wanted to come back and help us. Ian and Kathy from Ariel and our Czech friend Pepe from Argo were wonderful to have on board. Because you go up one evening and lock down the following day, you have to keep your line handlers aboard overnight. This is a lot easier if you are all friends because most cruising boats do not have several separate sleeping cabins.

Before we could pass through the Canal, however, we had to wait patiently in a queue. The average time was about 2½ weeks and during that time most of us anchored on The Flats, about half a mile from the yacht club. We took advantage of this time to finish stocking up. Colón is a dirty, scruffy, unsafe city and with the exception of about 2 or 3 streets, it is unsafe for foreigners to walk around. Trevor and I, with reddish hair and blue eyes stand out like a sore thumb, of course. After we had spent some time there, my feeling was that we were probably pretty safe in daylight if there were 2 or 3 of us together, but as taxis were only $1 a ride to most places, it didn’t seem worth the risk. It was irritating, however, not to be able to wander at will and explore the place. Pepe and Blanka have full-sized bikes on board and cycled all over. He remarked that by the time the more unpleasant element had realised they were ‘gringos’, they’d already gone past. Panama is one of those countries where everything appears to be dirt cheap, especially compared with the West Indies, so you end up spending a fortune saving money!

One by one, our friends went through the Canal and after one disappointing postponement, it was our turn. We were scheduled for Easter Sunday and I had resigned myself to having it cancelled, but to our astonishment, our advisor not only turned up, but did so on time. As they can be anything up to 4 hours late, we took this as a good omen. We then found that we were going to be on our own and set off towards the first lock. Because we needed four line handlers, it was decided that I should work the engine, so that we could use Trevor’s greater strength, if necessary. Gerardo, our advisor, was excellent, and although I was very nervous, he was most reassuring. We went up behind a ship, Barrington Island and I concentrated on putting my bow in line with the centre of his big, red stern. All went well and as soon as we were out of the third lock and into Gatun Lake, we motored over to a big buoy, where we made fast for the night. We were so early that we could enjoy a couple of drinks and a leisurely dinner.

Next morning, Alex arrived, again on time unlike on my previous trip where we’d waited 3 hours. Our plans to swim and wash the boat had to be cancelled: indeed, we hadn’t even eaten breakfast. I soon dealt with this and we set off through the Lake. This is wonderful. Although the flooding of the whole area to make an artificial lake for the locks was probably an ecological disaster, the other side of the coin is that the whole area is out of bounds to anyone but the Canal Authorities, so that it is, in effect, a huge nature reserve. On my first trip through, I saw a toucan (as astonishing, unexpected and colourful as I’d imagined) and a monkey. On this trip, Alex took us through a short cut, Monkey Cut, and sure enough, there was a monkey. Trevor told me later that Alex did this because he thought I’d enjoy it. A little while later we saw a crocodile, so our day was made. During this time I was busy feeding people, washing up and ensuring that they had drinks – it was hot and sunny. We had an awning up and we tried to crowd under, but it wasn’t really enough for all six of us. Down below was untenable: noisy and very hot from the engine, but no one complained.

When we came to go down, I took the helm again. Alex decided that we’d go down sidewall, which was a worry. Ian had done it with another boat and had had a very unpleasant time. However, Alex knew what he was about. He explained to me that the object of the exercise was to use the current that flows in the lock as the water level lowers. I would move the tiller from side to side in such a way as to keep us off the wall and the lines would be used to steady the boat. Ian suggested that we have poles to end off, and as the boat hook was being used for the awning, another pole and a dinghy mast were brought into play. In spite of our forebodings, Alex was right and the whole thing went like clockwork. We passed into the Pacific at 1305 on 17th April. We dropped off Alex, disposed of the tyres that we’d used as fenders and went round to anchor off Flamenco Island, near Panama City. Then we broke out the bubbly!

In total, all hands had completed a total of 18 transits and this was generally voted the easiest of the lot. While this rather stole my thunder as helmsman of the year, I wasn’t complaining. Indeed, the only drawback was that with everyone occupied, I didn’t have much chance to take photos. The one that I’ve included really doesn’t give any idea of the excitement of sighting the Pacific at last – not in the least because when you descend down to sea level, you are still in the river and have to go round a bend before you see the sea - but everyone said that their photos failed to portray the scale and impact of the experience. We only stayed there two days. I went on a final shopping expedition to Panama City – a much more pleasant and safe place than Colón – and the following day, Trevor, Ian, Kathy and I went to the vegetable market. This is both wholesale and retail and covers several acres. The quality was superb and the variety was astonishing. We needed to exert massive self-control not to buy too much, with avocadoes at 30¢ each, aubergines 3 lbs for $1, pineapple 4 to the dollar and so on. We shared 20 kilo sacks of onions, potatoes and oranges and then invested a whole $5 to take everything back in a taxi. By now Trevor was convinced that we had a fair wind crying to be used, so as soon as everything was aboard, we said goodbye to Argo and Ariel (Nick on Wylo had already left) and sailed off to the island of Taboga for the night, while I washed, sorted and stowed all the fruit and vegetables. Nick was at anchor when we arrived, so we watched the sun go down together. He left at first light. We will probably cross tacks with all our friends again in the Marquesas.

We were away bright and early the next morning, but after a good start had an unbelievably slow passage. We duly followed the directions in Ocean Passages for the World, but even though we got well south, experienced headwinds and a foul current. This would have been OK if the winds had been a bit fresher, but they rarely reached F3 and poor Iron Bark struggles to make progress in these conditions. I took us 14 days to make half way to the Galápagos – and the next day we went backwards again!


Well, we’re trying to sail westwards

But the wind sends us north.

Yes, we’re trying to head westward

But the wind sends us north.

If we tack, I know we’ll just be

Wand’ring back and forth.

Now Frustration takes me over

So I head off down south.

Oh, Frustration takes me over

And I sail off down south

But that current sends me eastward

I’m down in the mouth.

When we set out from Balboa,

We planned a damn’ fine cruise.

Yes, we sailed from that Balboa

Planning a damn’ fine cruise

But I’m trapped by wind and current,

I’ve got the May Day Blues.

However, I dare say the wind will come back eventually, and the current go somewhere else.

14 May 2006

Well we finally made it in on Friday evening, after what must be a record passage – 22 days! And that included motoring when we finally started going backwards. What really gripes is that yachts are arriving now that left 10 days or so later than us. Admittedly, some of them did a lot of motoring and can make 6 knots under power, (we only made about 4 to 4½ motoring, which meant that we were only making 2½ to 3 over the bottom) but some of them did it largely under sail. I guess it’s just the luck of the draw – a couple we spoke to yesterday had a lovely breeze from about 100 miles out! And no noticeable current! Ah well.

We are in Wreck Bay on San Cristobal, surrounded by frolicking, friendly fur seals. Wonderful. I shall tell you all about the Galápagos in my next letter, which, if things go well, should be from New Zealand!

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